Natasha Ginwala, Curator of Contour Biennale 8 and Curatorial Advisor for documenta 14

Natasha GinwalaNatasha Ginwala is a curator, researcher, and writer. She is curator of Contour Biennale 8  (2017) and curatorial advisor for Documenta 14 (2017). Recent projects include “My East is Your West” featuring Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana at the 56th Venice Biennale; “Still Against the Sky” at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, and “Corruption…Everybody Knows” with e-flux, New York within the framework of the SUPERCOMMUNITY project. Ginwala was a member of the artistic team for the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (with Juan A. Gaitán) and curated “The Museum of Rhythm” at Taipei Biennial 2012 (with Anselm Franke). From 2013–15 she led the multi-part curatorial project “Landings” presented at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, David Roberts Art Foundation, NGBK (as part of the Tagore, Pedagogy, and Contemporary Visual Cultures Network), the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and other partner organizations (with Vivian Ziherl). Ginwala writes on contemporary art and visual culture in various periodicals and has contributed to numerous publications.

Conversation transcription below

  • A conversation with Natasha Ginwala (full version)

  • A 2 minutes excerpt from the conversation
    2 minuti tratti dalla nostra conversazione

Tiziana Casapietra: So Natasha, I’m very interested in your work and career. I would like you to tell us about the projects: Contour and your involvement in Documenta. But I would also like you to tell us about your vision of contemporary art nowadays. Because you are working in between two geopolitical areas, which is the Western world and the Eastern and the Western Asian world, I would like you to start with your vision of contemporary art, if you see similarities, or if you see diversities and your approach to contemporary art.
Natasha Ginwala: Thank you. It’s a lot to start with speaking about a vision, but of course it is the ground upon which we construct our ideas. For me, what has been important is that contemporary art is a unique language, in which a lot of complicated aspects of today’s reality, but also ways of history telling, can be brought to a kind of public mode of dialogue. I see the exhibition itself as an animated space in which various forms of knowledge can be brought forth.
I genuinely believe that the kinds of artist I have been working with also come from different worlds and different backgrounds. My approach is conditioned by these aspects. Working away from a geopolitical origin, so a sense that I would restrict myself to operating only in South Asia or only in Europe. I have tried to assemble a series of what I think are urgent responses that come from my part of the world, but that necessarily echo across greater distances. And it has been quite essential to then also think about knowledge systems where artists perform their ideas from very unique vantage points, from different disciplines: through research and through historical engagement.

TC: Would you like to go in detail and perhaps would you like to talk to us about recent projects or upcoming projects?
NG: I was just thinking this morning that it has been a year since we opened a project at the Venice Biennale called “My East is Your West,” in which I worked with the Gujral Foundation, a Delhi-based foundation led by the patron Feroze Gujral. For the first time we launched an effort to present artists from India and Pakistan within the Venice Biennale. This was an attempt to construct a new dialogue, also in terms of understanding South Asian geopolitics, but more importantly also contesting the dynamics of the Venice Biennale itself and complicating ideas of representation and also of belonging. “Where does one belong on a map?” versus “How does one belong to an art <world that has its own power dynamics and its own fractures?” For us this project was something that marked a crucial step forward in how we could think about the region, rather than the nation. This is something that I just wanted to add before we go to my current projects, because I think it was quite significant in recently shaping my thoughts as well.
Another project that I would maybe spend a few minutes on is called “The Museum of Rhythm.” It’s a project that I initiated in 2012. I was working with Anselm Franke on the Taipei Biennale 2012. This was an invitation to create a speculative museum framework. To think about, not necessarily what a museum of the future will be, but much more as an ontology. To think what is the mode by which knowledge, cultural knowledge, could be shaped in the body of a museum, what sort of logic can we create for this. I thought of Henri Lefebvre’s idea of rhythmanalysis, I thought of him as a Marxist sociologist and philosopher suggesting this subject of rhythmanalysis. I created this framework, in which we observed how the history of modernity could be looked at; could be traversed through rhythm. So whether that’s going into science, and scientific management of the body, and schemes of labor read through rhythm features. Or whether it goes into questions of occult philosophy, Eastern philosophy and thinking about rhythm through this mode. Or whether it’s anthropology, and certain cultures in which rhythm becomes a principle through which an anthropologic vision enters into the study of a certain community, of a certain otherness and even creating a problem there. For me this was a kind of exhibition that shaped the ways in which these boundaries of science, of anthropology, of politics can enter into the very core of the exhibition and be featured as themselves, and not as artistic research simply but in their own framing of interdisciplinary practice.

TC: I very much like the title “My East is your West,” because it’s very much connected to our personal point of view. I would like you to elaborate upon this title, which I find very, very inspiring.
NG: I should say that we were very fortunate to borrow this title from the artist Shilpa Gupta. It’s a work that she created. Shilpa has a way of playing with language, thinking about the construction of the nation state and how it impacts us as a collective body. She uses this question “My East is your West” as a series of fluctuating words that change their direction and their nuances across a light installation piece. We used it for this particular exhibition as it felt like a valid proposition for a new direction and a new form of how we can we be stakeholders for this complicated terrain that we are calling India and Pakistan. Bangladesh being part of Pakistan at one point in time, how do we deal with these questions? I think Shilpa’s research, as well as what Rashid Rana’s practice, brought these questions of proximity, of measuring, of identification through trade, through informality in economies, through architecture, back in to one space.

TC: Is there any other artist that you would like to mention? What artists are you working with?
NG: If I think about current ideas behind the Contour Biennale, which is upcoming, then I would like to discuss a few artists in regard to this particular project. So, one artist that I have been working with for a while is Lawrence Abu Hamdan. He is an artist who is currently based in Beirut and spent a lot of time in London with the Forensic Architecture group. And I have been inspired by this practice now for a few years, specifically in the way that it deals with a politics of listening and accounting of truth and testimony through the experience of communities who disturb this idea of geopolitical stability and are moving across a range of security networks and then become affected by them, routinely. So Lawrence‘s way of dealing with the sonic imprint on these bodies and on these communities, historically and today, is something that I find quite compelling. So in terms of Contour, which will open next year in March, we are already in conversation with a range of artists. This aspect of how the artist becomes a role player, dealing with ideas of justice, is something that I am now focusing on.
The idea of justice, of course, is much broader than the right to legal council, for instance. Justice is an abstraction and this is why it becomes relevant for us to think about it with the artists. It’s something that we are constantly reaching for in a society that is, in a sense necessary. It is a way of dealing with our rights, dealing with our responsibilities as a civil society. But, at the same time, justice is what is most easily denied depending on one’s race, on one’s sex, on one’s point of origin and status. So I feel that my current role in Belgium as the curator of Contour is, in a sense, giving a voice to certain kinds of practices and letting them perform on this stage of the Biennale as a kind of performative stage.

TC: Are you already thinking about some artists that you would like to invite to this Biennale or is it too early to talk about them?
NG: No, it is not too early because we recently had an artists talk with the precise idea to make these processes public. After working on a series of biennials, I believe strongly that as a curator, having an open strategy, sharing the process with the potential public, is essential. I am not someone who likes to hold the artists list secret. So we already started to have conversations in public and this included an artist who is also an advisor to me, for the Contour Biennale, called Judy Radul. Who is based in Vancouver and frequently works from Berlin. She has done this wonderful project called the “World Rehearsal Court,” which was an important reference point for me. It is a project that she has already worked with, where she looks at the procedure of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Particularly the way in which video and media technology infiltrate the court. This was something that I find quite fascinating. So how the court itself is like a television set, there are cameras, there are microphones… The court is a theatre as well. The fact that the players in the court went to speak. How to speak is a script that is quoted historically and systematically. It is something that we were very keen to test at this point once again through her work. So that is another example. There is an artist who I have recently got to know called Louis Henderson who is a filmmaker. We are also working together quite closely. He is dealing with questions of race, looking back at certain colonial histories, whether that goes back to the Haitian revolution or whether it goes into the present of United States police officers killing unarmed black citizens. He sort of merges these questions of history and colonization to talk about current violence through the state.

TC: And what about Documenta? I know you are also involved in this huge kermesse. Would you like to tell us something about your involvement in Documenta.
NG: Documenta is, of course, involving a much larger team. So I think it’s important to foreground the fact that I’m a curatorial advisor within a much larger team. Each of us brings in a prospective that, of course, is informed through the range of our practice. For me the kind of cultural conditioning of bringing in certain kinds of South Asia voices into the upcoming Documenta feels important.
The curatorial dialogue has been sustained for quite some time now. We are now in the process of engaging with that curatorial dialogue through various formats, such as “South” which is hosted currently as the Documenta 14th Journal. We are going to release the second edition of this, and we have already been launching “South” in different cities including Kolkata, India, in the beginning of this year. I feel that all of these are platforms in which we, as a team, once more share publicly the sort of artistic practices, but also the political practices that will shape the upcoming edition of Documenta.

TC: Yeah, which is an interesting approach because usually Documenta has been considered a very “German” project, while it’s becoming a more universal and global project.
NG: Yes, I think it’s been a while now. I think right from the time of Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor, we have mapped out a much larger “globality” and a situation of urgency within artistic conditions in many parts of the world and that has systematically continued in very different curatorial strategies, but I think it has become a mandate that Documenta has carried forward for a while now. I feel that the current artistic director is very conscious of what to do in the next steps forward. So this bilocation of having Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel is something that is not simply a gesture, but very much a working methodology and it’s something that we are all learning from collectively.

TC: Yeah, it’s quite interesting that it will happen in Kassel, because economically now we have these problems with Germany and Greece within the European Union. So it’s a complicated situation economically. So it’s interesting that you are going to link these two cities, these two countries through contemporary art.
NG: Exactly and I think it’s important not to separate the conditions of economy from culture. Cultural flows are very much part of economic history.

TC: Another thing, as I was taking notes while you were talking, I noted regions versus nation states. You were talking about regions in relation to nation states.
NG: I have been thinking about this question of the region in very different ways. When I think about Mechelen and Belgium, what is going on there today and the conditions for the EU as a region. That is something that is playing in my head right now, because we are looking at a much older formation that was crucial to this region, which was the Great Council. It was set up in 15th century in Mechelen, in Netherlands, which made the highest Court of Europe. I was thinking of what that means now. Where are the ruins of this historical Great Council? Can it be a place for us to use as a space for assembling with artists to rethink the importance of that idea of the region? In South Asia, I find more and more that I, in a sense even due to the current climate of right wing politics, need to assert an interest in South Asia versus India. Because I think this is something that personally as a curator I’m not necessarily motivated to do, to say I’m from so and so part of India. I feel very much within the social fabric of South Asia, so having worked in Sri Lanka, having traveled to Pakistan and engaging with the communities from there, as well as Bangladesh. This was something that we did, to travel and circulate in a region as a way of practice.

TC: If you have something else that perhaps I didn’t ask, but you would like to tell us and you consider important to tell us and to our visitors please feel free.
NG: In terms of my current work, especially with the Contour Biennale, I find it important to address this question of how a biennale can become a collective act. How can we work with different forms of practices that deal with the Moving Image? In an expanded form, Contour started very early on in 2003 as a Moving Image Biennale. It has since then grown into many different formats, performances, installations, and practices. I feel that what we are doing now is taking this idea of justice as a stand point from which we can address many questions of testimony, of witnessing, ideas of what a trial or an assembly. These are very important questions for me. Also this fact of polyphony which shapes the Lowlands, the Flemish Lowlands that have a history of polyphonic music and in polyphony as a tradition.
I’m trying to use that in this more Bakhtinian sense of polyphony as a practice of multiple voices of a tonal system, of major and minor coming together to voice a position. That is something that I want to foreground in terms of what is upcoming with the Contour Biennale.

TC: Are you going to involve other arts, such as music, as well?
NG: The artists wouldn’t necessarily engage with music as such. I think of polyphony as a critical idea that we can investigate further, through thinking around how it means to re-tell histories. What does it means to deal with fiction? How do we think about witnessing and retelling through oral tradition? I’m bringing these two aspects of justice and polyphony as conditions to work on as we develop the Biennale.

TC: Ok, that’s very interesting. Oral tradition again, we are also now developing oral tradition while talking together. There are many things that have inspired me while talking. In the Contour Biennale are you also involving other fields of interest or are you mainly focusing on arts?
NG: Well, one of my other advisors is Denise Ferreira da Silva. She is a writer and scholar on the subjects of race, on black cultures and various forms of resistance and the colonialism that have taken place right from the Global South to the Caribbean. She has studied all these disciplines deeply, from a standpoint of social activism and philosophy. This is someone I have involved in the Contour Biennale as a voice that guides us as a group with questions that I think are urgent. The Biennale will not necessarily respond these question, but it will investigate. I think there no answers here, but at least to be part of the situation at this point demands certain kinds of, I guess, disciplinary, and experiential of knowledge. It’s not that I’m going to necessarily involve a range of participants who are coming from other disciplines directly but, as I said, there is Denise who often works within art institutions in discursive ways. Or, also there is Elizabeth A. Povinelli who is an anthropologist at Columbia University and has founded together with aboriginal community in Northern Australia the The Karrabing Film Collective and they will be part of Contour Biennale. So there will definitely be a range of practices but I wouldn’t create a hierarchy between this and that, art as a sort of pure.

TC: Of course, we are not in those times anymore. The idea is to create a polyphonic world.
NG: Exactly.

TC: To have the idea of what’s going on in world, we need to have different point of views, a polyphonic point of views

English proof-reading: Emma Siemens-Adolphe