A Conversation with Galit Eilat
In a candid and generously long conversation with Galit Eilat, we discussed the tension between nationalists, governments, institutions, and the curator’s work. Prompted by the question “whom to serve?”, we spoke about power, positionalities, and institutional conflicts. The Israeli curator, based in the Netherlands, critiques the attention given to the legacies of art institutions and exhibitions that, in her opinion, may neglect the art and the artists for the benefit of a structure that was built to represent them.
Eilat founded the Israeli Center for Digital Art and co-founded the Mobile Archive. She co-curated the traveling seminars Liminal Spaces and Syndrome of the Present. She curated and co-curated, among other projects, the Polish Pavilion at Venice Art Biennial, the 32nd October Salon in Belgrade, and the 31st São Paulo Biennial. Since 2018, she is the director of Meduza Foundation. She proposes forms of curating focused on collective efforts where the outcomes are concerned with how to think together and with proposing formats beyond exhibitions.
We would like to start this conversation with a rhetorical question inspired by a Bob Dylan song: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes, indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Who?”
Since it is a rhetorical question, I am not going to answer it. This says what I think of rhetoric. Rhetoric is a tool. It does not come with a question; it comes with a method, usually to deceive, especially in our time. When I read that you would like to use rhetorical questions, I asked myself, why rhetoric?
Regarding the rhetorical question—or rhetoric in general—as a way to deceive, do you use this methodology in your curatorial approach (consciously or unconsciously), or even more broadly in a political sense?
I wish I knew 20 years ago what I know now. I would have used it to attract, direct people in a certain direction, see the world in a certain way, and bring my vision to the forefront. I’m joking. Rhetoric has to do with language but also with culture, the culture that never mentions things as they are. It is a way to soften a situation that is tense due to differences of class, income, and so on. You need to find a mechanism and a way to liquidate anger that built up over history, for instance.
Dismantling power dynamics within society seems crucial to what you do. How do you balance the authoritative position that is also embedded in curatorial practice? Or, more specifically, as an Israeli curator, how does this dynamic affect your relationships with artists from Palestine or Lebanon, for instance? Since as a curator, you are already in some position of power.
I think it depends on where I am. As an Israeli, in Israel, as a curator or not, I am privileged. This gives me the agency to do certain things. But the real question is, how do I use this agency and for what? It is different when I’m working in Europe, when I’m working inside or outside of an institution, or when I have worked in other contexts. The curatorial in general has received lots of promotion in the past 15 years. Today, I shy away from the word ‘curator’ or the notion of the curatorial because it is abused in so many ways.
After I left Israel, the first thing I was offered was to curate exhibitions involving Israeli and Palestinian artists, which I never did. I always try, as an Israeli, not to celebrate the fake ‘peace’ in the Middle East and to enjoy the value of ‘progress Israeli’ and of working solely with Palestinian artists and Israeli artists, inside or outside of Israel. This is a position I never wanted to hold, even though I worked more than many other Israeli curators (in the past anyway) with artists from the MENA region.
As a director of an Israeli public institution, I could support other institutions in Palestine or in East Jerusalem through the DAL’s administration.
In a sense, I abused the power given to me, not for my personal benefit and not against the people I worked with. But in a way, I abused the system that I worked for to get permission for people to enter Israel. I think the power of the curator, which is always contextualized, was very helpful. It was based on a sense of trust: that we share the same aim and that we respect each other.
You said there was a difference between working outside and inside Israel, and you decided to leave the country. Do you think there comes a time when, in order to bring change, one should work from outside? How did your position affect your ability to generate change?
I was the director for almost ten years at an institution that I initiated, and I think a director should not stay in the same place for more than eight years. It is enough. You become bored, you start to get used to the power position and this is a death sentence for the imagination. I knew the system too well.
After the attack on Gaza in 2009, I could no longer tolerate the idea that I’m representing the state. Netanyahu and I had an agreement: Once Netanyahu is elected, I leave the country. I did it twice :). After Netanyahu’s government was elected, it was a big change in state policy. Avigdor Lieberman as a new Foreign Minister instructed diplomats not to apologize about Israel’s position anymore and to be very aggressive about it. I could not represent Israel in this sense. I did not want to use the position that was usually attributed to me, as the cultural body that also works with the ‘enemy’, in a regime that I think was also not interested anymore in this kind of agreement.
How has moving from Israel changed your agency?
It’s not that I couldn’t help others, I couldn’t even help myself.
You mentioned before that the position of places changes the way you think or work. In your project Syndrome of the Present, you promote exactly this, collective engagement in traveling experiences. What do these geographic dislocations enable?
I learned an important lesson from Liminal Spaces. This project had a significant influence on my work. What I learned is that through experience, especially a collective experience, the learning process has a deeper effect. I think we transform ourselves when we engage in doing something together. So learning is done together, in a context and a place. Liminal Spaces produced many things, but it did not produce what it promised—an exhibition. Instead, it brought people through the experience, creating a small community for a few years. In the impossibility of running away from each other, the only option was to stay together. It bonds a group and opens us up to other knowledge and experiences.
After Liminal Spaces, I was offered a grant to develop a project. I offered closed meetings between people from the Middle East and North Africa, these closed meetings didn’t aim to produce anything. They would not produce an exhibition or a catalog. Because of political complications, I delegated the production of this project to the Van Abbemuseum [in Eindhoven]. We met every two months for one year. The meetings took place in Morocco, in Egypt, in Turkey, and the Van Abbemuseum.
Usually, we are limiting ourselves or our projects to what we think we can achieve or deliver at the end of a project. This project showed that it is possible to write proposals without declaring their outcome from the very beginning. Curation is not just to organize an exhibition in a space, it is also to create the conditions for something surprising to emerge.
Would you say that traveling seminars are another form of curating for you?
Absolutely. What I find the most interesting and fulfilling for myself is to create the conditions and the context and to invite artists, historians, writers, sociologists, and others for seminars, as a starting point for a project. I think we need to invest more in the artists if we aim for good art, we expect them to come up with new projects often, new ideas, but the support most of the artists receive is for the spectacle in the exhibition space; the support is for the encounter between the public and the artwork. And we tend to forget the process, which is the most important for the production of good artworks.
You critique the personifications of gods—the one king, the one genius, the one artist. How do you embody this critique in your work?
Instead of personifications of gods, I would describe it as the secularization of god, which leads to a culture of entitlement, flooded with supremacist feelings. And ‘the genius artist,’ ‘the great curator’,, or museum director are embedded in one body that we all forgive. This is bad, yet, a potent phenomenon in the art world, which is the heritage of monotheistic cultures; there are other models in our ecosystems that are not focused on ‘the one.’
The curatorial was reintroduced by people who wanted to gain control over the narrative and to protect their legacy in the history of exhibitions. For example, the emergence of institutional critique turned the attention and the discourse from the artwork to the exhibition and the context, and from the exhibition to the institution, then to the curator or the museum director. It is important to share our experiences and to learn from each other—and of course, to hold a critical approach—but we are facing something a bit different. The ‘curatorial room’ became the main topic of research in curatorial studies, which constantly investigates curatorial practices and much less knowledge from other disciplines. The art institutions constantly demand attention to what institutions think or what they do. In the last decade, artists have been invited to better the museum and to breathe life into it—and not the opposite.
We now have a movement based upon interdependency and care ethics challenging the myth of the male genius and the false culture of independence. Do you think this has any value, on a larger scale, outside of the art world? And does it have the potential to affect positive change?
If we are able to imagine a democracy, we will have a democracy. If we cannot imagine ourselves as a society or community, we will not become one. Therefore, we need more opportunities to imagine together, to imagine ourselves together. The legend about the genius male is not going to disappear overnight.
How to Talk about Things that Do Not Exist is the title we chose for the 31st São Paulo biennial, and over time the verb ‘talk’ changed to fight, read, love, etc. There are several ways to interpret the title. One is to ask how to break the silence that lurks in the shadows of the past and present. These issues are not discussed or debated publicly, therefore they do not exist. Another interpretation is the ability to imagine collectively the things that we imagine together, such as god, money, borders, as well as art.
In his doctoral thesis [‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’, 1841], Marx said: “Real talers [or ‘thaler,’ a currency then used in Germany] have the same existence that the imagined gods have. Has a real taler any existence except in the imagination, if only in the general or rather common imagination of man? Bring paper money into a country where this use of paper is unknown, and everyone will laugh at your subjective imagination.”
We would like to hear more about your experience in Brazil. The 31st São Paulo Biennial happened at a politically difficult moment. There was also the problem with funding coming from Israel. As someone who also works as a mediator of sorts, how was it to curate something while being simultaneously involved in the issues that you could not control?
We arrived in Brazil in 2013, towards the end of the public demonstrations that broke out in several Brazilian cities. The 2014 World Cup took place a few months before the Biennial’s opening and the presidential election happened immediately after the opening. There were several issues that we noticed throughout the artists’ work that only later became visible in the local context.
When it comes to the boycott, it’s important to remember why there was a call to boycott. During the time we worked in the São Paulo Biennial, Israel attacked Gaza and more than 2000 Palestinians were massacred. The cease-fire started 10 days before the opening of the biennial and prompted many discussions among the artists. Without going too much into detail, it is important to mention that many artists refused through their works to give visibility to the state of Israel.
The biennial is a private foundation that receives funding from the government and other resources. The foundation secured the total budget of the biennale from the foundation budget, but we had to raise money to cover most of the investment of the foundation in the biennial. All the money we raised was directed to the foundation budget and they decided how the money would be distributed. Even if the money was coming for a specific production, it went to the foundation budget. The state of Israel supported the Israeli artists participating in the biennial, and the foundation’s decision was that all support, private or public, would enter to the general budget, and not individual projects. Therefore, the funding from Israel did not go to the Israeli artists but the Biennial’s entire pool. The solution to the conflict between the artists and the foundation was to reverse the foundation’s decision, so that the support that came from Israel went to the Israeli artists, from France to the French artists, etc.
There was no boycott in the end. Usually, there is no boycott but a call for a boycott. Boycott works as a campaign, and it is a very important campaign because it brought Gaza to the minds of people. Before the BDS movement, people were not aware of what is happening in Palestine, especially in Gaza.
You’ve also worked with Balkan artists and in the Balkans, a region marked by war. Drawing parallels between two different areas affected by war and conflict is often criticized, but the parallel between what was happening in the Balkans and what is happening in Palestine and Israel is undeniably felt by many, at least on an emotional level. On that note, what was your experience working in both contexts?
The time I worked in Israel I endeavored to challenge the Israeli canon, often through indirect tactics, namely through reference to other conflicts that could be projected onto the situation in Israel. This included work with curators and artists from Kosovo, Albania, Croatia, and Turkey. Artists from these regions were invited to exhibit, thereby sketching analogies between Israel and these loci in regard to conflict, ethnic cleansing, territorial struggle, violent nationalism, denial of the freedom of the individual, and control of citizens’ mobility. The emphasis was to generate empathy for the victims of other wars or conflicts, and to sketch an analogy between these conflicts and our reality, without confronting, at first sight, the exhibition’s audiences, as a direct confrontation might have led to a rejection of the views and messages of the exhibition altogether.
The main question for me was, how can you create empathy and awareness of what is going on in Palestine? Not by confronting, because by confronting, I will not have audiences. Nobody wants to hear “I know better than you,” and I do not know better than anybody else.
In 2011, together with Alenka Gregoric, I curated the 52nd October Salon – It’s Time We Got to Know Each Other [at Belgarde’s Museum of Yugoslav History]. The project was conceptually a continuation of the exhibition “Evil to the Core” (that I curated together with Ran Kasmy Ilan), which was held in 2009 at the DAL [the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon, south of Tel Aviv]. Both had a similar concept, which is dealing with disobedience and obedience to authority, individual responsibility, or social responsibility.
The initial question was about responsibility; ‘response-ability’ and who has the power to respond. This question followed the reading of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who claims that responsibility and response are based, like religion, on debt, i.e. on the economic cycle in which a promise is given in exchange for tribute. But, true responsibility differs from the economic one. Namely, it is responsibility toward what cannot be calculated, the responsibility to another.
In present times, we live with the conviction that the main premise of democracy is the possibility of choice and, among other things, that we decide on our own how and when to react. The power of state apparatuses lies precisely in the individual’s belief in the infinite possibilities of participation, in the illusion, the pseudo-activity that the individual with his or her signature, by circling options or voicing opinions at different forums, can demonstrate resistance and make the world a better place.
The power of alternative ‘other’ voices, be they environmental, feminist, or anti-globalist, rests on undermining the state apparatus by forming parallel narratives and opening the field to other, different truths. The biggest threat today really is pseudo-activity. That is why I think the issue of (civil) disobedience is even more current because it is necessary to find the right way to get out of this closed circle. In other words, to cause a provocation, to upset the civil norms, change reception and behavior, to point out the importance of taking responsibility, responsibility for the another. However, in order to act responsibly, we must know the truth, which is not an easily definable term.
Europe often addresses racism outside of itself or tends to consider it in a way that includes, for example, South America or Africa but forgets places like Kosovo. Do you think that the next Manifesta taking place in Kosovo will help balance this issue, or is it more likely to end up being another case of exploitation or looting?
Manifesta could face a similar situation to what happened with Documenta in Greece, which is mistrust between local actors and Manifesta representatives, which could lead locals to miss what Manifesta is good at; media visibility and agency to establish things locally, that are costumes to big art events. To benefit from Manifesta locally, trust needs to be there on both parties. I can imagine that it is not easy for Manifesta to work in Kosovo and for Kosovars it could be challenging as well. If trust could be built between Kosovars to Manifesta, both sides can benefit much more from the project.
A Conversation with Marina Fokidis
Prior to convening online for this interview, we last spoke with Marina Fokidis at the end of her curatorial course in 2020 at the Salzburg Summer Academy of Fine Arts. The virtual space she created for it was the spatio-temporal dimension where our collective met. Our process began there, from the ten rhetorical questions we developed together with other class members.
We approached this interview in an informal tone—as we used to during our meetings last summer—by saying something about the locations we were speaking from, the weather, an update about the Covid-19 restrictive measures in our country, the political situation, etc. Marina made an effort to humanize the communication in the “non-place” of Zoom, erase its atopical character, and remind us that we are speaking from different places, not just geographically, but also different socio-economic conditions due to the vantage point to locality.
We asked: is there a way to feel that we are all in this together, even through our screens? The creation of networks of empathy, solidarity, and love is certainly central to Marina’s curatorial practice. We led the conversation via discussions concerning her projects, especially those that focus on the potentialities of art in enabling social change. We spoke in-depth about those that imagine and propose alternatives in situations of crisis and diffused—subjective or collective—suffering
Echoing the title of one of her articles recently published in Flash Art. This is: Marina Fokidis, “We Are All in This Together. Aren’t We?”. In Flash Art, Vol.331, Summer, 2020. Available: https://flash—art.com/article/we-are-all-in-this-together-arent-we/
Let’s begin with a question regarding Kunsthalle Athena, an independent art space and online commissioning space you ran between 2010 and 2015 in Athens. You started it during the beginning of the Greek economic crisis, one that is not dissimilar to the situation today, a situation in which a health crisis is followed by an economic one. What is the role of non-profit art spaces in a time of crisis? Do they have to mirror the situation? How can they provide a sense of community during such crises?
I believe that art in itself cannot change the trajectory of the world or prevent global hazards. However, it can often influence and predict the future in many ways. All arts, poetry, music, literature, theater, as well as visual arts (especially the practices that are not exclusively connected to the art market or commissioned with the purpose to sell), can provide a platform from which we can imagine alternative ways of living. We can even possibly test them—performatively, at the start—until they become a habit.
By preserving art as an open place for pure imagination and speculative thinking, we might be giving a chance to good ideas and plausible solutions to come and find their way into “real life,” ideas that are vital for societal changes to occur. That may be the process under which arts could maintain a political strand and influence society on a substantial level. And for sure, not through the mere representation of what is already happening in the broader world, so as to satisfy the voyeuristic gaze of the few that frequent the art spaces.
Having said that, I deeply understand the importance of the art market for the sustainability of artists and art professionals. Yet, on the one hand, there is a distinct gap between the radical consumption as well as the speculative investment practices that have penetrated the art market, and the ways that the non-profit and public institutions are working (or should be working) on the other. During times of uncertainty and crisis, it often occurs that the rich players grow even richer and the financially weaker ones, in that case, the younger artists, public institutions, and younger galleries, get impoverished. In these times, unfortunately, the small percentage that holds the largest part of this world’s capital speculates on the market in various ways and renders the process of selling and buying art into an exclusive money-making mechanism. This is where the field of art becomes something different than what many of us (artists and cultural workers) know and trust.
Even so, this is not a reason to cease our struggles. The gap between the commercial and the political and a more sensitive character of the visual arts is widening unapologetically as the whole planet is being tested on multiple levels. The hyper-commercialization of contemporary art is becoming more and more evident to a large percentage of the spectators and followers who are starting to seek refuge in more experimental practices. The institutions and the practices that are not primarily driven by profit are re-surfacing again stronger than before, and I hope this wave will last for longer than expected. “Real” culture and art (and not their easily consumable simulacra) is maybe among the most needed remedies to re-imagine our lives and move forward beyond the dead end in which we keep finding ourselves.
In our case, Kunsthalle Athena emerged during the severe financial Greek crisis (which started circa 2009), at a time when we did not have many “real-life” opportunities. We did not have the possibility to work, as most of the job placements were redundant, all of a sudden, due to the lack of money and the collapse of the country’s financial system. We could not really see a future. Precarity was blocking all views in the manner of a heavy mist, and it was fast becoming the norm. In response to this condition, we decided to predict our future through a courageous and absurd gesture of opening a new not-for-profit arts platform. Kunsthalle Athena became the place where we could be with each other and discuss our urgent problems in various manners and forms. We started with zero budget and somehow continued with zero budget to maintain cultural freedom. One concrete decision we followed since the very beginning, for example, was not to accept minimal public funding in exchange for state funding under the auspices of the state. We decided that if we cannot be state-funded sufficiently enough to cover our urgent operational needs, that it was better not to take public money at all. This proved to be a successful strategy. It revealed to us the “currency of love” and what its capacity meant on a concrete operational level. It—the currency of love—meant simply, let’s help each other to open and sustain a cultural platform in the shape, color, and form that we felt was needed at that moment. And as for day-to-day living, each of us did what we could freelance, along with our work in this experimental Kunsthalle.
The currency of love is what sustained our program. We created an international, interlocal network of empathy and resonance, which somehow outdid (momentarily) the monetary exchange. It was art that gave us the chance to think differently and share in ways we have not thought of before. We did what was less accepted in a time of a rupture that left us dispossessed. We founded a new independent and autonomous “institution” (based on the value of love) which has set a paradigm in Athens ever since. In a way, we suggested concretely that love, as an investment, has the potentiality to be medicinal, to provide sustainability to produce culture, to overcome conflicts that arise from financial lack and misery, and to enrich all of us in an unforeseen manner. At the end of the day, even within monetary logic, love proved to be the strongest currency, which is reflected in the question, “How many euros or dollars would you give for one (solid, long-lasting) love?”
Another important conviction we have had since 2010 when Kunsthalle Athena was founded was that locality matters a lot in the process of “instituting.” We formulated a site-sensitive approach that allowed us first to comprehend and hear deeply the location in which we were based: the neighborhood, the city, the country, etc. Then we started looking to the rest of the world, from this particular vantage point, and growing in the form of an onion, layer upon layer upon layer. What is important, though, was that our program was not a representation of the current condition from which our locality was suffering. We did not become a “poornographic” agency. We avoided providing sensational content and forming an illustration of misery to make it fast within the market of “political” institutions and exhibitions. At that particular time, we were surrounded by “political” exhibitions and art practices thematizing and illustrating the “suffering Greece,” and this was exactly what we wanted to break from. Selling ourselves and our surroundings (as well as any other critical contrition in the globe) just for some additional fame was not the political path we wanted to follow. In our case, we understood the institution as a metaphor for living life where crises and solidarities occur and reoccur as a continuum. We tried to offer an exodus from the most restrictive ways of grasping reality. During our five years of experimental existence, we invited artists, scholars, and activists to reflect together within the spectrum of “states of exception”—like the one we were in—and dance along with their rhythm. To create, to think, to discuss, to imagine future scenarios with an open-end… We tried to leave behind traces that might be useful for the “non-present” (bodies, spirits, ghosts, ancestors, descendants). Above all, we wanted to offer a “free zone” where participants and spectators could express and be expressed, mingle, and relate to the context and with each other in uninterrupted ways and unforeseen manners. And we believe that this really happened. In addition, the journal South as a State of Mind that came out at the same time from the same team was and still is the extension of our institution in print.
Similar to the Greek financial crisis (and other crises around the world), today, it is the collective body that is suffering, not only the subjective body. It is evident that we are undergoing a pandemic that threatens the health of oneself and humanity as we know it. Besides that, democracy is in great danger as well. Imagine if a really malicious government decides one day in the future to use, for reasons of pure domination, these “reparatory” techniques such as the mandatory lockdown, the inhibited control, and intrusion in one’s day-to-day life and medical records that are seemingly vital for containing a virus, but are at the same time a violation of basic human rights.
Arts practices and art institutions should be providing notations, scores, guidelines about ways to resist and overcome these situations in solidarity while preserving democracy as much as possible. We feel that with Kunsthalle Athena and South as a State of Mind and many other similar institutions around the world, we managed to shape a score as such.
In an ethics of sustainability and in a dialogue with the territory, what legacy should locally-led initiatives—or conversely international cultural events—leave behind? How can these two types of initiatives avoid replicating the colonial dynamics of exploitation and exoticization of the area that hosts them? In particular, regarding Documenta 14, as a curator based in Athens and one independent from Documenta, did you feel any responsibility in terms of representing a local perspective at such an international art event?
This is partly what I am discussing above in terms of Kunsthalle Athena. We followed, of course, a very similar code of ethics with documenta 14. We—its artistic director Adam Szymczyk as well as all of us on the team—did not intend to exoticize Greece and its conditions. So, the invited artists were not the type of practitioners that create a kind of negatively sensational work (for example, photos and films superficially documenting the refugee crisis that was at its peak during the years of preparation of Documenta 14, or other miseries as such). This is for the media to cover.
For us, the idea was to create awareness about the situation on the ground and open up a space for learning (while unlearning) empathetic relations and a-chronic parallelisms to occur. The representation of the local perspective is in itself a perplexing and maybe problematic task that should be generally avoided—participation of the locality, yes, but not representation. There is a great short film that I would like to bring into the conversation in terms of this problematic task of local representation. It is called The Vampires of Poverty and was directed in 1977 by Columbian filmmakers Carlos Moloya and Luis Ospina, the latter of which died prematurely about two years ago.
As an exhibition model, Documenta forms a great occasion for our kinship to gather, and this is its most important factor for me. We gather to think, to research, to learn, to share, to exchange, to love; from its preparation to its end and in the form of a continuum, of low tides, over a five years cycle. Of course, we all know—and remember—the situation that bodies create when in proximity: a kind of “methexis” (the unaccountable factor of communication) that operates between the words and the gestures. It is a mutual understanding that takes place beside the main act, in the corridors of the buildings, within the backstage of coexistence.
In those days, I was reading again a classic that usually people read when they are 15 or 16 years old, but rarely in Europe—Chinua Achebe’s debut novel Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958. It depicts pre-colonial life in the southeastern part of Nigeria and the arrival of Europeans during the late 19th century. There, I read a very interesting passage: “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” This book should have been much more widely read in Europe for many reasons. It is one more score that guides us towards the understanding of the perplexing idea, “living in common.” Instead, in my generation, the bestsellers among young adolescents were the books of Jules Verne, who had a radically different approach in life to the aforementioned. Tour the world in 80 days, as Vernes suggests, and then what? What does this “epidermic” experience of the world bring to those who can afford to go around the world in such a short timespan? These books seem to me as a crypto-colonial kind of education that formulated generations over generations in the West and the North.
But back to Documenta now…! Large-scale exhibitions are important occasions to meet—and re-evaluate—reality. Because of their occasional and recurrent nature, they test the time, the zeitgeist, the relationships, the everydayness again and again and again. They are like incomplete institutions in a state of constant making, and this is what makes them special. Every new edition exists because of the previous ones, and none of them are disconnected from each other.
Our basic statement in Documenta 14—a valid call for team members like me that live in Athens—was “learning from Athens.” It implied deep listening and essential exchange, and the way this manifested has transiently shaken the foundations of the institution of Documenta. Why? Because it was really meant to be a structural exchange from the very start and not the representation of a noble will to exchange. It also reflected the growing rupture between Southern and Northern Europe (that was very apparent when we started our Documenta), as well as the never-ending discrepancy between the Global North and the Global South.
In our edition, Kassel was neither the sole observatory from where to approach and see the rest of the world, nor the unique space where people gather and actions take place. Documenta 14 unfolded from two vantage points and was broadcasted into the public simultaneously from two locations! So, the task and the concern for me was not to represent the local perspective. Athens was Documenta 14 as much as Kassel was; it did not need representation. The non-local core team and the artistic director of Documenta 14 installed themselves here in Athens four years before the exhibition and, along with the ones that were here already, we started working and even presenting content regularly, years before the official openings, via the magazine South as a State of Mind and our public program called Parliament of Bodies. The percentage of Greeks working in the overall team in Athens, ended up being more than 80%. Also, the public program hosted societies driven by scholars primarily based in Athens.
A kind of funny and “worth mentioning” anecdote is that, at the very beginning of the preparation process, we received a message, a stencil outside our offices and many other places in Athens, that read: “Dear Documenta, do not exoticize us to raise your cultural capital.” We took it seriously, and we also felt very good about it because this was not at all what we were planning to do. Exactly the opposite—to de-exoticize Greece from its various legacies as a tourist haven and a cradle of Western civilization to start with, as well as more recently as the black sheep of Europe due to the financial crisis.
Athens became a Documenta 14 additional hosting platform with equal capacity and importance as the one in Kassel (the home of Documenta), where various knowledge(s) and practices from all over the world were shared, not only with the local audiences in the two locations, but also with a really broad public that Documenta attracts. And this is what I believe we managed to do: build a strong and long-lasting network of friendships among practitioners and the public from many different locations around the globe.
Regarding what has remained, in particular in Athens: I think the very notion of a guest leaving something concrete or material behind, be it a newly built building or a newly established organization, can also be read as a colonial gesture in itself. This works only if such an intrusion to the local structure comes out from a local invitation based on a local need and a mutual interest. In our case, we decided to work primarily with the existing public (and not private) institutions like the State Fine Art Academy (ASFA), the National Museum of Contemporary art (EMST), and a few other smaller ones. Through our initial preparatory meetings with Athens art-professional and practitioners in 2015, we realized that the fragile economy of the public institutions (as a result of the financial crisis) was one of the main issues in the Greek cultural sector. Thus, we established close collaborations with those institutions and shared content while channeling the funding of Documenta 14 in ways that will be beneficial for the locality in the long run. This resulted in main refurbishments of some premises of the institutions that hosted Documenta 14, the formation of an accredited course series in the Fine Art Academy led by international artists that moved to Athens while preparing their work, the presentation of the EMST collection in the most central venue of Documenta’s Kassel leg, and many more.
So yes, ideas, scores, guidelines for practice of radical exchange, beyond borders and national restrictions, in solidarity, and collectivity is what remained in Athens after Documenta 14 ended. The city became a destination for many younger and upcoming artists and cultural professionals. A whole bunch moved to Athens and shared all their resources with their local colleagues to found (all in collaboration) independent art spaces, open studios, and other forms of knowledge-generating platforms. What we tried to do with Documenta, in one way or another—to initiate a series of collaborations that could restore justice, at least partially, while providing a more equal access into contemporary arts (between Germany and Greece in our case)—is now endorsed by independent and younger art practitioners and not by the public institution domains as we were imagining back then. It is these younger creative forces from all over the world who are rendering Athens into an idiosyncratic hub of global contemporary art and discourse today.
Let’s stay on the notion of networks and, in particular, the networks you created through your magazine South as a State of Mind. You have used the notion of “the South” as a long-term exercise in hijacking or inverting oppressive definitions and narratives of communities in order to create a sense of “coming together”, resistance, and self-definition. How have your strategies evolved since you founded South as a State of Mind in 2012?
South as a State of Mind was not necessarily an attempt to redefine a geographical and historical cluster, namely that of the Global South. There have been continuous efforts, struggles, and research that cover this domain, and we have been largely informed by them. The journal was prompted primarily by the need to unlearn rather than assert. It manifested through the wish to re-examine and criticize predominant ideologies, beliefs, and habits such as the prevailing Western logic. It re-discussed the ways they have colonized the whole world, literally and metaphorically. So, South as a State of Mind had a task to bring to light the ideas that derive from southern mythologies and to offer to people from different—literal or metaphorical—”Souths” a chance to renegotiate the southern attitude, partly to define it, and partly to invent it in the post-crisis world.
Opening up an unexpected dialogue among neighborhoods, cities, regions, and approaches was our strategy from day one and still is now. After our first five issues in which we announced and shaped our conceptual line, we opened our door to documenta 14 and allowed the new editors to shape the journal according to their needs while maintaining the same ideological line. At present, we are continuing as an amalgam shaped by everything we adopted along the way. South as a State of Mind is both a publication and a meeting point for shared intensities. Throughout the first edition (almost ten years ago) and even today, we are governed by the same aporia: “What if things were different?” Until things do become different, we will keep asking.
In conversation with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung writes about dis-othering in his text Disothering as a Method, published within the framework of the transnational project Dis-Othering: Beyond Afropolitan and Other Labels (2018–2019). The overall project is the result of a collaboration between BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts (Brussels), Kulturen in Bewegung (Vienna) and SAVVY Contemporary (Berlin) on the necessary deconstruction of othering practices in European cultural institutions, funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union. It ecompasses an exhibition, symposia, a residency program, a mapping research, and a website (materials available: https://www.academia.edu/42099872/Beyound_Afropolitan_and_other_labels_On_the_Complexities_of_Dis_Othering_as_a_Process)
The work of the curator and author Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung has had a big impact in Berlin and beyond. Just recently, he was appointed the new director of Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), a position he will begin in 2023. Last year, the senate granted him The Order of Merit for his outstanding service to the city as well. All this while his main project so far, the trailblazing art space SAVVY Contemporary, has flourished at a time when right-wing extremism has become pervasive in the German mainstream, offering respite from oppressive paradigms and systemic forms of discrimination.
However, Ndikung is not tied to “the local”. His outlook exceeds Berlin, expanding to a global perspective. For example, he has also left his curatorial mark on the 12th Bamako Encounters Photography Biennial, the 13th Biennale Dak’Art, the 58th Venice Biennale, documenta 14, the ongoing Sonsbeek, and many other events. Refusing institutionalized spaces, claiming presence over representation, and challenging multiple processes of othering in the art system are some of the strategies he employs that we discuss in this interview.
Can you talk about your observations of any embedded privileges and unconscious biases within the Berlin art scene? How do you see your own position and role in relation to systemic change?
I am thinking about what it means to have a privilege. Too often, it is presented as if some have privileges and others do not, but I would like to refuse that categorically. I think that in this way, we are also perpetuating some deep-rooted segregationist notions. Some can have privileges, and therefore they have to dismantle them. Others don’t have them, while the essential privilege we all have is the privilege of the life we all live. We are all born until now of a woman. That is a privilege and the point we have to speak from. There are other, acquired privileges that are secondary. Wealth, for example. They come from constructs—gender, racial, economic, and so on. We all have to deal with that, not only curators. Curators are just a tiny bit of the world’s population. Therefore, if that is a concern for everyone in the world and not only the so-called privileged, we all have to tackle it. I believe that each person involved in the arts is in the business of making the world perceptible. So, if the question is, “How do I deal with my own privileges?” Well, I try to create spaces where we can deliberate and cogitate on these issues. Creating such spaces is how I understand what exhibition-making really is. In doing so, my hope is to bring in people who are, firstly, more knowledgeable about this specific matter; secondly, who are emphatic and can share with us what we have to do to live better in this world together, and thirdly, are able to find a medium through which to disseminate this knowledge. At the end of the day, it is really about how to live in this world better together—with an emphasis on togetherness.
Is the collaborative work in Savvy Contemporary part of this search for ways of living better together?
Yes, Savvy is an example of a social space that can be created. It is an effort, a trial, a daily “encountering and struggling” with sociopolitical and socioeconomic realities. We can not afford ourselves the luxury of keeping ahead all the time. We try to be conscious about what is happening in the world today as much as about the histories of the place we find ourselves in. We are also very conscious of the fact that Berlin is a space too small for us to deal with. This is why we conceive projects which manifest themselves not only in Berlin but also in Lubumbashi in Congo, Douala in Cameroon, Rio in Brazil, or Jakarta in Indonesia. We try to conceive projects that find echoes in these spaces, but also simply acknowledge the fact that there are geographical specificities and knowledges tied to a place. If we really want to know how to live together in this world, we need to be sensitive and conscious of things that happen in different places. We are interested in diverse and plural epistemologies. This means thinking about knowledges rather than knowledge. With Covid-19, it has become really clear that the world is so interconnected that a virus could emanate from Wuhan in China and succeed in bringing the world to its knees because we are connected, and these connections are creating repercussions, whether we like it or not. Whatever stone is thrown into the water, we are interested in perceiving the ripples that come out of it.
How can sonic communication—as an alternative to the visual—contribute to the development of a language that might allow us to speak across a multitude of experiences?
We have tried to develop a practice around sonic and sonority and understand the character of sound itself. Sound plays an important role in our modes of perception. Society has been driven by a kind of hyper-sensuality toward the visual. However, there are things that we cannot see but can hear. Hearing is a practice that goes beyond the ears. Sound is very physical, you can feel the sound waves. Sound evokes emotions that lead to an intersection of other senses. Lionel Manga wrote that the hearing organs are among the ones that get developed in children the earliest. From around the twelfth week, the fetus starts listening, so there is a very early communication between the fetus and the mother through sound. It seems that hearing is one of the most advanced senses but also the most neglected. The photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi talks about his interest in listening in his practice. Listening defines his way of seeing. For someone who is in the business of seeing and capturing images, this is quite something. In the past few years, we have been trying to explore sonic spaces as spaces where you would find philosophies of the character of the sound itself, which I think is massively under-explored. What does a certain sound evoke in us? Why do I taste or see something when I listen to a particular sound? It is one of the many spaces we are interested in exploring in our search for knowledge. Of course, music is not exempt from it because it is a composition of sounds. Halim El-Dabh [the late Egyptian composer] was interested in carving music from noise. We are interested in that which is carved out of noise and in noise as well, and actually in the negation of the concept of noise.
Concerning sound and privileges in the art world, an interesting decision of yours was to broadcast documenta 14 via radio program (Every Time A Ear Di Soun) to make it accessible to people who cannot participate on site, such as your grandmother, who was at the time living in Cameroon. During one broadcast, you asked: “How could someone like her experience and even in certain ways be a participant in documenta?” You said it was your way to democratize this privileged space. Can you tell us about the outcomes of this experiment?
documenta might not be aware that it is not as important as it thinks it is. The simple declaration of being the most important exhibition in the world does not make it so. For this reason, if my grandmother participates in documenta by listening to it, I am not sure whether it is my grandmother profiting from being part of documenta or the other way around. I do not want to see this “power ingredient” as a given, as if people in the world are profiting from what is happening in Kassel. Kassel is a rather insignificant city in the world. If we go back to the previous point of being conscious about what is happening in the world and learning from others, or knowledges from other places, one can say that inviting people from other parts of the world actually helps documenta a lot. The radio is a communication apparatus. This means that the radio is not only giving “inputs” to the listeners, but it is also taking from them. My project was about this radio being the possibility of extending spaces, meaning: expanding what documenta could be and the possibility of people to contribute to it, to a significant extent. I don’t know if there is a result to that, but what I was interested in doing, together with the rest of the team, was to understand the importance of radio, the centrality it has in everyday life. The people in Cameroon can tell you so much about Cuba without ever visiting it. They have such closeness with that space because of what they are listening to on the radio. Not everyone has access to the internet, but many have access to the radio. As Frantz Fanon reminds us, the radio played an important role in resistance movements, in Algeria for example. There is also something about the world collapsing within that space of the radio: by tuning a slight notch down or up, you shift from one continent to the other. I am interested in how the radio weaves the world together. Each thread has its particularity, but they are woven. It is a fabric. And this weaving of the world together is what we are trying to do and what one should continue to do. This is why we do Savvy Contemporary and many other projects.
Care is one of the main topics of the recent developments of your research. In your new book, The Delusions of Care (Archive Books, 2021), you investigate care in a time of crisis. Can you tell us about the meanings and motivations behind it? And how would you define “care”?
One of the motivations to write the book is the discrepancy I found between the claim of care and care itself. It is very difficult to find a common denomination of what care actually is. In one of his articles, the art critic, scholar, and art historian Horst Bredekamp wrote that the collection of artifacts, subjects, and objects put in an ethnographic museum was done in the spirit of anticolonialism. This man is telling you that in 1897 when the British burned down the Kingdom of Benin and looted thousands of bronzes, works of art, and beings, this was done in the spirit of anticolonialism. He is telling you that, when Europeans went to the Pacific, Australia, and the Americas, killed the indigenous people, took away their things, and put them in the ethnographic museum, that this was done in the spirit of anticolonialism. He is telling you that they were actually caring. From the very onset when indigenous people started to claim these objects and subjects and ask for them to be sent back, they have often been told that they wouldn’t be able to care for them, that someone else has to care for them because they have museums. How can you better take care of them than people who made them thousands of years ago and have kept them safe for so long, only in their terms and conditions? That is why I called my book The Delusions of Care.
There is a whole business around NGOs that aim at sustaining themselves rather than the people whom they claim to be helping. One has to ask, with all these developmental aids, who are they actually aiding? We know that they caused more harm than good. One of the projects I have for next year is commemorating one of the books that Walter Rodney wrote in 1972, titled How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which already engaged with these questions 50 years ago. According to him, the idea of classifying the world as so-called “developed” and “underdeveloped”, where the former is sustained by the latter, does not make sense. This is not care. For these reasons, we need to redefine what care is and could be. Care which is mutual and not based on exploitation. Care that is not built around notions of patriarchy or disenfranchising the other for your own benefits. This cannot be done by one set of people, by the formerly colonized, by the racialized, by women. It should be done by all of us, and we should conceive a renewed notion of care together.
In museums, care is used in a misleading way—or worse. There are processes of othering at play within such institutional spaces. As a response to this, you propose a refusal of those power relations that rely on turning someone into that Other for their existence and benefit (1). How can this refusal be enacted within the institutional space?
I do not want to speak as if some people have no privileges and others have. That is othering. To “dis-other” is to refuse that. We all have privileges. So, that is the first thing of dis-othering. The idea of refusal, as important as it is, is built first and foremost on the possibility to properly understand the context in which one finds oneself; to properly understand what has been done wrong. In the context of museums, this means to understand what is a museum and what is not; and similarly, who makes the museum and who does not. The text on dis-othering is related to an invitation that came from BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. If museums are spaces where knowledge is preserved in some forms—such as a painting, a sculpture, or whatever else—for generations to come; if museums are spaces where that mediated knowledge finds ways of dissemination, then one could think of different kinds of museums, starting from the conception of the body as a museum. Because we do that in our bodies, we carry the knowledge with us. As Esiaba Irobi [the Nigerian-born theorist, playwright, and poet] said, the body is a site of discourse. Meaning, every time you go into a museum, it is an encounter between your primary museum and the secondary museum. There is always a negotiation between these two institutions: the body and the museum. The question that arises is—are you part of that institution, or is the institution in the business of making you not part of it? Do you see yourself within that institution? Like Kerry James Marshall [the American artist and academic] once said, he started painting black bodies because while growing up, he did not see people that looked like him in museums. And whenever they appeared, they were in the position of the servants. He wanted to create other images. Museums have played a massive role in creating the divide between the so-called “civilized” and the Other so-called “uncivilized”. If museums continue to do that, that means they exclude a huge part of the population. In the past few years, there has been a craze to get people to do outreach, and then institutions wonder why their strategies have not been successful. It is because instead of rethinking their exhibition programs, their outreach strategies have been to get a Black or Brown body, a woman, to go to some communities and tell them to come and see how the institutions are celebrating whiteness. This is why, when we did the project at Bozar, it was on dis-othering. We started the project around a few countries in Europe, such as Germany, Belgium, and Austria, and looked at institutions that get more than 60 percent of their funding from the state. We asked, who makes these institutions run? We looked at the curatorial board, at the directors’ board, and so on. How does that reflect the taxpayers of that society? You could do it the other way around and look at the people who are cleaning or doing security in those spaces. You see a particular image, and then you look at the board, and you see another image. You look at the curators, you see another image. In that context, you can send as much outreach as you want to get people from the communities to come. They will not because they do not see themselves in the institutions; the institutions do not give them any reason to come. Dis-othering relies on paying attention to these three things within an institution: the personnel, the program, and the public.
We would like to expand on this topic of inclusion and exclusion and the question of who gets to participate or to be represented. Your curatorial work seems to often focus on the under- or unrepresented. For example, the 12th edition of Sonsbeek, which revolves around the issue of labor and other interconnected struggles, renders visible and audible that which is unseen and unheard. If we talk about engaging with the politics of representation as a curatorial strategy, how is it part of your work?
I do not think I am interested in representation of any kind. I don’t do representation. I am interested in multiple narratives and multiple vessels of narration—the people that narrate. I am not interested in representation, especially because, as [the Ghana-born philosopher] Anton Wilhelm Amo wrote, you cannot talk about representation when people are present. So, I don’t understand the prefix “re-“. There is a construct of erasure that is kind of omnipresent, so what we are maybe interested in is “de-erasure”. De-erasure is different from representation, it is a method of learning. Things are there, and, in many cases, a layer of covering has been placed upon them. We just want to uncover them. If this is what you mean by representation, then maybe, yes, I might be interested in it. But in itself, the discourse of representation, I am not really into it.
When I went to see the Park Sonsbeek and its extreme green beauty, the artificialness of it, I was confronted with the following questions: How did it become what it is? How did we get here? Who made this? Where did the money come from? In the process of that investigation, things just came up—for example, the story of the Black Anna. After going to the Park Sonsbeek and the neighboring parks a couple of times in a couple of months, in one of the castles that wanted to collaborate with us—an 18th century castle of a rich family from Arnheim—I was asking, how did they make their money? People told me it is a rich family in the Netherlands. Every time I was there, they would tell me something new. One time they told me about plantations in Indonesia and Suriname. They also told me that it is one of the most respected families, that they are very kind, and so on. At one point, they told me that there is one trace of a woman who did not have a name and was just called the Black Anna, who was the caretaker of the two girls of the family. She was brought there from Surinam. She was Black, they were white. She lived there her whole life, taking care of them. One of the two mentions of her in the books was the fact that she was accounted for bringing up the children, and the other was when she was sick, and the doctor took care of her. In that sense, they were quite nice people because they could afford to bring a doctor to take care of an enslaved person. In both cases, it is accounted for with money, how much it cost. So I asked, is there any place where we can see how much she was paid for all the work she was doing? Since they were so meticulous in the accounting of money, there must be a place where you can see how much she earned. Until now, we have not found that, and also, the institution did not want to collaborate with us anymore. What is interesting in that story is that a few of the artists that came with us to Sonsbeek were touched by this story and decided to produce work on it. I do not know if that is representation because, actually, you feel the sorrow when you get into that space. She is present. So, I do not think it is representation. What we are doing is finding ways to tell her story. Representation, especially the way it is linked to the representation of politics, tends to mislead. Let’s acknowledge the presence of people that are there. Let’s acknowledge the stories of people that are there. Let’s acknowledge the fact that a lot has been done to negate their existence, let’s work towards unlearning some of those processes of the negation of their presences, and let’s work towards de-erasing them.
A Conversation With Sophie Goltz
Sophie Goltz has worked as a curator and art mediator in various places around the world, including Berlin, Kassel, and Singapore. Last year, she took over the position of the Director of the Salzburg Summer Academy of Fine Arts and is associated with CCQ as a member of its editorial board. Her involvement in documenta 11, her experience as the artistic director of the Art in Public Space project of the city of Hamburg (Stadtkuratorin Hamburg), and her project Culture City. Culture Scape offered promising starting points for a conversation about ruptures and slow transformations, civic engagement and collective practices, alliances and violence during the pandemic, creating audiences onsite and online, and many other things in-between.
We would like to start with a broad question: do you have an idea of what a possible definition of “rupture” might be?
The way we perceive public space is basically a constant rupture; it is not seeing the rupture as an exception, but rather as a constant method of governing public space. Public space is basically structured around rupture as it is not the same for everyone. Rupture is not the exception but a continuous way of creating a hegemonic space that doesn’t mean the same for everybody. I am very much interested in the structural violence of space given through racist structures, especially in the way urban planning is conceived, or in the way gender is put in place. The pandemic made these structures more visible as well as questions such as: how to protect people, how far one can limit their rights, how homeless people have not been protected, and how women have not been protected in terms of violence in households. All these things are not new, but they reveal how ruptures are being used.
You have repeatedly addressed questions of anti-hegemonic and decolonial strategies in art via your curatorial projects. Is it possible to think about large art events like documenta as generating a rupture in the contemporary art world, as well as in its languages? How do notions of rupture and continuity apply to your own curatorial practice and your interest in questions of memory and urban spaces?
I wouldn’t say that documenta 11 was already introducing decolonization. By that time it was already showing a counter-hegemonic way of seeing the art world by looking into former-colonies and how they built-up a postcolonial approach to arts, and by seeing what kind of production there is in places that usually were ignored by the West or seen in a colonial way, places where the production of art is not acknowledged. At documenta 11, of course, there were artists who were already introduced through diasporic movements and the expansion of the art market, having this collected power of these practices introduced in one place, through the platforms which basically reflected their social and economic conditions of production. I think that was new at that time and, once introduced through that large-scale exhibition of documenta, one could not go back anymore. There is an interesting coincidence that now the Turner Prize only nominated collectives and that documenta is now curated by a collective. It creates shifts in the way we respond to art production. We now see things that happened before, but haven’t been recognized. documenta 11 also shifted the way we situate ourselves in the way we relate to the contemporary art field. Looking back, it was still quite representational. Today we have completely shifted in identity politics. We know about cancel culture. All these things created a different manner of thinking about representation in the art world. It becomes post-representational, looking deeper into practices as new ways of seeing and also in terms of materiality, how to relate to tradition, to handcraft; all these things that have been labeled as indigenous art. It is basically a different way of creating narratives in your own kind of art production.
Speaking of public space and the position of art within it: you have recently published a new book—Culture City, Culture Scape—with Ute Meta Bauer and Khim Ong, on the practice of public art commissioning and community engagement through arts in urban spaces of Asia, which is very different from Germany. Would you like to give us an insight into this new project?
It reflects the project Culture City, Culture Scape, which was part of the Mapletree Business City II, a highly commercial space in Singapore. We cannot compare this to anything like a public art project in Hamburg, which comes out of a different understanding of urban space and how we create art in it. Something that might be interesting in a context where a high percentage of culture is state-governed and state-owned: what does it mean to have the state control the entire cultural field and how do these kinds of engagements create a space to show artistic practices? The artists included were Dan Graham, Yinka Shonibare, Zul Mahmod, and Tomás Saraceno and it showed what is possible in a place like this as they created amazing art works. When the book came out, Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore was closing as an exhibition centre and Substation was also about to lose its building. That showed how this is a necessary engagement in a place where you have no alternatives. There is no free art funding. There is a public art trust, however, through the lens of certain ideas. The state would say: “we would like to have in the larger housing complex art for community-building.” But how can artists answer such a demand? They are autonomous in what they do, but they are not autonomous in the way they would or could apply for such programs because there is already an intention to it. So the project opened a window for giving a larger perspective of other possibilities to works that are very much related to sculptural forms and not process-based or community-based works, which maybe aren’t showing any result in the sense of a materialization or something you can look at, something you can then educate people about.
I really miss the understanding of cultural places as a form of civic engagement, that you allow people to educate themselves as citizens in these places. I do see a relationship between the politics in place and how these places are observed in an ambiguous way. This is because you need these places also to allow a certain form of criticism, but on the other hand, this criticism is not welcome if it grows and public art is not understood as something that really engages people in a kind of civic education—who am I as a citizen, how do I relate as a citizen? That is really missing and the more they diminish these places, the more they become only representational in the sense of a national gallery.
Maybe this is a good moment to shift to an idea of education in a more formal sense. You have been appointed director of the Summer Academy during the pandemic and now, running the next edition, you certainly must have faced difficulties and challenges related to these unforeseeable circumstances. Can you tell us about these challenges and—potentially—opportunities? What kind of alternative languages are arising now in the educational context and what kind of potential do they carry?
The Summer Academy is a place that is open to everyone. It doesn’t ask for a certain certificate or a certain kind of education to come and be here. It is open to a wider audience, not only those who have been educated in the arts, whether it be in traditional forms like painting, sculpture, or be it in more discursive ways. Of course, discursive formats are more difficult than classic painting courses. The younger generation might be more interested in a discursive way of understanding, debating, networking, and sharing ideas, which is something that continues afterwards as well. It is maybe also a way of creating a place for yourself in that world. The collective work makes us see how the artistic isn’t necessarily only what we think art is, in this kind of new way of thinking of Entkunstung, which is an old term by Adorno, and certain de-disciplination of the arts. We can see this as a reverse process of understanding and, in that sense, we come back to the question of what post-coloniality and global art history mean almost 20 years after documenta 11. It also means to understand that the modern Western art paradigm follows a certain protocol, whereas in other cultures that has always been different, especially in terms of how the artistic has been seen as a part of society. I guess there is a question for the Academy: how can we bring this in and allow it to happen here?
We have invited ruangrupa to the Summer Academy this year and it will be a question of how we can involve more collectives, how we have to change the way we teach, how certain formats of the academy might change, as it needs a long-term engagement. Collective work is not something you learn in a course and after that you become a collective worker. How can we make people engage in these practices, learning through these engagements? What kind of format would help make that happen?
In terms of audience, what might be the difference between creating an audience online and in physical public space?
I think that these two spaces inform each other very well, I don’t think they are separated. Of course, they have different connotations. The digital is our reality and it has been there for a long time, although it might not have been recognized that much. The pandemic led us to at least see what the possibilities are, which have been there before. It is not either/or and we don’t come back to either/or, except if we have a total shutdown of electricity, because we don’t have any resources anymore, if we have a final ecological collapse. Of course, there is an ecological side to it, which is the environmental cost. That is maybe more interesting than the comparison with public space. What are the environmental costs which are real and physical?
Given the understanding of public space as a mixture of virtual and physical, we would like to know if there is any artist in particular who really shapes your way of understanding public space?
One is Georges Adéagbo and how he connects the public space to the everyday. This is not necessarily about work with the public space as a public space and a certain discourse, but rather practices that are informed by public spaces. Georges Adéagbo collects things he finds on the street, rubbish. He goes to flea markets, which is also kind of a public space, and then puts them together as a bricolage and gives them a new meaning. Sometimes affirmative, sometimes analytical, sometimes related to a space, sometimes not—but he creates a narrative of what is around you everyday. He does that as practice everyday. That is an interesting way of how we actually relate to what we see. Normally we are busy, we have our things to do. And there is a certain poetry to it, to see things, to find and to put them together, to see how they change and how they change a place. The other one is Mujeres Creando. Their artistic and activist practice is in Bolivia, fighting femicide and violence against indigenous women, organizing trials. It is more an activist practice, which is also related to the art world as they have quite artistic ways of articulating these demands in public space. It is, again, the contradiction we talked about before—using the cultural space as a space of articulation, where anything demanded can only be thought of in political “space”. But of course, there is a way of communicating things through the cultural space, a way of creating that kind of civic engagement that is needed for political change. Decolonizing is one thing, but then we still have patriarchy. It can only be fought together, if you want to see a result.
That is also an interesting question, how collective work changes the way of expression. Exhibition is one form to answer any kind of demand, but is this necessarily the only one nowadays? We will see this with documenta—they created this network of collectives and the ruruHaus [the physical space and the curatorial practice created by ruangrupa in Kassel for documenta 15]. A major part of their practice is social gathering, which is not possible now. Let’s see how they manage this, how they answer the demand for an exhibition. This is still documenta, I know a lot of people are skeptical. Maybe collectivity also creates different ways of materializing ideas. So how can people engage? There might be people who don’t want to be involved socially, but that doesn’t mean they are not interested. What different manners of engagement and what kind of entry levels do you create for people to take part?
Another thing I found interesting about ruangrupa is that any money they make goes into one account and is distributed to the members. So their collectivity also has an economic form that most people do not reflect. The money is put into the cooperative which is about 25 people in Jakarta, it is not just these ten people who are representing ruangrupa in Kassel. That also changes the way you think about collective work. ruangrupa did not make a contract as individuals, they made a contract with documenta as a crew, which in itself is a real decolonial change, even a more fundamental change than any kind of art work related to the subject. You give the money to a group and you are not controlling the distribution of the money. Collective work could really change the field, there is a lot of pioneer work to do.
The more these practices are created and formulate their own practice, the more institutions listen. You see, for example, how Savvy Contemporary started as a small alternative space in Neukölln and how they created slowly, little by little, the discourse and the community, a peer-to-peer group. It grew and, to some extent, it is a “formulated” institution. You see how the process of recognition happens and how other people relate, you see also a shift now that everything would go into this kind of decolonial paradigm. The field shifted through such kinds of practice.
It makes no sense to talk about decolonizing museums if society is not decolonized. I really do think all we need is new institutions. Not that I know how they would look like, but I think that is something that comes with time; you just start and then you see. This also changed funding, in a way. For about ten years now, the cultural senate of Berlin, for example, has given funding for project spaces because they understand that they don’t need only institutions but also these temporary forms that sometimes get institutionalized, like Savvy. And such spaces need funds, they are important for the so-called “art ecosystem” in the city.
Coming back to collectivity in the art world(s): Mohammad Salemy talks in one of his texts about the ongoing trend of collectives which is assumed to be progressive and emancipatory. He asks whether this shift to collectivity has the potential to create more problems than it solves, whether it brings or reveals more precarity than before, and whether collectivity as an abstract concept will become a new cultural technology to mask power imbalances at institutions. What is your view on this?
Curatorial work is an answer to create alliances amongst people who work together. The question is then: how do institutional structures answer it? Do they do so by splitting a salary into three, or do they allow a salary for three? What if we say the collective creates its own institution, because we don’t need these institutions anymore? It might shift the way money is spent. It is more the question of how things are changed through collective work and I do see changes, whether they are first infrastructural and then also having an economic side to it.
I actually see last year’s selection of the WHW curatorial collective as the directors of Kunsthalle Wien as something else. After having Gerald Matt for many years leaving with a scandal, then having Nicolaus Schafhausen, another white male curator, I thought it was a move forward to choose WHW in a place which is so much related to Eastern Europe. Austria is the place where you see most of Eastern European art, the discourse grew there in the 90s. I felt that was also a necessary step to acknowledge that, in a place like Vienna, we have to have a place that has a different role and a different relationship to what is there in terms of migration and everyday politics. And it worked the way they did it exactly because they are a collective.
ruangrupa is not possible as a single curator either; the way they think is not possible by a single person. That is also misunderstood about collective work—it is not just putting individuals together, but this work is only possible through collectivity, and if it is only possible through collectivity, then you cannot replace it with an individual. There is a reason and maybe there is no single Croatian curator that has done what WHW have done. It is because collective work does something else. How do we mirror it in institutional forms? Can existing institutional forms acknowledge that?
Regarding your understanding of education and, now that we talk about ruangrupa, regarding their curatorial approach: in terms of public engagement what is the job of the education department at the documenta and what is “education” anyway? We would be interested to hear your understanding of this term, and also what you think about the relationship between exhibitions and the education departments in museums—their structures, and the changes they entail.
We have to understand that institutions don’t mean everybody. A museum would constantly say they are open to everybody, but they aren’t. No matter what you do, you will never be. So let’s be more modest, let’s understand, let’s not try to say we diversify our audience, we diversify everything. We can only be one place. Different communities learn in different circumstances. Then the question is how you relate to other institutions or community centers, where they learn, and how you can learn from them. I don’t believe that everybody has to go to the museum and it would make it a better world. I don’t see that happening. I do see that it would change the way we think about education in a museum. Of course, the hope after documenta 12—that was at least in the European art institutions—was that the way we think about education would be part of larger curatorial questions. I think this happens when you look at a space like the Serpentine Gallery. They have community curators, they have digital curators, they think about different communities as curatorial work. In a place like Germany, museums are still very snobbish, they are very related to an understanding of being high cultural institutions, rather than communal educational places. They are educational places by definition, but to work with communities is a different matter, and I am not sure how that translates in that kind of space which is very difficult.
Coming back to the question of education: for every documenta the guided tours are a major economic factor. At documenta 12, they were even thinking about not doing guided tours. However, of course, it is not possible. Also because you have to think about how to answer the simple demand of a visitor to understand what they see. So where can they ask the questions they want to ask? You make the effort to go there and you just want to have an overview of what is around you, because you’re interested. You might not have the knowledge, so it is a fair demand to have a way of engagement. Maybe you don’t want to paint yourself, you don’t want to be creative, you don’t want to end up in a discussion. That might be a kind of a consumer mindset, but still, it has been there for many, many decades, so how do you answer that demand? The interesting part is how you connect the audience with the larger theme. Especially when it is not a classic exhibition, but a more processual way—how to think about a program, how to educate the audience, and whether it is the kind of socially- or community-based show in which you won’t be able to see anything.
A Conversation With Chus Martínez
Chus Martínez says she prefers not to be called a curator. Despite her former involvement in curating large-scale exhibitions such as documenta 13 and working with El Museo del Barrio, MACBA, Frankfurter Kunstverein, and many other institutions, her projects do not necessarily reflect the role of a curator in its common understanding. She leads marine explorations, directs an art school, organizes think tanks about nature, gender, and race. The question is, what motivates her?
We looked into possible answers to this question beyond human spectatorship and institutionality. We spoke about watering plants, personal NGOs, and how to turn coffee dates into lifelong friendships.
We would like to start by talking about an episode that seems to be a turning point in your career and thinking. Namely, the request from Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to curate an exhibition for dogs and strawberries during your involvement in documenta 13. How does introducing a non-human perspective into a curatorial project help redefine its political objective?
You always need a friend that triggers some sort of antagonistic feeling. When you are expected to do something important, you think that you are doing important things for important people. However, I realized that it is much more interesting to do important things for important stuff. For me, being reminded of that by a friend such as Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has been a turning point in addressing an audience.
When I was studying, everyone used to ask me, who is your audience? And then I finally discovered that my audience could be the mountains, or the oceans, or the animals. We have not taken into account the many possibilities in that question, and it is therefore necessary to work towards these possibilities in any potential answer. Critical theory has never taken into account those that really suffer. Critical theorists thematize them into notions, but they do not really activate any practice around them. Thus, I understood that the most important thing is activating a practice around this exclusion.
Let’s go further into this question. Many curators and artists have traditionally undertaken institutional critiques from “inside” the organizations themselves, but your interest is in creating alternative institutions.
Institutional critique is an acceptance of the already given structures, and it wants to reform what is there. But I do not think that we need to reform. We need to correct it, we need to add. The real transformation of that system is not going to happen only because we correct it and add those that were forgotten. We also need to make sure that these structures get completely transformed. Some of those institutions are not capable of doing it because they are at the very core of our imperial colonial project, so I would not invest in transforming them.
I totally respect colleagues that invest in institutional critique because it is necessary. But at the same time, we need to invest in the invention of new structures with a new logic because the old logic is very patrimonial. The reform of existing institutions is preserving the etymology of culture and the fact that those legitimizing the etymology of culture are white and Western. It is very difficult to believe in institutional critique as hope for anything. However, like in any authoritarian regime, you can make holes in the system. These may contribute when the new system is in place, helping it to be replaced more easily or more organically. Institutional reform is necessary, but it’s definitely not my goal in life.
Would you say that generating holes into the system is part of the proposition for a new system to come?
This is a very complex question that I am asking myself all the time. These holes are happening all the time. However, they may not produce any major effect at the beginning. Of course, the fact that they are proliferating in many places does help us to change things, but individuals cannot truly change that much. Systemic change is a collective process, and we can only contribute to it individually. It is like watering plants. If each individual waters some plants, we can have a fantastic garden at the end. This is how my mind works.
In Switzerland [Chus Martínez is the director of the Art Institute at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design], I am not really changing structures yet because this requires a whole generation and a whole system. When I leave Switzerland, I hope people will continue to do what I am doing. But it may not continue, so every day, I think I am lucky to be able to act here. It’s the same in many other countries so it is fundamental that we inspire others. But, at the same time, we need to really get into an understanding of the structural dimensions that need to be changed. For example: bureaucratic language, contractual situations, questions of access in the sense of passports, in the sense of coming into certain circumstances.
When thinking about my role at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design, I am also reducing myself to the level of my school as a community pilot. I invest all the energies I have trying to help every student to make it. This is my NGO, my calling in life. It allows me to come closer to those in need and then try to create possibilities for them. Really, I am trying to help as much as I can. But I also have the absolute awareness that I am not really changing the Swiss educational system — nor the Spanish or the German.
Some people demand much more activism or clarity about certain actions. However, I am private about the actions I undertake, and I do not believe that this contradicts the kind of “NGO work” I am carrying on at this school. I decided to commit to this school 100%, and this is my way of contributing toward societal change. It is what I am doing, plus what many other people are doing. There are no heroes. I do not believe in that.
According to you, to approach the question of gender is also to address questions of affection and how we relate to each other in the world. So, our question is: how might empathy and feelings contribute to putting us in relation to everything we are not? By which we mean, “to the knowledge that we do not have” or “the experience we do not have”, as well as “the things we do not see”.
Reference from the section of the Teacher Curator in Chus Martínez, Gathering Sea I Am!. In e-flux Journal #112 (October 2020). Link: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/112/354953/gathering-sea-i-am/
I spent the last two days in a symposium (2). As you know, we are trying to produce a program where we can reflect on the transformations of gender, its conceptions, and the effects that those transformations may have on the art system. I think that the question of empathy is fundamental. But also because it is fundamental, it has been exercised by so many women, over the centuries, in the household, in daily life, and it can also be transferred in a beautiful way to other genders. It is really a question of diversity and a question of non-binarism. Non-binarism is probably much more important to say than gender. I use gender because I am still of the older generation; I am not a feminist. I did not ever want it. I think I cannot identify with feminism because I did not belong to the historical movement. I have been influenced by it, and I pay my respects to all fighters, thinkers, and activists that want equality.
Equality is my quest, and I hope that this can also be the quest that inspires everyone. It does not only concern women or transgender subjects or being part of a particular collective. It is about a better society for everyone. Together, we want to “defend” a better interaction between all the collectives that exist in coexistence. In this process, generosity and care are also fundamental. I think there is no other way of exercising politics if not through generosity and care. I do have a huge problem with vindications and violence. If we replace every violent impulse with the impulse of helping on whatever scale, it will make an incredible difference.
While striving for equality, we can make so many mistakes here and there. However, this endeavor is still worth attempting and worth making mistakes for because, in the end, we want everyone to feel safe, to feel included, to feel represented, to feel they have a voice. Artists have been creating languages and conditions to speak across different experiences. For example: here, we are preaching to the converted, but imagine if we are talking to the super conservative, those that have no idea about certain experiences of discrimination and violence. Art has been trying to create a ground to grasp them a little bit. And this is the reason why I respect artists so much! But if artists have worked to create inclusion for everyone, the art system has not. There is a difference we need to produce. It is a pity when people confuse artists’ work with institutional work because they are not the same.
Could you expand on that? How is the art system different from the artist’s work?
The art system is still operating in an economy and social systems dependent on patriarchy and the concentration of power. Power and capital concentration are often not entangled with questions of artistic and intellectual value. If you look at contemporary art practice, today the system celebrates the work of Cecilia Vicuña. But Cecilia is already 73! Vicuña is one of those artists that institutions were not always ready to take. I could name thousands of them: indigenous artists, artists of different contexts that have been working for generations back to make their recognition happen. What I am saying is not only about including them and celebrating them with an exhibition. It is not the exhibition that is going to create equality in society. It is a much more complex question. However, I do see those artists in neighborhoods, I see them as policymakers, I see them inspiring a sense of citizenship with or without the museums of those countries that may or may not recognize the work they did. Disparity within art institutions is linked to their dependency on the broader institutional political life. Artists are not always entangled in the same institutional system. That is why I am not only saying that we need to learn how to free their respective works from each other, but also that we need to learn how to connect the different systems together in order for them to work differently.
So many elderly people and children suffer so much. Let’s imagine creating programs where we can add artists to public schools. You would just have one or two spaces in every public school dedicated to the studio. Practicing the presence of an artist in a public school, regardless of whether the artist would talk with the students or not, would transform the whole perception of those children. The same is possible with elderly homes and companies. There is an incredible space out there that has nothing to do with museum work or artist-run space work. It has to do with the reintegration of the connection between artists and many other communities. Do I think it is positive? Yes, because artists are super generous. They want their studio space and they are ready to connect with people. So many artists want to work on companionship, they want to work on being there. They have an idea of sharing that can only be pedagogical and therapeutic in whatever form.
What is the role of the curator in this process of integration between artists and communities? Is it one of a facilitator or …?
I don’t really know because in every conversation, as a curator, your world gets invented. Speaking from personal experience, the idea that you can just go for a coffee to become friends with someone for life is fantastic. In every exhibition program you do, there is always a personal side to everyone, so meeting with artists is like trying to make that coffee into friendship. Both of you have to feel something and agree to proceed to the next step.
I do not think of myself as a curator in terms that were defined in the 2000s and the power pressure associated with it. I think I was somebody studying something else that ended up in a curatorial program. I don’t know if I thought I could do it. Once I tried it, I thought, yeah, I can do that, I’m not that bad at it. After 25 years, I can do it. But like I said before, I’m not interested in that power. So yeah, call me whatever. “Friendship seeker” I would prefer it.
At the end of the essay you wrote for e-flux, The Gathering Sea I Am!, you speak very briefly about ignorance, its status, and potential. You said that ignorance is a real active force. Can you explain why?
It is so funny that you are asking that. I have just discovered the reason why I have been interested in ignorance. Really, like a week ago. Since I come from an illiterate family, I was the only one able to study. My mother cannot read. She started to read when she was at the end of her 30s. My grandmother could not read. This is not uncommon in some regions of the world. I have always tried to put forward a positive idea of ignorance, but it was very difficult. Every time I talk about it, people think, “How can it be a positive idea?”
One week ago, I was looking into neuroscience. In neuroscience, they use the act of reading as the most important tool for monitoring the development of our brains. I was astounded by this discovery because I thought about the millions of people on this planet who cannot read. Recently, some friends—a neuroscientist and a cultural anthropologist—confirmed that there is no single theory about human intelligence devoted to studying those that cannot read. It is super interesting that the whole of Western neuroscience is built on studies of reading, even if many humans cannot read. And though I am sure that reading gave us a good example for understanding the functioning of the human brain, I also see why there is almost no scientific research on those who do not know how to read. It is because they are associated with poor communities, and poor communities are not the model sector of our society.
All of a sudden, I understood that my interest in ignorance is my way of embracing a possibility of intelligence that is not based on the Western Enlightenment and the idea of everything based on text. I feel that I really needed to quest for this because of indigenous knowledge—but not only—or not even—that. It connects with my obsession in thinking that, because of Western ideas, we have been talking about the dynamics of the middle class and culture. But, in doing so, we disregarded that also in poverty there are cultural dynamics. Cultural dynamics do not happen only when you reach a certain level of the economy. Let’s think, for example, of all these people who buy clothes in the bazaar and have almost no money. But still, they have an idea of fashion, an idea of being in tune with their bodies through clothing. There are cultural dynamics in poverty. Poverty is not canceling everything that is possible. Just because poor people do not have any language for that, we think we need to wait until they obtain wealth to actually activate the “next level”. But it’s not true. It is the same with the question of readership. You cannot read and still be absolutely living in intelligence, meaning not only in a metaphorical way but living in innovation, living in invention, living in possibility.
You talked nicely just then about how ignorance, or perhaps naivety, can be quite fertile and provide a different set of tools for thinking about issues of global relevance. Similarly, what do you think about the relationship between emotional vulnerability and a kind of openness to new ideas?
I think that we need to be very careful about how we use this word because there are so many levels. Here, there are two: I think there is a level of vulnerability where you cannot even know that you are so vulnerable, that you are so much in need of protection and law. Then, there is vulnerability as a state of awareness, where you are actually self-confident enough to express your own vulnerability. Usually, when we talk about vulnerability, it is because we are already aware of it. We already know how many insults we have experienced, and we are learning how to navigate them, contest them.
In this regard, I know that sometimes some people think that we are in a hyper-sensitive society, meaning that everyone is at the level of their skin. But I think it is a transitional moment, a very necessary one because we have not been attentive enough in the past. And now we need to go through this moment so that people can express their uneasiness. On the one hand, it may be frustrating because you really would like to state that it was not your intention to hurt anybody. On the other hand, some people still feel bad in certain circumstances, and it is our absolute duty to make space for those feelings and this healing. We need to prepare ourselves as a society to deal with it until we gain strength. Hopefully, this would program our educational system and our political system as well. Then we move forward.
1. Reference from the section of the Teacher Curator in Chus Martínez, Gathering Sea I Am!. In e-flux Journal #112 – October 2020: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/112/354953/gathering-sea-i-am/
2. GOING TO THE LIMITS OF YOUR LONGING, RESEARCH AS ANOTHER NAME FOR CARE IN MEMORY OF MARION VON OSTEN part of the symposium series Womxn in the Arts and Leadership, 17 – 18 March 2021: https://dertank.ch/we-do/master-symposium-2021/