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Tank Thinking. An interview with Irit Rogoff 1

Interviewed by Alida Ivanov

Irit Rogoff is a theorist and a curator, based in London. As Professor of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, London University, where she heads the PhD in Curatorial/Knowledge and the MA in Global Arts program, she focuses on the intersection of contemporary art, critical theory, and emergent political manifestations. Her work surrounds issues of geography, globalization, and contemporary participatory practices in the expanded field of art.

Her published work include: “Museum Culture” (1997), “Terra Infirma - Geography's Visual Culture" (2001)”, “A.C.A.D.E.M.Y” (2006), “Unbounded - Limits Possibilities” (2011) and forthcoming “Looking Away - Participating Singularities, Ontological Communities” (2013). As a curator she has worked with De-Regulation with the work of Kutlug Ataman (2005-8), “A.C.A.D.E.M.Y” (2006), “Summit - Non Aligned Initiatives in education Culture” (2007), “Education Actualised”, special issue e-flux online journal 14. had a conversation with Irit Rogoff during her visit to Stockholm University, as a part of a collaborative project between The Curating Art program, Tensta Konsthall and AICA Sweden called WHAT DOES ART THEORY DO?

I’ve been googling you quite a bit these past weeks, you’re like the queen of interdisciplinary knowledge.

I hate this term. (Laughs)

But you are. How are you able to work in such a branched-out way? What are your main interests?

You’re not born like this, you become. And it took a long time.

What is your background then?

I studied art history. But it was a mistake.


Because I don’t think that it’s an intellectually, or politically ambitious discipline.

Wouldn’t that depend on the school?

Probably, but ultimately I believe that the discipline in itself is very much a conservation exercise, for me. And it’s very much about taking important issues and translating them back into art history.  Whereas I always wanted to break out of disciplines: take what they offer me, then go into the world and do things.

How did you do that? Or rather when did you realize that you wanted to do that?

When I finished my PhD I realized I didn’t want to be an art historian. I know… (Laughs) I have three degrees in art history and then I decided that I don’t want to be an art historian…

It’s kind of an interesting place to be: you’re not in a vacuum. But, I was very lucky because I got a post-doc at Harvard when I finished my PhD. And it was at an institution that had nothing to do with art history. And it was Harvard! I’m educated in Britain and I wasn’t used to institutions like this: huge, open, people coming and going all day long, everybody in the world was sort of ending up there. So instead of doing my project, which was my post-doc project, I decided to re-educate myself.  I gave myself a two-year re-education; I blew my mind. I went to so many lectures, symposiums, talked to so many people. It was unbelievable; I got introduced to a whole new world. And that gave me a scale. 

You start with a small circle and then it begins to get bigger and bigger.

I can’t even remember the person who wrote those early books: she was someone else; she was asking questions inside a field. I see it as sort of a huge privilege now to ask questions from outside. We (the Department of Visual Culture at Goldsmiths) develop things and the field as a whole. And that became a home, because the field is completely undefined. It could be anything.

Tell me a bit more about your educational work at the Department of Visual Culture?

We have about ten different degrees; we have different PhD programs too.

The one that I’m running: the Curatorial/Knowledge (C/K) PhD program is founded on practice-based research. It’s the kind of bold projects that people have been doing, but this type of research is not about the practice. So it means that you test out your questions. You don’t just go to the library and read a lot of books and then write. You use your practice in order to test out aspects of your research.

You’ve worked a lot with questions of the globalized world and its relationship to the art world, and visa versa. Could you elaborate on that?

I think a lot of this comes out of post-colonial studies: the post-colonial geography and its cartographies. Now it’s not about globalization, it’s rather about trying to figure out what kind of positions there might be to occupy in it. We’ve got a new MA (at Goldsmiths) called Global Art and we get all these applications from people who basically want to be art administrators in a global art world. And it’s absolutely not about moving art worlds around…

Has the art world really grown in the same pace as the globalized world, or no?

I think it circulates with great rapidity, but I wouldn’t call that growing. For one, it has become totally instrumentalized for cultural diplomacy, for gentrification and for all kinds of things. The art world is playing a very strange role in globalization.

Is it good or bad?

I don’t think one can give such simple answers.(Laughs). No way!

What kind of questions should we ask then?

I think I realized at the end of this trimester, after I’ve been teaching this for six months, that the question is: are there positions for people like us that are critically engaged to occupy in globalization?

It’s not about endless circulation, which is a highly conventional way of understanding what globalization is.

The Department of Visual Culture at Goldsmiths and the PhD program Curatorial/Knowledge also deals with questions on the curatorial and curating. How do you look upon curating? What is it?

We’re interested in what we call the curatorial. This is not so much about “practicing curating” but extracting from curating sort of core concepts that can then feed into epistemology. We’re interested in the curatorial as a model of knowledge production and we’re interested in whatit has to offer to other ways of producing knowledge.

There is a whole set of potential in the curatorial for knowledge production: assembling things that aren’t necessarily connected historically, or stylistically, or any particular way under the aegis of some totally invented title that then produces a relationship between these things. So we’re interested in the way the curatorial is a way of knowing.

How would that affect the practice of curating?

We want to detach the two. If it’s possible at all. You’re, in some ways, a part of the crisis of cognitive capitalism because of immediate instrumentalization and application of old knowledge. This is knowledge that disturbs the new rather than aids it. And this is important to disrupt.

So many different curatorial programs are popping up everywhere on a BA, MA and even on a PhD level…

There will soon be a kindergarten course: baby curators

But seriously, is that the future of curating? (Laughs)

No, but I think this trend is really recent. If you think about it: most disciplines are like 400 years old and this one is about a decade old. There’s nothing that indicates that it will continue this way. I think there is kind of an enthusiasm about curating at the moment.  And it’s based on that it’s something new and that people find it very sexy: it’s that kind of profession. The art world is one of those places that basically is entirely market-driven; and we pretend that it’s not. You’re in the market but you hide from it. I can see why it’s so attractive.

The curator has the same aura as an actor these days…but what is a curator?

That question means that you can sort of invent it for yourself.  I think that is far better than being given a definition.

The think tank model reoccurs when reading about you. It was a part of A.C.A.D.E.M.Y and is also a part of the name of your PhD program. How does that model work?

It was one installation in the exhibition. Everybody knows, or think they know what a think tank is. So the first thing that we wanted to do was to really complicate that notion. We didn’t allow this one single understanding determine what a think tank is. So, they brought up this utopian 20’s model, which was borrowed from the Revolutionary Art Academy in the Soviet Union. They also brought up the Cold War model that is instrumentalized by government, where they would hire academics as consultants, because they are seemingly neutral, right?


They objectively produce policy and advice and so on for the government. But actually they are completely instrumentalized by the state. And this is a typical Cold War product. We got very interested in the possibility to re-utopinize the think tank model.

Then I started on these programs at Goldsmiths, which I called think tank PhDs. The idea was that in a think tank you start from right now. You don’t write the history of something, you don’t start 20 years ago. So, how do we study it?

This is what we did with the architectural program and then with the curating program. We said “curating is a problem and how do we study it”, which is very different from saying “curating is this and this and these knowledges”. In order to study curating, you study this knowledge. But if you think that curating is problematic in the sense that there is no field, or discipline or practice then how do you study it?

Along came 24 people and each of them had a different idea about how to study it.

Could you tell me a bit about some of the projects in the program?

They’re just finishing the first PhDs now in these months. Doreen Mende on C/K ( who’s PhD is on “exhibiting as inhibiting”. She’s kind of talking about the fact that any act of putting something on display inhibits another aspect of it. There is a kind of this double economy that when you exhibit something you inhibit it. That is a very interesting PhD.

Ines Moreira from Portugal (whose profile you can find on the C/K website as well) just finished her dissertation that’s on actor-network theory on building sites as the model for the curatorial. The actual building is the model for curating, the finished product, but the building site is the model for the curatorial. Building sites are these very active places: people come and go and they’re not just identified with one building site they move between them, there’s illegal labor; all kinds of quasi-legal activities and expertise that comes together but you don’t see them in the final product. It’s a very interesting PhD.

Another one, an artist is doing a PhD on art student radicalism based on a series of moments.

Could we talk about the project A.C.A.D.E.M.Y at the Van Abbemuseum and its relationship to the museum? Is it a relationship between academia and the museum in a way and how is that “critiquing from within” the museum and other art institutions?

I think this is my mission: to not have that kind of relationship. For example, I’m absolutely not interested in expertise; I’m not an expert. And I don’t have the body of expertise to contribute to this discussion. But I do have the capacity to come into an institution, look at it and think about it differently from elsewhere, with other tools and that’s the contribution that I can make. I make the museum strange to itself; I estrange it from itself. I think that’s the kind of contribution that critical academics can make.

You can be an expert on Gauguin and be employed by a museum to write something expert on Gauguin or you can question the museum and make it work with you in questioning.

I think that we’ve moved passed the old model of institutional critique and of just criticizing institutions because they’re institutions. There is a way of occupying it and inhabiting it that can be interesting, critical and inventive. I’m much more into that.

Where would the dream place, or dream museum be to do this in?

I think that we have been pretty lucky with places that have been entirely open by letting me ask questions and also just to do things differently. And also didn’t demand an end product, which you know never happens. The fact that we, disappointingly, produced that is our problem not the museums. The museum was much more accepting than we were, which was very funny.

I tend to work in small places. Provincial museums are much more interesting than major ones. They have much more freedom, they’re much more experimental and they have a much more diverse audience.

When you work in that kind of setting, do you think as a theorist or as a curator?

I always think as a theorist. And that’s the contribution I have to make. There are a bunch of people who think as curators, but there are not a lot of people who know how to be theorist in non-theoretical places. So, this is the key: to transplant the theory to a place where it’s not natural and then make it work.

What was the latest curatorial project that you have been involved in?

It’s interesting, I start projects thinking that they should become exhibitions and then halfway through I realize I don’t want them to be an exhibition. You have to let things find their own format. We just started this huge project on infrastructure with another group. I did it on a promise that it would become an exhibition at BAK in Utrecht and Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Three weeks into the project we looked at each other and thought it won’t be an exhibition. We’ll find a way of making it manifest, but it won’t be a lot of artwork. It’s also the business of working with a concept, then you make the art illustrate that.

Personally I would start with artists and then find a concept through the art. But you seam to start from the other end?

I start with an idea and then it’s a question of who comes. But everything I do is like that. I set up a program and then I sit and wait to see who comes. And those will determine how the program will be.

Would you say there is space for spontaneity when you ground yourself in theory?

The program changes depending on the drive of the people who come. Because these problems are very experimental: they’re not there yet. 

I don’t know what culture globalization is, but in five years time, after teaching it for five years I will know a lot more. (Laughs)

What theorist interests you right now?

I think I’m between things right now. There is a whole body of work by Agamben and Hannah Arendt that are really important to me. Foucault is always important to me. He never leaves. Deleuze is also always important; they’re like grandparents. They’re with you for life.

Right now, I think my questions are not coming out of theory, but rather political realities. And I need to re-theorize them in a way, but I don’t know how yet. It’s the beginning of a whole set of new projects and I don’t know how to do them yet. But I have complete confidence that they are really good projects. (Laughs)

That’s a good way of looking at it! (Laughs)

That’s the only way of looking at it, when you don’t know what you are doing! (Laughs)