lne Gevers curator  \  writer  \  activist

The Sense of Place

Together with Paul Domela Nieuwenhuis I made the exhibition of work of the teaching staff this year. The aim was to introduce the staff to the new participants. Nevertheless we were, by tradition, more or less obliged to make the exhibition something more than a fragmentary collage of different works. Otherwise we might run the risk of having rather similar exhibiti­ons every year. This year our title was 'The sense of Place' (for which the credit goes to Paul, who found the title in a book by Wallace Stegner). Using a notion like 'the sense of place' is of course rather dubious if one starts to think about the presupposition that everyone has a sense of place or at least should have one. Then there is the difficult assumption that we all would mean the same thing when we refer to 'place', which probably is not at all the case. On the contrary: place is essentially linked with the individual moment in which one occupies a certain space. To quote the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin, introducing his article 'Author and hero in aesthetic activity': "The ever-present excess of my seeing, knowing, and possessing in relation to any other human being is founded in the uniqueness and irreplaceability of my place in the world. For only I -the one-and only I- occupy in a given set of circumstances this particular place at this particular time; all other human beings are situated outside me" (p.23). A sense of place seems to be crucial because, although the notion of 'place' in general can be questioned or even repudiated, there will always be a place -even if only for a moment- from which we see, act and speak. The problem is how we deal with it in terms of its representati­on. As soon as we try to reflect on it, contemplate upon it from an individual perspective or think of it as somet­hing shared by a community, it seems to escape from us time and again. It is this tension between being (at a certain place) and its representation that has been the topic for many writers, artists, philosophers throughout centuries and which is expressed beautifully by Maurice Blanchot in his Space of literature: "Through consciousness we escape what is present, but we are delivered to representation. Through representation we reintroduce into our intimacy with ourselves the constraints of the face-to-face encounter; we confront ourselves, even when we look despairingly outside ourselves" (p. 134).

Jon Thomson's Fresh Faced Fool (1997), the man-size portrait of Anton van Braembussche as a neocolonial tourist (wearing the clothes of Beversberg-sport) -a work made by the Dutch artist Daan Samson as a reaction on the chapter 'the end of art' his book Thinking on Art (the work is appropriated by Van Braembussche and presented as an inversion), but also the snapshots of the editor's studio Texte zur Kunst (Isabella Graw) and many other works in this exhibition correspond -often with a touch of humor- with the impossi­ble notion of 'the sense of place'. Of course many other important notions related to 'the sense of place' were addressed, such as the actual experience of place (A Here, a remake by Jehuda Safran from an earlier work done in 1975), the socio-economi­cal and cultural-symbolic implications of the 'zones' (places) you are assigned to in the aeroplane (tourist versus economy class, Susan Buck-Morss), the representatives of non-place (the strangers among us, both the external and the internal Other) and societies' incapability of accepting such positions (Others are excluded by means of assigning them a place) (Gevers), and the references to the paradoxical necessity of place in the aphorisms by Van Braembussche in which the philosopher is added to the poet as belonging to those who can render us a sense of place...

'No place is a place until it has a poet' (Wallace Stegner) was one of the quotes we included in our letter of invitation addressed to the teaching staff. Despite all our reservati­ons and careful objections when it comes to defining the notion if place, there still exists this silent agreement that one of the essential qualities of art is exactly this: the rendering of place. Although art cannot escape the field of representa­ti­on -symbolically it always refers to something else (reality, texts, other works of art), it is its ability of presenting -of being- which we tend to stress. Perhaps it would make sense to describe art (and from now on I will use the term 'art' although this implies certain practices in other disciplines as well) as a way of giving 'presence' within the boundaries of representation. Art as the activity of addressing a certain place, of bringing to experience (through aesthetical means) that which has not been addressed before, what is left unsaid, which is to be found outside of the dominant discourse, outside of langua­ge, that which might even be intolerable, that which seems to reside somewhere else, the non-place. Although I am interested in contemporary discourse on displacement and non-place in relation to language and the game of 'shifts' and dislocati­ons as the result of an increasing link up of the local, urban and social space with spaces of information and perception through media technology, I would like to refer to non-place more in terms of the 'the place of the Other'. Non-place not as something which has been given a 'space' between other spaces of information within the computer-based networks, or between the different spaces related to this network, but as a 'langua­ge' beyond language, a 'being' beyond conscious­ness, an 'order' outside of the symbolic order. A place that cannot be 'represented', that escapes represen­tation because within the existing frameworks there has never been, and still is no place for it. Many philosophers, writers, artists have tried to describe this field (Kant's 'sublime, 'Nietsches 'dionysos', Kristeva's 'chora), while trying to protect it at the same time. Some feminist writers even claim this 'place' to be explicitly feminine (Irigaray's 'elsewhere' of women's lust).

Michel de Certeau, a French theologiser /philosopher, refers to non-place as 'the saying of the Other' and brings it in connection with modern mystics. In his book The mystic fable he gives an historical analysis of the mystic discourse of (or about) presence (of God), without of course sharing the status of that discourse. With the use of four discursive practices, eroticism, psychoanalytic theory, historiography and 'the fable' (which relates simultaneously to orality and fiction) he presented a framework, thus organizing a space that is, however, unable to 'stop' the subject matter from evaporating time and again. Ever since the thirteenth century, when theology became professionalised and institutionalised, spirituals and mystics, finding no place within the dominant discourse, within the sphere of language and representation, were obliged to seek elsewhere and otherwise to what could and what should speak. As they took up the challenge of the spoken word, they were displaced toward the area of the 'fable'. Thus they formed a solidarity with all the tongues that continued speaking, marked in their discourse by the assimilation to the child, the woman, the illiterate, madness, angels, or the body (remember the performance of Suchan Kinoshita at her presentation last week). In his article 'Madness, the Absence of Work' (Critical Inquiry 21) Michael Foucault seems to mourn the likely disappearance of all such 'speech' in the near future. Like De Certeau Foucault too claims the indispensability of this 'saying of the Other', not only within the ritual of forming communities excluding and including, but as "the foundation of our language, not its rupture". Whether we call them insane, imbecile, violent, furious, libertines, headstrongs or esoterics, it is their excluded language -the language of Artaud - that has since the classical age been recogni­sed as "the truth of the human laid bare" while it nevertheless was placed "in a space, neutralized and pale, where it was as it were cancelled". We are already far on our way in our crusade to eliminate every trace of this very face of the Other from our culture. With the exclusion of madness (the terms Foucault uses in reference to all forms of transgression in terms of language), Foucault states: "there will be something else which will not take long to die, that which is already dying in us (and whose very death bears our current language)". This is the homo dialecticus: "the being of departure, of return, and of time; the animal that loses its truth only in order to find it again, illuminated; the self-estranged who once again recovers the unity of the self-same".(See also Deleuze, Kristeva etc).

Even within this academy I am not the only to be interested in the parallel between 'saying the Other' as this has been done by mystics throughout centuries and the 'presen­ting the Other' that could belong to the artistic practice. In an earlier seminar called ethics and aesthetics, published in the book Beyond ethics and aesthetics, Jean Fisher started this very interesting field of investigation, trying -through Bauman and Levinas- to rethink ethics and relate it to aesthetics without falling into the trap of art becoming the instru­ment of representing already fixed definitions within these fields of knowledge.

Having given you a taste of where my interests within the field of art and theory are at this particular moment, I now would like to present another field that has my attention. Theoretically and practically I have been involved in curating for quite some years.  

First let me explain how I used to define the practice of curating. I have always seen curating as a practice of creating contexts within which meanings are being produced. I deliberatedly focussed on curating as a practice that is much broader than the making of exhibiti­ons, the practice of displaying and labelling works of art. Also organizing symposi­a, conferences or editing books belonged to this practice of creating contexts ( I see my practice related to that of for instance Ute Meta Bauer, Stella Rolig, Helmut Draxler). Because of this extended definition of curating I preferred to refer to the practice as a strategy embracing different political, social and psycholo­gical positions, theories and ideologies, to be connected and displayed aesthetically. Ideally speaking curating was about opening up 'spaces', spaces within which different discourses (of the maker, the object and the observer) could relate to one another; spaces of experience and transformati­on as a result of both critical and self-critical engagement of all the participants. Spaces that would bring the personal into the public in such a way that one could speak of an intersubjective space, a space where everyone would enjoy the freedom of actually forming meanings. Such contexts had to engage the observer (participant) and his/her discourse on the level of both aesthetics, ethics and the cognitive. The accent was not so much on the 'autono­mous' and already given object (which does not mean its exclusion) but on the signifying process as a whole and on the transformation as result of the efforts of all the agents involved.

By involving all practices that could set up conditions for a certain dialogue between different discursive fields my aim was not to appropriate other practices and bring them under one, unifying umbrella but rather to develop a possible way to contribute to the awareness of the relativity of different so-called 'autonomous' positions and instead, force a dialogue between them. It was important to show how every act of presentation involves interpretation, mediation and thus representation by means of contextualising, combining and juxtaposing objects, texts, performers etc. There is no discourse that can claim to posses full abstraction and disinterest ness, as such legitimising its autonomy, its own privileged meta-language and, as such, overlooking its relation with the social, economical and ideological circumstances that determine its conditions.

Having said this, however, I do not imply that the practice of making art exhibitions does not call for special attention in terms of aesthetics, mainly because there are works of art involved. In relation to my interests in finding new contexts in which to link ethics and aesthetics, as mentioned above, I would now formulate the problem of curating as follows. How do I, as a curator, reconcile the irreconcilable: how do I place a work that focuses on non-place? To put it differently: how do I represent a work that itself represents the tension between place and non-place, between presenting and representing? How do I reconcile the artistic engagement with the 'saying of the Other' and the institutional demand of giving these works the right place? How to bring works of art in the 'order of things' (Foucault) if these works refer to another 'order', when they speak another language or want to present different perspectives of seeing/experiencing? How do I contextualize those works without appropriating them at the same time, without swallowing them in the name of giving them 'a place'? Curating, when seen in the light of postmodern criticism on representation, does remain a dubious practice. Although there is a need for order, for putting things in the 'right' place, there is, at the same time, the indignity of speaking for others.

Most curating is practiced within institutions and exhibitions most of the time are expected to voice the position of this institution. Exhibitions often serve the way an institution wants to represent itself, using the works of art as its main instruments, or, as Bruce W. Ferguson puts it: "Exhibitions are the material speech of what is essentially a political institution, one with legal and ethical responsibilities, constituencies and agents who act in relation to differing sets of conse­quences and influences given at any historical moment". As such, the work of art, being mediated through exhibitions most of the time, finds itself "located in the disquieting context of this (institutional) display, in the messiness of the world of received meanings" (Thinking about Exhibitions, p.182).

Ferguson also mentions another form of curating: the form of curating that resides outside of institutions. He literally calls these forms of curating: 'cultural guerillas'. Most of the practitioners of these forms of curating have the skills and experience of the dominant styles and ideas at play in exhibiting art, but may deliberately undermine them or act against those prevailing rules. Such curators may find themselves in difficult positions as well. On the one hand they act more like 'authors' (compare it with the emancipated role of the film director, a product of French criticism since the fifties, or contemporary theatre makers, f.i. Ritseard ten Cate), on the other they need to work together with other 'authors' - the artists/works of art- to be able to make a 'work'. Without critical self-knowledge and reflection this type of curating has many dangerous side-effects. On the other hand it is this thin line between this form of curating and the making of art that is, of course, the reason why so many artists are taking up the role of curating today and with success, a tendency that is becoming even more important in the near future (exam­ples: Philp Christiaan Muller, Fred Wilson, Rirkit Tiravanija etc). One should not forget, though, that this type of fusing different skills -of interdisciplinary practice- has been re enacted by artists in the past time and time again, whether we call it the total works of art in baroque churches (Bernini) or the famous Wagnerian examples of Gesammtkunst­wer­ke, the complex assignments in the architectural, curatorial and public spheres El Lissitsky realized, the exhibitions of Duchamp, until the many examples of 'installations' that have been realized throughout this century.

All these aspects will be dealt with within the seminar Curating and its Limits. Starting with its limits I would like to disscuss with you the general thesises of two books: Museums and the shaping of knowledge by Ellen Hooper-Greenhill (1992) and Inside the White Cube by Brian O'Doherty. Both books can be said to lay the foundation for a more structural, critical awareness of the politics of representation in a Foucaultian sense. Especially Hooper-Greenhills book is important here. She describes three different stages of collecting in the 'cabinets of curiosa' and depositories of the 15th and 16th century, and -since the 18th century- the museums, corresponding with the three epistemes Foucault described in his book The Order of Things. Following the way Foucault rejects the familiar rational-irrational opposition but, instead, proposes that all forms of 'rationali­ty' have historical specificities, Hooper-Greenhill analyses the way musea have been collec­ting artefacts and later works of art, and thus -by affirmation and negation- have been reproducing the unconscious but positive and productive set of relations within which knowledge was being shaped and rationally defined. Although the entree of O'Doherty is rather different -he describes himself as a 'devoted empiricist'- his critique on the isolating and sanctifying 'white cube' in the 19th and 20th century (the gallery/the museum) can be interpreted in a similar way, enabling us to continue the process Hooper-Greenhill has set in motion: to historicize these developments and learn how they ideologi­cally formed our perception of contemporary art until today. (See Crimp and Kraus).

As far as most exhibitions until recently have shown, the dominant practice of exhibition-making still follows the premises (as they were) set since the 19th century. The dominant mode of curating still is to make exhibitions within which art is placed 'opposite' reality, opposite lived reality. In her contribution to the book Beyond ethics and aesthetics the Dutch art critic Jorinde Seydel describes museums and other mediating establishments (among them exhibitions) as 'the airbags between art and life'. I quote: " they absorb every blow (contact) that can be shared out between them (art and life). It can never go as far as becoming a real clash, let alone a mixture. Mediation is not neutral or innocent, it is not only coming between two things, it is also interventi­on, arbitration, penetration and interference. Mediation is political". This politics of mediation, as part of the dominant culture, is there to dominate, to control, to appropriate and to include and exclude and thus construct 'our' reality. Moreover, in our culture this form of mediation has grown into large-scale 'museification', not only of art, but of all kinds of phenomena, of artefacts as well as life forms. Our society itself has become 'musified': nothing is left to take its course, everything has been given 'a place'. Along with the mediatising of all that once belonged to our life experience and individual perception, breached by the media screen making everything visible and transforming it into information, our society has become more and more alienated from itself. The more experience has become annexed and colonised in our information age (=museum age), the more we long for what we have lost.

The crucial problem is the almost impossible task for artists and curators to escape from this fate. Many artists trying to find a connection with life, mostly as the result of a need for authenticity, of referring to something real, run the risk of totally missing the point, of becoming stuck in pathetic metaphors, as long as they function in the institutional frame-work that immediately creates distance from reality. Art then even becomes affirmative rather than questioning the rules of the status quo as its referred-to reality loses its 'real life' to the benefit of its 'real-life' effect. As long as artists and curators function in a way as they are expected to, inside the space allocated to them by institutions, the distance between art and life will only enlarge. By addressing these issues it becomes clear that artists, as well as curators, critics, philosophers of art etc. have at least one problem in common: how to protect art from a moral decline without proclaiming her disappearance? In my own practice as a curator I have tried out many different strategies, always in close cooperation with the artists involved. Ik + de Ander. Art and the Human Condition, organised in the summer of 1994 in the Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, probably belongs to the most controversal projects I have set up. From the beginning we (Jeanne van Heeswijk and myself) understood that the presentation of any body of work, whether an artwork, an exhibition, a book or a conference, can never be a definitive or exhaustive statement in itself -to take such a position would implicate the authoritarianism of the 'subject-who-knows'-. The alternative position however, is not the presentation of a shapeless body, but a body framed by a set of clear propositions and questions whose resolutions are not concerned with forming closures on the problem under review, but with developing new ways of approaching it, new insights, or alternative propositions.

We tried to produce consciousness through alienation and problematising of our postmo­dern and multicultural society as a whole and the art situation in particular. As the project was set up in collaboration with the Red Cross organisation the strategy was to let openly collide ethical and aesthetical aspects, even up to the level of confusion. As you can see from the slides the exhibition was not set up in a traditional manner, namely in making a difference between art objects and other artefacts, be it documentary, promoti­on films, archives, advertising or even computer games. By our (and the artists') objection to creating such difference, by abandoning the ever existing isolation between artistic works and other representations of reality, we closed down the distance that normally exists between art and its social/political environment, between art and life. Although things are a lot more complicated as I now represent, also in this exhibition, it was clear that by changing the context and by setting up these different conditions we were able to start questioning both the presuppositions of the 'humanism' of the Red Cross and the actual 'ethical' and 'aesthetical' functioning of art. We started the raising of the question of both ethical and aesthetical responsibilities of contemporary visual practices. The exhibition was a try-out, a working space for both artists and observers. A trajectory that did not stop here. What was learned from the experience of the exhibition became the basis of the book Beyond ethics and aesthetics, and this book in turn forms the new horizon from which a discussion will emerge in yet another form -a conference that will take place in a few weeks from now.

Exhibitions/curatorial projects incorporating a critical awareness of the implications of representation, of mediation as an instrument of power, as a strategy to turn the saying into the said, of fixing positions that should be in constant movement (whether we talk about the position of the artist, the object or the observer) have always had my special interest. For this reason I discussed exhibitions as for instance Les Immateriaux van Lyotard, and/or I invited curators of such projects like Clementine deliss, Joseph Kosuth, Jean Leering, Helmut Draxler, Ute Meta Bauer a.o. Among the literature on exhibition-making I want to recommend Exhibiting Cultures (Karp, Lavine), Place Position Presentati­on Public (Gevers), Thinking about Exhibitions (Greenberg, Ferguson, Nairne) and Beyond Ethics and Aesthetics (Gevers/van Heeswijk). On the shelve of Curating and its limits in the library.

In my view the abovementioned tension between art and life has been a topic for avant-garde artists throughout the 20th century, certainly since Schwitters, Lissitsky and Duchamp. In previous seminars I have therefore focussed my attention to avant-garde's strate­gies, not only in terms of the production of art but the production of its contexts as well. Following Peter Burgers' Theory of the Avant-garde and Hal Foster's critique on this 'theory', I have tried to uncover alternative histories of art and exhibitions. Also in this seminar I would like to continue this. So in one of my lectures I will again return to the avant-garde strategies of presentation, in terms of installations, performances, and their influences on curators and museum directors until recently.

The extreme difficulty in reference to 'the indignity of speaking for others' is how to act as an artist/curator/theoretician in relation to artists etc. coming from non-western cultures. Our models of presenting/representing is of course culturally defined and we should, before or while contextualizing works of those others try to become more aware of its implications. Simply a programmatic multicultural structuring of an exhibition or book contains by itself the risk of producing stereotypes and othering. It is important to see that danger and instead concentrate on our own (multicultural) confusion and our philosophical and ideological disunion ever since the questioning of the Grand Narratives of the Enlightenment. Our own monolithic illusion has been cracked into many facets and we could use this insight for the positive. Without having a monolithic, generally accepted (western) conception of the world to build upon, artists as well as curators today are obliged to construct new contexts in order to understand life and society. Here new possibilities in terms of strategies in (re)presentations might emerge. What could inspire us to come to such a critique is, of course, by looking at other modes of presentation and representation, for instance those which have been developed outside of the Euro-American axis (Jean Fisher).

Ine Gevers

Introduction of the exhibition The Sense of Place, Jan van Eyck Academy, 1997.