“House of Commons” is a constantly changing exhibition that recently opened at Portikus, Frankfurt am Main (Germany). The show arose as a response to the political events of recent months in Europe and the United States. In this conversation piece, Vivien Trommer (co-curator and Kadist Curatorial Fellow) and Viktoria Draganova extend the topics addressed in the show to a more general discussion on where art and politics meet, whether it is possible to reinvent the audience, and what are the demands on art institutions today. Certainly, all big questions at the end of a turbulent year.
*Vivien Trommer (1986 in Berlin) is Kadist Curatorial Fellow 2016. In collaboration with Portikus, the Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, supports an alumnus from Curatorial Studies, a master’s program at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste – Städelschule and the Goethe University, Frankfurt/Main, which is run and founded by Dr. Stefanie Heraeus, to engage in profound research and exhibition making. After having received her MFA in 2012, Vivien curated various exhibitions, worked as curatorial assistant at Kunsthalle Wien and, in 2015, as curator at MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38, New York.
*Viktoria Draganova (1980 in Sofia) is director of Swimming Pool, Sofia.
Viktoria Draganova: Vivien, as I recently walked into Portikus, I was surprised to find the space kind of re-built with this massive interior structure consisting of tiered podiums along the two long walls of the exhibition hall, which function both as seating and as displays for the art works – at that time, a sculpture by Dahn Vo and a photograph by Bruno Serralongue. Let’s take this as a starting point for our conversation. Tell me more about the show which, it seems to me, has completely transformed Portikus. How was it conceived?
Vivien Trommer: Earlier this year, Philippe Pirotte and Fabian Schöneich, respectively director and curator of Portikus, invited me to join them on a collaborative journey with the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris. At the end of my fellowship, we co-curated a more dynamic project at Portikus that would express our desire to deepen human commitment and awareness. At the same time, we wanted to realize a project that would respond to the changing socio-political situation in Europe and beyond, which seemed to be driven by a rising populism, a decreasing democratic awareness, and – let’s say – an potential loss of ethical values.
VD: Why did you decide to call it “House of Commons”, after the traditional British institution?
VT: The title refers to the architecture of the House of Commons. In this specific parliament, the members of the majority party sit across from the representatives of the opposition, so that the way the seats are distributed and arranged highlights the notion of dialogue but also of opposing opinions. Digging deeper into the history of the House of Commons and its earlier precursor, the Curia Julia of the Roman Senate in 29 BC, we were fascinated by its potential for our undertaking. So we invited Frankfurt-based architect Paul Bauer to redesign the House of Commons at Portikus and create an exhibition design that not only transfers this particular political architecture into an art context, but also serves, as you already mentioned, as a display for art works and as seating for the visitors.
VD: The show does not follow a traditional structure. On the contrary: the display changes every week, and there are also a whole bunch of accompanying events.
VT: That’s true. During the exhibition, many events will take place, such as an artist talk with Claire Fontaine, a performance by Kapwani Kiwanga, a lecture by Shadi Habib Allah. We generally invite the audience to join us at Portikus and everyone is encouraged to participate, but there is no pressure to speak up; it is rather about creating an atmosphere that builds on the potential of an art space as a place that can bring people together to listen, think, look, and talk to each another.
VD: It seems that you aim at examining how we “converse” – between us as an audience as well as with the art we encounter; and also by activating an audience.
VT: What fascinates me the most about the original House of Commons is that the speakers always plead with their backs to their party and facing the members of the opposition – this is different from the German Bundestag, which is reminiscent of the ancient Greek theatre, and where all members sit in a circular structure. Indeed, we are dealing with the notion of confrontation, parley, or discussion as well as with the possibility to suggest a different form of political dialogue and of participation. In this regard, Portikus seems to be the ideal space for working on such an experimental format. It is a non-profit art space with a low entry level. It also allows for immediate access because its architecture is very different from other museums, galleries, or institutions: as soon as we open the door, we find ourselves in the middle of the exhibition; there is no admission fee, cashier, or checkroom. Portikus seems to be a very open and welcoming space that allows people with different backgrounds to come and easily enter the exhibition. The title “House of Commons” just made a lot of sense in the end. I believe that the circulation of digital images has become so powerful that we felt the need to mount a show in which looking at art works, listening to people, and our locality matter once again.
VD: Your approach is not only concerned with the audience, though. Being also an exhibition display, the architecture is a means of reflecting on potential ways art works could relate to each other. So, is it also about curating?
VT: Fabian and I both share an interest in the notion of subjectivity that lies at the heart of curating. So, we decided to change the set-up every Monday – art works enter the show, leave again, other works change their position – there is a constant rearrangement which not only allows for different opinions but also enables us to see the art works in different constellations. I am hoping this triggers a critical narrative about the past ten years to become readable or visible.
But let me ask back: In an earlier conversation we had, you were telling me about your current research into questions of involving and reinventing the audience. What did you mean by that?
VD: I have always found it interesting – and here I am speaking from the position of someone coming from the periphery of the art world – that contemporary art has often been accused of being too elitist and therefore socially disengaged, and even irrelevant. Your approach seems to touch upon such accusations. Speaking from experience, I often find myself thinking about how to get people involved within an institutional framework in order to talk about issues that are raised by the works shown. But I soon face a contradiction, as I often cannot find words to address the problem at stake, especially because I am still interested in keeping the state of ambiguity or ambivalence created by an art work. The art work should have the freedom not to be relevant in political terms. This raises the question of what political role art and art institutions can play today. This question now seems to be more relevant than ever as there is an urgent need for action.
VT: I truly believe that art institutions can contribute to our communal life; and this seems to be their ethical impact. They can, and maybe should, raise the question: How do we want to live together? I personally try to use this as the big question whenever I have the chance to be involved in the organization of an exhibition; and I try to support the realization of strong art works that help us find answers to this question. Maybe I wouldn’t say that an art space is political per se, but I think it can follow a mission reflecting on our societal values.
VD: It seems to me that State of Flux: The Sunniest Beach, an exhibition at an all-inclusive hotel in the Bulgarian seaside resort of Sunny Beach, which I curated together with Gergana Todorova this summer, was the most challenging exhibition I’ve ever done in terms of audiences. We were trying to show art works to people who weren’t in the least interested in seeing anything or participating in any event, as this is what a vacation is all about – it’s about not having to participate in any events at all, so that’s why people normally choose a politics-free space for their vacation, such as that of the hotel, the beach, or the mountain. I realized that showing art outside the white cube is always a political gesture, as it always exceeds the particular situation. It is exactly this “too-much” that is the political moment. Then, showing contemporary art in Sunny Beach may perhaps be called elitist, but when you see the installation images you notice that the show is based on a certain narrative, and that this narrative actually has the potential to reveal different uncontested realities which exist side by side. I’m mostly intrigued by those narratives that evoke empathy and understanding.
VT: I am very interested about one particular issue you mentioned – that the exhibition “State of Flux” at an all-inclusive hotel seemed to have a political impact for you. During my research for “House of Commons”, I came across thrilling writings about the relation between politics and art by French philosopher Jacques Rancière. He believes that politics and art share a common idea, namely how both institutions participate in the reconfiguration of a specific space, a re-ordering of things, situations, and places. Politics are constantly concerned with the rearrangement of rules, ideas, and maybe even communities, and art institutions reorganize positions, art works, and formations, and make proposals. So, art and politics are places of production and re-presentation. They reorganize things and deal with the notion of how people and ideas relate to one another. Eventually, Rancière’s perspective not only triggered us to move the art works around and to change their positions, but also to see and understand them as things, as voices, as subjects, and as objects that are articulating and communicating opposing ideas. But I have another question for you: Do you have the feeling that Swimming Pool can have a critical impact on the local community in Sofia?
VD: Bianca Baldi’s solo exhibition Pure Breaths could be an interesting example in this respect. She deals with history and present forms of representation. At the same time, she binds all these threads together into narratives, which disclose new potentials in how we talk about history and its sources. Through mysticism, literature, fiction – and fuelled through desire – she enables a new sensation about the past. One becomes more empathic and starts sensing contradictions in history as we know it. In these terms, I’m not sure whether the show would have had a different impact on the community in Sofia than on any other community/audience; here, the different communities/audiences, are all treated equally, one might say. And, I’m not even sure whether it is about being critical.
VT: I believe that this is a critical impact already. The artist sheds a new light onto an issue that we are not yet conscious about, thus her work makes the problem of not-knowing, the unknown, and the unconscious visible.
VD: Yes, there is self-reflexivity at stake; and one could easily classify Bianca’s work within the realm of critical post-colonial discourse. For me though, her work is rather concerned with finding other ways of experiencing something. She tries to evade the whole critical discourse that is also a discourse of power based on the enforcement of categories and classifications. The show sought to build understanding on entirely different grounds by introducing “pure breaths” as a concept but also as a sensation – here, something entirely bodily becomes an abstract quality. Desire is a key element as it not only adds energy but can also be dangerous, upsetting. This is something I am very much interested in.
VT: I am curious to hear more about how you see Swimming Pool and its development.
VD: Swimming Pool has undergone a certain development. At the time it was launched, I didn’t know much about the audience – I knew that there was an interest in international art practices, but that people in Bulgaria weren’t really familiar with recent developments in the contemporary art world. I think I was motivated by the belief that people who recognized the complexity within their own professional field would also be intrigued by the complexities within the realm of the visual and the aesthetical. I also thought that within a globalized world, there is a place for many different models of thinking and functioning.
There is still a lack of initiatives as there are only very few independent project spaces in Bulgaria. One of the consequences of 1989 was a strong wish for stability which made people refrain from launching projects and growing with them because they were anxious about failing. All criticism seems to be targeted at the failures of the State – instead of trying to be more self-organized and independent, which could be the biggest asset in countries such as Bulgaria. In response to it, Swimming Pool is not strictly framed as an institution as it has adopted a desire-based, subjective, irrational, impermanent mode of operation. I think it is important to talk not only about sustainability but also about vulnerability. The good thing is that I see significant interest in the activities of Swimming Pool, even in Bulgaria where the contemporary art scene is yet to grow. People are very enthusiastic; there is plenty of the sort of energy that you cannot “buy”.
VT: I truly think that art events mobilize a larger audience today than they did ten years ago. Especially people between their 20s and 40s seem to be more attracted to art than they used to be.
VD: Of course, the question is how to turn this interest into support for a particular programme. Swimming Pool is a non-commercial space but it does engage in sales activities in order to support the artists and the continuity of its programme. The question has always been about how small-sized institutions can fruitfully combine both of those aspects, and you probably have some relevant experience after working for several different institutions.
VT: I had the chance to work with several women artists who had a very clear vision about how they want to collaborate with art institutions. They knew that institutions should support their work through artists’ and production fees, thus playing a crucial role in co-production, communication, and the realization of art works. Working with artists for me also means following their rules and ideas to help with achieving a set of goals. Only if I the institutions accommodate, will we be able to change the old-fashioned system in which commercial galleries are responsible for the financial well-being of artists and institutions are responsible for presenting art works to the public so as to increase their value. I think that this division only supports artists and art works that can be successful on the commercial art market. Nevertheless, as a curator, I am also interested in works that are not easy to sell; and I believe that institutions are obligated to introduce these works to the public as well. I would love to see this change. Therefore, I think that your survival and funding strategies for Swimming Pool mark a very interesting line. Staying non-profit while still allowing works to be sold for the support of the artist and the institution seems to me a very progressive institutional model.
VD: If Swimming Pool were a commercial gallery, it would probably have had to adjust to a totally different mode of communication that I find constraining and not as important in terms of the needs of the contemporary art scene in Sofia. Swimming Pool is related to certain empowering fantasies, to a personal desire but also to a community. It is more about caring, sharing and projecting a future. There has always been more at stake than the show and its products; it is also a shared experience.
VT: In New York, where I worked as curator at MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38 in 2015, I learned that culture can help to build and strengthen identities of a diverse society. Museums, galleries, and art centres are places where people get together, where we meet new people, and talk to each other. They are shared spaces, open spaces, free spaces. I found this very inspiring and helpful for a community to grow together – compared with European art spaces, which still seem to support the mission of museums as a “Bildungseinrichtung” that should educate the audience in contemplating about art. I believe in the opening-up of spaces and making them accessible for voices from various backgrounds – for diversity.
I am curious to hear what your 2017 programme is at Swimming Pool?
VD: I am also interested in working with young Bulgarian artists as I think they haven’t got a platform to express themselves and to participate in this globalized art world. I have also received funding from the Sofia Cultural Programme for a series of exhibitions related to European values. It seems, though, that I am struggling not so much with topics than with formats. I also want to make more explicit that an exhibition is actually a process. That is why I find the exhibition at Portikus very interesting. I would like to organize more one-off events without putting them within the framework of a huge exhibition project. I feel like I need the energy of people moving through the space and getting in touch with each other. I probably need something like a marathon.
 Rancière, Jacques (2009) “Aesthetics and Its Discontents”. Translated by Steven Corcoran. Cambridge, UK & Malden, MA: Polity Press.