Judith Russi Kirshner

For more than twenty years, Spanish artist Antonio Muntadas has orchestrated remarkably complex installations whose content--the analysis of the institutions of cultural and political power--changes with each situation in which the work is presented. This nomadic character is a hallmark of the work and the career; but in a structural pattern characteristic of the artist, the work instantly contradicts its own mutable quality and is housed or recontextualized in the very form of the institution being examined. Projects earmarked for museum visitors, such as "Between the Frames" (1983-1993) and work for public spaces, are planned according to the anticipated audiences. The permanent appearance of the installations, whose architectural refinement is evident and often elegant, belies the evolving mass of information they contain. Another layer of the work is revealed in the design of these architectural pieces, for they are conceptualized to function semiotically, not merely to frame the situations they critique.

Muntadas negotiates between the meaning of the institutional site in which his environments are commissioned and built--museum, palace or gallery--and the forms he designs to contextualize his work. In "The Boardroom" (1987), tables and chairs became the charged accoutrements and signs of a quintessential corporate entity: in this case, organized religion. Fulfilling the convention were thirteen portrait photographs of television evangelists, like Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts and spiritual leaders like Pope John II and Ayatollah Khomeni. Tiny video monitors mounted in the thirteen portraits where the mouths of these leaders would be, delivered public messages of symbolic and commercial appeal from the walls of the private, privileged room. On the other hand, in "Stadium" (1989), white columns arranged in an ellipse not only determined the form, but signified the historical precedent of official spaces -- spaces for audiences, public congregations and spectacles of competition. Muntadas considers given spaces as social signs, as archetypal bits available for deconstruction. For the artist, it is the spatial configuration, the construction which shapes the social program establishing the mechanics for perception and context: the videotapes or slide projections, at least in the works where video and architecture are juxtaposed, dialectically provide the content which problematizes the built environment. In many of his works, the temporal aspects are similarly doubled so that the time of viewing, the present, is dictated by the limited duration of the videotape as well as the permanence of the three-dimensional installation.

"The Boardroom," 1987

The consummate artist as researcher or social scientist, Muntadas presents his findings not in academic publications but in spectacular sculptural installations. For all their consideration and complexity, for all the time they require to conceive, plan and construct, the works are immediately engaging because of their boldness and clarity. At their most overt, the didactic quality is so over determined as to become intentionally exaggerated, allegorized and aestheticized. Critical analysis and lessons imparted from the unveiling of systems of representation--from architecture to archive, from words to press -- become legible, comprehensible and visible. Much of Muntadas's thinking is informed by the philosophy of Michel Foucault, but his art travels beyond theoretical boundaries, between shorthand metaphors for architectural representation and an exhaustive critique of communications media. The power and tactics of the mass media, the slippage between journalism and advertising become apparent in works incorporating videotapes made from television. Or, in "Words: The Press Conference Room" (1991), whose empty podium awaits the missing politician, Muntadas observes the intertwining of these two systems as the stratification and communication of power and makes a display of the slippery slope to authoritarian rigidity. The lectern, bristling with microphones but no speaker, exemplifies this discontent while shrieking headlines of the tabloid newspapers spread on the floor like a carpet reveal a space where differences between news and sensationalism, politics and entertainment overlap.

"Words: The Press Conference Room," 1991

Muntadas explores and exposes the political, social and economic structures that exist in contradiction to the stated content of political propaganda and inserts his work between the ideological presentation of a concept like censorship and the realities of suppression. The multiple ways in which these structures affect and manipulate audiences have provided the subject matter for generations of conceptual and political artists. Even as Muntadas's titles state his intentions to operate between frames and behind screens, his content can be read between the lines; his career and production take advantage of an intergenerational and international position, poised between the minimal brilliance of early conceptual artists and the Baudrilliardian excesses of the eighties. One could trace a genealogy to include Richard Serra's early videotape "Television Delivers People" (1973) and, more recently, Dara Birnbaum's sophisticated political video installations. For over thirty years, Daniel Buren has inserted his ubiquitous stripes in public places literally to delineate those architectural elements whose existence usually is denied or to demarcate those subtle camouflaged systems of authority that equally intrigue Muntadas. From another perspective, investigations of the hidden manipulations of cultural systems and exhibition practice have been revealed in Michael Asher's perceptual alterations beginning in the seventies. At the other end of the spectrum and clearly related are Dennis Adams's bus shelters which combine public structure with image and Hans Haacke's spectacles of global politics and capitalist domination.

 These examples provide some comparison for the range of commentary and stylistic foundations incorporated in Muntadas's work. Yet what distinguishes his approach from these other influential manifestations of a political art practice is its wide embrace, mixed media and emphatic accessibility. Perhaps Muntadas's direct messages and sustained attention to audiences explain the fit of his personal aesthetic and the currents of a nineties aesthetic. With video, Muntadas animates conjunctions and overlappings between personal and political, private and public, subjective and objective. His technique of reinstalling the same work in different situations to foreground less apparent qualities of the host institution reinforces the work's topicality.

 Although Muntadas began his artistic career as a painter, he was using photography and video before he began the architectural installations in 1985, to introduce supplementary texts or communicate multiple levels of meaning. These slices of discursive media are sometimes violent interruptions; more usually they offer contradictory pieces of information or counter narratives. However, these interventions are often presented through videotapes derived from broadcast television, in much the same way that the architectural supports the artist incorporates in his installations are also found objects, already pre-existent. In hybrid environments, Muntadas states his case through language and titles and then performs his interventions utilizing specific spaces and spatialization to dictate or, more particularly, to define a point of view that normally remains perceptually and politically unrepresentable. An example is the glamorous menace of "The Limousine Projects" (1991) in New York City where a black stretch limo, the very emblem of power, cruised the streets, projecting pairs of images and words, e.g., "media corruption," "obscene consumerism," "mysterious status," against its windows so that they became the anonymous screens of authorless information. The messages were obviously inflected to underscore the juxtaposition of their carrier, the vehicle of literal power, the hired car with the implicit exercise of control. This dedication to a position of interventions is focused on exposing the levels of ideology that underlie basic democratic principles, givens; for example, the cluster of associations attached to "home" are as dependent on ideology as are more obvious public, political and social spaces. In "Home Where Is Home?" (1991), Muntadas examines the social implications (homelessness and poverty) and the moral values that this idea carries with it (property, health, well-being, family). (1)

Despite the enormous breadth and range of Muntadas's projects and his global itinerary, his strategies -- dialectics and metaphor -- depend on his keen readings of sites and precision as a translator of particular politics and cultures, not only languages. Himself multilingual, Muntadas's work alternates fluently between language and discourse, sociology and anthropology, speaker and audience and finally between seeing and reading. Video components are the instruments of communication and critique and often supply subject matter to these projects. For Between the Frames, Muntadas spent eight years accumulating and compiling over 120 videotaped interviews with collectors, dealers, critics, docents, in short, all the constituencies who inhabit and represent the art world. This eight-chapter collection of interviews is also conceived as an installation, titled "Between the Frames: The Forum." This work is similar in some ways to "The File Room" (1994) as it depends on extensive, subjective research and accumulation, but assumes additional resonance when it is installed in a cultural institution.

 "The File Room", which examines the massive history of censorship, was recently introduced in Chicago. With this installation Muntadas simultaneously expands upon his previous body of work and dramatically introduces an unexpected dimension. On this occasion, on the first floor of the Cultural Center, an enclosure is constructed from 138 black metal file cabinets holding 552 cabinet drawers. The project's interactive component consists of seven color computer monitors (linked to a central server) installed in file cabinets around the room. With a click of a mouse at any one of these terminals, viewers can access case histories of censorship by geographical location, date, grounds for censorship or medium. At the center of the room is a desk with another computer at which visitors can enter their own examples. In May, the project opened with more than 400 entries on censorship from antiquity to the present. Under theater, for example, "The File Room" lists multiple occasions from the fifth century BC. to l967 in Athens, when Aristophanes' classic plays were banned for reasons of obscenity and anti -war themes. Another literary example is Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" while entries from popular culture recently added include television host Ed Sullivan's request to Jim Morrison of The Doors to alter a line in his song, "Light My Fire," the banning of Steven Spielberg's film, "Schindler's List" in Jordan and from personal experience, the Chicago Public School's attempt to confiscate materials handed out to high school students by the Coalition for Positive Sexuality. Entries can also be logged in through Internet and now, in July 1994, new archives of texts and images running on Internet sites worldwide appear monthly as hundreds of individuals log on as users. What originally had been private becomes public, audiences become archivists and consumers of an expanding collection of source material.

Archives are begun when groups of individuals--families, cities--accumulate material that ../documents a particular activity or series of events. More systematic than the diaristic activities of those who keep journals, archival methods of saving are nevertheless inspired by the profound desire to mark events or to record something for posterity. Whether personal or political, archives have roots in antiquity and are prompted by a consciousness that what occurs is noteworthy, deserving of future consideration. Record keeping provides evidence: source material for future historians collected in the present serves as factual evidence of the past.

The opposite of the archival institution, censorship has an equally long history, but represents erasure, withdrawal from memory. On both personal and public levels with subjective and objective justification, the need to control what is spoken, written or acted has often occurred as an adjunct activity of authoritarian regimes and religious movements. Muntadas began his research on censorship five years ago and imagined a space suggesting bureaucratic enclosures, dimly lit chambers claiming forbidden materials. By now I am persuaded that his work derives from a postmodern impulse to salvage and recuperate rather than a utopian urge to rescue and affirm. The overbearing walls of black file drawers and low-hanging light fixtures in The File Room give material presence to the sinister arena of censorship. Viewers participate, as did the artist, in a conscious political performance as they search at computer terminals for examples of censorship or, if they choose, enter their own cases into the archive.

 The File Room's material condition, however, is rooted and objective; before it was designated and transformed into a municipal exhibition facility, the Chicago Cultural Center housed the main branch of the city's public library. Indeed, the landmark building was constructed in 1897 as a library by the architectural firm Shipley, Rutan and Coolidge. Muntadas chose the Chicago situation because the Cultural Center functions somewhere between the public space of a street and the specialized space of a museum. Since the organizing principle of The File Room is that of an archive, its place in Chicago becomes doubly resonant. Architecturally its rationale and history coincide with the subject matter of Muntadas's project to reintroduce censored material into the library. Furthermore, its civic constituency, the fact that it is physically open and accessible to the public, underscores the openness and fluid character of the archival process, always growing, never complete. A similar lack of boundaries and psychological uncertainty marks censorship and self-censorship, since what can be stated and what cannot is always debatable, open to redefinition and potentially infinite.

 Taken to an absurdist point, The File Room in this scenario can never be complete. It holds out the promise of rendering invisible images visible, censored texts legible. Indeed there are archives of on-line books which can be accessed from within The File Room case record. A direct hypertext link will bring up complete texts of Machiavelli's "The Prince," Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" and Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," as well as other literary works which have been marked by censorship at one time or another. For the most part, Muntadas's oppositional critique is lodged against and in relation to an institution or ideology. While The File Room, like many of his social sculptures, was initiated on a metaphorical level as an archetypal space, with a set-up that evokes the claustrophobic spaces of Kafka, the artist has pushed beyond its perceptual boundaries into a fourth dimension: the space and time of the Internet, the so-called information superhighway. Dialectically poised between reference to past function and present high-tech usage, The File Room exists in an uncertain temporal situation and in an equally unresolved conceptual terrain, the puzzle of censorship--who wields the power, what are its targets, whom does it aim to protect?

 Like other Muntadas projects, this one is marked by its publicity, and if the content of "The Boardroom" was the evangelical retailing of private religion, and "Stadium" the occasion of audience celebration, here multiple publics assume multiple roles. Related to "Between the Frames" as a project of extensive accumulation, on many levels The File Room's double consciousness--the structure built is the very thing critiqued, the methodology and ideology of one system clash with the other--evolves from earlier works but is more paradoxical. Rejecting the comfort of extreme positions left or right, Muntadas locates his work in the gray zones between the poles of populism and authoritarianism, censorship and self-censorship. Intentionality becomes a problem as his artistic negotiations are more complex, less conclusive and self-critical of his own position as the single authority who collects the cases. These material and intellectual shifts, which in retrospect seem almost preordained, also displace Muntadas's artistic authority -- his role is more like that of an editor of an anthology--as he leads a collaborative team of programmers and researchers who worked together to design for the Mosaic program and to undertake research for the archive. Indeed, there is the uncomfortable sense that the project is too open-ended, too haphazard and subjective with few, if any, criteria for selection but every case for itself. In an essay by Han Magnus Enzenberger, Muntadas locates some insights into the problem of censorship sprawl.

 Structural censorship does not operate with absolute perfection, in a 100/100 way. Usually it works following the rules of the calculus of probability. Messages are mitigated, altered or brutally eliminated depending upon their degree of incompatibility. . . .

While censorship oriented toward production cleans up the core of the cultural industry (publishing, television, cinema), policing censorship--since it is complementary to the first kind of censorship-- leans the periphery (fanzines, small presses). s the first kind of censorship is unobserved, so much the second is noisy. And this second one likes to give spectacle, having people talking about it; its actions are meant to be demonstrative. (2)

The paradox of "The File Room" is the fact that like its content, it cannot be controlled or concluded; potentially it could include all cultural and political production from anytime, any place. "The File Room" changes according to its user's willingness to contribute, to engage in a dialogue and discuss the contradictions of censorship without reaching a resolution. It is striking that Muntadas has veered away from his own agenda of deconstructing spectacle and mass media to expose its internal mechanisms in order to provide a global frame of reference for this massive collection. It is perhaps inevitable that certain subscribers to America Online have already submitted an entry about the infringement of their public speech by forum hosts on Internet. According to one subscriber, members of an bulletin board are having their "posts pulled" by this commercial service provider for violating the vague admonition against vulgar or insulting language and explicit talk about sex. In fact, even euphemisms are being pulled for content, although America Online denies its adherence to any specific code of electronic proprieties. Ultimately, "The File Room" is subject to the same constraints of its own cultural logic; it can only be concluded if someone pulls the plug or censors the file.

After its exhibition sponsored by Randolph Street Gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center, The File Room will be available to users who can access it continuously via the Internet at the URL:

 I would like to thank Sue Taylor, Paul Brenner and Antonio Muntadas for their assistance and insights.

 (1.) The artist in an interview with Jerome Sans,"Muntadas Principals of Intervention," Kanal Magazine, 2 ( March l992):10. (2.) From "Lo dico, non lo dico, no, lo dico..." Hans Magnus Enzenberger translated by Catarina Borelli from an article reprinted this year in the Italian newspaper, L'Espresso, copyright 1977 by Pardon and L'Espresso.

Publication Table of Contents

FileRoom Search | Table of Contents | Category Homepage | NCAC