Once Upon a Time in the West

Kate Sutton at the School of Visual Arts’s curatorial summit

Left to right: Brian Kuan Wood, Joshua Decter, Clémentine Deliss, Ute Meta Bauer, Nicolas Bourriaud, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Defne Ayas at the SVA MA Curatorial Practice international summit on “Curatorial Activism and the Politics of Shock,” November 18, 2017. Photo: Birdie Piccininni.

A FEW WEEKS BACK, in the Great Awokening of the post-Weinstein news cycle, I noticed a question bobbing along the surface of my social-media streams: If “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise,” why do we all still want power? What would it look like to wield power ethically? Is that even possible?

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, the School of Visual Arts’ Steven Henry Madoff convened a weekend-long summit to address these issues. Titled “Curatorial Activism and the Politics of Shock,” the conference featured twenty-one international powerhouses, from Serpentine Gallery codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist and Tensta Konsthall director Maria Lind to the curator of next year’s Tenth Berlin Biennale, Gabi Ngcobo. The glitzy gathering—to be documented in its own publication, from Sternberg Press—was tied to SVA’s Master of Arts degree in Curatorial Practice, which schools its students to the tune of some $17,000 a semester (that’s just tuition). If this doesn’t foreground art’s conflicted claim on an ethical imperative, I don’t know what does. (Full disclaimer: I have spent the past decade paying off debts from a MA degree overseen by one of the summit’s invited curators, who used the opportunity to publicly debunk the concept of curatorial degrees as an educational farce.)

Financial imbroglios aside, the summit was a masterful display of conference choreography, with each of the speakers limited to eight-minute presentations over the course of three sessions, followed by a Q&A orchestrated via submitted cards. Small cards. “Not even enough room for a ‘It’s more of a comment than a question really,’” joked Antonia Majaca, curator at the IZK Institute for Contemporary Art in Graz.

Madoff’s prompt circled loosely around Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s famous charge, “What is to be done?” Madoff specifically asked that speakers address the global situation through the lens of their local experience. This meant that topics spanned censorship, sexual harassment, restitution, the public lives of indigenous artifacts, and practical applications of Chantal Mouffe’s “spaces of antagonism.” “We have to be able to sit in a room with people we don’t like,” urged Ute Meta Bauer, director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore. “Otherwise, what we have is dogmatism, not democracy.”

To better evince antihierarchical structures, participants were organized alphabetically. (Yes, but whose alphabet? Sorry, knee-jerk . . .) First up, Defne Ayas touched on her recent tenure as director at Witte de With and the institutional name change she endorsed. (Turns out, seventeenth-century Dutch naval officer Witte Corneliszoon de With’s legacy did not exactly align with the institution’s values.) “We all move and operate in our fifty shades of complicity,” Ayas acknowledged before declaring that, “if we frame our inquiries only within the Guerilla Girls’ metrics of inclusion, we will remain surprised, blinded.”

Curator Nicolas Bourriaud followed with a defense of art for art’s sake, even in the era of the Anthropocene. He warned of the dangers in assuming that “to be useful, art has to operate only at the political level of citizenship”—a misconception that only “integrates the logic of power and duplicates the logics of profit.” If, as Bourriaud claimed, an artwork “only exists through the human gaze,” then the million hoarded objects locked up in international free ports can only be thought of as reified “things,” not “art.”

Clémentine Deliss, the former director of Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum, or museum of non-Western art, picked up from here, venturing deaccessioning as a means to circulate the souvenirs of colonialism, thus freeing the “impounded population in European vaults” long sequestered by the “necropolitics of conservation and provenance.” Name-checking the “institutional discontents” of the Volksbühne and Documenta 14, Deliss honed in with blistering precision on Berlin’s forthcoming museum complex, the Humboldt Forum. When it opens in 2019, “the fake castle with its proxy intellectual generalism” is intended to showcase “masterpieces of non-European origin, yet German provenance and ownership”—Property being the handmaid of Power. Conjuring a post-Brexit future where a person might not be able to get the visas required to visit their own cultural heritage (which, let’s face it, is a dilemma far predating Brexit), Deliss laid out her “Manifesto for the Rights of Access,” concluding that in these conditions, the only responsible course was to empty storerooms back onto the market. “I’d rather have been fired for deaccessioning 2 percent of the seventy-thousand objects under my control then rest easy in this embargo that allows us to say, ‘It’s not my problem.’”

“You have a naive opinion of the market,” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev fired off in the Q&A. “Restitution is one thing, but if we’re just deaccessioning, then all these goods will leave circulation and end up on walls of some apartment in Dubai or Moscow.”

C.C.B.’s own contribution kicked off with a four-minute tally of the things she wanted to talk about but couldn’t—all liberally peppered with Nietzsche references—before plugging her new Twitter account. (A sample from July: “Are elsewhere people hobo people? on smartphones outdoors, where the rich live and the poor die. Giotto and Saint Francis. It was Assisi.”) In the ambling preface to the nine-point manifesto she kept assuring us she intended to deliver, the curator divided the art world into two camps: the “A” people, “who would have been politicians in the 1970s,” and the “B” people, more tied up in the mechanisms of the market.

“Of course, there can be activism in both segments,” Christov-Bakargiev qualified. Take Damien Hirst, whom the curator lauded as a kind of Robin Hood for short-circuiting his own market from within, creating objects whose production costs far exceed their market value, then auctioning off his life’s work on the precipice of a global economic meltdown. Significantly, these objects were sold to “the B people—but not the B keepers.” The delight this pun brought her was genuine.

“Come on now, Carolyn, you know Damien Hirst is not an activist!” Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy protested, from the other side of the stage.

“In my Nietzschean way, I was being paradoxical,” Christov-Bakargiev huffed.

Pushing on, Hernández Chong Cuy seized the moment to distinguish between “protest” and “activism.” Her copanelist, Joshua Decter, tested another term, introducing himself as “a skeptivist”—that is, an activist with reservations. His presentation reflected this ambivalence. Slightly undercut by the accompanying slideshow of the author’s little-liked (Assisi-free) Tweets, his message still resonated: “If politics is failing, why do we think art-as-politics—or curating-as-politics—can do any better?”

Antonia Majaca offered a brilliant but bleak survey on the general shitshow: “We shouldn’t be asking ‘What is to be done?’ but rather ‘What is to be done about what?’” Drawing on philosopher Isabelle Stengers’s ecological approach, Majaca reckoned, “We seem to think if we work locally then somehow things will work out globally. But to quote Jodi Dean, I personally don’t think Goldman Sachs cares if you raise chickens.”

Left to right: Gabi Ngcobo, Antonia Majaca, and Irmgard Emmelhainz.  Photo: Birdie Piccininni.

Before Majaca’s talk, the formidable Irmgard Emmelhainz kicked off the second session with a tirade against modernity, whose legacy she proclaimed was no less than “a war against life.” Declaring modernism inextricable from colonialism, she concluded, “We have to destroy the standpoint from which modernity makes sense.” Such a move would require not only “radical imagination” but “an orientalism of the Anthropocene”—a concept certainly worth rolling around a bit more.

Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic took the stage under an image of Jenny Holzer’s Truism—“Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise”—projected in Times Square in 1982. The phrase was recently resurrected as the rallying cry for #NotSurprised, a group chat that mobilized into an international movement aimed at several choice plums from the art world’s myriad inequities (allegations against one of this magazine’s former publishers, among them.) With unflinching composure, Filipovic recounted a fundraising dinner this summer in Basel, when a boorish German museum director arrived unannounced, sans donations, only to wriggle his finger “playfully” between the buttons of her blouse: “This man came to my dinner, on my night, took a seat he hadn’t earned at my table. This wasn’t about seduction, this was about power.”

“I still think she needed to name that director,” a fellow panelist told me that evening over martinis. “I know we risk the hysteria of name-and-shame culture, of trial by social media, but for there to be conversations of real impact, we have to know who we’re talking to.”

Throughout Filipovic’s talk, I kept an eye on her seatmate, Boris Groys. He was propped up in the front row, sporting the thin grin of a man anticipating his own surprise birthday at the office. After Filipovic’s mighty testimony to virtual modes of organization, Groys’s denunciation of the internet as nothing more than a fleeting, narcissistic reaffirmation of one’s projected self—basically, the radio single from his latest book, In the Flow (2016)—felt far from edgy. “He looks nervous,” my companion whispered. Maybe he should be. The thing about power, after all, is that it tends to shift.

Switching gears to censorship, both Pi Li and Hou Hanru spoke to the recent uproar over the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” which had run afoul of animal-rights activists. Pi attempted to recontextualize political correctness within the Chinese contemporary art scene, while Hou lashed out against the tyranny of moralism: “When a lovely goldfish cannot be shown in an exhibition because of ‘good morals,’ I don’t have to say any more,” he fumed. “Democracy means fundamentally allowing ‘good morals’ and ‘bad morals’ to coexist.”

If his point about moral absolutism was well taken, Hou waded into trouble during the Q&A, when he brought up Agnès Varda’s recent acceptance speech for her honorary Oscar, referring to her refusal to sign a petition against her fellow director Roman Polanski “for his presumed, um, sexual, um . . .”

“Actually, it was rape.” Filipovic corrected

“Yeah, well, whatever,” Hou continued. “Agnès Varda said she only signed a petition once in her life, and it was for the right to abortion. She said she would not sign a petition so easily. The question then is where do you put your limit?”

“There’s a lot to say about that,” moderator Adrienne Edwards interjected, her voice spreading smoothly like butter across toast—except instead of warm, melty butter, think cold, compressed rage.

Earlier in the panel, Berlin Biennale artistic director Gabi Ngcobo had rephrased the theme question as “What is to be undone?” Introducing the Q&A, Edwards proposed amending the slogan to “We Are Not Shocked.” Part of the problem, she argued, is the insidious ubiquity and freighted inheritance of Western terminology. She cited an artist in Performa who insisted on couching his work in terms of Dada, even though his work had nothing to do with Dada. “Why do we still feel the need to link to the West, instead of finding new terms?”

“Can I say something nice about the West?” Groys sputtered. “The Enlightenment had its blind spots, of course, but at the same time it gave women and oppressed people a chance to establish themselves using the same rhetoric.”

“I don’t even know where to begin with that,” Edwards sighed. “We can’t hold onto something fundamentally flawed and say the only alternative is fascism. We need to ask how to build another system, rather than demand equality only for those who speak the same language.”

The third and final session featured presentations by Obrist, María Belén Sáez de Ibarra, Jack Persekian, and Mick Wilson, the last of whom wasted no time in dropping the C-word. “I know it is an old-fashioned term, but I still find ‘class’ useful if you want to understand the world.” Wilson bypassed concepts such as decolonialism or even “demodern” (Charles Esche’s recent coinage) to advocate for desegregation, “not in the register of the ethical, the epistemological, the rhetorical, or the aesthetic, but rather the pragmatics of infrastructure that condition these other registers.” Wilson concluded, “It comes down to who is in the room. If the people in the room remain the same all along, then the discourse will remain impoverished.”

With such scorching Q&As, it was clear that no one was going to leave that room before day’s end. “Twenty down, one to go,” KW Institute for Contemporary Art’s Tirdad Zolghadr quipped as he took the stage for the final solo presentation. The curator spared no punches: “At least half the speakers have to leave for their flights for their next eight-minute talk somewhere halfway around the world.” Zolghadr called for a wholesale demystification and deglamourization of the art world, as well as for professionalization and a commitment to ethical compensation, following W.A.G.E.’s creed, “Do less with more, not more with less.”

“Maybe we can remind ourselves that accountability is an option,” he continued. “As curators, most of us need to kiss the ring, and we say, ‘Well, that’s the price you pay for art,’ as if art had some kind of critical virtue.” He paused. “I’m not saying we should stop shaking hands with schmucks. I just think we need better reasons to do so.”