Rafael Sámano Roo: The University Museum of Contemporary Art project and the constant self questioning in relation to a museum

Cover of the publication »Contemporary Art and the Museum«

There are several reasons why the idea of what a museum represents should be explored, among which is the fact that it gives meaning to an organization while taking on contemporary needs and participating in a responsible way in the future of culture and particularly of contemporary art within a university framework, as well as the impact the museum has on Mexican society and its international equivalents.

The first public museum originated at the university, but in Mexico the National Autonomous University (UNAM)’s social commitment goes further than taking care of upper education and research. Ever since it was declared autonomous in 1929, its duties have included the promotion of culture and the benefits this provides to society in general.

Since then, the UNAM has become a cultural apparatus that is unique in Latin America and probably in the world. The university has two philharmonic orchestras, a radio station, a television channel, a film archive, the most important concert hall in Latin America and dance, theatre and film forums; it also runs twenty five science and art museums. All this has given the university a major role in the development, promotion and study of artistic production.

There are deeds that evaluate how much the university has represented the culture and art during each moment of Mexican history ever since the university was founded in 1551 and, of special interest for this presentation, during the last fifty years, since the construction of University City in 1952. This is when the most important artists of the time were included in the development of public art projects and these have contributed towards University City being declared a World Heritage Site.

The UNAM has provided spaces for the exhibition of modern and contemporary art; and that is why it is now focusing its efforts on a space planed ex professo from its conception for the exhibition, interpretation, documentation, experimentation, safe keeping and communication of art produced from the foundation of University City to our days.

The plans for the University Museum of Contemporary Art start off with the idea of a museum, but it keeps this concept at a distance. One of the characteristics of our historical moment is the crisis of the so called modern models (regarding their process of development) in which the museum can foresee and control the future through the knowledge and meaning generated by the observation and analysis of the objects and materials that it contains. This leads one to believe that the contents of the museum were already known and worthy of preservation. In this way, very briefly, we can conclude that the modern museum favours the object as its reason for being, and this is followed by a long and profound tradition that makes it a space that legitimizes and gives a hierarchical structure.

This situation amply justifies the importance of the new building which will protect those riches with an architecture that will impose an order and therefore a way of understanding and evaluating its contents.

On the other hand, there is the relevant role that contemporary cultural institutions have taken on as providers and mediators for the development of artistic projects, placing them as determinant factors in the very circuit of public and private artistic production.

This is the case of the new University Museum of Contemporary Art of the UNAM which not only has ambitious programs aimed at the development of exhibition projects, but also has a buying programme for works of art. The systematic structuring since 2004 of a collection of mostly Mexican works of art that have been produced since 1952, when University City was founded, that can be analyzed, studied,  and promoted through a strategic plan that will constantly revise and increase the collection in a reasoned and qualified manner is of fundamental importance for this museum. The international framework, a necessary requirement of contemporary art, will be covered through long term loans from important private collections, which will even buy works of art with the idea of depositing them and bequeathing their administration to the University Museum. In this way the National University takes on this commitment as part of its mandate to extend the benefits of education, research and culture to the whole of society.

However, most of these aspects are carried out when art is exhibited; when the work of art is displayed in any public space, a gallery, a fair, a biennale, an open or closed space and also in a museum. This is particularly true of spaces that are temporarily or permanently occupied and that fulfil their mission as promoters, facilitators and, if possible, they develop other parallel projects which add on to the already well known cultural supply provided for a passive visitor. These spaces strictly carry out their duties regarding the preservation, study, documentation, exhibition and communication of the work of art, of the object.

This way the museum is still “useful for something” (and not necessarily for someone) and this is why in many cases particularly university museums are alternative platforms or consolation for those who aspire to be placed in research centres. They diligently study the objects they guard mainly with the aim of publishing and promoting and within these processes they consider exhibiting and  pay no attention to the discourses and situations that the mise- en-scene tend to focus on; they tend more towards museology centred on the object,  as explained by Peter van Mensch.

The museological project of this University Museum, however, is to necessarily take a step back from the object and from the building and move the centre of attention towards the user who is every individual who makes a decision to relate to the processes involved in the building of meaning.

The University Museum hopes to distance itself from the models that Jose Luis Brea criticises in his article “The Museum as Connectivity Operator” where the exhibition value is the most important as an end in itself, where the spaces must be occupied, where the programming is mainly understood as just a way of offering products and maintaining ones place on the blockbuster cultural circuit making the institution into a prisoner of marketing techniques and of grandiloquent  exhibition demands, based mainly on the exhibition value rather than on content. In Mexico there are spaces that show off the amount of exhibitions they put together rather than their quality and meaning, some even have 70 exhibitions a year. We are within the Vernisage synergy as Yves Michaud mentions when he expresses his thoughts on the ceremony and cult of contemporary art.

The museum or any other cultural institution must take on the obligation of its historical moment and, therefore, the responsibility of what happens and what is generated within its doors, and act as an agent for the construction of knowledge, thus acquiring the obligation to revise its reason for being and the essential objective of its role in society.

This is why the University Museum, other than upholding the vocation of the museum through its collection, the first of its kind in Mexico, also proposes to carry out strategies closer to the conscious production of knowledge in its users, taking into account as its departure point or paradigmatic reference the following aspects:

1. The displacement of the museum’s attention from the object as the essential reason for being (well kept, well exhibited) to the user as focal point, without whom nothing makes sense. The University Museum’s project is based on curatorial proposals that favour the production of presence, as opposed to the production of meaning, as set forth by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht  in his book Production of Presence what Meaning cannot Convey. The project also includes educational actions or mediations founded on the precepts of constructionism and on the relevance of socialization and community work.

2. Plurality as a condition for contemporary life, distancing itself from the Unity-Totality situation that prevailed in the metaphysical dream. Diego Bermejo in his book: Post modernity: Plurality and Trans versality, states that: “plurality is reality, plurality is also unity,”  as well as the epistemology of complexity that postulates the logic of many contexts and of rhizomorphic structures, the communicational reflective process and, lastly, the admission of complexity in a systematic construction process.

3. The repercussions of the linguistic turnabout and the consideration of the text made up of units of readings that can be presented as images or sounds, and of the concept of hypertext, which proposes a strategy to organize textual fragments informally and intuitively.

4. The reading and construction of meaning that come about when confronted with the outside media departing from the conscious or unconscious personal history. The ideas related to distracted perception discussed by Walter Benjamin and their tendency to grasp the stable element should also be considered. The diverging thoughts inherent to the multiplying possibility of viewpoints expressed by Deleuze and  Guattari in the Rhizoma Theorem; as well as the concept of appearance and wrapping set forth by Badiou in his essay on the transcendental regime, where he states that: “appearance as that part of a being as such, is retained as long as it is captured in a set network of relationships (one world), and as long as one can say that this being more or less different from another being that belongs to the same situation (to the same world). We will define the transcendental regime as the operational ensemble that allows us to give sense of the identities and differences in a determined world”  .  With this Badiou observes the transcendental subject that unites its objects with experience…this leads us to also think about the construction processes of reality within the displacement in space.

5. The concept of spacing proposed by Jacques Derrida, particularly in his 
essay  “The Theatre of Cruelty,”   proposes the possibility of an exhibition being able to become a mirror image of itself as well as moving away from being subjected to grand ideas and overcoming a condition which is even minor to the illustration of texts.

With the clear intention of eliminating any hierarchical structure, the new museum takes on multiplicity as its main guide and therefore as an open experience, not only because it supposes that the cognitive processes that are raised by this experience are continued beyond its physical limits, but also as a way of suggesting that the user take on a critical position and thus be able to analyse and recognise, through a dismantling of the provided discourses, the cognitive structures proposed by the discourses of the museum. For this to take place the independence and simultaneousness of the exhibitions is necessary so as to give rise to the reconsideration of signifiers. 

The University Museum views curating as something more than the construction of lineal discourses, it takes off from the idea of displacement and it defines curation as the relationship between node and flow that is represented by the notion of curatorial units, that is conceptual nucleuses that cross each other and that at the crossing produce new fluctuations and discourse universes.

About the Deleuzian concept of multiplicity, more than subjecting ourselves to predisposed spaces such as those that are prepared for specific functions (video hall, multimedia room, etc) special modes of occupation are raised, working on the framework of actions that seek to create problems around different aspects of contemporary art, visual culture, and the university activities and hopes. Starting with:

Conceptual selection of the contemporary art collection of the University Museum
A thesis that deals with a problem or point of view of contemporary art
Exhibition proposals, developed within the UNAM, that part from an interdisciplinary and qualified academic paper
Method that generates a network of multiple conceptual relationships
Specific site
Presentation of a work of art produced ex professo by an individual artist or collectively
Materials that refer to the conceptual approach and/or to the artistic content of some of the exhibitions
Artistic intervention
Presentation of a work of art produced ex professo by an individual artist or a collective effort that interacts with the Museum’s architecture

The work process for the design of the exhibition programme was brought about through a curatorial seminar among members of the area of public programmes, advisors, and the curator of the collection, all of whom belong to the Visual Arts Management on which the University Museum depends. External curators were also involved in the definition and conceptualization of the museum. This study referred to the point of view of a selection of readings on the collection in order to propose the points of escape and tension among the other curatorial “plateaus” and with mental interconnection and sensitivity created something new, starting with an experiment and encouraging the production of an event.

The museum for us is not a space but a spreading out, that is, a site for possibilities, juxtapositions and simultaneities in movement that activate temporality as an aesthetic experience. Parting from this the University Museum proposes a curatorial model that begins with the relationship between the unit, subtraction and differentiation, it refers to the interrelationship between actions, objects, documents, media and public practices (outside the museum) that shape the displacement and complexity of the artistic discourses regarding a device that eases the interaction between the production of experience and the building up of meaning.

In order to avoid foreshadowing in the visit-use-construction of the museum, the criteria for the occupation of spaces is temporary, displacements are proposed from the starting point, and any of the projected spaces that live up to the typology of the curatorial proposition may be used indiscriminately and periodically. In this way the new Museum of Contemporary Art takes on its situation and rhizomatic quality within the interpretive process (hermeneutics) of its users about the surrounding manifestations so that the user builds his own reality within a process of social interaction (constructionism).

This is how the University Museum of Contemporary Art is a space for the crossroads of the construction of knowledge and reflection, where other junctions are generated parting from contemporary art and visual culture in a game of convergences and divergences because the museum is seen as an open, unfinished structure.

(1) Production of presence: events and processes in which the impact of the present objects on the human body is intensified or initiated; production of signifier: if we have an idea about what something can be in relation to us, we inevitably seem to tone down the impact that that thing can have on our bodies and senses.

(2) Bermejo coins the concept of radical plurality, meaning that “plurality conceived from heterogeneity and from connectivity, not from absolute heterogeneity nor from absolute unity. And it is precisely the recognition of transitional and overlapping moments between different things that converts the extreme heterogeneous plurality into internal radical plurality, that is, it internalises the principle of plurality within each paradigm, opening it up to the recognition of the other and to the other within oneself – without reducing one or the other but in the form and measure that comes up” p.5

(3) I took this version from a Spanish translation of the book by Meter Hallward Badiou: A Subject to Truth: See the section from “La conjunción de dos aparecientes en un mundo” forward.

(4) “ We can count on basing theatre mainly on the spectacle and within the spectacle we will introduce a new idea of space by using all the possible planes and all the different grades of perspective in depth and heigh, adding a particular notion of time with that of movement” (Artaud).

We can understand the exhibition as a mise-en-scene and in that way similar to Artaud’s perspective of the theatre. New Museology has claimed that the exercise of museology involves a certain responsibility with all that it involves, but the comments of Enric Franch on museology and critical museography have not been touched. And I ask myself if that critical position even in a superficial way is not equal to that vision of the theatre as a way of life and its specific conditions that can well be shared with one of the main functions of the museum and the most controversial: that of exhibiting. In the same way as the theatre that Artaud talks about and that Derrida thinks about, from which comes the concept of spacing, the new museum will always place the user in the centre, “in the middle, while the spectacle surrounds him,” where “the distance of gaze is no longer pure, where it can no longer ignore the totality of sensitive media: the spectator (user), once empowered, cannot become the spectacle and behold it as an object. There is no spectator and no spectacle, there is a festivity.”

Last update: 07-11-2007 11:54