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A text from the future past

November 2nd, 2011 by Charles Esche

Some people were asking what I think about the occupy museums movement and I thought about this text that I wrote many years ago for a project by Tilo Schultz. He wanted us to write about the future and designed a poster with it which I think I’ve lost…but nowadays the text seems strangely relevant…It is called 28th August 2015


28th August 2015

After it had happened, no one could really find a convincing explanation for it all. Why did a local art museum issue its call and suddenly open its doors to all the city’s asylum seekers? How did such a small, local action then connect to all sorts of gatherings across the European continent? And why did the corporations of the day not see it coming? After all, consumer intelligence was their speciality, and this was nothing if not a free choice revolt. Each person seemed to join by themselves, perhaps out of some unfathomable herd instinct, but nevertheless as individuals. And it wasn’t really true that they joined anything anyway. They just went to the museums, kunsthallen, artist spaces – art venues of all sorts and in every major city. They sat, looked around, slowly started to speak to each other and enjoyed it all enough to keep coming back. Soon, the museums started to respond – organising meetings and commissioning short term projects as a result, inviting the press and asking artists and others to turn the tables on cynical journalists. The art mausoleums that had slumbered for so long suddenly started to live. Impromptu activities were welcomed and the rules of engagement with art were changed whenever necessary. Museum workers even started to talk about the need for unconditional hospitality and visitors responded.

Strangely, the action spread across central Europe. For once, our disempowered citizens seem to shrug off their apathy and find a voice beyond the reach of administrative control. Of course, everything stayed on the local level, but a new spark was ignited almost daily and every week a new city fell into line. The speed of the change produced problems, most of which we still have today. When people failed to turn up for work, production initially fell by over 70%. But gradually provisional solutions were found, priorities were changed and people drifted back to work for two or three days a week anyway, just to make enough money to carry on. The corporations issued threats, sackings, even appealed for military action but there were no laws against public cultural attendance and the smart entrepreneurs quickly adjusted to the new lower level economy.

Now, it simply goes on like this. The museums are the new public forums, the remaining party politicians try to go there to make there point but mostly production and distribution take care of themselves, administered by the few who still take pleasure in the treadmill of wealth creation. The purpose of meeting seems to be changing. No longer about protest, it’s now about something closer to the old, perhaps mythical, idea of the agora. Exchange simply happens for its own sake and for the pleasure of the result.

Maybe we could say everyone’s an artist now, except hardly anybody uses that term, preferring other words, usually adapted from local slang still surviving in our international patois. Why did it all happen? If you ask me it’s pretty straightforward. It happened because there wasn’t anything else to do. We’d exhausted every other option and this was the one place left worth trying. Funny, I guess, but I don’t know why we never thought of it before.



Picasso in Palestine

June 27th, 2011 by Charles Esche

Given the coverage and now political accusations around the project  - I think it is worthwhile posting this essay on the bog which was published in the catalogue produced by the International Art Academy Palestine (IAAP) in Ramallah…

A Picasso in search of a cause

The exhibition of Picasso’s 1943 painting in Ramallah is an auspicious occasion. It confirms the development of an already long-standing relationship between the Van Abbemuseum and the IAAP as well as between different colleagues in both institutions. More than that however, it represents a symbolic connection between European modernity and contemporary Palestinian culture; a connection that can serve, if understood well, as a way to imagine cultural globalism as mutuality rather than conformism to a single worldview. The story of modernity as told from Europe is aligned with colonialism and war, as much as it is represented by the liberating images of the artistic avant-garde. Palestine, like other non-European nations, was a bystander in the high modern world represented by Picasso and his comrades. Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron and many other cities in the region were, at that time, places to which things were done and rather than agents of their own destiny. (more…)

Venice 2011 – a short comment

June 12th, 2011 by Charles Esche

Just back from Venice and the Biennale….the most interesting general tendency to me was retrospection and recuperation of the past. From Tintoretto in the International show to Monastyrski, Boltanski, Gotovac, Schlingensief and more it felt like revisiting our parents or grandparents. even works like the excellent Polish Pavilion by Yael Bartana were looking back and Mike Nelson reconstructed a previous work from Istanbul. Is this a sign of a culture in decay or a sign of something about to happen? Reminds me a bit of my early teens in the mid-seventies when the best music was always at least 10 years old and the best thing to do was repeat it. In 1976 we were desperate for something – and then punk happened. Any chance the same could happen in art today?

A recent interview with Zdenka about museums and collections in general

June 12th, 2011 by Charles Esche


This interview took place on the 19th April 2011, the day after the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Vanabbemuseum in Eindhoven between:-

Charles Esche Director of the Vanabbemuseum, Eindhoven

Zdenka Badovinac – Director of the Moderna Galeria, Ljublijana

Lucy Byatt – Head of National Programmes, Contemporary Art Society.


The Vanabbemuseum – The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven is one of the first public museums for contemporary art to be established in Europe. It opened in 1936 with the private collection of Henri Van Abbe as its basis. Throughout the last 75 years, it has continued to exhibit and collect contemporary art. Its collection is now one of the three most significant modern and contemporary public art collections in the Netherlands. Today, the museum has an experimental approach towards art’s role in society, focusing on the relations between art and social or political questions that have a particular currency in the Netherlands and north-western Europe. A radical approach, hospitality towards visitors and creating exchanges of knowledge between different institutions, disciplines and individuals are core values. In investigating the value and potential of the collection, museum uses itself as a model to test out how art from the past can remain active and inspiring, often working together with international artists and curators to develop displays and reassessments. We challenge ourselves and our visitors to think about art as a way to reflect on the state of the world. We respect the wishes of our artists and aim to present their artworks with integrity. We also address a range of subjects through art, including the artistic heritage of modernity, the cultural consequences of globalisation and the museum as a public site for the contestation of values the museum as a public site for the contestation of values. The Van Abbemuseum seeks to be as place for creative cross-fertilisation and a source of surprise, inspiration and imagination for its visitors and participants.



Charles Esche biog – Charles Esche (*1962) is a curator and writer. He is Director of van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and co-director of Afterall Journal and Books based at Central St.Martins College of Art and Design, London. He is a visiting lecturer at a number of European art academies. In the last years, he has curated the following biennials 5th U3 triennial in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2010; 3rd Riwaq Biennale, Ramallah, Palestine, 2009 together with Reem Fadda,  2nd Riwaq Biennale 2007 with Khalil Rabah; the 9th Istanbul Biennial 2005 with Vasif Kortun, Esra Sarigedik Öktem and November Paynter and the Gwangju Biennale 2002 in Korea with Hou Hanru and Song Wang Kyung. Before that he was co-curator of ‘Tate Triennial: Intelligence’ at the Tate Britain, London and ‘Amateur – Variable Research Initiatives’ at Konstmuseum and Konsthall, Göteborg, both in 2000. From 2000-2004 he was Director of the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art, Malmö where he made solo exhibitions with Surasi Kusolwong, Nedko Solakov and Superflex as well as group shows including “Baltic Babel” and “Intentional Communities” From 1998-2002 he organised the international art academic research project called ‘protoacademy’ at Edinburgh College of Art. From 1993-1997 he was Visual Arts Director at Tramway, Glasgow. A book of his selected writings, Modest Proposals, was published by Baglam Press, Istanbul in 2005 in Turkish and English and he writes regularly for readers, catalogues and art magazines.


Genk, or after the factory comes a factory

September 4th, 2010 by Charles Esche

I was recently in Genk, Belgium – about 100 km from Eindhoven. The small city of 65.000 people was founded to serve three deep shaft coal mines. The city itself was divided into three sections following the employment patterns of the workers and it even used to have three football teams in the Belgian Premier League. I was told that this work-based identity has somewhat diminished since the football teams merged and employment in the three mines was replaced by employment in single huge Ford factory. In Genk’s case, ironically, post-Fordism meant the arrival of the car company, and a real post-Fordist future is looked on with fear.

Genk is a good reminder that material production didn’t stop with the new economy, it just relocated, mostly east and south but also to out of the way places like Genk. When we speak about flexible working, immaterial labour and the creative economy, it seems important to remember places like Genk and the manipulation of raw materials there that still forms the essential base for our service saturated economy.

What the visit to Genk really got me to thinking about however was the nature of that flexible, creative service economy that is understood to have replaced heavy industry. Our contemporary forms of labour are certainly very different. In the mines or the car factory, workers are clearly visible as such. There is a regime of discipline and order that keeps the human body circulating though a factory as efficiently as the goods it produces. Today, these clearly visible disciplinary structures – factory architecture, physical division between workers and management, masses of bodies moving to the same rhythm – are no longer present in much of the former western world. But the new economy could not function without some disciplinary controls in which most of the fruits of your labour, delivered by hand or by brain, can be plucked by the non-workers (the ruling class or (democratic) government) to use and invest as they wish.

After all, without this discipline why would we be persuaded to put in more than we take out of a system in which increasingly large groups work as precarious, self-exploiting employees or freelancers. We would have to be stupid to do that, and we are not. Yet especially when our business and financial leaders so obviously take out more than they put in, and even do this on a collective basis (think about recent bank bailouts, regular state subsidy of private business through infrastructure, tax breaks etc), we still don’t have the means to reform the status quo in any significant way.

Following the logic of this analysis, it is fairly reasonable to say that the site of this discipline must have moved rather than dissappeared. Let’s say it shifted from control of the (material) body to control of the (immaterial) mind – fitting in with the shift from material to so-called immaterial labour. Where once the worker was free the dream but constrained to move, many of the freelance producers in the creative economy today are caught in the opposite trap. The same goes for the role we play as consumers. It is the psycho-sociological techniques that shape desire towards economically productive ends that determine how we think and how far we can imagine. It is these conditions that keep us tense, active, looking for opportunities and, as a consequence, little time for focusing on the system itself. In this condition, is it any wonder that we seem to be so lacking in political or poetic visions of the future that are more than slight modifications of the present? Might we say that dreaming up a new paradigm for society is today as revolutionary as downing tools in the factory was in the industrial system? Certainly it seems as closely controlled as the early trade unions were, though by the very different, psycho-tools of the private media and their techniques of ridicule, cynicism, and dumb pragmatism amongst others.

In these circumstances, the task of intellectuals and artists (who are often the role models and ideal examples for workers in the creative economy) is to make the techniques and systems of control visible. The task for institutions funded through and thereby dedicated to the public interest is to provide the means to produce the analyses internally and to distribute them as widely as possible. Such institutions as government watchdogs, public universities and museums amongst others are limited in their reach, but they still can make a difference, as might be measured by the threats to their survival from neo-liberal politics and public service cuts.

Those of us responsible for such institutions need to defend them by constructing new, more urgent tasks than those they inherited from the past. In large measure we have to reinvent our ways of working and core objectives to address a society for which we were not originally established. This is difficult, but the chance of constructing wholly new public institutions in the current climate seems very unlikely, so we must use what we have. In the arts, that means understanding that leftist nostalgia for the avant-garde and top down social education projects is as wrongheaded as the conservative yearning for the old certainties of modernist essentialism and visuality. We have to leave both behind as we leave modernity to history, and find ways to depict and then defend ourselves against the core of the problem – the techniques of mind control and psycho-social conformism.

There’s an old saying that sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Today words and images are more deadly to the possibility of transforming future social relations than any artillery. Now, we have to find a way to produce those words and images so that can free our dreams and allow us to experience the joy of thinking for ourselves again.

A lady of a certain age

December 12th, 2009 by Charles Esche

By Charles Esche

I’m on a plane flying to Alicante. God knows why really, it is not necessary for much that I cherish but I said yes once to some invitation and here I am, not wanting to think about it further. At least I get to listen to God Help the Girl

The flight is, not surprisingly, a holiday flight to escape the cold Dutch winter. It is only half full and I’m sleepy with a precious seat between me and my neighbour. I take a look across…and that’s where it begins to get interesting or maybe better troubling. (more…)

Play Van Abbe

November 22nd, 2009 by Charles Esche

By Charles Esche

Here is a text, not yet published, that I hope gives a little background into the thinking behind the project

Why Play? Why Van Abbe?

“it’s all about the thing itself”, he said in Dutch, arguing that what we are doing with the Van Abbemuseum and its collection transgresses the rules of art. He was a fellow museum director, this man who confronted me, but he deserved a hearing. “I honestly don’t think it is” I replied “it’s about the context at least as much, possibly more – and as museums we should to give people a chance to make their own mind up.” He offered me a lift in his car, but we didn’t talk about art and context anymore. It seemed our two points of view couldn’t be reconciled, maybe because they emerge at different historical moments and in response to different understandings of what art represents in the world at large. (more…)

More on that capitalism story

August 3rd, 2009 by Charles Esche

I seem to have got rather stuck on the capitalism trip over my brief holidays…but anyway, here is an extract from a Guardian blog where I tried to answer Evil Tory’s quite reasonable questions. As it will be lost in the masses of Guardian comments…I thought I would be vain enough to post it hear together with the original post from Evil Tory. His post starts it off, mine replies below…


It is the job of business, whatever business, to make a profit. Only by making profit can a company continue to run. Investors put up money to buy part of a business because they want a share of that profit; if said investors did not believe the business was fundamentally healthy, they would not put up their money. More successful companies generate more investment which in turn generates, if correctly used, greater profits and more often than not greater market share at the expense of less well-run companies. That’s basic capitalism. There’s nothing magical about it, and to attribute any sort of moral dimension is to misunderstand the nature of commerce. (more…)

A local newspaper

July 15th, 2009 by Charles Esche

Beneden is a foto van een pagina van de nieuwe catalogus van MoMA, New York. Leuk dat ze zo duidelijk de waarde van de Volkskrant beoordelen…zeer amerikaans, maar in dit geval wel niet zo oneerlijk…

What is it with capitalism?

July 12th, 2009 by Charles Esche

A fascinating and enjoyable trip to west Germany to meet people from the world of commerce a few days ago. I have to admit that I rarely (if ever) meet people outside the art world. Is that terrible? Ignorant? Probably…but what emerged for me yesterday was timely and educational.

I suppose my lack of contact with the commercial world has produced a relative naivety about how it all works. Throughout my career in the public sector, I have been told that commerce and private, shareholding companies are the pinnacle of our institutional ecology – the kings of the jungle. They are efficient, intelligent, responsive and sensitive to society and they can prove all these qualities because they make money. In contrast, we who are guilty of not making money are lazy, unproductive, wastrels (i exaggerate here) who should be grateful that efficient private companies tolerate our existence (and sometimes even sponsor us). They do this partly because it could be a good marketing opportunity for them to associate with  lazy creative types, and because they are so efficient as money machines that they have produced enough excess cash to pass some of it on directly or in taxes – and finally there is still a vague, old enlightenment expectation that ‘good’ societies should have ‘free’ artists and therefore our contemporary, ‘free’ market society must also have its cultural corner.


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