Curator interview: Nicolas Bourriaud

It’s the triennial, there is no British art in the title any more”

French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, born in 1965, is the Gulbenkian Curator of Contemporary Art at Tate Britain and curator of “Altermodern”, the fourth Tate Triennial, which opened last month and is on show until 26 April.

Through his triennial Bourriaud has created a new “ism” that proposes the death of postmodernism. Reactions have included a large degree of anxiety around the theory, with the London Paper, one of the free newspapers handed out on the London underground,printing a glossary of terms (“altermodernism in a nutshell: a new optimism, where artists translate between cultures in a global network”), Radio 4’s “The Saturday Review” branding the accompanying rubric as “guff” and a number of critics seeing no difference between the altermodern and what has come before it. Many, however, have praised the show’s works of art.

Bourriaud co-founded the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum, Paris, with Jérôme Sans in 1999, and was co-director until 2005. He has been a curator for the Moscow Biennale (2005 and 2007), and the Lyon Biennale (2005), and worked as an advisor to the Ukrainian collector Victor Pinchuk, assisting with the set up of the Pinchuk Arts Centre in Kiev, which opened in 2006. He has published three art theory books, Relational Aesthetics (1998), Postproduction (2002) and The Radicant (2009), which explores similar themes to the “Altermodern”.

The Art Newspaper: It was very unusual that they created a glossary on “altermodern” in The London Paper. What do you think about the general anxiety around this term?
Nicolas Bourriaud:
I think these glossaries are really interesting, because they oblige people to address what those terms mean: modern, postmodern, altermodern. I think it’s very important to invent new words, new notions. That’s the idea of this exhibition, to assert the idea that postmodernism has come to an end. I’m absolutely happy with this kind of discomfort and trouble.

TAN: Can you talk about the idea of Britishness. We’re in Tate Britain, and it’s the triennial of British art…
It’s the triennial, there is no “British art” in the title any more.

TAN: Previously it has always been an important aspect. With your list of artists, a third have no links to Britain at all—artists like Subodh Gupta, Franz Ackermann, what’s their connection to Britain?
It’s just divided into three. UK-born, UK residents, and passers-by.

TAN: Is it that they have been making work in Britain?
Not even. Sometimes. Seth Price’s work, for example, is not from Britain at all.

TAN: It’s been shown in Britain, is that the connection?
It’s much more a show about London today than many British art shows. London is a very globalised city, and I wanted to curate a show that reflects this.

TAN: So was there any sort of criteria that you had to adhere to? If they aren’t British born or living in Britain, did they had to have made work here?
No. It’s just a matter of time. That’s the only difference between Subodh Gupta and Matthew Darbyshire, who was born here. The time you pass in a place, what else is there? Is Subodh Gupta less British than Walead Beshty who was born in Britain but has lived in Los Angeles for years and years. I think the show would have been less clear without the presence of artists who come from abroad. I want to stress this in particular themes, and particular ways of producing.

TAN: Were there many works that you commissioned specifically for the show?
17 artists out of 28 are showing new works, if not new versions of older works. The border between the two is sometimes quite blurred.

TAN: You said at the press preview that you feel the show is more interesting than the ideas behind it, and emphasised that the works should speak for themselves. But you’ve created a very prominent theoretical framework—do you think there’s a danger of creating a barrier to the work, and that people might feel alienated and not engage with the work or not come to the show?
That’s their problem. I don’t see why people would be alienated—it’s just a different grammar, a different way of thinking. What is really important is the encounter between works, the dialogues resonating and echoing within the exhibition rooms.

TAN: But you are speaking to a much wider audience at somewhere like Tate than at a biennale.
The difference is not between biennials and museums, it depends on the biennial and it depends on the museum. “Altermodern” is both a triennial and a museum show. I think I tried to keep the quality of the two structures. There are multiple ways of entry to this exhibition. You can try to read it according to the theoretical frame that has been provided. You can also have totally different ways of seeing it. For example once you are in Charles Avery, Tacita Dean and David Noonan’s room, you realise that you’re in a totally black and white space, surrounded by three very colourful rooms, Olivia Plender, Rachel Harrison and Franz Ackermann’s, and then you go to Tris Vonna-Michell, and you have this very discursive, poetic type of space that is based on flashing images.

TAN: How much difference is there between working at Palais de Toyko and Tate Britain?
I was the co-director of the Palais de Tokyo, I’m not the co-director of Tate Britain. It’s very different here—I’m concentrating on the core job, which is curating shows. It’s much closer to working on a biennial. But I’m also Gulbenkian Curator of Contemporary Art at Tate Britain, so I’m a resident, which also provides a totally different working frame. I fabricated the working conditions myself at the Palais de Tokyo. Here I have to adapt. The response of the team and the way different departments collaborated to really feed the process was very interesting and very brilliant.

TAN: Did you find there were points at which you wanted to do something and you couldn’t?
Not really. I think the show looks more or less how I wanted. So I’m to blame. Of course we had to give a few things up in the process because of lack of budget or these kinds of things, but mainly it looks how I intended.

TAN: When do you finish with this triennial?
I have to take care of the show while it’s still on and the epilogue at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon in June. And then I might stay here until next year. My period at Tate Britain may be up until next summer, I don’t know, nothing is official yet.

TAN: So you think you’ll be continuing?
Until December this year at least, yes.

TAN: Will you be working with Victor Pinchuk again?
In my mind that was finished after I created the Pinchuk Art Centre with him. I participated in the choice of the architect, the elaboration of the displays themselves, and the basis of the collection—with works by Carsten Höller, Navin Rawanchaikul, who is in the triennial, many others in the triennial actually, Subodh Gupta… we bought lots of work for the collection. And then I took some distance from that. What I’m really interested in is to build, and to leave things behind me and see what’s next. I’m happy if I can leave Tate Britain with a new idea of what the triennial could be, what its potential could be.

TAN: Would you like to do more biennales?
I really have no idea.

TAN: Did you find working with Pinchuk, a private collector, quite different as an experience?
Oh yes. It’s different to anything else. I worked for several years with him and I really got him involved with contemporary art, which I’m proud of because he became more and more passionate through the years. At the beginning it was not obvious.

TAN: Can you imagine working with someone else like that again?
I can imagine anything, but I don’t know if I’d like it. I think no.

Interview published on The Art Newspaper website 18 February 2009,