Christoph Büchel and the ownership of Art

LadderI don’t really subscribe to the revolutionary communist view of Industrial Relations but the history, both ancient and modern, of The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) does seem to cast a new light on Marx’s theories about the significance of the Ownership of the Means of Production. The “largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States” is built inside the renovated buildings of a nineteenth century factory that has dominated the small city of North Adams ever since it became a city. At one time, the factory employed roughly a quarter of the town’s population. Twice in its life it has closed down, giving the workers whose labour built it a stark choice between starving or moving on.

HutLast year MASS MoCA started building a huge installation by Christoph Büchel. Dozens of workers toiled to create the complicated re-constructions which characterise Büchel’s work. It was a demanding and expensive show which quickly became more costly and more complicated as the opening date in December approached. It didn’t open on time, the relationship between the artist and the gallery became adversarial and it started to seem that the show would never be finished. Having spent nearly half its annual visual arts budget on the show the museum looked like it might have nothing to show for all the effort. Once again it seemed like the workers in the Marshall Street factory were going to be denied the fruits of their labours.

RoofI happened to be visiting MASS MoCA in February when absolutely everybody was talking about the show that would never open. The staff there were really upset and offended about what had happened. It was, to them, inexplicable and unforgivable. I was so intrigued that one evening I sneaked through a fire escape door marked No Entry at the back of one of the galleries and managed to creep up a staircase and into the gigantic, spooky mayhem of Building 5.

The New York Times does a better job of describing the show than I can possibly manage. Maybe my experience was enhanced by my paranoia about getting caught, which made me scuttle around in the shadows, trying to be as silent as I possibly could, but even in its unfinished state it was a mind-blowing installation that has haunted me ever since. It was easy to see why the museum were so keen to exhibit the work.

OfficesLast week MASS MoCA announced that they were going to court in an attempt to gain permission to show the materials that were collected during the construction of the show, without the consent of Christoph Büchel. The artist’s US lawyer, Donn Zaretsky, says that what they are attempting to show is not a work in progress but rather a distorted, modified version of what they imagine the final work may have looked like.

When I first heard about what MASS MoCA were planning on doing I thought “Good for them”. I have always found the gallery staff, from bosses to interns, to be incredibly easy to work with and utterly committed to doing everything possible to facilitate the work of their artists. I can’t imagine how somebody could fall out with them so disastrously. I also think that a big installation like this is inevitably a collaboration, unlike the paintings that Donn Zaretsky draws a parallel with. In such a collaboration it’s not fair for one party to attempt to veto the efforts of everyone else.

However, when I started considering how Christoph Büchel might feel about what was going on I became less certain. I started to wonder what happens to the relationship between artists and venues if the galleries reserve the right to exhibit any work in any form if they think that the artist is being unreasonable. Would I be happy working with that sort of threat hanging over me? Which takes me back to the political theory that I started off with. Maybe Christoph Büchel isn’t the top-hatted capitalist, denying the workers their natural right to gain from their own efforts. Perhaps he’s more like an exploited artisan, tossed aside and told that everyone’s expendable. All workers have the right to withdraw their labour as a last resort, even artists. Maybe Mr Büchel should organise a picket line, I’m sure he’d make fantastic placards.

PDF of Büchel’s March statement
Maverick Arts discusses the context for the story.
Coverage at the Boston Globe.
Martin Bromisky describes how the show looks now.
Discussion about Büchel’s motives at Modern Kicks.

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