Last night's presidential debate didn't get nearly as heated as the firestorm that erupted during it at the Hammer Museum. Within the My Land/Your Land exhibit, a performance art piece by Jonathan Horowitz currently staged in a handful of museums across the country, a new debate formed about the importance of an artist's intention. And it was all sparked by the volume level of a TV.
Horowitz's concept is simple: a room is divided into two sides, one lined with blue carpet upon which visitors can stand and watch the left-leaning MSNBC, the other with red carpet and a constant stream of the conservative Fox News. The setup is meant to draw attention to the divisive climate that exists both in politics and media. The exhibit runs constantly during regular museum hours -- and that includes the debates.
"Hopefully the installation will create engagement," Horowitz told us earlier this week via email, "in the art and its subject matter of a polarized electorate and media. And if they're not already, maybe viewers will become a little more engaged in the election and our electoral process. I feel strongly that it matters."
It makes one wonder, then, what Horowitz would have done had he been present last night, as a small group of incensed visitors made an attempt to compromise his art so that they could engage with it. What should be more important -- his original intention, or his goal of sparking interest in those who see his work?
Here's how it went down, according to Linda Pollack, public artist and founder of My Daily Constitution, a forum for small-scale political dialogue: she'd heard from a friend that the Hammer Museum was screening the debate via the Your Land/My Land exhibit and, considering her work in public discourse, thought it would be a fitting place to watch the event.
As the debate began, immediately the group realized there would be a sync issue between the two networks, so she quickly put a plan in action to remedy the problem. A vote was taken and the small crowd chose a side, and Pollack went to turn down the Fox News TV's volume so that they could watch the debate without the inharmonious noise. That's when Hammer Museum staff intervened and stopped her, as doing so would alter the exhibit, and thus the artist's intention.
"It raises issues about art and arrogance," Pollack told us. "If the priority was letting people have this experience of watching the debate right now, clearly that was put aside because the institution decided not to turn off the volume." She then added, "As far as an elegant, cerebral installation, 10 points. As far as community dialogue and civic engagement, it fails."
So if it were failing in that regard, does that give the public cause to alter it? If a Picasso painting weren't giving you the reaction you'd hoped for, would you grab a Sharpie and make some changes?
It should be stated that it doesn't appear the Hammer ever billed the debate as a "screening," at least not on their website. It's noted via an embedded link that the exhibit would run from Sept. 30 to Nov. 18, and that it would be viewable during regular museum hours, during the debates, and on election night. It then lists dates and times of the scheduled debates.
If a reader were skimming the information, it seems plausible that the date listings could be construed as events within the exhibit, or, more specifically, screenings. But a thorough read gives no indication that this exhibit was meant to be a place for active viewership.
Pollack says people were told by the Hammer that they could watch the debates there. That's unconfirmed, though it's easy to see how that could also fall prey to miscommunication. Technically they "can." That still doesn't make it a screening.
Common sense might have told you that a room with two TVs playing two different channels would probably not be perfectly in sync. That would be true any time you visit, even during the debate. If you wanted to watch intently, this was not the place to be. If you wanted to take in this artistic statement and perhaps engage in political discourse, it was. (You could always DVR the debate.)
Several frustrated visitors left within minutes after the debate began. Others (note the man in the corner reading the newspaper in the photo above, who clearly came to "be" and not to watch) stayed on, content with closed captioning, or, perhaps, simply content to be part of the experience.
After the debate, Horowitz, the artist, told us us, "I would have figured something out had I been there." Going forward, he added, on debate nights, both TVs will be turned to CNN.
My Land/Your Land will be on display beyond the election, and should Mitt Romney win, his portrait will be hung on the wall instead of Obama's, and the image of Obama will hit the floor.
The Hammer Museum will hold a screening of last night's debate on Oct. 7 in the Billy Wilder Theatre at 6 p.m. [Update: Though we were told last night by Hammer staffers that this Oct. 7th screening would be held, we've now been informed this is not the case.] Screenings of subsequent debates will be held at the Billy Wilder Theatre. Details are on the museum's website.
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