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Interview with Rudolf Frieling.

2009
> transcript  

Interviewer: > Beryl Graham
Interviewee: > Rudolf Frieling

Rudolf Frieling is curator of Media Arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute. He was interviewed by Beryl Graham at Tate Modern in London in July 2009.

Beryl Graham: In your essay in the catalogue for ‘The Art of Participation’ you identify different kinds of participation, ranging from where there’s lots of creative input from the audience into the artwork, to your terminology of more or less ‘determined’ kinds of participation. I was wondering if you had observed very different responses from the audience; for example, Stephen Willats’s A Moment of Action (1974) seems to have a highly ‘determined’ intent, whereas Erwin Wurm’s works have much less.

Rudolf Frieling: Yes, one of the things that I tried to do was to group together a number of works that would show not only the range of different historic and contemporary approaches but also the emergence of a concept of participation. The range from John Cage’s 4’33, which is just saying ‘okay, whatever is happening in these four minutes and thirty-three seconds is part of the work’, to something as predetermined as Stephen Willats with his multiple choice questionnaire is not directly comparable perhaps, but these differences highlight the frame of the curatorial concept. The time to prepare the show was short, space was definitely limited, but the diversity of works functioned as a reflection on the conditions of participation. In most of these works there was either a conceptual approach to, or an actual openness to, the potential that you could read works and interpret works totally differently. Willats is addressing the fact that combining a different set of key words with a set of similar images really depends on the viewer. Maybe from today’s point of view you would say it is didactic, but historically it was a radical shift when Hans Haacke and others were asking the audience to evaluate something and to place a vote. We often had this discussion internally: how do we treat a past work? Do we treat it as a document or do we treat it as something that you can experience again in one way or another? So on the one hand it’s very important that we were gathering the information about what people thought and did at the time, and then offered as much as possible an actual experience. On the other hand, some more predetermined works can be relatively dry and don’t create the kind of enthusiasm that, say, One Minute Sculptures by Erwin Wurm did, which was hugely popular. However, placing them in direct proximity also lets you perhaps critically assess the more hilarious works from a more conceptual or political point of view.

BG: I was thinking that the Stephen Willats piece and the Erwin Wurm piece might appeal to very different kinds of people.

RF: Yes, absolutely. We did this at SFMOMA, which is a major tourist destination. It’s not a contemporary art space although we do consider ourselves as also an institution that embraces contemporary art. In any case, we do have an obligation to be accessible to all ranges of publics and we were very careful to stage a show that would provide points of access to a number of different audiences. So one of the really crucial curatorial decisions was to say we’re not putting up a show that’s just a document, that places you in a whole historical timeline, leading you from the 50s, 60s and so on to the present time by giving you all kinds of records and documents, which would certainly have told a much more complex story. It was important to select a number of works that would still be significant for a certain moment in time but would also guarantee some sort of an experience now. That’s not always possible, but whenever that was possible, we did it.

BG: And did you notice any sort of cultural difference concerning participation? Being British myself, but also having lived in California (and you’re a German living in California), I was struck by how different cultures behave in different performative ways …

RF: Absolutely, and I was positively amazed by the willingness of the Californian audience to be active in the museum, but sometimes also by their liberties and excuses to perform and just do whatever they wanted to do in terms of their own creativity. And they were literally taking some of the works merely as starting points to then do something else. It was really important for me to understand the extent to which people can use the proposition but also possibly misuse it. And, you know, it’s hard to say ‘misuse’ because of these really quite open situations and proposals—in which case what would misuse possibly be? In some ways, it is finding out about that barrier that makes you still think of an artwork as a very specific proposal, rather than just saying, here’s a platform and you can do whatever you want. And the beauty of works lies often in the specificity of a concept or material combined with the openness or lack of instruction in terms of its activation.

BG: Moving on to the impact of participation beyond the gallery walls, and after the audience leaves, I am thinking of Hans Haacke’s News piece where news from a printer keeps spewing onto the floor, and also some works where people get to take things home …

RF: Reading the news and taking something home might not be what you would consider the most participatory experience. With Hans Haacke’s News, they’re just reading the news, browsing through it, but the work depends on a whole set of participants outside the museum who are feeding this piece, by just being news editors and journalists who are publishing news items. So there is a context, a social and political context in real time, which is providing the content for whatever you are then reading. And then we had, for instance, a stack piece by Felix Gonzales-Torres where the audience were allowed to take a printed poster from a stack. We did ask a number of people, ‘So why are you participating in this?’, and a lot of people said, ‘Well, I actually love this picture.’ And some of them were then taking the picture and folding it into objects so they were creating new works out of it. Some of them were even throwing them around in the galleries and that’s, well, the learning curve that you have as a curator in keeping a show up and running for a long time. In other words, these two works address a relation to space in real time that is institutionally but also aesthetically defined.
There’s been a general belief on behalf of the audience that the museum is opening up. That was understood as a message from us at SFMOMA to our public. One of those instances was the fact that we changed our photography policy because of the show, and we do now allow photography in our permanent collection, and by default also in a temporary exhibition unless a lender specifically prohibits that. We’re not and don’t wish to be in the position of policing a no-photography policy—this is happening anyway, this is a cultural use that people make of their visit. It has really been helpful to promote and to advocate a more positive and more risk-taking policy on behalf of the institution.

BG: Thinking about risk-taking, you include photographic documentation of an Abramovic/Ulay performance Imponderabilia (1977) in Italy, where museum visitors had to squeeze between their two naked bodies to enter a gallery space. I was looking at that image and wondering if you could actually do that live now, and here. Are some kinds of participation are just too intimate or too challenging or …?

RF: I’d say that’s very subjective; I certainly think that for every one of us there is a different level where you do not want to be bothered any more or challenged. From an institutional point of view, we’ve seen so much nudity in museums that all you have to do is to provide a disclaimer and to let people know that they are about to see nudity and that this might not be suitable for children, for example. And we were literally not discussing that level of re-enactment first of all for very simple practical reasons, but secondly, in this specific case, I would have my doubts whether Abramovic/Ulay would want this to happen again. It was so much about the artist actually exposing himself or herself to the public that it cannot just be repeated by a volunteer, let’s say. However, with this question in mind, we have been reviewing each specific case of a work, whether to re-enact or reinstall a work as an experience or rather show it as a document.

BG: I was also thinking of how Claire Bishop has criticised Nicolas Bourriaud’s take on relational aesthetics; her argument is that she finds his selection of artists too ‘feel-good’, and that in a participatory system there’s got to be space for conflict. Did you feel there was space for conflict in the kind of participatory works selected?

RF: I was obviously very aware of that whole background, and we did want to make references to that whole group of works. For a number of reasons we did not extensively cover that specific group of artists that has been subsumed under the term relational aesthetic because it’s been fairly recently on the scene everywhere. We wanted to acknowledge that this way of thinking and producing has been around for a while, but, more importantly, we did not want to go the same route of merely gesturing towards participation, but rather to literally embrace the different moments and different aspects of actual participation in the galleries, and, yes, that did include conflict.
At the same time it is hard to direct that, and it’s hard to generate that as a pre-planned event. One of the conflicts that we came up with was an inner institutional conflict. Just to give you one example: can we actually distribute free beer? How does that work? There were a number of legal issues around that, quite a Californian problem. Another conflict was a specific artistic instruction by Erwin Wurm, where he displays a fridge and asks the audience to ‘have a line or smoke a joint, or drink a beer’ inside the fridge, and believe it or not, we did have a visitor who smoked a joint in the fridge and it did create a conflict. So from a curatorial point of view, you were exhibiting a work that could not be enacted because you would clearly be in a legal conflict with the museum.
So the fact that people were ready to literally challenge the show, the museum certainly, and also the museum guards, on a very personal level, was part of our understanding, part of our knowledge. To the credit of all my colleagues, who were running the show for three months, day to day, there were conflicts that got immediately addressed in a good way, so we were ready to be more open the next day or the next time it happened. From an institutional point of view it was really a learning curve to not put in place again such certain policies and clear boundaries. And some artists were also pushing us in that direction; for instance, Jochen Gerz deliberately left us to figure out how to deal with the billions of conceptual and practical questions that a hugely participatory project like The Gift necessarily poses.
I could also quote one other example where people were taking a piece by Lygia Clark, which is called the Elastic Net, Rede de Elástico, and literally throwing things around the galleries; they were using it like a jump rope and were documenting that on video and were then were putting it onto YouTube and so on. So at that moment we realised that the guards should have protected the works on display next to this in a much better way.
All these works created a kind of uncertainty around our approaches on every level. To a certain extent that’s good, because it’s then opening up avenues, and to another extent obviously it made certain barriers that we can’t deny, concerning legal structure and institutional framework, just much clearer.

BG: Did the guards have special training from the curators?

RF: No. We did obviously instruct the guards on what we thought was a good policy but then you can’t foresee what’s actually going to happen. So it was really learning by what was going on. And what was wonderful to see was that we were learning through what people were posting online. We would see all kinds of documents come up either on Flickr or on YouTube and then say, ‘Wait a minute, what actually happened in the galleries?’

BG: So, what boundaries were drawn exactly? For example, if they did screw up the Gonzales-Torres posters and throw them around, was that allowed or was that something that they were gently discouraged from doing?

RF: It was to a certain extent allowed, however we were trying to then instruct the guards to say, ‘look, this work is really about this’, knowing that we do not want to prescribe a certain action, but at the same time also pointing them to, how should I say that, ‘review’ what this work was actually about. That was a blurry line, but I would also want to say that we did have some problematic experiences … it was certainly a show that did not say ‘everything has to be open and participatory’ but rather looked at opening up situations as well as the critique of those situations. At the same time it did provide a range of literally new experiences inside the museum, which in any case is highly based on the notion of ‘do not touch the work of art’.
I could give you one more concrete example of a work that we actually commissioned, which redefined our educational space through a series of do-it-yourself furniture made out of cardboard. An architectural duo from New York called Freecell provided ‘Stack to Fold’, which had three components: one was a table, one a bench and one was called ‘Elbow’. The ‘Elbow’ did not have a specific functionality, however; it was a geometric object that you could combine into a sort of growing landscape of objects and sculptural configurations. These works were really quite hard to assemble. It was difficult for the general public to understand how to fold them. However, we included this in a space that also housed and hosted the salon by Tom Marioni, The Act of Drinking with Friends is the Highest Form of Art. The moment you had about 100 people in that space all drinking beer, people would go back to it and would start building, and it would become possible to do it, so it changed literally the atmosphere and the spirit of a space in a good way, in a very productive way.

BG: That Tom Marioni work is in the SFMOMA collection, as are some works from the 2001 exhibition ‘010101’ (‘010101’ online) at SFMOMA, which included a lot of participative work. So, I’m wondering, has that past institutional knowledge about showing participative work built up confidence, and enabled your show to happen?

RF: Yes, absolutely, probably because three things were coming together. One was that SFMOMA to a certain degree has a legacy of somewhat experimental shows and works. Secondly, we are close to Silicon Valley, to an area that is really about inventing new ways of communication, new ways of networking, etc. And we feel that we need to establish a relationship to that complex field, not necessarily by bringing Facebook into the galleries, but somehow by reflecting on what that means for us. Thirdly, we were in a very positive moment financially speaking so we felt it was something we could take on, whereas right now with the economic downturn, a costly show would probably face some serious resistance.
‘010101’ is still in our institutional memory, one of the more memorable shows, and one of the shows that literally engaged the whole museum. But you can’t do that every year with the same amount of input and sustainability; it’s impossible. However, to revisit that, to go back to those moments and think, ‘we need to move onto the next level and do this again in a different way’, is what I learned from my colleagues who’ve been here much longer. And finally for me it was a way to also work myself into a whole given framework here in California, institutionally but also historically and regionally, so we did include seminal participative moments of the Bay Area legacy as realised by, for example, Ant Farm and Lynn Hershman Leeson.

BG: Talking of legacy, my last question is about the critical future of participative work, and perhaps new media work too. Being in a collection (and collected works being exhibited in different contexts) is an important route into provenance and art history, and I was interested to see that Janet Cardiff’s Video Walk, which was commissioned for ‘010101’, was collected by SFMOMA, and is also in ‘The Art of Participation’. Good art criticism is also an important factor and is often a rare commodity for new or non-object-based art. There has been some debate about the lack of any ‘aesthetics of participation’ to inform art criticism, so what do you see as the future for participative art? What will be the legacy from work produced now?

RF: So many questions, and so few answers that I can offer. We did get extensive critical feedback from Artforum to Parkett as well as the blogosphere, obviously. The extent to which the show became visible on Flickr or YouTube was astonishing. But despite the feedback that one would expect, from high praise to not participatory or not critical enough, one thing is certainly clear to me: in order to enhance our understanding of the complexities of experiential works, time-based works, participatory works, generative works and so on, we have to be able to actually experience the work. Books simply fail in assuring an informed reception of such works. A productive future discussion and reception of processual, time-based and participatory works will follow once we address and challenge the limitations of specific discourses, be that the discourse on contemporary art that cannot embrace the complexity of technological challenges, or the other way around, that the spheres of new media do not overlap with a larger frame of historical or contemporary references in terms of, for example, a concept of participation. We need shows, publications and courses that bring these legacies and contemporary trajectories into a shared space as experience and discourse. And even as a collecting institution, we understand the need to revisit and consequently discuss installations and time-based works by reinstalling them in the galleries. To conclude and to answer your question in a much more personal way, I don’t think that it is the future of art to be participatory, just as it is not necessarily to be more technological. But at the same time, the future of art cannot be seriously discussed if we exclude these notions. That is what ‘The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now’ proposed in San Francisco, and that is what the show will revisit in 2010 in Dortmund, where it will open the new spaces of the former Museum am Ostwall.

 

 
Keywords:

  installation
  time
  space
  audience
  video
  participation
  criticism
  education
  museums
  publishing
  race

People:

  Beryl Graham
  Rudolf Frieling