By Nicholas Thoburn (University of Manchester)
At the first of our ‘activist objects’ workshops I presented not an object but a concept: the ‘communist object’. I described this as articulating an anticommodity fetishism, a fetishism against the commodity. But I will take a little license in documenting that presentation, and display here one of the artifacts that sparked and informed my research on communist objects. This is an artifact arisen of a conflictual encounter between Tate Modern and Infopool – institutions both, but of very different magnitude and political orientation. It is an opportunity also for me to offer some preparatory input on the ‘curating’ theme of the second activist objects workshop, as we shift hosts from the ‘three-dimensional imperial archive’ of the Victoria and Albert Museum to MayDay Rooms, with its project of ‘socialising the archive’ (1).
Established in 2000 (-2009) by Jakob Jakobsen, Infopool unfurled on the mobile ground of a series of low-tech, self-published pamphlets. In response to the appropriation of some of these pamphlets by the Tate Modern, who took them for curated display in the 2001 Century City exhibition, Infopool formulated an exquisite reflection on the politics of pamphlets and institutions. In a text called ‘Operation Re-appropriation’ Infopool describe these pamphlets as ‘self-institutional’ entities, entities ‘concerned with developing their own contexts’ (2). Such fledgling self-institution is infused with ‘vulnerability’, for without formal institutional structures or rights protection the pamphlets extend only a ‘contract of “trust”’ concerning sensitivity toward content and aim in an ‘unprotected offer of communication’. This may look like a weakness, but it is in fact a signal feature of the self-institutional object. Since, in contrast to instances of political expression that are the products and bearers of institutional norms and regularities, this vulnerability affirms the pamphlet’s emergent or eventual quality, its existence only in the undetermined, exploratory, and intimate ‘institutions’ that are articulated, or held, in its encounters. It is hence no contradiction to say, as Jakobsen has it, that ‘the vulnerability of the pamphlet is also its power’ (3).
Most likely, it was something of this self-institutional quality that appealed to the curators of the Century City exhibition, when they chose, without notification or consultation, to bind together three Infopool pamphlets in newly fortified covers, doctor the cover text, and display the artifact threaded on a presentation wire. As Infopool saw it, the museum’s interest in these pamphlets was exemplary of the ‘valorisation of socialisation’ – the commodification of social relations that seek to escape the commodity – that is common to contemporary cultural institutions, as they cast around for content and legitimacy. In the Tate’s case, it shows the inability of the institution to understand and handle the very qualities that had caught the curators’ attention in the first place. For, in its new guise, the pamphlet’s values of tentative and emergent self-institution were converted, with proprietorial disregard, into exhibition value; the value, as Boris Arvatov has it, of ‘murdered objects,’ ‘hidden under glass’ (4). The only adequate response was for Infopool to liberate the artifact, documenting their intervention with a damming critique of the museum’s blunt and clumsy action:
‘On display in a new hardback cover and threaded through with wire (the new vitrine) the pamphlets take on an aura that undermines both their form and content. They are no longer able to be passed on, given as gifts, and circulated to friends and fellow travelers i.e. to be self-institutional. In short the pamphlets have been commodified beyond their informal and nominal £1.00 price. The generator of value that is the Tate Modern has allotted them an immaterial cultural value (prestige, distinction) in exchange for the appearance of the value of their autonomy. … We picked the pamphlets up on Friday February 9th. To negotiate their exit would have taken too long.’
1. Tim Barringer, ‘The South Kensington Museum and the Colonial Project’, in Tim Barringer and Tom Flynn, Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum (London: Routledge 1998), 11.
2. Infopool, ‘Operation Re-appropriation: Infopool @ Tate Modern, 9.2.2001’, http://www.infopool.org.uk/tate/htm. All Infopool citations are from this source.
3. Jakob Jakobsen, author interview.
4. Boris Arvatov, cited in Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT, 2005), 68.