Tracks and traces. A conversation with Mirjam Varadinis by Pieter Vermeulen
A few weeks before and about 150 km away from Manifesta 9, the city of Ghent has launched its own contemporary art manifestation. TRACK aspires to leave permanent traces in the imagination of each visitor by engaging with the urban fabric in an unfamiliar way. Among the forty-one artists invited to Ghent are Ahmet Ögüt, Michaël Borremans, John Bock, Daniel Buren, Fischli & Weiss, Pilvi Takala, Elmgreen & Dragset and Mircea Cantor. Shortly before the kick off, I spoke with co-curator Mirjam Varadinis (Kunsthaus Zürich).
Pieter Vermeulen: In which way did you feel challenged to collaborate on TRACK?
Mirjam Varadinis: Philippe van Cauteren [artistic director of SMAK] invited me two and a half years ago to co-curate TRACK with him. I was having a residency in Berlin at that time and had been thinking about the idea of public space for quite some time already. In 2008 I had curated an exhibition at Kunsthaus Zurich called Shifting Identities which was dealing with the effects and consequences of globalization. Since the theme of the show was closely linked to the idea of borders I decided to break the usual borders of the institution and to work on specific locations within the city of Zürich, such as the financial centre, the so-called Paradeplatz where all the main banks are located. There I organized ephemeral artistic interventions, as well as in the airport Zurich - a site where questions of migration and mobility appear in a concentrated way. I invited artists to do works before and after passport control, so in Switzerland and outside, in this in-between space .
So these were the experiences I was still digesting when i was in Berlin. That's when Philippe called me. He wanted to organise TRACK ever since he became director of the SMAK. He decided to invite someone from outside Ghent to add a different perspective on the city to his. I was happy to accept the invitation, also because I've been collaborating with Philippe on an institutional level before and we've been following each other's work for quite some time now.
PV: TRACK is inscribed in a long-standing tradition of international public art events in Ghent, like Chambres d'Amis (1986) and Over the Edges (2000), both initiated by Jan Hoet. Were you familiar with this history before, and how does TRACK proclaim to be a successor?
MV: Of course I knew about Chambres d'Amis through my studies in art history. I had heard about Over the Edges, although I think this was not a milestone as Chambres d'Amis was. When I started to work with Philippe two years ago, we discussed where our exhibition would position itself - also in relation to the two previous exhibitions. But it was clear to us that TRACK would be something completely different.
When I came here I didn't know Ghent that well. So we spent the first months doing intense research on different parts of the city, to find out about their context, social structure and historical layers. Two people were assisting us in this in-depth research, gathering all the materials together not only for me but also for the artists. So that their artistic proposal would come out of stable ground. At the same time we were scanning the city for unusual, unknown and sometimes unused or empty spaces that could possibly be used. Then we started visiting those spaces. Doing all this and working at the same time on the concept took at least one year. Once we finally got the confirmations regarding the funding, we could really start and invite the artists to come over for a site visit in Ghent. The first artists arrived one year before the exhibition. We really wanted to give them enough time to come up with new work.
Over the Edges was an exhibition that took place in the historical centre of Ghent. This is the picturesque part of the city, it's more of a facade than a reality. But Philippe and I wanted to approach the city in its full complexity and thus decided to unfold the city from its centre to the periphery and to work with people from different social backgrounds. When I look at the catalogue it seems that Over the Edges was a loud exhibition, in the sense that it was crying for attention with large sculptures in the city centre. TRACK is much more fragile in its structure and is more a dialogue in a regular tone of conversation. It's a dialogue that started between Philippe and me and was then extended to the artists and also the inhabitants and visitors. This idea of a dialogue is crucial for the whole exhibition.
PV: The event is labeled as a 'contemporary city conversation'. How you are building up and sustaining this dialogue with the citizens?
MV: On one hand, many of the art works are created in a dialogue with different communities in the city. Bart Lodewijks, for instance, is doing chalk drawings on the facades of houses in one specific area. He is in a constant dialogue with the inhabitants and the nice thing is that there are many stories with the people living there. He first started doing drawings outside, but in the meantime he got to know the people better and they start inviting him to do drawings in their houses, in a very intimate and private space. Bart will continue throughout the whole exhibition to do drawings - so the dialogue and also the stories it creates will go on.
A completely different community is approached by the Mexican collective Tercerunquinto. They are working with people living in Ghent who don't have the Belgian citizenship or passport, living in precarious conditions. Tercerunquinto invited them to copy the Belgian constitution by hand. The hand-written book is now being shown in the city hall, the place where decisions about citizenships and who belongs to a city are being made. The nice thing about it is that it creates a space for people that normally don't have a voice. And also, each handwriting is a kind of portrait of each person. So the official document of the constitution becomes like a personal diary.
Besides the artistic projects, the idea of dialogue appears also on other levels. In the last months Philippe has been giving lectures, for example in the different neighbourhoods, where TRACK takes place. They where always well attended. Every time there were at least 60 to 80 people in the audience. We also set up a lecture programme that started in January already and which was putting international artists/curators/critics in contact with local people, to prepare the ground for the exhibition and to discuss issues that are important for TRACK.
PV: How do you hope to sustain the dialogue in the coming months? Manifesta, for instance, appointed a whole team of art mediators for their event. How is TRACK dealing with this?
MV: We do this in various ways. Certain artistic works will for example keep up the dialogue and evolve during the exhibition. As mentioned before Bart Lodewijks's piece will be continued throughout the whole exhibition. Also, Christoph Büchel's work is an ongoing process. It's not just an installation but a functional tool. He's running a black labour market throughout the exhibition. Black Labour is a significant economical factor nowadays but nobody wants to talk about it. Büchel is putting his finger on this.
We also have performances coming up that are involving various people again. And the lecture and film programmes continue. Additionally, TRACK offers a large participatory programme which includes tours for people who are unable to leave their house. So somebody will visit these people, tell them about the exhibition and let them participate in this way. And of course there are guided tours.
PV: Speaking of traces, are all of the artworks temporary, or are there any permanent pieces? And how would you define the success of the exhibition?
MV: This is something I can't answer right now. Of course it would be nice if some works could stay, but this needs to be discussed with the city and all the other people involved. But even if this should not work out, I think it's really important that TRACK will leave traces on a mental level or change your perspective on certain things. This is our aim.
So it's important that TRACK triggers a reaction, and that it doesn't leave the audience indifferent. They can react in a positive or in a negative way, but it's important that they react. I hope there will be a lot of critical discussions.
Talking about success of the exhibition, it's very important that the artists are happy with their work and the way it is presented. When we started with the preparations, we deliberately decided to reduce the number of invited artists. We didn't want to have 200 artists as it is often the case in large exhibitions right now. But we wanted to invite less and give the artists the possibility to create something important. There are 41 artists participating in total and all of them were commissioned a new work. Since we didn't invite the 'usual suspects' for public space, some of the artists were inspired by our invitation to do something they've never done before.
PV: Any personal recommendations?
MV: I don't want to influence visitor too much in advance, as it's important for them to choose their own way through the exhibition and by doing so create their individual track throughout the city.
Ahmet Ögüt made a helium balloon, inspired by a Magritte painting [The Castle of the Pyrenees]. The balloon has the shape of a rock, with a copy of the Vooruit building placed on top, one of the so-called socialist cathedrals in Ghent. The worker's movement played a decisive role in Ghent and Ahmet Ögüt reflects on this history and the changes the socialist movement underwent in the last years.
There's also a beautiful work by Romanian artist Mircea Cantor, who's showing a work in the abbey of Sint-Baafs, an amazing location which is normally not accessible for visitors. He's showing an old wooden house that is a copy of a traditional Romanian house, built with old handcraft techniques that are about to disappear. The work itself can be read on hand as a symbol of displacement and migration, but also as a kind of monument for the loss of certain traditions and ways of life.
Another impressive piece is the one by Mark Manders in the Voortman house. This is an old villa of a former director of one of the many factories that played an important role in the 19th century. In the meantime they are all closed down and also the house has been abandoned for many years. The combination of Mark Mander's work and this atmosphere of absence is very strong.