Introduction to the book CANCELLED, published in December 2018.

 

This book addresses my cancellation of a solo exhibition that had been planned to open in May 2017 at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow, Scotland.

After months of work towards the exhibition on my part, the institution was still yet to provide me with clear or confirmed parameters: slow or no replies to my practical queries; no exact information on budget availability or budget quantity; nor on the existence of an artist fee. My proposed projects would be immediately deemed technically unrealisable, or not supportable by the institution – usually for ambiguous ‘health and safety’ reasons. There was no transparency around what I gradually understood to be deep-rooted problems taking place behind the scenes in the administration of the museum, leading to insecurities on my part as to whether or not the show could take place. Ultimately, the curator who had initially invited me left his position.

After careful consideration, I decided that my final proposal would be to advertise my cancellation of the show within the exhibition space in the form of billboards mounted onto the large windows of the gallery. The billboards showed photographs of a model that I had built in the Berlin studio I was working in at the time. This model – a clumsy cardboard representation – had remained the only tangible constant in my attempts towards a working process.

The billboards as an installation were relatively cheap to produce, simple to install, didn’t constitute a health and safety hazard, and would not have represented anything deemed directly ‘rude’, ‘offensive’, or ‘pornographic’, as stipulated by the museum’s management. This final proposal was approved. GoMA went on to produce and display their usual banner that is hung on the building’s exterior to advertise the current exhibition, this time adding the words ‘CANCELLED’ to my name.

Cancelling the exhibition outright would only have meant that another show would have been put in its place last minute. I hoped that the gesture of advertising my cancellation would expose the problems of the institution, elevating them into public view.

Not unexpectedly, there was no opening planned for the cancelled exhibition. I had told the museum they could use the space for other events and they decided to initiate a public call for proposals to use the large space in alternative ways throughout the five-month period originally scheduled for the exhibition. A wall text I had requested be displayed, explaining that I had cancelled the exhibition due to impossible working circumstances – and which had already been closely monitored for confrontational language by the institution – was removed and replaced with an altered version that provided no real information at all, leaving museum visitors puzzled.

Regardless of the original ideological positions that institutions take, financial pressures invariably force numerous concessions to be made, resulting in exasperating webs of complicity and inertia. The exhibition’s cancellation was not intended as an empty gesture. Rather, dealing with the impossibility of presenting work in the space, I attempted to frame some of the constitutional problems that are ingrained in art’s production and circulation, which are built upon, and continue to rely upon, exclusivity and exclusion.

For the artist, this implies a degree of codependency in their relationships with the various institutional platforms and affiliated networks for the circulation of art. For example, artistic practices are often subjected to the constraints and control of institutional expectations, where the work is supposed to substantiate the institution’s apparent affiliation with art, culture, and various urgent social issues, as well as communities and humanity at large. Attempts at emancipating oneself from this structure are usually not without consequences; being able to exhibit and circulate work in this field demands staying on good terms.

When I realised that I could no longer tolerate the museum’s incompetence in supporting the production of my exhibition, and realised that they couldn’t meet the responsibilities that they have towards the artists they commission, I knew I could no longer stay on good terms. I chose to use the framework that I was given by the museum to insert a gesture of protest; advertising a cancellation in the museum space and not giving up the platform was an attempt at exercising some autonomy.

For instance, another outcome of the cancellation was the printed publication ground, which I initiated at a later stage to generate further narratives around the structural problems of the art system, and to engage in learning and dialogue around the roles and functions of institutions. Co-edited with the critic and curator Harry Burke, ground digests some of the implications of cancelling the exhibition, while using the small-scale format of the zine in the hope of deviating from the restrictions and impediments imposed on artistic production. We chose to prioritise independent practices and initiatives that engage with acts of refusal, resistance, and change within a broadly grassroots conception of art and exhibition-making. ground was produced with funds originally obtained through grants for the intended exhibition at GoMA, but is autonomous from it.

This book presents the GoMA project from my specific perspective as the commissioned artist, bringing the project back to the scale and reality of my studio as an analogy for the work and the decision-making that lies behind art-making. While simultaneously feeling passionate about my practice, honoured to be invited to do an exhibition, and not wanting to ‘give up’, in this specific narrative the work primarily exists through trying to make the most out of an unclear and obviously unfruitful situation – despite the enthusiasm to do so slowly becoming completely compromised.

Alongside photographs of the model in the studio, which functioned as billboards inside GoMA, there is Linda Stupart’s essay, which recounts the impossibility of GoMA’s exhibition space being a void when one reflects on how it is haunted by its inheritance as an architectural object and as an institutional framework. The second essay, by Georgia Horgan, discusses the exhibition within the specific context of Glasgow and how these conditions may partly be understood as the result of cultural policy at large.

 

– Marlie Mul, October 2018