Caught Watching

Sohrab Mohebbi

Browsing through hefty catalogues, or museum websites or brochures, every now and then a friendly figure pops up, thoughtfully looking at a piece of art. Often, this figure is a friend, an ex-partner, colleague, or curatorial school commiseratee, positioned within the gallery, with one shoulder weighed down by a canvas bag. The photograph was probably taken on a day that the museum was closed to the public, a Monday or a Tuesday perhaps, and the photographer gathered all the interns and staff members s/he could find to pose as exhibition visitors, to perform viewership. That is, the person in the image is performing subjectivity: s/he represents an intelligent being responding to the work(s) in question. In this way thinking becomes a performative act with identifiable formal properties—similar to Rodin’s man with one hand curled back, resting under his chin. My acquaintances are transformed into nonhuman, inanimate accessories to the works of art in front or around them. Or perhaps the onlooker’s act of watching is meant to represent looking without seeing, contemplation void of thinking, the performance of theory without discourse, the demise of the Cartesian figure who thinks and therefore is.

In advertising, people are similarly added to commodities, the difference being that these humans in service of commodities are—for the most part—paid for the service. A figure in an installation shot is less glamorous, to boot—no more than a pair of panties at a Zappa concert. A cameo in an install shot entails the possibility of a world in which art surpasses humanity, and reaches absolute autonomy. The installation images are meant to achieve lens consciousness at its most unmediated, and a state unattainable to the naked eye. Relieved from the subjectivity of the onlooker, the autonomous art object now finds its ideal, disinterested viewer right in the shape of a lens. A collection of images of artworks in a gallery, and an occasional person lingering here and there: this represents the pantheon of art, in which artworks hover 70 inches above ground ad infinitum, unburdened by the eye of the beholder. The camera is the ideal museum visitor who, as Benjamin noted, will forever “look and not touch.”

There is, however, a difference between documentation and installation shots, where the former—a byproduct of performance art—represents art as an event, and the latter shows art as eternity. In the former, art is similar to a police chase, a riot, a pool party with people making out—even if it takes place within the institutional context of art—while in the latter, art overlooks anything resembling human life. We document happenings, events, and performances to show that something took place somewhere, at some point in time, as art, whereas in the token installation shot of works in a white cube, nothing ever happened, nor is anything ever going to.

That said, in event documentation, the community of exhibition-goers itself becomes an artifact, making less clear the distinction between the documentation of a happening and a straightforward installation shot. It is not surprising that one of the most iconic documentation shots ever is that of an event organized by Grupo de Arte de Vanguardia de Rosario in October 1968, showing people escaping a gallery in which they were trapped, after shattering the storefront window.

Yet installation shots have become the currency of curatorial success, and trophies on artists’ websites. While the global press release informs us of an event two worlds over, the installation shot tells us what it looked like; and where “all that is solid melts into PR,”[1] the shot becomes to the exhibition what content is to art: a meme that travels from Moscow to Lagos, Zurich to Seoul, choreographing the formation of bodies around artworks, along with their conditions of viewership.

But then again, can we imagine an art world bereft of installation shots? Hardly. Almost impossible. While a lot of what’s out there is pure recycling or, not to put too fine a point on it, crap, imagine a world in which all that remained from exhibitions was a press release or an artist list. While most humanities, including art history, are logocentric, the history of exhibitions is scopocentric, and, to some extent, it needs to be. Images of the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10, Dada International Fair, and D5—and many others—are all that remain from an essentially ephemeral discipline, making exhibitions accessible to distant viewers in time and space.

Geoffrey Batchen provides a survey of proto-photographic tropes and the epistemological shift that occurred toward the end of 18th century that created the conditions of possibility within which photography came to life. Thus, one can consider exhibition-as-medium one of the forefathers of photography, and draw an analogy between a photograph’s approach to its subject and a display’s relationship to its content. As such, in an installation shot, the two media come together in an almost tautological manner.

Now, in light of the digital expansion and extension of the art world, some artists have appropriated the format of installation shots—thanks to which they visit exhibitions unfolding in places other than their laptops—as a venue for curatorial and artistic practice. For the Image-Object series, Artie Vierkant presents UV prints on sintra of a digital image in the gallery. He digitally modifies the installation shot of the work and makes it available on his website, which also provides the raw image for later gallery presentations. Vierkant highlights the ambiguous location of the work between the physical space of the gallery and the Web. In An Immaterial Survey of Our Peers (2012), meanwhile, Brad Troemel and Lauren Christiansen asked a group of Internet-based peers (artists working on the Internet) to e-mail him images of their works. Troemel and Christiansen then digitally hung the work on empty images of SAIC’s Sullivan Gallery, and later projected the images on the actual gallery walls during the opening of the exhibition, and then, finally, archived the project on a webpage. These endeavors underscore the ambiguous position of the work post-Internet—with the online press release/installation shot combo—where it’s located somewhere in an ecotone between the gallery space and the virtual online.

Sohrab Mohebbi is a critor living in Los Angeles. He is a co-founder of Bureau des Services sans Spécificité, Geneva.


  1. Mark Fisher, “Interview,” ReadySteadyBook. return to text