ESSAYS Mousse 43
by Joshua Decter
Dark Places, installation view at Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2006.
Courtesy: the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Photo: Joshua Decter
How many types of museums can we identify? Joshua Decter comes up with an ovewhelming and contradictory list, destined (in his view) to vanish into the sole true museum of the future, the museum as hallucination. The museum is already compressed inside our smartphones, and this scattering offers the illusion of greater institutional transparency and permeability. Museums operate as attractors of our attention, playing with competition in realm of mass distractions. Decter, who already back at the start of the 1990s was working on “meta-curatorial” curating, critically analyzing what it means to organize exhibitions, focuses on aspects of interaction and suggests a fascinating next step, namely the synthesis of a substance that produces the possibility of experiencing art anywhere, a museum-as-hallucination that will no longer have any control room, but will occupy one space only: the mind.
Beyond… the art museum without walls, the museum without publics, the museum without curators, the museum without qualities, the museum without a collection, the museum without programming, the museum without bureaucracy, the museum without collectors and patrons, the postcuratorial museum, the postdiscursive museum, the dematerialized museum, the virtualized museum, the rematerialized museum, the 24/7 museum, the hipster museum, the oldie museum, the spectacle museum, the collectivist museum, the lowbrow museum, middlebrow museum, nobrow museum, the cross-cultural/transdisciplinary multiplatform museum, the art fair museum, the historical-ahistorical-posthistorical museum, the occupied museum, the museum-as-restaurant, the incubator museum, the placebo museum, the repurposed museum, the populist museum, the revolutionary museum, the postrevolutionary museum, the conflict-of-interest museum, the museum as revolution, the intern museum, the museum as institutional critique of the museum, the Readymade museum, the museum of Readymades, the speculative museum, the commons museum, the museum as city, the museum of privacy, the socially mediated museum, the market museum, the squatted museum, the cloud museum, the museum-as-attractor museum, the crowd-sourced museum, the hub museum, the 1% museum, the 99% museum, the participatory museum, the infotainment museum, the museum without accidents, the selfie museum, the selfless museum, the selfish museum, the unselfish museum, the ethical museum, the unethical museum, the everyplace museum, the nowhere museum, the nonmuseum museum… there will only be the museum as hallucination.
Tele[visions] installation view at Kunsthalle Wien, 2001. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Wien. Photo: Joshua Decter
In the (never) future, we’ll pop a pill, and hallucinate the art museum. The museum as hallucination. You shall inhabit the museum… of your hallucinations. The experience of art within the museum—or, for that matter, in any context—will have already taken place within your mind. Publics, en masse, will hallucinate that they are inside of museums, whilst being flowed through buildings that once functioned as museums.
On social media, we reconnect to everyone we never knew; in the hallucinated museum of our mind, we will reconnect to the museum of the subconscious. The death of the bricks-and-mortar museum shall beget the birth of a museum comprised of billions of individualized daily hallucinations. The built museum makes way for the synaptic museum—anywhere, any place, we happen to be.
Crashing back to the real of today, in 2014: the experience of visiting museums and other types of cultural institutions is on the verge of having already taken place, and displaced, across the placeless spheres of social media. The platforms through which virtualized post-corporeal encounters, contacts and meta-interactions occur also seem to operate as archival machines… accumulating the discursive and pictorial traces of our apparent selves (beyond “selfies”): the Internet, the web, and its various social media extensions functioning as a vast, nebulous, visibly invisible museum of immediate yet mediated meta-social interconnections… communities without sustained connectivities.
Virtual Curator interactive program in Transmute, installation view at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1999. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Our museums may now inhabit the compressed space of smart phones and other sophisticated mobile devices, yet such virtual extensions of the cultural institution do not necessarily mean that museums have become intrinsically smarter, or more open and progressive in terms of how they actually operate, internally. The digitization and virtualization of the museum has not yet emancipated it from normative administrative and hierarchical structures, nor from mundane human relations of power. Institutional critique may have momentarily decompressed the arcane institution, yet the institution quickly repacked itself; today, the apparent dispersal of the museum’s body into the ether of social media generates a persuasive illusion of endless institutional unpacking, and corollary effects of transparency.
The seemingly limitless societal reach that mobile communications technology facilitates for all kinds of cultural institutions—in terms of how bricks-and-mortar spaces re-represent themselves to the world as interactive platforms—does not necessarily translate into a panacea of cultural democratization (whatever democracy means in a specific context, and at a particular moment). One has to look closely at the character and politics of the interactions taking place when someone putatively “interfaces” with a museum via a mobile smart device. Just how smart is that interaction? And what are the social effects? The museum on the mobile web participates in the broader tech revolution of the dissemination and sharing of information, images and representations, and even though a semblance of institutional transparency or permeability may be engendered in those moments when we touch a screen and imagine ourselves touching the institutional body itself, what also becomes clear is that the internal administrative, bureaucratic and hierarchical structures of cultural institutions remain largely intact. Of course, museums and other cultural institutions would not be able to function if we could endlessly interfere with their operations, at each moment of every day. Yet the way in which museums inhabit the spheres of digital culture today suggests a desire to at least represent themselves as more accessible, as more genuinely democratic, more fundamentally public, even “participatory” institutions—whether they are funded primarily by the public sector, the private sector, governmental bodies, foundations, or some elaborate cocktail assembled from these and other sources. Money is what usually makes the inner workings of museums and cultural institutions relatively accessible to us: engage in cultural philanthropy, the doors swing wide open, and one’s name may adorn the walls of the institution, as if the museum had itself become an art object co-signed by its patrons.
a/drift installation view at Center for Curatorial Studies Museum, Bard College, New York, 1996. Courtesy: Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. Photo: Joshua Decter
Whether we are specialists, laypeople, amateurs, dilettantes, celebrities or peons, rich or poor, we are all being reduced to quantified corporeal data—embodied statistics—as we are streamed through places zoned for culture: zones that increasingly represent a conflation of art, education, information, and entertainment. The data of our lives are harvested and then streamed back to us through multifarious mobile devices in an endless feedback loop that is tracked by software and algorithms, stored in hardware clouds in the midst of primeval forests, and silently yet transparently surveilled by government agencies funded by our tax dollars. On social media, of course, as we “follow” others and “like” things, we are continuously enabling our own collectively collected bits of data self-surveillance. As privacy is steadily transmuted into a Readymade by the State, we might ask: do we need a public museum of privacy?
And what of our respective agencies in the midst of these circularities, amid the simultaneous “sharing” and mutual eavesdropping that continuously unfolds through social media… social media perhaps no longer a particularly useful phrase to describe our virtualized cognitive immersions and cognitive dissonances. Every single thing and non-thing is in a competition to gain our attention in a world of infinite distractions; we are distracted by the distractions that distract us from other distractions. Museums seek to operate in the world of massive distraction as attractors of our attentions, seeking to penetrate our cerebral cortexes with advanced advertising techniques: the museum as product placement, the institution as image- or sound-byte. Museums imagine that by transforming themselves into hubs or platforms to drive cultural innovation, they will become the instigators of socio-technological-cultural change beyond the realm of art per se, and maybe this is a realistic view of the future of the art institution. Yet how many identities can a museum or other type of art institution actually have before it transmutes into something other than a museum or art institution? The art museum after the art museum will be another kind of institution… the hallucination of the museum, perhaps.
Don’t Look Now, installation view at Thread Waxing Space, New York, 1994. Photo: John Berens
Since the early 1990s, I’ve been engaged in what might be described as meta-curatorial curating—i.e. curating against the grain of conventional curatorial activity, while acknowledging that such conventions are mutating at different velocities. The organization of exhibitions should be a means of critical inquiry into what it means to organize exhibitions. During that period, in exhibitions such as Don’t Look Now, a/drift, Cathode Ray Clinic #1, Screen, and Transmute, I developed idiosyncratic design formats (sometimes in collaboration with artists and architects), in order to rethink the normative display frameworks and discursive conditions of thematic group exhibitions. Intrigued by notions of interactivity, the opening gambits of Internet-based art practices and Web-based art initiatives, I collaborated with äda ‘web to explore the possibilities of virtualized curatorial activity by utilizing a web-based platform to perform a digital extension of my 1996 bricks-and-mortar exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, Screen—a show exploring interrelationships between the languages of painting and television—as a way to test forms of interactive interfaces for online users. äda ‘web was active from 1995 to 1998, and was eventually acquired by the Walker Art Center as part of that institution’s online collection—and Screen has been preserved in a digitized, online cryogenic state: http://adaweb.walkerart.org/influx/decter/screen.html
Transmute, a 1999 collection-based exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, also featured interactive programs to allow the public to manipulate—virtually—my installation of artworks within the actual museum galleries, and to reconfigure a John Baldessari work from the collection. These “virtual curator” and “virtual artist” interactive interfaces (developed with a team of designers and programmers) were made available to the public on kiosks within the museum’s bricks-and-mortar space and on the museum’s website, giving visitors and online users an opportunity to intervene—again, virtually—with my curatorial authorship, while also opening up the museum to a different sort of public engagement, beyond parochial education programs. Dark Places at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2006 emerged out of my thinking about the psychogeography of cities. This exhibition featured an information-based architectural design: a display apparatus that continuously projected eight distinct looped scripts of digitized works by 76 artists and architects. In this hypermediated environment, viewers encountered an interpenetration of visual materials that engendered a space of simultaneous, collective reception. Effectively, eight distinct exhibitions were presented through a meta-architectural device that used the extant space of the museum only as a surface upon which to project the digital phantasms of art and architecture. Dark Places was a materialized hallucination of an exhibition inhabiting the space of exhibition, while hinting at the imminent obsolescence of the museum as a framing context for art.
Tele[visions], installation view at Kunsthalle Wien, 2001. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Wien. Photo: Joshua Decter
The next step for me, as a curator, would be to collaborate with neuroscientists on the design and engineering of a neurobiological drug—with no pernicious side effects—that triggers our brain chemistries to hallucinate art experiences wherever we happen to be. These hallucinations, projected into, or layered upon, the spaces and surfaces of the real and the virtual (i.e., our scopic field) would vitiate the need for any kind of space for art—public, private, hybrid—beyond the space of the mind.
Originally published on Mousse 43 (April–May 2014)