Stand, I Don’t: an interview with Charles Esche

An interview conducted between de Appel Curatorial Programme 2008/2009 and Charles Esche, Director of the Van Abbemuseum, edited by me. Published 2010 in the anthology Curating and The Educational Turn, eds Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson.

Mia Jankowicz:

When I worked in a small space in South London, my colleague, who was coordinator for education, did a youth workshop about protest. It was themed around participation, speaking up, the right to self expression, and so on. The participants were about ten years old and included a lot of kids with a tendency to misbehave, and the workshop went pretty well. At the end, they were asked to make protest placards, really nice wooden signs with their messages on them. out of all of them, the best one was cryptic and seemed very ‘conceptual’. It said:


My colleague hung it above her desk and we both admired it frequently. we liked its bold black writing – the vocabulary of emancipation and refusal – the simplicity of its emphatically stated self-contradiction. A few months later, my colleague stopped what she was doing and cried: ‘I’ve just realised what that sign says.’ I looked and I too suddenly read it like a Dingbats image, one of those lateral-thinking word/image puzzles, and it all made sense. of course, the protest placard actually said: ‘I don’t understand.’

So, all that time, that kid had been pulling our leg. This statement, made at the epicentre of contemporary art’s most earnestly channelled conduit of understanding and participation, seems symptomatic of something fundamental to how education in art has been thought about (particularly as regards institutions and their targets). we had understood and lauded the placard purely within our own frames of reference, an example of a ‘successful’ workshop, when, in fact, it was far cleverer. I hesitate to over-interpret the girl’s intentions, but let’s say that some spectre of ‘understanding’ art had been dangled in front of her to no avail, that she was suspicious of these particular attempts to bring her obediently into this privileged set of forms and vocabularies; but had instead made a gesture that confronted the most immediate power relation to hand, regardless of whether or not the workshop had given her ‘permission’ to do so, instinctively understanding that protest begins at home.

Charles Esche:

If somebody says you don’t mediate enough or when it comes to the phrase ‘I don’t understand’, at what point does that person think that understanding would be satisfied? I think that ‘I don’t understand’ is a displaced way of saying ‘I don’t think it’s very good,’ but not wanting to say so in case it is good and they’ve got it wrong. So, I don’t think education is about understanding. The response might be: ‘You don’t think it’s good. That’s fine.’ And then you talk about that. ‘Understanding’ has become a kind of substitute for very simple good/bad assessments actually. We get that a lot in the Van Abbemuseum. If somebody thinks that something is interesting, they don’t use that phrase.

And if I didn’t understand something on a visit to an exhibition, I’m going to spot some new references when I go back; that’s the pleasure of working it out, of unfolding something. of course, you have to be interested enough to want to do that and maybe you’re not, and that’s also fine. If you want to see art that is specifically trying to be understandable – and this is not necessarily wrong – then we have to look at Socialist Realism as the art that is specifically driven by the statement ‘I don’t understand it’. There probably isn’t any other answer, in the end, but an art that has to be absolutely transparently representative of its ideology. So, ‘The workers are in control,’ so what we do is we paint a big worker in the middle of the canvas, and that means the workers are in control. Then when someone says, ‘I don’t understand,’ you can say, ‘well you see that the worker is big and young and he’s pointing to the future, so he’s in control, while the capitalists are small people crawling around in the background.’

Before the interview, we had all met to discuss a focus and Charles had suggested that we all think about a particular formative educational moment from our personal experiences, that might provide an expanded context for our discussion about his working, personal and political perspective on the educational turn in curating.


I would say there are two separate moments, but one led to the other. I was brought up politically; my parents were immigrants from Socialism who remained Communist in a certain way, so there wasn’t really a ‘moment’ that I got engaged. So I think the pivotal moments were around disillusionment with politics, rather than my entry into politics.

It was during this specific moment of the miner’s strike in the UK and there were a lot of speeches on the docks in Yorkshire, against Polish coal coming in and replacing the coal that wasn’t being dug because of the strike. The leaders would not tackle the absurdity of having supported the Solidarnosc workers two or three years earlier, and then now rejecting the coal they were digging up after they were defeated in quite difficult circumstances. They might claim to be acting in the interests of the Polish miners but there clearly wasn’t much of an attempt to do so.

That situation seemed to me to draw a limit around the so-called internationalism of Socialism. It made me think that if we want to export our coal, what we are doing is effectively trying to deprive the people in Poland of jobs. So that means the people in Poland, when they rise up again in solidarity and try to overthrow this Stalinist government, then they’ll try to do the same to us. And then there came the vote when the miners rejected having women members, even though they had been the backbone of the strike. And it just seemed to be about convention and strategy and nothing about principle any more. That’s how I read it, at least – I was 21 or 22 when the strike was on, so I can see the misunderstandings of it now – but it was a very raw and powerful moment for me.

And, so, then I started asking questions in the left of the Labour Party, in a small group called Socialist Organiser (that was later kicked out of the Labour Party), and I didn’t get the answers that I wanted. And I felt, as a result of that, that this was not a field where you could imagine the world otherwise. I remember asking, ‘well, why couldn’t we find this connection of solidarity with this or that group?’ and they said, ‘well, no, because they think this and this.’ This tendency for ideological hair-splitting in the far left became really tedious.

I had been intending to, you know, be part of the revolution – and then I wasn’t part of the Labour movement any more.

At the same time as dealing with the humdrum institutional and regional politics occasioned by being a director of a museum, something that Esche takes everywhere with him is a sensibility influenced by Marxism. When he speaks of ‘understanding’, he does in relation to questions of emancipation and ethics as much as explaining aesthetic developments.

Ana Nikitovic:

The role of making art comprehensible is usually given to museums. If someone who has uncertainty comes by, how then do institutions open up that possibility for them to ask their questions?


Within the Van Abbemuseum, I think it’s our job to ask questions in response – like that particular form of Freudian psychology where you only answer a question with a question. If someone says, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand,’ then you ask: ‘what don’t you understand?’ I think that’s the way you can work, because if you start to engage in answering someone, or providing a service for someone and saying, ‘let me explain,’ then you’re completely lost. Then the relationship with the artwork is already bounded by the institution. The possibility that artwork might have to change somebody’s way of imagining the world is devolved to the person who is explaining it. So, the work of art then disappears, in a sense, and it’s the explainer who is responsible for this transformation that the work of art should actually make happen.

So, you constantly have to throw back on some third party – don’t say, ‘Let me explain,’ but say, ‘why do you want this thing to be explained to you?’ This is practised literally, at the moment, with the interpretation at the Van Abbe, where we will only ask questions and we won’t make any statements, which I think will really annoy people but it just seems important.

Also, there is this broader shift. Modernism is about providing answers and whatever world is emerging now – slowly, out of the wreckage – is not modernist, and is not going to be about answers, but more about how you formulate the questions.


This almost sounds like an art stereotype, being not about giving answers but about asking questions.


I don’t think art is about asking questions. Maybe that’s where it is wrong, where the stereotype is given – it’s the job of the curator to ask the question. I have been thinking about this a bit in the last ten years; if we need to start to describe what has happened from the wreckage of modernism, which we don’t even have a name for … then it seems to be more related to the 18th Century than to the 20th Century. These developments emerge really from the pre-modern or the pre-modernist. whether this is part of a moment or a set of conditions, this is something where there is no longer a horizon, where the hegelian idea of history is no longer living in our actions. whether or not this idea of history is wrong is another question, but the idea is no longer implemented in life as it was throughout the whole messianic 20th Century. The 20th Century thought in terms of finding this moment of Utopian achievement, of the communist or national socialist revolutions or fascism or even of democracy in a certain sense, and even the utopian idea of freedom.

All these ideas were wrapped up in the idea that the messiah will come and everything will be right. And I think that the Benjaminian idea of messianic time is absolutely and thoroughly connected to modernism. It is absolutely secularised. And it’s fading away, which is fucking hard. whether it’s temporary or not, I don’t know. I think you can observe it, though, in the lack of messianic possibility, that there is no ‘future’. The future is already packed up.


I was thinking of my grandmother who, in her teenage years, was a member of the Communist Party Youth in Montenegro. I was raised with this idea of emancipation. The thing that stuck with me was how organised they were there – education was emancipation, a really important thing for them. So, they would meet every day after school and read, sitting in groups, talking and exchanging their interpretations. So, I was thinking, in my time and context, how would I translate that?

I realised it’s the reading group, something that contemporary art is using and has accepted and transformed. This history is also something that answers the question ‘why am I here, in the art world?’ Because both these activities – political self-organisation and contemporary art’s discursivity – allow an imaginative realm in which you can question things, which is perhaps the most political aspect of the educational turn in contemporary art.


I think this is true and so we are talking less about the art asking questions, and more about a space where you are allowed to ask questions and you can speculate about the answers without necessarily having them given to you. Party politics comes out of that structure or line – asking questions and thinking about the answer and then saying, ‘that’s the answer’ – well, the last step is where it all goes wrong, but the first two steps in that are actually

If contemporary art is that which always postpones the idea of a fixed ideology, or at least tries to, it gives me the space to be able to try very hard to overthrow my Marxist hegelian upbringing. This would mean trying to think about what happens when there isn’t a horizon of history any more, and asking how you go from avant-gardist to ‘gardist’, i.e. to live in the everyday world rather than being out there leading or saying ‘this way’. How do you do that? This is something I have been confronted with personally, particularly in the last six months, and it has become a very big part of my thinking. That move from avant-gardist to ‘gardist’, that loss of horizon or direction is very hard to deal with, but at least contemporary art seems to have that structure of openness, or being able to remake itself without threatening itself or its survival, in the way that ideology is always threatened by any questioning.

Ji Yoon Yang:
There are plenty of other fields that are defined by this sort of fundamental openness to questioning – like critical theory or sociology or philosophy – yet contemporary art now seems to be at the centre. Why do you think this is?


The answer might be that we’re all involved in it and that’s why we think it is at the centre. Surprise – for all the people in contemporary art, contemporary art is the choice.

It’s possible that that’s true, but I’m not sure. I want to leave it as a possibility as otherwise you become hubristic. But, possibly, to try to answer, in contrast to philosophy, for instance, art has not only an academic side; it has a connection with the public.

Or could it be that curating allows dilettantism? Although as a curator you’re often expected to be an expert in art history, or something of an expert of art mediation…

That’s the worst curating!

… you’re also dabbling in a number of fields, like those JYY mentioned, and there you have permission not to be an expert at all. One role I value that a curator might have (particularly as regards certain kind of artists) is to be the person who deregulates the idea of expertise; or who deregulates the forms and means of learning, about the work and about the world upon which the work draws.

I think another way of talking about it is through what Sarat Maharaj calls ‘non-knowledge’ production, this idea that you don’t have to conform to the disciplinary structures of knowledge, and that art is, perhaps, exceptional in having licence within our expectations. within our social agreements, it doesn’t have to be ‘right’ or justified in the outside world in the same way. So we can say, ‘ok, as a philosopher this is totally wrong but it’s art so therefore I can accept it.’

I think, when he uses the term ‘non-knowledge’, Maharaj is trying to de-specify the disciplines of knowledge and that’s why it has enormous impact academically. In order to give what he’s doing some body, the person who’s declaring something not to be knowledge is confronted with the reality of this non-knowledge and can’t just come back and say, ‘no, I know the truth.’ And remember that modernist academia – much like modernist art – is always concerned with knowing the truth.

‘Knowledge exchange’ is one of the three postulates of the Van Abbemuseum. The term feels like a conscious swap for the term ‘education’.

If you think of the Latin educare, which means ‘to lead out’, it has within it the idea that you are bringing something out of someone, rather than the idea that you are putting things in.

This maxim that was used by Steiner is very old fashioned and anthroposophic but still a very good notion of education: ‘the mind is a fire to be kindled and not a vessel to be filled’. I really want nothing to do with the kind of education that thinks in terms of vessels to be filled.

I think that the more modest, or maybe more contemporary, mode of this is to understand education as knowledge exchange. At least knowledge exchange may offer a slight difference in that it suggests that the would-be ‘receiver’ also has knowledge. That way, you’re not only encouraging something out of them, but also acknowledging that they have something to offer whether you encourage it or not.

It’s constructing a mode in which they can also leave something behind in a museum, whether that’s an experience or a memory or an anecdote or whatever. The reality of this is always disappointing, but we try to do it, we have it in mind – that should, then, inform our practice – that we should think about how to learn from the way that people use the museum. It’s a slow process because people aren’t used to that in the Van Abbemuseum. Museums were, for so many years, top-down institutions where the director determined what happened and the other people were there to be the extra arms.

It’s very pragmatic and functional – almost a shareholder model – and that’s not what I’ve ever been interested in. When we go back to my political upbringing, that was precisely what I was taught that we didn’t do, which is to accept the world around us as it is.

Later, in conversation, AN put it a very simple way: that what the ‘educational turn’ has brought to contemporary art, is not only the extended use of terms such as ‘knowledge production’ and ‘research’, but also their implication in the current integration of art education in the future ‘knowledge society’. And this is what happens when institutional critique becomes the institution itself.

Lilian Engelmann:
How do you separate the idea of informal knowledge exchange and other expanded means of education in museums, and other contexts, from the expectations of ‘life-long learning’? That growing neoliberal expectation of individual self- improvement, that you simply aren’t keeping up with the world unless you are self-sufficient and on top of things and that it is your lifelong responsibility.

I’m not sure you can draw a definitive line. That idea of ‘I don’t understand’ – that art is not really educationally effective because you don’t understand it – is really valuable in this situation. With strictly pre-specified educational expectations, it’s difficult to make art other than that which would follow Socialist Realist lines of development, although it doesn’t necessarily have to look like a figurative painting, as such, but rather has certain rules to it. It’s usually more in the field of ambiguity, of uncertainty, of paradox, in which this model of knowledge exchange works. I think that’s one way you try not to be totally instrumentalised

Could it also be in collectivity? LE’s idea of life-long learning involves the individuation of responsibility for your fate, and an ultimate mindset of total self sufficiency, even when it’s putacross as an opportunity – who can criticise someone who wants to learn? But with knowledge exchange, maybe you have potential for collectivity as an end as well as a means?

I’m a great fan of collectivity, obviously, I’m convinced of its significance, even though it was abandoned. This has resulted in an extreme individualisation, which seems to me extraordinarily fundamentalist in its privileging of the individual and of autonomy, to the point that you can talk about institutional autonomy and you don’t talk about institutional responsibility, and you certainly talk about individual autonomy and not about individual responsibility. If we’re in a time of such fundamentalist individualisation, then how can we talk about collective ethics? how do we behave with each other at that moment when we can so easily be together? There isn’t, for example, a community or collectivity in the ‘Creative Industries’,
even when they’re networked. It’s to do with the network and with being individually connected, but that’s nothing to do with collectivity.

And, so, my only objection to the idea of collectivity would be a pragmatic one: how, in this period of fundamentalist individualisation, can you institute the idea of an ethics of collectivity? I don’t know how to do that at the moment. I don’t know how to be in solidarity with people – certainly, in the Netherlands, where they hate the word ‘solidarity’, hate the word ‘collective’, where they resist any form of saying that we share more than divides us.

It’s almost in that old way of the left, finding the most hair-splitting differences from each other. I’m sick of this fucking uniqueness in reality, it kills my spirit. You know, my uniqueness can easily suffer because of that; I can find uniqueness again, if I need it, but let’s not prize it as the most precious thing there is. It’s absurd. The basis of our humanity is the copy – we’re reproductions of our parents.

I don’t know how to fight it as the whole force of contemporary capitalism is geared towards declaring your uniqueness and the idea of consumer choice. There’s so much money invested in ensuring that you feel unique, and there’s so little money invested in the idea that you actually feel the same.
I don’t mean a kind of abandonment of the individual in terms of the group. I’m just talking about how we can construct an ethics of being together or, in Homi Bhaba’s terms, an ethics of being strange and close. The curatorial group ‘what, how and for whom’ is about that, trying to build an ethics of collectivity, which is sometimes really hard. And this Curatorial Programme at de Appel is still sitting round the same table and talking – that’s remarkable given the past record of the CP – it does seem to me that its educational potential is in this building of an ethics of collectivity between you, which means knowledge exchange and a certain lack of absolute defence of individual rights and ownership to ideas.

I think it’s very hard, within the hierarchies of position in a museum; for me personally, to insist on a collective ethics, this would mean us all being paid the same and working in the same conditions but also taking the same responsibilities and sharing the problems and not expecting to be led. I can abandon the director’s office, as I have, but it doesn’t shift the fundamental expectations of leadership. It is only a symbolic move to demonstrate the aesthetics of an idea that we can exchange without necessarily having a hierarchical power. Instead of saying ‘now that I’m the director, you have to do these things that I do and if you happen to think the same thing, then great; but, if not, I’m going to stop you’, I would ideally like to think about a ethics of collectivity that would then say this is not the job of the director, which, of course, other people would say is a dereliction of responsibility. In business hierarchies, they’d say, ‘well you’ve been given responsibility therefore you have to have the power’ – that’s the ethics of the individualist.

There is still this rather neoliberal way of saying, ‘oh, everybody can be XYZ because you are each individuals, you can just do it your own way and it’ll wonderful,’ despite the lack of support to do so. This question of supporting learning leads us to the problematic relationship between authority, expertise and hierarchy and the means of learning. In learning, how do we define the value of the greater experience that tends to lead to greater authority? A valid description of authority might be when it is not allocated via a fixed hierarchy but rather emerges as a symptom of the interest of the person who comes asking questions. This model would seem to relate to the Protoacademy, an initiative you set up in 1998 with students from Edinburgh College of Art.

It was simply a table with chairs around it, and one of its principles was that anyone who came to sit there was part of it. There was no kind of membership. What you brought to the table was how you determined the hierarchy. So, if we were talking about a subject and somebody had knowledge about it, at that moment they were the boss in that sense. Maybe they would be people, like artists from the college [Edinburgh College of Art], who were more experienced, or visitors who would come and exchange certain information, or me as an older person who would regularly take a
position of authority. At certain points, this process of discussion could become problematic depending on how the rules of the discussion or how the subject matter was working out. But, if some professor who was part of the college and who didn’t really like what we were doing would just come and sit there, not saying anything because he wanted to control it, then he’s really at the lowest level. According to the ethics of that table, he’s at the bottom, he’s first year; he has just come in.

That was a principle that I still think is worthwhile – that you can construct a kind of picture, or even a sculptural reality, to the education moment, which is the table and chairs and the sitting there, and that begins to give you some sort of ethics.

Still, at some point, you also said that Protoacademy was somehow a parasite on the existing educational structure. In the translation of education into knowledge exchange, relative structures seem important.

Yes, the Protoacademy was contingent on the fact that all the students had an institutional affiliation, which meant that we didn’t have to deal with any of that institutional infrastructural processing etc. When we travelled and did projects in the Staedelschule, Stuttgart, Gwangju 2002, or Malmö, those projectswere organised in essence because of these organisations that already existed and provided the infrastructure. There were a few places where we performed the sculptural function of the table, and this was always parasitical. For example, Korea was probably themost independent but it was still attached to the Gwangju Biennale,and that allowed us to operate but it also gave you certain constraints. we weren’t as open as we wished, in the sense that anybody could come along. It would be unlikely that people would hear of it, and it would be unlikely that they would have the confidence to walk through the institutional structure to find us.

So we were dependent on the people in the institution to join us. I think the best times were when we mixed the together the students and recent graduates from situations in Stuttgart and Staedelschule and in Edinburgh and Glasgow, when it was mixed and it felt like this manic construction of community. This is where the name made sense in a way, the ‘Proto’, meaning to be in the process of becoming an academy but never meaning to actually do so. It would always be prototypical or protean, a structure and process of becoming. That seems to be a nice way of naming it because, with
a name, you fix something that is in process and you kind of restrict its possibility to grow. And, of course, ultimately, pragmatically, the un-fixity was fatal as it meant we could never anchor ourselves in a situation or actually become an academy.

This sculptural place of tables and chairs as a metaphor of the place within education, it’s interesting – is this more or less what the educational turn in the art world is?

The Protoacademy very literally was that – put some chairs in the room, there you go.

Quite often, it was empty – just as a meeting room in an office would be. It was useful, everybody became very pragmatic. People asked: ‘I don’t understand it, why aren’t you having a meeting here?’ ‘well, it’s a meeting room; with meeting rooms you don’t always have a meeting.’ ‘But then why do you have it?’ ‘well, because it’s a meeting room.’

The metaphorical sculptural power of that statement was far more interesting, I think, than the fact that people might wander in and you’d be there having a meeting. You ended up with these conversations where you had to ask a question back: ‘Well, why do you think there should be a meeting here? Why, in your experience, is there always a meeting in a meeting room?’

So, can we say than that the place of education within exhibition-making is symbolic?


I never really want to get into signs and symbols to be honest. ‘Is the place of education symbolic?’ If I cross out the silent ‘only’ in that sentence, then, yes, part of it is, I think. It’s also about a gesture towards the idea that this education – in the sense of knowledge exchange – is available to you. I think the Viewing Depot work that we do at the Van Abbe has a symbolic power, but it is also real. It has iconic status and it signifies, but the actual act of doing it is also at play. I think of it as an icon for a way of thinking about the collection as being ‘accessible’. It signifies an idea of us trying to create a dialogue in which we want to know people’s motivations as regards what to see in the collection. If it’s not an education project, then I don’t know how you would define it. It’s certainly a project that tries to engage in an exchange of knowledge of the collection.

Clare Butcher:
You already told us one experience of yours that changed your perspective or taught you something about learning itself, yet you said there were two parts – what was the other half of the story?


I was in Manchester, and it was 1984, and one day I went to an exhibition space called Cornerhouse and there was an exhibition by Stephen Willats. I didn’t know him at all, but he was making work in high-rise housing schemes, in Manchester, Oxford, Edinburgh, and London – and he’d done a series of works around the punk movement. I was a kind of fake punk, and it spoke to me about the conditions that I had experienced and the speculative ways that you might address the world. he seemed to be asking the questions that I couldn’t ask in politics, like: How do we live together? How do we make symbols that we can share, without those symbols being inherited from somebody else and having no chance to influence them? He seemed to be offering that possibility – so, not the hammer and sickle or the red flag or the clenched fist, but giving life to one’s own symbols. That was inspiring for me.

Nowadays, I would be more critical about the work because, as time passes, you build a relationship and a different vocabulary. But I still have a lot of respect for Stephen. Some time after that I thought: ‘Ok, so this art thing is what it’s about then. Not politics. I’d better find out something about it.’

de Appel Curatorial Programme 2008/2009 were: Clare Butcher, Lilian Engelmann, me, Christina Li, Ana Nikitovic, and Ji Yoon Yang

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s