"Working in the cultural field and as a curator has certainly much potential for self-realization"

Did you have any special background in the field of contemporary art? And how did your path bring you to MAK?

I studied art history in Vienna and always had a strong interest in contemporary art and culture, the current topics and production of art in direct relation to society, politics and the general environment art takes place in and is received. The inaugural lecture of one of my professors was titled “Visual media in the Christian cult of the Middle Ages” and he made the connection between Giotto and the illustrative frescoes in the Arena Chapel of Padua and Marshall McLuhan’s media theory – this was very enlightening for my further interest in art and contemporary practice.

I always preferred institutions that had a broader focus on art than for example “just” modern painting i.a. so the MAK was always an inspirational place for me. Combining traditional applied arts with contemporary art and experimental events as well as the branch in Los Angeles (a residency for artists and architects, the MAK Schindler Scholarship seemed very exciting so I applied as a curatorial assistant and it worked. Although I was in project management for mostly Los Angeles related projects at first, I made my way to the exhibition department and my curatorial projects grew, step by step. From event-based project towards smaller exhibitions at MAK gallery (such as “Grand Central” by Valentin Ruhry or “Forms in Time” by Kay Walkowiak) up to comprehensive projects at the large exhibition halls and also Vienna Biennale with projects such as “Hollein” (2014), “24/7 the human condition” (2015), “Artificial tears” (2017) and “Uncanny Values” (2019), or the re-installation with a new concept of MAK DESIGN LAB (2019) to name a few.

Exhibition view, 24/7: the human condition. Lazar Lyutakov, Untitled (Feiyue), 2013. 6 pairs of canvas shoes. In the background: Christian Mayer, Mauth Maep, 2015. Porto slate, chalk, dimensions variable. Photo: Aslan Kudrnofsky/MAK
Exhibition view, 24/7: the human condition. Ben Thorp Brown, Untitled (Fists), 2015. Recycled Lucite, ink. Courtesy of the artist and Bischoff Projects. Photo: Aslan Kudrnofsky/MAK

Let’s speak about your curatorial practice and interests. Do you remember your first curatorial experience or project?

My interest was always in the exhibition as a medium to communicate themes, be it in the form of a solo presentation of one artist/designer/architect or in the form of topical group exhibitions where the works, the space and the theme interact and are activated by the viewers. 

Where I started from though at MAK before exhibitions was being the curator for the “MAK NITE”, a series of one-off, one-evening events with mostly performative character. The events series MAK NITE has been an established part of the Vienna art scene for about a decade. In the midst of a steadily growing cultural offering of Off Spaces, and independent cultural locations, the MAK was then the only museum institution that represented projects and experiments for young, ambitious contemporary artists and designers. On Tuesday evenings till midnight, performances, video screenings, sound projects, installations and interventions developed specially for MAK NITE took place in the MAK Columned Main Hall, as well as four times a year in the MAK Tower (an appropriated anti-aircraft tower) at Arenbergpark where the MAK also has its Depot of Contemporary Art.

One of my earliest projects was “Hobbyhorse” by David Moises in 2009. The “hobbyhorse” was developed from a converted lawn trimmer where the blades have been replaced by tires and which can now be “ridden” on roller skates. The “head” of the hobbyhorse is the engine of the device, which delivers exactly one horsepower (HP). The audience was not only invited for a metaphorical ride on the hobbyhorses, but literally to go for a ride in the hermetic indoor space of the 8th floor of the anti-aircraft tower. We also hosted the punk rock/new wave artist Lydia Lunch there for a concert, a fantastic performance!

Another earlier project at MAK was “cinema³” by scopemotion (in 2012). A connected textile surface was stretched out over a wooden construction on which images were projected from three perspectives. The screen and the usable sitting and lying surface merged into a “flowing” cinema space.

CINEMA3 by scopemotion, Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2012. Photo: MAK/Mika Wisskirchen
Hobbyhorse by David Moises, Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2009. Photo: MAK/Marlies Wirth

Your last project, “Uncanny Values” – what were the ideas behind the project and what topics does it explore? How much time did it take to create it?

The exhibition “UNCANNY VALUES. Artificial Intelligence & You” was conceived for VIENNA BIENNALE 2019 which had the theme “Brave New Values. Shaping Our Digital World”. The topic of artificial intelligence (AI) came naturally since the MAK had started to explore the relation of technology and the arts already in the 2017 VIENNA BIENNALE titled “Robots. Work. Our Future.” that dealt with digitization and automation.

The “Uncanny” relates to both the uncanniness of the technological transformation in place as well as making reference to the “Uncanny Valley”, a term coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, describing the effect of humanlike machines. With image recognition, natural language processing and predictive analytics, AI conjures a similar effect, while challenging our notion of “intelligence”. The “Uncanny” itself has been described by the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud as the “strangely familiar” – and it seemed a suitable analogy for us.

My co-curator Paul Feigelfeld, media theorist and I started working on the project about one year before the opening and wanted to tackle all areas that are affected by AI and the question of “value”, both literally and ethically.

As a starting point we took the five main areas of action describing what AI can do (and humans do, although differently): Language, Sensing, Learning, Design and Prediction. We invited international artists, designers and researchers to contribute work to the selected topics, some of which were entirely new commissions. The works stood for themselves, but were related to and layered with other works as well as the thematic areas influenced by machine learning and related technologies, such as politics, healthcare, the economy, security, ecology, the species, culture, thinking, intimacy, and so on. 

We also wanted to implement “applied AI” in the design of the exhibition, so we invited a graphic and interaction design studio who came up with a GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) that learned to create its own content. In our case it was fed some thousand of commonly used emoji and designed its own, the “AImoji” which became the key visual of the exhibition.

Exhibition View, UNCANNY VALUES. Artificial Intelligence & You. Photo: Some Place Studio

Were there any difficulties with the realization of “Uncanny Values” in MAK? 

There is no exhibition making without difficulties – but we like to call it “challenges”!

One of the main commissions, “Asunder” by Julian Oliver, Tega Brain and Bengt Sjölén, used a live-running AI model to work with satellite images and related demographic data – the system it runs on had to be custom-constructed, a multiprocessor-computer. It was quite the thrill, and some graphics cards burnt in the process of making it. It goes without saying that due to the nature of the work it was only finalized in the night before the press conference.

Exhibition View, UNCANNY VALUES. Artificial Intelligence & You. Tega Brain, Julian Oliver, and Bengt Sjölén, Asunder, 2019. Three-channel video projection, satellite imagery, CESM climate model, multi-processor computer and custom software. Commissioned by the MAK for VIENNA BIENNALE 2019. Photo: Tega Brain

What does this exhibition mean to you, personally? What is your favourite artwork there?

I really enjoyed diving deep into the topics of machine learning, AI and the impact of technology on human intelligence and our thinking. Also it has been a wonderful journey with the whole team, my co-curator, our graphic designers, our exhibition architects, exhibition manager, research assistant, the intern and all the artists some of who I had already known personally, but also those who I got to meet and work with for the first time through this exhibition. Coming up with some of the solutions and ideas in the exhibition was a veritable team effort and it became even more clear that the technological challenges ahead need a collective mind to be tackled!

As in all thematic group shows every artwork is important to the curator – one of my highlights, also for its symbolic value in the context of the topics is “Probably Chelsea” by Heather Dewey Hagborg. It features 30 possible portraits of the US-American whistleblower Chelsea E. Manning that were conceived through analysis of her DNA by means of a facial recognition software.

Exhibition View, UNCANNY VALUES. Artificial Intelligence & You. Heather Dewey-Hagborg with Chelsea E. Manning, Probably Chelsea, 2017 Installation, 30 portraits designed using custom software that analyzed samples of Chelsea Manning’s DNA. Courtesy of the artist and Iliya Fridman Gallery New York. Photo: MAK/Kristina Wissik

Being a curator is always about  ”taking care” of something. What about your artistic potential? Do you feel that curatorial work gives you everything you need for self-realization?

Creative thinking is certainly key when working as a curator, but this is not necessarily “artistic”. I never wanted to be an artist myself when I studied art history – but I strongly believed and still do that curators can learn a lot from artists (and also designers, architects) and their way of looking at problems, and also their way of looking at exhibitions. I always find it very important that artists (and not only the ones exhibiting) can relate to the exhibitions I curate and, in the best case, find them inspiring in their own way.

I would say working in the cultural field and as a curator has certainly much potential for “self-realisation” as you phrase it – the transition from work-related interest and personal interest in topics, people and research are overlapping to a grand degree. Like in any profession, also curatorial work entails some more annoying and less fun parts, so much is clear. 

Concerning the topics I like to work on, the MAK is giving me new challenges all the time, which I find exciting (such as delving into the technology themes, and artificial intelligence or new roles of design and climate care projects). If that is not enough, I am giving myself challenges in self-organised shows such as “ELSEWHERE. Observations on Islands” , “NOW/HERE”, an exhibition about the ephemeral and unsteady) or the first solo exhibition of Mexican artist Jose Dàvila in Austria.

Overall though I am lucky to be able to do what I love and engage with smart and inspiring people for the most part of my working life!

ELSEWHERE, Observations on Islands, Franz Josefs Kai 3, 1010 Vienna, 2015. Curated by Marlies Wirth
Exhibition View, ELSEWHERE. Andreas Duscha, Heart‘s Content, 2014. Wood, wallpaper, UV print on mirror (glass, silver nitrate). Courtesy of the artist. In the background: Sven Johne, Wachwechsel [changing of the guard], 2003 24 b/w photographs, each 37 x 52 cm, framed. Loan private collection, Brussels.
Jose Dávila, A simple rule to remember Franz Josefs Kai, Vienna, 2018. Curated by Marlies Wirth. Photos: Stefan Lux
Jose Dávila, A simple rule to remember Franz Josefs Kai, Vienna, 2018. Curated by Marlies Wirth. Photos: Stefan Lux

What do you think about the latest news in curatorial-museum context: Piotr Bernatowicz, the new director of the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, wants to reshape this leading Warsaw art space to show conservative works and challenge left-wing positions. 

This is highly problematic in so many ways. Art is always political, per se. To instrumentalize art and artists for any radical political movement is just wrong – and even more so if it is a politics of exclusion and discrimination.

Left ideology also uses art as an instrument for the realization of its ideas. How can we (cultural workers) find the ethics of “using” art and artists to develop the best in humanity? In curatorial practice in particular.

Like I said: any radical ideology is problematic – look at the aftermath of communism. Art is political in its own way, it does not “need” to be platformed or “instrumentalized” by institutions or curators – this would also deny artists their own agency and their work its inherent power. 

As for the “best in humanity” I would say: the future of our planet is a collective problem and therefore needs bundled energies to tackle it. Art, design and architecture can contribute a lot and we need to work together on the urgent topics!

Exhibition view, ARTIFICIAL TEARS. Aleksandra Domanović, Things to Come, 2014. UV flatbed print on polyester foil, 7 panels à 5 parts; Unique. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin. Photo: Aslan Kudrnofsky/MAK
Exhibition view, ARTIFICIAL TEARS. Jeremy Shaw, DMT, 2004, 8-channel video installation; dimensions variable 3/3 + 2 AP. Courtesy of the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin. Photo: Aslan Kudrnofsky/MAK

What about censorship and selection in MAK? Do you feel that your personal and curatorial position are aligned?

Luckily the MAK as an Austrian Federal Museum has no restrictions in its content choices. Even if a museum would exhibit or publish something that would be criticized by a right-wing politician, they still could remain independent in their opinion. This is something dearly lacking in many other countries, and we should value the freedom of opinion highly in these times!

Exhibition View, NOW/HERE. Marilia Furman, Not-simultaneous and combined evolution of crash, 2015. Installation, ice, wax, M.D.F, lamps, arduino board, mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and PSM Gallery, Berlin. Photos: Ralf Kliem

How do you find new artists? 

Vienna has two very good art schools, the Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Applied Arts. They always organize shows for their finals and the classes present recent work as well. This is a great way to get in touch with the young generation. The young galleries in Vienna show young artists for the most part. Also Vienna has a lot of off-spaces that are partly self-organized by emerging artists. 

What should the young artist do to be noticed by you?

Make good work!

Or a little less general: Take note of what field/theme the curators you want to get in contact with are interested in or currently working on and introduce yourselves if you feel this could be an inspiring exchange; talk about what you are working on, and don’t be in despair if it does not match at this point.

Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2014. Guest Curator: Wilfried Kuehn, Kuehn Malvezzi Architects, Berlin MAK. Curator: Marlies Wirth. Photos: Peter Kainz/MAK
Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2014. Guest Curator: Wilfried Kuehn, Kuehn Malvezzi Architects, Berlin MAK. Curator: Marlies Wirth. Photos: Peter Kainz/MAK

Any advice for young curators? 

Stay curious and open-minded, look at the world together with artists and through “their eyes”, read a lot, but not about curating, and never forget that passion is an important ingredient to every project.

Kay Walkowiak. Forms in Time, Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2016. Curated by Marlies Wirth. Photos: Aslan Kudrnofsky/MAK
Kay Walkowiak. Forms in Time, Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2016. Curated by Marlies Wirth. Photos: Aslan Kudrnofsky/MAK