Collecting the uncollectable

A version of this essay appeared in the current issue of Frieze Week magazine:

‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in [the collector]; it is he who lives in them’, wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1931 essay titled ‘Unpacking My Library – A Talk on Collecting’. Speaking at an event dedicated to ‘collecting performance’ hosted by the London non-profit Delfina Foundation, Marseille-based psychiatrists and collectors Marc and Josée Gensollen related Benjamin’s claim concerning books to their own experience of collecting live art. For them, ‘the most intimate relationship to an artwork lies in its activation’.

The collector couple not only lives in and among the artworks displayed in their home, which doubles as an exhibition space open to the public by appointment, they also make some of these works ‘come alive in them’ by activating them for visitors. Take Tino Sehgal’s 2003 work This is about that I have witnessed Marc Gensollen perform in the privacy of his home, before seeing the collector faithfully reenact it again two years later, this time in public, at the Delfina Foundation.

The Gensollens, who started collecting minimal and conceptual art as well as video work in the 1970s, have been drawn from the outset to the type of object that eludes the collector’s grasp and cannot be fully owned. Laurence Weiner’s seminal text-based installations that hold pride of place in their collection need not have any material presence and anyone in theory can walk away with the work simply by memorizing the words. Original video works tend to be part of limited edition series, not unlike pieces by Tino Sehgal in this respect, which come in editions of four with the artist retaining the right to exhibit them.

That they are not unique objects, nor even objects per se, might put some collectors off. For Jonathon Carroll, speaking in his dual role of collector and dealer of what can broadly be termed ‘multimedia’ or ‘new media’ art, the ‘concern about reproduction is a complete red herring; nobody should care about it and nobody does.’ The code of the very first work he acquired in 2000, 33 Questions per Minute by Rafael Lozano-Hemmel, an artist that Carroll/Fletcher now represents, is freely available online. New digital technologies and platforms such as Open Source or Creative Commons have made the very idea of ownership feel somewhat redundant and spawned a breed of collector whose motivations go beyond that of mere acquisition. ‘To some extent, being a collector today is about patronage, supporting the artist,’ says Carroll.

Rooted in the radical experiments of the 1960s, time-based media like performance, video, sound and digital art (a label that few practitioners like to be associated with), though no longer new, are still relative newcomers in art historical terms, which may explain their appeal to this new species of philanthropically-minded collector. Aimed explicitly at ‘a young generation’ of patrons, Outset Young Production Fund has thus contributed towards the recently-launched Moving Image Fund of Museums, initiated by artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen with Thomas Dane Gallery to help regional museums in the UK build up their collections of artist film and video works. Though less expensive to acquire than painting, sculpture and other more easily collectable media, these frequently entail high production, conservation and display costs that make them unaffordable for most public institutions.

Tate itself, which has no dedicated budget to either performance or moving image, has benefited from initiatives such as the Artangel Collection at Tate or the Outset Frieze Fund (OFT) specifically designed to endow its collection. Thanks to the former, multimedia installations of often baffling complexity, commissioned and produced by the London non-profit, have entered Tate’s collection at a rate of about one per year since the launch of Artangel Collection in 2011. The OFT allowed Tate curators working together with international peers to have their pick of artworks sold at Frieze Art Fair, before it wound up in 2014, having reached the 100th work mark. (The scheme will be reestablished this year, albeit using a more traditional corporate funding model.) ‘Among the key works added [to the collection] were seminal video and digital works of art, such as Mark Leckey’s Made in ‘Eaven (2004) and Andrea Fraser’s Projection (2008) [as well as] the first performance work to be integrated in the national collection: Roman Ondák’s Good Feelings in Good Times (2003)’, comments Outset founder Candida Gertler.

Not all new media are as well represented as they should be in public collections or by galleries. Curator of Digital at the Serpentine Galleries, and one of a handful to hold that title, Ben Vickers thinks that there is ‘a black hole’ in museum collections when it comes to net art – particularly by Jodi, Ubermorgen, Heath Bunting, Olia Lialina, and other artists working in the 90s with the rise of the World Wide Web, who produced work dealing with the medium specificity of the Internet and digital technology. ‘That work never made it into museums’, he says. For Vickers, the fact that a gallery like Carroll/Fletcher, which has only been around since 2012, has in its stable of artists so many seminal figures associated with the digital medium – from Ubermorgen to Eva and Franco Mattes to Thomson & Craighead – is indicative of this neglect. Since none of these artists were represented by more established galleries, Carroll/Fletcher ‘stepped into that position and represented them all’.

Carroll himself is keen to correct the misconception that his gallery has an exclusive focus on new media-based art. One of the artists Carroll/Fletcher represents, Christine Sun Kim, is featured in this year’s Live section of Frieze London. The deaf artist will work with performers to generate more or less rude and audible sounds that she can sense, responding to the noisy surroundings of the fair. Now in its third year, Live is a subsidized platform for ‘performance-led or active installations’, as Frieze artistic director Joanna Stella-Sawicka puts it, rather than ‘performance in the strict sense’. Stella-Sawicka invokes in this regard the way Tate curators chose to frame things at the Switch House with talk of ‘How art became active’, which reflects a wider ‘active turn’ that visionary collectors like the Gensollens embody.

Collecting performance used to mean buying photographs, video footage and other physical traces of the live event, which is still the case with a lot of the historical performance pieces featured in the main or the Focus sections of the fair. But more adventurous collectors are increasingly adopting what Teresa Calonje Trenor – in the introduction to an imaginative collection of essays and interviews titled Live Forever. Collecting Live Art (2014) – identifies as an alternative strategy, namely collecting the ‘original live experience’ with a view to re-activating it. Though the two strategies are not mutually exclusive, the Live section creates a space where the latter can happen.

Despite or because of their ambitious nature, time-based media of every ilk tend to be relegated to the peripheral or ‘young’ sections of a fair, such as Focus. Showing this kind of work, which often requires a concentrated attention span, in the competitive environment of a fair can be a challenge. Having to hire performers for a live artwork or building a closed environment needed for a quality projection represents a substantial outlay with no guarantee of an immediate return. This does not stop galleries like Hoxton-based Seventeen from choosing for its solo presentation a technically-demanding new work by Canadian artist Jon Rafman. The proposed immersive multimedia installation comprises a central sculptural object acting as a link between the reality of the seated viewing platform and the simulated landscape watched through VR headsets, using Oculus Rift technology.

According to Stella-Sawicka, the young section is a reliable barometer when it comes to sassing out ‘how a generation is responding to the current times: what is the mood, what are the trends’. If the Focus offerings over the past few years are anything to go by, art with a digital sensibility is definitely on the rise.

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