Whitehot Magazine

May 2008, For REASONS of STATE @ The Kitchen

The Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellows of the Whitney 2007 – 2008 Independent Study Program, present: For REASONS of STATE
Curated by Angelique Campens, Erica Cooke and Steven Lam
Bik van der Pol, the Bureau of Inverse Technology, Jenny Holzer, Lin + Lam, Mark Lombardi, Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, Trevor Paglen, Ben Rubin, Susan Schuppli
The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
May 16th through June 7th, 2008

Although touching upon a fairly interesting subject, For REASONS of STATE doesn’t feel as if it presents a very personal, outspokenly critical nor curatorial position. However, this is not the fault of the curators. The conservative feel of the show critically questions the whole attractiveness, success and level of innovation of the Independent Study Program for emerging curators. Clearly, something like curatorial innovation is not ambitioned by the conservative-minded protagonists of the New York art world who unfortunately also run such study programs. Maybe it’s just flat out not important or desired anymore. Nevertheless, many critical observers communally agree that it is very hard to find a conceptually interesting and well-curated exhibition in New York. Thus, it is pretty redundant of the ISP to ignorantly vote against experiment, improvement and originality; three things the current situation of the New York art scene could greatly benefit from. The exhibition titled For REASONS of STATE, the result of ISP’s 9 months curatorial course, unintentionally reveals the program’s lack of time devoted to the training of making exhibitions and the development of exhibition concepts. How can a curators training program not do that and take itself seriously? Sigh… Luckily, the three curators of the exhibition are intelligent, energetic and healthy young people. Unnecessarily validated by a widely respected New York City-based training program, we now internationally recognize them as significant for a new generation of curators, as if that is what matters. That said I remain restless and critical.

With their exhibition, Angelique Campens, Erica Cooke and Steven Lam ambitiously address the realm of governmental secrecy. Amidst the many politically oriented exhibitions leading up to the 2008 Presidential Elections, the curators of For REASONS of STATE leave the current news topics, gossips or suspicions about the United States national and international politics safely untouched. Apolitical within the field of potentially political criticality is probably the most interesting, unplanned contradiction of the exhibition. Instead of formulating an outspoken opinion, nostalgia for mid to late 20th Century political issues charges the exhibition and reveals the curators’ romantic, scholarly excitement. The show modestly accommodates various known and new examples of leaked, shredded, erased, or nearly forgotten confidential information that inspired both established and emerging artists in the past ten years. The curators have individually and collaboratively researched power, secrecy and the use of classified information in contemporary art. Displayed examples range from Jenny Holzer’s well-known Final Autopsy Report (2006) to the collaboration of emerging duo Lin + Lam’s ongoing project Unidentified Vietnam. Bik van der Pol’s reprinted limited edition of How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, written by Doug Richmond in 1986, is another well-known artwork included. Natalie Jermijenko and Kate Rich (a.k.a. The Bureau of Inverse Technology) are represented with their video Bit Plane (1999). These works are noteworthy in themselves but together become didactic of the exhibition theme.

Operation Frequent Wind

Lin + Lam’s Unidentified Vietnam is a project that started in 2001 and researches the methods and propaganda of war. Intrigued by an archived collection of nearly 527 South Vietnamese propaganda films that were created with U.S. support, the artists address issues of identity, manipulation and memory. These films illustrate Western moral to the Vietnamese before the Vietnam War in an attempt to “subvert them from the rising communist insurgency”. Formally, Lin + Lam’s piece mimics the aesthetics of an archive, referencing the Library of Congress: the place where these films and other propaganda materials were collected shortly after the Americans evacuated Saigon en mass in 1975. Conceptually, their piece examines the relativity and manipulation of information and education. These are propaganda structures that are carefully constructed by one nation to convince people of another nation about the necessity for improvement of (their) lives. On their website the artists add that by “employing irony, humor and melancholia, Lin + Lam expose the force of bureaucracy, the dangers of nationalism, and the ramifications of U.S. foreign intervention. Recognizing the contingency of democratic discourse, they ask viewers to consider the viability of and possibilities for ethical interaction between nations and peoples.” Most of civil people agree that, in war times, it is impossible to introduce change in a foreign country without being sensitive to that country’s existing social, religious or ethical structures. Yet this essential sensitivity is rarely demonstrated. Throughout history, the United States has proven to give a masterly, ironic twist to their habits of imposing power. An early example, a 1900-campaign poster honoring president William McKinley’s successes during the Spanish-American War reads: “The American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” In his article Propaganda, American-Style, Noam Chomsky argues that “people are much freer in the U.S., they are allowed to express themselves. That's why it's necessary for those in power to control everyone's thought, to try and make it appear as if the only issues in matters such as U.S. intervention in Vietnam are tactical: Can we get away with it? There is no discussion of right or wrong.”

For REASONS of STATE also avoids the discussion of right and wrong, but lingers in a fascination for the undercurrents of confidential information and altered truths. Manipulation of information, stemming from pressure to maintain power, has always been an intrinsic element of political debate. Sometimes the real facts just need to be altered or kept secret for the sake of the nation’s mental health and to avoid revolt. The U.S.A. is not alone; many great nations spin the truth and will probably always do it. For REASONS of STATE demonstrates critical fatigue and illustrates how we passively accept and are unremorsefully fascinated by the lies of our leaders.


“American soldiers and marines are out there every day in dangerous conditions and desert temperatures - conducting raids, training Iraqi forces, countering attacks, seizing weapons, and capturing killers - and back home a few opportunists are suggesting they were sent into battle for a lie. The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone - but we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history. We're going to continue throwing their own words back at them. And far more important, we're going to continue sending a consistent message to the men and women who are fighting the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other fronts.” (From: BBC News, November 2007, excerpts from US VP Dick Cheney’s speech.)

“Tony Blair and George Bush lied to the world about the weapons of mass destruction to justify their onslaught against Muslims in Iraq, for they are products of a society based upon lies and fabrications. How they have lied continuously, trying to cover up their true intentions regarding the mass killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, the killing of their own soldiers in these countries, their torture of Muslims using secret prisons, the use of toxins and chemicals, the failure of their intelligence, their failure in Iraq and Afghanistan… the list goes on, and yet these governments continue to lie to their people and the rest of the world.” (From: Muslims in the UK – Islamicizing Britain, posted by Abdulrahman on October 24th, 2007).

Jan Van Woensel

Jan Van Woensel is a curator, art critic and researcher based in Mechelen (BE) and Prague (CZ). He is the founder of зараз: platform for emerging artists and curators from Ukraine (@zaraz_ukraine) and as of December 2023, he works as the studio manager of Anne Mariën. As a writer, he contributes to Flash Art Magazine and Fotograf Magazine.




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