Ima-Abasi Okon’s work resists traditional structures of collecting, creating an important learning experience for Tate’s conservation team during the acquisition and display of five of the artist’s works in 2020–1. Devising a system that is more akin to an ‘unlimited edition’,1 the artist has fragmented the works to defy traditional ownership: Tate owns parts of the works, which allows the museum to display them, but other parts are held elsewhere and can be displayed independently, alongside, or concurrently with Tate’s. In treating the ownership of the works in this way, Okon has created a co-operative of care and has delineated dependencies outside of the museum that are necessary for her works’ maintenance and display.
Taking these five works by Okon as a case study for the research project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum, the conservation team at Tate has had the opportunity to better understand the ways in which this fragmentation unsettles both the structure of the museum and our conservation practices. Written from my perspective as a Sculpture and Installation Conservator at Tate who has undertaken practice-based research around the acquisition and display of these works, this paper will look at how Okon’s model of ownership shifts the relationship between institution, artist and artwork.
Central to the research was a reading list compiled by Okon for her exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London in 2019.2 This list covers a wide range of subjects in various media, including texts, books, film, music and YouTube clips. Partway through the acquisition of these works we set up a reading group within the research team to discuss a number of items from the list. These became vital tools in learning the artwork, and the discursive way in which we navigated complex texts exemplified the collaborative learning method we later came to see as key to understanding complex artworks.
Through the artist’s work, and drawing on texts both from the reading list and beyond it, this paper offers a reframing of the relationship between the artwork and the museum as one of host and guest. Using this approach to reconsider current museum practices, two ideas from Okon’s artistic practice are explored: slowness and radical hospitality. Slowness is discussed as an uncomfortable and deliberate act, used as resistance against colonial structures, offering space for more reflexive and collaborative learning. Okon’s ideas around radical anticipatory hospitality are also expanded to understand hospitality as taking a risk and giving up control, and grounded in conversation. These ideas are brought together to show how deliberate slowness can be used as an act of radical hospitality, providing a space to see what the museum can bring to the relationship between artwork, artist and museum, and how the institution can be changed by it.
Before beginning, it is pertinent to outline some learning around language as a basis for how we speak about complex artworks. Throughout the research project we used words such as ‘unruly’ and ‘disruptive’ to describe how Okon’s works challenged inherited museum practices. The word ‘unruly’ has been used in relation to artworks by sociologist Fernando Domínguez Rubio in his 2014 paper ‘Preserving the Unpreservable: Docile and Unruly Objects at MoMA’.3 Domínguez Rubio states that he uses the word not to claim that ‘artworks are inherently docile or unruly; but rather that some artworks behave as docile and unruly objects within specific organizational and institutional contexts’.4
When looking back over the project, we found we still struggled with using terms such as ‘disrupt’ and ‘unruly’, even bearing in mind Domínguez Rubio’s caveat. Through discussions, we came to realise the importance of avoiding these terms, as they distract from the real problem – that the institutional structure is not fit for purpose. We must direct our attention, instead, to the systemic failure of the museum, revealing it as a colonial institution whose drive to take ownership, control narratives and categorise artworks into a static form prevents it from being able to adequately host complex artworks. In this paper I have decided to use the word ‘unsettle’, which conveys that there is something established and comfortable which is made to feel vulnerable – something we as conservators must learn to feel and take responsibility for responding to. I hope this usage shifts the negative connotations usually attached to this word away from the artist, and towards the institution.
Resistance within Ima-Abasi Okon’s work
The five works by Okon that were acquired by Tate in 2020 and displayed at Tate Britain between May and November 2021 can most easily be described in two groups. The first group is a modular ceiling system with two sets of hand-cut glass lamps (fig.1). The modular ceiling system is dated 2019–21 and its title is:
M – C – M(1 with Peace, 2 without Peace, 3 with Peace, 4 without Peace, 5 with Peace, 6 without Peace, 7 with Peace, 8 without Peace, 9 with Peace, 10 without Peace, 11 with Peace, 12 without Peace, 13 with Peace, 14 without Peace, 15 with Peace, 16 without Peace, 17 with Peace, 18 without Peace, 19 with Peace, 20 without Peace, 21 with Peace, 22 without Peace, 23 with Peace, 24 without Peace, 25 with Peace, 26 without Peace, 27 with Peace, 28 without Peace, 29 with Peace, 30 without Peace, 31 with Peace, 32 without Peace, 33 with Peace, 34 without Peace, 35 with Peace, 36 without Peace, 37 with Peace, 38 without Peace, 39 with Peace, 40 without Peace, 41 with Peace, 42 without Peace, 43 with Peace, 44 without Peace, 45 with Peace, 46 without Peace, 47 with Peace, 48 without Peace, 49 with Peace, 50 without Peace, 51 with Peace, 52 without Peace, 53 with Peace, 54 without Peace, 55 with Peace, 56 without Peace, 57 with Peace, 58 without Peace, 59 with Peace, 60 without Peace, 61 with Peace, 62 without Peace, 63 with Peace, 64 without Peace, 65 with Peace, 66 without Peace, 67 with Peace, 68 without Peace, 69 with Peace, 70 without Peace, 71 with Peace, 72 without Peace, 73 with Peace, 74 without Peace, 75 with Peace, 76 without Peace, 77 with Peace, 78 without Peace, 79 with Peace, 80 without Peace, 81 with Peace, 82 without Peace, 83 with Peace, 84 without Peace, 85 with Peace, 86 without Peace, 87 with Peace, 88 without Peace, 89 with Peace, 90 without Peace, 91 with Peace, 92 without Peace, 93 with Peace, 94 without Peace, 95 with Peace, 96 without Peace, 97 with Peace, 98 without Peace, 99 with Peace, 100 without Peace, 101 with Peace, 102 without Peace, 103 with Peace, 104 without Peace, 105 with Peace, 106 without Peace, 107 with Peace, 108 without Peace, 109 with Peace, 110 without Peace, 111 with Peace, 112 without Peace, 113 with Peace,114 without Peace, 115 with Peace, 116 without Peace, 117 with Peace, 118 without Peace, 119 with Peace, 120 without Peace, 121 with Peace, 122 without Peace, 123 with Peace, 124 without Peace, 125 with Peace, 126 without Peace, 127 with Peace, 128 without Peace, 129 with Peace, 130 without Peace, 131 with Peace, 132 without Peace, 133 with Peace, 134 without Peace, 135 with Peace, 136 without Peace, 137 with Peace, 138 without Peace, 139 with Peace, 140 without Peace, 141 with Peace, 142 without Peace, 143 with Peace, 144 without Peace, 145 with Peace, 146 without Peace, 147 with Peace, 148 without Peace, 149 with Peace, 150 without Peace, 151 with Peace, 152 without Peace, 153 with Peace, 154 without Peace, 155 with Peace, 156 without Peace, 157 with Peace, 158 without Peace, 159 with Peace, 160 without Peace, 161 with Peace, 162 without Peace, 163 with Peace, 164 without Peace, 165 with Peace, 166 without Peace, 167 with Peace, 168 without Peace, 169 with Peace, 170 without Peace, 171 with Peace, 172 without Peace, 173 with Peace, 174 without Peace, 175 with Peace, 176 without Peace, 177 with Peace, 178 without Peace, 179 with Peace, 180 without Peace, 181 with Peace, 182 without Peace, 183 with Peace, 184 without Peace, 185 with Peace, 186 without Peace, 187 with Peace, 188 without Peace, 189 with Peace, 190 without Peace, 191 with Peace, 192 without Peace, 193 with Peace, 194 without Peace, 195 with Peace, 196 without Peace, 197 with Peace, 198 without Peace, 199 with Peace, 200 without Peace, 201 with Peace, 202 without Peace, 203 with Peace, 204 without Peace, 205 with Peace, 206 without Peace, 207 with Peace, 208 without Peace, 209 with Peace, 210 without Peace, 211 with Peace, 212 without Peace, 213 with Peace, 214 without Peace, 215 with Peace, 216 without Peace, 217 with Peace, 218 without Peace, 219 with Peace, 220 without Peace, 221 with Peace, 222 without Peace, 223 with Peace, 224 without Peace, 225 with Peace, 226 without Peace, 227 with Peace, 228 without Peace, 229 with Peace, 230 without Peace, 231 with Peace 232 without Peace, 233 with Peace, 234 without Peace, 235 with Peace, 236 without Peace, 237 with Peace, 238 without Peace, 239 with Peace, 240 without Peace, 241 with Peace, 242 without Peace, 243 with Peace, 244 without Peace, 245 with Peace, 246 without Peace, 247 with Peace, 248 without Peace, 249 with Peace, 250 without Peace, 251 with Peace, 252 without Peace, 253 with Peace, 254 without Peace, 255 with Peace, 256 without Peace, 257 with Peace, 258 without Peace, 259 with Peace, 260 without Peace, 261 with Peace, 262 without Peace, 263 with Peace, 264 without Peace, 265 with Peace, 266 without Peace, 267 with Peace, 268 without Peace, 269 with Peace, 270 without Peace, 271 with Peace, 272 without Peace, 273 with Peace, 274 without Peace, 275 with Peace, 276 without Peace, 277 with Peace, 278, without Peace 279 with Peace, 280 without Peace, 281 with Peace, 282 without Peace, 283 with Peace, 284 without Peace, 285 with Peace, 286 without Peace, 287 with Peace, 288 without Peace, 289 with Peace, 290 without Peace, 291 with Peace, 292 without Peace, 293 with Peace, 294 without Peace, 295 with Peace, 296 without Peace, 297 with Peace, 298 without Peace, 299 with Peace, 300 without Peace, 301 with Peace, 302 without Peace, 303 with Peace, 304 without Peace, 305 with Peace, 306 without Peace, 307 with Peace, 308 without Peace, 309 with Peace, 310 without Peace, 311 with Peace, 312 without Peace, 313 with Peace, 314 without Peace, 315 with Peace, 316 without Peace, 317 with Peace, 318 without Peace, 319 with Peace, 320 without Peace, 321 with Peace, 322 without Peace, 323 with Peace, 324 without Peace, 325 with Peace, 326 without Peace, 327 with Peace, 328 without Peace, 329 with Peace, 330 without Peace, 331 with Peace, 332 without Peace, 333 with Peace, 334 without Peace, 335 with Peace, 336 without Peace, 337 with Peace, 338 without Peace, 339 with Peace, 340 without Peace, 341 with Peace, 342 without Peace, 343 with Peace, 344 without Peace, 345 with Peace, 346 without Peace, 347 with Peace, 348 without Peace, 349 with Peace, 350 without Peace, 351 with Peace, 352 without Peace, 353 with Peace, 354 without Peace, 355 with Peace, 356 without Peace, 357 with Peace, 358 without Peace, 359 with Peace, 360 without Peace, 361 with Peace, 362 without Peace, 363 with Peace, 364 without Peace, 365 without Peace, 366 without Peace, 367 without Peace, 368 without Peace, 369 without Peace, 370 without Peace, 371 without Peace, 372 without Peace, 373 without Peace, 374 without Peace, 375 without Peace, 376 without Peace, 377 without Peace, 378, without Peace 379 without Peace, 380 without Peace, 381 without Peace, 382 without Peace, 383 without Peace, 384 without Peace, 385 without Peace, 386 without Peace, 387 without Peace, 388 without Peace, 389 without Peace, 390 without Peace, 391 without Peace, 392 without Peace, 393 without Peace, 394 without Peace, 395 without Peace, 396 without Peace, 397 without Peace, 398 without Peace, 399 without Peace, 400 without Peace, 401 without Peace, 402 without Peace, 403 without Peace, 404 without Peace, 405 without Peace, 406 without Peace, 407 without Peace, 408 without Peace, 409 without Peace, 410 without Peace, 411 without Peace, 412 without Peace, 413 without Peace, 414 without Peace, 415 without Peace, 416 without Peace, 417 without Peace, 418 without Peace, 419 without Peace, 420 without Peace, 421 without Peace, 422 without Peace, 423 without Peace, 424 without Peace, 425 without Peace, 426 without Peace, 427 without Peace, 428 without Peace, 429 without Peace, 430 without Peace, 431 without Peace, 432 without Peace, 433 without Peace, 434 without Peace, 435 without Peace, 436 without Peace, 437 without Peace, 438 without Peace, 439 without Peace, 440 without Peace, 441 without Peace, 442 without Peace, 443 without Peace, 444 without Peace, 445 without Peace, 446 without Peace, 447 without Peace, 448 without Peace, 449 without Peace, 450 without Peace, 451 without Peace, 452 without Peace, 453 without Peace, 454 without Peace, 455 without Peace, 456 without Peace, 457 without Peace, 458 without Peace, 459 without Peace, 460 without Peace, 461 without Peace, 462 without Peace, 463 without Peace, 464 without Peace, 465 without Peace, 466 without Peace, 467 without Peace)
The two sets of lamps are titled When the —[After-the-world presocial vivid thereness and ongoingly] — is in the system and When the —[After-the-world presocial vivid therenessss and ongoinglyy] — is in the system, and both are dated 2019.
The ceiling tiles in this first group of works are mass-produced mineral fibre tiles found in many functional spaces (waiting rooms, offices, meeting rooms), and the artist has smeared them with a mixture of gold, insulin, morphine and ultrasound gel. The ceiling system can be shown alone or with the lamps, which hang from the ceiling and are filled by the artist with a mixture of palm oil and Courvoisier VS cognac. The lamps illuminate the space below the ceiling with a warm glow, the pattern of the cut glass creating a shimmering effect on the surfaces around it. The ceiling system is hung lower than the gallery’s actual ceiling, and its falseness is laid bare: the structure of the system is visible, drawing our attention to the unused space above us. The ceiling oppresses slightly due to its low height, but also through the references to waiting rooms and ‘productive’ spaces such as offices, where time becomes drawn out as we are held in place to fulfil roles and functions. Yet the lighting gives a sense of reverence to the space, demanding calm and respect by encouraging us to linger.
The second group of works is a set of eleven modified air conditioning units titled (Unbounded [sic]-Vibrational [sic] Always [sic]-on-the-Move [sic]) Praising Flesh (An _Extra aSubjective p,n,e,u,m,a-mode of Being T,o,g,e,t,h,e,r) 2019,5 which are sequenced to blow air at varying speeds in time with a six-channel audio work called alongside-ness with-out identification1 + excess over the original value1 < (A-------d--------o---------r--------n) 2019 (fig.2). The audio consists of a heavily slowed down and remixed instrumental version of the 2012 song ‘Adorn’ by Miguel. The industrial air conditioning units, like the ceiling tiles, are ubiquitous in our lives without us being aware of them, and contrast sharply with the visceral sound work. The units have had their heating and cooling functions removed so they are now simply fans. They can be shown in different configurations, with a minimum of six fans needing to be displayed to accommodate the six channels of the sound work. The air conditioning units can also be shown with other sound works by the artist, should she produce more in the future.
There are several aspects of these works that challenge normative ideas of ownership and power. Tate has acquired 225 ceiling tiles, adapted by Okon, yet at the time of writing 467 tiles have been created by the artist, and she may add to this number at any time. These other tiles are owned by the artist and may at some point be acquired into another collection; Tate may even approach the artist to acquire further tiles. This growing number is reflected in the artwork’s title, which is updated whenever new tiles are created by Okon, and it means that the work can be shown in two places at once; for instance, during the Tate Britain display, the work was shown concurrently at Kunsthalle Basel.6 There is also the possibility of showing Tate’s ceiling tiles alongside tiles not owned by Tate. What makes this particularly interesting is that all of these iterations would still be classed as the same artwork.
At the same time as defying ownership through its fragmentation, the artwork also demands that a number of ceiling tiles may need to be cut each time the work is displayed to allow the ceiling structure to conform to the contours of the space in which it sits (fig.3). This means that the number of whole tiles Tate owns is reduced after each display; for instance, after the work was shown at Tate Britain in 2021, the total number of whole tiles held by Tate dropped from 225 to 202. As this number reduces, so too will the possibilities for display layouts, unless more ceiling tiles are purchased from the artist. This mandate – to destroy in order to display – again questions the limited ownership Tate holds, unsettling the notion of museum ownership in which the institution holds an object that is owned indefinitely, and is infinitely displayable. This has knock-on effects for the practice of conservation, which was initially developed to elongate the displayable life of an object.
The title for this work also holds possibilities for evolution, acting as a record of all the tiles ever created, including those since destroyed. If the artist creates more tiles, the title will grow along with the work. During our conversations with the artist, she likened this to a family tree, which memorialises agents past and present within a system.7
Alongside museum professionals, Okon has also worked with other specialists to display these works, such as modular ceiling experts and the sound technician Jack James. This is something that Tate must continue to do in future, as the contracting of these different types of labour is linked to the artist’s interest in how we assign value to labour itself. By contracting specialists Tate is directly remunerating them for their work on the display, unlike salaried workers who are paid indirectly such that the value placed on their work is not as directly connected to the work they carry out specifically on the installation of Okon’s work.
These stipulations, alongside others, are outlined in the Transfer Agreement accompanying the acquisition, written by Okon based on Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projansky’s Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement.8 This agreement carefully defines and limits the control Tate has in its relationship with the artworks, and commits and binds the institution to the networks that surround the artworks. This includes needing to work with external specialists for each display, such as a sound engineer, suspended ceiling installers and electricians, as well as connecting Tate to other owners of the works. As will be shown below, deliberate fragmentation of control undermines the standardised systems of care in place in conservation, giving space for a re-evaluation of the role of conservation and the responsibilities of the museum towards the artwork and artist.
The changing relationship between artist and museum
By challenging traditional structures of ownership and collecting, Okon’s work alters the relationship between the institution, artist and artwork. Traditionally, discrete and complete artworks are collected by museums, and they sit within and are cared for, understood and displayed by the institution. This model has created an acquisition procedure designed to separate the artist from the artwork and bring the knowledge, and therefore the control, of the artwork within the institution. One of the ways museums do this is through artist interviews, a primary tool for contemporary art conservators in which a relatively formal, often recorded conversation is held with the artist. This is a mostly one-way and extractive exchange, where open questions are favoured to ensure the neutral voice of the conservator in the creation of knowledge. Its purpose is to better understand the fabrication methods the artist has used, and their opinions on the display and care of their work.
Domínguez Rubio summarises the limitations of using artist interviews in his book Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum (2020), an anthropological summary of his findings during five years of research at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.9 Approaching museum practice as an outsider, Domínguez Rubio astutely describes the interview process as a series of provocations, the most relevant here being the provocation of detachment. He uses the word ‘provoke’ to show that this method of information gathering, which he terms a ‘social scientific interview’, is never able to draw out an existing subject, but rather provokes knowledge into being.10 He describes how museums separate the work from the artist in order to inhibit the work’s further evolution, using provocation in an attempt to cut through previously unarticulated, unformalised and possibly conflicting thoughts, ideas and memories, in order to settle on a fixed form or a set of boundaries for the artwork.
This model becomes problematic and restrictive when institutions begin collecting works that are inherently unfixed and are designed to evolve. By fragmenting her work and creating lasting dependencies on expertise that sits outside of the institution, Okon succeeds in evading this detachment, making it impossible for Tate to have full control. By doing so the relationship is forced away from one of ownership, towards a model more similar to that of host and guest, where the museum plays host to the artworks, its guests. To understand the relationship in this way acknowledges the interdependencies between the artist and museum, giving a more appropriate perspective from which to reimagine conservation’s role. If we can understand ourselves as host, we can begin to see what we need to bring to that relationship with the work, rather than simply what we want to take away from it. Through working with Okon, we came to see that one of the ways in which this new relationship can be achieved is through the practice of deliberate slowness.
Slowness was a recurring theme in the conversations we had with Okon, and in the reading we undertook around her work.11 The artist sees slowness as a way of opting out of the capitalist and societal pressure to produce,12 as well as slowing down consumption to allow ourselves the time and space to digest.13 When these works were first shown at the Chisenhale Gallery in London in 2019, the word ‘tarrying’ appeared in the title of the exhibition, disrupted and elongated by punctuation, and the works themselves often have the effect of causing visitors to dwell.14
There are various artists and writers who have touched on ideas of slowness,15 but two texts seem particularly relevant here. The first is Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s 2012 book The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, which Okon included on her reading list for the Chisenhale show,16 and the second is a text from within museum practice: Kimberly Christen and Jane Anderson’s 2019 paper ‘Toward Slow Archives’.17
Berardi identifies slowness as resistance against growth and debt in a societal system that is heavily automated, and built on speed, efficiency and competition. Going even further, he predicts an uprising of ‘slowness, withdrawal and exhaustion’ that will give way to a reclaiming of sensuousness.18 We can see these ideas within Okon’s work, where repetition towards the point of exhaustion is used as a powerful form of defiance. This is most explicit in the ceiling work, which points to exhaustion in a variety of ways. We are confronted with the ceiling systems which hang over us in everyday spaces as we are exhausted by overwork, boredom or trauma. But the material itself is also being exhausted by the artist: the tile element of the work can continue to be made by the artist until the ready-made tiles on which she smears her mixture are no longer manufactured, and likewise the tiles themselves are installed until they are exhausted – cut, worn, damaged and no longer usable.
Christen and Anderson’s paper ‘Towards Slow Archives’ looks at what slowness can afford in the process of decolonising archival practices. The authors advocate for a methodology of slow archiving that is careful to avoid a simple binary of fast and slow, describing slowness as ‘enacted in terms of relationality, positionality, and a framework that privileges restorative and reparative work that is decolonial in its logic and practice’.19 Their notion of slowness is never a presumed course and allows for unexpected changes and shifts. Through their experience of working with Indigenous communities in Australia to create bespoke digital databases of those communities’ heritage, the authors point towards the space that slowness can create to recognise how knowledge is produced and used, and to better understand the complexities of relationships. This space also allows for more ethical working practices that avoid defaulting to standardised structures and procedures.
Christen and Anderson’s separation of slowness from notions of physical speed is important. We are left with an understanding of slowness as deliberate, self-aware and flexible. This can also tie into Berardi’s ideas of exhaustion – acting with deliberate slowness can in itself be exhausting, requiring more exertion to ensure we can fully engage. Cultural theorist Tina Campt discussed this in her 2020 lecture ‘The Slow Lives of Still Moving Images’, drawing on the ideas of the scholars Andre Lepecki and Rachel Anderson-Rabel to describe slowness as an ethical practice which amplifies perception, requiring exertion and development over time.20 Slowness here is not laziness, nor is it linked to a nostalgia for simplicity; it is a deliberate and likely uncomfortable act. Okon summarises this neatly in this imagined exchange: ‘“hey you over there have a predilection to be lazy!” Nope, I am just not going to produce in the way you think I should/can produce.’21
Exhaustion can also be defined as using up a commodity, or eliminating all options. This idea has been explored in various pieces of literature, such as Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975), where the author tried and failed to describe everything about a place.22 Conversely, in Jorge Luis Borges’s 1942 short story ‘Funes the Memorious’, Borges portrays a man whose memory is limitless to the extent that he can no longer differentiate between the same dog seen at different angles or times of day.23 The author describes how the level of detail the man retains obscures his ability to abstract and generalise, thus reducing his ability to exist logically in the world. These two examples help us to conceptualise conservation’s approach to exhaustion as a fragile act, since it is a discipline in which we are expected to capture all the knowledge around an artwork – to exhaust it by documenting it ‘completely’. The danger of deliberate slowness for conservators is that in opening ourselves up to Campt’s state of amplified perception24 we reinforce the discipline’s tendency to capture and define the work in granular detail. In this way, while slowness can be careful and deliberate, it can also be overwhelming, onerous, exorbitant. Our challenge with conserving Okon’s work was therefore to find ways of working with slowness that did not reinforce the conservator’s urge to create ‘complete’ documentation – to lay down all known information about the work in order to fit it within our system. We needed to understand that an artwork cannot be exhausted, and that in trying to do so, we may limit its ability to live in the world.
Throughout the acquisition and display of Okon’s works, and through her emphasis on slowness in our approach to them, there were many moments where the artist ‘unsettled’ our practices. Some of her questions came from a wish to understand the institution, and other moments saw the artist seeking to protect herself and her work. These were important points for the artist to exercise her right to question or refuse, and for Tate to respect those decisions.
Examples of these unsettling moments included Okon requesting that interviews were not recorded; questioning who owns and who can access conservation documentation of the work; asking not to be included in any visual documentation of the work and its installation; creating a new font for the wall labels; and often asking for more time within schedules. A prominent example, which Tate is still trying to resolve, is related to the title of the ceiling tile work. Currently at 8,226 characters, the title is lengthy and will only grow longer as the artist creates more tiles. The software which supports the database that Tate uses to catalogue and store data related to artworks, The Museum System, has a character limit of 4,000 for titles, causing Okon’s to be cut short in the artwork record. In addition to this, the database does not support superscript, which has been used for the majority of the title to set the characters above the normal line of type, at a smaller size. The database is directly linked to Tate’s website, meaning the title is also displayed incomplete and incorrectly formatted online. Okon has stood her ground against the inability of the museum to accommodate her title, requiring a discussion between different departments at Tate to find a resolution to the issue. It will be a true test of the institution as to how far we are really able to be host to this artwork, particularly at a time when resources are reduced.25
Through these interactions with us the artist created moments, or hiatuses, where we felt ourselves compelled to reflect on and challenge our own practices. We learned gradually that deliberate slowness can be a valuable tool in resisting automatic processes and mindsets that may not necessarily be appropriate or engender true hospitality towards the artist and artwork. This can be enacted on a personal level: we can adjust working practices in a way that allows us to collaborate with artists to create procedures that best suit the artwork. Deliberate slowness can also be used to give ourselves space to better understand where the broader institutional structure restricts our ability to welcome artists on their own terms, and to begin deconstructing those barriers in order to rebuild more collaborative ways of working.
These ideas of slowness can be difficult to reconcile with the requirements of an institution: museum staff work at pace to make the myriad of loans, exhibitions, displays and acquisitions a reality, but this comes at the cost of real systemic change and evolution, which can be grindingly slow. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, we are more than ever in a model of scarcity, where temporary closures of the museum during 2020–1 have stripped Tate’s resources – in terms of both money and staff. Deficiency leads to a culture of speed, efficiency and productivity, as the thinned resources inevitably need to work harder and stretch further to create monetary gain, putting any hopes of broader change at risk. This is where the idea of slowness as a deliberate act becomes important in order to ensure Tate can recover from the pandemic sustainably, in a way that allows us to best host artists, artworks and visitors, and is not centred around growth. Although it requires more exertion to work deliberately slowly and adopt adaptive practices instead of standard practices, deliberate slowness in our day-to-day working is more likely to translate to larger institutional shifts. We must enact slowness in the knowledge that we are choosing a more difficult and unpredictable path; yet, as will be shown next, it is one that can lead to new forms of hospitality in the relationship between artist, artwork and museum.
In their 2021 book Radical Hospitality: From Thought to Action, philosophers Richard Kearney and Melissa Fitzpatrick build on existing debates about hospitality to address the ethical responsibilities of opening ourselves up to strangers, and what that might mean for current global crises such as mass migration and the climate emergency.26 The authors begin by outlining normative structures of hospitality wherein there is a clear distinction between host and guest through which the guest is given the right to stay only under a certain set of rules. They then discuss philosopher Jacques Derrida’s thinking on unconditional hospitality,27 in which he posits that true hospitality is a radical act which suspends rules and morals, leaving both parties open to risk but also to betterment. Kearney and Fitzpatrick search for the ground between traditional and unconditional hospitality through the theories of many other philosophers, before landing on a hospitality of interdependency which is grounded in conversation as a means of understanding one another. This radical hospitality still relies on the host embracing the unknown and taking risks: true acts of openness surrender control and the ability to predict. However, by allowing the host to be unsettled, we allow the possibility of reconstruction of both the host and the guest.
Enacting this kind of radical hospitality towards artists could offer a huge opportunity to Tate to deconstruct itself through encounters with the other in order to rebuild as something more flexible, open and collaborative. If Tate is ready to be uncomfortable and give over control, it allows space for the museum to gain a better understanding of itself and where it may have been hampering its own goals.
Okon takes this further by using the phrase ‘radical anticipatory hospitality’ to refer to the need to anticipate the requests of the guest.28 During conversations, she has spoken of growing up in a house where guests would arrive unannounced but were always welcome. In readiness, her parents would cook excess food, and have extra furniture in the house. This anticipation seems to be an important addition to the idea of radical hospitality for the museum: to be completely open to the guest, we must be ready to be transparent in our structures and processes, ready to use deliberate slowness to create mutual understanding through conversation, and able to anticipate that we need to create new processes that best fit artworks, rather than trying to confine complex artworks within ready-made structures.
Okon’s anecdote also points to fundamental notions of hospitality – food and shelter – and ideas of excess. If we attempt to extrapolate what nourishment and shelter might mean for an artwork, we can relate these to conservation practices such as packing, environmental controls, maintenance and ensuring adequate knowledge to appropriately display works. These are basic best practices of care that every museum offers to an artwork: we could call them ‘standard museum hospitality’. They are the set systems previously discussed, which do not flex to accommodate different types of artwork, offering only what is necessary.
This is where the idea of excess becomes important, as it is difficult to thrive on the bare minimum. We must go beyond this towards a radical hospitality, where the institution is willing to offer far more by adapting its practice of care to the specificity of an artwork. In the case of Okon’s work, adapting our database to accommodate a very long artwork title, allowing external specialists to undertake certain actions during display, and rethinking our documentation are all actions that are in excess of what we would automatically offer, had they not been asked of us. To go further and enact radical anticipatory hospitality, we must create an open space for such discussions and requests, and be responsive to them.
Of course, words such as ‘excess’ do have negative connotations: excess to requirement denotes the unnecessary and the redundant, and when related to notions of taste, it suggests the vulgar and overindulgent. These ideas are tied to the opposing model of scarcity previously discussed, and relate to ideas of value which underpin how we assign resources. How do we choose which artworks are displayed, which artworks deserve the resources required to care for and to host them? In doing so, which artworks are we choosing to neglect? Excess does not sit with the ideas of efficiency and productivity imposed by the funding systems on which museums rely. However, if we disabuse ourselves of these notions of excess as indulgent and acknowledge that this mode of thinking is created by a colonial and capitalist need for growth, then we can look at excess from another angle.
In Radical Hospitality, Kearney and Fitzpatrick discuss philosophical thinking around the idea of the gift, concluding that hospitality requires an economy of abundance which creates ‘a special kind of “symmetrical asymmetry” where each person gives more than she receives and receives more than she gives’.29 This can seem idealistic until we look more closely at how we assign our resources to practices of care. Large-scale research projects and treatments can achieve significant funding and time commitments, often from private external sources: for instance, Reshaping the Collectible was a three-year project and received £1.5 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. At the time of writing, even more is being spent on Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch 1642 at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, in the form of a multi-year, multi-million-Euro project to analyse, research and undertake conservation treatment of the painting.30 Although these projects are major, one-off undertakings, they make it easier to contemplate how an economy of abundance could be possible when we consider that they are taking place while many artworks sit abandoned in the stores of museums worldwide, barely even receiving the ‘standard museum hospitality’ previously mentioned. It is important that we reflect on how we decide what is excessive, and disentangle these judgements from Western ideas of economic and cultural value. Radical hospitality involves being open to all and offering excess to all those that enter, with no judgement or caveats.
Dialogue and conversation
Kearney and Fitzpatrick cite conversation as the mechanism by which the theory of radical hospitality can become practice.31 Through the acquisition and display of Okon’s works we were able to scrutinise the way in which we worked with the artist, to attempt to better understand her experience. We began this process with a series of artist interviews – as previously mentioned, this is a key tool that is firmly established in contemporary art conservation practice. We entered these conversations with a standard approach in place: a structured interview to be recorded and transcribed for the conservation records. However, through the process we began to see how problematic such an idea can be, especially when we understand ourselves as hosts to this artwork and artist.
This acquisition was the first time that Okon had had multiple complex works collected by a large institution with a conservation department. As the function of the artist interview is to best understand the work so as to develop a plan for its long-term care, many of our questions focused on the future of the artwork. Okon found that many of these questions were ones she had not thought about before and was keen to understand why we were asking them. This led to three very fruitful conversations, but these often expanded, rather than answered, our questions, and they felt like a series of reactions to new information (on both our side and the artist’s).
After the first interview, the artist requested that we no longer record each interview and that the recording of the first interview be deleted. We responded to this by working together to summarise the conversations, a process we found quite uncomfortable as we struggled with the possibility of incorrectly interpreting and remembering the conversation. When we discussed this discomfort with the artist at a later date, she was untroubled by the summaries: she understood that the interpretations came with the best intentions, and is also interested in the slippage of information and what that means for the work.32 ‘Slippage’ is another idea Okon has previously explored through her work, with the word appearing in the titles of her Chisenhale show and its subsequent edition at Void in Derry.33 The term ‘infinite slippage’ is also used by Berardi in The Uprising; taking the term from the literary scientist Algirdas Julien Greimas, Berardi discusses the impact that the ambiguity of emotional language has on interpretation.34 Infinite slippage seems an apt term to describe the inescapable loss of and subtle changes in information as it passes from fragmented concepts to written language, and between artwork, artist and museum professionals across time.
Later in the acquisition process, Okon attended the installation of the Tate Britain display of her work. During this time we were able to have many conversations in various groups, often involving the network of people working on the display. These conversations were instrumental in allowing a fuller understanding of the work, but were unstructured and not formally recorded. Organic conversation allowed for topics to arise that had not come to light during the interviews and allowed interesting discussion with other staff members who were not involved in the interviews. We attempted to record these interactions through research journals and display reports, as it was clear to us at the time that the learning we were undertaking was as crucial as what we had learned from the artist interviews. It was key that we were given the space during installation for these discussions to occur.
Looking back at the approach we took, the idea that the interviews could have resulted in neat and time-proof answers seems naïve. It now feels irresponsible to place primary importance on a set of formal conversations undertaken in a certain context. These were very important discussions, but so too were each of the chats, comments and quick decisions that occurred during installation, yet these will not be referred back to in the same way that the interview summaries will be.
Another way in which we were able to conceptualise our experience with Okon was through Kearney’s notion of linguistic hospitality, which builds upon the ideas of philosopher Paul Ricoeur.35 Kearney describes linguistic hospitality as one of four ‘faces of hospitality’, quoting Ricoeur to emphasise that language can be interpreted more widely than simply as the structured use of written and spoken words.36 Ricoeur gives the example of religion as a language, alluding to the unwritten structures and rules of faith that must be learned in order to enter the community. Similarly, we can think of artists’ practices as languages, which use certain devices (visual, emotional, linguistic, among others) to understand and comment on the world around them.
Kearney describes linguistic hospitality as a process of translation, where we walk a line between assimilation and loss of information, and must do so while also giving equality to both the host’s and the guest’s languages. In translating we have to respect that each language has intricacies that cannot be directly translated, and must avoid the desire to reduce the alterity of the guest’s language while using points of similarity to find empathic connections with it. Good translation is endless and requires labour to create a transition between the two languages, and never a reduction of either one. This opens up the possibility of plurality and the creation of a new language or understanding.
Two of these points seem particularly pertinent in relation to our experiences with Okon: the idea of translation as endless, and the acceptance of loss and plurality. Conversations with the artist were generative for both parties,37 but it is clear that this process will never be complete. An example of this incompleteness is the conversations around the liquids in the lamps (fig.4). Okon was clear that pouring the liquids into the lamps could only be undertaken by her, but also understood that she would not always be present to do so. Aside from being clear that this action should never be carried out by Tate staff, we have not come to a definite conclusion as to who might fulfil this role in the future.
Loss and plurality were also abundant in the process: as discussed earlier, we experienced this uncomfortably through our act of summarising the artist interviews. We also became very aware of the plurality of the process of learning the work, with collaborative working creating a myriad of voices, each translating the work in a different way.
To acknowledge this process as plural, endless and ‘lossy’ – a term used to describe the loss of data from electronic files through compression – is to accept that we are stewards only of that which is entrusted to us, and that we must be comfortable with unknowns. It also causes us to think further about how collaboration can be sustained within the museum, a subject that I will examine in the next section of this paper. Our experience with Okon allowed us to re-examine the way we gain information from artists and better understand how collaboration and conversation are important ways of enacting hospitality. Deliberate slowness becomes a key means of ensuring that host and guest are on equal footing and that the language of the guest, along with its mysteries, is respected. We need to make sure we give space to allow one another to think through problems, questions and ideas together, and to understand the limitations of our tools. This can be done by planning in enough time at installation and deinstallation to allow for collaboration, as well as through documentation of that work. This also points towards a reframing of the ‘artist interview’ to ensure its structure, use, terminology and expectations engender sustained collaboration and growth.
Identity, change and collaborative ‘doing’
At this point, it is important to better understand the true meaning of collaboration when working with complex artworks such as Okon’s. In her book Installation Art and the Museum (2013), Vivian van Saaze uses the phrase ‘doing artworks’ to acknowledge that the institutional care and display of art is not an individual act, but a collective effort.38 To be mindful of this is to recognise that museum work, particularly conservation, is a set of performative and generative tasks that produce change: the pivotal moments of an artwork’s life within a museum – acquisition, display, treatment – are actions undertaken by a range of specialists working together. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that these actors bring their own knowledge and biases and are fulfilling a particular role in a certain context. The output of their labour will always be one of change, whether it be material (wear through use, light damage through display or repair through treatment) or intangible (increased knowledge or recontextualisation).
For Okon, it was important that we understood the wider interdependent network around the artwork, because by fragmenting the work, she has made Tate a part of that network. Okon’s own practice is extremely collaborative: she has worked with glass blowers, glass cutters, a sound engineer, metal fabricators and air conditioning specialists to create these works. As mentioned earlier, installing the works requires the involvement of further specialists, both internal and external to the museum: modular ceiling contractors, electricians, health and safety assessors, curators, art handlers, conservators, learning and development professionals, marketing and visitor experience teams, as well as the artist. By attempting to understand the network around the work, we became more aware of the multiplicity of this process. This allowed us to re-examine conservation’s agency in the process, understanding where we needed to make space for other voices, and it meant interrogating how we represent this network in our documentation. This required us to spend time assessing our current documentation methods, deliberately stopping ourselves from using a standard format in order to develop something that can more appropriately record ‘doing’ these artworks. The hope is that by better reflecting the collaboration involved, this work can be more adequately sustained. Positioning ourselves within this network also allowed us to question where knowledge around the artwork sits, and to recognise that by allowing knowledge to sit outside of the museum, we created better conditions for the collaboration to continue.
At the beginning of the research project, we approached the acquisition of Okon’s work as we do with all works – with a conservator’s lens that looks far into the future. In our conversations, the artist was often bemused by our need to hypothesise on possible future layouts and scenarios for the work. This was partly because she was focusing on the Tate Britain display, but it also became clear that in guessing the future of the work we were attempting to assert some control and predictability, and ultimately fix aspects of the work. Inadvertently, our efforts to visualise a future for the work were reducing the unknown possibilities for it which the artist hoped for.
In his 1996 essay ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, the sociologist and activist Stuart Hall posited cultural identity as related to the future as much as it is to the past.39 Cultural identity is subject to constant transformation as the world changes around us, making identity as much about ‘becoming’ as it is about ‘being’. If we think about the ‘identity’ of an artwork in a similar way, the task of preventive conservation becomes a fool’s errand. In questioning our need to look further ahead than she herself had yet thought, Okon caused us to reflect on our mindset. By understanding that unknowns are necessary to allow evolution and change, we learned to be more comfortable with not knowing everything and tried to find ways to acknowledge the unknowns in our documentation. This realisation also allowed us to focus more on the present, where we have the agency and control to give space to work through ideas collaboratively by means of open and ongoing dialogue. It allows us to embrace incompleteness, which feels uncomfortable to us as we are relying on the collaboration being sustained to ensure the work is ethically and adequately cared for in the future.
Understanding an artwork as ‘becoming’ also stops us from judging knowledge based on utility. If we use a conservation process that is designed primarily to tease out concrete, practical knowledge, we leave no space for growth. We cannot identify what knowledge is important, or less important, in the present as we never know what may be relevant or useful in the future.
Regarding the artwork as existing within a network of actors also becomes pertinent within this idea of ‘becoming’. In conservation, there is often discussion around the challenge posed by artists changing their minds or having conflicting ideas about a work: an artist may give an opinion about how a work should look, and then may later contradict this completely. If we acknowledge conservation’s (and indeed the museum’s) agency within the network around the artwork we can more easily see how hypocritical it is to critique the artist’s tendency to change while ignoring the fact that the museum, too, is constantly moving and shifting. We are all ‘becoming’. Actors in the network will change over time as their contexts, knowledge and biases change. The network will shift and recontextualise as people move on, new people arrive and political, economic and social situations around the network evolve. An example of this within conservation is the shift in attitude towards repainting sculpture or the replacement and replication of elements. As it became more widely understood that the concepts behind some artworks did not necessitate the veneration of their original material, the way that artworks are treated has changed, and repainting, replacing and replicating are now far more common conservation processes. If we are mindful of the entire network, including Tate, as ‘becoming’, we can move away from provoking the artist into producing concrete facts, and focus instead on documenting discussions around decisions, embracing conflicting information as part of the plurality of linguistic hospitality.
Transmitting the relationship forward
As we have seen, working more collaboratively during this process of acquiring and installing Okon’s work has allowed us to see individual actors (both internal and external) as bringing their own voice, skills and knowledge to the artwork. However, this becomes problematic for the ideals and processes of conservation, where transmission of the work relies on documentation created by an individual, or a small number of individuals.40 If the relationships and understanding of the artworks that were developed through this collaborative practice are not adequately transmitted, there is a risk that when those individual actors in the collaboration are no longer present, the relationship between Tate and the artwork could revert to the model of ownership that Okon wants to challenge. By returning to that model of ownership, we abandon an understanding of the relationship as host and guest, and our responsibilities along with it.
There is no neat answer to address this challenge, but the response should not be an automatic reversion to business-as-usual; instead, it should precipitate a re-thinking of what conservation is and does. If we understand ourselves as hosts to Okon’s artworks, where does that leave conservation, and to whom do we become responsible? If we can open ourselves up and slow ourselves down as an act of radical hospitality, can we become more grounded in the present and allow the artist and artwork to show us how knowledge and fixing will come at the expense of other possibilities for the work? Perhaps by accepting the inevitability of loss and slippage, and understanding the artist’s appetite for it, we can reset the way we work with artists: by doing so we can better understand, and try to undo, the way that our documentation and processes prioritise some forms of knowledge over others, and give space for continued learning.
In addition to this challenge, it can be difficult for the trust nurtured in the relationship between the artist and the individual agents of the museum to be reconciled with the larger institution. It falls to us as individual actors to find ways to bind the larger museum to the network that will remain as the artwork and museum, artist and staff, continue ‘becoming’. As previously discussed, adequately reflecting the multiplicity of collaboration is an important way of ensuring it can continue, and being comfortable with knowledge being held outside of the museum is another way to enforce it. As museum staff, we must also use our knowledge of museum processes to be transparent, and to ensure artists understand the best ways to protect themselves within the relationship – either legally, or by giving them the space to refuse, slow down, or ask questions.
However, the museum must also take responsibility for the relationships it initiates, and needs to understand that collaboration is also sustained through ‘doing’ artworks. Committing to acquiring complex works should also require a commitment, as their host, to exhibit them: the artworks must be nourished through the generative process of display. The museum must also understand that slowness is necessary to nurture and sustain these relationships, and that this requires exertion that must be supported and resourced.
Using the acquisition and display of Okon’s work as a case study for the research project Reshaping the Collectible has allowed the conservation team the space to work reflexively, and ultimately more collaboratively. It has allowed us to understand that we must see ourselves as hosts to artworks that do not fit within traditional ideas of what an artwork is (static, complete, discrete) and how it can be owned. By unsettling our standard procedures, Okon’s work created pauses in which we could re-learn the structure we work within alongside the artist; for her part, the artist described our investigation of her work and practice as generative for her own practice. Forcing us to look introspectively and openly made us find ways to reframe our thinking, giving us the confidence to examine the points at which we felt uncomfortable and why.
If we want to continue to collect complex works, especially those with dependencies outside of the museum, we must find ways to create our own hiatuses to give space for reflexivity and the new, in order to ensure that the museum can be an ethical and open host. Deliberate slowness can be a way of pushing back against structures – resisting deadlines, questioning standard processes and advocating for the time needed to accurately reflect the collaborative and the discursive in a way that actively acknowledges the unknown and the conflicting. This deliberate slowness will require extended exertion as we learn to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.