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At the institutional helm: Marti Manen

Sitting down with director Marti Manen of Index Foundation is pleasant and enlightning. In a mere quarter of an hour you are already more than just a little convinced about the function and importance of this institution in the present art landscape of Stockholm. Surprisingly short time is enough to have gained a greater understanding about what in essence is a complex and interconncted program which stands available to all, through Index's aim of operating on various levels. Somehow the eloquence and dedication at the helm strikes a particular chord once leaving the venue after a interview. "The general annual budget for us is less than that of one big production at the biggest instituion. At the same time we do very extensive programming which is motivated in so far Index informing many generations, entailing several groups of people", says Marti Manen during our conversation.

Marti Manen

C-P: Run me through your curatorial background prior to joining Index in Stockholm.

M.M: I started quite a few years ago when I was studying art history in Barcelona and decided to curate exhibitions in my room at home. So, for five years I was sharing an apartment with two more students and our place also served as an exhibition space. It was a learning experience but also an attempt to do it for “real”, to try hands on an institutional practice but from a personal realm. It was not about me so there was no information about my subjectivity but there was a very advanced program on offer with exhibitions. The focal question was always what an exhibition is; the limitations of the exhibition space and questioning how you can do things when it isn’t about money but rather about time.

If you have an independent position you can take risks and test things out. For many years this was what it was about for me. You can say it was a five-year plan and at the same I was also working at MACBA, so altogether it meant spending 24 hours a day working around exhibitions. Sleeping there and working there. Again, a really great learning experience.

Anna Selder, One Cannot See Oneself, Index Foundation, 1995

C-P: You stepped in at the helm after your predecessor Axel Wieder about two years ago. What attracted you to the position here and Index as a venue?

M.M: One of the beautiful things about Index is the history it has. It has been around for 20 years as a foundation and then there’s 20 more years or so as an association. A lot of people relate to its history. Index has consistently worked around conceptual art in relation to history, image and criticality. In terms of the core ideas, I bring, I feel I’m very close close to this situation and framework. Index has also seen various interesting periods over time. If you look at what Mats Stjernstedt and Helena Holmberg were doing there was a super focus on certain artists and conceptual art from the 60’s in the midst. With Diana Baldon there was emphasis on performativity and with Axel Wieder a push towards social engagement.

NDXLATE, exhibition opening with artists Anita and Anita, Jeremy Deller and Öyvind Fahlström, Index Foundation. 1997

C-P: Tracing a connection between the exhibitions in your programming to date, between Mette Edvardsen, Roxy Farhat and Chris Kraus, among the things that come to mind is a literary angle but primarily the notion of language that runs as a recurring thread.

M.M: Everything is connected. For me Index as a venue has some inherent functions towards an audience that you always want to cover, and which are interconnected. I’m very interested in the connection between performativity and language. But we also have a mission of being a platform for a future generation of artists, many of whom will have their first significant solo show here. This year we will work with Nathalie Gabrielsson and last year we had Roxy Farhat. For me it is important that what we present makes sense; whether an event or exhibition, but as well that the various layers of the institution are also felt. That’s why we keep the past exhibition posters on the wall plastered on top of each other; you can’t read the text but their presence is made clear this way. This is an institution that ultimately has been here for an important amount of time and I love to observe this history. What we do now isn’t new, everything has happened before at some point, rather what we do here is contextualizing such things departing from today and the present.

When I decided that I wanted the staff to work from inside the exhibition space we were looking in the archive at this 2003 project from Luca Frei where his exhibition was to make working space in the venue. Suddenly it just made sense because someone else had been thinking the same thing before. At Index we also have a desire to bring forth positions that will be important on the international arena. Mette Edvardsen for example is such artist, and her exhibition after its run here went on to the Oslo Biennial. Chris Kraus was also an important choice for us in so far showing artists who we believe have been seminal and duly should have much more presence in art history today.

Chris Kraus, FILMS BEFORE AND AFTER, Index Foundation, 2019, photo: Emmeli Person

C-P: It was so intriguing and surprising to hear about the announcement of Chris Kraus’s exhibition. What a stroke of genius. She had obviously resurfaced greatly as a writer again with I Love Dick and I for one only learnt about her early experimental video works and foray as a visual artist through that one particular book. This is so important; scrutinizing art history and giving retroactive due to those whose legacy has been overlooked.

M.M: Her film production is amazing looking at it now, and the question to me was how it even is possible this this material has been allowed to remain so invisible. She is great writer, this we know, but her films as well are part of art history. She was trying out filmmaking in NYC, seeing her male peers succeeding while she wasn’t herself. She worked with multiple layers and extending the image as we do now with text, so her work and relationship with image is something that makes a lot more sense reviewing it in the present. This is the sort of artist we need to be observing a lot more, whether Chris or someone else. There will in fact be several more artists along the lines presented here at Index.

Roxy Farhat, Minimal kompetens, WUH-PSHHH!, Index Foundation 2019, photo: Emmeli Person

C-P: Is this "genre" of surveying art history happening nearly enough in Stockholm? I don’t get the impression that it is.

M.M: Stockholm offers a variety of venues and I feel every institution covers a few functions and realities. Index has been doing work trying to bring audiences art forgotten by the bigger institutions, since forever. My desire is that the work of someone like Chris Kraus will make part of the permanent collection at Moderna Museet since that would mean that what we are doing here is also affecting art history the way it’s carried out at the biggest defining institutions. The Chris Kraus exhibition as presented here will be moving next to San Sebastián; where it’s allowed to affect another culture and another discourse.

This dialogue that happened between Chris Kraus’s exhibition and the exhibition before of Roxy Farhat is so important because you can read Roxy through Chris and Chris through Roxy. That’s why it was also important for us to have Andrea Fraser present here for a talk together with Roxy Farhat, because that way you can highlight a genealogic condition clearly in the room. A newer artist working with performativity from a feminist point of view and Andrea Fraser having done the same thing. So, in that instance you have two generations of related artists in direct contact before an audience. The day after that public event the two of them sat together for hours and just talked using the exhibition space, with nothing being recorded. It’s important that these sorts of things can happen.

Public talk, Roxy Farhat and Andrea Fraser, tie-in with Roxy Farhat's exhibition WUH-PSHHH!, Index Foundation 2019, photo: Emmeli Person

C-P: What is the structural reality of Index like?

M.M: Index is a small institution in numbers; it is a foundation and foundation might sound glossy with an international ring to it, but Index started as an association which means there is no family or money behind it. We get funding from the Public Arts Council (Kulturrådet), the Region of Stockholm and the city (Stockholms stad) but the general annual budget for us is less than that of one big production at Moderna Museet. At the same time we do a lot and offer a very extensive program which is motivated in so far Index informing many generations, entailing several groups of people. We are aware that not all activities we program and present will always be for each and every of these groups.

C-P: Tell me about the current team at Index, you appear to be a small team with everyone surely pulling a lot of weight. M.M: Currently aside from me it’s Emmeli Person, producer and curator of learning and Jas Hinks who is our communicator and administrator. The three of us talk a lot and this is also very important; that we get to define things together as a group.

Teresa Solar, RIDE RIDE RIDE, Index Foundation 2019, photo: Johan Wahlgren

C-P: Index has what feels both very fresh as an idea but also very sympathetic and inclusive; a teen advisory board. How did come about and why?

M.M: This began when Axel Wieder was at the helm and money was granted by Arvsfonden for a certain period. The project ends after a three-year term but for me it’s important that the project continues and it feels like something that is embedded in the core of Index now. I talk a lot with this board and they are very fresh in their thinking and essentially they are the future so if we listen to them, likely we can do something that is valuable for them in the future. But for that to happen we also need to be part of the language that they are using.

C-P: As a director here as opposed to anywhere else, what would you say are your core challenges on a day-to-day basis?

M.M: Being a small institution means you must do a lot of things yourself but the machinery being not so big also means you are at the liberty of changing everything, and it is possible to reformulate the way we work if deemed necessary. There are research processes going on here that do not have to materialize in specific exhibitions. We invite artists sometimes not to exhibit but to think, telling them we are interested in their work and that we are seeking a dialogue with them for which they are compensated. That’s a beautiful thing. For us there is a lot of thinking about how to play with the before and after and the in-between.

C-P: You already mentioned that your audience consist of different groups but what would you see as your core demographic? To me Index is an advanced program which will resonate with audiences who are well-attuned with biennials and conceptual institutional art. A stretch away from many other institutions whose programming appears more “accessible” to just anyone.

M.M: In a way it’s a “secrete” institution. It’s open to everyone and it’s free for all to visit. You need to know a little bit to open the door, and yet the door is open for you, so there’s a bit of a paradox. What we do is advanced and complex and rests on a conceptual philosophy behind it. It doesn’t mean that it’s not fun, but it’s complex, and allowing for complexities is very important to me. This is what defines us in the art world. We can do things that require time for reflection and that do not have to be immediate.

Marti Manen

C-P: I guess that’s also a way of being fair and just with a certain artistic material, not to make it reductive towards an audience which would be a deception to mask certain complex layers which exist and are there.

M.M: Life is complex. We offer our visitors something, but we also expect a degree of effort from our visitors in return, in terms of how they process it. We also aspire for a reality that what happens here at Index is something that will continue to happen in the future, so there is that aspect of testing things out early which can be challenging.

C-P: Can anything be said about how Index as a smaller institution is handling this very unpredicted force majeure-like situation that we are finding ourselves in with Covid-19. What has been your approach in this?

M.M: For us it has been interesting because we have been working a lot with concepts about distribution for a year now. We have a project to carry out this year specifically about this. So we have already been analyzing various geopolitical situations. We have been asking ourselves about what the applicable formats are, how artists work today and what their goals with reach is and so on. Suddenly the world comes to a halt and everyone is struck by a need to reformulate and we have been doing that using the vocabulary tied with this research. Right now, we are open and you can visit us in the space until government requires us to close. Because we understand that there is a need for culture. We can’t just close doors and say; it’s over. No, we need spaces like this to talk and think together. We will work from home if necessary but until the very last second we want to be available for someone who needs it.

Ramesch Daha, I AM HEALTHY, I CANNOT WRITE THIS LETTER MYSELF, Index Foundation, 2020, Photo: Ashik Zaman

C-P: Lastly, this terrific exhibition by Ramesch Daha that you are presenting now. It’s such an important exhibition where an artist so generously and meticulously departing from her own history and family, narrates history that is universal to all of us. It’s so inspiring as well, seeing the hands-on dedication of an artist to present a work of so many layers that one way or another will resonate with any visitor. The choice of exhibition appears a slight departure from the recent programming, all the while of course well-seated with past trajectory. What were the considerations with this specific exhibition?

M.M: To me it was such a perfect fit for us. Also, right now we are contextually in a new political situation and place in the world where extreme far-right wing parties are taking up more and more space in politics and seeing increased visibility in society. And this, by using a certain type of language that to me is ruthless. What Ramesch is doing is bringing back history to us and using an emotional subjectivity that ultimately defines history. This serves as a counterbalance to this new brutal language in politics.

This is powerful art; we are talking about one working-class family in Vienna suffering at the hands of Nazis and Ramesch relating back to this history and trauma today. From there you can make a connection to present realities or to possible futures that could happen. Last year’s programming was very focused around performativity of identity and this pattern will continue this year as well but shifting more towards structural critique. Ramesch’s exhibition will be followed conceptually by our next exhibition which deals with the construction of the national identity of Sweden. Ramesch’s project is a very precise one to me, so full of poetry.

Ramesch Daha, I AM HEALTHY, I CANNOT WRITE THIS LETTER MYSELF, Index Foundation, 2020

The next exhibition at Index Foundation; Nathalie Gabrielsson: THE CAMPAIGN, opens April 17 and runs through June 7


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