Curating Ephemeral Icons: The Case of MOMAFAD
In MOMAFAD, seminal artworks by twenty-six artists have been installed in an abandoned building and photographed in situ, producing a series of images that are co-authored. The unifying principle is the display of these works inside Eero Saarinen’s iconic airport terminal in Athens. The overall project makes apparent processes of remediation; canvases and sculptures develop into site-specific installations and the latter turn into self-contained photographs bearing their own aesthetic qualities. Clearly the images embody an archive in their own right, documenting a collective production process in which auctorial identities have been put into question. To realize that the displayed art cannot be separated both physically and narratively from the exhibition site leads us to question whether the practices of the curator and artist intersect or even overlap. It is, however, of little interest to explore who is doing what. Rather, we should focus on the impact these images have on their prospective viewers. What does the viewer have to gain by looking at these images? Can we assume that they constitute a visual essay dedicated to the art of viewing, as this has been shaped in times of social isolation and confinement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Do they also account for differentiated imperatives and novel social protocols related to curating, understood as a responsible act of care? Images, as Oliveira has pointed out, ‘invite the viewer to remember, digress, and to imagine’  whilst also recalling our immediate tradition of postmodern sensitivity and may teach us how to behave in a world saturated by non-sense images.
Our modern ‘optical unconscious’ (to evoke Walter Benjamin’s influential expression) runs through the photographic lens, thus contributing to our own notion of selfhood. It is doubtful whether the inventors of social media platforms have read Benjamin’s seminal essay on the technological reproducibility of images; however, they all likely agree with one statement; ‘that any individual can be in a position to be filmed.’  Indeed, statistics maintain that in 2015 ‘social network users shared more than three billion images every day,’ compelling the authors of the survey to discuss the ‘dramatic increase in image circulation occurring from 2013 onwards’ characterized as ‘social media’s visual turn.’ It is within this plethora of images and in the context of an emerging iconic economy, or ‘iconomics – the general economy of images’ as Peter Szendy puts it, that MOMAFAD can be situated.
One should keep in mind that photography itself has been largely associated with the arrival of postmodern art in the late 1980s. In fact, the majority of seminal site-specific interventions, installations, and performance works produced after the 1960s exist solely in the form of “installation views”. The predominance of photographic documentation and its contribution to the advancement of the installation and site-specific art as well as contemporary curatorial discourse, in particular, cannot be underestimated. From André Malraux’s The Imaginary Museum of World Sculpture (1952–54) to Douglas Crimp’s On the Museum’s Ruins (1993) (a publication accompanied by a photographic essay by Louise Lawler), exhibition-making is critically associated with a vast archive of photographs. Indeed, art institutions played a significant role in this development. The imperative for increasing visibility is heavily embedded in the socio-political context of western modernism, exemplified through the rise of the public museum in the mid-nineteenth century.
Tony Bennett highlights the intervention of the state in institutions of public visibility, even if indirect. According to Bennett, ‘the nineteenth century was quite unprecedented in the social effort it devoted to the organization of spectacles, arranged for increasingly large and undifferentiated publics;’ ‘society itself […] rendered a spectacle.’  Bennett focuses on society as a whole single entity when claiming that the exhibitionary complex’s democratization of institutions allow for the public to govern and regulate themselves. Because knowledge is made accessible to all, the ‘specular dominance of the eye of power’ is made accessible as well.
Critical approaches, such as Bennett’s analysis of the emergence of the museum, touch upon the relation between the viewing process and the formation of selfhood and identity. They have been promoted in the context of specific societal and scientific norms and supported by the museum’s policies and histories. This is made apparent particularly by recalling the Foucauldian connection of power and knowledge and its application to the exhibitionary complex which is understood as an additional technology of the self. Exhibitions need to be understood as material utterances or dispositives within a larger network of institutional apparatuses that produce identities whether these be artistic, avant-garde, gender, racial, subcultural, regional, national, international, global, etc. While the term discourse introduced by Foucault refers to ensembles of written utterances (discursive practices) and their inherent rules, the term dispositive is the extension of the discourse by non-discursive practices that influence the options for action of others both in an institutional and social context.
As Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak argue, the contemporary art museum tends to place its emphasis on the research and mediation of temporary exhibitions that are ephemeral, context-bound and attentive to current socio-political developments rather than focusing on its collection which is permanent, place-bound and in principal historizing. This is in line with the rise of the temporary exhibitions-as-events predominantly after the 1960s that, as Florence Derieux has suggested, shifted the focus from the work of art to its modalities of display, making the latter half of the twentieth century ‘no Ionger … a history of artworks, but … a history of exhibitions.’  The temporary art exhibition has become the ultimate medium in the distribution and reception of art and is, therefore, ‘the principal agency in the debates and criticism around any aspect of the visual arts.’
In fact, the museum is at the centre of a heated debate about its own nature and foundational principles. According to Karsten Schubert, the perpetual call for museum reform, from the moment museums were founded through to the post-industrial and post-modern eras (in which debate intensified), was always focused around two issues: ‘that the museum be open and accessible to all, and that its displays represent an adequate, fair and ‘objective’ reading of its subjects.’  However, this claim that demonstrates the ways in which the museum undergoes changes in fact reaffirms its status and normative power, is debated, and taken as the departure point of the proposed investigation. The museum’s exhibition is understood as the dramaturgical setting for the staging of spatial relations between works and viewers with curating as an activity that structures such experiences for the benefit of the viewer and in doing justice to the work’s informational, affective and communicational content.
However, as O’ Neill maintains, hierarchies are only temporary and always renegotiated, assembled and disassembled, as much as they are performed. ‘The ‘curatorial’ is not limited to, or by, the individual curatorial position.’  In this regard, the role of the viewer should be understood as co-constitutive allowing for a ‘continuous process of negotiation in which the positions taken vary in relation to the other subjects or objects involved in exhibitions, take on new directions, and appear in various constellations’ and enabling a complexity of personalised, visual attachments and identities to evolve.  This is achieved by offering the freedom to identify with various display settings through exhibition-making models of subjectification that are constructed, replicated and naturalized notably often without conscious control.
In this regard, the development of installation art in the context of radical practices associated with the 1960s and early 1970s can be seen as the main vehicle of this spectator-bound development of art. In installation art, a work is conceived as a staged scenario addressed to the viewer rather than as an autonomous art object and medium such as sculpture, easel painting or video shown on screens or monitors. It is also largely a mainstream form of art associated with provoking a more critical awareness of the material and ideological contexts in which the reception of a work of art occurs. This implied scenography operates not only in settings provided by contemporary museums and galleries but most importantly in urban areas, remote natural settings, in the sky or underwater. Installation art is always site- and viewer-bound.
The development of site-specific art, that is, art created to exist in a certain place either permanently or lasting for a certain amount of time, takes into account the specific location in which an artwork is produced and conceived that in comparison to installation art can also be traditional painting or sculpture. Outdoor site-specific artworks include performances conceived for a specific location creating situations that draw attention to the visual (formal) and contextual interaction of the performers with the site. While installation art aims to establish a relation with the exhibiting site, site specific-art presupposes it. In both cases the traditional boundaries between art and architecture have become increasingly blurred.
Nevertheless, it is due to the presence of the artwork in both cases that architecture becomes increasingly fluid. ‘To install’ means to take note of the perimeters of that space and reconfigure it. In this regard ephemerality is the main characteristic of site-related art pieces; ‘to install,’ is a process that takes place each time an exhibition is mounted. Installation refers to the artist’s vernacular and their specific way of exhibiting and exercising control over a work of art. At the same time, when one experiences an installation a bodily interaction is initiated. In fact, one could say, paraphrasing Heraclitus’ famous saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”, you cannot step into the same piece twice either because the setting has changed, or the viewer is not the same.
These performative and spectator-bound settings are understood, not as neutral epistemic environments but rather as highly ideological apparatuses that play a cardinal role in shaping people’s perceptions as well as forming new social contexts and identities. According to Caroline A. Jones, subjects constitute themselves ‘within a particularly visual kind of modernism’ underlining the large-scale ‘bureaucratization of the senses’ which put into motion specific processes of subjectification. Exhibitions solidify normative imperatives and social protocols and, at the same time, allow for new types of action to emerge. Exhibitions may counteract established protocols and dominant-hegemonic practices of viewing while drifting from the official model ‘through lapses of memory, disaffiliation, random variation, memory lapses, and so forth.’
Models of contemporary exhibition-making such as those that have been tested out in MOMAFAD intensify the medium (un)specificity of contemporary art, the ephemeral quality of the aesthetic encounter and the individuality of every single perspective. The archival focus of MOMAFAD doesn’t derive from a wish to play with archeologies, histories and historiographies but rather promotes the artist-curator in his primary and fundamental capacity as an actual viewer, a ‘professional spectator.’ This, in turn, transforms the audience’s position from spectator to co-creator adding to the imperative of transparency and democratization of art while deepening our grasp of the politics of perception. This statement, however, does not imply that meaning is to be found solely in the viewer’s interpretation of a work of art nor only its display and documentation. We do not witness the semiotic ‘birth of the reader’ at the cost of an extinct author (or even co-authors) so as to reaffirm a celebrated postmodern dictum.
It was Jacques Rancière who first promoted the figure of the spectator whose capacities to sense and reflect are greater than the art world has managed to conceive. Stating that ‘the spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals,’  Rancière points towards notions of intellectual emancipation and the politics of spectatorship or visual literacy. The very existence of this debate actually reflects art’s continuous self-criticism and persistent transformation. Drawing on Rancière, one can suggest the figure of the ‘ignorant curator’ as a possible equivalent to the professional spectator; two figures who pay tribute to the ‘emancipated’ spectator’s potential capabilities to view and therefore act politically. MOMAFAD doesn’t act with the didactic impetus of curatorial discourse but rather within the workings of our concomitant optical unconscious. This is fashioned not only by online visuality but also by a variety of personal memories, hopes and fantasies. It is in this intersection between personalized experiences and art that the emancipated spectator of iconic ephemeralities emerges.
MOMAFAD has been carried out during the global lockdown of 2020 which disrupted the activities across the art world and threatened the financial survival of institutions as well as the livelihood of thousands of art professionals. Inviting viewers to contemplate on their own personal museums during the lockdown makes spectators appreciate the subtle political gestures that projects like MOMAFAD enact.
 Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley and David Prince, A Book of Burning Matches: Collecting Installation Art Documents (London: Mulberry Tree Press, 2015), 15.
 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin,
translated by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others (Cambridge, Massachusetts London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 33.
 Simon Faulkner, Farida Vis and Francesco D’Orazio, “Analyzing Social Media Images”, in The SAGE Handbook of Social Media,eds. Jean Burges, Alice Marwick and Thomas Poell (London: SAGE Publications, 2018), 161.
 Peter Szendy, “Shadow Economics and Road Networks of the Visible,” in The Supermarket of the Visible, eds. Peter Szendy, Emmanuel Alloa and Marta Ponsa (Paris: Gallimard and Jeu e Paume, 2020), 23.
 Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” New Formations, no. 4 (Spring 1988): 65.
 Ibid, 66.
 Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur: lnventing a Singular Position,” in Thinking about Exhibitions, eds. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, (London: Routledge, 1996), 237.
 Florence Derieux, lntroduction”, in Harald Szeemann, Individual Methodology, ed. Florence Derieux, (Zurich: JRP Ringier Kunstverlag: 2007), 8-10.
 Bruce Ferguson, “Exhibition Rhetorics,” in Thinking about Exhibitions, eds. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, (London: Routledge, 1996), 179.
 Karsten Schubert, Karsten, The Curator’s Egg. The evolution of the museum concept from the French Revolution to the present day (London: Ridinghouse, 2009), 16.
 Paul O’ Neil, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (London; Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press, 2012), 91.
 Ibid, 95.
 Beatrice von Bismarck, “Curatorial Criticality: On the Role of Freelance Curators in the Field of Contemporary Art,” in Curating Critique,ed. Marianne Eigenheer (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2007), 68.
 Caroline A Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), xv, xix.
 Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History,” The Art Bulletin 73, no. 2 (Jun., 1991): 187.
 Georgia Kotretsos, “Statement”, Kunst und Kirche 4 (2017), 4.
 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London:Verso, 2010), 2.
Bal, Mieke and Norman Bryson. “Semiotics and Art History”. The Art Bulletin 73, no. 2 (Jun., 1991): 174-208.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others, Cambridge, Massachusetts London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
Bennett, Tony. “The Exhibitionary Complex.” New Formations, no. 4 (Spring 1988): 73-102.
Bismarck, Beatrice von. “Curatorial Criticality: On the Role of Freelance Curators in the Field of Contemporary Art.” In Curating Critique, edited by Marianne Eigenheer, 19-23. Frankfurt: Revolver, 2007.
Derieux, Florence, “lntroduction.” In Harald Szeemann, Individual Methodology, edited by Derieux, Florence, 8-10. Zurich: JRP Ringier Kunstverlag: 2007.
Faulkner, Simon, Farida Vis and Francesco D’Orazio. “Analyzing Social Media Images.” In The SAGE Handbook of Social Media, edited by Jean Burges, Alice Marwick and Thomas Poell, 160-178. London: SAGE Publications, 2018.
Ferguson, Bruce. “Exhibition Rhetorics.” In Thinking about Exhibitions, edited by Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, 175-190. London: Routledge, 1996.
Heinich, Nathalie and Michael Pollak. “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur: lnventing a Singular Position.” In Thinking about Exhibitions, edited by Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, 231-250. London: Routledge, 1996.
Jones, Caroline A. Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Kotretsos, Georgia. “Statement”, Kunst und Kirche 4 (2017): 4.
Oliveira, Nicolas de, Nicola Oxley and David Prince. A Book of Burning Matches: Collecting Installation Art Documents. London: Mulberry Tree Press, 2015.
O’ Neil, Paul. The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). London; Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press, 2012.
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso 2010
Schubert, Karsten. The Curator’s Egg. The evolution of the museum concept from the French Revolution to the present day. London: Ridinghouse, 2009.
Szendy, Peter. “Shadow Economics and Road Networks of the Visible.” In The Supermarket of the Visible, edited by Peter Szendy with Emmanuel Alloa and Marta Ponsa, 17-40. Paris: Gallimard and Jeu e Paume, 2020.