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“It’s time to redefine the term failure”: An interview with Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon

In this feature from our spring 2012 print magazine issue, Electronic Beats’ editor-in-chief Max Dax interviews the director of London’s Tate Modern, one of the most influential people in modern art.

Chris Dercon has a vision: One day, the endlessly exploited creative class, previously divided by the supposed “uniqueness” of their endeavors, will unite against the hydra of the creative industry in protest against the insecurity of their freelance future. This might sound like the unrealistic musings of a particularly masochistic union organizer, but Dercon happens to be the director of London’s Tate Modern, one of the largest and most important art institutions in the world. In 2010, the British museum boasted some five million visitors—more than New York’s Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art combined. Since arriving in London, the former director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst and Rotterdam’s Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art has boldly recast the Tate’s focus towards dialogue with its extremely eager public. And while his anti-establishment talk might seem to contradict his very establishment walk, Dercon’s efforts have resulted in an exciting new trajectory for the Tate Modern, and a balance between big-name exhibitions like Gerhard Richter: Panorama and curating as civic discourse.


Mr. Dercon, as I was walking across the Millennium Bridge on my way to the Tate Modern to meet you, I got hungry and decided to stop off on the other side of the Thames for a quick sandwich, which turned out to be this ridiculously processed piece of food. I didn’t want to eat it in the convenient store, so I decided to sit down on a park bench facing a busy street. And then I noticed a sign on a nearby tree saying that the bench and the tree had both been sponsored by an investment bank! It was a bizarre experience, as if the simple act of eating a sandwich on a bench next to a tree was impossible without food processing plants and corporate sponsorship.

Welcome to London!

Sitting on that bench, I wondered what you would make of this new reality of sponsorship. I know you curated the federally funded Haus der Kunst in Munich before you became director of the Tate Modern, and now a huge part of your work is fund-raising, correct?

You should have walked more around the area after the bridge. Have you heard of Rem Koolhaas’ phenomenal new building for the Rothschild Bank that was built in the quarter just behind Millennium Bridge on the North Bank? Lots of people have asked me how to find it, and I always tell them how to get there, but only up to a certain point. They end up walking through streets that are documented in a normal city map, and these streets have proper street signs. But sooner or later they’ll have to stop because certain streets are private property now. In the center of London! It’s almost impossible to differentiate between private and public property in parts of this city. Rem plays a lot with this idea.

Actually, it seems like you’re thinking similar thoughts in regards to the Tate Modern, no? That is, in terms of conceiving of the institution as a social sculpture.

Well, one of Rem’s intentions was to kick off a public discussion about private and public property. This city is in a precarious social and financial state at the moment. I honestly have no idea how things will turn out.

Maybe the London riots were a kind of response to that conflict?

Actually, I think the London riots were first and foremost materially driven. People wanted plasma TVs. Coming here from a relatively cohesive society like Germany, London was a shock. The system here is built on inequality. Of course, inequality is healthy for the art market; markets prosper most in places where you’re confronted with the most perverted forms of inequality and the biggest gap between rich and poor. In a recent article in Texte zur Kunst, Andrea Fraser points out that the art market is strongest in places where incredible wealth is concentrated, like in London or in Dubai. By the way, the article got rejected from ArtForum.

You’re known for using interviews as platforms to make people aware of such societal developments. To quote you: “There are millions and millions of people […] who don’t know what social class they belong to and who can’t identify with any particular political agenda. And they’re becoming more and more. Those in power are hoping they don’t realize how many they’ve become; they’re hoping that they just continue to exploit themselves . . .” Do you think the art of modern governance lies in the skill to make the millions of members of the freelance “precariat” believe they’re only struggling for themselves individually?

I am completely aware that broaching sensitive topics like that is probably not something that’s expected from the director of a major art institution. A director’s job in the twenty-first century is not only to assume responsibility of a space for art, but also, and maybe even more so, to supposedly create a “time-slot” for art. That’s not my interest and never has been. I want to institute an institution, and this means to really create a space, to establish the conditions that fulfill particular needs and allow for certain experiences, and to make possible events in the future. This shouldn’t be equated with simply celebrating art’s “time-slot” within the larger scheme of socio-political events. I think most politicians see art as entertainment, as an expression of consensus of thought and taste, not as a form of critique. To make the impossible probable, and to celebrate the demos—that’s what I see as my task at Tate Modern, and that’s why this job is so intriguing. The Tate Modern is both sexy and democratic. You see celebrities and famous thinkers, but also groups of school kids and tourists who just arrived in London with the Eurostar . . . not to mention the twenty million visitors who use our online tools every year. And they all want something different. An exhibition like Gerhard Richter: Panorama is just one thing people want to experience amongst a host of other offerings. Curating exhibitions, selecting artists and art works; that’s one thing. Getting a message across is another. That’s why I like talking about small-scale organizations and what they can achieve.

OK, let’s talk about it. How do small-scale organizations fit into the picture?

Enthusiasm about being creative is a key aspect of self-exploitation nowadays, and that’s one of the biggest issues in an era where millions of people are freelancing. Today’s inequality is indeed unbearable. The art world is an ecosystem made up of art schools, art fairs, auction houses, galleries, museums, art publications, et cetera. And within this ecological mix, small-scale organizations become more and more important because they’re forced on the one hand to deal with so many other parts of the ecosystem and to adapt, while on the other hand still being absolutely unwavering about their mission. Most of them operate under almost impossible—I would even say unbearable—conditions. And yet they continue to operate.

You mean they are forced to operate in the face of failure?

That’s exactly why I’m interested in them. This reminds me of you, Max, because the idea of failure as an integral part of journalistic practice was a central aspect in your lecture when you spoke at the Haus der Kunst in Munich two years ago. You were stressing the idea of limitations and how to use and eventually overcome them. This was during the time when you were editor-in-chief of Spex Magazine in Germany.

That’s true. I also wasn’t getting enough sleep. I remember in an interview you said that sleep is like a currency. When you’re asleep, you can’t be exploited.

When you don’t sleep, you can become seriously ill.

But when you don’t sleep, you can also enter into a trance-like state that can trigger ideas or solutions to problems that wouldn’t have come to you otherwise. But of course, I agree that it’s important for your health.

In London, I formed a habit of sleeping more than I used to. Hans Ulrich Obrist has the opposite approach: he’s totally against sleep. But I think he’s missing something important.


For example. It’s interesting to me how children often don’t distinguish between dreams and reality.

Sometimes, the best ideas result out of accidents or dreams. For me, accepting that failure is one of the conditions of working within smaller organizations was extremely important.

It’s time to redefine the term failure—that’s what consulting agencies will tell you. The critic Jan Verwoert quotes Lacan’s interpretation of the phrase creatio ex nihilo: “To give what you don’t have to people who don’t want it.” An interesting notion in this context. When you asked me to do this interview, I immediately thought of one of your theses: “Small-scale organizations can turn into established brands.” And we’re not talking about the underground or random artists meeting and emailing project ideas from cafes around the world, because the underground doesn’t accept failure. ‘Underground’ is just another term for enthusiasm. But take a group like Common Practice—they explore new key performance indicators in order to measure the success, as well as the artistic and social value of small-scale organizations.

But after you realize what these small-scale organizations are capable of and the potential advantages of being forced to work with limitations and set backs, how do you then utilize that knowledge?

Knowledge of the redefinition of failure is like gold for management consulting firms like McKinsey, The Boston Consulting Group, or Roland Berger. They now need us because they want to understand ‘other’ ways and criteria to measure and judge the world, especially in order to tell their customers that there are millions of potential clients out there who don’t exactly know who or what they aspire to be or what kind of new products they need in order to find their identities. It’s not just about the placement of products, but about redefining what a product can be. We are talking about understanding future experiences, future events, and future needs. And that’s why they want to ‘consult’ us—the Tate Modern—pro bono. They’ve kindly offered us new tools to measure our success and prestige, not to mention the breadth of our knowledge and capabilities. But why? Because they want to use our information to help realize the goals of their real clients. In your case, Max, I think Electronic Beats Magazine could be like a think tank: not just providing creative content for the readership, but also indicating new ideas and directions for Deutsche Telekom as well.

There’s a lot of research that goes into directing the Tate Modern? How do you do it all?

I have no other option than let others do the research. Of course, I try to read a lot. One of the best publications on this topic was recently put out by the fantastic Sternberg Press—it’s called Circular Facts and it’s a kind of guide for nonbureaucratic ways of working and getting things done, in the art world and beyond. It’s really helped me to understand and to talk about the problems and possibilities of smaller organizations, which, in return, might increase the credibility of the Tate Modern’s position.

Would you say that you’re running such a large institution in a new way by letting museum-goers participate?

We are currently trying to redefine the rules of how to run a space like this. One of the funny new things I like to promote is what I call “lyrical voyeurism”—museum-goers watching each other look at art. Dare do this in a train station or an airport and you’d be arrested in a heartbeat.

That sort of observational interaction in public is getting more and more difficult these days. Tyler Brûlé, the editor-in-chief of Monocle, says that he doesn’t like the iPad because you can’t see what other people are reading anymore.

Exactly. One thing we’ve observed is that even though we have millions of real visitors, we have even more visiting us online and using our digital tools and combining them with social networks. Don’t forget: we’re now being confronted with Web 3.0, and an institution like the Tate Modern has to explore these possibilities. This is a huge challenge. If we don’t do it, others will, and most likely in a much more aggressive and commercial way.

In light of the digital freedoms of tomorrow, what does the future hold for the art world?

We are about to lose control, and I love the idea. For decades, the art world was based on the control of information. Now, information is everywhere. I like the moment in video games when you discover undefined areas or objects for which no rules exist. Like trees that remain blurred even though you’re ‘standing’ directly in front of them, or a house you can’t enter. These moments are the unprogrammed ‘spaces’ in the game. But they aren’t just digital enigmas; they might hide a completely different world that has yet to be explored.

It makes me think of when a child receives, say, a Lego helicopter as a present, but then tries to build a train with the pieces instead.

You can be sure that those children are the ones with interesting, new ideas, because they create a game within the game, independently of rules or written programs. Apply these ideas to a space like the Tate Modern and everything becomes very new and exciting. I think learning in a museum should ideally be about understanding and enhancing decision-making processes, and that’s the difference between a conventional authoritarian form of pedagogy and a constructive one.

Would you say the main challenge lies in answering the questions that are being asked by the visitors?

People ask us all kinds of questions via Twitter, via Facebook or through other social media. For example, we were asked why we didn’t officially ‘react’ to the London riots. Two weeks later, our film curator Stuart Comer put together a film retrospective and started a public debate about historical disturbances in the City of London. We see a great responsibility in taking these questions absolutely seriously.

So how do you go about answering thousands of questions?

We maybe get to work with around ten percent of the questions. But even such a low percentage already makes a difference. At the end of a month you maybe have a thousand perfect questions. And, of course, science is about asking the right questions.

What was a question that made you rethink your position on something?

“Is curating linked to the Latin term ‘curare’, i.e. ‘healing’ or is it linked to the term ‘taking care’?” I loved this question.

That is, curator as healer of society’s ills versus somebody who cares for society because they’re part of it?

Exactly. In Circular Facts, the same question also comes up. Anthony Huberman writes that his ‘small’ institute no longer practices curatorship in the form of “I know and you don’t know,” opting instead for “you should take care.” Thus, ‘how’ one does things becomes the most important part of the curating process. And the very moment we begin talking about care and responsibility, we enter the world of ideas, and we go beyond the ‘selector selects’ or ‘decider decides’ conception of curating. But it goes without saying that we still need curators to select things in order to deal with the sheer accumulation of art. Maybe there should be a ‘pre-selection’ process.

Aphex Twin famously titled one of his records I Care Because You Do . . .

When you take the questions of your audience seriously, you start to realize that an art institution can be an ideal place to get people who know something to meet people who know something else. . .

Do you remember some of the questions that were asked by visitors during the last Gerhard Richter exhibition?

“Why did Richter want to have more children at his age?” was one. The best was, “Why are older artists like Gerhard Richter so much better than most younger artists?” Of course, the vast majority of questions don’t have that sort of philosophical depth.

Did anybody ask what Gerhard Richter thinks about the banking crisis?

Another good question. He actually whispered into my ear at the press conference in London a few months ago, “Why is nobody asking about the bank crisis?” I’ve often wondered if he would be able to paint such a crisis, and how he would do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already working on an Atlas of the Deutsche Bank. I’m also extremely curious how Gerhard Richter would paint Alfred Herrhausen, Josef Ackermann, or Anshu Jain. Or Christian Wulff and his wife, for that matter. I would also like to see more of Alexander Kluge collaborating with Gerhard Richter, like with the book they did together, Dezember.

I get the impression that you’re also using this interview to encourage our readers to ask questions.

Absolutely. And let me tell you this: magazines should make sure to answer their readers’ questions, because when people understand that their questions are heard and taken seriously, it increases both the publication’s reliability and sustainability. Everything starts to grow and to blossom. And questions open up other unexpected and interesting subjects, like “Why hasn’t the Tate Modern done a Damien Hirst exhibition? Does this mean he makes bad art?”

Good question. What’s your answer?

We decided to exhibit a lot of Hirst’s early works. We want to ask ourselves and the visitors if we’re still aware of the social constellations that formed the basis of their creation. We soon realized that most people barely know Hirst’s work at all; they only know photographs of the original works, reproductions. But important aspects of his work are missing when reproduced, like smell for instance. The glass box with the rotten meat and thousands of flies indeed looks and smells absolutely dreadful, yet we’re undeniably fascinated by something so revolting. These days, his early works remind us of reality TV, but these were done years before I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Today we’re able to experience his work on many different levels, but these levels very much depend on the visitor’s imagination, his or her questions—not just on the artist’s intentions.

Let’s talk for a minute about your daily work schedule . . .

First, I should let you know that I don’t occupy the office that was used by the director before me, which was on the same floor as the curators. I preferred to move to the floor with the Visitor Experience and Learning departments. Today, the move makes perfect sense. I need to be in the epicenter of the interaction with the public.

What exactly do those departments do?

They deal with visitor’s needs, reactions and questions, as well as with education and community relations. They’re pretty big departments, actually, and they take great care in what they do and how they do it.

Have you ever worked before with such a big team?

No. This is my biggest so far.

Does your special interest in small-scale organizations ever clash with the massive structure of an institution like the Tate Modern?

No. The big picture can only be understood by analyzing its component parts. And if necessary, its atomic particles. I would say the bigger the institution, the more important it is to take care of the invisible aspects that form an organizational cloud—a semiotic chain or a rhizome—around a particular work or an exhibition. It’s the same in media and in other fields—even investment banking. The big picture is unthinkable without the smaller pieces. We are totally aware of the fact that the interactions we have with our visitors affect hundreds of smaller-scale initiatives with their own similar organizational issues. But this is the new direction of the Tate Modern, redefining the space between the visitor and the institution.

What happens to all the unanswered questions you get from visitors? Are they deleted or do they get archived?

It’s funny, because one of the key aspects of the digital age is that nothing ever really gets deleted. It’s all somewhere, and it’s a problem of massive proportions. Surely it’s one of the most significant problems of contemporary culture. How do we deal with the fact that everything is traceable? I suppose you could ask a similar question about art. What happens to all the art that never gets picked up on society’s radar?~

Photo: Luci Lux

Read the original article (as well as many other issues of EB) for free via Issuu, download the PDF at PagePlace, or pick up the magazine here.

Published April 02, 2012. Words by Max Dax.