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by Dorothee Richter

Conversation with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

April 2020

Dorothee Richter (DR): Even if the circumstances are very difficult, I'm happy to meet you here via Zoom online today. And you were supposed to do the biennial in Sonsbeek 2020, the 12th edition was supposed to take place in and around Arnhem from June 5 to September 13, 2020. And now, like many biennials, it will not happen in that way at least. Anyway, could you kind of give us an idea what your original plans were and the concepts behind it, and how much that has now changed? And how you will go forward if there is now a possibility or you see a possibility to do so.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (BSBN): Well, first of all, Sonsbeek is a quadrennial; it happens every four years, and it is a historical art festival—for lack of a better term—that started in 1949, you know, so six years before the Convention, and with some interjections it is rather an important art get-together in the past decades, especially taking into consideration the fact that it was a project that started just after the war. So, with certain urgencies on how art could actually be a possibility of getting out of the dire moments of conflict and, for that matter, it was a choice not to have it solely within museum structures, but to think about public art for public spaces. And in the history of Sonsbeek, you've had quite some important artists and curators of the 20th century that have presented work or that have worked on the project. So, I see myself in this lineage, in this history of an exhibition format, a quadrennial that takes social questions into consideration at its core.

So, the project they had proposed and that we're still working on, despite the conditions we find ourselves in, was to do something on labor, so the title of the project is Force Times Distance, which is the formula for work. So, we're looking at work, labor, and its sonic ecologies. Now, if you break it down, to each of the components of that formula: “force,” of course, we're looking at power structures in the world, how can we work against these power structures these power asymmetries; “time,” we're looking at different notions of time, we're looking at ways of thinking of time in nonlinear ways in the circularity of time; and “distance,” we're looking at different ways of collapsing geographical distances and maybe also social distances. So, this is what we're working for. And we're fortunate to have not only the possibility of doing the edition in 2020 but also doing the edition in 2024. So, it is a double commission. And then things happened as they happened; we find ourselves in a health crisis that affects basically the whole world in different ways. A lot of people have said this crisis and this virus doesn't discriminate, but this is a very asymmetric crisis. It affects some more than others. Not everybody has the possibility of staying at home. Some people don't even have homes. Some people cannot afford it, there are people in the world that live on a hand-to-mouth basis—they don’t have savings like a lot of us in the Western world where we can go on for weeks maybe, or we have welfare structures that can finance us even if we don't work. So, it is really embedded in the project we're doing, while the others that have to work on a daily basis and if they don't work on a daily basis, it's equivalent to their demise. And I was listening to the radio this morning, Deutschland Funk, and there was an interview with a guy in Kenya who said most of us are going to die of hunger before we die of Corona.

So, I think it's an important moment to rethink all of what we're doing, especially with regards to the project. Thus, because we cannot do production, because we cannot have artists travel, because we have to avoid mass gatherings, we had to postpone the project. It was supposed to open on the 5th of June with the press conference happening on the 2nd of June. Therefore, we're shifting it to next year in the hope that this actually gives us more time. So, basically, we totally remixed the events; the agencies are different. The more urgent things now to talk about still fall in line with what we tried to discuss that we had proposed, but we need to rethink completely what is at stake in the world today. So, we were working on that now.

DR: I think you made a very precise point that, even in the state of emergency, actually the state of emergency has already happened for a lot of people worldwide. Okay, now it is also hitting the West, even if it's in a way better situation than elsewhere; we have at least very good healthcare in Germany and in Switzerland. I think you're totally right that the structural violence is there. And it's even more so in this state of emergency.

BSBN: What the emergency also shows us is how, even in a moment of crisis that is supposed to be a global crisis, how some people are more equal than others, some humans are more equal than others, how it is in this moment of extreme crisis where we should actually see the most solidarity that we actually see how some humans are more dispensable than others. So, it is okay for some older people to die, that is what the discourse is, the discourse is like, oh, but it's not going to affect the young people. Because these are the people that are productive in society. So, those that are no longer productive, it's fine. This is the perversity of this logic; now you see that across the board, so even if sometimes the government's come out and they say, okay, let's try to keep that logic of productivity—this is still at the forefront.

Now, what’s very interesting is that one sees, for example, a country like Cuba sending medical doctors to Italy, China sending medical doctors to Italy, and so on and so forth. So, this is a kind of solidarity, but then even within the European Union it took weeks—up to today, the European Union hasn't gotten its, you know, shit together to see if they're giving out the Euro bonds or not. So, even within the structures of privilege, you know, one cannot really show solidarity; now, on the other hand, just last week you had these medical doctors on French TV. And one said out loud on TV: you know why don't we go and do the tests for the vaccines in Africa? Why don’t we do that? And then the other medical doctor said, you're right, then the next statement was like: we've been doing this with prostitutes with AIDS tests, and like we've been doing this with… and so on and so forth. So, this logic, you know, of course some of us have known that it is also not a secret that a lot of medical tests have been done on the African continent without following the rules and regulations of the WHO. But now in the moment of crisis, we've lost our shame. So, it's no longer even done in hiding. It's talked about on national TV.

Therefore, one needs to take this time, and coming back to our artistic, curatorial work, what I'm currently working on is to think about the notion of prudence and precarity. Care in times of precariousness. Care in times of crisis, and I think this is really important in our practices, at least in mine.

DR: In your original concept, a lot of these issues, as you already mentioned, about labor and social distance or social closeness are, I think, already embodied, but anyway it probably has to be rethought a lot through this kind of very acute situation.

BSBN: Exactly, exactly. That's why I had to go back, with the history of Sonsbeek coming right in the immediate dawn of the war, so to say. That was a different kind of crisis. So how do we think about art in the dawn of this crisis? We would have to rethink a lot of things.

DR: Will anything happen in a digital format during the time you wanted to open originally?

BSBN: In any case, we're planning to do a lot of things digitally; we had to have a website, we are planning to do a film series, and so on and so forth. Those things will continue, which I think is good. In this period of postponement, we will come up with a couple of formats for things that will be online. I've also witnessed a lot of critique. I didn't read the article that came out recently, I think on e-flux, on the critique of museums or institutions that are going online, doing online formats; well, I see that differently. I think we need to make use of every medium at our disposal; I think we need to rethink what proximity is. And the one doesn't oppose the other.

So, in a moment where we cannot meet physically, I don't think we have to stop working. I don't think artists should stop working; I think we should continue working. We need to, because the Internet is a public space. Just like the museum or any other art institution, these are public spaces. If we have one hindrance in accessing one public space, we should explore the other; so, this whole kind of damning of institutions that are using the online space as a possibility, I don't buy into that, I disagree with it. Now that said, I do believe—and that is something I brought up already for documenta 14—that the Internet is still a very limited space; there are still a lot of people in the world that do not have access to the Internet. It's not everybody that has access, even though they say more than 50% of the world has access to the Internet, there are places in the world where people have to buy data on their phones. And that's expensive in a moment of lockdown. It's a choice, whether you can use that money for food or for data. So, we cannot be naive about these things; therefore, one of the things about documenta 14 was to use the radio—that's why we did the radio project, to which people have more access around the world. So, at Savvy Contemporary, for example, one of the things we're doing now is exploring radio again, looking at ways of doing exhibitions in the ether on the radio, looking at ways of doing discussions, the format on radio. Same thing in Sonsbeek, so we are exploring beyond the Internet, exploring every possible technology of communication that we can find.

DR: I totally agree. I also see that with the work with our students that it is so important to keep up the social space during the crisis through, in that case of course, digital media, because otherwise people really feel so lost and disconnected. And that's kind of a real urgency and a real necessity to keep the social space up.

BSBN: Exactly.

DR: And the other way, there were kind of a lot of discussions about Zoom, that there are data leaks and so on, that with digital media in our capitalist production already whatever you do is again used for specific interests and things like that.

BSBN: No but of course, there are data leaks, but the fact that we do not use the Internet doesn't reduce the data leaks—maybe proportionately to a number of people online. But the Internet is a very poor space; everything you put on Facebook—it’s all used. So, maybe this is a moment for us to use to fight against the data leaks rather than avoiding using the Internet or such spaces because we're afraid of the fact that data is going to leak. That's one thing. The second thing is that, in any case, all over the city you have CCTVs—we're being watched all the time. Whenever you buy something on Amazon, which most of us do, the data is being used and so on and so forth. So, rather than avoid data has to be used, let's find ways of resisting that and using at least the public space, that's the way I see it.

DR: I agree. I also think it's a political struggle to get control over your own data, for example. That’s a political movement, and it often has to happen through the public space in a way.

BSBN: Exactly.

DR: To come back to the original question, I think we actually spoke already about politicization and depoliticization and de- and re-centering the West. Regarding theory interface and mediation strategies, it would be interesting if you could say something about that, that would be wonderful. But of course, I also understand that these are exactly the things you are now rethinking and re-positioning.

BSBN: Exactly. We are really at a threshold today, and I think it's really interesting. I think the history of pandemics, the history of plagues or health crises have been very fundamental in the shift of technology and communication and the way we deal with each other. So, we will have to rethink all forms of mediation between human beings, never before has Zoom been used so much.  People do Zoom parties and so on. What does that mean? How can we imagine a post COVID-19 world? What does it mean to think about interdependencies? Interdependencies: the fact that it is not because you come from Italy that you are better than somebody from Cuba—actually at the moment you kind of depend on that person as well. I mean, we see what is happening in the US. The US has to import masks from Asia. Just this weekend, masks that we were being sent for the police in Berlin were intercepted in Taiwan by the US and taken to the US, and it is said that's again a new form of pirating. So, imagine where we are—we need to rethink all our relations. Of course, that is pirating, it's not in any way better or worse than the guys on the waters in East Africa; it is same thing. We need to think about new laws, new ways of dealing with each other. And, of course, art as a possibility of imagining possible futures will also have to change. The way we present art will have to change; who knows how long this is going to be, as you said earlier maybe we'll have to live for the next two years with a distance of 1.5 meters between each other. So, take that as a point of departure to imagine how the world would be. As a curator, how do you present works within space? You really see the way the architecture of space has changed. That is something I'm really thinking about, when the whole thing started, and we're getting more and more scared in Berlin. You could see another politics of space: you got into the metro and you would see people they wouldn't sit opposite each other, they would sit across diagonally. Now, it's even strange. A few years back, you would see somebody even on the street alone, coming up as a black man and there is somebody coming towards me, the person would cross because the person was scared of me. But now I'm the one crossing because I'm scared of that person. The politics of space has to be reconceived in ways that Lefebvre had never thought of. If you go to the supermarket, you see the distancing. Even looking at simple things like the way we open doors, you see people use their elbows, they use body parts that didn't know existed to avoid a virus, so things have changed. What does it mean then to present works? What does it mean then to curate in a time when we have a different disposition in terms of being together and encountering each other.

DR: Yeah, very strange times. I must say, I haven't re-read The Plague by Camus recently; I only dimly remember it when I read it in school.

BSBN: Yes, there has been a rush, everybody wants to read The Plague, which is fine, but I was just thinking about it a few days ago. Yes, we should all read it, but we should also look for other spaces, because what we are facing is not unprecedented. Like Baldwin said, when you think about all your pains, all your suffering, but the people that lived before you and sometimes the people that live in your same time in different geographical areas still face those pains, so it’s something that connects us, and when you look in books, you also notice that a lot of things have already happened. So, you should listen to other spaces, and so what I've been doing in the past weeks is something I've called Corona’s Phonic Diary, where I post a sound daily or every two days or so. And basically, what I'm imagining is that in those sonic spaces we will also discover that what we are facing is not unprecedented. One and two, that in those spaces, you can also discover that there is a time after every crisis. So, there is hope.

DR: Yeah, I think that's a very good point you make, because the logic of the crisis, especially the health crisis, is that of segregation in a way. And it's the logic of productivity against unproductivity as you already mentioned, because it looks like old people are disposable in a way, and people who are ill anyway. You’re totally right that aesthetics can transport something that goes beyond exactly these kind of usual segregations into the fit und unfit. So, that could be one answer for curatorial formats, which could propose a space of radical democracy even at the moment when it also looks kind of unreachable. You mentioned radio, and I also think that in Denmark there's this specific tradition of making radio for artists like open radio and things like that. And music was something you mentioned. How would a biennial or a quadrennial happen in this situation—let’s say a post-pandemic situation? Is it in your thoughts to open up a space for exactly these kinds of negotiations?

BSBN: I think the biennial is not the issue, honestly; a biennial is a container, it is not the content. So, it is not really the issue; I think what is actually the issue is the content. Of course, we have to think properly about the container; because water takes the shape of the container it finds itself in, we will have to think about the container. But I think we are at the moment where the content shapes the container. So, rather than thinking of the biennial, because the biennial again is a form—you know, I just did the Bamako Biennale for Photography. It's very different from the Berlin Biennale or some other biennial in Scandinavia. It's very different from the Venice Biennale, so there is nothing like “the biennial.” The only thing that it has and having come on is the fact that it happened every two years. And that is the biggest fiction because it's just a time scale. There's nothing like the biennial. There's absolutely nothing like that in my opinion; you know, so it’s completely different the kind of things you're dealing with when you're doing a biennial in Bamako it’s completely different from the kind of things you're dealing with when you do something in Venice. Just to start with the amount of money that is at your disposal, the questions, the things that are at stake, what the artists are dealing with. We need to think about what comes into this container. Or we think about the multiplicity of containers, yeah.

DR: I meant more specifically the Sonsbeek quadrennial in which you are involved in at the moment.

BSBN: Okay, so the question is how will the situation change the formats of Sonsbeek?

DR: Yeah, more like, you know, we’ve now touched on a lot of things, and I would say maybe it's a moment where the negotiation over certain things are kind of rethought and reconfigured. So, my question is a little bit how this would then be possible in or through the format of a biennial, or this specific biennial, or then the thing you are most interested in is this kind of re-negotiating—you know, for example, how this could happen a radical way in terms of living together or being-with together.

BSBN: Yeah, I think I'm hearing you. I think it's too early to say, because we are really in that moment of thinking about all these things. But there was something I was listening to the other day, a conversation in the series called The Quarantine Tapes: Naveen Kishore in a conversation with [Paul] Holdengräber. I think towards the end they talked about generosity, which is one of many things, they also talked a lot about translation because Naveen Kishore is the director of Seagull Books in India; it’s a time to think about translation. At the end, they talked about generosity, and I have been thinking about how this moment will also be a moment to be generous, which interestingly if you look at the practice we’ve had at Savvy Contemporary, it’s been about that. So, I think that in Sonsbeek, in the end we will take more into consideration these two notions of translation and of generosity.

DR: Yeah, that sounds really inspiring, so thanks a lot.

BSBN: Pleasure talking to you.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is a curator, art critic and biotechnologist and lives mainly in Berlin. He compares his working method as a curator to a musical jam session. Ndikung is the founder of the art space Savvy Contemporary in Berlin. He was Curator at large of the documenta 14 and is artistic director for Sonsbeek 2020-2024, a large-scale sculpture exhibition that takes place in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Together with artist Nasan Tur, Ndikung is professor for the Spatial Strategies MA program at Weissensee Academy of Art, Berlin.

Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/MAS Curating, which she founded in 2005 at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, Curator at Kuenstlerhaus Bremen. She is Executive Editor of the web journal On-Curating.org.

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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini