Practicing Friendship: Respecting Time as a Curator
Zoe Butt of Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City, and facilitator of AAA's 2011 Mobile Library programme in Vietnam, contributes a text looking at friendship. Citing this as a platform that is integral to the longevity of particular kinds of arts infrastructure, she invites others considered independent, 'alternative', and archival in spirit to speak among friends, while simultaneously investigating a method of working strategically under conditions with political or cultural restrictions.
Here are her thoughts...
22 November 2015
Every day I take a moment to quietly reaffirm my motivations for working in the arts, for I've got to be frank, I once nearly quit on my passion. Utterly. At a too-early point in my career, I had grown oh-so-tired of the way neoliberal systems of institutional approval were dictating how artistic innovation was allowed to take form and be interpreted—a stance touted to respect the inspiration of artists from far-flung locales with differing determinations of 'contemporaneity', but sadly felt more like a colonisation of their productive processes. What sustained my practice within these particular glass-encased white cube bureaucracies of Museology was the critical intimacy cultivated in my curatorial department—these were rare and special friendships of regional artistic knowledge. Indeed, Management was wary of our closeness.
Ever since, the presence of friendship in my field has been of key consideration in the work I have chosen to do. I value this space of intimacy as the most discerning base of knowledge in the arts. In my decision to exit the 'professionalised' landscape of government-supported arts infrastructure in Australia for the ideologically monitored, commercially hoodwinked terrain of China and Vietnam, I came to understand just how significant friendship is to sustaining the development of artistic languages and forms—how it can provide political autonomy with a powerful organised presence. Thus I have gleaned much about the purpose of art and its relevance from the social spaces of artists; indeed, these domestic environments of friendship crucially shape my work.
Image: A private evening with curators Stephanie Kwai and Reem Fadda (Guggenheim, NY); historian Geeta Kapur
and artist Vivan Sundaram (India); historian Vu Duc Vuong; collectors Tran Thi Thanh Ha and Olivier Mourgue d’Algue and artists Tiffany Chung, Phan Thao Nguyen, Ngo Huynh Van Anh, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Sàn Art staff curator, Zoe Butt and Tra Bich Nguyen (Vietnam). 29 September, 2014, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Stephanie Kwai.
And what is this 'work'? It's the building of care towards independent houses of culture that are rooted in the formal and vernacular artistic languages of their localities today. They are immaterial and concrete, often small in size yet holding dreams as vast as the sky, whose charge of memory is grasped as living souls that count for a collective consciousness—a never-ending social network of differing pulse whose objects and ephemerality deserve constant re-categorisation. I'm talking particularly about houses of culture built by artists that dwell together in landscapes of psychological pain and political poverty; where to be visible and publicly interactive is to incur possible conflict; where the power in friendship is an alliance, a crucible of remembering and resilience; where the power in friendship becomes the means to politically challenge those who seek to define you.
My work is referred to as 'curating', but to me it is about the dialogical intertextuality of engaging artists and their art to create encounters between aesthetics and politics —it's about facilitating time, performing time, imprinting time, and dare I say producing time. It is about caring for the way memory is locally visualised and responsibly provoked; it's about interpreting, describing, and collecting the adhesive presence of time between memory and emotion, between form and its political legitimacy, between shadows opaque, liquid, and porous. Time that only those in friendship can truly critically understand. For it is within friendship that the production of Representation—the journey towards that final destination called an Artwork by an Artist—is able to remain nameless. I say nameless for it is in naming that we are coded, thus presumed spoken for. I say nameless for it is in friendship (that code, that bond, beyond Law) that the Face of the artist, the author, is permitted the space to Be. It is within this space of friendship—the qualities of respect, trust, reliability, credibility, constancy, openness—that namelessness can look with unconditioned eyes on its surroundings, can learn of its interdependency on the facts and legends of its people (perhaps the Filipina would call it 'kapwa'), allowing the idea to learn how to breathe, to figure its own relationship to the world, to beg friendship to make introduction to discursiveness sturdier, to come up with a name that reflects the dreams inherent to its conjuring, to hope that its eventual interface does not enter the aesthetic regime with only one stride.
Image: Friends of Vu Dan Tan, Hanoi, Vietnam, 1986. Courtesy of Salon Natasha Archive.
But this profession of mine is a deeply uneven one in definition and practice, and ultimately hinges on the geographies and social networks with which we live and devote. In this wondrous calamity of difference, I believe the context of art and culture must be facilitated, and I believe such facilitation requires physical and psychological space that is carefully weighted between local and global meaning. Some curators believe their key task to contribute to a history of exhibitions; in an ecology of cultural lack, however, I believe my key task is to sustain critically thinking creative communities of friendship.
Image: Group critique with local artists and participants of Session 5: 'Sàn Art Laboratory' with Rudy Atjeh (Aceh) introducing his work on view at Sàn Art, November 2014, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Sàn Art.
But let's revisit Time. If I click 'Yes' on a friendship request on Facebook, am I thus now a 'friend'? If I set up an art project in Saigon as a social enterprise engaging victims of human trafficking along the border region with China, yet I've never spent time with such a victim, do I truly believe in my work? If I curate an art exhibition in London of Syrian contemporary art with artists I don't even physically recognise, am I demonstrating care in knowing the depth of my naming their dreams into words has consequence, particularly considering the global depravity of their ongoing civil war? How important is the investment of shared experiential time to build interpersonal networks that responsibly define who we are and what we do as curators working transnationally in the 21st century?
In speaking of this Occupation of mine—curating—I'd like it to invest more 'time' in understanding an artist and the conditions with which their art is given meaning, presence, and value in the sites that gave birth to its existence. With the current speed of the global systematisation of art, and its palate to collect and showcase the 'global' within museum and biennale platforms, I think it crucial that such systems care about the impact of its tourism on local communities struggling to sustain criticality with their own cultural knowledge. The attitude with which we produce, display, consume, and interpret contemporary art should be supportive of sustaining its diversity in production and meaning.
And here I must return to friendship, for it is sadly not the acclaimed venue notches of an artist's curriculum vitae that a depth of exchange with artistic sites of production is practiced—not the likes of MoMA or the Tate; not the Venice Biennale, or Art Basel. Their showcase-driven, marketable (and thus timetabled) arms hold the interface (the artwork) aloft from the context of its production as opposed to considering how to give those arms increased dimension, to give physical articulation to such context. It is rather within the smaller, grassroots, guerilla-like, 'alternative' collective spaces of action, at the local level, that arms and hands are found in provocative swat and caress, where time is of currency in encouraging patient constructive thinking.
Image: Saigon based members of the Sàn Art Board - Phunam, Dinh Q Le, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Matt Lucero,
Zoe Butt. Ho Chi Minh City, 2013. Photo: Nguyen Nhat Nam.
If only these two planets of social capital could sit at a regular table and share a meal of time, perhaps then we could discuss the impact of shifting the situatedness of an 'exhibition'; or perhaps better implement a research strategy for collecting art by which knowledge networks from the local ecologies' major museums seek to acquire are integrated as friendships into departmental structures of museum life. I must emphasise here again why I say 'friendships' (as opposed to 'professional appointments') for friendship demands a respect for time, a deference for the long-term in building social forms of knowledge, a respect for the role of honour in failure while searching for success. In contexts of suppressed psychological pain and political poverty particularly (think Syria with Doxbox; think Cuba with Immigrant International; think Congo with Studio Kabako; think Cambodia with SaSa Art Projects; think Vietnam with Sàn Art; think Sri Lanka with Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture, and Design and so many more…), it is the silken thread of friendship that sustains, gives purpose, and ultimately breeds a respect for knowledge and memory that is nurturing and under constant re-evaluation. The physical walls of these houses of culture are often crumbling, contested, mobile, virtual, or publicly inaccessible and thus trust is of urgency to ensure survival.
This is not to say that 'professional appointments' are void of such bonds, and I am sure I will find readers thinking I am overly idealistic with my romance of friendship in the context of art and its production/facilitation here, but what I am trying to say is that a curatorial address book needs to remember the impact of context on human intelligence and its cultural underpinnings. Speed dating parachute meetings by visiting curators turn art into a factory of showcase with no depth, and I have witnessed first-hand just how many of these visits critique and leave young artists utterly gutted, confused, and helpless. We need to practice friendship across our transnational planets of differing understandings of time to give structures of social capital the chance to interlock.
'Only primary friendship is stable (bebaios), for it implies decision and reflection: that which always takes time…' Derrida says. 'A decision worthy of the name—that is a critical and reflective decision—could not possibly be rapid or easy, as Aristotle then notes, and this remark must receive all the weight of its import'. I wonder what Derrida would say if tasked to comment on the interpersonal networks of 'guanxi', for it is in this system of social reciprocity and mutual benefit in China and Vietnam—an interpersonal network of friendship anchored in nurturing long-term exchange that I have witnessed respect and knowledge expand, opportunities facilitated, and contacts of social currency gained. I am speaking particularly of my experiences in China and Vietnam, these countries that were violently thrown into a 'globalising' industrial competition, where local 'culture' has been systematised by paranoid political surveillance mechanisms who argue patriotism, nationalism, and profit as key determinants of approval. In such environs (and there are many other similar landscapes of cultural control—think the divisive and brutal religious doctrines that have mired Afghanistan, India, and Myanmar, for example), the infrastructure for the arts is incredibly lacking in funds, facilitation, and space, and it is thus the interpersonal networks of artistic friendships that enable and innovate this lack, who invoke historical consciousness embedded within artistic languages '…by courting, by creating…that begging bowl to which the gift is drawn. '
Of course the instrumentalisation of such a 'begging bowl' can be dark, intelligibly limiting, and hauntingly violent (corruption in business; cronyism in politics), but that is where the agency of such networks has been foiled by ego, and where reciprocity has lost its mindfulness. Yes, I say 'mindfulness' as opposed to 'utility', and now perhaps we have Buddha sharing a cup of tea with Aristotle in this little duel, but I say 'mindfulness' for its Being 'present', for its acknowledgment of interconnected cyclical dependencies and, thus, the interwoven urgency to be held responsible for its cause and effect. Friendships can be useful in practice—we take advantage of what the Other can provide—social introductions to beneficial people, sharing of skills, a sage for advice, but friendships are also virtuous bound beyond profit, beyond 'use'.
I may be impractical in my plea for time, for friendship, to be respected within the showcase and collection of art, but I think in the increasing entertainment frenzy of event management and a rationalised capitalistic system of cultural accountability, we must remember '[t]he mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness'.
© Zoe Butt, Saigon, November 2015
 I refer to my time working at the Curatorial Department of Contemporary Asian and Pacific Art at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia from 2001 to 2007.
 'Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time' Rancière, J. and G. Rockhill (2004). The Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible, London, Continuum. (Loc 278, Kindle)
 'Is relationship with Being produced only in representation, the natural locus of evidence? Does objectivity, whose harshness and universal power is revealed in war, provide the unique and primordial form in which Being, when it is distinguished from image, dream, and subjective abstraction, imposes itself on consciousness? Is the apprehension of an object equivalent to the very movement in which the bonds with truth are woven?' (p. 24); 'A relation whose terms do not form a totality can hence be produced within the general economy of being only as proceeding from the I to the other, as a face to face, as delineating a distance in depth—that of conversation, of goodness, of Desire… (p. 39) Lévinas, E. (1969). Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority, Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1969
 'kapwa' is an indigenous Filipino (Tagalog) term of psychology whose root is anchored in pre-Hispanic, pre-colonial thinking, a cultural ethnic attitude of 'the self in the other'. This is a relational attitude between generations where each individual acknowledges their relevance and responsibility to carry forward their ancestral collective significance, in particular respect to their local community and natural environment. http://glossary.mg-lj.si/referential-fields/subjectivization/kapwa (accessed 23 October 2015)
 For example, to study the impact of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev's dOCUMENTA (13) in her extending the exhibition presence to Kabul with her 'Kabul-Bamiyan: Seminars and Lectures' programme; to better understand the impact of such global surveys on the sites in which its thematics are inspired, to beg the question, 'how can such showcase platforms be continuous and long-term in their critical cultural exchange?'
 The TATE Modern have curatorial Adjunct appointments that allow these individuals to remain in the contexts they specialise, live, and work (José Roca is Estrellita B.Brodsky Adjunct Curator of Latin American Art); it also possesses an 'Asian Acquisitions Committee' of rotating expertise and social status within the region it claims to care. How can such models of curating and collecting be better discussed in impact and formation so as to improve its work and relevancy, in order for other institutions of enabling capacity to learn and innovate?
 Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, Verso, London; New York, 1997, p. 15.
 Qi Xiaoying, 'Guanxi, Social Capital Theory and Beyond: Toward a Globalized Social Science', The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 64, issue 2, 2013
 Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (25th Anniversary Edition), Vintage Books, New York, 1983, p. 186.
 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface-abs.htm (accessed 23 October 2015)