Here is the complete text of Irit Rogoffs talk at
The Institute™ - Hamilton
"How to Dress for an Exhibition".
Preceding the text itself is a preamble which situates this text in relation to a visit to Goldsmiths College by curator Bart de Baere and an exchange between both thinkers. Visitors to The Institute™ website have the rare opportunity to see this backstage document in relation to the text it frames.
Inter / Text
BdB and IR
The thread that links these texts , as much in opposition as in dialogue, is the attempt to engage with the thorny issue of intention -- not just to engage with it but to play it out in all of its evident and veiled potentialities and contradictions. This is not intention in the simple form of either directives from above or personal testimonials but intention at the level of circuitous gestures and averted gazes as we can work to elicit it from the arenas which are visible and available to us.
Seemingly, at the point of departure we are both arguing for an expansion of the understanding of what the institutions and practices of display might encompass. Equally in both cases we are arguing in the name of that which is not there, for which no category exists and which is therefor not even marked as an absence. Subsequently these paths diverge into different arguments.
BdB - argues for an expansion of what the museum might collect, organizes those revised principles of collection according to an expanded notion of artistic production, to the artists intentions and to what might adequately represent that field of work. The argument insists that the boundaries of the object be opened up to the processes of production, of dissemination, of publication and of archivization. That the museum make all of these processes far more transparent to the public and that it visibly articulates that publics necessary presence to, its participation in, the work on display.
The argument promotes new categories informing the notion of collection where possession and knowledge intersect and acknowledge each other.
(Bart, Ive put this in more for language than for substance - change it around and add what needs to be added - it just felt necessary to HAVE something there so that I could argue with it!).
IR - argues that an alternative reading of the spaces of display could be used in order to further a theory of participation which departs from the traditional one of political representation or of straight forward politics of visibility. Such an alternative theory might look at how these spaces are mobilized for the proliferation of performative acts by which audiences respond to the concepts which underlie exhibitions and use these as possibilities for staging themselves and their desires. This mode of argument moves away from engaging with particular objects or with the stated intentions of the exhibition makers. Instead it focuses on the inventive, unconscious and unarticulated strategies by which audiences subvert the subject of the exhibition in order to put on display some hidden dimension of the problematic which they can locate within themselves, but cannot as yet recognize within culture.
At the heart of this argument is the understanding that political representation dictates the terms and modes of participation from above and thereby closes off the possibilities for alternative articulations of what might constitute the political. Since performance stands outside the reproductive economy of representation, it can experiment with and attempt that which cannot yet be accommodated by the culture of political representation. Therefore curatorial strategies that dictate to audiences their node of participation in the exhibition in the guise of a democratization of a cultural experience - work to achieve precisely the opposite - they close off the possibilities for a self articulation.
Instead there are emergent reading strategies which avert their gaze from the objects on display and focus on the audiences and on all of their small scale peripheral gestures and activities. This averted gaze defies the dominant centrality of any one cultural element within the public sphere of culture, claiming instead that all around us clues of what is to come which we might not yet be able to read.
Our texts do not oppose one another. They do not argue for the exclusivity of one approach over the other. On the contrary, the conjunction of texts argue for the potential immensity of the arena in which we work, for the fact that it is expanding in such directions and can sustain such radically different readings. Once one has opened up the empire of the object beyond its immediate boundaries, there is unlimited number of critical strategies and readings by which the field of displayed culture can be expanded and an unlimited number of subject positions who can enter and inhabit it.
"How To Dress for an Exhibition"
Director, Cultural Theory Programme
Goldsmiths College, London University
"The pleasure of resemblance and repetition produces both psychic assurance and political fetishization. Representation reproduces the Other as the Same. Performance, insofar as it can be defined as representation without reproduction, can be seen as a model for another representational economy, one in which the reproduction of the Other as the Same, is not assured. " (Peggy Phelan, Unmarked)
Participation in the Field of Vision
We all believe in the principle of participation.
From the institutions of parliamentary democracy we sustain to the practices of listening to, rather than silencing or ignoring, the voices of children, women, minorities or the handicapped we take part in, we all uphold and approve the rhetorics of participation as they circulate in political culture. What we rarely question is what constitutes the listening, hearing or seeing in and of itself - the good intentions of recognition become a substitute for the kind of detailed analysis which might serve to expand the notions of what constitutes a mode of speaking in public, of being heard by a public.
Of course one of the main issues within this structure is that the question - whatever the question might be - is inevitably articulated at the centers of power and it is only the response which is paid attention. What interests me is the possibility of reading a response as a form of re articulating the question of what it might be to take part in public sphere culture.
This paper then charts the beginning of an inquiry into the possibilities that exhibition spaces might provide in order to accommodate the proliferation of performative acts by which audiences shift themselves from being viewers to being participants. Furthermore the participation I have in mind goes beyond an aesthetic identification within the confines of spaces reserved for artistic practices and towards a model in which these spaces re-engage with political culture in unexpected ways. The argument is predicated on a belief that art does not have to be overtly political in its subject matter in order to produce a political effect thus constituting a politics rather than reflecting one. It is this differentiation between the subject matter of works or exhibition thematics and the subject of the exhibition which is the main issue I should like to get to, albeit via a slightly circuitous route. In trying to recount a series of scenes in which audiences produce themselves as the subject of whatever may have been put on view for their edification, I am arguing that exhibition spaces might indicate possibilities --rather than provide opportunities -- for self representation.
Since location and situatedness are everything in my analysis, I want to locate these remarks at the intersection of three arenas. These arenas make up my working, cultural and personal life and therefor cut across the numerous levels through which I, for one, participate in culture.
1. The first of these is the current conjunction of a general cultural politics of difference (sexual, racial, cultural, etc. ) with the intellectual, analytical possibilities opened up by what Derrida has termed Diffèrance , the understanding of differentiation coming about in language and of enunciation actually producing an event. diffèrance is the process by which meaning is differed - never truly present but only constructed through the potentially endless process of referring to other, absent, signifiers. This is the intellectual formulation which might allow me to move from visibility as a mode by which presence is assured in public space to performance which allows for the intimation of a cultural co-existence in the space with an entity not-yet-named.
2. The second is a moment of cultural funding and of cultural awareness in the Anglo-American world that has made possible a series of large scale exhibitions having to do with women artists, feminist histories, gay and lesbian artists, representations of Black masculinities and many others which have produced an effect in culture which goes way beyond what took place in each exhibition. The sheer numbers of the exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues and of course all of the cultural and intellectual works that preceded them, makes it possible to begin to theorize issues of representation and participation beyond the rightness or wrongness of each specific exhibition.
3. Finally it is important to recognize that all of this can take place and link up within the context of what we are provisionally calling Visual Culture -- a field in which critical theories of signification, spectatorship, consumption and identification are intermingling with the visual; the arts, film, mass media and cyberspace. As it is not really a field yet, one does not have to fight against various traditions and orthodoxies and one has the great luxury of inventing practices. In the shift that took place from art histories to discourses on representation within cultural criticism informed by post structuralism and questions of difference during the 1980s, a certain move was made from looking at cultural artifacts as reflective to perceiving of them as constitutive. This was of course part of a much larger question to do with the establishment of meanings. How and where are meanings determined? By whom? For which readers or viewers? And through what structures of identification or disidentification?
One of the most important aspects of this shift from the reflective to the constitutive mode by which visual representations are understood to signify, is that it has opened up the field of relevant materials to the location of images almost beyond limits. It is in the wake of this emergent study of visual culture one devoid of generic boundaries or hierarchical mediums, in which difference and subjectivity are constitutive components of the field rather than analytical additions to it that it becomes possible to trace the language shifts that have begun to take place in the aftermath of displacements, migrations, enslavements, diasporas, cultural hybridities and nostalgic yearnings undergone by contemporary subjects.
My own practice has been the attempt to shift from writing about art, in which a certain objectification of objects and territorialization of knowledge takes place, to an alternative practice of writing with art -- in which particular work intersects with issues of current and urgent interest to me, and not simply illustrate them but actually allow me to think through the next step -- a next step which has not been possible to conceptualize theoretically.
How does one evolve thoughts towards a theory of participation -- of what it means to be a full participant in culture? If the emphasis here is to be shifted from a clear and concensual understanding of what questions needs to be raised and what issues discussed is to be dislodged - where and how would one begin to track the potential emergence of an alternative set of issues or questions and how would one recognize them when one was actually confronted by the being-articulated-in process? .
In order to try and move from a presence to an absence one has yet to recognize, one might take a cue from a series of events that have actually taken place and try and see whether a series of co-existent performative stances might have emerged alongside these events. At this moment I have been thinking of 3 separate modes of participation which have been invoked by a series of exhibitions:
The exhibitions have included;
Bad Girls ( 3 versions; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York and Los Angeles1993 and ICA London 1993. )
Andere Körper (Other Bodies, Linz Offenes Kulturhaus, 1994)
Mise én Scene (ICA, London 1994)
Black Male (Whitney Museum of American Art, N ew York, 1995)
Inside the Visible (ICA Boston, Whitechapel, London, Perth, 1996)
Sexual Politics (UCLA Museum / Armand Hammer, Los Angeles 1996)
In a different light (Berkeley University Museum / City Lights 1995)
More than Minimal (Brandeis University, Rose Art Museum, Boston1996)
Parallel to the overtly cultural discourses of sexual and cultural difference there has also been a body of Post-structuralist Political theory by the likes of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe or Giorgio Agamben, which is questioning the viability of elected parliamentary/democratic institutions as able to represent the full complexity of peoples needs and problems. This in the wake of identity politics on the one hand, and in recognition of the centrality of subjectivity in the formation of consciousness and the need to find ways of integrating this subjectivity into the political process, on the other. What both discussions share, though through vastly differing political genealogies is a growing understanding of the limitations of representation as visibility and the equation of this conjunction into a model -- the model --for political and cultural participation. Peggy Phelan, in her ground breaking 1993 book "Unmarked - The Politics of Performance", articulates the limits of visibility as representation thus;
"Currently, however, there is a dismaying similarity in the beliefs generated about the political efficacy of visible representation. The dangerous complicity between progressives dedicated to visibility politics and conservatives patrolling the borders of museums, movie houses and mainstream broadcasting is based on their mutual belief that representations can be treated as real truths and guarded or championed accordingly. Both sides believe that greater visibility of the hitherto under-represented leads to enhanced political power. The progressives want to share this power with others; conservatives want to reserve this power for themselves. Insufficient understanding of the relationship between visibility, power, identity and liberation has led both groups to mistake the relation between the real and representational. "
Moving from the insistence on a politics of representation to a marking of performative acts and instances , the possibilities for participatory activity viewed through these exhibitions seems to function in 3 overarching schemes:
1. The first is the attempt to construct a historical lineage of participation (women, feminist art movements, historical moments pierced by less acknowledged, marginal activity). Thus exhibitions which chart for example the work of women artists within a wider history, or track an alternative structure for such a historical account through the work of women artists or bring into visibility the work of gay and lesbian artists for who a specific category of institutional display has previously not existed.
2. The second category has been one of Identification with transgression - a critical and defiant engagement with codes of the normative (behavioral or artistic)
3. The third strata of activity has been instrumental in producing various forms of self-staging within the spaces provided by the exhibition. It is this category, unplanned and unintentional and made possible by some turning of the fundamental question which informs the exhibition concept, which I want to focus on.
"How to Dress for an Exhibition"
On a bright and sunny New York afternoon, my friend Abigail, my sister Daria and I set off to see the "Black Male" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. For those of you who are not familiar with this project, this was an exhibition which explored conjunctions of Blackness, of masculinities, and of representation in a variety of media -- ranging from the dizzying heights of the painted canvas to the lower depths of sports advertising. Curated by Thelma Golden and accompanied by a distinguished catalogue in which numerous African American writers, critics and analysts argued the critical issue of the presence/absence of Black Masculinities in United States culture. The exhibition was enormous, with more than 60 artists each showing several works. After an hour or so the sheer taxonomy of the project began to weary me. I had the sense that I was being shown every image of every imaginable Black masculinity ever painted, drawn, sculpted, photographed, videoed, digitalized, etc. As I dont do all that well in situations of encyclopedic bombardment, I shifted my attention from the work on display to the audience viewing it. The first pleasure was to see so many Black men at the Whitney Museum -- one rarely sees many Black men in mainstream museums in the United States. On occasion one encounters middle class Black women in museums taking part in the gendered economy of acquiring cultural capital. But on this Sunday afternoon there were hundreds of men at the Whitney, deeply engaged with the exhibition. The second pleasure was the realization of how spectacularly dressed most of these Black male viewers were -- there was every variety of clothing from the round caps and flowing sashes of traditional tribal kanti cloth to Armani suits, to meticulously coordinated and elaborate sports garb, to the black leather favored by the gay scene to the tight dresses and fantastic make up of the transvestites. Every outfit was fully thought out, perfectly presented and very strategically placed. The third pleasure was the concentration with which the numerous, long and elaborate texts which played a central role in the exhibition were being read -- all of these exceptionally well-dressed viewers were almost performatively reading the texts with the greatest attention to every detail.
What had happened here was that through a complex amalgam of sartorial strategies, unplanned and uncoordinated, the viewers had in effect taken over the exhibition space and put themselves on display within it, virtually transposing the subject of the exhibition.
I want to use this moment as an opportunity to theorize participation in relation to marginalized histories and the politics of emergent cultures. "Black Male" was a particularly interesting moment because it was a first of its kind in terms of the museum culture and because it set itself a particular problematic: In his introductory essay, Henry Louis Gates, one of the most respected mainstream voices of African American culture, sets two issues for the exhibition project. The first is a question. "If Blacks were such a dominated group, such an oppressed group", he asks, "why were such an enormous number of debased negations demanded to maintain their social control? " He is referring to the enormity of racist stereotypes which circulate visually in Anglo American culture -- if you do not have first-hand knowledge of these then you are surely familiar with them through the visual investigations of racism in the work of Carrie Mae Weems, of Fred Wilson, of Glen Ligon, Adrian Piper, Jimmie Durham and of Kara Walker, to mention only a few. Therefore the issue is to understand why this massive project of visual control is necessary to contain a group of people supposedly already entirely oppressed by culture and economics.
Few images in US. culture, and probably in Western culture, are as overladen with meaning as images of Black masculinity, as Kobena Mercer, Isaac Julian and Glen Ligon have shown. Black masculinity is simultaneously the site of fetishized sexual desire and of extreme social phobia, making it a virtually uncrackable series of photographic, filmic, TV. news, etc. images.
In a similar vein Suzanne Lacey in a massive performance which took place in Oakland California in 1996 entitled "The Roof is On Fire" - produced a reversal of the gaze and of who is in language. Lacey with a large group of collaborators took over a multi story car park in Oakland, a predominantly Black and economically depressed city in the neighborhood of Berkeley and of San Francisco. In this car park were several dozen shiny new cars which had been donated for the evening by local car dealers. In each car sat a group of teen agers conversing on a subject which had been set out for them with the windows of the car rolled down. As the work was done in collaboration with an Oakland High school and as Oakland is demographically predominantly black, virtually all the adolescents in the cars were themselves African American. In order to take part in the work the audience had to walk among the cars in the car park and stick their head through the windows and listen quietly to the teenagers conversation. For the majority of this art world audience any previous contact with Oakland teenagers would presumably take place through the TV screen on which nightly bulletins of violence, drugs, car thefts and arrests figure largely. In these images shadowy figures with their head averted would be led away by police while a reporter provided an alarmed and morally outraged narrative of the events. In "The Roof is on Fire" all these relations were reversed; the viewer had to make an effort to both look at and listen to the conversing youths in the cars, all of the sign system of the nightly news broadcasts; shiny cars, multi story car parks, Black youths, TV crews and Fire men were disrupted in this instance and prevented from telling the familiar narrative. Beyond the disrupted sign systems, here was a work in which the supremacy of a certain organizing gaze; white, middle class and privileged was denied and that same audience was forced into another mode of spectatorship in which it could not presume to automatically decode and attribute meanings to the signs it was encountering.
I want to deal with images of those who are raced and gendered, and sexualized and classed, so that they are simultaneously over-represented in the regimes of vision and under-represented in the institutions of politics.
This discussion takes place at the intersection of 2 discourses of representation: Visual and Political. This is a far more complex problem than one of redressing the balance -- of bringing in the under-represented, of showing which has been out of vision. What is truly at stake is the concept of participation --
Not participation decreed from above by curatorial intentions;
Not participation organized through the structures and institutions of political representation;
But participation that is generated by unconscious strategies of self-staging, be it through dressing, of fantasizing, or fictionalizing.
The men I described before, the viewers of "Black Male", put themselves on display, they invaded and took over the space, they staged themselves as the objects on view, they breathed current life into the notion of Black Masculinity, they pursued a mode of participation that had not been invented for them through the good intentions of those who determine the means of participation and the modes of representation.
This was not planned, strategized, coordinated and executed. It simply happened. But it happened in the wake of a certain political shift of considerable importance. Following on from the kind of Post-Structuralist political theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe and of Giorgio Agamben: work that tries to rethink issues of political participation and representation away from traditional Western parliamentary-based, electoral political institutions, and towards the unexpected and unconventional ways by which citizens come into alternative voice and representation. The issue here is more than simply the rejection of totalizing state ideologies. It is the realization that we live out complex, fragmented and incoherent subject positions, that often the different strands of our identity -- sexual and racial, our education and occupation, our genetic encoding and the diseases our bodies bear, our learned cultural preferences and our secret fantasies -- are all at odds with one another. In terms of being able to come together into one coherent political platform, we are rarely able to galvanize all of these dimensions into an applied institutional politics. Instead we are developing a political theory of highly contingent groupings which give articulation to the often contradictory imperatives of our identities. Sometimes we meet and hammer out position papers, and campaign for affirmative action and symbolic representation, and at other times we simply dress for an exhibition.
Now you may think that my fashion eye was so sharp and focused at the "Black Male" exhibition because I felt nothing more than a bit dowdy, not quite as effectively put together as I may have been. Well let me assure you that we were all three quite elegant -- if memory serves me Abigail was immaculate in navy blue Sonya Rykiel, Daria was enfolded within the pleats and creases of Issey Miyaki and I was wearing one of those austere, minimal German suits I like so much. We were certainly elegantly turned out -- but quite wrongly in this particular context. We are all three professional women, charter members of the so-called Art World, we use our clothes to signify a certain independence of position, a set of cultural alliances, perhaps even a feminist refusal of certain female stereotypes. We are no longer in the position of having to use our clothing as a counter-attack aimed at breaking up the colossal homogenizations and inherent fears the world entertains about us -- as did the participants/viewers at "Black Male" -- of not only bringing the invisible into vision but of making it as complex, as multi-faceted and as contradictory as we all know ourselves to be. But there is another dimension to this argument and it has to do with the elicitation of audiences, of recognizing those who listen and view as active participants not just as completing the making of meanings but as Michel Foucault argues "The agency of domination does not reside in the one who speaks (for it he who is constrained) but in the one who listens and says nothing; not in the one who knows and answers but in the one who questions and is not supposed to know. ". Our own recognition of the inadequacy of our self representation within the context of that exhibition space and its possibilities, of its lack of need to actively represent us, allotted us that position Foucault articulates of silent partners in someone elses process of questioning.
Hot on the heels of "Black Male" came a slew of exhibitions mentioned earlier:
Inside the Visible
More than Minimal
In a Different Light
And, on a slightly different tack, my own favorite "Mise én Scene" at Londons ICA. "Mise én Scene" displayed work by Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun and of 2 young contemporary British women, Tacita Dean and Virginia Nimarkoh. To be honest I cant quite remember what I wore the afternoon I went to see "Mise én Scene", and I cant quite remember what anyone else there wore either -- because the counter-transference of the display was more at the level of fantasy than of sartoriality. Since the point of the exhibition -- fictional self-staging -- was not driven home in a pointed, didactic manner but allowed to emerge in the larger, tranquil, empty spaces between each artists work -- spaces that suggested links between the womens art making and which invited us into a state of similar wonder and self-staging -- I remember well the stories I made up that afternoon, my uncertainty of whether Tacita Dean actually existed and my certainty that it didnt matter as I could nevertheless participate in the inventive narrative that was her/her work. More than anything it reminded me of Theresa de Laurentis descriptions of the work of the Libreria Della Donna in Milan whose members would rewrite the endings of great literary classics according to emergent feminist desires.
Some of these exhibitions brought attention to the work of women artists, some to the history of feminist art, others attempted to subject a term such as "Minimal art" to sexual difference, others attempted to invoke sexuality as the transgression of normative bourgeoisie heterosexuality, or allowed us, as in "Mise en Scene", to write our fantasy scenarios into the destabilized spaces between the artifacts on show.
Each one of these exhibitions, more or less successfully dealt with issues of the representation of the marginal and with strategies of participation within the larger map of culture. All put forward an alternative to that model of participation determined by the good intentions and democratic aspirations of curators and organizers. Running the gamut from Hans Jurgen Olbrists very unfortunate project "Take Me Im Yours" at Londons Serpentine Gallery in 1996, to Christine Hills far more complex "Thrift Shop" at Documenta X in 1997 and soon to be transposed to New Yorks P. S. 1 -- these exemplify the models of participation predicated on a predetermined strategy, its rules set out as if in a game, its audiences treated like mice in some scientific experiment in which they scuttle through mazes and pedal on carousels in order to prove some point. What is so disappointing about such projects is not the effect of the projects themselves but the curatorial assumptions which sustain them. Assumptions about processes of democratizing cultural institutions by giving audiences some mechanical task to carry out and involving the materials of every day life; old clothes, chewed gum, newspapers, anonymous photographs etc. In these choreographed games no attention is paid to the power bases of the institutions themselves, to the needs of the audiences, to the possibility that these visitors might have something of value and relevance to say if only given the space and the possibility and the legitimacy to articulate it. Perhaps most irritating is the use of everyday materials galvanized to act out some fantasy of democracy in action. These materials are familiar and not highly valued and therefore presumably perceived as popular, in setting them up a priori as a set of alternative cultural materials not only is nothing new being introduced into the discursive realm of the exhibition but that very possibility of actually encountering either an unknown formulation or the unexpected subversive deployment of them, a Situationist detournage of familiar materials, is effectively blocked. In these not very reflexive attempts to democratize high culture, the lessons of early mass media theory, which might have been useful, are being ignored. Already in the 1920s Sigfried Kracauer questioned the mass in mass media; it was not the numerical size of the audience the media were reaching, he argued, and it was not the number of mechanically reproduced items which were being circulated out there. Rather this mass was about the emergence of centrally organized responses and identifications which cut across previously marked differences. Thus it is never materials themselves that are popular or mass but the responses they elicit and the patterns that those responses might take
In the amalgam of exhibitions and audience self-stagings over the past couple of years -- perhaps not in what was put forward alone in each one but rather in what came together between them all -- we find a correlation to strands of contemporary political theory -- to work that tries to rethink political representations and participation away from traditional election-based institutions and towards the unexpected and unconventional means by which citizens come into alternative voice and representation. A political theory and a cultural practice that takes into account the fantasmatic, the subjective, the unplanned -- like Princess Dianas funeral in London in 1997. We did not learn a great deal about the Princess herself and I doubt that what we were exposed to on our TV screens actually constituted an outpouring of feelings towards her exclusively. We all agreed that what we had witnessed was a shift in the representations and signification of cultural stereotypes by a populace that felt constrained within a tradition and its modes of representation which no longer expressed all the changes that had occurred in their society. Through the formal trappings and ceremonies of an extremely emotive event these audiences took over the space and staged these changes by performing various emotions for which there was no system of agreed upon public representation and for which no permission existed. More than the actual elections which took place in Britain four months earlier and which brought about a radical political shift in terms of parliamentary representation, the conclusion after the public staging of emotion in August 1997 was that "Britain had changed" . Confused about all this and on the eve of my own move across the Atlantic to London I called a friend in London and asked what he thought. He said "did you ever think you would see thousands of British men weeping in the streets? ", I most certainly had not and wondered to myself if this was a new benchmark in which we would now read political and social change through the stagings of having a good cry.
Vienna - Scenes from a Performative Unconscious
The importance I attribute to these performative moments has largely to do with how they indicate a politics at the level of the unconscious, a politics that cannot be articulated as yet within existing discourse or currently available permissions.
Earlier this year I did a guest stint in Vienna with a group of colleagues who work on issues of museum theory and hold positions in museums and academic institutions in the city. We read various texts in the critical study of museums and display practices and visited many of the citys museums to try and see how we might read those actual strategies in relation to some of the critical models we were dealing with. The following are string of disparate moments from that week and which I perceived as a performative unconscious on all of our behalf.
In Viennas small Jewish Museum an exhibition was on show entitled "Masks" . As there is really no carnival tradition within Judaism I was initially puzzled as to what might be the subject of the exhibition. Finally it became clear that the masks on display were death masks of victims of experiments conducted on living human subjects throughout the Nazi extermination camps. These had been recently found in the basement of Viennas Museum of Natural History by someone researching something else , having originally been purchased directly from one of the scientific institutions carrying out the experiments by the museum for its collections in 1943 and subsequent to their rediscovery, had been embarassedly shunted off to the Jewish museum.
The previous day we had also been to the Jewish Museum but to look at its permanent display which consists primarily of holograms of Jewish life in the city prior to the Second World War. In discussing the display which is exemplary for its effort not to try and replace the now absent inhabitants by a plethora of compensatory objects but to play with that very absence through the ghostly medium of holograms - we talked of the fact that the real absence in this display was that of anti-semitism, of the ideological and behavioral racism which animated this vast cataclysmic tragedy we now call the holocaust. I thought to myself that I would like to be able to see that hate, that confusion not in the familiar scenes of violence and aggression but in small every day life acts and patterns. What did the faces at one of Freuds first public lectures look like as they sat and listened to their entire world order being turned around ? , what was the expression of the readers of Karl Krauss when the language they were so familiar with was taken away and transformed ? . It is not so much in the moments in which subjects are marked out as different as in those moments when the shared culture is marked out as different, that true psychic violence in the form of racism takes place.
The very next day, at the "Masks" exhibition we were given access to this very process. The exhibition had been assembled out of the meager remaining material that testify to that particular moment of experiments on human subjects within the contexts of extermination camps, enslavements, war and the dehumanization of subjects along the lines of racial difference. Starting off with the names of camps and the diseases experimented with in each one, it continued with an exchange of letters between the director of a scientific institute in Posen involved in these experiments and the director of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna who wanted to purchase some of the death masks made from the recent victims, for their collection. Beyond all the factual details of the exchange, it was the tortuously polite, elaborate and ritualized courtesy of the exchange which is the primary shock. We find here access to precisely what was missing from the earlier displays I described, the civil, bureaucratically sanctioned face of virulent anti semitism winding its way through letters with long, ornate, flowery sentences full of honorifics and titles and in which the word Jew is not mentioned once. At some point in the exchange a break occurs and we find a hand written letter from the wife of the Posen scientist who announces that the honorable doctor, professor, director of the medical institute, my husband has died as a result of an infection caught from one of the criminal corpses he was operating on. This, according to my knowledgeable Viennese colleagues, was part of a successful bid for a war widows pension, yet another link in the chain of rhetorical gestures which serve to tame and mask the horror of what is being dealt with. The exhibition continued with the ethereal death masks themselves, far less horrifying than I had feared and with more documentation on the medical practitioners who had requested and justified the program of experiments. coming out one is confronted with ones own face caught by a delayed time camera and shown on a series of monitors. All of the confusion, incomprehension, revulsion and whatever other responses one might have had, are projected again as part of what is on display - the disassociation one might have sought refuge in faced with such exhibits, has been denied one.
After viewing the exhibition we met with the curators who were impressive in their reflexive questioning of their own practice and willing to experiment rather than to be seen to do the right thing in view of the nature of the history and of the materials they were displaying. I asked what the reaction in the Austrian press had been to the show as I had never seen anything quite like it and thought it had begun the long and necessary road towards the reconstitution of the actual object on display. "Response? " said the curator, "There was no Response". More than anything else I encountered on that occasion this brief answer marked the performative nature of this project - the immense effort to engage in another form of discussion about a shared history, blocked by the impossibility of producing a response. For all the immensity of activity, the money spent in the city, the books written and read, the commemoration monuments etc. there was no existent discourse in whose context an actual response could be produced. To reveal this absence behind the plethora of activity one required precisely such a performative moment.
The other scene I wanted to invoke is less grim - less weighty but not without its own consequences. My colleagues had told me about a contemporary art work which had been set up next to the Staatsoper in the city center which we ought to look at . Made by two young artists, it is a white cube with text on each side in the four main languages of internationally circulating culture. On the cube are detailed, factual accounts of how the Austrian state is dealing with refugees at the present - some of them are in camps and prisons, others are being sent back to clearly grim fates, only few are allowed refuge etc. . We stopped by on our way elsewhere, by the side entrance to the Staatsoper a group of young men dressed in 18th century costumes and wigs were distributing pamphlets to the tourists wandering by what is obviously one of the citys greatest glories and cherished landmarks. The location of the cube next to the opera house was intriguing and provocative, it made me want to think again about the absence of a discourse I had been so convinced of the day before at the Jewish museum. From the corner of my eye, while reading the text on the cube, I noticed the young Mozarts by the opera beginning to focus their attention on us-- we had stopped too long, were paying too much attention to the text, did not look like tourists with our reading glasses and crammed briefcases, were talking animatedly -- clearly something was not right. As we made to leave the square, the young men lined up like a chorus line in a Broadway musical and shouted at us in unison, in English "There is no racism in Austria". You would have to agree that one could not be treated to a more perfect moment , a more perfect performative moment of collective denial - the pastel satin knee britches, embroidered coats and white powdered wigs glittering in the autumn sunshine, the work of memory being carried out in different pockets of the city totally erased in one tiny, ridiculous act of negation.
There were other such moments during my stay in Vienna, moments which will no doubt surface in other papers and other discussions. What is so significant about the brief performative incidents I have been trying to recount is that they could never be accommodated with the existing structure of political and social analysis. This is where the performative and the representational are so clearly divergent. Performance comes into its own in the name of an unease, in the arena of a promise of something that is yet to come, yet to be articulated and of agency yet to be recognized, yet to be named. The political dichotomies and the political potential in the distinctions between representation linked to identity politics and enunciation linked to performance are of considerable value in the attempt to try and understand a politics-to-come. As Peggy Phelan has distinguished; "The current contradiction between identity politics with its accent on visibility, and the psychoanalytical/deconstructionist mistrust of visibility as the source of unity or wholeness needs to be refigured, if not resolved. . . . . . . "Visibility is a trap. . ; it summons surveillance and the law, it provokes voyeurism, fetishism, the colonial/imperial appetite for possession. Yet it retains a certain political appeal. Visibility politics have practical consequences; a line can be drawn between a practice (getting someone seen or read) and a theory (if you are seen it is harder for them to ignore you, to construct a punitive cannon); the two can be reproductive. While there is a deeply ethical appeal in the desire for a more inclusive representational landscape and certainly underrepresented communities can be empowered by an enhanced visibility, the terms of this visibility often enervate the putative power of these identities. " Elsewhere in her book Phelan contrasts this investment in making visible with performance whose "only life is in the presence. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representation of representation: once it does so it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performances being, like the ontology of subjectivity (proposed here) , becomes itself through disappearance. "
Away from the pre-determinism of the model of the state, of a cultural politics that dares to assume that we even know what the problems are, never mind the answers, of curatorial practices that position us as players of games -- immense shifts have taken place in the possibility of self articulation by groups who do not recognize themselves within the existing, officially sanctioned languages in culture -- in part because we are finally learning to read against the grain , in part because acting out is recognized for its unconscious significances rather than as rude or unacceptable behavior, in part because we recognize ourselves to be the enunciated of others performances and in part because we have at long last learned how to dress for an exhibition.