why exhibit at all? an answer from the year 2030 (essay by Nora Sternfeld)

originally published by: qalqalah3

Why Exhibit At All? An Answer From the Year 2030[1]

“Everything has been touched by the political backlash… The fight is still going on, but the picture is very clear: Brazil is facing a putsch, a coup d’état by the Right and Far-Right forces in the country. And, as usual in cases like this, the Left has been unable to be… well, a real Left!‘ I was ‘invited’ to leave the Museum of Modern Art in Bahia (MAM-BA) in late December, due to the atmosphere – my tenure as the director was described as a ‘political menace’ by the new administration in Bahia. Why? Because we decided in the last four years to debate about the hierarchy between the museum, the audience and the state. MAM-BA is a public museum, you see.”[2]

— From an interview with Marcelo Rezende, former director of the Museum of Modern Art in Bahia, June 2016

We collect examples. We organize history. We begin 2030 with a new exhibition. The show on the history of struggles in museums and art universities opens in only a few weeks. We want to understand what we can do. At our last meeting, the parameters and scope of action for our work had not been entirely clear. Is our aim to win — although it is highly unlikely given the authoritarian political climate — or, is our aim to just survive? We are certainly not alone, but we still have no answer to these questions. Sometimes I am glad that I spend most of my time with the historical documents. I sort through material and work on interpreting objects anew. If this history is one of struggle, isn’t conceiving of history as struggle part of the struggle? And to show them? I ask myself these questions as I collect quotes and try to find the right voice for the texts that will appear on the exhibition walls. To me, it is as difficult as it is important that we gain a better understanding the implications of our work. I hope to find words of clarity and, as I grapple with the present, to make useful decisions.

Since we took over the museum, we have asked ourselves what we want to achieve with our work here. We had been fighting for years for a different exhibition practice. We have occupied universities and mobilized voters, taught postcolonial and decolonial theories, shifted the boundaries between art and political action, intervened in the politics of history writing, and demanded the government’s resignation. Yet, for over a quarter century, our core concern has been imagining different possible museums. We have criticized existing “exoticist” and colonial collections, worked on the history of the Western museum and its entanglement with the production of racist knowledge, and demanded an improvement to the working conditions and new decision-making structures. We have addressed, critiqued, infiltrated and even occupied museums.

Then we decided to get together and do what we could. We seized a favorable moment and became a museum ourselves. In 2021, as the institutions were being privatized, we formed an autonomous collective inside that beautiful old museum, where our days and often nights were spent.

We are now a para-museum that we run, manage and maintain as a collective. Our group consists of activists and organizers. All of us are curators and educators too. Some of us are migrant historians, Black theorists, artists of color, poetic technicians, proletarian educators, progressive conservationists, subversive artisans and emancipatory ethnographers. We are not “interested in questions about your passport or heritage” but we “challenge such questions in the first place.”[3] That is a motto we borrowed from Kanak Attak, an initiative that began last century in Berlin, and to whom we dedicated an exhibition early on in the 2020s.

Although the museum does provide a refuge, it is also under threat. Its continued existence can be attributed to the fact that large-scale institutions have become less and less desirable, that the public continues to remain divided, and that other institutions have became more and more reactionary. Our para-museum has a budget too, even if it is a small one. It has an exhibition and event program, impeccable accounting—an absolute necessity because of the frequent audits—and takes a stand against fascist and racist politics from a cosmopolitan standpoint.

For the past ten years we have been trying to understand the role of the museum in times of authoritarian political change. My research focus is on the period between 2013 and 2023. It begins with the 2013 occupation of the Ludwig Museum in Budapest—which Orban’s government put a stop to—and ends with the 2023 collapse of autonomous institutional structures in France. I am particularly interested in the processes before and after the turn. Although my main focus is on Austria, over the past few months I have made a concerted effort to examine, collect and understand as much as possible about events internationally. Over the years, the politics within most museums have changed. New cultural policies gradually led to the instatement of new directors and staff. Some changed their stances gradually and others more abruptly. I am mainly interested in the transitions. Before these changes, struggles of cultural political actors in many different places had led to funds being allotted to research projects that critically examine the history of museums and their entanglements in colonial history and racist discourses. The texts I have chosen for the exhibition include an excerpt from a funding application from Germany in 2016:

The Global Museum is a program of the Federal Cultural Foundation that aims to create impulses for globally rethinking and redefining collections from a non-Western perspective and to establish this more strongly in German museums, as it is already common among museums internationally. Because our society is shaped by globalization, migration and transculturality, it is of utmost importance that art museums actively participate in such developments and that their collection, research and exhibition practices are on par with museums internationally.”

Excerpt from the Global Museum Program. Collections from the 20th Century in a Global Perspective by the Federal Cultural Foundation, 2016

Literature on museums from the second decade of the twenty-first century give accounts of many people in many different places who were concerned with finding ways to unlearn the colonial, racist and exotifying images that were so constitutive and definitive of museums in both the past and present. Reports from that era even write about numerous cases where people stood up and fought inside and for museums. Although these years of antiracist struggles and activist demands on museums did bring about some changes, its structures remained fully intact. The materials I sifted through and compiled for the exhibition bear evidence that the activists gained ground and that they adjusted to a capitalist form of organization critics at the time called “neoliberalism.”

As I read through one of my wall texts, I notice it is full of language from the 2010s. Today many of the words seem outdated, pompous and perhaps even a little naive:

In the 2010s, following a so-called “crisis of representation” the imperative of “participation” entered into the museologists’ vocabulary. There was more and more talk of “agency — the power to act.” The new discourse around museums and exhibitions even more frequently declared themselves as ‘radicals’.[4] Forming cooperations with activists had become part of the everyday work of curators in the art field,[5] in municipal museums and in some ethnographic museums. Against the grain of the logic of representation, exhibitions and museums were more frequently conceived as zones of agency. Regarding participation from a curatorial perspective, theorist Irit Rogoff writes: ‘to participate is to lay a ground to a claim.’[6] In this respect, it is about creating a space where demands can be formulated, in other words, it is about a transformative practice that is not preconceived or perhaps does not yet even exist.  

Then I ask myself: what is it that makes this text so old-fashioned? Maybe it is that the demands have remained the same, but the conditions have changed? Maybe being “radical” is no longer chic? Synthesizing the materials, I look at these new politics of occupation and find evidence of rare and brave acts taken by cultural political officials before it was too late. Still, despite the critical discussions concerning the new directors, the institutional structures remained unchanged. I discover amidst the material documents from occupations and collaborations, for instance, between refugee activists, artists and antiracist activists in Vienna. I should consider using some of them in the exhibition.

“Art, Activism, Academy” is the title of a discussion between activists from the Refugee Protest Movement Vienna and staff and students held in the hall of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna on 9 October 2013. When the event ended, the activists proceeded to occupy the Academy. Utilizing the Academy as a space for action and refuge seemed a logical consequence, because in their responses to the political circumstances at the time, the institution and its directors had sided with the refugees again and again. However, the Academy’s head office responded to the occupation by threatening to call the police and demanded they leave the Academy and end the occupation. The activists did so after being faced with an ultimatum on 4 November.

I consider using the following letters from the dean’s office of the Academy:

Dear Refugees,

Please leave the Academy by Monday 4 November. This means leaving the hall and room M20, where you have been sleeping, along with all the other rooms in the academy.

Eva Bliminger, Andrea B. Braidt, Karin Riegler

The deans later wrote:

You are permitted to make use of the hall for meetings, discussion events and press conferences. However, you are not to make use of any of the other rooms at the Academy. Attached is the November 2013 schedule for the hall. This offer only stands if you leave the Academy today.[7]

These documents give insight into the discrepancy between discourses of critical reflection and those of institutions adhering to economic criteria, which was highly common in the years leading up to the authoritarian turn. This was a time when migrants were invited to speak at conferences and activists appeared in catalogues. The self-determination with which they spoke about their everyday struggles set the new rhythm for press releases.

They demanded new archives, the decolonization of museums and asked what an “archive of migration” might be. They criticized the national archives for functioning as “storage facilities for artifacts collected based on the logic of state and institutional discourses that represented the official stance so detrimental to migrants for decades.[8]

Regarding the national archive collection, in 2016 migration sociologist Ljubomir Bratić writes:

“These materials tell a story of attempts at organizing this area; they tell a story of government efforts to regulate migration policies and to standardize integration policies. I am not saying that this is not important, on the contrary, these documents are necessary in order to understand how ascription processes work.” 

This excerpt makes me realize the profound belief that Bratić then had in the subversive potential of working with the archive as a site of inscription. I decide to use the following excerpt in the exhibition:

Although an archive can be a site of control, a site of order, a site of normalization; it is simultaneously also a site for the others—the superfluous ones—to gain access to knowledge. An archive is an instrument. It has no intrinsic use except for that ascribed by the archivist and its users. It all depends on who, how and why collections are publically and discursively brought to light.”

I feel it is important to include autonomous projects that had been successful, even if only for a short time. For instance, the Museum of Impossible Forms (M{if}) was founded by an independent group of Helsinki artists in spring 2017, as an antiracist and queer-feminist project, a heterogeneous space, and as an experimental and migrant form of expression. The Museum of Impossible Forms opened up a broad horizon though its political character, its accessibility and openness, its multilingual library, and workshops and events. It certainly served as an inspiration to us and, in a sense, a sister organization under different conditions.[9]

In reality, such critical discourses ultimately have also been beneficial to actors from bourgeois dominant culture, who have already found a way to live within critical capitalism. Alternative institutions were hard won—as “mission statements” from before the turn often emphasize—through struggles or takeovers, when those struggling became the superfluous ones themselves. Back then, part of activist struggles had been to find ways to fight the self-perpetuating, exclusive hiring structures and exploitative working conditions so commonplace in museums and universities.

In January 2016, the author of a book entitled Capitalist Realism had taken his life in London. Mark Fisher worked at the Institute for Visual Culture at the then renowned Goldsmiths College at London University where he found himself wrapped up in the same contradictions resulting from the capitalization of critique and the simultaneous exploitation of his labor to the point of exhaustion. He had drawn attention to the fact that the given living and working conditions no longer allowed us to grasp the present or articulate a present from which a future could be imagined. A multi-media section in the exhibition will feature a lecture held in May 2014, two years before he committed suicide where he speaks of “the slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations.”[10]

Fisher’s suicide marks a milestone in the creeping shift of the coordinates delineating our possibilities of action, which were not always immediately discernible. In the early years following the authoritarian turn, capitalism, authoritarianism and exhibitions on critical discourse were no contradiction. A clear example of this comes from Istanbul in 2013. This was three years before—under the pretense of an attempted coup—Erdogan invalidated his critics’ passports and initiated waves of incarceration and jail releases. From the catalogue and newspaper reports I compose the following wall text:

Who does public space belong to? On 14 September 2013, the day before the press conference announcing the opening of the Istanbul Biennale, a sudden outburst of protests against capitalism in Turkey began. An activist in Ankara was killed sparking protests in Istanbul that the authorities tried to put an end to using tear gas. In the midst of all this, the art biennale centered around the question of “who public space belongs to” was scheduled to open. Its main theme intersected with the activists’ concerns about the turbo-capitalist gentrification of Istanbul and the protests against it, which began with the occupation of Gezi Park in summer 2013. A public television report summed it up by saying: “Rarely have art and reality been so closely intertwined as in this year’s Istanbul Biennale.”[11]

Despite the political tone and word choice in the concept for the Istanbul Biennale—incidentally scheduled to coincide with a brand new art fair—its entanglement in the city’s fast-paced economization was far greater than its involvement in the protests. In that moment, when the burgeoning social movement was taking place and before its repression, curator Fulya Erdemci decided to change the concept and retreat from the public sphere back into the white cube. This “strategic retreat,” which she called it in a tour for curators, had been an attempt to refrain from appropriating the protests. This decision coincidentally made any interaction with the public completely impossible, as all of the events, discussions and artworks that were supposed to take place in public spaces were cancelled. 

It took different amounts of time for the effects of the authoritarian structures to manifest in different areas. Critics were among the first to feel them. Borders were closed and holding a passport became more and more of a privilege. Daily deportations a fix part of everyday life; countless people lost their jobs. Critical voices were first silenced through excessive audits, and later more openly. Once again, denunciations and spying on each other was commonplace. Fear was palpable, especially in the decisions. For museums, sometimes the repercussions were barely noticeable, in the cultural field sometimes several years passed, and others were immediately affected. notice newspaper report on the situation in Hungary in May 2013, which says:

Since Thursday evening, activists and museum staff have been occupying the Ludwig Museum at the Palace of Arts, the most influential museum of contemporary art in Hungary. The occupation was triggered by the dismissal of the museum director, a fate that numerous other art and cultural institutions in Hungary share. According to the Ministry, the occupation and protests are the “usual hysteria” that is part of a “political crusade” aimed to tarnish “the image of Hungary” […] The Ministry has removed a great deal of competences from state institutions and placed them in the hands of the formerly private Hungarian Art Academy. Generously endowed with official funds for arts and culture, this organization has a strong nationalist leaning, and even includes “nationalist sentiment” as a criterion for hire. President Fekekte has hurled antisemetic insults at authors György Konrád and Imre Kertéz, censured art that does not adhere to its program accusing it as “national blasphemy”, and nearly all the directors share these ideas.[12]

In the timespan between 2013 and 2023 lie ten years of the authoritarian turn, which certainly led to developments that were specific to each context, although there are still a number of commonalities.

Our para-museum is a heterotopy in an uncanny world. We have often been fearful and were glad to find we were not alone. Over and over again, we discussed all the possible options—or all those we could imagine. We are sometimes strong and brave. Sometimes we help each other bear the weight of our fears. Sometimes we caution each other not to be overly exuberant. We have examined, discussed and made sense of the museum’s constantly growing collection. We have questioned the hierarchies between histories and objects. We have researched and identified proveniences and come up with many sad stories. When all of the histories with all their omissions became tangible and were out on the table, we saw many things clearer than we imagined, while others things became less clear. Oftentimes, we were unable to envision a solution initially. We set the collections in motion, restituted works back to whom they were stolen from, sat together with numerous colleagues from many different places—who, like us, are researchers and activists too—and contemplated what we should do, and how exactly to go about it.

We did not want to develop only theories, but to also draw the consequences of our research in our practice. That part was easy, because nobody had shown much interest in our collection to begin with. But it had been important to us at the time; it gave us purpose. We wanted to continue to conduct the “archive of migration” the way that those who had struggled for and founded it in the 2010s had intended: as an archive of histories of the structural injustice of racism, of the everyday lives of migrants, and of antiracist struggles.[13] The collection afforded us access to a great deal of materials. We received numerous donations from friends and fellow activists. We spoke to many people, listened to many stories, remembered many things on our own, and learned a great deal.

We tried to redefine the museum. We found it important to address, work through and not to forget the history of violence. It was important that it was not conveyed in abstract terms, and that we understood that the bodily knowledge gained from these struggles also needs to be part of the museum. We wanted the museum to be a place for stories and movements, for history and action, for remembering things past, and a place where subjugated forms of knowledge could be heard and have an impact.

We also built spaces inside the museum to house colleagues – who, like us, are researchers and activists too—and who, for various reasons, also found it important and necessary to have a place to stay. We restored objects and planned programs for exhibitions. Sometimes our advertisements were critical and dissident. Sometimes we just wanted to emphasize that the banal authority of the situation should not determine intellectual life. We set up reading circles and read texts with various people in various languages, some of which we learned through reading together. We learned to translate and think about multiple contexts at the same time. Time and time again, we asked ourselves why it was important to fight for other exhibition practices at all. Given the current situation, this is more or less indisputable—at least in our small world—that such struggles for different exhibition practices are necessary; at the same time, we understand that while so many other struggles are so far from attaining their goals that they seem unattainable altogether, the question still one that needs to be addressed—urgently.

In our meeting yesterday it was me who was emphatic about the importance of our work. I said it was important, because the politics of history is a kind of politics; and because it creates spaces for remembering, which enables other struggles even if we do not know what to do with that knowledge, or in what direction our work might take us. It is especially important because it is a place where we meet, a place where a new “we” can take shape again and again, a place where we can transform our practices ourselves. Yesterday, as so often, my arguments were controversial. Where do we stand? Do we want to take to the streets or take distance? Over time many people left, some for a while, others for good. Most left for good reason like they were needed more elsewhere. New people are still joining the collective. Although our museum’s history does not foresee a happy end, we do not see any point in stopping. Bearing all this in mind, I write one more wall text for the exhibition before I leave for the day. It’s late again.

After the coup in Brazil in 2016, six of the former curators of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia (MAM-BA) moved to the forest with their families. Until they were forced to leave, the museum had carried on in the spirit of the Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi[14] and consistently grew to become, in Paulo Friere’s sense, a place of emancipatory education and a democratic horizon.[15] After the then director Marcelo Rezende was forced to resign and the entire team was fired, without further hesitation they moved to the Brazilian countryside — to Mucuge, to property located in the Chapada Diamantina National Park at the foot of the Sierra Sincorá in Bahia. There, they founded the Museu do Mato, an experimental lab for art and museology, which continues on with the same intentions, to research the region through the use of collective, experimental modes of research, cartography, collection of data and interviews, through lectures, workshops, land-based practices, residencies, film series and other actions that give insight into the “natural, cultural, material and immaterial legacy” of the region. The collection consists of materializing the research work — of reports, photographs, objects, documents and poetic constructions — which people are invited to visit in person or digitally. Until today, the curators live and work in Bahia as a constantly growing experimental group, with moments of frustration, scientific breakthroughs, experiences of commonality and community, and under precarious conditions, everyday they rediscover the idea behind the museum anew.[16]

[1] This text was edited by Lotte Arndt and translated by Erika Doucette (English) and, Sara Roumette (French). This text was written in the context of the book Curating as Antiracist Praxis by Natalie Bayer, Belinda Kazeem and Nora Sternfeld. The book is part of the series curating. ausstellungstheorie und praxis. Series editors: Martina Griesser, Christine Haupt-Stummer, Renate Höllwart, Beatrice Jaschke, Monika Sommer, Nora Sternfeld and Luisa Ziaja. Published by De Gruyter, University of Applied Arts Vienna, publishing house editor: Gerald Bast, forthcoming (fall 2017).

[2] Marcelo Rezende, Invest Week Interview #18. http://jegensentevens.nl/2016/06/invest-week-interview-18-marcelo-rezende/

[3] Kanak Attak and Basta! Manifesto, http://www.kanak-attak.de/ka/down/pdf/manifest_e.pdf

[4] Cf. Claire Bishop, “Radical Museology: Or What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art?” Cologne 2014.

[5] For instance in Museum Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven and at the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, to name only a few highly debated examples.

[6] Cf. Irit Rogoff. “Looking Away – Participating Singularities, Ontological Communities.” Research project at the International College for Cultural Techniques and Media Philosophy. Weimer 2010-2012. See: http://www.ikkm-weimar.de/frontend/index.php?page_id=159&v=d_v&id=133

[7] Cf. https://refugeecampvienna.noblogs.org/page/5/

[8] Ljubomir Bratić : Auf dem Weg zu einem Archiv der Migration, in: Büro trafo.K (ed.), Strategien für Zwischenräume. Verlernen in der Migrationsgesellschaft, Vienna 2016 (forthcoming).

[9] The Museum of Impossible Forms opened in spring 2017 as a collectively organized “free space” in Kontula, an outlying district in the east of Helsinki. Aside from the multilingual library, a printing facility and a media center, it is also a space for hosting workshops, events and exhibitions, which is constantly in conversation with its immediate surroundings. The program consists of discursive and artistic events situated within the context of decoloniality, postcolonial feminism and queer theory.

[10] Yet, perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate any more.“ Mark Fisher. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Zer0, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCgkLICTskQ

[11] The cultural program Title Thesen Temperamente was aired by the German regional public broadcasters association ARD on 22 September 2013. http://www.daserste.de/information/wissen-kultur/ttt/sendung/ndr/istanbul100.html

[12] Excerpt from the German-language independent newspaper Pester Lloyd on 11 Mai 2013, http://www.pesterlloyd.net/html/1319besetzungludwig.html

[13] Cf. Arif Akkılıç, Ljubomir Bratić, “Aufruf für ein Archiv der Migration,” Stimme nr 84/2012, http://minderheiten.at/images/stories/stimme84_herbst2012_webs27.pdf and the Archive of Migraiton working group (Arif Akkılıç, Vida Bakondy, Ljubomir Bratić, Wladimir Fischer, Li Gerhalter, Belinda Kazeem, Dirk Rupnow), Brainstorming /working paper/ concept for an Archive of Migration, March 2013, http://www.archivdermigration.at/sites/default/files/archivdermigration_konzept_0.pdf

[14] Roger M. Buergel, ‘This Exhibition Is an Accusation’: The Grammar of Display According to Lina Bo Bardi, http://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.26/this-exhibition-is-an-accusation-the-grammar-of-display-according-to-lina-bo-bardi1

[15] Cf. Marcelo Rezende, “Staging the School at the Museum,” lecture at the conference: Wem gehört das Museum? Fragen und Bedingungen musealer Vermittlung im globalen Kontext, 19 Jan 2017, https://www.kunstsammlung.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Forschen/museum_global_faltblatt_symposium_dt.pdf

[16] https://www.facebook.com/museudomato/

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