The recent Henry Darger exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art was an interesting example of a wider phenomenon which can be traced through much recent contemporary Japanese art. This phenomenon reflects a desire to mix separate genres and art forms together. It can be traced in a number of museum exhibitions such as ‘JAM: Tokyo-London’ at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery in 2002 which showed works by 43 ‘creators’ using the concept of the music jam session to, as the press materials state, ‘experience the energy created by this meeting of different genres’. Takashi Murakami’s ‘Superflat’ exhibition from 1997 and Noi Sawaragi’s curated ‘Nihon Zero-Nen’ in 1999 both asked audiences to traverse diverse cultural fields including animation, otaku, model making and science fiction. Japan’s first bi-lingual art magazine, ArtIt, has been pursuing an editorial line exploring cross genre approaches, from issues such as ‘The Boundary between Art and Design’ (winter/spring 2004), ‘180 creatives from all genres’ (spring/summer 2005) and ‘Collaboration: multiplying talent many times over’ (summer/fall 2006). In 2007 two major museum exhibitions have brought these tendencies to large audiences: ‘Space For Your Future’ curated by Yuko Hasegawa at The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT), and ‘Roppongi Crossing: Future Beats in Japanese Contemporary Art’ at the Mori Museum selected by four curators. What is going on with this urge to break down artistic categories?
Part of this is certainly to do with the so called ‘end of Grand Narratives’ and the splintering of ‘micro-narratives’ which Post-Modernism apparently heralded. Museum collections and their privileging of specific canons, genders and perspectives have been challenged. But I feel that the more important reason for this penchant for flattening has to do with the nature of the culture industry, and how ‘art’ has today become commodified like ice-cream or brand clothes. This line of analysis was expounded by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their 1947 essay on the ‘Culture Industry’. Adorno and Horkheimer looked to the economic modes of production in which culture is produced and the ways in which art is affected by and affects the relationship between culture and economics, between the products of society and power relations within society. We live in a situation where, as Frederic Jameson puts it, ‘culture’ has become a product in its own right. The significance of Adorno and Horkeimer’s analysis lies in its supposition that culture is today an industry, and that this exists upon capitalist systems of power. The British critic Julian Stallabrass suggests that this commodification of culture has sharpened in the last fifteen years: “during the 1990s there was an intensification of the forces, many of them old features of capitalism, that contributed to the dominance of triumphant consumer culture over art, and indeed over all other cultural production.” Stallabrass goes on to say that with the collapse of alternative economic models in 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall) and the declining fortunes of Germany and Japan, it is the neoliberal model which has become dominant. Neoliberalism is defined by its embrace of privatization, high unemployment, low wages for workers, the weakening of unions and neglect of public services, all aspects which can be felt in Japan since the 1990s.
In the name of ‘collaboration’ or greater ‘crossing’ we see today in Japan, design, architecture, graffiti, painting, photography, film and outsider art melted into highly digestable exhibition packages, flattening out previously distinct art forms with their own specific histories, discourses and lines of inquiry. One of the defining characteristics of free market capitalism is that goods and services are standardized or homogenized on a whole spectrum of levels from their manufacture and distribution to the ways in which goods exist in law and various guidelines, to their marketing and consumption. This makes it essentially easier and cheaper to produce more goods and administer systems which keep the market fluid and stable. Differences serve the very practical purpose of making the market more exciting and free by offering a diversity of choice, which however, exist only on the terms which the market allows: an ubiquitous ever multiplying web of networks and nodes.
The nature of today’s world market encourages greater diversity and ‘crossing’, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri recount in ‘Empire’: “ The ideology of the world market has always been the anti-foundational and anti-essentialist discourse par excellence. Circulation, mobility, diversity and mixture are its very conditions of possibility. Trade brings differences together and the more the merrier! Differences (of commodities, populations, cultures and so forth) seem to multiply infinitely in the world market, which attacks nothing more violently than fixed boundaries; it overwhelms any binary division within its infinite multiplicities.” Can we suggest that exhibitions like Space For Your Future and Roppongi Crossing echo the sentiments outlined by Hardt and Negri? Is their rhetoric of diversity and crossing precisely reflective of the hegemony of neoliberalism over culture and its vessels like the museum? Crucially, it seems that these tendencies in Japan today have emerged with very little sense of critical distance or analysis, and resulted in museums simply absorbing the rules of neo-liberalism, becoming another reflective node in its ‘infinite multiplicities’.
Cross genre exhibitions can offer highly explosive counter narratives to what museums have been showing us. This remains though, intricately tied to the ways in which it is done – the game plans which are envisioned. Most crossing exhibitions and projects sadly act like compulsive black holes, flattening out the potential complexities of the various works through the mechanisms and rhetorics of the museum, which ultimately prevails as the chief purveyor of meaning. Museums in Japan today face increasing pressures to ‘serve’ a public and generate income to maintain themselves. One of the key benchmarks for this was the passing of the Shitei Kanrisha Seido (or greater autonomy law for institutions) in 2003. This has opened up the running of public cultural institutions in Japan to a process of bidding, with greater financial independence being a key factor in the final decision making process. This has impacted art museums in various ways. For example The Yokohama Museum of Art will be the first museum I know of in Japan to start a ‘school’ program from April 2007, that actively engages students with their permanent collection.
In the light of this, exhibitions like SFYF and ‘Roppongi Crossing’ have cleverly and pragmatically adopted the rules of a sophisticated ‘culture industry’ which is sustained by the desires and mechanisms of capitalist neoliberal economics. Both exhibitions marketed themselves by highlighting their ‘non art pure’ pedigree, which was somehow magically bestowed on them by the seemingly simple inclusion of designers or animators. This tendency is moreover not only confined to museum exhibitions, but can be seen across many media including magazines, club cultures and the fashion and design worlds. The museum was crucially left un-tainted by the inclusion of different genres, when what should be happening is the emergence of greater discourse and critique. Letting painting, architecture and graphic design engage in a serious dialogue should create all manner of interesting tensions, harmonies or dissonances. These could be evoked in the exhibition space through exhibition design, in wall texts, catalogue writings or in various kinds of public events or programs. How the hosting museum or curator chooses to mix these together and manifest them is key, according to what rules and value systems? For public institutions, the question of public money obviously remains a central question, and one that generates issues about public accountability and access.
I think about John Cage’s exhibition ‘Rolywholyover’ (1991-2) as an example of how the museum could be temporarily ‘blinded’ or ‘hijacked’, by a truly accommodating and open attitude. ‘Rolywholyover’ was an exhibition co-curated by John Cage in 1992, just prior to his death. It was a retrospective of Cage’s own visual works, but also a manifestation of his methodologies and attitudes towards life and living, in the form of an exhibition. Cage was interested in trying to set up a condition of real open-ness, where many different genres and disciplines could be presented together. What he achieved was a truly ecological situation in the museum, where radical change, chaos and translations happened. This kind of ecological condition cannot happen simply by selecting artists and presenting them in a space: I think that it happens only when the curators and artists begin to develop a vision together, which also means developing an attitude towards art and towards the museum. It means taking risks and initiating new ways of display or framing that the museum and artists might actually find deeply disturbing or difficult.
Another example I would like to briefly introduce is the multimedia collective USCO who toured the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s creating psychedelic mixed-media shows which used multiple slide and film projectors, strobes, pulsing light machines and multiple sound tracks. The New York Times reporter Grace Glueck called it a ‘programmed pandemonium’ . USCO was one manifestation of a wider movement towards multi-media and the dissolving of boundaries between different media which writers such as Marshall McLuhan and artists such as Alan Kaprow and the EAT group were actively espousing. USCO’s extravaganza’s involved a decidedly psychedelic and mystical aspect, that acted as a kind of sensory re-programming which could ultimately result in an experience of radical re-birth. What I find interesting in USCO’s approach to mixing genres is their uncompromising stance towards creating spaces where consciousness could potentially be challenged, the ego weakened, and some kind of psychological change take place. Indeed, it is intriguing to ponder the discussions from this period concerning the merging of media and the merging or melting of consciousness. The role played by psychedelic substances such as LSD in supposedly breaking down psychological categories and divisions, seems to be echoed in the breaking down of genre categories in light shows and the ‘Happenings’ of Kaprow and others. Much of the rhetoric of Timothy Leary and others certainly revolves around the breaking of previous game patterns and habits through participation in psychedelic experiences or spaces. A comprehensive and critical reading of this area is offered by Felicity Scott in her paper ‘Acid Visions’.
I think that there is a case to urge museums to actually do ‘less curating’, in the sense of creating big budget selection shows of artists. If we thought about Cage for a moment, we can also suggest another vision for curatorial practice today that would be about creating conditions or ‘scenarios’ as Nicolas Bourriaud often speaks of. Instead of selecting artists according to subjective curatorial themes, a Cageian approach would suggest something more expansive and open-ended. The parameters or algorithims for a project would be set out, rather than the contents being privileged. So, curators would begin their discussions by asking, “what kind of situation do we want to create here?”, “what kinds of experience do we want to encourage in this show?”. In this way the audience becomes immediately something central to the discussions, rather than being an abstract add-on which the education team deals with at a later stage. So for example, there could be a show based on the simple premise of making the museum a livable space – a non-oppressive space which perhaps operates on different rules to our everyday lives. How would you try to set this situation up in a museum? And to really engage this topic I think it becomes crucial to re-think the rules of the museum and to take risks in it. Maybe you have to open the museum up twenty-four hours (like BankArt 1929 Yokohama did in 2005), or maybe you have to allow visitors to stay overnight there? (like Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery did for Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s Capsule hotel project). From these questions, I think one can begin to think about art – because it must be something which is sustained by experience and which must emerge out of real experiences (trips) first. Within this condition or scenario, there can be many layers of meaning or direction – all kinds of themes or concepts.
I often think about parties when I think about these issues – a party is a specific condition which has a specific direction. You want to try to create a situation in which the guests can relax, enjoy themselves, dance maybe and return home with good memories. The DJ and initiator of The Loft, David Mancuso has spoken about the importance of the conditions for creating a successful party – since the 1970s, his parties have included free food and fruit, water, lots of balloons and the best quality audio system available. He never mixes tracks together, preferring to play each song in its entirety to respect the music and also to share the full experience with the guests. Timothy Leary has called this aspect ‘set and setting’ – the importance of creating the right conditions for a specific experience.
As museums, magazines and other creative industries become increasingly enamored by ideas of ‘collaboration’ and ‘crossing’, it becomes also necessary to think about the rules of the game. In the name of selling more magazines or attracting greater audiences editors and curators are today actively and significantly reaching out across various disciplines and creating mixed landscapes which contain many different elements. Although by no means a new phenomenon (the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1954, for example, was an experiment in multi-tasking, cross-disciplinary curating), recent tendencies towards presenting various fields simultaneously also convey specific conditions about the value and role of cultural industries today. The vessels or media which do the presenting (museums, magazines etc) do so with very specific historical and economic motivations and contexts which should not be easily forgotten. We seem to be passing through a moment when these various vessels feel that they can be more experimental than before and try to forge new moulds and methodologies. However, it also feels that the underlying rules which have sustained vessels like the museum have yet to be peeled open in any really revealing ways. Although traditional curatorial methods regarding classification or display have certainly been rethought and revitalized, museums continue to exude a powerful presence as investors of art historical meaning and value. If exhibitions are to show different disciplines and forms together without simply flattening their differences under the rubric of the museum, it is the museum institution itself (and the consciousness of those who work/present there) which must accommodate a potential for change.
The museum or exhibition space (and this can be anything from a large museum to a temporary space) should be a revolutionary space, in the sense of presenting opportunities for people to change their modes of thinking and engage in a different set of rules. As John Cage shows us, it should be a possibility to seriously engage with people and spaces in a radically open, joyful and experimental way. I think, for instance, that listening to Cage’s ‘Concert for Piano and Orchestra’ (1957-58) is a deeply transformative experience. With no master score or conductor as author, the orchestral players may start anywhere in his or her part according to their independently derived timetable. This listening experience is quite similar for me (but with a greater intensity of pleasure), to listening to Indian ragas, with their highly disciplined, yet subtle variations on a raga and a mood through the use of microtones, ‘alap’ (gradual unfolding introductions) and so on. All I can say is that these listening experiences seem to be moments of temporary ‘game-transformation’, epiphanic moments which move one’s consciousness and changes it – a turning which can also be considered to be the foundations and sustaining energies of wider political or social action.