interview by Adam Szymczyk

ADAM SZYMCZYK    Within the framework of “art has always its consequences,” you proposed a project dealing with the “Invisible History of Exhibitions.” The history of exhibition production and exhibition display has recently become a stimulus for experimentation for artists and curators all over the place. You as curators and, say, David Maljkovic as an artist represent this approach on the Eastern Flank, while the West is busy digesting the mainstream and marginal appearances of modernism. Could you elaborate on your reasons for addressing the format of the exhibition in your curatorial practice, instead of just making exhibitions?


WHW    There are several reasons why we feel it is necessary to reflect on the format of the exhibition. The most basic one lies in the fact that contemporary art reaches its audience through the medium of the exhibition. The history of exhibitions, in a different way than the history of art, provides important insights into collective identity issues. Although exhibitions establish and administer the cultural meanings of art, the history of exhibitions is only recently beginning to be researched.
As a collective, we believe that it is still possible to take a critical position within the exhibition context, and that the format of the exhibition can produce temporary yet polemical agencies for contesting the dominant social frameworks. We were always especially interested in methods—for instance, how negative aspects like representational, paternalistic or hegemonic logics connect to the exhibition genre and how they can be transcended by more flexible platforms that can generate knowledge, mobilize certain critical potentials and stimulate public attention.
The uniqueness of an exhibition lies in the strength and fragility that stems from its ephemeral nature. Isn᾽t it amazing that, in spite of their short and rather limited life span, exhibitions are still the primary site of mobilizing talent, resources and attention?
The project “Invisible History of Exhibitions” aims to question historical and contemporary cases of exhibition practices in former Eastern Europe, particularly in Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Serbia. It is a long-term collaborative platform composed of several organizations: in addition to WHW, transzit. hu from Budapest, Museum Sztuki from Lodz and from Novi Sad are taking part in researching socially engaged art practice in Eastern Europe. “Invisible History of Exhibitions” is part of the overall project “Art Always Has Its Consequences,” which combines research, archiving, exhibition, publishing and education, and actively works on re-establishing links between several generations of art practitioners throughout the region.
How exhibitions position themselves in regard to “official” art history, how and to what extent they affect the functions of art institutions, in what way they contribute to formation of cultural influences, how they affect the hegemonization of certain norms, how they are positioned in relation to ideological and economic frameworks . . . These are all questions we have been researching in the specific context of art history in former Eastern Europe. We are especially interested in drawing on some parallels not only between “the West and the rest” but also within some specific geopolitical complexities.
The most challenging part of the project is not about “historicizing” but about trying to make the processes of cultural homogenizations apparent, and trying to deconstruct the marketing of “difference” and particularity, in which a regional version of identity is being exchanged for access to the “universal” community of art.

AS    In the 1990s, the discourse on art of Post-Soviet countries was defined to a large extent by the problematic of inclusion and exclusion: The overlooked art of Eastern Europe needed to be put on the map, included in the history of modern art and, supposedly, it also needed to develop its own theoretical apparatus to recognize its specificity. Could you comment on this? Is inclusion a positive development or rather a step towards the conquest of any critical potential? And can it be productive to speak about the advantages of invisibility, instead of the sorrows of exclusion?


WHW    This entanglement with the position of non-West is a constant trait of WHW᾽s work.
Today, when terms like “post-socialist” or “post-communist” are contaminated by the discourse of late capitalism and stripped of the immense possibilities they evoked after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the integration of “Eastern European” art into a global art system seems to have been “successfully” completed. Culture as a means of political “domestication” accomplished the reintegration of Eastern Europe under the banner of the liberal-democratic world of free markets and human rights, and terms like “post-socialist” or “post-communist” became auto-referential and depoliticized expressions of stagnation and new routine.
In many respects, the alignment of Eastern Europe with the global art world has been achieved. Internationalization of the art market soon proved to be a complicated set of relations revolving around power, packaging, geo-politics and career strategies, far from a simple, straightforward form of dialogue or multiculturalism. Questions faced by artists in Eastern Europe after the collapse of socalled socialist regimes (explicitly expressed in paradigmatic project East Art Map by the Slovenian group IRWIN), concerning the uncertain position of art with the return of real existing capitalism and how artists might integrate with an art market that previously did not exist without reproducing the mechanisms of the commercial world of art, today sound more pessimistic than they did right after the fall of the Wall with the emergence of the so-called global art scene.
After the Cold War decades, when Western art and theory stood for the “valuable autonomy of arts”—as opposed to the despised ideological, didactic instrumentalization of art in the countries of so-called “real-existing socialism”—the very same Western art institutions often reduced art coming from former Communist countries to “documents” about the social situations of countries-in-transition, almost anthropological/sociological material about the conditions of the societies in which they were produced. At the same time, the process worked from the inside: cultural policies in places whose psycho-geography had been formed in relation to Europe also instrumentalized culture in order to testify that “we” are “cultured”—not only that “we belong to Europe,” but that “we have always belonged there.”
In other words, like in explorations of “equal but different” sexual politics in the song “It᾽s Obvious” by the late 1970s and early 1980s Birmingham post-punk feminist band the Au Pairs, Eastern Europe fails to equalize, however much it otherwise eagerly normalizes.
Against the sporadic waves of interest for artists from Eastern Europe that usually ended up exposing a European “other” to the gaze of the West through grandiose exhibitions in museum Wunderkammern, there were very few European institutions—and when we say European, we mean Western European—that were consistently involved in the sustained effort to institutionally engage with artists from Eastern Europe on an equal basis and to partake in the (re)construction of a universe of art in Eastern Europe, as IRWIN would call it. This would mean being engaged in the kind of practices that are clearly not about reputation economies and upward mobility within the creative class, but rather with activities that traverse aesthetics and politics and work against the rapid consummation of artists at market and international fairs and biennials.
Instead of investing in “invisibility” as an effective counterstrategy, we should take into account many examples of critical self-positioning in relation to the dominant (Western) paradigm of art. We should look for escape routes from the games of representation, opposing the situation of replacing the political position of art with the cultural identity of the artist, and of marketing post-communist aestheticized politics. We should furthermore oppose the politically correct and highly functional educational and aesthetic suggestion of a non-conflicting transition towards a liberal ideal of an equalizing multicultural sociability. Surely there are many projects that use the discursive, analytical and explicative possibilities of contemporary art to re-examine old relationships and open new ones between social activism and aesthetic gestures.

AS    Back to visibility. An art biennial is an international event expected to bring a huge audience to a location. Do you think it is possible to use this format without compromising your idea of necessity as a prerequisite for producing an exhibition, and without losing sight of the three fundamental questions with which you once named your collective: What, how and for whom?


WHW    Today, biennial exhibitions are elements of cultural tourism through which cities attempt to use their benign and internationally communicative regional specificities to position themselves on the map of the globalized world. They are manifestations tending to encourage “cultural shopping” in which art is often presented as cool, fun and entertaining.
Although this holds true, it would not be productive simply to dismiss the idea that one can achieve a critical standpoint within the biennial format. After all, biennials are exhibitions and they are imbued with the same contradictions and limitations as any exhibition, except it seems that in biennials, all these contradictions are highlighted and somehow pushed to the edge . . . Biennials do create basic conditions for viewing and contextualizing art, yet we don᾽t see these relations as necessarily fixed, but rather as a more flexible structure open to different approaches and contestations.
Looking at our curatorial work from the perspective of ten years of collective work, we see the engagement with the Biennial as a continuation of our methods and strategies, and we try to apply the same beliefs that have shaped our curatorial work since the beginning. In our exhibitions, we often make references and dedications, but as in the case of our first exhibition “What, how and for whom, dedicated to the anniversary of Communist Manifesto,” in which the Manifesto was not the subject of the exhibition but rather a trigger to initiate public debate on the issues of recent history, this Biennial, entitled “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” after the protest song from Bertolt Brecht᾽s 1928 The Threepenny Opera, will not directly thematize Brecht᾽s heritage. Brecht᾽s assertion that “a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal” from The Threepenny Opera is as true as ever, and the correlation of rapid developments in the liberal economy to the disintegration of hitherto existing social consensus in 1928, the year before the Great Depression, are striking in the context the contemporary global economic crisis. Thus “what keeps mankind alive” also links us back to the economic concerns of “what, how and for whom.” In that sense, the three basic questions of every economic organization—what, how and for whom—that have continuously and repeatedly shaped our work remain constant concerns. Of course, there is always a risk involved, a risk of failure and an even more serious risk of compromising your “ideals.” In the Biennial, the risks seem to be higher, but so do the aspirations. Perhaps here we might again quote Brecht: “In art there is the fact of failure, and the fact of partial success. Works of art can fail so easily; it is so difficult for them to succeed. Defeats should be acknowledged; but one should not conclude from them that there should be no more struggles.”