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Exhibition Prosthetics

In analyzing the points of view of some graphic designers and curators about design exhibition, as they appeared in “Graphic” magazine (n. 11, 2009), we noticed their tendency to regard curatorship and exhibition making, on the one hand, and editorial design and editing, on the other, as practices that can be alternative and complementary, as parts of a wider chain of contents’ production and distribution. One could say that a territory exists, where editorial practice, publishing, graphic design, and the curatorial meet, connect, and overlap. In order to try to read this territory, some hints can be drawn from the notion of “exhibition prosthetics,” as it has been proposed by artist Joseph Grigely.
In 2009 Joseph Grigely gave a lecture – entitled Exhibition Prosthetics (later published by Bedford Press, 2nd ed. 2010) – at the Architectural Association, which was followed by a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Zak Kyes and the public (video available online at In his lecture Grigely dealt with the range of conventions that are usually produced and experienced on the occasion of exhibitions in galleries and museums, with a special, but not exclusive, focus on printed materials such as labels, checklists, guidebooks, press releases, catalogues as well as «exhibition publications that manifest themselves outside the physical space of the gallery». These texts and materials, that “re-present” the real by means-of language and images, actually are part of the “machinery of exhibiting:” they are different forms of dissemination that aim to bring the arts to the audience of readers, viewers and listeners. Hence, the question: «[T]o what extent are these various exhibition conventions actually part of the art – and not merely an extension of it?»
To answer this question, Grigely proceeds to outline the concept of “prosthesis,” as the most suitable to describe the nature of such conventions. Clearly the metaphor of the prosthesis is not accidental, but is clearly connected to Grigely’s experience: being deaf since the age of ten (1967), in fact, he necessarily uses writing as a means to communicate with people, inviting them to write on paper their questions and thoughts to communicate with him. This process of communication has resulted in a rich archive of “conversation papers,” of portions of speeches that range from the banal to the poetic, which, in the last fifteen years, have become central to the artist’s work.

As Grigely explains in his lecture, a prosthesis is an extension, indeed, but one that “belongs,” that «originates from a desire to make whole, while acknowledging that the task is an impossible one» – like a wheelchair lift added on the rear of a building, a road sign stating “dead child area,” or body prostheses. Just like the human body or buildings, exhibitions too can be described, metaphorically, as bodies, and have their extensions. These are captions, labels, guidebooks etc. as well as all other conventions that exist, are produced and used in the framework of an exhibition in order to make it “complete.” In fact, Grigely argues, an exhibition is like a discourse that «involves the doubling of both showing and telling.» Consequently, texts, informative or visual material that support this discourse are something more than just “paratext” – what is alongside the main text –: they are important «in terms of how we read art – how we work our way to it and through it» (maybe we could add, “how we read material and immaterial culture in general”). Some examples are given to help clarifying the point: the label “Merda d’artista” on Piero Manzoni’s can, and not the latter’s real content, is what makes the meaning of the artwork; and the guidebooks prepared by Sir John Soane for people to visit his Museum, and which are the only way to read the display and to move within the museum, since this has no labels. Moreover, Grigely notes, material such as booklets, announcements, labels or brochures usually survive beyond the period of an exhibition. What he suggests then – at least this is how we read it – is that prostheses extend the exhibition in time, not just in space: it is the ephemera, in fact, «that outlive and outlast the exhibition» – which makes it rather contradictory to call them “ephemera.”
Certainly, texts and information material of museums have received attention from visitor studies, that are interested in how visitors actually respond to them (here Grigely suggests that it could be intriguing to investigate the role of titles and press releases as well, and he reminds how artworks by Jackson Pollocks have often been re-titled by critics and collectors). Beside that, however, the art world itself has started to show a specific interest in exhibition prostheses, and this has happened particularly since the early 1990s – a period, it should be noted, when the art world witnessed the outburst of a new phase of institutional critique. Grigely goes on by illustrating a number of performative works that have explored the relationships of exhibition prosthetics with art, and which, we would add, in turn extend the meaning and interpretation of the very notion advanced by the author. Among the examples, in fact, we find a performance such as Andrea Fraser’s Museum Highlights (1989) but also the project Novaphorm Hotel by Martin Eder and Lisa Junghans, for Documenta in Kassel 1997 – basically a bed and breakfast and a number of services operated by the artists, and promoted through printed materials, designed by Peter Hankel, that relate to hotel culture, such as postcards or business cards. Grigely mentions also projects by Hans Ulrich Obrist that created opportunities for artists to «de- and re-materialize their work in new situations outside the museum», as well as inside the museum space: the collaboration with mip (museum in progress), which resulted in turning the newspaper “Der Standard” into an exhibition space, to host artists’ works; the collaboration with Alighiero Boetti when, again, a magazine space – in this case the magazine of Austrian Airlines – was used to present art; but also the exhibition Migrateurs, curated by Obrist at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris, for which artists were invited to use the public space of the museum, from bookshop to cafeteria, to present their installation.

Finally Grigely comes to his own artworks, and specifically to those developed from his research on the «disjunction between visual and auditory experience.» As he explains, this body of work is «inflected» by his deafness, not really for deafness itself but because of the implication of it: «What does the world look like with the sound turned off? How might it be that language can be said to caption human experience?» This is clear in projects such as Songs Without Words, that is based on the removal of captions from images, and the series of installations of his “conversation papers with hearing people” that has engaged him for over fifteen years. But it is the kind of “publication projects” that he mentions later which are probably closer to the idea of prosthesis and dissemination that Grigely has introduced in the lecture. The Barbican Conversations (1998), for example, dealt with information brochures and used the Barbican Center as both «a source of conversational discourse and a place of dissemination» (conversations of visitors were sampled and then printed in the form of information brochures which, in turn, were distributed in the hall of the centre). And then two other projects that show of prostheses such as cards and announcements «have the possibility of taking an exhibition to places the exhibition itself does not go,» extending it well beyond the gallery space, consequently taking art «to people rather than mak[ing] people go the the art.» The first project was conceived for the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford: Grigely engaged with the exhibition announcement cards, he designed cards showing a well-known painting on the front, and reproducing a conversation of his on the rear. The second project, Grigely says, is his own favourite publication project: on the occasion of the Berlin Biennale in 2001 he created a work not to be displayed within the exhibition space but to be dispersed in the city – a number of his conversation papers printed and placed in different places, from restaurants to buses’ seats.
After these examples, Grigely concludes his lecture with some reflections that suggest that exhibitions (maybe here it would be useful to recall the idea of the “exhibition machinery”) fit particularly well in the present epoch, which is an era of fragmentation. While exhibitions and publications are both forms of dissemination that allow the work and audience to meet, the exhibition is «inherently discursive» and is a kind of discourse that – compared to the linear experience of reading – is «unstable, incomplete, uncontained, and uncontainable.» «Like film trailers that offer clips and previews of upcoming films, contemporary exhibitions involve the fragmentation of an entity and its dispersion into a variety of representations. Our age is one of fragmented narratives, a culture of bits and pieces that in themselves become, like the ruins and fragments in Sir John Soane’s Museum, a synecdoche for the whole. As the global economy implodes and exhibition practices reinvent themselves to take into account radical shifts in our aesthetic economy, we can assure ourselves that we have not seen the end of this fragmentation.»

The lecture of Grigely leaves the impression that it entails different layers of meaning and possible interpretations, and even some “gaps” that require further reflection. What interests us here, is that it sheds some light on the (material and immaterial) features of the region that forms between (art)works, exhibition context and the construction and dissemination of contents via texts, images and other forms of presentation and representations – both inside and outside the gallery. Clearly this is a region which is relevant to visual communication.
First of all, the idea of using forms of publication such as books and postcards to take the work «somewhere the exhibition doesn’t go» – i.e. to extend the space and time of the exhibition – is certainly intriguing. As Zak Kyes underlined, when introducing the conversation with Grigely: «To question the extent to which publications and their representations are actually a part of the work, rather than merely a documentation of it, is particularly essential to consider as art and design discourse is increasingly articulated through an ever-increasing flood of books and magazines.» Secondly, this flood of contents, media and artifacts is one that specifically involves graphic design. In this regard, it is interesting to remark what Grigely notes, at some point in his lecture, when he says that, just like exhibition design, publication design «involves the construction of visual paths, and pushes the possibilities of the publication as an exhibition.» Now, if a proximity between publications and exhibitions exists, and if publication can be regarded as a form of exposure, maybe that proximity can tell something of the the greater interest and confidence that graphic designers have shown in the past years in relation the space, the practice and the conventions of exhibiting and curating.