The Sterile And The Profane: Conceiving A Contemporary Gallery Space And The Infectious Intimacies Of A Digital Curatorial Grotesque

Lu Encarnacion Aubin
36 min readDec 14, 2023

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“Our art is worthless, and being so, it is ecstatic.”

SECTION I — INTRODUCTION

“How can one be fully with art? In other words, can art be experienced directly in a society that has produced so much discourse and built so many structures to guide the spectator?” (Hans Ulrich Obrist).

Contemporary exhibiting alternatives both disavow and embrace the notion of the white cube, the semantic device for critiquing the sterile, minimalistic, and often colonial implications of curation mode in which a gallery space where art is prepared to be seen consists only of lights, plain white walls, and sparse art objects hung on the wall.

The descent of the gallery culture into economic loophole and a formulaic esthetic, rooted by monetization, begs us to consider avant garde and contemporary alternatives as informed by historical curation models, from salons, auctions, and the infamous and prevailing white cube. The websites, which present themselves as virtual exhibitions, rapidly proliferate in the petri dish that is digital culture and exchange in the isolations and quarantines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The analyzing of several digital exhibition projects — Underground Flower, Rhizome Parking Garage, (their collaborative project) Solo Show, Gallery G15, and two concurrent Carpenter Center shows of artist B. Ingrid Olson — will discern the innovations and limitations of a museum infrastructure constructed (and reconstructed) on the internet. The consequential implications and ramifications for visual, and creative, culture. The complexity of which is oftentimes concisely wrapped into the questioning of their visual interest residing in shock value, or reactionary aesthetic, or a genuine, informed progression which is not staked upon contradicting that which has come before, as so many innovations have relied. Beyond Marshall McLuhan’s absolute assertion that the message is sentenced to its medium, this work will employ a combination of a historic and contemporary assemblage of curatorial scholarship, in combination with visual readings of the object. The messages of digital exhibition will prove to pioneer a more pure treatment of the arts if only these projects do not succumb to becoming a convenience-oriented minion of the museum’s avarice.

After considering the scholarship of both contemporary and historical theories on curation and exhibition, the principles will be applied to a the increasingly digitized exhibition trends within the “world” of fine art: specifically mostly underground, lesser known sites and spaces often lacking in mass reputation, or (oftentimes) in physical exhibition space. The collectives and communal efforts of artists, curators which have retreated — or in being exiled — to the massive (and arguably dangerously unthrottled) accessibility of the internet and its digital culture.

The following research will aim to clarify the following questions which guided preliminary research of recent and historical curation techniques for the fine and visual arts: What aspects of relevant traditional curation provide a basis for new curatorial models and theories? How do these aspects both illustrate a mutation of curation and provide a system for their measurement? What is gained and what is lost from these shifts? In answering these questions with the scholarly texts and theory, we might move closer to fostering a contemporary in which we can be fully with art — and what is gained by doing so.

SECTION II — LITERATURE REVIEW

There is a wide breadth of scholarly literature on both the philosophy of visual art curation, as well as digital continuums in which curation is expanded and reordered.

ROLE OF CURATOR

Scholars, artists, and curators have long debated the role of the latter as a liminal actor in the primary negotiation of the art world: from artist to curator to the public and beyond. The Dutch cultural theorist and artist Mieke Bal proposes traits and roles of the curator through the lens of historical exhibiting. The curator is the negotiator with the “rule the building has established” and establishes the “willing suspension of disbelief” for the viewers.” Through this lens, Bal gives exhibition — which she defines as the art’s primary relationship with the public — the tools to interact with newer modes. “Guest Column: Exhibition Practices’’ reviews both exhibition’s formatting and identifies a structural shift from predictable (chronological “utile dulci,” based on collection knowledge and “undisturbing”) to a “modified… self-conscious, creative curating.… the retreat of the white cube.” From the perturbed hallowed spaces of predominant museum culture has emerged a multifoliate alternative to remarkably cleanliness and a majority of white space — the generalized lack of personality in exhibition spaces for a space which refuses that surgical, serialized voice.

Michael Kowalski joins Bal in her call for a more active definition of curation. Combining artist analysis and fine art theory as a means to define the role of the curator, Kowalski’s “The Curatorial Muse” uses Marcel Duchamp and the “[collapsing]” of the “idea-versus-object dichotomy” as a context with which to set the stage of contemporary exhibition practices. These events have, for Kowalski, provided curators with a spotlight of their own, and thus merit the reexamination of the curator’s role. “Our understanding of the nexus of art-making, criticism, and curating is profoundly compromised by our skill in suppressing the many pious fictions upon which these activities are founded,” Kowalski writes. Paradoxically, to define an abstract museum curator (which he pointedly denotes with feminine pronouns), Kowalski separates the action of curating from the curator themself. That separation builds on one of Ball’s crucial insights regarding creative curating. In emphasizing the distance between the person and the action, the curator character is left semantically as what Katherine Kuh calls a “frankly creative role that incited ‘freelance novices to claim a professionalism sadly lacking, not unlike a first-year intern posing as an experienced surgeon” and a role “occupy[ing] the strategic ground where the theory of the critic meets the praxis of the art maker.” Thus placing the curator at the unique and advantageous position to create a long lasting influence on the negotiation between art object and beholder. Unlike Bal, Kowalski’s intentions to get to the philosophical basis of curation has little respect for the life of a curator, focusing almost entirely on the act of curation itself.

But that difference between the two theorists shouldn’t overshadow their fundamental similarities. Flagging tension between curation perspectives of artists and philosophers in the 20th century, Kowalski focuses on the Christian church, asserting Western culture as “extrinsic, linguistic, and abstract over the intrinsic, gestural, and embodied.” As such, he analogizes curator is to priest as critic is to theologian. Epitomizing semantic emphasis, Kowalski reminds that a name is a form of creation, citing Aristotle and Plato, as well as Egyptian, Islamic, and Hebraic theologies, additionally acknowledging Plotinus’s paganist postulation of arts as a “methodology for attaining spiritual growth.” Kowalski’s methodology is thorough in being so, effectively articulates a worldly and informed analysis of cutration.

But there is a risk involved in the trap of overly-pure aesthetics that exist devoid of practicality or any thread for a viewer to associate with at all. Kowalski’s philosophical review turns from words towards the fetishization of images. In investigating the relationship of curator to artist, Kowalski cites Montaigne, Pascal, and Kant’s adjacent writing on poets and interpreters of poetry. Whereas poets are concerned with praxis, their works’ interpreters are caught in the throes of theory — the resulting tension has, what Joshua Reynolds contends, “enveloped [art] in mysterious and incomprehensible language, as if it was thought necessary that even the terms should correspond to the idea entertained of the instability and uncertainty of the rules which they expressed.” There is a signified turn towards the ineffable nature of art, in which the most important player in its life is its beholder — neither artist nor curator give art a life of its own.

Whereas Bal places the curator as an author of sorts, whose work benefits from the integration of personality and their life experiences into stylistic curation, Kowalski’s view is less dependent on individuality. Both hold the curator to play an active role that should be respected and perceived as the artform it is, but the latter’s ideas of the curator’s roles are prescribed whereas the former brings their eccentricities into the role.

A gifted curator can simultaneously use art to disappear from the observer’s mind while giving work a visual coherence. In “Idle Arts: Reconsidering the Curator,” the professor of philosophy Rossen Ventzislavov considers the perception and misconceptions of curation, which he argues is not treated justly as the art form it truly is. The stigmatization of curation as a lesser art is a result of the divisions of labor and the “artworld hierarchy” within art and meta art — criticism, sales, archives, preservation and, for some but not Ventzislavov, curation. That hierarchy for him is blatantly idle. It explains nothing and does much damage to our understanding. For Ventzislavov, any difference between curator and artist is fictitious. From the fictional difference of these roles “emerges… the [fatally mistaken] perception that curators are institutionally, ethically, and financially encumbered, while artists are not” while “constraints of the institutional kind are nowadays not only relevant to but also welcomed by the majority of artists.” Artists who perhaps fetishize or play up conflict and challenge to imbue work with a sense of meaning are guilty of romanticizing their own work at the cost of those who show it. That “persistent romantic narrative — the glorification of all manner of poverty, strife, and suffering as markers of authenticity — which artists and their audiences have flirted with for so long…the locus on the greatest art-historical difference between the artist and curator.”

While artists are the gods detached from the real world (idle at life), curators occupy the real world and its logistics with no access to the sacred (idle at art). This illusory divide between the curator and artist reiterates a dichotomy wherein the artist is all but reclusive from the public, the curator communicates to social worlds and its issues. Through the depth of his analysis, Ventzislavov regards highly the work of the curator:

Ventzislavov notes the masses’ surrender from the museum, and from the solitary act of looking at artwork, in favor of their pursuit of pleasure or relaxation. The public, instead, has been indiscriminately mixed into the art world. The role of the curator is both “[commanding] of original custodial narratives” and the act of influential selection, itself minimizing the difference between the curatorial and artistic acts. This role of both artists and curators, what Ventzislavov calls “generator-arbitrators,” effectively “creat[es] value through the powers of selection from the detritus of civilization.” As the art world grasps for what attention it can garner, the line between detritus and value begins to blur. And if the public lives within a collapsing world of art, our efforts should not be continued production, so much as reorganization.

The limits of Ventzislavov’s argument remain in the fundamental differences between curator and artist. Whereas the artist may create ex nihilo, the curator always has constraints: their medium consists of pre-made work; in the words of American philosopher David Carrier, the museum is a “narrative.” But despite these limits, it is because of the medium of art works which curators occupy that signals their intrinsic worth. The personality of curators becomes not only intertwined with their work, but essential to the transformative, custodial narratives on which art’s curation relies. Curators create artistic values and perform roles entirely included in artistic practice. The “mode[s] of spectatorship” emerging from themes, placement, and other curatorial decisions, give art its life. It is only because of curation that art leaves the mind and hands of the artist and can be seen by others.

GESAMTKUNSTWERK: PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE GALLERY SPACE

The seminal text, Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube, establishes and captures the salient character of the most recent state of gallery spaces and their implications, against which, we are now struggling. First emphasizing the prevalence of the medium’s hand in the viewing of art, Modern art’s history and its nodes can be represented by the context in which it is displayed and viewed. For O’Doherty, space comes before art. Yet ultimately recent culture has opted to make that role as subliminal as possible:

“The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself… a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values. Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory joins with chic design to produce a unique chamber of esthetics.”

Inside the White Cube’s polemic is one against the sterilization of today’s galleries, a diagnosis of “modernism’s fatal disease[s].” Whose definition has thus been reduced to nothing more than a set of white walls, “covered with a wall of pictures.” In this reduction of qualifications, can the ontology of the gallery space be theoretically expanded to everywhere, regardless of locale — does this then suggest that the opposite is true, that in the space’s ubiquitousness, there is also a nonexistence?

O’Doherty’s visual analysis pushes the manner in which we answer this question into its most technical. The idea of space presupposed and rules the entirety of the work’s argument ‘“[t]he way pictures are hung makes assumptions about what is offered. Hanging editorializes on matters of interpretation and liminal cues indicate to the audience its deportment.”

Bal’s review focuses on the Louvre’s graphic arts, “Parti Pris,” curated by Règis Michel in 1980 and 1990, which included perspectives of both artists (Peter Greenaway) and intellectuals (Jacques Derrida, Hubert Damisch, Julia Kristeva). This show reinforces the scholarship of O’Doherty, suggesting the art object’s inability to exist without forethought to its presentation. The gallery spaces “[stages] a dialogue between the art and the viewer as thinker in which the art has its own power to speak, and speak back… already discursive as much as it is visual.” So emerges Bal’s major concerns with exhibition: If art is not made with regard towards its context, then we wonder if its qualification as art is dependent on its conversation with people and with other pieces. All of which, Bal writes, “[s]ignifies the end of the near monopoly of art history and its focus on chronology,” now art can vocalize for itself. How do conceptual threads that arrange exhibitions conceive art in a certain way? Which metaphors best activate art?

In answering these questions, Bal suggests two models of contemporary curation. She compares one form of exhibiting to poetry and describes its poetic structures (rhyme, metaphor, assonance, metonymy) and repetition, which creates visual difference as well as subtlety: a curatorial model compared to poetry’s “slight transgressions within traditional confinements.” The gallery becomes itself artwork, fostering conversation between works. The second model, narrative exhibition, places art sequentially, highlighting developments whilst viewing, “in the phenomenology of the experience, viewing takes time, and so does moving from one work to the next.” This latter model’s minimalist character allows for more attention to menial details of a viewing experience which places curation as contingent upon the physical space where it occurs, and simultaneously guides our thinking in offering curation alternatives.

Theatricality, in staging, character, and (in a sense) falseness, to Bal, effectively result in something of “a tacit agreement between curator and visitor entail[ing] a willing suspension of disbelief” which is carried into the architectural space itself. This theatrical quality is represented in the minimalist panels of Marthe Wéry, are displayed as they lay on the floor:

“ — Juxtaposed to the imagined figurative sculptures whose shadows remained in the architecture designed for them — became also vulnerable to a form of refiguration. That is, next to a heroic figure, they looked like fallen soldiers; next to an upright man, they looked like female bodies — presences that insisted on the creatural life of the surrounding classical works…[this work] cannot be abstract because it forces the viewer to be aware of the body — of the painting as body, of the visitor’s own body, which risks damaging them, and of the body idealized in the sculpture close to them. These bodies, the painting says, have blood and flesh, a gender, and a skin, even if the body is not red.”

Even if the body is not red, or at all comparable to a painting, seeing artwork offers space where we meet another consciousness, or project one with which to converse, like a child’s imaginary friend. The act of curation activates and opens a space usually closed to these solitary social interactions.

Throughout her essay, Bal cites exhibitions of Rudi Fuchs, Harald Szeemann, Venice Biennale, Catherine David Documenta X, and Règis Michel “Parti prise” at the Louvre (1980–90s). In combining the work of these thinkers, she argues, “The museum-going public has been confronted with the retreat of the white cube,” which has been substituted with the Gesamtkunstwerk, the patchwork, a composite whole constructed of many pieces and mediums, where every exit sign, every trash can, every awning of the space has been turned into art, or if not art, commentators and critiques of art.

“According to Walter Benjamin, we have been growing accustomed, from the nineteenth century on, to view paintings collectively — not unlike the way we watch movies at the multiplex. So accustomed, in fact, that maybe seeing Matisse’s The Dance (I) in a stairway bothers us precisely because the placement does not allow for the beehive mode of spectatorship conditioned by viewing large paintings in large white cubes. A museum stairway is where one rests from the onslaught of organized culture, a place of unregulated traffic, a home for welcomed distractions.”

Whereas our personal viewing at museums usually happens in front of the masses, making viewers into an “ever-shifting mass beholder” (86), viewing The Dance (I) perhaps allows for a freedom of surveillance from other museum-goers examining each other. It is the seemingly-inappropriate hanging that informs the mode of spectatorship and which makes the placement absolutely appropriate: “…the subtleties of curatorial work [is] that they seem to add layers to the artworks themselves… not only in the business of preserving value but also of creating it.” Going further than just equating them, Ventzislavov suggests the nature of presentation is perhaps more important than the work presented. Good curation, then, activates art’s history and past life, and increases value.

THE MUSEUM AS FACTORY DATABASE

Hito Steyerl’s “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation” for e-flux Journal is based on the theoretical extraterrestrial viewers of the data humanity emits into space, the majority of which, the German filmmaker determines, is spam. As the artifact representative for our species’ perception as a whole, what narrative do images of advertorial spam portray and how — if at all — has this medium of litter become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

That existential question, Steyeri answers using the Hegelian term, perfectible. Humanity is a theoretical ideal: “horny, super skinny, armed with recession-proof college degrees, and always on time for their service jobs, courtesy of their replica watches. This is the contemporary family of men and women: a bunch of people on knockoff antidepressants, fitted with enhanced body parts. They are the dream team of hyper-capitalism.” Digitally altered human representation has become a means to assign allure to commodities, at the price of further separating an idea of flawlessness further from its reality. While ethically questionable, its merchandising quality is silently pervasive: we attempt to mirror these photoshop mutants in their “hegemon[ic] infiltrat[ion of] everyday culture and [the spread of] its values by way of mundane representation.”

“Ever been photographed naked? Congratulations — you’re immortal. This image will survive you and your offspring, prove more resilient than even the sturdiest of mummies, and is already traveling into deep space, waiting to greet the aliens.” Perhaps not the exclusion of the real people, so much as their turning away from a desire to be photographically captured — the evasion of the camera lens’ surveillance and refusal of representation’s threat. Now in the midst of constant, real-time voyeurism into the private spheres of our daily lives, and surrendering privacy to the slew of online media, the current negotiation is a balance between the sharing addiction and the gripping desire to disappear, if only for a matter of seconds. Cameras have become not tools for representation, but for “disappearance. The more people are represented the less is left of them in reality.”

Although the realm of representation once seemed a ripe forum for the cultural to influence the political, Steyerl references Ariella Azoulay’s idea of photography as a civil contract in disproving the strength of their relationship. Instead of the community which the photographic lens advertised, it has resigned itself to “gossip,” criminalizing vanity, and resembling a twenty-first century Ponzi scheme. Representation then, Steyerl postulates, has entered into a crisis.

As is true with all forms of art, the image spam has become the lowest of contemporary images where an increasing number of people lay claim to images and act as makers of images. Produced and distributed by computers only to be filtered by other computers — this visual data has become the Schrodinger’s cat of visual immediacy. And the assemblages of silent figures adorning the unheard spam, both “over- and invisibility” serve as a medium for us to reject the confines of the internet and to have a body. They are proxies of humanity which aliens will discover so that we may be saved from ever being known, “they will not give us away, ever. And for this, they deserve our love and admiration.”

Citing and using Hito Steyerl’s 2009 piece, “Is a Museum a Factory” as a starting point, Mike Pepi’s “Is a Museum a Database?: Institutional Conditions in Net Utopia” revises Steyerl’s conception of the museum: placing capitalism’s network database as the modern factory. João Enxuto and Erica Love’s Art Project 2023 predicts the dystopian development Google Art Project, enstating a brutal and insensitive hyper-accessibility of museum images; in doing so, thee project memorializes the museum’s decline — death by mindless corporation and digitalization.

Are Enxuto and Love unrightfully criticizing this mass democratizing of the gallery institution? For author Mike Pepi, the implications of this piece’s onslaught began in the digital replacement of the physical gallery: its maintenance and upkeep. From there, the servers which host each of the purely digitized pieces fail in their artfulness, and ultimately, vanish. Pepi cites Art Project 2023’s quotation of Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer’s after constructing the Whitney’s 1963 building. “‘It is easier to say what [the museum] should not look like. It should not look like a business or office building, nor should it look like a place of light entertainment.’” Surrounded by pessimists, Mike Pepi admonishes the institutionalized digitalization of gallery space — in the process, he argues, the experience of viewing art loses itself. We imagine his warning in the endless milieus of online shopping and art objects becoming indistinguishable from eBay commodities. We question whether art should be at a higher level of reverence than designer garments. There is excitement in making something that is worthless: in that liberation from the stakes of gambling, the definition of art — whatever its ever-changing definition — expands tenfold.

Breuer’s comment forcefully informed museum dialogue: the modernists’ outcry lashed at its plasticization of living a “‘real’ life” as well as “Foucauldian and postcolonial critiques” of the institutionalized and hegemonic nature of museum culture; but so too were the criticisms, locked inside the academic and theoretical hegemony of their own. And yet now this treatment of the gallery has escaped its echo chamber: physical artifacts are transmuted via camera, phone, and scan into data and thus reduced to quantitative value. The museum slowly is uploaded online, and is reduced to a database, “organiz[ed]… for transmission and retrieval, anticipating the final aspirations of an algorithmic regime.” Aligning itself with the industry trends of Silicon Valley and user-oriented designs of “queries, updates, algorithmic manipulation, and mass scalability is of central importance,” the tenets of “transparency, democracy, and access have been loosely ascribed to the newly digitized institution.” Implicating the museum as the shadow following a strict database format and mindset of a “private digital enterprise.”

The “metabolism of the database,” modeled after digital corporate logic, equates cultural relevance to market risk. More than the “guise” of digital alternative, these dangerous innovations forcibly weave technology into every component of life. Pepi cite’s Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media and his “‘databased logic’, a new Panofskian ‘symbolic form… nothing less than ‘the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself.’ If ‘the world appears to us as an endless and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other data records, it is only appropriate that we will be moved to model it as a database.’” Obsessed with pursuits of and geared to “entrepreneurial paradigm of the technology enterprise” associated with the neoliberalism accrued by the democratization of data and information as whole. When in reality, the digitization of art objects held for the public are informed by the choices of private producers. A desynchronization which easily can reduce the digital component of the museum to a rolodex of monotonous imagery on a technology of planned obsolescence.

A second section of literature and scholarly text, based on the history of curation and its traditional conventions, provides a basis against which curatorial method’s changes and fracture can be measured. To adequately address the extent of recent exhibition’s permutations, the forms and rituals of historical curation must be addressed.

TRANSITION TO THE WHITE CUBE

Kirsten Swinth, in the fourth chapter of her work Painting Professionals, concerns herself with the messy knot which the relationship between art, exhibition, and commodity has become. Whereas an alternative to this “Market System” examines the implications of separating these threads, Swinth approaches the events, trends, and overall historical character which led to the beginning of this entanglement. She marks its beginning in 1888, with the publication of Art: A Commodity by journalist and critic Sheridan Ford,which articulates a culture of necessity: artists altering their work for the “’showman’” and effectively, themselves, in order to gain monetary success.

As opposed to predominant public auctions, Ford suggests a model defined by both gallery and art dealers. Swinth refers to this proposition as the “gallery and dealer system,” and names several consequences: introduction of gallery representation of artists, the popularization of smaller spaces, and most striking, aggravation of the rigid gendered divide within the commercial machine of fine arts — the last being the most imminent to Swinth. She elaborates the intensity of this divide through an analysis of the work of American painter William Merritt Chase, “art, interior space, and aesthetic experience were expressions of feminine values — and, importantly, productions of female hands.” Dismissing the idea that women were commodified into aesthetics themselves, Swinth embraces the reality of late nineteenth century social contours, “women perhaps represented the ultimate producers of aesthetic refinement.”

Jeffrey Wilson’s review of David Carrier’s Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries summarizes the author’s fatalist perspective that art dies in the museum, leaving nothing but creativity’s vestiges in framed corpses. In this sense, Wilson’s understanding of Carrier’s thesis (which is classified as vaguely Hegelian and parallel to Arthur C. Danto’s essay “The End of Art”), which understands the museum as an artificial “cultural and historical context… constructed by museum architects, curators, and art historians.” More than this, he understands the simple yet forceful idea that each gallery is an “envelope” which can vary in its ability to convey the present the works which lay inside. This then introduces the fallibility of the museum: at its worst, it is an edifice which can easily render its objects invisible or incomprehensibly abstracted without thorough forethought.

“He does not necessarily want to abandon the elitism of having the displayed art selected by an aesthetic intelligentsia, as he suspects that better art gets into museums this way. At the same time, he remains optimistic that an evolving museum culture will continue to be a source of life and even healing in a democratic and multicultural society.”

Although critical, Wilson finds Carrier, ultimately, to be an optimist. We are called to categorize which contexts “reveal” in art versus those which “impose” and in doing so, the Museum as an institution still holds the potential to become a source of joy in living and his title is perhaps a misnomer in the work’s interdisciplinary contribution to the progression of the gallery space.

COMMODIFICATION AND GENDER VIOLENCE

As “the half-tone revolution” allows for the massive production of reproductions and fine arts, the consumer appetite grows to further envelop the nineteenth century art culture. From this “prostitution” of the arts, there is the reactionary view: art for the sake of art, devoid of commercial value. Yet from this contradictory attitude, the hierarchy of “low” arts and “high” arts (for Swinth, connotated by femininity and masculinity, respectively) is further cemented. Swinth asserts the commodification of “an image of the artists — one that validated masculinity and disenfranchised women” a polarization which protected the highest art’s “sanctified positions above and outside the market” from Ford’s polemic.

Echoing Bal, the Museum as Gesamtkunstwerk for Carrier is only revealing of its relationship with economics, as “firmly [located] within a capitalistic framework” and further, its role as a collection of artifacts which signify the power exchange which allowed them to be transported and collected in a singular place despite the varying contexts and cultures to the extent where a visitor may feel more connected to memories of a humanity which long proceeded and differed from their own life. And yet the contradiction which Carrier highlights sees this somewhat zoological, anthropological collection as an indicator of a death or assault of the cultural context from which the art object was harvested — does this make the museum a living institution?

INDIVIDUALISM/COLLECTIVISM

The gender-violent implications of the relationship between art, gallery, and all the players which surround it (a production now fondly referred to as the art world), has been created atop a series of exchanges which simultaneously operate within a market system and deny the influence of economic culture. Transgressive artist collective, “The Ten,” played an influential role in the the development of a market system and curation method, in accord with Ford’s criticism, where artists evaded the scrutiny of jurors and relied, instead, upon the natural grouping of the artists based on style: major similarities with subtle differences. In their arrangement, each artist has a select section of the space, and “rather than inundate visitors by stacking pictures up to the ceiling, the group hung all the major pictures at eye level, and perusers could easily observe the distinctive style of each artist,” a mode directed by individualist philosophy.

SECTION III — OBJECT ANALYSIS

Together, these scholars call for a close study of contemporary digital curation projects which present art which is disseminated and understood based on its relationship to space. Three of these (Underground Flower, Rhizome Parking Garage, and Solo Show) are digital galleries and off-site only whereas Gallery G15 is a representation of physical spaces and B. Ingrid Olson exhibition at the Carpenter Center is only a physical installation. Their juxtaposition builds a more descriptive picture of the state of contemporary art exhibition’s divergences and convergences.

UNDERGROUND FLOWER

London-based artist Torre Alain’s Underground Flower is an experimental, decentralized project for offsite gallery installations. Anthropologist and curator Wade Wallerstein of Outland Magazine describes Alain and his contemporaries “a new generation of young curators, native to damaged worlds and broken systems, who have learned to surf the sludge waves” and, in their expertise online, have become “an international milieu of curators outside of gallery, museum, academic, and even NFT worlds who are harnessing readymade technological solutions and the materials immediately available to them while rejecting the conditions of scarcity and exclusion that define the contemporary art market.” The digital alternative to the gleaming halls of museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or The Museum of Modern Art responds, instead, with grime, hoping to uncover sublimity in the detritus. The creature that is Underground Flower emerges: pornographic, horrific, fantastical.

And yet, the integration of their fascination with the current cultural lexicon and visual trends, which largely defines the practice, surpasses Ventzislavov’s defined limits. The curator who embraces the fundamental difference between their role and the artist’s — the inaccessibility of creating ex nihilo — activates the personality of the curator in their engagement with the pieces with which they work, the constraints which define their role. It is the sharpness and definition of the curator’s personality which breathes life into the way we look at visual work: even if that characteristic, at first glance, appears to be banal in its subversiveness.

Alain previously listed the project’s curatorial philosophies on the website’s “About” page. “1. Experimental practises that disrupt the flow of institutional relations and relationships to artifacts and images. / 2. Lightweight, low-cost, and spontaneous offsite presentations incl. visual and performance art / 3. Exploring “quality” as determined by affect, urgency, and the needs of the idea or image — not by normalized standards of technical production. / 4. Underground Flower beckons toward a spiritual practise of engaging our environments around us — right now, in any place — through networked rituals on a damaged planet. Our ethos derives from our core members’ histories of living within extinct and illegible subcultures — dwelling in interzones and undergrounds around the world.” (Underground Flower). Their intent is a larger critique of normative practices of curation. Though these practices were enabled mainly after serving as a replacement for physical museum visits during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, their rootedness in the digital sphere is what allows for the experience of a nonspecific locality. Unlike a museum which occupies a specific physical space, online art spaces offer a nowhere which is able to advocate for everywhere.

One of Alain’s recent projects, “Money is everywhere, but so is poetry,” consists of four projects (“This Bird flies backward”, “X.Y.U / All eternity to love the dead”, “I started early”, “Love is colder than death”) of separate artists, each a visuals followed by a textual component: poetry, a link to a youtube folder of “12 songs” bearing the same title as the digital room it is found within, Love is colder than death: Nancy Sinatra, a Velvet Underground cover, “Six Bells Chime by Crime and The City Solution” of Wim Wender’s 1987 Wings of Desire, Justin Bieber. notably. The work itself refuses classification by medium in a visual language that is difficult to discern except for its rootedness in space: laundromats, grocery stores, basements, the exterior of warehouses — and the oddities of their (un)conventions. The divergence between the care given for the context itself and the modifications that have been documented: portraits of fine art and fashion in unusual environments, bedazzling stickers on vending machines.

“All eternity to love the dead” Photographed by Valerie You. Printed Images by Nicolas Poillot from Novembre Magazine. Underground Flower.

鬼由心生” (Devils are Born in the Heart). Underground Flower.

RHIZOME PARKING GARAGE

Ian Bruner’s Rhizome Parking Garage is no longer hosted on a site of its own, but Bruner still actively posts on Instagram and manifests it in multiple digital projects and platforms. The project’s web page expiration (as well as the privatization of the press which surrounds it, Basic Instinct Magazine’s “Shoggoth1”) echoes Mike Pepi’s referencing Love’s Art Project 2023: the fear of the transient component of independent and under-funded digital gallery projects. The project unites artists around the world in the pursuit of installing their work in parking garages. The website placed different emojis (as representative of each of the artists residence) on a world map, and served as a link to the artist’s contributions. More striking than the art itself was the philosophy behind the project’s name and ambitions, as well as the logic behind Underground Flower.

Torre Alain’s ideology is articulated more thoroughly by Ian Bruner’s Rhizome Parking Garage, which alarmingly marks the apathy towards contemporary “post-truth, neoliberal, mass data politics, (or techno-military-industrial-hypercapitalism (not to mention ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’)” and likens these oppressive forces to “a beach, … appealing and filled with entertainment and distraction, it mimics freedom, and seem so expansive;” and all too often “met with shrugs of indifference” — “beaneath the beach, seamless paving stones.” The project thus bring together a global group of artists to display and document their work in garages, “modern functional ruins” of capitalism which resemble French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome theory, “decentralized and/or multicentered domains” which connect all of us.“The rhizome offers a radicalizing pathway, an alternative, a possible source of disruption, and allows for an avenue of re-organizational practices, modes of thinking and acting” (Rhizome Parking Garage). We must reorganize our platforms for curation with regard to the work of these sites, their philosophical difference which, made mainstream, can promote access to the inexorable value of the arts and its attendance.

Bruner, interviewed in 2021 “Gold Und Liebe Viii. — Utopia Is An Existence Of Uselessness” by Hungarian artist Ráhel Anna Molnár for Art Magazin, explores the psyche of one of the minds pioneering this curatorial mode of profanity. Molnár prods deeper into the retreat from the endlessly capitalistic bearings of a physical gallery space (such as shipping, rent, et cetera) towards the technological with a vision of utopia. She raises the concerns such the “Institutional conditions of Net Utopia” authored by Mike Pepi, that of “techno-capitalism” and “hyper-institutionalism” — and how Bruner’s work, although marked by its utopian vision, often shares the same attributes of digital dystopia, “interconnected alienation, post-human relations, the altered time and space of globalization.” Bruner offers the fatalistic sentiment of internet-based art practices irremovable occupation in the sewers of the monetized web before providing insight on his alternative.

Utopia is a receding horizon or perhaps has the potential to exist after the curve, at the other end of the anthropocene, when the apocalypse has faded. Emancipation hopefully is not a failed project but rather the final struggle of the subject to defeat history. To ask art to do anything, is something I have been thinking about lately.. What can art do, and furthermore what can this particular form or practice accomplish? And if that is a healthy relationship to have with the act of production? As the ecstasy of production often creates or acts as an acelerante to lapse into the achievement-subject. In this way I think spaces like Solo Show, Final Hot Desert, and Essenza Club and lots of others on the periphery, offer an alternative interface. As destruction is not the goal but rather a form of aufhaben. To abolish but preserve. An attempt to disrupt the division of labor which remains prevalent within the art world.

The “detournement” (subversive use of hegemony) of Rhizome Parking Garage is to find productivity and the genuine within an inherently flawed medium. Therefore, the dead exhibition was not a complete rejection, so much as malicious compliance. Ian Bruner wants to make “something useless. A sort of mutual aid trapped within a system of oppression. Utopia is an existence of uselessness.”

SOLO SHOW

From the minds and collaboration of Torre Alain (Underground Flower) and Ian Bruner (Rhizome Parking Garage (each independent projects which take on the role of aliases)) emerges the digital exhibition platform Solo Show. Their “About” page self describes the project as “an interface for offsite exhibitions and other experimental work” which came about in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the series of quarantines of the following years. Generally, Solo Show was a persistent need for art and its exhibition even while quarantine confined the vast majority of people to homes and hospitals. The contradiction which emerges, then, is the collaborative nature of the project pieced together from artistic practices of solitude, “artists who had already navigated creative structures in isolation.” Yet that danger of the one creator everyone else is never alluded to: Alain and Bruner’s communion includes design of Don Elektro, Felix Sandvoss, Clément Trinkner, and Velvetyne Typeface Foundation, among other artistic pursuits. There is a clear and direct engagement with the community and a visual obsession which fuels the project’s archives.

The landing page contains a heading carousel of larger images, each which lead to their respective exhibit. Below, smaller thumbnail images for sequential collection (latest to newest) and titles in a neon green sans serif, poetic subtitles. These began with chapters, and unraveled into less narrative forms including but not limited to: “Yoyogi Park Party,” “Resident Evil,” and “Gothic Pastoral” II-IV. In “The Beginning: Chapter 2” is broken into two subsections (“Part I. On making the most of your plot in life” and “Part II. Present Questions”), each accompanied by an image (Zucchin3TrYbal’s amazon delivery truck in a blurry street, flowers falling around the edge, and Taka Kono’s abstract canvas leaning against a metallic air vent, laying behind cement block, respectively)

Curator Giulia Carpentieri’s now-archived piece “Shoggoth1” on Basic Instinct Magazine, combines criticism and interview with Bruner and contemporaries who have worked on Solo Show and in adjacent pursuits. The piece is excerpted on Solo Show’s about page, it centers “Our art is worthless, and being so, it is ecstatic,” the shortest text which stands alone. Alongside it are quotes from the Turin and Amsterdam collective of artists “MRZB” and artist Riccardo D’Avola Corte — these bring space and materiality to the fore, paradoxically in the nature of Solo Show’s lack of physicality. And yet It prompts thinking of virtual spheres as cavities within themself: spaces of “cracks, scratches,” and “holes” which host “germs and parasites.. thousands of eyes” which “gleam and expand to perceive the infectionouse presences…” The profane vein of Alain which opposes the sterile, a dichotomy is produced for the house of artworks. And each end has something to say about the work itself. Reveling in their worthlessness, “without standard market value,” the projects of Solo Show are “free to determine their own, free to demand more sensitive settings than the gallery showroom” because of thor “complex, lyrical, rapid-paced visual obsessions” rather than their accessibility towards wealth or professionalism The basis of a formula, which reflects Mieke Bal’s models of contemporary curation, poetic and narrative “phenomenology of experience.”

“The sweetly exiled offspring of a damaged but endlessly proliferating world” Alain and Bruner consider their work to be the “rituals of spatial intimacy,” not convinced that their work’s “destiny” is anything more than to “exist as images.” Carpentieri uses Jan Hoet’s 1986 Chambres d’ Amis as a starting point in arguing the need for “subversive exhibitions in domestic environments” as well as reformation of the exhibition space. By placing artwork in “garages, woods, abandoned plants, parking, shops, hotels,” and the like, the work fosters “more intimate dialogue.” The work of space as visible and pertinent to the art object itself is a attribute, for Carpentieri, to be adopted by the curator, in the role of both “economic necessity” and the “ongoing rebellion throughout the re-appropriation of exhibiting spaces, against the white elitist politic of the white cube offered by institutions.”

Exhibitions on Solo Show are evocative and unusual. Perhaps the most valuable and interesting aspect of their pursuit is the philosophy which guides it. It is a philosophy of hope. For an aesthetic alternative, in which the art world can be informed not by commodification, but by love for its mediums. Brian O’Doherty contradicts Alain and Bruner’s philosophy, “…the exclusive division between them [abstraction and reality] has blurred the fact that the first has considerable practical relevance — contrary to the modern myth that art is ‘useless.’ If art has any cultural reference (apart from being ‘culture’) surely it is in the definition of our space and time… Modernism’s conception of space, not its subject matter, may be what the public rightly conceives as threatening.” The two parties proposed solutions are (diverging, converging, etc).

The Beginning. “Chapter 2: A POSTNET FOLK FANFICTION FAIRYTALE MYTHOLOGY” Solo Show.

GALLERY G15

Occupying both physical and digital grounds, this basement gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, of former Yale MFA Ian Kline doubles as his studio space. He describes the underground brainchild, “Gallery G15,” in rejection of honorific rhetoric, “sterile in a way that could entertain that black suit way of talking behind the screen with white wine that gives us all hangovers worse than the 30 rack of Busch we got one of our older friends to buy us when we were 15. I’ve never even worn a fucking suit.” The sterile element of Kline’s nostalgia operates not as a corporate function, but as a “theater for absurdity.” Disgust for museums which act as “sparknotes of culture, of imagination.” No, it is one of rambling, of life, “fluidity framed through exhibitions and the documentation of minds and therefore of life through a variety of lenses and imaginations,” and contradiction. Foremost, it is made with fun in mind, and for sharing his classmates’ work: a gathering space for friends and community.

Whereas Solo Show’s exhibition is entirely off-site, and concerned with the possibility of where work should be seen, Gallery G15’s is the representation of a physical space — the website then, though effective in its own right, seems once-removed (xerox-esque). The gallery’s Instagram bio itself includes the suggestion ““Best viewed not on this depressing phone.” Alain and Bruner’s work casts off what Mieke Bal describes as “meta-exhibition.” They are the alternatives which disavow and embrace the white cube.

Mainly photographic work, Kline’s gallery appears to be the yearning of personal exhibition, and the convincing argument that curation of sterility can still bear life. It overlaps with Alain rhizomatic focus, in that the specificity of the room is unimportant — as if it could be any room of any basement, complete with a labyrinth-esque physicality which qualifies its ubiquity. The white cube, a Capitoline Wolf for the Romulus and Remus of contemporary curatorial models. These two sons, of sterility and profanity, are pitted into competition with one another even when the similarity of their origin which nurtures each mode should be taken to emphasize the necessity of their coexistence.

With a similar ethos to Torre Alain, Ian Kline’s Gallery G15 features Alex Nelson (Yale MFA ‘21), in “Sacrificed Pavement” photo-medium work accompanied by heavy blocks of text. This work oscillates between the slam-poetic stream of consciousness — “FLASH FLASH OFF FLASH orchestrated to the hum, the drivers hands regain control illuminating the real reason they, we, search for the ghosts, it is the we and that’s why we keep ending up here…” — and a prose description of the gallery space itself, “here’s an exhibition with Alex Nelson’s photographs, it’s Summer, the floor is red, and we are the tears dressed in blue.”

Nelson’s show includes-found photos, Beatles Fans I-II, of unknown photographer alongside prints of her own creation. These are rife with teary eyes, hidden faces often turned away from the viewer’s eye, and touching another figure (like in Pool Baptism and Untitled (Lovers II)), or the world around them (Volvo, or in the video still of Down Town). They are the images of the artist who values the medium, its image, the resulting feeling more than symbolism. Moving past the ego of the auteur to include photos for their sake of emotion, historical importance, contribution to the grouping despite the (or perhaps, because of) the maker’s anonymity.

Alex Nelson. Sacrificed Pavement. Gallery G15

Alex Nelson. Sacrificed Pavement. Gallery G15

B. INGRID OLSON

Jared Quinton’s interview of contemporary photographer and sculptor B. Ingrid Olson accompanies the artist’s simultaneous shows at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, History Mother and Little Sister, curated by the gallery’s director and Harvard professor Dan Byers. The artist notes on the universality of rooms’ and enclosures’ potential for transformation into a camera, the “potential space or containers for images” before moving into a detailed description of the Carpenter Center gallery rooms in which her two shows are exhibited. The room of Little Sister is “sculptural,” featuring columns and a floor “made of dark cast concrete” in the majority of walls of entirely glass window panes, “dysfunctional,” Olson describes, “like a dysfunctional, open camera with too much light and too much information to form an image.” This, in addition to the spaces lack of dividers means the viewer is forced to view any potential saturation all at once.

B. Ingrid Olson’s work as a responsive and installation-intuitive artist resembles the same ideas as digital curation, primarily a sensitivity and care for the space in which she works. Her responsiveness led her to construct a “freestanding, architecturally scaled enclosure” which featured two of her photographs. This responsiveness to the exhibition space’s limits allows Olson to reach out towards an imaginative platform: a “perspective arranged close together,” “a wall on which to hang the works while counteracting a functional display,” “large partitioned panels set in front of the images largely obscuring the full-front viewing experience.” The work emphasizes the root of the exchange, which Bal’s analysis of Marthe Wéry reminds, occurs between the viewer and the work.

The site-specific “intervention” installation work of Little Sister parallel and informed by her photographic practice, to Ventzislavov and Kowalski’s relief, tethers the acts of artist to the acts of curator. Just as the space in which her work hangs requires adjustment, the aperture and focus in making a photograph is not an idle practice.

The Modern Art Notes Podcast’s 566th episode brings into dialogue B. Ingrid Olson and curator Idurre Alonso. The shows’ gendered forms, the intersection of medium’s photography and sculpture, site-specific reflection. Both of the hybrid mediums which Olson works are exhibited in the rectangle of protrusions, “cavities,” and “compressions” (4:54) Olson started she only began working in the photographic medium after her discovery of Michael Snow’s “Lightroom” exhibition; which the artist described as consisting of “raw material”, anti-formalist, and refused the typical “cleanliness of photography” (6:50). “Proto Coda Index,” Olson’s largest piece, is an entryway of a sculpture which gives permission of entrance, to “chorale the works” in “an exaggerated frame, away from the gallery” (8:37).

B. Ingrid Olson, Equant and Run, with cartilage, 2017–20.

B. Ingrid Olson, Proto Coda Index, 2022.

SECTION IV — LIMITS, CONCLUSION

For the masses there is seemingly nothing at stake here. The cosmetic dressings for one form of entertainment — what influence does the museum’s wall color really have on anything? True. For many, these pursuits, projects, and livelihoods are just more artifacts to scroll by with the fleeting gratitude or qualification of something merely “cool.” Opposite that minority is the majority who will never see the work at all: ignorance and bliss. And yet, not to weaponize a condescending perspective against this group — we find ourselves at the tail end of a devotion to the obscure children of obscure parents of an obscure family. And while the importance of any one of these singular exhibitions — or exhibition at all — may very well be berated with doubt and apathy, no family is produced in a vacuum. And in my view, It is these askew visual products which best represent (often implicitly) the conditions of our contemporary mood: those desires, responses, fears, insecurities, prides, and joys.

The distant relative of something sacred, the generational inbreeding of the Sacred family have produced, for the twenty-first century, the Sterile, the underdeveloped minimalist ideology which remains (in its aberrations) on the opposite end of the Profane. Instead of the spectrum assemblage of an ethical “good” and an ethical “bad,” we now find ourselves between binary evils, or at least, medicores: the genomes a museum glued together with code. Just to land ourselves into the pubescent fantasies and perversions of digital organization. As if Instagram, Facebook, and other digital milieus were not enough to satisfy the hyper curation of the internet socialite: they have taken to their own domains, mobilizing their degrees in fine arts and gallery experience.

But aren’t the pioneers of avant garde often perceived as eccentric nobodies? A defense is less necessary for a cultural acceptance than for the symptoms which curation philosophy arises from and the components they thrive upon. The need to make on a platform designed for endless making and the proceeding standards which should govern that making so that it does not devolve into mindlessness, or at least not without an intent to devolve.

After the visual lexicon and overly nuanced digital breeding, the aspect which is still important is care for the object: the necessity and immediacy which is both called for by the art form and granted by curators. Artists are only surrogates but curators are parents — they deal with the life of the easel, or womb.

Carving space for nothingness among the endless proliferation. The mitosis of so many chaos and barely identifiable visual fragments that ultimately become a clear and seamless plane, like the gleam of a window were you can see a reflection or a composition with such helpless heaps of visual data there is nothing on which to really concentrate except your own thoughts persistently calling you back to them (though you resist). Let’s admit here that in a world full of distractions better than human-interaction the scariest confrontation is that which you can’t attach your leech-like concentration. Welcome back: you are still yourself.

advised by professor Christopher Dietrich, December 2022

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bal, Mieke. “Guest Column: Exhibition Practices.” PMLA 125, no. 1 (2010): 9–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25614433.

Carpentieri, Giulia. “Shoggoth1.” Basic Instinct, (2020). https://basicinstinct.exposed/SHOGGOTH_Giulia_Carpentieri_2020

Goodman, Nelson. “The End of the Museum?” Journal of Aesthetic Education 19, no. 2 (1985): 53–62. https://doi.org/10.2307/3332464.

Kowalski, Michael. “The Curatorial Muse” Contemporary Aesthetics 8 (2010): 2.

O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. 1st book ed. Lapis Press, 1986.

Paul, Christiane. New Media in the White Cube and beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art. University of California Press., 2008.

Pepi, Mike. “Is a Museum a Database?: Institutional Conditions in Net Utopia,” e-flux Journal 60 (Dec 2014). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/60/61026/is-a-museum-a-database-institutional-conditions-in-net-utopia/

Steyerl, Hito. “Is a Museum a Factory,” e-flux journal 7 (June 2009). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/07/61390/is-a-museum-a-factory/

— — — — — — . “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation,” e-flux Journal 32 (Feb. 2012). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/32/68260/the-spam-of-the-earth-withdrawal-from-representation/.

Swinth, Kirstin. “The Gendered Making of a Modern Market System,” in Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870–1930 (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

Ventzislavov, Rossen. “Idle Arts: Reconsidering the Curator.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 72, no. 1 (2014): 83–93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42635562.

Wallerstein, Wade. “Magic at the End of the World,” Outland (30 November 2021). https://outland.art/magic-at-the-end-of-the-world/

Wilson, Jeffrey. “Reviewed Work: Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries by David Carrier” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 3 (2007): 338–39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4622250.

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