Image Commentary: The Friends of Puerto Rico Inc. was the mother organization that established and sought funding and logistics for the Cayman Gallery which later changed its name to The Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art (MoCHA). The logo for this organization tells us a lot about the almost industrial nature of the logic that keeps contemporary art going, the lamb sits atop knowledge (the book) satisfied, there are three pillars holding him and his knowledge production, Education, Culture. and Understanding. Think about the mission statements of art institutions today can we not boil most of them down to these three bare essentials, think about the funding applications that art institutions and artists write to get a grant in order to produce work, what makes the grant justifiable in today’s system is Education, Culture, and Understanding, these are the ethical pillars of contemporary art and it is exactly these pillars that must be firmly shaken for contemporary art to reach more interesting and potent terrains than those that it is stuck in today.

Hassan: You have continued in the second part of the interview to grapple with the issue of universalism and came at it from various critical yet historically sensitive positions. I would like to begin this third and final section of our conversation by asking you to expand a bit on the attempt to visualize connections between the local conditions and the larger picture. Where do you see your actual role in that in terms of your own practice?

Bassam: We often fall into the error of thinking that every context is independent of the other. There is a shared mutating powerful energy that runs through different contexts in both a negative way (connected to the same neo-liberal economy, the submission to, or resistance towards, this economy) and a positive way (similar ideas that seem to pop up at the same time in disparate parts of the world). The term ‘context’ must not mean just the direct local context of say Cairo or Alexandria but how this context is shaped by interior struggles, international connections, and the spaces in-between them. In my talks I try to show how this is manifested, and in the exhibitions I have curated I try to assemble disparate positions, views, and works to create a synergy, a state of perception on both the intellectual and psychological level, a living interconnected beast.

Hassan: I like that metaphor of the “living interconnected beast” – how does that translate into examples from your own practice, i.e. the kind of artists you work with, how you actually work with them? How do you materialize an exhibition like that in a physical space? What kind of decisions are made and how and why?

Bassam: Recently I have been interested in the curator’s starting position on the onset of taking on the job of curating an exhibition or project. For me it’s important not to impose a narrative, wisdom, a specific voice of criticality at the beginning of a project. I’m more interested in thinking of exhibitions/projects as opportunities to develop structured systems that can be applied and that in the end produce an interconnected whole in which a narrative then begins to appear. I think this gives one a broader cross-section of artists to work with and allows one to touch on a more honest diversity in the selection than the diversity we allow ourselves to be trapped in as curators trying to visualize a narrative or make concrete a certain political critique. For me criticality is not some form of generic surplus, it is more likely to be found in the sometimes unsensed laws that govern art and that lead to it being generated in a certain way. I tend to look at these conditions and attempt to construct ways to – using Badiou terminology – “subtract” the project from the dominant status quo, a subtraction is a construct that functions within a system but alludes to states and conditions that have a foot outside of this system possibly in a system that might be developed after the current one comes to an end.

I think this is very different from institutional critique because it is not a constant negation, its currency is not gained from critiquing the powers, institutions, and processes that shape the now but from constructing perspectives and processes that while working under their field of force look at possibilities outside this field. How this process is manifested physically and felt on a material level, of course becomes very important, since what formulates it is always somehow abstract on some level. I feel that the result as exhibition or project has to have a very strong presence. There is a difference between critiquing society and politics through an exhibition and between having a critical position that embeds itself in a series of processes that are not just about this critique or position but that can accommodate dimensions that are related to the unknown and slippery nature of human existence; to work on a multileveled spectrum of politics, psychology, aesthetics, and space.

Backbench, 2010, a collaborative project part of OVERSCORE curated by ACAF for Manifesta 8. Film: Ergin Cavusoglu, Set: nOffice, Moderators: Suhail Malik, Nav Haq. Participating Collectives: Action Mill, Take to the Sea, Metahaven, Red76, Courtesy of the Artists and Manifesta 8. Photo © Ilya Rabinovich.

Jean-Marc Superville, It can’t Last, no Rush, 2010, (detail), from the exhibition OVERSCORE. Courtesy of Manifesta 8. Photo © Ilya Rabinovich.

Hassan: OK but you exist within a field of forces some directly political – like the context you actually live and work within, the community that you exist within, the wider international community, the funding bodies that make your work possible, the younger artists who visit your space – all these forces exert some kind of influence in hidden and visible ways to varying degrees of course. So how do you PRACTICALLY deal with that?

Bassam: I’m not one of those curators who label everything they do as curating. I think I can only call curating what to a certain extent embodies and makes visible a philosophical and/or theoretical thought process or system, curatorial aesthetics are produced by and through this process. As for the forces you mentioned and the influence they exert, dealing with them practically is about knowing where you are in this environment that I tried to describe above, although there are of course specific local conditions and specific international vocabularies nothing is really as disconnected as it might seem. One is really at the intersection of all of these forces and influences when functioning within this environment; we are all already compromised and implicated. I think the most hypocritical art text one can read is where claims are made to be uncompromising or where the escape from being implicated sets the tone.

But, what is the next step after this realization? Speaking with different voices that assert different identities and different degrees of power is the natural way of the world. In our environment, one has to be an artist when artistic license is most effective, a curator when theoretical tools and the politics of presentation can construct new meanings that may not be achieved through words, a negotiator when things must be negotiated, and a critic when words give a certain leverage. But, one must always remember where one stands with regard to the web of ethics and aesthetics that controls how art is made whether this is the one established locally through mechanisms such as the fine art sector or the schools of fine art or if it’s the web influencing the larger international picture. To contest, impact, influence, and attempt to weaken the ethical component of this web should always be a goal. This is what I think artistic agency is about. And one should always keep sight of this agency in any context you function in.

Hassan: Do you see yourself having any kind of political responsibility? Towards any of these or other forces or elements?

Bassam: I think the very notion of political responsibility is one of the most multifaceted and complex philosophical questions in art production today. If we agree on some basics such as our functioning within a constructed environment we have to adapt ourselves to in order to produce something that has some form of capital and power – we can call this environment, the market, the contemporary art network, or whatever; if we also agree that this environment has a strong ethical groundwork, meaning that it is based on the idea of expanding, disseminating, and restricting art to its ethical boundaries that are directly linked to the ideologies of multiculturalism, capitalism, and the political heritage of the US and Europe, if we agree that art must adapt itself to function within this environment somehow, then the very idea of being politically responsible is instantly compromised. Thus I prefer the notion of agency, which I described above.

Bassam El Baroni and Kenny Muhammad (a well known beatboxer) during the FOXP2 performance part of Romanticide curated by Clare Davies at NYU Abu Dhabi, New York, 2010. FOXP2 is a series of dramatized context specific lectures combining notions of pre-history, genealogy, economics, and art criticism to create episodes of possible universalisms. Photo: Mahmoud Khaled

Hassan: How do you understand aesthetics in relation to practice? How do you understand the aesthetics that become dominant or popular amongst the people you work with in relation to your own institutional practice? What I mean is how do you avoid promoting specific aesthetics (even if in demand) while trying to allow for something more open? Or something else?

Bassam: Part of my job is to assist in the transition from the perception of art and political history as a scripted catalogue to the perception of it as being an open archive there to be used and abused freely, because it’s the only way an artist can have some sort of power within the larger environment of the art system. But, I think my job also is to uncover the ethical and political groundings and origins of the aesthetics that the people I work with locally might want to adopt. General tendencies develop beyond what a single person or small institution can do so I think my job then is to be an analyzer and critic of what might be influencing certain trends. So for me, aesthetics are only the surface of something else that is much more dispersed and deep. I try to look at what is behind the aesthetics rather than their formal qualities.

I think the diversification of the types and categories of art you present and work with is also important in not imposing a particular school of thought or aesthetics on your direct community. Imposing authority or an authorial voice is more likely to occur while I’m curating an international event. My authorial voice is less present when I work locally because I see working locally as more of a navigation process, navigating oneself and the people one works with through the web of ethical-aesthetical regimes, although I must admit I am constantly struggling with the idea of this voice while working internationally too. In Manifesta 8, for example, the exhibition OVERSCORE was developed through an interface called the Theory of Applied Enigmatics which can also be seen as that voice, although of course it was not merely that.

Hassan: Aha, “Theory of Applied Enigmatics”, sounds quite enigmatic. Can you please explain to us what you mean by that and how it was translated into actual curatorial choices? What kind of problems did you meet in doing that?

Bassam: It is quite difficult to explain the theory because it is kind of self-explanatory, but for readers interested in giving it more detailed consideration it can be found at the link at the bottom of this web-page.

I developed the theory together with Jeremy Beaudry. We tried our best to work and make our curatorial decisions through the interface of the theory, because it imposes a kind of rigor that is very important if you are setting out to undermine the necessity of a dominant ideology. This also meant that we had to let go of binary framed debates such as ‘what is the difference between being a curator and being an artist’ which are defined through the ethical framework of the dominant ideology and used as critical currency. For me it’s not important what you are or what you call yourself as long as you are thinking in terms of building structures that produce meaning while giving equal artistic authority to the people you are working with. Whether these structures are more to the artistic side such as Prayers for Art and Backbench, curatorial such as the MoCHA Sessions and the actual OVERSCORE group exhibition or are more to the organizational/admin side such as Incubator for a Pan-African Biennale is besides the point and not important.

Prayers for Art, Backbench, Incubator for a Pan-African Biennale, and the MoCHA Sessions were projects we initiated inside the framework of OVERSCORE or under its banner if you like. All had one thing in common; our aim was to develop a structural equation that would bring different voices and positions together around a certain topic. We defined our curatorial role in these projects as “the development of equations and structures that can accommodate very different viewpoints on a given condition or issue”.

For the MoCHA Sessions for example we invited six artists residing in Murcia, where Manifesta 8 was hosted, to delve into a certain niche of 1980s art history, the niche where multiculturalist discourse in art began to look as if it was never going to change, becoming an inseparable and integral part of the art industry. The project brought part of the archive of the short-lived Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art MoCHA in New York (1985 – 1990) to Spain for the first time and invited the artists to engage with the material. MoCHA emerged during the rise of institutional multiculturalism, showcasing the work of artists of “Hispanic” descent, who were deemed otherwise under-represented in the mainstream. The archive was a catalyst for speculating on the origins and future of many of the recognized parameters in contemporary art – from identity politics to institutional critique. The result took the form of six consecutive exhibitions in Espacio AV in Murcia.

The MoCHA Sessions from OVERSCORE curated by ACAF in collab. with Yolanda Riqueleme for Manifesta 8, Murcia, 2010, Photo © Ilya Rabinovich.

Backbench on the other hand invited four art collectives, and two curators/theorists to participate in a three-day workshop on a specially designed set evoking, somewhat abstractly, a British Parliament. Theorists and curators moderated discussions between the collectives on issues including the condition of art criticism today, activism in collective practices, and the instrumentalization of contemporary art. The aim of this experimental workshop was to collectively generate a body of ideas that would be solutions-oriented by tackling and, more importantly, even surpassing such issues. This workshop took place under the lens of a filmmaker who was looking to portray this discursive situation on both intellectual and emotional levels. In the final exhibition set up the original set of the workshop (designed by nOffice) was installed together with the five channel film by Ergin Cavusoglu. These two projects were both part of OVERSCORE. In the case of Backbench we were often put into situations in which we had to consider who the artist or author was, our answer was that we were the authors of the equation that brought all the elements together but besides that each person or group participating in the project is the author.

Generally speaking though, the problem we were most confronted with while curating the OVERSCORE project was the tendency, in the European context, to see multiculturalism in art as something inherently good or positive. I think there is a general failure around the world to understand multiculturalism within the art industry for what it is; a pragmatic and tighter version of European universalism. So I think it’s a curatorial must to work with a kind of radicalized multiculturism as the mode of universality that is operational at the moment, a multiculturalism that does not care about where artists are from and how much their work highlights the idea of difference and cultures, while also taking the presence of diverse voices seriously, it is a difficult balance to pull off under the current conditions we function under.

Download The Theory of Applied Engimatics
Published on May 29, 2011.