Note: the following is a working primer of The Social Museum. This document is subject to indefinite addition and/or alteration by the public, though the museumâ€™s administrators have the right to filter ideas as they see fit.
The Social Museum, in its most simple definition, is an as-of-yet unrealized museum of social behaviors as exhibited by art and artifact. This concept came out of a discussion between Joe Gullo and Joel Kuennen addressing the need for a contemporary art museum that could get beyond the paradoxical limitations of postmodernism. Since the concept of art itself is related to the expressive disciplines, it seemed to Joe and Joel that a new and exciting way to collect and exhibit works of art could involve the control of whatever is being expressed in such works, so that the museum could commission works for the sake of fitting into the context of a prescribed theme. This would allow the museum to bring forth pieces of art and artifact and synthesize them into especially nuanced exhibits. A system like this also lends itself to an organizational structure somewhat akin to a magazine or journal, where a relatively small group of senior-level employees draws content from a vast and possibly far-flung network of contributors. Of course the element of control would stop at edict of the exhibition themes. The museum should do nothing to direct the individual creation of whatever works it commissions; it should only give the prompt, thereby turning what would otherwise be just an exhibition space into a kind of forum for the ideas it wants to reveal. Ultimately, the Social Museum will act as a catalyst and a forum for expression for the contributors exhibited there. A mission such as this naturally lends itself to anthropological and/or sociological subject matter, so institutionally, the Social Museum should focus on pieces that explore trends in social living and the idiosyncrasies of the social being. The variety of media that contributors could use to achieve this end is virtually limitless. The central unique feature of The Social Museum will be the prescription of exhibition themes by the contributors featured therein. In this way the museumâ€™s operation will be somewhat like an arts collective, except the contributors will not be permanent
authoritative members (though of course any merited contributor can be involved as much as he/she wants). Ultimate authority for the museumâ€™s operation will be vested in a board of directors, who should be required to incorporate into its decision making process the influence of everyone else involved. The collaboration between the contributors and the directors, though, will only extend to the prescription of exhibition themes, and nothing to do with the administration or the external operations of the museum. This again is like the compartmentalization of a editorial board inside the business organization of a magazine. Ultimately, The Social Museum has a mission befitting of a journal; its content should reveal or comment on truths and Truths in society. Though instead of being published and disseminated, this content will be hosted in a physical space. The comparative description of this goal is that the content and messages within the museum will be like those featured in Adbusters, National Geographic and Vice Magazineâ€”all rolled into one.
Because the museum will cover such vast subject matter, it will operate in exhibition cycles, where the theme will change several times per year. And so, initially having no permanent collection, the museum will be in a constant state of renewal, perpetually refreshing its inventory according to whatever the “theme of the season” is. A better way of thinking about a “theme of the season” is to think about the way magazines devote entire issues to one topic. Vice magazine intentionally titles every issue as “The Iraq Issue” or “The Turning Homo Issue,” and so forth because it wants to simultaneously tie the issue (the current printed edition) to the issue (the current social-political topic). The museum will promote the theme of the season in the same way. For illustrative purposes let’s assume the museum will roll its exhibitions four times a year, aligned for promotion’s sake with the natural seasons. So then, the winter season will be something like “WAR at the Social Museum,” and the collection it will house for that three-month period will comment on WAR. (I’m using a generic theme like war for the sake of brevity). And then in the spring it would house “PANIC at The Social Museum.” This will give the museum the opportunity to prescribe themes and then commission and collect works to fit into that subject. So “WAR at the Social Museum” will house photography, artwork, and artifacts pertaining to WAR. And in addition to the static pieces within, the museum will also host performance art and lecture series pertaining to this same subject. This will allow the season themes to be marketed through numerous varied channels, almost as if “…at the Social Museum” were a promotional entity, and itself a “sub brand” of The Social Museum. So for example, the varied contents of “WAR at the Social Museum” will allow that particular season theme to be advertised through several channels. If the museum commissioned three performance art acts pertaining to WAR, those acts could be marketed as individual events and also “as part of WAR at the Social Musuem.” The possibilities for singular events are endless, especially when considering that the museum’s exhibition themes will change every three months. Even if the museum addresses something as broad as “WAR,” farther down the line it could draft a theme as particular as “Results of Social Tension in Charged Situations” or “Archetypes” or “Imagery Evoking Bi-Polar Connotations.” These, of course, are very unromantic
titles, but they contain the kernel of this notion of season themes, which is that all the works exhibited are tied together with a pre-conceived notion. This is not to say the museum’s curatorial staff should be fascist when discriminating works for exhibition, only that it will work to judge from the same prompt as the contributors work to create, like the relationship between an editorial board and its writers. The structure of this relationship allows The Social Museum to constantly reinvent itself, in—uniquely—more frequent, more episodic steps. In a way, The Social Museum will act as a publisher, in that it will make ideas available to the public. And instead of promoting one period or genre of work, (as in “Modern,” or “Classical,” or between lenses like “realist” or “expressionist”) it will promote topics, and then exhibit ideas pertaining to that topic. The construct of ideas pertaining to topics is what makes up an issue. And an issue being conveyed by displaying a collection of works is an issue-exhibition. Here are some examples of names for issue-exhibitions. The titles are meant to be understood on varying levels and degrees. Some of the following may seem very simple. However if one takes a minute to think of the notion of these, of the denotative and connotative properties of these words, they then have the potential to become issues.
Think of the endless opportunities to play on these themes in any number of media! To be prompted with these or any other equally evocative issue would allow for an exciting schedule of events!
The process of bringing a seasonal issue-exhibition to show involves several steps, and they are embarrassingly like the steps involved in writing a five-paragraph essay. They are: the brainstorming of ideas for issues and the nuances therein, the researching of existing work that’s emblematic of the issue, the networking of outside contributors (not necessarily artists, but all people with relevant connections to the subject matter—e.g., professors, journalists, historians, outside curators, other people of notable repute), the formation of a central thesis for the issue-exhibition (a document subjected to circulation among the Museum’s staff and the network of outsiders it has assembled), the planning of live events to be held either at the museum or sponsored elsewhere, (readings, lectures, Q&As, acts of performance art, workshops and photo shoots), the acquisition of existing works and collections, the networking of contributing artists along with the commissioning of new works, and finally, the planning and design of static installations. Concurrently to all these steps, separate but intrinsic departments must work to promote the upcoming issue-exhibition.
Step 1 – Ideas for Issues This is where the museum will have the greatest opportunity to be unique. If we treat an exhibition as something beyond a show, as something more like a communiqué, it then becomes a thesis (however concrete or abstract) rendered in a collection, which is assembled ad hoc. This is something different and more interesting than a simple catalog of like works. If contributors are sought on the basis of a theme that’s open to nuance, there is a better chance of assembling a more eclectic set of works. A prescribed issue called ASEXUAL DESIGN, for example, inspires many more questions than concrete expectations. So, when the museum’s staff uses this theme to start contracting artists, it will undoubtedly come across ideas for framing the exhibition in an interesting way. Once the issue is drafted into an expanded thesis—a kind of mission statement particular to that one future exhibition—it can be circulated among the museum’s pool of contributors and consultants, thereby becoming subject to discussion and expansion. After various meetings and forums are held to flush out further iterations of the issue as an exploratory theme, after all those involved agree on a “final draft,” the new “issue-theme” can be used as a prompt for the synthesis of future issue-exhibitions.
And although the limitlessness of topics to cover is what makes the notion of issueexhibitions a versatile idea, initially the museum will explore themes that are ambitiously particular. WAR, though broad, is an appropriate theme because it is an issue relating to a very macroscopic human social behavior. What might not be so evocative is something like: “HINDUS at the Social Museum.” This theme is solely anthropological; it speaks wholly of an entire people, not exclusively of their habits or of their cultural consciousness. Of course the Hindu exhibit would reveal those things, of the unique human experiences of having lived with Hinduism in your heritage, but it doesn’t explore a particular social behavior or context in and of itself, across cultures. There are plenty of anthropological cultural exhibits in museums of heritage and natural history. The exclusive part of The Social Museum will be that it explores issues themselves and their manifestations in social environments (however universal or microcosmic). Ultimately, every issue-exhibition will require very, very deep-rooted planning— not just in terms of logistics but in research and investigation. If the subject of one season’s issue-exhibition were in fact one as nuanced as “Archetypes in Pop Culture,” some committee of the museum’s staff would have to first articulate the idea clearly in some sort of expository document. Perhaps in the earliest stages of planning an issueexhibition, the committee(s) in charge of research would reach out to professionals close or within the cultural consciousness of the subject to be explored, and then try to form temporary sub-committees that would serve as intrinsic consultants to the whole process.
Step 2 – Research in Precedent Material Because a large part of every issue-thesis will undoubtedly be subject to abstraction, we will be aided in conveying the ideas of such issue-themes by pointing to existing works in precedent veins of themes we ourselves want to construct. For example, if one issue-theme spotlighted cultures struggling with post-colonial identity, it would be absolutely essential to look into works having come out of nations like India or Algeria (nations that have both shaken off European colonization). These won’t necessarily be candidates for exhibition, but they will help to refine the
existing, already-drafted issue-theme. Works we uncover in this research might also help to incorporate previously unthought-of tangents of the broader thesis. These will also help us identify important modes of expression and will most likely lead us to sources of new contributions. But it is almost too simple to simply prescribe whatever committees we’ll have at our disposal to simply “research” existing works. What does that entail? Research? Research what about these works exactly? The answer is not concrete; it will vary from topic to topic, and this is precisely why the step is necessary. Cataloging artists and works relevant to the issue-thesis will reveal new bits of cultural importance surrounding it, and this will guide the culling process when the museum begins to commission new works to be created. Just like the installations featured in the completed issue-exhibition, the scope of our research should not be limited to any one medium, no matter how seemingly constringent the issue-thesis might be. In the example of postcolonial nations, we should work to simply uncover examples of photography, artwork, artifacts, and pieces of writings about or as a product of that culture (in however many instances). Ultimately, researching themes explored by preexisting artists / journalists / essayists / filmmakers / photographers / novelists / actors / etc. will help us synthesize such themes into the prescribed issue-themes and help us build a more coherent and relevant issue-exhibition.
Step 3 – Culling from a Social Museum Network The structure of the museum will rely on a relatively small group of directors and a much larger net of contributors and consultants, so the process of developing an issuetheme should involve as many contacts from outside sources as possible—from institutions like other museums, historical societies, music labels, arts collectives, various cooperatives, specialized art galleries, universities, magazines and trade journals. Being able to reach out to people in these positions will ensure a wide variety of perspectives in synthesizing the finalized issue-theme, and this will also open us up to a huge pool of talented contributors.
Of course any endeavor—especially something as social as a social museum—requires networking. But the museum will face a unique challenge because it will rely exclusively on its network to maintain an edge. It will do us no good to build an idle network of “members” who do nothing pay dues or subscribe to a newsletter. We must provide some incentive for members of the network to be actively involved—to intellectually support the museum. The long hard way to build such a devoted roster of supporters is to slowly build good will among as many specialized circles as possible. In the early stages of the museum’s rise to popularity, it will be important to exhibit issues that evoke some sort of urgency with certain groups of professionals, because this way those who can provide valuable support will find themselves pressed to act due to their own interest in the topics we explore. If, for example, the museum decides to build an issue-exhibition about the so-called industrial food chain, it might be easy to reach out to authors like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food), because he has an agenda of revealing the inherent problems of the food industry. Mr. Pollan could go so far as to give a reading or participate in a lecture series, or at the very least may be able to point us toward people that would. In exchange for helping the museum in any degree, Pollan would get the satisfaction of advancing a knowledge that he himself shares, knowing that the Social Museum has provided the forum.
Step 4 – Forming Complete Issue-Themes After the museum has identified and researched the topic it will eventually exhibit, it should, as previously described, draft a fully refined issue-theme that will serve as a prompt for the contributors to be eventually featured in the issue-exhibition. What makes an effective issue-theme? Three things: 1.) It should propose many, many questions that can be answered in very many more ways. 2.) Though it should propose more questions than answers, it should be dense and detailed enough to provoke a legitimate reaction from the contributors; a “proper” issue-theme should make assertions while simultaneously inviting the contributor to explore or refute such assertions. This will ensure that the museum’s completed issue-exhibitions will either delve further into the topics they promote or make headway into new tangents, so that a truly effective issue-theme will not allow for the contribution of dead works. 3.) Because each issuetheme should be completed with the influence of research into precedent materials,
it should include appropriate bibliographies, filmographies, discographies, etc., etc. It might also be good to include explications of each item in these catalogs.
Step 5 - Commissioning Works from Contributors Once a particular issue-theme has been established, the museum will have to start reaching out to contributors (e.g., painters, sculptors, photographers, cinematographers, videographers, lecturers, etc., etc.) in order to begin the process of planning the actual issue-exhibition. Before anything else, some committee at the museum should determine what media the issue-exhibition can / should accommodate, and which media lend themselves most especially to the exhibition. Film installations, for instance, might be more useful in exhibiting an issue focused specifically on mass media, while fine artwork like paintings, drawings and sculpture might be more prevalent in issue-exhibitions concerning abstract concepts like the afore-mentioned ‘vice’ or ‘delta males.’ If the structure of the museum should resemble a magazine or journal, then the process of pulling together content should involve interpersonal communication with every last contributor, especially since we’ll be exhibiting works produced exclusively ad hoc. Finding and contacting potential contributors obviously comes first. This will be a matter of utilizing the contacts we’ll have and also scouting for new talent in as many places as we can find it. The museum will have to seek out contributors from places like art collectives, galleries, colleges, and various media sources. Like the members of the museum’s consultation network, potential contributors will obviously need some incentive to become involved and to create works for us. This again is where the museum will operate like an arts collective, which helps its members with publicity and promotion. If we can convince “our” contributors that exposure in the Social Museum is worthwhile, we should have little trouble assigning works for our issueexhibitions. The trouble will come in actually securing completed pieces. Since the museum will rely on its contributors to produce new material in assignment of the issue-themes, it will be at the mercy of them to actually deliver on time. We could get around these kinds of problems by using contracts. Otherwise it might be a good idea to closely monitor the development of exhibition pieces, in the same way a publisher keeps tabs on an author drafting a novel.
The following are examples of issue-themes, as currently imagined. Unfortunately, these haven’t been constructed with the influence of very much research; these are closer to being simple ideas for issues, as outlined in step 1, rather than fully-developed issue-themes.
1.) CAREER AND IDENTITY This issue-exhibition will focus on the notion of career. What is it? Is it the union of repute and raw income? Is it the whole of a man’s experiences or just the sum of his achievements? When people talk about their careers they’re noting something that really has no other descriptor as a noun. Career is a vector. Your career is everything you’ve worked to achieve, which you’ve achieved through education, professional work, networking, or even by way of charity and social capital. And let’s not leave out that career can be the product chicanery, deception, or simply luck or family legacy. Career seems to be not what you are but what you’ve accomplished. But what you’ve accomplished is the whole of what you’ve done combined with the particularity of how you did those things and your predisposition to do them, therefore your very legitimacy as a person, the whole of your identity. But when you risk your career you don’t risk your identity. What exactly does it mean to risk your career? And why can’t you risk your identity? Career is everything on your resume, but it’s also a stock of experiences that add up to a communicable repute, like a fluid credential. So it’s not only what you are but how you came to be what you are, but that’s where it gets complicated. Imagine you came to be a U.S. Senator by rigging an election, then a few years later you’re found out, removed from office, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned. Through all of this you maintain your identity. Though in that short amount of time being arraigned and convicted as a fraud causes your identity to constantly evolve—from a senator to an exposed senator, to an exposed former senator, to a tried exposed former senator, and finally to a tried and convicted exposed former senator—your identity does not ever cease. However, your career (very abruptly) does. This is because you can’t further advance yourself, not even by fraudulent means. At the time you rigged the election you perpetuated your career both by seizing the opportunity to cheat an election and by being stealthy enough to somehow get away with it. Though your identity was always (in objective terms) an election-rigging stealthy politician, it was not until you
were exposed that you lost your career of being simply a politician, with none of those descriptors attached. So at any point your career is simply the result of your own selfpositioning and ability to do so while taking into account the laws and weaknesses of a system. In this case the system is an easily corrupted electoral process. But had you gotten away with the whole scam, say by serving one term as a senator and then winning the Presidency by honest means, your path to becoming President would’ve been built by one rigged election, one honest election and no doubt your legitimate experience as a senator in office. Then after you’ve served two terms as president, you’re commissioned to write a memoir. What you bring to that book deal is your career as a politician, largely enabled by that first fraudulent vote. Less cynically, one can also get ahead by simpler, more legal means like making it a point to network among professional circles. The point is that a career is not simply the whole of your abilities but the wider whole of your abilities in relation to a set of standards in which you have to live and work. Your career is what positions you to get ahead or simply to move laterally but favorably. Career exists in a different dimension than identity; it can be started, stopped, restarted, impeded, or interrupted. This is why a prisoner can have an identity but no career. He’s bound; he has no choice but to live in a static routine with no opportunity to do advance his prospects, except to behave in such a prescribed manner as to be paroled. Through the course of a human life, career is a vector of self promotion. The notion of career legitimizes the assets (but not the discrepancies) of identity.
2.) THE INNOVATOR AND THE CRIMINAL There is a section in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in which the main character, Roskolnikov describes a criminal as one who breaks the law, where the law is simply a set of standards—more often than not standards that impede progress. In this context, Roskolnikov’s notions of “standards” and “progress” are not tied to morality, so “standards” is simply a mold to be broken in favor of a new form. And “progress” is the act of such redefinition. Innovators are criminals in this paradigm, because they challenge the premise of “why this can’t be done.” In business, innovation usually means a more efficient way of meeting the bottom line; it’s often hailed as progressive and rewarded accordingly. But of course, literal criminals don’t even need to answer
the question of why this can’t be done. The reason “it can’t be done” is simply because “it” is against the law. Here is the prompt: if the law stands in the way of doing something or doing something in a certain way, it is a cheaper impediment than everything standing in the way of an innovation. In both cases, though, either the innovator or the criminal will not accept the standard. The difference is one is invited to challenge the standard and the other is not. Or, one is rewarded for going against the standard and the other is punished.
3.) SCREENS More and more of our everyday lives are held to a web of communications whose only articulation with the physical world is a two-dimensional field—a screen. Think of how often you encounter screens in your day-to-day life and how many messages are held to this web of articulations. And with the advent of the internet we now have screens within screens—literally, not in the “frame within frames” sense (although that principle is applicable here). But what is it about the screen and the square that lends them to universal application when it comes to displaying information? Such fields are indeed universal. That might not seem very interesting until you think about what kind of impact such prevalence has on one’s mode of thinking. When you’re constantly faced with that interface you’re bound to think on that coordinate plane, in terms of two dimensions. Futurist Buckminster Fuller often said that the keys to identifying, understanding and solving local problems requires the application of universal knowledge. However to really insert yourself into that appreciation you need only to begin thinking not in terms of up and down (as in the temporal, flat world, what-you-perceive reality), but in terms of in and out (as in being in the acknowledgement of macro systems and micro systems and the structures that bind the two together). A need to break this mode of thinking has been illustrated in cubism and its attempts to show all sides of an object at once. And Mr. Fuller himself created a “geo scope” of the earth—a map layout that shows all landmasses of the earth without distortion.
So if we do begin to think in terms of in and out, will we be opened to any better means of promoting holistic modes of thinking? Hypothetically, what are the differences between a world experienced in two dimensions as opposed to one experienced in three dimensions?
4.) INTOX Intoxication is mostly just a funny concept. In specialized society it is everywhere in one form or another, or multiple forms at once, of course. Whether we’re drinking alcohol or coffee, smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine, eating mushrooms, shooting heroin or just taking a prescribed drug, we’re constantly seeking distance from our natural states. The simple act of intoxication—used here to denote all forms of legal and illegal drug use—is so ubiquitous that one has to wonder why there are such arbitrary structures of taboo and acceptance surrounding them. Why, for example, are there wine connoisseurs but not cocaine connoisseurs? Obviously the prevalence of such people has to do with the legality of substances, but apart from that, what is in the heart of the aesthetic of wine that is not in the aesthetic of cocaine? It could be interesting to deconstruct the ethos surrounding our many quick-fix substances and reassign the romances (or lack of ) attributed to each. If I may go into a tangent, one installation that could be included in this issueexhibition be a totally self-serve liquor bar, reminiscent of the cold uncomfortable surroundings of a hospital, thus replacing the ethos of that particular intoxicant with the stark, straight-forwardness of medical intoxicants.
5.) DISNEYLAND Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyper-real extends to the notion of places like theme parks and casinos existing solely for the purpose of intentionally conveying the sense that the surrounding context is legitimately “more real.” In other words, if places like Disneyland exist as fictional environments, then the broader context in which it’s constructed must be legitimate enough for there to exist such a thing as a distinction between fiction and reality. The surrounding ‘legitimacy,’ then, must surely be in the category of reality.
An interesting study might examine the points of conflict between reality and such ‘hyper-real’ scenarios as theme parks, casinos, nightclubs, and golf courses. The hyper-real is entirely obvious in places like these. But where does it exist where it’s more sinister?