At the Edge of the Frame: On the Artwork as Lobby and Fiona Connor's 'A letter, office move and a book' 

Essay

Published in Kunstlicht Vol. 38, edited by Angela M. Bartholomew

June 2017, Amsterdam

View Kunstlicht Vol. 38 editorial here

The relationship between the artwork and the lobby is a historical one. This was made clear when, on March 22, 1969, twenty-five artists gathered at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and distributed counterfeit admission passes with the inscription ‘Art Workers’ printed boldly on the front. [1] This action materialized in response to MoMA not meeting the thirteen demands of the Art Workers Coalition, previously submitted on January 28, 1969, which, among other things, demanded museum admission be free at all times. At this protest, an artist from the coalition was ejected from the museum lobby for taking photographs of the demonstrators – a perhaps small fact, yet one that introduces the possibility that the lobby is a location for political action.

The following year, on December 2, 1970, the Whitney Museum, New York, opened an exhibition of eleven paintings by Lee Lozano in their lobby gallery. At the time, the Whitney’s lobby gallery was “accessible” and “free of charge” as it remains to this day. [2] In anticipation of the aforementioned exhibition, the Whitney Museum published a press release on November 11, 1970, announcing the “special” exhibition of Lozano’s works. This press release now circulates as an edited version, in which Lozano states that the original was published “without the artist’s inspection”, and as her handwritten edits would have it, much to her dismay. [3] The original is covered in question marks, crossed and blanked-out sentences, coupled with written clarifications and additions. Through this graphic act, Lozano rejects how the Whitney has categorized her work, and re-presents it by literally illustrating the press release’s inaccuracies. It could be argued that precisely because of the continued circulation of this press release on the museum’s letterhead, Lozano’s exhibition became a lobby in a lobby. The manner by which her edits addressed the museum’s behavior and became a demand for accountability will be of importance for this essay. In this instance, Lozano’s attempts to publicly call into account the removal of her artistic agency within the same location that it was supposedly attributed to her, produced a very specific relationship between the institution, the artist, and the artist’s critique. It is this configuration that will be interrogated within this essay in order to rethink the relationship that art has to the lobby. Following an initial analysis of the spatial threshold of the lobby, the essay will move to develop an artistic methodology that conflates artistic labor and political labor in the form of the ‘artwork as lobby’. The characteristics of the architectural lobby will be used to determine the nature of the frame of art in order to make the claim that what defines this marginal space is precisely what imbues it with lobbyist potential. It is here that a shift from the spatial lobby to the political lobby takes place; where two different manifestations of the same term come together to create locational and political proximity to institutional administration.

 

In 1985 the Real Estate section of the New York Times published an article titled ‘Lobbies with Stellas. The developer’s choice’,[4] which discussed a series of recent events that led to “a dialogue between painting and the lobby”. [5]  The first of such events took place earlier in the same year when Frank Stella was commissioned to make a work of ‘public art’ for the lobby of a Lexington Avenue Building. The second, when an office building at 199 Water Street was built around three large works by Stella, housed in the lobby.  Of particular note in this article is the framing of these works as public art. While they are installed in (and made for) an enclosed and semi-privatized space, the nature of the lobby itself means that these works reside in the so-called space of the public. Were this artwork to be shown in a museum, as Stella’s paintings have been many times, it would not be considered a work of public art in the same sense. The architect of 199 Water Street did in fact claim that he “had created what he regard[ed] as a formal museum space for the paintings above portal height by splitting the space horizontally.” [6] Yet the replication of the formal qualities of the interior of a conventional museum space is not what deemed the Stella painting a public work. The circumstances of the museum are, as demonstrated by the Art Workers Coalition intervention mentioned earlier, at best semi-private. Instead, it is the lobby itself that deems the artwork public. In this sense, the lobby operates as a threshold between public and private, internal and external, centrality and marginality; it is, by necessity, at the edge of the frame. This edge is garnered from the lobby’s proximal relationship to administered power – both politically and spatially speaking – but also from the semi-private public nature of the space. It is both part of the action as a whole, but also marginal within that action precisely because it is not seen as the location or activity of the main event. What then, does this conclusion say about the potential of art’s relationship to the lobby?

Such a proposition raises numerous questions, the first being, what in fact is a lobby? We know that architecturally speaking, the lobby is transitory. It is an entry point made useful by extension; its purposefulness garnered by its proximity to the rest of the building. The lobby is to be passed through. Yet it is also a location of transferal – a space that can be entered from both the street side of a public building and the internal cavities of its administration, resulting in its engendering as an access point for a public otherwise kept at a remove. For the lobby is also a place traditionally used to influence legislators by catching them in a fleeting moment of public access on the way to chambers; hence the term ‘lobbying’. In this use of the word, a lobbyist is considered a ‘third party’. One that may sit outside legal obligations to parties with whom they seek to intervene, yet may make their intentions known publicly so as to be on record. Essentially, lobbyists focus on the influence of administrative power – on directors, organizations, representatives, and people of the public sector. A lobbyist therefore has the potential to change policy for their own benefit, but may also obtain legal qualifications like licenses and registrations.

 

The significance of the public nature of the lobby is something that could locate the proposition in this essay within the genealogy of institutional critique. Early iterations of institutionally critical artistic practice were concerned with a “pursuit of publicness” [7], based on “an interpretation of the cultural institution as a potential public sphere”. [8] As Hito Steyerl has noted, they were occupied with the question of ‘why shouldn’t the cultural institution be at least as representative as parliamentary democracy?” [9] Yet by working with a notion of ‘public’ in relation to parliamentary democracy, a discourse was produced that relied on “political participation in the nation state and therefore a fordist economy, in which taxes could be collected for such purposes.” [10] Secondary to this, and before we can define the current state of the art institution, a shift occurred that moved from a critique of institutions as structurally unrepresentative of the public, to a critique of representation itself. Of this shift, Steyerl notes that “a process was initiated which is still going on today. That is the process of cultural or symbolic integration of critique into the institution, or rather on the surface of the institution without any material consequences within the institution itself or its organization.” [11] It is the culmination of the representational, neoliberal, and politically symbolic nature of the art institution constituted over the last forty years that today determines it as a legislative body. That is, it has the authority to make policy for the administration of its own production, therefore determining the art institution as a political entity and the legislative as the institution’s law giving modality. In this way, the sphere of the legislative is socio-political, operating through the institution on a governmental level – that is, the relationship between the art institution, the local council, the state government and the federal government, including partner institutions, funding bodies and other forms of financial relationships whereby the institution becomes in some way compliant with other practices – and the reach of its constituents, be they the ‘residents’ of the institution’s metaphorical electorate. Such legislative capabilities move not only within the immediate and internal structure of the institution but become materialized externally by definition of the art institution as a public body concerned with the sphere of the public. In a hierarchical sense, the legislator presides over administrative and executive bodies, within which the directorship is seen as legislator, the curatorship as executive power (that is, the exercising and governance of the implemented legislation), and the managerial body as administrators. This dynamic reveals the internal legislative structure of the art institution, determining its social constituency– its audience, contracted and non-contracted workers, visitors, guests, critics, tax payers, uninvited artists, artists seeking inclusion, for example – as who and what is being legislated over.

 

If we are to think of the art institution as a legislative body, then it becomes possible to consider how an artwork may operate as a lobby. The sphere of the legislative of the art institution is formalized by its dually cultural and administrative nature. As Adorno argues, “whoever speaks of culture speaks of administration as well, whether it is intended or not.” [12] The task of administration, he continues, “looking down from high, is to assemble, distribute, evaluate and organize”. Meanwhile Adorno defines culture as “the manifestation of pure humanity without regard for its functional relationship within society”. [13] The relevance, and apparent inescapability, of the dialectic of culture and administration is characterized through the banal realization that as well as being a ‘cultural producer’, the art institution is also a workplace. Such a realization allows for a denial of the perceived monism of the art institution, and instead allows it to be approached as a site of labor; a site which includes the production and mediation of art, but also too the physical labor deployed under the banner of the institution such as cleaning, maintenance, installation, and so on. The implementation of daily administrative tasks to oversee the labor dispensed means that the power of an art institution is also administered, and that in this sense, cultural production is forced into the organizational push and pull of administrative structures. Consequently, the site of the art institution is a site of power production and relations. It is therefore possible to imagine that the art institution can be activated as a contested space through its proximal relation to its own lobby, both physically and politically. It is here where we can begin to define a method for making art that productively, and formally, addresses the politics of art institutions.

 

In order to layout the practical framework of this proposed methodology, we could take as an example the work A letter, office move and a book by Fiona Connor, made for an exhibition at Adam Art Gallery, Te Pātaka Toi, Victoria University of Wellington, in 2009. One element of this three-part work materialized as a request in the form of a letter, [14] within which Connor wrote:

 

            Dear Adam Art Gallery,

 

As a component of my work for the exhibition ‘The Future is Unwritten’, I hope to instigate permanent changes to make the gallery as energy efficient as possible and move it towards an environmentally conscious operation. The realization of these ideas depends entirely on the gallery’s commitment to change and collaboration with Facilities Management, Victoria University of Wellington. It would be great to get your support. Below I have summarized the gallery’s energy consumption and have made clear recommendation as to how you may reduce these levels… [15]

 

Of primary importance in any lobbyist practice is the articulation of a demand. It is through this demand that a direct address to policy reform can be made. In the case of the letter, Connor emphasizes the importance of operating on environmentally sustainable terms, and draws attention to a worldwide campaign in universities for such changes. She makes a plea for sustainable measures by locating her demand within and beyond the scope of her work – it is both formally confined yet strategically positioned. Within the letter, Connor offers a number of recommendations in which energy efficient and sustainable practices could be more proactively implemented. This section of the letter is divided into a number of subheadings, namely ‘lighting’, ‘paint’, ‘solar’ and ‘travel’. Through addressing both the material conditions of exhibition making (lighting and painting) and the logistical realities surrounding these ventures (power and travel) Connor brings into collision the dialectic of culture and administration laid out earlier in this essay to address the material realities of artistic production. On these terms, a distinction is made between the task of art as one of production, and culture which is concerned with dissemination. Connor produces a demand, and leaves its implementation in the hands of the institution to quite literally complete the work.

 

Moving on from the demand, Connor’s invitation to participate in the exhibition brings with it a confluence of proximity and compliance. These are the second and third elements of the artwork as lobby. While they are not so clearly distinct from each other, they together determine the breadth for its political influence. On the one hand, Connor makes use of her temporary proximity to Adam Art Gallery by using the space that she has been allocated to enforce a form of institutional accountability – it is now on public record that Adam Art Gallery has been urged to become more energy efficient. This element of proximity is a spatial relation, made clear through her invitation whereby Connor had access to the administration of the gallery. This is concretely evident in a second part of this three-part work, in which Connor moves the administrative office of Adam Art Gallery into the exhibition space. Yet when it comes to compliance, by accepting the invitation and participating in the exhibition Connor could be seen as complicit with the insufficiently sustainable practice of the institution. Her critique is potentially debased through its absorption into the guise of a self-critical institution, and thus runs the risk of falling into the realm of the purely symbolic. But it is here where a distinction between complicity and compliance needs to be made clear, for it is arguably a question of compliance now facing contemporary institutional practice rather than what has previously been deemed as complicity. [16]

 

In light of the increased management of art institutions under neo-liberal conditions – a transference of focus from goods to services within the modern workforce, and the “separation of manual labor from mental labor as one of the hallmarks of managerial professionalization” [17] – Andrea Phillips argues that there is a need to “foreground management – of institutions, of social processes, of personal and public lives – as a site of contemporary struggle.” [18] To do so, it could be argued that institutional complicity is no longer a sufficient way to frame or critique artistic practices that are at once critical of the institution, yet which also situate their work within them. [19]  Instead, compliance is a more suitable term as it denotes the artist as employed by the institution, however temporarily, under the managerial conditions that it entails – a burgeoning necessity, for example, to demonstrate contingency, flexibility and adaptability toward the minimization of risk. This potentially foregrounds management as a site of struggle, Phillips urges. She underlines that by struggle she does not mean

 

[i]n the sense that ‘managers’ oppress ‘workers’ or that enforced micro-management and self-policing are forms and affects of contemporary capitalism. These claims have been well-theorized and debated. But in the sense that the management of institutions – be they arts, educational, social – is key to institutional transformation. [20]

 

In this way, the artwork as lobby complies with institutional requirements, but is not necessarily complicit in these practices – the managed space means that such agency is not attributed to the artist or their work in the first place. On these terms, compliance is behavioral – or, to put it another way, it is behavior that is pre-structured by protocol. Compliance therefore becomes a new paradigm that applies both to the artist and the institution within the logic of the lobby. It has two sides: what the artist demands of the institution and what the institution demands of the artist. This duality means that critique moves beyond complicity as compliance engages the infrastructure of the institution, addressing the rule-making or policy-making side and therefore recontextualising it as not just as site of representation. Therefore, since participation is managed – we could even go so far as to say governed – such a situation leaves artists in a position where we could actually ‘participate in the processes of instituting and in political practices that traverse the field, the structures, the institutions’. [21] And we could do so as a constituency collectivized by the legislative institutional body. On these terms, the artwork as lobby is not a fundamental critique of institutions or a complicit extension, but instead a way to participate in ‘a permanent process of instituting.’ [22] It could therefore potentially negate the risk of performing criticism, as it instead proposes tangible reform. It is concrete in its suggestion – as in the case of Fiona Connor’s work – and goes further to implement it through the form of the artwork, potentially becoming permanently incorporated into the everyday running of the institution in question through putting into practice how structural change could otherwise manifest itself. It therefore practices ‘a more productive permeability between policy and critique’ where each party’s interests could be held in common. [23] It is through its engagement with the liminal space of the institution, and through an articulation of demand, that the artwork as lobby formalizes a method of engagement for institutionally located practices – for practicing with institutions – which could marry artistic labor with political labor, acting from one’s own constituent position within the institution of art.

[1] The Art Workers Coalition was a coalition of artists, filmmakers, writers, critics and museum staff established in 1969 with the aim of accomplishing economic and political reform within art institutions, though most consistently within the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Notable members of the Art Workers Coalition were Lucy Lippard, Lee Lozano, Seth Siegelaub, Wen-Ying Tsai and Hans Haacke. Judy Walenta, a registrar at MOMA at the time, was also a member of the coalition, a fact that denotes the clash between the institution’s administration and the artistic intentions of its artist. Such a clash is of particular interest to this thesis and therefore seems fitting to preface Judy Walenta’s involvement now. 

[2] The Building, New York: The Whitney. Accessed through whitney.org on 10 January 2017.

[3] Whitney Museum of American Art, Press release with artist’s annotations, 1970. Published in: I. Mueller-Westermann, Lee Lozano, Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010, exh. cat. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.  

[4] D. Wedemeyer, Lobbies with Stellas. The developers choice, New York: The New York Times,1985. Accessed through nytimes.com/1985/05/12/realestate/lobbies-with-stellas-the-developer-s-choice.html on 11 February 2017.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] A. Alberro, ‘Institutions, Critique, and Institutional Critique’ in A. Alberro, B. Stimson (eds.), Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011, pp. 2-20.

[8] H. Steyerl, ‘The Institution of Critique’, in  G. Raunig. G. Ray (eds.), Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, London: MayFlyBooks, 2009, pp. 15.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] T.W. Adorno, Culture and Administration, New York: Telos Press Publishing, 1978, pp. 107.

[13] ibid.

[14] In an email that Connor wrote to me she noted that the project has continued since the completion of the exhibition and now has an ongoing presence online. A website tracks the letter and the implementation (or lack thereof) of her suggested sustainability changes for Adam Art Gallery . It is annotated by those directly involved, namely Christina Barton, director of Adam Art Gallery, Micah Sherman, an electrical engineer who specializes in the installation of Solar PV systems, Andrew Wilks, Environmental Manager at Victoria University and Connor herself. The letter can be viewed at www.alettertotheunwrittenfuture.org

[15] Fiona Connor, A letter, office move and a book, 2009, Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Victoria University of Wellington.

[16] The term ‘complicity’ has long circulated within discourse surrounding institutional critique. Raunig articulates its legacy well in his text ‘Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming’ when he writes, ‘What is needed are practices that conduct radical social criticism, yet which do not fancy themselves in an imagined distance to the 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, there own being-institution.’ G. Raunig, ‘Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming’, in G. Raunig. G. Ray (eds.), Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, London: MayFlyBooks, 2009, pp. 11.

[17] H. Molesworth, ‘Work Ethic’, pp. 25-53. Published in: H. Molesworth, Work Ethic, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003, exh. cat. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore.  

[18] A. Phillips, ‘Museum as Social Condenser’, lecture, The Museum as Battlefield: Alternative Models of Museum Practice, Contemporary Art Society, London, 2 May 2017.

[19] The text on the invitation to Louise Lawler’s 1995 exhibition at De Appel read, ‘Recently some critics have questioned her critical role, implying that she ‘merely’ reflected the art world she portrayed, and was herself part of it…’ The criticism for Lawler mentioned in this text denotes the hypocritical way by which institutional critique came to be perceived. Exhibition invitation, a Spot on the Wall, Louise Lawler, 17 November 1995 – 14 January 1996, De Appel, Amsterdam.

[20] A. Phillips, ‘Museum as Social Condenser’, lecture, The Museum as Battlefield: Alternative Models of Museum Practice, Contemporary Art Society, London, 2 May 2017.

[21]  G. Raunig, ‘Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming’, in G. Raunig. G. Ray (eds.), Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, London: MayFlyBooks, 2009, pp. 11.

[22] Ibid.

[23] This phrase is borrowed from Brandon Woolf, who writes in his paper, ‘Putting Policy into Performance Studies?’, that there needs to be ‘a more productive permeability between policy and critique’. He continues, ‘We should begin to think the possibility of a politics which might take the form of an administrative program, and so too think also of a type of cultural studies that will aim to produce knowledge that can assist in the development of such programs.’ B. Woolf, ‘Putting Policy into Performance Studies?’, in Gigi Argyropoulou, Hypatia Vourloumis (eds.), Performance Research 20.4: On Institutions, Oxford: Routledge, 2015, p. 106.