MUSEUM IN DANGER! Text by Victor Misiano
"Danger Museum" was devised for an exhibition in Venice, a city that is often referred to as a living City-Museum. However, Venice is also a city of museums, which taken as a whole represent every historical type of artistic convention. Thus the Doge's Palace is an example of the first steps made at collecting art, when having made a statement individual taste discerned the aesthetic in objects that initially had a sacred function. In its turn, the Venetian Academy, whose halls represent the establishment of the history of art, arose in an era when art had just become an independent discipline and discourse. And likewise, the Guggenheim Museum is an example of a Modernist Museum exhibiting the story of the various attempts of 20th century art to turn its back on history. And finally, the Venice Biennale Archives, which should soon also become a museum, preserve examples of how during the period of modernity art tried to turn its back on the museum, finding a place for itself in new contexts and forms of representation. "Danger! Museum" claims to have added a new and current link to this illustrious chain.
The main typological distinction between this museum and its historical forebears lies in the fact that it was created neither by private collectors, public authorities or society but by artists. If during the period of modernity artists have strived to turn their back on history and the museum, then "Danger! Museum" maintains that the current artistic consciousness has recognised these attempts to have been futile. For the experience of modernity has demonstrated that "museumification" is unavoidable, that the quests to find an alternative to it, (and, indeed, the whole project of modernity), has exhausted its raison d'etre.
Indeed, the criticism of modernity is an integral part of its discoursive project. Therefore, it is most symptomatic that "Danger! Museum"'s curators should be Vladimir Dubossarsky and Aleksandr Vinogradov. If in all the preceding museums the collection was formed by connoisseurs, art historians and curators who impose their appraisal on to the work, then in this instance it is the creators of the work that are carrying out the appraisal. We have before us an example of an attempt to construct the autonomy of the artist from the system of art by means of his personal inclusion in the formation of the institution. And, indeed, as is well known, a whole series of large scale institutional initiatives arose in Moscow with the direct participation of the creators of "Danger! Museum" (or, at least, one of them). The direct alliance of the artist with oligarchic power, thus by-passing the agency of the system of art and the expert community, was declared by Dubossarsky and Vinogradov in their "Lightness of Being" cycle. On one of the cycle's pictures several brush strokes were applied by the collectors of their work, which gave the Artists the grounds to propose to these businessmen that they put their signature to this work. Usually this purely artistic utopia of a direct intermediary free contact with the public relies on a representation of the self-sufficiency of art, of its autonomy from context, theoretical commentary, critical judgement and discourse. This concept in "Danger! Museum" finds its expression in a device that is both effective and amusing: the security cameras that have been built into the works themselves. If it was usually the accepted thing to believe that the spectator, looking at the works, introduces content and meaning into them, then "Danger! Museum" explains that the works themselves also keep a relentless eye on the spectator, thereby passing their unknown judgements on him/her.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that the issue here is about the autonomy of the work of art in the sense of its aesthetic essentiality. Under no circumstances does "Danger! Museum" restore a museum-like aura to the work of art in the spirit of Walter Benjamin, and likewise it is not the "Imaginary Museum" of Andre Malraux, in which the works compensate for the dearth of the sacred that has been left in the wake of secularisation. It is enough to just glance at the exhibits of this museum, steeped in the aesthetic of bad painting and the rehabilitation of kitsch, in order to understand that there is no place for romantic contemplation in "Danger! Museum". Just as there is no place here for a modernist concept of autonomy in the sense of the indifference of the work to context and history. If that was the case, then "Danger! Museum" would not have been intended for Venice - a place that is renowned for its unique context and historical memory.
More likely, "Danger! Museum" takes as its premise our current times - the era of illiberal capitalism - here the only place where the work of art has any autonomy is in the context of the art market. It is specifically the art market and not the museum or the Biennale, which is the most adequate form of representing contemporary art today (as Vladimir Dubosarsky once asserted in a live radio broadcast in conversation with me). And indeed, it is specifically on a market stand that the work is presented beyond the bounds of discourse and history, by-passing the curator and the community of experts. The autonomy of a work, which has been reduced to a consumerist fetish, is limited by only one thing - it is not liberated from its purchaser's consumer choice. This was also precisely what Dubossarsky and Vinogradov established in "The Lightness of Being", by proposing to share the work's authorship with the collectors of their works. Therefore, as "Danger! Museum" declares, the work of art today - is not only that, which is presented for the spectator's contemplation, but also that, which is contained in the spectator's expectations and taste.
However, this understanding of representation as a meeting of gazes, has its place in the romantic museum. Here in the act of contemplation the gaze of the spectator is dissolved in the timeless aesthetic emanation of the work. However, in "Danger! Museum" the security cameras continue to look even when the spectator is not looking at them. In other words, unlike romantic contemplation the gaze of the work is autonomous from the gaze of the spectator. It is as if looking at the empty exhibition space, (i.e. at the material prerequisites of artistic representation), is just as interesting for the work as meeting the spectator's gaze. And this is entirely explicable. After all, in order for a contemporary work to succeed in being represented it is vital to take into account and include all those institutional mechanisms that lead towards its eventual meeting with the spectator's gaze. It is precisely for this reason that in the newest museums the effectiveness of their architecture is, at times, more important than what is preserved between their walls. And from this point of view the context for "Danger! Museum" has been faultlessly chosen. After all, contemporary Venice is essentially the exemplary product of all the forms of contemporary culture and the tourist industry.
Imagining itself as a part of the culture industry, "Danger! Museum" rejects the cultivation of the museum and market that has existed for centuries. Not having become a part of the art market, the contemporary museum is a part of a different market - the leisure and services market. Having taken upon itself a recreational function as opposed to an educational, research or expert function - "Danger! Museum" has essentially become an institution of production. As such contemporary theoreticians as Toni Negri and Maurizio Lazzarato among others assert, cultural creativity today is precisely that - production - "non-material production", which is subject to the same economic laws as industrial production ("material production").
Being a recreational museum, "Danger! Museum" is liberated from the didacticism of the educational museum and from the elitism of the modernist museum. If these old museums, born out of the age of modernity, bound the spectator with strict disciplinary codes - such as the direction he should move from one exhibit to the other and the values and ideas that he should take with him from the exhibition, then in "Danger! Museum" the spectator is deprived of any codes or standards at all. This spirit of unfettered cynicism, by which the artistic traditions and values of the past are transformed in this museum, convinces the spectator that in this museum he/she is liberated from any sort of values at all. However, the spectator has arrived at this liberation from all values thanks to the culture and tourism industry, which has led him/her to "Danger! Museum" in the first place. After all, from the moment when man's leisure enters the sphere of business all his free time becomes the subject of an external agency. It precisely thus, as the theoreticians of "non-material production" assert, that a disciplinary society is being transformed into a "society of control". "Danger! Museum" leaves this in no doubt - in this museum the spectator may feel completely liberated but he/she always remains under the watchful gaze of the security camera.
Many contemporary artists do not see a place for themselves in such a museum. By returning to the traditions of the avant garde, they are seeking new contexts and forms of representation and find them beyond the boundaries of artistic institutions and art institutes - in real life. However, the meeting of art and life is also produced in "Danger! Museum" - on the screens of the security camera system. The idea behind "Danger! Museum" is obvious: art that penetrates into life in the society of control, ends up in a zone of control, moreover in spite of art's best intentions it ends up being yet another form of control. Nevertheless, "Danger! Museum" is not a place for those who wish to return back to the figure of "high art", "craftsmanship" and "absolute values". The curators of the museum unambiguously demonstrate what has become of these high values in a society in which control has become imprescriptable from spectacle. Thus, having opened at Venice, the new art museum completes the history of the city's art collections: if the Doge's Palace at one time announced art as the arrival of a new form of human experience, then "Danger! Museum" has announced its demise.
Ceglie Messapica - Vienna, May 2009
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