Exhibiting today

The crisis is showing? Show the crisis!

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 23.03.2000

In times when institutions are widely considered to be in crisis, it is certainly useful to highlight the challenges they face in trying to keep up with ongoing art practice. But in this analysis, one should also keep in mind that, as the writer and art critic Bruce W. Ferguson puts it, "the temporary art exhibition, particularly, has become the principal medium in the distribution and reception of art and therefore is the principal agency in the debates and criticism around any aspect of the visual arts."1 The following paragraphs will attempt to pinpoint the major problems and possible negotiations principally through the specific semiotic construct of the exhibition.

"The ways in which art is talked about, understood and debated are largely determined through the medium of exhibitions - through the exhibition as a complex representation of institutional, social and, paradoxically, often personal values, simultaneously. And the exhibition's representativity then is an exemplary identification of the direct political tendencies (democratic, nationalistic, feminist, regionalistic, postcolonial or whatever) on offer."2

Questions of representativity, "meaning who is represented, how and in what ways"3 become particularly pressing in an environment where de-mands are raised as to the larger social relevance of art and thus of the institution. Tracing back to "the observable politics in a democratic process"4, institutions have come under fierce challenge, particularly as regards their still implicit authoritative function as sanctioners of good or relevant art. In an interview with Koon Brams, Daniel Buren admits that the critique of institutional power is widely shared and concludes that the museum's "institutional authority has flown to pieces"5. This is, to say the least, wishful thinking.

Following years of institutional critique and an intense proliferation of exhibition spaces, institutional policies have indeed largely yielded to demands of democratic representativity. In the typology of exhibitions, this tendency is best illustrated by the many global shows, i.e. exhibitions which stress the points of congruence between different cultures by -adopting an admittedly post-colonial and by extent, seemingly neutral, position. Nevertheless, galleries, museums, Kunstvereine, centres d'art face a paradoxical situation when asked to adopt an inclusive attitude in their choices, for after all, one of their main functions is to choose, i.e. to be exclusive of certain works or practices. As a consequence, it remains open to question whether such all-encompassing approaches actually produce significant meanings. 

On the one hand, the institution, in an ever-renewed attempt to shift its position in order to respond to democra-tically motivated demands emerging from the larger social realm, can never fully match the requirements of representativity. On the other, such exhibitions tend to become illustrations of the idea that all discourses are equal, thereby disclosing the fact that some remain more equal than others. It is in this dilemma that the stuttering of exhibitions such as Kunstwelten im Dialog or Magiciens de la Terre  unfolds, where extremely diverse voices mingle to form a diffuse claim for variety. For a given public though, this polyphony, if not to say cacophony, in turn reflects nothing else than the increasing complexity and fragmentation of the social. Many shows eventually become illustrations rather than meaningful discourses.

What is true for problems pertaining to the issue of representativity no doubt applies to the topic of visibility. The past ten years have witnessed the renewal/ emergence of art practices whose focus lies not so much on the end result - the product/ object - than on the process as it takes place. Again, institutions are caught between the requirements expressed by artists and the expectations of the public at large: what can they show when art becomes invisible? After all, despite centuries of defiance and the reigning distrust in objects or images - potentially subject to interpretation or fetischisation - it remains a fact that for the better part of the audience, aesthetic experience is still closely linked to vision6. Buren expresses this desire with the catch-phrase that "an exhibition is a place to exhibit"7. 

These days though, exhibition visitors are increasingly faced with documentation, text and computer screens, they read fragmented statements which are seemingly disconnected from any familiar esthetical experience. Artists stage interventions, run websites, implement field projects, infiltrate the gaps of mass communication. Their stated intention to participate actively in "real life" leaves curators and institutions - and often the artists themselves - with a problem on their hands as to how such work, or the documentation of it, should be displayed in the institutional context. Institutions have walls pleading to be covered, they have publics begging to see art. Most large-scale infrastructures conceived in the Eighties find themselves trapped in this dilemma, and it is a safe bet to predict that Luxembourg's yet to be built Museum Modern/ Contemporary Art will hardly conform to accommodate recent production operating on different perceptual levels than the late output of High Modernism.

Another challenge facing institutions is the increasing mobility of what is commonly referred to as the Art scene. While the topography for contemporary art progressively spreads to formerly peripheral territories and occasions to exhibit grow at an impressive rate, artists acknowledge an ever greater amount of solicitations. From Bangkok to Dakar, the list of biennials, triennials and the like, offering platforms to the most promising or prominent artists, extends day by day. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the founder and former director of the Mönchengladbach Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, voices concerns about this reality: "Heute haben wir auf jedem Dorf ein Museum für Gegenwartskunst. Man kriegt Dinge tot, indem man sie verbietet, aber man kriegt sie viel leichter tot dadurch, daß die Quantität zunimmt."8

Not only are artists thereby encouraged to become "frequent flyers"9 if they intend to sustain their presence and visibility on the scene. Also, their increasing mobility - parallel to abandoning the notion of a locally-based practice - entails substantial modifications in the implementation process. 

Bearing in mind the unabashed strive for constant renewal - i.e. the fear of repetition and redundancy - gearing all art practice, this simply means developing ideas and works at sustained pace. With an opening every week, many artists have engaged in a travelling and production frenzy unthinkable just a decade ago. The progressive dismissal of the actual production part - of the artist "making" a work - is thus a direct consequence of not only an intellectual shift putting the process and the concept at the core of art practice, but also of the sheer speed at which work has to be produced. This involves a radical break with the institution's traditional role as "a place to exhibit". More and more, institutions are asked to be "a place to produce".

This state of affairs asks for a repositioning on behalf of institutions. Indeed, it generates a highly conflic-tual situation between the institution's proclaimed intention to present its public with a round-up of current artistic attitudes, its political agenda and its inability to satisfy demands on behalf of the artists for its active involvement in the often complicated realisation/ contextualisation of new art works. For although many institutions have become conscious of this redefinition of roles, their current intra- and infrastructures clearly impede the flexible implementation of concepts. Obrist: "Das Problem ist, dass die Geschwindigkeit der Institutionen von der Geschwindigkeit der Künstler völlig abgekoppelt ist."10 The question here is: how can institutions become mobile, too?

The emergence of small and middle-sized art spaces throughout Europe, many of which were initiated by artist collectives, such as for instance Glasgow's Transmission Gallery or Casco Projects in Utrecht, bears testimony to the attempts of the art system to deal with the developments in production. Instead of extensive group shows, they focus on a limited amount of single art events/ exhibitions. Thanks to small staff and modest, modulable spaces, they are able to cut costs and produce works outside their physical framework, without running the risk of being at odds with their corporate agenda - i.e. "filling the rooms", remaining identifiable as the produ-cer, recording visitor numbers, etc. - as is the case with large, established structures.

Yet another advantage of these sized-down spaces lies in the links they are able to establish with local communities, thus attracting a regular crowd and meeting local political agendas, which in turn enables them to run chiefly on public funds. Finally, their lightweight structures contain the potential of adapting to changing political environment and devising strategies of resistance against outside conformist pressure, if need be. Ironically enough, these structures are remindful of the beginnings, in the Sixties and Seventies, of many of today's large institutions when contemporary art was starting to be mediated to a larger public through low-, sometimes no-budget, often spontaneous shows. Against this historical backdrop, one can easily imagine how in the long term, and with economical constraints growing daily, they will equally tend to concur with the mainstream.11

A further attempt to negotiate these conflicting interests is the call upon independent curators. Mediators between the artists, the institutions and the public, curators are also the more or less articulate utterers of the particular speech called exhibition. On the one hand the responsibility involved in production is shared, if not outwardly transferred to the curator, while on the other, the exhibition allows for the staging of disruptive moments in the institutional flow. As a matter of fact, it is broadly understood that this speech does not invariably echo the institution's official discourse. We witness a paradoxical situation where institutions experiencing concrete political pressure are keen to take on board external co-ordinators to express unorthodox ideas.

In discussing the possible roles of institutions in the contemporary art circuit, rather than merely auditing the structural premises within which art happens, one should consider re-centring the debate on the medium of the exhibition. For if modernist theory has initiated the analysis of the art work as text, Ferguson points out that the exhibition as a semiotic subject has been mostly overlooked: "Exhibitions are the visible encounter with a public which receives and acknowledges their import and projected status as important signs of important signs. The 'voices' heard within exhibitions - the number and kind of dead artists, the number and kind of women, the kind and number of media, etc. - constitute a highly observable politics, with representations as their currency and their measure of equality in a democratic process."

Produced by freelance curators, exhibitions such as Laboratorium, held in Antwerp in 1999, can help identifying the contours of the debate. Placed in analogy with the scientist's laboratory, the artist's studio, once the loss of its physical reality is taken for granted, becomes an atopic and mobile space for research. Rather than reflecting the process and trying to freeze it in time, Laboratorium strived to become process itself. 

In different locations across the city, among which a Seventies-style run-down office block, it confronted spectators with a risky exploration of the limits of the exhibition itself with regard to space and time, visibility and mobility. In doing so, it managed to transcend the question of institutional adaptation to put artistic practice itself at the heart of the reflection.

In a quite different fashion, but adop-ting an equally investigative approach, the artist Tilo Schulz's Exhibition Without an Exhibition - presented at Casino Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain last year, among other venues - was conceived as an ongoing curatorial/ artistic process which turns its attention away from the materialisation of art to focus on the specificity of the exhibition as a potential carrier of meaning beyond the sheer materiality of works. By presenting an exhibition, or the concept of it, exclusively through publications, publicity and public mediation, it outmanoeuvres the physical and ideological constraints of the institution when it comes to exhibiting new positions. Disregarding the institution as "a place to exhibit", it explicitly calls for an in-depth reflection on contemporary practice and its variable, mobile techniques of communication. Just as Laboratorium, it is concerned with content rather than context.

Ferguson goes on to conclude that "to disregard or displace exhibitions from the emerging discourse around representation and its social values seems all the more remarkable because exhibitions of art are, by virtue of their visible prominence, structurally intrinsic and perhaps psychologically necessary to any full understanding of most art."12 Both projects described above, which are but examples singled out in the framework of a wider debate, serve to sustain the conviction that it is through the speech of the exhibition that the issues outlined above are put into a perspective which opens up the field for reconsidering the functions of art spaces and, more importantly, the nature of art itself.

1-4 Bruce W. Ferguson in: Thinking about Exhibitions, ed. Greenberg/Ferguson/ Nairne, Routledge, Ld., 1996

5 [&] 7 Daniel Buren, Interview with Koon Brams in: Witte de With Cahier n°3, Witte de With, Rotterdam, 1995

6 On antiocularcentric discourses, see: Martin Jay in: Downcast Eyes, The Denigration of Vision in Twen-tieth Century French Thought, University of California Pree, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1994

8 Johannes Cladders, Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Mönchengladbach, 1999

9 [&] 10 Barbara Vanderlinden in: Manifesta 2 catalogue, ed. Casino Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain, 1998

11 For a historic perspective, see: Martha Rosler: Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers: Thoughts on Audience in: Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Walls, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984

12 ibid.1

Boris Kremer
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