All Panels and Roundtables

With Dr. Alice Bell, Kert Davies and Stephen Duncombe

What happens when BP, Shell Oil, and the Koch Brothers fund museums of science and natural history? Or when market pressures influence operational and curatorial decisions?

Corporate sponsorship of museums and science education can compromise the basic idea of museums as reliable sources of common knowledge. By considering historical as well as contemporary examples of museum funding, we look at the ways in which power structures and marketing logic are embedded in practices of collecting and display.

With Dr. Alice Bell, Kert Davies and Stephen Duncombe, and a recorded video address on museums and climate change by Robert R. Janes, editor in chief of Museums Management & Curation, and author of “Museums and the Paradox of Change” and “Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse?”

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Dr. Alice Bell is a freelance journalist, specializing in the politics of science and technology. She writes about innovation for How We Get to Next and climate change for the Road to Paris. She’s a science policy blogger for the Guardian and columnist for Popular Science UK, and is working on a short history of the radical science movement for the Wellcome Trust’s Mosaic magazine. She previously worked as an academic, lecturing in science communication at Imperial College, where she also set up an interdisciplinary course on climate change, and acting as Head of Public Engagement at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. Before that, she worked extensively in science education, including at the London Science Museum, and completed a PhD on children’s science media.

Robert R. Janes is Editor in Chief of Museum Management and Curatorship. He has worked in and around museums for the past 35 years as a director, consultant, author, editor, archaeologist, board member, teacher and volunteer. He is the past President and CEO of the Glenbow Museum, Art Gallery, Library and Archives in Calgary, Alberta, and was the founding Director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and founding Executive Director of the Science Institute of the Northwest Territories. Robert is the author of “Museums and the Paradox of Change”, and “Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse?”. He has a PhD in Archaeology and he teaches at the University of Calgary.

Kert Davies is the Founder and Executive Director of the Climate Investigations Center. He is a well-known researcher, media spokesperson and climate activist who has been conducting corporate accountability research and campaigns for more than 20 years. Davies was the chief architect of the Greenpeace web project ExxonSecrets, launched in 2004, which helped expose the oil giant ExxonMobil’s funding of organizations and individuals who work to discredit the validity of climate science and delay climate policy action. More recently, Davies established the PolluterWatch program at Greenpeace, which launched the report Koch Industries: Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine

Stephen Duncombe is an Associate Professor at the Gallatin School and the Department of Media, Culture and Communications of New York University where he teaches the history and politics of media. He is the author or editor of six books, including Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. He is the creator of the Open Utopia, an open-access, open-source, web-based edition of Thomas More’s Utopia, and writes on the intersection of culture and politics for a range of scholarly and popular publications. Duncombe is a life-long political activist, co-founding a community based advocacy group in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and working as an organizer for the NYC chapter of the international direct action group, Reclaim the Streets. In 2009 he was a Research Associate at the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in New York City where he helped organize The College of Tactical Culture. He co-created the School for Creative Activism in 2011, and is presently co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism. Duncombe is currently working on a book on the art of propaganda during the New Deal.

With Hans Haacke, Mark Dion, and Gavin Grindon. Moderated by Steve Lyons

Institutional critique expresses and comes up against the limits of the institution. When the practice first came to the fore, artists were responding to the institution as a repressive and bureaucratic body. The institution denoted an exclusive, hierarchic, and unaccountable site marked by seemingly intractable power relations. At the same time, its critique indicated that the institution was worth fighting for as a site that both represented and supplied basic societal infrastructure.

More recently, market pressures on a wide array of social and cultural institutions have intensified. Instead of operating through mechanisms of centralized control, contemporary power relations are fragmented, decentered, networked, and privatized. Institutions are crumbling, losing power and resources. This disintegration of collective infrastructure reveals that no institution was ever as unified or total as some of its critics implied, relying instead on fluid and uneasy combinations of ideals, limits, and possibilities.

The panel looks at ways artists and activists borrow the vocabulary of the museum and in so doing extend the political potential already dividing the institution from within. Such artistic practices of political extension may be invited or uninvited, done in collusion with curators or to their chagrin. As they raise the question of who speaks on behalf of the institution, they activate a split, suggesting ways to work within as well as against—affirming the value of the institution as a resource for the production of culture, collectivity and social solidarity.

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Hans Haacke is a German-American conceptual artist whose controversial works expose the interconnectivity of culture, politics, corruption, and greed. Spanning a range of mediums and drawing upon a variety of contemporary art strategies, from Conceptualism to Land Art, Haacke’s muckraking work often throws back the curtain on the culture industry, probing the shady dealings of museum trustees or other officials who control what is promoted and displayed. As a result of his work, Haacke–who has said he intends his art to “convict” its subject–is regarded as a forefather of an artistic approach known as institutional critique. He has been awarded many prizes, which include the 1993 Golden Lion of the Biennale di Venezia.

Gavin Grindon is Visiting Research Fellow at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and lecturer in contemporary art and curating at Essex University. He co-curated the exhibition Disobedient Objects (V&A, 2014-15), and organized the conferences The Politics of the Social in Contemporary Art at Tate Modern, 2013; Art…What’s the Use at Whitechapel Gallery, 2011; and Revising /Revisiting the Avant-Garde at Kingston University, 2009. Gavin is currently writing a history of activist-art. He co-authored A User’s Guide to Demanding the Impossible, first distributed in 2010 in occupied art schools across London during protests against cuts and fee rises. He has published in Art History, the Oxford Art Journal, Third Text, Radical Philosophy and the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.

Mark Dion is known for making art out of fieldwork, incorporating elements of biology, archaeology, ethnography, and the history of science, and applying to his artwork methodologies generally used for pure science. His art uncovers the structures that govern the natural world, dissolving the boundary between nature and culture; in his view, ‘nature is one of the most sophisticated arenas for the production of ideology’. Traveling the world and collaborating with a wide range of scientists, artists, and museums, Dion has excavated ancient and modern artifacts from the banks of the Thames in London, established a marine life laboratory using specimens from New York’s Chinatown, and created a contemporary cabinet of curiosities exploring natural and philosophical hierarchies. Dion has a longstanding interest in exploring how ideas about natural history are visualized and how they circulate in society. Dion’s work has been presented at many U.S. and international museums and galleries.

Steve Lyons is an artist and researcher based in Montreal, where he is pursuing his PhD in Art History at Concordia University. His dissertation studies the history of alternative art spaces in New York, with a particular focus on the changing use of the term “alternative” since 1979. He has published articles in C Magazine and Border Crossings, and his artwork has been exhibited in Paris, Toronto, and Montreal.