Jelena Vesic interviews Charles Esche

When I introduced you with broad conception of Prelom magazine your condition for giving us an interview was that it should be published in the chapter “Ideology and its discontents” and not in the “reading the image” that would be much more logical and professionally correct choice of a person that is working with art, but maybe I’m completely wrong…

I think it is natural to want to place what I do, as a curator and museum director, within a political field. ‘Reading the image’ struck me as limiting that field to issues of aesthetic selection only and I am always interested in how such selection can indeed be ‘read’ in terms of its wider context or sphere of interest. Equally, the question of how ideology as a (correctly) discredited notion can be reevaluated interests me a lot. I guess this relates to my personal journey into the art world as a disillusioned socialist looking for another field in which a new social democratic/socialist imaginary could be constructed. Having felt the weight of defensive orthodoxy crushing new thinking on the left in the 1980s, I found a space for freer thinking in contemporary art galleries. Of course freedom is always relative in real situations, but I found (and still find) the space of imaginative proposition or modest proposals as I’ve called them elsewhere to be greater in the field of contemporary art than elsewhere.

To get back to ideology, I think we have to see the ideological as an imaginative act. Classical Marxism would understand ideology as the imposition of a system of thought onto seemingly unconnected phenomena and I think that’s close to Spinoza’s idea of the imagination as knowing self-deception – acting on something that you know not to be real. So, ideology and the artistic impulse are maybe not so far apart in these terms – both making imaginative projections onto the world of hard facts. Maybe that difference is indeed part of the political or even religious divide, between those who only trust the tangible reality of demonstrable facts and those who prefer to speculate about what might be if things were different. I’m on the side of the speculators here.

Finally, with my friend Czech artist Pavel Büchler. I have recently been trying to get the grips with the origin of the term ‘contemporary’ and it seems to date back to pre-revolutionary Russia when it was connected to an idea of socially or politically progressive art rather than simply ‘modern art’ that is what people do at a particular moment in time. Restoring this link between ‘contemporary’ and progressive would require the intervention of ideology and it’s something I would be very happy to encourage because it would also start to draw a line between different aspects of the modern art world of 2004.

For you art has a possibility…

Possibility is a key word for me. By possibility I simply mean the space to think the world otherwise then it is. I think that lies today more in the terrain of art than it other fields that are hemmed in by their own disciplinary procedures or their attachment to notions of realism or pragmatic politics (the ‘how best to manage the unchallengeable force of the global free market school of thinking’). However, I would not deny that given the totalizing structure of global capitalism, creating ‘possibility’ has to be done from within the existing structures, there being no outside from which to gain an overview anymore (at least for the time being, ideological thinking might create it in the future).

In terms of the art world, possibility also achieves an important distinction from the commercial strategies of the gallery system. If we value art in terms of the possibility that it creates in the free thought of the viewer, then what becomes vital is access to the work or to the physical and emoitional sites that might realize possibility in the work that an artist has created. Those places (museums, kunsthallen, artist run venues, but also others including technological systems) can be public or private in foundation but are significant for this argument only if organized with an understanding of the importance of the public sphere as a democratic requirement. That understanding is where I want to draw a distinction in terms of public institutions and private interest, rather than in the crude terms of the source of the money.

It’s also important to understand possibility not as a fixed condition but a slippery and changeable state made up of spatial, temporal and relational elements. In other words, for possibility to emerge there needs to be a site, a moment and a group of people – material that is obligingly in the hands of public art institutions – as well as a trigger – the artwork – that I suggest privileges the art space as a site for possibility to be realised. Even if this situation may be temporary and might simply be a way in which capitalism can fix its internal contradictions, it is not a reason to refuse to make use of it for investigative ends. How far can the field of visual culture or art be a test site for economic alternatives? How far can we press the protective shield that has accrued around art in free market capitalism? Can we sneak possibility in through the back door if, like Ernst Bloch says: ‘there is a very clear interest that has prevented the world from being changed into the possible’.

What is position of a curator in the world of possibilities?

Generally, I would say the curator (in the abstract sense of a role in the art system) is responsible for the attempt to realize possibility that has been created by the artwork. It is therefore in some ways a second order function but it necessary in order that the artwork does what it can do to its full potential. So, curating is not really about collaborating with an artist but taking the artwork and adding a context and set of conditions for it to be encountered. Personally, I find that reasonable accurate though sometimes working with artists whom I have commissioned to do new work I have become much more intensely involved in the creation of possibility, but that is quite rare and requires a level of friendship that you can only have with a few individuals.

You allude in your follow up comments to the big shows and ask whether possibility can be created there. It’s an important question for me and one I’m struggling with now to try to answer positively. The biennale-type exhibition is compromised by the need to attract a mass audience or promote a particular city and also lacks a certain possibility to be reflective of its own condition in the way a museum can be over a long period. With Istanbul, we’re trying to rectify this by making a show that will look back at the 18 year history of the Istanbul Biennial in the van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.

At the same time biennales can be very important as introductory mechanisms for artists outside old Europe and the USA to enter the art world, from which they can be taken up and shown in more generous surroundings For instance, I was pleased to make solo exhibitions with Surasi Kusolwong and Nedko Solakov as my last shows in Rooseum, as a way of establishing the work of those important artists outside the biennial circuit. As long as this later move happens then biennials have an art world purpose. In terms of the viewers, biennials also serve as introductory surveys – like greatest hits of the year CDs – and as opportunities to excite interest in art that can be pursued subsequently.

But the question of whether you can, through biennales, create the possibility I am talking about is still moot. I opted for Istanbul because I think there – in that place – we can say something about new ways of imagining relationships in the world that will have a resonance. The city of Istanbul, as the largest in Europe, makes for an amazing situation to produce a biennial. If I look at other ‘grand shows’ of mine in terms of achievements, I hope that the 2002 Gwangju Biennale signalled an acceptance of collaborative and group practice into the art world through our invitation to many artist and curatorial groups and small scale spaces. The Tate Triennial of British Art in London called Intelligence basically failed to shift anything in that country’s debate. In broader terms, I think Documenta X and XI both signalled a certain point in art where the field was open to political discourse and they have and will prove significant. I’m not clear what the last few Venice Biennials achieved beyond introducing some new names. I could go on…

But I think in general, a ‘grand show’ has to be simple in terms of its address to the viewers and try to capture a current debate and frame it in a certain way so that we can recognise its significance and make use of it as a recognised phenomenon rather than an individual assertion. That’s at least a criterion by which I would be happy to be judged. The year round institutional programme can go much further in terms of realising possibility but probably we need the ‘grand show’ to help mark a certain development in the issues around art.

You are working on the project Cork – European Capital of Culture. As far as I understood idea is to remove the accent from the production or production of objects to the research, discussion and distribution of experience/information/knowledge. Many curators engaged in such a big and in a way official projects are emphasizing urgency of mixing local and international experience. Is it really important?

The opportunity for Cork Caucus came about after an invitation from Tara Byrne of the National Sculpture Factory to develop a project for the Capital of Culture. The problem with these ‘Capital of Cultures’ is that they are usually perceived to be about the culture of representation and spectacle. They often prioritise tourism and economic development rather than the speculative possibility of culture. They become representations of what the city is about to the outside world and its ability to be part of an international spectacular event culture. While they are all very enjoyable and satisfying on many immediate levels, they are less effective in terms of contributing to the critical cultural debate and to the development of local intelligences that can prosper in the years afterwards.

So the opportunity of this invitation was to see whether or not an event such a Capital of Culture could incorporate a proposal that would contribute to a critical discourse at the grass roots of the city and leave a legacy for the future.

Coming from the outside to a place like Cork, there are a lot of assumptions you bring with you, but one of the most important things to ensure is that you have an interest in the intelligence that exists in the city itself. I was interested in the specific nature of Cork and the ability of this city to engage with certain questions that I have in my mind on a more abstract level about how to create and realise new possibility and how to orientate cultural encounters towards a process of thinking and re-thinking rather than consuming. To do such a project in a small city like Cork means of necessity that it has to be collaborative. Firstly it was important to engage key collaborators both local and international as well as NSF. For that reason I was keen to involve a local art group (art/not art) and Annie Fletcher who is Irish but lives in NL. Further, in order for it to be really meaningful, it has to be a collaboration with creative people across the city. Of course, that’s an extremely ambitious plan but it’s necessary to maintain an idea of openness and engagement right through between now, what we have called the ‘grassroots’ phase, the ‘nucleus’ of the event with many guests in Cork in June-July 2005 and the period beyond. I hope the ‘grassroots’ project in the city hall and elsewhere will begin to develop contacts across different groups here and that an intensity of engagement becomes possible through the work of NSF and art/not art in particular. Now desiring engagement is all very well and noble but it’s nothing unless it has some objective or some sense of where it might want to go.

That brings me to the reason why we began to play around with the notion of a democratic structure itself. The idea of Cork Caucus was initially based on two other workshops that I organised, one in Seoul, Korea in early 2002 and one in Indonesia in late 2003, both called ‘community and art’. Those two workshops were about ten days long and the idea was that groups from Asia and Europe were to come together and to present their activities. The intention of the workshops was to be meeting points across a large geographic divide and to see if they might spark collaborations or bilateral initiatives between individual groups that were brought together in these two places. We concentrated on artist and curatorial groups because they are crucial to organising activity in places that have little or no official institutional infrastructure.

I think those two workshops were quite successful and but along with achievements, there was also a certain amount of frustration about two things. Firstly they were too short; secondly they didn’t allow a considered and longer-term response to the presentations that were made. There were presentations followed by a question and answer session but that discussion didn’t get to where it might have because of the timetable of other presentations introducing other sets of issues that were all very different. This is inevitably what happens when you bring an international group of that diversity together. We replaced one set of issues with another but did not really open them up for analysis or development. There was no opportunity for working through the issues raised on the spot, perhaps not only through discussion but through productive activity or testing out ideas through projects that have time to develop.

This frustration combined with second one about the lack of clarity in the agenda. Simply bringing people together, creating the possibility of meeting was extremely valuable, particularly in a situation where most information was gathered through the Internet, but it is not enough to get further – it only scratches at the surface. So the question for Cork was how would it be possible to make something that remained discursive but was more able to determine its own agenda or the questions that would form the agenda, and then develop ideas during the period of the workshop itself. We probably want to avoid a manifesto but at least we can test what solidarity or common purpose exists between us.

A second motivation for Cork was that we wanted to discuss the relationship between art and democratic development. This was partly as a result of discussion in the two previous workshops where we all understood Asian democracy to be a work in progress and partly because the issue of the purpose of Europe cultural institutions brings up the question of how art could contribute to the huge problems we now have with imagining new forms of collective decision-making and collective action. We seem to have in Western Europe a stable assumption that we achieved ‘democracy’ after 1945 and that it needs no serious critical examination. I think that is dangerous not only because it has made us lazy and apathetic but because it flies in the face of contemporary life. An important question for me is to question how far we have achieved a democracy in which we’re satisfied and in which art and cultural expression have clear and defined roles? If we’re not staisfied, then can art be a field to help to open up the question again, especially given that it has played such a role in the past. For instance, we only have to go back to Joseph Beuys to find one crucial link between art and democratic thinking. Given that he wanted to start his the Free International University in Ireland, his perhaps flawed notions of art, democracy and education become a wonderful starting point for us. Beuys wrote a proposal (with Caroline Tisdall) that was sent to the EEC (now the EU) as an application for funding for a new model of university to be situated in Dublin. Perhaps inevitably, given the selfd-defeating tendencies of bureaucracy, it was turned down. So Cork Caucus came about as a confluence of these interests, the possibilities of Capital of Culture and the initial invitation from NSF.

The idea of calling the project ‘Cork Caucus’ was not only a nice wordplay but also a term that links directly to the process of making a decision. The origin is meant to come from the Native American tradition of taking decisions. In the US Democratic Party caucus’ you literally stand in various corners of the room and the biggest group of people gets the decision. It’s very primitive but very beautiful form of visual democracy. A caucus is then a democratic means of taking a decision and I think it differs from a workshop in that a workshop is a coming together for production or exchange while a caucus is a coming together in order to make a decision. That’s a subtle difference, but an important one. The logical next question is, of course, ‘what is the nature of the decisions we want to take’? Again, I think we have imposed answers based on our experiences and hopes for Cork Caucus.

One issue is how can an event like this contribute to the reserves of cultural capital of the creative community in Cork. If we really get it right, this area might produce a series of decisions that can be continued and enacted after the Caucus happens. The second major issue is how can we decide the forms of the relationship between what we are engaged in – the territory of visual culture – and political or cultural change as an pre-existing objective. Indeed we need to consider the development of the democratic model itself, given that we presume democracy to be underdeveloped. How can or could our kinds of discussions and material projects contribute to that development? This area might produce a statement or a series of proposals in a post-Caucus publication – or it might leave us still puzzling – we shall have to see. Personally, I am interested to see if such an old fashioned notion as solidarity could be revived here. Do we have enough common interests to declare that we share aims for which we can work in solidarity with each other?

Those may be the main questions that Caucus can raise but who takes that decisions about what form the proposals might take, how they are weighted and what contributions to the debate might actually look like? I think this is where the Caucus model becomes very interesting because what you have in the Caucus model are ‘candidates’ who put ideas forward for approval or rejection like in a classical US presidential election. The decision as to the value of the proposals is taken by the ‘constituents’ – by the people who come to Caucus – and of course candidates for one proposal become constituents for others. So what I think is interesting for Cork in bringing international people like Surasi Kusolwong, Catherine David, Shep Steiner, Giorgio Agamben, Gayatri Spivak, Maria Eichhorn and many others, who will be presenting arguments and projects for each others consideration. Hopefully their knowledge and experience will not disabling but empowering in this context. There is always a danger of being ‘dumbstruck’ by experience and one way to avoid that is by giving the power back to the floor. So what I would suggest is that Caucus is an engagement with a series of propositions and indeed participation in these propositions, in order to consider what art has to offer a city community today.

Whether that participation is critical is one of the questions that could be determined by this model. The question then becomes ‘can people in Cork take some of these proposals forward on their own account. If they do, I think Caucus can present a model of engagement with art and individual artists that becomes very exciting. What’s interesting is that at the end of Caucus a decision is taken about in Cork, about Cork, for Cork if that doesn’t sound like democratic hyperbole.

What our job as organisers comes down to is, I think, to provide the proposals that the constituents feel able to choose or to reject and as a result to shift the pattern of creative behaviour in the city towards something they all feel happier with.

On the other hand you are working on the one let’s say “non-European” project, you are curating next Istanbul Biennial under the working title “Istanbul” how does it look to work in/with the city?

Istanbul as a city is really important right now. In all sorts of ways both historical and of the moment it reveals some of the basic contradictions and possible solutions to our current dilemmas. I’ve called Istanbul a predictive city to challenge the idea that is somehow following an already trod path towards US style global modern capitalism. I would say, perhaps provocatively, that I believe (and hope) that Eindhoven (where I live) will look more like Istanbul in 25 years than Istanbul will look like Eindhoven. What you find in Istanbul is neither the fundamentalist conflict of western fear nor the exhausted notion of European social democracy consensus (I’ve written a lot about Swedish social democracy recently so I won’t justify that statement but one essay is translated in Croatian in a recent Swedish show catalogue). Instead you have a form of agonistic living together in which people survive, continue and prosper without a fundamental agreement on the pattern of society. It serves as a concrete form of what Chantal Mouffe has called an ‘agonistic public sphere’, though the publicness of that sphere is constantly under threat from rich families and from privatisation. It’s a strange thing to say but I actually like the people that I’ve met in the governing party there – maybe I’m foolish but they do genuinely seem to be pursuing their own sense of what Turkey could be in relation to Europe and Asia in a very thoughtful way.. Working in the city is inspiring because of the possibility it creates – in the terms I’ve defined above. You are allowed to think things otherwise there more than in any other place I’ve been.

In terms of the biennial, that puts on quite a lot of pressure and we’ve tried to respond to it in a number of ways. Structurally, we decided to avoid the pitfalls of Ottoman nostalgia-kitsch, or at best the notion of the historic city providing spurious legitimacy to contemporary work, that has disfigured a number of previous biennials, So, we will use only relatively recent buildings and sites that are either domestic or associated with contemporary trade and production. These feel to be more appropriate spaces in which artists can show their explorations the city today. Secondly, we decided to reduce the overall number of artists to less than 50, to show more work by each individual and to ask around half of the selected artists to come for an extended residency in Istanbul (2-6 months) to produce new work or choose existing work with us that would address the sensibility of the city itself. As a counterveiling force, and to avoid the dangers of a kind of Istanbul essentialism, the other half will be showing work that contrasts with the environment and condition of Istanbul and tells other stories or experiences from other parts of the international imagination. A second, separate project will be called Istanbul Positionings and will trace existing activities in the cultural field throughout the city of 15 million, marking them and providing opportunities for them to contact each other as well as the Biennial viewers and artists. The Positionings project will also include independent initiatives organised to coincide with the Biennial itself. I hope this structure will provide a means through which the works by artists can be seen to touch on the questions of the city and its significance today but of course we have to understand that art is always an intimate experience that talks to the individual and about individual experience. So, the question of Istanbul will always be dealt with tangentially, in passing or as a quixotic, personal account. I think that quality of intimacy, or at least its absolute desirability as a quality of good art, is an antidote to the danger of art as a kind of politics by other means. Democratic politics always have to be addressed to the group and the mass, art doesn’t need to and probably can’t effectively. So an art that is interested in politics has to realise those limitations very quickly, which is perhaps why some overt political artists often give up at some point. As I said before, I made the reverse journey because it seems to me this quality of intimacy is precisely what I want to find in the world as a way to start to reimagine it.

In your supplementary question you ask about the danger of art as a harmless outlet for alternative voices that maintains the fiction of free speech without effecting ruling class efforts to impose their version of global capitalism. It is an element of the money and interest that foundations and nation states put into culture for sure but my problem with the analysis is twofold. Firstly, I don’t believe in a coherent ruling class outside the ideological neo-cons in the Washington White House. Global capitalism itself has developed a terrifying kind of internal logic based on the mechanism of shareholder value and profit that excludes individual conspiracy in favour of a kind of blind pseudo-religious faith in the inevitability of the market to be the ‘best’ system of distribution. Most operatives of the market system, and even at a very high level individual capitalists are merely operatives, are neither stupid nor uncritical but simple pragmatists that have faith in their system as ‘better’ than any other in terms of economic growth, wealth creation and other targets that capitalism has made for itself and then successfully fulfilled. So, I don’t think about conspiracy rather than a melancholy failure of ambition and imagination in our current social model – and that this is the reason of our current political neutralisation. Secondly, any attempt to change that, or to start to suggest alternatives ‘targets’ for social and individual fulfilment, needs to being with the qualities of intimacy, desire, aesthetic satisfaction and quixotic personal contentment that art does speak to and about. So, I think we can think in terms of the relationship between art and political change provided we understand that it can never be causally linked, that those that are not affected at the intimate level will always deny it and that it has always happened throughout history. I would only add, at the risk of repeating myself, that this moment in our history presents a particularly grim outlook for thoughtful human development and that we need the force of the intimate imagination of possibility more than at many other times. So, we should feel enthused to keep working within the art field even at the risk of partially satisfying the current system’s desire for harmless critique, Besides, we should not underestimate the possibility that harmless critique can become harmful over time.

How do you think about contemporary art institution?

You ask big questions for sure!! I spoke already about the etymology of ‘contemporary’ and I’d like us to think what would happen if we restored the link to political progressiveness again – even in the word – ‘The Institute of Contemporary Art’ would have a different ring to it suddenly. But that’s not about to happen for lots of reasons that we already know. I have also said that I think the contemporary art institution has possibility in that it gathers people together in one place at one time and is in general part of the public sphere. To be more specifc maybe I can speak about the ‘museum’ as a site because I just took charge of one some five months ago in Eindhoven.

All museum inherit the history of the museum concept at their birth and if we are to reimagine what museums could offer society it might be interesting to see why they came into existence in the first place. If I can, I’d like to make a partial list of their foundation myths to see where we could bring them in the future.

Public museums are largely an enlightenment project, beginning with the French Revolution and serving as a validation of the bourgeois public sphere where people could demostrate their taste and sophistication. It was about the cultural settlement of a new politically powerful class by demonstrating their cultural authority but also shaping that very taste and authority in the process. They are secondly projects of instruction, They believe art as a noble and uplifting thing that would somehow modify social behaviour and introduce civilisation to those that lacked it. Thirdly they have more than a tinge of authoritarianism to them. They select what is important and, by default, what is not of value, demonstrating their coherence as much through exclusion as inclusion.

Fourthly, they contain within them a notion of the ideal and the universal. Ideal in the Platonic sense of model objects and universal in that the values expressed were common values from which all citizens should potentially benefit. These things that museums collected were no longer the preserve of the aristocracy but available for all and suitable for all. Finally, museums are intriguingly anti-market institutions in that they remove a certain class of objects from circulation in the market and preserve them for, in theory, eternity.

Now, clearly the description I have given is historical. There have been many critiques from the pressure chambers of revolutionary modernism, state socialism and post-modernist relativism that have all contributed to undermining such narrow enlightenment and bourgeois conceptions. But I am less sure that the museum today has clearly articulated a new mission in response not only to criticisms but also to its possibilities. I’m struck by a 37 year old critique from Allan Kaprow who basically distrusts museums but proposed that they could better be “an educational institute, a computerised bank of cultural history and an agency for action”. Even after all this time that still seems quite a radical agenda for contemporary museums so I don’t feel wrong in proclaiming their recent conservatism.

But I will not moan about the conservatism of institutions here. Rather, and perhaps perversely, I would like to look back at the already agreed foundation principles of the museum to ask whether we can take them, embrace them and reinvent them for today in a way even Kaprow might recognise. Mostly I still have questions here, but I think part of our job is to articulate what we think a museum can be and to do this clearly to as many people as possible…and then wait to see what happens. I have already spoken about the reinvention of the public sphere through Chantal Mouffe’s notion of ‘friendly enemies’ in an agonistic public sphere. Now, what would happen if we suggest that one key player in this common symbolic space is the museum and that we view ourselves as friendly enemies to each other who have the chance to contest ideas publicly in the museum. My questions are: How would we build our museums with that as an organising principle? How would we programme them? How would we invite our local citizens and our international audience? . I would like to try to start to articulate van Abbemuseum as such an institution and see what happens. Secondly, we inherit the project of instruction. What are the values, even the ideology, a museum should articulate? What effect do we want to have? I would suggest: that we have a resolutely planetary outlook; that we seek to tackle the questions of the moment – related to our specific city and communities; that we believe in art as a form of communication across cultural borders – and the museum as the place it can happen; that the museum is a way of re-imagining some of our deepest (and darkest) preconceptions about people, ideas and cultures.

Thirdly, what do we do with the authority of the museum and the selective quality of a collection? Well, it is still an open question for me but I think it has to start by again looking across the globe but we should, contradictorily, be locally orientated and think specifically about where we are and what would be most appropriate given that geography and history. We need also to think specifically about how we invite artists. How a museum, with its historical authority under threat from the biennale and event culture in general, can take a longer view, can work with artists over years rather than months and can adapt to artistic practices (because it has time) rather than force artists to adapt to the structures of the experience effects of capitalism. Finally, I think we can use anti-market idea of the museum as a provocative challenge to the current economic system. As an institution dedicated to taking objects out of circulation it gives us permission to think about alternative economic models in general – as they are proposed or developed by artists.

Indeed, this idea of proposing and developing alternatives can be a common thread to this talk. I would like to suggest that the museum of today declare itself through its difference from other institutions – the shopping mall as well as the circus. We should deliberately seek to be different from what exists in order to suggest what could be. As a storehouse of possibility, the museum could become essential to how we think about our future.

To answer your supplementary questions would take longer but, in short, I am absolutely certain that we have to conquer and change the existing contemporary art institutions rather than invent our own. Invention would lead to the kind of stupid divide in music between ‘classical contemporary’ and ‘popular commercial’ and I think we should do all we can to avoid repeating that move in art.

At the end I must admit that this interview will be not part of the chapter “Ideology and it’s discontents” as you expected, but is going to be published in the chapter Europe. So, it was almost like following Max Von Sydow’s voice from famous Lars Von Trier’s movie “And until I count to three you will be in Europe. I said one…”, right? So what do you think about European aspects of Netherlands today and how it affects the field of culture?

Talking about NL after only five months is a bit difficult. I could speak a lot about Sweden and social democracy that might apply in some measure here but I think that’s really for another time – most readers will be fast asleep by now.


  • Charles Esche is the director of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and editor of Afterall Journal of Art.
    Interviewer: Jelena Vesic (belgrade based curator)
  • This interview was originally given to the Serbian Artzine Prelom in 2005