"Production and Appropriation: (Non-)Exhibition Strategies of Contemporary Art"
The roundtable, the concluding event of the seminar on March 29, 2012 addressed the format and the themes of the forthcoming 2nd Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art. In addition to the questions of biennial’s functioning, the discussion touched upon related issues of the relationship between the biennial and authorities, commerce, local art community, and audience.
Discussion’s initial direction was set by Sergey Kropotov, rector of the Ekaterinburg Academy of Contemporary Art. In his view there is a danger of reducing of the biennial as the event run by a state institution to an instrument of state propaganda: “Quite a lot of people think that there is no need in contemporary art, knowing intuitively that there may be some political technology behind contemporary art from Guelman to Surkov”. In order to prevent this danger it is necessary "to make contemporary art more appropriate for the urban community" by including references to local "hot spots" and using more expressive language which would be easier to understand. Mr. Kropotov gave an example of a local cultural phenomenon -- “Kolyada theatre is expressive; it is always on the verge of hysteria. Why? Because this way the chances to be heard are better” -- and suggested that the biennial should answer “local fears and hopes” by following the principle of Tarantino’s movies – “both at the high level, and at the proletarian level”. He sees the situation when curators are “terribly far from people” as “almost revolutionary”. According to Mr. Kropotov, politicization, aestheticization, and socialization of the project can make the biennial quite effective: modernization in this case would be the result not of the governmental activity but of the local art community (for instance, Nikolay Kolyada or a street artist Timofey Radya). “The biennial will be functioning in integrative, modernizational, and psychotherapeutic ways, and also, inevitably, in administrative-simulational way, because for those from the government who will give money for the project, the biennial will serve as a marker saying “we, too, are a contemporary city”.
This point of view did not find support among some other discussion participants. Valentin Dyakonov, the Kommersant-Daily columnist, has pointed that the biennial should not play a subversive role making an establishment exhibition with one hand and “financing terrorist groups of street artists” with another. In his further argument Mr.Dyakonov stressed that the biennial’s curator should not take into account the thematic unity of the local context. In his opinion the region’s context is already given to the audience; he sees it in the Kasli casting pavilion standing in the middle of Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts; this pavilion, being originally an advertising piece of applied art is dominating the whole fine art collection in the main museum of Ekaterinburg.
Iaroslava Boubnova, curator of the 2nd Ural Industrial biennial, urged not to mix the question of cultural policy with the issue of building a new cultural phenomenon. In her view, the one should not substitute for the other (“when creation of a new cultural phenomenon becomes an instrument of cultural policy”): she sees contemporary art (and, accordingly, the biennial) as “an agent of civil society”. “In the situation of the lack of civil society this agent should carry out its functions; it should not make any attempt to become an agent of the official cultural policy, and should not even enter into direct discussion with official culture”. Acting this way, the biennial is able to change many aspects in local situation, “leave traces after itself” – for example, raise young professionals with competence in contemporary art. This is what happened with Istanbul biennial which allowed many young Turkish professionals to become directors of the European kunsthalles.
The idea of the biennial being an instrument of positive change was expressed also by Filipa Ramos, editor of Manifesta Journal: in her opinion, an “effective biennale” is not the one that “appears and disappears” but the one that “has a constant presence in the city” so that “the dialog can continue and become something that can be referred to”. The way to achieve it Ms. Ramos sees in reinforcement of the relationships between the biennial as a “spontaneous institution that appears and disappears” and the Ural branch of NCCA as a fixed institution. This view of the resource of NCCA was seconded by Iris Dressler, co-director of Wuerttembergischer Kunstverein; she sees the institution as an instrument of “growing a stable public”. Ms. Dressler noted that when they founded the hArtWare project in Dortmund, a “really postindustrial city in Ruhr”, in 1996, they had only around a thousand visitors in a year. Considering this, 60 thousand visitors of the past Ural biennial she sees as an “enormous” quantity, and the problem of forming a stable public as a question of time and of the appropriate use of the NCCA resource as a fixed institution.
Tamara Galeeva, dean of the Art History and Cultural Studies department of the Ural Federal University, has confirmed that the positive changes mentioned by Ms. Boubnova are already taking place. She specified the status of the university as a strategic partner of the biennial, and drew attention to the fact that many alumni of the department contribute to the biennial and NCCA’s projects in general; however she noted the small number of these young professionals and a large amount of work.
A rather skeptical view on young professionals and public in general was expressed by Andrey Shcherbenok, curator of the Intellectual Platform of the biennial. Basing his point on his own experience of interaction with the students of Art History Department, he noted that 90% of students he worked with did not like anything from the past Ural biennial. “These are art history students, and they do not understand contemporary art at all, and what do you want from the general public”. Mr. Shcherbenok pointed out the danger of marginalization of contemporary art practices in Ekaterinburg in the context of the changing audience. He gave an example from Ekaterinburg art life of the 1990s when artists staged their performances in random abject spaces. According to Mr. Shcherbenok, art practices of this kind, although they became an important chapter in the history of modern art in Ekaterinburg (as Ms. Galeeva had pointed out), would not be received well in the current situation. He sees a way out of the marginal state, along with interaction with government and business, in the change of the audience which should be "enticed" and "reeducated".
This suggestion was strongly rejected by Iaroslava Boubnova who emphasized the specifics of NCCA as a state institution which cannot do everything at the same time. In her belief, “no large-scale or ongoing initiative is possible without the state”, “but it is too much to expect from the National [i.e. state] Center that it will be both official and alternative, that it will both entice and punish, create guidelines and brake them in order to be palatable to all the participants of the art process”. Responding to the remarks of Alisa Prudnikova, director of the Ural NCCA, and Tamara Galeeva that “national” is just a status devoid of any large financial support (“I find it difficult to consider my own initiatives as a kind of official policy in the field of contemporary art” because “I’ve never felt myself being protected by the state budget” – Ms. Prudnikova) , Ms. Boubnova noted that a state initiative has better chances for living in today’s conditions, and it should be subsequently joined by representatives of business and art community, creating "their own niches" in this field.
As an illustration of her statement Ms. Boubnova gave an example of the 1st Moscow biennial fully funded by the Ministry of Culture and related institutions, to the surprise of Ms. Boubnova’s Western colleagues who assumed that events of this kind are run with the help of private capital seeking prestige. Valentin Dyakonov supplemented this example with the one of the 3rd Moscow biennial funded by Russian businessman Roman Abramovich and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin; the project was “very entertaining, very pop, very diverse, vibrant and exotic” and attracted lots of people. In the case with the Ural biennial its budget can allow bringing “one Isaac Julien’s video and a couple of, let’s say, Jeff Koons’ pieces, and that’s it”. “There is no doubt that vibrant and popular projects must be done, - Mr. Dyakonov concluded, - but there is a nuance”, which is the issue of financial support from business structures that, according to Ms. Boubnova's logic, should realize the prestige involved and join in.
A separate topic of the discussion was the issue of the local art community. Kristoffer Gansing, artistic director of Transmediale-2012, asked Alisa Prudnikova if there exists some local self-organized art life in Ekaterinburg and what the local artists feel towards such a large-scale project as the biennial. Solvita Krese, director of the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art, asked Ms. Prudnikova about the origin of the biennial initiative, whether it was an attempt to implement an institutional idea or a desire to understand the wishes of local artists. Ms. Prudnikova responded that the local artists are generally unwilling to cooperate with an institution, and that a certain slackening of Ekaterinburg artistic life of the early 2000s required the creation of such an event that would serve as a “powerful motor [to remedy] that situation”. She also expressed her desire to introduce the local artists to Ms. Boubnova, the curator of the biennial’s main project, introduce them “all without exception because there are not too many of them”. However Ms. Prudnikova did not express her willingness to include a big local project into biennial’s programme: “they said, give us a factory and we will make an alternative project, I thought that it would be some kind of Ural ghetto of separate self-curated artists, and I don’t see it as a way out of our situation”. She explained her cautious attitude to the inclusion of a big project from local artists in the structure of the biennial by her inability to provide them with the necessary resources for its realization and fear of the probable further marginalization that would result from the underfunded project.
The question about including local artists into the biennial was asked to the curator of the main project as well. Ms. Boubnova answered that “curator should make an effort and meet the local art scene, and try to understand it, she/he should treat it not as a duty or heavy ballast, but as a normal art scene, and try to understand what the artists are doing, and learn to work with them”. However, she left unanswered Mr. Dyakonov’s question on whether she would follow the unwritten rule of including 10% of local artists into the project.
Another important area of the discussion was devoted to the format of the biennial and its thematic unity. Curator of the Intellectual Platform Mr. Shcherbenok asked participants to what extent the project should have a thematic unity (in this case - stick to subject of the industrial), whether this unity is needed, and what the ways to achieve it are. He gave an example of the 1st Ural biennial where the industrial theme was essential, either as a concept or as a location: “Ekaterina Degot’s [main] project was a Marxist one, was all about labour; other [special] projects were less ideologically structured but they were site-specific and situated on [working] factories”. Valentin Dyakonov suggested that the biennial should primarily reflect the personality of the curator, and her/his idea should not necessarily "be attached to the structural principle of the event as a whole." And if “the team of the 1st biennial considered it their duty to enter into direct dialogue with the critical idea of production, with a certain industrial practice in Ekaterinburg”, then “what is Iara doing is only her decision, and it can have no relation to the structural principle of the biennial declared in its title, and it would be nice if it really had nothing to do with it”. Solvita Krese remarked that in her view the format of the biennial brings a lot of limitations. Alisa Prudnikova disagreed, saying that she does not see any constraints in this case and does not believe that there are limitations inherent to the biennial format as such. She said that she sees the possibility of thematic unity in an “ongoing dialogue” from one biennial to another, in "the situation of the developing project”. Ms. Prudnikova stressed that “it is essential for her that the biennial is industrial”, “but that does not mean that it should necessarily take place in the factories”. The local context and its industrial essence is seen by Ms. Prudnikova as a possibility of “trying some alternative forms of relating ourselves with [international] biennial context”.
The outcome of the discussion was summed up by Ms. Boubnova, whose last remark could be reduced to three phrases: “Art is not able to overcome all the problems of the humanity”, “Art is quite an expensive thing”, and the local context will join the biennial with time because “Art is an [ongoing] process.”
Andrey Shcherbenok, Elizaveta Yuzakova