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Institutional Criticality. Maria Hlavajova Interviewed by Franciska Zólyom

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Why in Art? Negotiating Social and Political Urgencies in the Field of Artistic Practice. Seminar with Maria Hlavajova and Ulay


Franciska Zólyom: The programmatic series of talks entitled “Becoming Oneself” (2002–3) outlined the process of becoming an institution for current artistic practices and for contemporary discourse. What forms did this self-reflective attitude take on later and what are the main aspects of its institutional subjectivity today?

MH: Before we inaugurated BAK in 2003, we spent quite a long time gathering with a number of practitioners from the international art context (artists, theorists, curators) around the question, what would an ideal institution be today, one capable of responding adequately to the challenges placed before us by contemporary artistic practices—themselves in constant flux? I have to confess that we did not get much further than is suggested by the title we gave to this project, but there is a commitment to submitting ourselves to a continuous process of “becoming oneself,” of reaching towards an ideal that is as slippery as it is unattainable. As a result, the idea is to keep this institution that “isn’t” under constant scrutiny and pressure, preventing it from settling in a comfort zone of self-assurance and conformity.

We regularly build in projects that are self-reflective, asking what is necessary in order to be able to claim a position as a critical, experimental, and risk-taking art institution. One recent project, Concerning “Knowledge Production” (Practices in Contemporary Art) (2006), and the subsequent publication On Knowledge Production. A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art (2008), for example, was intended to provide such a forum. The project took on terms that we often—sometimes heedlessly—utilize in our practice such as “artistic research” or “knowledge production.” These terms, which have actually become commonplace in the art field, form a safe undercurrent for the discourse industry flourishing around us, embraced by the ideologies of the spectacle and the market. In the face of this, we made an attempt to discuss how we can possibly maintain the critical potential of discourse and artistic practice-as-knowledge production in such circumstances.

FZ: How do institutions of art and especially BAK reflect the notions of critique and criticality?

MH: Criticality, at least as art historian Irit Rogoff articulates it, differs from criticism (pointing one’s finger at what one believes is wrong), and from critique (a position that at least attempts to understand the undercurrents that lead to something’s being seen as wrong). Criticality, understood in this way, would mean acknowledging one’s embeddedness in the situation one is in a dialogue with, and that one is implicated in creating the circumstances under question. In this sense, BAK does not position itself outside the situations it engages itself with, but rather as one of the players whose actions need to be analyzed as well.

FZ: Could you describe the institutional landscape BAK operates in?

MH: Speaking about the Netherlands specifically, it is a field oversaturated with art institutions whose activities are to a large extent driven by a desire for presentation, representation, competition, success, and spectacle, be it museums, art centers, artists’ initiatives, biennales, or festivals. A few exceptional spaces marked for art do stand out because they do not strive to reproduce the old inadequate patterns, and rather opt for thoughtful contemporary programming—these include, among others, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Witte de With in Rotterdam, and de Appel in Amsterdam. But the landscape of art institutions is not the only context BAK wants to “position” itself within. For example, one of the most important partners for us is Utrecht University. As the matter of fact, BAK finds itself somewhere in the space between art, academia, and advocacy, to put it simply.

FZ: BAK has a rather unusual attitude towards the issues it deals with, namely exposing the process of not knowing. Instead of preconceptions, you work with matters that “concern” you, or as you often say, you address urgencies. How do you detect these issues, who is involved in the conceptualization, and who participates in the realization of the projects?

MH: Reproducing what is known and putting that knowledge on display does not interest me. It is rather that we want to put the assumption of knowing something under pressure, to disclose the general consensus, as it were, as something potentially much more complicated to comprehend than it appears to be at first sight. To name an example: one of our upcoming projects addresses the issue of the return of religion to the public sphere in the West. It is entitled The Return of Religion and Other Myths. We want to question this assumption and explore the idea that what feels like religion(s) replacing the secular contract of the nation-state is in fact a new condition, we could call it the “post-secular condition,” a completely new situation in which society is becoming more religious without becoming less secular. That the presence of religion is so palpable in the public sphere in the West today has more to do with the fact that it has hijacked secular themes such as identity, and not because there would be some theological discourse burgeoning in the midst of our public lives. The focus on religion indeed belongs to what we call “urgencies” or “concerns.” These aren’t just our concerns though; we assume that these themes concern everybody, whatever his or her beliefs, political convictions, or economic, geographical, or social position.

We identify these issues of concern in the intersection of artistic practices and movements in society and politics. It is in discussions with various artists and intellectuals that the subjects for our projects are born. There is no method to it that I could describe; it is rather about intuition or curiosity, about those dilemmas and questions that stay in your head and won’t go away until you turn them into objects of your study.

We usually gather various groups of people around these themes, including artists, theorists, social scientists, curators, etc., who are not necessarily experts in the subject but who are involved because our concern is their concern too. These sorts of projects are essentially long-term research projects, and we often work with reading/discussion/research groups, seminars, and workshops (with or without the involvement of Utrecht University or other places) before we feel we have gathered enough knowledge and developed a stance that we believe has something to say about the issue in public. Usually these are multifaceted projects involving exhibitions, a series of lectures, conversations, talks and workshops, and a critical reader outlining the key positions we find in art and thinking on the issue. In fact, it is a large participatory, collective undertaking involving learning and sharing.

FZ: Could you name some examples of when your research activities were followed up by scientific institutions—be it research units or academies?

MH: A number of projects or programs were developed jointly with academia. One example was last year’s Venice Biennale project that we realized in the Dutch Pavilion, entitled “Citizens and Subjects.” The project was devised curatorially so that it involved artistic discourse and discourse in philosophy and social sciences in an equal way. While the artist Aernout Mik developed a new installation in the pavilion, the other two parts of the project were developed in direct collaboration with other fields. A critical reader we published on this occasion—instead of the catalogue that one would expect in this context—was developed together with philosopher Rosi Braidotti and Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche. Alongside artists based in the Netherlands, a number of philosophers, political scientists, cultural theorists, etc. contributed essays on issues related to the notion of citizenship today. The third part of the project, an extensive series of lectures, was developed in active collaboration with Utrecht University, and took place within its public lecture program, which is attended by people from many fields of activity, not only the enclosed circles of art. The project inspired a number of developments within the university itself, among which was a curatorial course on the relationship between art and society that BAK developed within the regular curriculum, and the establishment of the new Centre for the Humanities, run by Professor Braidotti.

The new long-term project we are now developing, Former West, is prompted by the need for reflection around the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall next year, and it involves an even more expansive and wide-ranging research phase spanning a number of years.

FZ: You have, on the one hand, pointed to the importance of (public) institutions. On the other hand, you speak about the critical quality of the impermanent, mentioning malleability among BAK’s qualities. Is continuity possible while claiming the status of impermanence?

MH: Yes, it is the continuity of the impermanent I would want to argue for. Not the continuity of settling into a routine and getting lost in temporary trends and short-lived fashions, both of which serve the market, but rather continuity in the sense of refusing the demand for newness. It’s about basically engaging in the same subjects again and again, addressing them from different angles only to get deeper under the surface, insisting on doing that in order to provide difference and generate new insights. It’s similar to what Gilles Deleuze argued about the notion of repetition: although empowered by the need to reconstruct, or reenact things of value of the past, repetition has to be intimately bound to the notion of difference.

Dealing with the same issue time and time again helps to expose that “same thing” as “something other” in which the distinct qualities of the subject at hand are revealed. I have argued elsewhere that BAK, as a matter of fact, is involved with one subject only—the world we live in, a world to which art can contribute a picture of its other possibilities. All BAK projects could thus be seen as a continuous stream of investigation into the agency of art in circumstances in which the world at large has given up on the hope of alternatives.

FZ: How do you maintain the publicness of BAK?

MH: The notion of publicness is often confused with the managerial demands that contemporary politics presents before us, such as that of the numbers of visitors. Here the thinking is: the more people in your house, the more public you are. I think this is a radically misplaced demand, which most of the art world, however, happily submits to.

The publicness of BAK is intimately bound to the fact that the issues we deal with, our concerns, are public concerns. A dialogue about public concerns, at least in my opinion, cannot be held exclusively in lonely meditation in front of an art object on display in a gallery. Other ways need to be examined, and I consider it to be our responsibility in times like this. I often think about the figure of the public intellectual as an example for an artist concerned with the world as such. The public intellectual, let’s not forget, is first of all somebody highly respected for his scientific (or artistic) credentials. But such a figure can use his or her authority to speak to concerns that have a broader focus than his or her discipline. Think of Edward Said or Noam Chomsky, to name but two obvious examples. Institutions like BAK, in my opinion, being not just empty vessels but having an ideologically filled context, can function as an interface between the practice of artists and intellectuals and the public. And I do not mean that “public” equals audience; I really have the notion of the public sphere in mind when I talk about this, a space between us that we fill with ongoing negotiations about how to live together.

Not forgetting the fact that entering the space in-between or among people is already a political act, we understand that the channels through which we communicate cannot be the exhibitions only. Lectures, talks, conversations, publications of various kinds, but also the Internet, and the blogosphere are channels we continuously use not as spaces for marketing what we do, but channels through which we are able to communicate the knowledge, ideas, and propositions that can be used publicly.

FZ: While hospitality and openness are proclaimed characteristics of BAK, you have also formulated a so-called zero visitor policy.

MH: Zero visitors, again, does not equal zero public. The notion of hospitality and openness is directed towards the public sphere and the public that wants to actively engage in the issues that are of public concern in our view. In concrete terms, BAK has developed a complex way of working with the public on several levels. Our first public, so to speak, consists of cultural practitioners involved with and participating in the development and realization of the projects at BAK. As mentioned before, BAK’s projects are developed as a collective practice through long research trajectories with artists, writers, curators, theorists, etc. The second public is constituted by people attending exhibitions and discourse activities organized by BAK. The more (physically and geographically) remote third public consists of those people with whom BAK communicates through its publications, including newsletters and handbooks (instead of invitation cards or other marketing instruments, BAK publishes small booklets containing a significant body of knowledge on issues at the center of each project, which are distributed free of charge to a wide range of recipients internationally), critical readers (instead of catalogues for exhibitions, BAK publishes readers as platforms for parallel explorations of particular ideas through a series of texts by artists and theorists), and our website (which includes a well-visited video archive of all BAK’s lectures, conferences, conversations, and panel discussions, as well as background references such as recommended reading lists on the issues BAK engages with, and other research information). The fourth public is formed through the discourse that evolves internationally around BAK itself through reviews and analyses of its projects and institutional approach. One can argue, of course, about the different sensitivities and receptiveness of remote publics and BAK’s local audience, but for the type of work BAK engages in, the notion of access to ideas and knowledge articulated through its activities is of much greater importance than the body count at the physical threshold of our door.

FZ: What kind of lobbying work is needed in order to maintain and secure BAK’s financial situation against the backdrop of neoliberal cultural politics? Do you consider this kind of activity a constitutive part of your work or is it something you do reluctantly, as it might hinder your content-related work?

MH: I am not quite certain that BAK should really be protected against the backdrop of neoliberal, cultural politics. Rather, I tend to believe that BAK has to protect artists and intellectuals from these demands by creating a space in which ideas and projects can be developed. It might be that at some point we will need to decide that we lost that competition and close down. Because if I say we invest ourselves in public issues, that should not remain as a self-imposed mandate of ours. Society as such, to use this big word, needs to acknowledge the need for such a space, in which democracies organized as they are in the Netherlands are expressed by society’s willingness to fund such a possibility. This is not a given; structural funding for art and cultural institutions is reconsidered every four years in the Netherlands, and this process sort of verifies whether this symbolic demand of society is still present and supports your existence. Generally we are trapped in the need to preserve institutions, while there are truly cases where we should invest ourselves in the opposite, in losing them, letting things go.

Having said this, yes, running an art institution with this ambition means inhabiting the space of daily politics as well and seeing if one’s way of thinking could inspire others and their political ideals. In our fortunate case, this does not hinder our content work; rather it is an intrinsic part of our content. Some years ago, I organized a European project that attempted to point in this direction. Entitled in a manifesto-like way, Who If Not We Should at Least Try to Imagine the Future of All This?, the project tried to suggest that if we walk away from the work needed for establishing certain policies, somebody else would certainly do it instead, and do so around ideals that would not be our own. So we should at least try to employ our imagination in thinking about how to administer the field of art, and indeed if possible, to do it in a way we believe is right.

FZ: One often encounters the argument that art is merely a harmless form of criticism. How can engaged autonomy be reached in and mediated through an art institution?

MH: The shift from “criticism” to “criticality” that one needs to make would at least give a partial answer to your question. An art institution belongs to the network of institutions that democracy invented for itself to defend its ideals. That is the double move one has to make from this position: to advocate art as an autonomous practice while engaging with the world and its concerns.

FZ: You have referred to BAK as a space for art and thinking that aims at activating meanings. What is it that art can articulate that discourse can’t?

MH: I think that the point is rather that there is not necessarily a sharp division between what we conventionally call art and what we understand when thinking about discourse. Our work on art and thinking rather suggests that art is discourse, articulating art as knowledge production in itself. In that respect, there is no way to articulate that difference, yet in comparison with science, for example, art can easily pose questions that science would discard as incorrect, improper, or impossible. This leads us back to the aspect of art that is our most important inspiration and tool: imagination.


The interview was conducted in August 2008 via email.

Franciska Zólyom is an art historian, curator, and director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Dunaújváros, Hungary. Her work aims at creating site-specific projects and exhibitions.