Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is a curator, author and researcher. She was the artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13), the most recent version of the international art event that takes place in Kassel, Germany, every five years. Previously she served as the artistic director of the 16th Biennale of Sydney (2008), chief curator at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Turin (2002-08), and was a senior curator at MoMA PS1, New York, from 1991-2001. In 2012 she was ranked number one in Art Review’s annual Power 100 list of the most influential figures in contemporary art. Earlier this year she was asked to curate the 14th Istanbul Biennial (2015), which she says she will “draft” rather than curate.

Ajay Hothi dOCUMENTA is a vast exhibition – I think of it as the visual art equivalent to Ulysses, certainly they both represent pinnacles of modernism. You extended the exhibition beyond Kassel with outposts in Alexandria, Cairo, Banff and Kabul. Can I ask what making that decision meant to you?
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev I was nominated to do dOCUMENTA in December 2008, so I had four years ahead of me. I was thinking about what possible meaning it could have to organise this great exhibition in the heart of Europe after a decade or two of thinking that related to decentralising the arts ecology, what in other fields – sociology, economics – would be called globalisation, even though I don’t use that term in relation to art. When you arrive at dOCUMENTA you can’t forget the history. It is the highest (in the modernist sense of the word) thing that modernism created. It came after World War II and the trauma of the West “killing” itself with the Holocaust. Out of that shambles internationalism was shattered. Artists couldn’t work – it was illegal to paint, forget about exhibiting. You have the severing of your own body, of your culture, and the severing of international relations. These were reborn after the war through the making of this exhibition. Of course, Kassel was very close to the border of East Germany, so it was also a tool for the West to demonstrate its democracy. So the art exhibition was a reengagement with internationalism through modernist ways. I wanted to continue with Okwui Enwezor’s project to decentralise platforms. Kabul is a city where you can’t travel as tourist – at least you couldn’t between 2010 and 2012. It wasn’t illegal to apply for a visa to travel to Kabul but the only people who received them were journalists, NGO workers, and people of the Afghan diaspora. It wasn’t glamorous; why would art tourists want to come to a semi-warzone? Officially the war was over but people remain scared. Kabul was a place similar to post-war Kassel, a place under military occupation for many years after the war. It was a country ravaged and bombed, and occupied by its liberators, the major Allied forces – the US, French, Germans, and British –and still without a constitution. I wanted to experience what Kassel was like at the time of planning for the first dOCUMENTA. A second motivation concerned how art could contribute to building civil society but without being instrumentalised by foreign military occupiers? Also without being stupidly antagonistic. The choice is not between Taliban rule and being happy with the occupying forces – that’s humiliating. Art has a natural tendency towards complexity, contradiction, ambivalence, and ambiguity that resists being instrumentalised. And in visual art you don’t need so many words or translations so it felt that the visual arts could offer more of a platform for communicating with one another: through the body, the sensual, the imaginary, the image, colour, form. We organised workshops to learn from each other. I learned a lot, for example, about miniatures. Forty thousand people came to this exhibition in Kabul. There were families, children, the park was full of people. It was fantastic. There was one metal detector on the door and a sign that said don’t bring guns. There was absolutely no trouble. Unfortunately, the Western media didn’t report on it at all. They only report about the war and the bombings and that’s not a good portrait of what Kabul is. It was, and still is, a very vibrant city, while Kandahar has over 150 publishing houses! One of the aims was to try and change the symbolic vision that one has of this war-torn place and to represent a truer image of daily life that exists. Most of the foreigners there don’t know it because they live in compounds with huge, great walls.

AH Istanbul’s last biennial took place in the wake of the first demonstrations at Gezi Park and Taksim Square. This, of course, has effects on the political atmosphere in which the biennial takes place and to which it responds. Do you feel that will have any impact on the next Istanbul Biennial? Is there a common discourse on the global biennial circuit?
CCB Let’s first go back for a moment to 16th Sydney Biennale. That happened before all the recent revolutions started. In 2007, “revolution” was an abandoned word. Nike shoes or the newest smartphone were “revolutionary.” That word had been co-opted by industry and become culturally obsolete; now it’s not. Revolution means to turn, and turn again. If we start using the word revolution therefore to mean to find again, and thus to change, we make a strange set of relationships with time, that is the ability of the present to find the past, again. By finding mistakes – gaps, lapses, whatever – it provokes change, the future. It’s always been this way. The Renaissance looked to Antiquity and thought it would never be that great. At the same time they were busy figuring out that the world wasn’t flat and building ships, clocks and compasses. They were also starting the market economy, international slavery and colonialism, which was horrible. However, the cultural, artistic side of the Renaissance was an area of great humility. It consisted of these artists and architects thinking that the ancient past was so much brighter and better than the present, and doing so they invented modern Western art and architecture. There are many specific moments of revolution, including in the Arab and Islamic worlds today, where reconnecting with something that is the so-called “past” creates a great shift in the society. Concerning the broader question of art and politics, there is a politics in form. I am not focused on content-driven political art. Art can be very radical simply on a formal level, and it’s not just that it should be particularly aesthetic or visually pleasing. For me, the aesthetic firstly has to be the site of emancipation, then collectively. I believe strongly in such a politics of form. If a work of art is not directly activist, then its form better be revolutionary! It is not only today that artists are criticising the system – they are a part of an historic tradition in art. Look at Caravaggio. He hated the papacy and he hated power. He would get drunk and fight, he was exiled, but he was also commissioned to paint for the Church, and he did. We return to the question then: who is instrumentalising whom? In this period, there is visibility for artists whose work is politically engaged and who act politically within the art system. Take the latest Sydney Biennale as an example, where I’m glad questions were raised. I respect those who decide to withdraw or boycott initiatives that are funded by entities they think are not appropriate to their own politics. I too want to be able to make those choices. At dOCUMENTA, the Occupy movement sat on the grounds of the Fridericianum [the exhibition’s main building in Kassel]. They were there because they had been thrown out of Frankfurt and I said that they would be welcome in Kassel. A minority of citizens complained, but between myself and Kassel’s mayor the appropriate authorisations were made for the tents to be erected on the grounds with appropriate conditions to keep Kassel clean and safe. I do not want to be an insensitive, apolitical person, nor do I want a leader of the global left to tell me which choices to make. The choices that people make are individual and singular and we can change these choices from one year to the next, from one situation to the next. I acknowledge that all money is a little bit “dirty.” I accepted to direct dOCUMENTA even though dOCUMENTA is funded by public money and a number of private funders, as well. The city of Kassel and its tax money comes from industries that also produce arms and tanks. That tax – public money – is not absolutely clean. So the question is, do I go and participate or do I pull out completely? If you pull out completely, you can maybe work in one country in the world, Costa Rica, because you can’t do it in Brazil or the USA or France, Turkey, the UK, Germany, or anywhere. Each one of us, because of our past and our alliances, can choose not to work in any specific location or context. You may choose not to work in the country where you are from or if you feel especially close to that context. It may be a big concern and I completely respect that. The problem is everywhere. All money is power and all power is evil, by nature. I accept individual positions but I believe in using space and resources with care, so that we have as much as possible at our disposal. It’s important to use powers as tools to further ideas of emancipation, individual happiness, communication, poetry, joy, and the flourishing of life in the world. I can use the tools of Istanbul to try and make things better, whether there is a sponsor there or not. Hito Steyerl, made a very important piece at the last Istanbul Biennial about Koç Holding [main sponsors of the event] and she did well to bring this up. That’s the way to go about it in my opinion; she used the resource to question the resource. But no stories or histories are simple. The politics of art and the art of politics are so complex; I feel you can’t run around the world boycotting things because you’ve identified one thing that you find unacceptable. I can’t do this, if somebody else wants to, then that’s fine. I prefer to navigate contradictions. §

  • Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev