Interview with Victor Misiano
by Ur¹a Jurman and Sabina Salamon
S. S.: You were one of the curators of Manifesta 1. How do you see the development of Manifesta, according to its original intentions? Could you compare Maniefsta 1 and Manifesta 3?
V. M.: So far I see that three very inventive and new things took place in Manifesta: the first is that it is a nomadic exhibition which is not connected to one place, as for example Biennale to Venice or Documenta to Kassel. It is a transnational and - as it was used to be stated at the beginning - pan European structure also from the point of view of its administration and general decision making: at this I mean advisory and national boards. This is very interesting and positive and it really is one of the ways of how to involve entire Europe to work for this institution. The second one is that this biennial is curated by a group of curators and not just by one. And probably the third original aspect of M is that it is focused on a young generation of artists. So from the beginning it was strategically absolutely a precise project.
But obviously we now have to reflect on how M is developing. I would focus on only one aspect to which we - East Europeans - are very sensitive. I would recall that M started with a rhetoric of a new Europe. It was said that it is a new institution, a new periodical event for the new ‘post-wall’ Europe. But if we count the percentage of the Advisory Board members from the East and the West, I'm afraid that that percentage would not be equal. Even worse: in the first Advisory Board this percentage was even more balanced. (I must say that I regret that from the members who seized to be a part of the Advisory Board was Anda Rottenberg, who, from my point of view, is one of the strongest personalities in the Eastern art world.) Unequal is also the percentage of the Eastern curators in M teams - in M 1 two out of the five curators were from the East, in M 3 only one out of a total of four curators was from the East, and in M 2 all curators were from the West. Beside that we have to consider that some Eastern countries were ignored in the course of the curatorial research! I am not accusing curators of M 3 for not inviting artists from Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldavia, etc. but it is really a pity that they did not visit these countries. In fact art communities in these countries noticed this fact and were very sensible to it. If not de jure, but de facto ‘pan European’ context is still not united at all. After six years of M's existence we can see that this problem has not been solved, that a lack of equality still exists. I think this is a big problem.
U. J.: Why do you think it is (still) so?
V. M.: To the question ‘why’ we should have a few answers. First of all, it is obvious that the managers of M are determined by certain power structures. In fact, new Western members of the Advisory Board represent the West not as a geographical or as an ethnic reality, but obviously as a power structure of the West. I think this choice was comprehensive, because people who were responsible for the future destiny of M needed powerful people to support it and these powerful people are mostly from the West and not from the East. I do not want to accuse anybody of racism. I would just like to point out that there is a certain power structure and a certain system of very pragmatic and justifiable choices, which stand behind this fact. That is a reality and not the rhetoric any more.
And to be honest, it is, on the other side, also not so easy to find reliable partners in the East. In the course of decay the whole situation there was very unstable - people were changing positions and changing business, on the key positions sometimes old style nomenclature can be found or new, but totally wrong people. Meanwhile the right people are sometimes still marginalized and are far-away from the policy making decisions. If I were asked whom to suggest, I would hesitate to give an immediate list.
As for ‘why’ some countries were ignored during the curatorial research I suppose that this could be also due to the chain of very concrete circumstances. To plan and realize a visit to the East is a special enterprise, different from the usual Western curatorial routine and it presumes specific efforts. Except for the Soros Centers for Contemporary Arts we do not have solid institutions, archives, galleries and so on in most of the places. We have to keep in mind that M curators were not pushed to come from the side of the Eastern countries themselves - in case of Russia, for example, beside the fragile art community no official institutions were willing to receive and help M curators to come and do their research. Consider also, that a serious research should be covered with some economical, social and institutional background which, I am afraid, M is still not able to secure to the curators all of the time. In a course of research curators were also engaged in their usual jobs, parallel projects. So, the lack of time and resources is also one of the explanations why some Eastern countries are left outside the research of M curators. There are of course some other explanations …
If I conclude, we can easily explain all these misbalances in M decision making and in its curatorial practice; we can understand them, but not forgive. This is a problem which would reappear over and over again. And that is a political and a moral problem. Even if it could not yet be solved, it should be shown that maximum efforts were done to solve it.
Still, it has to be added that in the course of a decade a lot of things have changed - East is not as catastrophic as it was before, some personal and institutional reputations are established and the art process is becoming more and more mature. The more we are going ahead the more the excuses I’ve had proposed above are loosing their raison d‘etre.
U.J.: On the M 3 press conference a question whether the artists represent their countries/nationalities came up. What is your opinion about this?
V.M.: Frankly, I'm quite indifferent to this point. The Venice Biennale with its concept one nation - one pavilion reflects a certain historically passed approach of setting up exhibitions. Nowadays, I think it absolutely depends on the curators, on his/her concept and approach. In the event that a curator wants to explore some geographical contexts of Europe or ethnic problems of Europe, s/he would logically expose notions like these, otherwise s/he can structure the show in another way. As I’ve just said before, the curator should be free from the obligation of a proportionally adequate national representation, but s/he should be adequate in the research.
For me the problem lies somewhere else and the experience of M 3 gives us an opportunity to discuss it. Contemporary art is still a closed system, an activity imprisoned in its own language. You can see that, first of all, in curatorial approaches.
It became a common place now to say that the idea of the global should be deconstructed, revealing that it’s not homogeneous, but compiled of locally specific phenomenon. There were many battles in the name of ethnic differences and specialties, but till now the specificity of the contexts which produce contemporary art is totally ignored. We are forgetting that from context to context art is changing not only its form and message, but also its function and meaning. M 3, which is dedicated to the borderline syndrome and is also the first M which overcame the borderline, ignored that the art system which exists in the East is different from the art system which exists in the West.
M 3 in Ljubljana repeated the same model - a chain of shows in local institutions - which we used in M 1 when we were working in Rotterdam, a city full of extremely efficient and powerful institutions. But the big difference between the East and the West can be found in the fact that in the East cultural and art production existed and partly still exists outside of institutions. And I think it is our capital to know how to behave outside institutions. What I am missing at M 3 is that it did not establish a dialogue with these non-institutional forms of existence of contemporary art.
If Manifesta came to the East, it should involve situations in Ljubljana, where art is really being produced. The National Museum, for example, never really produced art; art is on the streets, squares, in artists' studios, in discussions with people ... This is the reason why the borders between visual art and other creative activities in the East are not so established and fixed as in the West. In the East the relations in-between art and music, poetry and theoretical reflection and so on, are much more interconnected than in the West. Let us - as we are in Ljubljana - draw attention to NSK with IRWIN, as well as with Laibach, New Collectivism and other departments. Or ®i¾ek! He is not simply a scholar able to write a text for the M catalogue, he is a creative personality and his presence in the Ljubljana art world - as far as I know - is much more active and profound than we could expect form a Western professor of philosophy.
The specialization in professional domains is what is usually imposed by institutions.
I’m not emphasizing the East copyright on the non-institutional art forms. Let us just recall Fluxus and what came out after it; this is also a confirmation that a non-institutional criteria is a universal one and could be used during a pan-European dialogue. The privilege of the East is that non-institutional forms were not a lateral tendency, but a mainstream tendency for a long time.
What I am saying is not a critique of the show itself, but is a remark on the lost source for the concept of M 3, a source which was suggested by the location itself. Frankly, meeting curators during their stay in Moscow, I even had a feeling that they were moving in that direction, but obviously there were some obstacles …
As far as I remember it was M 2 or to be more precise one of its curators, Robert Fleck, who insisted on the homogeneity of the new European art. He wrote that the new generation of artists in Eastern Europe is not different from the one in the West, enjoying their partnership in the global world. I think this is only partly true. Obviously, ideological confrontation is not valid any more, obviously the world and identities are not bipolar any more. The identities became more complex and multidimensional; now they are structured as a net and are not hierarchical as they were before. Nevertheless, the process of self-identification, for an individual as well as for communities, still inevitably presumes the counterpoint with otherness. I have to witness that, in our nowadays complex identity, East-West difference is still present. And it can not be otherwise, as this difference is visible, touchable, it is something we can not avoid in our everyday practice. The difference is not only political or economical, it is also cultural and historical. In fact, when Eastern works are crossing the boarder, their meaning is often changed. To give an example: when Russian artist Oleg Kulik is doing his performance in Moscow he represents a dog, but when he repeats the same performance in the West - despite his intention - he is representing a Russian dog. The same happens with Western works and shows in the East. I think that to say that the East finally fits the West must be done with great care, because it damages East consciousness and could be taken for a neocolonialist approach.
But the paradox is that the same neocolonialists approach could take on an opposite form - that of the recognition of the Eastern difference. Certain ethnicisation of the East is now noticeable. I mean that some problems or qualities of the East are explained as something purely specific and ethnically determined, but very often these problems and qualities are inherent to the West too, only that the West does not want to recognize that. They are not just Eastern local or ethnical specifics, but they are a part of a certain social and political development, which is a global process. To say that something in the East is very specific could also mean to neglect the fact that we have passed through the process of modernization.
If I come back to the initial point - non-institutional art - I can witness how that practice was often understood in a sense of a lack of something - ‘that poor Eastern people do not have enough money and resources’. This attitude immediately puts you in a weak position and is more or less the same paternalistic approach which the West still has in relation to the East. They came here with mega-shows and try to teach you how to do real shows and through that, how to establish your own structures, institutions. And one of the reasons for this attitude is also that the Western cultural bureaucracy wants to neglect that non-institutional practice is present also in the West because it is out of control.
U. J.: How do you perceive the process of institutionalizing the so called non-institutional art?
V. M.: Let us first of all come to the sociological point - what does it mean, institutionalization? Institutionalization is not an abstract and a priori form. Institutionalization, as a result of a certain development of mankind is a form of ritualisation, formalization of the process of self-organizing humanity. Institution is not a value in itself, it is justified if it is really created by people, if it is a form which people create to facilitate and make more efficient and regulate their own everyday process.
In my text Institutionalization of a Friendship, which was published in Ljubljana and is dedicated to Irwin's project Transnacionala, I'm saying that certain forms of working processes which are typical for the Eastern art and curatorial practice, do not look solid in a sense of ‘real estate’, yet we still have to consider them as a form of institutionalization.
I would say that these forms (kind of relations) are inherent as a secrete substance in every institution even in a big and solid one. Because, as a product of mankind, the institution is not a machine - it does not work if it lacks a personal obsession and the people’s will and joy to do things together.
For example, M has a kind of a pre-institutional resource, which (merely) exists, but is not used. With this I mean all M curators so far. We all know each other, we privately exchange experiences, we feel a certain link. And for us this link is enough, we are not motivated to build up a kind of an Association of Manifesta Veterans. But M office - from my point of view - could be interested in it. I am not proposing to create a special structure with some precise institutional function such as an Advisory and National Board. Not at all! The form of regular information and ideas exchange would be sufficient. A lot of productive and fruitful projects could come out of it. Why not use these two years in between Ms for some projects which could be regular. The first idea which comes into my mind is a Manifesta Summer Institute, but it could be a lot of other things …
U. J.: You mentioned M’s curators. At the M 3 open discussion the question about a team working as an effective and good working model was brought up. There were some arguments against it like this is not an effective way of working mainly because adjustment and discussions take a lot of time and create numerous compromises. What do you think about team work as a possible working model?
V. M.: I'm still convinced that the strategy of M to deliver the show to a group of different personalities working together on an equal level of power is an extremely important experience and is most adequate for the contemporary age. Because if we are saying that the contemporary world is de-hierarchical, then also curatorial process should somehow consider that and go in the same direction. Of course this is very complicated. And everybody knows that this de-hierarchical global world, the world of differences, produce conflicts. You know this also from the political experience from the Balkans and we know it from our experience in Russia. Behind collaborations and quarrels of individuals there are political, social and psychological problems. Still, this is a productive experience.
I have to confess that in M 1 we - the curators - also had a lot of problems in understanding each other, in coordination and so on, but we managed to deal with them and we still have profound friendly relations. As for M 2 it is not a secret that its team had profound disagreements as well as psychological problems. I think that Ole Bouman’s decision to open this problem is extremely productive, because internal conflicts and disagreements of the curatorial team are not only problems of the certain individuals, it is not only a topic for international art world gossips, but is a political and a moral problem profoundly rooted in the new de-hierarchical world. And that is also an essential part of the collective curatorial practice. So, it should be revealed and openly discussed.
I think that M could profit from that experience on different levels. First of all I think that it should be brought on the level of legality. I mean that it could be somehow reflected and articulated in a contract between M office and curators. It must be absolutely clear that this is not only an individual contract, but a contract of a team, where the responsibilities of the curators and a way of working together are specified. I would suggest, that the relation between the team of curators and the M office should be also specified and articulated . Because what do the law, the system of laws, the contract mean? In a way this is an articulation and formalization of a certain social experience. My second point is, that the Advisory Board should comprehend that by choosing the curators they are not selecting personalities, but a team. So, the capacity of the curator to work in a collective, collaborative way is a very important criteria. The third point is that also the managers of M and its national boards should understand that certain conditions must be created for the curators. I mean that curators should have a possibility to be together for a longer period of time and the budget should be open for that request, as it is not a caprice, but a necessity. For example, in the process of preparations for M 1 we insisted that the curators should spend together a minimum of one week in a closed place. We spent 10 days in my country house in Russia without a phone line in miserable, simple conditions, and during that time we worked together, held numerous discussions ... and it helped a lot.
I would also add point number four, that our individual and group, negative and positive experiences should be openly reflected, and become common, collective processional consciousness, which could correlate with its legal articulation.
U. J.: So, if you think that working in a group, with everything which goes together with that (also disagreements), is important and productive, maybe the curators should translate and show/externalize this experience somehow also in the exhibition/event?
V. M.: You're absolutely right. And that is point number five. Even the disagreements between curators, a lack of homogeneity could be implemented in the event itself. The event should reflect that it is done by different people, with different ideas, positions, cultural background. This disagreement could be transferred into a structure of the event, into its dramaturgy.
S. S.: I think this is a trace of a Western way of thinking and functioning. If something functions - for example a good show - it means that it is without conflicts and it must be very homogeneous; this is an image of a well done work.
U. J.: This is also a question of neutralization of differences.
V. M.: When we were setting up M 1 we divided the work, but not into individual projects. We discussed everything together and then decided that two of us were responsible for one venue. (Kathalyn Nerray and me were responsible for the New Media Center, Hans Ulrich Obrist and me were working for the Boymans Museum. With Andrew Renton we were working for the Center for Contemporary Art.) We realized that each of us in being different from one another could still have something in common with someone and according to that we divided the work and also articulated the common ground which we shared. And this system was not motivated by an efficient management, but it came out in the working process.
U. J.: As a curator you promote the idea of a curator as a mediator and initiator of contexts which offer new experiences. Are these new experiences possible within such a big, representative model of presenting contemporary art as M3 actually is?
V. M.: This is a good question. First of all let me say that there is a very specific experience behind my specific curatorial practice, which I labeled as a curator-mediator. I mean that this practice produces projects with a flexible and not a solid form; it does not look as a conventional show, but as a collective work in progress; it is motivated to substitute the visual representation with verbal discussion on the discursive premises of the representation itself; a curator in such a project is suspending his managerial and demiurgic role and becoming someone who regulates the development of the collective communication, in other words he becomes a mediator. But this approach came out as an articulation of the certain situation on the art scene typical for the East and typical for its transitional period. Your question is absolutely justified in the sense of how can we globalize one particularity.
S. S.: We cannot.
V. M.: Exactly, we cannot. There are a lot of artists in the West, but of course also in the East, who can not recognize themselves in this kind of a project; so this experience is a very concrete one. It came out in a very precise moment - in 90's, in a moment of chaos, in a moment in which there was a lack of universal criteria, a moment when we needed discussions, a direct approach to the other because it was a form of survival.
But at the same time we can deconstruct the idea of the uniqueness of this experience, because something similar to that strategy of curator-mediator (secret colloquiums of the artists) happened already before. For example, in Moscow in the late 70’s and early 80’s in the time of late conceptualism. Then, this kind of practice happened also in the 90’s and not only in Moscow. IRWIN’s project NSK Embassy or Transnacionala is in fact something very similar. We can also cross the border of the East. When I was reading Esthetic relationelle by Nicolas Bourriaud it seemed as that he was analyzing my work. Of course the practice of the curator-mediator is not mainstream, but do we at all have a mainstream today? This is probably the major advantage of globalization, that you can create transnational connections and communities. And it is the reason that my answer to your question is - yes, such an approach is possible within such a big, representative model of presenting contemporary art as M. Obviously in this case the show would select particular artists, create specific and unique projects and would not pretend to cover the contemporary European art scene as a whole. As we agreed before, particularities could not be globalized today, but the global scene is built of particularities. I would also remark that for me the practice of a curator-mediator is not a ‘sect dogma’, but a flexible approach. I used it while doing the Visual Anthropology Workshop, in which a group of artists worked with the philosopher Valerij Podoroga for one year, but I used it also for the project in the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995. The first project was intimate and secret, but the second was spectacular and communicative.
As you know, yesterday me and the group IRWIN publicly presented the book entitled Interpol. The Art Exhibition which Divided East and West. This book is a selection of writings and materials, related to the project Interpol, which I co-curated in Stockholm with Jan Aman and which turned out to be an international scandal. The project was in fact an attempt to export the curator-mediator model into the West and it failed, as the collaboration between Eastern and Western artists took form of a violent confrontation. However, I think that the problem of Interpol is not the incomprehension between Western and Eastern artists, but the incomprehension of concrete artists. The Swedish artists, who were invited for the project from the side of my colleague Jan Aman, were not interested in a dialogical work process, but I know a lot of artists in the West who could be interested in such work.
After Interpol I never practiced the curator-mediator model again. Since then I've been looking for new possibilities to work as a curator and also to work as a social and political activist in the frame of the art scene, of course. The social and political struggle for the recognition of contemporary art, lobbying for its interests and its dialogue with a large public - all these strategies have lately became very important. We are witnessing the process of renovated visuality. We have to deal with video which is over aggressive in its spectacularly and visual presence, its need for public and its capacity to fascinate a larger public. So, everything has changed: political situation, social strategy for the art world and the art itself.
U. J.: Could you say something more about these new possibilities you are exploring?
V. M.: Yes, but first let me express a remark concerning M 3. This show touched an extremely interesting problem - that certain art production today can not be consumed in a form of a big show. I am going to do a little experiment after I return back to Moscow: open the catalogue and count how much time does it take to watch all the video works exhibited in M3, then add a minimum of 3-5 minutes between each video (as an attentive viewer needs a rest); I will perform this in order to understand how many weeks we need to spend in Ljubljana in order to see the exhibition. Then calculate the costs of Hotel Slon per day, tickets from, let's say Lisbon and Moscow to Ljubljana and back (economy class) and add the minimum per diems you need for Ljubljana to understand how much money an ideal viewer should spend if s/he wants to see M 3.
The curators touched an extremely complicated situation - that the art production today is complicated from this very concrete point of view. I would expect an articulation of this problem. What a curator has to do if an artist creates a work which is 1h 40 min long? Or another question - what is a difference between documentary videos and a video which looks like a documentary video but is done in the field of visual arts? It is a pity that there was nothing about that in the catalogue. As this problem is a relative new one, we did not had few years before to prepare.
As for the possibilities I am exploring now I can say that as a curator of the 90’s I feel obliged to conclude that decade with an analytical project. We have to write histories on what we have done, about the flamboyant and dramatic transitional age. At the same time the new generation is provoking and challenging me. And finally, I still believe in my multi-disciplinary approach. I think that a big curatorial problem till now has been that art has been presented only as art. I am looking to renovate my curator-mediator practice, probably in a more academic and scholar form.
Ljubljana, June, 26th 2000