|forth year: 2001/2002||series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers|
I guess I would like to begin by speaking about how I work, as one of the people who call themselves 'curators'. Immediately I do that, I grow horns at the back of my head. I am very aware that when you say you are a 'curator', you enter a contentious area. One of the problems that we are facing today in art practice is a terminological problem. It is very simple - if you want to count how many roles there are within art practice, you can perform this on the fingers of two hands. At the top, the thumb so to speak, you will always have the artist, and then you can carry on: you will have a curator, a critic, an art school director, a museum director, a collector, a gallery owner, maybe a publisher, etc. But there are very few roles within this context of art production which as we know takes on a much more lateral notion of representation. And for some reason of which I am not quite sure, there is also a great resistance on the part of people who work as curators, to define their practice in a much more subjective sense, to disclose what is it that animates them to do the kind of work they do with artists. So when I am asked 'what is a curator?', or 'what do you do?', I say quite simply that I work with artists. If I try to be a little more precise, then I speak about trying to produce situations in which artists can actually research and produce new work and further, in a rather idiosyncratic way, I am concerned with investigating in greater detail to whom this work is being directed.
I started off with an art background, and then because of the nature of work in the late 1970s (e.g. Susan Hiller, Joseph Kosuth, Lothar Baumgarten, Michael Buthe), I ended up studying anthropology. Nowadays anthropology is totally passé. Today you would study cultural studies or you would do media studies, but you would not necessarily study anthropology anymore. For a very good reason it has gone back into the closet. In the eighties, when it was still a productive and reflexive discipline for someone to study who was connected to art or the art world, antropology provided a basis in the methodological procedures related to interpretation. It was very much to do with interpretation and the limits of interpretation. That is, I suppose, one of the only areas that is still of interest to me today and that I have carried over into our practice. But when I studied anthropology, I was utterly disinterested (and I still am) in having a terrain, a field, like being a Southeast-Asia expert, or being an Africa expert, or somebody who analyses the way hospital attendants operate in an urban area. However, I recognise anthropology as an important discipline in terms of a form of philosophy that is ready to investigate and deconstruct its own parameters again and again and again.
For me curating is a research phenomenon and I believe quite fundamentally that as a curator I can operate through any platform and in any media, depending on the kind of research I am interested in and depending on what I want to vehicle. So for five years I have stopped doing exhibitions. I stopped doing them because I fell into a context, which included transmitting and working with artists and intellectuals who operate in different cities and different parts of a continent called Africa. I was coming across several problems with exhibitions. First of all I was not interested, and I say this in a rather crude way, in doing charity work. I had not gone and investigated the art of Africa because I felt I ought to. I felt it was necessary, because during my research and travels I had met artists who formed a part of a specific intelligentsia who were engineers of models and concepts and I wanted them to get into contact with colleagues in the European art world whom I knew and whom I felt were working in a parallel system.
The problem with the exhibition was that every time I showed work connected to this intelligentsia, it would appear, because of its basic materiality to be economically on a lower strata. I think everybody today recognises how fast technological innovation operates. But 5 years ago, if I was showing work from a particular group, let's say from Dakar, with work that might be connected to infrastructural issues, political issues, social issues, as well as aesthetic issues, it was the actual materiality of the work that could prove a turn-off. People would see a video by a European or American artist on one side and a pile of junk on the other side and that would signal poverty. Poverty would linger metaphorically within the materiality of this piece. So that was the first problem I faced. The second problem was one of context. In other words, although there might be a certain level of interest among the wider audience, there are facts that you might not know about traditional art from Africa, and then you might also not know about the national geographical constellations, all the different ethnic groupings, the religions, the mythologies, etc., and it would just go on and on highlighting the blind spots in an inter-scenic dialogue. I will always remember a situation, which was a real marker for me, when I did a show in London at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, a show on modernist artist movements within Africa. There was a stage set up by a group called the Laboratoire Agit-Art and a British artist, a well-known, London-based artist, was wheeling his small kids around. He came up onto the stage and he sort of went 'Hmmm, looks kind of interesting...', and then he walked off again. And then I knew I had to do one thing, that I had to hit the artists, that I could not be a curator for a wide public, because it would not affect the level of professional curiosity that I wanted to activate among other artists.
So for me it is a way of configuring inter-scenic communication that is really very specific for artists and writers. It is not meant to be an elucidation of what goes on in Dakar. Metronome is meant to be a jump-plug, like a short circuit for artists and intellectuals into germane art practices. So it does imply that if you took a copy of Metronome and went to Dakar, you would find it easy to make contact with a type of intelligentsia with the aid of this publication. And likewise, if the artists from Dakar came to South Africa or London, they would not be marginalised into a kind of a third rate arts cultural centre on the borders of London, they would enter straight into the heart of the London art world.
When I launched it in Dakar, I launched it at the time of the Dakar Biennale in '96 and it was economically quite a radical move, because the biennale catalogue had been produced at, I think, twenty times the cost in Belgium. However, Metronome was produced in Dakar at a local printer, and the whole process was simple and without any problems. I was not trying to use a lower economic denominator in order to see what would happen; it was just where I was working from and that is how it functioned. Nonetheless a foundation for art in Dakar paid for half the costs together with the British Council. Then I came back to London and in contrast to the exhibitions I had been doing at top places, several artists of the time were curious and interested and keen to do something for the next issue of Metronome. I had achieved the professional curiosity that I hoped for with this platform. And again I had to dislocate the place. In other words, although I produced the second issue in London, I printed it in London, and I based myself in London, if you look at the contents, you will see that there are still Senegalese and Ghanaian artists and writers. In short, there are people who have absolutely no immediate connection with London at all. The third version, still in the style of the large format, was produced in Berlin in 1997 and was launched when I presented my work at the Documenta X's 100 Days. It operates in the same way. It is important to realise, that if there is no city reflection, other than in actual print material, and the phenomenon of me being there, there is also no overt thematic issue. I was not interested in getting people to do something about a particular subject matter. It was, if anything, inspired by a concept that I have taken from Edouard Glissant, the Martinique philosopher, of the 'unforeseeable' or l'imprévisible. In this sense I did not have a preset menu.. Instead I met people and when I met them I would show them the different editions of Metronome. We would negotiate a situation together and see if we really wanted to use the possibility or not, if it had any relevance to what they were trying out as artists. That was very important for me because I never try to reject a piece, it has to be a long process of negotiation or the opposite, a spontaneous yet risk-laden trust. It is a very hands-on process, a constant dialogue, during which we both decide we want to do something together in Metronome. When the pieces come in, I begin to understand what the edition is all about, but it is not something that I know in advance. However, there are clues that emerge. For example, if you compare the first three issues which have been formally based on the tabloid press of Dakar, as well as Documents, the dissident-surrealist organ from 1929, you will find cross-connections. By the time I had done No. 2 in Berlin a lot of people started referring back to other pieces already produced in Metronome.
Every contributor receives many copies, because I believe in the networks of artists and writers. I do not distribute Metronome through the usual systems, I carry it with me wherever I go, and when I sell it, I sell it in different ways; if I have them in a bookshop, which sometimes happens, then they will get sold for the basic rate. So if books, for example, cost £15 in a bookshop, that is fine, but I know very well that I will fight to get the money from the bookshop over one year, that they will sell three copies, and I will never get my 45 Quid.
After completing three issues I was often asked where I was going next. But I was getting tired of the current format of Metronome and I had understood how it worked. Then I was asked by Peter Pakesch, the director of the Kunsthalle in Basel, to do something in the building and I did not see what to do at first. I did not just want to get two Polish artists, two Africans, two Indian artists together, put them into Basel for three months and see what happened. What would have been the result? Some public-sited artworks, a few posters, a few interventions here and there, a lot of money spent on their part in terms of coffee and food, lots of hanging around, maybe they would have got to know some of the Swiss art world, maybe not. So I asked Peter Pakesch if we could shift the economy of a big show, of an international show, into a private event, into something that would operate behind closed doors, that would be inaccessible to the larger public, but would be of vital value to the professional people involved. And that is what happened with the Tempolabor which was relayed both before it started and afterwards through Metronome No. 3 The Libertine Laboratory?. The idea was to get a number of different people together, with a similar cast list in terms of age, experience and location to the other Metronomes, but in real-time. So, you had celebrated artists like Michelangelo Pistoletto, famous gallerists, like Tim Neuger from Berlin, you had two activists from India who have been involved in networking systems (Rasna Bhushan and Rummana Hussain), and you had, from this part of Europe, Neboj¹a Viliæ from Skopje and Izeta Graðeviæ from Sarajevo. There were a lot of Swiss artists and there were Senegalese artists, one from Laboratoire Agit-Art (Issa Samb) in Dakar and one (Kan-Si) who works in a very similar way to Superflex with a group of artists in the southern parts of Senegal.
That if you like is the kind of thought pattern I was trying to initiate with the Tempolabor.
The blue Metronome, No. 4-5-6 is called Backwards Translation and it was the result of a research situation I initiated in four art schools in Europe, the Städelschule, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, and the protoacademy at Edinburgh College of Art. It also includes the Bureau d'Esprit which I organised at Michelangelo Pistoletto's Cittadellarte in Italy. For three years I have been operating through art academies as an art curator. Maybe because it turns me into a legitimate researcher once again and because I know that I am not able to do these investigations through museums. And, I really do not want to set up exhibitions until I know why I can do them. I like spaces, do not get me wrong, but I am not convinced that an exhibition (particularly a group show) animates an artist today to the extent that they would produce something of which they are radically uncertain. Too many group shows feel the same, there is too much generic work being circulated. If you want to see a Gillian Wearing video, you can see the same video in every space and every museum. As a curator I feel personal failure when I go into the majority of group shows, I just do not know what to do, I am not even interested. I am becoming less and less concerned with the finished piece and more and more curious about what gets into a piece before it is concluded, and that is a little bit of what the Backwards Translation was about. It was about the phenomenon of art academies. It does not matter if you are dealing with an art academy in Bombay or if you are dealing with one in California, you have the same situation, beyond certain historical or locational specifities. What are we going to teach, which art histories, what kind of technology, what spatial environment, and do we still need studios? What is an academy all about if not social intelligence? What kind of social intelligence is required for an art academy to be different from somebody's flat, or a bar, or different from a street or different from a country? So I worked with four art academies and asked students to basically translate backwards, in other words not to do new work for Metronome, like an art page, because no one is really interested in student catalogues, but in terms of 'stock clearance'. So the backwards translation was about finding out what art students are reading, what are they doing, who are they are interested in, who are the gurus in the art-world, so that all of these references were illuminated as potential material. If one student wanted to invite Superflex, or Hamish Fulton then they invited them and they were dealing directly with their interest in this particular artist. At the moment many students deal with drug-related issues, with old age, with people who have mental and physical handicaps and I wanted this material to be problematised, I wanted it to be a part of this reflection, to get out of this 'Oh my god, now I am in art school, but when I finish I have to earn money'. I tried to make a cross-connection between these different activities. The result is an almanach; it is hard to decode it, and it has been collated on the basis of the titles of the different pieces, rather than the names of the contributors. Metronomes have often been hard to decode. I do this on purpose, and I did it on purpose with the blue one, because I noticed, that Metronome was working too efficiently. For reasons of protection, and to provide 'extra time' for the younger artists involved in Metronome, I made the decoding within the blue book much harder to follow. You need to use a cross-referencing system to know who is in the book. There are, like in all Metronomes, a majority of unknown people depending on where you stand, and well-known people, again depending on where you stand.
I funded Backwards Translation through art academies, thinking that they would provide distribution or what I prefer to call 'circulation'. So, I gave each academy 500 books, thinking that they would then circulate them through their channels. The problem is that our academies have libraries which are meant to buy books, not sell them. Librarians got very confused, they did not know how to sell this book, and did not know how to account for it within the art academy bureaucracy. So basically, all these locations now have stacks of Metronomes which can not be distributed and which I am not even sure I can get back. These are small details, but they make you wonder more and more about how to circulate material effectively once you know to whom it is addressed.
Then I started to get more and more fascinated by the use of voice by artists. That stemmed from many reasons. I guess in a background sense, it comes from the fact that I have been working a lot in Senegal and that the culture of the voice there is extremely elaborate. I was sitting in a friend's house one day, with the other members of the Laboratoire Agit-Art when one of them dropped the term la parole magnétique or magnetic speech and explained that when someone speaks, the words can fire out of the mouth and can cling to the other person. So much so that in order to have a constructive dialogue, you have to have witnesses. The idea of the witness and of the magnetism of speech fascinated me. So I went back to the Städelschule where I was a guest professor and started a seminar called Magnetic Speech. I had no real idea of what material to use within this research process. I was interested in rhetoric, but when I went hunting for books on rhetoric in Vienna for example, all I found was books on Hitler and on how to convince a lady to go out with you in the evening or on manager-speak, in other words a very narrow reduction of rhetoric for the purpose of the 20th century dialogue.
I had an idea of doing a big conference in Sweden coupled with high-tech material from Denmark, and new research from Norway. I wanted people to be able to leave the space of discussion and hear what was going on outside. I wanted a system of phonic doubling, I wanted to take the dolmetscher out of the back room and place them centrally, initiating a different situation of trust between the two speakers. One day I would like to try this out myself. Mladen Dolar is here tonight and I am very honoured. He is a great thinker in terms of the subject that has interested me for a year and a half. Imagine if Mladen and I were both sitting here and knew each other a little bit more. I could say something in English and Mladen would do a form of translation, but it might not be literal. You as an audience would be in a state of not knowing whom to listen to. Where would you be losing out, what do you do with the sense of the loss between the two languages? This was the kind of a process that I wanted to engage with in Scandinavia.
I travelled to different academies and set up situations in which involved microphones and we could not talk unless we took a microphone into our hands. It sounds like a pretty rigid game, but there were two to three microphones. It was really good because the microphone became a drug. It became something which enabled even the tiniest, most timid person's voice to be amplified, and you could actually hear them. The idea of doing this investigation on the verbal or vocal was to dislocate this sensory channel and to see how far it could survive alone. You are all aware of the synthesis that has been going on for the last 10 years, it is crazy. You cannot go to an exhibition anymore without having smells, sound, touch, taste, everything is mixed up together, and I wanted to dislocate one in order to see what happens. I was aware of the increasing importance of sound installations, but I did not want to get into sound, because it was too broad and it also caused less problems in terms of exhibiting. A sound installation is still possible, but the voice is much more complex. It is not enough to have headphones to exhibit the voice.
We listened to a lot of material and then there would be situations where artists would speak about their work and the moment they did that, they were caught in the verbal, they were in the verbal, through the verbal and there was no way out. This meant that the reflection of what they were saying, the analysis of their voice, became equal to an analysis of the way you contextualise your own work, the way you speak about your own work, how much can you bring into fiction, how much can you send off on a false track. What is the nature of information that we produce around the work we do, either in a voice moment or a written moment when they come close together? After listening to a lot of material we began to find certain categories, which are not watertight. We had found out that there were different ways that artists had used the voice. For example, there are moments when artists have gone and taken over radio stations, so the radio station became a studio. All this was fine in the period of the sixties, when if you made exclamatory comments on a radio station, you made a statement as an artist and as an activist. Nowadays, I do not know what you would do on a radio station that would have the power of the voice as the voice once had in the sixties. A very good example of that is the work done by Åke Hoddell. He was a brilliant Swedish artist, who once did a piece in '69 called Mr. Smith in Rhodesia. So, there was this politicised work, including the very complex pieces by Öyvind Fahlström, there was a lot of phonetic work and verbal brainwashing again from Åke Hoddell. Then, recently, there has been this new trend of parapsychology, you know, this revival of voices from the other side. So people like Carl Michael von Hauswolff picked up on the earlier experiments performed in the 50's when tape-recorders were put into a room to record other levels of noise. And then you would hear screeching and it would obviously be a wavelength problem but interpreted as 'Van Gogh is here', or 'I am talking to you Hitler, this is Annie Besant'. And all sorts of very strange stuff. After a while we began to realise that there was nothing 'sexy'. People were not dealing with an intimate voice. Why is there no audio pornography other than telephone sex, which is a different story altogether? Telephone sex is another thing, it is about the precision naming of desire. If you shoot a porn video in Bulgaria, you dub it, and it works, does it not? It is still the same tits and ass if it is in Bulgaria, or if it is in Corea. But if you have an audio piece in a particular language, it is not easy to sell it in another part of the world. Yet there was something more curious and this is I guess why we continued. We were not really trying to be critical of pornography. We just wanted to know what happens when you try to translate from one sensory channel into another and it fails. If I want to translate the effect of visual pornography into an audio channel, can I produce that gut feeling or that kind of a punch in the stomach? Even if you do not like the image, even if you do not approve of it, you can be turned on in some sort of a way. Could I do that with the voice that did not include popular music, in other words, all the sexiness of rap or soul or music in general, but just the elusiveness and magnetism of the verbal channel? And that is what this investigation is all about. The compact disc in the book (Metronome no. 7) consists of 26 tracks of which some are two seconds long and the longest is seven and a half minutes in duration. But even if you listen to a track that is three minutes long, it feels like twenty minutes. That is also to do, I think, with the reduction of the senses. Plus if it is in another language, then it will seem all the longer.
In listening to particular pieces you have to constantly think about the way in which this voice-work does something in a room. When I was working on the editing of it, I could not, even if I needed to, wash up at the same time! Even if it was language that I could not understand, I had to listen. There was something about voice rather than sound, such that without music it was very difficult to not stop and hear. Kendell Geer's piece Fucking Hell is curious because of the overriding sonic element within it that has been built up from the cries of people having sex. When you listen to it on headphones, the noise part, which is all built up on voices, goes on for about 2.2 minutes. It is that little bit too long for it to be fun. But the moment it breaks down into the couple fucking at the end, that is when the click works between the sonic experience and the idea of something interesting happening. It is the only one for me in the whole CD that has managed to transfer a sensation of arousal that you get with pornography. Your whole body is filled with this nearly unbearable sound and then suddenly at the end you are reminded that it is two people having sex.
This investigation into the voice resulted in Metronome No. 7 The Bastard which was designed by Liam Gillick. It contains a compact disc and a book. The book is called The Bastard because I was interested in two aspects of the term. I was interested in the miscegenation process within language. Miscegenation is a very nasty word, it comes from the racial theory. I wanted to look at miscegenation in terms of linguistic alloys, new linguistic alloys perhaps, and social encounters. The book has been structured without translation this time because, as far as I am concerned, translation here is a predisposition. If you think about the way books are structured, (and I have been a victim too in the sense that in the early Metronomes I had one language on one page and one language on the other), there is a strange apartheid within that we are used to. If you use two languages in an art book, you will make sure that they do not cross over. Perhaps you will put English first, and the Slovene at the back, or you will separate the columns. Sometimes you see books that have been laid out with a kind of overemphasis of graphic design and then the different languages will intersect and it makes it usually quite hard to read. Nevertheless, what I wanted to do was to go simply from one language into another repeatedly. This time with Metronome, I was working with people who were writing in languages that I could not understand, which created a very interesting relationship of trust between us, even more extreme then when I had been working with the visual in earlier Metronomes. Then when it came out to working out the sequence of the book, just like when it came to working out the sequence of the CD, that was when a type of curatorial activity for me became very akin to a show. Not the arrangement, not the transport, not the insurance, not the concept, not the pedagogy, but those dynamics that you as a curator hopefully encourage and initiate between different pieces through the sequencing system that you can provide, and that happens in the book as much as with the CD.
So half of the book deals with different notions of the verbal, but retaining that kind of open field that Metronome offers. It is just about testing out everything from a cat conversation through to a much more academic piece on opera against another piece which is about karaoke or another one which is a web translation of a pop song. In short, various approaches to the voice. The second part is to do with another form of bastard and that is the bastard of the encounter and the difficulty that we have today of transferring information about a collective encounter. In some cases you get very intimate discussions, you get references to the Arabic piece on the compact disc. There is a very beautiful piece by a Metronome regular, Issa Samb, the philosopher, but this time it is written in Wolof. I like the idea that when you pick up a book it tells you that you can not read it all, because you know very well that when you read a book, you only retain part of a book anyhow. I guess what I wanted to do here was to define that for the reader. But I equally wanted to take the structure of the book and shift the front door into other languages. For me these are experiments on what will provide an access point or an entry point for an artist or a professional working elsewhere. What will the book generate now, how it will connect different people through the different languages that are in it? In a way it is a battle against the leadership of English, even though we are speaking English today. I am bothered with the lack of words that we use and I am as guilty of it as anybody else, so this is the kind of process I have been trying to understand as a curator, working with artists and thinkers. It is not just the action that you do and then the reportage of that that makes information pass hands. The reportage has to be a modular part of the action before the action actually happens. Metronome is a series of jump-plugs into inter-scenic considerations whereby artists can get interested in other artists work, and so that the reliance on available vectors within the art world that we operate within becomes less dominant.