“We need to be transparent about the issues”

Interview with Mai Abu El Dahab


Mai Abu El Dahab is one of the curators of Manifesta 6 that runs from September until the end of December this year, in Nicosia, Cyprus. My first question to her is: ‘What attracted you to apply for this job?’

The process for selecting curators for this coming Manifesta was a little bit different than Manifesta had done in the past. Usually the board of Manifesta, in cooperation with a representative of the city where it will take place (the city is selected before the team) would simply invite individual curators and ask them to work as a team, and they would orchestrate this collaboration. But in the case of this Manifesta they asked approximately forty curators from Europe – and some from outside – to send a one page proposal describing the team they would want to work with – thus choosing their own partners. The idea behind this I think was that the collaboration becomes much more real if based on the actual initiative of the people involved. After they received these forty applications, which were only describing a team, they chose the five most interesting ones and asked them to put together a concrete proposal of what they would do if they were the curators of Manifesta 6 in Nicosia.

So, you mean the pre-selection of the teams was only based on the personalities invited by Manifesta, and then on the personalities these people decided to involve?

It was based on the configuration of the teams. Since Manifesta often likes to work with multidisciplinary teams – with people from very different backgrounds – they were interested in the constellation that people would put together in relation to this specific site. My colleague, Florian Waldvogel, an independent curator from Frankfurt who was actually invited by Manifesta to put together a team, proceeded to invite Anton Vidokle, a Russian-American artist living in New York, and myself to start thinking about a proposal for this place.

Let’s first turn to the proposal. How did the idea to propose a School came about? I find it to be an interesting coincidence that the Free International University by Joseph Beuys was presented at Documenta 6. It’s as if the sixth editions of these mass events bring about an interest in transforming themselves into something more process and education based. Did you relate to those examples that had happened in this field? Were you influenced by them in any way?

The idea of the School – which was initially Florian’s idea – was very attractive to us because it has really combined all of our different interests. One of the major starting points was of course the increasingly problematic nature of these large scale-exhibitions, which are more and more becoming just another facet of the art-market, and this is quite valid in the case of Manifesta, which has transformed over its history into a very high-profile event that can really enhance the careers of many of artists, although this wasn’t the original intention of it. It was much more about being somewhat alternative and being much more down to earth, but now, because of the proliferation of so many biennials, it has started to occupy a very specific position of which we were very critical. It’s not necessarily a unique problem; many biennials are faced with the same challenges as Manifesta.

What is this character of Manifesta that you perceive as problematic?

It functions on many different levels. The one I’m extremely critical of is this idea of a “European Biennial of Contemporary Art”. In some ways this touches on the idea of “enlarging Europe”, which I think is somewhat superficial. Simply taking knickknacks here and there from all around Europe does not allow for a process of questioning, and this is a problem, because the European Union itself is a very complicated concept. For example one of the things that is widely accepted about Manifesta is that it is not a project about national representation. But at the same time, the money for Manifesta or the money for the participation of the artists often comes from national funding bodies which inevitably affects your choices somehow. I’m sure that isn’t indiscriminately true for all the projects, not all of them are realized because there is pre-allocated funding for them, but richer countries are definitely in a more advantageous position. I think this process should be more transparent, further questioned, and challenged especially by the people working in the field.

I think this upcoming edition will be a good occasion for Manifesta to confront itself, as your position is very critical from the outset. What do you think will be the reaction to your critique from the part of Manifesta Foundation?

This is a problem that you would find with many cultural institutions in Europe that attempt to follow a philosophy of being extremely open and critical. But in reality, because of the fact that they are influenced by so many different factors – like where the project takes place, the political reality in that place, the city, the interest of that city that commissions that project, the interests of the organizations where the money comes from and so on – there is always a limit to how critical they can be. I think with this project Manifesta really has an opportunity to re-invent itself and affect a lot the dynamics of the art-scene – assuming that we, and the people involved, are able to take a lot of risks and to be honest about our own shortcomings and to try to have a deep understanding of the place where we are working.

Do you see any relevance in the recent biennial structure? Can you cite any positive examples among the existing manifestations?

Absolutely. I’m not eliminating or discrediting biennials, completely. For example a lot of people are extremely critical of Venice. Well, in some ways it is maybe a little conservative but on the other hand Venice is very solid as it has a specific mandate. Venice is about every country promoting what it thinks are its best and newest art producers, and that’s what it is, it doesn’t pretend to be more than that.

So what you would miss in these other examples is solidity?

Not exactly the solidity. I do blame for the lack of clarity about why this or that is going on. I mean, you have these small biennials popping up everywhere, it has really become a kind of a circulation and a showcase of things, but at the same time there is not really a substantial reason why this is going on except that it’s about art-tourism. Which has some relevance in itself, but I’m personally interested in cultural production, not in displaying.

What do you think cultural production’s substance is? What is its aim or its position in society?

First of all I always make this distinction between cultural production and artistic practices, because artistic practice is a profession and artists happen to be part of a segment of cultural producers, and being a part of a community that is engaged in thinking about the community in a creative and critical way, they actually also produce something. They aren’t necessarily directly representative of that context but the production is representative of a general situation and the mood and certain conditions of that community.

There is a sentence in your text I would like you to elaborate on a bit: “the widespread paralysis of cultural production as a crucial social and political force”.

About cultural paralysis, again, I always use Western Europe as a focal point because that is related to Manifesta and because Western Europe and North America constitute the dominating art scene in the world, due to a variety of reasons, many of which are related to resources. I think it’s this phenomenon that we see of art really existing in a kind of void, where the art world is constantly functioning and self-perpetuating without having any link to what’s going on beyond what is increasingly becoming an elite, an inner circle of people working in art. And they lack engagement with the institutional structures in which they operate. Even if it sounds a bit traditional, historically, people working in art were the most open and the most liberal individuals in society. Where is this intellectual community that should play an active role? There is this increasing right-wing direction that we see holding sway in the world and in Western Europe – where is the clash between this and people who work in culture? This for me is extremely problematic. Where is the engagement with those severe social and political problems that we are facing today? There is no dialogue. People keep on asking me, ‘in what do you think people should be more involved?’ Then, last year we had this Biennial that took place in Sharjah, in the Arab Emirates, which was quite high profile because for the first time they invited all the rather well established artists from around the world and so on. This biennial in Sharjah which has nothing to do with the local context in any way, was founded by a Sheik to promote cultural tourism, yet there was no hesitation from anyone to promote this event, everybody just participated and took this super expensive five-star holiday on the beach. Although this would be the gesture that would be important to make: simply not to participate. So, this opportunism is also one of the things that bug me.

I would like to ask you about your position towards criticality – as a factor of what you are expecting from the art scene?

I do not think of being critical as something you do by choice. I mean, it is out of a kind of a sense of responsibility and obligation. There are some really severe problems that we’re facing in this world in this very moment and people have to think about them.

When I read your text I really felt a sense of genuine anger and feelings behind it. And at the same time what occurred to me was that this is the language that one always hears when people are speaking about the art scene. That is somehow a jargon or a slang, which is being used. And this makes it very difficult to detect the real intentions behind it. And at the same time I feel that you are critical toward Manifesta, toward the artscene – but maybe this is exactly what the Manifesta Foundation expects from you.

I am not as cynical as you, I think

It is not cynicism; I just try to think further. So you are claiming you are innocent…

I am not claiming innocence at all. Whether I am also being opportunistic or just not smart enough to recognize the circumstances I am in, … I do think that in many ways I am optimistic. Because I much more think that people can take very small steps to do things. I am not calling people to make a short of political art and banners, I am just saying to be critical of the conditions in which you are working and be aware of them, and kind of address that.

Another thing I would like to know more about, based on your text, was your distinction between politicized art and political art. What is that? What is the difference?

I would say, the reference I make is more about the politicization of the art community. In the sense of political consciousness, that should exist.

This means, it should exist, but detached from the formal qualities of the art pieces, like there is an abstract painter who has a political consciousness, but it doesn’t have to have any reverberation in his work…

Absolutely, it doesn’t have to have reverberation in his work. I think of the art-world as a community and this community needs to have some sort of consciousness as a whole. But that doesn’t have to necessarily be translated in the actual production of the work.

Do you think other social strata have more political consciousness than the artists’ community?


For example?

I work in a specific field and that is the one I know about, and of course I cant really compare because the other work I was doing before was related to the civil society, which obviously was completely politicized so I don’t want to make a generalization but I think that people working in culture have a bigger and more important role than people who work in other fields, to be kind of politicized. But what is really important relating to individual practices is that the problem is with the institutions. It is not a problem with the individuals. Institutions automatically create a kind of atmosphere around them, which may encourage criticality or may encourage apathy and that is the point I am trying to make. I am not putting the burden on individuals. Of course it is there in part. But it is not like I am saying that people don’t care. There really aren’t any venues for this kind of engagement, and that is what people really need to react against.

But in this sense what is your problem with properly political art?

I don’t have a problem with political art

You said you don’t like that kind of art.

Then it just comes to personal preferences.

Your expectation is that the artistic community should be more politicized, but at the same time your personal opinion about artist groups I just mentioned, like Superflex or N55 and all these people, who are really politically conscious, or activist, or whatever … is that you personally don’t really like that kind of art. Isn’t it a contradiction?

I don’t really see the contradiction. And I do like some kinds of what you would call political art. But it is not exactly the point I try to make. Because I think people should make whatever art they want to make.

Just considering that an artist’s main means of expression is his or her art…

Exactly. And if it is political, it is political; and if it’s about color, then it is about color and if it is about social issues, then it is about social issues…

I just can’t see this situation that someone is politically conscious and doesn’t have the urge to express that political consciousness in his/her work. Then it is not a real consciousness. Because that really means that art is a separate activity in society. As you said, it is only a profession: a certain quantity of skills that an artist uses in the work that they do.

No, if I was to use an example of a project I did in Egypt, which was based on commissioning artists to make two-dimensional works which then were placed on billboards on public buses.

That is political art…

I would say that the gesture is extremely political. And also in the context of working in Cairo, the problematics of public institutions and public space and so on – so the gesture itself becomes political. But the works themselves were not necessarily didactic or addressing a political message. Having them there – that was a political gesture.

I am not sure about that. I am an artist myself and I really know that these things are not exclusively the consequences or the faults of institutions. But that is a personal problem. As soon as you assume responsibility for a kind of political orientation, political critique, consciousness or whatever – than it creates a contradiction with your work. And just looking back to the history of critical art, which is a very rich history in modernism, in many cases you have artists who just simply stopped making art, because of their political consciousness, because they thought, they felt, that what they (really want to) do is a political act. And doing artat the same time, or making cultural production, as you say, that doesn’t have any strict connection with their political consciousness, would just remain an aesthetic act.

When I say institutions I don’t only mean art institutions, but also the funding institutions, where the money comes from, the education and where you get it and all of these factors, and I think it is very important to react to these things because of the kind of corporatization that is happening in these institutions. To say that the problems related to institutions have also to do with a situation of today – I would not generalize saying that it is a completely historic problem…

Ok, let us speak concretely about the school that you are planning to make. Though you are not doing it yet, could you attempt to describe a week? A week of that semester, let’s say at the end of November?

Well, for example you would have a group of students within one specific department, lets say there are twenty of them or so, and they would start their week having a two day workshop during the day with an architect from Budapest, in the evening there would be an opening of a small project made by the other department, and the next morning there would be a panel about it and a discussion followed by a meeting with a filmmaker who is there, who would then be working with the students, lets say, to organize a program of his own work and discuss it over the next two days, and maybe on the last day of the week there would be a concert organized with some DJ from somewhere, where students would organize some sort of activity as part of this event and the next day there would be like a sound workshop.

So it will be planned on a day-to-day basis?

There will be a basic schedule from the beginning, but the specifics come out from the actual activities.

I see a logistical problem with that in the sense that normally in these kinds of mass art events the attention is always focused at the beginning, when all the journalists and people go there for the opening and then they go forward because they have a schedule to visit the other biennials. How do you plan to maintain a solid level of attention during the whole thing? There is no big opening….

There is a kind of opening. We do plan this event that we are calling orientation days, which is three days of activities and intensive programs in the beginning, which is of course is in part for the students to inform them what is going on and get them to be involved in what will happen, but it is also for the city, because we think it is very important to create a kind of energy, a feeling that something is starting. And of course for us, for the people who work in this project – we need a kind of celebration, and of course for an international audience that might come and that wants to know about what is going on. So, although we have not announced the details of it yet there will be a program that is specifically formulated for those three days. I am personally not interested in the fact that the world has a short attention span, because, in essence this project is not about that – again, it is not about presentation and display, but it is about experience. It is very problematic to try to reshape it in a way to adapt to this fast, immediate kind of reaction. It is important that it is continuously active and that the people in that city or whoever comes can take part in something.

Who is it for, then? What kind of students do you expect?

We are basically looking for people who are creative, critical and have a lot of initiatives and want to do things, and this school is a great opportunity for them to be able to reflect on things, do things and so on.

That is for sure. Will production be encouraged during the semester? Do you have some infrastructure to support it or do you expect the participants to support it on their own?

We are tying to have as much as we possibly can, so hopefully the students will have work-spaces, we’ll try to make some connection with local workshops; to have our own computing facilities, audio-visual things, a kind of minimum, but people can do things.

What will happen with the works produced there? Will there be continual presentations of different workshops’ results or is this not the way?

The workshops are not really intended to be result-oriented but I hope it happens organically, not that it is planned. This is again about people taking initiatives. We hope that the people involved will be constantly coming and asking if this or that is possible, or going off and doing it themselves, not even asking if it is feasible. We create conditions when it is possible and support it as much as we can.

This leads back to the question of the site: Nicosia, and all the problems surrounding Nicosia. How will you avoid that kind of tokenism that you are referring to in the text, taking place in the biennial? Because people will be encouraged somehow – maybe not in your department, but in the third one – to deal with the local situation.

But I think that is a positive thing. When we say that people are encouraged – the majority of those people are locals. What we are trying to do is to make this biennial very down to earth, very connected to this situation. For example, instead of creating your own workshop why not to use an existing one, if it is possible and they want to work with us? We plan to infiltrate the city in this reciprocal working way, rather than orchestrating the situation.

How will you avoid being instrumentalised by local political forces?

We need to be transparent about the issues. For example, there is this situation of bi-communality that we try to address. If we are clear about the dynamics of how this is functioning in a very overt way, then we are actually creating a dialog, and therefore every party is able to comment and discuss its own position.

That is important and that was the edge of my question, because you’ve kind of taken side by mentioning Noam Chomsky as one of the thinkers that you consider to be an example, who is well known to be absolutely pro-Greek in this concrete situation, against the Turks. So, will there be people from the Turkish side, too?

Well, this is the idea, that this project is bi-communal, it includes Greek and Turkish Cypriots as well. And I do not think it is our role to have an exact opinion on the political situation. When we are dragged into this situation, to counter this possibility of instrumentalization, then it is our job to be able to create a discussion.

In reference to what I was asking you before about Joseph Beuys and Catherine David, about organizing this kind of educative discourse developing symposia on the occasion of different exhibitions: the main difference I see here – and that is the strong part of your event – is that you expect students, so you expect people to be there for the whole period. The danger that is always there when you organize a symposium or consciousness-generating discussions, is that people lose interest and then they’d feel that that’s just speaking in the air – having fixed students can be a solution to that. Will there be any official framework for the students that they normally have in the schools? Willl they be expected to be present every day? Might there be people kicked out and sent back home – the bad students, so to say?

A lot of these things will work themselves out as we function. And some of the invited people have already gone through these kind of experiences and know how to handle it, but in many ways we will try to set up a structure where there is an obligation on the part of the students to participate in some way. Whether they have a small administrative role or whatever without being too pushy, but there is a responsibility that you have as a participant. It is not a three-month holiday in the sun. I hope we will be able to make good choices, particularly for those people who are our guests – we don’t call them teachers –, the people who organize activities, and hopefully we are able to not make generic choices but really have concrete discussions about how things can work, and to create a kind of intimacy and an atmosphere of productivity.

The question of education is a crucial one in modernist artist circles, there are several models to look at even historically, like the Bauhaus for example, which was really the most elaborate model for an art-school. I think, somehow, that you cannot avoid the duty to create a model.

First of all, what is extremely important about this project is that it is a school which is taking place in the context of a biennale, so it is really very specific…

It sounds to be an excuse…

On the contrary, it is a fact that neither am I an educator – I mean there are people who spent their entire lives researching and working on these issues – nor are my colleagues. We know a little bit and we try to know as much as possible, but again, this is a school which is being organized by curators. Therefore it naturally reflects our own positions and it is not a cure for everything. The school is based around specific topics in which only specific people find interest. It is not trying to answer everything and we are not trying to compete with established university programs.

I have been reading some of the very rare statements by the next documenta’s curator, Roger Buergel. I do not know if you are familiar with his idea about how he is trying to organize the next documenta in Kassel, but I feel some parallels. Although it is quite obscure at this stage, according to my personal feelings he is also somehow discouraging, or trying to slow down, art production and then concentrating much more on the framework, much more on the position of art in society, in politics or whatever. I feel this kind of “ok, ok, enough of huge exhibitions, too many things on display, and these too many things somehow dissolve the concentration.” Do you agree with this intention?

Our idea reflects a general atmosphere that exists – maybe in a sense like you have said, when you were reading my text you found it was a little bit jargony because there is a lot of talk about these issues, and it is exciting if the next documenta is actually interested in similar things. It is a great step, we can create a kind of dialogue around similar topics. And similar to documenta, this project is interested with the role of the curator as well. It has moved so fast into this jargony thing. Whatever group show you have, there are the same artists circulating ….

That’s it. Artists somehow already seemed to have a kind of secondary importance in respect to the flow of discussions and texts around art. That is a bit scary for me.

And perhaps that is a good reason for having these kinds of projects where you can redefine the role of the curator…

Are not you afraid of that – maybe this is not the case, but I could imagine that one might perceive – there might have been a certain patronizing aspect in the whole thing in terms of “now we do not want to show artists, we want to invite artists to teach them.”

But the teachers are also artists. The good thing in doing the project like this is that it becomes one of many projects – there are different models going on, different kinds of exhibitions – and that kind of diversity is important. We did not want to do another large-scale exhibition. We are not rejecting it completely, but it is not our direction.

What are you impressions after this visit of Hungary?

Of course I can’t really say that much because this trip has been pretty much in the framework of this lecture of mine in Műcsarnok and a few visits here and there. The visit has become much more about discussing this School because in the case of this Manifesta it is much more focused on grabbing the attention of people rather than simply going and making your own choices. Anyway, I was a bit surprised at the extent to which people are very focused on the practical issues of it – like where is the money coming from, how can I get there etc. – and a little bit too dogmatic in that sense. I understand that certain circumstances are very complicated and life is hard, but it seems that maybe a discussion about ideas should be in the forefront before the practical constructions of how it can be possible.

So you felt Hungary was a skeptical or cynical place?

Maybe. Of course, I’m just dealing with a very specific circle of people and a very specific topic so I don’t want to come up with some generalizations about Hungary.

You know, the situation in Hungary is – you might have sensed -, that in the last decade Hungarian artists rarely participated in any international mass exhibitions so that lends a certain sensitivity to people in regard to these things that might result in this skepticism. Hungary feels the negative effects of the tokenism that you were referring to, as it seems Hungary does not constitute an interesting enough place to make part of this tokenism play.

Or maybe it’s just too interesting, as you don’t really understand the language, and the context from an external point of view.

Yes, indeed, tokenism always uses very superficial criteria.

Budapest, January, 2006

Thanks to Michael Rakowitz for the proof-reading.