The Project Room has a simple mission. It explores a Big Question, such as “Why Do We Make Things?” in a multi-faceted way that will hopefully deepen one’s understanding or appreciation of that particular thing. And I say hallelujah to that. As well as good luck. Despite having so streamlined a goal, I worry that pulling off a seemingly simple thing is not always so simple in practice.
But regardless of the challenges The Project Room will face, it seems to me that what it’s up to really couldn’t be more important, or timely. Important because deeply contemplative exploration on a particular subject—any particular subject—is something that few of us do, and timely because we face complex problems of an unprecedented scale at the moment, and knowing a thing or two would seem to set us on a path towards getting out of them.
But the pragmatist in me can’t help but bring up the challenges first before celebrating the goal. And the main one I see is big, and it is this: focusing deeply on a particular subject is not a natural state for most of us, and probably never has been. Much has been said about the erosion of our ability to concentrate in the era of the Internet, and I see The Project Room at the very least as a hopeful retort to that conventional wisdom. Still, it stands to reason that how one goes about setting up a place designed to overcome such a natural aversion, however it has been arrived at, and however worse it might be getting, would need every advantage it could get. Plus, I have some serious questions about the state of the art world, which I’ll get to below.
Luckily, what I have seen so far at The Project Room has fulfilled its mission admirably. It has been interesting art that has linked quite directly with the Big Question, and from what I understand, there is more interesting art to come. But before The Project Room solidifies its identity with a curious public, I offer this simple plea: don’t be an art gallery. Seeing art in a space dedicated to its presentation equals a gallery in my books, and what I have seen so far at The Project Room is what I would consider to be art. Understand: if it walks like a gallery, and quacks like a gallery, then reasonable people might assume that it is, in fact, a gallery.
“But wait,” you say. Isn’t a gallery exactly what The Project Room should be modeling itself on? After all, aren’t galleries and museums designed to be those rare places of contemplation in a world virtually without them? Can’t they pry us free of our inertia, and get us to truly immerse ourselves in new ideas by presenting them in surprising and engaging ways?
Exploring the world subject by subject, agnostic about method or messenger, sounds fantastic, but it should be understood that museums and galleries don’t do that. Ironically, what they actually do sort of doubles down on the idea of asking a series of Big Questions by asking only one: how can we create complete autonomy for art and artists? Yeah, there are lots of ideas and issues raised along the way, but it must be understood that art constantly looks for the challenging, the new, the innovative, first and foremost. Try telling the next curator you meet that you are setting out to make non-challenging, non-innovative art that focuses on great ideas that will really involve people, and see how many shows you get. To suggest something like that absolutely goes against the grain of every artist and institution out there. So whether one likes it or not, walking into a gallery or museum involves a participant in a discussion about Art first, and often foremost, which would in my opinion make The Project Room’s Big Question a perpetual second stringer.
But wouldn’t bringing up anything at all skew the conversation? If a furniture maker came in and made a chair for example, or a survivalist showed people how to make a fire with a flint, wouldn’t the subject be the demonstrators themselves, to some extent? Yes. But if The Project Room decided to relocate to a furniture factory, or be permanently located in a yurt in the woods, it would skew its discussions by distorting everything through the lens of that context. Just as it would if people assumed it to be an art gallery. So don’t be an art gallery.
Ironically, what is interesting to me about The Project Room is that it’s doing exactly what museums and galleries should be doing right now, but choose not to. Artists have won their struggle for autonomy, so continuing to wage that battle seems redundant. There is no longer any debate about what constitutes an artwork. It’s anything an artist says it is. There is no longer any debate about who can make an artwork. Everyone can. There is no longer any debate about where an artwork can go. Say it with me: “anyplace.” A more interesting struggle by far would be to figure out what we get to do with all of our freedom. What do we want art to do? With whom do we want it to engage? Make no mistake, I understand why The Big Questions that art and artists have focused on for well over a hundred years have made nothing but sense in the modernist era. Attempting to answer them gave art the right to be critical of its environment by looking at it from a distance. To quote the academic Glenn Adamson, “This separation means that art is in a position to critique other institutions and cultural bases, whether they be commercial, political, social, economic, or religious.”1
So far, so good. But the price for this separation is steep, as well as paradoxical. If artists want to be free of the world they are critiquing, and they actually succeed in doing so, then isn’t their irrelevance towards those they critique the logical outcome? Separation is separation, after all. Ask people at the next party you are at to name five film directors. Then to name five musicians. Then to name five contemporary artists. I find that even asking undergraduate art students this question results in a struggle to complete the last five.
Of course, if artists wanted to be more memorable (I hear my non-artist friends say), wouldn’t a good first step be to make Art that understands that formal issues are moot, as is a historical narrative that only specialists understand? Does it have to be Art about Art?
And the short answer to that is yes. To the first part that is. No to the last. But there is a palpable resistance in doing so despite what seems a clear historical imperative. We have, by and large, participated in the system as it exists, and participated enthusiastically for reasons that are all too clear; inside the academy are the only people that really appreciate what artists actually do. This is because the academy has managed to become so large, and so autonomous, that it’s become its own audience, sometimes its only audience. Separation is separation after all. Mention you are an artist outside of that context, and suddenly it’s like you have the words “I waste my life” written in shit on your forehead. Those pesky questions about why art is so boring or impenetrable or fashion conscious get brushed aside with the serene assurance that a general audience doesn’t understand the art world. Well, exactly. Meanwhile, I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the phrase “Artists are the philosophers of our time!” uttered within the academy’s confines. No they aren’t. Philosophers are. Yeah, philosophers still exist, and reading them is an absolute joy compared to reading the gobbledygook that comprises most artist statements, or being lulled to sleep by most artist lectures.
The fact is that artists, in reflecting their time (one of their actual jobs), make it clear that we are in a world of hurt in terms of thinking in a disciplined manner. Good for them (us) for making that so clear. But while falling so far short of having something compelling to say could be considered informative in a kind of doublethink way, we need to ask more of art and artists to get a clearer picture of our world and our place in it. Please. Don’t. Be. An. Art. Gallery.
If you’ve read this far, you might have begun to suspect that I’m a little down on the whole gallery thing, and maybe even the whole art thing in general. Which is not exactly true. I’m down on art that isn’t good, and that unfortunately happens to be quite a bit of it. And I passionately want it to be good. But the truth of the matter is that this is an incredibly exciting time to be an artist, because a shift in thinking seems to be happening, and the things I’ve mentioned above have a pretty wide currency right now among a certain kind of artist. That’s good.
But all of this remains a peripheral issue to what The Project Room is doing right now, and I see nothing gained by including the vicissitudes of the art world in its mission, a mission that seems, as I said above, so beguilingly simple and streamlined: to explore a Big Question. In any way that shed lights on a possible answer. If the question was “Why Do We Make Art?” then by all means, go ahead and open a gallery. But it’s not. “Why do we make things?” is a far more open-ended question altogether, one with answers that could certainly intersect with art, but just as easily might not. Understanding the scope of our urge to Make, an urge that defines us in a primary way, seems diminished by only contemplating it through the lens of art. After all, it is a rare event to go into a room where everything calls itself Art. A far more common experience is to walk into a room where things call themselves Chair, or Floor, or Computer. The pivotal roles that chairs and floors and computers play in our lives, and the fact that we know next to nothing about how those things are made, seems every bit as valid a question as why we make art. Why we make art is a fascinating subject as well, and the answers to it form some of the most enduring acts of humankind that I know of. But that is not the question that The Project Room is raising.
Fortunately for all involved, there are lots of makers that can add to this discussion, and those many voices just might turn it into something amazing. If they do, call it art if you want to. Why not? Our era is equal opportunity when it comes to what constitutes an art experience, as well as where that art experience might happen. Linking an audience with something compelling is the only thing required, the need to call such a place a gallery, not so much.
1 Glenn Adamson. Thinking Through Craft (London: Berg, published in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2007).