Active Objects in Exhibition Design, Value, and Citizenry
(“Title from Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures”. 2016.)
Without museum information labels we, as viewers, would be lost. We use them to guide us through the exhibition space and situate the context of our looking– they are necessary. They are a fundamental component in museum exhibitions, yet they are persistently overlooked as active players in constructing our readings and access of display material. Using Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasure (Vancouver Special,) currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery, as a case study, this exhibit’s explanatory material will provide the site for an application of critical theory, specified towards the information label. The fact that they are seemingly innocuous amplifies their capacity to instruct and inform meaning, value, social habitus, ideologies (social, political, cultural, etc…) as well as authority.
Though Vancouver Special does not have significantly pronounced themes that position “the other,” apart from diverse identities, the curatorial voice gives way to a deeper reading alongside the information label, unveiled as they construct the viewer’s experience. Rather than evaluate the efficacy of these particular information labels in communing between the viewer, artwork, and knowledge, I would like to posit a consideration of the information label as object to be read itself– a distinct taxonomy in these spaces. To clarify, labels as their own object are an embodiment of textual content as well as of ideological, cultural, and historically developed structure and framework. Thus these investigations will utilize their textual content to draw links in consistency and affect rather than evaluate success in terms of the art object and thematic intentions. Additionally, information labels embody their own activity in rhetorics of value and the exhibitionary complex. Which is briefly defined as a provision of public spaces and modes of classification that inform a set of civic instructions and voluntary self-regulating citizenry, as well as a problem of order that sought to transform that issue into one of culture. (Bennet, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” 50.; Cain, 33.) Granted, we can understand the content of information labels (artist names, materials, and so on.) as taxonomy as well. But this label taxonomy is distinct because it presents an environment where the directed reading that occurs is one that, regardless of actual content, will always operate in the same manner– to organize and inform the viewers. Thus it becomes part of the cultural technologies operating in the exhibitionary complex, ordering modes of knowledge that the populace could identify themselves within the side of power and ability to know, as well as self-regulating citizenry through paradigms and access of knowledge. Such provisions, built upon hegemonies of power and intellect, constitute a fundament of museums as institutions capable to propagate ideologies amongst civic identity and continuously renegotiate them. (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 36; Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” 119.) Their consistency of structure over an enduring history is what elevates the label to exist as an embodied object of the aforementioned, tangible elements.
Developing towards public benefit, institutions were largely driven, however explicitly, to impart the values of the majority class. The interpretation of value and intellect has been inculcated in museums since their earliest inceptions. Explanatory material such as information labels and brochures increased, eventually becoming a permanent fixture by the early 20th century. (Roberts, 61.) Such developments, built on belief in the transcendent power of objects and the potential for cultural and social uplift, privileged a mode of knowledge and a class of professionals who author and authorize it. (Roberts, 60- 63.) This presents the context in which these readings of Vancouver Special take place. The following arguments implicitly acknowledge the development of curatorial practice and professionals, as well as an insidious history in knowledge and ideology construction, appropriation, authorship, and representation.
(Fig. 1. “Introductory Didactics from Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures”. 2016.)
Understanding this clarifies how the curatorial voice and information label in Vancouver Special creates an economy of meaning around the projection of a multiplicitous local identity and draws ties to globalization. As the Vancouver Art Gallery operates as the main art-culture institution in the city, it is a cultural and intellectual authority. Simultaneously decoding unfamiliar material and encoding the preferred reading, it constitutes an expert status within this exhibit, which establishes knowledge and value through directing attention, notions of quality, and worth. (Lidchi, 166.) These aspects are the rhetorics of value that inform social habitus and ideologies– constructing citizenry. Considering this as the frame in which Vancouver Special is presented, it is, like other museums, “committed to the promotion of cross-cultural understanding…” (Bennett, “Museum Frictions,” 45.) The first encounter in this exhibit is the introductory didactics, starting the viewers experience and informing the cultural goal. Describing the range of artists and work, the image presented in figure 1, it reads:
“Some are recent arrivals to Vancouver, while others are long-term residents who have already made significant contributions. Others are nomadic, less settled in one place and are working energetically between several locations. The featured artworks do not adhere to a singular subject or style, but instead offer a set of overlapping conversations…” (Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures, Vancouver Art Gallery.)
This raises a crucial moment in this exhibit, demonstrating a topical focus that opens up the consideration of who and what we consider “Vancouver.” If the language used in informational material designates the criteria for the viewer to see and understand the work, then we can see this particular exhibit as drawing contradicting post-colonial, or at the very least multi-cultural, narratives over the Vancouver identity. In opening the consideration of ‘Vancouver Artist’ and establishing terms that do not demand being born here or having lived here for a specified length of time, it suggests a comfort in transcultural identity, yet simultaneously reinforces tenets of globalization that foremost position national identity and emphasizes Vancouver’s, and by proxy Canada’s, presence in the contemporary art scene. (Rodriguez.) It should be noted that a significant majority of these artists are from British Columbia or Canada. It is difficult to say whether this creates a space for identities and cultures within Canada, productively or negatively, or if it creates the potential for ‘token’ diversity. Regardless, the attention to representation is there. And if value is first communicated in the curatorial voice, this inclusion demonstrates an ideological citizenry and cultural specificity towards overlapping, multiple conversations and identities. This focus alludes to the constructed ways that we view our own identities, those of other people, and of the city. From their first encounter, the viewer moves through the exhibition with this in mind, unconsciously enacting the performance of citizenship and being pushed to discuss what their own citizenry and identity means. (Cain, 1148.) This idea of performance also furthers the ability of the structure and design in display practices to be capable of informing ideological and social habitus.
(Fig. 2. “Julia Feyrer Information Label,” Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures. Digital Photograph. 2016.)
(Fig. 3. “Mina Totino Information Label.” Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures. Digital Phogotaph. 2016.)
This occurrence and the influence of multicultural, cross-cultural, and global mandates are certainly not new. As we become increasingly aware of the fact that ideologies, values, and social habitus–citizenry–are constructed and naturalized, responses and attempts to negotiate them also increase. In Rhetorics of Value, Kratz describes the process in which they are naturalized through their, “dispersal, repetition, and seeming ubiquity of images and presentation techniques…” (Kratz, 26) The images in figure 2, 3, and 4 provide a demonstration of a repetition that informs the value in this exhibit. Although they do not directly relate to each other, there is consistent descriptive treatment. Always composed of two paragraphs, the first expounds the artist’s practice, typical themes, formal and descriptive elements, or their identity–as it pertains to their work– as a means of access to understanding the artwork on display. This is the predominant material within Vancouver Special that evokes the information label as a textual object that places value on diverse perspectives. Arguably, it is the content and text itself that conveys this meaning, of which the label is just a vessel for. Yet it is not Julia Feyrer’s description that activates this, nor is it Charlene Vickers’ or Mina Totino’s. It is all of the labels together that render a narrative against a ruling category of work, identity, and location– the support for the overlapping conversations that the introductory didactics claim. Additionally it is the fact that regardless of which label is given as example, they are consistent in their language and rhetorics of value, embodying the information label as object and as the sum of its parts.
(Fig 4. “Charlene Vickers Information Label,” Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures. Digital Photograph. 2016. )
The second paragraph provides a different kind of identity, an identification of credentials such as education, global and local exhibitions, et al. There is specific focus to the education that each artist holds, listing their degrees and where or at which school they were attained, as well as exhibitions that they have participated in. The language of this treatment establishes the artist as locally fixed, as the most descriptive listings focus in Vancouver or Canada while international shows are brief. There is a practicality to this of course, as it would be unreasonable and tedious to list every exhibition of more established artists and thus label content is fitted to the focus of Vancouver Special. This amplifies the context of the artists as well as the exhibits premise, using validity, grounded in the local art scene, and identity. But is it possible that this is also exemplifying a more troubling element that ascertains a civic and governmental institutional authority of education systems? In Bennett’s discussion of exhibition and the logic of culture in Museum Frictions, he defines how despite the ‘publicness’ of museums, they operate outside of the public sphere as they have been integrated and commercialized by governments and state funding, they are also shaped by other governmental institutions like libraries, adult education, and mass schooling. (Bennet, “Museum Frictions,” 50.) If we read this treatment of credentials alongside Henrietta Lidchi’s reference of Foucaultian perspective in The Poetics and Politics of Exhibiting Other Cultures, this trouble is revealed as she states, “Knowledge operates as a historically situated practice… knowledge [is] inseparable from relationships of power.” (Lidchi, 185.) There is a level of education that is positioned as authority in these environments and edifies expert status above the general museum visitor. This is further amplified by the removal of author in these labels. Understanding knowledge as a construct leads us to understand the ways in which it is affected by the variables and conditions in which we know what we know–history, culture, society, personality, etc... (Roberts, 57.) So when museum labels are still being presented as immanently objective, communicative objects, there is a failure in educational integrity and the productive elements of museums. This reading is also implicated within the first paragraph, as it demonstrates a specific language to regarding the art. Roberts describes the more recent information label developments as being geared towards what the viewers wanted rather than what the museum wanted to communicate. In the labels presented in figures 2, 3 and 4, we can identify that the primary concern is in describing the visual character and providing referential links to strategies and themes within the work. This does provide a beneficial bridge of knowledge, but does it necessarily suggest a space for open or alternative readings when it is still presented as immanently object and obfuscated author/authority?
Before concluding this analysis, it is useful to identify the aesthetic structure of vision that is key to operating in museums and naturally, present in Vancouver Special and information labels. In Art and Theory: The Politics of the Invisible, Bennett describes a particular theory, organized as a set of explanatory and evaluative categories and principles of classification that mediate the viewer’s relation to the art. (Bennett, 300.) Also stating that to analyze the way in which this gaze is constituted is, “to trace the formation of those spaces and institutions in which works of art are so assembled, arranged, named, and classified, as to be rendered visible as... ‘Art,’ just as it is also to examine those forces which produce spectators capable of recognizing and appreciating those works as such.” (Bennett, 297.) In other terms, to understand this structure of vision is to understand these institutions, especially art museums in which art, and all objects, become self-referential. Any previous context or substance is rendered null in favour of their capacity to produce meaning. And as previously stated, meaning is determined and interpreted by the intellectual authorities and re-encoded for the viewer. This is simultaneously produced by spectators and producing spectators capable of recognizing the imbued meaning and value systems. A proper museum viewer is a developed member of society who possesses the perspective of museums as treasure houses, education tools, and ritual temples. (Baxandall, 33.) Coincidentally, this also positions the proper museum viewer as within the majority of demographics and abilities. As we speak about rhetorics of value, museums, and their ability to inform value ideologies and social habitus it is inherent that this is positioned for, within, and by a majority class.
To recap, in Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures there is a system of value that, predicated upon the curatorial voice and authority, draws viewer attention to multiplicitous identities within the Vancouver narrative. There are positive impacts as it posits the viewer’s encounter to question identities within this locale and, to a more subversive extent, question their own citizenry as well as social ideologies and habitus. There is however, a contradictory element as this still operates within an authoritative, governmental institution whose ideologies and interactions are integrated with other, ultimately self-serving, institutions such as education systems. While all aspects of exhibition design and display work to create these effects, the exhibitionary complex, there is a significant power in information labels to function as an object themselves and a type of taxonomy. A type that distinguishes from literal content, embodying the sum of its parts within consistent structures as a unique capacity to inform the rhetorics of value. Furthermore, the information label as object and embodied content provides the thematic support for this exhibition, prominently that of a post-colonial narrative that disrupts by opening the terms of “Vancouver Artist,” Vancouver Citizen,” and Vancouver Local” and placing value on the realization and possibility of multiple different, overlapping conversations and perspectives. However, as these objects and this exhibition exist within the exhibitionary complex, it is predicated on a structure of vision that can only narrowly assume the viewer’s experience. That is, the ability and ease at which one may access the material of Vancouver Special is dependent on the criteria they meet. As such, the social values and ideologies–the citizenry, which will be informed in the viewer, is dependent on the conditions of their experience. (Their education, history, culture, etc… As aforementioned, such conditions and access are dependent on treatment within the information labels content, within the information label as object, as well as treatment of authorship and immanence within them.
A series of information labels and didactics from Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures, Vancouver Art Gallery. Personal photograph by author. 2016.
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Vancouver Art Gallery, Daina Augaitis, Jesse Mckee, and Mandy Ginson. Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures. 3 Dec. 2016. Exhibition. Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver.