A talk with Giovanni Carmine & Hassan Khan
Institution as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique? 27 March 2010, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. In collaboration with the Postgraduate Programme inCurating, Zurich University of the Arts
Introduction by Rein Wolfs: I will first say a few words about the two men next to me who will be speak- ing on the topic, Possible Encounters. I amintrigued by the sentence that starts the abstract for their talk: "How can the emotional conditions that lie behind the sensitive and complex relationship between artist and curator be understood as part of the practice of exhibition making?"
Giovanni Carmine, who I have known for about ten years, and artist Hassan Kahn, will tackle this question. Giovanni Carmine has been the director of theKunsthalle St. Gallen in Switzerland for about three years. He has worked closely with artists, such as Christoph Büchel. During the Venice Bienniele in2007, he did several free projects planned with the platform, Zimmerfrei, in Switzerland. He recently exhibited artists such as Gedi Sibony, ShahryarNashat, and Matias Faldbakken who will also be shown at Kunst- halle Fridericianum this Autumn. Hassan Khan is an artist from Cairo. He hasparticipated in a large number of biennales and triennales.
GC: Thank you Rein, and good morning. Thank you for the invitation, I am very happy to be here.
We completely changed the subject of our talk. We will still talk about emotions, but yesterday, while we were traveling here and nearly hit by lightning, we had an intense discussion about the synopsis of the symposium. That conversation inspired us to react to some of the topics. We feel an urgency to do this, and there are probably people herewho also have things to say about this synopsis. I also want to thank Hassan, who accepted my proposal to do this together.
We are working on a project that will open soon at the Kunsthalle St. Gallen. Discussing the relation- ship between artists and curators is one of the basics of curating. I want to start with an anecdote about how I met Hassan: I was invited to Cairo to do studio visits, along with another curator. Wevis- ited around twenty-five artists in four days and Hassan was one of the last artists we met. We had an appointment with him in a bar where youcan drink beer — which is not possible at just any public bar in Cairo. When we arrived there, Hassan made it clear that he did not want us to be inhis space, in his studio. He wanted to meet us to understand why we were there and what we wanted from him. Usually at a studio visit, you meetsomebody and ask about their works. I felt it was the other way around — the artist was interrogating the curators. What was your intention, Hassan?
HK: I think it's a good point to start with, especially in relation to this symposium. This first meeting was clearly about power: an artist refusing toallow the determining factors of this relation- ship to be predetermined; to have a stake, and claim that stake within the relationship. It was also about responsibility. If we are to build a relationship together, this relationship has to be built on a certain understanding of what the relationship means, where it comes from and what kind of investment it requires on every level, including on an emotional level. We are functioning in a field where theindividual is part fuel and part product. I needed to be aware of these things from the first meeting to determine how this relationship wouldproceed. I was willing, of course, as in any relationship, to lose everything and to gain everything.
I can now relate this to what we noticed when we were reading the synopsis of this symposium. It was my impression, and perhaps others share this impression, that there was an implicit position being constructed for what is called the "critical curator." The positive point about this position is thatone is able to stand untainted by market and untainted by hierarchy. This seemed to be the underlying rhetorical thrust of the text. From my position as an artist, one of the few sprinkled in this room, the exact opposite has been the most productive in both my personal and professional life. It is actually themeat of the matter that has been most productive, rather than this abstracted "pure, floating critical curator."
I would like to go back to you, Mr. Giovanni. Yesterday we came up with the acronym, "CCC," which we gleaned from this text, standing for the"Critiquable, Critical, Curator." That seemed to be an ideal, invisibly lurking underneath these words. How would you relate to that ideal?
GC: This ideal was the concept we extracted from the text, and is not closely related to the praxis of curating. There are many concrete things that relate to the work, and yet often we do not talk about these things when we meet. I am very happyto have an artist who can also critique the "critique con- gress." It is a bit self-referential to exclude artists from meetings between curators because, inthe end, they are the reason we all have a job.
I think that the pyramid of the relationship between artist and curator should be re-established. The work of art and artist should be the primaryconcern, and then the curators and institutions. We tend to forget this and instead investigate theories that are not directly connected to the praxis ofexhibition making. Yesterday we discussed this idea of dirtiness — the giant orgy that is the art world, where every- body has relationships with everybody.There are curators who write for magazines, make exhibitions in galleries, and hold positions in foundations. Everything, everybody, all the time. Thatcan be fun, but I think very pragmatically when I create exhibitions. My position has changed drastically between when
I began as an independent curator and now that I have an institutional position. In an institutional position, one's focus changes completely because one is positioning oneself in relation to a program rather than to a specific project. At least, if one is running an institution like the Kunsthalle, with limited financialand personal resources.
Now to re-introduce the idea of emotions. Maybe it's a bit romantic, but I believe a real involvement, a passionate involvement is necessary to create a curatorial energy and to realize projects. Hassan, you told me yesterday that there are two kinds ofcurators you like to work with. Can you comment on this?
HK: I either like to work with a super-professional, distant figure, who is there and with whom I can very clearly work out exactly what we want andwhy we are in this relationship. These projects are com- pletely achieved and everyone is treated perfectly correctly. I also like to work with the opposite type: completely engaged. The collaboration could be quite messy sometimes, but there is a real dialogue in terms of both content and relationship. This type of relationship can be very tense, but is also very productive. In both cases I feel that what is at stake is valued. This is opposed to what one notices a lot in collaborations with curators, which is thegesture, the instrumentalisation of your work to support a thesis. It subverts the very space through which the artist should operate. That happens through thefigure who does not value what is at stake, and therefore is not invested.
Both of the prior poles I mentioned before are completely invested, but they have different under- standings of what is at work. They both possess a certainprecision, which is sadly lacking in this half- baked theoretical technique that uses theory to ground the claim. It is the artist's responsibility to complicate thisrelationship, to speak from a very clear position, to always be strategic, to know what his or her interests are, and to demand them in one million andone ways. That is productive.
GC: I think is very important to place clear cardinal points, which is what you did at the bar in Cairo. And after the discussion you ended up inviting usto come to your studio and showed us your work.
Returning back to this responsibility to make things complicated, do you see yourself as a difficult artist?
HK: I think a lot of people see me as a difficult artist. But I want to emphasize the ideal of an emotional economy, under which the artist is operating. This means that the artist is not in a cycle of production, but is actually invested as a persona, regardless of the content of the work. This creates avery specific area in which one must operate and in which one must protect oneself. Everything within that is valid. Not just valid, it's necessary — forthe whole circuit, not only for the artist.
GC: One point that we discussed yesterday and this morning, which takes us back again to this emotionality and pragmatism, is the idea of academicism.This idea is connected to the many curatorial courses and schools that have emerged, and often inspires projects about curating, forgetting the position ofthe artist inside this triangle of public, art, and institution.
HK: I never understood what academicism really meant until an experience I had recently. Last year I was invited for the first time, with two othercolleagues, to be part of a selection jury for a national competition that is called the Youth salon in Egypt. the Youth salon is an open call for all artists under thirty years old to submit works that are then selected and shown in an exhibition. The jury is composed of nine people. My colleagues and Iwere the only members of the jury who were not parts of the state system. There are many reasons why we were invited, some that have particular resonance in relation to this symposium. This institution was in transition, moving from being part of the tools of state power, to becoming a model of new institutions. One of their reasons for inviting us was that we possess a certain kind of cultural capital and credibility, as we all came from a position of "critique" - although I would not use those words. But that was their fantasy of who we are.
During my time in the jury, I saw 1,100 works of art over one month. After the period was over, my col- league and I were writing a text about theworks, and needed to look at these 1,100 works of art again for one week. During that week, we discussed them very profoundly, and that was when I learnedwhat academicism meant. We had to ask ourselves "Why is it so clear to us from our position that so many works are so poor? Why? Where did that comefrom?" In the artwork, we could see a clear process of validation. One of our colleagues had a very informed practical art history background, and was able totrace the genealogy of the gesture of the artwork. He could sit down and tell you, "this work is mannered in this way because this guy is a student of this professor, who studied there, then." Sum total: what you see in the artwork are aesthetic gestures that are present to make arguments about what the artist is, or who the artist is. What is valued is different in terms of time and position, but this idea of creating an argument is what academicism is.
GC: This can take us back to the subject of the symposium. Just a thought: Maybe it's the lack of institutional critique that generates academicism, at least inthe Egyptian context. But perhaps we can discuss that later.
In the text of the synopsis of the symposium, there are many rhetorical questions. The CCC that we mentioned before is presented as the politicallycorrect way to see curating. I think it's dangerous to be politically correct. Hassan, you picked out a sentence that you would like to quote.
HK: Yes, but actually I will jump somewhere else that is related. What I also realized was that there was some genealogy thrown into the text thatconnected the rise of the critical curator to 1960s anti- art, which is a nice subversive, glamorous precedent. I was telling you about an analysis of thismoment in contemporary art being much more related to what happened in the 1980s with Thatcher and Reagan, rather than connecting it to the 1960s with anti-art. Is it possible to read such meetings as attempts as legitimizations of these shifts within the scenes, rather than real investigations?
GC: Talking about institutional critique and the establishing of a new elite, I would like to talk a little bit about the project you are preparing to do at the Kunsthalle St. Gallen. It's an intense and important project. You also worked in theinstitution, so maybe you can explain one of your pieces you made for the show. It was a process I observed directly and much of the team was involvedvery directly in the piece.
HK: For the piece, I worked with Giovanni, Marin and Hilda, three members of staff at the Kunsthalle who were available during the time I was there. Iworked with them to produce a little play that was shot in an empty theatre and will be made into a film. It's a film of a play that is shot in a theatre.
The play is not in any way related to the role in the institution or the relationship to the institution whatsoever. It was based upon very intense individual work with each person. I knew I wanted to do this because it builds a certain relationship. Throughthat relationship, a form is produced. I did not have any preconceived notions of what that play was or what it was about. It was an open exploration witheach individual as an individual, not in terms of their institutional affiliation. A lot of the work involved their biographies and personal lives, but that remainscompletely confidential and is not dis- closed in the final product. The final product that is shown is not about those things, they were just part of the material we used to produce what I am calling here a "form", in an expanded sense. But that is treating the institution as medium. However I did not do it with the hopeof reaching some kind of critique, which is absolutely uninteresting and reductive to this kind of work. I could have done this work with completelydifferent people and produced another slightly different format, but the interest was twofold. One interest is, in terms of my own practice, that I amengaged with the idea of working with people to produce a form. The other is the choice of what kind of relationship one builds with an institution. This relationship is invisible to the audience in the end, but it was an important part of what happened during the period of preparing for the show.However, the work itself does point to the fact that the people you are seeing in the film are members of staff at the institution. So whatever they are doing,even if it has no relationship to critique or institutions, becomes, in the eyes of the public, accented by that definition. And that is not the aim of thework, but it is an interesting side effect.
GC: Maybe I can read between the lines and propose that what you are saying is that you are aware that critique is fashionable.
HK: Can I not be?
GC: Yes you can. Or critique is a fetish in curatorial congresses, and the element of the audience. You used the word "audience" for the piece in St.Gallen, but you also talk of the "invisible audience" as an ideal public for your work when you are in the process of generating a work. Do youwant to talk more about the invisible audience?
HK: Yes, that is something that I discovered over fifteen years of practice. I was once asked by my gallerist, "who are you producing this work for?" Withtime I discovered that what I am actually doing is constantly testing the work, in my imagination, against an audience that I call an invisible audience.This might sound like an absolutely narcissistic experiment. There is no audience that I am locating from any specific demographic or any specificgeographical location. This invisible audience is not an inner voice telling me what to do, but a fantasy based on every single experience that I havehad. It is related to every audience I have been in, and every person I know; it is related to the sum total of my experiences, and produces a sort of sparring partner that is always looking. I am testing the work to see how the invisible audience reacts. I imagine how they will negotiate the workformally and technically. The conceptual side is also visible as I imagine how people will read and comprehend the work. It's a complete fantasy ofcourse. But it is a fantasy that is very productive because, first of all, it saves me from serving an ideal. If one is supposed to be critical, or otherwise, one is caught in a struggle of expectations and looks. The other side is that the invisible audience can also be a form of cultural history because theinvisible audience is a sum total of one's experiences.
In my case, these experiences are filtered, constantly reassembled, and charged with my own priorities.
As the director of an institution, you are in a different position. You are probably more constrained. Do you think about what your institution is supposedto do in terms of the audience, or what kind of service you are supposed to offer them?
GC: You were saying this morning that it is getting more and more important for institutions to have visitors because it's becoming the reason for thepoliticians to finance them. We recently had to fill out a huge survey from the political office in St. Gallen. The survey was used to figure out if itmakes sense to finance the Kunsthalle and other institutions in St. Gallen, or not. I do not think these people have ever come to visit the Kunsthalle, so theywere a kind of invisible audience too. It's very important to have people that come to see the exhibitions, but we do not have an ideal public. Often
I have the feeling that there is the desire to fulfill the many needs of so many different people, from the kids coming for workshops to the politicianscoming every three years to see a little bit of contemporary art. In the end, I think it's much better to ignore this element and trust the profes- sionalism andexperience we have. I try to figure out what interests me, what really motivates me to make shows and make exhibitions. These things will find apublic or an audience. So again, we are back to what Rein mentioned before about these emotional elements. I think it is very important that the peoplewho come to see the exhibitions are involved, on an emotional level, in what we do with the art. When I go to see art, which is my favorite thing to do, Ican be very pissed off, or very impassioned, but I always create an emotional relationship with the art — which does not exclude the intellectual relationship.But it is my personal motivator.
I would now like to open the conversation to the audience.
Dorothee Richter (symposium co-organiser): You connected some artistic practices back to the 1960s, and I think that is a very important connection. Theartistic practices like Fluxus and so on were laying a basic ground for a meta-level of cultural production that was a shift to a more communal and critical production and artistic realm. I think that in relationto what you called today a "curator," this field of organizing was taken out of the hands of artists and occupied by so called curators. About ten years ago,one very often heard curator bashing from the artist's side, and it's clearly coming up again. But on the other hand, I want to argue that it does not matterso much anymore if you are a curator or an artist because these fields merge to an overall cultural production. What really interests me is the inner tensionof the work in a specific context. What the content is in the end is perhaps not totally intended, although this does matter. It is meaningful, and it's important to know what you are doing and to reflect on it.
HK: It does matter if you are the artist or the curator because you speak from different positions. Your interests are different and it's not about bashing or notbashing, it's about speaking from the position you are located in. If one wants to be true to their practice, it is the ultimate condition to be aware of yourposition and to speak from it. I think it is absolutely essential on every level: political, personal, and otherwise. I think this requires a specificity and this specificity has a relation to curatorial practice, but it cannot be dissolved by curatorial practice.
I also want to say one thing about the myth of the rise of communal art practice in the 1960s. I think it's possible to re-look at art history through differentparadigms, in which the production of value is a very important element in that. If something is circulating in an economy, it retains its status as an object,whether the economy is financial or not.
DR: That was the strategy of the Fluxus movement and other movements, to shake the commodity value of art, wasn't it? Even if they did notsucceed, maybe –
GC: We can have questions from the audience also.
DR: Yes as well, but I feel that I am part of the audience of your talk so I would like to discuss these questions with you. I think it is much morecomplicated. The Fluxus artists were not very clear on this topic. They had not decided to have their production only outside the art field, the economic field, because they also acted in different ways, with a veryinteresting ambivalence. They simultaneously wanted to bring it into the art world, and did not want to bring it into the art world.
GC: So back to the CCC, back to the idea of the pure curating or curating as a virginal state of mind. I really don't believe in this. I feel I am a privileged person to live off of artistic work as a curator, and I always thought that if I would like to change the world or, to work on a more ethicallevel, I should start to work in an NGO. And in this sense I prefer to read le Monde diplomatique than to go to see a so-called political exhibition. Butthis is my position on that because I think that journalists sometimes make better work than curators if they deal with certain objects. I personally believe inthe artworks and the work with the artist to realize artworks.
Audience member: I have a comment concerning what you said about the audience, the visitor numbers, and the politicians. There is a problem thatoften institutions have to feature artists who have a well known name, and that the bourgeois public only comes when it sees that there is a well knownartist on the programme. But of course there are many very good young artists who are not shown as often as the big names. I think we all are sensitive tothese things, to name dropping, so maybe it's a problem with marketing, and also a problem of institutional critique. Could we discuss this?
GC: That is an interesting point because here we are talking about curating contemporary art, but curating is not only this. Of course there are curatorsmaking medieval art exhibitions that have com- pletely different professional challenges. In the case of the Kunsthalle St. Gallen, which works with artistsfrom my generation, it makes no sense to make a Picasso, Cezanne show. We fill another function in the art world, so it is very difficult to connect marketing with a name like Hassan Kahn. It makes no sense because we are acting in a very specialized field, where people are more or less aware. It is a bit elitist, but this allows us to start to talk about contemporary art on another level because the public coming to the Kunsthalle is aware of a certain language, a certain vocabulary, and a certain development into the art in the last fifty years. This allows us to be more precise in the activity of curating.
Audience member (Dimitrina Sevova): I like the juxtaposing of academic and anti-academic approaches. I think up until now no one had mentioned that pointin this conference. The main focus was institutions — large-scale institutions, some of them alternative in their past, but no currently self-organized spaces.
For instance, in Zurich the young scene is mostly based around off-spaces. They have different approaches, I do not want to put all of them in one box —some of these off-spaces are run by artists, others by curators. I have not seen the viewpoint of people who run such spaces. There are also some youngcommer- cial galleries that have developed interesting programs, rather more experimental, even critical, than commercial, and tactics how to survive without institutional support — because institutional support always depends on certain politics or certain relations with the state. Sometimes the museum matrix ismuch more actively playing on the art market, giving a certain selective visibility. The academic approaches in institutional contexts and academic contexts are always about certain standards, which are always related to the bourgeois gaze in exhibition spaces, these so-called "good" eyes. I really like the idea of theinvisible audience — or the audience that is absent. That is, according to Bourdieu, one of the main approaches to deal with the point of visibility in the capitalist system: playing with visi- bility and invisibility. Take the feminist art movementduring the 1970s. The visible audience in the museum spaces is mostly middle class. I would like to hear more about this idea of the invisible audience.
HK: Just one point about academicism. I used the term not necessarily to mean coming out of an art education, but rather to mean practicing art as a way ofproducing a certain image of what the artist is that is connected to ideological structure. The possibilities are quite open, depending on what model youchoose. But it is this concept in which you choose a model of what the artist is, and the work be- comes a method of presenting that. That isacademicism. Another manifestation of academicism is related to the gestures and mannerisms in which your practice is the practice of seeking validation through a genealogy of gestures and the extent the marks you make through your practice, whatever the practice is, are informed by that. That is alsoacademicism. It is not necessarily related to art school.
The point about invisible audience, I will answer now. The invisible audience is the voice of consensus and the voice of the establishment. However, Iam only speaking about my own personal practice as an artist. The idea emerged from an engagement with that consensus, and was informed by it too. Itis an internal relationship, and I am aware of the idea of consensus in the background, but I do not reject it. I do not think that the position of theartist is to reject or accept consensus. I am speaking from a personal description of my own practice and I am not trying to make a larger claim about it.
Transcribed by Amber Hickey
The second part of the publication for the symposium, Institution as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique?, organised by the Kunsthalle Fridericianum and the Zurich Postgraduate Programme in Curating (Institute for Cultural Studies, Department of Cultural Analysis, Zurich University of the Arts), deals with notion of art-mediation and addressing publics in the realm of institutional critique. The question remains: how can a practice that intends to radically show the conditionality of art, its financial entanglements, and its function as a means of distinction, be related to institutions and curators’ activities therein? Is this not a contradiction in terms? The aim of the symposium was to explore these contradictions, as well as the possibilities and limitations of critical curatorial practice.
Contributions by Giovanni Carmine, Maja Ciric, Neil Cummings, Helmut Draxler, Beryl Graham, Damian Jurt, Hassan Khan, Marysia Lewandowska, Isin Onol, Dorothee Richter and Yael Eylat Van-Essen. Edited by Dorothee Richter and Rein Wolfs.