View of “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness,” 2014.


Since the early 1980s, Cologne- and Los Angeles–based artist Christopher Williams has utilized photographic discourse as a way to analyze social, cultural, institutional, and economic histories. He speaks here about his three-part exhibition “The Production Line of Happiness,” which is Williams’s first major museum survey. It opened at the Art Institute of Chicago earlier this year and will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from July 27 to November 2, 2014, before traveling to Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 2015.

I’VE WORKED almost my whole life as an artist to distance myself from the kind of role models traditionally associated with the idea of the photographer. Instead I have established a more mobile position, which allows me to move freely through the various aspects of photographic production, display, and distribution; I can alternately assume the position of camera operator, picture editor, exhibition designer, graphic designer, etc. For this exhibition, I wanted to thematize the conventions of display within the context of a monographic museum survey exhibition. A retrospective is, by its nature, a backward-looking form, putting on show that which has been, a condition that it shares with the basic material conditions of photography.

Like the site of a photographic shoot, the form of a survey show can be seen as a set of material and semiotic conventions and relations. These are viewed as somewhat stable and/or natural, having the goal of describing what has been or has happened. I have attempted to move within these relations in order to destabilize and denaturalize them. Each of the three venues has a similar checklist, but the relation between the pictures, their organization, and the architectural frame changes with each venue. The photographs presented at MoMA unfold in a network of different types of walls, which represent a series of different tenses. These include two walls from a mobile wall system developed for the Art Institute of Chicago, present in the previous venue; a wall from a work of mine from 1991, which itself was a reconstruction of a wall built by Peter Nadin and Christopher D’Arcangelo in the 1970s; wall fragments where exhibition design elements from previous exhibitions in the space at MoMA are visible; vinyl-clad walls built with MoMA’s wall system, two of which are clad with vinyl graphics that continue from the lobby; and a cinder block wall which reconstructs a wall system used by the Whitechapel Gallery in the 1950s, a system which will be used in the next iteration of the show at the Whitechapel next year. These walls function to change the tense of the framing device at each point, so that the pictures function not just in but in relation to the architecture. Overall, this thematization of the architecture moves the entire construct from being a representation of the past to being a sculptural and pictorial entity in the present tense.

I have attempted to assume different positions within the production and display of my work in order to separate the basic elements at play and to refashion them in a way that makes their functioning visible as a set of conventions. This restructuring creates and engenders the conditions for a sustained, intensified way of photographic seeing, a way of engaging with pictorial materials that is intensified by an awareness of the different modes of presentation. It attempts to present the pictures within the present context, shifting the decisive moment from the moment of exposure to the moment of viewing.

The catalogue became the primary tool with which I could confront my discomfort with the monographic form and its emphasis on individual achievement. My editorial contribution consisted of lists, budgets, manifestos, and descriptions of types of production and display. This includes a description of The Store by Claes Oldenburg; liner notes by the band Scritti Politti that outline the production of their first single; and texts by Rita McBride, Rem Koolhaas, Barbara Kruger, Walter Nikkels, Bernadette Corporation, and others.

I am interested in a descriptive activity that has such a blunt specificity that it transcends its informative function. The structure of the book speaks very directly and clearly to its economic reality. Contractually, the publisher and museums required a bar code and their logos, but not the artist’s name or the title of the exhibition. By reducing the information on the cover to a discussion of bar codes and logos, we were able to focus attention away from the individual artist and instead emphasize the book’s position as an object within a commercial system of display and circulation.

The absence or de-emphasis of my name has been an element of my work since the late ’70s and has served various functions, but it has primarily been used to emphasize the importance and roles of other people’s practices and discourse in relationship to my pictorial production. This characteristic is one of the things that originally drew me to artists like Christopher D’Arcangelo and Louise Lawler. At any rate, the legal requirements would have been met simply by using the bar code and logos on the cover, but I wanted the cover to have an informative function as well. It presents information about the function of a bar code and the guidelines for proper display and placement of the individual institutional logos. The title “The Production Line of Happiness” was unnecessary, but it served to underline or highlight the cruel set of relations set in place by the managers of culture.

— As told to Catherine Taft