by Germano Celant

What theoretical and historical justification is there for the reconstruction “as it was” of the exhibition curated by Harald Szeemann in 1969 at Kunsthalle Bern? “A project is always sustained by the interpretation of art history. If we think about the logic behind artistic communication in past centuries we can see that in general, until the 1800s, artists acted in relation to a situation, a commission, a context suggested or an opportunity offered. So works were put into relation or located in an environmental or information territory that was chosen in dialogue between client and artist. For a long period art, which did not aspire to free circulation as a good to be traded and consumed, fed on this osmosis with the context, from the cave to the palace, the walls to the ceiling, forming an indivisible whole. The dialogue was interrupted in the 1800s, with the demise of noble patronage, when works had to adapt to a bourgeois market that feeds on merchandise available for circulation. In 1863 the Salons were created. These were the new settings for artists who were not ‘integrated’, i.e. the ‘refusés’ and the ‘independents’ where works did not fit into a context, but were simply hung up for sale. This conceptual leap uproots art and creates another kind of relationship and situation, that of the works themselves and their installation. It is a passage that has never been completely studied, because we lack the traces of the logic with which the artists themselves established inter-relations, putting paintings on velvet or scultures on pedestals. There are few photographs from the time that help us to reconstruct things. Yet the input of the artist about how his work would be seen must have been important and controlled, not left up to chance or to others, like the dealers. Even if it were left up to chance and dealers, this too could be a subject for study. Starting in the 1900s exhibitions are increasingly controlled by the artists themselves, and they use them to launch their linguistic movements, from Der Blaue Reiter in Munich in 1911 to Les Peintres Futuristes Italiens in Paris in 1912. These are moments of installation where the artists take part, achieving groundbreaking and surprising results, like the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920 and the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris in 1938. We might say that together, these shows became a device in which apparent confusion becomes visual fusion that conveys the group’s poetics. The organization of things or objects, photographs or materials in keeping with a happening that seems to be outside any expectations, raised questions. The same thing happens with When Attitudes Become Form, where the works have to be seen as parts of a whole. Here every individual entity seems to vanish in an intertwining of the parts, something the viewer has to disentangle for himself. The conceptual framework starts prior to the works themselves, because the discourse comes from the curatorial device. Here lies the importance of Szeemann, who abandons the exhibition to curious and chaotic, dense and open ‘compositions.’ If we take the exhibition as a whole, in a baroque manner, we can understand how in 1969 it managed to get away from classic museum display typical of modern and contemporary art. Working on attitudes and their improvised and ephemeral results, poetic effects are achieved, invented, discovered on site. The pleasure of the concept is translated into knowledge of pleasure. There is no criterion of correctness, just one of connectedness, based on the mutual familiarity between the artists and their way of doing things. To reconstruct this field of energy, with its expressive varieties, has meant reviewing a device that was originally architectural, like a chapel or a church, but here is based on the variety and variability of a harmony that was not concrete, not made of walls, but based on a shared experiential integrity. An intertwining of lyrical and dramatic moments that have produced a whole of admirable sharpness that is still moving today. The project is built around this hypothesis of a marvelous whole, making it coincide with a scientific absoluteness capable of re-creating this temporary temple of art making in 1969. We have attempted to continue the study of the global ‘interventions’ of the artists in a context that is no longer the church or the palace, but the exhibition, which has become the place of new contemporary splendor.” If When Attitudes Become Form represents the last urge towards modernist disruption, doesn’t crystallizing it in a situation outside its historical, political and cultural context run the risk of dissolving the radical nature of the original? While at the time the images of this operation had an effect on the reality and language of art, might they not be seen today as nostalgic fetishism of an illusion, and therefore a weakness? “Clearly the show organized by Szeemann in 1969 was an opening towards a free and politically useless imagination: the good intentions of a way of representing things that was connected to the avant-gardes of modernism. It can be seen as a moral and critical gesture regarding the traditional ways of doing art, which rejected reality to simply represent it and subject it to a mimetic process. The research on display in Bern, as in Op Losse Schroeven, done at the same time at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which took on the names of Land Art, Process Art, Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, were an ulterior attempt to reassess the pragmatic dimension of seeing and feeling. A change of sign expressed in the focus on techniques and materials, to bring out a poetic conception with respect to one of contemplation, in which the human being is urged towards immersion, not simple observation. Just look at the documentation on the arrival of the audience on the scene to understand how this art tended towards physical, bodily engagement. Naturally this way of presenting things was seen at the time as an excess of negativity and transgression with respect to the institution. Something that could not be governed, without rules, urging a demythologizing of the sacral quality of painting and sculpture: a rejection of classical forms to bring out an informal dimension – also called anti-form at the time – of artistic marginality. With its focus on the non-signifying and concrete character of materials and things, the show in 1969 asserted the fortuitous and chaotic character of art, its permeability to all possible languages and materials, from lead to water, fire to wax, margarine to fluorescent tubes, cowhide to felt, broken glass to ice, ashes to cotton, and to all useful tools, from the spade to the caterpillar, the newspaper to the poster, reading to walking… Hence the de-sacralization of a visual culture that had identified only with painting and sculpture, or with the linguistic dislocation of the found object. It is a celebration of the meaning of the insignificant, of the reality that puts itself in tune with the ephemeral and temporary character of a social and cultural existence: a double without value, used to counter a catastrophe of past values. It sanctions, prior to presence, the ruin and fragmentation, dissolving and fluidity, to counter any one-dimensional take on art.” Actually the re-enacting of WABF threatens to shift its shocking effects into a reassuring proposal. At the time, the display of industrial scrap and performing, mutant materials that burned or melted to give rise to other entities seemed to challenge the static and sacral character of the artifact, as well as the place of display, the Kunsthalle Bern, so much so that Szeemann was forced to resign. Today that cannot happen, and in fact this curatorial breakthrough is being re-sacralized. What arose as a way of challenging the static, regular character of the classical is now being made static and regular in a situation of total acceptance: a simulacrum with no impact. Can we say that today the radicalism and transgression connected with the path of modernism have found their place, including the catastrophic and chaotic display of the exhibition of Szeemann? Is this Venetian remake the ultimate sublimating act of a radicalism that is obsolete at this point? “The challenge, the transgressive action, exist because a starting point and a possible alternative to an existing situation have been identified. The utopian aspect of this, implying a different linguistic world, opposed to or at least different from the existing world, has to be seen in the historical situation of the moment, 1968-1969, when there was a realization that art had turned into a purely decorative act. Though the research conducted from 1945 to 1964, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, had attempted to take the solitary, desperate dimension of the artist into account, his existential anguish and the dramatic experience of living, overwhelmed by the tragedy of World War II, and the dissolving of the moral and representative value of art as it was absorbed by the media imaginary, from advertising to cartoons, these intentions had failed to shake off the decorative value of the artifact. They were like duplicates of an individual and industrial imaginary, unable to weaken or discredit the practice of making, showing, communicating and consuming art. The attitudes produced and shown in Bern implied a scenario of display that occupied not just museums but also public streets and spaces, reflecting a political action in which everyone, artists and viewers, were involved, which everyone had to become aware of. This was the true illusion that still reveals the desire for an Enlightenment revolution intertwined with the dream of pursuit of the radical discourse of the avant-gardes of modernism. Undoubtedly the remake of such an event runs the risk, in its repetition, of exalting an ideal moment, but at the same time it serves to make us perceive, through our approach to its ‘original’ state, the reality of a myth that cannot be entrusted only to photographic documentation, but requires the experience of an enthusiasm and fervor that demand engagement. The resurrection of When Attitudes Become Form puts the shade of a radicalism into circulation, which today no longer has any effect, because art is no longer a political weapon with respect to real struggles. Relying on today’s perspective, such goals seem facile and unreal, but we should emphasize the fact that this hypothetical defeat has led to a new dimension of the artistic imaginary. In retrospect, we can say that its impact on the world has been very small, but in any case it remains an influence for the dissolving of traditional structures of the art system. If all this has been transformed into business today, so that art has lost any social identity to become symbolic and economic commodity, means that the attempt to separate from the compromise of consumption has failed. Art has let itself be driven by the market and has reached an extreme point of inefficacy in its critical and poetic relationship with society and culture. In the construction of When Attitudes Become Form, the spatial adjustments each artist made in order to coexist with the others were very important. It is an interactive way of moving, instead of the creation of a private and independent space. There was no idea of ‘property’ but a simple territoriality of the work itself. The work itself sought linkage with the others, establishing a relationship of shared empathy. Such a link has a communitarian character, widely documented by the photographs showing different artists working at the same time, in the same room, almost like a ‘commune’ typical of that historical moment, based on a social practice that is both political and creative. It is something like a chance encounter that produces both confusion and fusion. The exhibition in Bern was almost a formation of propositions that find development descending from ceilings or climbing walls, or seek a gravitational dimension on the floor. The true sense of Szeemann’s show was to put together an indeterminate becoming of art so one can perceive an ongoing transmit between the works, making it hard to isolate individual characteristics, conveying only the energy of the whole set. It is an interactive moment, a way of making a ‘network’ that brings out the passage from one to another, in a very timely way: simultaneity and coexistence of the artistic present, also underlined by the inclusion of bodily actions and gestures, from the spreading of margarine of Joseph Beuys to the molten lead of Richard Serra, or the works of Gilberto Zorio and Ger van Elk. Not to mention art as a process of on-site operation that tries to get beyond the sense of the packaged product, opting for a linguistic operation with respect to a specific position or situation, not inside the institution but inside the urban contrast, from Michael Heizer to Daniel Buren. What emerges is an exhibition capable of functioning as a vortex that overwhelms the viewer, putting him into direct contact with the creative process. A way of subjecting the audience to a dizzying effort that alters vision, so they get lost in it.” Prior to reaching a solution that brings the reconstruction of a radical episode into a contemporary context completely dominated by other values that are not just linguistic but economic in character, how did you get all the scientific data required to do a complete, precise mapping of what happened in Bern? “The research took place on different levels, which included the primary sources from the Szeemann archives, now at the Getty Institute in Los Angeles, and the direct accounts of artists or documents found in their foundations, as well as photographs and writings in the library of the Kusthalle of Bern. Gathering the information, including confirmations and surprises, we began to make a possible map of the works in each room. Here the collaboration with the Getty Institute, directed by Thomas Gaehtgens, was very important. The careful study done by Glenn Philips and his team of the documents, letters and photographs on Szeemann and When Attitudes Become Form enabled us to identify the works in the show and others. This precious investigation of curatorial sources was joined by research in the archives of the Kunsthalle, which brought out information useful to expand the overview of the event, including reviews and controversies from the time of the original show. Finally, the artists and their foundations provided valuable help, with information on the works. In general, the reconstruction relied on over one thousand photographs from the archives of Claudio Abate, Leonardo Bezzola, Balthasar Burkhard, Siegfried Kühn, Dölf Preisig, Harry Shunk and Albert Winkler, an almost complete collection, most of which has never been published, of what was recorded through photographic images. The pictures were analyzed and revealed discoveries that often brought new knowledge even to the protagonists of the show, alongside memories. Works and installations came to light that were never mentioned or recorded in the catalogue or in subsequent international scholarly research.” Once the map of all the works in and out of the show had been traced, how did you get them? Were there problems obtaining loans, or had any of the works been destroyed or lost in the meantime? What did you do in the show to account for absent works? “Since this was an exhibition that represented a break with the static, fixed character of the artwork, allowing for a performative factor, meaning that works could change over time or even self-destruct, it was immediately clear that in Venice a total reconstruction would be impossible. Nevertheless, we proceeded by trying to achieve the best results, in the awareness that the revisiting would have to be based on two realities: the finding of original works acquired by private and public collections, such as those of Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Giovanni Anselmo, Hanne Darboven, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Marinus Boezem and Richard Tuttle, and remakes done with the collaboration of the artists or their foundations, to reconstruct the visual impact of the individual rooms, the relationships of volumes and materials. The first part was done in a traditional way, with requests to museums and collectors, while the second called for a return to the source, in this case the artists themselves or their archives, to see if it was possible to make a sort of copy or replica for display: this aspect raised a long of problematic issues, involving artists, museums and collectors. Certain artists no longer acknowledge the value of certain works from 1969, or think the works are rooted in their past and should no longer be shown. They might even reject them as errors of youth or ideas they no longer agree with. Has art changed so much since 1969? What was your approach in these cases? Reconstructing the exhibition, did you lean towards the historical documentation or respect for the desires of the artist today, forty years later? “The shift from one moment to another means transport in time, a resurrection of expressive and emotional things from the past. Since this does not happen through memory, but through a remake, the things are concretely reproduced and become present actions. The force of the past is updated. For some people it is hard to go back to impulses and motivations already experienced, while for others there is nothing new or different, because the active factor of the work is still in progress, still effective. In one case the evoking reflections already processed gains, but too experimental or too youthful, while for others it is already a definition of a path that bears witness to a linguistic declaration, in advance but already mature. Certainly the remaking of works today no longer corresponds to an attitude that tried to get beyond the traditional language, and it runs the risk of a return to the past. But to understand the present you have to make reference to transformations that have already happened, even if they seem like or actually are errors. After 1969 art slowly adapted to the society of consumption and mass information, so the focus on materials and gestures gave way to industrial and mercantile processes. The artistic operation has slowly changed into a prefabricated and showy product: a specular and narrative construction of the real. A multiplication of what exists that has flattened out radical and transgressive visual discourse and forms. A spectacle of art has been created to re-propose a decorative, exhibitionist dimension, while the art triggered by 1968 wanted to be de-realizing and iconoclast. The aspiration of When Attitudes Become Form was to abolish the traditional ritual of display of works in favor of an experience of their process of construction and transit before the gaze of the observer. What is the role of the curator in an almost identical repetition of spaces and works of a show originally curated by someone else? Is there a sort of ‘copyright’ for the conception of a show? If so, is the project for an exhibition something like a work of art? Remaking WABF, was it necessary to play the role of the curator who meets the artists, or can the remake be done in an automatic, purely technical way, repeating actions and decisions? “If we take When Attitudes Become Form as an object of historical and linguistic use, made in 1969, as a compact, definite unit, the first curatorial operation is to restore it as a whole, putting the pieces back together (the single artworks). It is a process that is initially indifferent to the parts that make up the whole. The goal is not to trigger new associations or assign new positions, but to make a reconstruction, without modification, using only what has been scattered. A rigid, orderly, harmonious structure in which the relationships of the parts form a closed circuit. Tracking down the surviving parts means putting the narrative ‘text’ prepared by Szeemann back together, in collaboration with the artists, as it was put into the white architectural ‘pages’ of the Kunsthalle in Bern. The gathering of the parts, often scattered or ephemeral, together with the remaining examples now in museums or collections, was like putting a puzzle together, a constellation that can be identified as a whole, which was seen at the time as a new system of doing, displaying and thinking about art. This process coincided, then, with a true restoration of a product of creative activity. First of all, we had to recognize the value of the whole operation, as acknowledge by all the scholars of contemporary art; then we had to identify its material, its physical consistency, followed by aesthetic and historical recognition that contributes to the need of transmitting it to the future, as a founding factor of an important experience. This multiple consistency is granted by the interaction of architecture, works, relations, and all these components have been studied in a scientific way, first in relation to the time and place of the original, in Bern, and then in relation to the historical present and the show’s new positioning in Venice. It was fundamental to investigate the unity of the exhibition, in qualitative and quantitative terms, trying to get closer to its entirety. The next passage was to understand to what extent the reconstruction of that unity was possible. This happened by putting together all the possible information on the individual parts of the mosaic, also to understand where there would be gaps and voids that might involve the material of the show. What kind of intervention would be needed to fill the gaps? Could they be fixed with contemporary simulations, or should empty space be left to indicate absences? Or, in an even more radical approach, would it be necessary to construct images in vitro, coming very close to a ‘fake’ and nearly always failing? What would be the legitimacy of such an intervention of substitution or information? Should we work case by case, or on individual accumulations, room by room? How could we resolve all these issues that had to do with the vision of the curator, past and present, the awareness of the role of the curator which is not just to assemble new sets, but also to reconstruct environmental and cultural contexts, like a conservator, evoking traces of the past? We tried to respond to these problematic questions raised by the remake of When Attitudes Become Form by creating, in Venice, a dialogue between the curator-restorer-rebuilder of the things of art and the architect Rem Koolhaas and the artist Thomas Demand, to create a multiple, multilingual perspective capable of approaching the various architectural and visual responses. Together, we tried to find solutions for the temporal and spatial connection between the event in 1969 and the decision to re-enact it. This is where the problem presented itself of the frame that contained the show in 1969, totally different from that of Venice in 2013: the need to define a passage between the physical space in which the Kunsthalle and the Schulwarte in Bern were immersed, and that of the 18th-century palazzo of Ca’ Corner della Regina in Venice. Two different spatial contexts that would have to interact with the object When Attitudes Become Form. What possible connection or contrast would have to be found between the two time and space frames? Should we invent a third option that had to do with present enjoyment of the whole work, making it easy to perceive for today’s audience, or should we work in terms of an environmental and temporal rift? The difference is substantial and has to do with the relationship with the observer, the audience. Since any work of architecture has a different spatial value, putting aside that of Bern to use that of Venice would have been an operation that differed strongly with respect to the historical formulation. At the same time, erasing the historical presence of the walls in Venice in favor of a sequence of white cube rooms would have meant inserting the whole of what was curated by Szeemann in a limbo, without moorings or visual and experiential reference points in the present situation. We opted for a spatial solution that does not lean towards one architecture or the other, forcing a temporal and spatial break. The result is a continuum where the architectural problem alters and is altered by the grafting together of Kunsthalle, Schulwarte and Ca’ Corner della Regina. We have not attempted to achieve any false criterion of continuity or stylistic integration, and we have worked through contrast, inserting the modern spaces of Bern into the historical container of Venice in a clearly evident way. If you think about it, both the situations are part of the transmission of the work When Attitudes Become Form. Once we had found the right frame to bring out the complexity of a reconstruction, we then had to recover and reconstruct, where needed, the figures – that is, the works – that made up the ‘story’ in images told by Szeemann. The job of the curator in Venice, then, was to deny his own subjectivity as an assembler of exhibitions, to reconstruct and restore the text of another curator. This depersonalization is an attempt to make the objective and subjective relationship with the thing displayed no longer be considered a set of opposites. The final task was to evoke a surprising product of the past, to identify with it, without approaching it as a romantic and nostalgic ruin of our past. Once reconstructed as the primary meaning of a series of unstable and random meanings, to enter into a diachronic relationship, to bring out a sensibility of the present. Since the project dates back to 1969, reconstructed and restored, in 2013 it needed a new relationship with the present, inserted in a zone of suspension, a territory extraneous to its history and its chronology – Ca’ Corner della Regina – with the idea of relaunching the geography and history of its imaginary. It is inserted like an irritating body in an inside, causing a secretion of defense: its new pearl.” Now that When Attitudes Become Form is open in Venice, at Cà Corner della Regina, what has changed in your path as a historian and a curator? “Revisiting a real event I had experienced directly in Bern and reconstructing it confirmed for me the power of the historical moment, on the plane of artistic language and on that of the procedures of the curator. Since this is a revisitation done for the Venice Biennale 2013, a non-neutral context, defined by other curatorial proposals – that of Massimiliano Gioni, with his Palazzo Enciclopedico, and those of dozens and dozens of curators in pavilions and shows – I have understood that the danger of contemporary art and its way of communicating lies in its reduction to a slender, weightless image capable of flowing rapidly, without being anchored, on the white wall, which can be the metaphor of a museum, a gallery, a fair. We have lost the contact and the dialogue with the context, and art is reduced to a product without weight and energy, fundamentally a temporary decoration of a possible white cube, symbolizing any host context. So I feel a growing need to anchor art to a place or a territory, asking it to put down roots, without forgetting history. For example, the erasure of the 16th-century architecture of the Arsenale, done by building routes of white walls in wood or plasterboard, is a sign of an environmental abstraction connected with the way art is put into a limbo. When Attitudes Become Form, on the other hand, was a whole that the market broke up into pieces, in the same way, but its force can be understood if you put it back together. The fragments do not form a statue or a vase, they are ruins, and here lies the risk of the contemporary present to transform itself into ruins. At the time, the claim of making are was not directed towards a hedonistic or didactic or economic practice, so things could be destroyed or dispersed, they could be useless and non-functional. What counted was proof of mental and physical, behavioral and emotional energy that led to the construction of imaginary ‘figures’ without any goal other than the pleasure of expression. The aspiration of the idea and its satisfaction tried to have an effect on the real, not only in exchange for survival, but in terms of the action on the audience, which was defined as ‘political’ back then: rejection of decorative enjoyment in favor of production of energy that would raise doubts and questions.”