Silence, Counterfeit and Aesthetic Act in Alex Morrison’s Vision of
“Academic Freedom as Academic ” - Installations of the Phantoms
of a Utopian Will

Jerry Zaslove

“A photograph of the Krupp works or of the A.E.G. reveals almost
nothing about these institutions, tells us nothing about these
institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The
reification of human relations – the factory say – means that they
are no longer explicit. So something must in fact be built up,
something artificial, posed.” We must credit the Surrealists
with having trained the pioneers of such photographic

Alex Morrison has created a compilation of aesthetic objects that
illuminates the dour words “academic freedom”. Since this is a
time when cultural institutions like the gallery, the museum,
the university would seem to have no need to worry too much
about “academic freedom” that is not related to a specific figure
or works challenged because of offending some organization or
cause, it may appear to be an abstract or exotic subject. When
such formidable cultural Institutions find themselves supported
by the civil society and liberal democracy that by and large
pays their bills through grants and foundations and, in the case
of universities, through students who are deeply in debt to
their future, it is possible that one might view academic freedom
with a jaundiced eye as an annoyance. The freedom to express
dissident views would seem to be outmoded as a worrisome problem.
The avant-garde does not really worry. Certainly “academic
freedom” is not a force for revolutionary thinking or acting. The
aura of something archaic hovers over the seven memorializing
objects in Morrison’s small pantheon of objects. And that is just
the point. One should look carefully at how the archaic hovering
over these works serves a not-yet-conscious effect – a mimesis
effect – of how architecture has become an object itself that
illuminates a graveyard of something vanished. What may appear
as abstract in the works is in fact an important aesthetic and
ethical act for the here and now.

The politics underscoring these aesthetic objects shows how
difficult it is for a new generation to figure out where the
university is in the public realm. The President of Simon Fraser
recently opened SFU’s new School of Contemporary Arts, which
will become a large part of a redevelopment scheme to refurbish
Vancouver’s poorest quarter, “The Downtown Eastside”, with the
words “This investment in arts education will further support our
economy by helping attract and create the creative class that is
powering many of the world’s most dynamic cities”. Academic
freedom for the “creative class”? The class unconsciousness in
these words shrieks out in Morrison’s figurative “Proposal for a
New Monument at Freedom Square”. The other works become a
scenic chorale dialectically related to “A New Dawn Rising”.

“A New Dawn Rising” reveals the inner shape of the new
generation’s destiny. Together with a companion piece “The Poetics
of Grey # 6” with its colored triangle atop a bent-over pinnacle
we see a utopic mirror image of an anticipatory illumination of
an abstract future. Like a conning tower overlooking the
nameless grey architecture the immanence of an era passes into a
wasteland of space. Arthur Erickson’s concrete pylons leave no
room for the flaneur, the loiterer, the straggler, the
messenger, the huts or the palaces. Class itself is blocked out by
a devotional piety to style. And the era of “academic freedom”
belongs to the lost legacy of the utopian will that produced the
social movements mediated through universities, which began,
not in the sixties, but with the critiques of the
military-industrial complex in the fifties with the witch hunts in the
universities for communists and others who did not sign loyalty
oaths. These legacies are clamped together in the DVD “We Dance
on Your Grave” where we watch a counterfeit rendition of that
past, which slacks into merely empty ornamentation. One can’t
help but extend this view of these gravediggers into a longer
view of the past. We are looking at a generational expression
from an artist who stands upright looking unflinchingly toward
the monopoly capitalism that has engulfed the university today.
His treatment of the university as a set of objects suggests
that the university is a means of production that is
architecturally concealed and screened by the “grey on grey” of
the architectural scenarios. These objects do not invite us to
revolt against the history that made them what they have become
in the new millennium, but invite us to see the pathos of the
generation that wonders what this “academic freedom” thing is
all about: the University now lurks in the grey fog of the
cipher in joining itself through a mimetic effect that joins it to
the culture at large. The contours are gone. Countless studies
about the university have produced a grey on grey journalistic
oeuvre that has changed nothing. Morrison’s aesthetic objects
are not deaf to his generation’s resistance to specious
sentimentalizing of the past. Architecture of walls and corners
eliminates even the Minotaur like labyrinths that would harbor
crowds and mythical beasts, instead of the barricade-less

Aesthetic objects, how artists think, the public realm,
social movements – these cannot avoid being placed against the
ideological project of the refurbished cultural institutions that
have marked the period since the formation of Simon Fraser
University in 1965 when the university became a modern scene of
progressive education that framed a would-be vocabulary of
cultural change. This theatrically inbred scene of buildings high up
on a small mountain highlights an age when building universities
made reputations and future fame for the founders. Many other
universities from the early and mid-sixties now lastingly wave
at us from a generation ago. Even the cultural institutions that
have orbited around the ideals of post-sixties cultural reform
have assimilated the very core of the avant-garde artistic and
intellectual movements of the middle of the century. Arriviste
and avant-garde, they popularized the idea of knowledge-for-all
in a form that has now become commonplace and harmless. The core
of both the gallery and the university may have been at the
time synonymous with the turn in artistic thought toward a new
artificialism with all of the originality of manifesto-intense art
forms asserting the compilational potentials of art and poetry,
image and language as a technology of means and end.

The great montage artists of the generation on the wane,
like John Heartfield (d. 1968) and Hannah Hoch (d. 1978), Georg
Grosz (d. 1959) had long before inserted ‘academic freedom” into
the public discourse. Artistic form criticized the idea of
“progress” in culture and art by conflating both with mass
consciousness and propaganda. They condemned, not condoned the
bourgeoisie's holding onto the culturally dominant institutions. The
energies of insurrection were everywhere, not just in
surrealism. The notion of progress in education and the arts also
lead to a new form of narcissistic, institutional
self-identification with progressiveness as a form of freedom in the
name of metropolitan values of the avant-garde. The
self-appointed vanguard universities continued to woo culture by
gambling with philanthropy and mass cultural institutions. This
reveals the inner logic of accommodation to the capitalist
experiment of mastering monopoly capital at all costs by harnessing
institutions to idyllic views of the landscape. Mastery is the
name of the game. Great moments of modernism would not exist
without it. But yet.

The nature of this form through which the institutions
dominate culture is the pretense embedded in the architecture of
cultural suburban settlements like Simon Fraser University where
the culture makers see themselves as natural outgrowths of their
will to perform in a vanguard-like fashion; they do not
administer transient historical institutions at all, but in fact
secure reality as the only constituted social form because they have
answered the call of the showpiece – the buildings – and in that
way hide the mediations related to its existence. The students,
then, become petty bourgeois apprentices waiting for entrance
into the middle class that they richly deserve. The architecture
says so.

Alex Morrison’s route into this generationally transitory
world arrests the trek into the future and stops time for a
brief moment in order to catch a glimpse of the falsification of the
institution as a “polis” that is signified by the vanguard
architecture. His is a view of the university as phantom-like
emblem of the avant-garde on the road to corporate identity.
University Reform in a modern sense historicizes itself as a
/>generational rupture with the past, and in this way is
characteristic of art movements revising themselves. The architectural
building styles become partners with a new collectivity in the
quest for a unified polis envisioned through the designed cult
manias of architecture as monuments in which the users, as
Walter Benjamin writes, are “the distracted masses [who] . . . absorb
the work of art into themselves. This is most obvious with
regard to buildings. Architecture has always offered the prototype of
an artwork that is received in a state of distraction and
through the collective.” Where is the independent thinking, and
where the autonomous groups and independent artists who struggle
both with the dematerialization of art and the incorporation of art
into the cultural institutions – the museums and universities?
The Faustian Bargain made, universities became the bell weather
institution that would define the future of culture by giving
culture a name: progress in the name of semblance. A critique of
Semblance would be the underlying meaning epitomized by
Morrison’s compilation of seven objects.

Yet because the post Generation has been labeled with so
many different identities one should be cautious of falling into
the trap of thinking about generations themselves as a clear
expression of any new utopian will or collective identity. The
power of forgetfulness in regard to the nature of the university’s
direct route into its corporate persona is such that one almost
believes that the power the university ever did have lead to
the unblocking of the possibilities in the human being’s
immeasurable powers and that this place of unblocking would be
the settlement of a community of intellectuals and students.
This is the illusion that it would lead to something other than the
curse that now inhabits all of society, not just the individual
in the university: namely the isolation, dissociation and
loneliness of being found inside of a counterfeit polis atop
Morrison’s tower.


Already immanent in Arthur Erickson’s Concrete Polis of
Monumental Architecture is the melancholy of desire that reminds us
of the loss of the totality of previous historical movements.
The melancholy core of the very being of today’s students and
professoriate is compromised by grief, regret and powerlessness
– that is by the unfinished nature of the grey inner world, a
kind of homelessness. This, also, represent the falseness of
even the higher cultural kitsch found now in the joyfully willful
message of the new architecture of the Royal Ontario Museum by
Daniel Liebeskind. One needs to keep reminding oneself that the
museum and the professoriate are the most privileged segments of
a class society, and yet do not express their roles directly in
the brutal class and cultural struggles of one of the most
deeply exploitative periods of history. Autonomy may be a good if it
remains independent. All of this is expressed in the greying
of the architectural massifs that look to me, as a former historical
participant in this particular university, more like
expressionist sets from Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr.
Caligiari” (“The Poetics of Grey”). The poetics inside the grey
weather of SFU or Erickson’s Courthouse in downtown Vancouver also
reminds of Alfred Kubin’s pencil sketches and drawings of a
phantasmal reality – a habitat without people: people seen as the
melancholy object of desires unmet.

In the DVD “We dance on your grave” the documentary view of
Simon Fraser’s 40th Anniversary Party is transformed into a
slow-motion silent video of pathos-ridden dancing on the premises of
Arthur Erickson’s imitation Crystal Palace Mall. Alex Morrison
prepared the video by filming the celebration of a fabricated
public sphere. The video reveals no genuine joy or celebration
of the origins of a university in 1965 in the muddy construction
site of the time, but reveals a form of stupidity about their
own amnesiac actions. It is fake. It mimics the dropout culture
by dropping in. This is the kind of stupidity that comes with
the erasure of history and the substitution for historical
consciousness – displacing any class-consciousness - with ersatz
carnivalesaque posturing. This is not a celebration of individual
memories but of the taboos on “academic freedom” that appear
artistically as a strange concoction of exotic costumes that
imitate the now mythical ‘sixties’. In the context of the entire
installation this integrates the objects into figures of loss.
The camouflaging of the legacy of academic freedom across the
centuries becomes reified nonsense commingling with a question
of “Why Are We Here At All?” It suffers from the veneer of
coerced participation in a pop-cultural event. In another room in the
Gallery there is the crew-necked bearded academic manqué with a
large head and spindly legs – “Proposal for a new Monument at
Freedom Square” - screaming madly about nothing we know about
into the void of the art gallery, The figure looks like a
fugitive from Red Grooms’ “Ruckus Manhattan” (1975/ 1976) or from a
Kienholz installation. It also reminds me of Karl Marx’s tomb in
Highgate Cemetery in London. There, Marx’s oversized head sits
on a small podium almost mocking the class struggle by saying
“I’m just the big head and no body”. Mockery lurks behind Erickson’s
architecture which functions as mere punctuation marks for
a memory that dwells nowhere. But what mocks what? One thinks
of iconographic statuary of Stalin and Lenin, or even The Palace
of Soviets that received proposals from Le Corbusier and
Gropius who later protested the final results. Tatlin’s “Model to the
Third International” (1919) might well be reflected in
Morrison’s glass tower.

The DVD installs capital ‘M’ Memory in the abstract. The
creative class dances. Unknown to these dancing participants,
their movements reverberate with a Norman Rockwell , Carl
Spitzweg folksy aura of the homey. They are in a Happening taking
place in some place – no place - that is at sometime, somewhere, but
we don’t know what it is or where, but we know what it feels
like – kitsch - because in coming closer to it we hear the melody
of a sentiment for nostalgia attached to the beating heart of
the common man who reduces life to the median. The student as
commoner. No elitism here. No class. We all dance together to
the same tunes. The populist university created by the Social
Credit visionaries in modernist splendor in 1963 had every
intention of intervening in the public sphere with the values of
modernism. Arthur Erickson’s architecture offered pastiche
modernism of weathered concrete that would make it possible to
imagine the future. Yet something is wrong with the party and
the vision: somnambulism. Morrison understands this aesthetically
by presenting the 40th anniversary party through the
technically sharp images that combine silence and imitation of
movements all in the name of miming emptiness. The figures are blind
to knowing what it is. The concluding scenes of Antonioni’s
“Blowup” (1971) come to mind. Mimesis is the other side of
blandness and mute silence.

What is the university both as agent and actor located in
the public sphere? Can it be conveyed by a collection of
objects? This is the critical and aesthetic challenge. The
crisis of the nature of the university as a modern place of assembly
is built into the distant views of the wilderness and the city,
dominated by the geometrically rule bound architecture. It must
serve as both a house of learning and a socially engaging space.
In my experience of living and working in Erickson’s allegorical
house of learning it utterly fails in its purpose to be a socially
engaging place. The anodyne corners always obstruct the possibility
of even a minimalist sociality. The architecture buries the
private realm in the false image of an artificially picturesque
public realm. Resistance to the social is internalized in the
obstructions created by the grey concrete. The medieval
idea of the university on which empathy with learning is
based lies in the capacity to reflect and also resist the social
world that gives it meaning. It is, as Morrison recognizes,
based on a view not only of the freedom of academics to be
learned, but whether they can defend this idea against the
outside of the walls, as well those who would ruin it
internally by the seductions of religious, political or, today,
by corporate sponsorships that mirror the commercial needs
of the society. Whether we like it or not this implicates
the university as a place in the struggle for the
emancipation from reactionary forces of anti-enlightenment. Put
more philosophically, the university struggles with, and
personifies the great Hegel’s notion of the unhappy
consciousness, the institution and constitution of the alienated
soul struggling for autonomy between the earthly
world of existence and the spiritual, that is cultural, aura
represented by the university seen through today’s counterfeit

For Alex Morrison’s generation this struggle does not appear
to be totally meaningful as a struggle. The memorial of his
“Folk Riot” construction shows the truth of the failed revolution
of the utopian nature of the sixties. It all falls in lapidary
fashion to the field of forces seen in the emblems of a failed
avant-garde institution. Academic freedom is a hollow phrase.
Growth dominates. Yet in the ‘thirties the intellectual pogroms,
censorship, political trials, burning of art and books, the
exiling of the intellectuals and then the witch hunts of the fifties
and then the rise of student opposition to the Vietnam war have
become largely mythology for the current generation of students.
Whitewashed by the counter-revolutions of Universities in
the seventies and eighties, the grey on grey has been ornamented
by the Multiversity Walmart of everything under one roof. While
protests wane and the intellectuals become greyer the term
‘radical’ comes to mean literally nothing when one tries to situate
it today by imagining that the university is a social movement.
Even the “war on terror” with its attacks on free speech and
surveillance mentality does not galvanize the professoriate out of
institutionally defined roles. Morrison’s work in this sense is
a work about generational literacy at the edge of history, not
the mantra of The End of History perhaps self-importantly preached by
the crew necked model who protests to the air in clay and
wood. This “Proposal for a New Monument on Freedom Square” is
also about how the weak class-conscious movements that sought to
bring public universities into historical view have become phantoms
of immanence, manically transcendent only to be left to the
abstract beauty of Morrison’s “Picture for a Glass Tower (New
Dawn Rising)”. The new monument moves from bitter to cynical in
the way the revolution as idea moves to commodity from its original
allegorical model of the melancholy of desire. Tatlin’s
“Monument for the Third International” (1919) may be
a melancholy precursor.

Seen historically, portraying the idea of a university
through visually sensual means has rarely been attempted. Learning
has been portrayed through the reading and writing of books, or
observing scientific experiments, or through the death of martyrs
like Socrates, but often through culture seen through
the ruins of architecture. Even the self-portrait is a mode of
learning that represents knowledge outside of the institutions.
Architecture becomes an allegorical viewpoint in the way panoramas
of classic architecture reveal the ruins of older
civilizations. One thinks of Gianpaulo Panini’s “Roma
Antica” (1756/57) or interior images of the great libraries of the
universities and monasteries of the west. Put another way, the
physical image of the university as a location is deeply embedded in
the historical weaving of secular, royal and bookish mediations
of knowledge into an arcade in the older sense of knowledge as
a threshold - a library between worlds. One might even think of
reading itself as an image of threshold learning, for example in
the collection of photographs On Reading by André Kertész (1971),
or Jeff Wall’s “The Giant” (1992), a photomontage, which shows
a posed, nude, older woman in a reading room of a library standing
ethically upright reading from a slip of paper.

Turning to the theme of architecture as an arcade-like
reference point for this generation, one wonders whether a
generation-that-comes later is perhaps sick to death of architectural
immanence in their lives. This to me is prefigured in the image of
Abstract Beauty in the triangular structure “Picture for a Glass Tower”.


But first we must deepen this sense of generational
transmutation of ideas through the aftermath of aesthetic
objects. Walter Benjamin himself was caught in the struggle of
generations. He teaches us that all art is an unfinished
project and that the next generation that comes after the deluge
of capitalism and war, and the neutralization of violence
into myth and force of law, cannot necessarily be trusted to
complete the project of the enlightenment without
sacrificing itself to the overwhelming forces that required
enlightenment in the first place. What is the nature of that
sacrifice? In his writing he became the artist self-consuming
himself by using his life as an allegorical
paradigmatic model of the very story he was telling about his
generation. In this way his work is both a phenomenological
excavation of the sources of his thinking – how artists think –
and a representation of experience in art that exists side
by side with ritual, religion and magic. The end result is
his conceptual history of concepts where he searches the
scarified history of art and literature for evidence that the
Kantian ethics that underscores his independent
anarcho-modernism can be architectonically compiled into a Marxian
arcades-like concept of the present. This view of the
present will enable us to experience now time as a utopic,
conceptual, revolutionary organization of the field of forces that
became modernity, but also became, in its duplicity, an
adjunct to the spectacle that capitalism has also become; what
is needed is a range of aesthetic objects that speak to
that duplicity. The pseudo-polis of the university,
emblematically Simon Fraser, is that duplicitous adjunct to

The immanent nature of Morrison’s generational view of
the sixties dematerializes the generations and,
aesthetically, reveals through a process of excavation how the
architecture is a graveyard in which the past is embalmed.
Morrison’s dramaturgy, if I may call it that, expresses both the
calamity of the process of playing with academic freedom as
if it were merely academic, and the difficulty that the
recalcitrant nature of his material has in speaking on its own
about this melancholy of desire. In this regard the
materials he uses, the compilation of it into an arcade like
system of colportage without a pedlar or flaneur, or student,
speaks to the actual state of affairs of thought about the
university today: not only is it a failed avant-garde
institution, but a headless monstrosity that has cannibalized
itself so that only phantoms exist – the shadows that sit inside
of and around the architectural field in “Grey on Grey”.

Simon Fraser’s architecture used as historical emblem
speaks to the architectonic rendering of the counterfeiting
of a scholarly settlement and the erasure of the past. In
this sense, then, the university’s glamorous architecture
does us a service in announcing itself without knowing
itself as a cultic happening, which is what the inhabitants would
dearly wish it could be since the cult of the past
announces itself by denying the terms of its existence in the
hidden struggle of classes that lies deep in the underbelly of
this society.

The beauty of the abstract triangle “Picture for a Glass
Tower (New Dawn Rising)” lies in its fractured light, its
aura and its color and is thus a utopic moment waiting for
an event to reveal itself as a need that does not go away.
This could also be a way to remind those who would interpret
it this way as a monument to the invisibility of the future
and, as well, to the spell of the veneer that casts a sense
of futility toward the university in the minds of the
generation of those younger.

Jerry Zaslove