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PRINT October 2002

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“Gasthof 2002”

HOSPITALITY, IF NOT QUITE STANDARD in core curricula, shows up as an academic subject in a mixed bag of contexts: Jacques Derrida devoted numerous seminars to the topic; the University of Nevada at Las Vegas confers Ph.D.s in the business of being hospitable; and Peter Kubelka, while a professor at Frankfurt's Städelschule in the '80s and '90s, celebrated hospitality in his famous cooking classes. “Gasthof 2002,” a weeklong gathering hosted by the Städelschule in late July, took Kubelka's simple menu and turned it into a multicourse banquet, bringing together 250 students, thirty-two visiting artists, critics, and curators, and forty-one university faculty (all told representing thirty-two countries) to engage in conviviality. The Städelschule was transformed into a gasthof (an inn) where students lived in makeshift quarters while weaving their way through an animated and jam-packed program of self-generated dinners, panels, performances, parties, film screenings, exhibitions, concerts, and of course a few lively bars.

Happily, little of “Gasthof 2002” resembled the droning protocol of art-world conferences, where official HELLO tags are issued bearing name, rank, and institution. Here another sort of souvenir signaled what was in store: Everyone received a handmade sleeping mask wrapped around a pair of earplugs. This little gift declared up front that short of shuttering yourself blind and deaf, total immersion would be unavoidable.

Sharp debate met with out-and-out carousing to lend “Gasthof 2002” its gregarious spirit. Among the memorable formal discussions was one between Städelschule director Daniel Birnbaum and Sarat Maharaj, a member of Documenta ll's curatorial team. The exchange took place in a circus tent parked on the river Main. One point of dialogue: What role does hospitality play when first contact occurs with something foreign in an exhibition? Maharaj's gentle intelligence and Birnbaum's cozy wit inspired students to pop off fresh questions. There was none of the customary old/Young Turk postpanel posturing as everyone emptied onto the river's edge to have a beer and debrief.

With Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tobias Rehberger, Isabelle Graw, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Charles Esche, Clémentine Deliss, Carsten Höller, Philippe Parreno, Maria Lind, and many other notables in attendance, “Gasthof 2002” threatened to turn into another version of the creaky master-apprentice art school model. But more often than not, the ball was in the students' court, their routine identity as conference guests reversed to make them hosts. Students from Moscow prepared Friday's luncheon; and even when Tiravanija hosted a “Hang Dong Dinner” it did not feel presided over, but communal.

“Gasthof 2002” presented an intuitive and discerning curriculum in which hospitality functioned as a scrupulous instrument for rethinking an array of thorny political, cultural, and ethical affairs—all in the Städelschule's jovial atmosphere. The tête-à-têtes among the international faculty members were valuable, at times revelatory. But it was from the students, who, freed by the ambience, spoke their minds, that I carried away a few poignant impressions: There are art schools willing to risk failure in order to spur innovation. These attract a very particular kind of faculty and in turn a particular kind of student. Schools that stand behind the frontiers of curricular innovation simply imitate what has already proved successful elsewhere, without assuming the risk of innovating on their own. Or they don't even bother to imitate, taking a risk of another kind. In the zero-defect culture of most universities, this adds up to a rather insignificant number of genuinely innovative programs. Frankfurt's Städelschule is undoubtedly among this minority, as “Gasthof 2002” so hospitably demonstrated.

Ronald Jones, a writer and artist represented by Metro Pictures, is a visiting faculty at Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts, and Design in Stockholm.