Curating Without Evangelism: A Conversation with Sébastien Pluot


Sébastien Pluot is a Paris-based art historian, curator, and a professor at the École supérieure des beaux-arts Tours Angers Le MansHe has developed a unique and subtle way of interweaving pedagogy, curatorial practices, and art historical and theoretical research.

I met Sébastien in 2009 when I was invited to participate in an exhibition he co-curated with Dean Inkster on the subject of art and translation (“Double Bind: Stop Trying to Understand Me!” Villa Arson, Nice). I was asked to contribute an existing work, an inadequate history of conceptual art, so the work traveled to Nice, but I didn’t, meaning I didn’t have much of a chance to get to know Sébastien then. When I was invited to give a talk at the San Francisco Art Institute later that year, I was surprised to encounter Sébastien there, teaching for a semester and working with students on an exhibition entitled “Living Archives”  (under the umbrella of Renée Green’s program Spheres of Interest). I have to confess that I didn’t fully grasp at that time exactly how Sébastien works because his process is so unusual. In 2011, I saw his exhibition Anarchism without Adjectives, On the Work of Christopher D’Arcangelo, (1975-1979), co-curated with Dean Inkster, and I started to get a sense of his atypical curatorial approach. That exhibition addresses the 1970s work of an artist without exhibiting any extant work or documents per se. (Anarchism without Adjectives is currently at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery at Concordia University, Montreal.)

It was only when he asked me to contribute to a 2012 exhibition entitled “Art by Telephone…Recalled”, co-curated with Fabien Vallos, and involving art and art history students from Barnard College, the Barnard Department of Comparative Literature, and students from four other schools, that I began to understand something about his unique curatorial methodology. Currently Sébastien is curating two exhibitions, entitled “A Letter Always Reaches its Destination” and “Breaking News From the Ether,” at the Centre de Culture Contemporaine-Montpellier, to which he has also asked me to contribute. And that’s another unusual thing about Sébastien – his fidelity to the artists whose work he values. There are other curators out there who practice such fidelity, but in my experience they are few and far between, those curators who consistently follow an artist’s work and include them in multiple projects. His is not a “discard after using” approach. The following conversation took place a couple of weeks ago.

Silvia: I want to start our conversation with something that may seem tangential, but that I will tie back to some questions later. I recently re-read Pierre Cabanne’s book-length interview with Marcel Duchamp of 1966 (Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp), and one paragraph in it struck me differently than it had before. I also read the newly published Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews, Calvin Tompkins’s interviews with him of 1964 and I’d like to ask you about one exchange in it.

This is the paragraph from the Cabanne interview:

Cabanne: Where does your antiretinal attitude come from?

Duchamp: From too great an importance given to the retinal. Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error. The retinal shudder! Before, painting had other functions; it could be religious, philosophical, moral. If I had the chance to take an antiretinal attitude, it unfortunately hasn’t changed much; our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists, who tried to go outside it somewhat. And still, they didn’t go so far! In spite of the fact that Breton says he believes in judging from a Surrealist point of view, down deep he’s still really interested in painting in the retinal sense. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It has to change; it hasn’t always been like this.

Silvia: I’m intrigued by Duchamp’s vigorous reference to painting having had other “functions” in the past. And when he calls for change, he seems to refer to some kind of continuity with art that existed before the retinal became its defining characteristic. Now, I’m certain that he would not have been calling for a return to the religious, because he was  explicitly anti-religious. But it made me wonder what forms the philosophical and moral “functions” of art of the past would take today.

Sébastien: I don’t think that’s what he meant. He was referring to a period in which art was not organized around the pleasure of the retinal, and since it was organized around something else previously , it could be organized again in another way.

Silvia: That is in a sense what I’m trying to point out. I know that most people see Duchamp’s life-long argument against the retinal in art as leading directly to the conceptual. He himself uses the word in the Cabanne interview. But do you not think he indicates some need to consider the pre-retinal as well as the post-retinal?

Sébastien: He’s saying that retinal satisfaction is not an ontological condition of art. But that doesn’t mean he was calling for a return to the state of art previous to the emphasis on the retinal. It’s a call to go beyond modernity’s concern with visuality and conventional notions of beauty, or with good and bad taste. He’s interested in going beyond good and bad taste to the indifferent.

Silvia: Yes, he later ridicules the “tasty artist.” But while he condemns the religious in other comments, he doesn’t condemn the other roles that art once played – the philosophical and the moral. He often argued for art-as-nothing, so that’s why his comment intrigued me. By analogy, what could the art of the preretinal be today? In his moment and ours?

Let’s bring in the Tompkins/Duchamp exchange now:

Tompkins: And yet in spite of all the commercialism and the rat race it’s still a fact that there’s such a great deal going on among younger artists now.  There’s so much more inventiveness and excitement…

Duchamp: Yes, there was less activity then than now. There were not as many artists as today. The profession of being an artist, of becoming an artist, was only left to a few, compared to what it is today, when a young man not having special aptitude for anything will say, “Well, I’ll try art.” In my day, young people who didn’t know what to do tried medicine or studied to become a lawyer. It was the thing to do. It was rather simple, and the examinations were not as long as they are today. You could become a doctor in four years, in France at least.

Tompkins: Do you think the idea has spread that art is easy?

Duchamp: It’s not that it’s done more easily. But there is more of an outlet for it. Exchanging art for dollars did not exist then except for a few artists of that time. The life of an artist in 1915 was non-existent as a money-making proposition – far from it. Many more people are miserable today because they try to make a living from painting and can’t. There is so much competition.

Tompkins: But isn’t all the new art activity in one sense a healthy sign?

Duchamp: In a way, if you consider it from the social angle. But from the aesthetic angle I think it’s very detrimental. In my opinion, such an abundant production can only result in mediocrity. There is no time to make very fine work. The pace of production is such that it becomes another kind of race, not rat, but I don’t know what.

Tompkins: Doesn’t this also reflect a change in the concept of what art is – a loss of faith in the creation of masterpieces, and an attempt to make art a part of daily life?

Duchamp: Exactly, it’s what I call the integration of the artist into society, which means he’s on a par with the lawyer, with the doctor. Fifty years ago we were pariahs – a young girl’s parents would never let her marry an artist.

Tompkins: But you’ve said you liked being a pariah.

Duchamp: Oh, yes, of course, it may not be very comfortable but at least you have a feeling that you may be accomplishing something different from the usual, and maybe something that will last for centuries after you die. It’s very pleasant in a way, because there is the possibility to make a living. But that state is very detrimental to the quality of the work done. I feel that things of great importance have to be slowly produced. I don’t believe in speed in artistic production, and that goes with integration…

Silvia: Tompkins is the classic liberal capitalist of the period.  The more the merrier when it comes to art. The quantitative is king – the more inventiveness and excitement the better. Art can be anything and anybody can be an artist is what Tompkins conveys in the interview. Duchamp is not impressed, to say the least.

For me, the two excerpts I chose dovetail because Duchamp seems to uncharacteristically be calling for a more weighty position for art. Duchamp is seen as the artist who unleashed de-skilling and an unbounded inclusiveness in art through the readymade, and he agrees that he was responsible for unleashing this, but he’s not entirely comfortable with the effects. For example, he calls for slow production and he’s at pains later in the Cabanne interview to explain how he controlled the dispersal of the readymades, how he didn’t market or sell them (at least this is his account).

Sébastien:  What is fascinating is how Duchamp redefines his positions at different moments. He begins with a readymade that is a selected object, then he assembles objects as readymades, then he selects them through random processes, later he limits the readymades,  and subsequently duplicates them himself or lets others do so. With each of these acts he integrates a different historical moment, a different consequence of his act, and the context in which it’s done. At the moment at which Nude Descending A Staircase is rejected from inclusion in the Cubist Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1912, he stops painting. But when the painting is a successful scandal in New York in 1913, sold along with several of his other paintings, instead of responding to Picabia’s request that he send to New York more paintings to sell, in 1913 he takes a job at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, and begins to work on The Large Glass.

Silvia: I think your point about his integrating different consequences and contexts at different times is very interesting, and seems to connect to what I was trying to say about the paragraph from the Cabanne interview.  These adjustments which you point out that Duchamp makes could be seen as an analogical method of addressing, in a post-retinal moment, the moral and philosophical “functions” of art of the preretinal period. The decades spent producing the Étant donnés in secret are another such adjustment.

I think it’s very interesting that the artist who pushed us towards an “anything goes” culture of art is clearly skeptical if not contemptuous of such a culture. These adjustments are subtle and seem to be carefully thought through in terms of the social status of art at a given moment.

Sébastien: The nominalist interpretation of the readymade [i.e. this is a work of art because I call it art] is based on a complete misunderstanding of Duchamp’s position on the retinal paradigm. There is a related debate that took place between art historian Benjamin Buchloh and Daniel Buren, when they taught at the Institut des hautes études en arts plastiques in Paris, which concerned the importance of visuality in the work of Duchamp. Buren argued that even if Duchamp was intent on countering visuality, the visuality of his work could not be erased. Buchloh opposed this, pointing out that the urinal, for example, doesn’t have to be seen in order to be acknowledged as a work. The fact is that the work existed without having been shown. It was dependent on language. Many of the ready-mades were not shown or were not identified as readymades.

Silvia: But that would bring us closer to the point that Tompkins makes, without using the term, that Duchamp helped create a condition of nominalism, since a work so dependent on language and not exhibited could include almost anything.

Sébastien: I would not say that the readymade could be anything. I would say that the readymade has to be considered in its evolution and in how it exists in specific contexts. At a given point it could be anything, but anything as specifically found through a random process. The work of art therefore is not the aesthetic dimensions of the object, but the condition of its being in a particular location and context. It also has to do with canceling the object’s use and exchange values — the bicycle wheel and the stool are two frustrated functional objects.

Silvia: But then of course the readymades acquire different kinds of exchange value in the short or long run. In your teaching, and often in your curatorial work, which sometimes involves archival research with students, my sense is that you erase the boundaries of the aesthetic. Would you agree with that?

Sébastien: It has more to do with the question of hierarchy. I think when we work with people – students, young artists – who cannot be expected to have an elaborate knowledge of art and art practices, you can work with them in a way that doesn’t acknowledge hierarchy. I don’t think you need to bring in the subject of hierarchy in order to create a situation in which they develop knowledge. Put another way, I try in the teaching and/or collective curatorial situation not to make hierarchy and differentiation the premises for the construction of knowledge.

Silvia: It’s interesting that your method is to not even articulate the subjects of hierarchy and differentiation when you’re working with students on a collaborative project. And by differentiation, I mean both in the sense of who does what and of what defines art. I think that approach is very interesting at this historical moment – not articulating it even though one knows it exists as a problematic.  And I’ve actually seen how you do that, but I would also question your statement somewhat because I’ve seen you directing the development of such projects, by default almost.

Sébastien: In the exhibition “Art by Telephone…Recalled, ” curated by myself and Fabien Vallos and involving students from five institutions, we re-presented an exhibition that took place in 1969 (Art by Telephone), which itself refers back to Moholy-Nagy and Duchamp, and we generated projects in the present using the premise of that historical exhibition.  How we dealt with re-presenting the historical show, and reinterpreting it in the present with students has something to do with what Duchamp clearly stated in his text “The Creative Act” (1957) – the spectator contributes to making the art.

The original Art by Telephone exhibition went further and radicalized the notion of the non-autonomy of the artist and the artwork in the sense that the interpretations of the language speech proposals made by the artists over the telephone could lead to other sounds or to the re-organization of the language content, or to an object or an event or anything relevant to the artist’s proposal.

Silvia: Well, let’s take Art by Telephone…Recalled as an example. After you received the spoken directions that I contributed to the exhibition, you said to me, “I think I know just the right student to interpret these instructions.” And I didn’t know what you meant by that until I met the student who enacted my instructions brilliantly, Zoë Harris, and realized that she had focused on audio work in her undergraduate art history degree at Barnard.  And my instructions required that whoever enacted the work would have to hold a conversation with, in a sense, an audio function – I specified asking the Siri function of an iphone a particular question. Most artists in the first, and even in the second show, gave instructions using the telephone as an instrument of conveyance, but in my work I had a self-referential strategy that I suppose led you to think that she would be a good person to enact my instructions because her focus had been on audio.

Sebastien: I had no idea that her focus had been on audio.

Silvia: Really?! So why did you choose her?

Sébastien: When we played the contemporary recordings for the students to hear and proposed to them that they interpret the spoken words of the artists in the exhibition, they needed to learn about the practices of the artists involved. We showed them documents about the other work of the artists in the show who recorded the verbal instructions, and discussed those works, and the students learned a lot about the artists. We organized workshops – theoretical and historical – where they started to learn about concepts of translation, the historical avant-garde, and the art of the 60s and 70s.

Silvia: So did you choose her because you felt she would have an affinity for my work?

Sébastien: I knew that she would have an affinity because we’d had conversations with her. And I knew that she would be able to react to your proposal, which implied the delegation of a delegation. I knew she would be able to take that into account.

Silvia: So in a way you’re proving my point. That is your directorial move. And there’s an implicit hierarchy in that directorial move. You make a decision as a curator that shapes the outcome. Right? I’m not against that –

Sébastien: But I don’t understand that as a hierarchical stance. It always develops through conversations. And it always involves negotiation. Of course when you put yourself in the position of being responsible – ethically – for the work of the other and for the framework inside of which a work would be delegated, of course you allow yourself an authority. But authority does not automatically imply a hierarchical position, but a permanent questioning of an ethical task. In a way, Fabien and I are extremely arrogant in confronting the huge historical precedent of the 1969 show “Art by Telephone.” But at the same time I would say that we assume generative positions, because we didn’t want to engage in a two-person research into “Art by Telephone.” We thought that it was important to involve other art historians and philosophers and artists to historicize “Art by Telephone” through a new exhibition that would also include contemporary work. So this responsibility and this task and this ethical position we shared with others.

For example, in this summer’s Prada remake of “When Attitude Becomes Form” (1969) in Venice the three people involved (Germano Celant, Rem Koolhaas, Thomas Demand) produced a battle of the egos, and questions of the ethics of translation from history, and of interpretation in the present are non-existent.

Silvia: That’s beautifully put: an authority that does not imply a hierarchical position, but a permanent questioning of an ethical task. I think an ethics of authority is always important, but it’s particularly relevant today, when people are trying to move away from definitions, whether it be distinct definitions of artist, curator, or even historian in some academic contexts, and yet hierarchies are maintained. But what does an ethics of authority really mean?  You defined it as involving a state of constant questioning—

Sébastien:— and dialogue.

Silvia: Constant questioning, dialogue, and negotiation. But even in the midst of that there are decisions made and limits set. There is a huge difference between what Celant, Demand, and Koolhaas do – their non-ethics of authority in relation to history and the spectator, so to speak – and what you and your colleagues do in your curatorial and pedagogical work, without having to relegate an ethics of authority to a realm of extreme suspension in which there is no decision-maker, or there’s no individual who sets limits, who to some extent has ultimate authority. Right? Because you’re also taking responsibility for the material that gets exhibited. Your way of working is to some extent related to the breakdown of definitions that we talked about earlier, but you are trying to develop a different way of dealing with that erosion of categories.  Ha! “breakdown,” “erosion” —  I keep using very negative words, because I guess I’m still skeptical about the erasure of definitions. I have enormous respect for the way you work, Sébastien, because I’ve seen it in action, but at the same time I’m not sure you’ve given me a convincing definition of the ethics of authority.

Sébastien: The ethics of the translator implies at one and the same time fidelity to and an acknowledgement of the fact that you cannot be fully faithful to the so-called original. Derrida called that a “double-bind” between the necessity and the impossibility of translating. It has to do with the German term Aufgabe used by Walter Benjamin in his text “The Task of The Translator” [“Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers”]. It means at the same time “task” and “renouncement”.

Silvia: I think the notion of the curator as a translator is crucial in not, as I’ve heard you say, reducing curatorial work to evangelizing. And I see the ethical component of that. However, you raised the issue of ethics and authority when I questioned how you chose Zoe to realize my verbal directions in “Art by Telephone: Recalled.” You connected it to an idea of responsibility.

Sébastien: There were actually three people who tried to enact the work.

Silvia: I didn’t know that.

Sébastien: Yes, and I knew that there was one who I thought would do it very well. In the end we chose the result that we considered to be the most interesting. There were six or seven people around the table, considering your project, talking about the work and how it would be realized – would it have only audio, or also include an image, video or film?  We even considered having a digital voice talking to another digital voice. We discussed various possibilities.

Silvia: Guidance still involves authority of some kind.

Sébastien: But a project like this one is based on the premise that one of its central aspects is the questioning or deconstruction of authority, it’s already contaminated by that from the beginning.

Silvia: So let’s say in this instance you chose the result, in collaboration with the group, that you felt best suited the instructions. But let’s say the group decided to choose the project that you felt worst suited the instructions. Would you have gone ahead with that worst project?

Sébastien: No.

Silvia: Why?

Sébastien: For example, something happened while re-enacting the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #26 voice instructions from the original 1969 exhibition. I knew a student who I thought would be extremely precise and meticulous, could use a pencil methodically, and I thought he would know how to interpret conceptually and graphically the intentions of the artist. But I didn’t measure the dimensions of the ego, and he did what Sol LeWitt alluded to very early in his text “How to Make Wall Drawings,” [Art Now : New York, vol 3, n°2, June 1971] in which he wrote that if the craftsman carrying out his instructions did not follow the rules, then the resulting work became the work of the craftsman and no longer a work by Sol LeWitt. And that is what happened with this student. The resulting work no longer had any relation to LeWitt. And this resulted in a very long conversation. In the end, I told him that if we wanted to be faithful to LeWitt’s idea we had to erase the student’s work and start again.

Silvia: So when we talk about an ethics of authority and you say it always has to do with negotiation and dialogue, that’s like saying that your way of working is not to impose something but to bring the students around to what you think would be the best result.  But is that really so different than working with a hierarchical structure where the curator ultimately makes a decision and takes responsibility and assumes authority. Is that really so different?

Sébastien: I try to avoid thinking that I know what is the best result. If I am interested in these issues it’s because I am interested in uncertainty and unpredictable events. I think there is a huge difference from a political perspective. And I think it involves not considering the approach as a single truth and evangelizing it. It’s about putting forward the questions and the debates as something that we as curators or educators work on together with other people.

Silvia: So the ethics of authority is process?

Sébastien: It’s process, doubt, and sometimes withdrawal.

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