“Only the small emerging initiatives can be effective”
Interview with Maria Hlavajova

At the beginning of this month, Maria Hlavajova, Clémentine Deliss, Joanna Mytkowska and Charles Esche were the invited participants of the conference ”Shifting Parameters - Remarks on the Institutional”, initiated by Lívia Páldi, and held in the Ludwig Museum, Budapest.
We conversed with Maria Hlavajova, artistic director of BAK: basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, on this occasion. (N.E.)


When one follows your curatorial work, it becomes apparent that you continuously initiate or take part in different projects that integrate Eastern European art practices into a wider international context. Is Eastern European art something that still requires efforts to be integrated? Why did you reject the use of the term “Eastern European” in your talk yesterday?

The whole concept of Eastern European art is extremely problematic. I would use this between quotation marks, because the whole terminology is simply wrong. I do not think the phenomenon of Eastern European art exists: it is something we created after 1989. I mean, if you remember, before 1989 there was no communication between Bratislava and Warsaw, or Bratislava and Budapest unless it was politically forced. It started after that time, almost as a marketing strategy to get the area recognised. I do not think that art produced in the former Socialist bloc is being sufficiently integrated. If you ask me who is to blame for this, I would say we, ourselves. For a couple of reasons: initially we waited, and thought we should be recognised, discovered – instead of taking our own initiative. And when it did not happen, we assumed a kind of victimized position, like we are victims of the past system, of globalisation, etc., instead of taking a proactive step.

Do you think there is no common base in this respect? A shared background?

No, I don’t think there ever was. What we had was the same totalitarian regime for forty years…

And it influenced a lot of things, indeed, even the contemporary way of how we think about certain things…

The fact of isolation influenced it. But I do not think of it as a specifically post-Communist artistic practice. I don’t think something like that exists. What we have in common is forty years of isolation, and an experience with a totalitarian regime, but I do not believe there is a very particular narrative or very similar post-Communist artistic practice. I have never worked with so-called Eastern European art. I don’t know what it is. We need to de-mythologize the term and recognise that there are good artists and not as good artists, good curators and not as good curators, and we account for every single situation, whether it is in the West, whether in the East, in the Middle East or in South Africa. If we manage to accept this mental shift – that it is not the question whether someone comes from the East or the West, but it is about good artists and less good artists, or about good initiatives and less good initiatives – then the whole situation will suddenly change.

If we go back to the yesterday’s topic, the lack of a well-functioning institutional system here requires other ways for curators to make art products visible from outside…

That is correct, but it is not a typical feature of Central/Eastern Europe. If you look at Ljubljana, they have an enormously good institutional infrastructure that is internationally connected. In Budapest there is a huge number of institutions; none of the post-Communist countries has a Ludwig Museum, and you would assume that it is part of an international network. There isn’t such an international collection like this, in, e.g., Slovakia; there is no international collection based on Western European production in Prague, nor in Ljubljana. Why wouldn’t you take this as a possibility to be used?

Probably because its size is not proportional to its active role in the current scene…

Yes, the institutional structure is a different story from what we just discussed about the region. I do think there is excellent production in Central and Eastern Europe, but the system and the circumstances in which production is done is different from Western European standards. That is the main discrepancy. If you like, this is something that connects Central and Eastern Europe. But it is not a specific artistic practice, just a different condition in which this practice takes place.

How do you involve artists coming from this region in your projects?

I do work with them a lot, but I never call them Eastern European artists. It is Roman Ondak, who lives and works in Bratislava, Pavel Althamer, who lives and works in Warsaw, and so on, but they are not categorised as artists representing the region. If I work with Willem de Rooij, e.g., I don’t call him a Western European artist. So long as we all do not have this kind of knowledge, nothing will change; there will be no fluent collaboration.

Let’s look at it from the side of the curators’ career. Yours is quite an exceptional one regarding the fact that you have managed to be present internationally and at the same time, you haven’t lost your connection with this region. Is the fact that this kind of career is still unusual here caused by the lack of possibilities, or it is a question of personal vocation and efforts?

It has to do with personal vocation, personal ambition in a way. At the very beginning of my work, I was trying to figure out ways how these two can be connected. Curators coming from the West will not work with artists from this region until they know them intimately. And this is an advantage, that I know intimately this field, because I worked here for twelve years, not exclusively in Slovakia, but in Central/Eastern Europe. I work in a Western European context, so I have the capacity to connect them. One should not wait for possibilities, but has to create those possibilities instead. Nothing comes for granted; nobody will come to offer you a job – it is not that way. I moved to the Netherlands for personal reasons; it was not because I was offered an excellent job. Just to the contrary. And frankly, at the time I thought I had done so many projects that were appreciated, I should be asked. But it took me years to find a job there. Previously I had a professorship in New York, curated Manifesta 3, and still nobody was interested. It made me believe that there are no possibilities unless we create them ourselves.

If someone looks at your curriculum, it seems like a straight line up. Very consciously planned.

It is great if it looks like that… but honestly, when I started to work in Utrecht, it was a place that was not known internationally and many people wondered what I was going to do with it. On the other hand, if something doesn’t function well, then in that case you cannot fail – it can only be better. I dare to say that today BAK in the Netherlands is one of the most challenging institutions. I have a different kind of experience, which is not so common there, I also have a wider horizon and I am able to bring there artists nobody knows yet, but, again, I would never present them as Eastern or Central Europeans – there would be an enormous opposition to it.

The predecessor of BAK was planned to be a forum for local artists. Your presence there altered this situation towards a more international program. Didn’t it create conflicts? Weren’t you blamed that you occupied the place and excluded the local scene?

It might be seen as a contradiction, and initially it was. There was a huge opposition – it was viewed as a takeover; the local artists felt like they suddenly lost a platform.

Did they?

No, they didn’t. I tried to argue a number of times very loudly, that the distinction between international and local has to be diminished on some level (without losing the specificity), because if we keep it, we create a hierarchy, putting first the international and only in second place the local. We have to recognise the world as intrinsically international. It takes many years to be part of the international exchange, but if we all admit that we want to be part of this, the hierarchy might disappear. Of course, there are artists locally whom I wouldn’t want to exhibit, and I also don’t feel I am obliged to make one show a year of Utrecht artists, and I never do it. But there are other ways of how to involve people working in the city, into the cultural exchange.

Could you mention some of them?

They can be very different things. For instance, we do lots of lectures and talks, and we regularly invite people, not necessarily to speak on the stage, but to have conversations, so that the speaker and audience are not separated, but everybody is involved. The setting is very different from the one yesterday, where we had the podium and the audience on the other side – you can dismiss these, and then everybody will be at the same level. Forget about a microphone – the one who has it has an emphasised position over the others, who do not. It again creates hierarchy. You can work with these situations in a different way. We are very careful about how we archive our activity. We are in connection with the local television in Utrecht, and we keep developing films about artists who live and work there, because we want to have evidence of what is happening. These films remain in our archive; anybody can have a look at them – it is really professional documentation. So these are just examples of the methods of how we do this, but these are all directed towards overcoming this distinction.

Can we speak about the local audience there? Are they also involved?

The question of audience in the Netherlands is a little bit more complicated. I live in Amsterdam, and work in Utrecht, a city with 300,000 inhabitants, really small, but the province has an enormous advantage over the centre, so to speak, because it allows you to concentrate very differently: sometimes we close the door and do not have any exhibition, if we have to concentrate on something else. People notice, when we want them to be involved and this allows different kinds of devotion to things. But the cities in the Netherlands are so connected, are so close to each other – they operate as one big city. We could say that the local audience is the Dutch audience. As we are a very small institution working in a province actually, we thought we needed to invent other ways of encountering our audience. It shouldn’t mean only those people who physically enter the place, but all people that in one way or another encounter our activities – like those who read our books. We decided not to publish invitations – we rather publish small books instead – three thousand for each exhibition, and we send them to people. It is about how you can create the knowledge about what are you doing, without expecting everyone to come to see.

How many of you work at BAK actually?

It is also important to mention that with BAK – as the name says – we intended to create a basis, a base: the minimum necessary structure. It does not mean we think in small projects; on the contrary, we make large-scale projects, which far exceed our primary structural yearly subsidy. We only have three employees, then whenever there is a bigger project going on, the institution has the capacity to “swell”, since we have a pool of people we work with regularly, but they only come when there is work. And when the project is over, it shrinks again into the minimum. And it is fantastic, because you do not have the burden of carrying always a large institution that often runs the risk of consuming itself. It is not just about financial sustainability, but even more importantly, people are especially motivated this way. When they work with us for one year, or two weeks – it doesn’t really matter, it depends on the project – they become motivated, and the next time we do work with them again – it is a really inspiring method of working.

You are – together with Kathrin Rhomberg – the programme directors of Tranzit, which is a strange floating structure, very flexible and productive, a real novelty here in the region. It has an exceptional possibility and freedom, and it transmits this possibility and this freedom towards others. Would it be a certain manifestation of the ideal institution?

In this respect, it is an ideal institution. The word Tranzit expresses cross-stepping through space and time. And it is ideal also in the sense of how lively it is, but it is also built into the structure that it is going to end one day. It should not stay forever. Tranzit is designed as a kind of mobile unit to transgress a certain time, a certain period, and it can end in the moment when we think it is no longer necessary.

Who decides on this?

There are a couple of levels of decision-making. Of course, it is crucial to consider the fact that there is a corporate body behind the whole thing, Erste Bank. Run by very very enlightened people, capable of understanding the new practices we are engaging in, and that, e.g., thinking can be supported. It is a very unique feature. Going back to the structure: Kathrin Rhomberg and me: we are the programme directors; we initiated the project. At this moment it has three branches: one in Bratislava, one in Vienna, one in Prague, and they all reflect on what is needed in those places. So they decide, those people who are aware of what is needed locally. We are talking about Boris Ondreicka in Bratislava, Vit Havranek in Prague and Georg Schölhammer in Vienna. It is an autonomous structure, not hierarchised – a collective who believe and trust in each other. The decision-making takes place in negotiations in the collective.

Do these three units operate differently according to the given artistic and institutional field?

Yes, it is absolutely unique for each country. They very sensitively analyse what is going on locally, and try to address the lack.

Do you evaluate the projects together as well?

We discuss the projects, but we entrust in people doing them locally. You know, I lived and worked in Bratislava for many years, but I don’t understand any longer the scene in a precise way. The role of Kathrin and me is more to provide a support structure in the international network. So the discussions about the projects are to understand each other more deeply, rather than to say that this is not good. People involved in Tranzit in Bratislava, Prague and Vienna understand much better what is needed locally than we can ever imagine.

Tranzit claims to support individuals and small initiations instead of big institutions and giant projects. What is your personal relation to this way of operating?

I don’t believe in big institutions. They are not fast enough to understand what is happening these days in the art world. But I do believe in individuals. I think this is the problem with Hungary, as well. Budapest has a number of huge institutions and – it is absolutely my personal opinion – they are disconnected from what is happening internationally. And I do think so because Budapest seems not to have its own story. I remember when I arrived to Budapest for the first time. I met lots of people and heard lots of conflicting stories. And you are not able to make your own story in such a short time…

But it is quite impossible if you do not have previous knowledge and your time is limited. I don’t think this would happen differently elsewhere.

This is true. But in other countries, usually there are people who are internationally connected and have understanding of both – if we simplify it – the local and the international.

As I see it, it is not about the lack of proper histories, but about the ability of how can we make them visible and understandable – in a word, how we communicate them.

It is the matter of translation. An internationally working curator has a couple of days, probably a couple of weeks to learn about local scenes. S/he has no capacity to understand all the idiosyncrasy of the scene. There is really no way, unless we reset the whole system!

What kind of abilities are needed or should be developed to match this role, the role of a moderator or mediator?

I wish I would know a recipe. But if you insist, I would envision a group of knowledgeable personalities, artists, public intellectuals, writers, curators – with a precise narrative of interesting positions and artistic practices in Budapest. Their goal would be to intellectually feed the scene, while at the same time connecting to international networks. How about engaging international practitioners in what is happening in Budapest?

You were talking about Hungary’s weak presence on the international scene. This is the point when I have to ask how you see the future of Tranzit? I am especially interested about the possibility of extending it to Hungary as well.

It would indeed be very interesting.

You are very diplomatic…

I don’t know whether I am diplomatic, but I mentioned in the beginning that it is a very complex process, for which circumstances need to be ready. But I think there is an immense need for it. Especially to help to facilitate the process of getting connected, but also the local scene maybe needs to negotiate in that story, that narrative I have already mentioned.

Are you interested?

I am extremely interested. And I tried very many times, but somehow I did not find those points that I would like to show up or work with. Not yet.

You were one of the curators of Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana in 2000. There was no Hungarian artwork selected then. Did you research here previously? Was it again the question of accessibility to certain product?

No, I could have access quite easily. I made several studio visits here, but – and it is not a judgment about the scene – I did not find artistic positions at that time relevant from the point of view of my interest.

Which would be?

I am interested in critical artistic practice, some call it political art, but it is a very confusing term for the reason that very often, critical artistic practice is confused with artistic practices documenting political events. Probably I did not go too far in this research here, but I could not manage to find such practices.

They are not really around institutions. It may be right that we have several institutions, but they are probably not the places where these practices gain visibility.

What I do miss in Hungary is production places. Like Clémentine said yesterday, next to the elephant, there needs to be a mouse. I am missing those mice in a way. It is fine having a place like the Ludwig Museum, but the productive energy is in the smaller projects. And you really have to shape the communication (and I don’t mean marketing!) about them. It is something we usually forget, because we are so exhausted doing the project, that there is no creative energy left to develop strategies around how we let people know about them. There are possibilities to invite international people, who you think could be potentially important players. Invite them to give a talk and don’t let them sit in a coffee house during the day, but bring them to different places, artists’ studios, etc. This is the way. And it is not about money. Sometimes you just have to phone someone and say: listen, we really respect what you are doing; we would like to invite you here to get to know things and share your thoughts on them. The one-to- one operation is the only thing that helps. Institutions are busy with securing their existence. Only the small emerging initiatives can be effective: they don’t wait until they can take the job of a director, but acting instead, showing that there are other possibilities. Really, there are as many possibilities as you create.

Budapest, 2.04.2005

Interviewed by Nikolett Erőss

26. April 2005.