It is obvious that the space of the factory is traditionally more or less invisible in public. Its visibility is policed, and surveillance produces a one- way gaze. Paradoxically, a museum is not so different. […] Just as the work performed in the factory cannot be shown outside it, most of the works on display in a museum cannot be shown outside its walls. A paradoxical situation arises: a museum predicated on producing and marketing visibility can itself not be shown—the labor performed there is just as publicly invisible as that of any sausage factory.
— Hito Steyerl, Is a Museum a Factory?, 2009
In the art world, this is what the critical apparatus is largely about: the production of scarcity; which is, in turn, why even the most sincerely radical anti-capitalist critics, curators, and gallerists will tend to draw the line at the possibility that everyone really could be an artist, even in the most diffuse possible sense. The art world remains overwhelmingly a world of heroic individuals, even when it claims to echo the logic of movements and collectives—even when the ostensible aim of those collectives is to annihilate the distinction between art and life.
— Nika Dubrovsky and David Graeber, Another Art World, Part 1: Art Communism and Artificial Scarcity, 2019
— Grounding in a Mudflow
The space is closed, but the show must go on. Amidst geopolitical turmoil, among the outbreak of a corona pandemic, increasing ecological breakdown, protests coinciding with the Black Lives Matter movement, the uprisings in Belarus against its dictatorship, and the enduring migrant crises, we, the art workers brigade, in their different guises, find ourselves in stasis and suspense. The situation demands action and response, especially when we consider art’s primary function as a means of seeking and finding one’s inscription into contemporaneity. Simultaneously the vehicles we commonly employ for “the production of subjectivity,” to shape and propel discourse, raise awareness, inform perception and reflection—the exhibition, the lecture event series, screenings, performances, textual contributions—seem limited in terms of their activistic adequacy and capacity to be responsive and do justice to the givenness of the current situation and its urge to enact sociopolitical change. The moral high ground had been taken before, but our services seem to remain left wanting. Instead we see different artistic communities joining in protests and engaging in forms of civil disobedience and organizing collectively elsewhere, outside the realm that is commonly marked as the art field, outside of art institutions that nonetheless occasionally serve as unifiers and support structures for voicing dissent. Meanwhile, inside the art institution, on the level of the program, we ponder the subtle balance act of needing to strive for the politicization of aesthetics whilst avoiding, at all costs, the aesthetization of politics. But what can be done if public access is either limited or mostly denied, invoked by the manifestation of a pandemic, with programs being suspended whilst facing the expectancy—and possible responsibility—to be an accountable institution and respond to the given situation accordingly? How can art institutions assure their public subsistence whilst being situated in ecologies of decease when subjectivity, individuality and distance—in terms of physical gathering, and in its longstanding aim to provide personalized epistemological and ontological horizons—had already established itself as the norm beforehand?
— Template Chooser without Placeholder
During the months in which art institutions were prompted to closure due to the outbreak of the corona pandemic and consequential governmental emergency ordinances, art seemed most trivial in times at which the face of death had never seemed to be so statistical, and was simultaneously brought to the stand—often prompted by political soundness and a feigned sense of solidarity—as the last refuge and spark of hope to unite people in these troubling and uncertain times. With the uncertainty of a long-term horizon for institutional onsite—“in real life”—programming reestablishing itself, we witnessed the development of an institutional “new normal.” This normality predominantly consisted of the extradition of most art institutions to marketing and innovation conversion strategies. In the months from March 2020 onwards, a plethora of digital formats and programs was brought to the fore, ranging from singer- songwriters and DJ’s performing, guided tours of exhibitions, lecture series, self-care programs, and endless streams of lockdown binge-watching being made available to attend, through Facebook and Instagram Live, Zoom and Jitsi meetings. Where online marketing and innovation tools were before almost exclusively employed in the arts as tentacular extensions of institutions to reach for audiences as to encourage them to physically rejoin the marketed onsite exhibition, the digital now became the actual domain of programming, where the participatory triggers, models and meeting grounds for both the sensorial and cognitive encounter with art coalesced. This sudden adaptation and embrace of digital formats may come across as contradicting, especially since the art field has long maintained a somewhat condescending attitude towards marketing as the dirty overlay of a “real” physical experience of art. The art field may have started lagging behind in the field of marketing compared to more innovate fields by adhering to worn definitions. As artist Ian Cheng argues, true marketing is the invention of a cognitive perception—not promotion, advertising or rhetoric—shaped as the conceptual reconfiguration of reality’s familiar parts to open rivers of energy and organization previously unavailable. This marketing would, in the best case, strive to be operative on an equal footing with art as to reinvent fundamental metaphors and models for relating to reality. What is perhaps most striking is that the majority of art institutions, instead of making an a priori consideration of the shifts and differences in logic of operation and perception-raising involved in circulating and distributing content by hosting events via these marketing platforms, is the perceptual arm’s raise in which the cultural field engaged itself all too hastily. Soon we found ourselves—at home—on the superhighway of business-as-usual turbo-capitalist neoliberalism, where art-as- entertainment and corporate dystopia had an online argument about common sense. There is no stopping this—or that—institution in its continuous dissemination of programs and the ongoing aim to invent and attract new users: the space is closed, but the show must go on. The only thing that was missing from the superhighway was the exit. An exit that would allow for a diversion from contemporary art institution’s adherence and over-indebtedness to a neoliberal market-driven logic, that no matter the circumstances, one must partake in the time-pressured culture of high-performance. An exit that would allow for a temporal halting, intermission, and reorientation towards a timely consideration of the different sociopolitical matters of care and concern that call for our attention. An exit that would allow for a consideration of the conversions in signification and meaning brought by the translation tables inherent to the different (digital) platforms we employ to assemble. Apart from the lack of consideration another danger is lurking: the idea that art institutions would temporarily inhabit online structures—as a form of survival tactics—to return to normality as soon as the pandemic situation is considered surmounted. To think one is bridging a period of pandemic crisis as temporal setback—solvable by human intervention, by statecraft and scientific technofixes—when actually we are witnessing a dress-rehearsal as part of the current and structurally permanent climate regime.
To give an example: in order to cope with the restrictions imposed by the corona pandemic in a supposedly innovative manner, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam organized an exhibition in the shape of a drive-through experience. Separate households were enabled to immerse themselves in a re-arranged presentation of the permanent collection, progressing in environmentally sustainable electric vehicles. Arguably we should also wonder about the exit here, or, in other words still, can we sustain a cultural infrastructure that continues to emphasize novelty value in the guise of green and sustainable living when we are witnessing increasing ecological breakdown? To stitch a new garment for business-as-usual is another form of common sense altogether. Common sense defined as the lack of capacity to look deeper than a certain level, as a stable pattern of perception that flattens the constructed artificiality of one’s surroundings. To what extent can art institutions continue to uphold the pretense —reaching out before themselves in the course of regular programming as if nothing all too drastic is bound to happen—as a willing failure to acknowledge the fact that art institutions are part of a larger ecosystem, increasingly lacking grounding in ecologies of decease where instability, precarity and scarcity are imposed as a new normative ethics?