Sarah Hromack / Writing / It’s Complicated: The Institution as Publisher

It’s Complicated: The Institution as Publisher

An op-ed on the politics that govern institutional publishing, written by invitation on the occasion of "Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age" at the Walker Art Center

What does it mean for a museum to function as a publisher now, in 2015? Publishing is no less complicated an endeavor within an institutional context than it is in the external “real” world, where the presence of a consumer-grade Internet began altering the social production, consumption, and distribution of text some decades ago. In 2015, I no longer argue for or around the validity of the digital publishing as an independent social act, as I once did as an early-era art blogger (which was, for me, more about writing and criticism than technology, per se). Instead, as a cultural worker, I negotiate between the particular set of concerns and logics that define publications in the digital space and those that govern other forms of publication within the museum.

There is a largely unarticulated, yet nevertheless effective class system that governs the kinds of publications institutions produce, and the ways those publications function in public space. While the Internet and the Web began problematizing the publication, conceptually and physically, so many years ago, printed matter still holds its ground within the context of the museum. On its surface, the exhibition catalogue is a historical document. It is the last remaining physical vestige of a show-gone-by: an object, an heirloom, a relic—a conversation piece perched atop book shelves and coffee tables. Whether publishing independently or in collaboration with another institution or publishing house, the museum produces both knowledge and value in the exhibition catalogue, reifying the object-based aesthetics that still govern the physical gallery space while affirming its own desire for cultural, academic, and historical gravitas. The book retains its critical potential: for instance, I still mull over the catalogue-based exhibitions published by curator and gallerist Seth Siegelaub in the 1960s when envisioning digital potentials. Ongoing cross-institutional collaborations—the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, of which the Walker’s Living Collections Catalogue is a participant—seek to produce digital books whose technical functionalities allow readers to replicate common scholarly research methodologies, such as highlighting and annotating texts.

Digital publishing has and likely will continue to challenge the institutional definition of “publication”—as object and as act—in its ability to redistribute power within and beyond the museum’s walls. Various methods of publication—a wiki-based model, for instance, or an internal workflow that unites the efforts of several different departments—may allow a wider variety of people from within an organization to contribute to an online publication, thus broadening its purview and multiplying the institutional “voice,” even while masking it to form a universal we. Publishing workflows may or may not replicate those that govern book production, as the real-time response demanded by social media—a publishing platform in its own collective right—proves asynchronous with that of print.

Whether an online publication will even be read is a real question, in 2015: If YouTube’s seemingly indefatigable popularity is any indication, the consumer demand for video-based experiences has prompted museums to devote more creative resources to an entirely different form of visual narrative. The Walker is legendary for its willingness to embrace the ebb and flow of media as evidenced by its latest initiative, the Moving Images Commissions; Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s MOCAtv is another example, as is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Artist Project. Whitney Stories, a series of shorts produced by filmmaker Matt Wolf, is my home institution’s foray into online storytelling. These kinds of initiatives prompt museums to engage with a broad variety of contributors: writers, editors, filmmakers, designers, composers, and others. The story is a primary document.

While ultimately seeking to articulate and expose the institution’s programming to a broader, ostensibly more diverse audience—the question of audience plagues us here, too!—these initiatives are variously tied to functions of the marketing and press departments. Though commonly considered “operational” in nature, these roles shouldn’t be overlooked when considering publication in the broadest sense of the term: A social media manager, for instance, has the power to publish or post words and images that intractably impact an institution’s public “face” by providing fodder for the critical press corps and would-be visitors alike. To relegate these digitally-based roles to ancillary positions within the organizational structure, however vast, is to effectively underestimate the power of public perception, which is infinite. In fact, social media plays a greater role in articulating institutional narratives than ever before, as more people eschew browser windows for apps and wearable technologies.

Museums need to strive harder to meet public demand for information: to engage with the public on the terms that govern public conversation—not those that govern private interest. Publication is and always has been a political act! I am personally interested in the social affiliations that are made through collaboration, and I relish the strategic gains that can be made, on all sides, when organizations and individuals work together to produce projects that challenge institutionally-ingrained boundaries and definitions. Whether analogue or digital in nature, the publication is a site that has (and will remain, hopefully!) primed for such negotiation.

Updated on November 23, 2016

As a critic, I have written for publications including Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, Red Hook Journal (Bard College), Mousse, Print, Paper Monument, and Rhizome, amongst other websites, blogs, and print publications. While my interests are manifold, much of my published writing has considered the social mediation of art institutions and publications through digital media.

First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, my blog, Forward Retreat (2000-2008), was part of the early cohort of American art blogs that bore initial influence on then-emerging digital publishing practices in the arts. My work has been supported by a Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

Since giving birth in 2017, I have been writing about more personal and honestly, more pleasurable subjects including (but not limited to) motherhood — material that I haven't yet decided to publish and may never do.

Some Essays

An Idea for Interview

2018 Frieze
A memorial op-ed on Interview Magazine (1969-2018), "an enduring symbol of downtown cool, even as downtown became Disney"

Narcissism in the Digital Age

2017 Frieze
A review of Kristen Dombek's "The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism"

Sign on the Dotted Line

2016 Frieze
An op-ed in support of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy)'s efforts at New York's New Museum

It’s Complicated: The Institution as Publisher

2016 Superscript Reader, Walker Art Center
An op-ed on the politics that govern institutional publishing, written by invitation on the occasion of "Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age" at the Walker Art Center

What is Metahaven?

2015 Frieze
A feature on the Dutch design studio Metahaven

Another ‘C’ Word: On Content and the (Techno) Curatorial

2015 Red Hook Journal, Bard College
An essay on digital, linguistic, and curatorial intersectionality that begins with Raymond Williams's "Keywords" and ends at the NSA's XKEYSCORE

The Real Power of Open Innovation

2014 Mousse
A conversation with New York-based artists João Enxuto & Erica Love about the critical intersection of technology and institutions

The Museum Interface

2014 Art in America
A conversation with Rob Giampetro, Creative Lead, Google

Safety in Numbers

2014 Frieze
I and others including Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglan, Jordan Ellenberg, Martha Rosler, Mercedes Bunz, and Shoshana Zuboff responded to a question posed by editor Jörg Heiser: “Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art?”

Douglas Davis (1933–2014)

2014 Artforum
In kind memory of artist Douglas Davis (1933-2014)

Beyond the Scene and Herd Effect

2013 Artpapers
A consideration of the social web's impact on art magazines' websites and editorial strategies over the course of time

Off the Page

2011 Frieze
A profile of Paul Chan’s new publishing venture, Badlands Unlimited

A Thing Remade: A Conversation with Paul Chan

2011 Rhizome
A conversation with artist Paul Chan

I Was Here

2010 Paper Monument | N+1
An investigation into the social role of gallery sign-in books as physical relics of experience in the digital age

Collective Collections

2010 Print Magazine
A homage to art collective Group Material’s seminal work from the 1980s and 1990s; in collaboration with Project Projects

What It Is: A Conversation with Jeremy Deller

2009 Art in America
An interview with British artist Jeremy Deller on the occasion of his solo exhibition at the New Museum, "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq"

A Theater of Absurdity: Parody, Power, and the Politics of Display at the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art

2007 California College of the Arts
Graduate Thesis in the MA Visual and Critical Studies program at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, CA (essay version)