Martí Manen gives us a brief but intense look at his work and method as a curator and art critic.

Curator’s Insight: Martí Manen
Barcelona - FEB 01, 2013
Martí Manen, curator and art critic, has spoken to us about the role of criticism, the level of implication of the curator with the exhibition and about one of his latest projects of 2012. He also gives us some clues as to what artists and institutions will have people talking this year. 

There has been much debate about the role of criticism in the current scenario. Questions about fear and self-censorship always seem to come to light when an art critic is interviewed, like in your recent interview with Leland Palmer. I remember your advice on a critic’s responsibility, who must have position and something to say. But if the general feeling is that this does not happen, where are we? Do you think we have made some progress in this direction? Do you think this debate is still relevant? 

I think we're at an interesting time just for the obvious need for positioning. Somehow, the system breaks down, then it is even more necessary to say, point, question and contribute. And criticism is basically something like a constant reset, question oneself specially without forgetting that, with criticism, something is being built. Start from a basis but without enthroning it. I understand criticism, if we think of criticism as written material, as the production of something that, in addition to being linked to the prior creation of others, "is" in itself and has to contribute. If we forget this kind of approach to what criticism is we can move on to the chronicle, which is important but not the same. In the chronicle there is a selection and information and some flashes of subjectivity. In criticism you have to get wet, for better or for worse. You have to be somebody. 

And where are we? In a moment of brutal change at all levels. If we talk about criticism, about art criticism specifically, we have witnessed the defeat of Spanish media and of several countries (not at all). A loss in legitimacy, in presence, a defeat in the need of review and the value this has. But the possibility of criticism of art, and its production from one of its facilities that is criticism, it's powerful, very powerful and we must not allow it to be lost. And it’s not lost: There are already several years of other rhythms for the written review and other contexts for publication. Internet, of course, opened the way to an infinity of "someones" that are there, inventing ways of acting, its own tone, a smallness assume as an asset, a growing as well. It is the challenge of recovering a criticism that affects, which serves to change directions. When the number of readers was that of the high-circulation newspapers it seemed more feasible to affect. In the net it is important that the impact reaches from the content and the positioning, as you will never generate the "fear" that that one critic now passed played with and that also, assumed the fall of criticism: if you play with fear and seek private benefits you are ignoring the contents. 

We speak enough of the disappearance of criticism in the media but some critics still there and, in some cases, perverting their position and thus, the possible position of criticism. Might not be clear the personal interests of some, there are some blogs that are much more serious in some lines of work then some print, and the second seems not to see that the challenge is to raise the level and not go madly toward the cliff. 

In "Contarlo todo sin saber cómo", we find a reflection on contemporary art’s willl to explain, to establish an almost literary dialogue with the person approaching the works. To my understanding, the fundamental concepts of this narrative are the emotional and to some extent the individual experience with art, something obvious not only by the nature of the work, but also, by the great weight of the narrative fiction that introduces the novel. The question is, have you always been so personally involved in the discourse of the exhibitions you have curated? How much of your own subjectivity is part of the speech? Is this something that depends on the project and the degree of freedom you have?

Yes, in "Contarlo todo sin saber cómo" there is great interest in the emotional, a desire to recover an emotional relationship with contemporary art and, while at the same time, raising the narrative capacity from precisely its assembly. Art has an ability to explain and in the narrative there is the power of building an understanding. We are surrounded by narrative constructions that follow the same parameters and in art there are still options to search and create other codes, or to do without them. 

Faced with all this, I was interested in working with one of the star formats of narrative as the novel. And without forgetting my position as curator. So, I write a novel as curator, for the work method may be different than if you write from the position of the writer. And, being within the novel, working under its codes to make them fit within the idea of an exhibit that is "happening." There are many works that are great simply explained. I thought of something to incorporate works of fiction into a narrative structure, passing to understand them as material for forcing, changing them into possibilities, into subjective explanations.

I'm passionate about exhibitions and art, I can not help it. When working with an exhibition I try to make the exhibition itself make sense and it also what is presented. Sometimes you're more involved and sometimes less. Sometimes your role is more visible and sometimes less. But the position of the curator must imply a reflection about the show, as this is your "object" of work, I think it's good to abuse of the exhibit and to maintain the utmost respect for the works, but sometimes "respect" means negotiating in another way how to find unexpected encounters. Well, working as a freelance you are constantly negotiating so the subjectivity from the position of the curator is one of the elements that are on the table, there are others.

Now that you mention it, what other critical elements would you highlight?

First I would separate criticism and curating. For me they are two forms of work, nearly two identities even if we go jumping from one to the other and there are connections. In curating -and with the exhibition- there are possibilities opened to the unexpected and not everything "works", while the criticism calls for precision. The exhibition is a testing ground where the linguistic work field is still very flexible, in a state of definition. With critical writing there are also opportunities to step out of the agreement, but in any case the margin for error is much smaller, or it should be. 
And on the other elements in curating in relation to the subjective position ... the jump from idea to reality is always implies a process, the presence of other indicates that there are wills and goals to share, that you do not always mark the time, the economic situation is fundamental and, ultimately, that you are in a collective work context, so there is always a negotiation. 

Seeing as your inquiries in criticism are always centered on the exhibition format, could you pick a place (institution, museum, gallery, etc..) that you have always had the feeling that rethinking the exhibition format as criticism, and renewal, has played an important role?

There are different times and different institutions. I also think that interesting things have happened in institutions that are not defined as exhibition centers. In residential spaces as Laspis, in production platform projects as Artangel, in places where art shares with other disciplines such as Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers ... But there is also a story of change of the exhibit with specific exhibitions examples as Chambres d'Amis of Jan Hoet, Modellen of Palle Nielsen, Parreno at Serpentine Gallery, Tiravanija's retrospective in Bojmans ... The reformulation requires constant instability, so that there will be more times than places. We can talk about some periods in some institutions, or even some programs in commercial galleries that have caused a change in operation. I also think that in institutions related to contemporary dance have emerged questions over the last 15 years that we have to be interested in. Not to mention the challenge in politics, where the search for a definition of a role can lead to exposure. 

Since we have just begun 2013, would highlight five artists who we must watch this year? 

Its difficult to select 5! I'm constantly working with various artists and when you are with each of them you give them everything and they are everything. So its better tell you the names of artists that I've recently seen their material in exhibition or making studiovisits that have provoked me: Pilvi Takala, Fia Backstrom, Goldin + Senneby, Hong-Kai Wang, Sharon Hayes ...

Could you explain how the artists you mention have provoked you? 

Each in his own way, but they share what they force you redefine things. You see something and this shoots you to another place. From Takala  what interests me is the speed in including a topic and how she uses performance and first person narrative to throw some direct questions about economic and social situations. From Fia Backström the capacity to work on language, common phrases that mixed, lead to other results. Goldin + Senneby, the ability to create a "secret" situation and control all the elements and at the same time, it can be a critical exercise. Hong-Kai Wang, the  blending the field of musical composition with emotion from contemporary art and also work outside the usual places. Sharon Hayes, the complexity that breaks out against supposedly very basic gestures. 

But, that said, they are immediate reactions that eventually are processed. And also thinking about individual exhibitions to visit, like Gerhard Byrne in Whitechapel, Karl Holmqvist at Moderna Museet....

With what artists are you currently working with?

For the first exhibition, which opens into nothing, with Petra Bauer, Åsa Cederqvist, Goldin + Senneby, Carl Palm and Lina Persson. For the next with a fairly wide group.

Regarding your projects for 2013, do you have anything on the horizon? You will repeat the experience of being a novel writer?

I am currently with two exhibitions, one for La Capella in Barcelona and another for the Galería Liebre in Madrid. And things that are not expositions but exchanges between people, CuratorLab mentoring a project in Stockholm, production proposals ... Not too many things, I could be doing more. I'm still writing and occupying the novel format "mistakenly" fascinates me, so the plan is there. I have written material forming something like a road movie with two artists, but it might all end up in the recycle bin of the computer. Like many other things.

Veronica Escobar

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