Confusion, a trip to the dentist and the Sydney Biennale: a conversation with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Michael Rakowitz

An discussion comissioned by Broadsheet, April 2008.

 Zanny: In the statement which accompanies the announcement of the theme for the 16 th biennale of Sydney you make a play on the space between “revolution” and “forms that turn” suggesting that perhaps the second part of the title could be reversed to “turns that form”. If we conceive of revolution as a turn then we could say theseturns have generated new aesthetic forms. How do you conceptualize the relationship between art and revolution?

Carolyn: I am not sure that these turns have generated forms in art, I would say that the forms have generated the turns. Historically artists relate to the context within which they live and they are particularly sensitive to the problems of the times they live in, so they will generate, through the language of art, possible turns in personal ways of constructing knowledge but also broader social ways of conducting ones life and engaging with others. I don’t see art as a reflection of society I see art as impacting on how society shapes itself and questioning the dominant paradigms of that space.

Its not the revolutionary turns that create new forms its new forms that create new revolutionary turns in society. So when I said “turns that form” I think I was thinking more about psychoanalysis – I was thinking about turns in the way an individual singularities deals with negotiating the conscious and subconscious and the relationship between the symbolic and the real and how those turns form new ways of living for the individual. So if you thought that I meant “turns that form” in the sense of turns in society that turn into forms in art, that is not what I meant, I meant turns in an individual from a psychoanalytic perspective being formative.

But that was just a beginning of an answer to your question. Art and artists have always had a huge impact on society, I mean if one thinks of Goya and the Disaster of War you can say up to the Disasters of War portraying war was usually a positive endeavor – there were heroic military sculptures and paintings – after Goya Disasters of War there is still war but nobody in society celebrates it with the same monumentality that they had previously.

This is a clearly visible impact that an artwork might have on a society, but there are much more indirect ways that art can impact too. For example, if you think of the birth of Renaissance perspective you could say that this was formal question of how to represent space. But it was actually not a formal question at all but represented a new way of imagining a society where individual singularities mattered – maybe we don’t want to live in a gold leaf background suspended in our projection towards some after life forever. So it was a democratic impulse, in the sense that it becomes the definition of a singular point of view and the relationship between one point of view and an invisible reversed point on the horizon.

That space, however, slowly became the space of modernity, and the space of a hierarchy, an alienation of individuals and the development of the notion of the private ownership over ones subjectivity. So then you have an artist like Manet who breaks the Renaissance perspective into a flat surface and who projects the flat surface of the canvass as a kind of unhierarchercised space or democratic surface. But that surface which is a democratic space can also turn into an alienating structure… so there is a constant questioning and doubt. I think artists are skeptics basically, they are skeptical about any forms of power.

Zanny: I guess I am probing here the relationship between the formal qualities of an artwork (things that go round like Duchamp’s bicycle wheel etc) and its social qualities (the idea of revolution)?

Michael: I sometime wonder about the idea of art as creating punctures in society or having that level of impact. A lot of the projects I am working on come from micro instances in the world without intending to create a revolution from a formal perspective, but from a situational perspective.

I draw a lot of inspiration from poetic situations, like seeing an air-duct venting warm air from a building and seeing a possibility there, that there is a way to create a reaction from that action, having that warm air fill something and that being full of meaning not just as a sculpture on the street but what that sculpture can do in the world by engaging with a homeless person who needs a space on the outside of the building that is warm. This chain of ideas becomes the paraSITE sculpture. There are stories I hear which find their ways into the narratives of certain works which I find to be readymade artworks.

Carolyn: If one looks at revolutionary art one understands that revolutionary art is usually made by people who are revolutionaries at heart, from arte povera to young artists today, revolutionary art is made by those who in their private lives have revolutionary impulses. However, art for the revolution, is often made by very conservative people. That is why psychoanalysis is so important because what someone says is of no importance, the only thing that is important is how it is said.

In the last ten years or so there has been through a huge shift away from looking at the language of art, or the phenomenology of our relationship with the work, towards encouraging content based works that may or may not be politically charged or loaded with political content. What this is doing is teaching the audience to go back to a very traditional and conservative view of art – where there is something called form and there is something called content. So I can take this video camera and do something fantastic about how horrible the Americans are in Iraq and just by doing it, and showing it, I am doing an art work which is politically radical – that is not true. If you use the same language as CNN, if you don’t question the language that the power structures are using, you are actually encouraging the audience to be even more passive. So the real question is: what legitimizes something as truthful or not truthful? That is why Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, who were in the last Sydney Biennale, are such interesting artists.

Zanny: So what I am getting from you here is perhaps something Goddard came up with, the task of artists is to not to make political films, but make films politically?

Carolyn: Yes, of course, absolutely and down that road comes Jacques Rancier and The Politics of Aesthetics. I am of that generation which was shaped and formed by people who were rather experimental in the ‘60s and ‘70s: Bruce Nauman, Gordon Matta-Clark, the arte povera artists…

If you think about it today we are really back in that crazy guilded frame from the 1400s. I mean the video black box is one passive relationship after another. I think that my role as a curator is to pull things towards to the phenomenology of experience as political and to explore the idea that each revolution is first and foremost singular revolution.

I am interested in the notion of withdrawal as a revolutionary space. Right now we live in society where the object of consumerism is communication itself. The last thing you want to do is repeat the problem by creating another communication. The problems that humanity is facing now in a globalized world is that communication itself has turned into the ultimate object of consumer culture, like a late stages of a dying society it is now consuming itself. In this context withdrawal is a revolutionary space.

Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri two younger artists are doing a project which wont be visible in the Biennale except for a series of note books that they will be placing in a vitrine. These notebooks will contain preparatory notes for a journey which will be a circling of Australia to imagine how an Australian revolution might occur. The artwork is the journey there is nothing for the audience to see accept these preparatory notebooks and the talk they will give when they come back.

Zanny: Within the big framework of revolution – can you tell me how what you see as the specific local issues which help frame the overall contextual framework for the biennale in Sydney? What will make this the Sydney biennale? And Michael you will be making a new work for the Sydney Biennale – can you tell me about it?

Carolyn: I am very wary to answer your question as I don’t really know the context I am in as well as I could if I had been living here for many years. So I need to frame the answer with self doubt and a form of humility which is necessary. So if we begin with the premise that what I say is only tentative and intuitive at this stage I would say there is a lot of problems in Australia and probably the main problem is dealing with the irresolvable question of the relationship between the colonizers and their decedents on one hand, and not the new people which are coming from the Asia Pacific but the original people who lived here.

There is this inevitable framing of the people who were here before colonization as Aboriginal – which is weird would you call James Joyce an Aboriginal Irish? But you can’t win: if you deny the naming of a group as a group you render them invisible, if you affirm the existence of a minority as a group you are performing an implicit racist act of labeling of them. From a post-colonial perspective there is no philosophical solution to this. From a practical stand point I see a shocking country, I have been to the central desert and I saw something I don’t understand. How can there be paintings in a museum which are worth $40,000 and the people who paint them look like they have been getting $700 for each one?

Michael: I concur a lot with what Carolyn has been saying about how it would be almost vulgar to come here and start making decisions about how it should be run, most of us artists have just dropped by for days at a time or weeks at a time so I am reticent about making suggestions on this level. I have always worked on a micro level when it comes to making decisions and working with communities rather then through an overarching endeavor. So a lot of the projects I am doing are fairly localized, they respond to specific people and specific situations which are part of the work.

That being said I also felt a lot of discomfort in the central desert and how that all took place for us. I guess we had a failure with the project which I am trying to realize for the Sydney Biennale.

When we were in the NT and Alice Springs and making our trips to the art centers there were a lot of things that made us all really uncomfortable in regards to who is controlling what, who is taking orders from whom and how much artistic freedom does the artist have. And then we visited one place which was called the Tjanpi Weavers and there was a moment of life which I really fell in love with which was this straw woven figure on top of a camel and the face of the person was a cut of face of a doll which was recycled and sutured on. It was this amazing combination of materials which speak to my work and the person who runs the centre was expressing interest in what I had done and maybe we should think about collaborating. I came up with the idea of building the Tatlin Monument in conjunction with the Tjanpi weavers. But after the proposal was sent to the art administrators we had like four months silence…

Carolyn: Michael was left wondering if they ever discussed the proposal with the artists, in the end the art advisors came back with a no. I agree with Richard Bell in his Bell Theorem when he questions the art advisors as these gate keepers – they decide who, what, when, why. Our experience was very negative, interestingly enough Mike was writing to this art administrator and she never replied to him, she replied to the exhibitions coordinator at the Sydney Biennale. So she was treating Mike as we thought they were treating the artists they work with, as if he was some sort of child to be taken care of.

Michael: Thanks to Hetti Perkins we moved the project to Redfern. The project involved re-inscribing the monument to the Third International by Tatlin which is a monument which I see as inscribed with promise and optimism but also with failure because it was never built. Talking about the skepticism of the artists, the monument maintains this level of wonder which I am very comfortable with because I always think an architects best projects are the one which don’t get built as you see them in the sketch books and you have this ability to wonder. I saw this as a form of dreaming in a way that the Dreaming is a big part of Aboriginal culture.

Zanny: I am interested in your relationship to Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument, I mean it’s a sort of double negative in some ways, a monument which was never built to a society which was never built. How do we return to a gesture like this?

Carolyn: I don’t know if the society was never built. I disagree with this Soviet Union bashing, the Russian revolution was not a failure. I mean of course Stalin was a fascist and killed his own people they way all fascists did in Europe at the time. But I think people are forgetting what Russia was like before 1917. Its such a banal living room thing to say how bad Russia was – its crazy I mean what the peasants were living through just before the Russian revolution was something unheard of, I think the Russian revolution was not a failure at all, it bought so much to the Russian people, so much education, culture, livelihood, food…

Zanny: I was not discrediting the idea of revolution I was just wondering how do we understand the potency of the dream in Tatlin’s Monument today, especially in Redfern?

Michael: It’s like using this symbol which is so iconic, almost like a graphic design logo for revolution, and looking at how it can envelop a lot of things, its becomes a semiotic thing, its also about architecture, its also about engineering, and material culture and so on. I think by re-quoting it, it becomes a way to get beyond it, to have this material from the local context in Australia speaking to something which it is not related to.

Carolyn: We can look at the Tatlin Monument as a form of dreaming, it is about universality of certain impulses and politics, as opposed to straight jacketing it within the idea which emerges from certain forms of post-modernity that Western culture is all bad… Wait a minute, Mike is saying maybe there is a lot of wild dreaming going on in Western cultural too. Tatlin’s tower was such a nutty thing to propose, to imagine that you are protecting the revolution on a cloudy day is wild, an absolutely non-enlightenment thing to do. So there is this surrealism in Western culture, nobody speaks about surrealism when they critique Western culture.

To answer your question certain aspects of human desire gets a little squashed at times, but there is dreaming in the desert, dreaming in Russia when some nutcase wants to build this tower, and I think Mike was trying to juxtapose different kinds of dreaming, but at the same time in another way, the tower is a dialogue which is almost a nothing, there have been so many relationships to the tower in the avant-garde, so many artists and architects and references in literature, so in a way it is as broad as the word revolution.

One of the projects of the Biennale is to re-semanticise the word revolution. What if we open up the word and try and re-semanticise it, open up all the contradictory meanings that the epistemology of the words has. And we find it is, in the same way as the Tatlin tower, an empty container. After the late ‘70s you said the word “revolution” and it was like saying the word “love” you didn’t even have to articulate it, it just meant “I too dream.”

Zanny: I want to step back for a moment to broader ideas of modernity, which revolution is just one part of. In your artistic statement for the biennale you mention the contradictory impulses of modernity drawing attention to coincidence of the French revolution and the invasion of Australia taking place in almost the same year. So there is a liberationary impulse of modernity and a more dipossessionary one.

 And this brings me also back to the idea of the audience for art. In his book on relational aesthetics Nicholas Bourriaud drew on Jean-Francois Lyotard’s description of post-modern architecture as “condemned to create a series of minor modifications in a space whose modernity it inherits, and abandon an overall reconstruction of the space inhabited by human kind”. But Bourriaud takes exception to Lyotard’s use of the term “condemned” – arguing that instead this state of affairs presents artists with a “chance” to learn to “inhabit the world” of modernity in better ways. He urges artists to create micotopias of “better relations with their neighbours” instead of pursuing utopian dreams for “happier tomorrows” for all.

I would be interested in your comments on this – are we “condemned” to a series of minor modifications? Or can we reinterpret this, as Bourriaud suggests, as a chance, an opportunity for artists to live in space differently free from utopian visions of broader social change?

Carolyn: A lot of projects in the ‘90s, both in philosophy, activism and art, developed as micro projects, grass roots projects, not trying to make the grand revolution but doing something in a specific local situation. For example Michael and that homeless person working out that paraSITE tent was a small singular revolution that occurs for one individual. This is the basis of Mike’s thinking and of a lot of people including myself and Piere Huyghe. It is focused on micro change, it is like what de Certeau says you are not overwhelmed and alienated by the washing up lotion, you just use it in your own particular way and it is in the celebration of all those particular declinations and usages that people find their freedom.

But it’s a tricky question if you accept that totally. Basically the critique of modernity is that if you perform a more overarching attempt at revolution it is going to be a disaster and there is going to be bloodshed. This is nothing else then the development of Hannah Arendt who supported the American Revolution over the French. I actually disagree with Hannah Arendt. We are at a stage of a pre-collapse of a system, so society is going to have to reinvent its politics pretty soon whether we want to or not, because people are unhappy, they are not only unhappy in the areas of India where the farmers don’t have seeds they are unhappy in the wealthiest and richest spaces, no matter how much power or money they have. The relationship between consuming and happiness, which is at the base of this system is broken, it has been broken for a while. This system has to be completely regenerated, its not that I wish for a revolution, it is just going to happen. We are living like in 1788 right now.

Zanny: There was criticism of the last biennale for its low inclusion of Sydney and Australian artists. How did you determine the geographic spread of participating artists?

Carolyn: I don’t believe in a neo-colonial idea of the curator and I certainly don’t want to be a jet-set curator who runs around the world and does two or three of these biennales every year. I feel very uncomfortable working with people I don’t know on a personal level quite well, so it’s an organic process that I have always used. There are artists I have dialogues with, like Mike, or William Kentridge and this dialogue has to be there when I do an exhibition otherwise I feel like I am lost in a forest and its dark at night and I don’t know where to move.

You know revolutions are always made by a certain number of people and their friends and I see nothing wrong with that. I see this as the only way I can make sense of the world: through the people I help and that help me. Through this new friends come and become part of that conversation such as Anawana Holoba, she comes out of seeing her work in various exhibitions and out of my old long term friendship with Joan Jonas who has guided me in my thinking in a lot of ways.

The elders are very important for me, so I don’t want to make a biennale with lots of new young artists as for me that is a consumer model, a shopping centre for the new fashions for the year. So in my biennale there are very old artists doing new works, like Joan Jonas, and there are young artists doing new works too and there are artists in the biennale who are not alive. For me whether an artist is alive, old, or young, it’s all about having a conversation. In Latin it is called the convivio: an exhibition is a convivio.

I try and eavesdrop on conversations by artists and channel what is going on, for example one artist Javiar Tellez said to me, “oh your going to have a David Medalla Bubble Machine in the Sydney Biennale”, and I was like oh I never thought of that and then it happened there is a beautiful bubble machine. So in a way the artists are curating the show and it’s a bit anarchistic. There is not external objective line, it flows like rivers and people come into the conversation and maybe that will grow, other people die or are not in the picture for a while, so this is an organic non-system, if I can say any politics that I might adhere to it is this form of anarchist thought.

And it is this which connects to the Australian selection. Its natural when you do a show in a place that you want to know more about it so I did a lot of studio visits in Sydney and I wanted to find out what is the conversation here – what are the questions, the problems, the issues, the urgence to use a term from Catherine David. I think a biennale is about celebrating the space where it is happening, it’s not only about bringing news from abroad. Its different situation to 20 years ago, the way knowledge is shared and transferred, people who associate a biennale with an old idea of a biennale might not think this is appropriate, but I am more interested in starting these conversations here with those here and those who come from overseas.

Zanny: You mentioned that you consider yourself an anarchist, and I guess the anarchist approach to a revolution, broadly defined, is that it is more of a process then one culminating spectacular event. The Sydney Biennale, like most biennales, is usually a fairly spectacular event – its emphasis is on big works, big artists, big budgets, and the making of big careers. Do you feel any tension between the demand to deliver on these fronts and other more process based goals for an exhibition – little things such as making time for relationships to be established between international and local artists, chances for people to meet, to talk about their work, to get to know a local situation more deeply, to send time to make a new work, money spent developing skills and new works for local artists? By what criteria do you think we should we judge the success of this upcoming biennale?

Carolyn: You could say that you are saying all this but you are an opportunist you are playing a role in making the spectacle. I see it as a little bit of a decoy in many ways, being able to do the biennale means that Mike can do his project in Redfern, means I can spend some months working with Mike, means that Mike can create a relationship with Hetti and so on. In a way a biennale is like getting a grant to go to university and you go into that institution called university with all its problems but somehow you do it all because you have the privilege to access the library and meet some people…

You use the system to access something else. So what really interests me is those conversations and all that can happen however because I have the opportunity of doing the exhibition. Its almost like going to the dentist you have to go so you can eat nice food, so you do something which might be a bit painful, not because you love the dentist but because if you don’t go your tooth hurts and you won’t be able to enjoy your meal the next day. That how I see the show – we have to get it up there and it has to be in the art gallery and Mike you will give the talk, and there will be the education programs, and I am going to go to the Sofitel and give my little spiel at the Press Club. But my acceptance of that constrictive space, opens other spaces which really interest me and which are kind of invisible to the spectacle.

At the same time I really believe in all the moments of encounter with art each individual artist has and I am not disparaging or snobbing that and saying I don’t care at all. If someone walks in and engages with the work that is there and is changed by the experience of looking at it, I am happy that it happens.

Zanny: so who do you regard as your public for the biennale?

Carolyn: There is not one, but many audiences. There are people that are art people and people that are not. Certainly the artists are one of the most important for me, you know if 90% of the press writes terrible reviews for a project of mine but the artists I really trust tell me that thought it was interesting I am fine. There are moments of singular encounter that the audience has which you never know about, so I think my primary audience is us, meaning an us which is open, a nous, or a we.

Zanny: if we take this metaphor of the biennale being a convivio, or even using Bahktin’s idea of a dialogic creativity, who is informing your conversation for this biennale?

Michael: I would say the primary group would be community in The Block. Hetti Perkins introduced me to two architects Julie Cracknell and Peter Lonigan who are working closely with the Aboriginal Housing Company and Mickie Mundine and we moved the project to Redfern. The tower will be constructed from some of these Victorian structures which are going to be torn down to make way for the Pemulwuy Project. The hope is to create a meaningful and sustainable dialogue with the community. I am coming in as a stranger, but the community will create a dialogue with the materials as they come down and then hopefully join in the procession to the Art Gallery of NSW to construct the work.

Of course once the tower is in the AGNSW a new conversation is started by the viewers as people engage with aspects of Sydney’s history in a space they did not necessarily want or expect to. And you can disperse this conversation from there as the international visitors come and learn about Redfern and The Block. I see it like a snowballing effect where the conversation becomes nomadic and tells a specific story but on a global level. I mean The Block reminds me of East Baltimore, it’s such a similar scenario on a lot of levels, but of course with specific differences.

The trail of conversations about the project leads from the desert to then talking to Hetti and learning a bit more, and then talking through the failure of the Tjanpi project and then getting in touch with Vernon Ah Kee and Richard Bell, and right now my “we” are those conversations with those people, Hetti Perkins, Julie Cracknell, Peter Lonigan, Mickie Mundine, Lily Shearer, and Tatlin of course is there too. These are the conversants in the work. But I always hope that the work can shift the conversation too, this time to people who are living in the Block, I hope that the “we” eventually becomes the public involved and engaged in the work.

Zanny: Carolyn you mentioned earlier Jacques Ranciere, and one of the things I noticed in your description of the biennale is that you will be bringing some historical works associated with the avant-garde such as Rodchenko, Tatlin, Duchamp etc.

 I am interested in a quote from Jacques Ranciere in the Politics of Aesthetics when he explains that there are actually two visions of the avant-garde which are often willfully conflated into one. “On the one hand” he writes “there is the topographical and military notion of the force that marches in the lead…   On the other hand, there is this other idea of the avant-garde that, in accordance with Schiller’s model, is rooted I the aesthetic anticipation of the future. If the concept of the avant-garde has any meaning in the aesthetic regime of the arts, it is on this side of things, not on the side of the advanced detachments of artistic innovation but on the side of the invention of sensible forms and material structures of life to come”. In bringing some of these historical works into a contemporary situation can we still imagine art inventing material structures of life to come? Is this a version of the avant-garde that you find engaging?

 Carolyn: The first point is that Rancier is doing something in this quote which I love to do, he is re-semanticising a word: avant-garde. The avant-garde was de-semanticised by being interpreted through its military definition. If the artistic avant-garde was understood militarily they were partaking in the negativity of the militarism of WW1 and they were just as bad as those armies – so lets just throw out the name avant-garde and throw out those artists too, like for example the Futurists. So Ranciere is simply saying you can re-semtacise the avant-garde, reuse this word, and it means returning to another tradition of the avant-garde associated with “the forms of life to come”. Personally don’t use the word avant-garde very much I would usually use advanced art, research based art, or experimental art. But I think I mean the same thing as Ranciere and I agree with Ranciere’s endeavor.

The Futurists are interesting to me but the Cubists are not, Cubism was about creating an external platonic position on knowledge and seeing this knowledge from every angle which is a kind of authoritarian project of controlling the totality of what an object can mean. I don’t believe in that project, I believe in movement, change and process and the Futurists and Russian Constructivists idea of the avant-garde (if you want to use Ranciere’s re-sementicised word).

Movement and change connects with everything that was revolutionary at the time. Like what Henri Bergson said that there is no present, but a continuous present, the layering of instants which are recycled. In that sense the Futerists work was much more advanced in opening up the idea of time and problematising the static autonomous object which is a mirror of the static and autonomous subject. I am part of the story which breaks with that, through performance and many other experiments. I love the idea of the social sculpture of Joseph Boyce. I think these are very important themes to continue. But it’s not a linear conversation, for example, when I asked Joan Jonas how she felt when she invented performance art –she said I didn’t invent anything, people have been doing this 50,000 years, I just made the field which had become closed a little broader.

Zanny: I guess that is another understanding of revolution, as a non-linear idea of time…

Carolyn: the choice is not modernity versus postmodernity, the choice is not throwing out history or accepting history it’s not like that. The choice is not black or white, its black and white and many, many shades of grey.

I am a universalist in a good way, I believe in re-semanticising that word, there are things that we share as humans, the politics of difference and identity politics were important when there was a politics of exclusion, but when they become a dominant paradigm they divide us because they individuate people according to certain characteristics. I believe in not simplifying things, but complicating them, that is my basic philosophy, complicate things to the point of illogicality, to the point where they create this vertiginous gap. To return to your first question I am interested in the gap between “forms that turn” and “turns that form” and in the different associations between the first and the second phrase. It’s in that gap where there is utter confusion and, to be a feminist – I claim the space of the hysteric -, confusion is where great things can happen.