As the director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Charles Esche is currently under attack for his experimental museum programming. In the following conversation he talks about how art institutions can be places for radical experimentation while at the same time being hospitable towards its public. He also shares his views on the demise of Europe and how the pervasive forces of globalization have changed today’s art world.
Charles Esche, born in 1962, started his career in the early nineties as a curator with Tranway in Glasgow. He co-founded The Modern Institute in 1998 and went on to direct Rooseum in Malmö from 2000 to 2004. He is one of the founding editors of the magazine and publishing organisation Afterall, and a co-curator of the ambitious project Former West, which concerns a reassessment of art and cultural production since end of the Cold War era. Esche has also been a co-curator of the biennials in Gwangju in 2002 and in Istanbul in 2005. He is currently director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, where he recently ended the two-year exhibition series Play van Abbe – dealing with collections, the politics of display and the role of the museum in the 21st century.
Jonas Ekeberg and Jon-Ove Steihaug met him recently as he was visiting Oslo as a guest of Office for Contemporary Art Norway and the Oslo Academy of Art.
Jonas Ekeberg (JE): Charles Esche, you have been active in a dizzying number of art projects, publications and exhibitions. Let us start with this simple question: How do you manage it all? And, what is the driving force or method that allows you to continue your radical and, in our view, productive line of work?
Charles Esche (CE): Sometimes I’m not sure how I manage it all, sometimes one just says yes and then things have their own timetables that carry you off with them. But I think there is a core to my work – maybe it’s almost a core to being – which is an engagement with the possibility of politics. I think everything comes from the idea that I would like to make a small contribution as an individual to imagining the world differently from the way it is now. I feel that what I do as a curator, museum director or writer is the best contribution I can make in that respect. When I’m making decisions whether to get involved in this or that, the core is always an assessment of whether this tries to challenge or critically rethink certain elements of the status quo. And if I can’t find a desire within the project to look beyond the mere surface of capital or society as we perceive it now, and see where the difficulties are and whether the difficulties can be the engines of further progressive change, then I quickly loose interest.
JE: You were the director of Rooseum in Malmö from 2002-2004, where you instigated some radical changes in line with what has been labelled “new institutionalism” or what you yourself have called “institutional experimentalism”. How do you look back on this period now?
CE: For me it was a productive period. I always found that my small team of colleagues working at Rooseum was very open and actually rose to the challenge of moving out of the comfort zone of what an institution is. The art scene in Malmö also to a certain extent embraced this as something they could participate in. The difficulty with Rooseum was that it was established when the conservative party Moderaterna was in power in Malmö. Then it went bankrupt and had to be rescued by the Social-Democrats who never could get over the fact that it had been established by their opponents. So we were always somehow condemned by the political field regardless of what we did, because of that particular history. The art situation was quite strong in Malmö at that time, and with the new bridge to Denmark there was this optimism and an idea of opening up. For instance, we did a project called In 2052 Malmö will no longer be Swedish. That attitude of change was met with countervailing forces of political inertia and nationalism. So, there was always this odd doubleness about the period there, with the immediate environment being supportive but the wider political environment being relatively antagonistic – and I think that showed subsequently when Rooseum was closed down.
JE: It seems as if you’ve always had an idea or dream about reaching a wider audience. Did you at any time believe that Rooseum would have a real social impact or was it more of a model?
CE: I think it was a model, but that’s not to say that it was not a real dream of a larger audience. But that dream is a dream, and it’s important to have a certain degree of patience. If you look at the important exhibitions that were made, say, in the post-war period, very few of them that were successful at the time. Significant projects have generally been unpopular, even the intellectual community didn’t necessarily embrace them. If you look at the reviews for the Harald Szeemann-exhibition When attitudes become form in 1969, you will see a picture which is a travesty of its significance now. People were simply writing it off as irrelevant. So how do you accommodate that in directing an institution today? In a sense your ambition is to try that dream of a larger audience, to try and have that kind of impact, and at the same time you know it’s basically setting yourself up for unpopularity, probably. We really hoped and genuinely wanted that what we did at Rooseum would be effective. In hindsight we realize it was actually a model, a way of thinking about an institution in a place like Malmö, its relationship to an art community and to a particular kind of architecture. I think that institutional experimentalism or whatever you call it, have been important in how institutions like the Tate, or even the Pompidou and certainly now Reina Sofia in Madrid have developed certain elements of their program: it has increased the space for institutions to experiment. So there is a relationship between the modelling that goes on in a research lab if you like, and its application to the wider field. In the political, pragmatic world – and this is still true for Van Abbemuseum – you have a kind of tripartide responsibility to account for. You have a responsibility to be ambitious and innovative in cultural terms, on the other hand a financial responsibility, and also a populist responsibility in relation to politicians and the fact that you affect real people in the here and now on a mass basis. To have these demands constantly thrown at you as a director of an institution is quite exhausting.
Jon-Ove Steihaug (JOS): How do you find that you can mediate between the wish to be avant-garde – something necessarily for the chosen few in some sense – and at the same time really wanting to reach a wider audience?
CE: What we’ve done in Van Abbe is to try to marry two terms, the radical – which means doing things you firmly believe in rooted in an experimental practice – and, as the second, hospitality. What works is not to compromise the experimentalism of the project, not to say “we can make this easy for you,” but instead try to make it an experience where people feel welcome and able, if they wish so, to state their sense of alienation from the kind of experiment that we’re carrying out. That has developed for me since Rooseum and is for me the engine that drives the institution. On the one hand the desire to push certain boundaries together with artists or with other thinkers, to ask some fundamental questions about art’s relation to the world, or just fundamental questions about the world, and at the same time to set up a radical hospitality where people feel they can have a voice.
JOS: How has this worked out at Van Abbe?
CE: These things are not worked out overnight. The quick fix does not exist. I would say that over the seven years I’ve been there, we’ve succeeded in building up a new understanding of what an institution is. I think quite a number of people go with that, while some people feel alienated. One of the important things in terms of hospitality is to be as open as possible, so therefore to go and speak to people who essentially are less enthusiastic and to talk to them in public. To try and generate a feeling that people can speak their frustrations out loud and can be taken seriously at the very least. Art isn’t easy and there is no simple solution to this. The questions artists are raising are fundamental questions for our existence. It’s not, “What color do you want to have in your front room,” but: How do I live with other people? How do I understand a world that is globalizing at a rate that I simply cannot keep pace with? How do I deal with information, which seems to be overwhelming my analytic capacities? How do we deal with the sense of impossibility that exist for instance in Western Europe, the lack of a clear sense that there will be a future which is in any way different than the present, except technologically perhaps? We don’t have a sense of a social and political project beyond the idea of more of the same. That’s the main doctrine that we have now, more of the same. Those questions I mentioned are all being brought up by artists. They’re not easy questions, and not necessarily questions you want to confront on a day to day basis, especially for somebody who is going about their life dealing with family problems, their work and things like that. You are demanding something of people. I’m totally sympathetic to that difficulty. I don’t want to take the difficulty away, but to try to create environments where exploring that difficulty can become something that is also inspiring and enjoyable, that also gives you a lot back. These questions are familiar to a huge number of people in the world.
JOS: Isn’t there a difficulty in dealing with historical change on a general level while at the same time wanting to show how this is articulated in specific artistic productions. Do you see these political changes reflected in more indirect ways?
CE: No, one can see it very directly. For instance when Surasi Kusolwong hangs a Volkswagen upside down and turns it into a hammock – which he did in our exhibition Play Van Abbe Part 4 earlier this year – relating it to the entropy of one system and replacing and reusing it in another. There’s a recognition of globalization in archival works produced by someone like Sean Snyder for instance. As a Western artist he looks at the archives from the Iraq war or archives of global television-production, works which are clearly engaged in how you deal with the relationship between the legacy of certain broadcast media or certain military expectations that the West has and its encounter with something else, and then the return of this experience. Another case in point is so called “biennale art” and how this can be understood in relation to the so called “former West”? This art tries its best to speak about a global poetics, it tries to address the idea that there are signs which can speak in Korea both to an international and a local audience at the same time.
JE: Institutional experimentalism has been discussed widely over the last ten years. There are very different viewpoints on this, from people like Nina Möntmann, who in her recent paper “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism?” sees it as something that is over and who doesn’t believe in the idea of a revolution from the inside of the institution, to a theoretician like Chantal Mouffe who says that it is exactly at this time that we need to keep our institutions open. What is your comment on this?
CE: I disagree with the idea that it’s over. Möntmann is right to the extent that there isn’t any experimental institution that you can point to that has been a hundred percent successful. But the point is that that’s the very nature of what we’re doing. On the one hand it’s a long-term process, on the other hand success is not measured in the terms that the major institutions would measure them in. To ask of an experimental institution that it should be massively popular, and that the funding bodies would want to embrace it is, I think, the wrong question. Of course these institutions are going to fail, of course its directors are going to get sacked, that’s the nature of what we’re trying to do. The mistake is to expect that new institutionalism would be a new ideology that could overcome and take over the institutions and replace the old ideology. It was never going to happen. But, as I said, one can see certain effects in major institutions. The fact that I went from Rooseum to Van Abbe is not insignificant: Van Abbe is a much bigger institution with a larger infrastructure. I see the same thing in M KHA in Antwerpen and in a number of other museums.
JOS: Would you agree that the globalization taking place in the art world during the last twenty years mainly has consisted in an expansion of the Western art system to new parts of the world, and not a change of this system per se?
CE: I think that contemporary art has become a global phenomenon. I also think that in the process the West has given up any leadership role. The economic interests are not in preserving Western culture. I don’t think any company or even any gallery feels any responsibility to protect Western values. That was different in the colonial period, which clearly was a project to export Eurocentric values. Currently the values are the values of capitalism and I don’t think capitalism is tied in the same way to a set of specific Western values of liberté, égalité, fraternité or ethnic superiority, or whatever values you want to ascribe to the West. In a way you’re right, the idea of contemporary art is a European and North American creation, and people in Thailand, Indonesia, China have picked that up. But, in picking it up they remodeled it. For instance, if you look at the model of the biennial, it originated with the world’s fairs in Europe and the US in the 19th century. They consisted of national pavilions, each country representing itself, like it still is in Venice. That was also the case with the Sao Paulo biennial, as well as the Sydney biennial. With the fourth biennial ever to open, in the late eighties in Havana, things started to change, and then different kinds of biennials started to pop up, in Istanbul, in Gwangju, etc. They were authored exhibitions that developed away from the international model of pavilions. This eventually affected Sao Paulo, and by now we think of a biennial as a curatorially-authored exhibition, something which was largely unknown only two decades ago. This model changed contemporary art. The concept came back to Berlin, Liverpool or Bergen, so if they decide to make a biennial, it will not be the same as in Venice. So, I don’t think contemporary art is so much a Western model; it’s the model of capitalism, the model of products or propaganda for capital.
JE: After the turn of the century, there has been a post- or neo-Marxist impulse in contemporary art. During the nineties Marxism was not discussed to the same extent that it is now. How do you see this?
CE: I recently read an interview with the well-known British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, now in his nineties, and at the end of the interview he said that we clearly need another big idea, but we don’t know what it is yet. So, Marxism could also be seen as part of an archival impulse that is particularly strong in art at the moment, an urge to go back to the 20th century to try to find sparks of possibility within this totally destructive and fairly pernicious century. This archival work is being done on all sorts of levels, whether it’s looking back at the Second World War period, the 1960s and 70s, or even the old avant-gardes of the pre-war period, whether it’s surrealism, constructivism or whatever. It seems to be part of a retrospective glance that we have now, particularly in Western Europe, an idea that Western Europe doesn’t have much of a future, but it has a rich past. One of the questions we can ask as the balance of the world changes, as it surely will, is what do we want to hand over to the cultures that will be running the world in the future. I think the archival glance in a lot of art is related to that question. And the interest in Marx could also be part of that archival look.
JE: Will this archival work also affect how we understand the art of the recent past, let’s say the last two decades?
CE: In comparison to the zeroes, I think the nineties was much more about nation-state building, it was the time of the Nordic miracle, the Glasgow miracle, things like that. It was actually a very different moment in terms of internationalism. It took Western Europe ten years to understand what had happened in 1989. What replaced the nation-based regionalism of the art in the nineties was largely a sense of entropy, in the face of Chinese and then Indian economic superiority. There’s this sense that Europe doesn’t have much to offer, there is for instance much more resignation and almost nihilism in the European project now than there was ten or fifteen years ago.
JE: At the same time there seems to be a renewed interest in regional perspectives in Europe. Various editions of Manifesta have tried to thematize the respective regions in which they where held – first it was Trentino and South Tyrol in 2008 and last year it was the Mediterranean region. Or for that matter the new edition of Frieze d/e which specifically is to cover the art in German-speaking parts of Europe.
CE: I have to admit I’m not that interested in Europe any more, although I’m interested in this archival impulse that I mentioned. In terms of contemporary production of art, I’m not going to go to Europe and be particularly enthused by it. For me, if there’s an exhibition which is looking at the Mediterranean region, my question would be – and that was to some extent lacking in last Manifesta – what is it that distinguishes that region outside of Europe? Happening only a few months before the uprisings in North Africa, Manifesta did not catch these possibilities of change in the region at all. These changes were shaped by intellectual discourse, there was an education of the middle classes going on in the years before the uprising, and Manifesta missed the trip by not reflecting on that intellectual culture. For me, regions as such are not so interesting as the way they interpenetrate and connect. It is this entanglement that is interesting, rather than trying to describe that there’s an art scene going on in Ramallah or in Yogyakarta or something like that. That feels less interesting than discussing the connections between Ramallah and Yogyakarta if you like, and discussing how these connections might tell us something about where we stand in the world.
JE: Not leaving this Marxist impulse quite yet, I would like to ask you about the ongoing research and exhibition project Former West which you are involved in. It’s interesting that you say that you’re not really interested in Europe today, but in Europe as an archive. Is this project mainly taking a glance backwards then?
CE: We’re still shaping it, but my sense is that the project is trying to look forward more and more. It deals with the legacy of Europe for the world. The title itself indicates that there’s been a change in status and we want to look at how this change has happened. If the West has become a former West, then the relationship to that Western heritage has become our “antiquity” – it’s no longer alive and it doesn’t have a vibrancy that might allow us to build on it. We still have access to it as an archive, but the whole world has access to it. I hope that the Former West exhibition will be a project where the voices from outside the West are at least as prominent as the voices from inside, reflecting on the origins of our present global culture and how they, like the biennial, have been transformed by going outside and then coming back. It has come back to a West that is no longer the West it left, and it’s that transaction the exhibition should focus on, in my view. The exhibition is to be held in 2013 in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. This is more of a discursive space than exhibition space. It is the place where the exhibition “The Potosí Principle” was held last year, which is also preparing the ground for such a project. What we would want to do is to manifest the research and the discursive element in a way that is accessible. I think we will make it so that people can participate in seminars and discussions over a relatively short and intense period of time. In a sense we will be theatricalizing the exhibition through discourse and visualizing discourse through the exhibition, and look at how those two come together.
1st FORMER WEST Congress, Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova: Introductory Notes.