Not pictured: A conversation with Sarah Demeuse by Rachel Allen

Photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy of Sarah Demeuse

Sarah Demeuse is a writer, translator, and curator. She makes publications as well as exhibitions, most frequently in collaboration with Manuela Moscoso as Rivet. Her latest publishing project is dos, a website-podcast-radio play. Exhibition its ostensible subject, medium is as likely the message.

In September, Sarah and I went for coffee and to discuss the above. We had not met previously. Warm-up chat of mutual acquaintance arrived quickly (Sarah is conversational and herself quick on the question) at art. The transcript, lightly edited for concision and clarity, picks up there:

Sarah Demeuse: Is your background in art history?
Rachel Allen: No, literature.
SD: Oh, mine is similar actually.
RA: Yes – I thought that might be a good place for us to start, at Berkeley. You studied Romance languages and literatures?
SD: Yes. When I studied Romance literatures, I focused  on art criticism and literature that was engaging with other media – say, radio, or the telegraph, so it often had to do with, one,  experimentation, and, two, thinking of how one writes about something that is experienced as an aesthetic object.
RA:  That’s something I’m curious about – how your thinking about objects has evolved since. I wonder if that could provide one frame for this conversation. Does that sound valid?
SD: Yes, and I think in particular we could talk about reception and perception of objects. In my graduate studies, I was really interested in looking at a particular moment in the early 20th century – I think the question of new technologies that they were experiencing then had some sort of an echo with my own time: we were first-generation email users, we had these unprecedented network experiences, where object and medium merge or mutually shape each other. I think what has happened in the trajectory of my career is, first, talking about how people talk about art and then merging that with art education, curating, and starting to talk myself about art.
And – I should be careful here, because I’m very worried, as many curators are, about talking for the art. You have to find the right preposition. I’ve often used “around,” but that feels a bit evasive. I think it’s talking “with” it, like following certain leads that the object is giving you and trying to maintain respect for the artist’s intention, but also opening up a space for subjective experience.
So, as a curator, in the beginning, I was very concerned with providing a lot of wall text or otherwise framing the narrative myself already, but the longer I’ve been doing this, and the more I’m exposed to different publics that aren’t necessarily the people in New York who’ve seen a lot and who manage the jargon very well, I realize it’s also worthwhile to open it up and propose some questions or give more leads to kind of guide or catalyze the experience.
I recently did a larger project in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, and a lot of the propositions were in the public space, and so for that we did very basic mediations: we made posters, we used the radio as a way of distributing what we were doing, and we had a very simple blog with pictures and very small descriptions tying it together. We did that because these were ways that were easily accessible by many people, and they gave kind of a cushion to the things that you would encounter in the public space and you wouldn’t necessarily immediately know what was going on.
RA: Is a kind of democracy important to you in the way art is received, something you seek to create when/through curating?
SD: Hmm. Democracy.
RA: Maybe “democracy” is not quite the right word.
SD: It’s something against the top-down imposition of a message, right? So if that is democracy, then that’s democracy . I do think that there can be a way of suggesting certain paths of inquiry and that is what good art objects do on their own actually.
RA: Mmm. And to back up a bit, back to Berkeley, you’d been working with literature and thinking about art criticism. And then you came here, to Columbia?
SD: Yeah, yeah. I was teaching literature.
RA: What then lead you to (the Center for Curatorial Studies at) Bard? You had this PhD, this dissertation on aesthetic theory. Why did you-?
SD: Yeah, no, I remember – I’m gonna back up even further. I finished my undergrad and I spoke to one of my mentors, one of my professors there, and was telling him something about Foucault writing about Magritte or something – something a bit more into the arts. He said, “listen, Sarah, you can do that after you have tenure.” And, I thought, “Okay. I’m just going to follow this literature path and get really specialized to then be able stray from it.”
Of course, I enjoy reading all types of literature and had a great time in grad school. But then, when I was teaching, the demand was really that I was publishing within my limited field while also in the same time teaching classes that were part of the general curriculum and it felt very remote from my own interests. You know – inquisitive thinking about art, or what aesthetic experience means now, and what it can do. I felt quite alienated.
Being a teacher in a university is very demanding and so all of my energy had to go to that, whereas I felt it was misdirected. I had a sabbatical, I had a year where I didn’t have to teach, and I spent that time half focusing on academic publications within ‘my field’ and half working in the education department at the New Museum.
I was also working for Laura Hoptman, who was then a curator there, and together with her and her then assistant, Amy Mackie, who was a companion spirit for me, talked about ambition and forms of making things public that were important for me. It slowly became apparent that CCS – or curatorial studies – would be a good thing for me to dive into. It was strange, obviously, because first I was teaching and then I was on the bench again as a student, but, you know – it’s easy to shift into the student role.
RA: Can you tell me more about that experience?
SD: Are you familiar with the program?
RA: Only to the extent that I’ve known a few people who were students, and talked to them about it.
SD: I was there in a period when Maria Lind was the director. She was there for a brief time, and she brought in a lot of people from elsewhere to give many very intense seminars, like a week with Catherine David. Such encounters really opened up my horizon of how people work and create meaning. There were a lot of people coming through who weren’t necessarily institutional curators, and I think that was super-important for me to experience because I came from academia, which was rather institutional, not unlike museum work. That exposure to other modes of organizing was a crucial learning experience.
I also met (Rivet cofounder) Manuela Moscoso, who came to CCS the second year I was there. She came from Spain – she’s originally from Ecuador. She had been working collaboratively, kind of growing from a grassroots artists’ projects into becoming a curatorial project. She had collaborated a lot with other people before, and she approached me and said, “hey, we should really do something together.”
It came about because – accidentally – we were reading Bruno Latour’s We’ve Never Been Modern at the same time. This was before the more generalized Latour hype, and the burst of the bubble. We started talking about the book, and I became a second reader for her thesis.

Detail: Acacia baileyana, Batia Suter, 2016. Photo courtesy of Sarah Demeuse.

We exchanged a lot of ideas – this is what still keeps us going, in fact. I was just talking with her this morning. We continue sharing reading references and artists. Even though we’re not doing an exhibition at this moment, our shared thoughts materialize in some shape or another over a longer timeline.
Manuela and I worked together intensively for two years when she was living in New York. Then she moved to Brazil, and after Brazil to Mexico. But you learn how to manage – working over Skype and making the most out of the occasions you are in the same place at the same time. For example, we did a project that was three-part. It started in Norway, then went to LA, and then it went to Spain. We used those moments when we were together to also plan other things beyond that specific project. It’s been a lot of long-distance work that has intense moments of being together and intellectual germination.
RA: I’ve seen Rivet described – in biographical notes and curatorial statements – as a “project interested in redefining/exploring object relations.”  The two of you also gave a talk at the New School, to coincide with an exhibition at the Goethe Institut, on what Levi Bryant calls “resonance” – “the ability of one object to perturb, irritate, or stimulate another object and therefore refers to the sort of openness an object has to its world or environment.”
SD: Mmhmm, yeah. Part of that stems from the Latour reading and Manuela’s thesis. We got hooked with Latour; read Harman, Morton, and found something more appealing for the art we were looking at in Levi Bryant’s work, specifically in The Democracy of Objects. I also think it was a natural thing for many people in the arts to gravitate towards because we’re living in a digital world, and there’s an anxiety about what “real” objects are like. By “real,” I mean “material,” the tangible objects, what they mean to us now given this new paradigm and how that may or may not shift our understanding of the aesthetic object.  Our inquiries have gone further than the specific speculative realism focus. In the beginning we really deepened ourselves in that, and I think it was good because we focused on a lot of people  that we didn’t know.
I mean, we continue reading related work  – Isabelle Stengers and Michel Serres, for instance   but there is a focus, very much so, on what our curatorial work together with artists can do vs. when you do something in an institution. We have longer-term conversations with them. We are these people who email you all of the sudden and say, “hey, I read this book, I think this would be of interest to you, let’s talk about it” and all of the sudden you have a renewed exchange out of which something grows.
For me, personally, at this moment, I’m living here in the US and experiencing a scary moment. So the scale of necessities has changed, there’s a renewed focus on what I feel is urgent – feminism, for example, and more context-related concerns. Other thematics are definitely in the mix, too.
[And] I wanted to add, about how themes and concerns have expanded, I think the question of – it sounds cheesy and New Age-y – but: nature. Thinking more closely about ‘natural’ objects is something that has progressed out of object orientedness. Not so much like the surroundings, but a question of the relation of nature, and kind of the interfaces that now exist between technology and nature, say.
There is an artist who is a friend, too, Pedro Neves Marques. He recently made a film about agricultural experimentation and biotechnology in Brazil and Argentina. His film is science fiction, kind of semi-apocalyptic, about those questions. It’s through him and his work that I know more about current theories about land and “nature” use and production that are also crossed with questions of colonization. And I think in everyday life, too, you worry about this whole constitution of things.
RA: Yes, I read a piece of yours – I’m trying to remember where it was published – largely on nature –
SD: Was it an article in Art in America? Maybe with some Argentinian artists that I was talking about?
RA: Yes, maybe.
SD: And how they were using –
RA: It opened with the Godard – Adieu au langage. The leaves.
SD: Yes, yes.
RA: You look unhappy.
SD: No, no. You always write against the clock, and I feel very self-conscious about the fact that it was only male artists.
RA: Okay. I see.
SD: But – one day, I’ll  amend. [pause] That was written a while back, and it was because the Art in America issue was about something like “nature,” so that’s why I put that together. And I know most of those artists quite well. It had to do with visualization techniques, or how one modifies spectatorship of nature.
RA: Nature seems to show up – in your writing at least – a fair amount.
SD: Yeah, I mean – I have this here (Sarah pulls out a black-and-white printed pamphlet, one of what will turn out to be many visual aids to/souvenirs from our conversation). It’s a text that I wrote in parallel to an exhibition I did at P! – which just closed – on the Lower East Side. But, basically, it was a show with work by Lucy Skaer of – I don’t know if you call them ingots or – the wooden gem-shaped pieces? – of a mahogany that she saved from a river in Belize. There was work by Batia Suter, work by Eduardo Navarro, who’s in that article. It was really about nature and collecting and going back to the nineteenth century, pondering that moment of the interior where you bring in exotic nature and it becomes objectified, a thing to be collected and imitated.

From the Roof. Essay and pamphlet by Sarah Demeuse

The text itself is not about the artworks. I just took a lead from Batia Suter’s curtain with a large acacia tree image, it was included in the show. In the text, I go back to thinking of nature and the image of tree and this idea of inter-relationality, but it’s written in a very kind of essayistic, subjective mode, and that’s what’s been happening more of late – less theory and more thinking of my personal perspective and how I engage with these questions. So, yeah, have a look at it-
RA: Thank you, sure. Why –
SD:  – it’s very – it’s very simple, I think.
[laughter]
SD: I’m not sure why this nature thing. It’s not like I’m a treehugger or I have ever really studied biology. Never, really. I read a lot. I look a lot. But it’s really because I feel like there’s an inadequacy when I walk in a park and I can’t –
My inadequacy in terms of seeing I feel when I’m confronted with natural objects. Like, I don’t really understand them. I wonder why they have these shapes. In fact they do a lot whether or not we’re noticing. Like, why is this way? How does it relate? How does the ivy grow on the tree? These questions. They’re moments of not understanding and realizing that I need and want to learn something more. They’re moments of curiosity maybe.
RA: What about moving away from theoretical knowledge, pursuing and presenting knowledge in a more personal and reflective way helps you to address those questions?
SD: It’s not really a move away – when I say it’s a move away from theory, I mean it’s less like quoting theory or doing name-dropping. It’s more like a personal digestion thereof. Obviously, I’m indebted to those theoretical texts I read and am exposed to, but I don’t feel a need to engage in either critiquing them or quoting them at length.
I prefer to start with an anecdote, a condensed image, and kind of propose an experience of not-knowing, or of kind of being misguided and then needing to redirect myself. I prefer to expose those more subjective human moments over proposing a general theory about a phenomenon. Have a look. Tell me what you think. You don’t have to read it now – it’s good for a subway ride, that’s kind of the length.
I’ll show you something else, now that we’re talking about theory. This is a book that we made as Rivet. It starts with a reprint of a text by Whitehead called “Objects and Subjects.” It’s short. It was a talk that he gave that was later published, but it goes through basic phenomenological experiences. We gave this text to four people to read and asked them to write a text. The texts were not responses. Only one of them was – Larissa Harris, who had a conversation with Ajay Kurian, talked with him about “why objects and subjects now, and what does it mean?” We wanted to see how theory prompts people to think certain things, rather than repeat it, or try to mimic it. I think this happens a lot in the art world, that you read very dense theory and then it just stays with you, like a watch you always wear. It’s on your body, you’ve kind of interiorized it. I think this book really does something like that.
The essay that Manuela and I wrote is more theoretical. It’s thinking about this question of objects and subjects and when you make art, because when you make art, the lines are so blurry, and it’s an engagement with the world that is thinking and making at the same time. Our essay is probably the closest to the text by Whitehead because it brings tries to answer “what is artistic thinking?”
With this book, we wanted to provide a text that not that many people were aware of, or that not that many people had read, so we reprinted it for that reason. And I’m aware of the risk of dilettantism, but I think it’s important to read and connect things to your own world, and I believe that if you’re a good reader, you will sit with it and research things. Dilettantism happens when you do something haphazardly and too fast, it becomes name-dropping, but I trust people’s commitment to reading and inquisition – is “inquisition” a word? “Inquisition” sounds like the Spanish Inquisition. …That’s not the point. [pause] I don’t know, maybe I should read more theory again.
RA: No, not necessarily! I’m just curious about theory and philosophy, and whether art and artists and thinkers-about-art suffer from too much or too little of either. Theory I do think gets applied haphazardly applied, put to dilettantish use.. a lot. It happens frequently that I wonder if what I’m reading or seeing wouldn’t be better if the creator hadn’t had access to theory at all – if they’d instead had to rely more on other kinds of idiosyncratic expression.
SD: I feel theory, personally, has guided me a lot in understanding certain texts or questions of human behavior, institutions, and all that, but I don’t really feel the need to engage with it in my writing so much. And when I teach, obviously I try to bring in theory. It’s a very important element to bring into a curriculum.
RA: Will you tell me more about yourself as a teacher?
SD: I hadn’t taught in a long time, and I started teaching at the curatorial program at SVA last spring. It was a practicum: I was making an exhibition together with first-year Master’s students, so it was eight curators making one show.
Given that this was right at the moment of the presidential inauguration, there was more focus on general questions of politics. Whereas naturally I would have maybe gone more toward the subject-object dynamic and thinking about all of those questions, it felt more urgent or useful to look at social or political theory.
We also brought in some fiction. For example a very short text by Clarice Lispector,  “The Smallest Woman in the World.” Because the students primarily addressed questions of women. This is a very nice text actually, about an anthropologist, and how that very small woman just defies him and his classificatory system with her laugh, he can’t get her. I was trying out a mix of more known theoretical texts and also some fiction, to think of how fiction can be a model of exploring the human condition and slight alterations thereof.
RA: That was fall 2016?
SD: That was spring 2016. I’m not teaching this semester, but next semester I will be teaching a class at Barnard with Prem Krishnamurthy, who’s a graphic designer and curator. That class will be a combination of graphic design and writing. We’re going to merge the two, dealing with form and content at the same moment.
It’s anchored anchored around John Berger’s Ways of Seeing because that has a very specific and bold design by Richard Hollis. The way images were integrated into the text and the page layout were very unusual, as well as giving a very specific message about how (Western) people see art. It’s a perfect form for how to deal with seeing and the critique of seeing at the same time.
RA: It sounds like in some ways you’ll be teaching about publishing and publications, which have been important parts of your work. You’ve used publication as a complement or even an alternative to exhibition. What about publishing – as a way of thinking or talking about art – appeals to you?
SD: There’s really an idea that publishing and curating come together in that they share the universe of ideas, but that one doesn’t repeat the other.
Most of these publications appear shortly after an exhibition, or simultaneous to, but they are not about the exhibition. The publication serve as an extension of the thinking behind the project, but they don’t feel the need to repeat or explain it, because they can very well exist on their own. Just like artworks can very well exist and speak on their own.
Thinking About It was made after a series of site-specific interventions at a university in Spain – Universidad de Navarra. They wanted to make a catalog, and we proposed something else. Luckily, they accepted it. With “From The Roof”, for example, the image on this publication – it’s not an install-view from the show. Only part of the works in the photo were actually shown in the exhibition, so there’s kind of a suggestion of showing what else can come with the work; the image by Batia that prompted the essay is referred to in the text but not pictured, to avoid it becoming an illustration of my thoughts.
There’s another thing that Manuela and I have explored with the Rivet publications because we do a lot of work in places that are far away, and often institutions have poor distribution of their publications. Or, we make very few, and we run out. You want to give publications to your colleagues or peers but can’t because of those constraints. Our Rivet website, has most of the texts that we’ve made in parallel to exhibitions available in PDF format, downloadable. It’s also emphasizing this idea that they exist independently from the show, and you can read them at any time later. The graphic design of our publications comes out of thinking together with specific designers, so that’s why we have a PDF format, to be faithful to the intended layout.

Thinking About It. Booklet by Rivet

We have a series of three small booklets. The first booklet was made after Sandy. We had invited someone to come and give a talk, and he couldn’t do that, and we decided, “well, let’s try to make a publication out of this.” That publication came at the end of the show as a surprise because the talk had been canceled, but we realized, actually, that it was a good dynamic: to engage with ideas of the show with other people who are not in the show. To build a different community around that. We’ve now done this three times with those small booklets, and it may very well continue in our next project. But maybe you had other ideas when you asked me the question about art and publishing?
RA: No, I’m interested in what interests you about publishing.
SD: Oh, okay. I’d also like to talk a little about my kind of non-print publishing.
SD: Dos is a website and a podcast that is focused on exhibitions. I feel the way we distribute exhibitions is mostly visual – Instagram, Contemporary Art Daily, or similar. It’s a lot of scrolling through images, and that’s great to get an idea of what the show is about, but for me, I’m always very interested in the conversations, feelings and thoughts that an exhibition prompts. So I’ve started commissioning people to go see shows and record their original conversation. Their original conversation gradually morphs into a transcript that we then read with different actors (or voices), so there’s a few filters.
The focus is on subjective experience of an exhibition. As a listener, you are kind of eavesdropping into how people experience an exhibition. It’s not a faithful, objective report of the show. It’s slightly a critique, but it’s very much what I would call a dérive: people are in a show but inevitably start connecting what they see to other art experiences or things outside that gallery.
This is something that I want to emphasize, that an exhibition is not just a separate entity in the world – it is very much connected to things that you have seen or experienced outside. An exhibition is a moment to digest that together with these works of art. So, kind of relating the specific universe of an exhibition, which is the shared universe of these two speakers, to concerns that go beyond the gallery walls. In that sense, I think it could work as a nice complement to the more visual publication or exhibitions.
I don’t know how you have engaged with writing about exhibitions, but I find exhibition critiques – you know the short ones that come in magazines – often stay too close to the press release or to description. I like words, and exhibitions, and how people write or engage with an exhibition, so I just wanted to try this other model.
I’m not very advanced in sound editing, so we’re getting there slowly. It’s a learning process.
RA: I have so many questions – the idea of mediation here? Did you say that actors read the transcripts?
SD: Well, I call them actors, but it’s really who I know can interpret, sort of –
RA: It’s not the original speakers.
SD: It’s not the original speakers.
RA: So you have a transcript and you have not-the-original speakers. And that’s of interest to you, or it’s more incidental?
SD: It’s of interest to me. I wanted to create something that gave a perspective on the show, and a perspective that was not just of one singular person, hence the two people and the kind of exchange between them. I very much like the idea of listening, listening to what someone else says, and then building on that topic. So there’s that.
But the other voice is really because I want to diminish this question of signature, so that it’s not about the character or personality of the person who visits the show but rather about the perspective that this person brings. We are trained to recognize voices and construct people behind them. I wanted to direct that in another way.
So far I’ve worked with voices that are not necessarily American but can be understood by a general [English-speaking] public. And so far I’ve only used female voices, which may change, but I did want to have more female voices out there, having a conversation.
There’s also something of- I’m a reader, that’s kind of how I define myself, and I think as a reader, when you’re confronted with a text or a transcript, you always interpret. That moment of interpretation feels like it’s already embedded in whatever we do, so I wanted to make space for that in the audio.
RA: Are the original speakers anonymous?
SD: No. All the names are out there, because I do want to give people credit for their thoughts and their perspectives. And the names of those voicing the original speakers are also known. I announce everything.
Maybe there is some nostalgia. For the radio play. Like trying to recreate something. The radio play is a very interesting form, for me.
RA: And you’ve written elsewhere about how the audience for this form – like a radio play’s – seems to you both disparate and attentive.
SD: Yes, you can reach people anywhere now with this medium, and that was kind of the aim, to make it available for a large amount of people in different places. But, yeah, you have to spend time and listen to it. That’s also why it’s not just a website but a podcast, so you can take it with you and sit on the subway or wherever.
An artist in Venezuela wrote me a few weeks ago, saying she had listened to the podcast, and how she had enjoyed, living in Venezuela and so cut off from the world and living in a quite horrendous situation right now to be able to listen to something like this. I don’t consider my work explicitly directed to people who are disenfranchised or whatever, but I thought that that was fantastic. Someone that was far away, in a different place, living in a completely different context actually does get quite a lot out of these conversations. So I thought that was good feedback from “the dispersed audience.”
There are some images of the exhibitions on the website, and I think if people want to find visual documentation of the shows online, they can find it. I don’t want to obscure the exhibition, per se – I want to add things to it.
RA: Is the idea of attention important to you in general? Is it something you try to-
SD: I don’t know, I’m not an attention specialist. But I like the idea of listening. Trying to capture how other people digest an aesthetic moment, or just reality. Because I think listening is the first step in creating thought together.
It’s a question of being in the moment and not coming with your readymade interpretation, because for a lot of things that we see, we can have a quick response. It’s just kind of second-nature. And I think if you’re there with someone else, and you have a conversation, then that second-nature response is cut short.
RA: Is that something you’ve discovered through this project?
SD: In part, yes. But I think the discovery is really learning how to work with audio! [laughter] And just seeing how people see exhibitions – because I’m the person who commissions, or prompts, and kind of edits. Some people have a mind that jumps from certain moments, and others just go super deep into one thing and forget about the rest of the exhibition. I think for me, now the next challenge, is that I want to be a bit more directive in terms of the content. So far, I’ve wanted to make sure this was not only about New York and tried to go to different places, but I think it would be worthwhile in addition to think of certain conceptual directives behind the contents.
RA: Like?
SD: It’s fully a response to feeling that all of us in the art world, we have to be more engaged with certain thematics over others because of this condition in which are now caught. So focus more on – well, as I said, certain questions of maybe, nature or human rights. Where the selection of the show could already lead to something else.
The latest episode is made at the Mierle Laderman Ukeles show at the Queens Museum. That I think, for example, is very timely in that question. Dealing with labor, the notion of feminism, and what artists can do right now. Based on that conversation and thinking there should be more timeliness to the podcast. We’ll see. Because also a conversation in an exhibition really can lead towards anywhere, where you had never expected it to go.
RA: Do you feel compelled to only – or primarily – feature art involved with these particular politics and questions?
SD: A following conversation is in the Gold Museum in Colombia. It’s not a contemporary art museum, but it has to do with questions of value and I guess early capitalism – so in that sense, it is more pushing in that direction, yeah.
The initial conceptual goal was really to make this a series of conversations that is related with art but not really for art people. So far most of the collaborators have been very much from the art world, and ideally I’ll broaden that.

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