The museum. What in the world does it mean? Is it just a space where art finds some sort of shelter from the outside world? Or, does it mean more than that? If you ask that question, it is like you ask about a different world in our actual world. But is it really that simple? The thing is that the art that is shown in a museum, in this different world as it is often seen as being very far from the people’s daily lives, comes from people living and working in the outside world. So, how come the museum is seen as such a foreign matter? One thing could be that the museum is constantly changing and because changing is such a strong word, let’s say it is evolving. Of course, there is a lot more to the story, talking about problems like people who fear they won’t understand art and feel out of place in a museum, having better and more fun things to do than going into the museum or having everything you want to see just one Web search away.
Interview: Anna Gortan and Jasmin Edegger, member of the Youth club Kunsthaus Graz with Łukasz Zaremba
Text: Anna Gortan
For the project “Translocal: Museum as Toolbox” that is currently taking place in Graz in coorporation with four other museums, we, Jasmin Edegger and I, had the chance to meet a young curator and academic who works in Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. On Friday the 15th of April, the day we met Łukasz Zaremba, we attended his first meeting with Head of Educational Service of Art and Architecture at the Kunsthaus and Neue Galerie Graz Dr. Monika Holzer-Kernbichler. Subsequently after that meeting, we showed him the current exhibitions at Kunsthaus Graz, Music tames the beast by Constantin Luser and The painter’s cabinet by Terry Winters. Afterwards, we accompanied him to his appointment with restorer Paul Bernhard Eipper at the Depot who gave an amazing insight into that part of the museum that he hasn’t really seen to such an extent until then. On Sunday, the 17th of April, we met again to show him the city of Graz and we sat down in a cafe and were able to do an interview with him, asking him questions about the modern day museum and the way he sees it, to which he gave very insightful answers. But read for yourself:
At first, we would like to hear some general things about you as a person. So, would you tell us a bit of yourself like your name, what you do at the museum you work in and what you have studied?
My name is Łukasz Zaremba, I am curator of the academic program in Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland, but my background is academia. I studied cultural studies and a bit of art history and now I work both at the University of Warsaw and Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź.
Could you tell us a bit of the museum you work in, about its structure etc.?
The museum is situated in the center of the industrial/postindustrial city, once the second largest city in Poland, now in the process of reconstructions and struggling. The museum itself, not actually in its beginnings but in very early stages, received a huge gift from a group of Polish artists called a.r. Group. A gift that consisted of a huge collection of the avant-garde art, art from that period of the early thirties. So the museum is one of the first in the world that had a collection of avant-garde art, of modern art, of art that used to be the most contemporary art of that time. That gift was decisive for the development of the idea of how the museum should work and what it should be. When it was reopened after the Second World War it was obvious that the base, the foundation of the museum is avantgarde art and that that would be the core of the collection. And today, we’re trying to develop the idea of what avan-tgarde art and what being avant-garde means now. We’re not as much focusing on the history of the avant-garde, of course we are doing that too and from time to time we’ve got exhibitions that perform different versions of our source of the history of avan-tgarde, both western and eastern, but we’re trying to keep up to this tradition which is to ask ourselves what it means to be avant-garde today. What’s interesting about our museum beside its huge collection is the fact that we really think that this collection is the core of the museum and most of the space of the exhibition space of the museum is taken by the presentation of that collection, that is, of course, changed every now and then.
Next, we would love to hear a little more about what your exact job or task at the museum is?
My main task is to prepare the academic and more advanced contextualisation to the exhibitions that are being held in the museum, meaning conferences, sometimes publications, especially a programme of lectures and with my collegues also programmes such as movie projections and things like that. That’s one part of my job. The other part, as it happens, is just the curatorial work and I’m not experienced in that part of my job, I am just beginning and I am more used to academia. One of my other tasks is also to do the reseach because there are so many things in the archives that still aren’t well enough known…I don’t know, let’s say context or interpretation. Even very basic research of what was written about this and what was written about that is crucial for my work. So to figure out what I am interested in from the archive and then develop it into a paper or an article for a journal, that’s also part of my job.
So, what do you personally like about the museum you work in and what would you like to change if it was in your power?
I love the collection…and…to be honest, it is really hard to say what I like in my daily job. There are many things. So, maybe the second question is more tricky and dangerous, of course. Because, you know, I like my job, I like the museum. It is really open for very different ideas and for very different forms of reflection. My work there is not a common thing in a museum, it’s not in every museum that there is a researcher and academic, so that shows you that something different is going on. There are these different forms of experiencing art and asking questions about art. What I’d like to change is hard to say, but these things exist of course. Every museum has a bunch of problems, a set of what we would call in the EU-languages “challenges” not “problems”, that we have to face and these are for the museum both global and very, very local. Globally, we would like to be a part of the history of the international avant-garde and we have got the collection that should be visible in the, I don’t know, maybe the books and articles on the avant-garde movement. A task is to inform people from outside of Poland that there actually exists this huge tradition of avant-garde in Poland and this huge collection in our museum. That’s the challenge for the international scene. And locally, we have to face this situation where the city is remaking itself nowadays and there are all these processes, that may also be dangerous, that are taking place, like…there is this danger that the museum will be part of the new beautiful city center of the city. But the price for that will be moving people from the city center. So, the museum has to think about ways of engaging people from its neighbourhood and working with them, so it is not this closed space with really expensive art, not actually friendly to the people that are circulating around the museum on a daily basis. How to connect with the public in the city is changing and changing dramatically fast.
Next we would like to know how you even got involved in this project “Museum as Toolbox”?
As a part of the curatorial team just starting my work in Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź I was involved in the project so that I can check if that’s something for me. If there is a place for a curator that has also research ambitions in the project, if you will. And then I went to the first meeting in Zagreb.
And what do you think the end result will look like, what do you expect to get out of this project? Why do you think this project is important?
So, what I’d like to get from this project is overall general, like creating a network of museums that are in a way in similar situations. Of course, they are very different but these are all not central museums but very interesting nevertheless. They should work together and get to know each other and borrow or learn from each other. That’s one thing. The other thing is very particular, it is, maybe not to change but to get to know ways of changing the way we work with youth public. Because this project is probably too short to actually change anything, but it can inform us about the ways to work in the future and I don’t think that we actually have that problem in Łódź with the young public – visitors from 15 to 25 are part of the core of our public there. But, we always have to think forward and this group is changing and it is changing really fast. It is really important not to feel too happy with ourselves and then we suddenly lose the young public because we missed something, like, we missed a switch, change or turn in the way they communicate with the museum and the fact is that museum, for them, means something completely different and we’ve missed the ways that they’re engaging in things, like you are engaging in things because you are the part of the group of interest in this project. So, reflection, as much reflection as possible. Maybe not a finished project, but gaining at least as many ideas as possible.
And what have your experiences been until now? What did you experience within this project?
We had a great first meeting in Zagreb with all Toolbox teams from the five museums and we actually discussed all the basic questions once again which was very good. For example, what the public actually means. The EU funds this project and we could have just gone and realised that project. But in Zagreb besides that, once again I asked basic questions like: What are we talking about? About whom do we talk about? That was the first thing that triggered the reflection on the museum and on the museum of the future. Probably that’s how we should think of when we start to think about general ideas. Because when you ask questions about the youth public, you actually ask about the future of the museum and the visitors that will decide whether the museum is going to work in 20 years. That’s one thing, of course I also had the chance to meet a lot of very interesting people and even yesterday, I had the chance to meet a really great artist/designer collective that is working in Graz,but located in Zagreb. So, for now, these two things and of course, getting to know museums and their structure, the way they work and the way the educational department is situated in each of these museums. It’s really interesting how different the roles in the different museums are .
What do you think is your part in the project and what can you contribute to it?
I try to embrace this notion that the project doesn’t have to come up with one final answer or even that it doesn’t have to come up with any answer at all. I am trying to push the reflection into the direction of speculation about what can happen and what could happen or what can’t happen but would be useful to think about in this project. But also I feel that we have to look at the differences between these five museums – the youth public in Łódź will be much different than the youth public in Graz. There is no one way of working with all these people just because they are between 15 and 25. So, I think my aim is a multiplication of roads and also questioning the basic terms and ideas of the project. Publics…audience…What does it mean? And are these really people that have to come into the museum to be publics of the museum? Or, that you can think about public in different ways because of the media change and the fact that you can see so many things on the web. In a wider sense that these are publics even if they don’t come inside the museum. And so, maybe the museum goes out and works with them outside. That’s also a possibility.
And how exactly would you personally like the work with the youngsters to be? Like the very young people from age 15 to 16 years?
I think that our educational department in Łódź does that in a perfect way because it has this really strong idea that this group should be treated as not even equal to us or having its own ideas and world views but as maybe even more clever than us seeing the world in a different way. What I would like is just a general idea: To work with such young public would be to listen to them and start with what they’re thinking, asking them questions and focusing on what they are saying. In the beginning, it may be alien to the museum but we have to learn from them from time to time. That doesn’t mean that pupils in school should tell their teachers what’s important, it’s not only that but because the common way of working with youth seems different, so, maybe we should make it this way a bit stronger. I think our educational department does that very well and I’ve heard about the others in the project involved and it sounds like we are on a common ground here. We want to use the youth as experts to learn from them how to communicate with larger groups of their peers.
What do you think could be the reason for young people to visit the museum at all? What does it offer them to even go there?
A different world view. That’s really a basic answer but I feel a very different world view, that’s in a way radical. A way of radically changing the perspective, radically changing the point of view, the way you see things. Like, making strange uncanny and unnatural what is natural and normal for you on a daily basis. I feel that’s the main task of the museum, getting someone out of their safe environment and the idea that you know exactly what’s going on and that your point of view is the normal, regular, typical point of view. Showing people different points of view and raising questions. Not to give the answers but engaging questions of how the world is going to look like if you switch perspective.
But sometimes people are even scared to go into a museum because they fear that they don’t understand it kind of, right?
Yes, of course. And that’s the task of both the curatorial team and especially the educational department, to get from every exhibition something for more than one group of experts. Of course, it is not always possible and not every exhibition is designed for a huge public, and it shouldn’t even be that way. There should be really difficult and crazy and adventurous exhibitions that aren’t, let’s say, friendly. These kinds of aspects should also exist but, for example, museums collections are the space where the educational department should find ways to open it for everyone.
Now just a general question: Did you enjoy your stay in Graz so far?
Oh, I love it. I really do. I have perfect guides (*laughs, because he was talking about Jasmin and me) and I had a wonderful meeting with the artists in residence here. The things they told me about their works are amazing and I am looking forward to the outcome of the residency. I also am really interested in the way that this museum or other museums in Graz work. So, I got a lot of information about that and it’s only been two days and I feel like I know a lot more than I did before. That opens the chance for a future coorporation on very different levels, like exhibitions, collections, exchanges which also includes exchange of ideas and that is just great.
And what would you say are the main differences between the Kunsthaus in Graz and the museum you work in in Poland? Are there any or are there even similarities?
The first thing that comes to mind is the building, both here and in Łódź. In Łódź, we have three settings, three places that the museum shows its exhibitions in and one is situated in the neighbourhood of or actually it is right next to a shopping mall. The mall used to be a textile factory, so there is that long history of a building that is in a way rebuilt, a textile factory that is changed into a shopping mall, both very important spaces of modernity. And then, there’s the museum next to it. That was a controversial decision at that time and now it’s really working great for us but that was controversial at first, you know. And here in Graz, you’ve got this building that is really decisive for the work of the curators but also an attraction itself and makes the public interested and curious. That’s one thing, the relation of the building, the setting for the work of the museum. And the other one I was interested in was the publishing practice of both museums, because in my museum we have a huge publishing department and we publish a lot of books and I was really happy to see that it’s really similar here and I am interested in getting to know more about the publishing process in Graz.
In general, how do you think museums could be made more accessible and widened for the broad society, not just young people but people of all ages?
We have to challenge the idea that this has to be. Some of them maybe won’t and maybe that’s good because there is a place in the museum for so many modes of reflection that we have to keep so there’s a space for the autonomy of art practices. But I am not saying that people should be excluded. I think now in the arts, in this era of post-participation, it existed and still exists, but now the reflection on it like many critics and authors gave us more distanced words instead of just jumping into things like: Let’s ask the public what we should show in the museum. Let’s ask the public to produce a work of art on their own by themselves. This way of working seems now too simple and naive. We have to come up with new ideas of processes of learning from each other and I don’t have one particular answer, like, you should do this or that, for instance you should be visible on TV…I don’t know, maybe even commercials on the street. Some museums do that too, there are museums in Poland that are visible on billboards in the city. To make people start thinking about them as one of the spaces of spending the Sunday after going to a shopping mall. Some think it is a good idea, some criticise it as joining the competition to attract their attention and the competition is between us and the cinema for instance, or other attractions. I am not sure if we could win that challenge. The museum should be honest about what it does. It won’t be as accessible at the first stage, like it is with so many attractions that we are used to but it promises much more than many of them. So, maybe being honest with the public and saying: Yeah, you’re gonna have to work and get tired but the reward is much higher than somewhere else. We can not become childish because we think of the public or someone that expects that from us. I don’t even think that the public expects that. It is much cleverer than some PR-agency probably thinks.
Now a very different question: Contemporary art is very hard to understand if you don’t know the artist and his concept and are not familiar with the circumstances or the surrounding he/she had to cope with while creating the piece of art by him/her. So, how should it be presented in a museum? Because you can’t say here is a book to read and then you’ll understand it..
Sometimes you’ll have to, let’s face it! But in general, it is a task of all these people that surround an exhibition. The educational department to prepare workshops and for someone like me to prepare lectures on that, to prepare a leaflet that is not explaining everything but that gives you these different tracks to approach the work. And of course, all the new media stuff, like video guides. Yesterday, with Oaza group collective, we discussed the idea of podcasts for young people about and around the exhibition. First of all, there is no bad way of approaching the work of art if you have got good intentions. I just encourage starting and then it opens up step by step and the museum has all these different guides to help you. It’s enough if you ask for them because they actually exist, both in Graz and in my museum, too. The educational department produces all these leaflets, we produce books, video guides but also guiding trips with the curator through the exhibitions. So, I would advice myself also to think about all these situations as the core of the museum’s activity, meaning, that the daily work of the museum should be dense with these guides and it should be questioned if the typical way of approaching museums should still be on my own, alone in my free time, or it might be a collective experience and we should change the way of thinking about that, at least from time to time. I think that the most important thing is to encourage someone to start because all these ways and roads actually exist, we produce them and they are waiting for you. You just have to cross the boarder between the outside world and the museum.
What is your opinion on art and what definition would you give?
In a way I already told you my definition when I was talking about what the museum should be like. It would be disrupting the ways of looking at things like you are used to and you feel safe with. Showing the gaps in your way of looking. Denaturalising the way you see things and your world view as a whole, but not giving answers. Art should be making a mess in your field of vision, so that you have to reshape it on your own piece by piece after looking at it.
Thank you for your time and for sharing your opinions with us!
Łukasz’ Kunsthaus “Selfie”: