Clémentine Deliss and the Metabolic Museum-University
An interview curated by Daniela Veneri
“My original concept for a museum-university, and the one that I still strive for, is carried by a new architectonic structure that enables people to study different subjects based around historical collections. The Metabolic Museum-University in its formulation in Ljubljana doesn't work so much with collections. Instead, it says, hey, after six weeks, what is left of this biennial? It's not fresh anymore. So maybe we can use visual thinking and the different senses to take over the void space surrounding a sculpture or a painting.” - Clémentine Deliss
How did the concept of the Metabolic Museum-University emerge and evolve?
For a long time, I have thought about my work as a curator as being connected to the identification of organs. I produced the organ Metronome between 1996 and 2007. The reason I called it an organ was in relation to independent publishing initiatives at the start of the 20th century that were also called organs. For me the term indicates that this is something essential, vital, not cosmetic, not just there to produce small readerships or to make money. It's utterly contingent on relationships and on the moment. When it no longer has that kind of functional necessity, then one changes the platform and experiments with another organ or medium of transformation.
I see an institution as something subjective. An institution is built from the desire of a group of people who want to work together. In some cases, too, institutions have been built on collections. I have begun to look at the ethnographic museum as a corpus, like a body. This makes it more interesting to try to connect different aspects of it, as if they were organs. There is a visible and an invisible part of this body, an epidermis of functions that you see on the outside. This is the public face of an institution, but that which happens backstage, behind the skin, often has everything to do with what we don't know about: like what exactly is in the collection, or the fact that the artefacts in these collections have no documented authorship. There are museums, which like organic constructs, are necropolitical, they are interested in the subjugation and control of the life and death of their own collections. This has led to me writing about the museum as a metabolic system, a system of interdependencies, of humours, of different functionalities ranging from high visibility to expulsion, but also regeneration.
When I began teaching at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe I was very excited and I still am. I don't work purely with curatorial students, or young people who want to become curators. Neither do I work purely with visual artists, but instead with a group that has already studied art theory, media theory, media art, product design, communications design, scenography, and exhibition design. They are both theoretical and applied in their approach and interests. I suggested to them that might like to get involved in creating models for a museum-university, in this case, the Metabolic Museum-University. The notion of a museum-university is something which I've been working on since 2013 and the first manifesto that I wrote on the post-ethnographic museum. It is based on the constate that there are three institutions today that have a civic role to play in the arts: the art school, the museum and the university. You could add the biennial to make that a fourth institution.
At the moment they seem to me to be quite exclusive. The art school is still probably the freest of these three institutions and the most vagabonding. Structures such as the Bologna agreement act to tether expectations, and there is an increase in controlling mechanisms within arts school. One of these is the fact that they have become geared towards the professionalization of artists and are much more career-oriented than they ever were.
The second institution is the university and that is gated. With some universities you can walk in freely, but a lot of them are on a campus and if you're not part of the student body or faculty, you don't just walk in! There will be gates at the entrance, and these physical gates are also political and economic. If you migrate to Germany and you don't have the right exam from high school, you cannot study at university. If you're a professor and you don't have the qualifications that are necessary in Germany, you cannot do research or teach. I see this is a central problem right now.
Finally we come to the museum, which has become remarkably normative, right down to the way artworks are hung, the constructed timing of an exhibition, the periodisation of installing, the manner one is allowed to engage with collections, and how the public is treated and responds to this. It's frightening to see how many museums are not prepared to take away the shop, to reprioritize their space, to introduce an apartment for a residency, or simply bring in other furniture, larger tables and chairs and more places to sit down. This is about being responsive to the ergonomic condition of hermeneutic unfolding that can take place within the museum. That is the potential of the democratic intellect within the museum. So my idea is that you need to actually clash these institutions together and do something that many years ago I used to call a process of transvesting within institutions. You change the activity and the visibility of what you do within each institution, in order to make it transform. You don't try to cure a museum with a museum. Instead you remediate it by introducing an outside interlocutor: the university or in some cases the house.
The Metabolic Museum-University (MM-U) is a situation, which we're going to test out in Ljubljana between 26th July and 2nd August 2019. The MM-U team at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design has built furniture that is there for members of the public. Visitors can sit down, have a table in front of them on which they can put anything they want, but also a computer and a projector. The Metabolic Chair enables the person seated to spam the hang, to actually beam other sensorial material between the gaps and the void that is created by exhibition hangs. That is where you have space: between one painting or one installation and another. We hope to see what happens when the public engages in a very different activity, animated and triggered by lectures, performances, exercises and rehearsals, and what we call “Stimuli”. Every visitor is a student, and a student in this condition may well spend the whole day, if not a whole week with the MM-U. In any case, they will definitely engage in a completely different approach with artworks. This is a temporary squatting of an exhibition space. But it doesn't say, we're destroying the curatorial plan, and it's not iconoclastic. It isn't there to screw up what the artists originally wanted and how they asked for their work to be installed, whether they be living or dead. It's much more about breaking chronologies, introducing new visual thinking processes, and testing out what happens when the civic space of a museum is used or even usurped for higher education that is both formal and informal.
There will be seven days, so there'll be different Organs of the Week. We have Lungday, Tongueday, Eyeday, Brainday, Skinday, Liverday, and Heartday. The question of the organ and the question of the museum-university combine to create a metabolic system, which should hopefully allow for a certain circulation of ideas, generated through this process of visual thinking and ergonomic engagement.
Do you feel that this can be considered an experiment for challenging and changing the art biennial system from the inside?
Yes. The concept of the museum-university has come out of the question of what to do with ethnographic collections. I look at the problematics of the diaspora today, at the fragmentary and complimentary conditions of people in the world, and I notice that so many young people are not only from different backgrounds and cultures but are also studying diasporic disciplines. They don't necessarily study just sociology, but something combinatory like cultural studies or curatorial studies which are guaranteed to include different elements from different places. The diasporic form of studying reflects both the human being and where they are in the world. It generates a kind of disruption and change, a transformation of studies and a reformulation of disciplines. I think this is really interesting. I wonder what type of institution can provide a home, a sheltering structure in the political sense of a place where one can go to express, without condition, new non-exclusive interpretations of things one doesn't know so much about but are in a process of decolonial commoning.
My original concept for a museum-university, and the one that I still strive for, is carried by a new architectonic structure that enables people to study different subjects based around historical collections. The Metabolic Museum-University in its formulation in Ljubljana doesn't work so much with collections. Instead, it says, hey, after six weeks, what is left of this biennial? It's not fresh anymore. So maybe we can use visual thinking and the different senses to take over the void space surrounding a sculpture or a painting. If we go into a dark room because there's a video being projected in it, then our chairs will have small lights. All this encourages one to accept that people have the right to educate themselves over longer periods of time in the museum.
I think that the manner in which we use our human bodies, our intellect, our emotions and our physical, corporeal sensibilities inside a museum has become an urgent issue. I don't like the way people walk through museums. It's no different from the way you scroll on Instagram. The timing is problematic, the commercialism too. So to change these institutions from the inside is to begin to understand what kind of outside infrastructure might be necessary. It's a process of identifying what could be done and what ingredients we need for a new type of institution. It's complex because museums and universities have colonial and racist connotations. Why not just find a new word for this institution, but I can't yet because I don't yet know what the hermeneutic and ergonomic necessities are for it to work. Hence, the attempt to create a clash between the two historical venues by placing questions surrounding the collection and its meanings, or potential meanings at the center of our focus.
What are the values and principles that guide your work?
I like working with artists, I really do, and I like to work with other areas of knowledge production, both transcultural and transdisciplinary. I'm a strange kind of curator in that I work in a very independent way. When I teach, I try to encourage the students to feel that they have a right to their own emancipation. And that I'm not just teaching them what curating is but showing them maybe that it goes beyond exhibition histories. I try to motivate them to work in different media, developing different forms of engagement with artists. I like the early phases of curatorial work. I like it when you begin to develop something with an artist and everything is much more vulnerable and less clear. In many respects, I ride the same methodologies and practices as artists, and my independence makes me unusual in that way. I say what I feel and what I think is right. I have to maintain an active faith in what I'm involved in. When I tell you that I don't want to curate a biennial, it's because I don't have the persuasion necessary for that structure. I would like to do a large-scale project, but I'm not sure I want to do so in the manner that they've been conceived so far.
I'm more engaged in setting up scenarios for concept-work with artists and generating ideas with artists prior to production. A lot of the time, I try to identify places where there is potential freedom of movement. I'm not sure that the emphasis on audience has given a great freedom of movement to the development of art practice. Yes, I think there are immensely important things to be done with audiences and with publics and I think that art has a social function and a political function. But I think that there are also other areas that have to be kept within a sheltering structure. One needs places where complex and less definable processes and projects can be developed.
Where do you see current shifts in the evolution/transformation of the role of curators, art managers, cultural institutions, artists and events like art biennials? Where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?
I think that right now, there is a problem in that too many curators are accepting to do biennials on the assumption that they will be able to re-articulate and manipulate the funding, the locations, the expectations, the publics, everything associated with the existing identity of this event. It would be more interesting, I feel, to encourage the development of alternative infrastructures in curatorial practice that are more responsive to the problematics in art practice at the moment. Right now we are facing a polarity that is not resolved by any means, and that's the polarity between works that are clearly compatible with the market, presented in rooms, on walls, and that fit within the normative framework of a private gallery, a fair, or a museum. And, at the opposite end, there are works that have more socio-political or experimental content that take on shapes and forms which are open-ended, maybe time-based and these formulations of practice cannot be easily hung in a gallery. They don't follow the same path, even if the artists are unclear as to whom their audience is, and therefore what kind of context and what kind of infrastructure they require to show these works. I think this is a problem we face at the moment and I wonder whether it's collectives or whether it's curators who can encourage the development of new infrastructures and that don't rely on pre-given model, which is colonial. You cannot dissociate biennials, like the majority of museums, from colonial history. This is something that concerns me at the moment.
If you were able to change two things in the areas of responsibility of art curators, cultural producers and cultural institutions, which two things do you think would create the most value and benefit for all?
If I was able to change two things in the areas of responsibility of art curators and cultural institutions then it would be to set up a forum where questions surrounding new infrastructure and forms of production would take on a central role. The audience has to just wait a minute until this new infrastructure and this means of production have been discussed.
Thinking of the relation between the art system within the expanded social field, and the social and political function of art, what do you think is missing today? What is the essence of this function?
I feel nervous when I'm asked to identify the social core of art or the political function of art. I don't like the feeling that comes with the identification and naming of politics in art or the social function of art, but maybe this is my personal weakness. Often artists need to intervene where politicians or publics don't or can’t. Artists set up spaces, create other ways of publishing, alternative modes of engagement. Even if this is just to understand how best to engage with each other, that in itself is already really important.
Around the global turn of 1989, I asked many artists to whom they were addressing their work, and in most cases they didn’t really know. Later in the 1990s and 2000s, the answer came that their art was for a wide audience, and I think that's another reason why biennials became so productive and front of stage. I feel strongly that the backstage is equally an arena of the political, and that you don't have to make visible work to create social and political expression within art. The only question then is, what is it? Can you identify the person with whom you are able to dialogue backstage? A person who can become a trustworthy interlocutor, and with whom you can share your concerns? I think this is the most complex issue at the moment, knowing with whom you can exchange as yet unformulated concepts in art and in curatorial practice. This is what I call the prelusive, in other words something ahead of visibility and ahead of production. This exploratory condition should not be confused with the violence of colonialism. So the question is, how do we make an exploratory drive possible today? And how do we locate the words, the images and the structures and systems with which to nurture the unforeseeable?
What I did not ask you that you think is important to mention?
There is one other question and this relates to the state of art publishing at the moment. One of the works that Luke Willis Thompson is currently showing at GAMEC is a letter that I commissioned as part of a project called “Organs & Alliances”, which I initiated last year between Paris and Leipzig. It included a series of offline printed contributions by Paul B. Preciado, Luke Willis Thompson, Tom McCarthy, Lydia Ourahmane, and younger artists and students that I was teaching in both locations. The central question was focused on how to create a trans-border infrastructure for art production. In the end, the group of art students in Paris and Leipzig pooled their money and bought an old printing press, a version of the late colonial Tiegel. The idea was to literally move the machine from Leipzig to Paris, stopping in certain locations that were not necessarily art locations, such as slaughterhouses, hospitals, migrant centers, and to print there, to offer a service for people who were on site. We produced a limited edition folder intended to fund the movement of the machine. Thompson’s contribution was an offline letter to Art Forum in which he explains what happened to him, when a collective demonstrated against the installation of his work for the Turner Prize in 2018. He's half indigenous Fijian, half New Zealander. And in his work for Organs and Alliances, Thompson doesn't attack or respond to the collective, but to the way that this action was uncritically reported in the art press. The superficial reproduction of unresearched material is happening all the time today. Art magazines think that they're doing something important, but actually it's the same news everywhere. But what is the role of art publishing in relationship to the polarity between the market and more socially engaged work? What has art publishing done to unpack and support a more generous approach to the different practices that might be emerging at the moment? I'm very happy that you're doing Rondó. Perhaps a system of interviews is the best thing to do right now: to evoke a sense of presence.
Can you think of three or five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about the topics we just talked about?
I’m interested in concept-work. Concept-work encourages an indeterminate and unforseeable process of poetic and ideational thought by working with assemblages, be these situations, artefacts, or artworks. Concept-work is bound by three key terms: risk, recursivity, and remediation.
With risk, one seeks to push conceptual thinking to the edge. Recursive by nature, the model adapts and corrects as it moves forward. Through remediation, it seeks to heal and transform complex and contentious amalgams of materials and their interpretation. It seeks through patient dialogue to unblock the current impasse that greatly defines relations between artists and curators by developing a new infrastructure that extends beyond the existing and standardized formats of regular art events.
Clémentine Deliss is a curator, publisher and cultural historian. She studied art practice and semantic anthropology in Vienna, Paris, and London and holds a PhD from SOAS, University of London. Between 2010–2015, she directed the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, instituting a new research lab to remediate collections within a post-ethnological context. Exhibitions she curated at the Weltkulturen Museum include “Object Atlas - Fieldwork in the Museum” (2011), “Foreign Exchange (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger” (2014), and “El Hadji Sy - Painting, Politics, Performance” (2015). “From field to factory” she curated for “Hello World. Revising a Collection”, National Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (April-August 2018). From 2002–2009, she ran the transdisciplinary collective Future Academy with student research cells in London, Edinburgh, Dakar, Mumbai, Bangalore, Melbourne, and Tokyo. She has acted as an expert consultant for the European Union and is a member of the Scientific Council of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. In 2017-2018 she was Visiting Professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts Paris-Cergy and has an International Chair at the Laboratoire d’Excellence des Arts et Médiations Humaines, Université, Paris 8 and Centre Georges Pompidou. She is currently Interim Professor of Curatorial Theory and Dramaturgical Practice at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe, Faculty at Large for the MA in Curatorial Practice, SVA, School of Visual Arts, New York, and Mentor for the 2019 Berlin Artists Programme.