BY JUDIT ANGEL, VLAD MORARIU, RALUCA VOINEA
At the end of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, as collection studies legitimised themselves as an autonomous field of inquiry, several surveys estimated that in the Western world between a third and a half of the adult population would identify as collectors. This must be understood in the context of the post-war affluence of the West and a consumer society that has exponentially multiplied possibilities for spending, within which emerging economies (Russia, China, India and Brazil, among others) have been readily integrated. So much is collecting present in our everyday lives, that today Amazon and eBay entice us to spend our disposable incomes on collectibles. However, an unchallenged assumption runs across the field of cultural studies – the assumption that collecting is essentially individual and subjective. Certain tropes reinforce it: the collector’s drug-like addiction to new purchases, the aesthetics of compulsion and uncontrollable desire, the fashioning of self-expression, the manufacturing of a heightened self-esteem, the exquisiteness of authorship, the display of individual taste and cultural capital. Nevertheless there is no reason to consider the private subject as a necessary condition for the collecting experience: is there a possibility to invert this assumption and pose, at least as a working hypothesis, a different kind of subject: a collection collective subject? And how could this subject be imagined?
Collectibles are strange entities, because they are not extinguished in the process of consumption. We would see a collectible car in a showroom rather than on the road. Collectibles are not means to an end and do not have a utilitarian value though they are useful: a work of art can satisfy one’s aesthetic and intellectual needs, for example. As sources of sensuous and intellectual pleasure, they are self-replenishing. Walter Benjamin understood this well when he explained that the relationship between a collector and items collected points to the enclosure of ‘a magic circle’. What is magical about collections is that they reconstruct a world as well as offer the representation of a better world: ‘The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership – for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object’. For Benjamin, collecting is revolutionary.
Collections are worlds of meaning, representations of totality, order, structure, and stability. But since collections are never complete, they are always haunted by their dialectical others: disorder, anarchy and instability. For every totalizing collection, there is always a new entity to be added, items eliciting the compulsive desire for possession. Psychoanalysis interprets this dialectic between order and disorder as part of a self-reassuring therapy: a collection works as a reparative device against existential dread, against ontological insecurity, an instrument to temporarily alleviate recurring cycles of repressed traumatic experience. Beyond a psychoanalytical account, which remains conscripted to the private chambers of the neurotic subject, can we think of a therapeutic collective practice of collecting that constructs worlds of meaning against the dread of falling democratic institutions, neo-colonial exploitation and racism?
Witnessing the advent of public collections, Benjamin predicted, in the 1930s, the extinction of the private collector. We would need to requalify this prophecy, as today we witness mutant articulations between a collection’s usefulness without use and its exchange value, between meaning making and financial capitalization. It would be safe to propose that the subjectivity of the private collector has mutated as well. It has become more abstract and anonymous as well as more visible and acknowledged. One deciphers it from anonymous collectors’ private parties for public museums or biennials openings, from the abstract collectors of the corporation, and from the ubiquitous logos of private brands sponsoring public culture. Under this new magical spell, institutions of contemporary art opt for blockbuster shows with high visitor numbers, whereas their own collections lie in storage. Private collections are revolving more and more around collectors whose fortunes are built on suspicious businesses or financial speculation. One may also think about the transnational collections kept secret in no man’s lands between borders, the hollow flow of images in Instagram-types of collecting, the speculations of the auction houses, and the artists’ collections with works by other artists.
Almost always too late, cultural producers find themselves entangled in these new relations of power. Although there is a strong tradition of cultural autonomy constructed at the level of production (cultural producers organizing themselves to have their labour rights recognized, compensated, and protected; to fight censorship or abuse) questions of consumption in relation to processes of collecting are rather seldom addressed. What we are asking is whether a model of (art) collection that is owned and run by cultural producers could function. This would be constituted by the works donated by cultural producers who would collectively own the collection. In the very process of articulating a collective collection we seek to de-privatize the collecting subject: rethink the relationship between self-interest and collective goal, between individual addiction and group strategy, between private taste and collective socio-political tactic and between insular neurosis and therapeutic friendship. Through a five-week-long exhibition with artists who have responded to our call, and through a workshop and seminar with artists, lawyers, social theorists, economists, and academics, Collection Collective. Template for a Future Model of Representation seeks to understand the practical ways in which such a subject could be articulated within a collective collection.
What we are proposing is a basic layout we imagine to be developed together with those deciding to become part of it. To begin, we have taken a curatorial role and selected the participants in the first event we have organized in Bratislava. In so doing we have assumed the paradoxical stance of a subjective selection claiming to work for collective goals, even if we consider ourselves, the three curators, already as a micro-collective. When thinking of the artists invited we have tried to imagine them as members of a collective: our previous collaboration with them, exchange of ideas and mutual trust counted as much as their genuine concern for critical practice, historical consciousness, social and political engagement. We asked each artist to offer a number of works, which they could imagine as part of the collection and we have decided together on the final selection.
Once Collection Collective ends, all works will be returned to the artists. The market will continue to speculate on artwork prices responding to private collectors’ demand, whereas public collections will continue to investigate the origin of their art objects, trying to offer them to public inspection while revealing their often painful histories including looting, trafficking or overuse in diplomatic or economic struggle between states. Our Collection Collective does not attempt to situate itself outside of these parameters, but to change the position from which cultural producers and consumers negotiate their roles. If collecting occurs nonetheless and collections are used whether for one’s aesthetic and intellectual pleasure or for financial investment and status bouncing, why should producers not be the very same people who collect and maintain a collection?!
The Bratislava installment of Collection Collective was offered as a template that could be replicated in other circumstances, with other people, in other forms. Even if we hope and expect that the future will see Collection Collective effectively established, we are also open to the possibility that, until then, it remains a conceptual proposal in progress.