The Practice of Transmissions: conversation with Nick Mauss

— Helmut Draxler & Megan Francis Sullivan

Dancers Brandon Collwes, Quenton Stuckey, and Christina Bermudez rehearsing in

Dancers Brandon Collwes, Quenton Stuckey, and Christina Bermudez rehearsing in “Transmissions,”  Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018

This conversation took place in April 2021 in the Georgen-Parochial-Friedhof Cemetery in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin.

Helmut Draxler: Here we are in the cemetery talking about afterlife. That’s what it is all about. So, when we were listening to the presentations of your book Transmissions you recently gave online at After 8 Books in Paris and at the Public Library in New York, I got curious about some sort of surplus. Because these presentations were strongly content-related, almost exclusively at least as far as I heard—and they were extremely interesting in being so, namely in talking about dance, queer subcultures and their influence on high modernism. At the same time, it made me miss something. I wondered in which terms you would like to describe or to reflect yourself and your work not only on the content level, but more on the practical and artistic level. What does your own artistic practice mean in relation to this content, and in which tradition would you locate it? Or, maybe more precisely, how do you see your own studio practice in relationship to the more curatorial projects?

Nick Mauss: It’s interesting to be asked about locating this in a tradition.
I think it started for me with the impulse to chart genealogies that I could work with productively as an artist, because I was frustrated by received histories that seemed lacking, or biased, or repressive. So I was trying to establish a ground to work against, but I realized that this ground would always be shifting and expanding. This genealogical idea became a way to push against existing methodologies that also informed the kind of work I was making, and at a certain point I realized that this would also have to be the work.

You’re right, the presentations I’ve given around “Transmissions” have been very content-driven, and in a way this is unintentionally misleading, because it suggests that I work toward an already-defined thematic, when really the opposite is the case. And if I were to speak about my studio practice, it would never be foregrounded by content, I would talk about space and the indirection of influence, poetics, how images are made. But “Transmissions” was unique in terms of other exhibitions because it surfaced such an excess of cultural information that was new to me that also cohered into histories that most people have been unaware of, so I dwelt on this aspect, rather than bringing it back to the artistic gesture, as your question does. At the end of the day, the historical bracket that became the way people could enter the exhibition was secondary to me. Or, to be more precise, it was a diversionary tactic, because “Transmissions” both was and was not an examination of a certain idea of the performing body in a specific historical place and time. It was primarily about developing a method of operating artistically and generating structures and frameworks.

HD: For me, this question of practice gets more and more interesting, because it seems obvious that we do not live in a formalist world anymore, but in one, which is thoroughly content-driven. Around your show at Kunsthalle Basel, for example, Megan and I were having a discussion with a curator of another show at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, who was arguing exclusively on a content level, and thus defending his show as the more “political” one. I, however, defended your show in political terms, because it was formally so interesting, opening up a space that could be experienced in many different ways, where one could find out things one did not know already in advance.

NM: The show in Basel was a turn away from an apparently central subject, deliberately placing greater emphasis on this method I had developed, on the multiple interacting ideas and tensions. Presenting these very different coordinates that overlap in ways that are not immediately apparent, and a much more orchestrated passage through the Kunsthalle spaces that allows you to think and rethink how all the works are operating and what they’re doing.

HD: Your shows at the Whitney Museum and Kunsthalle Basel were very different in a way, but had similar elements in the way they addressed aspects of exhibition design and educational elements or simply a rhythmic structure—how to walk through the exhibition. In comparison, the exhibit in the Museum für Gegenwartskunst was focused on singular artworks, which, despite being pure and good examples of political art, had to carry the burden of all content, whereas your show at the Kunsthalle was about relating works and materials, a constant instigation to move around in the exhibition and to generate one’s own content as a viewer. As a concrete example, I would name your own “threshold” pieces you had placed in the last room, which were works in their own right, but at the same time they functioned as displays or intersections between other works or elements in the show. These indicate a specific interest in the connection—another sort of transmission—of different spheres on the very practical level.

NM: This is very helpful, as people tend to want to break the work apart into distinct functions, where this is the curatorial operation and then that is the studio work, as if they are not engaged with each other. Of course, as you said, everything flows back and forth, and often in ways that I can’t understand immediately. For example, even if this way of working that I was able to develop through “Transmissions” is what I hold on to, I couldn’t have arrived at this method independent of the material I was exhibiting, which delineated a certain nexus of art history, performance history, and queer social history that I had already been reaching toward in my previous work. So, the things I had been looking at, working around, the questions that had been irritating me, led me to this particular synthesis, and then the material and affective dimension of the artworks and documents led me to think about how they needed to be presented and situated, which led again to new forms of presentation, generated new forms of working.

In terms of this sense of display, I’ve always been drawn to the fantastic history of its commercial and vanguard applications throughout the twentieth century, but also to older forms, such as festival architecture and so on, contingent ways of defining spaces and events that intervene in, or temporarily disrupt, what is customary. Even the jobs I’ve had dressing department store windows come into play, as I learned only later that this line of work in and of itself, at least in New York, has a particular history as a training ground for artists, and as a frame for a very impure presentation of art and its derivations. The overt gesture of display, of showing, has always featured in my work in some way. Initially, this allowed me to suggest multiple pathways through an exhibition, to indicate certain conditions of viewership, such as, if you want to see this you will have to peer over something, or look at this surface obliquely—you have to move in some way. That manipulation of the space as well as the viewer’s movement through it was my way of extending the Spielraum of my work, but also to conflate my own status as “producer” with that of “viewer.” And it was also the introduction of an element that might not read as art, or that would invite uncertainty as to the function of the various elements in the show. I was very attuned, in looking at other exhibitions, to things like: What are the framing devices? What are the ways in which the work can actually appear to have more of a spark? Or something like that, and I’m not just talking about work that is overlooked, but even work that is highly visible is often not really seen—it’s misapprehended. I became very interested in the things you can do to draw the work out or make it legible with new eyes.

Megan Francis Sullivan: The term “framing” is rather present to me, since I’ve been working with Hannes Loichinger on a German translation of Craig Owens’ text “From Work to Frame.” The social construction of art is central to his text, which he outlines in relation to artworks and practices, for instance, of Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, Hans Haacke, and Louise Lawler, all of whom came to be associated with institutional critique. You went to Cooper Union in the late nineties, a few years after I did. The general milieu included teachers like Hans Haacke, Doug Ashford and Julie Ault, Laura Cottingham, etc. Art Club 2000 was maybe still active. Basically, studio practice was not something taken for granted. In Basel I also had to think of the recent ’90s show at mumok in Vienna, where the exhibition architecture by Ken Saylor emphasized the “framing” of walls and display in relation to artworks, reflected on its theme of institutional critique. As just discussed, your work operates with various levels of framing and viewing, as if that were—I like how you just said that—a method, creating a method. You don’t do a show and say, “Curated by Nick Mauss.” It is your work. The viewers are confronted with this discomfort in a way. “Is this a show curated by Nick Mauss?” Maybe you could say something about that. Do you work also with this discomfort?

NM: That’s great. To subtitle an exhibition as “curated by” would fall back on roles that are already naturalized. I don’t think of myself as a curator, or a writer, or whatever. I’m an artist, not a tourist in these other disciplines, which is ultimately how the artist-curator is perceived and made harmless. My way of canceling this hobby-like notion is by fully claiming responsibility for the exhibition as a form of (my) work, and I think that has produced discomfort, or, I hope, productive confusion for some viewers, perhaps even for some artists. The terms that are readily available to an institution, such as “project,” or even worse, “artist’s choice,” I had to reject, insisting, for example, that the Whitney Museum communicate “Transmissions” as my exhibition, since that would pose some interesting questions. At Kunsthalle Basel they also felt that the exhibition would have to be announced as “curated by” me so that people would know who did this and why the institution was doing it. My response was, “Well, that’s precisely why we shouldn’t do it,” because then everything is resolved, all the roles and hierarchies are in place, nothing is questioned. Wouldn’t it be much better if a visitor comes in and, even for an instant, has a problem with it or a question?

But you’re right, it’s not something that is ever addressed in the reception—instead, the work is pulled back into the existing rubric, rather than taken on its own terms, because it’s just more comfortable. Again, I think it’s more important to claim it as my exhibition in order to make the distinction from something like these gestures where a museum lets an artist make eccentric choices or something like that. Instead to show that this is a very deliberate undertaking with some urgency … inside, not ancillary. Sometimes there is discomfort, certainly when I say no to pre-coined terms like “artist-curator,” “research-based,” and so on because I’m trying to force new terms of engagement …

MFS: Can I take out … I just by chance saw a bit from Craig Owens’ text who sites Greg Owens … Can I read something as a context?

NM: Yes. Sure, please.

MFS: Okay. Greg Owens quoting Hans Haacke: “An unequivocal acknowledgement might endanger the cherished romantic ideas with which most art world participants enter the field, and which still sustain them emotionally today.”[1] I think that was in reference to a sort of studio-centered practice that was questioned for a while, and maybe actually has returned.

This statement of the collective or “industrial” nature of artistic production is especially interesting in light of Haacke’s emphasis on the relationship between capital and the art world. [] The recent penetration of international investment capital into the art world has resulted in an unprecedented expansion of the art apparatus. As the apparatus expands, so do the number and variety of activities necessary to the production, exhibition, and reception of works of art—art handlers, preparators, artists’ representatives, publicists, consultants, accountants, administrators, etc. [] This multiplication and diversification of “intermediate functions”—intermediate, because they exist in the gap between, or the nonsimultaneity of, production and reception—further alienates artists from their own production; as these functions multiply, they increase both the spatial and temporal distance between artists and their “publics.” At the same time, however, the expansion of the apparatus continually generates new positions from which artists can produce critical work. At least this is what is suggested by the practice of Louise Lawler, who has occupied practically every position within the apparatus except that customarily reserved for the “artist.”[2]

Yes … Louise Lawler. For instance, I think you used some image from her on the dancers’ costumes. I didn’t see that discussed anywhere. Has it been? I think sometimes you have hints in your work that don’t get duly addressed.

NM: Louise’s presence was very subtle, if not to say imperceptible to most viewers, which seems fitting. The way I involve artists or other protagonists is largely determined by the space they choose to take up within this framework I’m elaborating. And I like that in an exhibition: with so many layers there are these different degrees of visibility. Some aspects are immediate and emphatic and others are camouflaged. So I’m always trying to see where there might be a function or a role that could be used as a pretext for inviting someone to appear in a way that is unexpected, and the dancers’ costumes were such a pretext, one that instantly made me think of inviting Louise to be the costume designer. Without a doubt her work has given me great license to think about how an artist can operate within and resignify institutions, which I think has to do with the combination of reverence and irreverence in her work that keeps everyone on their toes. We had a back-and-forth, trying out a number of ideas until we realized that one of the works from her series Marie + 90, Marie + 180, Marie + 270 (2010/2021) was already in the museum’s collection, so I suggested printing that series of the same close-cropped view of the corset and tutu of Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (ca. 1880) onto the leotards for the male, female, and gender nonbinary performers, where the image would be distorted over the different body shapes. Ultimately, I should note, Louise communicated that she saw this as my work, and was open to letting me use her work … so there had been a change from the initial invitation to Louise to take on the role of the costume designer to me choosing quite pointedly how I wanted her work to appear within “Transmissions.” Louise’s work was identified on a wall label, but, again, I think hardly anyone noticed that it was her work printed on the costumes.

MFS: And it’s also something from within the institution in which it was being shown … I like to perceive these maneuvers that you make that also reflect on the frameworks, and to me, that’s such a rich element of your work that is both exciting and very specific. It also has a clear relation to considerations emerging from or around institutional critique.

Obviously, it’s 2021 so we have a different—I don’t know—viewpoint. Institutionally critical gestures don’t have to be directly offensive, but can be mixed with other interests or desires, contaminated or légère, not adhering to a program. If I were to ever write about your work, I would try to pinpoint it within this trajectory because I haven’t encountered a deliberate address of its potential ties or overlaps. It was funny in the “Transmissions” catalog because Scott Rothkopf mentions about negotiations you had as if they might share a naive coincidence with institutional critique. I think he used the word “unintentional.” Did you guys ever talk about it?

NM: We never talked directly about critique. I didn’t go in there saying, “I want
to punch a hole in this institution’s canon-formation.” I was really lucky in that the museum allowed me to arrive at the exhibition that I wanted to make, without demanding a clear outcome, they gave space to a very experimental procedure. My strategy was to naturalize everything, to act as if it were perfectly normal to exhibit all this highly charged and difficult work, and I think that gave an air of Selbstverständlichkeit (evidence) that was reassuring for the institution, but that also set the tone for how I wanted the audience to be addressed. I knew this was going to be marketed in New York as a show about the ballet and I accepted it, knowing that anyone who walked in there would instantly see that it was about all these other things that were more important to me. So I think the tone of Scott’s essay speaks about some very tricky negotiations, not only on my part. It didn’t really occur to me until the show had opened and I was being interviewed by someone I remembered: “Yes, I went to Cooper Union. This is what I was taught.” “There’s a reason why I’m doing this in this way. The show may not present itself as institutional critique, but it is.” Of course, while I was at Cooper (circa 1998–2003), institutional critique seemed like a boy’s club to me, and very orthodox in terms of its relationship to aesthetics, so I didn’t want to have too much to do with it. In the present, now it’s gone through this weird stylization where people use it as an aesthetic.

HD: I think that there are two crucial issues at play here. One refers to what you were addressing now, namely, that if you define or label something as artistic research or institutional critique or artistic curatorial practice, it might help to understand a certain practice, but at the same time it creates a stereotype or even a recipe which takes everything away which made that practice interesting or provocative in the first place. Essentially, it takes away the indeterminate, that decisive aspect which allows us to distinguish between a simple presentation of certain objects, the ballet in this case, and an artistic ambition to explore the intersections of different layers of meaning, representation, or reference. That was the problem with institutional critique, already in the early ’90s, then it became clear we are not simply criticizing institutions. On the contrary, institutions represent our life-forms, more or less; they are a kind of framing that only enables us to conceive certain works as practice and they have to be addressed as such.

Theoretically, it also would be interesting to understand this topic of a frame more precisely—that a frame is not the outside limit of an image, an artwork, or a practice that can be transgressed as in the avant-garde tradition. Rather, work and frame constitute each other mutually, and in a certain sense every image or work already constitutes a frame, a mental framework, and the frame becomes the enabling object itself, an object of investigation as well as an object of display. So what is the relation between the image, the object, the work, the practice, the viewpoint, and the frame? And how can these relations be methodologically explored or interpreted?

NM: I had this memorable encounter with a classicist named Deborah Steiner who was also working with dance. She translates and theorizes fragments of ancient texts, so it’s a kind of work that is very exact and then highly interpretive because there’s so much space in between the material that’s available to her, so she has to use her knowledge of the period and its literature and society to try and fill in the blanks. She has to be very inventive. It was so interesting to talk to her. At a certain point, I remember someone else asked, “How can you make these claims about these texts when everything that you do is so speculative and most of the information is gone?” She said, “That’s what I do.” “That’s what I’m known for.” That was quite inspiring, the way she acknowledged the liberties she takes in her work, liberties that can’t and shouldn’t be justified.

And in thinking about method, her approach came back to me in the form of: How can I approach these individual works or figures or texts, and treat them with great care, and also do this work of invention? And how do I maintain the space between them? Because I think that’s the space that the viewer enters into, and that’s where the work happens.

So to answer your question about framing, I think one of my earliest impressions of this as a mental object was in Babette Mangolte’s camerawork for Jeanne Dielman, where I could sense that the camera frame had shifted from its “usual” place, where it holds the subject, puts her in her place, and that’s the internalized movie we all already know that’s created through conventions. But if you shift it even slightly, the attention is drawn to a kind of horror in exactly the same place, and that’s a completely different film. What kinds of adjustments can be made and how does that mental object take on a physical or architectural presence?

At the Whitney, what I ended up doing there in addition—I didn’t like the museum protocol for how their wall labels address the audience—I said, “Well, I’ll write all of my own and I’ll sign them, so you won’t have to be responsible for them.” Because I was trying to say things on the wall labels that they felt somehow threatened by or that they wanted to tone down or simplify. And that was a good solution. I was able to bring my voice into this institutional space in a clear way. The audience didn’t care that the labels were too long, digressive, or elliptical; I think they enjoyed them. So it was illuminating to push on some of those spots where the museum said, “That’s not how we do it,” and to ask, “Well, why not?”

MFS: Yes. Precisely. That is a good example. So these types of negotiations are also part of your method in a way?

NM: Yes. I think it’s part of the dialogue, part of getting somewhere. I had support from the curators to go there, ultimately, and I was able to do it. I do think it’s part of the method. There was another argument about the George Platt Lynes photograph of this guy’s asshole: Should there be a warning label, did I really have to hang it right at the entrance? And I said, “What are the rules against this? You have all these modernist photographs of nude women hanging in the museum.” Then it was allowed to be hung there and people were fascinated by this photograph; it was always covered in nose- and fingerprints.

George Platt Lynes, photograph of dancer Fred Danieli, 1937

George Platt Lynes, photograph of dancer Fred Danieli, 1937

HD: You have to find out the limits of the institution because they are not clear. Nobody defines them and everyone says, “There are none,” until there are.

MFS: Speaking of limits or boundaries, also of artistic production, which you seem to inherently explore, have there been occasions where requests or invitations misinterpret your work, or go beyond the boundary of your artistic practice?

NM: It’s happened, for example, that other institutions have then said, “Oh, you’re one of these artists who does dance in the museum, don’t you want to do that for us?” and I’ve had to say, “No, that’s not really what I am interested in.” Or there’s the assumption that I would want to go into any collection and give it a jolt. Because people often incorrectly presume that I’m motivated entirely by “taste” and so they approach me with things they imagine I’ll “like,” and that’s generally a dead end.

But on the other hand, people from different dance communities or historians, for example, have engaged with my work and that’s created an opening and a whole other set of conversations that I wasn’t having before, which then goes out of my boundary in a productive way and in a way exposes a very limited view of art.

HD: In a certain way, one could say there are these different discursive or social milieus you are interacting with, and you have to define your place within them. “Okay, I’m not the expert for this,” you say, “but there is an interesting connection” and things like that. That kind of argument always goes in two directions: opening up spaces for possibilities on the one hand, but also emphasizing the necessity to build up limits again on the other.

That’s also in a certain way happening on the spatial level, within the shows, in the way in which you relate to the single works. In Basel, for example, each work had more or less the autonomous space needed; it was taken very seriously as an artwork. At the same time, however, it was embedded in a series of combinations with other works. As a visitor, you were challenged to see the work, but also to see the combinations, like Megan’s work with Robert Morris’s. But there was also Bea Schlingelhoff in the same room, and obviously also your own presence had to be taken into account, as being the one bringing all these very different works together. That is quite demanding because those are very different layers of authorship and meaning. And you are not doing the installation only, but the whole conceptual framework, which again might be driven by certain interests. For me, this is the really interesting aspect in exhibition-making, not a pure affirmation of the single works, and also not a dissolution of the works into pure textuality, but to work with and through the difference.

NM: Yes, I was hoping that what you just described would actually communicate itself—these abrupt changes from room to room, these interrelationships within them, and on another level, one’s recollection of what one had just seen combining with the experience of a subsequent space, and these Sichtachsen (perspectives) going forward and backward that are specific to this enfilade (suite) of rooms in Basel. What I noticed—and this has to do with eliminating “curated by,” and not offering a way to contain the exhibition in advance—is that people really wanted at least some kind of narrative of motivation. But my hope is always that this experience one has in the exhibition, not just of associations between works, but of a real interplay, that this becomes the narrative.

MFS: When you describe this, I think also of the work of Haim Steinbach, if one were to consider his work in terms of curating.

HD: In the history of institutional critique, or whatever you might call it, there are two clearly distinct strands: one, which is more interested in exhibition-making, the exhibitionary in general, and the other one in the discursive. Like Andrea Fraser, for example, is not really interested in making exhibitions—the best exhibition is the empty exhibition. Whereas, with Christian Philipp Müller, it’s all about exhibition-making. For me, this distinction between the discursive and the exhibitionary is very interesting, because obviously both aspects are always there, even if one side remains mainly hidden. For example, your show in the Whitney interacts with the institutional setting and the canonical ambitions of the museum on both levels. My impression was that the questioning of the canon of the modernist narrative at the same time opened up the possibility to establish a new canon.

NM: Yes. Then also saying—this is actually already in the canon, but …

HD: … it’s hidden.

NM: I think that was, for me, the most valuable, to suddenly realize that anyone who would want to put camp outside of modernism is making a mistake because that’s actually the core. All these things have been rearranged. In Basel the expectation is that the Kunsthalle presents the most advanced art of its time. So that brings up the question: What is the value of contemporaneity for its own sake, and what role does the viewer play in defining it? So after my initial conversations with them I thought, “I’m more interested in the contemporary as it can be seen through, or put into tension with, or thrown into question by, things that are not only contemporary.”

Something just came back to me, which was that I had given a talk at the Städelschule and Isabelle Graw said to me, “Well, all these different roles that you’re inhabiting, aren’t you just fulfilling the multitasking demands of neoliberalism?” I don’t remember what I answered at the time, but it doesn’t seem to me like I’m doing different things necessarily. These are multiple operations, but it feels like a single approach.

MFS: Yes. That’s what I find to be the provocative aspect of your position, not to see it as multitasking but to see it as an artistic position, which is actually throwing into question a lot of assumptions about what is work. What is writing history? What is being fascinated by something? What is the place that it’s exhibited? What are the relations between you and the others or the works themselves?

All of these things are essential aspects to your position as an artist and not just, “Oh, ich mach mal das, ich mach mal das …” (I will do it, I will do it …) That’s why, also, I could imagine it’s hard to endure as an artist. I was wondering myself if it’s ever challenging to you? I mean, just because it is a claim that you always do again. Every show you do, if it’s your show at the gallery, if it’s a show like “Transmissions,” if it’s like Basel, or writing a text on George Platt Lynes.

Maybe, for you, it’s just always you continuing your work. To me, sometimes I would think you have to maintain this Haltung (attitude). It’s your work, not something else or so.

NM: Yes. From a certain point onward I’ve been pretty adamant about holding a space open, that this is my responsibility, but also a way to allow the work to continue and to define itself. And in that space I can introduce things that I’d like to draw attention to, that I want to know more about, et cetera, but none of this is made secondary to the work, since it is also the space I hold open for myself. To show the work as inseparable from, and in a way suspended in other works or artists, or to implicate my work in the work of others and vice versa … Part of it is need-driven: you make the things you need, you locate things that aren’t available, you look more carefully because you’re in doubt. And this is something I’ve learned through dialogues with other artists, too, like all the activities that constitute your work, Megan, that is also a way to self-define what an artist can be. So, at this point, I don’t defend it so much anymore. Like, this is my work, I just keep doing it.

HM: But I also think that what Megan was asking about this Haltung, or attitude, has significance. Why it is so important? I think it is important because otherwise you would easily get lost in one of the different functions, be it writing, research, exhibition design or whatever. The social dimension is the biggest threat, in a certain way, of getting lost in social transactions and things like that. The only remedy against that is a focal point beyond that, which you can’t embody directly. It needs a kind of idea of what that point might be, what kind of sense it makes as art, yes?

NM: Yes.

HM: Without such a Haltung everything you do becomes quickly irrelevant. It implodes and loses its meaning in a certain way. I think that is why artistic trajectories are still so important.

NM: Hearing you two describe this, it’s making me realize that this Haltung is a way to maintain the necessary distance. Also how different Haltung is from the term I always heard even in the 2000s, Positionierung (positioning).
I think it has to do with getting very close while maintaining a distance, working with knowing and not-knowing. Possibly it is a kind of stubbornness, too, a constant counterdemonstration that says: no, that’s not what the work is, don’t speak for me …

NM: Nick, what was the moment when you realized or you would recognize in your own practice that you started to … What would you say is a point where your work went in this direction?

NM: I think it was when I put together “Bloodflames III” at Alex Zachary in 2010. I had also done a show before in some rooms of what was then still the Chelsea Hotel. Neither of these shows included my own work. But “Bloodflames III” felt like a stronger statement in that it really insisted on a certain kind of irrationality. The title posed the exhibition “as if” it were the third installment of an exhibition staged in NY in 1947, to which there had never been a sequel, so it supported itself on a false premise. Megan, you had several works in it, and also produced a new work specifically for the occasion, which is how I realized that this way of working could also lead to unanticipated inclusions, or that it could be generative in this way. There was this Lukas Duwenhögger video that hadn’t been seen in decades, and it certainly had never been screened before in the US, From Cotton via Velvet to Tragedy, and photograms of vinyl LPs by Louise Lawler that I’d read about in a footnote somewhere, which she dug out of storage for me.

MFS: Those design elements, too, that amazing rug …

NM: Yes. This Evelyn Wyld rug from the 1920s, and a purse made out of silk designed by Raoul Dufy that I borrowed from a textile archivist. A lot of the work functioned almost like Attrappen (decoy) in that they appeared to be one thing, but were in fact another, or cast in a new role: the painter as silk designer, or Lutz Bacher’s version of a Dan Flavin that inundated the entire room with pink light, and this anonymous Meissen figure positioned in front of it, shielding its eyes from the blinding source.

I think the intricacy of all the conversations that were necessitated to make this show, and the degrees of trust that were built up in the process—both with people I already knew, such as yourself, and with people I had brazenly contacted out of the blue who all turned out to be receptive to my as-yet unformulated proposal … that had a very particular energy, which also felt familiar, analogous to how I worked in the studio, or how I followed multiple threads of interest. And the fact that viewers seemed to understand implicitly what was going on here, on multiple registers, and were willing to try to come to terms with it, also gave me the feeling that this was functioning more like an artwork than like a thematic group exhibition.

After that, I felt a greater sense of urgency to entwine this way of “exhibiting” with the presentation of work that I had made. Not only to show my own work, but to show it in the context of some of the other works and relationships that were informing it, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. So that led to the exhibition at Midway Contemporary, the reiteration of an entire velvet room designed by Christian Bérard, which functioned as a transhistorical intervention of my drawings, but also implicated the viewer in a dramatic trajectory.

HD: If you integrate other people’s work as part of your own work in a certain way, that could also raise a sort of moral question concerning a possible use or even misuse of the other works. You seem to be able to navigate that trap in an interesting way. I wonder how that works for you and what kinds of experiences you have with that problem?

NM: I’ve seen exhibitions organized by artists that have felt very violent, even though they’ve taken great pains to be on point in their apparent politics. The posturing is what feels violent, I think, because the work is being made unanimously with a certain message, rather than retaining its individual power, and the ways in which it might contradict or deviate from other works and ideas. I try to be as transparent as I can in terms of the process itself, emphasizing that the exhibition is in a way set in motion and ultimately constituted by multiple coexisting, though not necessarily harmonious, dialogues with artists and estates. But of course it happens that I approach an artist who is wary of my proposal, or who rejects it outright. When I began talking to Bea Schlingelhoff about the Basel exhibition, she wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to misrepresent her work. It’s a valid concern to have. As we continued to talk, and she began to understand what I was asking, she said, “Oh, well, two can play at this game. Maybe you can give me a work of yours and I can present it as my own.”

HD: I have to say, Bea’s work, it looked great in itself and within your context. In another case—what’s her name? Georgia Sagri, yes—I even liked her work more in this very specific combination with the Konrad Klapheck painting. So, maybe there is something that is improving the work of others in a certain way, would that be a possibility?

MFS: Or putting it in a good light?

HD: Or just creating a context, which makes aspects of a work visible you would not see otherwise, but obviously it could also easily go into the other direction, that a work can lose its specific significance. That often happens when curators work with the principle of similarities and comparison instead of juxtaposition and conflict.

NM: My hope is that an artwork appears as complex as it is, that it is allowed to open up new vectors, especially with living artists, but also with nonliving
artists (though in that case one has to be careful because the nonliving are often asked to do too much, as in the case of Alvin Baltrop). When the work is put at the service of a thesis, it doesn’t have the ability to misbehave.
But that’s not to say that I present it without context. It is very clearly contextualized. It’s the Zusammenhänge (context) that can be drawn out in different ways.

There are so many cues that can provide a rigorous context aside from didactic language. I think of some of the totally sensual and unorthodox elements of Lina Bo Bardi’s exhibition designs, scattering the floor with leaves … a deep grasp of the power of display that this specific Italian generation understood and exploited. And I tend to trust that if the exhibition is done right, people will be drawn in, and even if they don’t have the usual guides, they will understand that there is a way to be in suspension with the work. At least that’s my hope, so it’s good to hear from you that the work is not getting absorbed.

MFS: I like this aspect of using artists’ work, the unclarity of how they are being used or shown, featured or subordinated, because it brings up complexities of relations. It isn’t something that can or should be read only as a neutral exchange or something. I remember with “Transmissions” there was a bit of conflict that came up with the dancers, I think. At a certain moment some were like, “What’s the relation of power or value?” Those things are within—these questions are within the work. They’re not outside of the work.

NM: Yes, that was quite painful but important. Oddly, if I had gone the usual route of how many other artists instrumentalize dancing bodies in the museum—you just hire them and that’s it—I don’t think there would have been any conflict. But because I also wanted to address this problem and set up this extended discursive workshopping period to make a new work, and we decided on coauthorship of the choreography among the sixteen dancers so that they’re acknowledged not only as performers but as artists/choreographers, that led to a lot of conversations about the different economies of the worlds of dance and art. Everything came to the surface and erupted. Ultimately these discussions and tensions were recorded as part of a long-extended interview with the dancers/choreographers that featured in the book.

MFS: Your research is quite electric and you often share—a friend saw one of the “Transmissions” presentations online and said, “It was so beautiful how he was talking about things, so sharing or whatever.” There’s something like sharing inherently in what you do. I don’t know how to place that critically, but it is like a generous thing somehow. I think it takes place in the difference between absorbing, taking, or sharing, or …

HD: Maybe there is also a kind of subtle undertone in the sharing/caring, because usually there is always a kind of ambivalence at play with such attitudes. That could be understood in an interesting way, for example, that something can be good in an aesthetic sense, but it’s not necessarily good in a moral sense.

MFS: It’s not just benevolent also.

HD: Yes, yes. It’s not that you’re just a gracious person and donating all your gifts to others. But it is highly interesting and even subversive to navigate that space between your own interests and desires and those of others, colleagues, and audiences alike.

NM: No. I’ve had to say, a few times at least, that I am not presenting collections of things that I like—that’s a primary misreading of what I’m doing and a misunderstanding of how influence functions. Were I to do an exhibition of my favorite works of art (which I would never do), it would be something else entirely. These are not my friends, my favorites, or my inspirations, this is work that I am engaging and even struggling with and presenting in a new configuration, and that in itself is the process of articulating something. And I think that can be quite disorienting, that I steer against existing social networks and historical trajectories, because the general tendency is to want to emphasize and compound these factors, to use them as forms of legitimation. What assumptions are people then left with to feel stabilized by? The goal is not to confirm anything, but to loosen things up, to understand where there is an opening, or a poetic potential, and to cause reorientation.

  1. [1] Hans Haacke, “Museums: Managers of Consciousness,” M+ magazine (February, 2018),
  2. [2] Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman (Oakland: University of California Press, 1994), 135.