Lost in Culture
European Culture Congress, photo: J. Zawadzki

Lost in Culture

Antónia Mészáros

The following debate on interdisciplinarity of culture took place during the European Culture Congress in September 2011 in Wrocław

11 minutes reading left

Moderator: Antónia Mészáros

Participants: Diedrich Diederichsen / Jan Fabre / Ewa Rewers / Krzysztof Wodiczko

Antónia Mészáros: Art today is no longer created or consumed the way in which it was for hundreds of years: in separate genres or disciplines, coexisting peacefully side by side. Instead, today art is between disciplines. But what is it exactly that we’re talking about? What is interdisciplinary art, apart from something that is in-between established, robust disciplines or genres of art? And how is this affecting the artists themselves and their audiences; how is this affecting the modern institutions of art and education, the institutions in which art is being taught, for example? Are there separate fields or disciplines of art any more? Were there ever, in fact, or was it always just an illusion? Do audiences, do we need completely new faculties, capabilities and sensitivities to be able to understand this supposedly new, interdisciplinary nature of art or not?

Lost in Culture debate slogan
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Each of the participants of today’s discussion has different experience with the interdisciplinarity of art. Let us start with a brief introduction from each of our guests.


Jan Fabre: Since the late 70s, I have been inspired by insects, because I was fascinated by insects through my heritage and through my family. My great-grandfather Jean-Henri Fabre probably wrote all the most standard works in entomology. When I was 18–19 I inherited the manuscripts of Jean-Henri Fabre and books about his work. It was quite important for my personal path. I was always fascinated by the relation between science and art. As young artist, I was always climbing over the wall to see what was happening on the other side.

Ten years ago I met Edward O. Wilson, who wrote the fantastic book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. “Consilience”, a term coined by Wilson himself, is, to put it briefly, a tool that allows us to reinterpret reality based on facts or theories from different disciplines. So, for example, entomologists study the movements and strategy of insects and the definition of space of insects. Their findings may be used to analyse human behaviour. You compare these two worlds and you can see links, and you can produce new interpretations. This is what is called consilience. I’ve been a kind of consilience artist for thirty years. Not multimedia, not hybrids, not multidisciplinary: now it’s consilience.

In recent years, I’ve researched a lot about the body, the skeleton, the skin, the organs, and bodily fluids of a variety of animals, seeking relationships between them, and thus the source of artistic inspiration; this is where I hoped to find this consilience. Of course I had to go to the parts of the brain, so over the past 7–8 years I’ve been working together with neurologists to study the brain, to imagine things about the brain and make a lot of sculptures about brains. So that’s also the reason I met Edward O. Wilson. I also decided to meet Wilson, with whom I shot a movie in America titled Is the Brain the Most Sexy Part of the Body?

My latest exhibition at the Biennale in Venice was also devoted to the brain. Let me begin by explaining how this idea came about. Three years ago I was invited by the World Congress of Brain Research to do a speech about my work. Afterwards, a gentleman came up to me, a small man with gray hair. His name was Giacomo Rizzolatti, a brilliant neurophysiologist, and in the opinion of many, a future Nobel Prize laureate. He proved empirically that we have mirrors in our neurons that are responsible for imitation, the idea of copying, the idea of empathy, the idea of compassion. These neurons fire when we look at each other. So looking is really thinking.

Rizzolatti and I talked for many hours. As I was already busy with the brain, I decided to apply all the knowledge I had amassed towards a concrete work of art. I installed a kind of 24 carat gold platform on top of the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia, the Venetian school of theology and philosophy. On the left side there was a brain with a cross wrapped in ivy growing out of it. This was the symbol of paganism. On the right side there was a brain with two nails growing out of Christ, a symbol of the crucifixion. The third brain, with a bonsai tree, was a reference to miniature painting, a popular Italian style and Flemish style. The bonsai tree was also a reference to Shintoism and other religions in the area. The fourth brain was a brain upside-down with turtles, and this was a kind of reference to Indians, because in Indian beliefs turtles carry the world, and they also appear in Chinese religions. And the fifth part was a revision of the Pieta of Michelangelo. This provoked a kind of scandal in Italy because I put a skull on the face of Mary. Of course — people forget this sometimes — I found a lot of paintings, Flemish paintings, Italian paintings, where Mary was presented in that way. This was later forbidden by the Church, because this was a symbol of the mother sacrificing herself for her son. I took the place of Christ in this installation. I lay in the arms of Mary, dressed in a smart suit and barefoot: imagine Paul McCartney on the cover of Abbey Road. On my body are different insects. All these insects are related to body parts and bear a different meaning. For example, on my stomach sits a rhinoceros scarabeus, which you’ll often find in vanitas paintings as a symbol of emotions. You will find another type of scarabeus in history as a bridge from life to death. So every insect, the butterfly, the worm, the fly, the scarabeus, they all have a physical relationship, and also a kind of reference to artistry and a reference to my work over the past thirty years; every insect I used in an installation, in a drawing, in a play, in a sculpture. Why this golden platform? You could say it was an homage to the German artist and theoretician Joseph Beuys, who famously stated that “everyone is an artist.” People had to wear small felt slippers to enter the stage, and thus became a part of the artwork, a part of the ritual. So, in a sense, the basic installation, the basic work was a kind of utopian world to bring together all of the forms of thinking, all of the brains. A world that accepts and combines different religions that exist next to each other. It was an embodiment of the idea of empathy and compassion.

Jan Fabre, photo: J. Zawadzki


Diedrich Diederichsen: I’d like to talk a little bit about the notion of interdisciplinarity, intertension between artistic production and the culture industry on the one hand, and on the other hand the institutionalisation of disciplines of art in the universities and the field of education.

We have witnessed in the 20th century a diversification of disciplines talking about forms of artistic production, but they were characterised by being extremely late after the fact, so one has to consider that the independent theatre studies were able to institutionally separate themselves from general literary studies as late as 1920s, and you know how long theater has existed. Film studies did not happen on a broad institutional level before the 1970s. And a field like performance art, which we have known for 50 or 60 years, is establishing its own independent discipline of studies right now.

The academic world often has a delayed reaction to artistic, technological, and media developments. And on the other hand, you have another form of the creation of new disciplines, which is the creation of sub-disciplines. Let’s take art history, for example: to avoid having to rewrite the curriculum every ten years, you add sub-disciplines plus other sub-disciplines and more sub-disciplines in order to be up to date. And a variation of that strategy is the strategy of creating new umbrella terms, like visual culture studies, which includes everything that has anything to do with looking at things.

But I think the current debate on interdisciplinary studies or new disciplines is not so much about the introduction of new art forms, but about the continuous mingling of art production, the way art productions can no longer be nailed down as single genres, single traditions or single disciplines. There is a famous essay by Theodor W. Adorno from 1967, called Die Kunst und die Künste (Art and the Arts), in which he presents two ways of thinking about what art is. One view states that there is just one single spirit of art, of which all other arts are mere realizations, concretions. The other position, the craft position, states that it’s all only based on the specific craft; the specific craft determines the entire art. Both, as is well argued in this essay, lead towards reactionary ideas of art production. So, what I’m going to try to argue for is another way of dealing with this problem, another way of designing or creating new disciplines. As an example of these necessities I am going to talk a little about how pop music and contemporary art are both, and have been for a long time, way beyond these problems. And I’m not saying that this is just a positive development, I’m not saying this is some kind of progress. I’m just saying it is in a bad and in a good way beyond the problem of conventional ideas of disciplinarity.

Let’s start with pop music. It’s important to know that pop music is not just popular music. I’m thinking of it as a very specific thing that started around the mid 50s and has to do with recording technology, with recorded sound. It has to be a recorded document of music, it has to be produced in the studio and it has to base its main attraction on the transference of physical traces of bodies, voices, and traces of a performance onto a record. And these purely acoustic traces of physicality are combined with a visual element: an image, a photograph, a film, a television broadcast and a performance. So there are three things: a performance, an image, and a sound coming from a body. And these three are not brought together by one medium, but they are brought together by the recipient. The recipients who are listening to Elvis’s voice at home have to connect this with the picture of Elvis they have elsewhere, on the album art and a performance they’ve seen on TV. The recipient is a black box in which all the projections come together. So the main attraction that’s important is physicality, and the medium unifying the attractions of pop music is the recipient. What’s happening here is an excess of the concretion of physicality. It’s not about being able to play very well, nor about writing songs very well. To borrow a term from Marshall McLuhan, I would say that in pop music, music is only the ground, not the figure. Physicality, performance, poses, and attitudes are the figures. So it makes no sense to study music if you want to study pop music.

The other example of art that transcends the boundaries of disciplines would be contemporary art. Let me explain briefly what I mean. Contemporary art is not about images or sculptures, or other visual objects; again, they are just the ground. The figure is, again, a form of abstraction, and that has been the general consensus since conceptualism. Visual artists can do anything that every other art does: they can make films, they can make operas, or they can make furniture. But if they make operas, if they make furniture and if they make films, they are different films. These films are just the same films, they’re just exactly like any other film, but they are films by an artist, and they are shown in an art context.

There is a different relation between, to put it metaphorically, figure and ground. The conventional art optic is just the ground, while the figure is a conceptual strategy, some idea of criticality, some idea of contextualisation, some abstract idea. So you have, in the case of pop music, basically, a tendency towards total concretion, total physicality in a good and a bad sense. I would say the dream of pop music, in the good sense, is some kind of liberation of the body, and the bad sense is a total pornographic commodification of the body. And of course the whole tendency in pop music comes from the cultural industry, which tries to intensify attractions. And in contemporary art you have the opposite tendency: it comes from the idea of autonomy, autonomism, and abstraction. And in this abstraction you also have positive and negative poles. The positive is this kind of dream of a universal criticality, produced by this kind of nearly idealistic ideal of an art that is based on ideas, but the ideas are the figure and the optics are on the ground. The negative reality, so to speak, is of course a complete submission to the laws of exchange value, where the abstraction leads to a complete equaling of differences.

I’m giving these examples to demonstrate that we need new disciplines in order to study these phenomena. And we already have: in some art academies and art universities, we have disciplines like post-colonial studies or gender studies, which are disciplines that are not necessarily connected to art, but they offer another perspective on artistic production. And I think what I’m trying to argue for is a third thing that would be called something like epistemological studies, that would be an area of study or a discipline that would look for tendencies in a certain forms of art production.

Diedrich Diederichsen, photo: J. Zawadzki


Krzysztof Wodiczko: I would like to start by sharing this image with you. You can see this person on the left: he is trying to avoid the gaze projected upon him by the two people on the right. Clearly, he’s not capable of responding to this gaze. They seem to be deporting him with their gaze, because they are afraid of him. In fact, they are the ones who are alienated from him. So the issue is how would it be possible to establish some communication between those who transport their pain through borders and frontiers and those who greet those people with fear?

This may be a good moment to refer to the ancient tradition of cynics, meaning those who lived in a public space and in fact disrupted in a provocative way, or maybe a scandalising way, the routine perception and imagination of their times. Their purpose was to point out what was wrong, what needed to be changed. Those interventionists from ancient Greece and the early Roman period perhaps had politico-ethical practice and techno-tactical practice, meaning they knew when to intervene, what the right moment was, the kairos, the techné. They treated their way of life as a touchstone of the relation to truth. And they spoke from their stomach, their heart, and their mind. The alienated man in the picture should be a modern-day cynic, someone in charge of animating the democratic process, because he sees the world from the point of view of the wound; he knows what’s wrong. Well, he’s not going to say anything unless he has the necessary equipment, some kind of media. Perhaps people like him shouldn’t just become contemporary cynics, modern-day Diogeneses, but also media performers, because today without media one cannot offer unsolicited truth. But those people couldn’t simply speak if you give them a microphone. They wouldn’t speak, because the very experiences they would transmit closes their throats: they are too traumatised by what they have been through. So, the process of developing their capacity to speak should be part of the project. The politico-ethical project must be connected with a psycho-therapeutic project and also with a media project, because we need to combine them into a performance project.

This will be a quick review of some of my early projects. Unfortunately, they still seem to be needed. I was hoping that in the 1980s and the early 90s, when I was working on those projects, that there would come a time when they would no longer be necessary. Unfortunately, the time of Le Pen is not gone, and is being revived by new politicians, by new xenophobia. That’s why I’m still showing these ancient pieces.

These are examples of media equipment I created for immigrants as part of a project I call “cultural prosthetics”. They prepare immigrants for encounters with strangers, meaning us, locals who aren’t familiar with their histories. Speaking walking sticks contain the history of one’s displacement in a plexiglass container, a reliquary of sorts that contains symbolic objects and documents that tell the story of their own existential transgressions and the story of their emigration and immigration. The walking stick displays pre-recorded videos of speeches (with the face shown on a screen and the voice played back through speakers), enabling the immigrant to prepare themselves for any number of awkward or inappropriate questions asked by strangers, and ask questions of their own. They can talk about their own traumatic experiences, ones that would be impossible to discuss in a new and strange environment without the help of the walking stick.

Of course, those projects could also have been developed with the use of other techniques. One could, for example, engage very prestigious structures, symbolic structures such as facades and monuments and hijack them or create conditions under which sans-papiers, people who have no face, no vote, no voice could actually speak, taking advantage of the prestigious location, position and place of a particular symbolic structure, building or monument in the life of the cities, projecting words, gestures or even faces onto such objects as the Basel Kunstmuseum, where I conducted one of my projects.

But the most important issue in my projects is to develop passionate speech. To develop a capacity in those people not only to report on the traumatic events associated with their displacement, but also do it in an emotionally charged way. So that also ties in with the concept of agonistic democracy, advocated by Chantal Mouffe, who is an opponent of deliberative democracy, and advocates agonistic pluralism. “The prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passion from the public sphere in order to render rational consensus possible, but to direct that passion towards democratic designs,” she says. So in this way, the ancient cynics may also become the new agonistic public artists. This, of course, could also be true not only with homeless people, immigrants, and minorities who are displaced or alienated, but also with war veterans. Soldiers coming home from foreign wars are new strangers, new people who may need equipment to voice their passion and their critical vision or also share the difference between themselves before they joined the war and after they came back. With such soldiers and their families in mind, I turned military vehicles into speech-act-machines that allow for them to blast the truth of their experience against the blind and blank walls of monuments and facades.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, photo: J. Zawadzki


Ewa Rewers: Sometimes, I should say, I feel like a parasite that feeds on such presentations as Krzysztof Wodiczko’s, because we researchers are only used to playing with words. However, I want to show you a very brief summary of one research project. Three parts of this project have already been completed and two of them are still open.

My longtime research experience in cultural urban studies is interdisciplinary. Collaboration with media and theatre scholars, sociologists, aestheticians, art historians, literature scholars, architects, photographers, and interior designers is connected with the observation of very “hot” borderlines between conflicting urban cultures — institutional and independent, commissioned and un-commissioned, professional and unprofessional, everyday urbanism and artistic projects, etc. All of them take place in cities as cultural spaces, creating urban hybrids. Some of them might be called “urban art”. These city-forming actions increasingly transgress traditional disciplinary divisions: urban studies, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, urban planning, etc. They also transgress traditional fields of art: architecture, urban landscape design, sculpture, installation, performance, street-art, graffiti, murals, industrial music and rap, performance, etc. What is remarkable today is that artists and activists, who work freely in the city streets, very often transgress the division between art and social action. Synergies and tensions between different kinds of knowledge, art, and actions constitute this specific type of city-creativity that we can call interdisciplinary or transcultural urban art.

The starting point of my thinking about interdisciplinarity is an attempt to answer a few questions provoked by the concept of urban art as an inherently interdisciplinary practice:

1.      Is urban art hybrid and multicomponent in its nature?

This question regarding urban art projects makes sense, especially when we bear in mind that each action in urban space interferes with the status quo. It is hard to imagine a city in which such a revolt would not take place on a daily basis. Each gesture, sound, object in motion, or body affects urban context in a way that does not let it solidify into any pre-planned form. Urban art puts together these various elements into a remarkably accessible package, so that viewers can enjoy the resulting product without necessarily having to know the full details of the origin and previous use of each component. However, not all elements of urban context inscribe themselves into urban art as easily as others. Public art or performance in public spaces such as street art, serve as its most recognisable examples. For an artist, this situation is as much intriguing as difficult. Joanna Rajkowska, for instance, dealt with it beautifully and movingly in Oxygenator.

The implicit metaphoric quality and explicit ambiguity of the designation “urban art” is a result of a metonymic operation. Metaphors, symbols, and representations are hidden in thinking about the relation between art and the city behind, one could say, a solid background of real coexistence, physical contact, noticeable cause-and-effect connections, and a bilateral, albeit not completely irreversible relation of signified-signifier. To begin with poetic ekphrasis, via filmic dystopias and urban games, 20th c. art developed many formal possibilities for us to draw conclusions from that persistent “touching each other,” the permeating of two symbolic worlds: city and art. I was editor of the book City in Art — Art of the City, (published in 2010) which describes the application, justification, scope and basic terminology used in this idea.

2.      What’s “public” in urban art?

The notion of an urban (public) art project, used in diverse contexts, is a source of numerous misunderstandings. The concept involves the realisation of three strictly related levels:

–  aesthetical (cities as unrestricted spaces of experimentation in connecting art forms),

–  epistemological (the politics of memory, multiculturality, cosmopolitism, and universal cultural values),

–  social (e.g. the capability of integrating various areas of artistic actions and politics of memory, rebirth of public space, the idea of a good life, civic dialogue, feeling of responsibility for common space, creating equal opportunities).

This is mainly revealed in an active attention to the city; manifested by the restoration of what is lost, degenerated, forgotten, or overlooked by the creation of new spaces, and most of all in the transformation of urban space into a discursive space. This was a way for art to develop the best-known and most often invoked practice of animating, confusing and battling for public space. Most importantly it started to use its performative force, but performances are not the only modalities of diverse cultural practices: they can include the practice of everyday life, social spectacle, and practices of resistance. This is true for all genres of urban art (from site-specific art to community art), which make urban spaces a necessary element of an artistic situation. Public projects differ from other artistic actions in that it is not only a generic name and/or specification of localisation, but a constitutive condition and matter which an artist needs as much as stone, light, concrete, public square, district, courtyard etc. Public debate and its record is not only a reaction to an artists’ work but one of the “raw materials” which become a source of public good. This is not a matter of provoking the reaction of any group of recipients or participants, which is transformed by the media into a spectacle with the artist as the main character. What is meant here is rather an impulse, a semantic displacement in a generally unspecified urban space, which as a result of an artistic project takes a new shape. A public project does not express itself in an artifact; it is not an object left behind on a street, attached to a slab of a square or a factory chimney, but a will to cooperate in urban space, readiness for self-limitation, to collaboration and acceptation of a new concept of authorship which cannot be properly described by the language of conventional art criticism. In this sense a public project is a temptation and a risk that is not only taken by an artist. How big does the cultural capital of a city need to be to appreciate such temptation and take the risk it involves?

3.      What does urban art becoming the major cultural capital of different cities signify?

We have seen that there has been an extraordinary growth in the audience for contemporary urban art or art in public spaces. If this art is actually popular, it is because it looks friendly to the general public. Artists became their own curators, making shows in the numerous industrial spaces emptied out by the recession. A research team I lead already completed an extensive research project in which we answered the question: What does art becoming the basic cultural capital of Polish cities mean? We established that at least five answers to this question need to be taken into account: 1) art has a place-forming character, 2) art has market-forming effect, 3) it is community-forming, 4) art sets examples and encourages co-creativity, 5) it has image-forming function so it is a medium of representation and information.

On the other hand, we inquired into the kinds of tensions and conflicts that emerge between artists and organisers of artistic events as a result of incongruent to innovative actions and ways of financing and reporting, solidified by the system of financing of culture. We observed examples of cultural and artistic practices that elude official strategies of developing cities, investments, and cultural tourism. On the one hand, cities fight for their “own” artists, on the other, they encourage reliable cooperation with residents who do not expect entertainment, but arts-based research practices. Art plays a vital role in determining the position and chances of cities in the battle for global cultural dominance. Arts, culture, cultural capital, creative class, creative capital and the way they relate to city functioning must, therefore, be a subject of heated debate.

4.      Do we “socially destratify” the notion of interdisciplinary creativity?

Art provides arguments, actions, and images with the help of city-dwellers at their place of residence. Professional arts met, however, unprofessional action and art on city streets. The effectiveness of urban art which focuses on subjects excluded from official urban discourses does not have to exhaust itself in postulates of critical art, caring only about those who surpass official policies and promotional strategies. More and more often, the aim of urban art becomes not only “making visible” the problems, but also a systematic work in favour of emancipation, demarginalisation and social animation of specific groups of city-dwellers. It does so according to community arts postulates, animation “by” and “to” creative work is understood as a condition of the improvement of standard of life. Actions initiated by artists engaging “grass-roots city-dwellers” sometimes look like an invitation to co-create a local cultural centre by “homeys-locals.”

The debate about the role of art and artists in building and increasing the cultural capital of cities, in which visual, narrative and performative practices are more and more often taken into account as necessary factors in co-creating contemporary urban “symbolic economies”, and has brought about the need for critical analysis of the actual role of art and symbolic creative activity in transforming, stimulating and demarginalising cultural urban spaces. Lack of such an analysis leads to a superficial “culturalisation” of the discourse regarding living in a city. On one hand, for cities, policies and debates in local media about symbolic culture and artistic creation have become handy tools to provide arguments in discussions involving brand building, image and promotion of certain visions of a city within global and regional competition. On the other, local authorities tend to hastily adopt the terminology of contemporary urban studies, discussions on revitalisation and gentrification along with “flagship objects” or “flagship events”, seldom reflecting on the actual role of creative activity in changing living conditions of certain groups and entities — especially for those, for whom the language of “creativity” — often defined as a new form of economic expansion — does not include or describe.

5.      Where and why do ideas of collaboration originate?

The basis for this new relation is the concentration of postindustrial societies on the culturalisation of everyday practices, on aesthetic experiences which constitute the inherent structure of everyday life, as well as on changing tendencies in art. There is a difficulty in art engaging with life administrated and banal, to be a counterbalance, not highly regulated entertainment. Artists create new connections with mass media and often use materials that come from the mass culture. A more positive alternative can be seen in those works of urban art that raise awareness of the instrumental web in which the viewers of art remain entangled. There is no common program to this art. It is interesting to note the urban strategy of “change by culture” understood as a change of the inhabitants’ mentality, expressed in participation, in city-forming models of actions based on knowledge. Investigating examples of the effective use of art as a context provider for city inhabitants’ culture-forming activities are considered socially essential, but technologically difficult. Listing urban art projects that actually affected inhabitants’ standard of living and influenced the understanding of their own and others’ interpretations of the same spaces is not enough. Effective demarginalization, emancipation and animation of urban spaces related to social groups particularly neglected in terms of education play an important role in the realization of urban art projects. First of all, however, they are deficient in answering the principal questions about the role of art in the shaping of the society of knowledge, which never stops to be a civil society. It is exactly this area in which I locate my research projects.

Ewa Rewers (in the middle), photo: J. Zawadzki


A. Mészáros: Your comments illustrate the sheer immensity of the phenomenon of interdisciplinarity in art. The first question that comes to mind is one regarding education. Schools traditionally have separate art faculties for separate disciplines of art. Is that a good model, or should the educational process reflect this interdisciplinarity from the beginning?

K. Wodiczko: My own experience as a teacher tells me that there is no need for those different, specialized programs such as painting, sculpture, print-making and so forth. I just don’t see a great need for them. I coordinate a program at a design school called “Art, Design, and the Public Domain,” offered to people from different, often non-artistic backgrounds, working in theoretical as well as practical fields: media, architecture, design, social research. That diversity works well in debates and in practice.

J. Fabre: My opinion is the opposite of the gentleman’s. When I was teaching in Amsterdam, Düsseldorf, and New York, I had the major problem that none of my students could make a drawing anymore. We’ve lost the notions of craftsmanship and tradition. I believe it’s important for artists to have a really good, solid education. I was raised in the country of Bruegel, Bosch, van Eyck, van Dyck, the greatest masters of painting in history. I think it’s important for young artists to study them, to know what painting is, to know the history of drawing, and to know how to paint and draw. Because for me drawing is just like thinking and looking. Having said that, I stopped teaching in academies for visual arts in the late 80s, and I have since taught only in my own laboratory.

A. Mészáros: Why did you stop teaching in academies?

J. Fabre: When I think, for example, about the academy in Amsterdam or Düsseldorf, I see that all those students are being prepared by the professors to go into the market and the system. All their work looks like the work in art magazines. In a lot of art academies they prepare these kids to adapt to what the system wants. And I think the school has to be much more of a place of sovereignty, one that is independent of the art market. So that’s the reason I stopped teaching at universities and now only teach in my own laboratory. And that means when I teach, when I accept students, they have to be with me day and night. For example, when a student comes to me for set design or light design, I tell him, “OK, look at Bruegel, look at a painting by Ruben, analyze where the light comes from, see that the light is artificial in a Ruben painting. See the mise en scène of those painters. So I think, I believe, that real avant-garde is always through routine and tradition. I believe in the crafts and I believe in a classic, solid education.

E. Rewers: I agree. As a lecturer and researcher, I think the main difficulty involves finding a connection between contemporary and historical, ancient art. It is very difficult to convince our students to want to learn about 19th or 18th century art, because they just want to focus on the moment, I mean they are mainly interested in contemporary art. And this is the main difficulty I face in my work. It is very important for us to understand our background and that what happened before still affects our lives, our memories fixed on the past. This is not inter-disciplinary as such, it is rather a kind of comparison between the past and present. Maybe the future is the better thing to teach, because we are all interested in the future, I think.

J. Fabre: I think when you’re young and you want to be a contemporary artist, you look, for example, at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch and you analyze it. It’s subversive, full of imagination, risk, and politics; probably more risky, more subversive, more political that all of contemporary art. So I think it’s important for young artists to understand the classics.

D. Diederichsen: It is my turn to disagree. First, what are the classics? For contemporary artists or for any future artist, classical European painting is as important as is knowing about the plays of Samuel Beckett, the songs of Elvis Presley, or the architecture of Teotihuacan. There’s no reason to privilege one above the other without a reason. Sometimes there is a reason, but there are none that are based on national traditions or regional traditions. I think bad reality should be present in art education. Understanding contemporaneity is an important yet often unappreciated ability. I’m all for sovereignty and the freedom of art teaching, but art education needs to be built around tension: critical tension versus reality. You can’t develop criticality if you are living in a bubble of suspended reality.

On the other hand, I definitely don’t support the cynicism of some art institutions these days, which are exclusively educating people for the market, as Jan Fabre mentioned. I think the market should be present in the educational programme, but not as a goal in itself.


A. Mészáros: Diedrich was talking about the ability to be critical. Is art today critical by definition? Is it the case that most pieces of contemporary art, ones that we call inter-disciplinary art, are in some way critical either of the reality around them or maybe even critical of the genre of art or some other kind of discipline or field, such as science?

K. Wodiczko: Well, that depends on the project. If the aim of the project is to transform — in the eyes of the viewer — an everyday situation or point into a scandalous situation, or to help others change the situation, then being critical is very important, of course. But it’s very difficult to prescribe disciplinary education to projects that are critical. Taking myself as an example of an artist who works in the public sphere, I could ask myself a series of questions that cannot be answered in terms of “disciplines”. Am I a cultural psychotherapist? Am I an urban interventionist? Am I a performance artist or a video and film maker? Or a special effects projectionist? Or an urban pedagogue, educator, cultural agent or amateur de la vie, as Roland Barthes would say, or an industrial designer? I have no idea. In fact, in order to prepare some of those works I had to collaborate with researchers in various disciplines, such us political geography, historical and cultural geography, sociologists, journalists, media reporters, political activists, even street workers and even some of those appointed officials. So, how can we prepare artists in all of those fields and how could they focus on particular projects before they try new disciplines? I think it’s very hard.

J. Fabre: I think there’s too much socially liberal, politically correct art being made today. I mean, most of the work I see is socially liberal and politically correct. I feel there’s this pervasive trend to be political and critical and to be politically correct. I think for me art is mostly about imagination and transformation. When there’s imagination with transformation, it will become itself political. When you’re busy with the imagination and transformation as an artist, you always encounter the research of the social and political behaviour of human beings. It’s inside of this leap of the imagination, so to speak. But it is not something that comes from outside. We live in a quite cynical society. A lot of art is cynical. There’s also the notion of irony. Irony is a very special tool. It analyses situations sharply. Except when irony comes from the outside, it becomes fashion. I think irony has to be in the essence, in the cell of the work itself. And I think that it also applies to being critical. Being critical has to be in the heart of the work itself.

D. Diederichsen: I would agree that there is something like nominative criticality these days. The social improvements are already decided about while producing a work of art, planning the intervention. That could be a problem, because it could be predictable and boring, but I think there is a deeper problem. And that is that both sides, criticality and market affirmative or market art, are related. You are in a certain power position from which you see more than everyone else. You are on the pedestal of your art, at a vantage point from which you see more. And that implies criticality. But it also implies that you are in a completely transformative exchange relation, because you are abstracted from social reality and from the reality of the production of your work. These days people think of art as either a universally critical tool or a universally exchangeable currency. And these two forms of abstraction need to be criticised. They need to be criticised through forms of practice, through the study of practice, and through criticism in practice.

K. Wodiczko: I would like to quote a statement by Richard Wagner from 1849, an excerpt from the The Artwork of the Future. He said: “If we consider the relation of modern art — so far as it is truly art — to public life, we shall recognise at once its complete inability to affect this public life in the sense of its own noblest endeavor. The reason hereof is that our modern art is a mere product of culture and has not sprung from life itself; therefore, being nothing but a hot-house plant, it cannot strike root in the present. (…) Art has become the private property of an artist-caste. (…) Can cultured art press forward from her abstract standpoint into life; or rather must not life press forward into art.” I try to follow Wagner’s suggestions, particularly the one expressed in the last part of the quote.


A. Mészáros: Is interdisciplinarity in art here to stay? Is it irreversible? Or is there a possibility that at some point there might even be a backlash against this?

E. Rewers: I think that we are in an era in which interdisciplinarity is just our reality, so there’s no way back from this point in which we are now. How could we abandon that reality? We would have to abandon our own points of view, our own awareness. I’m afraid that some researchers don’t know they are interdisciplinary and that is a problem.

A. Mészáros: You all talked about what sort of theoretical and practical background artists need in order to be able to create this art. So, if it is true, then what do we expect of the audience? How does the audience need to change? Or what capacities or sensitivities do we need to have in order to be able to consume this new art?

D. Diederichsen: The role of the audience, just like the role of art itself, has been undergoing significant changes. I think that in the last 50 or 60 years, contemporary art was based on the duality of state funding (and thus state intervention) and the market. And artists, more than any other practitioners, felt that they had a choice. They felt so-called artistic freedom; they imagined themselves as free, as having a choice between two possibilities. So once the state became too utilitarian, too instrumentalist with their work, they could still make it out there in the market. Or if the market became too contingent, they could still do useful work for the state. And there was something in the notion of their idea of freedom that had an economic and political background, that they often mistook as just freedom. And I think this situation is going to change. I think that this alternative will no longer be available in the future, because the state will not be there to fund art. This brings the audience into a good position, because if you don’t have the state, you need the audience, or you need to redefine the audience, and you need to redefine it on the not-so-pleasant level of quota and finance. And I think that is going to bring major change, probably not for the better.

A. Mészáros: If that’s true, then what should artists expect? What should they expect from the audiences of new art, regardless of whether we call describe it as interdisciplinary or use some other adjective?

J. Fabre: Audiences can be very dangerous. At my performances in the 80s and 90s, people would sometimes start throwing bottles at me, they would beat my actors and my dancers. I had to keep changing my address because they wanted to beat me up. An audience gathered in a dark space in front of performers sometimes reacts very extremely. On the other hand, I believe in the secret bond between the artwork and the spectator. I believe in the force and the healing power of beauty, its ability to cure the wounds in a spectator’s mind. For me the spectator is an individual. That’s why I sometimes make pieces not for performance or theatres that house a thousand people, but solo performances for 20 people. The performer has a kind of intimate relationship with the spectators. The same is true of works of art.

K. Wodiczko: There are two different publics, as I see it through my own experience and work. One is what I call the outer public, which is what we call the public. And another is the inner public. The inner public is born of the process of developing a work of art. Then there are the technical crews, or the people who work in media and production. You sometimes have 30 or even 100 people working around media projects in a public space. Then there are psychotherapists, there are social workers, there is a whole network that protects this process, that inspires it and cheers it on. That inner public joins the project not without interest.

It’s not that I expect anything from the public; I think the project produces and creates its own public and that the authors can potentially learn something from that public. I just hope that the outer public will be as generous as the inner public. That they will speak honestly, with passion and with truth, without any preconceived notions. That they will speak and hear and listen. So the objective of this type of work is to create something in-between, some kind of interface that will allow for those two generosities to develop and connect with each other.

A. Mészáros: And speaking of the public, I’m going to open the floor for questions from the audience.


Lost in Culture debate theme
from culturecongress.eu
Question 1: I would like to ask the panelists about the future of the theatre in an age of interdisciplinarity. Do you think we are going towards a sort of strengthening of art performance and will we have less and less theatre or traditional plays in the future?

J. Fabre: I want to refer to the idea of consilience mentioned in the introduction. I think performance has a lot to do with that idea. I have been teaching the members of my company for over 30 years, since 1980. They’re all classically trained actors and dancers. But I never taught them the notion of performance art. In the early 80s, I briefly introduced the idea in the theatre codex — real time, real action. My performers are classically trained actors and dancers, but they also have backgrounds in the visual arts. They understand what the body represents iconographically, for instance in painting or in sculpture. I think this knowledge is important to contemporary performers. I think it’s important that theatre also accepts the way I deal with my company, my performers. Not actors, because actors are a concept of 19th century bourgeois theatres. I think theatre is such a beautiful, ephemeral medium. It will always survive.

I see a lot of theatres, work by young artists, and there is a danger that they’re not very familiar with the theatrical tradition. When I talk to them they never had Chekhov, they never had Shakespeare, they don’t know the Greek tragedies, but they know a little bit about performance art. The result is that their productions are formally weak. So I think it’s very important for theatre people to not lose their tradition. But at the same time, they have to be open to learning from the visual arts, to learning from performance art, and to learning from the new developments in science.

D. Diederichsen: I think that the performance elements have become a major attraction in general. I think elements of performance have become the key components of so many cultural productions in all fields. There are several reasons for this, among them aesthetic and cultural reasons, but there is also a certain structure of public desires. Also I think performance art has expanded to all kinds of fields that are not recognised any longer as performance art, but have a lot to do with the history of performance art rather than with theatre. The other thing is that there’s a tendency among cultural politics to learn that performance art, structurally, is much cheaper than theatre. Much cheaper than standing theatres with fixed, employed actors and a huge bureaucracy. They realise they can have five performance festivals for the price of 1/3 of a standing theatre. That is a political reality that has nothing to do with aesthetic and artistic concerns.

Question 2: Would you agree that interdisciplinarity could, paradoxically, lead to the impoverishment of contemporary art?

J. Fabre: It’s true that in a lot of cases, this interdisciplinarity is a cover-up for artists who are incapable of doing anything good.

This article has been originally published on the European Culture Congress website.