Juliane Bischoff - #memory #culture #discourse #narration #collaboration #democracy #freedom
An interview curated by Daniela Veneri
"I think the way in which you could make a work public was something that I found very fruitful. It's important to do research but I feel that in the academic field there are a lot of limitations in terms of how you would publish research results. I think the great chance of working in a public institution is the ability to make things public and to invite people from various backgrounds to engage in discussions as well as enabling different kinds of connections to certain topics.” - Juliane Bischoff
Juliane, how did you become a curator? What do you like most of your work and what drives you in what you do?
My background is sociology and art history. For me, especially contemporary art has always been very much connected with what is going on in the world. During my studies I didn't have a clear picture of where my interests would lead me, in a role, in an institution, or as a curator in general, but I knew that I wanted to work between those two fields, sociology and art.
Besides my studies I have always worked in art associations, e.g. when I was doing my bachelor degree, which was in Dresden, Germany. After that I spent a few months in Basel, working at the Kunsthalle Basel. When I moved to Vienna for my
master's degree I started working at Kunsthalle Vienna, and that was in 2014, just after Nicolaus Schafhausen took over the institution, and I had followed his program since 2012. I saw the topics that concerned me during my studies and my
interests very much reflected in the program of Kunsthalle Vienna and I was lucky to get involved in the institution. One of the first projects I've worked on was a conference on a topic of curatorial ethics, and then an exhibition titled "Political Populism” followed. I think the title is telling about political dynamics, social questions and the relationship between art and society in a way. This was the kind of place where I felt I could connect well, but my idea of being a curator was still very open. Also I wanted to be involved in all steps, in working on a concept, for an exhibition or for discursive format, and being in touch with the artists, and realizing the project in terms of trying to create a situation for the works to be perceived in the best way; or a suitable frame for the invited speakers.
Which feedbacks surprised you most over the years? Did anything in particular make you realize that this was really what you wanted to do or how you wanted to approach curatorship?
I don't know about a feedback that surprised me, but I think the way in which you could make a work public was something that I found very fruitful. It's important to do research but I feel that in the academic field there are a lot of limitations in terms of how you would publish research results. I think the great chance of working in a public institution is the ability to make things public and to invite people from various backgrounds to engage in discussions as well as enabling different kinds of connections to certain topics. There are different formats to present and mediate, there is an education department to complete these efforts and of course there is the chance to invite artists to realize something in cooperation, and also the collaboration with the team of an institution, I think this collaboration with the different departments of the institution is something that I consider very valuable in the work.
What are the questions that you are exploring with the exhibition "Tell me about yesterday tomorrow" at the Munich Documentation Centre for the history of National Socialism? How was this exhibition born and how are you approaching it?
The project came into being when Mirjam Zadoff, the director of the Documentation Centre in Munich, invited Nicolaus Schafhausen to develop a project with contemporary art. This invitation was quite open and it related to the idea of how memory culture, history and contemporary art can come together. This means addressing issues of the past but also of present day as well as thinking about the future. Thereby, not only the representation of history plays a major role, but also how history is instrumentalized by politics.
The Documentation Centre opened in 2015 with the purpose to document the history of National Socialism and especially the role of Munich, which has a very specific connection to it being self-proclaimed city of the movement by the National Socialist Party, the place where the crimes of the Nazi party were planned. The Documentation Centre opened only in 2015, 70 years after the Second World War, so it took a very long time until the city recognized and admitted to have this institution there at this specific place, which is the location of the former, to have a place for people now to come there to learn about the history and also how it is connected to our present time.
Nowadays we see right wing parties and movements all over the globe that also try to appropriate the idea of history and tell a story that suits their aims. Thereby, they also foster separation between people and implement ideas that increase racism and other kind of discriminatory practices, and that are very much against a liberal and open and free society. The place where the exhibition "Tell me about yesterday, tomorrow" takes place is also a very defined place. It's a documentation center as the name says, and it is concerned with the history of National Socialism in general and especially with the role of Munich within the system. It is a place for people to learn about history, to reflect on the historical experience and connect it to the question of what does this history has to do with me now.
The way the - permanent – historical exhibition is conceived is very much built on one perspective, which is a scientific one, developed by historians, and very detailed and very profound. That's very important but the distant view through the lenses of science sometimes makes it difficult to make a connection to our lives in present time. Is this something that can happen again? Enabling a discourse around this kind of questions and creating a broad picture that connected to global realities are amongst others aims of the project. We also hope to enable people to find different ways to connect with the topics that you would find in the historical exhibition, such as separation, discrimination, the horrors of the history that happened, but also to make sense of what's going on in the world right now and how we can learn from history in this sense.
Are you thinking of addressing the exhibition to a specific audience or is it conceived for the general public?
We very much want to develop this project for a broad audience, but of course we are also aware that not everybody yet necessarily connects with contemporary art, however I think that a great hope in this project is that we bring contemporary art to a place that is not necessarily connected with it and to open a dialogue between history and art. It is not the classical white cube space, it is an historical institution. The way that the project will unfold in the institution is that the permanent exhibition will stay as it is, so everyone will find the historical material, and the art works (works by more than 40 artists) function more as interventions in the space, as ruptures, as footnotes, as a critical remark, or pointing towards other parts of the world, or the realm of the digital. This will be conceived by placing the works along the permanent exhibition in the exhibition space but also by making use of spaces in the building that are not usually used as display, like the hallway or a corridor for example. So people might not plan to see our exhibition but the permanent exhibition and they would stumble upon something that irritates or something that leads to a new, unexpected questions like "Why do I see a work here that is concerned with the colonial legacies in European art collections or museums?" for example.
We also cooperate with other institutions in Munich, for example, and a monastery, Abbey St. Bonifaz, next by the Documentation Centre. I think this also offers a great chance that the audience will be quite broad.
From your perspective, what are the specific challenges in curating this kind of exhibition?
One of the biggest challenges I would say is the contextualization. What happens if you bring contemporary art in this specific context is that it brings new readings of the artworks compared to an exhibition in a white cube setting; but it also triggers new perspectives on the historical exhibition. It is not meant to be a simple comment in the sense that it would simplify things; to say that one thing that happened in history is exactly like something that we see now. By putting things next to each other, you have to consider the differences, how did things happen in the past and to ask ourselves to look at our present day. The dialogue between the works and the permanent exhibition, the works among each other as well as the related topics, is something very challenging.
In which way is this exhibition different from the other ones you curated in the past?
The conditions of “Tell me about yesterday tomorrow” are very different, because there is already a given context for the exhibition. It's not a white wall, there is this historical exhibition that creates a kind of backdrop for the works to unfold and the way they are read. However there are also similarities to exhibitions I have worked on in the past, for example "Political Populism", or the exhibition "How to live together" that took place in 2017, both at Kunsthalle Vienna. A similar aspect is that with all of these exhibitions we tried to generate a certain openness, that it's not necessarily one story that we want to tell, there is no one beginning and one end, it's not one thesis we like to prove, but offering a broad scope of different realities. And this is also something that relates to the historical exhibition, which is presented in chronological order. The exhibition we conceived is non-linear narration, which also resonates with our global reality, which is multifaceted, fluid and acronychal. This openness is something that I would say is connected to some other recent projects of mine.
What is your feeling about how contemporary art can influence the way we look today at the world or understand what is around us? How can contemporary art influence somehow the way people look at things and think of the current social and political situation?
This is a very tough question, but of course the one that concerns us in our work and also many other people in this field I think. Of course, as I said, we are very aware that the direct effect contemporary art can make is limited. It also comes with a lot of barriers that you can't connect to everyone and reach out to everyone. One role a public institution fulfills is to make ideas, art, information and knowledge available. I think not only one artwork and not only one project or even not only one institution can change things on a broad structure, but I think all of these little steps and efforts are very important.
Where do you see current shifts in the transformation of the role of artists, arts professionals and institutions, where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?
Looking back at recent years, a big chance I would mention is the economization of the art field. In order to sustain oneself, artists more and more have to rely on the market. That means there is also art produced to be able to be consumed and fit some formats. It goes hand and hand with objectification and speculation of art. In my understanding art should be free to take whatever form is suitable: from ephemeral, time-based works to collaboration and social practices. This is also a challenge for institutions that naturally present art works. Another challenge and chance is the crossing of borders of genres and disciplines. I think collaboration of various fields is a productive mean to work on future issues.
If you were able to change one or two things of the way the art system functions, where would you start from? Where do you feel is more necessary to intervene for the benefit of everyone?
It is difficult to say, there are so many things on very different levels and realms... A big challenge is payment and maintenance, because I think everyone that works for something should get paid for the work. That's a very important aspect in the work on all levels, especially in institutions and the work with artists. Working in this field I know that funds are always an issue and you always have to look for additional funding and financial support and the means of production should be distributed equally. Often artists are thought to earn the symbolic value of visibility, but of course that is not something you can maintain a living from.
Payment is one big challenge in the field in general, and then also certain responsibilities in terms of a public institution that has a certain path created from the city or the state. How would you handle this? That an exhibition space, an institution maybe should not necessarily only be about exhibitions, not only about the presentation of art but also should enable to involve people, to offer platforms and education? One very successful mean in that way is free access, in terms of free entrance, and I wonder why sometimes it seems so difficult for public institutions to offer free entrance. I think this is one very simple but successful way to include more people.
This is just to mention two topics but I think there are many more aspects to change.
The first part of our interview took place before the opening of the exhibition. What are your impressions about it, now that it has almost reached its end?
There was a really interesting process because it was not only an exhibition that brought together various artworks, it was really creating a dialogue between an existing exhibition that is already there and interventions in the space of the Documentation Centre.
Looking at the permanent exhibition in the Documentation Centre you would find one approach which is a rational documentation of history based on text and image reproductions. It is about a depiction of what happened in the past, but it doesn't really make connections to the present time or at least the connections are not so obvious. ”Tell me about..” tried to establish a dialogue; to point to things in history but also find connections to nowadays. And it offers different approaches to regard that, through works of art obviously. That was really special.
The project was really trying to use the background of the historical exhibition in a productive way, to involve it, but also to reflect on it. Some connections between the historical context and the contemporary interventions really came together in the space. Also the duration of the exhibition was longer than usual and that allowed for more discussions with the audience.
The temporary exhibition also works for me as a reflection on the historical permanent exhibition. It's not just a depiction of the past but it's really also reveals the history is told and depicted as well as the conditions behind images and behind videos.
The artworks really involve you as a spectator, it asks you what is in between the binary between good and bad, and how you would position yourself. And it asks from whose perspective are we looking at history, present but maybe also future.
A global pandemic, due to Covid-19, has been spreading all over the world and we have seen educational programs, schools, cultural centers, museums, exhibitions, arts and cultural sites closing and being forced to change their plans. How has this crisis affected the exhibition in Munich?
Every public institution struggled with the situation of having the mission or aim to be an open institution to invite people, to have a program and now having to close their doors. Trying to find a way to produce content online and to still engage with your audience, to still have discussions, it's very challenging. We also discussed a lot about what makes sense for us, what we should do. You have to find a way to deal with this unpreceded situation, to stay connected to your audiences within this attention economy. But then you don't want to connect only through marketing and only through advertising but really by working with the content.
There was the plan for an “Assembly” related to "Tell me about yesterday tomorrow" that should have taken place in June. It was planned a 10-day kind of festival inviting people from various disciplines, from art, from history, from sociology, journalists, writers, musicians and many more. We wanted to offer workshops and also augment the program of "Tell me about yesterday tomorrow" through practical learning. That was another dimension we wanted to include, and of course also fostering discussion from various perspectives. It was soon clear that we could not do that as we planned because it would have involved a lot of people, so we came up with the idea to create a podcast series which tries to translate at least the discursive part of the assembly into the virtual space, so that we could still work with the people that we wanted to invite, to hear their perspectives on current topics that were important for us within the whole project, for example questions about solidarity, questions about radicalization happening in online spaces, but also about new forms of memory culture.
We tried to implement it in a program that was doable for us as an institution but that also offered something that's more sustainable, not only another projection of images online.
What is your feeling about how this emergency will influence our approach to experiencing, producing and sharing the arts in the future?
It's impossible to predict the future. What I see now is that people long for being together in a space again, because there is also a physical dimension to society and I think people feel that. Reflecting the current situation, especially now that we are in the middle of the second wave of Covid19, one has to be very careful about it, but I think there are dimensions and effects when people come together that cannot be translated into a digital space. This also happened with our podcast series, because we brought together people to discuss things and other perspectives but there was no chance for us to really involve the public, to have questions from the audience. There is this moment of sharing and participating but then, on the other hand, I think people are also a little bit tired of having the same digital formats reproduced over and over again. I think that now that we have understood this pandemic has changed the way we come to together and engage with institutions has changed fundamentally, the possibilities of the digital will be thought through more carefully in order to interact with audiences. I see there is the development of new forms of engagement when we are not able to come together as bodies in a safe way and there are also more attempts to sensitize about what are the dangers of online manipulation but also about isolation and alienation from society.
Can you think of some keywords that would express your impressions and feelings about what we have just discussed?
Memory culture, discourse, maybe also narration between past, present, and future. Collaboration, democracy, and freedom.
Juliane Bischoff works as curator and writer. Together with Nicolaus Schafhausen she is currently conducting the exhibition Tell me about yesterday tomorrow at the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism (2019-2020). From 2016 to 2019 she has worked at Kunsthalle Wien, where she curated the exhibition Kate Newby. I can't nail the days down (2018); and co-curated group exhibitions and discursive events such as How to Live Together (2017) and Political Futures (2018). Other institutions she has worked for include Kunsthalle Basel (2012), and Ludlow 38, Goethe-Institut New York (2015). She is editor of the publications Kate Newby. I can't nail the days down (Sternberg Press, 2019) and Ineke Hans. Was ist Loos? (Sternberg Press, 2017) and has contributed to catalogues such as Hui Ye. Keep Me Close to You (Sternberg Press, forthcoming), Olena Newkryta. folding unfolding refolding (Sternberg Press, 2017) and 2015 (edit. by Vivien Trommer, MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38, 2015).