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May 29, 2018


Dorothea von Hantelmann


What is the new ritual space for the 21st century?

An Essay by Dorothea von Hantelmann

At all times and places, societies have generated forms of gathering through which their members communicate, enact, and maintain their view of themselves and the world they live in.1 Every human society needs rituals to celebrate its own foundational categories and values—values that need to be embodied and anchored in individual and collective consciousness for them to become and remain effective. Ritual gatherings create a space that is distinct from everyday life, a space that connects the individual or the collective—or, to put it in more abstract terms, “the social”—with what a society considers to be “holy”—that is, with the core of its internal societal order. Rituals both demonstrate and establish the societal order, world view, and cosmology of a society and, in so doing, commit their participants to it. The ability to produce this bonding power is what Pierre Bourdieu calls their “social magic.” Without rituals, there is no social order, no institutional framework, and no enduring social structure.

While every human society generates ritualistic forms of gathering, they do not all gather in the same way. Every society generates its specific forms of gathering, and the structure of these gatherings tells us something about the structure of these societies. A society organized in tribes or clans gathers differently than modern mass society. A system that foregrounds the strength of social bonds and the significance of the group gives collective gatherings a higher meaning than a social system that aims for the autonomy of the individual. There is a correspondence between the social structure and the ritual gathering structure of a society.2

In many small-scale communities, the collective gathering—that is, the physical congregation of everybody at one place and time—plays an essential role in everyday life. In Chinua Achebe’s 1959 novel Things Fall Apart, about the life of the Igbo in southeast Nigeria before and during the Christian invasion, the daily communal life of the community is largely shaped by such regularly occurring gatherings.3 If there are matters to debate or share that are relevant to all clans of the village, the town crier makes an evening announcement for a gathering on the following day, for which the entire male (and also, in part, female) public shows up. The reasons for these gatherings vary significantly: there are veneration and initiation rites, seasonal ceremonies, and sporting events (namely wrestling), as well as rites connected to the traditional legal system and to loyalty oaths. The stylized speech and formalized, repeated gestures demarcate the gatherings as rituals that—by empowering the social structure, value system, and religious ideas of the Igbo—assist the community in binding itself culturally, socially, and spiritually. By their participation in the ritual, the members of the community commit to what they perform. The collective character and the personal presence of the participants play a decisive role in the ritual efficacy of these gatherings. Their collective presence reinforces the social bond.

Size is an important factor when it comes to forms of gathering. While a village of a hundred or even a few thousand people can gather collectively in one place, with larger communities this becomes increasingly difficult. What are spaces of public gathering becomes increasingly difficult. What are spaces of public gathering becomes increasingly difficult. What are spaces of public gathering in the city? The theater of the ancient city state of Athens constitutes an early and significant example of such an urban assembly place. Its semicircular amphitheater, located at the base of the Acropolis, was not only the place where tragedies were staged, but also a central place of assembly for the city. Its enormous capacity of 17,000 people indicates the importance it had as a means for bringing all citizens of Athens together.4 And attendance at these events was a civic duty.

Several centuries later, in medieval Europe, the cathedral was where society would gather to constitute itself as a community. Émile Durkheim describes the worship of god as a symbolic medium through which people cherish their mutual connectedness. Because religion was at the center of all aspects of medieval European life, the cathedral was able both to exist as the locus of Christian faith and to accomplish basic and secular functions. The monumental dimensions of cathedrals—some hold more than 10,000 people 5—corresponds to the growth of cities at the time of their construction. One went there to see and be seen. When a service was not in progress, city dwellers of all classes gathered there to pray and socialize. In Strasbourg, France, the mayor held office in his pew in the cathedral. In Troyes and Chartres, merchants used the cathedral’s precincts for their fairs and stalls.

The modern era has created new cathedrals, along with stadiums with capacities of tens of thousands.6 But at some point, a critical limit of how many people can be assembled in one place at the same time is reached. A nation of 10, 20, 30, or 60 million people cannot come together in the same place at the same time. Not only would this cause an unsolvable coordination problem, it also creates an issue of allocation, of inconsistent priorities: such a hypothetical gathering of masses would stand in stark contrast to the self-conception of modern Western societies, which put all focus on the individual citizen. The modern democratic societal order, with its focus on the individual, cannot be adequately represented by a mass gathering. What, then, is a ritualistic place of gathering in a modern metropolis? Where does an embodied experience of being part of society take place?

The modern state is no longer a community that can be integrated through face-to-face interactions. The political scientist Benedict Anderson speaks of nations as “imagined communities” that evolved from local ones and gradually developed over the course of centuries.7 One’s affiliation to these communities develops as a result of abstract notions (such as the passport) rather than embodied experiences that fortify an individual identity. The more a society is based on these abstract and generalized forms of organization, the less it depends on personal presence and collective ritual acts. While in premodern societies virtually all rituals had a close connection to the political order—which was inseparably tied to a social, juridical, economical, and religious order—in modern societies, which are functionally speaking highly differentiated and individualized, such a ritual conformism seems neither possible nor legitimate. Members of modern, liberal societies therefore lean toward a certain anti-ritualism. They associate rituals with religion and consider them obsolete within the context of secular societies, discrediting them as stereotypical, formalized, and therefore meaningless behavior. They further associate them with undemocratic spectacle, false appearances, and manipulative dominance. As a consequence, modern societies have often ceased to perceive their own rituals for what they are. But even though rituals of the modern state might not be understood or designated as such, they continue to exist and to be effective. In order to establish and maintain itself, the modern society has, like all societies that have come before it, generated its specific forms of gathering that cultivate and embody its foundational categories and values. Likewise, the modern socioeconomic order established rituals that correspond to its specific structure and premises.

This essay is grounded in two primary modalities of ritual gathering that have found their forms of cultivation and institutionalization in so-called modern Western societies: collective gatherings and individual gatherings. Collective gatherings occur in a variety of places vidual gatherings. Collective gatherings occur in a variety of places vidual gatherings. Collective gatherings occur in a variety of places vidual gatherings. Collective gatherings occur in a variety of places vidual gatherings. Collective gatherings occur in a variety of places such as the church, the theater, and the lecture or concert hall, as well as at town hall meetings, conferences, and large-scale political events, like the swearing-in ceremony for a president. These collec­tive forms of gathering are based on the modality of the appointment: tive forms of gathering are based on the modality of the appointment: tive forms of gathering are based on the modality of the appointment: there is a group of people, a collective, that gathers at the same place and time in order to attend to the shared experience of lis­tening and/or seeing Individualized gatherings are more flexible. People gather at certain locations to pursue activities that are accessible to everyone but that do not necessarily need to be carried out or experienced in a group (which is why one could object that, strictly speaking, one is not dealing here with gatherings). These individualized gatherings are based on the modality of opening hours: participants move freely through the space in ques­tion; their actions are neither coordinated nor synchronized. An early form of this individualized type of gathering can already be found in classical antiquity in the agora, an open place for assembly in which different forms and modalities of gathering and exchange existed. Its thorough implementation, however, is a phenomenon of modernity. Modern examples of open and individualized gatherings are shopping markets and arcades, as well as museums and exhibitions of all kinds.

Both modalities have institutionalized themselves in the arts. In fact, contemporary cultural institutions are based on either the collective or the individualized modality. The collective gathering tied to the topology of the room divided between stage and spectator incorporates events such as theater and dance performances, lectures, and concerts. The individualized format, which produces individualized and flexible forms of experience, is put into practice in exhibitions and museums. The underlying thesis of this essay, however, is that neither modality—collective nor individualized—can meet the requirements of today’s forms of social coexistence. Broadly speaking, I argue that the modality of the appointment, on which, for example, theater is based, though capable of generating a collective body with a certain energetic intensity, is too rigid in the concept of the collective that it enacts. At the same time, the modality of opening hours, as cultivated by museums and exhibitions, is more liberal and flexible, but lacks a sense of social cohesion, which is a quality we yearn for in these individualized, flexible times.

Previous human societies constructed places of ritual congregation appropriate to their size and structure. These were places that allowed citizens to experience their culture symbolically as be­longing to a particular city, nation, faith, or creed. In the 20th and 21st centuries, along with the invention of television and the internet, new forms of gathering have developed that one could perhaps designate as “surrogate” gatherings. For a few decades, the nightly news on television functioned as such a “surrogate gathering moment”: people assembled at the same time around the same type of object without needing to inhabit the same physical location.Everyone did it, but more or less alone—the experience was simultaneously collective and individualized. Today, the number of households with television sets is in decline. We now think of contemporary forms of gathering mainly in terms of the disembodied, virtual modes of interlinked computer and cellular networks rather than in the physical, conventional sense. If television broadened the principle of collective gathering as a shared experience that was simultaneously privatized and individualized, the internet in turn expanded, to a certain extent, the gathering modus of opening hours: it is always there, accessible 24 hours a day, available, utterly flexible, and individualized, but without the embodied experience of shared participation. If today we are positioned before a transition that can be described as the threshold of a cosmopolitan consciousness, can there be actual physical places where individuals recognize themselves as members of a nascent global society?

In recent years, a number of American cities have initiated community reading programs.8 The idea of the project is to have as many residents as possible read the same book at the same time and then discuss it in various forums—book discussion sessions, scholarly lectures, related arts programming, and so forth. It aims to bring people together around the shared focus on a particular book, and, in so doing, to create a shared experience that transcends the reality of social and cultural differences. Such reading programs evoke central questions of our time: What are the binding forces in today’s societies? How can highly individualized, fragmented, heterogeneous societies produce moments and experiences of connectivity? How, and in what forms, do we gather—and what roles do art and culture play in this context?

I want to connect these questions to separate but related movements that are taking place in the visual and performing arts: currently, there is a vivid interest, in artistic practice as well as in art institutions, in new formats that combine modes of exhibiting and performing.9 Visual artists are interested in techniques of theater, exhibitions become scripted spaces in which a series of events unfolds; choreographers show their works in museums, theater events experiment with modes of individualizing their viewers. As a result, hybrids between the visual and performing arts emerge, hybrids between the exhibition and the time-based event that are now searching for their institutionalization. How could or should such an institution look? Or, even more importantly, how do we envision it as a space of gathering? How collective, how individualized, with which parts of our bodies and which senses, with which freedoms and responsibilities do we want to encounter artworks and each other in these spaces?

Rituals derive their symbolic power and legitimacy from the fact that they transcend the individual and therefore cannot be modified at will. Their potency lies in the way they situate participants within an order that preceded their births and will survive their deaths. At the same time, rituals are neither fixed nor essentially stable: they emerge, take root, are refined, and solidify. As their effectiveness ebbs, they are imbued with new significance or are suppressed by other rituals. When the societal circumstances, the socioeconomic order, or the “thought-style” (in Ludwik Fleck’s term) of an epoch change, rituals can (and must) adjust their forms to the change in order to remain effective as rituals. What would be a ritual form of gathering that corresponds to contemporary forms of life and to the social structures of the early 21st century?

Collective Gatherings (Theater)

Art institutions—museums, exhibitions, theaters, concert halls, festivals—have never been merely containers for artworks. They draw their symbolic power and social legitimacy from the fact that they celebrate, embody, and enact the foundational categories and values of a society. They have an impact on the conduct and behavior of people, shaping it according to core concepts and values of the societies they exist in.10 At the same time, the power of these venues is derived not only—and perhaps not even primarily—from the art they present. The social and political power of museums and theaters comes from the format as a whole. By format, I mean the spatial arrangement between performers and spectators, or artworks and viewers, that constitutes the spatial-discursive space for what is shown. Independently of what is actually performed in a theater or exhibited in a museum, irrespective of what transpires in terms of media or genre, the manner in which this relationship is organized itself assumes significance by deploying very particular values and formats. And because theaters and museums are sharply different cultural formats, the values and worldviews attributed to and brought into effect by them are respectively different.

In its occidental form, the theater emerges from the context of the Great Dionysia, the central festive ritual of the polis in the ancient city state of Athens. The symbolic and structural conclusion of this festival honoring Dionysus, god of fertility and wine, were the tragedies. Festivals or cultic celebrations honoring a god, hero, or totem animal are found in the most varied cultures. By using the performance to conjure the presence of the celebrant, the members of a clan, tribe, or community in attendance are able to affirm their identity and their communality. What is special about the format of the Greek tragedy, however, is that its themes, with few exceptions, have nothing to do with the god Dionysus himself. As a highly developed cultural event of the Athenian city state and its characteristic culture of pre-Christian democracy, the tragedy aimed not at a connection to the realm of the gods but rather at imbuing the audience with a sense of its bond to the polity. The polis and its citizens, the social principles of the community, and the conflicts they represent for individuals, build their constant frame of reference. The social upheavals that led to the creation of the city state and to the political order of Attic democracy called for a new way of perceiving and contemplating the world as well as the agency of its individual inhabitants. The tragedy’s accomplishment lay in its creation of a new type of ritual that responded to this challenge. In place of the sacrificial altar around which the community had once gathered came the tragic hero, who would, in essence, act out the conflicts between the individual and the collective on their behalf. The separation between actors and spectators that took place therein, marking the foundational moment of theater as an art form, made it possible to relocate a large mass of people into a mode of distanced self-reference by directing their focus toward something that represented themselves. The spectators were thus transformed into observers of their own conflicts and dilemmas. In this way, what emerged was not only a new art form but also a new site of gathering, one that no longer aimed at celebrating the ecstatic, interconnected collective but instead strived to cultivate a rather reflectively cool, rational, and, in a sense, Apollonian moment. In theater, a person is no longer immersively absorbed in the ritually celebrated collective. Instead, via the representation on the stage, individuals contemplate themselves, so to speak.1 Over the course of history, the separation of actors and spectators that defines theater as a new place of assembly has inscribed itself more and more explicitly in its spatial arrangement and architecture. If the semicircular form of the theater of antiquity still evokes the collectivity celebrated in ritual, the proscenium stage of Renaissance theater establishes a clear separation between the stage and the space for spectators. The frontal opposition of actor and spectator translates the fundamental difference between the viewer-subject and the objective representation of his world into a spatial, architectonic arrangement. In the early 17th century, the box theater asserted itself as a valid structural principle because it was thought that theater boxes provided a better and clearer expression of the socially varied values of the individual classes of the populace. The social order was literally performed here. Seating categories and tiered pricing corresponded to the hierarchical segmentation of society: each person sat in the position where they belonged. The events on the large stage were in turn and above all an occasion to reproduce the social order. Balconies and boxes functioned as small stages from which one often had a better view of the other spectators than one did of the large stage.

With the establishment of permanent theaters in the late 18th century, the theater stopped being a location of the courtly display of splendor and instead started to fulfill its educational mission for an emerging middle class and to offer at the same time a space for the bourgeoisie’s emancipation and representation. In the bourgeois 19th century, and with rising prosperity, this wish led to the founding of more and more theaters with increasingly imposing buildings. Architecturally, many of these bourgeois theaters continued to be built as box theaters. With their galleries and boxes, they continued to configure a social hierarchy, as they did before. In the theater, bourgeois society created a venue that served as a space of representation and reflection for the emancipation and self-assurance of a strengthening middle class, which it regulated and regimented at the same time. Particularly in small countries, the theater functioned as a central place for the rituals and gatherings of an urban society while the state simultaneously represented itself as an organized polity.12 Theater rules decreed silence, the spectator’s space was darkened, and seats were standardized and individual. Just as the architecture of the museums and arcades of the 19th century aimed to break up the idea of “the masses” and to single out the individual, the individual was also supposed to have his or her own space in the theater and to be protected from the dynamics of the masses. Governmental regulations transposed the real, heterogeneous diver­sity of the audience, with its social, economic, temperamental, and physical differences, into the societal form of an ordered sociality. The disciplined, collective body allows emotion only in its sublimated, internalized form of reflective self-reference.

Already by the end of the 19th century, the increasing discomfort with the structures of city theaters led to the birth of counter-models. Theaters associated with auteurs ranging from Konstantin Stanislavsky to Bertolt Brecht, Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, and others reflect the forms and methods of the theater as well as the training of actors (and spectators). In their departure from established training and commercial theater, the artistic avant-gardes availed themselves of new venues such as the street, public spaces, and the circus tent. Experimental ensembles such as the Living Theatre and the Wooster Group expanded the concept of theater and declared the theatrical space to be a fragment of everyday reality. With these developments, the institution and its practices underwent repeated de-centerings that altered that act of being together in its dynamics. Yet the fundamental structure of the theater—the simultaneous presence and counter-positioning of actors and (to a large extent immobilized) spectators—has not only survived, but also largely remained a defining feature of the format.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this structure? What does it allow for, and what does it make impossible? As in all collective forms of gathering (like the church congregation or the concert audience), there is a collective, a group of people assembling in the same place at the same time. The agreement regarding the beginning and end of this coming together, the modality of the appointment, creates the organizational frame of this structure, while its ordering principle is that of the one (or the few) who speaks to the many.

There is, as Michel Serres puts it, one sender and many receivers. The one is mobile and speaks, while the many, immobilized, are conceived of as falling silent and listening. The strength of this modality lies in creating a collective body and organizing it. The collective gathering generates an energetic intensity, an energetic potency of the many who come together in one place that, precisely because of its energetic potentiality, needs to be regulated and disciplined. In being bundled, focused, and oriented towards the stage, the heterogeneous energies of the many become a collective body.

What the modality of appointment cannot achieve, however, is reproducing the modern, democratic mass society in its specific organizational form—that is, as an assembly of individuals. A rising modern mass society needed a ritual that included larger numbers of people in the processes that constitute such a society. A society of people in the processes that constitute such a society. A society that understands itself as open and liberal, one that places the that places the
individual at its center, requires a ritual
corresponding to its liberalized and individualized self-conception. Theoretically formulated categories like that of the individual needed to be practically rehearsed and ritually embodied to be able to become tangible and effective. The theater, whose fundamental structure descends from an entirely different epoch and social order, reaches its structural limits here. As a spatial arrangement, an internal hierarchy always forms in the collective gathering, in which the individual appears to be part of a collective body. And the structure of this gathering remains oriented to having the one address the many (or a few address the many, as the case may be). In this format it is largely impossible for the many to speak to the many.

Individualized Gatherings (Exhibitions)

Public museums and exhibitions arise in the transition to a new, modern, democratic, and liberal social order in which the figure of the individual occupies a central position. How does the modern nation, in its sheer size, manage to assemble and, at the same time, represent itself in its specific orientation toward the individual? The decisive factor in the development of a new gathering ritual that answers this question is the invention of opening hours. While the location of a gathering cannot be infinitely extended, opening hours expand the gathering temporally. Exhibitions and museums can assemble millions of visitors around the same object—just not at the same time, but rather stretched out over a period of months or years. Over the course of a year, far more people pass through a museum open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. than can attend a theater with nightly performances.13 This not only enables access for a larger number of people, but—precisely because everybody does not attend at once—allows for flexible and individualized forms of utilization. Within the relatively loose temporal frame of opening hours, the beginning and the end of the visit are not fixed. People come and go as they like. They do not perform any collective actions, nor do they recite any collective text. One decides where to direct one’s own attention, which is no longer subject to collective control or direction (or, at least, any direction that does exist is much less binding). A large number of people are assembled, and yet the individual is celebrated not only because the art museum presents the outstanding accomplishments of outstanding individuals (artists), but also because it addresses the visitors as individuals. Corresponding to the increased focus on the individual in modern societies, the museum became the first public ritual space to
societies, the museum became the first public ritual space to address individuals who understand themselves first and foremost as an individual—because the experience of the artwork is designed to be isolated and isolating, and because the exhibition enables flexible forms of perception. Instead of the one speaking to the many, the many communicate with the many—conveyed and mediated via material objects. Seen in this light, the national gallery is not only a place where the cultural wealth of a nation is presented, but it is also a place where the modern nation gathers in its specifically modern structure—that is, not as a collective body but as a gathering of individuals. Today, many museums and exhibitions receive thousands of visitors per day, but every individual nevertheless participates in his or her own way. To create a format that (at least in its aims) is open to all but not the same for everybody—embrac­ing mass accessibility and individualization, two essential building blocks of modern mass democracies—can be seen, in historical context, as an essential achievement of the museum.

And because it provides a clear reflection of how we understand modern democracies, the museum still constitutes a core ritual of these societies.

The pivotal entity of this new ritual is the material object. The focus on the material object—or the supremacy of the material object when it comes to the production of subjectivity—is a general phenomenon that accompanies the rise of modern, industrial, bourgeois culture. In fact, it is this specific nexus of subjectivity and materiality that distinguishes bourgeois, industrial culture from the culture of the court or aristocracy. Of course, objects played a role in court culture too, as signs of wealth, status, and taste. But ultimately they accessorized a subject who sought to transform into another, more aesthetic personage. Objects were integral to an aesthetic of style and manners and functioned as the accessories of a subject intent on aesthetic refinement. In French culture of the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, the visual arts were part of a more general art of living that included the crafts of dressing, conversation, and seduction.14 The aristocracy, however, was only able to place such a high premium on leisure pursuits like conversation and sociability because it was exempted from labor.15 In sharp contrast to feudal and aristocratic societies, civil society, as it is known, sees itself as an integrative society in which material production and culture are no longer mutually exclusive. The post-revolutionary bourgeoisie viewed itself as a class that labored and produced, while it also claimed a right to aesthetically refine itself. And a new social class for which the focus was no longer directed at working on oneself, but rather on the production of goods, needed a new ritual that would lend this orientation toward things elevated blessings of cultural and aesthetic meaningfulness.16

In the context of this historical development, the material object’s transformation into the protagonist of meaning-production had two significant outcomes that courtly/aristocratic cultures were unable (and unwilling) to attain. First, the object—and this is true in a particular sense for the material work of art—united the spheres of material production and the aesthetic, henceforth brought together in one practice. Museums cultivate and embody this connection between the individual and the material object and simultane­ously equip this nexus with something like a state-sanctioned authority—something no private interior or department store can do.17 It is therefore no coincidence that a society that measures itself in terms of what it produces—that is, a society that defines itself in terms of objects and derives its identity and wealth from the production of material goods, or that is, in the words of Félix Guattari, a “productivist society”—would ascribe so much value to a ritual like that of the museum.

Furthermore, the object figures as a medium through which the modern civic society can carry out its own claim to the democratization and liberalization of culture. Where is the difference between encountering an object and another person? The object does not reply. It is still. It carries no obligations. Situations in which people from different social spheres meet are never free of social hierarchies and involvements. In front of the object, however, everyone is equal. Of course, aesthetic experiences differ greatly, but the object itself assigns everyone the same position. In the 19th century, museums were constructed to have small connected rooms with wide visual axes so that members of different social classes could observe one another and even share a common focus on an artwork without having to interact directly with one another.18 In contrast to the space of the bourgeois theater, whose structure of tiers and boxes literally chiseled the hierarchical strong bonds of the premodern society into stone, the museum conceived itself as a ritual experience and gathering space of weak bonds in which the premises of a new, liberal, and integrative social order were reflected.19

In this conceptual framework the theater and the museum—or, in more general terms, the stage and the exhibition format—can be regarded as two different kinds of ritualistic topologies. They differ in character, they differ in what they impart to society, and they differ in terms of their function and significance within the huge transformational process that generated modern societies. The history of theater, based on the modality of the appointment, is one of forming and organizing collectives. The particular strength of this appointment modality lies in the creation of a collective body as well as its organization. Over the centuries, theater cultivated techniques for bundling the heterogeneous energies of its many spectators and for unfolding an affective power over them that at times is also inverted. But as a format, it does not create a liberal space in the modern sense. One enters the theater as an audience, as a collective body, and, upon exiting, one must quite literally press oneself out of this collective body again.

Historically, almost all cultural formats were based on the modality of the appointment, in which the one addresses the many. It took centuries to generate a cultural setting that would be based on the more modern, individualized, and liberal modality in which the many speak to each other. Just as the format of the appointment is tied to certain forms of incorporation—for example, by creating a period of time shared by all spectators for the duration of the performance or ritual—the opening hours format operates by the dissolution of such forms of incorporation. The more complex a society, the less probable the actual consensus of its members. The power of the exhibition format lies precisely in that it does not require participants to commit to certain spelled-out statements. Rather, it creates a space in which pluralism is cultivated (every collection, every exhibition, is a polyphony of varied subjectivities) along with a “solidarity without consensus.” 20 The trade-off for this openness is a format that is energetically “cooler” and, precisely because of its liberal character, relatively affectless.

Limits of a Liberal Ritual

In recent decades, exhibitions—especially art exhibitions—have become highly successful cultural formats. Today, art institutions that welcomed only a handful of visitors during opening hours a few decades ago welcome hundreds, thousands, or, as in the case of large-scale periodic exhibitions such as documenta and the Venice Biennale, even hundreds of thousands of visitors. Never before have the fine arts received such a degree of media, discursive, and also popular attention. As recently as the mid-20th century, the Venice Biennale was the only regularly held art exhibition of international standing in Europe. Today, there are about two hundred major cyclical exhibitions worldwide, each with its own identity and geopolitical specificity. What are the reasons for this success?

Above and beyond the individual artwork, I would argue that it is the format of the exhibition itself that is a key factor. Its recent surge in popularity is the continuation of a success story that already spans two centuries: the increasing dominance of a fairly new mo­-dern ritual that is specific to industrialized market societies. The museum—or more generally, the format of the exhibition—became the central ritual structure of our time because it mirrors the socioeconomic parameters of modern Western industrialized societies. Museums parameters of modern Western industrialized societies. Museums and exhibitions derive their social function and their strength as a cultural format from the fact that they enact categories and concepts that historically were and (mostly) still are fundamental to modern Western liberal market societies. Both the style of thinking and the socioeconomic premises of these societies—the individual, the object, the market, progress, pluralism—have been and continue to be embodied, enacted, practiced, and cultivated through this ritual.

Even in such a small thing as the wall label accompanying an exhibited artwork one can read the DNA of the industrialized, democratic mass society. First, the label’s sheer existence signals the implicit challenge of rationally classifying each object as a distinct work, rather than as part of a décor or as just one element in the spatial presentation of the room. However, the assumption that a culture or society can be represented by means of objects, and that, furthermore, these objects can be extracted from their original contexts in order to gather them somewhere else—this assumption, this movement in itself, is neither natural nor neutral, but rather is tied to a Western productivist, materialist, and ultimately also colonialist mindset. The label of the artwork usually starts by listing the name of the artist, indicating individualization and individual authorship. In other art worlds, in other times and places, the collective of the studio or the master craftsmen’s guild usurped the role of the individual. Next on the label comes the title, which marks the object as an autonomous artwork, a distinct entity that is detached from the contexts that brought it into being. Such a separation only makes sense within the Western conceptual framework of autonomy; it remains incomprehensible within a more holistic way of thinking based on networks or on a total cosmos. Then, the year is listed: this places the work in a linear-progressive conception of time. This is not an insignificant procedure. Historically, anchoring a progressive, evolutive conception of time and temporal development in the individual and collective consciousness was, as such, not only culturally but above all economically significant. Modern economies are growth economies. They are based on the credit system, that is, on the belief that investing in the future will bring benefits. Such a belief, such a positive attitude towards a promising future, needed to be trained, cultivated, anchored in people’s bodies and minds.21 Below the year, technique and materials are usually mentioned. For a productivist, industrial society, the question of how something is produced is a decisive one. One might consider, for example, the global and technological exhibitions, such as the World Fairs, that put this right before our eyes. And, finally, the owner of the work is listed. The idea of property also exists in other societies, but it is most strongly developed in the modern societies of the West. Individuation, autonomy, progress, productivism, and ownership: just in terms of the artwork’s label, one is already situated in the heart of Western, materialist liberalism.

What constitutes the foundation of this liberalism is a thinking in regimes of separation. Taking a broad view, the entire trajectory of modern Western history can be seen as a movement of progressive human liberation, which, in a historical perspective, meant above all a turning away from clerical and autocratic modes of control. Of course, two or three hundred years ago, liberalism’s concept of freedom, with its focus on the individual, was revolutionary. With its rejection of prevailing social and political norms, of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the divine right of kings, liberalism became a political formula throughout Europe—an avant-garde program—that aimed at vanquishing the era of feudalism. After people had been dominated intellectually, economically, and politically by the state in which they had lived for many centuries, liberalism emerged as a worldview that put the individual in the foreground and declared the individual’s freedom (and self-responsibility) to be the basic norm of every human society. In this sense, the ideal of autonomy proclaimed by liberalism defines the individual as an independent self, antecedent to all external ends and purposes, who enters only into contingent, non-constitutive commitments with defined ways of life.22

It is not surprising that, over the long course of this trajectory, “individual freedom” has become a byword for Western modernity. What carries this movement toward individual freedom is the emancipatory drive to detach people from ties or bonds that were seen and experienced as being too rigid and strong. Answering the question of what individualization actually means, sociologist Ulrich Beck once more or less replied: It means being able to say “I am I,” and not “I am a Swiss person,” “I am a Catholic,” or “I am the wife of . . .” These bonds are now revocable. They have become affiliations of choice. To assert “I am I” signifies that one must emancipate oneself from many aspects of traditional society: from family, religion, and nation. Emancipation essentially means the dissolving of ties through an act of distancing. And the museum operates in the same modality. The same regimes of separation that drive the modern movement are also inscribed into this format. The exhibited artwork is an object that has internalized acts of separation: it is ex-hibited—that is to say, taken out of its pre-existing networks of meaning or use. The act of extracting the work from its original context is constitutive of the exhibition format. As long as the altar painting forms part of an altar in a church, it is embedded in a sacred, unalterable structure of meaning and belief. It becomes exhibited by being extracted from this fixed cosmology and by entering the more flexible (and in this sense more modern) order that the museum represents. In a way, one could say that the altar painting’s transition from the church to the museum acts out the entire modern paradigm: the move from a supposedly unchanging sacred order to a place in which the same picture can enter a range of contexts exemplifies the essential process of social transition in modernity, a transition from social orders that are rigid to ones that are structurally less embedded and therefore more open and liberal.

We can further trace the idea of separation in the sensorial regimes installed by the museum. In his book on rituals of cooperation, Richard Sennett points out that speech was the dominant medium of public encounter and exchange until the end of the 18th century.23 Bars and coffee houses had long tables for 12 to 16 people that were meant to facilitate conversations between strangers. Linguistic patterns of behavior, such as particular forms of salutation or turns of phrase that people had heard on stage, were often used. These were considered communication techniques that could provide strangers with a common linguistic code. In the 19th century, when many major museums came into being, public life shifted from being a linguistic encounter to a visual one. The sense of the eye, as Georg Simmel points out in his “Sociology of the Senses,” is one of distance.24 It is infinitely easier to form a general notion of people we only see than of people with whom we converse. The eye is both less social than the voice and more “possessive” than the ear. Hearing is by its nature non-individualistic: what happens in a room is heard by all who are there. If we compare the audience of a concert to visitors in a museum, the former’s collective hearing experience creates much more of an atmospheric community than the latter’s visual experience.

If we look at 19th- and 20th-century museum spaces, we can trace the process of individualization and thus the decisive social dynamics of modern societies, based on the increasing distance between the exhibited images and objects: from the crowded presentation in 19th-century museums in salon configurations, with no focus on individual objects, to the open and rather spare exhibition spaces of the 20th century. The crowded togetherness of artifacts and viewers has given way to spaces that are almost entirely cleared, demonstrating how the overload of objects has yielded to the autonomous work, whose isolation on the wall corresponds to an individualized viewer. More than anything, the 20th-century white cube is a flexible, disconnected kind of Cartesian space, cleared and freed of all real-world influences where all natural processes and vibrations—temperature, light, acoustics—are regulated and in which the objects can be presented in new, ever-changing contexts. Just so, the modern individual does not exist in stable social relations but only in multiple and persistently mutable ones.

Every era builds its temples. Art institutions are the gathering temples of modern Western industrialized liberalism, which explains their peculiar character as a ritual: if every ritual is an immersive experience, this ritual immerses its participants in modalities of distance and detachment. It ritualizes movements of separation that form the fundamental attitude of a Western modernity—an approach that has proved extremely productive in modern societies. Politically, this modality of separation led to liberation from the stringent social ties of feudal societies. In terms of the history of ideas, it drove the movement toward an enlightened, modern rationality. Economically, humans could separate themselves from nature and look at it as a kind of repository of resources. They could use it, as Heidegger might say, as a standing reserve (Bestand), which led to a massive increase in productivity, so that, for the first time in history, humans became capable of transforming societies hitherto characterized by scarcity into ones defined by affluence.

Confronted, however, with the economic, social, and ecological consequences of the imperative of separation that underlies liberalism, the limitations of this attitude become evident. The question that increasingly concerns us is how the dualisms on which the modern order is based—society and nature, spirit and matter, theory and practice—can be overcome; how everything that has been separated—nature from culture, product from process, the individual from social ties, rationality from other modalities of knowledge and consciousness, and the like—can be connected. The objective has become to find ways to think in terms of modalities of association and interrelatedness rather than modalities of separation and further liberalization. The task of this new age, to borrow the words of Bruno Latour, is not one of critique, but of composition, not of emancipation, but of care.

Today, even within the West and despite the fact that the majority of people presumably still consider themselves freedom-loving and want to be individualized, liberal values are by no means viewed as unconditionally worth striving for. Displacement and mobility have become standard features of today’s societies. We are all displaced; we are all mobile. Some of this displacement may be experienced positively, but much of it is disruptive. The difficulty today is no longer to free oneself from existing ties, but, despite all the flex­ibility that has been achieved, to be able to establish and shape longer-term connections. New questions are moving into the foreground: How can flexibility be combined with a sense of founda­-tion, of home? How can bonds, or forms of attachment be estab-lished without giving up flexibility and individualization? How can social without giving up flexibility and individualization? How can social without giving up flexibility and individualization? How can social bonds be lived that are sustainable without being rigid? If we connect these questions that might concern us quite practically in everyday life with the more theoretical and epistemological ones raised, and with our initial idea of a new ritual, the core question is: How to create a format that temporarily brings people together in non-rigid ways; that introduces moments of connectivity without falling back on inherited and calcified conceptions of the collective?

Can the ritual of the exhibition—as a place where society represents itself in its social order and belief system, and in all its current global presence, popularity, and discursive power—be that ritual? In 1943, anthropologist Margaret Mead published a short essay called “Art and Reality: From the Standpoint of Cultural Anthropology,” in which she articulated a fierce attack on the modern concept of art and its institutions that might be worth re-reading today.25 For her, the modern notion of (visual) art, in its focus on visuality, on the this-worldly, and on reflection and judgment, is insufficient because it does not aim to spark energies that go beyond the rational, toward spirituality or transcendence. For Mead, the modern concept of the exhibition is a poor ritual because of its incapacity to address and experience Being as a whole—as a rational but also as an embodied or spiritual way of being. She writes:

For Art to be Reality, the whole sensuous being must be caught up in the experience. Our present practices, by which people sit on stiff chairs and listen in constrained silence to a piece of music, or wander in desultory unpatterned groups in an art gallery looking at framed pictures hang in desperate disregard of any relevance which might exist among them, is the very opposite process. One sense may be heightened, one emotion sharpened, but, except in rare cases, there is no increase in the whole individual’s relationship to the whole of life.26

Mead’s critique could be countered with the argument that she does not recognize that the cultural and historical achievement of the exhibition format lay precisely in breaking out of such holistic experiences. What she disregards is the need for separation—that, historically speaking, the paramount concern was to break away from many aspects of feudal and traditional societies. The format of the exhibition emerged as a specifically modern, liberal ritual for Western democratic and liberalized societies. In the way it cultivates fundamental values and concepts that lie at the core of these societies, one might even say that the exhibition format has become the only truly innovative, specifically modern cultural format that has been generated in the last few centuries. There is little desire to move backward, but this rupture has its price. The exhibition move backward, but this rupture has its price. The exhibition move backward, but this rupture has its price. The exhibition emerged as a ritual that cultivates facilities upon which modern Western thinking and culture is based: visuality, rationality, re­flection, and judgment. Apart from the eyes, all other senses and facilities are excluded—or at least not specifically addressed and cultivated. In its focus on the liberal and autonomous individual, this format cannot reflect the holistic, contextual thinking that Mead demands. Therefore, in terms of the construction or composition of a ritual, Mead is right when she says that museums have so far shown a relatively limited potential to address the full capacity of the human experience or the human spirit. Of course, collections and their underlying narratives can be expanded and repositioned, and the selection of artists and artworks can and should, of course, become more diverse. As long as this takes place within the existing formats and experiential regimes, however, the institution still acts out the DNA of the modern Western mentality.

Throughout its history, the format of the exhibition has continuously adapted to changing socio-economic orders. We can comprehend the transition of early market societies into consumer societies alongside the transformation of 19th-century museums into white cubes. We can analyze the contemporary experience society on the basis of the way it transforms the white cube into time-based experiential spaces. Yet in terms of overcoming modern orders of separation and cultivating new modes of connectivity, the format of the exhibition reaches its structural limits. This is because these orders form the ground, the very foundation of this format that, as I’ve shown, historically arose out of the (liberalizing) thrust to cut and separate bonds and connections in favor of cultivating autonomy. A format that was historically geared to loosen ties and liberalize bonds can only to a certain extent now do the opposite and generate ties or (sufficient) moments of interrelatedness. And a format that historically served to propagate the mentality of a dualist, anthropocentric, and colonizing Western modernity can only to a certain point now serve to overcome that mentality. Therefore, what certain point now serve to overcome that mentality. Therefore, what certain point now serve to overcome that mentality. Therefore, what was initially, in the light of cultural history, the strength of the exhibition format—that is, its focus on flexibility and liberalization—now runs the risk of turning into a weakness.

Toward a New Ritual

If the theater was the ritual place of Greek antiquity, the church that of European medieval times, and the museum that of industrial societies, then what is the new locus of ritual for the 21st century?

How collective, how individualized, how open, and how committed should this ritual be, and with which parts of our bodies, our minds, and our senses, with which freedoms and responsibilities, do we want to participate in it?

At the beginning of this essay, I referred to artistic and curatorial approaches of the present that aim to generate new formats for art. In this context, hybrids emerge between the visual and the performing arts: museums and exhibitions integrate live art or become dramaturgically designed spaces in which a sequence of events unfolds. This has less to do with the art form of theater itself and more with the way theater is used as a kind of toolbox that provides techniques for artists from other fields. Just as the format of the visual arts has developed techniques to disband forms of incorporation in favor of a more open and liberal framework, the theater has developed inverse skills to create collectivity, focus, and involvement. It could be argued that it is just this focus, this concentration and bundling of collective energies, that today’s highly flexible and liberalized societies can manage to create only with difficulty, and that this may be a reason why artists and theoreticians from a wide variety of fields have been growing increasingly interested in theater and appropriating its techniques. For a moment, then, the problems of liberal society seem to be resolved to some extent. On the one side, artists from the fine arts integrate techniques and elements from the theater, such as dramaturgy and temporal sequencing. At the same time, in the field of theater, there is a growing interest in exhibitions and museums, perhaps because the whole field of visual art and its institutions still has a different kind of relevance or legitimation on a discursive level. Furthermore, the exhibition format allows something theater cannot: more liberalized and flexible forms of address and experience. How could one design a new format that occupies a space between these two older ones? How can we draft a ritual that introduces moments of connectivity to the highly individualized and flexible format of the exhibition without reverting to the modality of the appointment and the rather rigid collective body it constructs? In what way is it possible to create an experience that produces interpersonal ties or moments of connectivity while still retaining a contemporary, individualized, and flexible sensitivity? What might follow the exhibition format? Three premises emerge as necessary frames for this new institutional model:

1 It would need to overcome the primacy of the visual

The new institution would be one in which all forms of art—visual arts, literature, poetry, music, dance, and theater, to name a few—can meet on equal terms. The idea of an arts institution dedicated to various art forms is of course not a novelty. When the Centre Pompidou in Paris opened its doors in 1977, it claimed its program would provide access to various forms of art and knowledge. While it does present visual art exhibitions alongside theater and dance performances and film screenings, both its own self-understanding and the esteem in which it is held still primarily come from the field of visual arts. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has a long tradition of experimental exhibitions, arose as one of the first art museums with departments for architecture and design. Yet its discursive authority is mainly linked to the visual arts. Even if such institutions integrate several art disciplines, they usually prioritize one—and in many of these institutions, that is visual art. This primacy of the visual is founded on the close ties between visual art’s preoccupation with objects and the fundamental values and categories of a modern materialist, productivist, and object-oriented lifestyle. Yet our lives have changed: we are bound to social networks and processes, and the productivity of a society today is derived more and more from social processes and from capital that is derived from human creativity.

After the modern period of the last two hundred years or so, when culture was primarily reified in objects and museums and exhibitions gained considerable popularity and significance by providing a ritual dedicated to the cultivation of objects, a new ritual is now positioned to focus more on people—on their interactions and relations. In the spirit of Margaret Mead, it would strive for forms that address the whole being, connecting to all senses and faculties. This means that even though it has claim to the discursive power of the visual art world, and also connects to the idea and social function of the museum as a site of long-term value production, this new ritual will not place visual art, and maybe not even a modern conception of art, at its center. A party can be treated with the same rigor and aesthetic sensitivity that is currently attributed to a painting or a theater piece. These various cultural utterances differ in the way they address their audiences and in their energetic qualities. The new topology would be a place where not only different artists are programmed but rather it would understand itself as a place where an ecology of energetically and structurally different gatherings can take place: individualized or collective, open or committed, reflective or immersive, energetically cool or hot. What used to be an exhibition of “works” (in the sense of separated, distinct entities) would now become an interplay of gatherings responding to a given, often fleeting, set of circumstances, such as the time of day, the number of visitors, and the social fabric of the participants.27

2 It would need opening hours

Opening hours are a seismic cultural achievement because they make it possible for mass society to participate in culture. They provide a liberal framework in which it is not the one who communicates to the many but the many who communicate with each other. The question, however, is how to work with this liberal framework and simultaneously overcome its weaknesses, in particular its incapacity to produce ties or moments of connectivity. In a liberal framework such as the exhibition, in which people can get in and out at any time, the introduction of less liberal, more intense moments of commitment or attachment would require the interweaving of different traditions, modalities, and forms of address. It means interlocking the modality of opening hours with that of the appointment, mediating a flexible, individualized economy of attention with a focused and directed approach. In performances, the event on stage is mobile, whereas the audience is immobilized in their seats. In exhibitions, it is the other way around: here, the objects are fixed while the visitors move. Combining these formats means creating situations in which both the works of art, or cultural utterances, and the visitors can move. To shape these situations dramaturgically would require compositional work that has little in common with classical curating or the traditional practices of stage-centered performance.

In recent years, time-based exhibitions have emerged in the field of visual arts.28 These new, hybrid formats constitute a search for new forms of address that are more oriented toward the creation of ties among audience members than traditional exhibition formats were. These new formats also strive to remain attuned to a contemporary and individualized sensitivity. A time-based exhibition turns time into the explicit structuring element; the exhibition changes in time, creating its own temporal structure into which the viewer is drawn. Processes of integration emerge in time and require time, which is why time has become such an important factor. I call these new formats “individualized spaces for events.” They are essentially hybrids between exhibition and event spaces. In their temporal mode, and as a dramaturgical composition in time, they are close to a time-based live event. In their mode of address, however, these spaces stay attuned to the liberal and individualized principle of the exhibition. They keep the liberal framework of opening hours (and don’t return to the one of the appointment). Visitors are grouped, but they are grouped in temporary clusters rather than in a fixed collective. Compared with theater or cinema, the collectivity that emerges is relatively loose and liberal.

3 It would need to be a transformative topology

The sheer bringing together of different art forms under one roof does not mean that they necessarily connect. As long as they are presented on different floors of the building, organized by different departments, or financed with different budgets, they effectively remain separated from each other. Architecture is a key factor here, as it literally sets in stone how spaces are used. The new topology would therefore be based on a movable, transformative structure that can change its properties and character and adjust the architecture to accommodate different formats over the course of a day. It would serve the needs of a theater performance as well as those of a visual artwork. It would create collectively shared experiences as well as individualized ones, allowing for a large audience as well as for intimate encounters.

Architecturally, an inspiration for this concern is a utopian plan known as the Fun Palace, by the visionary architect Cedric Price. In 1961, Price and theater director Joan Littlewood developed this idea as a modular, movable, and transformable structure that could be endlessly reorganized to display any form of artistic production. Concretely, it provided an adaptable space capable of hosting a large audience while still engaging them as individuals. Thus its architectural conception incorporated essential features of the current social formation into the processes of production: large, concentrated groups of people, individualization, flexibilization, constant change, and the increasing involvement of consumers. The Fun Palace was never realized, so we don’t know how it would have looked in the end or what would have happened there, exactly. But of all the proposals and attempts that have been generated for new cultural institutions, it seems to be the one that comes closest to such an institution—not only because it relativizes the hegemonic role of visual art and counters it with other formats and modalities, and not only because it is primarily seen as a place where people can meet and encounter each other. Above all, it is because at its core, the Fun Palace carries the idea of a new kind of institution that attempts to construct a ritual that is specific and appropriate to its own time.



I am grateful to Hans Ulrich Obrist for commissioning a series of public lectures for the exhibition project Lucius Burckhardt, Cedric Price: A stroll through a fun palace at the Swiss Pavilion as part of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia in 2014. These lectures gave me the opportunity to articulate and test out some of the ideas that this essay is based upon.


According to religious studies scholar Catherine Bell, growing up in a culture means acquiring and learning a specific symbolic-ritual language, a “ritual sense,” through which power structures of a society are also internalized. Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).


Published in 1959 as one of the first works of fiction that presents African village life from an African perspective, Things Fall Apart presents a sharp indictment of imperialism and European colonialism. It is among the first African novels written in English that received global critical acclaim.


It should be emphasized that the concept of the citizen in the Greek polis was a highly exclusive one. It only applied to aristocratic men, that is, men exonerated from labor. Workers, slaves, women, and children were excluded from these gatherings because they were not considered citizens.


St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (built 1506–1626) has a capacity for 20,000 visitors. St. John the Divine in New York City (begun 1892), in comparison, can host up to 12,000 people.


Globally, there are 165 large stadiums with at least 68,000 seats. Seventy-eight of them are in the United States, the largest of which is Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. It opened in 1927 and has 107,601 seats. The largest cathedral in the world is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, built between 1955 and 1980. It can host 45,000 people, and on special occasions up to 70,000.


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).


For example, recently in New York, One Book, One New York was established. By vote, the choice for the first book was for Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novel dealing with timely topics such as immigration, race, and identity.


I am thinking of artists such as Philippe Parreno, Tino Sehgal, Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and others, who have for many years experimented with time-based exhibition formats. Parallel to these temporalized exhibitions, we have been experiencing a strong and positive revaluation of live events in art institutions. A prime example of this would be the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern, whose opening in 2012 and expansion in 2016 was greeted by an enormously positive public response. These spaces are noteworthy for functioning as both exhibition and performance spaces. The Tanks—whose programming resembles that of a festival—shows live performances as well as film and video installations. It is nothing new, of course, for museums and exhibition halls to offer lecture programs and occasionally to host artistic performances. What is new is that these events, which hitherto had a peripheral status, have now gained a place at the center of the institution. In the summer of 2017, Tate Modern opened its first Live Exhibition, which is scheduled to take place yearly and comprises ten days and six nights of films, installations, perfor­mances, music, and dance, dramaturgically linked to time-based and non-time-based works and events. Examples of choreo­graphic works shown in a museum include the diverse “retrospectives” of Xavier Le Roy, shown e.g. at the Tápies Foundation in 2012, as well as projects by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (2013 and 2017, respectively).


The art historian Carol Duncan, e.g., describes the museum as a “civilizing ritual” for citizens in modern democracies, while sociologist Tony Bennett speaks of them as “civic laboratories,” that is, training grounds for civilized and civilizing behavior. (Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals. Inside Public Art Museums [London, New York: Routledge, 1995]; Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum [London, New York: Routledge, 1995], p. 47).


The philosopher and sociologist Helmuth Plessner describes this ability of the individual to act as him or herself, one’s distancing from oneself, as, in his words, an “eccentric position,” which he identifies as an essential element of the human condition. Theater as a social institution symbolizes this ability and creates its own format to cultivate it.


In Germany, for example, almost every city with a population greater than 100,000 has a state-subsidized theater. The historical origin of this extensive communal culture lies in Germany’s federal structure.


Of course, only institutions of a similar scale and status are comparable with one another. According to its Federal Statistical Office, Germany had in total almost 103 million museum visits in 2006, while 34.8 million visits to theaters were registered in the 2005 – 06 season. Soccer stadiums, in comparison, recorded 12 million visitors for national league games in 2016 – 17. In the United States, the American Alliance of Museums notes approximately 850 million museum visits each year, in relation to roughly 50 million visits to live theaters.


When the Spanish baroque moralist and Jesuit scholar Baltasar Gracián published his aphorisms on worldly wisdom in the mid-17th century, he attributed the highest value to sociability. “It is in the art of conversation,” he writes, “where the real personality shows itself. No act in life requires more attention, though it be the commonest thing in life.” Balthasar Gracián, The Art of Wordly Wisdom (1647), trans. Joseph Jacobs (1892),


And, as Thorstein Veblen and others have shown, it even needed these practices of aesthetic refinement in order to demonstrate that it had free time available, which clearly distinguished the aristocracy from a productive lower class that worked to cover its basic requirements.


In this spirit, the sociologist Werner Sombart speaks of artworks as “refined goods.”


The history of museums, however, is closely linked to economic developments in rising market societies in the 19th century, with many parallels, for instance, between the emergence of museums and department stores, and features they both have in common, such as display, repetition, classification, and the ambition to create what Adam Smith calls the “educated consumer.” (cf. Gudrun M. König, Konsumkultur: Inszenierte Warenwelt um 1900 [Vienna: Böhlau, 2009]).


“Relations of space and vision are organized not merely to allow a clear inspection of the objects exhibited but also to allow for the visitors to be the objects of each other’s inspection.” Bennett, The Birth of the Museum, 52.


What further allows for this flexible, individualized character of the museum format is the fact that, in contrast to a theater performance or concert, the material artifact does not have an explicit time of its own. It therefore does not need to be synchronized with the time of the viewer. In contrast to any time-based art form, there is thus no requirement for a specific organization of time to which the individual must succumb. While the exhibited objects remain motionless, their reception is coupled with the visitor’s physical movement. In this process, visitors apportion their own time and possess the relative freedom to determine the speed of the exhibition’s progression. Of course, the design of the exhibition architecture and the individual works themselves suggest a certain rhythm and require varying degrees of attention. And obviously every exhibition has some kind of dramaturgy that determines the quality of this progression and simultaneously generates a more or less explicit and subtle form of guiding the visitors. However, to this day, it has not been possible (and maybe also not desirable) to precisely direct the reception of the visitor. The dramaturgical efforts of curators remain on the level of suggestions or proposals. There is no possibility for them to enforce their realization. How one walks through an exhibition (e.g., if one revisits certain sections and omits others) and how much attention is given to an individual artwork or text falls entirely under the visitor’s charge. The atemporal character of the artifacts allows visitors to decide for themselves the direction and intensity of their focus. This flexibility of the exhibition format can be seen as a weakness (we will return to this point later). From a historical or sociological vantage point, however, it is one of the exhibition’s fundamental achievements.


See David Kertzer, Ritual, Politics, and Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).


On museums as “machines of progress”: Tony Bennett, Birth of the Museum, 177ff.


Accordingly, as liberal thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill emphasize, the highest value lies in the approach to choice—in our freedom to rise above empirical circumstances (Kant) or in our need to distinguish ourselves from others (Mill).


Richard Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 79f.


Originally published in 1907, reprinted in: Simmel on Culture, ed. By David Frisby and Mike Featherstone (London: Sage, 1997).


Margaret Mead, “Art and Reality: From the Standpoint of Cultural Anthropology,” College Art Journal 2, no. 4, part 1 (May 1943): 119–21.


Mead, “Art and Reality,” 119–20.


Erving Goffman’s notion of a “focused gathering” could come into play here. Goffman refers to a number of people who are involved in the course of a joint activity and who are related to each other through this process. Such gatherings come together and dissipate, their members fluctuate, and the focus of activity is discontinuous—more a fragmented pro-­­cess that happens over and over again than a continuous one that lasts. Such gatherings derive their form from their purpose or, as Goffman says, from the ground upon which they are placed; but still it is a form, even a recognizable one. See Erving Goffman, Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (Eastford, CT: Martino, 2013).


Anri Sala, Philippe Parreno, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Tino Sehgal, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, and Olafur Eliasson have all—to different degrees and with different focuses—worked on modalities that insert time into their exhibitions in recent years.

Dorothea von Hantelmann is Professor of Art and Society at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of How to Do Things with Art, and her current book project is entitled The exhibition: Transformations of a ritual, which explores exhibitions as ritual spaces in which fundamental values and categories of modern, liberal, and market-based societies historically have been, and continue to be, practiced and reflected.

Published in conjunction with A Prelude to The Shed, May 1–13, 2018.

Design by Other Means

A Prelude to The Shed is The Shed’s pre-opening program, a free, two-week arts event at 10th Avenue and 31st Street in Manhattan.

Kunlé Adeyemi of NLÉ Works collaborated with artist Tino Sehgal to design a temporary space in which dancers move and reconfigure the structure in a fluid integration of architecture and choreography.

This variation is a work by Sehgal that runs throughout each afternoon into the evening. Enacted by Margherita D’Adamo, Descha Daemgen, Sandhya Daemgen, Jule Flierl, Roderick George, Michael Helland, Louise Hojer, Nikima Jagudajev, Josh Johnson, Leah Katz, just in F. Kennedy, Stuart Meyers, Thomas Proksch, Claire Vivianne Sobottke, and Andros Zins-Browne.

Pas de Deux Cent Douze, a new work by choreographer William Forsythe, reimagines the central duet from his seminal 1987 ballet In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. It is set to music by Azealia Banks, danced by Roderick George and Josh Johnson, and performed throughout the day in alternation with This variation.

D.R.E.A.M. Ring dance battles, organized by Reggie ‘Regg Roc’ Gray, take place early evenings. The D.R.E.A.M. Ring flexn dancers are part of The Shed’s pre-opening commission FlexNYC.

A stroll through the fun palace presents an influential but unrealized project developed in 1961 by architect Cedric Price and theater director Joan Littlewood: The Fun Palace, a key reference for the building of The Shed to be inaugurated in 2019.

Schema for a School is an experimental course for students of varied backgrounds taking place throughout Prelude, developed by Asad Raza together with Jeff Dolven and D. Graham Burnett.

A series of live evening concerts features Atlanta-based R&B singer-songwriter ABRA; Venezuelan electronic music producer, DJ, and songwriter Arca; and New York-based rapper and singer-songwriter Azealia Banks.

A series of conversations on new institutional models for the 21st century, the politics of ritualized gatherings, and the role of art and culture in social connectivity have have been organized by Dorothea von Hantelmann and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Shed’s Senior Program Advisor.