Vjera Borozan: How did you come to be involved in Manifesta and what was your a priori perception? It’s clear from the catalogue’s texts, and not only from them, that all the curatorial collectives assume an essentially critical position towards the very platform of the biennale.
Vít Havránek: The selection process and mechanism are such that the council of the Manifesta Foundation invites select individuals or collectives to send their concepts reacting to questions or theoretical circles. From roughly fifteen proposals,the Council selected six, and invited their authors to be interviewed in Murcia. They then selected three finalists. Manifesta has its own history (cf. The Manifesta Decade, E. Filipovic, B. Vanderlinden) that was, to a certain extent, symptomatic for the transformations of relations between Western European and Eastern European contemporary art. Naturally, it was for us the hitherto biggest opportunity to carry out ideas and principles contemplating the meaning of art and exhibiting. To go back to the matter concerning criticism, it’s apparent that the institutional critic has for some time now been an integral part of the theoretical discourse. So it’s natural that one assumes a critical stance to any institution, and therefore even to one’s own institution, and to what the institution forces him to do, to the pictures, representation, themes and problems the institution itself emits. In the example of the Manifesta, this was very visible; criticism directed toward the institution was contained in all three sections. In short, criticism is currently part of any conceptual contemplation. The question remains to what degree the critic will remain in the position of a rhetorical empty phrase and to what degree we are capable of carrying it out on a practical level and thereby overcoming the duality of theory and practice.
VB: One of the cornerstones of Manifesta 8 was collective curatorship. Three curatorial teams were chosen. How and to what extent did you mutually collaborate?
Zbyněk Baladrán: Collaboration was a prerequisite. Tranzit itself is an international team composed of fivecurators.Tomeet and think something up is a quite demanding process. So all three collectives spontaneously agreed from the start that we would work independently, but also mutually coordinate and inform each other of what we’re doing.
VH: Just the fact that each team had to mutually coordinate with the others was difficult, as Zbyněk said. We were in contact and debated with the other teams. Some were more inclined to cooperate more than others, and sometimes there just wasn’t enough time, as was the case of Manifesta 8, so that more distinct interaction between the three teams could not occur.
VB: It’s interesting that all three curatorial collectives were critical of the theme itself, i.e. the dialogue with North Africa.
VH: Certainly. I think that there are two reasons for this. First, the aforementioned level of institutional criticism. As far as the title and theme are concerned, we also perceived it within the context of reality that it was de facto dictated by the institution, even though, in this case, the Council is composed of intellectuals and the debate with them on the theme was extremely interesting – in the mechanism of putting on a large biennale, the theme can become completely empty, banal or can turn into nonsense. The other thing is the theme itself. We began to deal with it in connection with our experience with Atlas and Monument to Transformation and with the trend of most people from Central Europe to ceaselessly historicize. We gradually realised that it’s not possible to create a project on the dialogue between European and North Africa that would focus only on the present and specifically on contemporary art. Europe and North Africa were, through the centuries, in historical relations, tensions, exchanges and mirroring. When we began to get to know what artists in North Africa create, it seemed to us that extracting the present out of this context is even more problematic. There is also a whole spectrum of artists living in the West that come from this region, and, conscious of a Western European audience, use the language of contemporary Western art in working with the subject of Diaspora and of their own culture. In a certain way they translate for the West the experience of the two or three identities that they have. In North Africa itself, which is a totally non-homogenous cultural and political space and that we expanded to include the Mediterranean space in our research, you will find that contemporary art grows from many my celia – from the local post-war modernity and modernism, from the pre-modernist traditions and from the Western mainstream. Since we refused to link the exhibition with a debate on national, political and religious identity, we decided to look for artists from both Europe and the Mediterranean who probe the deeper conditions of the phenomena of identification and self-identification as well as thepurelylocal stories of unique artistic autonomy. And we said that the only correct response to the set theme would be to create an actually historical exhibition, which isn’t possible on the Manifesta platform due to time and financial constraints.
VB: As we’ve already stated, all three collectives opposed the theme as far as its articulation through an exhibition is concerned, but they also deal with them via parallel projects. Tranzit proposed the publication “Reader”, ACAF offered “Incubator of a Pan-African Biennale“ and the Chamber of Public Secrets proposed television debates on Al Jazeer. Why are you working with this theme in a different form?
VH: The format of an exhibition is really not suitable for the chosen theme, unless the exhibition takes place on two continents simultaneously – which we discussed with our colleagues from Egypt and Lebanon. If we are speaking of an equal dialogue, we have to pose the question of how many people from Africa and how many from Europe can see the exhibition, and if the limited opportunity to travel to Europe and the economic difficulty of such atr iprepresent an obstacle, we have to consider other alternatives. The other thing is that all the teams tried in some way to create formats that have a longer duration and that they can really communicate competently from both sides, which an exhibition that one has to see really cannot do. So everyone tried to find ananswer to the question how to create a meaningful project that communicates interactively on both sides of the still not fully connected continents.
VB: How did you begin and how did you proceed?
ZB: The first step was basic research, the attempt to get to know the environment, to understand the Mediterranean context, to findoutwhatcriticalreflectionswerethere and how they related to Europe, etc. At the same time we learned about artists, descendents of immigrants already living in Europe and coming from it. We began to discuss the framework of the exhibition and how it could work. We were more looking for adequate formats and by that I mean that we wanted to resist a biennale festival plan. Only then did the idea of how the exhibition would look and what it should mean for other artists, for us and for the viewer begin to take a specificform.
VH: There existed two parallel lines – one conceptual, while the other represented traditional research that we made via the Internet. We asked people to send portfolios, photos and films. We did not want to have an a priori concept. We worked simultaneously on the concept and on the research and it gradually came together.
VB: We’ve already indicated several important starting points: a reassessment of post-colonialism, a dialectic of practice and theory and also a radical subjectivity… What was the key for selecting artists?
ZB: This was at first a contradiction, but in the end I think that in fact it isn’t a contradiction since we did not think up an abstract framework, which you’d try to choose and insert the artists into. We took the opposite approach: we sought a general criterion for selecting the artists and called this a search for a radical subjectivity position. We were interested in a distinct, personal view of the world that is not so bound to the custom of what is considered to be good art. The more we considered such artists, the more we realised that they have a right to have their say in the process of creating the exhibition. So the choice of artists was our biggest curatorial act.
VH: We all know that there exists a kind of artistic mega mainstream that covers the entire globalized world. We can thus see a certain practice of art work taught at schools that is truly global. I certain wouldn’t condemn it; it is a certain standard. This standard results in an incredible amount of very similar works that are a certain affirmation of the system. It starts at schools, continues through the market, institutions, etc. We wanted to avoid this mainstream that currently takes the form of a kind of post-conceptual formalism, i.e. a certain formalization of concepts, modernity, modernisms and stories that are geographically distinct. We were therefore looking for artists that are, as we say, radically subjective. In the catalogue we convey and characterize a radical subjectivity such as an iconoclastic, hybrid, transgressive, resistant concept of art practice. This means that it concerns a certain practice through which artists existentially cast a doubt on the meaning of art and yield a radical solution of what art actually is and can be.
VB: At what moment did you come up with the idea of constitution? What is the thinking behind it?
VH: Curators always create a kind of micro-politics. They convey theory, imagination, rules, regulations and money to the reality of the exhibition or to another project and are also responsible for the immediate practicality which must also contain theory as well as statement. We’ve learned from experience that that was actually a kind of debt to the West. Or our disillusion of the fact that though the wonderfully inspirational deconstructive statements from Deleuze to post-colonial studies reached us, how people behaved (including those who were bringing them), what they produced and how institutions worked all corresponded in the end to the ingrained hegemonic system. We tried to upend this through the “constitution”. We provided all the potential authority that the curator has within the micro-politics of the exhibition to the artists so that they could change the practice, since whatever we thought up would always be a dictate of sorts. This method caused a wide range of reactions from the artists, including misunderstanding or rejection. Some of them thought that we weren’t serious, others rejected it completely; the most visible response was the group performance Burning out the Constitution.
ZB: Clear dissension occurred right at the first meetings we had with the artists. If we had thought to tell them in the beginning that we intended to invite them to constitute the exhibition, we would have avoided a lot of problems. Some perceived it as a rhetorical gesture and certain practicalities also collided arising from the fact that we were bound by contract and production responsibilities with the Manifesta institution.
VB: How did it exactly work? The artists didn’t understand it as a kind of game in which the curator merely chose them and waited to see what would happen?
ZB: When we shared this idea with the artists in early May, it became apparent that we were working with a heterogeneous group of thirty-five people, in which the only thing that was clear is that we were to create an exhibition and that we were delegating it on to all of us. We clearly declared our ideas and refused to moderate the discussion. We wanted to avoid the specific he gemonicact that arose from it. What then occurred was a very common thing that everyone who finds himself in alarger group of people and democratically tries to agree on something is familiar with. Some of the people ignored the discussion, some of the people rejected it and some of the people were enthusiastically for it, but had their own specific ideas that the other partperceive das manipulation, and so there resulted a kind of fragmented dialogue that was at times complicated to maintain, especially when someone to manage it was lacking. We were interested in what would happen.
VH: On the other hand, we’re not frustrated with the result since the artists appreciated the fact that they weren’t pressured into any result. The fact that there was no imperative to come up with a formal solution, or any solution for that matter, is not a fetishism of failure. Another problem was that nobody set any procedure, by which it would be possible to decide what to do. Part of this entire process was to determine the process of how to decide. In the end, this was never done and things happened spontaneously on the basis of momentary energy and ideas.
VB: When you evaluate it in retrospect, can it be said that something like total anarchy occurred?
ZB: I don’t think that it was total anarchy… That word perhaps just approaches a description of what happened when thirty-five individual is brought together. Everyone understood the other and wanted to take it into consideration or assert themselves. Surprisingly, no hegemonic demands arose there (although such tendencies did appear), so it was more about anarchy in principle than actually occurring). We certainly did not fall into any chaos.
VH: If we call it anarchy, then we came upon it in a gradual, natural way. It was not anarchy by decision, conceived at the start. It ended up that way, anyone’s intervention or contribution was purely individual: do what you want and join with whom you want and the others won’t approve it, but will respect it. In the end that was the work model that also contained a number of antagonisms with which some artists worked and are working, such as Ruti Sela, Emily Roysdon and Sasha Galkina.
VB: After seeing the exhibition and reading the texts I have the feeling that you essentially created three parallel structures. The Visual – exhibition, the Theoretical – text in the catalogue and the Micro-politics, whose only result is the poster of the constitution and your experiences from the shared process of preparing the exhibition. In my view there was created, in the end, a massive gap between theory and practice. The micro-politics that you insist on is not seen, but predominantly experienced.
ZB: I see it the other way around. I think that the practice of ideas was carried out. If we had had more time we, we would have been more prepared and thought it out a year or two in advance, so it could have been perfected in a certain sense. The fact that we do, or do not do something, is part of the process, and when nothing comes from it in the end, we who participated in it know it, but others may perceive it as a failure. Perhaps we filled that gap between theory and practice and that there was nothing left from the polarity between them.
VH: The gap that we want to bridge became apparent and visible – we didn’t find the formula to easily bridge it, since we did everything possible for the bridging to be made based on the autonomy of those involved, and not from above. The representation of this process disappointed and in the given case is zero. That much is clear. But if something can be taken from this, then the political philosophical thesis of G. C. Spivak is confirmed: if you write that as ubaltern woman exists, it does not mean that it will change or improve the conditions of her life. Only temporary political representation can achieve this. And in our case it means that the temporary political representation of this process is possible only through someone – whether that someone be an artist or curator or group. There must occur some kind of personal representation that can have a consequential, practical dimension, but we didn‘t get that far. Personal representation is necessary for the practice, but when we tried to initiate it, we were ossified with proce dural questions. It could have been clear to us at the start, yet the bridging could only occur based on a hegemony that we rejected. In short, it was as if we tested this process live and arrived at that which was theoretically known to us beforehand.
VB: The constitution project seems to me as the viewer to be too closed within itself and wrapped up in resolving the artist – curator – institution relation. In a way it ignores the viewer, which was also evident during your several-hour-long opening performance. How do you perceive this?
VH: The exhibition does not ignore the viewer, but the inability of the group to formalize for the exhibition the constitution process does. The fact that the legitimacy of the process itself does not come from the institution that entrusted the curators with power, but from a unique group – in this case from the artists – also was epitomized by our joint performance. This legitimacy can establish another relationship with the viewer, which did not occur in this case, or occurred in the form that took place in Murcia (performance and poster).
ZB: It’s very difficult to show the process that you’re a part of. Right when you start to do something, you spoil the process – you destroy it. That’s the internal contradiction.
VH: Getting back to the question of communicability or representation, there is evidently little of this, or almost none at all. But it seems to me that the creation of a gap and thereby the creation of tension that articulates something builds in mutual tension the self-constitution of thirty-five individuals and the machinery of a biennial of contemporary art – such a perception from my point of view corresponds to our attempt to write the constitution.
VB: Would you like to add something at the end of our interview?
ZB: It’s good that we didn’t speak about what the exhibition looks like. It’s much more interesting to speak about the process of creating an exhibition. It was for me a hermetic adventure, a non-transferrable experience.
VH: The original plan was actually to write the constitution text and carry it out; a constitution for a temporary space that could serve as inspiration and a general framework for consideration with other exhibitions. Perhaps it was naive, but it was an expectation that was to come from our community.
Vít Havránek is a curator and theoretician, the leader of the contemporary art initiative tranzit.cz and the cofounder of the tranzitdisplay space for contemporary art.
Zbyněk Baladrán is an artist, curator and the cofounder of display gallery and of the tranzitdisplay space for contemporary art.
Vjera Borozan is a freelance curator and art historian.
Tranzit.org (Georg Schöllhammer, Vít Havránek, Boris Ondreička, Zbyněk Baladrán, Dóra Hegyi), Madrid, February 2010.