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Binder & Haupt: There are curators known for a particular interest, for example, in activism, social issues, archives or historical research, performative expressions, or poetry and beauty, others in the "spectacle" aspect of a Biennale. How would you define your "curatorial signature", or what is a recurring interest in your curatorial projects?
Juan A. Gaitán: For me it has to do with what status the image has in contemporary life in terms of our political imagination: what the great mechanisms of representation are, and which are the great misrepresented or unrepresented aspects of social and political life. If I’m going to be more specific, I did an exhibition at the Witte de With called "The End of Money" that had to do with what I consider to be the two fundamental forms through which we still make the world is available to ourselves, which are money (or economic value) andthe image (or visual representation). Economic value and visual representation are the two forms through which things become representable and thus present, so then the question follows: What are the things that are not?
In the case of my current thinking, I would say labor is the great unrepresented. There are certain things that are just not in the image and therefore not a problem, politically. For example, Obama could say he’s a chain smoker, but there is not one single image of him smoking going around. In that sense Obama’s smoking habit is not a problem. It’s an idea that has no representation. And even though we can continuously think that images are fabrications, that we are aware of their manipulation, it doesn't matter in the end; in terms of what the image produces politically, its manipulability is irrelevant, so if we don't have the image of the factory workers in China or in Mexico or anywhere else in the world for that matter, then we don't have a problem. This is one of the things among the recurring questions in the way I approach art from the point of view of a curator and also as an art historian. And then, there are these "hyper-representables", so to speak, such as nature, nature and the environment, natural and human-made disasters. These are the hyper-represented issues, another category that escapes political action in some respect. So it’s this relationship between the image and political life, I think, in a way, is most present in my curatorial thinking.
B & H: Previous editions of the Berlin Biennale had a close relationship to the city, to the history of the city, of a divided city in the very beginning, later migration issues, now a topic very much discussed in Berlin is the gentrification process, for example in areas like Prenzlauer Berg, which was a traditional working-class area. Is there anything specific that interests you in Berlin that could influence your curatorial concept for the Berlin Biennale?
Gaitán: Yes, in a sense Berlin has always been a working-class city, even now, in the age of immaterial labor. It's kind of a postwar effect. And, as everybody knows, the Weimar period tried to implement this bourgeois life into Berlin, and that was immediately shut down with the rise of National Socialism. But traditionally it has been a city of exchange and labor, more than the city of the big 19th-century German companies. In that sense it has never been the most bourgeois city of Germany, and it’s still not, if you compare it with Munich or with Hamburg or even with Cologne or Frankfurt. Berlin is far behind in this respect.
For me, Berlin is interesting insofar as the division between East and West that the Berlin Biennale has explored in one way or another on more than one occasion is not there anymore, or it’s not there in Mitte district. So I see it now as a city divided in three. Berlin-Mitte is probably the most heavily reconstructed city center in the world, but in a kind of cosmetic surgery way, so you have this idea that Berlin should reflect the triumph of the West and dismantle any reference to its former Eastern past. In that sense, the West and East have receded into neighborhoods that are not Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg. Of course there are things that you cannot destroy, but they don’t have the specificity that the Palast der Republik would have, so I guess, that’s what interests me, you cannot see it as an East or West city, it’s the East and West dismantled by the Center.
B & H: How would you define the audience in Berlin that you would like to speak to?
Gaitán: The Berlin Biennale belongs to a tradition of modernist humanistic and Enlightenment thinking, and it is the same system in which people are educated in Germany. So, if you speak the language of contemporary art, the response comes back within the same linguistic, philosophical, and political framework. With the exception of, perhaps, people who have just moved to Germany, everybody is able to understand what you're saying, and how you are operating, and what epistemological tradition art belongs to. Most people would be able to understand that the function of culture is critical and analytical and so on, people won’t expect an art that is celebratory of religion or ideology or nature, and they at least expect that it have a more complex and ambiguous relationship to reality. For me, in Berlin, the audience is not foreign to the structures of contemporary art, or, to put it differently, contemporary art is not an alien ideology.
B & H: But in relation to that, we remember that there was one project that had to be taken down on Friedrichstraße during the last Biennale, because of protests. An artist had built a huge wall dividing the street, in order to draw the attention to where the poorer or the migrant part of Berlin starts: the southern portion of Friedrichstraße (Kreuzberg district). And of course the people on the poorer side were not pleased at all; on the contrary, they felt ghettoized, and shop owners lost a lot of income because people wouldn’t go to the other side to shop. Aren’t they also part of the audience of a Biennale?
Gaitán: I know what you mean; you are pointing out a kind of question that I also pose to myself. I don't think that the function of art is to be reductive and essentialistic, in terms of how we look at contemporary life; at the same time I don't think our job is to create new audiences. There is an audience for contemporary art, that is the immediate audience, the one that comes, and there is an audience of contemporary art that one could call the third audience, the ones that are having this dialogue through other means, with the way the event circulates in newspapers, in public discourse, which is another kind of its functions, but I don’t think it is a function of contemporary art to be inclusive of everyone in the sense of anyone. It’s impossible and also not productive to think of it that way. In my case, I guess I have an urgent commitment to a certain kind of thinking that is provoked or evoked by the Biennale, but not just reactions. So I see what you mean by the audience, but at the same time I think that, in the case of contemporary art, this idea of expanding or including is too close to the idea of spreading democracy and things like that, and I just don't think that contemporary art is inherently good so that everybody should partake. It’s one aspect of an inherited critical tradition, one aspect in which we can do only so much, in the same way as you cannot force people to read one or another kind of books.
B & H: What is the role of your artistic team? How does it work practically and conceptually? How were the members chosen?
Gaitán: The artistic team is in part an advisory board. Once you take on a project of this scale you cannot pretend that you will be able to do it alone, so you need a group of people who you can have dialogues with about what’s going on. So it’s an invitation to be part of a dialogue that leads to the Biennale. Olaf Nicolai, of course, is someone who has known Berlin for a very long time and he’s very aware of the history of the city, so for me it’s very important to have constant conversations about this. I enjoy working together and thinking together with Tarek Atoui, so I asked him to come and develop a project around sound specifically for the Biennale, kind of loosely attached to what we’ve been doing before, which had to do with these late Ottoman musical modes – You saw his performance in Sharjah, not this year, the one before?
B & H: Yes, so a pure sound and performing project by Tarek, or one with educational components?
Gaitán: At the moment it does not have an educational component, but there are certain aspects of the Biennale that are meant to have an educational function, but not in the direct educational format that is usually followed. Dan, Tarek, and Olaf are also part of the Biennale as artists, which is also a way of indicating that this group are people with whom I may have important discussions about the Biennale. But that doesn’t mean that they are participating so actively in the curatorial construction of the Biennale. I wanted to indicate that, for me, the people who are the discussion partners and the references are also artists and not just curators, so there is a bit of a practical aspect to it and a very symbolic aspect to this selection.
In terms of the curators, Natasha Ginwala is a very young curator whom I met in Amsterdam when she was doing the de Appel program, and I think she brings a very active and dynamic approach and a keen interest in archival research, so she was one of the first people I invited, and Mariana Munguía (from Guadalajara) is an incredibly bright person finding amazing things, so my discussions with her have been extremely productive. We are doing the final publication with her, which I’m sure will be fantastic. And the last person I’ve invited is Catalina Lozano, who is Colombian and who lives in Mexico, who will be involved in a particular part of the Biennale that I am developing with her, relating to public programs and performance, and I am sure she is the ideal person to work with me on that.
B & H: This is the bridge to our last question: The fact that you have a Latin American background, being Colombian – well, Canadian also – having lived in Mexico, raises certain expectations among people from this area, about your possible curatorial selection. How do you deal with this?
Gaitán: For me, there are very good artists in Colombia and Latin America, just as there are anywhere else. I have followed a path as a curator that has, in one way or another, actively refused this idea of the "Latin American curator", partly because there are many who are very good at it and who’ve been looking at what is going on there very closely, and partly because my own education has led me to other places, too, which I also feel are like home – Canada for instance. My education both as an artist and as an art historian is North American, so my approach, of course, is not exclusively Latin American (even though I wrote my Masters thesis on conceptual practices in South America), so I have this and that relationship to art, and I like to think, perhaps with a measure of hope that one can call utopian, that contemporary artistic practices should coexist outside regional distinctions. Thus, and also for the purposes of the Biennale, I must read Latin America as any other part of the world. For me what’s important is that the artists who I’m inviting are artists who I really enjoy working with and whose work is really good, and at the same time there’s only a certain number of people you can invite, so I also have to find parameters for these invitations. At the same time it is of critical importance that there is a presence of artists and of people who are not only from North America and Europe.