Collaborative curatorial process – Ex & Post – Eastern Europe Under the Lens

Collaborative curatorial process – Ex & Post – Eastern Europe Under the Lens

Ex & Post – Eastern Europe Under the Lens was a collaborative exhibition between curators based in Budapest, Berlin and Sydney. Featuring works by 14 Eastern European artists, the show was a few years in development, taking a lot of care and consultation – and a lot of hours on Skype.

Curators Sári Stenczer, Krisztina Erdei (Photolumen, Budapest) and Claire Monneraye (ACP) speak about working together on the exhibition.

How did the exhibition, Ex & Post – Eastern Europe Under the Lens, come about?

Sári Stenczer: Just 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Krisztina Erdei contacted me, saying that there was an opportunity for us to curate an exhibition at ACP about Eastern Europe. We first thought, “That’s impossible”, as Eastern Europe is a very diverse and huge territory and to contain it in a one-room exhibition sounded impossible. But, challenges always give you a creative push, so we started to ask, “What connects these countries, with their wide range of geopolitical, geographical, cultural, and socioeconomic connotations, beside their given label? Is it a Western gaze? Is it their shared, but still very diverse, Communist and Socialist past? Or is it their common, never-ending transitional state into liberal capitalism?”

We came to the conclusion that we can clearly see there are important parallel passages in Eastern Europe. So, with this exhibition we wished to map the notions of the ex-Eastern Bloc in the post-Socialist era. We endeavoured to evoke narratives from countries, which are not just geographically related, but closely tied with their shared Communist-Socialist past and their free-market ruled, globalised present as well. Under the lens of the artists, these old and new ideologies and rules lean toward each other and encapsulate existence. Of course, it became a subjective overview through photo and video works dealing with the phenomenon of the coexistence and bridging of the different islands of the past and present.

Claire Monneraye: While ACP is striving to present the best of current photographic practices to Australian audiences, our exhibition program doesn’t operate in a conceptual vacuum and seeks to respond to contemporary political and social concerns not only on a local and national level but also on a global scale. In response to the Ukrainian crisis that began late 2013, ACP former Director Suzanne Buljan formed the idea of an exhibition that would look at the creative scene within in the Eastern European region. We discussed the conceptual and logistical parameters of the project and saw the opportunity to invite a guest curator based in Eastern Europe to collaborate with ACP in developing the exhibition. As part of the 2014 Sydney Biennale, ACP hosted a talk with visiting artist Krisztina Erdei, Very naturally, ACP approached Lumen through Krisztina to guest curate this exhibition. We were delighted when she brought Sàri [Stenczer] on board and very appreciative of the many discussions we had together to shape the curatorial rationale, although both Sàri and Krisztina had a very clear idea and professional understanding of the message they wanted the exhibition to convey.

On a practical level, can you describe how you worked together (tasks allocations, Skype meetings, etc)?

SS: From last July, when Lumen Photography Foundation received the invitation to guest curate an exhibition in collaboration with ACP, we worked together perfectly with the help of the internet and with the already developed policy of ACP. The tasks were divided clearly and I think the collaboration was quite smooth – despite the time difference. The meetings were a bit early for us and I think a bit late for Claire and the ACP team, connecting the morning coffee and the afternoon tea.

CM: ACP has a long history of working with guest curators and has developed systems that allow smooth and efficient project management, such as timeline, simple agreements, and comprehensive list of works. The challenge with Ex & Post was to coordinate an exhibition that involved almost 100 works, 14 artists based in 10 different countries with Sári in Berlin, Krisztina in Budapest and myself in Sydney. From the very start of the project, we had a clear understanding of the allocation of tasks, i.e. selecting the artists and works, preparing the artists’ agreements, liaising with the artists, writing the exhibition copy, overseeing the budget, managing the production of the works, etc. We have had many Skype meetings and countless email exchanges, sharing all the information and finding solutions to the questions as they arrived. I don’t think this kind of project could happen if not based on trust and that is definitely what we have established from the beginning. We certainly had some disagreements but always strive to solve them by communicating and understanding each other’s perspectives.

What were the advantages and challenges of such a collaborative curatorial process?

SS: I suppose the biggest advantage and also challenge was to present this huge, thematic exhibition on the other side of the world. To talk about our everyday life to people who live far away. As curators we also took advantage of the limitations of transporting artworks – as we could elaborate on the installation more freely and adapt the series in the best way for the exhibition.

CM: I don’t think we could have presented such a comprehensive exhibition without the input of Sàri and Krisztina. Not only did the exhibition benefit from their direct knowledge and experience of the artistic scene in the region as active curator and artist, but it also gained valuable conceptual nuances, including humour, which is a key aspect of the exhibition.

Needless to say, distance has been the main challenge. It indirectly affected some of the choices we made for the final selection of works, mostly to reduce costs, but it also impacted the way we shared information, especially when it came to plotting the layout of the exhibition in the space or finalising the production of works. Unfortunately, we were unable to bring Sàri or Krisztina to Sydney before the actual installation of the exhibition to see the space or discuss production details in person, which is always ideal in a collaborative context.

With such a culturally specific rationale, do you think this cross-cultural curatorial collaboration has shaped the exhibition, in terms of its meaning and message? In which ways?

SS: On the one hand, Central and Eastern European art evokes specific histories of different countries; on the other hand, the history of Central and Eastern European art itself has been largely shaped by the Cold War and its ideologies, which created the Eastern European character.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a need to accommodate Central and East European art within the master narrative of universalist Western art history by emphasising similarities and parallel artistic developments, but there were other strategies in art showing local and regional contexts. This narrative worked with the plurality of Eastern European art based on the diverging historical processes and political circumstances in the individual countries. In our case, ACP’s curatorial brief gave us a quite open conceptual focus, but appointed the region as an ‘ex-Communist’ area, suggesting that the recent past is still relevant to an understanding of the problems of the present. The exhibition is an answer to this proposal.

CM: We indeed left the initial brief genuinely open. The Western perceptions of so-called Eastern Europe are inevitably restricted by historical, cultural and social awareness and knowledge; it was therefore crucial for our institution not to dictate a specific message and to give Sári and Krisztina complete freedom in the definition of their conceptual scope.

The discussions that we had when finalising the rationale of the exhibition obviously led to some adjustments, which can be seen as, and are the effects and results of, a cross-cultural dialogue. That being said, I think every collaboration is somehow cross-cultural… even beyond the geography. To me ‘cross-cultural’ doesn’t only point towards geopolitics but also indicates the subjectivity of the manifold personal experiences of the individuals involved in a project. In that sense, I think the exhibition reflects the historical and contemporary complexity of the geopolitics in the region. But it also highlights the multitude of subjective takes on it by the artists, the curators, the institution and the audiences, who all create a cultural dialogue with the works, therefore constantly reshaping the exhibition.

When curating a show like Ex & Post, which was developed across countries, but is only being exhibited in Australia, how much does the ‘destination’ audience and culture (in this case Australia) affect your decisions and the selection of works?

SS: A lot. This show wouldn’t be so stimulating in Europe, where most of the people are aware of the presented notions and problems. There, one should develop one or two problems in depth. But presenting Eastern Europe in Australia gave us the possibility to think differently, taking into account the Australian audience’s ‘external gaze’, to conceive a comprehensive show about our realities. The selection of artworks was made after extensive research and an already acquired knowledge, that is to say we picked series that corresponded to the exhibition’s theme – presenting this ‘ex and post’ situation.

CM: The audience was definitely the key aspect of our discussions. Although ‘audience’ is a vague and permeable entity, we tried to think Ex & Post for our audience, here at ACP. The great value of ‘cross-cultural’ collaborations is to see each part is bringing its knowledge to better bridge the artists, the works and the message of the exhibition with the audience, to always facilitate the dialogue and the reflection.

What do you hope Australian audiences will take from the show?

SS: We hope that visitors encounter the diversity and specificity of Eastern Europe and understand the region’s heterogeneity. Also, presenting the different issues of our crises encourages audience members to investigate the topics they find most interesting.

CM: We hope that the exhibition will help to raise our audience’s curiosity for not only diverse photographic and video practices but also that it will help raise their interest for the very rich history and quite complex current political situation of the region, to go beyond what can be heard in the mainstream media.

How differently do you think images like those on show in Ex & Post would be perceived in a European context?

SS: I am not sure that they would be perceived differently in Europe, just because we are closer to this reality – in the age of the internet, people can be well informed about social and political issues happening in all corners of the world. The selected works have already enjoyed much success [in Europe] because their subject matter, specific style and solidarity.

CM: Sári is right, It is difficult to decipher how this show would be received in Europe. I guess many of the 14 exhibiting artists of Ex&Post have been shown quite extensively in Europe (such as at Paris Photo in 2010) over the last years, whereas they are being shown for the first time in Australia at ACP. In addition, the knowledge of the history and political context in the region is of course different, more direct, and perhaps more emotional as well. The message and the reception could only be different, perhaps more instinctive?

How do you know when the idea for an exhibition is worth pursuing?

SS: From the feedback of visitors, professionals and, of course, the media. The visitors to Ex & Post – Eastern Europe under the lens already told us different stories related to the exhibited places, memories of their descendants lived in this part of the world and also problematised the Eastern European quality as a view of this countries. We are very curious of how Australian professionals will like the show.

CM: Well, firstly intuition is undeniable, but most importantly exhibitions are rarely prepared in a blind silo, the maturation time of an exhibition is always an exchange where institutions and curators are very attentive to the audience, artists and peers’ comments, feedback and feelings. We are thrilled by the very positive response we have had so far.

All of the artists in Ex & Post approach their subject quite differently – how do you think this parallels the idea of a number of countries now reclaiming their identities, independent of a greater whole, such as Communism?

SS: The field of interest of these young artists doesn’t really depend on the Communist past; they relate to it, as it is their history. All countries in the world have historical issues and everyday problems that artists find worthy of examination and present in a critical or objective way to their audiences. A lot of time they try to build bridges between the past and present and to not forget, but interpret and understand, old stories in a relevant and actual way.

CM: The artists in the exhibition don’t approach one single common subject as such – they haven’t been commissioned to create a series of work about post-Communism per se. Each work is the expression of their individual concerns, ways of experiencing their direct environment or voicing their opinion, which, altogether, form one picture amongst many others of what the region has become.

What impact do you think the cultural history of Eastern Europe has had on its artists and, more specifically, their representation of their home countries?

SS: Art in Eastern Europe developed parallel with that of the Western World. It wasn’t clearly visible because the Iron Curtain impeded the circulation of the information; not just between East and West, but also within the region. Two factors played an especially important role in shaping post-war art in the region. One was the promotion of Socialist Realism as the official state cultural doctrine in the majority of the Eastern European countries during the 1950s and 1960s. The other was an official distrust, or even censorship and persecution, of independent contemporary art produced and exhibited outside the official channels. Communism tried to dig a gap, but progressive artists never let themselves believe in false ideologies. Of course it is more common to criticise one’s own country now, after 1989, but it was never non-existent.

CM: Historically the cultural and political context in Eastern Europe had led many artists of these countries to emigrate temporarily or permanently abroad, which stimulated the circulation of images and ideas but also influenced quite heavily the artistic scene in the US and Western European countries. Think of some of the greatest photographers from the 20th century such as André Kertész, Brassaï, Robert Capa, Josef Koudelka, Izis Bidermanas or Làszló Moholy-Nagy, for example.

Aware of this history and in response to the aftermaths of the Socialist Realism that Sári just described, I think contemporary artists are highly aware of what their work tells about their countries and how it represents their ‘identities’. Not only developing political and engaged works, they have built ways of bypassing the expected through a strong sense of the collective, deft provocation and a very sharp and conscious sense of humour.

What function do you think art and particularly photography have in this ‘Ex & Post’ time in Eastern Europe?

SS: Photography was always a popular medium in Eastern Europe. We have a lot of great photographers, and it is still very much beloved by the young generation. With digital technology, photography is available to everyone… I believe with the Internet, social media and the growing number of photo-based institutions, it is having its golden-cyber-age.

CM: I am not sure if art and photography play any different role today in Eastern Europe than it does in every other part of the world. And I would agree with Sàri in thinking that digital capabilities are certainly allowing artists of the region to gain greater visibility, to reach more diverse and distant platforms and therefore to deliver their own representations of the world more freely. To many extents, Ex & Post – Eastern European photography under the lens is an example of this.

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Ex & Post – Eastern Europe Under the Lens includes works by

Andrej BalcoTamas DezsoAndrea DiefenbachKrisztina ErdeiKirill GolovchenkoIvars GravlejsIosif KiralyRafal MilachMarge MonkoVesselina NikolaevaLucia NimcovaTehnica SchweizSaša Tkačenko and Iveta Vaivode.