A Skype conversation with Marion von Osten by Charlotte Barnes
This interview looks at von Osten’s unique working methods through several of her key projects focusing on her collaborative style and multiple roles.
Charlotte Barnes: You have many roles, artist, curator, author, and professor; do you feel that you are more one than the other? Is this something that changes over time and will change in the future?
Marion von Osten: No not at all, all the roles belong together. For me, it’s a need to do something and a kind of Constructivist approach. The Constructivist's historically did not divide between these positions. The Russian Constructivists designed exhibitions, made artworks, published, created posters and so on. So, it’s a question of tradition, of which genealogy you insert yourself into. There is the 19th Century male genius model that is still working, but I’m not in that kind of tradition but refer to a feminist and micro-political approach. If you look at feminist art from the 70s, you find that they had to self-organize and create exhibitions. There was a need to do something. I would like to see the taking of multiple roles more as a necessity to inhabit different possible articulations in the art field. With teaching, it can also mean working together with younger practitioners and to understand the classroom as an intellectual laboratory. So yes, it’s all part of the practice.
CB: In the exhibition, Be Creative! The Creative Imperative! at the Design Museum, Zurich (2002-2003), you were the curator as well as a contributing artist. What were the biggest challenges for you on this dual-role project? And what if any were the biggest advantages of curating your own work?
MvO: That is an interesting question because actually that is still a taboo - you can either be one or the other. This divide represents a boundary you cannot cross. Ideological boundaries are interesting for an artist to work with. In the Be Creative! Exhibition (2003) I did this very consciously. On the one hand it was a collaborative process a research processes that meant working together with very different people from very different backgrounds, focusing on the issues as experts in the field.
There are a lot of problems in research when the expertise of the actors in the field are not taken seriously enough. Ethnographical studies are known to be plagued by this., So if it is about creativity, then who are the experts? I guess the artist and the designer. It was very important in this process to let them speak and I am part of them, I am not an outsider, I am not an impartial researcher - coming in and having an object to study - I’m part of the process and that made all very interesting. The research thus was militant on consciousness raising one could say. And I produced a video with all graphic and multimedia designers at Schöneggstrasse Zurich (k3000), as an exhibition contribution. But because the exhibition was in the Design Museum nothing had to be an artwork - that was liberating – On the other hand art curators regarded the video in the exhibition as a valuable work that could be shown in an art context again, but there was no intention for it while making it. And also practitioners who were involved in Be Creative! were not all artists. We were collaborators who brought in material, documents or ideas, theories. And the listing of contributors in the exhibition folder is thus not equal to a list for an art show. This is very important to mention, as it is actually a political strategy and a clear strategy against this normative idea of how exhibitions are made and who the contributors to exhibitions are. It’s not just the artists, it’s even the technician, everybody needs to be recognised because in other forms of culture production, like film production, it is usual to credit everybody who was involved. In a Design Museum it is also very usual practice to have a the full production team named. Some are contributors with research and artworks, and some bring documents, ideas, do the exhibition design, the installation and all are named.
CB: You worked with a large number of specialists on this project, including architects, artists, designers, cultural historians and others, with such a large collective how did you manage the hierarchy with your co-curator and how did you maintain your vision?
MvO: It’s a process and the project cannot just turn off. It’s not like in the art world where you are asked to have something finished in three months for the next show; it’s a process over a long time. The last exhibition project: In the Desert of Modernity and The Colonial Modern Project (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 2008, Les Abbatoirs, Casablanca 2009) needed seven years of work. It cannot be done fast. And you don’t just collect people and put them into a fast process. The logic for doing the exhibition, Be Creative! The Creative Imperative! in 2003 lay with the sentiments expressed by the current Dean at the Zurich University of the Arts, who at the time claimed ‘creativity’ would be the main asset in the future world, and that was before the whole creative industries discourse came to Germany. The term creativity does not have the same sense in German speaking countries like it has in English speaking. In German Kreativität refers to home crafts, such as knitting; we did not associated it with artistic practice. Artists would not have called themselves creative, so the term was actually counter-creative, one could say.
We had a very critical approach from the start of this project as a reaction to the Dean's sentiments we were all asking what and why he was talking about creativity. So, I decided to do something at the University and found partners who were interested in that subject, too. I knew some colleagues who were also very upset about these courses, so I gathered them together and I went to the Museum of Design in Zurich to present the idea of an exhibition on the notion of creativity. They were not against it because at that moment the school also wanted the teachers to be much more involved in exhibition making and thus it was a collaboration with the Institute for the Theory of Design and Art in Zurich and the Museum of Design, that was still based in the school. So I also used this energy of the moment. To initiate a project like this is not something which you do artificially, it’s created in the moment because of a common interest. Then you have to seek out the experts, and one was Ulrich Bröckling, a Sociologist, who I had worked with before for the “Welcome to the Revolution” Symposium two years before. Another was Tom Holert, who had a fellowship at the ith (Institute for Theory of Design and Arts ZHDK) where I was working as a part time researcher as well. The group that constituted was also involved in local practices. Thus the project happened in Zurich, I lived in Zurich and it was at the University and it was about the school. And it was also using this international container of the museum of design to bring the discussion into the public. The exhibition got many reviews in design and architecture contexts and I really appreciated this as the content was not limited to the art world at all.
CB: This exhibition travelled to the Hochschule fur Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig where it was curated by Beatrice von Bismarck and Alexander Koch. Do you feel that the involvement of a new curator shifted the authorship and meaning of the exhibition?
MvO: Absolutely, the Hochschule fur Grafik und Buchkunst has a a different history than the school and the Museum of Design in Zurich. In terms of its history, the Zurich school comes out of the modern movement and not out of the 19th Century Art Academy tradition, Thus, Leipzig has a different approach even that they have design departments too. In the context of Leipzig mainly new artworks were created and the exhibition space was the universities gallery. It was also pushing boundaries because there were art works that worked critically with the issue, and worked through it within the art space. One can say that the context was highly important here, and I think it brought a lot of interesting tensions for us involved from Zurich and Leipzig in working with the two contexts. When the students from Leipzig came to Zurich, they had some pieces in the show in Zurich, and for them it was really strange to be in a design museum show, which does not consider everything an art work. These are interesting boundaries I think, these notions of where something begins and something ends, what it becomes, how it is perceived are interesting to engage with.
CB: The exhibition was very much a social commentary, bringing together design concepts, company mission statements and motivational tools among other things; did you see yourself as a curator displaying artefacts or an artist exposing meaning in them?
MvO: First of all I really didn’t do it alone, I initiated it and lead it. But it was a group of people who were part of the production process. Peter Spillmann was part of the conceptual tea, for making the exhibition. And Beatrice Bismarck and Alexander Koch should be mentioned for the Leipzig part as the main curators. In Zurich the show had chapters and a layout, which was done by the exhibition designer from the museum, and he had his own ideas. For me to make an exhibition is a constant negotiation process. There was an interim director in the Museum at that time, who was very helpful, and as he was an architect, he also had many important ideas in the realization process. He was very inspiring for the team. I already named Tom Holert and Ulrich Bröckling, but there was also Angela McRobbie from Goldsmiths College who inspired the show; so many people formed this in the end. To make such an exhibition is not just this one off gesture, it’s a communicative process and it’s full of negotiations, sometimes conflicts, but I think that’s good because then it becomes political on a very concrete level. I’m much more an initiator and exhibition maker than just a curator. There is a moment in this process when you discover what has to be in the exhibition and what not, but that is based on the discussions and insights. You discuss and that it gets clear ‘we need to do something about the locality here, we need to do something about education system but also about Zurich and gentrification’ and so on.
CB: Do you feel that in working as both curator and artist you can give a clearer display of the work’s intention?
MvO: What you learn as an artist is to make exhibitions; I think that’s completely forgotten. Maybe you don’t learn everything you wanted, but what you learn is how to make an exhibition. I think that’s absolutely crucial because art historians don’t learn that during their studies. From the first minute of your education as an artist, you have to think how you would put a work on display, even for a class discussion. The publicity and the publication of the work is always a part of your practice, so there isn’t a big step from this kind of practice to larger exhibition making. While studying I found out that I am fast to understand how discourses connect and what their genealogies are; I can easily read these in images and in art work. But to produce an exhibition it’s may be a collage work, it’s a construction and a discourse you have to put that into space. That’s interesting for me, even though I like to produce books as well, more interesting is this question of space because there will be visitors in this space and bodies will move through and perceive an exhibition. And they will perceive it not in a linear narrative. So this is why I like to do shows. I am not so into the linear way of narrating. For sure I did videos too but I always felt uncomfortable with linear way of reading.
In terms of exhibiting, it has a complete other time space. You don’t know who will come and see it, and so you don’t know how people will move through your space. So, that also means you don’t know what they will take away from it, and I think that’s very interesting in terms of exhibition making. It is its own medium and I would say that I use exhibition making as one medium in my practice.
CB: Another project that you were heavily involved in was Transit Migration (2002-2006), part of the bigger Projekt Migration. You are credited as artistic director, what did this title mean in practice and was it what you had anticipated?
MvO: Artistic Director is maybe a translation that is wrong for the English speaking context, me and Kathrin Rhomberg were put in charge of this large scale - state financed project - on migration that ran over three years. It was complicated because it involved people who were critical about the German state. Germany’s migration policy in the Guest Worker regime had racist implications. It was highly complicated, highly conflicting, and highly political in the making and I learnt the most I ever learned through Projekt Migration.
TRANSIT MIGRATION was a sub-project that was research based. Sociologists, political theorists and anthropologists based at the Frankfurt University researched the south-east borders of the EU. There was the idea to bring artistic production together with research. It was an experiment that worked out half and half. I don’t think it is a problem for artists and curators to work in a trans-disciplinary way and with trans-disciplinary methods they broaden their boundaries and the involved society theory. For the sociologist and the political theorist there is something which is never fully grasped, and this is what I realised through this project. That is that knowledge is produced in the aesthetic practice itself. This knowledge is vast. Artists and curators have this practical knowledge of the production that is not expressed and acknowledged.It is also a tactical knowledge about how you move through discourse as an autodidact for example and make sense out of them for yourself and the production. And it’s a social knowledge, you learn from and for each other. Academics might be, in the end, more fixed on an author position when it is about concepts and ideas. They are more fixed to their theses and this might be necessary because, if doctoral students are involved, they have to make their own theoretical position, but everything is very much formulated or pre-formulated and they are not really free in expressing their thoughts in the academic practice because of the formulas. So I understood that there is a liberation of university knowledge production needed, to enable students to think freely, to express freely, to shift subject areas even though this is not permitted, and so on.
It was an interesting experience, when it came to a final collaborative project, which was the MigMap Project, the mapping of the border and migration regime. It was a mapping of the political agencies and actors who are mapping migration who are governing it. A counter-strategy to the governing of migration. The information was all gained in the research process. But the researchers would have not taken this information as a major factor, so we as cultural producers tried to change their perspectives on their research footnotes. The MigMap is thus an excess of the research that would be represented in articles as footnotes. As all the research data that we found highly interesting as artists, would never be put in a major argument by the sociologists themselves. But for us as outsiders, this was the central information where we started to understand the border regime, how it works. We understood: Migration policies are made due to knowledge production, meetings, seminars, symposiums, conferences, EU financed research practice. So the problem of the question of representation was at the heart of the problem. So the strategy was to flip those things around and mapped the mappers. We changed the perspective and make it possible to perceive the border regime differently. I think that’s also an artistic strategy.
CB: As you mentioned, one project within Transit Migration was MigMap, which you worked on with the collective Labor k3000, there were fifteen authors to this piece; how did you avoid conflict in this working method and was a hierarchy developed? Do you feel that a collective piece can ever have equal authorship?
MvO: I wouldn’t call it equal, but there is equality in all of those projects, you could say we are talking about a symbolic capital. I think the symbolic capital is mainly connected with Peter Spillmann, he was invited to do this project and he invested a lot of work. Without Peter this wouldn’t have happened, and without Labor k3000 in Zurich, (the media collective that Peter and I founded), it wouldn’t have happened. I think he gave the most symbolic capital, some of us gave maybe only a document and some people were only partially involved.
Maybe in other projects one could say ‘there was the engagement of many people’, but I think in this case it was Peter, and also Sabine Hess was very central in providing the material, but everybody is named. How the names are ranked is correct, I would say, there is no name incorrectly positioned, there is no one left behind the scenes. Peter could have, if he had been an artist in the genius tradition, claimed this as his ‘participatory’ art work and I guess the crucial part of our practices is that he didn’t. So, I think the question has to be turned around and we have to ask ‘why don’t other people name all their collaborators?’
CB: When you were working on Atelier Europa at Kunstverein Munchen, 2004, you interviewed Brian Holmes and you said: “In Germany and Britain, with different political papers like the Schröder/Blair Paper, but as well in managerial literature, artists' working life and diverse methods of creating meaning have been quoted for the model of an entrepreneurial self, a subject which synchronizes life and work time under the banner of economic success.” And that you thought “that this quotation of the artist as a role model was very harmful for collective and critical cultural practices in the 90s.” In what way was it harmful, can you elaborate on what you mean? Did you experience this in your working life and did it affect the way that you have worked subsequently?
MvO: Absolutely, in the 1990s there were many artists who started to try to understand the economic shift, neoliberalism, globalisation processes and so on; people like Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann organised the Messe 2ok symposium. There were many people involved in the German speaking world - what we call the cultural left - who realised that something had to be done about Capitalism. There were, as always in leftist and in economic discourse, a lot of shortenings; but the idea that multi-tasking - which is a way of producing art in culture - could be the working model, even when expressed by a politician, does not mean that this form of practice no longer contains a liberating force. Even though things are demanded you cannot say that they are fully incorporated, but in the 1990s there was only one discourse.
I am simplifying the discourse for the sake of the argument, but the idea that capitalism is an intelligent system that it could actually create working lives and yet be incorporated into all aspects of everyday life even when there were a lot of theorists that don’t even know how Capitalism became the hegemonic economic form. Economists know that you cannot say that Capitalism is a system that works in and for itself, it works only because it is about interaction, sociality, desires, subjectivities. What happened in the anti-capitalist field was that analysis as laid out in their book by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New spirit of Capitalism (2007), that recalled the artists critique of the 1970s was than taken to describe contemporary critique on neoliberalism. Many artists had previously been part of social movements, which looked for solidarity with other temporary unregulated workers. So, what happened was that the possibility to step out into this new paradigm of collective working was now positioned against the more traditional role of the artist. A dichotomy that laid behind us, I thought. This was harmful because due to this conservatism a lot of collectives stopped working, and classical gender roles, came back out of this argument. At the same time, things were changing, and people were governed in a different way, and it resulted in opposition.
I believe as an intellectual you need also to see the hole in the fence and not just keep on re-describing the fully working disciplinary program. Even the harshest border regimes, the harshest disciplinary program does not guarantee that it finally works as planned. Here again we can learn from feminist and micro-political approaches, because they actually looked at other aspects of life and production, not only the wage labor and formalised spheres, but also the informal and unregulated spheres. It is to understand how different spheres in our lives are connected or disconnected and that not everything is always ‘Capitalism’ or ‘The State’. That’s why I did the edit of the In Search for the Post-capitalist Self e-flux journal. I was upset about the limited discourses and they didn’t get better over the years. But even with this editing very few people understood how important it would be to establish a Post-capitalist and Transcontinental perspective right now.
Marion von Osten, born in Germany, is an artist, curator, cultural scientist and researcher; interested in cultural production in post-colonial societies, technologies of the self, and the governance of mobility. Her exhibition making - most often collaborative - combines theory and cultural production through diverse mediums.
A founder of collaborative groups Labor k3000 Zurich, kleines post-fordistisches Drama (kpD), and the Center for Post-Colonial Knowledge and Culture, Berlin; Curator, Shedhalle, Zurich 1996-99 and Professor at ZHdK, Zurich 2000-06 and the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna 2006-12. She has worked on such projects as Be Creative! The Creative Imperative!, Design Museum, Zurich 2002-3; Projekt Migration, Cologne 2002-6, a project of the German Federal Culture Foundation, and within the fabric of this Transit Migration Zurich/Frankfurt/Cologne 2003-5; Atelier Europa, Kunstverein, Munich 2004, and more recently; In the Desert of Modernity: Colonial Planning and After, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin/Cultural Center Abattoirs, Casablanca, 2008-9 and Model House: Mapping Transcultural Modernisms, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna 2010-13.