Given Cake

New York

Left: Eungie Joo, Daniel Birnbaum, and Martha Rosler. Right: The cocktail party after the panel discussion.

An announcement for “What Now? Art Practice and Public Institutions Today,” a panel discussion held last week at the Guggenheim Museum, listed several promising questions to be discussed: Do today’s artists impact institutions in the same way that artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s did? How can institutions balance artistic ambition with limited production budgets? Where can we find new models for public institutions? The discussion was held to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Etant donnes, the French-American Fund for Contemporary Art, a grant-giving organization that has sponsored over 100 exhibitions in France and the United States. Given Daniel Buren’s grand spectacle upstairs it seemed a particularly relevant topic. But, like most panel discussions, it proved to be a missed opportunity.

With no moderator, it’s hard to fault the six panelists, Daniel Birnbaum, Boris Groys, Eungie Joo, Martha Rosler, Philippe Vergne, and Anton Vidokle, all of whom have urged us to reconsider the roles of artist, curator, and critic—or, as Groys intoned, the continual blurring of all three—via a cavalcade of nontraditional projects. But Vidolke’s provocative opening salvo, asking whether the “criticality” of Buren’s ‘60s and ‘70s works has been de-fanged by institutional acceptance—the very question I was hoping to hear discussed—disappeared into the ether as the panelists launched into the de rigueur individual presentations, which, all told, went on for more than ninety minutes. Birnbaum discussed projects he had organized for Portikus in Frankfurt, where he is director and rector of the Stadelschule Art Academy, including a 2003 installation by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset that literally pulled the walls off the white cube, and one in Sweden for which Olafur Eliasson dyed a river green; Rosler breezed through a series of out-of-focus slides of students in T-shirts and piles of books on the floor documenting her participation in “Utopia Station” at the last Venice Biennale; Joo outlined the artist residencies and exhibitions at REDCAT in Los Angeles, where she is director and curator; and Vidokle, an artist and founder of e-flux, discussed the organization’s projects and the idea for Manifesta 6, which he is organizing with fellow curators Mai Abu ElDahab and Florian Waldvogel and which proposes the founding of an art school in Nicosia, Cyprus. Only art historian Groys and, in an indirect way, Walker Art Center curator Vergne (who, in a breathless, “life is short”-style presentation, claimed curators have “a responsibility to our time” to “re-complexify discourse”) attempted to answer the instigative questions.

A sizable portion of the audience jumped out of their seats the moment the last Power Point slide show concluded—perhaps headed toward the more festive environment of the Yves Saint Laurent party for Sylvie Fleury on Madison Avenue. Several notable curators (some on the current Etant donnes “Artistic Committee”) remained, but their presence did little to liven up the anemic Q&A session. At the very end, an audience member piped up to reiterate Vidokle’s question about Buren: Do “critical” or avant-garde gestures have a shelf life? Given the right context, I suspect that Rosler, who during her presentation contrasted the institutional red tape and other difficulties she encountered organizing “If You Lived Here…” for Dia in 1989 with the logistical seamlessness of her “Utopia Station” project, has much to say on the topic. But by this point, with cocktails and a giant birthday cake waiting upstairs, it was too late to say much at all.