Coming up at Entree Bergen is the new film by Marysia Lewandowska, Rehearsing the Museum. A follow up to her film Museum Futures: Distributed, made in collaboration with Neil Cummings, that was commissioned by Moderna Museet Stockholm, Sweden, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2008. Taking the form of a centenary interview with Moderna Museet’s executive Ayan Lindquist in an imaginary June 2058, it explores contemporary art practice and its institutions by envisaging the future roles of artists, museums, galleries, markets, manufactories and academies. Art Museums of the Future takes this film as a point of departure. This ongoing project is a collaboration between Anne Szefer Karlsen, associate professor in curatorial practice at the Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design, University of Bergen; Åse Løvgren, Project Developer at VISP, Production Unit for Visual Art; and Randi Grov Berger, curator at Entrée, a showroom for contemporary art in the centre of Bergen. Interview by Nina Strand.
Art Museums of the Future is still in an early phase, but the first part took place in January at the Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design, where the group presented Lewandowska’s and Cummings’ film. The Art Museums of the Future group is now sending out a ques- tionnaire to institutions around the country.
‘Art Museums of the Future takes the film’s idea of freely speculating about the future art world further, and we’re inviting directors at several of Norway’s art museums to do this with us’, says Randi Grov Berger. ‘We wish to develop it into a more publicly available platform for discussion. When constructing future visions, one often seizes on and exaggerates the developments seen today, whether good or bad, so that this tendency becomes the dominant one in a future scenario. So we’ve created a questionnaire that we invite directors to fill out, and in that way create a story about their art institutions, seen from a future perspective – in the year 2068. It can be called a sort of science-fiction story about museums in Norway. In this way, by “forcing” all the museum presentations into the same format, we can maybe get a glimpse of some dividing lines and differences.’
The purpose of the project is to contribute to a discussion about what a museum is, and what it can be.
‘For me, it’s important to continually examine what curatorial practice is, what requirements are demanded of curators, and how a curator can lay the groundwork for a public sphere around artworks – both those that already exist, and new productions’, says Anne Szefer Karlsen.
The project also explores the difficulties that museums are facing today.
‘Museums are faced with many challenges when it comes to legitimising their existence and drawing an audience. Climate change; a growing youth population with higher education; demands for compensation for colonial-era transgressions; shifting migration patterns; an expectation of active participation in processes that are being played out in the public sphere; and digital and technological innovations – all this plays a part in creating a complex new society’, says Szefer Karlsen. ‘The old colonial values of a Western-centred modernity are being challenged from many quarters. If institutions wish to remain places that the public wishes to protect, old institutional models need to be rethought in order to handle these social, ethical and aesthetic challenges in a satisfactory way. I think protecting an institution doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes a more restrictive public sphere – rather, the opposite.’
Szefer Karlsen uses the exhibition Gender Fluidity at Haugar Vestfold Kunstmuseum, 2018, as an example of institutional failure to respond adequately to current debates.
‘It’s an exhibition that according to the museum took on “how gender and identity is conditioned by conventions and can relate to social and political processes of change”, but in short, the institution invited an artist who’s been involved in transphobic statements and campaigns to show their work, and in the process asked the artist to exclude the gravest element of their contribution, something that led to the artist pulling out of the exhibition project. For me, it’s clear that in this case the curator and the institution hadn’t done a sufficiently thorough investigation into the complex subject they wanted to present and discuss, and consequently the nuances disappeared. The important discussion that was to take place about identity, self control, markers, prosecution and more, becomes stifled by a public debate concerning the artist’s freedom vs. minority groups and censorship.
I think that the biggest responsibility of an institution, which of course is inhabited by a group of people with various opinions, feelings and viewpoints, is presenting the public with clearly formulated, thoroughly prepared and multiple projects, that succeed in making room for discrepancies. They must also be able to express themselves in the public sphere if their projects lead to debate. I’m not willing to support the artist we’re talking about here – that work is too much in conflict with my own positions – but if the institution and the curator had reflected enough on it, then it would have been possible to make room for several different positions inside the project.’
In February, The Waterfront Ideas organised an event at the Munch Museum called What Will Be the Netflix of Art. They wrote: ‘Technological advances make more art forms easily available for a large audience. Streaming services and new technology has made us able to see and listen to what we want, and where we want to see and hear it. Can art go in the same direction?’
‘Museums today have to present their collections so that they can be reinterpreted in the present time by new audiences’, says Berger. ‘One way of doing this is surely to give artists and other researchers from varied backgrounds a chance to think anew about objects, modes of display and the inner structures of their collections. The museums and the stories they tell must evolve in the way society does, to avoid becoming cemeteries for something that once was. There’s something alarming about being delivered what we’re interested in via algorithms, which results in more mainstream content. It’s great that the museums work to increase visitor numbers, but a pity if it’s only achieved through “blockbuster exhibitions”.’
Lewandowska's film acts as a kind of sequel to Museum Futures: Distributed. Rehearsing the Museum explores the relation between Western art museums and the evolution of private museums in China, and this work will be shown at Entrée next week. It combines the idea of financial speculation with ‘speculative’ fiction as an artistic tool.
‘Traditionally, speculation is associated with markets and defined as measuring investment against future returns’, Lewandowska explains in the introduction to the film. ‘In this age of ambition, marked by the power of collectors, the accelerated online flows and technologies of access, what many of the private museums in China offer is an architectural landmark, often itself not more than a ‘hollow’ signature structure.
The film’s script, written collaboratively with Zian Chen over the last two years, is performed by two fictional characters: a young girl whose aspiration is to become a future museum director and an older woman, a property developer who having built a museum in 2005 reflects on deeper historical traumas and warns against inter-dependence between art and branding choreographed by money. Filmed in Shanghai and Bergen, the dialogue introduces questions of property, ownership and belonging facing collecting institutions as many unresolved local histories are put under pressure by aggressive global expansion.
One of the key questions for this project is how can public attention shift from commercial acquisition to cultural reflection and critique? In the case of contemporary art, what are the necessary material and immaterial conditions needed to foster exhibitions, criticism, education and the business plans for the research-oriented sustenance of art institutions? These are some of the challenges facing the future Chinese museum directors and entrepreneurs.’
In anticipation of the film, the project Art Museums of the Future has also become an investigation into “How to mediate a work that does not yet exist?”.
‘I hope our experiment will give us more knowledge about the ways in which mediation programmes can be shaped, and lay the groundwork for museums to dare to put on more new art, or to develop complex exhibition projects.’ says Szefer Karlsen.