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What, How & for Whom: Kunsthalle Wien's Collective of Artistic Directors

In Conversation with
Mirela Baciak
Vienna, 13 March 2020

What, How & for Whom members Sabina Sabolović, Nataša Ilić, and Ivet Ćurlin. Courtesy What, How & for Whom. Photo: Damir Žižić.

What, How & for Whom members Sabina Sabolović, Nataša Ilić, and Ivet Ćurlin. Courtesy What, How & for Whom. Photo: Damir Žižić.

Named after the three basic questions of every economic organisation, the curatorial collective What, How & for Whom (WHW) have been working together for over 20 years. Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, and Sabina Sabolović come from Zagreb, Croatia—a context shaped by the recent Yugoslav Wars, nation-state building, and post-socialist transition—and are bonded by a shared approach to exhibition-making as a means of constructing public space and initiating public debate on the issues of recent history.

Their first and name-giving project was the exhibition What, How & for Whom, held on the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto in 2000 at the Association of Croatian Artists in Zagreb. WHW had already formulated their curatorial methodology by this point, characterised by a collective way of work, close partnerships with institutions, the involvement of artists from different generations, and local embeddedness. Since 2000, the collective have made major contributions to curatorial discourse, opening the non-profit Galerija Nova in Zagreb in 2003. In the critically acclaimed 11th Istanbul Biennial, entitled What Keeps Mankind Alive? (12 September–8 November 2009), they tested the limits of transparency within an art institution; while Really Useful Knowledge at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (29 October 2014–9 February 2015), investigated critical pedagogies as an important element in collective struggles. More recently, the collective initiated the educational platform, WHW Akademija, for young artists. The platform facilitates a learning process through a series of cross-disciplinary encounters between individuals, and fosters critical reflection on social and political life beyond the usual context of academia.

Marina Naprushkina, red moabit (2013–2019). Exhibition view: ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (8 March–8 May 2020). Courtesy the artist. Photo: Jorit Aust.

In March 2019, three members of the collective—Ivet Ćurlin, Nataša Ilić, and Sabina Sabolović—were appointed as artistic directors of one of Vienna's leading public institutions for contemporary art: Kunsthalle Wien. While Ana Dević continues to run Galerija Nova in Zagreb, the collective maintains their practice under these new circumstances. In recent months, their programming at Kunsthalle Wien has included performance works by Sylvia Palacios Whitman, a public montage by Milica Tomić, and the two-day conference, The White West III: Automating Apartheid (13–14 February 2020), conceptualised by Ana Teixeira Pinto and Kader Attia—all of which took place at the Burgtheater (the biggest theatre house of all the German-speaking countries) and marked their first institutional collaboration within the city. Setting the mood for what is to come, these events initiated an exchange between diverse and lesser-known geographies, histories, and knowledges, which have led to their first exhibition ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace (8 March–8 May 2020), which opened on International Women's Day across all of Kunsthalle Wien's spaces.

Collectivity is often only described as a practicality or a tool; while for us, collectivity is an ideological choice.

In this conversation, the Vienna-based members of WHW discuss the exhibition and share their thoughts on collectivity, the challenges of directing and slowly transforming an art institution, and provide a glimpse into some of the new formats they have started to implement.

Tim Etchells, Being Free (2020). Exhibition view: ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (8 March–8 May 2020). Courtesy the artist, Vitrine, London/Basel; Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco/New York & Ebensperger-Rhomberg, Berlin/Salzburg. Photo: Jorit Aust.

MBYour appointment as the new directors of Kunsthalle Wien has contributed to renewed discussions about collectivity as a mode of governance in the art field. There has been a lot of enthusiasm around your appointment, along with a lot skepticism, diminishing collectivity as just another trend. Where do you stand in this debate, and what does collectivity mean to you?

WHWIf one only observes from a distance, it is easy to see collectivity as a certain trend. Collectivity has been discussed quite recently, especially in German-speaking countries, with our appointment as collective directors, and the great news that ruangrupa will be organising documenta 15 (18 June–25 September 2022). Collectivity is often only described as a practicality or a tool; while for us, collectivity is an ideological choice. We call ourselves a collective because this has a particular political trajectory and vision. It comes from thinking about art and artistic production not as a single, individualised, and in essence also patriarchal position.

We also think it is important to take into account how the experience of collectivism influences the way the institution talks to the outside.

The collective as we see it is built and sustained with your comrades, not your teammates. This means you are fully committed to sharing struggles, joy, authorship, fees, travel opportunities, knowledge, and so on. This starting position has always been important for us. The challenge we now have is to test this political position and collective experience on the redistribution of institutional resources. This might be where the slight nervousness around collectives arises—when another view potentially gets applied to solid institutional structures.

Adji Dieye, Maggic Cube (2016-2019). Exhibition view: ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (8 March–8 May 2020). Courtesy the artist. Photo: Jorit Aust.

MBWhat does it mean to not only curate, but also direct collectively? How do you translate your curatorial methods into running an institution?

WHWThe question is really how to fit a collective within another group of people who are used to each other and certain procedures, which is what we encountered at Kunsthalle Wien. For now, we are taking small steps to communicate and loosen up hierarchies and divisions between departments. This will certainly be a long process, and our new colleagues are being very patient about it. This is not something that we feel makes sense as an imposed structural change. For now, some of the issues that we are trying to nurture within the institution are related to processes of decision-making, how not to make avoiding conflict a main guideline, and how to build engaged, rather than lazy consensus. It is a challenge that takes time and a sensitive path of trial and error.

We also think it is important to take into account how the experience of collectivism influences the way the institution talks to the outside. Can it afford not to have a unified voice and show its doubts, insecurities, and differences in opinion? We will have to see. For now, we are still at the phase of discussion where we don't need to have a totally fixed visual identity.

Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Green Hands and Other Performances (2019). Performance at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (17 November 2019). Courtesy Kunsthalle Wien. Photo: David Avazzadeh.

MBThe first manifestation of your programme in Vienna was a performance by Chilean artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman, whose work combines live performers with props and objects of her own making to create sharp, memorable visual images, like the iconic image of a woman with enlarged hands from her piece Green Hands (1977). Could you share your thinking about her work? What is interesting for you in her practice, and why did you choose to show it in Vienna?

WHWWe wanted to start with something performative and poetic. We didn't want this first statement to be read like a manifesto. It was tactical from our side, since we do believe that art in a polarised society has the capacity to assemble people who, although they might stand on the side of non-fascist living, do not necessarily fully share the same political agenda. The position and work of Sylvia Palacios Whitman escapes immediate categorisation. The events that followed were probably more in line with what is expected from us as curators who almost always deal with explicit political agendas.

We have always been interested in stories as well as histories—how we shape them and how much time we need to understand the positions of power from which so many of them have been told.

It was important for us to start with an inspiring female artist who is dealing with her own position in an interesting way. What attracted us also was her career trajectory: how she flourished initially with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, then individually in the New York experimental milieu of the seventies. She then stopped working and was only recently rediscovered. We were also interested in her quite minimalist conceptual language, influenced by a Latin American sense of visuality, and how abstract performances might be read and given a political frame through interpretation. How do they survive time? Sylvia Palacios Whitman performed her classic pieces in Vienna, but also made a remarkable new performance that revisited her childhood, which was very interesting from the perspective of the current political situation in Chile. Another thing about her that is really fascinating is how she has kept her artistic freedom. This might sound a little bit banal, but it is really an achievement when an artistic practice does not bend and twist to trends and monetary compensation.

Exhibition view: ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (8 March–8 May 2020). Courtesy the artist. Photo: Jorit Aust.

MBWhat is important for you when working with artists?

WHWWe are trying to connect the programmes by a thread of artistic subjectivity, in terms of artistic freedom, but also in terms of artistic politicality. That politicality comes through in a persistent devotion to art. This space of subjectivity should be cherished across society. It is about the good, old-fashioned autonomy of art, which has always been criticised as being a cover for an 'apolitical' position, which in fact is in the service of reactionary politics, albeit without it being articulated.

Today, under the pressures on any form of non-monetisable life, we think that artistic autonomy and artistic subjectivity are absolutely worth defending and fighting for and being spread outside of the artistic field. Sylvia's artistic practice and career were politically important to us with regards to artistic autonomy, which was also the central question of our second public event in collaboration with Burgtheater—Milica Tomić's experimental public montage, entitled On Love Afterwards, after a wonderful partisan poem. Milica looked back at a performance she did ten years ago, in which she walked through the streets of Belgrade with a Kalashnikov in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, revisiting sites of anti-fascist civil resistance. What is fascinating is that no one stopped her. No one made a comment; no one even questioned why this beautiful young woman was walking through the city with a gun. We were interested to ask whether this could be done again. Just posing this question was pushing the institutional limits strongly, in changed circumstances of security and fear. Can we, as an institution, dare to support this risk today? We didn't, and this was also part of the discussion.

Milica's focus is both on anti-fascist resistance and the processes of regulation, so she is essentially testing artistic autonomy and subjectivity. It's important to stress that both Sylvia's and Milica's events happened in the magnificent imperial space of Kasino, which is an off-space of Burgtheater, with whom we collaborated. It has been interesting to start outside our house to see how our voices resonate within a rich and prominent space.

Milica Tomić, On Love Afterwards (2020). Public montage at Kunsthalle Wien in cooperation with Burgtheater, Vienna (2 February 2020). Courtesy the artist. Photo: David Avazzadeh.

MBIs this act of revisiting, of looking back in order to look forward, something that you have also implemented in the curatorial narrative of your first show at Kunsthalle Wien, ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace? Could you talk about the exhibition and the questions that it addresses?

WHWWe have always been interested in stories as well as histories—how we shape them and how much time we need to understand the positions of power from which so many of them have been told. Our first exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien is called ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace. The title is taken from a book titled Globalization and the Manufacture of Transient Events by Lebanese theorist Bilal Khbeiz, published by our dear colleagues at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut. It was written in 2003 and it talks about the class segregation of dreams between the Global South and Global North. At that particular moment of writing, Khbeiz is synthetising the fallen promise of capitalism that bread, wine, cars, security, and peace will reach everyone.

Exhibition view: ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (8 March–8 May 2020). Courtesy the artist. Photo: Jorit Aust.

If these words stand for the good life, the exhibition's basic question is what the good life means today. The exhibition is not thematic—it follows some threads that are associative and intuitive, following certain words and promises, and what those words can open. We were very interested in a propositional element as opposed to only criticising. Something that we hope will come through as a proposition is the idea of protest—that things will not happen without the political organisation and pressure from below; that change will not happen through politics as we know it. The other proposition is that we have to integrate feminist thinking on all levels—and when we say feminist, we mean feminism that is intersectional and puts gender equality at the core of organising the economy as a possibility of imagining the future. It is always worth reminding ourselves that the eight richest people own as much as 50 percent of what the world population owns. It makes sense to repeat this.

Putting feminism and reproductive work at the centre of thinking about the economy could lead us to the framework of de-growth, which feels crucial, not only in ecological terms. It is not that we are spelling this out with artists, we just think that this could shine through the way that we set the exhibition. It opened on 8 March, International Women's Day, and closes on 8 May, Victory in Europe Day. It turned into a big international show with over 35 artists and collectives showing work across all spaces of Kunsthalle Wien, and we hope that this exhibition will both introduce our curatorial thinking and open certain threads that we will follow for the rest of our mandate here in Vienna. We're extremely happy about how the opening went and thankful for the welcome we have found in Vienna and the support of so many guests joining us to celebrate the exhibition and International Women's Day.

Opening: ... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (8 March–8 May 2020). Courtesy Kunsthalle Wien. Photo: © eSeL.at - Lorenz Seidler.

MBWithin institutions of contemporary art and biennials, there is a growing need to accommodate different formats and to experiment with the timing of their exhibitions by, for example, abandoning clear beginnings and clear ends. How do you see the role and the interplay of different formats—especially discursive formats—within your programme? And how do you decide on their timing?

WHWWe are curious about how these events shaped perspectives of the exhibition. We recently organised a two-day conference conceptualised by Kader Attia and Ana Teixeira Pinto. It looked into contemporary fascism and the anti-fascist tradition of Europe and its limitations, from the perspective of colonial histories, which get neglected. It is a continuation of The White West—a series of conferences that Ana and Kader already held at La Colonie in Paris, and it was two super intensive days of heavy discussion and a lot of disagreeing. The urgencies of the topic were very tangible, and we are glad there was a full house, all the time.

We want audiences to come not just because of their lifestyles or professions, but because they think that an encounter with art opens political, historical, and intimate horizons.

Many of the issues mentioned resonate with works in the exhibition. We also feel the division between discursive, educational, and exhibition programmes is very fluid. We can give two examples: Andreas Siekmann's project that consists of busts of people that were instrumental for the genealogy of neoliberal thinking, starting from the Austrian School to different digital economies nowadays. The work is produced from very minimal means—the sculptures are made of plasticine, and they are accompanied by stop animation films about certain figures. Andreas will stay in Vienna after the opening and continue working on these films, which will be added to the exhibition, and he will also do a talk and exhibition walkthrough.

One of the other participants in the exhibition is the initiative Pirate Care, who are looking into the current criminalisation of solidarity. Pirate Care is not necessarily an artistic project, but it is a project that tries to look into the ways an institution of contemporary art can provide a safe haven not only in terms of resources, but also in terms of laws and regulations. We are inviting Pirate Care for a residency, to give them the chance to think through certain steps of their next projects, which will involve a syllabus with an educational element. We want things to start within the exhibition, and to have resonances that we might not yet be able to imagine. We care a lot about these kinds of open-ended positions.

The White West III. Automating Apartheid, conference organised by Kunsthalle Wien in cooperation with Burgtheater (13–14 February 2020). Courtesy Kunsthalle Wien. Photo: Maximilian Pramatarov.

MBFinally, I would like to ask you about the museum's publics. I see that you put artists and artistic production centre stage, but institutions cater to certain publics that most of the time have different needs, so it is difficult and somewhat impossible to make everyone feel invited, interested, and happy, which is, from a neoliberal perspective, a measure of success. How do you position yourself in terms of this imperative of measuring? Which publics do you want to address through which formats?

WHWWe would love to have a full house, which is not to say that we believe in numbers. We would be happy if everything were free, and we are fighting for that—Karlsplatz is free to access, along with all of the public programming so far. We would like to think about the kind of exchange that is happening, not just about numbers. We want audiences to come not just because of their lifestyles or professions, but because they think that an encounter with art opens political, historical, and intimate horizons. It can't be measured. You work across small solidarities, you give trust, and you expect it back.

Artists know how to shape these kinds of encounters, and we will try to involve them in mediation and education. We started with residencies for artists during the time of the exhibition so that they stay with it and with us for a while. We also made some structural changes in order to reach out to more people. Kunsthalle Wien has the problem of the threshold—you enter the building and then you are still going through a maze until you find, if you are lucky, the exhibition halls. We pushed the exhibition to start at the very entrance and we wanted to use all the interspaces to say: look, Vienna—here is this great building and amazing public resource that we can use together. The space that used to be a shop is being turned into something that we call an 'exhibition machine'. In autumn, this should be a space open for proposals and very much oriented to the local, as an important outpost for showing different kinds of willingness to share the resource and the support structure.

We do everything to raise the numbers of visitors through programming and through the use of language—we don't want everything in German and English, but again, this all takes time. We will start by doing tours in Serbo-Croatian. Another important element is collaboration, which is inherent to our work as a collective. These collaborations include our work with Burgtheater, artists, and with das weisse haus, with whom we are planning a series of artist talks with the Academy of Fine Arts. Our next ambitious exhibition, curated by Miguel López, is a co-production with Wiener Festwochen. The autumn exhibition will be a retrospective of Želimir Žilnik that we initially did at Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art and that is now growing as part of a collaboration with Viennale. Following that, there will be an exhibition curated by Diedrich Diederichsen that will be co-produced with Tabakalera in Spain. This is a long list of events, but to go back to numbers: with whom do we compete? What is this quantifiable, imaginary success? We would like to try to build a community around Kunsthalle Wien with whom we can jointly assess what our directorship contributes. —[O]

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