Wednesday, May 25, 2005

ZKM exhibition: Making Things Public

Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy is a show up now at ZKM Center for Art and Media (Karlsruhe, Germany). It's been curated by Bruno Latour (Sociologist of Science and Technology), Peter Weibel and Steve Dietz (the latter two are both well known curators of contemporary and media arts). Thanks, first off, to Bruno Latour for meeting with us and introducing we INCITErs to the show, despite the 2 hours of tour-guidery he had done in the morning and the train to Paris which was pressuring him from the other side.

The show is enormous. Viewing it taxed all of us, and we had two full days to see it. It's also categorically limitless (which is to say: a-categorical), presenting work which seemed to conceive of itself more comfortably as science, and other pieces which presented themselves as activism, as agit prop, as illustration, even as "art." Of course, the setting (ZKM) and the setting's accoutrements (curation, wall text, accompanying brochure, exhibition book) suggest that we could read all the works as "art." But I don't know. To do so, in the face of such widely varied works, seems to stretch the category "art" so far that it can no longer do any meaningful work. On the other hand, it does neither viewers nor the works on show nor the collective project any favours to declare "this is not Art!". All I'm trying to suggest is that evaluating the works on show, and the collective exhibition, by the terms and standards set by the contemporary art world might not be, in all cases, the most generous or meaningful way to look at it (although it does produce some interesting against-the-grain effects, e.g. the always-fun frisson of really hating some of the works).

So, yes, the show is ambitious. Go see it if you find yourself in Karlsruhe. There are a hundred ways into it and probably more than a hundred ways to exit out the back of it. Let me just notice one aspect, which is probably as much a comment on the curatorial project as it is about anything else. Latour is a sociologist. Weibel and Dietz are curators. This is interesting, although I think it does not exhaust or encompass our ways of seeing the work they've assembled. But there is a relationship that obtains, over the course of the show, between the works and the text. The show is divided into 13 sections (although Latour says there are only 4), each accompanyied by a sizable text which introduces the themes of that section. Although probably better to say: "introduces the argument of that section," because each section is presented as one argument within a larger argument sustained or made by the show itself (that argument, rendered here in freakish, un-helful miniature, is something like: "politics is all about things"). So each section wages a strong argument, then presents (I don't know) 5 to 20 pieces which [X] that argument. But what is the relation here, the X? That is the question I'm raising. For a show that wants to open out our conception of what things are (by deflecting our attention away from questions of *what they are* to questions about *how they are made*), it felt to me that the arguments dictated to the works, and that rarely does a work stand out, or stand aside enough to speak back to the argument, to question it or modify it or relay it. Too often, the works appear as mute illustrations of the argument on hand. This is not just a problem with the text (text, per se, is not to blame). It also has to do with the enormity of the show—the overall design, we could say: there's just so much; rarely can pieces rise above the melee. Although, I think this sense of the works as participating in a melee, or a massively disputed state of affairs, is probably one the curators would (or do) encourage. So maybe this is one of the points the show wants to make about publics and collectivities: that they should be "disupted states of affairs" (indeed, they say exactly this on the web page I've directed you to above). But I don't think so, or, I don't think this quite excuses it. I wanted the works to have their say: their own, distinctive, subjective, situated say. I wanted there to be MORE disputation.