Exhibition Prosthetics I

“It’s also a tax deduction! I mean—when I buy the beer.”

I began my first teaching position this semester, and one of the things I was most excited about (and made sure to take advantage of no matter what) was that I was allowed to take a class for free. By some stroke of luck—perhaps even divine intervention—there was a spot open in Joseph Grigely’s class titled Exhibition Prosthetics. This series of writings will be reflections from the week prior on talks I have gone too, virtual exhibitions I see (since I am taking this class during a pandemic I cannot in good conscience visit in person ones), as well as the readings assigned to me by Joseph, and any conversations we have together in the interim through email or instagram. We’ll see how it goes. 

How do you organize your books on your shelves? I myself have shifted methods over the years usually depending on what my storage situation consists of, what books I own, and how specific I want to get in the organization. I’ve always envied people who could organize by color (I tried today, but the proposition seems out of the question since I don’t have one big bookshelf, and my collection numbers in the 100s). I usually situate based on size first—in order to make sure all of the large books can fit on the shelves—and then go by category and alphabetical by either author or subject matter depending on which category it falls into. What’s curious about organizing by categories is you quickly find you have to generalize or the minutiae of a book’s specificity can leave you with almost as many categories as books. In a conversation between Teju Cole and Aleksandar Hemon, they remark upon the difficulty of distinction that arises when fiction and nonfiction (for example) are used to delineate books, and Hemon points out that in Bosnian there are no words for those categories. If at all the closest translation for nonfiction would mean “true stories”. Hemon also states that truth does not precede Narration, but rather unfolds within it, is created by it. 

Halston at Andy Warhol’s Long Island Retreat, he sits in a chair built to rest with your legs stretched out reading a large book on the work of Tsamu Noguchi and behind him is a large bookshelf full of books with their spines turned towards the back of the case so you can only see the edges of the pages. David Getsy and Jennifer Doyle discuss this in their conversation Queer Formalisms in regard to the queer act that Warhol performed by turning all of the books around because he inherited them when he bought the house.

To return to my shelves. Many of the books I own I have never read, and that amount always grows faster than seems realistic for myself as someone who would like to read them all. When I posted on instagram about this conundrum Joseph remarked upon my possession of a drill, tape, glue, and that I should use these to adhere my books together, give me an excuse not to read them. My immediate feeling was sacrilege, and that I would much rather keep with the ways I brought books together in both my BFA and MFA. In the former I created a bookshelf specifically for some book work that I had made of my entire printable hard drive at the time. I remember when one of my classmates came in and rearranged my books all over the install room I was absolutely furious. Disorder of my objects I asked an audience to engage with went counter to my desire for order and control that seems to be my mind’s modus operandi. In my MFA I built yet another bookshelf that resembled stairs, but also built a shelf that hung crooked on the wall and had books placed on it, but kept in place by a ratchet strap that I had used for so many years in Cleveland to attach wood to the top of my Nissan Altima when it wouldn’t fit inside. I can confidently say now that an Altima is not the car of someone who wishes to be a sculptor. Perhaps Joseph was on to something with the screwing, gluing, and taping of my books together. It would definitely be an act which would allow me to work against my innate desires for control and aversion to anything that I haven’t cemented as correct in my mind. I still don’t think I will do it, but it’s a nice thought experiment. 

This thought of closing up books through their adherence to one another also brings up a question of access to the info inside. Or really access to info at all. 

Karen Archey recently gave a virtual talk on her now canceled exhibition at the Stedelijk museum at which she works titled After Institutions. In it she outlines the ideas behind the show as well as a certain history of Institutional Critique that informed her decisions about those ideas. At one point she discussed Sara Ahmed’s work around the complaint which for her was inspired by her experiences working with students through the work necessary in reporting issues of sexual harassment and misconduct. Something that struck me in how Archey talked about it was that the thing about complaints and responses to them is they allow an institution to become stronger, but are often ignored because it challenges the systems which manage power within that institution. I have a certain uneasiness around the discussion of complaints in regard to strengthening an institution, primarily because I think if we were to listen to the complaints as well as demands (which I’ll return to) of those who do not have the power proper in the institutions and did something about them, those institutions would crumble as we know them. I think of those complaints and demands as planks of wood on the Argonaut’s ship that shift, and while the name does not change, the structure itself does. If Roland Barthes likened this act of changing ships but not names to saying “I love you” I would say that complaints and demands tearing an institution down properly is an act of love. 

The Argonauts, detail of a panel painting by Lorenzo Costa, c. 1480–90; in the Civic Museum, Padua, Italy. A painting detail consisting of a ship on water with some land surrounding it. Proportions of everything are quite off, and the bodies themselves are painted in a way to maximize their visual potential within a larger image. Some men on the ship are at rest it seems in discussion, and other’s seem ready for battle.

One work she discussed in relation to Ahmed’s work on complaint was one of Joseph’s piece which took the form of a lawsuit, specifically the consent decree that the Gramercy Park Hotel agreed to in order to settle the lawsuit. Upon visits in 1996 and 2004 Joseph, who is completely deaf, found that the hotel did not have the proper facilities to allow him to use the telephones at the hotel. Once important is that a consent decree requires that the hotel make the accommodations, but allows them to avoid taking responsibility for violating the requirements created by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). When discussing this work during the talk I thought of the work that Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have done, specifically their discussions of the demand. They follow from Frantz Fanon that the demand relates to the settler’s understanding of neurosis, and specifically its relationship to the idea of Black sociality as pathological. Another way Moten puts it in a series of lectures he gave at the University of California Irvine is that we must always make the demand, but that those who are meant to “hear” the demand cannot only refuse to accede to it, but refuse to accept that the one who makes the demand has the judicial standing to make that demand. It is in the refusal to accept someone has the right to make the demand that makes the demand a pathological act. 

I think that’s why the work Joseph does around conversation seems so necessary. Specifically as it relates to something Hans Ulrich Obrist brings up in the conversation that comes at the end of Exhibition Prosthetics Joseph’s book that we read for this class of his that I’m taking, “Douglas Gordon once said that art is a pretext or an excuse to have a conversation.” And not to place myself as on the same level artistically as Gordon, but this has always been a thought I’ve had around art that I was hesitant to articulate because of the anxiety around what this could mean for the work of art that doesn’t ask for a conversation or isn’t able to produce one. But again I think that’s what’s so potent about Joseph’s consent decree piece is that in absence of those normal requirement of art, it becomes it through the conversation it engenders. Conversation becomes the defining trait of artworks in that they craft a kind of artistic sociality around themselves. While this may place Joseph’s conversation works in a category of meta-art, I would argue it’s just that they acknowledge and force us to think about the larger context of what constitutes a conversation. Another way to say it is that they acknowledge all of those exhibition prosthetics or conversation prosthetics that are taken for granted in a world that doesn’t acknowledge that which exists outside the normal as anything but something to be accommodated. 

Joseph Grigely Songs Without Words (Sekou Sundiata) 2012. A photograph sits within a newspaper composition surround by much smaller text. The caption has been removed, and in the image you can see a man, seated at a drumset wearing a button down and a fedora with his eyes closed, one hand pushing his ear so as to eliminate sound traveling into it. A microphone is positioned quite near to his mouth.

One exhibition convention that is brought into play in the conversation at the end of the book, is the audio guide. As opposed to operating as a tool for those who are unable to view the works themselves due to being blind, visually impaired, or perhaps neurodivergent in a way that an audio guide can assist in the engagement with works which may be visually overwhelming, they operate as tyrannical control mechanisms over the way one engages a gallery of works. An artist that subverts this problematic of the audio guide is Park McArthur who has utilized the audio guide to act as a form of accessibility and an assist to the works themselves, while providing text based versions of the guides. This engagement with the exhibition prosthetics allows the works to become fuller through an understanding of those works which are reexamined through the audio guide. For example, when I wrote my essay on McArthur and Beverly Buchanan’s work it was those audio guides in their text based form which allowed me to better engage with McArthur’s works Carried & Held and Abstraction

This being the first of the reflections that I am doing for this class on my Substack I am not quite sure how to tie it all up. I know I won’t be going back to do proper edits, as that feels counter intuitive to the process, but I think maybe the best way to do it is to return to the subtitle I have chosen for this week. It comes from that conversation at the end of Exhibition Prosthetics I have referenced a few times. Specifically in response to a part of a question where the audience member remarked upon the fact that Joseph was able to make his conversations into finished piece where the audience member seemed to only talk in the studio and never finish anything. Joseph just pointed out the business side of art making, where we often have the ability to write off things which seem unduly absurd. But that’s what makes this class I am taking, Joseph’s instagram, and his work in general so compelling. It operates within those odd parts of the art world and creates its own whether it be a proper aesthetic examination of trout flies, a lawsuit as a work of art, conversations as components of an installation, or his commitment to friendships as important to the world he wishes to live in. And I think with that I can end this week’s reflection, and here’s to sticking to it!