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John Cage, “‘Rolywholyover A Circus’ for Museum by John Cage,” 1993 – THE ARTIST AS CURATOR #1

Rolywholyover, installation view of “Circus,” LA MoCA, 1993

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“Rolywholyover    A Circus” for Museum by John Cage, 1993

by Sandra Skurvida

from THE ARTIST AS CURATOR #1 – in Mousse #42

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Prior to Rolywholyover, Cage experimented with the museum as medium in several smaller exhibitions, including a room-size sound and light environment Writing Through the Essay, ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ (1985/91), commissioned for documenta 8, Kassel (1987), which involved periodically changing display elements. This changing display was further developed with the addition of works by invited artists in Changing Installation at the Mattress factory for the Carnegie International, Philadelphia (1991). And the exhibition Kunst als Grenzbeschreitung: John Cage und die Moderne at the Neue Pinakothek Munich (1991) introduced objects borrowed from other museums in the region and displayed them ahistorically according to chance operations. Rolywholyover comprised these previously tested modes of chance-generated composition in the four “movements” of the composition:  [1] “Museumcircle,” comprised of decontextualized objects loaned by local museums; “Circus,” a changing display of works by artists of the Cage circle; “Cage Gallery,” dedicated to his visual art works; and “Media space,” dedicated to media and performance works.

For the part of Rolywholyover titled “Museumcircle,” Cage and [Julie] Lazar considered asking museums around the world to submit listings of objects that could be borrowed; from this list, objects for the exhibition would be selected by chance operations. [2]  This idea could not be realized in the early 1990s, before most museum collections had become digitized and accessible via the Internet. Therefore, rather than globalize (it is important to note such an intention, especially in view of the subsequent globalization of museum culture), it was decided to localize instead—that is, to approach museums within a thirty- to sixty-mile radius of each venue participating in the tour, depending on museum density in the given area (the “Museumcircle” was composed anew at each venue). Selection criteria were not specified in the loan request. All that was asked for was a list of ten objects that could be lent to the exhibition. One object out of ten submitted by each institution that responded to this request was selected by chance operations, resulting in a collection of thirty to sixty objects, depending on the space capacity of each venue. The exhibition’s title may have led “John Cage” to be taken as its theme, interpretation of which was nonetheless open. The resulting array of objects in the “Museumcircle” included (for instance, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York) a painting by Mark Tobey, New Life (Resurrection) (1957), lent by the Whitney Museum of American Art, alongside a porcelain chamber pot by an unknown american artisan from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The organizers faced challenges in trying to convince potential lenders to permit their precious objects to be taken out of historical context and subjected to a chance-derived score. All in all, this atomization produced endless kaleidoscopic configurations of information, as every rotation of a child’s toy in front of the eye would produce another marvelous arrangement of the universe in the mirror mosaic.

The galleries of the “Museumcircle” were designed to resemble a parlor; in Lazar’s words, “a LIVING space (…). In spirit, it’s about use.” [3]  Four shaker-style cherrywood seed cabinets were custom-made and arranged on both sides of long tables, with several chessboards placed on them. Books in the cabinets corresponded to the titles in Cage’s personal library; selected texts were photocopied and placed in drawers for people to take. Visitors could sit down and read a book from the library, or play a game of chess. Plants and rocks, as in the Cage and Cunningham loft in New York, were arranged around the space, among the museum pieces. The initial plans for this comfort zone included a chef who was to prepare food in the gallery and a jacuzzi for museum visitors, with both propositions being deemed impractical.  [4] The “Museumcircle” domesticated the museum pieces within, stripping them of museological signifiers—they were only tagged with numbers keyed to numbered checklists printed in Gallery Guides. the furniture and overall design of the “Museumcircle” was reminiscent of the museum’s origin in a private collection or a cabinet of curiosities, filled with random treasures of uncertain value. On the other hand, museum objects were presented as readymades, chosen by the registrars and put together by chance. There was a significant effort to realign the time and space of life and work, so as to thwart the museum’s traditional function of stopping the flow of time within its four walls. The critical actions of artists who started taking over the museum in the 1960s, and then inhabiting it in the mid-1990s in the more benign installations associated with Relational aesthetics, signaled, according to the philosopher and sometime curator Boris Groys, a sustained attempt to “resynchronize the fate of the human body with the mode of its historical representation—to embrace the precariousness, instability, and finiteness of our material existence.”  [5] Cage’s practical philosophy was influential to both movements and their reclamation of “real-time” in the art institution. [6] And Rolywholyover’s nonlinearity and the multivalence of time in the changing display, which recalibrated the previously unequal relationship between creator and spectator, emblematized this.

Rolywholyover, installation view of “Open Storage” and “Media Space,” the Menil Collection, Houston, 1994

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“Circus” was the most densely populated movement of the composition. As an index to Cage’s life and work, the objects were selected according to all the usual considerations of exhibition making, ranging from personal and aesthetic preferences to availability.  [7] Cage treated artworks in the composition as notes or units of a set valence rather than unique objects emanating an original aura, and therefore he would accept reproductions when originals could not be obtained; copies of works by Nam June Paik and Jackson Maclow were, for example, made with the artists’ permission and following their instructions.  [8] When an object was removed from “play,” it did not leave the stage, but was moved to “the reservoir”—a storage area adjacent to and visible from the galleries, but not open to the public for perusal. At times, the most valuable works remained there, adding another challenge to the institution, namely the inevitable loan costs for works that, by chance, might or might not be put on display.

[1] Musical terms were used throughout: “composition” for exhibition, “movement” for a section of the exhibition, “score” for installation concept, and “pages” for installation charts.

[2] Correspondence with Julie Lazar (February 9, 2010).

[3] Notes from Tapes,” Tape 3/30/92 – 3/31/92 mtgs, p. 14. The Julie Lazar files, the John Cage Trust at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson.

[4] The installation designs Cage suggested were carried out by MOCA exhibition production manager John Bowsher (press release). It is not the first time that Cage created a space of self-presentation conflating the public and the private. In the 1950s and the early 1960s, his Monroe Street loft, designed by Isamu Noguchi, presented a fashionable space representative both of the interior and of one’s state of mind. In the 1970s, his humble Stony Point cottage stood for the idea of communal living in nature. And then the Sixth Avenue loft where Cage and Cunningham lived till the end of their lives—a model for the exhibition’s “living room” —presented a typical New York artist’s loft where cooking and composing could be done simultaneously.

[5] Boris Groys, “Entering the Flow: Museum between Archive and Gesamtkunstwerk,” E-flux Journal 50 (December 2013), http://www.e-flux.com/ journal/entering-the-flow- museum-between-archive-and- gesamtkunstwerk/.

[6] See discussions in “Notes from Tapes,” transcribed by Julie Lazar, March–April, 1993; Tape 3/30/92 – 3/31/92 mtgs, p. 1. The Julie Lazar files, the John Cage Trust at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson.

[7] See discussions in “Notes from Tapes,” transcribed by Julie Lazar, March–April, 1993; Tape 3/30/92 – 3/31/92 mtgs, p. 1. The Julie Lazar files, the John Cage Trust at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson.

[8] Email correspondence between the author and Lazar, December 9, 2013.

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THE ARTIST AS CURATOR #1 – in Mousse #42

Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore, an Exhibit, 1957 – Isabelle Moffat

John Cage, “Rolywholyover    A Circus” for Museum by John Cage, 1993 – Sandra Skurvida

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The series is conceived and edited by Elena Filipovic, published by Mousse, and generously supported by an engaged group of art institutions and foundations that have made possible the research and production of the series.
This installment is supported by Bergen Kunsthall.

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