‘…you really have to become creative, your life somehow depends on it.’
Abir Boukhari in conversation with Martyna Nowicka
MN: How did you come across CuratorLab?
AB: I was preparing an exhibition in Stockholm when I found out about the programme at Konstfack.
MN: You were already working as a curator for a few years before attending the course. Could you tell me a bit about your career, and the space you established in Syria?
AB: I started a space called AllArtNow in 2005 with artist Nisrine Boukhari, who is my sister and who suggested the idea. It was an independent, non-profit space for contemporary art. The two of us were in touch with many young Syrian artists, and we got the feeling that we needed a meeting point in the city. Back then, there was a lot of public debate about being more open to the world, so we wanted to create a place for contemporary art, where artists could produce art and exhibit. AllArtNow became an entry point to Syrian art for the international community. We wanted to encourage the exchange of ideas, both locally and globally. The space was big enough - seven rooms - so we could host several projects simultaneously. One of the projects titled Magnetism, was emblematic of this space itself. We laughed that the space became magnetic for many people, who earlier had problems finding proper non-commercial spaces for their work.
MN: Were you able to secure funding from the city of Damascus?
AB: My family background is in business, but we also have some members of the family who work in culture and art. When my sister became an artist, I thought that artists need a medium to organise events, communicate with funders and work on developing their audience. Nisrine invited me to work with her and I thought that I could do art in my free time, for pleasure. We started without a space, our main activities involved more collaborating and exhibiting abroad. When we bought the AllArtNow space, Nisrine and I worked as volunteers. In the beginning, we got support from our family business and from international organisations. At the same time, I started asking local businessmen to support what they could. We also explored other ideas for alternative funding (e.g. renting the space for other cultural events).
MN: To run an independent space you have to be really creative.
AB: Yes, here in Sweden, thanks to the cultural policy, you have a structure for supporting the arts and are able to make long term plans. In Sweden, you can seek support, but not in Syria. I always had to invent ways.
MN: How long did you run the space in Damascus?
AB: From 2005 to 2012.
MN: You’ve been working a lot both in your own country and abroad. Did you, at some point, feel that you needed curatorial training?
AB: I did several shorter trainings and courses when I started working for AllArtNow, and throughout my time there. For example, I did an internship at the Tate in 2009, another internship in 2012 at Hamburger Bahnhof, one course in Cairo about curating, another one in Amman about cultural management, and one about project management for NGO’s and cultural organisations etc. However, for the most part, up until 2012, I was too busy with the space to do any long-term studying, especially as I was also involved in the family business. In 2012, I think as all Syrians felt, we knew that the war was going to be prolonged, there was no foreseeable end to the conflict. By 2014, I felt it was time to devote myself to some studies, this is when I found CuratorLab. It fits perfectly with what I was looking for, especially since it’s a professional course, where the participants are expected to already have some work experience. I also appreciated that it was an international course, where you could meet other curators, discuss different curatorial subjects. It was an opportunity to rethink my own practice, and the develop new ways of working. CuratorLab was engaging, but not full-time, I got to produce one of my projects, meet different art experts, discuss projects and curatorial issues and create an interesting network.
MN: While you were applying for the course it turned out that as someone from outside of EU, you had to pay quite a lot for the education. I don’t want to ask you personal questions, but I gathered there is quite a story behind your participation in CuratorLab.
AB: I keep telling this story, because I hope that one day it will help someone else that finds themselves in similar circumstances as I was. I had a difficult situation, because of my documents. It was challenging to obtain a residence permit as a result, but I also discovered that as someone from outside of the EU, I would also have to pay high tuition fees to study in Sweden. I was lucky to get a grant to study and Konstfack was also very supportive.
I think it is important for other participants to be exposed to curators from different parts of the world, and to get to know other cultures, hear other voices, so I think it’s important to offer a grant for those outside of the EU, to make this possible. It benefits everyone.
Also, not being from Europe and coming from a country where we have heavy sanctions created another problem: I wasn’t able to open a bank account, so I had to handle everything in cash, which is really a problem in a country such as Sweden, where the system is geared towards credit cards and online payments. When I think about this whole strategy and process to eliminate the use of cash currency in Sweden, I think we cannot neglect the fact that people who come from other countries may still be oriented to a cash system, and we need to create a way for them to enter society as well.
MN: Did you stay in Sweden between applying and the actual course? It’s almost 8 months!
AB: I was in the process of applying for a residence permit. Since I had no documents and no bank account, this was quite difficult. I tried opening a bank account in almost 20 different branches of different banks, but it didn’t work. It was another problem for Konstfack, who wanted me to transfer the grant for the course, which was impossible, because I had no bank account. It was a vicious circle. On top of that, I had my daughter with me, who was just a baby. I had to have cash on me at all times which was not easy. My family periodically transferred me money through Western Union, which was expensive. The sanctions affect people, the citizens, much more than the government. I must say everybody at CuratorLab was really supportive, they welcomed me with my daughter being in the classroom. My daughter still joins me at some art events now. I feel it’s good for her and also it might be a good example for other mothers in the art sector, to feel encouraged to continue their career while raising their families.
MN: Many people in the artworld, especially women, ask themselves: is it possible to continue my career with a kid. Do you think it is?
AB: Yes, absolutely! Many of my friends, especially single mothers, are torn on this topic. It’s not easy to have baby with you, but it’s possible and would be easier if you have support from others. I was able to manage it because I found help from friends and the people around me.
MN: Could you tell me something more about your year in CuratorLab? Did you work on a common project or did you do individual ones?
AB: We were working on our individual projects, but after finishing CuratorLab, I collaborated with my former colleague Maryam Omrani, who is also based in Sweden, as well as Sookyoung Huh. I try to meet the new group of participants every year to attend some of the events that they put on. I was also the mentor for one participant, Saima Usman, who participated in Curatorlab a couple years after me.
MN: What was your background?
AB: I studied French literature, and then did special studies in Business Administration.
MN: CuratorLab mixes doing things hands-on and working with theory.
AB: Yes, it was great to have this balance. Most professional curators wouldn’t be able to take a full year out of their lives to do such a study course, but CuratorLab is made possible by its model of intensive meetings, four times per year, rather than daily classes. Coming to Sweden, I already had experiences organising events and exhibitions, but I wanted to hear from other people, to have some time to think, to reshape my projects. It was great that the director, Joanna Warsza, and guest lecturer, Anna Tomaszewska, not only did our evaluations, but also asked us to evaluate the course. This formed part of the philosophy of not acting the role of a distant ‘professor’, but rather an engaged leader, a colleague, who is also open to critique.
MN: Måns Wrange, the founder of CuratorLab, said that CuratorLab from the outset was supposed to be a place for experimentation, a place where people could try something they always wanted, but never had the time or resources to realise. Was CuratorLab a place for experimentation for you?
AB: I liked the fact that one could choose if one wanted to experiment, to try something completely different or to continue with what one has been doing earlier. My project started two years before I participated in CuratorLab, but I found it interesting to discuss the project with other professionals. The initial idea for my project was to create a visual archive of Damascus, of how it looked before the war and then how it started to change. I was using the city as a metaphor, to show not only Damascus, but the feelings of the people there, to raise the question of why this war continues and how will it end. Every time I show a work from this archive, the Syrians in exile are reminded that Damascus is so beautiful, it is our home, we feel proud of our city and it brings us happiness to show others where we came from. The main idea was to have a gathering for Syrian people, a meeting point. I wanted to show a glimpse of Damascus before the war. Every time I showed this project to someone, I ask for honest feedback, and after hearing their opinions I alter a bit here, another bit there.
MN: How did your project evolve?
AB: Before CuratorLab, I was mostly showing video art. I had some installations in the archive, but I didn’t show them. Through the course and after being in Sweden for some time, I started to become involved more and more in the local art scene in Stockholm. I was invited to be a curator-in-residence at Botkyrka Konsthall (at Fittja). While there I started thinking about how both Fittija and Damascus both have a bad reputation. So I decided to invite people from Stockholm to come and see Fittja and see Damascus at the same time. The exhibition was shown in the residency flat, an alternative space.
MN: Are you mainly working with Syrian artists?
Not only Syrian artists. Even before the war, although we mainly founded AllArtNow to support Syrian artists, we also exhibited work from other places in the world, to make this a point for exchanging ideas. In 2012, when we closed the space in Damascus, AllArtNow became a nomadic project. I still exhibit Syrian artists, especially the group that I worked with them in different projects at AllArtNow. Most of them have left the country, I think also because of the situation in Syria. I must say, that it became harder and harder for me to work with artists who stayed in Damascus, but I’m trying to find a way. Being in Sweden made me become more involved with artists-in-exile, but also Middle Eastern artists, Swedish artists and others. It came naturally for me to work with the topics of displacement, belonging and instability. One of my recent projects was about the contrast between being a nomad and having a stable life. The project started with a discussion with a Swedish artist, who had adopted a nomadic lifestyle, which she felt was a hard life - she expressed that she had no real sense of stability. However, I believe choosing not to have a house comes with the acceptance of a certain modicum of instability, but this is very different from when you are being forced to leave a house. Each scenario presents different feelings about one’s condition. With the last exhibition I was curating on this topic, I wanted to show that not having a home can make one either feel free or lost. The project was very personal for me, as it reflected my own experience of coming to Sweden and being caught in the bureaucratic procedures, not knowing what will happen to me tomorrow. In those situations, you really have to become creative, because you know your life somehow depends on being creative. Some of the artists I was working with, were forced to become nomads, others chose that lifestyle through their ambition, looking for a better future.
MN: You’ve been introduced to incoming groups of Curatorlab participants as the ‘go-to’ specialist in Syrian art, but you have already mentioned how hard it is to maintain a relationship with Syria.
AB: I have been working with Syrian artists for many years, so of course I know a lot about Syrian artists, but now, being out of Syria for three years already, I am not well informed about the new generation there. I recently curated an exhibition in Barcelona, where the theme was about art as therapy. One of the audience members came up to me, disappointed, that the artworks that I chose were not a direct comment on the current situation in Syria. Of course, my country means a lot to me and I want to show what is happening in Syria, but I do not want to show only war. I don’t think art should do what the media does, and this is why I always choose to talk about people instead.
‘Let No-one Represent You’
Adnan Yildiz in conversation with Lotte Løvholm
LL: Thank you for doing the interview, Adnan. Tell me about your year at CuratorLab in 2009 - 2008.
AY: It was the autumn of 2006, and we started as six participants and ended up only two. Esther Lu from Taipei and myself decided to continue the programme after our Istanbul session. Maybe it is important to add, in our case, it was a traveling programme for curatorial studies and it was transforming from a MA structure. Eventually, for the second year of the course, new participants Elisabeth Byre and Christian Alandete joined us. Esther and I got along quite well and started doing projects together in Istanbul, Taipei and Stockholm. We still work together for some projects and exchange ideas and opinions. Just couple of years ago, I hosted her at Artspace Aotearoa NZ during my tenure, and she organised a curatorial course, which I participated. From my time, all I can say is that instead of CuratorLab having an existing structure, CuratorLab wanted us to bring in the structure and we used this as an opportunity to test out our ideas. For me it worked out quite well. My interest was to question the practice of curating in a way that would sustain my practice.
LL: Did you live in Stockholm while participating in CuratorLab?
AY: Yes, because I was very lucky to get support from the Swedish Institute and the Turkish-Swedish grants programme. I think me being based in Stockholm changed my relationship with the city and the programme. I left Turkey for this. I did not have the chance to go back. Esther had the same situation. So, we left our lives behind to self-sustain our practice as curators. For us, there was no other choice. It had to happen. It was a decision of engagement, commitment and dedication.
LL: Staying in Stockholm, you probably also got a thorough introduction to the Swedish art scene?
AY: I was very welcomed. I always thought the Swedish eco-system has a good balance. And I observed how each institution operates, often collaboratively. Of course, if you stay longer you see how people are so much into consensus and negotiations, and deny your critique by smiling at you. You have to be ‘nice’ so in that sense, it was very different than the context of Istanbul; one might think in Istanbul that the conversations are maybe more direct, but there is a history of polarisation, and collaboration is not easy to achieve there either.
LL: How did you get into curating?
AY: I was very interested in exhibition making. And once I realised you do not need to be an artist, an art historian or a director to make exhibitions, but you can make exhibitions as a curator I really wanted to get more information and get connected to people who were part of this discourse.
Before CuratorLab, I was lucky to participate in a workshop in Berlin for young curators as part of Berlin Biennale in 2006. We are all still in contact today. I remember one moment clearly, when there was an old German art historian asking us about our profession. The art historian answered back: ‘But you are all too young to be curators’. So there were also these moments where you experience how the word ‘curator’ has different meanings to different people. After that workshop I got the confidence to do what I wanted to do.
LL: And you applied for CuratorLab?
AY: Yes, I was interested in a programme that immediately introduced me to curating. Stockholm sounded like a concrete plan, with a potential to get a Swedish Institute grant. I do not come from a rich family. I see that all the curating schools are full of rich kids, eager to earn the money back when they graduate. So they immediately have this business attitude with an overly professionalised tone. A curator school should be about art and artists, not about business.
LL: How do you feel about curatorial programs now?
AY: I am not so interested in the word ‘curator’ or the courses anymore. I am more interested in the politicisation and depoliticisation of contemporary art practices, in conversations, in learning and unlearning. I am interested in exhibitions, and I still believe in exhibitions. Exhibitions as physical forms. I still believe in art, and I always learn from artists. Even though I had two jobs as a director in Germany and New Zealand for seven years, I still don’t have this attitude of professionalisation. I don't want to become disconnected from art and artists. I still run my life like an artist.
LL: How has your MFA studies informed your practice as a curator?
AY: I learned curating from artists. It was not a coincidence that I worked with Marysia Lewandowska and Måns Wrange at CuratorLab who are both artists. They both contributed to the discussion and the discourses of curating in a quite generous sense. Before coming to Stockholm, I studied Psychology and Educational Sciences and after that I was interested in the relationship between psychoanalysis and art. I decided to study at the Visual Arts and Visual Communication Design Program at Sabanci University. I studied with Selim Birsel and Erdağ Aksel who, like Måns and Marysia, are artists. They let me curate exhibitions in their space. I was really lucky, because I learned curating from artists. Often artists are the best curators.
LL: Do you have any advice for current and future CuratorLab students?
AY: I can borrow a quotation from my dear friends, Slavs and Tatars, who are quoting Theodor W. Adorno when saying: ‘Advice to intellectuals: Let no-one represent you.’ Politics of representation is an important question and I always see curating as a space for thinking, developing an attitude, an intellectual voice and an intellectual identity. I always look at the curators today and try to understand their motivation. One of the strong motivations I have is related with the question of the position of the intellectual. For me curating is still a position for intellectuals. Any exhibition or text I produce has a political motivation. I will repeat the quote that Slavs and Tatars borrowed: ‘Let no-one represent you.’
“The word ‘career’ is scary”
Aimar Arriola in conversation with Jari Malta
JM: In which point in your career were you when you applied to CuratorLab?
AA: The word ‘career’ is scary: it reduces the meaning of one’s practice to mere professionalism. Curating is my main job and helps pay the rent. No question there. However, I cannot discuss my curatorial life without also referring to my personal biography. My 'career' as a curator is unconventional. I was trained as an artist, but I’ve never had an art practice as such. After graduating in 1999, I spent a year in museum internships in New York City until I was offered a curatorial assistant job at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which I consider my hometown. I found myself, at the age of 24, with a permanent job in a museum that has ended up becoming both a motor and symptom of cultural globalisation. My years at the Guggenheim comprised an education in many ways. I learnt everything that I needed to know about museum standards and curatorial conventions. I also learnt the lesson, from the belly of the monster, of how museums operate under the neoliberal condition. At some point, the school became a golden cage from which I had to escape. In my late twenties, while I was still a staff member at the museum, I almost died from poorly diagnosed appendicular peritonitis. I went into surgery three times over the course of a year before recovering completely. The experience changed my life and made me think about what I really wanted to do.
While working at the museum, I was also involved in Espacio Abisal, an independent artist-run space in Bilbao that had opened its doors at the end of the 1990s, in part as a critical response to the socio-economical changes that the region was undergoing, but also in response to local cultural politics. Working at both Abisal and the Guggenheim simultaneously forced me to wrestle with many contradictions, the resulting strain of which ultimately led me to resign from the Guggenheim and move to Barcelona to focus on research and independent work. I had been accepted in MACBA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona’s Independent Study Programme, a new inter-disciplinary space for critical thinking, led at the time by Spanish queer philosopher Paul B. Preciado. Under Preciado’s mentorship, I embarked on a two-year long collective research project on artistic and cultural responses to the final stage of Franco's dictatorship and the early years of democracy in Spain, contemporary to the emergence of AIDS, which is the background of my recent work on the topic. I applied to CuratorLab in 2009, immediately after finishing the MACBA programme.
JM: How was your experience in the programme? Did it fulfil your expectations?
AA: I did not know anyone who had done the programme before me so I didn’t have expectations. I remember that my motivations to apply for the programme were three-fold: the fact that it was free – I needed money at the time so this was key; my growing desire to learn more about the Scandinavian context; and the fact that the programme was practice-led. From what I could sense, the programme was closer to a collaborative production residency than to a pedagogical or training course, which at the time was most appropriate. CuratorLab offered academic certification, though the last thing that I wanted to do was to embark on yet another postgraduate ‘training’ course. I had just completed the MACBA Studies Programme, which was heavily discursive, and critical theory had prevailed over practice-led knowledge. Therefore, I was eager to shift emphasis towards praxis. I was soon drawn to CuratorLab’s emphasis on doing and its somewhat conscious attempt to overcome the Platonian distinction between theory and practice, philosophy, and the arts. Indeed, because CuratorLab is hosted by a college university (Konstfack) rooted in the arts and crafts, tradition is not lost. At a time when most curatorial training programmes are taking an eminently discursive direction, CuratorLab’s hands-on approach should be celebrated. Of course, the programme had its limitations, and I remember that one of our complaints was how little the programme was integrated with the daily life of the rest of the university. However, looking back, I feel that this lack of integration gave us greater autonomy.
CuratorLab also gave me the opportunity to establish links with the Scandinavian context, the continuity of which has been intermittent, because work and life have led me to prioritize South–South alliances. As a low-residency programme, taking part in CuratorLab did not require me to move to Sweden. Therefore, over the course of that academic year, I would still be based in Barcelona and travel to Stockholm approximately every 6 weeks. My host in Stockholm was Ana Valdés, a Uruguayan social anthropologist exiled in 1978 in Sweden, where she lived until 2014, at which point she returned to Uruguay. Ana had arrived in Sweden in her early twenties as a political refugee, after having spent four years in prison as a member of the Uruguayan guerrilla group, Tupamaros. I am privileged to have been able to know the Scandinavian context through the eyes of Ana, who offered first-hand knowledge and critical distance on the values of Swedish society and its supposed historical 'neutrality'. Ana’s politically engaged views were also a good antidote to the often less-engaged gaze of international curatorship. We have not spoken to one another since the programme, and I miss her.
JM: Did CuratorLab in any way transform your idea about what a curator is supposed to do?
AA: ‘Transform' is a strong word. I prefer to say that my participation in CuratorLab has helped in increasing my awareness of the role that collaboration has played in my work, because CuratorLab is a collaborative space. The two productions that I made in my time there were collaborative: the editorial project, Style (As Resistance), which included contributions by the High Heel Sisters, Jesper Nordhal, Paul B. Preciado, and many others, and the group exhibition, Regard, which was curated at Moderna Museet’s Studion together with my CuratorLab peers Marina Noronha, Maija Rudovska, and Alexa Griffith Winton.
On other occasions, I have referred to my curatorial work as a practice of ‘making with’, an expression that I modestly borrow from Donna Haraway. For Haraway, to ‘make with’ is to establish non-instrumental, ethical relations with that which surrounds you. To live ‘with the world’ and not ‘in the world’ is an opposition suggested by Haraway, which summarises the ethical implications of ‘making with’. Transferred to curating, making or doing ‘with’ would imply working from a position of reciprocity and support. Shortly after my participation in CuratorLab, I co-initiated the collaborative project AIDS Anarchive, on which I have been working for over six years with colleagues Nancy Garín and Linda Valdés. The project considers cultural responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis in contexts of the South, with a particular focus on Chile and Spain. In this project, the spirit and implications of ‘doing with’ extend to all aspects of what we do. For example, in the exhibitions that we organised as part of the project, participating artists and collectives were always paid a fee, and whenever possible, we chose not to incur superﬂuous production costs (such as building walls) in order to redistribute the available budget among participants. These funds have allowed grassroots collectives to invest in the digitising and keeping of their own archives. Additionally, we consider ourselves more than just a curatorial or research group. Since we started working together, the ‘collective’ has transformed into a life structure, where aﬀect and work converge. However, I do not wish to present the collective as an egalitarian utopia of disinterested collaboration. Over the years, we have faced dissent and frustration, misunderstandings, and complex feelings. As much as we have celebrated our joint work, we have also had to deal with moments of personal insecurity, unequal workload, or disparate public recognition. However, we have worked through these challenges together, with honesty and mutual trust, admitting divergence and emendation. I have recently reflected on these issues as part of my doctoral thesis in the department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, which also marked an end point of my involvement in this collaborative project. As I reflect, my overall experience in CuratorLab contributed to my commitment to collaborative work. Renée Padt, the programme coordinator at the time, held up the collaborative environment that was created among us, the group.
My participation in CuratorLab also provoked the birth of my own independent publishing platform, ‘Album’. This on-and-off platform was born as a necessary infrastructure to publish the individual project that I had produced as a conclusion to my participation in the programme, Style (As Resistance), a magazine-looking publication designed by Catalan designer ferran ElOtro. On a content level, the publication, which is now out of print, was located in a liminal place between art and design, design and fashion, popular culture and art. The project arose from my encounter with a particular ‘book object’: a copy of the Swedish edition of the cultural studies classic, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) by Dick Hebdige, which I had come across at Konstfack’s library. I was already familiar with the book but had become obsessed with this particular edition. Of course, this edition of Hebdige’s book was in a language that I could not read, Swedish. Therefore, my relationship to that particular copy of the book was beyond its reading value: it was a relationship based on its status as a ‘thing’. Made obvious to me only years later, an interest in the ‘life of books’ beyond or in addition to their literary value, particularly the dimension of books as objects in their circulation and afterlives in institutional infrastructures, such as libraries and archives, traversed the project and now animates much of my work as editor.
JM: Which projects are you currently involved in?
AA: After five years focused on academic research and discursive work, with my recently concluded PhD project, I am willing to resume curating from a more sensorial dimension in the form of further experimenting with the medium of the exhibition. In recent years, my curatorial work has developed over the broader cultural spectrum, and I now feel a need to return to strictly artistic concerns, such as those related to the field of forms and the sensitive. I remain, however, involved in interdisciplinary and discursive projects, such as The Against Nature Journal initiated by Council, Paris, which takes, as a starting point, the legal notion of ‘against nature’ as a tool still used to criminalise sexual and gender identities and behaviours. After two years of preliminary actions around the project, in 2020–2021, the project will take on renewed visibility. The project's website offers further information.
After almost a decade of nomadism, in spring of 2019, I am moving back to the Basque Country for several projects. Among these projects, I am a new member of the curatorial committee of Eremuak, the Basque government's contemporary art programme. This position is a rotating, three-year role that involves offering funding and curatorial support to artists, both established and emerging, for the development of new projects, the publication of an annual journal, and the organisation of a number of public programmes and events. After a number of years focused on academic research, I look forward to a more hands-on job. I am still not certain, though, that this move will be permanent. For now, I am tired of travelling, but I also acknowledge that I am a body in flux.
You enter the storage, ask the collection something, and it will answer.
On migration, museums, publicness and blind spots
Cecilia Widenheim and Maria Lind in conversation with Joanna Warsza
Joanna Warsza: Cecilia, some years ago you brought to public light an extraordinary event.
In 1945, Malmö Museum opened its doors for survivors arriving from the German
concentration camps with the so-called White Buses, organised by the Red Cross, and it was turned into a refugee shelter. Can you talk about this story and your resulting research?
Cecilia Widenheim: We did a project together with Malmö Museer in 2015, at which time I was director of Malmö Konstmuseum, to commemorate the end of World War II. We looked into what had happened in the city in 1945 – specifically, the dramatic situation with the arrival of thousands of refugees from Germany, via Denmark. We delved into the collections, looking for drawings, paintings and other documents that were left in the museum in relation to the actions of the Red Cross. When we were preparing this, back in 2014, we still didn’t know that 2015 would be the year a large number of refugees would come to Europe from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Sweden introduced new passport regulations for everyone who crossed the border between Denmark and Sweden. This was very dramatic and emotional. Since the end of the German occupation of Denmark in May 1945, people had travelled freely between Malmö and Copenhagen, but suddenly the border was closed once again. Those current and past events raised essential questions about the museum as a public institution, and about the collection as such. How are collections linked to, and results of, the experience of migration and exile? How are they related to our self-understanding, and to readings of the artworks? What kinds of histories and knowledge can be found and created, and how can they engage critically with the museum collection and contemporary political conditions?
JW: Could you talk about that moment when a museum, which normally cares for objects,
decides to care for people? How do you see those two politics of care as connected?
CW: When we began the research, we realised that the story about Malmö Museum’s transformation into a refugee shelter was not very well known in Sweden, much less elsewhere. In short: for half a year in 1945, around 900 newly released concentration camp prisoners were housed at the museum on the initiative of director Ernst Fischer, after he learned that the city’s public facilities were full. In 2002 a book was published that included interviews with museum staff and others who had been around, and it was after reading this that we decided to do an exhibition of the material brought by former prisoners of the camps, as well as artworks that had remained at the museum as part of the collection, such as drawings and notebooks by Polish artists Maja Berezowska and Jadwiga Simon-Pietkiewicz. We also located a large-scale painting by the expressionist Sven Xet Erixson that depicts the refugees entering the art museum. It had been sitting at Folkets Hus in Gothenburg, and Malmö Konstmuseum managed to purchase it.
This research raised many questions: What is the role of a museum? To what degree is the museum related to contemporary politics? How can a museum collection be used to understand different situations and relations between Sweden, other countries and the international art context? The shift from the role of caring for objects to that of caring for people is food for thought, spurring reflection not just on the role of the museum in 1945, but also on how we understand the public museum today, when the idea of cultural heritage is split between nationalist and ultra-conservative forces. Let me give one striking example from 1945: Some of the refugees asked the museum director to bring out a religious cross and some altarpieces from the museum vitrines, so that they could hold a sermon in the museum space. They wanted to reactivate the museum objects, to make them real and sacred again. So, the politics of care also includes this reclaiming of “dead” museum objects in order to care for and relate to them.
Maria Lind: As an outside observer, learning about these events and seeing some of the work you mentioned in the 2015 exhibition was a mind-blowing experience. The discussion around museums, particularly art museums in Sweden, is rather sedate, and this was a revelation for many of us.
CW: This kind of research was a discovery for me, too, after many years as a museum curator, and it inspired me to start scrutinising the strategies and policies around acquisition. I felt obliged to rethink the acquisition policy.
JW: How so?
CW: Acquisition is a political act. When the museum looks for something, it usually has an idea what that work will add to the collection, but it is hard to predict all consequences over the long term. Acquiring a work, whether by buying it or accepting it as a donation, also means changing the collection – every addition modifies what is already there. I became interested in the international artists who were working in Sweden around 1945, or even before 1939, and the extent to which they are represented in Swedish art collections. I asked myself: Does it make us think differently about what we consider contemporary, back then and now? Who are the artists with international backgrounds that live in Sweden right now? How do we get in contact with them? Who is presented to you and who is not?
JW: Can you talk about when you both went down to Malmö Konstmuseum’s seemingly
endless storages, which contain around 40,000 items? Which questions guided you there, in
the process leading up to the exhibition?
ML: We had in mind the events of 1945, and the hundreds of refugees who lived in the museum between May and December of that year. Some of them had left small drawings, rare examples of artworks made in the camps. The method was basic: we went down and started with the artworks themselves, pulling out racks and looking. Cecilia started at one end of the room and I at the other, asking each other: “Hey! Do you know this painting? Come over!” Quite soon, a pattern appeared – a pattern that had to do with the artists’ names, which included a large number of Latvian names that were unknown to us. Many of the paintings by Latvian artists seemed to be related to each other in terms of both aesthetics and motifs: scenes from the coast that depicted boats; people on the move, as if they were fleeing. This led to our discovery of a donation to the museum, in 1939, by a customs official in Malmö, which would later be known as the Latvian collection. We learned that Oscar Elmquist had donated a substantial amount of money for the museum to purchase art from the young nation of Latvia, which had turned twenty years old in 1938, as an act of solidarity. And after the war, the museum added several pieces to the collection at the exhibition Latvian Art. This is only one example of what came out of the time we spent in the archives. I don’t think we would have found this story if we had simply gone through the database.
CW: When you enter the storage, you ask the collection something, and it will answer. But the answer depends on the question, on the kind of research you do. A collection is also a fantastic source of discussion. This open research brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy to us curators, as well as to the CuratorLab participants from Konstfack, who had embarked with us on this adventure a year prior to the exhibition. We started asking: Why had certain works ended up here? Take, for instance, the drawings from the Ravensbrück camp, left by artists who came with the White Buses. What kind of gift is that? It is not a standard donation of an artwork. It is more of an act of entrustment: Could you please keep this memory for us? Or is it an act of erasure, if one considers that the artists may or may not have wanted to bring the pieces back home? This we don’t know. The ways in which artworks enter a museum collection are as interesting to research for us today as the pieces themselves; their itineraries provide just as much information.
JW: You are asking the collection something, but the collection is not simply a tabula rasa;
it already assumes a certain image based on how it has been presented before. In this case, a kind of self-image as a Nordic collection. What is that image made of, and how did you
CW: There is a tendency for museums to think they need to brand themselves and follow a linear trajectory. The collection in Malmö has been branded as being Nordic, that is, focussing on art from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland. But what does “Nordic” mean here? With this kind of branding, the nuances tend to get lost, and diversity within a collection is overshadowed. We have to remember that most collections do not operate according to a straightforward logic. And many of them, including Malmö’s, contain a multitude of interesting things that don’t match the brand. It is all about the question of how we might highlight this amazing relationship between history, international politics, local politics and visual culture.
ML: There are a number of works connected to the Nordic countries, but significantly, there are also many more works that have never, to our knowledge, been highlighted. As the research of one of the CuratorLab participants, Lotte Løvholm, has shown, the Latvian collection was actually on display until the late 1950s. When it was removed, during the coldest of the Cold War years, some people saw the removal as a gesture of leniency in relation to the Soviet Union. Any collection is full of material which is potentially fascinating; one’s reading of it, of course, depends on what kind of lens you view it through, and what questions you ask. We could enter the very same collection with another set of questions, and we would surely come out with an equally interesting exhibition – although, maybe not as spectacular as Migration: Traces in an Art Collection. [laughs]
JW: Which migration and which traces do we talk about in this exhibition?
CW: The main idea came from a proposal from Maria, who was fascinated by the material from 1945 when she saw it in 2015, which I presented when she, you [Joanna] and CuratorLab came to Malmö in September 2018. Maria’s first question was: Should we try a broader and more indepth look at migration here?
ML: During the time I was director of Tensta konsthall (2011–18), we initiated a project called Tensta Museum: Reports from New Sweden, in which we pretended to be a museum, looking at the history and memory of the neighbourhood of Tensta through people’s experiences and stories, as well as their material manifestations and traces. A museum typically has a collection of objects, but our Tensta Museum did not; however, Tensta itself functions as a collection and an archive. Inspired by the project Picasso in Palestine, in which a painting by Picasso from the collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven was shown in Ramallah, I suggested that Tensta konsthall could borrow parts of Malmö Konstmuseum’s prestigious collection, given that Malmö is a city as affected by migration as Tensta.¹ It is important that the first iteration of the exhibition happened somewhere else than Malmö; this lends more layers to the exhibition, which later travelled back home, hopefully a little bit changed by this visit.
CW: During my time as director of Malmö Konstmuseum (2012–18), we contextualised the collection in several publications and exhibitions, inviting guest curators such as Kim Einarsson and Stine Hebert, who scrutinised the notion of “Nordicness” in the exhibition The Nordic Model (2013); Martin Sundberg, who researched the year 1914 and the large contemporary art section of the Baltic Exhibition in Malmö in Baltic Reflections (2014); Kerstin Wickman, who activated women designers represented in the collection in Oomph (2016); Lisa Rosendahl, and her research on the remnants of industrial Malmö in The Society Machine (2016); artist Matts Leiderstam and the project Show and Tell, where we made a selection together reflecting on the history and the future of the art museum in a globalised image culture (2017); and, last but not least, Ester Almqvist – I Live in Two Worlds curated by me, together with Martin Sundberg (2018). Other projects worth mentioning are In the Shadow of War (2015), which foregrounded artworks from the museum’s period as refugee shelter, and Heed the Call – Art for All! (2016), where we highlighted artists in the collection who were active around the year 1968.² We also regularly invited students to research the collection together with the museum staff, including those from a local folk high school who made The War within Myself, a project and exhibition on art and mental illness, in collaboration with artist Lisa Nyberg. So the collection was recontextualised and on our minds all the while.
ML: Cecilia, you and I were colleagues at Moderna Museet in the late 1990s, and since then we have shared a strong interest in art history and collections. It was a lucky strike that we could do this project together, where our shared concerns and different experiences could be interwoven in a beautiful way.
CW: I agree, and I would like to add that Tensta Museum, as a concept, has been a great provocation and food for thought for me, long before the present debate on the role of museums in contemporary society took place in Sweden. On a small scale, Tensta Museum introduced questions like: For whom is a museum intended? How can a museum operate? What is the societal function of a museum? One striking example is the project Art Treasures: Grains of Gold from the Public Schools of Tensta as part of Tensta Museum, which brought around thirty works of art made between the 1890s and 1990s in Tensta’s public schools into the space of the konsthall. By embracing such “school art”, it effectively challenged the hierarchy between museum collections and other collections of artworks, but also activated the notion of “art and education”, so present in the early welfare state and in the so-called “people’s home” (folkhemmet).
JW: Can you unpack how you constructed the exhibition? What struck me is that the works are fully charged with the personal lives of artists. You managed to bring together both artworks and stories of exile, migration, displacement or other kinds of movement. How did the concept of migration drive the presentation of the exhibition?
ML: While working in Tensta, I often came across the expectation that migrants would automatically want to share their stories, which sometimes appeared in condescending or otherwise-problematic ways. While some might want to, it is certainly not the case that everyone does. Artworks are intentional objects; the wish to express, articulate and share something is integral. So, if we are interested in those stories, let’s first look at the artworks, the traces that the artists have created. It seemed to us that this is a source which has been tapped into only rarely, when it comes to working with collections and curating exhibitions. At the same time, we wanted to acknowledge that migration is multifaceted. Exile is one version of migration, and there are various forms of exile, each of which could look extremely different. We concluded that we should not only include works that take migration as their subject matter (regardless of whether the artist went through it themselves or not), but also involve artists who have experienced migration, without that necessarily being visible, or otherwise palpable, in the work.
CW: The selection we made consists of around hundred works by fifty or so artists. The works span from the 1880s to present. The exhibition contains prints, drawings, installations, objects, sculptures, paintings and video. It has been accompanied by talks, discussions, workshops, guided tours and further contextualisation, some facilitated by the CuratorLab participants as part of their resulting projects.
JW: Which kinds of movement did you present in the show?
ML: From emigration from Sweden to America around the turn of the last century, to domestic migration within Sweden in the twentieth century, to Jewish, political and other refugees coming here in the 1930s and ’40s, and Latin American artists fleeing dictatorships in the 1960s and ’70s. There are also works by artists who have left the Middle East during the last decade. One example of migration within Sweden is a sad and beautiful lithograph by Björn Jonson, who from the 1930s onwards depicted the working-class areas of Stockholm, like Södermalm and southern industrial areas. The lithograph shows a Roma camp in one of these parts of the city with a number of caravans parked in a snowy landscape. The Roma were forced to lead nomadic, migratory lives, as they were not allowed to stay permanently anywhere – which meant that their children could not attend school properly and that they were confined to few sources of income.
I was also very keen on including a monumental painting by Leon Golub called Prisoners II (1989), which is typical of his realistic style, depicting human beings that are somehow under pressure or exposed to hard conditions. Painted on a piece of irregular canvas, the prisoners are all African American men, who to this very day make up the majority of incarcerated population in the United States. This is, of course, connected with the transatlantic slave trade, one of the biggest and most brutal migrations in history.
CW: As Maria mentioned, one movement is the emigration from Scandinavia to the United States around 1900, when 1.2 million people left Sweden between the 1850s and 1920 – that is, 20 to 25 percent of the population at the time. The works related to this huge emigration from Sweden, for example Jakob Kulle’s painting Letter from America (1881), have been a kind of eye-opener for many visitors. Another very interesting set of works is related to the connections and relations between Sweden and Latin America. As one country after another became a dictatorship during the 1960s and ’70s, many artists and intellectuals from that part of the world sought refuge in Sweden. Those movements helped to increase the consciousness among artists in Sweden about the political situation worldwide.
JW: Like the Amnesty International graphic portfolio, made by artists in Sweden in solidarity with political prisoners in Chile, which CuratorLab participant Jeong Won Chae researched?
ML: This portfolio is one of several examples of how Amnesty International in Sweden during the 1960s and ’70s asked artists to make prints to be sold for the benefit of various causes, in this case in solidarity with the people of Chile following the 1973 coup against President Allende. The Latvian collection is an early example of solidarity with a nation-building process. I didn’t learn anything about those cases when I studied art history, nor did I come across it when I worked as a curator at Moderna Museet. It seems necessary to examine collections directly in order to find things like this. Malmö Konstmuseum is most likely not alone in containing these traces – we would find similar ones anywhere if we start digging.
JW: Can you imagine today, at art fairs for example, something being collected out of solidarity? To me this sounds rather impossible.
ML: To collect in solidarity does indeed sound rather absurd these days, but artists are certainly acting in solidarity. They might be donating works to auctions, or even initiating auctions, like Anton Vidokle and Hito Steyerl did a couple of years ago in relation to the Rojava Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. At Tensta konsthall, we ran a series of projects between 2015 and 2018 called The Eros Effect: Art, Solidarity Movements and the Struggle for Social Justice, responding precisely to such an interest in both historical and contemporary cases of solidarity. Artists like Naeem Mohaiemen, the Otolith Group, Filipa César, Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Dora García have made work engaging with solidarity movements, often in the global South, that highlights and problematises events and situations which are often overlooked in mainstream history writing.
JW: There is also one special artist in the show: namely, Sonia Delaunay-Terk.
ML: To me, working with Sonia Delaunay-Terk is a teenage dream come true – she was the first historical, international avant-garde artist whose work I really fell in love with. In the Malmö collection, we found a 1952 gouache by her, which is typical of her orphist style, with bright colours in rounded, abstract shapes. She herself experienced various forms of migration, from being born into a poor Jewish family in Odessa to being adopted by a wealthy uncle in St Petersburg, studying in Karlsruhe and then continuing on to Paris. In the French capital, she was part of a transnational community of artists from all over the world. But she had to leave Paris with her husband, the artist Robert Delaunay, during World War I, which they spent in Spain and Portugal; then, once again forced to escape the Nazis during World War II, they lived in the south of France. However, none of this is thematised directly in her work.
JW: How did Delaunay’s work inspire the architecture of the show by Luca Frei?
ML: Luca Frei, an artist born in Lugano and based in Malmö, has for many years been working with display structures and the ways an exhibition works in relation to a topic, the context, and the artworks. We asked him if he would be interested in working on the spatial design of the exhibition, and quite early on he said he was very interested in Delaunay and that he would like to use her composition as a loose inspiration for a framework for a display in Tensta and Malmö. In addition to several freestanding screens, yellow metal structures with panels in green, red, grey, black, white and blue, he devised fields of Delaunay’s colours in different shapes on the walls, playing with the existing architecture of Tensta konsthall (a former storage area) and with the museum architecture of the 1930s in Malmö. In this way, he created a spatial and chromatic dynamism, which enhanced the possibilities for dialogue between the artworks in the exhibition space.
CW: Speaking of the internationalism of Delaunay-Terk and others, which defines some parts of the exhibition, I found it exciting to see the map of each artist’s movements, made by one of the CuratorLab participants, Vasco Forconi. He mapped the itineraries of the artists as they moved from country to country, from continent to continent, which is also a way of mapping both the political and personal circumstances that forced the artists to move.
ML: In the exhibition, there is also a cluster of works by artists who were in exile in Sweden because of World War II and the Nazi regime. Among them were Lotte Laserstein and Endre Nemes. Nemes ended up in Gothenburg and brought a central European flavour to both the local art scene and art life in Sweden. There is also Carlos Capelán – one of the best kept secrets of the art scene in Sweden, who came from Uruguay, and who today has more renown outside of Sweden, despite the fact that he has been living in Lund, in southern Sweden, since the mid 1970s. He is regularly invited to exhibit abroad in all kind of contexts, particularly since the 1990s. Nowadays, he is also frequently invited as a curator. Another case of an artist who had to flee is Muhammad Ali, who crossed the Mediterranean from Syria in one of the boats a few years ago, and whose drawings are very subjective expressions of that experience.
JW: Sweden was presumably neutral during World War II, a notion which is, of course, questioned. However, some people sought refuge here, including Bertolt Brecht, after escaping Germany, and he is also in some way present in the show.
ML: Brecht and Helene Weigel, an actress and also his wife, spent one year in Sweden in 1939. They stayed in a house on Lidingö, near Stockholm, owned by the artist Ninnan Santesson. She was part of a group of women artists who supported each other and spent a lot of time together, many of them being single parents and political radicals, such as Siri Derkert and Vera Nilsson. Santesson’s work is a small, expressive bust – the whole surface of which is covered by irregularities, which make it come alive as a sculpture – portraying the actress Naima Wifstrand. A close friend of Santesson, Wifstrand befriended Weigel and Brecht, who modelled the character Mother Courage, in the play of the same name, on the actress. Brecht is also present in a contemporary work by Per-Oskar Leu, based in Oslo, in his installation around the poem “An die Nachgeborenen” (To Those Who Follow in Our Wake). It is a sound piece accompanied by a teleprompter, where you can hear both the artist, the writer himself, and others read this poem, later activated by CuratorLab participant Eva Seijas.
CW: The exhibition opens with a painting by another refugee from Germany, Lotte Laserstein, an extremely fascinating artist who has recently been rediscovered in Germany. Invited to show at Galerie Moderne in Stockholm in 1937, she decided to stay, which she managed via a fake marriage with a man in Stockholm. She spent the rest of her life in Sweden. As a Jew, she had received a “Berufsverbot”, an order of professional disqualification, and thus could not participate in exhibitions or teach during the Nazi regime. Laserstein’s painting is a touching portrait from 1941 of an emigrant friend of hers in Stockholm, Dr Walter Lindenthal, who later returned to Germany. Laserstein’s life is a fascinating story about an artist in exile – she has been written out of German art history, and she was never included in the twentieth-century art history of Sweden. Only recently has there been new interest in her work, manifested in a large retrospective exhibition, produced by Städel Museum in Frankfurt, which will travel across Germany in 2019 and 2020.
JW: I would like to return to the world of collections. What also interested us during our investigation with the young participants of CuratorLab was the fact that we could deal with one of the biggest public collections of Sweden. However, what is the publicness of such a collection if the works live most of their lives in the darkness of the archive? What is the public realm, when it comes to collecting? Allan Kaprow famously said that museums isolate works from real life.
CW: First and foremost, I think museum collections are of enormous symbolic value, and a resource society holds in common – a foundation of democracy. During the uprisings, civil wars and other recent, tragic events in the Middle East, numerous attacks on museum collections, their looting or destruction, have taken place. Why? Because they form a symbolic repository of a society, and with their diversity they are seen as a threat to authoritarian regimes. The collection in Malmö started as a study collection in one of the city’s private schools, and in the mid 1800s the city of Malmö decided to create a new institution that could host the collection in the form of a museum. Generally, it should be used; the collection should be made available, and as cultural heritage, it should be accessible. If collections are not accessible, it is a democratic problem, I would say, and also embarrassing for the artists who are represented.
ML: The collection is public in the sense that it is owned by the citizens and people. Parts of it are made accessible, that is, they go public, through permanent displays and temporary exhibitions, but most of the collection remains inaccessible, in storage. Visiting Malmö Konstmuseum now, and engaging with the collection, I am astonished at the limited resources made available to the museum in terms of storage, cataloguing, conservation, and display of the collection, on the part of the municipality. I know that Cecilia spent quite some time trying to make the politicians understand what the city actually has, and what an incredible treasure it is, but it does not seem to sink in properly. In fact, some of the current conditions are destructive for the collection. This is only one example among many in Sweden today, where public authorities do not take proper responsibility for their collections and archives – at the same time that there is so much talk about the importance of cultural heritage.
CW: The collection in Malmö is of national interest. Smaller collections have often developed a local character – different interests, different networks and points of contact with artistic communities that might differ from those of the national institutions. It all adds to a more nuanced understanding of cultural heritage, but it also works to diversify and challenge the canonised self-image. And that is a fantastic contribution, not only for the local context.
ML: It is a plus that a collection like the one in Malmö precisely does not have a national agenda. Instead, it is expected to take special care of artists from Malmö and the region.
CW: My way of working with this collection has been to commission and produce new works regularly, and also to identify artists who change or clarify my view on a certain historical period, or whose voices help to understand that time, artistic context or community. Building a collection depends, to a large extent, on what kind of funding and network you have, and on which artworks are available. There are so many parameters – it is not really a rational process. Chance plays a role, as do coincidence, skill and available resources.
JW: How do you relate to the art market when it comes to building the collection?
CW: The art market is only one part in a multifaceted landscape of curators, collectors, critics, museums, artist-run spaces, galleries, and so forth, and we are all more or less related to each other. It is hard to isolate any one of these parts, as we live in a capitalist system. That said, the art market has become extremely strong since I started working with collections in the late 1990s. The domination of the art market by some huge international galleries and auction companies is a fact. Art is a vast field for investment nowadays, and most museums cannot match the funds of private investors. This is, of course, a serious problem. Most politicians and civil servants are unaware of these mechanisms.
JW: I am also interested in the migration of the exhibition itself. How does it travel back to Malmö? What happened to it in Tensta? How did it engage with the context in which it situated itself during summer 2019?
CW: The exhibition has entailed many conversations on transnationalism, experiences of exile and much more. Together with the participants of CuratorLab, we did a closer reading of some of the practices of the artists in the show, many of whose biographies and life trajectories are fascinating. Kasia Sobczak-Wróblewska of CuratorLab looked at the life and work of Polish artist Maja Berezowska, inviting the rest of the group to an apartment-museum that belongs to Stockholm City Museum for a tea party inspired by the artist’s life and oeuvre. Berezowska used to host conversations and encounters between people in her home in Warsaw, and now we were invited to learn more about her life before and after the war. That is just one example of what the artwork can tell us when it is mediated in a sensitive and smart way.
ML: I like to think that the artworks in the exhibition in Tensta were on an excursion, out into the open; they had some fresh air; they got a bit of natural light and were surrounded by different people and conditions, and were, potentially, stimulated and provoked a bit by this. They are somewhat changed as they arrive back home at Malmö Konstmuseum, where some of them have not yet been shown at all. They will also be displayed differently than they were in Tensta because the nature of the exhibition space in Malmö is radically different.
JW: Maria, you installed the Malmö chapter. How is it different?
ML: It is a tall, elongated space with a main hallway and a number of smaller spaces on the sides, with some natural light. In Tensta, it is a pretty square room, with six massive columns and no natural light. We opened those smaller spaces in Malmö so that the visitors can walk on the sides as well as in the middle, allowing people to discover a multitude of trajectories and avoid a prescribed, linear experience of the exhibition. Again, Luca Frei was involved with the design of the exhibition – we reused his screens, and he devised a scheme for how to paint the walls.
JW: Nowadays, many collections all over the world are starting to notice their blind spots. What struck me in your selection is that you proved that one doesn’t need to desperately fill all the gaps. If you take a closer look, you realise that the collection is already very heterogeneous and can perform another role than it did before. One simply needs to look closer, outside of one’s comfort zones. What do you think are current shortcomings of collections and collecting?
CW: As the exhibition returns to Malmö, it offers a tool that the museum, the visitors and scholars around Malmö can use to better understand the collection, and also to create future plans and a methodology for how it could expand and unfold. There is simply no need to mechanically add lots of artworks – instead, we should try to understand the collection, in both its heterogeneity and homogeneity. Its existing highlights and blind spots are much more important, and interesting, than simply continuing to buy a lot of art, as if to brush aside a bad conscience. It goes without saying that many more resources are needed for research within the art institutions; this is not unique to Malmö, but applies to the majority of smaller museums.
ML: It is crucial to massage the collections much more, and to see what can come out of them, what an artwork can do, what a collection can mean. I have been concerned with the developments in Sweden for some time, where I often feel that a real engagement with collections is missing. With its national collections, including nonart collections, the curatorial work seems to be done by committees, as if it is an administrative task, mostly leading to feeble and unengaging exhibitions. The lack of serious engagement with museological issues in terms of ideology, philosophy, art history, is beyond belief. We need much more solid engagement with collections.
CW: We are witnessing an international tendency among big, powerful museums to hire curators for African art, Asian art, South American art, and so forth. This is fantastic, but it also comes with the risk of ticking boxes. Slowly the institutions adapt to the fact that we are global now, but what does that mean for smaller places like Malmö Konstmuseum? It is, again, about the kinds of questions you bring to a collection. If you don’t change the questions, you will come out with the same old guys – white, male Westerners.
ML: If you began to research the graphic works of Malmö Konstmuseum, you would probably notice the number of artists from other countries, and particularly regions from which there are larger groups of refugees (like Latin America), faster than if you studied painting or sculpture. It is similar to what happened in the 1970s and ’80s, when paying attention to textile meant discovering previously unknown women artists. It is crucial to question the conditions of production, the traditions and other processes that underpin different contexts and periods. The catchphrase for this today is “decolonising” – I tend to think of it, in relation to my own work, as “de-canonising”.
CW: You have to ask yourself how you understand the context in which you work; in the case of Malmö, it is so-called Nordic art. But what can this mean? Who could be defined as a Nordic artist? Maybe it’s better to ask which artists are based in Nordic countries at the moment. This is how you go one step further. All museums have to do their homework, and that means understanding what kind of glasses you have on when you consider an acquisition, or when you do research on a collection. Is there a need to decolonise the collection? Is the Nordic profile still relevant?
JW: And from there, many, many other questions.
¹ Picasso in Palestine was initiated by the artist Khaled Hourani and became a collaboration between the International Academy of Art Palestine and the Van Abbemuseum. In 2011 Picasso’s painting Buste de Femme was shown at the academy in Ramallah, accompanied by a discursive programme highlighting the artist’s longstanding political engagement, the provenance of the work, the significance and problems with showing it there and then, and so on.
² During the period in which the exhibitions were held, there was a renewed discussion around the need for a new museum building in Malmö, both within the museum’s programme of workshops and discussions and at the level of municipal politics. Several investigations produced by the City of Malmö (the Urban Planning Department and Malmö Konstmuseum) and by external consults were presented in conjunction with the project Show and Tell.
'CuratorLab has been a very decisive point in my development, both as a person and as a professional'
Corina Oprea in conversation with Hannah Zafiropoulos
HZ: Which year did you participate in CuratorLab?
HZ: So a little while ago. I was speaking to Renee Padt the other day and she mentioned that you were there when she was.
CO: Yes, it was a great year. We were a great group; I'm still in touch with a lot of the other participants.
HZ: Was the programme as international then as it is now?
CO: Yes, it was the same then. I was the only one based in Stockholm and I wasn't born in Sweden. So it was very international and I think pretty much the structure was the same in that we met for three intensive working sessions and there was a fourth one where we presented the projects.
HZ: Where were some of the participants from?
CO: They were based in Singapore, Palestine/Berlin, Canada, Paris, Portugal and Italy.
HZ: So, quite a spread of people. And you're all still in contact?
CO: Yes, I'm still in contact with most of them. My colleague from Canada left the art world. She was very socially and politically engaged and at some point she felt like you do more for the world if you go into a concrete practice.
HZ: What were you doing before you joined the course? Were you already based in Stockholm or did you move to join CuratorLab?
CO: I was working in Stockholm. I had a position as Assistant Artistic Director and also coordinator for a transdisciplinary arts festival founded by the European Union. It was a project that was looking at harbor cities around the Black Sea and around the Baltic Sea, so it was a position that required a lot of travel and a lot of production. It was a very hands-on job, so for me the intention when I applied for CuratorLab was sort of to have a slight break. I did continue with my job, but I was taking a break for the time of the course, and it was an opportunity for me to reflect on my practice as a curator. I was coming from a background in performing arts and in cultural politics and cultural management, and I wanted to come into contact again with theory, with discourse and also to work in a group in a context that allowed me to reflect on practice - and also to get inspired and think about my practice. I'm educated as a theatre director, and then as a cultural manager. I became Assistant Artistic Director and coordinated this festival that was both visual arts and theatre and film and dance and a conference and some theory. So then I thought, 'Okay, what is my role?'. I began to think that maybe curatorial practice was a way of embracing all these different strands in my work. So for me, CuratorLab has been a very decisive point, I would say, in my development, both as a person and as a professional. Because all these little bits kind of fell into place. I was fortunate enough to have Renee as the coordinator, who has supported me immensely. I did a PhD thanks to her, and I have a position now at Konsthall C also thanks to her! So a lot of things grew out of this. Then there were the encounters with my colleagues. We were a fantastic group; it was such a good chemistry. And we were lucky enough to get this grant from apexart to do an exhibition, which was great for us as a group to have the opportunity to work together. We learned much more that way than by focusing on our individual projects.
HZ: Can you tell me a bit more about the apexart collaboration?
CO: When we had our first meeting in September, after about two weeks, one of us, I don't remember whom, said there's this open call from apexart. And so we sat in a cafe and wrote an application. It wasn't a big application; I think it was less than 300 words, just a few paragraphs.
HZ: What was your proposal?
CO: It's funny, because now I'm Artistic Director at Konsthall C, and the proposal started when we went to Konsthall C during our first session in Stockholm. We spoke to the Director at that time and talked about democracy and politics in relation to the location of Konsthall C, which is itself a former communal laundry. It was right after the 2010 election when the extreme right party got into [the Swedish] parliament for the first time. The proposal was about the notion of washing, the laundry, and how they relate to politics. The title was Washed Out. It was about history and how you wash out or forget about histories, and it was also a reflection on nationalistic tendencies and conflicts.
We applied and got an answer just before Christmas. I was the contact person, so I was the one they called. We had planned that the exhibition would take place at the beginning of February. It was a very short period and that taught us a lot. I had to go back to Konsthall C and say 'We got it!'. Naturally, they had something already planned for February, so they put us in touch with a real estate company who owned the building and we were given the floor above to use and also access to the laundry. Then we had to talk with all the artists.
We were based in four different continents, and it was impossible for us to meet again during the preparations. We worked out a formula for how to work together. It was quite equal in the sense that we all suggested three artists – I still have those documents. We had to describe the practice of those artists and how they fit into our proposal. It wasn't really like voting, but almost – each one of us had our say, and we finally decided on five or six artists.
HZ: Was it mostly an object-based exhibition?
CO: It was object-based and had video work. We also produced some posters.
HZ: Did the artists come from Stockholm or were they international?
CO: They were international. There was Daniela Comani and Maja Bajević. Stefan Constantinescu, who was based in Stockholm. Nadia Myre and Estafania Peñafiel Loaiza, Raeda Saadeh and Laercio Redondo. At least one artist was proposed by each of us. So they were sort of connected, both in terms of interest and with the location where we were based at that time. We also worked with an artist duo called Konsthall 323. They were artists at Konstfack on the MA programme, ‘Art and Public Space’, I think it was called then. They were in residency in the exhibition. They had this idea...they still work together...it was an art gallery in a car, a mobile gallery in a car. But this time they were inside the exhibition doing a residency. So this is how we worked all together.
We learned a lot about how you work in a group, how you think, how you curate in collaboration; dealing with all the aspects from conceptualising the exhibition and inviting the artists to producing the different works. There was one commission and then we produced the texts for the brochure. We did everything together. We worked in Google docs, and then we met in February and we had one week to install the exhibition, to paint the walls and make it happen. But it was a fantastic experience. I think it was the best thing to work together like this at the beginning [of the course] and not at the end. After, we still had half of the year to realise our individual projects.
HZ: Did you find that the collaborative project influenced your independent projects later, the ones you did as part of the course?
CO: I think it definitely influenced our work in that it created a great synergy in the group. I think this is also why we are now still in touch, because we learned more from each other and we worked together. So I wouldn't say that individual projects were influenced in the sense that we then collaborated again...but we knew much more. Also, we were much more engaged in each other’s projects because we became friends at the beginning of the process and not towards the end. The discussions were richer because we already knew how we all worked: how I, for example, know how to keep a budget, how my colleague Valerio Del Baglivo is very good at research, and how Isabel Löfgren is really good with text. We knew our strengths, not because we described them to each other, but because we had worked together and seen them in practice. Suddenly, CuratorLab, which I'd describe as a sort of research residency, also became something very practical and hands-on.
HZ: In the past there have been discussions about CuratorLab and its relationship to other MA curatorial programmes, and whether it should stay more as a professional research residency, or whether it should become something that gives a diploma. How do you see the value of the programme?
CO: In my year, most of us had a master’s degree, and many of us were on our way towards a PhD. There is already a master’s programme in Stockholm. I'd chosen CuratorLab precisely because it wasn't a master’s, because I didn't need another qualification. Also, most of us already had a practice, and I wanted to continue with my work. So, I think it’s different. If it is a master’s course, then you would have participants coming from BA level, which is not a bad thing, but it’s a completely different direction and format. I value CuratorLab for being a space of reflection, of having participants and colleagues that have a practice behind them. In this way, it’s like a research residency or a fellowship. Personally, I think that this coming together of an international community with diverse practices and interests, which may crisscross, and the opportunity to discuss practice with the opportunity to do something together or separately, is much more valuable for me. It was important for me at that time, and I still believe in CuratorLab’s format and its value as it is, without it having to turn into yet another master’s programme.
HZ: When you first applied for the programme, what was your proposal for your independent project? Did it stay the same?
CO: It changed a lot. I can't even remember what I applied with. It must have been something to do with performance art and Eastern Europe. So, in a way some things stayed the same. I wanted to do a performance event over a weekend, to discuss political movements and performance and the reenactments of protest movements in an exhibition space, I think that was the proposal. And then Renee said, 'Oh, but you come from performance and you're working with it already, so it would be interesting if you do an exhibition instead, just to test the format.'
Over the year, we went on trips to Istanbul, to visit Former West, and to Gothenberg for the Biennial. I really liked one of the venues, Röda Sten, this industrial space a little bit outside the city center. The curator was Eddy Moca, who's now working for the Public Art Agency in Sweden. I spoke with him and sent him a proposal, and later did an exhibition there. It was called Temporary Status, and it was both an exhibition and a publication.
The exhibition came out of a research trip to Moldova, Transnistria, and to Georgia. I was particularly drawn to the context of Transnistria – they call it a state, but it is the only state in the world that no-one else recognises, not even Russia. They have this kind of visa on a post-it, but they have a flag and a parliament and everything. When you enter, it’s very surreal and you feel like you've travelled back in time to the ‘50s. They have the Russian army at the entrance that is there allegedly for peacekeeping. And then I travelled to Moldova, which is a relatively recent state, and to Georgia, where there is always this threat from Russia. I also travelled to Armenia, which has this kind of political struggle with Russia, and then to Azerbaijan...
HZ: You did a lot of travelling!
CO: Yes, I fundraised for this. Don't have the idea that at that time CuratorLab was a very rich programme! I did my own fundraising.
I started to think about how these temporary statuses, of not knowing what is the political structure, can offer something rich, because these are places in negotiation with what is a nation state, what is citizenship, and made me think aboutwhat is my agency as a political citizen and member of society. So I explored all this in my exhibition with artists from Armenia and Moldova. I also did a publication, because a lot of the artists that I met during my trip were using discourse and writing as their practice. I thought that this format of work was not the best to have in an exhibition, so I made a publication.
HZ: When you were doing the programme, did you take a complete break from your job?
CO: No, only during our working periods together.
HZ: Wow, you achieved a lot in that time! Doing the programme, you often find there's this difficult balance between your practice back home, your job and the things you have to do, while also finding the time and space to do a project in Stockholm. It’s a constant juggling act, but it sounds like you managed it really well. It’s inspiring to see what’s possible in this space of time! Did you do a PhD immediately after?
CO: Yes, thanks to one of my colleagues in CuratorLab. He told me about this PhD in the UK at Loughborough University, so I applied to it. I had contact with Mel Jordan, she's head of the art department at the RCA, but she was at Loughborough then. And then I had Gillian Whiteley. When I got my PhD place after CuratorLab, I quit my job. I thought that doing both wouldn't really work.
HZ: Can you tell us a bit about Konsthall C, how you ended up there and what you do there?
CO: Since January this year I've been Artistic Director at Konsthall C. It's a rotating system, and I'll have the role for two years until December 2018. Over the two years, I'm focusing on decolonisation in Scandinavia. For me it’s a way of looking at how and in what way the Scandinavian countries could be defined as colonial powers, in terms of history, methods of colonising and contemporary forms of colonialism. This is especially pertinent to Sweden, both with regard to its own territory and those nearby, and its attempts to colonise: Sweden had a colony, but also attempted to have others in the 16th and 17th centuries. Without such an extensive history behind you, there's an opportunity to think about contemporary colonialism through economy, through gender. What does it mean to decolonise your own institution? What does it mean to decolonise art as an institution and as a structure in itself? We have been thinking about representation, always having an awareness of who is working, how we form structures, who we invite, what kind of exhibitions we do. I don't do this pedagogically, but try to touch on all these issues.
The first exhibition was called Horses on Rollerblades and looked at feminism and intersectionality with Tracey Rose, Kapwani Kiwanga, Kajsa Dahlberg and Rabbya Naseer. There was a performance by Ellen Nieman and also a performance by Anna Koch and Dinis Machado. From that exhibition I started a series of publications and so far we have two. The first one is on Feminism and Intersectionality and the second one is on Migration and European Colonial Histories. The latter was done in connection with an exhibition that opened in September by the artist David Loshong, looking at fire-related incidents at refugee centres around Sweden over the past three years. We had a film installation by Sophie Rockowitz, showing her film Shape Shifters, which is actually premiering today on the big screen. She did it as an installation at Konsthall C. And now on 7 October we opened an exhibition, A Matter of Time, by Sofia Hultin, with three new video works and a guided walk on a smartphone app around Hökarängen. The exhibition looks at a queer perspective on the future, looking backwards and forwards and seeing the different struggles within the LGBTQI community, but also the potentialities of bringing together different black struggles, queer struggles and refugee struggles, inspired by Octavia Butler and Zygmunt Bauman and Martine Rothblatt. So this is on until 19 October. With Sophia I'm going to Moldova and she will do a workshop with the LGBTQI community there, introducing this format of guided walks in the city, looking at how different bodies can take place in the public space, and sharing stories in the 'I' format - I myself can tell stories, and appropriate and embody the stories of others.
HZ: Sounds like a very interesting programme. I look forward to coming when I'm back in Stockholm!
Love is Revolutionary: A conversation between Dora Garcia and CuratorLab
Martyna Nowicka: Have you in your art practice always been interested in love, relationships, and how the sense of belonging shapes and influences social structures? I guess one can see these themes appear even in your earlier works such as ‘Heartbeat’?
Dora Garcia: My background is quite heavy and conceptual. This is a kind of art, which I loved as a student, and it still has a huge impact on me. In the beginning my main focus was the structure of art, the relation to the spectator. I was always interested in questions of language and philosophy — formal questions. Feminist or women’s issues were never explicit in my work. I always thought of my work as very dry and I was never interested in telling stories of specific people, love or even sex. Not at all! So, I would say my interest in love started when I realised the political potential of those things. It was somewhere around 2008 when I made a work in Australia about Lenny Bruce. Because of that I started to research counterculture in Australia and actually realised that it went hand in hand with the gay liberation movement and that both politics and revolt link to sexuality and sexual habits. In a way sexuality was something belonging to the private realm which could immediately become subversive.
MN: Was the link between sexuality and politics the reason why you became interested in Alexandra Kollontai?
DG: Actually, I became aware of Kollontai’s existence some time ago, but I had never read any of her texts. When Maria Lind suggested that I should have a look at Kollontai’s writings I was very occupied with the work ‘Army of Love’, which was initiated by a friend, Ingo Niermann, together with other friends. I don’t normally make collective works. But ‘Army of Love’ was extremely interesting to me and in a way Maria’s offer and ‘Army of Love’ came together.
I think the reason why Maria invited me to become involved with Alexandra Kollontai, was due to my work in the Gwangju Biennale. I recreated the Nokdu Bookstore where the Gwangju Uprising was incubated. Revolution in Korea, which my work related to, was in a way not so far away from the October Revolution that was experienced and described by Kollontai. All the revolutionaries were very young people ready to sacrifice themselves. Those people who fought and died were between 15 and 25 years old, with the majority of them being younger than 20.
During the uprising you could have had all kinds of romances — revolutionary romances. All of a sudden norms were subverted. You didn’t have to care about the social status of your relations, you simply became aware of your own mortality and everything changed. It had a huge impact on both older women who saw their children go to their death, and younger women, who grabbed this opportunity to question the patriarchal structures. It was one of those situations when many paradoxical things come together and then explode. That changes everything. The Gwangju Uprising has been compared to La Commune, having the same effect in Asia as the Commune in Paris.
MN: You mentioned very briefly that you became interested in love through your conceptual practice. When did you start to recognise this kind of political and broader potential? Can you talk a little bit about how your interest in love changed during those 10 years?
DG: I have to say that when I think about it now, I am surprised that I didn’t recognise the subversive potential of sexuality earlier. Of course, it has to do with where I come from — in my generation, female artists were very often interested in representing women’s sexuality. I was always horrified by this notion and I did everything not to be classified as a female artist, making ‘women’s art’. I totally cut any reference to my female condition. I absolutely didn’t want to be invited to participate in female art exhibitions. Those prejudices completely blinded me to all other possibilities.
My interest in love changed as the politics changed. For instance, in 2008, when “the personal” started to become present in my work through the project in Sydney Australia on Lenny Bruce, Obama was a presidential candidate. Then he won the nomination for the Democratic Party and all of a sudden it seemed like things were going to be okay. What I call “the personal” are the LGBT, civil rights movements, which I have always supported, which are part of my life experience. But in relation to my work experience, my interest in love clearly coincides with Trumpism.
The notion of love is currently very much embedded in politics. One of the movements against Trump is called ‘Revolutionary Love’, another ‘The Love Army’. The first one is related to women’s movements (what has already been named ‘Fourth Wave Feminism’) and the last one is calling simply to love Republicans, love your opponent, because it is love that will conquer. However, the main force today is hate and many people think that only love can conquer it and as stupid as it sounds, it is probably right. Hate is all about manifestations of insecurities. It is only through all kinds of love that you can overcome this.
MN: As you approach your upcoming exhibition at Tensta konsthall, ‘Red Love’, I’d like to ask what it was about Kollontai’s life and work that felt relevant to your own interests?
DG: The fact that she was so ahead of her times. She mentions in the 1930’s things that would later be broadly discussed in the 1960’s or even the 70’s, or now. There are few specific things that struck me in her writing: the equality of men and women, progressive views on marriage and family, the idea that you cannot have a revolution without women and a conviction that true freedom for women can only be achieved in a socialist state.
There is also the similarity that I came across between Kollontai’s ideas and women’s movements in South America. When I was doing research in South America I realised that the women’s movements there avoided identifying as feminist, because they consider feminism to be white and European and they don’t want to be identified with that. White European feminists are their oppressors, not their sisters, therefore they don’t want to identify with feminist fights. The notion of class in Kollontai’s writings is also something very present and in contemporary South America it has been shifted from the notion of the proletariat to the notion of colonised non-white people.
Another thing would be the degeneration of Kollontai’s ideas in socialist countries. In 2006, when I did research work on the political police in East Germany, I focused as much on sex as on politics. In the GDR women very often had children with different partners since they didn’t have to depend on their husbands for their income and divorce was not stigmatised — therefore it was socially acceptable to have several partners throughout your life. Next to that, the system of nurseries, schools and day care was wonderful; you could leave your children there from the age of three months and pick them up at night. Those facts created a situation of relative freedom and independence for women, but one in which children grew distant from their parents and subsequently, too devoted to the State. Therefore, it sometimes happened that children denounced their parents to the State, if they considered that their parents’ devotion to the Party was not convincing enough.
MN: Are those relevant things in Kollontai also the reason why her project did not work?
DG: Sometimes Kollontai seems very naive about women leaving their children to the State, which is interesting for me. I come from a Catholic country where this would be an absolute evil. Nothing comes before family. Your duty is always to your parents and nothing else. For those people it must have been quite different. When you are brought up as a socialist your duty is to the Party. Those people who denounced their parents saw themselves as heroes.
When I spoke to some socialists from those times, they always said that in the sixties and seventies they considered the socialist countries a model in women’s liberation and abortion rights. Most of them did not realise where it could lead. In East Germany there was a case of a woman active in a resistance — a fighter for democracy. She was also a feminist and a member of a women’s movement. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Stasi archives opened, she discovered that her husband — whom she had been together with for fifteen years and had children with, had been informing on her since they met. She immediately left him. The funniest part was the interview with her husband who still didn’t understand the problem — he thought about his actions as something done to protect her. So, I think about this State taking too much over family relations as a total degeneration of relations. He could see himself as a husband, lover and informant at the same time.
MN: With the appearance of Kollontai, the body comes into the picture much more than any of the other ideologists of the period. One could say that she introduces a body into politics. I’m interested in how you reflect on that in your work.
DG: I have never been very fond of the body. Even when enacting the ‘Army of Love’ I always get out when the physical part begins. I don’t know where that comes from. I’ve always been very interested in other sexualities, but I am very conventional, sexually speaking.
As I have already mentioned, I have always kept separate my personal life, my motherhood and my work. I have never done anything related to art with my children, which is quite rare. When women artists have children, often, their kids feature in their work too. This has never been the case with me, but at the same time my kids have always been with me when I work. I never found it problematic to work with them and I never felt they hindered me from anything. On the one hand being an artist and having children was always something natural, and on the other, they never appeared in my artistic work. I think that the body is not something very present in my work, but language is. Of course, language is always related to the body, so I can’t say that the body is absent. One could say that I am interested in language piercing through the body (this is Lacan’s definition of ‘The Unconscious’).
MN: My next question would be connected to the language that you use, or the terms that you use. Your exhibition at Tensta konsthall is called ‘Red Love’. What does ‘red love’ signify to you?
DG: For a long time, I wanted to call the exhibition ‘Revolutionary Love’, but I felt it was too long. ‘Red Love’ comes from an article on Kollontai by the theorist and philosopher, Michael Hardt. When I decided to paint the floor red, in reference to Kazimir Malevich, I decided to call the exhibition ‘Red Love’. The double meaning of the word “red” has always been interesting for me. Communist’s flags are the most beautiful flags because there is so much red in them. When I was a teenager I was always wearing Russian t-shirts, Communist propaganda t-shirts. I was unaware, and I just thought they were beautiful.
I chose the title also because I think that the idea of love as a revolutionary force, which encourages self-organisation, is interesting. Of course, this idea is not new, it has been present in the history of humanity for a long time. Before I began working on Kollontai for this project, I was reading Charles Fourier who has quite a different stance on love.
Kollontai doesn’t consider sexual preferences other than heterosexuality. She suggests that other options would be detrimental for a Communist society. Contrary to her, Fourier thinks that every possible sexual preference is perfectly fine and a fundamental part of the individual as well. He points out that to repress any sexual drive always has terrible consequences. For Fourier, however weird you consider your desire, your needs can be accommodated, and you will certainly find people who like the same thing. Fourier came close to inventing Tinder in his imagination of the ‘phalanstery’ — a kind of structure where a ‘Priestess of Love’ would be communicating with other ‘Priestesses of Love’ to match people according to their preferences. Fourier is meticulous. Everything is a multiple of four, but his ideas are truly revolutionary and very much related to a sexual revolution. In a way they are much more radical than what Kollontai had in mind. The idea that there is absolutely nothing strange to human experience, that nothing can be called degenerate, that nothing that gives pleasure is bad, is amazing. Even now it sounds challenging. Of course, curiously, we are now in a much more conservative period than say 30 or 40 years ago.
MN: Do you think that today, 100 years after the October Revolution, but also 50 years after May ‘68, we are at another turning point as far as love and sex are concerned?
DG: I think plenty of other things happened during those last 100 years. Something that changed a lot was AIDS. I remember my teachers saying that we were conservatives because we didn’t have as much sex as them. With AIDS in mind you had to be much more careful, you always needed a condom, if not, nothing happened. That somehow wiped carelessness out of sexuality.
Another factor would be the explosion of the pornography industry. It’s something that makes me extremely uneasy. I still don’t have a stance on pornography or prostitution. I understand of course where prostitution comes from. I think it’s disgusting and I wish it didn’t exist, but it does, through and through. It’s naive to say that it’s bad and we should ban it. It is a hyper-complex phenomenon and to say that it is the ultimate hetero-patriarchal exploitation of the female/other body does not get us very far in practical terms of reducing misery and abuse. And in relation to pornography and the way to be empowered by it, I love the concept of post-porn. I’ve seen a lot of it, but it’s hard to say if I take any pleasure from it. Sometimes it is charming but most of the time the films are bad and boring, and they don’t arouse you sexually at all. Even my students say that the problem with post-porn is that you never get excited. Any kind of movement that wants to use porn as a way of liberation doesn’t seem to work really.
Anyway, I don’t think we are anywhere near a revolution in sex. I think on the contrary, we are in the process of an involution of sex. There are societies, like in Japan, where the problem is that people are not interested; they prefer things other than sex. I’m not sure who said it, but I remember a quote that says that ‘the worst thing that can happen to a sexual fantasy is for it to come true’. I think people have decided that sexual fantasies are much better, safer and cleaner than the real thing. So maybe that’s going to be the future, I don’t know.
MN: As structure and language seem very important to you, I wanted to ask you about the moment in your work where you test a structure or a narrative that you created with the public. How do you control it? Do you keep track of how the public reacts to or absorbs this narrative?
DG: I don’t have to control that. This is something that happens to every artist. You never know how people are going to react to your films or novels, at some point you just have to let go. The way I usually work facilitates feedback more than other traditional models. For instance, I started developing my work on the Internet by making blogs, at a time when those things didn’t really exist. In those prehistoric times of the net we created structures which allowed people to give feedback and get information about those projects which only a few people could see live. Indeed because of this I was also interested in how things are thought and narrated. In many works that I made later on, for example the one for Skulptur Projekt Münster, the feedback was part of the work — the Internet space was provided to the audience, they could follow the adventures of The Beggar (http://thebeggarsopera.org). They could communicate with him and that way people became part of the novel.
MN: The follow up question would be one about the structure that you have in mind for Tensta konsthall. What is it and how does it refer to Kollontai?
DG: I understand the structure in Tensta konsthall as kind of a stage. You can use it as a backdrop for activities and performances. It’s a structure that inspires, colours and unifies everything you do, almost like a campaign image, which gives a house brand to all activities that will develop inside it. This stage design is almost symbolically related to Kollontai, to the idea of a ‘mission’ as a church-like mysticism. The space also relates to the story of the avant-garde — you have Malevich on the floor, you have a very strong, almost expressionist use of light. There is a cage based on the one from the movie ‘W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism’ (Dušan Makavejev), which is a kind of Communist counter-culture. Inside the cage there is a working room which I imagine as Kollontai’s writing room. It is pretty symbolic because of the light spreading from the inside of the cage.
Then there is also a staircase, as stairs are a classical Freudian sublimation of desire, but here they also refer to the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and notions of Cosmism. The staircase I’m using is based on one from the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A. which is quite an interesting place. It’s not Russian but they are referring to Soviet space travels with a special room devoted to dogs that were sent to space. The construction of this museum is all about make-believe. It feels like a magician’s cave, full of shadow play. So, in the case of ‘Red Love’ at Tensta konsthall, the structures are both sculptural elements as well as being rich in symbolist associations. It’s really a stage, it’s really meant for things to happen there.
MN: I’m interested to ask how Kollontai fuses with Russian Cosmism that you briefly mentioned?
DG: It’s not that I want to fuse it, I’m interested in using it as a way of looking at Kollontai. Cosmism relates to the idea that Russia did not produce philosophers, but novelists. Their novels often contained this vision of Russians as a “chosen” people, endowed with a mission for the whole of mankind. Those tendencies were present in Russia in the 19th century, but also earlier, before Cosmism began. The name “Cosmism” stems from the outreach of this mission: Russians were to save not only Earth, but also the cosmos. Cosmism was very important for the development of space missions. Awareness of a mission that would change humanity is also fundamental for the October Revolution. In a way it’s amazing that the October Revolution worked. Everything was against it! How is it possible that a proletarian revolution triumphs in a country with no proletariat? The Cosmist credo, this mix of visionary absurd and mysticism, which was so present later on in Eastern European science-fiction (Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers), certainly played a role in the October Revolution. The idea that Russian people have a duty to mankind — a universal mission, was already there.
MN: If we are talking about giant utopian visions, let’s get back to your work. Do you think about your work in relation to change and hoping to provide possibilities?
DG: I think art does change the world, but in ways that we are not aware of. I’m not interested in what is commonly known as socially engaged art, although I think all art is socially engaged. I find the works of many socially engaged artists troublesome because I really know just a few which have no contradictions. I think art operates and performs change by thinking of individuals and a mass is always composed of individuals.
I feel there have been books and films that really changed the way people think. There is The Man in the High Castle, a novel of Philip K. Dick that plays with the idea of a book changing the world. We are given the choice to choose between different versions of fiction in history but the very fact of being able to imagine another way of seeing things, different from the one imposed on us, is already a change. It becomes even more interesting right now with the notion of “gas-lighting”, very present in the States in the Trump administration. You see something with your own eyes and you are told that it’s not true. I saw police beating people who were voting in Barcelona and then the news said that the police got hurt because people threw themselves against them. Yes, they got hurt, because they were beating people, it’s not like you can get shot if nobody shoots! You talk to people who read different things and have a totally different take on reality, because they believe what they read, and they read a bunch of lies. I think any kind of fiction can make people aware of things and therefore can change them.
'Thinking in terms of the curatorial didn’t play such a big part before, but now it is in everything I do.'
Isabel Löfgren in conversation with Martyna Nowicka
MN: How do you identify yourself? As an artist, independent curator, writer, critic, anything else? Did this change after your participation in CuratorLab?
IL: I identify myself as an artist, researcher, writer, and I think all of these three are important when I curate. I wouldn’t call myself only a ‘curator’, although I have previously held a job title as ‘curator’ at an arts foundation in Stockholm. I see myself as both a maker and thinker, and curating for me is a capacity in which I can do both. I don’t like standing outside the process, I want to be involved, but sometimes I am the one organising it. Thinking in terms of the curatorial didn’t play such a big part before I attended CuratorLab, but now it is in everything I do.
MN: Then why did you decide to participate?
IL: I was doing a PhD in Media Philosophy and I wanted to do a practical project as part of my dissertation. I thought CuratorLab was a good place to develop a comprehensive artistic project that would complement my theoretical work.
MN: What was the topic of your individual project?
IL: It was called ‘Satellite city’ (‘Satellitstaden’ in Swedish). It was a public art project with a very strong participatory component, done in collaboration with Botkyrka konsthall's residency programme. Let’s say it was a self-initiated occupation of public space: it wasn’t commissioned by the State or anything, nor did it start from the Konsthall, I did the work pretty much independently, working with the local community all the way through. Botyrka konsthall was very supportive throughout, which was great. I call the project ‘public’, because it was in a public space, even though it was, let's say, unsolicited. The project takes place in a neighborhood in southern Stockholm called Fittja, which has a lot of social housing designed in the 1970s. Currently 95% of Fittja’s population are from migrant backgrounds. Most of the apartments have satellite dishes on their balconies. I was interested in how satellite communication and satellite TV create the sense of belonging and home for the migrant population. I invited participants to cover their satellite dishes with a neon colored textile, and it took me quite some time to figure out what strategies to use. This simple gesture turned the dishes into sculptures and the resulting streetscape with colored dots against the concrete architecture transformed the image of that street for a short while.
The research part of my PhD, which examined the ethics of hospitality in divided cities, stems from the fact that I met those families and had to go through their apartments in order to reach the satellite dishes. I interviewed each of the families about the meaning of television in their lives in Sweden, and I also asked about the impact of suburban architecture on their lives, and also their sense of place and belonging. This is how I did my field ethnography. The project had many parts: there was this aesthetic phase, when you would pass a street and see all those colorful satellite dishes, which took me over a year to complete, then there was the research both before and after the artistic project. There is also one more thing, which happened when I was in residency because there I had the time to work on the project. In that time, I found an issue which I wanted to address in my research.
MN: What was the issue?
IL: Hospitality, the complicated relationship between hosts and guests, and media forms and media expressions of hospitality. I have a whole chapter in my thesis where I write about art residencies as a form of hospitality. A residency is kind of a home, and home creates a division between hosts and guests. This relation is analysed philosophies of hospitality. Even though I wrote my thesis on media theory and philosophy, I was also interested in the notion of hospitality in the art world, particularly with the idea of a residency. So in the end, I combined several methodologies and theories from different fields.
MN: How did your project complement your theoretical work?
IL: At first, I was writing about philosophy of exile and I was very interested in migration issues. I needed a site to locate my project, because I was very interested in both site-specific art and new media. When I saw satellite dishes in suburbs outside Stockholm, I decided that this would be my site. At first, I didn’t know I had found a place that fitted so well with my research, I only had an intuition. It wasn’t until we visited the Fittja residency with Botyrka Konsthall that I understood it would be a perfect site for my project. I started developing ideas for the project and, by the spring when CuratorLab ended, I knew what I wanted to do.
In CuratorLab we got some funding, which we could use for one project, realised through a year or we could use it as seed funding for a larger project. I chose the second option. I used my time to send out proposals, to do the research, to put together the budget, and to write the applications, while understanding how the system of developing a project works. I was able to get funding for my project, which would be much harder or even impossible without the seed funding I got from CuratorLab. The key was that I wasn’t restricted only to the initial budget, and that I had no obligation to present a fully-fledged idea at the end of the year. Being able to do the research properly was the best thing that could have happened to my project.
MN: Were you based in Sweden at the time?
IL: No, I moved to Sweden because of the opportunity to participate in CuratorLab. I spent the first semester abroad working and I relocated for the second half. I used the studio at Konstfack all the time, I think I was the only one using it. As a Swedish citizen I had stipend money and I had a seed funding for the project and time to write a solid proposal.
MN: Could you tell me a story or an anecdote about your year in CuratorLab, something that was important for you personally?
IL: My favorite one would be the fact that we managed to do an exhibition and work together. We actually won a commission for an exhibition. In the fall we applied for a grant with apexart and we got it! When we came back in winter (the CuratorLab at the time met three times a year), we spent the entire time preparing the exhibition together. It was called Washed Out, we worked together with Konsthall C and Renée Padt was our mentor. We got a great turnout; many people came to the opening although it was a snowy evening! We got to practice curating outside our own projects, which was very important for me. What I really liked about most of those activities, was the fact that they were not planned, they just happened spontaneously. We had a good group and we still are very close to each other.
MN: Who was your advisor?
IL: It was Renée Padt, our course director. At the time, Renée was dealing with similar issues in her own curatorial practice. We discussed the philosophical concerns surrounding these issues. She really helped me by introducing me to people who then became important for my practice. Those were not only curators of art but also people whose practices wasn’t based on curating objects - they were curating projects that involved communities, participation, and other matters more related to what at the time was called ‘the social turn.’ The issues that were crucial for me were participatory issues and not so much institutional critique. In particular, I was engaged with questions of how to relate to the other, how to get people involved in a project or situation, and the terms of engagement in a project. The whole part of applying for money, learning how the system works here, was very useful. The way Renée advised me was very much based on conversation, there were no official milestones. I had a lot of freedom, I could decide what to do with my budget.
MN: Could you describe to me your career path after finishing CuratorLab? What kind of positions did you hold? Did you stay in the art sector?
IL: Yes, I did. I always had a foot in the arts and a foot somewhere else. This somewhere else is either academia or education. When CuratorLab was finished, the natural path for me was to execute my project, which took me a year. After that I wrote my PhD and since then I have had different jobs. Right now, I am a curator for learning and education theory and I also work as a lecturer in media studies. In academia, I teach media production-related subjects, I’m not teaching curating or art theory - but I embed my knowledge from the arts in other fields - art should not be necessarily confined to the ‘art world’ ...visual skills and art theoretical knowledge can be very useful in other fields, especially in media studies where I am now.
What I did learn and develop in CuratorLab, which I didn't get anywhere else, was a sense of how to do mediation with arts: this can be through curating, educating, public programming, publications, and so on. In my practice since CuratorLab, I’ve done two artist publications, two solo shows, my own work working in collectives both in Sweden and Brazil. All of them involve interaction with the ‘other’: a collective, a group, a community, a social issue. I never really envisioned a career in an art institution because I am also a practitioner, and the job I have now at Index is my first job in an art institution; now nearly 5 years after CuratorLab. I am interested in jobs that align with my full range of interests and capacities, it can be an arts institution, NGO, academic institution...wherever it is interesting!
‘What is important is training in critical thinking and doing, and that doesn't necessarily mean you’ll go work in an art institution.’
Jenny Richards in conversation with Vasco Forconi
VF: At which stage of your practice were you when you decided to apply to Konstfack?
JR: I was working at Cubitt at the time, which is an artist-led cooperative in London. Cubitt consists of artist studios, a gallery, and an education programme, and I was working with the gallery and the ‘then-called’ curatorial bursary. Prior to this, I had studied at Goldsmiths and received an MA in the Politics Department, which was theoretically focused, so I wanted to find space and resources where I could develop my artistic and curatorial practice further.
VF: Were you already working as curator?
JR: At that point I was part of a number of different collaborations, I had already started Manual Labours, with Sophie Hope, which is a practice-based research project exploring physical and emotional relationships to work, and through my role at Cubitt together with its artist members, I was trying to develop the curatorial bursary and the discourse around artist-led curatorial practice. Prior to moving to London, I had worked at a number of different artist-led spaces in Edinburgh too. My practice has always been focused around questions of labour and working conditions, so I knew what I was interested in, but I didn't have the means to develop it in a more focused way. I was also missing other people to develop a collective conversation with. A few friends had already done CuratorLab before, so I had heard about it, and of course it is a free education - that's a massive thing.
VF: Who was the head of the programme back then? Could you tell me a bit more about the politics of the course at that time?
JR: It was run by Renée Padt. At that time, CuratorLab was focused on supporting your individual research practice and critically reflecting on your ideas and methods. You came, you spent time together in different seminars and workshops, and then you developed your research project that you applied with. Of course, if you wanted to collaborate with others, it was encouraged, but there wasn’t a pressure to do that. As part of your support you got a supervisor and a project budget. Rather than an overarching political agenda, I think the politics came in and was encouraged to be developed through the different concerns each of our practices were interested in, and how we collectively interrogated and reflected on these concerns. I really enjoyed CuratorLab, I thought it was incredible to have so much support and that it was free education (for EU residents). Renée was brilliant at creating a support structure and peer group for us all to work in, as well as introducing us to Stockholm arts organisations, artists, and researchers. She arranged two trips to the Gothenburg Biennial and the Marrakech Biennial and, importantly, arranged making dinners together when we were in Stockholm. She created a safe and social space for everyone to share and critically reflect on their work, mutually learn from each other, and for us all to get to know each other closely. In the first session, people were invited who had a relationship to our proposals, but then we also had the opportunity to suggest who we thought should be invited. There was definitely an emphasis on self-organised practice and context-based curatorial working, as well as a collective approach to learning together.
The group was quite broad in terms of people’s interests and experiences. So there was the opportunity to have interdisciplinary conversations in which you were exposed to a lot of different references and practices that you might have never come across. When we wanted to get into a deeper conversation about particular politics or methods, that's where we would organically split into different, smaller groups to develop those conversations further. For example, Louise Shelley, Alba Colomo, and Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris were doing the course at the same time, all of whom I've continued to work with since and I have stayed close friends with them. CuratorLab was a really important time for me, to be able to make new friendships and connections and have the opportunity to spend time with people. I was still working at Cubitt at the time I was doing CuratorLab, so I took holidays from my job. To have three weeks when you have this space and time together, to hang out and discuss things, was a real luxury. The framework of these intensive weeks together developed an intimacy which is rare and can be very productive for your thinking.
VF: What do you think about curatorial schools? Can ‘the curatorial’ be taught?
JR: I haven’t studied curating before and for me CuratorLab gave resources to develop self-directed work, but it never taught curating directly. I think I am resistant to teaching curating directly, because to me it suggests some kind of one-size fits all method that you should use when you work as a curator. That might lead to adopting a form of institutional curating, with specific approaches to communication, mediation, and installation. When I was at Cubitt, and working in CuratorLab, I was doing a research project where I asked a number of curatorial courses in London what they taught on their programmes. What came out of this study was that many courses focused on curating in larger scale institutions, developing an idea of the curator as someone that would work in a museum, with collections, art historical objects, or in a specific way with exhibition making. As Cubitt is a cooperative and has promoted artist-led curatorial practices as well as different possibilities of exhibition making, we wanted to develop a course that could think through other modes of curating that were left out of these educational contexts at the time. Since then, I have been running a week-long workshop called Complicating the curatorial which looks at self-organised and artist-led forms of curatorial practice. This workshop thinks through the curatorial as a field of working that encourages critical thought and questioning from multiple and diverse ways of working, producing, presenting, and distributing research and practice.
VF: Do you find that with the increase of curatorial programmes over the past two decades, that too many young curators are attending courses and flooding the sector, creating a circumstance in which there is an inadequate amount of work opportunities to keep up with the demand?
JR: I totally agree with that statement, there are a few things this question makes me think about. One, there maybe is an assumption that everybody who studies curating wants to work in the ‘art world’, or work within the existing types of institutions we have today, which gives a lot of power to those existing institutions. You can see this in the competition for jobs and the perpetuation of bad pay and working conditions, because ‘you should be lucky’ to have those sought-after jobs. I am interested in what kind of other radical organisations and institutions can we create. How can we build institutions that take their politics seriously and think about how they are organised? With the rise of right-wing politics and funding cuts in culture, it is really important to consider what role and position a public arts institution has today. Part of the idea of developing this workshop at Cubitt is to think through the practicalities and politics of more self-organised forms of working and collective spaces. With rising austerity measures, however, there are fewer and fewer small-scale and self-organised spaces. I think there has to be a readjustment of what institutions do. How can we generate differently structured arts spaces so there is the possibility of both working differently and developing curatorial practices in different ways? I think art and curatorial education is about many other things too, and this type of education connects to many other fields of work. What is important is training in critical thinking and doing, and that doesn't necessarily mean you’ll go work in an art institution. I feel like there are many interesting tools that one could take from other spaces and fields too.
VF: Your CuratorLab project, Home Economics, dealt with the politics of domestic labor. Could you tell me more about it?
JR: Home Economics was a curatorial research project exploring the politics of domestic work and the site of the home in current artistic practice. It was developed in dialogue with activist working, campaigning, and organising. Most of the research developed through public discussion and events that drew on The Grand Domestic Revolution Library - a collection of feminist publications and manuals that were housed at Tensta konsthall at the time. I set up a series of reading sessions called Readings from the kitchen where I invited different artists and practitioners who had been working with feminist politics and issues of the home and family. The writer and researcher Gunilla Lundahl was one respondent, who for the past forty years, among many other things, has been part of the feminist collective BIG who have researched, promoted, and campaigned for communal housing initiatives in Sweden. The artist, Joanna Lombard, was another respondent who has done a lot of work critically reflecting on her upbringing in a commune in the north of Sweden and whether so-called alternatives just reproduce the same gender division and hierarchies as in a traditional home. The reading sessions were held in different homes in Stockholm: a 1960s flat in Tensta, Tensta Women’s Center, and at my own home. Many of those I met during that project are still friends or are people I am still working with. Another part of the project involved inviting the curator Tone Olaf Nielson, who is part of the anti-racist, queer-feminist curatorial collective, Kuratorisk Aktion. Together with asylum seekers and artists she had been part of setting up this space in Denmark called Trampoline House, a community center for asylum seekers, refugees, and other citizens in Denmark, that works to combat the unjust immigration policies in Denmark. I was interested in the domestic politics of their public house and what kind of politics were at play when trying to develop a different type of home. How practically did they go about it? What was the relationship of the space to women there? Who did the cleaning and the cooking? The event was part of a two-day series which included a public workshop curated by Louise Shelley called Domestic Work is Work and included contributions from the UK, Voice of Domestic Workers, and the Netherlands-based Werker Magazine.
VF: How did you position your research in the CuratorLab class?
JR: Louise and I shared similar interests and concerns so we collaborated and worked on a text together during our time there. Overall, I feel like we had a really cohesive friendship group, we were supportive of each other's projects, and we were very engaged critically. There was a generous spirit about the group. How many are you this year?
VF: We are nine, and we are also a very effective group, I would say.
JR: I think one of the best things that came out of CuratorLab were the friendships and critical discussion that still continues today! When I managed to get a job and moved to Stockholm after CuratorLab, having those friendships made a big difference in thinking whether it would be possible to stay here. I am very grateful for that.
VF: Do you have any suggestion for someone who is currently doing CuratorLab or is about to apply?
JR: It’s tricky because I think the format of the course has changed a lot. But I think try not to put too much pressure on formulating outcomes at this stage. For me having the time and the opportunity to meet people and develop how you discuss and share work and concerns, and maybe not have any tangible outcomes at all, was really amazing. I suppose in most of our working situations we have to be sure that we are very productive by focusing on project proposals and funding applications. It was brilliant being able to have the resources to develop events, but I really appreciate all the conversations and meetings along the way that aren’t so tangible. That space and time is what I am grateful for the most.
‘Your gut has a say.’
Krist Gruijthuijsen in conversation with Lotte Løvholm
LL: CuratorLab is in the process of looking back at its own history and at the format ‘curatorial programme’ by interviewing former directors and students.
KG: It is interesting because that was my project when I was at CuratorLab: looking at curatorial programmes. When I started at CuratorLab in 2005 there was an explosion world-wide of curatorial courses, so with my colleague Johan Lundh we visited six-seven courses and interviewed curators running the courses, current and former students, and collected publications and built a website: www.curatorialeducationnetwork.com. The website sadly no longer exists. And I was actually told that I never finished CuratorLab, because I never handed in my final project. That is apparently my standard thing - never finishing courses. I treated it like a programme. I did not know I needed a diploma.
LL: What were your expectations when you applied for CuratorLab? Why did you apply?
KG: It was a new course back then and in one way or the other, it was quite experimental. And truth be told, I was also just curious to dive more into the Scandinavian art scene. I mean what made you apply to CuratorLab?
LL: I applied because of this year’s topic, which is on the public and collections. And then there is collaboration with Maria Lind from Tensta Konsthall and Cecilie Wiedenheim from Malmø Konstmuseum and I like their work and, of course, Joanna Warsza’s work a lot.
Having visited so many different curatorial schools: How was your experience with CuratorLab?
KG: You know I have a background as an artist, so I applied as an artist and I was curating as well. Back then the course was very different from the course you are in now. It was on the tipping point of change and that does not always lead to a very good education.
LL: I would like to hear your opinion about curatorial schools.
KG: The diversity of the landscape of what you choose is bigger now. There is enough to pick from and obviously I do not think we need that many of them in the world. But you can step into this type of education in different ways and at different stages in your life and your career. So that is a good development. It is not about copying models all over the world but more about looking into specificities on what defines their course locally, nationally, and internationally.
LL: And what would your perfect curatorial school model be like?
KG: There is a part of this job that you cannot learn. Your gut has a say. That being said, it is definitely the post-graduate format I lean towards. You need to have a solid amount of experience either by studying art history and having implemented that institutionally. Or, like in my case, having developed a certain kind of background in curating even though I was an artist. I would say that it’s hard to implement a perfect model into one course. It is a palette that you choose depending on where you are in the world, what you need educationally, at your stage, and what works best for you. And I don't think one course could have that all to be honest. And to add to your previous question about the urgency of what a course can contribute to the local and international scene - if a course like CuratorLab can be a motor for delivering curators that define a new generation of curating in Scandanavia, that would be wonderful. In my year, I was the only foreigner.
LL: In my year, we are all different nationalities but there is a challenge structurally since the education is no longer free for curators outside EU.
KG: I directed a master’s course for five years at the Sandberg Institute and we had the same problem. And I thought that was very problematic, obviously. We were not even able to give scholarships to citizens outside of the EU, but we were able to find ways in order for them to come. Of course, it is also a financial question, because you do not earn that much getting those students in. That is the other side of education. It is yet another capitalist system, unfortunately.
LL: One last question, perhaps a bit annoying: do you have any advice for young curators?
KG: Hahaha. Advice… Follow your heart. It is a total cliché, but I am really someone who believes in passion. I don't believe you will make it as curator if you only work with your head.
LL: It is good advice. Very sweet.
KG: I mean it is another approach. You can see that in my curating or ways of directing an institution, due to my background as an artist. It has a different sensibility than someone who studied art history. The interesting curators are the ones that let gaps into their thinking. That has always led to the most fascinating results. I guess my advice is to not suffocate your thoughts by trying to implement them on top of artists you are working with, but to see how, together with an artist, you can have longer conversations. It’s more a matter of how you and your collaborators can shed new light on problematic issues and try to understand what the function of art could be as an addition to that. It all sounds very preachy, but I really believe in those things.
After the interview Lotte found Krist’s final project for CuratorLab that he forgot to hand in on waybackmachine.org: http://web.archive.org/web/20071203174514/http://www.curatorialeducationnetwork.com:80/
'If you won’t make a reason for people to interact, they will not do that. This is your role as a professor: to encourage students to exchange ideas.'
Luisa Santos in conversation with Kasia Sobczak
KS: When I was preparing for the interview, I learned that you studied curating at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. When did you decide to take the CuratorLab course and why?
LS: In 2008 I graduated from Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art. After that, I spent some time in Denmark, Austria, Belgium, and also in Berlin, where I undertook my PhD on multidisciplinary approaches in art for social change, in the frame of the CCCPM programme (SEgroup and Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance, Berlin). When I was in Copenhagen, in late 2008 and in Linz, back in 2009 (for the EU capital of culture, I worked at the OK-Centrum as guest curator), I got interested in Nordic curatorial practices, especially in what Maria Lind was doing in Tensta konsthall in relation to social practices. CuratorLab was an ideal opportunity to enrich my knowledge in these topics and potentially get to know more of Tensta, since it was one of the partner institutions of CuratorLab by then.
KS: What was the structure of CuratorLab when you entered the programme? Did you have seminars, workshops, worked individually or more as a group? How long were the sessions?
LS: The course was structured with three main sessions, each one for three weeks. We had guest and supervising lectures with whoever would be our supervisor, visits to Stockholm’s institutions and artist run spaces, which at the time were not so common in Portugal (at least not in that format, relating to what became known as new institutionalism), and local artist studios, as well as a research trip to Istanbul for a few days to see the art scene in Turkey. There was no main topic of the course beforehand, so I didn’t know exactly what we would do during each session. We just knew the basic information about the course structure and that Maria Lind would be one of the tutors. We got more info during the programme, of course. Renée Padt was great in preparing all the sessions in due time and with super interesting guests and visits.
KSW: This is I think the main difference between us, as our course is focused around a common topic which we work on during the year.
What can you say about the influence of the course and its structure on your practice? Was it more experimental than RCA in London? What did it contribute to you personally?
LS: Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art is an in-depth two year master’s programme. CuratorLab is a good, short research experience, it’s not a master’s degree, it’s something else and not comparable. It’s great to be together with likeminded people and you are put into a network of international curators, which is extremely valuable. To me it was an opportunity to get expertise in art in social practices, which I couldn’t get as much as I would have wanted in the UK or Portugal. It was a very valuable experience for that specific knowledge, but I wouldn’t venture to say that one becomes a curator after CuratorLab. However, that being said, it is highly useful for young, emerging curators, which I was then, so I got to learn a lot, but I was very lucky that I had a rough idea of what I was looking for.
Studying at the Royal College of Art gave me solid theoretical fundaments, and later CuratorLab was a perfect place and time to experiment, research, and question my current interests.
KS: What was the relationship of other Konstfack students to the CuratorLab group? From my own experience and other alumni, I can say that it was not an easy relation.
LS: There was nearly no interaction between us and other Konstfack students besides two specific moments when we made a presentation together, which was encouraged by Maria Lind. We were there just three times per year, so it was difficult to talk about any connections, we just shared the space. What I see now with my experience of being a teacher, if you won’t make a reason for people to interact, they will not do that. This is what the basis of your role as a professor: to encourage students to exchange ideas and knowledge.
In my specific case I find this interpersonal contact very important, as I came from the fine arts, which I studied before in Lisbon, and I’m really interested in the form, not only in the content. I need to speak to the artist, see their work in progress, their ideas taking shape.
KSW: Indeed, it’s very important for me as well. And how about the networking value of the course. Are you still in contact with some of your colleagues?
LS: Yes, I’m still in contact with some of my colleagues, Paul Purgas from London, to name one, who also studied at the Royal College of Art. He works as a curator, architect, and musician. Moreover, this year I invited two Swedish artists, whom I met during my time at CuratorLab, for a project with students of the Catholic University of Portugal, where I currently teach. They are Kale Brolin and Kristine Müntzing from Sunshine Socialist Cinema project, who will develop a project with a group of students in Lisbon.
KS: That’s so nice you are still in contact! I hope I will also keep in touch with my colleagues. Can we talk now about your final project? What did you do and where did it take place? Maybe you can say also how was it related to your collaboration with Maria Lind?
LS: It was called There is no knife without roses, which is the title of a project in Buenos Aires - a sort of a book shop called Eloisa Cartonera. This place was made by cartoneros, cardboard pickers who are people who pick cardboard for living. Eventually they decided to make book covers with cardboard, which they paint. They publish poets and writers from Argentina. The other project presented in that frame was the Project Row Houses run by Rick Lowe.
As I had a little bit of budget, I invited Rick Lowe and researcher Joana Bertholo, who has collaborated with Eloisa Cartonera, to come to Sweden and talk about both initiatives. I spoke about the third and similar initiative, Project Morrinho in Brazil. There was also a Swedish architect speaking on similar projects and research in the same topics. The project was planned for two days, with three seminar sessions and a workshop run by Rick Lowe at Tensta konsthall. The main output was in a form of PDF that contains interviews and other materials. It is available online on Tensta’s website in the ‘bag’ section.
There is no knife without roses was part of my PhD research, which I was developing at the same time in Berlin.
My collaboration with Maria Lind for Tensta konsthall was great. She trusted me and gave me freedom to make decisions, and then some years later I contacted her to work together for the project I run now in the Catholic University of Portugal, which is a four-year research project looking at the role of contemporary art institutions in relation to conflict. The title is 4Cs: from conflict to conviviality through creativity and culture.
KS: Do you remember any of the final projects from your colleagues? If yes, could you please tell me more about them?
LS: I just remember two other projects. One that featured Mother Tongue, a duo from Scotland, and the another, was a series of seminars on post-colonialism. I remember some not so positive reactions on it from the group and audience, because they are very white speaking about this black topic; it was a question of giving voice – taking voice. But it was quite interesting to see and I think they are making relevant work. Their project entailed working with Konstfack and Tensta.
Paul Purgas did something at the Färgfabriken with experimental music, but I wasn’t there so I cannot describe it in detail.
KS: Going back to 4Cs, could you please tell me more about it and what other projects you are involved in at the moment as a freelance curator? Could you tell me about Nanogaleria?
LS: 4Cs was initiated in January 2016, when I started working at the Catholic University of Portugal as an Assistant Professor with a Gulbenkian Professorship. I applied for the position with a research and teaching plan. In the research plan I knew I wanted to start an international project researching the relationship between art and society, on art and social change. I wanted to work with institutions using both practical and academic perspectives on contemporary art. The 4Cs partners are: Tensta konsthall (Stockholm, Sweden), SAVVY Contemporary (Berlin, Germany), Fundació Antoni Tàpies (Barcelona, Spain), and Museet for Samtidskunst (Roskilde, Denmark), the Royal College of Art (London, UK), Nida Art Colony of the Vilnius Academy of Arts (Neringa, Lithuania), and École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (Paris, France). It’s a four-year project, where we have activities such as: mediation labs, exhibitions, publications, workshops, seminars, summer school, film programmes, artistic residencies, research and production residencies in all the said countries and there is a lot of trust involved. At the moment we are in the second year. The basic idea is the transition from conflict to conviviality – what can art do in this specific phenomenon, with so many conflicts rising in Europe. It is a Creative Europe project designed in Europe for Europe, but with a global view and with invited guests from outside Europe. You can find more info here: https://www.4cs-conflict-conviviality.eu/
Nanogaleria is a different project. It’s a non-commercial space, with a one-year programme of exhibitions in the window of Miguel Palma’s studio in the centre of the Alvalade district in Lisbon. We have been good friends with Miguel for many years and in one of the studio visits at his atelier I suggested making exhibitions in one of his studio windows . He gave me a carte blanche for programming, so I invited my colleague Fabiola Mauricio to cooperate and we are now working on the first year of Nanogaleria. Next year we want to move to another place, maybe an institution or a gallery. The programme is devoted to locally located and working emerging artists, whose common thread is an interest in communicating human and social behaviour and commenting on the times we are living in. Nanogaleria commissions works, and provides communication, a space, and curatorial support. Artists are responsible for the production of a new work. The common topic for 2019 is ‘6 memos for this millennium’ inspired by the book of Italo Calvino.
KS: During our conversation you mentioned your current work as a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon. You involve BA and MA students in the university in seminars in Curatorial Practices and Culture Studies. What is important for you in your work as a professor?
LS: As a professor I try to put theory and practice together. My classes are mostly in the form of seminars for one semester including Curatorial Practices. Students develop projects such as artists’ publications or small exhibitions, including contributions to Nanogaleria programming, for example. We do artist studio visits and have appointments with curators and institutions around Lisbon. The final outcome is always in a form of a public event, produced and curated by the course attendees.
KS: Thank you so much for your time and all the answers.
More about Luisa Santos’ practice and projects https://luisa-santos.weebly.com
‘The idea was to create new platforms for the things I am interested in rather than being a passive backseat-driver who is just bitching about the current situation.‘
On founding CuratorLab
Måns Wrange in conversation with Candace Goodrich
CG: What was the first impetus that drove you to establish the CuratorLab at Konstfack University?
MW: When I started to work at Konstfack in 1995, there were three different art departments: painting, sculpture, and photography. I led the sculpture department. This separation of disciplines felt obsolete and it was rather frustrating for the students who wanted to have access to all the resources available at the university. We started to collaborate between departments which led to merging all three into a new interdisciplinary art department with a new curriculum.
Around this time, there was a debate about the new role of the curator, which had gradually transformed from a ‘background’ role, as with the traditional museum curator, into a more active and creative one. Many people from the artist community considered this change in roles to have become already too powerful. Since my background is both as an artist and as an organiser and curator, I felt that this debate was often based on a lack of understanding and knowledge of the different roles, responsibilities, and practices of the artist and the curator. At that time, there only existed a handful of curatorial programmes which had started just a few years earlier, such as those at de Appel, Goldsmiths College, Royal College of Art, Bard College, the Whitney Independent Study Program, and L’École du Magasin. With the exception of the Whitney programme, which had been running since the late 1960s, there were few opportunities to study curating formally. And except for the Whitney programme, curatorial students weren’t studying side by side with art students. So I thought instead of complaining about the situation, it would be much more interesting and constructive to create a new platform for the development of curatorial practices where young curators and artists could meet, discuss, and collaborate. This is the approach I have had from the start in my practice as an artist, which led me to also become an organiser, curator, writer, and educator. The idea was to create new platforms for the things I am interested in rather than being a passive backseat-driver who is just bitching about the current situation.
CG: What was the process, and who were your collaborators at the inception? Did you begin the programme alone, or were there other key figures in its development?
MW: I started the programme, but I had initial help from my colleague Hans Hedberg, who was a professor and the head of the photography department, as well as an art critic and a discussion partner. When the programme received additional funds, having run for a few years, it becamepossible to hire a course leader who was responsible for daily teaching, while I remained the course director. The first course leader was Karina Ericsson Wärn, who had a great deal of experience in starting and directing smaller public art galleries and institutions. While she was teaching at CuratorLab, she became director of Iaspis, and she is currently the chief curator of art and design at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern. Since she was in charge of the daily teaching, in addition to the number of international guest teachers and guest lecturers I invited to CuratorLab, she was a critical figure in the further development of the programme.
CG: What was the initial reaction from the student body, professors, and administration to the programme? You mention that it was controversial. I imagine there was a lot of logistics involved, since Konstfack is a federally funded university.
MW: The good thing about the programme was that the funding came from Konstfack’s budget for professional development courses that weren’t a high priority area for Konstfack at the time, which basically meant that nobody from the administration really cared about what we were doing.
CG: This gave you a bit of autonomy?
MW: Yes, but it was also negative in another respect, since we were ridiculously underfunded. I had my professorship at the art department, but the work I did for the curatorial course was basically done for free. So I had two jobs, but one salary. However, my philosophy has always been that it is better to start something and then build on that, which means that you have to put in a little bit more work in the beginning in order to make it grow, instead of applying, again and again, for funding that may never come. The reactions from the art department were quite mixed. Most students and teachers were positive, but there were, of course, also people who were more hesitant or even directly critical towards the idea of having art students and curatorial students studying side by side. But my idea with the programme was to try to break down the traditional hierarchal structure between artists and curators; I saw curatorial practice as a kind of art practice, which artists could also work with, rather than considering it as a totally different discipline.
CG: Was it a master's programme from beginning?
MW: No, it was a one-year professional development course. The goal was to eventually transform it into a master’s programme, which would also mean better funding.
CG: It appears that CuratorLab was quite Swedish or Nordic in the beginning, how did you take the decision to make it more international and why? Was it just circumstantial?
MW: We wanted to start the programme on a smaller, local scale before launching it internationally.
CG: So start locally, build globally?
MW: Yes, exactly. But you also have to consider that the art schools in Scandinavia, as well as in most other European countries, were twenty to twenty-five years ago not so internationally oriented. When I started as professor at Konstfack, it was the first time we had ads in international art magazines to attract international students for our new interdisciplinary art programme and the new curatorial course. We also started to hire professors from outside Scandinavia, such as Marysia Lewandowska and Ronald Jones, and built an international network with artists, curators, and theoreticians for guest lectures and guest teaching.
CG: Did you want to make a master programme out of CuratorLab?
MW: For many years I proposed to the administration of Konstfack to transform CuratorLab into a two-year master’s programme, and I had sort of given up. I thought, well, now that there are so many different curatorial programmes, it would be more interesting to start a new programme on a more advanced level. In the beginning, we were more of an introduction course to curatorial practice, because most of our students came from either art history or art practice.
CG: So they weren’t actually seasoned curators?
MW: No. I would say that very few of them had had any prior curatorial experience. The first course was very basic. But it wasn’t easy since there was hardly any literature on curatorial practice or on the history of exhibitions, and there were no teachers who had ever taught curatorial work. So basically, we had to start from zero.
CG: So you had to create your own definition of curatorial practice?
MW: Yes. The first years of the course were very much run by shooting from the hip and improvising. But this is, of course, the same with all new programmes, because you have to start somewhere. So it's a little bit like trial and error. Starting a curatorial programme today is considerably easier because there are now established curatorial courses which you could have as a model and there are many people who already have experience teaching curatorial practices who could be hired. There have also been numerous published books on curatorial practice and there has been the development of a theoretical discourse around the practice. Basically, what we tried to do was to structure the curatorial programme in the same way as an art programme. In the beginning, it was only a one-year programme, which is a short time to educate someone with very little prior curatorial experience when compared to the art education structure with a three-year bachelor’s programme and a two-year master’s programme. The majority of the art students also have years of studies at preparatory art programming before they are admitted to a bachelor programme. So you had to start the programme with the very basics of curating.
At the time, the typical career path for a curator was that you would first study art history, get an internship at a museum, and then work your way up to become an assistant curator until you would be promoted to curator and would finally be able to curate projects according to your own conceptual ideas and visions. This means that wouldn’t have an experimental phase where you could afford to fail. But that's what you have in an art school, a platform for experimentation and trial and error. The aim of CuratorLab was not to be an education for the typical museum curator, but a platform for more experimental or independent curators, and as such, you also needed to know more practical things, from how to fund your own projects to how to install a show. Realistically, that would be a five-year programme. But most curatorial programmes were only one year at that time, so you had to try to fit everything in one year.
CG: How is it possible to achieve this in one-year’s time?
MW: I wanted a master’s in order to be able to have the programe on the same advanced level as the master’s programme in art and art history, and to have the same amount of the time and budget. Continuity was another important aspect, since the programme was funded by funds allocated for professional development which had to be applied for every year, which made course planning quite complicated when you don't know three months ahead if we're going to get funding for next year.
CG: Why do you think it never became a master’s programme?
MW: Well, since curatorial programmes were a rather marginal phenomena at the time, it wasn’t the highest priority for the school’s leadership. The irony is that when we had transformed the programme from being a basic one to a research-based programme, CuratorLab attracted even more applicants from all over the world who were already professionally active in the field.
CG: So perhaps it wasn't possible for them to take the two years off from their careers?
MW: Yes, that and the fact that the majority of the students came from outside Sweden. So we eventually created a nomadic structure where we met for shorter seminars and project sessions somewhere in Europe. That’s when CuratorLab became a short research programme for young professional curators, which consisted of seminars with invited international critics, theorists, curators, and artists, and a project, which each participant would work on in collaboration with an institutional partner that we helped to set up. The students were also more involved with organising the seminars. We had set up collaborations with a network of institutions in both Stockholm and in other cities in Europe.
CG: Were there excursions or a group trip during the seminar periods?
MW: Yes. For example, the structure could be five days in Paris, five days in Istanbul, five days somewhere else. And each session was always connected to a specific art event.
CG: Like a biennale?
MW: For example. I had organised the seminar sessions so that we had a ‘host’ in each city, a curator or a writer with a wide network who would introduce the participants to the local art context and arrange meetings with artists, curators, and critics of the city. We also often organised an art event in the city that we visited. For example, in 2007, CuratorLab was invited by the artistic director of Artissima, Andrea Bellini, to organise a two-day conference in Turin.
And at Manifesta 2009, we were invited by Raqs Media Collective to curate one of the official special projects of the biennial. Participants of CuratorLab also organised a video programme for the 10th Istanbul Biennial in 2007. The irony was that just when we started CuratorLab as a nomadic platform, Konstfack had officially become accredited to grant master’s degrees, and I was asked by the former Vice Chancellor of Konstfack to start a curatorial programme on a master’s level. So just when we had transformed CuratorLab into a research programme, I was now offered to start a new curatorial programme on master’s level, which led to a collaboration with Ronald Jones who is currently teaching at the Royal College of Art in London, but who at that time was a professor at the department of Interdisciplinary studies at Konstfack. He is both an artist and a critic for Art Forum and Frieze, among other publications. Ron was teaching seminars at CuratorLab, as was Marysia Lewandowska, who was my colleague at the art department of Konstfack and who had previously been teaching at Goldsmiths in London. Ron and I discussed ideas for a new curatorial programme at master’s level and Ron proposed that it would be interesting to add a critical writing part. So the new programme WIRE became a joint programme for both curatorial practice, which I was responsible for, and critical writing, which was run by Ron.
CG: How long did that programme last?
MW: WIRE lasted until I left Konstfack basically.
CG: So no one has taken up the reins?
MW: Well, let’s put it this way. Konstfack’s former Vice Chancellor and Ron had some disagreements concerning WIRE, which led to the cancellation of the programme. That's why I was very concerned about having somebody hired to take over CuratorLab before I left. Otherwise, it probably would have been cancelled too, despite the fact that the programme was quite successful and attracted the most applicants at a postgraduate level at Konstfack at the time.
MW: Yes. Then Renée Padt took over. I would like to reiterate that the initial idea in having a curatorial programme at an art school was to have art students and curatorial students working side by side. Having seminars together, going to the same lectures. By having the curatorial and the art programmes sharing and co-funding seminars and invited international guest lecturers, we could offer more content to the students. In some cases, this joint teaching of the two student groups led to future collaborations between curatorial and art students, for example, a very interesting group called the New Beauty Council.
CG: I also asked Jens Hoffmann this question: do you feel that the artists, whether they are master’s students or bachelor’s, should formally have a course in curatorial practice?
MW: Well, we had curatorial courses, which were open for the art students. And both at Konstfack and the Royal Institute of Art, where I later worked as rector, we offered parts of courses in which there were curatorial practices taught and where the students learned how to get funding, etc. I started a course, which was called ‘Survival course for artists’, which basically included everything you needed to know as a professional artist from self-organisation to cultural politics. The aim of the course was to discuss different strategies of how to become an independent artist and how not to be always totally dependent on other actors. I invited artists and curators who had experience in creating their own platforms.
CG: How would you compare your definition of a curator in those beginning years to now? You mentioned, for instance, at the end of the 1980s and the 1990s, or even the mid-1990s, the independent curator came into existence. An interesting comment from Jens Hoffmann when I interviewed him was that he believes that that period was the ‘hey day’, so to speak, and that there no longer is an independent curator. Curators now all work for one institution or another, different kinds of non-profits or galleries, but rarely independently.
MW: It's a matter of how would you define independent right? Unless you’re born rich or have a rich partner, you will never be totally independent. In most cases, you have to have some sort of funding. What is interesting with the development of the professional identity of the ‘independent curator’ is that they have, in some instances, even more precarious funding situations than artists. At that time, curators couldn’t apply for project funds at the Swedish Arts Grants Committee, for example, because they were not artists. Now they can. And they couldn’t apply to a PhD programme at an art history department at a university to conduct a curatorial PhD project. This is now possible to do at several of the new artistic research programmes that have been established in Scandinavia.
CG: Do you feel that the change in funding models and PhD programmes is an acknowledgement of the stature or identity of the curator as a new profession?
MW: There have always been different curatorial practices, in the same way as there are different art practices. But if I go back to when I started to work as an artist and curator in the mid-1980s, the artist persona at that time, especially here in the Nordic countries, was principally a male painter. Conceptual Art, for example, hardly existed in Sweden until the early 1990s, because we had a political art movement which was dominated by realism in the late 1960s and 1970s. And the curator at that time was mainly a museum curator with a rather low profile unless you were the museum director, which was often a man. Now the identity and the role of the curator and of the artist too have expanded and are much more diversified.
CG: As an artist yourself, particularly active in quite long term projects that last ten to fifteen years in the making and that involve a high-level of collaboration with individuals from different fields, including architecture, design, film, research disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, geology, political speech writing, gaming development, and so on, how has your own work been curated? Do you curate your own work? What contextualisation do you see a curator capable of when working with an artist like yourself who is quite self-sufficient in this way of pulling together all the different strains of theory, or of interdisciplinary partnerships? When your work is already so deeply rendered in this way, how do you work with curators? What benefits do you take from them?
MW: It depends on the kind of exhibition, project, and context. Sometimes, it is a specific work that a curator wants to include in a show, such as right now, when I have an older work in a big group show in Switzerland. I got the invitation to participate in the exhibition by email, the institution organised the shipping of the artwork, I emailed a short text for the catalogue, and got an invitation to the opening with a flight ticket and a hotel night. In other cases, such as with my one-person show at Tensta konsthall, I have had years of creative discussions about the concept of the show, what projects to include, the exhibition architecture etc., with the director, Maria Lind, and the curator of the show, Nina Möntmann. And for GIBCA – the Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art, I have been invited by the curator Nav Haq to conduct a totally new project from the beginning, which I am working on right now.
CG: So when you say ‘from the beginning’, you mean that you're creating an entirely new work specifically for that exhibition? And is the curator in this particular situation in dialogue with you during your artistic process?
MW: In those circumstances, yes. I have had many constructive and inspiring meetings and email correspondences with the curator, Nav Haq, as well as with the coordinator and the director of the biennial, and I have also had great organisational assistance from the biennial. I would see the curator in both the case of GIBCA and Tensta konsthall more as a sort of creative producer.
CG: Is is too far to say there is shared authorship?
MW: Well, in one sense, there is a shared authorship in all my projects, in the same way as in a film or a theatre performance, since the work is a result of a collaborative process, which involves several people. For me personally, it's not so important who has done what in a project, but I am always trying to give the collaborating partners credit for their part of the project.
CG: We started this conversation with a worry that already almost twenty years ago the position of the curator had become too strong. As an artist working with a creative co-producer, is it something that you find more possible today, as a result of the flourishing of curatorial practices programmes and the change of status of the curator?
MW: I think it has to do with the transformation of the role of the curator, which allows the curator to have a more creative role, but I am not so sure that this development is in all cases due to the flourishing of curatorial practice programmes, since they can differ quite a lot in terms of how the programmes define the role of the curator.
CG: Do you have some final thoughts on CuratorLab and the relationships between artists and curators? Are you excited for the twentieth-year anniversary of the program you started?
MW: I’m not a very nostalgic person. I didn’t realise it was already twenty years. I think, however, that it’s great that it’s still running and is continuing to develop. It would have been tragic if the programme was exactly as it was ten years ago, since educational programmes have to change in the same way that art practice and the art world change.
CG: Have you been in touch with many of the curators that have passed through your programme?
MW: Oh yes, that’s one of the great things of having been involved in the programme. I am trying to follow their projects and careers, and I often bump into several of them in different art contexts. If you look at the percentage of how many of the participants in the programme are professionally active in some capacity in the culture sector, I would say I'm quite pleased. Especially when you compare the CuratorLab with art education, since it's often much more difficult to sustain your work professionally because there are so many more artists; and even if you're successful as an artist, it doesn’t automatically mean that you can survive economically.
CG: I suppose that could be true for a curator as well.
MW: If I look back at the first year I see that the participants are all active as curators, writers, or are involved in their work in some sort of organisational capacity. And I think for any programme, it doesn't mean that you have to become a curator for an art institution; the important thing is that you have gained something from that year or those years, which you can use in your future profession.
‘Curating happens when you do not necessarily accept things the way they are’
Maria Lind in conversation with Candace Goodrich
CG: Could you tell us when you became involved with CuratorLab and a bit of the history of your collaboration, either as an independent curator, an adviser at times, or even as an institution? How did your collaborative practice begin? How has it evolved over the years to the very close collaboration you are engaged in now?
ML: Because I’ve known Måns Wrange for a long time I was aware the programme was starting, but I’m not sure I could recall exactly who was in the first class, or second class, and so on. But in the early classes I had at least one person interning with me when I was a curator at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Pia Kristofferson worked with me on the exhibition What If (2000) and specifically, she helped produce the great houses that Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tobias Rehberger designed, which were built in the museum with Swedish materials made by technicians from the museum. After the show, the houses were dismantled and put up again in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand as part of Rirkrit’s and Rehberger’s project called “The Land.”
CG: Pia’s internship was in the context of Curatorlab?
ML: Yes. I knew others, too. I remember Marianne Hultman and Marianne Zamecznik, Niklas Östholm; they were around and had a presence on the scene at the time.
CG: It seems that initially it was mostly Swedish or Nordic participants; now the dynamic has changed quite a lot and people are coming from abroad. How was this international shift for you and for the art scene in Stockholm? I imagine that those who participated in CuratorLab and were living here were perhaps more embedded in the scene?
ML: Not necessarily, because some people who came from abroad during the second period, so to speak, were equally engaged in the local scene. The difference is rather that there is a different kind of curiosity. People from elsewhere tend to be a bit more … simply curious.
CG: Simply by virtue of being foreigners?
ML: I imagine so, but I also remember the project organised by Jens Hoffmann, for instance, which took place at IASPIS. It was a dynamic moment, because different people came in. Over the years, I was always in touch with CuratorLab. And then when I was the director at IASPIS, between 2005 and 2007, a number of CuratorLab participants hung out a lot at IASPIS. You could say they became like fellow travellers. And I remember particularly Adnan Yıldız, who is now the director of Artspace in Auckland (he was there, and because of him people from Malmö, for instance, came a lot, like Övül Durmuşoğlu, who’s now an independent curator in Berlin - she did the Critical Studies programme in Malmö.)
CG: At the moment, every year CuratorLab works on a project with Tensta konsthall, ever since Joanna Warsza has been its programme director. Is there a formal association with CuratorLab?
ML: It is informal but steady. It started with Renée Padt, when I came to Tensta Konsthall in 2011. She came with her group and we collaborated. And since Joanna came, it has intensified into a continuous collaboration. The most substantial was in relation to the Frederick Kiesler exhibition, Frederick Kiesler: Visions at Work Annotated by Céline Condorelli and Six Student Groups (2015). We worked with those groups, one of which was the CuratorLab participants, who followed the exhibition and were part of the project in the form of a public programme, almost a year prior to the opening.
One CuratorLab participant, Dorota Michalska, did a project in store windows in the shopping mall upstairs. Jacob Hurtig displayed a curated book selection in Frederick Kiesler’s mobile library unit. Hurtig was someone that did Curatorlab at the same time that he was working as a librarian in Gothenburg - someone with a keen interest in books. With the Goldin+Senneby retrospective at Tensta in 2016, Standard Length Of A Miracle, there were interventions by CuratorLab participants with their individual projects addressing some of the issues brought up in the exhibition.
CG: There were six different groups that participated in the Frederick Kiesler exhibition. In that regard, over the years, you’ve worked with a lot of different schools, universities, which is quite different from other Konsthall public programmes. How do you view this, and where does the impulse come from?
ML: Art has the potential of being part of knowledge production and also a site for learning and unlearning, and I wanted to embed that in the work we do, taking art as a starting point. For a few years the way we discussed this potential of art was more informal. Now we are trying to, at the same time, formalize some of those relationships. Not to lose the informalities — some collaborations should go on like that. But I’m also quite keen on seeing how we could make what we do here a part of the course, formally speaking. And in some cases this means even having full courses here and maybe even develop curricula together. So, last summer, there was a full course that took place at Tensta as part of Marion von Osten’s project Viet Nam Discourse Stockholm (2016) with the University of Dance. It was a summer course in choreography, where the participants interpreted Peter Weiss’ play Viet Nam Discourse from 1968 and performed it. It wasn’t really a play, but rather involved individual takes on some aspects of the play.
We’re now doing something called the ‘migration course’, which is a collaboration with different universities, Södertörn, Stockholm University, Linköping University, Malmö Högskola. It takes place at Tensta Konsthall, but they lend, so to speak, their professors and researchers specialized in migration, its histories, and practices. We also contribute some of the artists that we’re working with here. It has taken place maybe once every other week during the spring and it will continue after the summer. It could be described as a new kind of course, not part of any curriculum. Nevertheless, it has attracted quite a few people.
CG: How does Tensta’s collaboration with CuratorLab differ from the relationship with the International Master’s in Curatorial Practice at Stockholm University?
ML: The students at the master’s programme at Stockholm University are typically younger and less experienced, while the CuratorLab participants are a bit savvier. They’ve done things in the past and often are a bit older, which I think is a very good thing. I really appreciate the fact that CuratorLab is not a degree-granting course. It’s more like ‘further education’ in a serious way and it seems to me a true learning experience for many people.
CG: And you yourself taught curating at Bard for a couple of years. What was that experience like? What were your feelings when you walked away, what did you take from that experience?
ML: I was the director of a master’s programme in curating at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. It was great, but that’s where my queries about master’s programmes in curating began. I worked with some fantastic students, and amazing faculty, but there was this tendency for the student — for understandable reasons, because many of them take out big loans — to quite desperately look for a job upon completion of the course. There’s a tendency to want to fit into the existing system, rather than what I always felt curating was, more of a practice where you do not necessarily accept things the way they are; a practice that involves some form of critical thinking. I think this approach of needing a diploma, thinking that when you graduate you are actually qualified as a curator — that’s a great deceit. It’s a more common expectation when you pay high tuition fees. So I left feeling that there is a danger of producing apparatchiks, like in Soviet times - somebody who works within the apparatus and who just wants the apparatus to run smoothly.
CG: Like a ‘cog in the wheel’.
ML: Yes. As a result I became more interested in shorter courses in curating, curatorial residencies. I think they are edgier in a way.
CG: And they are self-motivated or self-directed by nature. So then when you left Bard, you continued to work as a curatorial educator but independently, in a lot of different capacities, in some of the ways that you’ve described, through Tensta konsthall or through teaching seminars?
ML: Yes. Right after Bard, I moved back here to care for my sick grandmother. I was a guest professor at Konstfack then, as well as guest professor in Gothenburg at the university there, and then director of Tensta.
CG: And what about working with Joanna? Did you meet before CuratorLab?
ML: No, we knew each other from a bit before.
CG: And what was it like working with her in Gwangju? She taught a curatorial intensive there.
ML: We did it together, a one-month course that the Gwangju Biennale foundation has been running for quite a number of years now. It was terrific, because the course was closely linked to the making of the biennale, to the installation, to the artists’ coming there and producing their work on site. We had this very motivated and engaged little group of people who interviewed artists, interviewed the curatorial team, and we were just there asking good questions and participating in social events. I believe it was also quite interesting for them because this is a large-scale international event with artists and others flying in from many different places. At the same time they could get to know Gwangju a little bit, along with the local art scene there and some of our partners on site.
CG: Do you see among the graduates of CuratorLab a certain stylistic or methodology that is the signature of Konstfack, or a signature of CuratorLab?
ML: No, it’s very diverse.
CG: Are there any projects in particular among those that you’ve done over the years with CuratorLab that stand out in your memory?
ML: The Kiesler project. It was a strong connection, dynamic, and also because there were several student groups involved. And Céline Conderelli was as an artist part of the process of working with the material of this artist who died in the ’60s. Not to forget Rossella Biscotti’s The Trial / Il Processo, although we only reached the stage of rehearsing the Trial at Tensta, it was still a powerful experience.
CG: I would say, for myself, it was really great to work with the content. I was not so aware of the Autonomia Operaia, so to begin a process of in-depth artistic research and to have this kind of discussion with people, especially with Michele Masucci and Mathias Wåg, with their vast knowledge of the subject, was really fruitful. How influential that particular social movement was then and even today. It was interesting to have this kind of reading group.
Can you say something about your perception of the working conditions of curators today? I am referring to their precarity as immaterial labourers, as independent contractors, without a union or a clearly defined profession or recognition internationally? How could we improve these conditions collectively?
ML: Join forces. It’s a lot about organising, mobilising. I don’t think it makes sense to try to do it all on our own, although we can very well lobby on certain issues in a place like Sweden, for instance. It’s strange and a bit embarrassing that there is no real support for curators in terms of research and international projects, whereas for artists there is. They have introduced a new programme line at Kulturådet, the National Arts Council, but as far as I know it’s been mostly gallerists getting that grant, rather than curators.
CG: What for you is particularly important about CuratorLab?
ML: It’s significant to recognize that CuratorLab was started by an artist, Måns Wrange. Just as Tensta konsthall was started by an artist, Gregor Wroblewski and his friends. He was the driving force. I think this tends to affect to some degree how something is functioning. I was always personally curious about Måns Wrange’s curatorial practice as well as his artistic practice, because he is a pioneer in the context of Sweden and perhaps even more broadly, in terms of what he did in the ’80s and early ’90s. I’m so glad that he was the founder of CuratorLab and that we, in the fall of 2017, are doing a small retrospective here of his curatorial practice. And 2018 will be the 18th-anniversary of CuratorLab, as well as the 20th-anniversary of Tensta konsthall.
‘We all developed this anti-attitude toward the notion of a ‘career’, we wanted to be a little more rock and roll.’
Marianne Zamecznik in conversation with Martyna Nowicka
MN: What was the structure of CuratorLab when you were attending the course?
MZ: My year was the second time CuratorLab was organised. The first one was a year-long full-time programme, truly a beginning, and then we had a two-year programme. They tried turning it into a master’s degree, that’s why my course lasted two years. I think there were two consecutive groups of two-year programmes.
MN: And how was it? Did you have seminars, did you finish you programme with an exhibition?
MZ: Oh, to remember all that! In the first year the programme wasn’t really full. Most of the time we were left to our own devices. We had a main teacher, Karina Ericsson Wärn, who was also our writing teacher. We saw all the exhibitions, which were on at that time in Stockholm, and we wrote reviews as practice. It was very hands-on, we would go everywhere – to Moderna Museet, to IASPIS, to galleries, shake hands with everybody. We also had theory classes with Sven-Olov Wallenstein, which happened every other week, and we would work through important philosophical texts. Our main task for first year was to prepare a show of students’ works. We started out planning for that by doing studio visits.
In the second year we had Jens Hoffman with whom we did a project together called ‘Exhibitions Squared’, which he did an iteration of in KIASMA, Helsinki in 2003, called ‘Institution Squared’. The project took place in IASPIS and in the studio of his wife at the time, it lasted for six months. We were supposed to produce a publication, but that didn’t happen, I guess because of the budget.
MN: You were based in Stockholm at the time?
MZ: Yes, the project was full time, there wasn’t really another option. I moved to Stockholm.
MN: Before CuratorLab you did your education in arts and crafts, correct?
MZ: Yes, I was finishing the equivalent of a master’s in Norway. I was studying metals at the Metal Department and I quit one semester before my final exams to start CuratorLab. It was a good choice, but in effect I broke very abruptly with my field, which was arts and crafts. My interest in contemporary visual arts was something I nurtured alongside my studies in jewelry. It was really hard for me to find a bridge between contemporary art and contemporary crafts.
MN: Isn’t it something you’re doing right now, with the Institute of Usership?
MZ: Yes, but’s that so much later, a decade later. I was finally able to enter arts and crafts again, through theory. It is my unique story. My three other colleagues at the course had academic backgrounds, whereas I didn’t. They were all art history majors, so catching up with theory and writing was quite easy for them. I had to do a lot of education myself, after finishing Konstfack. Our course was very practice-oriented, most of attendants were quite disappointed with how practical it was. It suited me very well, I was interested in learning the system of exhibition making and funding, in developing a network. I realised, many years later, that I needed to read up, which then enabled me to reenter crafts. Maybe even the classes with Sven-Olov Wallenstein were not enough for me, coming from a completely different world. At the time, I never had enough time to read, shaking hands and learning to get the grips with the role of the curator was quite a task.
We also had practical courses. An intendent from a Konsthall was teaching us about the technical part of exhibition making. They addressed questions such as: how do you fill in a loan file, how do you hang a picture on the wall, how do you measure things and make a plan of an exhibition? And all that was part of the first show we did in the old building of Vita Havet at Konstfack. We started school in the middle of August and the show was on by Christmas.
MN: Quite quick then!
MZ: It didn’t feel it. Our calendar was pretty empty, we were full-time students. We went to Berlin Biennale, and Karina set up a meeting with Saskia Bos, who was curating it. She was very disappointed with us, because she felt we weren’t prepared enough for the trip, which we felt was like a school trip. She was embarrassed, because we didn’t use the opportunity. Right now, I see it was part of the programme – putting us into the fire.
MN: After years of your own practice, do you feel that the open structure of the course and the fact that you need to organise everything yourself and take responsibility throughout lets you experience the reality of curatorial work?
MZ: That was the first thing we learned. We heard that we were there to shape our own education and we were fine with that. We all knew it was going to be our last one, we were all pretty old – the youngest was twenty-five, the eldest twenty-nine years old. We wanted to shape our education so it would make us as ready for work as possible.
MN: Did you feel at the time that the different approaches each of the participants had were somehow reflected in the structure of the course?
MZ: I think the course was more ‘one size fits all’, but than we were encouraged to shape the course ourselves throughout. It was the power of the strongest voice in the group to decide what we would do. For example, we wanted to make a fanzine, we were very quick with that. We were part of the Fine Arts Department at the school, and the weird part was that we were like the new people who came on stage. There was a lot of skepticism about us from the students. We had to work very hard to win them over, they felt we were the ‘smart ones’, with fancy art history degrees, but in the end, we were pretty lost. We were trying to create a common ground for both us and the art students, so we devised different strategies to work towards a common good. We were curious what it was that makes you feel disempowered as a student. The other students felt curators had all the power because they had all the words. So, we decided to empower them, to make them take power into their own hand, and writing was a strategy to enable that. Then we published their texts by making this little fanzine, which encouraged artists to write. We also used this fanzine, Organ, to show that we, curators are human, so we wrote very silly things. We worked hard to present ourselves as human and dumb. When I think about myself at the time, I wasn’t scared at all of sounding silly. We wanted everything to be easy to understand, so we would publish a review of what people were wearing on their feet at the opening. Maybe that just made art students more annoyed? We bribed them with free cigarettes and alcohol at our release parties in our classroom. We released nine issues in two years. We were very active, so the freedom worked for us really well, but I’m not sure if it worked so well for the school.
MN: Why do you think so?
MZ: The following year was much more regulated, the opposite of what we’ve experienced. I’ve even heard that they were quite angry with us, for ruining the course for them. In the next group, the participants had to work with one project for the entire year.
MN: That’s how it is today. Each of us gets a budget.
MZ: I don’t really remember if we had budgets. In the project we did with Jens Hoffmann, there must have been a different source of funding, as we had so many famous people involved. He even told us that we didn’t really have that much to say. It was really his show.
MN: What was your part in this collaboration?
MZ: He made us research the ten most famous exhibitions in last ten years. He picked the exhibitions, because he didn’t trust us with that. Each one of us were given a few people to call and ask about the exhibitions – I was to talk to Catherine David on Documenta, I remember being really nervous about it. I, with my background in jewelry, was to call her and ask about the exhibition that had changed so much… But this throwing into the fire was good, I think. Of course, it wasn’t our own decisions, we were just told to do that. Jens Hoffmann was skeptical towards us. I remember him telling us how spoiled and lazy we were… That was part of it, having someone tell you what the reality was. We were in Sweden, we had no experience. Some time ago, Stina, one of my colleagues, posted a picture of me sawing a table in our classroom in a drunken moment. That was a day before we had a tutorial with Vasif Kortun from Istanbul and Mika Hannula from Helsinki. We were supposed to have a class with them on Saturday…
After Stina posted the picture, Wasif said, ‘you were hammered through the next afternoon and totally immune to any source of erudition.’ Fifteen years later he still remembered that we were just spoiled brats rolling on public money.
MN: Sounds like you had some adventurous years at school.
MZ: Yes. We were there and we didn’t take any prisoners, but not in a way that he wanted to see it. We didn’t impress our teachers necessarily, but I think we did impress our school. We really were active.
MN: So how many exhibitions and events did you produce during the two years? You’ve already mentioned nine issues of Organ.
MZ: There was the exhibition in Vita Havet, Exhibition squared with Jens Hoffmann. In the second half of the second year we did a huge show in a desolate industrial area in Gävle with Helena Holmberg, who was a curator at Index and our teacher. We had a pretty good budget and each of us invited our own artist. We also wrote texts for the catalogue edited by Maria Lind at Moderna Museet. Me and Stina were guest editors of a Swedish art magazine Paletten, having been invited by a group of artists.
MN: I wanted to ask you about something, which was for sure important to Måns Wrange, the founder of CuratorLab. He mentions in an interview that CuratorLab was conceived as platform for experiment in curating. He felt, as people were choosing curating as a professional path or a career, that there wasn’t enough time and space for experiment. The experimental approach seems crucial in your own practice, do you think it is something you took from CuratorLab?
MZ: Absolutely! That attitude of revolt was established there. I don’t think it was done intentionally by the school. Our teacher, Karin, was making moves to make us more streamlined. She would suggest we dress in a certain way and to be more representable. She had worked as a director of Index for many years, she knew how it functions. She was interested in seeing us more professional: prepared, on time, wearing fancy clothes. Somehow, she transmitted this attitude towards artists of ‘us versus them’, which I opposed strongly. Having a background in art education, I didn’t like the way she described artists as people who shouldn’t be trusted and the idea of ‘watching them’ and being their bosses.
All those people coming and telling us how things are outside, created a need in me to go and find out on my own. We all developed this anti-attitude toward the notion of a ‘career’, we wanted to be a little more rock and roll. Maybe that come from Måns, maybe this is the attitude he planted. I think the school was happy with our work, we were very productive, we were experimenting all the time, saying ‘yes’ to all options, working for free. And we all ended up working in different ways, for instance, Stina (Högkvist) is working in a museum, Marianne (Hultman) runs Oslo Kunstforening. For me, experimental was always the goal, but after all these years I can say it sometimes is hard to find conditions to experiment.
MN: So, the initial idea behind CuratorLab was, in fact, really good?
MZ: Being a student in that situation was a privilege. Two years, lots of resources, plenty of freedom … As much as I did like that it was practice-oriented, I must say we did not talk much about what it means to experiment, what the function of the curator is, from the perspective of a bigger picture. It was traditional in a sense, that we were following already existing formats and then given a lot of freedom to test other stuff. But, I guess, for people who are more interested in theory, there are other maybe more suitable courses.
MN: You’ve already mentioned the suspicious atmosphere among art students at Konstfack. Did you meet any people you would collaborate with?
MZ: Yes, I did projects with many of students. People I met at school became friends, but also colleagues. I think all four of us were later working with people who studied at Konstfack at the same time. That was our first network. Just looking at the projects we did with Stina and with our gallery Simon Says (we were really active between 2002-2003) I can see many people from Konstfack, like Fia-Stina Sandlund, Erik Alto. I also worked quite a lot with Karl Larsson. I made shows with a few of them in Filmform, where I was working.
MN: As you have mentioned, just after finishing Konstfack, together with Stina Högkvist you established a gallery, Simon Says. Did you feel you were able to do it because of the know-how that you gained during your studies?
MZ: It came out of that. Stina and I decided to do our degree show together. Our idea was easy: we wanted to do as many projects as possible, different projects, high and low, here and there. The magazine was part of it, it was quite a lot. Our ambition was to cover as much ground as possible and do as much as possible. Even though it was not cohesive, our teachers were happy with the project, they rewarded us for action, for quantity. I remember thinking, that it was super easy: you just had to be super productive for people to appreciate you. That’s what I’ve learned from that. When I look at my CV, I see that I’ve just worked too much. Amazing, how many projects I was able to squeeze in over the years.
After that I was working at Filmform, they gave me a lot of freedom, so I did ten film projects a year. The same year we did twelve projects with Simon Says and five projects as a freelancer. After I graduated I was on turbo-speed, which I felt was encouraged by my teachers. We were rewarded for intensity, not for the focus.
MN: How would you describe the impact CuratorLab on your career?
MZ: I definitely acquired many skills, which was pretty good. My level of reflection was low, I did plenty of things without thinking why I was doing them. I was focused on taking my place in the system, on networking. I would say ‘yes’ to anything, I didn’t learn to ask for money, or better conditions. I was just happy to do things and to be asked. It took me another ten years on my own and one burnout, to ask the question of ‘why the fuck am I doing this?’. That was the effect of education on me I think. I know for a fact that if you asked any of my co-participants, their answers would be different.
‘We were five guinea pigs’
Power Ekroth in conversation with Joanna Warsza
JW: Power, tell me about the very first year of the CuratorLab
PE: There were five of us and we were sort of the guinea pigs. It was a rushed process to start the programme, and it was obvious they really didn't know how to do it. They knew why they wanted to do it, but, it was quite difficult to formalise this into a structure. And when we entered Konstfack, we were definitely hated by all the other students. Artists were looking upon us and sort of saying, Get out of here, you are just stealing our money and our time.’
JW: Oh my god. Why?
PE: At the time, 1999, it was way too controversial to have a curator at the art school. We were like a new group of people who were threatening the artist’s role, and we were looked upon like leeches sucking the juice out of artists’ payments. In their minds, we were their worst enemies.
JW: We are speaking only about five people in the whole school, right!?
PE: Right, but it was still the case. In the summer of 1999, there was a long debate in the daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, where artists were complaining about curators and their new hegemonic role. The curator was a new threatening persona in the art world that was stealing the limelight from artists. I have that whole compilation of articles at home. It's really interesting and funny to look back upon. Daniel Birnbaum wrote an article defending the profession, saying ‘No, the curator is a pretty good guy’. We entered the school just after that very heated debate. The curator was definitely not someone that was looked upon nicely. Not at all.
JW: Coming back to guinea pigs, how did the experimentation work exactly?
PE: They didn't know how to give us the proper education and to make curators out of us. Looking back upon it, during this one year we didn't have any training in the economic field, which would have been necessary. It should have been included in the basic classes, it’s part of the ABCs of curatorial training. However, we had a great theory class with Sven-Olov Wallenstein.
The teachers asked us all the time, ‘What do you need to learn?’ and we didn't really know what we needed or how to respond. I suggested that we could have a course in lighting, hanging works, stuff like that. So, they gave us a course in that, but it was put together halfway. It was a vulnerable beginning for both sides.
JW: Did you work on your own projects or as a group. What was its structure?
PE: We worked with the students of Konstfack at first. We made one group exhibition for Christmas together and then we also had one final exhibition at the end of the year at Färgfabriken together. Each of us curated a separate part, but it was a group exhibition at the same time. We were also doing our internships in different places. For example, at Index, at Iaspis, at a commercial gallery.
JW: Different then today, you were more like full-time studies?
PE: Yes. And after I graduated, they rearranged the programme and made it into the two years master’s programme, full-time as well. That was quite different, but then they rearranged it back once more into a research programme, which is still its shape now and which also makes it more international. Back then it was really Swedish. Nordic.
JW: There is this ongoing debate whether to go back to a master’s or not. To my taste, with the current saturation of curatorial programmes, it's much freer when it's not an master’s, because you can reinvent the topic and the structure every year. What happened with your five colleagues from school?
PE: Karin Faxén is writing novels and she's living on an island outside of Gothenburg, as far as I know; we lost touch. Niklas Östholm is working at Konstfrämjandet. Eva Broberg has been working as a project manager for Dansens Hus for a long period of time. Pia Kristoffersson worked as a curator for a long time, then a few years ago, she just completely rearranged her whole life and started to work as a funeral arranger.
JW: What are you working with? It seems that you stayed the closest to art per se.
PE: Yes, I suppose I did. I don't know what I'm working out at the moment. But I stayed as a freelance curator, I didn't really want to take a job as an institutional curator, and I don't know how I managed, but I did, doing different stuff all the time. We started a magazine called Site, which is still semi-running without any money. We did so many different things, but basically, I freelanced as a curator, writing for international magazines and staying free, whatever that means. Now I work with several different public art projects in both Norway and Sweden, for KORO, Oslo, and Stockholm municipalities, I also teach at Umeå Konsthögskola, and I was the artistic director for a master’s class in Finland at NOVIA University, the first low residency programme for artists. I’m on the board of Röda Sten Konsthall, and I curated a part of the Cairo Off Biennale in November 2017, the Borås International Sculpture Biennial, and I also worked at the Gagnef/Skankaloss music festival in 2018. I’m all over the place at the moment.
JW: But you live in Berlin?
PE: I have lived here in Berlin for the past seven years and I moved here together with my partner, Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena, who is a Uruguayan-Swedish artist.
JW: Coming back to Curatorlab, you worked with Måns Wrange, correct?
PE: Yes. Måns started the course, it was his baby together with Hans Hedberg. Hans Hedberg died suddenly in 2016. These two guys put their finger up in the air and said we really need to have a curator programme at Konstfack. They were both professors at the time. So, this was their baby, undoubtedly. Those guys were the vanguard, fought for it, really fought for it. I remember for instance one of the professors was working actively against the programme.
JW: It was more or less the same time that Iaspis was created. Iaspis also started as a revolt. There were people asking why would Stockholm need an international residency? Why is the money not going to local artists? Very often, there is a great deal of fear connected with a potential game changer.
PE: In the case of both a residency programme and the curatorial programme, the money spent on both curators and a residency for international artists will, eventually, indirectly, be poured right back into the local art scene. I think for the five of us, the shift happened when we made the exhibition at Christmas, because Konstfack students were exhibited in it. Then everybody realised that they could actually make some real use out of us, and that we were not the enemy, and that instead, we were helping them to be professionally represented. We were also partying with them. I guess that helped.
JW: Have you been in touch with CuratorLab since you left?
PE: I was really close with the next group just after us. I helped at least one of them get in. I was trying to help out and we became close friends.
JW: This is was the year Marianne Zamecznik participated?
PE: Yes. And all of them stayed in the artworld. One of them was an artist at Konstfack at the time and remained an artist. But the other four girls, they are actually curators and they stayed in the artworld.
JW: How would you actually teach curating today?
PE: [Laughs]. That is for you to know, right? On a more serious note, the word ‘curator’ is an abused term. Even Pharell is a curator nowadays, and it’s a very broad profession even inside the artworld, extremely multi-layered. I tell my students that I do everything in the exhibition from sweeping floors to setting the lights, and that my profession entails being the artist’s collaborator, best friend, enemy, mistress, therapist, sister, and everything in between. It’s such a multi-faced profession, and its informed by the curator’s own interests. Not one curator works in the same manner as any other. In a way, it is a Mission Impossible to try to teach someone to become such a figure. But it is also pretty much the best profession in the world. And hence it must be such a great pleasure to be teaching future curators!
'At one point I felt that it was curating about curating. So I thought maybe it's good to draw in some artists.’
Renée Padt in conversation with Hannah Zafiropoulos
HZ: Can you talk a little about how you started working with CuratorLab?
RP: I started working at CuratorLab when Måns Wrange was still there. He started the programme way before my time – I didn't even live in Sweden then, because I'm not from Sweden originally. When I began working with him, he had just changed the curriculum into more of a nomadic residency programme. Before that it had been a hands-on curatorial practice programme. At that time, it was quite small and it was based on the idea that the participants would move to different places. They didn't focus on individual projects – it was very research and travel-based.
When I started, I was the coordinator of the programme during the last year that Måns was there. That year, we collaborated with Raqs Media Collective as part of Manifesta 7, extending their programme in Bolzano to the four places the participants of CuratorLab had come from.
HZ: So there were only four participants at that time?
RP: Yes, it was very small. Partly this was due to the fact that the travelling costs were pretty expensive, so we couldn't be very big. For the collaboration with Raqs Media Collective, the participants prepared different projects in the four different places – Istanbul, Stockholm, Rome and Paris. We got some additional funding from Manifesta and Raqs to do this. The participants were quite free to develop the project as they wanted.
After that year, Måns left to become Rector of the Royal Institute of Art and I was asked to take over CuratorLab. Of course, when you take something over the host institution normally also wants you to change things, that's usually how it goes. Most importantly, I was asked to connect the programme more to Konstfack and the Stockholm context. Konstfack didn't really like the focus of the programme on travel. Secondly, they said it had to have at least double the amount of students, without any extra budget. You know, this is usually how it goes!
HZ: What year was this?
RP: I have to check...2009 I think? It changed when Måns left. There was one year in between, and I had one participant who had already received a grant to join the programme from the United States, Maia Niki Gianakos. She was worried when she thought it wasn't going to happen, so I decided to try out the new system on her for six months.
HZ: So, it was just one participant?
RP: Yes, but it wasn't really the same. It was during this in-between time – I discussed it with Konstfack and they said it was okay. So I worked with her. It was kind of funny, because it wasn't really official, obviously. Well, it was official – I had permission, and she was happy because she had a grant.
So then I tried to situate it differently. I realised we could no longer frame it as a 'residency', which is what it had been called before, because it wasn't allowed. They wanted it to fit in the Konstfack curriculum. So I looked at the other curatorial programmes that existed, and at the time many of those were based on collaborative projects, asking the participants to work together. I think CuratorLab is like this again now?
So, seeing that there were already quite a few curatorial opportunities like that, I decided to change it to be more focused on independent projects. I introduced the idea that you would apply with a project proposal that you would develop during the time you were there. It was quite flexible, as it still is today. There's not a fixed curriculum or schedule like you'd normally have, because it’s not a degree-granting educational programme. So I based it around independent projects, and I gave everyone a production budget, because I think when you have a small budget its always much easier to start doing something.
HZ: Can you elaborate on why you decided to focus on independent projects in contrast to collaborative MA programmes?
RP: At the time when Måns started CuratorLab, it was the only curatorial programme in Sweden. But by the time I started, there was also the Stockholm University Curatorial Masters. Also, at Konstfack there was a short-lived Masters called WIRE, on Critical Writing and Curatorial Practice, but it only lasted three years. So CuratorLab now sat beside those two courses.
At the time, CuratorLab was a post-Masters course; now to join you only need a Bachelor’s Degree. That's something that's changed a lot since I was there. Of course, most of the participants had a Masters, and many of them had a PhD. So, it's very different than when you have participants who only have a Bachelors. You can't impose a rigid school-like process when people are already very advanced in their studies.
HZ: Yes, that makes sense, because it’s the focus on mid-career professionals that makes the programme different. Do you think it’s more important to keep the focus on professional development rather than necessarily education?
RP: I think so, yes. I think it's a good opportunity, particularly for Swedish curators, although there weren't that many Swedish participants. In Sweden, it's a different situation than in other countries in that you can't apply for grants. So this kind of opportunity for curators is needed. But I think it’s also particularly interesting to spend time with eight to ten people from all over the world to discuss ideas. I've had very good experiences with the groups themselves.
HZ: Yes, definitely. In your time, was it a similar structure to how it is now, where we meet four times a year?
RP: Yes. I tried to change that in the beginning, because some of the participants came from very far away. This has changed now because of the university fees for non-EU applicants, so you don't get these kinds of applications anymore, but at that time there were many. Sometimes I organised three really intense sessions for longer periods of time, because for most participants the travelling was really expensive. Of course, there's a difference when you have many people from Stockholm, but I never really had that – it was usually only one or two maximum.
HZ: With so many international applications, was there a balance you tried to reach to ensure there was always at least one Swedish participant? Or was the emphasis in terms of admissions on having a diverse group?
RP: I always thought it was more interesting to have a group with very different ideas so that we could have interesting discussions with people who have different opinions. I was never really asked to have Swedish participants, but I sometimes thought it would be good to have a connection to Stockholm. When someone lives in Stockholm, they know the scene – I'm double the age of everyone else, so it was good to have that connection! But it didn't always happen.
HZ: Since the programme changed from the 'nomadic' form that Måns introduced, did you retain any emphasis on travel?
RP: Yes, we always went on a trip together as part of the programme. In the beginning we visited the usual places like Venice Biennale; we also went to Dubai for Sharjah Biennale. I decided then that I no longer wanted to go to the big biennales that everybody can just go to on their own, or should go to if you're a curator. So we went to less obvious places like the Marrakesh Biennale and to Istanbul to Former West.
HZ: How many years were you director of the programme?
RP: Seven – from 2007-14.
HZ: How did your ideas for the course change over this time? Were there any big developments or refinements?
RP: Yes, I think so. In the beginning I left it quite open, basing the sessions on lots of discussions with the participants. But then after two years or so, I introduced the idea that every person could bring in an individual advisor or mentor related to their particular project. That was really nice, because they didn't have to be based in Sweden. You could have Skype meetings or other meetings if you lived in the same country as your mentor.
HZ: Why did you think that it was important to introduce this?
RP: Because of course, when you have ten projects, they can be very diverse. I'm certainly not an expert on all these different visions and ideas, so I thought that would be really interesting. It was also interesting because I didn't appoint them. They all came out of discussions with the participant.
HZ: Alongside the independent projects, did the participants work on anything collaboratively?
RP: It was mostly independent work. I left it quite open, and sometimes people wanted to work together. It was really based on their own wishes. In my last year I had quite a few who used their time in CuratorLab to refine a proposal to apply for PhD positions, which worked really well. Many of them went on to do a PhD.
HZ: Interesting, so was it mostly research they were developing more than a practical project?
RP: It was both, really.
HZ: How was it structured when you came together as a group? Was it mostly people in dialogue with one another, trying to push their research forward? Did you have a reading group format, or lectures?
RP: The first time we met, everyone did presentations about what they did before and what they were planning to do. After that, every time we met, everyone had to do a lecture on how they had proceeded and developed their project. So everybody knew exactly what everybody else was doing.
HZ: What kind of projects came out of it?
RP: Some participants managed to do really quite big projects, in collaboration with bigger institutions. Others did publications or a series of lectures or film screenings. It was really very diverse what they ended up doing. We had some great and often ongoing collaborations with various institutions, such as Moderna Museet, Tensta Konsthall, Konsthall C, Röda Sten in Gothenburg and many others.
HZ: Could you talk a little about the collaboration with apexart?
RP: Yes, it was led by a group I had at the time. There were seven of them. Around the time of the first session, apex made a call for applications. We had just met and had been having these really intense group meetings, and then at one point I took them to Konsthall C. They all thought it was a really great institution. I saw them the next day in the morning and they told me they'd put together an application to do a show in Konsthall C – the deadline was the following day. I thought it was great, but I didn't really know what it was about. But then they won it! And so, I think it was in November that the decision was made, and then of course they'd based it on Konsthall C but hadn't really talked to Konsthall C about it yet. It had to happen in February which was only three months away. The programme of Konsthall C was already decided, but they were given an adjacent space to use. So they did the exhibition together in February as something extra to their independent projects. It was really collaborative; each participant invited one artist, and they wrote a text together and divided the tasks.
HZ: It's interesting how they managed to work together when they were all in such different places. I wonder if the networks that have been created by CuratorLab have lasted, and are still active in some way today.
RP: Yes, I think so. At the time I had to argue the case to Konstfack. They were worried that we had so many international students in a Swedish school. But I told them that you can also turn this around, because many of the students that were in CuratorLab made real contacts in Stockholm with many Swedish artists, and then they stay in contact and are being shown in the rest of the world. I find that very positive.
HZ: Yes, definitely. Was there an emphasis when you ran the programme on working with artists – going on studio visits and meeting artists in Stockholm?
RP: Yes, I very often invited artists to join us for lectures. I didn't want to force anybody to do studio visits when they're not interested in someone's work, but everyone made their own individual studio visits, with IASPIS for example.
At one point I felt that it had become such a meta discussion, you know. Curating about curating. So I thought maybe it's good to draw in some artists.
HZ: I think that's a really interesting point. Lots of curating programmes at the moment seem to be too focused on curating about curating. I always felt that this was counterintuitive, because as a curator you're supposed to be translating something, not talking about yourself.
RP: I know, and I find it a little bit problematic, but everyone has their own approach. But I think, you know, as a curator you follow what’s going on in the field – it’s very important to know what’s happening in the field.
HZ: Running the course for so many years, did you see a change in the types of projects that participants were presenting? Around a similar time, there was a move away from exhibition-making towards, as you said, talks series and film programmes; more event-based programming. I wondered if you saw any kind of development and connections between what the participants were doing as a reflection of the discourse of curating?
RP: I think they'd never been purely focused on exhibitions, really. It's maybe part of the fact that if you want to do a really big exhibition it takes a year to fundraise, and this is only a one-year project. It’s very difficult to start an idea and then in one year to manage to make it into a big visual exhibition. So, it was never solely exhibitions. Actually, the apexart collaboration was really the only exhibition, but that came from the open call. They got a budget for the project – it wasn't huge, but they had money to do it.
HZ: I find it interesting that CuratorLab doesn't rest on the discourse of curating – it has a canonical literature list, for example, of key texts you should be aware of, however, they are not obligatory or necessarily discussed in the group. It doesn't really aim to give you any grounding in theory, but rather a direction, it gives you a space to discuss ideas and gain new perspectives.
RP: Yes, that's also what I like about it. It's more like research-based practice.
On Staging The Trial: A conversation between Rossella Biscotti and CuratorLab
Joanna Warsza: The Trial, is your six-hour performance based on the original court-room recordings from the 1983–84 trial of members of Autonomia Operaia (among them, Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno), who were arrested in Italy on charges of terrorism. Who and what was exactly on trial?
Rossella Biscotti: Around seventy people were put on trial in Rome (and many hundreds arrested within this proceeding between 1979 and 1988). This trial took place between 1982–84 but it concerned the events that had continued from the beginning of the 1970’s. In this ten-year span, some of these people got together to form various movements, such as Potere Operaio, Autonomia Operaia, but also to take part in many demonstration, actions, struggles, social mobilisations. Some of them drifted apart, changed their interests, way of living and doing politics. The plaintiffs wanted to prove that hundreds of people were bounded together by an invisible hierarchical organisation of which Tony Negri was supposed to be the mastermind and who was also thought to be the leader of all left-wing terroristic organisations in Italy. These organisations allegedly constituted and participated in a subversive activity and formed a political complot and planned armed insurrection against the state, during those ‘Years of Lead’, which were characterised by social turmoil, both on the left and the right.
Another way to call this trial is the ‘7th of April trial’ or ‘bad teacher’s trial’ because the majority of the accused were professors or cultural producers who were said to be ‘corrupting the youth’ by theorising the revolution. Negri and Virno are both philosophers, others like Paolo Pozzi was a teacher and writer and editor of many counter-culture magazines; Chicco Funaro is a publicist, and at the time of the arrest he was working for an American advertising company; Franco Tommei, who was a militant in Milano, was engaged with theatre, and was one of the founder of La Comune together with Dario Fo and Franca Rame; there was also Alberto Magnagi, a professor of Architecture at the Polytechnic in Milan, Augusto Finzi, a worker from the chemical factory of Marghera….Some of the accused manged to escape to France – where François Mitterrand opposed the antiterrorist law applied in Italy by giving them political asylum.
JW: How did you come up with the idea of re-enacting this trial?
RB: Everything started after the first presentation of The Trial at the Maxxi Museum in Rome back in 2010, where I installed an eight-hour audio piece from one of the original recordings of the trial in the hallway and staircase of the museum. For the Italian public the confrontation with this history was immediate: they could recognize the courthouse environment, the political language, the roles performed within the trial, the emotions of the defendants. I started to think how to share and translate this important moment of the Italian history abroad. I didn’t want to work with actors and I thought of the idea of re-embodying the voices, having a physical person translate and transmit the text. Working in the beginning mainly with translators - not simply simultaneous interpreters, but also mediators of the history and political language - later I started to activate the words with different local agents. The performance of The Trial came to its most complete form in 2013 at e-flux in New York, and at Wiels in Brussels in 2014. There the full six-hour audio was translated and interpreted by various philosophers, activists, cultural workers, lawyers, bridging the content from the trial with contemporary research and political local struggles.
JW: The original trial lasted for one and a half years. You edited this down to six hours of material. How did you do this?
RB: The original audio comes from the recordings of Radio Radicale, which is a free radio of the Radical Party in Italy. They recorded the full trial but never archived it properly, some parts were missing, and sometimes even the speaker wasn’t mentioned. Thanks to articles from the Manifesto daily, which was reporting from the trial every day, and thanks to the help of former defendants, I could reconstruct the context and focus on particular threads and people while editing. The first version of eight hours was done for the Maxxi Museum in 2010, and the second and final editing of six hours was done for documenta 13 in 2012. The audio has a particular structure, which doesn’t follow that of the original trial, and it is not chronological. Take Antonio Negri, for an example, he talks for an equivalent of twelve days on the original recording. In editing his narration, I mainly selected parts where he gave a historical context to the movement and the ‘Years of the Lead’. He is intertwined with other perspectives of the defendants, which created a polyphonic narration. Negri is constantly being questioned by the judge, while Paolo Virno, the way I edited him, delivers a political statement, with no questions and clear beginning and end. In the edited version there is a clear attempt by the defendants to collocate themselves in the political context of that time, and to use the court as an arena to determine the trial as a political one. In the middle – when the trial proceeds in the absence of Negri, the dialogue of the defendants gets fragmented with the voices of the public prosecutor, lawyers, witnesses, informants. The editing has its own dramaturgical structure, different from the trial and bearing similarity to a theatre piece...
JW: You said that your first approach to the trial came through the architecture.
RB: Yes, specifically by visiting the courthouse building, which has a very interesting history. Designed by Luigi Moretti in 1938 as a fencing academy - Casa della Scherma - the building was a modernist landmark in the fascist sport-complex of Foro Italico in Rome. Then refurbished in 1981 and secured as a high-security courthouse for special trials - red terrorism in the 1980’s or mafia trials - it was functioning until around 2009. Later the city decided to turn it into a museum dedicated to the entertaining industry. When I entered this building for the first time with special permission – it was still under security - I realised that the interior and atmosphere had not changed. It was somehow like a set. The environment was so characterised by its historical and political history that it still evoked that state of emergency and secrecy, embedded in the judiciary power apparatus that ruled those trials. When I was invited by the Maxxi museum to realise an opening show in 2010, the Zaha Hadid designed museum was just becoming a landmark in Rome, erected exactly opposite the court, across the river. I started to think: how can I bring the courthouse into the museum, and the museum into the courthouse? Next to the exhibition, I also organised a trip to the courthouse, a sort of performance, inviting some of the defendants, lawyers, family, journalists, people from the museum, and of course witnesses. We revisited the place on a Sunday morning, 4th of January 2010 around 10am. I wished to explore this architecture of oppression in a very freeway, including with people who have been trialled inside. It was wonderful: many memories came about and many liberating narrations were developed.
JW: The original benches from the court still accompany the performance as witnesses.
RB: Yes, exactly. While working on the concrete casts for the exhibition at Maxxi, I managed to take out some of the defendants’ benches - the building wasn’t in use anymore and nobody noticed it. On those benches people had awaited trial or heard their own sentences. Some of them have texts on them, notes, marks of cigarettes. I used them in the performance as part of the set, both for the participants to sit and wait for their turn, but also for the public. Generally, it’s not very scripted how to use the space in the performance, people are free to move around, listen for a little, sit there for the whole time or just do their own part and go. And the benches function as part of this atmosphere of waiting, listening, performing for short or long.
JW: You mentioned you met Antonio Negri, what was his reaction to The Trial?
RB: He is informed and updated about my project, but he never assisted at any of the performances. I believe he never listened to the edited audio, of course. It was an extremely traumatic experience for him, the trial, the prison, the exile...I guess he is also very aware of the potentiality of this project, its way to create networks, to get people engaged.
JW: Your performance has had many iterations. Every time you want to bring it to an end, another invitation comes in. How do you explain the continuing relevance of the whole Autonomia Operaia today?
RB: For me it was very important to do it back in 2010. I actually started this project in 2006, so it has been ten years! It was a strong statement for Italy at that time since that particular history wasn’t discussed properly. The Maxxi Museum received a huge amount of letters of protests when the project was presented there for the first time. It turned out that the topic was still hurting greatly for some people, particularly for the relatives of victims of terrorism. They were still not willing to look into that period and behind the political propaganda, which was aggressively imposed by the state and some political parties. For example, they wouldn’t even acknowledge the fact that many people were arrested on charge of terrorism with no evidence, in massive repressive operations (and then released only after many years of preventive prison). And then, little by little, we did the exercise of memory and revisited this period of Italian history. Then I might say that the Autonomia Operaia movement had many legacies, it produced an incredible amount of thoughts, texts, and political actions we are still discussing.
JW: Which of those ideas are the most pertinent for you?
RB: First of all, Autonomia Operaia was a multi-layered, heterogeneous body, which fitted each local reality: there was an Autonomia Operaia in Milan, Autonomia Operaia in Bologna, Autonomia Operaia in Rome. It was composed by students, workers, intellectuals. What comes out in the trial recordings is that it’s a movement that is not looking to give itself a structure. It did not have a goal of seizing power or entering politics in a structured way. It was the first movement in women participated very prominently, and it expanded as a women’s movement and helped develop an important discussion about gender politics in a still very conservative Italy; this discussion and movement later included and expanded into what we called now the LGBT community.
One of the common denominators for the movement was the concept of labour, not just classical factory labour, but also, as Virno mentions in the trial, one of the first acknowledgments and studies of precarious labour, including the fact that the knowledge that students accumulate is also labour. They were all struggling for decent wages, but also have time for life and cultural life. They were struggling to have concerts at lower prices, and kindergartens at lower prices, while gaining time for socialising, for getting something out of life, that would be more then work, sleep, and family. Virno mentions that this precarious labour is going to free us from steady jobs, while today we are struggling with the situation in which precarious labour is tightening us. The issues might have evolved, but they are still really relevant.
JW: Riot, strike, picketing, occupation, blockade-barricade, demonstration-protest, petition, armed revolt, underground movements and militias, political party formation, printed matter and radio broadcast: what do you believe is the most effective form of socio-political resistance today?
RB: Wow, all of them, all together. I still believe that meeting is the most important at the moment. Gaining time for each other’s needs and life. I can only hope that The Trial will produce such a possible, a new community.