Interview – Reader 2020 / OLIVER KLIMPEL, ĽUBICA SEGEČOVÁ
Ľubica Segečová began her conversation with Oliver Klimpel in February 2018. In the meantime, they also met in person, in Berlin in the summer of 2019. If the interview had not been published now, it would have continued.
ĽS: Dear Oliver, I am glad to be in touch again after we saw each other last time in Bratislava, almost two years ago. I am looking forward to hearing some news from Berlin.
I want to start with a question which you had actually asked me at that time: what is your current state of practice, do you concentrate more on design or other activities such as writing, teaching, curating etc. these days?
OK: Hi Lubica, thanks for your message. Yes, I still have fond memories of Bratislava. Besides working on design projects, a significant part of my current work has been positioned at the intersection of art and design. And research into cultural institutions. It is centred around objects, interiors, and spaces not as ‘‘neutral’’ environments but active agents of transformation. Some of it negotiates the relationship of artefacts that are exhibited – with displays that aid exhibiting.
I understand it as something between exhibition design and exhibited content. Is it a way of interpreting the content or is it about adding another layer of the exhibition content?
It depends on the strategy of the project. I’m currently working with the Kunsthaus Graz (a Kunsthalle, as it doesn’t have a permanent collection) in Austria on a range of works. These are not specific to a temporary exhibition; they are permanent designs for the institution. All the projects address a different aspect of how design can reflect on the politics of display. For instance, I’m redesigning the museum-shop. In this case, I’ve designed display objects that allow the presentation of products but and turn the shop into an area of exhibition at the same time. I’m also integrating some historic Perspex (plexi glass) shelves by the artist Vito Acconci (executed for Dokumenta X, 1997) into a new and bespoke shelving design for the Kunsthaus shop. This reference (materially and conceptually) is also a part of the approach to turn the shop into more than a mere commercial side-kick of a museum, i. e. into a mirror of the conflicted symbiosis of culture and commerce that is part of any museum nowadays.
Also, I’ve had some functional event furniture (with incorporated fridges etc.) restored and devised some graphics referencing some specific works by the Russian constructivist Nikolai Michailovich Suetin, rendering these boxes into “programmes” to transform the Kunsthaus’ internal society… Visually, they meander between the Suprematist revolution and Empire-style bourgeois furniture…
Is it a commission or a self-initiated activity?
It’s a commission. I was asked to work with the Kunsthaus on these concrete situations – as part of my overhaul of the entire foyer space which entails other elements, too. In case of the shop, there are, of course, also very pragmatic, functional aspects of the design. I find it very important that things actually work for the event team and and are not dysfunctional despite being conceptually interesting. And there were not always easy negotiations with the tenant who runs the Kunsthaus shop for a number of contracted years. But this is all part of trying to move things forward.
I know you as a polymath person. You teach, write and even in design you occupy quite a wide range such as graphic design, spatial design, architecture etc. You also do a lot of research and often work with references from history. What about references from the present? Why can we easily accept using an inspiration from the past and why is it so difficult to avoid plagiarism in referencing to something / someone from the present?
I suppose the question we need to ask is: what is the contribution of a reference? Which strategy does the reference pursue – or in other words – what is the purpose of the reference? In arts, references or quotes allow us to tap into a pool of formal or theoretical discourses that are not contemporary, or part of discourse that is currently not present. To reference the work of a contemporary of ours suggests an allegiance, an appreciation, or perhaps even a lack of a unique position of one’s own. Either way, references to works which are current (either in a temporal or local sense) do not add extra spices that aren’t already in the mix… unless we’re talking of a very fringe, very obscure vocabulary, one is just stealing, neither citing nor celebrating. As references are frequently used to elevate or embellish a work, they remain a very ambiguous cultural tactic…!
You have a lot of experience with galleries as institutions. We are witnessing changing trends in the strategies of big and national galleries from, let’s say, a quite conservative scene which shift from mere displaying art to its audience to much more accessible, ancillary free-time activities including shops full of merch which are often more popular and work as a “softener” of a particular exhibited content. Do you consider those strategies relevant?
These strategies and ‘‘experiences’’ are a reality. They frequently produce cruel situations, but can be explained historically. These realities have been with Anglo-Saxon audiences already for a very long time. They are criticised by many – academics, artists, and others. For obvious reasons. What I am interested in is the ‘negotiation’ of these different realms within a museum, i.e. the artistic and, say, the commercial. I think it is a challenge, perhaps even the responsibility, of an institution to form a critical relationship between the mercantile and the curatorial strategies – also through spatial design decisions. This is what I’ve been working on with the Kunsthaus Graz for the last year. There is no point in pretending the mercantile is not part of the cultural sector, or of the art world. But through a more reflective way of configuring and designing these functions, I believe, these relationships could be, in principle, an interesting facility or argument for a critical institutional practice. This situation merely highlights the need for an active engagement of institutions with the real, contemporary conditions of cultural production. But, of course, there is also the risk of sugar-coating commerce by conceptual design!
Yes, I agree. It is more a question of proportion than of yes or no.
The problem is that many curators prefer to farm out the dealing with such matters (primary targets of ‘Institutional Critique’) to artists, and, hence, turn matters of institutional practice into works of art, which can be politically fatal. This is a strategy worth debating, in my opinion. Frequently, conflict is pointed out and individualised through an artistic position instead of taking decisions that would involve everyone in the institution, including commericial partners. This strategy is very pragmatic and plausible, but problematic.
We have to ask ourselves how much visibility and voice to we want to give to the contradictions of cultural production inside our museum spaces. And how interested the wider public is in the intricate socio-economic-political workings of arts spaces, in other words, internal discourses. Curators around the New Institutionalism around the 2000s (Maria Lind, Charles Esche and others) definitely tried to make it a topic. And I count the director of the Kunsthaus Graz Barbara Steiner firmly amongst them.
Could you please elaborate on the problem of this strategy you refer to? Maybe you can find a concrete example.
Basically, we need arts institutions to be more holistically progressive that would turn into places where alternative practices of (cultural) organisation and production can be tested. But this method is more exhausting at the beginning. The artist Andrea Fraser wrote of the need to turn “the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique”.
What I’m currently trying is to turn objects, and specifically pieces of furniture, into the tools for institutional practice. So, I’m rejecting their assumed neutrality, their generic passivity. I’m turning them through their used forms and materials into (sometimes unorthodox, sometimes rather agreeable) agents and storytellers, instruments that allow the curators and the administrators and the facilitators and the artists and as well as the security personnel to make internal and external processes more visible: these objects and pieces of furniture are designed in a way that forces a different kind of relationship with an audience. It’s a kind of ‘Brechtian alienation’ effect, a friction that makes the relationship come to the fore.
Having said this, my strategies for such objects vary greatly and are very context-sensitive – since without reacting very sensitively and with knowledge of the complicated and often sceptical nature of the institution’s employees or temperament of local audiences, these ambitions would be easily failing. There are playful and intuitive parts as well. I’m not interested in dysfunctionality. When needed, I’m very pragmatic.
What I’m saying is this: I believe that institutions should not just exhibit challenging works (of art), but they themselves should become a place in which challenges are faced and produced on a regular basis.
And design can play a vital role in bringing such a changed perspective…
Yes, I agree, but what you are describing here is a relatively utopian model of a cultural institution, which may be partially seen in some independent cultural centres. Yet what about the big official institutions?
The essence of the institution is in its stability, background, tradition and that is directly related to its solid hierarchical structure and established routines. Thanks to which it is / should be a standard of quality and professionalism. Does the progressive and holistic approach exclude professionalism and high operational quality?
Larger institutions are per definition entangled in more power relationships than smaller ones. The activities of big state-run museums or municipal museums are, depending on the country and political context, occasionally even influenced by local politicians and their agendas (and are therefore not independent), as they are keen to cater for the needs and desires of their constituency and political base. Or they are just a pawn in a political fight. Culture is a currency, especially if discussed in connection with nationalism… So, of course, the more administrative bodies, curatorial players, politicians, external funders or other players are getting involved in the programming of a museum (which includes design decisions), the more complicated it gets and the more compromised the final outcomes might become. There is an English saying “A camel is a horse designed by a committee”…
I think it is an important and necessary skill of a designer/artist to navigate through such processes which might require playing a long game; the processes which include architecture can go on for many years. I’m currently involved in the interior design, colour concept and textile solutions for a new to-be-built concert hall in Germany, and, of course, this is a process of an ongoing conversation with many parties and the city officials – it’s very pragmatic and far from what you call Utopian. [Ironically, over the course of this conversation this project has just been put on hold by the local authorities and federal government as due to financial cuts caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.] However, I think it’s really crucial that even after these super-long processes with many obstacles and problems, some key qualities and a bit of poetry survive and end up being an integral part of such public spaces.
It’s a little bit like this conversation of ours (which has developed over a period of more than a year!). In the end it hopefully doesn’t feel too disconnected and makes sense!
Having said this, I do think you have a point: smaller, more flexible institutions could opt for more radical concepts, whereas larger institutions with more spending power can go for solutions with higher production value, or are scaled up and produce a bigger impact. But I think the approach should be ‘holistic’ in all scenarios, whatever the scale. What constitutes ‘professionalism’ or ‘quality’, however, is an entirely different discussion. These terms are used usually in a far too formulaic and narrow fashion.
Such a pragmatic and at the same time optimistic attitude seems to be important/necessary in cooperation with “”institutions”. How did it happen that a significant part of your practice is collaborating with cultural institutions? Was there any intention at the beginning or any inclination toward this topic?
Just to be clear, I certainly don’t think that the cultural sector or cultural institutions are necessarily more adventurous or progressive than the commercial ones. I’ve always found that design was interesting as a field, as it seemed to be about bridging or connecting apparently different interests. So, I find the ‘dirty’ nature of design fascinating in this sense. My collaborations with cultural institutions happened were taking shape gradually and over a longer period of time. One project just led to another.
But although I didn’t necessarily intend to focus on the cultural sector (I guess my continuing work in the conceptual book design might partially be to blame for it), what is really strong is my belief in the necessity of public institutions, predominantly cultural, but also educational. I discovered the political role of institutions particularly when I was intensely involved as a professor at the Leipzig Aacademy. Frequently plagued by inefficiencies, lack of flexibility, or even corruption, I would still defend the comparable institutions, especially in times of what we call now neoliberal ‘cognitive capitalism’. Because (academic) institutions occasionally allow for much needed moments of freedom in thought or diversions in events or objects accessible to a wider public, as they are not solely tied to short-termism and simplified, motivational success narratives, say, TED talks or similar edutainment formats… But we, naturally, need to challenge the policies of cultural institutions in their policies. It is precisely for this change of the cultural sector over the last two decades in many of the Western and post-socialist countries that the divide between the cultural and the commercial has become less clear. Which presents new questions, some of them very interesting and some rather worrying, to designers. Not often enough these questions are taken on publicly and pro-actively by institutions.
Can you specify those questions?
The general premise of what constitutes critique within or as part of an institutional practice has changed. Parts of these formerly critical methods have now become part of the furniture, so to speak. Let’s take one of the paradigms of a Western progressive museum in the post-war period up until now: to overcome the divide between academia and public life, between high and low culture, to challenge canonical narratives, to make material accessible to parts of the public that were traditionally kept out. To put it differently: to challenge the suppressive and elitist nature of art and culture – and to bring ‘viewing’ and ‘making’ closer together. In other words: participation. Flexible against static. These objectives urgently have to be reassessed. Because they do not present a critical perspective anymore, if by that we mean the idea and the overall discourse. (Of course, these strategies can be still useful to institutions, but they are far from daring.)
The drive of cultural institutions to reach a wider audience and compete with other offers (online or off-line) has brought many highly efficien tools from the commercial sector to the cultural one: branding sensibility, higher design quality of interiors, introduction of child-friendly programmes, incorporation of life-style components, i.e. food or nature. In short, places cultural venues have become less elitist, more approachable, leisurely and instantly visually succinct, which matters for its potential for immediate broadcasting via social media etc. And I do think it’s necessary for design, too, to occasionally conceive and devise alternatives to this homogenised practice.
Another issue that I’ve been thinking about for a while is the use of language in exhibitions. More work needs to be done there, more experiments that use (mostly written) language in mediating exhibition contents. We need to get rid of the curatorial lingo, use simpler, less academic language, we need more character and style in writing, but without infantilising. I believe that writing for exhibitions is highly underdeveloped. And so, many more narrative strategies are possible and necessary to be explored. It also poses the very interesting and political question of the (grand) narrative of such shows, but we shouldn’t be afraid to take an identifiable position with our voice. Education programmes for future curators do not put enough emphasis on this issue, clearly. Well intended exhibitions (also with a politically progressive agenda) frequently lose contact with an audience that is not part of the academic world or a particular partisan perspective.
And what about those “worrying” questions? What about designers, how should we change or adapt?
It is obvious that we must look honestly at what sustainability can actually mean in small-scale design. Both conceptually and in regards to production and consumption. And how this current overemphasis on distribution or broadcasting (social media) is altering the priorities of design as making. It seems that sending, or better, producing the presence, is also dominating the design scene.
On a more practical, or visual, level: I feel that since “interesting” graphic design has moved from being often a hallmark of rather small independent arts spaces to become now a standard of any place, we also need to ask what contribution graphic design actually makes to a representational discourse within institutions. Or if it is not losing its power to differentiate. Because graphic design is bound to the representational. In other words, identifiable “progressive” graphic looks or devices have become a professional standard or an indication of that “quality” that you talked about earlier. For instance, flexibility, ambiguity and disruption have moved from the critical, alternative, discursive attributes to be the staples of a standard, contemporary, neoliberal enterprise. We have to recognise that some of the visual looks, some loose informality, apparent improvisation or graphic clues which were to represent a different and challenging way of looking, are now dressing up the (cultural) organisations that actually do not pursue a progressive or alternative agenda at all. In other words: are ‘progressive’ looks not misleading? Or should we just acknowledge that we urgently need to read them differently for what they are? This obviously assumes that there is still a correlation between content and form. A paradigm which graphic design doesn’t seem to have escaped yet. Of course, such developments are a cyclical occurrence, but my feeling is that some of the (independent) graphic design community has made itself very comfortable in some of this vocabulary. And we are all guilty of it sometimes. So, we need to look again into how much use some of these graphic languages still have and realise that we are in a different world now.
What are you currently working on? Does Covid-19 affect your current situation in any significant way?
Well, the pandemic is affecting my situation right now very literally. As I’m writing this, I am quarantined in a friends’ studio flat in Yilan in Taiwain for two weeks, luckily with a view over some very green mountains, as I’ve travelled here for an exhibition project in Taipei. I’ll be showing some of my own works, which should also include a new carpet work. This is part of an exhibition by the artist Jun Yang who I’ve been collaborating for some time. And the publication of the exhibition I designed is right now at the printers in Taiwan. Whilst marooned in this flat, which I cannot leave for the quarantine time, I’ve got to check through the English translation of my text about the West-German designer Otl Aicher’s relations to East-Germany and the notions of resistance within graphic-design. This text is going to be part of a book about Rotis (the place where Aicher lived until his sudden death in 1991) to be published at Steidl publishing house in spring 2021. Also, I’m working on some designs for initiatives at the Haus der Statistik, which is the city of Berlin’s biggest sustainable urban development model project with plenty of participation: a non-investor-driven form of building and extending a new neighbourhood. I’m collaborating with Till Sperrle on this. And next year I’ll be starting some research work for an exhibition that I’ll be co-curating for Kunsthaus Graz. As far as the Covid-19 -pandemic is concerned, I have been mostly rather lucky. But as I mentioned before, my work on a to-be-built concert hall has come to an abrupt hold last week due to the, federal and local government Covid-19-related spending cuts. I thought this project was too big to fail, but no: this might turn out to be a substantial casualty for everyone involved.