Curatorial Designs in the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography Today: a Conversation between Tarek Elhaik and George E. Marcus |
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This expansion of professional curatorial practice through the emblematic figure of fieldwork–the production of the anthropologist-as-curator–is one possibility to generate Niklas Luhmannís second-order observation. And curatorial work, as a practice of montage, of montage of the work of our interlocutors reflecting on the legacy of cosmopolitan modernism, is an expanded form of anthropological practice. But because I am still in the process of refining this tool, it is difficult for me to decide whether ‘curatorial-workí is a distinctive or surrogate form of ‘fieldworkí. Moreover, traditional film curatorial practice for the movie theater seems to be inadequate to ‘installí neither the discrepancies of cosmopolitan modernism nor the second-order observation distinctive of the anthropological mode of production of knowledge (and its pedagogical vocation). Through dialogues with curatorial laboratories in Mexico City, curatorial labs involving moving-image makers, artists and anthropologists, I am in the process of rethinking my curatorial work for the context of the museum or art space through the trans-medial practice of installation. I am beginning to wonder how a refined version of curatorial work, one that would bid farewell to the experimental ethnographic texts and films of the 90s, could result in something we could provisionally call an ‘installation bookí: an experiment with form that would create a montage effect by juxtaposing curatorial work and field-work.
Could you give me some specific examples of what goes on in the curatorial laboratories of Mexico City-- and how they fit into the framework of your own investigation into cosmopolitan modernism, which seems to be an object of both theoretical and ethnographic construction for you. Also I am intrigued by your evocation of the ‘installation book" as an alternative to the production of the ethnographic text or film. It was precisely such custom-designed alternative forms emerging from fieldwork that I had in mind when I called for ethnographics at the conclusion of my 1990 ‘montageí article. This will lead us, I think, into a consideration of how you are using montage as concept and technique in your work.
I established a dialogue with two curatorial groups in Mexico City: Curare and Teratoma. Biomedical metaphorics aside, both Curare and Teratoma invoke a diagnostic dimension I too see as a component of my own curatorial work. In addition to being an ethnographics, curatorial work is also a diagnostics in the specific conceptual sense of Paul Rabinow (7). Indeed, Teratoma co-founder, the art historian Cuauhtémoc Medina, designed this convergence of affinities, art and concept work, as "a multi-disciplinary group composed of art historians and critics, curators, artists and anthropologists who explore contemporary shifts in cultural, intellectual and aesthetic productions from a wide range of practices. Teratoma is a site of encounters, debates, exhibitions, residencies, pedagogy, dialogues, archiving of textual, visual, physical and virtual information in order to allow production, debate and reception of the various cultures to come through the Latin American continent". I had the opportunity to attend the meetings and have access to the fascinating collaborative work of these curatorial labs. Teratoma stood out, in particular, for its commitment to the role anthropology had played in shaping the contours of (Mexican) modernity as well as its effort to de- and recompose the conceptual, aesthetic and affective dispositif of cosmopolitan modernism as a contemporary problem. At the time, I had read polemical anthropologist Roger Bartraís experimental ethnography The Cage of Melancholy (8), a scathing critique of Mexicanist discourse that diagnosed a contemporary ‘post-Mexican conditioní. I was also interested in examining how the post-Mexican condition was mediated through film and contemporary art curatorial practice, and how the art of curating post- Mexican life troubled the all too neat dichotomy between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. Through the work of these curatorial labs, I was probing the de-linking of cosmopolitan modernism and nationalism (and the making of a third figure) in contemporary Mexico.
Among the many projects that emerged from these curatorial laboratories that immediately caught my attention was Olivier Debroiseís attempt to re-assemble Sergei Eisensteinís legendary and unfinished avant-garde film Que Viva Mexico! (1931-32). Debroise was Teratomaís co-founder and a Mexico City-based French art historian who had moved there in the 70s, a fascinating cosmopolitan modern in the tradition I have spoken about during this conversation: filmmaker and curator, art historian and experimental novelist who has collaborated with major intellectual figures in and out of Mexico City, from Nestor G. Canclini to Susan Buck-Morss. His project of re-assembling Que Viva Mexico! was of course not the first of its kind. Others had done it before. But I was specifically intrigued by its research-based approach and rigorous engagement with the intersections between Mexican nationalist anthropology, cosmopolitan modernism and the historical avant-garde at work in Eisensteinís unfinished film. Debroise had ushered a radical break with the trope of Mexicanism and redefined curatorial practice in 1990s Mexico by calling for both a sensorial and conceptual approach in order to ‘sing the swan songí of that strange alliance constitutive of Mexican post-revolutionary nationalist aesthetics: the alliance between the Mexican vanguardia, the nationalist intelligentsia, and Manuel Gamioís nationalist/indigenista anthropology of the 1920s. Re-assembling Que Viva Mexico! in the late 1990s was an intelligent and timely move. Eisensteinís film had not only relied on Gamioís iconography and his political use of anthropology as a tool of social engineering, but had also contributed to establish a nationalist aesthetics that would have an enduring vocation in film and the visual arts in Mexico (the usual sublime-like iconography portraying landscapes punctuated by Volcanoes, Maguey plants, Indios, eroticized tropical Tehuantepec, etc).