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Transcript of the episode

A Conversation with Chus Martinez

Spanish curator, art historian, writer and currently the director of the Art Gender Nature Institute at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel, Chus Martinez talks about reimagining the exhibition public space, the transformative role of art in society and being a woman in her field of work.

season 3 episode 13
Nov 19 2021

Speakers: Mauren Brodbeck and Chus Martinez

Mauren  0:02 

Hi, Chus, welcome to the show.

Chus  0:05 

Hello. Yeah, thank you,

Mauren  0:06 

I would like you to talk a little bit about your background to begin with so people understand where you're coming from. And so I was wondering what were your first experience with art and in the arts? And what were your first inspirations? Why did you choose to be part of the art world?

Chus  0:21 

I didn't. I was a philosophy student. Yeah. And my advisor, tutor at that moment decided to make an exhibition with Dennis Hopper, you know, the American actor? And because Luna... The thing is that Barcelona, at that moment was a very active city and very active in cinema as well, because Luna was a fantastic filmmaker. And he was a neighbor of my advisor who was a philosopher, but very much in love with the arts and this kind of crowd and  he just decided to invite Dennis Hopper to present his paintings in Barcelona, and then they decided that the smart ass kind of student that was me should play at that exhibition. And they just put me into that situation. My English was so poor, their English was even worse. And nobody expected him to say yes, but he did. And then he came with his family and his paintings, and for him was very important to present his paintings. And all of a sudden, we have an incredible amount of friends. So I was like, you know, something in between the close and beautiful. Yeah, yeah. And we have lots and lots of fun. So that was kind of my first exhibition that I don't know why I never really mentioned or talk about it, or even put in the curriculum, because I thought I was like, it was an accident, you know, when your poodle and then you invite the poodle to create. So I was kind of there in the in the office of my doctor advisor, and that I was just pushed into that type of thing. And it was, it was just hilarious. And then after, it was on an on this kind of episodes, where I ended up asked by my teachers to create student exchange with Germany. And then I decided, Oh, my God, this is so difficult. I can't really not talk in German very well. And I applied to a Fulbright and I ended up studying in Columbia University, I was very difficult. The philosophy department was kind of a little bit obsolete. So I ended up into the Middle Eastern department and the Middle Eastern department was directed by Hamid Havash who was a teacher, and an incredible expert in Iranian cinema. And then he ended up asking me about why don't we do an exhibition about Iranian cinema, at the center of the campus, and I thought, but do I have written in my face ''ask me to organize an exhibition'' type of thing? So that's how it all started, just by this kind of coincidence of people outside that are organizing and asking me to do it. And it continues, and I love it.

Mauren  3:07 

So it was pursuing you until you became a curator?

Chus  3:11 

Yeah, kind of, I know.

Mauren  3:15 

But you're challenging this definition of what it is to be a curator?

Chus  3:20 

oh, some people really love to be it. And I respect it. But I still feel that I don't really operate or act as a curator by the book. So I still feel that I introduce too many elements that were not or are not named in the discipline. I did study our history. And I also never mentioned it in my curricula. I think my main motivation to study art history is that, yeah, the students in the art history department seem much more open, and the men are much more beautiful. So I ended up sitting. I don't know, I think I just judged my own motivations and evaluated if they are, you know, if they entitle me to proceed with certain activities. So yeah, I don't feel much like a curator. I feel as somebody in between many fields that love to organize exhibitions, because the work with artists is taken, I love to produce our works. And I think I'm good at it. Yeah, some of the people are much more historical, much more tied to certain organization forms.

Mauren  4:34 

But I think that's what also makes your work so interesting it's because you are rethinking this practice, you know, of what a curator should be and could be and can do and how to understand the role of the artistic practice and of curation. And I think that's really interesting, because you did a lot. You have an incredible resume. And then I was wondering what were your greatest challenges in really the way you brought all these new ideas to life about what we can do with curation?

Chus  5:04 

Well, I'm still thinking a lot about it all, because you know, now after the pandemic, we are gonna face and we are facing already, like some audience not feeling... like we are losing the audience in certain institutions, because it's difficult to do certain things and activities in our museums and art spaces. So I'm wondering if you can eat in an exhibition, I wonder if you can date in an exhibition, I wonder if you can work in an exhibition, I wonder if you can actually plant plants in an exhibition. So I'm still thinking a lot about what can you bring to the middle of that incredible public space that I totally love and respect. And also, because you are experiencing an incredible increase in control, and controlling and love for organization and organizing, and labeling what I call the Marie Kondo of our society, so the socks need to be really, really perfect into that kind of part of your godrope. I think that the exhibition as a format and as a space is still an incredible freedom space. So it's worth to investigate, what else can we do? How can we bring teenagers? How can we do things that I suppose not to be done there? How can we still provide safety and also, activity at the same time, we're talking about safe spaces? Definitely an exhibition is a safe space, even if sometimes it confronts you with values and even works that you may not like? It's a it's a space that protects both those visiting and also those exhibiting? So it's a question ahead of us, how can we introduce different social dynamics that disentangle the exhibition from the perception that's still very static, that maybe boring that I can not really bring anything from home into the exhibition space? So it will be really interesting probably in 100 years to see the elaborate forms that exhibitions are? Or how can we, for example, have offices or co working spaces inside museums, and things like that are not unthinkable? So as a curator, I reflect a lot into those possibilities and scenarios.

Mauren  7:29 

Yeah, this is very interesting, because you believe in the power of art to drive social changes. And I was wondering, could you talk about this? And explain how do you see this happening, because I think it's really important to talk about this, not only for artists to understand how impactful their work can be, especially women artists, but also for a more general audience, because art is quite often disregarded on the general audience to be really important in society. And I think it is.

Chus  8:00 

It's not a belief, it's a fact I've seen it so many times life, change, because of exposure. So life does change, because you get exposed to certain experiences that you may not be able to reflect on them, or to even articulate them in language, and yet, they stay with you in ways that you feel they are meaningful, and they bring you some sort of peace of mind. Now, people are asking themselves, what's the sense of things even more than before because you keep on doing, you keep on proceeding, you keep on performing, socially, personally, and so on? And then you ask, but Well, why I'm doing that? I think, what's the, what's the gain? And then the other side of economy and capitalism would say, otherwise, it gets down, and then you would lose even the few privileges that you have been able to acquire your job or your health, and so on and so forth. You keep on doing that there is a Minase. And that Minase motivates you to perform the role that has been given to you. So I think that it's absolutely worth to reflect upon the fact that art is not prescribing you to do anything in particular. And then there is an incredible mutuality that gets established in between you and even your dislike of it, and IT. And the fact that you get an exposure that is for you to re-translate into your own life in the manner you want. So you are absolutely free to go home and say fuck, I hated that. How could the artist do this? Or you can be absolutely indifferent, or you could love it. But in the three cases, your experience, you are free to actually adopt it into your own language. In the three cases, perhaps less in the indifference one, you would be able to think about also even in the indifference case, why are you not moved by? How come that I don't feel anything about this? Or how come I do feel so much, or I do feel so antagonistic. And this is really something that adds to your life, adds to the conversations. And many people 10-15 years ago when I was saying, you know, I really want to be called frosh, like, call me frog. Like when I was a student in Germany, and they wanted, like, you know, my first job in Germany, they wanted to call me from Martinez. And I thought, coming from Spain, the ridiculous I don't want to be called from Martinez. And then I said, called me, Martinez, frosh Martinez, I really prefer that, you know, like, I would prefer to be called as an animal, than as a human that is not adapting to the system of a culture that's not mine. So I'm not German, so don't call me that way. And those people were looking at me like, wow. I'm just saying that these days, for sure, these people will stop thinking I'm stravagant. And start thinking that there is a point in me assimilating nature in ways that they also feel, and also that people are rescuing feelings that they were perhaps, you know, repressing their love for nature, or walks in the forest or touching stones or touching leaves in the autumn or reflecting on colors thinking you are sentimental. But now, everyone is kind of bringing up the sentiment and the sentient of thinking about nature in ways that are much, much more present in our society. And they were laugh about 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago. So who's merrit is that? I would say is the merit of art, I think it's really, really the merit of artist is that they have been trying to create an environment where you are able to express something that was always that it's only that you just did not push it into your work, you will not come to work say, oh, for me, actually, to have a conversation with my plants and my pets, is fundamental, because that's how it really I like to start the day. But today, many people trust themselves in thinking that there is a point in sharing life with animals and plants and sharing life with non human entities and so on. So I think that art has an enormous impact in in the way that we perceive our own possibilities and scenarios of future.

Mauren  12:39 

Yeah, this is really interesting. And I feel like people need more this relationship and this connection with all their senses, to really feel things more and to be more connected. Do you think that as a woman, you had different or more challenges than men, when you faced in all the positions you had in your career?

Chus  12:58 

I cannot talk on behalf of men, but on behalf of myself as a woman and many others, that I know. Yes, of course I don't. I simply don't get the same. The same chances. I think, if I give a talk sometimes or people talk about my work, they say that I have... "Wow, she's so... you're so passionate." But I actually would love to hear oh, this article is so interesting. And question of relevance and influence when it comes to a woman, it's a complete different one. So some, you're very much still judged as an exception. And still, you're trying not to be talking about so it's very, it's very difficult. It's a fact I'm not gonna I'm not gonna say otherwise. And it's something that I continuously experience. So you know, all the time you are perceived as, yes special, but in a man, you would say he's just so powerful and interesting. Let's give him the job. And in a woman's like a title, no title. Yes, but I don't know. So the doubt this attachment of a certain weather of doubt, is it's a condition that that comes with our position, economically and culturally. And it's difficult to get rid of, or to transform.

Mauren  14:32 

Yeah. This brings me to a word I would like to talk about, because it's a long love concept. And it's the one of the genius, I'm going to quote you, you said, "Artists work collaboratively. They have for centuries. We need to discard the idea of the genius." And you said "It's a bad metaphor for loneliness and power." Can you talk about this? Because it's still exist? I hear it every other day. Oh, yeah. But he's a genius. Yes. And it's funny because in English genius can work for men and woman, but in French, it doesn't at all, you never hear the word genius. I don't know about Spanish,

Chus  15:10 

Spanish, the same as French, it's something that it's also it has a magical touch, it comes from this extra power that's given to you. And they don't need it's it costs, you know, from God to the king to the Yeah. To the genius. So the magician, the superpower man is not feminine at all, is not non binary at all, is not fluid at all. It's very static, it stays in the vessel that contains it. So it's just this in a very define individuality and I see as having a power that the others don't. It's, it's kind of a pity not to reflect enough. And it's not only a question of language, it's a question of structures. And I would say that, you know, the genius seat is not only in the language that gets used and spread, and sprinkle into certain individuals and not others, but also in our administration. Our administration also acts as if certain moments of exceptionality and then incredible moments of control. So certain individuals they have, as a community as a collective, the role of controlling as a mother, as a wife, as a partner, and so on. And then the exceptional moment where something happens, it's given somewhere else. So as I said, it's really a question that should be, I strategically consider, not only consider in the sense of a language that gets socially spread, which is also unfortunate. At the same time, even corporations, they cannot stop talking about co creation, about core leadership, because they feel that it's very difficult to sustain certain levels of implementation of ideas and transformation of the social in their absolutely mono culture idea of leadership, not like the leader, the soldier, on the horse type of that series. Beyond the horizon, where the others cannot see but advanced go! Don't be afraid of risking, we are gonna win. So, and then now, we experience a coexistence of these two clash models, junk ball, almost without jobs opportunities, without even a language in the social, they can see themselves as, as a class as a social group, being absolutely considered that bullshit leadership horse type of thing, is just the one that's gonna, you know, even kill the few opportunities that remain because, of course, if they don't unite if they don't collaborate, and most of all, if they don't care for each other, life is impossible, there is no possibility of survival. So they see with clairvoyence, they see also that while administration, and capitalism wants absolute control, in order to define performativity, and efficiency in the capitalistic system, they need to implement fluidity in their own bodies and genders. Because otherwise they are completely entangled to the categories defined for them. So the streets of May 68 are today the bodies, so the revolution that we perceive with barricades and foster asking for freedom and rights are today the possibility and also the performativity of a body, being non binary, being fluid, having the possibility of the freedom of going from very different ends, and coming back. So yes, it's it's a transformation that's definitely happening. And in my opinion, we are missing voices and hats, able to articulate it properly so that people would have a picture of it and would understand better, what are we facing and what can be done? Because it's really, it's a really complex moment.

Mauren  19:39 

Do you think we are really going towards more connection, more intersectional work and kind of changing a bit, you know, the word epistemology and what does it mean, you know, with this whole theory of what we know and, and the validity of things, there is a shift, right?

Chus  19:58 

Yes, but um, On the other hand is also true that we are still in a moment that the coexistence of many models is in there. And there is still the danger I think I wouldn't, I would refrain proclaiming that we are step by step progressing towards fantastic horizon of equality and social justice, because it's much more... it's we are facing what science calls a complex model, where many systems are coexisting, and they have validity at the same time, we are seeing it for example, every day, there is incredible claims that are of immense relevance when it comes to, of course fluidity and non binary-ism, in the sense of identity, but also social justice claims and ideas of collaborative and care in community organization, models for organization that are much more sensitive towards what the collective intelligence can create together. On the other hand, there is an incredible reactionary backlash in our society, disclaiming constantly that and also going back to moments we never thought they would be facing, like, you know, the anti vaccination movement, and, and people distrust in science in ways that are a little bit too radical, and even remind us that we were talking about, you know, radicalism in the social, in relationship with religion, but we were actually bought into a more secular context, you know? And it's, it's an interesting question.

Mauren  21:47 

yeah, yeah, true. So you're currently the head of the Institute of Art of the FHW Academy of Arts and Design in Basel, Switzerland. So why did you decide to work in the world of art in education,

Chus  22:05 

because after documenta, it was very important to me to go closer to younger artists, and to understand how transmission happen, and I must say, I don't regret it, I think, I never thought that I would be perceived as abandoning curating. But, of course, at the beginning, many people confronted me with that question, I always underestimate how conservative their world is, and the systems of the art world are so systematized in everything in its right thing. So at the beginning, when I just started, I perceived myself as still so curious person that I needed to go with my, with my nose, close to the making of the arts, and to the minds of younger people, that they may have a complete different understanding of what art needs to be. And I was confronted all the time with Why Are you abandoning the art? And I was like "I'm not abandoning anything". I'm just like, you know, I'm just trying to see it from a complete different perspective so that when I organize exhibitions, I can take into account exactly that, that the forms of transmission that I was growing up with, are obsolete and new generations are bringing into the table, complete different conversations. So that was my main motivation, I wanted to learn, it's so easy in our systems, just to repeat what you know, because you learn to a certain age, and you had some succeed as we have, I think we documenta 13; it was very successful. And it's super easy just to carry that on, and then bring it and repeat it and repeat it and rehearse it and rehearse it. So it was fundamental for me to put me in a situation I knew so less about. And I was never been an educator, I don't really like to teach. And I don't think I'm very good at it. But I have other traits that I can bring into an art education school. And then I thought, hey, it's immense. While I was working in museums and art institutions, my colleagues were fantastic, but most of them were not artists. And here I have an environment where everyone is an artist, the teachers are artists, and the students are artists. So yes, it was a very egoistic move. I really wanted to be with them.

Mauren  24:34 

Oh, that's great. But I think also when you when you do things differently, and you challenge a bit the norm you also get out of the comfort zone of having validation from everyone around you. So

Unknown Speaker  24:46 

no, no, I think I think Forget it. As a woman doesn't matter, I think if you work towards validation then it may not come or you would encounter a beautiful wave of silence. So They are never gonna quote you. Because at the end of the day there was no, I don't know about her, she's a little bit, I don't know how to tell you. So doesn't matter you need to do what you need to do. And the most important thing is that I perceive the art education context as one where I can invite many, help many, and be generous with many. So this is something that I learned during documenta that my joy in life is, you know, you could commission so much you could invite so many, and I just don't want it out of my life, because it makes an incredible difference. To create possibilities for others. Yeah, it's, it's part of what I think I should do.

Mauren  25:47 

Yeah, because you're working right now on many different projects, through this institution.

Chus  25:51 

Yeah. And also outside. And I think that because I learned a little bit, I had a more even more naive, and let's say infantile approach, so I became younger. So I was always a little bit infantile, but now I'm completely infantile, and in a year, and completely, you know, yeah, I don't assume many of the languages that, that I should assume by age and experience, so I still do mistakes. And I still think, oh, oh, God, I'm doing that. So I, I love to be in that kind of position of vulnerability and being able to still think, " Oh but I don't know nothing about it." And, and in that sense, the exchange with others becomes really meaningful, because I'm here because I learned so much from the students, the students have. So incredible ideas and energies that you can, that you can learn from, and then, you know, mature in a way, as a curator again, so you can become, you know, in this seven years of being here, it just start realizing things again, this moment of realization. And this helped me to work in the ocean space in Venice. Now, I'm working with another foundation that is dedicated to generous listening and transmission. So that would not be possible if I wouldn't be here or surrounded by these incredible students.

Mauren  27:25 

You work also with the souks Museum.

Chus  27:28 

Yes, we've collaborated for at least three years now we are closing in the cycle. And we created an incredible program that is continuing, which is exploring the role of art education in the making of woman artists and artists in general. I think it's not only about woman, I think we said woman because everyone departs from its own concerns. And also my upbringing. And my educational upbringing still roots me a little bit in historical feminism, but definitely is not only about that, it's also about non binaries. So I'm doing that together with Quinn Latimer. And the expression of this program are two international symposia that take place twice a year, in the spring, and in the autumn. Now, we are about to launch the autumn one in November. And, yeah, it brings an enormous amount of joy. And as I said, you will learn so much from the perspectives of artists and the practice on how to make a space. How not to complain, how to embrace and yet produce a space of possibility and motivation that you re energize everyone. Every gender, is not about one gender, it's about all of them and getting a sense of collaboration and implementation.

Mauren  29:05 

You are also a mother? Yes. Do you ever encounter negative feedback in regards to that?

Chus  29:12 

Of course. I think anyone didn't. Yeah, of course. When I when my son was eight months, I was full in the documenta. And I remember the administrative team of the documenta offices. They are now retired and they were incredibly sweet. They in German, they use this expression ??? is like a crowd. It's a very negative expression that is like a mother that is really not taking, is taking care as much of her own interest and the interest of the child because I was not been at home working so yes, I just many moments of people not believing it. I can name you 1000s of anecdote where people came even to visit me and said, but what I just experienced that you are a mother, I'm so sorry, I didn't knew that. And what they meant by it was that with that you were like, really super hard. I don't know what type of woman but having a child humanizes me like, I also have this human dimension that I gain through motherhood. And that was given to me as a blessing from that speaker in my office, that discover I was a mother. So enormous amount of comments also, you will see life would change, you need to set priorities, meaning get out of the job market, and please leave a space for others. So and stop and go home. But almost, and now my students, and that's one of the things that make me happy is that I can contribute with my own experience and different storytelling a little bit with all these incredible artists, young woman that want to have a child and I always say, you can have whatever you want in the sense that the perception you cannot modify. So you need to make your own decisions. And people are always going to confront you with a bunch of negative narratives to scare you, and to modify your behavior towards motivation so that they would actually try to conflict you so that you lose a little bit of time dealing with this conflict, instead of investing in things that you consider super important. So it's a very difficult topic still today.

Mauren  31:41 

So why do you think that is? Why do you think that people really try to discourage you from doing all this? Where does that come from? Really curious about understanding.

Chus  31:51 

beautiful, all conflicts of lifted space for others, like, Please, go home. So the idea that we may not be chatting, what are we losing? If you stop working? So you know, it's it's it's many things, it's a power war? That that that still actual in many, in many ways? Yeah. genders not being equal. And the fear that socially and economically would would have exactly the same position.

Mauren  32:27 

Do you have any tips or advice for women artists, a woman in the art or the curators or anybody that wants to participate in changing for the better the art world and making it grow

Chus  32:41 

it to really, really be generous, and listen to other woman, and before the production of any form of antagonism with anybody, but particularly the same gender, reconsider it twice, see from where this antagonism may come and reprogram it and try to create as much and many alliances as you can, with your own peers. Only those in the same situation with similar experiences can actually help you, encourage you, protect you and give you advice. So there is no better group than those feeling in similar ways as you are. So just produce some solidarity with everyone. But particularly with those that you think perhaps you are never considered, you're better than anybody, of course, but eliminate any form of arrogance, that you may made it and others don't. So all these kinds of pyramidal thinking, leadership thinking of the past, try to eliminate it. Use meditation to reflect on those prejudices, languages, and try to have an incredible amount of friendships of all genders, but ask yourself, how many friends how deep they are, and how much can you open up to them because this is really key is the most important capital to assure a transformation.

Mauren  34:19 

Thanks. There's just one last thing I would like to talk about. I have this publication called the Society for Matriarchal World Domination. And there is a little article you wrote with Julieta Aranda.

Chus  34:33 

Yes, it says, with Julieta, of course.

Mauren  34:35 

Yeah. It's called you Manimal. Yeah. And I would like to just read the first two sentence because I think it's so important to reflect on this. And it's about the place of men in society and humanity in the world actually. So this is what you wrote, "There is a problem with humanism. It placed the man at the center of the picture. True, it has a placeholder for all of us. And yet it is not." And I think that with what you said earlier, with men, you know, having a bit of a domination role in our world, but yet, we need to be in contact and respect all the other living beings on the planet. I think that's something so important. And I think we're getting back towards that. Yeah, I was wondering if you can talk about your reflection on this.

Chus  35:31 

Yeah. Many also want to be reprogram, and be part of a different world. And I'm surprised how much they want to work towards it. So the most beautiful part of doing and reflecting on it collectively, it's not only the solidarity that we may find on those that think and feel the same as we do. But among those that actually, were not knowing from where some, some uncomfort was come in, and they see their lives change because of that conversation. And they see also their gender roles change because of that conversation. So for me, it's very rewarding to be sitting together with young male students, and listening to them, reflecting on how free they feel, after spending some time investing into into this reflection, and reprogramming of their own behavior, and so on. And even not only as artists, but as partners, fathers, how much being in the ?? changed them in a positive way, and how much they learn, and how they feel as ambassadors for a completely different way of defining gender. So that I value a lot because I know it's not easy. And we are all only partly responsible for our upbringing. And for our cultural context, we are absolutely responsible for future actions. And we are responsible for becoming aware of the micro impact that we can have in our everyday but I think that in this togetherness, everyone count, also those that may not at all think like us, I'm repeating that to our students. But you know, sometimes we encounter so much agonism in communities that think completely different, but it's important to get exposed. And that's perhaps my criticism to cancel culture. I was educated, listening to many people, and individuals and cancel culture felt at all connected. And it's important to know about it so that you don't think you are leaving in a niche. And you can change much more than you can so the real transformation is also to open up and be able to be tolerant, with those thinking completely different.

Mauren  38:13 

Yeah. And this is something a lot of people have a hard time to do,

Chus  38:17 

Everyone. And I understand that as an exercise. I think you should be encouraged those encounters, because you also go home thinking how can that be possible? Yeah, but I am certain that this is symmetrical, and that there is at least a moment of doubt, running through the systems that may have if not in this generation, in the coming ones to budget. So you know, also, it's true, we cannot have all the impact we wish in one generation and in one goal, but it did change. I'm telling my students how much change I was raised and educated in a complete different context. Certain things I could not even name, certain books, they were dismissed in my in my face. And definitely they will not listen to me and my concerns in the same respect way that we are listening to them or trying to at least. So I think that it's important to see things into historical perspective.

Mauren  39:25 

Yeah. Great. Thank you. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Chus  39:30 

Thanks to you.

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