About YC

Imagining the museum

Sebastian Cichocki talks to Hristina Ivanoska and Yane Calovski

Sebastian: Close your eyes, relax, count to 50, and now imagine the museum, the perfect museum for Skopje... What would it be, what would it look like?

Yane: I followed your instructions and closed my eyes, relaxed by breathing evenly and counted to 50. I fell asleep, and it was great. I didn’t dream of the museum at all. I guess this makes me think that, in the context of our discussion, the museum for me is based on reality.

When I think of it, I think of reclaiming what is already there, redefining the existing, sustaining the idea of a contemporary museum which, by regarding the condition of the contemporary art of the future, will operate as a place of integrity. It should be an amazing, inspiring structure built by a beautiful mind that can produce architecture with conceptual and engineering integrity. The place should be spacious and extending in all possible directions. It should have spaces spread out throughout the city, locations that can perform on a number of levels while not losing their identity or functions. In a city that is spreading and evolving, such as Skopje, the museum should have outposts, reaching audiences that for cultural and economic reasons find it hard to venture outside of their immediate surroundings. We should ask ourselves for whom we are building and creating the museum, what kind of discussion we are anticipating with the museum as a proposed cultural platform, and to what extent the museum will or could change our perception of artistic and other cultural practices, thus contributing to the ever evolving process of renegotiating its impact.

Hristina: For me, the question of circumstances becomes prevalent when thinking of the future museum. I could imagine a museum that operates in ideal conditions, run by a charming and intelligent director with international experience, but also intrinsically aware of the local context, working with a team of progressive curators, a substantial budget, supportive board of directors and situated in a contemporary building. I could also imagine a museum that functions in a weak economic situation, insufficient public funds for art and culture, no clear cultural policy, no incentives from the private sector to invest, etc. We all know that the first scenario is a confirmed model for success. What could we say about the second scenario? What are the chances for a museum in such a place? How can it function? I believe that is not a lost cause even though this is the situation with the museums in most transitional countries, and it has the potential to be successful if we understand the context in relation to history. The socialist system collapsed more than fifteen years ago, and in the process of transformation from one system to another, new structures and rules were established. Each of us – institutions and individuals – becomes equally important. In this phase of constant change the museum should not exist as an empty space filled with mediocre art works, but should become a place that is active, flexible, provoking, and relevant. That space should be a meeting forum for local and international players, a place where things are happening, where nobody is afraid to ask questions and search for answers, a place where critical thinking is appreciated, where the quality of artistic creation reaches higher standards, where the outside world is brought inside and where nobody is frustrated or isolated.

Sebastian: Do we still need solid, well-exposed, powerful art institutions to make things go on? Whose voices should be heard inside?

Hristina: In the 19s century, museums all across Europe were strongly supported, especially for their role in creating and strengthening national identity. Powerful architectural design of museums buildings, which is still visible nowadays even in the new creations, represents political and economical stability and power of the state. They also have another function: to represent and protect art. Do art works want to be protected and saved? Is everything relevant in the museum collections and archives? Can we also agree that the Internet has changed and will continue to change the perception of collections? Today, websites are like small museums or archives. Being aware of this, do we need real – 3 dimensional, gigantic, expensive institutions? Coming back to Macedonia, I’d like to say a few words about the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje. Donated by the Polish government after the fatal earthquake of 1963, which almost completely destroyed the capital of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, and built by Polish architects, the museum was a success story in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Approximately 4000 art pieces were contributed for the museum collection! I could never understand what makes this collection worthwhile: the list of artists, the quality of works or the act of solidarity – which was the primary reason behind the donations. In the last decade we have been aware that the institutions are suffering. Their structure was created to function in another system. That system does not exist anymore but the structure remained. There are examples in other ex-communist Eastern European countries that also experienced the transitional period, or examples could be found in other parts of the world. Should we follow their approach or we should look for our own solution?

Yane: The art museum is never just a building, but a political and cultural product of certain analysis aimed to impact and manifest power and wealth. The museum as a philanthropic trophy institution is and will continue to be relevant as long as it uses its power to continually invest in questioning its role. I think of all the brilliant architecture in which we invest in the name of showcasing art. It is brilliant cultural and political strategy. However, since the museum is about status and privilege, it is hard for it to be seen as a truly democratic place, unless it continually opens up to new artist, curators, critics, attracting new audiences. I can even draw a parallel with the educational institutions abolishing the long term tenure in order to stay attuned to what active practitioners in the field can bring in on shorter appointments. I think the museum is ultimately a place of analyses and action, and needs to learn how to reinvent itself and its place in a given cultural context.

Sebastian: What was the role played by Dr. Boris Petkovski, the first director of the museum in Skopje in that multi-layered scenario?

Yane: First of all, I respect and value the reasons behind the imperative to establish a museum of contemporary art in Skopje initiated by Petkovski and the local government at the time. The entire team capitalized on the international outburst of solidarity toward Skopje including the interest of the artists to donate their works and help build its collection. Petkovski’s conviction was significant and what he achieved is very important. But right now I think we are at the point when we realize that the museum can not rest on his legacy and ideas from years ago, and need to seriously consider where it is going, how to best appraise the collection that has evidently been missing critical approach and judgment? How can the museum respond to the ever-evolving contemporary art practices and processes?

The institution, as we know it today, struggles to re-establish its identity and role in a regional and wider international context.

The funds are limited and the flow of new ideas is needed. Maybe the process of transition in Macedonia, taking longer than expected, is affecting the institution on too many levels and it is hard to expect significant change any time soon. But for a start, appointing people with vision to respond to current developments in the museum practice will be a good signal. I am sure that Petkovski would like to see the museum not only live up to the expectations he set for it, but also exceed them and reinvent itself for the future: at least I would hope so.

Sebastian: Can you imagine Oskar Hansen’s museum project revitalized, re-used and even completed by contemporary artists, or it is only a thought – provoking, inspiring, nevertheless stuck in its times, conceptual gem from the past?

Yane: Hansen did one thing that I find very important – he offered more than an architectural platform – he suggested a space of interpretation, different each and every time. This is provoked partly by the design itself, the wall-less platforms that are on top of hydraulic columns rising from the ground up. I would say that using Hansen’s theory of open form gives certain leeway in interpreting the specific architectural proposal he made – to which you fittingly refer to as conceptual gem from the past. Hansen is manifesting that space necessary for new association. It may exist in the virtual past; that is where we are interested in situating it through our intervention. His theories are subjected to reinterpretation and depend somehow on further articulation, a revisiting process that I find different from the postmodern approach.

Hristina: Hansen’s proposal is a treasure from the past, a truly great concept from the time when the future was part of a great discourse spanning beyond artistic practice. The best part of the story with the inbuilt museum is that it is physically impossible but conceptually real.

Sebastian: What do we owe the heroes and legends of the ‘60s?

Yane: One could surely approach the legacy of a certain time as a pool to dive in and draw motivation and matter from, while articulating one’s own voice in the present tense. For me, it is a generational question – how far you look and admit of having been influenced. I wonder how much education has attributed to our approach and how much is intrinsic, self-delineated process. Marjetica Potrc has recently articulated, I am paraphrasing, “the thinkers of the ‘60s were dreaming about us”. I am not sure if they did, if they hoped that some of the ideas they worked with would exist beyond and will transcend for further articulation.

Hristina: It could be said that much of the art practices of the ‘60s were result of postmodernist theories, and I feel that we do not owe anything exclusively to the artists of the ‘60’s but we rather owe it to all the great people throughout history that have done anything for the evolution of ideas. We need to continue the discourse over the meaning of the future. If you don’t consider the past and the present together, the future does not, and could not, exist. The future is not very next moment and as such it is unattainable without a constructed effort to attain it.

Sebastian: What seems to be one of the main features of your latest Oskar Hansen’s MOMA project is a cooperative model of its production and conceptualization: two artists, designer, a gallery involved in the research...

Hristina: Every effort to distinguish the roles in the production becomes problematic as such, since everyone contributed equally to the project on many important levels. I think contemporary projects are based on collaborations, and even if they end up signed by one artist, they are still a collective practice. Art production today is not single, studio-based practice, it requires research and dialogue with partners and practitioners of other fields.

Yane: The process allowed for a healthy dose of shared responsibility that is very true of research-based practice, in which the methodology in the articulation of the work becomes a process in itself. Our collective engineering of the idea of the hypothetical history was building an answer to the challenge of addressing history from a new context.

Sebastian: Do you think that the Hansen project is over or is there a chance to continue the research on its history and develop it in new directions? Do you think that in this particular case, revealing only some crumbs of non-existing art history is enough?

Yane: I will have to correct you a bit here: addressing history in the way we have could be seen as opening the door of an idea that is ultimately very generous and affords continual articulation. Oskar Hansen’s proposal can translate over time and continue to inspire new productions. At the same time, the essentially implicit process used in arriving to the 12 posters was one of revisiting and discovering the meaning behind materials and ideas that have influenced one’s knowledge. The crumbs are only possible if they are shed from an existing whole. I do believe that revealing only some and not all crumbs makes for an interesting articulation of how we address information and how we want to see history reinterpreted.

Hristina: The project is not closed, this feels like a beginning and we also do not feel like art historians attempting to rewrite history, but we have done a certain timeline that is very personal and reflects in the selection of the artists for the posters.

Sebastian: In the quotation by Ad Reinhardt you selected for the first poster in your series, the museum is “a treasure house and tomb, not a counting house or amusement center.” More so, Reinhardt stated that museum should not be “an art-history-manufacturing plant”. Why did you choose that fragment to start the series of the 12 posters, and how much of the attitude expressed in that fragment has been preserved in recent times?

Yane: To start with Reinhardt seemed fitting as he managed to critically articulate thoughts of what was already becoming of the museum as an institution and how the artists could relate to it. Essentially, the metaphor of the house or the tomb seems to be in stark opposition to the open form analyzed an articulated for the museum by Hansen: open space resting comfortably on engineering ingenuity and vernacular knowledge. Reinhardt made his thoughts available as part of a constructive analysis of the role, use and the purpose of art once it reaches the doorsteps of art history. Hansen seems to be asking at what point we select the meaningful new and allow a wall-less platform for interrogation in some kind of anthropological sense. Reinhardt, on the other hand, doubts the sincerity of the museum as the definitive place where we manufacture meaning by the means of a careful selection process. In my opinion, they both agree that the institution should reflect desire, the difference being that Hansen’s managed to illustrate what he argued in the context of architecture.

Hristina: I was excited about his ideas and emotions on the question on the museum, but also about the fact that they have coincided (in 1963) with the catastrophic earthquake in Skopje, which, as a result, a year later opened the rebuilding process, and with that also the discussion on the need of a new art museum. So the relevance is in the proximity of dates as well as of relational ideas on the subject of the museum, then and now. Reinhardt’s writing and criticism that the museum should not be an amusement center or an art historical manufacturing plant unfortunately still holds, and is even more relevant today.

Sebastian: There are different levels of reading and interpreting the contents of the posters from the Oskar Hansen’s MOMA series, in terms of time and Eastern European (art) history? What are the intended messages hidden behind the particular dates and the projects you’ve selected for the posters? Are you building a suggested art theory of everything, where all things are connected?

Hristina: Each museum creates its own yearly program and that is a usual practice. For Hansen’s MOMA we created a program that embraces a period of forty years. The selection was personal, as most of the art directors do. Some exhibitions and performances took place in real time and space; some were totally invented or based on certain information. For example, I was personally fascinated with Ana Mendieta’s performances, Rape Scene and People Looking at Blood, because of her courage and criticism. Coming from a Cuban family that has political, religious and artistic background, she arrived in the USA in her teens, not sensing the upcoming unpleasant events that would mark her life forever. She will create a special relation to her body. In one of the performances she is doing a reenactment of an actual rape that took place at the university campus and opened the door of her apartment to the public believing that we should shout and not be silent regarding any kind of abuse.

Yane: The project manifests a view on historical analysis involving the documentation of Hansen’s proposal and of the possible exhibition and lecture program that would have engaged artists such as Paul Thek, Mladen Stilinovic, Andrzej Szewczyk, Ana Mendieta, Ad Reinhardt, and others. Some of the artist have never even been to Eastern Europe. If you take Paul Thek, for example, he is virtually unknown in the East, he is basically absent, never been invited. He moved to Europe in the early ‘70s and began making spatial installations with a number of European artists he found as collaborators. His process-based layout of the installations, in which individual elements were presented in different contexts from one place to another, was a huge challenge to museum then. They were even rejected from collections. Without a proper documentation his installations live on as myths without being tangible. Over the years he has become very important to me for many reasons, and that is why he was a perfect choice to complement the Hansen legacy.

We also adopted the title of one of his paintings, Susan Lecturing on Nietzsche, to suggest the presence of Susan Sontag in the museum.

The date on the poster, 1987, is the date of the painting, a year before he died. There is a recurring reference to the writing of Ad Reinhardt. For one poster we used his text to provoke a show that will look at architecture in the context of the city of Sarajevo, and the date is 1996, the end of the siege of the city. Or in another poster we linked him with 2007 that deals with the act of erasing historical reference. Mladen Stilinovic, Dushan Percinkov and Andrej Szewczyk are artists that we find important in the development of contemporary art in Eastern Europe. They may not be well known in the West, but they are all appreciated and highly regarded in the East (Stilinovic in Croatia, Percinkov in Macedonia, Szewczyk in Poland).

The project is also a reflection on musealization of art and construction of parallel historical narrations. I remember that early in our discussions we were asking ourselves: “What would have happened if Hansen’s utopian proposal had been accepted? What kind of curatorial strategies would have been enforced by the reality of a “foldaway museum”? Can we foresee any artistic reactions to the idealistic umbrella – like platforms that were, after all, supposed not only to host but also to inspire art?” These are all questions that provoke actions and we see our work as one proposition in that dialogue.

Sebastian: I thought about some parallels between your Spiral Trip, when you traveled from the center of country to Skopje following the shape of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and the latest Eastern/Western European art history-focused project. What struck me was the shape of art history, which is more spiral than a simple vertical line, it’s so characteristic for our times, how we drive in circles, come back to the same points, getting inspired by some unexpected discoveries from the past...Is art history a spiral trip for you?

Yane: Art history is an endless source to return to and discover either new meaning or reinterpret existing knowledge anew. And the intrinsic value of the spiral is its infinity, its continuity. The experience of a return as you progress further along a trajectory is analogous to rereading and rediscovering. So similar to our approach when we traced Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the entire territory of Macedonia and we traveled the course that was illogical and purely coincidental – it was the spiral traced on the map that went over valleys, mountains, cities, people’s homes, forward and backward, up and down. It was ultimately a challenge set against the backdrop of a politically charged time – the armed conflict in Macedonia in 2001. We somehow needed to conquer the fear of venturing outside our own hub, the safe zone and trusted pool of knowledge, and produce an experience that will simultaneously bring in monumentality of land art in the context of the sublime travelogue of a solitary observer. The Spiral Trip, as well as the Oskar Hansen’s Museum of Modern Art, attempts a new discourse on the future if you will. Art history introduced to an anticipated, politically driven history shaping up in the present. We continuously make connections between points of discontinuity to see how they will all start to play with each other and constitute a new historical vertical.

Hristina: I agree, it is impossible to see it as anything else but a spiral, and postmodernism is exactly that – a continual search for references and discourses that are not vertical but convoluted, closer to the shape of a spiral. In that context, I want to also mention another collaborations we did inspired by Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, the Spiral Swim Line in Rincon, Puerto Rico in 2004.

The imperative in Spiral Swim Line is to stay true to the form and the dimensions of the Spiral Jetty, using materials originating from the public context of the small town of Rincon. By engaging a site free of art historical references that could develop a completely different experience of this monumental artwork, in a way, we managed to return once more to the idea of translating art history through a 1450-feet long structure that we built directly into the ocean. If Spiral Trip was a personal experience of territory and context, Spiral Swim Line was a collective experience of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty providing a discourse to monumentality achieved through individual translation and public engagement with an idea.

Sebastian: The story told about the imaginable Oskar Hansen’s museum ends with Andrzej Szewczyk – a charismatic avant-garde outsider from the Polish peripheries. His attitude toward art was deeply connected with his predilection for philosophy, literature, classical music as well as with his truly rock’n’roll lifestyle...What assets of his works attracted your attention and why did you decide to include his exhibition in your science-fiction archeology series?

Hristina: The Paintings from Chlopy are repainted section of walls of cottages of the fishing village of Chlopy located on the Baltic Sea. Because of their monumentality (the sizes of the paintings were in scale 1:1 to the original walls) and simplicity of color and shape, they are not meant for a gallery space, multiplying the presence of the walls, but should be placed outdoors, in an open space. We basically asked which space would be more suitable than Hansen’s proposal with its wall-less and flexible platforms.

Also, there is some nice linking in the way their legacy was preserved and treated – Hansen managed to edit its own monograph and Szewczyk manage to leave detailed instructions on how to approach and install his final works. It was a wonderful experience to see his exhibition at the Upper Silesian Museum in Bytom and feel the sublimation of forms and colors that draw you inside the work.

Yane: Szewczyk was a contemporary of Hansen and it is interesting to see how they share some of the visual and theoretical ideas about space and meaning. As we became more aware of Szewczyk’s work Paintings from Chlopy and the reason that they came from the climate of haiku, from imagism, we saw it as a great complement to the concept behind the open form theory. This work seemed a fantastic exhibition to imagine for the nonexistent museum in Skopje.

Sebastian: The Guerilla Girls cynically wrote on their poster that one of the advantages of being a female artist is “being included in revised versions of art history”. Might that joke also be applied to Eastern European artists? Is our delayed reception an advantage (take into consideration such projects as History Is Not Given initiated by IRWIN) that we need to survive?

Yane: Well, I think that if there is certain delayed reception, it is self-imposed as a result of political, social, cultural factors. Because of the political system that favored social-realism in the aspects of art and culture, it took longer for minimal, conceptual, media experimental art to find its way out in the wider cultural context and be available for critical analysis. Only few artists as exceptions managed to make impact in a wider art context and be perceived as relevant. But what is interesting now is that it is extremely irrelevant to feel that art history has mismanaged the input or heritage of Eastern European artists. They should be judged on individual merits and in context of the time and place in which they created. So it could be that our delayed reception is more our strategy, and as such very successful indeed.

Hristina: If you don’t know about something, it does not mean it does not exist. The West can commercialize certain artists and certain movements as it sees them through the prism of commercial activity. You can also not look at Eastern Europe as one large and similar area, as every country develops its own understanding of art history because of different political, economic and cultural circumstances (e.g. the Balkan region was five centuries under the Ottoman Empire that caused strong oriental influence and rather different development of the history of art compared to Western and the other parts of the Eastern Europe). I like and appreciate how Guerilla Girls have voiced the absence of women in the official art history through their actions. But I am suspicious that in the attempt to write a revised version of art history the acknowledgement given by the Western culture (I’m thinking here of North America and Western Europe) will be less obvious. If you take into consideration some recent attempts to locate female artists in important international publications, you would never be surprised with a name that you already don’t know. It seems that there is still a lot of research that needs to be done, to make room for including names not necessarily recognized by the official art history.

Sebastian: Is Macedonian contemporary art discussed as a political or social tool? I wonder how the communist past of Yugoslavia and politically committed art of that time is perceived today.

Hristina: After the conflicts in the Balkans, arts and culture started to be used as a tool for initiating social changes. Socially aware works and community based projects were and still are strongly supported by foreign donors who remain important as indirect authors of the country’s cultural policy.

I do not have the feeling that the artists were forced to create exclusively politically – committed art in the socialist period.

Yugoslav artists and their works were appreciated and many of them enjoyed privileges granted by the state. They used to get working and living spaces; they were employed in cultural or educational institutions, museums and the galleries used to buy their works for their collections, they were internationally promoted, etc. It is interesting that they have kept that powerful position to this today. Nobody criticizes the past because it is accepted as a natural way of development. Unfortunately, the position of young artists nowadays is totally the opposite in terms of working conditions and incentives offered by the state.

Yane: Contemporary art is not much discussed in any light, and when it is, it is mostly referred to in the context of being a social tool, an esthetic tool. Important and relevant artists who defined the conceptual and also politically and socially engaged practice of former Yugoslavia are few and they are not very well known. The problem is that some of them, Mladen Stilinovic, Tomislav Gotovac, Sanja Ivekovic, Marina Abramovic, Irwin and NSK, are still productive and still relevant but cannot even be appropriated in the educational curriculum. I wonder why the fine arts academy, which is, in many ways, a new institution, established in the 1980s, functions as a formal and dogmatic organization, without any clear vision of the future. The institution misses the opportunity to matter more, to present itself as a different model, as a place of updating art and contemporary artistic practice. Everything seems to be very individual and accidental.

Sebastian: Could you describe what your motivations and needs were when you established press to exit project space? Where is your institution located on the map of contemporary Macedonian culture?

Yane: The motivation really was to create a platform for initiating change in the dialogue regarding art and production, to promote it as a place committed to supporting curatorial research, initiating new projects with artists raising the standard of conceptual and research-based practice. It is also a place for lectures and talks by local and international guests that contribute to fill the gap in the educational offer, providing a discursive forum for everyone interested to participate in something live. We figured that due to the lack of institutional leadership and educational guidance, we will have to step in and do something, to bring attention to our work, to raise questions related to existing in the art-world periphery and to start inviting the art world to pay attention to what we are doing in Skopje. We are recognized and appreciated by the cultural scene, and most importantly, we feel that we can to some degree instigate a positive change.

Hristina: When the state institutions are not fulfilling their roles, you cannot wait for better times because your time is now. These projects like press to exit are our fortune. We have grasped that opportunity not being totally aware of the actual situation (what is the potential of the local scene, the needs, and who are the people we can work with). We had created a program and a structure as a reflection of our perception and after a short period of time we realized not only that we had been right but also almost alone in what we wanted to achieve. When I was answering the first question about a perfect museum for Skopje, I realized that I’m talking about the press to exit project space. When you are one of the few and you have proved that you are good, you became the key space for both local and foreign cultural workers. Our project space tries to fill the gap in educational, artistic, and curatorial practices, by encouraging new productions of local artists and curators, inviting interesting international guests, establishing networks and partnerships with similar organizations or initiatives, promoting artists abroad, etc. The input is visible even now. What is striking, in a positive way of course, is that the youngest generation – still students or recent graduates – need our knowledge and us. It’s a tough, demanding, crazy project, but it’s fun and a great challenge.

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