Could you please describe the driving thought behind the biennial you are involved in?
My tenure as the director and chief curator of steirischer herbst, which started in 2018, is marked by the reflection on the roots of this established Austrian cultural enterprise and political meaning of the notion of the "avant-garde" and contemporary art as its heir, back then and today—as well as what it excludes. Steirischer herbst is a yearly interdisciplinary art festival founded in 1968 under the premises similar to documenta (and even sharing the predilection to lower case spelling): in the middle of nowhere (the province of Styria), right on a border with a communist country (in this case, the former Yugoslavia), focused on new art but rooted in something conservative and agricultural, like the flower show in Kassel or traditional autumn harvest festivals in Austria. Unlike documenta, it is a festival, i.e., it is spread out in time as well as in space, it does not have its exhibition spaces, and works in a very interdisciplinary way, in a variety of media and arts as well as discourse.
Both documenta and steirischer herbst emerged in the midst of Western Cold War political climate, translated into the aesthetics of the neo-avantgarde, meant to mark Western democracy versus totalitarianism. The opening of steirischer herbst in 1968 happened against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, when thousands of Socialist vacationers stuck in Austria preferred not to return, becoming political refugees. What was even more important, but not always reflected, was the fact both cultural enterprises found themselves surrounded by the vestiges of Nazism. In Austria, where denazification did not really take place, these were, and to some extent still are, much stronger. That makes the Austrian context full of "skeletons in the closets" and productive for artists and us as curators. We are very rooted in history here in Graz, in the city to which Hitler gave the honorary title of "city of popular uprising" for its pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic acts before the Anschluss. This city lacks the museum that would be focused on that, so partly we decided to play this role, among many others.
Steirischer herbst has always been a contradictory enterprise. It was founded on the initiative of conservative Catholic politicians, anti-Nazis but what often meant former Nazi sympathizers; very proudly local (its mention of Styria makes the name cryptic to the rest of the world) but with strong global ambitions; aiming for an "avant-garde" but having a conservative bourgeois audience. It has always been political and has had an articulate public component, due to the strong presence of sculpture in public space and, unlike documenta, theater. At the same time, and maybe precisely because of that, it was not really coherent with the mainstream of sleek, market-driven visual art illustrating leftist political mantras. That incoherence suits us well. Under my tenure, we are aiming at exploring how contemporary art can grow out of conservative roots rather than (partly imaginary) progressive ones. And there is rich conservative and poor conservative. We are looking at what has been excluded from the modernist canon, and this would be not only the legacy of colonized nations or of women locked in domesticity, but also things ostracized because of their low-class character. As a curator, even still in Russia, I always have been driven towards artifacts that go beyond the dogma of modernism or do not reach its level, so to speak, and are therefore labeled "not art enough." That was always an inspiration with Russian artists from Malevich to Monastyrski and Kabakov. Here in Graz, we are looking at the notions of popular and populist, among other things, and at the potential of the former as opposed to the latter.
The title of the first edition was Volksfronten, provocatively in German and even more provocatively in plural: there is no one single antifascist Popular Front anymore; we are scattered because even the most progressive voices now often quietly obey their ethnic definition; everybody is obsessed with their roots, identity, community and DNA. Fierce internationalism and universalism are the driving forces of steirischer herbst under my tenure.
The second edition, called Grand Hotel Abyss, went in the direction of a typically hedonistic "Viennese aesthetics" excluded from the mainstream of contemporary art (like Baroque or Art Nouveau), against the background of the growing feeling of apocalypse. The real coronavirus apocalypse obstructed our plans for 2020, and we are now preparing an extraordinary edition, which implies that we will never "return to normal," and art will have to reach to its audiences in other ways than those we were very comfortable with.
Could you please discuss the following shifts:
For each of the oppositions you are mentioning, I would like to find a dialectical response that would attempt to see the phenomenon in its contradictions, and in its different disguises.
politicization and depoliticization....
In general, the issue of the political in the arts is quite simple, as we know that everything has a political meaning, especially artworks that claim to be non-political. This meaning is, however, debatable and open to interpretations, including sometimes wrong and unjust ones—this injustice is balanced by the temporary character of every interpretation in a democratic society. In latter decades, we see lots of "political art" where artists cannot live with this democracy of meanings and prefer to fully control this interpretation, by being very direct about what they want to say. I do not find this artistic practice particularly interesting. What is interesting that sometimes it actually leads to de-politicization, which now has surprising faces. One of them is the insistence on the emotional side of things, on the notions of offense, microaggression, safety for the expression of these micro-grievances. I perceive this "humanization" of the political sphere—that specifically affects art—as dangerous, and also sexist, when this affective sphere is identified with women, as is often the case. I am concerned when I see how the legitimate and highly necessary questioning of the legal system as the bourgeois and patriarchal one leads to the destruction of the presumption of innocence and further disempowerment and victimization of women who, under this way of thinking, are not supposed to be responsible for their own actions.
Another aspect of current de-politicization of art is its moralization. Contemporary art, since the historical avant-garde of nineteenth century (Courbet, etc.), associated itself with questioning, critique, the transgression of norms and a negative attitude (for which the avant-garde of the twentieth century found the aesthetic language), and is now pushed into a completely different sphere of "doing good things." This is not the public sphere where the whole issue of what is actually "good" is debatable, competitive, discursive, and therefore modern and political. This is closer to the religion of the good. I expect this tendency to escalate in post-coronavirus times (regardless of the virus staying or going away), where the whole public sphere, including the arts, will willingly subordinate to the "do not contaminate" commandment. On the other hand, when the mainstream of contemporary art will pass to the side of the good completely, it might open the way to new aesthetic transgressions, which for quite some time have been almost impossible, with people like Trump or Putin or Bolsonaro colonizing this zone.
de- and re-centering of the West...
One of the things truly great about the arts development in recent decades is its opening to non-European artists and contexts. We are more than ever aware of the global character of the world we live in, and I am glad art shows that, too. But here again, I would like us to be very aware of the political implications of any statement. Great names of decolonizing thinking, such as Fanon, Said, Glissant, Cesar or Baldwin to name just a few, were reluctant about identitarianism and warned against any nationalisms, including the one of the oppressed, claiming rights to the universal for people with different backgrounds and skin colors. I made an exhibition a few years ago called Stealing From the West, which was about this role of the imaginary West—still universal and grand, but not inaccessible and not protected by copyrights and fences. The West, the fantasy of it, is a treasury that belongs to the whole of humanity, where everybody must be free to steal from because it is already formed by the contributions of millions of Africans, Asians, and people who prefer not to identify with any of it. I am very encouraged by the deconstruction of gender happening recently, but it has to be consequential and has to be expanded to other spheres as well.
the art-theory interface...
I am very glad artistic research has found its place in academia as well as in art practice, as it gives artists security, a frame, and time for pursuing and deepening their artistic interests outside of the market. I am also glad this particular tendency, research as art, which has always interested me, is becoming stronger. Still, I want us to remember that the private art market had positive things about it at the beginning as well, as rare purchases by even rarer educated collectors were liberating early avant-garde artists of the necessity to earn their living through day jobs, like, strangely, researching or teaching. With time and with the institutionalization of contemporary art, the art market turned into a homogenizing force, while academia now has this utopian reputation of a place of freedom. At the same time, the marriage of art to academic theory that now seems to be proclaimed eternal and indestructible bothers me sometimes, such as in the context of biennials and festivals where it can work as a class barrier. The titles of the keynote lectures and sometimes even artworks signal to people without a PhD in cultural studies that they are not welcome here, and this does not go unnoticed. It is clear that the artists of the early twentieth century, who were basically a self-proclaimed elite, had to find allies in the real elite, at that time financial—their first collectors. It is the same desire to protect themselves from the "normal audience" through teaming up with a more legitimate elite (theorists and philosophers this time) and establishing a high intellectual census that I sometimes witness today. It is good when there is intellectual curiosity at the core of these encounters, not fear of the uneducated other.
Which curatorial formats are necessary to propose a space of radical democracy?
The democratic character of contemporary art is not where one often seeks it. It is not necessarily about curatorial decisions. The latter are always extremely undemocratic, subjective, and this is how they must remain. The so-called "objective" choice is now dictated by AI, which means crypto-market forces, or even very open market forces, like a display at an art fair (one of the examples of an uncurated display).
One underestimates how the world of contemporary art is already democratic, open, and tolerant towards an artwork: we professionals—and, of course, also non-pros who are open enough—see "the best in it"; we are often satisfied when the idea was great but the realization not completely so. The work can be re-done in the next version, or gain meaning in a different context. I am very much in favor of this "what would this have been if...(the artist had had more time, or even more inspiration at this particular moment)" approach that also helps to put works together in a curatorial narrative, a very important notion for me.
At an exhibition, we can just spend five minutes with the film and be inspired by it; this is already enough to judge it positively, without even knowing how it ends. I do not know a theater or a literary critic who would say openly in their reviews that they only read half a novel or saw ten minutes of the play, but it is fine for an art critic to only see part of the biennial, which is always too big anyway. The exhibition or a biennial or a festival, which is "the new artwork" under current conditions, is too complex to be grasped in one day or in one way—there is always space for reinterpretation, and this complexity protects democracy.
Ekaterina Degot is an art historian, researcher, and curator focusing on aesthetic and sociopolitical issues in Russia and the rest of Europe from the 19th century to the post-Soviet era. Since 2018 she has been Director and Chief Curator of steirischer herbst festival in Graz (Austria). From 2014 to 2017, Degot was Artistic Director of the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne, as well as Professor of Moscow Alexander Rodchenko School of Multimedia and Photography while also being a guest lecturer in other art schools and institutions. She received the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory in 2014. Among recent shows she curated, the First Ural Industrial Biennial in Yekaterinburg (with Cosmin Costinas and David Riff, 2010), and the first Bergen Assembly (with David Riff, 2013). Degot lives in Graz.