World Sculpture News Autumn 2000
Secrecy And Institutional Power
For those who have suffered at the hands of closed, as well as seemingly open, institutions, the work of American sculptor Michael Aurbach will certainly resurrect memories of just how dehumanizing the exercise of secrecy and power can be, even at its most benign.
By Glen R. Brown
If knowledge is power, then secrecy must surely be the means by which it is made so. Secrets are by nature divisive, separating the haves of knowledge from the have-nots, and consequently are of incalculable use to authoritarianism, as incompatible with the ideal of democratic thought as tumors are with a vision of bodily health. Not all secrets are malignant, of course. Some are created through good intentions, and some are simply trivial. Even in its most innocuous forms, however, secrecy is inseparable from the exercise of power, is founded on one’s conscious decision to regulate the degrees of ignorance in another. What is known, when it is known, and by whom are the variables through which power is maintained, and, conversely, by which even the most dynastic of institutions might be brought crashing to earth. Consequently, the secrecy of institutions is fiercely guarded. Like all systems, institutions implicitly recognize that the highest good is self-preservation, and toward this end secrecy is as much a defense mechanism as a strategy for exercising control.
The complex connection between secrecy, power, and institutions has provided the basis for nearly a decade of exploration by American sculptor Michael Aurbach. A professor of art at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Aurbach, like all academicians, has observed his share of the maddeningly impersonal nature of institutional power. His service in the College Art Association, the largest organization for university art faculties in the United States, has made him privy to countless stories about the shrouds of silence that make the granting of tenure and promotion as mysterious as cult ceremony or the rites of a fraternal lodge. Abstracting from the affinities between these secondary sources and his own experiences, Aurbach has produced a series of imposing installations that have established a commentary on secrecy and institutions in universal terms.
The examination of institutional power has, of course, been a prominent feature of postmodern art and discourse, and has given rise to such memorable concepts as Michel Foucault’s “panopticon” or Laurie Anderson’s “corporate voice.” The unique aspect of Aurbach’s work, however, is precisely that it is more experiential than conceptual. Not only does Aurbach draw on personal experience, he designs his works to provide strategically controlled experiences for his viewers as well. One of the earliest works in his current Secrecy series; Confessional (1994) is exemplary. Invited to walk down a procession of buttressed sheet-metal arches, each of which contains motion-detectors activating low-volume alarms, the viewer is made to feel the gravity of confession as an act. The short time required to enter the confessional booth, in which a closed-circuit television projects back one’s own speaking image, is sufficient for a mental inventory of secrets too volatile to risk whispering when a recorder might be present. Less about the Catholic practice of confession on which it is modeled than about the general nature of revealing secrets and the vulnerable position in which such indiscretion can place one, Confessional is a reminder of the constant vigil we necessarily maintain over so much of the information that makes us who we are.
More recently, in a 1998 triptych of relief sculptures entitled Witness: Conspiracy No. 1, Witness: Conspiracy No. 2, and Witness: Conspiracy No. 3, Aurbach raised the stakes in the game of secrecy. Suggestive of the allegory “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” the reliefs contain references to surveillance equipment: headsets, cameras, and microphones. More important, encapsulated within them is actual documentation—in the form of audio recordings, text, and film—of information that literally could be used to terminate the careers of Aurbach himself and some undisclosed others. Witness: Conspiracy No. 1, consisting of a massive art-deco arch that mimics the appearance of a 1930s radio, presents a book-shaped display case that opens to reveal a cassette tape under Plexiglas. Witness: Conspiracy No. 2 takes the form of a triumphal arch, selected by Aurbach for its associations with Fascist architecture, and incorporates three ominous microphones. Witness: Conspiracy No. 3 combines a mastaba and a pyramid with a surveillance camera and a set of scales that, in a contemporary twist on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, confirms that a damning roll of film is not lighter than a feather.
”I think of the Witness: Conspiracy sculptures as part safe-deposit box, part reliquary casket, and part Pandora’s box,” Aurbach says. “These things have real power beyond their visual and symbolic aspects.” The viewer is quick to sense this as well. The works clearly invoke the issue of power simply by piquing curiosity about the information they conceal, since satisfaction of the viewer’s desire to be in on the secret can only be had by violating Aurbach’s privacy. This violation is not merely a regrettable consequence of the thirst for knowledge. After all, why should the viewer care to know these sculptures’ secrets—which surely must be of less-than-earth-shaking significance to any but a handful of those in Aurbach’s immediate circle—except for the sensation of power that knowledge carries with it?
The theme of power as the underlying motive of secrecy is reinforced in Aurbach’s sculptures by his frequent recourse to iconographic and stylistic precedents from the history of art and architecture. The pyramid in Witness Conspiracy No. 3, for example, is meant to remind one not merely of the majesty of Old Kingdom Pharaohs, but of the tenacity with which ancient tomb-robbers violated the secret interiors of the massive tombs, exposing the mummies to the pernicious effects of outer air and thwarting their pretensions to eternal life. Great secrets do not generally come to light without correspondingly great consequences. It is therefore no accident that institutions which have the most to lose if their inner workings become known tend visually to be impersonal and unapproachable. To suggest this projected inaccessibility of institutions, Aurbach has sheathed the works of his Secrecy series in metal. “I like using the sheet metal because it’s cold and insular,” he says. “It suggests power. At the same time, when I represent a building the foundation may present the effect of brick or stonework, but I use what is called mobile-home skirting. It’s a pre-fabricated sheet-metal skirt that’s used to keep animals and the wind out from under your mobile home, but also creates the illusion that there’s a solid foundation when in fact it only masks an empty space.”
The situation of a mask concealing a hollow is rife with inducement to insecurity, even paranoia, and Aurbach’s works suggest a maxim: The greater the hollow, the greater the impulse to hide it. Secrecy and its defensive role in the maintenance of fragile institutional power is made the focus of Aurbach’s major 1997 interactive installation, The Institution. In this work a bastion-like, sheet-metal edifice is approached through a triumphal arch bearing closed-circuit television screens that monitor the viewer’s movements and message boards that display paragons of subterfuge such as “A committee is being formed to review the situation.” Physically denied access to the tiny and oddly shaped door, the viewer is shunted off to the wings, where black-curtained windows are fortuitously left open. Surrendering to the urge to spy on the inhabitants, the viewer opens the curtains only to discover that he or she is, in turn, being spied on by the institution. Inside a small room is a monitor projecting an image of the viewer from behind. The spy is momentarily absent, but message boards reinforce the impulse toward surveillance and control: “Free speech need not exist,” “identify team players.”
Although The Institution suggests anonymity and the anti-humanistic vision of power that is most often the subject of postmodern discourse, Aurbach is not necessarily suggesting that institutions are larger than any of us. That kind of thinking acquiesces, for example, to Adolf Eichmann’s plea during his war-crimes trial that issuing extermination orders was merely the action of a clerk, a pawn of the Nazi political and militaristic machine. Aurbach suggests, on the contrary, that human psychology is ultimately to be held accountable for the behavior of institutions. His most recent installation, entitled The Administrator, provides a glimpse into an office-sized chamber of manipulative devices, including the “hot-seat,” a chair equipped with heating coils that awaits the supplicant who must inevitably enter the administrator’s office, or the series of hoops through which this same unfortunate will be required to jump. The slapstick quality of these sadistic clichés is intended to lampoon the unimaginative routine by which some administrators exercise control over their “inferiors.” But The Administrator, Aurbach says, “is less about torture than it is a parody on how we portray people in power: the trappings of power, the folly.” The most important point of the installation, however, is that the devices are in themselves neutral without the deliberate decision of a human being to activate them.
By focusing on the human factor in The Administrator, Aurbach makes clear his conviction that secrecy is not merely a consequence of institutional effectiveness, but an indulgence from which some individuals derive a heady sense of their own potency. Does institutional power inevitably corrupt even those who start out with the best of intentions? Or does the lure of power within the institution merely attract those who already harbor secret pretensions to authority over others? Can one accept a position of power within an institution and function effectively without resorting to strategies of secrecy? Aurbach characteristically does not make it the task of his works to decide these issues. His concern is to provide the viewer with experiences, ersatz and fleeting, as they might be, that prompt reflection on one’s own relationship to institutions, the power they wield, and the secrecy they preserve. Beyond this, and for obvious reasons, Aurbach avoids and declines to exert his authority.
Glen R. Brown is associate professor of art history at Kansas State University.