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(Public) Forms of Collectivity: A conversation with Binna Choi


28 September 2015
This month's topic: Narratives, display and textuality
Adelita Husni-Bey, “White Paper: The Land,” 2014, installed at Casco — Office for Art, Design and Theory, 2015. Photo: Niels Moolenaar.

(Public) Forms of Collectivity: A conversation with Binna Choi

A conversation with Binna Choi, Director of Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht, The Netherlands since 2008, about narratives, formats, positions and the commons in curatorial practice.

Binna, I remember a conversation we had during your last visit to Barcelona with BAR project. We were discussing how the display of a certain show in a museum was totally directional, narrative, and closed, and how this classical exhibition format didn´t enable the idea to reach its full potential. One of your comments back then was, “this show doesn´t perform”. If we talk about the moment when art projects go public, do you think that new forms and tones that really “perform” would be one of today’s urgencies?

I think a great exhibition is when different subjects or subjectivities meet and enter into a trans-individual state. For that to happen, you, as a viewer, would have to encounter the other, who speaks, who is present, and/or who moves. The conventional exhibition, involving the placement of a work, the caption, and the thematic division of the space, does not create this encounter; especially given our limited attention span, enveloped as we are in this digital environment of constant information. That’s why how you see an exhibition is crucial with regards to spectatorship. Whether you were accompanied while viewing the exhibition or not, these days makes a difference. That’s one of the reasons why I think there has been the insurgency of choreographic works in art institutions over the last few years. Having said that, I think an exhibition should in fact be far more directional, more choreographic, and more narrated than ever. Of course artworks themselves have such capacities but it depends on the context. Where several authors happen to coincide, each with a single object, it tends to be hard for the objects themselves to mediate. That’s one of the reasons why a “curated” exhibition is such a huge challenge and require a deliberate engagement, whereas there is an increasing intensity and appreciation with a solo exhibition (where the curator functions as a companion, facilitator, support, or first public to the author).

The way we articulate narratives through art is, of course, totally engaged with how we do that. Could it be that today we are shackled to a single kind of language, the same, predominantly narrative framework of representation and communication, blinded to a broader understanding of what is happening around us? I am thinking about the shift in theoretical focus proposed by Karen Barad, “from representationalism to performativity”. How can we work with our curatorial practice, in a performative way, to articulate knowledge, away from the classical narrative structure?

Perhaps we need to clarify what we mean with the classical narrative structure or framework. The framework in general consists of a theme linking a collection of art “objects”, written in a communication medium -and most extensively in a press release, plus a space, generally a white cube, and the material and immaterial form of choreography in that space. What I focus on is this aspect of choreography. Visibly it’s about display structures. Rather than making them a hidden support structure, they must be a visible system of articulation. I enjoy collaborating with architects and artists on these aspects. In terms of what’s invisible, it is how you envision movements of audiences and draw invisible and possible paths for them. In doing so, you cannot undervalue a mode of speech, of course, from signage to press release. It’s not about standard professionalism, or excellence but about singularity as a form of authorship (not in terms of authority, property, and ownership), I believe it is, ideally, a collective singular authorship. The curator should not limit himself or herself to a mediatory task, unless one considers we are all mediators, as Deleuze would say! And this certainly leads us to think about the question of co-habitation among audience and organizers.

Casco is a very particular institution developing a programme that focuses on the construction of social space and issues of collaboration, collective production, and process-driven projects. Casco traverses design, theory, and a wider social sphere. Its activities encompass exhibitions, but also research, production, applications, workshops, forums, debates, actions, performances, screenings, education, and publishing. Do you think the exhibition format – or rather, certain way of making exhibitions, attached to a linear narrative scheme- is still predominant and carry weight in the artistic field? And if so, in which ways does this predominance affect the final shape of the projects?

Artist Haegue Yang once told me that the “exhibition is the top” among many activities. What she meant is, I think, that it is the exhibition, which creates a force that enables artworks to be seen, sensed, and felt in an intensive manner. The exhibition is considered a form of “occupation” of space. When occupied, it creates a resonance. The question is there not whether I agree with Haegue’s statement or not but rather what forms of looking, seeing, relating, and doing we promote and cultivate in exhibitions: how much diversity in forms of exhibitions is out there to create alternative modes of subjectivity? As a bourgeois cultural habit, going to an exhibition is an activity of individualistic pleasure, the accompanying educational capacity of which even brings an added value of knowledge and self-containment. At the same time, the exhibition cannot just act as an antagonistic space of critical knowledge and a social space of alternative relationality. You would have to deal with the aesthetic dimension and the whole economy and politics in mediating an exhibition. There’s no reason to be an “anti-exhibition” fundamentalist, but we should keep challenging the format of exhibitions while considering the economy and politics of exhibiting, however that consideration might eventually lead to the end of the ‘exhibition’.

Sometimes even if a project is not really an exhibition, but a place where artworks, actions, discussions and affects meet, – as in New Habits, the project with which the new Casco space opened- we still use the word “exhibition”, and this leads to a very particular way of making ideas public, a very precise format, structure and articulation… How do you deal with these questions at Casco? How do you work with so many different formats all at once?

The reason why I still use the notion of the exhibition, even when an exhibition is just one of many activities within a project, is that it can function like a flag which the public recognizes and can engage with, however differential its form is. Here I assume a broad and plural public, which also indicates how the “exhibition” could work as a place of negotiation, which ideally could border on militant antagonism at least in an experiential level.

If we think about curatorial practice, the history, the expansion of the exhibition-making field by curators has always responded to the rise of certain artistic formats, discourses, or working dynamics. The last two projects you showed at Casco, Adelita Husni-Bey White Paper: The Law and Fernando García Dory Inland are examples of artists working in a very particular way, related with what is known as socially engaged practice. Adapting this kind of project to the classical exhibition format is, in my opinion, one of the challenges nowadays. Could you tell us a little about those projects, and how you deal with these issues at Casco?

While the “process” based approach recognized in the 60s’s artistic practice is very much related to the individual creative process, the processes in the projects we engage with are compositional, where different voices, positions, and practices are invited to come and form part of the process. Artists are co-initiators, facilitators, and mediators, who enable an assembly of difference to produce common knowledge. Adelita and Fernando also work in such a way, although their ways of dealing with the exhibition are quite different.

In the case of White Paper: The Law[[]], the idea of the form is pre-conceived with the idea of the process. Adelita wanted to gather different stakeholders around the practice of squatting and its criminalization in the Netherlands including lawyers, abolitionists, squatters, and researchers so as to draft a counter-legal document reclaiming the right to squat in a broader context within citizens’ rights to housing.

The Microsoft word program with its track change function was used and projected on the wall during the meetings with those practitioners, as a way to make the drafting process public. After every meeting she produced a poster with the part of the draft produced, silkscreened in a particular colour for each meeting. She also wrote with a brush any comments or corrections generated in the following meeting, to the previous posters. The final “visual” outcomes are fascinating, colourful and dynamic. In doing so, the artist did not simply intend the articulation per se, but also the exhibition context and its afterlife, including the circulation of the work both in a public art institution and the art market to the campaign.

Perhaps the very instability and hesitance about the need of exhibition can be addressed with regards to Inland, whose focus lies in getting your hands dirty in land as much as the discursive engagement on the rurality today. Exhibition is inherently an urban form. By inviting Fernando, we intended to work on Inland in a long-term by actually developing practice in (farm) lands, which makes inevitable the identity of Inland as a “para-institution”, as he calls it. The exhibition was conceived as a way of launching this, informing about Inland. Hence, the exhibition as an information centre and as a platform for initiating research in the Netherlands. Yet the question of the artistic and aesthetic strategy remains open, and we are still debating what “form” would be the most appropriate for an information centre.

Certainly the exhibition is the place where public meets art, a measurable format. Maybe one of the challenges is to reinforce other kinds of public presentations, valid not just for audience recognition, but also for politicians and sponsors? And in this context, how important can the establishing of new political structures be? Could this open a possibility for creating a different relation between art, culture, and politics?

Many curators are creating different forms of public sharing and encounters, other than the “traditional exhibition”. The current limitation seems to be a habit of articulation. The Mexican artistic collective Crater Invertido for example, did really well in their request for support of the DOEN Foundation. No single exhibition was planned but they articulated and elaborated on the public seminar and publication series within what they called the “Editorial Movement”. And we are currently working on a 5 month-long exhibition called “We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning” where the experience of time is emphasized in a series of processes of autonomous instrumentalization, of art works and other things for the commons, a place for co-habitation and collective “tooling”.

Of course, one of the well-known problems is the question of quantity. We should keep working on communicating and persuading politicians and funders that publicness is not about number. Then, if it’s not a number, what is publicness? What is the public good? How to achieve and work towards it? Here is where the necessity for a political structure comes in, a network in a different scale and for the commons is a way of doing it. One could question then, how can we handle all this, which has to bear a long process of conflicts, betrayal, and negotiations necessary in commoning in the current capitalist structure. The Invisible Committee would say militancy, no negotiation, and fxxx the commons. Likewise, they would say no to exhibition making, at least until we reach the point – the end of capitalism?

Juan Canela is Artistic Director of ZsONAMACO at CDMX, co-founder of BAR project in Barcelona, independent curator and critic. He understands the curatorial as a practice in which ideas, concepts and contents come into play, but also work structures, rhythms, models and ways of life. And here writing is a fundamental element.

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