Theory of Discomfort – Becoming Human
First of all, thanks so much for inviting me to be here today and be the first speaker, it’s an excellent responsibility that I really appreciate. I will try to focus on the theme of the symposium: What practices should 21st century museums pursue?, how and why? That means mostly talking about the future. So I will try to do that, I will talk briefly about the past and then about the future.
So, completing the introduction, thanks so much for this biographical sketch. It’s true, though I will not talk about the organizations where I worked, to very briefly say, I arrived very recently, a bit more than a year ago at MACBA – the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. As you may know, it’s a big organization located in the centre of the city, maybe with one of southern Europe’s best collections and an important history of 20 years of great exhibitions, a building, designed by Richard Meier, which has been considered the «piece number zero» of the collection. Conceived in the 80s and opened in the 90s, it was a kind of experience later followed by other organizations of how museums operate in cities like Barcelona, in which culture becomes really important, and experience some of the ideas that were widely debated afterwards, such as gentrification, the election of the discourse by the organization, and the role of culture.
Before that, in the period between 2008 and 2015, I was working at CA2M in Madrid, which is kind of the opposite, because it is located in a working class suburb in the south of the city – 17 kms from the centre –, much smaller and much more focused on audience-related programs. So I think I can unify these two experiences that maybe brought me here today, to discuss the notion of museums. I think we are in a very important moment. I think for the whole of society the moment is crucial. And some of the my views are shared with the Confederation of Museums called L’Internationale, a confederation of six European museums plus other pan-organizations. And we have some former members here like Jesús Carrillo, who knows the confederation very well. Basically because we are now debating what a museum is, or has been until now. Until now the museum has been the bourgeois museum, a museum born in the 19th century in the light of the Industrial Revolution and colonialism. A museum that made a parallel between owning and being. In a moment when materiality becomes extremely important, the object becomes the centre of a big part of modern culture, as both the Industrial Revolution produces new objects and colonialism brings exotic objects from the colonies in a moment when the power is in transition from the church and royalty to the bourgeoisie. A moment in which culture becomes the medium. Nation is synonymous with people, and people are a synonym of culture.
So culture moves into the centre in the 19th century. A political scheme that brings the idea that the museum is needed to make all that visible. Because culture becomes a social responsibility, and it generates a way of being free. Free, but a free servant, a voluntary slave of the culture to which you belong. Hegel said that «culture makes us free of taste and our particular interest, it makes us dependent on the culture of the state and the culture of the shared space that was defined by the new bourgeois power».
That has been growing and growing as you very well know, to a moment in which reality is basically against us. Because on the basis of the bourgeois museum, we have been bringing the neo-liberal museum – a museum in which the search for consensus has become the new governance. We have set clear goals, statistics, growth, expansion. The museum has been a managerial museum in which our new horizon is the creation of a government without politics. If we see world politics, we are trying to find new ways of understanding what is happening around. What is the reason for the emergence of people like Trump. We all thought he was not going to become President, only a year ago, and now he is something we have to deal with. To understand what happened, we have to go back to 1975, to the moment when Margaret Thatcher arrived to power in the Conservative Party in the UK, and paved the way for what is happening now, because she built a system based on despolitization, there’s no such thing as society, as she said, and paved the way for a system that would be based exclusively on markets and quantitative evaluation.
From class solidarity, we moved to political and cultural modernity. From ideological coherence, we moved to pragmatism. And from internationalism, we went back to the idea of nation. I think this can be applied to both Spain and Portugal especially. It has been very clear that the 80s was the moment of change, in which all of these things were lost. and something new appeared. A new system that led to a number of moments of growth and crisis, and led us to the situation today.
What has been the implication for museums? These have been wide and intense. The museum that was born under that bourgeois condition of a place for pedagogy, of a place for education – it became a space for spectacle. Also, I want to consider, that move to spectacularization, the spectacularization of pedagogy and immersion in the logics of «bigger, larger means better». This move to spectacle leads also to a certain indifference on the part of the audience – why? Because there is nothing else than a spectacle to be seen by this audience. In fact, what happened to the museum has a parallel with representative democracy. We have been dealing with a view that we have been representing museums, we have been representing a culture in the same way that we thought our parliaments represented the people. But maybe that has not been completely true.
We have also had to learn that critique is not enough. For a number of years the response of art and organizations was including institutional critique as a model of debate, as a model of generating attention, but we have understood that is not enough. We have to move forward. Museums have to continue growing with generating the distinction with the heterogeneity of utopia, the non-homogeneous world that we understand was defined as the sum of different levels of understanding of reality, versus the heterocosmoi, the alternative way of generating another reality in which a museum can locate itself as a low-cost utopia. Sometimes when I say this, I am accused of being a bit cynical, but it is true that I do believe the museum can be converted into a space of a daily utopia, something that we can actually achieve. That is why when we think of the museum and of the practices we can generate in this 21st century, these are so related with generating new institutional experiences. The museum, as happens with some other social organizations that are a constant in society, like a school, can be a space of institutional experimentation, of generating new ways of relating individual societies and their organizations. And this is possible because we live in a fragmentation of civic and cultural spaces that stand against a certain normativity and the static paradigm that we used to share in the neoliberal context. Again, we are thinking of the headless space – a space that can develop without being a single, hierarchical space that could be based upon notions of power, and owning, but rather a new notion of this low-cost utopia, responding to some needs of the social sphere.
In fact, what we are building now is a new museum in the rooms of the Imperial Museum. We are building upon what we already have, that is present in the form of our history, our buildings, our collections, and everything that has happened until now. Being in contact with an audience, with the programme of the museum, but building on top of that.
How will we do that? Sometime ago, we said that we decided to believe. When I was cross-checking this sentence, I discovered it had already appeared in the Bible: the idea that «we decided to believe» – so it’s not something that is absolutely new. We decided to believe, because believing is necessary. Because believing is a path towards resistance. Because it is a way of being brave. We decided to make conflicts visible. The best way we can find to resist this new era is to make conflicts visible and not hide them. Returning to what I was saying before, this idea of a government without politics, this dream that data, that managerialism could generate a neutral space for our existence, the idea of conflict becomes necessary.
I’m going to talk briefly about an example we have now. We have an exhibition at the museum entitled Hard Gelatin, Hidden Stories from the 80s, a moment in which all this was consolidated as a new discourse. In Hard Gelatin we react to all these ideas that generated a context in the 80s in which we had only one single discourse – that of triumph, of success. In the 80s at least in the case of Spain (in Portugal it was not that different, maybe here it was a bit later, but not much more) because we had our Expo in '92 and you had yours in '98, maybe some 6 years later.
In that moment a new discourse was imposed in which when there was only one reality: the reality of progress, of consensus. There were many other histories that became hidden at that moment, not because they were more certain than the others, but because they were against the others. The anti-artistic discourses, showing there were alternatives to the major narration. In Hard Gelatin, an exhibition curated by Teresa Grandas, what we are displaying is a number of works, most of them became forgotten until recently, that showed there were other ways of addressing that moment, and that maybe reality was not what we were being told at that moment, but a new one.
So that’s why I insist on this idea of making the conflict visible. As the first point of what we decided to believe, namely making the conflict visible. We also decided to believe the museum should be a stone in the shoe, something uncomfortable for those who visit us. This amount of discomfort can be applied in museums in many different ways.
One of them, when I was asked what would you do in a museum I said I would try to give them what they don’t expect. If you do give them what they expect, you will be meeting exactly what is already in the plan, and we have to be against the plan. We have to give people what they do not expect, especially in a moment of spectacularization, especially at a moment when tourism becomes so important for museums. I imagine that for here in Lisbon just as in everywhere else in the world, most of the museums’ visitors are tourists and that is absolutely fine. I define myself as the first tourist – yesterday I was already in Lisbon so I visited many museums – well two, I didn’t have any more time – so I acted as a tourist and I was glad to see I was given a little of what I didn’t expect, so that was good. So we have to keep being a stone in the shoe, and believe that we can be uncomfortable for our audience and for the political space in which we are inserted.
We decided to also combat the cultural industry, the entertainment world. Some years ago, maybe until the 70s, we thought our enemy was located somewhere in academia, somewhere in the powerful museums that were deciding the canon. What Broodthaers was trying to do was declare the museum was bankrupt because there was no way of solving that, because the canon was emitted from the major museums and reached us in a very clear way about the things we had to follow. The collection of the Guggenheim Museum was only being visited in one direction and it was a ramp you had to follow and understand there was only one way of explaining things. The big museums, located in the big centres, were sending us messages of how we had to read art history. It's true that maybe that is no longer the problem because the canon has been fragmented and made available for all of us. We can all set new canons, but we have new enemies. We have new enemies in the cultural industry, in the entertainment industry that send new messages that are much stronger than those that the culture can send. We also decided to believe that processes can be more important than being powerful; making visible what is behind, making visible how we do things, making visible that we don’t make finished projects. I think one of the aims of the museum today is having a critique that there are many different ways of doing what you do, and I think this is extremely good. We also decided to believe that museums can be a space of becoming, a space of social growth. Going back to the original idea of restoring education in the centre, and understanding that the museum is an institution that has to ask society for itself, ask reality for its own contradictions. The museum will also be working on another project very soon that illustrates a bit this idea, with a group of artists who I would say don’t even define themselves as artists, but as a very diverse group called Forensic Architecture, a London-based group that precisely investigates reality, and uses different levels of aesthetics to generate something new that is inquisitive aesthetics, investigative aesthetics.
What is Forensic Architecture about? They use the forensic basis – remember what forensics is about – forensics is a science that is basically used by the police to understand what we are doing as individuals, and try to find evidence against criminals. They are applying a counter-forensic, using forensics to question the state, and what happens when the criminal is the state. (I see some of you are smiling). They use science, and their knowledge, to question the big questions that right now are around. One of them is state violence, and the other is violence against nature. So (Forensics) insist on being a stone in the shoe and (this is my last idea) using the museum again as being another stone in the shoe. Using it to make visible what often remains invisible. Making the conflict emerge, and generating the tension between the expectations of an audience – who expects to see a well organized reality – and understand a bit more of their own lives, but not to face those things that sometimes we don’t want to see, that sometimes are hidden, far beyond the space where media is a limit and doesn’t allow us to be judges of reality.
This exhibition we are opening in only a month, and I have to say, when I asked the leader of this group, «Why do you need the museum, why do you do your research and make it available in museums?», and he gave me a great answer. He said, «because that was the role of aesthetics, that was the role of art until modernity, to rebuild what we don’t want to see. To make out of the human needs, an aesthetic dimension.» When Turner was painting clouds, and all these incredible landscapes with clouds, he was painting the clouds of the Industrial Revolution, and the suffering of so many people, and the hours of work of children, and the conditions of the new emerging working class of the Industrial Revolution. When he displays clouds, because he has many clouds, he has the clouds that generate bombs, that also have in suspension the children’s lives. He makes visible the need to make art, I would say to make museums spaces for ideology, for human rights, for defending the rights of nature and I think this is nothing else than going back to the very idea of the museum. And with that I think I tried to answer what practices should a 21st century museum pursue.
So I imagine most of you will try to answer that in the next two days, so good luck!