A Cosmology of Museums
Interview with Charles Esche

Issue no2
April - May 2020
Fluïde monumenten

Charles Esche talks about L'Internationale, the new confederation of European museums: 'The affinity between all the institutes is located in a wish to rethink the model of the museum from the perspective of public "use" or relevance.'  

—Domeniek RuytersL'Internationale is a confederation of museums and some other institutions. Which museums are the (main) members? Why these? Is the confederation open to others as well?

In fact, there is already interest from China

—Charles EscheThe L’Internationale members are Moderna Galerija (MG, Ljubljana, Slovenia); Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS, Madrid, Spain); Museu d’art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA, Barcelona, Spain); Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium); SALT (Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey) and Van Abbemuseum (VAM, Eindhoven, the Netherlands). Four of these museums have collaborated before MG, MACBA, M HKA and us in a European project, which investigated the post-war Avant-Gardes. This project had the title 1957 – 1986. From the Decline of Modernism to the Rise of Globalisation by L’Internationale and was also supported by the EU and other national funders. VAM has also worked closely with MNCARS (René Daniëls) and SALT (from EindhovenIstanbul in VAM 2005 to SALTVanAbbe in Istanbul in 2012 and onwards) and there are many other bilateral and multilateral between us. In the first project, we had already formulated the ambition to see if we could continue to work together on a structural basis and we also started to think if we needed more partners. To that end, we actively recruited universities, art centres and publishers who could provide different skills for a bigger project. So, you have to imagine a core confederation of six museums accompanied during the Uses of Art project by a cohort of non-museum institutions that strengthen the overall investigation we are carrying out. Our shared, collective history has built up a level of mutual trust that is crucial to what we have achieved so far and means that any new member would have to build up a similar level of compatibility before joining. However that is not to say that we will never grow and our ambition is that the ideas become a model that more institutes can use. In fact, there is already interest from China and some of us are going to a major conference in Beijing quite soon to share our plans. We hope one way to grow would be to link different regional confederations together. However, in order to make real, concrete steps on a very practical level we need to build on the existing trust and also to have close communication – one of the main reasons that we restricted the confederation to the museums on the European continent each with its own global network. So for now this project will be executed by the six museums and partners. Already the museums themselves reflect an interesting diversity in type of collection, size of institute, and type of programming and European geography. Next to this a common line in us is an interest in artist archives or cultural archives. SALT for instance is not even have an art collection, but focuses completely on archives and research materials for its permanent holdings.

—Domeniek RuytersCould you tell something about the motives behind this confederation? The recent press release talks about the need for a new solidarity in times of hiding behind new borders? Solidarity in what sense? How far does it go?

Everywhere you can notice that the forms of collective living are changing and that this has profound effects on the way we experience art

—Charles EscheThe affinity between all the institutes is located in a wish to rethink the model of the museum from the perspective of public ‘use’ or relevance. Within the confederation or cosmology of museums that we now are there are of course many differences in what is most urgent for each individual partner. The Spanish partners, MG and SALT are for instance confronted with the need to do a lot of historiographical and archival work that has never been done before, because previous political and cultural regimes were either not interested ideologically or were focused on completely different kinds of art than the ones we now find relevant to collect and remember. M KHA and VAM have local considerations in common about how north-west Europe has provincialised itself since the 1990s and how to respond to that. Reina Sofia is closest to Latin America, SALT closest to the Middle East etc. However, what binds us together is yet more significant. We all share an analysis of the contemporary moment that understands an urgent need for radical transformation in society as a consequence of the rise of globalisation. This process, which we can call to move from the modern to the contemporary world, suggests completely new forms of culture and different relations between social groups and their engagement with art. We wouldn’t suggest we are the only ones to share this analysis but this analysis combined with the mutual trust we have built up is the basis for why we are making progress as a confederation. While Spain, Slovenia and Catalonia are suffering financial restrictions the heated debates around the cultural cuts in the Netherlands also bear traces of a much more radical shift in which practices that were considered completely self-evident for more than fifty years are suddenly considered as incomprehensible luxuries. Popular movements such as M15 in Spain or the protests that threw out the Slovene government are the tip of an iceberg. Everywhere you can notice that the forms of collective living are changing and that this has profound effects on the way we experience art. The members of L’Internationale want to engage with these questions and this is where we find our common ground and our solidarity. How far does it go? Far. We want to change the internal and external structures within our organisations and not just do another international programme with many exhibitions, publications and symposia. Our vision is that after these five years L’Internationale is as common a way to describe our confederation as to call our institutions by their individual names. Both for the organisations and for our constituency – our public and direct stakeholders – we want to make transnationalism an understandable reality that makes us richer and belongs to our everyday practice. Our colleagues will become everyone working at all six institutions, access to our archives and collections will be shared, we will have as a confederation more than four million visitors. This is the plan. During our first meeting recently in Ljubljana Manuel Borja-Villel, director of MNCARS, started by saying that from now on ‘we are no longer MG, SALT, VAM etc,but L’Internationale’. Of course, that is radical and very ambitious, but this is where we want to start. It means sharing collections, sharing knowledge and expertise, developing shared programme lines and research, across all these fields we want to make concrete progress over five years and sustain it long afterwards.

—Domeniek RuytersIt seems that the situation in Hungary is getting completely out of hand, regarding the state intervention in museums. Could that also be a case for action for L'Internationale?

—Charles EscheA very interesting question but we think our role as L’Internationale is different. Protests can be run through CIMAM, ICOM and other lobbying bodies. We would of course add our support but what we need to do is provide a transnational alternative. We need to take positive actions while campaigning together with others against the negative developments across Europe at this moment.

—Domeniek RuytersThe press release also speaks about 'duurzaam'. Lasting in which sense? Can it also continue after EU decides not to fund it anymore?

—Charles EscheYes, that is what we want to explore in the next five years. Whereby the nuance is that we are not aiming to rid ourselves of public funding (EU or otherwise), but that we want to develop a clear and well-supported position for L’Internationale that is of relevance for different communities, both private and public. The main point remains that we don’t just want a programme of activities but that these activities should combine to inspire us, our stakeholders and our public (which is our most important stakeholder) to rethink the museum within an age of globalisation. Our ambition is to make globalisation not something that we discuss or reflect upon as some abstract subject, but a practice that responds to the reality of the planetary situation as it unfolds. The shift from modern to contemporary disrupts solutions that used to work – from geopolitics to aesthetics – the question for us is how do we respond and behave differently permanently. After the next five years, there is no going back to the status quo ante but there are a number of future scenarios.

Our ambition is to make globalisation not something that we discuss or reflect upon as some abstract subject, but a practice that responds to the reality of the planetary situation as it unfolds

—Domeniek RuytersThe new program is based on two dates: 1848 and 1989. Why these two dates? How do they relate to each other? And does the inclusion of 1848 imply that there will also be a lot of reflection on the 19th century and its art?

—Charles EscheThe dates together offer our common perspective on how we got to this point. Just as our previous project had 1957 and 1986, we now have 1848 and 1989. However, there is also a difference in that the period 1848 – 1989 is not seen as a continuum but rather as two events where pan-European disruption created new cultural and artistic possibility. Some time ago MNCARS in Madrid did a fascinating exhibition on the German art historian Aby Warburg, curated by Georges Didi-Huberman, and there another more astrological metaphor was used, which I find more attractive: a constellation. Just as an astrological sign, these two dates guiding lights that shape our investigation into art’s ambition and possibility.. What can we learn from the radicalism of these moments, from their transnationalism, from their global legacy. 1848 as the year in which the French Revolution of 1789 became a European, international event, inspired by a growing labour movement and many innovations on the social, public but also aesthetic level. In the Netherlands Thorbecke wrote the constitution, in the England Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto, in Germany the ‘Vor-Märch’ took place. Paris was full of cultural experiment again, a type of workers culture club called the Mechanics Institutes were developed in England and played a vital role in channelling the revolutionary energy in different directions there . Artists like Gustav Courbet, Adolph Menzel or a writer like John Ruskin were all taking their key from these events and thinking profoundly on what culture could mean. The way in which people lived together and the role art played within that collective were both put on the drawing board and rethought anew. 1989 on the other end marks a similar moment of radical change, but now in the form of the end of the many public structures or ideologies that no longer offered a useful perspective on the experiences of a general public. Immanuel Wallerstein wrote a beautiful text on the changes leading up to this cataclysmic moment in the publication that summarized our last project. After this end, of course, there was a new beginning and cultural voices that had been marginal or more or less unnoticed in the years before 1989 (like Neue Slovenische Kunst in Slovenia, the new critical Spanish artists shaping a civil society and the radical transformation of the Turkish art and society towards a open, but also neoliberal model) became the starting points of a world to come. And we should never forget that 1989 not only marks the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tianamen Square, but is also the birthdate of the Internet, which is one of these beautiful accidents that is too telling to be coincidental. What we want to suggest by bringing these dates into focus is that the artistic gesture and the form it takes are very telling for what later unfolds in other fields. In this sense these two dates address the idea of functionality in its broadest sense. L’Internationale sees art as having a sensitivity to the world around it, it responds but also shapes the next possible responses; it provides an imaginary in which the common sense of a particular area takes form. This is where the concept of ‘Uses of Art’ comes from. How do we understand and more importantly communicate the potential of art to create new value systems, new ways of thinking about the needs and desires of humankind. The histories of 1848 and 1989, and in our case their artistic relevance, form for us important elements of the fiery cocktail out of which the future will be determined. So this is our story, or perhaps better to say our compass. Within the five years we will make many exhibitions and do research on this topic, but as it is with research, you don’t know what the outcome will be. However, I think it quite unlikely that we will be mostly illustrating the dates through works from the mid-19th century of the 1980s. It is more how they are understood today. At Van Abbemuseum we recently bought a work called What is Democracy? By Oliver Ressler – that seems to us a useful way to understand 1848 or 1989 - but it can also be seen in relation to Bonjour M. Courbet and The man who flew into space from his apartment by Ilya Kabakov.

—Domeniek RuytersHow will these dates be of influence to the program? Can you tell us something about the program, especially in Eindhoven and Antwerp?

—Charles EscheConcretely it will mean that we will do an exhibition that focuses on the New Republics combining events from 1848 with 1989 and investigating how art was and is part of the means to form new public identities. This however is our second show, because we start in December 2013 with a project curated by VAM with the Tania Bruguera and entitled Museum of Arte Útil. Here we deal more directly with the question of ‘use’ and the recent history of aesthetic practice as a tool to influence social praxis in public and to construct civil or collective agency. It’s a wonderfully fraught question for a white cube museum to take on, and one we relish trying to find answers to because it seems a way to understand what aesthetics in contemporary art might mean – how does form shape value and so forth? M HKA will do two related shows in the first years. One is an exhibition that deals with young artists positions that directly reflect on question of identity and identification. In a period when one’s identity becomes ever more hybrid, due to globalisation, the whole practice of identifying with something or someone is changing, and this profoundly affects the way in which you make art. After that, they will organise a reflective exhibition using the concept of the ‘welfare state’ and the role art played within it. This is really something that emerged out of our discussions where M HKA said,that we need to reflect on the period before 1989 as the summit of the development that started in 1848.. Just as with our New Republics show, this type of research exhibition is very open. Finally within the Benelux another partner is KASK in Gent that will dedicate a new version of the magazine A Prior to the activities of L’Internationale and organise small research exhibitions in KIOSK, which would combine artistic research done in KASK with topics relevant within the context of our programme. A Prior will be the place on the net and on paper where all the different activities come together and are placed in an even broader, global context. It is vital that someone does this independently of the institutions so that different forms of reflection and criticality towards our efforts can emerge, especially as such a confederation runs the risk of challenging the hegemonic institutions like Tate and MoMA and developing its own hubris.

—Domeniek RuytersWhy this title: The Uses of Art? It suggests that art has another dimension than some of us, used to a more autonomous interpretation of art, might think it has.

—Charles EscheWell, you know Domeniek, that we have been working on this word at VAM for quite a while. To cut a very long story short, I could say that the role of autonomy in modern art is not its role in contemporary practice. Rather than freedom of expression, it is more related to the economy of attention and how ideas gain purchase in a competitive environment. So autonomy remains a crucial concept but instead we talk about use in order to get at autonomy from another angle and, of course, we realise that some people within the world of art find that difficult. There is also one danger of misinterpretation that people overlook the plural of uses. We are not advocating that art has only one use, but want to address its potential utility within our current ‘overcoded’ conditions (to use Brian Holmes vocabulary). We suggest that the main issue today is not the form of art as such, but much more how we engage with it, how we debate it, how it inspires us to think creatively about where we are and where we could go. Those who at the moment fetishize autonomy as something that needs to be protected make an important mistake, because they cling on to a past value without engaging it with the present tense. Often when having discussions with people who champion autonomy at the end we find that we both value exactly the same things in art, its openness, its possibility to think differently and present things we’ve never seen before. Where we part company is that we believe we should find ways to allow this openness to have agency in the present, when it can constructively manifest itself in the lives of people. ‘Use’ places the affects of art into focus rather than their conditions of production, but of course it still requires conditions of production to be constructed – it’s just that simply allowing for that exercise of free expression is not enough today. We also wanted to avoid a reference towards a too abstract idea of citizenship, even if our idea of ‘use’ is related to that concept. Instead we wanted to play with the idea that the main ethical issues in the near future will be how things are ‘used’, from planetary resources to wants and desires, how we engage with each other and our environment.

Our aspiration is not that we replace existing political structures, but that the role art plays within these structures becomes better understood and therefore better used

—Domeniek RuytersDo you think it's time for a public institution like a museum to act in a more political sense? Or does it remain a mainly reflective organisation? And if it should also act in a political sense, would that not have implications for the democratic/political nature of its organisation?

—Charles EschePerhaps the biggest challenge is to integrate the reflective possibility of art back into the political process. In the Netherlands, politics is often restricted to what happens in Den Haag, while within L’Internationale we would see ‘the political’ as a much broader topic concerning how we choose to live together. In that sense, it should be clear that there is a comprehensive and direct link between what happens in the galleries, on the streets outside and in the public discourse. All this should be reflected in a functioning democratic parliament and are part of the connected fabric that is society. This means that it is probably less urgent that art becomes more political, since so much art addresses the most important public issues today in so many different and exciting ways. The question is to what extant such art can take part in the public debate about what the political process (the choices about living together) might achieve. To start with, we feel that it is impotant that people visiting the museum start to gain a better understanding of why engaging with this art is a civic activity. Our aspiration is not that we replace existing political structures, but that the role art plays within these structures becomes better understood and therefore better used. Art contributes to a democratic culture by stimulating skills, like open-mindedness and the possibility to see and imagine things differently that are of vital importance for a constructive political process where differences have to be constantly negotiated and there are always alternatives. Of course, we could be very critical of the current political inertia in western Europe but the time for clever critique is over. As the much missed artist Hüseyin Alptekin said “don’t complain”. L’Internationale wants to act in the world for the better. That’s political, economic, aesthetic and cultural – indeed it is a way of resisting the old modernist divisions between disciplines and refusing to consign ‘autonomous art’ to the free expression playpen or ‘useful art’ to the social services.

L'Internationale has recently been awarded with 2,5 million euro from the European Union culture budget for its progam in the coming five years. See this press release.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2020