'Foreign': a curatorial dialogue

Maurizio Bortolotti and Peter Lewis

This dialogic correspondence took place in the context of Bortolotti and Lewis's joint involvement in 'Foreign', a curatorial project organised in Birmingham as part of 'Generator, initiated by Gavin Wade in Summer 2006.

I think that curating today is a way to create a positive situation for the projects of artists. The curator has a duty to create theoretical frames within which artists can work and realize projects. In the very complex situation in which we live, where everything and every situation is so organized and specialized within a market economy, it is interesting to consider the potential curating has to open up new, free spaces in this structure, following the rules of communication, creating a space without edges between art and life. Seen in this way, the curation of artists' projects constitutes the inventive creation of 'intertstitial spaces' within the social space of current society in which everything is regulated and absorbed against a background of globalization.

So, what are the subjects and objects of curating, and to whom is it addressed? The subject is the dialogue between artists and curator (not only the curator or just the artist), in which the object is not a single or simple work of art but a process. To realize this kind of interstitial space, the product of the artist has to imagined more as a project than an art work; a project that has the potential to reinvent itself each time and isn't closed, and can adapt itself to different situations and different contexts.

Curating I think today needs to be addressed not only to the art world but the world in general, to society if you like. And to the people generally speaking, not just to a specialized audience. A recent example is the "Peace Tower" project of Rikrit Tiravanija for the Whitney Biennial, that represents a kind of very democratic gesture produced by a collaboration of artists. But I don't think just for the spectators of the art world but for everybody interested in democracy today. And I think this touches on one of the important roots of our society and our civic life at this time. So, I think we have to reconsider some central issues of the past. For example, I don't know whether curating is in any way avant-garde, because today we are "in front" of the society of mass culture and communication. Any notion of an avant-garde involves an elite, and I'm not sure this concept can work again so perfectly for the contemporary situation. And also the idea of novelty is a quite difficult concept to use today. Anyway, I think that artists can produce not new shapes or new formations, but new concepts, and we cannot sell them as you can do with new things. For that reason, I think that the notion of the 'project' is a good dimension for the artists today, because this means to have the idea of an experimental process, a laboratory in which artists can produce new ideas and also as I said spaces for creativeness in contemporary society.

So pedagogical criteria can be part of the process of producing new spaces as frames in which artists' projects can happen. I mean that a pedagogical dimension for curating can exist especially as a part of the entire process of producing art projects and be interwoven with it; artists' 'workshops', for example, connecting the pedagogical dimension with the active practise of curating. Another very interesting question is whether curating is "foreign" at its own root. Yes, I think so. Because the space created by curating is a foreign space in the sense that it isn't part of some specific place, but is part of the world. Against the background of globalization, curating can create space for discussion, free space where artists can work in a permanent dialogue between different cultures and different people. This is a kind of space of travelling where everyone can join everyone else and it is absolutely open. That's the important point. In that sense it can be opened to a more complex and social situation than to a specialized or elitist group of people who might be called avant-garde.

I will reply, not directly, but more in the sense of transmitting a 'dispositif', as a curatorial position, which would intentionally reflect the difficulty of the exhibition and the class of the object it exhibits, as you have described, and with which I agree very much. And the implication of an 'interiorised' space, the 'museum', that this mode of address projects and maintains even more strongly today. The museum is inside its 'objects', somehow, by the default of history (who is to blame for the oppression of the contemporary other than genealogical selves?), and the territorial control of space and, by implication, peoples, as the objects of that universal 'unified' space. There is also another virtual space, a double bind, that circumscribes the space of the museum: the electronic, abstract sphere. Can we find co-ordinates that enable rather than constrict, as artists and as civilians working in the world today, as both an 'ethics' and 'aesthetics' of practice? I think the dispositif measures to some extent the capability for freedom.

By 'dispositif' I mean that kind of inter-connection between peoples, objects and spaces that cannot be accommodated easily by any curatorial strategy, or any solitary government. Government turns on bureaucracy, which defines power relations, and spatialization, the urban disposition. Here in England there is only the landlord, property, and the crossed-out signifier of Lacan can be applied to how one cannot move or exist without acceptance of subjecthood, signing over to the State. The dispositif is civic, making spatial inter-connection with places and their residual objects, the archaeology of a life, or lives, as a process of a difficult democratic principle, of disjuncture. This is the art or the practice of the everyday. De Certeau writes of the dispositif in other very oblique language, as one to be found in suprisingly ordinary moments of freedom and expression, one that is not defined by the over-arching colonial discourse of the West. This is the 'vernacular' of architecture, that Yona Friedman must mean when he talks about merzstrukturen as the two-way process of constructing things (buildings, sculptures, writings, and speech and music) that reconstitute the subject always differently, always allowing thoughts cloud formations to mislead us, and throw us out of expectation. It is interesting in the neo-avant-garde days that we can see that there was a tension there at the end of the avant-garde as we now perceive its limited life, and its reduction to sign-value, that the desire to reject the language of the museum persisted through Dada. I am looking specifically at the inheritance of Kurt Schwitters' 'Merzbau', destroyed in war, or by accidental fire, then re-built as an index of a personal state of change, on the move, as the model for the 'dispositif'.

I think Adorno had written that 'anti-art' has internalised art in the act of a rejection of its use in society (it was decidely anti-war and its establishment, before ever being evaluated as anti-bourgeois] - I think the sprawling, shapeless, and mutating 'Merzbau' is the externalised form of anti-art and the strongest model for the 'dispositif'. Peter Weibel writes that we should, before we can assess the disappearance of the avant-garde, or the simulative potential of mass-media's trans-aesthetic excess (that Jean Baudrillard describes as the simulacrum, where all value is equated to one 'no-value'), we should return to the neo-avant-garde 'dispositifs' to see if there is 'something leftover' in the 'something missing'. And in very disjunctive ways, de-establish the universal, to start from disjuncture, and the particular, in order to re-inscribe the universal on that basis. In the reappearance of merz-structures in the current climate of change there is an edge to the condition as we are immersed in it - the contemporary - that could be a way of formulating specifically for people working politically.

These are interesting remarks. I agree with your discourse and especially about the fact that today we need a new kind of space for curating, and the work of artists and architects like Dan [Graham] and Yona [Friedman] are really interesting in relation to this. Also the idea of the Merzbau gives us a very suggestive point of reference for that discourse. Even so I think we have to put this experience in today's situation where the avant-garde is finished and we are starting a new experience. So, I like very much when you say that "the dispositif is civic, making spatial inter-connection with places and their residual objects, the archaeology of a life, or lives, as a process of a difficult democratic principle, of disjuncture", and that "this is the art or the practice of the everyday". However, I think that the really important question today is to take the dispositif to light. I mean that the dispositif shouldn't be just a representation of mental processes that happen into creative acts, but we have to put it into the concrete and real world and deal with it. That's the question: to let the dispositif be able to create an interaction with people and the situations where they normally live. And I agree again with you when you speak of the reappearance of merz-structures in the current climate of change and that this could be a way of formulating specifically for people working politically. So, I think that we can take good inspiration from Yona and Dan's work in this sense and I hope this will give us more opportunities to continue our discussion.

I have had some further thoughts on the didactic (discursive) relation to the non-discursion of art works, the 'poetics' of space and action, if it were to be reconstituted and re-read as the practice of research, rather than as an 'avant-garde', which is destitute along with the symbolic realm and its referent of the subject. 9/11 interestingly produced a rebirth of the symbolic by alerting us to the significance of disappearance. There is now a situation of an active form of 'symbolic' disappearance, which is dangerous, but it arises from an awareness of the violent delimitation of the avant-garde as overtaken by terrorism, which takes full advantage of the infantilisation of the world through immersive technologies and 'efficiently' puts the aesthetic to use as an aggressive form of perverse 'politics'. Aesthetics are politicised, but when politics are aestheticised then there is the desire for war, however it cannot be asserted that there is some actual relation between politics and aesthetics. There is rather, better expressed, an aesthetics of the political as there is a politics of the aesthetic.

This does not mean that there was in any case an 'elite' avant-garde, not at least in the methods of Dada and Surrealism, now worn out. However we see 'returns' to these fields of practice, and the importance, in some cases, of such returns and re-readings. It is still to be contested that curating might occupy a privileged position in conducting such a research, by its autonomous relation to power, although it may advocate the co-producing of objects with artists, curators are often side-stepping the labour intensive nature of a 'concrete' production and 'dispositif' in order to claim some authority over it. Setting up the conditions for a free 'university', or providing 'good' models of practice is still in need of some better understanding of the fall or the demise of bureaucracy - the benefits it held for self-determination (from the Enlightenment model) may be no longer true. By bureaucracy, I might be saying also 'information' and its highly evolved technologies, intrusive to the body.

In relation to education, the prevalence of a new schemata art practice called 'curating' has meant that there is a need to determine between contents and philosophies, administrations, which connect the mutual educative directions of various universities and art colleges, in what and how curating is taught. This is necessary in order to develop an appropriate curriculum that will concord with the needs of students and artists who wish to exercise their will to self-determination (loosely described under the aegis of ' independent curating' from an expanded notion of art's disciplinarity within the university) in the highly organised field of art, specifically at a core of what is more readily now called 'contemporary practice', (or the now perhaps redundant term, 'fine art', that none the less registers something historical in art education). This increasingly, entropically, is filtered through the parallel applied arts, into the concentric and superimposed circles of media (advertising, branding, television, internet, fashion, pop, high-, low- and middle-brow cultural packages for market sectors, races, communities from the corporate to the local), an old argument since the 60s and the apocalyptic prose of McCluhan's 'the medium is the message'.

In this context curating would be better described as fallen into and expounding critical positions from such an unsatisfactory meta-generic scenario or as immersed in hyper-mediatised or diffused culture, appearing to propose alternatives, since all representations coincide at crisis in the electronic speed of transmissions where appearance, as Zizek writes, has itself disappeared. (In a saturated field, any realism posing as a truer process and therefore 'anti-bourgeois' is meaningless, where all excess is absorbed, value is highest, 'sacrilised' as entertainment, sentimentality and nostalgia.) Despite all the efforts of working politically, shaking up the aesthetic, especially through film and video, advancing non-linearity, subverting the classical schemata of patriarchy, etcetera, can we rescue or forgive the failure of these utopian projects and avant-gardes of the modern era? Does curating inure us or liberate us in a healing process? The background, as articulated by many including Burger, O'Flaherty, Sloterdyk, Adorno, and the Frankfurt School (Benjamin, Horkheimer, Habermas) has since in the fall-out of affects, negations and suicides, conditioned us to post-modernism and post-structuralism as latent phenomenal absences - truth, beauty, politics, love - strung out as an 'evacuated field' (art as aesthetics and metaphysics as truth are language games and replicas) from which the lack constitutes arguably the intangible purpose of curating, forcing through an 'inexistence' at the point of a reified totalisation. (Badiou) Edward Said's 'Freud and the Non-European' places onus on the canonical as to be better read from the outside. These new shifts of global power and resistance - the greater the globalisation the more subversive potential it holds (Negri) - would indicate an international perspective, decentred, which impacts then on the way recruitment would operate and where and how the teaching would be effected.

What was established at Goldsmiths College's curating course when I was briefly its acting Director was an alternative platform to open up discussion from a less centred position to that of such as the Royal College of Art, or De Appel, or Grenoble, that were advancing hand-in-hand with the institutional to assemble a new hegemony - ook for example at the sponsors lists and the alumni, providing so many jobs for curatorial administrators. Although always arguing that they are intellectually distanced from the classic 'heterotopia', the archive as master signifier of the museum, this denial vis-a-vis the alternative, dirty, poor spaces of self-determining, bohemian groups and anarchist or Marxist and potentially activist scenes is what constitutes the marker of contemporary institutional curating. The question of an art education that pivots on the radical or activist being allowed to perform within its walls is problematic to any institution (look at the student movements of the past especially Nanterre for example) and was performed by privileging the individual students' developments in 'projects', that is not necessarily to be complete in the material manifestation, and not dependent on the singularity of a work but in its relational contextualisation within the group, with collaboration always fore-grounded as a didactic interface.

The interstitial grounding therefore was established between a collective understanding or theoretical embodiment by way of Bakhtinian dialogics, and the potential for individuated positions, rather than 'roles' in the reification process inevitable in curatorial work. Such reification [(the objecthood that curating implies) is also the way through the object to a discourse of latency, or 'subject', the active term of embodiment and awareness. Each week established arguments through discursive formats without leasing out the artists' radical solipsistic gesture, or its non-discursive, or mytho-poetic basis. (We could cite many poetic examples of this from Samuel Beckett to David Shrigley.) An artwork by way of comparison with other kinds of research (although art is not 'research' by any means) would suggest that a language is made not solely out of its idiosyncratic elaborations, or re-thought out details, through prolonged activity or illuminated sudden thought. The process would always be different and therefore require an equal status of difficulty in surmounting the obstacles of co-production and procedure to agree. It was on this more 'radical' note that much of the 'independent' arguments of today's 'curating as rock'n'roll' reception theories in the press were founded, that is, by clichés of improvisational experiment, and better, by incurring a deliberate mistake in the milieu, something indiscernible at a level of 'professionalism'. Various other courses have provided 'vetted' arguments at that level which were designed to increase (dramatically with the industrialisation and corporatisation of art) circulations of knowledge and bureaucratic law. (Links for example between major established institutions and government and funding bodies, tourism, biennales, art fairs, the return of dealer sovereignty.)

It is also important to make clear that there was no distinction between the 'worth' of an exhibition in terms of the collective effort: technical labour as regards display, engineering, critical/historical and mytho-poetics of abstract or intellectual labour. In fact the whole notion of the critical divorced from these embodied labour-active components, the 'dispositif' of Lyotard's libidinal economy were here put to practice in a hands on, making do way, and setting out from an emergency/emerging formation, a series of very different articulations. This inevitably induced a further problematic with regard to assessment between professional or commercial and institutional 'in the world' productions and academic criteria. The 'enoncement' of a fluctuating position entailed a very differentiated process of assessment which led reflexively to critiques simultaneously of market and institution relations. The potential in the post-Fordist economy was also suspect in terms of an ideological 'unconscious' shift. This was the groundwork to re-integrate a bureaucratic apparatus. Questions remain unanswered as to how to determine the rhetorical from any real attempt to alter conditions of the institution from the 'inside'. Maria Lind's work is exemplary in analysing by discursive situations for artists, how the law and the state may be held to assist the artist, through the work of an institutional curator, but there would be equally strong arguments to show how the state will resist change – even by accommodating, for example by multicultural policies, fully to the point of internalising all difference at the deepest level of society. In other words, you may take the art out of the museum, but not the museum out of the art.

At the point of entry, a student should be asked to question the role of the curator from a standpoint critical- of the industry (from Adorno, through to the criticism of the 'negative' of criticism as fallacious [Serres] that was recently seen in the shift from the debates around curating and the rise of the curator to the attenuation of criticism, usurped by curating as a gestalt of criticism into practices converging as 'projects' and 'discursive platforms'. These platforms suggest that the decentred multiplicities of multiplicities, the emergence of a non-fixed 'earthed' criticism shared in the platform and propose a difference in 'projects' as made up of peoples' critical engagements (which is a materialist/Marxist position, devolving the power base onto 'platforms' (as a democratic principle - not from 'above') that are also the dwelling place, or 'clearing' for thinking art as part of a greater practice that is social. (This relates to the Platonic idea that art is in itself a truth process, only when it enters the realm of the social; to and from which and where it must adhere.) This change, as expropriated by Bourriaud into the museum, (the Palais de Tokyo is modelled entirely on the independent work of artists/curators, with much work coming from UK in the 90s) is now reappearing, as a museum 'without walls' quite literally, derived from the work of these artists and political activists who can be less easily named outside the core stable that Bourriaud cites over and over (as distinct from terrorists!) whose activities were 'outside' over the last few decades. Artists were internationally working on their 'identification' as a way out of suppressing individuation and culture outside the aesthetic 'law', or by the recuperation and sweetening of resistance by governments, and this is better regarded as the evidence of 'dis-identification' (applying Althusser's theory of a state apparatus), in the limitations placed within identity politics, from this time looking back, the time of the demise of Black Power into Nike and McDonalds, black into white … the discrediting of black peoples' heroes, the commodification of the Arab artist, the war on terror, the destruction of continents and independent nation states… So where does that leave the curator as co-producer, or post-producer, when there are moral conflicts in these politically charged and worrying times?

I think it means that we need to pay attention to the fact that didactic relationships are another level of the curating discourse. In an open perspective where curating is mostly focused on the project dimension, the didactic relation can be part of a general discourse. Anyway, it is supposed to be a creative didacticism strictly connected to the art discourse produced by artists and curators. So, platforms are very open structures in which also the didactic relation can be included if this is a part of a project that is able to produce a connection with the social context. In fact, today, any idea of an avant-garde is over. And the connection with the society of communication is a really important knot in all its manifestations. Art continues to have its own discourse, but interwoven with the social structures of communication and using them also at a different level. An art project can be realized using video or other mass communication means, but the really important aspect is the social involvement within it. In this sense, the avant-garde as an elitist discourse has stepped down in favour of a wider and more complex situation that has a lot to do with communication processes and globalisation. Globalisation is a complex process established by means of communication in the social context at a worldwide level. So, the failure of the utopias of the avant-garde is not the issue any longer, but the idea of seeking out or discovering utopias (even small utopias) in our everyday life. In this context the shape of open projects run or produced by artists can be a significant element. The work of the curator can be a kind of mediation between the desire of artists to produce new realities and the social context with all its contradictions. At stake is the possibility to realize a new dimension for art practice with new modalities. Maybe it is also a question of identifying a new position for contemporary art in the society of communication. So, yes, the curator is a co-producer with artists of art projects, or maybe better we might say that a curator is a "producer of frames" as points of connection between artists and the social sphere. Starting from this point, words like moral or political in the classical sense have no value anymore. On the contrary, we have to find new meanings and connections between art and society using curating as a ground for this exchange. Because I think it is quite clear that a normal show about the work of an artist or a group show is something that is already within a kind of well established protocol, and puts the art work inside a defined position of art within society. Trying to create "platforms" means to create situations in which you can articulate - or try to – a new kind of relationship between social space and art activity. And these "platforms" can be different each time, depending on the situations and especially on the contexts in which you can produce them.

So, I think we cannot create exactly a political discourse with art, in the sense that we think of politics as an ideological discourse, but more precisely a kind of micro-political discourse against the background of globalisation. I mean that we must try to reinvent a relationship between art and the social sphere by looking at some specific areas where the connection between art and everyday life can be more visible and sensible. So I think the "politic" can be a specific ground on which you can create different approaches and try to experiment with new spaces of lively interaction between art and society: spaces of freedom, if you like. In this sense, I think the "Foreign" project for Birmingham can be an interesting ground for experimentation in all these discourses, especially because of the particular situation there of a strong presence of immigrant communities.