Hacking Museums: Our Retrospective of Interventionists and Crashers


There are artists who get grand museum retrospectives. There are artists who can’t get their foot in the door of the mainstream art world. Then, there are those artists that look the museum institution in the face, say “Meh!” and take matters into their own hands. From Banksy’s “hang and run” infiltrations of The Museum of Modern Art to Eva and Franco Mattes “borrowing” bits of art from high profile exhibitions, let’s survey a few of these interventionists, conceptual vandals and one-upping exhibit crashers with a round-up of museum hackers.

Notorious street artist Banksy might have been the first hot shot to prank some of New York City’s biggest museums by hanging up his own pieces amidst established collections, but by now, this is practically a trend. “Guerrilla” artist Pascal Guérineau protested the Louvre’s stuffy curatorial practice of exhibiting the work of the dead — “Museums are cemeteries for artists!” — and, for a day, secretly affixed a skull vanitas by a living artist… himself.

Speaking of trendy, East London graffiti artist CARTRAIN pulled a yet another “hang and run” this week, hanging up a Bin Laden-themed “lesser-known Dali” at the Tate Modern. The kid already made a name for himself when he was 16 — he got sued by Damien Hirst for using a diamond skull in his collage work and had his art seized by the authorities. In revenge, he stole some “pencils” from a Hirst Pharmacy, and held them for ransom/attention.

Istvan Kantor, the Hungarian-born Canadian performance shock artist, electro pop/industrial musician, founder of Neoism, and prankster extraordinaire, pioneered a gory vandalism version of the “hang and run” in the ’70s when he waged a Blood Campaign to get banned from most museums around the world. He sprayed giant X’s in his own blood on the walls and paintings of galleries and museums.

During the course of Marina Abramović’s three month The Artist is Present endurance piece in the MoMA atrium, vast hordes of anxious museum visitors waited for hours for the much coveted eye contact with the performance art diva. And then there were the crashers. There were the projectile vomit attackers and leaflet droppers. The mustached “mystery man” who returned again and again. The crasher who married himself to Marina. The flasher. Yet, Brooklyn performance artist Anya Liftig might have outdone them all. Much to the dismay of the masses anticipating their turns, the identically-dressed Liftig sat all day while Abramović faced off with a straight up doppelganger. Creepy.

Environmental protest group Liberate Tate commemorated the BP Oil Gulf spill by stripping down in the Tate Museum’s classical sculpture exhibit room and lying in a fetal position covered in mock-oil for 87 minutes, one for each day of the spill. The protest highlighted BP’s ongoing financial support of the museum and the ethical issues of accepting “dirty” money. The environmental group is currently working at an alternative audio guide to the museum. Guess what it’s about.

In 1989, long before Andrea Fraser notoriously landed herself into our X-rated art round-up, she shook up the Philadelphia Museum of Art when she posed as a dramatic tour guide. Along her tour, she heralded a museum water fountain as “a work of astonishing economy and monumentality” that “boldly contrasts with the severe and highly stylized productions of this form!”

Much more eloquently executed than CARTRAIN’s little stunt, artist duo Eva and Franco Mattes systematically lifted little parts of big time artworks throughout the mid-90s. When the stature on theft had run out, the art couple displayed a chip porcelain chip from a Duchamp Fountain, a shoelace from a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, a thread from an Andy Warhol canvas, a manufacturer’s label from a Jeff Koons aqua-basketball tank, and other loot in an exhibit last year. They called it “the greatest tribute ever.”

When the National Portrait Gallery pulled David Wojnarowicz’s video art piece A Fire in My Belly out of their Hide/Seek queer art exhibit because of bullying by conservative groups and GOP pundits over a short glimpse of an antsy cross, an angry protester screened the video on his iPad in the middle of the exhibit. For fighting the censorship, he got tackled by the guards and was banned from the museum.

Similarly, when new MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch had commissioned street artist Blu for a mural and then had it whitewashed because he didn’t want to stir up trouble with an anti-war interpretation of the work, a few handy protesters projected the mural back on the MoCA wall. This time, the message was crystal clear:

Media/web artist/hacker Aram Bartholl took issue with the MoMA’s policy to give out an annual artist pass only to those artists with IRL gallery exhibits. To fight the outdated discrimination, he provided a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to making a DIY annual artist pass for the persecuted artists — those who work in internet-based art. Web-etariat of the world, unite!

Our next culprit of museum hacking is… you. You know you’ve seen those “no photography” signs in museums and galleries and haven’t always found them sensible, so you snapped ahead anyway. Don’t worry. There’s an entire network for people like you: Strictly No Photography.

OrsayCommons’ artist Julian Dorra isn’t a fan of museums’ overenthusiastic photo bans either, and she goes further to suggest “hacking your favorite museum” by “organizing pirate tours that the museums don’t offer” and “printing alternative catalogs.” Museum hacking: It’s not just for artists.