Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 21, 2016
Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, October 11, 2014–April 26, 2015
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Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E. Installation view. Courtesy Henry Art Gallery, Seattle.

Unlike many of Ann Hamilton’s exhibitions with their patient interest in the singular object or action accumulated as increment, the common S E N S E contains a disorienting array of objects, actions, and modes of address: flatbed scans of dead animals printed in multiples on newsprint, hung salon-style; artifacts such as books and toys that document the ubiquity of animal imagery in various cultures’ childhood imaginaries; wool blankets hung low on wooden rods that one is invited to take and use; a vast hall of electro-mechanical bullroarers sounding in algorithmic arrangements. In other words, her exhibition seems to want to be a compendium, as if aspiring to reimagine something like the variegation of culture itself.

But this is a culture, unlike most contemporary ones, where explanatory rubrics arrive to organize one’s experience. Animals, textiles, and language are overt themes, present in every room. And in an introductory text for the show, Hamilton, who wrote all of the didactics, provides the overarching theme for the exhibition. Citing Aristotle’s Historia animalium and De Anima, Hamilton argues that touch is the sense common to all animals. The title of the exhibition together with the writing found throughout thus help to orient one amid so many discordant materials, most of which were found or solicited and so do not, on their own, offer the reassurance of a strong author function. The fact that the assembled materials are found as much as they are made in this context is, in part, why the form of contact or touch always seems more important than the materials seen in their materiality or facture.

Hamilton states that she wanted the exhibition to become a node in a network of relations that extended out to the archives of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and to the wider University of Washington community within which she conducted the six-month residency that led up to the exhibition. One privileged object in the show both enacts and allegorizes this wish. Several commonplace books are on display in vitrines in the show’s first room, alongside collections of scissors, animal skins, toys, and children’s books (which, like many of the exhibition’s materials, were sourced from the Burke Museum). A form of collecting in use at least since the fifteenth century and popular during the Enlightenment, commonplace books cultivate a practice of extracting quotes from publications and compiling them in one’s own book. In this move from the mass to the personal, they declare that culture, whatever the scale, is made in common, through writing and making, but also through more minor acts of reading, copying, and juxtaposition.

More than just offering commonplace books as artifacts, Hamilton and the Henry Art Gallery invite visitors to produce their own commonplace book, filling cardboard folders with a personalized selection of the pages provided in most of the galleries. In order to collect a vast enough set of materials to make the shift from the mass to the personal feel meaningful, Hamilton and the gallery set up a Tumblr site entitled “Readers Reading Readers—A Commonplace” (http://readers-reading-readers.tumblr.com/). In a spirit that sounds very much like the marketing of Web 2.0, the exhibition’s Tumblr page encourages its visitors to submit materials (quotes, photos, drawings) that relate to the theme of touch. From the large collection of materials eventually assembled on the website, Hamilton and the show’s curator, Henry Art Gallery Director Sylvia Wolf, made selections. Those selections appear throughout the exhibition printed on loose-leaf pages and arrayed on long horizontal tables. There is one selection per page and multiple copies of each available for commonplacing. The selections, attributed to the author but not the selector, change over the course of the exhibition as people add to the Tumblr page. The precise arrangement of the pages in the galleries, a hallmark of Hamilton’s oeuvre, here makes it obvious, as in a poll by Hans Haacke or Lucy Kimbell, when certain stacks have been more popular than others. Surprisingly for a show so invested in participation and common culture, the filter that sits between the Tumblr site and the exhibition, Wolf’s and Hamilton’s principle of selection, is made available neither to participation nor scrutiny. But the sharing economy, too, has had to invent various ways of curating, even policing, the Web.

There are other commonplacing activities on offer, each making a performative claim to produce a kind of common bond through forms of touch. Visitors are invited to share with Hamilton and the exhibition, under legal contract, their own portrait photographs taken just inside the exhibition’s entrance. These are printed and displayed in the lower galleries. There are also the figures Hamilton calls “reader/scribes.” These are volunteers who occasionally circulate through the galleries singing songs to the objects or reading aloud from books that they simultaneously transcribe into journals. (There are two such books available: Mercè Rodoreda’s 1986 Death in Spring, of which there are many copies, and Aristotle’s Meterologica, of which there is only one.)

What are the relationships between such activities and the exhibition’s vision of the contemporary world in which it lodges its claims? We might begin to glimpse that vision by noticing a set of near-to-hand homologies between the affect of commonality offered by the exhibition and that promised by Tumblr. Both are exhibitionistic but also sites of sharing. Both are places to make personal choices from a vast storehouse of material, and then to make those choices available to others. Both are sites where culture wants to amount to more than so many commodities for sale, a desire that risks making commonality itself into a commodity. But if Tumblr is a commonplace, as the exhibition seems to claim, it is one that reorients that practice away from the parallel intimate spheres of the commonplace book and toward the networked connectivity of hashtags, likes, reblogs, and a common technical infrastructure.

Yet it is difficult to tell if this is a difference, at once historical and technical, that matters in the exhibition. On the face of it, what is offered are different kinds of activities that the common S E N S E presents as forms of touch in a world (maybe just an art world) that is figured, by implication, as lacking it, activities that want to move beyond “mere” looking: singing and reading that join our own noise to that of the exhibition, a chance to have our own cultural selections included in and as the exhibition or our own photographic images included as, for a moment, the face of the exhibition. But because the exhibition does not differentiate itself from contemporary forms of touch like Tumblr, perhaps the problem being confronted is not a lack of touch, but a lack of attunement to where touch might be found. This is why all of the animal imagery feels as if it is presented more as a proposition about touch, contact, and commonality than as a critique of the expropriation of the natural world. This is true even of the collection of clothing in the lower galleries, all made from animals and presented in curtained vitrines, a collection that is starkly and suggestively divided into two classes of goods: a luxury class of stoles, capes, and gloves once sold in upscale department stores and a class of comparatively utilitarian items made by indigenous peoples. In so many other contexts, this distinction would determine all possible readings. Here, the commonality of presentation—all behind the same curtains, in the same vitrines, with nearly the same identifying tags, in an exhibition invested in the universalism of touch—mutes the distinction.

Still, in the face of what feels like the exhibition’s optimism, it is hard to ignore the fact that proximity, touch, and interaction are the engine of an economy, evident in museums as much as social media, newly wired to capitalize on such affects of participation. The fact of this particular homology alone does not mean that the forms of exchange on offer by the exhibition are necessarily inauthentic or ideological. It does mean that Hamilton’s approach to thinking the problem of commonality differs from recent projects one might otherwise see as allied: for example, reconsiderations of the commons that want to resist recent expansions of the property form driven by digital culture (Lewis Hyde, Lawrence Lessig, or, more radically, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney); or the critique of labor politics on social media sites like Tumblr, often articulated as a new expropriation from the commons (what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call affective labor or Franco Berardi calls semiocapitalism). In what seems to be a reparative spirit, Hamilton offers more interaction, more contact, more links, more commonplacing.

But do we suffer today from too little touch, as the exhibition seems to suggest, or from too much—too much sharing, too much connection? The impact of the exhibition really turns on this question. But maybe, reading the exhibition against the grain of its ostensible tone, the problem is neither lack nor excess. Maybe the problem foregrounded by the exhibition lies with homology itself, with how we are to respond to likenesses of the sort that are so easily established between the exhibition’s desire to foster something more than passive consumption of its objects and Web 2.0’s desire to do the same. Such homologies are, after all, a hardwired feature of the contemporary world, as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism (trans. Gregory Elliott, New York: Verso, 2006) is one of the latest to assert. This used to be called cooptation when it was less naturalized, more scandalizing.

The problem of commonality as homology is a critically important one that extends well beyond the obvious humanistic referent that so infuses the exhibition’s materials. Is commonality, when noticed, an inducement to embrace, build upon, and better conceptualize that commonality (Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, John Paul Ricco), or to see in it, as modernist criticism was all but forced to do, a kind of wasting homogeneity (Theodor Adorno, Jodi Dean, Claire Bishop)? This, in a manner of asking, might be the exhibition’s question, if we were to see Aristotle’s initiating thought refracted through recent politicized work on the commons, commonality, and connection. A strength of the common S E N S E is that it might induce us to be more curious about homology where we find it, more agile in encounter with the commonality of form shared across distinct registers of experience and culture. The risk is that the exhibition’s universalized framing of touch as commonality dissolves precisely the kinds of distinctions, immanent to commonality, that would make Hamilton’s pressing questions register as historical.

Kris Cohen
Assistant Professor of Art and Humanities, Reed College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.