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Assemblage Theory

Ant in Amber (under magnifying glass), Sam Noble Museum. Photo credit: fine_plan. Creative Commons licensed. Sourced from Flickr.

I would like to pick up from the previous post, especially with regards to the importance of waiting areas preceding the experience considered as strictly “art experience.”  Whether we are reading labels or instructions there is no reason to differentiate and leave outside the “art experience” any elements, any modes of communication and constitution of exhibition. Perhaps such split of the wholeness of “experience” is not only unnecessary but also impossible. All associated activities and communications – such intense social acts as opening and closing drinks, could be measured within the framework of “paths” that constitute an exhibition experience. Even if one is encountering that experience as mediated by personal media, in a real-world situation. It is like we are seeing our bodies moving through the space and with this feeling of distance our condition is similar to that of the entanglement of ants in amber.  Then, the question is – how does this awareness change exhibition making?

Such view of curatorial methodology has been exercised in relation to museums. As Terry Smith has pointed out in his analysis of contemporary curatorial thought and types of exhibitions, the experience of museum architecture constitutes the event of exhibition. The most eminent case is of course Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. If architecture manifests as exhibition, what other things should be counted into the constellation of exhibition experience? Because museological perspective is naturally focused on the figure of viewer, the formulation of “exhibition anthropology” could emerge. Erkki Huhtamo has insisted on exactly this approach considering structural, ongoing and variable (viewer-related) constituents that are present to shape the experience. To explain the exhibition anthropology approach which comes hand in hand with close observations, Huhtamo has noted: “The approach should not be conceived of as purely empirical, focused on case-by-case analysis. My basic idea is to treat the museum as a kind of experience apparatus – a combination of material features, social roles, and institutional practices and policies that provide a framework for visitors’ experiences.”  [1] The continuation of this thought is particularly interesting: “Understood as an apparatus, the museum is a system of anticipations and regulations visitors are supposed to follow. One of its functions is to analyze potential deviations from its norms (including transgressive actions).”  [2] It is perhaps through these “transgressive actions” that we can detect the workings of exhibition apparatus and generate experiences specific to a particular moment. In 2015, I curated an exhibition in George Paton Gallery (Melbourne) that I started with a vision of a cafe as an implant into the gallery room – a different kind of exhibition context, enabling the space of communication, and sympathetic in relation to busy eateries and cafes on the ground floor. By the end of this project I had witnessed that the gallery walls were not, metaphorically speaking, a blank canvas – they contained the social relations of the art establishment.  This gallery-cafe was perceived through the experiences of individual visitors depending on the interplay of their interpretation and memory or knowledge of this gallery as a space to come to see art exhibitions.

The notion of museum as experience apparatus aligns with Gilles Deleuze’s assemblage theory. The metaphor of ants in amber, a view of the whole, including ourselves within the entanglement of all elements, serves well in relation to the materialist social ontology, from which the concept of assemblage extends. As Manuel DeLanda notes – “our minds need to be there”, but social ontology, “is independent of the contents of our minds” [3]. In Deleuze’s concept of assemblage, each part stands in active relation to others, whereby the emergent properties of the whole cannot be reduced to its parts: a horse, warrior and weapon is an example of assemblage – “each part amplifies the other parts”  [4].  Therefore, for Deleuze, the key to assemblage is that the warrior is a skilled user or connector in relation to horse and weapon (and we should assume that the horse and weapon are functional, and so forth), alternatively, it would be a mere collection of things rather than an assemblage [5].

And yet – why not use the assemblage to explore possibilities? For example, thoughts, are usually mere collections, but, what if they are treated as assemblages? Art often presents methodologies of collection, to the extent of absurd, yet with the claim of assemblage – active insistence on meaning even though there might not be any. We can also think of an artwork and a viewer as an assemblage. Thus, this theory is attractive through the potential of tension between its realism and “idealism”: awareness of entanglement and the potential of relationships.

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[1] Erkki Huhtamo, “Museums, Interactivity, and the Tasks of “Exhibition Anthropology,” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 272.

[2] Erkki Huhtamo, “Museums, Interactivity, and the Tasks of “Exhibition Anthropology,” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 272.

[3] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

[4] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

[5] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

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