Location: Institute of Contemporary Art Boston / Materials: Vinyl Letters / Year: 2015
In 2015, I became a Visitor's Assistant at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. It was an opportunity to observe a location which I had experienced as visitor, tourist, and museum vandal. I became part of the museum's infrastructure. I was one of the invisible people who helped coordinate the visitors’ experience. While I considered this position a source of income, I used it to penetrate the unseen factions of the museums infrastructure. My previously constructed irritants were superficial critiques. They were aimed at the act of invisible exclusions, but they didn't truly question the normalized networks of the museum experience.
I decided to undertake a more profound invasion then my previous museum excursions. One that was based on a carefully orchestrated study. The subjects of this pseudo-ethnographic study were my own perceptions of my world view. As I was working directly within these networks, I underwent the rigorous process of acquiring the skilled vision of the museum's most visible employee.
I focused my research, critique, and subsequent actions on"Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933 - 1957" (2015). The exhibition was one of the largest ever held at the ICA/Boston. For this reason, they hired several special exhibition employees, myself included. While extremely innovative in its presentation, the exhibition focused on an area of history that was normally outside the temporal spectrum of contemporary art museums: the modernist foundation of the contemporary.
Surprisingly, while the museum centered the exhibition around the artwork made by the professors and students at an extremely progressive liberal arts college, it silenced the political context in which the artwork was created. As a Visitor Assistant, I was trained to recite the college’s history. I was supposed to tell a censured version of an experimental fusion of collaboration, education and social structures.
The task I undertook was to re-politicize a history that had been reduced to the shapes and colors of an out of context abstract expressionism. The museums narrative fluctuated, as it avoided any references to the political leanings of the college students and professors. When describing how BMC finally closed, they portrayed a quasi-romantic process of inevitable decay. No historical process is that tidy, no story ends so elegantly.
I conducted my own investigation into the matter, and I came across an FBI document, detailing their investigation of BMC. According to a letter written to the director of the FBI, the "Veteran Administration officials have taken steps which have resulted in the school's approval by the State Board of Education of North Carolina being withdrawn, thus cutting off subsistence of veterans" (FBI 1956:2).
A number of World War II veterans went to BMC, and their GI bills were one of the last lines of cash keeping the school afloat. According to the FBI, BMC was a very "unusual type of school, for example, the student may do nothing for the entire day and in the middle of the night, may decide that he wants to write or paint [...]" (FBI 1956:2). By referencing that the school was "unusual" the FBI agents were essentially telling J. Edgar Hoover that BMC was deviating from the acceptable norm.
To the agents, the school probably appeared to be the breeding ground for Communism. None of this was mentioned in the entirety of the museum exhibition. It had in fact been removed from all the literature about Black Mountain College. This could have been an act of negligence from the part of the curators, but in excluding any reference to the Red Scare, the ICA/Boston had essentially rewritten history.
To irritate the hole ridden history, I decided to modify the exhibition’s timeline. During my last shift at the museum, I wrote the words “commie art” in vinyl lettering. I used the same letters that were employed throughout the museum, and I stuck them in a place that wasn't in view of the cameras. At first, I thought my act would go unseen. This was the case until a fellow Visitor Assistant spotted the letters.
Multiple Visitor Assistants, Gallery Operator's, Visitor Experience Supervisors, Curators and Security Officer's flocked to the scene. For a reason I can't completely fathom, I was never a target of suspicion. I later discovered from my fellow museum employees, that my words were being considered an act of "vandalism," of mindless "graffiti."
Even though the words were probably immediately removed, they had served their desired purpose. The networks that structured the museum had been jarred, irritated. The museum space, had suddenly acquired a political edge. My primary achievement, was that my action wasn't considered art, for it didn't fit in to the unified corpus of the Museum’s border walls.