Critics’ Pick: “CounterIntelligence” at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery

by | Feb 26, 2014 | Reviews | 0 comments

I feel particularly lucky to have been able to chat with Charles Stankievech about his “CounterIntelligence” exhibition at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, both while he was researching the project and once it was up in the space. Half research/curatorial project, half sprawling artist’s installation, the show brings together almost 100 objects that suggest convergences between artworks and military intelligence. The labyrinthine display of materials is completely engrossing, often reminding me (and several others, it turns out) of Ydessa Hendeles’s fantastically eccentric exhibitions at her now-closed Foundation space. But while Hendeles’s installations were fascinating because they seemed the product of a unique vision and intuitive approach to materials, “CounteIntelligence” brings together disparate objects to make a political point about the possible complicity of artistic intelligence with military and government surveillance. Or, at least that’s how I read the exhibition, and tried to explain in a review for last week.

Another key difference is that Hendeles often refused to use didactic texts or materials, whereas “CounterIntelligence” is full of narrative texts for each object, and for the show as a whole, written by Stankievech but in the voice of a researcher/curator persona that sometimes slips from dry explanation into a more poetic and speculative tone. Those texts featured prominently in a discussion about curatorial methodologies at Gallery TPW R&D last week, where Stankievech, in conversation with Kim Simon, Pip Day and Christine Shaw, spoke about his working methods for the exhibition. While some folks found the experience of trying to read all the panels “torturous,” others, myself included, felt free to ignore them (at least my first time through the show), trusting the installation’s formal logic and the choices of the curator-artist to lead them through the space. The discussion made me think a lot about the expectations that viewers have of different kinds of curators, and how we somehow feel that artists (or collector-artists, in the case of Hendeles) have more wiggle room in their exhibition-making strategies than institutional or academic curators. Workshop participants repeatedly brought up the idea that Stankievech has more “freedom” to interpret or even misinterpret artworks for the sake of the exhibition’s narrative when more “professional” curators might self-censor those kinds of impulses.

There are lots of reasons we do this—the push towards professionalization in curation is a big one, I think—but I have been thinking about ways that I might stop. If good curating involves staking a claim by putting artworks into a particular framework, asking viewers to pay attention in a particular way and at a particular pace, then our subjective views, eccentricities and vested interests are already embedded in our exhibitions and programming. Maybe there are more productive ways to embrace and acknowledge this that might let us be more adventurous in our curating and writing, that might produce different kinds of experiences for viewers and more effectively and affectively point to art’s political potential in the world.