‘We’re Testing the Limits!’: At a Freewheeling Swiss Institute Event, Artists, Critics, and Curators Create an ‘Anti-Museum’

From the left, Kenneth Goldsmith, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and Ben Morea.


“It’s the anti-museum! We’re testing the limits!” the London-based curator Mathieu Copeland told a crowd at the Swiss Institute in New York last week as he set up a Skype call with the Argentine artist Graciela Carnevale. She was supposed to discuss her 1968 piece Accion del Encierro (Confinement Action), a happening wherein she brought together a group of people in a gallery in Rosario, Argentina, covered the windowed door with posters, locked them inside, and left. Viewers were able to leave, but only after they ripped away the posters and broke through the glass. It turned out that Copeland’s own limits were about to be tested by technology, which refused to cooperate. Carnevale began talking, but her internet connection cut out shortly thereafter. So much for that.

You would be forgiven for thinking this communications breakdown was some form of institutional critique, especially since the two-night event Copeland was hosting was a two-day symposium based on his recent book The Anti-Museum, a 777-page tome about exhibitions and spaces that have been shut down as artistic statements. Its guiding question is, to quote Copeland from later in the evening: “What is there to show when nothing is shown?”

A performance by the veteran avant-garde musician Henry Flynt proceeded more smoothly. Flynt came to the front of the room, silently picked up an electric violin, and set up his music stand with his back facing the audience. Strewn about the room were blown-up pamphlets about Communism and signs reading “BURN ART,” and “DEMOLISH SERIOUS CULTURE”; on each seat was a flyer that laid out the “REQUIREMENTS FOR HIGHER CIVILIZATION.” The first requirement: “There are no nations.” Though he had set up sheet music, he seemed to be improvising several different riffs that felt familiar but garbled, still keeping his back to the audience. He followed it up with a talk about Walter De Maria, Robert Rauschenberg, and other avant-garde figures.

On the second evening of the symposium, scholar Reiko Tomii dished out art-history lessons with a lecture on Hi-Red Center, the venturesome Japanese art collective that was active in the 1960s. Their most famous work is Great Panorama Exhibition (aka Closing Event), 1964, in which its three members sealed off Tokyo’s Naiqua Gallery from public entry, effectively proposing that the world around the gallery was the artwork, rather than what existed inside its white-cube space. “The museum emerges wherever one conducts an act of art making,” Tomii explained, suggesting that art can exist wherever an artist says it does. She later added, rather mysteriously, “Venue/anti-venue in art is directly related to matter/anti-matter in particle physics.”

Robert Barry, the famed Conceptualist, then joined Tomii on stage. “When I was a young artist, I was negatively exposed to the gallery art system,” he said with a smile. “But then I met some gallerists who were very nice and generous that wanted to show my work.” One early break, in 1968, was being included in “Xerox Book,” an exhibition that Seth Siegelaub organized in the form of a book. And that same year, for Paula Cooper’s first show at her SoHo gallery, which was a benefit to end the Vietnam War, Barry created an installation made of clear string, hung in the front window of her Prince Street location, that was completely invisible unless the light hit it perfectly.

“If you don’t know it’s there, you may not see it. But once you know it’s there, I think it looks really great, especially when the light comes in and you catch that glint of light, and you realize what’s going on,” Barry said. (Some may recall that he recreated the work in 2015 for a show called “Xerox Book” at one of Cooper’s Chelsea galleries.)

Things took a radical turn in the second half of that second evening. Anarchist Ben Morea ascended the stage wearing a leather jacket, leather pants, and a dark cowboy hat, and was introduced by Copeland first as a “former drug addict,” then as the founder of the 1960s radical group Up Against the Wall Motherfucker. He was joined by poet Kenneth Goldsmith, the founder of the online art archive Ubuweb, and the notorious Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who started such bands as Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, and who is also the performance artist and occultist behind the collective Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. None of them are exactly keen on institutions. Morea summed up his attitude by quoting from Black Mask, a collection of anarchist newspapers he helped put out under that name: “Destroy the museums, then let the struggle begin.”

Goldsmith began by talking about Adrian Piper’s 1970s performances, which sometimes involved the artist going out into New York and enacting various personas. One involved visiting a supermarket and yelling—a prime example, he said, of the anti-museum spirit. Breyer P-Orridge, who prefers the pronouns “s/he” and “h/er,” would pull off similar stunts in the early days of h/er career, assuming different identities through costume and performance on the streets of Shrewsbury, England. “It wasn’t performance art—I was just really bored,” s/he explained. “We just had no money, we were living in a squat.” (The “we” s/he refers to is s/her avant-garde musical group COUM Transmissions, a predecessor of Throbbing Gristle.) It wasn’t until a man from a local gallery approached h/er at a show and offered to pay them for their performance art that they decided to identify it as such. “Up until then, we didn’t have any idea it was art,” P-Orridge. “It was just what we did.”

Morea also channeled that freewheeling spirit when talking about his early activism, which involved, among other activities, publicly defending Valerie Solanas after she shot Andy Warhol in 1968. (While not going into that episode, he did admit to feeling glad that Warhol is no longer creating work, and lamented that the art he helped inspire seems to be getting worse. “That was one thing,” he said of Pop art in the ’60s. “Now you’ve got artists like Jeff Koons making balloon dogs for millions of dollars while half the world is starving.”) It was only a matter of time before Morea turned to today’s political moment. “I believe that Trump is a result of the loss of art, the loss of the soul of our country,” he said, noting the hyper-commercialized world we live in now and the way in which Pop art anticipated it.

“In the Trump era, nothing seems to matter,” Goldsmith said. “He seems to suck up all the oxygen. It feels like a different time when the art could actually count as a gesture. Now everything seems diminished, simply because of the mechanism of the time.”

Breyer P-Orridge agreed. “If everyone were to smash their phones,” s/he said, “then maybe something might really happen.”

One audience member wanted to know: Did Morea really mean it when he called for the destruction of New York’s Whitney Museum in Black Mask in the 1960s. Yes, he said, and then he turned to Breyer P-Orridge to see if s/he had anything to add. The artist responded: “I’ve never been to the fucking Whitney.”

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