Ruptures as a Constant Method

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.

CCQ
We would like to start with a broad question: do you have an idea of what a possible definition of “rupture” might be?

SG
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.

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CCQ
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?

SG
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.

CCQ
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?

SG
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. 

CCQ
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?    

SG
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?

CCQ
In terms of audience, what might be the difference between creating an audience online and in physical public space?

SG
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?

CCQ
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?

SG
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.

CCQ
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?

SG
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?

CCQ
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.

SG
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.

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