On July 2008 I visited the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. There, and by chance, I found a videowork titled “Museum Futures” (2007), created by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska for the 50th anniversary of the Swedish museum.
“Museum Futures” is not an accessible work of art. More than 30 minutes long and dialogue-based, it requires a serious engagement from the viewer in order to understand. The subject is the future politics of the museum, and what we see is an interview that takes place in 2058 between a researcher and the director of the museum, both women and both of different ethnicities, which is a political statement in itself. The artists, instead of focusing the 50 years of History of the Museum, had focused in its 50 years of future ahead, unveiled by the staged discussion of these two people.
When I returned to London, I established contact with Marysia Lewandowska. I wanted to make a studio visit to have a discussion about this work and discover if my reading of it corresponded to the vision of the author. Following is the transcription of that conversation.
Can you explain how such a specific project as “Museum Futures” was born?
The project was born from initial invitation of contributing to a book that looked into the 50 years history of Moderna Museet in Stockholm. We were approached by the director, Lars Nittve, who we have worked with previously on two occasions, once when he was at the Louisiana Museum and also more recently Tate Modern, where we presented Capital, so he was aware of our interests in museum culture. He proposed to the curatorial and editorial teams that besides commissioning curators and academics to write about the different aspects of the Moderna Museet, it would also be interesting to approach artists to contribute. And he proposed that Neil and I consider an intervention into the book. It took us about two years of research to feel comfortable to be able to approach the project.
Around the same time, a curator from the museum, Magnus af Petersens contacted me with an proposal for developing a separate commission. So these two invitations came together and I suggested fusing both aspects. The research we made was initially based on how Moderna Museet has been represented in Swedish television. I managed to persuade people to make copies of all the programmes ever made that pictured Moderna. But the process that triggered writing the script came later and was grounded in a carefully constructed timeline. We were looking a the history of the museum and its seminal exhibitions and also at other, mainly social and political events, that shaped the current moment up until 2008, and from there, we begun mapping as well as imagining the future.
Essential for us was Pontus Hulten’s idea of creating a “museum of our wishes”. He was truly committed to building a collection and getting money from the State to create a public museum, accessible for all.
So from there, we worked on how would the museum of our wishes function, what would it do, how could we as artists contribute to its organisation. We tried to construct the future from the point of view of what we care about, how we imagine the public for such a museum.
What about the aesthetics of the film, this particular sci-fi feel to it?
We were imagining the future, but we did not want to portray it as completely devoid of what we already enjoy. We did not want it to be white and cold, as the cliché goes. So we used design that exists now, because people tend to keep on using furniture that was designed decades ago. We also wanted to emphasise a future that will be modest, not glamorous and shiny. A kind of retro future.
What is going to happen to “Museum Futures”, is it going to stay in the permanent collection of Moderna or, despite its specificity, can it be shown somewhere else?
I don’t know yet if it will become part of the permanent collection. And yes, I think it can be shown in any museum, or any place if the right context is created by the curator or another institution. It would be good to have it distributed. And we are thinking of having a low-res version on archive.org
I am saying this because this video addressed the type of issues I am concerned with and I think it would be great to show it in London.
Yes, but where? We are both open to suggestions.
How does this work relate to your other projects?
In that it tries to understand what is the function of the public museum and how the museum engenders certain values and why these values are maintained historically. But in order for the museum to keep on having relevance culturally it needs to reinvent itself. Lately most museums reinvent themselves along the lines of commercial pressures. That tends to be the updating for them. And there is always this discussion about funding and the private interests interfering with the ethos of many public museums. So it is time for the museum of the future to implement a new “Transaction Tax” which would reverse the resource flow. So we don’t suggest that the capitalist market relations are going to disappear because of course they won’t, but there is a way of taking something from the prosperity of the private sector to give an opportunity to a publicly owned independent institution.
Would you say your work is related to Institutional Critique?
Yes, definitely. You can’t say that Institutional Critique is something that is done, that is over. So we do acknowledge that it is vital and very influential. But it is also not our only concern and direction, because we do not worry so much about how to change the institution itself but more how to work with the public of an institution, how the institution need to make an effort to build a public. So much of our work addresses the public more than just the structure.
I think I would like to work in a big institution and try to do something from within, rather than in a small artist-run space, I don’t know… I think I like the contradiction that it offers.
But all these things are connected and all different spaces have different functions to perform. There is definitely not just one way or place to get things done. You have to find the one that suits your project best.
Which artists interest you?
Jeremy Deller, Pierry Huyghe, Critical Art Ensemble, also Mike Kelley, Andrea Fraser, Julie Ault and Martin Beck, Open Music Archive. Also people who are looking into the idea of documentary and its critical dimension, like Hito Steyrl, Carles Guerra, Harun Farocki or Wendolien van Oldenborgh.
Do you think that Institutional Critique is a utopia? Many people point out what a difficult task that is and even how it has been co-opted by the same institutions.
But utopias are legitimate, because they still have an impact. It is not true that they are ignored. And you should think that you don’t do what you do to simply change the system, but rather think that the system is a result of different people’s engagements and all of them count. Institutions are these machines that represent values so it is really up to us to decide what can or should be done with them, inside of them, we are all part of their present and therefore determining their and our, artists’ future. And it is rewarding, like it was rewarding to receive your email and to have more direct sense that this film, Museum Futures, does something to someone out there. These are the best indications that the system works.
London, September 2008