Monday, April 21, 2008

Nicolas Bourriaud and Karen Moss

Nicolas Bourriaud and Karen Moss
Part I and II

Interviewed by Stretcher

French theorist Nicholas Bourriaud, a curator at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and curator Karen Moss, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the San Francisco Art Institute, settled down with Stretcher inside an artwork by Andrea Zittel to discuss the role of curators in contemporary art. Zittel's Pit Bed was installed in SFAI's galleries as part of Bourriard's exhibition TOUCH: Relational Art from the 1990's To Now, an exploration of the interactive works of a new generation of artists. The exhibition was a springboard for Moss and Bourriard to discuss Bourriard's book about relational esthetics, changing curatorial practices and notions of the new. But it was a surprising practicality � museum hours � that opened the discussion.
- Ella Delaney

Stretcher: Palais de Tokyo has unusual hours, noon to midnight. That simple shift changes the gallery into a more social space. In effect, it embodies the notion of relational aesthetics at an institutional level. How does relational aesthetics change what you do as curators?

NB: There are two ways of building an institution. One way is to build a jewelry box to present objects and the other one is to conceive of it as an open market where everything is removable and you can change things all the time. That was the main idea at Palais de Tokyo. I think we cannot present art the way we did in the last century because now we're in 2002. We have to start from people's behaviors and the way they live. The idea with Palais de Tokyo was to adjust the art institution to the way people live in their city and obviously, it had to be open until midnight.

KM: One of the most successful programs at Walker Art Center was called "Late Night in Gallery 8," an after-hours music series that John Killacky did. If you can't change the box, you can somehow shift the time to allow for a different kind of social interaction. I think here most museums close at six o'clock on their regular nights and eight o'clock on their late nights. It's ridiculous. Young people are starting to go to clubs at midnight. If we want people to continue to occupy social spaces within an art context, they have to be open late.

NB: There is a huge contrast between the hours of the museums and their purpose. They keep the same hours as banks, post offices or businesses, but they offer entertainment. Just think about a movie theatre which closed at six � the whole industry would collapse! For me art is something you want to do as a social, recreational activity rather than a kind of transaction/administration.

Stretcher: Karen, tell us about the class you and Nicholas are teaching in conjunction with the exhibition.

KM: It's called "Art Meets Everyday Life - Social Interaction and Relational Aesthetics." The class was conceived to coincide with Nicolas' exhibition, which had been in the planning for eighteen months. We wanted to get students involved not only in coming to the gallery, but in the artistic practices that relational aesthetics proposes. The seminar started with a few weeks of historical background. We talked about how artists in the 1960s and '70s were concerned with redefining or de-defining art, with dematerializing work and consciously going outside the gallery and museum system. Younger artists today have had that work done for them. They have the freedom to do relational work because they want to, not because they have to.

NB: In the 1960s and '70s artists invented new tools. I think my generation and the upcoming generation of artists consider the history of art as a toolbox.

Stretcher: So history has changed from baggage to toolbox.

KM: Interesting. Yes, absolutely.

NB: It's no longer a weight. Paradoxically, if you don't care about the new, you can make new things.

KM: One of the questions that a student asked Nicholas was, "Is the idea of relational aesthetics a manifesto?" And you had a great answer.

NB: The idea of a manifesto is totally related to the idea of newness and novelty. Instinctively I find it ridiculous. I wouldn't be able to explain why, but it's out of purpose for me. I'm not trying to relate to the old form of the manifesto. I didn't think about it.

Stretcher: I hear so often from students that everything has been done.

NB: People already said that in the twelfth century. This pressure of the new is something which is quite new in history. But it was not a determinant interrogation for artists for centuries. And it didn't make them repeat things. People like Vermeer and Velasquez did new things, but they didn't think about "newness" specifically because it was not of value for them. The new as a value is something which is gone now.

Stretcher: So what's replacing it?

NB: I think that maybe the idea of being relevant, of being useful, of being pertinent is more important to artists than just doing something new � new in what sense actually? It's like the Guinness World Book of Records. What really good artists do is to create a model for a possible world, and possible bits of worlds.

KM: I like your term micro-utopia.

NB: Avant gardes were about utopias. How is it possible to transform the world from scratch and rebuild a society which would be totally different. I think that is totally impossible and what artists are trying to do now is to create micro-utopias, neighborhood utopias, like talking to your neighbor, just what's happening when you shake hands with somebody. This is all super political when you think about it. That's micro-politics.

Stretcher: It's very demanding of the artist.

NB: What's an artwork? Any artwork materializes a relation to the world; if you see a Vermeer or a Mondrian, it's concretized, materialized, visible in relation to the world that they had. You can decode and interpret for yourself and use it for your own life. Or for your work if you're an artist. It's a chain of relations. History of art is about that � a chain of relations to the world. So, any artwork is a relation to the world made visible.

Stretcher: About this new relationship between the artist and their audience, Christine Hill, one of the artists in TOUCH, said the other night. "I really wanted to be there to hear what my audience had to say." I know so many artists who are working in their studios who feel that after they put their work out there they're completely removed from it. They never hear anything back. It's as if you throw it into the void ....

KM: It's true for curators as well. You do have a certain voyeuristic opportunity when you are in a space and you can watch spectators viewing the work, or you receive response back if there's a publication. But often you don't get feedback. That's why having the artist present [Ed. note: three of the artists in TOUCH spent time in the gallery as part of their work] is so intriguing. It's not an artist shipping a work, you have people actually here. This was also true with some other exhibitions I've personally been involved with like In the Spirit of Fluxus at the Walker. Or the John Cage exhibition at MOCA in LA. The live action becomes really important to the beginning of the exhibition. It is also interesting how few of the artists in this exhibition are involved with technology. While their work may somehow comment on the technological, they are not much involved with technology, which is refreshing.

NB: They just use it.

KM: They use it, but they're not commenting on it.

NB: But their way of thinking was totally modified by the Internet and e-mail. I was never really impressed by any interactive high technology artwork. I think the best of Internet went into artworks which don't clearly use it, but use its possibility in order to think differently.

KM: But, speaking of technology, in your book Post-Production, you talk about the sampler, the hacker and the programmer as different mechanisms for assembling the toolbox of history in a new context. Because of the conundrum of not being able to produce anything new, I find it interesting that your proposal for art is post-production � mining previously made work and recontextualizing it. That is what, if anything, could be considered new, the recontextualization of the already-made. I think that Post-Production is such an interesting follow-up to Relational Aesthetics.

NB: It's a prologue, in a way. Ten years ago, it would have been completely impossible to consider a DJ as an artist for example. Now, it's normal. Nobody would even think of saying "you're already playing pre-existing records, so you're not an artist." That's vanished. The idea of the artist as a kind of demi-god creating the world from a blank sheet of paper is something that has just vanished from our every day culture. The fact that the DJ or programmer or artist uses already existing forms in order to say what they want to say is something that is certainly the most important thing at the moment because it totally goes beyond the art world.

KM: And this is why the institutional frame has to shift. Because it's not just that the work is interdisciplinary. It is a complete overlap between all different forms of art and entertainment that need new and more open spaces to exist because they're not separable in any way any longer. I imagine that the spaces for exhibiting art will feel more like clubs. There's an example here � 111 Minna � it's a club but there's art there as well. One begins to see the breaking down of those barriers. And one wonders when one is in a white cube what one needs to do. Sitting in this pit bed disrupts the box of this gallery space. I think more and more that is what has to happen to accommodate this kind of post-productive work.

Stretcher: Back to the role of curators in creating the new institutions that you are talking about. Nicholas, you come from the discipline of philosophy. You didn't follow an art history and academic track. I think that may have facilitated your finding a different perspective to all these issues. Artists have been making this work, yet it took someone from outside the discipline to put a different light on it.

NB: I think the most important thing is you don't have to be intimidated by knowledge and by history. Most people's relation to history can be summed up by this image of somebody trying to walk into a room with a lot of porcelain and fragile things and not wanting to break any of them. It's super-precious and it has to be kept exactly like it is. I think all these artists do exactly the opposite. Which is they don't care about any historical object, they just use it and try to understand what's in it. And these are two different ways of seeing history � first as a commodified history, doing nothing to change it - or revisiting it all the time and feeling totally free.

KM: And I think curators are changing, the shift is not just because the artistic practices are changing and artists are changing. I was trained as a traditional art historian. Because I went to graduate school once in my twenties and once much later, and in between worked in museums, I was between the generation in which people were trained in extremely narrow art historical ways and curators were still largely connoisseurs, and the new trend. I've worked in traditional museums, but I've also had the good fortune to work in a lot of alternative artist spaces or museums that weren't really museums. I think that it enabled me to be someone who presented work that was not as traditional. But there's still a real schism within institutions. Because what you have are people who were trained in a linear, formalist, modernist way. And now you have younger people coming in who have studied cultural history, they've studied visual culture, they've studied architecture, philosophy � and I think this is a very good thing for the field.

Nicolas Bourriaud and Karen Moss
Part II

Interviewed by Stretcher

In Part II of our Face-Off with Nicolas Bourriaud, a curator at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and Karen Moss, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the San Francisco Art Institute, we continue discussing how architectural, institutional, curatorial, educational and economic structures need to change to facilitate the new forms of art production.

Karen Moss: I think a lot of museums are rebuilding their buildings, because they are realizing again that the architectural imperative is not conducive to doing this kind of work.

Stretcher: So what kind of architecture would be appropriate?

Nicolas Bourriard: Any. It's not the shape � it's what you do within the shape.

KM: I meant places that still have very small discrete galleries that are not flexible. You have to activate them.

NB: Exactly � it's what you do inside.

S: Is the new curatorial studies program here going to reflect this kind of thinking? And what would you say to those who think that curatorial studies programs are a less serious program than art history programs?
KM: Curatorial studies programs need to exist now is because contemporary artists are so diverse. If you're working with living artists, you're dealing with a completely different set of power structures and processes than if you're working with historical material. Before, the curator was there to merely select from what an artist had already produced. In the contemporary context, if you're working with artists who are working with different forms, it's more of a collaboration, a negotiation, a co-production. I was really lucky because my first curatorial internship was at Berkeley Art Museum when David Ross was the curator, so I learned the administrative aspects of an exhibition in a way that was quite different than it would have been in a traditional museum. One of the very first things I did when I was there was work on a Terry Allen and Jo Harvey Allen performance series. I had to find a regulation boxing ring and four-inch spike-heeled shoes for Jo Harvey Allen. That's not typical curatorial practice.

S: Is that true for your work also, Nicolas?

NB: Absolutely.

KM: I can think of a very specific example. We originally wanted to Christine Hill to do a walking tour of San Francisco. You heard in her talk the other night that she's set up a tour guide office in Manhattan. Unfortunately the time frame did not allow her to spend the amount of time that she would have needed in order to really get to know San Francisco. The whole point of that project is that she spends a lot of time getting to know, inside out, every tiny aspect of the neighborhood so the tour becomes more about the idiosyncratic qualities. And we have a lot of idiosyncraties in this neighborhood. There was a negotiation about doing a different project that would be more site specific, more conducive to this environment. And because Christine does not create objects, there is also a negotiation about what an artist is paid for their time and their work. The issues are production and labor, not about commodity objects, which is also interesting.

S: How do the economics or economic relationships or structures in museums need to change to facilitate this different kind of art production?

KM: Nicolas and I have very different situations in our respective institutions. An art school allows a certain freedom. We are not dependent on selling objects in the Walter McBean Galleries, nor on supporting the program for a public that is coming to consume. We are here primarily for students; for the larger public, we offer an educational opportunity to learn something new about art that they would not necessarily see in a commercial gallery or a larger non-profit space such as a museum. So, it's a great luxury. On the other hand, it presents challenges because our budgets are not at the same level that one would have in a larger museum. Nicolas, maybe you should talk about your arrangement with the Palais de Tokyo.

NB: Again, it's a non-profit organization which is important. It's the same symbolic structure as any French museum. But the fact is, we are totally free from any political power. I'm not employed by the government, I'm employed by an association which is totally different. My boss is the board and actually we set the board up ourselves.

KM: You're able to choose your own bosses.

NB: That's what we did � literally. It was an exciting opportunity to set up an organization from scratch which is something you never normally have. Normally, you integrate into something, you're in the middle of a process and then you have to cope with what your predecessors did. I didn't have this problem.

KM: The American system is very different from France's national museum system, where everything is part of a ministry. American museums have changed considerably in terms of the market and marketing. And I think one of the most difficult things about being in a large museum in this country is that you do not have the government sponsorship that you have with the national museum system. Museums here are largely driven by private contributions since the government monies are less available. Private contributions are largely driven by marketing efforts and also by what we euphemistically call "alternative revenue" which means bookstores and caf�s. The problem with American museums is that at the same time they're trying to expand audiences, they are becoming sites of commerce and consumption, particularly in the arena of the bookstore and the caf�. That's not necessarily bad, but it does put pressure on curators, because marketing forces and the forces of development are always knocking on one's door.

NB: We all know that the most important things in art history in the last forty or fifty years were not popular. So what do we do?

KM: Using the commercial places in a museum could be really productive. It can create a locus. I think for instance, that Benjamin Weil [new media curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] has used the social space, like the lobby, for various events. When I was at the Walker Art Museum, we were very successful in dovetailing the programs that the curators were generating with spaces that allowed a greater flow between different activities.

NB: For me, the restaurant and the bookshop are an important part of the project. Super important. We are trying to develop very interactive situations, between the boutiques and caf� and the activities of the space of the art center. What is now the restaurant will be transformed into a self-service caf�. And then next December we'll have the real restaurant open on the Avenue of President Wilson. It's important to provide visitors with books, objects, games � whatever � as kind of a sweet preceding the medicine.

S: This is probably oversimplifying things dreadfully. I have a European friend who says artworks like those in this show [Touch, an exhibition informed by Bourriard's theory of relational aesthetics] are commonly shown in Europe. Whereas here ...

NB: That is optimistic!

S: Nostalgic, maybe.

KM I think it's true. Someone like Ben Kinmont [an artist in Touch] says that he's been's showing almost exclusively in Europe, although he lives in the United States.

NB: He had a show in New York � but I curated it actually.

KM: Many of these artists whose work is more relational, performative, emphemeral, or interhuman are not as well-accepted in the context of the strictures at American institutions. The other thing is Americans have an edifice complex. It's so often about the building and the social aspects, like who patronizes the museum, and I don't know how you change that, because that's a much bigger cultural shift. It really gets backs to an educational problem.

NB: On the other hand, the European idea of America is that people here are very much more receptive to new things, new ideas.

KM: I do think people are open here � especially younger people. But I also think there are issues about who goes to museums. You told me a very interesting story about the fact that, because you're open from noon to midnight, lots of people who don't normally go to museums � like everyday workers � go into the museum. I am curious about what their reactions to the art.

NB: It really depends � there's no typical reaction to it � that's the lesson also � the reaction is totally diverse.

KM: But you have a very diverse audience too. There's no specific age range.

NB: Not really. I have the results of a study of the audience of Palais de Tokyo, but it doesn't give many clues about the typical visitor. It's very balanced between ages and social conditions, etc. It's mainly Parisians and foreigners, more than the people from the rest of France.

KM: That says something. We were having a conversation about all the activities that are being organized in upstate New York around the place that David Ross is doing up in the Hudson River Valley and they were saying the profile of the visitor there was likely to be New York City people or foreign travelers. The point is that the average American is not as educated in the arts and so it's a harder thing to say, "if we open our museums from noon to midnight that we will get a much more diverse audience", because there is still that educational issue.

NB: On the other hand, being educated in the arts doesn't mean that you can more easily understand the art works which are, for example, in this room. Sometimes it just makes them think "this is not art" because they think they know what art is. It can be good also not to know anything about art.

S: Let's go back to the idea of economics for a just a little bit; we'll play devil's advocate for a moment. Let's say an artist makes an object that someone wants to buy. They want it, give the artist money � that's the base of one kind of economic structure. It seems as if relational aethetics involves an underlying assumption that the money comes from somewhere else, like maybe government funding or granting. What actually becomes the economic structure through which the artist is supported?

NB: The funny thing is that most of the works here belong to private collections.

S: But, at the roundtable discussion you made the point that this is the after-effects of the actual piece of art. The transaction is the actual piece of art.

NB: What do you buy when you buy an artwork? Do you buy shape and colors or do you buy an experience? You buy an experience � otherwise you can buy anything else. If you're buying an experience, then this experience can take many, many forms and it doesn't necessarily have to be an object. It can be something you can use, it can be something you have to do. There are many possibilities that feed the relationship between the artist and the collector, or the artist and the museum curator.

KM: A lot of artists are utilizing the issue of service, like Christine Hill. The first time you met her, Nicolas, she gave you a back massage. Now she's "shown" the Volksboutique in various forms. So it's about performing the service. Her personal economy revolves around her different "organizational ventures" and the fees she's paid as an honorarium for a service.

NB: Criticizing this kind of art because it doesn't provide an object would mean that any enterprise which doesn't produce objects is irrelevant which is not the case. It doesn't work that way in real life. So why would it work that way in the art world?

KM: But speaking of the art world, the other interesting part of this show from an historical vantage point, is the early 1990s was the time when the art market crashed and so it allowed a certain freedom on the part of younger artists not to worry about some superstructure of the market because the market had collapsed so they started their own galleries

NB: Which was the case in the 1970s, also.

KM: The other interesting aspect of artists in this show is they don't have the same issues that artists from the 1960s and 1970s had about making a living through their art. Some of the artists who have the anchor pieces in the show have major gallery representation and are shown in major international exhibitions. They may have started out quite anti-commodity or ephemeral, but at this point it's less of a problem for them to be represented and sell their work. There are some younger artists in the show for whom that's not the situation � who explicitly do not have representation by choice. They show with galleries, but they're not represented.

S: That's the question � the gallery structure as we now know it is a collecting structure. And is that an appropriate economic interface?

NB: I think yes. Absolutely. If you're a good gallerist you don't sell a painting as an object. If you do, you're really a bad gallerist. You sell it for what it is which is a really complex and rich network of the idea of experience, the idea of history, ways of thinking, etc. It is not only an image on a canvas.

KM: Which is why the collector is someone who buys the art because they understand it's one of many nodes on that network as opposed to something to be consumed for monetary value. Which takes an enlightened collector.

S: Anything else?

KM: It's really interesting to utilize this pitbed.

NB: Welcome to the Moss Mansion!

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