Notes from presentation given as an update of my research project:
- Research Question: Museums as Spaces of Dissent: What is at Stake for Political Objects and Aesthetics in Post-2010 Exhibitions Such as Disobedient Objects?
- My research began with an interest sparked from a wave of politically-charged exhibitions that appeared in public-funded museums and galleries such as Tate, Barbican, the Hayward and the V&A, following the inauguration of the Con-Lib Coalition Government in 2010, which saw widespread protests in Britain against cuts to the NHS and a cap on university tuition fees.
- It has led me to think about what this means for the future of political objects, now that they have arguably been confined, through the architecture of the museum, to the canon of compartmentalised history. This is of particular interest to me, as my own practice as an academic in critical art practice has always focussed on political histories entering the institution – such as the school or the museum – and the legacies that are created from this, including how these histories go on to permeate our everyday lives.
- My literature review was comprised of three key areas of interest
- Capitalist Realism, and the Neoliberal Institution
This begins with Mark Fisher’s notion of neoliberalism in a state of Capitalist Realism which exists as an ever-pervasive atmosphere.
Fisher argues that we are now living in a ‘feedback culture’; where an organisation expends so much of its energy on hitting targets that it has none left for making any meaningful development, thus leaving all open to constant scrutiny and instability. For me this prompts questions about the potentially uncomfortable consequences that may arise from documenting activist histories within a design museum exhibition; if protest is within the museum with the inability to form anything new, does protest somehow become futile?
Kundu and Kalin – “edu-tainment”
“As a design technique and marketing strategy, participation keeps the institution relevant by soliciting visitors’ ideas and creative labor in order to build personal investment, thereby allowing museums to look like their offerings of experiences fit in with visitors’ desires, while enhancing comfort and constructing a social hub for interpersonal dialogue related to cultural content. All this makes museums more essential to community life as vital participatory venues offering tools for visitors to network with others in relation to social objects and co-created art-related experiences”.
This makes for an excellent starting point in terms of critiquing the neoliberal museum as a self-declared democratic space, but I want to approach the issue slightly differently by examining the tensions that arise with the museum acting as a space for political display and discussion.
Clare Bishop’s essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” makes an excellent contribution to this issue; Bishop argues that Relational Aesthetics fail in their core political aims of creating relationships and thus creating a new wholly democratic artwork. Bishop makes this argument by referencing Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of antagonism, a mode in which conflict is not eradicated but perpetuated and sustained, and which is fundamental for a state of democracy. The argument here is that if a conflict cannot be found then the population falls to “the imposed consensus of the authoritarian order” and thereby quashes utopian hope.
Bishop applies this theory to art by declaring that Relational Aesthetics are not self-reflexive, and therefore cannot be deemed intrinsically democratic. Instead, she applauds artists Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra who deliberately create antagonistic situations to create a political realism within their artworks which evokes a self-conscious discomfort from artist, viewer and institution. When thinking about this in relation to the work of Fisher, Kundu and Kalin, it leads me to ask questions about how this can be applied to the exhibitions post-2010; are the exhibitions truly critical? Can this theory be applied to the museum as a whole?
- The Museum as Activist;
Collecting objects of activism has also been explored through a collaboration between a group of students from the Goldsmiths MA course in Art and Politics and the Museum of London in 2011, using a participatory methodology to examine the ways that a museum could engage with protest, and in the process attempt to persuade the museum to relax and reflect upon its collection safeguarding policies so that it might “collect in the moment”. The project, Save Our Placards, took place at a demonstration organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) during which the Goldsmiths team set up a stall, handing out placards emblazoned with images of former protests, procured from the Museum of London’s own collection, thus creating a “mobile exhibition of museum material within the protest”. At the end of the rally, the team asked protesters carrying their own homemade objects if they would donate the items to the museum’s permanent collection, designating a tree as a collection point for ephemera such as placards, banners and t-shirts. A year later, ten of the items were designated to the permanent collection, with the rest holding residency at the Goldsmiths building, as well as being part of touring exhibitions across the UK. The project sought to further challenge the Museum of London’s already leadingly influential participatory approach to collecting items of social interest which has included revolutionising the role of oral histories and collecting tweets using hashtags surrounding events such as the 2012 London Olympics .
There is also a recently emerging discussion amongst the museum institutions themselves surrounding “the museum as an activist”, with a break out session dedicated to the subject at the 2016 Museums Association Conference.
Gap of knowledge on the ideological impact of placing activist objects in neoliberal museums, along with a lack of interrogation of how museums can participate in current social issues, with references to points made by Kundu and Kalin
– BP Tate – Mark Fisher’s critique of innovation over the production of anything new
- The Arena of Activism;
Bahktin’s concept of the carnivalesque is a prominent starting point in thinking about the aesthetics of activism, but is utopian in its conception of the higher and lower orders and does not acknowledge space for smaller, more marginalised groups within the lower orders, and the politics that accompany this.
Activist and Researcher Pollyana Ruiz’s book Articulating Dissent: Protest and the Public Sphere seeks to define how heterogeneous coalition groups, such as Occupy Wall Street, can approach marginalized issues and bring them to the mainstream. In concluding her research, Ruiz makes an interesting observation on the trajectory of activist histories within a similar time-period that my research manifests from;
[Quote on slide]
This not only highlights links with Fisher’s work in terms of his observations of a world of neoliberalism, but it also indicates that the highly political climate that today’s museums are reflecting has been building for some time, which leaves room for further research in the manifestation of protest sensibilities and political aesthetics. Ruiz’s words indicate a new consciousness and structure within the terrain of activism which must be examined when regarding the documentation of these histories when placed in the neoliberal museum.
- I have devised my literature review in these 3 forms because my project is interdisciplinary in nature and must recognise debates in ideology, the museum and protest – viewing the museum as an activist and the arena of activism as separate entities. My intention for my project is to contribute knowledge to these fields about this trend that I have identified in curating post-2010 in regards to the relationship between the museum and activism, the tensions that lie therein, and what this means for political aesthetics.
- Methodology; my methodology is comprised of a New Art History model – that which is concerned with the social framework of the art work’s context – with influence from Foucault’s Post-Structuralist writing on the panopticon as a way of examining the governmentality of the museum. My methodological guide with this is Tony Bennett’s “The Birth of the Museum” which takes direct reference from Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”, and interrogates the structure of the museum by examining the technologies that cause it to function in the way it does, which I’ll expand upon in a second. I’m working with a Social Constructionist ontology and an interpretivist epistemology. I will employing discourse analysis as my methodological approach.
- Method 1: observation
A large part of my methodology currently centres around observation – a method favoured by Social Constructionism and Post-Structuralism – of the exhibition and its context of the V&A. I visited the exhibition when it was on display in 2014 and have been re-visiting and re-observing the exhibition in retrospect – using photographs and notes taken at the time – to critically analyse the curation of the exhibition and examine the structural framework that the museum both provides and imposes.
I have been looking at the display of the exhibition itself, how and what was displayed and the accompanying labels and photography; the space of the Porter Gallery and the way the exhibition was placed in the building; the accompanying programme and book and the digital space of the exhibition using the hashtag disobedient objects.
Structure of the chipboard / aluminium poles – similar aesthetic seen in exhibitions such as Punk at the British Library in the shop
- Method 2: semi-structured interviews with curators and contributors to the Disobedient Objects exhibition; so far I have interviewed Catherine Flood, curator of Disobedient Objects and of the V&A Posters and Graphics department, and Guy Julier, Professor of Design History at Brighton University and Research Fellow at the V&A. I have also contacted Gavin Grindon, Professor of Art History at Essex University and co-curator of Disobedient Objects, who has agreed to be interviewed by me in the near future.
I am using the semi-structured interview model to further unpack the exhibition in terms of the curator’s intentions for the exhibition, their methodology in putting it together, and how they worked within the institution. I have done this by asking them open-ended questions, allowing them to give detailed answers which I recorded and transcribed and will interpret in my findings.
- Method 3: documentation
I have begun looking at bureaucratic materials that further indicate the governmentality of the exhibition, such as the V&A’s 2015 annual review report and a call for funding opportunities by Cockayne of The London Community Foundation which provided funding for the Disobedient Objects exhibition.
- Data Analysis:
I have been approaching the analysis of data by pulling out key themes, primarily from the interview transcripts, and drawing comparisons between that and findings drawn from my other two methods. Examples of this at present include quotes by Guy Julier about the governmentality of the exhibition in regards to its content, as you will see from my handout,
- Ethics: Tier 1 ethics form with consent form and information sheet
- What next?: I am beginning to look at other museum/gallery spaces which also work with activist objects, such as the People’s History Museum Manchester, that I can draw comparisons with.
- I am also looking at ways that I can introduce a participatory element into my research as I am aware that one of the drawbacks of my methods is that it may be at risk of bias from both myself and the institutional discourse of the museum and its staff.
 Fisher, M. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK: Zero, 2009. Print.
 Kundu, Rina, and Nadine M. Kalin. “Participating in the Neoliberal Art Museum.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 57, no. 1, 2015., pp. 42 Art, Design & Architecture Collection, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/docview/1788599694?accountid=9727.
 Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October 110 (2004): 66. Print.