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.


This article was originally published in the 9.12.07 issue of Metroland.

Last week’s Apple announcement was pretty stunning in a lot of ways, even if it didn’t include any announcement of the digital release of the Beatles catalog, which we still hear is coming.

For one thing, the new big iPod “Classic” has a 160 GB hard drive, big enough to hold, according to Steve Jobs, 40,000 songs. OK, 40,000 anemic sounding MP3s that will give you a headache, but, still, let’s think about this for a second. You’ve already laid out a fairly painful $300-400 for the iPod. Now, let’s assume you follow the rules and feel that the only moral choice for populating your new iPod is to buy songs through legitimate retail channels. Like, say , the iTunes store! OK, big assumption, but follow me here. Songs cost, at least for now, $.99 each, which seems like a fine price for a song. But to fill up your iPod, you’ll be running up a $39,600 tab on your Visa card.

Have you ever walked around with $40,000 in your pocket? Me neither. Do you think you would be comfortable walking around with $40,000 in your pocket? How many parents out there have heard this: “Mommy, I lost my iPod,” or “Daddy, I dropped my iPod in the toilet”? Oy.

Of course, these super-capacity iPods aren’t really about music. They’re about movies and TV, and the idea that people really will want to watch stuff on a dinky screen. The jury’s still out on that, and so’s the market. NBC television just pulled all of its content off the iTunes store over a pricing squabble, and downloadable movies are still an open question. Me, I prefer watching on the 50” plasma screen on my living room wall, but in reflective moments I’ll concede that the dusty old 25” Trinitron was really just fine.

Probably the most significant thing about last week’s Apple announcement was the introduction of the new WiFi enabled touch-screen iPod, which has all the bells and whistles of the instantly-iconic iPhone, except the phone. Watch out for this.

There was a lot of noise made about the announcement that these things were going to be tied in with the WiFi systems at Starbucks—if you take your iPod to a Starbucks, a new button will appear on your screen, and if you like the song that’s playing over the Starbuck’s sound system, you can push that button and buy that song right there and then.

Which is pretty sexy and cool. And ultimately stupid, until you realize that it’s the tip of the iceburg. Consider the following. A week ago, there was a lengthy feature in the New York Times Magazine with Rick Rubin, the Buddah-like producer of everybody from the Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash, who was recently named president of Columbia Records. Rubin predicted that the future of the music business wouldn’t involve selling music—that people weren’t going to be buying disks or files or anything. Rather, Rubin described a world where everybody’s music came literally out of the air, through wireless subscription services—what digital maven Jim Griffin years ago christened “The Celestial Jukebox.” All the music ever made will be available everywhere to you for a subscription fee, maybe a modest surcharge on your phone or cable bill, with the music delivered via wireless broadband networks. A president of a major record company says we’re headed this way.

Now consider this: earlier this week it was announced that Apple is sniffing around the FCC’s wireless spectrum auction, looking maybe to grab a piece of the sky, and the first and biggest stop towards the ability to host a wireless phone company. Or a wireless music delivery system that’s always on and always accessible to that little wireless Apple receiver in your pocket. It’s not like Apple doesn’t already have the music library, coded up and ready to go. And it’s not like subscription services for music streaming are far-fetched—Rhapsody and the “new” Napster have been offering them for a couple of years now. But not with the panache, not with the hardware, not with the marketing muscle and brand loyalty that Apple has.

Until now I figured these subscription deals were doomed to failure, that people wanted to “own” music, not just have access to it. But I’m from a generation that coveted the drive to the record store, the big cardboard record jacket loaded with images and information, the smell of the vinyl, and the sound of the needle slipping into the groove. These things all seem so quaint and distant and antique now. Almost ridiculous. The future, I think, is in the air.