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On Exhibition Without Objects — Flatness, File Size, and Hard Drives

Through the lens of her project “Exhibition Without Objects,” Sadia Shirazi explored her interest in and knowledge of generative and self-reflexive exhibitions. Since 2010, ICI has been presenting similar exhibitions that are adaptable to varied spaces and contexts, such as “Project 35” and the “Exhibitions in a Box” series. The following is a text by Shirazi, commissioned by ICI, on her exhibition and the legacy of traveling curatorial projects.

On Exhibition Without Objects — Flatness, File Size, and Hard Drives
A report by Sadia Shirazi on her project, Exhibition Without Objects

EXHIBITION WITHOUT OBJECTS, Exhibition diagram, 2013. Image courtesy of Sadia Shirazi.


EXHIBITION WITHOUT OBJECTS (EWO) is an exhibition platform that transforms as it moves through cities along its designated route. Designed so that it travels the world solely on a hard drive, the show’s structure shifts attention away from the singular art object and focuses instead on artistic practice and discourse as well as curatorial methodology. The show aims to engage local audiences, to move bodies from one city to the next, and to build upon pre-existing networks to further strengthen, reinforce, and engage knowledge that exists at each locale. EWO travels only as a compilation of data and then, at each site, materializes as bodies, events, and hardware that manifest the data. With its interest in the (increasingly digital) movement of the art object, and in the exhibition as a formal mechanism itself, it continues the lineage of artistic and curatorial experiments with the traveling show ranging from Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy’s Le Boite en Valise to Fluxus Fluxkits, Mail and Correspondence Art, and Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows. The exhibition also plays with the fluctuating role of the curator, which lies somewhere between administrator, collector, caretaker, and disseminator of artists’ works.

EWO is an generative “traveling exhibition.” The first iteration took place at The Drawing Room Gallery in Lahore and was titled 136 MB / EXHIBITION WITHOUT OBJECTS (136 MB refers to the file size of the entire show). The subsequent exhibition at Khoj International Artists’ Association in Delhi included two additional artists, and with these additions the file size of the show and its title were updated accordingly to 230 MB / EWO. The show travels to Mumbai later in 2013 after which it will continue to Karachi and Dubai. EWO aggregates as it travels, growing in each instance to include artists from the cities it visits along a path towards its terminus. Tracing a line that is poignant for both Pakistanis and Indians alike, the exhibition’s route connects cities with mirrored experiences of traumatic population exchanges during Partition. Within our contemporary context this route is also indicative of the directionality of the art market. The cities to which EWO travels are laden with spectral resonances and market possibilities that the exhibition’s format responds to by moving artists across the border for events (political situations and visas permitting). The show’s final destination in Dubai reflects more contemporary migration patterns, as the city has become an important hub for a range of subcontinental activities and industries, as well as a prevalent node in the wider region’s art market.

It is important to note that EWO’s route is not an exercise in deterritorialization but in reterritorialization. The movement of the exhibition’s components is also part of the logic of its display — the slideshows, technology, events, and artists permute in each city. There are times when an artwork enters a city that the artist cannot, foregrounding a tension that exists between the restricted movements of the artist’s body versus the mobility of the artist’s work. The show reveals how all components are not created equal and cannot cross the same borders. In place of self-replication, the exhibition invests in the process of reconstitution. It aggregates artists and accumulates events, incorporating previous iterations as traces in each successive exhibition.1 By emphasizing the shipping of bodies in conjunction with data, EWO foregrounds the production and dissemination of knowledge through embodied networks. It also promotes exchange between artists and publics and insists that context informs the legibility of the exhibition. Once EWO reaches Dubai, many of its operations will terminate although the exhibition will still travel to other cities in a static form. The show will begin its second life as a closed network, virtually accessible, and fully archival. An online component will allow visitors access to the conversations, correspondences, events, and slideshows that constituted the show in its first phase while the show’s physical manifestation will emphasize its archival nature. At this point EWO’s hard-drive will metaphorically be full.

Installation photographs of 136 MB / EXHIBITION WITHOUT OBJECTS at The Drawing Room Gallery, 2012, and 230 MB / EXHIBITION WITHOUT OBJECTS at Khoj International Artists’ Association, 2013. Images courtesy of Sadia Shirazi.


Slideshows have long been essential to international art communication. From art history’s emergence in parallel with the capability of image reproduction to today’s standard slideshow-based studio visits, the photographic archive is an armature of both historical study and curatorial work.2 As a result of the increased pressure on museums in Europe and the United States to diversify their collections and respond to the demand for more global contemporary art exhibitions, curators are embarking on brief visits to the non-western world to research artists’ works and practices. In cities worldwide, from Lahore and Delhi to Cairo and Saigon, curators from reputable western institutions conduct hurried studio visits with artists who wait patiently in queue with their laptops in-hand. Faced with constraints of time and knowledge, artists must present their work to curators in the most accessible, efficient, and succinct format possible. This curious curatorial methodology and its resulting exhibitions warrant critique. It also forces a reconsideration of issues of temporality, materiality, marketability, and the power disparity between the curator and artist––exaggerated in this case by the weight that international exhibitions hold over local ones. In this context the slideshow presentation often takes precedence over the art itself, where the image is so central to our communication regarding the object that it, at times, supplants it. This phenomenon of flatness and file sharing is a ubiquitous experience throughout all art worlds today due to shifts in digital technology and modes of communication related to the production, dissemination, and distribution of artists’ works. New media itself upsets the hierarchies of the old world and new world, East and West, northern and southern hemispheres. The history of new media and of digital networks and platforms is a global one, for which Eurocentric art histories will have to account. EWO locates itself and operates within this complex postcolonial condition and digital matrix.

EXHIBITION WITHOUT OBJECTS, Letter of invitation to Seher Shah for the Delhi iteration of EWO, 2013. Image courtesy of Sadia Shirazi.

EWO unfolds from an initial conversation that begins with a letter of invitation from the curator to the artist. Instead of showcasing art objects, the artists are asked to create digital narratives that play with the ubiquitous format of PowerPoint, a standard[izing] presentation medium that is used by individuals from the military, academic, financial, corporate, and art worlds alike to share their work. As a counterpoint to the immateriality of these slideshows, each artist is asked to pair their PowerPoint with an “event” that further interrogates or explicates the themes introduced by their respective submission. EWO’s “Calendar of Events” continually recalibrates along the exhibition’s route and consists of these artist-led events and a public program shaped by participants and context. The artists from the first two iterations of the show include: Iqbal Geoffrey, Ayesha Jatoi, Mehreen Murtaza, Rabbya Naseer & Hurmat Ul Ain, Seher Shah, and Saira Sheikh. The artists’ PowerPoint’s ranged from more exploratory text-based works to those mining image-based archives. Several of the artists responded to the exhibition’s formal constraints by creating “events” that took advantage of the absence of objects––for example, by working with the non-object-based materiality of sound or through conceptual proposals instead of performance-based events. Other artists offered meditations on the form of the gallery talk or played with liveness and presence through Skype conversations.

Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy’s La Boite-en-Valise, 1941.


The traveling hard drive of EWO is inspired by a series of portable, networked projects by artists and curators, beginning with La Boite-en-Valise. A cross between a magician’s box and a traveling salesman’s case of wares, Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy’s La Boite-en-Valise (The Box in a Valise) was perhaps the first traveling exhibition of the 20th century. Made between 1935 and 1940, the Boite opened to reveal sliding doors, accordion walls, and hidden compartments that stored and displayed meticulous hand-reproductions of 69 artworks.3 The Boite is both an inquiry into the architecture of display and part of the history of institutional critique. It consolidated Duchamp’s oeuvre into a tidy treasure trove that was otherwise spread out in private and public collections across the world. Was the Boite an attempt at conservation, a museum, or a critical response to the relic value of art objects? And was Duchamp acting as a collector, conservator, curator, administrator, or artist?

George Maciunas, Fluxkits. Three examples assembled between 1965 and 1969 © George Maciunas Foundation Inc. 2013 All Rights Reserved.

In the tradition of Duchamp’s Boite, Fluxus introduced a series of Fluxkits that were, instead of reproductions of the works of a single artist, a collective accumulation of Fluxus artists’ works. Constructed by George Maciunas from 1965 onwards, they were mailed out to buyers who purchased the cases for one to five dollars. The kits included a wide array of small-scale reproductions of objects ranging from scores, programs of concerts, audio recordings, games, and paper documentation, which were circulated through the postal system. The individual artist was giving way to a network of artists who were intent on creating alternative networks of circulation and communication, bypassing the hierarchical institutional appraisal of artists and artworks as well as their sale and distribution.

Lucy Lippard, 4,492,040 (1969-74), Catalogue for Numbers Shows. Image courtesy of Sadia Shirazi.

At around the same time as the Fluxkits, Mail Art and Correspondence Art was emerging, prioritizing artist-to-artist communication and further sidelining art institutions and galleries. Artists were also treating the postal system as both artistic medium and mode of transport. Ray Johnson’s extensive mail correspondences developed into an informal network that he coined the “New York Correspondence (sic) School” (NYCS) in 1962. The first official meeting of the School was held in 1968: “It was… attended by many artists and ‘members’… all of whom sat around wondering when the meeting would start.”4 Many active members of Fluxus were also part of Johnson’s NYCS, with both groups sharing not only an interest in the network and “the potential of the postal system as world-spanning, cost effective distribution system,” but also a wariness of closed systems and overdetermined parameters. In Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology, Chuck Welch writes that Mail artists are “working locally and thinking globally.” “As important art critics such as Lucy Lippard and Suzi Gablik call for a socially engaged international art paradigm, mail art is ignored,” he writes, “Mail art networking is an enormous, pluralistic, global communication phenomenon…‘Networking’ and ‘networker’ are terms mail and telecommunication artists prefer for identifying their activities of cross-cultural, collaborative exchanges.”5 EWO looks to Mail Art’s legacy as a movement that was inclusive in nature, emphasized “universal networking…among multi-ethnic artists,” and could function as a one-way or two-way communication system. EWO also shares many preoccupations with Lucy Lippard’s Number Shows (1969-74) in its multiple incarnations and emphasis on communication and dematerialization. These exhibitions involved extensive administration and playfully took their titles from the population of the cities in which they were shown. The catalogues for the shows are a series of loose, 3” x 6” unnumbered index cards that include type-ups such as museum forwards, essays, artist lists, addenda, and contributions. If the cards spill out of your hands onto a desk or the floor, you’ve lost their order forever, which is Lippard’s intention, but disappointing nonetheless.

Guy Bleus, W.A.A. (World Art Atlas), 1983. Courtesy of Richard Kostelanitz. Image courtesy of Sadia Shirazi.

Another precedent for EWO is the W.A.A. Mail eARTh Project (World Art Atlas) by Guy Bleus, which was produced as an archive, a pocket book, and a series of exhibitions. Bleus’s utopic approach to the postal system at the time is similar to how the Internet is approached today, as a horizontal and inherently equalizing technology. Bleus explains: “The structure of M-A includes a new circulation of art. This international network of hundreds of artists does not distribute their work via official galleries, but by post.”6 Bleus founded 42.292 A.C. (Administrative Center) as the collecting agency that initiated his W.A.A. project, which he defined as a “one-man administration-centre without computers.”7 The Project included 459 participants from 46 different countries. Bleus exaggerated the global reach of the World Art Atlas, which instead privileged his own strong, personal networks within Europe and the United States. Absent from Bleus’s global archive were large expanses of the non-western world including Latin America, Africa, and Asia. India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all log in with only one contribution. Israel, interestingly located in Asia by Bleus, boasts two, while East and Southeast Asia are nonexistent.

While EWO shares Bleus’s and Mail Art’s emphasis on communication and interest in technology, it does not celebrate the horizontality of communication technologies nor does it fetishize virtual networks. Both Bleus’s show and the artists involved in Mail Art optimistically insisted upon Mail Art’s global circulation and on the sanctity of “the network,” as opposed to the way in which networks were relational, social, and bodily, aided by but not determined by their use of technology.8 EWO conceives of its network as a technology that is assisted by the Internet but distributed through bodies. The exhibition eschews utopian traditions and embraces failure as a productive mechanism, both technologically and socially. In certain instances artists choose not to participate in the project, while in others, the hard drive fails. In the former case the artist’s response, when available, is included in the exhibition’s archive, in the latter, the installation reverts to a low-tech alternative. EWO also questions the role of the curator within contemporary modes of artistic production and exchange, opting for a fluid role between agent, administrator, archivist, conservator, and collector, equipped with computers and hard drives.

1  For example, the show in Delhi included the archive of previous live events from Lahore: two live sound installations were played as MP3 files with headsets while another live event from Lahore had a second life as a video projection in Delhi.
2  I would like to thank Kavita Singh for her insight regarding this during a riveting conversation we had this past February in Delhi prior to our public conversation at Khoj.
3  Duchamp made 300 identical kits and 100 deluxe, leather-bound editions with signed copies of one work in the set.
4  “Ray Johnson Estate,” John Gruen, accessed on June 3, 2013, http://www.rayjohnsonestate.com/biography.
5  Chuck Welch, The Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1994), xviii.
6  Guy Bleus, W.A.A. MAIL eARTh PROJECT (Brussels: Stedelijke Drukkerij Turnhout, 1983).
7  Ibid.
8  See Manuel Castells’ writing on how technology enables social production, but does not determine it: The rise of the network society (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1996) and The Internet galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, business, and society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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