Review by Emma Cummins
In November 2010, the graduating students of the MA Curating Contemporary Art course at the Royal College of Art, invited the artists Mariana Castillo Deball, Sean Dockray, Marysia Lewandowska and Wendelien van Oldenborgh to respond to Giorgio Agamben’s seminal essay What is an Apparatus? (2009). The dialogue prompted by this text was central to the development of SHADOWBOXING; a dynamic exhibition accompanied by an ongoing series of events, talks and publications.
What is an Apparatus? is an extraordinary exposition of Michel Foucault’s concept of the dispositif (apparatus). In its original Foucauldian sense, an apparatus is the network that exists between ‘a thoroughly heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions’. This network is by nature strategic – it involves a certain manipulation and intervention into the complex relations of forces which encircle and define the human subject.
In Agamben’s deployment of the term, any apparatus – from mobile telephones, to cigarettes, to computers – aims to separate us from our own subjectivities. Anything – or perhaps everything – we encounter and interact with has ‘the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions or discourse of living beings’.
Defined by a desire to educate, illuminate and perhaps motivate viewers, SHADOWBOXING provides an abundance of text and gallery literature on philosophy, cultural theory and political activism. Although those unfamiliar with heavy, theoretical texts such as Agamben’s might struggle in places; the curators have chosen an engaging and varied collection of works. Permeated by theoretical and pedagogical narratives, SHADOWBOXING combines videos, films, sculpture and mixed media installations which attempt to expose, appropriate and infiltrate the everyday apparatuses of power, governance and knowledge. How, the curators ask, can one challenge forces that have become so internalised that they are indistinguishable from one’s own shadow?
Expounding the ways in which art can upset, interrupt or contest the all-encompassing power of the state – ‘in subtle as opposed to revolutionary ways’ – this is an intellectually stimulating exhibition which aims to affect our perceptions of familiar media and institutions. Lewandowska’s work is a case in point, as for SHADOWBOXING, the site she exposes is the precise institution in which her work is displayed. For Subject to Change (2011), the artist has orchestrated a series of interventions into the spaces and archives of the RCA. Consisting of historical documents, archival film footage and a site specific installation; the project allows visitors to experience and reflect upon the institution’s otherwise hidden histories, rituals and resources.
In my experience of the work, Subject to Change exists as a complex map of the possibilities and limitations of working in an institutional context. In one section of the project, Lewandowska has relocated the RCA’s Senior Common Room lounge into one of the college’s public gallery spaces. A members-only space, established in the early 1950s, the Senior Common Room is not normally accessible to students or non-academic staff. As well as removing and relocating the contents of this space, the artist invited all RCA employees to choose a work from the college’s art collection to be presented as part of the installation.
Although this is a unique opportunity to view works by artists such as Frank Auerbach, Camille Pissarro and L. S. Lowry; it could be argued that this is merely a case of moving some institutional furniture. There is no resistance here; nothing radical. Without a priori knowledge of the college’s spatial practices, Subject to Change is a modest, temporary intervention into a very specific site. Unfortunately, it is not without irony that this installation is perhaps more interesting for the members of this very institution; its staff and students, as well as the elite members of the Senior Common room itself.
Other aspects of this project, however, seem much more in tune with the students’ curatorial strategy. For example, in a separate, panoramic display of literature, photographs and historical documents, Lewandowska reflects upon moments when students (past and present) have challenged the hierarchical authority of the academic institution. Focusing on political protests and moments of activism organised by RCA scholars, this particular section of Subject to Change exposes how bureaucratic decisions can be disrupted by individual will and collective force.
Unlike Lewandowska’s appropriation of the Senior Common room, this collection of documents (many of which visitors can take home) is timely and politically relevant. It is fitting that Lewandowsa’s installation takes place in the RCA’s entrance hall; a space recently occupied by students in response to government cuts to higher education. Most importantly, this detailed, analytical work solicits a visual and intellectual dialogue between the past and the present which, in turn, leads our gaze to the future.
If the power of the state apparatus relies on the reproduction of social relations and institutional conventions, it is not only in the present that it seeks to control us. In turn, the desire to resist or to change, is not only an action or intervention, but a speculative vision of a future condition. To this reviewer, the potentiality of affecting a future yet to come is a more fruitful component of the RCA students’ curatorship. In contrast to ideas of appropriation, adjustment or rearrangement (as seen in Lewandoska’s Senior Common room piece), the more conjectural objectives of works such as Dockray’s Public Monument(2011) seem to have a greater capacity to disturb dominant social and epistemological contexts.
Public Monument; an interactive audio installation, muses upon a future moment when DAB digital technology has replaced traditional, analogue radio. The transmogrification of a supposedly decaying apparatus would (or will), in Agamben’s reading, equate to a form of strategic control. As well as affecting the manufacturing industry, this fundamentally ideological decision, made by the state, affects the products we consume, the technology we use and, most importantly, the way that we acquire knowledge.
By asking people to contribute to an audio time capsule designed to be listened to in the year 2021, Dockray’s work creates a fertile ground for exploring the ways in which cultural mechanisms can be playfully challenged or contested. Accompanied by an image of a semi-fictional broadcasting tower, where the recordings at SHADOWBOXING will (actually or hypothetically) be transmitted; Public Monument is at once reliant on its existence in real time, and its vestigial presence in an impending, yet volatile future. Occupying a strange, spatio-temporal realm, its aim is not to ‘capture or secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions or discourse of living beings’ in the present, but to capture and ignite the imagination and memories of a future audience.
SHADOWBOXING continues until 3 April. For more information visit the Royal College of Art website.
Marysia Lewandowska – Subject to Change, 2011