I spoke with CHRIS DERCON on the phone. On this particular day, I was in a bird sanctuary by Lake Constance; he was sitting at his desk in his office in the Haus der Kunst, Munich. The strangely incongruous settings for our conversation would turn out to be a perfect illustration of Dercon’s theory of synchro-time. After the interview with Alexander Kluge (032c No. 6), this discussion is now the second test drilling into the nature of our current sense of time.
JOACHIM BESSING: Which epoch in art history might most likely be compared with our own?
CHRIS DERCON: I think that’s a very interesting question. But I’m of the opinion, also shared by Bruno Latour or Peter Sloterdijk, that our present is so dense, so compressed that it’s become difficult to even speak of a present at all. Can we still delineate for instance contemporary art, or art that’s just been past? I think that the extreme compression – the thickness – of the present, as we’ve only just now become able to experience it, brings with it an acceleration and a deceleration simultaneously – that’s why it’s also become extremely difficult to differentiate between the recent past and the present. I admire the photography of the 19th century because these images are, for me, like time-zones – securing a sense of time – in contrast with today’s digital imagery , which aren’t photos, and neither are they documents, they are visuals. Think of the Tsunami images, sent to press agencies by Nokia owners present at the scene. We became aware of the present like just another … deluge. One might even conclude that the density of the present is such that it is responsible for destroying itself, for creating its own absence. The compression of the present results in a weakening of our traditional concept of time with its divisions into past, future, and present. This is an absolute challenge for the collections in our museums: how to deal with this phenomenon?
“Deceleration is the state of there being no more delineation between present, future, and past. It is a state of constant sleepwalking, literally a ghost without a shell.”
Does this mean that there is nevertheless a sort of time-film moving forward while, at the same time, there is a sort of personal tempo at which one lives, experiences, and perceives?
Yes. The deceleration we are living with now is, of course, not a slowing down along the lines of, “Look at that person! He or she needs three hours to make her way through the exhibition” – that’s not deceleration. Deceleration is the state of there being no more delineation between present, future, and past. It is a state of constant sleepwalking, literally a ghost without a shell. How are we dealing with the dictatorship of the present, in for instance, exhibitions? Scholars like Peter Burke or Georges Didi-Huberman with their hypotheses of what images do with us, provide the inspirational tools which make it possible for us to put together exhibitions asking such questions. In our exhibitions at the Haus der Kunst we often pose the question, as to what it actually means, to display images?
What is a museum for now?
For me it’s to display while allowing the question of display … refusing its finality. How does one display, and for whom? Besides, museums still exist for very good – democratic – reasons. The visitor should actually be enabled to determine: “I think that …” and therefore, “I am capable to judge.” But we are living in an epoch in which visitors take their opinions from so called specialists only – or take into consideration the spectacle-condition, from the standing in line to the architectural sphere … on this matter I am more skeptical. The end of the museum, as it has often been declared, means nothing more than the end of the public sphere in general. The end of public space brings with it a crisis, and this crisis is then also to mean “the end of the museum.” But I think that a museum therefore also has a chance to become something else. A sort of university where one can acquire real knowledge, for instance about the (lost) meaning of the categories of the past, present, and future. Such is also at the basis of the origin of the museum: as a place where everybody can regain their ability to shape their own opinion. That’s what I mean by an “intellectual museum.” Most curators today are producing merely … knowledge as an experience. But it isn’t real knowledge. And they are barely interested in the opinions of the spectators.
That would mean that you would also have to include a lot of commentary and context in your exhibitions – or do you think that people come to a museum already well enough prepared?
That doesn’t at all mean making a lot of textual information available. The question is how one pulls together images – which will have an effect upon the visitor that texts alone never could. My own inspirations come from Jean-Luc Godard’s montage-experiments. Ever since Godard we’ve looked at images differently! And not only images, but the combination of images and texts as well. I think it’s a challenging thing to walk around in an exhibition that unfolds like a film by Godard. I think something like that we have tried to achieve with “Partners” curated by Ydessa Hendeles, or with the exhibitions “Occupying Space” selected from the Generali Sammlung and “Der Körper der Fotografie” based on photographs in the Sammlung Herzog.” Private collectors are also interested in basic questions of how to display images, and thereby willing to create new narrative structures through the medium of exhibition. Public lenders are, for the most part, still very touchy about such experiments.
Do you have the impression that the formal vocabulary of video art is exhausted?
No! Not at all. I think for instance the medium of video projection and the projection of an image as such are extremely important exhibition modes. What’s more, I believe that due to the manifold presence in exhibitions of sophisticated technological moving images, there is a revival of outmoded, static imagery as well. I can’t think of any other way to explain the renaissance of the photographic image. And painting. We’re seeing in these static images a new way for images to be – primarily because they aren’t moving. And they do look often a bit outmoded. We like to call such images “authentic.” But you could also say that they represent a kind of “resistance,” not in the least the expression of a resistance to … time.
Will color also disappear in the near future? As a counter measure to the colorfulness of our everyday lives?
I don’t think so. Suddenly, as architectural historian Mark Wigley has shown brilliantly, black and white are considered again as important … colors not being neutral at all. While silver, as applied in current car design and other product design, stands mainly for disappearance. You could even say therefore that today silver stands for the ordinary. No, there are many questions that are more important! There is still quite a lot to do within the field of visual perception per se. That is why it’s going to become very important to work trans-historically and trans-regionally. And of course trans-disciplinarily as well. Like when Aby Warburg proposed to consider the history of art as a kind of pathological discipline, making the possible probable and the probable possible.
What does that mean, to work trans-historically?
Many things! This makes it even possible to completely reconsider important – but for many, still troublesome – aspects of cultural production such as “cultural delay” and “cultural belatedness.” In a world of globalized culture, trans-historically means thus also allowing the whole world to enter the field.
Do we still know what “Strawberry Fields Forever” stands for? Do we still have an image of it? All that’s becoming much more difficult!
Has it become possible to work in these trans-historical/trans-disciplinary ways because we are now in a time far enough away from the origins of art history that we can approach a sort of complete overview? Does it also have something to do with the ability of the great societies to abandon their moral prejudices; that they are now able to soberly look back on history?
It isn’t merely sobriety. It also means accepting our own limitations.
Because of this density of our present. That’s also why it’s so difficult for us to deal with the recent past. For example, do we still know what “Strawberry Fields Forever” stands for? Do we still have an image of it? All that’s becoming much more difficult! I think this question is fascinating: What does an image produced just 30 or 40 years ago really means to us? Can we do or say different things about it, than just appropriate revival or recycling? Can the past be (constantly) re-worked within the present in different ways? Should we deal with, for instance, the preservation of cultural heritage in a completely different way? I guess scholars like Bruno Latour say that we should forget about it all together!
Since you’re bringing up the Beatles, bands like the Strokes or Franz Ferdinand sound like the Rolling Stones or even Roxy Music, and it’s evidently not about a revival of old-fashioned music, but rather, a protraction.
It’s not an appropriation, nor a revival. It’s not recycling. It’s slow motion – but then in the sense of stretching out endlessly. I also see this kind of slowness in current fashion and other design. In the end, the tension between the underlying slowness and the sped up, self-multiplying, present, results in this density and thickness. What we do see are expressions of a kind of heavy liquid. Look at the films by Won Kar-wai or even better, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. That is what I also see in the photographs by Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall. Of course the fact that these artists use computers to construe their pictures is instrumental to create a visual expression of that idea. It’s maybe too bad, but we really have to bid farewell to the concept of the past as we knew it. Thus I come back to my example of how to deal with the preservation of cultural heritage. In the 19th century, things were still quite simple: restoration on one hand, and an addition in the form of Neo-styles on the other. Today, Rem Koolhaas for instance, is dazzling us by presenting a visual interpretation of St. Petersburg as if there had never been a Communist revolution as we know it. In a way he is reinventing Communist architecture, or at least he is confronting us with his own interpretation of it.
It’s maybe too bad, but we really have to bid farewell to the concept of the past as we knew it.
How important is Koolhaas to you?
Very. Firstly, because of his working methods; his methods are based on constant questioning and reacting. That’s why he’s also sometimes called a pseudo-sociologist. And Koolhaas is interested in everything. He connects everything with everything else. To find an underlying logic or to the contrary, to make paradoxes work. And he is questioning everything one – including himself – takes for granted. He does not exclude anything. Koolhaas likes to use rambling, but at the same time very funny expressions like, “I want to have further possibilities of flexibility.” For people like me, who grew up with the lessons of Deleuze, that’s a pragmatic modus operandi: a never-ending curiosity and acceptance, especially of that which one doesn’t know or understand yet.
I find what you were talking about earlier with regard to slow motion interesting. Does this mean that certain fundamental cultural moments are perpetually spinning on as if, in a way, through holes in cheese – and independently as well from the movement of time?
Haven’t beginnings and endings become pretty much the same to us? Are we not ourselves on the verge of becoming alpha and omega – freed from the past and the future? Whoever asks such questions, of course, may be suspected of wanting to escape history or to be an escapist altogether.
Have we entered history in the first place? There’s hardly anything at all certain about our origins.
I think so, yes. And here, art plays a very important role! Our museums are therefore like time security zones. Like when Heidegger says, “Art is a form of resistance to time”
Video art can also offer a time security zone, in that time is stored in video artworks. I can quickly walk by a picture. A work of video art forces me to stay a while.
For me, this notion of securing time, or a kind of slowness is also detectable in oil painting.
Absolutely. From Fra Angelico to Delacroix and Luc Tuymans.
Where is the time there?
It is a kind of I-time-sovereignty.
The time is not only in the images; it is also the time of the beholder which counts. Such I-time-sovereignty is desperately needed. That’s why I think of a museum of the future as departing not on an aesthetic of space, but rather, as conceiving an architecture oriented around time.
What would that look like?
For me, exemplary models for future museums are libraries. Research labs. Media centers.
Would it still be important for such an intellectual museum to display the original image?
No, not really. It’s becoming more and more difficult to display the original anyway. In the near future, there aren’t anymore many original Dürers hanging in the Albertina; they will be facsimiles. But I do think that is important to tell the public what an original is and what a facsimile is.
What questions, then, is the art of our time answering?
I think that the visual arts today have become a very weak discipline. It’s a fact that the visual arts have tremendous difficulties creating their own cultural space. That’s why one is so happy right now that painting is back again. What is going on is of course just creating a simulacrum for the autonomy of art. And it’s being too-often forgotten that modern painting has never stopped declaring its own end. Painting can only go on prospering as long as the word “again” is around, while announcing its own end. A funny discipline that is!
Is the rebirth or this perpetual death of painting made easier by the fact that, when it comes to painting, everyone can get a word in?
Yes, absolutely! Everyone paints at some point. At the same time, it’s really quite challenging that there are no more real criteria. Like when Mallarmé declared that it is up to the jury to say this is a painting, or this is not a painting! That seems already long gone! When I mention the term “weak discipline,” I don’t mean that completely negatively. The visual arts are like a sponge; they soak up everything, take much from other disciplines, but without giving anything back really. That is a given today. That’s also why Hal Foster speaks of “anthropomorphic fetishism,” referring to an ’80s cover of Artforum, depicting Calvin Klein, Christian de Portzanparc, Courtney Love, O.J. Simpson, Piet Mondrian, Larry Clark, Matthew Barney and so on. Visual arts seems to prefer to function like this: Visual arts plus film, visual arts plus design, visual arts plus fashion, etc. Does that “plus” symbolize a sort of cross on a grave?
Things are going to explode, that is for sure!
There used to be a pretty kitschy attempt at defining what art might be. One went, “Art comes from talent,” the other, “Art comes from necessity.” Do you know why art’s still around?
We live in a society of leisure and in a totalitarian condition of creativity, where everything will sooner or later be an expression of the will to design. In such an aesthetically saturated space, niches of resistance can arise. And that’s precisely what good art does – namely, make use of these niches. We often then use the word “authentic” to express our gratitude, but there is much more to it, like I said before.
In art and literature, authenticity as well as quality can only be judged long after the moment of the initial presentation.
That is true. But then again – exactly because of the density of the present – we might have to formulate and believe in entirely different formulas of judgment. For instance, take our instincts much more seriously. That is, it might not be possible anymore to reject short-term thinking, also on a cultural level. For instance, we sense that narrative strategies are going to be playing an important role everywhere. When you look at the pictures by Neo Rauch, Martin Eder, and others, you might also start to appreciate and judge their work from this point of view.
Yes, young artists now begin to explore what narrative can do.
Isn’t it also just plain fun to paint?
Sure. It’s fun, too.
When a young person is an artist, he wants to move within a field of tradition. Painting presents itself as a candidate.
I don’t think so. Did you know that half of all German high school graduates want to “do something with art”?
Yes, but they also always want to “do something with animals” – that can be anything from becoming a butcher to becoming a photographer.
I think that the idioms such as “free artist” or “radical artist” have become unworkable. The artists and the public alike are brutally disinterested in such qualifications, as they are completely uninterested in the difference between art for the private sphere and art for the public sphere. They do not distinguish anymore between the trade and the public sector. We have to take that as a given and therefore enable ourselves to evaluate cultural transformations within commercialism too. The biggest problem for art is thus not only that it’s become like a sponge. More problematic for instance is that today an artist only has four- or five-years’ time to establish himself. There are almost no opportunities for solo exhibitions anymore. There are only group shows. So-called biennales are replacing the old praxis of exhibiting. And indeed, very little time is left for an artist to come to terms with these new conditions – otherwise, they won’t make it at all. Time is money, time is precious!
Is this mechanism for success comparable to that in the music industry?
Absolutely. Even successful bands have only four to seven years at the most to make the money and run.
Where does that actually come from?
There’s no continuity anymore. Susan Sontag described it very well: “Only discontinuity remains, very fast transformations – or: complete silence.” But continuity, transition and growth, as a blue period, a pink period, cubist and so on, that’s completely over. I am therefore becoming very interested in artists who decided to stop making or showing work like Reinhard Mucha. Maybe Damien Hirst is going to stop too; that would create a completely new situation for many young artists. Things are going to explode, that is for sure! So we have to enable ourselves to judge artistic praxis along those new lines as well.
Does this have something to do with the destruction of the synchronicity of the sense of time?
Absolutely, yes. It brings us back to Heidegger, Godard and the others who reflected about time. Art can be seen as a little boat rocking on the waves. A boat filled with time, in a way. But chronos-time doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s synchro-time. Our world is speeding ahead, at such a pace that measuring time through traditional means does not make sense anymore. And who still wants to look at a clock when our watches are time-coded anyway?
Chris Dercon, born 1958 in Lier, Belgium, is former director of the Haus der Kunst, Munich where he has organized exhibitions on Ydessa Hendeles, Patti Smith, and Rem Koolhaas, amongst others. He worked in Brussels in the early ’80s as a freelance broadcaster, curator and critic, and from there became program director at P.S.1 Center for Contemporary Art, New York; Creative Director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; and Director of Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art. He is currently the director of the Tate Modern.