Christian Ernsten talks with Charles Esche
Charles Esche is a leading intellectual in the contemporary scene of curators and museum people. His provoking work as the director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, as well as a curator of the Istanbul Biennale, addresses social concerns with a similar immediacy. His collaborations with artists focuses on enhancing some form of progressive change. Although the type of change he wishes to promote was not always obvious to me, I feel Esche is a guiding figure with an ideological agenda, a pioneer in artistic innovation. My interest in talking to him grew after reading his series of comments on Facebook and Skype, inserting his ideas in the current day ‘eculture’. We began the conversation, which took place in the Van Abbemuseum, addressing a quote from his skype account, ‘Thinking about anger and hope as the driving forces of change’.
Charles Esche: [laughs] Maybe it’s best to start with its source. The quote is from Tony Benn, a British politician, who for me was very fundamental. It’s actually taken from a video clip, and in extension says, ‘The world is changed, through anger at injustice and hope for something better’. It is through bringing together those paradoxical emotions that drive the wheel of possible progressive change. Anger drives the wheel of regressive change, and hope drives the wheel of utopian speculation – neither of which achieves anything on their own. Both are needed in order to start the motor of possibility working in the world. For me, it’s important to be angry at certain things. I think my anger extends from the micro-level– with the cynicism of many Dutch cultural people, for example – to the macro-level – towards the transparent injustices of the world that are produced by the globalisation we are meant to celebrate. The fact that we basically exported the 19th Century system of working class exploitation to other countries and we don’t connect our comfortable conditions here with that exploitation does make me angry. In the 19th Century people had to fight together against injustice and many rights were achieved, but now – due to globalization – we have to do it all over again on a global scale. Our current economic system seems to me mostly a backward step to the 19th century and I wish we could simply say: ‘Hey look! We‘ve done this before, and seen what it results in, so we know it doesn’t work!’ Lets’s just stop and think what we want.
Indeed Esche portrays himself as a man in the field of arts with a strong sense of mission. How is his work influenced by anger and hope?
Esche: I think on one level, it profoundly influences the choice of artists and subjects I am interested in. The artists I work with are often engaged with the paradoxes of the contemporary world. They have stories to tell that relate the way the media presents this globalized condition we experience on an everyday level. They attempt to take some aspects of the constant array of information that bombards us and which is incredibly difficult to filter, and they magnify it, slow it or capture it so we can reflect on it for a moment longer. I think we are overwhelmed by information at some quite deep level, our psychology isn’t prepared for it. Particularly my generation – but also the younger generation – still struggles to understand how to filter things out and art is one of the filtration systems that could be very important. In that sense, I have hope that we can learn new ways of seeing through art.
My personal anger and hope can be seen in exhibition projects like Forms of Resistance or Becoming Dutch, but it also focuses in the way that, for instance, the condition of post-1989 Western Europe is not addressed in terms of history and how we want to develop – it evokes a sense of complacency about our rights. You get this idea that our condition is about survival, simply carrying on, and maintaining the system around us. The hope is that we’ll get through to our pension, and the next generation will take over and solve the intractable problems. But we see that climate change and historical economic change– which I’m sure that my son who is 5 will be dealing with – are happening now, and, if we really live in a democracy, then we should be able to act to mitigate that. That failure has to lead you to question the system, I think.
But it’s not supposed to make you depressed. Anger should make you want to do something and that is where the hope arises. On a small level – the micro-political level – certain artistic projects do raise consciousness, and do change a state of complacency to a state of readiness and action. I think it’s a psychological change. I find it hard to be in agreement with people who think everything is ok in the world. I’m quite shocked when I come across people like that. I think the Netherlands has a higher percentage of people who think everything is fine, basically because things around look newer and cleaner than in most other places. But that’s quite a superficial analysis
Is this ‘big’ political story perhaps somewhat naïve? Are we really capable of distinguishing our desires and the emotions that drive us? What about fear as a force of change?
Esche: I think fear is almost always negative. I tend to talk in terms of progressive change and regressive change. Change brought about through fear or war is generally negative. Fortunately, if that happens, you still have anger and hope to try and look for future possibilities.
We are at war, declared by the West to the ‘rest’ in 2001, a war that was declared as being endless. We are at war now. Yet presently, how conscious are we of being at war? As a culture we are also said to be at war, in the so-called clash of civilisations, and I think the gaping hole where the demand for progressive change should be is very apparent. To me progressive change brings back notions of enlightenment, Marxist thinking to do with justice, with equality, with collectivity and global solidarity. I also refer to an idea of liberty, not personal liberty, but social liberty. These remain progressive values although they need to be reinterpreted, and translated according to economic and political conditions today. Nevertheless, I think these values have something to offer everybody.
On Facebook I read Esche quoting Boris Groys asking the question, ‘What would be the conditions for a new form of the avant-garde to emerge?’ His answer was, ‘I think for an avant-garde to begin, we need a collective sense of direction.’ Esche then asks, ‘How then can we express our common sense of direction? What formats? What forms of ethics and aesthetics? What ‘mass’ movements?’ From this I asked him, ‘Can you explain why it is important that we have a new avant-garde? And what according to you this collective sense of direction entails?’
Esche: They remain questions for me, that’s why I didn’t answer them [laughs]. I’m not sure that avant-garde is the right mode, the right language, and I’m not sure if I would use it myself. An important point is that the old avant-garde had a horizon which we have lost in the process of seeing real communism fail. Let’s imagine the avant-garde as a leading group followed by a mass that follows behind. According to Groys, the only way anyone knows that the avant garde is in the lead is because there is an imagined destination. If you take the destination away, which is what symbolically happened in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, then suddenly avant-garde becomes disorientated, eventually become just a minority amongst others. I think that’s a good explanation for why populist politicians have been so successful, or why the attack against the elites (which is continued by Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ronald Plasterk now) has been picked up by so many conservatives as well. The criticism of the so-called elite has a profound effect on our social mechanisms and how society might be inspired in a progressive direction because it replaces the call to intellectual inspiration with a battle between celebrities.
Do you think we need those avant-gardist platforms and horizons?
Esche: We need to wonder what makes us ask the more profound question about our social life and values. I think we cannot live anymore according to the ideas of the avant-garde’s grand narratives of an inevitable direction for the world – as laid out in Hegelian historical progression, which is at the heart of Marxism and the communist idea of revolution. I think from avant-gardists, we have become – or need to become – gardists. I think that means that you are working in and amongst the everyday mass of events and people, a kind of a blind mass that’s always moving, always changing, but not really with the sense of what the next step might be.
As an artist, I think you can make micro-suggestions or micro-projects, which affect your immediate environment and neighbours. You can have a kind of micro-avant-garde or micro-politics that focuses on the specifics of an issue, a group, an institution. That could be kind of avant-garde policy, except there isn’t an overarching ideology that connects it all together. You can only say, ‘I’m going to do or say what I believe is important here.’ You’re trying to give direction to a very particular local phenomenon.
Perhaps it’s that I’m of an age and upbringing that finds it difficult to think outside an ideological framework. A framework is very simple, it’s very comforting; I miss Marxism, I mourn for it. Yet, I also know it cannot be brought back in the form that it was.
Wired magazine announced in June this year ‘The New Socialism’ and posed that online social media, which originated from an open source standard – for example Wikipedia, Flickr and Twitter – is the vanguard of a cultural movement. From it a global collectivist society was to come. I asked Esche for a response.
Esche: Traditionally, in order for technology to function, you need to know what to do with it. Technology is just technique, and technique is the ‘how’, its not the ‘why’. I think from the Iranian revolution to our Facebook posts, social media is simply a mechanism to spread something that already exists. The Iranian’s attempt to overthrow a despotic clerical regime would hopefully be followed by thinking about what to replace it with. I find it difficult to believe that technology itself answers the ‘why’ question. What do you do once your connected? But connecting is itself a part of the way there, for sure
But then there’s the example of the Detroit artist-architect couple Design 99, who built their energy neutral Powerhouse, and before they could finish, it was picked up by media channels like CNN and The New York Times. The impact of the building, as a symbol or story for dealing with the crisis, has potentially become much bigger than it’s practical local usage. As far as I know, Design 99 didn’t aim for that.
Esche: But that’s a classic operation of an ideology, rather than a produce of technology. Ideology means you try to impose your view of reality onto a reality that’s already there. Ideology is a way or lens through which you see the phenomena in the world, and this is then how you interpret what happens. I see this building as ideological and that’s why it is so important and successful, I read it as a statement of a group of artists to want their city to be more than it is, or more than it is perceived. The difference is that ideology is traditionally related to big scales. I would argue that Design 99 work on a micro-ideological level thinking through the consequences of their life in Detroit and, in doing so they impose a certain idea on the reality around.
How does this effect their local environment? What kind of change is Design 99 enhancing?
Esche: It has an effect on the micro level on which they’re working. If you look at the transformation that is going on in Hamtramck, and if you look also at the art world, there’s an extraordinary sense of exuberance in the city – which works right down at the roots of community. Design 99 operates in the midst of a dramatic decline – which they can do nothing about. They will not solve GM’s collapse, but that was never their intention. To them it is about finding a way to live in the existing condition of their communities, with its existing problems. You can sit and be fearful, or you can sit and dream about moving to New York; or you can build a ‘Powerhouse’, which is a combination of anger and hope. Anger because this house is empty, the neighbourhood is insecure, kids lives are wasted but by building it and occupying their own house, or by inviting their friends to taking the one next door, they create the conditions of hope - and they change actual life omn the ground at the same time. Without Design 99 that neighbourhood would be a lot less interesting.
As published in Volume 22; The Guide (2009)62-65.