Carol Yinghua Lu, one of the most interesting voices on the Chinese curatorial scene, is here in conversation with Marco Scotini, who for many years has been considering non-Western cultural systems in relation to the premises and effects of globalization. Their discussion responds to questions about art exhibitions in different cultural conditions; the relationship between experimental pedagogy and the neoliberal, Eurocentric professionalization of curating as a career.
Archaeology and the archive are taken by Scotini as curatorial models in order to deconstruct established Western narratives in an attempt to decolonize and bring collective memories back to the fore—to rewrite complex, interwoven, locally situated stories. The idea of the “situated exhibition,” of feminist origin, becomes the preferred tool for tackling the topics of gender, socio political and ecological issues . It is an acception of (or it is a stance of)
cross-cultural ecologies in the broadest sense, where social, technical, and biological minorities try to find
forms of cultural, anticolonial, anti-patriarchal redemption. The concept of “minor literature” as proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari moves from the philosophical to the exhibition field in order to oppose the indiscriminate homogeneity of current biennials—extended over a global scale. The proposal to consider biennials as exhibition “eco-models” and “minor languages” (the art a minority makes within
a major language) means casting aside any claim to universalism in favor of a partisan point of view aimed at peripheral audiences—territorial segments where historic differences are not smoothed over in order to adapt to an international language.
The book Utopian Display (2019), recently edited by Scotini with contributors such as Pierre Bal-Blanc, Anselm Franke, Charles Esche, and Rasha Salti, attempts to respond to these contemporary asymmetries.1 The volume links researches carried out on ex-colonies and gender, from Geeta Kapur’s India to Gerardo Mosquera’s Latin America, from Andrea Giunta’s de-normalization of the iconography of female bodies to Miguel A. López’s queer re-enactment of the past. The geopolitics referred to is, effectively, that of a partisan positioning that requires a radical rethinking of the neoliberalist model that has characterized the figure of the curator for years.
CAROL YINGHUA LU: You are director of an art academy in Milan with a strong focus on curatorial practice, and have invited not just active curators but also artists to teach there. Can you talk about your vision of curatorial practice? How do you think curatorial practice can be taught?
MARCO SCOTINI: In 2003, I began a cycle of annual international meetings called “Utopian Display” at the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (NABA) in Milan. The definition of a utopian display implied the vision of a sort of ideal exhibition where sociopolitical examples and experimental curatorial researches would take shape. Over four years, curators such as Carlos Basualdo, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Daniel Birnbaum, Jens Hoffmann, Roger M. Buergel, Catherine David, Vasif Kortun, Hou Hanru, Maria Lind, Charles Esche, the Croatian curatorial collective WHW, and several others took turns. Many of these curators subsequently became advisors or visiting professors on the academic program, which combines a solid education in visual arts production with curatorial training. However, the current situation is slightly different. Over the past ten years, the original curatorial experiments have, de facto, been channeled into—and absorbed by—an artistic system increasingly compromised by economics and the aims of the creative industries (the top ten art world “players”, the publics, the artistars, and too much literature on the subject). The value of curatorial experimentation has declined, and whatever curatorial practice has gained in visibility, it has lost in terms of freedom of thought and expression. Facing this impasse, I felt it was necessary to measure ourselves against all that may appear as para-expository or supplementary, such as exhibition display, art communication, and institutional critique. In other words, working more with the artists. On the other hand, as Gavin Wade wrote, before the birth of official curatorship in the 1970s there were “curatorial incidents” such as First International Dada Fair in Berlin (1920); First Papers of Surrealism in New York (1942); and This Is Tomorrow in London (1956)—precisely, experimental exhibitions curated by artists.
CYL: I am highly intrigued by your enthusiasm about the figure of the artist as curator. It’s somewhat rare to encounter a curator with such a standpoint. There is no shortage of curators who resist such an idea and feel that curatorial work is a specialized field, claiming a sort of ownership of the area. Embedded in such an idea is a certain sense of hierarchical self-importance. But one often finds that great curators—the likes of Harald Szeemann—worked and thought like an artist does, not being constrained by such boundaries and self-assigned importance. For instance, his project after documenta, Grandfather: a pioneer like us (1974) (based on his grandfather’s hair salon) was precisely an artwork. Why do you think that sense of specialization emerged in this sector, and how do you think this feeling of ownership affects the shaping of the field itself?
MS: It is my belief that the curator has more affinity with the artist and the collector (as intended by Walter Benjamin) than with the museum keeper and the academic art historian.3 This specialization deals with the closure that the financial economy currently imposes on institutions. As a consequence, for at least two generations, curators have been required to be managers, responsible for a number of economic assets in order to turn museums and biennials into brands. Of course, this implies the devaluation of other assets such as research and the production of works, elements that seem to have become accessory. Furthermore, institutions now prefer to work with temporary and itinerant curatorial staff so that employment is seen as forging a rampant career, not as an activity with a local and situated audience. There is currently a change in the paradigm such that the museum or the biennial is perceived as a business (among the many others) and ever less as an experimental arena. The institutions no longer perform critical functions and give more and more space to marketing and public relations trendsetters. I believe that the freedom against which Szeemann measured himself now belongs to the remote past. On the other hand, if we don’t want to have institutions that start out old and lacking any future, we must still try to experiment, in the same way that the artistic imagination works (or should work).
CYL: The Yinchuan Biennale (2018) was the second biennale you curated in China. The first was the first Anren Biennale (2017). From Milan to Anren and then to Yinchuan has been a considerable shift of context for you. How does this affect your approach to exhibition making?
MS: Before arriving in Yinchuan, I had no idea what I’d find, and thus even less idea about the exhibition I’d be curating. However, in the case of Anren, I did have at least one reference point. Just one. This was the title of Bertolt Brecht’s drama The Good Person of Szechwan (1943)—but this was already quite a lot! The entirely casual discovery, in a Tea House in Anren, of Wei Minglun’s The Good Woman, the Bad Woman (1998) opened up genuine research relating to the active appreciation of Brecht in China and to the process of his indigenization: Brecht’s theatrical play has become the subject of creative appropriation, adaptation, and modification. On the other hand, the plastic piece The Rent Collection Courtyard—one of the most iconic “work models” of the Cultural Revolution from 1965—in Anren was another important reference for the idea of theatricality on display in the Biennale. Despite not knowing the subject of my exhibitions in advance, the archaeological method is the one I always take with me. It permits a comparison with Western modernity.
CYL: Can you talk about your curatorial work in Europe? What exhibition in particular represent your style of curating?
MS: Two curatorial models have been significant for my work, and both converge in a deconstruction of the narratives of Western modernity. One is linked to Disobedience Archive (2005-2014), in which the exhibition was conceived following an archive format and as a criticism of policies that are incapable of integrating forms of life within them. This exhibition went around the world (excluding Asia) and was active for ten years. The starting point lay in the Italian social struggles of the 1970s. Afterward I came up with two more exhibitions dealing with that legacy, The Unarchivable (2016) and The Unexpected Subject (2019), both at FM Centre in Milan, the last one on art and feminism in Italy, which included figures such as Carla Lonzi and Silvia Federici. There is another, more recent model that I would call “the geopolitical sphere and Western modernity,” connected with exhibitions I curated such as The Empty Pedestal: Ghosts from Eastern Europe (Archaeological Museum of Bologna, 2014); the Albanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015; Non-Aligned Modernity: Eastern-European Art and Archives and The White Hunter: African Memories and Representations (both at FM Centre for Contemporary Art, Milan, in 2016, 2017); Too Early, Too Late: Middle East and Modernity (National Art Gallery, Bologna, 2015); and The Missing Planet. Visions and Re-visions of the “Soviet Era” (Pecci Museum, Prato, Italy, 2019). This model could also include the exhibitions I curated in China.
“Archives” and “archaeology” (without overlooking their common etymology) are not only two keywords in my curatorial lexicon—they are both elements of the toolbox I always carry with me. They are a kind of antidote to the ideas of totality, universalism, and humanism. What has always interested me about Michel Foucault’s use of the word “archaeology” is its opposition to history. If, on the one hand, history incites itself to find the pure and uncontaminated origin of things (as well as their progress), on the other, archaeology aims to dispel it in a multiplicity and dispersion of events. Confronting a place or a fact means, first of all, questioning the discursive formation or statement of which it is the object. What we encounter in our relationship with reality are always discursive formations that have taken place in the relationship between knowledge, behavior, and power.
CYL: Utopian Display, the publication you edited and published with Quodlibet, is the first volume of a NABA series. I have come to realize that while a solid understanding of local art histories is crucial to contemporary practice, it’s not always shared by contemporary curators and artists. How do you see the relationship between art history and curatorial practice? How do you imagine it contributes to the discourse and existing literature about curatorial practice?
MS: Undoubtedly, over the past thirty years, the global proliferation of art biennials and museums has not only accompanied globalization, but also promoted and culturally legitimized it. At the same time, however, the artists and cultures that have remained on the margins of hegemonic artistic narratives have gained visibility on a worldwide scale, having access as actors into the Western art system. But how have the old power relationships changed under the triumphalist rhetoric of all-inclusiveness? The fifteen essays collected in this volume (from Anselm Franke to Rasha Salti) aim to respond to such questions. Progressively following the temporal arc that has accompanied the rise of globalization since the end of the 1990s, they attempt to problematize (in a radical way) the new geopolitical map of contemporary art: from the first extra-Western biennale up to the very latest. They are persistently undermining cultural clichés, institutional forms, ethnographic and gender identities, market traps, public expectations, and exhibition formats. For this reason, the aim of the presentation of a series of counter-exhibitions is to bring back to light the collective memories of rebellious archives, of disobedient bodies, of repressed social roles, of banned books, of removed exhibitions. So one of its main functions can be identified in the rewriting of complex histories, locally interwoven and situated, but never taken on by the univocality of modernity. Or, in other words, such that can restore a reserve of potential that has not been exhausted in history, never definitively completed in it.
CYL: When I worked alongside you for the Anren Biennale, I was extremely impressed by the fact that you paid so many visits to Anren and stayed there for a considerable amount of time. Did you carry with you the same commitment to the locality while curating the Yinchuan Biennale? What does this commitment to the local mean?
MS: Just as Donna Haraway talks of “situated knowledge,” situating a biennial means liberating oneself from all the principles based on neutrality, objectivity, and universalism.4 In the case of the Yinchuan Biennale, we tried to identify artists from Mongolia to Eurasia, Pakistan to Nepal, Cambodia to Indonesia, who would work on the subject of ecology in its widest sense. We also followed the traces of the ancient Silk Road to include artists from Italy, Serbia , Turkey, Dagestan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, and Afghanistan.
Behind every exhibition there are always precise geopolitics, yet too many biennials promote homogenization and universalism—so why the urgency to add one more? I believe that, today, biennials are a device of governmentality: they go hand in hand with the presiding idea of Western democracy and neoliberalism. Belonging to the contemporary art world means, de facto, renouncing one’s own specific nature to embrace a monolinguism without proliferations and transversality. Biennials operate like political organizations, such that “being equal” means nothing more than being part of the same Art Institution. As a consequence, emancipating oneself would mean belonging to Art as a same World, in which the system continues to reproduce the dialectics of integration-exclusion. On the contrary, I believe there are so many differences (biodiversities) in the world that we have to pay attention to.
CYL: Each section in your curatorial essay has a title ending with a question mark: “How Is It Possible to Think of the Desert Today?” “What May Be Meant by ‘Starting from the Desert’?” “What Do We Mean by Nomad Science?” “What Ecology Could Even Be Possible under State Science and Universalism?” “Ecologies on the Edge?” “How Can We Imagine an Eco-Model of Exhibition Making?” Were these the same questions you were trying to explore in the exhibition? As a curator, what was the challenge in asking such questions in the form of an exhibition?
MS: The fact of advancing one’s research through questions posed time after time is, to me, a way of building discursive spaces and visual spaces. As already mentioned, not every terrain is something known in advance, and I find my way forward by means of attempts at understanding that are never definitive. All this remains in the exhibition itinerary, and is never cancelled out. I believe that the spectators should ask themselves the same questions if they want to proceed through the show. Not just “What is this?” but also “What has this got to do with this other?” So, at the start of the Yinchuan Biennale, someone will undoubtedly ask “What does Lang Shining’s portrait of the Emperor Qianlong have to do with ecology?” And so forth.
CYL: In recent years, a growing number of Chinese scholars have made conscious attempts to travel to what are usually considered minor areas and discover local histories and complexities. In your mind, does the desert represent a particular horizon that’s less noticed but full of guidance for actions? What we can learn from the desert?
MS: Of all the environmental conditions, the desert is undoubtedly the most extreme: both for the difficulties of life for human communities in such inhospitable and remote areas, and for the processes of adaptation that flora and fauna have needed to elaborate in order to survive the difficult climatic and morphological conditions. For this reason, the desert is the symbolic “degree zero” of artifice, a space with an absence of persistent traces—uncolonized, unplanned, unworked other than by the sun, the rain, and the wind. What Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari are able to read in the desert, in a place—at least to all appearances—where life is impossible (and in which it must go beyond itself in order to subsist), is the origin of something new at stake for life as such, a new dimension of ecology.5 What we can learn from the desert is a genre of a minor science they call “nomad science.”
So, the main ecological lessons come from the desert. It may seem absurd, but it’s not. For example we can quote Gianni Pettena, an artist invited to Yinchuan Biennale, who describes the origin of his research in the 1970s.
In this way, it was discovered that the desert was the “place” of the nomad, a place of “complete emptiness” for he who comes from the city but, at the same time, a place of “complete fullness” for he who lives it or has lived it. But the desert, archetypal condition, “natural” situation for the nomad, is no longer natural for those who travel through it after him; and it becomes quite simply his “architecture,” that which the nomad has left behind, nature made “historical,” and therefore a type of architecture: a place visited, known, thought about and used as one’s own environment.6 For this reason Marjetica Potrč decided to present in the Biennale a rural house model from the Ningxia region of China which is predominantly desert.
CYL: Can you talk about the structure of the exhibition and your choice of works for it? MS: For many years I’ve been working on the relationship between art and nature. I’ve carried out a social analysis of plants and dedicated exhibitions to the pioneers of this artistic practice when, after 1968, there was a realization of environmental disasters and art tried to provide a response to them. Nonetheless, when I arrived in Yinchuan, all this seemed insufficient. There was no nature without history, no socio-botanics without acoustic ecology, no vegetable minorities without ethnic minorities. For the first time, and together with the curatorial team, I tried to re-create a sort of oikos (“house” is one of the meanings of this word in Greek) that could link and connect everything through work, space, time, forms of expression and language, mineral, animal, and vegetable elements, et cetera. I took my inspiration for the exhibition’s construction from all the elements that can be found in the northwest of China.Of course, many references and ideas were provided by the artists themselves, and through our interactions with younger and older intellectuals and archaeologists of Shaanxi province. Thus, it was an exhibition with many elements from areas that we might consider extra-disciplinary yet were strongly interconnected with the aesthetic dimension. Just a proof: the work presented by Liu Ding presents the traditional idea of the Chinese garden, which is totally different from the one of the Western arden as there is no opposition between nature and culture. I believe that today, ecology is a field open either to subjective, psychic, environmental, or social elements, or on the contrary to technocracy. During a conference I gave at Yinchuan University, one young woman asked me: “But why, if you’d decided to do an exhibition on ecology, did you choose the image of the desert? For us, ecology is associated with greenness, not to the brownish yellow in your advert.” She captured perfectly the fact that we didn’t want to talk about market ecology. I think the apocalyptic way in which environmental problems are posed today can only generate a new aesthetics of the sublime, which still lies within the technocratic dimension of modernist, and capitalist, rationalism. What can an artist (or any civilized subject) do within such a scenario? State and business only encourage techno-bureaucratic and “economistic” solutions through authoritarian decisions. But artists can shape new values and new imaginings through which to perceive and consider the world. Or, rather, in Silvia Federici’s words, to “re-enchant the world.”
CYL: In the last section of your curatorial essay, you talk about the relevance of minorities to a system, and specifically the idea of a “minor” exhibition in the global biennial system. Can you elaborate?
MS: Once again, I refer to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature.” The two philosophers use this concept to understand the German language Franz Kafka used in his novels: “Just as a Czech Jew writes in German, or an Ouzbekian writes in Russian. Writing like a dog digging a hole, a rat digging its burrow. And to do that, finding his own point of underdevelopment, his own patois, his own third world, his own desert.”8 Here we see the return of the space of the desert. There is essentially a hidden map, still unformed and unorganized and within and against the grid of existing places, that has to be extracted from official cartography. In the case of the Chinese minorities, the official Chinese cartography is that of the Han. In the case of biennials, the language is that of the social and economic globalization of which they are an inseparable part. One question comes to mind: Is it possible, today, to find a kind of “dialect” within and against the universal language of the art biennials? If minorities (social, ethnic, natural) are at the core of our biennial, can we conceive a biennial that speaks a language that is not the official one of the majority?