The Director of New York’s MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large at the Museum of Modern Art, Klaus Biesenbach is one of the most celebrated players on the international art world stage today. The Founding Director of Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW) in Berlin and the Berlin Biennale, Biesenbach joined MoMA PS1 as a curator in 1996. A champion of media and performance art, the German-born curator has organized major exhibitions of contemporary art that have traveled the world for the past 25 years. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently sat down with the globally minded Biesenbach at MoMA PS1 to discuss his creative history and his passion for art. Photo by Benjamin Fredrickson

New York’s MOMA PS1, where you are the Director, and Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, which you founded, both have important anniversaries this year, with MoMA PS1 turning 40 and KW celebrating it’s 25th year. Let’s start at the beginning, with KW. What was the concept for the creation of the institute?

It was not so much a concept as it was a happening. I had moved to Berlin in the winter of 1989-90, when it was still East Germany. Since the wall had fallen in November, everyone wanted to go to Berlin in the winter of ’89. It was impossible to rent a shoebox in the West Berlin, so I went to the East. After a couple of attempts to find a place to live I tried the government administration. There was a central administration for apartments, which I visited a couple of times. The first time they said, “We cannot take care of foreign students needs.” The second time they were more open, and on the third visit I got a small apartment that had been used as bicycle storage on the ground floor.

I wanted to be an intern in a gallery, but it seemed nearly impossible. Besides being an administration for apartments there was administration for culture, so I became an intern in the cultural administration. There was a commissioner for the capital of East Germany, East Berlin, and there were a couple of people working there. Everything was changing and a whole country was dissolving and no one was sure when or how it would end. Since I had no phone, no refrigerator and no basic infrastructure in my flat, work was a lifeline—one with all of the facilities. At some point one of my colleagues said, “You have been to the West. We are starting a studio and art centre. You should tag along and if you like it you can do it.”

We looked at a former housing building for a factory, but it had trees growing through the ceiling. At first we thought it was too decrepit, but then we discovered that it was actually the factory—not the housing structure—that was available. We took it and had our initial programming in 1990 and in 1991 we officially opened KW in that facility on Auguststrasse, where it still exists. It was a very accidental starting of an institution. I went from an internship to helping starting it.

In October of 1990 the reunification of Germany happened and the East Germany government dissolved. I could have gone back to school or keep the institution alive. It was not really a question to leave because we had filled it with studios and exhibitions and a café. It was fully running, and then someone said, “You have a contract with the old government, which must be invalid now.”

In 1992 you organized a seminal show at KW, “37 Rooms,” which took place in 37 different empty spaces along Auguststrasse. What was the scope of that show and how did it impact the art scene both there and internationally?

There were 37 empty spaces—a church, hotel rooms, a classroom, a basement, a toilet, stores, empty lofts, etc. I invited 37 curators to each curate a room. In a funny way it’s a little bit like the Printed Matter Book Fair at MoMA PS1, where each room has its own support structure, its own network and its own artists list. It was from June 14 to June 21, 1992, which was related to the opening of Documenta. It was the first Documenta after the fall of the wall and many people were planning to visit Berlin. In one week, on one street, we had 37 different exhibitions with 37 different curators. John Miller and Aura Rosenberg were one curatorial team; they had a toilet with work by Mike Smith. Nan Golden, Yoko Ono, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres were also exhibited. We had 35,000 visitors, which surprised the local inhabitants of the street. They didn’t know that it would stop after one week—they thought it was the new normal, so they were relieved when it did stop. It helped establish Berlin Mitte as a destination for art and created even more opportunities. It was a bit like a lost innocence—before it was under the radar and secret and afterward it was well known. We had already worked with Joan Jonas on a project and had already reached out to many international artists, but after that it was much easier to make things happen.

Was the concept for the show related to the inaugural show at PS1, “40 Rooms,” which Alanna Heiss curated in 1976?

No, it was more related to a show that Jan Hoet, the curator for Documenta IX, had organized in Ghent, Belgium, in 1986. His exhibition “Chambres d’Amis” featured 50 contemporary artists exhibited in 50 private homes. Our show was more of an actionist version of it. Everyone was curious to see how people lived in the East. It could now be subtitled “The Lives of Others.” The first two years that I lived in the East everyone looked into your courtyard. They would knock and ask if you had water. It was so funny because it was like living in a zoo when I first lived on Grosse Hamburger Strasse and then Kaskelstrasse and then Auguststrasse. Inspired by this feeling of living in a zoo, we took “Chambres d’Amis” and exaggerated it—like, why don’t you come right in. It was more about life than it was about art. We had Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s empty bed and Nan Golden’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” It was an introduction to a new area of the city, and a very timely show.

You also founded the Berlin Biennale in 1996, the same year that you became a curator at MoMA PS1. Why did you feel a biennale was needed in Berlin and what role have you seen it play in developing the art scene there?

In the mid-‘90s—except for KW, which was relatively modest because we didn’t have the big exhibition space in the back that we had to build it—there was no institution that would show contemporary art on a larger scale. None of the city’s institutions could show contemporary art on an international scale. There was a need to show the burgeoning generation of artists. In 1995 several of the artists of that generation were excited to see the Aperto section of the Venice Biennale, but then Biennale curator Jean Clair decided not do Aperto. We—Daniel Pflumm, Monica Bonvicini, Aura Rosenberg, John Miller, Katharina Sieverding, Dan Graham, and others—decided that we would do our own Aperto and travelled to Venice. We used an old opera house to do a 72-hour program of performance, film, interventions and a marathon. One of the first Internet congresses was also housed there. There were lots of international artists and an exhibition area. It was quite a big festival that we called “Club Berlin.” We had to clean up afterward, which was quite an effort. When we got back to Berlin we said, “Wow, we did everything.” At the time there were no cheap flights so we all went by train and we rented a barge. We thought it would have been so much easier if we had done it in Berlin. It was founded in that idea that Aperto did not happen so we did it. We decided that we could do it in Berlin, but what would we need? In 1996 we founded S.A. Showcase for Contemporary Art. It took us until 1998 to finally have the first one. We had a guest appearance of sorts, a guest space at Documenta in 1997, but the first Biennale happened in 1998. >

In 2006, you became the Chief Curator of MoMA’s newly formed Department of Media, which in 2009 you broadened to the Department of Media and Performance Art. The first performance show that you curated was “Performance 1: Tehching Hsieh,” with documentation of him punching a time clock hourly for a year. How did you discover Hsieh’s work and why did you think it was important to bring to public attention at that time?

One of the first artists that I started working with in Berlin was Joan Jonas. Then in 1992 I invited artists that ranged from Dan Graham to Marina Abramović to Lawrence Weiner to show. It was always understood that performance was a crucial part of contemporary art and KW always presented a performance program at the Berlin Biennale. That is largely due to one of the patron saint that I consider a very influential figure in my curatorial practice, Josef Beuys, and then having had that very beautiful coincidence of getting close to the artist Christoph Schlingensief, who often referred to Joseph Beuys in his work. Beuys was a strong force in the German art world. My art teacher was Katharina Sieverding, who was a master-class student of Joseph Beuys and my closest ally in Berlin was Christoph Schlingensief, whose work was inspired by Joseph Beuys. These things are very important. From the beginning of KW and the Berlin Biennale we had performance, like “Club Berlin” in Venice. Starting at MoMA in 2004 and then when helping to create a department, Tehching had been an inspiration. Since the early-‘90s, when I first learned about him, he had been a legendary figure for me. He is one of the most extreme endurance artists, one of the most extreme researchers into the human condition in terms of lifetime and work and leisure and sleep. He explored the human condition in terms of questioning your own purpose and productivity in life and your own perception of time and time in general. I had actually considered making a larger exhibition, but he had a very specific idea of how you can make a big exhibition and you cannot do it unless it’s seven miles long. In the end he agreed to show this one body of work.

It was just announced that he will be representing Taiwan in the next Venice Biennale. Do you think that you may have gotten the ball rolling for his career again with your exhibition?

What was beautiful about the MoMA show is that it got a large audience and for a show that was relatively modest in size the feedback was amazing. I think that was great and I’m grateful that it happened. I think that it is always the case with an artist that you personally admire and that you feel privileged to work with, so that was a beautiful outcome.

The following year you curated the now-legendary exhibition “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present,” which is one of the most popular shows in MoMA’s history. Why do you think that show made such an impact on the public?

It was one of the first performance retrospectives on that scale and that level of visibility. It was not the first re-performance exhibition, but it took as a given that you can re-perform, create a retrospective, create a timeline of an exhibition that then ends in the present, with Marina sitting in the atrium. First of all it’s a bit of a metaphor for what it is to look at art, so that is kind of a metaphor for what a museum represents. But then of course you have the hustle and bustle of New York, where no one looks each other in the eyes and no one has time, so it was like the antithesis of what the city is. There was always this one person sitting and you can look her in the eyes and you can spend as much time as you want. Coming out of this very narrative retrospective I think it created a tension and a presence that was surprising. When Marina and I first thought about the performance we thought that the chair opposite her would be empty much of the time. We never considered that there would always be a line of people waiting to sit there.

You followed that exhibition with the first of your performance exhibitions organized in collaboration with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “11 Rooms” in Manchester, which was followed by “12 Rooms” in Essen, “13 Rooms” in Sydney and “14 Rooms” in Basel in 2014. What’s the concept behind this show and why do you think something like it had not previously been staged?

You create a temporary museum for performances, so it’s like a sculpture gallery where each gallery has a sculpture; but the principal idea is that the sculpture basically goes home at seven o’clock every night. The sculpture is always a human being; it’s never the artist, him or herself. In a certain way the exhibition is over stepping the boundary of what is a private space and what is a public space. You always have the impression that its slightly too private when you enter one of these rooms and slightly too present or too close. We organized “15 Rooms” in Shanghai last year, but unfortunately for 2016 we had a venue planned that then had problems with financing so we might do 2017. The rule of the game is each year one more room, one more performance. It’s interesting how it unfolds as something with very strong energy in itself. The pieces all have a similar sort of energy.

More recently, in 2015, you curated the first solo exhibition at a major American museum of the celebrated Egyptian artist Wael Shawky at MoMA PS1, “Cabaret Crusades,” which recounts the history of the Crusades from an Arab perspective. It was a powerful yet complex show. How did it come about and how do you think it was it received by the audience in America?

Wael Shawky is an artist that I have followed for several years. Before the Arab Spring we had planned that I would teach in his art school in Alexandra. We had to postpone that idea. We then thought about doing a project for New York, which was when the first crusade film came out and the second one and eventually the exhibition came to include the third film. I felt that the feedback was very strong and it was right at the point where people could change perspectives and look at what is happening in the Arab world, trying to imagine both perspectives, both the Arab perspective and the Western perspective. It was an incredibly timely show. People stayed for hours. It was a very special show, a very strong experience.

MoMA PS1 celebrated its 40th anniversary with two stellar shows, “FORTY,” which was curated by the founding director Alanna Heiss, and “Vito Acconci: Where We Are Now (Who Are We Anyway?), 1976,” which you organized. Let’s talk first about “FORTY.” How did it recall the origin of the institution?

When I first approached Alanna Heiss about organizing something I wanted a show that would be a “Rooms” revisited. She wanted to look at it herself by meeting with as many artists as she could and start by talking to the artists. One very important component of the show is the aural history, her conversations with the artists. There are little sound stations throughout the exhibition. She felt that in retrospect “Rooms” for her was not only taking over the building, but it was also claiming that a room can be a one-on-one equivalent with the artwork itself, even if something like painting was shown. So Brian O’Doherty’s work or other pieces in the show exemplifies this idea. It was a great experience to work with Alanna on such a large show.

And how does Vito Acconci’s show fit into that formula?

We thought about who is the artist that exemplifies the artistic, ground-breaking, explosive energy of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Who is the artist that basically this institution is based upon? What happened before 1976? Of course, Alanna was very close to Gordon Matta Clark, but that was not an option because we wanted an artist that was alive, who was here and who has an influence and a voice in the city. We thought Vito Acconci could be this artist. We asked him under this premise would he agree that we do a retrospective leading up to the point where we opened in 1976 and he agreed under the premise that he and his partner Maria Acconci, his wife, would be working with us on designing and developing a contemporary design, which is what Acconci Studio does, for this exhibition. It’s a two-fold exhibition. It’s a retrospective up to 1976, but it’s also a newly developed exhibition designed by Vito and Maria Acconci. It was quite an experience, with Alanna’s show on the second floor and Vito on the third. It was quite a ‘70s moment, in all aspects of life.

What role do you think Acconci played in the development of performance and video art?

No pun intended, but he is an incredibly seminal figure. I meet so many artists and I always ask them who are the artists you are referring to and Acconci is one of the artists who they always mention. He is an incredibly influential artist. It is great for a younger audience to see so many of his pieces in one show.

Under your leadership MoMA PS1 has established a relationship to the burgeoning arts community in the Rockaways area of New York City and has been supportive of the local community on many levels. How did that relationship develop?

That relationship developed also a little bit like a surprise. Hurricane Sandy happened and the Rockaways is an area of Queens where I have had ties for sometime. It comes back to Joseph Beuys and Christoph Schlingensief and the location of social practice when something happens in your own community. We opened the VW Dome at MoMA PS1 for our efforts in Long Island City and since we are in Queens and the hardest hit area in Queens was the Rockaways it was a necessity to help. I think that it unfolded out of a necessity and the necessity is still not unnecessary—it’s still there. The boardwalk has just opened, not everything is restored. In the first week after Hurricane Sandy we had the first busloads of volunteers helping. Then we started a rescue base with tents and generators at 87th and 96th Streets, out of which came the temporary Rockaway rescue shelter and the Buckminster Fuller dome, which was programmed, supported and organized with all of the community groups. MoMA PS1’s project with Katharina Grosses is a part of this effort. Our involvement has been very organic.

Katharina Grosse’s project at Fort Tilden in the Rockaways has transformed one of the soon-to-be-demolished buildings there into a massive, three-dimensional, expressionistic painting. Why Katharina Grosse and why do you consider this to be such a significant piece for her and New York?

I went to the Prospect New Orleans biennial after Hurricane Katrina and the piece that impressed me most was the beauty of Katharina Grosse’s project in the ninth ward, where she had painted a house and fence and lawn in a golden yellow hue. It was a very fragile, very beautiful experience that she had created and I carried that with me. I had never lived in an area with a hurricane and when Sandy happened all of a sudden I was in the heart of it. After all of our on-going activities with the Rockaways we were told that the aquatics buildings in Fort Tilden would be torn down. That was the moment that I reached out to Katharina and she did this work. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack and the Abstract Expressionists have inspired Katharina. She is an abstract painter. What is the colour that you see best in the water and the colour that you see best on the beach? It is the colour of the lifeguards and rescue patrols—a very strong red, which is by definition already a colour that is a signal colour. Her piece deals with the idea that if you have a gesture or an expression—an abstract move of colour—it could also be weather triggered or it could be like an ocean spray, like a wind that comes from a wave. She painted it over the course of nine days. It was first white, then purple, then all red and then whiter again and then more red again. It developed over time. She applied a painting onto a surface that was a building, but it’s not a painted building it is a painting on a building. There is a huge difference. She worked very hard on it and I’m very grateful that she arrived at that point.