La Boîte-en-Valise Museologic Programs
and the Cosmo-polis

Marta Jecu March, 2008
Topic: Historic forms of thinking the format exhibition and the analysis of the contemporary display model. The Breton Wall (1922-1966) | 'COSMOPOLIS' (2017).




Labeled as instrument of power, machinery of imperialism, gear of colonialism, paraphernalia of patriarchalism, misogyny and xenophobia, this storage and display space – the museum – is the object of stringent critique since the late 19th century. Museology and contemporary art have a long history of interactions span around reciprocal contestation, mimicry and assimilation: since modernism, art fluidly infiltrates into the institution to undermine its elitism, commercialism and monumentalism. Art’s immediacy, dematerialisation and evanescence are played against the aspiration to immortality and self-perpetuation of the institution. It is in between these incompatible reading grids that the important issue of ‘display’ is being formulated.

In the first part of this article I will present some historic forms of thinking the format exhibition related to a modernist display model – the Breton Wall (1922-1966) exhibited at Centre Pompidou in Paris. In the second part of the article I will pass to the analysis of a contemporary display model – the recent exhibition ‘COSMOPOLIS’ that equally took place at Centre Pompidou at the end of 2017. Both COSMOPOLIS and the Breton Wall can function as works of art in itself, but also as exhibition platforms as they reunite a plurality of forms, ideas, artefacts and map in various ways their interference with the social life of their actuality. They both rise important questions regarding muselogic paradigms and the poltics of negociation of the relationship between the cultural ‘self’ and the ‘other’. They are both innovatory models at their particularly moment in time and reflect thinking paradigms related to colonial and post-colonial questions. As the Wall represents a historic way to think issues of ‘display’ and exhibition making, COSMOPOLIS brings about very recent acceptions of citizenship, the role of art and the movements and exchanges between the ‘museum’ and the social space.

Moreover, I will relate this conjunction of overlapping paradigms to contemporary conceptual art, which – as I will show – brought an innovatory potential into the field of new museologic practice. My proposal is that invested in the field of de-colonising practices, conceptual art contributed to a critically and politically aware transmission of heritage which can be made accessible to a broad audience.


THE BRETON WALL (1922-1966)

The ‘Wall’ was part of André Breton’s atelier in 42, Rue Pierre Fontaine, in Montmartre Paris from 1922 until his death in 1966. It contained a juxtaposition of contemporary art of his time with ethnologic objects collected and bought by Breton during his travels.

The Wall contains hybrid cultural data – product of the subjective interests and passions of its author. Reading an inventory of the Wall we know that most ‘ethnologic’ objects originate in: Papua New Guinee, Marquise Islands, Oceania, Trobriand Islands, Tibet, Mexico, Cameroun, New Zeeland, from the Hopi Indians in Arizona, while the artistic works included in the Wall are of: Picabia, Dali, Kandinsky, Miro, a photography – portrait of Elisa (the third wife of Breton), Charles Filiger, Giacometti, Jean Arp, Tinguely, Man Ray. The Wall contains also minerals and a root of mandragora found by Andre Breton.

The Wall has been regarded as an aggregate corresponding to the spirit of its time, which from ready-made and incipient forms of installation art, attempted to efface dominant hierarchies between disciplines, between ‘high, cultivated art’ and ‘tribal’ or collective art, between natural versus cultural product.

I would like to propose that The Wall subsumes a number of paradigmatic models of museologic display, which it both reproduces and subverts. Recent critique has attempted to detach the significance of this ongoing work from the strict parameters of the early and late Surrealist Movement and to elaborate on the post-colonial significance of its critical statement.

From an ethnological point of view, Breton’s Wall is a typical product of its time, as it builds the ‘self’ (the European intellectual author-collector) by constructing a fictional, exoticised and collective ‘other’ (a cumulated body of Extra-European primitive wisdom and aesthetic ‘magic’). It extracts the objects from their original contexts (in this sense annihilating their cultural identity and statement) disregarding their appurtenance and their historic narratives – practices that have been revisited critically by post-colonial museology.

Following the technique of the collage, the hybrid Wall displays its epoch as an amalgam of cultural influences. It is not involving elements from a unitary cultural space, but regardless of scientific criteria and based on personal genealogies of ideas and forms, brings together objects from different epochs and cultures. This can be seen also from the prism of a ‘curatorial procedere’ of approximation of autonomous sources/bodies that provokes conceptual contamination and produces a new intra-disciplinary meaning. But it might be also connected, as Didier Ottinger shows (Ottinger 2014), to the influence of communist ideologie in the epoch, which rejected the fetishisation of the artwork and searched a new status for it by associating it with other domains of knowledge.



Turning around the figure of a collector and owner (who accumulates in a private ambient according to subjective choices and not to scientific principles) the Wall can be perceived also as a late example of the Renaissance museologic model of a cabinet of curiosities. Extrapolating the cabinet of curiosities model into their contemporaneity, many artists connected at that time to André Breton, launched the idea of the portable museum: the personal, heteroclite ‘object of knowledge’ meant to circulate in the perimeter of a more and more expanding and fast transforming modern world.

The ‘boîte-en-valise’ was therefore a museologic model that defied the principles of the historic museum: it was not immutable, but transformable (being constantly updated, emptied and filled with new content), it was meant to exhibit a personal interpretation of the reality and deviant narratives (and not reveal ‘universal wonders’ – like the cabinet of curiosities or ‘universal truths’ – like the museum) and it was part of the movements and cultural circuits of the modern world (being a mobile structure).

At the same time it represented a hybrid form in between sculpture/object-installation and theatrical ‘mobile’ with a performative dimension – an emergent artistic form with a plural cultural identity.
In this context we can think also of Aby Warburg’s fascinating “Atlas of Mnemosyne” (1928) based on the principle of creative and analytic juxtapositions of images. From ‘La Boîte-en-valise’ of Marcel Duchamp (first version 1936), to ‘Scatoli Personali’ (1952) of Robert Rauschenberg and the ‘Sentimental Museums’ of Daniel Spoerri (of which first was shown in the Centre Pompidou in 1977), these miniature museums are augmenting the identity of an object by associating it with objects from other contexts. Partially housed by the Centre Pompidou, these works can be tightly related to the Breton Wall. The sentimental museum of Spoerri for example has also a rather personal dimension bringing on scene epic and nostalgic urban histories, where common objects witness the life histories of Parisian characters close to Spoerri.

Thinking further about the development of ethnolographic-artistic projects, Jean-Hubert Martin’s Magiciens de la terre (1989) comes immediately in mind, where the absence of critical and historic information on the ‘ethnological’ objects constructed an opposition between an intellectual white artist and the ‘traditional’ Extra-European creator, whose objects were meant to ‘inspire’. As Maureen Murphy (Murphy 2013) explains the object becomes a screen for the curator’s projections of alterity and difference, even if some of these artists were invited to Paris (contrary to Breton’s complete de-contextualisation of his objects). Modernites pluriels 1905-1970 (commissioned by Catherine Grenier), the 2013 exhibition at Centre Pompidou, attempted a reformulation of the global history of modernity, on the background of a humanitarian discourse which should embrace modernity without delimitation of geographical and political frontiers. Not based on critical principles, but on inclusive ones, it was ordered in a chronological parcours that included Extra-European schools and featured solely contemporary artists without juxtaposing ‘ethnological objects’.

The parisian Musée du Quai Branly – opened in 2006 – which has been concieved as a presidential project, rises also interesting questions related to cummulative display of non-European cultures. As is shown by Benoit de l’Estoile (l’Estoile 2006: 92), the self-presentation discourse of the museum claims to render hommage to under-represented cultures that have been victims of the history, without explicitly mentioning the colonial power relation. Under the guise of ‘humanity’ the museum is presented in the inaugural speak of the president Jacques Chirac, as an inclusive platform that aims to present cutural diversity. De l’Estoile recognises in this claim for plurality the old imperial discourse where the museum symbolises an empire which unified harmoniously different civilisations (Estoile, 2006:94), as well the old exotising fascination for re-creating a so-called ‘sacred’, a-historical, ‘magic’ shelter where these foreign treasures could be stored within the national institution (evoked by the warm colours, the semi-darkness and the soft shapes of the museum’s scenography). We meet here the same colonial topos of the virgin world discovered by the scientific eye of the coloniser- a paradigm recognisable in most of the exhibitive models presented above and starting with the Breton Wall.

More recently exhibitions like Personne et les Autres, curated in 2015 by Katharina Gregos for the Belgian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale (Gregos, Meesen 2015), bring on stage counter-modernities – subversive reactions to the colonial modernity that emerged from contaminated cultural forms in between the global South and the Global North. These alternative modernist narratives (Gregos, Meesen 2015: 21) that were not centred around the European modernism, but were products of cross-mixing and metissage engendered by colonial encounters, launched their responses to the prevailing writing of African history by the colonizer’s civilizing discourse.1



Although the first images of the Breton Wall date from the ’60s, its formation accompanied the time from the 1st World War until the Colonial Wars and to the emergence of the new global space. In this sense, it carries ‘in micro’ principles that have radically subverted the discipline of museology and critiqued its very foundation. Inspired by the principles of Surrealism, the Wall can be seen also as representing in signficant aspects a deviation, a polarisation of meaning from the ‘ethnographic’ model. The fact that no causal narrative can be constructed in the arrangement of succession of objects and that the Wall is personal and therefor aleatory, reverts the classic museologic model: the objects are not seen as ‘documents’ or accounts for a reality that is beyond them. In that sense, the Wall proposes an alternative discourse to the domineering narrative which includes extra-European objects into a predefined European scientific framework. Contrary to the classic museologic display format (which accounts for a single, master narrative) the Wall’s objects are not joined on the criteria of their excellency or uniqueness, but for their personal, subjective value – therefore receiving the status of works of art – open for a multiplicity of viewing experiences.

From an anthropological point of view nevertheless, Breton’s Wall is a typical product of its time, as it builds the ‘self’ (the European intellectual author-collector) by constructing a fictional and collective ‘other’ (a cumulated body of Extra-European primitive wisdom and aesthetic expression). It extract the objects from their original contexts (in this sense annihilating their cultural identity and statement) disregarding their appurtenance and their historic narratives – practices that have been critically revisited by post-colonial museology.

Thinking of contemporary museologic practice, we are reminded of the importance which post-colonial discourse gave to objects that are not exemplary, that are not necessarily aesthetically accomplished and ‘authentic’ from the point of view of a ‘tradition’ seen as immutable. Essential in the re-thinking of the discipline was also the possibility of creating through the ‘dispositive museum’ plural ‘histories’ on the object which polarise an authoritative, domineering euro-centric view on history, on which the discipline of ethnology itself resides.

Researcher and curator at the Musée de l’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Didier Ottinger arguments (Ottinger 2013), that the Wall was understood by Breton as a subversive object and a counter-position to the values of the time.
It can be maybe said that the Wall occupies a median position between the auctorial manifestation of a creator-genius, surrounded by his fetish objects – trophies that exhibit the auratic agenda of its colonial ‘hunter’ – and a support for autonomous objects, that develop their cultural meaning independent of their ‘owner’ through the juxtaposition with contemporary art objects and the possibility to account of multiple historical narratives.

In Didier Ottinger’s view, Breton’s idea of ‘magic’ is infused with subversive potential against the predominant rationalism of the epoch. Ottinger considers that ‘magic’ is an important notion for Breton (Ottinger 2013), as it functions as a polemic tool for the redefinition of the work of art and implicitly against the museologic value system imposed to the object. We can read this following quote extracted from Breton’s book Art Magique, argumenting that the magic power of the object is overpassing its formally aesthetic qualities:
‘Une œuvre n’acquiert de dimension « magique » dès lors que son sens prime, excède, s’oppose, à sa finalité « formelle », à son accomplissement dans le registre du « beau»’.

In this sense, besides inscribing itself into the fascination and exotisation of alterity which was feeding the arts of the epoch, Breton’s idea of magic goes beyond involving extra-European objects as sources of inspiration. What can be deduced is that the bringing together of ethnologic and contemporary artistic objects which are not based on formal resemblances, but rather on the basis of reciprocal contaminations, can create a new area of intensity2, which develops its own significance and its own creative power.

It is precisely in this point of argumentation that the connection with an artistic avant-gardistic discourse, which made a break with the aesthetic of ‘beauty’, could be drawn. In fact we could say that the incipient development of conceptual art happening in this epoch, where art ceases to be relevant for its aesthetic qualities, but on the contrary for its critical, subversive, political and ideatic content, makes itself heard in the background of this statement.



Contemporary performative and conceptual art has in recent practices functioned as a vehicle to rise attention towards a reflexive disclosure of the ethnographic museum’s own practices and colonial history, towards object-histories and contexts of provenance, towards histories of colonial collectors and scientists and the transmitted authority of institutions and their so-called founding figures. It has also been involved in collaborative practice with the source communities of the ‘musefied’ objects and in efforts to update previously misread histories.

Science or history museums started to involve contemporary art in order to reformulate or reshape publicly their own symbolic capital in a specific cultural context, as a solution for re-integration in urban circuits and for revitalisation. But frequently these initiatives are just formal solutions which hardly touch on meaning production and critical self-analysis determined mostly by interest of funding bodies and governmental apparatuses which implement programs that often do not develop continuity and do not envision radical institutional reformulation. It is always useful to ask what political or cultural agendas are guiding these initiatives. Hal Foster (Foster 1995) talks as early as 1995 about the dangers of these approaches in his article ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ regarding what he calls ‘the ethnographic turn’: the recent contamination between the domain of art and anthropology. He describes how the model of the artist as militant for the rights of the proletariat and the underrepresented of the time of Walter Benjamin for example is replaced in postmodern times with the artist as fighter for the postcolonial subject. He critiques the fact that ‘the subject’ continues to be regarded as a cultural ‘other’ (as he was regarded also in the time of Michel Leiris for example) – while the artist is the figure that renders access to him. He shows that the coding of the postcolonial subject as ‘the other which holds a truth’ is defining identity by difference and otherness as outside-ness – which is propagating the cultural politics of marginality. Moreover these initiatives are in fact launched by institutions and funding bodies for self-legitimisation and for accumulation of cultural and economic capital, building up a pseudo-ethnographic critique.

In that sense, we can differentiate between: on one hand situations in which the institutions involve artists or contemporary art technologies in a rather formal way with the intention to enhance the viewing experience and to create attractive, spectacular exhibition situations and on the other hand analytic approaches, meant to enhace the discipline with new scientific tools. With contemporary artistic interventions, often museums falsely claimed to ‘modernise’ display without any politically aware content. One example can be stated the new Musée de l’Homme where technology is invested as a means to create an artificially, sensory experience with a technologically enhanced immersive environment which is supposed to re-create the original contexts of the objects.

As a response to this approach, new museologic practices (usually in the framework of de-colonising efforts) started gradually to involve art as a tool for analysing and displaying/making visible to the audience specific questions connected to the cultural identity of the objects, questions related to collecting and valuing politics etc. In this case, usually artists are given access to the archive in order to get in touch with information such as provenance, biography of objects, documentation material on the objects, history of conservation – layers of information that constitute the identity of any heritage object.

In any case, it can be said that ethnology museums or natural history museums that understand themselves as agents of a self-reflexive and self-critical museologic practice, are very rare and their tools of operation are presently being experimentally developed. I can cite here the Weltkulturenmuseum in Frankfurt (while being led by the former director Clementine Deliss), the Voelkerkunde Museum Leipzig (directed by Nanette Snoep) where contemporary art is involved in order to extract and make visible a critical interpretation of the superposed layers of information contained in the objects and the policy of this shifting meanings objects have been given. I will show (in the context of the analysis of the COSMOPOLIS exhibition) that conceptual art practice can be alternatively involved not only in the work on objects, but also – due to their performative nature – also in collaborative practice with the source communities of the ‘museified’ objects for bringing to the surface previously misread histories.

Boris Groys also writes about the relationship museum-art. For him the new is the alive/the vivid in art, which is considered to be outside the museum, the archive or the library. Groys argues in his essay ‘On the New’ (Groys 2008: 23–43) that the act of collecting in museums determines that art always has to seek the new, the alive, the real, in order to museify it. (Groys 2008: 25)

As something totally new cannot be assimilated, and since the new cannot be recognized through the totally different, then for Groys the only way to manifest the new is to use the same, the identical or the equal that will make it recognizable as new (Groys 2008: 30). According to Groys this is the ready-made, which blurs the difference between new and old.



I will begin by a small incursion into incipient forms of conceptual art and their new understanding of the museologic space, that started to be developed beginning with the historic avant-gardes and notably around the ready-made. As Elena Filipovic (Filipovic 2011) shows in a 2011 article in e-Flux magazine, the last decades of colonial collecting correspond with the emergence of conceptual art and the formation of revolutionary forms of display.

While exhibition design was seen as a prehistory of installation art, installations that question museological display – first oriented towards the clasical ‘art museum display’ – appear with the beginning of the 20th century. As is shown by Lewis Kachur (Kachur 2001) with early installation art at the beginning of the 20th century, losing its pedestal, the object looses its representativity and this has been one of the first means to challenge museologic display. The conceptual art of the avant-gardes started to work with the object by recognizing aspects that are not clear/ fixed and challenged what means the finished state of the work. For example the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp started to map and give significance to ordinary objects according to the ways in which information about these objects is constructed and mediated – and not according to formal, thematic, aesthetic or representative/essentialising qualities. Marcel Duchamp’s String Installation in the exhibition of the First Papers of Surrealism, in New York, 1942 is paradigmatic in this sense as for the first time the relations between the objects existing in a museum become the work of art, not the objects themselves (IM 1). In 1969 Andy Warhol curated at the Rhode Island Museum (IM 2) a selection from the storage rooms of the Museum. He used and mixed different criteria of display: polaroids that he took of the objects, with the objects themselves. He showed the packages in which the objects are stored, without showing the content; he showed the objects simply placed on the ground or took out of the storage all the items classified by the museum under one category. Like a manifesto was also Harald Szeemann’s intimate exhibition of his grandfather hairdressing tools held in his apartment (1972) as a counterpoint to the ‘masterpieces’ and auctorial art displayed at Documenta 5. In the 1980’s Group Material started to show their work under form of Timelines, which challenge official history-writing with subversive content, mixing in an intertextual display works of art, artefacts and found documents – writing history on multiple and often contradictory narratives (IM 3).

Sporadically absorbed into new museology practices and coupled with de-colonising efforts these innovations brought a new understanding on the identity of the object and included the context in the body of the work.

With Sol Le Witt and Joseph Kosuth in the ’60s –’70s the IDEA of a work of art, became the work – even if the work never took a visible form. Similarly the thinking processes of the artist became more important than the existence of a final work (so, by consequence, the transformation of the ‘object’ itself became more important than a given object). If a final object nevertheless emerged, it could manifest in an infinite plurality of media and temporalities (according to Sol Le Witt, 1969) .

Working on conceptualism since ’60s –’70s, Tony Godfrey (Godfrey 2006) introduces the term ‘contextual art’ as definitory especially for the later post-conceptual art of the ’90s to today – where art not only defies its conventional function as aesthetic and visual object but also emerges as a reaction to its social and political context. In this process of contextual meaning constitution, applied to the domain of museology, contemporary art’s documenting processes can be employed as devices that situate the object beyond aesthetic and formal coordinates into the mapping of its various context of appurtenance. ‘The document’ and documentation processes become forms of permuting the value of the object from its material presence (in the actuality of the viewer), to an exploration of contexts of reference that build up a palimpsest of identities. In this sense, contemporary art started progressively to integrate other disciplines (as sources of information on plural contexts of the objects), use their methodologies and operate more and more pluri-disciplinary.

Art started acting as a tool of analysis and investigation. Museology, especially ethnologic museology became a predilect field to work upon, as it also deals with art objects primarily not from an aesthetic, but from a historical and cultural point of view. (This phenomenon can be related also to what an important critic of conceptualism, Peter Osborne (Osborne 1999), calls: ‘ the expansion of the work of art’ which consists in an erosion of the division between artist and critic).3 Transferred into the domain of museology the conceptual work does not imply necessarily the production of a new piece, but can consist in an artistic thinking-path which joins material, media, information for the mapping of a culturally critical context of meaning.

Contemporary art is being more and more involved in the elaboration of new museologic display solutions in a critical landscape where recently anthropologist declared the crisis of the ‘ethnological project’ (Macdonald 2015: 213).

Theorists and museum curators like Sharon Macdonald and Clementine Deliss turned their attention to the possibilities offered by contemporary arts. As the ethnologic museum is fundamentally based on travels and explorations into a domain ‘of the unknown other’ mostly in a colonial context, all forms of presentation of a foreign heritage as ‘one’s own’ are fundamentally meant for self-legitimation – which puts into question the discipline itself (and the ethnologic way to investigate the world) until today. In a talk at MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona), Clementine Deliss, at that time director of the Weltkulturenmuseum in Frankfurt) affirmed that: ‘There is no redemption for what ethnologic museums represent, even by new practices in museums. There is no possibility not to get contaminated (>by this colonial heritage) when working with an ethnology museum’. (Deliss 2014).

Nevertheless, I would like to show that conceptual art had and continues to have an important role to play in the defining of new museologic strategies, that not only can offer new design solutions, but most of all open the possibilities for the formulation of a critical content. More than in any other branch of contemporary art, conceptualism works with the ‘object’ as information – beyond its formal presence. Conceptual art understands the object as information, and this in its turn, produces the insight that museologic objects should not be necessarily exemplary, representative and aesthetically accomplished – as it is practiced by ‘classic museology’. What has been called ‘secondary objects’ (damaged objects, failed crafts etc., their changing significance and meaning) can be revealing of alternative narratives to the ‘ official discourse’, and – via art – gain therefore progressively more importance in museology.Conceptual art deals on one hand with information and on the other hand with context. In this way it is dissolving the material and aesthetic presence of objects. By its nature, conceptual art is therefore working less with the objects as exemplary masterpieces, but it is rather tracing the contexts of meaning in which the objects are entangled. Transferred into the domain of museology, conceptual art can offer therefore an alternative operation system to the essential functions of a museum: interpretation and display. As meaning is never fixed and interpretation is context-dependent in conceptual art, the object itself is presented as subjected to a redefinition of meaning and is conceived as having plural identities – layered meanings. Regarded with the analytic tool of conceptual art, in a museologic context the object should be examined according to aspects such as exchange, possible colonial dispossession, or shifting relationships of trade, alliance, war, conversion, plundering.

Conceptualism brought also another very important idea: that of the performativity which is in other words the agency of the work of art – which influences and alters the context in which it intervenes. The performativity (which should not be confused with the idea of ‘performance’) of an object is referring to its capacity to intervene upon a certain environment just by being there (contrary to previous art forms that were valued rather for themselves than for their agency in the social space). It is interesting to observe how conceptual art converged with theories coming from other disciplines – for example the social agency of objects in anthropology which contributed to post-colonial critique. Candice Lin (Lin 2016: 104), for example is acknowledging the agency of objects over humans, as a political insight, that destroys the paradigm of power as we know it (humans instrumentalising objects). She talks about the fact that we have to recognise that the object is a hybrid being, resulted from a ‘creol’ identity, one that is the result of mixing, in which the categories are by nature not fixed.

Understood in this way, the object will be talking at the same time about the discipline of muzeology itself – what is included and left out from the writing of history and from national patrimony. This self-reflexive institutional analysis – reveals therefore aspects that usually museums rather occult – for example the permanent display at the Musée du Quai Branly (mentioned before) where the provenance of the objects is totally erased, as well as any trace of colonial history, of acquisition conditions and of possible questions of repatriation.



Conceptual art introduced an understading of images as signs (and not as reproductions of reality) drawing from here on specific politics of representation. It also doubted the objectivity of images as witnesses of reality. Analysing historic photographies of museologic collections beyond what they reproduce and understanding them rather as signs of a larger context, can show how images can hide, reveal, establish and impose a certain ‘view’ on history and patrimony. Approaches in this direction had been previously made in a scientific context for example by Aby Warburg, who related the iconography of different images (beyond their narrative content) deducing from there socio-historical connections. Conceptual art, which introduced the notion of seriality into the history of arts (repeating the same shot until it becomes an abstract image), continued this direction, producing images that were initiating the viewer into reading visual content from the point of view of how it is constructed. From understanding primarily strategies of image-making we can deduce questions of colonial image politics, scientific imaginaries, but also emerging innovatory practices of cultural self-definition. From here we can deduce how conceptualism prevents the subordination of the singular object to an authoritarian master-discourse, which has dominated colonial history-writing. Therefore, placed in a museologic context, it can challenge the norms concerning singular criteria of classification of collections, euro-centric narratives, questions of labelling methodology and the transmission of certitudes. It promotes object-specific analysis, enquiry of provenance, the analysis of the object’s plural identities and the consideration of the effects of the context upon the object’s meaning and vice-versa. Conceptual art can function as a vehicle to rise questions such as reflexive exposure of the ethnographic museum’s own practices and colonial entanglements, deep object-histories and an emphasis on the social life of objects, on conflicting or overlapped histories of colonial collectors and scientists.



In the following I will continue my analysis of museologic paradigms with the case study of a recently opened, multidisciplinary exhibition at Centre Pompidou – COSMOPOLIS Nr. 1 – which used the dispositive museum as a platform for acting in the social space, involving conceptual art, urbanisim,and architectural works.4 I will show that this exhibition subsumes a new understanding of the institution museum, as less a space for display, documentation and archiving of objects, but rather as a space for action and agency. The works included in this exhibition are on the verge between installation, work and project being realized not by singular artists, but by collectives from different parts of the world. The fields envisioned by them span cross-disciplinary and involve different forms of action in the social space. I would like to further connect this approach to a new understanding of urbanism and globality that renegociates the thinking of the museum’s functions.

Working ‘in the field’ with communities, with their local objects and narratives in and outside of Europe, the artists-collectives included in this platform elaborated solutions of display of cultural objects which were in a tight dialogue with the present. The interviews which I conducted with some of the collective involved, as well as with the curators, demonstarte a sustained attempt and concrete proposals for elaborating a museologic model that overpasses the ‘self’-‘other’ dichotomy. The platform developed under the curatorship of Kathryn Weir, a layered network of creation and transmission of knowledge, which incorporates long term cultural experiments, social actions, subjective imaginaries, transcultural utopias. Through the participation of international artistic and activist collectives, the exhibition becomes a platform through which the collectives’ urbanistic and social programs unfold an agency and intervene – intellectually and physically – in the actuality of the viewer, linking actions developed in various cities around the world.

COSMOPOLIS #1 took in the exhibition space the shape of a micro-territory of installative sites, used by the collective’s members as bases of action. From there they developed their intervention programs in the form of public research and workshop activities inside the exhibition space, but also outside the museum, in the social reality in and around Paris. Their projects developed over the course of several months were preceeding or are evolving during the exhibition time.

Main questions that the exhibition rises from a methodological point of view will be introduced in the following by my dialogues with some of the collective members and the curators, turning mainly around the question of how we can understand and operate with the institution museum and the format exhibition not only as a dispositive to display information, but also as a mechanism that enables intervention outside of its parameters – in the cosmo-polis (the city of the world).

It would be relevant to think about Jacques Derrida’s wonderful two articles included in ‘On Cosmopolitanism and Forgivness’ (Derrida 2005) where he understands the notion of COSMOPOLIS as ‘the city of refuge and hospitatlity’. The cities of refuge are for him also spaces for reflection (Derrida 2005: 22), and would bring about ‘a certain idea of cosmopolitanism’ that ‘has not yet arrived, perhaps.
-If it has (indeed) arrived…
-… then, one has perhaps not yet recognised it.’ (Derrida 2005: 23)

Derrida asks for a committment in this sense of the cities and of the thinkers and practitioners (which he calls men and women capable to speak out in a public domain) ‘of various disciplines to exercise this new way to conceive the city.’

Derrida talks about the necessity of elaboration of a new cosmo-politics of ‘(…) autonomous cities of refuge, each as independent from the other and from the state as possible, but, nevertheless, allied to each other according to forms of solidarity yet to be invented. This invention is our task, the theoretical or critical reflection it involves are indissociable from the practical initiatives we have, already out of a sense of urgency, initiated and implemented (Derrida 2005: 4)’

For him COSMOPOLIS is a space of reflection, of commitment of practitioners and thinkers, a space that offers refuge for everybody – so actual in this age of migration. He also talks about the city as a space of inter-disciplinary engagement. The new cosmopolitics he sees based on solidarity between cities and citizen, while our task is to invent these new forms of solidarity.

This sense of urgency makes itself felt in the actions, interventions, words and attitudes of the collective’s members included in COSMOPOLIS #1, but also in the fact that their visions and essays are taking place without being yet widely recognized. The efforts of these artists and activitist go towards finding micro-solutions for thinking urbanism from the cosmopolitan perspective of global rights, inclusion, humanism and circulation. In collective actions that intervene punctually in the social reality, they elaborate interdisciplinary forms of commitment and of action as thinkers and practitioners that test out new forms of cosmo-politics.

In a sense, COSMOPOLIS #1 seems to expose the viewer to new imaginaries of self-governing and inclusive cities, which allie each others in finding solutions and proposing changes – as the inter-urban collectives, linked-up during this project, reorient punctually the prevailant urban politics.

Ana Lopez from the collective Architectura Expandida (Bogotá) talks about the group’s intervention in one of Paris biggest outskirts, Clichy-sur-Bois where they introduced communitarian furniture meant to augment social cohesion and integration. Their residency there was the outcome of a partnership between Centre Pompidou and Atelier Medicis. She explains that beyond ‘exhibiting’ information , what they work upon is making social intervention possible. they are ding this by finding the fissures in the legal and administrative system, that permit changing it through small interventions that are not always legal, but also not forbidden. ‘For example if we build a mobile furniture in public space, we do not need to ask for a permit as it is not a fixed structure. To intervene we needed to study the social dynamics of the quotidian life and what happens between the office which gives its directives and the local level. This is where the most interesting things happen – in the legal fissures. The public furniture that we create should not be beautiful, but should be easy to replicate and use in public space. With it we test co-habitation possibilities.’

Ellie Buttrose, one of the associated curators of COSMOPOLIS described how ruangrupa collective from Jakarta connected with the Indonesian Diaspora in Parisian outskirts during the time of the show. As they couldn’t find Indonesian artworks in the Pompidou collection, they started to build, during the time of the show, an overview of the historic qnd contemporary Indonesian presence and culture in Paris. They conducted interviews with Indonesian personalities, while inviting them to use their installation at the Pompidou as a place to work and uncover stories of their community members. This information will flow into a book.

Por Estos dias from Medelin, Colombia, do their interventions in the format magazine. Working as well collectively, they create a pirate issue of well known magazines, in which original artpieces and texts by their workshop participants augment with political, social or aesthetic input the informational content of the paper. At Cosmpolis they connected with the theme of food and plant policy, taken up by other collectives too.

Sebastian Cruz from Laagencia collective (Bogotá) talks about the group’s relationshp with the platform museum: ‘We want to be a space without a space, an non-physical space of ideas.’ Their objective is to test out formats of engaging locally with the poulation like a school, ‘urban drifts’, ‘transantlantic skype conversations’, screenings, banquets and study groups. As a result, they usually do a collective book, based on a WIKI page where participants write and rewrite certain terms (like reason, territory, public etc.). Their project developped during COSMOPOLIS and in the physical space of the museum, Escuela Garagem, is ‘an intervention on discourses’ – acting collectivelly upon common knowledge, ideas or history, while posing and answering together questions.

Although ‘COSMOPOLIS’ is not operating on the model of ‘ethnologic object’/ ‘artistic object’, it nevertheless develops forms of negociating the relationship between the author/artist/cultural agent (the ‘self’) and the cultural ‘other’ (the under-represented community, whose social position and cultural production become the object of the exhibition platform). This relationship reprodces at the same time the connection between the macro-universe (the real world) and the micro-universe (the representation in the exhibition), while the institution museum (here the Centre Pompidou) doesn’t forward a position of authority over reality. Instead of the institution we are confronted as visitors with a number of collectives acting not in the institution, but in the social space and representing a plurality of interests and agendas, with which the institution can only partially identify. We can observe that the relationship between exhibited objects, social agents (community, artists and activists and vistors) is multi-layered, complex and open ended. Due to this situation, the power of authority of the institution of representation becomes negociated by many factors and subjected to questioning. At the same time, the objects included in the ‘museologic archive’ cannot become mere documents on reality (to be frozen in a museologic situation). On the contrary, they are maintained in a direct exchange relationship with reality – as they are practically not ‘included in a system of representation but remain ‘outside’ in the social space.

In the interview quoted more down the curator of the exhibition Kathryn Weir describes these complex forms in which the COSMOPOLIS platform negociated the relationship between the museum and the social space and tested forms in which object production and representation is replaced by action, agency and exchange relations. The main aim of this interview was to christalise how can we understand and operate with the institution museum and the format exhibition not only as a dispositive to display information, but also as a mechanism that enables and maintains in indeterminate movements intervention outside of its parameters – in the cosmo-polis. The interview talks about new conceptions of the format exhibiton that are based on transformative and processual exchanges between social thinkers/actors and the immediate reality in all its political, economic and cultural complexity. Kathryn Weir talks about art forms that shift the importance from production of objects as carriers of meaning towards opening ways to draw attention towards issues of urgency and solidarity and towards new forms of creative imaginaries. The platforms created during COSMOPOLIS were intended to open possibilities for ongoing research, for action, for the elaboration of local and punctual solutions, for collective work, for direct exchanges that develop their own parcourses and are not dependent on the mediation of the institution.



KATHRYN WEIR: In this exhibitive platform I was interested not to construct a carthesian situations, where the argument is lineary layed out by the curator in advance and the artist is obliged to adjust to the argument. I would not want to have a situation in which the artists’ propositions will be reduced, as they have to instantiate a curatorial program that is pre-existing. On the contrary, my idea was to develop a platform through which artists can absorb, digest, transmit information and develop a new cosmpolitan practice. The way I wanted to work was to present a process, a dialogue where the outcome can change because of the discussions, because of the persons involved, because of the curatorial research, because of the proposals coming from the artists. There were certain parameters for the project that I had placed but than where the project lead was not pre-determined. These are the parameters which one can read in the texts accompaning the project, but also in the exhibition where we see rooted research-based practices that start from the local and the specific, but than are networked into international conversations. (


Q.: Could you please describe what are the characteristics of this new cosmpolitanism, that you mentioned has started to being developed in the ’90s?

K.W.: I see this new cosmpolitanism rooted in local practices that start from the specific, but are than transposed into international conversations. I see this actual cosmpolitanism as being connected to specific locations, local tools and strategies – which is very different from previous forms of cosmopolitanism that was defined more by figures moving rootless between cultures.

The COSMOPOLIS platform also hosted different international conversations that unfolded based on tools and strategies tested through research in a particular context by going deeply into a particular situation. The artists involved tested what cross-cultural translations are possible between work on a local level and in the framework on international networks. There are lots of new forms of artistic networks being developped at the moment and facilitated by new communication technologies that make possibe a process of going back and forth and navigating between international conversations and that specific ‘local’ which I see as the core of the new cosmopolitanism. These types of networking where less visible in Europe and France and often didn’t triangulate through Euro-centric metropolises like Paris or Berlin, going for example from Asia to South America. This is a phenomena that started to be developed with the ’90s, when an interest for these subtler forms of revisitation of cosmopolitanism started to emerge. The endless movement of the cosmopolitan figure was replaced by artists who were not necessarily influenced by the theory, but were developing a focus on deep local knowledge. Some others were preoccupied by inside art conversations, like for example reacting against the explosion of international biennials where the same work was moving between different posts of the same network. As a response to this rootless artistic practice, they started re-emphasising local practice.

Starting with the ’90s artists started reflecting about the location where the work would be presented in relation to where they habitually work or have networks, in that way trying to avoid exoticisation and a misunderstanding of narratives from the part of the audience. Similarly, the curatorial research that goes with this type of artistic production needs to be rooted in the ground, by talking not only with the artists but also by engaging social scientists involved in the local field. You cannot only curate from the perspective of the international exhibitions where that work is displayed.


Q: How was your personal curatorial experience when visiting the collectives where they habitually work?

K.W.: I had already worked with some of the groups like Ruangrupa from Jakarta or Mixed Rice from Seul. The first two years cycle of COSMOPOLIS is dedicated to research based practices that often are about knowledge sharing, generating new knowledge or envisioning new futures rather than about objects per se. In these first two years I had also the focus on new forms of collaborative practices, networks and collectives and the choices that I made for where to go with my curatorial research was where there were interesting forms of developments and experimentations with collaborative practice – for ex in Columbia, in Indonesia, in Mexico. For me these periods of curatorial research are very rich in conversations with people from different backgrounds. I have invited a large number of artists for residencies and micro-residencies at Cite des Arts to prepare work to be included in COSMOPOLIS. The intention was to develop relations to the discussions that are happening right now in Paris and to asses the feasibility of their proposals for COSMOPOLIS. We could not go forward with all of the proposals due to different limitations, although they were great. In terms of installation in the space we worked with 15 collectives but than there were others involved in the discursive program, so we had 25 or 30 collectives in all.


Q: How are you planning to continue this work? How does the platform supports action in the world and not just in museums?

K.W.: Yes, one of the main questions is how is it possible not do have in the exhibition just a restitution of things that happened elsewhere and how do you maintain the relationships that were created during the platform? How do you continue to support some of the collectives and keep working with them or work on ways of continuing the knowledge production? Ilaria Conti (assistant curator of COSMOPOLIS) and I are talking about that and looking at things that we could do this year with some of the partners of COSMOPOLIS. Lanchonete ( – a 5 years project – will close in autumn and they will have at this time a two weeks focus on radical pedagogy, on which we will collborate. Among other projects we will also continue with some of our discursive practice in Sao Paulo in September. In November and December this year we will be doing COSMOPOLIS 1,5 in Chengdu, China – which will be even bigger in scale than what happened in Paris last year. In 2019 in Paris, we will have COSMOPOLIS 2. We will have also punctual events like COSMOPOLIS 1,2.


Q: Why was COSMOPOLIS 1,5 localised in Chengdu?

K.W.: Because of our relationship with a Chinese Foundation that co-funded COSMOPOLIS and with whom I did already a Forum in Shanghai about art and time and technology. Chengdu is typical for inland big cities, developing very fast with 50 million people, whereas the main part of the cultural events are still concentrated in Beijing and Shanghai. In Chengdu the access to an art that is related to civil arts society is limited, so it is an interesting place to have an laboratory for these kinds of art practices.


Q: The connections between the collectives were made on a thematic basis? Did information crossings and communication between the collectives happen while working together on certain themes during the time of the exhibition?

K.W.: The platform was structured both thematically and in the display in space not on a linear argument, but on more on constellations of ideas. The visitor could follow a number of propositions for example on food ethics. The collectives also collaborated in their work developed there, for example Ruangrupa, L’Agencia and PorEstosDias shared workshops.

That happened also in terms of the way the propositions where constructed in space, which I tried not to present in a linear argument, but more like constellations where you could follow a number of propositions related for example to food ethics. The international platforms that came in like Lanchonete from Sao Paulo or Casa dos Patios had worked before in Paris and brought in their networks.

The human being or human practices are at the center of a lot of those practices and human exchange needed to be there, in order for those propositions to be digested and to come to life. The rhythm of these different type of activities was dense and was complemented by the discursive program that could give access to the artists’ works or deepening the discussion around them.

In China I am developing the theme of the information production that new communication technology has made possible since the ’90s. This is also some aspect that changed cosmopolitanism starting with the ’90s. In Chengdu there is a huge amount of debate about the effect of technological change on people’s life and weather this is based on choice, or we find ourself in front of a fait accompli before we even decided that we wanted to go that way. Generated by capital and some IT scientists who are directing all that development that is so transformative, these movements are connected also to a big debate about artificial intelligence and imagination. There is also a lot of talk now about how collectives can organise themselves now with cryptocurrencies and smart technologies, which draw different modes of economic organisations. The area of Shichuan where Chengdu is situatred is a very resource-rich area and bitcoin moves their production to there and their ‘mining’ there. Walter Mignolo was invited in our forum in Shanghai and now came during COSMOPOLIS in Paris, where he talked about technological issues and philosophy and the arts. In his book Cosmotechnics he talks about how different technological histories in different geographical areas can generate different possibilities for the future in order to enable technological choices that are not simply synchronising into one history of technology determined by capitalism. Beside the artificial intelligence research theme, in Chengdu we have also the ecology theme and we are also following speculative thinking that can generate possible and imaginative futures, whereas new image ecologies are being created now. Everyone produces images now, even machines produce image, so art started to be about directing attention and creating meaning, for example by pointing to what is happening to processes of image generation or to selection of these images.

This is also connected to what Ravi Sundaram (from Sarai Collective in India, was talking during his lecture at COSMOPOLIS. He is looking into the past to what happened in the history of circulation of technologies, looking what happened to past media, for example to VHS tapes.


Q: It is interesting to observe how the questions are very complex, but the means to point attention to them by the collectives are very simple, basic, manual.

K.W.: Yes the human factor is very important. We have to do with people who work in creating other possibilities by putting the human at the center of the creation of meaning. Relations, affect are part of it. It is not only the outcome but also how you get there, which is very important. The process in itself is generative.


Q: How do you transpose in space, in the exhibition format these processes that took place?

K.W.: First discussions happened during curatorial research and than we had proposals that came out of these discussions. There were elements that were physical in the space but also ideas, concepts. Through conversations we get to the final forms of the works – which I consider to be all phases of the curatorial process. The curatorial process is not controllable, it is not like selecting from something that exists already, but forming it. The space is shared, so we need to negociate space according to how people worked and lived together in there and how the expression of the space addresses the visitor. Through the human relations that were created during these processes, the institution functioned in a more flexible way.


Q: Which were the responses that the project received from Centre Pompidou?

K.W.: The project was supported by many voices that affirmed that the Centre Pompidou should be continuing this direction of work in which the museum connects to the contemporary reality by processes that we create inside the museum. This is a direction which had been less represented so far, as the Centre is generally focused on modern art names and retrospective exhibitions.

It was actually very difficult to convince some of the groups like Ruangrupa to participate in a project housed in this institution. They came because of me, because we had worked together before. Chimurenga accepted to exhibit in the framework of this show althrough it was clear from the beginning that they were not interested at all to exhibit in the Centre Pompidou, but we kept the conversation going and they decided they would do it if their project would be presented at La Colonie (, which is what can be callled a non-institutional, alternative space.


Q: This is also a very dogmatic and extreme position.

K.W.: This was also very difficult to manage because the Centre Pompidou is not ready to finance something that is happening outside of its doors.



In his recent E-flux article, Nikos Papastergiadis affirms that globalisation has an integrative logic and requires a standarsised, homogenised and transparent world of movements of people and goods. On the contrary, cosmopolitanism is open to difference and tends to heterogeinity and what he calls ‘generative differentiation’ (Papastergiadis 2018).

He further elaborates on the functions of the museum in this cosmopolitan world. He observes the change in the museum’s privileged status as an institution of ‘deliberation’ regarding the history of arts towards a status that brings together collective, ephemeral, and interactive practices in contemporary art. Collaboration cannot be in these conditions organized via a vertical command structure, but has to unfolds through a horizontal process of experimentation.

He observes also the tendency of museums to include agents from outside the institution and therefore to disperse the event of art into an undetermined zone.

He goes on:
‘Networks were designed to break up centralized authority structures, enhance peer-to-peer knowledge exchange, and capitalize on the democratic potential of new communication technologies. Thus, networks were not only important tools for dissemination, but also a vital element in a new conceptual framework. (…) From this perspective, agency exists insofar as there is a network, and in turn, networks are activated through the actions of individuals. It is an effort to gain differentiation from the classical museum’s accumulative logic that aspires to maintain an encyclopedic grasp on world culture, collaborative institutional turn cannot be measured in terms of increased productivity. It must generate new knowledge about the historical place of the museum, adopt alternative models of institutional governance, rethink the spaces of aesthetic production, and ultimately accept the role of the publics as constituents.’ (Papastergiadis 2018)

To come back to a theme that I addressed in the first part of this article, I would like to stress that Papastergiadis relates these processes with the necessity to ‘decolonize imagination’. For him this process means generating narratives in which identity is defined in a relational rather than fixed manner and an opening towards multiple worlds rather than the confirmation of a singular nation-centered perspective. He sees the function of art precisely in its capacity to decolonize imagination and to expand and intensifying communication. Thus, the importance of art in relation of art, what we used to call its ‘beauty’ as generator of pleasure stops being aesthetic or political, but consists rather in processes that occur through communication. In this process in which artistic actions become social actions, the spectator passes to be a user.

I would like to end my incursion into new museologic practices with some quotes from Cosmpolis’ vistors, recorded in a qualitative research on the exhibition impact by the anthropologists team Melanie ROUSTAN, Hadrien RIFFAUT and Jasmina STEVANOVIC. Here follow some answers to the question:

What do you expect to retain from your visit?
I don’t know. Maybe new knowledge, new paths of reflecton on the COSMOPOLIS.
The pleasure of being here with my friends. Something convivial and festive.
O new way in which the artists create in the city the cosmpolitanism together and particularly tonight with the concert that will take place. I expect to see how this collective aspect will be played out in this particular manifestation.

What do you expect to find inside this exhibition?
New ways to do. This is what I expect. New types of ambiance, new installations, something different.
Nothing in particular, I am open, I do no belive we need to construct scenographies.



– ARNDT Lotte, LOZANO Catalina, ABONNENC Mathieu, (eds.), (2016), Crawling Doubles. Colonial Collecting and Affect, B42, Paris
– Benoît de l’Estoile, L’oubli de L’héritage Colonial, in ‘Le Débat’, 2007/5 – n° 147, Gallimard, Paris, pgs. 91-99
– DELISS, Clementine (2014), Collecting and Curating Life’s Unknowns: Past Ethnography and Current Art Practice, (accessed May 2017)
– Haraway Donna (1985), Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science technology, and Socialist feminism in the 1980’s. Socialist Review 80:65-108
– FILIPOVIC, Elena. A museum that is not. e-flux 2011. Online at:
– Foster Hal (1995), The Artist as Ethnographer, Universty of California Press, chapter 10
– GODFREY, TONY. (2006), ‘What Happened Next in Conceptual Art: Chapter Eleven’, Contemporary Journal, 21:85, Accessed 28 October 2017
– Gregos Katharina, Meesen Vincent, Personne et les Autres, catalogue, Mousse publishing, 2015
– Groys, B. (2000), Unter Verdacht, Eine Phänomenologie der Medien, Munchen, Wien: Carl Hanser Verlag.
––––––(2008), Art Power, Cambridge Massachusetts, London: The MIT Press.
– KACHUR, Lewis. Displaying the marvelous: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Surrealist Exhibition Installations .Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.
– Maureen Murphy, Des Magiciens de la terre, à la globalisation du monde de l’art : retour sur une exposition historique, in Critique d’Art, 41 | Printemps/Eté 2013, (last accessed January 2018).
– Papastergiadis, Nikos, From COSMOPOLIS to Cosmopolitan Spaces, in E-Flux Architecture, Urban Village, (last accessed January 2018).

ROUSTAN Melanie, RIFFAUT Hadrien and STEVANOVIC Jasmina, La réception de “COSMOPOLIS #1 : collective intelligence”. Etude qualitative auprès des publics, Rapport d’enquête Pavages/Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2018.
– Osborne, Peter, Conceptual art and/as Philosophy, in Micheal Newman and Jon Bird (eds.), Rewriting Conceptual Art, Reaction Books London, 1999.
– Ottinger, Didier (2014), Le Surréalisme et l’objet, Curatorial Statement, Centre Pompidou,, (last accessed January 2018).
—————– Le Mur de l’Atelier, Andre Breton online archive (last accessed January 2018).
– MacDONALD, Sharon. The Politics of Display – Museums, Science, Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.
————————— ‘The Trouble with the Ethnological’ in The Laboratory Concept – Museum Experiments in the Humboldt Dahlem Lab, Nicolai Berlin, 2015.