Only One Thing Worse Than Awkward Silence: Small Talk[i]
This letter launches the curatorial journal that accompanies WCSCD featured as part of Supervizuelna’s online magazine. The journal is structured as a platform for the critical reflections of the curators participating in the course. These reflections will thus enter the public realm and create an open dialogue in relation to curatorial practices ¾ as title beautifully teases at, which is borrowed from a work by Saša Tkačenko.
On June 27, 2018, we hosted the launch of the project with a public lecture by the director and chief curator of De Appel Niels Van Tomme at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, which was very important for our small team.
This present form of address, the letter, is inspired by Niels Van Tomme’s talk and his transformation of the De Appel newsletter into a letter format, which offers a more personal note to the publication. We hope this journal will likewise invite a more personal connection to its readers and followers, as well as with and between its contributors.
The idea to invite Van Tomme to speak about De Appel came naturally, since De Appel has been educating multiple generations of curators since 1994, many of whom are now running institutions around the world today. Furthermore, Van Tomme’s direction and vision of the institution represents an important and highly relevant shift in terms of how we think about institutions that warrants further reflection and engagement. In many ways it goes against the mainstream logic of institutional visions, which are geared towards the speed of consumption of the institutional program.
One of the most important takeaways from Van Tomme’s talk was the constant reminder that institutions today should remain dynamic, as the world around us is also constantly on the move.
So, the journal launches with Whispers by Niels Van Tomme; whispers about institutions and the possibilities and impossibilities for their self-reflection. The act of whispering was a crucial part of Van Tomme’s public talk and as a result I invited him to edit an iteration of the journal around this idea. At the same time, I also invited Neva Lukić to contribute a text. Lukić is a curator based between Zagreb and Rotterdam and is one of the curators of the WCSCD course in 2018. I have invited Lukić to provide critical reflection and try to somehow situate the talk by Van Tomme within the local context.
Thankfully, the very frustrating period of constantly thinking and rethinking how to make the WCSCD course happen is behind us now, especially from the perspective of fundraising, as this is an independent project. There was also a lot of work to be done in terms of formulating the institutional vision at the outset, which will serve for future years to come and help guide team building. We can tell you in a whisper that we have a clear vision for now, but of course we will also remain dynamic and on the move!
Our curatorial colleagues who will be attending the course begin arriving next week in Belgrade (starting September 7, 2018) where they will be situated for three months and will also be contributors to the journal. In fact, their functions are many as they will also serve as tutors, give public talks, and hold closed door workshops for the curators in the course.
The next letter for this journal will be a critical reflection from WCSCD curators related to the October Salon, the first thematic unit of the course for early September, followed by a number of other foci that will attempt to avoid small talk, and instead provide more critical reflection on curatorial practices for public consideration.
Founder of What Could Should Curating Do curatorial course
Whispers from ‘The Walking Institution: The Curatorial Programme’
Niels Van Tomme
How do contemporary art institutions walk?
A path that leads from the West to the Southeast
Several months ago I met a man. His face was gaunt and bony, with two blue eyes protruding, almost like an insect’s. He told me that the last ten years of his life have been spent walking…«Only» walking? Yes, walking…walking without a goal, without an urge to immigrate, to posses or to conquer. Crossing roads and penetrating forests, with no money in his pockets, feeling kindred to street dogs, adding an invisible, underground «fourth dimension» to our society.
Shortly there after, Niels Van Tomme, the director and chief curator at De Appel (from 2016 onward), an Amsterdam-based contemporary institution with a pioneering curatorial program, gave a lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade titled The Walking Institution (the Curatorial Program). The starting premise of the lecture, actually its main quote, was the paraphrase of Woody Allen, from the film Annie Hall (only that Allen was referring to a romantic relationship): An art institution is a bit like a shark: if it doesn’t move, it dies. De Appel (1974-ongoing) continuously re-stages itself to always remain in flux (…) In 2016, De Appel almost closed due to the cultural and post-crisis political context, and in 2017 it had to move from the center of Amsterdam to the periphery due to a lack of funding and permanent exhibition venue. To quote Van Tomme «The moment I arrived at the organisation, it had become too big; the consecutive crushing down and ensuing crisis had already happened. Some people (patriarchal funders) had wanted its death. Others, including myself, believed in a workable future for the organisation, albeit in a resolutely different way.»
An art institution in continuous motion, changing its «scenes,» «spaces» and «actors,» opening its space for debate, research and community. The participle «walking» refers to the on-going act, perpetuum mobile, that doesn’t stop… a kind of expression of both freedom and confinement, which does not necessarily need to include the notion of (neoliberal) speed, progress and growth. And, when would an institution actually be dead; would it die even when left to decay? The flux requiring a continuous effort, or the flux, in Heraclitean terms, happening by itself, like the nature…(?) There are different possible meanings and layers that this participle can open when connected to the term «a contemporary art institution», especially when simultaneously putting on the table both Western European and Southeast European contexts.In this case we are mainly concentrating on Croatian and Dutch institution(s), taking them as par excellence, blatant examples also for the wider Western or Eastern European and Balkan regions. Unlike the Netherlands, a country with a continuous capitalist system proclaimed (the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815), Croatia, in the form of two Yugoslav states, first had a period of undeveloped capitalism, then socialism, and is currently, as an independent state,going through the phase of post-socialist/transitional capitalism.
As it is known, most museums have been imagined and created since the 18th century onward by the Western mind and all (contemporary) art institutions, wherever in the world, have their roots in the Enlightenment period. They all basically follow similar institutional models. As Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez argues:«none of the art institutions today should pretend they have been built out of neutrality of the white cube and its Western enlightenment legacy, as if it bears no relation to the material and cultural foundations in the system of centuries-long exploitation of the Global North towards the Global South.»
But still, how an art institution «will walk» differs in these two geographically very close contexts,though today, due to the ubiquitous capitalist neoliberal system and globalization processes,there are also more and more similarities.We can take De Appel as a Western example (in the Netherlands also Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam and BAK in Utrecht follow similar institutional models). De Appel was founded in the 1970s as a reaction to the lack of platforms and possibilities to exhibit contemporary art practices at the time,like performance, video and conceptual art. Its first director, Wies Smals, was «averse to the idea of the institutionalization.» With time this «aversion» grew bigger, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, into the widespread phenomenon called «new institutionalism» (or, according to some, for instance, to the curator and the director of the Van Abbemuseum, Charles Esche: «experimental institutionalism»),which seeks alternative forms of institutional activity and observes the exhibition as a social project. These types of institutions are usually politically and socially engaged, somewhat«anti-institutions,» and are profiled.In Croatia there is no proper parallel for this model (and the program of the contemporary art institutions is in principle much more general and less specific and profiled), they only exist in a reduced form, as smaller cultural institutions such as Gallery Nova in Zagreb, which was opened in 1975 with the radical program of modernist avantgarde artists and also different conceptual artists belonging to «new art practices.» Since 2003, the gallery has been led by the curatorial team What, How & for Whom/WHW whose projects are viewed as platforms of socially engaged models of cultural production and reflections of social realities. Similar to De Appel, they do not concentrate on a specific medium, they do not necessarily make exhibitions, but choose the best way of presenting art practices, such as film programs, radio shows, journals, public interventions, and so forth.
This brings us to different ways of how we can imagine a particular (contemporary) art institution to be «walking.» «Walking» can definitely happen through political space (symptomatic of Croatia and ex-socialist Southeast European countries resulting from the change of governments and political systems), through exhibition space itself (buildings which house art institutions), and, of course, through its program (which can «walk» throughout different media and locations).
If we want to take a walk through political space, we can follow the route of Meštrović Pavilion, a building in Zagreb which makes a perfect example. In 1990, one year before Croatia was recognized as an independent state, the ownership of the building was returned to the Association of Croatian Artists for the first time after roughly fifty years. Already in 1941 the building was transformed into a mosque (during the NDH-Independent State of Croatia, which was a World War II fascist puppet state), and from 1945 until 1990, the «Museum of the Revolution» was situated there (during the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,which consisted of Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro).
It is very difficult to gain (institutional) stability in a region with such a turbulent history?! Wanting to or not, an institution (and not only it) definitely walks! Without going anywhere, one changes different countries, such as, for example, my grandfather (born in 1915) who spent all his life in Zagreb but lived in six different states:the Austria-Hungary Empire (until 1918), the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (1918), the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918–1941), the Independent State of Croatia (1941–1945), the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–1991) and the Republic of Croatia (since 1991).One could thus consider the institution and the country as a kind of «time machine»…
Speaking about an exhibition space (a building where an art institution is accommodated) it is interesting to note how the buildings of art institutions in two different European regions «stand still» and/or «walk» in different ways. In Croatia, it takes decades for a museum, for example, to move from a rented space to a building of its own (and the same model can be applied to the entire governmental sector), which logically also affects the program of the institution and the general state of mind of the employees. For example, the last museum of contemporary art, which in 2017 finally, after numerous political turmoil, moved to its new address (the former Rikard Benčić sugar refinery factory), was the one in Rijeka. Some employees thought that the day of the move would never come and that the factory building would never get refurbished. A wonderful combination of John Ruskin’s romantic approach and Kafkaesque-Buzzati literature!The entire process is indeed reminiscent of Buzzati’s novel The Tartar Steppe in which an officer spends his entire working life guarding an unmaintained fortress, awaiting the barbarian horde to come!On the other hand, even if the Netherlands can be taken as an example of a Western country where urban space rapidly changes, and things (i.e buildings!) move and grow faster,there are also institutions that are «homeless,» that is, they do not have a building assigned to them. The institutions such as the art institute De Appel sometimes «have to walk away» from the center, mainly owing to the permanent and severe subsidy cuts in the Netherlands (which,despite general dissatisfaction and protest, caused closure of some institutions back in 2011).An institution without a permanent exhibition space, De Appel has been successively located in different buildings since the year it was established in the 70s. The last time this art institution changed its address was in 2017 when its offices, its Curatorial Program and its Archive were relocated from the famous building on Prins Hendrikkade street in the center of the city to Broedplaats Lely in Amsterdam Nieuw-West, a predominantly working class migrant neighborhood,which is now going through a process of rapid gentrification. Due to budget cuts, the former building was not affordable anymore. Luckily, as Tomme said, the Broedplaats Lely building was recently proclaimed to be a historical monument, so it will not be pulled down!
Unlike the Croatian Association of Artists (HDLU), which got back its building,or even the Nova Gallery that for now manages to keep its rent-free gallery space in spite of continuous turmoil, De Appel had to move to a more affordable location—a pragmatic move.Although the example of HDLU may seem excellent, they, for instance, do not have enough funds to maintain a grand, monumental building like the Meštrović Pavilion. In Croatia, and in other former Yugoslav countries, a lot of museums are in a similar position, like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, for instance. It is also important to note how the Broadplaats Lely building (where there are also many other associations, art studios, etc., located) gives a different impression of de Appel as an institution from the previous «Prins» Hendrikkade one. For a common visitor, de Appel has now become more approachable and closer to people from different levels of society.
De Appel invites neighboring residents of different backgrounds to participate in its (exhibition) program and it created a nomadic program (called De Appel acts) throughout Amsterdam in order to penetrate different social groups and levels of society, and to reflect on questions like: What does it mean to be an institution without a permanent exhibition space and to explore its firm, but yet unfixed organizational identity? As Van Tomme said: «The De Appel that walks, listens to new stories. These are the stories of the people who previously might have not been involved in the institution and who have been left behind by the logics of capital. Neighbours, neighbourhood schools, neigbourhood organizations in the predominantly migrant working class context. This has brought De Appel to choose new communication and education strategies. »For instance, for the opening reception of Kurdish-Iraqi artist Hiwa K’s exhibition, people from Amsterdam’s Kurdish community spontaneously brought their instruments and played music on the occasion. Prompted and inspired by that event, De Appel started to organize educational programs under the name Ensemble to share the inspiration and different knowledge related to specific exhibitions and to open its program to people who usually do not take part in the art scene.
This special event also triggers the eternal question of the «global versus local», which was also touched upon in the Q&A after Van Tomme’s lecture, and which also affects the way contemporary art institutions work and how they create their programs. According to Van Tomme, the periphery and center are an old binary, and curating allows you to look at the world from a radically different perspective, regardless of political divisions, geography, or history. Naturally, today the Internet has transformed the world into «a global village», but according to the writer of this text, there is still a difference between the global and the local, between the center and the periphery. Some cities are still more peripheral than others in the following terms: they are less international in their population (for instance, in Zagreb there are fewer minorities than in Amsterdam). Simply, to go back to Nataša Petrešin Bachelez’s quote from the beginning and to remember Brian O’Doherty’s reminder that a gallery space not as a neutral container, but a historical construct, we should remember that the global still depends on political divisions, geography, and history.The global is the (Western) mindset and world outlook. The mindset of curiosity, of being the center of the world. Global is when we exit a museum and find local people of different nationalities in the street and hear different languages being spoken. Global is the Tower of Babel where languages mix, but English language still rules. Global brings international directors to art institutions to create international programs in the same English language. Global is connected to wealth and power and brings capital. Global is the responsibility to different nations living in the country, whether they are «brain drain» expats, or the people from former colonies, or immigrants from crisis-stricken countries, and this is probably one of the reasons why the work of artists/theorists/curators with such backgrounds often refer to political questions and to the question of identity and migration—if they want to be globally established…
The local and global are indeed not about where an art institution is located, it is stronger than that. There is a metaphor for the Van Abbemuseum that «Van Abbe is bigger than Eindhoven itself.» Global means to succeed in creating the world in itself and on its own even on a deserted island by bringing international directors, artists, programs, and publics, and also never forgetting the local. Global is when local is global.
In countries without this kind of political, historical, and financial background, it is difficult to create a permanent feeling of a global art scene; this is why non-academic international curatorial courses like the recently launched What Could/Should Curating Do (in Belgrade) and the WHW Academy, a new international art study program (in Zagreb), are important for local art scenes. Just like the De Appel Curatorial Program and some residencies and art academies around the world, they aim to bring international «walking art professionals» to these cities on along-term basis and to introduce different challenges and modes of thinking into the established routine of the specific local art scene.
A «walking institution» consisting of curious «walking art professionals» should always remain faithful to itself on different levels and it should, as Van Tomme says, «walk against the flow of the very specific political, cultural and societal context in which the institution finds itself». Whether that refers to the capitalist growth scenario (always more and more public, visitors, programs, etc.), or listening to the stories of the people forgotten by the society, it should remain aware of the fact that sometimes there is a thin line between «listening to stories» and «having the rights to somebody else’s story». In the article Museums in Movement? Mobilities and Migration in Current Exhibitions in Europe, Kerstin Poehls talks about the burgeoning exhibitions in Europe on migration (which could easily be called «walking exhibitions!»). It says that the suitcase (as the object of the exhibition) is used so frequently that it has turned into heavy luggage in itself. The term «heavy luggage» can also engage different ethical questions; exhibitions carrying harsh political statements can also be ethically arguable. On the other hand, lately in Croatia, there have been some mild cases of «censorship» (which is not even real censorship, but an excuse for certain personal interests), or «pre-censorship». The first one refers to the recent Gallery of Fine Arts (Osijek) story where a certain photograph of lascivious motive caused the dismissal of the director. The other is my personal experience of «pre-censorship» when I was recently setting up the exhibition in the Croatian Association of Artists. The reconstruction of the building is currently a hot issue in Croatia because, according to different professionals, it is not being executed properly;its stairs are not being refurbished according to the rules of the profession. After different excuses and bureaucratic stalling, the artist Hannes Zebedin couldn’t use the stone (waste material belonging to former stairs) for his site specific work inside the building. Therefore, with this act, the institution, by its controversial stairs, even walked far away from «the institutional theory of art!»
All in all, in all the afore mentioned cases, «walking against the flow» as an institution or even as an individual is a very tricky action these days. In a way, it should mean being outside of a society, which institutions never truly are; only «the walking man» from the beginning of the article can be seen as a form of real «anti-institutionalism», that is radical, and art,in a metaphorical way, should follow a similar path. To quote Ursula K. Le Guin via De Appel: «You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere». Finally, art does not need an exhibition space or pockets full of money. Art is in the mind and this is its power. True art is invisible.
Neva Lukić’s participation in the What Could/Should Curating Do is supported by Mondriaan Fund, the public cultural funding organization focusing on visual arts and cultural heritage.
[i]Sasa Tkacenko explains: “I look at What Could/Should Curating Do as a platform where my involvement is not limited only to the visualization of the project. Through small interventions in physical and virtual space, I am trying to open a new field from which this project can be viewed or questioned. In my work so far, I see every space as a field of communication and every gesture in this field as a potential new work.”
Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, On Slow Institutions, in: How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse, LUMA Foundation and The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, The MIT Press, 2017, p. 43
Lucie Kolb & Gabriel Flückiger, New Institutionalism Revisited
Lucie Kolb & Gabriel Flückiger, New Institutionalism Revisited
In an ironic way, artist Željko Kipke thematises this topic in the series of work Curses (2012). More info can be found on this link, p. 28-29
To demonstrate „the state of mind“ term: in one of the institutions in Zagreb, when I came for the interview, they told me that „I was a too dynamic personality for the institution!“
The documentary film Rikard Benčić, for example (2008, Nadija Mustapić, Marin Lukanović) brings the stories of former workers of the factory and also „political stories“ related to the removal of the museum to the factory building. It shows the gap between Croatia as a state in socialist system and Croatia in today’s post socialist/transitional capitalism.
Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, On Slow Institutions, in: How Institutions Think: Between Conteporary Art and Curatorial Discourse, LUMA Foundation and The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, The MIT Press, 2017, p. 45
Kerstin Poehls, Museums in Movement? Mobilities and Migration in Current exhibitions in Europe, p. 4
More information on this topic can be found here: