Curating Dangers: Jurij Krpan

Curating Dangers: Jurij Krpan

Jurij Krpan (SI) is the director at Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, Slovenia since 1995. In 2010, 2013 and 2017 he was a member of the Hybrid Arts jury for the Ars Electronica Prix (Linz, Austria). He has been a contributor to the EU Creative Europe projects Trust Me, I’m an Artist (2014-2017), and the European Digital Art and Science Network (2014-2017), as well as working with the European Commission – Horizon 2020 project Doing It Together Science (DITOs).
The following is a transcript of the conversation between Jurij Krpan and Zane Cerpina during Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria, 2017.
Zane Cerpina (ZC): Kapelica Gallery (in Ljubljana, Slovenia) is considered as one of the most dangerous art galleries in Europe, in terms of works and artists. What is your manifesto as a curator?
Jurij Krpan (JK): First, you should know that I am not trained as a curator. My background is in architecture, and my studies started in the 1980ies. And in Slovenia and Hungary in the 80ies, it was interesting situation because the artists were the first to start to raise difficult questions about the society as such. We were living in socialism, it was still Yugoslavia and we had a one-party totalitarian system. Since we were born in this system we were not able to reflect on it. We were like fish in a tank; they don't see water, they're just swimming. This is how we were living at the time. Then through the artworks that I was experiencing in the 80s, I began to reflect upon larger society, the systemics that were organizing my life. At the beginning, I was really upset about art, but since I'm a really curious man I started to delve into the topic and I got a completely new vision upon society and my life. So, I can say that art changed my life profoundly. And I believe that art can do that.

Understanding contemporary art
means understanding
the life we are living

We are now living in another ideological frame which is even more powerful, more profound, but maybe less visible. Capitalism with all its consequences form a biopolitics where we are just sustaining our bare life as a game of gambling. This is also oppressive. So, we need to raise difficult questions, we need to raise questions to the centre of power and to what the holders of power are trying to hide. I profoundly believe in the empowerment of civil society, and the projection of civil society that started in the 80ies.  Now with all the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) we are seeing how powerful we are as self-organized citizens. Because the state cannot answer our questions, we need to answer them ourselves. And artists are the most sensitive part of our society. They can sense everything much faster, much better than anybody else. I keep saying that understanding contemporary art means understanding the life we are living. Of course, we are constantly opposed to the classical understanding of art, which is object-oriented, pleasure proposing, recreational practice. The art market is the most powerful representation of the bourgeoisie production of art. It is super aggressive. And since its language is money, it completely goes along with the set of values that liberal capitalism is now promoting. Right now, we are living in a very special moment where big Internet platforms are taking over the initiative. Also over the rest of the social activities that National states previously had, from the social networking, information sector - the newspapers, the television and so on. Everything is moving on to the Internet, especially the commercial sector. We are not anymore as much in service to the National state as to the capital. They track us all the time, and all the consumer patterns that we are creating with our behaviour serve to concentrate money even more. We have this 1% rich against 99% poor situation. The whole set of values and the whole machinery, it is driving us, and our activities and what we earn for the 1% richest.

We are living in a
very dangerous world
so dangerous art is necessary

And I think that as the strategies of oppression are changing, the strategies of artistic activities are changing as well. We are living in a very dangerous world so dangerous art is necessary. I'm using deliberately your term, ‘dangerous’. For those who rule, art should be dangerous, art should be disruptive. And as a curator and as somebody who is responsible in the art scene, I'm not that kind of curator that just opens and closes the door. As the head of an institution I know that we need to show artworks next year, and next year and the year after. Therefore, I am deeply concerned about what the artistic production does, how the artists are living, if they have access to the technology, to the spaces and so on. Besides my curatorial practice, I run a lot of activities which are trying to defend artists against political decisions and so on.
ZC: How much does the considerations of funding and legal implications twist the curatorial process? Do these circumstances make artworks less dangerous?
JK: No. Because you need to know how the mechanism of funding art functions. We (Kapelica Gallery) are 100% publicly funded, and you can be publicly funded if the work you are doing is in public interest. We know our work is in public interest, so when we defend our production we go literal on that. The art project might be difficult, but it’s necessary, and it is up to you how you defend this necessity. Of course, there is also a subjective factor where those who are deciding on funding might not like you. Fortunately, there are different public sources through which we are funded; it's the Slovenian state, the city of Ljubljana and European projects. And once the work is produced and it is successful, alive, then everybody is satisfied. They don't need to understand it, but since the work got public recognition or the recognition from the professionals or abroad, this is the best thing that can happen to the artist. When this goes through, we can build further upon our values. In our 23 years of existence we have won so many awards and reached so many milestones that nobody can question the content we are doing. At times, various people have tried to change us or even disable us, either through financial discipline, or by attacking our support activities. Because our artists like to collaborate with scientists, with engineers and so on, they want to learn tech skills that they are not learning at school. Therefore, we do workshops or different activities, which are technical. They are not about art, but about tools, materials and so on. This year we were not allowed to fund workshops where the focus is on technical teaching. That is completely stupid. The Slovenian Ministry of Culture try to harm us this way and they try to hide their agency this way.

Various people have tried
to change us or even disable us

ZC: How has the Kapelica’s artistic direction changed throughout the years? Many of the works showed at Kapelica has a focus on bio art. Is that were the danger is - in bioart and biopolitics?
JK: The basic curatorial interest was always the same. How is the life of a person affected by the mainstream society? Maybe it seems that in the beginning we had a lot of so-called body art, body related projects, but they were all related to life as an object, how you protect, how you defend, how you -through the explicitness of those artworks- brought the materiality of the body in front. If we're talking about bare life, we often inaugurate the body with blood, liquids as a material for expression. That can be necessary because ultimately everybody is experiencing the outside world on his body and mind. Maybe our biggest bloodletting performance was with Franco B, but already in 1996 we brought Stelarc here. Then there were not many artists like Stelarc, Marcel-lí Antúnez Roca, Stahl Stenslie; artists who are applying technology on to their bodies, who are very much into life that can be changed, modified, enhanced, stretched, connected and so on.

I believe that art is
larger than life since
my own life was changed by it

And it was at that time that we found those artists active. And through that we somehow managed to build our audience. Our audience started to understand that being radical, is not about shocking themselves, shocking others, but that the message conveyed through the artwork is larger than life. This relates to my beginning as a curator. I believe that art is larger than life since my own life was changed by it. This is my equatorial metaphysics. I was always interested in artworks that were so big, so powerful that they immediately opened those (existential) questions. I used to say that you don't go in our gallery to relax, for recreation or to contemplate; you go to work. You need to think, to remake, to rethink everything you knew until then. This has been demanding for the absorption capability of our audience. Throughout the years, we therefore lost a lot of audience. They simply got tired. They couldn't go along because it was not only about body, it was also about technology, then it was how you build all these things with microbiology, and they (the audience) just can't do that. These are just different facets of the same thing, that we need to protect our life, and we can protect it only by understanding the mechanisms through art. And right now, biotechnology is both accessible and so powerful. It is announcing the point of singularity: when technology and biology completely merge into one. This future is inevitable, and we are completely unprepared for it.

You don't go in our gallery
to relax, for recreation or to contemplate;
you go to work

ZC: What about the topics of this year’s Ars Electronica (2017): machine learning and AI?
JK: Machine learning is still on a relatively low level, but once the machines will start to learn by themselves, who knows what they're going to learn. It is kind of a Black Mirror scenario. Therefore, I think that these topics are very interesting for artists. They are dangerous topics. They are life threatening topics. So, we need exquisite art to decode them and to prepare us for a public debate.
ZC: Are there hybrid artists that you would like to point out?

JK: There are a lot of hybrid artists. But hybrid is by default without a genre. It can be hybrid of any kind. There is a lot of investigation going on, and this is where the art production becomes interesting. Because through that investigation you can participate. Hybrid artworks usually have an open structure. There is not a nice art object produced in the end, it is often more an installation or a set-up through which you are invited on to the journey. It can be performative, or not performative; interactive, or not. But you need to be there and you need to go through it. Hybrid art is a field with a completely open structure, which is traumatic, but it's open. I do not want to mention specific artists, but I find the hybrid field really interesting.
ZC: How much does the curator become an artist in his process? How much of your curatorial vision of art influences and shapes the final outcome?
JK: It is a dangerous question. It is not that the curator is an artist. I believe strongly that a curator has to have his own agenda, and this is how you differentiate one place (gallery) from another. It is like the editor’s house; you do not publish everything, you publish a certain literature, and this is what we do as well.

A curator has to have
his own agenda

By your selections you influence your surroundings, society or environment. And of course, our work has influenced some Slovenian artists as well. They get the possibility to see and meet the most interesting artists from around the world. This is the best school they can have; the input for their own artistic work. We also produce some works by foreign artists. Because we needed to connect on different levels, between different professionals.

if I am selecting an artwork
I will defend it by all means

Once you have this ecosystem, you can much better enable the artist who is commissioned at your own gallery. I have a lot of experience working with artists. I know the backstage of their artworks, and it is a very precious knowledge that I share with other artists. I can encourage them about how far they can go as artists. And as for my curatorial discipline - if I am selecting an artwork I will defend it by all means. I am defending my choices, but also the artwork as such. Like the lawyers say: “I am objectively responsible for what is happening.” Artists appreciate that. They feel safer to take a step further.
ZC: What is the most dangerous thing you have done as a curator?
JK: The most straight forward dangerous piece was Shooting, the shooting piece with Boris Sincek (in 2002) (Bryzgel 2017) which had a very strong symbolic and emotional coverage. I just felt that we had to do it (shoot at the artist with a 9mm pistol). We had to allow Sincek to re-enact his wartime experiences and enable the performance (of being shot at) to happen. Even if there is a most radical and dangerous idea, it would not be executable if there is not enough expertise. We grew our expertise (in shooting) and the performance was made possible.
Also, the project Que le cheval vive en moi (May the horse live in me) with Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin injecting the horse serum into her own blood. There was a big danger of anaphylactic shock. The body could have fallen into an inflammatory state. But because we did everything as it should be done, and we also provided the necessary backup, it went through.

The body could have
fallen into an inflammatory state

It is the same with Maja Smrekar’s K-9_topology and Ive Tabar who performed surgery on his own body. Because we were constantly involved in the productions we took every possible medical measure to protect the artists, the artworks and ourselves. This was possible only because we believed so strongly in the artists.
ZC: I find it very interesting how you play and balance on the edge of legality and safety, often working in the grey zone.
JK: Well, dwelling in safety is not interesting. It is boring and everybody can do that. But our aim is not to provoke people. Our aim is to begin the debate, begin a different kind of thinking, different kinds of seeing and understanding the life we're living in. In the beginning art was here to bring more spirituality, a more contemplative future reality. Now, we are living in a completely fake reality. And we need artworks to wake us up and out of this dream. This is why we need powerful artworks; to wake us up. I am very often asked, because I am not easily understood as a curator, "How far would you go?" First, it is not about how far, because we always know what is enough, we are not guessing. And then once I was asked if “I would allow somebody to kill himself in a gallery?” And my immediate response was: "Of course not", because life is the highest value we have. But then I had to rethink if I'm defending “larger than life” works? And what does it really mean, what is larger than life? Then I have to reformulate my answer into having an open end. Now I would allow it if the artwork will have the artistic coverage, rhythm. What this rhythm is I don't know, but it's an open end, because this is constantly shifting. This is how I believe how we should act.

This is why we need
powerful artworks;
to wake us up


ZC: What is currently happening at the Kapelica Gallery?
JK: As I said, the singularity is still a myth, but we have all the ingredients already. This is what I'm interested in; the artists who are playing with these ingredients. It is not about science-fiction anymore. Some of the wealthy guys are playing with money and doing things that are profoundly changing our society and also our understanding of what is fiction, or not fiction. Obviously, they live their childhood obsessions. However, they are so powerful that they influence the generations to come. I recall how David Cameron told that he was raised in an environment where everybody was talking about flying to the moon, satellites and so on. But even if we went into space we are still just coping with our earthly problems. This is why he financed his submarine and went to the bottom of the deepest ocean. Well, only a few years later, we are all about flying to Mars, living on the moon, building huge rockets and really doing it, it's happening. We are literally flying around with flying taxis; they're still only built as proof of concept, but it's just a matter of time.
ZC: How about the big narrative or survival?

JK: We shouldn't lose ourselves into big narratives. We just need to understand the ingredients and try to combine them to foresee the threats and the opportunities that are in front of us. As we heard at the ARS Electronica symposium 2017: if we are building the code of AI, it is us who are responsible for everything. Unfortunately, the gadgets are turning into black boxes, you can't do anything about that. But this is where we come in. The art field can open it, demystify it, show it, ask for different things, and so on.

We shouldn't lose ourselves
into big narratives

ZC: AI is trendy and many artists are focusing on it, also because of the funding in it.

JK: The focus on AI is very abstract, but if there are some ingredients that are pointing towards possible futures, then that is interesting for us. We are into quantum computing now, pointing to a whole developing field in biology which is on the verge of metaphysics. Already medical experts, scientists are understanding that you cannot just cut off, eat and put chemistry into the body to solve everything. There is something more which is super-connected, and is not only in one body, but between bodies and so on. The area of quantum biology is opening up a very interesting field, a very interesting field where I believe computation will get a proper task. The computer was invented to simulate the impact of atomic bombs. That research is coming to its end. Now the quantum computing needs a proper task, and I believe that there are dimensions in front of us that are super, super interesting. The artworks that will address all these issues will be interesting, important, dangerous, scary, whatever name it’s called. And I think that we as a platform, we need to encourage and support artists to work with that. It is very difficult to sell our artworks, basically impossible. And we need to create a possibility for the artists doing these projects to survive. Not only survive, they should live really well because they represent one of the most important parts of our society. This is why Kapelica Gallery wants to create an artistic ecosystem, not just a few art spaces, but connect with others, invite, work with kids so that they are not spoiled by a system of values that are measurable and goal-oriented.

The computer was invented
to simulate the impact of atomic bombs.
That research is coming to its end

ZC:  Ljubljana is a very interesting location, with several unique thinkers such as Dragan Zivadinov and Slavoj Zizek.
JK: We still have this experience from the 80ies that I was talking about at the beginning, when we understood that art has this mighty power to change, to change individuals, to even change society. And we believe that our actions can change it. Unfortunately, the generations that were born afterwards, they don't have this experience of a totalitarian system, so they have to believe us, and this is really difficult. Take for example, Maja Smrekar who has really sacrificed everything for her art. She is one of the rare artists who believes that changing people, society, the environment is possible. This is why she invested her own body into the artwork, why she is defending her radical project in front of everybody.
We try to convey this message and this urgency to other generations so that also they see how art can change society.
Amy Bryzgel. 2017. Performance art in Eastern Europe since 1960. Oxford University Press.
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