Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev Descends on New York

by Paddy Johnson and Corinna Kirsch on October 18, 2012 · 25 comments From the Desk of AFC

One of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev's many glamour shots from the dOCUMENTA (13) press kit.

ArtReview’s Power 100 list is out, so that’s going to be a day wasted in listicle chatter. This thing isn’t any less flawed than those page-view friendly rating slideshows ArtINFO puts together twice a month but it does include one listing we think is worth raising an eyebrow over. That eyebrow goes to dOCUMENTA (13) Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who nabbed the number one slot this year. Her position warrants the rating, but given what we’ve seen recently, how she got there is anyone’s guess.

Let’s begin with those strange dOCUMENTA press photos ranging from her her peeping out from behind a tree to sporting a bizarre maniacal grin. Those were, um, weird. And now that’s she’s made several appearances in New York, at Creative Time, the New Museum, and Cooper Union, to name just a few, we can say with some authority that that weirdness wasn’t out of character. Her frenetic energy and statements about everything from neuroscience to journalism seem off the charts.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, laughing with a tree.

We witnessed her battiness firsthand at the New Museum on Sunday, when what was supposed to be a discussion between Christov-Bakargiev and art historian Terry Smith on his new book Thinking Contemporary Curating turned into the Christov-Bakargiev show. As far as stereotypes go, art types are expected to be a little odd, but Christov-Bakargiev seems to be on another planet entirely. A few of her stranger outbursts, below.

On the Brain

“I don’t agree with the fundamental premises of neuroscience, which I find are anti-philosophical… They just say philosophy is of the 20th century. There is a political danger in neuroscience.”

“One thinks not in a vacuum but only in reaction and in relation to other people thinking with, so if you are not here, we cannot do this, so we can be brain-damaged. So, thank you for being here.”

“I try to develop the right-hand side of the brain and use the left-hand side as little as possible.”

On Curating

“I would never use the word ‘curator’ to define myself and I didn’t call anyone who worked on dOCUMENTA  a curator…I actually tried to liquidate this word ‘curator’.”

“Caring and curating are actually with the same letters except that you have to take out the ‘u’ and the ‘t’ in order to make ‘caring’ from ‘curating,’ right? So then I was thinking about ‘ut’, what is ‘ut’? The reverse of ‘tu’, which is ‘you’. But ‘ut’ in Latin is “for”…”

“The narcissistic disorder of many so-called curators like myself, brings me to have never written that much about other exhibitions that have inspired me. It’s true…I don’t know, like some disease.”


“I don’t know if it was an exhibition; you tell me!”

On the Professionalism of Practice

“I think it’s part of the problem because the professionalism, for example, in the field of journalism, indicated the collapse of journalism. Now we have embedded journalists and embedded photographers who are basically lacking true powers and therefore professionalization doesn’t always mean a good thing.”


Deborah Fisher October 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm

“Um, weird?” You sound like you’re in high school, ladies!

C C-B genuinely lets her freak flag fly in a mannerist, joyless wasteland of contemporary art. Why scold her? I’d rather read a post that wonders why the art world isn’t teeming with brilliant crazy people anymore…

Paddy Johnson October 18, 2012 at 12:33 pm

You sound a little scolding yourself! There are plenty of people who use the words “Um, weird” who have graduated high school; this is a blog, so we use the language that people actually use.

But to respond to your actual criticism, I have to admit I’m not thrilled that the first woman to nab the top place seems totally crazy. That kind of instability rarely equates to actual power, and while I don’t think these lists really mean anything, I’m not convinced she’s a great representative for the work women are doing in the field either.
As to your question; I suspect we lose a few minds to fields that offer actual paying jobs, so that’s obviously an issue. But I think there are still tons of brilliant crazy people out there, because I meet them every week and that means that this job never gets boring.

Deborah Fisher October 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Touche! Let’s both resolve not to scold.

I honestly see too few crazy diamonds like CC-B, and love and respect her inability to resolve into anything simple and her refusal to fit. This feels powerful to me, and it also feels joyful. I look at a woman who is expressing power by being relentlessly herself, and I rejoice.

I didn’t mean to bag on your language choice (I get that). I meant to point to this larger way in which the art world in its entirety feels like high school, with its cliques and power lists and social rules. Shouldn’t the art world be exactly the place where CC-B can be powerful? And laugh creepily next to a tree? And say batty things, some of which are insightful and some of which are silly?

I guess I’m wondering about the premise of the article. She’s totally crazy, and she’s a woman. I think that’s GREAT. Why don’t you?

Will Brand October 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I think people should make an effort to say and believe things which are in some sense falsifiable, and ideally things which are also true.

Crazy people generally follow that logic, because they’re pretty certain of themselves and don’t see much need for vagueness. They say easily refutable things, like “George Bush is a reptile!” or “Something can take place at different times depending on where you are!” Then you can go back and figure out what they’re talking about, and sometimes they’ll be wrong and sometimes they’ll be right. Because there’s a right and wrong, you as a listener have some stake in the conversation, and something to say in response.

I don’t think CCB is crazy. If she were crazy, she would have laid out her plan to redefine curating with the self-assured pseudo-logic of a crazy person. I think she’s just grossly self-indulgent.

Imagine being in a conversation with some of these quotes. What response could there be to “I would never use the word ‘curator’ to define myself”, or to “I don’t know if it was an exhibition; you tell me”, or to “There is a political danger in neuroscience”? The only reasonable responses would be, respectively, “Why wouldn’t you?”, “Why don’t you think so?”, and “Why would you say that?” That is, you’d have to ask about her. There’s no room for an opinionated response, because she doesn’t care to explain the rules of her game to anyone else.

I guess the point is that I’ve been in enough relationships to recognize vagueness in the service of self-obsession. I use it myself, far too often; this sentence is a pretty good example of that. It’s easy, it doesn’t serve anyone else, and I don’t think people should receive any reward for it.

Reid Singer October 18, 2012 at 6:18 pm

I hope you’d apply that to the dOCUMENTA press packet photos too. The first thing I thought when I saw them wasn’t that they were weird, but that they were monumentally stupid and staggeringly vain. The art world doesn’t need to be a place that punishes people who say or do crazy things, but no one who shows such a glaring dearth of professionalism — in interviews, discussion panels, or on studio or gallery visits — belongs at the top of a list of (purportedly) accomplished, intellectually serious people.

Nicholas Knight October 19, 2012 at 10:20 am

This nails it for me. I went to her panel talk at Artists Space Books and Talks last night. Avital Ronell started it off and was very good, much better than my slightly skeptical expectations. Then the mic went to CCB, and I had to flee. Literally: I left before they ever got to Lawrence Weiner. The self-indulgence, the utter lack of discipline or preparation of any kind, drove me from the room. It’s an insult to your audience not to make some effort to, you know, have a point.

I read this post yesterday, and I was intrigued by Deborah’s defense of “crazy.” But CCB isn’t crazy. She’s intellectually lazy. I have nothing to add about whatever other talents she may bring to the role of “international curator”, which certainly requires more than intellectual acuity. But after last night I strongly suspect that she’s not where she is because of the incisive nature of her thinking.

art man October 19, 2012 at 7:02 pm

Intuition is not laziness.

Kirby Ian Andersen October 23, 2012 at 8:11 am

“vagueness in the service of self expression” = andy warhol, (perhaps also jeff koons)

Paddy Johnson October 19, 2012 at 11:02 am

From my perspective, this CCB’s particular choice of expression represents a certain kind of psuedo-intellectualism we’ve been fighting on the blog since day one. I don’t think this moves art forward. There’s no purpose to this kind of language other than to promote the idea that the person using it is smarter than you, and that happens at the expense of artists. If I’m an artist, do I want CCB representing the ideas in my work? Based on what I’ve seen, absolutely not.

art man October 19, 2012 at 7:00 pm

You are not an artist nor do you speak for artists.

Christina McPhee October 20, 2012 at 3:23 am

ha! i felt that way when i listened to an early lecture (2011) by CCB at the CCA in SF…. she talked about lost libraries and the lost archive as a genre, having just erased the entire d12 magazine project!

awarmlight October 18, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I have to say that I’m desperate for some context on some of those quotes. As stand alone quotes they don’t make her look crazy, they make her look ignorant. Considering her position, I find that to be unlikely, or regrettable.

JD Siazon October 18, 2012 at 10:28 pm

To actually fathom the extensive commercial mechanics which inflate the Power 100 list into being one must first acknowledge that the so-called “art world” doesn’t even exist. In grisly strides to erect an inert but infinitely profitable market some investors risk gargantuan stakes at not only attempting to uphold an illusory “art world” but systematically abstracting it ad infinitum so that the more people buy into the illusion the more sustained and pervading the illusion becomes.

Currently what constitutes the alleged “art world” are unequivocal social relationships each vested with a multitude of differentiating and sometimes overlapping cachets widely ranging from economic to nominal to sexual to cultural among possibly others. The ostensible premise of the “art world” though is that of unselfish banded creatives promulgating elevated culture of all sorts which obviously cannot be any further from the truth.

With a bogus premise which has never been subjected to rigorous questioning and examination the holistic and very much naive idea of a singular “art world” can go quite a long way to serve monied interests.

Once a person frees themselves of the spiritually and mentally beguiling concept that the “art world” exists it then becomes very interesting and rather comically unnerving to digest such fickle lists as the Power 100 while ruminating to ourselves what goal is it actually accomplishing and yet more poignantly what goal such as cultural advancement is it aggressively withstanding to promote at all?

danpito October 24, 2012 at 8:26 am

I would like to explain the reason of
my criticisms to C.C.B. The point is that Bakargiev was active for
years in one of the richest (!) institutions of contemporary art in
Italy, the Castello di Rivoli (Turin) as chief curator and director.
Bakargiev’s “style” bears all the features of many Italian
critics that have made this country a very difficult place for an
independent artist: unrestrained narcissism and self-promotion that
put the role of the artist in the background; absence of aesthetic
sense that have been replaced with exhausting intellectualism
administered in such doses as to daze the observer; incapacity of
starting from the work of art to understand the art: it is instead
used as an illustration and a visual appendix by Mr. So-and-so
academic critic. But, the cunning conjurer on the one hand puts on a
show and confuses the spectator whilst on the other hand she puts
into practice old tricks. During the C.C.B-years, the Rivoli was part
of a chain called “Museo senza centro”, seemingly a project to
promote “young art”, but actually a chain of museums aimed to
give space to a list of artists called “Italian Area” chosen by
Angela Vettese (who works with Bakargiev for a newspaper and who has
been severely criticized for her conflict of interests and her absurd
articles), Bertola, Farronato, Scardi. Some of the Italian artists
invited to Documenta belong to the Italian Area database.

CCB’s husband page in Italian Area database:
“The good the bad…”

G. H. Rabbath October 25, 2012 at 11:32 am

I had the opportunity to meet Carolyn, and Chus Martinez (who clearly seemed the theoretical wind beneath Carolyn’s curatorial wings) back in Beirut at Ashkal Alwan Academy, for the presentation of the 100 Notebooks projects, and got to document part of what happened when Canadian art historian and writer Stephen Wright asked a question that brought all the barrage of words and concepts crumbling down, and the two of them scrambling to pick up the pieces again.

I ended up giving a talk at the same place (but not at the same height mind you, since when they gave their talk they were elevated on a 30cm high platform) and I imagined being right underneath the two, carrying them on each shoulder in a ‘cheek to butt-cheek’ configuration, but anticipating that the weight difference would make Chus fly accross the room.

Anyway the narrative is on

danpito November 15, 2012 at 9:54 am

From what you said and looking around the forums, I realize that few people know anything about CCB, Castello di Rivoli Museum, the daily newspaper “Il Sole 24 Ore”, “Italian Area”, Italian art-lobbies, “Museo Senza Centro” affaire, etc…
Documenta 13? All that theoretical confusion has been useful to give out opinions on any matter – of which she lacks synthesizing skill – and to give a lot of space to one of the artists who had already exhibited at the Rivoli: an artist of Arte Povera, a current not conceived by CCB, but mainly referable to Turin, the city of the Rivoli museum.
After graduation, Christov-Bakargiev moved to Rome and began to write as an art critic for daily newspaper “Il Sole 24 Ore”. It’s important to learn how to read between the lines so that you can avoid being tricked by manipulated contemporary-art articles published in “Il Sole 24 Ore”.
A recent controversial article by Angela Vettese: she wrote 1 very offending piece against Paparoni and Kapoor in the Italian newspaper.
Here Paparoni reaffirms his freedom of thought and action:

gregorg October 20, 2012 at 12:30 am

I find it extraordinary and really depressing the scope and tone of the criticism being leveled at CC-B here. And I’m not talking about the crazy thing, either. It’s the apparent pervasiveness of this paradigm of “professionalism” and the set of norms that come with it, from Will’s expectation of a logical, rationalist dialogue, to this notion of an “utter lack of discipline,” to Paddy’s complaint centered on CC-B’s representations of women “in the field.”

There is absolutely no doubt that CC-B’s most potent form of communication is not formalized public speaking: not a lecture; a panel discussion; a 7-minute pechakucha at Creative Time; or for that matter, a packed international media preview of her show. She utterly defies normal expectations in these formats, or is incapable of adopting them, or is unable/unwilling to accommodate them.

But to make the jump from that to calling her “pseudo-intellectual,” “intellectually lazy,” or “self-obsessed,” that the purpose of complexity is solely to assert her own superiority; or a whole host of other even more dubious projections and psychojudgments, willfully ignores the overwhelming reality of her singular accomplishment: documenta13 itself. [Which is literally only referenced here in terms of her press photos. And, no, I have no idea, either.]

A massive, sprawling, multi-year program/exhibition which she was instrumental in creating and realizing. [Obviously not alone, and obviously deeply reliant on the visions and managerial talents of many others, but still. I don’t hear anyone saying she is unfairly stealing credit for d13.]

The fact that she can put on an exhibition of that scale, with its programs and publications and the complexity of ideas underlying it, that is empirically impossible for one person to see, much less process, much less explain before the sitar player chases her off the stage, and that she then gets tarred as “lazy” and “self-obsessed”? I’m sorry, but that is bullshit.

Watch the last 2min of the CTS talk again where she starts riffing on each slide; she has that down cold, and she connects to every single thing without taking a breath. It’s bonkers and overwhelming and invigorating and unbelievable. Should she get media training? Take a class in socratic dialogue at the learning annex? Get Massimiliano Gioni to pretend he’s her for lectures? Maybe, but maybe we who are highly engaged and interested in art, ideas, and expression, should just roll with it because HOLY CRAP, PEOPLE, dOCUMENTA 13.

ChristopherM October 20, 2012 at 11:34 am

‘It’s the apparent pervasiveness of this paradigm of ‘professionalism’ and the set of norms that come with it….”

“She utterly defies normal expectations in these formats, or is incapable of adopting them, or is unable/unwilling to accommodate them.”

“But to make the jump [….] that the purpose of complexity is solely to assert her own superiority; or a whole host of other even more dubious projections and psychojudgments….”

“…. Maybe, but maybe we who are highly engaged and interested in art, ideas, and expression, should just roll with it ….”

Really enjoyed your comment, gregorg … these were a few of my favorite excerpts. I didn’t see documenta13, have never seen CC-B speak beyond that CTS clip you referenced (scattered all over the place, but not bad … just rushed), so I don’t have anything to add to that. Maybe she’s done much worse, I don’t know – I’ve seen really talented artists just tragically bomb in the speaking arena so maybe that’s my bias.

When this attitude of ‘what a pro is’ is so pervasive that people react to a ‘weirdo’ in this way – especially arts writers (this looks like misplaced certainty and maybe too much uniformity in my opinion) – this can’t be a good thing for the arts or for artists in general. Is CC-B a bigger threat than letting that attitude/those expecations shape our judgment too much? I’m departing from the CC-B topic because I don’t really know anything at all about her, for real, but I think there are more widely applicable things in all this anyway.

It is quite possible that we can teach a dog to be a professional in some respects (I think its already been done, figuratively speaking) … so it might be worth looking deeper than these things at the same time. It seems like media-savvy, public-speaking skills, and other sorts of superficial social apps have taken way too big of a slice of what folks are paying attention to. I don’t think it should have the kind of dominance that these comments appear to suggest. Of course, its just the comments … the real world is even bigger, so no worries I hope. Personally, I take comfort in that thought. Sorry for basically just repeating gregorg’s sentiments all over, but whatever.

Paddy Johnson October 21, 2012 at 9:47 am

Yeah, DOCUMENTA 13 is a big fucking deal, and I think you’re right to say that was probably unfairly sidelined in this piece.

With that said, I don’t agree with everything you’re laying out here, particularly the idea thrown out over twitter, that we ragged on this talk because it didn’t look like a TED talk. I ragged on CC-B’s presentation skills because as an ambassador for art, I don’t think she’s doing a very good job in that medium. As one of the art world’s most visible figures, that has real consequences. It furthers the idea that art is this inaccessible mystery that only an anointed few have the ability to interprete, alienates new audiences and makers alike, and stifles meaningful conversation.

And so, while I agree that the two minutes CC-B spent talking about dOCUMENTA 13 demonstrated impressive knowledge, I don’t think it’s unfair to also observe that nearly 80 percent of the time she was allotted was wasted.

Now, at this point, it’s worth mentioning that at least 50 percent of my income comes from the presentations I give, so I’m likely to have a stronger opinion about this than most about the relevance of CC-B’s speaking skills. I think that vested interest is important. Every field needs their own advocates, and any conversation is going to look narrow without a range of voices. So frankly, I’m not depressed about this conversation, and that’s in part, because I think you’ve made it better.

Corinna Kirsch October 19, 2012 at 10:40 am

What’s funny is that we actually never wrote that she’s “crazy.” It’s also funny that there’s all these stories, like yours, popping out of the woodwork about this line of thought that looks like nothing other than “intellectual laziness.” That’s a great way to describe the problem: we expect a little better from people actively engaged with the art world, and it’s not limited to CCB. Also, sorry you had to miss Lawrence Weiner.

Nicholas Knight October 19, 2012 at 10:57 am

From the original post: “bizarre maniacal grin” / “off the charts” / “battiness” / “on another planet entirely” / “stranger outbursts”

Then from Paddy’s comment: “the first woman to nab the top place seems totally crazy” / “instability” / “tons of brilliant crazy people out there”

Sorry, I don’t mean to be a total pedant, but that more or less sounds exactly like you’ve called her crazy.

The first time I read your comment to me, I thought you were accusing me of “intellectual laziness” for popping out of the woodwork with exactly that accusation. But on the second (and third) read, you’re not accusing me of that right? You’re acknowledging that it’s a judgment appropriately applied to CCB, right?

Again, sorry if this makes me come off as a pedantic putz, to clarify these things.

Did you happen to see Weiner? The one comment that he did make while CCB was yodeling on made my wife deeply concerned that Feminism would be under fire from all angles once Avital sat down.

Paddy Johnson October 19, 2012 at 11:07 am

Well, it’s not in the post, and that’s not an accident. That’s not to say that the suggestion isn’t there, but without those pictures, I think it might be a little more understated.

Corinna Kirsch October 19, 2012 at 11:14 am

I liked your comment and your description of other peoples’ “intellectual laziness”! I think it’s a better description than “crazy”. I didn’t see Weiner, but I’ve heard he’s great.

Paddy Johnson October 19, 2012 at 7:12 pm

If you’re comfortable having CCB represent your work all the power to you.

art man October 20, 2012 at 8:55 am

You are good at manipulating other people’s words, congratulations on that.

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