TERESA GLEADOWE Okay. And then the other thing that I remember about it was, that - it was mic-ed up like a television studio. So there was this sense of everybody was very much involved with the production of this event. Everybody who spoke from whatever part or side of the room was equally involved. There was no sense of us and them.
Projects like these were some of the ways in which, I think, long before one had read this book (New Institutionalism), or things had got names, you could begin to see that something was being overturned.
JANNA GRAHAM It’s funny that you would call that relationship fluid, because that’s not at all how I experienced it. There is an external perception versus the actual mechanics of this inside-outside position that’s really important.
I was thinking similarly to Maria’s question of what does art do, rather than how might we animate the museum or how might we engage people in the museum?
It is interesting spatially to think about the question what does art perform and what does a gallery perform. And that’s the unique position that myself and colleagues on the Edgware Road have been able to occupy. It is inhabiting, but not inhabiting at the same time, I sometimes call it a parasitic relationship of feeding off of an Institution and also dealing with its conflicts and contradictions and not shielding people from that entirely, but also not inhabiting it entirely...
JANNA GRAHAM It is really dangerous. That’s our problem now, which is how do they end? In some ways they continue like you were describing, Maria, I don’t have to facilitate them continuing, they keep going in their own way. In other cases, we are still very often facilitating how they become autonomous and continue on in their lives.
But you know we had what I’ll call an opportunity, when we were invited by the gallery to put on an exhibition of everything that had happened in the project to date. We had very little time to consider this invitation institutionally, which meant it looked like an exhibition. It was very difficult in that time frame to really understand how could the exhibitionary format produce something else that was useful?
That said, many people came and it was useful in many ways for many different kinds of people. It wasn’t necessarily useful for me.
IRIT ROGOFF Yes. If they had a satisfying visitor experiences. I think that we really need to shift our gaze to where the agency is not articulated, not granted, unnamed, and relatively invisible. Because - in the end, that’s what it’s about, right? It’s about what happens amongst viewers, in their imagination, in their subconscious, in their conscious. When we ask what does an exhibition make possible, we don’t have any criteria that we can exercise in even imagining what an exhibition can make possible. Because we only know how to study it or understand it in the closest terms to ourselves --
IRIT ROGOFF -- for sure, for sure.
JANNA GRAHAM But there are also bodies of knowledge around these questions that are not in the art field that are very useful to activate. There is purpose in the discomfort of being an outsider. Acknowledging that discomfort and that contradiction as the very departure point and the ends a of generation point of your project. There’s a lot to be drawn from in other fields. The art field is not the first field to consider what does it mean to go outside of your zone to produce something else.
Those other bodies of knowledge have also theorized the aesthetic and what its role is and what role representation plays. For example, in critical pedagogy this idea of the exhibition in the middle comes directly out of people like Ivan Illich and many other people who theorize these processes, not in the art field, but in the field of social problematics.
These questions of the benefits of becoming autonomous, or liberating oneself from a dogmatic hierarchy have come up in other’s history and I think it’s useful to read our predicaments in relation to them.
I also wanted to say something quickly about the curatorial. For us to think that the curatorial relates solely to the art field or to the museum field is just not correct. I was in a neighborhood meeting three weeks ago where a local councilor said we need a strong curatorial vision for the neighborhood. By that he meant a strong imagination of cultures. The curatorial is now traveling with its own sphere.
JANNA GRAHAM With is the first stage --
IRIT ROGOFF There’s something important about, the shift from using the space and all the instruments available to exclamate, rather than to recognize. There has to be a shift from explaining and representing to recognizing.
It seems to me that all of the resources that we have, they’re constantly used to explain and to represent. They need to flip around and operate in a very different way. What would it mean if a mediation department in a museum dedicated itself to recognizing rather than explaining? You’d need a whole other set of tools; you’d need to shift the perspective. And it would be a hundred times more important to the institution.
TERESA GLEADOWE I seem to have given myself this role of being the voice of convention. It’s not entirely the case, is it, that people don’t find social engagement in big public museums. You have a need to go into, any of our big public museums in this country where it’s free, on a Sunday afternoon, and it’s a bit like going for a walk in the park. It’s the same kind of sense of social interaction. It’s not, as you were saying earlier, necessarily about you, anymore than you might look at trees and squirrels.
JANNA GRAHAM Completely.
[ end conversation ]
This conversation took place
on Monday, February 18, 2013 within the Curating Contemporary Art course at
the Royal College of Art, London.
IRIT ROGOFF It’s the prerogative of theory to turn questions on their head. And I want to try and start not from art. That’s for two reasons. One is because I think that as long as the entire set of operations revolves around art, then we do have a closed circuit of meanings. Because that’s where the meanings emanate from. So that’s one set of problems.
Then in critical theoretical work, one of the approaches that you always have is that what’s there? What’s visible? What’s legible? What we can name. Is really only a marker for that which is not visible and not legible and unnamable. And so, the fact that the art is so apparent, you know, there on the surface, that it seems to be the reason for reasons, as Maimonides said.
Then I think it’s very important to use that in order to bring in to the arena everything that is far less visible, far less tangible, far less nameable, you know, that is a hugely important part of all of this.
IRIT ROGOFF It’s just that I really think that there is a great deal that we, all of us, don’t know about what the components of the world we’re working in are. I really think the investigation is still at the level of what exactly are the components when some form of exhibiting takes place. What are the infrastructures?
I think that the problem with having art at the center of things is that the inquiry is to find out more about it. Forming an art historical inquiry in which you furnish this center with more and more knowledge that illuminates it.
I’d say the world that I’m more involved with, which is around practice based research, you think of art as an entry point into things that are not art. So you think of this as an opportunity to know things in a different way. Do you know what I mean?
So, very broadly speaking, these are two of the paths around which one can sort of be active around the notion of art. But I’m really very interested in displacing it as the entry point. One of the most interesting things for me now is that when somebody says art, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Because I don’t know if they talking about the Monet show at the Royal Academy, or they’re talking about ten people sitting in a basement reading smudgy Xeroxes. They’re both art, right? There is this kind of vast range of activities and constituencies and affects that furnish the world of art. And there is no differentiation. Somebody always, in every conversation, somebody says the word “art”, and I think, what are you talking about? You know. Which art? Which of the twenty-five models around us are you talking about?
IRIT ROGOFF But why does it appear as art? It’s within circuits of meanings and circuits of commerce and circuits of publicity that set it up as art. It breaks down into intellectual, creative and political practices that we need to name - that’s what I mean that we haven’t named our activities. And because we haven’t done the work of naming them, they coalesce back into something called art.
But these same practices are performative and they are creative and they are political and they are intellectual and they want to appear. So not everything that appears, or desires to appear, necessarily operates under the aegis of art. And that’s one of the things that, I think, is absolutely paramount to attend to.
TERESA GLEADOWE That was a practice long before there was a name for it.
TERESA GLEADOWE -- and Maria was certainly one of the proponents of that. But in a way, one could say that part of what you were doing was to try to overturn some of these conventions and expectations about how an exhibition would be constructed.
And I would say that the primary common denominator was that we all, in different ways, tried to rethink the relationship between art and the rest of the world. And that came across through working slightly differently with the exhibition spaces as well as the institution as a whole.
It was not our primary intention to break up the exhibition as a format, it was the consequence of a much broader and more urgent question, which was what art does.
TERESA GLEADOWE But I think you dramatically symbolized that quest, and made it clear that it was going on by some of the things you did within your specific spaces. For instance, I remember coming to this event that you did in Stockholm, called Exhibition Square. It was a staged discussion that was very, very carefully orchestrated and you know, quite theatrically staged, in a sense, because you had asked people to sign out furniture. And all the furniture was on wheels, so they scooted around. I remember it made for a very unstable --
JANNA GRAHAM Sure. So we set up a space about five years ago called The Center for Possible Studies. This center has had three different locations, a former hair salon, a former curry house, and now a former printing press/mansion home on Gloucester Place, which we’ll be leaving soon.
We’ve been itinerant, but also very much linked to the Serpentine Gallery. The project was set up as a response to an exhibition that took place in a school in the Edgware neighborhood in 2004 called Disassembly. It was an exhibition in which artists like Christian Boltanski and Runa Islam, all did projects in this school that was about to be decommissioned. It was a really important exhibition, it got huge amounts of press attention, and it took a school based project out of the ghetto of invisibility which many school based projects have suffered from and situated it into a public art world consciousness.
We built the Edgware Road Project on the back of the relationships of that project because the people in the school and the community wanted something to continue and we began discussing what that would be. We decided to not base it only in one social institution, but to partner with many social institutions and informal social groups, and to secure an artist in residence program within those spaces.
We invented the Center for Possible Studies because we wanted to use - and maybe this is interesting also in terms of what role does art play in the world that these things would be studies and not art exhibitions or art projects per se, but studies of the possible. So they would try and ask the question of what is impossible in a particular social context, or in some cases what isn’t even being thought about.
In some ways this project was responding to not only the galleries’ restrictions, in which you show things only in a particular way, but also you understand art in a particular way in relation to its outcomes at exhibitions. That’s a conservative idea of what a gallery does. But Edgware tried to address questions of the social landscape itself and how it produces a series of closures and aesthetics around social problems.
So on the one hand, a gallery defines the aesthetic of the look and feel of the art. There is also an aesthetic around the formulation of questions and things that should be studied which are to do with, social problems that are understood from above.
In both contexts I think we were working in some ways against, but within, the traditions and contradictions that we have inherited, and to build on this situation by asking the question: What could be possible in this space?
In the early days, the projects were artist initiated. So an artist would say, okay, I’m going to work with X-group and they would come together and formulate a problem together. More recently, in the last two years, many more projects are being initiated from people in the neighborhood who come and say, “Okay, here’s my possible issue.” and then we match those up with artists or sometimes we guide an aesthetic process within the organization to address that issue.
That production has led to the development of curricula, an exhibition at the gallery a movement against the policing of sex workers during the Olympics, a band, a neo-liberalism study group. The manifestations are quite disparate.
In terms of our relationship to the Serpentine Gallery, of course there is a financial relationship because all of the funding is raised through the gallery and I’m an employee of the Serpentine, so it’s not like a totally radical project, autonomous, out in the world on its own. But also we make use of that space, we have had exhibitions and we’ve had major performances and things like that attached to the gallery when that’s deemed necessary by the groups that work there.
When we enter into that space, Teresa, you’re right, there’s a whole set of conventions that are very difficult to surmount. Not because there is some kind of terrible thing going on there, but there are conventions of production and...
TERESA GLEADOWE And rhythms of exhibition making --
JANNA GRAHAM -- a siege of production. Exactly. And an accelerated speed of production that’s very different to the one we use because, for example not a single project we’ve developed on the Edgware Road has ended. Not one.
JANNA GRAHAM I think that’s the really important thing about all the projects that I work on, which is quite different from the projects that the gallery works on, even the gallery’s education programs, is that the exhibition is the end point of everything. And for me, across every practice I’ve ever worked on, the exhibition is somewhere in the middle. It’s a moment for reflection, for widening the group of people who are involved in trying to understand a problem or an issue. But it’s not the end.
And it was very funny to listen to the reviews about the project because even though we screamed all over the press releases and everything, this is a mid point in our project, everyone said, “Well that Edgware Road Project, now that it’s over, great to see what happened.”
And to have read the exhibition as an exhibition. Many of the critics made claims about the community without having spoken to a single person, which I found also very interesting. What does our criticism produce around socially engaged projects when they enter the exhibition space? Because it’s not only the gallery that produces a set of conventions, it’s also the reading apparati that exists.
I learned that on the one hand, you have to do a lot of work to bring people in and understand those kinds of processes. But also that there was something useful in the exhibition for the people who participated in the projects, and also for different members of the public that I hadn’t anticipated.
TERESA GLEADOWE I think it has been assimilated into many institutions’ practices including some of those conservative mainstream institutions. Although they might not themselves recognize and articulate what’s happened. If you think about Tate, the tanks are a kind of product of thinking that happened in the ‘90s.
I remember when Tate Modern was first being developed, at the end of the ‘90s, there was talk about how they were going to need a black box,that was the term that was used for spaces where the image happens - it didn’t really belong in the gallery. And you know, whilst that conversation was going on, of course you knew moving image had escaped into the gallery. And the idea of them needing a separate space called the black box where this other stuff, performance or whatever, would happen, that was distinct from the gallery space. It just decayed as an idea. Because the practice had actually exceeded any kind of architectural attempt to catch up with it.
TERESA GLEADOWE You could also say that curators of your generation, who have found themselves in very particular spaces and situations, one of the first tasks has been to audit their situations and to think about, very much as you’ve said, what one can do in that particular space? What that space may not be going to be good for. What the audience may or may not be able to support. It’s a study of the contingencies. More and more I’ve become very interested in those contingencies which lead to events which are then post rationalized, maybe, seamlessly into something that looks like a very planned trajectory. And I think that most curators, without talking about it, use that medium of contingency.
IRIT ROGOFF It’s shifting from the idea of public programming to a notion of the public as programmer. It’s not the institution that programs for the public, it’s the public that programs for the institution. By public I mean a very broad spectrum of stakeholders within public cultures. I think of intellectuals, exhibition goers, artists, I think of people, who operate at the level of the material, who operate at the level of policy.
If we start from art, and you make that the locus of everything that opens up, then what you end up with is programming for the public. But I think if you start with the public, then what you might be able to think about is the potential of the public to reprogram the institution, that interests me.
I’m interested in something I call ontological communities, which are just coming into being within a particular moment, in a particular environment. There are a large number of interactions between people that make up the life of the exhibition. The life of the exhibition is not the deteriorating climate control, you know, that surround the objects. The life of the exhibition is the interactions between people gathered in that space, looking at art or not looking at the art or talking to one another.
But it’s not just, you know, okay, so we went to an exhibition, we had a conversation about the art, we created another kind of discourse. But it’s also, when the exhibition, or whatever is on display, making it possible to key into really urgent questions of today.
Then what you have is an ontological community that is produced in relation to that urgent question and not in relation to the exhibition. I think that’s where the community comes from. It’s because it transcends the exhibition, so the exhibition, or the museum space, is a space of focused intensity.
As I come from within the university that also means something important for me, which is the relation to knowledge. Because when you talk about public programming, you talk about knowledge that is very instrumentalized in facilitating between some things on display through some structure of general knowledge to a perceived audience. It’s, set up in a quite formulaic way.
I’m interested in the way in which knowledge moves around at extraordinary speed. And can somehow never really be contained institutionally. So knowledge from the university desperately tries to go everywhere else but the university. Knowledge from the art world desperately tries to go everywhere else but the art world.
And there is a way in which that aspect that you’re talking about, which is the animation of those spaces through modes of public engagement, it’s really for me, moments in which knowledge takes some other form. It starts speaking in another voice and it takes another set of forms.
So, I’m very interested, for example, in exhibitions that were made by philosophers. Not because I think they were great exhibitions in particular, but –-
IRIT ROGOFF No, wait a minute. I am interested in them not because they were great exhibitions. But what I am interested in is how that knowledge spoke differently in that space. That to me is interesting. The way in which - knowledge moves around. It’s forever seeking. Ideas are looking for better company. They’re always unhappy with the company they have. And it’s that restless need to move knowledge around and the way in which exhibitions can plug into that circulation that really interests me.
IRIT ROGOFF But Maria, I have a problem with that at the level of agency. Because I think you’re attributing an enormous amount of agency to the artist and the curator and the displayer ensemble. And, you know, when I said before that we haven’t yet learned to name everything that’s taking place around us, one of the things that, we haven’t named and we don’t know how to study, is precisely those who don’t have a clear named agency.
So this is, for me, far too much emphasis on professional agency and a kind of lack of recognition
IRIT ROGOFF Curator and the artist and the displayer and the sort of the architect of the space. And it’s not that they’re not important, but they are by no means the only players. And all the rest of the players - when we say the public, the audience, some vast, undifferentiated gray mass that we don’t know how to learn except through demographic surveys about the quality of their experience in which they say whether they’re men or women or you know, dentists or astronauts or you know, what age group and so on and so on --
JANNA GRAHAM Or whether they were entertained or not.
IRIT ROGOFF -- and that’s what I’m talking about when I speak of the closed circuit of meaning.
IRIT ROGOFF Maria was saying earlier that she was kept interested in this world of art. We try desperately not to use that word but sometimes I don’t know what to use instead or I would have to use 26 words.
And you know I’d probably say it differently, but I think on the whole, I do agree, it’s a meeting ground between a whole set of unexpected knowledges and experiences and imaginations and performances, which is so very important.
But - if what we are saying is that this world in which we’re operating produces the possibility of a set of unexpected encounters between ourselves and an astronomer, an economist, and an artist, and a designer trying to kind of figure out different perspectives on a problematic through making an exhibition or setting up an already existing body of material. I want to know what the unexpected encounters are between the materials and the encounter. Because I think they’re animate, I don’t think they’re inanimate. I think the material is animate. They produce encounters. I want to know what those encounters are.
I run a PhD program called Curatorial Knowledge. Our students are operating in very different ways now. But twice a week I get an announcement of somebody who started an open academy, a free school, a New Cross Commons.
They go to decommissioned public spaces like public libraries and reuse them in some public way, in some interesting way. Across the last four or five years of MA and PhD students, I think there are upwards of 20 such initiatives. This is how they want to operate. They want to operate in the world of the manifest in some way. They want to self organize rather than be subjugated to the logics of an institution. They want to do something public, and they want to put some kind of materials into action in the world. They’re recasting the materials, they’re recasting the relations.
And I think that what they’re doing is producing a set of unexpected encounters between spaces and audiences and materials and questions. And I think that’s a logic I want to follow. Because they’re willing to give up a lot to do it. And that interests me. They know all about precarity and immaterial label and the logics of cognitive capitalism. They’ve emerged from their studies with every possible aspect of knowledge about these things and they have chosen to operate with these tools in a different way.
So all of that seems to me to be under the rubric of unexpected encounters. And that’s what I am interested in in this world.
IRIT ROGOFF I think that’s something you should address to Janna because it involves intense practices of listening. And I agree with you, there’s a lot that needs to be developed.
IRIT ROGOFF -- of potentials and moments of assembly, as well as in its dark side as the top down vision, Darth Vader style, of what the world should be.
We know already the curatorial has slipped away from the conversation of the art and museum field. So we need to be very conscious that it’s out there activating other realities and that we are in those realities whether we decide to acknowledge them or not.
JANNA GRAHAM But that tension also can be found when you’re sitting in a community center. That’s not just a problem that’s exclusive to the exhibition space.
IRIT ROGOFF But there’s an issue starting from the public. I would say well, how would you know that public? Because the questions that you have at your disposal to ask, as a way of knowing who that public is, are to my mind the wrong questions. How do you come up with the right questions by which you might actually know a public? Not by asking it demographic questions, and certainly not by asking it whether it enjoyed its experience.
JANNA GRAHAM I agree to some extent that galleries don’t perform certain kinds of social experiences. But they do perform other kinds of social experiences that are based in representation.
And I’m going to be conventional on the representation front because the people that I work with, for example, who meet in a coffee group in a council estate, who do everything in their power to hold the space at their coffee group once a week experience a very specific social dynamic.
When they come to the gallery, that’s not what they’re looking for. They sometimes want to show something to the rest of the world what’s happening in that space.
And I think there is a function. There is a kind of empowered position within that says I want to see something, and I want to show it to more people, and I still believe that cultural spaces have a role to play that’s not just about showing their art, but shedding light on something of critical importance.
That representational function produces a different kind of social experience that links the extremely marginalized to a broader kind of constituency, or a constituency with which it doesn’t sit that comfortably.
And I do think if one is working in the context of institutions, it’s important at every step to expose those contradictions and to create a space where there’s where there’s a --
IRIT ROGOFF But Janna, as far as representation goes, there has to be a distinction between you setting up the terms of your presentation and slotting into a category of social, of public, or problematic that has been created for you.
JANNA GRAHAM The answer is a loud yes.
JANNA GRAHAM Can I answer about the kind of minefield and also the use of the arts as a way of keeping people quiet. And I think in the policies of the Edgware Road area, that’s predominantly the way people understand art’s function. Many people do use art very actively and strategically to keep people quiet. And I think anybody working in any kind of urban context, artistically, right now is working in that situation.
There’s a choice that we have to make about how we occupy these positions. We do use the funding that we have to instigate antagonism. There’s no question of that for me. How that happens is different in every situation. Many places I find neighborhoods are not organized, they aren’t organizing committees, they aren’t resisting processes. So you don’t just walk into a community and find a group of people who are ready to go and want to have a fight. Sometimes you actually play much more of an instrumental role in making that happen, or at least connecting people.
I think direct action is like the exhibition in art. Do you know what I mean? Like in activism, direct action is the end point - there is so much that happens before and after a direct action.
IRIT ROGOFF I was thinking of this MA called Global Arts we do and we had a big project about cleaning up King’s Cross Station. We were there for months.
And we came into it with a huge series of completely false assumptions. At a certain point, we were trying to find a place where about 20 of us could sit and look at some maps and talk without having to buy an expensive cup of coffee. So we sat on the floor. Within 40 seconds, every form of security agency operating in the station was there. And it turns out there’s six police forces in King’s Cross Station, which was a complete surprise. So then it became a performance three times a week, we would go and sit on the floor and draw out all of these security
And I was thinking, this is not direct action, and we’re not changing legislature. But something became apparent, both to us and to everybody who was in the station. These unexpected encounters produced other ways of getting into a body of knowledge that isn’t from above. That social activity, that social political activity may not be changing legislation for example about housing, that is not something that I know how to influence, but this other form of action at King’s Crossing Station is something I find quite socially direct.
JANNA GRAHAM If we look at trajectories of political action, historically and contemporary, they never are just about going to the legislature. There is a huge exercise of self-education that needs to happen before that process. And there’s a huge process of trust building and of building social relations that precedes that, which never gets told. Those processes are very infrequently told in heroic narratives of political activism.
But these narratives miss out a huge amount, which is what the feminist movement of the ‘70s said, so that we didn’t just reproduce masculine heroic narratives but that we could also attend to the domestic and social and educational spaces that precede and come after those moments.