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A roundtable discussion on non-participation

The Museum of Non-Participation is not, in any sense of the word, a familiar breed of museum. Since its very beginning, it has repudiated the usual features—both physical and structural—of that venerated, much contested institution: its white walls, its gallery attendants smiling politely, its fixed location, its entry tickets, its language, its complex relationship with commerce. An ambitious conceptual construct, the ‘museum’ founded by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler is in a constant state of flux, an adaptable and open-ended project that is always active and alive. Its first expression, or staging, was in East London in 2009, in a room tucked behind a Pakistani barbershop. Inside, the artists launched a discursive program. The space became a library. A cinema. A training-ground for those who wanted to learn the Urdu language for free. It was a site for meetings and workshops and for new conceptions of how artworks and their audiences could intersect. Now, more than half a decade later, Mirza/Butler will introduce their gesture to Sydney—curiously, perhaps—under the program of the 2016 biennale. In this roundtable discussion with the artists and two prominent curators, we tease out ideas of non-participation and how they might play out across a new site.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator, 2014, video still

Meet the roundtable participants:

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler are London-based multidisciplinary artists who have been working together since the late 1990s. They were nominees for Artes Mundi 6, and have exhibited recently at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and Istanbul Modern. Their body of work, The Museum of Non-Participation, has been unfolding since 2009.

Stephanie Rosenthal is the artistic director of the 2016 Biennale of Sydney. Since 2007, she has been chief curator at the Hayward Gallery in London. Before this, Rosenthal was curator for modern and contemporary art at Munich’s Haus der Kunst.

Alexie Glass-Kantor is the executive director of Artspace Visual Arts Centre in Sydney and the curator of Encounters at Art Basel Hong Kong. She was previously the director and senior curator of Gertrude Contemporary.

Laura Bannister, the roundtable host, is the editor in chief of Museum.

MUSEUM I know that you—Karen and Brad—have worked with Stephanie previously [for the group show MIRRORCITY] at Hayward. Let’s talk about the genesis of this project, the Embassy of Non-Participation and how you all came together as various players, facilitators, artists and curators.

STEPHANIE ROSENTHAL I don’t know how much you want to know about the ‘Embassies of Thought’—that’s the general structure of the biennale and that’s where the Embassy [of Non-Participation] arrives from. There are several Embassies of Thought and the Embassy of Non-Participation is one of them. Most of the themes I have were discovered by doing studio visits and feeling the urgency artists had about, let’s say, the theme of disappearance, the theme of thinking about perception of reality, how we read historical things or translation.

I’d always [wanted] to include something in the biennale that dealt with resistance. It wasn’t a theme that came up forcefully during studio visits; more something I felt needed to exist, [behaving] almost like an irritation. I thought about doing an embassy of resistance, but it just wasn’t right: firstly, it’s a paradox, but [it’s also a loaded phrase] suggesting that whatever I did would have to be a really big thing.

I can’t remember if I was inspired by The Museum of Non-Participation or if I thought about non-participation and then thought back to Karen and Brad … We started to explore it together. When I spoke to Alexie [Glass-Kantor, director of Artspace] proposing an exhibition about alternative structures, she said, “No, I really want to have an exhibition, I don’t want to just have discussions or talks or performances. I want to have a visual presence.” So that actually was the shift in my thinking. Why not invite artists to work with me on it instead of programming talks and performances? So the idea moved from alternative structures to non-participation, and then Brad, Karen and I—and also Anna Gritz who’s one of the attachés—had a lot of discussions about alternative structures … I guess we’re still exploring it, how we’re going to deal with that embassy.

ALEXIE GLASS-KANTOR Artspace has been a venue for the biennale for 25 years. These partnerships and collaborations with curators are a way of [enabling] different set of relationships for us. As Stephanie mentioned, she came to us and I thought her idea of the embassies—these refracted sites that oscillate across the city as situated propositions—was a really interesting one. Alternate structures are something we deal with daily within our own framework: that of an independent Kunsthalle studio, a production and presentation space …

The question of non-participation was a really important one for Artspace. At the last biennale, issues emerged around complicity of public and private money, of funding, of Australia’s position on mandatory detention as a human rights violation, and on the choice of [some] artists in the last biennale not to boycott, but to not participate … In our community this was a discussion that happened very much on the ground. The space of speculation that unfolds in Karen and Brad’s work (through a number of different currencies that look at agency) was really interesting [in this context].

ROSENTHAL I think Karen and Brad should say something! But one thing I forgot to mention is that I always try to bring the themes and the venue together. Artspace felt like the right place to do this—just because of the history of the building, of being a gunnery and then being an artists’ squat and being in Woolloomooloo, an area which raises questions of gentrification. What happened to the [early] community there? What has it been? What is it now? These frictions in the area made it the right venue to think about resistance in a very broad way.

This is a reference to the artist boycott of the Biennale of Sydney in 2014, after a major sponsor, Transfield, was revealed as a contractor involved in Australia’s offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

I guess we should talk about the Transfield incident. It was two years ago. For me, thinking of resistance wasn’t really related to that [specific] act. What interests me is how can someone resist through their art? How do artists resist in a peaceful way, and how does that cross over into other areas? I think Karen and Brad are some of the most convincing practitioners because they are present in both areas—they are visual artists but at the same time they live the life of activists. The two go hand in hand which, for me, made it feel right to have them involved. It’s obviously quite a risky thing, to engage one collective to talk about such a big theme. I don’t think they [believed] they had to make a big statement though.

GLASS-KANTOR Can I just add one more question in quickly? [Laughs] And then you can talk, Karen and Brad. I was just going to say that, for us, what happened with the biennale two years ago changed the way we approached rethinking Artspace and rethinking our program, rethinking how we communicate, how we work, and what we do in order to provide platforms for artists to lead with ethical forms of resistance or non-participation. And so having this relationship with Karen and Brad and getting to know them through this platform really fit with where we’d been reflecting … with things we haven’t really been able to speak about in the past 18 months ourselves.

KAREN MIRZA It’s very interesting when we start to hear each other and listen to each other, because we all have our own vested interests. To respond to Stephanie first: [many years ago Brad and I] started to think about withdrawal and what withdrawal could be, what it could look like within life, but also within artistic practice. I feel these two things are domains that have their own atmosphere and juridical frames and boundaries, but they’re also spheres that are completely and utterly connected. So I’ve never really separated the two.

For myself, non-participation was a real articulation and crisis around political subjectivity. [It was about] the proximity of cultural space and cultural production as sites that are difficult and problematic because of all of the forces of instrumentalisation, infiltration. These are big words but they’re words that feel like the neoliberal, political project of late capitalism that we live in, in every centre, there’s no outside. We live within. The question emerged, how do I withdraw from certain systems and structures that I reproduce but actually don’t want to perpetuate? That’s where non-participation came from as a concept, it came in its etymology from us standing in a [foreign] place but reflecting back on our lives in the UK. So it has a long, long line of engagement with imperialism, with colonial projects, with modernity, with the violence of institution-making that comes from our own histories of being British subjects.

When you talked about alternative structures, Stephanie, and it’s interesting how [Brad and I have] held these spaces of autonomy which have been completely co-dependent. We talk about the praxis of a collective space—for instance, we’re a duo and we’re also a collective [Butler and Mirza founded the artist project space ‘’ 10 years ago] —and these spheres inform each other as process, methodology, community and artistic research. We are now literally in the process of modeling, we’ve already set up our study group asking ourselves the question, ‘How can we create a different infrastructure, an [alternative] model by which we can organise a different cultural, social, political family wherein we can live that political dimension through everything?’ For us, being a collective, being a not-for-profit in this neoliberal era has come at a cost to our psyches, to our nervous systems and to our bodies, to the extent that we are absolutely, categorically saying, ‘Enough. We are not going to perform, we are not going to work under those conditions and we are looking to seek a real alternative.’

“[We] started to think about withdrawal and what withdrawal could be, what it could look like within life, but also within artistic practice. I feel these two things are domains that have their own atmosphere and juridical frames and boundaries, but they’re also spheres that are completely and utterly connected.”

Karen Mirza

We are not the only artists having this conversation, so are a lot of our friends and our peers. We are all looking at how to exist when we basically feel like the state—the British state, and the erosion of the welfare state and the kind of attitudes towards non-commercial, critical and political aesthetic innovation, questions and risks, all those things that we push for— are being increasingly wedded to private capital. At the same time, we are not ideologically drawn to the market. How can we create a space that exists between the state and the free market? So we’re looking at collectivising co-ops, we’re looking at cultural workers’ co-ops or housing, we’re thinking about care. We’re thinking about commune-building basically. [Laughs] We’ve actually started to make some drawings. It’s a crazy project where can we take our skills, our training, our political subjectivity, our creativity. At the same time, it’s not just a refuge or retreat. For us, this has to be a political project.

BRAD BUTLER Laura, I think it would be crazy if I also answered your initial question as well, wouldn’t it?

MUSEUM It might be crazy. We can move on.

ROSENTHAL But I think it might be interesting to hear more about The Museum of Non-Participation, no?

MUSEUM I agree. And I want to know how that museum will translate into Artspace itself on a very practical level. What the program will look like.

BUTLER So, we deal with a lot of long research threads. When it came to an opportunity like working with Artspace and the biennale, we really sat there and thought about which parts of the practice we’re going to make visible, which ideas. For Artspace, we’ve drawn out very recent works. The thematic of patriarchy will run through the whole exhibition. It won’t hit you over the head. It’s not explicit. It’s a constant subtext—as it is in society.

The first room you’ll enter will feel like a transition space, almost like a portal into this Embassy of Non-Participation and, hopefully, the soundwork which envelopes you as you walk in will—for want of a better phrase—reset your chakras. It will set you up with a different attitude, separate to all these feelings and pressures and things we bring from our lives. You’ll be met with a choice as to which direction to head into the exhibition. The whole space has been [organised into] what we call Möbius strips, or infinity loops—think of that image of the snake eating its own tail. If you head to the left, you enter an immersive space where the female body is the site of resistance, works demonstrating how to protest intelligently and some other politically and personally intimate works. If you head into the right space, you’ll enter something that we’re going to produce on-site, locally. I can’t speculate as to what that work will be quite yet, but it will be in relation to a work concerned with the terrorist body. It’s a work we made recently. We call it The Unreliable Narrator and it looks at the specific historical events where men (in particular) choreographed a very violent situation. How from the situation a number of different forces came into being, each trying to narrate how this situation should exist in our language, our minds, our psychology and ultimately our bodies. So the exhibition will work from the ground up, trying to move towards languages of resistance as well as from the top down, where it will start to talk about the conditions of permanent emergency we are living in.

GLASS-KANTOR Hearing Brad describe the work is really lovely because he’s the only one here who hasn’t been to Artspace at this point—Artspace is a fictional location in many ways. It’s a vector. Karen actually came and undertook a two-week residency [last] September, which was terrific. I met with Karen and Stephanie in London—Brad was overseas at the time, learning Arabic in the Middle East. So Brad sort of logged-in instead. They’d created this render of the space, as they saw it laid out, and this idea of the Duchampian choice, this moment of decision for the audience.

MUSEUM What kind of expectations—outside of this very physical choice—does the embassy place upon its audience? Are you hoping for certain relationships to develop between them and the work?

MIRZA Our practice involves taking up different ways of speaking to different locations of power. It’s not as grandiose as it sounds—it can also refer to power [machinations] that are really, really incidental and small. We’re all vested in power relations; we’re all vested in those dynamics on some level. When we worked with Stephanie at Hayward we had one pre-existing video work and we created a new work that was in dialogue with it. But also as part of the commission, we asked for a certain part of the budget to be unaccounted for to set up the ‘ectoplasm of neoliberalism’ study group. This group met in the actual belly of the institution, in this amazing set of tunnels underneath the Southbank Centre. And the reason I’m saying that is because each time we were trying to have a conversation about what it means to inhabit and speak about resistance and resilience—but speaking about it from within almost the bowels of the institution and meeting as a group of artists, activists, revolutionary fugitives, however we wanted to think of ourselves—we were actually starting to activate these practices and conversations between each other that had only this process and didn’t have an outcome. It was one durational conversation. We later took the conversation to the Thames Beach and invited the philosopher Howard Caygill, and between high tide and low tide began building another space of thinking and activating. And I suppose that in building these spaces of thinking and activating at Artspace, we’re bringing the more invisible parts of our practice into this infinity loop. We’re going to be operating across different registers.

BUTLER But the question was about what expectations does the embassy place on its audience, Karen? You’re almost there but the question is in relationship to the audience.

MIRZA Expectations? I find the word ‘expectations’ really challenging, you know. As a maker, I’m part of the audience so what I’m trying to articulate is that there will be things which [you don’t see] …

BUTLER Can I help with it a little bit? The reason that there’s a long reply to this question is that we’re really trying to work on art not as a process of commodification for signs, but as a lack of connections. And so the expectation we go in with is, ‘Are we able to choreograph the work and all the other things around the work, including the space and who it reaches into forming new connections?’ Or, at least, can we expose connections that are there, but are sometimes ignored or not in focus? We have to research extensively to build a whole map of the different implications so as not to get this horribly wrong. The risk involved is key here. Our desire is that the audience would be open to this process of risk that we put together and may form connections that we’re not even seeing.

ROSENTHAL One of the strengths of your work is that you combine an intellectual and conceptual way of working with a very intuitively body-led way of working. When you’re describing how someone walks through your shows, it flips between these two feelings. On one hand, the work of Mirza/Butler is very “in the head” but on the other hand, I guess that’s where an ectoplasm becomes important—the works speak to and through the body. And therefore it’s so difficult to describe one of their shows because it really goes through the body and it’s choreographed in a very specific way,

MIRZA That’s why it’s so brilliant. You can feel my struggle [to speak about the embassy] but then Brad very beautifully articulates it. That’s why, as he said, we’ve been working together for 20 years.


MIRZA But your description is beautiful Stephanie. The work is very heady and conceptual, but it’s from the body to speech. It’s a very embodied [experience]. When our work was installed at the Hayward, there were two young girls and they both had different headphones on but they were in the video [installation] for like an hour. They were basically trying to perform the gestures that our protagonist Anna Maria was doing. When I hear those sorts of stories, of that kind of level of engagement with a video, it’s like ‘Wow!’

BUTLER The reason we struggle with the question is that it’s a really problematic. I’ll just give you two examples as to why it’s dangerous for us when you ask us about audience expectations. We made a film called Deep State and we showed it in one academic context in the United States and they came back to us and said what a violent film it was—extraordinarily violent—and how oppressed they felt by it. The film itself was created very carefully by us so as not to freeze the revolution that was ongoing at the time in Egypt. The interesting thing, in terms of expectation, is that when we showed it back in Egypt in 2012, the room full of revolutionaries in the struggle told us ‘Your film’s not violent enough, it’s not even close to capturing the pressure on our bodies.’

The difference between those two [reactions] is a very challenging place to be for a work. Another example: you’ll see in our biennale installation is a work where you have a protagonist attempting to teach a language of resistance whilst struggling to speak. Now, that’s become an important work for us and yet we would sit there in Brixton in 2013 and face a quite-right question from an audience member saying, ‘Who are you to give us a black hero?’ These ambiguities about what you can and can’t say and where you place yourself and who you’re speaking to and what your expectation is in relation to an imagined audience [pause] … it’s the place where you gain praise and you get punished. So we can’t think [about the audience] in those terms.


Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Everything for everyone and nothing for us, 2014, video

MIRZA Who’s the ‘we’ in the audience?

BUTLER Yeah, who’s the ‘we’ in the audience? The moment we go in that direction I think the work will lose its dynamism.

MUSEUM You become prescriptive.

BUTLER Yeah. And a good team around us, like the one we have here, will do everything they can to make that not happen, but still keep us informed. You have to build a team around you that you trust and work with them.

GLASS-KANTOR Laura asked a question about how we formed a language for this collaboration. The process of developing the Embassy of Non-Participation was very challenging in the beginning. It can be to articulate the most simple of parameters. You’re often talking about the nuances of where things sit. At what point do certain things iterating in space create obstructions or occlusions? At what point are presumptions or assumptions creating a different space of encounter?

You’ve begun a vocabulary for locating this project locally, using ongoing concerns in your work such as historical mapping. You’ve been thinking about Woolloomooloo and how it’s been restructured or occupied over time, examining the sourcing of historical documentation and [approaching] the location as a threshold through the military docks, squatters and gentrification, and also through the Green Bans movement. At the moment we’re trying to work out how to give you enough support through the structures we have to facilitate a depth of engagement that has agency.

BUTLER One of the reasons we accepted this invitation from Stephanie was precisely because of the relationship of boycotts and withdrawal to the concept of non participation. We see them as three circles of a Venn diagram. They overlap but are not the same thing. They have different histories, different genealogies. Working with all three is a multiplicity of form that allows for a range of possibilities for resistance. We want to think about this intersectionality on site.

ROSENTHAL I feel it would be good to talk about how we perceive the relationship between The Museum of Non-Participation and the embassy—and how Karen and Brad felt about dealing with an invitation like that [to negotiate the work].

MUSEUM I think that’s an interesting question. Something I’m interested in is how important is a connectedness to Australia and its geopolitics is here: the vitriol around asylum seekers, the situation on Manus and Nauru, the rather cold positions of both the centre left and right federally in regards to the refugee crisis. There’s so many issues that relate directly to elements of your work here. I wonder how integrated or important they are to the embassy.

MIRZA There’s many parts to your question. The question about how we work with and selectively develop invitations—I’d say this is the second time we’ve had an invitation where our peripatetic and nomadic project, which is an institutional framework without the walls, has been invited into a greater or larger institutional framework. The first time we were invited to be in a show about artists’ museums at the Arnolfini [in Bristol]. Being collected by an institution, or being inhabited within it, is a very challenging context. The question of agency and autonomy is really questioned.

MUSEUM Certainly.


Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, How to protest intelligently, 2013, drawing, ink and pencil on paper, 9*21×29.5 cm

MIRZA So the biennale, which is the largest institutional structure or framework for us to be working in is extremely challenging. And I feel like when Stephanie talked about risk, she referred to the risk of inviting one collective to articulate one embassy of thought. There’s also a huge risk to our practice to actually take up the invitation.

The 20th Biennale of Sydney ‘The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed’ runs from 18 March to 5 June. Mirza/Butler’s Embassy of Non-Participation will occupy Artspace Visual Arts Centre for the biennale’s duration.

All of the things that you’ve mentioned that are firmly within the context of Australia, of Australia’s relationship to Europe and the geopolitical, all of those things we’re talking about with bodies, refugees, detention and the new market of the privatised, detained body … [Pause] We started the project in 2007-8 in Karachi, Pakistan, and I felt when I came to Australia that this [place] was so important. I said to Brad, intuitively, “This is as important to us as when we went to Karachi for possibly the opposite reasons.” And, in a sense, I feel like being on the ground and working through all of these complexities is not only where the new work will come from, but it’s going to afford us the research and the depth that’s going to be the serpent’s tail, it’s the circle on this project. I actually feel that when we close the biennale project, we will be ending a period of a good eight years of thinking through The Museum of Non-Participation. So it’s going to be a beginning and a closure for me. This is about completing an act that didn’t have a timeframe. Australia wasn’t a place that I chose as a destination. I feel like the invitation and the destination have chosen us to complete the circle. I think the time that we’re on the ground [will provide] closure on one body of thought in development over so many different geographies—Cairo, Karachi, the US, London, Germany and finally Sydney. It’s going to bring a lot of these threads together. But it’s also going to create a kind of parentheses because it’s also going to produce something more. We’re already having ideas that we know are going to come out of the residency. There will be trace of these in the exhibition, but we’ll go on to develop them over the next two, three, four or five years. We know how important Karachi was to our practice. That’s where this embassy concept, and our practice, and Artspace, and the geopolitics, the military and corporate gentrification and welfare [intersect], all of those struggles, and the history of the biennale—I mean I’ve been reading about the boycotts of 1976 and everything—

MUSEUM I think that’s a really nice conclusion to our discussion.


Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator, 2014, video still


Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator, 2014, video still


Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Everything for everyone and nothing for us, 2014, video


Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, How to protest intelligently, 2013, drawing, ink and pencil on paper, 9*21×29.5 cm

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