The Temporary Space, Houston
Closed April 25, 2010
by Wendy Vogel
Emergent Behavior: Project for a Houston Biennial, 2010
Emergent Behavior, the group exhibition curated by nine MFA students from the University of Houston, just closed at The Temporary Space. But don’t worry; the whole thing is online. You didn’t need to be there … or did you?
This question is at the root of Emergent Behavior. Billed as a project for a Houston biennial, the project grew out of a semester-long conversation in a course entitled Virtual Curating taught by Raphael Rubinstein. The end result was then articulated in two spaces: a physical manifestation at The Temporary Space — a fitting venue for such an ephemeral project—and a virtual one at www.houstonbiennial.com.
What one actually saw upon entering The Temporary Space was a series of numbered outlines in colored tape on the walls. The dimensions of these outlines corresponded to those on a printed checklist of artworks. The set-up was not unlike “spiking” a theatrical stage — the process of placing colored tape to mark the outlines where set pieces should be placed by stagehands. The theatrical metaphor was fitting. Instead of a receptacle facilitating passive viewing of artworks, the space became a theater of memory for the audience. The installation required viewers to mnemonically summon images of the works and imagine their physical presence in the space. This performative act of recollection implied a certain futility in the curatorial process (and an apt parallel for the theory/praxis divide).
This futility was borne out in the “installation” itself. Works overlapped and crisscrossed, corresponding not to curatorial logic or artistic intention, but simply to what fit where. On one small wall alone, for instance, a photograph by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir and a textile/object by Anthony Record directly overlaid a recent painting by Neo-expressionist Albert Oehlen. As one of the curators told me, an installation model was not used: rather, when it came time to “install” the show, the curators simply improvised in the space. Needless to say, with actual objects, the results would be haphazard at best, career sabotage at the worst.
The performative impulse extended to the exhibition’s mediation materials. Another numbered handout given to viewers presented brief curatorial statements on each work. They ranged from the traditional descriptive information, to the poetic (statement #14, on Rachel Hecker’s 2006 painting of an office post-it note entitled Nobody Called: “Everything you ever wanted to know about yourself or someone else can be found within the outskirts of your life”), to ironic judgment (#49, on Jacques de la Villeglé’s Boulevard Edgar Quintet, a décollage from 1987: “Limited shelf life”). This gesture again expressed the irreconcilability of individual curatorial strategies and intentions.
The role of the exhibition-website-as-mediation is clearly upended, as well. The site is the informational hub, with images of artworks presented alphabetically and links to the artists’ websites, encouraging as much associative drift as linear viewing. The themes of the Houston Biennial emerge here, where works by local Houston artists are interspersed with those by their international peers and forebearers. Watercolors that pair a purposely naïve style with macabre subject matter by Cody Ledvina (AIDS, 2010) and Lane Hagood (Modern Ubermensch, 2009) share a sensibility with works by artists such as Mike Kelley, represented with a loose painting on panel of various types wrenched from yearbook photos (Untitled 13, 2008-09). Playful works by Robert Pruitt (Two Sistas, 2009) and James Sham (Close Caption, 2008) examine identity formation, alienation and mistranslation and speak to similar politics of identity in Mamali Shafahi’s collage Wonderland (2,500 years celebration) (2008). Jon Rubin and Andrea Grover’s project Never Been to Houston (2007), which asks non-residents to submit a picture representing their view of the city, resonates with Amirali Ghasemi’s photo installation Choose Your Background (2006-08), where tourists pose in front of painted backgrounds of international monuments.
Of course, these connections only emerge through the viewer’s active participation and website navigation, not through traditional curatorial juxtaposition. In concert with the website, the physical manifestation of Emergent Behavior offers a productive questioning of (virtual) curatorial practice. The installation of overlapping tapelines illustrates the hypothetical apogee of curators’ instrumentalization of artworks. Perhaps this collective gesture is a brilliant sublimation of artists’ fears on the brink of graduation. It equally raises important questions surrounding the biennial model: What would a Houston biennial look like? Could it be done with little-to-no budget? How can artists and curators exploit the “virtual” as an alternative platform in a secondary art capital?
While the format of Emergent Behavior is as much an experimental exercise as a fully finished form (and merits an equally speculative review), it shows a developed critical ambivalence toward the “colonizing” and operatic (“curator as genius”) aspects of existing biennial models. In this respect, the website alone doesn’t function alone. The metacuratorial gesture of refusal — that is, the refusal to limit experience to a prepackaged exhibition — is palpably felt in the exhibition space that lacks a spectacular punch. Only standing within that echoing space, talking about the non-artworks on the walls, cross-referencing handouts and experiences, could one experience the true impact of this absurd attack on the traditional curatorial gesture, and the subtler dig at viewing conventions. Did this gesture expose the theatricality of exhibition viewing? Did the tape outlines of artworks simply become the backdrop for networking among gallery goers? Is this any different from how people normally behave at openings? These questions could only be answered by live viewer participation. In that sense, you had to be there.
Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.