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//Real Ya! Culture// - About the 7th Berlin Biennale, Institutional Crisis and Social Movements, Not Only in Madrid Katarzyna Wąs and Sebastian Liszka talk to Artur Żmijewski

Real Ya! Culture - About the 7th Berlin Biennale, Institutional Crisis and Social Movements, Not Only in Madrid Katarzyna Wąs and Sebastian Liszka talk to Artur Żmijewski

Sebastian Liszka: When inviting artists to participate in the Berlin Biennale, you asked them to send in their portfolios and to state their political views. What was the result of that political open call?

Katarzyna Wąs: Did you get the responses that you were hoping for?

Artur Żmijewski: A few thousand applications came in. I had been expecting answers to the questions asked: Where do you place yourself ideologically? Do the commonly used labels such as left wing, right wing, liberal, conservative etcetera describe adequately your political ideas?

SL: Did you get the answers?

Yes. Almost every envelope or PDF sent in contained a political declaration. I would prefer not to interpret them, because it is easy to treat people in an instrumental way and turn their replies into statistics. And then we assume that we know something useful. For example, we can say that the majority of artists who come from countries where there is a war or a conflict going on, or where there is dictatorship, are more socially and politically committed, whereas those who come from wealthy countries such as, for example, the western European countries like France or Germany and who have not experienced political brutality are nor socially and politically committed. But this is not the way in which we should be talking to these people. Artists, who are a professional group, have been very powerfully conditioned by market forces and taught obedience; made dependent on the demands of art world and institutional standards. All those things that we associate with art: rebellion, dissent, disagreement – have evaporated. Real enfants terribles in art are few and far between.

SL: By asking the question about political views, you negated two fundamental points of reference for artists: you invalidated the academy and the art market. Hitherto, when submitting such an application, one had to write: I had an exhibition in such and such place, I collaborated with this or that gallery.

But this is exactly what everyone did say. We received thousands of standardised replies – with lists of exhibitions, with their entire body of work, with photographs of individual works. Only rarely was there a non-standard answer. Such as a single, hand-written page, on which the artist presented his entire life – his opinions, his opus, his plans for the future. Mostly, the art world is meek. These people are professionalised and they make their answers fit into a professional format.

KW: Are you saying that artists follow well-trodden paths, or is it perhaps that the audience is used to the reception of particular products?

Both the public and the artists have become professionalised and groomed to receive and consume products with a particular profile. In Berlin, there are thousands of artists. According to statistics, every year 3 000 exhibitions take place in 600 galleries, in which 5 000 artists take part. The cultural sector in Berlin is an industry – think how many inhabitants of the city are needed to service the logistics of the industry and provide technical and managerial back up. This is a network of exchange and obligations. It is also a machine for the unification of artistic idiom and strategy.

KW: What do you understand by ‘professionalised’? Do you mean that they arrive with some pre-existing baggage of information?

Yes, they have been prepared and trained to look at art. Art is a very singular language and you have to know the artistic codes and tricks. This is, of course, not too difficult. If you spend a few years looking at those things, it can even become boring, you might think of taking up other fields of interest. I began to find exhibitions rather sad, I ceased to need them. The most interesting part had always been organising interpersonal situations and in that way looking for the excess of reality, a situation where reality reveals itself, where it shows its true face. I don’t think that art exhibitions belong in that category.

KW: I can sense that your attitude to art has become radicalised. For you, does art exist that doesn’t have to have a political impact?

I consider every type of artistic activity legitimate. But I find the most interesting that part of culture which has social and political aspirations. I am not interested in celebrating my own position, in putting a distance between myself and society or in defending art’s dubious immunity. However, I think that in art - the sort of art that does have political ambitions – there is a fundamental flaw. If the artist’s work is an expression of an opinion or even an exhortation to do something, the reaction it triggers should be to follow the opinion or the call for action. If you have looked at a work which urges you to become politically active, you should take up such activity as soon as you leave the art gallery, or, at the very least, consider very seriously doing just that. But nobody does that. The artists’ efforts end up in a vacuum; people don’t see them as an ideological challenge. This exposes the basic flaw to do with the audience – that it is the wrong kind of audience. You are making an exhibition about war, in which you are criticising war and conflict and so on. The people who come to see the exhibition tend to be pacifists, because that’s the kind of audience that frequents lefty shows. So, what will happen as a result of such an exhibition? Most likely, not much. I have in mind art that seeks out the right kind of audience, art that will take up the challenge, follow the ideas.

An exhibition can be part of public opinion, it can be an expression of social mood – it can have equal weight to the opinions propagated in the media or at street demonstrations. Those who should be listening, just as is the case with social mood and the voice of public opinion, are the people who can influence our everyday life. They should pay just as much attention to what the people have to say who produce art exhibitions, make films or put on theatrical plays as they pay to what the newspapers say or what people who demonstrate in the streets have to say. These are all expressions of public opinion.

SL: Perhaps artists should work more with the audience, talk to viewers?

That’s right. Artists have begun to act more in their local area, outside a museum or a gallery. The right kind of audience is the group that the art is relevant for, people amongst whom the art takes place, whose problems it takes up. In Warsaw, on Dudziarska Street, there is a housing estate. The inhabitants have been evicted from elsewhere and that is where they were given a place to live. We are talking about a few blocks of flats which stand in a triangle between railway tracks, on the outskirts of the city. After a lot of bother, the municipal transport company has finally started to run a bus route there. The estate is very dilapidated; there is a housing mafia there, and so on. What has put the estate on the map is the artistic action by Grzegorz Drozd, who painted Malewicz’s black squares on one side of the buildings, and on their other side, a composition inspired by Mondrian. And the right audience are not the people who are reading about this at this very moment, but the people who live on the estate. They are the right audience, because the art is directly relevant to them. And that audience did indeed take up the artist’s challenge. Those living in the blocks of flats wrote a petition against the presence of the Malewicz’s replicas on their buildings and they collected signatures in favour of painting them over. This is a place where art has found its correct audience.

KW: Even though the public has reacted in a negative way?

In any other situation, you would probably wish for just such a reaction, that people write a petition, collect signatures and actually want something.  You would call it a civic, democratic response. Here, the situation is precisely the same. It’s just that the object of their protest is not a project of an anti-abortion law, but black squares on buildings. This artistic act was, after all, arrogant and perhaps even humiliating for those living there. But Drozd received a very special present – he succeeded in provoking democratic fervour amongst people who are destitute and live in humbling circumstances. It doesn’t seem right that an artist should be protected from the reaction of the audience. These are not obedient and professionalised spectators of a ‘politically minimalist’ kind of exhibition, but spectators in whose midst this art is taking place. Anyway, there is generally a problem with institutional art, which operates in the same paradigm as, for instance, institutional theatre. Democracy is going in the direction of a totally open street debate. The people who occupy Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv or Wall Street in New York don’t need bureaucratic galleries, which would sooner censor them than give them carte blanche to act as they please.

SL: These days, many centres of contemporary art appear which should be places where a genuine social voice is heard, rather than just be an alternative arena for people skilled at reading cultural codes. Why aren’t they becoming such places?

You would have to reset the paradigm. Piotr Piotrowski did try to change the paradigm by creating a critical museum and he went down with his idea. He was doing it quite softly softly, [-1] in a conservative way – his curators were juxtaposing museum objects with works of contemporary artists – but even that safe option was not acceptable. This in spite of the fact that critical art has become naturalised, domesticated and that it wears carpet slippers. How can you change the conviction that the aim of a cultural institution is bringing culture to people, that the aim of a museum is acting museum-like? These are traps; systemic self-propagation.

SL: In my opinion, a paradigm change is taking place. Piotrowski’s book had repercussions.

This is not about how a book is received, but about implementing a certain project. If you ask people who work in an art gallery what its role is, they will usually answer that they exhibit art. ‘So, who do you work with?’ ‘We work with artists.’ ‘And what is the purpose of working with them?’ ‘The aim is, of course, to exhibit good art.’ Nobody ever verbalises this in any other way, saying, ‘I am left wing/right wing/ I am in favour of partnerships/ I am a pro-life activist/ a Catholic – and these are the views that I want to promote in my gallery.’ Most often, a gallery is a receptacle for ‘good’ art. People who openly declare that their gallery or museum supports the idea of a civic society are very rare. To change the paradigm means to politicise this arena and to find for culture an aim different than culture itself. So that it becomes obvious that art concerns everything and so does culture. So that we no longer hear such absurd statements as, ‘I know nothing about art, I don’t look at it.’ So that such a statement becomes as absurd as, ‘I know nothing about newspapers, I don’t read them,’ or ‘I know nothing about TV, I don’t watch it.’

SL: Together with the artists with whom you are working for the Berlin Biennale, you are creating a new art theory. I can see you already standing on the horizon. I am worried that you will run too far ahead.

We aren’t creating a new art theory, we are art practitioners – what we do is pragmatic activity in the cultural arena, targeting concrete aims. Even if we do theorise at times, this is only when giving accounts of actual practices. It is true, though, that we have tried to forget completely all living and dead philosophers, to forget the disempowering philosophical Newspeak and the notion that you cannot take a single step forward without Rancière. I am not against philosophy, or against thought and reflection, what I am against is the fetishisation of intellect and against the panicky tendency to back up one’s stance with the names of the stars on the philosophical firmament, just to be on the safe side. And I am also against the fetishisation of art.

SL: The Yael congress seems the most socially significant event, which conveys the most messages.

Neither is the case. What perhaps matters more for Berlin is the Pact for Art, which is much more firmly set in the local and global problems of the cultural sector.

The return of Jews is an exotic theme, which has yet to become a significant issue. Who is to come back – Israelis? Because they are much more Israelites than Jews. In what way is the notion of Jewishness important today? Are we talking about Jewishness as defined by religion or by the traditions and rituals of Judaism? I think that, today, all that is folklore. Such a definition of Jewishness has no particular meaning, it no longer creates a world of its own. What matters is the definition of Jewishness as a political project. What could be interesting for the congress of the Movement for Jewish Renewal is Jewishness as a set of political ideas. Zionism and its opposition, Jewish nationality and the consequences of the Jews having their own state. Yael said that ever since the Jews had got their own country, they had been engaged in permanent war and, in the eyes of the world, they were the losers. Jews having their own country – a safe haven from the nightmare of European exterminist anti-Semitism – has turned into a militaristic horror. And many people want to escape that horror. They are applying for Polish, Czech, Dutch or whatever passports. And they get them, and they go back to their motherland. And that is where a problem arises, because now they have two motherlands. For example, Israel and the Czech Republic. And while they are in the Czech Republic, they get back into a politically-understood Jewishness and, for example, they begin to perceive Israelis and a big Jewish Diaspora, situated in the Middle East. And this is interesting for the congress, but, all the same, it remains exotic.

KW: The Biennale will be taking place at a time when in Europe and the USA violent social turmoil is taking place.

The same is true in Arab countries, and in Israel, things have also been happening. What can you do about all this? There are such social movements as Democracia Real Ya! and what you have is your huge gallery, white cube, an office, internal controls, bureaucratic standards, funds. You have precisely what those people don’t want: they will not want a debate in your institution, because they are organising it in the street. They won’t want to stay in your guest rooms, because they prefer to stay in tents set up in the city centre. They are not looking for funds, because they live off hand-outs or donated food. Some of them are completely penniless. When I think about all this and I look at the five-storey Kunst-Werke in Berlin, which swallows incredible amounts of money in maintenance costs alone, it makes me think that I, together with that institution, am just orbiting these events, looking at them from far away through a telescope. This, for me, is the reality check of our efforts, the proof of how redundant our institution is. Should we be organising an exhibition for them? But their every demonstration is an exhibition, a theatre, a carnival. At best, we could invite them as teachers of politics and democracy. But it’s unlikely that they would accept such an invitation.

KW: What can they teach us?

To talk. These aren’t people who are into armchair debates. They have other passions. They debate in the street. Everyone can speak out and be heard out and taken notice of. And they react instantly; they answer points there and then. You are not listening to a stale debate of intellectuals who nod their heads and fawn, while others don’t dare to open their mouths. We aren’t used to such a debating format. There is no division into the intellectuals who are entitled to speak out and the lower orders, the silent class, who – if they were to say anything – would only meet with laughter and derision or revulsion. There, anyone can talk and be taken seriously.

SL: Has the Berlin initiative Pact for Art been inspired by the Polish Pact for Culture?

That’s right. The situation in Berlin is somewhat similar to that in Poland. It is therefore possible to transfer a particular strategy and to apply it in a different place. The Pact for Culture is an example of a substantive activity, a proposal for a social contract. And it offers a possibility for collective action. This is important, because it lessens the feeling of this incredible, disempowering isolation, which is ever-present amongst artists. Artists are at all times on their own – a little out of choice, but more so because of abiding by art commandments. They are individualists, loners. This feeling of isolation, of distancing themselves from society impedes their capacity for taking part in creating a different political reality.

SL: How wide a scope is the Pact for Art meant to have? Will it be limited to Berlin alone?

This still has not been decided. But the Polish phenomenon is amazing – people in the cultural arena are waking up, demanding their rights, and implementing democracy. If the need to agree a new social contract were to sweep across Europe – at a time when funds for culture and education are being cut everywhere – it would be a victory of the idea, of – at least partly – communal action in art and in culture. And this could change the role of art and culture. But it’s not possible to know whether this will come off, because this distance towards realistic activity corrodes art’s potential, the will of artists and the aspirations of people in the cultural arena.

SL: What can one do to take part in your activities in some way, to add another brick to the structure?

You could make this new social contract all over Europe. Politicise culture and start acting for real, without worrying about actual outcomes. Would you be prepared to try this out?


Artur Żmijewski - (born 1966)

Visual artist, artistic editor of Political Critique. Graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw under Professor Grzegorz Kowalski and of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. His works have been shown at numerous international exhibitions. In 2005 represented Poland at the 51st Venice Biennale. In September 2010, elected curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale.