Ben Genocchio, Debbie Harris and I met together. I went through some ideas and my list of artists, and Ben shared his vision for the fair. It was at this point that they officially invited me.
In the summer of 2016.
After the US elections, 'What Is To Be Done?' is a question most people are asking themselves more frequently and more publicly than we were before. When Obama was in office, there was a general feeling that things were okay, even though I don't think they were. Johan Grimonprez's film addresses the hidden structures, corruption and problems that aren't part of our collective conscience; that's what I wanted to bring to the fore. I don't mean to downplay the US elections, but in some ways nothing changed.
They're so linked for me; it's one quickly followed by the other. In the novel, it is the same way: despair followed by action. Chernyshevsky's solution is a very utopian socialism that's quite beautiful. I'm not calling for that model but I do appreciate that he offers a solution, and I think we're all looking for one.
If you're trying to sum it up, you could say that.
No. I have been here in the Focus section almost exclusively, so I haven't seen much of the rest of the fair.
Definitely. Geography is incredibly important. I love this quote—I don't know where it comes from—'the more you travel, the larger the world gets, not smaller.' I experience that. I guess I have taken a lot of interest in places where I can have meaningful conversations with artists. For example in Moscow.
Everything moved very quickly; I almost immediately formed a network of curators, writers and artists. Because of censorship in Russia right now, many exhibitions take place in people's apartments. People are used to organising events on their own. Through Pussy Riot, I met a correspondent for The Economist who put me up for a week during my second visit. I gave a a talk about my work in his apartment and many artists came. We projected a Power Point on his living room wall. You have to be very open or this can't happen, which is probably why people think there is a lot going on in Moscow, but that's not true.
It came about because I went to see Urs Fischer's show at Garage. While I was there I was introduced to a critic-curator who started taking me around to different studios including Ana Titova's, who we're showing here. Every time I met somebody I was introduced to somebody else. Since then, I've talked to quite a few curators who will very offhandedly say, 'Well there's not really much happening in Russia', which I couldn't disagree with more.
A lot of curators travel, but what I've wanted to do is spend time and get that third introduction that takes meeting the friend of the friend of the friend and going a bit deeper. I had dinner with Nadia from Pussy Riot in LA; she was recording her album there, and so I was put in touch with her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, who's in Moscow. While I was there I got an email saying that Petr Pavlensky, the artist who had done all these performances like setting a fire in front of the doors of the KGB building, would be released from prison. So I met Pyotr at the courthouse: it was an open thing but you had to know when and where to be and maybe only 30 people fit into the room. I was able to witness this and Pyotr translated for me.
Definitely. For me the trip was also important because it helped me to see things from a different perspective. One of the things that really surprised me when I first arrived in Russia in June was that many people said to me, 'Oh America, you're like us. We have Putin, you have Trump.' This was long before the elections.
I'm not so interested in finding the new just for the sake of what's new. But I am really interested in having conversations across cultures and getting to understand a context as best I can.
I'm obviously not living within these cultures, so it's still superficial in some ways, but I feel like a big part of my job is understanding what I'm showing when I include it in an exhibition.
I've been trying to play with that idea because a lot of the works in this section have a social element, but that's not really what defines them. They're strong artworks in and of themselves. I've been thinking a lot about the definition of political art and if there's a way to think about social engagement or political art that's much more nuanced. I've also been thinking about whether a work can be intrinsically political if it's simply aware of its local conditions and demonstrates awareness. I'm also interested in works that involve modes of engagement or exchange that are not necessarily perceptible or known. Somebody like Deana Lawson is a perfect example; for me, her photographs are incredibly powerful, so much so that what happens in order for her to make them doesn't really matter. But if you know how she works, her process becomes just another facet that one can become affected by—and I have been.
That was in September. I became familiar with Renzo Martens' project through seeing his documentary Enjoy Poverty (2008) [in which the filmmaker examines poverty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo]. After doing some research online, I found out that he was organising a conference in September in the DRC. Renzo and I were already in touch, so I wrote to him and asked him if I could please come for the conference. They helped me organise the logistics.
I needed a visa, which is actually quite hard to get as an American, so I had to have a special letter from the Minister of Culture; getting that was a bit challenging, but it worked out. The people from the Institute of Human Activities who work on this project were there in Kinshasa when I arrived, so they met me at the airport and traveled with me to Lusanga, where the conference was. We spent a night in Kinshasa at a guesthouse and then we flew on a tiny plane to Kikwit, which is a quick flight but a 8 hour drive from Kinshasa. There's quite a lot of corruption in the Congo so sometimes logistics involves additional 'fees', not unlike bribes.
I didn't, but I know it takes place.
It felt unpredictable. My visit was right after riots took place, as a result of conflict around the elections. Seventeen people had died on the streets the day before I flew. I was in Brussels when that happened. Renzo and I got on the phone because a few speakers had cancelled. At this point Renzo and I still hadn't met, we had just spoken. He talked me through it and said he thought it would be fine but he would understand if I didn't want to go. After getting the visa, I wasn't going to get scared off easily. I think he thought I was a little bit nuts because so many people had cancelled and I wasn't concerned, especially as a young woman flying alone to Kinshasa in the middle of all this turmoil.
No, not at all. I lived in LA for five and a half years and I think driving in Los Angeles is more dangerous than going to the Congo, honestly, and that's a risk for no gain. So to take a risk and know exactly why you're doing it—that seems smart.
I'll be starting at the Hirshhorn in D.C. —[O]