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Living In: Jürgen Bock
On the inverted pyramid

Carolina Machado

He was invited to run a newly established Lisbon cultural association in the early nineties. By that time, it was already geared towards the artistic teaching, but nonetheless focused on the photographic expression. Jürgen Bock has been leading Maumaus for twenty-five years now. When the future is uncertain, the certainty persists in what remains. After all, Maumaus is here to stay. It was (also) Maumaus that made him stay.

 

From Wuppertal to Lisbon. According to an interview that happened more than eight years ago, you are certain you will never be Portuguese, even if you apply for the citizenship, but you will never be entirely German as well, as you would have been if you had stayed there. When all is said and done, where does belong the one who no longer truly belongs anywhere?

I belong to Portugal, where I mainly live and work; to Sweden, where I have taught regularly since 2005; to Germany, which I usually visit once a year to see my brother’s and sister’s families at Christmas; to Yene, south of Dakar in Senegal, where I work with filmmaker and writer Manthia Diawara, etc. I believe that I can belong to multiple places at the same time, something which believers in the idea of a pure culture and national identity might consider suspicious. Herman Melville once said he renounced his nationality in order to become a citizen of the universe.

 

When you are inquired about your place in the world, you stress the privilege of living somewhere in an in-between territory, everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This is indeed a somewhat recurring discourse from you, which unfolds throughout your professional path and is crystallized in your latest curatorial project – Pan African Unity Mural, currently at MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology’s Project Room, in which you once again work with Ângela Ferreira. After twenty-five years away from the so-called original territory, do you believe that the intersectional experience consubstantiates a specific sensitivity and therefore an identity image of the one who chooses to live in-between?

I think everybody who decides to live “abroad”, to go somewhere else, to leave the place where they were born and re-create themselves somewhere else, finds him or herself in a situation of in-betweenness, a term I learnt from Ângela Ferreira. She brought this concept with her from South Africa in the early nineties, at the same time I arrived to Portugal from Germany. We came from different origins, but we were both puzzled by certain phenomena in Portugal, which we struggled to understand and adapt to. Now, with a necessarily acquired in-betweenness, I have a certain sensibility which I consider to have greatly enriched my life. In turn, this also has to do with how my life developed in the circumstances I encountered or was able to create in Portugal. I believe that many Portuguese people who have emigrated all over the world will understand what I am talking about. They realise that this kind of in-betweenness is tolerated more in some places, than in other places. In Central Europe and the Scandinavian countries, for example, the pressure to assimilate is different. I never felt much pressure to become Portuguese, whatever that means; I am also aware that as a German I might have been privileged. When I was invited in 2006 by what was then still the Instituto das Artes to curate the Portuguese Pavilion in Venice, I asked them if me being German would be a problem. Their answer was that they considered me to be “their” German, a Portuguese German. I was astonished by this and talked about it once at a conference at Casa Mateus as a possible definition of the notion of in-betweenness: as a possible “Portuguesness”, if we might call it as such.

 

Simon Thompson, not Portuguese; not remotely interested in the banalities of where people come from […]”. When I read Mistake! Mistake! said the rooster… and stepped down from the duck, a unique text on the self-titled exhibition, hosted by Lumiar Cité under the itinerant project Hubert Fichte: Love and Ethnology, this brief passage made me curious. To what extent do you feel interested – if you feel interested at all – in the banalities of where people come from?

This sentence has to be understood in a larger context. I referred to Simon Thompson in an essay I wrote in the context of a group show at Lumiar Cité in order to respond to the House of the Cultures of the World [HKW], in Berlin, which had co-organized the exhibition. The initial idea of the HKW for this project was that we organise the translation of an autobiographical book by Hubert Fichte into Portuguese – the book is based on several visits of the German ethno-poet to Portugal during the sixties – so that a group of Portuguese artists could read it and make art in response to it. In the end the HKW agreed that the group of artists should be chosen not because of their national origins but because of their artistic competence and potential contribution their work could make to such an exhibition – because of their ability to engage with urgencies raised by Hubert Fichte’s work in a “Fichtean way”, as we called it.

Taking your question further, I would also mention Édouard Glissant’s notion of filiation, which the Martiniquean poet and philosopher considered one of the main problems of our society. Glissant questioned how people derive privileges based on where they come from, into which family are they born and to how much access to wealth they have. On the other hand this also applies to those of us born on the wrong sides of the tracks, to resist allowing an unglamorous past, over which we had no control, to define our present and future. I could go on endlessly, with reference to Karl Mannheim’s thoughts on the problem of generations, etc…

 

It is clear that the intersectional experience has had a crucial role in your personal research, guiding your curatorial work towards a permanent questioning on the issue of identity. Indeed, both the art school you lead and the exhibition space associated with it – Maumaus and Lumiar Cité, in Lisbon – have always contributed to the critical reflection in this field. Well, you certainly have authority on that matter. By this time, in view of what you have witnessed, do you believe that it is possible to hear the cry of the world – “Écoutons le cri du monde […]”, as suggested by Édouard Glissant – through art?

If you have twenty people in a room, you will find twenty different notions of art. Now, I

believe that through art, literature and cinema, though the specific means of communication inherent to each of these genres, the complexities of our being can be “negotiated” differently from other disciplines. Bertolt Brecht pointed out that a photograph of a factory in Berlin does not reveal anything about the ongoing exploitation of the working class. He insisted that something artificial must be created to get closer to the real, that we can engage with the real in a more appropriate way through the abstract.

Returning to Hubert Fichte, the ethno-poet lived and produced as Glissant had suggested: he listened to different worlds intensively – and responsibly – engaged with them and rendered his experiences into radio plays and literature. His book Eine Glückliche Liebe [A Happy Love] and his radio feature Caparica: Besuch in einem portugiesischen Fischerdorf [Caparica: Visit to a Portuguese Fishing Village] are both surprisingly evocative works, without being prescriptive, of the atmosphere of living in Portugal under Salazar and Caetano, which no “objective” history book can convey. I even think that Fichte’s radio plays could be presented in the context of a Museum of Portuguese History, and that his radio features should be remade with Portuguese actors.

 

In fact, you have been working with an artistic community open to the world and the other, genuinely committed to this tout-monde of which Édouard Glissant talks about. Indeed, you have certainly seen the other side, the one in which the said commitment appears as a discursive device for the legitimation of a certain aesthetic operation. After all, what distinguishes the actual engagement from the mere usurpation? As for the current matter, do you believe that the institutional apparatus has fed, in a more or less evident way, an instrumentalizing trend?

Your question raises a lot of different issues. Firstly, though I don’t want to sound presumptuous, I’d like to try to distinguish in a few sentences what you call “real engagement”. I feel suspicious about art which is automatically considered “good” simply because it is considered politically or critically engaged. For me, aesthetic quality and a “correct political tendency” are two sides of the same coin. Paraphrasing Walter Benjamin’s 1934 lecture on the The Author as a Producer, I believe there is no correct political tendency without artistic quality and there is no artistic quality without a correct political tendency. Benjamin proposed an interdependency between what he called “correct tendency”, or “commitment”, and the quality of the work of art. Now, we can of course discuss what he meant by artistic quality and correct political tendency and to what extent such a methodology of critique can be translated to art and exhibition making of today.

Secondly, when it comes to art institutions, we understand that they are made up of a system of artists, curators, critics, producers of exhibitions, etc. This system is constituted by us, by working in or for institutions, running them or agreeing to engage with them, accepting invitations to do exhibitions, write catalogue essays, etc. But it takes two to tango. What I am saying is that we are always at risk of being instrumentalised by institutional apparatus, but we also instrumentalise institutions for our own goals. The question of power is relevant here. I am not naïve, I know that the power relationship is asymmetric, but artists and other freelancers should remember that they also have power and can say no to an invitation or can insist the institution to respond to their rules and modus operandi, what kind of circumstances they need to function as they would like to – bearing in mind that they were invited by the institution because of the results of this very modus operandi. The question is whether we have to adapt to the rules of the museum or gallery or do we insist that the museum or gallery adapt to us, with all the grey zones of compromises in between. To what extent can other kinds of relationships be created – more interesting ones, with spaces where accidents can happen and which can achieve some kind of progress? Or would Tell Them I Said No – a title of a recent book published on artists such as David Hammons and Stanley Brouwn – be a more adequate answer?

I learnt a lot from close collaborations with artists like Harun Farocki, Peter Friedl and Allan Sekula. When working with them I noted an impressive sensitivity to the circumstances in which I was working in Lisbon and to the context in which I invited them. I felt a consistency between their political opinions and their practice. Now, from Benjamin’s critique on Activism in the Weimar Republic in the twenties, we come to the nineties with the declaration of so-called political art. Bearing Benjamin in mind, we might remember that the art world depends heavily on bourgeois culture and economic systems. I believe we have to be careful not to become too comfortable with celebrating our own “good” work and to not forget there might be a credibility problem when we circulate works which explore and/or exploit other people’s misery. Paraphrasing Benjamin again might help to explain this problem further: how can artists be with others they explore in their art not only in their mind but also as producers? The German artist Martin Kippenberger asked already in the eighties on one of his posters: “What is your preferred minority, who do you envy most?”. We might think about this also in the light of today’s excessive use of promotional language – or rather the demand for such language – which a legion of PR managers in museums and other art-related institutions are trained to produce. This language runs the risk of downgrading art in a larger game of creating a smooth cultural industry based on permanent invention of a utilized notion of art. I believe that the necessary non-utility of art actually constitutes its utility in maintaining the freedom art needs to invent things we might not (yet) understand. Glissant’s claim for the right to opacity comes to mind here. The Western world insists on a notion of transparency – and this is also related to education, where we too easily dismiss things we don’t understand. You almost never get any funding for a project for which an outcome cannot be clearly described in a “transparent” way. This means working towards something unknown in the field of art is mostly excluded from public funding, probably rather different from science. Glissant’s extends his observations towards attempting to understand the psychology of racism, he says: we cannot be with a person we don’t understand, we feel uncomfortable, become insecure and frightened, and subsequently reject this other.

 

According to the published information, Maumaus has promoted – not only, but also – a critical reflection on the colonial reality, naturally debating the post- and the neo- strands, based on a transdisciplinary approach. To what extent has it contributed to the so-called “decolonization of thought”? In what way has the independent system stimulated the institutional system, particularly in the Portuguese context?

Your question reminds me of how ten years ago institutions like Maumaus and a few others encouraged the government to rethink the public funding of non-public institutions working in the field of art and to extend the multi-year funding model to include fine arts sector. Until then we only had access to “apoios pontuais” (one-off funding). It was the emergence and sustained work of institutions like Maumaus and Zé dos Bois in Lisbon, Maus Hábitos in Porto and others all over the country, whose mere existence instigated the change in policy.

Returning to the topic of the colonial in your question, when we started to develop an investigation in response to this question in the light of Portuguese history, only a few people were interested, so there was a lot of work to do in order to build an audience and discourse. One day in 1996, one of the Maumaus lecturers left some copies of a text by Nigerian writer Denis Ekpo entitled How Africa Misunderstood the West on the seminar table. In this text, the western postmodern shift was analysed from an African perspective. The text gave me some insights into the extent to which changes in Europe, in how we perceive the world, had tremendous repercussions on the African continent. I was intrigued how this non-European voice – not Lyotard or Habermas – enabled me to understand how differently the transition from a modern to a postmodern consciousness could be perceived. What I am trying to say is that I was interested in how questions about colonialism could help me to better understand my own European condition, my own socialisation, the way my own thinking was colonised. And focusing on such issues in Lisbon was different to doing it in London, where such discussions had already been taking place for a much longer, or in Berlin, where such discussions were not taking place at all. In light of Portugal’s past – I remember well António Lobo Antunes’ book The Land at the End of the World – it was rather symbolic to discuss these complex issues within the  Maumaus Study Programme with students both from Portugal and abroad. Now, times have changed and there is clearly a broader interest in this topic. A lot of artists and institutions feel the need to engage with the colonial, post-colonial and neo-colonial. I know of several upcoming conferences and remember well the opening of the Prémio Novo Banco Photo in 2015 at the Berardo Museum, where a friend commented on the three shortlisted artists – Ângela Ferreira, Ayrson Heráclito and Edson Chagas – stating that such a choice of artist wouldn’t have been imaginable twenty years ago. To a certain extent, this discourse has become mainstream, or, excuse the sloppiness, the “flavour of the month”, as David Goldblatt once explained in the context of the hype around South Africa at a lecture at Maumaus – though these are issues for another interview.

We, at Maumaus, feel that our actions in the past, together with those of other institutions and personalities, contributed to making this possible, so that we can take a little credit for that broader consciousness today. But I’d like to underscore contributions from a lot of people, like Manuela Ribeiro Sanches, from Universidade de Lisboa, or José António Fernandes Dias, who was the director of the municipal organisation Africa.cont, which unfortunately no longer exists, but which made a decisive contribution to the broader mind-set around these topics.

 

When speaking on the specificity of artistic education, Andrea Fraser talks about a blatant contradictory function. According to an article published about five years ago, where you resort to this author, Maumaus fulfils the important task of “inverting the pyramid”. After a long period as the leader of this school, do you believe in artistic teaching as a deliberate denial of artistic teaching?

Andreia Fraser stated in the nineties that art academies have the contradictory function of providing vocational training in a profession whose character as a profession must be denied in order for it to be conveyed. It is interesting to rethink her statement in the light of the Bologna process and the so-called professionalisation of everything, including art. It seems that we have to live in a professional way and that being an artist has become one more profession among others. Such “professional” production of meaning in fine arts, with its apparent preference for promotional language over “difficult” critical and even experimental language, might impoverish the artistic landscape in the long run. Perhaps genuine experimentation has to take place somewhere else, which would mean the art world as we have known it for the last century is dismantling itself.

There are a lot of contradictions in art education, which Maumaus is not immune to and which we try to address in our Study Programme. In 2003, João Fernandes, the current deputy director of the Museo Reina Sofía, in Madrid, gave us the “gift” of an essay written on the condition of the young artist, where he decisively put his finger on the issue. At the time we regularly organised student exhibitions and Fernandes’ essay reminded us of the risks of uncritically reproducing the art world’s press releases, printed invites, exhibition notes, pedagogical visitor services and openings. He warned us about creating a kind of a simulacrum of the art world instead of questioning its modus operandi. Today, the Study Programme has shifted focus away from producing exhibitions towards a more theoretical (and maybe more introverted) approach. In some ways this has also meant that the visibility of the Programme has diminished. We reserve quite a lot of time in our curriculum for deep thinking about possible alternatives to art and exhibition making. Today, most of our participants (this year we had fourteen from eight different countries) are disenchanted with the existing systems and long for a place where thinking about alternatives is encouraged – even if they have to throw a lot of ideas internalised from art school overboard, which psychologically is not an easy task to do.

The phrase “turning the pyramid upside down” is taken from an interview with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in which they refer to Brecht’s notion of the real linked to the individual. About how the individual has to be dug out from under the rubble of the “matter-of-fact” in order to set it in relation to the universal. They evoke that the pyramid has to be put on its head if we want to move forward. So taking a specific interest in, let’s say, “colonialism” is not only for its own sake, but to set it in relation to the universal. In that way reflecting on colonialism allows me to think about the conditions of my being in a broader sense beyond colonialism.

 

“[…] Lisbon is not fashionable so far in the sense that what may bloom today is out of fashion tomorrow; you can find in Lisbon a certain calm beyond the spectacle […]”. This is what you said, in an interview that happened six years ago, about the cultural activity and the art scene of this capital. In the meantime, Lisbon has assumed the role of “New Capital of Cool” [The Guardian] and even the “New Berlin” [CNN]. What Lisbon is this?

Yes, and more and more of our international participants of the Maumaus Programme decide to stay in Lisbon, to live here after they have concluded it. So we have partially contributed to this. But what is in fashion today might be out of fashion tomorrow. Thinking about Amsterdam and Barcelona, though, the situation might well continue for quite a while. The spectacle has arrived and is in full swing. Peter Friedl, quite a keen observer and a very cosmopolitan traveller, felt that the Portuguese people in Lisbon seem to keep their cool and appear fairly indifferent to these changes (at least in public). Our exhibition space Lumiar Cité is an area where tourists – if they are tourists – only go if they are really interested in art. Our exhibition programme doesn’t fit with the logic of “time out” magazines. But maybe a gated replica of Lisbon’s picturesque downtown could be built in one of the outer suburbs, on one of the hills, or on the other side of the Tejo river – a Las Vegas-like copy to channel some of the people arriving at the Humberto Delgado Airport without them having to confront the 28 Tram pickpockets.

 

Maumaus announced three months ago through a shared post [Facebook] that it was being evicted from the building it has been yours since the foundation. What will become of Maumaus? How do you fit in this new Lisbon?

We are working hard to resolve this problem and are asking everybody who is interested in the existence of Maumaus for their help to find a workable solution. The sympathy we received after this announcement was incredible. Even though the announcement was written in Portuguese, we received messages from all over the world from people who were upset and worried and who offered us all kinds of support. The reaction in Portugal has been tremendous and we are touched by how people have expressed their solidarity – this has come from many people, not only from ex-students and people in the art world. We at Maumaus in close collaboration with a lot of artists, art historians, curators, philosophers and sociologists as well as partner-institutions inside and outside Portugal – please excuse my lack of modesty – have achieved a lot and we are not going to be derailed by this particular unfortunate situation. On the contrary, we are confident that we will improve our infrastructure substantially and will play a role in co-shaping that future new Lisbon you mention – from a constructive critical perspective, of course.

 

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