The Virtual Feminist Museum - Griselda Pollock

The Virtual Feminist Museum

Paper presented by Professor Griselda Pollock at

Connecting the Dots: Virtuality, Technology and Feminism in the Museum

Smithsonian, Washington, DC

23 September 2011

I am very concerned about age. Not my own age, but my position in historical time, from which I view the radically changing circumstances of the present with an increasing sense of being overwhelmed by new challenges of the condition Zygmunt Bauman names liquid modernity or liquid times: the age of uncertainty. The very concept of era or age is thus destabilized by a sociological condition of impelled modernization read changefulness for its own sake: we no longer have a telos or sense of direction. We are impelled to react to transformations whose implications are at once wonderful and problematic. How do we ground judgement of any kind in this situation: political, aesthetic, social, ethical?

Our moment is a changing one because of the enormous and ever changing impact of digitalization of communication and information systems. Or are such systems themselves symptomatic of certain ways in which capital and labour congeal in the endless pursuit of profit without primary concern for the nature of the humanity and its lifeworlds through which this endpoint– maximized and selectively enjoyed profit–will be realized?

I am not convinced that what we are experiencing is all that fundamentally new: for the history of human technological interface is long and extensive in itself to the point that the use of any tool is perhaps definitive of the great leap into humanness. Clearly communicative tools such as language, and then the printed word, made a massive difference to the kinds of humanity although non literate cultures are culturally as rich if less distributed. Clearly representational tools such as image making and then reproductions of images have also made a vast if less fully theorized difference: Warburg and I will come back to that. Reproduction rendered the image distributable in novel ways, notably mechanical reproduction. But now we are in an era of a different relation to the production and the distribution of the image and the message, unmoored from its material origin and singularity in ways that were adumbrated already by Walter Benjamin. Benjamin immediately foresaw a politics of this new distribution: the uses of the mechanical reproduced image in constituting new collectivities and their sense of themselves while its former auratic quality could be utilized by fascism. Aura and commodification still remain inextricably interlinked as does the politics of the image and the message in relatin to notions of public space and collective self-reflections and the abolition of public sphere by commodifed privacy that masquerades as expanding inclusion. Hence I ground my intervention on a desperate quest for the grounds for political vision that identify with the word feminism even while I argue feminism is still to come: remember Spivak’s double force: work against sexism and work for feminism: the two not being identical: the difference between the oppositional and the critical-creative.

It is thirty years since Rozsika Parker and I first published the book that had emerged out of the Women’s Art History Collective, itself founded in 1973 Tragically Rosie did not live to share in the 30th anniversary republication that is forthcoming and as an act of memorial, I am dedicating every lecture this year to Rozsika Parker who was my partner in crimes against patriarchal art history. Over the years I have worked with several concepts in continuing to explore the nature of feminist intervention in art’s histories and the current one is the virtual feminist museum. This is not a cybernetic, on line museum, mimicking the existing institutional spaces and operations through digital imagery. The virtuality is philosophical and virtual qualifies feminism rather than the museum, which was born alongside photomechanical reproduction and in a sense the forms of public institution that accompanied the emergence of democracy as a political dream and experimental form. The museum as public space is something I discuss in Museums after Modernism.

In 2000 I was invited to participate in one of the first conferences organized by the Clark Art Institute on the Two Art Histories. I spoke in response to seeing the then recent exhibition in Chicago and Boston dedicated to Mary Cassatt, one of my long term research topics contrasting the watered-down, banalized versions of social and feminist histories of art that the exhibition offered to its publics with the analyses of impressionism with and without its women founders explored in feminist art histories. I even proposed my version of an exhibition that might alter the current terms of allowing a minor American Impressionist Old Mistress her day of glory without having to shift anything else in the museum narrative or the public’s understanding of cultural history. For a moment the challenge was thrown out to a number of influential museum directors in the audience and I knew that if nothing happened in a week, I would have to continue to elaborate this imaginary exhibitions in the virtual feminist museum.

Why exhibitions? Why even play the museum game at all? There are four headings I wish to briefly throw up for our discussion that arose out of this project: In the time allocated I can only sketch out some brief thoughts:

Time and the Image:

The Specator and the Public

The Human and Technological Imaginary

The Contest for Cultural Memory

Time and the Image:

Anyone familiar with my work will know of the continuing fun I have with this famous cover by A H Barr for his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936 at NY MoMA.

This represents a brilliant application of later 19th century German theoretical art historical categorization to what had seemed to contemporaries to be the end of art: a chaotic cacophony of dissident and diverse coteries each intent on the destruction of art as it had been known, produced, policed and musealized. In many cases, such as Pissarro’s the artists called for the destruction of the museum to allow for the unfathered birth of the infinitely new, failing of course to grasp the fundamental dialectic between the modern and the museum. Barr’s systematic evolutionary model plotted otherwise chaotic artistic events into a chronological grid that could in turn be translated into an architecture, and its spatial choreography and indeed into a library whose cataloguing of art maintains the basics Barr imposed on modernism: period, style, oeuvre, master. All this is familiar. I recognized the nature of my critique of this model most clearly when I contrasted Barr’s cover with a screen from Aby Warburg’s incomplete Mnemosyne BilderAtlas created between 1926 and 1929 as the visual demonstration of his theory of the image and its Nachleben: persistence return, afterlife. Warburg detested what he called aestheticizing art history, the very kind that would become hegemonic in university and museum. He interrogated the archives for what he at one point called a psychological history of the image: the image functioning as a mediating point between archaic origins of art in acts, gestures, rituals generated out of intensities of passion fear, anxiety, rage, desire and so forth when puny human beings faced unknown forces in a desperate struggle for life and death, and, on the other hand, cultural practices that operated symbolically, with signs and images. This polarization somewhat akin to Freud’s vision of the human subject itself, is not about archetypes but confronting that for which we as conscious beings must become accountable given recognition of either the unconscioius in Freud’s terms or the stored passions that can at any time erupt in the real. Studying the history of art by means of tracking the persistence, recurrence and translations of affect and emotion into cultural forms that create a thinking space for recognition of the psychic dynamics of cultural forms and not a delusional idealization was fundamental to saving lives..from real violence. Feminists such as Sigrid Schade and Margaret Iverson have since the 70s and 90s turned to Warburg’s work as potential feminist resource: Schade studied violence against women in Renaissance witch-hunting.

Warburg’s project was not possible without photography, used not for identification and connoisseurial purposes but as a means to place side by side in exhibitionary formats image traces across which to track the movement of thought and passion and the oscillations within culture. His final plate travels from Raphael’s Mass as Bolsena trhough to contemporary photomontages from illustrated magazines, news images from Italy and Japan. I do not have time to elucidate the argument, but it is one that happens only when you work on the image as mnemonic cultural text.

The VFM permits itself a similar logic concerned not with the pathos of life and eath alone but tracking the structures and logics encoded and thought through the image of sexual, racialized and other forms of difference.

The Spectator and the Public

Recently theorists have revised or rather expanded our understanding of the nature of spectatorship. Jacques Rancière has written of the emancipated spectator, and Laura Mulvey the pensive spectator. How do these reconfigurations of viewing positions in art and cinema impact on both theorizations of the museum experience and practices involving new media in its potential democratization?

This question is intimately related to the manner in which feminism, postulated as virtual, that is still becoming, and still to come, deferred and hence the creative space of difference without essence or identity, qualifies the project of democratization or emancipation. 

As many will recall Rancière’s essay on The Emancipated Spectator, first published in 2007 in Art Froum draws into his own autobiographical reflections on the workerist and Atlhusserian vanguardist positions of Marxism a historical archive that interrupts and redirects his thinking about emancipatory knowledge. The key story concerns his discovery of letters by workers who far from devoting time to raising their own consciousnesses about the struggle participate in utopian experiments and in contemplative and aesthetic leisure activities. This archive is linked with a more philosophical analysis of models of knowledge and models of theatre, which relate to any art activity that involves theorizing the participant spectator. He points up the contrast between the disowned notions of passive spectators entranced before manipulative ideological spectacle, and Brechtian or Artaudian attempts to render the viewer critical or an active participant: current relational aesthetics are recyclings of modernist experiments. The theatre is allegorical or the museum or the schoolroom: and both when we have education departments in the former.

 The model of knowledge Rancière identifies, in order to displace it, is one that sets up knowledge in opposition to ignorance. This posits the school master whose knowledge is organized, ordered and hence deemed to constitute a knowledge that can or must be transmitted to the ignoramus who does not know anything. This model he names stultifying because it is based on the premise of an inequality of intelligence and intellect. This model involves positions and unidirectional transmission. Ranciere contrasts this with emancipatory practice which dissociates cause and effect. From the school master the pupil learns something the school master does not know himself. She learns it as an effect of the mastery that forces her to search and verifies this research. But she does not learn the schoolmaster’s knowledge. 14. Ranciere is basing this on the notion that the person without education is not without knowledge or the means to gather things together to form knowledge as this is a fundamental activity. Intellectual emancipation is the verification of the equality of intelligence. Based on ‘ 

The poetical labour of translation is at the hear of all learning. It is at the heart of the emancipatory practice of the ignorant schoolmaster. What he does not known is the stultifying distance, distance transformed into a radical gulf that can only be bridged by an expert. Distance is not an evil to be abolished but the normal condition of communication.

The distance the ignoramus must cover is not the gulf between her ignorance and the schoolmaster’s knowledge. It is simply the path from what she already knowns to what she does not yet know, but which she can learn just as she has learnt the rest; which she can learn not to occupy the posiion of the scholar, but better to practise the art of translating, of putting her experience into words and her words to the test, of translating her intellectual adventures for others and counter-translating the translations of their own adventures which they present to her. 

The ignorant schoolmaster assists this adventure by renouncing the knowledge of ignorance and uncoupling mastery from knowledge.

The distance the ignoramus has to cover is not the gulf between her ignorance and the schoolmaster’s knowledge. It is simply the path from what she already knows to what she does not yet know, but which she can learn just as she has learnt the rest; which she can learn not in order to occupy the position of the scholar, but so as better to practise the art of translating, or putting her experience into words and her words to the test: of translating her intellectual adventures for other and counter-translating the translations of their own adventures which they represent to her. The ignorant schoolmaster who can help her along this path is named thus not because he knows nothing, but because he has renounced the ‘knowledge of ignorance and thereby uncoupled his mastery from knowledge. 10-11

‘He orders his pupils to venture into the forest of things and signs, to have them say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified.’

The emancipated spectator is one producing knowledge within a community but not by being forced into a false dichotomy of passive consumption versus activity: for there is nothing passive about certain kinds of looking, forms of attention and reflection, acquired intimacies and understandings that touch on the Denkraum: the thinking space Warburg himself identified.

Mulvey’s pensive spectator is the product of digitalization of the cinematic experience that now places the once spectacular site of the classic theorization of the spectator sutured into ideologically ordered narrative in a relation of pensive exploration of the making and affectivity of the image. The pause button that can be used on video and digitalized video purchasable films places the spectator in relation of potential knowledge that is not disabused and disenchanted but again deepened understanding of the cinematic as a the production of the image as site of knowledge experience, pleasure and ideological inscription.

The Human and Technological Imaginary

 You may by now realize that we are in the library and the discussion space of the VFM. I now invite Hannah Arendt to contribute to the discussions. When seeking to overcome my terror before the task of writing an introduction to the collection Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image 2010, because I felt myself inadequate to such an immense task in this proliferating field, I fell upon Arendt’s opening to her book the Human Condition, the follow on from The Origins of Totalitarianism: the Human Condition ahs to be fundamentally reconstructed after Auschwitz that represented both the industrialization of mass, racially targeted killing on a scale that exploded all existing justice and concepts of crime and the experimental laboratory for the destruction of humanness of humanity in the application of total power in which humans qua humans become superfluous.

In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies–the sun, the moon, the stars…The event, second in importance to no other, not even the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy had it not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which filled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth towards the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the “first step toward escape from men’s imprisonment on earth.”[i]

Seemingly far removed from a contemporary discussion about virtuality and the image in the digital age, Hannah Arendt’s opening paragraph to her political reflection on The Human Condition, published in 1958, identifies a still pertinent, and paradoxical, relation between the ‘human condition’ and the technologies humans have created as evidence of their ingenuity. Such technologies have been typically compromised by politically specific, and often military, circumstances of development, while often leading to uses beyond their troubling genesis. The Internet was itself propelled, although not initiated, by military research during the 1960s in the search for a resilient, distributed computer network; but this did not prevent its later transformation into a commercialized social technology fundamental to our current communication systems and expanding forms of social networking.

As importantly for our study, Arendt identifies cultural fantasies blossoming around technological advances. In media and military responses to the first satellite’s space-circumnavigation of the globe, Arendt overheard fantasies of transcendence of what she would define in her book as the earth-bound conditions for humanity. Such fantasies lead to the misrecognition of the relations between embodied and grounded, yet inventive and masterful, human life and the varied and ever-expanding technologies we produce. In Lacanian-Althusserian terms, Arendt discerned a technological Imaginary, in which the technological products of socially determined human hands and minds are imagined, and then related to, as a means of delivering us precisely from the defining limit(ation)s of ‘the human condition’.[ii] Reminiscent of Marx’s nineteenth century diagnosis of capitalism’s propensity towards the fetishism of the commodity, we repeatedly find the products of social human labour–in this case stored labour in the form of technologies–being endowed, through the inverted mystification of the real relations of their production, with power over the very humans of whose minds and hands they are a product.[iii] What Arendt notes after the launch of Sputnik in 1957 as a dream of technologically delivered escape from imprisonment on earth–the great space fantasy–has not been realized, although it persists imaginatively in science fiction. Is it possible that we are now witnessing another fantasy of technological transcendence that has accompanied the age of cyber-virtuality? What can we make, philosophically and politically, of the later twentieth century technological events that have generated the current critical debates about information, communication, representation and fabrication, attached to which are fantasies of transcendence through bodiless ‘travel’, virtual identities and realities, breaching time and space, and of the claims for the radical novelty of a new age that is spawning both utopian and dystopian fantasies?

Arendt’s first husband, Gunter Stern, known later as Gunter anders, became a philosophical anthropologist of technology. He argued that we have the means of inventing technologies but we do not have the imagination that will teach us when not to use them. The atom bomb is the prime example. Thus the uncritical embrace of any technology is suspect since it is often fuelled by unacknowledged fantasies of masteries we must not seek to enforce, but rather thoughtfully contain and redirect towards clearly agreed human-consolidating aims: we have to consolidate humanity since we are capable of its violent or seeping destruction.

For old school cultural analysts like myself, the fantasy bubble of the new new can always be pricked by a tired reference to an existing formulation or analysis, notably from the classic era of modernity. If TJ Clark in his last melancholic farewell to modernism proposed that modernity is now our antiquity, and if Documenta 12 curators Ruth Noack and Roger Buergel could recycle this concept in their exhibition format, are we instead to sense a rupture rather than continuity in terms of the work of art in the era of digital disseminability rather than the work of art in the age of mechanical reproducibility. My feminist concern is this: what is human condition or the conditions for humanity in the digital age – an accelerated and extended version of the modern-industrial with its own forms of tele-transport or a distinctive and revolutionary shift whose contours we do not yet have all the means to analyse? What forms of fake intimacy does social networking and other forms of connection produce? What new communities does it sustain? Does participating in Wikis and other networks have public impact or impact on the the sphere of the public or doe they create self-referential ghettoes. Can the museum at once become suspeptible to private forms of knowledge and use while also holding out against total privatization of mediated experience the space or dream of a different moment of public space and public identity. Arendt’s Human Condition is all about the relations of private and public, labour, work and action, about the possibility of the political as distinct from the economic and the social.

The Contest for Cultural Memory

Why does the VFM’s intellectual department engage with Rancière, or Arendt or Warburg? Where is the feminism in all of this? The danger I see now is that a subtle form of feministicide if I can coin such a phrase seems at work and we are participating. Feminism was declared dead and done for in the 1990s; but to our surprise it was resurrected by the museum in the first decade of this century through a plethora of exhibitions. Is it that it took 40 years for the museums around which women once stomped chanting equality in exhibitions to admit feminism? Does it mean, as Boris Groys argues, that only dead art gets into the museum or that by being in the museum it is logically dead since the new is defined against what is in the museum even while the museum decides the ultimate significance of which amongst the many new things is the new that will ultimately take its place in the museum, the guardian of cultural memory.

Thus if something call feminism gets into the museum, it will need considerable critical work to evaluate the varying strategies and their effects. Without the museum, the public has no chance to come to know of or to know for themselves in either stultifying or emancipatory modes. But by virtue of musealization according to established Barrian categories or their iconographical, thematic alternative, feminism in art is represented as a localized movement in time, or an iconographic tendency severed from its complex relations with conceptualism, minimalism, the photographic, cinematic, performative turns. While undoubtedly acting as a major force in cultural transformation and contestation of cultural memory, feminism has been introduced the museum in ways that render its critical purchase on that space muted or even effaced.

The VFM is a critical strategy, possible within the context of books and presentations facilitated b powerpoints. The books bankrupt me with the cost of illustrations as I have to populate each gallery/chapter with many images and many viewpoints presenting my own argument and leaving space for other trajectories and encounters.

Spinoza taught us that we do not master the world through the application of an independent rationality. We are shocked into thought by the encounter with the world, its times, its matters, its capacity of affect us. Drawing from that now Deleuzian trend in contemporary thought and Bracha Ettinger’s specifically feminist and psychoanalytical parallel exploration of the notion of the encounter-event and its transformative and affective potential, the VFM is poised uncomfortably between a physical virtuality the actual museum imposes on feminist work and the philosophical virtuality; that which we do not yet know and is still becoming which it must embrace as part of the struggle for emancipatory knowledge. Rosie Parker taught me that art can be deeply about things that matter profoundly to us in our lives. I continue to struggle to imagine that which Nancy proctor as a precious and brilliant graduate student placed firmly on the table for long term consideration: how to create a feminist space not a space for shelving feminism, but one where its effects resonate and transform.

I hope these brief remarks on my work in and in the VFM and its thinking resources for the moment contribute to the space we are creating here to day for the continuation of this question.

[i] Hannah Arendt, ‘Prologue’, The Human Condition [1958], (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 1.

[ii] Louis Althusser famously adapted Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical reconceptualization of the Sartrean Imaginary (the study of the imaginative faculty as the site of human creativity and freedom) as one of three registers of subjectivity: the Real (traumatically unthinkable), the Imaginary (the register of misrecognition, fantasy and the image) and the Symbolic (the register of thought and words). Althusser used it to redefine ideology not as false consciousness but as a structure of misrecognition that determines as imaginary the way in which we live our relations to the real conditions of existence. Louis Althusser, ‘Freud and Lacan’, New Left Review 1/55 (1969), 49-65.

[iii] Karl Marx, ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret’, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), 165-6.