Dec. 7 2016 09:29 AM

Broad Art Museum director talks politics, art and his upcoming book

Last month, the new director of Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, Marc-Olivier Wahler, talked with City Pulse’s Lawrence Cosentino about a range of topics, from the relation between politics and art to the book he is writing to his plans for the Broad. Below is an extended excerpt from the interview. To read the City Pulse story on Wahler with specifics on the Broad’s upcoming exhibits and programs, click here. To read a story on the historic art collection of the former Kresge Art Museum, which Wahler hopes to showcase as part of the Broad’s new programs, click here.

You picked an interesting time to move to the United States.

Last time I moved from Europe to the United States was in 2000. When I arrived in summer, Clinton was president. A few months later, Bush was elected. Now it’s changing to something else.

The New York Times ran a story today about the run-up to the Whitney Biennial, which coincided with the 2016 election. Scott Rothkopf, the biennial’s chief curator, said the bitter election year prompted “questioning” and influenced the curators’ choice of 63 artists for the biennial, which opens in March 17.

“The discourse turns to who we are as a nation,” Rothkopf said. Are you comfortable talking about the possible effect of the election on art in general, including at the Broad?

It’s hard to tell. I remember when Bush was elected, and especially when Bush was re-elected, the same conversations were around: “We should react, change things, stand for what we believe.” That didn’t translate into big reactions in the art world or in general. I was surprised. Maybe this time it’s something else.

But I think we have to be careful with art, especially contemporary art. I think any good art is political. Doing political art is redundant.

If contemporary art carries one message, it’s not what we call contemporary art anymore. Contemporary art is about the multiplicity of interpretations. The answer you have on the tip of the tongue, the dynamism it triggers.

Above all, it’s a mental hygiene.

A good friend of mine, Olivier Mussen said about 30 years ago, “If you can see art as art, then reality can stay reality.”

Which is almost impossible. If you see art as art, a monochrome for a monochrome, and not for something, because it’s red, so it represents something, or it’s about something … if you could really see a thing for what it is, wipe away all the filters, then reality can stay reality, meaning without all the filters that are imposed by our society, our ethic, our sociology, our politics. Which means it’s your way of seeing things. Which is almost impossible, but it’s a goal.

If you could do that, then life would be much easier, healthier. Because that’s the problem we have everywhere around the world, but especially nowadays in the United States.

People were basically influenced by social media, by media in general, by what they heard without caring whether it’s true or not. I think that’s what happened in Britain, with the Brexit. Politicians were telling populist lies, which goes in the direction of what they want to hear. That’s the biggest danger.

But I think where contemporary art, and art in general, can have a real impact is in this way — developing your own way of seeing things without all this pressure of the media.

It sounds like you’re talking about setting up a place apart from the pressure of politics and the market.

You raise an important issue of the perception of art in the general public. The general perception is about the market. Why? The market is the only thing the media could talk about with precise facts. “This artwork by this artist cost this amount of money.” That is a fact.

This is one of the reasons why contemporary art has been so popular the last decade — because of the auction, the art fairs, the way that media talk about this with facts.

But as we know, art is not about facts. Art is about something else. So for me it is very important to make a distinction between art as we know, especially through media, which means markets, and art as we discover, encounter and experience in museums, art centers and very often in galleries.

So for me, it’s two different approaches. Of course, they overlap, but again, I see the danger of having perception of art through media, which means through the markets.

It sound like you’re talking about a place where you can experience communication without the kinds of filters you’re describing, without the lenses we’re encouraged to put on when we look at information. It sounds like an alternative space, a sanctuary, like a church, where you can go and have a direct communication with one other mind.

That’s a possibility, and if it exists, it’s very good. But I think both coexist for sure. Art should give us the means to navigate all these areas with autonomy. It’s what makes you an adult, in a way. You make your own interpretation, your own way of seeing things. Because you are left to thousands of possible interpretations, you have to make your own, without help. That’s why people have so much problem sometimes with contemporary art. They want to be shepherded.

We have to do this work, but we have to give the key, one of the thousand keys, and then the audience will make something out of it, and each person owns each work. The same object will have thousands and thousands of different owners. That’s fantastic and that’s what art teaches us and that’s why I think especially nowadays, in our society, in this context, art is so important. I’m convinced that if everyone embraced what art proposes, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

All over the world we’re seeing tribalism, a rejection of the outsider. Because the Broad is so international in its focus, with art and artists from all over the world, do you see it as a bastion or bulwark fighting against that tribalism?

It shouldn’t be so, I think. All the museums I know focus on the experience of the viewer once inside the museum. It goes to what you say about the museum as a bastion, a sanctuary. People go in and they have a special experience they couldn’t have outside. That’s one thing.

But the museum of the future is the museum that goes beyond this. If we take the language of computers, you’re focusing only on the hardware, and say the software has to adapt to the hardware.

We focus on the software. We want the software to operate on this platform [points to museum], but we want it to operate everywhere — international, regional, we want to develop software that could graft on any type of platform. That’s the goal, and it goes with what society is proposing. It goes a little bit in the opposite way of wanting to have a bastion, an altar. No. We want this to be a tool for our everyday life, a tool to go out and navigate in everyday life.

The building almost seems to help you with that. Its physicality is breaking up into lines, forms and polygons and seems to prepare the mind for something that is fragmented and partially beyond the physical.

That’s very good, yes.

What about the building has surprised you?

I see it every day from my office. Every day I’m amazed. It changes every day and that’s good. I also find that it scares people. It’s very intimidating, which I can understand. Our effort is to propose things where people realize that it might be scary, but it’s a challenge they want to tackle. Once we are in, we discover things that are amazing.

And also — we haven’t started yet but this is just a gateway to something you can use, yourself, elsewhere.

The new program, a new body of exhibitions and events, will start April 29 with the inaugural show of the new season.

This will launch a group show, a new web site, new (initiatives) for communications and 15 new projects that will happen outside the museum.

Exhibitions, side events, the whole thing — for me, it’s important to present something holistic where everything goes together.

There is a vision, a clear vision conducted through this program.

Is this a step toward something more pervasive in the art world, where we someday leave physical buildings behind?

Let’s see. Our main focus is to think about the museum of the future. We don’t have answers, but we are testing things like a research lab.

Maybe during this test there will be successes, there will be failures, like in any lab.

What is the vision?

It has three sections, three components. It has to do with the community, how we make the community step into our museum. We want the community to come see our show and see that contemporary art is not as intimidating as it looks. That’s a big effort.

That’s why, instead of telling people, “Please come to our museum,” we go to them with a mobile museum, the birdhouses. [Fifty of the world’s top architects will design birdhouses that will be placed outside the Broad Art Museum, on campus and in the surrounding community.]

[Also] programs they could view on their screens, many different tools. [The Broad is creating a “virtual third floor” designed by an architect specializing in virtual architecture, with art that will “intervene” in the space and only be visible on computer screens.]

We will also try to cross the street and have a space where we show the work of young artists, many different types activities, hoping they would go there and come to our museum or vice versa.

That’s one very big goal. Contemporary art is a tool for everyday life and we want our community, the students, to come here because that’s their museum, and if they think it’s kind of intimidating, we go to them, walk with them as far as possible.

Then we want to develop what we call habitat. It’s not only a place where you discover things. It’s a place where you want to meet.

The Starbucks will expand with new foods and new approaches, including ‘nutrition of the future.’

[There will be a huge vending machine designed by artists and engineers at MSU.]

Collaboration is one of the main goals of all our activities. We have this fantastic asset here with all of this knowledge. We want to invite artists to collaborate with scientists and come up with proposals for art that would never exist otherwise. Even the artists, they would come up with ideas they would never have the opportunity to develop otherwise and if we can trigger this type of collaboration, then it will really be a museum like you see nowhere else in the world.

Can you name some specific collaborations you have in mind?

The artist who worked with CERN in Geneva (Gianni Motti) will come here [to collaborate with MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams on art relating to cyclotron.]

Another artist is working with fireflies synching together, crickets, bioluminescent bacteria. He will come here for the first show, meet with different types of scientists.

Another curator from Mexico, she came here, meeting with food service department, entomologists, and the Bug House to see if we can invite a chef from Mexico City specializing in Mayan food, which is bugs and worms, and see how we can collaborate.

The MSU scientists will go to Mexico City and present the collaborative project at the university and museum there.

The third component, the lab, is about researching the museum of the future.

We believe this type of museum is going to be able to address issues we have now, giving you a tool to navigate in everyday life, in how you can see the world with your own interpretation, your own way of seeing things, without all these filters you continuously see on the media, which is the biggest problem nowadays.

The Broad has featured politically engaged art in the past. Will it continue to do that?

There will be. For a museum it’s important to do that. But artists develop their own language, their own grammar, and this grammar is hugely personal.

A good vocabulary is not a vocabulary which is against something or in reaction to something. It’s something [artists] develop throughout their life. They give access to their brain structure and the way they see life.

The most interesting part of art is the way it helps you think in a more independent way, not in reaction to this, or this, or this, taking a position in favor or against things.

Do you worry that six months, 10 months from now, national and world events might overtake the high-minded program you are describing, that it might seem irrelevant, amusing oneself while the house is burning?

In this case it wouldn’t be good art. Good art is political. You can see any good art, take it in any type of situation, it delivers answers. That’s the beauty of art. You take any important work of the 20th century, you can see in every decade how it responds to issues for that decade, and each time they deliver.

The danger is to produce works that are in reaction to a specific event.

It might be useful during that time, but that’s not — it’s like a movie reacting to a particular event but not expanding to something else.

Like the Vietnam War. We had ‘Apocalypse Now,’ a movie which addressed that issue, but of course went 10 times beyond.

And you had other works that address the Vietnam War, but just that.

I’m sure you could take many works from that time. It would deliver an answer for the Vietman War, but also for your own life — not answers, but hints. Good art really doesn’t deliver answers. Once you have the answer, an art work is boring.

Some of what you describe, like the birdhouse project, sounds fun. Are you OK with fun, with entertainment, in the program of contemporary art?

If it’s fun and interesting, that’s even better.

It’s very important to give an entry key to people. Because contemporary art is hard. If you don’t have any key, you don’t understand. Myself, if I don’t have any key to some exhibitions, I don’t get it.

And it’s OK not to get it. It’s OK not to understand. Our role is to give hints and give keys. Once you have a key, you can go in and discover.

It’s like a house. Instead of having one big entrance, so big it’s intimidating, with a huge stairway, you can go around the house and have every type of entrance, doors, windows, whatever is good. And once you’re in the house it’s yours. So for me, if a work sounds like fun, why not? It makes people want to come in.

Because good works are super serious.

Tell us more about the first show inside the museum.

The inaugural show is called “The Transported Man,” It’s based on a magic trick invented in the 19th century.

It has been described by Christopher Priest, who is a science fiction writer who wrote “The Prestige,” which was brought to cinema by Christopher Nolan, where two magicians are competing for the best trick, and one is coming with a trick that sounds like you can’t go beyond that, it’s like the magician walks on stage, opens a door, disappears and reappears immediately at the other end of the stage.

How is it possible? And the whole story begins.

I like this story. Every magic trick has three stages. The pledge, the turn — when you disappear — and the prestige, when you reappear. Appearance, disappearance and reappearance is the basic narrative structure you find in any story, from the Bible to Batman.

An artwork is the same. You take for granted the first two stages. But actually, what you see first when you see a painting is pigment on canvas, disappearing in front of your eyes and reappearing as an artwork.

It’s very important that people are aware of this.

It’s kind of authoritarian for a museum to say, “You step in the museum and now you see art works.” No. You step in a building and you should be aware that we ask you not to see the first two stages!

It’s about not tricking people and telling them with authority, “You are going to see this.”

It’s, “Look, we want you to have an experience, but be aware, and be free to see this as pigment on canvas as well.”

People should be free, not brought to specific interpretation.

Why is that so important?

It’s about freedom. It’s about finding out what’s possible.

It’s much easier with a book. You buy it at a store and you read it at your place.

In an exhibition your whole body is totally involved. It’s the only medium where your body is totally involved. You cross the medium. You’re not in front of it.

An artwork can exist only if you have institutional power telling you that it is something else. The added value is very important. In its exterior of the body itself.

The book, you add the value because you read it and you’re into it. If it becomes boring, suddenly the book is only paper.

On a different topic, have you ever spoken with Eli Broad?

Yes. Before I started here, when I was hired, I went to New York. [Manhattan real estate mogul, MSU grad and major Broad Art Museum donor] Edward Minskoff organized a reception and Eli and Edythe Broad were there. He asked me what I had in mind. We talked about the importance of the museum, the vision, the importance of having a structure to allow us to think what is the museum of the future, the importance of a university museum, the students, the researchers, the community.

What could this Broad Museum learn, either positively or negatively, from the Broad Museum in Los Angeles?

It’s very different. The Broad in L.A. is a private foundation. It’s a fantastic collection.

Here is a university museum which has its own collection, its own management. It belongs to the university, but it bears the name of the founder. Eli and Edythe Broad are still very much attached to the museum and they want to support it.

When MSU’s Broad Museum opened, some people feared it might become a repository for Eli Broad’s collection.

I don’t have any worries about that. He has his own foundation in Los Angeles and it makes more sense for him to show the jewels of that collection in Los Angeles.

He supports the museum. It’s his alma mater. He’s doing it for his university. He doesn’t interfere with the program, with the collection.

What do you do for relaxation?

I’ve heard there’s an excellent cowboy boot (shop) one hour from here. I haven’t had time to go over there.

I’m looking forward to moving into my house because I have my other 20 pair of boots coming.

But relaxation — my moto-bike is also coming. We’ll see, with the snow, maybe I’ll go skiing.

I’m working on a book. The working title is “Applied Reverse Ontology,” which sounds totally like something bizarre.

But it’s very interesting, especially nowadays. Artists always try to see a possibility of not being stuck in the realm of the artwork. That’s the biggest drama of Marcel Duchamp. He realized very quickly that it’s very easy to go from the “only object” to the artwork, and he spent the rest of his life trying to go reverse. And he failed. He knew. He would say, “I’m not an artist anymore, I’m playing chess, I’m an engineer, I don’t do artwork,” but everybody was seeing what he was doing as an artwork!

Many artists tried during the 20th century. The audience, the public, wasn’t ready yet. But now, because boundaries between disciplines and ways of seeing things are blurring, the time is coming where we are going to be ready to see things in between artworks and only objects. We’ll be able to move the cursor close to “artwork,” close to “only object.” Again, it’s about freedom. Because if an artwork is stuck (being) artwork, it’s not freedom. It’s stuck.

It’s like electricity. You have two poles. If it’s stuck in one pole you don’t have any energy. So for me, I’m reading a lot of philosophy right now. Especially, there’s a very interesting movement in philosophy right now, where they try to think, giving us tools to think in non-hierarchical way where thoughts, human beings, objects are all in the same level. It sounds weird, kind of like hardcore philosophy, but if you could see things on the same level, very interesting things happen.

More and more, what’s happened with the way we’ve discovered new intelligence in many animals, how we discovered synchronicity in leaves, how we’ve discovered that there is life in stone, this philosophy is interesting and it’s going to be more and more backed up by science.

So it’s an interesting moment to cast a new light on how to understand artworks, because that’s basically objects.

A lot of optimistic predictions were made about attendance, about the Broad’s ability to generate tourism and other things. Does that weigh on your mind and distract from the mission you have in mind for the Broad, or do they dovetail?

No, no, no, I think it’s very important. There was this will at the beginning to be like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, attracting so many people and changing the DNA of the town. They succeeded in the beginning, 200,000 people came, but then Michael Rush got sick, he couldn’t be here so often, and so the program lost a little bit of strength and the attendance dropped.

But now we live in a very interesting moment because we know that it’s not about getting as many people here. What we want to do is bring people to the museum, of course, but also go into their place and bring the museum elsewhere.

With this in mind, the visitor is not only one who steps inside, he might be elsewhere in the world.

Does the word “museum” connote “old-fashioned” or something that looks backward to you? Have you considered changing the name to “art center” or something else?

No, I’ve run art centers before. An art center is more on the horizontal dynamic, but a museum is more on the vertical. It has roots.

It’s very important to give this verticality of thoughts. We have a fantastic collection. For what we want to do, it’s important to get this verticality and roots. Otherwise the danger is to fall into this “activity for activity.”

Perhaps the Kresge Collection can help with that.

That’s why we want to open across the street with a new space where we can show this important collection. There we could attract again people who have been bitter about having donated work to the Kresge and then learning their donation is going into storage.

We want to show this collection. We want to engage all these people who were active with the Kresge. It’s a very concrete plan. It’s just a question of raising money. That’s one of our projects, and it’s very real.

Is the approach of “contextualizing” contemporary art by showing it alongside historic art, or vice versa, as curators have done at the Broad, using art from the Kresge collection, a viable one?

That’s important. The collection has to be alive. You have to contextualize it. One of the goals of the collection is to invite artists to engage with it, so it always has a contemporary edge.

The collection has to be contemporary, even if it’s from the Medieval or Renaissance period. The challenge is to show it so it speaks to us.

So the former Kresge art will get its own space?

If things go well, I think some time next year.

It’s a university museum; it’s a university collection. This collection is made for students, for research, and for the community.

For me, this is crucial. It’s not only an arts center where we do activities. This collection is a pillar of the museum.