TRANSCRIPT EXHIBITION CONTAINER
IN CONVERSATION DOBRILA DENEGRI & MARLO SAALMINK
Hello, Dobrila, hello Marlo,
Dobrila, you are an art curator, you are very interested in fashion and you manage to bring those two worlds together beautifully. You directed an Art museum in Poland and you also did a beautiful project “Transfashional”, that interprets fashion as a performance and as an interactive dialogue to an audience that might feel attracted to what fashion could be, (not only the boring fashion system that for the moment, we are hating and loving). Can you talk about your work of the past years, what you’re doing, what you are planning to do in the future?
I’m glad that you brought up “Transfashional”, because it was a project that engaged me for the last three or four years. And to be honest, when I started, I couldn’t imagine it was going to take so much and that it was going to grow so much as it did in the end. In the beginning it was like a leap into the void; I was leaving the museum that I was running and I was really eager to work without the framework of the big institution. I was trying to create some sort of “mobile” and “nomadic” platform, which would be made of a partnership between different educational and cultural institutions. I was lucky to work with the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, London College of Fashion as well as several other universities and museums in UK, Sweden, Italy, Poland and Austria. When I say that initially it was like a leap in the void, what I mean is that first of all, it was, in a sense, that I didn’t wanted to have a concept that was somehow pre-outlined. I wanted that “Transfashional” was a guiding line, as it’s a word that I invented, we could say it was an empty signifier or some kind of term that could become what we wanted it to become. So, the question was, how can we go beyond the notion of fashion in its more conventional terms? And therefore, I challenged artists, fashion designers, fashion practitioners, all these, let’s say “Transfashional” people to do something together and to make this term acquire a meaning. In the end, I think, we reached that point where it was possible to say that there is something that we could call a fashion-based art or a practice that produces a discourse about fashion rather than something purely functional, a production of ideas about the today and tomorrow of creative worlds, not fashion only. Creating a world on a large scale is something that was the outcome of this journey of three or four years.
And also, two beautiful catalogues.
And two beautiful catalogues. Since the whole project was like a perpetual process of editing and re-editing through the format of an exhibition, it seemed important to document all these stages. We did it through the web platform https://transfashional.com as well as through the books. I was really keen to formalize everything in the form of the book and I’m happy that we had contributions from Hussein Chalayan to Lucy Orta, to José Teunissen to everybody actually who took part in this project, and most of all those who were part of the exhibitions. The second volume had a subtitle: Post/Inter/Disciplinary Lexicon and it functioned as an attempt to create a vocabulary of terms which can be used to define and describe all these liminal, experimental and “transfashional” practices. The exhibition was almost like a domino; what you left as the last mark in the previous exhibition would be the starting point for the next exhibition. So somehow it developed from one site to another, from one museum or a gallery to another to a kind of situation that not only presented artifacts, but created a community. I remember, in the last exhibition, when we were all together in Rimini, almost a year ago, that there was the common feeling that we managed to create a community, an “enlarged” family of likeminded people of artists slash designers slash researchers – I think it’s always difficult to frame them in one term – in the end, they told me we never believed that we will feel that we have a family, finally, that we have a place where we feel fitting, because usually they feel they do not fit in either category because they are not commercial enough or because they are not artistic enough, or for any other reason. Existing categories didn’t seem appropriate yet to embrace this type of research and this type of creative work. So, I think this was one of the outcomes that I learned from this project, that we need new categories, we need new languages, we need new terms. We really need to reassess because multidisciplinary and creativity just brought us way beyond respect of where institutions are; many are still somehow not catching up entirely what people in the creative field are doing.
I see Marlo saying yes, because he’s doing it in another way, bringing a community together thanks to a strong identity, a very specific eye and a very specific aesthetic and an open mindset to education, to magazines, to print, to galleries, to designers from different parts of the world. What I like in your website is the division in “analog, catalog and dialog”, and because I’m a very conceptual thinker, I would ask you to explain those three words.
Well, everything Dobrila is telling us is very relevant and very true, we need new categories. My whole idea of not being online and not having social media and not joining it is because we are born before this time; I remember a time when internet was not an obvious thing and phones were not an obvious thing, and still now my phones are secondary. So, for me, that analogue living makes a lot of sense. We’re based in the countryside now. This was a deliberate choice in a country that has no fashion history, none. Everything that they knew historically also was important from, you know, the Dutch traders, for instance, or even from the French empire, from Rococò. For me, editing REVS magazine, or writing for Fucking Young, or doing some slash things in magazines for a long time, you’re outside the inside all the time. And I like this very much. I think this is also, next to categories, a very important thing, that also in architecture, we can pick up the dialogue between in- and exterior, like a lot of artists do. I hope we can discuss some later, play with this idea, looking at identities which I don’t think can be created online.
I think a lot of young people struggle with the expectation of self-curation constantly, imposed by others; a kind of expectation to join and to photograph and document themselves. I think we can be more critical on that, so, hence my analogue position on my website is very understated and has been so for years. I think that it’s important to understand the tools we have today. The whole physical part, the knowledge, the research, I think it’s got to beimportant too. So that’s the part I do, input to the projects, working with the artists, as a curator, is like the physical part. I like the books, I like the literature, I like to open up academic debates and not narrow them per se, and to allow all people from all walks of life to come in.
Indeed, we need new categories. I think for the fashion system, this is also needed. For a long time, you have had an elite gathering in Paris in a certain way that has not opened up and opening up is not putting on-line fashion shows that everybody can watch, but having a dialogue with your customers and your consumers, with the curators, with the creators, and this dialogue has disappeared. It was there in the eighties and the nineties when magazines had more power and maybe more identity, in my opinion. But today it has faded very much to, you know, a culture of influencing, it became kind of flat. So, I like the analogue, I like the print. That’s why I do two print magazines. I think it’s important to maintain these. I think it’s important that we try to have dialogues in different settings and that we try to involve young people and give them the tools. We, in the studio, say to them, okay, don’t go online when they present a portfolio, don’t give me Instagram posts, but show me books, but we need to also give them the opportunity to show them where to look and how to look and understand that they don’t come from a past where entertainment was not TV. It was books for instance, or it was watching a film, really watching it, which I still do. So, this dialogue I think is very important; that’s why it’s very understated, I would say.
Let’s talk about the museum and the exhibition concept, that in my document, I describe as quite old and tired. What I was thinking, when I hear you speaking is that we should open up to other cultures, other cities, to other neighbourhoods. We are all three fascinated by doing exhibitions and that’s what I personally, love the most. But how can we find a new way to make it more interesting globally? Dobrila.
This is a big, big question. And to be honest I think, what you have started to outline through the first draft of the “New Fashion Container” project, is potentially one of the replies to this question. When you said, I replied with a big enthusiasm, it’s true, because what I recognized in this idea of what you call “anti-museum” is a kind of a rhizomatic structure, which can happen in a big urban centre, as much as it can happen in any other space or any other place, which has its life in that particular moment with that particular event and has its kind of echo in this zone that we are dwelling in and out of – the digital zone.
But nevertheless, this has a kind of reciprocity; on one hand, things are happening and happening in real time, in real spaces with real people, with real audiences and are connected through the network of contacts, through the web was for me kind of interesting and I think for sure it is an important idea to try to bring it up more into life.
What I liked about the structure you created with the NFContainer project, was that it was envisioning a type of format which would be polyphonic, agile, nomadic, fluctuating, decentralized and most of all human-size. So, there are many different containers, many different spaces, which might be physical or might be interpreted in other forms. And they coexist, they live in continuum and they are present on and offline. At the same time, it’s a model that is decentralized so you don’t have to have one single space and this is the space, the museum. I think this idea of decentralizing, the idea of fragmenting, the idea of introducing the nomadic and mobile way of doing things in different places, which somehow are connected through the digital realm and interchange the information about each other is very interesting. It looked like a dream, sure, but also it resonated with a sense of urgency to rebuild a tissue of our creative worlds starting with the feasible formats and direct human contacts. Taking, sharing, caring… Just doing…
For me, that’s one possible example of how it could be done. And honestly, again, I don’t think this is something that hasn’t been practiced. I think these ideas of the grassroot movement existed in various fields, in art and elsewhere, but it never became mainstream. Mainstream is remaining very much about models based on the power structures, big centres, a lot of money, harsh competition, verticality. So, envisioning the possible alternatives, as you did with NCF for me was very fresh and encouraging… optimistic I would dare to say. So, the question is, when are we going to change our mind? When are we going to look only to those institutions that are part of the mainstream? And when are we going to look to other places and find ourselves in these neighbourhoods, in these other, more, let’s say human-size events and endeavours?
I think, you know, when looking at fashion this past year, just in general, before we get to exhibitions, the big miss was a kind of societal comment or any digital reflection. I’ve seen very few fashion brands thinking or using this opportunity for a dialogue, for something new to – indeed – think about new targeted audience or anything else.
And when I look back at artists that you can easily connect to fashion, like let’s say Bruce Nauman, for instance, who always said, “art should raise questions”, right? Where are fashion exhibitions that are raising questions, where are exhibitions explaining the craft of fashion to people who don’t know it, because don’t forget that fashion can be extremely intimidating for people. If you look at popular media, you look at films, big Hollywood productions Devil wears Prada, these kinds of films, they portray a perspective of fashion that is very one-sided, perhaps very elitist, very exclusive, but fashion is not that. It’s about actually enveloping, it’s about expression and it’s about going somewhere.
And I remember an exhibition I saw last year in Holland at the Nieuwe Instituut which was about the hoodie; the hoodie sweater and they centralized, in a kind of young perspective the whole exhibition historically, but also thinking of subcultures and going back to the symbolism of this garment, that a lot of people wear for different reasons, right? And this was such a simple artistic premise without an over academic analysis of it. It was very clear to the public because it showed a lower threshold to coming into fashion and understanding it. And the same goes in Japan, where I’ve seen so many exhibitions dissecting the craft. I remember Yamamoto, talking about how we make a sleeve and how far you can go in the shape, the length, the proportions. This kind of elements, looking at subcultures and looking at why garments are worn a certain way, can be very relevant instead of just putting them on display, I would say.
I feel that we must bring fashion to a higher level, especially culturally because it’s a hybrid culture, it’s a culture from different countries, different body cultures, different expressions of body culture. I think we need to have a new language, new parameters to express ourselves to see how fashion can evolve. We have to act and do something in smaller neighbourhoods, in smaller cities and bring other people together in a new language. What do you think Dobrila?
Yes, I definitely agree. We were just discussing recently this feeling that although de-colonization became a buzzword, and museums and other institutions are claiming that they are “decolonizing” themselves, we are still mostly confronted with West-centric perspectives, especially when it comes to big, blockbuster exhibitions, conceived as touring spectacles which should create fascination and awe among massive but also quite passive audiences… I really liked your idea about the need to invest something in highlighting local creative communities as a complementary project which goes along with big spectacular displays of exhibitions divulging Western histories.
One question is this: how do we incorporate other types of visions? And on the other hand, I think, and I would really like to reinforce what Marlo was saying; what is really crucial is the dialogue. I think this is really what somehow is missing, especially in these big exhibitions, they are big monologues, really. Somehow you see that everything is a part of a very elaborate and sometimes really beautifully done outline that visually is compelling and of course works for a great amount of people who want to be amazed and want maybe just to go through this experience, which is in a certain way unreachable. If I think about Dior or Alexander McQueen, these big blockbuster exhibitions, they are extraordinary for what they are, but at a certain time also, I think now we are more starting to be aware that it’s not only about being a passive perceptor in the exhibition, but it’s about being active there.
So, instead of biennials happening every two years, organizing events that happen over two years, every two weeks, every three weeks, every five weeks with the people, with the workshops, with the conferences, with the dialogues, with the examinations where audiences are together with artists, curators, participants, and so on, I think that’s a kind of interesting model or module which creates a kind of a disruption of this idea that there has to be a big event, a big thing where we are just numbers who pay tickets and the rest is, you know, just almost like what you have on the screen, something that you cannot really touch. So, I think it’s a little bit about resizing everything and bringing everything into a new dimension.
I completely agree, obviously. And I think what you say Dobrila about the perspective, it is, indeed, very Western, very often. I’m curating a show with Ugo Rondinone now, opening in January, and this is also a superstar artist, but you know, you’re bringing him to Norway and nobody knows him in this museum, nobody knows this man. But the dialogue with an audience is there, we strip everything away; there is no screen, nothing, just a small little pamphlet inside the room, except for the dialogue between you and the artworks, because I would like the audience to define it.
I think it’s very interesting that you’re saying when you go to a big couture show in a museum space, for example, to the Met Gala, all these things that are maybe not culture, if I may say it very loudly, and maybe they’re not so cultured, but what is so interesting for me is that a new audience can discover fashion in different ways. I like to hear different opinions. I like to hear people who don’t necessarily have all the baggage to understand how a suit jacket is made. I like those people too. I would like them to tell me how they experience things, which is also what we’re doing with Ugo Rondinone. We all know him, the three of us, you know how famous this man is, but people don’t know him. There are four artworks that I curated that are very big. Let them go in and have an interaction with them on their own. I made the room with a door and this is new and people get very afraid. I can close this door and you’re in the gallery. I cannot lock it, that was one step too far for the Scandinavians. But the point is to be in the room with these works for a little moment, allow yourself to start a dialogue.
And I think in fashion too, when you walk through these big exhibitions, it’s very hard because you’re not allowed to touch, there’s nothing to engage. Again, it’s a display. And I completely agree that it would be very beautiful to have a new voice – it doesn’t have to be a younger one – but people outside this industry to create new dialogues.
For the moment, in many cities, you have so many shops empty, what can we do with all those empty spaces? What can we do with the small shops in all the cities who unfortunately, have to close? Can’t we do small exhibitions? We put one piece in a window and we do a little cocktail drink. We have a little party, might be nice. I think we could write a little book out of that evening. We could write to each other and dream about that little garment that we saw in a window in via Maggio here in Florence. I think that’s what we feel today, I guess, after a very heavy year. I feel like we need more lightness.
Well, I think when it comes to retail, you have a lot of experience yourself. I remember we had a store in Bergen, in Norway for about four years, selling the typical Scandinavian brands from Margaret Howell to Our Legacy, etcetera. But the point was that the locality was very important, the neighbourhood. It is very important to know your clients. Many of my friends in Japan, both in Osaka or Tokyo, they know exactly the clients. When they acquire a beautiful dress for their shop, they know exactly what clients will come in and appreciate this craft. They know how to display and play with this in an artistic way. So that’s kind of a hybrid between garments’ interaction and showing the storytelling, which is often missing. This is very important. For the high street shops, as they are very aggressive, they are also suffering, luckily, but for them to reset their minds, that will take a longer time. So, I think we should be rebels. I agree. And start to engage a bit more in our own way.
I think it’s very important that we can be a bit more rebellious there. Because, I remember in Norway in my store, when people wanted to buy a jacket, a raincoat, handmade, you need to explain why it costs what it costs. It’s a very boring principle, but the story, the culture around brands is very important. The same with printed T-shirts, when we had Gosha Rubchinskiy in our store. The kids who came in knew exactly what it meant, what the culture around this skateboard brand was, it was the same with Supreme and it started all those years back. Now it’s just merchandise, but so what printed t-shirts can we show, what do we put on them? Why? These are very interesting questions.
And I think also museums, it’s a missed opportunity sometimes to always go back to the same – as also Dobrila said – stellar names and say, okay, they provide again, obviously we’ve had masters, we miss couture. We miss the emotion, right? We miss the poetry very often. I do too. But there are new voices that I like that are conceptual. Very small brands. If you look at Los Angeles, most skateboard brands coming up here and there make very fun, interesting takes that are positive. So, I agree with positive.
Talking about masters, I was thinking this afternoon about Jan Hoet, he was our master, my master in curating museum spaces and curating archives and curating ideas. Jan Hoet was very strong in putting a painting upside down next to another painting on the floor. And you could see that in another context then suddenly you said, “Oh my God, I get it, I understand”. I know it’s (im)possible, but we have to be more radical.
We have to. I surely agree. Paradoxically there are now more and more empty spaces, as you mentioned, while on the other side artists and other creatives are suffering from abstinence of showing their work and discussing it beyond the format of a computer screen and a Zoom talk. So actually, it’s all just there. And sometimes things can be more simple than they look like, if we want them to be simple. I mean, I’m not ‘68, I was born in ‘70, but my parents come from there and they always tell me everything was simple, we were just doing things. So, a couple of months ago we were laughing about the difficulty today to just do things. I think this is actually what it’s really missed. So, I totally agree. Let’s put something in whatever space we have free and start a conversation from there. Remembering Jan Hoet and his seminal Chambres d’amis show in Ghent is a great way to trigger ideas about exhibition projects which would be born out of a mix of risk and goodwill, and which would be capable of restoring a sense of pleasure in doing things with a major degree of spontaneity, simplicity and unpretentiousness. These, our conversations, are actually the first step! We are already stepping on this road!
Yeah. Last word to Marlo.
The spontaneity is very important. I just finished reading John Giorno’s biography, the famous poet and he speaks very vividly. Of course, there’s a lot of sex in there. A lot of rawness. It’s about this artist in the sixties and the seventies, coming to New York, just doing things. Dial-A-Poem, fantastic concept. I think that also the playfulness in fashion, we lost it a little bit. It became kind of elitist, kind of still, maybe a bit cold. And when I read this book, I got so excited again, also with my own work and like, oh, we are applying these things because I do, I like to engage, but I like people to come together. And I think they are an inspiration, some of his words. But the same goes for Jenny Holzer when she made, you know, her manifesto and all the statements that have been used by so many art museums to kind of frame contemporary art – there’s so much truth in these, they’re free. But the idea of getting us thinking again from a rebellious mind with a statement, this is totally true and I’m ready. I think we’re already there.
Thank you both for being my guests and the guests of the “New Fashion Container” project. I hope we will be able to do something together in the near future. Send me your slogans and let’s make a small magazine!
Let keep talking. We have to. Thank you for putting us together. It’s really a pleasure.
Thank you indeed.