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Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly objects at MoMA


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he aim of this article is to theorize how materials can play an active, constitutive, and causally effective role in the production and sustenance of cultural forms and meanings. It does so through an empirical exploration of the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA). The article describes the museum as an “objecti- fication machine” that endeavors to transform and to stabilize artworks as meaningful “objects” that can be exhibited, classified, and circulated. The article explains how the extent to which the museum succeeds in this process of stabilization ultimately depends on the material properties of artworks and, more specially, on whether these behave as “docile” or “unruly” objects. Drawing on different empirical examples, the article explores how docile and unruly objects shape organizational dynamics within the museum and, through them, the wider processes of institutional and cultural reproduc- tion. The article uses this empirical example to highlight the importance of developing a new “material sensibility” that restores heuristic dignity to the material within cultural sociology.
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Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly objects at MoMA
Dominguez Rubio, Fernando, UC San Diego
Publication Date:
August 2014
UC San Diego Previously Published Works
Publication Info:
Theory And Society
art material culture sociology objects
The aim of this article is to theorize how materials can play an active, constitutive, and causally
effective role in the production and sustenance of cultural forms and meanings. It does so through
an empirical exploration of the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA). The article describes
the museum as an “objecti- fication machine” that endeavors to transform and to stabilize artworks
as meaningful “objects” that can be exhibited, classified, and circulated. The article explains how
the extent to which the museum succeeds in this process of stabilization ultimately depends on
the material properties of artworks and, more specially, on whether these behave as “docile” or
“unruly” objects. Drawing on different empirical examples, the article explores how docile and
unruly objects shape organizational dynamics within the museum and, through them, the wider
processes of institutional and cultural reproduc- tion. The article uses this empirical example to
highlight the importance of developing a new “material sensibility” that restores heuristic dignity
to the material within cultural sociology.
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Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly
objec ts at MoMA
Fernando Domínguez Rubio
Springer Science+Bus iness Media Dordrecht 2014
Abstract The aim of this article is to theorize how materials can play an active,
constitutive, and causally effective role in the production and sustenance of cultural
forms and meanings. It does so through an empirical exploration of the Museum of
Modern Art of New York (MoMA). The article describes the museum as an objecti-
fication machine that endeavors to transform and to stabilize artworks as meaningful
objects that can be exhibited, classified, and circulated. The article explains how the
extent to which the museum succeeds in this process of stabilization ultimately depends
on the material properties of artworks and, more specially, on whether these behave as
docile or unruly objects. Drawing on different empirical examples, the article
explores how docile and unruly objects shape organizational dynamics within the
museum and, through them, the wider processes of institutional and cultural reproduc-
tion. The article uses this empirical example to highlight the importance of developing a
new material sensibility that restores heuristic dignity to the material within cultural
Keywords Museums
Docile objects
Unruly objects
Cultural sociology
Although still incipient and somewhat dispersed, it is nonetheless possible to detect the
contours of a novel sensibility within cultural sociology that calls for the need to
incorporate the material into the study of cultural forms, processes and meanings. This
material sensibility, as one might call it, has slowly emerged over the last years driven
by a more or less heterogeneous collection of authors who, despite their methodological
and theoretical differences, share the conviction that materials have been unduly
neglected in the sociological study of culture. As Chandra Mukerji has put it (1997,
p. 36), there is a growing need to approach material culture without reducing objects to
instantiations of discourse or realizations of cognitive representations, and to avoid
the disappearance of the material world behind language. In a similar vein, Harvey
Theor Soc
DOI 10.1007/s11186-014-9233-4
F. Domínguez Rubio (*)
Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Dr, 92093 San Diego,
Molotch has reclaimed the need to develop an understanding of how the social and the
material combine to make, depending on circumstance, both change and stability
happen in the world (Molotch 2003, p. 3). Finally, Thomas F. Gieryn (2000)has
underlined the importance of exploring the relationship between social worlds and
physical environments as a key to understand how social structures, categories, and
meanings acquire extension and durability.
Over the last few years, these calls to include the material into our understandings of
cultural processes, meanings and forms have been taken up by a younger generation of
cultural sociologists who have begun to explore, for example, how intersubjectivity
enabling-practices relate to the material environments in which they are enacted
(Jansen 2008, p. 152); how the interpretations of cultural meanings are affected by
the materiality of the objects in which these meanings are inscribed (McDonnell 2010);
how power and political structures are shaped and enacted through different material
infrastructures (Carroll-Burke 2006); how the material making, unmaking, and remak-
ing of icons can lead to the articulation of political identities and institutional reforms
(Zubrzycki 2013); or how materials shape the way cultural forms are produ ced
(Domínguez Rubio 2012).
The development of this material sensibility within cultural sociology can be seen as
part of an increasing interest on the material that has gradually spread across disciplines
as diverse as anthropology (Gell 1998;Henareetal.2007;Keane2003;Miller2010),
social studies of science (Galison 1997; Latour 1987;Law1991; Pickering 1995),
geography (Anderson and Wylie 2009;Whatmore2002), political theory (Bennett
2009; Braun et al. 2010; Coole and Frost 2010), cognitive science (Clark and Chalmers
1998;Hutchins1995), or the emerging field of material cultural studies (Hicks and
Beaudry 2010;Miller1987; Woodward 2007). In spite of their different, and often
divergent, methodological and theoretical approaches, the common thread uniting this
diverse array of authors is the attempt to restore some heuristic dignity to the material.
To achieve this, these authors invite us to move away from those approaches that have
relegated material artifacts to the subservient role of natura naturata, that is, to the role
of a passive surface upon which social forces act and impart meaning. As Durkheim
once put in an exemplary summary of this position, although materials can exert an
influence upon social evolution, whose rapidity and direction vary according to their
nature (Durkheim 1982 [1895], p. 136), they do not possess the élan vital that
determines social transformations. It is for this reason, Durkheim concluded, that
the principal effort of the sociologist should not be devoted to understand what
materials do, but should be directed instead towards understanding what humans do,
since they are the only ones capable of exerting some influence upon the course of
social phenomena
(ibid.). The proponents of this new material sensibility depart from
this view by claiming that materials do not simply behave as natura naturata but can
also behave as natura naturans, that is, as active and constitutive elements in the
production of social forms, relations, and meanings. This, however, does not mean that
these authors are advocating some sort of animism or anthropomorphism by proposing
that materials can act like humansi.e., that they can act intentionally and meaning-
fully. Rather, what they argue is that, although materials obviously lack the capacity to
act intentionally or meaningfully, they are nonetheless capable of other forms of action
that are irreducible to human agency (Pickering 1995, p. 53), and which can be as
important as human agency in the shaping of social forms, relations, and meanings. It is
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for this reason, these authors claim, that the exclusive focus on human actions provides
us with an insufficient principle of intelligibility to make sense of the materially
heterogeneous environments that we inhabit. This is precisely what scholars within
the social studies of science argue when they claim that it would be simply impossible
to make sense of how truth-claims, evidence, or objectivity are produced, if we were to
focus exclusively on what scientists do while ignoring what materials do (Barad 2007;
Daston and Galison 2007; Haraway 1997;Latour1987;Law1991; Pickering 1995). In
a similar vein, historians and urban theorists have demonstrated the need to attend to
the physical properties of the built environment to understand how different logics of
governance and power come into being (Domínguez Rubio and Fogué 2013; Graham
and Marvin 2001; Graham 2000; Joyce 2003; Mukerji 2012; Scott 1999). Even
psychology, one of the immaterial social sciences par excellence, has joined this
exploration of the material through different paradigms, like the distributed cognition
or embodied cognition paradigms, which depart from the long-established Cartesian
view of cognition as an immaterial process operating through symbolically expressed
puzzles, to propose a novel view of cognition as a materially embedded and distributed
practice (Clark and Chalmers 1998;Clark2008;Hutchins1995; Lakoff and Johnson
Taking all these interdisciplinary developments together, we can see how under-
standing the diverse roles that materials can play in the constitution of different social,
cultural, and cognitive phenomena has become one of the central concerns of contem-
porary social theory. However, besides the already noted exceptions, cultural sociology
has remained largely unreceptive and impervious to this widespread interest in the
material. Indeed, if anything, some of the recent theoretical developments within the
discipline, like the so-called strong program, seem to go in the opposite direction,
reasserting the analytical autonomy of culture, from any external source of constraint
(Alexander 2003; 2008a;Gartman2007). Similarly, the proponents of the cognitive
turn in culture sociology have expressed little interest in materials. Their interest has
been focused instead in understanding how people use culture (DiMaggio 1997,p.
264), that is, in how individuals employ different cognit ive schemes as tools,
repertoires, or toolkits to encode cultural meanings in order to justify or to motivate
their actions and choices (Cerulo 2010; Swidler 1986; Vaisey 2009). This, however,
does not mean that materials have been utterly ignored by cultural sociologists.
Actually, materials tend to be ubiquitous in their accounts, but are often reduced to
largely passive and vicarious roles, either as means or vehicles for social action and
meanings, or as background,”“surface, or context (Pinch 2008).
An exception to
this dominant understanding of materials and their role can be found in recent devel-
opments within the sociology of art. Over the last decade, the field has witnessed the
development of what some have begun to call a new sociology of art, which has
sought to reclaim the irreducibility of artworks and the need to study them on their own
as sui generis objects of sociological study (Benzecry 2011;Born2011; De la Fuente
2007;DeNora2011; Domínguez Rubio and Silva 2013; Domínguez Rubio 2012;
Griswold et al. 2013;Hennion1993; Wagner-Pacifici 2010). As the proponents of this
Only recently, cultural sociologists within the strong program and the cognitive traditions have begun to
acknowledge the constitu tive roles tha t materials can play in the shap ing of meaning (Alexander et al. 2012;
Alexander 2008 b) or in cognitive practices (e.g., Danna-Lynch 2010; Harvey 2010;Ignatow2007).
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emergent orientation claim, artworks cannot merely be seen as outcomes or effects
of a prior set of social relations, or as the material vehicles of meaning, for this view
tends to ignore their capacity to affect people and to create new social bonds, practices,
and meanings. Hence, these authors argue, the need to shift our attention from the
contextual factors of art to the artworks themselves and what they do. The French
sociologist Antoine Hennion, for example, has proposed a theory of mediation,
which explores how music, understood as a practice constructed by a myriad human
(composers, audiences) and material (scores, instruments, media) elements, is able to
create powerful forms of identity and subjective attachment in its users (Hennion 1993;
2003). Following a similar path, and also focusing on music, Tia De Nora has built on
James Gibsons(1979) concept of affordances to develop a sociological theory that
explores how music is constitutive of agency, how it is a medium with a capacity for
imparting shape and texture to being, feeling and doing (2000,p.152).
The aim of the study that follows is, precisely, to contribute to the development of
this new material sensibility by exploring how materials can play an active, constitutive
role in the production and sustenance of cultural forms and meanings. My aim,
however, will not be to explore the relationship between materials and actors in order
to discern, for example, the different ways in which materials mediate or afford
different forms of subjective attachment or cognitive processes. My interest, instead,
resides in exploring how materials make possible the unfolding of different institutional
and organizational forms through which the processes of cultural production and
reproduction take place. I will investigate this by drawing on recent ethnographic data
collected at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).
MoMA constitutes an especially pertinent case for at least three reasons. Firstly, as
an institution in charge of producing the links amongn past, present, and future, MoMA
constitutes a key mechanism in the material preservation and migration of contempo-
rary culture. Secondly, MoMA also provides a privileged site to explore the material
foundations of meaning. Specifically, it enables us to explore how the durability or
obsolescence of different materials is a key factor in understanding why some meanings
are rendered durable and reproducible, while others are made fragile and evanescent.
Thirdly, MoMA provides an exceptional site to test some of the ideas of the new
sociology of art. The aim of the study that follows is, precisely, to contribute to this
new orientation by demonstrating empirically how the physical properties of art-
workstheir weight, their obsolescence, or their portabilityshape the ways in which
organizational and institutional dynamics within the museum unfold over time.
The argument is structured as follows. I commence by describing how the museum
operates as an objectification machine that endeavors to transform and stabilize
artworks as meaningful objects that can be exhibited, classified, and circulated. I
describe the ongoing effort to control the unrelenting process of physical degradation
that threatens to undermine the specific relationship between material form and inten-
tion that defines artworks as meaningful and valuable objects. In the following sections,
I explain how the extent to which the museum succeeds in this process of stabilization
ultimately depends on the material properties of artworks and, more specifically, on
Empirical data were collected during 4 months (January-April, 2011) of participant observation at MoMAs
conservation department where I worked as an intern and through 34 semi-structured interviews with museum
staff members conducted between 2010 and 2013.
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whether they behave as docile or unruly objects. Drawing on different empirical
examples, I illustrate how docile and unruly objects shape organizational and intuitional
dynamics at MoMA by producing differen t degrees of continuity and change. I
describe docile objects through the case of oil paintings to illustrate how these artworks
are central to stabilizing and reproducing internal boundaries within the museum, as
well as a specific division of labor and expertise, especially between conservators and
curators. Second, I focus on a particular case of media-art, Nam June Paiks Untitled,to
describe how unruly objects operate as vectors of transformation and change within the
museum by posing diverse challenges to existing boundaries, by redistributing compe-
tencies and expertise, and by creating, in so doing, a new cartography of power within
the museum. I then conclude by highlighting the importance of the material sensibility I
advocate in this article for contemporary cultural sociology. As I claim below, the
development of this material sensibility does not simply consist in supplementing
existing understandings and explanations of culture by adding a hitherto ignored
material variable. The inclusion of materials, I argue, requires a fundamental re-
conceptualization of how we understand cultural dynamics and how we explain
The museum as an objectification machine
Broadly defined, the mission of fine arts museums is to maintain the intelligibility of
artworks qua meaningful and valuable objects over time.
In spite of the apparent
simplicity of this goal, its attainment is highly problematic. One of the main reasons is
that within a fine arts museum there is no such a thing as an object”—at least if we
define an object in the usual sense to indicate a stable or permanent correlation
between form and matter (Quine 1958). Indeed, in spite of the illusion of fixity and
timelessness that typically surrounds these artifacts, artworks are never still. Just like
any other physical artifact, artworks are subjected to entropic processes of degradation
and decay. As a result, artworks are always on the move as parts of the complex and
ever-changing field of forces emerging from the interactions between their material
components and the changing environments in which they are placed. As temperature,
humidity, and light vary, artworks change and degrade, their colors vary and whither,
their materials expand and contract, thus causing different transformations in their
original aesthetic form. The seemingly unchanging and immortal artwork is thus better
understood as an open-ended process of decay evolving at varying speeds, while
museum collections are better conceptualized as collections of processes rather than
as collections of objects.
The ongoing physical transformation of artworks poses a constant threat to the specific
form of objecthood that has traditionally separated artworks from simple artifacts. To be
considered art, an artifact must remain legible as the original, unique, authentic product
of the artists unique self and creative agency. It is the inalienable link between material
form and the artists self and creative agency that renders artworks meaningful and what
Most museums mission statements describe three main functions: to preserve, to display, and to educate
(Anderso n and Adam s 2000). It should be noted, though, that education and display are necessarily dependent
on the preservation of the artworks. Without artworks, there is nothing to display or teach about.
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separates them from other types of artifacts (Baxandall 1987;Danto1981). However, the
legibility of artworks as meaningful intentional objects tends to be a rather fragile
achievement. Take, for example, the case of Eva Hesses Expanded Expansion,a
sculpture that Hesse made in 1969, just a year before her untimely death, in which she
employed latex as the main sculptural material (see Fig. 1). Over the following four
decades, the sculpture underwent a radical transformation due to the obsolescence of its
material constituents. As a result, the original translucent and ethereal sculpture has now
become a yellow, brittle artifact. The physical transformation has been so radical that it has
prompted a wide controversy in the art world as to whether this piece should be exhibited
at all. The argument is that it is no longer clear whether this artifact can still be rightfully
attributed to Eva Hesses artistic agency, or whether the physical transformation has been
such that it has fundamentally altered its intended form and meaning, thus betraying
Hesses original intention. Put differently, the ongoing physical t ransformation makes it
unclear whether natural processes have elided the works meaning and aesthetic value, or
whether this artifact, in spite of its dramatic physical change, can still be legitimately
considered an art object.
The case of Expanded Expansion is far from unique. All artworks undergo a
continual process of physical transformation and decay that constantly threatens to
undermine the specific relationship between material form and intention that defines
them as meaningful and valuable art objects. The question the museum has to solve is
how to prevent, or at least how to slow down, this unremitting process of change and
degradation so that artworks can retain their meaning and value as timeless objects of
formal delectation. Such an endeavor requires a vast material and technologica l
infrastructure involving, for exampl e, the prod ucti on of highly artificial micro-
environments to sustain the climatic conditions under which each type of artwork can
be stabilized; the development of different technologies and practices of conservation to
undo, or at least control, the transformations caused by time and natural degradation; as
well as the deployment of various display techniques to represent artworks as discrete
and autonomous objects existing independently of the historical and social context in
which they were created.
Yet, crucially for my argument, not every artwork lends itself equally to these processes
of stabilization, preservation, and objectification. That is, not every artwork can be
transformed into, and represented as, a discrete and autonomous object. Some artworks
behave as docile objects. These are the artworks that can be easily stabilized and be
placed in a stable object position. However, other artworks, like Eva Hesses Expanded
Expansion, beh ave as what I call unruly objects, that is, as artworks that cannot be easily
stabilized and transformed into timeless objects of formal delectation. Here it is important
to emphasize that the distinction between docile and unruly objectsisnotmeantto
differentiate kinds of artworks. Rather , my aim is to differentiate the effects that different
material behaviors can have within particular organizational or institutional contexts. In
other words, my claim is not that some artworks are inherently docile or unruly; but rather
that some artworks behave as docile and unruly objects within specific organizational and
institutional contexts. Expanded Expansion is a case in point. If this sc ulpture behaves as an
The controversy surrounding Expanded Ex pansion and other works by Hesse was one of the main themes of
the 20 08 conference The Object in Transition: aCross-Disciplinary Conference on the Preservation and Study
of Modern Art at the Getty (see also Keats 2011;Michaels2003).
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unruly object this is not simply due to the inherently unstable properties of its material
components. Latex is indeed a highly unstable and evanescent material. However, there is
nothing that makes latex inherently unruly. This material only becomes unruly within the
institutional context of the museum, where material stability is required to preserve the
identity between material form and artists intention.
Docility and unruliness, therefore, are
not me ant to describe what philosophers call primary qualities, i.e., qualities that inhere to
artifacts or materials. Rather , they are meant to describe relational behavioral properties that
emerge from the relationship between the material properties of different artifacts and the
institutional and organiza tional context in which they operate at a given time. Docility and
unruliness will be used here to indicate the two extremes of a continuum of possible
material behaviors. The imag e of a continuum of behaviors is useful to highlight two
things. First, it helps me to underline that the distinction between docility and unruliness is
not an e ither/or q uestion, but a question of degree. In other words, my claim is not that
artworks can be classified as being either docile or unruly . Rather , my claim is that artworks
have different degrees of docility and unruliness. Second, the image of continuum helps to
emphasize the relational, contingent, and temporal character of docility and unruliness. In
other words, it helps me to emphasize that artworks behave differently in different
organizationa l and institutional contexts. As I will show , artworks behave differently at
different times and organizational and institutional contexts. As a matter of fact, some of the
artworks that once behaved as unruly objects now behave as exemplary docile objects.
In what follows, I explore these points by focusing on two artworks whose behavior is
close to the ideal of docile and unruly objects. First, I examine oil paintings, whose behavior
tends to be close to the ideal of docile objects. Then, I examine a partic ular instance of
media-art, Nam June Paiks Untitled, as an example of an artwork that behaves as an
exemplary unruly object. The aim of the empirical analysis of these cases is to show how
docile and unruly objects actively shape internal boundaries and hierarchies within the
museum and, through them, the wider processes of institutional and cultural reproduction.
Docile objects
Docile objects can be defined as those artworks that diligently occupy their designated
object-positions and comply with the set of tasks and functions that have been entrusted to
Fig. 1 Eva Hesse, Expanded Expansion. Fiberglass, polyester resin, latex, and cheesecloth, 10 feet 2 inches × 25
feet (309.9×762 cm) overall. Left 1969. Right, 2010 © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
The very same physical properties that make latex unruly within a museum are what make this material
especially docile in the production of medical gloves or condoms, where disposability and replace ability are
valued over stab ility and uniqueness.
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them, thereby enabling a smooth reproduction of both subject and object-positions within a
given organization. Moreover, docile objects can be identified because they behave as
stable, classifiable, knowable,andportable artifacts. These behavioral properties make
docile objects particularly elusive objects of study. Their stability, classifiability, knowability,
and portability mean that they often go unnoticed, embedded in the quotidian activities and
structures that define the common run of things. As such, they tend to be easily disregarded
as uninteresting and boring sociological objects of study. Yet, as I show , although invisible
and perhaps even boring, the work docile objects perform is vital to understand how
different social practices, classifications, boundaries, and meanings are standardized and
acquire a taken-for-granted status. In other words, I contend that docile objects are essential
elements in the creation of those organizational and institutional continuities that lead to the
processes of cultural preservation and reproduction. In what follows, I bring to light the
invisible work of docile objects through the particular case of oil paintings.
Since their popularization in the fifteenth century, oil paintings have become the
canonical medium of fine art as well as the museum object par excellence. Although
simple at first sight, oil paintin gs ar e indeed complex artif acts composed of an
interlocking system of different layers of paint, binding agents, varnish, frames, and
linings, which are always on the move as these elements interact with each other and
with the changing environment in which these paintings are placed (see Fig. 2).
As a result of the ongoing interactions among their constituents, oil paintings
typically undergo physical transformations that can potentially change their original
aesthetic form and compromise their status as meaningful and valuable art objects. For
the most part, these transformations tend to be modest and controllable within contem-
porary art museums. One of the reasons for this is to be found within oil itself. Oil is
generally a stable mediumhighly resistent to environmental variations and color
changes over time, what generally results in a long life expectancy for these paintings.
Fig. 2 T ypical inner structure of an oil pai nting
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This, however, is not always the case. Some oil paintings suffer from what is called
inherent vice, which results from the incompatibility of materials the artist used in the
production of the painting, and which has the effect of producing an irreparable process
of degradation. In addition to this, oil paintings have not always behaved as docile
objects. Prior to the twentieth century, oil paintings in museum collections tended to
behave as unruly objects. The lack of electricity, and heating, ventilation, and air
conditioning systems (HVAC systems) in museums resulted in highly unstable and
variable environments in which oil paintings could not be easily stabilized, and resulted
in reduced life spans for these artworks. To prevent this, new technical solutions and
practices of conservation have been developed over the last centuries, such as the
varnishes applied to isolate their painted surfaces from fluctuating environments and
airborne particles, the lining techniques developed to prevent the ongoing mechanical
contraction and expansion of the canvas, or the different conservation techniques
deployed to repair damaged paint layers. The development of HVAC systems over the
last century has enabled museums to engineer highly controlled environments specifically
designed to create the particular climatic conditions that these paintings require for their
display and stabilization. The combination of all these elements has transformed oil
paintings from relatively unruly objects into one of the most stable and docile artworks
within contemporary art museums. Thus, wh en I describe oil paintings as docile I am not
referring t o an i nherent material property of these a rtworks. Rather, I am referring to
aparticular and contingent accomplishment that was made possible thanks to the physical
endurance of the material constituents of these paintings (such as oil), the various
preservations techniques developed around them, and the artificial physical and climatic
environments that have been created over time to stabilize them.
The stability of these paintings has several consequences for the museum. One
consequence is that, unlike more fragile artworks such as photography or prints, oil
paintings can be on display for long periods of time, a property that is essential to
confer durability to the institutional narratives built upon them. At MoMA, for exam-
ple, the ability to have iconic oil paintings permanently on v iew, like Picassos
Demoiselles DAvignon,VanGoghs Starry Night, or the French impressionists, has
played a decisive role in the popularization of these artworks and in the creation of the
master narrative that has come to define the canon of modern art, as well as MoMAs
pivotal position within it (Lorente 2011). More importantly, the stability of these
paintings has been crucial to define the organizational structure of the museum as well
as the dynamics of meaning reproduction that take place within it. One of the places in
which this becomes evident is in the definition of the boundaries separating conserva-
tors and curators, two of the main agents involved in the process of meaning repro-
duction at MoMA.
Curators and conservators occupy very different roles and power positions within
most fine arts museums. Broadly defined, the role of curators has been that of
discovering and selecting the best art of the day to bring it into the public eye. Although
initially relatively silent figures operating in the back of museums, caring and managing
the collections, curators have become over the last decades one of the most visible and
powerful gatekeepers in the art world. As exhibitions became the standard medium for
the representation and display of art over the course of the twentieth century, curators
gained the power to sanction and promote artist careers by controlling their access to
the legitimating space of the museum (Altshuler 1994). This is particularly evident at
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MoMA, whose powerful curators have played a central role in promoting and integrat-
ing different avant-garde movements, like abstract expressionism or minimalism, into
the canon of Western art (Kantor 2003). At MoMA, curators have acquired over time
an unquestionable monopoly over aesthetic judgment and meaning as well as over the
production of institutional narratives. Not only do they design and produce exhibitions,
but they also control the official discourse of the museum through the production of
exhibition catalogues and scholarly articles. This renders curators pivotal in the
power structure of the museum, which ultimately depends on them to attract
audiences, to define its institutional narratives as well as its overall position within the art
The central position of curators contrasts with that of conservators. The field of
conservation, which developed in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth
century, has been only partially incorporated into the formal structure of most fine
arts museums.
In the case of MoMA, the museum operated without a conservation
department for almost three decades. It was only in 1958, after a devastating fire
destroyed several masterpieces, including two recently acquired Monets Water
Lilies, that MoMA decided to establish a conservation department. Essentially,
the mission of the conservation department is to preserve the physical integrity
of the artworks constituting the collection. Thus, if curators can be described as the
custodians of the aesthetic integrity of artworks, then conservators can be described
as the custodians of their material integrity. This distinction not only draws a
specific division of labor but also presupposes a specific hierarchy of knowledge at
MoMA. Unlike curators, who are typically trained in art history, conservators are
formally trained as natural scientists with ample expertise about the chemical and
mechanical properties of materials. This scientific knowledge legitimates conserva-
tors to produce scientific judgments about the material aspects of artworks, but not
about their meaning. A conservator is entitled to say, for example, that a painting
shows a significant loss of its green hue as a result of an undue exposure to light,
but she is not entitled to assess whether or how such loss affects the meaning of
the artwork. Only curators are formally entitled to make those judgments, as they
are seen as the only legitimate interpreters of aesthetic meaning within the
museum. Furthermore, any conservation decision, like removing the yellowed
varnish of an old painting, cleaning the surface of an artwork, or inpainting (i.e.,
filling damaged areas of a painting), is first submitted to the aesthetic judgment of
the curator, who has the ultimate authority to decide whether the proposed
conservation treatment compromises the intended meaning of the work and its
overall aesthetic integrity.
The physical stability of most oil paintings has been crucial in creating and
institutionalizing a hierarchical division of labor and knowledge between curators
and conservators. Their stability offers very few opportunities to collapse the gap
separating conservation and curatorial practices and knowledges. A major paint-
ing like Picasso s Demoiselles DAvignon only requires conservation treatment
every 20 or 30 years, and these treatments rarely amount to more than routine
and mechanical operations that do not compromise its outward aesthetic form.
Indeed, many mid-size and small museums do not have their own conservation department on-site.
Subcontracted individual conservators or labs are the ones responsible for conservation in these museums.
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For example, when the Demoiselles was last treated at MoMA in 2004, conser-
vators only had to clean the dirt that had accumulated since it was last treated in
1963, remove a layer of varnish, undo some conservation treatments done in
1950, and fill in some minor paint losses. The routine nature of these operations
meant that the conservator in charge of the project did not have t o perform jobs
that coul d comp r om ise t he ae st he ti c for m of the Demoiselles, or its meaning,
which enabled him to avoid negotiations or confrontations with the chief curator
overseeing the conservation pro cess. In this sense, oil paintings enable a relatively
peaceful coexistence between conservators and curators by stabilizing a peculiar hier-
archy of knowledge and power in which conservators are subsumed under curators, who
retain the monopoly over aesthetic decisions and meaning-making processes (see
Fig. 3).
Classifiability and knowability
Classification is one of the critical processes through which institutions are able to
produce and to sustain meaning and order. It is through classification that institu-
tions effectively standardize and synchronize actions and meanings across different
domains, organize coherent systems of categories, distribute forms of value, and
produce univocal and legible objects of knowledge (Bowker and Star 1999; Strand
2011). These processes are particularly critical in museums, as institutions that
have within their purview the creation, management, and reproduction of complex
cultural taxonomies.
Museum classifications have tended to be described as coventionally produced
orders that place and mobilize artworks into a system of pre-existing social and cultural
categories or schemes. Following this view, most scholarly attention has been devoted
to reveal how museum classifications reflect or promote, either wittingly or unwittingly,
larger cultural constructs, such as national identities, colonialism, or imperialism
(Bennett 1995; Karp and Lavine 1991). Much less attention, however, has been paid
Fig. 3 Asymmetrical boundaries of judgment and expertise created around oil-paintings at MoMA
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to how these classifications are produced in practice and to the peculiar role that
artworks play in such process. This is precisely where my interest lies.
As I show below, more than conventional orders born out of underlying social or
cultural principles or schemes and imposed onto the tabula rasa of material things,
museum classifications are better understood as dynamic and open-ended processes
contingently unfolding out of the interplay between classificatory principles and the
physical properties of the stuff they seek to organize. Artworks, in this sense, are
more than mere inert stuff organized and classified according to external social or
cultural principles. They are active elements playing a key structuring role in the
production of classifications by actively shaping how categories are drawn and redrawn
and how different meanings and forms of value are produced and distributed within the
The structuring role that materials play in museum classifications is patent at
MoMA, an institution in charge of organizing and taking care of more than 150,000
artworks, 22,000 films, and four million film stills, as well as the individual files of
more than 70,000 artists. The classification of this vast collection is a daunting task, not
only because the classificatory principles change over time, but also because the
collection itself is continually growing as a result of new acquisitions. Each year,
MoMA acquires several hundred new artworks, which have to be duly placed in
categories that define their position within the collection as well as their relations to
other artworks.
The main challenge of this classificatory process resides in the fact that artworks
rarely, if ever, come into the museum as single objects. Instead, they usually come as
parts of what is called in museum parlance a constituency. An artwork constituency
involves all the physical components that typically come with the artwork, like frames
in the case of paintings, or different props in the case of installations or sculptures, as
well as documents, like contracts, installation instructions, or artist notes. These
components define the boundaries of the artwork and establish their meaning and
value. Contracts, for example, are essential to determining the ownership and
custodial h istory of artworks, something indispensable to establishing that an
artwork is authentic. Artist notes provide information about the specific per-
sonal and historical contexts in which artworks were made and are c rucial to
constru ct c ura t oria l a nd hi st or iog r aph ic al interpretations. Other documents, like
the display and assemblage instructions accompanying more complex artworks,
are fundamental to ensure the reproducibility of these artworks as well as the
authenticity of their future iterations. What an artwork is, therefore, is insepa-
rable from its constituency.
The first task when acquiring an artwork is to transform the complex constituencies
in which they are inserted into legible, manageable, and unified objects of knowl-
edge. To achieve this, the first operation upon receiving a new artwork is to classify
and separate those components containing aesthetic valuei.e., the art proper”—from
those non-art components containing other forms of value, like research or legal
value. Tracing the boundary between these forms of valueataskreservedatMoMA
to curatorsdefines the physical location of each component within the museum and,
more importantly, its location within different realms of knowledge and expertise.
Thus, those components that are considered to have aesthetic value”—e.g., an oil
canvas become part of the museums permanent collection and are placed into art
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storage facilities under the supervision of conservators and curators. Those components
that are deemed to have research or legal value, like artists notes, instructions, or
contracts, are placed in the museums archives and fall under the purview of archivists
and museum lawyers.
Once the initial boundaries between different forms of value have been established
and the physical components are stored, they are entered into the database,
artwork constituencies are transformed into information through their conversion into
unique records. These records contains tombstone information about the artwork
(like artist name and life dates, title, creation date, medium, dimensions, provenance) as
well as detailed information about all the components, which are given a unique
extension number that identifies them as inalienable parts of a given constituency
and that defines their particular relation to the whole.
The transformation of complex artwork constituencies into unified database objects
enables a smooth distribution and exchange of information within the museum as well
the coordination of practices in and across departments. Indeed, for most museum staf f
these database objects are the primary means through which they know and manage
artworks, as they rarely have to deal with actual physical components, which are stored
in different physical locations across the museum. Most tasks in the museum take place
through these database objects. For example, these database objects are what curators
employ to create the exhibition checklists that circulate across the different depart-
ments to coordinate actions for the organization of exhibitions. The ability of artworks to
be classified and translated into unified database objects is crucial to enable the
circulation of knowledge within the museum as well as the coordination of activities.
Returning to oil paintings, we can see how , here again, they tend to behave as exemplary
docile objects. The typically discrete and self-contained nature of most oil paintings
constituencies facilitates the identification and classifications of their components. A
standard oil painting, like Picassos Demoiselles, is typically composed of a couple of
artifacts, the canvas and the frame, which are categorized as the art itself and a component.
The rest of components, like contracts or artist notes, are uncontroversially defined as
archival material. The ease in establishing these boundaries makes oil paintings easily
translatable into database objects. Most of the database entries for th ese artworks typically
contain just a handful of components, which make s them easily traceable and communi-
cable. In addition, the stability of their physical components makes them remarkably stable
objects of knowledge, since t hey rarely, if e ver , defect from the categories in which they
have been initially inserted. For example, the canvas of the Demoiselles is unlikely to
change so dramatically as to require its reclassification as archival materialas could be the
case with a work like Hesses Expanded Expansion. Finally, the number of components in
their constituencies is unlikely to change, something that, as we see below, is not the case
with more complicated and fragile—“unruly”—artworks.
All these properties tend to make most oil paintings legible, manageable, and stable
objects of knowledge. They can be easily classified within existing categories and
smoothly inserted into the museums databaseenabling, in so doing, an unproblematic
Like most major museums, MoMA uses The Museum Systems (TMS).
For example, in the case of an oil painting, the canvas is assigned a unique number (e.g., 300.456), while the
other com ponents are assig ned a suf fix ident ifying their fu nction within the co nstituency, for example, FR, for
main frames (300.456.FR) and TR for the travel frames (300.456.TR).
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reproduction of categories and classifications as well as a fluid circulation of informa-
tion and knowledge within the museum.
Porta bility
With the exceptions of some iconic artworks perennially on display, the life artworks at
MoMA is characterized by an ongoing movement within different internal and external
circuits. Internally, the endless carousel of exhibitions keeps artworks traveling back
and forth between the museum galleries in midtown Manhattan and its main storage
facility located in Queens. Only in 2012, MoMA organized more than 30 temporal
exhibitions and four floor rotations of the permanent collection, which resulted in
several hundreds of artworks traveling each week in the especially conditioned trucks
that cover the three-mile trip between Queens and MoMA.
This ongoing process of circulation poses a constant threat to the physical well-being
of these artworks as well as to their constituencies, which can be damaged in transit, or
even go amiss. But here again oil paintings tend to behave as exemplary docile
objects, being typically highly portable and able to be moved without posing a
significant risk to their integrity thanks to the physical stability of their components.
The limited number of components in their constituencies also means that they can be
easily monitored and tracked while traveling. These properties are even more important
once these artworks arrive at the physical space of the museum.
Far from being neutral containers of art, museums provide the built environment of
meaning. The physical space of the museum plays a key role in shaping the circulation
of art and, through it, the kind of narratives and meanings that can be produced. Indeed,
the kind of physical positions artworks can occupy are often dependent on seemingly
banal things like the locations of windows and doors, the presence of loading docks,
elevators, or retaining walls, or the existence of art handling equipment and specially
trained personnel.
One of the advantages of oil paintings is that their portability makes them compat-
ible with most museum architectures. These paintings tend to be slim and not exces-
sively heavy or big, which allows them to be easily transported through museum doors,
corridors, and lifts. Moreover, unlike more unwieldy artworks, like ponderous sculp-
tures requiring especially designed spaces, or media-based artworks demanding com-
plex technological installations, most oil paintings can be hung on virtually any wall.
This adds great flexibility and pliability to the creation of curatorial narratives, as
curators can play around with the position of these artworks to enable different
narrative structures, something that is not possible with those artworks whose position
cannot be modified at will as they require specific installations for their display. This
portability of oil paintings serves to reinforce the kind of division of labor and subject-
positions that I have already described in relation to curators and conservators. Specif-
ically, it reinforces the autonomy and power of curators, who can exert full control over
the emplacement of narratives in the museum without requiring the intervention of
One of the most evident examples of how museums architectures shape narratives is the Guggenheim in
New York, where the spira l ramp fo rces a spec ific lineari ty on exhibiti on narratives and whe re the tilte d walls
makes for difficult display of most artworks, including oil paintings.
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other museum staff, like conservators, typically confined to an auxiliary role (see
Fig. 4).
The portability of oil paintings also plays a key role in the configuration of the
external circuits connecting MoMA to other museums and institution of the art world.
Over the last decades, the globalization of the art world has created a massive system of
exchange in which artworks are continually circulating as part of traveling exhibitions
or as loans (Halle and Robinson 2010). MoMA loans around 600 works per year and
receives around 1,250. This enormous physical movement of culture has required the
development of a complex set of regulations designed to enable the movement of
artworks across political borders as well as the development of costly institutional and
transport infrastructures to guarantee their physical safety. Each artwork must travel on
specially designed climate-controlled crates that produce artificial traveling environ-
ments. Specially trained couriers must accompany traveling works to verify that the
works are not mishandled and are properly unpacked and installed at the receiving
institution. Additionally, receiving museums must comply with a set of stringent
architectural and climatic standards that guarantee the physical well-being of the
artwork while it is on their premises.
Oil paintings tend to be amongst the most docile objects to circulate in these circuits.
Their uniform formthey tend to be either squares or rectangleshas enabled the
standardization of storage and traveling infrastructures. In contrast to sculptures, which
require custom-made crates, oil paintings can use exchangeable crates, something that
lowers considerably their traveling costs. Their uniform form also means that they do
not require complex unpacking and installation instructions, thus enabling the stan-
dardization of these processes. More importantly, their stability and homogeneous
material constitution has also enabled the standardization of environments, architectural
designs, and procedures that are necessary to display these artworks. The properties of
these paintings makes them a crucial lubricant in the system of exchange connecting
MoMA to other museums and art institutions, as well as key agents enabling processes
of organizational isomorphism and institutional homogenization among contemporary
art museums.
Fig. 4 Curator (seated), deciding the positions of paintings during installation
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Docile objects as agents of stability
In previous sections, I have described oil paintings as artworks that tend to behave as
docile objects within contemporary art museums. I emphasize tend because not all oil
paintings behave as ideal docile objects. Some oil paintings are indeed not very stable
(e.g., collages mixing oil with other materials); others are not easily classifiable (e.g.,
some of Rauschenbergs works mixing oil painting and sculpture); while others are not
even square-shaped (e.g., some Frank Stella paintings) or are too large to be easily
transported and installed (e.g., Cy Twombly Untitled
). My claim, therefore, is not that
all oil paintings behave as docile objects, but rather that, if we think of docility and
unruliness as the two extremes of a continuum, oil paintings tend to be, in general, the
artworks whose behavior comes closest to ideal docile objects.
The docility of these paintings, however, should not be confounded with passivity.
What the previous sections show is not how oil paintings are subsumed under a pre-
existing set of museums standards, classifications, and practices. What we have seen,
instead, is how those standards, classifications, and practices have emerged partly
thanks to the physical properties of oil paintings. Put differently, what we have seen
is how oil paintings play a constitutive role in helping to create and to reproduce the
very conditions under which they can be constructed and represented as docile objects.
For example, we have seen how oil paintings are central in tracing and maintaining the
boundaries separating curators and conservators or in keeping knowledge and infor-
mation flowing in the museum. Their stability, classifiability, and portability play a
crucial role in providing a stable material infrastructure that minimizes conflicts and
enables values, norms, and meanings to take on a taken for granted status. We have
explored how the physical properties of these artworks enable the standardization of
processes within the museum as well as between museums by facilitating the creation
of organizational homologies between different museums. The docility of these paint-
ings enables them to be easily stabilized and represented as timeless objects of formal
delectation, what enables the museum to gain legitimacy by fulfilling its role as a
neutral caretaker in charge of preserving our cultural heritage. Oil paintings, therefore,
are not merely inert material stuff organized according to some external organizational
or institutional dynamics. Rather, they constitute the material medium through which
these organizational and institutional dynamics unfold over time. In summary, oil
paintings, along with all the other artworks that behave as docile objects in the museum,
play a key role in creating the kind of continuity and stability that enables their own
reproduction as cultural objects as well as that of the institution.
Unruly objects and the dynamics of change
Unruly objects can be defined as those artworks that cannot be easily placed within
existing object-positions thus disrupting established dynamics and routines, forcing
new collaborations and adjustments, breaking boundaries and challenging institution-
alized subject and object positions. In practical terms, unruly objects can be identified
You can see the installation complex process of this painting here:
out/2011/10/27/installing -twombly-at-moma/.
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as those artworks that behave as variable rather th an stable, elusive rather than
classifiable, and unwieldy rather than portable objects. If docile objects are typically
elusive objects of study, unruly objects tend to be highly visible. They are typically
described as problems,”“disruptions,”“glitches, or challenges that need to be fixed
or solved. They are seen as those artworks that need to be transformed into docile
objects. However, and this is perhaps their most distinctive feature, this transformation
cannot be accomplished without altering the relations and practices wherein they are
inserted. Unruly objects, therefore, are characterized by the creation of organizational
and institutional discontinuities that disrupt the production and sustenance of the
processes whereby social practices, classifications, boundaries, and meanings are
standardized and acquire their taken-for-granted nature. For this reason, unruly objects
can be described as vectors of institutional and cultural change: as elements that require
creative adaptations and negotiations, and the shifting of positions and boundaries
around them.
In what follows, I focus on media-art, which broadly includes all those art forms that
rely on electronic media for their display and storage. Examples of this are video art,
digital art, net-art, as well as various forms of installation and performance art. I explore
one specific work, Untitled by Nam June Paik, an artwork that behaves as an exemplary
unruly object. But before I proceed, let me first briefly introduce this artwork.
Nam June Paiks Untitled (1993) as an unruly object
Known as the Father of video-art, Nam June Paik (19322006) is widely acknowledged
as one of the most influential figures of contemporary art since the 1960s.
trained as a classical pianist in Korea, Paik rose to artistic stardom in the early 1960s when
he began experimenting with video and television as legitimate artistic media. One of the
leitmotifs of Paiks oeuvr e was his attempt to displace the television from its position as
one the most banal and ubiquitous objects of consumption into a unique aesthetic object
on its own right. Always in the provocative and playful spirit of Fluxus, a movement to
which he remained closely associated throughout his career, Paik experimented with
different modes of appropriating and re-contextualizing television: from large-scale
installations composed of dozens of television sets, like in his 1996 Electr onic Super-
Highway, to minimal sculptures based on single monitors that he altered internally to
display abstract forms and patterns on the screen, like Zen for Tv (1963).
Untitled, produced in 1993, is an example of this exploration. Conceived as a
homage to John Cage,
this work consists of an automatic player piano surrounded
by 15 cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors of varying sizes; a flood-light illuminating the
unmanned keyboard; two laser discs placed on both sides of the piano; as well as
numerous cables connecting all these elements. As the player piano plays, two live-feed
For an overview of Paiks oeu vr e see (Lee and Rennert 201 1).
After finishing his studies at the University of Tokyo in 1956, Paik travelled to the International Summer
Course in New Music in Darmstadt, Germany, to study piano and music history. It was during this time that
Paik met John Cage, whose avant-garde experiments with randomness and chance in music profoundly
shaped Paiks development as a visual artist. After leaving Germany, Paik and Cage developed a long-standing
friendship that resulted in various artistic collaborations and intellectual exchanges. Paik devoted several
artworks to John Cage, including, for example, Hommage à John Cage (195960), Robot K-456 (1964),
John Cage Robot II (1995), or Untitled (1993).
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cameras placed at the sides display the unmanned keyboard on some of the screens,
while others display a cascade of fast-changing images showing Paiks hands and feet
playing a piano and clips of performances of the late John Cage (see Fig. 5).
During my fieldwork at MoMA, I had to opportunity to work on a conservation
proposal for Untitled. What follows is a detailed account of the challenges that this
proposal encountered, which reveal Untitled as an exemplary unruly object.
Vari ability
One of the defining features of media-artworks is the inherent obsolescence of the
technologies upon which these artworks depend for their storage and display. Indeed,
most media-art relies on technologies produced for mass consumption markets, for
which usability and cost efficiency, rather than durability, are often the overriding
design concerns. Video art, for example, requires videotapes, film, and optical discs,
usually made of fragile and rapidly degrading materials like plastics or magnetic tape.
As a result, the life span of these devices tends to be quite short. The average life span
of magnetic videotapes is of just 20 years and that of CDs and DVDs is of only about
15 years. This inherent physical obsolescence is further aggravated by the unrelenting
innovation in information and communication technologies we have witnessed over the
last decades, which has rendered these technologies extremely short-lived. Many of the
technologies that were ubiquitous just a decade ago, like cassette tapes or floppy disks,
have virtually disappeared today.
The combined effect resulting from the inherent material obsolescence of these
technologies and their constant replacement by newer ones is producing a novel and
increasingly intractable paradox in the process of cultural reproduction: While it is
possible successfully to store, preserve, and display cultural artifacts produced centuries
and even millennia ago, preserving cultural artifacts produced just a few decades ago
poses a formidable, often insurmountable, challenge. This is, precisely, the case of Nam
June Paiks Untitled.
Fig. 5 Nam June Pain, Untitled. 1993 layer piano, 15 televisions, two cameras, two laser disc players, one
electric light and light bulb, and wires, Overall approximately 8 4 ×8 9 ×48 (254×266.7×121.9 cm),
including laser disc player and lamp @ MoMA
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Only two decades after being produced, Untitled already runs the risk of becoming
irremediably lost as a result of its dependence on largely outdated technologies. The
original 1993 Untitled was based on U-Matic decks, CRT monitors, analogical live-
feed cameras, and a player piano running on a floppy disk. By the time it was first
exhibited at MoMA in 2004, many of these technological components were already
obsolete and had to be replaced by newer technologies. The original U-Matic decks, for
example, were replaced by two laser-discs players, still a popular and reliable format
for professional recordings at the time. The content stored in the original U-Matic tapes,
which included videos of Cages performances and footage created by Nam June Paik
himself, had to be transferred into the new laser disc players. Some malfunctioning
CR T monitors were also replaced by newer ones, as were the two original live-feed
cameras. Thus, by the time Untitled was first exhibited at MoMA, it already had been
migrated from the original 1993 piece. This initial migration, however, was sanc-
tioned by Nam June Paik himself, who worked with the museum to decide which
replacements were adequate to convey the original meaning of the work.
Nam June Paik died in 2006 thus leaving the museum alone in future decision-
taking processes involving Untitled. In 2011, conservators run a check on Untitled
following the request of a curator who was considering including it in an upcoming
exhibition. During the check, conservators found out that the original player piano was
broken and needed to be re placed. Howe ver, the manufacturing company had
discontinued the production of these old floppy-disk models and only provided a newer
digital Mp3 alternative. This posed a considerable problem for the museum, as Mp3 is a
highly compressed and unreliable format. Transferring contents to this technology
meant more, rather than less, instability. Additionally, the laser-discs that had replaced
the original U-Matic players in 2004 were also malfunctioning and needed to be
replaced by newer technologies. Here again the two available options, DVD and
Blue-Ray players, were considered problematic by curators, as they both involved a
significant departure from Untitleds original form. Indeed, the typically sleek and slim
aesthetic of these devices offers a stark contrast with the bulky and rough aesthetic of
the original U-Matic players or even the 2004 laser discs. This aesthetic problem was
even more acute in the case of the CRT monitors, many of which had started to
malfunction. The current available technology to replace them, flat panel monitors,
would imply a radical transformation of the outward aesthetics of Untitled, and could
create readings that departed from the original meaning of the artwork.
The museum thus faced an interesting dilemma. It could freeze the artwork as it
was in 2011, thus leaving Untitled as Nam June Paik last modified it and abstaining
from making any further modification. This option would secure the authenticity of the
artwork, but at the cost of sentencing it to a sure death, as most of the technologies
required to run Untitled were already malfunctioning or obsolete. An alternative course
of action would be to keep Untitled alive by constantly migrating it to newer techno-
logical platforms. This solution would imply altering Untitleds form and potentially its
meaning, thus giving rise to questions about its authenticity and authorship since the
museum would be effectively usurping Nan June Paiks role as the author of the
The dilemma MoMA faced with Untitled in 2011 reveals the deeper and lager
conundrum facing contemporary art museums dealing with media-artworks: in contrast
with more traditional artworks, like oil paintings, the preservation of media-artworks is
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not based on their capacity to be stabilized, but on their capacities to move and to
change. These artworks can only survive if they are continually migrated to different
technological platforms. This migratory process, however, requires a radical redefini-
tion of the logic of cultural reproduction within the museum. Indeed, if the reproduction
of artworks has been hitherto premised upon the museums ability to stabilize these
artworks physically, in the case of media-art their repr oduction is based on the
museums ability to keep them in constant circulation.
The creation and sustenance of this circulation process requires a significant reor-
ganization of existing subject-positions and boundaries within the museum, as well as
of practices of judgment and knowledge-production. This is evident in the case of
curators and conservators. The nature of media artworks, in which meaning is wedded
to obsolescent and rapidly changing technological platforms makes the boundaries
between conservation and curatorial knowledges and practices increasingly unstable
and contentious. If the stability of a traditional oil painting like the Demoiselles
DAvignon only requires curators and conservators to test these boundaries every 20
or 30 years, a work like Untitled requires an ongoing, and never-ending, process of
testing, negotiation, and compromises. As media-artworks migrate from one techno-
logical platform to the next, they undergo a number of internal and external modifica-
tions that compromise the authenticity of the artwork and trigger debates about whether
these modifications change the original meaning of the work. These artworks compel
conservators to go beyond their traditional roles and face decisions that affect the very
definition of the artwork as well as its meaning. In the case of Untitled, for example,
each decisionlike changing the laserdiscs players for DVDsnot only implied a
potential radical change in the outward aesthetics of the piece, and therefore of its
meaning, but also involved a decision about what is valuable and meaningful and,
importantly, about who has the right knowledge and authority to decide these questions.
Although curators still have the last word in terms of establishing meaning and value,
the unstable nature of these artworks makes conservators knowledge more crucial than
before. As a result, conservators are increasingly seen as active agents in the decision-
making processes that shape the boundaries and meanings of the artwork. What used to
be the sole domain of curators, the realm of meaning, thus becomes through these
artworks an overlapping area, a new and open-ended space of conflict and negotiation
open to different agents and knowledges.
Importantly, the instability of these artworks is not only redefining the subject-
positions and balance of power of conservators and curators, it is also creating new
subject-positions. As already noted, most of these media-artworks rely on mass-
consumption technologies that require experts and forms of knowledge that have
typically r esided outside the museum, and indeed the art world in gen eral, like
computer scientists, programmers, and other audiovisual experts. The incorporation
of these experts creates new areas of conflict, as their judgments, typically tied to
criteria of functionality, have to compete with those of curators and conservators to
establish the boundaries of the artworks as well as the relative value and meaning of
each component (see Fig. 6).
The instability of media-artworks is giving way to a reconfiguration of subject-
positions in the museum and to the institutionalization of new boundaries and decision-
taking processes. At MoMA, this process has crystallized in the creation of the Media
Working Group, a new interdisciplinary group composed of curators, conservators,
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archivists, and audiovisual experts who collectively deal with decisions concerning the
acquisition, display, and preservation of media artworks. The creation of this group
constitutes a significant departure from the traditionally hierarchical ways in which the
museum has organized and produced knowledge and meaning about its artworks. And
importantly for the argument of this article, it shows the role of unruly objects as
vectors of change.
The second feature that defines media-artworks as unruly objects is their resistance to
complying with the classificatory processes through which artworks are transformed
into manageable objects of knowledge. As we saw earlier, this transformation starts
with the process of classification whereby art constituencies are separated into the art
itself and the rest of components that usually accompany these artworks as they enter
the museum. In the case of media-artworks, however, this boundary-making process is
far from straight forward.
Unlike traditional sculptures or paintings, media-based artworks do not exist as
single and unique objects”—e.g., a canvas. Instead, the typical constituency of a
media-art work is composed of dozens, often hundreds, of highly vulnerable and
rapidly obsolescent components. Untitled, for example, exists through a constituency
involving more than 100 different artifacts, including the 15 monitors on display, five
back-up monitors stored by the museum, four laser discs, a flood-light, two live-feed
cameras, several floppy disks storing the music, as well as dozens cables and several
dozes electronic files storing the audiovisual content (see Fig. 7).
The obvious question when facing these constituencies is how to establish the
boundary separating art from non-art. Should one, for example, consider CRT monitors
or laserdisc players as integral to the value and meaning of the work and therefore as sui
generis aesthetic sculptural elements? Or should these be seen as mere functional
display devices? The kind of boundaries curators and conservators establish defines
how these artworks are categorized and distributed in the museum and, more
Fig. 6 Reorganization of boundaries of judgment and knowledge that takes place around media-artworks at
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importantly, where their artistic value and meaning reside. For example, adjudicating
CRT monitors to the category of art means that they become part of the museums
permanent collection, and that, in compliance with the museums foundational mission
statement, they must be preserved in perpetuity . If, on the contrary, they are considered
non-dedicated components, that is, mere technological means rather than components
containing aesthetic value and meaning, the monitors can be unproblematically replaced by
using the audiovisual pool where the museum stores all its non-art technological equipment.
This dilemma is fu rther aggravated by the fact that all these boundaries and
categories have to be inevitably revisited and redrawn as the different components
become dysfunctional or obsolete. In the case of Untitled, for example, some of the
components that were initially deemed art, like the original CRT monitors or the U-
matic players, had to be reclassified as archival material after they stopped working.
Conversely, technological components initially without any aesthetic value or meaning,
like the laser-disc players replacing the original U-Matic players, took on an aesthetic
meaning and value when they were incorporated into the artwork as integral sculptural
This unrelenting boundary-making process makes the translation of media-artworks
into manageable database objects rather problematic. First, the sheer number of com-
ponents in their constituencies makes media-art artworks much more difficult to trace
and to categorize into the database. If in the case of a painting like the Demoiselles the
museum only needs to manage a handful of components, in the case of a media-artwork
like Untitled the museum needs to classify and take care of hundreds of components.
Second, these components are constantly changing. While the Demoiselles DAvignon
is defined by the same canvas in which it was originally painted on a century ago, the
components defining Untitled two decades later are very different from those that
defined it originally. As a matter of fact, the number of components in Untitleds
constituency more than doubled in only 20 years. Third, as a result of this unrelenting
process of change, these artworks cannot be reduced into stable database objects. The
evolving relationship between these artworks and their constituents means that bound-
aries have to be constantly redrawn and values re-assessed.
Media-artworks, as we see, behave as elusive objects of knowledge disrupting
established categories and defying established procedures to create order at the
Fig. 7 Some of the boxes and crates containing Untitled
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museum. However, their role is not simply disruptive. As unruly objects, media-
artworks are also productive vectors of change. Indeed, as a result of the increasing
impossibility of classifying and managing media-artworks, different museums, includ-
ing MoMA, have started to create and test new classificatory systems specifically
designed to tackle the complexity of media artworks and their constituencies. These
databases offer alternative ways of creating order and assigning meaning and value that
depart from traditional classificatory systems premised upon the existence of a single,
discrete, and unchanging art object. The creation of these classificatory systems
signals a move in how museums organize knowledge, value, and meaning, and,
importantly for my argument, it underlines the idea that classifications are ongoing
and open-ended processes emerging from the relationship between those schemes and
the material stuff they seek to organize.
The third feature of artworks that behave as unruly objects is that they tend to
be notoriously cumbersome artifacts both in their movement within internal
circuits as well as within the external circuits connecting museum s with other
Internally, the portability of media-artworks is rather limited as a consequence of the
complex processes of transportation and installation they typically require. Moving a
work like Untitled involves assembling a constituency of several dozen components,
which can easily go amiss or be damaged. Furthermore, in contrast to most oil-
paintings, which can be placed virtually anywhere in the museum, media-artworks
can only be located within very specific locations, as they often require substantial
physical transformations in the galleries as well as the coordination of large teams and
the assemblage of different forms of expertise. Installing a work like Untitled requires,
at least, one curator, several preparators, an audio-visual team in charge of hardwiring
the artwork, as well as media conservators overseeing the physical integrity of the
components. Moreover, unlike oil paintings, which can be perennially on display,
media-artworks often have very limited exhibition lives as they tend to break and
malfunction. They normally demand an intense process of monitoring and care, which
requires conservators and an audio-visual team to be permanently on-call to trouble-
shoot them.
The inability of these artworks to remain on view for a long time together with their
limited portability affects the kinds of meanings and narratives that can be construed
through them. Moreover, the decision of how to place these artworks within the
exhibition space cannot be exclusively based on the curators aesthetic criteria, but
have to rely on technical criteria, like the ability to place these works into a specific
space and to keep them running throughout the life of the exhibition. As a matter of
fact, it is often the case that physical constraints and technical criteria take precedence
over curatorial criteria and narratives. This has direct effects on the balance of power
within the museum as exhibition designers, conservators, and even audiovisual tech-
nicians can now have a say in the layout of the exhibition, and therefore intervene in the
narrative structure of the museum, a sphere previously dominated by curators.
The unwieldy nature of media artworks is also evident in their circulation outside the
museum. The complexity of their constituencies poses a significantly higher risk of
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losing or damaging one of their numerous components. The movement of these
artworks can b e especially cumbersome and onerous, since th ey typically
require custom-made crates and especially designed transport and art handling
systems. This movement is further complicated by the extensive knowledge that
is required for installing, running, and troubleshooting them. Installing these
artworks involves detailed knowledge of how to operate software and hardware
components, as well as of installation details like projection distances and
adequate display ratio for images or sound levels. This makes standardization
both essential but highly problem atic a s these artworks have to adapt to
different exhibition spaces as they travel, w hich constantly tri ggers polemics
about their authenticity. In addition, their fragility and complexity means that
many museums are reluctant to loan these artworks. Indeed, many, like Unti-
tled, have never been on loan, and it is unlikely that they will ever be. In this
sense, while oil-paintings work as crucial lubricants in the global circulation of
art, many media-artworks can be seen as elements that tend to restrict, or even
inhibit, this circulation. Moreover, while docile objects, such as oil-paintings,
provide th e kin d of material infrastructure that makes possible the kind of
standardization of practices and procedures that leads to organizational isomor-
phism and institutional homogenization, unruly objects typically create the kind of
exceptions that disrupt, or at least challenge, those processes of standardization and
Unruly objects as vectors of change
The previous sections have illustrated how Untitled behaves as an ideal unruly object
by failing to occupy a stable object-position, and by creating discontinuities and
disruptions that provoke constant conflicts and renegotiations about boundaries as well
as the reorganization of subject-positions. Untitled is far from being an isolated case.
Over the last decades, the emergence of genres like media-art, installation, and perfor-
mances, together with the rise of artworks made of unconventional materialslike
latex, chocolate, sweat, feces, or milkhas made the type of unruliness represented by
Untitled increasingly common. The variability, elusiveness, and unwieldiness of these
artworks become problematic within an institution, like the museum, organized around
stability, originality, and uniqueness. Yet, as Untitled also shows, these disruptions are
not merely negative. Unruly objects play a generative role creating a new structuring
principle around which new practices, relations, and boundaries are formed. As we
have seen in the case of Untitled, unruly objects give way to new systems of classifi-
cation, new practices and forms of judgment, and a new dynamic of power between
curators and conservators (see Domínguez Rubio and Silva 2013). Moreover, they also
force a redefinition of the museums institutional role and mission. For example, the
variability of these artworks challenges the idea of the museum as a neutral container of
art objects. When dealing with these artworks, museum are required to adopt an
active role in demarcating the boundaries of what constitutes the artwork, the degree to
which it can be changed and, more importantly, how that change can take place. This is
precisely the problem confronting MoMA in the case of Nan June Paik: the only way of
keeping it alive is by adopting the role of an active agent re-defining the boundaries and
meaning of the work. This opens up a new area of conflict in the field of contemporary
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art, as the museum takes on attributes and roles typically reserved to the artists and artist
estates (see, for example, Rinehart and Ippolito 2014; Scholte and Wharton 2011). In
sum, unruly objects can be seen as elements that create the kind of discontinuities that
lead to the transformation of organizations and institutions and therefore as vectors of
change in the process of cultural production.
Materials for cultural sociology
In this article, I have sought to describe how materials matter in the process of cultural
production within the particular context of MoMA. Their importance is revealed at
three different, but closely interrelated, analytical levels: the organizational, the insti-
tutional, and the heuristic.
At an organizational level, I have shown how artworks constitute an active struc-
turing principle within the museum, rather than inert stuff organized and classified
according to different external principles. Specifically, I have shown how artworks play
an active role by distributing subject-positions and establishing boundaries and hierar-
chies between actors, by shaping how classifications, knowledge, information, and
practices are standardized and communicated, and how meanings are patterned. Need-
less to say, I do not wish to claim that the transformations I have described at MoMA
are taking place elsewhere following MoMAs pattern. Some of the changes I have
described herefor example, the rise of conservators within the museummay indeed
not apply to other museums with different organizational structures. What I do claim,
however, is that the distribution of subject and object-positions within a museum is
always necessarily mediated by the kind of artworks it contains. Or put differently, my
claim is that artworks organize museums as much as museums organize artworks. And
that trying to account for how a museum works without taking into account what
artworks do makes as much sense as trying to understand a football game without
taking into account what the ball does.
The second level at which materials are important is the institutional. As I have
shown, the fundamental problem the museum has to resolve is how to preserve the
unpreservable by trying to keep artworks as meaningful and valuable objects over time.
To achieve this, the museum works as an objectification machine that aims to
transform ever-evolving a nd decayi ng artw orks into exhibitable, classifiable,
knownable objects. Yet, as I have shown, the success of this operation ultimately
depends on the artworks themselves and, specifically, on their different degrees of
docility and unruliness. Traditional art forms, like oil paintings, have typically provided
a material infrastructure that is amenable to the kind of stabilization and objectification
that the museum requires to meet its preservation function. However, the proliferation
of artworks that behave like unruly objects is making it increasingly difficult to produce
the kind of stable objects upon which museums have traditionally relied to operate. The
impossibility of stabilizing and preserving these artworks is opening up discussions
about the need to rethink the institutional values and roles o f contemporary art
museums. This is evident in current discussions calling for the need to redefine the
museum as temporary placeholders of art or as a space of experience rather than as
institutions designed to preserve cultural objects ad aeternam (Klonk 2009). With this,
however, I do not wish to claim that unruly objects are the only variable explaining the
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institutional dynamics of the contemporary art museum. There are many variables that
explain this, like the relationship of museums to the art market or to the state (Buskirk
2012). What I do claim is that these institutional dynamics cannot be fully understood
without attending to the material properties of these artworks and their different roles as
docile and unruly objects. Simply put, what I claim is that the material is a relevant
variable in understanding institutional dynamics.
The third level in which materials are relevant is the heuristic one. The article has
shown that our sociological understanding of cultural dynamics is bound to be
incomplete unless we explore how different materials shape these dynamics, how
they provide different degrees of durability to cultural meanings and forms, and how
they define the ways in which these meanings and forms are handed over and
transformed as they move across space and time. My argument, however, is not that
we should supplement or complement existing understandings and explanations of
cultural dynamics by adding a hitherto ignored material variable. Adding mate-
rials, I argue, is not just like adding the missing piece of an incomplete puzzle.
Adding materials requires rethinking the very nature of the puzzle. In other words,
my argument is that t he inclu sion of materials demands a f undamental re-
conceptualization of how we understand cultural dynamics and how we go about
explaining them. Specifically, I contend, it demands abandoning that traditional view
of culture as a semi-autonomous system of meanings, practices, and classifications
operating outside, above, or beyond the material. As the MoMA case illustrates, it
does not make sense to think of meanings, practices, and classifications as elements
of a pre-established cultural system that are then imprinted or inscribed onto
material artifacts. What the MoMA case shows is how those meanings, practices,
and classifications emerge and unfold as the contingent result of the interplay
between the physical properties of artworks and the practices created to preserve
and display them. What is needed, then, is to develop explanations that are able to
capture this material unfolding of culture as a bottom-up process that emerges
through diverse configurations of people, meanings, practices, and materials. With
this, however, I am not suggesting that we should move to a materialist approach
and place the material at the center of cultural processes and explanations. Placing
materials at the center of our explanations apriorimakes as little sense as following
Durkheims advice to discard them apriori. The specific role that materials occupy
in our explanations is something that has to be determined empirically for each case.
What I am advocating here, then, is the need to develop explanations that are
capable of registering the diverse types of work that materials can perform in the
constitution of different cultural dynamics and forms. To achieve this, however, it is
not enough to develop dialectical explanations that account for how culture and the
material constitute each other or causal explanations that seek to discern the extent to
which the the material can determine culture. If the MoMA case teaches us
anything, it is the futility of establishing any empirical or heuristic distinction between
the cultural and the material, and the need to develop explanations that are able to
account for the gradual, contingent, and simultaneous unfolding of material artifacts,
meanings, social relations, and organizational and institutional structures. It is only
once we produce this type of explanati on s, I contend, that we will be able to
truly account for how cultural forms and meanings grow into being and are reproduced
over time.
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Acknowledgments Funding for this project was provided by the European Research Council thr ough a
Marie Curie Grant (PIOF-GA-2009-254783). I have been immensely fortunate to benefit from the intellectual
generosity of many colleagues and friends including Howard Becker, Gemma Mangione, Terence McDonnell,
Harvey Molotch, Chandra Mukerji, Kathleen Oberlin, Álvaro Santana Acuña, Elizabeth Silva, Christo Sims,
and Glenn Wharton. I would also like to thank the Theory and Society reviewers of this article for their
extremely helpful, constructive, and insightful comments.
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