Q & A with Fernando Domínguez Rubio, Author of Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum

Fernando Domínguez Rubio is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego who situates his research around the outer rims of sociology, science and technology studies, anthropology, art, design and architecture. His book, Still Life, offers a comprehensive and intriguing ethnographic account of the conundrums that museum workers face when enduring artworks are posed with the possibility of disintegration, disappearance and other “slowly unfolding disasters”. Going behind the scenes at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Domínguez Rubio provides a rare view of the vast technological apparatus—from climatic infrastructures and storage facilities, to conservation labs and machine rooms—and teams of workers—from conservators and engineers to guards and couriers—who fight to hold artworks still.

Interview by Shiv Issar

1. Still life explores boundary work in many different museum contexts – before it happens, as it happens, and after it happens. Could you tell us more about the politics and practices that create and maintain these boundaries?

This goes right at the heart of the book’s main theme, which is, essentially, an exploration of the different forms of labor, technologies, and infrastructures through which categories are produced, maintained and acquire their power.  

The specific object of study of the book is the hegemonic apparatus of modern aesthetics. One of the main arguments I make is that the categories and boundaries organizing modern aesthetics (e.g. subject/object, nature/culture, authentic/inauthentic, past/present, etc.) cannot exist in the wild, since they require a very particular artificial ecology to exist and subsist over time. What I do in the book is to detail how this artificial ecology is produced at one place: the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).

In a nutshell, I argue that museums like MoMA work like enormous greenhouses designed to keep artworks artificially alive through a vast array of climatic infrastructures, architectures, technologies, technoscientific knowledges and, crucially, maintenance labor. Because, as I argue, categories and boundaries need a constant work of maintenance and repair to avoid their collapse. It is someone’s 9-to-5 job to maintain and repair the boundaries between subjects and objects, between essence and accident, or between past and present. The book offers an in-depth exploration of all the actors involved in this type of maintenance labor, like conservators, preparators, engineers, registrars, exhibition designers, guards, couriers, or cleaners, who have been left out of the main narratives of art because they have been considered to be without political, aesthetic, or historical value. I try to argue otherwise.

One of the key arguments I underline in the book is that the artificial ecologies that make possible modern aesthetics are not only labor-intensive but also very expensive. And this is where the politics of these ecologies comes fully into view since, obviously, not everybody can afford to produce them, let alone sustain them. The ability to maintain these ecologies shapes the uneven geographies of circulation and exchange which ultimately define whose objects and memories are being preserved, where they are preserved, and, more importantly, who preserves them and narrates them.

2. The time that you spent in MoMA’s Conservation Department proved to be fundamental to your research. How would you describe the ways by which technology, labor and the modern imagination relate to each other within its premises?”

Accessing the museum through the Conservation Department was truly eye-opening since it allowed me to engage art from an unexpected angle. Up to that point, my relationship with art had taken place through standard encounters in the exhibition room (and the computer screen). Besides, I must confess that I had been successfully socialized into the “two-culture” narrative which portrays art as something that is different, if not antagonistic, to science—a  narrative which, I think, is still dominant in much of STS, what probably explains why art is still such an odd topic in the field.  That two-culture narrative fell by the wayside the very moment I entered the conservation lab and I was thrown into discussions that seamlessly moved from polymers, to performance art, to emulsification, to Dadaism, to UV light, or to aesthetic meaning.

Seeing art through the practice of conservators enabled me to appreciate how intimately tied the history of art and that of science and technology are. It helped me to realize, for example, that you cannot understand the rise of movements like Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art in the 1940-1950s, without understanding how industrial chemists at BASF developed acrylic enamel in the 1930s and how those industrial paints were applied to the automotive industry in the US, much in the same way that you cannot understand the development of contemporary media art, installation and performance, without understanding the history of communication technologies since the 1960s.

Still, and this is something that I emphasize in the book, the continuity between science, art and technology is something that is not, and cannot, be in display in a museum like MoMA. Most of the technical and scientific labor that takes place in the museum must be hidden, or relegated to the background, to preserve modern ideas (and ideals) of artistic autonomy. One of the things I found really interesting in my research was, precisely, exploring how the boundaries between artistic, technical and scientific practices are negotiated in practice and how those negotiations render some forms of labor visible and valuable, while others are written into invisibility and thus denied any claim to authorship and meaning.

3. You mention that that the act of embracing ecological thinking is akin to acknowledging the vulnerabilities that modernity and the modern imagination have imposed upon us. Could you elaborate on how this might help us better understand the notion of cultural entropy, and the inevitable transformation of cultural objects into formless, meaningless things over time? 

This question goes at the heart of why I chose museums as the object of study. The museum is one of the quintessential institutions of modernity, encapsulating many of its promises, delusions and absurdities.  For example, the museum is emblematic of the modern relationship with nature as something that can be captured, absorbed, and controlled. For that is, in essence, what a museum is: a machine tasked with containing and stabilizing parts of the natural environment. Because no matter how we much we try to pretend otherwise that is what artworks ultimately are: chunks of the material environment that we try to hold on to since they have value and meaning for us. Of course, this enterprise is doomed from the start, because entropy is the law of life. Every single one of the artworks we see in museums today will eventually collapse into meaningless stuff. This is why, as I argue in the book, museums are not so much collection objects but collections of slowly unfolding disasters.

And yet, the museum tries to deny the natural movement of things as much as possible and create more or less stable objects. One of the reasons for this is because the categories that define modern aesthetics, like authenticity, originality, as well as modern legal categories of authorship and copyright, are premised on that denial. The modern idea of originality, for example, requires that an artwork stays as close as possible to how it was when it was originally produced—e.g. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon you see at MoMA today must be exactly what Picasso originally painted in 1907. Hence, all the effort to prevent, or better, to slow down its deterioration and preserve it as a stable object.  

This may sound fairly commonsensical to us, but historically peaking is very weird. In fact, as I argue in the book, modernity is best seen as an exception, an interruption, if not an aberration. Most amodern aesthetic regimes have produced meaning, value and memory by accepting the vulnerability of things, rather than by denying it. For us it is anathema to think about letting go of things like artworks—imagine the scandal that would erupt if the Louvre were to announce that it will stop preserving the Mona Lisa and just allow it to deteriorate. But, as it happens, that is actually how memory and meaning have been routinely done outside the narrow precincts of Western modernity. Most amodern systems have accepted loss and change and have produced memory and meaning through copies, alterations and multiple authorships. Remember, for example, that most of our memories of Western Antiquity are based on copies. The modern obsession with denying loss is the exception, not the norm. One of the questions I pose in the book is whether this is an exception that makes sense or that we should abandon.

4. You’ve written extensively about the use of different technologies such as those that are employed for the purpose of storage in either physical or digital environments. Why is it that the social scientist often looks over the ecological conditions that determine and govern their usage?  

I think that the absence of reflection about ecological conditions was probably the case a generation ago, but I am not so sure that it is still the case today. Maybe this has to do with the fact that a generation ago the main focus was on exploring how different techno-scientific objects are produced, and not so much on what happens afterwards, when those objects start to deteriorate, malfunction, or fall into disrepair. Once you ask those questions, you need to take into account things like mechanical and chemical processes (e.g., corrosion, oxidization, carbonization, crystallization). And once you take those processes into account you have to willy-nilly shift your attention to things like air, light, temperature, or humidity, which require a different type of thinking.

This is very clear in the case of art. As soon as one moves from asking how art is produced and displayed to how art is kept alive, you have to shift your attention to a whole different set of sites and practices like, for example, storage. Storage is where 90% of artworks normally live in museums. And yet, they are hardly talked about, mainly because they are seen as boring and inconsequential spaces. Granted that they may be boring, but they are not at all inconsequential. Storages are complex technologies shaping and sustaining the physical fabric of meaning and value. One of key variables to understand why this is the case are environments conditions. Because, like data or bananas, art requires very specific environmental conditions to move over time and space. If you want to think about the duration, fragility, or sturdiness of artworks you need to think ecologically. For example, at 35°C and 80% RH, a paper-based artwork is a fleeting object that can last about 3 years. At 20°C and 50% RH, the same artwork becomes a durable object that can last for about 100 years. And at 10°C and 40% RH, it can last 1,200 years. Museums and storages are essentially huge fridges that have to be kept at constant hygrothermal conditions 24/7.

Although we do not typically associate art with pollution, museums and storages are some of most unsustainable buildings on earth. As it turns out, sustaining the categories that organize modern aesthetics turns out to be an extremely dirty enterprise. Which then raises the question about whether the cost of sustaining modernity and its dreams of permanence is simply a luxury that we cannot afford.

5. The “anaesthetic void” is a concept that you discuss frequently in relation with the modern imagination. How would you explain this to our readers, and what would its broader implications be?

A basic precept of modern aesthetics is that the artwork you see in the museum is the authentic and original one. This requires two things. First, as mentioned before, it requires keeping the artwork (more or less) stable over time by preventing its decay as much as possible. Second, it requires that the artwork is experienced in the same way. What this means is that museums must not simply work to stabilize artworks in their exhibition rooms, but must also work to stabilize the perception of those artworks so that everybody gets to see the same object in the same way. Achieving the latter requires engineering what I call an “anaesthetic void”: a controlled, neutral, and invariant environment designed to suppress, or at least mitigate, any variation that might alter the conditions of perception and encounter with the art object.

Producing and sustaining this anesthetic void requires a vast engineering effort to make sure that nothing is biasing your experience of the artwork. At MoMA, for example, there is a whole effort to control and mitigate unwanted odors, which is done by creating negative pressure through HVAC systems. Something similar is done with noise, which is reduced through a complex system of buffering technologies inserted in walls, windows, and floors. And the same goes with light which has to be very carefully engineered to avoid adding shadows and hues that may distort artworks.

If you take all of this into account, you can see why I say that exhibition rooms are not really “rooms”, but aesthetic machines. And this is not just at MoMA. Every new museum is built on the promise of delivering a true and authentic encounter with the art object and requires the production of similar anaesthetic voids. This is the reason why no matter whether you are in Paris’s Pompidou, Bilbao’s Guggenheim, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, Buenos Aires’s MACBA, or Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA, you always find yourself in almost the exact same interior space, illuminated by almost the exact same light, in almost the exact same climatic conditions, and premised upon almost the exact same aesthetic language of authentic encounters with the artwork.

The anaesthetic void of the museum may seem extreme, but they are not. Most contemporary forms of interior space (e.g. the office, the supermarket, the shopping mall, the cinema), are similarly engineered to create “voids” intended to produce certain perceptual and behavioral effects. It should not come as a surprise that, as I write in the book, the development of these interior spaces is tied to the development of experimental behavioral and environmental psychology in the 1920s and 30s. The anaesthetic void of the museum is just one particular example of how the link between interior space, perception and behavior has been engineered since the early twentieth century.

6. With respect to cutting across disciplinary boundaries, what advice would you like to give our readership and (especially) to budding STS scholars?

The main advice would be to avoid fads and jargon like the plague. Academic conversation has become so ultra-compartmentalized nowadays that two people working on the exact same empirical object of study may not be able to communicate with each other because they are held captive by the jargon, bibliographies and citational inertias of their respective fields. The more you can avoid falling into that trap, the better chance you are giving your work to circulate. So, I would say try to derive your concepts from your empirical material, not from the jargon en vogue in any given discipline. Try to communicate with your reader without assuming that they have spent the last five years of their lives reading the same corner of literature that you have.

7. Lastly, could you tell us more about what you are currently working on, and what you are planning to work on next?

Honestly, what I am currently working on is on surviving. I have two kids who have not been able to go to school since March. I am also the Director of Graduate Studies in my department, and I have been teaching large intro courses over zoom. So, surviving seems kind of enough at the moment.

Still, I do have two projects under way that I hope to materialize at some point in a not so distant post-pandemic future. Both projects have to do with the notion of fragility, which is central in Still Life, but I feel I did not do full justice to it.

One of the projects is a volume I am coediting with Jérôme Denis and David Pontille titled Fragilities: Essays on the Politics Ethics and Aestehtics of Maintenace and Repair, which has an incredibly cool line-up of contributors in the STS-Anthropology orbit.

The second project is a short essay-type book that I tentatively call in my mind Uncommon Fragilities, which will be an exploration of what kinds of politics emerge when we think about fragility not as something to be avoided or fixed, but as the inherent condition of life.

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