An ideal context for an examination of the competitive nature of group exhibitions was during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. In order to take stock of the current state of artistic interventions in the physical space or institutional workings of a gallery, guest curator Eric Fredericksen brought together an international roster of artists for An Invitation to An Infiltration. Notes from an Observer and Participant.
An Invitation to an Infiltration began as a simple stunt, which was to invite seven artists to make simultaneous interventions at the Contemporary Art Gallery. Wanting to animate the conflict between artists and institutions foregrounded by the practices of Institutional Critique, I thought to put more actors into play, turning the dyad of artist and institution into a more complicated contest. I took as a model Andrea Fraser’s critique of the “competitive structure” of group shows: “Every public juxtaposition of individual artistic positions on panels and in shows which invites viewers to compare, contrast, and judge artists against each other reinscribes artists and works in this competitive structure, reducing them at the same time—regardless of intended effects—to their formal or strategic differences.” Fraser addressed this problem by creating an exhibition Services, that wasn’t an exhibition, substituting other forms of exchange for the formal presentation of works in a gallery. My aim was not to solve the problem, but examine it, which meant turning the critique into a guide. One way to explore the competitive structure of the group exhibition would be to artificially exacerbate it.
An early version of the show pitched more artists, and suggested a choreographic deployment of pre-existing works in the space over the term of the exhibition, adding works one by one in the manner of changing scenery, one commenting upon the next, or altering the conditions of the gallery. This seemed an interesting way to foreground both the active, changing presence of existing works of art as they are introduced into new contexts, and the use-value of artworks often taken as a given by curators. This was not meant as a cynical gesture, but potentially a critical one. It was important to me that the show not be idealistic, but realistic. By relying on typical practices it could critique those practices while remaining dependent on them. The theatrical nature of this conceit was attractive, but it was too limiting a structure, removing most of the possibilities for participating artists to inhabit it. Better to make an invitation and not know the responses in advance.
A line from a lecture by Thomas Crow provided a key to the form of the exhibition. Casting the history of Institutional Critique as a dialectic between art and architecture, Crow referred to “a struggle for possession of the container.” This viewpoint embraced Rothko’s alterations of the setting for his paintings in a chapel in Houston,; N.E. Thing Co.’s early interventions; central figures in Institutional Critique like Michael Asher and Andrea Fraser; and the competitive relationship of cross-influence between Richard Serra and Frank Gehry. Though used in the context of a historical lecture, this narrow emphasis on the contest between container and contents suggested an ahistorical, practical approach to the exhibition, which would move it past dependence on the history and prospects of Institutional Critique and artist interventions: a liberatory gesture. The exhibition could work as a broader exploration of the collaborative and competitive structures of current exhibition-making and art-making.
It was, really, a typical exhibition. Artists were invited to create or contribute works based on a curatorial premise. That premise would imply certain modes of working together between the artists, the institution, and the curator, and we would find out what happened as it happened. An invitation is best offered in a spirit of openness to the responses it might elicit. The exhibition was intended to move past its inaugural stunt; if it worked, it would stimulate responses that would overwhelm the original gesture.
The title was a good guide to the working methods. Taken from the chorus to “Message Received,” a song by the Olympia, Washington band Unwound, it underlined a paradoxical relationship between institution and artist when working in the mode of intervention. Fraser’s critique lists form and strategy as two qualities emphasized by group exhibitions. Formal differences seem uninteresting, but strategic differences seem like something worth emphasizing. The artists invited to participate tend not to work in isolated situations, making autonomous works which then will be inserted into varying contexts, but use situations as spurs for creation. This is not to say that they make “site-specific” work, or they only work in response to an invitation. They work with an awareness that their work will enter various situations, or they recognize an invitation as an invitation to explore the concerns that animate their practices: they have adapted to the contemporary situations that ask them to fulfill the terms of various invitations. This can mean exploiting an opportunity in order to develop work that exceeds the terms of a particular encounter, rather than simply satisfying the terms of the invitation. Lucy Clout’s opening-night performance, Yes||Yes, was built around a public interview given by John Prescott, then first secretary of state of Great Britain, in 2001 at the Royal College of Art. The piece seemed to me to be about the use value of art, and the necessary diminuation of art under the reign of utility: “You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in art lessons to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy,” the minister said, endorsing art education in terms recognizable to US cultural officials, always eager to assert the practical value of the arts. But here, obliquely, was a great critique of the nature of exhibitions like this one, putting artists to work in service of an imposed curatorial conceit. It fulfilled the terms of the invitation while it undercut it. A lovely beginning.
The model suggested by Crow–a struggle for possession of the container–suggests a depoliticized take on Institutional Critique, one with little room for, say, the showy provocations of a Hans Haacke. But the explicitly political entered the exhibition in any case, largely due to a decision made early on to schedule the exhibition during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The theme of competition suggested a possible connection to Games, and not incidentally a potential funding source via the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee’s Cultural Olympiad. With funding came, also, a tie to a contested political sphere, broadening the possibility of critique from the fairly benign institution of theContemporaryArtGalleryand its typical governmental and private funders. This played out in Holly Ward’s work for the show, which took on the security arrangements and corporate partnerships of the Games, particularly as those forces limitedpublicaccess to the city and speech rights. Her work “Operation Podium,” taking its title from name given to military security preparations for the Games, built a medal’s platform of cases of Pepsi, which could be freely taken by visitors to the exhibition. The Coca-Cola Company has been a sponsor of the games sinceAmsterdam1928, receiving in turn “global marketing rights in the nonalcoholic beverages category and use of the Olympic symbols and mascots in advertising and promotional activity.” (http://www.thecoca-colacompany.com/heritage/olympicgames_partnership.html, accessed July 12, 2010.)
In the run-up to the games, the city of Vancouver sought to uphold those rights through some bizarre actions, most notoriously a memo sent out to staff of the Vancouver Public Library, asking that the logos of companies competing with official sponsors be removed or covered. “’Do not have Pepsi or Dairy Queen sponsor your event,’ read guidelines sent to VPL branch heads and supervisory staff last fall. ‘Coke and McDonald’s are the Olympic sponsors. If you are planning a kids’ event and approaching sponsors, approach McDonald’s and not another well-known fast-food outlet.’ http://thetyee.ca/News/2010/01/12/2010Sponsors/, accessed July 9, 2010.
Ward explained her approach to this context in a memo to exhibition participants: “While some may see the occurrence of this exhibition at the time of the Olympics as incidental, coincidental or somewhat insignificant, as a local witness to the many negative impacts the Olympics is already creating, this exhibition needs to be a platform to voice resistance, dissent and critique.”
Operation Podium offered us a test of the limits of these forms of expression. The show would carry a Cultural Olympiad logo on its print materials, and by the gallery entrance. Policies here were clear: denigration of the Olympics was not allowed in venues which bore this logo, and sponsorshop agreements must be upheld. The CAG dutifully informed its contacts at VANOC of the projects, with the disappointing result that they would not result in trouble! This, then, was our cordon sanitaire: art, which once invoked would protect our activities from interference. Which wasn’t exactly the goal.
The exhibition was pitched in the form of constructed antagonism, but it became impossible as the show developed to insist on antagonism as the only way to understand the relationships between artists, curator, and gallery. As Stuart Bailey pointed out on a few occasions, inviting this particular set of artists, who are at core rather pleasant, was an odd way to explore antagonism. What developed did not completely lack entirely in antagonism, but brought in other, perhaps more interesting forms of social interaction. This was visible in the exhibition’s works, but also played out in other venues; what would stay mere gossip in other situations seemed more relevant here.
Jonathan Middleton responded to the invitation to infiltrate with a series of projects, one of which he conceived early in the show’s development. He wanted to give the exhibition its title, proposing Strange. The first time I’ve heard of a piano with four legs. (Hey, I keep falling down!) The title derived from a sketch on the Goon Show, a 1950s BBC radio program that influenced Monty Python and the Beatles. The project was welcome, but the exhibition already had a title, one I preferred to retain. The invitation had produced an infiltration, but an invitation always includes some constraints, doesn’t it? How, here, to be a good host? My ambivalence demanded a decision: I decided not to reject the proposal, but to not support it, either, a position that threw the project into further confusion. (The tangled path taken by another of Jonathan’s projects for the show is illustrated elsewhere in thispublication.) I imagined Jonathan would find ways to insert his title into the exhibition, working with his own resources to announce or display the title in competition with mine. Those resources turned out to be substantial. The official Olympics website still lists the show under his title, not mine.
Instead of resolving the issue, I had effectively kicked the problem upstairs, where Jenifer Papararo and the rest of the CAG staff had to decide what to do. They supported Jonathan’s efforts: a pile of posters for the exhibition, under his title, appeared in the gallery, and the vinyl graphics for the windows and title wall of the CAG came back from the shop with Jonathan’s title as well. Here I raised an objection: I still considered titling the show my job, and wanted to follow typical showmaking structures in realizing it, both in spite of and because of the show’s animating ideas. And more conflict would, I thought, make for a more interesting show. I was fine with Jonathan’s title appearing, but believed the original title should still be present on the walls, to be overwritten or otherwise compromised, but still there. I asked the gallery to produce another set of vinyl with my title, so the competition between the two could play out. This was taken as an assertion of authority over the show, which it was, but the line between play and real was seriously blurred, and Jenifer, among others, thought I was being needlessly aggressive toward Jonathan’s piece.
The discussion came to a head over dinner at an downtown izakaya, goosed along by shochu and Sapporo. My memory of the argument is blurred by time and sobriety, but it involved several of the artists, Jenifer, and me, and involved a lot of crosstalk. I tried to explain that despite the theme of the exhibition, I’d never intended to play doormat–which whatever its virtues in the curator/artist relationship, was not going to be interesting for this exhibition. I said something about Jenifer not supporting my title that could easily have been misinterpreted as saying she hadn’t supported the show–which, given the intense labor she’d devoted to its realization, would be an extremely unfair thing to say. The discussion was already heated–I’d accused another artist, who was attacking my response to Jonathan’s work, of not having read my writing on the show as it developed (we’d all been posting on an online discussion group). But I’d overstepped, and though I insisted I’d been misunderstood, and I knew that Jenifer had intensely and observably done much more than simply support the show. I clearly had to take a drink to the face, so I suggested a nearby water glass, which was, in retrospect, completely appropriate for the show’s playfighting theme. A real fight would have required the tossed drink to be liquor. In any case, the argument was somewhat defused, and we went on to the Narrow Lounge for a nightcap. There, needing to make a further gesture of conciliation and gratitude, I picked up the tab. Having successfully sparked some real antagonism, I didn’t actually enjoy it much.
The day after the ruckus in the izakaya, we met in the gallery for a public conversation, which was wholly pleasant, lacking both the intensity and sense of confrontation of the night before. It was hard to grapple with the exhibition in public, especially as the dynamics between artists, curator, and exhibition remained active.
It had became difficult for me to keep track of the project’s animating impulses while actually realizing the exhibition. I found myself looking for situations from far afield to suggest context. I made a series of posts on Twitter linking to information from zoology, professional wrestling, crime reporting, psychiatry, heavy metal, British crosswords, and reality television. (I’d brought gossip magazines and a memoir by a professional wrestler to the publicconversation, but couldn’t fit them into the conversation.) The goal was simply to introduce a range of situations where aggression, collaboration, competition, and misdirection play out. Twitter has several idiosyncratic forms, including the use of “hashtags”: words or phrases prefaced with a #, used to sort posts by many authors on one subject. I used the hashtags #InIn and #faitdivers, the later referring to Félix Fénéon’s short pieces for newspapers at the beginning of the last century, recently collected and translated by Luc Sante as Novels in Three Lines. Fénéon’s faits divers were brief accounts of current events, mostly drawn from the crime blotter, which were immensely suggestive while retaining a cold, descriptive tone. For this exhibition, Twitter seemed an interesting structure to use as a form of marginal notation, a place to collect “weak thoughts,” ideas that could comment on the show without seeking to encompass it.
Here are a few of the posts:
The exhibition, it should be pointed out, didn’t attempt to reinvent the typical organization and hierarchy of an exhibition, but invited challenges to them. In response to an email from Jenifer and CAG director/curatorChristina Ritchie, where they wrote about giving the artist “free rein to be rude”, I replied, “Free rein to be rude is, I think, what we always think we want to offer the artist. I’d like to show the hand on the rein, one way or another.” Meshuggah’s lyrics suggested the difficulties a more utopian approach would run up against. Instead of freeing ourselves of restraints, we could highlight them.
Now why, if I’m mad that somebody hit me with a chair, would I stand up and take three more, I don’t know.”#mickfoley #InIn #faitsdivers12:36 AM Jan 28th via web
This comes from Beyond the Mat, Barry W. Blaustein’s documentary film on professional wrestling. Mick Foley, who wrestled as Cactus Jack and Mankind, is one of the central figures of the film. A rather thoughtful, funny, and likeable guy who has written three memoirs, Foley built a successful career out of taking immense amounts of punishment in matches featuring barbed wire, explosives, and steel cages. Here, he’s talking about a famous match between his character, Mankind, and The Rock. The match was to end with The Rock knocking a handcuffed Foley out with a metal chair, but in the excitement, the Rock exceeded the number of “chair shots” the two had agreed upon beforehand, and Foley refused to go down, forcing The Rock to hit him more. Wrestling has a lot to say about the dramatization of antagonism, and in this moment the line between playacting and “for real” has been blurred. The refusal to go down was what I found most interesting. Foley’s reaction suggested how preset roles of hierarchy can be reversed without the roles changing, and was in my head as I thought about the night where I’d invited Jenifer to throw a drink in my face. I thought also of Lucy’s performance, which was delivered by her in a mundane jumper, typical of a British art student, with the front of its skirt tucked into her tights. This subtle gesture of humiliation charged the critical aspect of her performance.
In sadomasochism and other theatricalized sexual activities, the typical organization of top and bottom can be reversed, in what is referred to in the syndicated sex columns of Dan Savage as “topping from below.” Another post quoted from one of his columns:
Sexualization of nonsexual activities immediately suggests pornography–the moment when the pizza guy, seduced by the housewife, is suddenly revealed as a porn actor. But this is not what I mean to do here. An incident on the reality TV show Jersey Shore illustrated as much, when a castmember’s boyfriend received reports she’d been dancing provocatively with a fellow castmember. When he called the house where the castmates lived, livid, J-Woww put her friend Snooki on to defend her from charges of wrongdoing:
After grind w/#PaulyD, #JWOWW had #Snooki tell bf house, not R&B, was on. “It wasn’t, like, sexual, it’s f’n house music”#InIn #faitsdiversFri Jan 29 2010 13:06:16 (PST) via web
To grind on a guy other than your boyfriend while R&B is playing means something very different, and less defensible, than to do so while the DJ is playing house music. Context changes the meaning of an activity. This is an obvious truth to artists, but I found it interesting to see it so clearly and convincingly explained on TV while the exhibition was underway. A week later, Hadley+Maxwell showed an early version of a video shot in the exhibition, which is reproduced in print form within this catalog. Hadley Howes, dressed as an 18th century gentleman, tours the exhibition, interacting with its works in ways typically discouraged by gallery staff: variously nonchalant, aggressive, and sexual.
These interactions can be read as attacks or as forms of social grooming, something suggested in the following post:
In a New York Times column on bonobo society and de Waal’s work, Natalie Angier writes : “Bonobos use sex to appease, to bond, to make up after a fight, to ease tensions, to cement alliances. Humans generally wait until after a nice meal to make love; bonobos do it beforehand, to alleviate the stress and competitiveness often seen among animals when they encounter a source of food.” The antagonistic relationships set up by this show could be understood, as well, as a complex social situation, which could be engaged through a range of social strategies.
Territorial pissing, as in the Nirvana song, is common to group exhibitions. The galago’s practice, to a human, looks like a self-degradation as a means to self-aggrandizement. (The galago probably sees it differently.) It played out in our social encounters as well. The night of the opening, the artists and other guests were hosted at a dinner that began joyfully and ended in a near fistfight. I was occupied in conversation and missed it, but a Vancouver artist and his friends had mixed with one of the participating artists in a pissing match that nearly came to blows. The spur of the disagreement is unclear, but what stuck with me was the description of the beginning of the encounter, related to me by Hadley. One alpha entered the space and scanned for another alpha to challenge, making a beeline to his table. Everything that happened from that point seemed predetermined.
Territory is also an undercurrent in Hadley+Maxwell’s video; Hadley’s interactions with the other works could be seen as a form of marking or appropriation. The only work not to appear in their video was Jordan Wolfson’s Con Leche, a video given its own space behind newly built walls. Hadley discussed Con Leche’s separation from the other works in our public conversation in terms closer to describing human relationships than formal ones, as if Con Leche had declined social interactions within the show. She used the word “bereft” to describe this feeling. Appropriately, while Con Leche does not appear in Hadley+Maxwell’s video, their video itself was screened in the space devoted previously to Wolfson’s work, on the last weekend of the exhibition: both removing the piece and symbolically rejoining it with the rest of the show.
On that final weekend, as part of Fia Backström’s work Game – Set – Match, I interviewed Yoram Halevy, a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia. Backström’s work was a public conversation between Halevy, hockey coach and former professional player Ryan O’Keefe. Halevy was asked specifically about game theory, which seeks to model behavior in strategic situations where success depends on the actions of multiple agents. Game theory typically studies discrete situations, or games, but Halevy referred to the concept of repeated games, where actions in one game may have repercussions in later games. Thinking this way, “winning” in one interaction could reduce the chance of winning a future game. This exhibition involved artists, curators, and staff who in some cases have worked together, and will possibly do so again, which necessarily complicates strategies. This undercuts the idea of the exhibition as a standalone, one-off experiment, set apart from the careers of the participants and their interactions over time.
Fia’s work, like Jonathan’s, in some way invaded the space typically controlled by the institution and curator. She conceived of the CD containing the conversation with Halevy and O’Keefe as the catalog for the show, and was unhappy to learn that a more typical catalog was also planned. The enclosed CD is included in this publication by her decision, but with a sense of loss. From my view, this further bit of too much, with too many catalogs by one, is in keeping with the messy spirit of the show.
So how to conclude without conclusion? The idea of the repeated game suggests that this is an event occurring in the middle of things, one game in a sequence of games in this place and other places, with these participants and others. There is no point to attempt to collect all these activities of the exhibition, return them to their slots in the curatorial premise, and present a set of findings or outcomes. I created an irritation, hoping to stimulate a response. As the responses overwhelmed the original stimulus, I was happy to become a referee at a boxing match, both keeping the fight fair while attempting, by breaking up clinches, to keep it a fight. Inevitably, I ended up both catching and delivering a few punches myself. And it was not just a fight: that metaphor must sit next to all the others, some explored above, some elsewhere in this publication and in the exhibition itself.
Holly Ward discusses her work in the group exhibition An Invitation to An Infiltration, 2010. An ideal context for an examination of the competitive nature of group exhibitions was during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Organized by guest curator Eric Fredericksen, An Invitation to An Infiltration was a group exhibition of local and international artists ranging from emerging to established.MORE
Teachers guide and lesson plans for for grades K-3, 4-5 and 8-12 based on work in the exhibition An Invitation To An Infiltration.
Are you a teacher looking to further educate your class about one of our exhibitions? Or, maybe you are planning a field trip and would like some further guidance.
Teachers’ Guides support educators who wish to visit the CAG with their students or who wish to carry out lessons related to CAG exhibitions in their classrooms. They include artist biographies, thematic exhibition overviews, suggested points of discussion, as well as recommended readings and references.
Lesson Plans are designed to bring the resources of contemporary art and artists to diverse classrooms. It is our goal to introduce students of all ages to the richness that engaging with contemporary art brings. Such breadth and diversity show that it can be used as a meaningful springboard in teaching a variety of subjects. Please feel free to adapt lessons to suit the specific needs of your class and curriculum.MORE
Dexter Sinister discuss the exhibition An Invitation to An Infiltration, 2010. An ideal context for an examination of the competitive nature of group exhibitions was during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Organized by guest curator Eric Fredericksen, An Invitation to An Infiltration was a group exhibition of local and international artists ranging from emerging to established.MORE
On Saturday we launched our latest publication An Invitation to An Infiltration. Contributing artists Holly Ward and Jonathan Middleton came out for the event and Jonathan was signing fictional dedications in the catalogues. The guests eagerly passed around the books to read his interventions.MORE