Sunday, May 10, 2009

Anastasia Klose with Natalie King

Me and short straw
The Happy Artist
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
19 March – 18 April

Natalie King: Can you tell me about the title of your recent exhibition The Happy Artist at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne?

Anastasia Klose: The title The Happy Artist leapt into my head one day while at the office, and I couldn't get rid of it. To me, it's the perfect title for the exhibition, because it has so many different interpretations. At first glance, you might think it was an ironic title, as a lot of my subject matter is about petty grievances in life and struggling on and that sort of thing. But in fact the title is not ironic, because being an artist is actually the happiest thing I could be. Self expression and creating things and constructing my own world are a very liberating thing to do. I love the notion that in our culture, "artists" more than anyone else are permitted to be the most themselves, and the most 'extreme'.

Yet the title is also ambiguous, because it might make one feel irritated at artists. Should artists be happy, just pleasing themselves cut off from 'the real world' just wanking on? To some,
the idea of the 'artist' conjures up images of someone silly, vain, deluded and out of touch. I am interested in this cliché, perhaps it has a grain of truth. But I like that someone would want to be an artist despite disapproval and seeming foolish. I suppose I think being an artist is at some level a noble pursuit, especially when the artist carries on despite being talentless. So yeah, the title seems quite naff and harmless, but I like to think it might raise these sorts of queries if you really thought about it. (Or maybe not!)
Hands off Heritage listed wardrobe
N K: Can you comment on the hand-made aspect of your work especially the way you use hand-drawn placards interspersed with personal items?

AK: I use everyday materials because I like that they are cheap and accessible. I like the look of them, and I can relate to them. I have always made art with whatever is on hand. Also, I have always liked looking at handmade placards as protests _ they are very direct and simple, original and sometimes funny _ and they convey a strong and accessible message to a large audience. Those sorts of placards are in the back of my mind when I make my own.

The personal items I put in exhibitions are usually referred to within artworks in the show. For example, the pink fluffy doona I am sitting under in The Happy Artist image is mentioned in a poem entitled 'Coburg, sex capital of the world'. The pink fluffy doona is a sad and funny object because the cat I live with tries often has sex with it, but he is neutered, and the act seems quite desperate and futile and crazed. The pink doona has become emblematic of this failure.

NK: What about the pathetic yet revealing slogans 'wanker boss' and 'I can't believe things turned out this way either'?

AK: 'Wanker Boss' is a placard I made for an installation I made with my mum, Elizabeth Presa. The installation was entitled 'Hard Rubbish, Hard Life - the installation' _ we set it up on our nature strip during hard rubbish time, and it was a very spontaneous act. The idea was to put all our failed artworks out on the nature strip, along with our hard rubbish, all in an arrangement, to see if anyone would take our artworks. Well, no one took them, but we had some good responses from passersby. I made the 'Wanker Boss' sign because I wanted to engage with people walking past. I knew they wouldn't be expecting to see this sort of thing in a hard rubbish pile, and I wanted to take them by surprise. (And I hoped most people could relate to this sentiment, because sometimes work is unbearable). This installation is written about in The Happy Artist book.

'I can't believe things turned out this way' is a placard made for the lounge-room. It is supposed to sit near the TV, so when you are watching it after work, and feeling down about life, you can look at this sign and smile (wryly!).

NK: Who takes the photos in the suite The Happy Artist? Do you see these as self-portraits?

AK: The Happy Artist image is from a series of photos I had taken in my room. They are taken by my good friend Bec Argyle, (not an artist) specifically to be on the invitation for the show. They are self-portraits, but they were taken to give a sense of what the exhibition is about.

NK: Why do you incorporate props such as the baby sheep?

AK: The concrete lamb is part of my The Order of the Universe staircase. Lambs are innocent and gentle and have no control over their fate. They make us feel protective, and like we should be gentle. That is why I wanted it to be part of my The Order of the Universe installation. A plastic owl was also added because owls are mysterious, they are the sorts of birds that are in fairy tales, and they are beautiful. I wanted the installation to be innocent, and naive. When I painted it, I was thinking very much of the work of Henri Rousseau. He never saw the jungle, but would paint it from his imagination. People did not know what to think of his work - the audience's ambivalence interests me, and I admire Rousseau's courage to continue making his paintings.

NK: Can you discuss the way you incorporate poetry and books in your work? I am also intrigued by the video work Lives of the Great Poets in which you describe the tragic demise of Coleridge, Poe and Clare.

AK: I read the poems of Catullus when I was young and they left a deep impression - he was the original confessional poet, and his poems are so funny. As a youth, I was into the Beats, and also studied poetry at Melbourne Uni, which is where I really developed a lasting relationship with my Norton Anthology of poetry. What can I say, I have always liked reading poetry, and in The Happy Artist show I return to a lot of my childhood loves (reading, drawing and writing) through art.

Lives of the Great Poets was made to commemorate the great epic and romantic lives of these poets. Their lives were so sad and blighted, but they were also so gifted. I feel as if no one knows about these poets anymore, and this is why I wanted to make a work about them. The golden era of poetry has departed, and this interests me too. It's such an unfashionable medium (at least, no one I know really gets into poetry), and to me this makes it uncorrupted, and full of potential.
NK: The Shortest Straw comprises thirty-two posters arranged haphazardly across two gallery walls with images of a hills hoist in Coburg, an overflowing ashtray outside Liquorland and a cat reading a battered poetry book. How did you conceptualise these images? They seem absurdly funny yet tragic.

AK: I take photos all the time, these ones just seemed appropriate for the exhibition - a lot of the images are referred to in poems, some aren't. I always carry a camera with me, just in case I see anything pertinent. I take photos of everyday things - they seem important when you see them often enough.

NK: What about the way your work exposes feelings such as humiliation, disappointment and ennui?

AK: Yes, I like to try and be honest about things. Disappointment and ennui are my subject matter, but this does not mean I feel 'humiliated' or 'embarrassed' making these sorts of works. Sometimes I wish I were a guy, making this work, just to see how people would respond. Maybe the reception would be different. I often wonder at how my gender affects the way people read my work - it's something I suppose I will never know.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev with Natalie King

16th Biennale of Sydney, Revolutions – Forms That Turn
June – September 2008
Interview with Artistic Director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Natalie King: Can you expand on your theme of ‘turning upside down’ from an aesthetic, psychological and political perspective?

CCB: Basically, it’s a question of changing perspectives; looking at things from a different point of view. One of the most obvious ways of looking at something from a different point of view is to turn it upside down. Sometimes when you change your point of view, new avenues and new possibilities appear, and we are in a particular period of society worldwide where changing point of view is actually very hard; because the media tends to direct the way points of view should be held, and are to be held. It’s actually a quite difficult question to answer without any examples. I think the most typical example in art would be Marcel Duchamp turning the urinal upside down, so turning upside down can mean to change the function. You de-functionalise the object as an aesthetic strategy removing the use value of something. If you cannot read a landscape that’s been turned upside down as a landscape, you are removing the use value of the figurative aspect of the landscape. On the one hand it becomes abstract but on the other hand it becomes surreal. Surrealism as we all know was a space where politics, psychoanalysis and aesthetics merged, as a form of radical subversion in western art history – Andre Breton and so on. That’s what I mean by turning upside down in a broader sense; it doesn’t mean only a literal turning upside down but shifting points of view, changing perspective. And of course removing the normal functioning role, so turning something upside down politically might mean for example breaking a machine in a factory, as the Luddites would do. It means acting in a way that disrupts the functioning of productive society.

NK: How did you arrive at this particular concept for the Sydney Biennale and what are its local resonances?

CCB: There are many resonances with the Australian context. I normally live in Italy, so the legacy of Latin culture is of course important and runs through my gaze on contemporary art. In Antiquity in Rome there was an expression ‘Terra Australis Incognita’. Of course, Australis comes from the etymology of the word indicating a wind, one of the winds: the Austral wind. This continent was imagined as an upside down continent in European culture. Of course, once the colonisation occurred, what was considered a ‘Terra Nullius’ (an empty land) was actually a land with a very ancient culture and people living there for a long long time; so from that perspective – from an Australian perspective – the West is perhaps an upside down culture, or an upside down location, where for example time is more important than place which is upside down from the perspective of an indigenous philosophy.

I had always wanted to do an exhibition about the etymology of the word ‘revolution’, and the contrast between what one associates with the word – which means a sudden and abrupt change – and the etymology of the word, which means to turn and turn again so actually there is no change; as the planets revolving or as an LP record revolves on a record player. This contradiction between the normal usage of the word and the etymological meaning of the word is one of those contradictions and gaps that open up a whole territory for thinking as to why this happens. Why this may have occurred is as interesting as what the occurrence means.

To be more specific, there is an artwork called Socle du monde (Base of the World) made in the early 1960s by Piero Manzoni in a park in Herning, Denmark, and it’s an upside down plinth. If you look at the plinth and turn your head upside down to read the text, which is “Socle du monde”, you make a reversal in your mind and actually flip the globe upright onto the plinth you notice that Australia is more or less on the other side. So, it seemed the perfect location to finally do the exhibition about revolutions and the ambiguity and double meaning of the work. Upside down, or right side up – revolution as a radical change or revolution as a turn within a harmony of continuous repetition. Revolution as repetition.
cant chant (installation shot) 2007 IMA Brisbane
NK: The notion of ‘revolution’ has clear political overtones – how are you engaging with local politics especially our recent change in government and momentous ‘apology’ to the Aboriginal Stolen Generation? How are you tackling the legacy of Charles Merewether’s previous Sydney Biennale with its focus on migration, itinerancy and displacement?

CCB: I’m not ‘tackling’ the previous Biennale of Sydney in any way. I enjoyed the previous Biennale and saw many works that were engaging and interesting, and that focused on indeed those issues of migration, itinerancy and displacement. This exhibition is different in that it doesn’t focus on migration, itinerancy and displacement but why in the world would you do two Biennales in a row on the same subject? I think there are clear political overtones, however these emerge from the location where psychoanalysis, psychology of perception, and politics, meet. I believe that no political revolution can begin without a personal and singular revolution. If you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X you understand that it is always about the individual revolution first and foremost. That was at the basis of all Black Panther Party positions as well. It’s about a singular individual revolution within the self, and then by extension and only by extension can it be a more broadly general political revolution. I suppose I address issues of phenomenology, the body in space, movement, the construction of form and experience through movement. All of the artists and all of the works that are in the exhibition are based on such forms of displacement, let’s say of perception, are also inherently about a broader revolution. If you were to ask René Magritte why he painted the paintings he painted, he would say ‘as a Marxist I believe that one of the only spaces of freedom is the one inside my brain and that cannot be colonised’. If you asked Aleksandr Rodchenko why he invented the Spatial Constructions, he would say that it was about a revolutionary new form in a revolutionary new society. So, I would say that there are politics, but the politics are the politics of aesthetics, much closer to, say, the thinking of Jacques Rancière, than to the thinking of art as activism. I believe that you can be a feminist but not a woman. For example William Kentridge is clearly a post-feminist artist in the way that he never defines the finality of a drawing, and there’s a constant celebration of uncertainty, failure of the narrative, a layering that is post-feminist, so it has nothing to do with being a woman or a man. By extension you can make a tremendously authoritarian and basically fascist work of art even if you are talking about issues of displacement, migrancy and itinerancy; whereas you can make a radically democratic and politically radical work of art on those same issues, and it all has to do with how the gaze is positioned, and how the medium (being the message) is being used, how the technology is being used. Is the technology used against itself to break the power structures that that technology was created for, to alienate people? Or is that technology just serving the purpose of reinforcing those same structures of alienation that are perpetrated through that technology and used in people’s daily lives. The internet can be a space of freedom and the internet can be a space of alienation. The internet is neither good nor bad, politically. The video can be a space of alienation and the video can be a space of liberation. For example, high definition is a clearly politically fraught terrain as it is creating a space of access only to the more powerful people – to have a high definition projector costs a lot more money than a standard projector, and suddenly the flooding of the market with 16:9 ratio high definition cameras is a reactionary thing that’s happening right now and has to do with making the medium inaccessible to the masses, and actually the ‘bad definition’ videos uploaded on YouTube are a form of Arte Povera in many cases, so they’re a form of breaking of the high definition world, right now. I think it’s very much about the politics of language not the language of politics.

I’m very fortunate and lucky to be able to do a Biennale at the time of this recent change in Government in Australia, and honoured to be doing it at the time of this momentous apology to the Aboriginal ‘Stolen Generation’. I think it was overdue and is an important moment for Australian history. Of course an apology has to be followed by real events, but it is a step in the right direction. I think the issues with the relationship between western colonisers and their descendents on the one hand and the Aboriginal people here on the other is a huge question. I see a great poverty which is not right, and I see the wonderful positive nature of the introduction of Aboriginal art made today in the field of contemporary art in museums. However I also see the sweatshops and the great market increase of values that these paintings have (without any resale rights going back to the communities from which they emerged), so I see many problems. I think part of the wealth of Australia is the mines and I don’t see the money going back to the Aboriginal people, who are the traditional owners of the land. I’m shocked to find that in this country there are no rich Aboriginal people whereas in the USA I see many wealthy people from all the minorities. It is very strange to me that there are no economic powers that are Aboriginal in this country. I would say that there is a very long road ahead but at the same time I’m very happy and honoured to be working here at this time. I’ve asked many of my Aboriginal friends and so far everyone has been very in favour of this apology, both artists and non-artists, so I think that if they are in favour it means that something right was done.

NK: Your curatorial practice often hinges on an historical kernel. How do you intend to integrate historical and contemporary artworks?

CCB: I think everything is contemporary. Anything that exists in the world is from a philosophical perspective contemporary. Is the water that laps the harbourside contemporary or ancient? I think it’s both. And the air that we breathe…I mean of course a specific flower has died and a new one has grown, but is that ontologically from a philosophical standpoint different than the water that is in the harbour? Therefore a painting that was made in the Middle Ages, if it exists today and I can perceive it, is contemporary. I actually think that nothing in the world exists. I am a sceptic and believe that there is nothing outside of what I can perceive, and everything that I can perceive is part of the contemporary field, because it means with time, and everything that is with place, cum loco, is also cum temporis, all of today. Basically I think there was an artificial distinction between what was made in the past and what was made today and that’s a consumer distinction, but in the past it was never so. Raphael would repaint a fresco of someone before him just to fix it and it was neither of Raphael’s time nor of the time prior, it was just of the place, of that Chapel. I don’t believe in this artificial distinction which I think has been created only for the purpose of marketing the new products, new artists and so on. It’s like in any field of our society; if you consider the old video camera as old and the new camera as new then obviously you are encouraging the acquisition of the new video camera. But maybe a more ecological perspective might be of more use.

NK: Who are the core artists and what has been your methodology for selection? How are your 12 curatorial ‘comrades’ contributing?

CCB: I don’t know if there are any ‘core’ artists. I think if an artist is doing a project that is only in the online venue, such as Ahmet Ögüt, or if an artist is doing a very elaborate project with say the Redfern community like Michael Rakowitz is, I wouldn’t call one of them ‘core’. Core suggests a hierarchy. I really think Romaine Moreton’s poem in the catalogue is just as important as Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s major installation at Pier 2/3. So I would instead use the word constellation of artists and artworks that appear and disappear; some taking up more physical space some taking up less, some taking up more budget some taking up less.

Methodology of selection: I think it’s an organic process. It’s true over the years I’ve tended to work with the same artists time and time again, and develop relationships with them that might go from a small participation in a group show to writing a monograph and doing a survey exhibition. That is one of the things that has characterised my practice as a curator. So you’ll see long-term engagement with artists like Pierre Huyghe, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, William Kentridge and others. It makes a constellation from which other things are logically attached as an organic process. Sometimes artists will suggest other artists. The comrades provide a collaborative knowledge. Hans Ulrich Obrist is a little bit younger than myself but more or less a colleague that I highly respect as a major figure in curatorial practice over the 1990s, and our relationship dates back to 1992 when I invited him to Rome to participate in a project on the relationship between high and low, marginal and central, core and not core and so on, and he brought a beautiful project about weeds to Rome. Ever since then we have worked together off and on; I would say he’s a friend and colleague, someone that I bounce ideas back and forth with, I think quite a free thinker. The other comrades are younger than me, for example Raimundas Malasauskas, Russell Storer, Natasha Conland, Massimiliano Gioni, Jessica Morgan, Hetti Perkins and so on. I think it’s in the pleasures of not thinking that one arrives at wisdom. I mean one never arrives at wisdom and it’s very interesting to see the perspectives of younger people and people from different contexts, Kathryn Smith from South Africa and so on and so forth, with different backgrounds. So there are no rules about how they should participate. Some have suggested artists and some have suggested ideas. It’s more about a collaborative form of knowledge that is more complex and contradictory than I could put together by myself. I think we’re in an age where it’s very hard for an individual without conversations to contribute to culture today in the way that an individual could in the past. There are more possibilities for sharing knowledge, but at the same time if you go back in time you’ll find that collaborative knowledge has always been part of it – look at Miracle Plays and Passion Plays in Europe in the middle ages, and go back to Homer – who was Homer? Homer was nobody, Homer was many centuries of different people. Collaborative knowledge has always formed knowledge. It’s only recently with the crazy idea of private property, which I think of the Enlightenment British idea. There never used to be passports and ID cards with photographs; that’s a very recent development of the last three centuries. I believe in sharing knowledge.

NK: How are you striking a balance between commissioning new work and utilising existing artworks?

CCB: It’s again an organic development. I don’t necessarily commission new work. Out of the conversation with artists a new work will appear on the horizon, whereas out of the conversation with other artists, a precise existing work will appear on the horizon – so it is obvious to me and Jeremy Deller that Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis’s The Battle of Orgreave must be in this exhibition because of the revolutionary potential of the strikes that Deller was re-enacting, as well as the fact that it was a re-enactment with the same miners that originally striked in the 1980s. So it’s obvious that that should be in the exhibition, whereas with Sam Durant it naturally emerges to be a new project and it was natural that Tracey Moffatt would do a new work because of the way the conversations went. So I don’t really ‘commission’ – both new and old works appear.

NK: What are the key venues and how will they be ‘activated’?

CCB: The key venues are the traditional venues – the long collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales continues, as with the Museum of Contemporary Art and Artspace. There are a few outdoor works, such as Giuseppe Penone’s and Destiny Deacon/Virginia Fraser’s work that will be in public spaces, and the collaboration with the Sydney Opera House continues with a performances by Dora Garcia and a work by Pierre Huyghe scheduled for July. Public space is a tricky space to use as it is so privatised and manipulated by the powers that are controlling desire in the urban landscape; I find it fraught with difficulties but we are using some of it. The main new key venue, aside from using again Pier 2/3 on the harbour (the only unrenovated pier in the Sydney Harbour that has been used previously by the Biennale of Sydney), and novelty for this Biennale is an island in the harbour called Cockatoo Island. It was not accessible until very recently and has probably had many, many inhabitants in pre-colonial times because of the opportunities for fishing etc. After this it housed a convict-built prison in 1830s, then a shipyard for military ship building. It was also, for a while, a reformatory for ‘wayward girls’. From the perspective of Michel Foucault, one could say that it layers everything that’s horrible in western civilisation – military power, sexual repression, the penal colony, everything. At the same time, something very strange happens when you’re on the island with its 52 buildings and lanes, big industrial buildings and domestic houses. What happens is you feel you’re in a location of respite. Through the looking glass onto a reversed Sydney. A mirror image or upside down Sydney – you see downtown Sydney from the island but you can’t buy anything; you can’t see any single piece of marketing. The drama of our society and of our cities is the overwhelming dominance of marketing strategies and advertising that overwhelms our lives. I think that the real prisons are the downtown areas of our cities. Cockatoo Island even with its history gives us such a sense of relief, an opportunity to see the city at a distance. I hope it will continue to be used as a venue. It is a curatorial paradise, can you imagine 52 empty buildings to use as you wish – bigger than the Arsenale and Giardini in Venice put together. It is a beautiful location for the artists who don’t have to be crammed into a supermarket/shopping-mall exhibition. You can take a few minutes to walk around the exhibition and pause between works, giving an autonomy and space around each project that is not possible in a normal museum. So I’m using the empty spaces and the voids as well as part of the exhibition.

NK: What kind of events, public programs and performances are you scheduling?

CCB: A little bit of movement and life doesn’t hurt. For example one of the most interesting events is with Australian artist Ross Gibson who will be in kind of a ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ environment to quote Melville. He will be ‘installed’ at his desk near Bruce Nauman’s The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths, 1967, and he will be holding conversations as revolutionary spaces of twists and turns and encounters of thoughts between different people, throughout the Biennale until September at the AGNSW. Another live performance event will be Stuart Ringholt’s Anger Workshops at AGNSW. Another event is Ana Prvacki’s performance at the MCA – which involves learning to play the flute as a technique for producing saliva, because saliva contains natural pain killers, so she’s creating ‘pain killer serum’ through learning to play the flute. Another live event is Dora Garcia who is enacting the performance that Lenny Bruce was supposed to have done when he came to Australia in the early 1960s. He was a wonderful and radical stand-up comedian who was paid to come out and do his show, but came out on stage and said ‘what a fucking wonderful audience’, got immediately arrested, thrown out with his passport stamped ‘no re-entry allowed into Australia’. So the fact that over 40 years later we would be doing the performance that Lenny Bruce was never able to do, through the imagination and projection the artist has created, at the Sydney Opera House, is fantastic. Liam Gillick is coming to give his talks at the end of the exhibition, and William Kentridge himself will do a very innovative new work which involves walking a fine line between what a lecture and performance is, and will be interacting with his own projected self. This will be a new development for Kentridge’s work that he’s never done before, even as a theatre person. There are older and younger artists doing events and performances throughout the Biennale, and I consider these on the one hand to be simply reflecting the reality of our time – I think many artists at the moment are interested in ephemeral works and works involving body – Tony Schwensen will be giving a performance in front of the MCA, and Sharmila Samant will organise an auction of the thousand snakes made by people in India, with money returning to the community they were made in, it is a work that deals with the cycle of life and death and the rupture that certain transgenic manipulations of seeds brought into life and farming areas in India. Pierre Huyghe is creating a performative piece which is not really a performance but almost a still image expanded in time, so a reversal of a performance, at the Opera House.

NK: I understand that there are more works by Australian artists than in previous editions with contributions by well-known artists including Mike Parr, Simryn Gill, Shaun Gladwell, Destiny Deacon and Tracey Moffatt. How are you positioning these artists alongside their peers?

CCB: One of the problems of international biennales is the global nature of the artist’s list. I think the reason you go to see Saigon Open City, for example, is to learn about the Vietnamese artists in the exhibition, and the Istanbul Biennales have always had a wonderful presence of Turkish artists. So I think a Biennale is not just about bringing international art to the location where it’s hosted as a form of exchange, but the exchange has to go both ways – a dialogue and a conversation with the local art community. It’s interesting that the Sydney Biennale might play a stronger role in putting Australian artists on the map than including them in the Venice Biennale for example, it’s the reverse of 20 or 30 years ago. So I think an important part of its role is to highlight them. I don’t really plan how to position them exactly – they’re not in a section of their own of course there all mixed up! For example Raquel Ormella is interested in art and activism and in the relationship between revolutionary art and art of the revolution. She has of course been influenced by Joseph Beuys and his idea of the social sculpture, at the same time she questions Beuys and his heroic, shamanistic, let’s say, late patriarchal position, so what will happen is that Raquel’s work will be in direct dialogue with the first blackboard that Joseph Beuys ever made. She’s doing a series ‘whiteboards’ will be made in relation to Beuys’ ‘blackboards’, and that is one way that shows an intellectual relationship between the artists themselves. It can be between live artists but it can also be between an artist who’s alive and one who’s not alive.

NK: How are you linking the Biennale circuit for 2008 with Yokohama, Shanghai, Singapore, Gwangju through Art Compass? How are you negotiating regional inflections in the Sydney Biennale?

CCB: I think that’s not really a question that I should answer. That question is better addressed to Marah Braye, CEO of the Biennale of Sydney, because I did not actually set up Art Compass as the Artistic Director. Of course ever since I arrived here I thought it was good to connect with Singapore and Gwangju and some of the other Asian biennales, however it is not something I can explain or answer. It is true that Sydney was the beginning of establishing international exhibitions in the Asia Pacific region when it opened in 1973. It was the first periodic international exhibition in the region; Singapore was only recently added, Yokohama Triennale some time ago, Shanghai as well, Gwangju after 1993 due to the impulse and desire of Nam Jun Paik to have something like that established in his home country after the uprisings and revolution that happened there (so it’s interesting that Gwangju Biennale happened as a consequence of the revolution there). But I can say that in so far as Sydney was the beginning of this expansion of the international periodic exhibitions in the Asia Pacific region, I think its engagement in Art Compass is very important. I’m not an expert in the Asia Pacific region, and I cannot change my own biography, my background and experiences. Cleary there has been a decision made prior to my engagement to ask a curator based in Europe and this has certain consequences. They also knew I was an expert in Arte Povera so a high-tech exhibition was not to be expected. I could have spent the last two years travelling in Asia and giving my first impressions but wouldn’t it have been wiser to ask someone else who’s very knowledgeable in that area to curate the Biennale, if the focus was to be on Asia? I hope that will happen very soon for another edition. There will be works by Atsuko Tanaka and Saburo Murakami, important Gutai artists in the exhibition, and there is Jun Kurashige from Japan, and Qiu Anxiong and Chen Xiaoyun from China, but I can’t say it’s a strong Asian presence. However I can say there is a strong presence of Indian contemporary art, for example Sharmila Samant, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Bari Kumar and Ranbir Kaleka. These things have to grow organically, they can’t just happen from the top down.

NK: Finally, what is your one dream for the Sydney Biennale?

CCB: There’s not one dream, I could mention various ones. I hope for example all of the new projects will be what the artists want them to be. I hope that the historical loans will all happen but they might need to be reduced. I hope also the ‘potential’ works (that is, the failures, the projects that cannot happen) will be present as absences in the exhibition. It’s very hard to achieve that because it has to do with the idea of potentiality and withdrawal (and so the politics of Paolo Virno and Giorgio Agamben); how you can create an exhibition where you withdraw art as well as exhibit art? Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas will be doing a journey, a circling around Australia as their project – so in a way it’s withdrawn as it’s not actually visible to the audience. But I hope those experiencing the Biennale will understand the reasons for these gaps and voids, which are as important as the presences in a world that’s so commercialised. I suppose one final dream is that the experience be a poetic one. I think, ultimately, poetry and emotions are where revolutions begin. I don’t think Lenin was motivated by rational thinking. I think any impulse, any revolutionary moment is dictated by irrational emotional things that make you do things that if you thought about them carefully you’d never do. So I think the poetic dimension is the most important dimension of any survival of life or art in any world. William Blake is one of the greatest revolutionaries. How can one achieve the poetic revolutionary? Which brings me to recall Julia Kristeva. Kristeva as a psychoanalyst, semiologist and political thinker explored the nature of the impulse to revolt, and one of her first books was Revolution in Poetic Language. I suppose it’s all about the poetry.
An edited version of this interview will appear in Flash Art
back to SPEECH
image, Vernon Ah Kee Cant Chant 2007, installation, various

Monday, March 17, 2008

Mark Wallinger with Bénédicte Ramade

How did Brian Haw, the activist, react about the reconstruction?
It was essential that Brian was behind the project from the beginning. We were able to consult him about getting access to all the photos and documentation he used - who had given him paintings and other artworks, what materials he had managed to gather together. There was a special preview of 'State Britain' for Brian and his family, which was a joyous event as was his participation in the public opening the following night.

What kind of reaction are you expecting from the public?
It was difficult to predict the reaction in London where the proximity of the Tate to Parliament and Brian’s continuing presence in Parliament Square gave the work an obvious provocative charge. I think the work is powerful enough to gather up all its associative power when transplanted to a different context - it will be intriguing to see how it is received by a French audience. It did become the focal point for the debate about freedom of speech and numerous school parties came from all over Britain.

You exhibited for over seven months this huge installation in London, how did the politicians react?
In much the same way they have reacted to Brian’s protest over the years. Only two or three MPs have been brave enough to be seen to back Brian in public, but it got a lot of attention from commentators in the media, and Brian Haw was voted the most inspiring political figure in Britain. We do know that the Prime Minister saw 'State Britain'. When Turner’s painting, 'The Blue Rigi' was saved for the nation, Tony Blair was invited to celebrate the fact. Nick Serota walked him through the Duveen Galleries, along the entire length of 'State Britain' and Blair was heard to mutter, “ I thought we got rid of all this.” It did become the focal point for debate about freedom of speech and many school parties came from all over the country.

For you, what is the most efficient form of art?
We remade something of immense importance that had been erased by an illegal act. What 78 police removed in the early hours of 23 May we restored. It took us five months but eventually we were able to return it to the public domain, under the noses of the state and police authorities and expose it to a far greater audience.
The amount of posters and banners, these copies, how are they making art?
It is the fastidious restoration of the moment that the rights to free speech which have existed in Britain since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 were trashed. This frozen moment is the historical record of this loss. The degree of fastidious work in reproducing every one of the 800 odd objects posters banners, paintings, photographs and texts is breathtaking. Each and every photograph was sourced: every teddy bear, doll and badger matched as was all the plastic bags, timber, cardboard boxes etc. This was then put through an accelerated process of ageing to reproduce the effects of weather and pollution. The forensic scrutiny and craftsmanship boggle the mind and produce a slow and involved scrutiny on the part of the viewer.

Do you think messages have the same strength, are still political despite the change of site?
I don’t think it requires a great leap of imagination to see it in Paris. The issues of freedom of speech and human rights in a civil society that have been fought for over the centuries are threatened: on the one hand by Islamicism; on the other by the opportunity fear affords liberal governments to throw their weight around and curtail basic freedoms. In Britain the restrictions around parliament were just the start. Now detention without charge for 42 days is being introduced and it is likely that the government will seek to restrict protest around the country. The fact that a nominally socialist party should seek to hand over the setting and implementation of conditions and consent to protest directly to the police illustrates just how fragile our hard won freedoms are. If that can happen in Britain then beware –don’t be complacent about what you hold dearest in your society.
The documentation of the catastrophic effects of depleted uranium from the first gulf war and the record of the aftermath of that conflict would have provided a corrective to those who though that invading Iran would result in a stable and peaceful democracy. It was a neo-conservative fantasy. Although France played no part in support of the American and English, historically it is similarly implicated in the problems of the Middle East and the post colonial settlement.
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Friday, January 25, 2008

Mierle Laderman Ukeles with Bénédicte Ramade

Bénédicte Ramade interview with Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Department of Sanitation, New York, March 2007

Bénédicte Ramade: When you wrote the manifesto in 1969, was it in reaction against the modernist cult of the artist as a lonesome genius?
Mierle Laderman Ukeles: It was a year and a few months after my first child was born. I had struggle for many years to be an artist before I have a child. I actually became an artiste because I wanted to be free. My heroes were all male: Jackson Pollock because of his bodily freedom, Marcel Duchamp because he had the freedom to name the things, art, and Mark Rothko, because I felt that he had the freedom to move from one dimension into an other dimension. That really is the reason that I became an artist.
My paintings were very expressionistic works. Then, I had a baby. We wanted this baby. I felt out a certain picture. Because the repetitive task works I had to do to keep that baby alive. I had a huge long education in art, in international relation, very the best cause that you can find, but nobody, NOBODY, ever, taught any culture, of maintenance. Because it was not in the culture, it was excluded from the culture. You do all these repetitive works, not for yourself but works for the others. It has to do with not pursuing your own freedom but when you’re a maintenance worker, it doesn’t matter about your freedom, it matters with the person, or the city, or the building, or the anything, that the institution, or even the planet itself. The value system shifted. All those things that my all my life had been like a damn one road, it’s like a fell-off the path. And the path was western culture. I felt off, I felt out of that picture. On one hand, I , with my fancy western education, was in agony.
It also occurred to me that – it was the time of the Vietnam war – and the American lust/lost for progress. We were playing out a lot of our fantasies about power and freedom on the backs of people in other parts of the world. These issues of dependency, independence, and interdepence, those really had ended up being this big subject matter for me. And western culture that I received is about independence, that meant a male culture of autonomy where you don’t talk about all those structures that you’re dependent upon. You don’t talk about what enables you to be powerful. Because then, you sound weak.

This was of the time of the beginning of the feminist movement and the beginning of the feminist art movement which I cared about. The feminist movement was like too big for me, I did not have time, but the feminist art movement was my life, I mean it was my life like I discovered some people who were sort of in the same boat as me and who were angry as I was. I was just furious that my education let me down. I felt I was falling. And then it took like a year and a few months, I just sat down and I wrote this manifesto. I named necessity freedom.

BR: What was written in this Manifesto?
MLU: I had a few drafts. I was two pages of ideas about maintenance, about development and maintenance. And then, I made a proposal for an exhibition. The first part/floor is personal : that I would live in the museum, and the artwork would be my taking care of the museum, like washing, feeding people, sweeping, dusting. And that was art. I was saw this in the Whitney Museum. So one floor would be focusing on his personal dusting, feeding, washing the dishes. Then the second part/floor would be general : I would have interview many people : what do you do to stay alive ? Those will be posted up all over the museum. Also visitors who came to the museum, they would be interviewed. And then, the third floor, I saw, was taking care of the earth. That everyday, different kind of pollution would come into the museum. A container of one garbage truck, container of polluted air, container of polluted water. And they would be transformed by what I said were scientists and pseudo scientists by who I meant ‘artists’. What I was really saying that the museum is a place for transformation itself, that active transformation can occur in the museum itself. That’s where the culture reinvents itself. And actually, in my case, with what I was talking about, it is the culture that is going invent how we’re going to stay alive on the earth. People have misunderstood. They thought that maintenance art is about cleaning. But it was never just about that, it was about the personal, the social and taking care of the all planet.

BR: You faced the moral system?
MLU: Absolutely. That was what this revolution that I was trying to set out was about “what do you need to stay alive”. I wrote this, then I sent it to Jack Burnham who was a writer about Duchamp. So I thought “that’s the guy, he would understand what I am talking about”. I sent it to him and I got a letter back from Jack Burnham who said he was writing an article about the end of the avant-garde, he wanted to publish extra part of my manifesto in Artforum. It was 1971. He said “do you have any pictures ? ”, so I said yes. Then I hang up the phone and I said to my husband Jack “take some pictures !”. Lucy Lippart called me up. She said “are you real or did Jack Burnham make you up for that article ?” I said “I am real, it’s me !”. We met, she invited me to become part of feminist art group, that saved my life. It really did. And then she invited me to be in a show, and I started like this.
I sent also a letter to the Whitney where I wanted to do my show, I got a letter from the museum on a half piece of paper, they did not sent me a whole piece of paper, saying “try your idea on or in an art gallery first, before approaching a museum”, like slap.

BR: How did you begin to perform?
MLU: I, in New York, in this very repetitive life, trying to figure out how I am gonna do all this, I got very jealous of my work traveling. I started contacting the curators at some of the stops, “would you like me to come do a maintenance performance work ?”, they said yes, and then I started like that. Then I did about fifty/fifteen performances.

BR: Acting directly within the museum was about sincerity, the deep sincerity of your involvement ?
MLU: Absolutely. Performance as opposed to theater wants to grapple reality, or changing reality. The first work I did at the Whatsworth Museum, so I looked back now and that’s just amazing to me that they allowed me to those things. I made four works there and the idea of the four was a kind of analysis of the art institution. Also looking back now, I never pulled away from trying to reinvent the meaning of that art institution, that the first exhibition in the proposal in the manifesto would be played out in a museum, it would radically restructure the meaning of the museum.
Those are like dynamite, dangerous subjects that maintenance reveals.

BR: It was less a question of gender at least ? rather than power, and hierarchy of power in art institution ?
MLU: As a woman, I felt, specially when I became a mother, that I entered the maintenance class of women which is thousands of years old, the problem with it is that nobody invited the women class to be maintainers. No one said to these women other ten thousands years “would you like to take care of the home ?”.
For Touch Sanitation, I consciously selected those sanitation workers who at that point were all male because they were doing the female jobs for the city that the females were told “this is who you are inside”. They would say to me “you know why people hate us : because they think we are their mother !, because they think we’re their made”. I was looking at them and saying to myself “who are you telling this story to ?”. This would saying to me : if I were a woman this would be OK if the hated me.
The first performance dealt with worker and value, then the second performance dealt with “who has the key ?”, and really the keys, the guard, you don’t think of the guard so much is a maintenance worker but they are maintaining the system of power of the institution. They are guarding all these valuable things, the cultural artefacts. They are the people who are guarding them, protecting them.
Like the culture says, WE decide that this is important, this valuable, and then these people are the guardians of these objects. They are not the decision makers but they represent the decision makers. They are the visible manifestation of that power to decide and also to decide when you get in, when you stay out. What I did is that I moved to the all entire museum, room by room, gallery by gallery and I simply did what the guard could do, usually do during open hours, access hours, when anyone could come in, I locked the door. I locked people in and I also locked them out. So people got pretty upset you can imagine. They got scared.
I was invited back to the Wadsworth, they also gave me a show on the 25th anniversary of this performance work. I came, they had a lunch for me and the head of security was there and he looked at me and he says : “don’t even think about it. I don’t know why we ever let you do that before.” I just slipped through the crack. It just terrified them.
There were two other works which were much more simple maintenance works of cleaning outside, which is also has this reference to the edge between the institution and the world outside, and then cleaning inside.

BR: And the other performance was this one where you are sweeping at the entrance of the museum ?
MLU: I did it first in fact.

BR: The picture showing you cleaning with a broom became of the icon of feminist art. How do you react today about this particular picture ?
MLU: Fine!
BR: Isn’t it a reductive way to consider this performance ?
MLU: I am just not this happy cleaner. That is reduction. My intention was far, quite revolutionary. You think people read it as I am happy to do this?

BR: There is a confusion…
MLU: That’s terrible ! Why did I do for ? That is not what I am talking about.

BR: This misunderstanding about this famous picture of sweeping is amazing. People in Europe think that it is only a feminist subject.
MLU: No way ! Touch sanitation was because the female cleaners are all men ! It’s really much more critical and more revolutionary. I was talking about reorganizing the world. Not being happy with your broom. That’s a joke.
In that sense, what I was trying to deal with there was about the decision, their freedom to make a decision. This notion that people think of my work like the “happy cleaner”. I am talking about a world revolution!
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Friday, November 30, 2007

Anthony Gardner & Justine Clemins in conversation

‘Rigorous Mundanity, or “Artists of the World, Connect!”’
Anthony Gardner: If we are going to talk about art and politics, let’s begin by asking whether this is just barking up the wrong tree from the start? Yes, art has clearly turned or returned to politics in the last few years. In the ‘90s, art was often about fashion or advertising or film – different uses of the image. So far, the 21st century seems to be very much about “politics”, or at least that’s what seems to be the case for journals like October, Artforum, or even more conservative press like Art and Australia.

Justin Clemens: Which we both helped to push!

Shall we start off from that idea of whether something like art, which is perhaps inherently bound to commercial practice – whether that be 15th Century artists and their patrons, 1960s’ Conceptual Art which was very much about immaterial labour, immaterial capitalism, the fixation on and reification of corporate identities and ideologies – so, is this return to “politics” really an attempt at legitimising a practice that is collapsing under its own weight? Basically, is art fucked?

My own view is that we’re not necessarily in a period of crisis, but of rank obscurity, such that we don’t really know what art is. There’s no particular form, place, personnel, techniques, materials – anything that was traditionally the zone of art no longer holds. It can now be anything, which we’ve seen for many years in any case. It’s part of the implosion of “art” in a globalised field. Which leads to the question: what is art? Is “art” just a name, is “art” a thing of the past, as in fact modernity began by saying? This is, bizarrely enough, Hegel’s statement in the early 19th century, which was that art is literally a thing of the past. The great era of the past, in which art bore the brunt of historical import, is now over. That doesn’t mean that there’s not still artists, or there aren’t still practices which are denominated as “art”, but they just don’t bear any historical importance. They’re just another little thing that people do with no particular import. They’re not particularly political, they’re not particularly economic, they’re just another anthropological practice.

So leisure time with a price tag?

But leisure always has a price. So why not art, why not any other form of entertainment in a generalised field? You might as well read a book, or go to the movies, you might look at porn on the Internet. In some ontological sense, there’s nothing special about art. If that’s what you choose to do, then good for you.

So another form of niche marketing, perhaps. But going back to the links between art and politics in the 21st century, does that mean that art just accepts its own entertainment value, or that art’s turning politics into an entertainment value? How do we assert this link when entertainment is the be-all and end-all?

In the sense maybe that art, or what’s left of it, is so desperate for some sort of grounding, or some sort of import, that it desperately insists on its political character. At the same time, though, it forgets that politics itself has become obscure. People ask the same thing about politics. What is politics? Is it environmental politics, which isn’t any traditional sort of politics? Is politics just another specialised class of people, doing parliamentary politics in our democracies? When it’s not that, it degenerates into warfare or tribal conflict. What politics is has become a haphazard, amorphous entity, that risks being reduced to global economics or techno-science.

Should we then be starting off with semantics? We started off with the question, “What is art?”, and thought that art has become imploded. Now we’ve asked the question “What is politics?” and politics is sort of imploded, something that Slavoj Zizek has called the ‘post-political denkverbot’. So do we still need to define what we mean by “what is art, what is politics?”, which sounds a bit like “Art and politics 101”. Do we still need to do that, or can we just accept the implosions that environmental politics is politics, that activism is a form of politics, that sitting in your studio and painting flowers is also a form of politics?

Even if it’s still a form of micro-politics, we can still insist on calling it politics. That’s possible, but I think one of the problems with this implosion – what makes it seem different, although maybe it isn’t – is that even going through the semantics a priori seems to have failed. It seems to be a recipe for failure. Once you start looking at it, you realise that nothing’s going to stop the slide or dissolution of these terms into an amorphous wash of rubbish. I don’t know. Do you have that feeling too? I’m not sure that this is true, but there may be a general feeling that what counts as art is irremediably obscure, and what counts as politics has suffered a similar kind of diminution. And where art and politics do still seem to have some meaning, it may just be a fantasy that we’re caught up in. I’m thinking of the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas in Bamiyan – my God, why would anyone take art that seriously? And then you think that that’s not even a political act, it’s more a religious act.

So we become aware of art and its politics in their own death? That’s kind of like Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea that death allows you to understand the limit cases of a term, or a discourse, or a practice.

Art is only evident now in the fantasies of art that others have in their over-evaluation of certain types of images, for instance. That’s sort of in that framework, isn’t it?

Yes, which makes me think that if that implosion occurs, what we end up with instead – and this is something that both Terry Smith and Claire Bishop have picked up on – are practices and discourses of ethics, responsibility, morality. These very large-scale philosophical, almost enlightenment terms return to replace so many terms that, in the ‘60s, were being questioned but also valorised, like “art”, like “aesthetics”, like “politics”. And that instead of going back to those terms, what we need to think about is: are we engaged ethically in a practice? It doesn’t matter whether it’s art, sitting in Parliament or eating a hamburger; that could be self-reflexive, it could be self-determinative, I don’t know, but it becomes a different series of practices or playing-fields in which individuals operate.

That’s a standard account: What we now have is ethics in the wake of the collapse of any sort of mass politics on the order of the French Revolution, on the collapse of the post-Romantic aesthetic dispensation. With these views collapsed, what we are left with now are ethical actions. In fact ethics becomes the major category or the secret category that emerges after the dissolution of all other categories. We’re in completely heterogeneous fields, nothing particular links them. We just do what we do, and the thing is to do them well, or to do them virtuously, or to do them to the best of our abilities, or to transform or become something else. These practices are no longer the simple creation of products or simply going through established forms of life, but are actually about changing one’s life in accordance with the demands of the place you find yourself. What we get caught up in is just a small version of this literally ethical turn.

The question I would then pose is, is that helpful in terms of thinking about what we do, whether it be art or politics or literature? Is that release of ‘the secret’, as you said, helpful in terms of what we think and what we do? Because it could, on the one hand, allow for interdisciplinary networks – to use more buzzwords – whereby art can connect with sciences, can connect with writers and so on, so you end up with these secret networks that are almost like rhizomatic tunnels of connection through these ethical fields. Or does it just excuse or validate the dissolution of disciplines?

One of the things I was talking about with my friend Oliver Feltham the other day was the problem with thinking generally of relations these days – whether under the heading of these rhizomatic networks, or systems, or other sorts of open-ended connectedness and connectivity. The very injunction to maximise connectivity, to maximise linkages between zones that were previously considered to be heterogeneous or irreducible is itself a type of contemporary capitalism: don’t sleep, don’t get a rest, just maximise connections. I was thinking about this recently because I got just onto Facebook, which is a horrific, narcissistic and heavily imagistic forum. Everyday, someone I vaguely know asks me to be friends with them, and everyday I ask someone whom I vaguely know to be friends with me on this network. I think it really is one of the injunctions of contemporary globalised capitalism: maximise, maximise, maximise your potentiality; and your potentiality in this case is nothing other than the proliferation of relationships, which are themselves established and sustained by economics, and by these techno-scientific toys.

Which makes me think about when Paolo Virno quotes Marx, and talks about the ‘commerce of potential as potential’. But instead of being about work labour – and Virno is clearly aware of this – is that this commerce is also about friendships and relationships, and there’s still this injunction of ‘only connect’. But to return to the art practices that are being talked about these days internationally: is this kind of imagistic, immaterial hyper-capitalism that we might see with Facebook the same kind of connectivity that we might see with groups like Oda Projesi in Istanbul. After all, Oda Projesi is similarly dealing with networks, operating in a much more material environment, but similarly trying to create relations that have some social benefit. This could be housing the homeless, feeding the poor or whatever. Is that therefore doing the same thing as Facebook? Can we push that into the same category of ethics or inethics, or do we still have points of differentiation?

It would be insane to say that the new forms of organisation that are possible are all subject to Facebook’s capitalistic contingencies, though it’s also true none of them can entirely escape that circumstance. So looking at groups that try to forge new kinds of organisation that actually have an inherent utopianism about them, like everyone should be fed, everyone deserves to be treated medically and for free, and that try to establish new ways with all of the tools at our disposal no matter where they come from, some might traditionally be considered aesthetic, some might traditionally be considered economic, some strictly political, to actually try to create new forms of organisation that aren’t quite the same as anything that’s gone before in a genuinely utopian way. That’s definitely something, but I’m not sure whether it’s art. So there are processes which are certainly different and important, but that doesn’t mean that my judgments about them are political, my attitude toward them is political, my feeling about them is political. If I sent a cheque to one of those groups, that wouldn’t necessarily be a political act. If I made an inspirational artwork with those intentions, why would that even necessarily be art either? This goes back to the semantics we were talking about before. Why not just call it a new life, a new beginning....

Or New Age, which returns us to that hyper-capitalism. So if someone like Jacques Rancière is talking about the aesthetics of politics, would you say that he is dealing with similar kinds of ideas?

I see his practice in probably three ways, all inconsistent in fact with each other. One of them involves him trying to find a way through this debate. At the same time, he might still seem to be caught in the dreams of a previous era, in the ghosts and residues of a previous era, the aesthetic era of modernity (which I date from the late-eighteenth century, the standard Romantic epoch). He’s still caught up in those dreams. And thirdly, I’m not sure about the relationship between his own work – even though it’s explicitly about art, and explicitly about politics – whether what he’s doing is indeed either of those things. They’re the three things. Firstly, he’s sort of out-of-date and impotent; he’s dealing with something that no longer really at the cutting edge of whatever is happening to us now. Secondly, he is trying to find a way through contemporary problems. And thirdly, I’m not sure where his own practice sits with respect to art and politics: is the self political – maybe; is it a self-aesthetic – not really.

Is it self-help?

Then we’re back to another form of ethics – proliferate connections, but also remember the injunction that we’ve got to be happy. Happiness is social, not just a matter for political institutions; if you’re not happy, you’re the problem – you’re actually a problem to yourself, to the people around you. You’re not connecting properly, you’re not happy with your connections – what’s wrong with you? This is a correlate of hyper-capitalism, which is hyper-ethical attention around the problem of narcissism, à la Facebook. Surely Facebook should make you happy – look how many friends you have! Everyone who joins can see how many friends you have; and so the more friends you have, obviously the happier you should be. And if you don’t feel that, then there’s something wrong!

Exactly – you’re unproductive and you haven’t got the smile. So why would someone like Rancière be so popular – certainly among art writers, rather than artists.

Because, after all that I’ve said, he’s fantastic. His redescriptions of dispensations of art are compelling. His interpretations of particular artworks or particular phenomena are sometimes fabulous and extremely striking. There’s no question that he’s intelligent and committed, and he also offers genuine hope for our existing dreams like art and politics. There are obviously a number of reasons for why he is so popular: he’s a good writer, he’s clear and he gives you tools.

But in a sense, though, those reasons recirculate what we said before. You’re saying that there’s a certain obsolescence about him, and it may not be “obsolescence” in the same productive or constructive way raised by Walter Benjamin. It’s a less canny, less cunning obsolescence, a cardigan-based obsolescence….

And thinking about this with respect to theories of art that are extra-aesthetic in some way, like Giorgio Agamben’s theory of art that essentially comes down to this: art is something that has no particular qualities to it, but nonetheless something that is done in and to a situation, using all the tools of the situation and that actually totally fucks that situation for a minute – things can’t go on as they were. And the emblem of this is his re-reading of the novella Bartleby the Scribner. Bartleby famously has this formula of “I would prefer not to” when asked to work by his employer. And that completely stuffs the legal office for a short time. The employer says “Work!” and Bartleby responds with “I would prefer not to”. Is that a yes? Is that a no? No, it’s a suspension, as Agamben makes clear in his interpretation of the novella. And it’s precisely a suspension through a standard phrase. It’s not at all agrammatical, it’s not nonsense, it’s not mad. Anyone could say it in such a situation. This enigma is proffered, which then totally transforms all of the agents in that situation and stops business-as-usual. The more popular term for it would be culture jamming. That would be one way in which I see another limit of aesthetic theory today, and another theory of art, which is that art will be whatever is done in a situation that transforms its agent and that transforms the situation. It can’t last, it can’t sustain itself, it doesn’t necessarily deliver any lasting forms for reuse elsewhere, but it somehow finds that point of a situation and produces an enigmatic deadlock within it, even though it’s not necessarily in itself inexplicable.

Is that hope or is that nihilism?

It’s kind of a nihilism – is that the best you can hope for, to work against absolute business-as-usual or a small cessation of activities?

And from that suspension, something hopefully, maybe will come about.

A kind of messianic redemption or redemptiveness or flicker or gleam.

So instead of walking on water, we’re treading water.

Treading water till you sink, which eventually we all will.

Sounds like a potentially dire situation.

Perhaps we should consider, then, whether there are instances of contemporary art we could talk about that link up with politics – like some of Vanessa Beecroft’s recent performances about Darfur or the protests in Genoa in 2001.

That’s perhaps more about opportunism. If we are going to be thinking about art practice, that’s something that we still need to consider. With this discourse of art and politics, if we do turn back to Rancière or Badiou or whoever, we do tend to ghost the contemporary, particularly considering those philosophers for the most part – Rancière is probably the biggest exception – return to modernist artworks and precedents….

To slip in with their own modernist philosophical sensibilities. Perhaps then we should have a look at work – and we don’t necessarily have to like it – or a practice and try to analyse it, to see whether that’s a better way to start thinking about art and politics today. From that thing called art or formerly known as art, rather than these generalities or theories.

When I’ve been thinking about trying to diagnose or categorise or even pathologise contemporary art in relation to politics, there are perhaps three or four categories that keep recurring. One is opportunism; we can talk about Beecroft vis-à-vis an opportunistic relation to “politics”, which also contains within it a rather narrow, almost desperate idea of politics being geopolitics or meetings of people who wear business suits and earn billions. We can come back to Beecroft in a moment. The second category might be neo-romantic, which could be this hopefulness or utopian gesture: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Hans Ulrich Obrist constantly talking about utopia in his interviews (which are like artworks in themselves). So there is a neo-romantic hope that perhaps art can create a shift in the subject through the action itself.

Thomas Hirschhorn would be another example there.

I disagree. From my own research, I see Hirschhorn as very cynical on the one hand, and yet also maybe fitting into a third category which is not utopian, but more a rigorous mundanity. That’s about getting in there and doing something – not so much the Bataille Monument, but a work he did after that (which isn’t talked about as much) which was the Musée Précaire Albinet. It took place in the suburb he lives in, Aubervilliers, and he worked with people that a lot of people might consider “disadvantaged”, as well as the Pompidou and another art space called Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, to set up a series of exhibitions, where people could work for art. It wasn’t about asking what art could do for the residents of Aubervilliers, but about what they could do for art. This isn’t necessarily the neo-romantic view of “what can art for society”….

It’s not art in the service of the revolution, but the revolution in the service of art in fact.

And also not buying into this utopian dream that emerges because, as neoliberal capitalism has shifted away from social welfare, art plugs that gap. This is an idea that George Yúdice has talked about in depth, which is that neoliberal capitalism leaves the field of the social, leaves the field of welfare and art tries to maintain some kind of socialist dream by tapping into that process….

In the evacuation of capital itself.

Exactly. And the idea of art being an aesthetic of feeding the poor, clothing the homeless is a case of art plugging the gap in neoliberal society, which therefore reinforces the status quo. Neoliberal capitalism can go off and do its thing; art with its poverty will try to work through it.

So, so far you’ve got three categories. You’ve got opportunism, neo-romanticism and this neo-arte povera or rigorous mundanity.

Can you think of anything else that might exceed this categorisation, which is problematic in itself – to contain and categorise practice.

I guess a fourth one wouldn’t fulfil any of the criteria you’ve outlined, but would be business-as-usual: the standard places where we expect art, the standard sorts of things that we expect from art – and now, that would be installation or video art or other forms of neo media art. They’re still not really doing anything; they’re still something you go and see, or say “that’s very intelligent” or “I love that”. That would be a fourth category, of art that just keeps plugging away in the grand old style. Which doesn’t have necessarily the same aggressiveness as the other three categories that you’ve outlined. There’s a manifesto element to them. Even with Beecroft, that opportunism is a very declarative, insistent, loud, in your face opportunism. The same for the neo-romanticism: not being able to stop using the word “utopia” in interviews is one symptom of it. Or indeed your third category still has to be pretty aggressively pursued: you go out, you do a lot of work, you do broadcasts – that’s all part of it, again linking in machines that help you to make better connections, for better dissemination, a better spread. They’re quite manifesto-like without any particular content.

It’s that push that’s the content, or replaces the content. And in that fourth category of business-as-usual may be the most surprising, because sitting in the studio and creating figuration or pretty pictures of flowers may be the most interesting of practices despite itself because it rejects this demand or this imperative to be contemporary. And this goes back to Rancière: that which is apparently not contemporary may be the most contemporary art form of all. That which is asynchronous may have the most contemporary “value”.

In which case, the most important, powerful, forceful art is what we don’t know about, it probably doesn’t even know itself and maybe we won’t ever know anything about it. It’s just out there, working away quietly, unconsciously, unknowingly.

Which then returns us to category one, because Beecroft is doing precisely that, but giving her art the label of politics. Her tableaux – and she’s talked about this a number of times – are pretty pictures, whether that be her work in the ‘90s and the supermodels, through to the recent work with the Sudanese women standing or lying on a white ground seemingly smeared in blood. Again, the idea of these beautiful people and beautiful images – whether it be people or flowers – wilting.

And that’s one of the things that you’d have to say about Beecroft: she’s a symptom of the collapse between the animate and the inanimate, between humans and other animals, between humans and non-organic things. In fact you organise people just as you would dispose of the colours from a palette. Everything’s material, including human beings. What you, the artist, insist is a striking and insistent image is enough. And that itself has some sort of political force, because what you’re making is making something perceptible in a new way, This brings us back to the amorphousness with which we started: it doesn’t really matter if these materials are living human beings or chemical paints. They’re just more material for your delectation and practice.

And self-reflexivity about that. Again, Beecroft is very aware that she is being opportunistic and she will unfold, unfurl and unravel that opportunism at the same time as she engages with it.

So artists of the globe connect; they have nothing to lose but a lack of reflexivity or something. Reflexivity is, as you say, a crucial element of this. Imagine Beecroft doing her work in a completely naïve way, of wanting just to show dead people. Could you imagine?

She’d probably sell more!

She probably would! Think of Damien Hirst and his platinum skull with diamonds!

Again, though, we could go back to his idea from ten or twenty years ago that all art is advertising anyway; a contemporary version of Benjamin’s point about how we ritualise and enjoy our own destruction. The key though, it seems, is to be reflexive about it – that suggests an ethical approach that can also be seen as political. It’s a lot like hamsters on a wheel, constantly circulating through connections.

So maybe art and politics aren’t very useful categories or points of connection in the first place. Maybe we need to make our own fifth category, a fifth way with its own manifesto – a fifth columnist, in our case. So no to art, no to politics!

image: Christian Capurro from the series 'Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette' (1999-2007), showing Justin Clemens speaking at the Albert Road Clinic South Melbourne 29/1/05 (photo credit Anthony Gardner, Capurro's installation at the 51st Venice Biennale)
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Monday, January 01, 2007

Curating Degree Zero Archive: interview

‘Trailer’ – Zürich. Festival der Künste & Museum für Gestaltung, Zürich. Exhibition organised and staffed by students of the Postgraduate Program in Curating and displayed in the program’s mobile project space `Trailer’. Archive re-interpreted through interactive interventions by Kristin Bauer, Isabel Münster, Sabina Pfenninger & Karin Seinsoth. and ACW interview Barnaby Drabble and Dorothee Richter:

[C.C] In a recent article published on n.paradoxa, Dorothee talks of “archives of shared interests”. This is a complex and fascinating term, and I wonder if it could work for CDZA.
[B.D & D.R]The term “archives of shared interests” was used by the artist group De Geuzen in an installation for the Manifesta in Ljubljana. Later I (Dorothee) worked with them at the Kuenstlerhaus in Bremen, and we decided to have another “archive of shared interests” alongside with a series of talks on feminist perspectives in visual art I organised with Sigrid Adorf and Kathrin Heinz. I hope that this term can also suit CDZA, because we’ve tried to outsource to our collaborators in the institutions or outside the power to include new positions and in this way we want to open up to new networks and friendships.

[D.B] The archive, which is on invitation basis, is focused on critical and experimental approaches in curating. Since 1998 you’ve collected material from international freelance curators, artists-curators, collectives, etc. Even if the aim of CDZA is not to suggest standards and canons, I would like to ask you what brings you to the decision of either including someone in the archive or not. And, also, how the criteria changed over the period of time of the project? How independent curating has evolved?
[B.D & D.R] The term “critical curating” is a very vague one, nevertheless we wanted to stay with it. It is discussed vividly at each new venue and this is a qualities in itself, that this term is quite questionable and initiates discussions. We agree, that the concept of critical curating inherently not a unified one. It is subject to constant historical change, just as the discursive formation of the visual arts is subject to constant transformation. In this context the making of exhibitions should be understood as a practice that produces, influences, and alters the object of which it speaks.

On the one hand, we take critical curatorial practice—as it relates to the Curating Degree Zero Archive—to mean an orientation around content that addresses political themes such as feminism, urbanism, postcolonialism, the critique of capitalism, and the mechanisms of social exclusion. On the other hand, we are interested in finding ways to go beyond the structure of the “white cube” and classical exhibition formats. This can take the form of interventionist practices, questioning the art world’s “operating system,” or new ways to impart knowledge processes.

[ACW] While you are making this archive who do you project will be using it, now and in the future?
[B.D & D.R] The Archive was shown in different venues, in art institutions and within the context of Art Schools, it was open to the public in Basel, Geneva, Linz, Bremen, Lueneburg, Bristol, Birmingham, Berlin, Edinburgh, London, Milano and Zurich. It is now on its way to Seoul. You can have a look at the tour . We like to go on with the tour and we hope to bring it to Rumania and Norway next year. It depends if an institution is willing to host us and invites the archive. Some day we will have it probably as a part of an Art School Library.
The public who is using the archive are mostly students and people working in the field of visual arts. For general public we developed a way to mediate it in Lunenburg: students with T-Shirts (" I can inform you" in all languages they are able to speak) helped visitors to use the link list on the website and explained different topics that can be found in the archive.

[B.L] Can you recognize any curatorial strategy as particularly incisive from your point of view?
[B.D & D.R] 'incisive' is an interesting term, literally meaning 'cutting', but often understood as meaning 'intelligent'. Maybe you could help us with the question and expand a bit on what you mean by incisive?

[ACW] sorry I've been a bit slow here. What I meant is nearly every archive will be addressed to 'the public' in a general way and art schools in a specfic way. Given that the project is open to the user and will be altered by how it is used, I'm wondering is it addressing an audience or viewer in a way that innnovates their role?
[B.D & D.R] I’m using incisive in both meanings you suggest me. I think a critical curatorial approach focuses on two main aspects: contents and the way to present them, as Dorothee already wrote (we take critical curatorial practice—as it relates to the Curating Degree Zero Archive—to mean an orientation around content that addresses political themes such as feminism, urbanism, postcolonialism, the critique of capitalism, and the mechanisms of social exclusion. On the other hand, we are interested in finding ways to go beyond the structure of the “white cube” and classical exhibition formats. This can take the form of interventionist practices, questioning the art world’s “operating system,” or new ways to impart knowledge processes).

Can you give us some examples from the Archive that you estimate particularly effective from the point of view of the display and the way to approach an issue?
Artlab at Imperial College, London. Installation design and archive reinterpretation by Artlab, Jeanine Richards and Charlotte Cullinan.

[B.D & D.R]Alongside the tour of the Archive we started to think more and more about the pre-formulating parameters of institutions and the resulting "power of display" as a manifestation of producing significance. So we become interested in a kind of process orientated knowledge production that disturbs usual displays and functions more as project work with different partners. Now it is difficult to prefer one re-interpretation to another, but I (Dorothee) liked the Sparwasser presentation a lot, done by Lise Nellemann, because she asked friends and visitors of Berlin to present in a talk their favourits of the archive. There were about nine evenings with at least two guests. So the discussions became quite lively. But this is a interpretation that will function in a big city, like Berlin, where many artits, art historians, curators live or pass through. Other environments make other forms of connecting with a local public necessary.

I (Barnaby) agree with Dorothee when she points out the overbearing significance of the normalised terms of display we see in all but a few of the major art institutions today. Ideologically speaking, the 'white cube' and all the diverse associations that the term has come to conjure up, seems an even more powerful paradigm today than it did when Brian O'Doherty first commented on its problematic transformative power in the 1970's. Why more powerful?, well, because it is no longer art that this form of display seeks to seperate from life, but increasingly 'life' itself. Whether it is the Issey Miyake store, Wallpaper magazine's apartment of the year or Laboratoire Garnier the 'white-cube' has matured rather than been undermined and combining the associations of high-art, high-earnings and faux-science it is all the more scary for it.

I like Dorothee's turn of phrase when she speaks of production that 'disturbs usual displays and functions', and would add to this that here, I believe contemporary curating and indeed art-making does not seek solely to disturb in relation to the history of art and its exhibition, but in broader terms in resistance to the power of display as witnessed throughout visual culture, including in marketing, the entertainment industry and the media.

With that thought in mind, I would come to the question and quickly point out three of my 'favourites' in regard to 'incisive' display.

Firstly Ute Meta Bauer's exhibition "First Story. Women Building/New Narratives for the 21st Century", which is excellently documented at, including pictures of the display system created by Nina Cohen and Itsuko Hasegawa.

Another favourite is curator Jacob Fabricius's project Sandwiched in New York in which he walked the streets wearing the 'exhibited' works, one day at a time, on a sandwich board. This uncomfortable form of human advertising is normally worn by poorly paid and frequently immigrant workers.

Finally Gavin Wade's (artist/curator) and Celine Condorelli's (architect) project support structure is interesting for its exploration of the interventive qualities of display structures and strategies To rather crudely quote what Gavin said in a recent interview on the topic:

"I would like to think that the concept of support structure is broader than what was physically there, and I think that people understood that when they came to use it. We wanted to make a structure that informed them and led them to do certain things, that provide a tool that was able to critique..."

[D.B] Thanks to our guests for the interesting contributions to the debate until now. I would like to ask to A Constructed World what for them is "incisive" curatorial stategy, as Benedetta said...
And wanted to ask Barnaby, who's now in Seoul, to tell us about the Archive showing there.

[ACW] This is an important project in terms of creating a shared history. And it is evident that as the archive travels it grows, picking up contributions and networks in new places. It is a very useful educational archive that brings aspects of this world together so it can be seen as a history. Writing history is also about exclusion, certain accounts being left out, some for obvious reasons, some for political reasons, and so on. As the curators of this archive you have set up areas of interest; critique of capitalism, feminism, beyond the museum, and more. Even within these guidelines for selecting content have you had to exclude or reject material and for what reasons?

[B.D & D.R]Thanks a lot for your positive response the the Archive. The idea of re-writing history we well keep in mind. We actually did reject some positions, some did look too partriarchal, some nice, but not political and so on. Sometimes we would like to include everybody, but in the end, one of us persuades the others to be strict, because this makes the archive much more interesting. There are international associations for curators, where you can find all positions anyway and we try to focuss on something else, something specific. One of the most interesting things is to question the means of including or excluding every time we put in new positions. -- It is quite possible that we will change the criteria in future, because we think about including/ excluding projects, not persons, but this is still open to discussion.

[B.D & D.R] I (Barnaby) have recently returned from Korea where the archive is on show at the Insa Art Space in Seoul. During my week or so in the city I worked with their team to integrate new material into the archive, I met and discussed the project with Meena Park and Sasa (44) the two artists who have reinterpreted the archive in Seoul [see image] and I gave a talk at the opening, which was simultaneously translated by Heejin Kim, curator of international projects at the space.

Dorothee and I were very pleased to get the invitation to present the archive in Seoul, but we were also aware of what challenges showing the archive outside Europe for the first time would entail. We have always openly acknowledged the archive's general eurocentricity, a result of the archive reflecting our own networks, and although we hope that the examples to be found in the archive have some universally interesting aspects, many are necessarily quite specific to their geographic context. So, there was always a question as to what extent the archive would be useful for the visitors in Seoul and how the very real differences between the cultural histories of Europe and East Asia would affect the reception of this material.

We were encouraged by an email exchange with Heejin, who seemed quite clear about the value of the project and about its applicability to the debate about curating in Korea. The website of Insa art space ( also helped us to see how the archive would fit in with the program there and perhaps more importantly how the space is actively questioning issues concerned with mediation, seeing itself not only as a site of display, but also as a site for archiving, work-shopping and theorizing about art production. When I arrived at the space a workshop was going on bringing people together to discuss the cultural life of the local area, and there was a constructive, informal atmosphere with staff and visitors dropping in and out of the open plan office, to pick up press material, charge their mobile phones or grab a cup of tea. This easy-going, but hard-working attitude at Insa provided a great environment for the archive and both the talk and opening were well attended, mostly by students and young artists, who seemed interested and engaged.

The question remains as to how best to extend the archive in relation to curatorial practice in East Asia. Heejin was quick to note that ‘independent’ or ‘freelance’ curating barely exists in Seoul, where the vast majority of curators are employed by one of the state-run (like Insa), company-run (like the Hyundai gallery) or ‘independent’ spaces (like Ssamzie space or Pool). Some curators have moved around between these sectors, but there are few resources for extra-institutional practice, either in the form of state funds or money from foundations. As a result the relationship between critical and experimental practice and ideas of independence in Korea must be understood as fundamentally different to the situation in Europe. As a result of these conversations and observations, I began to question whether the archive’s focus on freelance practice does not privilege those parts of the world where such practice is possible. The question of how the archive responds to this and which East Asian positions we will invite into the archive remains open at this stage.

[D.B] I wonder if the situation in Italy (or in some other European countries) is so different from the one outlined by Barnaby in Korea. Does the independent curator exist in Italy? Yet one of the reasons leading us to the creation of this site was to develop a discourse and a confrontation about this practice. Following the discussion, I still have to understand what exactly ‘independent curating’ is. If it’s about developing a critical approach (the ‘critical curating’ mentioned above in the discussion) I think that being independent it’s not enough to do it. There are ways to keep this approach from within an institution. Several institutions host projects and develop discourse in that sense. If it’s about staying away from institutions, it’s not to be taken for granted that you will avoid the same mechanisms you’re trying to escape from. On which basis then and how an independent practice it's developed? Is it something perhaps to be evaluated more from the projects than from a profile, as Dorothee was saying ? What type of ‘dependence’ is established between projects and funds?

[ACW] Perhaps we can come back to the question of who this archive is for and what it represents to whom. In terms of representing independent curating in Europe there are a number of holes and over representations of a couple of countries. This is natural when you are drawing on your acquaintances and friends (as we do in the independent world) to get projects started. So how important is it to acknowledge the subjectivity of a project like this? Is it something that we understand to be inherently there and it’s not of much consequence to discuss or are the limits acknowledged somehow?

If the Korean model must be understood as fundamentally different to the European model then so might the Australia (which sounds rather like the Korean model even though it is totally UK and USA focused) but also Italy, as Daniele suggests, is not representative of this European model.

[B.D & D.R] Well, after a short break from the discussion, I (Barnaby) return for a final post on this thread to offer some thoughts on the interesting questions set by Daniele and by ACW. I would begin by noting that these issues of 'independence' and 'representation' have both been the focus of heated discussion during the archive’s travels.

We would agree with Daniele that the independent of which we speak does not necessarily denote independence from an institutional framework. Indeed, we have often had to correct the assumption that the archive is 'anti-institutional’ by pointing out that the majority of the critical and experimental projects documented therein were developed together with institutions, albeit most frequently by curators who were not permanent members of staff. Similarly the majority of projects were made possible through the support of arts councils, foundations or sponsors, and the idea of a curator being financially 'independent' is a curious one, suggesting perhaps 'philanthropy' on the one hand or 'no-budget' curating on the other (both topics worthy of further discussion). But maybe there is a danger of seeking to qualify independence in overly practical terms. In her article 'a short essay on the phantasm of the independent curator and other far-fetched speculations' Dorothee introduced the idea that critical practice is possible despite the 'unsettling idea of being a non-autonomous, dependent subject to the core, inextricably bound up in the complex systems of culture.' Favouring not to support a return to avant-gardist separatism on the one hand, or an acceptance of structuralist views on autonomous objecthood on the other, she chooses to consider herself as a 'dependent curator'. So, perhaps the independence of which we speak is that which we find in the English term 'independent-minded', which is used to describe someone in charge of a reflective subjectivity who seeks to react to his or her constraints. Here we can extend this synonym and imagine that such independent-mindedness might be applied by curators to the very terms of their 'dependence'; a term which after all might be also understood as 'inter-connectedness.' What we propose is that a critical practice might be described by the terms in which such connections are negotiated – a sort of 'independent-minded dependence' if you like. Bearing in mind my experiences in Korea, Daniele’s in Italy and ACW’s in Australia, we can also ruminate that there is no universal definition of independence and that the critical potential of different relations to dependence and independent mindedness must again be understood in relation to their context.

To the topic of representation, as I think I have mentioned, it has never been our intention to 'represent' independent curating in Europe, and this is something we have repeatedly restated in person, on the website and in publicity and press material. However, despite our disclaimers, we are frequently criticised on this issue, either for trying to do so, or for not doing it well enough. For us then acknowledging the subjectivity of the archive is very important, because it is only once this is understood that the public can truly understand the open nature of the project, and the role they can play in it. This is absolutely not about validating particular practices over others, about proposing an elite, or marketing a ‘new generation’ of cultural players, but in an art-world where the most popular examples of selection (the museum, the biennale, the art fair) have no problems with being described in precisely these terms, it is very hard to stop people jumping to such conclusions. This material is gathered and displayed to provoke discussion, and we believe that such discussions promote the kind of critical ‘connectedness’ mentioned above.

As an afterword, it is not by chance that one of both Dorothee and my favourite ‘reinterpretations’ of the archive was the one Dorothee mentioned earlier, where Lise Nellemann decided to regularly invite people to select their favourite projects and publicly talk about their choice. In doing so, Lise thematised the archive’s subjectivity, pointed to its incomplete and partial nature and clearly licensed people to disagree with each other and with our selection – for us, she really hit the nail on the head.
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