A long exchange of emails precedes the day when I scheduled to meet Polish artist Goshka Macuga. Some big projects coming up, keep her highly busy. The activity in her studio is frenetic, and it is precisely there where it becomes clear how Macuga’s range of interests –from physics to politics, from avant-garde theory to comedy theatre or from anthropology to philosophy– is as overwhelming as the amount of research on the basis of her work. In one of her early installations, Picture Room (Gasworks, 2003) she encompassed the collection of items and the incorporation of works by other artists, indicating her intention to work towards an expansive practice, operating between disciplines and escaping categorisation. A precise approach that five years later, earned her a nomination for the Turner prize. Since then, Macuga has been moving and working successfully between different terrains where the search for hidden knowledge remains a constant.
- Alejandro Alonso Díaz
Your work deals a lot with archival material and historical elements. Do you think there is room for nostalgia in this interest in the past?
Well, you could look at it as nostalgic. But for instance, if you take any significant work of science, it is all based on the past and it is not considered nostalgic. If it is statistics or if it is observation it always functions as actual data that comes from the past and that is suppose to somehow give us knowledge of how to deal with the present and future time. So I treat archives and history in the same way as scientist treats data. It’s a more a case of observation that allows me to respond to the now, basically treating it as information.
Somehow you try to keep objective?
Not necessarily. Once you go to the past then you have to find your position within this time, wherever it is. So you go to an archive, find different stuff and certain things are more appealing. And then you categorize this information, because the archives also don’t give you the whole truth or picture of the past. You have to be selective and subjective in the way you categorize the stuff and how you state the essence of the content, and that is subjective rather than objective. Also, I am more interested in having the possibility of finding this kind of experience in a subjective way of relating to something rather than finding it in a book where it has already been objectified or narrated by somebody else.
I guess in this lays the potential to somehow rewrite history and to open new roads for the exploring of other ways to look at it.
Yes, mainly about the reading of history.
You said that in these selections of archival material you don’t try to stay objective. However those selections you end up with, become very often into a more abstract story as an attempt to don’t reveal everything. In that sense would you say that somehow your work allow fictions to slip in?
In my process of working, the main part is gaining the knowledge that later in some way forms the work. I collect this information for my own purposes, but I don’t feel that it is my responsibility to teach or to disseminate that knowledge to the audience, so I only give clues to the spectator. It’s up to them to decide how to learn or interpret the story I’m telling. If they want to keep investigating, it’s their choice but it is not an obligation. And even if they do decide to follow the story in some way they would most likely end up having a different journey through the information. This particular method of working asks that I situate myself somewhere between my interest in the actual collection of information and the obligation as an artist to show my work and somehow indicate what sort of process I am involved in. But I always think of it as fragments, as a kind of map of my memories.
So you are interested in fiction…
Yes of course. I am interested in everything: from documentary to re-representation, fiction, and all the different strategies that one can employ. However I am not interested in having a practice that is consistent or is somehow always the same. This is why I apply different strategies to every project, and fiction is just one of those strategies. I try to change working structures for myself in order to make things more interesting. I really don’t like repeating the same method over and over again.
In the emails, you were telling me about those first years when you moved to London, studying at Goldsmiths and the way in which right after, you related to other artists. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
You know, it was very different. The whole educational system was different. What you get from College now is quite minimum, you don’t even get a space to work. Whereas, my generation did have a space to work and we paid less money for our education here. I also think there was greater emphasis on taking your own initiative to show your work because there weren’t that many commercial galleries. Many spaces in London were artist-run spaces. Also at the time we didn’t have a big group of collectors so the dynamics of making art were different, a different process too. And now, after the economic crisis, after the whole change and the issues that people have had to deal with, the cuts in education and art, it is interesting to see how artists have had to return to the model of taking the initiative and committing to opening their own spaces and their own shows. The whole thing went full circle. Part of this is a purely practical process where, if you want to start doing something, someone has to facilitate it. If you have few connections through your friends that you study with- you should collaborate on projects. After graduating, you don’t have the possibility to consistently have a discourse or an exchange with others. You have to create your own mechanisms to feed your practice as an artist. If you don’t need input or an outlet to show the work, then in theory, you should be able to make the work anyway. However, it is important to have a structure and to discipline yourself. So for me, that period after graduating was very much about building the structure that then I could follow, regardless of what the future would present to me.
During this process, did you feel a common support?
Yes, I definitely had this support. But you know, we were always small groups. It wasn’t this kind of general support by the main structures. – In this point her assistant comes downstairs to leave the studio and she ask her: Stella did you eat your food? – Sorry, what was I saying? Oh yes… At the end, this is the thing that, in a way, one has to do in order to find a structure, motivation and some kind of dynamic that you then follow.
As you said, London is a special case. At the time you were studying, the educational institution was your bigger support. There were also more opportunities: since you paid less for education you had more money to spend on your own work, to develop your own projects or to buy books for yourself, opportunities that nowadays have been clearly reduced. So looking back to those years at College, were those opportunities also generated in a personal level, through small groups of people with whom you shared interests?
Yes exactly. But you know, of course I didn’t project myself on what it was considered the school of British artists. I didn’t speak English well enough to completely engage with things as I would have liked to. I certainly didn’t have the kind of history shared by the Brits, so I couldn’t really project myself onto the whole kin essence of what Brit Culture meant. Actually, in that sense, this country is still quite nationalistic, I think. A lot of this has to do with the shared history of people, soap operas, newspapers, and all that stuff…
Also coming from Poland, which was like a country not completely exposed to the western values, media and all the things that people took for granted here, or outside of what used to be the Eastern block, was not available to us. It was a very different scenario. Poland is quite nationalistic as well. For example, I follow pretty much every movie that comes from Poland and that is worth seeing. I now follow rigorously many things that happen there, and that I would have never followed in Poland before 1998, because we didn’t have the internet. With the internet it all has become much more accessible or easy to connect, or at least to get the vibe of what is going on. So coming to London from this sort of more repressed place and having to function here… of course I had great insecurities about it, but then I found my own way through it. The things that you bring to the scene because of your background are things that other people haven’t had access to necessarily. In the end, it was all about this process of sharing experiences and finding common interests.
You said that within nowadays intercommunicative era, the open access to online sources facilitates consumer of information, but don’t you think that if everyone has access to the same things it all tends to become much more selective?
Yes, that someone gets access to a certain thing is therefore harder. This whole issue is a bit questionable because we tend to think that we have equal access to everything, but this is not the case. For example, there was a BBC documentary recently about a guy called Aaron Swartz, a young guy who worked on different internet projects, concerned with disseminating knowledge. One of the things that he was interested in addressing and which I find really interesting, is the fact that the knowledge produced through individual research in universities is usually published on restricted publishing sites such as Jstor. You can only access this knowledge/ information by paying a fee. This institution or publisher doesn’t necessarily have a massive input into the process of how this knowledge has been produced, or the conditions of its production, but instead, it charges for the on-line access. It’s almost as if they have the ownership, like banks of knowledge, so if you want the access you have to pay for it, and if you can’t afford it then you don’t get the access. The knowledge cannot be shared.
It also depends on your aspirations, in terms of where you want to get to, you come across certain things and then other things are not accessible, because they are part of other sorts of groups. For example I’m not on Facebook or Instagram or anything like this, therefore I don’t get access to social networks and to what is happening there. For me the way in which someone is self-advertised through a social profile doesn’t really exist.
Is this just because you are not interested in social media?
Well, I am interested in it, but more from a critical perspective. I don´t use it as a tool because I found that the levels of interaction are very low. I do a lot of looking into things, I put a lot of attention on things .To get random information sent to me by random people on Facebook would feel very destructive and this is not really something I am particularly into. It’s a sort of self-discipline where I try to limit my participation in various things in order to be very selective, not to waist too much time.
Something that is actually closely linked to your artistic practice. This methodology of being very precise in the way you look at things and how you select them. You have been defined as an artist-curator…
This is a broader issue of categorisation, it is our condition that we need to categorise stuff. You need to put something somewhere in order to find it again in the same place. If you can´t categorise, then it is really stressful. The same thing happens with my work and the categorization of my practice as an artist.
Is it a strategy to try to escape any kind of category?
No, you exist and then others categorise. I don’t try to escape those categories because they will happen anyway and it’s nothing you can do about. This whole thing of ‘the curator’ is just something that I/ they use when I/ they want but most of the time I just make my stuff, whatever it is called. For me it’s something that’s not really consistent and it is only relevant because there is this phenomenon of the creative curator which has been going on now for about ten years. You know, there are curating courses now… to train people to be creative in how they categorise artists. Also this idea of the curator-artist, it is rare to call a curator an artist but you often find the concept of the curator projected onto an artist. To be honest, I think it is only relevant within the historical time frame of this generation of people functioning under these categories. But I don’t remember Duchamp being called artist-curator when he made the ‘16 miles of string’.
In your recent work, i.e. the play that you made for the Chicago Museum, it seems that humour is taking an increasingly relevance. Is that right?
There are certain things that I find funny. I think I have quite a good sense of humour, If you speak to my friends they would tell you how there is a part of me more serious and that there is also a comical part. I don’t always put the same part of me into my work, but I felt that for the Chicago project it was the right moment to use the comedy format.
Well, the film comes from a play that consists of commentaries about the art world.
In some ways it is institutional critique. Talking about the groups from when I finished Goldsmiths to some experiences when I worked with different institutions. I thought that I could write this in a very serious artsy-fartsy way or I could make it more accessible. At the end I wanted the play to be very accessible, for any general public that might potentially come across it, and who might not be as informed as the people in the art industry. That’s why I wanted to have this feeling of a light comedy, rather than a very heavy art performance. The video and some parts of the set were also shown at Frieze Art Fair, which in a way was also very funny.
So you use humour to say things that perhaps you wouldn’t say seriously?
The Chicago Comedy also includes some objects that seem quite ironical, like the furniture playing with the considerations between art and design that was shown at Frieze…
Yes, being conscious that you are playing in the context of an art fair and how it becomes the stage. The people in the booth became the actors and so on…
Coming back to this interest on collaboration, you often involve other people in the projects, people who produce objects for you or that help you in a specific task. Is this process of collaborating a way of exchanging knowledge?
For me collaboration is more about the experience of being with people rather than just the indifferent accumulation of knowledge. It is about gaining knowledge based on the experience of an individual. Even though, I don’t have a consistent commitment to particular working collaborations, I still often collaborate with people on various things. It is actually a very different process of making art. The nature of my work is that I’m interested in everything, but I like to change my approach and my method. It comes and goes, that’s why I’m interested in collaboration, but it is not always the way I choose to work. Sometimes collaborators bring their skills, sometimes their voices, it really depends. In my time working as an artist I have been involved in lots of different kind of collaborations.
So you think that at the end of the day, collaboration is more about the shared experience than about knowledge…
Well it’s both. Sometimes it’s more like: let’s go and explore something together, while other times it’s more like: tell me what your research on quantum physics is about and then I might refer to it in my work.
Well, experience is just another way of getting knowledge. Actually this was a main point for Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA 13, in which you participated.
Yes, but I wouldn’t say that I collaborated with Carolyn Christov- Bakargiev. Of course as a viewer you might think that this is somehow collaborative, because it is given to you as a part of that dOCUMENTA’s concept. However, the way that the concept is produced is not necessarily based on a collaborative process. It’s just the nature of the way that these big shows are made. The ideal situation of participating in a big project like this would be to understand the intentions of the curators, and follow their process. This doesn’t happen, because the aspirations of these kinds of exhibitions are so huge and so many people are invited to participate that you actually don’t exchange information, so you have to focus on creating your own contribution without the exchange of ideas. In the past, I have made other projects where I have actively collaborated with curators like Dieter Roelstraete, Grant Watson and Peter Eleey, with whom I actually had a strong exchange of ideas.
People generally refer to your role as an artist as this of a detective. A notion that you seem to like…
Yes, sometimes I know that I want to find evidence of something to prove my point. I am a detective without a real cause.
You have played this role of the detective within institutions like The Aby Warburg Institute and The Whitechapel Gallery. How does it feel? Do you see yourself as an intruder in these occasions?
Not really. I think most institutions want to be explored and sometimes they have invited me for that purpose. Some other institutions instead don’t want to be explored and also don’t have trust in what you are doing as an artist. At the Aby Warburg Institute for example, you have to speak German, you have to be able to read German manuscripts from the 19th century plus you have to book your visit six months in advance. So things you could see as intruding, maybe, but I think a lot of academic research is also about being able to deal with those obstacles. At the moment I’m doing research at CERN in Geneva. They have a big archive but basically the main issue is about how to get the access to the information when you don’t come from a maths or a physics background.
I recently was invited to be a mentor for hackers (in the sense of software designers), in Docklands. Two of them wanted to do something about creating a type of software so one could find easily information about the ethics of different businesses. Thus, you could access a site or you can buy information that will give you access to the ethics of specific businesses you are interested in. If you could do this in the art world, I would be really interested in exploring the related ethics data of absolutely everyone that my work can be associated with.
It is clear that you are not interested in categorisation. You have even declared that your work is about letting things go. I wonder if is this constant dealing with history that led you to this attitude.
Yes. My next project is about stopping. I believe that everything should stop, I don’t know exactly for how long. I don’t even know if this would be a pause or a final stop, but definitely dealing with history has brought me to the point where I really think that we should all stop. This is my next ‘thing’. I’m looking at all these moments in history where certain things stopped. It’s like a punctuation of history. There is no possibility for us to continue without stopping and looking back.
So this concept of stopping is just for a specific project or is it something we will see in several future works?
A For now is just this one project and then maybe it will go on. I don’t know yet. I will explore this notion of stopping in many ways. My research so far has focused not only on the arts, but also on science, anthropology, philosophy and so on. Actually, talking about categorisation, when you collect an enormous amount of information, there is no way forward unless you somehow categorise it. So it is also this question for example in language if you don’t categorise things by calling them with a particular word, then you have to find other device that you can apply, otherwise you get completely lost within the amount of information. Even if you apply your own mechanism or if you invent a very subjective way to break things down, the categories will still exist. But also this idea of leaving things uncategorised, an open-ended system in which things just flow is great. However if you let them flow, you can’t reach them anymore because they might flow away into a constellation that you don’t have access to. This is only possible in a completely abstract and symbolic way, but it is still great.
Sure it's important to invent these potential yet impossible ways of thinking, it is dangerous to repeat yourself too much.
Repetition is good but not all the time. Already in my life there is so much repetition like: I go home, I come to the studio, I pretty much just do that. I occasionally see people. If for example I get drunk, that means that for three days my brain is not going to work and I can’t move on with the work. It is also about age, when you get to a certain age you know your limits. You don’t have a complete capacity to absorb so you kind of have to look after yourself in order to make the most of it. Sometimes I feel like I want to stop, but also sometimes it is like –great, everyday you learn something and as long as you can do it its worth going on. Also you have to know how to learn, rather than just exist. I have serious issues with just existing. I find really scary to exist without having a purpose and a plan, but you know, I’m just like this– some people are obsessive.
Are you obsessive?
Yes, totally. This is why I can’t have Facebook or anything of this kind. Somehow this creates limits for me because I really throw myself at it. And I try to be really constructive with it. It’s better not to do it, rather than do it and then have these self-destructive feelings of compulsiveness. I spend all day here at the studio and then I go home and then I go to sleep and so on. The stuff I do at home is more accidental, I look at things that exist in the world, that somehow come out to the surface by chance. In the studio I have a plan.
Interview conducted by Alejandro Alonso Díaz.
Exclusive for Aujourd'hui.