Céline Condorelli, artist / Manuel Segade, Director of Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (Móstoles, Spain)
Manuel Segade: I wonder about this picture you have in your Skype  profile.
Céline Condorelli: It’s Kathrin Böhm (with whom I have been sharing a studio for many years) and I doing a female icon impersonation of two feminists from the suffragette movement, working together in the ‘20s. We decided to pose as Aletta Jacobs and Anna Howard Shaw, both acknowledging and embodying a reference from the past, as a way of carrying their project into the future. When I was working on friendship, I was looking at the suffragettes as an example of people who worked in friendship to change the world. They are known as a group, but very few as individuals: we don’t remember most of their names. It’s a sort of friendship in action, that is not faceless but is certainly not about individuals.
MS: I love this thing of having a reference and embodying it.
CC: I really enjoyed reading your text “A Deviant Script” [A text for a book on artist Jani Ruscica, by Circa Projects] . I knew in theory that we had many issues in common, but I didn’t know how close your research has been to questions I have. It’s really interesting to me how interests converge. Everybody is working in their corner, and eventually the practices that run parallel to each other meet, and become close.
MS: Like an ongoing conversation.
CC: For instance, you mention the “conversation pieces”—I have some works titled like that. It’s really interesting to me how you insist on the dialogue happening between inanimate objects, as a part of the making of an exhibition; it’s always about the setting up of relationships between humans, things, issues, and ideas in space. Coming back from the Gwangju Biennale, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that an exhibition is always a set of relationships, and responsibility must be taken also if some of these are broken, or dysfunctional. Curating is to care, and part of the curatorial responsibility is to take forward relationships even when they break down, even when they’re not functional.
MS: I was thinking a lot about the performance of Fernando García-Dory and how a lot of this piece was produced by the misinterpretation or misreading in the translation process, while working with the Korean participants, and how those differences became the main part of the piece. Let’s say: to build a community with others as a frame where these issues can be productive.
CC: Those frames need a lot of care and attention.
MS: Sure, but I was thinking about your pieces there, located in a different place from where they were supposed to be. This wrongness becomes finally an advantage for them.
CC: I agree with you. Change is productive and part of the process of working things through. Most often it is. And the reading that Fernando allowed us is of the evolutions of a set of relationships.
MS: The first time I approached your work was with the Support Structures book (Sternberg Press, 2009). As a curator I was trying to provide a theory about the kind of work we do all the time but that cannot be defined, all those parts of the curatorial work and of the relations we establish in order to contribute, produce, or provoke contemporary culture. Your work was really important for me at that moment because you were providing words for things I was looking for: how to express our main methodology, which deals with things we never think about, like intuition, emotions… things we take for granted but that are central to our field. From your book, until now I was more interested in display, that uncanny thing that is happening during the encounter between bodies and objects. Maybe there is a kind of an unthinkable or unknown position, a plus, an extra thing or an extravagancy that is the main contribution of art or of an exhibition to the world. Rereading your book these days, I realize how display was all around it.
CC: What you say makes total sense to me, and the vocabulary is what I was looking for, also in this attempt to recognize and acknowledge a largely invisible work that I saw happening all around me. My thinking has also shifted since then, and I have focused very much on display in the last couple of years as necessary work. In your text, you also refer to the relationship between humans and things. A cultural institution is responsible for articulating this relationship in a particular context. And humans also come with bodies, the triviality of a body in need that might be tired or cold… that is part of the responsibility when there are people walking around, not just intellects, nor just eyes. I don’t know if I was thinking about this yet when I was writing Support Structures. The promise of that is there. It’s interesting how both our thinking from the book grew in parallel directions.
MS: Lately I was writing this book on display, Countless Species [Prelude published by Kadist Foundation Paris in 2016]. I was trying to make a theory on display delivered as a curatorial discourse, delivered and constructed as I think curatorial issues should be defined as a praxis. Teaching, a public discussion of any kind… became a curatorial action: a body provoking material relationships. I decided that I needed to make performances associated with it, and I felt the need to introduce a biographical approach, one that includes queer issues, putting forth my own body as a genealogy. Every time I quote Foucault or Barthes, and when I read a quotation from them, I exercise an embodiment, as in your picture in Skype.
CC: You also mention Barthes, who was so important to me when I was writing Support Structures. In Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse, he structures how the point of view has to be inhabited, as he clearly cannot be analytical on a subject such as love, but has to talk from love. It was reading this that I realized I can only speak about support from a supporting point of view, which Barthes gave a voice. That is where the embodiment is, I think, positioning oneself from the place, or the site, you are trying to speak with. There is no way I can ever be (or want to be) an expert, and I can only offer support and speak from that position of total complicity. I’m enormously grateful to Barthes for this, for giving me the possibility of a voice within, the voice of becoming.
MS: In his diaries of that period, he was struggling with the condition of being an old gay man, with prostitution as the only way of interacting with the objects of his desire. He published cruel and sexually explicit fragments of those journals when he was still alive. He calls this block of texts Incidents [University of California Press, 1992], contingencies between his body writing at home and his sexual appetites.
CC: I remember reading the letter that he receives from a man he probably paid for sex, whom he considers a brilliant model. The man is asking—not for money— but for help. It says something about friendship that is not pure, that is completely implicated in needs and desire. It clarifies a lot of things.
MS: How did you turn from support to think about it in a frame of friendship?
CC: I knew that friendship is a fundamental aspect of personal support, and quickly realized how friendships were fundamental to the production of culture, also in terms of cultural support—like the friends of the museums, for example. You can’t do anything on your own; you always need alliances in order to propose any cultural project. I thought that friendship could become a chapter in the Support Structure project and then realized that it was too big a subject. Again, you can only speak on friendship as a friend, so it required a whole different set-up. Also, I didn’t know how to deal with how friendship appears as a subject in philosophy—one of the only disciplines where friendship is an entry—defined as only a relationship between men, from a world in which only men were free and equal. I needed to work within friendships amongst the excluded, be they slaves, homosexuals, suffragettes… I put it on the side as a future project.
MS: I underlined from The Company She Keeps [Céline Condorelli. Book Works, Chisenhale Gallery, Van Abbemuseum, 2013] the part when you ask Avery F. Gordon about homosociality. In my art history PhD, I focused on the end of the 19th century, in the crisis of modernity happening before modernity was named as such. This happened in a semantic system elaborated by an elite group of men moving through the main Western cities. What I realized then, is how even in the construction of the man-to-man society, the woman was always the determining point, the main point of significance who conditioned, even from the outside, all those framed positions. The absence of women was determining the symbolic capital exchanged between those men at that moment.
CC: I think there is a funny parallel between what you describe and the development of museums at the time. Somehow the museum stages relationships to and between objects as accepted at any given time, and mirrors forms of control, repression, conditions of appearance. Displays manifest relationships and exclusions, and in this way the museum says a lot more about the society that produces it than the culture it seeks to portray. From the end of the 19th century, the time that you describe, museums becomes increasingly more uncomfortable: they started at the late 18th century as a place of encounter. I want to read a quote of Notes on the Museum Bench by Diana Fuss: “So begins Henry James’s 1877 novel The American, set largely in 1868 Paris, where our wealthy if unworldly hero has come to find a wife. And where better to scope out the options than from the great ottoman of the Louvre, where people come not just to see but to be seen, and where the art of seduction rivals any veiled eroticism of painting or sculpture, objects serving not merely to frame romantic trysts but to abet them.” All signs of inhabitation, of comfort—such as sofas or plants—are gradually taken away from the museum, and with them the acknowledgement of anything other than a visual experience of culture. I read this in relationship to this gradual deletion of social life from the museum. You are describing a movement that goes from a cultural institution model of the museum as a place to go and, for instance, find a partner, to it being the site of audiences’ gradual disembodiment as a requirement for a so-called appreciation of contemporary art.
MS: In your formal and aesthetic options this seems very important, too.
CC: I believe it is essentially misleading and a way of making the institution apolitical. I’m interested in the material aspect of any cultural production, in the relationships on which we depend, and of actually making those the material of cultural work itself. We are dependent on specific relationships not just of people but also of things, of electricity, of water, of things we lean on… all the aspects of support, both physical and metaphysical, are essential material. That is why I make things such as museum benches. What happens if you acknowledge those liminal objects and make them part of the cultural experience?
MS: Avery F. Gordon told you: “Friendship as a condition for political life.” Not forced into a participation but prepared to host it. Not a place to build a community but a place where a community can be acknowledged as a set of gestures of responsibility. Your pieces in Gwangju were well received, and people were talking about them in an emotionally positive way: happy, easy, kind pieces.
CC: It means that what I am addressing is readable, which is great. One makes stuff in relation to commitments and promises—that’s how any art object is produced. I’d like to ask you how you construct sets for these relationships to take place on an institutional level. How do you expand this to the scale of the institution?
MS: In this sense of rethinking the new institutionalism, we are forced to think about the new ways of politics taking place in the South, through assemblies, new forms of participation… We are trying to invent a way in which an institution can be a place to speak from and make a program as a consequence of that dialogue. We are developing this informal school, called Escuelita, an organism inside the institution in which people can participate in a non-violent way, forming a community not formulated as such, consciously not having it as a productive situation. Its space is a domestic place for bodies to feel comfortable, which was made by Bik van der Pol: an exhibition that can stay or change through their long-term engagement with it, which is occupied by the uses of the Escuelita. I wish to imagine an institution where exhibitions become socio-historical crystallizations of the way the museum talks with society about itself and of the way audiences answer back.
CC: Do you start from the performative, or do you formalize it explicitly?
MS: I want this to be enigmatic for me. I’m trying to provide the frame for this to happen, but I don’t want to know the output. Otherwise this would be the same model of institution we already have. I want to imagine the material tradition of an institution as a context: the set of relationships that constructs a free, public, and open institution of contemporary art made visible through a programme, by constructing the programme itself. It’s like taking all this reflection from the Support Structures and to make those methodologies explicit as the program itself. The performative will always be the starting point, but for the peripheral condition of the museum itself, from this area south of Madrid, our audiences are starting the dialogue every time, interacting with our exhibitions, educational programs, and events. They were using our museum as a tool, without a tradition or frame. We now try to integrate the relational system the museum constructed, and make that the material of our program.
CC: Avoiding the separation between exhibition-making and education. I understand museums as collective building sites.
MS: In fact, your pieces in Gwangju are transitional pieces.
CC: …which may not look like art.
MS: I will love to have this museum where this transition or boundary or libidinal actions could be its very center.
CC: Does it need to be explained?
MS: I don’t think so. It just needs to be experienced. It’s the experience, the change: other kinds of bodies as other kinds of relations. Already our audiences are not just the conventional audiences of a museum space.
CC: Which is a relief in your case.
MS: Exactly. What is and has been already happening is the way the museum should institutionalize or de-institutionalize itself.
CC: What is interesting is that in some ways it shifts the focus a little bit. Art happens anyway. There are different communities in what you are describing. Maybe the only thing they have in common is that they are not part of the structure of the museum. There is another community of people making and providing things—artists—whom your audience is encountering every day, maybe not in presence, but through their labor. This is also a form of encounter. Somewhere in that encounter, the museum is produced.
MS: You wrote: “Communities can be formed through exhibitions, just as much as they can be destroyed.” How can we maintain this unstable position, a continuous delivery position? I think that is the main problem we have now, as we are thinking about the future of an institution.
CC: All of the things that you describe can be understood as different meanings of exhibitions, different ways of making things public: exposing, informing, offering… We use exhibitions in a very conventional way, arranging a space as a place for the pleasure or consumption of the audience, but actually the public aspects of exhibition—which is literally just to unfold something in public—can be applied to many other things. A very traditional way of understanding what public is, which means anything presented can be copied or reused or taken elsewhere. I like the idea of people putting things out, and while a public normally designates the visitors to an exhibition, this public enters with a knowledge that is also embedded in what is presented. The people who are engaged in the process of making an exhibition can never be entirely separated from the public. They contribute and they constitute it. The institution you are describing is an institution of the future. The institution you are working towards is also a social context in which people exist and work, where potentially they form groups and relationships that are all essential to the production and interpretation of culture.
MS: I saw an exhibition that changed my life, a retrospective of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in ‘97 in CGAC [Santiago de Compostela, Spain] that the audiences remembered, that was the measure of the exhibitions to come. It charged emotionally the program for years. Years later, I was chief curator in the center and I realized he died during the exhibition: it was his last show when he was alive.
CC: Like a haunting.
MS: All the time in museums, there is this rhythm of one exhibition after the other, but there is also a longing going on, a missed relationality that passes from one part of the program to the other. The institution is eating itself over and over again through the calendar. Can we find a way of putting the institution in this missing relationality to itself, in a situation unknown to itself, in a becoming or an anticipation system?
CC: One thing that disturbs me in Felix Gonzalez-Torres is the slight tint of sadness it comes with, which I consider to be very different from a starting position of desire: very proactive and looking towards the future, as something that is asking to be made and constructed.
MS: In my place, we have a special relationship with death: at Christmas dinner, a chair is left empty for a dead relative that died during the year. This isn’t morbid, it’s a thought about the future: that place can be occupied by a late arrival, a relative that might just come for coffee… It’s not sadness but an overcoming of another thing that affects the past coming from the future.
CC: And also acknowledging the presence of that which is missing—not hiding it. That’s interesting thinking about the notion of haunting, acknowledging the presence of that which has gone away or has been put away: an interesting way of thinking about integration.
MS: And a very political gesture.
CC: I think finding ways of sharing space, and I really mean it in the most genuine way, is becoming for me an absolute priority. That has partly to do with the fact that everything is pointing us in different directions, towards not sharing anything—but protecting, which is the opposite. I say this after the Brexit vote, from London… But these set-ups or stagings that allow sharing are actually incredibly political and important even on a really small scale.
Céline Condorelli (CH, IT, UK) lives and works in London, Lisbon, and Milan; she is currently Professor at NABA (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti) Milan, and one of the founding directors of Eastside Projects, Birmingham, UK; she is the author and editor of Support Structures, published by Sternberg Press (2009), and her first monograph, bau bau is published by Mousse (2017). Recent exhibitions include Proposals for a Qualitative Society (Spinning), Stroom Den Haag, NL, Corps á Corps, IMA Brisbane, Australia (2017), Gwangju Biennale, Liverpool Biennial, Sydney Biennial, and Concrete Distractions, Kunsthalle Lissabon (2016), bau bau, HangarBicocca, Milan, IT (2015), Céline Condorelli, Chisenhale Gallery, UK, Positions, Van Abbemuseum, NL, including the publication The Company She Keeps, with Bookworks (2014). Previous exhibitions include baubau, Museum of Contemporary Art, Leipzig, curating Puppet Show, Eastside Projects, Gävle Konstcentrum, and Grundy Art Gallery(2014), Additionals, Project Art Centre, Dublin, Ireland, Things That Go Without Saying, Grazer Kunstverein, Austria, The Parliament, ‘Archive of Disobedience’, Castello di Rivoli, Italy (2013), Surrounded by the Uninhabitable, SALT Istanbul (2012).
Manuel Segade has a BI in History of Art from the University of Santiago de Compostela. His dissertation was a review on theatricality and allegorical linguistic structures in sculpture from the 1980s through the work of Juan Muñoz. Since 1998, he has worked in fragments of a cultural history of aesthetic practices of the end of the 19th century, around the production of a somatic and sexualized subjectivity, which was the subject of his published essay, "Narciso Fin de Siglo" (Melusina, 2008). In 2005 and 2006, he served as content coordinator for the Metrònom Fundació Rafael Tous d'Art Contemporani in Barcelona. From 2007 to 2009, he was a curator of the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea in Santiago de Compostela. In 2009, he resumed his freelance activity, producing and curating projects for La Casa Encendida, ARCO, MUSAC, Centre d'Art La Panera in Spain, Pavillon Vendôme in France, and TENT in the Netherlands. He has also been teaching curatorial practice in different postgraduate and MA programs, such as the Honours in Curatorship of Michaelis University of Cape Town and MACBA’s Independent Studies Program in Barcelona, and is now the annual tutor professor of the École du Magasin in Grenoble. He is director of Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo in Móstoles (Madrid, Spain).
3 Henry James, The American (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1877) CSS Bard, 2015. http://joelsandersarchitect.com/an-aesthetic-headache-notes-from-the-museum-bench-with-diana-fuss/.