CCB in conversation with D. S.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in conversation with Dirk Schwarze
Present: Chus Martínez and Nicola Setari

DIRK SCHWARZE: The Museum Fridericianum has been the heart of documenta since its beginning in 1955. But never before in the history of documenta has the building and its destruction been the subject of any documenta. Why did you want to go back into Kassel’s history?

CAROLYN CHRISTOV-BAKARGIEV: In order to know where we are going, we have to know where we were. So it seems normal to look at the history of the location. I never see white cubes existing as such. Every white cube is actually a space with a history. If even the Museum of Modern Art white cube has a very specific history, tied to certain directors, to certain moments of exhibition design, and so on. It’s normal, especially if you have a little bit of an archeological mind, to look at the place where you are and try to understand it. But this is not a historical interest. I’m not interested in history with a capital “H.” I’m interested in the present. But everything that’s in the present has a background. And if you are doing an exhibition in a building that was, as it happens, bombed twice in the 1940s, a building that used to have a library and all manner of scientific devices—all these elements exist there, like ghosts. If you speak with quantum physicists, they would say that, somehow, on some very, very small subatomic level, one place or building is never the same as another. This is not a mystical idea. It’s not a magical idea. That’s why I also looked at the photographs of the Fridericianum after the bombing. Before the war in the 1940s, In 1933, there had already been the burning of the books by the Nazis in the square, with the Fridericianum in the background. So there’s been a lot of burning in that place. Matter has memory. This is not magical thinking, it’s physical thinking. I don’t really think that the history of Kassel is a subject of dOCUMENTA (13), however. It’s a context within which the project is inscribed: dOCUMENTA (13) is not happening on Mars, but in a place with a specific geopolitical trajectory and history. documenta was invented in the mid-twentieth century, during the period of postwar reconstruction. But that is not a topic of dOCUMENTA (13); it is just the reality within which every chapter of documenta has been inscribed.

NICOLA SETARI: But in Kassel, art was chosen over other possibilities as the essential pillar of reconstruction. In that sense, there is something very specific about it.

CCB: Yes. But that’s not about the history of Kassel; it’s about the history of documenta. That very interesting history includes the idea, the desire, after the collapse of Nazism, to rebuild the country and civil society also through artistic and cultural events. It’s the so-called Bildung. But going back to Dirk’s question: it’s a psychological attitude, not an interest in history or in Arnold Bode, the initiator of documenta. I studied philology when I was at university. Glottology was one of my favorite subjects. So etymology is a method for me.

DS: On the ground floor of the Fridericianum, in the rotunda, there is the Brain, which includes objects of different periods of history, culture, and contemporary art. What connects them?

CCB: Intensity. The intensity of their making, or of what motivated their making or their finding, or their keeping.Vandy Rattana, for example, is a young artist from Cambodia, and he has a photograph in the Brain—well, you can call it Brain, though some people call it a riddle, because they are afraid of the associations between the word brain and phrenology or neuro-scientific research. I myself use the word “brain” almost ironically, in a way, because I think the brain is very chaotic and full of contradictions. And so it’s like a very full, chaotic brain.
But there are lines of intensity connecting things. Although Vandy Rattanais very young, he has spent quite a few years going around Cambodia, photographing its lakes. But all the lakes he photographed are actually artificial lakes. The pictures are very beautiful. But these lakes are actually craters from bombs thrown on Cambodia. There were more bombs thrown on Cambodia than on Vietnam. Not so many people know that. And so, in a way, it’s a poisonous landscape. It’s like a landscape that hides this tremendous history of trauma—on the land, on the landscape. What motivated those photographs is interesting to me. What state of mind was he in to go and search for craters? And if you speak to him, and if you’re familiar with Cambodia, then you know that you don’t see any old people there. It’s an entire country where there are mainly young people. So this particular image is an image that reflects—like a signal or a marker—the kind of intensity behind the motivation for going on that journey to look for those craters.
Consider the Bactrian princesses, the ancient stone figurines from the south of Tajikistan,Kazakhstan and north of Afghanistan. They are thousands of years old, and they have been precariously held together for more than 4,000 years by people who made sure not to lose this or that piece. They are made from separate pieces that have been held together in a kind of fragile balance over thousands of years. It makes me wonder about the long series of exchanges that have gone on for the past 2,000 years. That’s a form of intensity. Moreover, the figurines are survivors. There are only eighty of these sculptures in the world, when maybe there were thousands of them three or four millennia ago. So it’s also a sign of the incredible destruction, over time, of these sculptures. At the same time, if you look at it optimistically, it’s amazing, that they are there at all, that these pieces stayed near each other, in a provisional connection. There is, then, a relationship between those two things, one of them very ancient, the other very contemporary. And that relationship has to do with a form of intensity. Of commitment, let’s say: commitment to keeping the fragments together.
I suppose I’m an outraged person. And I like to be with people who are not depressed by outrage or by outrageous events, people who are optimistic and positive. And those people—a lot of them are artists—are people who are not subordinate to power, in the way that other people are. They are taking leaps of imagination; they are not captured by epistemological closures. Those are the kind of people I like to be with: novelists and poets and artists and quantum physicists. And I think it’s better to spend one’s life with such an attitude than trying to systematize knowledge. I hate it when I read things like: “dOCUMENTA (13) is about collapse and recovery.” It’s not about collapse and recovery! That’s a cliché. This exhibition is not about the history of Kassel, it is not about “collapse and recovery.” It’s not about anything. The word “about” isn’t right.
But you asked about the Brain, so I gave you two examples, both of which bespeak a kind of commitment to keeping pieces and fragments together, however precariously. Then there are also the photographs of Lee Miller. Needless to say, it takes intensity and commitment to decide to become an embedded journalist in 1945 go to Dachau and see, and photograph, that dead body near the train; and then go sleep in one of Hitler’s apartments and take a bath in his bathtub. You need two things to do that: surrealism, and commitment. You need a little bit of madness, and you need a little bit of courage in the etymological sense of Coeur, which is to have a heart. You need to have a little bit of heart and a little bit of absurdity. A sense for the absurd, which is what the Surrealists had. I like surrealism a lot. So those photographs of and by Lee Miller are there. She also stole some objects—Eva Brown’s perfume bottle, among other things—from Hitler’s apartment, and some of them are in the Brain. These objects, stolen for so many years, are there now. I’m always playing games on different levels. And one level is: would the German government ask for restitution? Because, as you know, questions of restitution, of patrimony, pop up all the time nowadays, and the presence of these objects is like an uncomfortable restituted object that one imagines that the state would not want restituted. The Brain has a lot to do with psychoanalysis, but not in a Freudian or even a Lacanian sense. I’m interested in how language speaks like a muscle of the brain. It’s like the reverse of Lacan, who saw everything as language. The spatial questions of Kabul as a kind of subconscious to Kassel, and Kassel as a subconscious to Kabul; the relationship between the ghost exhibition that doesn’t exist, that never existed, in Breitenau and the Kassel exhibition. The more entangled and impossible the reading of it is, the more interesting it is.

DS: When did you find out for yourself that inanimate objects could have senses?

CCB: You mean like the point of view of the cup in relation to the world? Well, at grade school, when you study physics, you study gravity. That an object would be able to imagine that it could fall and that it would actually enact that, is an amazing expression of intelligence on the part of that object, a lot more than in the intelligence of a computer. What we know through the computer is so little, compared to what the cup knows when it decides, under certain conditions, to fall. After all, what does it mean to a child to fall and to hurt herself? Or what does it mean when the pot breaks? It’s sort of a really intelligent thing the pot is doing, in order to ensure survival. I basically think that human consciousness is not the only way knowledge occurs. And we are very much determined by those other forms of knowledge, which are more difficult to grasp for us. There is a lot of hybris in humans, a lot of hybris. How do you say hybris in English?

NS: Arrogance?

CCB: Arrogance, yes! There’s a lot of arrogance in what we think we can determine. But it is typical that this sort of arrogance should have swelled in the digital age; arrogance always spikes when there are big technological revolutions. The same happened with the birth of the carbon fossil fuel age. There is a moment when you think you can do everything. It’s a moment of subjective omnipotence, to use a term coined by D. Winnicott, whe n you think you create the world even though it has always been there. The moment of the digital age, of the advanced digital age, is one in which people succumb to this subjective omnipotence. And that is why they start asking: why do you want to bring the El Chaco meteorite? You can just take a picture of it. Or digitalize it. Or scan it. Or set up a webcam. It’s not the same at all. I like the way that matter matters, in the sense that artists use matter. But not only artists. It’s just thinking about matter, about the limits of what you can do, about learning from materials. You know, artists learn from materials. They are learning.

DS: How did you come up with the idea of building new houses in the Aue Park?

CCB: There are two reasons for it. It is, first, an homage to Harald Szeemann, because, as you know, Szeemann was thinking about Monte Verità when he directed Documenta 5. It’s hard to direct documenta; you get a little bit tired sometimes and you crawl into your little corner. For Szeemann, the dream was Monte Verità. For me, it’s Kabul where we are working on a number of seminars. And whenever I’m a little bit nervous here I think, “Oh, in two weeks—or in a month, or whatever—I’ll be in Kabul!” And for him, the thought was maybe, “In two weeks, I’ll be doing my research on Monte Verità.” And the first exhibition he did after documenta was the one about the history of Monte Verità. That was interesting for me. I wanted to understand why it was so important for him. So I went to Monte Verità near Ascona and then I saw all the objects he had bought for that exhibition. What I understood, then, is that Monte Verità was like a moment of freedom in the mind—the opposite of documenta. But it was also, like documenta, a group of people, albeit much smaller, together on a hill. And there are also all his leaps of imagination, which were often inaccurate. I was interested in these mistakes and in why he wanted them so much: the anarchists, Jung, and Monte Verità, all of which were not really connected, as he thought. And this combined with a trip to Abu Dhabi, where I was thinking a lot about the current obsession, so strong in the art world, with building museums and big buildings, an obsession that dates back to the reactionary period of the 1980s when every city was hiring an architect to build a museum. And that was more important than the art that was supposed to be in the museum. This trend reached its pinnacle in the mid- to late-nineties. That’s when the idea came to me: if people are spending millions on museums—the Louvre, this, that, and the other—then I’ll just go out and get some prefab houses, about 2,000 Euro each, and we’ll put them in the park. That would be my Saadiyat Island. So it was a joke about Saadiyat Island, and also about resources and degrowth. That was the original idea.
After I thought about it some more, I decided that we should not do cheap prefabs. The ones we’re getting are inexpensive, but they are not “cheap.” Th ey don’t cost much, but they are carefully planned, they’ll use environmentally friendly material, etc., and we are working with Der Grüne Punkt and the Green Building Group to make them, who are very advanced in bioarchitecture. And then I wanted to mimic and to critique the way we are together and yet, because of these separating devices called our cell phones and smart phones, separated. So I made a special rule, namely that from one little house you cannot see another. You are always lost, in a way. When you see one work and one artwork, you can’t say, in the same breath, “Ah, and there is the next one.” Society tells us we are all connected, but we are not. It’s a lie. It’s a lie for the profit business. It’s a big lie. It’s all about social control, because it separates people. And that allows for what the Romans would have called dividi et impera: divide and rule.

DS: Do you like rituals?

CCB: Well, I don’t like the word ritual, because it’s a religious word. But if you are asking if I like a kind of formality, then the answer, in some ways, is yes. I think there has been a lack of respect for the people who are truly involved in art. And everything has become too quick, too informal. So, in general, I think it’s important. For example, if you give Goshka Macuga the Bode prize, you have to organize a nice dinner. You make it beautiful. It’s about paying attention to the people that you are doing something with. I would like the artists to feel that they are being honored and respected. Often enough, that’s not the case in the art world, especially in the recent years. There is too much financial stuff going on, and too little respect for the artists.

DS: You like to speak in contradictions.

CCB: Yes. I don’t know if I like it; I just do it.

DS: Is this a way of keeping things open, in your own work and for the work of the artists?

CCB: I speak, and then I doubt what I just said and say something that is often the opposite of what I just said. I don’t often agree with myself. I disagree with myself after I say or do something. So it’s not about speaking in contradictions; it’s about having a second chance to think better and to change it. I react to reality; I don’t react in a void. I don’t celebrate contradiction. It’s just that there are many sides to something. There’s a recto and a verso. And sometimes there are more sides even. And there is no simple solution. A choice is always a position. A choice is made always as a position taken. It’s never an objective or “right” thing to do. I like to state the various possibilities, and then each one has to make a choice and take a kind of responsibility.

DS: You once said, “Everything is political.”

CCB: It’s true.

DS: How does this statement apply to dOCUMENTA (13)?

CCB: It’s back to the feminist question. Of course everything is political. The food you eat, how you have sex, how you sit down, how you hang a painting. If you hang a painting too high, you’re suggesting the submission of the viewer, placed in a position of inferiority. The positioning of the gaze is a political question. If you have a frontal situation, if you have a situation around a table, what you see—whether it’s only one thing, or many, or whether you cannot see two points simultaneously —is a political issue.

CHUS MARTÍNEZ: Well, everything is political because everything is in a relationship of effect towards everything else. There are people who think that there is some neutrality, or that art is autonomous and cut off. But if things are not cut off, they are in a relationship. So the system of the relationships is the definition of the political. The fact is that art does not actually try to cut itself off; rather, it tries to relate. And, therefore, it affects. Distances, intensities, and immaterialities define every political system, so that it is not exclusively defined by normativity.
The question should actually be: can there be something that’s not political?

CCB: Let’s put it this way. If you make an artwork with the idea of changing a real situation that is negative—let’s say you make a film about a nuclear power plant, with the hopes that the people who see it will be moved to vote against nuclear power—you could say that that is political art. To me, however, its politics depends just as much on how you exhibit it, on how you show it, on how you made it. And if you made it in a way that’s contradictory—if you took money from arms manufacturers, for example—it doesn’t make it a political work … Our political task now is to destroy cognitive capitalism.

CM: Yes, but slowly.

DS: When did it first occur to you that it would be necessary to introduce Boetti as a key figure for the relation between Europe and Afghanistan?

CCB: I have known about the One Hotel for a long time. But you’re asking me in relation to dOCUMENTA (13). When I went to Afghanistan, I knew I wanted to go to the One Hotel, and so, for the first trip, I invited Mario Garcia Torres to come with me, because he had done a work about looking for Boetti’s One Hotel of the 1970s in Afghanistan. Evidently, I had thought of the idea before going, since I would not have invited Mario if I had not already wanted to find the One Hotel. And I also invited Tom Francis, as I’d heard that he had found something that might be the outside of the One Hotel. I think the decision to go to Afghanistan was connected to two things: the Boetti question, and the Bamiyan Buddhas. I wanted to go see the place where the Buddhas were, to see what it feels like to be in the emptiness—in the gap, the hole, of these destroyed sculptures. Boetti is the connector. The natural procedure was not to start from Boetti, but his Mappa in connection to documenta 1972 (it was published in Szeemann’s catalog and maybe was exhibited as well). I’ve known the Mappa—for so many years. And although I was a friend of Alighiero’s, and I had written many texts on Arte Povera, he had never mentioned to me the very important detail that he had conceived Mappa for documenta. Suddenly, I realized that he had conceived the piece for documenta while he was in Afghanistan, where he was running his hotel and learning about embroidery. That’s when he gets Szeemann’s invitation to documenta 5, at which point he puts two and two together. I can see him thinking: “Well, it’s an international art exhibition, so there will be all these artists from different countries.” And Mappa comes from his putting that invitation and the international art exhibition with his immediate situation, which is that he was sitting somewhere in Kabul, interested in embroidery. He proposes it to Szeemann, but eventually he decides not to show it. And that in spite of the fact that he brought it back to Europe and that he sent a photograph of it for the catalog; that’s why it is in the catalog at all. He changed his mind, and he and Szeemann had some discussion about that. I’m sure Alighiero thought it was ultimately a bad idea. I mean, he thought it was a really good artwork, but a bad idea in that context, because it’s like the United Nations of art and here he was proposing a map with all these countries. He could show the Mappa elsewhere, but certainly not in a place where there’d be a hundred artists from as many countries. It would be too literal. So what I liked about that was the decision to not do it, the decision to withdraw. I’m interested in withdrawal, not doing something. I’m interested in the moment of illumination when Boetti said: “That’s really dumb, and I’m not going to do it, because it’s too obvious.”

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