Investigations of the digital non-site: with Robert Smithson towards curating net and software art today

by Jacob Lillemose

For the 2013 transmediale, I curated an exhibition entitled Tools of Distorted Creativity, which presented 12 software and net artworks dating from the early 2000s to today that all related to the concept and form of the tool as a means of creative expression. The selection of works spanned from contemporary classics like Adrian Ward’s Auto-Illustrator (2000–2002) and Cornelia Sollfrank’s net.art generator (2003) to Extra File (2011/2013) by Kim Asendorf and Pure Flow (2013) by Katy Connor, who are both emerging artists. The works were presented on one big wall - divided in two but conceived as one - through (live) videos, (framed) prints, objects, and two interactive screens. It was a style of hanging inspired partly by the informal and cramped hanging of paintings in classic salon exhibitions and partly by surrealist montage style and its associative investigations of possible correlations between juxtaposed artefacts. From these two sources of inspiration, I conceived the exhibition format as a wall in a tool-shed that gave the potential users of the audience access to what I called “tools of distorted creativity”. Instead of solving problems in creative ways – as the historical notion of technological creativity is understood – these tools applied creativity in all sorts of speculative and visionary ways to generate problems – or distortions – in the common perception of usefulness and creativity in the technological environment. As I wrote in the introduction text, “The works encourage users to engage in a more undisciplined kind of tool use, turning creativity into a ‘critical’ techno-cultural language. It is a language that refuses the logic of office-speak and rather, like Jimi Hendrix and his handling of the electric guitar system, takes its point of departure in experimental sensibilities and intelligences that reinvent the notion and use of the tool for other disobedient expressions and purposes”.

The format was a deliberate and pointed challenge to the conventions surrounding the exhibition of screen-based computer art, most notably net art and software art.

From the point of view of some, net and software art’s initial dismissal of the art institution and embrace of the non-institutional space of the computer and the net, might seem like a misconception, failure or even a death wish. Not so much on the part of the art as on the part of the art institution. The digitally charged avant-garde that emerged in the new democratic space of the net throughout the 1990s and early 2000s to claim the merging of art and life outside the white cube had now been reduced to just another art object in the institutionalised exhibition space. Like so many avant-gardes before it, net and sofware art had been assimilated by an unholy alliance of aesthetics, art history and the curator, and its promising potential for institutional critique ignored, forgotten, lost.

As a curator, I can honestly say that I did not ignore the institutional critique that has been an important part of the most seminal works of net and software art in the past 20 years. On the contrary, rather than reconsider it as a thing of yesteryear I wanted to rethink it in the contemporary context of the transmediale exhibition as a very specific institutional framework. Hence, in the following, I will outline what I see as a series of new, important conditions and possibilities for curating net and software art today that this framework offers.

First of all, the exhibition format of Tools of Distorted Creativity manifested a continuing reflection on my part on how to further explore the possibilities of exhibiting net and software art as a critical and experimental practice. The exhibition was in other words not a nostalgic return to traditional exhibition formats but a deliberate and direct challenge of a set of expectations traditionally connected with exhibiting net and software art in a gallery space.

When net and software-based art first hit institutional spaces in the 1990s as part of a new wave of institutional critique characteristic of contemporary art in general, displaying (interactive) personal computers in an art exhibition was a novelty. There had of course been historical precedents of displaying computers, but rarely as a medium for artworks. Moreover, the new art forms introduced the new emerging network of the internet and the multiple software applications associated with it to the art institution, thus questioning the institution’s cultural, social and economical boundaries. Like the institutional critique of the 1970s, net and software-based art connected with the world outside the walls of the institution, challenging it to expand its aesthetic perception and consider the personal computer and the internet as new contemporary artistic media.

Almost two decades later, these conditions for exhibiting net and software art have radically changed. Not only have computers become an integral, almost expected, part of contemporary exhibition-making, but more importantly, computers have become an all-over, all-the-time phenomenon in our everyday lives. To encounter an online computer in an art exhibition no longer represents an element of unfamiliarity and surprise. On the contrary, it serves to create a smooth continuum between the exhibition space and the objects and dynamics we encounter outside the exhibition space. In other words, the computer in the exhibition space has become a figure – or medium – of familiarity. Certainly at the transmediale. To exhibit a computer there is an expected, not a critical gesture.

In this context, it seems important to remember that historically institutional critique was never just about getting away with the institution by merging it with society. Rather, institutional critique aimed to reinvent the art institution as a space for critical reflection on society that differed from the spaces of deception and consumption which characterised the expanding society of the spectacle.

To continue this reinvention of the exhibition space as a space of difference – both in relation to the history of the exhibition, the institutional context and the social sphere – is one of the primary challenges I see facing curators of net and software art today, and one of the main instigations of my curatorial work.

So, to come back to Tools of Distorted Creativity, let me explain how I understand curating net and software art in combination with a Salon hanging and a Surrealist montage as a continuation of institutional critique?

Aside from a general curatorial interest in salon hanging and Surrealist montage style as exhibition formats that encourage a certain explorative and curious approach to the artworks on display, I was guided by an attempt to “curate computer-based art out of the ghetto”, as I termed it in a text co-written with Inke Arns for the 2005 Argos festival. This deghettofication was intended to bridge what we perceived as a “digital divide” within the contemporary art world caused by a reluctance on both sides of the divide. As curators we wanted to emphasise that computer-based art was an obvious part of contemporary art, and one of the strategies we employed was to deemphasise the technological aspect in favour of the conceptual dimension of the artworks, a dimension that it shared with contemporary art in general.

An example of our work was the touring retrospective of the web server collective irational. The exhibition took the work of irational “off the server” by “translating” it and presenting it in off-line formats such as objects, prints, videos, slide shows, text installations and photos that were familiar to the general perception of contemporary art but unfamiliar in terms of exhibiting net and software art.

In 2012, we curated a version of the show for the artefact festival in Leuven that used Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) as the structuring principle. The members of irational built a raft in the exhibition space on which was displayed a selection of the “translated” works (this version included no computers at all) as well as works made specifically for the occasion. Besides constituting an apt narrative framework for crisis and disaster, the format investigated the possibility of making an exhibition of computer-based art as a three-dimensional image involving interactive and live elements. That is, to expand the field of curating computer-based art through the classic medium of painting.
A similar expansion through the reprocessing of exhibition formats from before the personal computer and new media art also informed my experiment with Salon hanging and Surrealist montage in Tools of Distorted Creativity.

An equally important inspiration for the exhibition format, however, was the negotiations between the artwork and the gallery and museum space initiated by conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s as part of its institutional critique. This was a critique that challenged the notion of the exhibition – and the exhibited object – through an expanded notion of the artwork.

As I wrote in another text for the Argos catalogue, I fundamentally understand computer-based art in the tradition of conceptual art and its expansion of the notion of the artwork. It is an expansion that, like the Avant-Garde, engages the art-into-life question, but more importantly it posits the artwork as a means for analysing and criticising art as a philosophical concept and a cultural construction. And by doing so, it challenges the conditions for how the artwork is exhibited and what it means to exhibit an artwork.

A significant example of this change is those artworks that involved “elements” – objects and situations – that originated in a time and space beyond the institution. While many conceptual artists exited the institution to explore other exhibition spaces, such as magazines, television, books and public space, an equally large number of conceptual artists were concerned with the question of bringing those outside elements back into the institution. Not in order to re-institutionalise them but, on the contrary, to engage it in an institutional critique from within. In performance and environmental art photographs, texts and other referential material were presented as documentation of an “absent” artwork as well as an integral part of the absent artwork. Hence, the artwork existed both inside and outside of institution and staged a dialectic exchange between the two.

In opposition to the single object celebrated by modernist aesthetics, this new kind of artwork introduced by conceptual art manifested itself in a multitude of mediations. It criticised the myth – and institutional economy – of originality and authenticity to investigate the artwork as the open-ended dynamics generated by the network of these mediations.

My claim is that the same goes for an important part of net and software art, and the exhibition format of Tools of Distorted Creativity is a reflection of this claim. Like the conceptual artworks implied in the passage above, the artworks in the exhibition consist of elements that are present and made for the exhibition format and elements that are absent, created for an online computer context beyond the institutional space. X-Devian (2003–2013), a free software distribution by Daniel Garcia Andujar/Technologies to the People, featuring a promotional poster, Carnivore (2001), by Radical Software Group was represented through a series of “classified” letters related to the work’s initial release, and alongside the video version of Julian Oliver’s iop3apaint were prints the same size as the screen.

Rather than falling into the modernist trap of perceiving the online elements as the original artwork and the exhibition elements as mere derivatives, I conceive of the two types of elements as part of the same expanded notion of the artwork in the age of transmedia mediations. A significant source of inspiration for this double view was Robert Smithson’s notion of “site/non-site”.

Introduced in relation to a series of works from 1968 and 1969, the notion was essential to Smithson’s life-long negotiation with the art institution and its “cultural confinement”, his attempt to critically and analytically respond to its ideology and limits while continuing to exhibit his “earth art” there.

At the time, Smithson was reading Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked. From the book’s anthropological investigations of the dialectics between nature and culture, he was introduced to the perception of culture as a prepared form of nature, like a meal, a translation through reformatting and recontextualisation.

At a symposium at Cornell University in 1969, Smithson explains how he arrived at the notion or method as he calls it:

I was sort of interested in the dialogue between the indoor and the outdoor and on my own, after getting involved in it this way, I developed a method or a dialectic that involved what I call site and non-site. The site, in a sense is the physical, raw reality – the earth or the ground that we are really not aware of when we are in an interior room or studio or something like that – and so I decided that I would set limits in terms of this dialogue (it’s a back and forth rhythm that goes between indoors and outdoors), and as a result I went and instead of putting something on the landscape I decided it would be interesting to transfer the land indoors, to the non-site, which is an abstract container.1

The non-site work thus consisted of physical material found at the site – stones, gravel, sand – presented in different forms of arrangements involving sculptural boxes, mirrors, photographs and often a diagrammatic map of the site. As such, the non-site was an abstract representation of the site. Or as he refers to it in his text Provisional Theory of Non-Sites from 1968: “a three dimensional logical picture”. The notion of a “logical picture” is opposed to a “natural or realistic picture” in that “it rarely looks like the thing it stands for”. Instead of resemblance, a logical picture work by analogy and metaphor.

So how does Smithson’s artistic method relate to my curatorial approach to Tools of Distorted Creativity?

By using the Salon hanging and including offline elements, I wanted to achieve two things. One, I wanted to emphasise that the exhibition was a non-site in the sense that it displayed artworks originating in a space – and time – beyond the institutional framework of the transmediale. Two, I wanted to create a context and situation for the viewing of the artworks that was different from how the artworks were “viewed” on a computer and online. Different in the sense that it – by its “exaggerated” employment of the Salon hanging – emphasised the aesthetic dimension and art historical connections and encouraged the audience to perceive the artworks as images and concepts reflecting our technological environment and our engagement with it instead of getting caught up in considerations about the works as technological artefacts. With the tool-shed wall I wanted the audience to relate to the works differently than they would have if they had encountered them on a computer screen because I believe that at the same time as the non-site of the art institution is a space of limitations it also offers a highly sophisticated language – ways of seeing, thinking and doing developed through hundreds of years of art making and art ehibitions – that allows us to reflectively approach technology. Hence, contrary to the belief in the reinvention of art through technology, the exhibition format expressed a belief in this artistic language as a means to discover new inventive approaches to technology. As such, I also understand the non-site is a “site” of potential.

The approach reflects Smithson’s notion that “the [Non- Site] really comes out of a comprehension of limits”. Just as the non-site in Smithson’s works exposes the absence of the site at the same time as it points to the site and expands and challenges the perception of it, I understand the non-site of the exhibition of net and software art as a presentation that exposes its own limits as an offline mediation at the same time as it points to the online site and expands and challenges the perception of this site.

In Smithson’s case, the site was far beyond the walls of the non-site, but in my case, I chose to bring the two components of the dialectic equation closer together by building a rudimentary net café-like setting featuring a series of online computers with the gallery space. Here the audience could sit down and experience the works as they would in front of any computer regardless of its location. The setting was clearly separated from the wall, but close enough to make a connection between the two. It was my hope that this proximity between site (the computer space accessible in the “café”) and non-site (the wall hanging) would emphasise the dialectic, in the sense of exposing that the works on the wall were both connected with and different than the (same) works on the computers. It was an attempt at honesty but also an investigation of this difference both in relation to the artworks and to exhibition making.

Of course, there are many problems working with the site/ non-site method as a curator – the figure of the “establishment” that Smithson despised – and retrospectively I see some unresolved issues relating to the way I speculatively used the method in Tools of Distorted Creativity. Perhaps in the future it would make sense to pay more attention to translating the interactive aspect of the artworks into the physical object? Perhaps, in the digital era it is time to challenge Smithson’s basic dialectic between nature and culture, between “the raw” and “the cooked”, and develop an understanding of a more integrated entity? As a curator I can only work through these issues by experimenting with the exhibition format, and that will only work if net and software artists also engage the approach. Looking at much contemporary net and software art, it seems as if they are doing so.

So, despite these issues, I believe the distinction represents a productive conceptual language with which we can begin to address the complexity of exhibiting net and software art and more openly continue to further develop the potential for institutional critique that the best works from the two fields contain.

Jacob Lillemose is a critic, curator, and co-director of Artnode - Independent Research Center for Digital Art and Culture (Denmark).

References:
1. EARTH (1996), in: Flam J. (ed.): Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, California University Press, Los Angeles, p. 178.

In between pseudo-ethnography and engaged in-house criticism

conversation with Joanna Warsza conducted by Torun Ekstrand and Ingemar Lönnbom

T.E./I.L.: Why have you chosen to work so much with art that exists temporarily?

J.W.: I chose to work predominantly in the public realm and most often on temporary projects. I enjoy the challenge and dealing with these contexts, including ideological questions and social conditioning, and its relevance to current issues. I have a theatre background, and although I am more active in the visual arts and architecture, I still concentrate on live aspects, on staging reality, bringing forward social tensions, problems which hover in the air, and help us in our understanding of ourselves and the system. Finally, working in the public realm on ephemeral projects demands that I act directly and critically, without discursive overproduction.

T.E./I.L.: Our modern cities consist of buildings and sculptures that are meant to stand for hundreds of years. Why is it necessary to produce art that is short-lived?

J.W.: Initially, a site-specific art was a physical artwork inscribed into a given location in the public space – like commissioned sculptures, installations or later land art pieces. Since the 1970s, but most intensively in recent years, “sitespecific” has become a strategy for integrating art directly into the realm of the social, for redressing social problems, empowering audiences and underscoring the existence of unprivileged groups, places or problems. A site became a site of knowledge and intellectual exchange, a debate informed by a broader range of disciplines. The artist started to assume the role of an ethnographer, culture mediator, organiser, community adventurer and temporary critic. Art in public spaces is far more than just sculptures, of course. But even this ephemeral form brings a danger of commodification or easy consumption. As with the appearance of every paradigm shift – something can be improved, and something else broken or simplified. In art that is short-lived, I am interested in what I call “the economy of experience”, a live-through cognitive and critical moment put forward by the artist, the curator, the presence of the first and secondary audience, a moment that hopefully recontextualises the status quo. After the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys and other process- oriented projects, we know very well that sculpture in the public realm can take a time-based form. Maybe we need to understand sculpture in the expanded field, sculpture as a situation, and maybe even as dissolving art in the realms of the real. I give you an example of how we can understand public art as being far from sculptural material: last year, in the context of Warsaw’s endeavours to win the title of European Capital of Culture, I wrote a proposal, together with the sociologist Joanna Erbel, for the project Warsaw as a Ready-made: Artists on the Management Boards of Public Enterprises. The project assumed the development of art and culture via the inclusion of artists, curators, architects and scientists in the decision-making processes of public institutions, which in the post-communist era have very unfavourable connotations. For instance, the prevailing view is that parents who send their children to a state school don’t know what they are doing. We suggested that artists enter a creative dialogue with selected public institutions. In this way, for example, the Public Transport Board would avail itself of artists’ imaginations in order to reclaim the degraded notion “public”, to liberate itself from the mechanisms of bureaucracy or to become more user-friendly. The value added by the art projects wouldn’t be snatched away by patents or corporate interests, but utilised for the general public. As the British Artist Placement Group did in the 1970s when introducing artists into companies, or as the American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles practises currently – she still has an office in a New York municipal cleaning enterprise – we wanted to treat artists not as decorators, but as initiators of creative, change-generating thinking, as urban artists. In this process, apart from the artists, we also wanted to include social actors rarely present in the public sector – lawyers, economists, programmers and other experts, who favour private sector commercial work, rather than working pro bono. So, when you ask me about the sculpture, I think placing artists on the boards of the city companies would have many longterm effects, and would – in some way – fulfil, in fact, a similar agenda.

T.E./I.L.: What are the main differences between working in public space with temporary interventions, social and collaborative practices, arts-festival and permanent artwork? What in your opinion the best methods for working in public space?

J.W.: I am not very interested in objects and permanent forms. I feel that museums often imprison artworks. I’m personally interested in art in public space that has a performative dimension. By performativity, I understand direct effectiveness, a snowball effect that it could initiate in terms of its engagement of different social groups, an action with critical and subversive potential, which undermines the status quo. The best method is being aware of the civic and social dimensions, and taking a critical stance and responsibility, that’s all. Art should be one of the voices in a democratic argument, it should take some sort of political stance. When a real argument occurs, one might also hope for a real and conscious choice. And, as the philosopher Chantal Mouffe says, political action and being political in the public sphere are predicated on a spirited and courageous confrontation between different visions. Art can direct precisely such an agonistic confrontation. This is something that I learnt when working on the 7th Berlin Biennale – that one should not be afraid of conflict. However, one must not just act on impulse. Conflict and courage can be a method, if one is prepared for it. Public art often hits harder when it is painful and awkward, rather than merely a pleasant experience which only reinforces symbolic divisions into the majority and minority, or else becomes an affirmation of the language of authority. Many so-called social and collaborative practices implement existing expectations, hidden agendas, and political or image-focused agendas. Often, for example, work with a particular minority doesn’t really negate social differences but, rather, stigmatizes this minority even more, and can, indeed, have an antiintegrational impact. Difficult and painful projects can be very creative and opening. But there is one condition. You have to go into such actions prepared, have a strategy and supporters, and mediate with people on the ground, who after the action, will be left with the results. The arguments should be followed by negotiation, an evolving set of tools for its implementation, and the possibility of handing over the results achieved by art to other social actors. Public art cannot only be pleasing to those already pleased, which is often the case at big festivals. Sometimes it should be against its own audience, rather than for it. Just one example: such was the installation of the Macedonian artist Nada Prlja who, during the 7th Berlin Biennale, put up a wall across Friedrichstrasse, one of the main streets in Berlin. She called it Peace Wall; it separated the rich from the poor, the integrated and the non-integrated – or rather it made those separations visible. The project caused outrage, but it also resulted in the coming together of people representing different local groups and interests, who would otherwise never have met. Here, they put up a united front – against the artist, as it were. Art became the obstacle to be overcome. When I look at many of my projects, I can see that it was especially those which caused some conflict that were the most durable and significant.

T.E./I.L.: What do you think about the dissolving borders between art, performance, music, dance, architecture and so on?

J.W.: I really don’t care about the borders; when you have something to say, you can use any artistic means to get your message across. But I support the avant-guarde claims of fusing art and life. When there is something to say, the medium doesn’t matter, what rather matters for me is the notion of political engagement, social and cultural relevance. If you look at the work of Christoph Schlingensief or Tadeusz Kantor, or the contemporary work of the collective Akademia Ruchu or Alexandra Pirici, a Romanian choreographer who represented Romania with the Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale in 2013, or Public Movement, an Israeli group who have worked with Performa and the New Museum – these artists are relevant in all contexts, it simply works in all fields.

T.E./I.L.: As a curator how would you describe the challenges you meet as you work in different countries?

J.W.: Part of the excitement of this job is to play on the dualism of the estrangement of the pseudo-ethnographer in combination with the engaged in-house critic. I will give you an answer illustrating my recent experience working in Sweden. I was invited to be one of the curators of the Gothenburg Biennale and to reflect on Play. Recapturing Radical Imagination. In a year-long process, I tried to find an answer to a simple question: Why is it in Scandinavia that there is a specific, very brutal genre of Nordic noir? What does it say about this society and those circumstances? It seems that crime and horror fiction has appeared as a kind of sublimated and staged political debate in the region, a post-Marxist critique of a society hiding vice behind an apparent harmony. The fascination with crime fiction – as the ardent fan of the genre Bertold Brecht wrote – derives from a deeply modernist project, since it represents life as logical and coherent, where every wrong must have a reason and the evil eventually fails, aspiring for the phantasm of a pure society. In the winter of 2013, I approached the Swedish author Åke Edwardson, one of the authors of Nordic noir, and one of the few based in Gothenburg. Edwardson is also an author who refers to the intermingling of the social and political context, questioning the apparent consensus, racial urban segregation, and the emotional consequences of crime. I asked him a question: whether he could imagine transcribing the ideas of the art exhibition into a crime story, just as much as literature becomes a film; if contemporary art could be transcribed in this very locally popular, in other words, very Swedish, genre of a short fiction and printed in a local newspaper? He was intrigued and came up with a short crime novel One Last Case for the Dream Police – a hybrid resulting from this conversation, which became a delegated form of curatorial statement, introducing the exhibition via an obscure vision of the future of Gothenburg, and turning viewers into investigators of the games that people play. The Quai of Broken Dreams – the site where the exhibition took place – formed a heterotopic setting both for the exhibition and the story – investigating both crime and art as social vehicles and mirroring the failure of the entrepreneurial ambitions of the city. As stated in the famous Adorno quote: “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime”, since art, as much as crime, wants to eradicate the status quo.

T.E./I.L.: How do you regard the mediation with the audience in a public art project?

J.W.: As an artist or curator, you can create an interesting situation, but it is important that it has been arranged in such a way that the recipient and participant can feel responsible for it. I would like to believe that audiences are more self-conscious and perhaps more demanding in a certain regard. And which audience are we speaking about? One of the differences between, for example, the performing and visual arts audience is the authority of the judgment. In the visual arts, symbolic power is often held by a few people, often driven by market interests, who are able to decide whether such-and-such an artist is relevant, even if nobody comes to see his or her show. Whereas in the performing arts, there is a more democratic approach to recognition: a theatre simply can’t operate without an audience, even if the author is considered a genius. On the other hand, while looking at the exhibition, we are able to talk, to comment while watching, to edit our own experience (you hardly see the full length of the artists’ videos, for example). In theatre, most of the time you – as Jérôme Bel says – have to sit down and shut up. The philosopher Jacques Rancière in his essay The Emancipated Spectator writes about the spectator’s paradox: without his presence a spectacle will not take place, but the act of looking itself is assessed as wrong, since it assumes passivity and a lack of critical distance. How do we create a spectacle without spectators? – asks Rancière. What co-responsibility do spectators share for art in cognitive capitalism? What he calls “the emancipation of the audience” is a situation where, even if committed to your seat, you feel free, where the artist does not believe that the spectator will decode his/her work in a planned and adequate way, nor that she/he is less wise or less sensitive. If the situation is governed by the equality of experience and intelligence, every spectator becomes a potential author, actor, translator and vice versa. The problem is that Rancière still looks at the audience as a monolith. Public art projects shall hopefully enjoy the commenting liberty of the arts, and the collectiveness of theatre.

T.E./I.L.: What about the site-specificity of a public artwork, is knowledge of a location/city/region/country important?

J.W.: You asked about art production tourism and its possible effects, advantages and disadvantages. As Mion Kwon in One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity says, in many commissioned projects artists (and/or curators) are often: “free-lancers globetrotting as guests, tourists, adventurers, temporary in-house critics or pseudo-ethnographers”. I guess you have to be conscious of your ignorance, but also empowered by the possibility to look from a distance and have a willingness to intervene. Sometimes this mixture helps.

T.E./I.L.: Have you worked in a semi-public space, a commercial location?

J.W.: I have worked in the former Georgian Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi in Georgia, which was bought by the Bank of Georgia. And I have to say, in the particular project, once I gained the trust of the owners, many things were possible. There is no other way but to accepting that we will have to work in public-private circumstances. And maybe it’s good to ask the question how to empower and emancipate ourselves within these difficult future contexts?

T.E./I.L.: We do cooperate more between countries in this part of the world. What do you think can be achieved, art-wise?

J.W.: Actually, as an effect of my work in Georgia, last year I curated the Georgian Pavilion in Venice; it was a longterm engagement, and I guess I was invited because of my past experience in the region. When I started to work in Georgia back in 2008, one of the things that struck me immensely was the stunning approach to Soviet architecture. In Georgia, the Soviet housing blocs simply started to grow after the end of the USSR. The inhabitants would commission an engineer to design a whole new floor, or a block of Kamikaze Loggia extensions. I called this performative architecture because it’s a semiotic sign: it shows you a community approach to trying to deal with the Soviet legacy. In Poland, we just wanted to destroy this stadium as soon as possible and forget it; in Georgia, the approach was more organic, more sensitive, more intelligent: they just overbuild it, produce a new layer, like you do with palimpsests – and, basically, with history. Many architects look at favelas and are inspired by the solutions made by the poor. But here, the master plans of huge Soviet buildings had been personalized or amended with balconies by their inhabitants, which have a long tradition in Georgia, since the country was built on the high slopes of the Caucasus mountains. So, when I was invited to curate the Georgian Pavilion in Venice, I could not help thinking: how can I transport – curatorially and physically – the idea of the loggia to the context of the Venice Biennale. Together with a team of 13 artists, we also looked critically at this Biennale, where geopolitical influences are highly visible: countries like the United States or England or France enjoy the pleasure of spacious pavilions in the garden area, while other countries which are not so powerful have to rent a palazzo for millions of Euros. Georgia belongs to the second category. The Tbilisi-based artist Gio Sumbadze came to the idea that maybe we could just build a pavilion, since Georgia doesn’t have one, in the form of a kamikaze loggia. Miraculously – despite the fact that in Venice for more than a hundred years no new building has been allowed – it turned out to be possible as a temporary artwork. And we built an extension on an old part of the Arsenale, a historical site located where the Biennale takes place, a bit like a balcony. There is a saying, which my commissioner, the Vice Cultural Minister Mrs. Marine Mizandari, often mentions: in Georgia you don’t measure your apartment by square meters, you measure it by how many guests you can fit inside. So what can be achieved? A different part of knowledge and experience, re-contextualisation, a symbolic and perhaps real shift. After my experience working with Georgia, I published a book called Ministry of Highways: A Guide to the Performative Architecture of Tbilisi with many contributions from artists and critical thinkers based in Georgia and Armenia, who reflected on how architecture can reflect political and social circumstances. It looks like Lonely Planet, but provides info you would not find in those guides. And this is where you need contemporary, critical art.

T.E./I.L.: What would be your dream project in public space, if you had an unlimited budget and all the places in the world to work in?

J.W.: Curate the whole city. In South America, I met a few politicians who could also be described as artists or curators. Antanas Mockus, the former Mayor of Bogota, creates moments of “political beauty”. In the presidential election last year, in one of the debates, he invited his opponent to run his own campaign for him. Earlier, as Mayor, he had spent almost no money on his promotional campaign; instead of hanging up billboards, he handed out empty green posters which his supporters could fill up with slogans and hang up. At a security summit, he donned a flak jacket with a heart-shaped hole cut into it. In Brazil, Lula’s government initiated a policy of pontos de cultura, abandoning the classical strategy of subsidising institutions in favour of grants for so-called culture points, run by ordinary citizens. Every collection of records in a garage, a museum run in a favela, or concerts regularly organised in someone’s allotment could apply for a government grant. This dispersal of funds also demonstrated the diversity of culture in that country. Such activity to me seems to be politics conducted by means of art; politics replacing art in public space – which allows us to look at things differently, demonstrate their potential, surprise and stimulate thinking.

T.E./I.L.: Which of your public projects was the most difficult for you, and why?

J.W. : Of course, the most difficult one for me was working on the Berlin Biennale. It was a crash course in everything: political self-awareness, conflict theory, working with the media, the negotiation of diverse and shared interests, learning to compromise without getting egg on your face, working with an audience of tens of thousands of people. But, of course, every project is different and teaches you something else. My curatorial strategy often relies on noticing what’s hanging in the air: the effect of taking a step back, or re-contextualising the familiar. The departure point for me is often a concrete, repressed problem – such as the invisibility of the Vietnamese minority in Warsaw (the series Finissage of the 10th Anniversary Stadium), the oppressive nature of Israeli tourist tours in Poland (Spring in Warsaw – A Walk in the Ghetto Led by Public Movement), the philosophy of self-organisation in architecture (Frozen Moments in Georgia) or X- Apartments – staged situations in private apartments in Bródno, Mirów and Mokotów. Sometimes I feel like doing the same thing over and over... but feel obliged to carry on… Anyway, let me quote the famous Situationist saying: “There are beaches under the pavements!” And this is what can be expected from difficult curating: using one’s imagination and turning it into a potential tool for re-contextualisation through art.

Joanna Warsza is a writer and curator in the fields of visual and performing arts and architecture. She was curator of the Georgian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale and associate curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale. Her practice, most often research and context based, stems from the need for revealing social and political agendas. She is also currently a researcher at Olafur Eliasson’s Institut für Raumexperimente in Berlin, where she lives and works.