After institutional critique

Throughout four years as general manager of UKS, the Young Artists Society, Linus Elmes has wanted to break free of the institutional negotiation position and create a kind of organic unity.

Linus Elmes. Foto: Bjarne Bare.
Linus Elmes. Photo: Bjarne Bare.

On 3 May the exhibition Image Families of work by New York-based Antoine Catala opened at Unge Kunstneres Samfund (The Young Artists Society, UKS). This is the last exhibition Linus Elmes will be curating before he leaves the post as director of the institution in the autumn.

“It’s an incredibly exciting and challenging production,” says Elmes to Kunstkritikk.
Whereas conceptual art transformed objects into ideas, language is converted into images or objects in Catala’s works.

“The exhibition consists of eight large latex prints, made on the basis of Google’s image recognition programs. The prints are mounted with a kind of pump devices on CNC-milled MDF discs so they implode or expand, and the image is thus continuously transformed.” This is how Linus Elmes describes the main works in Catala’s exhibition.

Antoine Catala, from Image Families, UKS.
Antoine Catala, from Image Families, UKS.

“In addition to the prints, the exhibition includes two large holograms, four helicopters that will fly around the locality, and not least a children’s-book-inspired publication, with a point of departure in the four image families cat, rump, pizza and car. In these works Catala develops his interest in new media and their effect on the relations among image, object and language,” says Elmes.

Antoine Catala was educated as a mathematician before he began studying art. A year ago he mounted a much-discussed exhibition at 47 Canal in New York. Now he is part of a major group exhibition in Rome with among others Dan Graham and Jeff Koons. He is also one of the participants in Gunnar Kvaran’s Lyons Biennial.

“He represents exactly the type of artist I have wanted to get into UKS – that is, one who stands on the threshold of an international breakthrough.”

Imaginary curating

Before Linus Elmes took up the post of general manager at UKS, he had run the artist-initiated gallery ak28 with 13 other Stockholm-based artists, had been director of the more commercially oriented gallery Christian Larsen and a founder of Ersta Konsthall.

“Ersta Konsthall was in many ways absolutely crucial for me. The art hall was actually only a three square metre corridor situated between a bar and a toilet. However, in the contract between me and the bar owners these three square metres were defined as an autonomous space where I had total artistic freedom. I got a small salary for running the art hall and also had a monthly production budget. The invited artists were given a three-course dinner in the restaurant next door,” says Elmes.

Antoine Catala, fra Image Families, UKS.
Antoine Catala, from Image Families, UKS.

“For some reason this project went down really well at the time – I think every single exhibition we had was reviewed in at least one of the big dailies. And it was a very long time before anyone at all raised the issue of the relationship between the size of the space and what went on in it. In other words the activity wasn’t defined by the physical size, but by what happened at the next stage: the reviews, the documentation, the texts in the press or the curatorial statement. In time it was this very aspect that I found most interesting. The last four or five projects I did at Ersta were entirely imaginary. They never took place physically, they were just e-flux announcements.”

Even if they were imaginary, did you still work with other artists?

“No, in that phase there was no one else involved but me and whichever institution had invited Ersta Konsthall to do something. It continued to function as a quite normal collaboration, with meetings and discussions that in turn resulted in press releases with descriptions of projects that were never to take place. But in a way Ersta Konsthall, because of its minimal size, was imaginary right from the start, although it was presented and understood as an art hall.”

Ersta Konsthall is incidentally given a thorough presentation in the book Self-organised, edited by Stine Hebert and Anne Szefer Karlsen, in press at present from Open Editions (London) and Hordaland Art Centre (Bergen), as the third in the series Occasional Table.

The institution as a discursive space

In 2003, when Tone Hansen was board chairman and Trude Schjelderup Iversen was director at UKS, the institution moved to a different street – from Rådhusgaten to Lakkegata. At the same time the enterprise was redefined and professionalized. The director was given greater curatorial responsibility. UKS arranged discussion evenings where, inspired by among other things the Rooseum in Malmö and Kunstverein München, they took their cue from the art space as a place for discussion, negotiation and production. During the five-week event TransAction in 2004, curated by Trude Iversen, for example, the whole of UKS was turned into a kind of sparring arena where people with quite different standpoints were drawn in to discuss the potential and limitations of the art institution. At the same time there were more curated exhibitions and fewer juried exhibitions. The UKS leadership worked increasingly with research, following up on the artists they wanted to collaborate with, and articulating the choices that were made. But if the relationship between art and academe, or issues related to the role of the art institution, were on the agenda for much of Elmes’ time, this is probably because UKS seems to have drawn to a greater extent on the energy characteristic of the young, self-initiated art scene.

Antoine Catala, fra Image Families.
Antoine Catala, from Image Families.

“This whole negotiation situation between artist and institution that had been in focus since late in the 1980s and which in the case of UKS peaked just after the move to Lakkegata, was inspired more by the activities of Maria Lind in Kunstverein München than by Charles Esche in Malmö, I think, and it was something that actually didn’t preoccupy me that much. It wasn’t interesting to me when I was working with Ersta Konsthall, although many people interpreted what I did there as a kind of institutional critique. And today I see the discussion of the relationship between artist and institution, and what the institution should represent, as very dated.

“Personally I don’t necessarily believe that the institution is the best possible vehicle for creativity. Even in an institution as small as UKS you’re forced to project goals and sub-goals, achieve sub-goals and initiate measures to achieve sub-goals. In a sense it has been useful to try to formulate one’s own practice in that way, not least when it comes to writing annual reports and applying for funding. But this is also exactly why the institutional model is cemented and stagnates. In combination with the work culture that exists in Norway, with people who want to get home from work at four, it can quickly become stale. But I’ve been lucky in being allowed to work with the project manager and coordinator Graham Hayward. During my first two years at UKS he and I were here seven days a week, 14-15 hours a day. We made incredibly many changes with very few resources. We stood there in overalls and tore down walls as well as taking care of all the other functions.”

Kunstkritikk’s Jonas Ekeberg once wrote that, well helped by the symbiotic relationship with One Night Only (ONO), you’ve turned UKS into one big event. Do you feel that is true?

“I agree that it’s become a unity. But whether it’s become a single big event I don’t know. The ambition with taking ONO to UKS was to activate the space. But I think of the organization as a kind of organism where the various parts must have a function in relation to one another, and overlap one another, and create a synergy effect with one another. I’ve also talked a lot about temporality in the programming, and in that context what tends to go on under the radar has played a major role – things like the film club, informal meetings, the work of the board and much else. UKS is very much a place, and for that very reason it has been important that the programme relates to it.”

Antoine Catala, fra Image Families.
Antoine Catala, from Image Families.

A warmer space

In an interview with Kunstforum in 2009, when you took up thus post, you said you wanted to “rethink” the institution, to activate the premises in Lakkegata and invent a kind of editorial communication for presenting what happens at UKS to a wider public. “That also involves redefining, creating new issues and inventing new concepts,” you said. How well do you think you’ve succeeded in this?

“To ‘rethink’ means to go beyond predefined solutions, or package solutions. I think it’s a naively instrumental concept to think that if only we have a discursive programme, good communication and enough of an audience, we have a successful organization. If something is to be fruitful you need quite different incentives. The architecture, the exhibition programme, the relations with the outside world, the funding, are all interrelated. I’ve tried to approach the institution as a phenomenon in the same way as the architect approaches – and at the same time works within – a structure to resolve issues associated with buildings, living conditions and surroundings. A functional institution has to be balanced with its context, and that requires a clearly formulated agenda. Involving local players from various fields has been an important tool in ensuring creativity and breadth in the productions and avoiding getting bogged down in administrative and technocratic sediments.”

In the same interview you said that activating the premises was quite specifically a matter of focusing on the social and interpersonal aspects, among other ways by establishing an “artist-in-kitchen-residence”. A year and a half later the lobby had been rebuilt as a library, with bookshelves on the walls and a kitchen along one of the long walls. How did you think that the changes in the architecture and the emphasis on the meal would activate the place?

“The renovation was a slow process which to a great extent grew out of a dialogue with Graham Hayward and not least Kaspar Druml, an architect in Stockholm. To begin with the exhibition space was a quite static space. So we heightened the walls by almost 50%, changed the opening to one of the small exhibition rooms and, in connection with Marianne Vitale’s exhibition about a year ago, we also opened up the wall into the main room, so that there is actually no longer any boundary between the kitchen and the exhibition. The renovation of the gallery, the transformation of the architecture and the establishment of the kitchen, library and cinema meant that we could have a more active programme, increase visitor numbers, and in the end also have a more favourable financial situation.

Marianne Vitale,  Burned Bridge, 2012.
Marianne Vitale, Burned Bridge, 2012.

“When it comes to the ambition of having an “artist-in-kitchen-residence” – an idea Sverre Gullesen and I thought of, and which he very recently also launched at Kunstnernes Hus – it has to do with among other things my interest in cooking. The placing of the kitchen at UKS is inspired by the Italian osterie where the entrance to the restaurant goes through the kitchen, and where there are only two dishes. At the openings I’m often responsible for the food. And one of my demands when ONO was to come to UKS was that they too had to make food, and that it had to be free of charge. The food does something to the place, it changes the context, the tone becomes warmer.”

But the social strategies can also be experienced as wholly internal? The more you try to set up an intimate situation, the more exclusive you risk becoming, and the stronger the appeal to those who already feel they are ‘insiders’?

“Ow! This whole discussion of how exclusive the art context can be is so difficult. But what I’m seeing is that the younger generation has really come to UKS, and found a place, and felt at home in all parts of the house, whether they want to use the cinema for screenings in a more informal setting, or launch a publication. Nor was the ambition with the kitchen ever that it should be the central or the only function; it was to be a comfortable entranceway. There have never been any sit-down dinners, eating has never in itself been a ‘work’.”

The interpersonal matrix

Besides the emphasis on the social aspect, it strikes me too that during the four years you’ve been at UKS, you’ve been particularly interested in the archives and the historical context in which UKS finds itself. This came to expression especially through the exhibition Straighten Up in 2010, where you showed sculptures, drawings, photographs, letters and catalogues found in the back rooms of UKS.

“To understand the kind of context I found myself in when I came here in 2009, it was important for me to familiarize myself with the history of UKS. Straighten Up was a personal gateway to that history. I also thought it was incredibly interesting to see how an organization had been transformed over time. It started as an exchange centre where people offered goods and services, getting art in return. Then in the seventies it became a centre for the whole art-policy struggle, before being reformed again under Trude Iversen and Tone Hansen in the 2000s. In the past few years we have incidentally put a lot of effort into scanning, repro-photographing and digitalizing all the archive material, and today all the exhibitions from 1997 on are on the Internet.”

In connection with Straighten Up, you wrote: “UKS no longer needs to refer to or reflect the world; we can lead a movement and create our own world with our own conditions […] We can breathe and handle our stress hormones, we don’t need to hyper-react in opposition, nor enter into polemics. To continue along the metaphors of developmental psychology, we would like to share a few decisive examples of how UKS’s actions today arise out of unconditional love, and build sustainable relations.” What did you mean by saying UKS didn’t need to refer to or reflect the world? And that you didn’t need to enter into polemics?

Installation view, The New Lands, Eva Drangsholt feat. Paul Gauguin & George Kuchar, 2011.
Installation photo, The New Lands, Eva Drangsholt feat. Paul Gauguin & George Kuchar, 2011.

“I’m interested in developmental psychology, and above all in what happens during the first three years of life, when the human brain is still malleable. For me the social is about understanding what in psychology is called the interpersonal matrix, which has to do with relations among human beings, or what happens in the transition between the psychology of one person and several people. In such a model the human being isn’t an autonomous entity – that doesn’t exist – but is created in interaction with or in relation to other individuals. Similarly you can think of the institution or organization as an early-stage embryo that is developed and influenced by its surroundings and the context in which it exists. If you conceive of the ego, the personality, as something that is influenced by the voices of parents, society and conventions – that is, by the superego – in combination with a kind of primal drive, that’s an interesting analogy with UKS and what UKS should represent.”

“I’m also interested in the distinction between negative and positive freedom. If you’ve been in prison and are released, you’re free, but only because you’ve been locked up. Positive freedom on the other hand is freedom where you don’t need to start with the context, but act autonomously. That may sound like a matter of course, but it’s very complicated to try to act without relating to something. I am in opposition to the institutional negotiation position, I want to let go of the idea of a legacy or prior requirements. Since Duchamp the awareness of the institution has been so strongly present. The exhibition space has been defined so many times. But what happens if you try not to refer to it all the time? In that case what would a free position entail? I think that’s interesting.”

Speaking of a free position: at the UKS website, under the heading ‘Picks’ you posted what to me looks like a very loosely assembled selection of video clips taken from Vimeo and Youtube – of North Korean children playing guitar, of men weeping, of a performance in the forest by the dance group Diggapony. Can some of your programme be understood in the light of these video clips?
“Yes, in a way. The video clips aren’t permanent, they’re replaced now and then, and are there instead of a text. Just as ONO, the cinema and the kitchen have had their function, these video clips too fulfil a function in the system. They help to create the unity I have had in mind. When Tora Dalseng exhibited at UKS I did something similar: I made a book that was a kind of critical collage of found visual material, and which functioned as a parallel reading of her exhibition. The videos reflect my personal experience of things I am interested in, and to which I’ve chosen to give a place at the website, as an expression of what UKS has been during my time.”

Alternative archives

Another archive project that Elmes has initiated is No Gods, No Parents. In 2010 thousands of artists, critics and curators all over the world were invited by UKS to send in documents related to “autonomous artistic praxis”. The invitation elicited an overwhelming response, and the contributions received have been shown in Iceland during the Reykjavík Arts Festival, in Berlin during Art Berlin Contemporary, in Copenhagen during the Copenhagen Art Festival, and in Bern in the summer at Zentrum Paul Klee. Now the documents are also appearing as a book.”

What was the background for this initiative?

“The project reflects an interest in the archive as a kind of horizontal cross-section of something. I’ve tried to home in on personal incentives or underlying interests behind the starting-up of initiatives. In these documents it is in a way the artists’ cognitive unconscious that emerges or materializes. For example Franco “Bifo” Berardi sent in a copy of the verdict against him when he was charged with running a pirate radio station in the 1960s. Others have sent curiosa, manifestos, contracts, letters or extracts from correspondence. Since then, along with Johan Hjerpe in Stockholm, I’ve tried to find a way of cataloguing that includes just about everything, and which is not about writing a chronological history, but about trying to create something that writes its own history at the moment when the contributions come in.

No Gods, No Parents, 2012.
No Gods, No Parents, 2012.

Besides the focus on the archive, another feature of UKS’ activity over the past four years has been stronger international relations?

“UKS must work to improve artists’ conditions economically, socially and artistically. UKS has also traditionally functioned as an exhibition space for young artists. In 2010, however, the Cultural Council granted NOK 5.3 million to artist-run exhibition spaces following a proposal put forward by the board of UKS. With this support scheme the exhibition arenas for the young were considerably strengthened. My way of broaching the situation was to ask what was missing in Norway, and what function UKS would be able to fulfil. And the answer was quite simply to get the younger, interesting contemporary artists from outside to come here.

“I also wanted to cut down the exhibition programme and to mount fewer but better-produced exhibitions where there was a decent budget, and where it was possible to do a publication. At the same time as we have had one or two international exhibitions each year, two young Norwegian artists, either alone or in a group, have been given the opportunity to mount major productions. We have moreover invited guest curators to come: for example Erlend Hammer was responsible for the exhibition of Mai Hofstad Gunnes, and Frank curated the exhibition we’ve just closed. Working that way I’ve had the possibility of doing proper research for the two annual exhibitions I myself have curated, and which have included The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Marianne Vitale and now Antoine Catala. At the same time there have been many more short events. The peak was in 2011 and 2012 when we approached 100 events a year, which is really a lot.”

Are the artists selected by curating or adjudication?

“For the past two years the programme has in principle been entirely put together by adjudication, but artists can be urged to apply. This year I think we had 280 applicants that the general manager adjudicated along with the board. You can apply with anything: with a film programme, as a curator with an idea for an exhibition, as an individual artist, or as an individual artist with a curator. Over the past two years people have also applied online, an approach that opens the doors to quite unexpected applications. For me this is an interesting system.”

A conservative alternative art scene

In Kunstkritikk of 10 May Henrik Plenge Jakobsen paid tribute to the level of vitality and energy that have come to expression over the last ten years through the artist-run initiatives in Oslo. Despite the level of activity, Elmes thinks that many of these are in a sense more traditional than he would have expected.

“They have a different type of economy, and shorter exhibition periods, but apart from that there is little that makes them different from other exhibition spaces. So where you were once preoccupied with the negotiating situation between institution and artist, today it looks rather as if you’ve put the negotiation behind you and accepted a kind of exhibition space in the traditional sense without further reflection. I think that’s a shame.”

Bruce High Quality Foundation, Las Meninas, 2011.
Bruce High Quality Foundation, Las Meninas, 2011.

What should they have done?

“The activities should have materialized in a range of different ways, like a theatre, or a bar – anything you like. One example is The Bruce High Quality Foundation, which we had an exhibition of in 2011. They’re an anonymous collective, legally a foundation, who make paintings or objects that they sell to collectors in order to fund a quite different kind of activity. Among other things they’ve established a free university in a locality on the Lower East Side. What is interesting is the way they explore their own practice by selling something that satisfies the expectations of the market, and then re-invest the money in an enterprise that would otherwise have been dependent on state funding or philanthropy. It’s a highly radical approach to achieving autonomy.”

“But here the artist-run boom has resulted in a very conservative model, perhaps with the exception of Tidens Krav, who have had a distinctive idea with what they do, and Leander Djønne, who through his super-high level of activity has made Dortmund Bodega more or less materialize as his own work.”

But isn’t it also a little troubling that the artists involved become material in another artist’s work?

“I thing that no matter what, one is always material in some context. I almost prefer such a subjective treatment, which is clear and explicit, to the hidden power structure that exists in other places, and which never becomes wholly transparent. For my own part I viewed Ersta Konsthall more as a kind of social project, or a work, than as an institution. I think it’s important to dare to have a clearly articulated personal agenda, and to go through with it. More important than what kind of agenda it is, is having a strong voice that is able to intervene in the various components of the work you do when you present art. It so easily becomes the consensus that governs the art world.”