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‘Exercising your identity hurts’

Director Charles Esche and his staff at the Van Abbemuseum introduced terms like decolonisation, demodernisation and queering to develop a contemporary reading of the museum collection. Although some critics accused the museum of using trendy buzz words, several years of experimenting show the relevance of these attempts. Fundamental questions are raised, new perspectives are unearthed. For this years’ Graduation catalogue Olle Lundin, coordinator of the museum’s Queering the Collection programme and of The Arena during the Graduation Show, interviewed Charles Esche. Their exchange they continued yesterday for a live audience in the academy.

By Olle Lundin

You and Daniel Neugebauer, head of Communications, Funding and Fundraising at the Van Abbemuseum, decided to develop a queering practice within the institution, which was meant to unlock the potential within the museum’s collection. How did the momentum for Queering the Collection build up?

‘A collection like ours, concentrating on 20th century and 21st century art, is incredibly narrow in its focus. It’s all about formal issues. The common factor for these works is the artistic experimentation by Western, mostly heterosexual male artists. Yet the collection pretends to express something else; it makes a kind of universal claim. Once you have identified that gap, you can address it. Clearly aspects such as sexual orientation, gender, questions of ethnic background, cultural difference, class, income and education make us humans different. As a public institution, the museum needs to take those differences into account if it wants to be accessible for everyone. Each visitor has a different personal engagement and different personal reasons to come into the museum. The important thing is that they find themselves welcome. It’s a simple matter to begin with: a sign of hospitality. But that’s only one aspect.
Queering the Collection was also an obvious step to gain an understanding of how we actually talk to people, and not just to people from the queer community. What can we learn from a queer perspective on the collection and for the way we address mainstream narratives? Like we did when we introduced Decolonising and Demodernising the Collection. They’re all meant to steer away from the mainstream. In my opinion that’s what a museum should do: offer an alternative to the mainstream.’

There is criticism aimed at ‘queering’ and ‘decolonising’, as if they are just buzz words. Are they?

‘You run the risk of falling into patterns where approaches like these just bolt on to a mainstream narrative. It’s only through fundamental change that these practices can threaten and undermine the mainstream narrative. I think there has to be a profound change in the institutional make-up, in who we think we are. At that point it stops becoming trendy because it affects people’s power positions, their own identity and it disturbs the mainstream. Then it becomes more serious and interesting.’

What methods are available to the institution to make that shift, not only in its internal structure but also in relation to society as a whole?

‘A visit to the museum has become associated with a leisure activity. I have no objections against leisure activity – it’s really important and I like to experience it myself – but I would rather compare visiting the museum to doing sport. Sure, you can kick a ball around the park for fun, but if you want to become any good at sport you need to practice. Those exercises will cause pain and over time everything about you starts to change. It’s the same with the museum. You come and practice some ideas of who you think you are, who you might be, or who you might become and that’s not always easy or pleasurable. Exercising your identity hurts.
Maybe you have problems thinking about Dutch colonial history, or with the fact that there are queer activists making statements in the museum. Such issues are important to encounter and to deal with in a plural society like ours.
I think we have to be incredibly welcoming and hospitable, but again to all kinds of different people and different interests. Why not use the museum as a kind of playground for identity? And accept that in a playground things can sometimes get rough and uncomfortable.’

A key point in my own explorations on themes of identity and queer theory is to not seek validation from the mainstream ideas or ideals. What are the key points for a museum that starts to deviate from modernist ideals?

‘Ironically even in the heart of modernism, from the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, the encounter with the other has always been the way in which any kind of modernist breakthroughs were achieved. In cliché terms, it was Picasso’s encounter with African forms of representation that allowed cubism to develop. This ‘African-ness’ in his work has transformed into something completely mainstream. It seems, in the modernist story, it was always about an encounter with something different and, in that process, something changes. This can be seen in Surrealism’s encounter with the psychological discoveries of Freud. Somehow those encounters are what drove modernism forward.
Seen in this light, it’s only natural that you as a designer should think that you’re not going to learn much from the mainstream. You will not find much richness there. Only when you go to or beyond the edges you might change what the mainstream story seems to be.
My worry is that we are living in a very defensive time, particularly here in Western Europe. Rather than develop something new, we seem stuck on keeping what we have. That makes these encounters with the other increasingly threatening. For me a museum is a place to discover exactly that: what might be threatening in a specific context can be much more inspiring when this context is changed. The encounter with something different is what keeps our culture alive.’

For Picasso it took years to develop something that has become an integral part of the modernist canon, which we now need to break. Is this an urgent thing?

‘I think we are currently in a long-term transition away from modernity in general and that takes time, of course. Whether it concerns our relation to religion, each other, gender, class or the unjust globalisation processes; in the end all these things will change the core culture. So yes, that does feel pretty urgent. We are struggling. We don’t have a political vision that says that all that richness on offer in the contemporary cosmopolitan world is worth fighting for. We have a political culture that tries to take advantage of people who might feel insecure in order to get power, which is really irresponsible. The lack of vision gives way to recidivistic and regressive ideas on issues such as ethnic purity. It’s rubbish, but it always comes back.’

Through decolonising and queering, are you trying to change the overall narrative in the core culture then?

‘The idea that there is a single, universal and modern solution is part of what we are transitioning away from. In an ideal world there will be different kinds of societies developing in different ways, something that happened before the Renaissance and before colonialism. I think that difference is richness, but a lot of people experience it as a threat. Maybe there shouldn’t be a core culture with a specific canon or, to use a German term, a Leitkultur that delivers the truth to the uneducated. Building a common shared narrative is something that you can do as an individual or as a small group, together with other small groups. That’s the ideal. Until we reach a point where we feel positive and relaxed about fragmentation.
One of the tasks is that we have to challenge the notion of a core culture which is being presented to us by the political right and other conservative forces. The fact is that all those differences exist in Eindhoven today. There isn’t a core culture of Eindhoven that is a particular kind of white, ethnic, heterosexual middle class. The core culture is already much more complicated. In the face of that complexity we need to get together and learn from each other. We don’t have the capacity as an individual to deal with that complexity, but this doesn’t mean that complexity is wrong or that we should try to eliminate it. We’d be better off if we shared our lives with other people, in order to understand it more and live with it. 

The museum could become this meeting where the fragmented society starts to take shape. However, the museum does have a certain collection of objects, a range of things that can be put on display to help this discussion to take place. I’m just curious how you deal with such an archive in the light of the complexity you discussed.

‘One of our institutional responsibilities is to preserve the objects that we buy and those that are given to us. But you need to go one step further and ask yourself: why would it be important to preserve this stuff? It seems to me that the only answer is that these objects tell a story. At the same time objects are ambivalent, they are flexible enough to talk about different pasts. This means that it is our responsibility to do precisely that, which explains why something like queering or decolonising is important. You can tell a story that lies alongside other narratives and through that recognise that history is actually biddable.
Maybe we need to draw a narrative from the past that serves us better in the present? Stories that can support values such as peace and respectful coexistence. As a museum, we should make such stories from the past more likely in today’s world. That means that we need to tell that story not only as an institution. We should allow other people – what we now at the Van Abbemuseum call the Constituencies – to tell different stories in parallel. If you really want to get involved you can contribute to parallel stories and join in on the discussion. Then I believe the museum will work as a kind of narrative machine and be almost evolutionary.’

These stories are often situated inside white cubes, spaces that are, for better or worse, designed to exhibit art. The presentation of art is one aspect where art and design might coincide. Does it make sense to differentiate between them? Do you position art and design as different entities within the museum?

‘Like you said, there is continuity, but it’s impossible to give a general answer. We have to talk in particular.
One thing is important to say. The modern protocol of the white cube is claimed to be a neutral space which allows art to be art. That’s nonsense. The white cube is a highly designed space that creates a specific relationship between art and design in terms of experience of the space. That is fundamental. Somehow a lot of the mainstream museum visitors see the white cube as almost invisible while I find it incredibly alienating. It is not about the human body, it is only about the eye. The white cube doesn’t embrace the diversity of our senses.
However, design and art do have an intimate relationship, because design is often the thing that delivers art to people. An example would be the design of how the information and the text is given, the architectural space, the lighting or the soundscape. What you as a designer have added in your project Qwearing the Collection, which is beautiful, is also the way we dress and the way that other people look at us when we dress. 
If there is a distinction between the two, you could argue that design – in order to achieve its goal – can sometimes be too pleasing. What is nice about art is that it is the opposite. It often goes against everything that we, as a museum, want to achieve. Art works can be a friendly enemy to the curator and to the design. Maybe that is the main distinction. But even there I’m not completely sure; of course design can also have that critical ambivalence, I wouldn’t exclude it.’

Unlike art, design will not be the first to reconsider its past in terms of colonialism. Modernist tradition and modernist ideals still have a strong grip on design education and practice. Do you think that the design world has something to learn from the art world in terms of dealing with its past, present and future?

‘Let me say that we both have to learn from the world. The reason why design or design education should encounter decolonialism is because we have to deal with it now. If we are to go through this transition of modernity it is not because modernity is ugly, it is beautiful! It is not because it is wrong, because it was right for its time. But in a multi-polar world in which the colonial authority, power, oppression and domination of Europe is at an end, the colonial mindset doesn’t work anymore. I would still say the only way to do that is to smash it and reassemble the fragments together with other stuff that was never in the modernity story in the first place. That is what de-modernity is. We can love modernity, we just don’t live it anymore. It is not a rejection of modernity. It is rather embracing the fact that we need a pro-modern gesture in order to rescue some of the great values of emancipation, freedom, autonomy and equality. We need to smash the whole structure because it is colonial, racist and heterosexist. And then we need to start representing something new, or design something that represents our current situation.’

You mentioned that art is often being shown through technological devices or through design. In some ways, I see these as strongholds of the modernist functional values. Technology simply exists as if it was a natural element, the result of logical developments. It also carries a very strong narrative: technology will save us. Linking back to queering, puzzling and smashing things, how do you see the role of technology here in the museum or, if you will, society as a whole?

‘There is a great film here at the museum by Hans van Houwelingen called Hey Paarth, What About the Atom Bomb? It speaks about how ethical questions suddenly arose from the invention of nuclear technology. About what you would do with it as somebody working in this fascinating field of technological innovation. Suddenly you’re able to split the atom and thus you can easily destroy millions of people. Where are the ethics in there? That is something that we struggle with and something that technology itself struggles with.
I don’t think technology is good or bad per se. It is actually not on that spectrum of ethical choices. If you consider our current technological society then the real innovations were driven conceptually in the post-war period. Star Trek, to some extent, is much more formative of what technology is today than most science fiction that is produced now. Ok, we still haven’t got teleportation but most of the rest of Star Trek is more or less accessible today. We are somehow enacting things in the world that were thought of a generation ago. Therefore, our focus should not be on what technology can do. We can digitise all the archives and we can get everything online, that’s important. But it is sort of banal as well. It is just giving you access to things in other forms than you already had access to. But what are the new things that you can create, using not necessarily the technological hardware of today, but the imaginative software that we have?

I feel that we are probably in a quite uncreative time and it seems like technology is driving it. Probably because we don’t have a more ethical or more imaginative approach to the future. Two generations ago, when society was coming out of the Second World War, we had a much clearer idea of where society needed to go. We wanted some idea of equality. We wanted to be able to live together. We didn’t want to go back to the old ways of the 1930s and we wanted a society where we could have more leisure, where people would work less, where people were less exploited, where consumerism was going to grow. People would have more choice and the shops would be fuller. We would live in better houses. Those things were pretty simple, but very important and technology served this agenda. It made consumerism better, it contributed to better houses, better streets, certainly here in the Netherlands. But where are those images and visions today that will produce the technology that is necessary? Do we want even better houses and if so, is that sustainable? Do we want even more consumption, does it make us happy? What do we want from our public spaces? None of those questions has the clarity of answer that they had in the 1950s.

I think the museum should contribute to the imaginative bit and of course we should use technology. But I’m not sure that technology, or politicians for that matter, should be in the driving seat. Van Houwelingen’s work shows how Oppenheimer had doubts about the ethical aspects of his creation. And then Truman takes this decision without really knowing what the consequences are. We have lived with the consequences ever since.’

Our current society seems to struggle finding a new set of values and ideas that can generate more meaning for society. Can technology play a role in facilitating that?

‘Totally! Imagine that the museum should be a platform for people to come together in order to make decisions collectively. Let us forget about representative democracy and instead develop a technology which enables us to make decisions together. Then we would all feel that we have an actual voice. That would be a challenge for technology. But there is not enough consensus in society for technology to play such a role, particularly with politicians who would have to give up their power. First, we need to create the right conditions and maybe the museum could be the place where those conditions are created, simply because people say “Yes, let’s try it out!”.’

(This text was first published in DAE’s Graduation catalogue 2017.)

Published: 26-Oct-2017 12:00

    Olle lundin (left) interviewing Charles Esche (right) in The Arena - Graduation Show 2017