Museums on the Move (Artforum)

(Published in: Artforum, summer 2010, pp. 301–306.)

Every September, like clockwork, it's the same thing: quick handshakes in the haughty opera director's pompous office, and then it's off with the artist to meet the press. Quite a list, after all these years: Tacita Dean, Richard Hamilton, Jeff Koons, Maria Lassnig, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rosemarie Trockel, Franz West, to name just a few out of a litany of luminaries who have collaborated with our host. So there we sit, onstage again. Brief statements from us, the curators, and perhaps a few words from the artist. Then the massive curtain drops, revealing a new work of art: a cut-off ear on a breakfast plate (Lassnig), say, or two green Incredible Hulks on their way to take on the Viennese bourgeoisie with the help of a few monkeys (Koons). Applause. "Since there are no questions, we'll close the ceremony here," our opera director extraordinaire announces, with a smile displaying teeth worthy of a Hollywood celebrity. And with that, he walks out. Afterward, to keep everyone in a good mood, Josef Ortner – himself a director, though of a very different kind of institution – gracious and attentive as always, chats with the journalists, introduces the artist to the group, and makes everybody comfortable. The awkwardness quickly dissipates.

Each year since 1998, under Ortner's auspices, a new work by a major artist has been unveiled on the stage of the Vienna State Opera. During its twelvemonth term, the work is displayed every evening before the show begins. This autumn, another work will be revealed, and we will sit there onstage once more, gazing out at the imposing auditorium. But nothing will be the same, because Ortner is no longer with us.

Josef Ortner, who tragically passed away last year at the age of fifty-two, was one of the pioneering museum founders of the twentieth century. His Viennabased Museum in Progress showed us ways to move beyond the work of art as a mere object in an institutional space. Ortner would have none of the predictable rituals, unvarying across the globe, with which the typical art institution propitiates the fickle gods of funding. He was a genius fundraiser who kept inventing surprising new ways to get things financed, but brooked no galas. Ortner's museum, inaugurated in 1990, created new, less predictable situations, eschewing classical exhibitions in favor of other modes of display and other forms of visibility: billboards; TV and radio; the Internet; daily newspapers, such as Der Standard; Süddeutsche Zeitung the in-flight magazine of Austrian Airlines; and, not least, the imposing precincts of the Vienna State Opera. Innumerable artists, curators, and writers have participated in these projects, which, in their different ways, have infiltrated mainstream media and the public sphere, thus creating new forms of exchange and new forms of social space.

On the museum's website, Ortner posted a quote from Alexander Dorner, legendary museum director and promoter of artists such as El Lissitzky and László Moholy-Nagy: "The museum only makes sense as a pioneer." It seems to us that Ortner managed to navigate our increasingly commercialized environment without becoming nostalgic about a less commercialized era, when the public sphere really had a fair chance of being public. Instead of looking back, his Museum in Progress remained experimental and tried to create new forms of encounter and new audiences. He was interested not in consumption but in the production of space.

However, even though he took Dorner's exhortation very seriously, Ortner was fully aware of his place in the history of expansive curatorial endeavors. There is a second Dorner quote on the website: "The new type of art institute cannot merely be an art museum as it has been until now. . . . The new type will be more like a power station (kraftwerk), a producer of new energy." The majority of twentieth-century exhibition spaces were machineries of exclusion. In Europe, as art historian Charlotte Klonk has argued, institutional galleries were mostly designed to address a viewing subject conceived as an isolated individual. In order to create the kind of hermetic space thought suitable for individual meditation and intimate viewing, museums kept societal realities at bay, not allowing them to penetrate the institution's walls. Meanwhile, the individualized viewer constructed or taken for granted in the European museum was turned into a consumer in the US – a paradigm shift marked by the Museum of Modern Art's 1938 Bauhaus exhibition, in which critical "intersubjective" viewing gave way to a fashionable consumerist stance. On either side of the Atlantic, notions of collaboration and social interaction had no place on the agenda. Such engagement was supposed to happen in the street, not in the museum.

Klonk, in her Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000 (Yale University Press, 2009), also discusses some important institutional "pioneers" (Dorner among them). She demonstrates that two types of exhibitions were developed at the end of the 1920s that made possible a new kind of public and collective viewing experience: Former Bauhaus members emphasized discursivity and rationality in such contexts as the 1927 Deutsche Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany (where designer Lilly Reich emphasized the collective production process that modern architecture entailed), whereas Constructivist artists, with such endeavors as Lissitzky's Proun Room at the 1923 Great Berlin Art Exhibition, aimed at the creation of a phenomenological experience of collectivity.

Klonk is essentially charting the early stages of a counterhistory – that of the relatively few institutions that did in fact allow their walls to be permeated by the energies of the street, and that of the universities, of politicians and activists, of popular culture. That is the history Ortner was claiming when he invoked the model of the museum as kraftwerk. To fully grasp his enterprise, one has to look at a few of the watersheds that preceded him.

It was Dorner who, in the 1920s, invited Lissitzky to Hannover, Germany, to develop a dynamic display for what he called the "museum on the move." Having defined the museum as a kraftwerk, he reconfigured the pseudoneutral spaces prevalent at the time with curatorial ideas that seem totally up-to-date even today. On several occasions, he spoke or wrote about the museum as a space of flux or permanent transformation, oscillating between object and process. ("The idea of process has penetrated our system of certainties.") He envisioned a museum with multiple identities, active, never holding back – in short, pioneering. He talked of the museum as a relative (not an absolute) truth, and contextualized this radical museum within a similarly dynamic concept of art history. He dreamed of the "elastic museum," i.e., flexible displays within an adaptable building. Also interesting is how Dorner emphasized the museum as a bridge between art and a variety of scientific disciplines: "We cannot understand the forces which are effective in the visual production of today if we don't examine other fields of life." All of these ideas could function as a manifesto for Ortner's Museum in Progress. Historians such as Klonk are no doubt right in claiming a return to some of these ideas from the 1920s in the exhibitions that today emphasize collectivity and interaction. The Museum in Progress is proof of this continuing vitality.

But the genealogical picture is not complete if today's interest in collective production and collaboration isn't also seen in relation to certain visions of the 1960s. A case in point is an unrealized project by the visionary British architect Cedric Price, who in 1960 began planning (along with Joan Littlewood, founder of the experimental Theatre Workshop in East London) a "Fun Palace," with flexible and interactive facilities for music, dancing, fireworks. "Choose what you want to do," Price wrote, 
or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favorite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what's happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.

Sadly, the world was not ready for the Fun Palace (at any rate, Price was never able to procure the necessary funding). But a few years later, Öyvind Fahlström – a restless artistic soul who was experimenting at the time with almost every discipline one could think of and trying to invent new ones as well – came up with a similar idea. In close dialogue with the Moderna Museet's Pontus Hultén, who was probably the most inventive museum director then working, Fahlström made the obsolescence of conventional institutions clear by choosing public radio and TV, instead of the gallery, as platforms for his experiments with sound and concrete poetry, and by taking to the street to stage political theater, demonstrations, and multidisciplinary performances. Insisting that new architectural concepts for dance, music, and art were necessary, Fahlström argued for "pleasure houses for meditation, dance, fun, games and sexual relations," as well as for a new kind of art that fused pleasure and insight. "Reach this by impurity, or multiplicity of levels," he urged, "rather than by reduction."

Artists, not museum directors, have usually been the real catalysts of institutional innovation. A case in point from a different part of the world: Gutaï. The protean nature of this Japanese group and the heterogeneity of its output are probably the reasons it never gained quite the fame it deserved. As early as half a century ago, Gutaï artists arranged events on rooftops, in industrial environments, in parks; they organized exhibitions with and for children, experimented with mail and body art, theater and dance events, one-day exhibitions, action painting, open-air shows, and Happenings. In terms of thinking about what a museum can be, Gutaï remains a source of inspiration today, as do numerous other imaginative shows staged by artists. A few highlights: the Independent Group's "This Is Tomorrow" in London's Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, and "Dylaby" – a dynamic labyrinth of six environments by as many artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Martial Raysse, Niki de Saint Phalle, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Per Olof Ultvedt) at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum in 1962. Most of the material on view was from secondhand stores or had simply been found in the street. When the exhibition closed, most of it landed in the garbage dump. "Dylaby" was, for those days, an extreme exhibition that tested the borders of art and activated the audience.

Hultén, who was one of the key protagonists of "Dylaby," was to take things even further. In 1966, he created perhaps his most ambitious project with the startling collaborative installation She – A Cathedral at the Moderna Museet. Conceived by Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Ultvedt, She was a large, lurid cathedral in the form of a supine woman viewers could walk into, the entry being between her legs. Inside, visitors encountered a small cinema showing a Greta Garbo movie, an aquarium full of goldfish, a milk bar placed in one of the breasts, a playground, and numerous other surprises.

From there, Hultén continued to develop his approach to staging exhibitions, emphasizing spontaneity, collaboration, interactivity, and interdisciplinarity. His 1969 exhibition "Poetry Must Be Made by All! Transform the World!" took the subversive political currents of the time as its subject, and presented documentation and ephemera in lieu of art. His 1971 "Utopians and Visionaries, 1871–1981," a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Paris Commune, took participation to an unprecedented level. There was a printing facility where people could make their own posters, a music school, a geodesic dome, and a telex that enabled visitors to ask people in Bombay, New York, and Tokyo about their visions of the future. Thus viewers were encouraged to produce, not to consume. As for the photos and paintings, they were installed in the trees in the garden.

Hultén's name is often coupled with that of his near contemporary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, who sought, he said, to create shows that were "poems in space." Szeemann radically changed notions of what a museum director could be: The museum of obsessions that he carried with him in his head no longer needed a permanent building. Or, to put it more prosaically, he essentially invented the role of the independent curator. The American Walter Hopps, too, should be mentioned as one of the 1960s' key innovators in the field of exhibition practice, translating the attitude of jazz impresario to the business of staging painting shows. Bouncing from institution to institution and causing a stir wherever he went, he did more than any other curator to sketch the linkages between Pop art and the interwar European avant-garde. Also, Lucy Lippard, whose imminent global revival seems obvious to us, kept trying out new forms of distribution and visibility for works of art during these years. Yet it was Hultén who most vigorously tested the limits of the contemporary art museum from within, turning the institution into a radically multidisciplinary laboratory and production site. The early years of the Centre Pompidou, of which he was founding director, showed what this could imply, perhaps especially via the 1985 exhibition "Les Immatériaux," a large-scale, interactive experiment replete with computers and other new technologies, curated by Jean-François Lyotard. Though Hultén was no longer at the Pompidou when Lyotard's exhibition opened, he had been present at its creation, so to speak – it was his institutional vision that created the conditions that made such an undertaking possible. "Les Immatériaux" ushered in a series of shows organized by philosophers ranging from Julia Kristeva ("Visions capitales," presented at the Louvre in 1998) to Jean-Luc Nancy ("Le Plaisir au dessin," at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon in 2007). As the first exhibition of its kind, Lyotard's was perhaps the most radical and important. At once a "postmodern dramaturgy" and an exhibition as database, it broached the implications of immaterial labor avant la lettre. In numerous interviews, Lyotard spelled out his ideas about the crisis of the book as an instrument for the diffusion of ideas and about the necessity for a contemporary thinker to use other formats.

Philosophy, it seems, regularly goes into exile. It needs another discursive field to develop its concepts and make them productive (indeed, this was Lyotard's implication when he pointed out the obsolescence of the book). Perhaps one can see this as a kind of diaspora of thought, an exodus into other domains. In the 1960s, this domain was primarily society, and much of philosophy situated itself in immediate proximity to sociology. In the '70s, new ideas about the text and textuality became so fashionable that philosophy seemed to merge with a novel kind of speculative literary criticism. In the '80s, ideas about the simulacra of the media turned the dialogue with art and the world of images into the most lively point of departure for philosophical exploration. What happened then? Through what new domains has philosophy wandered since? Technology, the city, architecture, forms of globalization: Yes, no doubt all of these things. And perhaps through the museum as a medium for thought and experimentation. This "curatorial turn" in radical thought, which we more or less invent while writing these lines, may be traced directly back to Lyotard's "Les Immatériaux."

Finally, we must cite Bruno Latour, who, more than any other thinker today, has continued this philosophical exploration of the museum as a way to create new forms of space, most convincingly in his 2005 show "Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy" at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany. A warren of objects – ranging from artworks to architectural models and diagrams depicting the global financial markets and the first sites where parliamentary gatherings, such as the Icelandic Ting, took place – the exhibition aimed at nothing less than a radical reconception of the proper site of politics. This ambitious project was couched as an exploration of the thing, in the most originary sense analyzed by Heidegger: a place where people gather and meet other earthly and heavenly forces. We, the viewers, are not outside Latour's shows, just as we are not outside the world of facts, institutions, social conventions in which we live. We, the viewers, are also part of, and constructed by, this network of relations. In that sense, one could perhaps say that Latour's exhibitions turn things around: We look at the exhibition, but the exhibition also looks at us. For those of us who sometimes feel depressed by the fact that successful museums are run like global corporations, it is relevant to remember that when new cultural formations appear they tend to use fragments of already obsolete forms. Erwin Panofsky pointed this out: The future is constructed out of elements of the past – nothing appears ex nihilo. The future of exhibition making and of the museum itself will deploy devices we once knew but have perhaps forgotten about. This constantly growing and open-ended list of fragments, with which we leave this text unfinished, has been a toolbox for us. In part, this essay is an homage to Ortner, but an essay that functioned primarily as a survey of past forms would not be a fitting elegy; instead we hope this will be read as a fragmented guide to artistic landscapes that are yet to emerge. Production, not consumption.