To speak with Daniel Birnbaum is truthfully energizing. He speaks very fast and obviously his brain operates even faster than he speaks, which in turn means that he must have been given a super-brain. The interview took place right after the opening of the show Uncertain States of America that opened at Astrup Fearnley MOMA in Oslo, curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Gunnar B. Kvaran (curator from AFMOMA) including 40 artists from USA, and the show was the obvious starting point for our conversation.
Daniel Birnbaum: The museum is specialized in American art and has made large solo-shows in the past with Jeff Koons, Jeff Wall, Matthew Barney and Yoko Ono for instance, and when invited to make an American show we wanted to have a look at the younger American scene; what is happening now? It is difficult and also quite problematic to talk about generalizations like “tendencies” or “generations” and so forth, but somehow it is quite relevant as well to try to make these kinds of surveys of for example current American art too. I guess the show is a survey of a new “generation” if you will although the age of the artists spans from around 20 to around 40.
As the request came from within the institution’s frame of interest, and did not derive from any other interest that for instance comes with the biennial-structure where one has to think about city branding and of local cultural politics, the exhibition was quite liberating to work with. No one from the outside really had predicable expectations towards what a museum in Norway was working on, since there were no predecessors and we were therefore much more at ease and were able to concentrate on the art itself.
What surprised us though was the fact that while we were under the impression that many of the artists that we included in the show were very young and not in the art-loop just yet, but pretty soon we gathered that many of them had all of a sudden been included in quite important commercial gallery shows. It works so fast!
Power Ekroth: Wouldn’t you say tat this is perhaps a predictable phenomenon, considering that we are talking about the largest commercial art market and also that you and your colleagues who are not unknown curators had put your trust in the artists which might have been one reason for the galleries to pick the artists up?
DB: Well, in a way, the art world has grown tem times its size in ten years time and this of course has something to do with its aggressive nature, but still it was quite surprising because we went to places we thought that the art world really had no access to, and came across artists through very intricate routs.
PE: The curatorial statement for the 2005 Moscow Biennial was about trying to somehow avoid the market…
DE: Yes, in a way the Moscow exhibition had many similarities to the American show with regards to the aspect that we also there were trying to make some kind of survey of young emerging artists, but the differences were many too…
PE: Yes, you were six very opinionated curators, was the selection process very difficult?
DE: No not at all, we discussed all of the artists together, and it was an easy-going process. But the logistics were difficult of course, we still don’t know today in what form the second biennial in Moscow might have, and we were all trying in different ways to avoid all the issues and problematic logistics that arrive when the word “biennial” enters the discussion.
If one looks upon some of the more interesting exhibitions, so called “landmark exhibitions” in the recent decades like for instance When Attitudes Becomes Form or Magiciennes De La Terres, these were all one-off shows and not a biennial or a reoccurring large show. Perhaps the reasons for this is that the exhibitions we are talking about were not burdened by large structures from the start of? The status of being some kind of “pioneer” is interesting, and this is what Moscow proved to be, and this was also the case with Uncertain States of America.
PE: In a way you see both sides, you have been working with both large biennials and with museums, how would you compare the experiences?
DB: It is a very interesting comparison, where the biennial structure is heavy burdened with outside interests, whereas the Museum structure of course is burdened too with the internal politics, private interests, economy etc. In a way the freelance curator, invented by Szeemann, perhaps is over and done now, and the interest in the biennial-system might psychologically implode in 2007 when the Venice Biennial, Münster and Documenta will happen at the same time. It is very interesting to see where it all will end, and to think about what an institution can do to revitalize itself in the future.
PE: Your background with a PhD on Husserl in philosophy is by no means a natural way leading into a curatorial role and working with visual art. Why did you become a curator and what is it that drives you?
DB: Initially and fundamentally it is about a genuine interest to try to understand. It is about trying to understand ones immediate contemporary times which one is apart of and also not being merely a spectator of it, but instead being on the artists side of the fence so to speak. This way one tries to get into a dialogue with the contemporary “zeitgeist” and somehow also to try to formulate it.
I have always been around artists and working together with artists; 25 years ago I was already helping out artists with their exhibitions but not perhaps in such a conscious way as today, and also I started to write about art in daily newspapers which in a way also is about going into dialogue with the artists. However the role of the critic has been hollowed-out, perhaps especially so in the Nordic countries although it is a global tendency and my interest is much deeper inside the discursive moment, writing essays for example. I never wanted to become a museum curator, maybe because my mother worked as a museum curator, instead I was always much more interested in the production-side of art and being behind the scenes. It is an idea about immediate contemporaneaity I guess and to be able to formulate it. The exhibition as a medium is a very interesting medium; I regard exhibitions to be visual essays. If Harald Szeemann used the term of “visual poems” I would rather like to use the term “visual essays.”
To understand one’s contemporaneaity means that one must also see to the contemporary history and this was also what we had in mind with the more historic discursive element in the Italian Pavilion curated together with Francesco Bonami in Venice two years ago.
PE: What are you working with in ten years time?
DB: I hope I am writing interesting books. Definitely.