UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Beyond epistemic disobedience : the importance of humor in Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum Smith, Rachel


In 1992, installation artist Fred Wilson collaborated with The Contemporary, and the Maryland Historical Society to mount Mining the Museum. The exhibition consisted of objects, selected, arranged and installed by Wilson, and the items he utilized were materials entirely from the museum’s collection. His arrangements appeared to be familiar museum displays, but the pairing of items in each case was subtly disjunctive, either visually or conceptually. Wilson highlighted these juxtapositions with several of his arrangements in order to call attention to the blind spots in the archive of the Maryland Historical Society, and the systemic racism in the authorized historical narrative. The unconventional selection and disparate arrangement of items functioned as an intervention into museum practices. Instead of privileging predominantly white, male histories, Wilson installed and arranged objects that spoke to a history of racism, and the exclusion of African-American and Native American communities. I will argue that the power of the exhibition was in Wilson’s humorous arrangement of the museum’s archive. Mining the Museum capitalized on the slippages inherent in the structure of a joke in order to present to the viewer an alternative, and ultimately fluid history. His strategic deployment of humor, his jokes at the expense of white, Western institutions and ideologies, constituted what art historian Walter Mignolo calls an epistemically disobedient gesture. This thesis examines several of the installation in Mining the Museum and argues that their juxtaposition of elements constituted a tendentious joke. I also argue that Wilson’s use of humor in his intervention at the Maryland Historical Society places demands on the viewer’s subjectivity. Following a Freudian analysis of the structure of the joke, I argue that Wilson’s installations had the potential to cast the viewer as either victim of the joke, or witness to it. The demand that the jokes placed on the subjectivity of the viewer represents a decolonial intervention in the Maryland Historical Society, and suggests the potential for humor as a disobedient rhetorical tool for upsetting the coloniality of the museum institution.

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