CONVERSATIONS Mousse 55
Theater, Garden, Bestiary
Filipa Ramos, Vincent Normand, And Tristan Garcia In Conversation
Interior view of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History showing displays of prehistoric skeletons, 1920. Courtesy: California Historical Society Collection, San Francisco / USC Digital Library, Los Angeles. Photo: User: Fæ / Wikimedia Commons / CC-0
Within the institutional frame of a large art school, combining education with research and experimentation is often easier said than done. The fact that such an attempt focuses on a proposal to reconsider the origin and logics of the exhibition—one of the most established regimes for the public, collective display of material culture—to analyze its implications for the constitution of modern thought makes this project even more unique and noteworthy. Filipa Ramos discusses the aims, concepts, and frameworks of Theater, Garden, Bestiary, a research laboratory hosted at ECAL and led by Tristan Garcia and Vincent Normand, which is radically shaking the foundational and institutional apparatus of the exhibition as a format.
FILIPA RAMOS: Theatre, Garden, Bestiary: A Materialist History of Exhibitions is the name of the laboratory that you have conceived and run at ECAL (École cantonale d’art de Lausanne). These three sites—the theater, the garden, the bestiary—seem to allude to classical Foucauldian heterotopias, places that bear various meanings and are devoted to the perpetual accumulation of time. Those who access them enter a willing experience of hallucination, traversing entire habitats that are assembled, entangled, folded into one another, reaching beyond their physical and temporal now. What did you have in mind when naming this research project?
VINCENT NORMAND: The title is an explicit reference to the exhibition Theatergarden Bestiarium, which was shown in 1989 at MoMA PS1 in Long Island, New York; Casino of Exhibitions in Seville; and Confort Moderne in Poitiers, France, based on research conducted by the art historian and artist Rüdiger Schöttle. Schöttle’s initial aim was to detect the emergence of the figure of the modern spectator in the Baroque culture of 17th century Europe, by grounding its political formation in the development of the theater stage and the architecture of Baroque gardens, which he framed as optical technologies that heralded the 19th century exposition parks and modern dreamworlds.
Theatergarden Bestiarium was a groundbreaking project, which I think ought to be put in direct dialogue with what a certain generation of art historians and critics active in the American context in the 1980s and 1990s (mainly around the journal October) were working on at that time, meaning, the inscription of modes of visuality ungrounded by modernist and postmodernist art in the broader “scopic regime” of Western modernity. This moment of art-critical thought is largely indebted to French theory, specifically Michel Foucault’s archaeological stance, and our own project is in part rooted in it, too. For example, Tony Bennett’s notion of “exhibitionary complex” is very instructive in that regard, as it allows for the inscription of the modern museum (the apparatus of exhibition of scientific and artistic objects par excellence) in the graph of power drawn by the rich array of modern institutions of conservation, scientific objectivation, and surveillance that Foucault was interested in (the clinic, the prison, the asylum).
Now for us, the theater, the garden, and the bestiary are more symbolic tropes than actual lines of research, and our aim in mobilizing them as three “topoi” of modernity is quite different. Nowadays, while the exhibition enjoys a state of hegemony among the forms of democratic access to art (to such an extent that contemporary art, in its most symptomatic sense, could be reduced to its privileged mode of presentation, its exhibition), its history is clearly undergoing renewed interest. In the many symposia, publications, and journals dedicated to the art exhibition, its history is often mobilized either as an object of professional hyper-self-reflexivity for curators, or as an institutional narrative based on art-historical markers alone, producing a narration of the history of exhibitions that, more often than not, terminates in exercises of legitimation, leaving its actual hegemony unquestioned.
Moreover, while the history of exhibitions is becoming a discipline in itself, it is increasingly divided between, on the one hand, art-historical analyses tackling the exhibition as a medium to be deconstructed, and on the other hand historicist projects mobilizing it as a reified framework to be staged as such (by reproducing exhibitions excavated from the recent past like facsimiles) or escaped from altogether (by negating the exhibition space and moving toward digital platforms or more immediately social spaces). In that context, it seemed important for us to avoid mobilizing exhibitions as a form of art, as is usually the case, but to maintain a dialectical engagement with the exhibition as a genre, meaning, as a generic object of modernity, in order to grasp it in a fully historical way, as an ongoing tactical field for the future of art.
This for us implies an inquiry that is twofold. First, it requires us to confront the exhibition genre with its “implicit scripts.” These are the positivist and objectivist forms of rationality that historically coded the institutions of exhibition that have emerged throughout scientific modernity (anatomical theaters, natural history collections, zoological gardens) and that have led up to the consolidation of the museological apparatus and the gallery space, while also considering the modes of relationality, the conditions of mediality, and the semiotic processes these forms of knowledge crystallized. Secondly, it means reconstructing the ways in which the exhibition of art, throughout modernism and postmodernism, has gradually become a site that has allowed for the space of art to intensify its understanding of its own articulation to these implicit scripts.
In short, our aim is to produce an epistemology of the exhibition genre as a mediating interface of modernity. We aim at describing how the exhibition genre operated historically in what we might call the “anthropological matrix” of modernity: its activity of border production; the regime of its frontiers; the economy of its epistemological and ontological limits; the cartography of the divides that legislated its own scientific and artistic representations; and the boundaries that regulated what were allowed to appear as facts (scientific truths) and what had to be disqualified as fictions (stored as symptoms in the ultimate modern heterotopia: the institutional complex of art). We don’t want to rescue or safeguard these Foucauldian figures as heterotopias, as extraterritorial zones in which an otherwise inaccessible real could be spontaneously recovered, but precisely as sites from which to probe into the real articulation of the modes of hallucination you mention (we could call them states of mediality) with the forms of rationality that historically worked at exorcizing them.
Ad Reinhardt, Portend of the Artist as a Yhung Mandala, 1955. © 2016 Estate of Ad Reinhardt / Ad Reinhardt by SIAE, Rome, 2016. Courtesy: David Zwirner, New York / London
TRISTAN GARCIA: We sometimes speak of a materialist history of exhibitions, but we could also speak of a realistic approach. Realism is not primarily defined by a content, but rather by an attitude. Realism is not the recognition of reality, but the idea that any object determines its understanding and not the other way around. A realist mathematician believes that the demonstration follows the object of the demonstration, while the anti-realist mathematician thinks that the object of the demonstration is constructed by the demonstration itself (and there are a thousand ways not to be realist in the philosophy of mathematics).
Regarding perception, the realist believes that what one sees (the object of one’s seeing) determines one’s seeing; the anti-realist believes that one’s seeing determines what one sees. They both refer to the same relation, but in opposite directions. Let’s say Vincent and I stick to a realistic conception of the anthropological phenomenon of exhibiting representations (meaning, artworks and images), objects, dead or lively bodies, human or nonhuman animals, and landscapes. We would like to understand the logic, the rationality, by which the thing exhibited isn’t in the eye of the beholder, but how the eye, the body, the individual, and the social being are already caught in the seen and exhibited thing. The thing to be seen produces some kind of ideal eye to see it, like an empty place for the viewer. And the viewer has in some way to conform to that place to be able to view.
Thus, we want to unveil neither the materiality nor the reality of exhibitions as if we were revealing something hidden beyond or beneath an optical or social illusion of beauty and knowledge, in the corridors of museums and galleries: there is no secret. We want to be aware of the way things exhibited make us see. Realists recognize in what they see a greater strength than their own seeing; they admit in some way the superior power of the perceived over the perceiver. That’s the reason why we do not proceed by recollecting first subjective conceptions about various exhibitions (in what would be a phenomenological history of art and science exhibitions), but by getting interested in the kind of subjectivity that is supposed by various historical displays of exhibiting objects.
To admit that what we see as exhibited is determined by the exhibition itself generally leads to two different postures. The first one, which was common in the modern era, consisted in demystifying the show, sneaking through the backstreets and revealing the substructure of the exhibition of nature and of the real. The second one, which was more of a postmodern attitude, consisted in praising the wonder of the show, the wonder of the illusion of the exhibition, because nothing at all could be real outside of the exhibition of the real. Between the modern joy of demystification and the postmodern guilty pleasure of conscious mystification, there is a path that we would like to follow: something like a realistic sense of wonder, or a “wondering realism,” that is able to keep together the realistic attitude of understanding the rationality of any exhibition, the determination of the act of seeing by the structure of the act of showing, and the certainty that the real spectacle isn’t simply our mirrored reflection, but something estranged from us, something else, something real, something resisting our perception of it. I think we’re trying to make it possible for viewers and artists of our time to relate to what they are exhibiting or what they are exposed to as “wondering realists.”
FW Bond / ZSL, Berthold Lubetkin Penguin Pool at ZSL London Zoo, 1935. © Zoological Society of London. Courtesy: Zoological Society of London
FR: One cannot consider the modes of rendering nature disengaged from the investigation of the modes of engaging with it. And in this sense, this project appears as much an investigation of the representation, display, mise-en-scène of the natural world as a proposal to observe how the visitor has been domesticated, conditioned, configured. Considering how such operations of rendering and training have been fundamental to the gradual shaping of the modern individual, does any specific genealogy and temporality interest you?
TG: Little by little, we certainly shape a certain narrative of Western exhibitions of natural and manufactured objects, and of the great divide between aesthetic and scientific displays and its consequences for defining our subjectivity. I don’t think we should continue to be afraid of great narratives, as long as we know how to use them: as underlying currents to navigate. We still wonder if we should consider this narrative as a specifically European process, or if we could find historians of the Indian subcontinent, or of the Indonesian or Chinese cultural areas, that would help us discover a similar rationality at work.
Vincent already gave some benchmarks regarding the historical and conceptual space we explore, and I should add that we do not want to rewrite a classical history of the modern museum. Still we’re trying to remain aware of the political causes and effects of this process, which are well documented in contemporary historiography: the birth of the nation-state and the ideal of a popular aesthetic education as well as, later, the rise of the individual and the first “solo” exhibitions, such as William Blake in the nineteenth century. The Salons Denis Diderot wrote between 1759 and 1781 play a crucial role in our inquiry: both as the origin of art criticism and as a moment of crystallization of the new institutionalization of art exhibitions. Diderot’s Salons consist of a discursive and visual apparatus repeating that of the exhibition, a site where the philosopher elaborated a genuinely modern politics of vision. Diderot describes a viewer seeing paintings as if gazing through a partially suppressed separation, as if looking through a window that the figures in the painting would not be aware of. This could be compared to Stanley Cavell’s conception of the cinematographic screen in The World Viewed (1971). The chronological framework within which this nonreflexive theatrical model has evolved is a possible matrix for our investigations into modern optical medias and modernism as a systematic reflexive exhibition of these medias.
VN: The exhibition is indeed a particularly suitable space to understand the “constructivism” of modern thought and to grasp the economy of what we could call the “ontological engineering” of modernity, its symmetrical making of subjects and objects, spectators and artifacts. We could also recall the Conversation between D’Alembert and Diderot (1769), in which the philosopher puts his encyclopedic program to a test by picturing a scene that almost resembles a situation of exhibition: wondering what the classificatory attitude of the materialist philosopher should be in front of a stone. Should the stone be infused in the qualities of life and thus considered part of a greater sensitive being, or should it attend to pure quantity, thus potentially negating the possibility of regarding the human as a sensitive and qualitative being?
First of all, let’s note that, interestingly enough, in the context of the “geological turn” we witness today, Diderot’s question has taken the form of a somehow caricatural alternative between the sublimation of nature as an entirely dead sphere (through radical reductionism) and the whimsical embracing of a living, vengeful Earth (through neo-vitalism and the figure of Gaia). But, more relevant to your question, I think that this historical distinction within materialism between a “stonified” life and a “vivified” stone is one that the modern apparatuses of exhibition of nature aimed at regulating, and in which the modern space of art has worked at introducing local instabilities and states of mediality. The museological apparatus is entirely shaped by these dialectics of objectivation and subject formation, and by the anxieties relative to the ontological uncertainties these dialectics produced.
It’s not by chance that romantic minds still think of museums as “ghost boxes”: the museum is the site of a dialectical inversion imprinted onto the “life” of objects, it de-animates previously “animated” entities by uprooting them from their milieu, and re-animates “dead” objects by overdetermining their meaning and projecting them in a restricted field of attention. As such, the exhibition genre, as it has been shaped by the constructivism of modern thought, is a privileged site for understanding the ramifications within subjectivity of the making of modern ontological frontiers, and this is one of the continuous threads we try to follow in the lab.
Large Male Gorilla from Gorilla Group, American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1936. Image #315077. © American Museum of Natural History Library, New York. Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History Library, New York. Photo: Charles H. Coles, Thane L. Bierwert
FR: One of the aspects that strikes me the most in this project is its capacity to overflow disciplinary and methodological basins. Not only it is profoundly transdisciplinary, but it is also investigating the history of exhibitions beyond the arts.
VN: We indeed invite people from very diverse disciplinary fields to work with the student researchers engaged in the lab. Each study day is articulated around the work of two speakers, whose research is animated by a similar problem. Transdisciplinarity here is not really a methodological orientation, but rather a conceptual necessity: the very object of the lab requires that we inscribe art within structures from which it has been historically separated. This separation is difficult to confront without merely liquidating it, maybe because we don’t have many models to do so. If most modernist and postmodernist discussions on the situation of art focused, throughout the 20th century, on its autonomy (either as an event to be brought forward, purified, and achieved, or as a condition to be critically deconstructed), surprisingly, the actual history of the gradual entry of art into a regime of exceptionality and extraterritoriality (its epistemological and symbolical “insularization” throughout modernity) remains to be written.
The necessity to draft a history of exhibitions sourced from a wide corpus reaching beyond the framework of artistic institutions is therefore a way to tackle, at a more abstract level, the state of epistemic immunity, or ontological quarantine, of the space of art at large. Transdisciplinarity operates in our lab as a tool to put into question the ways in which the ontological designation “art” has come to picture itself as an extra-territorial zone in the broader epistemic landscape of modernity. That’s why we try to avoid the pitfalls inherent of the contemporary motto of transdisciplinarity that characterizes what is usually referred to as “knowledge production” in our academic and artistic contexts. Of course, transdisciplinarity is a logical response to the increasing specialization, institutionalization and professionalization of academic research, but the way it is usually used in the field of art often ends up calling for an alleged “ineffability” of art itself, its putative capacity to produce immediacy in our complexly mediated environments, i.e. to overflow or short circuit the abstractions that, in disciplinary fields outside of art, allow for conceptual constructions. And this usually terminates in literal facticity and increased nominalism: when a panel is over, disciplines are reinstalled in the epistemic comfort of their identity, unable to move beyond the implicit equivalence that is posited between them, or to address the hierarchal organization of the global structure of knowledge on which they rest. This is not always the case, of course, and there are many examples of excellent transdisciplinary work being done out there! But this is a difficult task for sure, as the pedagogy of art in art schools is very much coded by the unchecked relation contemporary art has with the autonomy attributed to the modern space of art. Our project tries to investigate this in its most material manifestation, the exhibition space, by inviting people who are themselves engaging with the predicaments and the normative dimensions of their own disciplines.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, The New Architecture and the London Zoo (still), 1936. Produced for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Department of Architecture, Harvard University, and the Zoological Society of London, England. Photo: © Laszlo Moholy-Nagy by SIAE, Rome, 2016
TG: By inviting researchers from heterogeneous fields, we surely do not want to posit these fields as being equivalent. We would like to treat all these modes of engagement with the exhibition and its history as equal, but distinct. In a way, the lab is an experiment in anti-relativist but non-specialized collaborative work in the fields of art, history, philosophy, and science. We’re trying to give artists, historians, philosophers, and scientific researchers an equal share, in order to avoid drawing a naive, purely aesthetic history of art, or a similarly naive sociohistorical big picture.
But how can we avoid treating art, science, and philosophy as equivalent discourses and regimes of truth? There is an ethical promise in any relativism, without which it would not be attractive: the promise to treat equally everything we can get in relation with. This is a very worthy ideal, to find an equal footing to account for every position—intuitive, practical, or theoretical. The Achilles’ heel of relativism is always the confusion it ends up making between equality and equivalence. Relativism, being a kind of realism of relations, regards everything that enters into a relation as equally real: what is not in relation to anything is nothing. But by relating equal possibilities, relational relativism makes them equivalent, and therefore interchangeable. This is the methodological trap: to consider the artist’s, the scholar’s, the philosopher’s, or the historian’s point of view on the phenomenon of the exhibition as equivalent, and then building a kaleidoscopic rendition of the history of exhibitions as if it were the simple sum of all these heterogeneous and transdisciplinary points of view.
I believe that the most effective way to challenge relativism is to separate equality and equivalence, so that equality is never achieved by relation. One has to think that the singularity of a thing, that which makes it what it is, is certainly not its relation with other things. On the contrary, one thing is something quite apart from its relation to other things. We equally want to discuss art, philosophy, history, and science without pretending to create a false community of knowledge, but with a kind of distributive and exclusive curiosity for every possible approach. Equality is distributive and exclusive; equivalence is collective and common. Our task is to distinguish different points of view, different forms of knowledge, and order them without ranking them. This is what we’ll try to do at the end of the first stage of the project, when we work on the book gathering the contributions of the invited speakers.
FR: This lab seems to propose a very clear line of investigating the apparatuses that have legitimized control over other modes and forms of life, which gradually facilitated colonialism, capitalism, and so forth. Is there a political agenda in your program?
VN: One focus of the lab is an inquiry into the role of the exhibition genre throughout scientific modernity as a tool of social inscription (of “metabolization,” so to speak) of the ontological frontiers inherent in the naturalist dualism of nature and culture, humans and nonhumans, subjects and objects. The scientific museum, where objects are installed in the modern cosmography of taxonomy, is a stage invented for the dramaturgy of these separations. A second focus of our research concerns the fact that in this historical framework, aesthetics have provided modernity with a space of perceptual and conceptual mediations through which these “great divides” could become multi-stable (that is, where the ontological designations cleaved by this modern dualism could enter into a dialogic situation and interpenetrate each other).
It then becomes possible to see how the exhibition genre has been directly linked to the moderns’ activity of world-making, as well as to the formation of the bourgeois subject, and as such it is certainly inscribed in its colonial and capitalist aspects. As anthropology and postcolonial studies have shown, these great divides were not ideologically neutral; they were in fact front lines, tactical sites of ontological warfare, distributing asymmetrically subjectivity and objectivity, or subject rights and modes of objectification. As the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro sustains, because Europeans thought that America was a world without humans, Indians became humans without a world.
The contemporary fate of these great divides in the context of the ecological crisis is quite telling. Take the paradox of the notion of the Anthropocene, for instance. It pictures the human as a morphologically omnipotent and autonomous subject, exterior to the world of objects (above all to the object Earth), able to engineer it at large scales, but also suffering the consequences of its control, in that it is connected to different local forms of finite biological life. In other words, the human is pictured simultaneously as a genre and a species: it is struck by an ontological backlash, and contaminated or split in halves by the ontological frontier the Moderns had posited between themselves and the world.
We could schematically map some polarities of contemporary thought proposing to widen or tighten the “circle of the human” in the face of this contamination, namely anti-humanism (according to which the human subject, classically understood, is not necessarily to be conceived as the privileged bearer of rationality); transhumanism (humans are not the only rational agents); and post-humanism (rationality extends itself beyond human biological and symbolic terms). Obviously these are crucial political orientations since, as shown by the various nested corporate interests animating transhumanism, for example, the contemporary fate of these modern separations has direct ramifications, at a global scale, for our political imaginaries and modes of governmentality.
In this context, thinking the exhibition space is a modest attempt to understand, with our means, from the space of art, and at a small scale (but with the rigor this scale allows) the history and the economy of these limits. And if indeed the space of art is a construction site for critical mediations, the complexities of these mediations have to be understood historically in order not to become inconsequential simplifications.
The rubric of “relational aesthetics,” so often used to describe the way the exhibition format became a form of art in the 1990s, is a good example of an uncritical account of these mediations: it is both a truism (aesthetics have always been about relations) and a misidentification of its object (the relations in question don’t have to relate to the modes of sociability the art world feeds on). On the contrary, what is needed is an extension of our capacities for sensible imagination via the understanding (and the repurposing, or “decolonization”) of the types of technological and conceptual mediations we inherited from modernity. The exhibition genre, because of its central position in the institutional complex of modern art, is surely one of the sites from which to engage in such critical mediations.
Vistor viewing display case showing The Siamang, Hall of Primates, American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1965. Image #31007. © American Museum of Natural History Library, New York. Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History Library, New York. Photo: Alex J. Rota
TG: I don’t think we engage in direct postcolonial, feminist, gender, or social critique, nor in some kind of reactionary anti-modern critique of contemporary art. We do have our political commitments, but this is more about political imaginaries, as Vincent said, and to find in exhibitions the initial and material sense of the promise of a thought: the image that first struck the mind to allow an idea to find a way through society—the political status of exception of humankind, hierarchization of races, and masculine domination in the classical age, as well as the autonomy of the subject, the intensity of perception and experience, the aesthetic value of the exception in the modern age. By finding how, why, and to what kind of audience abstract principles were to be shown then, we might unfold the invisible principles of our current representations. And that should have political consequences.
Filipa Ramos is a writer and editor based in London. Currently she is Editor in Chief of art-agenda, commissioning and publishing experimental and rigorous writing on art. She is a lecturer in art and moving image at the Experimental Film MA Programme of Kingston University, and at the MRes Art:Moving Image of Central Saint Martins/University of the Arts, both in London.
Vincent Normand is an art historian, writer, and occasional curator. He teaches at ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne. He is co-director and co-editor of Glass Bead, a research platform and a journal concerned with transfers of knowledge across art, science and philosophy, as well as with their practical and political dimensions. He has curated exhibitions at Centre Pompidou (Paris), David Roberts Art Foundation (London), Kadist Foundation (Paris), Fondazione Nomas, (Rome), LABOR (Mexico City), and Forde (Geneva).
Tristan Garcia is a French writer and philosopher. His novels include La Meilleure Part des hommes (2008), Mémoires de la jungle (2010), En l’absence de classement final (2012), Les Cordelettes de Browser (2012), Faber. Le Destructeur (2013) and 7 (2015). His philosophical works include L’Image (2007), Nous, Animaux et Humains. Actualité de Jeremy Bentham (2011), Forme et objet. Un Traité des choses (2011), Six Feet Under. Nos vies sans destin (2012) and Nous (2016). Forme et objet was translated into English by Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm under the title Form and Object: A Treatise on Things (2014) and is available from Edinburgh University Press. Since 2015, he’s an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Lyon-3.
Originally published on Mousse 55 (October–November 2016)