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Institutional Critique

with Gregg Bordowitz, Tom Burr, Aria Dean, Andrea Fraser, James Meyer, Nicholas C. Morgan, Christian Philipp Müller, and Blake Oetting

The landmark group exhibition, “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?,” organized by the curator and art historian James Meyer, opened at Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts, Co. in New York on September 11, 1993. The show looms large in subsequent accounts of 1990s art. Building on Meyer's 1992 essay "AIDS and Postmodernism," which was published in Arts magazine, among other intertexts, in “What Happened . . .” Meyer argued that art ought to take account of the conditions of its production and distribution. The exhibition also traced how institutional critique—a practice generally understood to have cohered in the late 1960s, and to have addressed the conditions of museum and gallery display—had begun to open outward, addressing a manifold of institutions beyond the art world. The seven featured artists were Gregg Bordowitz, Tom Burr, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Zoe Leonard, and Christian Philipp Müller.

As the exhibition’s thirtieth anniversary approaches, art historians Nicholas C. Morgan and Blake Oetting and November editor Aria Dean invited Meyer and all seven artists who were in the original show to participate in a roundtable. Bordowitz, Burr, Fraser, and Müller were able to attend. The group sought to revisit the exhibition’s key terms—identified in its catalog as “the expanded site (beyond reflexivity),” “critical practice,” “pedagogy,” “the artist-researcher,” “identity,” “nomadism,” and “situation”—and to examine the continued relevance of these distinct strategies insofar as they have been modified, augmented, or outmoded in the three decades since “What Happened . . ..” Indeed, we wanted to know what has continued to happen to institutional critique since 1993, and what is happening now—to ask, as Fraser wonders in what follows, “Where’s the anti-aesthetic?” The conversation took place via Zoom on February 14, 2023.

AF

Does anyone have a checklist for the show?

JM

I do in my brain. Do you want me to tell you what was in the show?

AF

Sure.

JM

Okay. As you stood outside, there was Tom's planter box, part of his An American Garden sequence. You walked upstairs to the gallery. Inside, there was the title of the show with the names of the artists and my statement about what had “happened to institutional critique.” To the right was the other part of Tom's piece, a documentation of the version at Sonsbeek--a grid arrangement of snapshots of his sculpture and texts about the history of that site. Were there also texts about the Ramble in Central Park that installation, Tom?

TB

No, just Sonsbeek.

JM

And then you walked in, and to your immediate left was a corner with a video monitor with Andrea’s Welcome to the Wadsworth: A Museum Tour and chair, and your letter to Andrea Miller-Keller, the curator of the Hartford piece. On the adjoining wall hung Zoe's gynecological instruments photograph, and on the opposite wall in the corner was Christian's Almost Adjusted to the New Background. It was a photo of Christian in lederhosen from your [Andrea’s] recent project with Christian for the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. And on the right was a photo of Christian as hiker, as migrant, from that same project. In between the photos was a kind of... Was it gray taffeta hanging, Christian?

CPM

Some gray, nondescript fabric.

JM

And you hung it on a kind of column?

CPM

Exactly.

JM

And to the right of that was a framed-in-plexiglass sequence of Christian’s postcards from his walks. To whom did you send them? Did you send them to your dealer when you were across the border?

CPM

Yes. Yes, I sent them to a number of friends. I sent them to Colin de Land. I also sent them to Christian Nagel. A short list. Similar to On Kawara, of course.

AF

And Christian Meyer and Georg Kargl of Galerie Metropol in Vienna.

CPM

I'm sure.

JM

And so, this was September of '93. Both you and Christian had done the Austrian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in '92 or was it...

AF

That was '93.

CPM

Same year.

JM

You then walked into the intermediate space before entering the “Reuben Room” leading to the office. In that little space was a display of Gregg's videos from ACT UP, Gay Men’s Health Crisis educational videos (co-produced with Jean Carlomusto) and a selection of Gregg’s Portraits of People Living with HIV, including Boat Trip, the longest of those portraits. There was a video deck. A viewer could select what to watch.

You walked into the Reuben Room [named for Anita Reuben’s downtown gallery, which showed Oldenburg, Kaprow, Dine, and so on] and there was Renée's [Green] Secret. It was the second installment of her piece from Project Unité in Firminy. On the wall was sort of a cinematic-like arrangement of texts in mylar describing what it was like to participate in Yves Aupetitallot’s exhibition. There was a video on a monitor of people coming to visit Green where she was living in this strange Le Corbusier apartment, which all the artists, including Tom, were allocated. And there was a black “Box for James” containing the books Renée read while she was there including Zola’s Germinal, which is set in Firminy, and a sheet of paper printed TO JAMES, GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR GROUP SHOW, which I was both touched by and interpret as somewhat ironical.

On the opposite wall were two photos by Zoe [Leonard]. One was of a “beauty calibrator” from the Beauty Museum in LA. And another was a photo of a female nude in an old master painting. She had recently been in Documenta where, in the Neue Galerie, she put these photos of friends’ vaginas amidst these 18th century paintings of women and their families--a rather daring gesture.

To the back, beyond the Leonard photos, was Mark Dion’s collaborative project with The Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group. It was part of the Sculpture Chicago exhibition done in collaboration with Mary Jane Jacobs and showcased his work with high school students during the past year. Those were the works in the show.

AF

Wow. What an amazing tour, James. Great to have that on tape.

AD

Great way to start.

BO

Following up on that is another setting the scene question, which is how did the exhibition come about?

JM

I can tell you that. The show came from a lot of directions. I met the curator Kynaston McShine when I interviewed him for my dissertation on Minimal art. He, of course, organized the most important show of Minimalism, Primary Structures, at the Jewish Museum in 1966. I was a grad student in New York. I interviewed him and he asked me to come work for him at MoMA as a research assistant for a show he was planning about the artist and the museum, which he later called The Museum as Muse. So, I was doing research for him and for this show, which went back historically into artists encountering museums, but it moved into contemporary practice. I also had the good fortune of meeting Gregg Bordowitz in 1989 at a conference about art and AIDS—“AIDS, The Artists' Response,” in March 1989. It was curated by Jan Zita Grover.

Gregg was a powerful presence at that event, as was Douglas Crimp. And in that catalog, Gregg, in an exchange with Douglas, was speaking about his transition into activism. Gregg had worked with Joseph Kosuth as his assistant and had been in the Whitney Independent Study Program and at SVA and had studied with Craig Owens and Benjamin Buchloh and was fully conversant in what had come to be known as institutional critique by the mid-'80s. And you asked, Gregg, in your conversation with Douglas, “What happened to the institutional critique?” You said the institutional critique had become a snake that had bit its own tail, something like that. It had become tautological and inward looking. You described AIDS activism as a movement away from institutional critique. That really struck me.

Douglas Crimp once described Gregg as his “AIDS activist mentor.” I would describe Gregg as my “contemporary art mentor.” Gregg led me to the artists who became part of the American Fine Arts show, starting with Andrea. I remember meeting Andrea in the East Village at an event or party, probably one Gregg brought me to. Gregg was also close with Mark Dion from the Whitney and SVA. And of course, Tom had studied in these places as well. I met Zoe in ACT UP which I joined when I moved to New York in the fall of 1990. Christian and Tom were both showing at American Fine Arts already, with Andrea. Colin very much supported all of you. And Renée Green really stood out to me as an important figure. She was showing at Pat Hearn at the time. So I thought, there's something going on with these artists.

By the way, I also asked two other artists to be in the show. One was Fareed Armaly, who some of you know. Fareed was impossible to reach. The second was Fred Wilson. I asked Fred Wilson to participate because he had just done an extraordinary show in Baltimore, Mining the Museum, which was quite relevant for the AFA show’s investigation of an “expanded site,” a sited critique conducted beyond the art museum. Fred couldn't do it and he later told me it's the one show he regretted he had not been in. So that's how it came together.

BO

I'm curious about Colin de Land and his role in offering the show. Might we think about him, his investment in institutional critique and/or what American Fine Art’s role was in this type of critical practice?

JM

Before we talk about institutional critique and Colin, it should be pointed out that Colin was in the middle of moving from his space at 40 Wooster Street, where Andrea and Christian had had shows, a block below to 22 Wooster Street. I met Colin in the spring of '93 at 40 Wooster Street, and he offered me the fall show, the opening show in September, in his new space, which sounded wonderful. It turned out to be rather complicated because of course Colin had not finished the space. So, we were literally installing the show as he was building the space. It was more like a Bob Morris “continuous project altered daily” than anything. But, he invited me to do that. And what I would say about Colin, I've said this before, is he was incredibly open. So open to practice, to ideas. He loved ideas. And here I was, a graduate student, and he asked me to do his opening show. So, before we even talk about Colin as an institutional critique figure, I would put out that Colin was a tremendously curious person, interested in ideas. But of course, both Christian and Andrea had done work about Colin and his gallery and thought about him as a practitioner. It would be very interesting to hear from you both about Colin. Was he a critical practitioner? How would we describe Colin's practice?

AF

One question, James. I noticed in the essay that Paula Cooper had a role in publishing the catalog. How did that happen? We can go back to Colin, but...

JM

It's a good question. The “catalog,” if we want to call it that, was designed by Christian, and is a work itself. Christian designed the show—we could talk about that. Paula did give me some money. I think she gave me $500 because Colin had no money to give me for anything. That was, of course, a great theme of American Fine Arts, the lack of money. I had interviewed Paula for my dissertation on Minimalism. She was already a friend, and she also was, I think, representing Zoe at the time.

NCM

James, was what the opening like?

JM

The opening was chaos, in a great way. With Colin, everyone, putting up the show while people are waiting outside. The drama built, and it was very exciting, but it was rather humiliating that your first show wasn't up when the entire New York world is trying to come inside to see it. Carl Andre had dropped by earlier in the day and said with disgust, as they're putting up the walls, literally he said, “good luck” and he stomped out. It was chaotic, it was exciting. It was very Colin.

AD

Before we get into the institutional critique and Colin as a figure, can we—as a group—think through the working definitions of institutional critique that you were using at the time?

NCM

Which is a term that Andrea had possibly coined. Is that true?

AF

Probably not, actually. I can't remember exactly but there were early instances of that phrase specifically that Alex Alberro and Blake Stimson turned up in their research for their MIT anthology. I think, as James outlines in the essay, the idea and the term in one form or another had been very much around in the sites in New York where Gregg, Tom, Mark and I, and Renée, were developing. It was coming out of the work of Douglas Crimp, “On the Museum’s Ruins,” and the work of Benjamin Buchloh, especially “Allegorical Procedures,” which he really frames in terms of “the critique of institutions.” That's the phrasing in that text. Also important was the writing—and more the teaching, I think—of Craig Owens, who was writing about and teaching a lot of the artists that Benjamin and Douglas were writing about. I actually met Gregg, Tom, Mark, and Fareed in Craig's class, and that's where we started to become a kind of a group. It’s hard, though, to reconstruct. I used the term “institutional critique” when I wrote about Louise Lawler’s work in 1985 for Art in America—a text Craig commissioned. By that point, I was fairly consciously identified with institutional critique, as I understood it at the time. The development of my thinking around institutional critique certainly started with my exposure to the work of Hans Haacke and Michael Asher—especially the book of Asher's writings edited by Benjamin Buchloh, which was recently re-published—and Buren. But I think from fairly early on, I was trying to work at the intersection of institutional critique, as it had emerged out of conceptualism, and feminism, specifically feminist investigations of subjectivity and subject production within the framework of psychoanalysis.

I started reading Bourdieu in the late '80s. His reflexive sociology and sociological analysis of the aesthetic disposition and the role of art and culture in the formation and manifestation of class in Distinction became very, very important. It wasn't until '93 that I really started to absorb Bourdieu's theory of fields, which then became central to a lot of my work in the 90s. But I guess what I would want to emphasize is that, already for me in '93, I did not understand institutional critique as just a critique of institutions such as museums, but also fundamentally as a critique of practice, of artistic practice. You can't just read “The Function of the Museum,” you also have to read “The Function of the Studio”! This is in your essay, James, but it’s interesting because there still is a focus on the museum in some ways, or on the institution as an entity outside practice. But at the same time, toward the end of the essay, you're also very much focusing on the importance of a critique of production coming out of Walter Benjamin.

What was and remains one of the points of contention in differing understandings of institutional critique is whether the object of critique is understood to be just art museums—and I think this is still very much how Benjamin Buchloh thinks of institutional critique—or as the field of art more broadly, which fundamentally includes artists and artistic practice itself as central to the institution.

NCM

I am curious, Gregg, why you included the definite article "the" (e.g., "what happened to the institutional critique?") in the public conversation with Douglas Crimp (quoted in James's catalog essay) from which the show's title was drawn. Perhaps just the artifact of a transcription of a spoken conversation, was it meant to emphasize the already canonized dimension of institutional critique?

GB

The institutional critique refers to what Andrea is talking about. When I posed the question, I was thinking about the notion of critique of institutions or institutional critique, for which I would gladly give originary credit to Andrea. For me, it was through Andrea, and Mark, and Tom, and our participation as colleagues in Craig Owens’s class, that we came to share an interest in this set of protocols—that I think we all understood differently—that we were inheriting from a previous generation, from Asher and Haacke but also Martha Rosler, Yvonne Rainer, Adrian Piper, and even Smithson and Matta-Clark. At that time, it was very difficult to get information about Smithson or Matta-Clark. We knew the generation that knew them, so a lot of the ideas that we had about artists who were performing the kinds of critique that Andrea talked about were really through word of mouth, legend, gossip, as well as deeply informed by theory.

Coming up as a young person and an artist with Andrea, Mark, Tom, and others, and specifically speaking with Craig Owens weekly in class: these friendships extended as we were introduced to artists like Martha, who we got to know. And so, the institutional critique was what was on the cusp of being institutionalized as a received history but it had not yet been concretized as such. And we felt we had, or I don't want to speak for all of us, but I felt that we had a certain permission to carry it forward on the ground and in the historical context that we were facing at the time. For me, that context was largely defined by the beginning of the AIDS crisis. And so, I don't know to what extent I can attribute volition versus necessity to my decision to shift from an understanding of the institutional critique, as it was largely modeled by Andrea, toward activism.

We had also been introduced to previous important shifts in historical models. So, for me, getting to sit in on Benjamin Buchloh's class as well as Craig's class (Craig's essays "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism" and “Earthwords” were key texts for me), just getting introduced to the idea of productivism via Benjamin Buchloh, the idea that the artist can be substantially, financially, and materially grounded in people's struggle and the struggle of wage earners. For me, the understanding was deeply Marxist, but it was also post-Marxist in that I and others were very much coming at the institutional critique from identity politics—increasingly so—as we were drawn into the directions that were set into motion by the liberation movements of the '70s, which included class politics, but extended to Black liberation, women's liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, which would now be called LGBTQ+ liberation. These were finding their places and also were antagonistically met by an earlier generation of people who were kind of class essentialists. I think a lot of our arguments for what we understood the institutional critique to be or where the institutional critique should go had to do with legitimizing identity politics for a post-Marxist trajectory. I could talk more about feeling alienated as a queer person at the Socialist Scholars Conference where a lot of these ideas were being talked about and being asked by Stanley Aronowitz to organize sessions on lesbian and gay liberation politics, as it was called at the time, and then later AIDS politics, and having being scheduled at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. And having my friends show up and not seeing these issues being represented at all on major plenaries, which would change three, four or five years later.

As far as I understand it, we took the ball and ran in our own directions. For me personally, it was really about coming to awareness that I could have been and probably was exposed to HIV and that my friends and others were sick, and that drew me in a different direction. But I still felt very close and aligned with all the people I mentioned previously. I could talk forever but I’ll say one thing. Postmodernism to me meant that more people of color, more women, and more queer people got into the gallery. For me, postmodernism was a banner under which people who had been historically excluded from galleries and museums found our way in and also connected those spaces to the other spaces in which we dwelled, like the Lesbian and Gay Community Center or the clubs in the East Village. We were expanding in different directions and trying to induce changes among various contexts. Looking back, I think we fostered an exchange with historical political movements that needed access to the institutions that we were engaging with as trained and training artists.

I'll say one more thing. In the early '80s, I was at NYU briefly, as I was doing a tour of educational institutions that I never graduated from. There I read Thorstein Veblen, who said that an institution can be a prevailing mode of thought. That really set the ground for me in understanding that institutions were more than the walls that hold up the building but were actually discourse-related, which is also what Craig Owens was teaching us vis-a-vis Foucault and the ways in which discursive formations shape behaviors.

JM

For this particular show, why did that question, “what happened to the institutional critique?,” register for me? It was because I saw such changes to that form or to that genre in the artists here and who were in the show. I called it an “expanded” critique. People were moving outside. Mark was doing work in zoos, and so different types of institutions were involved. Tom was doing projects in parks and about public bathrooms, public spaces. One of Christian Philipp's earliest tours was bringing people around— was it a garden, Christian?

CPM

It was a suburb in the making at the very outer periphery of Düsseldorf, where town and country meet, the suburban spread. You had no sense of orientation. You just get lost. And so that was an area where people would look to find their home, their identity, their center, their roots, but it was totally undefined. It was really like the Smithson or the Gordon Matta-Clark site, completely open. Ripped open. Not countryside anymore, not farm anymore, but not really built. Just plants. In preparation for that I did the first tours where I criticized the annual show of the students at Düsseldorf Academy that nowadays has lines around the block to go there. I criticized in '86 already the link to the market, in which young galleries would go and find young talent right at the source. That was one of my first tours.

What I wanted to bring into this roundtable with all you Americans is that I'm the only one representing Europe as far as I can understand, and that, of course, during my education at Düsseldorf Academy figures like Asher and Haacke were very important but also Marcel Broodthaers was a very strong influence. And after living in Düsseldorf where Broodthaers was active I moved to Brussels to be kind of in respect or really in homage to him and was close to Maria, his widow, and to Marie-Puck, his daughter. I was also following in the footsteps of Kasper König who I became an assistant to in '85 by preparing a show of lectures where we finally got some glimpse of theory that you privileged guys in New York already had. I was organizing, for instance, a one-week series of talks by Benjamin Buchloh and we had Johannes Cladders who talked to us about his collaborations with Broodthaers in Mönchengladbach and Documenta 5 with Harald Szeemann. Those things were extremely important and only through Buchloh did we find out about people like Sherrie Levine and Louise. That was a total eye-opener. Then we heard about Nova Scotia. We heard about their publications and the whole lineage of Kasper König, his brother Walther König, Interfunktionen—a very important German publication—and their links to the American scene. That was my introduction. By preparing these lectures, I learned a lot. They were also a trial to test possible candidates for Skulptur Projekte Münster. So how I learned most was really hands-on, by working with Asher in Münster, working with Haacke, and all these different generations.

And then, of course, the bridge between US and Europe is really Fareed Armaly, who is the missing link. Fareed introduced me to Andrea, to Mark, to all of you. But of course, there's another figure that needs to be mentioned: Ull Hohn. That’s how I met Tom Burr. Interesting also that Hans is a German artist, but he moved early to New York and his practice is rooted in America. The single representation of Europe by me; other people I met, for instance, were Philippe Thomas. There’s another German figure that used to be a curator at Fridericianum, named Veit Loers. That’s how James found out about me, not through American Fine Arts. It’s an exclusive and very short, tight list. I think it’s all based on friendships if I’m not totally mistaken. It’s a strange back and forth, between the US and Europe.

JM

But the fact, Christian, that one of your first works was a critique of your art school was important.

CPM

Absolutely.

JM

And Andrea had done important tours of museums, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk and her New Museum piece. But in Welcome to the Wadsworth, the work in the AFA show, you were outside the museum, and it became increasingly about Hartford and its history. Zoe Leonard’s Gynecological Instruments depicts a display case in an anthropological museum in Italy. And what was ACT UP but a critique of institutions? It was going to the FDA, to the NIH, and so on, to these different institutions that were in charge of AIDS policy and failing in many cases, all cases. Those institutions were being critiqued. So there was this kind of shift from “reflexive critique,” an Asher-esque exposure of the white cube and the gallery system. That's very important. That's the foundation. The works of the artists in the AFA show suggested an expansive critique of institutions.

AF

I would say that I don't think that it was a shift away from reflexive critique, because later I came to define institutional critique as reflexive critique specifically. There’s an expanded site, but I think the reflexivity is still what makes it institutional critique as distinct from other forms of critique. What shifted and was expanded was the definition of institution.

JM

The reflexivity is still there, absolutely. And the critique of the museum and the critique of the art gallery is still there, but it's now part of a larger field of institutional critique. That's the argument.

GB

What changed for me, and I believe for others, was our theoretical understanding and our lived experience of defining subjectivity. We were not yet there but on our way toward a much more intersectional idea rather than a static idea of identities. That's one of the significant changes. And I also wanted to say that the New Museum was extremely important in terms of hosting all kinds of models. It gave Andrea her first chance to do docent talks. But also, the first time I showed at the New Museum was my video, Some Aspects of a Shared Lifestyle, which was in a video show titled Homo Video that was curated by Bill Olander, who unfortunately died of AIDS later. Tom Kalin was in it, Isaac Julien was in it, Lyn Blumenthal was in it. I was in it. It was a show that was queer work including videos that addressed the growing HIV, or AIDS crisis as we called it at the time. A significant aspect of that video show was that it was exhibited in the back of the museum. You had to walk through Hans Haacke’s show to get there. And for me, who idolized Hans Haacke, the idea that I had to walk through and pass Haacke to get to see my own work—which was identity-based politics—was very significant to me, and that seemed to describe something of the trajectory that I was on. And I suspect the trajectory that my fellow travelers here were on as well.

TB

I've always been, but I'm increasingly interested—and maybe this is the right kind of forum for this—in these particular and in this case our particular social histories coming up against other histories, preexisting histories, histories that we absorbed and encountered. There were many positive things that led me to "What Happened to the Institutional Critique?" in 1993, but there also were a lot of obstacles and stumbling blocks and detours. So, talking a bit about early history, social history: being at the School of Visual Arts was not an easy place to be. I think its very structure was alienating. It’s a for-profit school, and I think their slogan was "To be good is not enough if you dream of being great." There was already this competition set in motion there that was quite startling to me, as someone who was not interested in anything except a complete absorption into some sort of student life, some sort of work life. That was the backdrop, and I think that a lot of us who were in that first year at School of Visual Arts in particular probably stumbled quite a bit during the foundation year. The second year, I discovered people like May Stevens and then ultimately Craig Owens. Within that School of Visual Arts platform, Craig Owens, I think, was probably the most significant figure that we all encountered. Benjamin Buchloh was certainly important and continues to be, but I think socially, in terms of giving us tools—in terms of giving us access, giving us friendship—there's no way to overemphasize Craig Owens as a conduit for where many of our practices have gone. I would include Mark in that as well. To Gregg's point of trying to negotiate the theoretical with the personal or the subjective, this is what we were doing at that age, this is what I'm doing at this age. Craig embodied that for me in certain ways. I think the moment that I worked with Craig—the many classes that I sat in on of his, the informal reading groups, the many discothèques we went to—I watched a person, a body, struggling with where that subjectivity was going to find its way into his work. We know the progression of the texts that led him there, and we can only imagine where they would've gone. That was a beacon for me, but it also highlighted a lot of the struggles I had as well.

Circling back to the Whitney Independent Study Program, where I went in 1987: that is where I met Ull Hohn, who was a painter and became my partner towards the end of that year, we became boyfriends and moved in together, sharing our work and living spaces. We had a very fertile cross pollination of work—his into mine, mine into his. Ull led me to another kind of social group that I entered, which is where I met Manfred Hermes and Lukas Duwenhögger, for instance. This is where I met Christian Philipp Müller. That kind of took me out of the New York context I had been in, and then later it circled back in 1993—in many ways through Christian, as much as through Colin de Land at that point. I met Colin in 1987, but my relationship with him was long and laborious. I remember walking down Avenue A with Andrea one summer saying, "Why is Colin not going to offer me a show?" All my colleagues were there, all my friends were there, it seemed the right context for my work. Colin experienced an awful lot of confusion and complications about the content of my work at that time and was candid about it, while at the same time engaging with it, pursuing it. He said, "Who will the audience be for your work?" While he may not have had issues with gay people at that time in a social sense, certainly not, I think the issue of audience and the directed-ness of some of the critical aspects of what I was thinking about were both what attracted him and also gave him pause. In hindsight that seems appropriate, it’s what I was after.

We can also talk about Colin's relationship to Pat Hearn later, which may have actually taken Colin to a different place. I think it did relative to his own model and expanding what the notion of critique could possibly mean, from whom and to whom. But this is all to say that some of these trajectories are not without their complications, their frustrations, their alienations. And all of that was one of the reasons I was very personally invested in any notion of critique, any notion of challenging authority, whether it be institutional critique or other kinds of more complicated subject positions which were starting to be ushered in the door through an umbrella of postmodernism generally, but more specifically around some amorphous thing called institutional critique.

NCM

To make a connection in relation to what Gregg was saying about static identities in this time period: in “The Medusa Effect,” an essay on Barbara Kruger, Craig Owens describes postmodernism as countering the way mass media imposes a kind of static identity. Thinking about that, and Tom’s remark about audience, and the 1993 Biennial as an exhibition James problematizes in his essay for imposing a static conception of identity, I wonder if anybody has thoughts within this constellation in relation to "What Happened to the Institutional Critique?" How was postmodernism addressing the idea of a static as opposed to a kind of shifting, or psychoanalytic, or chaotic conception of subjectivity?

GB

There was no postmodernism. There were postmodernisms. There was a postmodernism that I identified, that we identified, through Craig's eyes. Then there were different postmodernisms. There was the postmodernism of pastiche, which you saw in Europe with people like Achille Bonito Oliva, and others in architecture formulated by people like Philip Johnson who were really defining postmodernism as a mélange of styles in a way that I remember Craig criticizing. He could point to instances where collage and more monolithic approaches that you would see in minimalism were actually two poles of a pendulum that swung back and forth throughout the twentieth century. Susan Buck-Morss identified that as postmodernism, that swing between the two poles of the artwork as a monolithic edifice and the manifold work of art that represented a kind of fractured modality of the subject. Collage and montage were considered to be anti-fascist within art history and they were considered more radical modes than the imitative methods of pastiche. Yet I found myself in the ridiculous position of just believing in everything. There was a poster for the Ridiculous Theater company that said “The theater of the absurd believes in nothing. The theater of the ridiculous believes in everything.” That was a position I ended up really identifying with—“Ridiculous” in the sense that the term was used by downtown queer theater.

For me, the postmodernism that I identified with was an ethos, an embrace of difference, a relation to the lineages and inheritances of the various liberation movements. These movements were ultimately aiming for coalition politics and the general strike as a fantasy horizon of what a revolution might look like. Not only within the art world—the art world was understood to be no different at the level of the modes of production than any other modes of production. That was a very deeply informative idea of the postmodernism that I identified with, that the artist and the production of art was no different than the mode of production that guided the production of any commodity: cars, fashion. There was one mode of production, capitalism, and art functioned under that very same mode of production.

Post-modernism also had its grounding in a Marxist understanding of the loss of a relationship to the referent. In semiotics, that meant that there was no real existing tree in the world. There was the word tree and the image of a tree. But good luck: go find the first or original tree! And when I say tree, what do you picture? Birch or oak? So there's this divorce from the referent. What actually happened in the early '70s was that money went off the gold standard. There was no physical embodiment of value anymore. This goes back to an Althusserian idea of where revolution comes from. Classical Marxism taught us that all revolution occurs at the base, which is limited to factors—relations of production and modes of production. We were interested in a postmodern Marxist move made by Louis Althusser which said the revolution could come from anywhere because the culture industry had attained the ability to produce capital at the same level as any other productive force. In other words, the United States was largely supported by the production and export of culture by the time we were entering the game. Postmodernism meant, actually, something hopeful—that from the vantage point of art and the highly capitalized institutions in which art was shown, one could actually make an intervention into the larger culture. Which is why in ACT UP we gave up on an agit-prop-only model and decided that it was good to have AIDS activist art in galleries. Why not? People who go to museums need to know about harm reduction as much as people in community centers. There was this idea that by intervening into culture and having access to a heavily capitalized institution, there was a platform where interventions could have a greater significance beyond any one localized scene.

AF

I was going to go back to the identity component of that question in connection with postmodernism. Probably the primary frameworks for my politics at that time was coming out of anti-essentialist feminism. That’s also one of the frameworks that Craig Owens helped me connect with other facets and frameworks of postmodernism. He very much identified as a feminist before he was actually willing or able to identify publicly as a gay person, as a gay man, and take up those politics. I think Craig was able to connect the feminist critique of essentialist approaches to identity and gender identity to other theoretical frameworks, especially Foucauldian frameworks, thinking about technologies of power in terms of how they produce norms and standards and identities. Althusser was another framework for thinking about that as well. But for me, the primary framework was that of materialist feminists’ application of psychoanalysis to the understanding of subject production. So, that was what I brought to the emergence of identity politics in the context of the early ‘90s. Certainly, there was something about postmodernisms, as Craig framed that, that carried much of that, even though many of those postmodernisms, particularly artistic postmodernisms like the transavanguardia and Neo-expressionism and so forth, seem to re-posit an essentialism in the construction of the artist. That was something that I was very conscious of and that was part of my institutional critique and my thinking about the critique of practice. I was also looking at the essentialisms of art history and the construction of the artist as a subject and of the subjectivity of the artist. Also important—I suppose I didn't think of this until somewhat later—were the meritocratic ideologies embedded in those essentialisms and how those meritocratic ideologies were reproducing structures of white supremacy within art institutions, as well as other institutions.

JM

I think my concern at that moment was how the Whitney Biennial of ’93 was staged as the “political” biennial. The “multicultural” Biennial. What did that mean? Here is the Whitney Museum, representing politics for us. That entailed a calcification of identity. You know, here is the Black artist, here's the woman artist, here's the gay artist, and they're making work about those identities (one identity allowed.) There was a tautological understanding of art and artist, a transparency of art and identity. I was attracted to works like Renée Green’s Import/Export Funk Office, which was about the crossing of two historical figures, Angela Davis who went to Germany to study in Frankfurt in the 1960s and German cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen, who traveled to the US to research African American music—a work inspired by Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of the “contact zone,” suggesting an intersection of identities and identifications. I was really thrilled with the work that Christian showed up with at What Happened, where he dressed up in lederhosen on one side (as part of his Austrian Pavilion project) and on the other side as a “migrant” dressed in hiking gear and a hat, showing this sense of split-ness. Andrea creating Jane Castleton in Museum Highlights (1990), and then in Welcome to the Wadsworth, displacing this figure: is this Andrea speaking, is this a persona? The practices destabilize any sense of a whole or singular identity. The Whitney Biennial, unfortunately for me, did the reverse. It suggested a calcified multiculturalism. And this has come back with a vengeance in contemporary culture and museums: the kind of critiques we made in ‘93 almost didn't matter because it's become even worse. It seems to me even more generalized now, more strictly imposed in our culture, this tautologizing of identity. One of the lessons of ACT UP for me was the potential and pleasure of identification: there were so many different individuals coming from so many different places and backgrounds working together to end the epidemic. It wasn't just a gay male movement. It was a coalition, as Gregg described it. It had a much more complicated understanding of identity. That was much more appealing to me—ACT UP was much more appealing to me—than the Whitney Biennial model.

GB

There were so many different coordinates. The '93 Biennial was certainly important and watershed. But there was the Black Popular Culture Conference, there were the Dia conferences, there was so much intellectual activity around identifying postmodernism with the liberation movements that I detailed before. The intersection, again, of Black liberation, women's liberation, and let's say queer liberation (which we wouldn't have said at the time).

AF

And the colonial liberation movement.

GB

Yes. And de-colonization. Thank you. So, I think that that was all coming together for us in many rich ways, and it wasn't really marked by one particular event but was actually very much part of the culture around us. And in Europe, I want to acknowledge what Christian said about the European context, because I traveled with Joseph Kosuth as his assistant in ‘85 and there I learned more about Arte Povera. I met artists like Reinhard Mucha. I certainly became more aware of and saw Broodthaers for the first time. There was a long history that I was not yet aware of and I was then becoming aware of its deep influence on American art, the so-called “American” art, that I was looking at. To understand how Arte Povera actually was key to understanding signal American artists like Rauschenberg or Twombly or any number of people that you could name who had spent time in Italy—Lee Bontecou as well. Understanding that there was a more fluid relation. There was a kind of soft internationalism that I experienced. The older artists that I knew and the artists that I worked for were transcontinental. This was the generation of artists who flew around the world a lot. The transcontinental art world was very much on our minds as well. Then and now the itineraries of the art world were preceded and established by routes that were well mapped by commerce, markets, and colonialism; including a history of mid-Atlantic trade, particularly the enslavement and traffic of enslaved African peoples; as well as diasporic flights and migrations.

AD

Globalization was something that we wanted to talk about. How did you guys relate to that as a context? I'm thinking about network culture emerging at that moment as well, and the structures both of these engendered in terms of portability and how they accelerated more expansive travel. Information circulating in new or at least different ways parallels some of the forms of practice that we’re talking about and also relates to what’s been said here about static versus more fluctuating identity, or identity versus identification. As we’ve seen, the flows of network culture and globalization have now led to a redoubling of static kinds of understandings of identities and place in perhaps unexpected ways as well.

GB

There was a postmodernism of exile, diaspora, and itinerant behavior. And then there was a postmodernism that was monolithic and masculinist. We weren't against painting, or I wasn't against painting, but I was for sure against Schnabel, Baselitz, and the representation of a kind of masculinist return to the expressive mark and the dominance of white men, white straight men, being foregrounded, which we understood to be Reagan-era art. If there was a state-sponsored art in the United States, it was Reagan-era art, which was European or Eurocentric, even if coming from within the United States, but it was dominated by this masculinist backlash against any ground that the liberation movements (that I discussed before) had gained within the institutions we were both working in and critiquing.

AF

Responding to the question about globalization, Christian and I had just come out of showing in the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale where we were non-Austrians who were there representing Austria, along with an Austrian artist, Gerwald Rockenschaub. And the theme of the Biennale that year was... what was it? Nomadism and multiculturalism, I think.

CPM

Transnational pavilions. That's what the motto was by Achille Bonito Oliva. Peter Weibel, who was the commissioner for the Austrian pavilion, brought up that he was the only one who took on Achille Bonito Oliva’s motto for this.

AF

You had Joseph Kosuth in the Hungarian pavilion, which was even kind of more essentialist nationalism in some ways--right? Back to blood--because of his Hungarian ancestry.

CPM

Exactly. Roots.

AF

Yeah. But, Christian, I think you were really taking that up. I mean, I was also, we were both trying to take that up in that show.

CPM

Yeah. We hadn't done anything, but our names were outed or leaked, and then there was a huge wave of hate against us. If I counted right, there were over 55 articles before we had given any statements, just our names, the pure fact that we were non-Austrians was a total scandal. That something like that could come up in '93. What was it? The summer of ’92, when this was announced? Austria wasn't even part of the EU at the time. All these countries were really struggling to find their identity, like the Swiss still do. They don't want to join the EU. They're afraid to lose their own Swiss identity.

AF

Yeah, and part of the context there was that globalization had been happening, but in Europe, in particular, there was a resurgence of nationalism.

CPM

Exactly.

AF

There was the Bosnian War after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Northern League had emerged in Italy. Le Pen was gaining strength in France. That was very much part of the context. So, you can talk about globalization, but I think the context in which we were working, particularly in Europe, was also the anti-globalization backlash with the resurgence of nationalism, which of course now is very present in the United States. That's the other side of the essentialization of identities: we can talk about it in the context of liberatory movements, but it is primarily a phenomenon of ethno-nationalism. That right-wing version was already quite present in Europe and was part of the context for some of the work that Christian and I were doing.

GB

In the shift to the right that Andrea explains, the same thing was happening then that’s happening now. Nationalism drags along with it xenophobia but also homophobia and racism. There's a conjugation, an historical conjugation that happens in the twentieth century that carries over into the twenty-first. So, in talking about itinerant practices, you could talk about the ways in which Christian was crossing boundaries, the predicament of the migrant and the concrete and permeable nature of boundaries. You also had Tom's work, which, like James was saying, was about tearoom sex, bathrooms, parks: gay male sexual practices that were also itinerant and anonymous at a time when these practices are on a world stage, where homophobia has a world platform, and feeds into the xenophobia, sexism and racism that is happening in an increasingly globalized world. I’m very interested, Aria, that you use the term “network culture” or a “network society.” I think it's key to understand “network society” because it is one of the terms that defines postmodernism arising in the mid-twentieth century. I understand network society to be pre-computer but greatly enabled by digital technologies, arising through trade, the increasing dependency of currencies upon each other, the lack of mooring of currencies in actual stable materials. I wanted to pitch over to Tom because I think his work showcases this idea of the transient, the itinerant, but also pleasure, the joys, and connections of a certain kind of sociality.

TB

There's a whole configuration there. I want to link to what you're saying, but also a little bit of what Andrea has been saying about essentialism too. Here's the complicated package. My work engaged with areas that had to do with gay male pleasure, but also gay male danger, queer spaces that were embattled, but also potentially liberating. At the same time, I was not interested in a practice, mine or others, that would be celebratory in any kind of simplistic way, or any way that would smooth over these contradictions. And in fact, what always interested me was the risk of using aspects of my own subjectivity, which grounds the work in some sort of authority. I wanted to use that to unhinge what's already there, existing conditions. I was always much more interested in dismantling any idea of neutrality and critiquing homophobia more than I was celebrating something. But this is a fine line to walk, right? Then we start to talk about these issues of essentialism and things that get attached to you that don't seem to carry that nuance. It's a conversation I once had back in the day with Renée about how you utter something once and then, do you have to utter it again? How do you make this critique linger over works and throughout things without flattening them into a stable picture of subjectivity? That becomes complicated.

This also connects back a little bit perhaps to this idea of globalization. We lived in a period where we were asked to diagnose situations. Oftentimes those situations that we were applying our work to, or some element of critique to, some sort of an analysis to, were not situations that we were at home with, let's say. We could take the situation in Firminy, we could take the situation that I entered in, in Sonsbeek, we could take more recent projects. There was this idea, particularly as an American artist, that became extremely problematic, about being dropped into international contexts when one was sensitive to the idea of local politics, of local conditions, of preexisting conditions and how to pick that apart from any kind of essentializing of that location or of that place. That became increasingly difficult around these large group exhibitions, complications that had everything to do with the fact that we were relatively affluent artists, or, artists who had affluence available to us. We had budgets to some degree, even if quite modest relative to what's required in the world now. I think, James, you touch on it quite a bit in your essay. Your concept of the “nomadic site” leads to this conversation.

JM

That was the argument of Hal Foster’s “The Artist as Ethnographer.” Certainly “The Functional Site” (which I wrote for the Platzwechsel show in Zürich which you, Christian, Mark, and Ursula Biemann participated in) and “Nomads: Figures of Travel in Contemporary Art,” on Renée’s and Christian’s practices, advocate a critical relationship to site.

NCM

In the What Happened essay, James critiques the “generalization of the political” in much art of the early 1990s, referring to the incorporation of politics as theme or content into artworks in ways that were not at all site-specific. How have the stakes of this “generalization” shifted? We are curious whether and how the exhibition’s arguments shed light on contemporary practice.

GB

I don't know, in the end, looking backwards, whether there's something to critique—whereas at the time it felt like there was a kind of watering down of the critique, which is why I would ask the question. There were many reasons why I would ask the question “what happened to the institutional critique?,” because it was gaining force and being taken up in many different ways and also being antagonistically itself critiqued, largely for its association with an ethos of difference and the groups that I referred to earlier. What I want to say is that now, looking back at it and having had a career as a teacher as well as an artist, I think what happened to the institutional critique from the vantage of 2023, is that we were beginning to confront what is now called permacrises. What we were trying to diagnose was constellating rapidly into multiple overlapping crises that have no end—which is very much a description of the world we have right now. The AIDS crisis itself was, for me anyway and for many of us, a harbinger of that, because AIDS activism was never just about sexual politics. It was always about housing, and drug policy politics, and poverty, and racism, sexism, and healthcare delivery. I was so committed to the fantasy of a revolution that would start as a healthcare revolution. I feel vulnerable to say that now, but at the time that James met me, and at the time that I was having conversations with all these brilliant people here and those who have been mentioned, I was then very much an ardent believer in the possibility of achieving socialized medicine in this country, which would lead on to something like a general strike with internationalist implications. A general strike that crossed international boundaries. That was an animating fantasy. I don't know if you shared it, if other people shared it, but that was an animating fantasy. And now I find myself, as a practitioner, in some ways still maintaining the same commitments, but facing constellated and far more complicated fields that perhaps had already existed when I was nineteen years old, but now I'm fifty-eight, and now I see the complexity of it all. And so in some ways, I don't know if it was necessarily a kind of simply watering down of any particular set of practices or trajectories, but a ramping up of the challenges that we were beginning to perceive in this manifold, postmodern (if you will) mode of analysis, which was all about conjugation, an ethos of difference and the embrace of difference, and deeply tied to the preceding liberation struggles.

NCM

Rereading the catalog, I was struck by a question that James asks towards the beginning of the essay, just when that idea of the generalization of the political is introduced. James, you write: “What are the forms of political expression in the ‘90s?” Thinking about that question, I love that it's plural. I think it's a sincere question. It may be a question that those of us who are art historians still have to have to wrestle with.

AF

When I reread the essay, I’m not sure that the idea of the generalization of the political resonated with me as much as the idea of the reduction of the political to content. For me, that was the most salient point from the first section of the essay about what was happening with the '93 Biennial and what was emerging under the rubric of identity politics: the reduction of the political to content and the loss of the critique of practice. But also, at the same time, there's another model for that. James, you frame it, in a quote from Gregg, in terms of cultural activism. And that became a very clear distinction in my mind around that time. On the one hand, I thought in terms of institutional critique, which was also critique of practice and was a reflexive critique not only of the institution of art but of the institution of artistic practice as well, in whatever site that it was in—including in an expanded institutional site. On the other hand, I thought in terms of cultural activism, which was not just a kind of political art but was based in a collective social movement with very specific aims that might use the art field as a platform or as a site, as it used any other platform. And then there is something we might call political art, in which politics is content and which is not rooted in a collective social movement and is not engaged in reflexive critique. So those distinctions where very helpful and clarifying for me.

JM

A great work, maybe the best work about what was happening at that Biennial, was Andrea's piece. The audio guide piece you did, Andrea, at the start of the show where you interviewed the powers-that-be at the Whitney. I remember the education curator saying something about how she needed to “get” some theory. That piece exposed what that institution desired from the political, and from these practices and these identities that were being foregrounded in the show.

NCM

And David Ross talking about how he should sound like Philippe de Montebello. A fascinating little look into the subconscious of a museum.

AF

Yes. Although I do think of that as a failed piece, still today.

NCM

Why is that? Interesting.

AF

Why do I think about it as a failed piece? Because it was taken up as a sort of exposure or shaming of the staff of the museum, the people at the museum, and that was not what I intended it to do at all. I wanted to share with the audience that even the people who represented the authority and legitimacy of the institution experienced uncertainty and anxiety. And I'm not sure how much of a critique it developed, really, in some sense.

JM

But it was an extension of your idea of the desire of the museum, what the museum wants. And so, my introduction to What Happened about what the Whitney was doing with "the political" asked: what did the Whitney want from the political, what was it getting out of this show and its presentation of diversity?

BO

What are your feelings about the historicization of this period? I'm asking this question vis-a-vis Tom’s work at Torrington in recreating and grappling with this period in the ’90s, grappling with the historical profile of American Fine Arts. I don't believe "What Happened" was reviewed, though it was discussed in the Documents roundtable on site-specificity by Helen Molesworth. Yet it has since attained this historical profile in shows such as "NYC 1993" at the New Museum and "Take It or Leave It" at the Hammer Museum. And so, I wanted to ask about how you're all tracking and thinking about not just specifically the historicization of this show, but of this moment of AFA.

TB

Much of the work that I’m currently involved with at something I call the Torrington Project is rooted in a muscle I wanted to flex that has to do with certain power dynamics in my own life and career. I took over a large physical space, something I’d never done prior to this project, to work on the notion of “studio” in a performative way. Part of that process meant a lot of archival work that I had to do. A lot of it took place at Bard, where the Colin de Land and Pat Hearn archives are located, filling in a lot of gaps. Trying to reclaim certain works that had been dismantled or destroyed at certain points in the trajectory of my career because of failed transactional relationships, because of an inability on my part to financially take care of the life of certain works. Issues of storage, issues of transport, issues of deeming work less important, some works less important than others. Archival infrastructures breaking down, failing. And I'm also trying to create a sort of spatialization of various works of mine from district times and locations and have them ricochet off one another in the present tense. So, for instance, the work that was included in "What Happened to the Institutional Critique?" is called Construction of An American Garden, the planter/crate work that was installed outside Colin's gallery, outside of the American Fine Arts Co., at 22 Wooster Street. It is something that I'm not sure I actually considered a work at that time as much as an exhibition prop or some sort of an exhibition moment. But it became more intriguing to revisit over time. Now I've recreated that work as part of Torrington Project, where in addition to be about the Ramble, its publics and Olmsted's list of plants that were in the Ramble, it now also has to do with care and maintenance and the longevity of works, and the kind of love and devotion that is required to maintain them—on my terms. And then there are other works I’m revisiting, such as a large scale work, Container 1, 2, 3 I made at the same time that I made Deep Purple, in 2000/2001, It was created for an exhibition in Berlin at nGbK curated by Frank Wagner, focusing on the work of three artist couples, one of whom had died during the AIDS crisis of an AIDS related illness, and one who had lived on. Ull Hohn and I were one of the partnerships, and I selected works of Ull’s and staged an interplay between those works and Container 1, 2, 3. My work was soon after destroyed, the idea being it could be made again in the future, which never happened until now. And so we recreated that work here as a central component of this project. And Ull's work is part of that for me as well. His work has become a large part of what I consider my practice generally. He died before he could secure any form of longevity for his own work, although he had an extraordinary mother, Linda Hohn, who archived his work, who stored his work. Ull was annoyingly prolific and had come from Düsseldorf Academy and went to the Whitney ISP, which is where I met him. Since then, we've been able to get a lot of his work into institutions, where it can have visibility and an influence on younger generations. That is something that has happened through the process of Torrington Project, thinking about continuities, thinking about preservations.

It's also an attempt to kind of reign in some of the more muscular transactional dynamics into my own hands, to have a different agency, however futile that may seem to be. So there's that. Blake and I have had an ongoing conversation, thinking about this moment, these moments past and present, these youthful moments, these transformative moments, and what they, on a quite personal level, mean. I’ve been very actively involved in that process.

JM

Historicization is a process; it speaks as much about the historicizers as the period being historicized. So, I might turn this around and ask the three of you who have kindly brought us together: What are your stakes in “Historicizing the ’90s?”

BO

I can go first since I was the one who asked the question. Well, it's an important one. I feel like it's one I had a dawning awareness of very early on when I started working on this period, or researching this period, that I would have to grapple with. The first phase of research I did was reaching out to people who knew Colin and were a part of American Fine Arts to do these very general interviews about what their experience was there, about their work, about the work that was done there, etcetera. I came in with this sort of starry-eyed vision of all of you, of Colin, of the scene that centered around American Fine Arts. And very quickly, I was told, by everyone I talked to, for lack of a better word, to simmer down—that it was a much more complicated situation. That it was not only or merely romantic—that there was a darkness to, maybe not specifically the gallery, but a darkness to that period. So, part of my dealing with the historicization of this period or the writing of my dissertation, which is itself an institutional form, is how to properly balance an almost libidinal investment in this period of time with the real material and psychological complications or edge that the historical actors I'm talking about were dealing with. Nicholas is now completing a project on this period, so I'm curious what he's going to say.

NCM

Many different stakes are involved in looking back to this period. I'm thirty-three years old, so I'm old enough to have come into an art world that was still dominated by critical strategies and conceptual strategies. To then witness in the past five or ten years the resurgence of the kind of saleable, portable, commodified artworks that James talks about in the essay: why does that seem to be the form of political expression in the time of Trump? Gregg spoke very beautifully earlier about how the stakes of questions around institutions have simply intensified as permacrisis begins to coalesce. On a practical level, as an art historian and an art critic, I think about the period of the early 1990s as a model for how to deal with the extreme financialization of all dimensions of the art market, or at least the feeling that this is such. What about you, Aria?

AD

I think for me, I've made it very well known that I've been obsessed with minimalist art for most of my young career. And I spent a lot of time on that stuff. I did all this work on Robert Morris and came to a natural resting point with that; following that work I’ve sort of continued to trace the historical road, and maybe what naturally follows is this period we’re talking about–with some years in between of course. As we’ve been working on this issue, I’ve become so aware of how much I've stayed away from investigating, especially on the writing side, a lot of this period. When I was in college, at Oberlin, a lot of the artists who were teaching there were of this generation or worked within this paradigm. The way that work was talked about, especially being a young Black woman, it was this very Biennial '93 kind of “politics as content” approach: you are Black, you are woman, you should make work about what it is to be that, how it's hard, and that was positioned as a substitute for a sufficient critical model. I always felt really, really frustrated with that, and after college it was all around me as well. As my art education has continued, obviously my understanding of and interest in this period has deepened. I have a personal stake in figuring out what the situation of the political and of identity politics, of Marxism, what all these things can actually be in contemporary art. I think the stakes for me here are that I want to figure out what I think should happen. Or at least on a personal level, like in my own practice being an artist who writes, and an artist who has earnest political and theoretical commitments, I want to make objects; I want to make things that maybe do have a bit of a unitary presence in a way that might track with my interest in minimalist art. I think I’m also trying to understand where to put things in, in objects or in writing–where does and should criticality be exercised. Is it effective make artworks within the gallery and institutional system whose primary concern is leveling critique? Is it debased to not do so despite one’s political and theoretical commitments? James, like you were saying earlier, the essay from the catalog is kind of disturbing, thinking about it in tandem with present: art world politics–things just feel, if not the same, possibly worse. Right now, I feel a little pessimistic in terms of the idea of critical practice, how people talk about responding to biennials that they have issues with, artists they don’t agree with or whose work they don’t like—it just feels very static and frustrated. So, I’m trying to find a way forward, in some ways, by looking at What Happened.

JM

Well, the idea of critical practice was very present in the early '90s. That's a section of the What Happened essay. As I recall, Gregg and Andrea, Mark, all of you were very interested in this idea of critical practice that, as it was described in that essay–you might not agree with it–was a kind of breaking down of the differences between making art, teaching (the subject of the essay’s “Pedagogy” section, and Mark’s project with the Chicago students), and politics: just a more complicated idea of being an artist. Gregg, I recall that you and Mark had interviewed artists like Martha [Rosler] and maybe Kosuth and others. It was a very present idea at that time, and of your own practices. Many of you are professors. You are still living, it seems to me, as critical practitioners. And I can see that these practices would be of interest to a young artist like Aria. And to a young historian like Nicholas, for whom this art world of stuff is not so interesting.

TB

I think it's also important to remember and to note that there were a lot of different things going on in the '90s. We didn't necessarily dominate the scene. Our works, our practices very much came in, if not in opposition, certainly in critical dialogue with other things that were happening. I remember it was, I think, 1987, when Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger joined the Mary Boone stable. And that was the quintessential masculinist painting stable in New York at that time. That seems almost charming at this point, doesn't it, that it felt so monumental? But it was a big deal at the time. Both in negative and positive terms. Meaning that it was some sort of a position of occupying, having a seat at the table, shifting who was speaking. But it also felt much more complicated than that as well. And a whole other conversation can go on about what happened in New York in the '90s that would have nothing to do with this particular group of people and what we were doing and who our influences were.

GB

I just want to say that "What Happened to the Institutional Critique"? was really a kind of a turning point for me. It actually was really very significant for me. I'll tell it in the form of an anecdote, but I'll say things were larger and I'm just going to agree with Tom. There was no '90s for me. There was just one long '80s. In ‘93 I almost died because there were no medications available and I was very sick and I'm just one of these people who by luck and privilege lasted long enough for the protease inhibitors in ‘96. So for me, I don't really think I had an experience of the ‘90s. I didn't realize that until the aughts, that I'd missed out on emo and some other things that I couldn't define.

There was something that happened at the opening of the show, which was really significant for me. The Morses, who are a couple, who are friends of people here and I knew to be friendly to the kinds of work that we were doing at the time. I had never been offered a show. Well actually Colin was interested in showing my work, but we couldn't figure out a way to do it, because I couldn't figure out a way to make it… So the Morses were very supportive and apparently much beloved by my close friends here. Colin was really interested in my work, but I couldn't get it together to figure out what a gallery show would be. I wasn't making objects anymore. In fact, in James’s show, I showed five different videos, VHS cassettes, on a shelf with a VCR and a monitor where you could pop the videos in by choice, and just watch them. And they were labeled and they were all videos that I made at the Gay Men's Health Crisis. During the opening, Colin de Land was putting up the shelf. And Colin had this thing, I don't know if it was planned or not, but he was always installing during the opening. I don't know if it was a conscious thing or not, but I remember I was really nervous: it's a piece, I'm not making gallery work anymore, and he's drilling into the wall, putting up the shelf during the opening. And then the Morses come up to me, and they say, we're really interested in your work, and we'd like to support you. And this is where my head was at the time: I said, well, I made those videotapes. And they said, “Yeah, we're very interested in those videotapes. How can we support you?” And I said, "Well, actually, I made them for the Gay Men's Health Crisis, and the Gay Men's Health Crisis charges $20 for each tape, so you could purchase those for $20 by just making a check out to the Gay Men's Health Crisis.” And they said, “Well no, we want to support you.” And I said, "Well, you can make a donation of any amount to the Gay Men's Health Crisis Audio Visual Department, which employs me to make those videos, and you could contribute to AIDS education.” And they said, “No, no, we want to support you as an artist.” This is not about moralism or judgment or anything. My head at that time was like, I couldn't come to terms with what they were asking for, and I was so deeply embedded in this idea or taken with this idea of productivism—that the money that funds the work should fund the movement—that I couldn't find a place. And that's what was significant to me, and that goes to the issue of cultural activism versus institutional critique. That was a permeable boundary. So looking back at it now, I recall a very personal story about where I was and what my commitments were at that time, and why that question was so urgent for me.

I came around to a point where I think it's extremely important that the institutional critique still exists and has moved on and into the terrain of the areas of struggle that I've referred to before. For me, I love everyone on this call, but Andrea is the leading example for me. Andrea turned the revolutionary model on its ear when she became a consultant for Generali. Andrea has moved the institutional critique into psychoanalytic theory like very few other artists have done; moved the institutional critique into the area of feminism like few if any I can think of now. Everyone here, and everyone we've mentioned, has carried forward that ethos of self-reflexivity, mobility, transience, ephemerality, refusing capture, or somehow always placing the work in a way that is agonistic, not antagonistic but agonistic, in relationship to the powers that be. So actually, it's not over. It's not over. And there are plenty of people currently: I just went to Every Ocean Hughes’s performance at the Whitney. It was amazing. It was great. It called everything into question. It was deeply personal. It was about death and being a death doula. It worked against the modernist rejection of the spiritual in a way that opened up the possibility of a certain kind of congregation within the walls of the museum, that is differently figured than just simply “audience.” This is the institutional critique. Park McArthur, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, there's so many people who are pushing at the frame, constantly still pushing at the frame. I didn't necessarily arc this to end on a message of hope. But that's where I landed.

AF

Well, I'm not hopeful. Gregg, thank you so much for what you said. And when I think about how your work developed, how your practice developed, how your activism developed, I feel like you did find a way out of so many of the contradictions that I feel I still struggle with, and so many of us do–by being so clear about an arena of the activism and yet still being very engaged with, and invested in questions of the aesthetic and questions of the poetic and of art. I think that you've held a clarity of purpose and of sight across the different arenas of your activity that represents for me a kind of a resolution in a positive way, not a closure, but a kind of possibility that I don't feel that I've ever got to. And those are great examples of younger artists, but that's kinda like, yeah, that’s it. No, I shouldn't say that. But I have felt a huge generational shift in the past five years. Some of that is so important, especially the impact of the movement for racial justice on institutions that we're seeing. And I think there is some structural change. It's finally gotten beyond exhibitions and programs, to boards and to senior staff and to collections. That's incredibly important. And the unionization drives in museums are incredibly important. That is a huge, huge shift in the conditions and politics of institutions in the United States. And there's W.A.G.E., which played a big role in setting the terms for demanding adequate compensation from art institutions, not only for artists but for other art workers as well. So, there are those very important practical and structural, somewhat structural, hopefully structural, changes that are developing within the field. But on the level of artistic practice, I feel very pessimistic. The anti-aesthetic is almost nowhere to be seen. There's Cameron Rowland, Park, and Carolyn Lazard—that's practically it. Where’s the anti-aesthetic? The critique of practice is gone. That's what I feel, and I really… I mourn for it. I do.

AD

Can you say more about why you think that's happened? Where it's gone and what has transpired to diminish an interest in that or the possibility of it?

AF

I think there are structural factors. I think one is debt. It's the rise of the MFA as a debt mill and the enormous debt that young artists accumulate in the process of getting an MFA, and the model of the MFA that emerged around the promise of payoff in the art market. And I think it has a lot to do with social media and with the attention economy that all younger artists are just so deeply embedded in now and the absence of any space outside of that. I think social media has play a central role in closing off any space for even imagining a semi-autonomous sphere of cultural production, which is what I think enabled the development of critical practice and something like institutional critique in the tradition of historical avant-garde movements. Not an absolute autonomy, not an aesthetic autonomy, but a relative autonomy in a Bourdieusian sense of field of producers for other producers. Post-modernism was part of what de-legitimized that relatively autonomous field by naming it elitist. There were deep contradictions in postmodernist critiques. On the one hand, the critique of the elitism of the art field and of aestheticism and of producers or for other producers (which is one of Bourdieu's definitions of an autonomous field) were really important. But they also de-legitimized the space for a kind of production. Liberatory politics and cultural practices connected to liberatory movements became something of an alternative to the relatively autonomous spaces of historical avant-garde movements. But in the art field, those liberatory politics have been increasingly reduced to identity politics and often to a politics of access. Which is not to say that there aren't structural critiques in identity politics, but they’re structural critiques of white supremacy and patriarchy and homophobia. They're rarely structural critiques of the field of art and its institution. They're not reflexive in that sense. They're not reflexive critiques of sites of production and distribution that also then encompass the critique itself and the position of the practitioner, which is how I understand institutional critique. I'm teaching an undergraduate class this afternoon, and there are, like, zero politics in this class. I feel like a 1950s mom of teenyboppers who grew up with the radio and TV—except now it's Instagram and TikTok—and I don't understand what they're saying, and this is the first time I've had this experience. And it's like, I've got to retire as soon as I possibly can because I don't know what I have to offer these people. So that's where I am.

GB

I feel all those things that Andrea said, and this is an and, not a but. I want to add that there are reasons, a number of antinomies structured my thinking and I think our practices...all of it fell under the rubric of the anti-aesthetic, which came undone necessarily. I would even say thankfully. So, the opposition between psyche and soma. The opposition between idea and the body. The opposition between idea and beauty. The fact that we actually, I would argue all of us, held on to some notion of poetics, which is another way of saying we understood the politics of composition. As a teacher, as an educator, it became very urgent to me to defeat the structuring antinomies that I felt both launched my still ongoing intellectual inquiry, but also held it back. And you can see these contradictions. I taught a class on the journal October. Look at the first ten issues of October. There's poetry in it. Could you imagine having a poem in October now, or after, say, the mid '80s? What we experienced was a lot of risk and pain. The definitions that held together the October “school” narrative of modernism have fallen apart. And I'm actually happy about that.

AF

Oh, yeah. That's deeply problematic and...

GB

And deeply problematic. We're in agreement. These are just different factors here. Lastly, I just want to say that the very critical institutions that we looked to turned out to be flawed. So, Douglas Crimp gets dismissed from October because of homophobia in the late eighties. Let's just put it out there. Everyone knows it. There was a homophobic atmosphere. Douglas left because the people who were the senior editors of October at the time were homophobic. They couldn't have another issue addressing queer sexualities after “AIDS: Cultural Analysis and Cultural Activism.” So a lot of things had to change. And the journal October changed with the times, too. It’s been in publication for a very long time. To be fair, I’m recalling painful incidents from the past that I witnessed. They were formative and I still feel angry about them. Sorry, Tom, did you want to say something?

TB

No, no. I was just going to point out that I did have a poem in October subsequent to those early poems. Just one. [laughter]

GB

That’s great. I stand corrected.

TB

This was 2000 or so, still a long time ago.

JM

Tom's point that Colin’s world, these practices, that there was a lot of other stuff going on…yes. Critique was a minority position then. What was going on? There was John Currin's paintings at Andrea Rosen’s. There was Matthew Barney, there was Jason Rhoades. I remember Colin complaining about Jason Rhoades. How collectors liked it. There was all this stuff that was attracting collectors. And Colin, as you know, had to hold seminars to teach people about what he was showing because things didn't sell, and he was trying to run a space. He even had an auction. We had an auction for Colin to keep him going. So, it was a minority position then, and it clearly remains such now.

AF

But there was a discourse that supported it, and there were institutions of legitimation for those practices that no longer exist.

CPM

Yeah. But don't forget this catalog exists, initial copy, twenty. I mean, twenty!

AF

Only twenty copies?

JM

A hundred in the first edition, a hundred in the second edition, which Christian designed.

CPM

Do you remember a hundred? I remember twenty. Or twenty sold. Something like that.

JM

That sounds correct.

CPM

Twenty sold. Yeah, that's what I think. I, the number twenty, I didn't invent it. It was something incredibly low. But for that reason we had the idea of slides so that could be easily reproduced.

JM

And there was no review, as you've noted, in the New York Times or anywhere. The only response was Helen Molesworth saying in Documents that the works were “not site-specific,” and that was a problem.

TB

And that's why I brought up that notion that there were other things going on. Yes, there was institutional support at that time, etcetera. But to Aria's point of what do I do against this landscape? I think that that was some of the fuel that was propelling us at the time. We weren't taking the obvious, easiest route at that time either. I think that these are battles that are ongoing, and I think to over-romanticize that moment in terms of its power or its centrality would be a mistake. I think that we were operating to some degree on the periphery. Not entirely, but I think that Colin’s star has continued to rise since his death, and he became a kind of mythic figure. But it was a little bit more complicated than that.

CPM

Much more complicated.

TB

Yeah.

CPM

Much more. Thank you, Tom, for this. And Andrea you know well...

AF

Oh yeah.

CPM

You know, Peter Fend living in the basement, this kind of feeling.

TB

Peter Fend living in the basement. Yeah.

CPM

Not as a joke, but as a reality.

BO

I was fascinated by what Gregg said about how Colin would habitually be installing shows as they were going up. Did you see that happen in another instance as well?

JM

Only during my show, I wasn't there for the installations of the other shows. It certainly happened with my show and remember What Happened was the opening exhibit of the 22 Wooster Street space, so we were literally creating the space and installing the show at the same time. It was crazy. The lights were being put on the ceilings by Sam Samore and my friend Brian D’Amato during the opening. It was crazy.

GB

I just have to point out that there is still, I believe there still is a discourse. I consider myself one among many writers who supports work of my generation and works of people who are younger. We're still alive. James, you're at the National Gallery of Art. I have just been hired as the director of the Whitney Independent Study Program. Andrea has an amazing show at Marian Goodman.

AF

What does that say? We've all sold out now? No, I don't believe we're selling out. But I guess what I want to point to is time, generational time. I guess that's what I've been thinking about and wanting to say. And going back and reading that essay I was thinking about how young we were and how compressed the time was. It hadn't even been ten years since I wrote about Louise Lawler and you could talk about "the institutional critique." It had barely been twenty years since the late '60s. And it was so compressed, and we were so, in some sense, sure about our own critiques and what we were doing and its place in a certain kind of narrative and that was so specific and in many ways, so narrow. Thinking about that now being what, how many years ago? Thirty years ago. And my sense of seeing subsequent generations come up with that compressed sense of time and purpose and orthodoxy and just feeling like, okay, yeah, now I have a different perspective. And thinking about history from the standpoint of being a middle-aged, mid-career artist now, who's been in the art world for forty years definitely does change things dramatically.

GB

Actually, I just want to say my point wasn't that we sold out. I never had that criteria in mind actually. You have to be talented to sell out, and I've never been able to sell out. Steven Spielberg makes the movies that Steven Spielberg makes. He made Schindler's List, he's not going to make Shoah. It's just, that's the way it is. And no one's asking you to be an artist. Not you, Andrea—anybody. I just want to say that this is my urgent point—defeating the myth of purity, left wing, ideological purity was part of the postmodernism that I remember. It was a workerist model, like, everyone should be paid. And that institutions could be changed.

AF

Right, and that's consistent with my model of the institution of critique, which rejects anti-institutionalism and the idea of institutionalization as cooptation and corruption, et cetera. And there's still a vestige of this in your essay, James: the idea of the institutionalization of institutional critique, which you're already talking about 1993 as, I'll say "as if," that was the problem. And by 10 years later I was thinking about the institution of critique, not the institutionalization of critique. And you could say yes, now we're a part of it, as we've entered these roles of professor and department chair, chief curator, and whatever, that we're then part of it. But I would say, we are now the people who are in a position to try to perpetuate or keep alive the vision of art institutions and the art field as a site of critique and the institutions that we're within as institutions of critique. But there are a lot of mitigating factors for one’s capacity to do that, which have to do not only with historical time, but with social time as it's lived. By people like us.

AD

This goes back to the desire to do Volume 4. There's a generation of people who are sniffing out this period because it remains confusing. There were so many different things that were happening, and it seems the story has gotten bottlenecked and reduced in some ways. There's something to investigate there. Even thinking about the doubling over of the conversation around identity politics...now we have the same phrase, but certainly means different things in some ways now. Today, undergraduate students and even graduate students might feel certain about what they mean by that, but maybe don't have a historical sense of where we are that really includes this period and all the different conversations that were happening.

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Next from this Volume

After the Revolution

by Michael Shorris by Michael Shorris

“The new tools ended up in the same old hands.”