BY Jonathan P. Watts in Opinion | 26 OCT 19
Featured in
Issue 207

How Jeremy Millar Anticipated the Uncertainty of the Digital Age

The 1994 exhibition, ‘The Institute of Cultural Anxiety’, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London resonates powerfully with the culture and politics of 2019

BY Jonathan P. Watts in Opinion | 26 OCT 19

‘My approach was: “Oh well, fuck it,”’ Jeremy Millar tells me, recalling the extraordinary precocity of his application to the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ (ICA) first National Open Submission curating competition, in 1994. Titled ‘Out There’, the competition was established by the ICA in partnership with the former London Arts Board and Arts Council England to ‘harness the energy and spirit of artist-curated exhibitions currently proliferating in vacant buildings across London and other centres such as Brighton, Nottingham and Glasgow’.

In the early 1990s – in the wake of the mythical ‘Freeze’ exhibition, curated by Damien Hirst, which had launched the yBas in 1988 – artist-led galleries were the leading venues for the presentation of experimental art on a shoestring. Spaces such as Transmission in Glasgow and City Racing in London had become, arguably, the true heirs to the ICA’s founding policies of 1947: ‘bringing the different art forms together and attempt[ing] to establish a common ground for a progressive movement in art’.

‘The Institute of Cultural Anxiety’, 1995, installation view. Courtesy: Jeremy Millar 

Two years out of art school – with his total experience comprising the coordination of a degree show, some published criticism in frieze and a few months’ involvement with., an artist-led space in Nottingham – Millar proposed installing a shadow institution inside the ICA’s galleries for eight weeks. From 11 December 1994 to 12 February 1995, ‘The Institute of Cultural Anxiety’ would display Millar’s selection of works from the fictional institute’s collection – the ownership, principles and extent of which the visitor could only speculate.

Aiming for something between a museological display and a salon hang, Millar spent five months securing loans of work by 63 artists, including a dozen or so newly commissioned pieces, as well as artworks and artefacts from an array of museums and archives, from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries. Artificial eyes were heaped beneath glass nearby Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Little Death Machine (Castrated) (1993) (a work Millar had persuaded the brothers not to throw in the skip); a skeleton arm (purchased by Christine Borland for GB£65 and presented in its cardboard shipping box) found company with a copy of John Haslam’s book Illustrations of Madness: Exhibiting a Singular Case of Insanity (1810). A bank of television screens showing various Godzilla film versions was nearby Thomas Grünfeld’s fantastical cut-and-shunt taxidermy animals. One of Luc Tuymans’s sick nurse paintings (‘The Diagnostic View’, 1992) shared space with Catherine Yass’s photographs of hospital interiors (‘Corridors’, 1994). Atop a plinth, facing Edward Lipski’s sleek, freestanding sculpture of a banking jet with a broken wing, was the very helmet Donald Campbell had worn in his fatal water speed record attempt of 1967. Mounted on the wall above the disaster relic, two screens showed Graham Gussin’s Beyond the Infinite (1994): looping, contiguous cuts of the final scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which the astronaut finds his older self. 

Catherine Yass, Corridor: Daffodil II, 1994. Courtesy: the artist and Alison Jacques Gallery, London

In place of an audioguide, Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygène (Oxygen, 1976) – futuristic music already dated by 1994 – played on a Sony Walkman. French philosopher Paul Virilio, whose notion of progress as a ‘museum of accidents’ rather than linear development had been a key influence on Millar’s thinking, faxed over a set of slogans. Millar enlarged these – ‘La collection n’est pas une succession d’oeuvres elle est une oeuvre simultanée, un ensemble à jamais inachevé’ (The collection is not a succession of works but a simultaneous work, an ensemble forever incomplete) – and stencilled them in their original French across the walls. Bisecting the perimeter of the galleries, a grey-green stripe, a visual placebo reminiscent of the sanatorium, offered a semblance of continuity.

By a simple involution, ‘The Institute of Cultural Anxiety’ enacted a queasy shift of everything that fell within its conceptual frame. The prize itself became an expression of the ICA’s anxiety about its own mission. And, animating the Freudian view of collecting as the display of neuroses, Millar invited a critical pathology of ‘the curator’ years before critics began historicizing ‘curationism’. (The Royal College of Art’s curating course – the first of its kind in the UK – had opened in 1993.)

Besides these forms of institutional critique, the exhibition urged viewers to look beyond the gallery to society and their place within it. What kept them up at night? Certainly Euro-North America in the early 1990s offered a panoply of paroxysms: the so-called culture wars of the late 1980s, which pitted traditional values against liberal ones; postmodernism; the incipient world wide web; and the supposed ‘end of history’, marked by the twilight of Communism and the dawn of good old-fashioned fin-de-siècle millenarianism. ‘Certainty has given way to uncertainty,’ Millar wrote. ‘Reductionism has given way to complexity and restrictive structures have given way to self-organizing phenomena.’ Or: perhaps information is not knowledge.

‘The Institute of Cultural Anxiety’, 1995, installation view. Courtesy: Jeremy Millar 

For Millar, as for Virilio, the perfect image of this was the Challenger space shuttle blowing apart live on millions of television screens across the world in 1986. This heroic failure made it clear that the expansionist compulsion for knowledge arose from a fundamental insecurity. ‘It is this profound sense of anxiety that permeates this exhibition,’ Millar wrote in the catalogue. If the fetishization of technology to correct the problems caused by technology rarely leads to an increase in understanding, then what does it say about our capacity for the hubristic denial of failure?

Twenty-five years ago, ‘The Institute of Cultural Anxiety’ was a brilliant and timely intervention. On the cusp of a world about to be turned upside down by networked digital technology, it seems to anticipate the all-encompassing normalization of anxiety that characterizes our contemporary life. Anxiety today is perpetuated by the networked tech that is inseparable from our sense of self. How can it be that we’ve never had more information at our disposal and yet we’ve never been more anxious? This ‘nervous state’ – as sociologist Will Davies calls it in his eponymous 2018 book – along with fear and panic, has gained traction in the wake of a disillusionment with the Enlightenment’s promise of progress. Reason, he writes, has been replaced by feeling. Nervous states are potent affective tools of politics.

Digital tech has disrupted many of the institutions that structure society. Often promising to flatten existing hierarchies, it simply accommodates power in different forms. Where proponents of poststructuralist deconstruction have been attacked by conservatives and the right as the wreckers of civilization – challenges to ‘truth’ supposedly unleashing ‘post-truth’ – the effectiveness of its critique remains the same. In fact, its continuing value is precisely to point out how ‘truth’ is used in power struggles as political currency.      

‘The Institute of Cultural Anxiety’, 1995, installation view. Courtesy: Jeremy Millar 

Today, conspiracy theories and misinformation, as well as notions of the deep state (a controlling institution within an institution), are encouraged by the White House. A bitter irony: the delegitimization of expert knowledge and claims of fake news occur at a moment when science and technology – now beyond a fetish – are perhaps our only viable means to design the future of the planet. In contemporary art, the collapse of fiction and reality has helped to animate other histories and possible futures. Counter-factual art practice – which Adam Curtis, in HyperNormalization (2016), preposterously made accountable for the alt-right – shares little with Donald Trump’s own ‘post-truth’, which seeks to retrench power.

In the UK, the ‘cultural anxiety’ that manifested as Brexit was stoked by misinformation – a strategy of the supposedly anti-institutional political groups in the name of ‘the people’. A response to the widespread institution of anxiety is an understandable desire for coherence, risk aversion and boundary setting. It manifests the revival of old fictions – nationalism, racism, nostalgia. When I ask Millar what today’s equivalent is to the image of Challenger exploding, he replies unhesitatingly: ‘A screengrab of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s hacked account sending pro-Nazi messages.’ 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 207 with the headline ‘No Escape’

Main image: Jake and Dinos Chapman, Little Death Machine(Castrated), 1993. Courtesy: © the artsits and Blain|Southern, London

Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic based in Norwich, UK.