In that sense, I feel that beautiful and enviable level of freedom, and sometimes self-indulgency, of the contemporary art world in Europe, which is something that has to be referred to by questioning how it operates in reality. Really, I am making this point given the fact that in Limburg, they do not have big institutions, no bourgeoisie middle-class, so there has to be another kind of exhibition. Beyond that, I think that the contemporary art world and biennials need to push forward, to force an engagement in which art needs to be somehow arguing for the need of the cultural space it occupies; that will actually excite people to support the fact that political structures spend money on culture, and we need to become relevant in a completely different way than being just marketable. And therefore, I think that Documenta also has to start thinking about that. We know a great deal about what has made the contemporary art field possible, particularly in Europe – it was the long-term gift of the post-war political and social arrangement. Now, with the wind of neo-liberal political politics reaching the center, this might be a very serious threat; because the political arrangement is starting to look at some issues, such as health, education and culture, communication, exchange and diversity, and believing that they are not relevant elements nor in the public interest, and that therefore, they don't need to be subsidized and paid for by taxes and the state. It is a beautiful opportunity: everytime that Manifesta happens, there’s a certain social structure that, somehow, is investing in those values. I think that is happening in Limburg, specifically because the local institutions are involved in the deal, and we just need to be able to sustain it for political reasons. I think there is a radicality of the content that we need to focus on there.
Manifesta venue. Press photo
By presenting your curatorial strategy for “Manifesta 9”, you were quite extensively talking about the local, how to address the “real”. You also spoke more about the historical approach, and less about direct action or contemporary art. I find your strategy contemporary, although being not contemporary at all.
Let me try to explain. I think it is very obvious from our conversation that I am not part of the romance with the local. There is a twisted dialectical problem in it as long as it is a questioning of fake universality of modernism and a fake universality of what was effectively an Eurocentric culture; of course, the claiming of the local was the relevance of the specific local bonds of questioning, of specific local works that ought not be marginalized because they were actually busy in their political and their cultural sphere. That relationship with what is locality, I feel is totally different; and most of the time, it's actually contrary to the love of the locality, the claim of identity, the defence of tradition. Sometimes I feel that writers and curators do not make those distinctions. Of course, coming from a place that used to be even geographically wrongly put, but even locally wrongly put in the South, like Mexico, it is important to have a moment that claims the relevance of what was possible to be done there, because that locality has been crossed out of the debate after the moving-in of modernism from the USA, and the branding of everything in the South, and particularly Mexican, as original and therefore, meaningless. So the moment you actually start to have an affirmative argument about locality, you can easily turn it into right-wing populism. You can easily just start to reproduce your own reviewed attachment, the emotional ties with structures of power and forms of claims of tradition that just become reactive to the brutal challenges imposed by the way capitalism keeps on changing. So, somehow in this project, what we are trying to do is to take the extremely exemplary quality of the locality in relation to what is, after all, the only possible universal process (which is changes in living and landscape, as produced by capitalism). Indeed, that is a note that is relating a specific question that has an immediate interest and appeal for a certain local population, which already is a product of a universal process, in what is the mining region built by the immigrant communities at the beginning of the last century, because of the discovery of coal. So as to fortify the questioning of the difference between those different social eras, so as to look into matters, such as coal, beyond the locality of Limburg, beyond the nationalism of the mind, beyond a space of identification; to somehow inscribe the story into a much bigger picture, where we can actually share that story of imprints and changes of the productive system. I believe that in a specific way, the project is trying to be a practical and productive criticism of the romance of locality – by showing that you can actually address that specificity without sliding into cheesy, kitchy politics. I mean, it is very hard to imagine that from the contemporary art field, we could make a claim that could be useful by reinforcing these identities. There’s a completely different business in actually breaking down these identities, taking for granted naturalized, invisible identities produced by the market and the state. When you actually produce the forms of subjectivity that come from the oppressed – taken from the Indians' sub-altered identities, there you are actually dealing with the oppressed and almost erased, claiming their diversity; you are opposing the totalization of the national identity. Along the years, I believe that there is something incredibly wrong and practically dangerous in the easy way – when people classify and take options between localism and cosmopolitanism, between particularism and universalism. It can sometimes be negotiated. How the structure is dealt with the case, how the inscription is standing with the infraction. So yes, I think that is is clear that there has to be an alchemy when you reach both points; with some luck, a biennial needs to make three things on site in order to create a temporary center (this is a simplified dogma, from which I am coming). You need to be able to bring out the questioning on what is contemporary art at large, by following it from practically every corner of the earth and by seeing it as a tendency of the structure of the universalizing capitalism, or “the new cosmopolitanism”. Second, you need to be able to think about moving bodies and minds into places, so that they see something that is not dematerialised; you need to be able, with the same argument and structure, to have a dialogue with a very specific place within a very local social setting which, on top of it all, is actually going to take the risk of investing into this global operation. Instead of inviting them to make the most horrible, contemporary right-wing judgement, which is: “are they paying for this with my taxes”? Everybody who says: “paying with my taxes”, will eventually lead the way to the destruction of the social sphere; what you actually need to say is: “we are very happy to be part of this conversation”. The third level of the debate – which I really consider as the concerns of the kitchen, the matters of the studios – is how they relate to the history of biennials, to the self-referential debate of biennials. Now, how do you bring all of these three levels together? It is really a Hegelian dilemma. It really has to do with making these three things within contradictions, but without collapsing. From the kitchen point of view, to make a biennial possible – it was not feasible for Limburg to make that claim. It could not work for the global art world unless the local audience would consider that contemporary art is relevant. And we better pack our suitcases, go home and do something else; as curators, we try not to do things.
Manifesta venue. Press photo
It struck me how similar structures, which had the same power in the last century, and economical structures intertwined with the state. Economical power overtook the power of the state and restructured the flows of people, the flows of bodies; and the same is happening now. There's tension in saying: “our people are going somewhere”, when in reality, the people are mining the same coal, but this time – in the service industries.
To arrive to the questions that you just posed is the goal of this project. Putting those questions forward from the beginning would prevent them from arising; as if I would make an exhibition making those claims, rather than making them arise. Indeed, what is important in looking back into the region (which we are not doing, but it will happen with the audience coming from all over the place), is to actually notice that in the period when people projected these fantasies of the relationship between hegemonic national building and industrial development in Europe, you were actually building multicultural societies based on long-distance migrant workers, foreigners. This place was full of foreigners in 1925 (it is quite shocking) who actually created the conditions of industrialization in Europe; therefore, the process continues, because we are under the same cultural regime. How these flips in relation to ideological components of state formations, how much of the state power lies in the hands of the elected members of the political class or the non-elected board members of the global companies, or the power of the social biological control brought by the conjunctions of contemporary discourses about the body and development of biological techniques, that changes. But ultimately, there has to be reflection on a slightly longer historical span to think on those issues and to act on them. The show is not historical – we are trying to do a contemporary art exhibition that has to do with the thinking that composes this place. Which cannot be taken that there is en epistemological game in what contemporary art has meant; and we can depart from that knowledge, from those questions, to look at other fields. We have a historical art exhibition, “The Age of Coal”, which is infused with the kind of way in which contemporary artworks are thought to be, so that the questions that we take for granted, we need to make about the world. In some ways, we are trying to review the previous art objects, their metonymic significance, how the materials that they are using can be the material of a certain social context, how they are sensible to the changes of social society in aesthetics, not in their narrative or subject matter. Historical art exhibition is infused with the contemporary.