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Photo by Christian Benesch

Ekaterina Degot: »We No Longer Live in the Days of Malevich’s Black Square«

September 19, 2018
Text by Lewon Heublein
Photo by Christian Benesch

Ekaterina Degot, the new artistic director of steirischer herbst, explains why it is important to address issues that affect us all.

This year, the interdisciplinary festival steirischer herbst will take place from 20 September to 14 October in Graz. Between performing arts, exhibitions or contemporary music, the festival negotiates questions of solidarity and positions itself against right-wing politics. An interview by Lewon Heublein.

Ekaterina Degot, it is your first time as director of the interdisciplinary festival steirischer herbst in Graz. The program gives the impression that it was developed very much in regard to the specific local conditions. How did you tap into the city’s inner workings?

steirischer herbst emerged in 1968 from an extremely strong local desire to transcend the local, to be part of the bigger world. There is a contradiction at its core, which we find productive and want to explore further. As many of our team are new to Graz, we are reading the city, trying to understand it. What we discover are often monuments to a desire of wanting to be something else - Italianate palaces of the baroque era, rare constructivist buildings eager to be part of international modernity. Hotel Daniel thinks it is situated on a beach. Schlossbergstiege pretends to be located in the Alps. In that, Graz is many different places at the same time, it is both unique and similar to the rest of the world. I wanted to explore these similarities.

You put special emphasis on the fact that this program has been curated by a whole team. With 11 people, the number of contributors is not exactly small. Can you talk about the processes and the dynamics within the team?

Our list of curatorial contributors is about who you give credit to, who you feel is important for the thinking process. I didn’t hire 11 curators, but I chose to include colleagues from all areas of the festival in the curatorial team, including production, publication and communication for example. They all constitute the curatorial collective. Plus: if you only produce new works as opposed to showing existing ones, you need all hands on deck.

Recurrent themes of the program are contradictions and paradoxes - most notably in the festival motto VOLKSFRONTEN, which on the one hand alludes to anti-fascist movements during the 1930s, but on the other hand also to white supremacists in the US. What do you aim at with this intentional irritation, which can be perceived not only in regard to its content but also in regard to your visual appearance?

We are very happy with our visual language developed by Grupa Ee. They worked on forces of negation expressed in blackness and geometrical forms and with themes like cutting, fragmenting, crossing out. It feels like a gesture of protest. At the same time, we are all aware it is just a symbol that cannot really frustrate. We no longer live in the days of Malevich’s black square. The audience is used to such gestures and enjoys them. Everybody is a protester now. So, it is a bit of a playful, ironical gesture. It helps finding a tone for the whole program. It is serious, but there is also a sense of humor that helps us survive. I hope we can hold on to these paradoxes.

Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet, whose »Human Landscapes from My Country« will be read, discussed and which serves as starting point for the world premiere of choreographer Michiel Vandevelde’s production, was also a patriot and communist. Should the left reclaim the concept of homeland or rather leave it to the right?

The left has always been very committed to the notion of homeland, but its homeland - something it is patriotic and even nostalgic about - is internationalism; at least the left I know and respect, of which Hikmet was a part. This is not in contradiction to feelings for one’s own context, where one feels at home and where one works to make it better. What makes this discourse reactionary is the idea that a people have a single homeland, an identity, an ethnicity, or a religion by birth. This is something we should strongly oppose.

The sometimes humorous disguise of fiction, which pretends to be a fact, is present both within the performance of artist Michael Portnoy and in the exhibition »Congo Stars«. To what extent can such artistic strategies be productive means in fighting populist ’fake news‘ allegations and alt-right journalism?

Art can hardly be a means of amending political aberrations, but it can help revealing them, to make them visible. Art is about increasing our awareness. In this sense, artists who work with fiction are right at the center of the storm currently enveloping politics, and they are exposing its media tricks. Especially, because both the media and politics are currently shamelessly appropriating artistic methods while creating fictions. This is a complex situation, which is also very interesting to explore.

Artist and conductor Christian von Borries programmed an algorithm based on the characteristics of well-known Austrian music, such as the Viennese Waltz, which creates its own composition and has it played by a live orchestra. How did you come up with the idea of commissioning a post-nationalist ode to Austria?

I have worked with Christian von Borries many times, and I know his practice and way of thinking well. My curatorial interest was in addressing the construction of ‘Austrianness’ in culture and music. His artistic interest focuses on artificial intelligence and other forms of technological post-democracy in their relation to political processes. I knew that turning to him for this commission would produce an intriguing and aesthetically provocative result. It was also important for us to return to a closer collaboration with musikprotokoll (a festival inside the festival of steirischer herbst) and to include music in the field of contemporary art practice again.

This year, steirischer herbst has been increasingly interested in discourse and discussions about the shift to the right throughout Europe. What are the strengths of an interdisciplinary festival negotiating these issues?

Being an interdisciplinary festival, steirischer herbst positions itself in a space between different art forms and media. What inhabits and binds this space is discourse - themes, texts and stories. This is something which theater, film, dance and installations share. This orientation toward content is very important to us, and this is how we negotiate political issues. It also, I hope, makes the festival more accessible: since an interdisciplinary festival is less specialized, it addresses issues that concern us all. This is is very important when it comes to facing the threat from the right.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture run by Luca Büchler and Lewon Heublein. 

PW-Magazine is supported by the Federal Chancellery of Austria and Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.