‘Heterotopia as the process of art’

Almost every major arts and culture venue in Thessaloniki is hosting some part of an enormous, ambitious art exhibition this summer. Titled «Heterotopias» and featuring 77 artists from 41 countries, the First Contemporary Art Biennale of Thessaloniki addresses the issue of «center versus periphery.» Inaugurated at the State Museum of Contemporary Art on May 21, the exhibition is about locating «heterotopias» (misplacement or displacement) in global art and juxtaposing the real world with that of art. The philosophy behind organizing yet another international biennale of contemporary art is explained by the acclaimed art historian Catherine David, former director of the famed Documenta art expo in Kassel, Germany, and currently one of the three curators responsible for the Thessaloniki event. The French curator was invited to recommend works by artists from the Middle East. Contemporary Art Museum director Maria Tsantsanoglou is curator of art from Central Asia and from the countries of the former Soviet bloc, while Jan-Erik Lundstrom – director of Sweden’s Bild Museet in Umea – recommended artists from Africa and Latin America. David’s recommendations reveal a generation of artists who worked according to their own rules, under particular political circumstances, and who transformed reality in a truly essential manner. For many of the artists this is the first time their work will be on display at an international event. What can yet another biennale offer? I don’t feel as though we are starting from zero, because the State Museum of Contemporary Art already has a world-renowned collection (the Costakis Collection). The event, furthermore, will offer an opportunity for the public and critics alike to become acquainted with works of art that are not normally represented in conventional international biennales organized in Europe. Does this event have a possibility, in your view, of eventually becoming on a par with the major biennales (Venice, Sao Paolo, Sydney, Berlin)? There are biennales that are held mechanically and artists who show their works as decor. A very interesting event in my opinion is that at Sao Paolo, because it expresses the social environment through dialogue. Berlin’s, even though it has been held six times already, has failed to create a particular profile. I think that for a biennale to survive among others, it must have an identity. Of course, once the Thessaloniki event is over we will see what the city can do to promote and support it. But it is very important not to become restricted to the two dozen artists who recycle contemporary art. Do you see any early indications as to the identity of the Thessaloniki event? All the curators are working with artists who in the main don’t belong to the so-called Western world. Our objective is not to present an exhibition that is exotic, but to present work by unknown artists who will initiate a dialogue with the so-called Western world. What is certain though is that we are not looking at their art through a protectionist or colonialist perspective. What does the exhibition comprise? There is photography, painting, video art, drawing and installations – though I do not like using this term, it is understood as a three-dimensional artwork in a space and nothing more. I hope I have not chosen established artists, as we normally hear. They represent two generations; one up to 35 years of age and the other from 35 to 60. The only exception is Anna Barseghian from Armenia. What was your selection of Middle Eastern artists based on? I am not interested in artists who simply amuse themselves with art or use it for commercial purposes. I focus on the essential aspect of art, the work of artists who experiment, art that develops new ideas and forms. There are countries that are excluded, even in this day and age, where art is used as a social commodity, but they have a limited production because there is no market to support and promote it. Has the selection been made with the aim of promoting artists from countries that have little or no access to the contemporary art centers of the world? We can’t talk about the center and periphery in the same way we once did. We can’t say that there are some artists who discovered modernism today and others who haven’t done so yet. What changes is the different conditions under which they work. All artists have their audience today, irrespective of who they are. Wafa Hourani, from Ramallah, holds exhibitions for an audience of 20 people, in contrast to Pedro Romero from Seville. But, their approach to art corresponds to the type of show they hold. Has their work been influenced by globalization or the political conditions they experience? These artists certainly work under very different political circumstances. However, you won’t find an objective relationship between the artist and his work, but you will between the artist and the subjective process that leads to the end result. What do you understand as heterotopia in art? Heterotopia has a very particular, but also a broader, more open definition. I am trying to express the concept of heterotopia by going beyond the dimension given by Foucault to the definition of the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere in «The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible.» I examine heterotopia as the very process of art. I mean works that are more productive, works that essentially transform the world in the realm of the senses and by extension the social and political environment. On its own, a work of art is heterotopic. I mean that it re-examines, at times overtly and at others less so, its position in society, its identity, things that exist with or without it, but which are simply transported to another locus, which is the locus of art.