The museums participating on the project aim at re-evaluating and rethinking their resources: archives, collections and working methods in order to develop their potentials by creating knowledge and connecting the various types of audiences. The traditional roles of the contemporary art museum are changing: its most important activities are no longer merely storage, studying and exhibiting of artworks, but also an active involvement with the museum’s audience. For this reason, the project will develop combination of exhibitions ans educational programs based on participatory approach, intended for both, the audience and the staff.
At the end of 2014, when we were invited to participate in the "Performing the Museum" project, which would enable us to work with the museum resources, our interest was in accessing the contents of the archives, library and collection. As the project developed and we spent time and worked in the museum, it turned out that we would be less interested in the contents at the disposal of the museum, and more in the (work of the) museum itself. In a specific way, the ‘Performing the Museum’ project made us focus on inter-museum communication — between the interpreters, the institution, and its staff.
In the early phase of the research, we learned how the ‘Didactic Exhibition’ was staged in 1957 by the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb (now the Museum of Contemporary Art). This exhibition, performed by the museum, did not present works of art. Instead, via reproductions of canonical works of art, it made the subject of its presentation the (western) modernist, art-historical canon. Without concealing its role models, the ‘Didactic Exhibition’ in fact started with a translation of the diagram ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’. The three-year-old Gallery thus heralded its future
programme and field of reference in the context of the still relatively unstable position of modern art in Yugoslavia. Deliberately or not, by appropriating existing material and adding typed explanations, the Gallery strove to legitimise its future work by performing the story of modern art, as an American story about European artefacts.1
Although the ‘Didactic Exhibition’, as an explicit example of revealing one’s own ideology, could be interpreted as a harbinger of new institutionalism, it was a performative utterance rather than a practice of critical museology. On the other hand, the recreation of the ‘Didactic Exhibition’ today reveals the interpretative mechanisms of the museum. Perhaps the most interesting example of similar practice can be found in recreations of canonical exhibitions such as ‘The Last Futurist Exhibition’, or ‘An International Exhibition of Modern Art – Armory Show’, by Goran Đorđević. In his reading, an art institution is a collective term for a system of beliefs, or ideology of art history, whose basic cultural artefacts are objects which today we call works of art, but which at some future time may become something else, just as religious paintings or African masks used to have different social functions before they entered the museum.2
While Goran Đorđević points to the key historical manifestations, institutions and personalities of the art world in order to speak about the emergence and development of ideology of art history, his work simultaneously implies a question: what remains of the art institution if we place ourselves outside the story of art history? The initial motivation for the ‘Stories About Frames’ project, which we realised through ‘Performing the Museum’, was for us a kind of exploration of this question. We decided to shift our focus from artistic discourse to the material reality of art institutions. In doing so, we did not concentrate on art objects, but on institutions of modern and contemporary art, treating them as the cultural artefacts which participate in the creation of the story of art history. For the purposes of our research, we borrowed some of the methods and tools used in empirical research. We decided to create a digital database to gather and organise information on institutions of modern and contemporary art. Such tools were to provide us with an objective view from the outside, while striving to exclude or minimise qualitative judgments at the moment of organising and selecting the data. The database began as an expression of our desire to include existing institutions of modern and contemporary art worldwide, from their inception to the present day, in order to achieve a picture of the density of their distribution in time and space. We decided to resolve dilemmas about inclusion and exclusion, and the taxonomy and format of individual data items in the database, as we came into contact with the material. At the moment, the database contains information on the range, focus and development of institutions, such as the type of institution, size of collection, classification of collection, spatial resources, location, year of the institution’s establishment, year of the collection’s establishment, number of visitors, data about architecture, management, etc.
The database is a tool in development which allows us, with the aid of software, to discover the correlation between a great number of data items which may, but need not be mutually related in terms of history or art history, but which have similarities according to selected parameters. So, at the click of a mouse, museums of modern art, opened in the 1950s, that have international collections, containing over a thousand exhibits, can be grouped together. It is immediately evident, for example, which geographic regions have the greatest numbers of such institutions. Although we are convinced that the density of institutions distributed in a particular area conditions the narrative of modern and contemporary art, we have not delved into interpreting such relations in ‘Stories About Frames’.
[Between 1998 and 2002, while Sanja Iveković was working on the Women’s House project, the reconstruction of an abandoned industrial mill was carried out in Gateshead, Great Britain. This involved investments of 50 million pounds, of which 33.4 million came from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. In 2002, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art was completed.]
The infrastructure of art institutions usually remains invisible to the visitors, so as to make room for the story of art. During our time at the museum, we were able to observe the museum as a place of the everyday: its maintenance, servicing, moving around, building and taking apart… Any attempt to mimic the working of a museum had to take place on the borderline between the visible and invisible. We placed our collection of institutions of modern and contemporary art in the locations in the exhibition space managed by the administration and technical staff. Thus, we consciously placed our work in the domain of the invisible, reproductive, women’s work or dark matter3 of the art world. ‘Stories About Frames’ took on the form of museum labels, or elements of exhibition signalization, that is, standard methods through which institutions provide information about the characteristics of displayed works, such as techniques and technology, authorship, time of creation, and their significance in the context of art generally and the collection in particular. Instead of such details, the labels which we made introduce into the exhibition space information on other institutions of modern and contemporary art that were by then entered in our database. Each label is linked to one or more works, so that it provides information from the database related to the period when the work of art was created. Standardised captions were formatted as follows:
In year N, when X made Y, Z occurred.
N, X and Y are appropriated from the ‘official’ caption, while Z is retrieved from our database. By relying on factography, the authority of an objective statement is achieved, in spite of the lack of any previous historical or biographical link between the information given. ‘Stories About Frames’ is an attempt to create disruptions in the exhibition space, conceived as a series of fissures in the epidermis of museum presentation, through which details are glimpsed of the material reality of the art world beyond the walls of the specific museum in which the labels are found. Thus, we attempted to shatter the whole, coherent narrative of the exhibition, by constantly pointing to other places and other institutions.
The time when a work was made is the only parameter of the database query, determining the information selected which, along with the name of the author and the title of the work, appears on the labels. The time when the artwork was created, as a moment when a unique creative act occurred, is combined with information about the vast machinery of the production and consumption of art — the prerequisite for a creation of an artwork. At the same time, the selection of the institutions listed on the labels does not take into account the degree of their influence on art historical canon. Key institutions, personalities and exhibitions appear on our labels, as well as peripheral ones which support the art system and, by their very existence, contribute to the significance of canonical institutions, personalities and works.
[In 1993, when Mladen Stilinović made An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist, Zagreb City Council granted the Croatian Association of Artists (HDLU) permission to move into Meštrović’s pavilion.]
Working on the ‘Stories About Frames’ project gave us the opportunity to observe a museum collection not as the public, but as the administration and technical museum staff does. Although we got to know the collection display in detail, we mastered the works as an inventory. In spite of our detailed insight into the arrangement of the works in space, the colour of the walls in individual rooms, the working or non-working state of the equipment, the security protocols, etc., we are not necessarily better informed about the contents of the works in the collection. The reactions of some visitors who approached us, thinking we were museum staff, demonstrated that ‘Stories About Frames’ are often not read as a series of artistic interventions, but as deviations in the behaviour of the museum. One visitor described his frustration regarding the labels as follows. “When I visit a museum in Zagreb, I want to know something about the context. When I read the label of a work, I want to get closer to that work. These labels keep throwing me off track, talking about Istanbul, Brussels, or Budapest. They seem to be here to explode the artwork.”
1 “Istorija Muzeja moderne umetnosti”, Goran Đorđević, kuda.lounge 2005, http://www.kuda.org/en/history-and-museum-modern-art-goran-or-evi, (24.07.2016.)
2 “My Dear, This Is Not What It Seems to Be”, pp. 30-31, Walter Benjamin, Recent Writings, 2013, New Documents (paraphrase).
3 Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Gregory Sholette, Pluto Press, 2011