«Practice what you preach»

Agnese Čivle, Sergej Timofejev

An interview with the Chief Curator of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art – Greek-born Katerina Gregos


The Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) will run from 2 June through 28 October 2018; however, preparations for the forum are already underway. The project’s headquarters are located on Elizabetes Street, traditionally a neighborhood populated by foreign embassies and international missions. The first events for the press and the art circles are already being held. The first to take the floor on these occasions is usually Agniya Mirgorodskaya, an enthusiast of contemporary art from an affluent Russian-Lithuanian family who has taken on the financial burden for the project. Agniya, a calm young woman is also the founder and commissioner of the biennial.

She is followed on the front line by Katerina Gregos, an energetic and determined representative of the Greek diaspora who has been living in Brussels for ten years now ‒ after having been the founding director and curator of the Deste Foundation’s Centre for Contemporary Art in Athens. Since serving as artistic director of Argos – Centre for Art and Media in Brussels, she is now an independent curator whose name has long been associated with exhibitions that pay equal attention to artistic qualities and political - social engagement. One of her hallmark projects was the 2005 Leaps of Faith exhibition in Nicosia, Cyprus, the last divided capital in the world of an island country split into Greek and Turkish areas. The project was the first art event to take place in both sides of the divided city as well as in the UN-controlled ghostly buffer zone, now deserted by its former residents. A year earlier, she curated the Channel Zero exhibition for the Netherlands Media Art Institute in Amsterdam, which explored the subject of representation of violence in the media. Katerina Gregos can also count among her projects two national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, including the 2011 Speech Matters exhibition for the Danish pavilion, which dealt with freedom of speech in the contemporary world. This subject was extremely important for Denmark in the aftermath of the scandal involving religion-themed cartoons that had provoked an outrage in the Islamic world, and which, subsequently, also caused the norms and values accepted as customary in the West to be questioned. The exhibition that she curated brought together 18 international artists to contribute to the exhibition of the Danish pavilion, shifting the emphasis from formal national representation to presenting a range of themes and subject matters topical for the country. For the Belgian pavilion in 2015, the exhibition that Gregos curated focussed on the country’s colonial past and the legacy of colonialism, inviting ‒ for the first time in the history of Belgium’s participation in the Venice Biennale ‒ artists from Africa, including Congo, a former Belgian colony. Nevertheless, Gregos has not forgotten her own native country and its artists: an exhibition entitled No Country for Young Men: Contemporary Greek Art in Times of Crisis ran at the Brussels BOZAR in 2014, presenting a vision of the economic crisis in Greece through the eyes of 33 Greek artists. In addition to that she has curated several large-scale biennials including EVA International (Ireland’s biennial of contemporary art), Manifesta 9, and the Goteborg International Biennial, among others.

Photo: Ioli Tzanetaki

Gregos’ most recent projects (apart from her work as Artistic Director of Art Brussels ‒ a post Gregos held for four years, until the summer of 2016) include A World Not Ours for the Munich-based Schwarz Foundation, an exhibition that examined the problematics of the refugee crisis. It was launched last year in the Greek island of Samos and then travelled to La Kunsthalle Mulhouse in France (having also been included in the official institutional programme of Art Basel). Forthcoming exhibitions include The State is not a Work of Art, a show examining the upsurge of nationalism that is taking place in Europe right now. This exhibition is part of the art programme dedicated to the centenary of Estonian independence, and will be divided between a number of key Tallinn art spaces, including the Tallinn Art Hall.

Katerina Gregos is the Chief Curator of the Riga Biennial and the creator of its concept, she is also providing her expertise in setting up the Biennial. She always chooses somewhat poetic multilevel titles for her projects. On this occasion, she has picked a phrase by the USA-based anthropologist Alexei Yurchak: ‘Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More’. It is the title of his book on the downfall of the Soviet authoritarian system ‒ a collapse that was hard to predict even a couple of years prior to the launch of Perestroika. However Gregos emphasizes that she does not intend to develop an artistic statement on the post-Soviet theme. The quote interests her in a much broader sense: she sees the strategic mission of the inaugural Riga Biennial as an artistic contemplation on the progress of the equally revolutionary transformations taking place in our life right now. ‘These transformations often take place unnoticeably, very slowly, with a pretense to everything running its natural course ‒ like it was with mobile phones that quickly became part of our reality; today, no-one feels comfortable leaving home without such a device. It is a simple example of how previously unimaginable things become indispensable to us ‒ for better or for worse. And these changes accumulate, sometimes slowly and sometimes extremely fast, until there comes a moment when we suddenly experience a break in our consciousness, a sort of shock. In our epoch, for the first time in human history, the concept of change has been accelerated to incredible speed. This is due to the information and technological revolutions and the advent of digital communications: today we are constantly within reach, existing in a kind of network all the time. In the West, we have never before been so prosperous and, at the same time, have never had such a huge proportion of burnt-out or Prozac-dependent people. That’s on a personal or micro-level; on a macro-level, we are entering an era of genetic modifications and artificial intelligence, which, on the one hand, presents incredible opportunities, yet, on the other hand, can also lead us to unthinkable dystopias. And while there are heated debates on these issues, they are not frequently discussed within the mainstream contemporary art scene. For this reason, it is this particular current moment that we want to explore ‒ this period in time when all of these giant social, political, existential, technological and scientific shifts are taking place, and we want to examine it from a location ideally suited for the purpose. After all, Latvia and the rest of the Baltic countries have experienced a whole stream of perpetual changes and systemic shocks throughout the last hundred years... Conceptual underpinnings aside, it is very important for us that the Biennial grows from the inwards out; that it takes root and makes roots in Riga first of all.’

Katerina Gregos and Agniya Mirgorodskaya. Reception event of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA). Riga, 2017. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

RIBOCA promises to present a substantial proportion of art from this particular region as well as from the Nordic countries, in addition to international artists.  The main venue of the Biennial will be announced in September 2017, while the names of the participating artists will be made public only next year. Another member of the Biennial team is Berlin-based, Danish-born Solvej Helweg Ovesen, who Gregos brought on as associate curator. Ovesen is also a successful curator of solid international reputation. The very fact of Katerina Gregos and Solvej Helweg Ovesen building contacts with Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian artists is definitely a very positive one. Perhaps RIBOCA may become the event to solve – to a certain extent ‒ the obvious problems that many talented artists from these countries have with international recognition. However, the tasks facing the Biennial team are, indeed, extremely tricky ones – including the need to seek a certain level of understanding among the local public (for whom, of course, the events of the public and educational programme are being planned). Recognising those challenges, we wish to offer you a more extensive introduction to the person who is about to become quite a significant and permanent figure on the artistic horizon of Riga ‒ at least for the next year or so.

Let’s begin our conversation with something simple and basic. How do you usually start your day?

I start my day with a hefty coffee infusion, as I am one of those people who cannot open their eyes before having a cup of coffee. I do one of two things on workday mornings – if I’m in the middle of having to write a text, then that is the first thing I do because that is when I am most productive (after that cup of coffee, of course). It is the most creative moment for me in terms of writing. If I’m not writing, the first thing I do is I read the newspapers. During the workweek I read on-line, but on weekends I always read paper-based newspapers.

So, I begin my day with words and I end my day with words because I always try to read before I go to sleep. And very often, I read something that has nothing do with art.

The idea that I have for the Riga Biennial has been inspired by different things I have read, but it is my own idea. I am very wary of the incessant ‘quoting’ that goes on in the art world and try to generate my own ideas for exhibitions.

When I’m in Brussels, which, unfortunately, is not as often as I would like, I have a very regular life. As I’m constantly travelling, I need to have some time at home – valuable time in my office to work, to think, to be with my books… If I can have this valuable time, then I always go out for a walk as well, at least an hour a day when I can.

Do you think about conceptual things during your walks?

Mostly, yes. Or some human-interest things…

Do ideas come to you in sleep sometimes? Have you ever woken up with a feeling: ‘Yes, that’s what I need!’

It often happens that I have good ideas in my sleep; that is why I have a notebook next to my bed so I can immediately write them down when I wake up, before I forget.

There are ups and downs in creativity. Sometimes it comes like a waterfall, but sometimes you just stare at the wall for days and days...

I had this kind of a block when I was shortlisted for the Danish pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. I couldn’t believe that I was given this tremendous opportunity, but I was so anxious about coming up with something great that I couldn’t think of anything. And days passed and passed... Actually, this was unusual for me because normally I’m quite productive. And then a few days before I had to hand in my proposal, I simply woke up and knew – Yes, that’s it!

Sharon Hayes. An Ear to the Sounds of Our History, 2011. Installation view, Speech Matters, The Danish Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale. Curator: Katerina Gregos. Photo:

What was ‘it’?

It was the international group exhibition Speech Matters. The whole idea started with considering how one could challenge the concept of national representation at Venice. In this day and age, it’s still quite strange that the main orthodoxy at Venice is a solo exhibition of the work of an artist whose nationality/country is represented at the Biennale, usually male, usually somewhere around middle age… For me, this model is a little bit outdated, although it is still possible to do good things with it.

So, it was an exhibition with eighteen international artists, and it was quite a radical proposal at the time since only two of the artists were Danish. And the subject was freedom of speech, hence the title Speech Matters, which is a kind of pun on ‘questions of speech’, but also, speech being something that matters very much in our society. It explored the limits of freedom of speech because censorship and self-censorship are on the rise. The timing was also important as it was not many years after the Danish cartoon scandal [in 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad, the principal figure of the religion of Islam, even though it is considered highly blasphemous in most Islamic traditions to visually depict Muhammad – ed.] due to which the country experienced incredible trauma; a lot of things changed, and lots of things are still changing in Europe and elsewhere. All the hate-speech laws and the political correctness cannot even be humorous anymore just because it might offend someone... The exhibition was about what exactly constitutes freedom of speech, what are the limits one can put on it, who decides what those limits are, and where do these limits end and where do they begin. The exhibition explored all of these very complex questions.

Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin. L’Echiqueté, 2012. Installation view, Personne et les autres, The Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale. Curator: Photo: Alessandra Bello

We were just talking about how precious and limited time is, how one plans their time and how things start to pick up speed once deadlines approach… In a related sense, your proposed concept for the Riga Biennial is about the information revolution and how it has changed our pace of life.

I think my work as a curator – and our lives in general today – are very much about navigating all of the information out there. When I say information, I don’t mean sound bites, but knowledge. I am constantly gathering knowledge – from the artists, books, the internet, from people I meet – and filtering it. And I am a very curious person; I’m always interested in hearing and learning. Consequently, one of the challenges I face is how to filter all of this information. And this is very stressful.

The conceptual idea for the Riga Biennial has to do with the anxiety that many of us are now experiencing in relation to this accelerated life most of us are experiencing. We know that ‘accelerationism’ not a natural state of affairs. Of course, we’re all dancing to this tune, conducting our lives as if everything is normal. But if we think about it from a philosophical point of view, there is something really wrong with the fact that we are constantly rushing around in order to produce, to consume, to produce, to consume. Artists are in the same are you, as am I, as we all are.  A lot of people suffer from this. Many people don’t admit it because they don’t want to appear as being left behind, as if they have not been made for these times.

Of course, it varies from place to place; it is a little bit different in Riga or Brussels compared to New York or London, but at least in the professional, industrialized world of the urban classes, we all face this pressure to perform. So, whether we like it or not, we are completely immersed in this capitalist cycle of production in terms of our bodies and our brains. And I think there will come a moment when we have to reflect – What is the meaning of life in all this? What really counts? Is there another way?

Elisabetta Benassi. M’FUMU, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Magazzino (Rome). Installation view, Personne et les autres, The Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale. Curator: Photo: Alessandra Bello

But if we compare the Baltic and Nordic countries (which are at the focus of this Biennial) to other places in Europe, then we see that they are in a slightly different speed zone...

Indeed, and I, too, am privileged to be living in Brussels and not some sprawling, alienating mega-city. But still, you are not cut off from the rest of the world as everything and everyone today is increasingly inter-connected.

Its important to remember, however, that this Biennial is not only about Latvia or the Baltic States. It is an international biennial and we have to talk about something that is relevant to the world right now. Of course, there are degrees and shades, and there will be certain different levels of how the Biennial is articulated in relation to local and regional geopolitics, and even to more global politics.

The way in which work and labor are changing is also something I’m interested in. This was also reflected in Manifesta [the Manifesta 9 European Biennial in Genk, Limburg, Belgium, in 2012 – ed.], where we did a project on global economic restructuring. There has already been a transition from industrial production to cognitive capitalism and a kind of knowledge-based economy; more and more people are working as independents, which means that they are unprotected, and in the future, robotics will make thousands and even millions of people redundant. And those people will never find work again. This is also part of the concept. What are we going to do with all these people who will need to have a purpose in life? So, these are pretty major – even existential – questions for humanity. It is not only about technology. The exhibition will be more of a reflection on all these issues we are struggling with.

This is a massive and serious issue. Do you believe that contemporary art has a large enough arsenal to provide any answers?

It’s not a question of answering. I don't think you can expect contemporary artists to answer these questions. This is not their role. I mean, even great intellectuals – philosophers, physicists, scientists, thinkers – cannot sometimes answer these questions. So, you cannot expect that artist will do so, but what they can do is contribute their reflections on these issues. Artists are more often better informed and knowledgeable than even the average educated citizen because they are curious – they read, they research and they discover amazing things that you have not seen or heard or read anywhere else. And this is something that has always fascinated me. Secondly, I believe that artists have a way of looking at the world that is very different to the pragmatic way that politicians look at it, or the way that the media looks at it, which is always based on data, quantitative analysis, or the way that scientists deal with the world. Artists bring completely different views because they filter the world through both aesthetic and critical reflection.

To answer your question – no, they will not provide answers, but they will offer surprising insights. And many contemporary artists, particularly those who work with research-based practices, actually bring to the table a lot of knowledge that was not previously available to the general public.

Ninar Esber. The Two ladders, 2009. Courtesy of the artist 
and L’Appartement 22-Rabat. A World Not Ours, 2016. Curator: Katerina Gregos. Pythagorion art space, Samos, Greece

Taking into account that people today rely on the cultural sector more than they do on politicians, what do you think about the curator’s responsibility in terms of an event like this Biennial? To what extent should the Biennial distance itself from – or the reverse, involve itself with – reality?

First of all, I don’t think that curators are obliged to make political shows. Just as artists are not obliged to make political work. I think that one of the beauties of what we do is that anybody can do whatever they want. So, I can be a curator who is interested in, I don’t know, let’s say strange rituals (which I’m not), and I can make the most esoteric and mystical shows that bear no relation with so-called real-world society because it is solely in my interests, and I have the freedom to do that. The same applies to artists. I believe that there is no responsibility to stick to a theme that is political or social in nature. Personally, however, I am interested in art that has a social or political focus, because I cannot see art outside the role it can play in society.

The responsibility of the curator is the following: first of all, to stay true to his/her principles, whatever those may be in terms of his/her curatorial vision; to support the artists, to create the proper conditions for artists to work and present their work. The primary responsibility of the curator is a public one – to properly communicate and justify the content that he/she is dealing with; to be able to inspire the audience to engage with whatever the subject of the exhibition is; and to have a certain respect for the visitor’s intellect and time.

Artists want to communicate; otherwise they wouldn’t be artists. So, as a curator, you have to help them realize their vision and communicate it.

Personally, I am a curator who really likes to communicate with people; for me, the collector, the curator, and the art professional are all just as important as the guard who is sitting in the corner of the exhibition, telling me that he doesn’t understand what he is guarding.

There is another responsibility that’s also very important. For those of us who do happen to be involved in a political curatorial practice, we must practice what we preach. And this is my motto – ‘practice what you preach’. Because I am involved in socially engaged activities, I occasionally meet artists who profess very politically utopian or high-minded ideas – “equality, solidarity, community” etc., etc., then, once you start to know them a little bit better, you see that they, for example, treat their assistants badly. They are all very “political” when it comes to speaking with an important collector or curator, but when they interact with somebody whom they take to be less important, you see something else; this is something I find very problematic. If you’re going to talk about the exploitation of minorities, you have to treat minorities properly yourself; if you are going to talk about precarious economies, you can’t rely on armies of unpaid interns or badly-paid assistant curators, and then pay yourself a handsome salary.

The first thing I expressed to our team is that I want to create a sustainable model; I don’t want anybody to be exploited, and if we produce new works, we have to pay the artists. This is something that I try to always insist on, as well as making sure that artists have the opportunity to install their work the way they want it. I am closely involved with the artists when I put together an exhibition.

Tanja Boukal. Ode to Joy, 2014. Courtesy of the artist. A World Not Ours, 2016. Curator: Katerina Gregos. Pythagorion art space, Samos, Greece

Speaking about communication and negotiating, we heard that you began this week in Riga by meeting with thinkers and philosophers, and you discussed Riga...

This meeting was organised for me by the Biennial, so it is not something that I requested, but I think that it was a very good idea that they did so. And the idea was, first of all, for me to present what I am doing and for them to give me feedback about the history, the culture, the politics here, etc. To exchange ideas and, basically, to get to know more in depth what is going on here. Of course, I am doing my own research and I have my own eyes and ears, but it’s always very rewarding to speak with people who are from here and who know what is going on. I am keen to gather as much knowledge as I can in order to do my job as well as I can.

At the Media Breakfast you mentioned that someone at this meeting said that Riga lacks its own narrative.

I find it hard to believe that a city doesn’t have a narrative, but perhaps what that person meant is that it doesn't have an over-arching or ‘master’ narrative. Berlin has the over-arching narrative of being the capital of cool, Paris has the over-arching narrative of being the capital of ‘chic’, and so on. I think what they meant is that, when thinking about Riga, you are not thinking of something in particular. Which is good; in fact, very good, because it means that there is no stereotyping going on.

Would you like to bring some narrative to Riga?

I certainly don’t want to brand Riga, no. I will bring narrative to the show. I am not here to re-brand the city. I have no power to do that, nor an interest in doing so.

But perhaps this Biennial is an opportunity to bring in this narrative?

It depends on the Biennial; it depends on the title and it depends on the content. I am somebody who has always found positing master narratives very problematic because mostly they suppress many other narratives – multiple narratives which probably exist in every place, including Riga, and so on. I think that all of my exhibitions have been interested in parallel, suppressed or marginalised narratives. And I intend to do the same thing with this exhibition.

I think that the title also points to the fact that there is a concept, and that this concept is pretty clear, although it does leave some room for the imagination. And this is precisely something that I want because I’m not fond of slogan-like titles that immediately position things in a way that is very boxed-in, or ‘fixed’.

Today we have many artistic forms of expression and formats that have been around for 40 or 50 years – installation, performance, etc. Do you think that it might be time for artists, as professionals, to think about changing their format or narrative?

One cannot say that artists should change their narratives; there are so many different narratives in art that I cannot imagine any other profession that is richer in this sense.

As far as the medium is concerned, there are a lot of things that are not reflected in a lot of the mainstream biennials. I mean, there have been tremendous developments in new media art (I’m not sure whether they are interesting or not, though). The main problem is that, very often, they are just very tacky – too concerned with their own technology. But if you combine that with an interesting story and critical subtext, something very interesting might be produced. I think that maybe you are right in implying that it seems to be a good moment in which to reinvent things. Something may appear to be old fashioned, but very often that’s not the fault of the medium – it is the message. What does the performer say today, what does the painting say, what does the installation say...? It depends very much on the content, and it also depends on the inventiveness of the visual language. I think we all experience a certain fatigue and ennui because so many things are interchangeable, and it is becoming quite rare to find artists who are really working transformatively with visual language – not just documenting something, not just re-presenting something, but really transforming it, filtering it, shaping it into something else. And this process, for me, is very interesting. The artists that I find particularly inspiring are the ones who have a strong conceptual and critical basis, but who are also able to create surprising images.

Now that you’ve studied the Baltic art scene, what are your impressions?

I am not going to make any generalizations about the Baltic art scene. The only thing I can say is that the three countries are very different. I am always very careful when I use the word ‘scene’. I would rather just say ‘the art in the Baltic countries’. I think it is very inappropriate, especially now, when I am starting to work on this project to start making sweeping generalisations.

How are you going to work with the artists from the Baltic countries, the Nordic countries, and the international artists? Do you have a kind of model ready?

The connecting thread is always the curatorial theme and the artists who are already working around these issues. I never go to the artist and say – can you make me a work about this or that subject? I meet artists and then I see if we have common interests or common lines of inquiry. Then the dialogue can be initiated on whether an existing work will be shown, or will they embark on a new production. So, for me, the connecting thread is the content and the theme. Speaking about ‘nationalities’, it is always very good to juxtapose artists from specific locations with other artists – to create a dialogue on how people see things from different perspectives and different angles due to their coming from different cultures. And here I’m very privileged to be emphasizing Baltic artists especially; the Biennial is an appropriate platform for that, but I’m not going to work with quotas. If there are ten good artists, then there will be ten; if there are five, then there will be five. I hope to include as many as possible, but I’m not going to select them based on their passports.

Team of the RIBOCA. Photo: Elena Spasova

Tell us about the Biennial’s organisational team. We understand that it consists of an international group of professionals.

My title is Chief Curator, which means that I am the artistic director of this project. Nevertheless, I think many brains working together are better than one. Hence, I decided to invite Solvej Helweg Ovesen, a Danish curator who is very knowledgeable about the Nordic scene (which is important for this Biennial), to work with us as associate curator. And we also have a very promising young Greek curator on our team who graduated from Goldsmith’s last year, Ioli Tzanetaki. We are also going to appoint a curator of public programmes; that person will be somebody from the Baltic region. We are also building up a team that will involve several people from the region. We are working with an international Press & PR office, Pelham from London, but our Head of Communications, Inese Dabola, is Latvian.

This Biennial is being completely sponsored by private sources. How does working with this type of a model differ from art events with other kinds of financing models?

There are various types of biennial models. There are publicly funded biennials like the Gothenburg Biennial and the Thessaloniki Biennale, both of which I have curated. There are biennials which are quasi-public/quasi-private. Then there are biennials that are increasingly being sponsored by private initiatives; for example, the Istanbul Biennial is generously supported by the Koç family, one of the richest families in Turkey. And, of course, each biennial – including us – have their core funding but also attract other individual sponsors.

For me, what is very important in every project that I do is that I have artistic freedom; and, that I am able to put into place what I believe is a particular set of ethics of professional conduct – so-called ‘best-practices’ in the business world. And I have to say that this Biennial is giving me this opportunity, which is also the reason that I accepted to do it. 

The fact that it is a private initiative with a good endowment gives us a tremendous amount of freedom. And I see the Biennial – regardless of how it will be judged by each and everyone who sees it – as a great gift for Riga.

You mentioned this absolute freedom, but in a world where everything is so interconnected, is total professional freedom even possible anymore?

For myself, as far as my work is concerned, I can say yes. I have been extremely lucky. Of course, sometimes you have to make compromises based on what is possible. But the artistic content is something I always reserve the right to have the final say on, even if I should always remain open to suggestions and advice. As a curator, I am privileged in having been free to pursue my projects. I am not affiliated with any institution and don’t have to answer to any board, so I am free to determine the content of my work. However, freedom comes with the responsibility to know how to use it. Freedom doesn’t mean that I can do whatever I want. Freedom means – I know what to say and when I need to say it, but I also know when and where to stop.

Is it possible for an artist to do this?

That depends on the artist. I know lots of artists who stick very steadfastly to their vision, and I know lots of artists who try to cater to a fashion, to a collector, to a gallery, to a curator, or who conduct their work opportunistically. The art world is not different from any other human domain or discipline. The same kind of rules and human fallacies apply. But it’s true that you see an increasing number of artists following the market, and this is sad. Luckily, I know many artists who ‘stick to their guns’ so-to-speak, and this gives me enormous faith to continue to do what I do.

Marc Bijl. I Love Status Quo, 2005. Courtesy of the artist. Leaps of Faith. Curator: Katerina Gregos. Nicosia, Cyprus

Today’s artists are in a position where they’re trying to be one step ahead of society. That relates to what we spoke about in terms of the fast pace of life. We don’t know of any artists who go off for long sabbaticals to far-off places like Tibet. We just don’t see artists like that anymore.

Because I don’t think that they can afford the luxury to do those kinds of things. To do something like that, you have to have money in the bank to pay for the apartment you are leaving behind, to cover your bills... Economy is involved in everything…

In 2005 you had a very powerful exhibition in Cyprus, in the city of Nicosia, where the society is very split ethnically and religiously. In Latvia we also have a quite divided society, although not at such a critical level. Are you planning on touching upon this issue, addressing it in any way?

This is something I am very aware of, and it is very much in the back of my mind. I believe I will address these issues somehow, but I don’t know yet how; it is too soon to say. It’s a very complex subject, and first of all, I want to understand it properly. Secondly, it shouldn’t be just a token gesture.

There is also another thing that I think people often don’t understand. When as a curator you make a group show, a biennial, they might say: “It’s a bad show, the curator did a bad job”. But they’re not actually thinking about the artists in the exhibition. A bad show is probably bad because the works in the show are not good. You need good material to make a good show.

Why am I saying this in answer to your question? There are, very often, issues that I want to work with, but somehow I cannot find the right content, or the content is too simplistic – it is not complicated enough. It also depends on finding the right artist who can negotiate these kinds of sensitive issues thoughtfully.

What sort of an effect did this project have on the people of Nicosia? Were there any lasting repercussions?

It was incredible. It was extremely empowering for people. The exhibition in Cyprus left an after-effect long after we were gone because it created so many relationships between the two communities that had not been there before.

The exhibition took place on both sides of the divided city and in the so-called ‘dead zone’ or ‘Green Line’, the UN-controlled buffer zone between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (which is not recognized by any country in the world other than Turkey) and the Republic of Cyprus, which is now in the EU. We had the incredible privilege of the UN allowing us to open up spaces in this zone for the first time.

We brought the two communities – the cultural community of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and the cultural community of the Republic of Cyprus – together for the first time. They met, they developed relationships, and they continue to make projects together.

Sigalit Landau. Rule Britannia, 2005. Installation. Courtesy of the artist. Leaps of Faith. Curator: Katerina Gregos. Nicosia, Cyprus

Could you tell us about the project that you did this year, on the Greek island of Samos?

I am a curator for a non-profit Greco/German Foundation in Munich called Schwarz Foundation. They maintain an exhibition space on the Island of Samos; located just 1.2 km from the coast of Turkey, it is the Greek island closest to Turkey. It was one of the four islands that were at the epicenter of the refugee crisis in 2015. This foundation is quite socially engaged, and when they invited me to the show last year, I thought I couldn't do something that didn’t address the issue which had affected the island in an unprecedented way. The population there is 30 000, and 250 000 refugees came through the island. I curated a project called A World Not Ours, which is now travelling. The title was inspired by the film with the same name, by the Palestinian film director Mahdi Fleifel, and which itself was borrowed from the Palestinian author and activist Ghassan Kanafani. I wanted to make an exhibition that somehow complicates how we look at the refugee crisis because I think the way that it has been portrayed in the media is over-simplified and so standardized. I wanted to explore the origins of the journey and what happens to the refugees when they arrive in Europe. What are the legal obstacles, the legal procedures, and the day-to-day adaptation to this completely new world? It was a very difficult project to do in Samos because it is a very sensitive issue. Although Greece is in a very big economic crisis, the island received all these people very warmly because the Greeks remember the time when they were refugees themselves – between 1921 and 1922 there was a huge population exchange between Greece and Turkey during the Greco-Turkish war. 1.2 million Greeks with Turkish passports had to come to Greece as refugees; these were Greeks with Turkish passports – they were not welcome in Turkey, but they were not welcome in Greece either. People remember this. In the first year of the refugee crisis, people were very open. But because there was so much negative publicity in the media, tourism started falling and, of course, one’s frame of mind starts to change when one’s own livelihood is in trouble. So we decided to invest a big part of the effort, energy, and budget into the education programme. We had the majority of the schools on the island participate in this; we organized teachers’ workshops; we devised educational workshops for children in which they learned to understand what it is when you talk about the ‘Other’; and we also did a special programme for refugee children. This, of course, created a lot of effects, and it brought people from two different worlds closer together in order to start understanding each other... When you talk about effects, I always think about how empathy can be generated. And you can only generate empathy when you make the other person start thinking “What if I were in that position?” On a micro level, this programme brought all these people together and it shifted things. This is what we do. We work on the micro level, which, nevertheless, has a trickle-down effect that you cannot even know or measure. The dynamic somehow always continues in some way – if you have done something good.

Related articles