On the Afterlife of Not Getting Along
Jason Hill & Aram Moshayedi
In late September 2007, MASS MoCA announced that it would discontinue its exhibition of materials associated with Christoph Büchel’s unfinished Training Ground for Democracy despite a favorable ruling from a federal district judge allowing the museum to display these materials. The following essay, written prior to the court decision, discusses the contents of MASS MoCA’s Building 5 as it appeared during the spring and summer of 2007, thus constituting only the institutionally mandated iteration of the unlucky collaboration between a museum and artist.
In recent years, there has emerged something along the lines of a new genre: images that depict the absenting of artwork. Within this classification, we might think of Peter Warner’s photograph of Warhol’s concealed Thirteen Most Wanted Men at the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, or Jennifer Cotter’s photographs of the removal of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza in 1989. Such images resonate in ways that often surpass the intended communicative appeal of the works themselves. They seem alive with meanings latent to contemporary art but so often invisible within the work itself, which raises questions about the structures of access and power that regulate institutionally presented art and the efficacy of collective production. For the purpose of this article, we would have liked to run Robert Spencer’s recent New York Times photographs of staffers draping yellow tarps across the remains of Christoph Büchel’s failed installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, but our request for reproduction went unanswered.
A little background: last year MASS MoCA agreed to collaborate in the execution of a characteristically enormous and elaborate installation by Swiss trickster Christoph Büchel to be called Training Ground for Democracy. The exhibition intended, if we can trust Randy Kennedy’s now oft-quoted gloss, “to draw the viewer into a Grand Guignol maze in which artifacts of everyday Western culture…are jammed together with scenes that seem to have been airlifted from a land of perpetual war and paranoia.” 1 (This description brings to mind Roland Barthes’ lukewarm enthusiasm for the genre of photojournalistic juxtapositions pairing soldiers and nuns.) In any event, critical appraisal of Training Ground for Democracy as a discrete work will forever remain at the level of hypothesis, and this, as we shall see, is the crux of its communicative power as a moment of curatorial/artistic collaboration in an institutional setting.
An ambiguous legal arrangement between artist and museum (no written contract) plus one request too many (the purchase of a bombed-out commercial jet fuselage) transfigured the exhibition into something altogether removed from the domain of conventional artwork. MASS MoCA pulled the plug after going $160,000 over budget, and Büchel walked away from the project in January of 2007. This left the museum’s vast Building 5—its central exhibition site—fully occupied by mobile homes, voting booths and other signifiers of Western civilization’s discontent, and MASS MoCA with no authorization to display this mess and no budget for its removal.
Subsequent and unsettled legal maneuvers pertaining to the museum’s intention to exhibit the failed installation without Büchel’s permission continue to stir questions of whether accumulated objects can carry the legal status and protections of “art,” and to which party the objects actually belong.2 In response to this legal impasse, the museum staged their own all-too-obvious juxtaposition, pitting the ruins of the Büchel collaboration against the autonomously produced Made at MASS MoCA, a didactic exhibition detailing the museum’s sterling track record of difficult and complex installations, often executed in collaboration with equally difficult and complex artists. To ensure that their spin was lost on no one, Made at Mass MoCA was installed in such a way that visitors, by necessity, had to pass through Büchel’s unfinished disaster in order to view it. And in another sly move attempting to satisfy both lawyers and lovers of metaphor, the museum cordoned off the material remains of Training Ground with yellow tarps clearly reminiscent of police lines—yellow plastic expanses both imploring us to avert our eyes while inciting our inquisitiveness. “Nothing to see here!” Or, in other more explicit terms: “Look, a scandal!”
And so we were more than a little disappointed when the Times failed to respond to our request for permission to reprint Spencer’s images. MASS MoCA also refused our request. In fact, it seemed that it would not be possible to publish an image at all, which is how we ended up looking to Flickr. Artist Amy Wilson posted a series of photographs she took of the tarped show on the image-sharing website, but because MASS MoCA has a policy prohibiting photography in its galleries, there was still no legal way for us to publish Wilson’s pictures.3 Subsequently, our piece on a specific instance of failed institutional collaboration became something altogether different. The denial of visual access to Büchel’s famously failed installation was clearly expanding, becoming a second-order denial of photographic access to the original denial, not unlike the black veil hung over Warhol’s already whitewashed Thirteen Most Wanted Men.
It was around this time that we became aware that Wilson was also producing a series of watercolors based on her photographs. These, she assured us, were her intellectual property and hers alone. Permission for publication was granted, with the caveat that they be respected as neither “art” nor “illustration” but, rather, permitted to occupy some ontological placeholder in between. Wilson’s liminal watercolors both document the material reality within MASS MoCA on the day of her visit and record her own intellectual response to that reality. Moreover, as drawings, they stand as evidence both of the communicative illegitimacy of her photographs (their enforced absence from the public sphere) and as documents of the institutionally mandated and collaboratively produced impossibility of seeing Büchel’s installation. As such, they serve as artifacts of an unlikely and largely unintentional collaboration between MASS MoCA, Büchel and Wilson herself. The events culminating in the peculiar scene rendered in Wilson’s images—though hotly disputed—are straightforward enough. As aesthetically indeterminate objects, neither “art” nor “illustration,” they mirror the legally and aesthetically indeterminate nature of the complex set of circumstances they illustrate. And MASS MoCA’s (deliberately) contradictory injunction was certainly not lost on Wilson, whose watercolors—themselves crucially based on surreptitiously attained photographs—might be our best pictorial meditations on what exactly it is that matters most about this debacle. The simple fact is that the object of Wilson’s—and our—fascination is the material trace of Büchel and MASS MoCA’s inability to work together effectively: a collaborative initiative whose ostensible goal was not achieved but whose byproduct, as Wilson’s watercolors make evident, can be equally as compelling as an index of the institutional and legal framework that structures any public artistic utterance. Confronted with the scene of an exhibition whose legal, aesthetic and even ontological status remained and remains indeterminate, Wilson produces the field of the yellow tarp—that which both compels and denies the gaze—as the field of critical negotiation. Wilson quite literally projects her own commentary regarding the stakes of the North Adams controversy onto the one mechanism devised to negotiate the relation of that controversy to its public, for that yellow tarp is the signifier of what went awry.
Had Büchel and MASS MoCA collaborated successfully, we may have been left with little more than a self-indulgent, ostentatious and hackneyed rehearsal of truisms concerning the delicate security and structural inequity that sustains Western affluence. But in their failure, which can only be understood as collaborative, we are granted access to a rarer and consequently more useful intervention: the legal and economic limits structuring artistic production are themselves rendered visible. We had hoped to provide you with a photograph of the absenting in question, but as control of the flow of images grows ever tighter, we will have to rely on the guerilla tactics of artists and museumgoers like Wilson to provide us with documentation and visual analysis of those moments when meanings are produced that run counter to the gatekeepers’ goals.
An intervention such as Wilson’s calls into question the very legitimacy of the photographic image as an adequate form of documentation, particularly when the rights to produce an image photographically have been sequestered by an institution so that the stories told by pictures are robbed of their ability to describe the discursive controversy at hand. It is important to remember, though, that Wilson’s source imagery—the scenes digitally stolen from MASS MoCA’s Building 5 that continues to house the works formerly considered to be those of the singular author Christoph Büchel—also come at a time when the proliferation of digital cameras has provided museumgoers the ability to forgo and renegotiate the pictorial sanctity of such cultural spaces.
As Ruth Graham recently reported in the New York Sun, “Museums are packed with visitors who are not just looking at art, but photographing it and taking it home, too,” a tactic that has forced museums—at least in this country—to reconsider their photographic policies and their abilities to thwart such spectatorial disobediences.4 And it is in this light that the very exclusion of Wilson’s photographs from pages such as these can be revealing of both the inadequacies and the power of images within the legal-cultural debate. If the digital camera has brought with it new potentials for imagemaking within spaces previously protected from such activity, the public circulation of images made under these conditions experiences less sovereignty, falling into the clouded territory of copyright restriction.
Amy Wilson, 2007
Given this, control over the photographic image—over the rights to reproduce a work’s visual form and over the work in question’s ability to exist in a mediated public sphere—becomes the crucial line of defense for shaping a given controversy’s afterlife. The unquestionable role of photography in fashioning the discipline of art history has been argued to great extent by figures such as Ivan Gaskell and Frederick N. Bohrer; 5 and it is in the context of photography’s ubiquity throughout all areas of art scholarship that the limits imposed upon the ability of photographic reproductions to circulate are more than strategic. They are essential to maintaining a desired historical narrative and a given understanding of the legal debacle currently unfolding around Büchel’s Training Ground for Democracy. For, as Bohrer pointed out in a recent essay, art historical inquiry remains plagued by its dependence on photography and its inability to recognize that photographic/perspectival vision is but one mode among many in communicating art. While Bohrer has asked the question of whether or not there could be a history of art without photography, we might similarly ask, could the same scenario threaten the history of controversy in art? It is along these lines that MASS MoCA has retained its right to control its image and the terms under which this collaborative failure has been framed.
Fugitive Artist: The Early Work of Richard Prince, 1974-77, 2007
Excerpt from exhibition catalogue by Michael Lobel
Copyright Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York
Courtesy Michael Lobel and Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, 2007
In the absence of—or due to the control over—institutionally approved photographic images, artists such as Wilson, as well as an assortment of curators and critics, have stepped in to fill a void, offering a host of descriptors intent on making sense of such curatorial decisions. The unprecedented presence of yellow tarps used to both conceal and draw attention to this particular museum’s failed exhibition has fueled a critical debate that draws the very conditions of collaboration between artists, curators and institutions into focus.
The wealth of critical texts that have emerged on this subject, in print as well as online, have forced a number of cultural thinkers to reconsider the lines of distinction that separate collaboration from coercion. It is within this context that we must address Büchel’s sculptural installation—partially buried, partially exposed behind fields of yellow—as a form of cultural production in which the curatorial relationship between the parties has been laid bare. In such moments, we should not necessarily be compelled to critique our institutions but, rather, attend to the new visual and textual forms that emerge out of such personal, political and curatorial disagreement.
Just as institutions are able to resort to physical and legal measures for the preservation of a desired presence within critical debate and the public sphere, living artists may also trenchantly adopt such strategies when disagreements over the curatorial framing of a given practice run counter to their own career narrative. The recent exhibition Fugitive Artist: The Early Work of Richard Prince, 1974–77, at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, SUNY, organized by art historian Michael Lobel, provides one such instance. As Bruce Hainley discussed in Artforum, Fugitive Artist originated with Lobel’s discovery of discrepancies in the exhibition history of the artist, where early exhibitions were sometimes omitted.6 In response, the Neuberger exhibition presented early works by Prince apparently threatened with erasure from the historical record.
Although Prince made no legal attempt to stop the exhibition, after consulting with his lawyer, the artist did realize that he had the power to prohibit the curator and museum from reproducing any of his works in the exhibition’s accompanying publication.7 Additionally, early claims by Prince that works made in the late seventies had been destroyed or were necessarily modified forced the artist to alternately argue that certain works had been stolen by dealers, that the objects in the exhibition represented “bullshit/student work” from “another life” and that the pieces in question were not his own but, rather, those of the Canadian artist Richard E. Prince.8
The critical attention amassed by this exhibition—including thoughtful discussions from both Benjamin Genocchio and Roberta Smith of the New York Times as well as Artforum’s Bruce Hainley 9—has largely been the combined result of Lobel’s tremendous archival abilities, Prince’s staunch disavowal and the un-illustrated catalogue that has proven to be the result of both. Negotiating the legal limits placed upon the right to photographically reproduce the objects that make up Prince’s oeuvre, those contested and otherwise, Lobel and the Neuberger Museum opted instead to illustrate the catalogue’s text with silhouettes of images—blank rectangles with captions—pictorial placeholders for Prince’s attempt to remove the body of work from the historical record.
Lobel’s gesture provides another glimpse into the afterlife of disagreement and another case in which the tension between artist and curator results not merely in removal or censorship but rather in the production of a new cultural form that must be reconciled by both critical and public reception. Described by Smith in her assessment of the catalogue as “something of a participatory conceptual art piece,” the blank fields that dot Lobel’s discussion of works that informed Prince’s influential breakthrough into appropriation in the early eighties provide a surplus economy of description and representation. Like the few images of Büchel’s veiled installation at MASS MoCA that circulate amidst ambiguous applications of copyright, the hollowness of these shadows might actually resonate louder and more compellingly than the successful exhibition or photographic representation ever could. Indeed, it is in the absence of photographic evidence that such exhibitions come alive.
1. Randy Kennedy, “The Show Will Go On, but the Art Will Be Shielded,” New York Times (May 22, 2007).
2. This essay was written in August of 2007.
3. Requests for permission were denied.
4. Ruth Graham, “Surreptitious Snapshots,” New York Sun (February 6, 2007). http://www.nysun.com/article/48077.
5. See Ivan Gaskell, “History of Images,” New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), pp. 168–192; as well as Frederick N. Bohrer, “Photographic Perspectives: Photography and the Institutional Formation of Art History,” Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline, ed. Elizabeth Mansfield (New York: Routledge, 2002); pp. 246–259.
6. Bruce Hainley, “The Artwork Formerly Known as Prince’s,” Artforum (May 2007). Hainley’s essay has also been particularly helpful in providing insight into the nature of Prince’s attempts at striking this earlier practice from the historical record; see also Michael Lobel, “Introduction: Fugitive Artist,” Fugitive Artist: The Early Work of Richard Prince, 1974–77 (Purchase: Neuberger Museum of Art, 2007) 13–19.
7. It should be noted, however, that despite Prince’s inability to stop the exhibition from continuing as scheduled, Fugitive Artist is not currently reflected in the artist’s biography on the Barbara Gladstone Gallery website, www.gladstonegallery.com.
8. For Prince’s response to Lobel’s exhibition, see Richard Prince, “Review: Fugitive Artist: The Early Work of Richard Prince, 1974–77,” Modern Painters (July–August 2007).
9. See Roberta Smith, “Tracing a Radical’s Progress, Without Any Help From Him,” New York Times (February 9, 2007); Benjamin Genocchio, “Roots of an Artist, Traced Through his Appropriations,” New York Times, February 4, 2007; and Bruce Hainley, “The Artwork Formerly Known as Prince’s,” Artforum (May 2007).