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Christoph Buchel's Training Ground for Democracy

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The ongoing battle between Swiss artist Christoph Büchel and The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) has been more than well documented in the press, and critics writing for publications throughout the county have weighed in on either side of this latest round of the Artist vs. The Institution battle. The relationship between Büchel and the museum went sour due to budget and time issues caused mainly by the expansive if not down right insane shopping list of fuel tankers and airplanes and a Cape Cod-style cottage and so on the artist required for the installation. But the real problem came after the fact, when Mass MoCA made the condemnable decision to allow visitors into the space that housed the unfinished Training Ground for Democracy installation--covered with tarps--to view an exhibit documenting successful installations at Mass MoCA and trying to garner sympathy with viewers by including Büchel's shopping list. There was also the small issue of taking the artist to court and eventually winning the right to show the work in an incomplete state. Although they ultimately decided to take the show down rather than open it to the public, Mass MoCA seemed to make all the wrong choices in dealing with a difficult situation and a difficult artist, with cries of the obstruction of free speech, censorship and, of course, the re-vilification of The Institution being thrown their way.

Even though the court and the public have weighed in and offered their verdicts and the unfinished installation having been taken down, that Cape Cod house deconstructed again and, assumedly, reassembled in another much less controversial environment, the ghosts of Training Ground for Democracy have not completely been put to rest. Büchel has created a new body of work in response to the conflict, the majority of which is based off of the documents that were made public during the exploration phase of the court case. In addition to culling the Mass MoCA paper trail, Büchel has included print articles from various publications commenting on the argument in his pieces responding to the controversy. One article in particular by New York Times critic Randy Kennedy was adopted by Büchel, compelling Kennedy to write the following:

"And finally one new work includes a framed copy of an article that I wrote for The New York Times in May about the dispute, an article that Mr. Büchel describes as a "cover-up" engineered as part of the museum's press strategy. So there is the distinct possibility that this follow-up article, with which Mr. Büchel cooperated, will be a part of the metaproject too.

In other words, everybody is implicated. Nobody gets away."

I find Kennedy's analysis of the situation very intriguing and exciting. Being both an artist and a person with aspirations to write about art--something I have done in the past on this blog--I don't want to be safe from Christoph Büchel. I want to be implicated. In fact, I am willingly offering myself up to Büchel, and by writing this, am hoping to become his unwitting collaborator, just as Kennedy did. If public opinion and response are going to be the basis of his new work and if these co-opted writings are going to be recontextualized and slapped with a price tag falling, presumably, somewhere around $250,000 (the going price the response piece entitled Made by Mass MoCA (Training Ground for Confidentiality)). As I see it, this is probably my best shot at somehow "making it" in the art world.

A critique of some sorts seems to be required in order to be considered to be included in Büchel's work. As I have said before, the sides have been very clearly defined and argued for and against since the conflict first arose and I would be wasting time to reiterate the points that have already been made. But what hasn't been discussed is where Büchel's stance against The Institution falls in the history of such battles between the artist and the museum. Breaking down museums' walls has long been an obsession of the Avant-Garde. From Dada and Café Voltaire to The Situationist to Fluxus, various art movements have been intensely critical of the museum system and actively attempted to create an alternative to the perceived elitism and inaccessibility to the masses of museums. The attempt, in many cases, was to make art and life not only resemble each other, but become one and the same. In the beginning, the practice of installation art was very much rooted in this tradition. Just the basic structure of installation works reveals this desire to break away from the museum--by engaging space beyond a framed painting on a wall, artists were creating work that was ephemeral, not fitting to the conventions of traditional museum exhibitions and, because of all these factors and more, difficult to buy and sell. A quick glance at the contemporary art world will reveal that these original intentions have all but completely been thrown out the window. Artists like Matthew Barney, Judy Pfaff and Ann Hamilton, as well as many, many others are all creating installations that are completely dependent on the patronage of museums in order to supply the capital needed to fund their vast and ambitious projects. Christoph Büchel's works are very much in same vein if not, in the case of Training Ground for Democracy, even more ambitious and more dependent on the coffers of the institution he now derides. By including Mass MoCA's once-private financial documents and emails in his artworks-as-critiques, he falls into the traditions of the avant-garde's past attacks against The Institution. Revealing the behind-the-scenes, inner workings of a given museum or gallery has been the subject of many a work of art by members of the previously mentioned movements as well as many others. But are these works really any different in terms of depending on The Institution? Seeing that he is working with the documents compiled by lawyers paid by the Museum and created by accountants and employees that are responsible for monitoring the flow of the museums funds, his critique does little to remove himself from underneath Mass MoCA's financial umbrella--he seems to still be firmly planted beneath it.

I myself am not exactly free of such hypocrisy, simultaneously expressing my desired to be involved in this big art world, big money metaproject and calling into question its failed critique and confused intentions. But unlike Büchel, I am well aware of this contradiction and have little problem with it. This is a shot, albeit a very long one, at being part of something more than I would ever achieve in the world of art otherwise and I have no problem with selling out a bit to do so. I am an American after all, and we learn such fickleness very early on in our own training ground for Democracy.