Friday, September 14, 2007


This article was originally published in the September 2007 edition of The Artful Mind.

You may have heard about the recent troubles up at Mass MOCA. The museum and Swiss installation artist Christoph Buchel are in court, and the whole art world is watching. It is a profoundly disturbing controversy, which has already tarnished both Mass MOCA’s and Buchel’s reputations. That is to say, there is nothing good about this, and I doubt anything good will come out of it.

Buchel specializes in the very type of large-scale extravaganza that has been Mass MOCA’s bread and butter. His proposed piece was entitled “Training Ground in Democracy”, a massive, multi-level environment to be installed in the football-sized Building 5 at Mass MOCA. According to Buchel’s court papers, an entire village was to be constructed, “based on existing mock-up villages and virtual reality software” used by the military to train soldiers. Plans included a two-story house, a movie theater, numerous shipping containers, a mobile home, concrete walls, and a burnt fuselage of a jet airliner to be installed, around which viewers could wander, climb and explore. Buchel’s court papers say that visitors “would be given the opportunity to ‘virtually’ change their own various identities in relation to the collective project called ‘democracy’”. “Training Ground in Democracy” was to be Buchel’s first significant show in the U.S. and was supposed to open last December.

Reviewing some of the court filings and various press reports, it appears that Buchel was to design the installation, and Mass MOCA was to gather the materials and construct the piece with oversight from Buchel and his staff. It also appears, critically, that there was no comprehensive written contract outlining the scope and cost of the project, or the responsibilities of the various actors.

Now, it has not been unusual in the past that for shows like this, there aren’t tidy contracts. The nature of the beast is such that parameters, materials, and indeed the “vision” of the work can, and often does, change as the piece is being constructed, and with these changes, the costs can vary as well. I suspect the Buchel matter will put an end to that practice. Everybody lawyer-up!

What has happened, as best I can glean from court papers and press accounts, is this: In 2006 Mass MOCA spent considerable resources gathering and assembling the raw materials for the exhibit. A massive overhead door was installed to accommodate the haul, estimated at 150 tons of stuff. A house in North Adams was purchased, dismantled, and rebuilt in the gallery space. 10,000 books were acquired, cinderblock walls were put up, nine shipping containers were brought in, a cinema and an amusement park was constructed, and much, much more. Pretty quickly, the $150,000 budget, that apparently had been informally set in the early stages of the project, was shot. Buchel and his crew were around for a number of weeks towards the end of 2006, and apparently things didn’t go well. The project had become significantly behind schedule, and the December opening was postponed.

And then the wheels fell off completely. In a remarkable exchange of communications that are now public by virtue of their being filed as exhibits in court, Buchel repeatedly accuses Mass MOCA of being incompetent, inefficient, stupid, cheap, and even of willfully “sabotaging” his work. In his replies, Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MOCA, tends to ignore the barrage of insults, and is constantly upbeat, optimistic, even complimentary toward Buchel, and is always trying to find some way to get Buchel back to North Adams to complete the show. Buchel, in turn, remains petulant, boorish, uncompromising, and essentially the archetypical belligerent artist, like someone out of central casting. If his letters are any gauge, there’s a word for Buchel that I won’t say here, but it rhymes with “Picasso.”

Buchel won’t accept budgetary constraints. Buchel won’t have his galleries absorb some of the cost overages. Buchel won’t negotiate the scope of the project, and won’t eliminate a single thing. Buchel won’t consider handicap accessibility. Everything, according to Buchel, is Mass MOCA’s fault because Mass MOCA is inept and doesn’t understand his art.

After several months of this bickering, Mass MOCA, stuck with an estimated $300,000 outlay (out of an $800,000 total annual budget), an obstinate artist (who had begun feeding Boston Globe writers with his side of the story last March), and its legendary monstro-gallery full of a partial incomplete exhibit, announced that it wanted to show what was there to the public. (According to Mass MOCA, the work is 80% completed; Buchel vehemently disagrees)

What’s at issue in court is not who’s right and who’s wrong. What’s at issue is whether Mass MOCA’s allowing a public viewing of the incomplete work violates Buchel’s rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act (“VARA”), a federal law intended to protect the integrity of certain works of art and the reputation of artists. Mass MOCA has asked the federal court in Springfield to declare prospectively that showing the work to the public doesn’t violate VARA. Buchel says it will violate VARA, and additionally that Mass MOCA, which now allows the public to “see” the exhibit now, covered in tarps and without any mention of Buchel, is already in violation of the law.

The court has agreed to expedite the case, and announced that it will visit Mass MOCA in mid-September (an extraordinary thing for a court to do) and render a decision soon thereafter.

Having litigated VARA several times myself, I don’t see this case as a slam-dunk either way. A central issue will be whether the mere display of an incomplete work constitutes an intentional “modification, distortion, or mutilation” of Buchel’s work by Mass MOCA. I’m not sure that it does. The completed work exists, if at all, in Buchel’s head. The uncompleted work is what it is. If anything has been intentionally modified, distorted or mutilated, it is merely an idea, a vision, and not a “work”. And ideas aren’t protected by VARA. The other issue is whether leaving Buchel’s name off of the exhibit provides a legal out for Mass MOCA. Under VARA, an artist can demand that his or her name be disassociated with a work that is exhibited in an altered or mutilated state. Buchel argues that his name is so inexorably tied to the exhibit, that whether or not there’s a placard by the exhibit with his name on it, his reputation would be soiled by showing the work. Again I think that Buchel is wrong—the law provides for an artist to have actual attribution removed from the display of an offending work. By arguing that everybody is going to be thinking about him anyway, so the work should not be displayed at all, Buchel is asking, in my view, for a lot more protection that the law provides.

Meantime, no one is coming out of this smelling very good. Mass MOCA took a big, and I think horribly unfair, hit from a Boston Globe arts critic for putting up a small and rather self-serving exhibit casting itself as a champion of edgy art and big installations, with the obvious inference, under the circumstances, that Buchel is a jerk. In my view, Buchel swung first, and Mass MOCA is more than entitled to swing back. Blogs are full of chatter, including outrage from artists that Buchel is throwing a high-level tanty after having $300,000 of OPM spent on his work, and some speculation that the whole affair is an elaborately staged stunt meant to get Buchel some PR. Ouch.

It’s a sad, tragic state of affairs. In every controversy I can remember, I almost always side with the artist, even when the artist isn’t particularly right. Not this time. I’m rooting for the home team.


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