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.

OBJECT ENCOUNTER Visiting the Art Museum of the Americas

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. Professor McEwen, the graduate students, and The Art Gallery would like to thank and recognize the Art Museum of the Americas for their support of the exhibition, especially Andrés Navia and Adriana Ospina; as well as John Shipman, the former Director of The Art Gallery, for his work in orchestrating the show.

Visiting the Art Museum of the Americas

 Kathleen Weigand

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Raino Isto, Cecilia Wichmann, Tyler Shine, Eleanor Stoltzfus, and Alison Singer (left to right) with works on paper from AMA’s collection. (Photo courtesy of Abigail McEwen.)

Last semester, the members of the graduate seminar, “Aesthetics of Exile: Borderlands, Diaspora, and Migration,” under the guidance of Dr. Abigail McEwen, studied Latin American modernism through the lenses of various critical methodologies. We focused on the interventions of postcolonialism; diaspora and nomadism; studies of space, displacement, and border zones; globalization; and cosmopolitanism.

In partnership with the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) in Washington, D.C., we had a unique opportunity to apply these theories to an exhibition of our own design, to open in March 2015 at the university’s Art Gallery. We curated this exhibition through our selection of objects from AMA’s permanent collection. The development of this show was a main aspect of our seminar work, which included lengthy conversations on the curation of objects; the design of gallery space; the creation of a digital exhibition by Cecilia Wichmann and Grace Yasumura to accompany the university show (which Grace discusses in our next post); and the development of our exhibition proposal, the critical theory behind which Raino discusses in another post to follow.

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Kathleen Weigand, Cecilia Wichmann, Eleanor Stoltzfus, and Raino Isto (left to right) with Oscar Muñoz (Colombia), Interior, c. 1987. Lithograph, 30 x 20″ (image) 37 ½ x 29½” (sheet), Collection OAS | Art Museum of the Americas. (Photo courtesy of Abigail McEwen.)

We achieved a breakthrough in our selection of objects for the exhibition during our first trip to AMA in October, when Adriana Ospina and her colleagues prepared over a dozen objects of our choosing, removing them from storage for a private viewing. Prior to our visit, we had browsed and selected a wide range of paintings, prints, and other works on paper through AMA’s collection online. It was crucial, however, that we view and discuss these selections in front of the objects themselves.

The snapshots above and below illustrate the variability of even the best digital reproductions and the importance of viewing artworks in person. Seeing their true appearance during our visit to AMA naturally led us to a more critical understanding of these objects and a revelatory reconsideration of the show. Only in person were we able to accurately apprehend the size, color, and effect of the artworks we had chosen. Our viewing of the objects also facilitated discussions of related design considerations, such as framing and matting, as well as our interest in alternative forms of display, such as the use of vitrines or monitors. Two of the group’s favorite object selections included Oscar Muñoz’s 1987 still image Interior, originally selected by Eleanor Stoltzfus, and my initial selection, Filemon Santiago Avendaño’s Untitled, a surrealistic watercolor from 1979.

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Oscar Muñoz (Colombia), Interior, c. 1987. Lithograph, 30 x 20″ (image) 37 ½ x 29½” (sheet), Collection OAS | Art Museum of the Americas.

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Filemon Santiago Avendaño (Mexico), Untitled, c. 1979. Watercolor, 18 x 24,” Collection OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas.

Avendaño’s watercolor incorporates beautifully subtle gradations in earth tones—ochers and browns—as well as blues, greens, flashes of red, and somber greys, all of which constitute the flattened, anthropomorphic shapes of fantastic animals and surrealistic, dream-like bestial bodies. While the subtleties of color are difficult to discern in the painting’s digital reproduction, the full depth and range of color became evident upon closer inspection. Variations of recognizable forms—goats, rabbits, chickens, pigs, cats, and dogs—as well as other amalgamations of farm and domestic animals, descend together in a mass of flailing legs, ears, tongues, tails, and horns. Creatures peck, nibble, and pull at each other amidst the rush of bodies detached from space; some recede in their declination, as if tumbling from a spectral, unseen pen or precipice. In the upper right-hand corner, bizarre, block-like forms and incomplete animal bodies evoke a sense of amputation and slaughter, while the frenetic mass of seemingly carnivorous creatures, and their carnal contact with one another, elicit a sense of the “uncanny strangeness” discussed by Julia Kristeva in her discourse on cosmopolitanism.

This “uncanny strangeness” of the nomadic artist’s encounter with other cultures is readily identifiable in his biography. A Mexican-born resident of Oaxaca, Avendaño spent much of his early artistic training and career in Chicago. In 1995, Avendaño’s “cosmopolitan” career took him to the Netherlands as a professor. He has since reclaimed Oaxaca as his permanent residence and workplace. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of several American institutions to collect his work.

Through our exhibition, we hope to bring rarely exhibited objects such as Avendaño’s watercolor to the university and the greater public. In foregrounding contemporary Latin American artists, often little known in the United States, and the critical discourse around them, we also hope to draw new connections within and between the university and its neighboring communities.

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Kathleen Weigand, Grace Yasumura, Raino Isto, Tyler Shine, and Alison Singer (left to right) with Filemon Santiago Avendaño (Mexico), Untitled, c. 1979. Watercolor, 18 x 24,” Collection OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas. (Photo courtesy of Abigail McEwen.)