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English Interview

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Create Your Own Institutions

Curator Adam Szymczyk talks about his professional path and challenges, non-formal education and potential of contemporary exhibition concepts.

by: Martina Kontošić

Adam Szymczyk, Zagreb 2019 (photo: Damir Žižić)

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Adam Szymczyk's work focuses on experiments with curatorial concepts and inclusive system of cultural production process. His professional path extends from beginnings at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, after which he co-founded the Foksal Gallery Foundation, to managing and curating large cultural events and institutions such are Kunsthalle Basel and documenta 14. With Szymczyk, who was also one of the professors of the first cycle of WHW Academy in Zagreb, we had the opportunity to talk about informal education, professional choices, potential of contemporary exhibition concepts, but also about the complex organizational and financial framework of major cultural events.

KP: With (co)founding Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw you were looking to extend approach and activities of a space that was considered an important spot for international avant-garde and contemporary art scene. Is it possible to make significant contributions to established institutions without making changes to their very foundations?

That space was founded in 1966 in a completely different historical context. When I arrived, my friend Andrzej Przywara was already there and Joanna Mytkowska joined soon. It was early 90s and we were interested in the legacy of the neo-avant-garde practices at Foksal and then came the occasion for researching it more profoundly. We were asked to help prepare a book for the gallery anniversary. The book came out in 1996 and this was a kind of exercise in revisionist history writing because we had to understand dynamics of processes in the gallery in the 60s and 70s. We realized there were a few moments in that history that were of interest such as the initial impetus of the co-founders of the gallery, Anka Ptaszkowska and Mariusz Tchorek, and the debates that they had in the late 60s about the direction the gallery should take. Some of the co-founders wanted to push it towards becoming something like an office for exchange of information where the material production of exhibitions would not necessarily be the main focus. It was to be less artwork oriented, but more the place for discussion of ideas where they would materialize in ephemeral form. It was supposed to be a place that would run its own living and changing archive, as opposed to static archives that just keep documents.

We were also thinking of beginning with exhibitions that would have some relationship to our time. At some point there were bureaucratic obstacles, constant lack of funds and understanding on the part of our, let's say, administrators. I think that was the main reason why we were interested in founding a support structure that would make the gallery slightly more independent from the municipal funding. Therefore, Foksal Gallery Foundation became a parallel structure. While negotiating the idea and programme we realized we were going in a new direction because we really wanted to work with younger artists, both Polish and international. We also addressed the artists who at some point played a role in historical development of the gallery, but then were side-lined and wiped out by those who were running the gallery in the 80s and 90s. At a certain point it was natural that we wanted to get out of this structure completely.

We had to create our own institution because we were not satisfied with the institutional formulas which were prevailing in Poland at the time. We just wanted something that we have in our hands as a tool, and not to work for institutions as they were. Around the year 2000 we moved to a new space which we rented for that purpose. We started working under the name of Foksal Gallery Foundation, constantly debating the legitimacy of our name with historical name of Galeria Foksal, which stayed where it was. I left in 2004 because I moved to Switzerland and started to work at Kunsthalle Basel. Today, the historical space of the gallery still exists. The “new” Foksal Gallery Foundation continues to be run by Andrzej Przywara, while Joanna Mytkowska is now the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, which is about to be built.

KP: You mentioned the necessity of collection being a living archive. With the Erste Kontakt Collection, where different art historians were gathered by Boris Marte, you decided together to focus the collection on the art of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. Do you think that collection too became a kind of a living archive?

One could see it this way. Apart from collecting artworks, there is a whole range of activities within Kontakt which have public dimension – conferences, publications and exhibitions. There is also the Prize of Igor Zabel in Ljubljana, Tranzit institutions in several places and so forth. Rather than just to keep the collection as some sort of discreet accumulation of objects somewhere, this collection is constantly being loaned to exhibitions organised by other institutions and other people. It is regularly shown and interpreted through exhibitions, like the one that happened in Zagreb. These works are, I believe, more often seen publicly today than they were seen since they were created. Otherwise they would've stayed in either artists' private archives or they would've been bought by private collectors or museums which also creates dispersal of works and puts limitations on the conditions of their showing. Having a larger collection, or pool of artworks, Kontakt is able to work with it and do the work of interpretation, dissemination and also preservation of the oeuvres and phenomena that previously had not been on the radar. Especially not in the countries of the former Western bloc. Although for instance, there was always some form of communication between Austria, Graz, Vienna, maybe, and Yugoslavia or post-Yugoslav space – but there are more countries and contexts represented in this collection.

KP: To what extent it helped challenge the representational domination of Western artists? Or is that too much pressure on one collection?

It definitely helped. It can be compared to efforts of some Western European museums that are trying to update their holdings of art "made in East Europe". The Tate, Centre Georges Pompidou, they're buying selectively. I don't know about Reina Sofia in Madrid, but they definitely held important exhibitions of artists from the region. Kožarić studio was also showing in documenta 11 and at Haus der Kunst in Munich. There are several examples when those artists who are represented in Kontakt Collection became interesting for museums and scholars elsewhere, resulting in large exhibitions such as the Promises of the Past at Centre Georges Pompidou curated by Christine Macel and Joanna Mytkowska.

KP: One of the reasons for coming to Zagreb was to hold a lecture about documenta 14. In one of your previous lectures you said that "documenta needs to be a mean(s) to restore and to build national and international community with the help of aesthetic and intellectual experience". Do you think you managed to achieve that?

It's never a complete process. I was just trying to write a letter yesterday to former participants in documenta 14. We have a kind of a mailing list to which many people signed up, both artists and those who were on the team or otherwise participated. There's a group of 200 people that are still from time to time trying to keep the spirit up in these dark times. I had a feeling we understood that there was a possibility of this community existing, it's just very difficult to hold it together. Everything is so fragmented – the experiences are fragmented, people move all the time and confront life circumstances that makes it difficult to work on something common. But the fact that so many people met and initiated concrete projects, or were just able to reach out to each other to work on things together, that is very valuable. And whether a larger transformation is possible... what I was hinting at would be a kind of a change of consciousness on part of the so-called audience, which I prefer to call the public. And I would prefer to position the producers as part of this public rather than to keep distinction between them and the recipients. This is something that can only be proved through further development of documenta and other similar projects.

The climate has changed in the contemporary art field over the last couple of years. There are definitely interesting de-colonial strategies and there is an increasing presence of indigenous artists all over the world. There's a change happening and I think we were not the only ones who initiated this change, but we played a role through the constant presence of documenta 14 over 3-4 years. Through the content of the Athenian magazine, South as a State of Mind that we were able to publish four times as documenta 14 magazine, and the approach to the public programmes as the creation of Parliament of Bodies and "aneducation" programme in both cities of documenta 14. There were also other forms of presence that exhibitions assumed, beginning with radio stations worldwide and public television in Athens, and so forth. It was kind of investing in the media that might be seen as outdated, but nevertheless they have a public resonance – so why not use them.

KP: Preparations for such a large event started much before that exact year. Before 2017 you were cooperating with people in Athens and with local community of artists. Do you think you managed to make documenta 14 inclusive for local art scene?

It's not so clear whether one can reach some kind of full inclusion. It's always with the cost of exclusion. I think we managed to include a good deal of mostly public institutions and people who work with those institutions. For the first time we showed collection of the National Museum in Athens in such a large selection of works internationally, at the Fridericianum, this symbolic centre of exhibition in Kassel.

It's also a challenge because we did not last. We had financial capacity and means to implement the project in full and move on, which then certainly left a gap. It's not up to me to say whether it was more like an experience of loss of something that passes through and then disappears, but I think there is substantially more happening in Athens and Greece right now than it did some years ago, and especially the complexity of what is happening is much greater. Even if a lot of it might be a kind of critical reaction, I think it is a continuation of documenta 14 because our project produced friction. Out of this friction people had to take different positions and start thinking about what they want to do. It dynamized this environment which was a fairly static one when we arrived in Athens. A feeling of hopelessness, lack of motivation and capacity to initiate new projects was very often declared, and right now it's a little more forward-looking. A lot of people began to think about Athens for the first time and this didn't result in creation of private enterprises in contemporary art that would just erase everything that existed before, but in small initiatives, projects, spaces, residences, artist-run things. My Greek friends tell me there's more and more of those and they quoted about hundred new projects that are happening now. I definitely did not see a hundred projects happening in Athens when I came there in 2013. It used to be pretty centralized around few private or semi-private institutions, and of course there was the Athens Biennial, which reached a peak of its critical fervour during documenta 14 and now got sold to a private foundation.

KP: How the economics of large cultural events can be compatible with their critical ambitions?

It was possible within documenta 14. You create your team from scratch so you don't have to work with anyone imposed by the organization. You do have this administrative sort of superstructure of the Documenta GmbH, the non-profit limited liability company Documenta, to which you report with your ideas, declare certain financial means and you discuss how to secure this financing. Above that there is the supervisory board of those who represent the city of Kassel and the state of Hesse and they are the most important stakeholders and the owners of this enterprise Documenta.

As Artistic Director, I negotiated and communicated my ideas with the executives of Documenta GmbH, then the CEO and CFO reported to the Supervisory Board. I only sat in those meetings as an external person, I was not part of their decision making process. This changed radically at the end of August 2017 because there was a meeting of the Supervisory Board called up in order to discuss what they found was the imminent deficit and loss of liquidity of Documenta. This was something that must've happened in a very short time because things didn't look this way ahead of the opening in Athens in April. The problem is that you're on a project over a relatively short period of time and everything happens very quickly so you make certain prognosis of how the budget will develop. As a curatorial team under my directorship we were constantly motivated and encouraged by documenta gGmbH to work on both parts of the exhibition as planned and the Supervisory Board did not say one word to stop the process.

Once we were asked to cut the production budget, we got together with all curators and people who worked in production department and we cut funding for some projects to the amount that was expected. We moved on and the show opened in Athens and then in Kassel as planned. Everything was fine in June. In July a new mayor of Kassel took the office. He wasn't interested in meeting me as the artistic director of documenta 14 and did not show interest in officially visiting the exhibition. I thought maybe he's new on the job and needed time so I didn't read it as withdrawal of interest or a warning sign. At the end of August and the very beginning of September, about a month after the show ended in Athens and three weeks before it ended in Kassel, news of the deficit were leaked from the Supervisory Board to the local press. Than it became a super tasty bite for bigger German press and a pretext to start ripping documenta 14 apart. Within three or four days it was reproduced by international press which had problems with the content of documenta even before.

There was a kind of expectation that a bad exhibition translates into a bad financial outcome, a disaster scenario produced in the media, with politicians who appear as saviours from their heights to clean up the mess. It was an exercise in understanding how neoliberal economy works. While ignoring the content of the exhibition they stepped in at the moment when they could address the members of German society as a) taxpayers and b) prospective voters. In September or October AfD sued us. They brought to the public attorney of Kassel an accusation against CEO, the former Lord Mayor of the city and me of mismanaging funds, a fraud. From that moment on we were suspended in a position of doubt because the public attorney took many months to proceed and did not inform us about the details of investigation. I was never shown any results of the financial audit that was ordered by the Supervisory Board. This audit results were never openly communicated by the Board, but they were again leaked to the press as a complete evasion of real public debate.

The public was completely misguided through sensational press articles and the Kassel newspaper that has pretty much a monopoly on information in this town, shaping the discourse, working hand in hand with politicians who didn't have to get involved or take position. So they waited us out and the CEO agreed on leaving. Officially, she wasn't fired, but why would she leave if she didn't want to do it at any point earlier? In the end, the public attorney cleared us all from all accusations and pointed to the political motivation of AfD’s motion against us. Then things slowly stabilized on the level of official interpretation. There was a big deficit which was dealt with by stakeholders. Technically speaking, it's true – there was a substantial deficit, but the way it was packaged and sold to the public is something I politically completely disagree with. It was a manipulation which was supposed to demonstrate how these kinds of “problems” will be dealt with in the future.

The project which I proposed – of documenta 14, Athens and Kassel on equal footing – and which we realised, was really exceptional, large and complex operation. All those in charge knew it from the beginning, from the late 2013, when I was appointed to realize it. I don’t think it's even about the money issue. There is more money in the budget of documenta 15 than it was in ours. The politicians always claimed the budget was sufficient, and they got angry when our CEO once said in public that we are probably underfunded. Suddenly now – the budget increases.

KP: This raises the question of financing cultural events and culture in general. If you want to avoid spectacular and retain the critical moment, how can you do that without relying on public funds and what is the future of cultural funding?

We must insist on governments, be it state or municipal, to assume responsibility for cultural institutions, allow them to remain independent in their programming, and keep some sort of ability to evaluate which institutions and for how long should receive funding to perpetuate or stabilize their activities. There's a significant part of cultural institutions that receive some public funding. But in documenta, one third of the income is generated through ticket sales so the public directly pays for this event. The users pay more than the city and state together. Plus, you are obliged to raise a lot of money from sponsors. We didn't get that much money from galleries, but we got quite an amount from international foundations and other institutions. I think it is the best if there is a balance between different sources of funding. My experience in Basel, where I had a budget of approximately 2,2 million francs is that the city-canton of Basel, as far as I remember, gave around one third of the budget and then there was an income from the restaurant that we were running plus I had to fundraise extra for all exhibitions.

The worst thing is if there is no understanding for a need to receive public funding.

KP: Your formal education included De Appel. Throughout your years of curatorial work, what were the less formal channels of learning and further educating yourself?

In Basel I was learning by doing cause I never ran an institution like Kunsthalle so I had to really learn how to do things, how to run the finances, manage the team, and so forth. I had to learn a lot about how you work with people since I was always working in a horizontal structure at Foksal Gallery Foundation. Suddenly I was in charge, I could hire people and tell them what I wanted to do. That was a new thing – so I learned a bit from the institution with which I worked. In terms of artistic content, I mostly learned from artists and few friends whom I respected in this curatorial profession. From early 90s on I always talked to artists a lot. These conversations have been continuing with many people involved. Some of them are great artists and my good friends and we work on projects occasionally.

Documenta 14, of course, was like an academy in progress, we were struggling all the time and learning from each other. We had people from different walks of life, with different sets of skills and knowledge. Out of that we tried to piece together this exhibition. For me, after documenta 14, things weren't the same. My programme in Kunsthalle Basel was very European, Eurocentric, I must admit. There were moments which hinted at other possibilities, but I never went fully for opening the institution to non-European, non-US positions. And I should've done it. Maybe at that time I wasn't ready for it, I didn't have this capacity and knowledge. But, I knew from the moment I started to work on documenta 14 that I had to change a lot in my way of thinking. Therefore I tried to find people who would teach me something. I found this group who taught me a great deal on political side of things, other histories and not only art histories. A lot of that transpired into what documenta 14 became and into stuff that was published – including the documenta 14 Reader and Daybook. I didn't come to documenta 14 with a ready-made plan of what I wanted to show.

I had an intention of shaping things with others, producing a kind of perception shift or shock, perhaps, a way to perform displacement. But one thing is some private passion for displacements and the other thing is that you suddenly see that this word also applies to a lot of people who are displaced not because they want to leave and enjoy non-identitarian discourse, but because they have a war in their country, they are exploited by mafias and capitalism and they have to move and flee all the time. Documenta 14 was coinciding with big debates on migrations and the physical fact of migrants coming to Europe, being blocked at different borders and locked in camps. So this was a daily discussion. More or less efficiently, we tried to work with responsibility and attention to these issues. Many of artistic decisions were motivated by the need to articulate things publicly.

People tend to listen more to artists than curators. Curators without artists are a pretty ridiculous bunch of people discussing things in their own circle and that may be interesting to them, but artists have this licence for making a big public statement. That makes them very good transmitters of ideas. That’s why we didn't have that many formalists in the show, who are interested in cultivating their introverted formal development, although there are some radical positions that can also go through this doors. We had a bunch of people who work with different communities and usually deliver their artistic statements in a very tense or problematic context they're coming from and we tried to bring such practices into larger public perception.

KP: You were one of the lecturers of WHW Academy in Zagreb and you will be also running a seminar in Vienna, in a project at the Academy of Fine Arts. How important do you think formal types of education are for artists and where do you think the position of non-formal educational projects is?

Even within the formal schemes there are always open points of encounter and I think for artists it's important to also meet people from outside their school. Through these encounters people come across ideas and expand their knowledge. The WHW Academy provides a chance for such encounters that would hopefully be significant for the participating artists. At various stages of my life I remember meeting individuals who completely changed my perception of things, either generally or in some specific aspect. Mostly, but not only, artists. I hope that a context like this, which is pretty special and privileged in the sense of creating space of work and reflection for a small number of people, would generate some kind of revelatory or transformative experience for some of them. This less conventional educational formats are important in order to challenge the main frame. Instead of trying to petition academies and asking them to change their ways of working and curricula, we can create our own academies which people can choose, and this is good. There was a similar philosophy behind creating WHW and creating something like Foksal Gallery Foundation back then. They are not comparable, but in the intention of getting some hold on your means of productions, they're similar. You want to be a part of the entire process and not only employee of some larger structure that alienates you. These are small steps towards hopefully non- or less alienated labour. Whether this project will survive or not, we'll see. Instead of being authors, curators of exhibitions and animators of projects, WHW are starting to pass their experience to others. It feels good to distribute that, to bring people in and then send them back into their contexts and societies.

KP: Which of the art fields do you expect to change the most under the influence of new technologies and new ways of communication?

Well, I don't have a coherent theory on this, but I think for many people who are able to enter this new kind of world or ways of communicating it means more independent access to knowledge. It might be a possibility of shaping things individually or in occasional alliances and not going through hierarchically organized structures, but there's a lot of open questions. This kind of accessibility sometimes feels as a potential, but is not actually lived. Everything is accessible and that's enough. Sometimes reading one book over and over again also reveals a lot because you can study something in a very intensive way. Sometimes you can do a lot with limited means. I think this access and mobility which have been packaged and sold as attractions of mainstream culture are also collateral fictions of this phase of capitalism. Of course, people can make different use of that, but overall I'm not sure if this is not the new face of ideology covering the bare reality of capitalism which is to be treated with suspicion. And technology... I don't expect that much of it, to be honest. Communication technologies change, but I don't think technology produces essentially new content.

KP: What are the development possibilities of experimental exhibitions today?

Endless. Exhibition is an unexplored genre. I use the word genre because I don't think it's just a format or a form of presenting content. I think a lot can be done with organization of space and time in a form of experience. It is an interesting genre that doesn't have its rules written yet. They can mutate or be often modified, from exhibitions that are large amorphous projects like documenta, to more pointed short statements. In a way, it's an all-encompassing genre in which other arts can be incorporated. There is a potential in working with literature, film, theatre, music, or the digital sphere and new forms of communication. This is super interesting because these things might be included as part of the experience of exhibition, as much as lectures, conferences or discursive stuff. Exhibition can be all-encompassing place, which is beyond specialization of artistic disciplines and discursive fields. In that sense a lot can still be invented and changed.

There is something about this temporariness of an exhibition and the fragility of singular experience of visiting and then having a memory of being there, then, rather than retaining something to keep at hand you can always consult. That makes it special. Theatre plays can be replayed many times on the stage. Exhibitions open and close and that’s it. Sometimes they don’t even open.

Objavio/la martina.kontosic [at] kulturpunkt.hr 18.12.2019