“Emancipation can’t be expected from forms of art that presuppose the imbecility of the viewer, while anticipating their precise effect on that viewer,” says Jacques Rancière in a 2007 Artforum interview:

For example, exhibitions that capitalize on the denunciation of the “society of the spectacle” or of “consumer society” — bugbears that have already been denounced a hundred times — or those that want to make viewers “active” at all costs with the help of various gadgets borrowed from advertising, a desire predicated on the presupposition that the spectator is otherwise necessarily rendered “passive” solely by virtue of his looking. An art is emancipated and emancipating when it renounces the authority of the imposed message, the target audience, and the univocal mode of explicating the world, when, in other words, it stops wanting to emancipate us.

As Rancière warns, the hundredth denunciation of a lie or an act of oppression does not stand out as vividly as the first — although we may be excused if “wanting to emancipate” sounds more appealing in light of events that have transpired in the decade since the philosopher gave this interview — the Arab Spring, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the refugee crisis, Brexit, the passage of and assault on Obamacare, to name a few. After all, as Rancière teaches, oppositional intervention must evolve continually, and culture workers ought to continually reject the urge to hygienically direct audiences’ perceptions — even if that means asking critical questions regarding the uses of Rancière’s own message. In the arts, such ongoing rethinking requires examination of shifts in methods for producing objects, images, and performances, and also analysis of the changing ways in which such work is displayed and publics are solicited to see it. These are the projects undertaken by James Voorhies in Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition as a Critical Form Since 1968.

Voorhies’s aim is twofold. His book is partly a series of case studies on watershed shows of the last fifty years — shows that, in his view, “relie[d] upon and utilize[d] the exhibition form and art’s critical potential within that form.” These include Harald Szeeman’s When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969; Group Material’s The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango) at their own gallery on East 13th Street in Manhattan in 1982 and Americana at the Whitney Biennial in 1985; Anton Vidokle’s unitednationsplaza in Berlin from 2006 to 2007; Elmgreen and Dragset’s The Collectors at the Danish and Nordic Pavilions at the Venice Biennale in 2009; Thomas Hirschhorn’s The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival in Amsterdam, also in 2009; Carsten Höller’s Experience at the New Museum from 2011 to 2012; and Michael Asher’s recurring Skulptur Projekte for Münster (1977, 1987, 1997, and 2007).

The second aspect of Voorhies’s study draws explicitly on Rancière’s ideas while surveying his influence on a generation of art- and exhibition-making. Voorhies does this by appraising the curatorial modality known as New Institutionalism. The name, he explains, “never caught on, [though] its activity is part of the general landscape of contemporary art today.” It emerged in the early 1990s, “signaling a renewed confidence in the effectiveness of institutions,” and has affected “economics, sociology, and even Christianity.” In art, it represents an outgrowth of institutional critique and relational aesthetics. But, “whereas institutional critique generally pitted the artist against the institution, on a temporary basis confined to exhibition parameters and catalogues, New Institutionalism absorbs this mode of inquiry as a continuous form of autocritique.” In practice, this involves now-familiar initiatives in which artists and critics are invited into an institution to advise, propose, and design alongside curators, with “research, periodic journals, radio programs, television stations, lectures, libraries, seminars, and workshops […] put on equal footing with what happens inside the gallery.”

Voorhies is a curator and art historian who has been Director of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, and is now Dean of Fine Arts at the California College of the Arts (where I teach). He is also organizer of the Bureau for Open Culture, a hub for conversations and publications (among them the 2016 anthology, which Voorhies edited, What Ever Happened to New Institutionalism?). So he practices what he preaches — and he is exhorting New Institutionalism as well as historicizing it, emphasizing that “the critical attitude […] must perform a constant reworking before it sets into institution and becomes the subject of its original scrutiny, because capitalism lurches forward and critique must move along.”

This is indisputable. Still, it is important to have it reiterated by a curator and administrator who seeks to sustain institutional ambitions in a moment when museums and universities feel particularly vulnerable. Voorhies’s examples present a primer of contentious thought regarding objecthood, participation, and display; his argument weaves in the thinking of Walter Benjamin, Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriaud, Bertolt Brecht, Michael Fried, Liam Gillick, and Brian O’Doherty. In addition to the exhibitions already listed, the book considers methods of display as varied as Robert Smithson’s non-sites and the e-flux platform (cofounded by Vidokle and artist Julieta Aranda), both provocatively framed as species of exhibition.

At once a genealogy, an analysis, and a summons, Beyond Objecthood leaves one elaborating its premises in one’s head, an imaginative engagement that precisely meets the definition of Rancièrian emancipation. For my part, I thought first about women. Group Material was co-founded by artist-curator-activist-archivist Julie Ault, and curator Maria Lind and architect and artist Apolonija Šušteršič are two of Voorhies’s New Institutional exemplars. Still, the preponderance of his references are male, and European. The two works by female artists discussed in detail — Martha Rosler’s Iraq-war updates to her Bringing the War Home series (2004-2008), and Josephine Meckseper’s readymade vitrine-arrays — are introduced as models of what not to do in Rancière’s terms; that is, as didactic “denunciations of the society of the spectacle.” Other significant figures — for instance, Lucy Lippard and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, both inarguably central to the reconfiguring of the exhibition as a critical feminist form in the 1970s — are hardly mentioned. Analysis of para-institutional projects beyond the biennial circuit would be useful too—for instance, Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited publishing venture, Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation in Chicago, or Spring Sessions, the floating, artist-run art school in Amman, Jordan.

All this, however, would require a series, not a single volume. (Say, a collection along the lines of Afterall’s One Work series). As we continue to stumble into a Trumpist future, protecting arts institutions while asking them to support us more adventurously and fiercely could not be more urgent. For, as Brecht warned in 1930, without such support, artists find themselves merely “delivering the goods [….] And this leads to a general habit of judging works of art by their suitability for the apparatus without ever judging the apparatus by its suitability for the work. People say, this or that is good work; and they mean (but do not say) good for the apparatus.”

Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition as a Critical Form Since 1968 (2017) is published by MIT Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Frances Richard

Frances Richard writes frequently about contemporary art. She teaches at Barnard College and the Rhode Island School of Design.