Cameron Rowland uses the shit out of museums. Of course, Rowland doesn’t put it that way. Rowland the person is even-keel and academic. But Rowland the artist is unsparing. The Society for Contemporary Art and SAIC present the semester’s first Visiting Artist Program: Cameron Rowland in conversation with curator (and collaborator) Richard Birkett.
The talk broadly teases out the question: What is an exhibition for? by combing through Rowland’s conceptual work, 19th century British law, slave labor, prison labor, and Birkett’s role as a curator.
The most concise answer is this: If we conceive of an institute on structural terms, then it is clearly a component of racial capitalism. So for an exhibition about racial capitalism, the institution is an example.
The simple yet unfeasible conclusion is that the institute is part of the exhibition. This is “institute” with a lowercase “I,” as it pertains to all institutes that perpetuate or benefit from the systems of racial capitalism. The institute means the boards of directors, the curators, and the artists, sure; but it also means the tax codes used by institutions (e.g., non-profit); the staff and security; the mortgage; the materials; the building structure itself; and, of course, you, dear viewer.
With this indictment in mind, it makes a lot of sense for the talk to include a curator with whom Rowland has worked. The two of them have an established respect for one another — Rowland repeatedly expresses gratitude for Birkett’s openness and willingness, Birkett regularly applauds Rowland for the ground his work lays.
In a way, they form an inextricable partnership that itself becomes part of the display. Fitting, then, that the work with which they begin discussion is called “Partnership” (2016) from the exhibition “91020000” at Artists Space in New York City. “Partnership” is found on page 6 of the exhibition catalog. It is a two-paragraph-long piece that lays out the reason for the exhibition’s title.
“Partnership” begins: “91020000 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization Artists Space upon registering with Corcraft, the market name for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Division of Industries.“ In other words, in order for the gallery to purchase (which they have) and present (which they do) objects manufactured by inmates, Artists Space must be registered as a government agency or nonprofit.
The piece highlighted a partnership between the nonprofit sector and the prison-industrial complex. It brought to light the fact that many government agencies are able to purchase industrial goods at a reduced price because of “cheap” prison labor, and it created an instruction for viewing the exhibition. The instruction being: always consider the context.
To this end, Rowland is essentially the master of footnotes. His 2020 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) London, “3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73,” is devoid of wall text and curatorial statements. Instead, visitors are given a 19-page essay pamphlet by which to learn about the space and time, and therefore, the exhibit. The title, by the way, is the 1833 Act that abolished slavery in the British Colonies and compensated newly dispossessed former slave owners.
One of the concepts that the exhibition centered on was the use of mortgages within imperialism and slave economies. In mortgage law, an “encumbrance” is basically a charge on the property or an asset. In “Encumbrance“ (2020), Rowland orchestrates the actual encumbrance of the mahogany elements at the ICA (four doors and a handrail) so as to inhibit the continual accumulation of the property’s value on behalf of the Crown (the ICA is owned by Crown Estate). On display are the five framed legal documents securing this transaction. Accompanying the piece is a four-paragraph caption that geniously (yes, I can say that, Rowland won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2019) leads its reader/viewer through plantation mortgages, the value of mahogany, the Crown’s property management endeavors, and of course, what the heck an encumbrance actually is.
The talk itself was steeped in references to scholars of critical race theory, including Kimberle Crenshaw, Naomi Murakawa, and Cheryl I. Harris, from whom Rowland draws inspiration and ideas regularly. In fact, both Murakawa and Harris gave talks adjacent to the “91020000” exhibition, and Harris was involved in the “3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73” show.
Find more information about the Feb. 9 conversation between Cameron Rowland and Richard Birkett at their Visiting Artist Page. The entire semester program can be found here. And if you feel ready to encounter Rowland in real-life, you can find his 2021 piece, “Lynch Law in America,” on display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s contemporary wing.
Parker Yamasaki (MANAJ 2023) is the managing editor at F Newsmagazine. She is constantly looking for a sunnier place to sit.