David Lamelas, Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text, Audio, 1968/2015
In the Media in Transition conference held at Tate Modern in 2015, a case study of David Lamelas’ work Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text, Audio (1968) and its reiteration by MoMA in 2015 for the Transmissions exhibition was presented. Originally shown at the Venice Biennale in 1968 in the Finnish Pavilion, it consisted of a glazed information office structure set up, providing the public with current news items. The international news during the period was focusing on the Vietnam War, and was chosen for its global emphasis as a news item rather than as a political statement. For the reiteration of the work at MoMA, a painstaking process was undertaken to recreate the ‘office’ in all its physical aspects such as the telex machine, phone handset, tape recorder and furniture. The original transcript from the presentation of the work at Venice Biennale was obtained from the ANSA archives, while a professional translator was hired to perform and record the transcripts during the exhibition to read the news in the original translator’s four languages.
The original work was an information office, he maintained, and had to remain a functioning office ‘exposing the information’, with a glass barrier separating the audience and the sign that invited the viewer to pick up the handset and hear the news read by a newsreader or a taped recording. He argues that the work presents information on the three levels: the visual image, via text, audio, and the components had to be included in the work. To Lamelas, it was important that the work had a life of its own and that it be able to evolve with time.
None of the objects exhibited in 1968 remained and MoMA acquired the concept of the work and one photograph documenting it at the Venice Biennale. Lamelas encourages curatorial freedom regarding the interpretation of his work and in the case of the presentation at MoMA in 2015 for the exhibition Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America 1960-1980 this type of reenactment was important for the historical framework set by the show. Therefore, it is necessary to consider whether the ‘evolution’ of the work was taken into account at all in the above context, highlighting the differing interpretations presented by the museum and the artist. These refer, on the one hand, to the responsibility of the museum to maintain the legacy and physical archive of the work, and, on the other hand, to the importance of the artist’s ideas and intentions, which often challenge the emphasis on preservation of the physicality and the ‘time-capsule’ notion of the work.
A number of questions arise when restaging a historical conceptual work of this kind and its impact on the role of the museum of the 21st Century. Can this reiteration be considered ethical in capturing the essence of the work? Does the work or the curatorial framework of the exhibition take precedence in this case? Is it essential to capture the work of an artist within a specific timeframe or ‘time capsule’ thus preserving the artist’s original intent? Or is the work simply a situation that should be staged within the contemporary context, using contemporary news and its sources? With this in mind Lamelas stated: ‘All you need is a desk, a laptop and you can read the news to the people, the same method, whatever is the fastest’.
Finally, the remaining factor to consider is the role of the audience, which in the case of the aforementioned work is paramount, since visitors activate the work each time they engage with it. Is the work becoming a catalyst for debate and further reinterpretations to be experienced within the context of the owner institution? After all, as the museum evolves throughout the 21st Century, it would seem that its function is not solely that of a keeper/restorer of artifacts, but also a driver of discourse and debate, allowing the work to evolve in turn.