March 7th, 2013 · Victor Wang

Performing around capitalism (Part 1)

The museum as a place of art production

The museum as a place of art production

By Victor Wang

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This essay is part one of two. Part two is available here.

 

This essay seeks to provide a tentative bridge between the conditions of the museum as a cultural institution undergoing a transformation: one that see its current structure as a late capitalist model—collecting objects as a form of asset—come into question by artists and producers concerned with ephemeral, non-object based art production. Using live art and performance as examples of art production that can continue to produce value in an art economy, while simultaneously not producing an object. This essay will focus specifically on museums, as a site where the "cultural logic of late capitalism receives its concrete expression within both the economic structures and aesthetic forms involved in it" (1).  Using Tino Sehgal’s exhibition of These Associations, 2012, to provide the reader with a definition of an artist that embodies both an artist-curator and producer. This text will draw on aspects of his practice to outline his socially engaged "signature" as a form of ecology activism—from the lack of documentation allowed, to the ways the artist has navigated around traditional methods of artwork consumption, i.e., the verbal contract as a subversion of modern material consumption within the art market. By critically examining the exhibition, and Tate Modern’s ambitious expansion of the Tate Tanks, we can read the exhibition as an economic experiment where the museum becomes a testing ground for future methods of ecological art production.

These Associations debuted just after the opening of the Tate Tanks, one part of a £215 million extension project that will increase Tate Modern's size by 60% (2).  This expansion saw the repositioning of the former oil well reserve of the once-power station converted into a space for performance and installation art inside Tate Modern. In a late capitalist society, with institutions that are so finely woven into the economic climate of a city, every decision made by the institution will ultimately affect how a society views the production of art, and the dissemination of culture. It is no coincidence then that Sehgal’s work accompanies the inaugural season’s program, The Tanks: Art in Action, of live dance and performance. At a time when the art market and its institutions have been what Dietrich Dietrichson would call 'speculating' on a form of art production (performance/live art) ironically often sides with concepts of anti-art production. American performance scholar Peggy Phelan once stated, "To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology" (3).

 

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Official opening of the Tanks, 2012, Tate Modern, London, Photograph: Luke Macgregor/Reuters.
The Guardian. Web; 1 December 2012.

 

 

Being one of the UK’s top three tourist attractions (4), the Tate Modern cannot elude the all-reaching invisible arm of the art market. In fact, no institution is immune. At the moment performance and live art is the flavor of the month, perhaps year. And if we inspect the art world through an economic lens, one can start to see trends develop. For the first time in its history, a performance artist, Spartacus Chetwynd, has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize. This year also saw the release of veteran performance artist Marina Abramović’s documentary about her recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. And this is not to mention all the biennales and exhibition spaces opening in an attempt to catch the performative wave. Like brokers speculating on commodity markets, the art world has its curators and directors dictating what is shown and what is not—not so much by reason of the audience. 'These are places of high, high legitimation in our culture,' says Tino Sehgal in an interview with the Guardian. 'A museum is like a valuing machine' (5). Yet according to the Tate Modern’s website, the museum generates an estimated £100 million in economic benefits to London annually (6); therefore the valuing machine is not only symbolic, but also largely measurable. Further, one cannot forget that These Associations would not be possible without the £4.41 million sponsorship between the gallery and the Unilever Company, whose brands include Dove soap and PG Tips, among others. The new space thus appears as a "grand metaphor for (cultural) energy in a post-industrial, service-industry economy, where the body is easily fetishized as bearer of the real" (7). Fashioned with ideas of preservation and collecting as a form of appreciating wealth, the museum from its inception has slowly digressed into a post-state of what Karl Marx would call commodity fetishism, which would account for the neglect of performance art by the museum. Even Nicholas Serota, the Director of Tate, confessed that performance art had traditionally been left for alternative spaces, "and often barely recorded, into the museum" (8). Where the marginalization of live art may have more to do with the structure of the institution (and its exhibition makers), rather than its "avant-garde" nature. It is said that the 'two greatest mistakes of modern capitalism have been to confuse materialism with happiness, and growth with the need to produce an ever-increasing number of physical goods' (9).

As a producer that deals with the notion of anti-production, Tino Sehgal has taken control of the assembly line to forge a work that directly addresses many of the above stated issues.  Perhaps a self-reflexive act that examines the museum as a testing ground for capitalist production is necessary. As Rosalind Krauss points out in her essay "The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum" (1990), "it is not exactly [the] viewers who are raising controversy in this matter, but artists themselves" (10).  Krauss sees the museum as a space where the boundaries of the aesthetic experience are tested against capitalism (11), where the producer/curator is to co-constitute a model of post-capitalist existence through the function of the museum as a testing ground for possibility and inception. 

In These Associations, producer and artist Tino Sehgal creates a stage of ephemerality, where we (the audience) activate and become the artworks. The work is mobile, allowing for it to engage with the audience, even if the audience does not wish to engage with it. Like a tide of people, rising up and down the banks of the Turbine Hall, These Associations infiltrates families, groups of tourists, or the individual. Consisting of roughly seventy 'agents' camouflaged by streetwear—one could easily mistake them for a large crowd of loitering tourists—gathering by the ramp near the museum entrance or at the far end of the Turbine Hall. This inconspicuously constructed crowd mixes with visitors who soon find themselves in a strange assortment of personal tales—one young woman describes a love affair in Thailand—related by the performers, or caught in a game of chase that turns the museum into a playground of running objects for the young and old alike.

Yet Tino Sehgal’s piece would not be complete without an oral component: "electric"…"electric"…"electricity"; the voices reverberate off the wall, framed by the flickering of lights in the Turbine Hall. With several hundred participants involved in the project, how do we distinguish the curator’s voice? Can a curator have a voice when Sehgal has taken on the role of producer? Boris Groys wrote that "the work of the curator consists of placing artworks in the exhibition space, and this is what differentiates the curator from the artist" (12) but if there are no art objects to be placed, and the producer of the exhibition is also the maker of the artwork, then perhaps Sehgal is playing with the fine line of artist as curator, at least in this context. For These Associations the agents (or walking art objects) were "recruited through networks of friends and acquaintances, and rehearsed by Sehgal and his producer, Asad Raza" (13).  However, how does the use of a 'network' or 'acquaintances' (with people being the main form of production) reflect how the art economy works in London? As Jessica Morgan, the curator of the Tate show explained in a recent interview, "the hardest thing is getting a cross section of society" (14).

Yet one could argue that this difficulty in getting a cross section of society is not a coincidence, but in fact an integral component in how Sehgal’s works speaks to issues of the market and how the institution (the Tate) wishes to position themselves—as a democratic public institution where opportunity is equal for all, regardless of race, gender, or class. However, one reporter noticed on a recent review of the exhibition that "on Monday morning … none of the participants [were] black" (15). According to Raza, the work "shows London to itself; it is a more accurate picture of London than something that is cooked up by one particular person" (16). Ironically, this aspect of the work, being largely a white middle-class participant group, may not be far from the truth—as Raza states, economically speaking the labor involved, and the class "associated" with the work, would have to reflect a section of society that dominates the fine art sector of London—which it does. Like a mirror, the exhibition holds the reflection of the contemporary art scene in London, for all to see—homogenous, dominant, and predominantly of a single class. 

 

Victor Wang is an independent exhibition maker, curator, and writer based in London. He is also an MA candidate in the Curating Contemporary Art program at the Royal College of Art. 

 

 

Works cited
1. Dr. Pablo Markin, Towards the Theorization of Cultural Logic of Museums as Places of Memory in the Late Capitalism, Munich, GRIN Publishing GmbH, 2006, pp.4.
2. Tim Masters, 'Tate Modern’s Oil tanks to fuel live art performances,' BBC News, April 23, 2012, Arts, pp.8.
3. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked:  The Politics of Performance, Routledge London, 1993, pp.146.
4. Tate Modern official website, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2012, http://www.tate.org.uk/about/who-we-are/history-of-tate
5. Jo Confino, 'Tino Sehgal's ‘Tate Modern exhibition metaphor for dematerialisation,' Guardian Professional, October 5, 2012. 
6. Tate Modern official website, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2012, http://www.tate.org.uk/about/who-we-are/history-of-tate
7. Kari Rittenbach, "Tino Sehgal," Frieze D/E,  Issue 6, Autumn 2012. Retrieved November 5, 2012, Frieze database.
8. Charlotte Higgins, 'Tino Sehgal fills Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with storytellers,' The Guardian, July 23, 2012, Arts Section, pp.9.
9. Jo Confino, 'Tino Sehgal's 'Tate Modern exhibition metaphor for dematerialisation,' Guardian Professional, October 5, 2012. 
10. Rosalind Krauss , 'The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,' October: The Second Decade, 1986-1996, MIT Press, 1990, pp. 425.
11. Dr. Pablo Markin, p.3 
12. Boris Groys, Art Power, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts,  2008, pp.42.
13. Charlotte Higgins, pg. 
14. Lauren Collins, “The Question Artist,” The New Yorker, August 6, 2012, p. 34.
15. Charlotte Higgins, pg9.  
16. Charlotte Higgins, pg9.  

End of article