A Symposium on Research in the 21st-Century Art Museum
3 & 4 December 2015
What is the meaning and potential of research in museums of Modern Art? Seen their unique position at the intersection of academic discourse, artistic inquiries and artistic research, and the broad audiences they engage with, what contributions can museums make? These were some of the questions addressed during the two-day symposium Between the Discursive and the Immersive, which was organized by the Stedelijk Museum in collaboration with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and the Aarhus University. The symposium brought together a wide range of international curators, educators, museum professionals and people from an academic background, combining theoretical reflection with hands-on experience in the form of 7-minute Pecha Kucha presentations. Curator, researcher and writer Christel Vesters reports.
Traditionally, research in museums of modern and contemporary art is confined to their collections, providing information, for example, on the art historical background or provenance of a work of art, or to the preparation of exhibitions. The outcomes of these research activities are made public by way of catalogue essays, information leaflets, wall texts in the exhibition and other educational materials. Recently, however, art museums are reconsidering their role as sites for knowledge production, either in collaboration with universities or through their public programmes. As part of this shift, research is acquiring an increasingly independent position within the diverse field of museum practices, whereby ‘democratic’ and participatory forms of knowledge exchange and production are becoming increasingly popular, for example in the form of in situ workshops, user-generated content by way of the museums’ digital platforms, or in academic, peer-reviewed journals such as Stedelijk Studies.
This development, which is often referred to as the ‘discursive turn’, opens up a whole new set of questions: How can (artistic) research contribute to art museums? How can exhibitions function as mediums for research? What is the role of sensory experience vis-à-vis discursive formats to engage audiences? What is the function of public programmes as curatorial models of research? And how can and do audiences contribute to the museum’s knowledge production?
Museums as Research Institutions
In his word of welcome, Poul Erik Tøjner, director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, sketched the landscape in which museums of modern art, including the Louisiana Museum, operate today. This field, which includes collaborations with universities, exchanges with museums all over the world and developing cross disciplinary and animated public programmes, seems far removed from the archival model that was once at the core of museums of modern art.
Following Tøjner’s welcome, Marie Laurberg, curator at the Louisiana Museum and co-organizer of the symposium, referred to the art historical pretext of many of the issues addressed in the conference, one being the shifting orientation towards the viewer, which emerged in the avant-garde practices of the 1960s. Many of these explored the ‘non-linguistic powers of the arrangements of objects in space’. Similarly, museum displays today offer viewers a unique synesthetic experience. ‘When it comes to the immersive, museums have learnt from art.’ Unpacking the differing modes of conducting research, Laurberg introduced the difference between the French translation of ‘research’, recherché, and the German Forschung. Whereas recherché connotes the act of uncovering facts, digging through archives, finding witnesses, in short, the investigatory work of the detective, Forschung implies that a hypotheses is suggested and the exhibition functions as a kind of laboratory.
Bridging the Divide
The two-day symposium revolved around the dualism between the discursive and the immersive. Speakers introduced a range of definitions, some focussing on the different qualities of the two modes, others on the ways in which they are employed and operate in exhibitions. Although different interpretations of the two terms were introduced, some speakers followed the Cartesian duality of mind and body: The ‘discursive’ is positioned on the side of the thinking brain, i.e. the rational, intellectual engagement, and paired with activities such as reading, talking, lecturing, discussing, and the ‘immersive’ on the side of the senses, the bodily experience, or pre-linguistic engagement with exhibitions.
Other speakers proposed breaking away from this binary model, either by way of a dialectical approach (Mark Wigley) or by embracing the blurry in-between (Anselm Franke). Zooming in on the exhibition space and its architectural and ideological constitution, architecture scholar Mark Wigley discussed the various operations of the discursive and the immersive within the museum space: ‘In the discursive exhibition, the art object transforms into evidence, whereas in the immersive exhibition, the (art) object is transformed into its environment.’ Neither of the two types of exhibitions is new, nor are these categories absolute. ‘Discursive research exhibitions are in fact super-immersive – they immerse the visitor in data, in archives, in conversations, in dialogues. And immersive exhibitions always seem to make a discursive point, for instance about ways in which our perceptions are at the same time construing and being construed. Another point concerns the ideological frame (the white cube) and all the values it has come to represent. According to Wigley, this frame, which is either pulled into visibility or is repressed, is itself a confusion of the discursive and the immersive. ‘My point is that the discursive and the immersive are super-interlaced. The real question is: Under what conditions is an exhibition, or any event, discursive or immersive? If the whole space of the white gallery is super-immersive already, and the museum is thoroughly involved in a research-ideological mission, under what conditions could we ever declare an exhibition to be a research exhibition or an immersive exhibition?’
Curator and writer Anselm Franke approached the subject from a different angle. In his lecture, ‘Notes on the Research-based Exhibition: Dialectical Optics and the Problem of Positivism,’ Franke reflected on some of his ‘productive doubts’ vis-à-vis thematic exhibitions from his own curatorial practice. One of his observations is that the current (neoliberal) imperative to effectively share and communicate and be accessible to a larger public is endangering that avant-garde identity of art of being an ontologically disruptive force. How can we save research-based exhibitions from the trap of becoming hermetic? Looking back on the Territories (2003) exhibition, which Franke co-curated with architect Eyal Weizman, and which explored how to represent and enter the complexity of frontier spaces, provides us with the main question regarding thematic exhibitions: What does it mean to enter into, to be immersed in these ‘architectures of knowledge’ which are situated at these breaking points of positivist knowledge, at the limits of what can be represented? These types of thematic research exhibitions are like ontological laboratories where we can question the borders between different epistemological regimes, where we can project and connect different sources.
Anselm Franke, referencing Georg Simmel, also addressed the notion of the frame, or the border: an ideological construct that ‘closes [it] off from the world without, and creates an inner cohesion within’, becoming invisible in the process. In art, and in making exhibitions, this ‘given-ness’, this sense of being self-evident, must be questioned. Drawing on a number of his curated research exhibitions, Franke reiterated how important it is in all his projects to juxtapose and possibly destabilize the linear progressive frontier, which dictates our canonical narratives and knowledge about history and the world. Rather than thinking in borders, can we imagine and create fluid spaces?
This set of questions, related to the immersive and discursive frame of the white cube and the constitution of ‘fluid knowledges’, were also addressed with presentations during the sessions. Via an open call, the conference committee invited a broad range of museum practitioners, scholars, artists and independent curators to present their insights and experiences in the form of 7-minute, Pecha Kucha-style presentations. Spread out over the two conference days and divided into five thematic sessions, twenty-six different presentations introduced a variety of subjects, subtexts, contexts and case studies. Together with the keynote lectures, they mapped a diversified field of ideas and practices. However, despite this diversity (and in spite of the overwhelming density and velocity, which made listening to these Pecha Kucha sessions an immersive experience in and of itself), some communal interests, topics and arguments began to emerge. Like the interest in the non-linguistic power of the art object to produce knowledge, the idea of the local (as in local communities, knowledge etc.) versus the global, the vernacular versus the dictate of the self-promoting canon, public participation and re-imagining the idea of community, un-learning, un-mapping, un-knowing, the use of digital technologies to ‘bring the audience into the museum’ and more.
To end this report, I would like to expand on one more thematic threat that ran through a number of keynote talks and presentations, and that is the difference between knowledge production and learning in the discursive and the immersive, shifting the focus to the public. Both strands approach the museum and the exhibition as an ontological site. As Francesco Manacorda, director of Tate Liverpool, pointed out in his keynote lecture, the museum’s original task has been to develop and distribute knowledge about the art and its history. Today, however, museums are facing a redefinition of this task. Rather than being the domain of the solitary scholar, museums must ask themselves the following questions: Who is the active agent in the kinds of research we are talking about? Is it the expert? Or can audiences and the public contribute and generate knowledge? Can research be a collective endeavour? If we are to embrace this shift from the audience as a consumer to a contributor of knowledge, how does this learning – and education – take shape? And finally, in parallel with Jacques Ranciere’s essay, The Ignorant Schoolmaster’, can we imagine ‘the ignorant museum’, void of any directive narrative or positivist frame?
The symposium Between the Discursive and the Immersive took place on 3 & 4 December, 2015 in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
The upcoming 4th edition of Stedelijk Studies, the Stedelijk Museum’s online peer reviewed journal will be dedicated to the symposium and will contain a selection of outstanding essays that were presented in Louisiana.
Videoregistrations of the different keynote lectures and presentations can be found on the Louisiana Museum Vimeo page .
All photographs by Klaus Holsting.