A View of the Global Art World, from a Mexico City Curator

Work by Francis Alÿs at Museo Tamayo (image courtesy MUAC)
Still from video by Francis Alÿs made during his time as an artist embedded with the British army in Afghanistan, now on view at Museo Tamayo, (image courtesy Museo Tamayo)

MEXICO CITY — Critic and historian Cuauhtémoc Medina serves as chief curator at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporanea (MUAC), one of Latin America’s and Mexico City’s most progressive contemporary art institutions (under the auspices of Latin America’s largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico). Medina, who holds a PhD in History and Art Theory from the University of Essex, has also curated exhibitions for Manifesta, Tate, London, and the Venice Biennale. When we spoke in his office on the MUAC campus, south of Mexico City, he had just returned from working in Japan.

Medina’s curatorial practice creates a narrative of plurality, complexity, and globalism; the artists he tends to work with come from diverse backgrounds and engage with a broad spectrum of ideas. Last year, Pablo Vargas Lugo’s solo exhibition at Museo Tamayo distilled universal concepts about natural structures and time, drawing corollaries between nature, mysticism, and human design. Medina’s latest offering at Tamayo, a solo show by Francis Alÿs, investigates borders, migration, and global conflict through videos, performance, and installation. In an exhibition now on view at the MUAC, also curated by Medina, the Raqs Media Collective breaks down preconceived notions about global capitalism and postcolonialism through an encompassing multimedia installation that includes video, sculpture, ephemera, and text. Medina and I spoke about the theoretical conversations he’s engaged in as a curator working with international contemporary artists.

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Work by Raqs Media Collective at MUAC (image courtesy MUAC) (click to enlarge)
Raqs Media Collective, “Bureau of Frequently Asked Questions,” now on view at MUAC (image courtesy MUAC) (click to enlarge)

Devon Van Houten Maldonado: In the text accompanying the Raqs exhibition, you wrote that before perceiving any particular idea, what viewers come upon “is an extraordinary plea for the complexity and plurality of the realities that we are living.” I see a connection between this exhibition and others you’ve curated, like Francis Alÿs and Pablo Vargas at the Museo Tamayo . Is that a conscious narrative, and how did you arrive at those ideas through your curatorial practice?

Cuauhtémoc Medina: There is certainly an echo among several projects recently, I would say coming all the way from the project for Manifesta 9. In that sense, it also has to do with my relationship with Raqs: trying to tackle the question of complexity as a matter of allowing for a different way of social thinking. Although my job and my work is to interact with existing practice and not to project practice, there is a very, very specific sense in which, in the last years, I have been concerned with simplification of opinion, particularly the way simplification connects with, paradoxically, the brutality of liberalism and the complexity of the global era.

Simplemindedness, in the guise of economic thinking, is governing political subjectivity, and similarly, I sometimes fear that the entities who question that force are also leaning into spaces of simplification. The condition of this world is that of an increasing lack of access to the immense knowledge, subtlety of explanation, and questioning as it relates to motivations for how people vote or take a stand. One of the elements that is expropriated, kidnapped, and accumulated by the forces of corporate capitalism is precisely the access to details, both of technology and social management.

DVHM: Are you saying that, in the age of information, more access to information doesn’t necessarily translate to more knowledge? Things get oversimplified?

CM: I’m not claiming that it is a result of the means of information. It’s a result of the way in which, in reality, structural production, by having covered the earth, involves a distancing from the processes that connect with our immediate experience, making it almost impossible to have empirical access to anything. [laughs]

Pablo Lugas Vargas macro butterfly-wing sand drawing at Museo Tamayo last year (photo by Paolo Montalvo)

So, in that sense, common sense has become terribly … stupid. Of course, one of the complexities of the web and the space of information that surrounds the web is the fact that, in principle, a lot of very interesting and useful information is out there. But access to it depends on the power of knowledge, in order to actually be able to work through this enormous mass of material.

Some of the instruments of the internet, in particular the logic of hits which governs machines like Google, tend to create, again, a rather oversimplified storefront. So, the fact that there is no editing for these sources of information tends to actually engulf information into a logic of cheapening, which has to do with brutal competition and the fact that you have literal information mills working in the business of cheap labor, just to fill up bytes.

So, it’s more the difficulty involving this inability to actually connect anything we have at hand with anything that has any significance. We need to actually get to know incredibly specific stories to be able to relate to how something comes to the table, which is precisely the logic of global capitalism — the displacement of both suffering and labor into other spaces — and also the invisibility of our connections, which are camouflaged by the experience of connectivity. That is something that I feel is very specific: we have a situation where our connections are invisible, precisely because culture keeps on telling us how connected we are.

Raqs Media Collective, “Auto Measure” (2011–14), on view at MUAC (image courtesy MUAC) (click to enlarge)

I don’t dare to describe it under the classical terms of ideology or illusion, but it is the nature of our contemporary condition. I have the feeling that some of the artworks that one can find interesting today happen to be aware of that difficulty, and if one has to make choices in the cultural sphere, one very stark one has to do with a kind of contemporary art that is based on tabloid representation or that sells what I would describe as fake immediacy, which is what all formalism became. I mean, this is a very wide generalization, but I would stand for it. What some people tend to describe as formalism, in reality, has to do with this expectation of creating a certain immediacy. Well, all that avoids and denies the difficulty of actually making arguments about how we are living.

DVHM: One of Francis Alÿs’s pieces, now on view at the Tamayo, illuminates global migration issues by using illustrations of specific regional routes. Meanwhile, the Raqs exhibit has to do with global capitalism and postcolonialism. In the text for the show you say you discovered that on both sides of the Atlantic (Mexico and India), you and Raqs had arrived at the same conclusion. You work all over the world, but as a Latin American curator, as a Mexican curator, what is that conversation between Latin America and India, or Mexico and Europe, for example?

CM: Nobody is conversing with India and nobody is conversing with Mexico. I think that we carry political histories. We belong to different constituencies who happen to be powerlessly responsible for certain social structures. Those can involve the logic of building certain traditions, but in the contemporary art conversations that happen across distance and time, the question of cultural belonging and provenance is something that comes into people’s minds in relation to the privilege of exploring things that others might not know. This is a logic that I feel is very important — for instance, for Raqs, of embracing the unknown in a delicate and detailed form, which replaces the logic of identity in interactions between people conversing in a developing global culture.

Many years ago, in 1991 at the Havana Biennial, I was noticing and writing about the fact that the people arriving there had more in common amongst them than with the people they actually share a nationality with. There was this commonality of questions that could be enjoyed in that place. I think that, to a certain extent, is an important element of what contemporary art is today.

You need to see the fact that India today is one of the major powerhouses of contemporary industrialization. I have been going to India every two years since the late ’90s. Almost everyone that goes there has this extraordinary experience of brutal change. I mean, the kind of experience that people probably had when they went to London in the 1840s or New York in the 1940s. There is the feeling that history is going through there, in a much more visual sense than probably happens here.

It has to do with what we are looking for in terms of cultural production. Are we trying to feed our illusions of cultural belonging in others, so as to enjoy imagining that there can be some space of refuge?

I think Raqs are very impressive in illustrating that. They go all around the world; they go to Berlin and they start to meditate on issues surrounding Rosa Luxemburg’s writings and try to relate that to what is happening with the fate of ecosystems in the Caribbean. I guess that is what we mean by cosmopolitanism.

Work by Raqs Art Collective at MUAC
Raqs Media Collective, “Marks” (2012), on view at MUAC (image courtesy MUAC)

DVHM: Are you talking about postcolonial identities?

CM: That’s also part of the question. There are perspectives in these works that also cross, at least, to the 16th century, and it’s not by chance that it’s the 16th century. I understand that one of the products of modernism was developing the idea that something like India, Mexico, or France existed. So, it’s similarly as difficult to get rid of as notions of individual genius, expectations of formalist redemption, or things like that. Those ideas remain social productions that are difficult to scrub. It is true that I’m trying to work through those issues without denying that one of the questions is: how can you be cosmopolitan without reversing to colonial forms of nostalgia?

DVHM: I’m interested in the duality of the Raqs name, which has a literal meaning (“restlessness” or a kind of dance in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu) but also implies “Rarely Asked Questions.” Can you talk a little bit about that idea and getting at being cosmopolitan without falling into the trap of preconceived notions about reality?

CM: One of the elements that I connect with these things you’re bringing together is that they all involve a certain question about time and history that’s aware that the hereafter — in a very orthodox, almost Derridian sense — has almost nothing to do with the future. What space the future occupies in a certain political and cultural practice is a question we need to ask. I think that is something that many people are trying to do in the sphere of contemporary culture. It happens to be in the contemporary art world that these things are more explicit because of the mediation of theory. I mean, one can safely say the big difference between the other branches of cultural production and contemporary art is the demand of having a theoretical argument hasn’t been eradicated. The connection between criticism and practice is readily alive — not healthy, but readily alive. Whereas in other spheres … lets put it this way, the chain of the bike is out of place. You can pedal arguments as much as you want, and they are not going to have any affect. I guess it must be terribly depressing to be a film critic, because you are probably going to affect a couple of tics in the ticket booth, but you aren’t going to change anything about how films are made.

Particularly in the field of politics, there are a number of incredibly dangerous values that we need to start to take into consideration, like patience and uncertainty — they have to do with starting to understand that things like resentment resemble intelligence but are not intelligent. The fact that we know why we are in conflict doesn’t mean that testosterone is going to get us through.

I feel very worried that sometimes issues like participatory aesthetics feel a bit too close to a certain innocence of political action. I feel much more worried about the way in which forms of illusion pass as politics in our culture. I am slightly uncomfortable with the idea that some of our pals who are concerned about the questions of the world seem to believe that cultural museums are their enemies, because museums don’t behave like tools.

Pablo Vargas at Museo Tamayo (photo by Paolo Montalvo)
Installation view of Pablo Lugos Vargas’s solo exhibition at Museo Tamayo last year (photo by Paolo Montalvo)

DVHM: Knowledge in general becomes the enemy.

CM: Yes, so, all of those things relate to the fact that some of the inquires I have been a part of have to do with a praise of speculation and a concern for forms of intervention that actually suggest the world is rather fascinating because it isn’t right. Also, questioning our ways of thinking.

DVHM: In the Pablo Lugas Vargas exhibition at the Tamayo last year, the question of time was really prevalent — I am thinking about his eclipse piece, which projected the past into the future across 1,000 years. Raqs also address this issue. Can you talk a little bit about how those ideas work their way into your practice, specifically related to Raqs and the way they, or you, approach these questions about time?

CM: I mean, you’re knocking on something that I don’t know how to flesh out in detail, but something like Fernand Braudel’s Longue Durée, what he called structures, the continuity of certain fixed conditions. He was very inspired by the idea of geography as constituting a resilient limit and venue for human activity.

DVHM: As illustrated by Francis Alÿs …

CM: Yes, borders can be remade but ultimately stand, creating certain behaviors across social formations. I’m interested in how relationships evolve in a cultural sphere that has to do with these [invisible] connections, and what is the gesture that has to do with dispatching an idea, an argument, an image, or a face across time? And what is the way that is experienced — how do we live that?

Work by Francis Alÿs at Museo Tamayo (click to enlarge)
Francis Alÿs’s video project about migration across the Strait of Gibraltar, now at Museo Tamayo (courtesy Museo Tamayo) (click to enlarge)

It is a little bit of a trope, but I am very impressed with a moment in Gramsci’s notebooks, when he is talking about the nature of the spirit of the state. He comes up with this extraordinary, moving idea that the spirit of the state consists of taking into account the political concerns of at least the previous two generations and also taking into consideration the issues of those who are too young to actually take a stand, and probably those who are not even born yet.  What he says is completely different from tradition, which is always very dangerous.

I feel that the nature of those gestures is different from identity, the fixation that comes from the idea of tradition — the fact that we can engage, not precisely in a free way, but in a creative and contingent form with arguments that may be jumping out from an unexpected time. And similarly, that one might not be hopeless to believe that something, which probably in the present isn’t that significant, ought to be ironed out because there might be a figment of a possibility that we cannot even start to think about, that we cannot perceive because of our common sense.

The way we develop these aesthetic ideologies has, as Baudrillard said, two dimensions: the dimension of the now and the dimension of maybe sometime. That’s also why I’m resistant to the overevaluation of dematerialization and immediacy — the way in which some practice, particularly in the last decade, was entirely fixated on thinking that this time was the time. You know what I mean?

It fails the promise of the artifact. When you read Adorno talking about the artifact and Vilém Flusser — I mean, Flusser’s point about this squid that he reflects on, the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, is: human beings have the tendency to install memories in objects, rather than trusting solely in the memory of their DNA. I think that point should not, as happens frequently, turn into a praise of the squid, but the other way around — it shows that the logic of the artifact has this complex temporality. One thing I am very interested in, with some artists I have been looking at, has to do with the idea of sensitivity to complex temporality. That there is no mechanical succession [through time].

A number of pages were lost in the National Library in France, and nobody had read them for 600 years. Then there was a guy called Michel Foucault who came along and understood them. I am incredibly fascinated by that, maybe because I was trained as a historian. The idea that there are these relationships is extremely important and interesting; it is about understanding the wideness of our field of action. There are axes of what we are doing that are reaching places much more complicated, and we are able to understand this in so far as we don’t pretend to control it.

DVHM: Something that strikes me is a complex temporality in Mexico, putting it in your words.

CM: You’re getting me into a really, really dangerous zone [laughs]. Yes, funny, you’re going to nationalize me now.

Look, my friend Manuel Hernández, a psychoanalyst, a Lacanian, was astonished to find that there is this offhand remark in one of the seminars, where Lacan talks about having come to Mexico, being in this hotel where there was a Rivera mural, and looking at it and thinking: ‘How interesting, this Mexican time that is mixing all those moments; it’s so different from the time we are used to in France.’ The idea, again, with this perspective of cosmopolitan encounters — Lacan around 1965 or ’66, thinking about Diego Rivera’s style … I think those are the moments where I actually thrive. There is this immense energy.

Raqs Media Collective’s It is possible because it is possible continues at MUAC (Av. de Los Insurgentes sur No. 3000, Coyoacán, Centro, Mexico City) through June 28. Francis Alÿs: Story of a Negotiation continues at Museo Tamayo (Paseo de la Reforma 51, Bosque de Chapultepec, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City) through August 16.

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