It was November 2016, shortly after Gabi Ngcobo was appointed curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale, when I started pestering her, via the biennale’s press office, for an interview for Kunstkritikk. I pestered formally. I pestered colloquially. I tried to be charming. I tried to ambush her for coffee in Johannesburg. I tried to catch her off-guard in her personal inbox. Eventually, in January 2017, I managed to extract a five-point Q&A via email, facilitated by the press office (back to square one), a rather bored and boring exchange that was too late to be newsworthy and too dull to be of general interest. We canned it.
On 25 April 2018, after the Biennale released the list of artists ahead of the opening on 9 June, I tried to contact Ngcobo again: silence. Instead, a kindly press officer offered me an (email) interview with the curatorial team appointed by Ngcobo, a four person-combo which comprises Yvette Mutumba, Nomaduma Rose Masilela, Serubiri Moses and Thiago de Paula Souza. That’s a passable deal by journalistic standards. Writers aren’t entitled to interviews, and in any case, beggars can’t be choosers. So I passed on my questions on 3 May and waited for what felt like another year, as the newsworthiness of a Q&A related to the artist list receded into a distant Prussian smog.
On 15 May the curators’ answers were conveyed to me:
Kunstkritikk: “How did you collectively arrive at the selection of artists for the biennale? Is consensus important in your curatorial process (as a team), or do you have clear individual voices in the construction of the biennale programme, as was the case in the curatorial team of Documenta, for example?”
Curatorial chorus: “Both consensus and discord were important in the selection of artists. We discussed every artist selection, whether we all immediately agreed or there were disagreements.”
“Would you say that your curatorial orientation is decolonial, or relates to the concept of the decolonial (rather than the postcolonial)?”
“Your artist selection includes some important historical figures who have been overlooked or otherwise maligned – Gabisile Nkosi and Ana Mendieta were both tragically killed by their partners, for example. Others, like Belkis Ayon and Lubaina Himid, were recognised by the art world much later than they would have been if they had been male artists. Can you speak to these inclusions in terms of historical restitution?”
“We don’t know if it is that productive to speak about these artists in terms of historical restitution – it does a disservice to their incredible work. Rather, including them is an acknowledgement of the circumstances we all live in – whether we survive them or not.”
“How closely does the public programme, ‘I’m not who you think I’m not’ relate to the main biennale programme (if such a distinction makes sense in this case)?”
“N/A. Not a productive distinction. They are closely in conversation.”
“Are there any new commissions that you’re particularly excited about?”
“We are excited about all of the new commissions that will appear in the upcoming Berlin Biennale.”
Wondering if I had been off the mark, given the unproductivity of my questions, I returned to the official curatorial blurb released on the biennale’s website. Perhaps what I encountered here was merely an example of “different configurations of knowledge and power that enable contradictions and complications”? Or maybe it was a result of their ambition to “confront the incessant anxieties perpetuated by a wilful disregard for complex subjectivities”?
On a more serious note: How can a sincere enquiry by a professional publication be ‘unproductive’ or ‘not applicable’? I didn’t ask whether they intended to live-stream the Royal Wedding. I was pleased to read that they discussed their artist selection prior to going live with it, but what I wanted to know was how they understood consensus and debate in the context of a collectively authored output and in a global context where populist consensus is frequently mistaken for democracy. And they knew that that’s what I was asking.
Their declining to participate in the interview echoes a tone of refusal and confrontation that populates their curatorial statement. This disposition comes across as something more than pre-emptively defensive: it is methodologically nihilistic. Scholars such as Walter Mignolo render a similar form of methodological nihilism accessible under the banner of decoloniality. In his 2011 volume, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options, Mignolo describes the decolonial as a kind of intellectual force, or a complexion of “thinking and doing” that “engag[es] in epistemic disobedience”, “delinking from the colonial matrix”. This force, or form, exists in the language and sentiment of refusal, both of which appear strongly to be shared by the position of the Berlin Biennale curatorial team.
This is a refusal in general to participate in discourse on dominating terms, a refusal to mediate artistic practice on the critic’s or the gallery’s terms, a refusal to accept as productive the systems according to which the world appears to operate. If I’m charitable, perhaps theirs was a decolonial response to a form of exchange that inadvertently came across as colonial? However, these were exactly the kind of issues I wanted to discuss in relation to the biennial’s own program. The nub is this: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t take the gig as the biennale curator and participate in that extremely conventional economy of power, and at the same time selectively disavow outside interest in how you might be using that platform differently. You can’t advertise a public programme and then say that it’s not relevant to talk about issues of publicness, or programmeness, in the age of the neoliberal experience economy.
In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière uses the word “stultification” to describe the process by which the pedagogue alerts the ignoramus to the gap between his knowledge and theirs. It’s a paternalistic gesture, and also deeply – how should I put it? – unproductive. It enforces a spurious hierarchy of intelligence that is the foundation of both old and new forms of colonising knowledge and indeed of all forms of prejudice.
Apart from alerting me to my ignorance, this interlocution with the Berlin Biennale team has signalled to me a distinct lack of interest and care: for the curatorial profession, sure, but more importantly for the artists and the work at the centre of this ecosystem.