A Conversation between Kendell Geers, Daniel Buren and Nicolas Bourriaud
NB: Kendell, what is your relationship to Daniel Buren and why did you want to take part in this discussion?
KG: One of the first significant works that I made as an artist took the form of an extremely abstract idea that is also absolutely non-physical in that it cannot be reduced to an object. In 1993, just after the Venice Biennale, I changed my date of birth to May 1968. This referred to the political challenges that took place in Prague, Mexico and San Francisco in that month, and especially the consequences of the Paris uprising. At the same time there were also protests in Venice against apartheid and South Africa’s participation in the Biennale. That was the last year South Africa was invited to the Biennale until 1993, so the date effectively marked the beginning of the cultural boycott specifically for the plastic arts. It was also the month in which Marcel Duchamp died. In changing the date of the most fundamental event of my life, I was trying to articulate a sense that we are more than the sum of our days, that events outside our control can influence and change us perhaps more radically than familial ties. I was trying to locate my origins within a particular psychological, political, philosophical and aesthetic space that has nothing to do with my biological parents or cultural heredity. I was always interested in the spirit of May '68, the idea of being subversive, a utopian conception of art. I remember images from May '68 in which the proclamations of the Situationist International and Daniel Buren's stripes were juxtaposed on the same billboards. For me this represented a very strong historical moment in which art was able to function intelligently within a social context, where it was political and yet still functioned as art. In this way Daniel has been a very strong influence on my thinking, as have the Situationists.
NB: And Daniel, what interests you about Kendell's work?
DB: Listening to what has been said, I suddenly feel much older than I did before – or perhaps Kendell is much younger than I thought! I remember the first time we met, on a bus trip in Japan. It was a good opportunity to exchange ideas, and from what I have subsequently seen of his work I think it touches on topics that I am very interested in. I have some questions, not as an artist but in relation to the possible ways in which the activity of the artwork can exist or function. So there is a double curiosity. Art touches on something very sensitive and difficult when political or sociological problems are introduced, not in terms of sociological problems but in relation to the field of art and how aesthetically such an investigation takes place. My difficulty with this is quite personal, but it immediately opens up a lot of questions about the position of anyone who directly confronts these problems through objects. This automatically takes one back to something which for me has to be extremely concrete. That is what these objects are, because you are not only dealing with the theoretical. But perhaps I can develop this more clearly later in the discussion.
NB: I remember a text you wrote, Daniel, in which you said that the first thing one must deal with in art is architecture. You were considering this on one hand from the point of view of the building, and on the other in terms of context. Of course, the artist does not come from the moon and suddenly walk into an idealised space. What you are dealing with is not apolitical, and it is not an asocial reality either. But you have two different ways to refuse this idealistic position, two different answers to the notion of context.
DB: We must not forget that when I started to make those comments or texts, the museums and galleries where I was exhibiting were very idealistic spaces. I think that today these spaces are still idealistic but much, much less so. Today we have to be more cautious because we can no longer do whatever we like in these places. There is still idealism, but not as much as there was maybe 35 years ago.
KG: I think that anything is possible today – and perhaps this is the difference between our sensibilities and approaches to art within different moments in time. You can do absolutely anything, but I don't see the gallery or museum space (and to me they are interchangeable today) as being in any way idealistic. I see them as being economic. This is fundamental.
DB: I was trying to say that the prevailing spirit in the museum at that time was this sense of idealism where you could do more or less what you wanted to. Certainly today, this is no longer the case.
NB: This is a personal belief, but I really think that the generation of the 1960s, like yourself or Michael Asher or Jon Knight, considered the art space, the gallery, the museum, as a metaphor for society. I think the generation that appeared in the 1990s does not consider the art space as a metaphor or symbol of society, but as a part of society that is fully integrated into the system – just as a bakery is part of the city. I agree that idealism was previously much stronger.
DB: In fact, for me the art space was never accepted as metaphorical. It was generally seen as a metaphor for something, maybe an ideal position, an ideal work of art. Particularly at that time I thought it was very important and necessary to show that the museum or gallery was a part of society like anything else because this was not taken for granted at all. Nobody was thinking about the envelope, the architecture, which was real, which was always there and yet was absent from the discussions. What does this envelope mean? Does it have any meaning for the world or not? Like the museum's metaphorical position as a whole. Does the person who puts the show together have any influence on the space, even if they are just putting paintings on the wall? It was certainly my tendency to criticise and somehow to show that this idealism was completely false. I agree with Kendell that it is no longer like that today, that this idealism has been shattered and the economy has become much more important, much more of a problem.
NB: Kendell, your work counteracts a very different type of idealism to that which Daniel was dealing with then. How would you categorise it?
KG: The biggest struggle for me as an artist has been trying to negotiate my way through a space that is economically determined, and to create a voice that is my own to speak with. It’s a very big issue, being spoken for or speaking for yourself. This can be extremely frustrating because the first thing that an economically determined structure does, if you try to question it, is “buy” you in. After that it reduces you to just another aspect of its economy. Of course it’s a double bind because one needs this economy to an extent in order to exist, to make work, to find a voice. I have tried over the years to create works of art that are either impossible to sell, such as changing my date of birth, or else very difficult to live with psychologically, emotionally or physically. The very real threat or physical danger to one's life within a work of art that uses a 6 000 volt electric fence prevents the reduction of the work to an economic function. I have been asked numerous times to show that work again outside of South Africa but without the electricity running, and the answer is always “no”. There is something ironic about refusing to exhibit a work of art that in a museum cannot be touched, on the grounds that it may be touched. There is a great deal of the idealism that Daniel speaks about in my work because of the circumstances of my education. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, I would read through the archives and magazines and art history books trying to learn about what was happening in the world, and I was very much engaged with that moment in time, that idealistic moment. I skipped over the 1980s and the neo-geo stuff because it just did not seem applicable in South Africa. Within the context of apartheid one had no other option but to be critical and idealistic and to use art as a way to question structures, whether social or aesthetic. It was from this perspective that I developed my practice. At the same time I'm part of a generation that grew up watching MTV, Dallas and Dynasty, like anyone living in Paris or elsewhere in the world. From the very beginning I was trying to bring those two things together and deal with questions of values and economy. How does the economy intersect with art and how does one avoid the dangers of a fashion-based system that assimilates every potential threat? The greater the risk to the status quo, the faster you will be assimilated as the latest fashion. How does one escape that?
DB: I think it's a never-ending struggle and also one of the most difficult struggles for an artist – even if you are aware of the problem, because I think there are artists who would prefer to be assimilated, to be fashionable. In fact I think the majority of artists would prefer this. Most just don't see the problem, or don't care, and then there are a very few who both care about it and try to fight it, even in their own production. This is one of the biggest problems as you cannot allow yourself to get lost, to be forced into suicide, because the majority of people within the system will push you in that direction if you attempt such a path. You have to continue to work and think critically and that is the most difficult thing at any time.
NB: Isn’t there a paradox for this generation of artists and curators, including myself, who, as Kendell said, grew up in front of MTV and are always trying to escape it, but for whom being assimilated is completely inevitable?
DB: It is very difficult but it demonstrates a difference in time, a different reaction – a difference also of origins, even if we are in the same world. There are the specific problems of where you live and work, but it’s important to see that certain goals are really the same, even if you cannot fight with the same weapons. It is interesting that the more time passes, the more difficult it becomes for the artist, but occasionally you begin to see echoes in the work of younger artists with similar intentions. This is one of the things I see in Kendell's work and it gives me the strength to say that perhaps it was not totally wrong to think the way I did back then. I think that is what you learn from a younger generation. I also have to deal with things that are in some ways completely antagonistic. For example, Kendell stressed the need to fight against being drawn into something that ultimately means you lose control of your own production. This is something I try to do in my work, and I think I succeed, at least objectively, with the idea of works that are specific to place, etc. With some exceptions from the very early years this means that if a collector buys a piece, 90 percent of the time the piece cannot be resold. Not because there is no right to resell but because physically it is totally impossible. That was my way of working around this problem. It is very difficult to economically speculate on these works. When you produce a work where you do everything you can to make it impossible for it to be touched, physically speaking, it would seem to be for very similar reasons. It is also interesting to compare, not whether one is better than the other, but the obligation to participate in the creation of your work after it has been exhibited or sold. What is your position, for example, when you make a work which is dangerous to somebody else?
KG: The implications of danger are extremely important to the psychology of most of my production, because it is really about trying to make the viewing of art conscious and active, rather than passive. So when the viewer walks into a situation where they feel or become fragile, it's a psychological or emotional situation. The danger is often more in your head than in reality. When you are feeling fragile or vulnerable, be it physically or emotionally, you become aware of yourself in that space, of your body. For the show in Rome there is broken glass everywhere, and if you go blindly running about the space you'll hurt yourself, but then again you’re not going to go running precisely because it’s dangerous and you feel insecure within the architecture. You walk carefully, and in your disorientation and sense of fragility you start becoming aware of your value system, of how you are constructed inside language or a particular culture, and how you are defined by your taboos. What is considered violent or dangerous in one culture is not in another. I work with danger, violence, transgression and taboo because I believe it's the only way to confront the ideological makeup of a person. At the end of the 1960s there was a global debate about the political use of violence, with the passive resistance of people like Gandhi on the one hand and the call to arms “by any means necessary” by people like Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon on the other. Based on my experiences in South Africa I believe that the passive option does not work, and did not work there even for Gandhi. It’s not about using violence as an image, or even about an aestheticisation of violence, for I am totally opposed to work like that, but an embodiment of real violence.
NB: Even violence can be appropriated by society – it's sellable. The capitalist system is such an effective machine of assimilation that we could ask ourselves, is it worth trying not to be "recuperated"? Could there be another way of fighting the system?
KG: That is the problem, the contradiction, so I try to create objects which are very difficult to resell, or very difficult to transport or put in a domestic environment, and that has worked until now. My work is not highly collectable. Some of it does get collected but then people don't know how to live with it. They don’t know how to process and digest that violence. The day will come when it gets digested and I hope I'm not alive to witness that.
DB: I accept that when you work consciously with certain aspects, such as the possible danger of the work, you automatically control the reception of it to a degree. I am thinking about the work of Joseph Beuys and how when he was still alive he agreed to have his fat corners replaced with plastic imitations that looked the same but were fundamentally the opposite of what he said he was trying to do. I always think that, if the artist accepts such a thing in their lifetime, agrees to destroy what I thought was the key point of the piece – the decaying, the smell, the impossibility of conserving it – then all the artist’s work is compromised and their ideas are destroyed. Where does the work of art exist? If my reading of the work was correct, that it existed outside of the aesthetic, it was about this decaying stuff … I think it’s a great idea to make a work which is decaying, but when a museum says that they have to use “plastic surgery” and make an imitation that looks the same but is completely different, then I honestly think the project is a failure. For as long as you are still alive, when you present a work that uses danger as a medium, and I know this does not apply to all your work, these works will remain outside the normal, social, fashionable, consuming art world. A piece of broken glass that is dangerous will remain dangerous forever. Unless you compromise it will always be understood that such a work has to exist within a specific context, your context. You have found a way to make being transformed into an aesthetic commodity very difficult – but perhaps then the piece can never be shown and might never be accepted as a work of art.
KG: It is not really my concern to prevent the works from being sold as much as it is to resist being recuperated in the form of fashion, to reduce my ideas to their material aesthetic form. My work is a simultaneous expression of destruction and construction. My challenge is not to the world in general but very precisely and specifically to the system of art. From within the context of this very rarefied social world I am interested in the psychology of violence, danger and taboo. There are also some more poetic aspects to my work but this poetry very often also relies on the expression of a violence or transgression inserted within the domain of verbal language. For my show TerroRealismus in Zurich there was a neon piece that read “Danger”, but the “D” was broken and flickering so it transformed into “anger”. The same for “Terror” and “error”, or “Border” and “order”. It is about the psychology of things you can’t control. I am drawn to the things that art cannot touch: extreme phenomena, emotional states, things that are supposed to remain beyond the space of the white cube. I drag those things in from reality, into the white cube, like a dog after the hunt, as a form of contamination. It’s interesting that wherever I show works with broken glass and concrete somebody will tell me that they remember from their childhood how this technique was used on walls as a form of security. The practice has long since disappeared because in reality it’s quite ineffective today. Except in an art gallery it seems very quaint today and perhaps that’s the point – being in the art gallery where it does not seem to belong makes a world of difference. The art gallery is the precise space of the transgression in which the violence is acted out and that makes a huge difference. I always said that I became an artist to keep out of jail and I was not speaking metaphorically. You can do these things in art and nowhere else, and that’s interesting.
NB: I recently read a very good book about art written by the French sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger (1): he writes that the art world functions exactly the way that capitalism should function, especially its "working system by project". It’s organised like a type of mutating capitalist micro-system that could be a role model.
KG: My conception of the object is as an embodiment of an ideological structure. Whether it’s a broken bottle or a security sign or a border fence, the object is the material manifestation of an ideological system, and especially when somebody is prepared to exhibit it and somebody else is prepared to buy it … The work is in fact a kind of garbage. A broken bottle whose use value has been depleted which is then sold as art is the ultimate embodiment of the social system that secreted that object. In a way it’s about where language and value systems become physical. I think of objects and the ways they fit or don’t fit into the social world but are then hijacked into the art system, a system that is itself the purest embodiment of excess capital.
NB: The fact remains that subversive or engaged art cannot be appreciated from the market point of view because capitalism has proved itself to be the perfect recuperation machine. It can recuperate anything, even what is not sellable. Everything can be turned into a commodity so we are fighting against something that is impossible to beat. The way the machine operates today in terms of fashion means that everything can be turned into an object or a commodity and sold. But the machine cannot be psychologically appropriated. Are there things that won’t fit into the machine, like a grain of sand? Does the battle have to shift elsewhere?
KG: One of the things that I know you are interested in is the idea of post-production. For much of my production, and especially the video work, I don’t make things so much as steal them, shifting their context and hijacking them to a different end. When I work with an existing image or object and shift it, I don’t conceive of it as sampling in a DJ sense, or even plagiarism as the Situationists did, but as pure theft. It is about stealing the images from Hollywood, from CNN, literally taking images and reworking them. It’s about taking my experience of that media world and making my experience physical. I don’t make a distinction between the realities inside the television and those outside it, for both affect and change us equally. I am very consciously trying to not resist that economy of images so much as reverse the process of consuming into a cannibalisation of the image. The question of copyright is very much connected to what I believe are my rights as a consumer, and the right to digest or assimilate what you devour.
DB: But with such a position, with this type of work, you are excluded completely from almost any kind of public work.
KG: Absolutely. That is absolutely true.
NB: In the last show I curated, Playlist, there was a work by Sam Durant that deliberately uses a Robert Smithson piece from the mid-1970s. Or take other artists who are "duplicating" the work of older artists. In a way art is the last place where such behaviour is possible. It’s basically a much freer system, the art world still does not have the same copyright problems, but the bad thing is that the reason for this might be the lack of financial stakes ...
DB: I don’t know. Our society, as a capitalist society, can accept and buy absolutely everything. But in reality I think we see that a lot of things are completely rejected, and the best or worst of these are rejected forever, which means they are really going nowhere. There’s no example that jumps to mind but I think that the majority of work produced is rejected. Some things are brought back and there seems to be a capacity to finally accept some ideas many years after they were first rejected. So even if something is rejected, we are not absolutely sure if the rejection is forever or for a couple of decades or centuries. And from that point I would like to jump to something that I am always thinking about, which for me is one of the most tragic aspects of an artist’s production. As soon as the creation of a work of art is directly related to a specific political event or idea, we encounter something that I would like to talk about. Consider the history of artists who have been directly involved in showing extremely strong political situations, like Goya. or Picasso’s Guernica, to take two concrete examples. What we have today, which was certainly the case as soon as it was made, is that when you stand in front of such a work, you know that it is a chef-d’oeuvre, a masterpiece, and the strength of the work becomes, with time, more important than the reason it was made. I don’t doubt that the artists made the works not only because they were artists but as their best way of responding to something that was incomprehensible to them, something politically unbearable. But when so many other artists approach the same type of theme – and of course hundreds of them do – it’s clear that they don’t have the same talent. What they do has the same emotional quality but not the strength to survive time. I don’t see any other way out: either you make a chef-d’oeuvre, and one way or another this chef-d’oeuvre will also express a political idea or remain a symbol of peace, or the work will effectively function as propaganda and be washed away at the end of the strike or the war.
KG: I think that art is political not in the way that it expresses the sentiments or political opinion of its creator but in the way that the viewer relates to it. The best political art demands a response from us, demands a position of us in a way that is far bigger than the specific subject. I am interested in how history acts upon us and how we respond to histories as artists. When I look at the work being produced today, there is so much that blatantly rips off the past without it being a quotation or even a reference, being neither iconoclastic nor even a homage. It seems perfectly normal today for artists to rip one another off, freeloading off history and basically reducing everything to a style. There seems to be no honour among thieves, as artists rape and pillage styles and languages that in their original context were precise and of consequence, emptying out all the politics by reducing them to the decorative.
NB: The fact is that this notion of history discriminates between interesting artists and bad ones. In a funny way the values of modernity and the avant-garde and everything that interested me since the beginning of my conscious life were in a way very distant because it was the present that was the focus and priority. In contemporary art the present is the absolute value, but the fact is that the present is totally determined by the past. History, and the way we remember the past, becomes very important because you need the memory of it in order to forget it. If you consider the most interesting artists, they are always working with an idea of history. But there are also those who work in an amnesiac way, who are the vast majority.
KG: This drives me crazy. I make a work in which I take chevron tape, which is basically red and white stripes, and wrap specific historical objects and nobody asks if there’s a connection to Daniel Buren, ever! For me it’s obvious, like a neon sign flashing, but there’s never a discussion about it, which drives me crazy because you put all this effort into the work, and references, and the work is conceived of as a matrix. But I am an iconoclast. I hate history, I try to destroy history, but at the same time I know the history I am trying to destroy. I am not copying Buren but quoting him, “killing the father”, saying that I am a product of histories and that to understand my relation to the present it’s necessary to understand how the past intersects with it too.
NB: Among the younger generation of artists, many are trying to be fashionable and have reached that point where anything at all is possible for the sake of fashion.
DB: What I don’t like about a part of the art world, which is very personal and not very objective, is this incredible confusion between the worlds of fashion and pop music and art. Even in the 1960s I was shocked by this attitude. It was one of the things that someone like Bob Morris was trying to do in the late 1960s. He was doing everything possible to stay ahead after having been a strong minimalist. For example he made posters of himself with the extremely naive idea of competing with the Beatles – with another world where things are much more popular than they could ever be in art. It seems to me that today many artists dream of being pop stars, and so of course they have to make works of art that are like that: loud, quick, spectacular, like advertising, all things we know and that are in themselves quite interesting. Where this fails is because these artists do not want to take the same risks as pop stars who mostly disappear after five years. They still want to be like an artist who continues to be interesting even when they are 60. I’m not saying that we should take older people more seriously, but when you see someone who has a body of 30 or 40 years’ serious work, he or she gets a lot more respect than someone who has done only 10 years. And that has always been something to consider, whether the quality of work has been consistently good for 40 years.
NB: In general, what did the last Documenta tell us? There was huge competition with films and documentaries everywhere, videos about Indian-Pakistani borders, life in Albania – hundreds of examples of it …
DB: Not even as good as a report in Paris Match!
NB: Much worse actually, and that is the problem.
DB: It looks as though artists today are trying to compete with entertainment, like music, television, cinema, and they seem to have a fantasy about being a film director or fashion designer and this is very dangerous.
NB: It is very dangerous, above all for those who are playing with the concept. I think there could even be a future for this – it could evolve into a new cultural phenomenon, with all the risks and conditions that this implies. So we forget art history as we know it today. We forget the art market as it is today, and we turn to another art market that still doesn’t exist.
DB: The supermarket?
NB: Yes, for example.
DB: But that has nothing to do with making 200 million works, like Andy Warhol, even if people always use this as a reference. I think it is completely different.
KG: I have a question for Daniel, because this is the world that we’re living in now, the world that, as an artist, I have to take cognisance of. As I said I often steal images from CNN and MTV because they are on my horizon and unavoidably part of my reality. Now I want to go back to those images from May ‘68 when Paris was burning and those posters were being put up. It’s interesting for me how you, as an artist, were able to be so focused in such an explosive context. You kept your purity and created something that, for me, outlives a lot of the images from that period – and there were a lot of very strong images. You were in that world, in that context, and you made a very beautiful logic out of it. How did you manage that?
DB: I don’t know if this is an answer, but I started to do the poster project as an activity about 10 months before May ‘68 and then at the time of the protests I became, like many people, directly involved. But what was happening in the art world was also interesting to see. I would go, for example, to a meeting in the Sorbonne with workers and academics and someone with something to say would begin, “I am so and so, working …" but the audience would respond, “Shut up, we don’t care who you are, please make your speech." Everyone was trying to say something. And then I would go to a meeting with 600 artists also at the Sorbonne but in another room. As soon as you started talking about what needed to be done to change the museum, to understand the priorities, why as artists we were treated like stupid arseholes, they would respond: “But who are you? Who are you?” There was a guy called Julio Le Parc and when he spoke there was silence because at the time he was an important artist in Paris. Then the guy next to him tried to say something and everybody would ask, “But who are you?” and they did not listen because they did not know him and thus did not care.
NB: So the truth was that the artists were those most alienated in May ‘68?
DB: That is an example I witnessed with my own eyes and it was absolutely incredible how this huge world and this small art world were on completely different planets. But then once it all began the artists declared: “The city is for us – we can use the wall, this space.” I was very frustrated as I had already been doing this for almost a year, and I thought then that my project was over, that I couldn’t do it any more. I know this could be understood as my saying I wanted to compete by being “original”. But it was not only about that. It was also because the meaning of what I wanted to do with my work at that time would have been completely reduced because everyone was putting their posters or paintings of cows and trees and even abstract works on the streets of Paris. If it had been my intention to start making that work, and then '68 had happened before I was able to start, I would never have done it. I stopped doing it because it became something fashionable being done by everybody. Then as soon as the artists lost interest in the streets and wanted to show their work in galleries or museums I started to do it again.
KG: Those works were very much in the spirit of ‘68 and yet they survived as works in themselves. I don’t think it was luck, I think it was about understanding the time, even before the time. It’s that chef-d’oeuvre you were speaking about. But the question for my generation is how to make sense of the logic of MTV – that is of “EMPTY V” or “Empty Vision” where everything is possible and therefore nothing has consequence. The problem today is that absolutely anything is possible and everything is equal.
NB: This reminds me of a discussion we had before your Sympathy for the Devil show here at the Palais de Tokyo: you told me that you were sensing a void, that there was no content, no meaning any more in art, and you wanted to reactivate meaning by going back, trying to recapture what you called the “spirit of the Renaissance”, if I remember correctly. What did you do with that? Was it productive?
KG: That show came at the end of one year of my not producing any new work. I made a decision because of my own personal crisis and frustration with the art system to stop making art and instead to read and think about art, life, politics and so forth. I looked back through history trying to understand why artists made work and what their relation was to the world they lived in. I became much more interested in Renaissance and pre-Renaissance art – people like Jan van Eyck, Lucas Cranach or the so-called Flemish primitives, Dante, Marlowe, Goethe and Leonardo da Vinci of all people. I saw their works through the eyes of great occultists like Papus, Agrippa, Bruno, Levi, the Golden Dawn and so forth. I was drawn to the concentration of meaning in their works where nothing was left to chance, where if you put a flower in the corner of a painting it has such significance that it completely changes the meaning of the work. If it’s a lily or an iris or a rose it’s all very different and it has consequence, it has power, it’s a symbol with a deep-rooted meaning. It’s not just there for decoration. I have never really spoken publicly about this before but it is very much implicit in all of my production. I have tried to develop a logic that functions in a similar way with social and cultural symbols, references to history, a matrix of information. In a way a work like The Terrorist’s Apprentice was the turning point and about infinite potential, the beginning of a new journey for me. I would say that one of the things that is ominously absent from contemporary art is spirituality or any belief system beyond the material and physical. I have resisted speaking of this because it’s very easy to misunderstand what I am saying.
NB: You are talking about spirituality as opposed to a very cynical, vulgar definition of materialism.
KG: I mean a belief system. When I talk about spirituality, it’s more like Edmund Burke’s concept of the “sublime” in that historical moment, a sense of vertigo, a belief in something beyond the physical materialism of the present, a feeling of fear perhaps, or the exhilaration of violent change. Even though I am not a Christian and completely reject the Church or for that matter any form of organised religion, the Church has taught me a great deal about emotions. It was there that I begin to understand fear, guilt, anger and so many of the things that I felt lacking in my life and in art. When I go to the Louvre I see guilt and fear and anger in the paintings, I see pain and suffering, hunger, riots, murder, mayhem, things that the artists felt very deeply and believed in, love and death. When I go to contemporary art museums, I see nothing, just pretty colours, stupid videos with pretty colours.
DB: Perhaps it requires a generation of artists who are fighting for something, which is not the case today.
KG: To be even more precise, it was extremely important for me at that time to understand the power of the image. Growing up in a media-saturated world where we are bombarded with images every day, the image loses its power to affect us, the text even loses its meaning. Then in my research I discovered tarot cards and became quite obsessed by them. There are 78 cards and each has its own images, colours, symbols, codes and meanings. But these images are images you see around you every day. There’s a woman with a lion, justice, a man hanging upside down, a burning tower and so forth. They are on the faÁades of every old building in Paris or Brussels or London but they are also on television and in the news and in our dreams. The tarot cards became a way of understanding the symbolic structure of the occidental imagination. It’s a can of worms, a Pandora’s box, because once opened there is no going back. I am not interested in using the cards to read into the future, although that possibility remains. I am much more interested in the symbolism of the languages that we have lost or forgotten, and in trying to translate this back into my art, into my practice as a contemporary artist. This is not to try and turn back the clock to the Renaissance in terms of the logic of the image, but in terms of the psychology and the structure of the image in relation to the world in which it is created. A burning tower, for instance, has a different meaning after September 11. The violence in my work thus assumes an entirely different meaning if you consider it more as a birth by fire than an anti-social statement
NB: Certain themes are recurring. You are saying: let’s face history again, and let's get rid of the really strange feeling that there is nothing left to fight against because of this great power of recuperation, the massive force with which the system assimilates everything that is against it. We have to rebuild the system of references in such a way as to be able to fight against something again.
DB: That could be interesting as a means of relocating yourself within a position of resistance.
NB: One can illustrate this quite simply. During the Cold War, cultural life was much more hierarchical. There was a clear hierarchy between values, between the different cultural systems. There was an important distinction between high culture and low culture. And then there was a need for deconstruction, for a more open situation. Today everything has collapsed, not because of this analytical deconstruction but under the barrage of mass media and corporate culture. Doesn’t one have to rebuild a different type of hierarchy?
KG: I will give you an example of the conundrum of the present which is very surreal. In the 1960s and certainly before that, if you wanted to read about the Kabbalah you had to speak to a rabbi or find a book in an antique shop or join a secret organisation. Today, if you listen carefully to the latest songs of Madonna, she’s singing about it. Everything has collapsed onto an even horizon and everything is open for abuse, from the Kabbalah to Kylie Minogue, from popcorn to alchemy, bubblegum, whatever.
DB: And this gives weaker spirits the opportunity to be reactionary …
NB: We have to rebuild something on this horizon, after this huge collapse. I mean artists who use history as a toolbox, not those who are using it as a supermarket.
KG: I want to ask Nicolas about the growing “cult of the curator” which was so well articulated in the last Documenta. It was a sad day for me when we started to see curators on the front covers of magazines, and Documenta was very much the tip of that iceberg so far.
NB: It is a very logical evolution somehow: if you consider the biggest stars in music today, the DJs are on the same level as the musicians. Organising material and objects that are already produced, curating the cultural chaos, has the most value today. Trying to make people consume selected things is a major virtue in today’s world. There is the level of production, and then there is a new kind of hero telling you what you should consume. Now the curator is organising and arranging the consumption of art. But they can also provide grids to make art production understandable; they can articulate the works and make ideas go further.
KG: But there is a point where the curator becomes more important than the exhibition, the work of art or even the artist.
DB: I wrote a text about that, about the organiser becoming the artist of the show, in 1972. It has gone a step beyond that today, as many organisers now call themselves “authors”. When I wrote that article about Harald Szeemann, he told me that it was stupid, that it was very far from the truth, that it was just an idea, pure theory. And I responded that I had written this because it was what I could see; it was not something I was dreaming about. Today he refers to himself as the “author” of an exhibition, and I think the only reason he didn’t do it before was because artists in 1972 were still strong enough not to accept it. We would never have accepted an organiser who dared to say, “I am the author of this exhibition.” Even if he thought that, he would never have said it. But 25 or 30 years later he takes on this label. But I don’t want to refer to Szeemann only, because he is doing what many others have done before him. But we should not forget – and for me this is the key point about how artists think today – that if the curator can do this, it’s only because the artists allow it.
NB: Let’s go back to what I said at the beginning about economics. Most curators today are by-products of an economically driven system which is centred on entertainment, on keeping people happy for 15 seconds – it’s not even 15 minutes any more – when they go to shows like the Venice Biennale. Most of them are not even looking for art. They go to Venice to be entertained, and if the art can entertain them that’s a bonus, because in reality they want to go on this or that boat, or to a party ...
DB: Unfortunately almost all artists who are invited agree to exhibit in this context. If you speak to them, most will agree with your reservations, and yet confronted by the situation they will say, “No, it’s beautiful to show it like that.” In theory they are completely against it, but in the end they all participate and the machine continues to work with the effectiveness of a tank.