Avant Museology symposium at Brooklyn Museum and Walker Art Center

Avant Museology symposium at Brooklyn Museum and Walker Art Center

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit Buenos Aires, 1994. Photo courtesy Coco Fusco.

Avant Museology symposium at Brooklyn Museum and Walker Art Center
Date
November 11, 2016

e-flux and Walker Art Center present Avant Museology, a symposium exploring the practices and sociopolitical implications of contemporary museology, and taking place this November in two parts: at the Brooklyn Museum and at the Walker Art Center.

The symposium is based on the book Avant-Garde Museology, edited by Arseny Zhilayev, published by e-flux, and distributed by the University of Minnesota Press.

November 11-12 | Avant Museology at Brooklyn Museum
Brooklyn, NY

With Bruce Altshuler, Lynne Cooke, Kimberly Drew, Liam Gillick, Boris Groys, Juliana Huxtable, Fionn Meade, Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Anne Pasternak, Nikolay Punin, Irene V. Small, Nancy Spector, Anton Vidokle, Fred Wilson, Arseny Zhilyaev.

*RSVP and more information on the Brooklyn Museum program here.

November 20-21 | Avant Museology at Walker Art Center
Minneapolis, MN

With Jonathas de Andrade, Claire Bishop, Adrienne Edwards, Boris Groys, Ane Hjort Guttu, Wayne Koestenbaum, Nisa Mackie, Fionn Meade, Sohrab Mohebbi, Timothy Morton, Elizabeth Povinelli, Walid Raad, Hito Steyerl, Anton Vidokle, Cary Wolfe, Arseny Zhilyaev.

*Co-presented by the Walker Art Center, e-flux, and the University of Minnesota Press. Tickets and more information on the Walker Art Center program here.

Taking its cue from the recently published book Avant-Garde Museology, the symposium will address the memory machine of the contemporary museum vis-à-vis its relationship to the contemporary artistic practices, sociopolitical contexts, and theoretical legacies that shape and animate it. Where the museum may have once been a mere container for objects and ephemera, the mutability of the contemporary museum has facilitated the apparently seamless absorption of its own complex histories, paradoxical political and socioeconomic functions and ideas. It begs the question: Can contemporary museology be invested with the energy of the visionary and political projects contained in the works that it circulates and remembers?

The museum of contemporary art might very well be the most advanced recording device ever invented in the history of humankind. It is a place for the storage of historical grievances and the memory of forgotten artistic experiments, social projects, or errant futures. But in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russia, this recording device was undertaken by a number of artists and thinkers as a site for experimentation. Edited by Arseny Zhilyaev, Avant-Garde Museology documents the progressivism of the period, with texts by Aleksandr Bogdanov, Nikolai Fedorov, Kazimir Malevich, Andrey Platonov, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and many others—several of which are translated into English for the first time. At the center of much of this thought and production is a shared belief in the capacity of art, museums, and public exhibitions to produce an entirely new subject: a better, more evolved human being. And yet, though the early decades of twentieth-century Russia have been firmly registered in today’s art history as a time of radical social and artistic change, the uncompromising and often absurd ideas in Avant-Garde Museology appear alien to a contemporary art history that explains suprematism and constructivism in terms of formal abstraction. In fact, these works were part of a far larger project to absolutely instrumentalize art and its rational capacities and apply its forms and spaces to a project of uncompromising progressivism—a total transformation of life by all possible means, whether by designing architecture for life in outer space, developing artistic technology for the resurrection of the dead, or evolving new sensory organs for our bodies.

Today, it is hard to deny the similarity between the bourgeois museum and the contemporary liberal dogmas of open-ended contemplation and abstract self-realization that guide curatorial and museum culture since the dismantling of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. This symposium will investigate the social and artistic decisions of a critical period of left politics as well as contemporary museological culture. In shedding this light, an explicit question suddenly emerges: Under a regime in which social experiments and upheavals become abstract formal gestures, what has the political application of historical memory become?

Perhaps the museum of contemporary art already serves this purpose. Consider what Nikolai Fedorov wrote in the 1880s: that the ultimate function of the museum is to unify progressives and conservatives, vitality and death: “And our age in no way dares to imagine that progress itself would ever become the achievement of history, and this grave, this museum, becomes the reconstruction of all of progress’s victims at the time when struggle will be supplanted by accord, and unity in the purpose of reconstruction, only in which parties of progressives and conservatives can be reconciled—parties that have been warring since the beginning of history.”

Reviews

“Avant-Garde Museology in a Multicultural and Global America”, Temporary Art Review • Genevieve Quick

Using the recently published anthology  Avant-Garde Museology 1  as its launching point, the symposium “Avant Museology” began its two–city, two–weekend run on November 11th and 12th at the Brooklyn Museum 2 . The expansive conference of thirteen rigorous and engaging presentations considered early Soviet attempts to use museums to craft...

Using the recently published anthology Avant-Garde Museology1 as its launching point, the symposium “Avant Museology” began its two–city, two–weekend run on November 11th and 12th at the Brooklyn Museum2. The expansive conference of thirteen rigorous and engaging presentations considered early Soviet attempts to use museums to craft a “better, more evolved human being”3 by making them more reflective of all aspects of life, in content and form. The speakers expanded upon these themes with examples of contemporary experiments that disrupt traditional museum parameters by interjecting interaction, social engagement, and inclusive programming that engages and redefines its constituencies. The program organizers frame the symposium by asking, “[c]an contemporary museology be invested with the energy of the visionary and political projects contained in the works that it circulates and remembers?”4 While the Soviet Union was largely rebuking class-based structures in constructing their national identity, U.S. museums must acknowledge and engage our nation’s diversity and its global relations, especially now as we consider the prospects of an isolationist and ultra-conservative President-elect. Both Fred Wilson’s presentation and the Brooklyn Museum as the conference site stand as astute examples of innovative curation that positions art as a tool or place to help shape and engage a nation’s citizenry.

As an early example of Russian avant-garde museology, a number of presenters invoked El Lissitzky’s Cabinet of Abstraction (1927)—commissioned by German art historian Alexander Dorner for the Hannover Provincial Museum. Lissizky’s cabinet featured fellow Modernist artists like Piet Mondrian, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Mies van der Rohe. As a hybrid installation and exhibition, the cabinet’s modular sliding panels, graphically painted walls, and reflective materials created physical interaction and optical illusion. Arseny Zhilyaev’s presentation expanded this discussion to include early Soviet mobile museums, like the interactive laboratory vans with agricultural-based displays sent to rural areas. He also discussed the ways that Soviet curators created museums of revolution, atheism, and agitprop, and fused museums with science, folk art, and artifacts of daily life. As early Soviet experiments offered expansives ideas of what the museum could be, they challenged cultural elitism by redefining who is privy to cultural production and how it speaks to the populace. 

In parallel with Soviet museum models, Bruce Atshuler’s presentation touched upon how in the late nineteenth century U.S. museums were established to showcase our national treasures and as public institutions to help craft and educate our diverse socioeconomic and ethnic populations. As contemporary corollaries to early Soviet experiments, Anne Pasternak addressed her programming with Creative Time, Hans Ulrich Obrist spoke of his Museum in Progress, Fionn Meade discussed house museums, like the Museo Casa De Leon Trotsky, Lynne Cooke addressed self-taught artists like Sam Doyle, and more. Building from the conference’s central conceit, the speakers offered examples of how contemporary curators are attempting to transform museums from entrenched institutions whose conventional practices have been devoted to preservation, chronological order, clear distinctions between departments, and a separation between popular and “high” arts. 

As an example of an artist’s intervention, Fred Wilson spoke of his project Mining the Museum(1992). The project was born out of a collaboration between The Contemporary Museum, Baltimore5—a nomadic organization that partners with artists, institutions, and diverse audiences—and the state’s oldest cultural institution, the Maryland Historical Society (MHS). The prompt for Wilson’s exhibition itself disrupts traditional museology by joining one organization dedicated to collaborative projects, rather than its own collection, with another devoted to preservation. In uniting to reach out to Baltimore’s previously neglected minority communities, the collaboration addressed the politics of locality in terms of who constitutes MHS’s community and how to serve them.

In Fred Wilson’s eloquent presentation, the artist discussed how he uses museum collections and the language of display to make African Americans visible. During Wilson’s talk he explained how an organization’s deep storage can tell you more about the museum than what’s on display. The artist provided a dramatic example that resulted in him famously placing a Klan hood in a baby carriage. In another less charged intervention, Wilson redirected the focus of the work from being a portrait of bourgeois family life to the African American butler by simply adding a label that offered Fred Serving Fruit as an alternative title to Ernst Fischer’s Country Life. While historical collections have traditionally asserted a neutrality about the narratives they construct, Wilson highlights the politics of how museums display their holdings.

When invited to do The Museum: Mixed Metaphors (1993) at the Seattle Art Museum, the institution’s encyclopedic collection offered Wilson a more culturally expansive set of materials. For example, Wilson collapsed the difference within the African continent and museum departments by displaying Egyptian headrests alongside ones from Sub-Sahara. Additionally, Wilson reinstalled a number of mid-century Western Modernist paintings and sculptures in a cluster on a plinth to mirror the way that Native American artifacts are displayed. In standard exhibitions, the former are presented in groups that suggest sameness, while the latter are displayed individually to announce their authorship and uniqueness. Museums’ collections and display practices, even seemingly benign ones, echo the social structures outside the institution, in particular reflecting how Western society represents non-European cultures and histories.

While Wilson did not address Muzeum Impossible (1992)—commissioned by the Center for Contemporary Art at Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle—it would have been an interesting bridge between the contemporary and historic conversation, as well as Soviet and Western museum legacies. The Soviets began using museums to shape their new citizenry in the 1920s, but now the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Bloc have collapsed. Nikolay Punin’s discussion addressed how the former U.S.S.R. is having to reconcile their Soviet history and ideology while creating new national identities and cultural heritages, which includes the reintroduction of Russian avant-garde artists, who were once heralded as revolutionaries, excoriated as bourgeois, and then completely erased. With the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1990 the Polish Communist party declined and Lech Walesa was elected president. As Poland transitioned from communist to a representational democracy, its museums largely relegated the symbols of their totalitarian dictators to storage rooms. In the wake of these changes, Wilson retrieved Social Realist paintings and busts of Lenin along with dinosaur bones. As Wilson has worked with historical societies, encyclopedic museums, and museums abroad, his contexts have changed. The artist speaks not only to the erasure of African Americans and Otherness, but prompts discussions around how institutions display our local, national, and global identities and histories.

While the Brooklyn Museum did not present at the symposium6, it was an apt place to hold the conference in regards to its commitment to vanguard curation that cuts across departments to champions its diverse constituency and political programming. For example, the American collection was dramatically reinstalled in 2003 and again just recently (along with the Egyptian and European collections). In both its controversial 2003 and recently streamlined installations, the museum insisted upon juxtaposing works across the Americas and through time so that contemporary artworks sit alongside artifacts from U.S. and indigenous histories. The museum’s recent exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art also takes a thematic approach (rather than chronological) – an idea championed at many points in the conference. Organized by Pamela McClusky from the Seattle Art Museum and Kevin Dumouchelle from the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition featured twenty-five contemporary artists from Africa and with African heritages along with traditional masks from Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast to name a few. While most of the works exhibited were contemporary visual arts, McClusky hails from the department of African and Oceanic Art and Dumouchelle from Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands, disrupting the conventional framing of their focus from strictly “artifacts” to include “art” and from historic to contemporary works. Additionally, the museum’s open storage allows viewers a glimpse into its many objects and artworks not presently included in an exhibition, which nicely resonants with Wilson’s presentation. The Brooklyn Museum creates active social and political spaces, where clarity is not delivered to visitors, but emerges through dialogue and participation and offers a more equitable and fuller representation of cultural production in the U.S. 

In Peggy Levitt’s book Artifacts and Allegiances, Arnold Lehman (Brooklyn Museum’s then Director) explained that at the time the museum’s advocacy of global cosmopolitanism and national identity should, “exist in parallel: but when you are successful they should collide. We are in the midst of a professional-led rethinking process, a rebranding, although I hate to call it that” and that the museum can use art to help people make sense of the world7. He goes on to explain that, “it helps to take on these sometimes parallel [goals]—showing diversity and showing global—together. Right now, we are creating better New Yorkers, better Americans, but not yet global citizens8.” Lehman’s comments encapsulate the museum’s ethos of mixing time, genre, and departments, which results in a mash-up of national and global histories designed to enrich museum-goers. 

As a conference that attempted to explore expansive curatorial propositions, most of the speakers were scholars and curators from contemporary and modern visual arts background. Many speakers alluded to challenging the distinction between artifacts and art objects and thus museums dedicated to natural or social history versus the visual arts. This may have been an interesting opportunity to include curators or scholars from different museum departments, particularly the curators of Disguise or the Brooklyn Museum’s American department. While avant-garde museology suggests the present and future, all departments, even those largely dedicated to antiquities and history, are engaged in creative approaches to initiate timely and relevant public discourse.

As the conference explored ideas of defining museums’ constituencies in the Soviet Union and U.S., the idea of defining the populace moved from class-based identities to multiculturalism with scheduled speakers like Fred Wilson, Kimberly Drew, and Juliana Huxtable9. While Wilson and Drew gave excellent presentations, this discussion could have been extended to any of the many New York museums dedicated to ethnic and racial constituencies—like the Studio Museum of Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, Jewish Museum, and Asia Society. This could have been a great opportunity to hear from ethnically and racially defined institutions who are attempting to transform museums and respond to their communities’ needs for representation and dialogue about national identity, cultural artifacts, and contemporary practices and issues.

As nations’ ideologies and demographics change, vanguard museum concerns and approaches constantly evolve. Curation has moved from an objective methodology to a creative enterprise with auteur curators. At the other end, Wilson is approaching curation from an artist’s perspective. This blurring of boundaries creates provocative questions and situations. The idea that museums could be used for political purposes was novel for the avant-garde and was demonstrated, sometimes exhilaratingly and other times tragically, in the former Eastern Bloc. In the era of post-modernity, we have all come to acknowledge that museums and display are not neutral, which places tremendous and invigorating responsibilities upon our cultural institutions. Though not explicitly stated in the conference’s aims, the presentations suggested many ways that museums can use art to make sense of the world. With the symposium occurring within days of the election, the speakers and attendees were understandably unprepared to approach the prospects of a President-elect Trump. With shock and dread hanging in the atmosphere, now is the time that museums can lead the political and social conversations that are pressing, both both domestically and abroad.

Arseny Zhilyaev (ed), Avant-Garde Museology (e-flux, 2015). 

Organized by e–flux, the symposium traveled to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, November 20–21, which I did not attend. 

From the Brooklyn Museum program schedule 

https://www.e-flux.com/program/67019/avant-museology-symposium-at-brooklyn-museum-and-walker-art-center/ 

The Contemporary Museum is now known as The Contemporary. 

Anne Pasternak, the Director of the Brooklyn Museum, was included in a panel with Nancy Spector and Liam Gillick, but the topic was not the museum itself. 

Peggy Levitt, Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015), 77. 

ibid 

Huxtable unfortunately had to cancel.

—December 1, 2016

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“On Avant Museology”, Full Stop • William Harris

Twelve days after the election I walked into Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center for a symposium, Avant Museology, co-hosted by the art journal  e-flux  and the University of Minnesota Press. It had been a long two weeks of attending events in two registers: protests and meetings, on the one hand, all in the early, bewildered stage of articulation;...

Twelve days after the election I walked into Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center for a symposium, Avant Museology, co-hosted by the art journal e-flux and the University of Minnesota Press. It had been a long two weeks of attending events in two registers: protests and meetings, on the one hand, all in the early, bewildered stage of articulation; and left-utopian or intellectual events on the other, these more bewildered than the former, trading in their typical polish and fluency for an uncertainty or even embarrassment of purpose. More than usual the terrible world of practical politics intruded; it hung spectrally over everything and appeared equally impossible to ignore or address with adequate urgency. Stuck in this impasse, people said strange things. During the Q & A of an event for Jacobin editor Peter Frase’s book, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, the audience transitioned from speculating about Frase’s topic—building socialism or falling into the abyss—to speculating about a fictive dive bar in Iowa. “It’s one thing to talk about politics in this room,” one woman said, turning her neck and gesturing around her. “But they might not be thinking the same way in a dive bar in Iowa.” Each following question detoured with perplexing insistence into musings on the bar. Its image solidified as the night went on, the bar’s unreality matched by an assertion of its familiarity. “I have nothing against dive bars in Iowa,” Frase said after the bar’s third invocation. “Iowa!” someone shouted from behind a bookshelf. The crowd cheered.

The wind swept leaves around my feet as I walked to the symposium. Snow speckled the ground. The night before hundreds of crows descended on my neighborhood with the flap of a heavy curtain, swooping in sheets through the park and leaving the sidewalks that morning spattered white. “The museum of contemporary art might very well be the most advanced recording device ever invented,” the introductory speaker told the crowd at the Walker. The symposium’s opening remarks revolved around museums and their social role, but midway through they sharpened: “What can art contribute to the struggle against nationalism, racism, and fascism?”

As the talks carried on, the election neither vanished nor took center stage. Unlike so much else of the past weeks, it didn’t muddy or embarrass the topic at hand. Instead the study of contemporary art museums and their radical potential acted as an oblique looking glass, refracting the disaster of the day through an odd set of contexts and histories, some long and global in perspective, others slim reminders of Trumpism’s promise to impact things thought marginal and distanced. The mushrooming of global art, saturated by finance capital and saturating the world with gleaming, enormous museums, has already made for a convulsive landscape, one easily caricatured: jet setting elites bouncing from festival to gala, stowing sculptures in foreign tax havens and presiding over the privatization of an art world that has come to stand for the corruptions of globalization. Amid this display of transnational excess, what will this latest shock entail? How will art museums respond to Trump’s tetrad of money, populism, racism, and spectacle?

The symposium took place in two cities, New York and Minneapolis, over two consecutive weekends. The first weekend’s sessions were held at the Brooklyn Museum, with speakers including Liam Gillick, Fred Wilson, Juliana Huxtable, and the ubiquitous, insomniac curator Hans Ulrich Obrist; the second weekend, at the Walker, featured Hito Steyerl, Boris Groys, and Wayne Koestenbaum, the whole event arranged in conjunction with the publication of Avant Museology, the first book under the new e-flux and University of Minnesota Press imprint, e-flux Classics. Edited by the Russian artist Arseny Zhilyaev, Avant Museology gathers writings on museums and revolution by leading figures of the Soviet avant-garde.

That Sunday in Minneapolis Zhilyaev was the symposium’s first speaker. A somber, self-effacing man, dressed conventionally in a black suit and white shirt, Zhilyaev stared down at his notes and introduced the multiple threads woven through fin de siècle Russian avant-garde museology. An apocalyptic tendency, in line with many modernist movements, advocated bulldozing contemporary art’s bourgeois mausoleums, blowing down the institutional doors, and marrying art to life. Slightly more temperate, practically-minded voices envisioned museums as sites for raising ideological consciousness, and a further strand, theorized by Nikolai Federov, viewed the museum as the basis for the immortalization of all humanity and the resurrection of the dead, people past and present preserved to enjoy eternal socialism, with museum space dedicated to all. “Unfortunately,” Zhilyaev said, “it didn’t happen.” But the fervor for preservation lived on, channeling into the Moscow Institute of Brains, established in 1928 and still around today, though inoperative since the fall of communism. There Soviet scientists mummified and studied a “Pantheon of Brains,” including the organs of Lenin, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein, Gorky, and Stalin, with the goal of using brain research to realize the ideal communist subject. A person behind me asked about the relevance of these avant-garde ideas to contemporary art museums in Russia, awash in corporate money and detached from social movements. What space is there for avant-garde museology?

Zhilyaev sighed and sank into resignation. We would have to wait for the revolution, he said, eyes fixed on his notes.

No one else seemed quite as resigned. The featured artists, for the most part, already saw themselves as trying to break free from the museum’s confines, or troubling their location within it. Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade described making unauthorized, mock posters for an actually existing museum, Museo do Homem do Nordeste, or Museum of the Man of the Northeast. He took out newspaper classifieds in search of poster models and photographed the men who responded, playing up their masculinity and eroticism, and then hung the posters in a gallery in Sao Paulo whose facade was decorated as if it were the actual Museo do Homem do Nordeste: a series of provocations pursued within the circuitry of the art world. I thought of the Benin artist Meshac Gaba’s traveling exhibition, mock-titled Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997–2002), a fake museum within a museum that keeps expanding—one exhibition is called Museum Shop, the next Art and Religion Room, the next Game Room, and so on. The Lebanese artist Walid Raad issued a similar incitement during his symposium talk: “Open a museum of Arab art and fill it with the Western canon.”

Raad’s talk centered on the boom in art museums. Although his ambitious fifteen-year project Atlas Group (1989–2004) documented the Lebanese civil war, it had never shown in Lebanon. Finally, in 2008, he agreed to a solo show at a new museum, the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, which had installed itself on the fourth floor of an industrial building in Beirut’s Karantina district, an old factory zone turned art hub. Raad recalled walking in and seeing “the whitest, milkiest, smoothest walls,” “the white cube of white cubes” that he had “been waiting forty years” to see in Beirut. He then noticed his work on the walls and saw it had shrunk to one one-hundredth the size. Worried for his mental health, he never found an explanation for the shrinkage. He didn’t know whether to take it as an accident, a metaphor, or a newfound reality. He was aware of the metaphorical possibility: this bizarre case of miniaturization occurred during a period in which museums continue to be beset by bigness. Raad’s example was Saadiyat Island, a development project in Abu Dhabi for which construction is under way on the largest Guggenheim in the world (Frank Gehry), an extension of the Louvre four times bigger than Paris’s (Jean Nouvel), the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center (Zaha Hadid), the Zayed National Museum (Norman Foster), the Maritime Museum (Tadao Ando), and a new NYU campus (Rafael Viñoly). What, he wondered, happens to art under such an extravagant architectural regime? To what degree is it overwhelmed? From then on Raad focused his artwork on examining the museum space itself, á la the art practice of institutional critique, but with a special architectural focus on size, spatial arrangement, and the artwork’s materiality and immateriality as its surroundings grow vaster and more alien.

But the museum is one thing; life, people still seem to believe, is another. Avant-garde museology’s apocalyptic strand, dreaming of the death of the museum and the blending of art and life, continues to carry on, albeit in quiet ways. Multiple artists—most memorably Andrade and the Norwegian Anne Hjort Guttu—talked of creating art at total remove from institutions, whether private, outsider drawings for the filing cabinet, or participatory projects (a horserace, in Andrade’s case) galloping through the streets. It’s familiar now to note art’s participatory or outsider turn, the way it can move in discordant step with the boundaries of the museum. But the most thoughtful contribution to the symposium spun this formulation anew. It wasn’t art that was spilling over from the museum into life, implied the German artist Hito Steyerl, but history.

Steyerl began her talk by looking at a YouTube video of an old Soviet tank stationed in Ukraine. In the video the tank stands on a pedestal somewhere outside; people try to start it moving, but it appears barely functional, hissing and steaming and rolling back and forth. The video ends and the tank remains erratically on the pedestal. Later, Steyerl discovered from a newspaper article, the tank—a model Joseph Stalin-2—successfully tumbled off and went straight into battle, killing three. It served its ancient purpose and was then put on display in a museum in Kiev. This, Steyerl announced, is our present situation. We are caught in a loop, and the museum, tasked with preserving history, is instead watching while history leaks and circles around maddeningly. Trump vaunts fantasies of an imagined past. Farage bellows clouds of nostalgia. Erdoğan supporters reenact the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. “Preservation,” Steyerl said, is about “creating the future,” but our historical vision is providing sepia-tinted counterfactuals for our backward-looking moment, while the world of art and museums, in place of providing a historical corrective, too often retreats from the democratic sphere, privatizing and pulling itself more fully into the logic of the marketplace. Today’s art sits in lockers in duty-free zones, Steyerl said. A new buyer comes along and the artwork is moved to a new locker. Popular movies envision art’s future, along similar lines, as one of exclusion. She referenced the sci-fi thriller Children of Men (2006), in which an elite group of government functionaries have rescued art classics and stored them in a militarized Tate Modern, whisked out of public view as the world burns. (Guernica hangs behind a banquet table on one of the museum’s upper floors.) For Steyerl, this suggests a new apocalyptic take on the future of museums: not bursting into life, but terminating public access, a privatized last stand in times of blurry borders and ecological devastation.

Solutions are not easy to come by. Too often “democratizing” art museums functions as code for inviting in consumer spectacle, resulting in loud attempts to invigorate the artwork, to prod the passive viewer into stimulated engagement, to lighten up on text and information or top off the space with fancy restaurants and kitsch-filled shops and endless airport-style renovations. (Soon, Steyerl said, art will surveil its viewers, exhibited on the basis of algorithmic enjoyment.) Lost in this pseudo-democratic imperative are the museum’s more high-minded pursuits: to give context, provoke contemplation, provide comparative histories—all for a democratic public. “There are hundreds of possible ways to address this,” Steyerl said. “But it might be interesting if art institutions thought of themselves as cities, with their own economies.” She didn’t say more, but the comment implied lines of thought all its own. Dependency on corporate donors structures how avant-garde a museum’s practice can be, and it’s in this model of museum-as-city where all threads of avant museology seem to converge: art flooding into life, the lifting of certain ideological constraints, and the reimagining of museums as truly public spaces.

Post-Trump, the question of public space is up in the air. Trump’s infrastructure plan, much touted on the campaign trail and now being revealed in small doses of detail, appears to circumvent the public almost entirely, offering $137 billion in tax credits to private firms investing in infrastructure. Privatization will carry the day and expose populism for the farce it has always been, and there seems no reason to doubt the upward swing of museum privatization will continue. In our newly defensive, hysterically historical times, avant museology might have to redraw its objectives less along utopian lines and more in keeping with the needs of the moment: an autonomous public sphere, with its disparate values laid face-up on the table, and an insistence on the unrivaled significance of contemporary art museums, “practically the only places,” the critic Boris Groys once wrote, where “we can step back from our own present and compare it with other historical eras.”

As day one of the symposium drew to a close, we gathered in a lounge in the Walker overlooking downtown. The writer Wayne Koestenbaum played Schumann piano miniatures and incanted an improvised cascade of pointed absurdities: “Hannah Arendt!/What does the banality of evil mean/in the time of Trump?” City lights shone yellow in the distance.

William Harris is a columnist for Full Stop who has also written for the Los Angeles Review of Books3:AM, and The Point. He lives in Minneapolis.

—January 19, 2017

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Category
Avant-Garde
Subject
Museology

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.

Arseny Zhilyaev is an artist based in Moscow and Venice. His projects examine the legacy of Soviet museology and the museum within the philosophy of Russian cosmism.

Anton Vidokle is an editor of e-flux journal.

Walid Raad (b. 1967, Lebanon) is an artist and a Professor of Art in (the still-charging-tuition) The Cooper Union (New York, USA). Raad’s works include The Atlas Group, a fifteen-year project between 1989 and 2004 about the contemporary history of Lebanon, and the ongoing projects Scratching on Things I Could Disavow and Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut). His books include Walkthrough, The Truth Will Be Known When The Last Witness Is Dead, My Neck Is Thinner Than A Hair, Let’s Be Honest The Weather Helped, and Scratching on Things I Could Disavow.

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University. Her books include Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (2016), Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (2011), and The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (2002). She is also a founding member of the Karrabing Film Collective.

Sohrab Mohebbi is a writer and curator at SculptureCenter, New York.

Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker, moving-image artist, writer, and innovator of the essay documentary. Her principal topics of interest are media, technology, and the global circulation of images. Through her writing practice, films, and performative lectures, Steyerl considers the status of the image in an increasingly global and technological world.

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