BY Tom Morton in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 09
Featured in
Issue 120

Tate Triennial 2009

Curator Nicolas Bourriaud talks botany, modernity, time, class and exhibition-making

BY Tom Morton in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 09

Charles Avery, Untitled (Traveller), 2008, 54cm x 38 cm, pencil and gouache on paper. Courtesy: the artist

TOM MORTON Your forthcoming book The Radicant employs a botanical metaphor to identify a form of cultural production whose roots are not static and buried, like those of a tree, but mobile and above ground, like those of a creeper or ivy. How has this informed your approach to the forthcoming Tate Triennial, an exhibition that has traditionally consisted of British artists but for which you have selected non-British ‘passers-by’, including Subodh Gupta and Loris Gréaud.

NICOLAS BOURRIAUD Whether buried or visible, roots and origins constitute brakes or barriers in contemporary art. The Postmodern period has been active in levelling the different ‘versions’ of time and space across the planet, by de-occidentalizing them. Artists nowadays start from a globalized cultural state, from where they try to reach more specific fields, and not the other way round. Pascale Marthine Tayou or Navin Rawanchaikul, for example, can observe the world from Cameroon or Chiang Mai. They no longer need to sell their cultural roots but to organize connections between signs and forms, circuits of meaning: they progress in a ‘radicant’ way. Let’s not forget that ‘radical’ means ‘belonging to the root’. The Triennial’s hypothesis consists in affirming an emerging modernity for our century, based on planetary exchanges, on translation, on the intertwining of space and time in a multi-layered world. That is why it comprises artists who are UK-born, residents and those who are passing through. Being British means having been sufficiently irradiated by a certain amount of specific cultural wavelengths. I prefer to show London as a magnet for influences and energies that originate elsewhere.

TM Both The Radicant and the Tate Triennial arrive at a moment of global economic crisis. Is this significant to your construction of ‘altermodern’?

NB The term ‘Postmodern’ first appeared around the time of the 1973 oil crisis, an event that caused the world to realize for the first time that our energy reserves were limited – i.e., it put an end to the idea of superabundance, infinite progress and the Modernist idea of culture as a projection into the future. The oil crisis represents for me the ‘primordial moment’ of Postmodernism. Since then the economy has been disconnected from natural resources and reoriented towards an immaterial ‘financialization’, whose limits we clearly see now, with the partial collapse of the system. While the economy was severing its ties with concrete geography, culture was becoming divorced from history as a coherent scenario. Postmodernism was the story of this disconnection, leading to a reified conception of ‘origins’. What I call ‘altermodern’ is the narrative of our reconnection with both, through a new set of parameters linked to globalization: instantaneity, availability, displacements …

TM Perhaps this is a very British question, but how does class fit into your formulation of ‘altermodernity’?

NB One could say that the Postmodernist period has seen the notion of ‘class’ erased as a historical subject and replaced by a myriad of ethnic, cultural, social or sexual communities. None of those groups in itself represents a threat to the ruling establishment, and the Postmodern period has seen a move from political to socio-cultural struggles. But at this political level the gathering of those communities into a ‘multitude’, as Michael Hardt and Toni Negri termed it, finally crystallized into the ‘alterglobalization’ movement, a cluster of intertwined struggles that, although deprived of any totalizing content, are coherent between one another. Modernism was preoccupied by the way history could be achieved according to prescribed scenarios. Again, the big Postmodern question was ‘Where are you coming from?’, which was the basis of its post-colonial, essentialist and post-political discourse. A new question arises today: ‘Where are we going to?’ We know that we can only reach this destination, wherever it is, by wandering. Real social divisions are economic. The modern gesture par excellence is the uprooting, the exodus – which is why I consider queer theory as more ‘altermodern’ than Postmodern.

TM You quoted the French New Wave director Jacques Rivette’s phrase ‘a film is a documentary of its own making’ when writing about your exhibition ‘Traffic’ at CAPC Bordeaux in 1996. How do you anticipate that the Triennial will document its own production?

NB ‘Traffic’ and ‘Altermodern’ are both exhibitions built around a theoretical work, and both try to catch a moment in art production. A show is also a display of evidences, an attempt to complete a puzzle. But if ‘Traffic’ was born out of collective and spontaneous discussions with the artists, ‘Altermodern’ is the result of a series of separate conversations in London with various figures in the art world.

TM How would you characterize your vision of space and time? It seems to me that written or spoken language is important to a number of artists in the Triennial. I’m thinking of the work of Nathaniel Mellors, Tris Vonna-Michell, Charles Avery ...

NB In order to understand it, we have to go back to Postmodernism, whose historical task was to level all chronological systems by criticizing the Western one. In our globalized culture time has become a space in itself, and the artists I categorize as ‘altermodern’ are the first to explore this new frontier. So yes, Mellors, Vonna-Michell and Avery are using written or spoken language in their works, in order to compose complex narratives in which time and space merge. I call this compositional mode the ‘journey form’, a ‘trajectorial form’; it includes elements that are absent, past or future, fictional or documentary. It can take the form of an installation connecting with diverse events or places, bringing together the co-ordinates of a unique journey, as a ribbon of signs. Simon Starling and Darren Almond, for example, displace objects in order to unveil their history: they ‘viatorize’ forms (from the Latin viator, ‘traveller’).

TM In 2006 you co-curated the exhibition ‘Notre Histoire: An Emerging French Art Scene’ with Jérôme Sans at the Palais de Tokyo – an exhibition that, like previous iterations of the Tate Triennial, provided a partial survey of a nation’s young artists. Are there any useful comparisons to make between ‘Notre Histoire’ and ‘Altermodern’, or the contexts of Paris and London?

NB ‘Notre Histoire’ was a portrait of the Parisian scene seen through the prism of the first four years of the Palais de Tokyo’s programme. It included artists such as Michael Lin, Leandro Erlich, Mircea Cantor and Wang Du, who obviously are not French. And ‘Altermodern’ is the first international show at Tate Britain. But with the Tate Triennial the stakes are very different. I first had to work on creating a new version of such a regular event, reassessing its role and its shape: hence the four prologues, which were stages in the show’s production, and an extension of the exhibition in time: the Triennial actually started on 26 April 2007, and will end on 26 April 2008. Also, it is accompanied by a theoretical framework that was absent from ‘Notre Histoire’. Finally, I think the Eurostar is the best place to be, because my ideal location is the Paris–London return journey. Not to belong to any art scene, to any ‘us’, has always been my ambition.

TM Your book Relational Aesthetics (1998) has become a key text of late-20th-century and early-21st-century art theory and has given rise to what we might characterize as a mini-industry dedicated to criticizing its findings. In a recent catalogue essay for ‘theanyspacewhatever’, an exhibition at the Guggenheim New York in 2008 that brought together a generation of artists (including Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Carsten Höller, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija) with whom you have been closely associated since the early 1990s, you have responded to these criticisms in print. Why was it important for you to do this?

NBRelational Aesthetics, the first parts of which appeared in 1995, was the result of the close observation of a group of artists who happened to become leaders of their generation. As the first attempt to build a reading grid for their practices, it opened a discursive territory on which I have no grip any more – just as, on a much larger scale, Marxism has outgrown Marx’s actual writings. I tried not to waste my time answering the incorrect or stupid interpretations, including ‘ethical’ readings of it. The book’s ideas were actually disseminated by art students and artists – rarely by academics – and mainly through translations in languages such as Serbian, Danish and Korean. Bear in mind that the English-language version of the book, published in 2002 – four years after the French version, which was similarly ignored – was not reviewed in any art magazines. People were obliged to go straight to discussing the commentaries on the book, which allowed some critics with no imagination to build their career on it, which is fine. So ‘theanyspacewhatever’ happened at the right moment, like a coda for ‘Traffic’, which included all the participants in the Guggenheim show. Now I can examine this literature calmly, correct the blatant misunderstandings and let the book live its normal life.

TM It seems to me that putting out texts such as Relational Aesthetics, Post-Production or The Radicant, which seek to give some shape to contemporary art production, makes you a kind of sacrificial figure – to be the first to raise one’s voice in a quiet room risks an inevitable shouting-down. How do you feel about occupying this position?

NB Uncomfortable, of course. But this discomfort is part and parcel of the process of opening up new pathways. Most art theorists seem to be tourists on an organized trek rather than explorers.

TM Is there a personal aspect to projects such as ‘Altermodern’ or The Radicant?

NB The concepts I develop are born out of my personal experience of time and space, out of my conversations and travels. Maybe that is why I think of myself as a curator who writes, not as a philosopher.

TM You’re also the author of a novel L’ ère Tertiaire (1997). Can you imagine returning to writing fiction?

NB I wrote a Kafkaesque novel about a contemporary Noah’s Ark. It also describes my life in New York in 1995–6. Since then, I have never stopped writing fiction in my spare time but it is now more like those slates which the ancient Greeks called ‘Hypomnenata’, an exercise on myself. Novels have always been part of my thinking: to go back to the Triennial, you can see how our perception of time is becoming more and more like the one Jorge Luis Borges describes: a garden with forking paths. The exhibition is also haunted by the writings of W.G. Sebald: the way he uses documentary photographs, and his meditations on time.

TM Returning to your activities as a curator, I’m intrigued as to how you approach the actual installation of an exhibition – what used to be called the ‘hang’. Do you enjoy this process?

NB The idea behind a group exhibition such as ‘Altermodern’ is to make a pattern appear, to organize a bouncing polyphony, to verify an intuition. It is not about ideas any more, but about the desire to reveal things by making connections between art works. So the layout is crucial. It is a different grammar, a visual opera whose libretto sustains distinct voices and songs, a film that needs many people to collaborate. This is perhaps why curators can understand art works and artists in a way that academics will never be able to. It is the difference between deep-sea divers and oceanographers.

TM Finally, what projects lie beyond the Triennial? NB The attempt to shake up our certainties about the path of art and culture in the globalized world. ‘Modern’ has become almost an insult, which is why I am trying to dust it down and examine it as tool that could be used again. What if there really were a new modernity emerging beyond Postmodernism, as opposed to the dominant discourse? Rust is never where everybody thinks it is.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.