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Boris Kostadinov Explores Art's Interaction with Political and Economic Realities

Updated: May 3, 2020

Art Curator Boris Kostadinov - photo by Pavel Dousek

Boris Kostadinov is an independent curator and art historian based in Berlin. His projects are in the field of contemporary art and photography, conceptual design, fashion, architecture, sound and interdisciplinary forms. His work explores the interaction of art with political and geopolitical realities, economics, social processes and theories: economy of art, art as a social or activist gesture and art as a political platform. In the following interview we deep dived into some of the key elements in Kostadinov's practice and the principles guiding his projects.

In your work, you focus on exploring art’s interaction with political and social economic realities. When approaching a project, do you follow a particular process, or each time you come up with a new idea?

The concepts behind my projects are different each time, because they arise from different facts, realities or outlooks. Yet I always start from the same position—that art is an integral part of all the processes that define the contemporary world and mould it in the way we experience it. There is a large number of people in this same contemporary world who share the faulty, pre-modern idea of art as a beautiful and sophisticated realm of human fancy which stays at a remove, enclosed within the abstract spaces of museums and galleries. For another, relatively small and economically active part of society, art is a collectible investment product. Still, the way this view is put into practice does not lead directly to prosperity for the art community, nor is proof of collectors’ expertise regarding art’s diversity or how significant art is in social terms.

"Contemporary art neither is a beautiful, eccentric accessory in our daily life, nor can be seen solely as an exotic market product"

Artists live their lives the same way as all other members of society. That is why they, as everybody else, are directly exposed to social, political and economic environments. These factors form the basis which art uses to engage in a debate on the current constellation, assess it critically and ultimately confront it. In its book Finance and the Good Society, Robert Shiller says:

"We tend to think of philosopher, artist or poet as the polar opposite of the CEO, banker or businessperson. But it is not really so."

Shiller defines clearly the contemporary neoliberal framework in which art exists—just like all other activities.

Global economic, political and social processes in fact determine the very politics of art and its economics. The frequent non-acceptance of this fact makes us hear the notion that artists are loners who create ‘illusory worlds’ and need no economic and financial resources; and the attempts to restrict artists’ manifestoes to the ‘safe’ spaces museums are all too frequent. Of course, here we see contemporary art’s attempt at confronting such a problematic reality by using socially engaged practices, public interventions, community and forms of activism. These forms make it possible for art to engage not only with its actual place in society and the economy, but also to try to bring about a radical change in our civic attitude towards human rights, discrimination and problems of minorities, technologies, media, ecology, natural environment and the exploitation of natural resources by global corporations.

To a large degree, this complex set of factors is something that concerns me, which is why I work on projects that involve artists who critique the conservative or populist clichés, come up with alternatives, or both. An example is my project “Tweet Kim Il Sung” (2014) (at IG Bildende Kunst, Vienna), which turned to the forms of public protest and discontent and their direct connection with social media and technologies. Another example was the large-scale travelling exhibition “Migrations of Fear” , which I did jointly with Ilina Koralova at four locations in 2017—Forum Stadtpark, in Graz, Austria; the Center for Contemporary Art, in Plovdiv, Bulgaria; the Koroska Gallery, in Slovenj Gradec, Slovenia; and the Kunstverein, in Leipzig, Germany. It dealt with refugees and the migrant crisis in Europe and, from there, the rise of nationalism and political populism in societies. Also my exhibition “I Am the Others and the Others Are Me” (2019) (Mitte Media Festival in DNA Galerie) essentially sought to set down what we talked about earlier—the functioning of the contemporary artist in the current framework of the post-industrial age.

But for me it is important to add that I am cautious with the displays of the so-called socially engaged art. In my various exhibition projects, I always ask myself: how far can art allow itself to go in its political correctness? Artistic activity carries a large amount of subjectivity, and in one measure or another, each significant work of art goes outside what’s ‘permissible’. In this sense, I am always sceptical towards the work of artists who cling exclusively to the widely accepted political correctness that ‘good tone’ imposes on public dialogue. In the words of Gaspard Koenig: ‘Too often, works of art are being judged not by their aesthetic or intellectual merit, but on how closely they tow a certain ideological line’.

Migration of Fear, Forum Stadtpark, Graz - opening with the performance by Kamen Stoyanov, photo by Lena Prehal

As a curator, I have the advantage to know both artists’ positions on art and their private and everyday lives. Some of them who in their art push for a resistance to the current system, equal rights for minorities, equitable distribution of capital and protection of the environment, in their private lives operate rather differently, problematically or outright unacceptably compared with the avowed conviction demonstrated in their art. That is why, as convinced as I am that artists should be active in their critical assessment of contemporary world’s errors and problems, I also believe that art should apply the same critiquing methodology to itself.

Your work is also directed at art, public spaces and technology. How do these affect your projects? Is it a proactive effort, or rather a reaction to the culture around you?

I’d say the latter. I belong to the generation that was formed in the 1990s and was marked by the utopias following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rejection of the old ideologies, the birth of the internet, and the concepts of globalisation. Back then we believed in the future of a united and democratic world that would do away with the ever-rising number of borders and would begin to freely exchange ideas thanks to the new technologies.

I think this exultation lasted up to the global financial crisis that started in 2007. The resultant shock showed that the world had become something different but that the ambitions to control and manipulate public processes had remained the same. Later the rise of technologies, along with the transition to digital society and economy, made easier the unregulated collection of data, cyberwars, the production and proliferation of fake news, and further aggravated the strategies for mass manipulation of minds and beliefs. The art-and-technology problem has a special place in my work, because I see artists‘ important role as ‘social linguists’, as people who ‘translate’ the sophisticated language of innovations into a mass language of society.

This was the foundation of my exhibition ‘Mind the Gap’ (2013) at the Radiator Gallery, New York, and at the bäckerstrasse 4 Gallery (2015) in Vienna. It is a reflection on the idea that our time could be described as ‘technological Middle Ages’—a dystopian metaphor for swift technological advancement concurrent with the rise of disadvantaged communities and compromised and outdated systems; an era which bases its mythology on the scientific progress that does not provide real alternatives for reforms of different anachronistic public models.

The influence of science and technology in our current life is much more massive than what used to be, for example, just 20 years ago. That is why I think that the process of creating art cannot be other than interdisciplinary and cannot escape the influence of technological progress. In fact, the process of artistic research is rather similar to that of scientific research, which is why in many instances it is obligatory that the two exchange practices and ideas.

You are the current director of SCOPE BLN; you were also director of FLUCA. Can you tell us more about these projects?

SCOPE BLN is a large project I’ve been working on in recent years. This is an innovative ‘co-living, co-working, co-creating’ platform for contemporary and interdisciplinary art that we are developing in Berlin. It is located in Berlin, in Moabit, which is a neighbourhood that did not have a cultural infrastructure of its own in the past but has been developing one in recent years, attracting ever-rising numbers of creative activities. SCOPE BLN has two exhibition spaces. Currently we are building a small cinema hall and a studio for contemporary dance that will host also small-scale concerts. Additionally, I am working on an international artists-in-residence programme for artists and curators. It is designed for professionals working on interdisciplinary projects and seeking a creative artistic experiment, exchange, professional collaboration and development in a multicultural environment.

SCOPE BLN has its own collection (35 works so far) by international artists which is constantly expanding. The initiative creates a model for an active interaction with the community. Developing community art-orientated projects is indeed interesting and challenging, but it has also its own specifics. First, it requires a common conceptual basis, one that answers the needs of both professionals and members of the public who do not create art in their everyday lives. Under the project LS43 by Eliasfilm, are often arranged video art screenings on the windowpanes of the exhibition spaces. They are meant for passers-by and serve the purpose of ‘social sculpture’, taking art into the street. I encourage our in-residence programme guests to interact actively with the community. So last year we mounted the light installation for public space by the Czech artist Pavel Korbička, which was later formally presented at the House of Arts, in Brno, in the Czech Republic.

FLUCA - Opening of the Season 2019 - Plovdiv European Capital of Culture, photo by Lina Krivoshieva

The other project whose artistic programme I have been engaged in last two years is FLUCA–Austrian Cultural Pavilion in Bulgaria. In 2019 it was part of the programme of Plovdiv–European Capital of Culture 2019. FLUCA is a cargo container that has been turned into a mobile platform for art in public spaces. The goal is to present Austrian contemporary art before international publics. The programme has been quite intensive so far, and we’ve managed to mount 22 exhibitions, 16 music events, two art residences, an international conference, various screenings, presentations and performances, among a host of activities. In 2018, FLUCA was also part of the official programme of the International Contemporary Art Fair viennacontemporary in Notgalerie, Vienna, and in 2019 it visited LLLLLL Verein für Kunst der Gegenwart in Vienna.

"The curatorial profession has changed significantly in recent years"

As an art curator, can you mention one or two elements of your daily work that have been customary 10 or 15 years ago but are no longer relevant?

Yes, the curatorial profession has changed significantly in recent years. There was this talk of the “end of the curator” sometime around 2005, but in fact it was a discussion on the overall shift of priorities and practices. For me the chief difference is two-fold: (1) the leaving the academic sphere that until two decades ago was the order of the day in large projects of museums and biennials and (2) the entry of curators in the fields of the public and even “the masses”.

Nowadays, curatorial activity that relies solely on specialised knowledge has no future to speak of: we communicate much more directly, reaching out to much wider publics across the entire spectrum of society. Curators today need to shed their role of specialists and become educators and even entertainers—professionals with an immediate connection to communities. This understanding is part of my work for SCOPE BLN we spoke about earlier. I think Alan Brown and Steven Tepper have come up with a wonderful definition of what the new curator is: "What seems clear is that the old value system in which the authority of the curator is prized is being replaced by a new value system that invests more authority in the collective wisdom of crowds, and that requires a more opportunistic, interdisciplinary, and collaborative approach to artistic decision-making. 21st century curators must develop the skills to diagnose and understand community need and then refract that knowledge through their artistic vision and core capacities. This is not to ask the community what it wants, but to frame programming decisions in a community context, and to position the institution at the heart of civic discourse. The curator will curate not only artists, but also community dialogue."

Structuring Space, light installation by Pavel Korbicka for SCOPE BLN, photo by Pavel Dousek

You are currently based in Berlin, having spent many years in Vienna. Can you share some thoughts about the differences between the two art scenes? Also, how do you envision the Berlin art scene in the coming years? What the art scenes in Berlin and Vienna have in common is that contemporary art is in the public focus, represented in all manner of ways through an excellent cultural infrastructure of museums, educational institutions, artists associations or initiatives in urban environment. The difference is that in Vienna this process relies heavily on public funding, while in Berlin entrepreneurs, foundations and art companies play a key role. Undoubtedly, Vienna is a centre of art in Central and Eastern Europe, but still, its significance is regional. Berlin, on the other hand, is one of the world’s international art metropolises, a place that offers a diversity of practices and production models. This optimises in a considerable degree the conditions for creating innovative and democratic strategies for creating art.

How is Berlin changing? Cris Dercon had a brief stay (full of scandals and disapproval) as director of the Berliner Volksbühne. But I think he is right about one thing. He says: I have always defied Berlin’s ‘Poor but sexy’ slogan. This is a sort of unstable thinking that I dislike. Berlin is still poor and will be getting poorer because of its huge social differences. But artist’s thinking in the vein of: ‘I can survive on a beer or cappuccino to think up something interesting’ does not go very far.

This encapsulates the change that’s already here, but a considerable number of artists still refuse to acknowledge it and comply with it. Berlin simply cannot go on relying on its image of achievable oases of freedom that it enjoyed in the 1990s. To live and work here today is incomparably more expensive and more difficult, and the syrupy neo-punk spirit is still a trademark image but not a daily reality. For a long time now Berlin has been facing but one course of action—to start normalising and getting closer to the reality of metropolises such as New York or London. This may underwhelm art idealists, but it is a logical and unavoidable process that’s set to completely change the atmosphere here.

Kostadinov continues to work on SCOPE BLN’s next in-residence programme, as well as developing the concept behind the next Mitte Media Festival in Berlin that will be part of the Light Year project on the Manhattan Bridge, Dumbo, Brooklyn in New York.



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