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Objectives and Objectivity


Thursday June 22 2006

Objectives and Objectivity

Hi Friends,

I’m happy to be back in NYC. And to be posting on the Thing. I was teaching in Georgia this year, outside Atlanta. It has taken me a while to get back into the spin here…

On my way back home in mid-May I visited first Earthaven, an eco-village outside Asheville, N.C., for an overnight stay. The place is off the grid except for telephone. I checked my email using homemade hydroelectric power from a stream. Crapped in a composting toilet. In Baltimore I ate crabcakes at the food court. It’s true, New York doesn’t know what a crab cake is. Then I stopped in to chat with Cira Pasqual Marquina, curator at the Contemporary Museum. She had just opened her new show, “Headquarters: Investigating the Creation of the Ghetto and the Prison Industrial Complex” (through August 27, 2006). We went to Red Emma’s infoshop and had lunch. Cira’s partner Chris Gilbert had left for Berkeley to serve as Matrix curator at the University of California museum there…

Except he had just quit.

Over the issue of interference by museum administration with his exhibition about worker-controlled factories in Venezuela. (That is “Now-Time Venezuela,” a media exhibition in two parts at

Cira has also served notice, and the two intend to decamp for Venezuela.

This is a bloody damned shame, because “Headquarters” is the most interesting political show I’ve seen since “If You Lived Here,” Martha Rosler’s 1989 project on homelessness at the huge ground floor Dia art space in Soho. Cira has delivered up the art institution as a grounds for community organizing around an issue of primary importance to poor people and artists both, affordable housing.

I wanted to write about it. But I got a rush job and stuck my head in the books. Also it’s hard to write about a show that is in itself an arena for action rather than a fixed installation – sort of like “Rolly Wholly Over” with the shifting elements being social and mostly offsite.

Meanwhile, Chris Gilbert’s resignation letter has been making the rounds, exciting comment here and there. (Most of the relevant discussion is on the British website Mute Beta, at First Brian Holmes in Paris lauded Chris, then Martha Rosler commented that Gilbert seemed to be stepping out in front of his material. Greg Sholette defended him. And today SF-based Cheryl Meeker explains the situation.

Meeker zeroes in on a key issue – the notion that curators should adhere to standards of objectivity, which would forbid declaring as Gilbert did “solidarity” – is in conflict with the tradition of “authorial curating.” In his essay on the resignation, Greg Sholette says rather that Gilbert was constrained to uphold the position of “a-political unbiased cultural administrator” and he refused. Meeker implies that this idea of curatorial objectivity is a sort of understanding creeping up on museum people. They need gloves to handle issues that might offend the government. And Bush’s government has spend millions to attack Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela, and the Matrix Gallery’s home institution runs many millions a year in government research contracts. Hmmm… Let’s be objective about this.

Cathy Byrd’s recent exhibition “Potentially Harmful: The Art of American Censorship” was very instructive. It contained artworks selected by reactionary opinion nationwide. Once curators accept the prescription of “objectivity,” every loose nail will be hammered down. The only solution is to raise the floor.

And that in essence is what Gilbert and Pasqual Marquina have done. They have opened their respective institutions to activist initiatives, in fact, they have initiated them. This sort of thing may be done around issues which concern charities, or “soft” issues like sustainable living (for example, Stephanie Smith’s  Beyond Green,” at the Museum of Arts & Design in NY and now in Cincinnati, included numerous talks, tours and meetings in its Chicago incarnation). But when you are messing with business – issues of general economy and industrial organization – you better stand down.

When I heard of Chris Gilbert’s resignation I was dismayed. Curators are supposed to negotiate between artists and institutions. They are supposed to keep on slogging, working it out on the homefront so the information can get through. With the departure of this team, we have lost important institutional venues for political work.

But given the gathering conversation around Gilbert’s letter and the issues he raises, it is clear that some important work has been done. A spotlight has been shined on the muzzles and harnesses curators all over this dumb and bloodied nation are wearing.


Crab Crab Testimony

welcome back alan
xoxoxoxoThe Addict