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“Moritz Neumüller in conversation with Inanna Riccardi”
An in-depth and yet easy-going interview conducted by the Italian researcher Inanna Riccardi with curator, educator and writer Moritz Neumüller, on museums in the age of participation, the relationship of photography with visual culture, and the role of technology for making art more accessible to all.
Inanna Riccardi: From looking at your website and onthe internet, one gets the impression that your career has involved a lot of Do-it-yourself initiatives. How would you describe this process?
I am trained as an art historian, I studied Art History and then Economics in two different universities and am specialized in photography, which happened almost by chance. People quite often ask if I’m a photographer, but I’m not!
I think this is because, until recently, there was no photographic education apart from becoming a photographer, so photographers turned their professionalskills to curatorship or as experts working within the museum world. In my case, I had to cultivate my interest in photography mostly through self-study. That started with me being a research assistant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was during my PhD studies, and I spent one day per week in the photo department. During my time there I learnt a lot! They offered me a job afterwards but I decided to go back to Austria to finish my PhD, hoping to be able to work at MoMA later on.
IR: MoMA is definitely a great place to learn, but then9/11 happened. How did it affect your progress?
Going back to New York wasn’t really an option anymore: MoMA relies heavily on private donations andafter 9/11 these donations decreased, partly because everybody donated to the firemen. That meant that the museum had to lay off part of their staff, and the foreigners were the first ones to go. I therefore had to re-think my plans for the future.
I had always wanted to see Cuba before it changed and I always wanted to go there not as a tourist but to live. So I got in touch with the photographic museum, the FotoTeca, and proposed a project about Afro-Cuban culture and heritage, in particular Santeria.
IR: That’s a very anthropological topic, funnily enoughsuggested by an outsider. Was it the first time someone suggested the topic?
Yes, in fact there had never been a photographic exhibition about Santeria. That was due to political reasons: for many years religious practices were forbidden or not really looked at, while photography had a very important social and political role, as a sort of‘propaganda’. Photographs were used to show the achievements of the government and the new revolutionary state.
My first curatorial project, as you said, was only half on photography and the other half was on anthropology. I therefore asked my cousin, who is an anthropologist and filmmaker, to help me. As a result of this collaboration we created a documentary film and a book. That was kind of a big project for someone who had just started! But everything I learnt was by doing, by finding out for myself. I made a lot of mistakes and I asked for help a lot.
IR: So Latin American photography seems to have drawn you to live in Spain…
In a way, I guess you are right. After that experience, I found myself in Madrid, and by chance I started working on an exhibition on Latin American photography.
We worked on this project for a year. It was shown in Barcelona and Madrid at the same time and that was interesting for me, I think it was the first time I’d heard that one exhibition could be shown in two places. Only afterwards did I find out that the “Family of Man” exhibition did the same thing in the 50s and 60s. Then I worked at Photo España, Spanish’s bigger photo festival. After that I moved to Barcelona, ten years ago, and I have been working as a freelancer since then.
In recent years I have been specializing in photobooks and my other field of specialization is accessibility to art.
IR: It’s interesting that you mention accessibility, in a world where inequality and the subsequent access to resources is discussed. How can museums and art institutions in general switch the static power relationship among the audience and create more equal conditions?
Historically museums have fostered a sort of devotion and reverence towards the artwork and the artists. If we think about the structure of the building, most museums are located at the top of steps, they resemble Roman and Greek temples, so the audience has to climb up to the altar to worship the artworks.
However, I think museums should be generating new practices for looking at society. In this regard, big institutions such MoMA have been pioneers.
I was working at MoMA when I saw, for the first time, a tour for blind people, which consisted in them touching some sculptures. Everyone in the group of participants had a smile from ear to ear, they felt that they were part of the art.
That made a big impression on me and influenced my way of working.
Within this context digital developments can help museums to open their doors and become more inclusive.
I am thinking of Smartify, for example, which is an app that uses image recognition to retrieve information about the artwork.
IR: Technology, at its extreme, seems, in some museums, to have become the only alternative to the accepted way of exhibiting. I refer to the increasing attention given toVirtual Reality. However, I believe that there is the need for creating more inclusive practices for curating, which take into account different perceptions and experiences of the world and value them, maybe to the point of generating ad hoc projects for specific target groups.
I investigate these alternatives with “ArteConTacto”(which can be translated as Art with Touch, or Art Contact), a project and a platform which aims at providing a sensorial experience of the art by using allthe senses like touch, hearing… The idea that lies behind it is to make art accessible to everybody!
“ArteConTacto” adapts exhibitions for people who are normally excluded from the art. The strategy is to include fragile or excluded groups from day one, by using technology to our advantage, to bridge the gaps between the material and the audience.
In 2009 I used 3D printing and tactile materials for the first time as a tool to adapt an exhibition for blind people. One piece we adapted was an untitled photograph by Lotte Hendrich-Hassmann from 1982, which was taken during a performance. The picture represents the artist covered by some sort of cloth, which is wrapped all around the body. We made a full-body scan of a person in the same posture and had it printed at the Technological University of Vienna, in a 3D sculpture of approx. 30 cm high. In this way the blind could actually touch the piece. The most interesting part was taking something out of the frame and placing it in the space so people could use it.
IR: Have you have tried to work outside the European context?
In Tunisia I did another interesting project: I contacted people from the association for the blind and asked them,what would you like to see, if you could see? And some people said a certain building in the city, someone said a plane, someone else said a mosque. I asked them if they knew how to get to these places, and they said yes, more or less. I asked them if they had ever had a tactile map of the city, and since they had never had one I created it for them. I took a map of the city, glued it to a board and made the big streets with transparent glue. I gave it to them and they had the first tactile plan of the city.
One of the participants said he wanted to visit the football stadium, so we went there. He walked to the goal because he was very interested in experiencing the distance between the penalty spot and the goal – he knew about it and wanted to experience it for himself. We produced models of the buildings they were interested in. We went to the shoemaker at the bazar and we designed the airplane, for example, on the rubber material he uses for making sandals. Then we placed the cut out on a board. The process was similar for the mosque and other important buildings.
Back at home, we also made a tactile photograph of one of the other buildings and sent it to Tunisia. It was exhibited and then donated to blind’s association.
IR: Being an Austrian living in Barcelona and working within the European and extra-European contexts, you could be seen as a good example of the embodiment of different cultures and different ways of working. Howdoes this personal aspect play a role in your practice as a curator?
I think art is a very culturally framed concept. For example, a huge part of the population has a different opinion about what art should be compared to people who work within the field. I am referring to cultural products, which can be considered points of interest or tools of interaction for and with somebody.
IR: It seems that you particularly enjoy working with and for blind people, who have a completely different understanding of and approach to art…
They are an interesting case study from my perspective: I was trained as a visual person in visual culture, but they do not have access to that aspect, so there is a big gap.
In addition I go to museums all the time, since it is partof my job, so it’s also partly a duty for me.
Blind people, instead, are generally afraid to go to museums because they feel they do not belong there, that there is nothing for them, that they will feel stupid.
I am interested in the art and its story, while blind people are generally interested in many aspects of an art experience, such as the materiality of sculpture, or the exhibition space itself, or the way you are able to communicate the story around, behind or about an artwork. They also spend longer time experiencing each artwork compared to the general public.
IR: They experience art in a pre-consumer society way, so we can we can learn a lot from their way of approaching art.
That’s the reason why I’m so interested in “special” target groups. My projects are always a give and take, learn and teach. And as a by-product, everybody experiences something new and they enjoy themselvesthrough art.
IR: Art for everybody, without simplification and reduction, is an aspiration that many institutions have. At the same time we see a more impatient and fragmented young generation, in which smartphones are playing a crucial role in connecting them to others who are physically distant but with whom they share similar interests.
I see technology and its use, mostly among youngsters,as an opportunity to invite people in and get more out of the art, instead of obstructing the art experience.
It’s all about how to use what’s out there, and how to navigate the generational changes in an efficient way for museums.
For example, the younger generation also has a tendency not to listen during guided tours in the museum, but they listen to their phones and they look at their phones, so if you have the chance to use that technology you can reach those were previously unreachable.
I think technology can be used to open the cultural field and reach new audiences.
IR: However, you must admit that technology also has a negative side, like cinemas loosing their audience because of Netflix.
That’s true but we can’t stop time, meaning technological progress. However, these people are still looking at something that can be considered a cultural product.
That opens the discussion about what and how products become cultural and where the line is that marks that difference. If we include these other new cultural products in the pallet of things that you can do, engage with, then culture has not lost anyone. People are now becoming DJs and VJs for their own homes, their community, their followers, and they are much more active in that sense than people who grew up with unidirectional mass media such as TV. Maybe younger generations are even more engaged, more educated, more adult users of technology and cultural products.
IR: Another excluded target group is the elderly, who probably have difficulties relating to technology and might be more interested in conventional exhibitions. How can technology tackle these issues?
Technology applied to generate tactile reliefs and 3Dprinting are definitely big resources for including this group. With age, most people begin losing their senses, and have impaired vision, so they can only see somethings. Therefore, multi-sensorial experiences, which include for example listening to a story, are an interesting way of including this audience.
At the same time, they do not need to understand the technological process behind the experience.
Moreover, I see this group as a source of inspiration: they love to tell stories, for example about the war they foughtin, an experience which many of us haven’t had. In that way they can still relate to and meet our art experience with their experience.
IR: Talking about technology as a tool of inclusion rather than exclusion, the internet has definitely created a revolutionary way of gathering information, and has brought part of our world closer. How have you used this potential in your practice?
In 2010 I created “The Curator Ship”, which was generated out of necessity to filter and share information that reached me about opportunities for artists and curators.
I used to get a lot of emails about grants, residencies, exhibition proposals, portfolio reviews, calls for participation, and so on, which I forwarded to the people in my network who I thought might be interested in them.
But it came to a point where it took up too much of my time, so I decided to put it on a website so that everybody knows what I know.
I filter what I receive by email and I select what I find interesting enough for me. Moreover, when the initiative is open for international applicants but in only in one language, I translate it and put it up there as the call: here is the summary in English and the description, and it says it’s open so you can apply just by running it through Google translate.
Then people can apply, it doesn’t say anywhere it has to be in a certain language, so just send your stuff in English. I guess I have in this way opened many opportunities for the international public.
IR: It seems to me that you are a many-faceted professional within the art scene, who tries to learn everything he can and wears several hats! Where and how is your energy mostly used these days?
My contribution is that I know nearly nothing about everything, and I’ve always tried to be the one in the room who knows the least so I can learn the most.
You cannot really get famous with that kind of thing, you get more famous and wealthy if you do one thing and you do it really well. But I am happily accepting this. Whenever I’ve had too much of something I’ve backed out and done something else, or tried to do many things at the same time.
I work with some mediums that interest me a lot: performance, video, photography, photobooks, filmmaking, documentary. I think that what they have in common is this strange relationship to the world outside, if you want to call it the real world, even if these days it’s becoming more and more unreal and surreal. But these kinds of reflections on the world, on themes that surround us, in this kind of dialogue with what is going on out there, is what interests me, when I curate, when I teach, when I write and when I do projects!