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Esto No Es Un Museo: Artefactos móviles al acecho

Hunter Braithwaite

Installation view, with George Sánchez-Calderón’s banner in the foreground.

Centro Cultural Español

January 16 – March 7, 2014

“We are well aware that to put together an anthology of institutional critique is to institutionalize institutional critique and therefor is fraught with self-contradictions from the beginning.” –Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, from the introduction to Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings (MIT Press, 2009)

It’s been twelve long years since James Spader bent Maggie Gyllenhaal over a desk in Secretary, but bureaucracy still has the power to titillate. Artists are out, curators and registrars in. Last October was that sexy panel at the Bass Museum accompanied by Cultured Magazine’s photospread “Curator Culture.” Before that, both Documenta and Venice ran sleek white-gloved fingers through the archive’s dust, as did CIFO’s recent Deferred Archive. Now there is this traveling exhibition, which presents an enthralling assortment of strategies for nomadic, extra-institutional art- and exhibition-making. Man, look at those hyphens.

The show, organized by Spanish writer and curator Martí Peran, is less an art exhibition than a learning center. Wall after wall of vinyl posters document 88 projects from the past fifteen years and around the world. The earliest, Museo de la Calle (1988) was done in Bogotá by the Colectivo Cambalache, and is representative of the rest in how it moves art from the confines of the museum to the city streets. Questions of temporality also emerge, as the permanence of the museum (art’s sepulcher, according to Adorno) is replaced with the transience and speed of the urban center.


In addition to the vinyl—which itself peels off the wall in protest of its own institutionalization—the projects are further documented via wall-mounted monitors and objects that almost, almost establish themselves as art within a museum, and would, were they not displayed primarily to illustrate the didactic posters. George Sánchez-Calderón’s banners from his 2003 Midtown Midway dominate the back gallery, and a bartering sculpture (a wooden tray with different items available for free exchange) and a series of charcoal paper rubbings of the street hold down the front. The central irony here is that while nearly all of these performances, critiques, interventions took place outdoors, they are brought here together in a place that might not be a museum, but is doing a damn good charade of one.

Moreover, while these many projects escape the constraints of brick and mortar institutions, many are still stuck in the morass of abstract institutionality—the forces by which “artists themselves are not confined, but their output is,” as Robert Smithson said in his 1972 essay “Cultural Confinement.” These forces are myriad, but two that reappear are site and language. The city, specifically the city with a cultural presence—one demonstrated by universities and museums—is often the location for these projects. Understandable, yes, but not ideal in a global, eco-minded art world. (This urban-centrism does increase the wonder and power of the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s 2010 project, Centers of the USA, an exhibition held in a trailer placed in the bullseye center of the United States—a bit of prairie north of Lebanon, Kansas.)

Then there is the institution girth of artspeak and the poetics of the press release, both of which anaesthetize the eye as it passes over much of the written text in this and other exhibitions. Since much of today’s written response to art is little more than a hat rack of suffixes and prefixes, of –isms and —izations, how can one escape the written institution? Perhaps with a return to storytelling. The text for Espais, trànsits i dispositius mòvils, a workshop by Raumlabor held in Barcelona in 2011, begins like this:

“In the past a Gypsy caravan would visit our village every two years with a marquee. They would travel up and down the country loaded with the latest inventions. The locals felt great excitement and also a feeling of great fear…”

Not exactly a press release, but perhaps it reminds you of:

Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet…

These lines, of course, come from the first page of 100 Years of Solitude. Not to suggest that there is a thematic connection between the book and the workshop, I pause at this connection because Garcia-Marquez’s book, which takes the institutionalized form of the novel, comes out of an oral tradition—a bog of stories which have neither authors, nor beginnings or ends. As a writer who thinks about exhibitions frequently, I often return to the idea of the story. Which form should it take? How best to connect, to communicate? That’s usually the mission. Each story needs a different type of telling, and that need premises all divisions in the arts. It’s also the idea behind many of these projects, as they chose to slyly embrace institutionality, or flat out reject it. While they might not make a museum, they are certainly worthy of attention.