Joey Orr (Ed.) (2019). Inquiries. Spencer Museum of Art. [OA] https://indd.adobe.com/view/98055568-7e9a-4c3e-968e-d7b608185e25
In the early aughts, as the ground under our feet spun into the new millennium, museum professionals, cultural workers, and engaged publics began to collaboratively question the role of the museum in the 21st century. In 2001 the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) Vienna curator, Peter Noever, organized a three-month symposium, The Discursive Museum, asking participants to critically assess whether museums might breach their own walls and what role the market might play vis-à-vis such an effort.1 In 2003, cultural critic and curator Maurice Berger hosted Museums of Tomorrow: A Virtual Discussion for the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and the Center for Arts and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland.2 Participants spent twelve days interrogating how the museum might rise—or fail to rise—to meet the contemporary moment.
How far we’ve spun since then. In 2011, Noever moved beyond the museum walls himself, leaving MAK to become a curator-at-large. Over the aughts and teens, Berger redoubled his scholarly and curatorial work on race before, tragically, dying in March of 2020 from complications related to Covid-19. Besides Noever and Berger, countless activists, engaged publics, and, in some cases, forward thinking museum professionals have rendered the boundaries of the museum space more permeable than ever.
This is not to suggest that discussions around the role of the museum have ceased; they have not,3 nor should they. What has changed is that we now have museums claiming radically different understandings of their own role in knowledge production and transmission. With Inquiries, a product of the Integrated Arts Research Initiative (IARI) at The University of Kansas’s Spencer Museum of Art, edited by Andrew W. Mellon Curator for Research, Joey Orr, we encounter a museum actively working to claim such an identity. If the classical museum functioned, as Tony Bennett described, as a concretized, disciplining institution of power,4 through the IARI, the Spencer Museum aspires to function as more akin to a wild meadow: proximately defined but unbounded, simultaneously generative and receptive, a site of constant, ongoing exchange.
As a text, Inquiries registers three distinct but interconnected discursive actions organized by IARI with the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Each of these is an ‘inquiry’, defined by Orr as “an emerging structure we conceive of as a cloud, or network, of activities with exhibition components that are parts of the inquiry no more or less than other methodological frameworks. … The inquiry is a structure that integrates artistic practice into other forms of investigation.”5
Terra Anima, the first inquiry, encompasses an exhibition that included contemporary art, art from the Spencer Museum’s permanent collection, and instruments from Kansas University’s geography labs; programming at both the University and Haskell Indian Nations University; and “hikes of prairie and wetland.”6 The second, Social Histories, includes a “cluster of exhibitions about Haiti, African diaspora, and farmers in Kansas” and programming such as “performances, lectures, film screenings, roundtables, and encounters with the Spencer Museum’s collection.”7 The third, knowledges, showcases work commissioned from four contemporary artists with related programming.
Although each section of Inquiries manifests as internally cohesive, Orr hints at a preference for a rhizomatic reading that draws on the recurring themes of collaboration, polyvocalism, and accretion. This strategy is demonstrated visually by the book’s first images of artwork: three vertical details, each from a different inquiry, side by side at full bleed. Each signals its respective inquiry while collectively pointing to IARI’s overarching project: To facilitate inquiry itself as an epistemological whole. When a transition between inquiries is underlined—as between the Terra Anima and Social Histories sections by way of images from artist Paul Hartfleet’s Pansy Project, in which Hartfleet intervenes at historical sites of gendered and homophobic violence by planting and photographing pansies—the transitional duty of the content feels redundant. Hartfleet’s project is a welcome addition to Inquiries and may have functioned as a transition for the museum, but within the object of the book its positioning appears unnecessary. The knowledge, strategy, and themes of different inquiries intersect from cover to cover. Inquiries’ goal is not documentation of IARI programming, but rather the enactment of a meta-inquiry in book format.
To ward off the arguably static nature of the text, Inquiries relies on both design and content strategies that emphasize active investigation. A spread of four of Hartfleet’s photographs precedes an image of Hartfleet himself lying on the ground, squinting at the back of a camera aimed at a freshly planted, out of focus pansy, a trowel and tray of additional flowers at the ready beside him. The four artists focused on in knowledges—Assaf Evron, Danielle Roney, Fatimah Tuggar, and Andrew S. Yang—are represented through images of installed artwork, images of artwork being prepared and installed, transcripts of video interviews, and their own original writings, all prefaced by a brief essay from scholar and activist Nicholas Mirzoeff. A transcript of Haitian studies scholar Cécile Accilien’s video interview on the work of exhibiting artist Ulrick Jean-Pierre follows the extended explanatory essay in Social Histories, an essay interspersed with images of empty and full galleries, roundtables and public discussions, video and performance stills, and artist talks and visits. Terra Anima includes an interview with Kansas University Associate Professor, geographer, and IARI Faculty Research Fellow Daniel Hirmas, along with exhibition images of soil monoliths and a map of the Spencer Museum’s locale created by geographer Soren Larsen. Each inquiry is a hive of activity.
IARI’s goal with Inquiries is not only breadth, of course, but also depth. In light of the richness of content, each section merits its own consideration. Part of the pleasure of reading Inquiries lies in the text’s synthesis of the discursive-immersive dialectic, that gadfly of the classical museum.
Inquiries’ first section focuses on “the Earth, ecologies, and soils from various fields of scholarship” with a goal to “defer ostensible outcomes of research in favor of exploring new directions of investigation.”8 In terms of interdisciplinary participants, Orr’s concise introductory essay describes a lecture from anthropologist Kath Weston in which she rejects depictions of the Earth as a sick body awaiting a human-designed cure, what she refers to as the “terra infirma” model, in favor of a collaborative understanding of healing. The essay also discusses a walking tour of the Wakarusa Wetlands at Haskell Indian Nations University led by geographers Jay T. Johnson and Soren Larsen, scholars motivated by Indigenous understandings of place and the “call” of the land. Lastly, in his interview Hirmas recounts his experience working with soil monoliths: deep, vertical extractions of soil that scientists preserve for study in their original morphological state. Soil is, Hirmas adds, “our very life.”9 The essay is punctuated with images of these and related activities, as well as other works on display.
At first encounter, the visual works in Terra Anima read as fixed dyads: the prescribed geometric forms of the monoliths with abstractly patterned casts of subterranean animal dwelling structures, excavated by geologist Stephen T. Hasiotis (with the gnarling spirals created by the inland robust scorpion appearing as concretized DNA strands of the once animated soil—or, perhaps, as a representation of the movement of the inquiry itself); 16th century painter and printmaker Jost Amman’s Euclidean rendering of Platonic solids, “considered to be the building blocks of the material world,”10 with contemporary artist Claire Pentecost’s circular soil chromatograms, unique qualitative portraits of specific soil areas derived from mid-twentieth laboratory techniques; a 1978 image from Ana Mendieta’s Untitled: Silueta Series, a photograph documenting a silt rendering of the artist’s body in natural space, with Alan Sonfist’s 1968 canvas rubbing, registering tree roots in a forest of his childhood; and sculptor, and World War I veteran, Gaston Deblaize’s terracotta milestones containing dirt from Verdun, France, memorials to the 700,000-1,000,000 lives lost during the nearly year-long Battle of Verdun, with a vial of dirt from Riverside, Iowa, the “future birthplace” of Star Trek character James T. Kirk—proceeds from the sale of both items benefit specific groups (veterans and the the Riverside Area Community, respectively) while relying on historical and futuristic imaginaries of body-soil enmeshment.
These pairings make sense on one level, but IARI intends to balance each aspect of the inquiry against the others in countless discursive configurations. How, for example, do Amman’s plates of theorized building blocks refract the inherent tension of formation/dissolution in Deblaize’s milestones? What are the implications of Pentecost’s enactment of the public amateur cum artist, and her exploration of site specificity, in terms of Johnson and Larsen’s insistence on the agency of place? How might Mendieta’s use of proto-body art/earth works and Weston’s scholarship on Earth-human body collaborations extend each other’s force?
It is an additional set of artworks, however, a pair of two-channel videos from contemporary artist Andrew Ross comparing worm circles with marks from the artist’s hand, that most infuse the others with new meanings. By highlighting the active life of terra anima, the videos confer a disturbing stillness on the other works. If the soil is our very life, as Hirmas declares, then in the other gallery images we face life stilled, encased, temporarily registered but eternally soluble. The soil monoliths take on the uncanny aura of a body preserved.
IARI uses Terra Anima to show us the multidirectional strategies others have used to investigate the soil. It makes a body want to go outside, dig around, to join the immediacy of experiential living with the land. Hence the appropriateness of Paul Hartfleet’s Pansy Project work as a transition, regardless of its necessity as such. Hartfleet’s interventions sit directly at the intersection of spatial and body politics, with one foot in each inquiry. Through Hartfleet’s work, we move between interrelated areas in dire need of ongoing investigation.
Social Histories itself opens with directives in oversized font: “Decolonize. Decolonize. Decolonize. Decolonize. Indigenize. Indigenize. Indigenize. Indigenize. Now is the time. Resistance is futile….”11 The quote emanates from Buffalo Boy, a persona of artist Adrian Stimson who participated in Social Histories by performing at Haskell Indian Nations University. Buffalo Boy’s imperatives set the tone for the inquiry: a destabilization of historical master narratives with a concomitant investigation of lived body counternarratives.
As Orr’s extended section essay points out, such efforts belong to an ongoing tradition of justice-oriented historical revisionism. IARI’s inquiry is notable for bringing together a wide range of approaches to this project, represented through three exhibitions, two performances, a unique installation, and a series of roundtables and public discussions. Orr, by way of Irit Rogoff’s 2010 essay “Education,” positions the differences in this programming as a strength:
“Rogoff’s notion of a turn—changing one’s position toward spaces of learning, research, and exhibition—corresponds well with IARI’s ambitions. Rogoff states, “Education is by definition processual—involving a low-key transformative process, it embodies duration and the development of a contested common ground.” An inquiry can initiate this process of low-key transformation by opening spaces where disparate practices and positions can begin to coexist. The exhibitions, programs, and performances consider subjects, questions, and propositions that give participants different ways of encountering and producing knowledges together, if at times in oblique relation. By working across and beyond academic and artistic assumptions and perspectives, we do not seek consensus as much as receptivity to the different forms knowledge can take.”12
The description of Buffalo Boy’s Resistance is Futile indicates the work’s lack of concern for niceties or consensus. Stimson’s performance begins with Buffalo Boy, a gender nonconforming persona intended to reference Indigenous North American notions of Two-Spirit people, tied up in rope on stage. By the end of the performance, the resourceful character, donned in fishnet stockings and a buckskin shirt, has escaped the rope knots, applied lipstick, penetrated the safe remove of the audience for awkward selfies, and announced their message of reparative (imperative?) justice, among other actions. Stimson’s own experiences at three different Canadian residential schools, infamous for their extreme cruelty and abuse before the last one was finally shuttered by the Canadian government in 1996, informs the performance’s themes of confinement, struggle, and resilience. In 2008 the government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which led to the documentation of some 7,000 survivor accounts, the publication of a multivolume report, and the establishment of the permanent National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. These were much needed steps, but perhaps one of the best arguments for the urgency of Stimson’s work—and for IARI’s inquiry as a whole—lies in a consideration of what Buffalo Boy can do that official bodies simply cannot.
The other artists in Social Histories prompt similar reflections. Artist and scholar Tina Takemoto presents a performance lecture, Queer Social Histories and the Wartime Incarceration of Japanese Americans, during which she explicates Queer Camp Trilogy, a series of films that propose a speculative, queer understanding of the World War II internment camps. Again, it is instructive to consider what Takemoto’s work, with its “profound commitment to archival knowledge from a queer perspective,”13 can accomplish that the United States government’s eventual reparative body, the 1980s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, could not, with its token payments to former detainees.
In a similar vein, mixed-media artist Mohau Modisakeng confronts the British and Dutch history of colonization and slavery in South Africa via a three-channel video installation, Passage, that stood as one of the inquiry’s exhibitions.14 In still shots from Passage we see an overhead view of sumptuously dressed Black individuals, lying face-up in stark white boats, and then an image of dark, sparkling water which the boats sink into and, in a reversal of the sequence, rise from. The Ties That Bind exhibition combines the grand master paintings of Ulrick Jean-Pierre, which reconfigure narratives of historical Haitian figures, with material from the Spencer Museum’s Mary Lou Vansant Hughes collection of contemporary Haitian art. The third exhibition, Kansas Farmers, featured work photographer Larry Schwarm created as part of National Science Foundation research team project titled Biofuels and Climate Change: Farmers’ Land Use Decisions. Artist Rena Detrixhe adds another layer to the inquiry with Red Dirt Rug, an installation of red, sifted Oklahoma dirt in an ornate carpet pattern. The work points back noticeably to Terra Anima, but also introduces gendered domestic space into the inquiry’s discourse. An insistent, continued reference to material, lived body realities and counternarratives bridges the radical shift in contexts between these projects.
The Social Histories inquiry also includes a roundtable featuring visiting artists. Here the text quotes Stimson’s apparently straightforward statement: “We know what happened…some of us have benefited from it, some of us haven’t…so what do we do with that knowledge?” Before considering the diverse elements of the inquiry, this reads as a simple query about next steps. After reviewing them, it’s difficult to get beyond the first two words—“we know”—let alone to Simson’s pending question. The key to reaching and responding to that question meaningfully, it seems, is to avoid linearity.
While Terra Anima takes the singular material reality of the soil as its unified focus and Social Histories concentrates on the production of diverse counternarratives to a variety of dominant historical tropes, IARI’s third and final inquiry takes a different tack. knowledges follows the ongoing investigations of four artist-scholars through gallery shots, images of their work processes, transcripts from video interviews, and original pieces of short writing. Or, as the text puts it, “The knowledges exhibition reflected on the many ways we create knowledges and their associated ethics—exactly the kinds of experiences IARI is uniquely position to facilitate.”15 The result embodies a critical inquiry that invites both lateral and comprehensive understandings.
After a brief intro from Orr, the text moves on to a short essay from scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Love to Know.” Mirzoeff begins with the question: “Can there be decolonial knowledge?” before making the point that “Because knowledge is a relation to power and freedom, the question at stake is what action might result from an analysis of big data.”16 The essay moves quickly from theorization to calls to action, with a list that draws heavily on the commitments of the newly formed African Leadership University,17 including: “Listen. To the colonized, to the historically underrepresented, to your own body.”; “Make territorial acknowledgment a standard practice at all events, while recognizing that it cannot be all that is done.”; “As the decolonizing project of African Leadership University (ALU) has it, ‘text is not enough.’ Produce in many forms.” The urgency of Mirzoeff’s statements echoes the urgency of Buffalo Boy’s imperatives, which in turn echo the urgency of Weston’s call to reconceptualize notions of our marred Earth. The essay serves not as an introduction to knowledges but as a node for the multiplicitous forms of inquiry that occur within this book.
The artists in knowledges appear fully at home in the act of repurposing data for the creation of new meaning. Assaf Evron looks to a history of mathematical modeling in order to create sculptural illustrations of abstract digital color spaces. The smooth, dark shapes function at once as explications and black boxes, perceptible layered materiality and purely conceptual meaning.
Danielle Roney transforms surveillance technologies into access points for marginalized bodies: With PUBLICS, her grouping of Nest security cameras with different perspectives of the exhibition space allow immaterial entry to the institution. With the Strata series, Roney solicits vocal arrangements from DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and undocumented individuals, which she then translates into a pulse of sculptural LED lights within a darkened gallery space. As Roney writes in one of her two text contributions: “By leveraging immateriality as a strategy of human freedom, we create portals perforating these spaces, where autonomous algorithms empower virtual culture to create radical vehicles of ethnography.”18
Fatimah Tuggar also indicts the presumptions of an academic-institutional safe space. Tuggar uses data derived from interpersonal conversations within the academy, turning each into a script which is read by a professional actor. The resulting audio track becomes the voice of a hologram figure positioned under the upraised top of a student desk, the hologram a reference to the “façade that academia puts out.”19
Lastly, Andrew S. Yang looks to Theory of the Earth, a book set of which the first two volumes were published by James Hutton in 1795. Although Volume III was published after Hutton’s death, Volume IV never came to fruition. Yang’s goal is the materialization of this book, a “book that we’re collectively writing with other species. It’s a book that we’re writing and actively inscribing.”20 To create Volume IV, Yang uses books and objects from across the Kansas University campus to create geomorphic towers and cumulative structures akin to rock shelves. The inscriptions of human kinds echo the sedimentary inscriptions of the soil as one inquiry points back to another.
Inquiries’ final section, documents a MacArthur Dialogue organized by IARI that brought together MacArthur Fellows Christopher Beard, a paleontologist, and Elizabeth Turk, a sculptor. A transcript of their interaction and an accompanying description from Chassica Kirchoff, a Detroit Institute of Arts assistant curator who at the time served as a Spencer Museum research assistant, give the impression of proto-inquiry: a single event that tests the water of how interdisciplinary programming might proceed.
The book format of Inquiries necessitates a particular sort of encounter with IARI programming; the most obvious drawback is that videos and live events must appear as a handful of still images with a description. Besides the obvious differences between bodily and purely conceptual encounters, especially complex works, such as Danielle Roney’s installations, are difficult to convey clearly in text alone. These, however, are considered decisions by Orr and the IARI initiative. By adopting the book format, much more is gained than lost. Inquiries as textual meta-inquiry not only documents IARI efforts but also provides a new discursive space in which critical investigations cross-pollinate from cover to cover. Inquiries’ goal, as noted in the text, is to achieve ongoing extension, not clean summation.
The work that IARI performs, both through Inquiries and real-time programming, signals how museums might reimagine their own role in terms of research and knowledge production. There has never been a more urgent time to do so. Worldwide, UNESCO estimates that one in eight museums will permanently close due to Covid-19.21 The American Alliance of Museums has warned that within the United States some 12,000 museums may close, one-third of the country’s total.22 Moreover, even before the pandemic American nonprofit institutions were facing a crisis due to cuts in government funding and the increased diversion of private philanthropy to donor-advised funds. Today, many of those fighting to survive look to scaled back programming, mass layoffs, and deaccessioning. Larger museums, traditionally reliant on revenue-generating blockbuster exhibitions to balance their budgets, are now increasingly willing to put on more intimate, incisive exhibitions.23
In some ways, this follows the trend of museums housed within academic institutions. Many institutional museums, whether for pragmatic or conceptual reasons, have long focused on local, political, and social realities, with some embracing a role as a “teaching museum” and others hosting open curatorial calls within their communities. The Spencer Museum, through IARI, has positioned itself as research center, or, more correctly, research node: a site for wide-ranging research to coalesce, a site for emerging research to unfold, and a site for the continued transmission of research back out into the world through the creative production of us all.
Inquiries models a potential future of the museum that we should expect—and hope—to see more of in the world to come. The text demonstrates the capacity for institutions to contribute cogently and generously to knowledge production by supporting bold research that, taken together, effectively synthesizes the immersive/discursive dialectic. More than that though, Inquiries functions as a site to return to again and again for reminders of process. It’s a meadow one might hope to spend time in regularly—noting fresh leaves and the mushrooming fruit bodies of mycelia, smelling the shift between seasons, feeling the varying sponginess of the ground under foot—before walking off in any direction at all, tracing any one of the ecosystems that come together so well behind us.
James Pepper Kelly is an artist-writer-researcher and doctoral candidate in Communication Studies at Ohio University. He holds an MA in Visual & Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA from Wesleyan University. He has held a variety of positions in the art nonprofit world, including Executive Director of Latitude Chicago and Managing Director/Co-founder of Filter Photo. Currently, he's working to build a small, land-based residency program in rural Appalachia. His primary research focuses include experimental arts assessment models, alternative spaces for knowledge production, and methodologies that extend agency to nonhuman kinds.
- 1Collected in Noever, P. (Ed.) (2001). The Discursive Museum. MAK. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag.
- 2Collected in Berger, M. (Ed.) (2004). Museums of Tomorrow: a Virtual Discussion. New York: D.A.P.
- 3See, for example, the two-day 2015 symposium Between the Discursive and the Immersive: A Symposium on Research in 21st Century Art Museums organized jointly by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. It’s worth noting, however, that this more recent symposium distinguishes between research in museums and museums themselves, a tacit admission that the museum as site has already taken on a discursive status. Moreover, the distinction drawn by the organizers between museum as site and research within the museum deserves critical interrogation.
- 4Bennett, T. (1988). The Exhibitionary Complex. New Formations, 4, 73-102.
- 5Orr, J. (Ed.) (2019). Inquiries. Spencer Museum of Art, p. 16-17.
- 6Ibid., p. 18.
- 7Ibid., p. 18.
- 8Ibid., p. 25.
- 9Ibid., p. 35.
- 10Ibid., p. 54.
- 11Ibid., p. 62.
- 12Ibid., pp. 66-67.
- 13Ibid., p. 78.
- 14The United Kingdom and the Netherlands, despite some small steps in recent years to address their colonial pasts, have not yet had the courage for such a confrontation themselves. See for example: Walden, M. (2020). The Netherlands will pay reparations to Indonesian victims of colonial atrocities. Could the UK do the same? ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-26/netherlands-pay-reparations-indo… And: Mau Mau torture victims to receive compensation - Hague. (2013). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-22790037
- 15Orr, J. (Ed.) (2019). Inquiries. Spencer Museum of Art, p. 98.
- 16Mierzoeff, N. Love to Know. In Orr, J. (Ed.) (2019). Inquiries. Spencer Museum of Art, pp. 100-101.
- 17Auerbach, J. What a new university is doing to decolonise social sciences. (2017). The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/what-a-new-university-in-africa-is-doing-to…
- 18Roney, D. Occupying institutional spaces through immateriality. In Inquiries, ed. Joey Orr. (2020) Lawrence, KS: Spencer Museum of Art, p. 115.
- 19Orr, J. (Ed.) (2019). Inquiries. Spencer Museum of Art, p. 126.
- 20Ibid., p. 134.
- 21The Alternative Press. (2020, May 20). UNESCO warns pandemic could close 1 in 8 museums worldwide. In The Sydney Morning Herald.
- 22American Alliance of Museum. (2020, July 22). National survey of COVID-19 impact on United States museums [Press release]. https://www.aam-us.org/2020/07/22/united-states-may-lose-one-third-of-a…
- 23Brown, K. (2020, June 30). Is the age of the blockbuster exhibition over? A perfect storm of challenges suggests it may be a thing of the past. Artnet news.