MODULAR22 DOCUMENTATION / gallery exhibit book and essays - 2012


Modular22 book publication design

In the summer and fall of 2012, Jessica Calek and I organized Modular22, the largest and most ambitious of the exhibits staged at the 22 studio in Berwyn. The project involved work from over one hundred artists, designers, and architects from around the globe. As part of the project, we published a 350-page book documenting the work, featuring hundreds of photographs, design samples, and extensive essays, including Database Manifestation, which attempts to place the work into a larger context of post-postmodernism. Copies of the book can be purchased here.

Database Manifestation

The desire to come up with something after postmodernism has dominated a large portion of art criticism in the past twenty to thirty years, paralleling the communication revolution and the all-encompassing power of the internet. Alan Kirby proposed pseudomodernism and digimodernism,1 Gilles Lypovetsky proposed hypermodernism,2 and Nicholas Bourriaud proposed altermodernism, which he explored at an exhibition at the Tate in 2009.3 The truth is that none of these terms caught on, because they treated artistic expression as a linear narrative, and that narrative ended with post-modernism. The very act of trying to confine post-postmodern work to a “movement,” particularly one with a buzzword-based title like “digimodernism,” goes against the hyperactive and pluralist nature of the twenty-first century, a century that has proven to be simultaneously infinite and intimate, public and personal at the exact same time. In other words, there is no predominant cultural narrative, in art or anywhere else, just an infinite cultural database, in which we are free to create our own personal narratives, both as art makers and consumers. In fact, the maker/consumer dichotomy has completely broken down, as art now encompasses consumption as much as it does expression.

Modular22 design exhibit installation photo

“Today’s art explores the bonds that text and image weave between themselves,” Bourriaud wrote in his 2009 Altermodern Manifesto. “Artists traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs, creating new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication. In this era of the altermodern, displacement has become a method of depiction, and artistic styles and formats must henceforth be regarded from the viewpoint of diaspora, migration, and exodus.”4 In 2009 Bourriaud was calling attention to the fact that artists are no longer just makers -- they’re cartographers, travelers, “semionauts,” and, more often than not, curators. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re curators in the traditional, museum-based sense (curators of objects, guardians of history and canon). Rather, they’re curators of experience, curators of points of view, curators of imagery, personas, of ideas, and, ultimately, of themselves.

If postmodernism represents the end of art’s grand historical narrative, then an emphasis on curation and combination in post-postmodern practice is inevitable. Without a logical progression forward from postmodernism, artists must find themselves tilting the historical narrative, looking at it sideways, backwards, and forwards at the same time, existing in what Bourriaud describes as “a culture of improvisation and time loops.”5 “New media does not radically break with the past,” Lev Manovich writes in The Language of New Media. “Rather, it distributes weight differently between the categories that hold culture together, foregrounding what was in the background, and vice versa.”6

In other words, everything has been done before, and it’s more accessible than ever before, and the rate at which it’s being consumed and repeated is accelerating exponentially. To be an artist today requires confronting that monolith of other work, consuming it, reacting to it, positioning oneself in relation to it, and ultimately curating it in order to create and present a sense of self within one’s own work. The result is that, on a fundamental level, most contemporary art ultimately resembles a self-portrait, a curated version of the artist’s self, as personal (and as public) as a Facebook profile, presented through the language of that which already exists.

Crucially, that curated self is restless, ever-changing, always reacting and shifting based on whatever is required at each moment, and the art that accompanies it shifts just as constantly. “The contemporary work of art does not position itself as the termination point of the ‘creative process’ but as the site of navigation, a portal, a generator of activities,” Bourriaud wrote in Postproduction in 2009.7 “We tinker with production, we surf on a network of signs, we insert our forms on existing lines.” The self we present publicly through our work is merely a frozen moment, drawn from a database of potential identities.

Modular22 design exhibit construction photo

For artists and designers, so-called “creatives,” this curated self comes out not just through their work, but through the personas they take on in order to seek out, create, and promote that work in the first place. They are no longer just artists and/or designers -- their identities shift instantaneously from writer to illustrator, from critic to teacher, from builder to editor, from A to B, under the umbrella of “freelance work.” In Non-Stop Inertia, Ivor Southwood describes this constant shift as “precarity,” and notes that it is now increasingly built into the act of looking for work.8

Our work has come to define our identities, and since that work is in constant flux, our identities are also defined by constant flux more than anything else. Even the word “work” is an indefinable concept -- it takes on meaning based on whatever we’re doing at any given moment, whether that’s a paid assignment, self-promotion, “personal projects,” or something equally interminable. Change is, paradoxically, the only reliable constant.

Attitudes towards this have changed remarkably in the past decade, as “precarity” has taken over as the new status quo. In 2001’s The Flexible Personality, Brian Holmes describes how work is now accomplished “through the agency of small, independent production units, employing skilled work teams with multi-use tool kits and relying on relatively spontaneous forms of cooperation with other such teams to meet rapidly changing market demands at low cost and high speed.”9 Ten years ago, Holmes saw this new flexibility as a positive thing, believing that “the networked organization gives back to the employee -- or better, to the ‘prosumer’ -- the property of him- or herself that the traditional firm had sought to purchase as the commodity of labor power.”10 In other words, the worker becomes a free agent, no longer bound by “direct surveillance and paralyzing alienation” and able to “become the manager of his or her own self-gratifying activity.”11

Writing ten years later, Southwood has a much more pessimistic point of view. He writes that this constant state of precarity has permanently intertwined our work selves and our non-work selves, resulting in a new kind of perpetual alienation, characterized by “a form of emotional labour, driven by insecurity, which leaks over into leisure and consumption and colonises the social life whose energy it has drained, transforming the home into an office and friendship into a promotional network.”12 Even the word “precarity” has negative connotations, evoking visions of being perpetually moments away from falling off a cliff. Southwood symbolizes this new reality with the humble CV, that “endlessly editable document” that accompanies artists and jobseekers everywhere, “a particular sub-genre of post-Fordist autobiography, a copy-and-paste cosmetic narrative, … a virtual projection of ourselves as frictionless vehicles, constantly adapting and moving forward.”13 He defines “the emphasis upon self-promotion [and] the re-making of identity as CV material” as key characteristics of the precarious twenty-first century.

Since most contemporary artmakers have grown up within this environment, its instability dominates not only their shifting studio practice but the physical form of their work itself. In particular, it has come to shape the methods they use to display that work to the public, leading to more temporary and alternate spaces, as well as online and “virtual” galleries, ranging from local databases and artist archives to massively interconnected networks like Tumblr and Flickr. This change began with certain movements in the 1970s, in which we saw “a new level of identification among artists, critics and museum professionals: a ‘collaboration of people and flexible adjustment of roles and areas of responsibility’.”14 The concept of the “site,” particularly in terms of site-specific art, interventions, and institutional critique, has expanded from a physical location, like a gallery or museum, to something more abstract and temporary. At this point, the idea of a “site” could included not only such non-spaces as the internet, but a site could be considered a moment of time, a set of circumstances, or even another piece of artwork. As Miwon Kwon writes, “in advanced art practices of the past thirty years the operative definition of the site has been transformed from a physical location-grounded, fixed, actual-to a discursive vector-ungrounded, fluid, virtual.”15 She continues, “the site is now structured (inter)textually rather than spatially, and its model is not a map but an itinerary, a fragmentary sequence of events and actions through spaces, that is, a nomadic narrative whose path is articulated by the passage of the artist.”16

In spite of this shift, there has always been something ungrounded and virtual about the concept of a gallery, in its attempt to create a “white cube” space for the work it displays, free from notions of context. Even though the gallery is the epitome of the spatial, physical site that we’ve spent decades moving away from, it is in many respects a non-space, an idealized empty vessel or framework, a box waiting to be filled with something else. In this sense it has a lot in common with graphic design, in which template design, or the creation of interfaces, plays a crucial role.

Modular22 design exhibit promotional postcard

This idea of design-as-template, or work-as-framework, has proven to be very important for us as we run the 22 studio. In particular, the Modular22 project is based on the concept of designing a framework in which a second piece of work can appear. In fact, our primary concern with Modular22 was to draw attention to that framework, changing it from a secondary support infrastructure to an integral part of an overall gallery experience. Instead of hiding that display system behind the gallery’s white walls, the Modular22 structure brings it to the very center of the studio, turning it into a gathering space, forcing the gallery’s visitors to turn inwards instead of staring outwards at work placed around the periphery of the room.

Modular22 represents an overt exploration of the concept of the designed framework, but it’s also a concept that applies to the physical 22 studio itself. The studio space is essentially a empty room, a blank framework, a canvas that we fill anew each time we organize a different project or exhibit. This idea also applies to 22’s own support structures and promotional material, in the form of the series of posters we’ve designed for the studio, the 22 website, and even the pages of this very book, all of which revolve around basic templates that act as the “sites” for a kind of curation. Each of these templates acts as an empty piece of paper, or a blank Photoshop file or Facebook profile, ready to be filled with content. The specific poster, book page, exhibit, or Modular22 panel that you see represents one potential outcome for that content within a larger database of possibilities, a database that lies dormant, like a file folder on a computer, waiting to be accessed. The act of curation comes into play when that database is called up and we decide which element to display within the framework we’ve created.

In general, this kind of activity takes place behind the scenes with all curated gallery exhibits, including Modular22. What we’ve tried to do with Modular22, however, is highlight this process and give it actual physical form. In that sense, Modular22 is a model of a database. It contains 360 wooden panels, all of which have the potential to display any single piece artwork, and which can be rearranged in any potential configuration. If the entire Modular22 structure constitutes a database of images, its individual panels are the elements within that database, and any viewer can then choose which panel to look at. Due to the structure’s modular and geometric nature, each of those elements is given equal weight, equal importance, and it is up to the viewer to decide with elements to engage with, and in what order, moving from one panel to the next, constructing a personal narrative, curating a unique experience.

Modular22 design exhibit construction photo

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes the dichotomy of database (paradigm) and narrative (syntagm).17 Traditionally, narrative has taken precedence, as in novels, films, and singular images -- the potential for other possibilities is merely implied, while the artist’s intention (the “narrative”) is explicit. Current artistic practice, and contemporary exhibition methods, makes the database explicit and downplays the concrete narrative. In describing twenty-first century studio practice, Manovich posits that “the design of any new media object begins with assembling a database of possible elements to be used. … The narrative is constructed by linking elements of this database in a particular order, that is by designing a trajectory leading from one element to another.”18 The artist, therefore, continues to work with the idea of narrative, but the database of potential narratives (the “hypernarrative”) is more visible than ever before. “On the material level,” Manovich writes, “a narrative is just a set of links; the elements themselves remain stored in the database. Thus the narrative is virtual while the database exists materially.”19 Manovich likens this practice to surfing the internet; it could also be thought of as the act of curation.

Matthew Fuller gives this practice an almost spiritual quality, since it is full of potential for chance encounters, coincidence, tension, and new connections. In his book Media Ecologies he likens it exploring a mythic city, an “agglomeration of heterogeneous parts contain[ing] a myriad of magic doors and improbably secreted switching-systems opening up into other dimensions. There is an interplay between the one and the multiplicities it contains, that it might be, that it might have been, that it weaves in and out of as relations of dimensionality.”20

Despite this element of romantic exploration, the phenomenon of confronting infinite potential is actually rather mundane, and pointing it out is nothing new -- we do it every day, choosing what to encounter, what to ignore, what relates to what, and so on. The internet has increased the ease with which we do it to an exponential degree, which means we aren’t even surprised by it anymore. Yet with Modular22 we’ve tried to recreate this phenomenon in physical space.

Modular22 design exhibit installation photo
Modular22 design exhibit installation photo
Modular22 design exhibit installation photo

Visitors to our gallery construct their own narratives when they encounter the Modular22 structure. They “link” from one panel to the next, moving through the space based on nothing more than personal preference. There’s no pre-determined entry point -- certain viewers might start by looking for work made by their friends, or by picking a panel at random, or by being drawn to a particular style or image. As the structure’s creators, we might try to suggest narratives by grouping certain panels together, but ultimately every viewer encounters Modular22 differently, creating their own path through the network, stopping temporarily at one panel or another, or skipping them entirely.

Describing work after postmodernism, Nicholas Bourriaud wrote, “the artwork is no longer an end point but a simple moment in an infinite chain of contributions.”21 His statement is meant to be interpreted in a general sense, yet the Modular22 project literally embodies it. The Modular22 structure doesn’t just take the form of a database; it suggests the very idea of “databaseness,” of potential other realities, through its form. It suggests notions of platonic shapes and idealized geometry -- the structure’s abstract nature and reliance on simplicity reinforces the idea that it is a physical substitute for a conceptual framework.

By emphasizing the form of this framework, it could be argued that the identities and details of the individual modular panels fade away, overshadowed by Modular22’s monolithic structure. It is, after all, a wall. It has weight and gravitas, unable to be confined within a single photograph or viewpoint. In a way, this might reveal our bias as the creators of Modular22; it suggests our interest in creating real spaces and real objects, in focusing on the lifespan of those objects, a lifespan longer than the internet might afford them. The elements in Modular22 have the potential to be rearranged, but in truth they are inert -- the structure has remained in the same order during the entire run of the exhibition. The act of reconfiguration occurs virtually, in the mind of the viewer, but not within the structure itself.

Modular22 design exhibit installation photo
Modular22 design exhibit installation photo

In constructing Modular22, we “plugged in” to the virtual network on a regular basis, using database portals like Kickstarter, Facebook, and e-mail groups to coordinate almost every aspect of the project and to keep track of the contributions of its participants. In fact, two-thirds of the artists displaying work on the Modular22 structure only ever interacted with us on a digital basis, finding our call for entries online and e-mailing PDFs of their work to the studio which we then printed out and mounted to the structure’s wooden panels. We literally organized these artists and their work in an online database, using a completely pragmatic version of the very phenomena that Modular22 was constructed to model. We also raised money for Modular22 through Kickstarter, another online portal-based network that converts the act of fundraising into the construction and navigation of a database. In other words, networked communication systems formed the foundation of this project, and we couldn’t have completed it without the convenience that these systems provide. It’s important to note, however, that these systems played a supportive role, much like the display infrastructure that lies behind the scenes of a traditional gallery environment. These “new” methods, revolving around online communication, crowd-sourcing, and digital fabrication, gave way over the course of construction to “old” methods, involving physical labor, static imagery, and traditional materials like wood, paint, and paper. The result is that the Modular22 structure sits at the intersection of these two approaches, relying on both, but, through its larger-than-life physicality, ultimately leaning away from the virtual and towards the real.

Modular22 design exhibit installation photo

This focus on the “real” brings us back to the changing nature of the site and its implications for site-specific artwork. If the rapid expansion of online communication and database culture have led to a lack of concern for physical site, we’ve come full circle with Modular22, giving that “non-space” form and asking the public to contend with it. Hopefully it’s working -- in describing Modular22, everyone seems to say you “have to see it in person,” which we think speaks to humanity’s need for real, lasting, physical spaces, spaces with presence, beyond the nonreal and ephemeral infinitude of the internet. There’s an article in Things magazine from 2009 which cautions us that “in entrusting our memories to digital media we are losing the subtle impact of decay and degradation that mark our relationship with physical things.” As the organizers of 22 and within our own personal projects, this is something we care deeply about.22

“Despite the proliferation of discursive sites and ‘fictional’ selves,” writes Miwon Kwon in One Place After Another, “the phantom of a site as an actual place remains, and our psychic, habitual attachments regularly return as they continue to inform our sense of identity.”23 Building physical structures and tackling longevity allows us to say we were here, that we were not just ghosts in a machine or possibilities in a network. It points to the need to mark our environment, the power of nostalgia, the idea of structure as monument, the ability for art, design, and architecture to confront the overwhelming infinity of time and space. It proves we exist. Yet the paradox for us is that, after a few months, we’ll have to take the Modular22 structure down and organize a new exhibit.


1. Alan Kirby. Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture. Continuum, New York: 2009.
2. Gilles Lipovetsky. Hypermodern Times: Themes for the 21st Century. Polity Press, Cambridge: 2005.
3. Nicholas Bourriaud. Altermodern: Tate Triennial. Tate Publishing, London: 2009.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge: 2001.
7. Nicholas Bourriaud. Postproduction. Lukas & Sternberg, New York: 2000.
8. Ivor Southwood. Non-Stop Inertia. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2011.
9. Brian Holmes. “The Flexible Personality.” The Cultural Touch symposium. 2001.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ivor Southwood. Non-Stop Inertia. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2011.
13. Ibid.
14. Andrea Fraser. “What's Intangible, Transitory, Immediate, Participatory and Rendered in the Public Sphere?” October. 1997.
15. Miwon Kwon. “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity.” October. 1997.
16. Ibid.
17. Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge: 2001.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.
20. Matthew Fuller. Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. MIT Press, Cambridge: 2007.
21. Nicholas Bourriaud. Postproduction. Lukas & Sternberg, New York: 2000.
22. “It's all a bit of a blur.” Things Magazine. March 28, 2011.
23. Miwon Kwon. “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity.” October. 1997.