Workshopping Networks: Generating Lists, Synthesizing Lists

In the following weeks, a series of guest-blog posts will be published in anticipation of The Art Gallery’s next exhibition, Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. This exhibition has been curated by Professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, and Ph.D. students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland.

Workshopping Networks: Generating Lists, Synthesizing Lists

Raino Isto

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Eduardo Mac Entyre, Seis Formas en Dos Circunferencias [Six Forms in Two Circumferences], 1966. Oil on canvas, 56 ¾ x 70 ¾ in. Collection OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas.

How might one incorporate the critical legacy of postcolonial theory in its diverse forms with more recent work foregrounding the agency and autonomy of objects? This was one of the central questions that occupied our graduate seminar, offered by the Department of Art History & Archaeology, as we set about planning an exhibition of works from the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA). We wanted the exhibition to strike a balance between the complexities of artist biographies—no less, the formation of subjectivities in global, diasporic, and exilic contexts—and the agency of the art object itself as a unit in shifting networks of (cultural) capital, material goods, and ideas. In this post, I present an overview of our collaboration on the exhibition concept, tracing our ideas from their inception in particular theoretical models. These ideas, born from the themes of our seminar, underwent a long process of incremental revision and refinement. This process, I think, shows both the difficulties and rewards of trying to make objects speak about each other, about the artists who made them, and—ultimately—about themselves.

Our seminar readings focused primarily on questions of identity, self, and meaning in the conditions of late-capitalist globalization, drawing from an array of thinkers including Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Stephen Greenblatt, Stuart Hall, Arjun Appadurai, Edward Said, and Walter Mignolo. Over the course of the semester, Cecilia Wichmann and I simultaneously delved into writings on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) as part of the Theory Colloquium on “Subjects and Objects” offered by the Center for Literature and Comparative Studies. Actor-Network Theory treats both humans and nonhumans, subjects and objects, as parts of a social network in which all participants exercise agency and affect other members of the network. It often emphasizes the ways in which things commonly considered simply as objects, unable to produce change, in fact help to constitute a social world mutually conditioned by human subjects. In a parallel vein, Object-Oriented Ontology investigates the world of objects divorced from subjects; it ponders the strangeness of objects, seeking to understand the ways that they transcend the meanings we ascribe to them.

The conjunction of object-oriented models and postcolonial thought suggested a productive viewpoint from which to plan an exhibition. While curatorial practice can sometimes deal directly with artists and subjectivity, its engagement with objects (in our case, with many objects that have not been previously exhibited) is intrinsic.

Since both ANT and OOO are deeply interested in the notion of “workshopping” their theoretical models, we thought: what better way to workshop the intersection of these theoretical spheres than by designing an exhibition to explore the micro-histories of objects? Our exhibition explores their potential agencies, their relationships to a shifting collage of identities and representations, and their sly retreats; we probe their participation in assemblages of influence and expression and their roles in mutually constituting the subjectivities of the artists that created them. Particularly key to our thinking was the plausibility of applying Greenblatt’s “cultural mobility” model within the “white cube” of the gallery space.  We wanted to foster an understanding of how particular art objects and artists had moved along and across various borders, through various networks…but we needed to create this sense of motion and flux in a relatively isolated space. How could we show interconnection in an environment more favorable to sensations of timelessness and placelessness?

This question and the ideas it inspired floated across our minds as we prepared for our visit to AMA on October 2. In fact, the visit (about which Kathleen Weigand has written) served as the most important, conceptual catalyst for the exhibition. Seeing the works in person put our rather vast net of theoretical references into a new perspective, suggested fresh formal and critical connections, and—above all—made us tremendously excited about translating abstract ideas into discrete, visual narratives constructed around the objects themselves.

The curatorial process began in the wake of the museum visit, when I created a Google Doc and invited the other members of our seminar to enrich it with theoretical insights, specific ideas about works of art and groupings thereof, and installation models for The Art Gallery’s space. I asked: How might we make ANT or the concerns of OOO work in tandem with postcolonial critical approaches? I intended the concept to be as open-ended as possible, suggesting a hazy series of groupings related to “maps of networks,” “the multiplicity of connected objects/people/entities,” “the discrete self-contained aspects of objects,” and “the potential hybridity of nonhuman subjects and their position in networks of agency.”

Eduardo Mac Entyre’s Seis Formas en Dos Circunferencias serves as an apt visual metaphor for the refinement of our exhibition concept. In this work, Mac Entyre repeated the linear trajectory of a simple geometric form: the circumference of a circle. In doing so, he produced an image that possesses an overarching unity created out of a plethora of discrete and subtly displaced interior units. Likewise, our work on the exhibition unfolded as a gradual expansion and synthesis of lists of overlapping and disparate categories and objects. Over the course of the next month, our categories and groupings of artworks expanded, contracted, reformed, and redoubled as we established new relationships between works dealing with animals, the body in exile, maps and cartographies, the agency of objects, transnational flows of capital, and the materiality of particular media. These new sets of interrelated frameworks informed our initial exhibition roundtables and, alongside this proliferation of interpretive frameworks, our list of potential objects grew at a dizzying speed. Several weeks of slow circling around the problems of object agency and the formation of transnational subjectivities set the stage for both our research forays into the AMA archives (addressed in Cecilia’s upcoming post) and the expanding vision of the exhibition’s online companion (see Grace’s post)—two processes that have introduced a fresh cast of objects and their agencies in new and exciting ways.

I like to think that our collaborative process has tested the possibilities of “workshopping” encounters with objects, as envisioned by theories like ANT and OOO. Some objects we saw in person; others we encountered only through the mediation of digital reproduction (and still others only through their metadata). Likewise, our own interactions took place in person and through a vast network of digital mediators (email, Google Docs, Facebook, and others). And, like the asymmetrical networks of Actor-Network Theory, the complexity of our own interactions with each other was sometimes as confusing as it was enlightening—struggling to find the unified form within an increasingly disjunctive set of units.  As we continue to think more about how artists and objects function in webs of agency and signification, we find ourselves facing bafflement as much as understanding.  That, perhaps, is the most salient lesson to be gained from our work together on the exhibition: things of all kinds—objects, subjects, and their interstices—push us in new directions, outside of simple ways of thinking and away from reductive syntheses, into hidden spaces. Always shifting, they push us across borders.