Preface to a History of the Museum of Non Participation

by Pancho Villa

We know enough to make up lies which are convincing, but we also have the skill, when we will, to speak the truth. – The Muses to Hesiod. Hesiod, Theogony 25

What is the Museum of Non Participation? Does it have a mission, and collections? Is it an enigma, a paradox, or a joke? Might it be all these and more, or simply one more art-world folly competing for attention? Do its founders ask serious questions, or question seriousness? Is it disinterest or complicity in disguise? Is its title a misnomer? Many questions confront this project; perhaps that is its purpose, because in querying it we are forced to interrogate the boundaries of participation and museums.

Museums are respectable institutions charged with the preservation, interpretation and display of objects. They are good places to visit while on holiday, or on rainy days out with the kids. We rarely stop to question them. Perhaps it is the combination of well-trained smiles emitted from visitor-enquiry desks, the lure of gift shops, proffering ersatz antiquities and the bottled Lethe water sold in air-conditioned cafés that makes museums feel so comfortable and cuddly, and encourages us to avert our eyes from the violence, both mythical and real, that lies at their foundation. Who after all would want to hear the “hapless soldier’s sigh, that runs in blood down palace walls” while trying to grab a bit of culture on a Sunday afternoon?

But our museums are far from innocent; they are at best a bloody pirate’s treasure trove. So why not question them? After all it would be comforting to know that the previous owner of a painting that we so admire had not perished in a gas-chamber, or that the wonderful display of marble sculptures in gallery X hadn’t been nicked by an upstart ambassador and bequeathed to the Nation in exchange for some ignoble honour. But even after pushing aside the violence of plunder, our museums still confront us with successive layers of brutality disguised as culture. There is: the violence of restoration, which has erased so many works of art; the violence of sacrilege that denies the religious significance of countless ‘curated’ objects; the violence of professional discourse that cocoons the initiated and intimidates the ‘untutored’; and the violence of desecration, which haunts so many living peoples. Then, least we forget, there is the plagiaristic violence perpetuated by a Frankenstein monster that, with the heart of a rebel and the hands of a colonial despot, calls itself, in true military fashion, the avant-garde. And of course there is the violence of denial implicit in all interpretation. Europe possesses no word to fully express its cruelties, but Mexican Spanish does. It is a word that evokes the Conquest, and the wealth that flooded Seville and drained into the coffers of Italian renaissance banks. It is a word with countless facets; whole sentences can be constructed by manipulating its inflections. It flavours everyday speech with bile. The word is Chinga. It means fuck, rape, destruction, pillage, hopelessness, despair and theft. It evokes a mythical time and place; la Chingada, - the rape of mother earth - which in European parlance connotes the discovery of the New World. Thus: Chinga tu madre!
Chingamos los chingones, hijos de la chingada, quien nos chingaron con chingaderasmight be politely translated as: for the abuse of your mother let¹s upset those toffs, the descendents of conquest, who treat us unfairly and lie.

But la Chingada is not confined to a resentful memory inscribed in the argot of Mexico. It thrives today in countless ‘third world’ cities. It is carried in the genetic code of AIDS. It is the force that decimates natural habitats in pursuit of profit. It is the life-blood of the global arms-trade. It is the secret sponsor of our museums.

Our word ‘museum’ is a sham. The Mouseion (Greek) Museum (Latin) was the temple of the Muses, inspirers of creativity and daughters of Memory. Their house was a place for comtemplation, and debate, the presevation of ideas, creation of poetry and playing music. The idea of a ‘museum’ as repository of acquisitions is an adjuct to colonialism. Hence the Museum of Non Participation’s desire “to swim against the grain”. Its collection of metaphors and actions are available for reinterpretation by anyone at anytime. It is a museum of values not valuables, a museum committed to the principles of ‘copyleft’, not copyright - a museum predicated on the idea that its collections will grow only by giving them away - and the conviction that the reification of Memory is a distortion of her purpose, which is to aid us in imagining our future.

But where does this leave the idea of Non-participation and the slogan: Participate in the Museum of Non Participation. Like the final lines of the first Dada manifesto ­ if you disagree with this manifesto you are a Dadaist ­ it appears to be a paradox. Personally I refuse to take part and consider this museum miss-named; better that we call it the Museum of Heresies, the Museum of Awkward Buggers, or the Museum of Non-acquiescence.

Whatever it turns out to be, don’t expect to find me dead in it.