Wet Archive Curatorial Team members River Bullock, Jill Casid, Jessica Cooley, and Lex Lancaster join Jonathan Zarov in the studio to discuss The Wet Archive and upcoming events on Buzz, WORT, 30 January 2015
On View: The Wet Archive by Jeanne Kolker for The Wisconsin State Journal, 1 February 2015
‘The Wet Archive’ at Chazen, leaves viewers limp by Michael Muckian for The Wisconsin Gazette, 26 February 2015
Following Michael Muckian’s review of The Wet Archive (see link above), the Curatorial Team drafted an open letter to the editors of the Wisconsin Gazette. On March 14, the Wisconsin Gazette posted a redacted version of the curatorial team’s open letter to the editors on their website. The elements that were cut or rephrased are highlighted in the full text of the letter below.
The parts that were redacted have to do with the credibility, accuracy, and transparency of the published review. The redacted parts lay out some of the factual errors in the original publication that are countered by those aspects of the exhibition’s content, display, and wall text one sees on a visit. In addition to the signage and wall text, there is also a brochure with a copy of the exhibition statement which visitors may take away to read later.
In the grammar of conjecture rather than accusation the redacted portions put the question to the reader of what it means that the review is based on the authority of eye-witness reporting and yet makes such factual errors. And they call attention to the decision on the part of the editors not to acknowledge publicly that they corrected some of the errors made in the original publication. You can see an archived version of the original publication with the errors here.
What we did not spell out in the open letter is that the review twice mistakes even the title of the exhibition, replacing photographer and critic Jeff Wall’s concept of “photography’s liquid intelligence” with the false and misleading phrase “the photographer’s liquid intelligence.” This is not a small error as it misrepresents the exhibition’s central concept. The review is structured as if it were a refutation of a claim about photographers or artists and their “intelligence.” And that is neither the exhibition’s central claim nor its title. In working with Wall’s concept of “photography’s liquid intelligence,” the exhibition asks viewers to think and feel with the properties of the medium of photography and to consider what happens in the scene of encounter in the gallery — and what doesn’t.
The following is the full text of the open letter with the redacted portions highlighted.
Dear Editors Louis Weisberg and Lisa Neff:
We are writing on behalf of The Wet Archive Curatorial Team to address Michael Muckian’s review, “‘The Wet Archive,’ at Chazen, leaves viewers limp.” First, thank you for reviewing the exhibition. As curators, our primary aim is to open the exhibition space as a site for engaged conversation by challenging viewers to encounter difficult artworks and ideas. Ironically, the metaphor of failed erection and the pitched tone of Muckian’s review attests to the aim of our exhibition which is to create a space of public feeling—including the negotiation of disappointment. And this means that not all viewers will feel comfortable. That Michael Muckian was uncomfortable as a viewer is unremarkable. What is notable is that this individual experience of limpness would constitute the only form of evidence the review musters. And what is irresponsible is that this individual experience of limpness would be universalized (as if we would all have the same response) and displaced (as if it were an attribute of the show).
Given that the show’s arrangement on the walls does not follow the spurious sequence Muckian narrates (the show actually begins with Warhol’s photograph of Truman Capote; Sarony’s cabinet card of Oscar Wilde is set next to Helmut Newton’s Rue Aubriot) and, by any computational logic, the number of works displayed in the exhibition does not add up to the number 41 of which Muckian makes much, there is, sadly, strong reason to doubt whether Muckian’s review is based on an actual visit to the exhibition. Further, while the editors corrected Muckian’s misspelling of Claude Cahun’s name and his misidentification of Anna Campbell as an Australian lesbian photographer when she is actually an American sculptor, had Muckian actually seen the show, he would have seen how Cahun’s name is spelled and he would have seen that the three works by Cahun displayed in the show were loaned for this exhibition. It would also have been obvious that the works by Anna Campbell which we included in the display case with several pages of Polaroids from the portfolio donated to the Chazen by the Andy Warhol Foundation are not photographs at all, but lasercuts.
What must also be remarked and called out for its betrayal of professional ethics is the blatant and unwarranted hostility that Muckian’s review displays toward the content of the exhibition, the students, and LGBTQ and disability communities. The review deploys the charge of “limp” to shut down the possibilities for productive and respectful dialogue. This hostility breaks with the style and tone of Muckian’s previously published reviews. Why should a show organized by a curatorial team consisting largely of students be the occasion for such a breach in what Muckian commits to print? That it takes a largely student-run curatorial team to draw out such criticism and that, when it does, it should take such an unprofessional form, is a sad referendum on the state of public arts discourse. And, thus, we have to ask about the purpose of using the exhibition review to launch such an attack. And we also have to ask about the short and long-term effects of doing so at this particular moment. Why reinforce “limp” as a shaming slur and aim it at a show that makes disability access the foundation of its curatorial design at a moment when disability accommodations are still being challenged? Why make a negative example of this show just at the moment of the announcement of unprecedented budget cuts to the UW system? Why tear down intellectual student endeavors at a time when the university system is under assault? Why attempt to shut down innovative curatorial projects at a time when the survival of the arts and humanities are even more deeply threatened?
That Muckian was not as invigorated by the exhibition as so many other visitors were and are is neither surprising nor evidence of the failing of the exhibition. That Muckian would make his own lack of invigoration the basis for panning the show is the shame. Muckian failed to present any cogent arguments for why he found the exhibition disappointing, beyond the fact that it was curated by students. Our curatorial team includes senior undergraduates and Ph.D. students, with a range of professional experiences, including curatorial positions at museums, galleries, and universities. It is irresponsible and patronizing to simply dismiss this as a “class project.”
We believe that the university art museum has the unique and valuable role of offering a creative and intellectual space for students, faculty, and museum staff to work together in productive, sometimes risky, ways. We believe that the university museum should be an animate space for intellectual engagement, where we can ask critical questions, and where communities come together to create and support new ideas. We believe our exhibition pushes towards these ideals and reaches out to underserved LGBTQ and disabled audiences, who are often alienated within traditional institutions like the Chazen Museum of Art.
We hope that the Wisconsin Gazette will consider publishing this letter in response to a hostile and unfair review, and as a progressive journal, consider the benefits of supporting student endeavors.
The Wet Archive Curatorial Team
The following is the original version of our press release.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
The Wet Archive: History, Desire, and Photography’s Liquid Intelligence challenges the photograph as an image that stills, brands, and types, presenting the photograph as, instead, a wet surface that is still developing. The show takes us into the gallery as a version of the photographic dark room where the wet lab of volatile chemical and material processes of development and printing meets the open closet of intimate exposure and the exchange of looks. In this exhibition’s fresh take on the history of photography, the archive’s vault of dry, hardened images that capture their subjects is shown to be a place in which the images are not still but still emerging, their subjects eye us, and our quickened senses and feelings form part of the scene of encounter.
Assembled principally from major gifts to the Chazen Museum by D. Frederick Baker from the Baker/Pisano Collection, the Andy Warhol Foundation, Inc., and Dr. Kristaps J. Keggi, the exhibition configures an astonishing archive to whet the appetite. Bringing into conversation Oscar Wilde’s cabinet card and Andy Warhol’s Polaroids, portraits and porn, alleyways and drag, the exhibition juxtaposes a wide range of photographic practice from that of the theatrical stagings of Cindy Sherman and Man Ray to the documentary strategies of Diane Arbus and Weegee. The curatorial team in Dr. Jill H. Casid’s new seminar in curatorial practice shaped and developed the exhibition’s content, design, and installation. The course is a key part of the Department of Art History’s initiative to provide first-hand curatorial training.
Upcoming events: The Wet Archive continues to develop across the spring with a performance by trans artist Cassils of Becoming An Image on February 17, a celebration of Wet Archive artist Anna Campbell’s book Ever Your Friend (Issue Press, 2014) in March, and a closing event on April 5. For details, check the exhibition website: http://www.wetarchive.wordpress.com
Accessibility: The Wet Archive is designed and installed with the belief that accessibility is a universal right and creative prompt and not merely a legal requirement. For more information about The Wet Archive’s accessibility, our investment in accessibility aesthetics, or to schedule a personalized tour please contact Jessica Cooley, firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: For more information about The Wet Archive please contact Dr. Jill H. Casid at email@example.com
Hi-Res Press Kit Photograph
Photograph Caption: Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, 1982, gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 in. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., Chazen Museum of Art, 2008.40.114