Trouble Afoot in Montpellier: Nicolas Bourriaud on Museum Politics

The French curator and critic on founding Montpellier Contemporain, the future of institutions and why museums will become editorial platforms

BY Nicolas Bourriaud AND Pablo Larios in Interviews | 17 MAR 21

Last autumn, French media reported that the recently-founded MO.CO, Montpellier Contemporain, was experiencing a shake-up. Montpellier’s new mayor wants to redirect the institution’s operating budget, and the contract of its founding director, the celebrated critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, seems to be in jeopardy. Over email, I asked Bourriaud about his recent work, the situation in Montpellier and the future of museums.

Pablo Larios: In 2019, you opened MO.CO Montpellier Contemporain: an ambitious, comprehensive institution in the south of France that spans a school, exhibition spaces and an artist’s residency. What was your vision for MO.CO and what sets it apart?

Nicolas Bourriaud: In 2015, I was hired by the City of Montpellier to transform an old building, the Hôtel Montcalm, into a contemporary art museum. The ambition was to put the city on the contemporary art map and galvanize the local scene. Soon after my arrival, I was offered the artistic directorship of La Panacée, an institution there devoted to digital arts. Within a short time, I realized that the only way to accomplish the mission would be to create a more complete institution, far broader than the single building I had been hired to open.

First, I transformed La Panacée into a contemporary art centre. Then, I merged this new art centre with the local art school. The idea was to create an institution that operated on every level – from education and production to exhibitions, public programming and, ultimately, collecting, through the concept of the third space: the Hôtel des Collections. This is the first institution entirely devoted to presenting private or public art collections, which are used as a basis for curated exhibitions. It was a way of creating a museum-like structure without having to spend millions building a coherent collection from scratch.

Nicolas Bourriaud. Photograph: Sergio Rosales Medina

PL: This sounds like a different remit to that of the Palais de Tokyo, which you launched in Paris as co-director in 1999.

NB: When it comes to what I call ‘institutional design’, I believe there’s a context and a moment. Palais de Tokyo was an answer to one particular here and now; MO.CO is another. Institutions have to respond to the times and to their surroundings. MO.CO was a take on the growing importance of private collections and foundations over the last decade. Every exhibition at Hôtel des Collections addresses a specific topic: it is our perspective on a singular collection. On the other hand, I am also convinced of the importance of the association between art education and production. Our students belong to a micro-scene that boosts their creativity, and the school is the core of our system.

PL: At the beginning of 2020, you planned a crisis-themed exhibition called ‘Permafrost’ – featuring artists including Nina Beier, Dora Budor and Michael E. Smith – which opened just as the pandemic hit Europe. What was your response to the pandemic and lockdown?

‘Permafrost’, 2020, exhibition view, MO.CO, Montpellier. Courtesy: MO.CO, Montpellier

NB: ‘Permafrost’ was conceived as a partnership between MO.CO and the 16th Istanbul Biennial, which I curated in 2019. I asked Vincent Honoré, our Head of Exhibitions, to make his own selection amongst the artists exhibited there, in order to expand the project to Montpellier. Totally by coincidence, it formed a perfect dialogue with the pandemic that interrupted the exhibition. The whole concept of the Hôtel des Collections has, in a way, anticipated the current crisis: for each show, we are liaising with only one source, which means we only need to make one phone call if we have to modify anything. It also results in a very low carbon footprint. MO.CO tries to adopt a responsible approach to the climate crisis by privileging local production over shipping and by finding a balance in our projects between international programmes and regional ones.

PL: How do you see museums evolving as a consequence of the pandemic, which – as in other areas of society – has accelerated changes that were already on the horizon?

NB: When we went into lockdown, everyone seemed to be rushing to produce virtual exhibitions, but I doubt they will grow in importance. What the last year has taught us, I think, is the opposite: I’ve never felt such an urge for presence. As the artist Pierre Huyghe said, when asked about his 2013 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, an exhibition ‘is not exposing something to someone, but exposing someone to something’. It is about an experience. The screen cannot fulfil all the needs that art conjures, because it always formats and standardizes this experience. I would rather bet that, in the near future, the main stakes for contemporary art centres and museums will revolve around singularity, around institutions finding their own personal voices. The question will be: what do we have to offer that is unique? Hence, developing original narratives will be crucial. Museums will move towards a more elaborate editorialization of their content and programmes. The mainstream historical narrative won’t be enough and, anyway, it is cracking in all parts. Look at the recent developments in the news media: their positioning becomes more important than the service they are supposed to provide; the point of view has become more important than the event.

MO.CO ESBA. Photograph: Yohann Gozard

PL: In 2019, you curated the 16th Istanbul Biennial, which took as a conceptual point of departure the massive formation of plastic waste in the seas to explore anthropocentric concerns in an age where culture and nature are intertwined. Where do you see art headed?

NB: For Istanbul, I had developed the image of this huge mass of plastic waste, which has become so vast that it is now called ‘the seventh continent’. For me, it is the embodiment of the Anthropocene in that it encapsulates the new promiscuity between species and matter, and the new dialogue we are entering into: the microscopic on one side; immensity on the other. The question is: what is the impact of the Anthropocene on our ways of representing and thinking about the world? More specifically: what are its effects on the way artists produce? This is a new anthropological project, a molecular anthropology, which I define as the study of the human effects, traces and imprints on the universe, and their interactions with non-humans.

The current molecularization of society – the way we privilege the individual over the masses, for instance; the way big cities become patchworks of cultures – corresponds to what I described in my book Altermodern (2009) as the ‘archipelization of the world’. Powders rather than solids, fluids rather than masses, circuits rather than surfaces: a new generation of artists – including Dora Budor, Agnieszka Kurant, Max Hooper Schneider, Sam Lewitt, Pamela Rosenkrantz and Anicka Yi – is engaged in this molecular analysis of the world. In purely aesthetic terms, they all are introducing a very original formal thought: instead of imprinting a gesture on supposedly ‘blank’ or ‘neutral’ materials, they set out active elements. In other words, there is no longer a ‘background’ on which forms are traced: all is form, and that is an utterly new method of composition in art. Now, matter is the main dimension, over objects or products. Parallel to this movement, on an ethical level, I also see amongst the artists a real need to develop deeper attitudes. The return of metaphysics, even.

MO.CO Panacée. Photograph: Yohann Gozard

PL: Many are questioning the longevity of current museum models. These days, museums must speak to many interest groups: visitors, art students, professional viewers as well as municipal interests such as tourism boards. Of course, the pandemic has impacted institutions’ financing and visitor numbers. Tell me about the current polemic surrounding MO.CO, with the Mayor of Montpellier announcing he is considering ‘reorienting’ MO.CO’s budget. What do you say to that, and what’s next for the institution?

NB: There are many ways in which MO.CO might develop in the years to come, not only in terms of programming but also structurally. One very dynamic aspect of MO.CO is the department of public programmes, which hosted more than 900 groups visits in 2019, and has invented many mediation formats: from thematic visits run by specialists to initiatives for children and audiences requiring additional accessibility, such as VR programmes for hospital patients. Inventing or reinventing our audience is crucial for art institutions today, but it should not mean lowering standards. We also created a research centre in partnership with the university, focused on art collecting, which, alongside education, is one of MO.CO’s core activities. We want to collaborate more closely with local industries and find new partners in the region; we’d also like to implement artworks in public places and shops, as we did in 2019 with ‘100 Artists in the City’: MO.CO has to become a development engine for the whole of Montpellier.

At the same time, we are developing a network of international correspondents, both for the school and the art centre. There are already seven residencies for our graduate students, and I intend to expand this. I also wish to include the art centre café as a site for new programmes and implement an organic orchard on the roof of La Panacée in order to supply our two restaurants. Next March, we are launching the first territorial biennial, which will provide a regular update on the highly active local art scene. At the same time, Hôtel des Collections will present an exhibition based on the collection of Fondation Zinsou in Benin, which will highlight their education programmes on the African continent.

I still don’t know if my contract as a director will be renewed. But, as long as I am here, the focus will remain the same. I was hired by the former mayor, but his successor has now declared his intention to maintain MO.CO as it is, which is an important step. Whatever happens, I am proud to have created this institution for Montpellier.

Main Iimage: MO.CO Hôtel des collections. Photograph: Yohann Gozard

Nicolas Bourriaud is a curator, critic and founding director of MO.CO Montpellier Contemporain. In 2019, he curated the 16th Istanbul Biennial, ‘The Seventh Continent’. His most recent publications include Formes et trajets I & II (Les Presses du reel, 2018) and The Exform (Verso, 2016).

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.