The work of Polish-born, London-based artist Goshka Macuga investigates the relationship between art history, museology, objects, archival materials, and re-enactment. Among other international exhibitions, she has participated in the 8th Berlin Biennale (2014) and dOCUMENTA 13 (2012). She has also been one of the four nominees for the 2008 Turner Prize.
The following interview revolves around her play Preparatory Notes for a Chicago Comedy. The script on which Macuga’s play was based refers to Aby Warburg’s unpublished play Hamburg Conversations on Art: Hamburg Comedy. Written in 1896 for a small family gathering and designed to be staged in the household environment, Warburg’s play illustrates the conflicts and debates that were active in the artworld in 1896. Macuga’s play and its accompanying film Preparatory Notes draw comparisons between Warburg’s world and that of the contemporary art scene today.
Quoting, appropriating, using or misusing
Conversation transcription below
Above: Preparatory Notes for a Chicago Comedy. Courtesy the artist.
Michela Alessandrini: I’m curious to know what is your notion of archive and what can be found in your personal one.
Goshka Macuga: My relationship to the archive is in constant flux. I love it and hate it at the same time and often seek liberation from it, but I always end up returning to it. I look to the archives to define my relationship to the present time in a broader sense. Archives always differ in form and content. Because of this, it is difficult to define what “archive” is as it is so often a subjective collection of materials. Nevertheless, we can certainly consider it as something concerned with the past. I really like how Patricio Guzmàn has treated this subject or the subject of our relationship to the past in the film Nostalgia for the Light. In his film, a scientist working at a big observatory in the desert in Chile informs us that from the instant our eye perceives something to the moment when our brain can register and categorize the information seen time passes, and therefore what we have seen already belongs to the past. In the same film we also see families of the victims of political murders in Chile during the dictatorship. We meet them as they “dig” into the desert as if it was a large archive holding the answer to their pain and the answers to their quest to find the remains of their missing loved ones.
Every evening we can look to the sky as a great archive that can define the beginning of time and the beginning of humanity and we can also look into our own small family archives to define our personal and most immediate past. Archives in a way help us to identify and position ourselves.
I collect many things that are personal such as: clothes, films, photos, artworks, interesting objects, magazines, and books. The last two are maybe more important to me and define more clearly my obsession with collecting knowledge/information. Books occupy the top rank in my hierarchy of where information is stored and are therefore the most precious to me. On a daily basis I of course also substitute books for Internet search engines – a sort of common shared archive.
MA: Are you emotionally attached to objects?
GM: I am definitely attached to some objects. From time to time, I have to make decisions about getting rid of stuff and this is not always easy.
MA: What is your relation to images?
GM: Images are important as they act as triggers to thoughts and this helps to store and retrieve memories. I have been recently looking more into the history of memory, specifically artificial memory and its relationship to the art of memory. I am fascinated by the different approaches developed by philosophers such as Giordano Bruno, Ramon Lull or Robert Fludd to extend our capacity to memorise, categorize, and recall knowledge. Images are fundamental to this process. It is also interesting to shift this to a more contemporary context and think about our use of artificial memory today. The significance of remembering something as an image is replaced with the simple gesture of capturing an image with our camera or a smart phone and storing it on a hard drive or posting it on social media as a statement about what we stand for rather then storing it in our brain. The immediacy of this act is sometimes quite frightening and often meaningless.
MA: What is the meaning of re-enactment in contemporary societies? And in your work?
GM: Re-enactment is also a way of using and misusing artists’ work. I have made several works in response to artworks made by others. One can consider it a quotation, appropriation, or simply theft. It is an interesting territory, as the rules are not really defined by strict laws, it is a grey area with blurred boundaries as with many other aspects of art. In Preparatory Notes for a Chicago Comedy for example, most of the dialogue is based on quotations. If one looks at the history of art as an archive or an alphabet of references, re-enactment could be considered an act of rephrasing or writing a new narrative with the use of a familiar language. This is what we all tend to do in order to communicate our thoughts.
We like the familiarity of things; we like to use references almost as a code. The urinal is a code that links directly to Duchamp and places us within the history of the “readymade” that, in turn, links to an exchange between the artist and the viewer in the attempt to categorize what art is. Warburg wrote about the “primitive man” fighting his fears of the unknown by creating rituals — maybe re-enactment should be categorized as a sort of ritual to process our relationship with the unknown. As infants we imitate our parents and what they do, as artists we imitate gestures made by the previous generations. In a way, art is always old even if it’s seeking to be young and fresh.
In a space saturated with cultural development it is very hard to come up with original new ideas. We recycle old ones. We also look to places that feel less familiar, perhaps to different countries or to different cultural histories to find new contexts or new ways of reading what we have created. We can also look to the meaning of the re-enactment of certain western institutions, such as biennales, within spaces such as the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The re-performing of these particular institutions is often quite problematic, especially when they are instead transplanted or re-enacted as cultural models for economic development. Often in these situations, the biennales’ relationship to the specific area and cultural history gets lost within economic and cultural goals set by the idea of an international agenda. The re-enactment then risks being meaningless as its context or sense of place is undefined.
MA: Tell me the story of Preparatory notes for a Chicago Comedy. How did it start? How did you come across Aby Warburg’s unpublished play Hamburg Conversations on Art: Hamburg Comedy? What are the differences and similarities between the two art worlds, Aby Warburg’s and ours, according to you?
GM: Aby Warburg is an important figure to me. I was first introduced to Warburg’s work years ago while working on my project for Kunsthalle Basel (Editor’s note: I Am Become Death, 2009). His work and his persona made a big impact on me, but of course the most important aspect I focused on was his relationship to knowledge. Born into a wealthy family, Warburg was able to create a space for himself to dedicate his life to the pursuit of knowledge. He took the unorthodox path of studying different subjects according to what he needed to know at each particular phase of his research and his life. He managed to trade his position as head of the Warburg banking family with his younger brother for a comfortable financial arrangement that allowed him to buy as many books as he desired and to continue researching and writing. Warburg also collected images that are still available to be viewed at the Warburg Institute in London. His methods of categorizing knowledge did not follow conventional approaches; he instead invented and designed his own systems. Despite this — he still considered himself an orthodox art historian — the library and the image archive at the Warburg Institute exist as a testament to both his knowledge and his contribution to the study of Art History. His personal life was greatly affected by his health, this also impacted on his work and how he saw the world.
One of his greatest fears was technological advance: “The American of today no longer worships the rattlesnake. Extermination (and whisky) is his answer to it. Electricity enslaved, the lightning held captive in the wire, has produced a civilization which has no use for heathen poetry. But what does it put in its place? The forces of nature are no longer seen in anthropomorphic shapes; they are conceived as an endless succession of waves, obedient to the touch of a man’s hand. With these waves the civilization of the mechanical age is destroying what natural science, itself emerging out of myth, had won with such vast effort the sanctuary of devotion, the remoteness needed for contemplation. The modern Prometheus and the modern Icarus, Franklin and the Wright Brothers who invented the airplane, are those fateful destroyers of our sense of distance who threaten to lead the world back into chaos. Telegraph and telephone are destroying the cosmos. But myths and symbols, in attempting to establish spiritual bonds between man and the outside world, create space for devotion and scope for reason which are destroyed by the instantaneous electrical contact unless a disciplined humanity reintroduce the impediment of conscience.”1
This quotation summarizes Warburg’s relationship to technology. In a way I share this fear but I am also fascinated by the possibilities of how technology can shape our future development. I used the above quotation in two of my works — in a film I made for Kunsthalle Basel entitled Snake Society and in the script for Preparatory Notes for a Chicago Comedy. The latter — a play — happened by chance: I was invited to participate in a residency in Chicago (Editor’s note: at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago) where I worked with the curator, Dieter Roelstraete. He is as passionate about Warburg’s work as I am. I told him about the play Hamburg Comedy, written by Warburg in 1917, which I came across in 2008 and we started fantasizing about staging it. We translated the original script and in the end we decided to write our own script rather than staging his.
It seems that the art world has always had its ups and downs even at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps the big issue of the time lays in the attempt to break away from the conservative ideas of what art should be or simply in the tussle between the old and the new. Warburg’s play is mainly concerned with this particular debate. Today however, the artworld faces different questions — it is less interested in the idea of contemporary art being repressed by the canons created by past generations. Instead, it is more driven by the engines that try to define what contemporary art is; what is good and bad art and what is the value of art. Contemporary art is not innocent and idealistic; it is often a strategic gesture and that gesture is not always intended by the makers of art but more often by “art lovers.” Art is used in and exploited by political campaigns, financial manipulations and status gain to list a few examples. Art is being used, misused and abused to say the least.
1. The quotation is taken from “A Lecture on Serpent Ritual,” A. Warburg and W. F. Mainland, Journal of the Warburg Institute, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Apr., 1939), pp. 277-292.