Rejecting apathy

Helmuts Caune

An express-interview with Katerina Gregos


Last summer the Schwarz Foundation, a Munich-based non-profit organisation that supports contemporary cultural production from visual arts to music, organised a show in its Art Space Pythagorion exhibition space on the Greek island of Samos. The international group exhibition is entitled Anatomy of Political Melancholy and addresses the increasingly bleak, disillusioned and mistrustful feeling people have today towards politics and politicians, a phenomenon that permeates both our public and private lives. This year, from February 28 to April 13, it has travelled to the Athens Conservatoire (one of the main venues of the last documenta) and has been expanded to include 24 artists and one collective.

Anatomy of Political Melancholy is curated by none other than Katerina Gregos, the well-known curator with two decades of experience curating and organising art events with a political focus; she has been a curator at the Schwarz Foundation since 2016. Additionally, Gregos is the curator of the Croatian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, her third national pavilion in Venice, following Denmark in 2011 and Belgium in 2015. She is well known to audiences in Riga due to her work as the chief curator of the 1st Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. invited Gregos for a short interview regarding one of her latest endeavours.

Adrian Melis. 
Ovation, 2013-2018 (installation view). Seven Channel video installation, colour, sound. Courtesy of the artist and adn galeria, Barcelona. Photo: Panos Kokkinias

Why was Lieven De Cauter’s term ‘political melancholy’ chosen as the title for this exhibition, and what exactly does it encapsulate? 

I chose it because I think it perfectly captures the current moment and the complexity of political disaffect right now, as well as the feeling that is the result of the widespread political crises and impasses we are facing today in Europe and beyond. And this is exactly what the exhibition wanted to explore. Today, politics seems to be at its lowest level ever. Citizens, it seems, exist only to be managed, manipulated and exploited rather than served. Political campaigns deliver messages of fear rather than of hope, vision or solution; scandals and corruption abound, and miscreants offer apologies without sincerity and then quickly return to "business as usual". Voting is no longer about positive choice but about accepting the lesser of two evils. No wonder, then, that fewer and fewer people are turning out to vote, while many of those who still do are disaffected or angry. In addition, we are witness to the debasement of political language, the infantilisation and polarisation of political debate; the growth of a simplified discourse that panders to collective fears rather than addressing the real, pressing questions; the lack of accountability from politicians; and, of course, "fake truth" and "alternative facts".

Many people are thus disappointed with politics. The Belgian philosopher Lieven De Cauter calls this sense of disillusionment "political melancholy": a sinking feeling borne from frustration, anger, despair, mistrust, sadness and hopelessness. The artists in the exhibition probe the human experience of this phenomenon and reveal its complexities as well as reactions to it, on an individual and collective level.

Is there an overall message this exhibition is trying to deliver?

Absolutely. First, it aspires to encourage people to reject political apathy and individualism and instead believe in the power of both their personal as well as collective agency and start thinking of how they can become politically active – even on a small, local scale. Contrary to what neoliberal discourse says, there still are such things as society and community.

Second, that we should not fall prey to the polarised, simplistic discourse that is all around us, but make an effort to look into the complexities of political debate while being open to trying to understand "the other side", whatever that may be. It also asks us to think about what responsibilities we have as citizens. It’s all fine and good to blame politicians for everything, but we as citizens have responsibilities to consider, and our political choices affect the societies we live in.

Finally, the exhibition also aims to make us think about whether we can imagine a way out and what solutions might be deployed towards this. It’s easy to think there is no alternative, but alternative futures always exist, and change is always possible. But changes don’t come out of the blue. We also have to contribute to their creation.

Bram Van Meervelde. 
Series of ceramic and metal plates, 2014-2016 (installation view). Beeswax, acrylic paint. Courtesy of the artist and Transit Gallery, Mechelen, Belgium. Photo: Panos Kokkinias

How did the selection of artists happen and what – if anything – do most of them have in common?

I never go to an artist and say, "Can you make me a work about political melancholy, please?" I always work with artists who are looking into issues that are close to my heart and my interests, artists who bridge research, socio-political critique and transformative visual practices. What these artists in the exhibition share is, of course, an interest in the state of politics today. But apart from that, they engage their critique in softer-spoken, contemplative ways rather than shouting out loud and delivering one-liners and facile slogans. Most of the projects are the result of long-term research, not off-the-cuff reactions to current events.

Your recent curatorial work clearly indicates a focus on the political dimension of art. Why is that your preference?

Actually, it’s not my recent curatorial work. My whole practice since I started curating twenty years ago is focused on examining the relationship between art, society and politics with a particular view on questions of democracy, human rights, capitalism, finance, crisis and changing global production circuits. I am interested in this dimension of art because not only do I find artistic production most interesting here, but also because this is the area where I think art has the most to say. It is where the contribution of art to society can be most meaningful. In a society governed by vested economic and political interests, different hegemonies and master narratives, and fictions coming from all directions, artists are able to provide alternative views, counter-arguments, critical thought and what I call "correctional historiography" when they look at the past. In a way, art is one of the last bastions of free expression, if it is not instrumentalised by states and commerce. Having said that, it is important to point out that art is not obliged to be political; art has – and should have – the freedom to be whatever it wants and to take whatever direction and shape it pleases. 

Installation view (from right to left):Jennifer Nelson, Untitled (Mesogheia), 2016-in progress; Ariane Loze, Impotence, 2017. 
Photo: Panos Kokkinias

Do you think contemporary artists should be more politically engaged than they are now? Why?

Well, I would like to think so, but I cannot answer yes to this, for reasons that I already outlined in the previous question. No artist should be politically engaged. It is a personal choice. However, with all the major changes and challenges that lie ahead for humanity – from climate change, threats to the foundations of democracy, increasing technocracy and automation, neoliberalism, rising inequality, surveillance, "fake truth" and "alternative facts", and the omnipotent power of the social media giants – this is certainly a both timely and interesting moment to be a politically engaged artist. 

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