Rooseum Director Charles Esche on the Art Center of the 21st Century

A little over one year ago, the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmö, Sweden, hired curator Charles Esche to spark new life into the former electricity plant. Since then, visitors to the center in Malmö have already seen substantial differences in the way the institution is run and exhibitions are held. With his first exhibition, “Vi: Intentional Communities,” Esche made the line between art and audience his first order of business, questioning the implicit museological model of the audience as a passive “viewer” that continues to define the way smaller regional art centers operate.
Esche came to the Rooseum after spending five years as visual arts director at the Tramway in Glasgow. From 1993 to 1997, the space became one of the more dynamic contemporary visual and performing arts venues in Europe, presenting the work of several key local figures such as Christine Borland and Douglas Gordon, as well as the group exhibitions “Trust” and “The Unbelievable Truth.” It was also where Esche first started to explore new ways of thinking about the relationship of art to its community and audience. In 1998, together with Will Bradley and Toby Webster, Esche cofounded the Modern Institute in Glasgow, a production center that worked to realize projects and publications with artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Simon Starling.
The second exhibition to open under his directorship at the Rooseum, a mini-retrospective of Michel Auder, presented film, video, and photography. Highlighting more than thirty years of production in which the camera functions primarily to document the personal world of the artist, Auder’s work, one might suggest, is emblematic of the idea that art should concern itself with the people, places, and events in the artist’s immediate surroundings. Esche has also started to explore the question of audience in other venues besides the exhibition. He has helped launch an art education program at the Edinburgh College of Art. Called the Proto-academy, it is aimed at envisaging more effective models for advanced art education and functioning as a meeting point for various academic specialists, artists, writers, and audiences. It is in its spirit that I decided to begin an e-mail correspondence with Esche.
—Mats Stjernstedt

Mats Stjernstedt: What do you consider to be the task of a center for contemporary art today?

Charles Esche: It has to be responsive to social change. That might seem obvious, but I think too many art centers define themselves in terms of the museum and similar institutions rather than being a space where new thinking based on observable developments in society is allowed to take place. An art center, perhaps as opposed to a museum, should create a space for artists, creative groups, and individuals to give social change some form of expression that allows for reflection and discussion. These discussions might lead to action, but that can’t be predicted, only wished for. Hopefully, this contributes to a new politics, one that we badly need.

MS: You’re saying an art center should hold a mirror up to society?

CE: As institutions, art centers are still rightly required to serve and create possibilities for the society in which they find themselves. One way to do this is to imitate the fluidity of capitalism. A fluid institution would be self-critical, changeable, and uncertain, and therefore also not especially doctrinaire, a place where anything imaginable is possible within the bounds of the law. That imagination comes from artists but also from visitors and the constituents that make up the institution. A center for contemporary art has to be speculative. It has to be willing to ask questions about its own status and purpose and try out ideas in response to these questions.

MS: Can you give me an example of this kind of open structure?

CE: Simply put, we are inviting artists not only to show and work with us but also to use the Rooseum as a functional tool. This may mean providing money for research visits, providing space, a specific public, or even a computer. We also want the public to have different modes of behavior in the space, sometimes as passive onlookers, of course, but sometimes as active participants. We could, for example, try to provide the kind of terrain in which the audience feels free to try out different roles, where works of art trigger possibilities they have not previously imagined and the center becomes an adult playground, if you like, though one through which these temporary roles can then link back to the far more constrained possibilities of daily social life. Of course, the limitations of architecture and location might appear to make this fluidity impossible in many cases. But I’m more interested in temporal than in spatial fluidity, moments in time when potentialities are released and identities are suddenly subject to change. I like the idea of the kunsthalle as a kind of living theater for everyone who might walk in off the street.

MS: This is a very particular moment in southern Sweden and the vicinity of Copenhagen in Denmark. These two cities have recently been closely connected by a new bridge and high-speed commuter train. How will this affect the Rooseum and the way it functions within this new social context?

CE: I’ve chosen to live in Copenhagen and work in Malmö, so I’m acutely aware of the differences and similarities between the cities, and I think people still imagine them as separate entities. But in general, it should be a positive development and certainly presents a political opportunity for Malmö in relation to Stockholm. For us at the Rooseum, our task is changed in a number of ways. Firstly, the bridge requires a new “map in the head” for citizens from both regions. That map will include a strong cultural dimension. The Rooseum should try to be the cultural platform on which part of that map is built. It can do this by creating opportunities for criticism and resistance to the effects of the “utopian” dimension of the new social and economic entity and by serving as a place where these divisions can be articulated, discussed, and then transformed. That’s why our first show dealt with the idea of intentional communities. Lene Crone Jensen, one of our curators, organized intensive meetings among the leaders of communes and autonomous squatting organizations in Sweden and Denmark. I see this show and those meetings as a way to start answering these questions.

MS: Do you also see the Rooseum’s role in Malmö changing?

CE: Yes. We have to think very hard about Malmö itself, and particularly about its huge, though nearly invisible, immigrant community. I would dearly like newcomers to Malmö, of which I am one, to feel at home in the Rooseum, but it will again take a long time before we can expect any of our offers to be taken up. More importantly, we need to think how we can go to edge sites like the Rosengård, a housing project, and ask people there what they would like and where they would like it to happen. At times, the Rooseum can be an “open house” for community activities, or we can shut the building for a period and spend our resources out in Rosengård, or wherever.

MS: One way to establish contact with a socially troubled place such as Rosengård is to have Danish artist collaborative Superflex relocate their Super-channel project, a public tool that offers individuals and groups a chance to create their own Internet TV, in the time they are in residency at the Rooseum. The Superchannel has successfully operated in cities like Copenhagen and Liverpool. How has the project been received so far in Malmö?

CE: The Superflex project is a very good example of what I mean by temporal fluidity. Their presence has been quite minimal as far as the public is concerned but by giving them a studio in the Rooseum we have been able to formulate a very different kind of exhibition program for 2002. This will involve initiatives begun in private during the residency emerging into the public realm, including Web broadcast superchannels in the suburbs of Malmö but also work developed between ourselves and institutions in Thailand, Liverpool, and Leipzig. The overall effect will be a much deeper engagement with the place than is normal in an exhibition. Similar projects are in progress with Katya Sander, Serkan Ozkaya, and Jens Haaning.

MS: You also work with “Proto-academy,” a project involving art, design, and architecture that behaves—to use your words—“parasitically on the body of the college.” Do you intend to infuse all these activities into the program of the Rooseum?

CE: We have already had a weeklong project as part of the “Intentional Communities” show. The program, called “Nomadsland,” was organized by students from the Malmö Art Academy. Together with students from Edinburgh, they created a series of discussions in different venues across the region, including businesses, housing projects, and professional gatherings that were surprisingly successful. Swedes are quite open to these kinds of approaches.

MS: You are cocurating the Gwangju Biennale with Hou Hanru and Song Wang Kyung in 2002. Do you intend to bring these ideas into the context of a biennial?

CE: Yes. We will be inviting up to twenty-five independent spaces or artist-run spaces from Asia and Europe. They will have the facades or ground plans of their respective spaces recreated in Gwangju and each will self-curate a show of their city’s community of artists. It will be a kind of literal “global village,” but one where international exchange and difference is emphasized. Also, using the ecology and architecture of Seoul as a model, Forum A, a local artists’ publishing and discussion group, will organize meetings and exchanges to discuss the relation between art, the city, and its communities. The goal is to leave a legacy of exemplary practice for Korean artists to use, as well as show some good new work in a sympathetic context. After that, I want to concentrate on my three main projects: the Rooseum, a journal I help edit, After-All, and the project in Edinburgh. I’ll be forty in August 2002, and I think that will inevitably be a time to reassess things!

Critic Mats Stjernstedt is currently director of Index in Stockholm.