“Punk. Its traces in contemporary art”. An interview with David G. Torres, curator of the exhibition | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU
Hans-Peter Feldmann ‘5 Pound Bill with Red Nose’, 2012. Courtesy of Projecte SD, Barcelona. Source: MACBA.cat
Christina Grammatikopoulou: This year, considered as the 40th anniversary since the emergence of Punk, has been marked by several events, from “Punk London” to the planned burning of Punk Rock memorabilia by Joe Corré, the son of the Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. Where does the exhibition “PUNK. Its traces in contemporary art” stand within this context? Would you say it was created in a celebratory tone or rather a subversive mood against the mainstream appropriation of Punk?
David G. Torres: I would say it has a different narrative. First, the fact that it coincides with the 40th anniversary has been pure coincidence: this exhibition opened at the Centro de Arte 2 de Mayo in 2015. Actually, rethinking about punk as a phenomenon of the intensity of the 1970s has come to surface during the past years. However, it is not an exhibition about punk, is an exhibition that begins with punk: it is an exhibition that traces the influences that punk -as one of the most important movements of the twentieth century- has left in contemporary art. It delineates how punk is the paradigmatic example of an idea of radicality in culture and art in the twentieth century, that appears in Dadaism, Situationism, and is still influential. Moreover, we believe that there is no contradiction in placing Punk in the museum, as a museum is not more institutional than a record company. I believe in the value of the museum as a place for the transmission of knowledge. Besides, punk is a mostly contradictory movement, with certain limits.
C.G.: The first part of the exhibition “PUNK. Its traces in contemporary art” is presented as a multifaceted archive, where we see the geographical, chronological and political extent of Punk within contemporary culture: we see the role of the Dadaists and the Situationists as the ideological ancestors of punk, the presence of Punk in Spain and other countries and its meaning within a feminist context, among other things. In a way, we could talk about the ARCHIVE of an ANARCHIC movement –both linked to the concept of the ARCHE (power, beginning). What is the political backdrop of Punk and how does it resonate within the reality of the political and economic crisis of today?
D.T .: The first thing I would tell you is that it is not an archive exhibition or an exhibition of Punk sociology. It is true that there is a documentation part that tries to explain very briefly what we mean by punk. When we talk about Punk in the exhibition, we are not only interested in the explosion that takes place in London and New York in the second half of the 70s, but how so many young people around the world identify with this explosion, when produced in the music industry and in the midst of mass society. What Punk basically does is to provide tools that already existed to all those who are uncomfortable with the social system in which we live and need to face it. Starting from the outside, from the traces punk left in contemporary art, the exhibition attempts to trace the highlights in the movement’s influences. One of the big questions that interested me mostly about punk is its contradiction. I think it’s a movement that has nothing to do with the essence, but has to do with the contradictions and with many elements that come into play, related to gender, with the issue of sexuality, fear, with violence, terrorism, with the appearance of an alienated society.
C.G.: A significant number of artists who have been influenced by Punk form the other part of the exhibition, showing that the brief history of Punk fits within a much wider discourse about art and society. For example, the punk attitude towards DIY –and its harsh riffs as opposed to the elaborate psychedelic rock guitar solos- could resonate Beuys’ claim that every man is an artist or Duchamp’s lesson that anything can be art. What are the punk elements that have mostly inspired the artists presented in this exhibition?
D.T .: One of the ideas that are brought into focus in the exhibition is that there are no watertight compartments in culture, but cultural products are much more accessible; we are artists and we are spectators, we start with a sum of influences from different places. I like to think that the reference to Do It Yourself comes from two seemingly disparate sources: on one hand, it’s the ready made and the appropriationist tradition of contemporary art and conceptual art; on the other hand, I say that it comes directly from punk music, which is not just about picking up a guitar and playing whatever you want, but also about editing your disk, mounting a record and distributing it yourself. It is a confluence of interests rather than a canonical story explained by art history teachers.
C.G.: In the wake of the terrible tragedy in Orlando –and also the recurring violence that results from terrorism and hate crimes- I would like to talk about the concepts of violence and diversity, highlighted within the exhibition: You have mentioned in the exhibition catalogue that your first approach to the culture of Punk was an exhibition titled after Breton’s maxim “Walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly”. How does the violence portrayed in the exhibition relate to the recurring phenomena we read about on the news? On the other hand, how has the punk attitude enabled an acceptance of what strays away from the canon?
D.T.: The contextual background of the exhibition is that punk appears in the 70s at a particular time, marked by a crisis of modernity that keeps repeating itself -the crisis of the hippy movement, in that case- and by a situation of terror. We should also bear in mind the prominent crimes of the era, for example, the murder of Sharon Tate by the Family or the Kennedy assassination. At the same time, all the terrorist tension of the 1970s -the Baader-Meinhof Group, Brigate Rosse, Black September, ETA- leads to more conservative customs and policies. This scene of terror is paving the way for the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In this context, punk appears as a malaise, as alienated individuals of a sick society feel oppressed by the conservative environment. We can establish a very strong parallel with the current situation: terrorism -apart from being a true tragedy- is used as a weapon and as an excuse to go back to the conservative values of society. You just have to see the speeches of Donald Trump after the terrible attacks of Orlando: the first step, according to him, would not be to make laws that support sexual freedom and tolerance, but it would be to prevent people from migrating to the country. This speech has to do with a resurgence of traditional American values -the nuclear family- which relates to the attack of a gay bar in Orlando; it is adding fuel to the fire. In addition, someone like Donald Trump considers Ronald Reagan as the best president in American history, while Margaret Thatcher has been vindicated by the press as the great British prime minister. Admittedly, Punk was a failed movement, like most movements of the twentieth century that have failed in their attempts to minimally change society. The punk movement was born as a failure; Malcolm McLaren says “fail again, fail better,” quoting Beckett. However, it is true that one of the seeds that punk has left almost unwillingly is that we live in a society that is more diverse; punk represents sexual diversity, diversity of opinion, how to introduce yourself to the world in terms of appearance, that is, how your political ideas and your own sexuality become visible in your exterior. But the ghost of conservatism is increasingly evident. Punk represents one of the recurring key principles of the twentieth century: that we are not violent, because we have never been as violent as the society is with us.
C.G.: To deal with punk is to deal with culture and counterculture (or sub-culture) and in a way, we might be in an optimal spot to talk about an interaction between the two: Being in MACBA, an official institution, which hosts an exhibition about a “counterculture” movement –while at the same time the museum (or the space surrounding it) has become an iconic place for skateboarding. How do you think that being at the centre of an urban sub-culture has helped the museum expand its vision towards phenomena of counterculture? Do you believe that an exhibition about Punk would be received well by the people who live and act around the museum?
D.T .: Firstly, I think it is very difficult to speak in terms of culture and counterculture today. The boundaries between the idea of a hegemonic culture against a dissident culture have become increasingly blurred. In this sense, it is worth taking a look at music as a great example where there is no gap between culture and subculture, between culture and counterculture. For example, the Primavera Sound Festival is an element of cultural hegemony, while at the same time it is an element of heterodoxy and diversity. The network of capitalism has expanded everywhere, therefore, it is very difficult to speak in terms of counterculture because it is very difficult to be in the margin of the system. On the other hand, MACBA is a museum that has been renowned for producing a counter-hegemonic discourse: for many years it has been part of the program of the museum to develop stories that represent alternative histories, peculiar stories against what would be considered as the heterodoxy of art history. I think the orthodoxy of art history today is its heterodoxy. There is no greater orthodoxy that heterodoxy, there is no greater centre than the exterior; in short, there is no centre, only periphery exists. The exhibition has many layers, from the surface layer which is punk – this great call to which many young people can feel identified with- to layers that explain its sociological motives, the power of its images and how its language has established a visual arts language. It was a conscious decision to put “Punk” as the first word in the title of the exhibition, as a call to a broad group of people to come to the exhibition. This way, the exhibition can reach many audiences in the same way that music does. I do not think in contemporary art as a self-protected or self-protective, exclusive and excluded field, that feels at ease in its own complexity and thus avoids getting into the public arena. I believe you have to be in the public arena, and, in this sense, I believe that it is an exhibition that reaches many young people.