Order of Multitudes

Labor, Ecology, and Humor in the Museum: A Conversation with Fernando Domínguez Rubio

Fernando Domínguez Rubio is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. His recent book Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum offers an ethnographic account of the Museum of Modern Art and the labor and technology that sustain it. In this conversation we discussed Professor Domínguez Rubio’s recent research, his methods for analyzing the modern art museum, and his approach to producing academic knowledge in adisciplinary ways.

Mechanical lungs. Image courtesy of Fernando Domínguez Rubio.

Katie Colford: By way of introduction, could you share what led you to the particular ecological approach that you’re considering in the art museum? Do you have any experience yourself with practicing art that made you start thinking this way?

Fernando Domínguez Rubio: I’m a dull guy without any talents, so I am afraid that practicing art has, very regrettably, always been beyond my reach. The ecological approach I propose is the way that I made sense of the things that I witnessed while doing my ethnography at the museum. As it normally happens with ethnographic projects, you start thinking you’re going to do one thing and you wind up doing something entirely different. By happenstance, I entered the museum from the back door, and I was led to the conservation lab. When you look at a museum from the perspective of the conservation lab, rather than from that of the exhibition room, which has been the predominant perspective to study the museum, you encounter a massive backstage   that does not normally appear in the main narratives of art or museums. One thing that we must bear in mind is that this backstage is what makes the majority of the museum. In most big museums, like MoMA, the frontstage—which is typically the spaces devoted to exhibition rooms—is only 10 or 15% of what comprises the museum.

As I started to work around the backstage, I began to discover spaces that I had not seen before, like the museum engine rooms, the workshops where the props of exhibitions are made, or the storages where most of the artworks spend their lives. And as I did that, I began to interact with workers that I didn’t really know existed—like preparators (movers) or engineers. These encounters changed my understanding of the museum. I moved from how I had been taught to think about the museum—as a building filled with exhibition rooms containing art—to think about it as an enormous ecological machine.  

I should note that when I describe the museum as an ecological machine I mean both of these terms in a completely literal way. So when I say that the museum is an “ecology” this is not meant to be a metaphor. “Ecology” means the logic of producing a home. And that is what a museum literally is: an artificial ecology designed to engineer the very specific unnatural conditions under which those peculiar things that we call art objects can exist and subsist. When I say that a museum is a machine it is because producing, and more importantly, sustaining these artificial ecologies is a difficult task which requires a very powerful infrastructure and technology. They may look like simple buildings with rooms, but museums are in fact machines disguised as mere buildings with rooms.

Katie Colford: Your emphasis on how the museum is literally an ecology is very clear. It’s so straightforward, and yet we never think of museums that way.

Fernando Domínguez Rubio: I think we don’t typically see the museum in this way because we have naturalized and internalized the metaphor through which the museum presents itself. An important part of this  metaphor is the divide between nature and culture, or between natural objects and cultural objects. We tend to think that art objects are something other than natural objects. But art objects are natural objects. This is quite literally the case: art objects are made of the same minerals, crystals, oils, organic and inorganic materials as those that we call “natural objects.” Of course, this is not to say that there is no difference whatsoever. We value art objects over natural objects because we weave meaning, imaginations, relations, narratives, and identities through them. And for that reason, we want to make sure that art objects last. Because it is through them that we last. And that is precisely what the museum does, or at least tries to do: to create a discontinuity by separating those chunks of the world that we call art objects from the rest of the natural environment, and quarantine them in heavily engineered unnatural ecologies so that so that they can artificially last forever…and we can last through them.

Katie Colford: I’m wondering how you might see museums operating differently? Is there a way that you imagine we could counteract this inherited viewpoint?

Fernando Domínguez Rubio: Yes, one of the things I tried to make clear in the book is that what we call “art” is a historically localized form of creating meaning that emerges from what I call the “modern aesthetic regime.” This is an aesthetic regime that is based on a radical disavowal of loss and an uncompromising commitment to “sameness.” What this means is that objects have to remain unchanged and true to their author.

What is important to underline is that this modern aesthetic regime is one amongst many. This is something we tend to forget because this modern aesthetic regime has colonized our historical imaginations. We assume, for example, that Greek sculptures are art objects that were subjected (or that need to be subjected) to the same fate, logics, operations, and interventions of any other art object. But that is not necessarily the case. If you look outside the very narrow precincts of Western modernity where art and the museum were born, you can see that meaning and memory were not created by trying to preserve things in the same way that we do. Objects were preserved through changes, replication, and copies—something that for us now is scandalous and immoral given the quasi-sacred status that the original has acquired in the modern aesthetic regime. Indeed, most of the memories we have of Greek and Roman antiquity come from copies. Other aesthetic regimes, like the Japanese practice of kitsugi, accept deterioration and decay as part of the object rather than trying to deny it as we do under the modern aesthetic regime of art. 

When we take a wider view, we can see that the modern commitment to a radical disavowal of loss is, in fact, a historical exception. What is interesting, and what I underline in the book, is that this modern aesthetic regime is bound to fail. Because life does not stay still. Everything, including artworks, falls apart. And yet, despite this, this aesthetic regime builds machines like the museum which act as if it was indeed possible to succeed, as if it was possible indeed to succeed in keeping objects forever. This is the point that intrigues me: the insistence on that impossibility. 

My question here is, What if we were to avow this loss? What if we fully acknowledged that that disavowal creates conditions and machines, like the museum, that are unsustainable? What if we go back to forms of producing memory that do not have this disavowal of loss at their heart? What if we welcomed back change, replicas, duplications, different forms of authorship?

Katie Colford: I especially appreciate your clarification of “disavowal”—that there is no version where denial is possible, and yet all of this energy is put into disavowal. I would love to hear your continued thoughts about what that costs.

Fernando Domínguez Rubio: My book is about describing how a specific form of imagination and living in the world which I call “modern” becomes possible, and the costs of imagining ourselves in that specific way. I see the museum as one particular institution of modernity devoted to making that form of imagination possible.

What I try to show in the book is that the different categories, distinctions, and meanings that modernity has created are not just mental maps or representations. These categories, distinctions, and meanings have to be built into the world and require specific ecologies to survive. For example, if you want to create a discontinuity between nature and culture, as the museum does, that’s not something that you just imagine in your head and represent the world accordingly. Such a distinction is something that has to be built and sustained in the world. And for that you need a machine—a literal machine—that can sustain that boundary. And one of these machines is the museum, which is in charge of sustaining the boundary that allows us to sustain the difference between nature and culture. Because, without a museum all those “cultural” objects would vanish into “nature,” sooner rather than later. With the museum, it is possible to maintain that distinction and even pretend, or work as if, it could last forever. A museum is like the “perpetual motion machines” in the 16th and 17th century which were imagined to exist outside time and space since they were not affected by the laws of nature.

Crucially, sustaining that promise, working as if it was a perpetual machine requires a vast amount of resources and costs. It is very common in the art world to think that the polluters are the “others”—oil companies, transportation industries, etc. But not art, because art, so the story goes, does not pollute. Slowly, the art world is realizing that sustaining heavy-duty machines like museums, as well as massive storage facilities distributed around the world, is not only extraordinarily costly but also extraordinarily polluting. Because at the end of the day, museums, or art storage, are essentially gigantic fridges that you can never unplug. They always have to be turned on so that they can produce and maintain the specific range of temperature and humidity that artworks require to survive. 

Focusing on these types of infrastructures is not only important to realize the ecological reality of art, but also to realize how these ecological realities shape the asymmetries and inequalities that organize art today. When we think about museums, we think about inequality at the level of representation, which is of course important and necessary. But sometimes it’s forgotten that inequalities are produced somewhere else as well. For example, if you don’t have the  machinery required to produce stable environments you will be excluded from the circuit of loans. This is one of the reasons that explains why many museums in the Global South do not even have access to many of these circuits, or are not able to narrate their histories in the same way as museums that can afford all this machinery. These systems are asymmetrical, and they produce and reproduce inequalities and exclusions that are at the core of how hegemony, for example, is reproduced. And that is a different way of looking at inequalities that is in addition to our focus on representation. 

Katie Colford: How do you see the labor of the conservators playing a role in this “machine”?

Fernando Domínguez Rubio: One of the things that I wanted to avoid in the book was to fall prey to a romanticization of that labor by saying, for example, that conservators are just like artists. That’s precisely why I have used the concept of mimeographic labor, which is the labor of trying to keep things the same. I define mimeographic labor as a form of creative labor, because, as I say in the book, the same is never given, but has to be created. Or put differently: the same is not preserved, but has to be produced. The task of the conservators is to create and sustain sameness in a world where sameness doesn’t exist for too long. This doesn’t mean that they are creative workers like the artist. Artists and conservators are very different types of creative workers. Artists create difference and conservators create sameness. If this sounds counterintuitive it is because our understanding of creativity or creation has been captured by the modern imagination that associates creation to the new and doesn’t allow us to see all those other forms of labor which are equally important and that ultimately create something other than the new, which also has political, aesthetic, and economic value.

Katie Colford: I’ve detected a sense of humor in your writing. At the risk of killing a joke by explaining it, could you speak to the role of humor in your writing? Is the blurring of facetiousness and academic writing related to the subject matter of the book too?

Fernando Domínguez Rubio: I hate academic writing. When academics write, they typically write to their fields. The result of that is this impersonal and graceless form of writing that is addressed to no one. You never write to a field, you are writing to a person, the individual reader holding your book. Once you write from that perspective—that is, from the perspective of writing to have a conversation with an actual human being rather than with an abstract field—it is easier to adopt a different tone and change your writing style to engage with that person. Humor is one of the things that is absent in academic writing because it is very difficult to joke with a field. In my case, humor played a role because I was writing this book, and the book became bigger and bigger. I started to fear that no one was going to read this brick if I didn’t keep the reader engaged by at least giving the reader a hook. The second part of the book is a hundred pages about storage and boxes. No one has studied this for a reason, because it is boring! So I thought that unless I create a form of writing that makes it inviting and amenable the book was not going to be read. Humor was a way of trying to engage with the reader and keep her interested in the story, even if she had to go through the ordeal of having to read one hundred pages about boxes, types of foams and storages.

And you asked how humor relates to the topic itself. Well, I would say that the museum is a tragic-comic space. I think the museum has been demonized and for good reason—it’s a machine of hegemony. But the museum is also quite modest in what it can actually do, what it does, and what it tries to do. Behind grandiose statements of, “This is history. This is Art. And we will keep it forever,” there is an awareness of the fact that all this work is ultimately doomed. 

Everybody who works at a museum is aware of the limitations of what they are doing. These are not like gullible mindless cogs in the reproduction of Western colonialism. Even if the result is that, they are aware of where they are and the forces in which they are caught up. And I think that that is why I wanted to add that nuance in the book. The interesting stuff is to see how they are caught up in that struggle, and how they negotiate it on a day to day basis. And very often there is a comicality in all of this, in the huge distance separating the grandiose statements of the museum and how they translate into day to day practices. The fact, for example, that sometimes eternity depends on a paperclip.

Katie Colford: It seems like you are also engaged with these ideas of taking play seriously in the Commplayground project.

Fernando Domínguez Rubio: I take play and humor very seriously as a pedagogical project in academia. Commplayground relates to the book in a roundabout but very direct way. I try very carefully to make the book adisciplinary. Not interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, but adisciplinary. In other words, I try to make a book in which you couldn’t tell its discipline. If I had written this book for sociologists, or anthropologists, or art historians, or curators, I would have had to sacrifice materials to make the book fit into a conversation with those fields, instead of with the materials that emerged from the research which did not have any discipline. In other words, I did not want to discipline the undisciplined empirical materials I collected. One way of escaping this trap was writing in a way that was faithful to what I was witnessing but that did not need to be anchored back to any discipline, while at the same time having references to traditions and modes of analysis coming from all over the place—architecture, STS, sociology, anthropology, art history, and on and on.

This is related to the Commplayground. The playground has a rule, which is: You can propose anything except something that is already done in academia. It’s a way of proposing games to produce forms of provoking conversation or knowledge, but outside the academic modalities that we have established for doing them. So you cannot present a paper, you cannot do a conference, you cannot—God, no—do a PowerPoint. So you cannot go to your go-to things. You have to create something that is different and cannot be attached to any particular tradition or discipline. 

The whole idea is to free our modes of thinking and imagining from the disciplinary logics that dominate how we normally think in academia. What kinds of thinking, experimenting, and imagining—or how can a conversation emerge—when the endpoint is not to produce a journal article, a presentation, or even a book?