On Failure

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr in conversation at the opening of unitednationsplaza

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Illustration based on a rendering of the spatial concept of unitednationsplazaby Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller

Part exhibition, part school, unitednationsplaza was launched with great fanfare last October in Berlin. The multi-pronged seminar and residency program was inspired in large part by the cancellation of the European biennial known as Manifesta, originally to be held n Cyprus and seemingly ridden with troubles from the very beginning. Under the rubric of unitednationsplaza, approximately sixty artists, writers, theorists, and a wide range of audiences will meet for discussions, seminars, and encounters of all kinds over the course of one year. On the eve of its launch, co-organizers Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr sat down with Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions at London’s Serpentine Gallery, to ponder, among other miscellaneous things, the birth of the idea behind unitednationsplaza, the pitfalls of a romanticized we-are-the-world internationalism, and the fate of unrealized projects at large. unitednationsplaza’s debut Berlin meeting was eventually held under the (provocative) banner “Histories of Productive Failures: From French Revolution to Manifesta VI.”

unitednationsplaza is organized by Anton Vidokle in collaboration with Liam Gillick, Boris Groys, Martha Rosler, Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Nikolaus Hirsch, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and Tirdad Zolghadr. See www.unitednationsplaza.org for information, including schedules and reading materials.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I think it would interesting to begin with the Manifesta project, which sort of originated and then transformed itself into this school. In some ways a lot of people thought the cancellation of Manifesta meant a failure, but from this project, failure seems a very useful thing — it actually produces something else.

Anton Vidokle: Ah yes. Manifesta. The initial idea came about because my two co-curators, Mai Abu ElDahab and Florian Waldvogel, and I felt that rather than join the kind of continuous chain of international global festivals and cocktail parties traveling from one capital to another, we would create a kind of a pause, move away from the market and create a situation that’s more geared toward research, discussion and production rather than display, or the presentation of a new generation of artists for the market. Ironically, our little “disruption,” doing a school rather than a biennial exhibition, was overshadowed by the effectiveness of the authorities in Cyprus and Nicosia. Their disruption was much stronger and they just cancelled the thing.

HUO: I wanted to turn to the idea of transnational context. In this current moment of a polyphony of centers, we’re far away from the idea of a sort of quest for the absolute center, that New York stole the avant gardes from Paris, and so on. And second question, why Berlin?

AV: Well my move to Berlin was really directly related to the fallout from Manifesta. I realized there are basically two ways you can go about realizing the project in some way — either as a biennial format where lots of people from all around the world come to a specific place; and then in terms of circulation of ideas and a conversation, it really works. Or, you can do it in a very central location that actually has a vast international cultural community. Unfortunately, New York or London are impossible because they’re such expensive places. Berlin is really a unique situation it was still possible to realize this project in an independent, self-funded way, without reliance on various funding sources, official agencies, government sources, and so on.

It’s important that Manifesta tried to move itself from central Europe to its periphery, and that that kind of movement was not possible, was much more complex [than imagined]. If one approaches large cultural festivals and tries to export them to a much more complex place, or maybe not such a much more complex place, you run into almost a wall. On the other hand, trying to move to Cyprus was almost like trying to export or distance the kind of problems that already exist in central European cities. To deal with the issue of separation between Islamic and Christian communities, and all those tensions, you don’t have to go to Cyprus, you can stay in Brussels, you can stay in Amsterdam. By moving it out to Cyprus, it was almost to try to pretend that this problem does not exist in the center of Europe. So I think that there is a whole range of issues that probably are too long and too complex to try and cover in this interview, but they’ll become even more important in the next five, ten years.

HUO: Tirdad, could you talk a bit about this whole idea is that a nation or citizen can actually becomes a borderline, and the polyphony of centers?

Tirdad Zolghadr: I think that this Cyprus fiasco raises a certain issue that I really appreciate, namely that this internationalism with a utopic slant — which was also noticeable in icons of this type of discourse such as the last Documenta — has overheated expectations to a point where people forget that this is, on the one hand, not a level playing field, and on the other hand, it’s a construct that is very much embedded within European art history, and is very difficult to translate. Basically, with this internationalism, fostered by these enormous expectations, we’re now getting a kind of backlash. People are frustrated, they don’t have any kind of resolution to the enormous demands that are placed upon art now, that are supposed to reflect polyphony, transcend boundaries and reframe them, easily subsume them into a discourse that everybody can partake in. People are drawing the wrong conclusions from situations like Cyprus and are saying, “Oh, well we should’ve known it all along. Art should stick to Berlin, New York, London.”

One lesson to be learned is the need to be very careful with the kind of discourse that assumes that polyphony is really possible at this stage. Another effect of these very high aspirations — this is the flip side of the utopianism — was the worry that contemporary art would just take over everywhere, that there would be Vanessa Beecroft and Douglas Gordon colonizing the world. And this too is a red herring, because as we saw in Cyprus, you don’t have to worry about the local. The local will pop up and redefine any flippant internationalism no matter how strong, sexy and glamorous it seems to be. At the moment we’re not in a situation where things just kind of slip and slide and then overtake a local art scene or a local infrastructure with that ease.

And so you’re caught in a double bind: on the one hand, art is taking super interesting forms in places like Sharjah and Tehran and wherever, taking forms that can participate in an international dialogue; on the other hand, you’re trying to remind people, “Don’t get too overexcited.” It’s not a level playing field, the situation of polyphony is still stilted and very partial. And that’s the kind of trick question that I find myself grappling with.

HUO: Now you’ve sort of defined the frame, the context and the history, let’s start talking about what’s going to happen in Berlin, what came out of the Manifesta/Cyprus experience. Whenever you’re in a city you have another field of reference — for example, when I went to Dubai for the first time, I suddenly had a completely different reference cadre. India is an hour and a half away. The Gulf states are all an hour flight away. I had the feeling that when Anton called me from Cyprus many times that had happened as well, because you’d never been to that extent to Beirut and never been so involved with Tehran. It opened a completely new set of proximities. Has that influenced what you’re doing in Berlin?

AV: Yes, absolutely, for me the best thing about the experience was that it created an excuse for me to familiarize myself with artists and writers that work in the region, and to try to understand a lot more of the specifics of the kind of discourse that takes place, which is tremendously interesting, sophisticated and challenging. On the other hand, with this proximity you can be close to something and at the same time it becomes impenetrable. You happen to travel with a Swiss passport, one of the most powerful passports in the world. Even with an American passport one encounters more difficulties — for example, it becomes very tricky to go to Iran. But if you have a more complex passport, such as a Mexican or Lebanese one, or something like a laissez-passer — [as do] Palestinians, and a lot of Iraqi refugees — then your movement is completely constricted. On Cyprus it was even more complex: here’s a tiny little island, but can’t easily cross from one side to another, because ideologically, the crossing implies certain political connotations. This is precisely what brought the entire project down. This sense of internationalism was possible at a certain point during the high period of Modernism, because it was also fueled by a shared ideology, namely Marxism. The new internationalism that we would like to [see] happen shouldn’t only follow international finance, but needs a more substantial ideological structure. I don’t think this exists at the moment.

HUO: I’d like you now to talk about the content of the conference here — we should announce it in Bidoun, right?

TZ: Absolutely. The question was how to frame an opening conference for Anton’s institute. He wanted to imbed the institute in something larger than the Manifesta situation. In the course of various emails, he kept using the word “failure”, and I suggested that the actual conference be based on the question of productive failures. Then Anton came up with the perfect subtitle, “From the French Revolution to Manifesta VI: A History of Productive Failures.” As you put it yourself, it’s really trying to point out that this apparent dead-end could be transfigured into something even more complex and interesting. On another level, the question of failure is interesting because there is this rampant art world defeatism as soon as you try to speak about art and politics. There is this very pervasive sense of an impossibility of moving forward, of everything being subsumed, co-opted, instrumentalized and so forth. It’s a defeatism that, needless to say, is not exactly productive, not exactly leading us to new places besides ever more complex and creative forms of paranoia. So the idea of the failure conference was also to see if we were asking if we were always coming to the same formulaic…

HUO: You’re calling it “failure conference”?

TZ: The Failure Conference. [Laughs] This was the starting point, to try and come up with questions that would lead to a new perception of the classic failures in the art world and beyond — and some of the speakers will be talking about political failures, in the way that political symbols for these so-called failures have been completely drained of their content, and yet still manage to spark hope or political optimism. Another dimension, is to try and jumble up the strict division of labor. In the conference we are trying to find very small, unpretentious, unspectacular ways in which art could be discussed in a new way, and some of these are going to be quite surprising. So one surprise is the format of the dinner toast. We’ve invited someone who is presumably very experienced in very officious toasts, namely [the politician] Adrienne Goelher, to hold a toast at the dinner, and so there will be the classic situation where everybody is clinking their glasses and then people will expect a two, three, four minute, very boring, “I want to thank Anton for da, da da…,” and then she will launch into a thirty-five minute talk on art and politics in the frame of this failure problematic as we staked out.

HUO: This addresses the question of the format, but I’m interested in knowing a little bit about politics, and failure.

AV: Well, failure can become useful, but it requires some work. Let’s say, for example, that Manifesta 6 is cancelled and everybody continues from that point on as though nothing ever was planned or nothing ever happened, then it is only a failure. But then if some work is put towards it, if it satellites, if it translates into new energy for other projects, if the ideas developed in the process of working on this situation that failed continue, then there is a potential for it to become productive

TZ: Yes. It’s not one-dimensional, it’s a question of packaging. You could say that the definition of failure is not necessarily based on known criteria. On the contrary, it’s essential to understand failure as a positive category in most cultures. Look at what Christianity is based on — excruciating failure, and it’s fetishized as a failure. Perhaps Shiism is even more extreme as an example. Structuring certain events as a failure has a bonding effect, some kind of collective therapeutic effect which in itself has a productivity. And so the very notion of failure is really enjoyable to revisit. Hans, I was wondering if you, in the course of all your projects, have been tempted sometimes to categorize some things as clear failures? Or do you bracket that category and prefer to postpone the judgment?

HUO: In the first place, some of my research has been into unrealized projects, which obviously touches on failure. We’re working with Anton on the agency of the unrealized project as a subject for an e-flux project. There are projects too big to be realized, too small to be realized.

AV: The biggest unrealized project…

HUO: Yeah, Communism. [Laughs] The other day, Doris Lessing pointed out to me all the novels in non-democracies that have not been written because of self-censorship, that sort of unrealized dimension of work. My Chinese friends have always told me that failure is an unbelievably positive value. In China, failure and learning from failure, produces reality. And Cedric Price, the great urbanist, saw that. He said that western society has a problem with making failure into something positive.

TZ: One of the speakers at the conference who has a really great take on failure is Diedrich Diederichsen. He’s been fascinated by the whole evolution, the development of one subculture after another, each one declaring the preceding one as a failure.

HUO: My last question really, is a question of sustainability and long distance running. Obviously, conferences come and go. And maybe then one moves on. Something I observe when I travel is a desire or necessity for something more sustainable. Exhibitions which may slowly evolve over five or ten years, which are also learning systems, or conferences, are two of the same thing. This unitednationsplaza is something that, as I understand it, should be a long-distance runner. Anton said that it should at least be a couple of years. What’s next, and how you take it from here?

AV: For me, the problem is that there’s a tremendous interest in discourse in the art world, but it’s always marginalized into this absurd situation sometimes. The perfect example is when recently I was invited to speak at a conference at the Moscow art fair. The conference actually took place in this completely marginal space — a building that was literally under a staircase. We were squished into the corner and asked to talk about things. Of course, the hierarchies were obvious: there is the real business of buying and selling and displaying art, and “knowledge production” is put under the staircase, out of view, out of range. This whole project is a desire to privilege the more ephemeral or ethereal part of cultural production. No exhibitions, no display. Obviously, it’s an experiment, and I don’t know whether there is a public for it, one that will continue returning to the lectures, seminars and symposiums that we will organize for a year. The possibility of this public being really engaged, wanting to deal with this complicated, theoretical, maybe somewhat pretentious topic, could be the most rewarding, or the most meaningful outcome. Then the idea is to try to articulate a model, that if it’s successful and productive, could be then implemented by other groups, other people, other institutions in their own context.

TZ: Aside from the theme and all that, I’m looking forward to simply having conversations with the same team of artists and practitioners over a year and a half. To have the time to do that is completely different and I hope that the plaza will go on for many years to come. That’s the perfect sentence to wrap up this up…