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When I called Julieta Aranda in late March, she was on the phone with an airline coordinating her flight the next morning to Madrid. She will be giving a workshop there before heading to Barcelona to open a show of her own work. Aranda is artist working between Berlin and New York. She is also mother to a young son and the co-director of e-flux, a multifaceted information node that encompasses a daily e-mail news digest, monthly journal, and range of exhibitions, books, and special projects. As of this spring, Aranda will be an advisor to Art Basel Conversations, which, in tandem with each Art Basel show, convenes members of the international contemporary art scene — artists, gallerists, and collectors, as well as academics, cultural figures, and others — to discuss topical issues. Given that Aranda's work as an artist is oriented toward the cultivation of social space, this new position is a natural fit. ‘Advising the Conversations program presents the situation where I will not only be calling on the network I have created through my practice, but also on the modes of thinking I have assembled, ’ she notes, citing among them, how to ‘effectively interact with a community at large, creates a mass communication system, and work interchangeably as artist and organizer. ’ Aranda pauses before adding, ‘I don't have the strict training that a historian or a curator would have, so I'm quite free in terms of following interests, associations, and developing independent threads.’
The fact that Aranda, as an artist, is joining Art Basel's team as the advisor for the Basel program reflects the diverse nature of Art Basel Conversations. Initiated by former director Sam Keller in 2001, Conversations appeared in various formats before settling into being a regular component of Art Basel's shows in 2004. In all, it has hosted around 2,000 participants with topics ranging from classic subjects such as ‘Contemporary Philanthropy in Europe’ to the horizon- expanding ‘Afro-Asian Perspectives on the Future.’
The program, which launched around the same time as e-flux, might be thought of as emerging out of the same zeitgeist that also informed many of the prominent art events and publications during the early aughts: for instance, Okwui Enwezor's ‘Documenta XI’ (2002), Hans Ulrich Obrist's Interviews: Vol. 1 (Charta, 2003) and Molly Nesbit, Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija's 50th Venice Biennale ‘Utopia Station’ (2003). These exhibitions were deeply invested in achieving a better understanding of the then rapidly globalizing art world, and they also reflected how central the phenomenon of ‘discourse’ or talking about the nature and attributes of art-making, had become for many prominent artists (e.g., Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster).
The power of that early 2000s moment persists - indeed platforms for expression of all sorts have become a primary arena for cultural production. However, Aranda draws a line between the pre- and post-social media public sphere. ‘Not everyone is an artist but everyone understands themselves to be creating content.’ This poses a new challenge for an advisor: how to embrace this sea-swell of voices and to identify the particular subjects that will engage Art Basel's 250,000 annual visitors? ‘I'm not going to assume that everyone has read the 17 technical theory books that a more specialized academic public may know,’ is her immediate response. ‘That is the tragedy of the press release, no? These sequences of words that make you want to pull your hair out because it's as if the language obscures meaning rather than communicates an idea - as if to say this information isn't for you.’
Aranda is a high-energy system-thinker who is deeply curious about the changing nature of how things work. When asked about what specific themes she intends to bring to the Art Basel Conversations program, she frames it in terms of ‘How much it costs to think the way we do?’ with ‘we’ being the international art world and ‘cost’ meant in the holistic sense of the real environmental and social prices of, say, transporting a piece of art made of concrete from New York to Geneva, where it will be kept indefinitely in climate-controlled storage. Though details were still being confirmed when we spoke, Aranda discloses that the June program in Basel was set to include - in addition to such art fair staples as talks on connoisseurship and the practice of collecting—panels on art's ecological impact, the surveillance state, questions of nationalism, and the experience of motherhood as a woman working in the culture sector today.
It would also seem that this interest in drawing a picture of the world is an aspect of Aranda's practice that will naturally inform her advisory role of the Conversations program. But lest her intentions with this interdisciplinary scope of topics be misconstrued, she clarifies ‘I'm very worried about the conflation of aesthetics, morals, and politics; that need for a one stop shop - and this demand for the artist to do social good.’ For Aranda, it is important that artists be free to research broadly, ask questions, and yet not be expected to supply all the answers. Rather, her aims appear rooted more in the spirit of, to paraphrase Lawrence Weiner, 'the artist's reality being no different from any other reality.' There is, with Aranda, a desire for the conversation around art be inverted occasionally, focusing less on what the art world takes into its sphere, and more on how art is physically interdependent with (or even asymmetrically impacting) wider global systems.
Before ending our call, I ask Aranda if there are any core questions she feels are necessary for optimizing ‘discourse’ now. She responds: ‘Real conversations will be face-to-face forever.’
Art Basel conversations will take place from June 12 to June 15, 2019. They are free and open to the public.