How Compatible Should Museums Be? And Exhibitions? And Art?

Swedish art historian Kim West’s dissertation analyses how the 1960s vision of a ‘museum in movement’ transformed into an idea of the museum as a ‘catalyst for social change’.

Movement in Art at Moderna Museet, 1961.

The man drew four concentric circles on the back of an envelope.
            ‘Look. A diagram of a new kind of museum of modern art. Four circles. From the city, you enter: in the outer circle you find information. Real information in a raw, untreated state. Unedited telex news, press agency reports, videophone terminals, yes? Events, opinions, fashion, news, raw. Permanent input of industrialised information, unprocessed. Everyone can bathe in it. Then they go to the second circle. Means of treating the information. Videotape, printing press, offset litho, yes? Anybody – the public, the artists, the museum people – can use them to extract from the flood of information their own rich matter. Okay?’
            ‘Third circle. Processed information – art. Exhibitions and performances, tapes and films. Put together by the museum people serving outside people – artists and not artists, right? The kind of programme we put on now, but in a new context. Final, central circle. The permanent collection. The best of what has been made in the past, constantly reassessed, so that what is made now can be seen in true perspective. A place of contemplation. And you store all the information – historical, critical, all the context – in a computer, so that each spectator can call up the references and connections he’s interested in. That’s the most traditional role of the museum – as a
memory. But the memory never stands still.’
            ‘And people can see how change is transformed into what’s permanent.’
            ‘Right. It would cost a lot, of course. And people would say it wasn’t artistic.’

This is Pontus Hultén, rather transparently anonymised as ‘the man from Europe’, speaking in the bar of the ICA in London sometime in 1970. The conversation is conveyed by the Institute’s former director Michael Kustow in his ‘biographical fiction’ Tank from 1975 and reprinted by Swedish art historian Kim West towards the end of his dissertation The Exhibitionary Complex: Exhibition, Apparatus and Media from Kulturhuset to the Centre Pompidou, 1963–1977 (Södertörn Studies in Art History & Aesthetics 4, 2017). I quote it here because it provides a competent colloquial summary of what Hultén and his associates at Moderna Museet were plotting during its ‘Laboratory Years’.

”Model of the future activities at Moderna Museet”, Opus International, 1971.

Their ‘Circular Function Model’ is the investigative nexus – and the cover image – of West’s efficiently organised and thoughtfully argued study, which offers an eye-opening narration of a period in Swedish art history when adjectives such as ‘consensual’, ‘derivative’ or even ‘provincial’ often just didn’t seem to apply. And when they nevertheless sometimes did, as West intimates here and there, it puts the country’s almost supernaturally dynamic ‘record years’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s into necessary perspective. West traces the origin, growth, decline and demise of the diagram – most importantly of its radical outer circle that turns the museum into a membrane – in the book’s three principal parts, titled ‘A Project of Autonomy: Kulturhuset 1963–1970’, ‘Databank and Interface: The Conflict of Compatibility’ and ‘The Information Centre: Moderna Museet During the Laboratory Years, 1969–1973’.

A serious publisher should release a generously illustrated edition of West’s dissertation, catering to the curiosity of the ‘interested public’ and helping to tweak half-mythical memories of how progressive Moderna Museet once was into reliable knowledge. In such a revised version – and I do hope to see it soon – the general introduction, ‘A Tale of Four Circles’, might have to be reworked. It could serve as a ‘brain’ for the whole undertaking – not in the Christov-Bakargievan sense of piling up things worthy of thought and hoping they will do the thinking for you, but as an extended glossary of complex and contested terms that readers will need to be able to use the rest of the book as a power tool.

As it is now, ‘the exhibitionary complex’ becomes ‘the exhibitionary apparatus’ after only cursory discussion about how to interpret Michel Foucault’s dispositif (and how to render it in English). This, in turn, leaves Jean Davallon’s theorising of the exhibition as ‘a dispositif within which the “event of reception” is produced’ insufficiently ‘weaponised’ for arguing why Hultén’s Circular Function Model may still be relevant to the possible futures of museums and the exhibition medium – not least in relation to digital corporations such as Google or Amazon. Elsewhere in the book, West tackles that topic with firm judgment. In the introduction, however, he doesn’t quite mine key notions such as ‘autonomy’ and ‘(in)compatibility’ for their full emancipatory (and thus eminently political) potential. Moreover, a good editor might help remove some imprecision in the translations from those many sources in Swedish and French that West commendably makes accessible to readers in the Anglosphere.

Architect Peter Celsing’s drawing of Kulturhuset façade 1966.

He notes that it is ‘incorrect to claim, as Swedish commentators sometimes have, that Beaubourg [in Paris, today known as the Centre Pompidou] was modelled on Kulturhuset, or even Moderna Museet, in Stockholm.’ Instead he tells the story, in illuminating but not overwhelming detail, of how Hultén shifted his early 1960s vision of a ‘museum in movement’ towards restructuring Moderna Museet as an information centre, a ‘catalyst for social change’, and how he retreated from the most revolutionary implications of this idea after being appointed director of the Visual Arts Department of Beaubourg in 1972. Yet this is not a hagiography of one smooth operator. West accurately describes Hultén and his peers (among them Harald Szeemann and the above-mentioned Michael Kustow) as ‘patriarchs’. He also stresses that Hultén developed his thinking in association with other curators (although the term wasn’t quite invented back then), notably the young art historian and activist Pär Stolpe, and with critics, journalists, politicians and architects – especially Peter Celsing, who won the competition for Stockholm’s new House of Culture in 1967.

Front cover of the exhibition folder ‘Pictures of Sweden 1969’, designed by Carl Johan De Geer.

Celsing’s proposal hinged on the long glazed front wall – an ‘image screen’ (bildskärm) in the still-popular vocabulary of post-war cybernetics – but also on the on-going discussions about moving Moderna Museet into the new structure, which would also house Sweden’s new single-chamber parliament. Negotiations eventually collapsed, mainly because the museum was a state institution and Kulturhuset a municipal venture. For Moderna Museet the relocation would have meant a radical new beginning, and the municipality hoped it would diversify the new commercial city centre (and at the same time pacify the ‘new social forces’ attracted by it). Ideas about communal ‘houses for all activities’ (allaktivitetshus) had wide currency in Sweden at the time and could be traced back, at least in part, to Joan Littlewoods’s and Cedric Price’s unrealised Fun Palace for London’s East End, proposed in 1964. Öyvind Fahlström, the perhaps most prominent Swedish artist of the 1960s, eloquently argued for ‘houses of entertainment’ (nöjeshus). In the winter of 1969, Hultén and the other members of his Kulturhuset Expert Group, including Stolpe, elaborated a three-part proposal based on Celsing’s architecture. The ‘Square’ (Torget, a meeting place and social laboratory) and the ‘Wedge’ (Kilen, a space for performances, screenings or ‘large art constructions’), would both be on the ground floor, and then the ‘House’ (Huset, with the more traditional museum activities) on the various other levels of the raw concrete building, ending with the collection (the memory) on its top floors. Ignored by the city authorities, this proposal was re-conceptualised as a programme for the extended Moderna Museet, still in its old location on the island of Skeppsholmen. Kulturhuset was inaugurated by the city in 1974. Ever since, its programming has been fragmented and only partly successful.

West’s book also charts the tech-optimism of the progressive art and museum world of the 1960s – whether fuelled by Marshal McLuhan’s affirmation of global information capitalism or by Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s dream of empowering media users as DYI producers – and how it fared in the confrontation with left-wing alternative culture in the early 1970s. The second part of the book looks at two projects that influenced the choices made by Moderna Museet or Hultén without being directly linked to them. The Museum Computer Network, launched in 1967 in the New York City area and marketed in Stockholm and other European capitals, was the first initiative of its kind. Of course it soon ran into difficulties that are now commonplace: too elaborately standardised data entry protocols led to spiralling processing costs on rapidly aging platforms. This McLuhan-esque enthusiasm for computerisation hoped to turn the museum into the ‘content of the new electronic environment’ and thus ‘transform it into an art form’. The exhibition ‘Pictures of Sweden 1969’, organised by Stolpe for the inauguration of the Sweden House in Stockholm on 16 June 1969 and infamously closed after attracting some 5000 visitors on that one day, is West’s second case study. This exhibition can be seen as a cunning attempt at subverting both image-making technology and the very notion of ‘image’ within an already crystallising paradigm of ‘participation’ and ‘interactivity’.

Slide depicting a May Day rally in Stockholm in 1969, from the exhibition ‘Pictures of Sweden 1969’, Stockholm, 1969. Photo: Bildaktivisterna.

West has already dedicated a separate essay to this ill-fated exhibition, published in Afterall #41 in 2016. He reads it not only against Enzensberger’s utopian belief in the emancipatory potential of new, portable media technology but also against the young Jean Baudrillard’s dystopian media critique: We either allow ourselves to be co-opted by a ‘semio-aesthetic order’ of full compatibility (read: compliance with corporate agendas) or we destroy the media ‘such as they are’, much like the Futurists once agitated for blowing up the museums. Yet West doesn’t side with such apocalyptic iconoclasm as far as museums and exhibitions are concerned, because he fears – rightly, in my opinion – that this would only play into the hands of those who promote what he pointedly calls ‘post-critical defaitism’, i.e. ultimately the strong corporate interests behind what has become known as cognitive capitalism. Instead, his book can be read as a plea for the ‘constitutive contradictions and latent virtualities’ of exhibition-making (and, one might add, visual art), articulated from within the art historian’s critical and genealogical practice.

The third part of the book, in which West outlines the vicissitudes of the Circular Function Model at Moderna Museet during the years between the collapse of the Kulturhuset project and Hultén’s departure for Paris in 1973, is probably the ‘meatiest’ for today’s art professionals, and certainly the one that would benefit most from illustrations. I would, for instance, love to be able to scrutinise the differences in presentation between the various ‘screen exhibitions’ at Filialen, the experimental annex run by Stolpe from 1971 to 1973, at which point it was sacrificed in the face of criticism from within the museum (‘it negates and destroys art’) and the authorities (‘it is one-sided left-wing propaganda’). West, however, does a good job of describing exhibitions such as ‘Advertising: A Distorted Image of Society’ (Reklam – en förvanskad bild av samhället, 1972, organised by the inimitably named Young Philosophers’ Mass Media Group), ‘For a Technology at the Service of the People’ (För en teknik i folkets tjänst, 1972, organised during the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm) and ‘Bingo or Life?’ (Bingo eller livet?, 1973, on Sweden’s new cultural policy).

Installation view from the screen exhibition Women, Moderna Museet Filialen, 1972.

Filialen produced low-tech ‘pocket exhibitions’ that could easily travel around Sweden. Their interactivity consisted mostly in versions of the ‘fourth wall’ first included in the legendary exhibition Poetry Must Be Made by All! Transform the World! in 1969, i.e. empty space where visitors could add their own comments (more or less poetically; as West notes, this forum seldom yielded more than mildly offensive graffiti). At its inauguration, Stolpe called Filialen ‘a place where we meet to encounter different kinds of visual intentions (bildavsikter), a site where we discuss and take positions toward new images, a museum for contemporary communication generally.’ Yet, as West also notes, Stolpe and his collaborators don’t seem to have had much interest in – or indeed knowledge about – Conceptual Art, Institutional Critique and other such ‘new images’ that were being made and distributed at the time. Did they associate them with US cultural imperialism? Or were they just out of the loop, trapped in their home-grown progressiveness? However Pär Stolpe’s period at Moderna Museet should be evaluated today, I wish West had added a note on what became of this once-influential figure after 1973, because he hasn’t left many traces in cyberspace.

While I’m at it, I might as well reiterate a wish that I have expressed before in these digital pages. I would very much like to read a good study about Hultén’s time in Paris! Is it really true that he lost operational interest in the outer layer of his circular diagram and gave up trying to turn the institution into a ‘contact surface’ with the outside world? French poet and artist Robert Filliou was just as critical as Baudrillard when Beaubourg opened on 31 January 1977, but for slightly different reasons: he objected to the presence of officially invited guests such as Queen Fabiola of Belgium or Mobuto Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaïre. Yet he and his collaborator Joachim Pfeufer accepted Hultén’s invitation to realise a version of Poïpoïdrome, their itinerant ‘centre of permanent creation’, at Beaubourg the next year. Why? Because Hultén allowed them to build the installation in the sloping square outside the museum, where they collaborated with circus artists to animate the public. And because during the ‘exhibition’ he sent them to Mali to visit the Dogons, whose beliefs and social practices had inspired the whole venture.

Photomontage with model of Celsing’s Kulturhuset.