Revisiting: Rachel Lichtenstein – Rodinsky’s Whitechapel

Traversing London from near Euston Station to the top of Brick Lane through back alleys and quiet streets today, made me realise how much this city has changed in the span of just under two decades. I was reminded that in the late 1990s, early 2000s, virtually the only happening place was the Vibe bar on Brick Lane, and that you struggled to find a decent cup of coffee. And now look at it! Designer shops galore, and more trendy bars and restaurants than one could have ever imagined. Not to mention the upmarket hotels, private members’ clubs and bicycle shops…

One of the reasons I know the area around Brick Lane well is the range of projects Artangel commissioned around the area around 1999. In addition to the premiere of Douglas Gordon’s  Feature Filmin a cavernous space that was part of the Truman Brewery complex, and Janet Cardiff’s The Missing Voice (case study b), which literally took visitors out on the surrounding streets, from the Whitechapel Library to Liverpool Street Station, there was Rachel Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Whitechapel.

The project focused on the story of the Jewish recluse David Rodinsky. In 1969, he mysteriously disappeared from his attic room above the synagogue in Princelet Street, in the heart of the old Jewish East End. A decade later his room was reopened and its mess of papers, notebooks, writings in several languages and cabalistic diagrams began to capture people’s imagination. Eventually, Rodinsky and his rooms assumed mythical proportions.

As the granddaughter of Polish immigrants who settled in Princelet Street in the 1930s, writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein was immediately intrigued when, in 1990, she first heard of the synagogue. She secured a residency in the building and took over Rodinsky’s role as self-appointed caretaker. She began to catalogue the objects left in his room, and also started searching for people who had known him. Granta commissioned her to collaborate on a book about her findings with Iain Sinclair, which became Rodinsky’s Room.

Working on this publication and walking the streets of Whitechapel, Lichtenstein built up a wealth of information about the area, and gradually the story of David Rodinsky began to interweave with her own history, her knowledge of this neighbourhood they had both inhabited. Commissioned by Artangel, Lichtenstein ended up writing an artist’s guidebook titled Rodinsky’s Whitechapel, which takes the reader on a walking tour, past sites and buildings that played an important role not only in Rodinsky’s life, but also in Lichtenstein’s own. The walk highlights the last remnants of many important locations of the once vibrant, but now quickly vanishing Jewish East End. Mr. Katz’s closed not long after publication in 1999, as have many other places on the route since. Like Cardiff’s book and audio work, Lichtenstein’s guide highlights how a city like London has been a home to migrant and different communities living side by side for centuries. Doing the walk now also makes us aware of how quickly so much of the city’s tissue can change, and what stays the same, revived, refurbished, regenerated.

The book as an object is a neat little number, that comes with a map, and that fits easily in one’s pocket. Designed by Mark Diaper.

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How Institutions Think

cover-draftFollowing the conference titled ‘How Institutions Think’, which took place in Arles in 2016, and which was organised by CCS Bard, Central St. Martins, Valand Academy (University of Gothenburg) and the Luma Foundation, work has commenced on the book. I will be working on it as managing editor, alongside editors Paul O’Neill, Lucy Steeds and Mick Wilson.

The publication How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse brings together an international and multi-disciplinary group of writers who will reflect upon how institutional practices inform art, curatorial, educational and research practices as much as they shape the world around us. It also aims to propose new and emergent forms of institutional practice. Implementing a work-together methodology, combining and sharing networks and knowledge resources, the publication asks how we may begin to conceptualise and build possible institutions/anti-institutions of the future: What are the models, resources, skills and knowledge bases required to build new and progressive institutions now and in the future, if that is indeed possible?

Contributors include Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Dave Beech, Mélanie Bouteloup, Nikita Yingqian Cai, Binna Choi and Annette Kraus, Pip Day, Clémentine Deliss, Keller Easterling and Andrea Phillips, Bassam El Baroni, Charles Esche, Patricia Falguières, Patrick D. Flores, Marina Gržinić, Stefano Harney, Alhena Katsof, Emily Pethick, Sarah Pierce, Zahia Rahmani, Moses Serubiri, Simon Sheikh and Mick Wilson.

How Institutions Think is the second in a series of three publications and builds on the success of The Curatorial Conundrum: What to Study? What to Research? What to Practice? (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016).It is due in September 2017.

Oslo workshop

Having spent two days in the very ‘koselig’ bookshop space of Oslo’s Cappelens Forslag (and its very intimate back room-cum kitchen), with a morning’s detour to the nearby Kulturhuset, my head is full of thinking about writing, editing and publishing texts and books about art. The discussions were generous and challenging, the exercises proposed by everyone thought-provoking, and the amount of reading we all managed to get in beforehand and during was enriching.

I’ve more or less invited myself back to any appropriate future workshop to be organised by Anne Szefer-Karlsen and the MA in Curatorial Practice (based in Bergen) who invited me in the first place. The range of students is diverse – all of them working in some curatorial capacity across a variety of arts organisations in Norway, or beyond. And despite departing from London sans cash and cards, the kindness of strangers, and a loan from Anne got me through and back home.

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For more on Cappelens Forslag’s publishing project, the conversational encyclopaedia, see this article that popped up in the Guardian two days after the workshop.

Revisiting: Steve McQueen

I first met Steve McQueen in Amsterdam in 1996, when I was still working at De Appel in Amsterdam, and he came over to do a talk there. He ended up moving from London to Amsterdam around the same time as I moved from Amsterdam to London. We stayed in touch though, and when in 1999 he had his first exhibition in a publicly funded space in his old and my new home town, the ICA, he invited me to get involved with the catalogue for the show.

One of the works that generated active debate was the insertion of a brick wall in the long corridor that runs alongside the downstairs exhibition space towards the bar and other spaces, without any label or explanation. I’ve always thought about it as referring to issues of access, or lack thereof, of various kinds that Steve has often talked about and that has recently become and extremely current topic in political terms. In recent years Steve’s intervention, which I am inclined to consider both a work and a curatorial statement, was inverted: the wall separating the exhibition space from the corridor was removed, so we could look into the exhibition space without entering it, opening things up for all to see.

The catalogue for Steve’s show has a shot of his feet, a still from the film Deadpan (1997), on the cover. It contains three essays – Robert Storr’s ‘Going Places’, Michael Newman’s ‘McQueen’s Materialism’, and Okwui Enwezor’s ‘Haptic Visions: The Films of Steve McQueen’ – that had already been commissioned before I became involved. Between them they cover a wide range of aspects related to Steve’s then still relatively small oeuvre, as he was only 30 at the time. Three international art heavyweights talking about an artist who was in the process of becoming a heavyweight himself… The show gave Steve the nomination for the Turner Prize that year, which he went on to win. It is of course only with hindsight that this show and its catalogue, and the many intense conversations we had in the years leading up to it, were clear signs of things to come.

The exhibition was curated by Susan Copping and Katya Garcia-Anton. The catalogue was co-published by the ICA, London, and the Kunsthalle Zurich, and designed by Luc Derycke (with whom I had worked previously on a publication on Gabriel Orozco’s project for Artangel).

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Public Enquiries

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I am currently proofing texts for a book entitled Public Enquiries, which follows a symposium that took place in 2016. Public Enquiries is a research project that has its starting point in the artistic practice of Kerstin Bergendal, with a particular focus on her project PARK LEK. More information about the different phases of the project can be found here.

The symposium at Valand Academy in Gothenburg was the third in a series (the previous ones were held at Marabouparken Konsthall in Stockholm and Somewhere in Copenhagen), and  considered how long-term, temporary artistic projects can influence discussions about sustainability, city and cultural planning, how situated artistic practices can work as forms of enquiry, and why such artistic practices are highly relevant today. Videos of the conference talks can be found here.

Contributors to the book include, among the artist herself, Aleksandra Ålund and René Rosales, Christian Bjork, Mary Jane Jacob, James Holston, Andrea Phillips, and Anna Pilebro Bryngelsson and Robert Chako.

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