|Umělec magazine 2007/1 >> Interview with Victor Misiano||List of all editions.|
Interview with Victor MisianoUmělec magazine 2007/1
Václav Magid a Alena Boika | interview | en cs de ru
Viktor Misiano is an art historian, an art critic, and the curator of numerous international art exhibitions including the Hamburg Project, Interpol, Conjugations, Moscow, and the Third Rome. He was the chief curator of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2003, and of the same exhibition in Central Asia in 2005. He is also the author of many publications on contemporary art, and the editor-in-chief of Moscow Art Magazine (AM), the only Russian publication dedicated to the theory of contemporary art. Umelec Magazine, published (#4/2004) an article describing the preparations for the First Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2005), and the scandal surrounding Viktor Misiano - who was not only one of the curators, but also the main author of the Big Project for Russia - and his exclusion from the event. Now, on the eve of the Second Moscow Biennale, the remarks of the "disgraced curator“ are especially relevant. This interview was prepared by Alena Boika and Vaclav Magid.
Vaclav: could you somehow describe the development of your work as a curator from its beginning up to the present?
I should admit I never wanted to be a curator. It happened involuntarily and, every time I tried to leave the profession, it seemed fate made me return to it. While studying at the Moscow State University I wrote my thesis on Late Renaissance Italian art. I planned to continue my historical research as part of my post-graduate studies. But that never happened. A different idea crept into my mind – I decided to radically change professions and to devote myself to sociology. I even knew which research center I wanted to work in – in the Soviet years there were many such centers – I chose the Scientific Research Institute - with its splendid library of sociology and political science. I wanted to study the sociology of information and cultural processes. That did not happen for a number of reasons. Instead, I went to work in the Pushkin Museum. However, two components - my interest in history— an inclination to view the present in relation to the past—and my interest in sociology—an inclination to view art against the background of social dynamics— determined my further work as a curator.
The first exhibition I took part in creating was Moscow-Paris, a Moscow version of Paris-Moscow (Pompidou Center, Paris) - a legendary mega project. I only began to work in the museum during the assembling process, when it was closed to the public. It was a massive historical art exhibition that used the entire infrastructure of the museum; it was five-six-ten times more elaborate than any known by art institutions in Russia and elsewhere. During the last days of assembling, those who worked on the exhibit slept on cots in the museum. It was a great exhibit in which the best Soviet and European art critics of that period were involved. The key figure from Russia was museum curator Marina Bessonova, with whom I later worked for ten years and whom I consider my teacher in many respects. It was she who first taught me that an exposition is a text through which you can make varied and profound statements that reflect diverse turns of thought and intonation. Watching the construction process of the monumental Moscow-Paris exhibit and my subsequent work with Bessonova on other exhibits (some of which were not realized) helped to liberate me from worshiping exposition objects. However, such worshiping was the foundation of the traditional museum exhibition, whose task it was to demonstrate independent artifacts or, as they say, to "show things." By the way, this approach to curatorial work is not only a characteristic of conservative museum employees of the past decades, but also of new art managers who pretend to curate exhibitions that are not intellectual expressions or research results, but simple showings of the works that have some autonomic values (in most cases attraction value).
Returning to the beginning of my professional career, after a year of working as a guide at the Pushkin Museum, I joined the Western Art Department, where my area of expertise was contemporary art (at last!). The Soviet era, by the way, provided very good conditions, both economic and "atmospheric," for thoughtful and balanced work. I spent several years reading books and writing a theoretical thesis. Among my few curatorial jobs in the museum was the design of a catalogue of Czech art (in my opinion, not a bad one) which included Václav Špala, František Kupka, Bohumil Kubišta, Josef Čapek, and works by many other outstanding Czech artists of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. I completed an academic processing of the collection, and prepared it for publication, but, unfortunately, the catalogue was never published.
To my curatorial "deeds" I can add the creation of the department of contemporary photography – which unfortunately did not continue to develop after I left the museum. However, being there I managed to add to the collection original works by modern Soviet and international photographers Alexander Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovich, and coordination with the higher authority. It appeared as a response to the demands of the West. Due to a number of reasons I had everything needed to meet those demands. I was a professional art critic and had organized exhibitions in the best museum of the country for ten years; regularly working on my thesis I learned several foreign languages and I could get into what we now call a discourse of contemporary art. Having such a combination of qualities was rare at the time. People involved in the discourse (mainly of underground art) had neither curatorial experience nor any humanitarian art education. And those who were part of legal institutions were not aware of an international art world. Because of this I was immediately pulled into curatorial work on an international level. I found this extremely interesting, but, in the end it moved me farther away from doing research and theoretical work, which strongly concerned me.
The best of my earliest exhibitions, which in my mind were all rather good, took place in 1987 in Rome, in Sala Uno - the oldest and, probably best noncommercial exhibition hall of the city. During the exhibition, titled Moscow, the Third Rome, what Kostya Zvezdochetov called the "Soviet contemporary art team" was born. Artists of the "perestroika" period worked on that and other exhibitions and with that the public’s optimism and energy increased.
Still, Moscow, the Third Rome held a peculiar position. The majority of „perestroika art” exhibitions were created by my Soviet and international colleagues and relied on former underground artists and the legendary circle of „Moscow conceptualism.“ They followed a system of relations formed within the art sphere. This circle, in fact, pretended to be a new "Soviet team."
The art I exhibited in Rome was not canonical: I included Andrey Roiter, Georgy Litichevsky, and Boris Orlov—artists who belonged to neither conceptual nor circum-conceptual establishments. I proceeded from the wish to introduce an informatory aspect of the project to the utmost—I worked from the concept of an exhibition as a text. (I proceeded in this case from the desire to maximally open the meaningful task of project, i.e., precisely from understanding of exhibition as text.
This is why Moscow, the Third Rome became a significant event and, in many respects, a crisis for the underground tradition. It turned out that my wish to create an author-curatorial project contradicted not only the principles of the official Soviet art system, but also those of its opponent– the underground sphere. The formation of curatorial practice went against the hierarchy of authorities that emerged here during the years of Soviet underground. An established culture of curatorial practice—that worked against the prevailing hierarchies came about as a result of years with the Soviet underground—tended to rely not so much on the creative, but rather on unrelated personal qualities. To be sure, such traits are irreproachable and extremely important in the context of opposing an entrenched establishment, but they are not of an artistic nature, and therefore would be barely suitable for the tasks of curatorial project, meaning this particular project.
As far as I can tell, artists even held a "party assembly" and discussed whether the artists I invited should take part in the exhibition. Paradoxical as it may seem, yet also very natural, the formation of curatorial work as an individual authorship contradicted not only the collectivist logic of the Soviet art system, but also the collectivist logic of the underground system. Nevertheless, the exhibition did take place, all the invited artists participated, and all liked the exhibition. American journalist Andrew Solomon, who defined the Moscow artists’ frame of mind at that time, mentioned in his book "Irony Tower" that Moscow, the Third Rome, though not the largest or most pompous, was regarded by the art media as the best perestroika exhibition (which, probably, was a slight exaggeration).
By the way, I proved to be right in my choice of artists, even though I lack the skills of a prophet: the artists who had pretended to participate in the exhibition, but whom I had not included, subsequently left the art practice and in the following years devoted themselves to journalism, design, business, and other socially important fields in post-soviet reality.
Vaclav: You mean you did not include them?
I did not include them (though their names were still included) for a number of reasons: not all of them were purely artistic, and not all of them were regarded by many (and not only by themselves) as eligible candidates for participation. To me, it seemed the exhibition that was created in Rome – the Eternal City and a capital of several earthly and spiritual empires – was a place where Russian artists experienced the last hours of one more empire. The exhibition, titled Moscow, the Third Rome, appealed to a chain of historiographic associations, and was intended to unite artists who had already seriously engaged with the issues associated with the exhibition, for a long time.
An important figure for the exhibition was Andrey Phillipov. It was he who, by that time, had already worked for several years with a formula for Moscow, the Third Rome. The formula, as is well known, goes back to the sixteenth century and Russian Tsar Ivan III, who, after Constantinople‘s decline, proclaimed Moscow as the imperial, spiritual and political center of the Christian world. Phillipov was, with Konstantin Zvezdochetov, another participant in the exhibition, the most consistent in implementing an authorial historical-sociological-physical mythology on the Moscow scene. Artists Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov, Boris Orlov and Vadim Zakharov offered a different, more deconstructivist and technical approach to the history of culture and history in general, while young artists Andrey Roiter and Georgy Litichevsky provided a more poetic and subjectivist view of history. In general, Moscow, the Third Rome dealt with the historic eccentricity of the late Soviet culture - when such leading intellectuals as Yury Lotman, Sergey Averintsev, Dmitry Likhachev, and Leonid Batkin were historians, and important problems were reviewed via the analysis of the past. After several years, maybe months, that era came to an end: the importance of measuring the "here and now" completely overshadowed the things of days lost on the Lethe.
During 1992 and 1993, a completely new stage was launched. Like everybody, I faced the challenge of the 90s, and dedicated several years of my professional curatorial life to work with this new context.
Vaclav: If curatorial work is manipulation, and an exhibition should be built as a text, then what would be the meaning of a work of art in such a context? Is it possible to create an exhibition of mediocre and insignificant works, which become significant as they are included into a context and form part of a curator‘s expression, or artist's expression?
Viktor: Your provocative question, as far as I understand, urges me to verbalize the essence of curatorial practice. I think this question remains open and unsolved. In particular, my work with the creation of Manifesta Journal relates to this in many respects; the fact that this magazine is the first professional periodical dedicated to curatorial practice - while, for example, pipe smokers have hundreds of such publications, if not thousands - shows that curators still lack a professional guild and identity.
The fourth issue of the magazine was dedicated to the theme Exhibition as a Dream. This exact wording seemed important to my joint editor Igor Zabel because it helps draw a line between curator and culture apparatchik, culture bureaucrat or manager (even though he might be adroit, witty, and well-informed). In curatorial work there is always a component of dreaming, imagination and obsession - a poetic, irrational, purely artistic and creative component. However, there is another component, which is usually absent from the work of an administrator, manager or apparatchik – it is the presence of some intellectual research program.
For Eastern Europe, separating these two spheres is especially important, because here (where curatorship appeared not very long ago) managers and bureaucrats do not eagerly recognize the autonomy of the profession; as a matter of fact, they are not interested in it at all. Moreover, this separation between curator and manager influences the personal fates of many people. During the early 90s, the new art scene involved people who were barely concerned with curatorial work and had not prepared themselves for it: they came from the underground and side spheres, and immediately came across a wide array of artificial tasks. These people guided international colleagues around the artists‘ studios and brought them together with gallery owners while simultaneously translating Jean Baudrillard, writing articles, elaborating theories, and organizing first institutions; their commercial and non-commercial activities often mixed. However, they still called themselves curators because this new and still semantically uncertain notion proved to be convenient for describing their syncretical activities.
Along with the formation of an art system - however rudimentary it was - the syncretism of the early 90s hero began to diversify, and the field of curatorial practice began to take shape and adopt specific cultural connotations. However, it is not so easy to abandon syncretism of transition; it had something demiurgic about it and a lot of non-verified symbolic power. This period had something that, from the economic sphere of Russia, was called an oligarch—an unprecedented concentration of economic, political and media power. Today, power is increasingly flowing into the business sector and political power has become synonymous with Putin‘s Russia, where all resources are appropriated by the bureaucracy. Because of this, many curators moved to business, management, and, of course, officialdom. This was natural because in the 90s, not all people who called themselves curators really wanted or were able to be curators. But at the same time, they didn’t want to give up the drive and pleasure of organizing exhibitions; or rather they didn’t want to stop identifying themselves as curators – they didn’t want to see the difference between an exhibition and a curator‘s project and, thus, to recognize some special artistic and intellectual status of the latter. Because of this, some irritation even appeared with the curator’s position and a desire to limit the curator’s autonomic professional status. However, this situation was just a special case of the natural and sometimes aggressive will to de-intellectualize - which is inherent in the post-communist world and has an extremely complex nature.
Of course, on the international level, the developments were entirely different; but there are still some analogies. In simple terms, in the 90s (in the context of the formation of communicational aesthetics - the "aesthetics of interaction"), in view of the specificity of was dominating art language at the time - the specificity of production of works, which became very situational and always concerned with certain context often assigned by a curator – the curator took on an exclusive significance.
If an artist became a more relational artist, then the curator became a performative curator, meaning he presented a highly artistic element. Today, artistic practice takes on different forms and is less situational, more stationary, and, at first glance, more traditional. Increasingly, curators do not realize themselves by creating unique projects, interactive situations or procedural laboratories; increasingly curators dedicate themselves to what they have done previously: the arrangement of works in exposition spaces. In this situation, as I see it in many countries, managers try to take advantage of the crisis of the performative curator in effort to appropriate the strong artistic infrastructure created in the 90s. And something even worse takes place: many curators voluntarily migrate in that direction, being enchanted by the romantic allure of cash-flow and the interstice of art with the machinery of the state. They abandon any intellectual or ethical dimension of the curatorial practice in favor of more populist vocations—which, by the way, are far from being a guarantee of popularity—and shallow eye-catchers favor vaudeville tricks and pure biopolitics.
Having provided such a broad overview, I can address your specific question about whether the curator‘s work could be absolutely autonomous with respect to an exhibited work of art. I think that it is conceivable. I mean, if we were to accept the intellectual and creative identity of curatorial practice, then we ought to admit that it is independent of any art work subject to the curator’s work. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a curator‘s fundamental task is to ignore the work of art. This characteristic of curatorial work is similar to the logic of many other complex kinds of creative work, such as theatrical production. Konstantin Stanislavsky constructed his outstanding "system" of production upon work with an actor, upon the revelation of the actor’s autonomous resource; Vsevolod Meyerhold regarded an artist as a mute within his production and scenographic machinery. Bob Wilson, with whom I created a joint project for Valencia Biennale (2001), sees the theater with a designer’s eyes: for him, an actor is as important as any other plastic element on the stage— something like furniture. (It is unlikely that he’d admit that openly, though).
I think that at some stages of curatorial work the development of a keen attention to one’s own creative resources becomes important, as happened in the 90s. In other cases, more intensive and sharper dialogue with the autonomic resource of his object is more important to the meaning of the work of an artist, and this is predominant today. As an analogous principle, we can see in any other creative work the dialectics between affection of one’s own autonomy and the tendency to authorial openness. Pierre Bourdie perfectly analyzed this using literary material.
I can give an example. At the 2003 Venice Biennale Hou Hanru‘s project in the Arsenal adjoined the work of my friend Igor Zabel, alas, now the late. Igor‘s project was founded on a very attentive and deep understanding of an artist and his work; in the next sector, where Hou‘s project was placed, the viewers‘ attention was arrested by the integral mise-en-scène. It was difficult to seriously concentrate on any given work because images were flashing on monitors mounted on several circles. That was a total and very strong curatorial expression, which recreated a prominent image of a stirring and vital Asian world. This did not minimize the merits of the prima facie less effective and austere project by Igor Zabel. His work had its own pathos and courage. Alongside classic authors of Art & Language, he dared to show a beautiful work of the young and then unknown Viktor Alimpiev, for whom it was a second collective exhibition in his life.
Vaclav: You have mentioned Manifesta. What can you say about the document in this view
Let‘s agree: The Manifesta Journal is a project that has no direct bearing on Manifesta, the biennale, because this magazine did not cover the exhibition. Manifesta, as is well known, is organized in different cities and its central office is located in Amsterdam. The office‘s function is to transfer the exhibition to a new place and then, to let go of any control over it. The conflict with Manifesta came about when Nicosia, Cyprus purchased the rights to present the exhibition, and consequently received the right to cancel it. The case persuaded us (I am a member of Manifesta Council) to somehow correct its statute.
In order to make the time between exhibitions less tedious, Manifesta President Hedwig Fijen, who has too much energy for boredom, took up my idea to issue a magazine about the curatorial craft. Manifesta initiated the magazine and therefore it naturally carries the name, Manifesta Journal. Manifesta is probably one of the most innovative periodic international forums of the 90s that encouraged alternative methods of curatorial work.
Documenta 12 Magazine was not conceived as a real magazine, but rather as a discrete project; a platform of discourse to accompany the exhibition. Four issues of Documenta 12 Magazine were planned as a dialogue with numerous geographically dispersed periodicals. Project authors were not so much interested in widely known and rather (alas!) commercialized editions, but in intellectual and experimental ones that are very abundant today, albeit more local. To be sure, the term "local" is not quite at home here. As far as I understand, the project’s meaning and symptomatology created by Georg Schoellhammer responds to the realities of a post-globalization world that, in contrast to the era of the 90s, is no longer determined by the dialectics of global and local. We now live in a situation where the discourse of contemporary art is dispersed all over the world. In every concrete context, a medium exists that fully reflects the world process. So, to create a world art project and think about the discourse surrounding it, it would be sensible to rely not on intellectual initiatives - which have already become a bon ton of modern mega exhibitions - but on authentic regional intellectual infrastructures that often constitute and develop via magazines. Documenta 12 Magazine tried to involve those editions into joint work and, having created four joint issues, to show the world a new discourse material of contemporary art. And it was necessary indeed: many editions whose printing reflect high values of production, are little known. Some, for example, do not provide any international—English—version. To be sure, sometimes that is deliberate—my own Art Magazine is a good case in point; these are published in the language of the geopolitical space where they are located. As for Documenta 12 as an exhibition… let‘s wait for its opening…
Vaclav: What do you think of the number and significance of big projects in comparison with more provincial and smaller local exhibitions or intellectual platforms in general – what is more deciding for contemporary art at present?
This is a question everyone is asking. Indeed, it is asked by life itself. It has long been said about the crisis with the "big exhibition" born from the modern era and the ecstatic globalization of the 90’s. It seems that the latest Venice Biennale and the Lyon Biennale, not to mention the one in Moscow, only confirm this hypothesis. Even in a project that I would consider successful, such as the Istanbul Biennale created by Vasif Kortun and Charles Esche, the main value is an attempt to revise the institution of the "big exhibition," to give it a new meaning and status, and to strip it of its universalist and globalist pretensions.
The "big exhibition" format was indeed adequate to the present era. The present claimed and constituted its universalist values via large-scale show. The last decade also relied on big projects. I think that this representative form was exactly adequate for the tasks of that period. At that time, the world, including the art world, developed quickly. In the 60s, contemporary art, as it seemed, only nestled in several centers of the Western world. Now it turned out that art was present in different places. The "big exhibition" was designed to embrace, realize, describe and simply physically, as they say, put all this immense art totality on a "work table." Without taking into account the element of time, we would not understand the best exhibitions of 90s—Documenta X and 11, Venice Biennales (1993, Achille Bonito Oliva), (2006, Harald Zeeman), (2003, Francesco Bonami), the institutional project of Manifesta, and many other projects. However, today, as we have already mentioned, the substance of the art world has changed. At the most recent Venice Biennale (2005), I showed the art of Central Asia and proved that the totality of contemporary artistic discourse has been implanted in this distant and little known corner of the global world. However, I don‘t think that the value of this project is limited to this. It is not geography, with which we connect the fundamental creative discoveries, as it is not the headway on the earth‘s surface, which brings surprises.
This is, by the way, the weak spot of Rosa Martinez‘ project at the latest Biennale (2005). The project‘s name was "Always a Little Further." It urged a moving forward, which is a slogan I consider inadequate for today. This dynamic and optimistic appeal is completely deep-rooted in a spirit of the past decade. Expansion of space, world migrations, dynamization of information and capital – all defined the 90s as they demanded from art greater efficiency, interaction, character in a work of art, and an ability to garner reactivity and fast consummation. The dominating poetics of that period – as we‘ve mentioned before – facilitated the creation of situational works made on the occasion of something. This and other circumstances suggested that mega exhibition was an optimal platform for representation of this kind of art: the richer the concentration of information, the more situational expressions can be collected in one place; the larger the scale, the better the global scene.
I think that by today, such poetics, as with the circumstances that gave birth to it, have come to naught. Of course, there is a real industry of "art for mega exhibitions," but, it is not the gist of the art process. The dynamics of time have changed; it does not rush "always a little farther" any more, meanings are extracted not from speed, but from an entirely different, more stationary understanding of time – time of thought and time of creation.
This is why a different context can sometimes be more adequate for current art. It is more a chamber within which one can guarantee a more concentrated and thoughtful mechanism for introducing a work of art - that turns out to be increasingly complex and non-accessible - which can be grasped quickly. Complexity is not only a "break through and forward," but, also a "backward motion," i.e. it is connected with a complex system of associations within history and our traditions. The leitmotif of Documenta 12 —"Is the Modernity our Antiquity"—seems of extreme interest to me. So, for many contemporary works, the context of a museum is most appropriate because the museum is a place where reality is achieved through the encounter between memory and unquestioned values. In other words, the academic status of a museum more related to the goals of exhibitions filled with significant intellectual meaning, and big content; and whose effect is supposed to last longer than the Biennale‘s infrastructure—ephemeral by definition. One of Boris Grois‘ latest texts, which I published in Art Magazine, contains a witty idea: the twentieth century began with an idea of overthrowing museums because they seemed dead, conservative, and obstructing progress; today‘s situation, a century later, has come full circle. The return to the museum enables a freedom at least to create more favorable conditions for solving the main tasks of the present. One of these tasks is the confrontation with the popularity of entertainment, which constitutes an official style of the ruling class today. It is especially obvious in Russia and the entire post communist world.
Therefore, it is typical that the openness of "big exhibits" towards this new official style makes them surrender to commercialism. The earlier, non-commercial "big exhibition" was a counterpoint at any trade fair. Today, large, periodical exhibitions tend to become a podium for samples of a commercialized mainstream, they have lost all of a scholarly or intellectual component, and their raison d‘etre is has given way. One need only open a copy of Frieze magazine, which for form‘s sake embraced a market event with a garden of non-commercial initiatives: today‘s establishment does not need a "big exhibition"; "big fair" is more adequate.
However, this all does not mean that it is impossible to work in the form of a „big exhibition.“ It does exist and continues to offer creative people an opportunity to create sensible expressions. We cannot deny the fact that it can be reformed and set in adequacy with new art tasks. It is a challenge, but one that can be accepted.
Vaclav: The next question is about the outlying districts – for who is contemporary art in such places: is it geared towards a local context, or towards a bigger context?
In response I will give you a concrete example. At present, I‘m working on a project that I call Progressive Nostalgia. It will consist of four independent exhibitions featuring artists from the countries of the former Soviet Union in four European museums. I believe, today, fifteen years since the end of the euphoria of the 90s, it is of interest to return to comprehending and discussing the Soviet Communist experience as a means of clarifying future strategies. Work on this project brought me to Yerevan, where I was thinking of organizing a fifth exhibition of this project—in one of the former USSR‘s locations. However, currently, it would make sense to invite not only post-Soviet artists, but also authors from Israel, India, Africa, and Europe, including Eastern Europe. This is how we can reveal that the disappearance of the USSR and communism is an international problem, and the Soviet and communist experience is also an experience of modernity and maintains a massive reactive strength.
Of course, preparing such an exhibition at a prestigious international platform will most likely be technologically easier, and will catch the attention of the media. Still, there is an array of reasons why it would be worthwhile to do it in Yerevan, Bishkek, Vilnius, or some other place that appears provincial from the rest of the world‘s point of view. Firstly, it is dictated by the inner logic of the project. This is how it obtains concept completeness and ultimate meaning. Secondly, purely personal and even sentimental reasons prompt me to do so: much in my life during that period - when those centers were part of my country - is concerned with those places. To come back there is an exciting personal experience. I conceived this project, Progressive Nostalgia, and it was my personal fate which gave birth to it, and not what I read in intellectual bestsellers. Finally, all those places are in the outlying districts, but, they are not provincial. Here they are compact and few in number; however, also valuable mediums - dialogue with it brings valuable intellectual and professional experience. To create an exhibition here may be much more interesting than anywhere else. I can give you more reasons, but it is already clear that in this work personal, existential and professional interests mix. In order to prevent you from thinking of me as a naïve idealist, I can add that I think this way is one to success; it remains one step behind a career, but in the end, it will always prevail at a great distance.
Finally, one more reason. Speaking about the production of a dialogue from a so-called province, I do not, at all, advocate isolation in a new type of sectarianism. One of AM latest issues was dedicated to so-called Zones of Autonomy/Zones of Solidarity. New communities align at the modern platform, united by creative dialogue, and ideological closeness; and, simultaneously, by polemics, joint work, etc. It is here where most interesting things take place today - on the grounds of personal decision and ethical choice, and not by way of industrial disciplinary projects and communities such as your Umelec and my AM appear. The main danger for these zones is to isolate themselves in their confrontation to commercialized mainstream and to obtain self-sufficiency inside these zones. It is extremely important to remember that each of these zones as well as every individual is part of a multi-dimensional chain of zones; a part of something, which, today, is called multitude.
Alena: My questions mainly concern the local context. How would you describe today‘s situation in the Moscow art scene? Commercialization as a subject has become commonplace; but there has simultaneously evolved a rather expressive leftist radical tendency. Do these tendencies spill over into each other? To my mind, these two tentatively identified trends – contemporary commercial art and contemporary „leftist“ art, artists and participants – are, if not one and the same, at least approaching each other. Is it so and what do you think are the tendencies?
Today‘s situation is mainly determined by the fact that the key player with art, as with all other aspects of Russian public life, is the state. And the Russian state is basically concerned with the establishment of the Moscow Biennale, which takes, at least according to the officials‘ statements, the lion‘s share of the budget allocated for contemporary art. As far as during the first holding of this initiative, the appearance of the state before Russian art demonstrated what it shows in other fields—professional incompetence, officials‘ arbitrariness, moral corruption (however, as many believe, not only moral), pressure upon media, etc. This event resulted in a split of the art scene into two camps: the ones who hurried to join the ranks of state art and become members of Putin‘s cultural establishment, and those who kept the distance or even publicly pronounced its opposition. In the first category one can certainly include Oleg Kulik, who signed the donos sent to ministerial officials, and received the best space for his project titled Stars as a reward; he is said to have pronounced toasts to Putin‘s health at the project opening. In the second category are mainly those who uphold a critical mission of art and not only them: indignation was expressed by many ethically motivated people and institutions such as the State Contemporary Art Center, the only professional organization in the field of contemporary art that declaratively refused to take part in the Biennale‘s program.
Today, two years later, the situation is not so straightforward anymore. It seems very intricate and controversial. On the one hand, many artists who had previously pronounced what they called a „leftist“ position are not hesitant to surrender themselves to the temptation of market relations and even to ideas of state and national ideology. On the other hand, they failed to escape deep disappointment as it turned out that market relations are extremely unstable: you can sign a multi-page contract with a gallery, but that will not prevent the gallery owner from ripping it to shreds. The state is not interested in taking notice of your readiness to work for it: for this, it is not enough to just make art which you believe would meet the demands of the powers that be. You also have to accompany it with self management; to be absorbed in intrigues and petty and non-petty dirty tricks, which demands special talents.
At the same time, any program of critical art, such as What‘s to Be Done? by Working Group, undergoes increasingly strong criticism from those who insist on artistic autonomy. The political art camp in Russia does not look as solid as it did two years ago. At the same time, the Working Group’s work is becoming more mature in its creativity and intellect. It has found support from young curators, critics, and institutions such as the National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA). It is increasingly efficient at building into the international context and even is a leader in its dialogues. This causes a simple-minded bewilderment among establishment leaders as they see that success is not single-lined and is not measured by market and media fame, and that career and recognition are not one and the same.
Construction of state art looks contradictory too. The Stars exhibition, in which Kulik showed himself and three authors, who, from his point of view, approach his star status, caused mostly unkindly reaction. Not only among the artists who were so openly referred to as second class; this conjuncture initiative was even criticized in mass press, for which this project was designed. It did not prevent Kulik from preparing a project with a diametrical program, titled I Believe, for a new biennale. This project is an adroit attempt to unite apologia of the artist‘s adherence to his convictions and allusions to orthodox spiritualism and nationalism concerned with the state authority. Though 51 artists, including those who had declaratively refused to participate in Stars before, showed their willingness to take part in the project, the poor quality of the initiative is obvious.
The entire mass of contradictions seems to me extremely symptomatic. In many respects it is evidence of a greater maturity of the situation, of the overcoming of some ideological schematism, of its inescapable dynamics, and its complication. We see something analogous in public dynamics, when the country whose majority votes for Putin displays more and more explicit, albeit, glaring contradictory intolerance against the prevalent order of things. Strictly speaking it is nothing more than maturing of, not implanted, but, comprehended democratic values. I think that soon a powerful dialogue of the artistic community may gain new shapes: comprehension of general interests will generate a striving for transparency and opportunity to control state decisions. The wish to put forth such questions was one of the circumstances, which made me an outsider in the world of culture bureaucrats, and predetermined my expulsion from the Moscow Biennale‘s project, and my successive dismissal from all forms of collaboration with state-run cultural institutions. The officials even tried to ban my attempt to show my Central Asian exhibition in Moscow, which I had represented in Venice and Warsaw before that.
Alena: Oh! On what grounds?
It was shown as part of a festival organized by a private producing agency, however, supported by the Federal Culture Agency. As soon as they learned that young organizers included my exhibition in the project, they began to demand its exclusion. The work on the exhibition stood still for a month and a half and the artists and I waited. However, the young men defended the exhibition. In many respects, the fact that the officials began to act too late played an important role – it was too little time before the opening, so, the officials did not dare to organize a new scandal. From now on they will be alert and will track the situation beforehand…
Let‘s not dramatize the situation. As I have said before, it remains full of different contradictions. Stabilization proclaimed by the authorities in many respects only remains a facade. And the fact that young managers exclusively moved by the desire to do their professional work – an outstanding cultural event – were not afraid to dispute the opinion of their powerful benefactors is an illustration in point.
I think that those mechanisms - on which a powerful public consensus was built in the post-soviet era - are coming to their end. In many respects, they are concerned with the type of public development that was chosen by the powerful during a period of reforms: the so-called shock therapy reduced a society to a base rudimentary position, after Giorgio Agamben we may call it „naked life.“ So after that, any crumbs, such as a biennale thrown to the society were accepted as a boon, which people should take on any terms and withhold any criticism. Otherwise, those in power may change their own minds and take the gift back. The core of the protective strategy of the biennale‘s organizers: “don‘t criticize the first biennale or there won‘t be a second one!”
Besides, any criticism of the powerful has long been averted in post-Soviet society by its identification with Communist rhetoric and nostalgic feelings, and a failure to build new post-communist trends. These trends were equated with the maximum vulgar version of the neoliberalism course, which was regarded as a stake on brutal individualism, marketing and commercialized values exclusively, and equation of the mass media with the expert community. In the context of the last years, this was intensified by an equation of officials, managers, and businessmen; the official, however, manipulates public money and is fully uncontrolled. Moscow Biennale, which eats the lion‘s share of the state budget allocated for contemporary art (while professional infrastructure is in a poor situation and an experts‘ wage amounts to a hundred and fifty dollars) is a great illustration of this.
So, I believe that passive acceptance of this reality is coming to naught as well as inner prohibition of criticism. Anyway, time will tell whether it will generate democratic prospects. Russia always offers surprises…
Alena: Would you like to comment on the destruction of Marat Guelman‘s gallery? Do you think it is somehow concerned with the authorities?
Marat Guelman is a person who along with his active gallery work has been professionally dealing with what is called here political technology, i.e. image making for politicians during electoral campaigns. In Russia, where democratic relations have not been formed yet, this work always was and remains in high demand and, at the same time, it is absolutely non-transparent. This is why it is believed that any public action of Guelman, including in artistic context, may be a part of some political-technological game. For example, his exhibition, Russia-2, organized as part of the first Moscow Biennale, did not even try to hide this underlying theme. I believe that the latest events are concerned with this side of his activities. That it has happened in an artistic context, in the gallery, is abominable. This once again shows how relative is so-called stabilization – the public situation remains aggressive and barbarian as in the bandit 90s. No forms of legal mediation work in the country. It is still torn apart by different clans, which prefer to solve conflicts using physical pressure.
Alena: Speaking of the second Biennale, last time you were deprived by authorities, however, your formal status in the Organizational Committee was preserved. Was there any attempt to offer anything of the kind to you this year?
Two years ago, I did not leave the so-called Organizational Committee and refused to make any public comments. Over forty Russian art individuals helped me by signing an open letter of protest. I saw that many in Moscow, including Biennale‘s curators, were panicked by fear of scandal. I thought that it would be ethically vulnerable to affect my protest in this context as it would seem and unintentionally become a form of self-promotion. Besides, this Organizational Committee unmasked itself as a pure fiction: my expulsion was in accordance with the decision of the committee, though, there were only three signatures (of ministerial officials) on it; the other fifteen members of it were not asked about their opinion and I, deputy chair of the unfortunate committee, was not invited to its session. Slamming the door would have meant attaching importance to the committee, which was not important at all…
During the past period, the officials closed all the programs, which I initiated while working in the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO (Russian Fine Arts Center): support of international curators‘ coming to Russia, funding artists‘ projects, travel grants, etc. The officials also disbanded the Expert Council created on my initiative in order to free their activities from any public control, etc.
This is why the situation does not come to a personal conflict as many interested ones have tried to demonstrate; it is political. Who implements state politics in the field of culture, and how are they implemented? What kind of politics is it? What is its foundation? What does it strive for? How much does of a dialogue does it carry on with the public? How does the public control it? What is its democratic prospect? I believe that my independence for outward criticism will be more productive. The criticism is extremely demanded. The power has given me a public whipping in order to make all the others sit quietly. It is just one more reason for me to not sit quietly especially because some others do not want to sit quietly either…
Alena: Following the deplorable observations, my last question: what do you think of your personal prospects – are you going to stay in Moscow or, being an internationally recognized curator, will you accept any proposals and go to the West to work on the projects?
This is what they are waiting for: this is what has been recommended to me in one of the official offices. Should I follow these recommendations? Of course, it is more difficult to work now, and the field of action has narrowed considerably. And this is what is so interesting! It is also important that I feel solidarity and support. But, strangely enough, not from those ones from whom I could expect to receive it. Poor is the intellectual who has never experienced defeats and persecution. Especially in Russia.