Alexander Kiossev, Iara Boubnova

Iara Boubnova interviewed by Alexander Kiossev

Iara Boubnova interviewed by Alexander Kiossev
title: Iara Boubnova interviewed by Alexander Kiossev
year: 2003
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 954-8334-72-0
language: english
author(s): Alexander KiossevIara Boubnova
source: Manifesta and Us, 2003, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia, ISBN: 954-8334-72-0
supported by: Национален център за музеи, галерии и изобразителни изкуства; Швейцарска култрна програма в България

Alexander Kiossev: Do you think that the International Board of Manifesta made a logical choice of Frankfurt/Main to be the host city for its fourth occurrence? Many Germans call this city “Bank-furt”. The city does not have the artistic image of Cologne for instance, nor is it associated with big art shows like Kassel is identified with Documenta. On the other hand, don't you think that the Municipality of Frankfurt is taking a risk with you and your colleagues as part of the contemporary art scene? In short, do you think that Frankfurt and Manifesta can and will fit together?

Iara Boubnova: I think that in the case of Manifesta any choice of a host city is logical. I am not saying that in each case there is the same kind of logic at play. This is the phenomenon of the traveling event that is always different in each new place, a difference that is doubled up each time by the choice of new curators who practically always come from still different places. Thus, if seen from the point of view of the specific location and its culture, the question about the suitability or unsuitability of a host city looses its relevance. The problem is to match the event with its context of choice. Because, as we know, the powerful context of Istanbul, for instance, always already “colors” any curatorial project for the Biennial there. In the beginning when we were “parachuted” into Frankfurt we couldn't feel the context of the city. Immediately we started looking for a metaphor for Frankfurt. It turned out that even the famous frankfurter sausage originated in Vienna... We spent a long time finding out how to deal with the location for this event we were “cooking up”. So, we decided to challenge the context. To see what, if anything, outside of the banks and the airport known to every- one, could provoke us. We reached the conclusion that we should just trust the artists. We would prepare the conditions and we would delegate to the artists the right to be provoked by the context. As a result, we are still waiting for what types of potential provocation the city would present. After all, any kind of provocation where a certain locality is involved begins and ends with the people. We have the feeling that we do need a lot of different people from Frankfurt. I can say that our project counts on dialogues and encounters, activated by both sides. “Bank-furt” or not, the city nevertheless has fifteen museums, one of the most promi- nent art schools in Europe, some of the best known exhibition spaces that are created and curated by the best curators. It is a highly competitive city for contemporary art. As for the municipality and the risk, well, the risks are perfectly reciprocal.

A.K.: Can you imagine Manifesta being hosted by a city in a state of transformation, chaos, social unrest and frustration of the kind that can often be observed in Eastern Europe, for instance in Sofia?

I.B.: I will try to be practical in my answer because in theory this could happen. Actually there was a lot of expectations that after Ljubljana in 2000 Manifesta would go further East. You are hitting on an existing split in my “Manifesta” identity... From the point of view of Manifesta, the international event that needs a lot of perfect organization and so on, maybe not. From the point of view of a “system” that produces large international art events that's a very problematic prospect because in such cities usually there is no adequate infrastructure, media coverage, investments and at the end, no capitalization of either a real or symbolic kind. From the point of view of somebody living and working in a marginal city such as Sofia, I would have to say “yes”. From my point of view, the “Sofias” of Europe have exactly the kind of public that Manifesta, as an event, is addressing. It would be a risk, a very radical decision that however would confirm the different character of Manifesta. I see the important implications of your question going in a different direction. It's not that I think it is not important that Manifesta could be in Sofia. I mean, the very fact that we are discussing here if(s) and how(s) comes to tell us something about our own level of self-confidence and awareness. This higher level of self-confidence leads as a matter of fact to professional appreciation and willingness from outside partners to see us as collaborators. An art scene might be highly developed but if it does not project a sense of self-confidence it is doomed to invisibility. I think that this has something to do with Manifesta moving from one place to another – because of that things do become possible... So, when some cities and their art scenes enter the international debate in contemporary art by projecting artists, curators, writers, critics, etc., as well as attracting people to come to them, then such cities become potential hosts for Manifesta.

A.K.: No matter how much an art event is integrated within a given real environment, still it goes beyond and further then that. It offers a different and transcending vision that projects the environment onto some new horizons. What is this vision in the case of Manifesta 4? Do you have this vision? What are you trying to relate to the city as well as to the visitors? You understand that this question has a deeper meaning. Do you think that art today has this function of creating relevant horizons, of producing visions that have social validity beyond the borders of the art world?

I.B.: Yes, I do. For me the relevant horizons are the opening of borders, from political and ideological borders to borders between visual languages and structures. The social validity in this case is predicated on the involvement of large groups of people, on the use by the artists of a variety of media and approaches, on the liberating impulses triggered by contemporary art because for me contemporary art is associated with freedom. This kind of art is meant to pin-point differences and it tends to attract (seduce, negotiate) the general public into getting used to these differences and ultimately, into acceptance and a higher degree of tolerance. Contemporary art has a very strong critical power that is ever more easy to embrace because it tends to be self-ironical as well. However, in its most interesting (best) examples, artists and approaches in contemporary art it occupies neither the position nor the attitude of some higher patronizing authority. On the contrary, often its means and ways are quite opposite to the traditional “voice of authority” employed by classical art and artists and tend to be closer to the means and the ways of everyday life. In contemporary art the end-product becomes art not because the author is some sort of a genius endowed with special powers and visions. It's because, at its best, the context of origin of the artists and their works coincides with the target context of where the works are being presented. That is actually the new horizon and function that I can see. The specific vision we have has to do with our attempt to see the event of Manifesta 4 as an open-ended and self-
developing process that presents itself as an interchange of thoughts, opinions and personal contexts through and in search of shared values. We asked the artists to try and find themselves in the city of Frankfurt. It is somehow the ultimate average for a large European city with all the positive and negative aspects implied by such a statement. I mean that there is a bit of everything there – from the commuters and the emigrants, to the banks and the museums, from the ruins of the last World War to the high-tech skyline and urban planning, from the hot-dog to the hamburger, the pizza and the kebab... We invited artists who can take a risk, even the risk of not finding themselves in Frankfurt... At the very least, we hope that “Bank-furt” will become “Art-furt”... At the very most, we hope that this will be a vision of belonging not only to the place(s) where people come from but also to the place(s) where people happen to go to – by necessity, by invitation or by default...

A.K.: I wonder if the traditional function of art to organize the ecstatic energies of society and the individual has not been taken over today by that which Adorno, Benjamin, Loewenthal and others despised so very much – mass culture and the culture industry? Techno parties or rap concerts today fulfill gigantic compensatory functions. They are producing shareable and extraordinarily intensive emotional states. They are creating the form of the collective or individual ecstasy and/or catharsis. These emotional states could become a way of life. In this respect mass culture has easily identifiable and visible social functions. I think that we can hardly say the same for contemporary art which is often said to be elitist. Does the audience understand it, has this art closed itself off into much too esoteric experimentation that is accessible only to just a few. It seems to me that the mass audience (general public) possesses neither the visual nor conceptual language, nor the tools for understanding...

I.B.: This is of course an extremely interesting and challenging question. First of all I think that the masses these authors were talking about are no longer the same masses. The dialectical interaction between mass culture and contemporary art is rather dynamic, complex and sophisticated. It is a kind of a love-hate relationship. Contemporary art has influenced and has been influenced by mass culture. Certain trends in contemporary art utilize the language of mass visual culture and that's one reason to think that at least in some cases the general public possesses the language because it is the same language. However, the message tends to be completely different. Whereas the message of mass culture is that of entertainment, the message of contemporary art would be the one of analysis. Mass culture is not really about comment or critique. Contemporary art is. On the other hand, mass culture is for the passive observer, contemporary art looks for the active participant, be it in an action or in the process of building up a context for a certain statement.
We discussed with Nuria and Stéphanie how could we deal with artistic activities bordering on entertainment culture. I do not think that mass culture and con-
temporary art are all that opposed each other. The most interesting aspect for me is the tension and the friction between them and I actually think that they complement each other. Both areas of activity could be amusing and entertaining although one is intended as critical “entertainment”. So, we decided that the best thing would be to invite artists who are interested in working in the area where these two rub into one another. Let's see what kind of public will join us.
Of course, for the kind of art show we are preparing it would be hardly fair to rely on the same type of audience that goes to rap concerts. I don't want to disappoint you but no matter how much it is trying to coincide with the dynamics of a given city, still contemporary art demands a certain level of understanding and preparedness from its audience. Or at least a certain attitude that by no means coincides with the ecstasy pill. In a way it has to do with the “success” of an event, and the difference between the success of such a show and the success of a rap concert seems to be obvious. Contemporary art is able to astonish but at least in our case it is not a mass kind of astonishment. A great divide between “marginal art” and “marginal public” has arisen.

A.K.: Isn't this relation between the radical, hard experience of contemporary art and the efficient financial and organizational network that transforms the marginal artistic experimentation into an industry paradoxical? How do you think the principles of mass appeal, technology, success, organization (all of them principles of capitalism and the right) connect with the principles of radical questioning, marginal experimentation and revolutionary challenging of the existing norms?

I.B.: That's a paradox I can't explain in full, but it is a most serious one. It seems that one of the reasons for establishing Manifesta in parallel with the process of transformation in Eastern Europe was the necessity to create a structure that deals with art before its marketability. That's why Manifesta 4 is based on the extensive research we had to do all over Europe in order to meet and select relatively “unspoiled” artistic practices and younger artists. Of course, there have been other attempts to counter this paradox such as moving the practice of organizing large international events to marginal places all over the world. Such practice works as a solution for some time and then it is incorporated into the mainstream. Maybe you do not know, but that's the main reason for criticizing the system of big exhibitions, mainly the biennials. In our curatorial text that prefaces Manifesta 4, we included a sentence that underlines our interest in art practices that are not yet appropriated by the high profile institutions of the art world. The irony is that Manifesta itself is also a promotional asset that helps propel so many artists coming from the marginal art scenes. Even more “hypocritical” is that we ourselves, as well as the artists, would be happy if this happens... We take all that into account. I see this paradox implicated also in my curatorial position regarding Manifesta 4. The paradox is in the fact that I have been invited (nominated, contracted, given tools and resources, etc.) to be completely independent in my judgments, professional choices, practice, etc. up to the point of “facing the public” and taking full responsibility for the event. It is the same with my colleagues. It seems that we have been invited/contracted to be independent. The curatorial contract for this large international event appears to be a clear sign of belonging to the system, or the industry, if you will. At the same time it is the only guarantee of independence, a guarantee against the negative effects of the system... The paradox is that events like Manifesta could hardly exist outside of and without this paradox. Yet, I believe that working from within the paradox, I can still offer meaningful critique and vision.

A.K.: I am upset with this techno/revolutionary, capitalist avant-garde eclecticism. We have to think about this even more insistently after 1989 when Eastern Europe produced paradoxical revolutions – velvet, without either radicalism or violence, attempts at “restoration of normality”, actually a return to normality. Some call these attempts “a restoration of capitalism”. What is the social status of contemporary art? How does it fit in with the global victory of global post-capitalism?

I.B.: Looks like contemporary art does not have a homogeneous social status. There is a great variety of practices in as many different contexts. I guess the concrete social circumstances as much as the artists define for contemporary art a certain status. And this status is quite relevant for the concepts we have about capitalism. For instance, in Eastern Europe we would never say that we already exist in a system of capitalist relations. We might say however, that what we had was not really socialism but some kind of “state capitalism”. On the other side, contemporary art tends to be transnational in its reception. Thus, it could be seen as the most capitalistic part of society here. This is also a rather relative statement... It seems that after all, contemporary art is once again producing paradoxical relations with society. I already mentioned the critical potential of contemporary art. Yet, it has been stated many times that capitalism is able to absorb anything, even the most radical gestures. Ten-twelve years ago in Eastern Europe contemporary art had the distinct status of avant-garde with the urge to demolish everything old, a vision for the future, the energy to redefine society, the ability to organize larger groups of people into action. Do you remember the time around 1990/91 when the press used to refer to all the political rallies in Sofia as happenings and performances? That was funny then but it seems now like it was a logical sign of the times... Now the status of contemporary art in Eastern Europe is closer to the one in Western Europe and it has to do with being marginal, with critique, questioning and analysis. I am not sure that artists now want to change the world, neither in the Western nor in the Eastern part of Europe. The overly Messianic illusions that were once upon a time installed in the artists’ minds by the socialist society we used to live in, are no longer there. What is there is maybe smaller and less ambitious but it is surely more effective and flexible. Actually, it is precisely the more traditional kind of art production that is now advertised in Eastern Europe as “restoration” and a return to normality. Yet it is not clear, return to what? The traditional approaches to art were so strongly imposed in socialist times that they became an attribute of socialism. However, these approaches do not fit in any way into the left-right schema you have in mind. The art of “restoration”, the act of return to whatever, does not present a vision of its own. On the contrary, it brings back old visions, something that can hardly be associated with contemporary art. Maybe that's the case with the “velvet revolutions” too. After all, they did not bring back the “bloody” ones from the past... Maybe what’s happening in contemporary art now could be seen as a “restoration” or a return to normalcy only from a certain theoretical viewpoint. However, I am not sure that such point of view can accept the impossibility of art continuing its existence as some sort of “socialist avant-garde”. This is related to the paradox in your statement about “restoration” and the return to normality. It seems that in the progressively normalized situation immense efforts are needed to comprehend contemporary art as something normal... However, contemporary art does not see itself as normal, and neither do you, right? I simply think that it doesn't amount to a return and that's hardly worth arguing about.


Alexander Kiossev
Born 1953 in Sofia. Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, Sofia University. Academic Director of the Center for Advanced Study in Sofia. Ph.D. Cultural History of the Transition Period, Faculty of Philosophy, 1998. M.A. Bulgarian Studies, Faculty of Slavonic Philology, Sofia University, 1989.
Taught Bulgarian Literature at Sofia University, 1980-1988; Bulgarian Language, Literature and Culture at University of Göttingen, Germany, 1990-1994; Cultural History at Sofia University, 1994-2002.
Editor and author of the collective book “Post-Theory, Games and Discursive Resistance”, SUNY Press, NY, Albany, 1995. Co-editor and author of the book ◊Die Bulgarische Literatur in alter und neuer Sicht“, Harrassovitz Verlag, 1997, among other publications.


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