Interview - Curator Katerina Nikou - member of the curatorial team of Athens Biennale 4 - Agora
What the Athens Biennale has succeeded in is that every edition is perceived as a narrative study, a prophetic interpretation of current ideological manifestations. We‘ve reached the final praxis of many difficult stories and catharsis was to be reached among ruins.
What if someone decides to try their luck, to raise their voice, to engage in conflict, to abolish consent, to destroy Athens?
The main concern of the curatorial team XYZ -the founders and artistic directors of the 1st Athens Biennale- was to investigate personal dead ends concluding the ultimate one, being death. In AB2’s exhibition Heaven, XYZ invited a selected group of curators to contemplate Heaven, in a time that arguably continues to be one of great disappointment and inevitable conflict. The six exhibitions of the 2nd Athens Biennale in 2009 took the form of autonomous approaches to this broad subject: lost heaven, deceptive utopias, dreams that were never meant to be. The 3rd Athens Biennale 2011 MONODROME was considered as the final part of a trilogy, which started with DESTROY ATHENS 2007 and continued with HEAVEN 2009. Drawing upon the life and work of Walter Benjamin, MONODROME was curated by Nicolas Bourriaud and X&Y (Xenia Kalpaktsoglou and Poka-Yio, co-founders of the Athens Biennale) and was released despite the crisis that affected Greece. After six consecutive years of brutal recession, Greek society is experiencing an unheard-of fragmentation. This time the dead end stops being personal and becomes collective, as Monodrome becomes real … as all complex relations of ‘here and now’ are difficult to bear. The outcome was a strong social and political critique.
So… now what? Athens Biennale provides a context for creativity and dialogue and constitutes a wide platform for the designation and the critical engagement of local artistic production, as well as a forum of discussion and exchange with the international scene. As member of the curatorial team of Athens Biennale 4, titled AGORA and curator of Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, Katerina Nikou discusses the needs that formed the perceived concept for this fall’s AB4.
Can you describe what AB4 will bring together?
The redefinition of the social and political status quo, the values of public-spiritedness, and the social negotiations within the given society – resisting the predetermined downfall while engaging people and encouraging visitor’s energetic participation is our biggest responsibility. The 4th Athens Biennale 2013, AGORA, is a collective discourse of artists, art groups, curators and theorists, reflecting on the complex relations between the global and the local, in an attempt to explore new modes of cultural action that open up dialogue and debate, comment on cultural production and revisit relations between (art) histories and subjectivities. We need to discuss critical matters by informing the Greek and international public about politics that some ignore while others suitably conceal.
The collective genius of many working in collaboration investigates the current socio-political status and the role and meaning of art in society?
Exactly! Embracing the values of a collective experiment that is supposed to merge the potential of the art audience with that of the political activists in order to foster political change seems to be the most effective way of raising awareness and actively contributing to the creation and debate of democratic structures. Rooted in the AB4 program is a deep commitment to investigating the dialogue between art and philosophy and social studies as all complementary and parallel program of events showcase interpretive work from these disciplinary fields, welcoming the presentation of both academic papers and works of art in various media. Many of the participating artists share the current state of artistic activism and our effort was to develop a language for art about politics, to challenge and change the world. Making social injustice and political struggle an object for contemplation we want to intervene and raise awareness about social problems and political issues. We take the radical step of interacting with the audience and manage to provide context and meaning for what’s at stake is the transformation of the entire society. In those turbulent times of crisis we need to designate all social aspects as a social collective dialogue.
One of the main subjects of discourse we needed to address is why people are afraid of moving on while triggering political change. The power structure of capitalism is today in constant flux. Several means are to advocate political change. What comes after Capitalism? Which is the next stage? What would it take for the current system to collapse in order to rediscover those things we value?
Any answers there?
There is a great challenge in times of uncertainty: How can an artistic work have a profound effect on people and their view of society? How do we deal with the current social status on a personal level and how does this manifest itself to the public sphere? Foreign artist collectives, the cross-combination of multiple creative minds and disciplines, the cross-fertilization of ideas and approaches, several artistic groups that work together towards shared aims incorporate the idea of collective intelligence to facilitate civic engagement and collective action. Artist Poka Yio and curator Xenia Kalpaktsoglou invited this time several professionals who foster a cross-disciplinary approach to focus on artistic – philosophical and social concepts. Three platforms where conducted for covering all aspects of the AB4: Art writers, critics, philosophers, sociologists and theorists, run the theoretical aspect of the Biennale, while Curators and art professionals form the interpretation team and journalists, communication and social media experts constitute the media.
Will Athens Biennale 4 be formed as a site/time specific artistic experiment?
The title selected for AB4, AGORA, refers to a central spot in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word is “gathering place’, or ‘assembly’. The agora was the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. The ancient agora of Athens was the birthplace of Democracy. The selections of the exhibition venues as well as the diverse program of live events, performances, workshops and lectures create a political moment. The main building that hopefully will host the 4th Athens Biennale takes a center concept- stage in AGORA’s exhibition: The financial building – the Athens Stock Exchange- first opened in 1876 on Sofocleous Street near the central business district of Athens. The integrated semiology and the emotionally charged are more than obvious.
Will there be artists working in situ?
Indeed! It seems like the abolition of space and linear time with a beginning and an end has already started as we are ‘carving out’ a time capsule. The international hub of AB4 will remain a vital place staging a diverse program of parallel events, debates, dynamic art projects and interactive performative presentations. Many artists will be working in situ.
What AB4 proposes as a solution to the current social state? No revolution is expected to begin but where do your hopes lie?
We just need to raise questions. If only some people could start an inner pursuit. We need to highlight that through collective awareness and co-production of meaning everything is possible, towards a political effectiveness of Art. At the same time we examining the potentials for artist as ‘social activist’ and ‘public intellectual’ and the practice of collective curating based on a shared set of intellectual, political or aesthetic interest. There is no governmental – institutional support. All individuals participating in Biennale’s production share a common passion for art while wrestling with immediate pressures, record-breaking budget shortfalls and increased scrutiny.
Athens’s arts scene flourishes in midst of economic-social crisis. Can you witness any significant creative innovations?
Concerning contemporary avant-garde art scene there were always interesting movements and many great artworks were and continue to be produced. At the same time I am observing an overflow in artistic production. I am afraid too many works are being exhibited without a filtering process for undesirable constituents to be removed. There must also be the issue of quality control where outcomes of a particular project must be checked and critically engaged. Greece can be proud of many really good artists-intellectuals. That has not been affected. And for many Greek artists the situation we are experiencing nowadays has been a constant contemplate for many decades now. Those self-governing bodies or artist led initiatives unify in a collective voice channeled against the capitalist machine.
What about institutional critique into the workings of galleries and museums?
Internationally, galleries many times been rejected, and formed a frequent target of avant-garde attacks. The ideologies and power structures underlying the circulation, display and discussion of art have been exposed while other cultural norms raise hope, engage with artists and promote intellectual discourses. In Greece, the galleries remain the main supporters of art, due to lack of artistic power stations founded on a merit system. Biennale and other recurrent international events face a severe critique. The discursive model based on collaboration and exchange could reject the individual didactic curator while replacing the one-man-show. The present art market and its existing infrastructures still promote the success of the individual, a format which is not compatible with collective activity. The critique of the ideological and representative social functions of art institutions from the late 1960s and early 1970s is currently propagated by curators or directors of the very same institutions as they attempt not to destroy the institution but rather to modify and solidify it. Many are those who attack the notion of Biennale. The major contemporary art festival has become a stock market. The collectiveness we chose to embrace in AB4 forms a severe critique against all mechanisms of control, the politics and inscriptions of art institutions.
What is the greater challenge you are facing?
By broadening public access to the arts and reducing barriers to cultural participation we become inclusive for all communities to all educational and civic benefits of the arts. We need to promote the attainment of state education standards, preserve our cultural heritage, build bridges across cultures, generations and geographies, encourage investments in the arts, demonstrate accountability and good government by pioneering innovative programs. We need to promote better access to and wider participation in culture. In order to stimulate public awareness of art projects we have organized a wide range of conferences, workshops, lectures and a regular distribution of publicity materials in order to constantly informing the public about all programs. AB4 formed a strong Communication team by calling young and distinguished professionals to work with us. Education is a key way to promote more arts participation.
Any hope for the future?
If only a strong, non-profit organization based on a merit system of evaluation while supporting the arts could be formed… We also need a National Museum of Contemporary Art, a strong art hub to support contemporary art creation – art residencies that offer studio space and professional growth opportunities to visual artists in the early stages of their careers, to make the arts a more integral part of social life, to boost the economic impact of a ‘creative class’, to educate young people, to take care Greece’s future generations.
- Christina Kalli
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