Use, Knowledge, Art, and History. A Conversation between Charles Esche and Manuel Borja-Villel

1This conversation took place during a L'Internationale confederation meeting in Ljubljana (22-24 June 2015).2 It touches on the differences in approach and practical application of the two museum directors Charles Esche and Manuel Borja-Villel, and their institutions' respective programmes at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. Both museums recently staged exhibitions that directly concerned use, knowledge, art, and history: Really Useful Knowledge in Madrid, and the Museum of Arte Útil and Confessions of the Imperfect, 1848 – 1989 – today in Eindhoven3 More than this, however, both museums strive to experiment with forms of exhibition and collection display, as well as to investigate the role of modern and contemporary art institutions. Moderated by Nick Aikens, Esche and Borja-Villel here expand on the relationships between use, knowledge, and history and how these concepts inform modes of working within the institutions and their recent exhibitions or public programmes.

Moments of Danger

Charles Esche (CE): For me, these three terms—use, knowledge, and history—are meaningful in relation to a certain analysis of the contemporary moment. I am interested in genealogies in general, but only insofar as they inform the present moment, or open up ideas that seem excluded by the current consensus. If we take history, then my approach is not about accounting for what was but seeing what is important in what cultural critic Walter Benjamin calls the 'moment of danger,' that is, whatever threatens or calls out for urgent attention. If I have to describe that moment in my own terms, based on my northwest European provincialism, I would say the biggest moment of danger in the present remains the collective failure to come to terms with the big economic and technological changes that began in the 1980s. This is best illustrated by the year 1989, when the World Wide Internet was born, the Berlin Wall came down, and real existing communism died. That's the historical moment that made our present possible—made some things thinkable again and changed what we might call the 'common sense' of society.

In my first years at the Van Abbemuseum from 2004 to 2010, I was constantly shocked by how little impact these changes had on the way knowledge was organized in the Netherlands and, in my field, the modernist assumptions about art and artistic quality. There seemed to me a false idea in Western Europe generally that a more or less unbroken continuity flowed from 1945 through the social changes of 1968 to the early twenty-first century. In this way, what I saw as the 'moment of danger' was and is still failing to significantly reshape the histories that are generally shared and that create a common belief in why society is the way that it is. From my point of view, this misunderstanding of how the world had changed in 1989 was also contributing to how fundamental social realities were subsequently perceived, such as climate change and growing inequality, themselves the result of the globalism heralded by the Internet and the death of communism. While such a misunderstanding was not universally shared, it was and remains very widespread, to the extent that all change has become threatening according to some liberal European thought.

One of the ways that I would use to describe this position of ignoring the fundamental changes of the past twenty-five years in my field is 'hardcore modernist.' By that I mean an unyielding application of modernist value systems regarding ideas of quality, artistic autonomy, and even style. It's a position that is most easily caricatured by Dutch art schools where students are taught autonomous art, as though such a thing can be taught. It would seem a basic truth, even in modernist terms, that autonomy has to be taken not given and that it cannot be circumscribed within a curriculum. By incorporating such an important social concept as autonomy within the state education system, it is made more or less meaningless, and art itself becomes something without effective social value, or without 'use,' to bring in our third term. The last thing such an understanding of art would need would be for art to matter in society and change not only imagination but concrete conditions on the ground.

So, increasingly I came to see the programme at the Van Abbemuseum as a way to challenge the inadequacies of a hardcore modernist position to describe how art could play a role in post-1989 society and contribute to the looming fight for sustainability and equality. The idea I had at the beginning was to celebrate deviance from consensus in the museum and to offer a different way of functioning as an institution. Over time the idea of utility as a problematic but stimulating term arose, something that countered modernist autonomy but didn't imply full instrumentalization. Utility has a long tradition going back to eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume and his ideas on the relationship between morality and utility. I believe it is worth exploring again through art, as perhaps the most quintessentially non-utilitarian thing. So, I hope you see here a trajectory from Benjaminian ideas of history through breaking down modernist understandings of knowledge, to the fraught concept of use and utility. In terms of programmes, you can see this line unwinding in signature group exhibitions such as Forms of Resistance: Artists and the Desire for Social Change from 1871 to the Present and Be(com)ing Dutch,4 in the new version of the museum collection displays called Once Upon a Time, and in chronological exhibitions, especially the Museum of Arte Útil and Confessions of the Imperfect.

It is important to add here, that much of my thinking was shaped by Manuel Borja-Villel and his programmes at Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA). The way he developed an understanding of a museum as a place to gather, to test out ideas, and to discuss social alternatives, while making important art exhibitions, was very influential in what I tried to do in Eindhoven.

In Defence of Uselessness

Manuel Borja-Villel (MBV): Obviously we live in a period that is characterized by being a permanent present without historical roots or links. No doubt, this has to do with new technologies and the virtual disappearance of any space/time border or barrier (of course this 'freedom' is mostly of money, not of people). We live in a 24/7 society in which technology keeps us constantly alert as to what will happen every 5 minutes. This means that we lose a sense of history, a sense of future, and of time passing over the long term. We don't live this infinite present willingly, I don't think there is a conspiracy behind it at all, but clearly it represents a great change, almost a revolution in the way humans perceive themselves and their position in relation to each other and to time. What we might do as a response is to think in the long term. There are forces that have focused their power and interest on money and material benefits and these have largely been the strongest forces in society. But there have also been a few movements where the important thing is that the human being builds a better society. The irony is that mostly the second, weaker tendency ends up saving the stronger one by helping humanity survive the crises where the focus of money and power usually leads. But, beyond these long-term processes, we can ask what has been happening in the last thirty years that makes it a specific historical period. One thing is obviously the technical revolution that facilitates the infinite present, but also this revolution emphasizes how the author disappears and the receiver or navigator becomes a co-author. Then, it is clear that the forces in the world have global impact but that the nation-state still forms our identity and our means of governmentality. It's a very strange situation. In a way we cannot talk any longer about for instance a Spanish or a Scottish political subject; things are both bigger and smaller than that. Yet it is still our main way of navigating the world and understanding ourselves. So, in a way, we live in a world that is not ours but to which we have to relate—a global world. Finally there is the digital field where people are no longer active but interactive. Everyone does things all the time. But their activity is too often nonsense. It is useless in the sense that it would help to improve the world or change it a little for the better. This is not what most of our activity is doing—it's not good for the world but it is mostly very good for business.

So, people in our position need to ask: What is the role of culture and art in all of this and what is our role politically? On the one hand, museums play a significant role in intellectual and art discourse. This was not always the case. In the 1940s, art discourse was generated by critics or gallerists and intellectual discourse was confined to the universities. Through artists like Michael Asher in the late 1960s, things started to change and the museum as institution became a site to discuss and to critique. Artists like Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, or Hans Haacke started to reflect on the ruins of the museum, in a way because they saw what was coming, that is, the loss of the museum as a site of general Enlightenment education and knowledge. Museums like the Louvre or British Museum were born with the ideals of the Enlightenment and, however dark, colonial, and problematic Enlightenment values proved, they offered a promise of a bourgeois public sphere where values and education could be shared collectively by a limited number of enfranchised people. Now, instead of widening that franchise or recognizing the dark side of Enlightement values and modifying them, they were ignored and undermined. In their place, museums have become sites of total consumption. Already in the 1980s, Haacke wrote about museum directors being replaced by managers as a symptom of the absorption of culture by economy and management. Since that time in the 1980s, museums have become a kind of machinery for other things: tourism, embezzlement, state politics.

In these circumstances, we are working with tools that are basically no longer ours in that museums are already something else. We are in a world that is changing and our content-centred approach is basically anachronistic. Now, I would also say that the most radical art of the last thirty years is kind of anachronistic, perhaps with some exceptions related to art around new technologies. This art and our institutions then exist within a context and a public that are basically consumers who think they know what they want. Most importantly, they are a radically different political subject to the ones artists and museums spoke to during modernism. In modernity, the artistic avant-garde was connected to a political avant-garde and they were both working on the idea of sharing knowledge and education. Artists did this through developing a language that would allow a relative autonomy. The problem was how to create a language that drew on different sources but could still represent oneself. In this way the workers' movement and the avant-garde artists used photography, film, or collage to represent themselves because those used popular media and not the bourgeois language and culture of painting. Today, we don't need to look for a language of our own to represent ourselves. The problem is that language is co-opted almost from the beginning. It is no longer autonomous but rather empty. In this situation, art and the art institution have to understand that there is a political dimension to art and the art institution and that it relates to a place and specific struggles. For instance, if people are being expelled from a neighbourhood near the museum, the institution has to talk to them, you cannot pretend they don't exist. For this exchange to be meaningful, you have to be there. It's very difficult to be a kind of biennial artist, moving from one place to another or exporting your political actions and holding leftist salons. Secondly, you need aesthetic experience in a true space of exchange that does not distract you every five minutes. This means talking to the other and creating a space which is relational. In that sense, I have doubts about the idea of usefulness. If art is to be anything today it has to create outflows of meanings and favour new forms of understanding and relationships. Being 'useful' is something else.

I have lots of problems with the notion of 'Arte Útil.' I think basically one of the problems is that its advocates don't take into account the materiality of the work of art and what it does in the world. It is important to understand that you can never predict the results of a work of art or whether it will have a use value in the future that is unknown today. It also seems silly to me to think that just by making an exhibition which includes political content you are doing a political action. An exhibition can change the perception of the world, and that could be political, but then it should be analyzed politically. I am concerned about some kind of fashionable leftism around the idea as well, when art is easy to co-opt or to become the very thing that it fears being. As you know, I have worked with Hans Haacke and Krzysztof Wodiczko and I absolutely support what they do. These artists are often included in the Arte Útil category, but to me their production does not fit that artistic trend. First of all, because the work's conditions of production are incorporated into that same work. This is quite important as, also referring to Benjamin, art cannot be critical if it does not reflect upon its own conditions of production. And I don't see that happening in most of the so-called Arte Útil.

Secondly, and this is a consequence of the first point, artists like Haacke and Wodiczko are fully aware of the place their work occupies within the art system. When Haacke, for instance, denounced real estate speculation in an exhibition which we organized at the Reina Sofía a few years ago he did it from the point of view of the role art had in the art system.5 Similarly, Wodiczko designs the Homeless Vehicle not to produce a prototype which will solve our social problems, but to provoke impossible situations, moments of difficult 'digestion' by any well-intentioned spectator.6 Wodiczko is not a reformist. Can anybody imagine a city populated by homeless people carrying their vehicles from one place to another? This is not utopia, it is rather a nightmare from which we might want to wake up.

In today's society, art has to be valueless because the moment it has value you forget its other qualities. Value means that it will be bought and sold, turned into a communicational commodity, and then every political aspect of the work will be totally empty. So I think art has to be useless in the sense that it should have a structure that almost makes it impossible to be absorbed by the industry of communication, makes it impossible to be absorbed by the market. I will give you some examples of artists that work in that dimension, James Coleman for one. Of course, he has a system of distribution and there are people that buy his things, but the work is basically made so that you can do very little with it: you cannot use it for advertising, it is complicated to sell it at auction. In different ways, the same is true for Broodthaers or Asher. All their works have something intrinsic that makes it very difficult to absorb into the system and that's essential for me. Another route toward valuelessness departs from a more political point of view. I am thinking as much about art as the art institution and any cultural or educational practice that becomes difficult to absorb because it keeps changing.

My big problem with Arte Útil is the ahistorical use of words here. I don't think it is possible to persuade people anymore. It's a kind of nostalgia for educational ideas from the past. People are consumers now, you cannot tell them anything because they don't care or they will not listen. We run museums and we know when tourists come this type of practice doesn't work. The other problem is that the artists might also be cynically using politics to promote themselves. I think you have to be very careful.

Useful Art or Beyond Abyssal Thinking?

CE: I think we are products of our own environments and one of our abiding concerns is history in historical times. Yet, we see these things quite differently as well and that might come from the North-South difference. Being from the absolute core of Western Europe, from the place the United States most needed to have on its side after the Second World War, gave us huge confidence over three generations in our story of the world. That might have been less true in Spain during the same period. Part of what I do today, in an art historical and museological sense, is to try to shake that confidence. One way to do that is to combine contradictory ideas that are used ahistorically or outside art's traditional frame of reference. Now, of course, the Museum of Arte Útil is an initiative of Tania Bruguera from Cuba, so maybe my geographic essentialism is overdone, but clearly Manuel and I differ in our relation to history and it makes us trust different artistic practices I think. The Museum of Arte Útil is one in a whole series of attempts to rewrite history in light of the present and therefore to disobey historical 'rules.' These are not alternatives to the historical narrative but a series of other parallel and coexisting versions, as I think was very clear from seeing the Museum of Arte Útil and then Confessions of the Imperfect, which covered the same chronology in very different ways. That kind of agonism within the museum excites me and I am not so sure that our public do not see it and are not drawn in. My experience, in a much smaller museum than Reina Sofia with few tourists, is that over time and by following different exhibitions and collection displays some people have become more interested and understanding of what we are doing.

I also think that utility is a very important tactical term to wake up the sleeping spirits of autonomy and to force open a discussion about why autonomy might be important in a Dutch situation where the vast majority of art is state sponsored. Until very recently, and still today, many artists are dependent on the state system and at the same time claim their own absolute autonomy in conversations. That seemed to me quite absurd and in need of a little provoking, so Tania's initial idea served a very local problematic. If we continue speaking of the local situation and the differences across Europe, then it is important to remember that capitalism, at least the idea of the stock holding company, was born in Amsterdam and that colonial extraction was financed through the Netherlands. That means that the origins of neoliberalism are Dutch and they are encoded by a certain religious and environmental tradition that has been exported around the world to places that do not necessarily have much instinctive understanding of it. That sense of ownership of capitalism is of course something which also gives Dutch society a very deep, rooted confidence that, in today's world, can seem inappropriate. Arte Útil in this context might be understood differently than in Spain or in Cuba and it is important to acknowledge that.

On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to your critique of salon radicalism and ineffectual leftism. I do doubt the extent to which the art world can carry its claims to political correctness given the deep engagement of the oligarchy and the way so much art seems to decorate the appallingly unequal status quo. However, in those circumstances I think that group and subject exhibitions such as the Museum of Arte Útil or Confessions of the Imperfect offer a different kind of resistance to what you find in Coleman and Broodthaers. The works themselves might be commodified later but at that moment they are placed within a narrative that is not easily dismissed. For instance, I took it as a great compliment when the director of the White Cube Gallery said that our last São Paulo Biennial was "not for an art mogul like him".7 In that way, the framing of work, its curatorial treatment if you like, can help it to resist a little longer I think.

MBV: I agree with this idea of different histories in different parts of Europe or European America. I think it would be important to add a warning that this kind of plurality can also be neoliberal in that it can remove all perspective. Uncritical pluralism can just become another set of choices where you have no sense of reality, like in a supermarket or shopping mall.

CE: But there should be a difference between singular pluralities and different chronologies that in themselves form a coherent narrative. In that way you provide touchstones and tools for comparison.

MBV: Yes, for sure, but I would also want to add something else that is very important and is summed up by sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos as "beyond-abyssal thinking".8 De Sousa Santos proposes not only a type of knowledge which is against the homogenization and universalism of modern culture and in favour of plurality, but also one that believes that an ecology of knowledge can only be based on the fact that all knowledge is always inter-knowledge, a knowledge based on the relationship and antagonism of ideas. It is not just a derivative form of knowledge as it could be just a general pluralism, but a break with Western forms of acting and thinking. To think critically today means to think from the perspective of the other and, therefore, to question our own position, even if this position is plural. It is not only that there are different stories but that there is a chasm between them that makes them irreconcilable. So it is not just about difference by itself. This element of the abyssal is crucial.

CE: I agree and I think that is there in our projects, again in the complexity of the narratives that makes them irreconcilable.

MBV: Good, I agree. But if we look at some of the tendencies of Arte Útil, for example, there are other elements that worry me. One is that there seems to be a promise of happiness, this idea that by doing something, you have a happy, consensual community, whereas I think critical art is always negative. As said, this would be the case of Wodiczko's Homeless Vehicle. Its 'utopian' design and the reality of society can only be reconciled in abyss. Secondly, I don't think art needs to work on a large scale. Take a fundamental modern author like Stéphane Mallarmé and his most influential book, Un coup de dés, written in 1897 but only published in 1914. His original constituency, his readers, was a very small group of people. Yet, the book's ultimate influence is so profound that it is considered by many as the starting point of the modern space. Ideas like his may be small but the circles gradually widen. Mallarmé addressed his texts 'à qui veut,' to whoever wants to receive them. That does not mean that he did not want to reach out to other people, but just that he did not want to do it indiscriminately. It's what Mallarmé called restrained actions that slowly gather force.

CE: I still think you are characterizing Arte Útil too narrowly. But let's take another historical period that is perhaps closer to our own time: the 1920s. There were moments where artists were aligned with big causes and political revolution, where art did have a purchase on social change. Do you think that time was a complete exception?

MBV: The 1920s and 1930s are closer to us today. In a way, you could say that the Second World War and the promise of social democracy were the exception because it feels like we are returning to that earlier state. This period saw the first popular movements and artists working directly for new political constituencies such as El Lissitzky or Alexander Rodchenko. What is maybe more interesting for us is the way that work was later taken by institutions such as MoMA in New York and normalized within a canonical art narrative. Perhaps we can learn something from this process. Museums need to think how to create the conditions to reflect on popular culture again.

I am tired of art institutions, artists, critics, curators, and directors complaining about lack of government money. People are suffering again, losing their jobs and their homes. Artists sometimes come to me to complain about why the museum doesn't care about them, doesn't buy their work, and so on. But we are all precarious now, given the current crisis that is not going away soon. Of course, there are no museums without artists but there are also no museums without the doorman or the bricklayer. The museum belongs to society and to the public and it is our job to create a space of agony where people can contribute with what they know. When it works, the museum creates not only knowledge, but also a will to learn, a will to have freedom, a will to get together and create a community of affection through learning together. This process should not be about results. It needs to be open but also opaque and complex. I think Arte Útil as an idea misses this element. It can too easily become about sharing communication.

I think the museum's potentiality lies in being anachronistic. We have a chance because, in a way, what we do has no real value. We should be uncomfortable, not in a masochistic sense, but as a space that requires agency to function. After the crisis, after 15M and the Arab Spring and everything else, we need to rethink the public space, in the sense that architect Aldo van Eyck, artist Constant, and many others did: as a place where people can come together and rethink the world. We have to learn and relate to how movements organize themselves and to rethink the meaning of the public and popular. This is what Really Useful Knowledge was about.

CE: I think Really Useful Knowledge was important but still it is for me complementary to the Museum of Arte Útil or Confessions of the Imperfect, rather than antagonistic. If we take the materiality and layout of the exhibitions, we can find some physical resonances that are important. All three exhibitions were built as tools to explore a narrative, and tool is close to utility. Also, a tool requires a user in order to be activated and agency, as you say, in order to make it function. So Arte Útil implies a user and his/her agency as much as it implies the idea of usefulness for me. But I also want to defend Stephen Wright's idea of usership here.9 I'm thinking of a project like that of Apolonija Šušteršič where she uses light therapy to create a meeting room inside the museum that can be reserved and where another kind of pervasive energy would be present, allowing different kinds of conversations and even decisions.10 During the Arte Útil exhibition, the room was used quite frequently for meetings of the city council or local businesses. I heard testimony that the atmosphere of the meetings was different—not only because of the light but also for taking place in a museum, thereby changing the dynamic of the gatherings in quite abstract ways. Yet the physicality of the experience was important and the users took responsibility for adjusting to their new environment, or at least for being conscious that abnormal discussions were possible. There wasn't a circumscribed outcome to the meeting but what seemed to me an almost spiritual shift that allowed a different agency to exist. It changed people's preconceptions of what a museum might be in a direction I think we both would support. The same happened with Grizedale's Honest Shop I believe.11 So, in this sense, I want to stay with Arte Útil and continue to build the archive and think through it in the museum. It has really opened up the use and purpose of the museum. In a different way, this happened partially in the classroom settings of Confessions of the Imperfect. Both experiences have led us to repurpose some of the exhibition rooms in the museum.

The other point I want to make reinforces what you are saying. One of the great challenges that we have as a state or local government institution is to redefine our relationship to the state itself. This touches on how to communicate with new social movements. One of the great falsehoods of social democracy was that the state is on society's side and we to rely on it rather than be suspicious and interrogate it regularly. We have seen the retreat of the state in the last thirty years, but no real critique of it from the left or on the part of public interest. There is the developing notion of the commons of course but no clear sense of what institutions of the commons will look like and how they can survive economically. I think usefulness, utility, and usership will be crucial terms in developing a museum of the commons for instance. They will not replace your ideas of anachronism, the abyssal, and difficulty, but they will parallel them. It will help us to refocus on the public and serving their interests rather than the interests of the state or its political agents.

MBV: You mentioned therapy and I would say that most therapists would not recommend light therapy so probably it is not useful in my understanding. Also, I wonder how you do therapy in a museum. It is a place to walk through or about, to get lost in, but not a place for therapy that implies a continuous relationship with a patient. Secondly, the state: I agree with you, but two other things I think are important. If we look at degraded communities, they have had support from priests in the distant past, later from state social workers and now you have some artists going to those communities. In the end, you wonder whether we are not just facilitating privatizations. Then I would add another element of this failure of the state, which is where we started in fact. The large, holistic nation-state with its language community etc., is a big part of our identity. Even though we know that the state and our language are constructions and that one is not better than the other, we still need it to locate ourselves and where we come from. However, this castle protecting our identity has become an empty shell; it's a castle of cards and another way in which we face an abyss between two conditions: the global economy and our personal identity.

CE: I feel in the end, we come quite close to each other in that the necessity of exposing things that are irreconcilable is shared. I also think we are both looking for small victories if you like—examples where art shows what is possible if the common sense were different and agency of the public activated. I see that more in repurposing an historical lineage in a Benjaminian sense and you in the idea of the abyssal from De Sousa Santos. It's an important difference and one we should keep talking about.

This article is published in the publication What's the Use? Constellations of Art, History and Knowledge, edited by Nick Aikens, Thomas Lange, Jorinde Seijdel, Steven ten Thije, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2016.