What brought you to contemporary art?
I completed “Visual and Cultural Studies” Master’s program at EHU. While I was working on my Bachelor’s thesis on labor representation in political cinema, I noticed that in art field political cinema seems to be more exciting and experimental. Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker and Harun Farocki take an important part in the history of cinema, but they also often work or used to work in contemporary art. Then I took a closer look at what was happening in art, primarily in video, and soon realized that the processes occurring on that territory interested me much more than those of conventional cinema. Around then it became clear that I would not be able to do cinema professionally: I find it difficult to watch five films a day, as professional critics or video curators do, so I started getting interested in contemporary visual art. I finished my Master’s thesis on “transit” period in the history of Belarusian art in the 1990s, the history of exhibitions and Soros art centers in Eastern Europe, then completed my second Master’s program in Stockholm on curating art. There I did my internship at Tensta Konsthall headed by Maria Lind. The whole process greatly influenced my professional skills and methodologies. A year later, I defended my thesis on “the lessons in bad art” and student strikes at the Art School in 1988 and 1992 in Minsk.
Can we say that your interest in art naturally comes from your world view?
To put it in a nutshell – yes, it does.
First of all, since the age of 14 I have been a part of Minsk anarchy punk scene that had a huge impact on me. Grass-roots DIY culture instilled my awareness of many important political issues, it was also there where an interest in culture not as a “decoration” or “service”, but as an active substance that interacts with society and politics was formed. Moreover, I came to understand that culture can also reflect, criticize and modify.
Secondly, I remember pretty well my school teacher of art history lending me VHS tapes with Luis Bunuel and Dali’s film “Аn Andalusian Dog” and Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” for watching at home. Those give me first powerful conscious impressions of art.
What were the first exhibitions you curated?
One of my first exhibitions was “XXY” at “Ў” Gallery. It was the result of collective efforts and this is exactly what interests me in this sphere at the moment: curating related to various practices of expert choices problematizing/delegating. There were four of us working on that exhibition – Inga Lindorenko, Tania Arcimovich and Valentina Kiselyova. I believe it was one of the most important projects dealing with the issues of sexuality, heteronormativity criticism and the queer. How successfully it was done is an open question. It seems to me that we worked quite well on the exhibition display and design, on combining in one space big names from Minsk and the countries of near and far abroad: Sergey Shabohin and Lyudska Podoba, Zhanna Gladko and Wolfgang Tilmans and so on.
But the first exhibition was “Offside” made by the same curators’ group, which, on the one hand, articulated various forms of criticism of sports and athleticism, and also tried to understand what was happening with the city and body during such mega-events as the World Hockey Championship in 2014. Moreover, the exhibition was a kind of response to all the vulgarity of servile Belarussian art: at the same time, many official exhibitions for tourists were held, being pretty frank about their market-driven nature.
I have been working with exhibitions more or less professionally only for 4 years, but I seem to have already succeeded in doing not so little, especially given the context where we have to work. The latest solo shows I was curating are “Absorption” by Jura Shust and “While the Stones are on the Hill, the Cannon Balls are on the Curb” by Uladzimir Hramovich. There is a curious fact – I have hardly ever received invitations to make an exhibition in Belarus from institutions or museums (apart from “XXY”, “Offside” and “Nonconformity of the 1980s”). Almost always it is either artists’ personal interest (as with solo exhibitions), or my own proposals.
What is “Problem Collective” and what does this group do?
“Problem Collective” is not a curatorial collective, it is an artistic-research group interested in the socialist history of Belarus and reading. Yes, it is about teamwork, but from a different perspective.
“Problem Collective” grew from our pleasure of spending time together and the desire to produce collectively the art and knowledge that seem relevant to us and that could help us to draw attention to the dark and unexplored episodes in the history of socialist Belarus. The members of the collective are Olia Sosnovskaya, Alesia Zhitkevich and Uladzimir Hramovich. We are something like a small seminar, a reading group, or even a chat we used to initially be. A large project we have almost completed by now is a study for the publication by the Center for Experimental Museology, a project initiated by artist the Arseny Zhilyaev and the V-A-C Foundation. Zhilyaev published the book “Avant-garde Museology” with a collection of historical texts about the cosmist and Marxist experience of creating exhibitions, we all had read and which had impressed all of us. For the new book we are writing a text that focuses on the artistic practice of Aleksanteri Ahola-Valo, a designer and an artist, who in 1930 in Minsk, as a part of the First All-Belarus Exhibition of Agriculture and Industry, built the MOPR Pavilion (International Society for Aid to Revolutionary Fighters) also known as a pavilion of political violence history. Since his story is rather dark and often relies on myths created by Belarussian and Finnish art critics, not always proved by the documents, it was important for us to investigate it in Minsk and Finnish archives. Our text is to be published in 2019. Using this work as our basis, we began a series of public readings developed on the methods of early Soviet reading groups.
What interests you most in curatorial practices?
In the projects I work on alone, the interest is more focused. The topics I was dealing with started to manifest themselves in the exhibition “All That Is Solid Melts into Air” held in Maxim Bogdanovich’s Literary Museum. In that period the museum was being renovated – it was a great success for curatorial work: I was free to do anything. This helped to develop direct interaction and think about the museum space itself: the reconstruction allowed the artists to make their works site-specific and critically comment on the composition of the museum space itself. The building was constructed in the late 1980s and early 1990s and it was a fairly new type of museum associated with nation-centered romanticism with the whole set of clichés about it, as well as about the nation and the protagonist who was certainly gender-centered. While working on the exhibition, my interests were formed – which I am still working on now. Among them there is a museum display, memory policies and collective affects. These topics are present and developed in my project “The Specific Emotional” on social choreography, the theory of holiday and events.
By the way, about the names you give your projects. They are always rather long and contain adjectives. Is this a kind of curator’s signature?
I like long names, because their ambiguity creates space for imagination. In fact, naming is one of the most difficult things for me. I often use quotations from various texts: for example, from the Communist Manifesto (“All That Is Solid… ”) or from Ines and Eyal Weizman’s studies of the architecture of the disaster (“While the Stones are on the Hill ..”).
Is it better for the curator today to be closely linked to one’s space, or, vice versa, be a cosmopolitan?
It all depends on one’s goals and tasks. At the moment an interesting discussion about nomadism/settled way of life seems to be emerging, if I can paraphrase your question through such an opposition. Curators are always mobile, they often have no home, they are precarious. This mobility and plasticity are often interpreted as something progressive (for example, Rosi Braidotti’s nomadism or the multitude in Antonio Negri’s and Paolo Virno’s works). However, as it seems to me, this is often reflected in the quality of work, exhibitions and studies come to be superficial, unintelligible, they just operate with fashionable buzzwords. On the other hand, another idea is beginning to come to the forefront: how to rethink one’s connection to a place in the long-term perspective, how to work not on a project, but on a lengthy, complex and time-consuming practice. I think it is important to grasp the dialectic of “dasein” and critical distance, try to find a form of work that would not fall into provincialism and at the same time keep in touch with the place. I think in Minsk you can work as a curator only if you constantly travel and work in other contexts.
Over the last five years, a generation of young curators has appeared in Minsk. What should they do then?
I have no recipes. In my case, it is studying and working abroad, communication with professional communities as a part of an international perspective. In Minsk it is very easy to reach a certain level, but it is difficult to break the glass ceiling. Thus, it seems to me, it is just necessary to use communication channels, residences, various programs not only for, so to say, one’s professional development, but also for maintaining connections, exchanging experience, searching for synchronous and parallel issues. In Minsk there is a high risk of getting stuck in parochialism, as I see it. I truly find it hard to understand why so few people attend important exhibitions in such cities as Kiev, Vilnius, Warsaw, Bialystok, Moscow, and other cities so close to us.
Are there any curatorial strategies of working with the project and the public?
Certainly. This is a big discussion in museum theory and practice that concerns the questions of how to remain a critical institution, work with the public and, at the same time, do not transform into exclusively entertaining formats, following the demand to increase the audience. To perform successful experiments one needs to have enough of such resources as personnel, time and financing. However, there are numerous examples of working with the audience and mediation of art with minimal budgets: this requires intelligence, practice, flexibility, political position and a desire to work. In Minsk, it seems to me, there is a lack of discussion and a laboratory environment where to experiment. At the moment everything has been reduced to the question of how to attract more and more visitors by any means, as I see it. I am not an expert in this matter: I have never worked inside an institution, I really do not like administration, management and bureaucracy. Also, in Minsk there is a lack of interesting, brave projects with innovative issues – the qualitative content is a rare thing. It seems important to me not to repeat those clichés that underly the official (and often unofficial, too) field of today’s art, but to offer new points of view and new experience.
Is this your mission as a curator?
Working in Belarus, I see my interest in creating a space for communication for Belarusian artists with close and international contexts: I think we critically lack this synchronization. I always try to exhibit Belarusian artists together with artists from other countries. And this is the best that a curator who works in Minsk can do now. Thus, it is important to work internationally and monitor what is happening regionally – from Russia to Romania, at least. These are contexts that are close to us. It is high time to finish with representative exhibitions of exclusively Belarusian art. For example, now I am purposefully trying not to do exhibitions of Belarusian artists only. I am also trying to continue working through self-organization, at least partially.
What project are you working on now?
“WORK HARD! PLAY HARD!” is a project we have already been working on for three years – in summer 2019 it will be our fourth exhibition, made together with Olia Sosnovskaya and the eeefff group (Dina Zhuk and Nikolai Spesivtsev). This is what brings me immense pleasure and produces a kind of therapeutic effect. We do “WORK HARD! PLAY HARD!” without a budget or generate it in various strange ways. But at the same time, I think that the program we manage to create is one of the most interesting in Minsk, if to take a similar format. For example, we show a large cross section of relevant regional performative practices. We work “hormonally,” as Dina says, at the expense of personal empathy and shared affect. The project focuses on changing the landscape of labor and work in Eastern Europe. Every year we approach this issue from different perspectives. It is clear that “WORK HARD! PLAY HARD!” is primarily focused on a professional community of friends, but almost all the events are open to the general public. One of the main characteristics of the project is its focus on performative and colloquial formats (for example, a session of communist yoga, a collective reading or a disco), on art-in-process — as opposed to the object- or result-centered art usually shown in Minsk.
You have mentioned two important facts. The first is about personal connections that help to deal with many things in the art field, which is a stumbling block for the development of the professional structure and labor monetization. The second is about performative practices being a complex product that is not always self-supporting financially and symbolically…
I personally have little interest in art monetization. “WORK HARD! PLAY HARD!” is not interested in it at all. Although we do not call ourselves curators, for me this is a form of curatorial collective practice. We consider ourselves to be a working group and at the same time do not make a selection from an open competition. At different presentations of the project there is no single “correct” story: each shares his or her vision and those are synchronized in the flexible organization structure we have come up with. It allows us to avoid the problems of the hegemony of expert knowledge and helps to build communication at the level of the art scene. I hope, in a sense, it also helps to avoid commercialization/monetization and institutionalization of art increasingly present in Russia and Ukraine, where large institutions simply swallow independent initiatives and artist-run spaces are seen as some sort of springboards for artists which will bring them to the “next level”. Performance itself appeared as a strategy of resistance to commercial art. However, today, in general to sell or to buy a performance is an ordinary practice for both museums and large corporations.
But the friendly basis of labor does not allow the professional system to evolve with the man-hours of both the curator and the artist actually paid.
I do not think that when a professional works for free, the work ceases to be professional. On the other hand, the institution works professionally when it pays for the work of its volunteers, cleaners and directors. Professionalism is a complex concept, it functions on several levels. To remain professional, the institution cannot always afford itself what the curator and the artist can. Unfortunately, today the contemporary art in Belarus is based on almost completely free work of artists and curators. Here, for many institutions, it is better to be a dead artist – no need to pay! It is illustrated by the example of late Soviet Belarusian non-conformism. After a thorough analysis, I think you will see these artists finding themselves in exhibition halls only after their death.
Which phenomenon seems to interest you most at the moment?
Unfortunately, in Belarus there are virtually no new resources that could support curators and artists from within. On Art Activist several years ago, an interview with Sven Speaker was published with a quote “Art takes on the same roads as the capital” as its title. Consequently, due to the increase in competition for resource opportunities and the decrease in interest and financing of culture on the part of Western foundations, art began to address social problems through the NGO sector. This resulted in an interesting symbiosis of contemporary art practices that have a mediation potential, therapy, communication, dialogue, and the NGO-sector, which also has to look for new ways of articulating social problems. The latest exhibitions have offered artists different models of addressing social problems. I have seen almost no analysis of these situations, although it seems to be a very important (often problematic) aspect that greatly influences artistic practice and work. It is worth paying attention to.
Now I curate less being more engaged in writing: I rethink my Master’s thesis transforming in into articles in Russian/Belarusian and English. I still would like to continue with “The Specific Emotional”, I already have an idea about the third exhibition as a part of the series. For me it was an important project because when working on it I was thinking about the ways to avoid the superficiality of the exhibitions that “explore” some phenomenon. My solution was in splitting the topic into a series of exhibitions and events focused on specific issues – more similar to some form of an exhibition-essay. It turns out that the long-term project could be shown as a number of small presentations made in different places: the first part was in KH Space in Brest, the second – in Liljevalchs Hubb in Stockholm. The third has not been shown yet, and this worries me a little.
We also have many plans and ideas with “Problem Collective”. I hope to get them all implemented. I have been dreaming of making an exhibition at House-Museum of First Congress of the RSDLP. I have always been inspired by their exhibition program: socialist history and exotic butterflies. Something witty and poetic could turn out.