Heather Jones: You’re an independent curator and writer currently serving as a Professor of Art Theory at the Royal Institute of Art (KKH) in Stockholm. Prior to this you received an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and a PhD from Columbia University. At what point did you decide to rigorously study art?
Natasha Marie Llorens: I did a BA in art history with a focus on 19th century Orientalism in French painting. I was 17 and reading Edward Said’s Orientalism for the first time and the implications of his argument just blew my mind. Put very simply, I understood the point to be that colonization made a picture of the world as it wanted the world to be and then forced that reality on millions. This implied that aesthetics are central to the colonial project and not some decorative residue that accumulates in its wake.
With Said, I realized that I didn’t have to run the gauntlet of the political science bros and their bizarre rationalist masculinism to study politics. I could understand everything I wanted to know about violence and power from within the field of aesthetics, broadly defined. I should say that this was my conclusion as a junior in college and that I have since learned that one cannot really avoid the political science bros altogether, and anyway some of them are smart and nice. But at the time it was a huge relief to be able to develop intellectually just slightly out of sexism’s line of fire. Studying art offered me a measure of grace as a thinker.
HJ: Your research and writing broadly center on contemporary art and film, with a focus on representations of violence and decoloniality in art and its institutions. What is your experience working with these topics within the setting of an art academy?
NML: I don’t teach my own research at the moment. Three years into my appointment, it is my assessment that my students, generally speaking, neither address nor feel particularly interested in these aspects of contemporary art discourse. Perhaps there is conversation about race and colonial violence (against the Roma people, against the Sami, against immigrants from the Middle East) happening outside KKH, between colleagues at the faculty level, or at other art schools in Sweden, but with a few rare exceptions I do not observe it taking place among students. And it does not feel productive to try force students to confront their own uncomfortable complicity with hegemonic power structures, especially as a foreigner.
HJ: More specifically, you’ve heavily engaged with contemporary art in North Africa and the Middle East. How did you arrive at this research focus, and are you able to continue exploring this vein while based in Sweden?
NML: I have found that, for many, the most satisfying answer to the question “Why do you work on Algeria?” is that I am descended from Spanish colonists who settled in the Algerian capital in the 19th century. My father was born there and spent part of his childhood there, so you could call me a first generation immigrant from coloniality on that side. But this family connection is a bit of red herring. I think to some people it grants my work legitimacy, like—I am not just a white woman interested in “the region”. But I am also that, of course, and the implication that I would have some privileged access to Algerian history by virtue of my personal history is a bit of a problem, unless it is expressed by Algerians who actually know my family.
With regard to the family connection, I have learned to put it this way: I am a white woman so viscerally close to coloniality that the fantasy of innocence is unavailable to me. So, at some point, I just submitted to the ghosts I did not choose but rather inherited and started doing the work to understand them more deeply.
The other answer, which I feel is the more honest one outside of Algeria, is that I was disillusioned by Modernism and the intense whiteness of art history at Columbia, which is where I did my graduate work. In despair about how to stay in the program, I went to a screening of Algerian films at MoMA organized by Rasha Salti on a whim, alone, and was fascinated by how intellectually vast these works like Tahia Ya Didou were. I needed a dissertation topic, my department wanted me to focus on one medium and one country, so I picked film and Algeria. That was eight years ago, and the rest of the work evolved from progressive—and joyful—entanglement with people, with artists, and with the complexity I encountered along the way.
At the risk of disappointing you, I would say that I work with the North African context despite being based in Sweden. I presented one paper on an Algerian filmmaker in the context of Experiences of Oil, as you know, but otherwise my collaborations have depended on debates taking place in France, the US, and Algeria.
This is slowly changing: I am working with Index Foundation in Stockholm to bring their team to Algiers to prepare an exhibition in 2024 connected to my research with Massinissa Selmani on Algerian socialism, and I have had some warm preliminary conversations with the Nordic Art Association to work on a public program in 2024 with a long-term collaborator of mine based in Algiers, Myriam Amroun. But I would say that the art world in Stockholm is one of the most intensely segregated art scenes I have engaged with in a long time, and articulating the relevance of my work here is a project on its own.
HJ: In your proposal for the CAS Residency, you mentioned that you are at a moment of transition in your writing practice. Could you tell us more about this, and what you hope to gain from your time in Stavanger?
NML: I am in the early stages of developing a long-term collaboration with Algiers-based curator Myriam Amroun to explore the connection between art scenes and curatorial practices the Nordic region and North Africa with an eye to developing methodologies in line with Tuck and Wang’s groundbreaking text, “Decolonization is Not A Metaphor.”. The residency gives me a chance to flesh out my understanding of the Norwegian context beyond Oslo and Bergen and eventually a more grounded return with Amroun in 2024.
I am also at a moment of transition in my writing practice. Since the end of the pandemic, I have been consistently publishing critical writing on the Nordic region for the international press, trying to connect to what is being made and thought here. Reviews are exhilarating to write, fast and sharply responsive. These have been a great way to get the taste of the dissertation in art history I finished in 2020 out of my mouth. But my writing is changing, getting more auto-theoretical, less interested in the fantasy of autonomy implicit in traditional criticism, and less academic. I would use the residency, fittingly, to play in this space of transition.
HJ: You also mentioned a desire to explore the function of art criticism from a place of “disciplinary disorientation.” Can you describe this term, and what kinds of possibilities this perspective might open for arts discourse?
NML: The “disciplinary disorientation” relates to a crisis in my writing provoked by my teaching. I took a job at the Royal Institute of Art in 2020 because I was interested in what happens to theory in a context that privileges material processes over pseudo-academic rhetoric. Three years in, I struggle with my students’ conviction that the violence language enacts on the sense-world is too great to justify compromise with it. I have great deal of respect for their collective sincerity on this point. We are not talking about a complacent avoidance of language, but a substantial refusal to submit to it.
But I do believe that there is a necessary compromise to make with language, despite its unavoidable violence—even for makers. Intellectually, I am coming from a deep commitment to Kateb Yacine, the Négritude movement, the world-building of science fiction writers like N.K. Jemison and Arkady Martine, and the immense rhetorical contribution of ecological thinkers like Anna Tsing, among so many others. I believe that without access to discourse, my students will be excluded from the meaningful artistic debates of their generation, but I also understand the politics of refusal to empty internationalization. So I have been thinking a lot about the forms of language that do not simply reproduce the hegemony of discourse performed so effortlessly in the art world’s centers of power.
This thinking is disorienting, and deeply challenging to my own sense of what kind of language in art is relevant, and to whom. That’s the short answer, but I hope to have some time to set these thoughts into straight lines during my residency at CAS.
HJ: It seems that your work often purposefully involves long-term collaborations and “professional entanglements.” Can you describe the importance of relationships in your work, and your approach to working with collaborators over time?
NML: I am against objectivity, or the idea that somehow we human creatures are ever able to act in a fully self-conscious sense. This notion of objectivity has been used to justify bureaucracy in its most monstrous forms; it has served as bulwark against the feminist, non-white, non-binary queers for a millennium. So, I work with my friends, with my lovers and ex-lovers, with people I trust without knowing why, with people who are kind and smart, with women who are overwhelming and brilliant, and with people working unstrategically because there is something they can’t let go of and they don’t know why. This comes from a deep sense that professionalization in my field has killed something important about what it means to make sense and to share that sense with others—though I do realize that I say that from within a career of durable affiliation with elite institutions, so my protest on this point is a bit weaker than some of my more radical colleagues.
Working slowly with people over the long-term protects me, to some extent, from the demand for spectacularism or the performance of marketable, sexy thinking.
Also, to be frank, I am sanguine about the glass ceiling that hovers stubbornly over female-identified theoreticians in any discipline. I am tempted to say it hovers especially over the lesbians, but really any woman past a certain age is vulnerable to invisibilization. Working with others the way I do gives me some way of responding to structural marginalization by heteronormative masculinism, rather than just getting isolated and bitter about it.
HJ: Do you have any upcoming projects or current research that you can share with us?
NML: This fall I am working on a book about a trio of exhibitions I made on contemporary art by those who identify with Algeria, all entitled Waiting for Omar Gatlato. The last version is up in Grenoble, France at the CNAC Le Magasin through October 2023. This book will be in French with a summary English translation so that the whole project is accessible to Francophone audiences, especially those in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It’s an important archive, and I will also be happy to close the project and move on to more experimental ways of engaging with the Algerian scene.
I am opening an exhibition in Algiers at rhizome gallery, which is Massinissa Selmani’s first solo exhibition is his natal Algeria and an important first phase of a project on socialism and urban planning in the 1960s that we’ve been collaborating on for several years. I’d like work iteratively with curating more in the coming years, re: my comment above about entanglement.
But the most overwhelming thing I have on my plate at the moment is the construction of a new center of excellence in artistic research thematically organized by something called “Art and the Political Imaginary.” I applied to the Swedish Research Council with Axel Andersson, a colleague at KKH, Mick Wilson and Jyoti Mistry from Valand Art Academy in Gothenburg to establish the first such center in Sweden and our bid was successful. The next semester is the planning phase for this initiative, which is set to open in January 2024 and has five years of initial funding.
Natasha Marie Llorens is a Franco-American independent curator and writer based in Stockholm, where she teaches art theory at the Royal Institute of Art and co-directs the Center for Art and the Political Imaginary. Llorens is a regular contributor to Artforum and e-flux Criticism. Her writing has also recently appeared in ArtPapers, Art Margins, and frieze, as well as in exhibition catalogs for Djamel Tatah and Ulrike Rosenbach, among others. In 2019, she edited the first English-language anthology on aesthetics in Algeria (Sternberg, Wallach Art Gallery) and, in 2022, she won the Andy Warhol Arts Writers grant. Llorens holds a Ph.D. in modern art history and comparative literature from Columbia University (2021) and an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2011). She is currently at work on a book project about five experimental films from the 1960s and 1970s in Algeria, and a research project on the 1970s Algerian urban planning initiative called the 1000 Socialist Villages in collaboration with artist Massinissa Selmani.