The Ephemera(l) Institution

by Martin Gantman

January 11,2014 (Presentation)

Most of what you have seen throughout the ICI tonight is my project, so tonight I am just going to make some very brief comments about process. But before discussing this residency project I did at the ICI the last few months, there are a couple of ancillary issues that I would first like to mention.

About investigatory art:

Investigatory art is a term I use to describe a form of art that is a site of research as well as a site of productivity.

At the panel I co-chaired with Gina Dabrowski at the CAA 2012, we had panelists such as an eco-network, comprised of international artists who feed into a central network that broadcasts violations of eco policy and intrusions into eco-geography around the world. We had a report about a Chinese artist who is studying key words involved in local dialects throughout China, and we heard from an artist based in Germany who is investigation the 200 year old tradition of community gardens in Berlin.

For me investigatory art began, very loosely, with the minimalists whose art related to borders, corners, edges, scale, and space. Then to the conceptualists, like Kosuth and Huebler, whose work presented issues around language in visual terms, for example, juxtaposing dictionary definitions with real objects. Later, Hans Haacke investigated corporations and museum boards of directors and displayed his findings artistically, and more contemporarily Alan Sekula, who recently passed.

They altered the nature of aesthetics by presenting data as art.

As to the difference between investigatory art and other art forms, consider painting, for example. Painting may also include historical background and study, but paint is the primary medium and the artwork is primarily about the eventual image.

In investigatory art research is the artistic medium and the result may easily be the portrayal of just the research itself. At the same time these are not necessarily scholarly projects but artistic works intended to pass on, as usual in art, the observations of the artist to the viewing public.

About being an Associate of the ICI:

Secondly, as to being an Associate of the Institute and performing the inquiry I had decided to undertake, there were moments when I felt a bit uncomfortable, even though the residency was intended to be interactive.

It was never my intention to perform a critique of the ICI, rather just to investigate issues that I was interested in, but in so doing questions arose that caused all of us here at the ICI to have to reconsider long held assumptions – and sometimes to debate those.

Eventually we had some lively and very informative conversations not only about ICI, but about the root inquiry of this investigation. For example, there were discussions held about the meaning of ephemera, the ICI’s use of the term, and also the ICI’s use of the associated materials.

Later there were conversations that dealt more with the ICI’s mission and its future that were more collaborative. At this point, though, the issue for me was whether I was stepping over the line from becoming an investigator toward being simply a participant. It was an issue I had to monitor very closely as I proceeded.

About the project (The Ephemera(l) Institution:

In spite of a long association with the Institute there were still questions and curiosities about ICI I had that I wanted to know more about.

My initial vehicle was the ICI’s use of the word ephemera, which referred, for me, not only to what ephemera actually is and what it means to the ICI, but also, in general, how this term may reference the life and after life of an institution.

I like to think of my investigations as archeologies where, like any onsite dig, one brushes the sand aside to uncover information and truths. That is, the more data one has, the fuller and richer a project becomes.

Along the way the search led through a better understanding of ephemera. It was originally defined as something that lived very briefly and then was gone. Later it was understood more generally as a collection of inactive elements.

I then got into the ICI’s use of ephemeral elements in their pursuit of knowledge production. For example, the Ephemera Kabinett, to my left, is filled with all kinds of remnants. They came to the ICI in innumerable ways and have been selectively used in various ICI projects.

The issue of how ephemeral data was used morphed into an inquiry about the bases of institutions, and their formal and informal constraints. These constraints derive from an organization’s mission and the predilections of their officers, directors, etc. They determine how organizations operate and form the bases of their decision-making. I think now that these constraints are pretty much at the root of determining an organization’s identity.

Later I speculated and wrote about the performative aspects of the ICI; how the entire creation and activity of the ICI could be seen as an artistic performance: performance as art, performance as identity, performance as ephemera. That is, was this ICI project, mine and the organization’s, originally intended as a performance?

As we began to discuss the future, I looked into the ICI as archive.

All that is collected is archive.

All that is preserved is archive.

All that is transitioned is archive.

And, at some point, an organization may simply exist as an archive.

This issue of archive eventually led to the question of digitization. How does the ICI intend to ultimately digitize? For digitization is supposedly the future archive – the thing that is meant to last.

To get there though, begets difficult questions: questions of art, questions of politics, and questions of afterlife. What do we save and how do we save it?

So ultimately the ICI’s interest and my original question, about future, actually merged.

But a thought about the Internet: it is as if, once we are on the Internet we think we have become immortal. The Internet has become cloudy, muddled, perhaps stodgy, and especially commercial. The Internet itself requires change.

And one caution I must mention in terms of the ICI and ephemerality. The ICI also publishes books and other materials that may be considered real product and object.

About the photo and other works I have interjected throughout this ICI facility, they are not artworks per se, merely markers. They are sites of representation and memory; indicators, perhaps, of future transitions of the ICI.

So there was this path that the enquiry took: ephemera to organizational constraints to performance (ephemera(l) to archive (ephemera(l) to future (perhaps digitization) (ephemera(l).

About the interment:

The interment of Matchboxes-in-anotherbox: testimony is not a funeral. It is about transformation. Emblematically, this box and the ashes it contains represent the ephemeral continuity of the ICI and by extension all institutions. This ephemera, or detritus, as you will, will be remembered distinctively by each of you in whatever way you perceive the institution.