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Thinking About Space...4. The Proposal


In my introduction to these series of posts on SPACE I wrote briefly about a curatorial project which my class will be proposing for our instructor's gallery space, Devening Projects + Editions. This entry is a compilation of my thoughts on this project. I will limit this entry to a brief definition of "the white cube", issues of site specificity, and issues related to curatorial projects or artist as curator. In pursuit of this end I will include some ideas from Miwon Kwon's essay "One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity" all quotes then will be from this essay unless otherwise stated.

What is the white cube?

In January I had the opportunity to see some Chelsea galleries and New York City for the first time. In introducing the idea of site specificity is important to consider Chelsea galleries as the epitome of the "white cube". For those outside art related fields it may seem strange to consider the immaculate white walls, high ceilings, and bright lights as anything more than a perfect place for showing and selling art. For some artists and curators the idea of the white cube is more than just a nice space, it is the embodiment of the "institution" against which they must react. But what makes a space a "white cube"? A white cube is space designed for the viewing art most often with the end of selling work in mind. A white cube then is meant to be a perfect setting for this end, the viewing space should not interfere or hinder the viewing of the art in anyway, the space should recede from the work and leave you and the work "in the clearing". The white cube then is a sort of no-place space, a not specific site, an "innocent space" (39).

What is site specificity? A Look at Miwon Kwon's Essay

Site specificity according to Kwon can be defined as a mode of thinking which emerged in the late 60s and early 70s which was a reversal of the modernist paradigm of thinking of art work as "autonomous, self-referential, transportable, placeless, and nomadic" (38). Site specific work is further characterized as having at least two distinct approaches. The second approach leads to a third mode which I see as derivative of the second.

The first is characterized by emphasis on the physical. Richard Serra, according to Kwon would fall into this first category. This first type stresses "the physical inseparability between a work and its site of installation" (39). The second mode of thinking of site specificity is "informed by the contextual thinking of minimalism, various forms of institutional critique and conceptual art" (39). This model emphasizes a challenging of "the innocence of space and the accompanying presumption of a universal viewing subject" (39). Artists like Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haake, and Robert Smithson fall in this category of thinking. Importantly this second mode includes the firsts consideration of physical and spacial terms but stresses the "cultural framework defined by the institutions of art" (39-40). Kwon describes this further:

"The modern gallery/museum space, for instance, with its stark white walls, artificial lighting, controlled climate, and pristine architectonics, was perceived not soley in terms of basic dimensions and proportion but as an institutional disguise, a normative exhibition convention serving an ideological function. The seemingly benign architectural features of a gallery/museum, in other words, were deemed to be coded mechanisms that actively disassociate the space of art from the outer world, furthering the institution's idealist imperative of rendering itself and its hierarchization of values "objective," "disinterested," and "true" (40 my bold).

This idea can be extended "to encompass interrelated but different spaces and economies...the studio, gallery, museum, art criticism, art history, the art market, etc. that together constitute a system" which is inextricably connected to and controlled by "social, economic, and political pressures" (40). All these things together are what make a site specific and to be specific to such a site is to decode, recode, or expose the institutional conventions at play (40-42). An even further extension of this mode leads to a third notion of the site specific. The third mode as described by Kwon is characterized by several ideas with much overlap from the second. I will list the characteristics here rather than work through Kwon's explanation.

Characteristics of the third mode for site specificity:

  • a focus on institutional effects and techniques as they circumscribe the definition, production, presentation, and dissemination of art
  • a de-aesthetization ie withdrawal of visual pleasure
  • dematerialization of the art work
  • resistance to commofication
  • stress temporal boundaries
  • the viewer becomes active in viewing and critique of institution and or work of art
  • work not solely physical
  • impermanence
  • work is integrated into social, political, etc. realm
  • spatial expansion, radio, internets etc.
  • informed by broad range: sociology, literary criticism, psychology, etc.
  • attuned to pop culture
  • site is not a pre-condition
  • site becomes semantic
  • curatorial framework becomes a site
  • location can be discursive
  • anything can be a site!
  • site specificity no longer is in an indexical relationship to physical space
  • (40-46)

The last characteristics in bold are those which most clearly represent this third mode of site specificity. Finally, I will emphasize that according to Kwon

"these modes are not stages in a linear trajectory of historical development. Rather, they are competing definitions, overlapping with one another and operating simultaneously in various cultural practices..." (46)

Kwon in her essay uses these three notions of site specificity as a launching pad for her further discussion of site specific art. Though interesting in the examination of the success of site specific art work I do not have the energy to include notes on that discussion here. Instead I will skip ahead to her discussion of artist as curator.


The Birth/Death of the Author? Artist as Curator...

What happens when site specific becomes a semantic game? According to Kwon it can result in "a hermetic implosion of auto biographical and subjectivist indulgences, and myopic narcissism is misrepresented as self-reflexivity" (53). Wow! The artist becomes a sort of commodity, but not in the sense of a celebrity that is "produced/consumed" but more in the sense that the artist reflects what has already occurred in relation to "production and labor relations...which are no longer bound to the realm of manufacturing things but is defined in relation to the service and management industries. ..What artists provide now, rather than produce, are aesthetic, often "critical-artistic," services" (53). So, artists have become "negotiators, coordinators, compromisers, researchers, organizers, interviewers, etc...aesthetics of administration" and "artists now function as authorial figures in their own right" (53 my bold). This change in thinking has led to a reemergence "of the centrality of the artist as the progenitor of meaning" when as already stated can result in "a hermetic implosion of auto biographical and subjectivist indulgences, and myopic narcissism is misrepresented as self-reflexivity" (53). Wow!


So what to do about this project?

RUN FORREST! Ok. So this is an abrupt end. But I am out of time. Tune in later for a look at the project specifics and some proposal ideas!


Darn it chamaco you are becoming quite a teacher. Here you have me looking at my space, your space and everything else spacey. I am spaced out or in?

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