The Labours of Daniel Birnbaum

The curator and critic’s new book of collected writings neglects his role as champion of blockbuster shows.

KAWS (Brian Donnelly), New Fictions, 2022. New and recent works in physical and augmented reality was presented at Serpentine North in collaboration with Acute Art and curated by Acute Art’s Artistic Director, Daniel Birnbaum. A parallel digital version of the show was simultaneously launched in the video game Fortnite.

I remember it like it was yesterday: the press preview for the Moscow Biennial in the winter of 2007, curated by the most coveted star curators of the time. Daniel Birnbaum, the art world’s golden boy, was one of them. The atmosphere was at once high-spirited and a bit tense. It was the second consecutive time after the Cold War that the former Soviet Union had opened its doors to an international art event of this magnitude, with exactly the same international curators as the first time.

Exhibition, Academy, Museum. Notes on the Frames of Art
Daniel Birnbaum, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2022

Journalists had arrived from every corner of the world, and the room was filled with questions. I remember one in particular, which now feels especially timely. Had the curators been censored? The first edition of the biennial had comprised a series of provocative works that poked fun at both Putin, Lenin, and the Chechens. This time, there were rumours that the curators had been strictly controlled “from above” and that the artworks, therefore, were much milder by comparison. I don’t remember exactly what Birnbaum replied, but I recall that he quickly added: “If we can’t have frictions, let us at least have tensions.”

Reading Birnbaum’s new book Exhibition, Academy, Museum. Notes on the Frames of Art – which collects his writings from an almost thirty-year career as a critic, philosopher, editor, curator, art academy rector, and museum director – I’m reminded of this phrase from fifteen years ago. Because if there’s one key concept that recurs throughout the book it’s “tension”, which captures Birnbaum’s ability to, like some sort of ‘art electrician’, not only create high-wired connections between disciplines, but also relate contemporary art to other art forms such as literature, architecture, music, film, and gastronomy.

Indeed, the book confirms that Birnbaum prefers tensions over frictions, short circuits over disruptions, and amusement park-like attractions à la Pontus Hultén (his great source of inspiration) over preachy seminars about what art “should” do. His prose moves seamlessly between different states, although, unfortunately, one of his most dreamy and introspective texts – about Hilma af Klint in Artforum, September 2021 – is not included in the book. Instead, we get a text where he reads af Klint through Marcel Duchamp and concludes that good art functions like trauma: we usually don’t understand it until after the fact. 

The book’s highlights are Birnbaum’s catalogue essays, which are characterised by their stylistic elegance and utopian ideas, as well as the author’s great intimacy with the artists about whom he writes. In addition, it is filled with letters to and interviews with people who are no longer with us, such as Okwui Enwezor and Harald Szeemann, but also with living colleagues such as Massimiliano Gioni, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Suzanne Pagé. I also appreciate his interviews with professors at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, where he was director from 2000–2010, and his reflections on how to create an art school that allows students to find their own way. Unfortunately, most of the professors seem to have been men, yet as director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, 2010–2018, Birnbaum ran an exhibition programme with an extreme focus on female artists.

The other interviews – with artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Höller, and Rirkrit Tiravanija – are also rewarding. Birnbaum is careful not to focus too much on himself and asks short and effective questions that make the interviewee open up. The most ingenious moments in the book are when the writer allows himself to associate freely, almost as if he were lying on the couch. He is also a witty concept fetishist and loves to play with words, inventing labels such as “cosmic readymades,” and “discipline without organs.”

Daniel Birnbaum, Exhibition, Academy, Museum. Notes on the Frames of Art, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2022.

Birnbaum stresses that today, in the wake of the pandemic and due to new disruptive technologies and social media, many art institutions are in a position where they have to reinvent themselves. Will immersive technologies change the exhibition medium to such an extent that we no longer have to travel to see them, he wonders. Arguably, there are already many indications of this. Consider, for example, Meta’s attempts to colonise our minds through an increasing virtualisation of life. Yet, Birnbaum does not seem particularly worried about this development. He often refers to Gilles Deleuze, with quotes such as this one from The Fold (Le Pli, 1988), which captures what I would call technology’s perversion of the boundaries of humans and art: 

[P]ainting exceeds its frame and is realised in polychrome marble sculpture; and sculpture goes beyond itself by being achieved in architecture; and in turn, architecture discovers a frame in the façade, but the frame itself becomes detached from the inside, and establishes relations with the surroundings so as to realise architecture in city planning. From one end of the chain to the other, the painter has become an urban designer. 

Birnbaum goes on to apply the argument to contemporary art: “In [Dominique] Gonzalez-Foerster’s case, this branching out implies an expansion of cinema into architecture, urban space, and the city itself – be it Tokyo, Paris, or Rio de Janeiro. The city in swift transition. A moment when everything changes, and things appear in a different light.” 

There’s nothing wrong with Deleuze, of course. But he wrote The Fold at a time that was still trying to do away with the law of the castrating father, in a country where patriarchs like Charles de Gaulle had been replaced by even greater, albeit playful, patriarchs like Jacques Lacan. Would the French philosopher have praised the boundary crossing of contemporary art if he had lived in our high-technological era? Probably, because the perversion of the symbolic order is also what sets art in motion. Art is pharmakon, poison and cure at the same time. There is a line to be drawn from Deleuze, via Bruno Latour and the speculative realists, that is about toppling the subject; this tends to leave us with a large decapitated mass of art – a body without organs. Indeed, this is what the art world has looked like in recent years. No wonder we need curators who lead the way, who bring us into the future. Birnbaum has definitely been one of them. A trickster seeking out hybrid places, an accelerationist saboteur, and a deus ex machina at the same time.

During the Covid pandemic, Birnbaum curated a number of virtual exhibitions in Beijing, New York, and London. These can be visited by simply downloading an app produced by Acute Art, the experimental production platform that he has been the head of since 2019. Together with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, he has concluded that we all live in an “electronic hydra,” wrapping its arms ever tighter around us. Birnbaum, however, does not seem to be afraid. Like some contemporary Tintin figure, he adventurously wonders: “Will there be art in Metaverse?” This go-with-the-flow mentality is typical of his generation’s curators, who see art as an arena for breaking new aesthetic ground rather than for a discursive questioning of how capitalism reduces not only artworks and movements, but also people to more or less desirable commodities.

Birnbaum has always had an unusual ability to create unexpected meeting places, a fact he is not want to point out in the book, which at times comes across as an extended CV. Directed at whom, we may wonder, since he has already held all the important positions. He also recently made his debut as a fiction writer with Doctor B (2018), a tremendously exciting novel about his grandfather who is said to have inspired Stefan Zweig’s dizzying short story ‘Chess’ (1942). Birnbaum himself is something of a chess player. During his time at Moderna Museet, he succeeded in creating spaces that were coveted by the intellectual and economic elites as well as the general public. Not everyone can pull off being both popular and high-brow – something which has both pros and cons. Of course, we know the advantages – contemporary art has become an ’art for all’, much thanks to people like Birnbaum. But in the wake of the pandemic, the disadvantages have become undeniable, and we can see that he has contributed to making the curator something of a transcultural supermanputting together heroic blockbuster exhibitions to the left and right, often at the expense of ecology. And no matter how new and exciting they seem, AR and VR art seem to be just as eco-hostile, given the amount of energy required to keep these virtual mass exhibitions afloat.

In a recent interview, Birnbaum said that he is working on a virtual exhibition for one hundred million visitors. To be sure, going online for a virtual visit means that we don’t have to fly to an opening or see works shipped across the globe, but even these new technologies have their ecological price. Regrettably, the book contains next to no critical reflection on the depletion of our natural resources by the virtual art that Birnbaum champions. The same applies to the strong symbolic capital that he has accumulated over the years – inhabiting so many positions of power, often at the same time – which results in an autarkic inscription of himself in contemporary historiography, or Zeitgeschichte, as the Germans call it. A typical example of his slippery humility are phrases such as: “I never chose to become a curator. All of this somehow happened to me.”

No matter how innocent Birnbaum makes himself out to be, it quickly becomes self-serving omnipotence. Yet, I must admit that the art world would probably be much more boring and predictable without him. But I can’t help wondering what it would take for Birnbaum to finally abandon “tensions” for “frictions”?

Hilma af Klint. A Pioneer of Abstraction, installation view from Moderna Museet, 2013. Photo: Åsa Lundén. Curated by Iris Müller-Westerman, the Hilma af Klint-exhibition was arguably most successful show during Daniel Birnbaum’s tenure at Moderna Museet.