‘How can one think of art institutions in an age that is defined by planetary civil war, growing inequality, and proprietary digital technology? The boundaries of the institution have become fuzzy. They extend from pumping the audience for tweets, to a future of ‘neurocurating’ in which paintings will surveil their audience via facial recognition and eye tracking to check whether paintings are popular enough or whether anyone is behaving suspiciously.’
Hito Steyerl, A Tank on a Pedestal: Museums in an Age of Planetary Civil War
In its interest in performance, the newly expanded Tate is claiming an institutional engagement with its archiving, documentation, collation and legitimation within narratives of art history. It probes important distinctions: between presentation and representation, enactment and interpretation. The Tate has justified its centrality at the heart of two systems, seemingly incompatible with each other: one is the necessary business-minded, profit-driven, economically fluctuating world of private sponsorship and the art market itself; and the other, an alignment with public accountability – the institution as civic space. So is the Tate turning to performance not just to satisfy the necessary expansion of its art histories, and of contemporary narratives of art, but also to carve the space for public engagement and art as event? Is it trying to mediate between those two worlds by seeking spaces of encounter? So I begin with Hito Steyerl as a way of asking an old question: what do we demand of a contemporary art institution, when that institution positions itself as public without acknowledging with the wider infrastructures that challenge that identity?
Precarious Grandeur: an economics of incompatibilities
The new Tate Modern will not be an art gallery per se, proposes Will Self, ‘but a sort of life-size model of what an art gallery might be should our culture have need of one. Since it doesn’t, but rather has a requirement for visitor attractions that reify the ever-widening gulf between haves and have nots, I’m absolutely certain it will prove an outrageous success’. And it has proven to be so, opening its pyramidal extension to applause of success (Adrian Searle called it ‘brain-fizzing art to power a pyramid) with claims of modelling a new art institution for the future, and a global collection spanning all forms of modern and contemporary art.
So it seems odd to associate Tate Modern with any notion of precarity; as an institution, it continues to be one of the most visited art galleries in the world (dropping to number six and overtaken by the Louvre in 2015), and its extension, designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, has been hailed as ‘the most important new cultural building in the UK since the British Library in 1998′.
The new extension provides a 60% increase in visitor capacity, and was completed thanks to a £6m boost from the government, £50m from the Treasury, £7m from Greater London Authority, £1m from Southwark Council and additional private donations, taking the budget to an estimated £260m. At the same time, in March 2016, BP dropped its sponsorship to the institution, claiming no connection with the relentless activism of organisations like Liberate Tate; Tate, who lost their case at a freedom of information tribunal earlier in the year, praised their long-term working relationship and BP blamed tumultuous times for business as the reason for the decision.
The opening weekend, sponsored by Uniqlo, provided access to the new Switch House, Tanks and existing Boiler House, and included a 500-member choir, a young people take-over, a special selection of films by Andrea Fraser, Anri Sala, Derek Jarman and more, and a number of live performances, commissions as well as access to new, curated displays across the two buildings. 75% of the new collection displays were acquired after 2000, and have a global reach: Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The themed rooms cover topical areas: feminism, participation and performance, as well as artist-focused spaces. Curatorially, the emphasis is on a widening of Modernism and interconnected, local art histories, and performance makes its way not only in the new collection, but in the spatial language with which Tate is organised: spaces for participation, collaboration and interaction abound in the Switch House.
So what is the new Tate Modern? Is it the ultimate neoliberal art institution, whose funding infrastructure displaces it from singular public accountability, but also from total private patronage? In its exercising of its public accessibility, its educational, curatorial, and cultural agendas, does it perform the institution, or colonise the art world? Is this expanded collection oriented towards the representation of global art narratives, or their depoliticisation? And is its testament to performance, as The Tanks become ‘the world’s first museum dedicated to live art, film and installation’, a mere attempt to catch-up with what contemporary museology has been engaging with elsewhere, or a cultural and institutional innovation?
- The Tate Modern’s Switch House extension
Performance as Event: spaces of co-existence
Performance underscores the newly extended Tate Modern in two ways; first, it is its vehicle of representation, where art is presented as an immersive aesthetic experience, multiple and exhaustive. And second, it dominates the narratives of public engagement that Tate foregrounds: participation through performance becomes, especially in the context of the opening weekend, a tool for institutional visibility. Somehow, in this nexus of performance as paradigm, its identity is lost. A strange relationship with history emerges – in these spaces, re-enactments are played out in the same manner as new work; that which is prised as immaterial becomes highly materialised.
The difficulty with Tate’s engagement with performance is that it is still searching for ways in which it can offer a public space of thought and discourse, debate and change, whilst maintaining a kind of cultural ambivalence and global expansion that it interprets as equally necessary. What marks a public space, besides collective ownership, is its capacity to sustain difference; what Tate seeks in performance is a shorthand way of staging that difference, a space within a space; but bodies are not immaterial. Tate’s claim of giving equal place to the ephemeral as to the material actually sustains a conservative concept of performance as an event that can contain, rather than stage, enact or make politics.
It strikes me that whilst undoubtedly valuable and ambitious, this engagement with performance, and this precarious grandeur, paint a complex picture: in a world in which the event has become a commodity, experience easily purchased, the live feels both necessary, and precarious. Without criticality, there is little to distinguish the theme park from the art gallery. Liveness cannot stand for public engagement or cultural participation; the immaterial is easily institutionalised, and that does not always de-legitimise it, but it certainly attacks the infrastructures that make it possible. To re-envision performance for the art institution as a space for public engagement without criticality or respect for its complex historicity and contextual agency is dangerous, because the public themselves begin to perform the art institution.
In other words, the relationship between the state and the art institution is entirely re-organised, and the very notion of public engagement re-shaped. This is perhaps, what some performance always seeks to make visible: the importance of making critical demands and real spaces of debate; but when politics of difference dissipate, and context erased, performance is simply a mechanism through which neoliberalism asserts itself- a kind of performance of resistance, a performance of art, rather than art itself. It’s unclear to me, whether the expanded Tate Modern is a success as a visitor attraction, or whether it fails to provide a sustainable model for a public institution that demands as much from its public as it does from its art.
Walking through the crowds in the madness of the opening weekend, I felt like I was entering a well-curated art theme-park; it felt odd, to be so pleasantly surprised by the orientation of the works, by a collection that is diverse and expands its engagement with form and with political concerns, and at the same time, to be so displeased by its numbing spectacle. It felt strange, to think of the uniqueness of the Tanks as a space dedicated to performance and film, actualised by placing kinetic sculptures in indirect conversation to bodies that archive and interpret (Public Collection). What do we ask of the institutions that choose to represent performance? How can Tate reconcile the museum as archival space, with it as a civic, public space? Can Tate engage with performance in a way that does not commodify it as the most direct route to playful, socially engaged art, or demotes it within the narratives of visual art, as an aesthetic mode of engagement, or a sequence of playful acts of resistance?
- ‘Public Collection’, by Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus at Tate Modern
Public Collection and staging the immaterial
My encounter became far more nuanced a week later, when news of the Brexit started sinking in, but at first, I wasn’t aware of the extent to which watching a group of Romanian artists interpret works of art through their bodies, came with such pivot points. In the basement of the Tanks, the bodies in Manuel Pelmus and Alexandra Pirici’s Public Collection resonate in the bare space, in conversation with kinetic sculptures; a kind of strange encounter between materiality and physicality. The circular room, a vast concrete, industrial space, that’s already seen re-enactments of works by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Suzanne Lacey, is both devoid of history and exposed by it; it is both institutional, in that it elevates and legitimates the works that occur within it, and subtly dissenting, with its noise and echoes.
It’s not that I didn’t find Public Collection a beautiful meditation on the ways in which our bodies can challenge canonisation, critique current systems of institutional value and enter a debate around the visibility of art history. Each work, from Bacon to Beuys, is introduced by one of the performers before it is then enacted through the body, and it is the transparency of this process of translation that changes the space from one of viewing, into one of discussion.
After all, Pelmus and Pirici came to the Tate with an extensive history of thinking through these questions, and through the body – their project for the Romanian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013, Immaterial Retrospective, concerned itself with an enactment of the history of the Biennale in a series of choreographic interventions. The choice of works in Public Collection and the manner of their re-presentation ask questions about institutional processes of collecting, and legitimating works of art and manners of engaging with them. By positioning unlikely works side by side, physicalizing painting and interpreting site-specific installation pieces, a kind of re-positioning occurs, both for the work in question, and for the viewers engaging with it as secondary material.
But something else occurs too, in the echoey space of the Tanks; a strange loss of referent. Of course, Public Collection relies on either a core knowledge of the work in question, or a keen interest in this secondary material that inadvertenly authors its source. Despite the artist being in conversation with the artist, representation with representation, there is a loss of the experience of art; what we might lose in referentiality we gain in embodiment, but the work seems to be far removed from some of its occasional visitors. Its flippancy and intelligence is reliant on shared knowledge, yet its apparent openness seems unstable , homogenising.
But perhaps it was not Public Collection per se that was performing this loss of subject; it was the manner of its presentation, the clash between an institutional agenda and its desire for legitimation and experimentation. Is this, I wondered, the ultimate neoliberal art institution? One that wants to construct its own narratives, and house, instead of fuel, blunted resistance? Beyond scrutiny, yet containing its own critique? Is Public Collection a kind of embodiment of the institution: ambivalent yet passionate, intelligent yet brief? Full of diversity, yet nullifying of specificity?
The politics of the new art institution
I write this following the most unstable period of British performance-politics I’ve seen since moving to the UK more than ten years ago; it strikes me, with dramatic exaggeration, that there is a parallel to be made between the ways in which Tate Modern has been behaving towards performance as an institution so keen to expand both its collection and its proviso of contemporary art, and the manner in which the centre in British politics has comfortably treaded a dangerous boundary between economic appropriation and an unforgivingly xenophobic immigration rhetoric (meant to distract the public from the severe austerity measures implemented over the past five or more years). There I was, reminded of my status, a precarious witness, watching others speak of authority and de-canonisation; and there they were, silenced by the playfulness that the context provided. The artist, it seems, has never been more absent; the work, it seems, has never been more separated from its context.
Looking from the outside in, Tate Modern has expanded its collection to include non-Western art historical narratives, focused on representing performance as part of its breadth of public programmes, and opened a new extension that aspires to be both discursive and educational. Walking the bright, open spaces of the new extension, I encounter rich works of art: a room dedicated to the work of Louise Bourgeois, another to the city as a complex site of events.
Herzog & De Meuron’s extension is a sort of power-house of sorts; yet if the energy of the building’s history has been somewhat erased by the amicably laudable curatorial intent, it all feels like an exercise in negotiation, then a decidedly open, inquisitive institutional process; amongst four levels of curated-by-theme rooms, there’s several cafes, social spaces and spaces for consumption; and in the noise of all of this, the line between spaces for the presentation of art, and those of consumption, is blurred; context erases context, it seems, and in its global reach, the new Tate Modern performs rather than enacts the global; it feels less of an exercise of cultural and intellectual expansion, and more one of de- territorialisation. The extension at Tate Modern both satisfied the gaze of the visitor in search of art, and erases the narratives and specificity of that art; but Public Collection cannot be exhibited, it can only be presented.
Since Modernism, performance has sought to challenge the politics of reproduction; despite Peggy Phelan’s claim at ephemerality, the document has held an increasingly legitimate place in art history narratives, fought over both by the ecologies of visual art and theatre. The political in such practices gained importance for its capacity to develop new languages to speak of difference and exclusion; but neoliberalism as a governing system accounts for displays, rather than acts of resistance. The danger of such institutional engagement with political performance in particular, is that it doesn’t pay attention to its context, and seeks to envelop it in narratives that pertain either to relational aesthetics, or to systems of reading art. In the case of Tate Modern’s new extension, we see this in action: performance is not made visible as a set of practices with their own cultural vocabularies, but as a mode of engaging with other forms of art. The same goes with political work: it becomes a way of displaying, rather than challenging certain problems and representations.
If art can attend to different political languages, and propose ways of navigating difference, then we need to expect more of its institution; to resist the increasing privatisation of public art spaces is to make more demands on the state. And to voice concern over practices of collecting and presenting is not to deligitimate attempts at re-thinking the position, and processes of the art institution.
But ascend or descend the grand staircase that connects all levels of the new Switch House, or waltz your way through the old Turbine Hall, and you’ll notice that Tate Modern performs publicness; the open-levels, the free-flow spaces, the ability to drift through artworks, to encounter the contrasting narratives of art. That’s what I’ve always loved about the Tate, and it’s still there, bathed in all the competing problems of its expansion. But grandeur comes with precarity; first, there is the art, then the building.