Eric Troncy, Stéphanie Moisdon Trembley

Stéphanie Moisdon Trembley interviewed by Eric Troncy

Stéphanie Moisdon Trembley interviewed by Eric Troncy
title: Stéphanie Moisdon Trembley interviewed by Eric Troncy
year: 2003
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 954-8334-72-0
language: english
author(s): Eric TroncyStéphanie Moisdon Trembley
source: Manifesta and Us, 2003, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia, ISBN: 954-8334-72-0
supported by: Национален център за музеи, галерии и изобразителни изкуства; Швейцарска култрна програма в България

This conversation with the critic and curator Eric Troncy took place in January, when we were worn out from nine months of traveling. There was all this information to deal with we had to choose, integrate, exclude. We still had to formulate a common project, an economy to overcome disappointments and frustrations, to avoid certain compromises.

This was the situation when I asked him to put to me the kind of simple questions we no longer dare to ask, so as to help me find a narrative. I already knew about his critical attitude towards collective phenomena, towards biennials in particular and cultural policies in general. His questions bore mainly on points of method, on my approach and conception of the exhibition and on the project, which had still to be defined.

Eric Troncy: What purpose does Manifesta serve?

Stéphanie Moisdon Trembley: The first answer that comes to mind is obviously the simplest one. I would say that Manifesta is increasingly useful to its “partners”. That wasn't necessarily the case when it started because, when Manifesta was created, the idea was more to think about critical practices (curatorial and artistic) and to see how information, history, forms and discourses circulate (or don't) between different networks. What are the vectors of integration and exclusion, how should artistic practice be redefined in the face of the standards governing the production and promotion of art? This, in other words, was a much more political project, which as yet had no political grounding, only political issues. Today, especially in Frankfurt, there is a real demand from the town and its institutions. In fact, one would need to analyze this demand, to compare projections, expectations and strategies. Today, in spite of its specificities and its differences, this biennial is up there with the others: it “feeds” the cultural demand of local political authorities. But let's make no mistake, a biennial or event of this importance always raises the question of visibility and marketing. Still, there is a collective awareness both among those who founded Manifesta and among those now working on it: the project needs to evolve, to be repositioned. That seems normal enough after nearly ten years of existence, in a context that has changed a great deal and where the emphasis is increasingly on these big communication machines. That said, we can allow that the pressure of the market and politics is probably not as great for Manifesta as it is anywhere else. One should also say that if art is increasingly a form of added value, responsibility for that is shared.

E.T.: When you were invited to curate, what was your opinion of Manifesta?

S.M.T.: Based on a mixture of ignorance and mythology. I had seen only two of the three editions, not the third, which in fact was apparently the most problematic. For me it was a challenge, but I was worried about the context, both political and correct - this will to set the “dominant” and the “dominated” parts of Europe face to face, to redress, I suppose, the balance regarding countries experiencing difficulty. I was frightened of that because while I strongly believe that it's an interesting question – a fundamental one, even, I also think that it doesn't always have much to with the foundations of art, and that it can be dangerous to mix all these social, political and aesthetic parameters. I also think that this readjustment is not a theoretical exercise, that you really need to know what's going on in all the territories. I mistrust intentions and programs. Others have already gone astray with that kind of militant discourse.

E.T.: What were the rules of the game and their constraints?

S.M.T.: The rules of the game were not clear; they are not a given. It's a project in which the rules have to be set each time by the curators. However, they may be silent, but the constraints are present. We know that it's going to look like a biennial. I accepted with the idea that one could also see a biennial as an exhibition – in other words, as a place of definition and differentiation. You do not choose the place or the town or your colleagues; some parameters are already set. The missions are implicit: there are precedents, and Manifesta was conceived after the fall of the Berlin Wall with a view to reframing curatorial and critical practices. It is thus a reflexive project, based on doubt, conflict and confrontation, which means losing reflexes and forgetting what you already know. We are not there to record famous signatures, or even to do what we already know how to do. In that sense, Manifesta is a singular challenge. That counted when I decided to accept the proposition.

E.T.: I have always found curating exhibitions to be an eminently personal act – like writing a text, in fact. How did you reconcile yourself to working with two people you didn't choose?

S.M.T.: You don't reconcile yourself, you look for a way of relating and convincing yourself that you could have chosen each other. We all three of us tried to achieve that. The initial discomfort gradually becomes a vector for your work. It becomes productive. Besides, I don't think that an exhibition is primarily a place for working out with your own personal knowledge and your own strengths. I am also wary of the narcissistic effects of curating, not of the curator’s creativity, which I wholly subscribe to (I am not here as an administrator or mediator). As you know, I have nearly always worked in collective situations – not because I want to disappear, but to try to get people's roles and functions to permute. It's a way of calling into question the quality and nature of what each person knows.

E.T.: How does it feel, once you have accepted the rules, to find yourself traveling around Europe searching for you don't know what?

S.M.T.: Sometimes you feel pathetic, an intrusive stranger acting on an assignment without knowing its contents. You are confronted with clear, direct questions – What are you looking for? What do you want to see? Even the youngest are perfectly familiar with this kind of relation: they know the law of supply and demand – that you can't really answer. So you are vulnerable, because somewhere on the way you lost your tools for exchanging with. It all starts, therefore, with the absence of a project and with silence. If we decided to travel, and to travel together, it is because we had the feeling that we couldn't function from an outside position, even less be satisfied with a certain kind of literature on global culture. Within this limit that is Europe, whose limits we do not really know, traveling helps you to realize that the critical discourse on globalization is extremely easy to recuperate and serves as a kit for politicians. From Istanbul to Porto to Reykjavik, young people are using the same tools, including English and the i-book, but in different ways. What is interesting is not to observe this alienation by global culture, but to see what is going on between cultures, the emergence of a third way, different kinds of modernities. And also to see how artists cope, with the rules of consumption, how they turn all these dead ends into a space for play and negotiation. In fact, I really do have the feeling that there is more heterogeneity, more difference, than ever before.

E.T.: What did you see?

S.M.T.: We didn't see anything exceptional or any new practices. We weren't looking for the spectacular or the new. We were often disappointed, shaken, with the feeling we hadn't found anything. I think there are several reasons for that. First of all, because the area of research (young, not very prominent artists) is in contradiction with the very idea of the body of work, you need a certain distance to create a project. Also, more generally, because important discoveries are rare. And finally, you have to realize that the previous curators of Manifesta did almost exactly the same research as we did, only just a year and a half before, and whatever cultural program makers and trend spotters may say, an art scene, or context, doesn't renew itself that quickly. In fact, we were more intrigued by projects in formation, in the process of definition, although we know that time is incompressible. In a few years from now, all this will probably have a real look and a meaning to it, and I think we'll have to come back to what we saw. But here, there was nothing that really hit me, the way things sometimes have in the past, as being almost self-evident. We could say that we saw what we were looking for. You only ever see what you are looking for. But we met much more than one thousand artists through the web of crisscrossing recommendations. Often, it was like being at a casting session, in an absurd or superficial position, in unfamiliar contexts. But one thing at least did emerge: what we saw above all were individuals, involved, sometimes in a pretty incredible way, in artistic practices, out of necessity or by default (there are places where you become an artist in order to survive). People who have decided to break with the system, with the idea of work or leisure, who produce really extravagant, outlandish objects. We had a vivid sense of a whole parallel community, but working with reality. More and more, I think, art is a way of making reality acceptable. If there is one conclusion I can reach, it is that artistic activity constitutes a break in people's lives, and that this way of being is often more interesting than the result it produces.

E.T.: I don't travel much, but I get the impression that artists choose their activity mainly in order to change their social class.

S.M.T.: There are countries, to the east and to the south, where there isn't really a middle class. So changing class is an impossible leap. Individuals also, who find themselves in an in-between state (between two countries, two identities, two types of culture) become artists almost naturally. In Bosnia or the Basque region, deciding to be an artist is deciding not to be on one side or another.

E.T.: When did you start thinking about the form your exhibition might take?

S.M.T.: We're thinking about that right now – that's to say, just three months before it opens. But it's a question that has been on our minds all the time, for all three of us. That's why we rejected the thematic principle, which would have oriented our research. Traveling has also been a way of putting off that constantly deferred discussion. Travel has been an escape. In the end we decided to do an exhibition, although we could have envisaged other solutions – we articulated some of them in a rather joking way: “it could be a website, a book, a White Cube, etc.” – but the only thing that the three of us believe in, I think, is the situation of the exhibition. We also considered doing Manifesta somewhere else, redoing the previous one, or taking all the best pieces from all the past Manifestas. We were certainly aware of the absurdity of this supposedly “open” situation. Also, I often asked myself basic questions like, why invite a young artist who is manifestly strongly influenced by Fischli/Weiss when you can invite Fischli/Weiss?

E.T.: Having talked with you about this lots of times, I thought we both believed that biennials stopped being exhibitions a long time ago.

S.M.T.: Most of the time, biennials are about zapping. You make a work visible, you present it knowing that it's already sold, and generally without making the effort to show what was done before, in what context it occurred. That's the problem with collective exhibitions in general. We are wondering how far it is possible to overturn the hierarchies between the monograph and the collective exhibition, perhaps by putting monographs inside this collective exhibition. In which case Manifesta should be seen not as an exhibition but as a series of exhibitions, because there can be no logical link between these 70-odd artists. You could look for connections, artificial ones – that's never impossible, and you'd certainly find them. But we will try to ensure that each artist presents his or her own world. The montage will generate a meaning, inevitably. I don't know if we'll manage. I think it's plain good sense to admit that in some cases the artists simply don't have a sufficiently significant body of work.

E.T.: Was it difficult to choose?

S.M.T.: It's bound to be, but we all agreed about not playing along with the quota system, apportioning in terms of identity or nationality, or playlists. When we talked together about the work we like, we realized that it always had something to do with questions of dwelling, of mobility and place. A lot of the work goes in that direction: dwellings, structures, machines, links, precarious spaces and urban perimeters. And of course, everything that contradicts that, too.

E.T.: Didn't all those incongruities inevitably come out again at this moment of making your choice – collective curatorship, with people who didn't choose to work
together, the lack of a clear goal, etc.?

S.M.T.: All the more so since we had skillfully avoided such matters, persuaded as we were that this experience was about sharing, and having carefully avoided talking about the meaning and form of the exhibition. Everything we swept under the carpet for months did indeed come back, but we now had a different awareness of each other's references and criteria. That made it easier to evaluate the importance of the debates between us. There are some things I thought were important to me that fell away naturally, thanks to this time we lived through, when I was able to admit that Iara or Nuria’s decision was more to the point, better judged. During all this I also understood how one comes to things with one's own closed world, to a degree you can't imagine, and that the relation that one has with an artist as a curator or critic is based essentially on bad faith or desire.

Translation from French to English Charles Penwarden


Eric Troncy is a chief-editor of the magazine “Documents sur l’art”. Co-director of the art center “Le Consortium” in Dijon. Publications: “Le colonel Moutarde dans la bibliothèque avec le chandelier (texts 1985-1998)”, 1998, Ed. Les presses du réel, “Claude Levêque”, 2001, Ed. Hazan. Art critic for different magazines (Art Press, Parkett, Flash Art). Curator and co-curator of the following exhibitions: French Kiss (Centre d’art contemporain, Geneva, 1990), No Man's Time (Villa Arson, Nice, 1991), Il faut construire l’Hacienda (CCC Tours, 1992), Surface de Reparation 1 & 2 (Espace FRAC Dijon, 1994), Rewind (City Racing, London, 1995), Toys (Galerie Jousse Saguin, Paris, 1995), Dramatically Different (Le Magasin, Grenoble, 1997), Weather Everything (Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig, 1998), Dijon/Le Consortium Collections (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1998), Urgent Painting (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2002).

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