Art In Conversation
HANS HAACKE with Yasi Alipour
“Museums are being challenged by activists over a number of issues. And there is a new opening for diversity.”
New Museum’s Hans Haacke: All Connected finally brings to New York a comprehensive retrospective of the nearly six decades of the artist’s defiant practice. Haacke has played such a pivotal role in giving way to what we may now call political art that it is hard to believe it has taken so long. The following is a generational conversation that only became possible through his generosity.
New York CityNew Museum
October 24, 2019 – January 26, 2020
I am warmly greeted to Hans Haacke’s apartment. We sit in his office, surrounded by his enormous library. He begins by asking me about the uprisings and unrests that were in that moment unraveling in my home country, Iran. From there, we begin to travel throughout his practice: interconnectedness, systematic thinking, censorship, institutions, political trauma, history, and the courage required to tell the truth. What comes to the surface over and over again is Haacke’s unique urgency, deep sense of responsibility, and sincere commitment. As we get ready to wrap up, he gets up. Knowing exactly where he is heading among his hundreds of books, he shows me a nearly forgotten piece, Everlasting Gratitude (1978). A year before the Iranian revolution, he made the piece in support of the rising people by objecting to those financing the Shah’s brutal crackdown. So, I get a rare chance to thank an artist for his practice. For not only being proof that there are ways to truly observe, engage with, respond to, and initiate conversations about the intricacies of art, money, politics, linguistics, geography, and history. But for never ceasing to put the people, all the people, to the forefront.
Yasi Alipour (Rail): So, to get us started, I want to refer to a letter you wrote in April of 1968 to Jack Burnham. You often talk about how the events of that year changed your work. But the words you wrote in the heat of it all are so moving, especially in our current political moment:
Last week’s murder of Dr. King came as a great shock. Linda and I were gloomy for days and have still not quite recovered. The event pressed something into focus that I have known for long but never realized so bitterly and helplessly, namely that what we are doing, the production and the talk about sculpture, has no relation to the urgent problems of our society. Whoever believes that art can make life more humane is utterly naïve. Mondrian was one of those naïve saints… Nothing, but really absolutely nothing is changed by whatever type of painting or sculpture or happening you produce on the level where it counts, the political level. Not a single Napalm bomb will not be dropped by all the shows of ‘Angry Art’. Art is utterly unsuited as a political tool. No cop will be kept from shooting a black by all the light environments in the world. As I’ve said, I’ve known that for a number of years, and I was never really bothered by it. All of a sudden it bugs me. I am also asking myself, why the hell am I working in this field at all. Again, an answer is never at hand that is credible, but it did not particularly disturb me. I still have no answer, but I am no longer comfortable.1
Your New Museum retrospective All Connected became an excuse for us to do this interview. Except the early kinetic and system-oriented work, the rest of the show is of what followed these words: 51 years of politically-conscious work. I keep going back to parts of that letter and how they’ve stayed alive throughout your practice, the commitment to “the urgent problems of our society” and to remain “disturbed,” or at least “no longer comfortable”.
Hans Haacke: This was, of course, a moment when I realized that the things I was doing, did not take into account our social and political world, what we were going through. I don’t disavow my early works that are currently shown on the second floor of the New Museum. But the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. acted as a bell telling me, “Hey, there is also something else.”
Rail: And you’d seen so much before too. You spent your early childhood under Nazi Germany. You moved to Kassel in 1956, bringing you close to East Germany. Then you worked at the Documenta II there and saw the surge of Abstract Expressionism—and as you later realized CIA’s involvement. You had moved to Paris by the time of the 1961 Paris massacre—attacking the protestors supporting the Algerian war of independence. And after a few years of living between United States and Germany, by 1967, you had returned to New York, teaching at Cooper Union (where you continued until 2002). You had been a witness to so much of the political trauma of those years.
Haacke: I think it’s important to note that I grew up in Germany during the war, that I witnessed what was going on there, although as a child I didn’t really get it. But in the ’50s, when I was a teenager, I learned to understand what had been going on. My family survived okay. A bomb dropped in a neighbor’s backyard, but nobody got killed, where I lived at the time. The history of what happened in Germany and Europe under Hitler was something I then became more aware of and I began to look at the world through this new lens. In the early ’60s, the younger generation of German artists—like the Zero Group—wanted to start a new world, different from what had happened before and different from what others were doing. To a degree one could even argue this was a continuation—even though they may not have thought of it—of what the Bauhaus had been doing. But towards the end of the ’60s with Martin Luther King’s murder, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the Vietnam war, and then, of course, with the student uprising and protests in Paris, in Germany and here, I came to understand that things were not as cozy as we thought and I realized we were still in big trouble, although different from the Nazi period. What also contributed to this was that I became familiar with so-called “Systems Theory,” an understanding that there are physical, biological, AND social systems, and that they interact. I realized that what happens in art environments is part of the general social system in which we function. They influence each other! Therefore, I would not be living up to this understanding, if I were not also taking social aspects into account.
Rail: You sometimes use a famous quote by Lenin that works the same way: “Everything is connected to everything else.”
Haacke: Well, you don’t have to be a Leninist to recognize that.
Rail: I was reading Free Exchange (1995)—this incredible long interview you have with Pierre Bourdieu—and I began to realize your nuanced understanding of this interconnectedness. The two of you offer a sharp criticism of Baudrillard and the effect of his “Simulacra.” This is how you put it “what he and his disciples have lost since is a sense of history and social conflict, which in spite of the fireworks of the latest intellectual fashions, do not dissolve in the virtual.” And you follow, “Everything has equal value in this hall of mirrors.”
How do you manage to stay with the interconnectedness of everything, without falling for the virtual, the abstract, or turning things into that kind of “hall of mirrors” where all the politics, responsibilities, and urgencies are flattened? How did you start?
Haacke: As you know, as soon as I actually did this, I—and others—got into trouble. [Laughter.] I was learning on the job, as one says. What happened with my MOMA Poll of 1970, is extraordinary. Kynaston McShine’s Information show, of which I was a part, did not conform with the formalist doctrine that was dominant at that time. One does not know or remember today how solid this doctrine was followed in the official art world of New York, in museums and many influential galleries—not among the artists I was associated with. What Kynaston McShine put on was very much out of line. Neither he nor the director of MoMA, John Hightower, knew what I had planned to ask the visitors to respond to. Only the night before the opening did I bring in the question “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?” As soon as the question became known, somebody from David Rockefeller’s office arrived at the museum and demanded that John Hightower, the director, take my work out of the show. Hightower said “no, we can’t do that.” I learned that through the back door. Later on, reading the autobiography of David Rockefeller, I also learned that this was one of several reasons why John Hightower was kicked out after two years in office. Among the other reasons was that he let the Art Workers Coalition do protests inside the museum and did not call the police. And the staff of MoMA also unionized under his tenure. He never got an art museum job again after this. That was a lesson for me about power structures in art institutions. Often neither the curators nor the directors are sure they will keep their job or advance up the ladder if they step out of line with those who give the money. This is something we should always remember. When curators or museum directors are attacked for not having done x, y, and z, on the one hand, these protests are justified, yes! But at the same time, one needs to understand, in effect, most or all of them are under the thumb of their boards of trustees, and their own survival in the job is at stake. The curator of my show at the Guggenheim that never took place, Edward Fry, was fired when he stood up for me. He never got a job in a museum again after that. Never! People who grow up in such an environment develop a sense for what might put their job on the line.
Rail: And you personally paid too. People often discuss the cancellation and censorship of your Guggenheim exhibition in 1971, but it seems like we forget that as a result—of your refusal to accept the censorship or to be silenced afterwards—you weren’t given a museum show in the United States until 1986, Unfinished Business at the New Museum.
You always discuss censorship and its more powerful mirror image, self-censorship—when the oppressive power becomes fully internalized and so it functions without even leaving a trace or history of its violence. I was going through the result of the new poll you have for the New Museum and the answer to one of the questions really stood out to me: only a small percentage of participants believed that there is any censorship happening in the art world today. It is intense to think that one can sit in the last room of your retrospective, and still believe that there is no censorship. We are so willing to forget the history and the persistence of censorship, from McCarthyism, to your Guggenheim show, and to so many more instances since…
Haacke: I believe this is not a new phenomenon. It probably existed throughout history. We have to become more aware of that and find ways to deal with it. But it’s not easy to say how to do that. It is often “site-specific.”
Rail: That’s so true. I noticed somewhere that you refer to the polls as a social “self-portrait,” not just merely a sociological study. We, the participants, are all implicated. How involved are you with the wording of the questions? There are small decisions that are really fascinating. For example, you have one asking who represents the American values. I think the choices were “mostly Trump,” “slightly Trump,” “mostly Obama,” “slightly Obama,” “neither,” or “I don’t know.” You didn’t have “both.” I kept thinking, if you had both, I’d have an easy answer. But now I was really stuck.
Haacke: Well, it’s not perfect. It is a tricky question. Maybe I should have phrased it differently. In a way, I was quoting the so-called “American values” that are invoked daily. How they are defined is very different depending on who you talk to. In this case, I associated “American values” with Obama for one and Trump on the other side. It would be worth asking, “well, what are the values they represent?” What did people think then and what do they think today? And what are they REALLY, those “American values?”
Rail: This makes me think of We (All) Are the People (2003–2017). You have this one sentence translated into 12 languages and covering the glass façade of the New Museum. Of course, it really stood out to me because it is not every day that you see Farsi in public in the States. But then the piece kept unraveling. I began to debate the Farsi translation with an Iranian friend because I found it awkward and he thought it was perfect. Soon we realized that what we were really discussing was how each of us understand the words “people,” “we,” and even “all,” and the political connotations they each have. I, then, asked different people in my community that spoke the different languages and soon realized that in each language, it invokes similar debates. Was the Hebrew version of people referring to “the chosen people,” did “we” in Mandarin have its roots to the “four seas” and hence symbolized China, or was “people” translated to “brothers” and so it would be nearly a-political, did the translation of “people” in Spanish refer to the legacy of the Left? For each question, there were radically different answers among people who shared the same language. The linguistic debates around translation suddenly unraveled such deep historic and political questions. It suddenly was a dialogue among members of a language about what constitutes a society.
I would love to know your thoughts around the project, and some technical questions: how do you choose the languages? And how do you navigate using translation in languages you don’t speak.
Haacke: The choice of languages is governed by the place where the posters or banners are to be seen; English, the lingua franca, always had to be included, no matter where. To choose languages relevant in the US, I asked someone at the New School who knows more about the demographics of recent immigrants and refugees than I do. Even though relatively few Jews have recently come here, I included Hebrew because anti-Semitism is far from negligible in this country and the relations between Jewish people and Muslims are often tense. For Greece, Germany, Denmark and, most recently, Spain, I chose languages that matter in those regions.
For the translations, I tried to contact people whom I trust. But of course, it still could come out wrong, after all. [Laughter] It’s very tricky.
For the peculiar wording of “We (all) are the people,” I had to explain the history of how I arrived at it. In Germany, the 1989 uprising against the East German regime was driven by the slogan, “WE are the people,”—not you, who claim to be the people’s police, the people’s army, the people’s parliament (Volkspolizei, Volksarmee, Volkskammer). In 2003, I and other artists were invited to make a proposal, for the place in Leipzig where these demonstrations against the powers in East Berlin started. I proposed to project the slogan onto the church where the rallies had begun, but with the clarifying insert of “all” after the “we,” because by 2003 xenophobia had grown in East Germany and Neo-Nazis were shouting “WE are the people,” imbuing the slogan with a racist meaning. It may be a bit complicated to understand my insertion of “all,” by which I try to emphasize that “we” really means EVERYBODY. But I wanted to keep the reference to the 1989 protest slogan. The American constitution starts with the proclamation of “We the people…” For many Americans that still does not include people of other ethnic backgrounds, and all religious or gender identifications. “The people” can be interpreted in many and often contradictory ways. I like to remember the promotion of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” of the French revolution. We are still far from the realization of this goal! You quoted from my conversation with Bourdieu. On the cover of its publication was a close-up image of a proposal I had submitted, after being invited to participate in a competition for a permanent art installation in 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French revolution at the Palais Bourbon. On a cone, put together with stones from all election districts in France I proposed to proclaim “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” in an Arabic translation. A floor-to ceiling enlargement of this image, together with pertinent background information, became my contribution to the Sharjah Biennial in 2011. It coincided with the brief Arab Spring.
Rail: Wow, I didn’t know that piece made its way to the Middle East and during such a moment of civil uprisings, the Arab Spring! You know, I keep thinking about the exact words used by Thomas Messer, the director of the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, when defending his censorship of your work: to “fend off an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism.” I mean sure, I know he was referring to political art in general from a painfully formalist stand-point. But I can’t help but think about the words on a different register, it is nearly ironic that the state’s legal terminology for many visa holders (myself included) is “non-resident ALIENS.” As a German artist living in the United States, how your body is defined legally (and politically) changed gradually: first as a visitor (visa holder), then a permanent resident (Green Card holder), and finally a “citizen” (the only ones granted political agency). Do you think works like what we have been discussing have been influenced by your own experience of being “othered”?
Haacke: This understanding of “alien” was not what came to my mind, when I read Messer’s comment. But, of course, one could react to the use of this word the way you do.
Rail: Your iconic public piece for Berlin’s Reichstag “Der Bevölkerung (to the Population)” (2000 – ) poses similar questions. Would you please introduce this work? I want to then take this as a chance to focus on Bertolt Brecht’s “Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth”—written in 1934 and in exile escaping the Nazis. It is the following words from the essay that inspired your use of the term “population”: “In these times, he who says Bevölkerung (population) instead of Volk (people) […] already does not support many lies.”
There is so much more in the piece that echoes in your work. Brecht’s five pillars are “the courage to write the truth, although it is being suppressed; the intelligence to recognize it, although it is being covered up; the judgment to choose those in whose hands it becomes effective; the cunning to spread it among them” (and in there is also; “the skill to manipulate the truth as a weapon”). Can you tell me more about your relationship to this text?
Haacke: I was fortunate that, in high school, I had a German teacher who introduced us to Bertolt Brecht. We read “Mother Courage” (1939). My booklet with Brecht’s play also included his “Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth.” I will never forget reading it then. In 1984, when I spent time in Berlin for an exhibition, I saw on the portico of the Reichstag the inscription DEM DEUTCHEN VOLKE (To the German people). Originally, it was a progressive dedication, and therefore, the Kaiser didn’t want to see it up there. Only during the last year of WWI did he agree to it, urged to do so by his advisors, when things were not going well. During the Nazi period, however, the inscription took on a new, nationalist meaning. That new meaning of the Volk was the reasoning behind Brecht’s proposal to substitute Volk (people) with Bevölkerung (population). In 1984, the building of the Reichstag was still close to the wall that separated West from East Berlin. During a stroll one Sunday I saw it from a far corner of the Tiergarten, the large park in the center of Berlin. Large Turkish families with many kids had their picnic on a wide lawn below close to the Reichstag. I understood the inscription implicitly telling them: “this is not for you!” At that time German citizenship was exclusively based on the “law of blood,” i.e. on German ancestry. That prompted me, following Brecht’s suggestion, to juxtapose the dedication on the portico with DER BEVVÖLKERUNG (To the Population) in the open-air courtyard of the building. The citizenship law was changed somewhat around the time when I made my proposal for the installation.
Rail: In the New Museum show, To the Population is located on the third floor alongside many of your other iconic political works. I was fascinated that the wall-text introduced that floor by emphasizing on the history of Institutional Critique. I was slightly troubled by that and have been thinking a lot about how, sometimes, the over-emphasis on Institutional Critique (especially in Museum setting) overshadows the actual politics of your work.
Haacke: I don’t know what you mean by “overshadows” in this case.
Rail: I don’t know, it feels like an easy way out for the Museum.
Maybe my discomfort comes from a generational privilege. In her catalogue essay for your show, Andrea Fraser argues that perhaps Institutional Critique has in itself been institutionalized. Maybe it is true and not even a negative thing. As you put it in your conversation with Bourdieu “The Left is often afraid that its ideas are co-opted. This fear sometimes reaches such a level of paranoia that all action stops. Naturally, one has to examine things case by case. But the most profound effect in the end is total co-option.” And I couldn’t agree more. My generation can view Institutional Critique as mainstream because on many fronts it succeeded.
But on the other hand, I wonder if it is because I come from the “third world”, where the political events that are encapsulated in your work still have very tangible political consequences. Looking at many of the works on the third floor, A Breed Apart (1978), MetroMobiltan (1985), Seurat’s “Les Poseuses” (Small) (1975), or even Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees (1974), for me the significance of the works can’t be in a reformist critique of art institutions. These pieces are really important to me because of the actuality of the politics they commit to face: namely the brutality of apartheid in South Africa, the legacy of the fortunes stolen from Belgian colonies, or finally the CIA-backed 1973 coup d'état in Chile.
Haacke: I’m sometimes a bit troubled by the term “institutional critique.” It made a lot of sense in the beginning and is still necessary today, but that’s not the only thing that matters. Let’s not forget, art institutions are not separate, they are an integral part of the society! As you know, I have often dealt with things that have absolutely nothing to do with the art world, for example what I did in Berlin, my Gift Horse on Trafalgar Square, and many other works. They are not dealing with the art world, even though there are sometimes connections.
Rail: Thinking about this shift in perspective, I was really curious about your experience taking part in the second Johannesburg Biennial in 1997 curated by Okwui Enwezor. What was it like to be in South Africa after all the work you had done on Apartheid?
Haacke: I met Okwui Enwezor there. I didn’t know him before. My visit in South Africa was an extraordinary experience. I was lucky to meet people who took me around. Together with a few other artists, we rented a car and drove out into the countryside. We connected with people there and I went to Soweto. I familiarized myself—to the degree it might be possible for a foreign visitor—with what was happening “on the ground.” It was an important experience for me.
Rail: It’s interesting that you mentioned how hard it is to familiarize yourself as a visitor. In the show’s catalogue, something that really stood out to me was Walid Raad’s reflections (as a representative of the next generation of International artists that are inspired by your practice and make politically intricate and urgent work):
I had always wanted to show some of Hans’s works in Lebanon. I imagined they would resonate meaningfully there. He seemed into the idea, but also a bit reluctant. He needed to know more about the place, the nuances of its geography, history, economy, politics. I suppose that he wanted to make sure that whatever works were shown in Beirut were not merely formally, conceptually, and technically succinct but also historically and politically in accord with the place.
There’s something that feels really important in that commitment.
Haacke: In certain ways, I may not always have done that. When I participated in the Johannesburg Biennial in 1998, for instance, I did something that I thought was specific to the situation. I did it based on what I knew about the shift from Apartheid to the new era but I don’t know whether that really dealt with the new South Africa. You mentioned Okwui Enwezor. He was an incredible man! His work is still not really fully appreciated, particularly in view of the fact that he came from Nigeria to the US, and what he then accomplished in Europe. Towards the end of his life—he tragically died of cancer at the early age of 55—he was director of Haus Der Kunst in Munich. Already in 2002, he was the first non-Western head of Documenta! Over the years we were in touch. Not only did he ask me to have the Gift Horse (2015) move from London’s Trafalgar’s Square to the Haus Der Kunst and run the German stock exchange’s ticker in the hall where Hitler gave his speeches. He also included what he called my “Anthology of Polls” in the Central Pavilion of the Venice Biennale that he curated in 2015.
Rail: You take so much responsibility for the work you do! I didn’t think it was even possible to be more moved by you and your work.
So, as one must, I looked into the funding of your current New Museum show and noticed that it is partially by the Goethe Institute—which was of course founded by the government of Germany. I found it interesting because it seems like today, as concerned as we are with corporate sponsorship, most artists are even more paranoid about governmental funding. There was a curious moment in the Q&A of your recent talk at the New Museum. Someone asked all puffed up “Isn’t it ironic that in your work in the ’80s, you were defending the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), when it was started by Nixon?” (and in actuality, it wasn’t by Nixon, but Johnson.) I’ve been thinking about your answer a lot. You pointed out that even if it was started by Nixon, it’s still our tax money! And that the same is true for every private museum that receives tax-deductible donations (including the New Museum). What has it meant to actively and consciously engage with, negotiate, and make demands to work with such spaces when it comes to logistics and funding?
Haacke: It’s not a black and white situation. But it matters who, in the end, with all the speculation this entails, is benefiting. Is it the corporate funder? Like Mobil, in the old days? I would never do anything in a context sponsored by Deutsche Bank. They have been funding many exhibitions in Germany, in the US, and in other parts of the world. For a number of years, The Guggenheim had a branch at the bank in Berlin. I did receive invitations to group shows that I did not accept because of their sponsors. But others I did accept, even though I had qualms. Sometimes, the net effect in the end, makes it worth it. I have no problem with funding by the Goethe Institute and the implicit support of German tax-payers.
Rail: That shifts the narrative from the government—or even the “private” museums—to us, the tax-payers! In your dialogue with Bourdieu, you talk about how artists are not well-suited for political engagement—because of mundane things like bureaucratic meetings. But it seems to me that you and many more have been relentlessly active. Sometimes I wonder if we are beginning to forget the history of artists’ political engagement. In a moment like this, it feels important to remember and reclaim this history. I know you have been engaged with the Art Workers Coalition for long, still use the Projansky contract, and in certain moments got involved with movements like Gulf Labor Artists Coalition and even Occupy. I would love to learn more about all of this from you.
Haacke: The time of the Art Workers Coalition, the late ’60s and early ’70s, was really an extraordinary period, when artists of my generation and younger ones came together. There were also veterans like Leon Golub. It was remarkable, something I had not known before. It was not only, to a degree, cross-generational, also a great number of women and people of color were involved. That spirit continued for a good part of the 1970s. But during the ’80s, during the Reagan years, the art world changed drastically, as did the general attitudes of people in this and other countries. The art world, as we know it today, began during those years. However, that trend was disrupted for a while, when the stock market crashed in the late ’80s and things were not going well anymore. It had an effect on the type of exhibitions one got to see, works by more women, by artists of color, and particularly the appearance of artworks with lesbian and gay references. Perhaps it was prompted by the temporary withdrawal of people who were interested in art primarily as an investment. At present—perhaps for different reasons—something is going on that reminds me of the time of the Art Workers Coalition. Museums are being challenged by activists over a number of issues. And there is a new opening for diversity.
Rail: Yeah, people like Decolonize This Place are doing a lot. I think Decolonize too found its grounding in the 2008 stock-market crash. There’s much more work to be done though. But I guess that’s a good problem to have.
Haacke: And it will never be over, let’s not kid ourselves. That’s “humanity.”
1. Hans Haacke, Framing and Being Framed: 7 Works, 1970–75 (New York: NYU Press, 1975).