“The Allegorical Impulse of the Curator.”

An interview with Fareed Armaly


The Künstlerhaus in Stuttgart does not have an exhibition space of the usual sort to offer, particularly on its programmatic fourth floor, haus.0. Here you’ll find the remnants of past projects and exhibition architectures, old interventions laid bare, as well as archives of various kinds. However, this is not simply a work room or office space in the sense of the early nineties, but an allegorical area that aims to inscribe the ruins of history into the continuous modeling of a “contemporary syntax.” The exhibition program itself also doesn’t hurry from show to show; presentations, workshops, discussions, and exhibitions seem rather to be constantly making reference to one another, with some projects functioning more as discoursive allusions than as representative surfaces. The space and the medial representations visibly aim at interacting with the thematic focuses that many of the projects and presentations (by Mel Chin, Laura Cottingham, Hito Steyerl, Trina Robbins and Isaac Julien, among others) were trying to convey in their analysis of modern everyday cultures between feministic and post-colonial theory and politics. Fareed Armaly became the Artistic Director of the Künstlerhaus in 1999. His period of office ends at the end of this year (finally ran till end of 2002) Helmut Draxler spoke with him about the work in Stuttgart, his aims and objectives, and the connections between his work as an artist and a curator.

Helmut Draxler: When you began your work as Artistic Director of the “Künstlerhaus” in Stuttgart, there was more a process directed inwards, toward the institution’s own structures, than a regular exhibition program aimed at the public. That has now changed. How would you describe this former approach, and how has it developed and changed?

Fareed Armaly: I was elected to a unique situation in regards to Künstlerhaus, as it was aware of a need for renewal on several levels. The institution’s twenty years are interesting, established with an access to media production versus artist ateliers, and many unique periods in its artistic programming. But it was evident the institution’s original early 1980s dynamic was no more—imagine four floors of 300sq m each, with Werkstätten, artist workspaces, and another connected building, and since a decade no planning or movement. In such a small city as Stuttgart, this was a deterrent signal to anyone who may have been interested. An institution has to have some recognizable identity which suggests principles operating.

HD: What can an artistic program change, given a situation like that?

FA: The idea of a contemporary artistic programming is like several narratives at work, inscribing the lines drawn between what appears as possible pasts in the institution, to imaginable futures. This meant not to focus on exhibition gallery programming, but on an institutional dialog, of a programming identity that reflects on the institutional identity as an array of several types of practices and philosophies undertaken here. In an early 1980s Künstlerhaus self-documentation video, then the president of the board, Kurt Weidemann discusses how it should not be another Volkshochschule (Adult Education Center), but focus on experimentation. But while there was indeed support of artistic programming, after some time, this appeared as a way to defer from harder questions, and just assumed diminishing returns meant change director, and not the institution itself had to rethink. Institution-wise, everything was in a frozen state of the late 1980s, artist workspaces and equipment all analog etc., no budgeting for computers, and no planning strategy for what will the institution be needing and transform into for the next decade. It resembled an empty gallery house, therefore by default the artistic director role had become the personality of a house, in lieu of a full identity expressed through a working institution. So haus.0 reflected on this clearly unheimlich (uncanny) aspect—a Stuttgart institution as an aging interior to an empty building shell with a friendly, “young” international’ press face.

HD: How has your program taken shape between the reference to the Künstlerhaus’ historical identity, and a new institutional definition?

FA: Künstlerhaus had always used the metaphor of institution as hardware, artistic program as software. The haus.0 program was introduced as analogous to the browser, with attributes from both set up within a contemporary syntax, still in development, composing dynamic sets of identities. It allowed to shift to notions neither “media,” “architecture,” “site” but firstly, programming. haus.0 as a space worked with architecture, design, media as systems. The term architecture belongs to both computer and built space—where we will operate—so there was an accent on this correspondence between, and a philosophy of fields and areas made by renovations, between public entrance, stairway, the two program floors, and web. The development onwards was to start connecting different floors as one unified institution. The open plan meant space defined not by walls, but through a play of information, material qualities, surface pattern, and screens, and recovering Künstlerhaus just-past as emblematic fragments. The role of design was considered as it joins the institution to various media as one spatial expression. The logo as identity was the first haus.0 work, by Diverse, which expressed the composite relation at work between the Künstlerhaus to the haus.0 program, further becomes the navigation bar on the web. Over time, haus.0 formulated how the web would shape within, like with the building, the website would transform and find its shape over time, in response to the initial form. The new website and URL address started the reader/exhibition documentation style. The planned projects would all pass through the plug-ins, which stressed an aspect of communication media: the “video plug-in” was a haus.0 tag back to the original Künstlerhaus Video Communications Group, a first commission to re-edit a short trailer from their 1982 documentary on the Künstlerhaus; the audio plug-in began linked to record industry, and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, as a new sound installation; the print plug-in was the first footnote library, built out of the footnotes from Mark Rakatansky’s essay “Spatial Narratives”; the meeting point, was the GALA committee project, the TV Soap— Melrose Place Bar. In this time was also introduced the first ImHaus meetings, concerning the institutional self-definition, for members, particularly new ones. These meetings were mainly discussing new forms of institutional self-definition.

HD: How has the program developed from this aspect of self-definition to become more outward-looking again?

FA: An exhibition should function as a navigation system, as situations that will expand, or associate or fold into libraries again, was clear from that point, not as a ‘lab’ but admitting the linked, netted, electronic, everyday culture registered each day on the web. So, from that it was easy to continue emphasis that year on the scripts and media production from a variety of positions—in 1999 came Norman Klein’s Scripted Spaces project, and new audio workshop project done with Otto Kränzler/Künstlerhaus audio studio; a second footnote library from Sadie Plant’s Zeroes and Ones; the first presentation in a decade of seminal post-studio artist Jack Goldstein records and films; the Laura Cottingham realised a website project based on her film The Anita Pallenberg Story; there was a presentation of cine16 programming of 16mm educational films, Rainer Kirberg introduced his script workshop etc. This phase through open haus ends with the :kynstlerhaus project, at the end of the year. That project represented the next stage of initial research, resituating the documents of the institution into a contemporary position. Kirberg developed a performance using the statutes of the institution, but doing so as it has a certain tone to it, a lot concerns what to do if the institution no longer exists.

HD: How do you think that a small institution like the Künstlerhaus, or an “artist’s space” in general, can contribute to the international art discourse?

FA: It is always about scale. Small only counts in terms of small-minded,—and we all know many larger institutions which are just that. An artist’s space can join ideas of discourse and practice. In the market-oriented contemporary arena or its partner in the biennalization, it is easily forgotten what role a responsible institutional program can play, and be important as discursive and actual tools. I also see that as important institutional offer as a partner to practices in countries outside of European borders. What makes these spaces rich in potential, is that—unlike a space organized around a discipline, cinema or so on—they have the right to redefine their working parameters. They can work out strategies in link to other institutions and kinds of programs, from outside as well. I know the original productions we support, or even the way we organize our plug-ins philosophy, can travel to larger metropoles and spaces—so as it has with Norman Klein project/workshop framework, Trina Robbins women’s comix history, or our work on Mel Chin’s Revival Fields project, the planned production of Kirberg’s Melrose Plays, even our work originating amp with Ruby Sircar, aspects could travel further on. With Jack Goldstein and other projects, it just initiated the interest again and one will see those works suddenly being done in larger contexts.

HD: You have worked together with various artists or theoreticians more than once; some of your guests also referred to the same material—the bar from Melrose Place, for example. Can you give some examples for these work processes, or describe the sort of INTERaction that took place between your conceptual framework on the one hand, and the interests of the guest artist/theoretician/producer on the other?

FA: In fact what confirmed my beliefs was that everyone I invited or who had just visited specifically enjoyed and readily imagined ways to link in. There is a desire to difference and continuities, versus erasing and starting in the white cube as if from zero. That is not accidental, it is a space as an invitation, to consider growth of an identity as a programming framework and the combination of projects that acknowledge and grew around or through, leaving overlaps and inviting intersections to think further with, contra to a white hall, mostly composed of information base, of pattern, emblems, etc.. I offer the chance to develop ideas in the situation that Künstlerhaus can offer, which is joined further through the brochures and web to a meaning in a program. I would argue that there are many projects which become installations just because people have to have that in an institution.

Our talks and films take place in the remnants of the Norman Klein exhibition, literally on the floor/garden labyrinth of Versailles, underneath a Baroque ceiling mural, etc., which was linked to his Freud/Lissitsky navigator station. In terms of the media, as well particularly video, many of the participants I have invited used as one main aspect, the situation of the developing video library. It was interesting as a communication to a contemporary generation, and the role of cinema to a national identity and memory. After having worked for half a year, my assistant Ruby Sircar’s amp project joined to the system she saw developed, and brought in a second-generation take on Indian cinema/music. Ironically, most of the artists I was inviting, knew these as well if not better than Hollywood, for example, the Lithuanian artists, Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, who in turn produced “transaction,” and its base on Lithuanian cinema, which then later Anri Sala saw, also knew much of that cinema, and added his new work, which linked to Albanian cinema. Now, that also points to cinema and memory, the national cinema especially important here, the export of nation, and with that a different configuration of movie history for a generation born outside of European parameters.

HD: You constantly refer to historical materials that run through the program like a connecting thread of references, from Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Jack Goldstein, and Samuel Beckett’s collaboration with Stuttgart Television, to the experimental films of Peter Weiss, as in one of the most recent projects. What connection do you see here?

FA: In terms of issues of identity politics, and the institution, it is important to see that culture is engaged as history versus nostalgia. . .What is important in how the artists worked with the conventions, what is linked to them politically, culturally, and how these function as narratives constituting a subject. Media is one aspect, the author and the era in which they position their work to, in what kind of field, etc. and the response to the institutionalization of a cultural field. My attempt at a “popular” exhibition was the exhibition with Trina Robbins From Girls to Grrrlz on women’s comix history. Trina Robbins, for example, is coming from a clearly essential second-wave feminist position, and chose counter-culture of underground comix as a route, and then also becomes a popular historian by default. Also in all the work I’m looking to link to, there is a sense of strategy implied by playing with the preconceived roles—the construction of the individual by society, the constitution of a subject, are seen in a dynamic which is expressed, or analyzed or projected to grasp at an identity politics and issues of power and representation. They also are framed in regards to suggest a narrative in flux identity-wise as well, like Peter Weiss, during WWII becoming a Jewish refugee settling in Sweden, writing in 1964 on German restoration in Marat/Sade, or Lou Reed’s “gender bender” working to be recognized in the most mainstream American music—rock and roll, or more subtly, Goldstein’s Californian work always influenced by his certain “Canadianness” to media technology.

HD: How great a role does theory play in your program as a curator?

FA: Theory should be the reason for programming—otherwise, we are just showcases, management. But I was for example, against making symposiums in the beginning in Künstlerhaus because that always tended to a kind of flash name-spectacle, not really linked to a larger thought process, or at least a project that one can link to in different ways. I was always against the constant packaging of theory to postcolonial, multiculturalism, disposable categories for “oh we did that.” I think for many groups, myself included, who felt not addressed in kinds of academic books available in the late 1970s, particularly pertaining to the politics of culture, nation, identity, the role of art etc. the explosion of new essays and theory in the 1980s was truly exhilarating, and I don’t care how it is packaged today, I still feel this importance today. Theory always implies a constant modelling, and not models, and not to reiterate disciplines or just illustrate as if in a vacuum, to reanimate poses thrown from earlier theoretical positions, so I assume a way with the program to set an environment in which there are links, one feels it running within and informing, and at points it is more transparent. In that respect, the point of starting the footnote libraries and having on the web the architect Rakatansky’s “Spatial Narratives,” is that in 1991 it was an important essay, referring in practice to the closed-off discourse of the American academic architectural theory, and offering in the text the role of the Unheimlich (uncanny) to open up those built structures to new passages within.

HD: How would you describe the continuities or gaps between your work as an artist and that as a curator?

FA: There are people who still ask me when would I produce artwork again—I can’t seem to explain it has always been about practice, there is no gap in my production. As you know, my work didn’t begin in 1986 with considering exhibitions but producing interviews on video and print for my concept of a journal focused on the production of contemporary music/culture. Today along with that methodology I have also related to the institution in terms of solo exhibitions, and commissions, specific contracts. I don’t place these in any hierarchy, the three provide a kind of triangulation to orient in the open field that artistic practice is. I consider it as an ongoing search for a contemporary syntax pertaining to cultural identity, projected onto changing institutional models. This is evident in my roles over the last decade, invested in the production of transition or new spaces or projects, that moment of formation. A selection would include; the potential role of a smaller gallery by its relation to a community of interests (as advisor supporting the foundation and development of the early years of Gallery Nagel); a year long, large group project set within a Le Corbusier Unité building (foundation development with the curator Yves Aupetitallot and Project Unité); research and development of a project for the planned opening of the new space of a corporate foundation in Vienna (my contracted year/office linked to Generali Foundation); a modern art museum attempts to shift from modern to contemporary (the co-curator role for Ute Meta Bauer’s ? section in Nowhere, Lousiana Museum); the public art project made by joining between three public institutions—university, television, and Kulturbehoerde, (Program, Hamburg public art project) and now, artistic director of an artist’s space.

HD: As we all know, success is a fairly deceptive category. Nonetheless, according to what criteria would you assess your work in Stuttgart as being satisfying or successful for you?

FA: I knew Stuttgart since 1985, and the Künstlerhaus for quite some time as well, so I was also aware of what or by whom I would judge success on. There are the factual sides, our exhibition budget for the year is equal to one exhibition in an average Kunstverein. My program did not lose members. I leave the institution in a much better state than I found it, which is also an important part of working in an institution. I know from response and enquiries from the international visitors as well, there is an immediate sense of difference, this is not a void being temporarily filled neither by empty philosophies of aesthetics nor by flash ‘left’ slogans, or just collecting past ‘good’ critical work, but an ongoing environment evident in the rich unpredictable pattern generated through certain principles, that links better to certain kinds of contemporary art practice which keep joining specifically not only art but culture, society, politics representation. A city such as Stuttgart always has interesting people in the cultural field in a state of planning to or leaving to a larger city. Many of the programs’ public are thus other long-term visitors to Stuttgart, in grants programs or otherwise here, so ironically, it has a sense of internationalness I like.