This discussion took place at the Van Abbemuseum on the 2nd of April 2010 between:
Christiane berndes (CB) - Curator and head of collections Van Abbemuseum, co-curator In-between Minimalisms Charles Esche (CE) - Director Van Abbemuseum Daniel McClean (DM) - Art lawyer and co-curator In-between Minimalisms SUPERFLEX/Bjørnstjerne Christiansen (BC) - Co-curator In-between Minimalisms
DM: Shall we begin by discussing the FREE SOL LEWITT project and its relationship to the exhibition, In-between Minimalisms?
BC: FREE SOL LEWITT started some years ago out of a discussion between SUPERFLEX and Charles Esche on how to challenge the way art is made accessible to the public and how to question the position of the museum today. If the museum’s role is to collect and preserve artworks then maybe the next step is for it to distribute artworks, to open up new levels of use, access and ownership. So it began with a discussion, to see if one could look at models found elsewhere in society about cultural production and the value system created around this production. Then as part of the exhibition series Play Van Abbe, Part 2: Time Machines, SUPERFLEX was invited to work with the Van Abbe’s collection. We decided to make a model, using a specific work from the collection; this model could work as a ‘tool’ for the public to discuss and use. This approach became the basis for researching the Van Abbe’s collection and we chose Sol LeWitt’s work, Untitled (Wall Structure) (1972), which is a large zigzagging, lattice metal structure painted white.
DM: Can you describe briefly how FREE SOL LEWITT works?
BC: We have created a kind of machine, a metal workshop inside the museum, where copies of Sol LeWitt’s wall structure are made and distributed to the public. This machine shows step by step the different stages of an artwork starting from the idea to its production, display and distribution.
DM: The metal workshop fabricates exact copies or replicas of this specific Sol LeWitt work?
BC: Yes. The welders work during the exhibition for four hours each day and produce exact copies. These copies are made available to the public. During the exhibition, members of the audience can submit an application form to receive a FREE SOL LEWITT. The form describes the project and the conditions for receiving a copy. They have to fill in their name, contact details, signature, and then they place it in a box. Via a random lottery system one name is drawn and the museum calls that person. This lucky person comes to the museum and picks up the work, takes it home, into another context. In our understanding, the value system is hereby challenged and value is added to the work, to the artists and our cultural heritage.
DM: Why are you interested in this particular Sol LeWitt work? What happens to it in this new context?
BC: We used this Sol LeWitt work for various reasons. First, because it’s an artwork that is formulated as a concept, an idea and an instruction, yet would have a physical representation in the collection - in the form of an object. Second, because it is relatively easy to copy and reproduce, so that we could use that object and its related information in a production setting. Third, because the work was not executed by the artist. We liked the work and could easily imagine that the production machine of this specific work would work well for the discourse we are interested in. Sol LeWitt´s conceptual thinking and approach is inspiring, his iconic status and value today was also important for us. In a new context anything can happen, the information or the work can be used in new ways that we do not want to determine or formulate. It is up to the new user.
DM: Your project is a kind of photocopier then, a type of production machine for Sol LeWitt’s work?
BC: Yes, it is a photocopier. The work is easily reproducible; it uses mass produced or easily accessible raw materials, i.e. aluminium, with a certain diameter and painted white. It follows a standard process for making this kind of object or product.
CE: Can you explain a bit about the relationship between FREE SOL LEWITT and the In-Between Minimalisms exhibition? BC The raw material for our project is actually the whole exhibition, In-between Minimalisms. By looking into the collection of the Van Abbemuseum and its archive, we focused on the period of the 1960s and 1970s and in particular Minimalism and Conceptual art. First of all, we looked into the idea and concept behind the artworks at that time. I think most of the artists from that period talk of the idea as the key action. The way the idea is executed is another issue, maybe less important, but in the end it is the object that is there and valued, more than the idea and concept that is almost forgotten. This is, of course, one aspect to discuss. The iconic valuation or the sensation of this object as well as the construction and the whole system around this object becomes more and more important.
CB: Maybe we should talk a little bit about the rooms in the exhibition?
BC: In the first room we tried to give a direction as to how we want to use the materials in the exhibition and how we can guide the visitor in that direction. One example is the use of Sol LeWitt’s instructions and certificate for a wall drawing which we presented on the wall in place of the executed drawing; you can imagine this work unfolding as if you took part in the action. And there is an Yves Klein IKB (International Klein Blue) monochrome1, which is perhaps quite a strange step to add to a Minimalist and Conceptual art exhibition, even though he is one of the really dedicated conceptual artists. Klein is very important for us; he wouldn’t usually be in a show like this. Placing Klein up there high on a wall and also without a ‘filter’ - we removed the acrylic sheet that is normally placed in front of the work to prevent visitors from damaging the work - to show just the pure raw material of his work which I think is quite important. And then there are the two big guys, the two Minimalist icons, Judd and Flavin who also give the exhibition a good balance and introduction. Both of them use very simple mass produced materials, like Flavin’s fluorescent light tubes2, in almost each household anyone can achieve or has the skills for making and hanging it. It looks quite beautiful and it gives an impression of space and illusion. And you have the long Judd metal progression piece3, which is a little more complicated. It uses repetition, which is one of our key selection critera as it deals with space and its relation to architecture. Then you enter the next room; here Martha Rosler4 is speaking to the grey man (Alan Charlton’s monochrome Untitled (1979)) through the wooden blocks Palisade (1976) of Carl Andre. Right after that we have added the Andy Warhol’s print Campbell's Soup (1968) as a playful element. We call this room ‘the Kitchen’. Warhol is also not usually considered in the canon of Minimal art, he is more marked as a Pop artist, but I think he is also hardcore conceptual. And now he is more of an icon and a monument and we all know his images and so on, but repetition, seriality, replication, reuse, and sampling was a huge part of his practice. Warhol was asking how do you create culture by reproducing an image and taking it out of its context and reproducing it again and again and again, like the Campbell’s soup can. That created a new value. The exhibition is organised so that you go through different steps and combinations of artist interruptions, which challenge the classical understanding of Minimal and Conceptual art. For example, we have included Ian Wilson’s Circle on the floor (1968); Wilson would normally not be included in this context either, but he is an important Conceptual artist. Wilson’s circle is in the same room as an iconic floor piece by Carl Andre, Twenty-fifth steel Cardinal (1974), being linked with a very funny video by John Baldessari5 singing Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art. Baldessari almost makes it into a karaoke version - something we have tried to highlight in the installation. In another room there is an iconic plywood box by Donald Judd6 and next to this there are sixteen performance videos by Bruce Nauman where he makes repeated actions, he interacts with a square, etc. It is about time; it is about how many repetitions you can make with the body and that all fills the box with a visual language in a way.
CB: But it is also about sound, because all of the sixteen Nauman videos are very noisy when activated together.
BC: I think this is also something you are quite surprised by when you experience the exhibition. Normally, Minimal art is represented as a very silent experience. There is no noise, no disturbance whatsoever only visual and spatial impressions. In our show, sound is quite dominant: Martha Rosler speaking to the grey man and Baldessari singing LeWitt’s sentences and then there is a Ulrich Rückriem video, Kreise (1971), the Nauman videos as well as, of course, the FREE SOL LEWITT factory – generating noise like a real factory through the welding, sanding and cutting of aluminium inside the museum. Interrupting the norm, one could say.
DM: You make unexpected connections between Minimalist, Pop, and Conceptual art, showing how they belong somehow to the same world and to the same time.
BC: Yes. There are different links between different artists and we are trying to open Minimalism up; but it is also a very beautiful Minimalist show. One can also experience it that way. The FREE SOL LEWITT Model
DM: Lets talk about FREE SOL LEWITT as a model, what kind of social model are you articulating in FREE SOL LEWITT?
BC: If you want to change a society or a kind of thinking, you need to have examples or models, something to talk from and speak about. The Minimalist artists also worked with this idea. Their ideas allowed for another way of thinking and then they made objects that somehow represented this way of thinking. In our work, we want to integrate these two elements, the thinking and the process of making the object, and make these visible. In the process, actual labour is a valuable step. It is not the author producing the object, it is someone else and that’s fine. The end result is not less of an artwork because it is someone else who is producing it. We are taking that step maybe even further when we show all the elements of this production together - the production of the idea and the making of the object. So I think what we are doing is displaying a production machine, which is at the same time, a fabrication of a machine that is producing value or at least encouraging a discussion of the creation of value. We could also call it a ‘value machine’. Each time we make a copy it is not the original, it is a replica, which is being made. Whenever that copy enters into another structure, it enters into another value system depending on who is the receiver or user. For us it is important to start a discussion about the role of (a person) owning a work as well as the role of the museum within that value system.
DM: Your project reactivates certain democratic possibilities in Conceptual and Minimalist art, particularly, that the idea can be the work and this can be universally shared which is a kind of notion of democratic enfranchisement. It is in line with Sol LeWitt’s work, where you are trying to reactivate the potentiality of the work as an idea, system and structure. We view these artworks now as objects, which are treated as icons, almost imprisoned in their meaning in the numerous public and private collections’ representations of Minimalist and Conceptual art. We should also remember that these artists, including LeWitt, often held contradictory views on the dematerialisation of the artwork and the status of their works as objects too.
BC: Yes. This is all part of the project; it is the raw material we discovered in the process of researching the collection. Our challenge is to look at these iconic works and the enormous value they have now as icons more than as information and ideas. We could have taken more or less any of the works in the show to be copied and any of them would have been interesting. Some require very small steps, like Dan Flavin just bought neon tubes and attached them to the box that came with the neon tubes. It was not so much the actual work of Sol LeWitt but his thinking and ideas as well as his approach that is valuable for us. When he said, “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art”7, this is an important statement that we cherish.
DM: Sol LeWitt also talked about collective ownership and how he was happy for people to copy his work.
BC: That also. But I think that in our specific project it is very much the display of the machine that is important. A machine is already old school terminology that relates to industrial production. But it works well for our thinking; one can talk about the value machine, the information machine or the distribution machine being as important as the production machine. You have some sort of distribution machine that generates the use of the idea; ”an idea is not valuable before it is used.”8 I think Sol LeWitt said that. I don’t remember the exact quote now, but it is something like that. You have to take the idea and bring it into something, like some action, before it has value, which is one way of looking at it. This can be viewed in relation to the museum. The museum has different roles, not only selecting and collecting and reconfiguring information from the past. Maybe you can even push the borders of the museum so far that it starts taking an active and progressive part in how history and culture evolves.
CB: I have one question regarding the machine: why is the notion of the machine so important to you?
BC: The notion of the machine is attractive to understand social processes and progress. In practical terms, when you display a machine you can also dismantle it and take its pieces apart. You can look at each of the parts and create others. A machine is also what we call a ‘tool’ for production and distribution. It can be used on many levels, playfully, but also for something a little more aggressive. When we refer to the ‘system of rights’, including intellectual property rights, such as copyright, we refer to a machine that you cannot stop. It is such a big machine it just rolls away and we just stand there and say, “We cannot do anything against it anyway”, because, for example, the economic system around it has evolved over time into such a strong rights machine.
CB: You could see the machine as a metaphor for some processes in society?
BC: Sure. They reach a certain level where they are so strong and so big that they are ideologies or big machines that are unstoppable. But I think for us, SUPERFLEX, and I think for any citizen, we should actually question that. But it is not enough just to question or criticise; you need to make models, provide examples to challenge, create reactions and then you can also be criticised. It is too easy just to criticise.
CB: And that is why you are talking about the machine as a tool that can be taken apart and reassembled again?
BC: The beauty of this is that the Minimalist and Conceptual artists started out like this. What they tried to do in the sixties and seventies, in my opinion, was somehow to understand what was happening within society at this point: mass production, consumerism, and tonnes of products with the same kind of content but labelled in different ways. It seemed that they found a way of understanding this by making systems, which they disseminated at the same time. Sol LeWitt makes all these lines, cubes and structures; Carl Andre takes something that is normally used to make railroads or streets. He takes it, cuts it up and puts it into another structure. It refers to what we are very interested in about today: access to information, open source movements and so on. The raw materials or the idea is one thing, but the way you make it accessible and distribute it is then the value that can be used.
CB: When you look, for instance, at Carl Andre’s works, because I think they are very good examples for it, do you see them as elements that you can use to assemble something else?
CB: Yet in the museum they become a fixed object.
BC: The problem with the value machine surrounding art is that all of a sudden these works, which started out as being very open minded, as idea based and indifferent to whoever executed them, all of a sudden became iconic objects which hold an enormous value. This is so heavy or thick now that you cannot look past it, or it is difficult to look past. Today we have created many layers of value around these iconic artworks. You need to break down those layers again to reach that point where it originated. And that, I think, is what FREE SOL LEWITT tries to do. It takes it a step further whilst challenging the museum, the understanding of what a museum is and what a museum can do with their value of the collection or information.
CB: The museum has contributed in establishing these glass walls. And in creating this iconic position, but not only the museum, the art market has contributed to it too. Exhibiting Minimalist/Conceptual Art
BC: We are not art historians or represent the art market, but we are deeply involved, if I could put it that way. We are being used and use the system.
CE: One thing that makes me laugh a little bit is when you say, “Well, I’m not an art historian”. Very few artists and art historians would be able to get to where you have. So it is significant to recognise it as a process, which comes out of your own questions as an artist. You asked questions, which wouldn’t really be raised in the art historical systems that we are thinking in. But I think you are right. The Minimalist artists were first trying to understand what they were doing with this work in relation to the environment around them and particularly in New York, Soho, old factories – they were all closing down, but at the same time the production was still going on around them, to some extent. That had to be a huge influence on them, being brought up or living in a city based on a grid. So, it comes out of the very provincial, if you like, context of New York at a particular moment and it seems to me that such a practice could only exist in that moment in the United States, which was moving towards a post-industrial society. It hadn’t yet arrived, so their environment still had the values of the old industrial society of the 19th century, which was still very much present in people’s thinking and understanding. The amazing step they made was to take their actual conditions of life and produce something with them? They were not like William Morris trying to go back to some archaic ideas of art production, but rather to think, “This is what we have; this is the world around us. This is the city; this is what it looks like. These are the factories, which are closing down, which used to make the clothes that we wore and things like that. How do we deal with this environment?” This is not part of a regular question asked in art history, not at all. So it is exceptional that you had been able to get to that point where you can see the context and then articulate it in a work.
BC: Indeed we made combinations to display some of these ways of thinking. In the exhibition in regards to Sol LeWitt, we have included his instructions of how to make a wall drawing. Normally you would not do that; you would want to see the results. You want to see what the artist had thought or had wanted it to look like, but by including instructions, you already guide people into a way of thinking. That is also why we have created an ‘Information Room’ in the gallery’s spaces which contains research material, including artists’ certificates, instructions and contracts from this period.
CB: Yes. The Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing is not executed; it is presented in the form of framed instructions, which raises the question of where the work begins and ends.
BC: In this way we value his instructions in the same way as we value all the other objects in the show and that, I think, is important because the idea comes first for us. Sol LeWitt invites someone else to use the instructions - students or whoever it might be, they could execute the instructions. The execution naturally allows alterations and so on.
CB: You also look for actions not only in the form of instructions, but also in the videos containing artists’ actions.
BC: Yes. We were trying to be playful, but with such valuable raw material, such loaded material, that is quite a challenge. But Christiane you also said that, “As an artist you can do this, but I could not do it as an art historian or as someone from the museum.” You couldn’t handle things in this way or make these combinations of artists’ positions, because there is a whole art history that surrounds these works. There is also the matter of how to break this down. Even though at times FREE SOL LEWITT may seem formal in the installation, but we are trying to break down quite a few value layers to dig into the core of the work.
CB: That is why I liked very much working with you and Daniel on the exhibition, because it made it possible to rethink how to show these works. For me, it would not have been possible as the curator of this museum – and I have been working here for a while with these works. One needs, and the museum needs, this input from outside. It needs this dialogue with external people to come to another way of dealing with making an exhibition from the collection.
BC: I would say that with FREE SOL LEWITT we are taking this even further. We are asking you to also deal with the reception of the work in another context, including the private home. This could lead to another kind of use that one cannot imagine. A museum or the owner uses an artwork in one way, but if you allow others to use it as well, then maybe you will have hundreds of new types of use. And you may experience that this person over there has a new or better idea in relation to your understanding of the artwork and then you include that in your way of thinking, in your value system.
DM: Are you implicitly referring to an open source model for sharing information?
BC: By passing on an idea I think you do already have an open source model. The challenge for the museum is how it uses that information or that knowledge that someone else creates from having this object. Here we are providing two challenges: we are challenging the normal system of preservation and presentation of an artist’s work within that value system that has been created over time, and the copyright system, by releasing the work out of the museum and into another person’s property sphere. And then we are asking how do we use that knowledge, which is then produced from the accessibility to that material. In the end, that is the core of the project. In other words, how do people use these objects and how does the usage change the relation to the object and its environment and the society.
DM: You have placed no restrictions on people as far as the usage of FREE SOL LEWITT is concerned – except it is acknowledged that the replicas are not works by Sol LeWitt.
BC: There is no restriction on how one can use them. It would be wrong to place any restrictions. Someone can use it differently from how I would have. We could gather hundreds of people in the museum who would agree on a specific way on how to use it and then one person next door would have a brilliant alternative way of thinking. This relates to the problem that limitations create for sharing information. You end up maybe stopping a process that was very important for the progress of our society. This process, action, alteration or new invention is much more valuable than thinking about how one could protect this person’s or company’s or whoever’s idea. In the end, it is about access to create within the value machine. This is more important than closing down or protecting the original idea. CB Now I am thinking of the way we have shown these works in the past and the way we showed them was related to the exhibitions we made with the artists. Carl Andre and Donald Judd - they all came to the Van Abbe and made solo exhibitions with their work. You need to know ideally how the artist intended his work to be displayed. When that is clear, this moment comes when you should be allowed to reinterpret and re-evaluate the work, it should not just be treated in a narrow way as an icon.
BC: The Van Abbe is a fantastic resource because you have worked with all these artists. Many other museums and collectors have just bought one piece from these artists and then they are just icons. But the fact that the artists have been here in the Van Abbemuseum, they have worked here, sweated and engaged with you, that is the power of the history of the Van Abbe. That is valuable. But you are right that most of these works have been represented so many times now not only within the Van Abbe, but in catalogues, in magazines, etc. Everyone knows them, at least in the Contemporary art field. I don’t think it is wrong to move on to another way of using them. The value and the history will remain, you cannot remove that. As soon as it is printed in a book and in the archives, it is there. You can always go back and look at it. That is why it was also fine for us to respond to your concept of Time Machines. In the exhibition, you can look at the original Sol LeWitt in the context of how he and the work would normally be presented. Then you go to another room, the FREE SOL LEWITT room, and there is another way of expressing and working with his idea. It is important for people to understand that there is no harm done to the original here. On the contrary, there is so much new value added to Sol LeWitt and the structure. For the audience who love to experience the value around the original, it is here and we respect that also. The general perception is to look at artworks in a museum, not to touch them, not to move them or interact with them in any way. This fetishism leads back to the whole discussion about the copyright machine and the economic machine that is wrapped around the protection of works and artists’ rights and estates, which of course is one part of our project. We are not so interested in a battle with an artist’s estate. In some way the estates are just representing the artists, but the problem is that today they are also representing an artist who produced objects that have a huge value and they have to relate all of sudden to the auction houses, the galleries and the private collectors who deal with the artworks - the representation on all levels within the economic value machine.
DM: You say that it is not so interesting for you to battle against the artist’s estate, but at the same time it becomes an important part of the project in the sense that the estate controls the copyright in the artist’s work and can potentially prevent your project from occurring by exercising its legal rights.
BC: If necessary, we will engage in a battle because you need to challenge that understanding. The estate should understand that there is no harm in making copies, the artist is represented and respected, and so is his value.
CE: Actually it seems to me by doing this project you come to a much closer understanding of what this work might once have been and what it might be proposing. You do this more effectively than through those techniques traditionally associated with ‘looking’ in the museum ever did, and it is this approach that causes the question of the market and value to fall by the wayside. We can look at the work again, in fact, even as we have to deal with market at the same time. But from our point of view in the museum, we want to understand our collection in a variety of ways, not just permit one dominant interpretation. We want to come closer to the collection to know more about it, to gain knowledge from it. We even want to allow it to produce new knowledge. During that process we need different tools for different works; and different tools for different moments in time; and in some cases these tools need to be generated. This is one of the strong points about the fact that your Free Sol LeWitt work is not provocative in attacking the market or some special interests or whatever. For me, it is simply trying to understand what this thing is and to take the artist’s proposition at face value. In those terms, perhaps one of the easiest ways of understanding it is to make the work again.
CB: Ironically enough, it is a very old way of trying to understand the work because you see a lot of people copying paintings. In art schools, copying has traditionally been a technique in order to understand what the work is about. Artistic Commonwealth
DM: One of the interesting questions raised by FREE SO LEWITT is the ’artistic commonwealth’. Artists historically work within a whole inherited practice, with traditions of copying, where open copying between artists and the distribution of knowledge and ideas has been key. This might be described as an artistic commonwealth. The artistic commonwealth is potentially undermined by copyright law, which regulates the reproduction and distribution of cultural works, including artistic works.
BC: You can take the quote from Sol LeWitt, he says: “If someone borrows from me, it makes me richer not poorer, We artists I believe, are part of a single community, sharing the same language.”9
DM: Your project in the Van Abbemuseum is important, because it is entrenching a cultural practice, if you like. The artistic commonwealth must not be undermined through the use of copyright law by artists’ estates and copyright collection societies.10
CE: That is an incredibly important point especially for how we work in the museum, because it is often a question about what we actually own. For paintings or sculptures, it comes down to the fact that we own the canvas and the wooden frame; or we own the metal or the paint, but we don’t own anything more than that. The ownership of what, in a sense, is meaningful about the work and the image lies elsewhere. There is this huge investment of public capital into works that are subsequently stripped out of the work and basically (re)privatised, in some cases, by aggressive artists’ estates or copyright organisations. The sad fact is that sometimes the original public investment barely got to the artist in his or her lifetime. I like very much this idea of an artistic commonwealth because it extends into the idea of the well-being of society and the possibility for artists to exercise their potential in society. These works then need to have some sort of status as being commonly held property. The fact that we have it, does not give us the right to exploit it, but I think it could give everybody else the right to exploit it, so that it becomes common, and I think that is something for public museums to work on. This would make a distinction between private collections and public collections, because we need to understand that public collections have a certain interest and commitment to making things common.
BC: That goes back to giving the idea the full possibility of unfolding on many levels when we talk about the potential of an artist’s work. We need to make the best models, forms and systems, so that it can be developed to its full potential. And you do not do that with blocking off every step you want to make with that work. This applies both to living and dead artists. We are interested to relate to the system of rights that is so dominant in our culture today. You think about ownership before you even think about the idea. You just want to own something. You have a little bit of an idea, and when you see someone else having an idea, you just take parts of that and then you already call someone to protect your rights.
CE: There has always been an acceptance of this idea of inspiration or influence. But if we imagine that our society historically had been dominated by copyright, then actually where would we be as a creative community today? Without being able to use our heritage, the heritage is cut from us. This is an extreme example, but I think it is quite relevant in a way to what the copyright world does. A classic moment in Turkish history was when the writing system changed in two weeks from Arabic script to Latin script. Experts said it needed years to adapt, but the Turks only got two weeks from Mustafa Kemal. For two weeks newspaper appeared in both scripts, then only in Latin. That radically modernized Turkey, but it completely cut contemporary Turks from their Ottoman heritage and connection to that past. Now that still has radical effects for the Turkish public. This is the kind of radical break that belongs to modernity, and in an odd way the rights machine might have the same effect.
DM: Absolutely. Although copyright law does not provide absolute rights (there are for example, exemptions or defences available for users of protected material), copyright law can lead to a lock-down of culture. One of the prominent aspects of recent copyright law has been not just the proliferation of rights, but their perpetual extension and duration. If you look at copyright law in the 18th century, under the Statute of Queen Anne of 1710, for example, copyright lasted for fifteen years. This was for literary authors only, and now it applies to every cultural medium and it lasts for the lifetime of the author plus seventy years. Copyright was originally a tool of free expression against state censorship but has developed to protect the interests of corporate owners that require a perpetual monopoly, for which it wasn’t intended.
CE: And the monopoly extends?
DM: Yes, continuously.
BC: So we need to understand the system to be able to benefit from it.
DM: The machine is out of control. You can argue that there is some legitimacy to the machine in a minimal form that it acts as a system of incentives to authors to produce cultural works, provided it is kept within very clear boundaries, including temporal boundaries, which recognise the public domain and freedom of expression. But the whole thing has now become this monster, which is out of control.
CE: One thing that strikes me about the 21st century is that geographically the spotlights of creative renewal are shifting away from Western Europe, and possibly even more radically away from the United States. It would be interesting to think whether this enforcement of copyright, which happens of course much more in Western Europe and North America, than it does in China or India, has a lot to do with it. The collective passivity that we tend to have in the West - the lack of a kind of real desire to think about the future might be connected to this increasing immobility of the past. We can’t really use our heritage in an effective way at the moment. Societies that do use both their heritage and ours much more effectively are those where the copyright laws and the intellectual property are much less locked down and controlled.
BC: Yes, the size and strength of the machine is leading to a poor progression in culture and we, the West, are not able to move or take another path because of this machine. The role and responsibility of the museum
CE: When I came to the Van Abbe, it was the first time that I had a collection to run. And initially I didn’t really realise what was here, and what was the basis of this institution. Gradually I came to realise that this is an incredible resource but that it was mainly used for its symbolic or perhaps representative power and not for its content. In other words, just showing people the treasury so that you can say, “Look, isn’t that beautiful?” and assure yourself and them of your importance and the stability of cultural values. Once you get in there and start looking at all the things in the treasury you realise it has much greater and amazing potential. What SUPERFLEX discovered in the work of Sol LeWitt can be discovered in other works in the Van Abbe’s collection. It just needs to be presented or framed in ways that do not damage that treasury, but release something of the energy or power that is already in there. The collection then becomes the raw material that we need to invite artists, curators and even visitors to work with. The museum then ceases to be a treasure chest and becomes a kind of generating station.
BC: A proactive machine!
CE: Yes. You have this material, which can generate energy that can be put to use in other ways. This is what I hope we are beginning to develop. The selection of SUPERFLEX has maybe released something in the works. It has made them alive again and introduces a new history also for the future. If you want to release that energy in the collection, it is obvious that you need to get out of the museum. While you also need the building in order to transmit it. Transmitting the ideas of the works and their energy is something that this project does very well. It is also what we want to try to do in general, to become a transmitter rather than a receiver of visitors, which is how the museum has traditionally been imagined and is now reflected in the spectacular architecture of the late 20th century museum.
BC: We discussed the point that the museum is not only there to entertain. This perception has to be challenged. One has to think that there is no wall between the museum and society. The museum is part of it, completely. People come to the museum and take a work out, literally and then they bring something else back. Another use, another way of thinking.
CE: Our job as an institution is to allow that flow out to produce flows back that we do not control. What is important is to get the flow going in two directions. I think at the moment the main flow out of the museum is propaganda and the flow into it is people. The propaganda is designed to encourage an already determined result. That is the model now. Once you change those flows into more complex and different kinds of information exchange then new modes of viewership emerge. It is probably always going to be for a relatively small number of people, but I am not even sure of that. It is certainly worth trying to speak to a mass audience like this.
BC: I think it is fine to have contemporary art museums that have different ideologies about the access and distribution of information.
CE: We all are limited by our geographical location. However, I think that the museum should not attempt to be universal. I hope that we are getting away from the idea of a universal ambition for a museum.
DM: I think an important question is: how far can a museum go in protecting the rights of one artist against those of another?
CE: As an artist in this project, Bjørn you mentioned that there is no actual damage done to the original work. The only damage that could be done to the work is conceptual, that is important to recall. I think what we must always do is to maintain and conserve the work, so that people after us are able to go back to what we now know as the classic position of presentation of the artwork; or do something else entirely with it and take it in a different direction. I think you have to keep the potential for that work to always be interpreted radically and be open to understanding that our position belongs to our time. I think that is one of our responsibilities. If you had said that SUPERFLEX wants to cut the Sol LeWitt in pieces, then that would have been unacceptable, because then that possibility of going back to the situation before this exhibition had happened would not be there anymore. And that is something I could not allow. It always has to be able to be reversibly engineered.
CB: That is a very nice notion because reversibility is also an important criterion in conservation. It is a very important principle to conservators. Everything that you do in or with an artwork needs to be reversible.
BC: We are coming back to the dissemination of a work. We have donated FREE SOL LEWITT to the Van Abbe, so it is part of the collection and there is continuation. There are two positions now in the collection, the Sol LeWitt work and the FREE SOL LEWITT, maybe there will be another position about the same work in the future.
DM: In a sense, the museum is acquiring a set of relations more than a conventional object. Each time FREE SOL LEWITT is reactivated, it is in relation to a configuration of aesthetic, economic, political and legal relations, which surround it at that time.
CE: When you buy or receive a work like this you also try to set up a possibility that narratives can start to extend out to it into the future. There are narratives of people and activities that are done which are as relevant to the work as the object itself. What surrounds the work? The possibility of narratives should already be thought about in the production of the work and its acquisition. You can set up the conditions, if you like, in which relations can emerge, because you have the curator, the institution and the artist speaking to each other and then somebody comes in and uses that as the basis to develop the work further or to take it in a particular direction, given that there is permission. For us, a work very seldom stops, it can continue on many levels and for many people. That is quite a different relation to a work than the artist him/herself. If we in the museum have a confrontation or discover relevant information or relationships to a work we need to react to it and maybe with that we rethink the installation or the work, or ask the artist to do so. If, for example, the estate of Sol LeWitt would have rejected the productions of the copies we might have come back to the question of “How can we change it, so that we can still produce something?”, but something that is no longer threatening in the same way.
DM: Bjørn, as an artist, how do you think about the ongoing relationship between artists and museums in the future?
BC: I think that maybe this is the time when the institution can make a different approach in stating that we as a museum will not acquire a work unless you as an artist agrees that we (the Van Abbe) can reproduce the work that we now have acquired in any format because we are not here to harm your work; we are here to represent you in the best possible way to achieve the full potential of your work, and that means full access to your work. The artist is our partner in this ambition. It is a political statement to the rest of the museum world saying that this is how we want to organise our collection. We are a public collection; we are responsible to the public; we use its money, and therefore we cannot accept the current copyright limitations. What we own or have the right for now due to the copyright system is just a canvas and a wooden frame but not the actual image. This does not enable us to represent the artist and the public. This should be your approach.
CE: I think that is right. Our obligation to you is to represent you in the best way possible and if you feel at some point that this is not being done then you would have certain rights to withdraw the work from public display. For me, artists should have agreements with museums rather than rely upon copyright. There should be some mutual responsibilities that go from the museum to the artist. Artists must have some sort of legal power to say, “Well, this is clearly not in my interest”, if asked. Not that they should sign away all rights, but they should not fall into the commodification trap.
DM: I think this is the case particularly if the artists die as well where there is the shift between copyright being exercised by authors and by owners. And that is one of the problems if ownership changes, particularly in art.
CE: Yes. That is true. But this is where agreements between museums and living artists could make a real difference. Often the artists themselves are much more aware.
DM: Like Sol LeWitt. The interview between Christiane Berndes, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, Charles Esche and Daniel McClean was held at the Van Abbemuseum just before the opening of the In-between Minimalisms exhibition. The interview originally lasted for two and a half hours and was edited for this publication to focus on a series of issues that reflect the interests and concerns of the various participants in the project.