Museums’ Down Time

In these emphatic times, content has become an obsession. Hence, museums or companies, communication multinationals or havens for new technologies, compete in the desperate search for directors, creators, hunters of such contents. In the face of this predilection, the existence of Prototipoak, Biennial of New Artistic Forms that takes place in Azkuna Zentroa-La Alhóndiga, Center of Culture and Society of Bilbao, is singular. It is no coincidence that it takes place in a space where living arts, literature, contemporary art, dance, a Master’s course, activism, theory, spontaneous performances or a consolidated system of artistic residencies intersect.

True to semantics, the organization has gone back to the original meaning of “Prototype” to refer to “a first version of something, the materialization and preliminary imagination of a device from which other forms are derived.” Prototipoak is proposed as a laboratory from which to privilege “uncertainty, curiosity and permanent questioning, opening the possibility of other worlds”. Let’s say that, along with the “what,” the “when,” or the “why,” these encounters explore the “how” art could be produced and the “where” culture would take place beyond its usual enclosures inside and outside its temples.

In this 2023 edition, Prototipoak has brought together artists and groups whose themes have been heterogeneous: ecology, the fit or mismatch between the rural and the urban, the autobiographical, collective narratives, the question of who will understand us in a distant future… Their origins, no less diverse than their ideas, range from Japan to Turkey, passing through Denmark, Mexico and, of course, the Basque Country, which hosts this event. Ayşe Erkmen, Laida Lertxundi, Susana Velasco, Ainhoa Lekerika, Fermín Jiménez Landa, Teatro de Ojo or Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum experimented with multiple impact models: sometimes inside Azkuna Zentroa, others amplified in the city of Bilbao. Sometimes attentive to the passage of time, others to the ways of entering and leaving the space. Some focused on the present and others on the future. On analog reality and on virtual reality. Their projects could take the form of a selfie-sculpture installed in the manner of a site-specific or an ephemeral school capable of generating soundscapes (or “landscape” scores). In some cases, they operated as a viewpoint that, from the rooftop of the institution, recovered the history of the city from the origin of its industrialization or turned the exhibition space into a Call Center. In Prototipoak, film was transformed into a printing technique and the filming space into the very end of the creative process. There, a black box was buried to be read in a thousand years or a “trail flavor” ice cream was created, conceived from a mixture between silphium and fennel, in its bastard condition of weeds growing in what Gilles Clement called “third landscape.”

Although it is a biennial focused on the formats that the culture of the future will have, Prototipoak did not avoid critical issues. Only these were not expressed in the easy rhetoric of the pamphlet that is so common these days, nor did they allow themselves to be phagocytized by a cultural journalism, increasingly in vogue, that understands art as a newsworthy matter and not as a procedure that requires rummaging in a place somewhat deeper than a Photocall.

In Prototipoak echoes the Milan Kundera of Testaments Betrayed, the Coetzee who digs into the inner mechanisms of writing, the eroticism that Susan Sontag demands of the works when they are put in tension with their audiences. Despite the fact that this biennial officially ended on June 3, the explicit ambition of its program bets that the thrill of its experiences will persist beyond that date. That it will keep hammering like a recurring problem in the heads of the participants once the curtain comes down on the event.

Ramón Williams: Museum Traces. Azkuna Zentroa

Among the artists invited to this edition was Ramon Williams, a Cuban photographer who has lived and worked in Miami for decades, delving into museum spaces as well as what happens in their interiors between exhibitions. Perhaps weaving a thread from The Museum as Muse—the 1999 group show at the MoMa—to a present day in which artist criticism of the museum has only grown wider and more complicated. Each one, in his own way, going beyond the usual perception of the museum as a fetish to turn it into a space for suspicion, the crux of the matter, a rite of passage, a puzzle ready to assemble and disassemble the prevailing visual order of each era.

Ramón Williams joins this troop by zigzagging on from one side to the other of the barrier. From occupying, at times, as an artist, the halls of those museums; but also to deal with them, as an operator, to face them from the other side where the works leave their less luminous imprints. In that down time in which the people that hide behind the exhibitions become protagonists: assemblers, carpenters, the diverse part time work force that makes exhibition possible. Since his beginnings in this field, Williams has followed those traces populated by empty perimeters, peeling walls, unclassifiable blues, dirty whites that were once spotless. Atmospheres that, more than found objects, directly classify as found works. Vestiges that could well be signed by Hermann Nitsch, Anselm Kiefer, Ignasi Aballí, Joseph Kossuth, Ana Mendieta, Joan Fontcuberta, Yoko Ono, almost all the Arte Povera…

There are moments when it makes us imagine Christo working in the interiors of the buildings he used to wrap.

What is the meaning of these remains left behind in the museum? What is the memory of this assembly line that boasts of “making processes transparent” when, in reality, it only emphasizes the exhibitionism of well-polished works, ready to achieve, in the words of José Luis Pardo, “the utopia of a world without garbage?”

Through questions like these, Williams emerges as the nemesis of that aseptic fantasy that defines the White Cube, always receptive to bleach when some inadequate dirt spot demands it. In this sterilization, the art system replicates some styles of any political regime obsessed with the defense of purity, ideological purges or ethnic cleansing.

Ramón Williams: Museum Traces. Azkuna Zentroa

Twenty years ago, the critic Jordi Costa dealt with this issue in his exhibition Trash Culture, which took place at the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) and in which filth was stripped of its pejorative treatment. From other flanks, the collective Basurama or the architect Santiago Cirugeda have taken on the subject by recycling ambiguous areas of public space until they transform their disuse into use; reconverting open spaces, the corner without owners or the abandoned lot into playgrounds, homes, studios, meeting points, various shelters.

In his case, when Williams deals with the obsolescence of the images that remain after an exhibition, he does nothing more than transfer it to the decrepitude of the places where they were placed: in particular, galleries and museums. That is why here filth functions as the counterpart of opulence (we already know that garbage and greed form a good tandem and that few activities are more lucrative than garbage dumps). Particularly, in this time in which it is difficult to escape from blatant usurpation, cut and paste, and all the ruses to make rotten truths circulate again and again.

All this, and more, is covered by a series like Museum Traces. Or the dozens and dozens of photographs of the assembly or disassembly of the works, remnants of paintings on already used cardboard (The Card Board Paintings), videos like Touching Up, Words Off and Taking Down the Wall, recycled text stickers (like Curator’s Word and Pasta Jar) or sculptures made in situ (Immediate Sculptures). Through these, Williams manages to position himself above and below the waterline of the art system. His pieces monopolize the walls of the museum and yet they are not part of any exhibition, making the imaginary polaroid of everything that the display hides shine for an instant.

Ramón Williams: Museum Traces. Azkuna Zentro

Here we share walls that seem to have been ridden with bullets and windows that invite us to leave the closed space of art. Or the measurements of works that are no longer there and of others still to come. Or the writing, on the wall, of stories of pieces that are as true as they are fictitious, as permanent as they are ephemeral. Here we deal with solemn portraits vandalized, with the tragedy of the facts and the comedy of the debris. Or with the tip that is left to the artist for turning them into paintings of his own. Or the remnants of a framed life and the keys to free it from its frame. The detail and its wrapping. The walls and their crossed borders. The scar and its surgery. The packages to return and the piled-up memory. The conspiracy theories and the chaos theories (with its incorporated Butterfly Effect). The origin and the destiny. Sacred ceremony and obscenity. The blank page and the writing. The pedestals and their salt statues…

Here we are trained to oppose selection to the bite, appropriation to predation, digestion to management, promiscuity to the uncontaminated. And to assume the cultural recycling of garbage as a way of managing, at the same time, death and resurrection.

If, as Lenin liked to affirm, facts are stubborn, for Williams, waste can be vengeful. Perhaps that is why they carry the wisdom of that which returns from death and is terrifying for the gurus of purity. It is there where his work thrives: in that gloomy point where the dead time of museums announces the time of dead museums.

Iván de la Nuez. Essayist and curator. Among his books are La Balsa Perpetua [The Perpetual Raft], El Mapa de Sal [The Map of Salt], Fantasía Roja [Red Fantasy], El Comunista Manifiesto [The Comunist Manifesto], Teoría de la Retaguardia [Theory of the Rear Guard] and Cubantropía [Cubantrophy]. Among his exhibitions, La Isla Posible, Parque Humano, Postcapital, Atopía, Iconocracia, Nunca Real/Siempre verdadero y La Utopía Paralela [The Possible Island, Human Park, Postcapital, Atopia, Iconocracy, Never Real / Always True and The Parallel Utopia].


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