Recent incidents staged by the artist/activist group G.U.L.F. at the Guggenheim in New York have been spectacular in every sense of the word. Along with actions earlier in the year, the sequence of events has brought attention to G.U.L.F.’s cause via new channels quickly and globally. The action itself was eye-opening, but the blow-by-blow of the evening’s events on November 5 – complete with Keystone Cop style museum security – is downright entertaining.
Act Now and Save As
G.U.L.F. is an offshoot of the larger group, Gulf Labor. The “52 Weeks” campaign concluded by Gulf Labor earlier this year featured weekly contributions from artists, writers, and activists focusing on Gulf Labor’s cause.
Available at their blog, the 52nd week’s contribution for example invites viewers “to download, print, or . . . see a higher resolution version of the work.” In order to do so, the site instructs the viewer to “please click here or right click and then click ‘Save As’. ”
Think about that.
The biggest oh shit aspect of this story is reserved for museum institutions. Sure, most museum institutions will focus solely on the security implications, perhaps improving training of security guards or tightening procedures for purses and backpacks.
But, they’re looking in the wrong place. The real story is how this turn of events illustrates the precarious position these institutions inhabit in our connected world.
One of the dirty little secrets of the museum world (although they don’t think it’s dirty) is the lengthy nature of exhibition cycles. Because “outsiders” don’t really think much about it, it’s often surprising to many that exhibitions are planned 2-3 years in advance, and sometimes more.
Why does this matter? The very nature of the exhibition cycle lends itself to a limited number of topics that are safe-but-still-edgy-enough. Gender? That’s an issue that’s going to be around awhile. Race? That topic has still got some life in it. Sexual orientation? Gay marriage court cases won’t get wrapped up for a while. Income inequality? The poor will always be with you. The environment?
How Contemporary – And Relevant – Can You Be?
Twenty years ago, one could say they were interested in – or “followed” – a particular cause. Now, that’s kind of meh. Access to information – even among the developed world’s have-nots – has improved exponentially within an infinitesimal amount of time, historically speaking. News cycles have sped up dramatically in just the last decade. As a result, the culture of the developed world now looks at the big picture issue through the lens of trending.
This isn’t good or bad. It’s just different. Income inequality becomes microfinance. Race becomes Ferguson. Gender becomes gender reassignment as part of health insurance plans in Oregon.
Museum institutions want so badly to be relevant. So how relevant can these museum institutions – steeped in the organizational traditions and processes of the past – be when the issues to which they should be responding are now trending on a monthly and weekly basis? True, collecting institutions have an advantage over non-collecting institutions in their ability to respond to trending events, but bureaucracy will usually be the problem in organizations with those kinds of budgets.
And, speaking of organizations with big budgets, the The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi won’t open for a couple of years in case you were wondering. Meanwhile, Gulf Labor’s new campaign – entitled “Countdown” – launches shortly.