Madhusree Dutta: “I wanted to make people re-think the formulation of local and international”
By the end of 2021 the Indian filmmaker, author and curator Madhusree Dutta leaves Cologne based Academy of the Arts of the World where for four years she acted as artistic director of the institution as well as (co)curator of the impressive run of exhibitions the ADKDW presented under her car. Her successor is already determined: the Bolivian-German writer, curator and philosopher Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz will guide the artistic destiny of the Academy from 2022 onwards.
Thomas Venker exchanged some questions and answers with Madhusree Dutta and Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz.
Madhu, we have already addressed your departure on the sidelines in our last two conversations, now it is time to say goodbye for real. What are the most significant memories and maybe also learns you take with you from your time as artistic director of ADKDW?
Madhu Well, I am still here, the pandemic is still threatening all aspects of public life and we are firefighting everyday. So the memories are not getting a chance to shape up, to put it lightly! For disparate thoughts and experiences to get consolidated and also to get knitted into a form that we can call memory – one needs to have some distance. Change of time and location work like an agent of refraction for the experiences to pass through and it is very essential. In this interval of time the past experiences get filtered by the understanding and requirement for the future. Memories are of no use unless they assist us in speculating a future. So, in a way, I still cannot think of the Academy and Cologne in terms of past and memory, it is still too immediate for me. Maybe you should interview me at some later time, maybe during the 10 years anniversary of Academy 🙂
Having said that I would like to emphasis on one thing that came up repeatedly during my tenure – the debate over Local and International. When I got appointed as the artistic director at the end of 2017, the city was bitterly debating this issue in the context of cultural institutions in general, but specially in relation to Academy. This institution was maligned for being elitist – only because it foregrounded and showcased works and thoughts from other parts of the globe. It was rather strange that an institution that is ambitiously named (by the city authority) as Academy of the Arts of the World was accused for concentrating on works and concerns of other locations than what was considered as local and familiar. But there was no point in arguing over that. Such debates carry a kind of emotional attribute which is difficult to counter through conventional discussion. So I schemed my first years of work around this theme itself. I wanted to make people re-think the formulation of local and international.
Whatever is in physical proximity to us is not necessarily familiar to us. Familiarity requires different things – such as political will, class and ethnic compatibility, available translation facilities (not only between languages, but between different cultures and living orders) etc. Thus familiarity is not natural but a social and political construct. On the other hand, what seems distant from us is not always inaccessible to us. Specially, in this digital era when the physical location of the production has become irrelevant the question of distance needs to be handled differently. So I felt that we need to get into a long term exercise to problematise the understanding of the local. Something like expanding the notion of local and localising the global / international / transnational.
I initiated a lot of ‘local’ projects that concentrated on the unknown, unfamiliar, unacknowledged parts of the local – the multiple and simultaneous language practices, the contesting memories of the people from the same location, the hidden stories of the ‘others’ in the familiar labour history of the region etc. It was kind of a playful public exercise to establish that the local is not parochial. Parochial is where everyone is same and similar and that is not possible in any contemporary urban constellation.
Working on these projects meant traveling to non-hegemonic locations and meeting non-mainstream protagonists. These travels and meetings have made me realize one thing – this is a region where history is laid deep vertically, like a palimpsest. Similar to the formation of mineral that the region is known for. Whereas in India, where I come from, history is laid horizontally across the vast expanse of the land, something like harvesting. It is related to many things – topography, climate, historical experiences, prevalent architecture, demography and so on.
I am intrigued by this thought – though it is not yet fully formulated. I wish to work on it further in near future.
Madhu, I know it is an unfair and hardly manageable task to ask you to look back on all the program you implemented at ADKDW, but I’m still trying, of course, and want to ask about your three program table highlights?
I think I have done only one program. There were various renderings, multiple iterations – but the actual program idea was one. And that was to counter the narrow idea of local and public, or putting it differently, to rethink public-private-personal. Towards that end, in 2018 – beginning of my tenure, we announced four programme axis: “Sites at Stake”; “found:erased:palimpsest”; “Hybrid Transactions”; “Original Fakes”. All the four themes were oriented towards multiplicities and simultaneities – but approaching the issue in different forms and formats. Hybrid was foregrounding overlaps, palimpsest was digging to unearth the hidden, fakes was about copying and sites was about borders and boundaries.
Hence all the programme in last four years complemented each other or even taken off from the previous one. For example, in 2019, there was the “Memory Stations” project across the NRW region – a project to crowd source local history with the call “Be a Public Historian”. The experience and resources cultivated through that project matured into two other projects in 2020: a local history project called “Ghosts, Spüren, Echos: Arbeiten in Schichten” (“Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts”) based on the other stories of work in Ruhrgebiet; and the second one was “Exophony”, a project on simultaneity of multiple languages. The motivation behind the three projects were the same but the iterations were different. I am a great believer of repeats – like the refrain in poetry. The above mentioned projects remained connected by the refrain: Local is not Parochial.
In 2020-2021, outreach of both the “Exhophony” and “Arbeiten” projects got severely affected because we were caught unaware by the spread of the pandemic. That remains my biggest regret. I wish that these two projects received some more public attentions as they were local history projects and directly addressing the contemporary lived-in cultures. In the current socio-economic condition of NRW such public culture projects are essential in order to imagine a more balanced future.
On the other hand, to make the global concerns resonate with the local we had the project “Hybrid Transactions”, curated by four members of Academy. They brought in the discourses and practices on hybridity from different locations based on their distinct practice and network – Max Hinderer Cruz on hybrid citizenry; Nanna Heidenreich on the sea and migration; Monika Gintersdorfer on hybrid performance and fluid body; and Mi You on future social life of digitality. Together they made for a season on Hybrid Transactions.
There were also several autonomous programme: Global Positioning System not Working – on the sites of resistance that cannot be mapped by the GPS system, Floraphilia – on the colonial agenda behind migration and invasion of plants (curated by Aneta Rotskowska), Kizobazoba – on inverting the colonial convention and market under globalisation by the contemporary Kongolese fashion industry (curated by Dorothee Wenner); and Gwangju Lessons – on people’s art at the Gwangju uprising in the 1980 (curated by Binna Choi).
This somewhat wraps up the works of ADKDW in 2018-2021. I have never managed to put it so precisely earlier. Thanks for asking the question.
Max, you are about to take over the position from Madhu. It is my expectation that you are very familiar with the programming Madhu realized within the last years here in Cologne. Maybe you can share your specific reception of it with us? What exhibitions, workshops, panel et al left the biggest impression with you and why so?
As Madhusree has mentioned, me myself I have participated as guest curator and guest programmer in some of the programme over the last years. And I have been following the ADKDW activities from close, as an ADKDW member, so it is difficult for me to speak about which experience left a bigger impression. What I can say for sure, though, is that Madhusree’s tenure in itself has left a big impression on me, and I hope I will be able to live up to the expectations as her successor. Madhusree and me first met in 2016 when we were both in Cologne as part of the ADKDW residency programme. During the months we spent together in Cologne she travelled to every imaginable spot in NRW and explored its history and the city of Cologne itself with an exemplary commitment and curiosity, which was very inspiring to witness. I believe one could sense this in the way she projected the ADKDW’s programme in general, and understand it in the local and regional collaborations and networks she initiated during the last years.
Max, you are moving to Cologne from La Paz where you worked as a cultural critic, freelance author, translator, curator, editor and last but not least director of the national art museum – that spectrum for sure enabled you a very deep dealing quality with the Bolivian cultural scene. I never traveled to Bolivia so far and by that my insight in the local realities is very limited, that stated I am of course very much interested how you describe them in alignment with the European realities.
La Paz is very different from Cologne indeed. As are Bolivia and Germany, Latin America and Europe, etc. Though, sometimes I think we overlook similarities by being so overwhelmed with trying to identify the differences. This is why I like how you put your question, speaking of describing one reality in alignment with another. And there are many lines or threads that one can spin from Bolivia to Germany, the common history of these completely different contexts starts in the 16th century and is shaped by the strong asymmetry which is so characteristic for colonial relations of power. On the other hand, in Bolivia during the last two decades there has been a remarkable process of political, social, economic and –last but not least- cultural decolonization. In the current situation in the northern hemisphere, finally the topic of confronting colonial history and colonial legacies has become more visible, but specially Germany has a long way to go still with regard to dealing with its own responsibilities as colonial empire and as a crucial colonial agent in global history. In this context it will be interesting to share some of the cultural and political experiences and advancements we have made in Bolivia with the German public. Bolivia for example, since 2009 constitutes itself as a “plurinational state”, whose constitution recognizes 36 (!) different indigenous, migratory and afro-diasporic nations as equal. It would be a wonderful exercise to imagine what the constitutional recognition of equal indigenous, migratory and diasporic nations as a German state could mean. And it would be a challenge, since plurinationality is certainly the opposite of what was discussed as “Leitkultur” as backbone of a nation some years ago.
Max, we all followed the Covid-19-politics of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil with argus eyes and disbelief.
How were the circumstances in Bolivia in general and what did those mean for the cultural apparatus in the country? And are you able to also give us some insights in the wider South American situation? Are there a lot of cultural interactions happening between the scenes?
Despite what I personally think of Jair Bolsonaro, it seems to be a recurrent issue for right wing and neo-fascist governments to assume negationist positions. Trump was a good example for that as well. The extreme right in Germany has a comparable tendency. Obviously, in our countries in the global south, that suffer from insufficient infrastructure in their public health system, and that suffer from great social inequality and poverty, the impact of such negationist tendencies is even more severe. It is a privilege to negate a virus that has caused so much death all over the globe. But I think, independent from which country we’re talking about, if we think about the relationship between cultural work and the COVID-19 crisis, all of us cultural workers had to deal with the fact that nowhere “culture” was considered an “essential activity”, and museums and theatres etc. had to close doors all over the globe. This assessment will give us a lot to think and to discuss still. And I am sure it will necessarily change our understanding of culture’s function for society as a whole. One of the rather interesting outcomes of how the different art scenes in different countries are dealing with the crisis, is that as a matter of fact, international interactions seem to have become more common, perhaps even more important. For an institution such as the ADKDW, that looks at artistic and cultural production from a pluriversity of perspectives and forms of knowledge, these developments are of great interest.
Max, coming from that: can we expect you to cultivate a special relationsship with Bolivia (and other South American countries) during your time as artistic director of ADKDW?
Of course my relationship with Bolivia is special, as is my relationship with Brazil, as is with Germany. We all carry with us a specific knowledge that comes from our singular experiences as human beings and professionals, where we have lived and loved, where we have failed and where we have succeeded. I consider myself privileged to have lived and worked in diverse cultural environments and continents, because I believe that situated knowledge in differing national or regional contexts, just the same as individual biographic experiences, are precious resources that may contribute a great deal to both, our understanding of the world and our professional perspectives. An institution as the ADKDW operates through the international networks its members make accessible and through the diversity of forms of knowledge we as members contribute to it. We have had a considerable presence of Latin American contributions in the ADKDW programming in the past and it is unlikely it will become less during my tenure. However, the projects we are developing for the next years encompass collaborations with the South East Asian and Indo-Pacific context, with the African context, the European context, and last-but-not-least, also the Latin American context, which definitely is the one I know best.
Madhu, one of the last installments of your work is the new established participatory scholarship program. As part of this you just started to work since september with Elle Fierce, a trans*non-binary, British-born Jamaican-Irish artist* and activist. The intention is that Elle Fierce will work on various performances with local communities-especially the local qt*BI*PoC scene.
Maybe you can enroll your ideas behind the participatory scholarship program in general and your hopes and expectations for the the concrete cooperation with Elle Fierce.
Fingers crossed that the performance scheduled for December 30 can be implemented at the ADKDW exhibition space at Herwarthstrasse 3.
The earlier version of this programme was called “Youth Academy” and it ran for seven years in the model of Summer School. But we eventually grew impatient with that format. We wanted to counter the structure of conventional pedagogy and develop a new format that would be more participatory. Besides, youth as a constituency seemed too inadequate and generic in the present context. Hence we closed the programme for a year and refashioned it as Participatory Residency Programme (PRP).
In this version the project would be developed in close partnership with one or more local initiative/s that are engaged with community activism. Each partnership is to be developed and functioned for one full cycle of the programme. For the term 2021-22 the partners are In-Haus eV and Demask Kollektiv in Cologne. Both these initiatives are run by people who are activists and have been voicing against various levels of marginalisation – ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, citizenship status, economic strata, disenfranchisation etc. The idea is to develop a distinct profile for the resident / resource person-artist for each term – in relation to the political and artistic interests of the partner initiative/s. Then application for the residency is solicited from all parts of the world. The selected resident is to work with the community – mobilised through the constituencies of the partner initiative – within the framework of participatory pedagogy. This way the participants become a distinct focused group for each term and the Academy gets an opportunity to develop new co-operations with the local niche groups. On the other hand, the residents spend substantial time in Cologne to develop a complex trajectory by weaving together the local experiences and the global practices based on their own creative interest.
Elle Fierce is the first artist-resident of this project and December 30th will be the first public appearance of the project. Though Elle has already held some open studio events. They is a trans* Non-Binary, British born Jamaican-Irish artist & activist and is trained in ballet & modern dance. With Elle’s creative input we hope to open a new chapter in the Academy. We are very excited about the upcoming performance – hope the pandemic situation will not wash it away. It might as well expand our effort to create local-global dialogues to a new level.
Madhu, do I suspect right that 2022 will still bring some of your ideas into realization at the ADKDW or is the current exhibition „Hands“ the final programming statement of you?
In a way, “HANDS”, the art campaign and “Times of Hands”, a solidarity project with academic institutions in the cities in global south which were considered as red zones in the 2020, are end of my work as artistic director of ADKDW. They are clearly the art projects at the time of pandemic. The conception, the collaborations, the productions and the circulations are all framed by the realities of the pandemic.
Kaput magazine has covered both the projects extensively and hence I shall skip defining them.
2021 was a special year – because we had already experienced the trauma of the pandemic and had some time to think through it. Unlike the politicians, we could not play the ostrich. There were too much depression and anxiety around – among the artists, among the general public, among my own teammates – actually all existing social problem have turned more severe under the circumstances. So we had to be swift to re-fashion all our programme plan. It could not be business as usual for us. Nor could we afford to freeze by the suddenness of the situation. Making art and art institution relevant to the new situation have become crucial. Whenever there is a deep crisis in the society a tendency emerges to relegate art to the category of unessential, and thus dispensable. In ADKDW we wanted to counter this notion and make the institution conducive to the new (crisis) situation. So we reworked our earlier programme plan and decided on ‘hands’ as the metaphor for this time. Our earlier proclamation of commitment to public art, democratisation of art and resources, participatory process, multiplicity and simultaneity, memory practices etc. got reorganised under the metaphor of ‘hands’. The entire scheme was conceived and executed in one year – this is as contemporary as you can get.
So the particular events come to an end. But the resources generated by these will have a much longer shelf life – in research, in action and in art practices. They will survive in many different forms and practices. I expect the material generated by these two programme to be considered in future as vital documents on the time of 2021.
On the other hand, there are already several community projects on memory and archiving that are coming up in the region. Many of them trace their inspirations to the “Memory Stations” and “Arbeiten in Schichten” projects. So, hopefully, projects end but the ideas will continue and multiply – within ADKDW under Max’s leadership, in the region by the collaborators and comrades, and even beyond that practiced by the members of the Academy.
Max, what can you already reveal about your agenda?
First of all, we can say we would like to give continuity to the great work Madhusree has carried out as Artistic Director and as speaker of the members body. That means working on improving the relationship between an art institution “of the world” and the Cologne public. It also means to strengthen the presence of our members in putting into practise the institution as living and thinking organism. But it is soon to speak about concrete plans. We will, however, present our coming programme soon. Hopefully the conditions, specifically the COVID-19 circumstances, will allow us to share a vivid agenda with the Cologne and the international public.
Madhu, of course I am very curious to hear about your next steps?
I dont know. Really!
This is the third time you are interviewing me – you must have realised by now that I am a localised creature. I respond to the here and the now, and do so through tactility. So I am a blank slate at this moment. I am going to India, my home country, on December 31. We shall see how things shape up under the bright sunlight and the dark political situation in India.
Madhu, Max, thank you very much for your time and efforts to answer those questions.