by Thomas Micchelli
Training Ground for Democracy
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
North Adams, Massachusetts
This is not a review of Christoph Büchel’s Training Ground for Democracy at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art because, as of this writing, the exhibition does not exist. As it has been widely reported, the artist and the museum hit an impasse in December when Büchel returned to Europe after being informed by the museum that the project’s budget, which had nearly doubled from $160,000 to $300,000 during the course of the installation, was depleted and the remaining materials he had requested, including the fuselage of a 727 jetliner, could not be procured.
The issue of whether these materials were new demands or part of the approved plan is one of the matters in dispute, which isn’t surprising since there is nothing about this debacle that isn’t in dispute. The media dissections of the situation have invariably focused on Büchel’s seemingly outlandish requests and MASS MoCA’s scramble to fill them until it reached the fiscal breaking point. These reports, however, arrived after the fact.
From the evidence of a clipping file obtained from MASS MoCA’s public relations office, the show’s initial failure to open on schedule was entirely ignored by the press. It’s a sobering commentary on the general awareness of contemporary visual culture that the collapse of the first major project in the United States by one of the world’s most compelling artists, commissioned by the nation’s largest and arguably most prestigious venue for new art, would pass unnoticed. It wasn’t until March 28, 2007, three months after the aborted opening date, that the Boston Globe broke the story. By that time, the uncompleted installation had already been toured by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor John Barrett III of North Adams—the hard luck industrial town where the arts complex is located—and an unspecified number of museum directors and curators who were attending the invitation-only Berkshire Conference, described on its website as “a forum for leaders in the arts and business communities addressing issues that face the cultural landscape today and anticipate the cultural climate to come.”
Even then it remained a local issue, with follow-up articles in the North Adams Transcript, the Berkshire Eagle and the Albany Times Union, until May 22nd, the day after the museum sued the artist over the right to open the unfinished work to the public. The museum’s civil action was picked up by the New York Times as well as the Globe, the local papers and the online outlets of The New Republic (tnr.com) and Newsweek / MSNBC (msnbc.com). As of May 29th the story had metastasized into the blogosphere, and by mid-August even the Los Angeles Times had caught on.
The legal case is complex and far from settled. MASS MoCA’s claims, countered by those of Büchel, have been well documented in the press and online, so there’s no need to rehash them here. One issue, however, cuts to the heart of the matter: Büchel’s complaint that the museum denied his rights by allowing the general public to view the incomplete installation—nominally obscured by vinyl tarps—along a passageway leading to a show hastily mounted in an adjoining room. The makeshift exhibit, Made at MASS MoCA, is nothing more than a self-serving trifle of wall texts and documentary photographs implicitly touting the cooperative relationships the museum enjoyed with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Tim Hawkinson and Cai Guo-Qiang while constructing their epic-scaled installations.
The museum clearly wants it both ways. While arguing for the right to open the exhibition as an unfinished work of art, asserting that it is “a joint owner of any copyright in the Materials which are the subject matter of Büchel’s counterclaims,” as reported by the website clancco.com in a post dated July 24, 2007, MASS MoCA has also alleged “that Büchel’s work is not even art, but simply a compilation of materials which, if accepted by the Court, would not be granted protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA)”—a legal right that Büchel staked in his counter suit.
So how much responsibility does Büchel bear for the impasse? While the museum’s motivations have been fairly transparent, the artist has refused to talk to the press. In the absence of information, cultural assumptions rush in. Randy Kennedy’s article in the New York Times relied on museum sources, in particular its director, Joseph C. Thompson, and consequently displayed a tacit bias against the artist, painting him as an out-of-touch control freak: “Mr. Büchel was also concerned with the appearance of even the smallest detail, like a soiled rag hanging near a jail-cell sink or a dusty bag of sunflower seeds atop a television set. As the project grew, the museum says, this kind of obsessiveness began to have its costs.” Kennedy writes that Thompson “‘began to suspect that there might not ever be an end’ to Mr. Büchel’s vision for the space” and that “Some people in the art world have suggested to [Thompson] that Mr. Büchel might have purposely forced the exhibit to grind to a halt as the final act of the work itself….”
This last bit of deep-background sourcing—a ploy you’d expect in a story about the State Department or the Pentagon—is especially problematic, not simply for its lack of accountability but also because it offers as evidence a conceptual joke Büchel played in 2002, when he “sold his invitation to participate in Manifesta, an international art exhibition in Frankfurt, for $15,000 in an eBay auction to allow the winner to take his place.” While Büchel has been involved in similar games with his current legal case—selling signed copies of the museum’s complaint and his own correspondence (as noted by Paul Lieberman in the Los Angeles Times)—there have been no accounts of his walking away from an installation-in-progress.
And then there’s the issue of money. The two sides are at odds about whether the budget was ever discussed, let alone stipulated on paper, but several articles have taken pains to point out that none of the $300,000 spent so far has been from public funds, as if that were a good thing. It’s no use even broaching the subject of the monetary priorities of this country, in which exigencies as vital as the safety of bridges and mines, to cite just two recent tragedies, go begging while $300,000 is evaporated by Cheney’s imperial adventures in less time than it takes to exhale. But it’s true that Büchel, who comes from a cultural fabric in which the economic advantages of large-scale artistic enterprises are taken for granted, might have made unfounded assumptions about the extent to which the project would be supported. Would this indicate that Büchel is “pampered and spoiled,” as Marty Peretz sneered in tnr.com? Perhaps, but is he any more pampered than a corporate CEO, a pop music diva, an international supermodel or a Hollywood A-lister? Büchel has submitted a list of demands that the museum must meet before he would consider resuming work on the installation. They call for the raising of additional funds to cover “the costs for ALL elements and ALL structural elements, which are clearly defined and which were much discussed. This money would have to cover the cost of the salaries, flights, per diem and housing for the 1st and 2nd round for assistants and the replacement crew and equipment to be hired.” Büchel makes it very clear that there is NO negotiation about the scope of the project … the artist will not accept any orders and any more pressure or compromises as to how things have to be done from the museum director or museum’s technicians. The artist demands full autonomy with regard to his artwork.
Depending on your point of view, the tone of this statement might lead you to conclude that Büchel is either a passionate visionary or a supercilious jerk, though there is no law on the books separating the two. By commissioning Büchel to execute such a mind-bogglingly enormous work, with absolutely no qualms about his blatantly leftist approach, MASS MoCA performed an unprecedented and heroic act, one that calls out the financial and political timidity of virtually all its sister institutions. That such an auspicious endeavor can descend into recriminations and chaos holds broader aesthetic and social implications than the soul-sickening spectacle of a grand opportunity missed.
Despite the boldness of its initial actions, MASS MoCA ultimately lost confidence in its project, its public, and itself. Büchel had reached out to the citizens of North Adams to join in the undertaking, inviting them to donate whatever junk was cluttering their basements and attics. They responded by carting it to the museum by the truckload. This spontaneous participation by the museum’s largely working-class neighbors signaled a level of communal involvement that has been all but lost in the creation of modern art. But when read against the scheme of the project, Büchel’s outreach should not be taken as a good-will gesture, not by long shot. The grimly apocalyptic vision of a Fascist state that he was laying out would have had its starkest effect on the people living directly outside the museum walls. They would encounter a full-scale house from the neighborhood, the interior of the town’s old, shuttered movie theater (both structures were disassembled and reconstructed for the exhibition), and their own possessions—the very stuff of their lives—scattered and broken amid high cinderblock walls, an array of police vehicles, a looming yellow-and-black guard tower and a meticulous recreation of Saddam Hussein’s infamous spiderhole. They would have experienced the work with the kind of immediacy that Renaissance Florentines must have felt when they recognized their own streets and hilltops in the Biblical scenes rendered in fresco or carved in bas-relief by their own citizen-artists. This is the essence of what was lost—the reassertion of the demotic and the local into radical art making, and the emotional profundity that those qualities—the realness of real life—can evoke.
But for the museum administrators, the cost overruns were creating a do-or-die situation. If Büchel continued to work on the project, conceivably spending thousands upon thousands more on top of the three hundred grand he had already used (as a point of comparison, the annual operating budget for the entire museum is only $800,000), and if the results were not a critical and financial success, the consequences would have been devastating, maybe even fatal, for such a relatively young institution. What is puzzling is that the museum didn’t try to reach a more creative solution than simply pulling the plug. It’s as if the administrators’ thinking had narrowed in direct proportion to the rate that Büchel’s was expanding. Faced with the prospect of authentically risky art rather than the pseudo-avant-garde spectacle that crowds so many contemporary art venues—a work of imaginative daring that demanded as much from them as from the artist—they balked. The people of North Adams seemed willing to make that investment, but their museum officials weren’t.
To approach the artwork in its current confines is to grasp the enormity of its potential and the corresponding size of its failure. In order to find the installation you must wend your way through the museum’s second floor galleries until you reach a barely noticeable stairway at the far end of a darkened room. As you walk down the stairs, all you can see is a corrugated steel wall with rust stains bleeding through its powder-blue paint job, and a bright red exit sign. You think, oh, I’m heading out the fire exit. I’m lost. You’re not. The corrugated steel is the back end of one of two shipping containers, one atop the other, that you have to navigate around before you can find the tarps hiding the exhibition from view.
The tarps are a bright, incongruously cheerful yellow stretched tight across gunmetal-gray stanchions. They don’t reach the floor, and they rise only about two feet above eye level, so they don’t cover much. You can easily crouch down to slip your head underneath or peek through the slits between the vinyl sheets. Beyond the passageway formed by the tarps, the monumental elements of the installation rise all around you, plain as day—the cinderblock walls, the two-story house, the guard tower, the trailers, the carnival ride, all compacted together in a claustrophobic, politically surreal borough of hell, George Orwell by way of David Lynch. The finished version, according to the artist’s legal papers as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, was to include “role-play for its visitors … in relation to the collective project called ‘democracy’: training to be an immigrant, training to vote, protest, and revolt … training to be interrogated and detained.”
The room was deathly still; there was no role-playing or even the sound of a footfall, and the Sunday afternoon daylight felt much too bright for the assembly’s internal gloom. Nevertheless, my teenage son and I, gazing at Büchel’s incomplete “compilation of materials,” were awestruck. I had read Randy Kennedy’s Times article and was suitably skeptical of what we might find, half-expecting to dismiss it as hype. But even cloaked and abandoned, the dense physicality of the materials energized the vast space and wielded a startling, oppressive power. I was musing aloud about where Büchel might have hung the airplane (bomb-damaged and burned, as per his specifications) and my son was indiscreetly peering beneath one of the yellow tarps when we got busted. A little man in a Red-Sox-red MASS MoCA baseball cap materialized out of nowhere and barked at us that we couldn’t look at what we were looking at. It was under litigation. Shooting deeply suspicious glances at my notebook, he jerked his oversized walkie-talkie in the direction of the room holding Made at MASS MoCA and literally escorted us through the yellow-draped passageway until we got there.
Both my son and I had the same reaction: the inexplicable appearance of the guard revealed that we were being heard, watched, sonically tracked—who knows?—without our knowledge. We were hustled away for a security infraction that consisted of looking at something we weren’t supposed to see; that we were supposed to pretend wasn’t there. The subliminal dread and paranoia induced by the shrouded installation had burst floridly to life.
What’s remarkable about this looking-glass situation is that Büchel’s art is being thwarted not for its political content, which is uncompromised and uncompromising, but over matters of budget, copyright, moral rights and ownership. It is not censorship, but the ultimate effect is the same. Similarly, content is disappearing from the Internet due to aggressive copyright regulations, independent booksellers and small publishers face extinction from onerous new postal rates, and media consolidation continues its rapid, and rabid, pace. There is no need to quash dissent if no one can hear it.
A possibility remains that, if the funds can be raised and the litigants’ differences can be reconciled, the museum might set a 2008 opening date for the exhibition. One can hope. But as we move toward the denouement of the most disastrous and malignant presidency in the nation’s history, the prospect of witnessing the dismantled fragments of Training Ground for Democracy, unrealized and unseen, dragged out of MASS MoCA’s Building 5 by hardhatted workers and hauled away in a caravan of dumpsters, is far too horrific, and far too apt.