Conversation with What, How, and for Whom
What, How, and for Whom (WHW) is a curatorial collective based out of Zagreb, Croatia. Its members are curators Ivet Curlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, Sabina Sabolović, and the designer and publicist Dejan Kršić. Together they curated the 11th International Istanbul Biennial. My conversation with WHW began in Istanbul in June 2009, while it was in the midst of preparation for the Biennial. The interview that follows, which explores the historical context and political stakes that inform WHW’s curatorial practice, occurred over email correspondence in October 2009.
Michelle Dizon: What, How, and for Whom has been working together for over a decade now. Can you recount how you came together, what was the initial impetus for your collaboration, and how those stakes might have changed over the years?
What, How, and for Whom: We met in the late ‘90s. At the time, the right wing, heavily nationalistic politics that were characteristic of Croatia in the ‘90s finally started to loosen their grip. The cultural landscape was characterized by bureaucratic sluggish- ness and conceptual disorientation by institutions that sprang up in the ’90s. In the confusion of the so-called “transition,” with its rediscovery of capitalism, crumbling social infrastructure, quest for the holy grail of national identity, and complete suppression of socialist history, we felt intellectually closer to the so called “civil scene” that developed in the ‘90s, than to a system of art institutions. The civil scene, which happened in the first few years after the war and the subsequent Croatian independence (post 1995), could be roughly identified with eco/punk/hardcore/anarcho groups and movements. That scene was marginal and marginalized, completely outside of the funding system. But it had slowly started integrating into the cultural system via the George Soros-funded Institute of Open Society in Croatia in 1994. The Institute developed specific political meanings strongly based in ethical demands for non-violence, equality, multi- ethnicity, and non-hierarchical structures.
Especially influential for WHW forming was Arkzin, which started in 1991 as the fanzine of the Antiwar Campaign of Croatia and later became a publishing house. Arkzin was a major forum (virtually the only one for a couple of years) for independent and alternative critical information and debate. In 1998, when they published a 150th anniversary edition of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, edited by Boris Buden with an introduction by Slavoj Žižek, they approached one of us to organize a contemporary art exhibition that they hoped would trigger a timely public debate on the issues the Manifesto might raise in Croatia. Organizing an exhibition on the Communist Manifesto immediately seemed to have the potential to intervene in the field of art on all levels, in terms of content, obviously, and in terms of organizational know-how, as well as in terms of assessing and building local and international contexts. The goal of these interventions was to oppose an individualistic understanding of cultural work. We did not start immediately as a group; there was no “we” from the start, but each one of us was aware of a chance and responsibility to become “we.”
Our practice today is still influenced by the social conditions we work under in Croatia, where the dominant cultural setting is characterized by an identity-based understanding of culture, especially with regards to national-identity. That did not change much with the recent “normalization.” Our work is opposed to this dominant understanding of culture. In our approach, we try to translate different social and cultural conditions. In this sense, our work is never really about Croatia per se, but about Croatia as a symptom of the formation of post-socialist national identity.
MD: How has your history of living through the transition in Eastern Europe from socialism to neoliberal capitalism formed you as political subjects? In what ways does this guide your projects and politics as curators?
WHW: We work in a cultural environment characterized by a conflation of nationalism and transition, in the grip of proverbial “transitology”—the quasi-scientific discourse on “transition” constantly imposed by the West as a framework that supposedly offers insight into the European East after the collapse of Socialism. We are uncomfortable with the inherent belief that Western neo-liberal capitalism is the only solution for post-socialistic maladies, and that the construction of (new) national identity is the only defense against globalization. These concerns have, in various ways, found expressions in our curatorial practice. First of all, through our practice we question the idea of normalization through cultural integration, in which “culture” is more or less explicitly understood as a means of integration, of bringing the Balkans closer to standards of Western liberal-capitalistic order, or what Boris Buden called “cultural reconquista” in relation to post-communist societies. We also hope to maintain a constant engagement with the position of non-West, even though today the processes for the integrationof“EasternEuropean”artintoaglobalart system seem to be successfully completed. The task of working against the contradictions inherent to a Western system, with its universalizing pretensions and its cultural geo-political games that disguise relations of domination with political correctness, seems to be as important as ever.
MD: What is the role of the curator both in the field of art and in culture at large? What does it mean for you to work as a curatorial collective of four women? Do you consider yourselves enacting a “feminist” curatorial project, or a “Marxist” curatorial project, or some combination or reformulation thereof?
WHW: We believe the fact that we are a self- organized and self-governed collective, opposed to the notions of hierarchical professionalism, already has a political dimension. This bears more weight than the fact that we are a women’s collective. However, we do support the position of feminism and try to oppose a backlash against many rights—women’s rights included —that is threatening to cancel the achievements of decades of people’s struggles. For us, considerations about the social construction (and constriction) of gender are inseparable from questions of general human emancipation. Today the adjective “Marxist” is often used in a nostalgic way or as a simplistic label for dismissing polemical opponents (Marxist = Stalinist = totalitarianism = Gulag). We do not claim to be a “Marxist” collective, not if central concepts of Marxism are Party and proletariat, but nevertheless we do believe that a “communist hypothesis,” as French philosopher Alain Badiou clearly delineates in his book The Meaning of Sarkozy, has to be nurtured, and that position is central for our work.
MD: Do you have a theory of the exhibition? How has the scale of the Istanbul Biennial and the capital necessary for its production shifted your curatorial strategies? Has this experience developed a certain understanding of the relation between the local, the national, the regional, and the international in an age of globalization? How do you see yourselves in this nexus? I understand that you set aside a room in the exhibition in order to make transparent some of the economies that go into the production of the biennial. Would you explain your intent behind this?
WHW: The question of the role of art in society is for us closely tied to the exhibition format. Of course, this does not imply that fundamental questions about art should be exclusively formulated in relation to the exhibition format. We recognize exhibitions as specific sites where art is critically presented and where knowledge is produced. We believe that the exhibition has the capacity to reframe the times and spaces of the social world. The exhibition is a creative redefinition that opens up a different perception of the political environment, which in turn might offer a different view of social reality.
How can we use exhibitions to rethink questions of production, definition, and presentation of art, as well as the possibility of social action in a globalized world? No matter the difficulties and possible traps of investing in such possibilities, our desire to create such a platform is very strong. This field is not a priori positive or negative; it is what we have decided to commit ourselves to and take to the limits.
We see the Istanbul Biennial as a continuation of previously developed methodologies, though we are aware that it might radically challenge them. The question “What keeps mankind alive?” as well as possible answers and models that might come out of this interrogation are, as in all our previous exhibitions, governed by a genuine passion to place ideas and artworks in the best possible light so that they can make a difference. This difference is fragile, transient, but also matters powerfully. When working on the Istanbul Biennial, we tried to highlight the burden of its visibility to the international art world. We set up an exhibition with a clear critical and political position “in the heart of the system” that regards biennials as “important,” thus making it more unlikely for that system to ignore the questions we posed. We chose to display some of the budget- and organization-related information that usually stays invisible. These facts convey the situation for cultural workers nowadays, even at supposedly prime events like a biennial. For example, out of a budget at about 2 million euros, only 14% are artist- or artwork-related costs, while operational and promotional costs amount to 27% and 49% of the budget, respectively. Furthermore, artists receive no fee and the curatorial fee is exceedingly low (around 1.95% of the budget). 1% of the budget is contributed by private galleries and more than 25% of the budget was provided by international public funding bodies. There were 30 women artists included and 32 men. 28% of those artists were from the West and 72% from what we termed “the rest.” These facts relate to this particular edition of the Istanbul Biennial, and they should be understood against the homogenous general biennial format.
MD: You’ve organized the current Istanbul Biennial around “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” Will you elaborate on the source of this theme and the reasons that you’ve used it as an organizing principle for the exhibition?
WHW: In our exhibitions we are often making references and dedications, as in the case of our first exhibition What, How and for Whom, dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. The Istanbul Biennial is titled What Keeps Mankind Alive? after the protest song from Bertolt Brecht’s The Three Penny Opera (1929). Brecht’s assertion that “a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal” is as true as ever. There is a comparison that can be drawn between the Great Depression in the United States and our current global financial crisis. Thus What Keeps Mankind Alive also links us back to the economic concerns that have repeatedly shaped our work.
MD: In lieu of the formal address that is commonly given to introduce the Istanbul Biennial, WHW performed a theater of sorts. Can you explain the motivation for this and the process you went through in order to arrive at it?
WHW: Brecht in a way invites us to rethink our position again and again, to see the world as amateur actors. We four curators tried to enact this position in a short performance during the first Biennial press conference. Instead of releasing the conventional press release format, we performed our concept. The four curators appeared on stage simultaneously, reciting the address that is normally given by a curator to introduce a biennial. The performance mocks the need for “glamor” in an art event, as well as questions stereotypes about the power position of a curator, which in this unusual case is an all-female collective. The event took place in the Ses Theater in Istanbul and was done in collaboration with Croatian theater director Oliver Frljić. We tried to express “the truth of our situation,” as Brecht would call it, by blurring the distinction between curator, artist, and audience, as well as the structure of biennial exhibitions. Our reference to Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (estrangement effect) is of course obvious.
MD: Can you speak about the politics of working in Turkey? In your “Introduction to the Istanbul Biennial,” you state that contemporary art offers a potential for exiting the double bind between ethno-nationalism and global neo-liberalism and for, presumably, forming propositions that invite new ways to address contemporary political situations. I wonder if you might speak more about these discourses and the question of the role of art.
WHW: We tried to reflect on what might constitute a critical art practice, especially in the “marginal” or “ghost” geographies of European modernism, such as the Balkans or the Middle East. The dynamics and specifics of such a critical practice often find themselves today as if “between a rock and a hard place.” These places, where contemporary art is often seen as a “cosmopolitan import,” share troubles with issues of identity, the ascendance of religion in public life, a love-hate relationship with neighboring countries, and with Western “mentors.” New openings have to be formulated around the fringes of the system, on its narrow cracks. In the context of the Istanbul Biennial, our wish was to reflect on the position that the Biennial occupies in concrete ideological and economic landscapes, and on how it affects the public perception of what is the role of contemporary art. There is a deadlock in the question of how critical practices find a space between the political economies of the legacy of European Modernism and its marginal geographies. We don’t have ready-made tools for how to get out of the deadlock, but we feel we should not ignore its existence. On a general level we believe that cultural and artistic practice is capable of articulating these conflicts from specific perspectives and offering insights that can make us think about them in a different way.
MD: From the first show WHW worked on with the Communist Manifesto to this exhibition with Brecht, there appears to be a deep engagement with the question of history, and specifically, what I would call a historical materialist relation to history. For example, you distinguish your use of Brecht from a more humanist stance, which would be more aligned with introducing him to younger generations. Instead, WHW’s project focuses on the “latencies of the past in the present.” This strikes me as a philosophy of history that hopes to radicalize the relation between art and life.
WHW: For our curatorial practice, the question of history is first of all related to socialist history and to the understanding of modernism, especially complex relations between marginal “modernisms” with a socialist background and the supposedly ideology-free and neutral modernism of the West. In our local context in socialist Yugoslavia today, the ideological battle over modernism and its legacy cannot be left to institutions; we need to take over and invest it with new meanings. The case of Yugoslavia as a socialist country is especially interesting. In 1948, the Yugoslav Communist Party broke all diplomatic, economic, and military ties between Yugoslavia and USSR, and relaxed ideological barriers, opening up to the West culturally. We also see it as an important example of a cultural space in which factions of the communist political and cultural elite recognized correspondences between the universalism of modernist art and the universalism of socialist emancipation. As Ulrich Beck would say, it is not about offering the past in order to forget the present. Our position is not to neutralize or reconcile contrasting views on modernism, but to understand them within the dynamics of their relations. We explore how contradictions are inherent to modernism itself and have specific forms in cultural space. We try to carve out the space to think about the future outside of the dominant framework, which is characterized by systematic blindness for everything outside of economic circulation.
MD: For the Istanbul Biennial, you made a concerted effort to look for artists who were not on the international art circuit or who came from regions that are normally excluded from a “European” identity. I wonder if you might speak about the question of Europe, its “others,” and the politics of the choices that you’ve made in the organization of the exhibition.
WHW: With the Istanbul Biennial we faced the problem of how to examine social, temporal, and spatial limitations of representative “event” culture in the field of contemporary art, which is paradigmatically exemplified by the phenomenon of biennial exhibitions. We had to consider how to rethink the questions of production, definition, and presentation of the work and of artists’ identities in a globalized (art) world. We tried to think of the Istanbul Biennial as a possibility— transient and temporary—but still a possibility for establishing a platform for artists and other cultural workers from supposedly shrinking, but still corporeally very real, geographical margins. Even if one feels that there is no region excluded from the international art circuit, the issue of control, the unresolved and continuing play of inclusion and exclusion, remains.
In that respect, we took the Istanbul Biennial as a possibility of a counter-position to a general weakening of any institutional safeguards that determine (cultural) standards outside the marketplace. We understood the Istanbul Biennial as a process and active site for exploring the rules of conduct established in the Western art system. How is the circulation and reception of information regulated? And how can we (and can we really?) challenge it? Our focus was primarily on regions of the Balkans and former Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Middle East, and North Africa, in which the relationship with Western “mentors” and a dependence of avant-garde art practices on validation from the Western art systems still largely define the context of contemporary art. We developed the exhibition across two interconnecting trajectories, one responding to a hegemonic Western model of the role and position of contemporary art and its history, as perpetuatedbyaglobalizedsystemofartinstitutions and market networks that regulate them, and the other to artistic and cultural practices that critically assess the commercialization that tends to dominate life under conditions of neo-liberal capitalism.
We tried to break away from the predictability of biennialism: the “reporting on contemporary art” that biennials are supposed to provide in an overview of new and recent production. Instead of historicizing or perceiving past bodies of knowledge as either redundant or failed, the exhibition maintains the tension between the past and present, and includes artists of diverse generations and works from different periods. The desire to position the exhibition within a globalized art world was an attempt to articulate a critical stance in relation to it and to problematize the conditions of presentation. In that sense we tried to peel away the usual glossy surface of the Istanbul Biennial itself, exposing the technical, economic, and soft social “wiring” underneath that makes the event function.
Michelle Dizon is an artist, filmmaker, and writer currently based in Los Angeles. Her work explores how processes of colonialism and globalization are interwoven with questions of language, politics, and history. She holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Studio from the Department of Art at UCLA and she is completing a doctorate from the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.
In addition to the Istanbul Biennial, What, How,and for Whom’s international shows include What, How & for Whom, on the occasion of 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto (Association of Croatian Artists, Zagreb, 2000, and Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna, Austria, 2001); Broadcasting project, dedicated to Nikola Tesla (Technical Museum, Zagreb, 2002); Looking Awry (Apexart, New York, 2003); Repetition: Pride and Prejudice (Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2003); Side-effects (Salon of Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, 2004); Normalization (Gallery Nova, 2004); Collective Creativity (Kunsthalle Fridericianum, 2005); Normalization, dedicated to Nikola Tesla (Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2006); Here and Now Real, Not Yet Concrete (Mala Galerija, Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana, 2006); Ground Lost (Forum Stadtpark, Graz & Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2007); All Dressed Up With Nowhere to Go (Gallery TranzitDisplay,Prague,2007); Vojin Bakić (GalleryNova& Grazer Kunstverein, 2008).