HOW TO GRASP THE WORLD THROUGH ART: AN INTERVIEW WITH AARON CEZAR

He is the director of Delfina Foundation and in 2021 will be on the jury of Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize. Parallel to these commitments, Aaron Cezar also works with Kunsthalle Praha to organize artist residencies, and he is a member of our international advisory board. In this interview, he spoke with an independent curator Tereza Záchová, among other things, about social solidarity, the importance of museums in the contemporary world, and performance as a means of understanding.

Aaron, you are quite ubiquitous in the contemporary art world, and have worked in an astonishing number of roles – what brings them all together?

I grew up in the state of Louisiana in America in a small, rural community called Soileau. The community isn’t incorporated – in other words, it isn’t designated as a city or even a village – it is just a group of farms and families that looked out for each other. This sense of community is something that was instilled in me at an early age and since then, I have tried to foster this spirit in everything that I do.

I left the community of Soileau at 18-years-old to go to Princeton University, and afterwards, my journey continued to New York and London. In each place, I found – or created – a community.

Within the contemporary art world, I have taken on different roles with many organisations through partnerships or appointments: Metal Culture, 2012 London Olympics, Marrakech Biennale, SAHA, Venice Biennale of Art, Caribbean Art Initiative, Art Jameel, Dhaka Art Summit, Art Dubai, and many others. What brings all of this together? My dedication to building communities and developing the eco-system for artists and audiences.

This commitment is most evident in my work at the Delfina Foundation.

The Delfina Foundation is described as an ‘incubator for creative talent’ – what kinds of talent are you currently nurturing at the foundation?

The mission of the Delfina Foundation is to provide an opportunity for creative practitioners to experiment with bold ideas, explore connections, learn new skills and build collaborations with colleagues, communities and institutions.

We provide a focussed environment for artistic research through residencies and a platform for the articulation of this process to wide audiences through public programming.

We divide our work into quarterly or seasonal periods. Generally, two of four seasons each year are open to independent creative projects and the other half is focussed on collective research through our recurring themes: Politics of Food, Performance as Process, Collecting as Practice and science_technology_society. While these themes operate as discrete strands, we also explore their intersections.

At the moment, we are hosting the fourth edition of our Performance as Process programme, which considers performance not as a medium but as a way of processing the world around us. We explore performance in the widest sense, from daily routines to religious rituals to live art. Through this programme we have staged performances with many partners, from Tate to Frieze London, but the most notable outlet of this programme was the 2019 Venice Biennale of Art, where I co-curated a major series of performances as part of the official public programme.

How do you define the Delfina Foundation’s long-term programmes such as Performance as Process or Politics of Food, etc.? Could you tell us about the positive and negative aspects of thematic programming?

Our themes begin as broad investigations, and over time, we develop more specific sub-themes. For example, our current programme of Performance as Process has the sub-theme of Future Rituals.

Just to give you a quick overview of our other themes: our Politics of Food theme explores the production, consumption and distribution of food, and over the last six years, we have considered food as a medium as well as a metaphor to expose wider social and cultural concerns. Collecting as Practice looks at the politics, psychology and philosophy of collecting and the role of collectors and artists in relation to collections and archives. We have initiated what is perhaps the world’s first residency programme for collectors, alongside artists. The Public Domain interrogates the notion of public space, both in the physical and digital sense, and our newest theme, science_technology_society crosses art, science and technology, seeking out new solutions to some of the world’s problems through interdisciplinary collaborations.

In 2014, when we decided to frame our work around themes, we spoke to a number of curators. One person asked me, ‘How do you stop your themes from becoming “trendy”, which is the tendency in the art world?’ My response was that we would recur the themes multiple times; we would go deeper and deeper into the issues. We were not looking to set superficial trends but to define our work more clearly.

The greatest advantage of the themes is that the Delfina Foundation, as an institution, has become a repository of knowledge around these subjects, which means that we can share our resources among both artists and communities – and we keep the ideas and connections alive over a longer period of time, not just the three-month season.

© Maxime Tétard
© Maxime Tétard

Although we know you as a curator of contemporary art, you have a background in contemporary dance. How has this influenced your work and defined your curatorial style?

When I left Soileau for Princeton, I fell in love with dance but I also studied economics. So, I have always been torn between the two sides of my brain!

My first curatorial projects were in the dance field and after learning more about visual culture, I started supporting artists and producing projects in the visual arts. As a curator, I am often drawn to projects that incorporate performance in the widest sense. I see curating as another form of choreography.

Previously you have been a jury member for a number of arts awards. What do you look for when judging?

I love participating in juries; in fact, at the Dhaka Art Summit, I chaired the jury for the Samdani Art Award. The winner received a residency at the Delfina Foundation.

With awards, I often think of the agency of a prize. I take my role very seriously, and I think of my responsibility as a jury member. Each selection sends out a message. A vote can be seen as a form of validation to the rest of the art world.

I always think about the opportunity that the award will create for an artist. Sometimes, it’s best to give the award to the ‘underdog’ – the qualified artist for which the prize will make a substantial difference and give much-needed visibility, rather than the clear ‘star’ of the group. However, this does depend on the aims of the specific award, which always need to be taken carefully into account.

At the Delfina Foundation, we also have juries for our residencies. In those selection meetings, we often consider the potential of the artist and how a residency with us in London will help to progress their ideas and their career. In that context, we are often looking for diamonds in the rough and not fully polished gems ready to be displayed in a museum case.

Speaking of museums, how do you see the role of the museum in today´s world?

Museums catalogue the advancement of civilization. They are immense archives of cultural and knowledge production, but some are stale and inaccessible. It is no longer sufficient to just present art and artefacts; interpretation is key, and this should not be limited to wall labels. Technology is opening up new opportunities for museums to engage with audiences through social media, augmented reality, etc.

Artists can also help more widely in critically translating material and making it relevant today. As part of our Collecting as Practice theme, we have initiated residencies with museums like the Tate, the Horniman Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A has an ongoing programme of residencies at the museum and in 2017, we jointly hosted Indian artist Avani Tanya. During her residency she had access to the museum’s vast collection and decided to create an alternative guide to the South Asia collection, which was largely amassed when Britain was the colonial power in the region. The book reflects different readings of the collection from multiple perspectives and opens up new ways of viewing the works. Her book is now on sale at the V&A bookshops.

To me, performance is an alternative way of recording and (re)writing history. I think that performance art can add to our understanding of museums and their holdings through the live experience. The Tate and MoMA are at the forefront of this discourse, but they focus on modern and contemporary art. It would be great to see more collaborations with encyclopaedic museums and historic archives, for example.

In 2014, when we decided to frame our work around themes, we spoke to a number of curators. One person asked me, ‘How do you stop your themes from becoming “trendy”, which is the tendency in the art world?’ My response was that we would recur the themes multiple times; we would go deeper and deeper into the issues. We were not looking to set superficial trends but to define our work more clearly.

The greatest advantage of the themes is that the Delfina Foundation, as an institution, has become a repository of knowledge around these subjects, which means that we can share our resources among both artists and communities – and we keep the ideas and connections alive over a longer period of time, not just the three-month season.

​​​​​The interview was led by independent curator Tereza Záchová
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The full interview is a part of Kunsthalle Conversations, a book we will release in 2021. The publication consists of interviews with ten inspiring personalities who significantly contributed to the development of the vision of Kunsthalle Praha and to our programme.


AARON CESAR (US)

Aaron Cezar is the founding director of Delfina Foundation. He is also a member of Kunsthalle Praha’s international advisory board. Throughout the past three years he has featured in the Power 100 ranking, released by Art Review magazine as an annual selection of the most influential people in the art world. He organizes residencies for artists from around the world and further supports talented artists by organizing exhibitions and educational programs at prominent institutions such as the Institute of Contemporary Arts or the Hayward Gallery. He has also sat on the jury of countless art events. In 2019 he was among the curators of the performance program at the 58th Biennale in Venice, and in 2021 he will be on the jury of the Turner Prize, Britain’s most renowned artist award.

© Maxime Tétard
© Maxime Tétard

Kunsthalle Praha is a newly emerging space for art and culture in Prague´s historical centre. It will offer visitors a wide range of exhibitions and educational projects, cultural events and social activities. Kunsthalle Praha´s mission is to contribute to a deeper understanding of Czech and international art of the 20th and 21st centuries and to communicate this with a dynamic, contemporary programme to the broadest possible public.