Riccardo Giacconi

Experience Curating
Nav Haq (curator)
in conversation with Riccardo Giacconi
21 July 2008
published on Arte e Critica, N.52

Italian Translation

Far West, installation view at Arnolfini, Bristol

First of all, I would like to talk about Far West, the exhibition you have curated at Arnolfini this summer. First of all, can you briefly describe what Far West is?

Far West is an experimental project where we have transformed the Arnolfini art centre into a concept store, and where we are selling a variety of products, all of which have been designed by artists. That describes its ‘look’, but to talk a bit more about it, I can explain there are a number of different things that we are trying to raise within it. One of them is the economic relationship with the Far East with an emerging superpower like China becoming a major player, economically speaking - basically the manufacturing heart of the whole world. We are trying to explore how culture is also implicated within these relationships. This investigation is ‘thematized’ within the store.

This is the first in a whole series of shows that look at the idea of experience. Experience economy, as a marketing concept, is something that I am really interested in, as well as the idea of turning something commercial into something much more theatrical. It is about when commerce meets theatre, and about offering people very subjective experiences. I am quite interested in how places like Niketown and the Apple Store use this particular idea for their buildings; how they use their architecture in such a way, and how their products become almost like props within these particular situations. I am really interested in seeing how art institutions are learning from these places in terms of how they create experiences for members of the public. Again, it is looking at the interrelationships between commerce and culture, if you like.

Was your aim to describe the Far East through economics, or was it the other way round?

I am not sure we are actually trying to describe the Far East per se. I think it is more about looking at the relationship, but also at how the Far East describes itself through economics. They are using particular strategies to describe themselves which is almost like a marketing strategy: they will package their cultural identity in a particular way, particularly for a Western audience. Just to give some popular examples of that, if you look at the films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or subsequent films like Hero or House of Flying Daggers, they are very much Chinese-style films for a Western public. And there is a kind of ethnic marketing that has gone on within those particular productions. I am quite interested about how that continues within a more economic realm as well.

You describe Far West as an “interactive shopping experience”. The viewer becomes a customer, in a way. He can swap things, but he can also buy things. Introducing cash money in a public exhibition space: it may seem awkward to some.

Some people find it awkward because we are a public institution, maybe. But conceptually we really felt it worked, to put people in that kind of situation in order to be able to allow them to reflect on the ideas that we are trying to talk about. A simple monetary exchange. On the whole, members of the public have really gone for it. In that sense it has actually been a success, I would say. There is a real sense of familiarity in terms of people’s experiences: they can relate to it even if they feel they don’t really understand or know about contemporary art. Indeed, in a very peculiar way it has done the opposite: it has broken down some barriers. The other thing to realize is that this is not in any way intended to be a kind of fundraising exercise: it is not a very efficient way of doing that. Even as a public institution, we are still very much caught up in the whole cycle of economy, and I guess we are just trying to make that explicit, make it more visible.

Do you think there is a need to overtake the traditional exhibition form and the position of the viewer as the one who comes to see? Is traditional exhibition somehow insufficient nowadays?

I can only answer on a very personal level: for me, I am less interested in the traditional form, and I am much more interested in a discursive form. Sometimes that might mean something more participatory like the current show, but not necessarily always. It is still very fascinating for me thinking about the particular form of an exhibition, specifically in relation to the subject matter. In Far West there is a certain undertone that is meant to be about labour: you see it when people are actually participating in making some of the things in the show, for instance in the works by Yoko Ono and SOI Project. We are inadvertently turning individuals into a kind of labourer, without them necessarily always realizing it. The whole issue of labour and ethics is also implicated within these economic exchanges, as well as the idea of removing distinction between a consumer and a labourer, which is something that has been discussed at the moment, particularly in relation to the web. Through user-generated content platforms, the consumer is turned into a free labourer, if you like. This is a capitalist dream: a free labour force. For this show it is so important to twist the participation in that way, and to have this undertone about labour in relation to other participation debates that happen within the contemporary art field more autonomously.

I have seen many children having fun in the exhibition space with the interactive artworks. In SOI Project’s piece, for instance, the public is invited to make paper fruits from templates, in order to buy them or to swap them for real fruits. Could you talk about the notion of education/entertainment, on which Far West is based?

Education/entertainment, or – to use the neologism – Edutainment, is one of the principles of experience economy, that B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, the two marketing gurus, outlined in their book, The Experience Economy. This book has been my bible for this show, and for the subsequent shows in the series. I am fascinated – even if I don’t necessarily like them – by somewhere like Niketown, and by how they have learned so much about the historical idea of what a museum is. You go to Niketown and you learn about the history of trainers, about how trainers are made, where all the different bits come from... Somehow they have learned from museological display: there is an educational side to what they do there. And this operates as a strategy to actually sell products. So there is a blurring of distinction between education and entertainment, but it is also about selling stuff and engaging people in particular ways. It is one of the principles of experience economy that we are trying to take onboard for this exhibition. But we are also trying to teach people about the nature of economy, regional identities, how they can be used as a kind of marketing strategy, and how everybody is somehow implicated within this.

Is this notion of Edutainment also connected to other exhibition areas, for example the way science museums work?

Places like science museums tend to be educational for sure. But they market themselves very much as visitor attractions. And that is why I make a distinction between something like Arnolfini and a science museum. We see ourselves as a contemporary art centre that has a bit more of a criticality to it, and less as a visitor attraction. But yes, in a place like a science museum is definitely part of the remit: they do want to be experiential and entertaining. For this exhibition we are trying to look at that, but add a kind of criticality to it. We are not aiming to be for or against it, I think there is the possibility of both. The critique is deliberately quite ambiguous, and I feel the most effective way to be critical is to have that kind of ambiguity.

A dialectic?


How did you work with the artists? Did you commission new works?

Yes, nearly everything in the show is a new commission. When we proposed the concept to the artists, they all were very intrigued by the idea of a new exhibition format, and the fact that something would be mass-produced. Some of them had already worked in a similar way. The Unmask Group, a really fascinating collective from Beijing, are really interested in mass-producing and finding new networks to disseminate their designs and toys. And Michael Lin is another interesting example, because he does a lot of commissions - especially for companies like Illy, designing tea sets and this kind of stuff. So they were very much into it. But each product is different, and we worked in very different ways in terms of the logistics. For David Blandy, the concept of a comic book was appealing, because he is very interested in popular forms of entertainment.

I had the feeling that the Yoko Ono and the SOI Project pieces are the centre of the show, the works that give a certain tone to the whole thing. In both of them you can build something (using paper and broken crockery respectively) and subsequently swap it with something else.

They are definitely key works in that they do engage people in a very hands-on way. One thing I have noticed in this particular show is that people are spending much more time in the building than they would normally do within the other regular exhibitions. People sit down and put on one of those red tabards that make them look like production line workers. These pieces create places where people can spend a bit of time, be creative, but also think about the whole consumer/labourer discussion.

Far West is the first one of a series of three exhibitions: the title of the project is CONCEPT STORE. How did it start?

It just came through my research into the experience economy issue. I think there is something fundamental there to be questioned in relation to how galleries and museums are changing, in how they create experiences for visitors. I thought that it would be interesting to do a whole series around that, to tackle the issue in different ways. So the second show (On Purpose: Design Concepts, 13 September – 9 November) is a show of contemporary design, so not an art show. It will be the first time that Arnolfini does a show of design. It is looking at a generation of younger, more conceptual designers, and is designed to interact with the actual building itself. Some people find the building very problematic - they think it feels very institutional, clearly state-funded and a bit sterile somehow. There has already been a discussion inadvertently about the experience economy of the building amongst the staff, and in a way the design of the show does look to tackle that within the infrastructure itself. At the very end of the year there will be a show called Supertoys (21 November 2008 – 18 January 2009) which is about futuristic toys that have been designed by artists. But it also has more of a psychoanalytical slant: object relations, how people embody certain ideas within their possessions - particularly young people with toys - and how that can be harnessed within future ideas for a toy design. Each of the shows looks at the ideas of design, experience and marketing.

There is also an interest in architecture: for Far West you worked with Miessen & Ploughfields Architects who have designed the display stands used in the galleries, bookshop and café bar. Furthermore, artists Michael Lin and Gunilla Klingberg created respectively a painted pattern for the walls and a design for the windows and doors of the building. It seems that Arnolfini is being transformed: both the experience of the space and the space itself. What is the direction?

I would definitely say we will be collaborating with architects, designers and people who sit outside what we might know as contemporary art. Interdisciplinarity and experimentation, though these terms are redundant, are quite important for me. We have planned to open up much more, engaging with all the types of community and different types of producer and consumer. The whole issue of ‘give and take’ styles of collaboration are presently very important for us, and for the shorter term at least, with this series of shows, we are looking at how we specifically engage with our visitors. I think we are going through a process of redefining ourselves, which I hope to be very creative, more self-reflective and self-critical in relation to how we develop and produce projects.

* * *

Experience Curating
Nav Haq (curatore)
in conversazione con Riccardo Giacconi
21 Luglio 2008
pubblicato su Arte e Critica, N.52

Prima di tutto, puoi parlarmi un po’ di Far West, la mostra che Arnolfini ha ospitato quest’estate?

Far West è un progetto sperimentale nel quale abbiamo trasformato Arnolfini in un concept store, in cui venivano venduti una varietà di prodotti, tutti concepiti da artisti. Ci sono una serie di elementi che abbiamo provato a mettere in gioco. Uno di questi è la relazione economica che ci lega all’Estremo Oriente, in un momento in cui una superpotenza come la Cina ha iniziato a giocare un ruolo da protagonista – praticamente è il nucleo produttivo del mondo intero. Stiamo provando ad esplorare in che modo anche la cultura è implicata in questi rapporti. Questa indagine era “tematizzata” all’interno dello store.

Credi che ci sia bisogno di superare la forma espositiva tradizionale, e la condizione dello spettatore come colui che “viene per vedere”? Tutto questo è insufficiente oggi?

Posso rispondere solo a livello personale: io sono meno interessato ad una forma tradizionale, e molto più interessato ad una forma discorsiva. A volte questo si traduce in qualcosa di “attivo” e partecipativo come le mostre che stiamo facendo, ma non necessariamente sempre. È ancora molto affascinante per me riflettere sulla particolare forma che una mostra può assumere in relazione all’argomento trattato. In Far West c’era una certo sottotesto riguardo il tema del lavoro: si percepiva quando i visitatori partecipavano, creando di fatto alcuni degli oggetti in mostra. Per esempio, nell’opera di Yoko Ono lo spettatore poteva realizzare delle sculture utilizzando dei frantumi di cocci; nel lavoro di SOI Project, invece, si potevano costruire dei frutti di carta, che poi potevano essere comprati o scambiati. Le persone venivano in qualche modo trasformate in manodopera, senza che se ne rendessero necessariamente conto. In questi scambi economici sono implicati tutti i problemi di etica del lavoro, come l’idea di rimuovere la distinzione fra consumatore e manodopera. Oggi si discute molto di questo, in particolare in riferimento al web: quando i contenuti vengono generati dagli utenti, il consumatore in un certo senso diviene manodopera. Questo è un sogno capitalista: una manodopera gratuita. Per questa mostra era davvero importante impostare la partecipazione in questo modo e creare questo sottotesto sul lavoro, in particolare se ci riferiamo al discorso sulla partecipazione nel campo dell’arte contemporanea.

L’intento era quello di descrivere l’Estremo Oriente attraverso l’economia o viceversa?

Non credo che l’intento sia di descrivere l’Oriente di per sé. Credo che sia più proficuo guardare alla relazione, a come l’Estremo Oriente descrive se stesso attraverso l’economia. Stanno usando delle strategie che sono quasi strategie di marketing: impacchettano la loro identità culturale in un modo particolare, specificatamente per un pubblico occidentale. Per fornire qualche esempio popolare, lo “stile cinese” di film come La Tigre e il Dragone, Hero o La Foresta dei Pugnali volanti è creato per una platea occidentale. Una sorta di marketing etnico ha luogo in queste produzioni. Io sono molto interessato a come questo fenomeno si traduce in ambito economico.

Sembra che il concetto di experience economy sia molto importante nella tua ricerca.

L’experience economy, come concetto di marketing, è qualcosa che mi interessa molto, così come l’idea di trasformare una situazione commerciale in qualcosa di molto più teatrale. Si tratta di offrire alla gente delle esperienze molto soggettive, in una sorta di incontro fra commercio e teatro. Sono molto interessato al modo in cui luoghi come Niketown o Apple Store utilizzano quest’idea per i loro spazi, e al fatto che le istituzioni artistiche stanno imparando da essi come creare esperienze per il loro pubblico. Di nuovo, stiamo guardando alle interrelazioni fra commercio e cultura.

Potresti parlare della nozione di “education/entertainment”?

Il concetto di “education/entertainment” o, per usare un neologismo, edutainment, è uno dei principi della experience economy, che B. Joseph Pine II e James H. Gilmore, i due guru del marketing, descrivono nel loro libro, The Experience Economy. Questo libro è stato una sorta sorta di Bibbia per la creazione di questa serie di mostre. Sono incuriosito – anche se non necessariamente in senso positivo – da luoghi come Niketown, e da quanto hanno studiato l’idea di museo storico. Vai da Niketown e impari la storia delle scarpe da ginnastica, il modo in cui vengono costruite, da dove provengono i diversi pezzi... In qualche modo viene applicato un metodo espositivo di tipo museale: vi è un aspetto educativo in quello che fanno, e questo opera come strategia per vendere prodotti. Quindi possiamo dire che c’è una progressiva sfumatura del limite fra educazione e intrattenimento, a cui si aggiunge la necessità di vendere prodotti e di coinvolgere le persone in un modo particolare.

Questa nozione di Edutainment è collegata anche ad altre aree espositive, ad esempio al modo in cui funzionano i musei della scienza?

Luoghi come i musei della scienza tendono di sicuro ad essere educativi. Però vendono se stessi principalmente come attrazioni turistiche. Per questo voglio fare una distinzione fra uno spazio pubblico come Arnolfini e un museo della scienza: noi ci consideriamo innanzitutto un centro d’arte contemporanea che mette in atto un discorso critico, e molto meno un’attrazione turistica.
Però sì, una struttura come il museo della scienza fa sicuramente parte della nostra ricerca: essa vuole essere un luogo di esperienza e di intrattenimento. Stiamo cercando di guardare a quello, ma aggiungendovi un taglio più critico. Non vogliamo essere pro o contro qualcosa, credo che ci sia la possibilità per entrambe le cose. La critica è deliberatamente ambigua, e io credo che il modo migliore per essere critici sia di mantenere questo tipo di ambiguità.

Una dialettica.


Far West è stata la prima di una serie di tre mostre: il titolo del progetto è CONCEPT STORE. Come è iniziato tutto?

È tutto partito dalla mia ricerca sul concetto di experience economy. Credo che ci sia qualcosa di fondamentale in relazione al modo in cui le gallerie e i musei stanno cambiando, al modo in cui creano esperienze per i visitatori. Ho pensato che sarebbe stato interessante ideare un’intera serie su questo, trattando la questione in modi differenti. La mostra ora in corso (On Purpose: Design Concepts, 13 Settembre – 9 Novembre) è una rassegna di design contemporaneo, quindi non una mostra d’arte. È la prima volta che Arnolfini presenta un’esposizione di design. La rassegna guarda ad una generazione di designer giovani e concettuali, ed è progettata per interagire con l’edificio. In molti trovano questo molto problematico – dicono abbia un’aria istituzionale, statale e un po’ sterile. All’interno dello staff, abbiamo già avuto una discussione sull’experience economy dell’edificio, e in un certo senso il design della mostra cerca di parlare di tutto ciò all’interno dell’infrastruttura stessa. Alla fine dell’anno ci sarà un’esposizione chiamata Supertoys (22 Novembre 2008 – 25 Gennaio 2009) che comprenderà giocattoli futuristici progettati da artisti. Avrà un taglio più psicanalitico: relazioni oggettuali, come gli individui impersonificano certe idee attraverso ciò che possiedono – in particolare i bambini con i giocattoli – e come questo può influire su future idee per il design di giocattoli. Ognuna di queste mostre guarda all’idea di design, di esperienza e di marketing.

Sembra che Arnolfini stia subendo una trasformazione: sia nell’esperienza dello spazio che nello spazio stesso. Qual è la direzione?

Direi certamente la collaborazione con architetti, designer e in generale con coloro che che stanno al di fuori di quello che siamo soliti chiamare arte contemporanea. L’interdisciplinarità e la sperimentazione, nonostante siano termini ridondanti, sono per me davvero importanti. Stiamo pensando di aprirci molto di più, entrare in relazione con tutti i tipi di comunità e con diverse tipologie di produttori e consumatori. Quello che vogliamo raggiungere è una modalità di collaborazione basata sullo scambio di idee; e perlomeno nel breve termine, con questa serie di mostre, guardiamo nello specifico a come coinvolgere i nostri visitatori. Credo che in questa fase stiamo cercando di ridefinire noi stessi, e spero riusciremo a farlo in maniera creativa, auto-riflessiva e auto-critica in relazione a come sviluppiamo e produciamo progetti.