ACADEMY EXPANDED, EXPANDED EXHIBITING
Politics of Memory, contribution by Milica Tomic for Displayer 03, 2009, pp. 101-111. Filmed reading by Filipa César and performed by Monica Lima, 2010.
Along with this written text, a visual layer is part of this paper. It is a filmed reading of the third issue of a copy of the print publication series DISPLAYER. It is a projection that is neither an illustration for nor an appendix to the written text (see the image). It leads rather to an independent visuality that could be considered more as another form of text. With this kind of layering, I would like to suggest disturbing the descriptive function of an image to a text. It is up to the audience now, to you, to draw or refuse correlations between voice, words, images and spaces. That is to say, I did not try to prepare a text about the book project DISPLAYER but through and around the concerns that emerged while working on it. Again, preparing this paper took the form of another research of the same project.
In 2006 we started a new program of study, called Exhibition Design and Curatorial Practice, at the Karlsruhe University of Art and Design which is associated with the ZKM in Karlsruhe. The Karlsruhe University of Art and Design is an art academy. The proximity of an art academy to an art institution is rather unique in Germany. The curriculum of the program is project-based and conflates theory and practice. Theory students have to take seminars on practice, and students of design and visual arts (photography, film, digital resources) have to attend seminars on theory. This program that we founded is similar to an MA programme leading to a diploma. When I say ‘we,’ I am talking about the architect Wilfried Kuehn, who is the head of the program; myself, associated as an independent curator; our collaborators and guests; and our students. When we started the program, we founded the publication series DISPLAYER. DISPLAYER is a most essential part of teaching, researching, learning and exhibiting. The content of each issue grows out of the program’s one-year research- and practice-based projects. All the contributions in DISPLAYER are based on talks, interviews, panels, and conversations that we have been organizing around the curriculum. All the texts in the publication are edited and then published in DISPLAYER for the first time.
DISPLAYER 01: activation of space
DISPLAYER 02: presentation strategies for collecting
DISPLAYER 03: exhibiting of manifest or temporal space itself
The proximity of an art academy to a project like DISPLAYER activates a public beyond the academy. Academy and exhibiting are distinct but time-wise entangled forms of practice. Within the project DISPLAYER, they activate a conflictual field in which the antagonisms of research and exhibiting are deliberately unfolded. The DISPLAYER project will be my point of entry into a reflection on the relation between the poles of academy and exhibiting, bridged by a threshold of expansion.
‘Expanded’ is taken from the realm of the experimental film practice ‘expanded cinema.’ In the European context, the term showed up around a few Austrian filmmakers and artists who were connected to the Viennese Actionists. It was in the mid- to late 1960s that the traditional screening mode of projecting a moving image onto a wall was questioned by artists like Hans Scheugl and VALIE EXPORT. This questioning grew from the rejection of the narrow definition of film projection as the exposure of celluloid to light, and goes hand in hand with a critique of the traditional presentation forms for moving images and the institutions that show them. Generally speaking, the critique attacked the traditional mode of a cinema screening that would implicate: (1) the film is pre-produced, (2) the position of the screen as well as that of the audience is strictly defined in servility to the institutional conditions of cinema, and (3) the strategy of distribution is institutionally determined. It is a presentation environment that VALIE EXPORT called the ‘cinema machinery’ in DISPLAYER 02. This machinery is in contrast to the moving image itself. The moving image is the ‘cinema’ as EXPORT called it. It is the very spatial and very present appearance of the moving image. You might remember her Tapp und Tastkino (Tap and Touch Cinema) from the 1960s, where VALIE EXPORT walked around the streets of Vienna and other cities and invited the audience (passers-by) to touch her bare breasts, which were covered by a box. EXPORT elaborates in her DISPLAYER 02 contribution: the bodily experience is the cinema = the moving image itself. The covering box is the cinema machinery. The latter, the cinema machinery, turns the experience of the moving image into a staging of the moving image in public. The conditions of showing – the machinery, projector, display, etc. – are intrinsically and distinctly intertwined with the thought/thing/image on display. 'Expanded' means that what is shown is no longer a projection of moving images onto the wall or its placement on a spot in a space. The very present situation, the space itself, the audience, and real-time components are part of the staging. Moreover, the thought processes and planning that take place before the performance of a thing on display cannot be excluded from the ‘expanded’ zone. The projection has ceased to throw light forward in a predictable direction. The performance is not a projection anymore. The projection turned into an installation in time-space within a particular setting, as part of a constellation in time space. The ‘action’ itself, that is to say the unpredictable utterance and appearance in public, is the essential part of the presentation. When I propose two expansions, my thoughts borrow some traces from ‘expanded cinema.’
The publication project DISPLAYER does not document research. It neither administers information about specific projects nor does it simply collect the original sound of artists, curators, and architects. DISPLAYER is a working journal, an instrument of research, a seminar part in a public format, and a tool to pose questions rather than to deliver answers. In DISPLAYER 03, we researched around a few main concerns: What are the means of recording space in order to perform it at other times, in other places and other institutional settings? Which conceptual approaches are at our disposal in order to remember, repeat and re-access space? What are the limits of reconstructing a built space of architecture? We investigated the design practice and voice of an historical figure, the Austrian architect, designer and artist Friedrich Kiesler; we conducted an interview with the artist Stefan Römer around the notion of ‘fake’ and ‘architecture’; we did a workshop based on dialogic talks with artists Pablo Bronstein and Katrin Mayer; we entered into an email conversation with artist Omer Fast and a very intense workshop with artist Milica Tomic; the artist Achim Lengerer staged a non-public performance with us; one of our students visited Charles Jencks in Scotland; another one visited Hans Hollein in Vienna; and so on. Each chapter requests its own research methodology. It is important to keep in mind that there is no such thing as a ready, retrievable methodology.
Each research topic, or chapter – and by that, also each interview partner – demands a specific methodological approach in order to enter into a collaboration, both practically and intellectually. Therefore, it has been essential for us to activate an awareness of the demands of a particular project. These demands not only resonate in the research student, but also instigate a relationship between the research student and the project to study. Each project chapter is maintained by a student. He or she has the responsibility to organize the research, collect information, and prepare and conduct the interviews. However, the most important part is to work through a set of topics that emerge while researching, reading, watching and listening in order to extract questions around concerns and topics. But rather than advocating research about a particular topic, we are interested in research around and through a topic. The point of departure is in the middle, that is to say in the relationship between researcher and research subject, between history and actualization. That is to say, the elaboration of questions are a crucial aspect of the seminar’s work. By that, we have been following a methodology close to a thematic investigation: through close reading, studio visits, workshops, and excursions, we densify concerns and problems that relate to the context of research – i.e., to the curriculum – but also to the student’s localization of practice (theory, art, design). Through questioning, we have tried to develop a form of critique that also would consider the conditions of research. After a first brainstorming phase the question would lead to particular themes and constitute a set of questions organized around thematic points of entry, but still inter-relating with each other. The set of questions release crucial means without ends: that is to say, questions are like gestures that instigate a relationship. They neither stand for themselves alone nor lead to a manifest conclusion. Questions indicate the relationship between the practice (research) and the production (book). Questioning demands listening with our bodies and with our eyes and with our writing – that is to say, rather than working out a fixed set of questions, the students found their way to particularly utter a thickening process around a certain topic.
The research students for the DISPLAYER project come from different backgrounds, experience and disciplines. Interestingly enough, the students from the art history/theory department are much more subject to the fear of not knowing something. From my experience, they are concerned with classifying questions that do not involve their own reflection. They are usually trained to ask: Where does an art practice settle down? Into which style does it fit? Which other practices are connected to it? Etc. This is a serious problem, because the curatorial approach to space and time cannot go back to a traditional vocabulary in the context of art history; it simply does not fit into the reflection on the politics and the power of the relational complexity between space, architecture, display, tangible and intangible ideas, time, etc. It is because there is no such thing as a linear history of display and exhibition architecture conflated with a theory of curatorial practice. Fortunately. Let me give you an example of how reflection on the use of language has become part of a DISPLAYER contribution: the chapter around the work by the artist Omer Fast in DISPLAYER 03 starts off from a single word, Örtlichkeit, which is German and could be translated as ‘locality’. Omer Fast used it in one of our conversations in order to indicate another type of space that could be located between fiction and reality, past and future, and between a staged and found situation. The term Örtlichkeit indicates an ambivalent spatial texture for stories to come. I quote from DISPLAYER 03:
"Let’s start with the site: I understand a site to be the place where a particular event or activity takes place, like a building site or the scene of a crime. This implies both spatial and temporal aspects. The way a site is differentiated from just any old place is often achieved through signage and demarcation, for example a fence enclosing a building site or police tape sealing off the scene of a crime. These markers temporarily detach the site from its surrounding (... but) the site is usually reintegrated with its surrounding; the signage is removed and the space can resume its everyday functions. These characteristics of the site – its appropriation and demarcation, the specialization of the actors who enter it and the rehearsed, interim nature of the actions they carry out – are shared by another type of space, which is associated with ritual, story telling and performance. We can call this other space a ‘set’ (like a movie set, of course, but also a theatrical stage, a musical venue, an amusement park, etc.). In contrast to the site, whose connection to the real is immanent and consequential, a set typically involves an imitation of the real, which functions extraneously to it....Furthermore, no matter how authentic an imitation on a set might feel to an observer or a participant, much of the pleasure (or the horror) it arouses has to do with knowing that it isn’t real....Together they form a kind of superspace – which one could describe in German with ‘Örtlichkeit’ – that conflates historical events with their later representations, relics and souvenirs with props and monuments." (in: Back to the Present, DISPLAYER 03, p. 114)
This quote demonstrates the excavation of a vocabulary while researching. Terms like Örtlichkeit / super-space, set, site, signage, and demarcation emerged through the communal writing and research process. The questions and answers between us and Omer Fast went back and forth via e-mail; and each time we would change again what had been written. The act of writing has been a permanent overwriting of that which existed. Like in a psycho-analytical process where one approaches the unconscious by listening to what one has just said. While reading the existing text, the text has been written anew. Back to DISPLAYER in general: Each chapter produces its own vocabulary that is not necessarily and even should possibly not be linked to a classifying vocabulary of a discipline, e.g., art history. Our interest is rather the opposite: the development of a conceptual thinking that enables us to think through (not to think about) each research project from a texture of non knowledge – without the intention to know more but to move around, to question more. In fact, this is for me the core of research: not to come up with a final result at the end but rather with a texture of thoughts that weave a net of relations.
Of course, in terms of exhibiting, this causes problems because exhibiting demands the arrest of a process. Non-knowledge, in the Bataillian approach, starts off from a feeling of unease in a productive sense. It is a process of learning that would not lead to knowledge as information but to a methodology, to thinking and questioning. Within the institutional framework of an art academy this unease might be felt but sometimes likely suppressed for the false sake of the accumulation of knowledge. Or to word it differently: students often have the fear of not knowing enough or not meeting the expectations of the institutional framework. Knowledge becomes a currency. Knowledge becomes an institution. And here at last, zones of conflict emerge. The question for research is how can we keep alive a form of research that takes off from nonknowledge rather than from the pressure of knowing. Students have to present their research at some point, they have to exhibit that which they’ve done so far. How can we keep alive a mode of exhibiting that does not want to be an evidence of knowledge but rather wants to be a starting point for stories to come? From the position of the teacher, the demonstration of non-knowledge is a shattering thing to do. Students feel lost; they want to have their money back; I myself heard in class the subtle reproach: ‘This trial-and-error method might be nice but we don’t learn how to act.’ And this is just the problem which asks for an ‘expanded academy.’
In a very literal sense, ‘expanded academy’ means to collaborate with artists, curators, and architects – because for us as teachers, it is impossible to entirely meet the infinite plurality of questions raised during a research project. That is the reason why we have been inviting guests; certainly also to indicate that our knowledge is limited. However, we do not invite guests to increase knowledge but to enter into a thinking process in dialogue with others. The questions help to locate concerns in the middle of the relation between the topic and research, the researcher and the interviewed. Reflecting on the position from which the questions are asked entails that we also have to ask ourselves: Why are we researching an historical event now and today? That is to say, an ‘expanded academy’ is never a place of historical research but rather an actualization of the past. The actualization of the past always involves reflecting on the conditions of the very present. However, as curators we all know that any research process will lead to some kind of manifestation sooner or later: a presentation in a manifest built architecture, the reading of a written paper on a conference, the production of a publication, etc. Please let me explain now how ‘academy expanded’ is connected with ‘expanded exhibiting.’
How can we keep alive exhibiting as a mode of research? Curatorial practice is a spatial practice. Exhibiting is certainly not the placement of objects, but the spatial relation between thoughts/objects on display. It is spatial relation that activates a specific exhibition-time, one could say. This relation is not just one object next to another, but the white space between the letters, the corridor between the institution and each one’s memory, and the zone between past and future – this relation might articulate the in-between without signifying it, without assuming a ready meaning. In fact, when I say ‘relational’ I do not refer so much to the notion of aesthetique relationelle by Nicolas Borriaud. I am concerned rather with the web of stories, conflicts and antagonisms that make our body moving through a space in which we encounter a set of temporalities, an exhibition-time. What do I mean when I say a set of temporalities, an exhibition-time? Particularly in the environment of the curatorial, and this is the point of departure of my thinking here, we not only encounter but we need to confront ourselves with a plethora of stories – written or not written yet – that entail their own time of appearance and activate their own future to come. While we move around this space – and here, the physical experience of space is highly important – our bodies enter a set of temporalities rather than just an exhibition space. But we can only rest at one spot or station; we can never appropriate the entire space. Our human perception is highly fragmented and incomplete. Nevertheless, we move around a web of relations. Exhibiting is quite the opposite of an academy in terms of publicness – or to word it differently, seminars take place in a non-public sphere. Of course, it is not a private space but rather an experimental public surrounding into which a general public eventually will be simulated. The space of the academy hosts an educational setting in which we might rehearse the real case of exhibiting. So just to remind us: exhibiting activates a public: Something is held out to be looked at and listened to, attracted by and objected to – to be inhabited.
Since DISPLAYER is a project that is supposed to activate a public beyond the academy, we have to reflect on this process within the academy. We need to reflect on research that sometimes is exhibiting – a research that inhabits different sets of public, different degrees of publicness: non-public, semipublic, imaginary public, perforated public, unexpected and unpredictable public, forced public, calculated public, etc. Nevertheless, research within the ‘academy expanded’ does not require a ‘product’ necessarily – and by product I mean a manifestation in space – but the editorial process might lead to the production of something put on display in public which is a manifest result, a result that stops the process for a moment. Learning does not require a product from the research process, but the field of exhibiting does require a product to display. One of the most important questions during the editing process is What should be published from the conversational encounters / research material respectively and what should not? DISPLAYER requires a transfer from informal conversations, organized dialogic talks in the university, field trips with our students to museums, collections, artists into pieces of exhibit (writings, visual texts).
“The requirement to exhibit the final product is something we can view in the framework of the capitalist system, along the lines that an employer who has made an investment now needs to see a result. These relationships are reproduced in the collaboration among artists, curators, and directors who have invested in a work in an institutional framework. The exhibiting institution, being the last link in the chain of this market transaction, needs a visible, tangible result: a product.” (Milica Tomic, in: Politics of Memory, DISPLAYER 03, 102)
In that sense, a publication also belongs to the family of exhibitions. Something is laid open, made public and spread out. What you hold in your hands is the result of a process – a product. The print object has been designed exclusively for the purpose of being in public. But we also can look at DISPLAYER from a different angle: the space of exhibiting here is indicated by the layout of a book. It is a distinct articulation of space that we cannot enter with our entire body but which we can relate to. The particular layout of the publication articulates and indicates a mental space from its surrounding – it is a set that has the potential to turn into a site.
For DISPLAYER in particular, the communal process of project research in conjunction with the design of the edited material’s display has been a crucial aspect. It occupied one semester of talks, tests and decision between the designer, the students and us. In this way, DISPLAYER became a project in which theory and practice, exhibition design and curatorial practice conflated without losing the specificities of the particular approaches while conceptualizing the entanglement. A particular discipline as such, e.g. communication design, exhibition design, curatorial research, or theoretical work, had ceased to exist. This form of thinking through exhibiting is a practice without a discipline; the reflection on the elements of display becomes an element of ‘expanded exhibiting.’ Let me elaborate a bit on the importance of display as a crucial curatorial demand and an element of ‘expanded exhibiting’: the appearance of DISPLAYER reflects the very specific environment in which research has been taking place. We did not want to have a glossy book like the catalogue of a show. We wanted to have a publication which is as much a display for our research as it is an instrument of research as a future working journal. The paper is close to copy paper – you can write on the paper; the magazine-like format shall refer to a temporary validity of the content, the images of the chapters are black and white as though copied from somewhere else, etc. For us, it was very important to find a form that would not hide the production conditions of exhibiting. The layout as you can see is quite strict, like the systemic logic of an archive, in order to find the content as quickly as possible. And on the other side, the roughness of the paper and the temporality of the format and so on shall support the working aspect, though in a conceptual way. The layout both separates from a past research and connects to a future research.
You might think these are very simple components and hardly worth considering – just a few formal decisions. However, these display decisions are highly conflated with curatorial concerns. We cannot separate the question around the display from that of what is put on display, and yet, the display and the thought/thing put on display are distinct components. As curators dealing with the power of display we have to ask ourselves How does the manifestation of a process come into play? What are the conditions of showing and not showing? ‘Expanded exhibiting’ reflects on the complex entanglement between these components; again, it is an issue of the relation between the process and the manifestation, between production and presentation, between research-time and exhibition-time. In response to an essay by Derrida on Ellipsis, Jean-Luc Nancy wrote about the beauty of the interval between the limits of an event, of an experience, an appearance. In Nancy’s text: with regard to reading through Derrida’s text itself – a beautiful quote that articulates the lifting suspense of reading between the lines of a text; reading around the threshold, the ‘expanded,’ of research and exhibiting : “The life of the book is played out – is ‘in play’ and ‘at stake’ – not in the closed book but in the open book ‘between the two hands which hold the book’....The maintenant, the now, of sense articulates itself, repeats itself and puts itself in play in the mains tenant, the hands holding the book.” That is to say, ‘expanded exhibiting’ holds multiple temporalities – an exhibition-time – since the ‘hands holding the book’ are plural.
Returning to the beginning, the ‘expanded’ for us is the bridge between the zone of the academy and the zone of exhibiting – as much as the ‘expanded’ connects these zones, it also distinguishes them. An Academy Expanded starts from the belief that research is not a machinery that would make us accumulate knowledge in order to know more. Academy Expanded activates a web of relations, the emergence of a vocabulary, the leaving of pre determined roles, etc. Expanded Exhibiting reflects on the conditions of exhibiting. Or to connect with the beginning of this paper: what is the machinery that might indicate an action and a movement to be staged in public? How can we articulate this without signifying the complex set of differences between the display and that which is on display? Both the academy and exhibiting are permanently in danger of becoming a product, a currency of creativity. Maybe here, the ‘expanded’ holds both the uplifting challenge to enter non-known zones but also to struggle heavily with existing structures. However, this tension might lead us into a reflection that could take off from the question: How can we turn creativity into an urgency that may not secure us but help us to survive?
Irit Rogoff, “Academy as Potentiality,” essay, 2006.
Homi Bhabha, lecture, CIMAM 2008 Annual Conference.
Jean-Luc Nancy, “Elliptical Sense,” essay, 1987.
Georges Bataille, “The Consequences of Nonknowledge,” essay, 1951.
VALIE EXPORT, in: DISPLAYER 02, interview, 2008.
Milica Tomic and Omer Fast, in: DISPLAYER 03, interview, 2009.
The text is based on a lecture/paper for the 36th Annual Conference of the Association of Art Historians (AAH), Session: “Exhibitions as Research: Theory, Practice, Problems” at the Glasgow University from April 15 to 17, 2010. Due to the Iceland volcano disruption the paper was presented in my Berlin apartment and live-broadcasted in Glasgow via Skype.
Session Convenors: Stacy Boldrick, Research and Interpretation Manager, The Fruitmarket Gallery (firstname.lastname@example.org); and Stephanie Straine, Exhibitions Organiser, The Fruitmarket Gallery (email@example.com).