Inga Lāce in conversation with Katerina Gregos

Katerina Gregos. Photography: David Plas

Katerina Gregos. Photography: David Plas

With a jaunty-sounding acronym, the new private biannual art initiative RIBOCA, the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, will take place in Riga for the first time from June to October this year. Founded by Agniya Mirgorodskaya, who is half-Russian, half-Lithuanian, a recent graduate of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and financed by her father, the owner of the North West Fishing Consortium, it is curated this year by Katerina Gregos, a curator with an impressive record in curating large-scale international exhibitions and biennials. Since I put my questions to Gregos at the end of January, the biennial has already started to take a more concrete shape. A public programme with talks by participating artists has begun, along with the recent announcement of the list of artists, with almost a hundred names.

Nevertheless, the most interesting discussions so far have been outside official communication channels. I have had heated, passionate and challenging discussions with friends and colleagues from the art scene since the very first rumours about the biennial and its organisers, and its first awkward and later more polished statements. I have been called xenophobic by a friend after a careful expression of unwelcome feeling towards the new venture, because of where it originates from. I then thought again about my openness towards others on our art scene, when it is more than just the desire for a more international art environment, but an actual institution that has arrived. I have lunched, exchanged thoughts with and shared local insights with the people working at the new institution. I have also had several introductions by Russian friends to the entanglement of art and money in Russia since the 1990s, when the biennial was still associated with Emelyan Zakharov, the founder of the Triumph Gallery, as one of its initiators.

But beyond personal acceptance or refusal, the presence of the biennial is interesting in several other ways. Firstly, it shakes up the local art scene, at least by making it question the status quo that people who work here might have forgotten about. What is our relationship with the audience, and how can we reach out more? Why, how and on what terms do we collaborate with each other? What is and should be a fair artists’ fee, and what about our own remuneration? And this kind of reflection can always be healthy, be it a simple sharing at the opening, or a bigger deal leading to our work environments, and perhaps instigating change.

And even though I am sure much more will come out once the biennial actually happens, especially over the years, I also think this is a very unique (and short) moment to think about its founding. In a recent conversation, trying very hard to understand the situation and my unease, another friend ended up by asking me a question: is it at all possible to organise a biennial in Riga in any way or form entirely funded by private Russian money which would not feel like a burden instead of a gift? Could any other structures be put in place, or communication used, to facilitate a different outcome? Part of the answer lies in the country’s complex present and past, and the fact that there are invisible, but therefore even more effective, structures and mechanisms of colonialism which need to be actively addressed and countered, instead of just dressing them up in a discourse of generosity. However, and especially because the field we are working in is about imagining different and better futures, I think the answer can still be tried out, learnt, practised and instituted.

 

Your curatorial practice often delves into the relationships between art, society and politics, employing a critical approach, and not being afraid of confrontation. What themes and subjects are you currently working on?

Katerina Gregos: I don’t see art as a luxury commodity, and I think art is at its most meaningful when it engages with critical issues about the state of the world. So indeed, my curatorial practice over the last fifteen years or so has revolved steadfastly around how art engages with ‘big issues’: questions of democracy, human rights, capitalism, the crisis, the economy, ecology, and changing global production circuits. These questions recur in different shapes and forms in the exhibitions I hold, which are mostly group exhibitions, because that is where I believe curating can come into play at its maximum and most creative. I’m currently very preoccupied with the rise of populism and the resurgence of nationalism in Europe, which is reflected in the exhibition I curated The State is not a Work of Art on view at Tallinn Art Hall and four other venues, on the occasion of the centenary of Estonia’s independence. The exhibition reflects on the problems, contradictions and ideologies underlying nation and nationalism in today’s constantly transforming European socio-political landscape. How can we re-think the nation-state in the light of today’s post-national realities? Can national sovereignty be reconciled with pluralism, and with today’s open networked, integrated, globalised societies? The exhibition probes the contested issues of nation, state and nationalism, pointing to their complex historical and socio-political roots, as we navigate fluctuating and uncertain times in Europe. Finally, I have an ongoing interest in history, and particularly in historiography. This will also be reflected to an extent in the Riga Biennial, which, as you know, will explore the question of change and transformation in our age of acute acceleration.

The methods and ways of performing and presenting the results of research have expanded in the last decade or two, with artistic and curatorial research entering the field, and adding up to, as well as shaking and stretching, the academic arena (with an artistic research PhD ending up in only a performance, etc). I’m interested in knowing your relationship with research and methods, and the ways you employ for each new project.

KG: As I work in different cities and countries, the first research rule for me is to familiarise myself with the context in which I’m working. In the case of the Riga Biennial, it meant reading a lot about Latvian and Baltic history. Then I zoom in on the issues I want to research, depending on the concept I’m dealing with. In the case of the Riga Biennial, apart from the historical dimension I mentioned above, I was very interested in the concept of change from a scientific and technical point of view, so I’ve been reading a lot about science, biotechnology, transhumanism and acceleration theory. I’m more interested in these kinds of things than art theory, which I find is very often navel gazing. I also follow the research that artists are doing, as some of the most interesting ‘finds’ often come from it. The methods vary from the Internet, books and archives, to speaking with specialists.

How would you describe the urgency of the work of a curator, and of your work right now in particular? What alarms you about the art world, and about society and politics at large?

KG: First of all, the curator has a responsibility to the artists he or she is working with: to spend time with them, to look closely at their work, to advise them if necessary, and to make sure that the right conditions are there for the proper presentation of their work, and for proper financial remuneration. Then the curator should also prioritise serving the public, by being generous and opening ways to de-code the exhibition through proper mediation. Essentially, curating is about creating interconnections, between artwork-people-processes-locations-histories-realities-discourses, and this is what I try to do. These priorities are often forgotten by curators, who are too busy talking to themselves and each other. There are several things that alarm me right now: budget cuts in many countries in Europe for the arts and culture; the gradual privatisation of the art world (and practically everything else …); the overabundance of art fairs and commodity art; the ridiculous prices obtained at auctions, which create the false impression that the art world is about the 1 per cent; the inflated power of collectors; also, the rise of populism and conservatism, and the stupidity culture and the narcissism fostered by social media. And finally, a new kind of political correctness is infecting the art world, which is poisoning freedom of expression and freedom of speech, both prerequisites for all artistic practice, and which is creating a conservative consensus culture where a differing opinion cannot be voiced, and where self-censorship has taken hold. In this stifling world-view, being old makes you suspected of having the wrong idea about society, being a man makes you hostile towards women, being white makes you a racist, and having an opinion makes you a criminal …

You have done a lot of major biennial projects, and have always worked actively on different scales and contexts. What are your ways of reflecting critically on your own practice and previous projects?

KG: Because I often work with sensitive issues, such as freedom of speech for the Danish Pavilion in 2011, or my travelling exhibition A World not Ours on the refugee crisis, I have learnt to be wary of exploiting so-called ‘hot’ themes or items, and issues governing the politics of representation, especially vis-à-vis ‘the other’. This has taught me to be very careful when ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’, to borrow from Susan Sontag, to tread those grounds with modesty, an open mind and open ears, and to be very wary of the appropriation of precariousness. And I always try to avoid using works of art to illustrate my views; rather, I choose to work with artists who have similar interests to mine. I believe that anyone with a politically aware curatorial practice should practise what they preach, and this is for sure my motto

More and more discussions have taken place recently on structural and systemic issues in the art world in relation to its diversity and representation (of sexual, racial, social minorities) on one hand, potentially leading to a more inclusive environment, but provoking fierce criticism of employing identity politics on the other. What do you think of these developments?

KG: In a sense, it all centres on the right of appropriation, using imagery that is not your own. Are artists allowed to use images that are not part of their own history and culture? And maybe more importantly, who is to decide? It seems (like so many ethical/political questions today) to originate in the USA, and the discussion about it is largely an American one, just like the #metoo issue. However, not every issue applies to all cultures in the same way. In America, everything always seems to take on larger than life proportions, and thus loses its contact with reality. But it makes sense to see these issues (like the #metoo discussion) in the light of inequality of power. The white male still seems to be at the top of the power structure, and the critique that he is not really showing signs of willingly leaving that position is not unjustified. The art world especially, in the broadest sense, has a responsibility to analyse and find answers to the problem. Nevertheless, the solution that now seems to be applied in the USA is a quick-fix one. Giving in at the first sign of protest, whether justified or not, is not the way to tackle the problem. The right way is to address issues structurally, and at their roots. We also have to elevate the problem to a higher level, and compare it with the global divide between nationalism and multiculturalism. If we (not opposed to them, of course, who are ‘we’?) want to create a more inclusive society, ‘we’ should really work together with minorities, with dissidents, with subcultures (although these words already reflect the imbalance of power!). The problem is that our language is so infected with terms relating to power structures that we are almost in need of a totally new vocabulary (and please, not by replacing ‘she’ and ‘he’ with ‘they’, which is only cosmetic). So my position is that, on one hand, we have to be aware of the ethics surrounding these issues and act responsibly, aware and with respect for the rights of minorities, but on the other we shouldn’t go down the path of self-censorship and consensus politics, which is what is happening now in the so called ‘progressive’ echelons of the art world, which are becoming increasingly moralistic and ‘holier than thou’. In a sense, we all have the right to express an opinion, as long as it is a considered one. Claiming that only groups belonging to a minority can speak on behalf of that minority is a very narrow-minded world-view, and will only lead to narrow-minded, one-sided views of the world. Having a plurality of perspectives, both from ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (as long as they are informed ones), is actually very important in creating a topical and diverse discussion around an issue, and understanding it.

You are the curator and artistic director of the first Riga Biennial. There have been a lot of discussions about biennials and the necessity for them recently, in relation to their proliferation as a format for how art is produced and seen, and, of course, the relationship between the biennial format and the sustainability of art ecosystems when they often serve as marketing tools for a city or a private sponsor. Could you elaborate on your view of the necessity for a new biennial in Riga at the present time?

KG: With more than a hundred biennials in almost fifty countries worldwide, one might indeed ask, why another? The answer is: it depends where. It wouldn’t make sense to start a biennial in London or Paris, but in Riga, and other countries of the so-called periphery, where contemporary art institutions and infrastructures are not as developed as in the metropolises, biennials can play an important role in nourishing the art scene, creating an interest in it, offering international visibility to (emerging) artists, and creating a significant platform for knowledge production and exchange, which is something we aim to do with both the exhibition and the public programme. Apart from promoting a city, a biennial can more importantly showcase and promote the country’s and intellectual cultural power. The Riga Biennial is not a city marketing project, although Riga is definitely a gem to discover, and provides an extremely interesting context from which to work. It also makes sense to hold a biennial in the Baltic region, which is in the spotlight now, considering the geo-political shifts that are taking place there and which are followed with interest globally.

Quite a few arguments have taken place in Riga regarding the private sponsorship of the Riga Biennial initiative. Since it hasn’t been revealed, the fact itself has caused reactions, ranging from anger to suspicion, to the fear of possible political maneuvering executed through the platform of the biennial, to ignorance or cynicism, deeming it a clear money-laundering project or a process of gentrification. Most of these are, of course, well-known vices in the art world’s relationship to money. What do you think of the situation, and perhaps the response to the suspicion and fear expressed in the local art community, and is it important to you where the funding for projects you engage in comes from?

KG: In general, large art exhibitions cannot be made without significant amounts of private and corporate sponsorship. The same applies to biennials (just think of Venice or Istanbul). At the same time, the art world is rightly getting more and more critical of the origin of its funding, which is a good thing, as it reflects the moral responsibility that art wishes to stand for. In this case, from the beginning, I also questioned the funding of the biennial, and it took me some time before I could decide, before which I asked a lot of questions. As soon as I found out that the money comes from a legitimate business (North West Fishing Consortium), and this is not a secret as you suggest, without any restrictions on my curatorial or artistic freedom, it was clear to me that there were no strings attached, no political agenda, or gentrification motives. The fact that I have received carte blanche to develop exactly the kind of project I wanted indicates that the biennial is in Riga in order to contribute, not to machinate. If there were any hidden agendas, they certainly would have shown by now (I have been working on the project for more than a year now). Rumours will always circulate, and they are difficult to refute. In this case, it should be clear that the onus is on the accusers to prove their allegations. If they cannot, they should refrain from spreading conspiracy theories.

Since this is the first Riga Biennial, your work as a curator is that of shaping it, giving you a lot of liberty, since no one has done it before, but also a responsibility for establishing something that is meaningful and worth continuing. Also, the founding body of the biennial is a managerial one, again giving you a lot of power for framing the actual event, as well as placing it here/there (in Riga, in the art world, in the local/ international community) physically and discursively. What is your thinkingyou’re your strategy in relation to this situation? What decisions do you think you are taking differently to how you would work in an established biannual institution?

KG: It was important for me to address some of the problematic issues that biennials face: wrong priorities, unrealistic ambitions that collapse under their own weight, problematic financial structures that exploit cultural workers, too little time for artists to work/research properly; and to prioritise for the international rather than the local. In developing the mission of RIBOCA together with its founder, it became important to create a structure based on a best-practices model, and with sustainability in mind. First of all, taking good care of artists, investing time in them, making sure they have the proper conditions to develop and show their work, and ensuring financial remuneration for their work. At RIBOCA, all artists are paid a fee, whether they are making a new work or showing an existing one. If they are working on site, they get a per diem; and we offer research assistance in the form of manpower for all artists making new works. The exhibition itself will unfold as a sustainable experience for the viewer (unlike Documenta with its 46 [!] venues in Athens, which hardly anyone saw in total). Riga is the perfect place to decelerate perceptions, because of its human scale, and the proximity of the venues to each other. We are not another generic internationalist biennial. The local context is very important to us. That’s why I actually started the curatorial process by first researching and meeting Latvian artists (and then artists from the Baltic region), and expanding outwards towards the international. Very often, biennials land in a certain location, disregarding the local context, except in a token way. We’re very interested in contributing to the cultural landscape in Riga, and in Latvia; to this effect, the public programme we have instigated will have a wide variety of activities, addressed to different groups of citizens. And we’re thinking how the biennial may have a life outside the scope of the exhibition format. I’ve been very fortunate in my professional life up till now to be able to play a role in shaping many of the biennial projects I’ve done, and so until now my core principles have not been compromised.

In the curatorial concept, you take the notion of change as the guiding direction, describing the rapid changes currently under way in so many spheres, and touching on the history of Latvia and the Baltic region, naming the biennial after the book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More by Alexei Yurchak. He is one of the leading post-Soviet theoreticians, and thus almost a chrestomatic reference for the contemporary art field in relation to the post-socialist area. Could you elaborate on your choice of the title of his book? Do you perhaps plan to involve him in the programmes? 

KG: Although I chose the title of Yurchak’s book for the biennial, it would be a mistake to think that the biennial will focus only on the post-Soviet situation. In fact, I chose the title because I felt it worked very well as a metaphor for change, and not only change in the post-Soviet world. I also chose it because he describes aptly some of the problematics that arise out of systemic or violent change, and how people experience it. As I explained above, the biennial is about the current state of the world, and the rapid transformations it is undergoing, in terms of history, politics, society, technology and science. There will, of course, be a reference to the history of the region, because it would be amnesiac to forget previous chapters of Latvian history. The past and the present, after all, are not disconnected from each other, but form part of a continuum.

A statement of the Riga Biennial describes the Baltic region as ‘a territory which still remains relatively unexplored, despite its prolific artistic production’. This phrase reminds me of the discourse in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and artists from the Baltic countries were suddenly invited to international exhibitions, and the post-Soviet condition was often highly exoticised by West European curators and their exhibition projects. Could you explain how you relate to this statement from the biennial, and what is meant by exploration? How, and by whom, has it not yet happened, and would it potentially happen during the biennial?

Indeed there was a moment where there was a newfound interest in (post-socialist) art from eastern Europe but that moment was short lived; it was also a moment where there was more interest in art from Poland, Albania, former Yugoslavia etc., and less from the Baltic states if one looks at exhibition histories from the last 20 years or so. It is impossible to deny that the Baltic region is ‘a territory which still remains relatively unexplored’, as it is just a fact when one looks at the scant international interest in artists from this region. I don’t think there is a Latvian artist, for example, whose name has risen to great international fame, meaning universal recognition in the field of art; and despite a certain success by a handful of artists abroad, the fact is that art from the Baltic region still remains to a large part a terra incognita. And this is not unusual in a small country, which was also occupied and isolated for a long time. It is the same in Greece, where I come from. I doubt that any of our colleagues can mention, off-hand, the names of more than one or two Greek (or Baltic for that matter) artists (who are not expats). So, an international biennial is a perfect platform to showcase work from a region or a place that is less well known. I fail to see the reason why the concept of ‘exoticisation’ is smuggled into your question. The moment of exoticisation has passed, because many of these countries that were considered exotic because they were coming out of the shadows are now part of Europe. Helping to put Latvia on the international art map by way of a biennial, in addition to the work done by colleagues in Latvia, in the past and nowadays, also increases the possibilities for Latvian artists to attain international recognition.

You formed the core curatorial team from international curators (with the Danish associate curator Solvej Helweg Ovesen, and the assistant curator Ioli Tzanetaki from Greece). I emphasise this because the main management team is also almost entirely foreign to the Riga context. Considering your intention to embed the biennial in a local context as emphasised in the curatorial statement, could you tell us a bit more about this decision?

KG: Our team consists of thirty three people, and more than half of them are Latvian. The curatorial team is not only international, it is also Latvian. Our curators of the public programme, a very important position, are Latvian. My co-editor for the biennial Reader (one of the two publications we are issuing) is Latvian. The four members of our team who are responsible for research are also Latvian. So, we feel very privileged to work with a team that has inside knowledge of the city and the country, from different areas.

I have recently observed several examples where public discussions and events were organised to create a new biennial (Oslo Pilot started two years before announcing the biennial, Bergen Assembly did research and held a symposium before embarking on a triennial format). Open discussions not only help to see the diversity of opinions in the local community, which is small in the Riga context, but also provide some creative tension, which certainly makes for a better project, helping to avoid the simplification of certain issues and potential pitfalls in the project. Thus, I wonder if a discussion that could still shape the actual event is planned soon, or if not, what is the reason for the decision not to organise these events before the biennial?

KG: It seems like an interesting and instructive approach to hear and gather the opinions of others when one organises an international art exhibition, especially when it is not on one’s home territory. I have personally invested a lot of time in doing exactly that. We have also held a number of Think Tanks, where we gathered people who, exactly as you say, represent a diversity of opinions in the local community. But although holding an exhibition by collecting the various opinions that may exist about such an enterprise looks democratic, it is also the safest position to adopt. If it is all possible to do justice to the different sentiments and views, it would also end in a project without a specific point of view, a kind of tasteless soup, and the task of the curator would be just to provide a place for all the ingredients. That is not the way I work. I prefer to develop my own attitude towards a certain problematic, on the basis of all the relevant information that I can lay my hands on.

On one hand, the Riga Biennial brings to Riga a lot of resources (international attention, a proper production budget for artists, salaries for some local art managers etc), but on the other hand, of course, it also takes from the local scene (local private sponsors, the support of embassies, potential state spending on culture, employees from other institutions), since it clearly uses resources and relationships nurtured by local people over many years with the scarce means they have. From a local point of view, it shakes the fragile and scarce art ecosystem. What is your view on the relationship between the local art ecosystem in a city like Riga and the incoming body of a new biennial?

KG: The Riga Biennial is based on the principle of generosity: giving rather than taking. Let me explain, in order to dispel any misconception that the biennial is a kind of vampire, as you describe it in the second part of your question. The fact that it is backed by a private foundation, in fact, actually makes it independent of the valuable resources of the local art scene. First of all, we are not taking money from the state, or from embassies or other financing structures in Latvia*. In terms of local private support, we only have the support of Jānis Zuzāns, who has generously provided us with the Zuzeum as a venue. In terms of the people we hired, most of them were working part-time or freelance, and so we were glad to offer them full-time work. There is only one person who has come from another institution in Riga, and she was planning to leave anyway. Considering all the above, I would hardly say that this ‘shakes the local art ecosystem’, or constitutes a threat to it.

There is an inherent complexity in the relationship between Latvia and Russia, emerging from Latvia’s occupation by the Soviet Union, and the fact that Russia has never acknowledged the fact, if we look at it from the perspective of recent history. Russia’s constant aggressive reaction towards Latvia’s political mistake in the early 1990s of not granting citizenship to everyone who was part of the reestablished country has just added insult to injury on both sides. Of course, this exposes only one small part of the complex and layered processes taking place between the countries, and the cohabitation of both ethnicities in Latvia. However, these issues immediately and inevitably come to mind, because the new biennial initiative comes as a private initiative from Russia. How do you plan to navigate this complexity?

KG: Since the end of the Second World War, the relationship between Russia and the free world in general has been complicated and tense, and I do not wish to ignore the fact that Latvia has been suffering from the Russian/Soviet occupation and its aftermath. However, although there are some works in the exhibition that touch on the issues you raise, the biennial as such is not about this. As I was assured total curatorial freedom, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to build more mutual trust, and work together with a Russian counterpart on this cultural project. I am not naïve, but I am also not very prone to conspiracy theories. If we want to achieve better bilateral relations, a cultural exchange project is probably the best way to open communication. While it is impossible to ignore linguistic and political questions, it is not my aim to base the biennial, which is, after all, international, on them. It is easy to demonise anything Russian, but that is a simplistic way of looking at things. I prefer to focus on the positive fruitful relationships that can emerge from such encounters. And one small correction: RIBOCA is not only a Russian initiative. Agniya Mirgorodskaya, the founder, is half-Lithuanian (on her mother’s side). This provides her with a view from both sides.

In a recent lecture in Amsterdam, you mentioned that one of the reasons why the younger generation in the Baltic countries does not know its history is because Soviet history has been erased, by uprooting, for example, monuments to Lenin and Marx. The historical amnesia that you mention, or the desire to revisit the past, has appeared in many artists’ work in the Baltic since the 1990s, and has been a starting point for research projects by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art in Riga and the National Gallery in Vilnius, among others, trying to find emancipatory ways to speak about the Soviet heritage and history, starting by examining the artists Gustav Klucis and Karl Ioganson, or nonconformist artists from the 1970s, and looking at socialism as an ideology to be distinguished from its manifestation in the Soviet Union. In that light, I wonder if you could elaborate on your view of the monuments.

KG: Monuments, statues, memorials, buildings and the like reflect official historical events that were seen as important and decisive at the time. When socio-political and cultural relations change over the course of time, and are weighed and judged differently, iconoclasm seems to be a liberating way of taking revenge on and getting rid of a shameful past. But by physically destroying the testimonials of a discredited period, we are also erasing those historical moments from the collective memory. We should also consider keeping these monuments as warning signs, or even more importantly, contextualising them in the politics of the present day. Erasure and destruction contribute to historical amnesia, which is very, very dangerous.

** Even though funding has not been granted, an application has been made by the RIBOCA in 2017 to the State Culture Capital Foundation’s open call for Cultural Events of State Importance. [Inga Lāce]

Inga Lāce
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April 24, 2018
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