Handle With Care: On Storage in Art and Museum Practice

 

Essay

Published in Metropolis M, No. 6, 2021

December 2021

In 1977, when Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum off the back of being fired from the Whitney, she decided she wanted to do things a little differently. In addressing what she perceived to be shortcomings of the Whitney’s organisational structures, she began the New Museum on the basis of a number of hallmark initiatives, a major one being that everyone, regardless of their position, would receive the same salary as a way to horizontalise the value of everyone’s work. [1] More and more, as spearheaded by Tucker, the frame of the institution has been extended beyond the scope of simply its program, producing an ecosystem of interconnected elements at work. The result is an industry interrogating extractive practices from the bottom up, with collection stockpiling being questioned alongside the swampy stasis of a number of museums failing to keep up with the times.

 

When it comes to museum practice, it is the act of collecting—the collection itself—that most deservedly faces scrutiny of this kind. Marcia Tucker, aware of the pitfalls of collecting, also had a rule when it came to the accumulation of the New Museum’s collection: every work had to be sold off after ten years in the museum’s possession. In her case, this was a policy initiative put in place to ensure that the collection stayed true to the museum’s promise of being a space for contemporary art. Through this proviso the collection would avoid the cobwebs symptomatic of storage spaces and would instead reanimate itself with the purchase of new contemporary works on a regular basis.

The stereotype of the collection as something that is suspended in a state of inaction was also a cause for concern for artist, administrator and archivist Rita Keegan. [2] In 1987 Keegan joined the Women Artists Slide Library (WASL) in London in order to collate the Black women’s Artist Index—a smaller archive within the larger WASL collection. Working on this index until 1992, Keegan—the only woman of colour working at WASL—contributed invaluably to the organisation of an important piece of British art history. The larger WASL collection was indiscriminate in its gathering of data (any woman artist, regardless of the style or quality of their work, was automatically included in the library), meaning that what resulted was a comprehensive but, if it weren’t for the work of Keegan, completely disorderly mass of information.

Upon her departure in 1992, and aware of her irreplaceable contribution to the posterity of the library, Keegan removed thirty-two boxes of slides from the collection without permission and relocated them to the African and Asian Visual Arts Archive (AAVAA), where she was to assume the position of director. On the removal of the slides—which caused an uproar within WASL and was labelled ‘stealing’, even though Keegan herself notes that the slides were actually on loan from AAVAA in the first place—theorist and writer Naomi Pearce, who has interviewed and written a dissertation on Keegan, wrote ‘Rita’s removal in order to redistribute challenges the archival ethos of accumulation for accumulation’s sake. It shows that sometimes structures do not hold, as [Sara] Ahmed might put it, momentarily destabilising WASL’s institutional whiteness. Storage is meaningless without understanding.’ [3] The question then arises: What differentiates an archive or a collection from mere storage? If we follow Keegan, the answer is perhaps the intentionality of engagement.

A similar differentiation is at play in the work Storage Piece (2003) by artist Haegue Yang. Exhibited multiple times since it was first made—including in 2006 at de Appel as part of If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution’s Episode II: Feminist Legacies and Potentials in Contemporary PracticeStorage Piece is essentially an accumulation of Yang’s unsold artworks. Unable to accommodate their storage in her studio, Yang instead grouped them together and outsourced their storage in the form of exhibition invitations, transporting the mass from Germany to Los Angeles to London as a way to affectively manage its burden.

Until the work’s reworking in 2007, when it was exhibited at the Haubrok Collection in Berlin, the contents of it were unknown to both the viewer and the exhibitor. Displayed was simply a four-pallet-large collection of packaged artworks. Yet when the Haubrok bought the work from Art Forum in Berlin in 2005 it took on a new life. Upon the sale of the work, Yang not only handed over its physical manifestation but also its authorship. The collector now owned the right to unpack the work together with the artist. Accompanied by a performance and subsequent audio piece, the unpacking of the work brought a new title (Unpacking Storage Piece, 2007) and a revival of the work. As with Keegan and the desire to keep the care of the slides as an ongoing practice, the activation of Storage Piece saw it move from a dormant depot of unwieldy artworks to a durational piece that both revealed and maintained another microhistory: this time the artist’s oeuvre. Through Storage Piece, Yang enacts the implications of naming, illustrating how the term ‘storage’ has the capability to reduce valuable possessions to a faceless mass—despite the fact that what remained under the scaffolding of packaging was a large body of work.

Similarly working with the material implications of acts of accumulation, artist Lara Almarcegui toys with the translation of geological sites to reveal their contestation. Her work Construction Rubble of TENT’s Central Space (2011) saw her reduce the building into sheer calculations of the raw materials needed for its construction. Manifesting as piles of literal rubble, the work calls to mind the endless supply of infrastructural material, as if the mounds of shattered glass or crumbled concrete usually tackled by a bulldozer are instead stockpiles of infinite sweets in a candy store awaiting a scoop. In converting a room—its sheer material mass difficult to truly comprehend when experienced, as we usually do, in its singular form—into such a vast and nondescript collection of material, Almarcegui takes us back to the implications building above the earth’s surface has on what is stored below it.

Recently, Rotterdam’s own artwork storage centre opened. The facade of the Boijmans Depot reflects the cityscape vividly within it, causing one to wonder what exactly we are seeing reflected through this move to make the Boijmans’ national collection wholly public . It’s hard to avoid the mirror-like connotation brought forth, not just because of its clad exterior but also because it’s also already been replicated across many facets of the museum internally. During the depot’s temporary opening last year, I was guided through its then cavernous interior by staff members wearing a redesigned high-visibility vest. Instead of the usual fluorescent yellow, it had been reimagined in a highly reflective silver—construction aesthetics on steroids. The same fabric was used for merchandise produced for the occasion: a specially made Susan Bijl bag, perhaps in this instance a reflection of the middle-class audience addressed in the making of this new venture.

The term ‘depot’ has always been synonymous to me with large-scale multinational companies or the place where buses rest at night: the email from Ikea telling you your furniture is ready for collection from the depot, or rows upon rows of immobile vehicles lined up at the transport depot like headstones. When considering such connotations, what seems to be on display so far at the Boijmans Depot—since the collection itself is not completely ready for perusal—is a mirror-image of the habits of us as humans to reproduce technologies of colonialism in varied and scaled ways. The works and approaches described above stand as some of many examples taken by artists to question the reproduction of these power relations in acts of acquisition and occupation.

The New Museum has recently been the subject of severe scrutiny surrounding its exploitative working conditions—evidence of the museum’s retreat from a progressive agenda since Tucker’s departure, one that I am sure would have her rolling in her grave. [4] This shift again calls to mind Keegan, who instigated her own reparations in the form of taking back the slides, done in the spirit of preservation because she didn’t have faith in the future management of the WASL collection. You can put safety catches in place, trust in best practice, but eventually the task of conservation will ultimately be out of our hands. In the end then, what these instances show is that collections and their constellations—so informed by the people that archive them—simply cannot be maintained in perpetuity. While we may try to preserve and freeze time, this impossibility is perhaps the reason that what a collection and its resources can offer along the way is an active engagement with the present, one that opens up space for other voices to enter.  

 

[1] See further: Marcia Tucker, A Short Life of Trouble (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[2] I want to thank Naomi Pearce for introducing me to Keegan’s work and for the following theorisation of her activities, which she has been researching particularly through her PhD dissertation and her work as part of the curatorial collective the Rita Keegan Archive Project.

[3] Naomi Pearce, ‘Every Contact Leaves A Trace: A Forensic Feminist Investigation into Women Administrators, Gentrification and the Artist Studio,’ PhD diss., University of Edinburgh, 2020.

[3] See further: Dana Kopel, ‘Againist Artsploitation: Unionizing the New Museum,’ The Baffler, September 2021, https://thebaffler.com/salvos/against-artsploitation-kopel.