The Greatest Show on Earth
Design in the Operating System of Exhibitions
Perhaps a semi-somnolent state would be the adequate condition for reconsidering exhibition design. Startled out of diachronic dreams and awakening from idiosyncratic fantasies, a tame and uniformly ordered exhibition design style might then even seem to be an exotic anomaly. A super-ordinate master plan of allegedly safe routines would appear as a rational act of violence upon the final experience, and a balanced dialogue between all exhibits would create the impression of a military exercise.
Indeed, it is one matter to assert that exhibitions in the art world cannot do without design-related methods of formulation and production. It is quite another, however, to restrict this view so much that it only results in half-hearted didactic excuses and transforms art into an act of decorative public relations, instead of achieving what exhibition design should actually have always been about: a comprehensive syntactic-formal treatment of narrative structure and space, challenging visitors to make their own decisions and provoking their collaboration. For, in principle, the visual presentation and editing of space and content is an empowerment of the audience, even if this is often misunderstood as a disempowerment of the recipients.
Nobody would seriously dispute that design is often used as a kind of lubricant for exhibitions, and that it not uncommonly degenerates into irrelevant embellishment. Design often acts as a manipulative pedagogical framework for the exhibits, and sometimes exhibition design and sales-promoting trade fair design are dangerously similar. Such examples, which occasionally might be due to the professional dilettantism of the exhibition organizers' economic constraints, can nonetheless hardly be regarded as an argument for a culture-critical rejection of well thought-out forms of mediation on the basis of conceptual design methods.
In the German art system exhibition practice often still seems to be involved in the anachronistic battles against the windmills of glossily designed surface worlds. When exhibitions have committed themselves to mediation - and this applies to those within the context of fine art as much as to those outside it - then the mediation has to assume a decisive form. The suspicion that design is only an ally of large-scale ‘Guggenheimization', of blatant extroversion and a market agitation geared primarily towards topics with mass-appeal, confuses the visual articulation of ideas with museum marketing. The culture-critical rejection of exhibition design is generally not directed towards conceptual approaches,but rather towards the business-related absence of conceptual reflection. It thus affects the thoughtlessness of the curators more than that of the designers and takes the romantic pose of fighting against superficiality, while simply ignoring alternatives to the traditional museum industry.
The misunderstanding that design automatically produces a touristy Parcour for frivolous flaneurs could well be a predominantly German phenomenon. In Anglo-Saxon culture using design concepts to convey artistic positions is not an exception, but rather the rule. Formal accents are placed with much more confidence, and, whether bold or cryptic in nature, are always conceived as a component of the impression which art works make on viewers. In the exhibition 100 Artists See God, curated by John Baldessari and Meg Cranston at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, for instance, it was a balustrade - instead of the by no means more natural empty white cube - which helped the art works to their context, or at least corrected the misunderstanding that sacred works of art might be consumed as entirely context-free objects. After all, the exhibition assembled one hundred works on the subject of God. At a distance of roughly two meters from the art works, a balustrade ran the length of the wall on which the pictures and objects had been arranged in tableaux (1). Although the solution was not devoid of a certain symbolic showiness, the practical efficiency of this medium was astounding. Here, art seemed to be speaking from the pulpit, and could be sure of the recipients' attention. At the same time, though, the historical reference to ecclesiastical interior architecture touched upon a classic dilemma of exhibition design, which time and again is assigned the disciplinarian task of preventing visitors from damaging the exhibits, therefore inevitably hindering them from getting close to the works of art. Unlike formal layouts which make half-hearted attempts to cover up this distancing procedure, the design of the London exhibition drew upon its secondary function of preventing damage in order to deal thematically with the (re)presentation of the artifacts, which here intended to simultaneously be art and sacred objects, cultural historical examples and museum-external metaphysics.
In exhibition design over the last twenty years, the safety-related requirements for transparent and lucent materials have certainly been eclipsed by their decorative possibilities. The new potentials the materials have for structuring spaces in multiple graduated planes (2) yet also illustrates how the need for transparent vaults for protecting the exhibited works is spatially interrelated with the charging of the presentation with information.
At the same time, many contemporary exhibitions pursue ideas of decentralization and multiple narrative levels. Such ideas were already to be found in pre-war modernism and at the Dessau Bauhaus, notably in the concepts of the graphic artist and exhibition designer Herbert Bayer (3). With the passion of young men, Bayer and his colleagues deconstructed spaces, splitting fields of vision into different levels, eliminating thick turn-of-the-century walls in favor of lighter-weight separating screens. This permitted a remodeling of the exhibition spaces into landscapes in the semblance of oriental spatial structures. Thus panoptical architecture was rendered (4) with a tendency towards the total artwork, which is still seen today as the ideal of an omnipotent exhibition design. In the divided exhibition space of the ICA, however, the balustrades with their lathe-turned stanchions became overt barriers in front of the displayed objects, and thus a vehicle for art-historical and art-theoretical reflection. As barriers, they refer - not without irony - to the division of the room into a profane, accessible area and an auratic sphere to which the works of art had been assigned. At the same time they questioned this process of auratization as such, leaving it completely up to the viewers to develop their own ideas about the impact and function of the exhibited works.
The possibilities that open up when design concepts change the grammar of an exhibition and rephrase the approaches to its content are perhaps best demonstrated by the example of a further exhibition, which was conceived by the London design studio Graphic Thought Facility (GTF) and took place in 2002 at the Royal Institute of British Architects. The exhibition, which was entitled Hardcore, served to illustrate the potential of the building material concrete, and was also financed by the cement industry. Instead of elucidating the numerous illustrations of possible uses through explanations set off to the side, GFT developed a different strategy (5). The texts were spatially separated from the images and printed - independently, but nonetheless synchronously - in an accompanying paperback booklet, which contained nothing except this detached narrative thread (6). The numbering of the exhibition's thematic sections and the corresponding images on the walls had its counterpart in the booklet's unbleached woody pages of text - strongly alluding in materiality and appearance to mass materials. The illustration-free, purely typographical layout combined large, coarse textual elements on the inside pages with an almost vulgar glossy foil cover. A large plastic sack at the exhibition's entrance filled with dozens of these books twisted their function as a useful supplier of captions into a coquettish statement on the provision of information. What happened here was thus far more than a mere visual processing of an exhibition's content. Not only did the designers add their own commentary, they also threw the accompanying text into the graphic shredder, only to let it rise unexpectedly the next moment to the status of a central protagonist.
The opportunities in exhibition design therefore lie less in an attractively efficient translation than in exploring the controlled manipulation of orientation or disorientation by either providing or denying information. Even in situations where obvious visual statements are largely out of the question, it is necessary to take a second look. The iconography of the presentation is multifaceted and iridescent and can be used to great effect for re-contextualization, as just a sidelong glance at architecture proves. Here, the potential of design has long been recognized, and the arguments are very successfully strengthened with graphic formulations. Architects have no qualms about adorning not only the subsequent illustrated publications, but also the interiors and exteriors of the buildings themselves with symbols and pictorial systems. When observing the feuilleton-sanctioned success of the office of Herzog / de Meuron and the stellar rise of Rem Koolhaas (OMA) into the upper spheres of popular culture, one becomes aware of this clever practice - and also of the partially striking graphical components - in a wide range of today's design concepts for public spaces.
As it is, whoever wishes to win arguments in the cultural discourse is unable to avoid so-called "visual communication" and its innumerable narrative archives, even if a concentrated effort is made to forego it. This refers not only to a reformatting of words and images. A significant aspect of cultural activity is comprised of the disclosure and documentation of information, which already corresponds to design's field of responsibility - if not of good design, then at least of poorly considered, bad design. The pictures and artifacts assembled in exhibitions and collections always become some type of spatial taxonomy of particular themes and their subtexts such as politics, ownership and history. That is, after all, what exhibitions should strive to achieve: a comprehensive stocktaking, not only in the form of textual commentary, but also in the shape of visual representation. The function of this transposition of exhibited objects into graphic information is not always as clear as in the case of the 17th century Flemish collector who had his possessions documented in the form of a painting,(7) where works by such artists as Jan Brueghel the Elder and Albrecht Dürer can be recognized. It is presumed that this catalogue was executed by two painters, one of which depicted the (most likely fictitious) interior, while the other produced the further elements in such a way that the exhibition's graphical parameters - its sequences and hierarchies and its obvious or hidden systems and motivations - form the painting's structure. In less clear situations it is also possible for design to formulate indices of the process by which the works wandered from storerooms or other hidden worlds into the exhibition space. The discipline of exhibition design can borrow structuralist methods long known to the art world from its objects of presentation and apply them to the exhibition space itself, connecting the curatorial practice with an autonomous commentary, which unfolds independently but is still permanently present.
The ambition to achieve stimulating graphical formulations is thus already thoroughly accompanied by the desire for documentary methods and formal lucidity, and thus for a self-referentiality which has become a disputed, but consistently present norm in the realm of art for the past two hundred years. While the system-immanent processes of design, production and distribution often stand in the way of this autonomy, the possibilities are nevertheless diverse and can be filtered in many ways. In any case, the decision in favor of design is not to be equated with populist formulas. The decisive factor is the policy that steers the formal interpretation process. It is normally impossible to transform complex constructs of ideas into
simplified visual abstracts without damaging them. Ambivalences and controlled ambiguities have to be protected from tautological simplifications. Thus the question of exhibition design comes to a head in a discourse on authorship - despite great efforts to put a limit on this tiresome subject once and for all and to discharge it as romantic ballast. Whose task is it to combine the narrative strains of exhibition presentation? Who is in charge of the reception process? How much curatorial authority can an exhibition lay claim to, whose own "visual editing" has failed?
Negotiations over these territories are still taking place in the back rooms of the art industry. Debates about budgets and fees, about the designation of authorship and the font size employed in rendering such references, take place on an extrinsic level to safeguard as to who may posit claims of sovereignty over the result, should it prove to be a total artwork of Wagnerian proportions. Ego clashes are not exactly uncommon in this situation where curators reign over artists, and unexpectedly encounter designers (and architects). The discourse on exhibition production is often ruined by basic opposition and by the sabotage of differing viewpoints. Since the reception of contemporary art has become more and more contextualized, however, increased curatorial efforts are also being made to enforce the idea of interpretation through design. Museums such as Tate Britain and Tate Modern have set up their own "interpretation" departments, where curators and specialists focus their attention on
the subject of mediation, in order to initiate a dialogue with the - far too often neglected and underestimated - visitors with the aid of formal means. No matter how the structure of commissioned design work is organized, it is obvious that the format of the exhibition lends itself to a further investigation of narrative strategies beyond a purely medial discourse. Verbatim design is a narrative model and should not be underestimated as a mere subtext to the given space or event which assumes the title ‘exhibition'.
(1) Exhibition 100 Artists See God God, ICA London, 2004. (2) Centre Pompidou, 2002. (3) Herbert Bayer: Die Erweiterung des Gesichtsfeldes für die Formatanordnung für Ausstellungen (Extending the field of view for the arrangement of exhibition formats). (4) Exhibition Deutscher Werkbund Werkbund, Paris, 1930. (5) Exhibition Hardcore!, RIBA London, 2002. (6) Exhibition Hardcore!, RIBA London, 2002. (7) Flemish School, ca. 1620, Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures.
Translation from German by Mitch Cohen