Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Ben Livne Weitzman: This exhibition series was in many ways based on the appendix from Deleuze’s book on Foucault, which relates to the latter’s chapter “Man and his Doubles” from the book The Order of Things. Which came first — the wish to work with these texts or the ideas for the exhibitions themselves?
Daniel Birnbaum: That little appendix by Deleuze is a text to which I have returned as a writer many times. So in a way that came first, but not in the sense that I decided to turn it into a leitmotif for massive exhibitions. It’s a bit more complicated and we never made the organizing principle behind the shows overly visible, perhaps to avoid the sense that we were simply illustrating philosophical concepts. I think one can say that the four shows were staged in a kind of contrapuntal relationship to the philosophical anthropology explored by Foucault in The Order of Things. His analyses of labor, languages, and life famously lead up to the questioning of traditional humanism itself. In our case, the concluding exhibition, The New Human, invoked visions of posthumanist or transhumanist life. Key artists were Hito Steyerl, Ed Atkins, Ryan Trecartin, and Cao Fei.
When I arrived at the museum in 2010 there were already plans to create a large exhibition around the concept of painting as an activity, as practice. Explosion – Painting as Action, a very large show, explored notions of labor, work and the economies of art production. There were instruction pieces by Yoko Ono and conceptual works by Laurence Wiener, great works by members of the groups Gutai and Zero as well as contributions by numerous younger artists. Totally new works as well as classics such as Loving Care, in which Janine Antoni mopped the floor of the gallery with her hair soaked in hair dye. Other works explored the concept of labor and economic realities (themes that in 2017 recurred in the exhibition Manipulate the World: Connecting Öyvind Fahlström). Very soon we had plans to do other large shows, one of them on language and issues of translation and one on the notion of life itself. It was in conversation with my friend Sven-Olov Wallenstein, an expert in Deleuze and the translator of his book on Foucault, that the idea emerged that we could create a series of exhibitions that rather systematically would explore these themes in a way corresponding to Foucault’s analyses of labor, language, and life.
Ben: How present were these texts during the curatorial process? Were they like direction markers, or more like a map or a guide book?
Daniel: I would say that these texts were direction markers on a kind of metalevel. In a way, the philosophical framework functioned as a map or, as you say, guide book to the series as a whole. While the four exhibitions were not conceived only as responses to this type of question, one might, as Wallenstein puts it, trace a line, no matter how sinuous, that traverses them and at several points intersects with the Foucauldian problems delineated. The philosophical notions were not overly visible in the individual shows, let alone in the individual works of art. There were many curators involved. Life Itself was organized by Carsten Höller, Jo Widoff and myself, and the philosophically rich catalog was edited by Stephanie Hessler. We did not in any way limit ourselves to the Deleuzean framework, and I would not want to reduce the fantastic works by Pierre Huyghe, Trisha Donnelly, Josh Kline, Philippe Parreno, Lygia Clark, Paul Thek, Joseph Beuys, and many others to illustrations of a philosophical road map. The same is true of After Babel, created in dialog with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets, whose section referenced writers such as Etel Adnan and Edouard Glissant and took place in a tower built by Simon Denny. The New Human, finally, was curated by Joa Ljungberg, who no doubt found inspiration in political writers and feminist theorists that have little to do with Foucault, even if some of the artists, Ed Adkins for instance, does seem to hint at that “formation of the future” that Deleuze writes about, a sphere where, as theorists, we perhaps have to content ourselves with “very tentative indications if we are not descend to the level of cartoons.”
Ben: Was the curatorial aspiration here to illustrate the ideas of these thinkers, to re-think them through art, or do you see it rather as an act of philosophizing with or via art?
Daniel: During my years in Stockholm, we staged several philosophical events at the museum including lectures by thinkers such as Jacques Rancière and a Night of Philosophy that attracted thousands of people. But art that attempts to merely illustrate philosophical constructs is rarely very satisfying. Sometimes artistic and curatorial explorations can fruitfully run in parallel to philosophical thinking, however. To philosophize with or via art is perhaps a good way to put it. But again, I think it has to be a contrapuntal exercise, never a form of direct illustration. What would such a thing be as a philosophy of the exhibition, or even, more radically, a philosophy that itself takes on the form of an exhibition? Could there be a way to understand, or rather do, philosophy spatially, so that the exhibition medium—if the term “medium” is still useful here—would present a possible solution to the problems of conceptual articulations, which thereby would cease to be purely conceptual, and instead come to invest the field of the sensory, tactile, auditory, and visual? Those are questions Wallenstein and I pose in Spacing Philosophy, a book that appears this fall. The anthropology series is, I believe, an example of such philosophizing in the field of the sensory, tactile, auditory, and visual. It was quite a complex undertaking.
Ben: The contrapuntal image is an interesting one. It suggests movements and relations, a delicate balance of polyphonic tunes, where the lines are independent but nonetheless related harmonically.
Daniel: I think the important thing to emphasize is that the art exhibited is not simply an illustration of thought patterns that are already fully articulated. If that were the case the curatorial articulations would be mere decoration.
Ben: It is interesting to think of philosophers who curated exhibitions. Somehow, all those who come up in my mind are French. Of course, the most well known is Jean-François Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux at Centre Pompidou (1985), or Paul Virilio Unknown Quantity at the Fondation Cartier (2003). Also, Bernard-Henri Lévy experiments with curation, with the exhibition Les Aventures de la Vérité at the Fondation Maeght (2013), which apparently began with Plato’s cave. In Spacing Philosophy, you wrote on Lyotard’s exhibition. What are a few of the thought which you two gathered around that show?
Daniel: What would such a thing be as a philosophy of the exhibition, or even, more radically, a philosophy that itself takes on the form of an exhibition? Could there be a way to understand, or rather do, philosophy spatially, so that the exhibition medium—if the term “medium” is still useful here—would present a possible solution to the problems of conceptual articulations, which thereby would cease to be purely conceptual, and instead come to invest the field of the sensory, tactile, auditory, and visual? Those are questions we pose in the book. Lyotard’s show certainly was an ambitious undertaking and gave rise to a kind of curatorial turn.
Ben: Over the years many philosophers have turned to art to think, explore and sometimes indeed illustrate their thoughts. We could imagine Heidegger exhibiting Van Gogh’s shoes next to the Elgin Marbles, Foucault curating a René Magritte solo-show and Deleuze - a retrospective of Francis Beacon’s paintings. Perhaps this is one of the interesting paths opening for the curatorial practice today, which becomes more open as a playground for, let's say, contrapuntal exploration.
Daniel: Haha — imagine that! Thank God Heidegger was not a curator! I wonder what Bertrand Russell’s logical atomism would have looked like translated into the exhibition format? I remember that Julia Kristeva also staged an interesting show. There are plenty of examples. Moderna Museet’s Anthropology Series was in a way my attempt to create an intense dialog between art and philosophical speculation without reducing one to the other. And without staging myself as a curatorial demiurge. The project was truly polyphonic and involved innumerable artists, curators, and writers.