The Unabated Radicality of Information (1970) at MoMA

(During the first year of the pandemic, I received the curious invitation to write a review of an exhibition that happened fifty years ago as if it were happening today. Because that exhibition was one of the benchmarks in media art history, I was happy to take up the challenge. The review was originally published in Dutch in METROPOLIS M 3-2020. The Dutch article contains a few more images. I translated it with DeepL and checked it with Grammarly.)

Exactly 50 years ago today, on Sept. 20, 1970, was the last day of Information at the MoMA in New York, the still radical-looking exhibition that used dial-up poetry lines, audience surveys, and lots of documentary projects to bring a new genre of art to the museum: information-oriented, interactive, documentary and critical. Josephine Bosma writes about the significance of this milestone in exhibition history.

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                                                                                                     Information catalogue front

At the Information exhibition in 1970, the coming era of interactive media, the makeable truth, and especially the subjective, personal interpretation of the media landscape was already clearly visible. Information was not only one of the exhibitions of the time in which the future of media was already present at the onset. It also showed a movement that goes against the market, that consciously undermines art as an object, and seeks the essence of art in meaning and openness to the public, to all possible audiences. The exhibition was groundbreaking, in part because it took place at the renowned MoMA,1 and it would help set the tone for a new view of art in the 1970s.

Information essentially shows the future of media. In it, everyday, personal media are more influential than ever and often decisive in image-making. Vito Acconci, for example, calls the postal network "the unconscious performer" of his work in the exhibition, but that same postal network could be called essential to much of the other works in Information. What is a Sol LeWitt without the mail that conveys his directions?

Information's list of participating artists is long, but several, including Art+Language Press, Terry Atkinson, Lucy Lippard, Marta Minujin, Yvonne Rainer, and Yoko Ono, are represented only in the catalog. This is a deliberate choice. The catalog is an "active" part of the exhibition. It additionally shows, for many artists, not what is on display in the museum, but provides a supplement. The artists were free to choose what to do with their space in the catalog. Yoko Ono fills hers with instructions, such as her Wearing-Out Machine: 'Ask a man to wear out various things before you use them. Such as Women, Clothes, Books, Apartments, Pianos, Typewriters.' Robert Morris uses the catalog for A Method for Sorting Cows, a short story that can also be read as a script. In the exhibition, he shows drawings from the Drawing for Earth project, which are sketches for major land artworks. There are also blank pages in the catalog that the public can fill themselves.

A similar invitation to participate is also in the physical exhibition. Scattered throughout the city outside the museum are small platforms by Danish artist Stig Broegger, which could be thought of as mini-stages for the public. One of these stands in front of the entrance to MoMA. Photos of public interactions with these platforms are hung inside. There, walls are full of texts, sketches, and photographs. At first glance, it makes for an empty, minimalist-looking exhibition, but appearances can be deceiving. Not for nothing does exhibition maker Kynaston McShine cite the importance of "communication systems such as television and film" as characteristic of the culture from which the artists in Information emerge. The focus of this exhibition, then, is not so much on art as a concept, as it has gone down in history, but on art as a carrier, as a messenger or means of communication, as idea and tool at once. This is not an ethereal concept, but a concrete construction, a coherent whole. Today Information is therefore seen not only as a benchmark for conceptualism but also for new media art. It is not difficult to detect fledgling signs of personal media, media activism, and early stages of interactivity in the exhibition.

First, there are the many (re)positionings in and personal arrangements of the world through media: photographs and films of land art (Robert Smithson, Richard Long), landscape experience (Roger Cutforth, Michael Heizer, Hans Hollein, Bernard and Hilla Becher), and as part of all kinds of documentation (Ira Joel Haber, Artur Barrio, Victor Burgin, Willoughby Sharp, Christo). There is also a seemingly endless amount of art in text format and as sketches, from instructions for the production of artworks to poetry, readings, listings, and experimental biography (Hanne Darboven, Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt, On Kawara, Gilbert & George).

In addition, there are interactive works. In addition to Stig Broegger's platforms, the Argentine Group Frontera films interviews with the audience who can then watch themselves. Giorno Poetry Systems, by American poet and performance artist John Giorno, puts phones in the exhibition on which poetry by various artists can be heard. There is also a special poetry line where anyone from outside can call in. German artist Hans Haacke is conducting an audience survey, the MoMA Poll, about the influence of the wealthy Rockefeller family on MoMA. He is keeping this work a secret until the opening. Donald Burgy asks the public to write ideas on index cards. He will eventually highlight one and then forget about it.

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                                                                                               Hans Haacke's MOMA Poll

Information is, was, an exhibition with much space: space for interpretation, public activity, and participation, but also space in the sense of the reach of the museum far beyond its walls. That reach consists partly of the media, in the sense of all kinds of communication systems, with which the artists build a bridge to their own environment by meticulously documenting it, to a world outside the museum, and partly of the form and content of works, which allow for an easy transfer and continuation of ideas and activity between artists and the public. Both parts are connected. That is the essence of Information. In many ways, the exhibition questions power structures and market forces in art and culture. For a bastion of modern art like MoMA, that must have posed a bit of a hurdle.

It must also have been a challenge to curate this exhibition, which included interactive works and many artists' films. At the end of his catalog essay, McShine asks "How can the museum deal with the introduction of the new technology as an everyday part of exhibition practice?"[2]

MoMA decided to ask permission to use the Olivetti Visual Jukebox, renamed Information Machine for the occasion. In appearance, this is a kind of spaceship, designed by Ettore Sottsass Jr., with shielded viewing windows all around, on which the Italian company Olivetti played its promotional material at trade shows.[3] The Olivetti Visual Jukebox contrasts greatly with the rest of the exhibition, both visually and conceptually. Here, the artists' fragile poetry, subversive messages, and reaching out to the public are subordinated to a dominant design object with the Olivetti company logo. According to some, this shiny monster symbolizes "the system" that the artists are trying to criticize and change from within,[4] but perhaps MoMA's choice of the Olivetti Visual Jukebox shows where its real priorities lie. In any case, the Information Machine is such a contrast to the content of the exhibition that one wonders about its presence.

Kunsthalle Basel is currently preparing an exhibition in response to the iconic exhibition at MoMA but also to two lesser-known but equally important exhibitions that have taken place in-house. Kunsthalle Basel already showed an exhibition called Information in 1969 and the following year there was Das offene Museum - die Stadt (1970). The new version was to be installed this summer, but that planned exhibition has been pushed back to spring 2021 because of the coronavirus. The last one in particular, Das offene Museum - die Stadt, was not only groundbreaking but also a controversial exhibition about architecture in an art context. Then-director Peter Althaus wanted to appeal to a wider audience. He wanted a museum that was open to the city, in which art and everyday reality intermingled. For example, at Das offene Museum - die Stadt, a kind of meditation room was part of the exhibition, in which among others groups of schoolchildren liked to do their homework. The Daig, the cultural elite in Switzerland, was not happy about it. The art "was theirs, and now suddenly there were all these dirty people there," Althaus said afterward.[5] Because of the opposition he received inside and outside the museum, Althaus decided to resign in 1972. That the Kunsthalle Basel's upcoming exhibition refers to two of his exhibitions seems to indicate a kind of tribute to this controversial curator or at least an ode to the vision of this anti-institutional exhibition maker.

It is too early to speculate on the new version the Kunsthalle is working on. Perhaps this is the time to extend the Information line entirely and make a virtue of necessity by, for example, giving the exhibition a groundbreaking online dimension. The announced themes of "encryption, algorithmic discrimination, and artificial intelligence" certainly lend themselves to it.

HERE 40 installation shots from the exhibition Information, MoMA

1 This is what Lucy Lippard says in a retrospective of the show in "50 Years Later, a Conceptual Art Exhibition Still Courts Controversy," see:

2 In English: "How is the museum going to deal with the introduction of the new technology as an everyday part of its curatorial concerns?", in: Information, edited by Kynaston McShine, The Museum of Modern Art, 1970, p. 141

3 Jeremiah William McCarthy. 'The Artist and the Information Machine: Conceptualism, Technology, and Design in 1970', master's thesis, 2016

4 Ibid.

5 From a German interview with Peter F. Althaus made in 2007.