Joel Mu’s curatorial project M.I/mi1glissé/groupsandindividuals resists traditional teleologies of curation. Centring the hidden relationship between artists and their interlocutors, M.I seeks to make the private public, negating the prosaic expectations of curatorial practice.
The philosopher Gottlob Frege once theorized that an incomplete fragment in language is perfectly positioned to become either a concept or a set of relations: to define something is to place it within a dialectic, while a nameless thing remains frozen in a state of chrysalis. The vocabulary of curation is oftentimes predicated on definition: order, logic and sense are the conventional tools deployed by curators to both arrange artists in relation to one another and a broader thematic. An extension of Frege’s hypothesis, then, would suggest that traditional ideas of curation see the destiny of a concept as being resolved into a set of connections, equipoised in a unilateral, causal relationship that only curators can deconstruct, reassemble and make sense of. However, Joel Mu, curator of »M.I/mi1glissé/groupsandindividuals«, reverses this logic of causation to offer a more intuitive curatorial process – focusing instead on how a set of already disassembled and rebuilt relations between artists can contour and become the driving force of an exhibition. An interview by Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung.
You’ve been a resident at Kunsthaus KuLe since 2014, a house with a long history in Berlin’s art scene: first as a squat, then as an anarchist project space. How have the dynamics here informed your curatorial practice?
I moved into KuLe in January 2014. The artists Alicia Frankovich and Alex Martinis Roe, who now live in Melbourne, guided me in. I remember feeling as though I was moving into an artists’ community but didn’t have an »art-orientated« practice in the »artist« sense. So, I thought I was going to be a distant observer, but soon realised that KuLe has a very particular DNA that transitions between individual artistic activity and communal domestic life. It allows people to make work that moves between visual art and theatre.
Would you say your curatorial work is theatrical?
In some ways, yes. When I moved to Berlin, I remember hearing about the »Death of the Theatre«, but at KuLe, it’s got such an ongoing history as a place of performance that I couldn’t help but wonder if theatre was really dead. I found myself living with artists very much associated with the »stage«, like Tino Sehgal, a close friend and mentor, and other inspiring artists like Alex Chalmers, Jule Flierl or AFROTAK TV. I kept seeing a constant staging that comes with living in a communal house, like when you and I go into the kitchen, it feels like we have to choreograph ourselves around this elevated cooking area, negotiate our introversion or extroversion, speaking versus not speaking, always performing. I felt like, wow, this is an »immersive stage«, which is something I had never come across and wanted to explore further.
You’ve mentioned that »M.I/mi1glissé/groupsandindividuals« isn’t an institutional endeavour despite collaborations with Kunst Werke (KW) and Schinkel Pavillon. I’m wondering why you’re such an active participant in the KuLe institution but resist moving more fully into other galleries or museums.
Because M.I was going to operate in a house that had an identity known to the outside, my approach was to do something more illegible, something harder to define. Making M.I more »institutional« doesn’t reflect this approach. Looking back, my one-night-only collaborations with KW and the Schinkel Pavillon happened without even touching their gallery walls! The works I curated by composer Billy Bultheel, photographer Spyros Rennt, sculptor Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir, and the French collective High Heal, all happened on a roof-top, in a garden, inside an apartment in Kreuzberg, or the gallery and theatre spaces I regularly work in, at KuLe. The reason why I link these artists together now is because I have always been interested in how artistic communities are formed, how they are encouraged by friends, long-term or promiscuously. Of course, it’s exciting to be invited by institutions – getting paid, working with a budget, reaching a larger audience – but they can’t always facilitate the social interrelations I’m interested in.
These interrelations in M.I aren’t always obvious, made harder to spot because there’s not much about you online, and even your website is designed in a way that’s difficult to navigate. M.I is very »anti-logic« or »resistant« towards linear conventions of Western curation, if I can use these terms.
When I started M.I, I wanted to pursue this idea of how a programme could be self-curated. I think I was reacting against my formal training as a museum curator in Australia, which continues to be very formative, but I never felt connected to this idea of an »all-knowing expert«, who decides what story is being told. I didn’t want to author my work, which gave me the opportunity to work very intuitively. I stopped affixing my name to projects and, in that sense, it became very artist orientated.
It’s interesting that we’re referring to M.I consistently, yet one of the things about the project is that the name is always changing. It’s gone from »M.I«, to »M.I/mi1glissé« to »groupsandindividuals«– can you speak about this metamorphosis?
M.I started life on Facebook as a placeholder with letters generated randomly. When I was ready to start a website – which artist and hacker Claire Tolan designed and coded – I didn’t want the words »gallery« or »project« to appear. I also liked how »mi1glissé« looked and sounded. I remember being inspired by local artist collectives like Ying Colosseum or Young Girl Reading Group, who in different ways, look at text, poetry, and the syntax of online communication as inspiration. Then Instagram motivated me to find a more accessible name. I was enjoying the sun with Natasja Loutchko, who runs the project space CAVE 3000, and came up with »groupsandindividuals«.
M.I exists as both a discursive and tangible placeholder for artists then?
Sometimes. This first happened when artist Christophe de Rohan Chabot made an artwork based on Felix Maritaud’s profile picture, which was public on Facebook at the time. When I adopted this dual-authored image as M.I’s dis-identity, Felix was still an underground figure in the queer scenes of Paris and Brussels, but now he’s a famous French film actor!
I’ve noticed how often queerness appears in your work. But it’s not so much you’re giving queerness a platform per se, but rather, you seem to position queerness as being able to hold its own in the visual arts without someone actively making that their curatorial rationale.
There’s a bit of queer in everything I do – from what I read and see, the people I meet or sleep with, or whatever. But queerness has never been a stable position in art, nor a static influence on me. I think when you do an alternative non-commercial project in a small city like Berlin, it just ends up reaching queer artists. It’s interesting because I think queer was always there in the earlier projects – which were more focussed on performative texts, degraded images, and affective materials – whether that was with Christophe de Rohan Chabot or Camilla Steinem and you know, they’re not necessarily Queer artists. But also, I think because M.I has always been interested in performance, queerness was always going to play a meaningful part. I hope queer people come to M.I because they know it’s a safe space without needing to label it as one. I have never printed an official gallery text or written a manifesto, but since my curatorial work is oriented towards non-conforming bodies, affective experience and questions of identity, it just happens.
You’re in the final stages of writing »Jupiter«, a monograph of Andreas Sell, published later this year by Bom Dia Books. I’ve read a few chapters and I think it’s really clever that you wrote it in the form of narrative non-fiction. How did this stylistic choice come about?
With »Jupiter«, I have essentially written an artist monograph, covering 15 years of Andreas’ continuous art making. When I started writing I found myself doing all the things you’re »supposed to« in conventional art history, like refer to an artist by their last name, which felt totally ridiculous given neither Andreas nor myself were commissioned by an institution. This brings us back to how something is named, and the conventions adopted. I had to adopt another strategy because this norm in curating was changing my writing, adding an authoritative style to the book that Andreas and I felt was flat. My writing in »Jupiter« is very much influenced by artists I know who have a kind of »text-to-voice« approach, where the subject/author relation is re-addressed, as a matter of poetics and ethics.
You often decentre yourself as curator to let things happen »naturally«. You operate in a self-made periphery so to speak. Do you see yourself moving into the centre at any point and what might that look like?
As a curator from Australia – which is always seen as peripheral – the centre isn’t something I buy into. Is Berlin the centre, is KW, is working at the Tate or MoMA – which are pan-global corporate entities anyway – the centre? And what does the centre want from me, or from any of us? I think I stopped caring about these »power« positions a long time ago. I work in a peripheral space because I feel supported by the communities that exist there too. But even where we are now, KuLe, is a kind of centre – and we should acknowledge the social and material privileges that come with it. There are difficulties too, of course, like during COVID-19, where it’s challenging to live in a collective 24/7. On the flipside, we get to do this interview directly, face-to-face, body-to-body, because our home is an institution that doesn’t shut down, doesn’t send us home when we get sick, doesn’t think about social distancing in purely individual terms, and doesn’t threaten us with letters when we can’t pay rent. This centre is an alternative, and like many other collective projects, it nurtures. I think that’s something to always look for.