Harald Szeemann and Daniel Buren in Documenta 5

Following my notes on Museums By Artists, I was interested to hear more from Daniel Buren on Harald Szeemann and Documenta 5. Luckily, filmmaker Jef Cornelis recently issued an archive of footage from that exhibition, including interviews with the two men. I have transcribed their comments here, including Buren’s clear articulation of his thesis.

DVD cover of Jef Cornelis’ film Documenta 5 (1972)

Harald Szeemann

We planned this “documenta Urbana” which was, in a way, Mr. Bode’s dream. We also had the documenta seminar, which was Mr. Brock’s dream. But neither one can guarantee documenta’s status as an event, which is the only thing that will bring people to Kassel. And this town really needs visitors during the documenta.

After a certain period of reflection, there was only one possibility which would once again bring a quarter of a million visitors here: by making the most of the prestigious status art possesses in the world, but in order to say something different.

… documenta 5, for many people, it’s been a stabilising force. Various artists, who see themselves as subversive, see no alternative than to remain in the museum context, which is the only context giving meaning to their work.

Q: But it was still you who –

It would be ridiculous to deny it. And I think, from the start, I asked, I demanded that I have that power. I insisted that they replace the committee and give me total responsibility for this exhibition. Otherwise I couldn’t do it.

… It’s clear that a seminar would have been the purest form, and most suited to the situation in 1970. So no visitors. Naturally, we’ve tried in these two years to retain that thematic aspect, to break away from the notion of a modern art exhibition. But at the same time, we couldn’t just ignore the original idea, to make it an event, to draw attention, for the same ten per cent of the visitors, to the didactic aspect of the exhibition.

Daniel Buren

(I’m) displaying my work, the paintings, in this unusual place, in different sections, all throughout the articulation of the exhibition, between the two museums which constitute documenta.

Q: Only inside?

Only inside, yes. Because I think this exhibition, the way it’s divided into sections, moving from one section to another is like going from inside to outside, but within the overall whole that is the exhibition. From one section to another, you go from the inside to the outside.

Q: Have other artists agreed to use your work as a backdrop?

I should say that I wouldn’t have asked.

Q: But there weren’t any problems?

Not so far.

Q: Is it modesty or… Why did you choose such neutral colours?

The colors I chose are theoretical and technical at the same time. In order to bring this idea to fruition, the work had to have absolutely no visual importance, no real importance. So I had to choose something very neutral, very soft. The only way to achieve that restrained tonality was to choose white on white, which poses other problems.

Q: Do you think the public will be suspicious of that?

It doesn’t matter.

… The demonstration is parallel to the demonstration by the curator, Szeeman. The work sort of becomes part of the museum, in which we have come and hang our artworks. Or installations or performances, etc.

Q: So you’re saying Szeeman has himself created a big artwork?

Documenta is characteristic, in a way. As are almost all exhibitions. But it’s very visible here. Harald Szeeman is the artist who has created this enormous painting, which happens to be the exhibition itself. So the exhibition is an exhibition of an exhibition.

… To my surprise, all the artists here are prepared to be put in boxes.

Q: What boxes?

Each room is a box. And you have a label, a title, you’re classified. And we each install ourselves to fit the box.

… We still haven’t emerged from the 19th century. We’re still in the world of pictures. Art is still a series of pictures. Be they conceptual or hyperrralist. We each hang up our picture, which is sort of the meaning that I’m trying to convey, inasmuch as we’re hanging a picture on something. The picture is just there in its own right.

Q: And that’s a 19th century notion?

I think it’s 19th century, it’s also 20th century, which is nearing its end. Although we’ve all been pondering this problem for nearly a century, it still hasn’t been dealt with. It’s still all about pictures and metaphors. It’s interesting and questionable that metaphors exist here, in the idea of a museum exhibiting a museum.

April 9th, 2013 •

Logo Design for Tightrope Books

Established in 2005, Tightrope Books publishes fiction, poetry, books on art, and creative non-fiction. I was contacted by friend and frequent collaborator Nathaniel G. Moore, who requested a symbol based on an image of a flapper girl with a parasol. The full version has her walking a line, which is omitted in the compact and spine version. The type is Whitney.

Tightrope Books spines

Tightrope Books

April 9th, 2013 •

Origins: A User-Generated Museum Exhibit created using iPads, Google Maps and WordPress

Visitors using Origins
Visitors interacting with Origins online at the Chinese American Museum. Photo © Francis Specker

Origins: The Birth and Rise of Chinese American Communities in Los Angeles is a permanent, cutting edge exhibition celebrating the growth and development, since the 1890s, of Chinese American enclaves from Downtown Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley.

Origins was designed for the Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles by THINK Jacobson & Roth. I was fortunate to be brought on as a member of the THINK team, providing start-to-finish design and development on the exhibit’s media component, Origins online. An interactive website available in the exhibit’s Monterey Park area, Origins online allows visitors to find and share great places, stories and resources of the San Gabriel Valley and other LA neighborhoods. The in-gallery presentation includes a table with two iPads for accessing the website, and a third for recording video of visitors’ own stories.

Visitors using Origins
Visitors interacting with Origins online at the Chinese American Museum. Photo © Francis Specker

Agile Design Process, No Wireframes.

One of the earliest decisions we made on the project was to forego traditional wireframes.

The project team, consisting of CAM’s Steve Wong and Michael Truong, and THINK’s Lori Jacobson and Carla Roth, had a strong broad-strokes image of what they wanted. At our first meeting they described a map of the San Gabriel Valley, with markers indicating points of interest submitted by the public. And so, to our second meeting, I brought a working prototype demonstrating that functionality.

We continued in that vein for much of the project. At each meeting we reviewed the current state of the application and came to a consensus on development priorities for the next week. Feeling our way forward, we’d field lots of ideas and implement those with the highest priority. This process reminds me of the saying, “crossing the river by stepping on stones.”

Rather than discussing abstractions and hypotheticals, this approach allowed us to base our decisions on real experiences with a working interface. And rather than spending our limited time producing paper documents such as wireframes and mockups, all our effort went toward expressing ideas in code that could be poked, prodded, tested and, ultimately, launched.

“When Marty proposed working without wireframes, I immediately responded positively to this idea. With a tight budget and a hands-on client, working with iterative prototypes was the way to go. Rather than lingering in pre-production, this allowed us to quickly make team decisions and try things out in a very real way.”

— Carla Roth

At about the two-thirds mark we took a step back and presented our work, and the decisions it embodied, to Executive Director Michael Duchemin, who gave it his blessing. As the physical exhibition took shape we took a break, and by the time we reconvened the launch date had begun to loom large. So we locked development on new functionality and turned our focus to fit and finish.

Origins Online
iPad screenshot of the completed interface.

I proposed that, since the site would be presented in-gallery using iPads, we adopt the iOS design vernacular. Applying gradients, highlights, textures and pop-overs would involve adding substantial complexity to the code, however, and increase the cost-of-change. For this reason we decided it was finally appropriate to create a mock-up and secure a more traditional client sign-off. From there we turned to browser testing and bug barbecue, then finished with the physical installation and documentation.

Google Maps + WordPress + iPads

Curator Steve Wong described his own extensive use of Google Maps in charting the region’s activity and history, and imagined enabling something similar for the community. I had previous experience with the Google Maps Javascript API so was able to hit the ground running. We chose WordPress for the CMS because of its ease-of-use for both development and content management. Additionally, I knew that the Gravity Forms plugin would allow us to fulfill the user-submission aspect of the project. And we chose Media Temple to host based on the suitability of their offering and my own familiarity with their setup. (Their location in Los Angeles was a bonus!)

The implementation’s core technical concept is described in my WordPress + Google Maps tutorial. Also, this project was the original motivator for the Address Geocoder WordPress plugin, which is now available from the WordPress plugin directory. The other aspect of the technical challenge was creating a JavaScript-heavy site that would look its best on 3rd generation iPads running the Kiosk Pro browser, while also performing on the desktop.

I’m happy to answer questions regarding the technical aspects of this project, including the Google Maps API, WordPress or, more generally, our agile approach and deploying web-based museum exhibits using iPads. Questions about the overall exhibit should be directed to THINK Jacobson & Roth.

The Chinese American Museum is a great space with a ton of history and a staff truly committed to serving their community and preserving its heritage. If you’re in LA, go see the exhibit!

February 2nd, 2013 •

Museum Row Guest House

Speaking of LA, while in town to attend the Origins opening I stayed at the Museum Row Guest House, operated by Carla Roth and Merritt Price. The house is located just a short stroll through the charming neighborhood to LACMA, the La Brea Tar Pits and the farmers market and shops at The Grove. You can see the Hollywood sign.

They’re great hosts, having thought of — and provided — everything a traveler needs to feel comfortable. The space, newly renovated in a contemporary fashion, is stylish and clean, with a private entrance through a garden. Staying there was a real pleasure. It’s lovely and you should book it for your next visit!

Museum Row Guest House

February 2nd, 2013 •

WordPress 3.5 media_order Issue Affects Custom Galleries

The revamped Add Media interface in WordPress 3.5 improves a great many things about media management. It’s fantastic and thanks go out to the team for all the hard work!

Unfortunately, the removal of a visible menu order field and the associated “Sort by Ascending / Descending” links has created an issue that affects some plugins and themes.

For instance, I often code templates that detect all images attached to a post and display them in a slideshow. In these cases I rely on the menu_order field to set the image order. Here’s a line I use often:

I’ll walk through the steps that illuminate the issue. First we’ll create a new post and upload a bunch of images to it. Using the “Uploaded to this post” filter, they appear to be in the correct order…

When we look in the DB, we see that their menu orders are actually all “0”. As we will see, this has some funny effects.

We close the Media Upload window and continue our work. When we return to the Media Upload screen, the image order appears to have been reversed.

Now, at this point there’s been no actual change in the DB. But it’s not unreasonable for the user to be a bit confused, and to manually make a change to the order. Here I’ve dragged the 01 image to the first spot:

When I do this, WordPress finally assigns a non-zero order to all of these images. Unfortunately, the order being assigned is the same (backwards) order that we are seeing via the interface.

As you can see, “image02″ has been assigned a menu order of 25. To properly reorder the images involves manually dragging and dropping, which can be quite onerous with large image sets.

See: http://core.trac.wordpress.org/ticket/22758

January 16th, 2013 •

Website for Photographer Samuel James

I’m happy to launch a new website for documentary photographer Samuel A. James, an American working in Nigeria. The site runs the WordPress theme/plugin package I’ve dubbed “Carolyn”, after its initial commissioner, Carolyn Drake. The idea behind this package is to create a system that can be used to quickly deploy portfolio sites of a certain kind. To adapt the package to James’ needs I added features like an automatically-advancing slideshow and, most importantly, the ability to give each site a unique layout / style sheet.

I’m very glad to have the opportunity to work with Sam and am pleased with the result of our collaboration. Check it out!

November 29th, 2012 •

Template Part Shortcode and Carolyn Google Analytics WordPress Plugins

I’ve released a couple more plugins to the WordPress plugin directory. They are the result of day-to-day maintenance on a variety of WordPress sites.

Template Part Shortcode

Template parts are reusable snippets of code stored in your theme directory. Normally, they are called by other template files using the get_template_part() function. This plugin creates a shortcode for calling template parts from the body of a post.

Shortcode usage is: [template part="somepart"].

Template parts must be stored in a “parts” folder within your theme directory.

Get the plugin from the WordPress plugin directory.
Follow on GitHub.

Carolyn Google Analytics

This is a plugin for embedding a Google Analytics (GA) tracking code in your site. It has two features:

  • It stores the GA code as a site setting. This means no modifying theme files, which is especially useful in a Multisite context;
  • The GA code is NOT inserted for logged-in users, meaning you won’t run up your visitor counts as you administer your site;

And that’s it! It works with Google’s “Asynchronous” tracking code, which goes in the page’s head.

Get the plugin from the WordPress plugin directory.
Follow on GitHub.

November 11th, 2012 •

Collecting as an Artistic Mode

This is the second part of my notes on Museums By Artists, edited by A. A. Bronson & Peggy Gale and published by Art Metropole in 1983. Phrases have been lifted from the text, then grouped with like. See also: Museums, Collections and Art.

Daniel Buren
Museums by Artists (Poster), 1983
Art Metropole Toronto Canada
56.6 x 78.5 x cm.

Collecting as an artistic mode has taken various forms throughout history. Early expressions include the collection of studio props and the assembling of the products of colleagues. Depictions of art collections are later joined by “collection pictures,” consisting of numerous small images.(1)

Cubists Braque and Picasso incorporated fragments from “reality” such as stenciled characters and facsimile materials into their pictures without the application of pictorial distortion.(2) This emergence of assemblage and collage signaled a reevaluation of collecting, but still within traditional media.(1)

Marcel Duchamp went further, declaring found objects themselves to be works of art and signing them.(2) Flowing from his self-definition as a flaneur who selects objects for ready-mades, he reduced the visibility of his paintings in favor of emphasis on material elements. In doing so he revealed the obsolesce both of Surrealism’s pictorial production and the retrospective exhibition format, anticipating “the ultimate destination of the object into the structural definition of the work.” Through his concern with placement, transport, evaluation, institutionalization, display and maintenance, Duchamp changed role of the artist as creator into that of collector and conservator.(3)

From its inception with works on canvas, the activity of isolation and reorganization of objects had grown in scale until it lay claim to largest possible setting for presentation, an evolution which lead to the employment of the organizational pattern of collecting — the “Artist’s Museum.” (1) In the hands of artists, a Museum could be used to clarify, heighten or counterpoint intent, or as the actual content or medium of production.(4) Even regarding indirect collections, such as the creation of an exhibit of a collection made or left over by another,(1) what mattered was not the origin of the collection but how, as found or transformed, it fit into the artist’s autonomous form or idea.(2)

“These are museums by artists. And what better place to develop the interior kingdom of the soul than in … this idealized vision of the ‘museum,’ of history, in which the artist animates the quaking body of the institution with his own obsessive will?”(4)

But to create ones own museum was simply to create a “little picture” on another scale. Artists found more success when they matched an object and place which dialectically implied each other. Such artists showed what a work implied in a given place, leading to a consideration of what the place itself implied. Work produced for the Museum must examine its influence. Or, going further, it’s impossible to conceive a work outside the place where it will be exhibited. And it follows that “work taking into consideration the place in which it is shown cannot be moved elsewhere and will have to disappear at the end of the exhibition.”

This, however, presented a challenge to the Museum’s inclination towards preservation and the narrative of “immortality” it desired to present.(5) And so in the 1960s and 70s, language-based art began to question the roles of institutions such as the museum, dealer, collector and public; rejecting object-centered assumptions of construction and sale, and the requirements of exhibition, collection and power hierarchy.(6)

In June and July of 1969, Iain and Ingrid Baxter of N.E. Thing Co. created an environment at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. This performance was “a parable about gallery space” in which a national gallery was turned into an artistic venture commenting on its context. Reflecting “the building’s intended existence as an office complex,” they took over the first floor of the gallery to assemble the Company’s premises and products, with Iain Baxter going to the office every day to carry out the normal “business activities” of his art practice.(7)

The Documenta 5 exhibition of 1975 was “gesantkunstwerk,” using artists and works as if they were “dabs of paint in the panting.”(8) The expanse of collection was emancipated from subservience to artistic production, having become a form of production in its own right. “The collection as manifest outcome of artistic activity thus came to lay claim to the institutional setting which hitherto had been reserved for artist’s products.”(1)

The ultimate example may be bureaucracy as a museum by artists, as embodied by Canada’s Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres (ANNPAC). Founded in 1976, the Association was a living museum resulting from the self determination of artist run spaces and lack of a viable art market or access to New York’s hype-system. It existed in an aura of hyper-aesthetic tension between idealism & poetic aspiration and the empirical realities of cash. Defined by democratic meetings and the lowest common denominator mechanisms of bureaucracy, artists participated in the nationally funded cultural character. (This is in contrast to the US, where they crumble under the entrepreneurial model.)

ANNPAC, a structure for the union of museums by artists, existed outside any particular physicalities. The continual, casual travel for exhibitions, performances and lectures was enabled by communications technology and the Canada Council’s program of travel grants, with publications and video serving as additional connective tissues. Intrinsically self-defining, they allowed communities of artists to recognize themselves as existing (for “we all know the importance of seeing ourselves”). The artist in this context inhabits flux of dream galleries, enacting the whole chain of art world beings.(4)

“The museum in the head is the place, the world, where a never static sum of speculations feed from diverse sources struggle for visualization.”(8)

See also: Museums, Collections and Art.


All from Museums by Artists, A. A. Bronson, Peggy Gale Editors, ISBN 0920956130.

  1. Walter Grasskamp. Artists and Other Collectors
  2. Claes Oldenburg. Mouse Museum
  3. Benjamin Buchloh. The Museum Fictions of Marcel Broodthaers
  4. AA Bronson. The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centers As Museums by Artists
  5. Daniel Buren. Function of the Museum / Function of the Studio / Function of Architecture: Notes on Work in Connection With the Places Where It Is Installed
  6. Peggy Gale. Introduction
  7. N.E. Thing Co. Ltd.
  8. Harald Szeemann. Museum of Obsessions

Thank you Kathleen McLean.

September 16th, 2012 •