PRINT May 1997

Focus Preview

Documenta X

About five years ago, Catherine David and I met in my office at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to discuss Eva Hesse. I was writing an essay on the artist’s work for a retrospective at Yale University and she was organizing a Hesse show for the Jeu de Paume. I remember that she proudly announced her show would be different from any exhibition ever done in the United States, since Americans always approach Hesse from a formalist point of view.

That was news to me. Given that the literature on Hesse tended to emphasize biography and psychology at the expense of formal analysis, David’s surprising declaration resonated with the quaint intellectual chauvinism French writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Jean Baudrillard have habitually brought to things American. Their unstated premise: until dignified by Latinate abstractions and slotted into the matrix of current “discourse,” cultural property has no significance of its own. First jazz, then Hollywood, then Hesse. “Oy!” Or, rather, “Dis donc!”

It was with mixed feelings, then, that I agreed to interview David about her plans for the upcoming Documenta X. All in all, the past decade and a half had pretty well worn down my tolerance for sweeping generalizations, and the last Documenta, with its ever-intrusive director, Jan Hoet, had exhausted my patience for personality-cult curators. To her credit, however, David has been notably self-effacing. For example, while Hoet preened on the frontcover of his pre-Documenta book, in the first volume of texts published in connection with her exhibition, David wrote a modest introduction, respectfully posed questions to Paul Virilio, and appeared on the back cover, her face turned away, knocking on the door of some unknown master-thinker or -doer. As to David’s weakness for broad statements, in this instance that too seems to have been largely conditioned by her reluctance to broadcast—or hype—her intentions until the exhibition was almost in place.

That reluctance is understandable, and our first taped session in 1995 produced no hard information and little that was specific on a conceptual level. This March we met again, with more fruitful results. What follows is an edited version of that conversation. Our differences—on painting, on politics, on generational perspectives—will be immediately apparent to the reader. But then a Documenta that fails to prompt disagreement would be pointless. It remains to be seen whether the show itself takes as many “positions” as David articulates in this text, and in mounting an exhibition succeeds in giving them substantive form, which is the test of the curator as distinct from that of the critic.

All things said, in 1993 David did mount a good Hesse show under difficult circumstances. The difficulties—historical, political, economic, cultural, and aesthetic—that hover around Documenta are infinitely more complex. At this juncture the art world has no use for another loose survey, nor is there any basis for anointing one or more artists as a provisional avant-garde. Worse still would be the kind of tourist-industry happening that Documenta threatened to become last time around. What is needed is a show with clear, defensible inclusions and exclusions. If the problems David raises are sharply focused by the works she chooses, then she will have done her job admirably. I wish her well, and look forward to disagreeing with her again in Kassel.

Robert Storr

Documenta X runs from June 21–Sept. 28.

Robert Storr: Two years ago, we talked in fairly general terms. In the interval has your conception of Documenta changed substantially, or has it developed pretty consistently from your thinking at that time?

Catherine David: Oh, I think things have developed a good deal since then. Documenta is a classical exhibition space: it is limited, and limiting too, and we have had to deal with these limitations in a positive way. Until the end of the ’70s, Documenta could be considered, to a certain extent, a liberated version of the white cube, but it was still a white cube, and this fact is even more of an issue today given the evolution of artistic practice. I think it’s a challenge any exhibition director has to face. Before you arrive many things have been decided that frame your position, like the budget, for example.

RS: What is the budget for Documenta this time?

CD: It’s twenty million marks. And, as usual, eight million is coming from the government, two million from private sponsors—and the rest has to come from ticket and catalogue sales. You spend money assuming you’ll get it back—that the number of visitors will be sufficient.

RS: Is your budget the same as Jan Hoet’s was?

CD: It’s more or less the same. He had nineteen million, and we’re spending twenty.

RS: Do you feel that the amount of money made available is in some ways a factor in encouraging an enormous exhibition, when you might prefer to do a smaller one? Or is it perhaps only a minimum, beyond which you need to raise a large amount?

CD: I think you could work differently, and very well, with less money. It would mean a different atmosphere, a different relationship with the city, and a different event. But if I’m honest, and if I take into account the experience of the last three years, the result wouldn’t, for better or for worse, be a Documenta.

RS: How many artists are being invited this time for the exhibition part of the program?

CD: More or less 120, including those involved with CD-ROMS, or with Internet programs and projects.

RS: One of the issues for the last Documenta was that Jan Hoet started out with a relatively manageable list of artists, but it kept growing and growing—so that in the end one tripped over works of art as much as looked at them. How do you anticipate dealing with Documenta’s more traditional exhibition space?

CD: I think we tried to work with the limitations of Documenta’s scale. Sometimes it’s very difficult to stop inviting people—you come across a work that makes another one more meaningful and you want to include it. So it’s a constant process of framing and reframing. When I say “constant,” that doesn’t mean I’ll invite 600 people the last month—but I think that maximum flexibility is a real issue for Documenta.

RS: Are you saying that there may be people who will come in the course of the exhibition to make projects that were not a part of the original program?

CD: Yes, some people could interfere and interact, which I think would be in keeping with the procedures of a number of the artists involved.

RS: So, during the course of the exhibition, there will be a response to things that are already in it?

CD: There will be legitimate developments of those projects or statements that encourage interference, or commentary, or interaction. We’re trying to keep things open, so that you won’t get the feeling, which I’ve had in many recent exhibitions, that you’ve arrived before the show opened or after it closed. We’re trying to push as far as possible the paradox of exhibiting artistic practices that depend on real time or that deal with very heterogeneous spaces of inscription.

RS: What do you mean by “spaces of inscription”?

CD: For example, many contemporary artists work with text—and sometimes it doesn’t really make sense to hang the text on the wall, or to put a book on a table in an exhibition. Or an artist might do radio broadcasts or work on the Internet. None of this fits easily within the traditional three-dimensional exhibition space.

RS: The word is out that Documenta will lean very heavily toward video, toward technological arts of one kind or another. Is that true?

CD: No, it’s not at all true. Of course, we have some video in the show. We coproduced seven movies, with Sony and several European TV stations. And, of course, we have very different kinds of images in Documenta, from Walker Evans to Alexander Sokurov. But I think we did the opposite of a technological show, and I hope that we worked carefully enough that the question of technology versus art won’t be relevant. That’s a very old debate, and we’ve been neither naively pro-technology nor have we been treating new media as the contemporary incarnation of Satan. I think that new media are simply tools. In that respect I would recommend that many people go see Chris Marker’s Level Five. I think it’s a fantastic movie. It’s a love story; it’s a trip into the Net; and it’s about memory and politics. Marker’s work is far from posing the question: Do new media constitute an aesthetic space? He’s asking a much more important one: Who is the symbolic and political subject behind it all?

RS: My question wasn’t so much whether or not new media counts as art. I don’t think any serious person involved with contemporary art would ask that question. But I noticed that in your interview with Paul Virilio he said there’s no room for the plastic arts—he’s bored with cinema, and he thinks the only interesting things happening are at the edges of new media. You seemed to pull back from that, however, and that’s the basis of my question: What space do you reserve for, I won’t call them traditional, but more established means of artmaking?

CD: Well, first, Virilio has certain personal reasons to think what he thinks. At times, he likes to be apocalyptic, which I’m not. So, to a certain extent, he is authorized to embrace very radical positions. He is also not an expert in contemporary aesthetic practices. Though he knows certain aspects very well, he is highly indifferent to others. It’s his prerogative to think contemporary art isn’t interesting, but my position is that right now we have a plurality of mediums and practices before us.

RS: This is a digression, in a way, but when we did our last interview, you said that you sympathized, to a certain extent, with Jean Clair’s criticisms of some aspects of contemporary art, but you did not at all sympathize with his solutions. I wonder whether you still sympathize with his criticisms given what he has written in Krisis and elsewhere. Questioning the continued legitimacy of the avant-garde is certainly a central issue in postmodern art and criticism—but doing so from the right and in a right-wing journal is another thing entirely.

CD: I think that if the question is whether you have many uninteresting works in contemporary art, of course the answer is Yes. And I’m not sure it wasn’t the same fifty years ago; it’s a normal relationship to contemporary creation. But I think that the role of the contemporary critic is to define positive differences. And I don’t see Jean Clair or Baudrillard doing this. I just see very reactionary lamentations, a kind of lazy right-wing dandyism.

RS: Since the last Documenta, the sort of reactionary responses that we’ve had in America are actually happening pretty much everywhere. There is a huge backlash against contemporary art. Whereas I don’t think there is any cause for panic, it is clear that showing avant-garde art now is a very different proposition than it was in the ’80s, or ’70s, even. This is not an optimistic time culturally. Therefore throwing complicated new art forms and ideas into that mixture of reactionary sentiment and confusion and fear poses a challenge. Given this climate, what is the role of your Documenta and of Documenta as an institution?

CD: Well, I think at a minimum Documenta should be a space of confrontation for contemporary aesthetic practices, and that the role of this Documenta is surely not to contribute to reactionary and academic positions. But I don’t think, either, that the right position is to promote an anything-goes attitude. I think one must try to define the conditions of possibility for critical art today. For me, critical art isn’t necessarily the completely instrumentalized category it has become, an easy label used by magazines and museums.

RS: What do you mean by the “completely instrumentalized category”?

CD: A certain development of late ’70s art: so-called political art. Critical art has a wider compass: it has to do with what I would call the radical critique of culture’s anthropological foundations—meaning paying attention to articulations, to sites of relevance, and to shifts from one area of competence to another. And that’s why, in this Documenta, we tried to organize what we call “retroperspectives,” by attempting to articulate positions of the recent past from Marcel Broodthaers and Gordon Matta-Clark through Hélio Oiticica, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gerhard Richter, and others. At the moment, I think the work of these artists is strongly echoed in the contemporary situation; the questions they raised are still pertinent. The conditions of possibility for critical art these days are different from what they were ten or fifteen years ago. I’m especially interested in practices—and, again, I’m insisting on this word, because I think it prevents irrelevant discussion of categories in terms of media—that are defining a notion of territory, offering it as an alternative to the dominant “mega” dimension, which can only be measured by capital.

RS: How do you see the artists that you’ve named so far in relation to one another? And how have you selected work by those artists in order to set up a problem?

CD: I think that most of these artists worked on complex experimental levels. They were all involved with complex cultural articulations, which is why they are still meaningful now. Of course, depending on your ultimate convictions or sensibility, you might privilege Broodthaers over Oiticica. I think it’s very difficult these days not to privilege Broodthaers’ vision.

RS: So you think that Broodthaers’ vision is one of the show’s touchstones?

CD: It’s obviously one of the most dramatic statements on the conditions of possibility of aesthetic practice in a period dominated by economic concerns.

RS: Let’s push the symmetries a little bit. In 1972 Beuys did 100 days of public talks all by himself. For this Documenta, you will have 100 speakers. I wonder if the weight has shifted in your thinking toward what Broodthaers represented and away from the model Beuys offered, and toward his definition of possibility? For a while, even those people who disagreed with him recognized Beuys as a central figure. If you see Broodthaers as having the central role now, what do you think has changed in the art world that makes for this shift in emphasis?

CD: I think Broodthaers was not romantic, but radical and sometimes cynical. He was very attentive to superstructures, to the limitations of aesthetic practice. That’s the dark side of Broodthaers’ statement—even if, sometimes, it seems funny.

RS: He’s very funny. Which Beuys was not. [Laughs]

CD: Beuys was not funny. Beuys was German, so the sense of humor was different. [Laughter] No, but it’s a difficult question: these days it’s harder to show Beuys. I encourage the younger generation to go to Darmstadt; I think that for many reasons it’s probably the right place to see Beuys in a meaningful way today.

RS: If you look at Documenta, you can see that the events that shaped it—the twelve-year period of the Third Reich when modern art was not available; the end of World War II; the dawn of the cold war—seem like ancient history. The events of ’68 provoked a different kind of Documenta afterwards, and now you have yet another set of terms. Artists like Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Beuys, and Broodthaers all responded to the aftermath of ’68. So how do you read them as being significant to a generation of the ’90s in ways one would not have anticipated when they made their original statements?

CD: What is very difficult is that you don’t have an immediate genealogy. What we find disturbing about a number of young artists is that they have a very loose relationship to history. So I don’t think most of them know these artists, or pay specific attention to them. The idea was not to establish or to forge a link between generations, but to privilege a very open cultural attitude. And, probably, the only commonality among these artists, apart from the historical perspective, is that they were all working during a utopian moment. And I’m afraid we are no longer in that space.

RS: What’s interesting, even just in the four examples you’ve given (Broodthaers, Richter, Oiticica, and Matta-Clark) is that these artists are not utopian in the Beuysean sense at all. And we’re certainly not living in a utopian moment. Broodthaers specifically separated himself from activist politics and made a critique of Beuys on that ground. And Richter, for his part, has done the same. Actually, Richter is a beaux-arts artist, who happens to be a radical beaux-arts artist. In many respects, he is the most traditional of painters.

But the two others that you mentioned—Oiticica and Matta-Clark—are artists who died early in their careers, when both were engaged in artmaking that was, in a way, utopian. Their work was critical and it was impossible, in a very exciting way, but it also ceased before disillusionment could set in. So, again, what specific possibilities do you get at by choosing those artists? What is framed by those divergent paths?

CD: It seems to me that the attitudes, the thinking, the practices, the forms developed by those artists were highly challenging, and I have looked for contemporary work that reflects a similar involvement with cultural and political realities.

RS: Let me play skeptic in this way. When I talk to younger artists, they look at the ’60s and early ’70s as a very remote time. So if you say the period of ’55 is far behind us, that you’re going to focus on artists who actually made their reputations in the ’70s, a lot of younger artists will say: What do you mean? That’s history, too. So, how are you going to deal with people who belong to a historical moment in a manner that looks towards the future? That is, how do you take Broodthaers, and all of these figures, out of the ’70s and put them down in the ’90s?

CD: By trying to figure out what is still challenging in cultural operations of the recent past. Of course, many young artists do not even know the practices of Oiticica and others, but this is the basis of my perspective. For instance, we never decided to put together all these artists in a pavilion of lost illusions. We’re trying to articulate these practices in relation to what’s happening now. Because there is no immediate, or obvious, or necessary, relationship of inspiration.

RS: Again, my question is not so much about how to establish pedigrees for individual artists’ careers, but how to establish the relation between two very different historical moments. Who, among the younger artists—or, anyway, the artists who’ve developed their work in the context of, say, the ’80s onward—has a comparable status in the exhibition to Broodthaers and the others? Can you give a couple of examples that could serve as reference points for the attitude you’re trying to get at?

CD: All the artists who are still alive are showing an early work and a recent one. The ’80s generation was very problematic in that you don’t have too many strong proposals left to choose from.

RS: Who from the ’80s do you think has, in fact, been able to develop their work?

CD: In terms of positions, Jeff Wall is probably the major figure from the ’80s in this Documenta.

RS: Are there any painters of either the ’70s or the ’80s that contribute to this conversation?

CD: Not really.

RS: Are there are any painters from the ’60s?

CD: No, we had a long discussion about ’60s painting, but there is no one left, apart from Richter. He was invited to show Atlas, which I regard as the “black box” of his oeuvre. It’s also the collection of everything he knew he couldn’t paint anymore.

RS: Yes, but Richter sees his work very much in the historical continuity of painting, sees painting as a very necessary activity. So to represent him not only by works that are not paintings, but by a work of his interpreted as the antithesis of painting, is a fairly strong statement, isn’t it?

CD: It’s my position, and I would say that if his status as a painter with a capital P has been privileged, it’s due to a certain relationship . . .

RS: I’ll take a little P . . . a little P on privilege and a little P on painting. [Laughter]

CD: Maybe in terms of a specific position on painting. Ryman was a possibility. But these days, in a very reactionary way, people are usurping the metaphysical space, the cultural, historical, sensitive space of painting—as if it had not been deconstructed—for cheap ideological and commercial reasons.

RS: Painting’s a funny thing, though. You can deconstruct it all you like, but then there are people, like Ryman and Richter, who continue to do it, so . . .

CD: Of course.

RS: Deconstruction doesn’t mean exhaustion, it simply means examining it critically.

CD: But I think, at the moment, you have very, very few—from my point of view—painting positions of that kind and quality.

RS: What about Sigmar Polke?

CD: I think Polke is a very strong artist. And he’s not in this Documenta, because he didn’t want to be. He didn’t want to work on a proposal—as Richter did, as all the artists did, to an extent. We are not showing the “last work by . . . ,” we are not showing “big names” but works and positions, and I didn’t want to be forced to accept Polke’s latest work with no say in the matter.

RS: In other words, you’re saying that Polke’s condition for being in Documenta was to essentially curate his own work. Is that right? It seems to me, however, that it’s pretty hard to imagine what’s going on nowadays without Polke’s involvement. And in many forms—not only as a painter.

CD: I was very interested in discussing with him his cultural position at the moment. And he never answered. In a way, he assumed a right-wing anarchistic stance. Meaning that you play various games at the same time, including that of the dealer. And I’m not encouraging that attitude.

RS: Other than, possibly, Ryman, definitely Richter, and, alas, not Polke, were there any other artists making paintings that you saw as at least potentially part of this discussion?

CD: No. In the exhibition, there are some artists who deal with iconography who you might be tempted to call painters—but I think that label is irrelevant. We invited Kerry James Marshall; we invited Lari Pittman; we invited David Reeb from Israel—and I don’t think it’s helpful to describe their work as painting. They arc privileging cultural operations, crossbreeding, questioning cultural identity, and using specific image-strategies.

RS: Lari Pittman is most certainly a painter, though.

CD: For me, the iconographical work is the privileged point of access to his world and discourse.

RS: Yes, but that’s a very limited reading. Because if he builds the surfaces the way he does, or if he strips them down the way he does, that’s within a language of painting—where the significant meanings have to do precisely with how the iconography appears, not just that it is there.

CD: You can call them painters, but it’s not really relevant in this Documenta, where we’ve tried to be very precise about image-strategies.

RS: Let me ask you a couple questions on another topic. What is Documenta’s responsibility for describing a situation that is, one, European, and, two, broadly international—not just North American and European? The inclusion of Oiticica, and your long-term interest in Brazilian art is one aspect of this. Do you think Documenta still has a role in describing European avant-gardes, or European possibilities, if you will? How do you do that in a Europe that’s being so dramatically altered? And after you’ve dealt with the European issue, I wonder if you could then move outward, to much more global . . .

CD: Documenta can’t ignore the state of the world. We are no longer living in a cold-war period, where the world is divided into two blocs. We are living under a more “triadic” system, characterized by a relativized hegemony of states and the increasing power of European as well as Asian countries. We are also living at a time of global economics and neo-nationalistic policies. It’s true that international now means world, but at what cost? At the moment, you have to be a little naive to think you will represent the world. So with this Documenta we have emphasized debate, political questions.

RS: Since the last Documenta, there’ve been an enormous number of exhibitions that have attempted to pull together work from all over the world. We’ve had two biennials in São Paulo; we’ve had Kwangju in South Korea; we’ve had two in Istanbul; we’ve had one in Johannesburg. How does Documenta define itself in the midst of exhibitions of that kind in a positive way? How do you begin either to show significant differences or significant parallels with work made half a globe away?

CD: We are trying to make clear that we are working in a time of globalization, but Documenta is quite different from “Magiciens de la terre,” which was based on the notion of uncontaminated traditions. We privileged critical and polemical positions over quick surveys, and attempted to think in terms of contemporary cultural practices, which did not necessarily take the form of art objects. Under this rubric, instead of inviting, at any cost, one artist from every country, we emphasized a strong polemical and political discussion about globalization, while privileging cultural areas, or cultural practices, that do not fit within the classical exhibition framework. Contemporary African cultures, Muslim and Arabic cultures, are not easily integrated at the moment with “contemporary art” itself, but they are developing very specific cultural articulations under precarious or emergency conditions.

RS: In other words, in a way what you’re saying is, This is an exhibition, or this is a series of timed events about culture, of which the exhibition component devoted to contemporary art is perhaps only a third. In those places where there are not necessarily active contemporary art scenes of the kind we normally think of, the significant voices will come in different ways. They may come in the form of the 100-days discussions, or in other formats.

CD: Yes, let’s put it that way. Of course, we have artists invited in the 100 days, but the majority are writers, philosophers, political theorists, musicians, filmmakers, urban planners, architects. Speakers like Mia Couto, from Mozambique, who wrote a very powerful novel, Sonambulist Earth, on a country that is in a permanent state of war. It’s also a question of what you do with countries that privilege other forms of contemporary culture at the moment. In Portugal, for example, the most relevant work is coming from architecture, cinema, and literature, not necessarily from the visual arts. That doesn’t mean that in five years we won’t have a wonderful painter or photographer from Portugal. In Israel most of the interesting young artists are dealing with issues of political territory, citizenship, and with image-strategies that are also strategies of life and death. In Iran, you have a very different situation, cinema seems to be the privileged space for expressing the paradoxes, the conflicts, of contemporary society. In many contemporary practices, the place of the art object is relativized; space is the vector—the space of orientation, of articulation, of energies, of meaning. The rejection of the object in Western aesthetic practice is, I would say, a response to excess, instrumentalization, reification, and so on. Outside Western cultures, the object has not necessarily been the alpha and omega of cultural practice.

If you look carefully at the development of avant-garde aesthetic practice, it focuses at different points on the work in the studio, the presentation of the work, the discussion of the work. One moment—the object—has always been privileged, and this has to do with ideology, with economics, and so on. And a lot of meaning, a lot of spaces of debate, of interpretation of the work have been lost for reasons that have nothing to do with the artist’s project. To a certain extent, it’s important to reactivate these many moments of aesthetic practice—especially with very contemporary practices, which do not begin and end with an object. To grasp the complexity of contemporary practices, the moment of comment, of the experience of the work, has to be respected.

RS: How do you keep the visiting thinker, writer, filmmaker from becoming a living sculpture—i.e. an object—in an exhibition space, and make what they contribute available broadly?

CD: Of course the 100 days are highly involved with radio broadcasts, TV, the Internet, and publications. Documenta is a space from which you can disseminate ideas. It’s clear now that the exhibition is a limited and limiting tool for facing the extreme complexity of contemporary practices. So I know that it’s impossible to have a book on the walls of the Fridericianum, that it’s impossible to have any writer kept between glass walls for 100 days. The “100 days/100 guests” program will be published in advance—so people can decide when to come.

RS: Since we’ve talked about two of the three parts, let’s talk about the third. How does the catalogue relate to the show? I gather some part of the catalogue will be devoted to the history of Documenta, as an institution, and to an analysis of Documenta as an institution up to the present time. What other components are there?

CD: The catalogue does not address the history of Documenta. It’s not about Documenta the institution, but about figuring out where we are in relation to the period during which Documenta evolved: 1945 to the present. The book is an attempt to articulate the links between postwar aesthetic practices and politico-economic events, by working with three major periods: 1945–68, 1968–89, 1989–97. We all feel that ’78 marks a moment of radical political change—the end of utopia, the beginning of the current economic world order—but we also try to respect what ’89 meant in Europe. These different moments are reflected in anthologized texts as well as new ones we commissioned from various people. Those texts take many forms: they can be interviews, texts that attempt to make a theorist’s position applicable to the current situation, comments on major historical texts, or very short statements on specific events. For instance, we ask Danielle Defert to update Foucault’s text on heterotopia.

RS: Are the smaller booklets you’ve issued—such as Documenta I in which there’s an interview with Paul Virilio—prototypes for the catalogue as a whole?

CD: Yes and no, because those really consisted of a collection of texts we worked with, or questions we were asking ourselves. The book is more thought out. We paid a good deal of attention to visuals. As far as text goes, 50% was previously published material, and 50% was new.

RS: For the last Documenta, Hoet worked very closely with Bart de Baere and Denis Zacharopoulos, and Pier Luigi Tazzi. I’ve heard that Carlos Basualdo and Benjamin Buchloh and Jean-François Chevrier were involved at different times. What, specifically, were their contributions?

CD: I consider myself responsible for every artist invited to this Documenta. It’s clear that I had a very intense discussion with Jean François Chevrier—he coauthored the book. We decided, for different reasons, that he would concentrate on that. We did a long interview with Benjamin Buchloh, in which he outlined his position in what you could call an “intellectual biography” of the late ’60s on.

RS: Was his involvement primarily that? Or was he involved in other aspects of the show?

CD: He was mainly involved with the interview, because I don’t think Benjamin is an exhibition maker.

RS: He’s been very active in things having to do with Broodthaers in this country. I wondered if that was a point of contact, and, if so, what the nature of that contact was.

CD: There are many artists in Documenta; he is especially attentive to Broodthaers, James Coleman, Richter, Wall—which is evident in the interview. Benjamin has a certain position, and a certain history, and he is not necessarily involved with the younger generation of artists.

RS: Were there any Americans that played a role in your discussions with your colleagues?

CD: Many of those in the book. Masao Myoshi, Mike Davis, Edward Soja, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and younger people.

RS: For the most part, those are writers and theorists. I’m wondering whether anyone primarily involved in contemporary art was invited to participate.

CD: Not really. The art world, at the moment, is becoming a little autistic, because it has no real connection to the outside world. So it was very important for us to reposition contemporary art within contemporary cultural practices as a whole.

RS: Certainly, in this country, there are a slew of critics who are doing exactly that. I don’t think you can look at the ’80s and ’90s and say that people are only talking inside the small circle of the art world. The largest proportion of American art in the last years, and also criticism, is precisely about trying to look outside this restricted community. Whether they’ve succeeded is another issue.

CD: What I mean is that the art world has become highly instrumentalized: it’s all about producing new objects. What we’re interested in is the debate in terms of cultural emergencies, and certain moments in the process—the presentation, the discussion, the possibility or impossibility of disseminating a project.

RS: In this country a lot of the debate about multiculturalism has been a debate about how to deal with art outside of the art-world context. Particularly among African-American artists. David Hammons is a prime example. He has structured his activity so that he has one leg inside and one leg outside the artworld—but he leans on the leg that’s out. There is a critical discourse that’s developed around that position—it’s something that the Dia Art Foundation, for example, was sponsoring when Gary Garrels was there. So I’m just struck by the fact that there is no apparent attention paid to that side of things, given that your focus is to move outside the confines of the gallery, system, the museum system.

CD: Whether David Hammons believes he’s in or outside the art-world system isn’t really the issue. The issue is how you articulate a discourse of aesthetic practices in relation to contemporary culture at large.

RS: But what an artist like David Hammons does is to make those generalizations quite specific. What certain critics, like Greg Tate, and Calvin Reed, and Michelle Wallace—who are African-Americans—have done is develop arguments that deal with artists who are in or have chosen that position. I’m struck by the fact that they’re not part of the equation.

CD: In the book we address certain questions about what you call multicultural attitudes, or . . .

RS: Well, that’s a label—like Fauvism or Cubism. But the struggle is not about the label, its about the politics of culture.

CD: Multiculturalism may be part of the discussion and we might have a different analysis and position. We can’t accept having politics reduced to the simple satisfaction of the immediate or even legitimate interests and claims of various groups.

RS: Okay—let’s not deal with the American situation—let’s deal with the European situation. At the last Biennale there was a lot of concern that at the same time that Achille Bonito Oliva was talking in grand terms about nomadism, the problem wasn’t nomads but refugees: within 200 miles or so of Venice, or less, there was an actual war going on. Perhaps one can’t show art that describes the war from a local perspective, or emanates from those places—though conceptual art has been coming from Eastern Europe and the Balkans for the last twenty, twenty-five years. Is there a way, either in the 100 days, or in the framing of certain questions, that you can deal with politics to acknowledge unfolding situations, rather than, epochal changes?

CD: I think that rather than inviting pseudocritical art or pseudopolitical artists, one attempts to invite political questions, and political scandal. It’s a question of whether it isn’t more responsible to try to figure out the state of culture where an emergency situation exists. So when you have works that speak to that, it’s okay; when there are no works or, more precisely, no visual works, you still have emergencies, and you still have cultural articulations, or disarticulations.

RS: I have no desire to go back over Oliva’s show for its own sake, because it was a disaster. But the same problem he encountered would exist for any exhibition that wishes to deal with political issues. And it’s not that, necessarily, there is anyone who’s made “good art” about what’s happened in Serbia, but that the situation—like the racial politics in this country, for that matter—has a fundamental effect on cultural attitudes. And the avoidance of those situations will necessarily cause an imbalance in any large cultural analysis. So how does one bring those issues in if one can’t bring them in, or doesn’t choose to bring them in, with works of art?

CD: I don’t understand what you mean. Because the idea for me is not to make the cultural space an alibi. I think, unfortunately, there’s been a dramatic aestheticization of political debate in recent art.

RS: He’s dead now, but Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a very good artist, and a very political artist. A lot of what his thinking represented was an attempt by a younger generation to avoid certain kinds of obvious rhetorical postures with respect to political art, but, at the same time, to create work that brought political ideas to bear by encouraging viewers to pick up something that refers to possession; to pick up something that refers to violence; to pick up something that refers to early death by disease; etc.

CD:: You can say that. But I saw his show at the Guggenheim, and I don’t agree with you—there was a lot of aestheticization.

RS: His work is very aesthetic. I didn’t say it wasn’t. But it’s also very political.

CD: Could be . . . could be, but I was not convinced by the Guggenheim exhibition.

RS: Well, it was an unfortunate situation, because there was another exhibition at that time. My point, whether or not we agree about Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is that there is a younger generation of artists—post-’80s, not to mention post-’60s and ’70s—for whom very specific political attitudes are built into artmaking that are not rhetorical in the old sense of leftist art.

CD: I don’t believe in the humanitarian, I believe in politics, and I think questions should be posed politically.

RS: What does it mean to pose a question politically, and not in a humanitarian way? Give me an example of somebody who’s in Documenta who is political in the sense you understand it.

CD: I prefer to speak in terms of critical art—Jeff Wall is a critical artist, as is Lois Weinberger, in a very different, let’s say less programmatic way. Lois is very articulate in working with fragile traces of history. In the show, most of the artists have critical positions, even if they are not doing what I would call “political art.” Because, very frankly, I don’t know what political art is these days apart from a commercial and journalistic label. I believe in critical positions, even if it’s old-fashioned to speak that way. For an artist to be a precise critical artist, rather than a “political” artist, is maybe the beginning of being political—the artist has no privilege in the political sphere. The question is: What are the conditions of possibility for critical aesthetic practices today? Where are the homogenizing forces and where are the areas of resistance—formally, culturally, intellectually, and politically? I do not think, as a I read in a French magazine, that art is there to heal the social rift.