Past Culture as Raw Material

Annette Kierulf

Welsh critic and curator Will Bradley has completed a series of projects examining various relationships between contemporary art and history; both art history and political history. He is a curator at Kunsthall Oslo where Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk is director. Kunsthall Oslo opened in the autumn of 2010 and is a new, promising, non-commercial gallery. Kunstjournalen B-post has interviewed Bradley on his curatorial background and ideas.


From right to left: Yvonne Rainer, Trio, 16mm film on DVD, 1976, Silke Otto-Knapp, Moontrail (Mountain), water color and gouache on canvas, 2010,Moontrail (Trio), water color and gouache on canvas, 2010, Moontrail (Figure) water color and gouache on canvas, 2010, Mary Redmond, The Pashtun, rafia, paint, cane, silk, wool, linen thread, 2010. From the first exhibition at Kunsthall Oslo «I must say that at first it was difficult work» 2010. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

Annette Kierulf (AK): You co-founded and were director of The Modern Institute in Glasgow from 1997-2001. What was the idea for thisorganisationand gallery and why did you choose this name?

Will Bradley (WB): There were three of us, Toby Webster, Charles Esche and myself, who started The Modern Institute. We called it "a production company and researchorganisationfor contemporary art and culture", rather than a gallery, and we produced artists' projects in many forms: books, records, performances, concerts, talks, video, an outdoor cinema, a temporary radio station, as well as holding exhibitions, setting up a small number of artists' studios and representing a group of mostly young, Glasgow-based artists at art fairs on a non-profit basis. We were responding to the situation around us at the time; there was a concentration of energy, ideas and idealism on the Glasgow art scene that shaped what we did. The name was intended to leave all possibilities open.

Psychedelic minimalism

AK: In 2002 The Modern Institutecuratedan exhibition at Charlottenburg Kunsthall called "My Head is on Fire but my Heart is Full of Love", a group show combining works by contemporary artists with "historical" art works and objects, like early 1900jewelleryand furniture, under the concept of psychedelic minimalism. You state in the catalogue that "Most ideas in the history of art can be usefully misread, mirrored, turned upside down". Can you say more about the ideas behind this exhibition? Did your approach as curators involve thinking about the objects in a non-linear/non-chronological way? 

(WB): Toby Webster, Henriette Bretton-Meyer and I curated that exhibition together, on the invitation of Charlotte Brandt from Charlottenborg Udstillingsbygning. Toby and I were very taken by the work of the Czech Cubists, designers and architects like Pavel Janak and Vlastislav Hofman who were working in the early decades of the 20thcentury. Their work was based on a productive misreading, almost a reversal, of French Cubism, which then developed its own theories and language, most notably in Janak's essay The Prism and the Pyramid. So this was one source for the show. Another was Robert Smithson's hallucinogenic account of his journeys through Mexico, where at one point he sees the old Mexican gods rising up out from the highway in front of his car – basically Smithson's poetic, psychedelic, crystal-geological approach to time. The strange arguments of Lucy Lippard's Overlay, looking at Minimalism through the art of prehistory, were also involved. What these very different texts have in common is that they short-circuit the idea of Modernist development, while keeping a sense of engagement with history. We were concerned with escaping themuseologicalnarrative that accretes artworks over time, to find different principles oforganisationand association, parallel moves, perhaps even irrational connections. We wanted to avoid both the claim of objectivity and its usual other and the assertion of individual subjectivity, and we found a way out via this kind of Jungian mesh of semi-psychotic associations, where one work could almost become part of another and redefine it, where questions of taste, authenticity or intention were dissolved. Perhaps the show was in fact about how art is more commonly experienced, in the wild as it were, mixed with every other kind of sensory input, in the flow of time, on the basis of limited knowledge and understanding, fragmented, overlaid and recombined in memory.

The myth of permanent change

AK: In her review of the exhibition in Frieze, Ina Blom wrote: "By taking a small step outside the habitual discourse of the various objects in the exhibition, it also manages to give a strange sense of the relative slowness and repetitiousness of Western culture, a culture in which a myth of permanent change and instability is told over and over again, in so many different forms, for so many different publics and over so many years." How do you relate to this "myth of permanent change"?

(WB): I'd certainly agree with Ina's remarks, this 'small step outside the habitual discourse' was exactly the step we intended to take and hoped that somebody might pick up on. We were following Smithson and Ballard into an altered idea of time and history but still we didn't plan to oppose the 'myth of permanent change' with a myth of eternal archetypes. We were more concerned with the transactions between image and meaning, the ways in which the present alters the meaning of the past, even though the past is, in some other sense, unalterable. To take a somewhat banal example from that exhibition, the form of the pyramid appears in Lee Miller's photographs from Egypt, in Dan Graham's mirror-glass sculpture, in Sol Le Witt's abstract icebergs, or inverted in Freddie Mercury's stage costume and in the legs of a Czech cubist chair. What is interesting is not the way that the form is remembered but the ways in which it is forgotten. The myth of permanent change and instability is the truth of the continual cultural reinvention of the meaning of form, or of a kind of modernist forgetting of earlier meanings. At the same time, it is the form of the capitalist dissolution of bourgeois notions like the history of art. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions swept away. All the new-forms become antiquated before they can ossify. We were very aware of a wave of exhibitions around the same time that were concerned with the relationship between design and art, with the collapse of all kinds of aesthetic design-making into a kind of equivalence under the sign of the commodity, and we consciously preferred confusion, contradiction, repetition, fakery and fiction.

Dialectical inefficiency 

AK: In another show you curated in Denmark, at IMO in spring 2010, with the title "Fragments of Machines", where the historical background is the story of rebellion in 19th century England, where a group of people organized attacks on the new, industrial weaving machines; they called themselves luddites and invented a fictional leader, King Ludd. How do you relate this story with contemporary art?

(WB): That show at IMO presented several different practices, from the techno-utopian computer animations of Lillian Schwartz to the anti-industrial handicraft of Travis Meinolf. It's impossible to make a direct connection with that thing called 'contemporary art', because that idea encompasses so many different ideas of production. In this particular show the link between the artists was an attempt to question the moral good of productivity, to disrupt the ideal of efficient function. Of course we're all familiar with the modernist idea of art's uselessness, that art should occupy a special, unproductive realm for our contemplation. This show was about a more directed, dialectical inefficiency, or insufficiency, or surfeit, a refusal to contribute to the smooth working of the machine of contemporary society, not by withdrawing but by producing, remixing, embellishing; contributing objects and images with reason and purpose, that belong to an altered conception of a good society while disavowing their efficient, industrial purpose.

Moneyless subculture

AK: A few years earlier you curated a show at CCA in California called "Radical Software" that focused on connections between art, technology, radical politics and psychedelic avant-garde. Is there a relationship between these exhibitions? (Although different, both involve discussing our relation to technology?)

(WB): Yes, of course there is a relationship and one that I hope to work on further in the future. 'Radical Software' was a reallabourof love and a snapshot of my education-in-progress, as well as documentation of the fantastic depth of knowledge among the people I worked with to make it. The exhibition itself was as much a set of signposts for further research as it was a fully worked-out curatorial statement, but it attempted to document part of the development of the powerfully utopian ideas that the counterculture encoded in the technological networks we now take for granted. The consequences of this secret victory of the anti-capitalist underground are still unfolding, from Indymedia and WikiLeaks to the fall of Microsoft and the rise of Linux and peer-to-peer networking, while anti-net neutrality legislation, NSA surveillance of the internet and strong DRM, are the latest ad-hoc attempts to put this particular genie back in the bottle. What I thought was important – and still do – is the utopian impulse underlying the diverse projects that the exhibition documented: to create property without an owner; to produce TV yourself, outside of corporate or state control; to imagine copyright with no commercial value; to distribute information and ideas over free networks; to create a free university where everybody learns and everybody teaches; toorganisean entire subculture without money.


Arild Tveito, The Great Gabbo (Double-Entry) and the Artificial Octopus, installation, 2010.  Johan Berner Jakobsen, Det 6. bud, og Taterfølge, painting, undated. From the first exhibition at Kunsthall Oslo «I must say that at first it was difficult work» 2010. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

Kunsthall Oslo

AK: At Kunsthall Oslo where you work as a curator, the two first exhibitions combine new art works with historical art works. Can you tell us more about this approach? And what are your future plans?

(WB): At Kunsthall Oslo, our remit – written into our constitution – is to present and commission contemporary art in its social and historical context. It is also sometimes said of contemporary art that it is difficult to comprehend without an understanding of this history and context. For our first exhibition we asked five young artists to select an existing work made by somebody else and then to make work themselves to show alongside it. Our hope was to make an exhibition that uncovered the different processes of research, inspiration, or relation to a historical context that contemporary artists employ, without directing it ourselves. Our thought was to make an exhibition that was both about how younger artists look at older artwork and about how past culture becomes the raw material for the culture of the present or the future. In some sense we hoped that this exhibition would make an argument for the very existence of ourprogramme– to commission new works that react to the existing social and historical context because those new works become the basis of a future culture.

For the future we plan to take these ideas much further. But we are a very new organization still in the early phase of our development. We have learned a lot from these first few months, about our space, our audience, our relationship to the art scene and to the wider public. From the outset we planned ourprogrammeto begin with exhibitions aimed primarily at a specialist art audience, with perhaps more accessible shows to come as theorganisationbecame more established. We are currently improving our exhibition space and looking forward to a very strongprogrammein the New Year. We will be working with Norwegian artists, both very well-known and almost unknown, and with many international contemporary artists. We have commissioned major new works and will also be showing important historical works. We are also developing curatorial collaborations, we have a very interesting summer project where a young, artist-initiated project from Oslo will take over the Kunsthall space and we are working on a longer-term initiative that takes the city itself as its subject.

AK: Is there new energy to be gained for art in dealing with history and the archives? 

(WB): I would turn your question around and ask why so much recent energy in the art world has been focused on history and the archive. I'd suggest two related answers. Firstly, that the incredible resources of the web have made certain histories far more accessible to net-equipped artists than they were previously. Secondly, that this new availability of historical material has called into question existing, authorised histories and given new licence to artists to rewrite genealogies, discover hidden precursors, challenge mainstream readings and recover lost experiments. Some of the most interesting works by young artists are online, cultural improvisations that bypass the mechanics of the art world completely but are still made with a deep knowledge of their precursors and sources. New energy for art doesn't come from history but from the way that new conditions of the present change our relationship to that history.


Kunstjournalen B-post nr. 1_10/11: The Past Now!