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/