Autonomy, Dependency and Trust

A Museum and a Silent Majority
Written in collaboration with Harlan Levey in Onomatopee 43.3 – The Autonomy Project, Newspaper 3: At Work (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 2012) 7-8.

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The Autonomy Project is a conscious gesture to address the pressing global problem of the social and political function of the arts in the context of civic and fiscal crisis. While the timing of the symposium provided a passionate atmosphere that spoke of the need for action, it also allowed for a necessary pause. The event brought a diverse group of local and international actors into the room to explore autonomy together with the understanding that regardless of all the (personal and common) external pressures, this look cannot be a quick glance. What is the nature of a museum’s work in so-called post-ideological times characterised, however, by a problematic revival in populist policies?

During The Autonomy Project Symposium, diverse lectures, workshops, and panels fed a focused discussion as to what happens when the traditional function of the museum to treasure physical evidence of a preferred moral system becomes obsolete. That the broad investigation of the symposium was sewn together through readings of Jacques Rancière’s work meant highlighting contradictions in democratic pillars such as emancipation, equality and the problems of socalled expertise. To speak about autonomy today in regard to aesthetics, implies a conscious avoidance of self-indulgence and acrobatic auto-congratulation as dialogue purposefully detours from teleological narratives of art history with the knowledge that every type of production is entangled in a distinct and relative political paradigm. The Museum of Modern Art doesn’t need anymore to live up to the protean imperative to enlighten and to educate, to store and to showcase evidences of a wishful (progressive?) past that should lead the way towards an even greater future. But does it want to give up this “universal” humanistic task? What is our responsibility towards all of the futures that never came to be?

What came in response to these questions seemed to reveal the implicit logic (traditional perhaps) that in order to be ‘autonomous’ and even self-reflective, one must be politically and socially engaged. Speaker Hito Steyerl described a somewhat chilling linguistic shift that covertly addressed engagement by detailing a movement where “work” is replaced by “occupation” and leaders specialized in concealment illustrate roadmaps while civil invention moves on to the dying local factory lines. In crisis, do you work your way out of it and invent your future? Or do you accept the plan you are given and allow yourself to be occupied? What happened at the Van Abbemuseum was an exchange of knowledge towards the development of tools that could be applied towards this work and external perception of the future value of such instruments. More specific to the museum’s future job description were discussions about the ethics of accessioning and deaccessioning, of ownership and intellectual property, of production, partnership, precarity and the need for (and simultaneous threat of) consensus.

There was also talk of a civil war on Europe’s horizon, a green infatuation with the Occupy movement and a ripe nostalgia for Marxist interpretations of labor and production that seemed to harbor lingering hope for a post 1968 future that never came to be. The continual thought of failed futures reflected the constant return to where we were sitting and how an investigation of autonomy might open up crucial discussions to the future of the museum.

The museum may be one of the last homes of the long slow look before and behind civilization and as a democratic arm, must maintain the ability to protect “alternative” histories, languages and instruments rather than reconfirming traditional, dominant ones. The gesture suggests a responsibility to protect and engage with minority perspectives that may not necessarily translate to blockbuster hits: the need to create a framework to avoid surrendering to the urgency of speculative values and short-term returns. It becomes a question of translation, which looks for an autonomous territory that interrupts dependency on the market, the state and the idea that one may exist freely of the other.

The museum has to create a safe ground for dissent to stand against the potential dangers of dictatorship and empower the community it serves with aesthetics and stories that have not achieved the confirmation of consensus. If not it would be another easy to read mirror: a place where all the reflections are recognised by a majority of people, another sort of Cineplex that adheres to the propaganda models and filter bias of mass media. If it is fair to say that the museum has a responsibility to challenge the architecture of consent and preserve plausibly obscure histories that may add value to the future. What a difficult and artful task this is should also be acknowledged. The pragmatic individual task is being able to afford this type of conceptual work internally, while garnering trust for a sense that does not submit to so-called common sense. The collective task is one of translation from research to empowerment, which assumes that autonomy always relates to dependency. The question therefore becomes one of standing alone together.