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Horizontal and vertical lines in black, white, and dull colors stack atop a brick-red horizontal bar above a block of black-and-white static pattern, forming a glitchy still from an old video. Horizontal and vertical lines in black, white, and dull colors stack atop a brick-red horizontal bar above a block of black-and-white static pattern, forming a glitchy still from an old video.

Forces of In/stability

Oscillation between stability and instability marks our present. It is both catalyst and consequence, legible as a force that has shaped—and is actively reshaping—ways of living, working, relating, and creating. Conceived before the upheavals of 2020 and 2021 but developed during them, Perspectives on In/stability considers the stability and instability of narratives, physical objects, materials, and representations, as well as institutional responsibilities of care to manage these uncertainties. Grounded in the lives of objects and how they exist and are changed in different spaces (both literal and philosophical), as well as across time and geographies, the contributions all proceed from a conviction that stability and fixity tend to be convenient fictions. The desire to stabilize objects, ideas, and people is especially pronounced at moments of societal and environmental volatility. Objects can serve as fulcrums of solidarity, stabilizing particular social or political identities. At other times, institutions rise up to protect objects, tied as they are to the structure and values of fetish capitalism. And similar mechanisms are at work in naming political atrocities to give them conceptual stability—which may be useful for externalizing trauma or convening communities of shared commitment—as in a conservator identifying a “baseline” prior state to which to return a physical object; both give us some “thing” to work with. Even as the contributors examine these narrower issues, they bring to light many cultural ramifications of flux, from how museums ought to respond to calls for restitution of objects and other forms of reckoning with the past, to how museums must deal with the obsolescence of materials.1

The questions animating this peer-reviewed publication were born from our initial shared interest in the history of time-based media (TBM) and the rapid obsolescence of its materiality. In part influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the concerns evolved into a more encompassing set of queries around objects of all kinds from across time and space. Assembled here are essays from disparate fields, institutional orientations, and subject positions. Implicit in our selection, however, is an argument that their references, genealogies, and histories are not in fact separate but rather part of a single constellation that vibrates with anxiety, excitement, upheaval, and, perhaps above all, contemporaneity. The volume’s commitment to exploring the “lives” of works originated in Robyn’s role within the Art Institute to exhibit, collect, and preserve TBM and develop related programming, as well as her research on the circulation and dissemination of images since the 1970s, and Delinda’s work in old and new media in Africa.[1] Perspectives on In/stability thus reflects our shared interests in global media disciplines, but it presents a wide array of conceptual approaches to in/stability, including philosophical and aesthetic, racial and political, and technological angles.2

One of the reasons institutional practices have recently shifted lies in the uncertainty of objects themselves: the objects we care for, write about, own, and (in some cases) have appropriated. For instance, many major cultural institutions, after decades of activism and discussion, are returning objects looted from previously colonized peoples. These objects must negotiate a complex global reordering of relationships. To take one example, the very items that in the sixteenth century were labeled “fetishes”—a word that accrued increasingly racist connotations as it mediated the transatlantic slave trade—are still here with us. Thus questions about “art and objecthood” have expanded to encompass not only the entities originally meant by those terms in the North Atlantic art world of the 1960s but also complex “super-objects”: assemblage-like art, collectively produced, with an authorship as dispersed as it is overcompensated for by singular art celebrities. Delineating the boundaries of an object is a performative act that parses out one thing from another, in the process awarding status and ownership and shaping disciplines and institutions.3

From both Robyn and Delinda’s research on TBM and its related technical considerations came key questions about what constitutes a “work” of art and how to place it into a genealogy of art that has typically excluded both TBM and art from Africa. Early digital art practitioners, for example, considered how objects might “live” in the digital realm, and this inquiry continues today with the recent proliferation of art and/as non-fungible tokens (NFTs). As museums collect more TBM vulnerable to fast obsolescence, philosophical and practical questions about how to repair them acquire greater urgency, especially now in the context of massive worldwide collective technological production.4

In the foundational period of the European Enlightenment, when art objects were recognized as formally and philosophically bounded objects that we now regard as essential, objects were indexical of human freedom: the same argument for free will was made for art and people, both. It is less often noted, however—at least until now—that that discourse about freedom was produced with enslaved and formerly enslaved Europeans of color, and people of color generally, as the antithesis of the notion of autonomy central to humanism. The art that they produced, then, was the antitype of art. Knowing this background about how objects gained their autonomy fundamentally destabilizes art. How do institutions recalibrate? How do scholars and artists alter their working practices and aspirations?5

Cybele Tom, Clara Granzotto, and Ken Sutherland’s “Seeking Balance: Material and Meaning in a Polychrome Guanyin” describes a dilemma they faced during the conservation of an important Chinese Buddhist sculpture in the Art Institute’s collection. They detail their investigation of this object’s layered materiality and the challenges it presented to establishing a baseline to which to conserve the object. They also discuss various “micro-instabilities” of the Guanyin’s materials, including its paint and gold leaf.6

Sarahh Scher’s essay on Moche ceramics engages similar issues around extrapolating from physical objects the beliefs that structured their initial creation and reception. In “From Cloth to Clay: Identities and Im/permanence in Moche Ceramics,” Scher focuses on the visual fixing of the ephemeral materials of clothing and the normalization and idealization of genders in ancient Peru—a historically marginalized area of pre-modern art-making. Scher embraces the uncertainty inherent in archaeology, especially the fraught nature of attempts to extrapolate sociological meaning from a body of work that expands as new objects are brought into archaeologists’ databases.7

Archaeology, as a discipline, has developed directly alongside European conquest, colonization, and plunder; this history has most recently come to the fore in the art world in discussions of the impending return of large caches of Benin bronzes from European institutions to Nigeria. In “Edo Spaces, European Images: Iterations of Art and Architecture of Benin,” Adrian Anagnost and Manol Gueorguiev read several seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century European depictions of the Kingdom of Benin against each other and what we know of Benin art and architecture from its own sources, such as oral histories, to expose the biases in the European accounts and find the kernels of accuracy. They point out that European depictions of Benin evolved in ways that had little to do with the actual kingdom and much more to do with Europeans’ ideas about the similarity or difference of other cultures and how these were mobilized in service of colonization. For example, characterizations of Benin City as a “ruin” provided intellectual support for its 1897 sacking by British forces. Such treatment was part of a campaign to delegitimize African institutions and cast public doubt on their ability to care for historical objects.8

Such state-sanctioned violence includes the perpetuation of historical silences around past violence, such as that which exists in Turkey around the Armenian Genocide (which was formally acknowledged even in the United States only on April 24, 2021). Hande Sever’s essay, “Empty Fields Revisited,” discusses how the 2016 exhibition Empty Fields made meaning of the gaps in a handwritten inventory of a natural science collection composed on the eve of the genocide. Organized by Armenian curator Marianna Hovhannisyan at the contemporary art institution SALT in Istanbul, Turkey, the exhibition was the first to explore recently recovered materials from the Museum of Anatolia College (Merzifon, Turkey), a university museum destroyed during the Armenian Genocide. Sever describes the exhibition’s exploration of “ontological and epistemological gaps and absences” and also describes Empty Fields’s reception and archival parcours after the 2016 Turkish coup, which greatly intensified the atmosphere of political censorship in Turkey.9

The current radical reordering of nationalism’s objects is one theme of Horace Ballard’s “The Color of Fire Is Flux.” The text quotes Adrienne Rich: “the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.” Ballard’s lyric essay similarly explores the tension between the concreteness of historical objects and the stories that elevate their status—or, really, the suppleness of the connection. Engaging what he describes as a curatorial ethic of unknowing, Ballard narrates the phenomenology of his experiences of a series of artworks by Gilbert Stuart, Elle Pérez, and Sable Elyse Smith—as well as of the removal of a statue of Stonewall Jackson—as a means of examining radically shifting ideologies of “American” art amid the global pandemic and racial unrest. Ballard’s insistence on the emancipatory potential of aesthetics is a crucial reminder of why we do this work. And, like many of the essays in this collection, his is also a dialogue with art history, its lacunae and erasures.10

The last two contributions address the theme of in/stability from a different angle, through digital art, focused as it so often is on disruption. jonCates and Jonathan Kinkley’s “Stability Isn’t Everything It’s Glitched Up to Be: An Interview with Jamie Fenton” provides an overdue portrait of this Chicago artist who pioneered glitch art, which intentionally disrupts computer code. In their interview with Fenton, Cates and Kinkley discuss the artist’s multidimensional career and many contributions to arcade, academic, transgender, and new media art communities, as well as the importance of Chicago and the Midwest more generally to electronic, video, and digital art. Accompanied by archival video documentation of Fenton’s works, the transcript of this conversation highlights the creative possibilities of interrogation and malfunction and their effects on the media sphere.11

The methods, effects, and implications of intervention in both the virtual and material worlds is the main subject of the video “Seven-Figure Settlements and Paid Days Off: An Interview with Devin Kenny.” Produced by artist Devin Kenny and art historian Thomas Love in collaboration with artist buttercup, the work is the result of a fruitful, sustained conversation among the authors, the volume editors, and the Publishing team. The video restages a discussion between Kenny and Love; the art “object” is therefore hard to locate. Visually, the contribution is a digital collage of audio, video, still images, and animations by buttercup commissioned especially for the work. It covers post-internet art and art critical of capitalism, particularly in relation to how “Black life [can] flourish against all odds and by any means necessary.”12

When we began work on this volume, we were, unknowingly, on the eve of the pandemic. Unsurprising, then, that the ways in which we collaborated were themselves shaped by in/stability. Working from lockdown amid health concerns and logistical challenges while witnessing a new civil rights movement propelled us to consider how in/stability has been not only a negative force to counteract but also one that has fostered the development of new ways of being. In examining how critics, conservators, curators, and artists are grappling with these considerations, the contributions to this publication forge new paradigms in both bringing about and ameliorating global and institutional in/stability. On a more local level, this shift aligned with the Art Institute’s interest in developing new models of producing and sharing content. This digital catalogue engages new modes of peer review to center transparency and care. All contributions were peer reviewed, and authors had the choice of two models of review: a more conventional double-anonymized review and a newer, mentorship-focused type of open review, conducted by a responsive interlocutor invested in the development of both the essay and its writer.13

Similarly, the digital platform makes possible the creation and dissemination of novel kinds of content. Adrian Anagnost and Manol Gueorgieuv’s essay could not be so richly and interactively illustrated in print. More fundamentally, Devin Kenny and Thomas Love’s contribution simply could not be published except online. Indeed, though scholarship on, and reproductions of, time-based media art have been published in print for more than a century, their broadcast via online platforms is relatively new. It is our hope that despite—or perhaps because of—in/stability and the forces of flux, objects and ideas will continue to coalesce, endure, and thrive within the Art Institute and its network of communities.14

Banner image: Still from Jamie Fenton, Raul Zaritsky, and Dick Ainsworth, Digital TV Dinner (fig. 2 in jonCates, Jonathan Kinkley, and Jamie Fenton, “Stability Isn’t All It’s Glitched Up to Be: An Interview with Jamie Fenton”).15


  1. Particularly relevant were Robyn’s research on Gerry Schum and the broadcast of “free art” that lead to editioned video tapes and a growing sense of the objecthood of the moving image, and Delinda’s recent book Media Primitivism: Technological Art in Africa (Duke University Press, 2020).

How to Cite

Delinda Collier and Robyn Farrell, “Forces of In/stability,” in Perspectives on In/stability, ed. Collier and Farrell (Art Institute of Chicago, 2022).

© 2022 by The Art Institute of Chicago. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license:

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