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19 February 2018
All artistic practice is the future. Interview with Chus Martínez

Rosa Naharro

Chus Martínez (Ponteceso, Corunna, 1972) is director of the Art Institute at the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basle. She has occupied important positions as a curator and researcher in institutions such as El Museo del Barrio in New York, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) in Barcelona, Sala Rekalde in Bilbao, the Frankfurter Kunstverein, documenta in Kassel and the biennales of Venice and São Paulo. She was included in the list published by Art Review as one of the most influential people in the field of contemporary art, and is even a literary character in Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Kassel no invita a la lógica. Chus Martínez is back in Spain to curate an exhibition programme around the concept of the future for ARCOmadrid 2018 art fair, along with Rosa Lleó and Elise Lammer. 

For the first time, ARCO will not have a guest country this year. Instead, what structures the programme is the concept of the future. Does this change mean that the previous model had been exhausted? How did the idea come about?

The idea came from ARCO. It was the fair that somehow wanted to make a move and replace a geopolitical and geographical concept with a different way of thinking, presenting issues that transcend what each gallery chooses to show and sell at the fair. On the one hand, ARCO wanted to continue with its commitment to international art, as always, and on the other it wanted to find a meta-level at which to discuss other possibilities. It’s an experiment, a pilot. It’s also the first time that I’m working in a commercial context, and it’s given me the opportunity of working in Spain and with Spanish teams.

Working in a market context like ARCO, determined by conditioning factors that are sometimes different to those of the institutional sphere of culture, what are the opportunities and limitations?

In Spain we’ve always demonised the market and we speak of a market in the singular, but the truth is that when you live in Basle you realise that there are many markets. There are specific markets, like ART Basel, with other dynamics and logics different to those of ARCO. ARCO was born as a hybrid model — it’s a market but it’s also always had an internationalising and pedagogical intention. That’s what I found interesting.

As regards the limitations, we must understand that ARCO is a context mediated on the one hand by the Ifema organisation and is a typical art fair, and on the other, by the participating art galleries that are also intermediaries and should be respected as a sector. At a time when the public field as suffered many cutbacks and needs all sorts of support to ensure that artists don’t carry all the responsibility of the production on their shoulders, it’s interesting to think of what the sector has to offer and of the numerous problems faced by the younger middle-range galleries. Large galleries are okay, they grow by the day, but if we take a look at the specialised press of the last three or four years we’ll see that small and medium-sized galleries have suffered more than anyone and are closing at a frightening rate. The future is a general concept that should be based on specific circumstances we have to accept, because we can change them only slightly. In this sense it’s important to know that ARCO offers free space to galleries in the special sections and that, to a certain extent, the fair also makes an effort, which is unthinkable in the contexts of other fairs. This offers an opportunity of bringing other kinds of works and other kinds of artists to the fair, not necessarily linked to economic income. It’s an effort that all the groups involved make, and it’s important to realise the energy that is required in Spain today for things to be sustained. If the public sphere is in a critical situation it will need the sum of many others to ensure that artists are able to produce and display their work freely, and that their work can connect with the general public and with citizens.

The programme you are developing counts on the participation of twenty small and medium-size galleries, and on the presence of younger artists. What can we expect as visitors?

It’s important not to think of the future as a temporary idea. We don’t want to make a portrait of the future, which is an extremely complex concept and which we should consider a philosophical question. When we ask ourselves about the future, what we’re really asking ourselves is about the prolongation of the present and the possibility that this present be sustained and different. We haven’t interrogated anyone about their vision of the future; if one specific selection were to represent what will be more than the others that would be unfair for audiences. I consider all artistic practices, absolutely all of them, as the future. Starting from this idea, we should make no distinctions, look for no attempt to create a style, because we’ve ceased to belong to modernism and have ceased to examine defining features. To speak of avant-garde today is to speak of the ocean. The avant-garde strove to break forms, but now, after having overcome many established precepts, we’ve learnt that what is important is to find new relations that transcend the realm of human agency, that involve our relationship with nature and, of course, with the future of production, the future of life, the future of knowledge. All this is avant-garde.

Can this be discussed and defined in the context of an art fair?

I don’t know. I don’t think it’s the right place, but in any event this can only be established by artists. As curators, we’ve made an appeal to a certain normality. The future sector of ARCO is made up of a great plurality and a wide diversity of artists from different places and different generations, very international and open. And this should be the norm. Is it? No, it’s not. Politically, we’re realising there’s a brutal constriction that affects our traditional idea of what is international, of what is open and what is plural. This very morning I was reading a news item about Trump not wanting to receive immigrants from ‘shitty countries’. It’s outré! Therefore, normality for me is already the future, because it really isn’t the present. What audiences will see is that there is plurality. A subtle fact that runs through the galleries, that are all small and medium-sized, is that they are strongly committed to the people they work with. And this is translated into all the proposals in the form of connections, relations, trust and support. Supporting people isn’t something spectacular, it’s just necessary.

Among the speakers you’re introducing to discuss the future is philosopher Santiago Alba Rico. A few months ago, at a lecture held at La Casa Encendida, speaking of a sustainable and inhabitable world he suggested a revolutionary change in the economic field, a reformist change in the institutional sphere and a conservative change in the anthropological realm. In this sense, where would art and culture be heading?

We know that many of these changes won’t take place, but there should be an area in which we can name them. Art has a very direct connection with the idea of freedom, and this freedom produces transformations in culture and in institutions, and even outside these parameters. On the other hand, as Santiago Alba Rico says, art is conservative but in the positive sense: it has this wonderful idea that the old and the new, the present, can be contiguous and in fact no form of knowledge eliminates another. This is essential in what art proposes. The modern doesn’t replace the indigenous, and our main challenge is to see and understand what kinds of intelligence we are now facing and how we shall deal with them. Similarly, art has an individual form that isn’t subsumed into a general will. Artists have a great sense of the private sphere, but at the same time it is related to the public sphere and a great transfer of knowledge is produced.

Something else I find fascinating is that art is slow, and that’s a good thing. It is totally lacking in spectacularity, working more by osmosis than by influence, and giving us a great opportunity to grow. Yet we do need to be close to it for a long time and maintain that closeness. If we managed to place this closeness within a pedagogical programme, if politicians were to bring art to ever-greater audiences and do so slowly, epidermically, this would produce a great impact. Art affects memory starting from experience, and it transforms us, making us more fragile but also more skilful and flexible when it comes to imagining other ways of thinking.

These ideas about slowness and closeness remind me of Alba Rico saying that today there are no objects, because objects need their time to be contemplated. In his opinion, what we’re really surrounded by are fast consumer goods. So to recover the object implies a time for contemplation, which is difficult to find in a format such as that of an art fair.

I totally agree. Over the last ten years we’ve seen a move towards ethnography in contemporary artists. Regardless of the philosophy of the object, I think it has to do with the fact that I want to give myself 3000 years of history; I want to give myself a time that won’t be the time of commercial production, the time of my experience as a worker; a time that won’t be that of ideology. The question would be to desynchronise from our ideas, to open up to other things.

In different interviews you’ve said that the idea is ‘to create a space in which to imagine and propose a vision of the complexity that awaits us’. In this sense, culture and art could be valuable insofar as they allow for new spaces of opportunity and interpretation. But how can we make complexity understandable without simplifying discourses? This is a risk we see in politics and the rise of populisms for example, and which appears in many other spheres, including that of art.

Words and texts aren’t enough. We need to open up to experiences through education. We need to make a huge effort and a huge investment. Of course, this won’t happen just because we announce it. You can say you’re a feminist till you’re blue in the face, but if the words aren’t based on a practice, if you have no other way of relating to things, it doesn’t matter what you say. What is still to come assumes that complexity requires multiple experiences and that these can’t be just placed in the reach of audiences through textbooks or slogans. We need new experiences and, as Alba Rico says, this implies a brutal economic reform, because what guarantees do we have that an education through experience will yield results? Well, all the guarantees in fact, but that’s what we find most daunting: reforming education and ensuring that all state schools are of extremely high quality, being hugely ambitious when it comes to relating to all matters in a new way, or including nature and gender in the curriculum, for instance. Perhaps all this would forge the great revolution. This is the most important challenge.

Perhaps it also involves re-signifying words. There’s an ideological appropriation that empties words of their meaning and makes them easily exchangeable. Today, terms like creativity or sustainability already form a part of any business and political discourse. Do we need to invent new words?

We’ve ended up with a truly limited repertoire of words. We need other words. I’ve just been to Japan and consulted an archive belonging to a man I knew nothing about, a late nineteenth-century ethnographer. As the language is so different, I was given a glossary of terms to make sure I wasn’t totally in the dark. It was amazing, it was like learning to talk again, and it was great because it gave me lots of chances to come up with different scenarios and impressions. Perhaps you’re right and we do need to re-signify some notions, but then perhaps we also need to forget some repertoires and, above all, reject earlier models and formulas. In our country, as soon as something works we think it could be a formula, and we’re the first to standardise things and consume them. We’re facing what many are condemning as appropriationism on the part of people who have no intention of doing what they say. In this sense, I think we need to invent new worlds and, above all, leave behind those that already exist.

In Culture, one of his latest books, Terry Eagleton criticises the arrogance of culture and anticipates that in the future the key problems that mankind will face won’t be cultural but much more mundane, like hunger, war, ecological disasters etc.,  in which culture will participate yet won’t be a decisive factor. Will culture play an important role in the future?

It’s very cynical to say something like that, because the two can’t be separated. It’s very easy to criticise, but we’ve now reached a point when we need to see what can be done, what can be implemented and what can be gained for the common good. Culture can play a huge role in the future, but we’ll have to work hard at it. A host of public and private initiatives are emerging in all sectors that strive to alter the mundane and transform the modern bourgeois lives we lead with different empathies. These attempts aren’t only appearing in the field of culture, but coincide with many others that are surfacing in science, universities and all sorts of places. Not on a mass scale, but there are many such attempts. Terry Eagleton may think that there are too few, and even that culture shouldn’t be there, but it’s more a problem that many men seem to have, who deep down consider women and nature bland themes.

Nature and woman, two concepts that in the field of philosophy have been connected from ancient times and have often been defined as opposed to culture.

It’s the same thing. The truth is that both themes, gender and nature, coincide and many people have historically considered them bland because they speak of political aspirations and social systemic changes, of hardness. But I think the future will come from blandness and the importance of considering gender and nature, and realising that there are many parameters that are not excluded from these concepts. To say power is also to say gender.

Rosa Naharro endeavours to think about the present, considering its distinct contexts, through culture and contemporary art. Looking at exhibitions, writing, reading, film, music and even conversations with friends serve as her tools. Understanding and interpreting “something” of what we call the world becomes a self-obligation, as well as taking a certain stance, that doesn´t distance her from it. She combines writing for A*Desk with writing her doctoral thesis at the UCM and working with cultural management projects.

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)