Ten Questions: Toke Lykkeberg

Prior to the opening of Welcome Too Late, curator Toke Lykkeberg explains why Claude Monet is a painter of exponential growth and advices artists on how to keep up with this speedy world.

Marguerite Humeau, Gisant 1, 2016. Part of Welcome Too Late, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017.

Sometimes, with all of his activities, it can be hard to keep up with what Toke Lykkeberg is up to at any given moment – you may have to hunt him down in Teheran, Paris or in Moss. But perhaps it’s precisely because of this whirlwind lifestyle that Lykkeberg has stayed very much in touch with what’s going on in contemporary culture, and how new technologies are involved in this.

To pronounce him one of the mouthpieces of a new artist generation may be too much, but among a younger generation of critics and curators Lykkeberg has certainly been quite prolific in terms of pointing out relevant issues in texts and exhibitions. He has certainly contributed to shaping the way we regard the work of artists who embrace and reflect on a contemporary web-oriented lifestyle and its anarchic flow through culture, evincing a passion for sci-fi scenarios and producing a new take on idea the of materiality in globalized economy and culture.

On an international level Lykkeberg may be best known for his contributions to DIS magazine, or as curator of the exhibitions Co-Workers – Network as Artist at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2015, or as co-curator of the transatlantic exhibition Rematerialized at New Galerie in both Paris and New York in 2013. Maybe more relevant in a Scandinavian context, but nevertheless global in approach, he was also part of the curating team of Tunnel Vision, the 8th instalment of Norway’s Momentum biennial. And in Copenhagen he is probably best known as co-founder of the artist-run space IMO in Copenhagen, and as curator of many exhibitions, most notably maybe Branding as Branding: The Making of Superflex at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2013. 

And now he is back with two exhibition projects. Up, and running until early June, is Citizen X – Human, Nature and Robot Rights at the Øregaard Museum in the Copenhagen suburb of Hellerup, the summer home of Johannes Søbøtker, who built his wealth on the exploitation of slaves on plantations in what was then the Danish West Indies. Co-curated with Lotte Winther, the exhibition draws a chilling line by showing the immediate connections that link today’s technology to a painful history we would all like to disassociate ourselves from. And yet, this where our hopes and our chance for the future may lie.

Veit Laurent Kurz, Fettgrässli Pleurozia, 2013. Part of Citizen X – Human, Nature and Robot Rights, Øregaard Museum, Hellerup.

Because the main idea underpinning his other new show, Welcome Too Late, is a notion of the extemporal, literally meaning “out of time“. He condenses the experience of running out of time, on a personal as well as on a planetary scale, to create a forum for reflecting on life in an increasingly elusive present that appears to be spiralling out of control with every passing day. Do ideas such as these inform the work of artists today, and if so – how?

Opening tomorrow at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, Welcome Too Late will introduce the work of younger artists that have attracted plenty of attention internationally: Marguerite Humeau, Katja Novitskova, Parker Ito and Iain Ball – and a few from an older generation: Anne De Vries, Tue Greenfort, and pioneering artist Eduardo Terrazas. But rumour has it that there will also be…Monet.

What makes a visit to Monet’s water lily pond something other than a sentimental experience – today?

Nice question. Today, when we go as tourists to visit Monet’s house and garden in the rural commune of Giverny, we get away from the hustle and bustle of Paris. We go there – like Parisians did and do – to quietly contemplate the beauty of nature, of gardening and of art. And we tend to imagine Monet did the same when he moved there in the 1880s. We tend to think of his colleague Édouard Manet as the painter of fast-paced modern life and then of Monet as someone who is chilling in the calm countryside. But I’ve come to think that the opposite is the case.

Last year, I was reading the bestseller Limits to Growth from 1972 about how increases in everything from pollution to populations might soon mark the end of the world as we know it. The authors refer to a French puzzle told to children in order to explain exponential growth: If we imagine that we plant one water lily with a doubling time of one day in a pond, and the pond is full of water lilies on the 30th day, on what day is the pond half full? The answer is the 29th, when it’s too late and the water lilies have killed all life in the pond.

Of course, this made me think of Monet. I’ve thought of how he had to paint a lot and very quickly because of the changing sunlight and the fact that he had eight kids to feed. But now I rather think of him as the painter of exponential growth. Some water lilies are invasive, and his neighbours complained when he started growing them because they were afraid they would soon invade their land too. We know that Monet struggled with his impaired vision. But he also talked a lot about his struggle with his garden, which was sometimes so unruly that he couldn’t paint it. There’s one Monet quote that sums it all up: “I am just running after nature without being able to catch her up.” And this piece of nature was an ecosystem Monet was manipulating and unable to control. It’s of course similar to our earth system of today, which is rewired by exponentially rising CO2 emissions, water levels, temperatures and so on which we struggle to tame. Exponential growth is a sneaky thing. Whereas linear growth might be quicker to begin with, exponential growth is unfathomable after some doublings like Monet’s paintings that got very big and blurry in the end.

Claude Monet’s series Nymphéas consists of approximately 250 oil paintings of water lilies. They depict Monet’s flower garden at his home in Giverny, and were the main focus of his artistic production during the last thirty years of his life. Monet in his studio, approx. 1910.

But which are also considered precursors to gestural painting. Is Welcome Too Late a philosophical show? 

I’m not exactly a philosopher, but the show might be philosophical in an old-school sense. In ancient Greece, philosophy was a vast field of knowledge production before knowledge was split up into various disciplines and fields of research. Likewise, the curation and mediation here dabble in knowledge within various overlapping domains without relying on any empirical or overtly systematic research on my own part. I got the feeling that we’re now in need of something similar or that we’re returning to such philosophy today, a development which paradoxically has been called progress. The French enlightenment thinker Turgot wrote in the 18th century that – after a lot of progress and a process of specialization – the different sciences could not be envisaged other than separately, “but greater progress once again unites them, because there is discovered that mutual dependence of all truths which in linking them together illuminates each through the other.” And I think that throughout the 20th and 21st centuries we’ve seen this interest in unification in new theories of cybernetics, complexity, ecology, networks, Earth Science and so forth. This convergence of hitherto separate disciplines reminds me of old philosophy, but also ancient poetry as well as recent contemporary art. The so-called de-definition of art in the 20th century, which Harold Rosenberg spoke of half a century ago, might now be understood as specialization in de-specialization. Art can be anything, unlike music, which is based on sound, and literature, which is based on words. This makes the art world a meeting place for various disciplines.

I wanted this show and some of my previous exhibitions to reflect this moment of unification. I had a talk with Iain Cheng a couple of years ago. He told me that he started out studying cognitive science but switched to art. He didn’t want to end up studying a couple of areas of the brain for the rest of his life. He wanted a bigger perspective on things.

People are welcome to make fun of Welcome Too Late for its catch-all ambition. Socrates made fun of the poet Ion as incompetent because he was talking about ships without being a ship builder himself. But it’s also funny that Socrates himself, right before his death in another dialogue, Phaedo, talks about a recurrent dream that tells him to make art his calling – and how Socrates thinks that it simply means that he should continue to do what he is already doing, namely philosophy. I think we nowadays need people who traverse various overlapping fields though they are experts in none of them. Philosophy used to do this job at a time when the various sciences were less evolved. Today, I think art is the field where you can allow yourself such adventures.

Ian cheng, Installation view, Co-Workers – The Network as Artist, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2015. Photo: Pierre Antoine.

This nearly sounds like a job description for artists as travellers in between disciplines, or the comeback of the universalist. Given these topics, why are there no positions related to activism in your show?

I’ve just told you about Monet as a painter of one underlying principle of many of the developments we’re trying to grasp today in 2017. What has been somewhat ignored by the art world discourse as decorative painting and secondary market trophy hunting is suddenly highly relevant. With activism it’s sometimes the other way around. Its relevance decreases. When the world changes at high speed, the one who reacts to it might simply become reactionary. It’s like the critique of capitalism that succeeds in forcing capitalism to change and fails to understand that it has to change too as a consequence. You know, one day we’re dealing with climate change. The next day with so-called climate emergency. Same-same, but maybe different. One day geo-engineering might reasonably be perceived a capitalist cover-up for not effectuating more fundamental changes to the world system and economy. This winter, when the temperature at the Arctic was 20 degrees higher than normal, it seemed that some environmentalists were more ready to at least consider whether such means might justify the end. So basically, activists and contemporary artists who reflect and react to the state of the world might fall short in certain respects.

Parker Ito (front) and Eduardo Terrazas, installation view, Welcome Too Late, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Quoting from the press release of the show, you wrote: ”Artists and documentarists experience arriving too late to the moment they’re trying to capture.“ As your exhibition is shown in the context of CPH:DOX Festival, which focuses on a notion of documentation in film, I wonder – don’t we see an increased production of ”moments” these days? Moments created to be adapted into documentary/artistic reflection (i.e.: the way right-wing populism takes over the media in much of Europe)? And how do the moments you refer to differ from these?

Interesting point. It’s true that a documentary about one moment in time that makes the news might itself later become a moment in time that makes the news. When you reflect on a moment, this reflection might itself have its moment. But I would say that a documentary about Donald Trump’s election might be less relevant if he is gone tomorrow. So my point is that it is more difficult to make documentaries about the present when the present shrinks and quickly recedes into the past.

The reason Welcome Too Late is made to tie two institutions together is that the exhibition not only resonates with a centre for contemporary art such as Charlottenborg, but also a documentary film festival such as CPH:DOX. The team behind CPH:DOX thought my description of the impossibility of making contemporary art – literally art that is ‘with time’ – resonates with documentary film makers whose products are months or years in the making. Journalists, however, who literally report from one day to the next, might seem slightly less troubled by the acceleration I’m talking about. But it’s also because journalism is no longer about what happens in the time of one day. It’s about sharing Trump’s latest tweet in less and less packaging on the newspapers’ online platform minutes after it’s on his Twitter wall. And yes, it has been pointed out that such Trump tweets might be a deliberate strategy to divert attention from other issues and thus be a deliberate fabrication of moments. This is similar to what happened back in the 1990s during the Gulf War when real-time coverage made it clear that mediation was partly the event itself. Whether moments are actually captured, fabricated or both at the same time doesn’t change much, I think. Everything that happens is more and more quickly undercut by the future, which arrives at ever-greater speed, and it seems humans have problems keeping up.

According to Lykkeberg, Katja Novitskova and Timur Si-Qin are the epitome of extemporary artists. Here Novitskova and Si-Qin with DISimages. Installation view, Rematerialized, New Galerie, 2013.

In relation to your concept of the “extemporary” that you developed for Welcome Too Late, one might think of the artist Brad Troemel who wrote: ”Time spent on anything is time worth being redeemed in attention by sharing it”, and develops the idea of ”aesthletes” from it, a new form of athletic artist on ”constant broadcast mode”. Isn’t this idea of hyper-productivity problematic, maybe even contradictory in relation to your concern about time in the time? Or – why not just slow things down?

Well, Brad’s aesthlete has been a reference for me. And, yes, it’s contradictory. My idea is that there are two things you can do as an artist or a curator. Either you speed up your production in order to reflect a speedy world or you exit this speedy present in order to deal in other and bigger temporalities. To me, Claude Monet and Parker Ito represent to me two noble attempts at chasing the present. They are extemporary in the sense that their practice has an ephemeral and ethereal quality to it, which reflects how we’re running out of time. This sort of extemporary art is only to a certain extent similar to contemporary art and the modern art of Manet for that matter. Much modern and contemporary art seems to master the moment, however speedy it might be because, it’s linear and somewhat predictable. Manet and Warhol keep their cool as if they are in control. Like the chess player Duchamp, they know what move to make next, whereas painters of exponential growth rather seem to navigate what’s out of control and unpredictable. Most other artists in the show such as Marguerite Humeau or Katja Novitskova are, however, extemporary in another way, in the sense that they exit time as we know it, our present time, in order to view things from above or afar. The show begins with Monet and Ito, but the rest of it, the bigger part, puts the emphasis on extemporary art of the latter kind.

Marguerite Humeau, Gisant 1, 2016.

One of the artists in the show, the French artist Marguerite Humeau, often works with extinct species in her sculptures – do you see that in connection with subjects like media archaeology, or with Monet? 

I’m not well versed in the field of media archaeology. Maybe I’m wrong, but I want to steer free of the kind of purist media-specificity which it might entail. I’m more interested in convergence, I think. But yes, I can easily see Marguerite Humeau in relation to Monet though that’s not the point of the show. Whereas Monet was engaged in the creation of new varieties of water lilies, Humeau is engaged in resurrection of lost ones. While we’re apparently at the beginning of the sixth mass extinction and thus great loss of biodiversity, Humeau and Monet deal with the opposite, a gain in biodiversity. The difference, though, is that Monet is still a part of an Enlightenment and avant-garde project, rushing towards the future. Humeau, on the other hand, anticipates a near future where we can revive the past. She’s more like H.G. Wells’ time traveller who messes with our conception of time.

Does your concurrent show at Øregaard Museum, Citizen X – Human, Nature and Robot Rights, relate to this show? Do you regard them as part of the same project, in continuation of or antagonistic to each other?

There’s definitely continuity between these two shows that both open this month. They both spring from the show Co-Workers I did with Musée d’Art modern and DIS in 2015, which was related to the show Rematerialized that I worked on with New Galerie back in 2013. When I worked on Co-Workers, I was thinking about how to work on a show for two years that catches the moment. Something which seemed obscure two years ago might now be banal. In these two new shows I therefore prefer to present art in a wider historical context through reflections on ideas such as that of progress. You find it in European colonialism, where one civilization paradoxically conceives of itself as higher the moment it discovers so-called lower civilizations in the Americas. And you find progress as a guiding principle in the wish to accelerate into a better future. Both projects are problematic and the shows also deal with certain shortcomings of the idea of progress that have become more and more apparent.

But there’s another thing I’ve been preoccupied by. The moment you rely on a networked view of the world, there are a lot of binaries and divides that you have to give up on. There’s been a lot of talk about how it no longer makes sense to distinguish between, for instance, nature and society. This has in turn lead to a lot of talk about what’s human and non-human, which seems to have become a new binary and a just as problematic divide. With the show about human, nature and robot rights, I guess I wanted three protagonists in my story rather than two. As network theorist Barry Wellman has put it, the moment you have three instead of two, you have a network. So, you know, colonial triangular trade relied on the work of slaves who were not simply treated as non-humans. Slaves were treated and addressed as animals and machines. Later on, enlightened thinkers from Jeremy Bentham to Peter Singer started discussing whether animals should be treated as slaves and machines. And today the European Union wonders whether we should treat machines legally as, for instance, slaves or animals. In Welcome Too Late, I’m also interested in artists who are looking at the interplay between man, nature and technology, given the difficulty of dealing with exponential growth rates in world population, climate change and techno-scientific advance separately. 

Toke Lykkeberg during installation of a work by Eduardo Terrazas at Kunsthal Charlottenborg.

Zooming out rather than zooming in, temporality and extemporality. Doesn’t the format of the conventional show (duration, opening times, space & other limitations etc.) undermine the concept or at least the ambition of the show? 

Well, there’s something contradictory about the idea of extemporary art. It’s true that I also think of extemporary art as the most contemporary art possible. Acceleration and reflections on bigger and different temporalities is also what characterizes our moment. I mean, what happens next we do not actually know. When you zoom out, you see this moment in time as various curves going from horizontal to vertical. Maybe, if you zoom out even further, we will see some of these curves, which seem close to vertical now, as part of a bigger S-curve where things cool down.

That said, I think the show will live on a bit after its end. Of course, I greatly look forward to seeing how the younger artists in the show will develop their work. And, then, I hope that the idea that a lot of so-called contemporary art is rather extemporary will trouble people’s use of the term ‘contemporary art’. Apart from that, I should mention that there aren’t any works here that have been produced specifically for this show. I don’t ask people to pay attention because the work is new. There are too many shows already which are all about that. Welcome Too Late is not about 2017 or a sneak-peak into the near future of art. I don’t intend to accelerate the acceleration or co-invent the art of tomorrow with the artists, but rather show what they are already dealing with. I should mention, though, that I’ve talked with Parker Ito about whether we should actually tweak the format of the conventional show. Last year, he did a show that had no beginning and no end date. One day he just started installing until he started de-installing. At no point did he try to freeze the flow of time. It looked a bit like a hothouse and maybe it was something closer to Monet’s garden than Monet’s paintings.

How does this show reflect on the current situation within the arts in Denmark?

Well, to a certain extent it doesn’t. I’m working with two Danish artists here, Tue Greenfort and Simon Dybbroe Møller, and they both live in Berlin. In Denmark there are also excellent artists, of course, who could have been in the exhibition, but there’s not a lot of discourse and I feel the scene is disconnected from the drivers of change such as our local tech industry. I rather see the show in dialogue with what is happening abroad. I’m happy if it will resonate with the art students at the academy to which Kunsthal Charlottenborg now belongs. And I’m happy if the people who come to see films at CPH:DOX will also drop in to see some art. In Denmark we tend to isolate art from other disciplines. I would like to see art move up to adjacent fields and other worlds. And then I hope that Danish artists who are interested in, for instance, technology or ecology, feel that the issue of bigger and different temporalities relates to what they do.

DIS, The Island (KEN), 2015. Co-Workers – The Network as Artist, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2015. Photo: Pierre-Antoine.

What do you consider your greatest achievement in these two projects?

Ha, yes, that’s for me to tell you. First of all it’s getting so many good artists on board. Secondly, hopefully creating a dialogue between works that do different things. I like to see DIS in relation to Masar Sohail or Tue Greenfort in relation to Parker Ito and Eduardo Terrazas. In the show with Øregaard Museum and curator Lotte Winther, I hoped to deal with colonialism without simply being a tourist or an anthropologist in the poor periphery. I honestly think that journalists already do a great job in this regard. Curatorially, I’m less interested in art that simply enlightens you or makes you feel guilty. I’m more interested in what seduces and troubles you. Citizen X is not, for instance, about a moral and socio-economic problem such as a digital divide between haves and have-nots. It’s about a continuity that finds expression differently in different parts of the world but resonates everywhere. I hope the art in the show makes our past colonial engagement elsewhere in the world appear as a force that also permeates our present in Denmark and the Western world.

When it comes to Welcome Too Late, it actually started out as an essay I haven’t finished yet. Instead, I hope it reads well as an exhibition where the art is big and the text is small, though it has a say. I have a lot to tell about this show, but it’s my ambition that you first really get it when you engage with the artists’ own work. There will also be screenings, but in the exhibition space there are only seven artists. I don’t want the big and heavy themes to suffocate the works. That’s why there’s plenty of space for the works to unfold on their own.

Eduardo Terrazas, installation view, Welcome Too Late, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.