Under the shadow of a tree

Interview with Jesus Carillo

by Irine Jorjadze 

Jesús Carrillo is Professor of Contemporary Art History at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He was General Director of Programmes and Public Activities of the City of Madrid from July 2015 to March 2016, Head of the Department of Cultural Programmes at the Museo Reina Sofía from 2008 to 2014.

I:  I would like to ask you about the importance of national collections, in terms of telling a collective story. Is it possible for a National Museum or a public art Institution to represent the whole society? In Georgia, the narrations of recent history are constantly changing in history textbooks, museums etc. These changes are mainly constructed by those who have the power and rarely by independent researchers. As I know, you have had your own struggles with that in Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. Where or how should one look for a Really Useful Knowledge[1]?

J: When you ask about how museums should approach the collective memory, you need to remember that it does not happen spontaneously. In Spain, it happened because of the negotiation, at a certain point through a coalition of certain events. Somehow, it was a reaction against the hegemonic, monolithic, traditional and conventional memory in museums - against the canonical, which only allows a single way of reading the history. It happened as an alliance between the institutions, independent researchers, artistsand activists and responded to the desire of re-reading the history of contemporary art in Spain. This only took place 25 year after the death of the dictator. I am not saying that there were no previous attempts of critical reading of hegemonic discourse of the transition, but it was the first time that it led to the curatorial project and to rethinking of the museum collections. It was a succession of circumstances that Reina Sofia, the National Central Museum of Spain finally took on this mission. Moreover, those who were part of Reina Sofia started reacting on centralist and homogenizing narrative of the museum itself.

In 2007, the director of MACBA Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona was appointed as the director of the Reina Sofia. MACBA itself was an institution, which participated in Desacuerdos project in the earlier years. To contextualize our attempt, in the Desacuerdos, there was a certain point when artists, activists, members of specific institutions, however not of all the institutions, - that was an exceptional thing - said that it was enough, that they needed something else and was time to question the main narrative. This narrative, which was identified as a cultural transition, was an ideological construct, very similar to what you are mentioning in your questions. Hegemonic reading of what the transition means, gives us a definition of good and bad actors. I would say that this way of reading the history is still powerful.

Originally, our action was conceived as counter hegemonic. All of a sudden, the Museum occupied the space of critical and problematic reading of history. So to answer your first question, is there a possibility for the museum to represent the whole society? – I would say that, first of all, we have to question if the society is a whole. Museums have always told us who we are and what the society is. I think it is an ideological mission. However, what the society is cannot be defined and eliminated in a single way. Actually, museums have to be a catalyst of critical reading and give us the possibility to question the meaning of society. To question what is Spain? Or what is to be Spanish? Especially now, with the new nationalism and populism, the answer to this question might lead us to the narcissistic and exclusionist conclusions.

We should always question what a whole society represents. How to do that? This question has two sides. One is a definition of the heritage itself and second, is what and how we collect. These two things should happen simultaneously. Working for a museum is not just selecting precious objects. A collection is often considered as a treasure, a compilation of valuable objects.

One of the things that museum started doing in 2007 and 2008 was that we started collecting things that people had at their homes, such as pieces of papers, magazines and newspapers. They were not particularly expensive, but were very important in the 80s and 90s. The meaning of it was to reflect on specific situations and re-define the notion of the treasure in economic terms. We started to focus on cultural practices, collecting things that were part of the process of criticizing the possibility of defining society as a unity and homogeneity. This was a mission, which we inherited from Desacuerdos. The collection was modified by this new way of collecting.

Can amuseum be the place for critique? This question is always problematic. A museum is a canonical institution, but at the same time it can be contradictional to itself. One of our missions was to convince the board to accept the intention of new ways of collecting. Because suddenly, we were collecting things that were not easily identified as artistic objects. There were posters, flyers, things that were of very little value, mainly of political nature. The second thing I mentioned was how to collect? The museum should not expropriate during collecting. We should not deprive the movements and groups of their memory in order to bring it to the museum. Taking all the memory and accumulate it in the museum, could neutralize and deactivate the society. The idea was to allow an open relationship with those people. For instance, the group De Treball – a Catalonian collective of late Franco period, the so-called political conceptual artist group, which represented an independent movement and was related to the Communist Party, gave its material to both MACBA and Reina Sofia as a soft heritage. Soft collections in terms that what the Museum received was only a permission to show that material, while presented it only with permanent negotiation with activists and artists, with term it would have never become a permanent  exhibition. Regarding the question - can a central Institution hold on the critical narrative? The answer is contradictory. A museum is obligated to the permanent self-reflection and should never sacralise the critical discourse again, and therefore neutralize it.

It is a relevant question what society is and is not something a museum should avoid. The narratives should keep this question open and observe through history how that question is formulated in different moments so we can identify the contingency and the conflictual formulations of different periods. You have pieces that are somehow contesting side by side and provide complex reading of the collection. It is not an easy one because you do not go from one movement to another. The important thing is not only how you collect, but also how you narrate.

I: You have worked with South American collections in the past, such as Conceptualismus del Sur. Can you tell us more about it? What was your purpose and working mechanism?

 J: We negotiated with Conceptualismus del Sur - a network of artists, activists and researchers from different countries of South America. The network constituted itself as a reaction against the continuous expropriations of the memory of mainly political conceptualisms of 70s and 80s, and was against the dictatorships in Latin America. After certain Documenta, it became fashionable. So many institutions, mainly in the United States and Europe, were systematically buying the archives and documents, and were depriving these countries and local populations of that memory. This network of artists, activists and researchers was there to create the agency that would also function in the future.

How would Reina Sofia, a former metropolitan, colonial Institution relate to the heritage of South American art was a very important question, also because of the notion of center and periphery. We could not just collect South American art and show it in Reina Sofia without taking into account the colonial tradition. Therefore, we started continuous negotiations with this network, which remains a very important enterprise. We could not just expropriate the memory of South American artists. After the consultations with their agents we included their narratives in our collections. It is also true that the nature of these materials easily allowed us having exhibition of copies. There was no need for the originals. Poster, for example, is something that you can simply reproduce.

They are many ways to transfer the memory without killing it or transforming it into something else. The process took place under the constant negotiation in which we, the museum recognized the network as an agency to whom this memory belonged. It is very sad when you see this continuous market of archives, and especially, those of artistic activism cut into pieces. This way, some of the collections are showing decontextualized fragments of the very complex processes, and look like the remains of a broken ship. What you can do instead is to bring contradictory and conflicting voices without dispossessing them. It was complicated because collectives are not like any other curator with whom you are working and have an open dialogue.

Now, if you go to the Website of Reina Sofia’s Centre of Documentation, you will have access to the Online Archive of Conceptualism del Sur. This is a platform with you can enter through both the Museum and independently. There is always a chance of an alliance of complicit relationships but each of this case is individual.  

I: Re-reading modernism in Georgia is also very important nowadays. There is often an attempt to observe it in the context of European Modernism, the stories of -isms, timeline of styles. Recently, there was an exhibition dedicated to the victims of the Red Terror. The paintings of Modernist Era were shown under the spotlight, in the dark rooms and atmosphere; it represented the victims and victimization of Modernism itself somewhat theatrically. As I know, in Reina Sofia Museum you were rethinking those models, by representing previously hidden stories, with the notion of the legacy of bastardsand lovers, demonstrating different gazes and voices. Which modes of narration did you use? How do you see the idea of global Modernism?

J: Reina Sofia used to be a very late Modernist museum in which you had a sequence of different –isms. The museum represented a provincial version of what was produced in similar institutions in Paris or New York. While displaying the history of Avant-garde, it was still a Colonial museum. Therefore, we were just giving Spanish response to the international canonical historical line. This narration was completely independent from social or political history. Only a single item represented history in a way. Guernica, as the center of collection, was a totemised and sacralised piece this way preventing historical interpretation. Question who are we?  Was ignored in this case.

The first thing we did was using our experience of the Desacuerdos project. We tried to break this Modernist periodization by focusing on local contexts. We went back and observed how things happened in specific moments. On one hand, it was not permanent; otherwise, we would be sacralising these historical moments ourselves. On the other hand, we replaced a continuous line with the zigzag. For instance, in the first room, you have two different formulations of Spain from the beginning of XX century – first as an anti-Modernist nation and second, the same period, presented by other agencies as modern nation moving to the future. Those two simultaneous narratives provided the images of who we are in a contradictory way. This prevented a single way of reading art history and created different representations.

In Modern and Contemporary Art in Spain, we have very important individuals, such as Picasso, Miro, Dali, and Tàpies. In the previous narrative, we have had the whole biographies of artists from the beginning to the end. For instance, in the same room with Guernica you would have portraits, which Picasso had made 45 year earlier. So in order to get to Guernica you had to go through the artistic biography of Picasso. Same was the case with Dali and Miro, as well as other painters. What we did was breaking the narrative of male genius. Now you can see different Picassos in specific contexts intervening in different scenarios. It allowed us questioning the heroic representation of an artist and bringing many female artists to the surface, who, in the past, were given very little space. Only a few had a chance to have been recorded by historiography. By questioning the Meta narrative of an artist, we found numerous interesting women who were responding to specific contexts in the same, or other way as men did. To answer your question, we wanted to respond to representation critically by bringing the voices that were not registered formally.

The comparisons are also very important. Spanish Modernism took place under and was promoted by the Dictatorship. Spain was a capitalist country with a Fascist past, which within the frameworks of the Cold War wanted to prove, that it was on the “right side”, as in against the Soviet Union and claimed of having “Free Art”. It was contradictory. Our dictatorship was promoting something that was defining our art of the free world, which took place in the highly closed society of Spain. In former Yugoslavia for example, Modernism was an official art as a defining feature against the Soviet Union. There is also the history of Modernism in Cuba, however very different. The main thing is how to read these histories. They are often appointed with very monolithic narratives and are so boring to people that they do not believe it anymore. It is time for other stories to come up.

I: The recent history is a very sensitive topic in Georgia. For example, the part of the National Museum is the Museum of Soviet Occupation, established in 2006. It represents the history of occupation of Georgian Republic by the Soviet Russia (1921). By displaying the copies of documents, photos of victims, artifacts etc., the Museum tries to document seven decades of the Soviet rule in Georgia. The main purpose is showing Russia as an occupant, however the history is told superficially with the unbearable desire of self-victimization. In the end, the permanent exhibition represents the traumatic narrative of National-liberation movement. Dealing with the trauma without any effort of critical analysis is the key aspect to such exhibitions, meanwhile denying the possibility of seeing the process of change in all its complexity. Not only displaying the iconic figures as oppressors or victims, but also, the documentation of 2008 War between Russia and Georgia, is superficial. The video shows John McCain supporting Georgia as the "brave little nation" fighting against Russia's military attacks. These narratives are confusing and misleading at the same time. Is the problem of telling history a recent historical condition itself? How do we give the agency back to people whose lives were affected by these stories?

J:  I recently had a chance to think about similar issues. We are editing a book about the narrative of the Cold War and the role of art history in it. I have an impression that all of this polarization is inherited from the Cold War. We have to pass from one ideological thing to another by inverting the terms and focuses. It creates not only the ideological distortion, but also, the narrative is so violently ideological that it eliminates all the contradictions, complexities and diversities that are actually present. I understand that it is a very recent situation. However, the problem of self-victimization is something we should be really fighting against. In most of our countries, the self-victimization feeds nationalism. The victim has to be comforted; it also requires the image of an enemy, of the other. The role of the victim is, first of all, narcissistic, representing itself in a single way by excluding self-criticism. The victim is somehow saturated by an image of it - “this is who I am and this is what defines me”. It can seem empowering but in fact, it is the opposite. By hijacking the language of the victimized position there are things, we cannot say because they might offend the memory of the victim. It is kind of a silent deal. The question is how to go beyond the self-victimization and deal with trauma. In different countries with different circumstances, this took a long time.

In Spain, the transition narrative was the victimized narrative. It used some ideological terms and was utilized by conservative governments for the justification. There was a moment when it became unbearable for many. How to work to disclose the narratives, to start thinking beyond that? It is very hard, but I think, the artists can be very useful in these terms. Institutional space of academia does not allow it so much. Especially, I assume, in a post-Soviet country, where art historians, in order to be heard by the National Academia, have to assimilate to international Anglo-Saxon dynamics. There is only the need to hear the same narratives from Georgia or Estonia, about the partisan art of the Soviet Union, which was somehow fighting the Soviet rule. This story is something that allows Georgian art historians to contribute to the global narrative. Art history is also trapped in that. I believe that an artist could make space for the criticism. For sure, some people are not satisfied with those narratives and want to have an alternative to Neoliberal one.

I think criticism cannot happen from the center; it has to come from the periphery, margins. Same was the case here – the criticism did not start from an institution. An art institution never opens itself; critique usually comes from the unofficial place of no power. Nowadays, the art institutions themselves are very fragile and could be marginal as well. For example, at this certain point, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw is in a very problematic relationship with the conservative government, so it is  a marginal space.

It could be easy to say that every national museum is the place of the power accumulation. However, I think that at this point, the art institutions in Europe cannot be replaced. In the institutions we are always saying, that we are becoming hegemonic. With the current new populism, xenophobia, privatization of public sphere, culture and art institutions in Europe are in unwarranted situation. I am not saying that an art institution is the only place where the marginal voices can be heard, but it can still happen there. The voices from the margins should work in alliances with other networks. It is important to have a common front of different people and not risk creating insularities for the margins.

In Spain, we have highly atomized critical public space, which is also very narcissistic and victimized. One thing that was important in the Desacuerdos and it is not easy to reconstruct now - is how different critical voices with different positions, were conspiring against the main narrative. It was not to create the alternative narrative to replace the previous one, but it was to claim the plurality and collective precarious voices of the many, and it worked. We were failing once and again but I believe it is the only way it could be done, because there is more than one margin and more than one center. The margin is the space in which many are living fragmented or segregated, with the center having such heavy weight that reacting is necessary.

The thing is how to create the alliance of the different. It is not easy, but it can happen. To find a recipe, maybe we need to think about the Soviet feminist memory or the deposition of artists after the Soviet period. I was reading the text by an Estonian art historian, who tells a story how until the 80s, the production of artists was supported by the state and all of a sudden, with new neoliberal situation artists were left alone in the open market. In the Soviet period, there was a repression censorship, but the state was maintaining the arts and then it just disappeared. It is a very traumatic situation for arts when the institutions like Soros replace the state. It is contradictory when you have Soros paying for a research...

I: In Georgia, the cultural public institutions are weakened. For the museums which have a small or no budget for educational programs, desired revitalization often means well trained guides for tourist groups (especially in the regions). One the other hand, private museums are emerging and the banks are patronizing exhibitions of young artists, promoting their corporate business ideas. Many good things happen too but these new and interesting attempts need support. The people who works for the public cultural institutions are mainly part of the older generation, with whom the young artists involved in the contemporary art scene, have nothing in common with. Working for a public institution, I wonder how can we achieve solidarity between cultural workers and rethink the gaps we have between the generations. In which ways can educational programs address this problem? How is it in your case?

J: There are many issues involved in that. The main problem is that the structure of art institutions is vertical and the bigger the institution the worse the problem. In this kind of institutions, curatorial and educational processes are disconnected. In many countries of Europe, the educational programs have been taken over by the bank foundations, which is very good for their public image. You have Banco Santander financing the educational program of Reina Sofia. The Bank of Barcelona is doing the same with MACBA and the PradoMuseum. What is the radical definition of an educational museum? How to have this solidarity of cultural workers within these institutions? It is hard when the institution itself is promoting the separation and division of the work. Problematic is also the situation in which young people are. They finish the degrees in art schools and are facing the obligation of having a career. At the same time, they need to connect to the society in some way in order to have a relevant discourse, something to say. I have an impression that the art institutions have to play a role in this gap, in which young artists are left on their own with the impossibility to connect to others. I am very skeptical about the role of the institutions because of my experience. I see that the curators direct art institutions. Unfortunately, they often instrumentalise grassroots and processes that are more horizontal. At the end of the day, the opening of an exhibition and the collection display is the most important thing to them. Sometimes within the specific curatorial projects, like the one you were mentioning above, Really Useful Knowledge, we were creating some kind of relationship that provided the public department with the important and exceptional role. Curatorial attempt was to create a laboratory of interaction with different agents, and not only artists. We were addressing the social issues with different agents and mainly not only with the artistic gestures, because by focusing only on the artistic side, we would end up with reproducing the verticality ourselves. We were dealing with the gender politics or opening the dialogue with squatters etc. The role of an institution was being reconsidered and we were debating on what seemed relevant at that point. All of a sudden, the young artists became interested in those issues and were arguing with one another. This was a risk; as an art institution, you are not supposed to open a discussion with squatters in Malaga or Barcelona. We were addressing the big issues like the role of a private property, what is the character of working in capitalism, the situation of precariousness of the current life. It took some time but we were attracting the young artists because we are all suffering with the same problems such as housing, money issues, or trying to defend ourselves in the patriarchal world.

Because of the specific social movements, the need for reconfiguring the language of politics, increased. This language is very close to what we identify as artistic - how to express yourself that it is not a typical demonstration, as a self-expression for formulation of your own demands. Artists were rehearsing some aesthetics by the redefinition of political expression. Sometimes it was highly political and sometimes not. Artists, in the past, have been very insecure as collectives. Now they organize themselves, and, to be honest, I do not expect much from the institutions in this respect. Collectives are still very common in Spain. It is the way of surviving, not always specifically political but it is a manner of doing things together.

Institutions in Spain were everything in the 80s and 90s, and artists wanted to be close to them. It was the only path for an artist because the market back then was not as important. Paradoxically, the institutions were promoting a capitalist economic notion of the arts. Nowadays, the Institutions are in a precarious situation but they should redefine themselves in order to connect with young and older artists. The institutions in Spain are very large and complex. They are also changing very fast and are very expensive. I do not think they are prepared to deal with the dynamics. I would not say that they are Neoliberal but changing of the public sphere is very precarious for art and art institutions.

I: My last question is about the conspiracy and the South. What is the term conspiracy in frames of a Southern institution and how does it work? I found it interesting that you were questioning its subversive potential. Is the conspiracy a way to deal with institutions nowadays, and if so, what is the logic of it?

J: I left Reina Sofia because my le mirage of a conspiratorial institution, a place from where one could generate ways of imaginative and different thinking, was not there anymore. The conservativeness of the government made the institution very paranoid, always in extreme fear of being discovered and denounced. There was a real danger of the actual cultural war in which Reina Sofia would have been easily trapped. At the same time, I could not perform any of the projects I was promoting or participating in, trying to catalyze an institution. I saw a limit of the institution as a place of transformation and became skeptical. When I was talking about the notion of conspiracy, I was trying to displace and radicalize it, in the sense of conspiring within the institution. The conspiracy we are used to in our institutions, exists in order to make little rules about the ways we should things. I think this way of working is typical for the Southern institutions, but maybe for Eastern too.

The vertical structure does not allow you doing what you have to do. When you are not permitted, you conspire with your colleagues – this is a typical Southern conspiratorial thing. I was trying to move from this notion of conspiracy onto something else, because it was under the risk of being discovered. Real conspiracy is when you are displacing yourself from the position, which for the institution seems like a survival. Because the core of the institution is not the formal institution itself, it is in its effects, how it embodies those who are the subject of this conspiracy. We conspired with people out of the institution, who are fighting for social justice. Why? Because we cannot expect that, the institution is able to transform and activate itself. Because it is moving towards what we can define as a zombie institution. Zombie in the sense of connecting with the power that is not society. The power, which is capital. Previously formed by the academics or social agents and recently occupied by the banks, the museums are responding to the needs of those with the economic power. We should not be expecting from them to become that transformative institution we need.

Sometimes you can act out of the institution. However, there is real risk in playing this typical artistic game, as if doing politics and not doing it really, just by modeling things and creating little prototypes of the real issues. If there is no risk, there is no emotion. If there is no real questioning of the status quo, we are not conspiring.

We have to take it seriously. We have to recover the notion of conspiracy in real terms. We have to rebuild the legitimacy elsewhere and connect with different agents. It is pessimistic reflection and at the same time, optimistic, in terms of possibility to rethink, to imagine the new institutional forms. With negotiating with the old ones of course, but we need to move beyond the institution as it is now.

The South has to do with many things in the relationships with the institutions. It has some kind of inverted, imperfect commons of modernity. Southern institutions are not based on a mature social sphere and civil society. At the same time, this notion of defective institution and system creates the space for a new imagination.

Sometimes, while negotiating with the Northern institution, I get the impression that they lack that impulse, are kind of at the end of their journey and are troubled in a way that somehow, the institution reflects the existing social structure. In the South, the process is always ongoing. The power of corruption is still present. We are still working on emancipatory power of the institution in a very different way. The Southern Museum is a museum that is aware of its own imperfection and inadequacy and is obligated to negotiate continuously with the ongoing discourse about what a civil society is or should be. We cannot simply believe in our institutions, they are just defective structures that need to be remade. In the South, it provokes an ambivalent relationship because of that same precariousness of the institutions. We have to protect them, as we do not want them to be associated with the power; however, we need to be radically critical of them.

[1] Really Useful Knowledge, exhibition in Reina Sofia Museum in 2014. The exhibition endeavored to position the notion of critical pedagogy as a crucial element in collective struggles, and explored the tension between individual and social emancipation through education with examples that are both historical and current, and their relation to organizational forms.