Service Manual: Pamela M. Lee on Andrea Fraser

Article excerpt

Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, edited by Alexander Alberro. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 320 pages. $40.

WHEN ANDREA FRASER'S VIDEO Untitled was first shown in 2003, the reactions across the media spectrum were all too predictable. A silent, sixty-minute tape shot at New York's Royalton Hotel, it captured a sexual encounter between the artist and an anonymous collector, who paid nearly twenty thousand dollars for the privilege. The real performance, arguably, took place well in advance, when Fraser negotiated a detailed contract of stipulations the collector had to meet. If art-world cognoscenti variously claimed they found the taped proceedings boring (which, given the delicate nature of the exchange, lent the work its peculiar critical frisson), New York's Daily News responded with the kind of aesthetic sensitivity one might expect of the tabloid press, calling Fraser's work an outrageous example of "interactive art."

Readers of the Daily News might be forgiven if they fail to identify the Andrea Fraser of videotape infamy as the author of Museum Highlights, a collection of her writings from 1985 to 2003 to be published by MIT this summer. Edited by Alexander Alberro, the book attests unequivocally to the artist's critical rigor, depth of engagement, and slyly subversive sense of humor. Yet the distance traveled between a journalistic dismissal of a contemporary artist and an academic press's vaunted presentation of the same figure seems very much to the point of Fraser's larger project. Over the last two decades, Fraser has achieved a certain renown for her work in critiquing institutions, bridging site-specific practices, performance (perhaps most famously in the guise of museum docent "Jane Castleton"), and curatorial intervention. Throughout, she has dramatized the relationship between art and its audiences as a function of what Pierre Bourdieu called one's habitus: systems of conditioned affects and behaviors operating virtually as individual perception. The reception of Untitled, as such, offers a (perhaps) unintended case study in the terrain that Fraser insistently mines in Museum Highlights.

Allusions to Bourdieu are not made lightly in this context--and not only because a brief essay by the late sociologist serves as a foreword to the volume. Frequent references to his work appear throughout Museum Highlights, underscoring the fact that Fraser (along with Hans Haacke) is among our most "Bourdevin" of artists. Those seeking something like a precis of her methodology might skip to the end of the first section to read her Bourdieu tribute: "'To Quote,' Say the Kabyles, 'Is to Bring Back to Life.'" Fraser is the least sentimental of writers (her prose tends to the pointed and analytic), yet here she narrates in personal terms the centrality of his thought to her practice. She details first how her anxiety about being an autodidact, lacking the imprimatur of an ivory-tower diploma, was relieved by Bourdieu's work on the "symbolic violence" imposed by the legitimating culture of higher education. There's nothing self-aggrandizing about Fraser's insertion of her own story into this homage. Bourdieu's work on the role of culture in the wielding of symbolic power--as a source of domination and social differentiation--meshes seamlessly with the imperatives of institutional critique.

Through this Bourdevin lens one best grasps the diverse contents of Museum Highlights, which include writings on other artists (Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum); project statements; performance transcripts; speculative essays on working method; and a letter to a curator about the Wadsworth Atheneum, detailing her approach to research in that museum. Organized into four sections, the texts are grouped thematically rather than chronologically. Whatever the reader loses in terms of insight into Fraser's intellectual formation, however, one gains in understanding the consistency of her investigations. …