Tate Exchange at Tate Modern opened in 2016 and describes itself as an open experiment exploring the role of art in society. It offers a unique platform that combines curation, education and social participation. In doing so, it brings together the work of international artists, members of the public and contributions from over sixty ‘Associates’ who represent an array of organisations, large and small, from diverse fields within and beyond the arts, including education, youth engagement, health and wellbeing, and community advocacy. Crucially, Tate Exchange has afforded its Associates a great deal of freedom to devise and curate their own contributions for an annual themed programme, allowing for an entire floor of Tate Modern’s new building to be dedicated to participatory artworks, workshops, activities and debates.

In 2019–20, the overarching theme was power. In response to this, two Associates, Winchester School of Art and Stance Podcast, sought to direct a project called Nothing to See Here. The aim was to foster social proximity with three other Tate Exchange Associates – Valleys Kids, People Empowering People, and John Hansard Gallery – each of which work in highly creative ways, deep within local communities (way outside of the ‘art world’ bubble), often working through very live issues of social and economic hardships. Everyone involved was due to join together to produce a podcast series, which would explore the value of art and creativity as it actually takes places within the local circumstances of the collaborating Associates. The series was to be launched at a special event at Tate Modern at which the audio would provide an invisible soundscape across the entire floor of Tate Exchange, which would otherwise be completely ‘empty’ (‘nothing to see there’). A dedicated forum had been planned, inviting the collaborating Associates and their communities, guest speakers and members of the public, to engage in critical dialogue about the ‘values’ of art and creativity, about the voices that are allowed to be heard, and the right for us to look.

One such guest speaker was Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, and author and editor of key texts on visual culture, including An Introduction to Visual Culture (1999), Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews (2000), Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (2005), The Right to Look: A Counter-History of Visuality (2011) and How to See the World (2015). Mirzoeff had been a key inspiration for the project concept, not least due to his use of the phrase ‘nothing to see here’. As it turned out, however, there really was going to be nothing to see.

Photograph of part of the floor and windows in the Tate Exchange space at Tate Modern, empty

The home of Tate Exchange on the fifth floor of the Blavatnik Building at Tate Modern

The COVID-19 health crisis swept across the globe just as the project was finding its footing; just as the collaborators were working out when and where they could meet, among their other pressing activities and duties. There was a great deal of good will, excitement and anticipation for what this ‘open brief’ project was going to bring. Yet, as country after country went into lockdown, social distancing rules were being enforced precisely when the project collaborators were working towards proximity and exchange. As a form of observing the ‘passing’ of this event, to acknowledge the fact that nothing can now be shown for its endeavour, and yet that this very precarity of our right to be seen was always at the heart of the project, the following interview with Nicholas Mirzoeff explores some of the conceptual concerns, which also, inevitably, come to be framed within this unprecedented global event.

The right to look is not about seeing. It begins at a personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love. That look must be mutual, each person inventing the other, or it fails … It is the claim to a subjectivity that has the autonomy to arrange the relations of the visible and the sayable. The right to look confronts the police who say to us, ‘Move on, there’s nothing to see here.’ Only there is, and we know it and so do they.1

Sunil Manghani: This quote is taken from the opening of your book The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (2011). Can you say more about your understanding and application of our ‘right to look’? And perhaps to connect this to the eco-system of arts and culture organisations, large and small.

Nicholas Mirzoeff: I’m writing this in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. While three police restrained Floyd, as the world now knows, one knelt on his neck and killed him, while a fourth attempted to disperse a small crowd of bystanders turned protestors. ‘Nothing to see here.’ Because a seventeen-year-old happened to capture this moment with her phone, one of the more than 1,000 police killings per year in the United States was made visible. ‘Nothing to see here’ is a structural lie, designed to sustain white supremacy.

I did not write it that way in 2011 because it was very hard at that time, ten years after 9/11 and in a decade of war, to imagine what a counterhistory to that way of seeing felt like and looked like. Almost as soon as I finished The Right to Look, the uprising in Tunisia spread to Egypt and people began to gather in spaces where they were not supposed to be, from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street. In those spaces, I began to experience what it was to have the right to look. At the same time, I learned what I should already have known: that this ‘right’ was systemically and structurally uneven. Black Lives Matter, founded in 2012, became national in 2014 when Eric Garner was murdered in New York City, saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ just as George Floyd would do in 2020, and just as psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon had written in 1952.2 In the US, the spaces in which we gather to protest are (nearly) all stolen land, taken from the Indigenous by deceit and force, after viruses, slavery and war had killed an astonishing 40 million people in the Americas between 1492 and 1610.

Crowd of protesters, some wearing virus protection face coverings, some holding up placards reading Black Lives Matter, RMF with the BLM fist logo, Take It Down, Cecil Wants a Swim, ACAB

Protesters calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, 9 June 2020

It may seem that these long structural histories of violence have nothing to do with art and arts organisations. Importantly, curators in the UK have insisted that the conversations that began before COVID-19 must continue. Museums cannot take funding from fossil fuel companies – credit here to Tate for finally ending these sponsorships, and the British Museum must follow suit. Nor does the concept of the ‘universal’ museum make sense in the context of social distancing, quarantine and highly limited travel. Cultural property like the Benin ‘bronzes’ and the Parthenon Marbles must be returned. In the US, where protestors have continued to insist that making public space a space in which there might be a right to look, the possibility to encounter each other freely depends on the removal of monuments to past oppression. In Louisville, Kentucky, a protestor removed the right hand of a statue of King Louis XVI: the French Revolution continues. In Richmond, Virginia, Monument Mile, filled with Confederate statues, was the scene of widespread graffiti tagging: the Haitian Revolution continues. In Philadelphia, protestors forced the removal of the statue of racist police officer Phil Rizzo: Rhodes Must Fall continues.

Sunil Manghani: The planned project, Nothing to See Here, was about the empowerment of those engaged in local arts and culture, and was concerned with wider debates about how we value arts and creativity as democratic forms. Based on extensive public engagement, Arts Council England’s Strategy 2020–2030, for example, reveals tremendous appetite for creative and cultural opportunities and a genuine valuing of ‘everyday creativity’.3 Interestingly, participants relate to a wider range of creative, rather than cultural, activities. Barriers to opportunities vary but include the perceived lack of available spaces and facilities, the lack of self-confidence, and too few opportunities to succeed in creative industries – something that is exacerbated in smaller communities and disadvantaged groups. How might this relate to ideas of the ‘distribution of the sensible’?4

Nicholas Mirzoeff: At first, COVID-19 was hailed as a leveller, a virus that did not observe boundaries. As the pandemic spread, it moved past celebrities and global travellers and took hold in urban areas already marked by deprivation and inequality. Like AIDS before it, COVID-19 has proved to be profoundly illuminating. It takes the path of least resistance, which is to say, that of greatest inequality. Locality is destiny. Where community has often been used as a bureaucratic talking point, many of us have experienced it differently in the pandemic, in everything from mutual aid projects to collective clapping for carers, and now the reclaiming of streets and time from the police.

The ‘distribution of the sensible’ is French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s concept for designating how the visible relates to the sayable: how does a person describe what they see? When is a picture worth a thousand words? Conversely, when there are ‘no words’, what happens? In the extremities of the epidemic and racialised violence, such intense sensory experiences are happening almost every day. They are precisely not ‘everyday’ in the sense of routine or banal but they highlight how the experience of everyday life – shopping, walking, travelling – has become an emergency.

In a possible future that now feels remote, where the intensity of this emergency has subsided, all who went through it will need to find ways to express and work it through in ways that do not flatten its uneven and unequal characteristics. Creative spaces in which to do this work should be thought of as public utilities in which the ‘output’, to use the dreadful bureaucratic jargon, will be a new form of the common good. Not one public enquiry led by the usual titled old white man but a series of local enquiries into what the public should now become, which is to ask: what common provisions are needed for the possibility of human life where you live?

Sunil Manghani: The Associates provide a collective programme that Tate Exchange describes as ‘brave, risk-taking’ and as fostering ‘new thinking on the museum’.5 However, despite the focal point Tate Exchange provides for Associates to explore and promote their own interests, it is also the case that the space exerts a certain gravitational pull, centring all eyes upon what Associates do at Tate, rather than the everyday work they do within their own communities elsewhere, away from Tate. There is arguably a necessary trade-off between spectacle (that can draw us together) and visibility (through which we can act). Interestingly, the nomenclature surrounding Tate Exchange is unstable and contested. It is hard, sometimes, to explain exactly what it is and how it situates within museum. This is seemingly testament to the fact that it is offering something different.

Photograph of the empty Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with its temporary glossy black floor during Tania Bruguera's Hyundai Commission

Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall during Tania Bruguera’s 2018 Hyundai Commission

The work of the artist and activist Tania Bruguera, who acted as both a lead artist for Tate Exchange and as Turbine Hall commission artist in 2018, is a good point of reference. Her dual role raised important questions and opportunities for thinking through the relationship between the art establishment and socially engaged practice. Yet, one of the difficulties of curating an artist such as Bruguera in the context of a large, complex museum such as Tate, which is driven in many respects by the needs of spectacle and consumption, is that the exhibited outcomes, as with Bruguera’s Turbine commission (and its interaction with Tate Exchange itself), do not necessarily do justice to the underlying working processes. Nonetheless, when engaging directly with Bruguera, witnessing her working practice of ‘being together’ with others within the setting of Tate Exchange, we can begin to understand a more complex notion of agency: as that which goes beyond the unique property of specific individuals, towards more fluid and transpositional creative engagements. Picking up again on what you describe as being mutual in our right to look, perhaps you can reflect further on how social participatory art (and artists) can be appropriately framed within the art museum, and how that might evolve.

Nicholas Mirzoeff: I think we want to start by not assuming it’s obvious what words like ‘art’ or ‘museum’ mean or should mean. Some have seen art as a form of social justice organising, community building, storytelling, environmental action, and so on. How can a ‘museum’ act as a venue where all of these meanings can be kept in dialogue with each other and with the public? In a time of social distancing, what does participation now mean?

One example that comes to mind, drawing on the past work of groups like Black Audio Film Collective, is Autograph. They hold gallery shows in and around the area of Black British photography in their Shoreditch space but they also make an ‘exhibition in a box’ that can be given to schools or community groups to make their own exhibitions. Not stopping here, Autograph also project work from their shows outside busy Underground stations used by Black British people.

A question that I’m working on as a writer, curator and activist asks: what kind of projects might be effective in having people identified and identifying as white find a similar level of engagement with their histories? Just as white people think of themselves simply as people, white artists and their work are not considered as part of whiteness unless they explicitly address the issue. I’m partnering with Magnum Foundation in New York City, where I happen to live, on a project about the visual politics of whiteness. It was set to have an exhibition, an online publication, meetings and so on. All that will need to be revisited as the sheer violence of white supremacy has again become so visible.

Sunil Manghani: As a way of looking back on your long engagement with visual culture studies, and yet equally to ask you something about the particular circumstances we find ourselves in right now, I recall an occasion, in a research seminar, probably around the year 2000, in which you reflected on the first edition of The Visual Culture Reader (1998). You were then working on the second edition and suggested you had perhaps not previously picked up enough on the significance of digital culture. Subsequent editions have, of course, addressed this matter in detail, but it always struck me as an interesting observation about how we must work through our contemporary conditions. We are embedded in certain infrastructures and technologies that do not necessarily reveal their full significance all at once. The health crisis we are currently living through has been utterly awful, decimating lives and social ties. Yet, typically of demotic culture, there have been tremendous levels of creativity, which primarily has had to involve digital, networked media. I wonder what your thoughts are on this matter and how things might shape our engagement with the arts; how, for example, Tate Exchange and prominent art museums, such as Tate, might find themselves responding?

Nicholas Mirzoeff: In 1999, I wrote ‘modern life is lived on screen’.6 It was received by art history as a controversial statement. In the present Zoom-mediated society, where cell phone video is the primary vector of social change, it might be better understood as prefigurative. By that, I mean the small number of people online in 1999 prefigured a future that is now upon us. The raw numbers tell the story: 23 million had internet access in the US in 1999; 288 million today. That’s still just 87% of all people so digital access is not universal.

Worldwide, about 54% of people are estimated to have internet access of some kind. It’s one of several indices of change. Most people now live in cities (since 2011) and most people are aged under thirty (since 2008). What kind of world does this young, networked, urban majority want? Before the pandemic, there were some clear indications on priorities, such as climate catastrophe, violence and racism.

They’ve also created their own media forms. First came the selfie, initially despised, now universal. The social media ‘story’ was next, and the short video-clip, first as Vines, now Tik-Tok. Video as citizen journalism, like Darnella Frazier recording the murder of George Floyd, has more impact than most professional journalism. Not much of the existing cultural institution repertoire translates well into this mediated world. Talks and panels are fine but that’s about it. The digital exhibition or museum visit hasn’t been very inspiring as of yet because they are translations. Born-digital exhibitions could certainly work.

But what would a digital exchange that was about sharing look like? For the most part, the internet exists to facilitate commercial exchange or, simply put, shopping. In social media, the user agrees by clicking on an unread document to exchange their data for access to platforms where they supply the content. How can museums become a platform for people to supply content without either of these forms of exchange as part of the revived common good? I look forward to seeing Tate lead on this issue!