Issue #41, 2012

„Cultural Sophistication Is Part Of Public Good.“
An Interview With Manifesta 9 Chief Curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, Realized by Corina Oprea and Carolina Rito

Manifesta 9, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Genk,
2 June – 30 September 2012

Cuauhtémoc Medina (born in1965 in Mexico City) is art critic, curator and historian. He holds a Ph.D. in history and theory of art from the University of Essex in Britain and a B.A. in history from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Since 1992 he has been a full time researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Between 2002 and 2008 he was the first associate curator for the Latin American Collections at the Tate Modern in the UK.

Corina Oprea/Carolina Rito We are in Genk, in the main building of the former coalmining site at Waterschei, which is the setting for Manifesta 9. The exhibition The Deep of the Modernis, I would say, a pronounced structured matrix. On the 1st floor is the Heritage Section: 17 tons with a display of personal items archival materials belonging or referring to the history of the mine at Waterschei and the region, pertaining to the question of politics of memory. The 2nd floor – The Age of Coal: The Art Historical Section is tracing how coal has influenced or help producing artworks throughout 20th century. Finally the 3rd floor Poetics of Restructuring focuses on how contemporary art relates to labour and production. This particular interest in archival work and structuring the material almost in a pedagogical way might have something to do with your position of researcher at the Mexico University?

Cuauhtémoc Medina It is true. It is a research based show. Curating is a practice of the particular and every project depends on mobilising specific forms of knowledge of practice that are transformed as you curate. It is not a discipline; it is a space where other ways of thinking and doing are transformed in culture production. As a curator, you are not an author but an administrator of different forms of thinking and feeling and being. In deed I am a little bit of an academic curator but that does not always shown all the time in the matrix character of this show. I guess that, surely, because I am a researcher and a scholar, some of the issues that were worrying me about biennials in the last 10 years, since I am an art critic as well, – they have a little bit to do with my lack of belief on an avoidance of intellectual structuring, I have an interest in exhibition spaces as sites of knowledge and experience. Here, because of the place, there are elements that relate more to the fact that I studied initially history and then I degenerated into an art historian. There is a little bit of an outlook of that. It has to do with that intellectual departure. Also, I am a Marxist at sorts and the show is, to a certain state, a show that is inspired in the long tradition of Marxist thinking.

Manifesta has been long criticized in terms of its desired and promised impact on the local level. Previous models working a lot with artistic commissions and site-specific works have raised many questions.

In this show, you cannot see site-specific and community based projects, but many works are commissioned, like Amorales, Macotela, Irma Boom and Johan Pijnappel. However in the last years we worked a lot on the paradigm or the stereotype of presuming that biennials should work on commissioning site-specific and relational projects. I decided and Katerina Gregos [n.a. co-curator of Manifesta 9] was happy to join, to stay away from that, from site-specific and community based projects. The reasons are that in the 90s and the 2000s the progressive art circuits and the curatorial teams put a lot of its efforts and raised lot of expectations on the political agency of community based works, relation aesthetic practices and site-specific operations. To the point that, at the moment, it’s impossible to avoid thinking otherwise in relation to biennials and Manifesta. It became a practice to delegate that interface of the political and social encroaching to the artists working in those genres. The reason to trust those operations can be subjective to a certain critique. They relate to a long certain leftist tendency to aspire to raise some direct-action, direct-democracy. But the question is: how much of that is in reality distrust for the complexity of the effects of culture practice as such in the building of opinions, feelings, social attitudes and the subjectivity of the citizens? In a position that assumes we are indeed part of building hegemonies, it is a Gramsci argument. Those practices and that style of biennial curating ought to be put to a certain critique not because of the lack of ethics of its principles, but because of the possibility of its results. So, we decided to try to assert those interactions with communities rather than practicing a critique of essentialist identifications. We preferred the promotion of social attitudes and interaction with the space through the curatorial process rather than asking an artist to do it. Therefore, that also involves that one of the goals of the show is to create something relevant for both the international community and the local audience, to open up questions that depart from knowledge, part of the experience, part of the heritage, without stopping there. Most of the contemporary section is to open the question to the world, to explore the defining of our subjectivities and producing culture. That is why also the historic section is trying to extract experiences from which we can relate to the range of organization of producing subjectivity, produce culture, the way in which artistic practice reacted to those issues, produce attitudes in a long turn. I don’t know how to say it in a manifest way, but we come back from a position where we are commissioning art works rather than direct experiences, therefore we wanted to have an exhibition made of entities that have a certain autonomy, and these are not reports and representations of things happening outside artistic practice, but they are a panoply of artistic production and thinking.

How was the process of working with the invited artists, especially in the contemporary section?

It is a reduced contemporary section, of only 39 artists. Our conditions of work with them were of a closer, more professional curatorial experience. Even in the case of those who brought finished works and where the possibilities of intervention were limited. There are three kinds of works in the contemporary section: those that we found during our research and that were already finished and which fitted perfectly in our goal, so, we negotiated with the artist on how to present the work. To give an example: the work of Nemanja Cvijanovic’ – Monument to the Memory of the Idea of Internationale, an audio piece that traverses the four levels of the building and all the way to the exterior with microphones and speakers, all the sound coming from a little music box with The Internationale that the audience can operate. He made the piece previously in a linear form and here we have adapted it and made it work properly.

Then there are works that we found in the research that were developing exactly in the lines we wanted and we could accompany the production: Lina Selander’s installations of Lenin’s Lamp Glows in the Peasant’s Hut or the case of Capitalismo Amarillo by Jota Izquierdo. That’s a piece he’s been working for 6 years and we invited him to continue and have money to do the research connecting the producers and sellers in China with the sellers in Mexico. And finally there were works that started by identifying an artist whose practice made sense in our project like Rossella Biscotti or Amorales and developing a long term dialogue with them so as to define a commission. We tried to work in the place of origin of the artist or wherever they wanted. In the same time they were working for this place, for specific places in the building, properly informed of the rest of the exhibition.

I’m curious of the project by Lara Almarcegui, which started in 2004 in Genk. It is maybe the only site intervention work included in the exhibition.

She is part of a precise section. That was a work she did in Genk and I knew of that work for a long time. The work asked the city of Genk to leave a piece of land untouched. Talking with her I understood that the piece was in danger since there was nothing written. What she wanted was to negotiate politically, to formalize that. So the initiative there, it is to formalize the piece. So now the piece is protected.

She negotiated with the city that a certain strip of land that has quite interested flora will be left untouched, not developed but also not landscaped. Basically, that freedom of development of the lack of planning of that space. It is a preserved wasteland, the longer that contract can stand, the better… It asks for a resignation politically and administratively of a certain space.

What I found interesting with Almarcegui’s piece is this continuous connection with the region, without the import of artists or models of involving certain communities – what you were criticising, a certain imposed participation. Otherwise I respond very well to your idea of thinking a topic or an issue that comes out of a region and lifting it up as a problematic for the curatorial statement, but I’m also thinking in how we make the experience, the living moment, of the biennial or an exhibition that has a life-span, a public presence.

Every project has to have its own justification and we don’t tend to turn this into a model. I guess we avoid the connection between moralism and politics: the word „should“. We tried to test, to actually enhance the culture heritage by having goals that relate to audience building. This is a particularly fragmented area, because once the mines were closed, the populations living here started to gravitate around a certain space of identification, which is not uncommon in Europe, there is a drive to nation division. We tried to create a space that negotiates with certain identities, but we are not promoting them. We were very interested in finding how to involve the Turkish community. We made research into how could we make a representation and make a point, which would allow others to understand without turning it into a mere ideological instrument. We decided to show the first generation of prayer carpets. Secondly, we would like to imagine that the show is telling not only to the artists working here, but to the other practices, from benefitting of getting an audience that is slightly more sophisticated, an object that is complex but we hope it is accessible. We put a lot of effort to ensure that it is a completely esoteric exhibition, sometimes very dense. Museum and exhibition culture has to do with that complexity of relationships, thoughts and objects in a space that is traversed, experienced, thought and felt. One drive in this biennial is to make out of the biennial an exhibition. We tried to make a case of what are the potentials in the possibilities of education. In making an exhibition that is layered, that has issues, that has cross-references, that has emotional moments, that has things that are easy-understood, and others that demand, that there is a progression of different positions. Another objective is to think that we are making some sort of apology of the culture structure that the people coming here hopefully can start talking of intentions. We might fail and someone should come and see what we have achieved in the long term. The mapping of the parallel program is to our knowledge the first culture initiative outside of the borders in this region. That’s another goal. We are hoping that we are also somehow suggesting that it is important to create a culture institution in a space like this. This is a region which lacks a contemporary art museum.

Your involvement as curator is obviously also defined by the way you’re thinking of all the aspects that an art event implies besides the artistic content, mediation, education, communications, impact in the region, relation to the politicians.

Maybe you just made me realize why they chose me. I would say that if you want to do a big biennial like Manifesta, you better do that. The big difference of other biennials and this one is that, because you are migrating, you don’t enjoy the possibility of a long term process of development and education. In São Paulo we are talking about a place that for 16 years has been exposed and educated by the biennial. Doubting for a second that São Paulo biennial has not been socially important would be a mistake, because it has created the outlook of generations. As a Mexican, I envy São Paulo because of the long-term social and cultural effect. So, Manifesta has to produce something in one single block. In long term, the art world has been over critical of Manifesta because having considered the social effect and expectations from an event that happens only once, it is exaggerated. But going back to some of these places, they managed to do something from the event: Ljubljana, San Sebastian, Rotterdam or Bolzano actually succeeded, they’ve settled culture structures. I don’t know where they have had educational things, but we are trying to get in the educational factor.

It’s a classic artistic structure to be at the same time symptomatic and involving a potential. Your job as a curator has to do with developing those powers and making the structures of power and the logic of dynamics show off. You want to make an argument about contemporary culture that may be trans-nationally affecting participants and also for audiences, you also need to make a site-specific cooperation that involves interaction with the space and history with a certain localized culture and finally you need to make some contribution to the history of biennials, of the exhibitions, of your own craft.

At what level is Marxism informing your work in this exhibition? Where is the struggle?

Culture Marxism has never been at the level of struggle. You look at the inheritance of Raymond Williams or of Adorno and you think what was the importance of cultural work into Gramsci’s writings. We are operating more in terms of how do we create blocks of opinion and thinking. How do we attribute those positions that are produced, through thousands of phrases, acts, voices and molecular forms and how that actually creates hegemonies. At some level this show – especially in the Poetics of Restructuring – is developing a dialogue with the fascination, the sublime experience that Marxism thought has had about all of capitalism. We would not be able to extract out of the left some of its problems, it would be lamenting the world. It is time to see that, of course, it involves suffering, but we happen to have a social machine that is not about fairness, is not about transcendence, but it is about an extraordinary brutality of change and development. If we stay moralistic about it, if you want to see a Franciscan Jesuit punishing in the exhibition, go to Berlin and you will find, a proper catholic perspective on history.

Therefore what you are claiming with this exhibition is exactly opposite to what Zmijewski is proposing in Berlin.

It is a surprise to me, because I like Artur’s work a lot. But what he is describing as left is not my left. I think the biennial is full of unnecessary despair, it is demanding in a hysterical voice that there has to be some miracle, he’s thinking of a magical device and there’s also a disregard and distrust for cultural mediations. You would expect to have a problem and an answer rather than a complex constitution of subjectivities. I was not aware what he was trying to do but we are clearly sitting in different positions about what politics can be. I have the feeling that, except of Yael Bartana and Teresa Margolles, there is an expectation on some sort of magical ethical art, for which I have no interest. It does not correspond to any social theory to expect that human beings can be forced into the good – these are not questions that belong to the theory of social thinking. There is an experience that has to do with the confidence that cultural sophistication is part of public good which, I feel sounds like a minimal rule given the conditions of the society and of the neo-liberal culture. Culture structure is an essential and valid structure of our ability to analyse and understand the world and to think about it. This is about developing artistic practices.

When you talk about building hegemonies: is it something that you believe in: that exhibitions or contemporary culture production should or can build hegemonies?

I know this goes against the spirit of the past, to believe that we need to create social powers. Rather than pretending that we can stay outside power and dismiss power. When Gramsci was talking about hegemonies he was talking about how we produce a left hegemony, he was talking about context that would allow the emergency of a new hegemony. Culture opinion and the state of culture are major devices in constituting power. By creating exhibitions, or art works we are participating in those circuits, similarly as writing in newspapers, we are investing subjects that believe that some things are possible and some not.