How we made “Not Art”

24 11 2009

By Majime S.

[This is a follow up to the preceding blog entry:  Censored by de Young Museum]

[Addendum added Wed 10:43am 11/25:  see below]

It’s come to our attention that the museum’s line is basically that what we installed was not what had been accepted by the jury, and that serves as justification for all that followed.

Contract. (Click to enlarge)

However, we followed museum protocol to a tee, frequently communicating proposed changes to them, all of which were met with approval.  The contract I signed with the museum states “if any changes occur before the show, you must contact the exhibition designer,” which is exactly what I did at every major step of the creative process, and at no point along the way were any red flags raised.

For those interested in the process, here’s how it went.

The original proposal included a 36×24″ poster and racks of the 9×4″ rack cards from our intervention, as a way of exhibiting what had taken place this past summer in our intervention at the Asian Art Museum’s samurai show.

After the exhibition as a whole had been laid out, I was informed of the space allotted to my work, and the actual flexibility I had to work with.  I had been given an entire 8′ x 4′ wall panel, so within reason I could expand the work beyond the bounds of small poster, with the understanding that I keep the de Young abreast of changes as they developed.

The project then developed in stages, always including the rack cards, from

  1. small poster (36×24″) to
  2. larger poster with superimposed text (of all the documentation that was eventually taken down) to
  3. losing the poster entirely and simply displaying the documentation with printed on letter size paper.

At each stage, I communicated developmental changes to the show’s exhibition designer per the agreed upon protocol.  All changes were met with approval.

Below are concept images of the work in development (click to enlarge).

1.  Initial concept:  small poster, rack cards.

small poster

36 x 24 in. poster

2.  Large poster, with superimposed text of generated discourse:

When I learned that I was allotted an entire 8×4′ wall section, and was pretty much free to explore how to use it, this began the next stage of development.

Around this time we realized that the proposed exhibition lacked an important element of the project, which was the impact it had in raising issues and generating dialogue.  So we began to work with ways to incorporate that while trying to take greater advantage of the space at the same time.

84 x 40" poster with superimposed text

9" rack card scaled up to 7' poster, with superimposed text, against 8x4' wall (concept)

Detail of large poster

Detail of text overlay on poster (concept)

In exploring this direction we consulted with a professional graphic/information design specialist, but the project felt like the creative priorities were beginning to stray from what our work was originally about.  At the same time, we realized that the poster motif didn’t really fit, because we never actually created any posters for the intervention itself.

3.  Racks w/rack cards, printed text, headphones + mp3 player

We took a more “conventional” approach to exhibiting our intervention, which was to try to provide a visual experience that directly engaged the viewer in what actually happened and the ideas generated by it, by using content directly related to the intervention and its outcome.

That meant the rack cards, and documentation of what happened, in the form of media coverage and online discussions.  An mp3 player would play a loop of our radio interview, and since it was impractical to have actual computer screens with scrolling & navigational capability, the online and press coverage would be printed on letter size paper with browser window motif.

new concept

New concept: rack cards, printouts, mp3 player+headphones, mounted on 48x36" board

Here’s a snap of it as we worked it out in studio, turning the wall into pincushion in the process.

Installation in studio

In Majime's studio

install schematic

Schematic for direct wall-mounted installation in museum

Reformatting all of the media coverage was a lengthy process, since we re-composed it with a browser window/scroll bar motif for the material sourced off the web (which was most of it), and adjusted fonts and pagination for legibility, and because there was just so much of it.

Actual printed content consisted of the following source material, per the above diagram, 101 pages in total:

1.  Mainstream media and SF blogs:


3.  The first blog to break the story:

4.  Kenneth Baker’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle, plus nine pages of reader comments

5.  Arts publications:

6.  Academic blogs in Japanese Studies:

7.  Hokubei Online:  online press from SF’s Japantown

8.  Blogs by individuals:

9.  Content from this blog:

10.  The Marmot’s Hole, from Korea.  They don’t like us.

(11.)  Headphones connected to an mp3 player playing our interview on KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio.

At the Museum

When I arrived at the museum, I went through an official check-in process.  As shown in the contract posted above, it says:  “If there is any discrepancy when you check in, there is the possibility that you may forfeit your opportunity to show work.”

Our work passed the check-in process without issue.

The install took about 2.5-3 hours with two of us working together, somewhat feverishly.  The following pictures of the completed piece were taken shortly after we were ordered to take down the printouts (forgive the quality; we were kind of pissed).

wide shot in de Young

Installed in Wilsey Court

Medium shot of our work

Here's the actual content

The remains, after it came down:

They didn't order the removal of the mp3+headphones, probably because from 30 feet away they didn't see it. (The objects on the table are someone else's.)

Since the installation no longer represented our artistic vision, we wanted to do something to indicate that important fact to the audience, so I posted the diagram we used for installation, along with a note explaining that this is what it was supposed to look like, and why it ended up differently.

Diagram with explanation

"Explaining" the remains

schematic for installation

Actual diagram used for installation at museum, penciled note at bottom added during event

We were ordered to take this down as well.  When I asked the staff person how viewers are supposed to know that what they are looking at is not what the artist intended, I was told that I could stand there and explain it to anyone who was interested.  Nice.

As I attempted to work my way up the chain of command,

Negotiating signage

Negotiating sign verbiage (not the same person who told me to stand there & explain to everyone)

this is what was finally approved.

"Approved" sign

Approved signage.

While the event itself was traumatic, overall what happened is an affirmation of the power of the art that we didn’t expect:  that months later it continues to unsettle the powers-that-be to the level of irrationality (“This is not art”) in a way that extends across multiple city-funded institutions tells us we really must be doing something right.

[UPDATE  June 2011:  This project has been detailed in a new book, The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum, edited by Janet C. Marstine, in a chapter on “Museum Censorship” by Christopher B. Steiner .]

Addendum:  We just want to make one thing plainly clear.  This is not about the people in the program directly running the event, who appreciated our art but once the removal order was given from on high, had no choice but to fall in line.  It is about high level administrators coming in at the last minute, with their Asian Art Museum counterparts on the phone, and committing what we see as an act of cultural violence, with no regard for the program’s own curatorial authority.  If the de Young management responds to the negative publicity that arises from their own actions taken against our art by taking reprisals against the program staff or the program itself, we will make sure that word gets out about that.  The accountability needs to be held on those actually responsible for what happened, the de Young’s directors of Education and PR, and not by scapegoating the program staff or the program itself.

Letter Writing:  Address your concerns to

John E. Buchanan, Jr., Director, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

c/o de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118

Thank you for all of the outpouring of support.




2 responses

28 11 2009
Have You Heard The News? Recent updates « beyondasiaphilia

[…] at the Asian Art Museum, which was the hapless target of the original intervention this summer. More details to be found here on their blog, but it sounds like the cabal of museum administrators protected their own interests at the expense […]

16 05 2012

The de young probably chose to rudely eject your work because it exposed what institutional power can do to corrupt and form its own idea of art. The institution never likes to be outed.

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