Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers & Tine Kukielski

Other People and Their Ideas No. 5

By Tom Eccles

From Left: 2013 Carnegie International curators Dan Byers, Tina Kukielski, Daniel Baumann (Photo Credit: Ben Hernstrom)

First organised at the behest of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie on 5 November 1896 in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie International is the oldest North American exhibition of international contemporary art. The 2013 edition has three curators: Baumann is director of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Basel; Byers is the Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and Kukielski, before coming to the Carnegie, was senior curatorial assistant at the Whitney in New York, where she led the museum’s project series.

Tom Eccles

Last December at Miami Basel you had an announcement party of sorts in a rather rough-and-ready Veterans of Foreign Wars club. The venue was a real Vets bar. It certainly wasn’t business as usual. I don’t think the Whitney would ever have held an event there, Biennial or not. Was that what you wanted to convey?

Daniel Baumann

We wanted to invite people to a place where we could enjoy ourselves and lose control instead of having to represent and confirm.

Dan Byers

Also, because there are three of us, this exhibition contains three different attitudes or approaches, and to accommodate that, and actually to make it interesting, we’ve been very open in our thinking and the way we behave in Pittsburgh and in the museum. The show, and our process, is definitely about specificity, but it’s also inclusive and heterogeneous – in Miami, all were welcome, it was a good mix.

Tina Kukielski

The VFW carried Yuengling. We come from Pittsburgh. No contest.

It actually reminded me of the kind of thing we would do in Glasgow 20-plus years ago. Glasgow and Pittsburgh are quite similar, really. Could you speak about how the city has influenced the evolution of the exhibition? From what I’ve read so far, your practice as curators, rolling out the project over time, has become a kind of extended dialogue with the local arts community…

DBy I think we’re really just trying to be present. We’ve been doing a lot of travel internationally, but spending as much time as possible in the city as well, and trying to make a dialogue between art people in Pittsburgh, and the artists and other visitors who come to town. The character of Pittsburgh is pretty rich and unique, and the best thing we can do is to have artists leave with a really positive impression of the place and what can be done there. Early on Daniel thought we should rent an apartment/event space, so we’ve had this great apartment going for almost two years – we can do parties, dinners, talks, performances, small shows (and artists stay there), without the frame of a 120-year-old museum mediating everything (a frame that will be present in the exhibition, but in the run-up to the show takes a back seat to the kind of energy and strange one-off things we can do on a domestic scale with what’s at hand). And, actually, that energy will come back in certain ways into the show itself...

What do the artists that you’ve invited to the Carnegie think of Pittsburgh? Have they been involved in the apartment events? Are any of them working directly with the city and its inhabitants?

TK When we began working together early in 2011, I recall a moment of concern when I finally did the math and realised that we had almost three years to plan the exhibition. That felt like a really long time, and I think we were all a bit nervous about that gap, both as curators who were used to faster turnarounds, but also as people who wanted to be responsive to the world, and Pittsburgh as a place. Pittsburgh is a city of neighbourhoods, each with their own distinct character. Daniel and I were newcomers to the city, and with Dan, we all had to find a way to balance the travel abroad with the weekends back at the camp. The intention of the apartment in Lawrenceville was to find a practical way to try out some ideas together as a team, with our curatorial assistants too, and to get to know our new neighbours. We left notes in all the neighbours’ mailboxes when the Apartment Talks began officially in August 2011, and we’ve been collecting emails and hosting regular events every month since. At one point I was referring to that as our beta phase. In the next few months, as we get closer to the onsite rollout of several projects at the museum, we’ll bring the activity and interest we were incubating in Lawrenceville over to the museum.

DBa About 50 years ago, Pittsburgh was among the biggest cities in the US. It is still fairly bourgeois, provincial too. It is rough and very hilly, but it has a great and interesting past – and is optimistically trying to reinvent itself. If you grew up in a city like this, you may not like coming to Pittsburgh at all; if you come from the outside, it is a fascinating place that grows on you. You move through an urban landscape about which you read in newspapers when they talk about ‘shrinking cities’, etc. So doing a show like the Carnegie International is particularly attractive, because you get the feeling that it makes sense, that it actually is something special, not just another show. Therefore we develop the exhibition out of the museum, its history, the city of Pittsburgh and the life there. Yet not everything has to come out of this relationship; we don’t reduce art to site-specificity. It has its own life that we love and are challenged by, intellectually and physically.

Coming from Glasgow, I quite like going to Pittsburgh! Daniel, you come from Basel, I believe, and direct the Adolf Wölfi Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern. Wölfli was incarcerated in a mental asylum and one of the first artists to be labelled as part of the art brut ‘movement’. You come from a centre of the artworld, but you obviously have an interest in the role of the outsider. While established by Andrew Carnegie to exhibit ‘the Old Masters of tomorrow’, in recent years the International has been pretty much a roster of well-known names (albeit with some memorable works). Should we hope for something a little rougher, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars club in Miami?

DBa Working with Wölfi’s oeuvre certainly influences and constantly refreshes my view on art history, the institution and their narratives. I see a lot of quite boring art entering into the collections and the canon while outstanding works are kept outside. They simply don’t fit and represent too much of a problem, if not a thread, to any curator and art historian engaged in an institutional career. With Tina and Dan we share an interest in what may seem eccentric or dissonant, we like being challenged by art and we don’t mind losing control once in a while. These are some of the reasons we started to implement the 2013 Carnegie International by building a playground outside of the Carnegie Museum of Art. The show opens on 5 October, the playground already in late April. So yes, our show may be rougher, more playful too, but still serious and sexy and probably not too much obsessed with the stars of tomorrow, today or yesterday.

Tina, you’re from New York and worked at the Whitney Museum. What methodologies have you brought to the Carnegie? Have the three of you an agreed approach or are there moments of tension (productive of course)? But where do you disagree?

TK Being around the curators’ table at the Whitney – even as a junior curator – taught me how to argue for a point of view. I wasn’t always successful, but from that experience, I appreciate that everything is a conversation. I do believe that decision-making in a small-team environment doesn’t lead to watered- down consensus, but better ideas with better outcomes. Early on, I overheard a well-known curator say that when curating, ‘three’s a crowd’. I disagree. It is a matter of having respect for my colleagues. We are fortunate in that we genuinely enjoy each other’s company. We decided very early on that we would make all the decisions together. What we didn’t know was that decisions would be just as easily made at the hotel bar at midnight as at the conference table, so you don’t want to be the one to go to bed early! Of course, we disagree and poke fun. The challenge is convincing the others when you’re quite sure you’re right, and I think we’ve come to understand and appreciate each other’s pressure points over time. This is one benefit of having a long lead-time. In the first six months we were still feeling the waters. Today it’s more rapid-fire.

DBa Yes, more rapid-fire. But when you are the guy who is fired at, you first defend, or feel bad or go ‘hmmm...’. Then on the way home, you think about it. The next day you come back and fight for it – or you simply agree that the other one was right. So we are our first public, but not to please each other, but to make the show better.

DBy It’s tough to get through the three of us! But it’s incredible what the necessity for actual, honest explanation and advocacy can do – there are very few assumptions of inherent quality or seriousness among the three us (I think there are only a few shared sacred cows), and I hope that this process of discussion removes an artist from their easily defined context to see them anew.

What’s the biggest challenge you face organising an ‘international survey’ today?

DBy I think the biggest challenge is not to do a survey, which implies a necessarily broad census-taking that captures peaks not valleys (and conjures the featureless roundups of midcentury big American museum shows – Recent Painting and Sculpture from France, Italy and Germany for instance). Luckily we’re small (33 artists), so we can’t cover every base, and in being small we are specific about comparisons and juxtapositions – it is explicitly a group exhibition that mixes artworks by different artists. But we did want to give representation to places – like Iran – where less is known in this country about life there. Artists are from cities in Asia, South America, the Middle East, Europe and various parts of North America. Works that evoke the specificities of the country or city they are made in are equal to, and often the same as, works ‘about’ the weirdness of form, of experimentation, historical circumstance and psychological or sexual experience... We’re not Borders (if that’s still a thing!). We’re more like Caliban Books, the best place between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi for all manner of rare, exquisite finds for Pittsburgh prices.

For good or bad, what exhibitions over the past few years have influenced your curatorial approach? You’ve obviously spent much of your time researching artists around the globe. Are there organisations or new exhibition or presentational models that you’ve incorporated into the structure of the project? A simple question might be why do you think people go to exhibitions today?

DBa The artworks are the point of departure; what they say, expose or risk and how they do it. This is one of the reasons why we renounced a title and a theme so that we don’t fall into the illustration trap. It’s some adventure there, but some really interesting common threads became visible. We think they have very much to do with our time. There are places that inspire us. In my case it is the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, the Modern Institute in glasgow, Ooga Booga in Los Angeles, AP News in Zurich or the Museum of Everything in London. I admire the way they are engaged in and with a place, their international mindset and how they try things out. getting surprised is one of the best things that can happen, so a show like last year’s Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was another inspiration.

DBy Organising this exhibition, one can’t help but respond to past iterations of the International in some way. And in fact, many of the Pittsburghers in our audience will be understanding and experiencing this exhibition in the context of the past few (or ten!) Carnegie Internationals they’ve seen. But I agree with Daniel, in that there are institutions, more than exhibitions, that have influenced my thinking (maybe because the Carnegie International is almost an institution within an institution). Places I’ve been thinking about: Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis, Trafó in Budapest, Raven Row in London, Peep-hole in Milan, Asia Art Archive in hong kong, Museum of Art Ein harod (Israel), the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in kanazawa (Japan) and the sort of temporary institution of khaled horani’s Picasso in Palestine project. Like Daniel’s list, each of these places is deeply embedded in their city, and create very direct, unexpected encounters with art.

TK One of our biggest challenges in organising an international survey – and perhaps this is specific to the Carnegie as opposed to Venice, let’s say – is what is happening to museums today. Museums are undergoing a transformation as new uses, new modes and new means of production and distribution insist on aredefinitionofinstitutionalcharacter and behaviour. We believe in the idea that the museum can be a hub for new information and a new means of communication. To answer your other question, I think this is why people go to see exhibitions. One of our biggest challenges is to not fall into some of the same traps of the past.

Interestingly we have found that the Carnegie’s collection is a warehouse of past experiences – both successes and failures – all in a direct and concise form, and we learn a lot from having this collection surrounding us. This is one way we deal with the instability of the contemporary international survey during a moment of widespread transformation. The exhibitions and institutions mentioned by Dan and Daniel are equally important in this process.

It all sounds fascinating and extremely congenial. But what nags at me (more than the refusal to name any artists in the show) is the fact that I have no idea what’s at stake in the next Carnegie from what you’ve said so far. Isn’t the purpose of these large projects to either open up new horizons, or present definitional enclosures? Arguments, so to speak? Your reference points are certainly tantalising – but what does it add up to? I can’t tell.

DBy, DBa, TK The ambition is to findanewwaytodoashowthathas been around for over a hundred years. The decision is to break up an exhibition that has traditionally been a heroic list of names into a conversation among parts. This means a challenge to the universalism put forward by brand-name biennials. This means bringing together 33 artists from 19 countries, exhibiting a collection, exploring play and playgrounds, and actually engaging Pittsburgh. The 2013 Carnegie International brings art that is meaningful to our lives, that changes our views on history and that provokes knowledge, laughter, irreverence and pleasure. This is modest and terribly ambitious. There is no easy packaging for this. This is an aggregation and calls for an empowered audience. This is our claim. We are yours and we are you.

The 2013 Carnegie International takes place at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, 5 October 2013 – 16 March 2014. For more information on events in the run-up to the International, see ci13.cmoa.org