Cosmoscow Blog

Artistic cosmologies. Discussion 1

On May 13, the first discussion of the Public Program “Artistic Cosmologies: Worldmaking & the New Normals” took place. The participants were Katja Novitskova, an Estonian artist living in Amsterdam, known by the Estonian national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and Annika Kuhlmann, curator and artist, executive director of the Schinkel Pavilion (Berlin). The moderator: Simon Rees, the artistic director of the Cosmoscow Art Fair. We are publishing the transcript of the meeting.

Simon Rees: Welcome to the first of a series discussions under the title: “Artistic Cosmologies: Worldmaking & the New Normals”. The series is presented by the Cosmoscow Foundation (Moscow) in collaboration with the New Center For Research & Practice (Berlin).

In recent weeks we have all been forced to stay isolated due to the quarantine and to reconstitute claims on our own consciousness and the collective consciousness. We had to make worlds in our respective homes and living spaces; and find ways of telling about them to outside worlds. Of course at the beginning of the lockdown there was a flood of amateur online creativity, which has now shrunk to a trickle… leaving the online ground well-watered for artists and cultural producers to do their tilling hereafter.

I hand it over and welcome Katja and Annika.

Annika Kuhlmann: Thank you very much! I’m excited to speak about the new normal.

Katja Novitskova: Yeah! We had a quick chat yesterday with Annika and realized that from both of our perspectives and also from perspective of Annika as an artist, a lot of the topics that are concerning to us are very practical and immediate, and relevant to a lot of people at the moment. That the issues of how to continue with the practice, how to make living, how to reimagine your practice, how to face your early existing commitments and deadlines that were brought up in normal conditions of normal world. And so now it's just this like a waterfall of events and changes that is happening.

I still haven’t fully rationally decided how I am going to change my practice or how I am going to react to the new conditions and possible economical fuss, that seems like possible to turn into economic collapse, especially in the art world. I think these practical questions are actually the core topic for everybody. And then looking at them you start realize that the way things were normal back half of a year ago were normal because we adjusted to certain conditions of how things use to be institutionally.

With our ability to travel several times a month, or ability to go to studio and interact with multiple collaborators at the same time. Things like this are now impossible. So, yes, this is like the start of everything going other way now.

A.K.: Yes, thank you very much, Katja, I think that’s a very good speech. Simon introduced me as the Director of the Schinkel Pavillon and I also work closely with the artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas. Thus my curatorial practice becomes very fluid between looking at things from the institutional curatorial side and being very closely involved with artistic processes. And I guess in that double function I’ve become acutely aware of multiple realities that have been changing within the field of art over the last couple of weeks.

And it’s definitely very interesting time where a lot of things seem possible and a lot of things are very precarious and unsure. I think of one interesting thing that we spoke about yesterday in relation to both of our practices. Maybe we can talk a little bit more about where we are coming from and what we’ve been doing over the last years just as a way of introducing ourselves also a little bit more.

K.N.: Yeah, it’s a long curve story. In the beginning of my practice I didn’t have a studio. I only had it ten years ago literally, maybe, 2009-2010. My studio was my laptop and a desk. Sometimes I worked in my bed. I was making net-arty or early post-internet-arty things with social media like tumblr or just little website stuff and that made sense to the conditions that I had back then. It’s interesting that it coincided with 2008’s economical crisis. I also was just graduating my master’s. And then I went through this loop of becoming a real artist and then gaining exterior practice and also gaining opportunities to exhibit in big institutions, museums, make and ship and plan installations and sculpture work that all requires multiple people to handle, to make and to somehow plan. And then…

I still have a studio, but I haven’t been to my studio in 3 months. My studio is in Berlin and I decided to voluntarily quarantine in Amsterdam because I was there when the lockdown started.

And so now I’m back to may be considering the loop again. I have a computer and this is going to be my station for a while. I have to pay rent every month. And I’m barely using it, so it doesn’t make sense. What’s the plan here? And then it also of course makes me question the type of work that I make. About the resources versus the art.

NEW EELAM, 2019. Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view, Spike Island, Bristol. Photo: Max McClure and Stuart Whipps.

A.K.: Well, different narratives, different loops... I mean, maybe I start with the ongoing practice we have developed together with Christopher. We have been collaborating with him over the last five years now. And the first show we did together in 2016 for the Berlin Biennial, when we developed a body of work that we have called New Eelam. One of the basic ideas of New Eelam was that in a sense, the home is going to be a main site of production in the future.

And how more and more people will be working from home, in more and more flexible ways. What's been really interesting for us in this COVID-19 crisis that's going on is that obviously this thought that we've had and that we've been following and exploring multiple ways over the last years has now become a very tangible future.

Not just for artists to, but for more and more people - for people for whom this idea of working from home seemed to be unimaginable.

And then I guess for me, it's especially interesting because I work in an institution. I do very much think about how we as an institution can react to this changing situation. And obviously, for Schinkel Pavillon, just as for many other institutions worldwide, it's been quite a shock to be forced to leave our space and to completely rethink how we will exist in the future.

K.N.: I also remember that you wanted to make your home into some sort of conceptual project?

A.K.: Well, we did not necessarily want to make our own home into a conceptual project, but the home itself has been the core of an exploration that we've been doing. We are very much interested in rethinking how people live and rethinking the role of the home, of the apartment, of that private space. And how architecture could be changed through a different way of inhabiting space and how that then might lead to a reaffirmation of society.

K.N.: Yes. And I still… Twitter's CEO just said that all his workers can stay a homeworkers even after the quarantine is over.

And it's like he makes this big new shift between the essential ones who needs leave the house and the ones who can have a small office at home. And these are two completely different classes of people and somehow there's a new conflict.

There’s always been a certain class-conflict, but now it's very clear. There are people, you know, like postmen and nurses who have to go out every day. And then there are others...

A.K.: Yeah, absolutely. And it's interesting how that idea of essentiality is not reflected in status or income. So that idea of being able to stay home as a non-essential worker is tied to having a status where you are not forced to leave home. And I feel essentiality has got a real dark turn. Similar to the way we talk about heroes in the context of COVID.

Katja Novitskova, Corona folds, 2020. HD video screengrab, 15'47min

K.N.: And in that sense, I feel completely terrified for the next year because of just the uncertainty of the whole machine that we are part of. We have certain promises, contracts we have from a while ago.

Should I radically change my life plan now or should I just wait.

If I wait, I am going to waste time. Even though I am doing normally my deadlines. At the same time everyday I have to think about survival questions. Should I be writing this text now if be a sort of learning a new skill.

A.K.: I know, it’s like we need to do something all the time. I called Christopher yesterday to tell I was going to learn Python. And I read the text online about a woman who thinks about how to make your own flour.

Maybe we need to learn essential knowledge that might help in a situation that we are currently in.

But I take back to artistic practice. Do you think that you practice actually will change? I mean I understand all the infrastructure changes, but do you feel the need to to think about a lot of things to address it other ways?

K.N.: I feel like it will change, now it is going to change even more in a sense of that acceleration that you mentioned. Before Covid I already had that sensation. I somehow practically was thinking towards that already. I was about to rethink how to make a sculpture and start playing with 3D sculpting software more. It was slowly getting in that mood and actually when the lockdown started my initial volunteering desire was to just learn all these new techniques to make sculptures behind a computer.

This actually is more pose for me now, because I feel like I am forced to do this.

I wanted to make a small video game, to have small environment, building around artefact based narrative. I realized I need to learn as you did. I can try to learn it myself but spend like a year on it. If I hire people now I am not sure I am able to pay them. By the end of the project I do not know what I am gonna do with this game. I redirect the question: should I even start then? Or should I do something more conservative, small scale. I definitely won’t make a big installation now unless somebody comes to me..

A.K.: And buys this in advance...

K.N.: Yeah (laughing) For years coming I have a project that I am working on. A big art commision for a hospital in Denmark. This hospital is still being built. It was not canceled. Everything, and the commision are all the same. And it might be the core project that remains for next two years. There is a need for hospitals at the moment and they have an art budget. But it’s also weird. I feel like the hospital budget needs to go on protection devices and ventilators.

But when I looked into a research and into art in hospitals, I found that there is a clear research that it does help people. They do not feel as in a laboratory, isolated from the world and this very healing. This is maximum what I can do now for the world. Just to create some aesthetic and attention grabbing things that will make life somehow more tolerable.

BEING HUMAN, 2019. Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view: Ground Zero, Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, 2019. Image: Andrea Rossetti

A.K.: In your work you thought a lot about animals images, about technologies. It’s like part of ecosystem, evolution. And that is made of human and non-human actors. In a sense that Christopher and I were thinking about in our last work “Being human”. And speaking about the virus, I think it seems to be an officiant technology. What do you think about it?

K.N.: That is another accelerator. I started to make a biotech exhibition before Covid. My new topic in my practice was supposed to be biomolecular, biotech. Basically, I was researching the intersection of life and industry, business. But business if of less interest for me than a clash of systems, living systems like bacteria, laboratory animals. Now with the Covid I read a lot about it.

I do not see how it can be a bioweapon. Just because everything living is still much more complex than a clear biomolecular code. I do not think that anybody can design something that can be so functional and so effective, in a way so real.

Although, viruses are not even considered as life forms, they are somehow in between. Some viruses are close to life forms and some of them are primitive. Covid is pretty simple and so it’s been interesting to see a tiny viruses like this clash the whole big geopolitical, geotechnological, planetary scale conglomerate. The scale of this confrontation is impressive.

At the biological level a virus is “an equalizer”. Anyone can be infected, common people or Boris Johnson. Biologically everybody is settable to be in a same way. These viruses expose a lot of things in a biotech side and also myths about society. In that sense it’s good to see how clear things get.

A.K.: Yes, Christopher and I have been thinking about a current situation, how it forced a real environment experiment on us.

We can basically see how different government and different political systems are reacting to the situation. In a way the death count is like a scorecard.

In a very real sense that measures the success and the failure of how particular system has reacted. I really wonder how they play out in the near future, in a couple of years. It will probably be shifted between America and China. It might not. Just today Christopher told me that Bloomberg has announced that if Sanofi vaccine is successful, Americans will receive it first. Which is a statement of the geopolitics and the real meaning of America.

I talked to my father a couple of weeks ago, he is a doctor in Berlin. He is an essential worker, and my mum is too. They are both working in this system. My dad was so angry about lack of cooperation and support within Europe. He was strongly insisting that patients from Italy could be treated in Berlin. We have empty beds here. So, that is a local European example of how Covid has redrawn borders, obviously we consider in a larger scale as well.

K.N.: Yes. Back to art question. I was also thinking from the beginning of how not to aestheticize this topic, how not to make it attractive for my work. I realize the amount of covid art or post-covid art we will get, because it’s what everyone is thinking about today. But for me personally, I am an extremely visual person, so I have a tendency to respond to things visually. And if I have a strong image in my head it becomes more than an image, something that it signifies. I do not want to make sexy covid art. By sexy I mean just an opinion in a marketable way. But also you can not ignore the reality. So, you have to address to it somehow. Back in the old system of the art world there will be this tendency for the best covid art..or ten best covid art works.

S.R.: I noticed about 10 day ago that covid emoji appeared in Iphone. I wondered in which way can you positively or appropriately use a covid emoji?

K.N.: When you are joking about it, when you are teenager it is fine to joke about it. But it is still dystopian as a reality of course.

A.N.: It’s a very good interruption.

I mean obviously some pop-culture will be developing around covid as well.

It’s going to affect art and art is going to respond to it. In a way that almost drives us back to the beginning of our conversation when we were talking about production conditions. I think that one question is how to succeed in a covid art? 
I mean that circulation of form and how to find the most attractive form, and then to put interesting content into an attractive form. I think that is something art has been very good at. But at the same time, I feel like the production condition that we are currently facing are also going to produce a certain type of work. I think the art world quite drastically changed in 2016 after Trump was elected. And I feel like may be, I don’t know obviously, but may be what we are looking at now is a similar moment. Depending on how long this crisis is going to be and depending on which scale we think it will have from local to planetary basically. There will probably be significant changes.

K.N.: But what kind? Will it go towards VR and video games, online streaming platform etc as a main platform of the artistic expression? Or will it be just drawings in someone’s room?

A.K.: Or lots of zoom conversations that everyone is having now. On the other hand, I’ve seen really beautiful formats, that I haven’t experienced and expected before. Like creating a joint space for a certain moment that could go from a collective therapy session to spontaneous karaoke, to a lecture, to a studio visit, all fluid in the same space, people coming and going. And

I wonder whether those practices point towards a new type of institution almost that could emerge in the situation that is no longer in one place, that may be no longer has a building, that works differently, that emerges within a group of people out of the practice. That will require a new funding structure. No idea what it will look like but that’s one of the interesting challenges.

K.N.: I wanted to ask you what will happen to this beautiful Schinkel building? Would it be an online community? And there’s this beautiful building and so you feel like you have to stick with the building?

A.K.: Actually for us the question of leaving the building is a real question. One aspect always was to think about what happened when we had to leave Schinkel. The situation is the same as with Julia Stoschek: building is owned by the state. So what’s happening to Julia right now is in a weird way a warning for us today. It’s alarming and it’s a real threat, especially given the constant, that buildings going up the new townhouses around Schinkel, the change of the city structure especially in that area.

We are at risk and I think that forces something on us that actually has been really productive. Like using the city as a place where art can happen in very different locations and unexpected constellations.

K.N.: What I thought about when I was listening to you, is this worth precarity again? There was a sense of stability for a decade, but there is a problem with stagnant institutions, which are stagnant in their ways and cannot adapt. It’s sort of uncomfortable process.

If the tax revenues increase there will be no money for art funding and things like this, at least in the European countries. And so that’s all that’s been on my mind every day, I make tea and I’m trying to sit behind the computer and like “okay, let’s make a cute digital sculpture”. I’m sure there are a lot of other people in the more stressful positions than I am. I am one of the successful cases, cause I’m not broke immediately, I’m going to be broke in a few month. It’s interesting but I just don’t know how we should internalize this new precarity.

I think the way this new world has been going forward is that you except that you don’t have a stable work contract, you except that you can’t get a stable rent contract, you except the instability.

A.K.: I think that’s a huge responsibility that the politics have. And I hope that they understand that a condition of a freelancer has shifted in the last years and that there is a huge part of population that is basically working from their home and is not less essential to society. Because your home is your site of production and your body is your tool basically and your mind. So what else do you have?

K.N.: Exactly. And all their costs are technically personal costs.

S.R.: For technical reasons as our channel will close down just in future, I’m curious you deliberately wore a hoodie with caption “Spirituality” written on it? What does this mean in this context?

K.N.: We picked Mars backgrounds as our digital backgrounds and there are robots on Mars called “Curiosity”, “Opportunity” and “Spirit”. So I made a new one: Spirituality.

S.R.: That’s really a good one. (laughing)
My special thanks go to Katya and to Annika.