The annual gallery festival curated by is again a guest at 22 selected Viennese galleries. For this year’s theme »Circulation« we asked five of the participating curators about their exhibition concepts and their perspective on the city.
How did you two start working together? Goschka Gawlik has extensive experience from curating to writing, while Arkadiusz Półtorak is new to the game.
Collaborations between experienced and younger curators are not so unusual, are they? Many people in Vienna have very fond memories of »Der zerbrochene Spiegel«, a show that Kasper König curated at Kunsthalle Wien together with Hans Ulrich Obrist, so he was – back then, in 1993 – still a very young man. The age gap does not really matter, at least for our collaboration. What matters is a close community of interests and the capacity to stimulate each other. We are both curators and writers. Arkadiusz Półtorak has curated about ten shows at art spaces in Poland and the Netherlands and he is deeply engaged in the Polish art scene as an art critic. In fact, it was his press article that brought us together – a long review of the group show that Goschka Gawlik curated at the Manggha Museum of Japanese Culture and Technology in Kraków (»The Culture Collider. Post-exotic Art«, 2018). It sparked an e-mail discussion between us, which then continued »in real life« when Goschka was visiting Poland.
Our exchange gained momentum in Spring 2019. At that time, we were involved in protests against the attempted merger of Bunkier Sztuki, a significant kunsthalle-type institution in Kraków, with the local Museum of Contemporary Art. We both felt very strongly that Bunkier’s loss would have been a great blow for the city – one with a robust art scene but very few exchange platforms of international standing and high curatorial ambitions. As we discovered during the protests, the will to establish connections beyond the local and passion for conceptual curating are two things that we have in common – and the show While I Kiss the Sky is a fruit of that discovery. Alas, the rally against Kraków’s city hall as such was not entirely fruitful. At the moment, Bunkier Sztuki and the museum, although formally retaining their autonomy, are run by the same person – and run rather poorly, without a clear strategy and great care for the programming. This situation points to a wider institutional crisis in the Polish art field that gets worse every day thanks to conservative-revolutionist sentiments within the state government and irresponsibility of local authorities in equal measure.
The title of this year’s edition of »curated by« is »Circulation«. How did you approach this topic?
Circulation might well be understood in terms of fruitful connections beyond many local milieus. But when understood – in speculative terms – as a mode of subjectivation, the term becomes quite problematic. If culture is thought of as a circular system, one might imagine it as a sort of perpetuum mobile that keeps running on the same fuel, only ever producing new variants of the already-known. While conceiving the conceptual framework for our show, we felt very disturbed by this image – and we decided to think of it as a backdrop, a negative point of departure towards something different. It felt out of sync with the challenges of the contemporary world. After years of enthusiasm for the steady flows of information, commodities and cash, humans have got into serious trouble; trouble of global, or even planetary scale. When thinking of today’s greatest challenges – such as climate change – we really need to look beyond these closed circuits and, quite literally, »think outside the box«.
Luckily, the above issues were not new to us at the time when the title »circulation« was announced. In the early springtime, when we first started talking about curating this show together, Goschka was re-exploring the oeuvres of Alicja Kwade and Nikolaus Gansterer, who are deeply interested in the tensions between the human and non-human, those between art, science and technology, as well as those between the local, the global and the planetary. Arkadiusz, on his own part, had just published a research article about the Hungarian-American artist György Kepes and his idea of »ecological consciousness«. Once we began to share our findings, we quickly sensed that contemporary artists such as Kwade and Gansterer keep themselves busy with the very same concerns that troubled Kepes in the 1960s and 1970s – above all, with the need to mediate modern the immersive experience of »life in circuits«. To imagine some sort of »outside to what is visible from within the flows. Therefore, we decided to follow György Kepes as our guide, and to look around today’s art and social issues together with this utopian friend.
To what extent do you see exhibitions as places of radical (re)thinking?
If art is to be perceived as nothing but »the game« that you mentioned earlier, we should not expect too much radical action from its side… But we desperately need spaces where new mediations of human experience might emerge, and art still seems to provide that in many ways. Some artists and curators think with and within exhibitions; others choose to go beyond that, and rightly so. But we do not think that there is only one »right« way to do it. The path that we chose to follow ourselves was, as mentioned above, that of György Kepes, who advocated for building a sort of »third culture« on the verge of technoscience, art and humanities. Kepes was a great multimedia exhibition designer too, and we took a cue from his famous show Explorations (1970) while conceiving the architecture of While I Kiss the Sky. We tried to convey the sense of embodied perception that the Hayden Gallery exhibition was remarkable for. Some works, such as Kwade’s Donnerstag, 13.März 2014, 11:21:00 Uhr, quite literally nod towards the Earth while commenting on the planetary systems of circulation. Others point towards the sky in very elaborate and poetic ways – and that, for instance, is the case of Nikolaus Gansterer’s installation. Electronic Light Ballet (1968), the video work by Otto Piene – Kepes’s friend and collaborator – is shown in a separate space, thus transforming the room into a luminescent and immersive environment. Perhaps Piene – who was very much interested in the potential of light as an autonomous medium and wanted to mount ethereal »exhibitions« up in the sky – would approve of that choice himself.
One of the goals of »curated by« is to bring international positions to Vienna in order to make the local scene more internationally visible. What kind of image of Vienna do you personally have?
People in Kraków – our place of birth – used to say ironically that Vienna is just a »bigger Kraków«, which of course is a nod to the history of Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the Emperor Franz Joseph and to all Fiaker operators in both cities. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Both cities are revered for their cultural heritage. Perhaps we should note that Copernicus, who laid the foundation for the sky-oriented thinking that we picked up on, lived and worked in Kraków… Both Kraków and Vienna are also home to many petit-burgeois and academic conservatives. Things ossify easily in the land of Franz Joseph – all things new are dismissed for »having always already been there«, and the old is perceived as eternal. This mentality finds its reflection in Vienna’s art world, always concerned with its yesterday’s stars and the bohemian mythology that surrounds them. But things might be changing. With younger international curators taking hold of the key art institutions, and initiatives like curated by growing every year… who knows! Having said that, it feels important to note that this year the festival has welcomed some new galleries aboard. The appearance of novel spaces – run by young people, sometimes outsiders to the local establishment – seems very promising. Hopefully, these new »players« can make a creative use of the cultural heritage that Vienna takes pride in – and betray some of its parts, too. For tradition can only live on through betrayal.
Through the festival, the galleries can also expand their international network. In your opinion, what other sustainable opportunities could such a festival offer?
It is not up to us to discuss the benefits that the Viennese galleries as such rip from the festival. But looking at the big picture… There are some noteworthy pros for the local art scene as well as the in-coming curators and artists. Above all, the festival enables the locals to gain exceptional insight into practices rooted in vastly different contexts. Because the themes of »curated by« are rather wide and »flexible«, many participating curators do not feel pressured to come up with provocative yet »undercooked« one-off ideas. Rather, they choose to provide a glimpse into their larger projects, which proves beneficial to Vienna – at least in our opinion. For a few weeks every year, the city establishes very direct connections to different centers of thought and practice – and, remarkably, so many of them at once! Perhaps the organizers could make a better use of this pool of know-how and knowledge that gets built annually on the occasion of »curated by«. It is not only about the galleries and collectors – and if the new actors in Vienna’s gallery scene recognize this, hopefully they will become able to re-shape the festival’s format to make it more layered and multi-centered. And more sustainable, too – especially in terms of preserving the »migrant« know-how. Or maybe the »newbies« should just come up with something entirely different? As usual, hope rests in betrayal…