Anton Vidokle on Night School
Anton Vidokle on Night School
Anton Vidokle, artist and creator of e-fluxan international network and information agency he started with a group of artist friends—is poised to launch Night School, a yearlong series of seminars on topics ranging from the post-communist condition to artistic agency, set to open at the New Museum on January 31. E-flux started in January 1999 with a simple yet ingenious e-mail announcement service and has since blossomed into an important player in the global art world. It has sponsored many special projects, including unitednationsplaza, a temporary school in Berlin that served as a precursor to Night School; the traveling e-flux video-rental project; and Pawnshop, an artwork in the form of a fully functional loan business housed at e-flux’s New York storefront space (through February 29, 2008) that offers loans to artists and whose profits will be donated to Doctors Without Borders. At a time when much of the art world is characterized by excess and commercialism, e-flux has maintained independence and financial stability, allowing it to offer a high level of programming without having to answer to funders or sponsors or create a marketable product or exhibition model. ARTINFO spoke with Vidokle at the cozy Lower East Side café Brown in New York about his Night School project at the New Museum and what participants can expect.
Tell me about Night School, part of the Museum as Hub initiative established by the New Museum. Why did you want to continue your series of temporary schools?
I wasn’t planning to continue. I didn’t anticipate there would be any further venues for the project, which involves so many people and a lot of organization and is a very complex thing to pull off. Then Eungie Joo, the director and curator of education and public programs at the New Museum, asked if I wanted to bring unitednationsplaza here. I had worked with Eungie previously, when she was the director of Redcat gallery at Cal Arts in Los Angeles, and as we talked, I realized it would be important and challenging to bring a project like that to New York.
What will be presented at Night School?
There are three thematic directions for the yearlong program. The first is a discussion of the post-communist condition, but not in the typical way. Marxism was such a major ideological movement in the 20th century from here to Egypt, to China, to Vietnam. Most critical theory is based on Marxism. So when this ideology collapses, what happens? In particular, what happens to intellectuals, to artists, to every kind of progressive creative thinkers?
The first seminar is led by Boris Groys and titled “After the Red Square.” It will be on the reemergence of religion after communism. He’s presenting workshops and screenings and films. The second seminar will be with Martha Rosler, who is an interesting counterpoint to Boris because her work is based on Western Marxist tradition. What does the collapse of communism mean not only for the populations of Eastern Europe, but for Western intellectuals and artists? The third seminar is by Liam Gillick, who ultimately deals with very similar problems, but has a different type of vocabulary and is concerned with post-WWII cultural history in Britain and beyond.
For the second segment, we’ll move into a discussion of artistic agency and what that could possibly mean today, which is of course related to the discussion of post-communism. The two things are interlinked.
Your projects like unitednationsplaza and Night School tend to be very theoretical. There is another part of the art world that is obsessed with objects, prices, and the market.
My projects sound theoretical, but basically they are discussions with groups of different people. Theory is useful because some of it is able to articulate subtle things that can be very difficult to describe otherwise, but I wouldn’t say it’s a theoretical program. It’s not only thinking about theory; it’s about active engagement and actual practice. As for the marketplace, I simply don’t care about it. It’s out there, but I hardly ever think about it.
You were one of three curators of the canceled Manifesta 6 in Nicosia, Cyprus. It must have been disappointing for you. Did you learn anything from that experience?
In retrospect it was a very difficult, complex experience. It was a project I worked on for two and a half years, traveling like crazy and visiting hundreds of people in the region. The amount of personal investment that went into it was huge, and to have the rug suddenly pulled out from under it was really shocking. I think it would have been only a very negative experience had we not turned it into something positive by realizing it as unitednationsplaza in Berlin.
What were your goals with unitednationsplaza, which was in the tradition of free universities?
The most ambitious goal of that project was to try to generate a new kind of public, a public that is not just interested in coming to an exhibition opening to have a drink, chat with friends, and never come back, but that is closer to a real constituency—a group that would become real participants in a project, become engaged and have a stake in it. Of course, you can never quantify this in numbers, but even if there were only one or two people for whom this happens, that would be enough for me. I think it happened in Berlin and for me that's probably the most important thing.
Are you doing anything differently with Night School as a result of what you learned from unitednationsplaza?
The structure is completely different, because in Berlin it was a totally independent project, we had our own building, and it was totally self-organized. In New York we’re working with a large institution that has a lot of employees, guards, precise museum hours, and all sorts of institutional policies. In that sense, there's not as much freedom. For example, we can’t go on with discussions until one o'clock in the morning, because the guards have to go home. Also, New York is quite different from Berlin in the sense that people are under a lot more pressure economically. Younger artists and curators sometimes have to have two jobs just to cover rent, so people have a lot less time. As a result, the program is more condensed. In Berlin some seminars went for two weeks. Here all the seminars will be four days long.
Some participants were chosen for Night School from an open call for applicants, but the general public is also invited to many of the sessions, right?
We’ll try to keep most of the program open to the public, as we did in Berlin. But in New York, because of the nature of working with an institution, it's more complicated. For most of the seminars, the main program will be on Thursday, because the New Museum doesn’t charge admission that evening and people won't have to pay to get in. On Friday and Saturday, Night School is free with museum admission. But sometimes it’s not bad to limit the discussion. How do 150 people talk to each other? That’s one of the reasons we’ve selected a core group of 26 participants for the more private or intimate part of the program. These people come from different fields: Some are artists, some are writers, curators, urban planners, architects. There’s even an investment banker.
What do you hope participants will get out of Night School?
Night School can offer a lot, but the public also has to make an effort to extract what is truly beneficial in it. To give an analogy: There is a lot of information in the world, but it won't become knowledge unless you think about it in a focussed way, really engage, and give it your attention. Similarly, what the public gets out of our program is conditioned by how much of themselves they will give to it. Of course not by way of the art market, or something you can immediately instrumentalize, but by way of ideas.