“Did you see the prisoners?”
“Yeah, the prisoners. That’s a recording from Sing Sing.”
—Overheard conversation between guard and museum visitors in elevator as we pass the Whitney’s 5th floor
First let me tell you what it’s like to be here.
The constancy of noise. The sound of birds, squeaks like sneakers on a gym floor, the rumble of voices, the hiss of a shower turning on, keys rattling, a clang. It ebbs and flows. Just when you settle into it, something new lashes out. Loudspeaker announcements, a yelling man. At first the sound is shocking — it holds you in your place. But, as with anything, you start to adjust. Notice the location of the speakers in the ceiling’s grid. Think about the grid itself as measuring the room. Feel the size of the room. Start moving again.
Andrea Fraser produced “Down the River” after one day of recording in Sing Sing prison’s A Block. Access issues prevented Fraser from speaking with prisoners, so she asked the guards about the sounds they felt most represented the Sing Sing environment. The resulting recording is presented in a 55-minute multichannel loop that fills the Whitney Museum’s otherwise empty fifth floor. The sound gets quieter towards one bank of windows and seems loudest in the middle. The nature of its movement may not necessarily draw listeners around the room — I didn’t see anyone who appeared to be following a particular thread of sound — but it parallels the draw to movement that the Open Plan gallery inspires. When faced with 18,200 square feet of empty space (which, the Whitney is quick to tell you, is the single largest gallery uninterrupted by columns in New York), most people seem to want to spread out. I saw kids running, adults taking in the view of the river, couples flirting, even people walking backwards just to feel the magnitude of the space. But following the piece? Unclear.
Given Fraser’s history, in particular her contribution to the 2012 Whitney Biennial, the wall text must be taken as part of the work. It is clear, well-written, and makes various parallels between the two institutions she’s set out to critique: the Whitney and Sing Sing. Their proximity to the Hudson River, for example. That both American museums and American incarceration rates have experienced booms since the 1970s. What surprises me in the text is the lack of reference to labor. The prison and the museum embody the unsung production (on the one hand) and expenditure (on the other) of tremendous capital. The money that incarcerated men (and it is men much of the time, though of course not always or entirely) make for the country in prison is significant. It is also money that will never be in their own pockets or contributed to their own communities, either while they are in prison or after. Fraser has tackled this issue in separate interviews about “Down the River,” but its absence in the museum itself seems thoughtfully conspicuous — perhaps evidencing a line drawn between what is and is not permitted
And what of the museum’s funds? A huge amount of money goes towards better exhibition programming that boosts public education, sure, but also puts money back into the pockets of collectors whose holdings have been declared high quality by supposedly independent assessors. Commercial galleries partially bear the cost of producing museum exhibitions for their artists, not because the galleries are on the losing end of a financial battle, but because it’s worth it. It’s impossible — and in my view, undesired — to read any of the Open Plan interventions, including Fraser’s critique, without understanding the larger context of the Whitney and its intentions for the space itself. A museum docent described Open Plan as Chief Curator Scott Rothkopf’s desire to present “a striptease of the building,” highlighting the supposed transparency between public and private spaces that architect Renzo Piano intended for the entire structure. (The visual evidence I was given of transparency was the use of glass conference room walls. I’m pretty sure the conference room is still soundproof.)
I learned these facts about Open Plan during the public seminar associated with “Down the River.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, although disappointingly, the audience for that workshop was 100% upper-middle-age white people, with a young white female presenter. Through the glass conference room walls, in a moment of distraction, I saw about 20 people of color pass by in the hallway: a class of elementary school children. While I don’t expect Fraser’s project to solve the difficult problems of museum audience recruitment and messaging, such moments do beg a question: is “Down the River” part of the current epidemic of guilt porn? Or: what is the project for, if not to provoke a kind of pale anxiety (pun very much intended) in people who can, and likely will, put the issue down as quickly as they pick it up? Listening to the workshop participants discuss the project, it became clear that many of them didn’t even know what the sound was. The docent reported back that many visitors thought it was sound amplified from the other floors of the museum itself.
I cannot argue with the premise that prisons revoke freedom. But I think it’s questionable to argue, as Fraser does in her wall text, that museums, especially contemporary ones, promote it. The museum is no longer simply a monument to freedom and knowledge, if it ever was. Particularly in the case of the Whitney and its new building (produced by a “starchitect” at tremendous expense), it’s also a monument to money. Fraser draws on Walter Benjamin’s idea that “there is no document of civilization that isn’t also a document of barbarism.” Do we require massive disenfranchisement in order to produce arts and culture? Is it worth it? For, or to, whom? The prisoners have been captured; now we, the visitors, are complicit. But good news for us: at the end of the day, we get to leave it all behind.
The museum guards patrol the perimeter in black suits and white shirts. Visitors pose for photos with the view. The river flows on, impervious.
Open Plan: Andrea Fraser continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through March 13.