Interview with Guus Beumer, director of Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, by Philipp Teufel for New Exhibition Design 03.
Philipp Teufel (PT): The New Institute – Das Neue: where did the name come from? And how has it shaped the identity of the institute?
Guus Beumer (GB): The name was given to us as part of a total package, when the decision was made by the Dutch government to merge three national institutes into one. Although we had our initial reservations, we now really like the name of our institute, especially since we’re no longer new. After six years, our name, The New Institute (Het Nieuwe Instituut) is no longer a fact, but more of an ambition. In fact, our name compels us to reconsider what an institute can be. I was once part of the fashion world, which is of course a secular religion dedicated to the new. However, every professional in that field is much more fascinated by anachronisms. This is because they are all fully aware that the future potential of their industry lies in the exact moment of transition from new to old. In a way, our name makes the institute a permanent anachronism – and therefore places it in a continuous state of rebirth.
PT: Can you explain how you developed such a fascination for exhibitions?
GB: Thanks to my longstanding partnership with fashion designer Alexander van Slobbe in the 1990s, I was already confronted with the importance of staging. But I actually started to think about exhibitions due to my partner Herman Verkerk. I used to be a journalist, focusing on the field of design.
However, I was never interested in the singularity of the author. Growing up intellectually at the end of the 1980s made me critical of that particular construct and more interested in, for example, the complexity of the underlying systems of fashion and design.
As a journalist I was probably more of an essayist than a reporter. Thanks to Herman Verkerk, I could continue to employ language while another type of visibility was introduced to me. In our creative marriage, I became the one to come up with a possible narrative, and he as an architect would transform this into a temporary, spatial construct. Our complementary interests, for me a possible narrative, for him the idea of a temporary architecture, led to the exhibition as our favourite medium.
Interestingly enough, this partnership also had an effect on the idea of what an exhibition could be. In most cases, an exhibition is purely display and, in the cultural field, often influenced by an art historical ideology. It is therefore hardly surprising that the classic emphasis in most exhibitions is on the author, the artefact or a particular theme or timeframe. However, Verkerk and I no longer saw the exhibition as an instrument for a disciplinary ideology, but instead we autonomized it – in the sense that the spatial organization itself became an important storyline. In fact, in our first exhibition as a creative duo (Higher Truth, De Vleeshal, Middelburg, 2002), not one artefact was on display. In retrospect, you could describe it as a spatial experience, animated by performance. This led to the question whether the project should be seen as an installation and not as a design exhibition, therefore belonging to the field of the arts, However, our point was not yet another diffusion of borders, in this case between art- and design exhibitions. Our point was that design exhibitions have the potential to go beyond the usual display of yet another series of iconic objects, designed for the domestic interior, and embrace more complex territories, like in this case the design of the psychology behind retail.
PT: How did your personal interest in the exhibition become part of the identity of Het Nieuwe Instituut?
GB: Het Nieuwe Instituut was given the assignment to search for possible new questions within the domain of design, architecture and digital culture. Of course, the moment you address the new, you have manoeuvred yourself into what you might call the oldest conversation of the 20th century, since everything from 1900 onwards is organized around the new. But how do we approach this particular question in the 21st century?
One fact was often ignored by institutes in the 20th century, namely that innovation is synonymous with conflict. So if this particular institute could reveal the new in relation to a notion of conflict, then the new could perhaps become important again for this particular moment in time.
To me, the question of innovation is not so much about what you address, but just as much – or even more so – how you address it. So in our public programme, the importance of the exhibition and the interest in exhibition models immediately manifested itself as a direct result of our assignment.
PT: The Temporary Fashion Museum: the permanent vs. the temporary?
GB: Firstly, the model of The Temporary Fashion Museum was developed as a starting point for a more general reflection on the birth of a new institute. The idea of a museum, of continuity and permanence, was to us the quintessential counterpoint to the idea of fashion, of fluidity and transformation. In other words, a fashion museum is in many ways a contradictio in terminis and therefore a beautiful start if you want to reflect upon the nature of a new institute, or institutes in general. It formed the starting point of our investigation into the temporal in order to bridge a longing for both continuity and dynamism. Secondly, you can see this project also as an attempt to manifest the current notion of a networked society.
With the Temporary Fashion Museum, we not only wanted to confront fashion as the ultimate manifestation of the new with an idea of conflict, we also wanted to give a platform to a network of people who were a major influence on how fashion design developed in the Netherlands from the 1990s onwards.
Starting with Herman and me, since we are both part of that network, and then expanding outwards until the project became synonymous with that network and the largely unwritten contemporary history which lies hidden behind all these anonymous contributors. In the end, more than 130 people were directly involved in the making of the Temporary Fashion Museum.
Then thirdly, the project was also a kind of Brechtian Lehrstück in the sense that it was all designed in such a way that it would reveal its construct through participation. We hoped this would lead to a kind of visitor consciousness, not only about fashion but also about the construct of the museum. Not for nothing was the audience constantly invited to participate. At the moment of entering, you were for instance stimulated to take off your coat and hand it over as part of an overall ritual in which you and your clothes became part of the narrative. Everything was geared towards putting you as the visitor at the centre of the total experience.
PT: What do you consider most interesting about the Temporary Fashion Museum?
That’s a tough one, since that project touched on so many subjects. From a political perspective, you can say that the history of fashion is currently told by the big fashion brands and it follows their interests. The dominant storyline is therefore organized around certain designers, certain brands, certain looks, and so on. However, the history of fashion is much more diverse.
So for one thing we chose the perspective of the user, and not of the designer. And this shift in perspective revealed some beautiful and important narratives around fashion in the Netherlands.
The role of the so called housewife in the 1950s as the style maker of the family, and the importance of home sewing, is for instance structurally ignored by fashion, although it is one of the starting points of its so-called democratization. Or the discovery of street style in the 1960s in cities like Amsterdam, which coincides with the birth of the consumer, youth culture, and not forgetting the introduction of second-hand as a DIY tool. And what about the story of the disco and the club in the 1970s and 80s which became, after the street, the new platforms for experimentation with gender and sexuality? All this as possible manifestations of our bodies and performed through dress which was in most cases self-designed and highly theatrical.
You could say that The Temporary Fashion Museum stopped representing the official ideology of fashion and the designer, and instead developed a more inclusive narrative based on the speculative, possibly even fictional, histories of a collective of contributors, placing users and their emancipation centre stage.
Personally, I learned the importance of lightness through this particular project. We managed to reveal a more diverse and deeply political storyline about fashion and the museum while at the same time staying light, open and generous to our visitors. Take for instance – as part of the fashion museum - the Pumporama, a kind of shoe shop which everybody could enter; no ticket was demanded. In the shop, only one pair of high heels was on display, but in all sizes from matchbox to canoe. Upon entering you were invited not to buy them, but to put them on, to perform publicly and make a picture of yourself which you could share on social media.
Thousands of men, women, children, whether straight, gay, lesbian or trans, put these high heels on, experiencing – in many cases for the first time – the power of pose and the design of gender. That 99% of them were willing to make these pictures public is, to me, a revelation of the importance of lightness.
PT: Interestingly enough, projects like those you and Herman did together coincided with early critiques of the white cube.
GB: Our interest in possible new narratives and the temporary, and therefore in a practice beyond the existing disciplinary parameters, was for Herman and me, as an artistic duo, the driving force to develop new exhibition models, far beyond the white cube. We see ourselves as anthropologists, reflecting on the field of culture and employing the exhibition both as a tool for research and as a manifestation of a possible outcome. However, never forget that the white cube is –notwithstanding all the critique – still the most dominant exhibition model, although it was specifically developed for a particular moment in time and for a particular object/artwork. A moment in time when curators longed for the suggestion of a neutral space as the ideal environment for an autonomous artefact that would reveal its sphinx-like status if the visitor were able to reflect on its very essence. Whiteness would do the trick and, of course, the authority of a critic would probably help.
Herman and I started our collaboration in a completely different time – when, for instance, context had become an important element in how an object or artefact was perceived, and the authority of the critic – or rather authority in general – had become questionable. Plus, we dealt not only with art exhibitions but also with exhibitions on architecture, design, and – beyond those disciplinary borders – all the possible cross-overs. However, even today, many curators still love the authority of the white cube and prefer yet another variation on it. Interestingly enough, it was the visual arts – not design and architecture – that started to invite us as exhibition makers/curators, exactly because the white cube was more and more recognized as a problematic and even authoritarian tool.
PT: The history of a museum in a museum – that was the Hygiene Museum Dresden, 2010 at Marres in Maastricht.
GB: I have a long-standing interest in hygiene and the hygiene movement of the beginning of the 20th century. There are some fascinating analogies to be drawn between that historic moment and the here and now, since at the end of the 19th century politicians did not know –just as they don’t know now – how to deal with the urgencies of that time. A new coalition between the arts, design, architecture and science led to what we nowadays call Modernism. It celebrated, first of all, an ideology of purity and transparency through materials like steel and glass and the colour white. The changing ideologies of hygiene are revealed in the transforming practices of one particular museum in Germany, the Hygiene Museum in Dresden. When a friend of mine, Claudia Banz, currently based in Berlin and working as a curator at the Kunstgewerbemuseum, got a job at that particular museum, I could not help but ask her if she was willing to do the necessary research on how that museum dealt with its own, rather unique, history. Happily, she said yes!
The history of hygiene is not just another utopian story from the beginning of 20th century. The notion of purity, which lies at the centre of the hygiene movement, also became – just a few years later – an intrinsic part of the ideology of National Socialism and its theories on race.
And after World War II, the story of hygiene needed to be rewritten again in Dresden, since that city and its museum became part of the East Germany. A new socialist human being was rising from the ruins and leaving fascist tendencies behind, so a new idea of hygiene, including a new aesthetic, needed to be construed. And after Die Wende, the museum once more transformed, due to its focus on the urgencies of today, into one of the most interesting museums in Western Europe.
This particular history is not only revealed through the subject of the museum and its changing ideology, but also through its exhibitions, its approaches to display and its preference for certain artefacts and media. One particular exhibition tool, the Glaser Man – who, interestingly enough, has kept his position under all the different ideologies – is at the centre of this story: the the ultimate representation of transparency, rationality and, of course, control. Thanks to Claudia as the curator and with the support of the Hygiene Museum itself, the Glaser Man became part of an exhibition we were able to make about a museum in a museum, reflecting on how display, artefacts and exhibition models were constructed in order to represent a transforming ideology.
PT: What is the most important exhibition you have made?
GB: I am not in a position to validate any of these exhibitions. And contrary to the Temporary Fashion Museum for instance, many of the projects we are discussing hardly received any critical acclaim when they were open to the public. It is only relatively recently that exhibition models have become of public interest, and only now that I am more frequently approached about certain exhibitions.
Our field of interest not only lacks a sound theoretical basis, but also a sense of history. Everybody in the field knows three or four emblematic exhibitions from the 20th century, but a more overall knowledge is lacking. Most visitors see exhibitions as synonymous to what is on display and are not trained to read the exhibition model, the design, the construct of the underlying narrative.
A problem is that most exhibitions have such a coded quality – a white wall, a title, an author, some objects – that, even at a time where we are willing to discuss exhibitions in terms of models, we seem to lack the vocabulary to question their coded normality.
And since exhibitions are by nature fleeting media and do not have the permanence of books, for example, it is tough to build up a collective memory of what has been done, to compare and build up a set of references. And that is problematic. I would say that in a period where the market economy is the dominant reality and the intrinsic has made way for the contextual, many objects, buildings, even artefacts have become part of the cultural domain solely because of what is referred to as a discourse, which can be translated ‘as how we interpret the world’. And the exhibition and its possible model fulfils an important role in that discourse. But what does that mean for the idea of an archive or a collection? Why is the exhibition in terms of the specificity of the model, the possible designers, curators and researchers a structural part of our cultural amnesia, while for instance objects are able to hold on to their celebrated position when it comes to collecting? Is that solely because we are living in a market economy, or do we need to question the current construct of our cultural memory?
In any case, I am far from sad that I can refer only to projects that have no presence anymore. If you ask me to look back, I see first of all a continuous working method, thoroughly based in a kind of cultural anthropology. The act of presenting is always taken into account and made explicit.
Each exhibition is the opportunity to develop yet another possible model to reveal a narrative, to engage a potential audience. A longing to make manifest the efforts of the collective, and not so much of one particular author, is another repeating element. And yes, the role of the audience as participant is yet another red thread.
In terms of subject matter; there is a continuous interest in the multidisciplinary, expressed in certain positions like the dandy or the dilettante, so specific to the 19th century, as well as in certain utopias like the Hygiene Movement of the 20th century. The unwritten, rather than the status quo, is definitely recurrent.
A few of these exhibitions acted as a moment of awakening for me, as starting points for my own emancipation as a researcher and maker. For instance, Higher Truth (2002, De Vleeshal) was an exhibition in which I realized that the exhibition could be a spatial experience, devoid of objects, and at the same time extremely precise in what it wants to convey. By the way the name Higher Truth is, with all its pretence, the result of pure coincidence, because at the time of the build-up, we were still looking for a title. However, two advertising campaigns seemed to be everywhere at that moment, one by Dior and one by Gucci. One promoted a perfume called Higher and the other a perfume called Truth. We appropriated both titles for our own ambition, which was trying to reveal the atmospheric through an exhibition. How else then by way of a perfume?
Opera Aperta (Dutch Pavilion, Venice, 2011) was an important project for me, in ambition as well as in scope. It was an interesting moment to be asked to be the curator of the national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. For the first time since World War II, there were cuts for culture. And since this was Venice and the national pavilion, I was interested in drawing an analogy between an idea of national identity and the existing cultural infrastructure of The Netherlands.
In fact, I wanted to address our cultural infrastructure as our national identity and reveal its intricate architecture of collectivity, on the basis of a collective of participants. Artists, composers, designers, writers, architects, critics, but also foundations, museums, art magazines: all joined a core collective, which formed the heart of the project.
And the outcome resulted, or rather referred to the classic Gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner. Since the work had many operatic characteristics, we turned the Dutch pavilion into an opera house, giving a direct view of both the wings and the stage. And only if you as an audience member transformed from a visitor into a participant would you see both the front- and back views of the overall presentation, and a changing message reveal itself. Opera Aperta – the name a citation from Umberto Eco – was a truly open work: escaping a final interpretation, while at the same time celebrating that unique cultural infrastructure as the Netherlands’ public space par excellence.
I also still like the projects we did for the Rotterdam Design prize, especially for 2001 – perhaps because they were events rather than exhibitions, demanding energy, surprise and an idea of celebration rather than precision. For 2001’s edition, we made an archive of nominees and a centre stage which constantly transformed. During the opening the stage became a photo studio and the nominated objects were professionally photographed while being shown by fashion models. The audience could simply be part of the shoot. In the following week the stage became a restaurant, decorated with all the nominated objects again. The space was used for the jury meetings and as the location of a cooking program, aired on national television. Then the stage would transform into a musical performance, with each nominated object becoming an instrument.
Another transformation was into a classic vitrine presentation addressing both Good and Bad design, However, Good and Bad no longer represented the classic ambitions of a prize, but had transformed into ethical notions, revealing for instance the political sympathies of certain iconic designers. The final transformation was truly spectacular. We had asked a company called Trendhopper, a chain of furniture retailers, to set up their showroom in the exhibition space and all the nominated objects became part of their interior. I still think that particular edition of the Rotterdam Design prize was a wonderful exercise in context and meaning and the right, critical model for something as frail as an awards show and ceremony.
PT: Can you name an important museum?
GB: Didn’t we all think it was over and out with museums, but no, they are back and with a vengeance! And not solely as machines that cater for the largest possible audiences, although that is what they will need to be at the same time. I am totally interested in what you can consider a classic war of influence and power which is currently going on at an institutional level and on a global scale. Take for instance the Louvre, reinventing itself in the Middle East, or a new and vast museum called M+ which will open very soon in Hong Kong, and what about the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, writing or rewriting the history of all mankind? Museums are in other words totally back as instruments of ideology and propaganda. In terms of importance, we have to wait a while before this new playing field is established and a new hierarchy made explicit, but it is obvious that the absolute reign of institutes from the USA, like MoMa and the Metropolitan, is of the past.
In these culture wars for influence, it is important that institutes like Het Nieuwe Instituut continue to explicitly question the idea of a canon. We are not huge, but we are not small either; we have enough critical mass to question, and we are publicly funded.
We have, in other words, been given the opportunity by the government to be open to all those as yet unarticulated stories out there. Cultural institutes like Het Nieuwe Instituut are probably among the last spaces where such stories can be told. And because we are publicly funded, we need to take the notion of the public extremely seriously, but thankfully in other terms then pure mass.
We can play an active role as a catalyst for all those untold, disregarded and (most of the time) deliberately ignored narratives about design, architecture, digital culture, their makers and all their possible users.
PT: What would carte blanche look like?
GB: I am not interested in a sugar daddy or -mummy: we all need money, but it never should be the starting point for any project. If I were able to set up a possible next project and have it rooted in my personal interest, I would probably focus on how the temporary could be embraced as a tool for transformation. The exhibition models I have initiated have expanded to the scale of full blown museums, archives and even city-parks. They have all led to fundamental changes in policy, city-planning, and even the psychology of a city. In other words: the temporary can be a brilliant agent for change, but it is currently employed mainly for formats like the biennale, the festival and the exhibition.
I would definitely be intrigued by the idea of an institute for temporary institutes. There is enough infrastructure available out there, but how to animate it, how to program it, how to transform it in order to fit our current needs – that’s the interesting question. Not by starting with the hardware, but by developing the software. Let us learn from exhibitions and exhibition-makers, extrapolate from their knowledge of the temporary and make use of all that is out there and forgotten, problematized or marginalized, yet full of potential.
This interview was first published in New Exhibition Design 03. Edited by Uwe J. Reinhardt, Philipp Teufel. In cooperation with edi—Exhibition Design Institute Hochschule Düsseldorf Peter Behrens School of Arts. Copyright 2020 av edition GmbH, Stuttgart, Verlag für Architektur und Design.
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