Olaf Nicolai and Tom McDonough at Kunsthalle Wien
Greetings one last time from Vienna, where Saturday we wrapped up Kunsthalle Wien’s conference on curatorial ethics. Here are the abstracts for Saturday’s talks, and again my reflections below:
Critical Affirmation / Media between Affirmation and Critique
Pernille Albrethsen, Jörg Heiser (en)
The recent era has seen a change in professional terminology for those who write about art. Many today would prefer the more neutral “art writer” as opposed to the title of “art critic”. Art critics ply their trade in a sometimes adversarial manner, making aesthetic judgments in reference to classically-determined aesthetic ideals; by contrast, art writers’ do their work according to broader, more ameliorative directives. One role of art writing includes providing important contextualization for the understanding of artworks, but how often does this job become indistinguishable from PR?
Society of the Spectacle
Olaf Nicolai, Tom McDonough (en)
What we can know and imagine about 1967, the year in which Guy Debord published his seminal book can seem almost quaint when judged by today’s standards. Debord’s analysis of how the 1960s West saw a fullscale repurposing of the religious impulse as commodity fetish has gone on to become far eclipsed by our own era’s embrace of an autofictionalized and synthetic self. Instead of sharing the French philosopher’s concern with authentic experience, in 2015 the informed observer must merely find consolation in the knowledge that Isis, for instance, engages in mere optics and stagecraft when it appears to be destroying world heritage sites.
Art, Politics and Society
Defne Ayas, Bart de Baere, Fulya Erdemci, Nikolaus Hirsch (en)
Far from being fully instrumentalized and domesticated by its art market imperatives, the contemporary artworld is a globally active entity – one that provides multiple examples of contexts where art fulfills its autonomous role. Anti-government protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul, for instance, formed a background to that city’s 2013 Biennial and were a factor in highlighting controversy over the event’s Koc Holding sponsorship.What are the contemporary formats of the political in art, and how are i6:30 pm: ts imperatives best articulated by today’s thinkers?
Criticality in Crisis
Clémentine Deliss, Anselm Franke, Monika Szewczyk (en)
An explanation for the current “success” of the art world would be, in part, the entertainment value the art institution supposedly incarnates. A further explanation would be that the art world is subject to a wider phenomenon: the wholesale aestheticization of public life, a consequence of financialization. This tendency poses a threat to not the work of art, per se, but rather the core mission of the institution charged with its stewardship. Criticality, by definition is never going to be the popular position. However, today’s crisis in criticality stems not from a potential lack of an audience, but a more serious problem of wider forces that conspire to work against the formats of its application.
Frieze editor Jörg Heiser, image via Flickr
The first panel, “Critical Affirmation: Media between Affirmation and Critique,” featured Pernille Albrethsen (Kunstkritikk, Copenhagen) and Jörg Heiser (Frieze, Berlin), moderated by Nicolaus Schafhausen (Kunsthalle Wien). The conversation focused on the capacity for art writers to be critical, which they say appears to be decreasing as of late. When you’re freelance in a neoliberal economy, says Heiser, there’s an incentive to not be critical. If you are critical of a colleague or, for example, an influential museum director, you may not get a job that you apply for in six months time. “How do you navigate the art world when it has become an industry,” asks Pernille Albrethsen. The panel talks about how the art world has become an industry where celebrities and influential figures hold an inordinate amount of resources and power, and thus they’re difficult to publicly react against without fear of retribution.
The Bjork exhibition is a good example of a critic’s capacity to be critical en masse, says Heiser. While it’s possible to curate a good Bjork exhibition, Biesenbach did not, and this celebrity environment obviously created a yes man syndrome. “They basically just say to each other all the time how fucking great they are. And it makes you really dumb,” says Heiser. “If I were Bjork, I would be terrified of people telling me how I great I am. Of course you’re showing your work because you like it, but curators should still have the latent possibility to make informed decisions…”
Schafhausen shifts gears a bit and says that he thinks most art exhibition writing is too complex and theoretical and doesn’t reach broader audiences. “Most writing that you think is too complex and theoretical is probably just bad writing,” says Heiser. He gives an example of an exhibition in Italy in which the artist said “This exhibition is about time…. and death,” which is too sweeping and grandiose for him.
How about new forms? Schafhausen notes a lot of media outlets quoting each other in reviews. And Mousse, for example, doesn’t even have a reviews section, which helps when you’re distributing the magazine for free in galleries. There’s Art-Agenda, says Albrethsen skeptically, which she says is funded through gallery announcements. She finds Art-Agenda to be problematic because it primarily covers commercial gallery exhibitions. Heiser points out that Art-Agenda actually covers triennials and art fairs, and is willing to publish negative reviews, which seems somewhat of a rarity today. Personally, I find Albrethsen’s criticisms a little shortsighted—how are we to fund publications if not through advertising? State funding? Heiser brings up that in the naughts when Jörg Haider came into power in Austria as a right wing cultural minister, the Austrian art community was scared about arts cultural funding being cut. “It didn’t end up being as bad as we possibly imagined,” says Heiser, “but it made us realize that we’re beholden to politicians to fund our publications.” So what’s the alternative here to publications being funded by advertisement or being beholden to publications? Working for free?
An editor from Süddeutsche Zeitung chimes in and asks, “If publications are state funded, how are publications responsible to the public? Regarding the current rise of popularity in art journalism, (art writing about the people and events surrounding art, rather than art criticism, art writing about art itself), people love reading about people; about stories about the artist; these stories always have happy endings.”
I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on the rise of art news and art journalism as compared to stalwart art criticism. Just in the last few years, we’ve sees sites like ArtNet News, Gallerist New York, Blouin ARTINFO, and others explode with popularity. These sites seem much more trafficked than the website of frieze or Artforum, though few artists, curators or writers that I know seem to find the popularity of art news a winning development.
The day’s second panel in English, “Society of the Spectacle,” featured again Tom McDonough (Associate Professor and Chair, Art History, Binghamton University), and Olaf Nicolai (Artist). Nicolas Bourriaud was scheduled to come but he forgot that his passport expired. Nicolai notes that McDonough writes for October and when he does so is very serious, and asks if he can be mean. McDonough responds, “Because the critic is so self-conscious of herself existing within a system, meanness is very rare.”
Defne Ayas, Nicolaus Hirsch, Fulya Erdemci, Bart de Baere, Zoë Gray
The third panel of the day is “Art, Politics and Society” featuring Defne Ayas (Witte de With, Rotterdam), Bart de Baere (MUHKA, Antwerpen / 6th Moscow Biennale), Fulya Erdemci (13th Istanbul Biennale), Zoë Gray (WIELS, Brussels), Nikolaus Hirsch (Architect and Curator, Frankfurt am Main). Most of the panelists have worked in areas marked by conflict, specifically Istanbul and Russia. Many complex thoughts and questions were raised by the panelists: “Any art project in the public domain should locate conflict and split it open,” says 13th Istanbul Biennale director Fulya Erdemci. “We speak a lot about the function of art, but what about its capacity? What is art responsible for?” asks 6th Moscow Biennale curator Bart de Baere. “How much do we need to know to perform institutionally or curatorially?” asks Witte de With director Defne Ayas. “How much do I need to know about hip hop, or the avant-garde?” she asks. It’s generally agreed upon by the panelists that biennales are meant to open up new spaces for what are not happening yet.
Given that panelists Defne Ayas, Bart de Baere, and Nicolaus Schafhausen will curate the next Moscow Biennale, there were a few questions from the audience about their curatorial autonomy in such an oppressive environment, especially in light of Kaspar König’s rickety Manifesta in St. Petersburg last year. A member of the audience interjected that König had little control over the resources he brought into Russia, and that his venue rental money was rerouted to fighters in Ukraine. The panel talked optimistically about previous successful biennales in conflict situations, such as Erdemci’s 13th Istanbul biennale, or her Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which launched amidst the Arab Spring in 2011. ‘Artworks have a power to unfold political situations critically,’ says Erdemci.
But isn’t the situation in Moscow different, given that Putin controls Russia geographically, economically, and culturally, this total control extending through both brute force and corrupt back channels? Remember, it is still illegal to be gay in Russia, and crimes such as Pussy Riot’s “hooliganism” are punishable by years in prison. Given that König’s money was rerouted to fight Ukrainians, and that the biennial could be viewed as proof of a healthy Russian cultural fabric, to what extent does the Moscow biennale endorse Putin’s Russia? Is it possible to dismantle the master with the masters tools? When do we conscientiously object to exhibition making in nations run by dictatorial leaders? To Moscow Biennale curator Bart de Baere, these questions remain questions; that is to say, the end is yet to be determined, and they should be explored.
Clémentine Deliss, Anselm Franke, Monika Szewczyk
The last panel, “Criticality in Crisis,” featured Clémentine Deliss (Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main), and Anselm Franke (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin), and was moderated by Monika Szewczyk (Documenta 14). The conversation largely focused on the problematics of institutions asking artists to solve social problems, while the panelists drew out their own procedures working as art curators/directors of “world culture” institutions. Deliss took an ardent negative bent against ethnographic curating, which she saw was belittling to the source culture. To end on an interesting prescription that Deliss makes, she suggests that, in today’s climate, with young curators having so little idea of where they will work or how they will make a living, perhaps the way in which we could think of the concept “criticality in crisis” is by reformulating conventional questions to include the condition of precarity. Whether or not monied directors of famous institutions will be able to do that is yet to be seen.