“...a mask play, a burst of laughter? And behind it, a synthesis of...romantic, dandyistic and daemonsitic theories…”
It seems that in all art forms, humor is denigrated as something beneath the transcendental category of art. However humor is uniquely poised to deliver more scathing critiques than other forms due to its accessibility and immediacy, whether the satire be Horatian or Juvenalian (the former being satire which laughs with authority and the latter being satire which laughs at authority).Thus in a critical practice of art humor should neither be overlooked as not belonging to the category of critical practices of art nor should it be denigrated as being a lesser form of art. A few art movements have accepted the practice explicitly: Dadaist Hugo Ball wrote “What we are celebrating is at once buffoonery and a requiem mass … The Dadaist … knows that life asserts itself in its contradictions, and that [their] age, more than any preceding it, aims at the destruction of all generous impulses.” In our Present Age (a la Kierkegaard) this sentiment rings more true than ever; life today is seemingly filled with more contradictions than ever seemed possible and a myriad of examples of institutional irony, intentional or otherwise.
A poignant example of this absurdity is that despite the Tate Modern publicly refusing Sackler family donations, due to their role as producers of OxyContin and its effects on the opioid epidemic in America, the Tate held an exhibition of Nan Goldin’s work during Nan Goldin’s protests of the Sackler family in between the Sackler Family Escalators. This goes to simply illustrate the point that these art institutions, whether intentionally or not, perpetuate an absurdity of character publicly decrying and scrutinizing actions outside their walls while ignoring the obvious absurdist irony within. It is also important to keep in mind that while there may be art world institutions which are more in vogue, such as auction houses, to critique or which may appear more deserving of critique, such as the vampirous “art advisor,” the museum is despite its public facing persona of openness and inclusion they portray their actions are rarely in line with this message. These institutions produce pamphlets with wording like “Valuing Diversity” in bold lettering on the front, while their actions tell a wildly different tale; In 2019 only 11% of all museum acquisitions were of female artists and in the same year only 3.3% of acquisitions by US institutions were of BME women. Furthermore, Benedict Alderson points out in his work Imagined Communities, these early museums were paramount to the formation of a colonial nation-state. To borrow from Steyerl’s beautiful prose these museums were producing “the authoritarian legitimation of the nation state by the cultural institution through the construction of a history, a patrimony, a heritage, a canon, and so on.
The question that is now posed to practitioners of institutional critique, or more broadly critical art, is how to proceed with a practice that on one hand is inextricably tied to the institution while on the other hand seeks to radically and fundamentally change those institutions. If “the first wave of institutional critique criticism produced integration into the institution, [and] the second one only integration into representation was achieved” what sort of praxis can be developed to adequately continue this mode of art making? One potentiality is Steyerl’s concept of Circulationism which “could also be about short-circuiting existing networks, circumventing and bypassing corporate friendship and hardware monopolies. It could become the art of recording or rewiring the system by exposing state scopophilia, capital compliance and wholesale surveillance.” Circulationism could also then be about the acceleration of these inherent absurdities of the institution until they reach a critical requiem mass. I believe that in conjunction with circulationism the way forward for institutional critique is about the examination of the role of the individual within the institution and its role in the truth making and legitimation of the institution. No longer can we be passive spectators of the spectacle provided by these institutions, an active position must be taken to no longer separate ourselves from the institutions despite their efforts to keep individuals out, however strong those efforts may be for some groups of people more than others.
What is needed here and now is parrhesia as a double strategy: as an attempt of involvement and engagement in a process of hazardous refutation, and as self-questioning. What is needed, therefore, are practices that conduct radical social criticism, yet which do not fancy themselves in an imagined distance to institutions; at the same time, practices that are self-critical and yet do not cling to their own involvement, their complicity, their imprisoned existence in the art field, their fixation on institutions and the institution, their own being-institution.
Absurdity of course rears its head in full grandeur at the Tate Modern; the artist page for Hans Haacke on Tate’s website is only a few sentences long with a button below it linking the viewer to Wikipedia’s article on Haacke. An even closer inspection will reveal that all, albeit limited, information on the Tate’s website is a direct quotation of the Wikipedia article. How ironic it is that an institution would outsource one of its strongest soft-powers to the viewer? This however, brings to light an interesting dilemma which is that institutions play a role in truth-making at large, they are the systems of information dissemination and legitimation; in the arts context, institutions are the ones who gild an artwork and create the cultural value. This is of course not to state that powerful art made by great artists can and has been created outside of this culturally capitalist system but rather that due to the canonization that these institutions propagate, most artists deemed “great” are benefitting from the midas touch of the consecrated art institution.
Thus my project takes the form of a simple intervention into wikipedia. It would be an easy criticism to state that this is not then a form of art, it is akin to a sort of cybernetic graffiti, or a public protest in a place often deemed quite private; it is afterall your internet browser, on your computer, on your internet connection. The work is the material semiotics and the relational aesthetic of it and the work is the critique of systems of truth making in what is considered by some to be a post-truth era. Sometimes there is a distinction of “labor that is ‘not strictly’ ‘artistic,’ and that which ‘explicitly’ is, [which] corresponds to a hierarchical taxonomy based on the primacy of a somewhat old-fashioned idea of what an ‘artwork’ is.” These kinds of modes of thinking are reinforced by a capitulation to the fraught historical ontology of art which in turn further reinforce an exclusionary rhetoric. It should be of no surprise then, that an intervention like this could be so easily dismissed as ‘not art.’ It also precludes the work of other artists which have institutional legitimation, Constant Dullaart for example, calling into question the very idea that my intervention could be considered ‘not art.’
It is here that we return to the role of humor in art, how a joke can be a flashpoint to critique and how humor is perhaps the most emancipatory of all forms of critique for in the momentary euphoria of laughter a viewer is no longer a passive receiver of information spread through a Culture Industry, but rather an active participant in the creation of a subjective truth; at the very, very least the subjective truth being whether or not something is funny to that person and in its most grandiose form that truth can shift entire ontologies.
My joke is in the absurdity of a young artist literally comparing themself to an art-world luminary who spearheaded a critique. The joke is also one of identity, while I was not named after the museum nearly everyone I meet thinks I am. My identity is linked to this institution, which perhaps complicates my “own being-institution,” but also proffers a unique space in the humor of word play. The joke is in the braggadociousness of my claims and the joke is in the humor of highlighting that an institution which employs a small army of people with Masters, Ph.D and post-doctoral degrees leaves one of the most powerful aspects of the museum to the general public despite the entry level positions at these institutions requiring years of experience and at least one advanced degree.
When I had initially noticed that the Tate included this Wikipedia link, I immediately thought of this project as is. My Situationist palette started to salivate right away, I needed to know if the Tate automatically pushed updates from Wikipedia to their websites so I created a wikipedia account and added a sensical addition to Haacke’s page. I edited the page to include that Haacke was “considered a ‘leading exponent’ of institutional critique” and cited a couple sources stating the same and published the changes on Wikipedia. I went back to the Tate’s website and was dismayed to find out that in fact, they had not published the changes. This reality forced me to question my project’s most fundamental piece. If these changes were not published on the website was my critique then even directed towards the institution or was it merely an act of cybernetic vandalism? Ultimately, I had decided that the fact that Tate linked to the page was in a sense an endorsement of the information on that page as accurate. While it was disheartening it was still enough to press on. I checked back the next day to see if the changes were published then, and sadly they still were not. However, I revisited this page and found that my changes had been published and my words were now given the institutional gilding and are emblazoned on their website.
The thing about absurdity is how it compounds itself, absurdist philosophy asserts that life is inherently meaningless. This is not a nihilistic claim however, it is to assert that there is nothing that is, in its essence, filled with meaning. Rather absurdist philosophy highlights and exalts the role of the individual in that very meaning-making. Therefore, when considering this work it is important to keep in mind that it will give as much as the viewer puts into it. Whether you want to say egoist anarchism or a Nietzchean will to power, or whether you want to talk about the structuralist mythologies; whether you want to see accelerationist superstitions or Dadaist intervention it is all there for the taking.
Now it is a waiting game, will the Tate recognize the absurdity of their ways or will they publish my editing without thought? Will Wikipedia become a disobedient object of the hoi polloi that the gatekeepers of academia think it is?
Anderson, Benedict R. OG. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, 2016.
Bishop, Claire. Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art. Whitechapel, 2006.
Bogers, Loes, and Letizia Chiappini. The Critical Makers Reader: (Un)Learning Technology. Institute of Network Cultures, 2019.
E-Flux Journal: The Internet Does Not Exist. Sternberg Press, 2015.
This E-Flux edition deals with computational art, specifically art relating to the internet whether through a direct or indirect use of the internet as well as a discussion of various theories of internet art. Hito Steyerl’s The Internet Is Dead in particular was a formative piece for the creation of my project. Central to her conception of a modality for internet art in 2014 and beyond is her concept of Circulationism. It is a sort of methodological practice not dissimilar to that which is advocated by the 3D Additivist Manifesto, and Situationist International. Circulationism is a method of critique by short circuiting and upending the hierarchical powers that be through any method which exposes the flaws in that hierarchy. In particular she writes about surveillance but the idea is presented in a flexible enough way that it does not have to pertain solely to “state scopophilia.”
Halperin, Julia. “Museums Claim They're Paying More Attention to Female Artists. That's an Illusion.” Artnet News, ArtNet, 28 Oct. 2019, news.artnet.com/womens-place-in-the-art-world/womens-place-art-world-museums-1654714.
Higgie, Jennifer. The Artists Joke. Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2007.
This is an anthology which traces the uses of humor in art from many different artists. Published in 2007 by Whitechapel Gallery, the pieces that were selected by Higgie remain poignant to this day. Chiefly her tracing of the different kinds of humor is important and the anthology is a good source of a variety of different uses of humor as well as discussions of these uses. The works contained within are everywhere from explicitly humorous, to interviews with the artist (such as Richard Prince talking about his Joke painting series) to OCTOBER publications. Among these the piece discussing BANK’s Poison Pen series was an interesting progenitor for this project.
Raunig, Gerald, and Gene Ray. Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique. Mayfly, 2009.
This is an anthology of various thinkers presenting their ideas on the art making methodology of institutional critique. The work in particular that is most interesting to me is written by one of the editors of the book, Gerald Raunig. He is the one who suggests parrhesia as a modality for a new form of institutional critique. Inside this anthology is also Hito Steyerl’s piece The Institution of Critique which was useful in tracing a genealogy of institutional critique and for an understanding of the function of institutions.