Ten Questions: Jonatan Habib Engqvist

The Reykjavík Art Festival opens this Friday, and the festival includes the large scale exhibition (I)ndependent People which presents a selection of collaborative projects.

Jonatan Habib Engqvist

The Reykjavík Art Festival opens this Friday, and this year the festival includes the large scale exhibition (I)ndependent People which is curated by the Swedish theoretician and curator Jonatan Habib Engqvist. The exhibition is entirely made up of collaborative projects between artists, collectives and exhibition venues, presenting both permanent and temporary constellations.

Artist groups and collectives that participate in the show include A Kassen, visningsstedet 1857, Institutt for Degenerert Kunst, Goksøyr & Martens, Superflex, The Icelandic Love Corporation og Jóna Hlíf Halldórsdóttir & Hlynur Hallsson.

How is work going with the exhibition?

Thanks for asking. We had a storm here in Reykjavík last night so today the big question is when and how to install works in public space. Fortunately they promised good weather on Wednesday. Apart from that, things are running smoothly. Everyone involved is really engaged and excited about making this happen. Given the process-oriented nature of the exhibition, one fascinating thing about this project is how it is constantly transforming and generating new synergies between participants and the local context, both in and outside the art world.

What is your approach to staging an exhibition of this format?

I was originally commissioned to make an exhibition about alternative practices in the region, but over the last couple of years we’ve already seen a few large-scale exhibitions about “alternative” or “independent” practices, so I wanted to question that. I think it reflects a desire from the institution’s point of view for a certain kind of collective energy found in these spaces and the concept grew from that idea. I invited a few of these “in-between” practices, like artist-run spaces, but they are invited as artistic subjects. So, I think the concept was just a matter of affirming the situation and taking this idea of collaboration to its extreme – making the inevitable negotiations the concept itself. As one of the artist groups expressed the matter: “Becoming the rat that builds its own maze.”

Both thematically and performatively, the construction, intention and focus of the exhibition is to affirm the situation it is staged in. As the project is made possible through exchange between a cluster of museums, galleries, artist-run spaces and institutions in Iceland and abroad – I hope it might challenge our sense of the historical or regional identity of culture as a homogenising, unifying force. Furthermore this relies on the participants relinquishing their subjectivity, or momentarily placing it in parenthesis.

How did you go about finding and selecting the artists for the show?

Well, I had a pretty good idea of what I was looking for – groups who in turn collaborate with other groups, engaged with society around them. It was, and is, important to have a presence of the Icelandic scene in this project. This included inviting Icelandic artists based in Berlin, Miami and New Mexico. I also tried to seek out inter-related practices, and to allow things to be shaped organically. For instance one group from Denmark encouraged a visit to the studio next door and that resulted in a second group being invited as well. Basically, invited artists work together in different ways to have a variety of constellations to activate a diverse set of collaborative structures.

All the contributors to the festival are collaborations, collectives and groups, what was the idea behind not including work by any individuals?

A large-scale exhibition in which all the participants collaborate is, of course, a comment on the ways in which art history tends to be produced around singled-out individuals as a result of the art world’s fixation on individual authorship. Within this experiment there are some rather extreme challenges to ‘constructed artistic authorship’. Some artist groups for instance constantly shift in size and content depending on what they are doing – I might invite a cluster of two artists- who in turn invite others, in the most extreme case 110 of them!

But it is also very easy to romanticise the idea of working together toward a greater purpose. Relinquishing singular subjectivity in order to attain artistic command is a beautiful idea, but it can be painful to execute in reality, not only in opposition to an art world obsessed with defining authorship, but also on a deeply personal level. I hope that this also will be clear in the different exhibitions.

Society is lived collectively, but experienced individually. This results in a paradoxical ‘push and pull’ between a desire to express individuality and to be a part of something common that I believe is inherent to the human condition. Regardless of size, all collectives and collaborations need to watch out and safe-guard against ideology and the dogmatism that can arise when strong individuals make imposing statements on the group’s behalf, narrating a story of collective action that fails to take into account of the complexity of individual positions and interpretations.

What do you think about the state of collaboration between the Nordic countries at the moment, is there need for more institutionalised funding bodies across the borders?

Most artists and art professionals in this geographical and discursive region read ‘Nordic collaboration’ and think ‘funding’, not least at times of economic pressure. The main financial sources that make an exhibition like this possible in Reykjavík in 2012 – including national arts councils and the Nordic Culture Point – provide good examples of notions of the Nordic that are more or less tied to funding. This exhibition would not be possible without these structures. But I want to ask if there is something beyond this. Is there an informal communality, a ‘Nordic model’, perhaps articulated once ‘outside the region which also applies to the art world?

On another level, I think this has to do with the discourse. Contemporary technology has facilitated web-based critique. Through formats like Kunstkritikk, there seems to be a renewed interest, on the part of both the local and global art world, in ‘catching up’ with the ‘Nordic’ scene, which has not really been present since the late nineties. It seems to me that this tendency goes beyond nostalgia and, perhaps also, that it transcends mere inter-institutional interest, not least due to the regional possibilities that are opened up through peer-to-peer funding. These factors allow Nordic collaboration to remain strongly within the sphere of artist-initiated activity.

In your catalogue statement you quote Elisabeth Grosz “the space in between things is the space in which things are undone, the space to the side and around, which is the space of subversion and fraying, the edge of any identity’s limits.” Is this “identity of in-betweens” your way of circumventing the idea of a “Nordic identity” that is often used to politically justify a project like this?

Yes, you can put it that way. But I hope it´s also a way of being transparent about how this exhibition is produced as well as taking the question of the ‘Nordic’ seriously.

An introductory seminar in the Nordic House, and the exhibition at the National Gallery of Iceland will focus on several of the trajectories of artist-initiated practices from the region – spanning the past forty years – and will serve as a genealogical background to the questions posed, such as: Do we share common, ‘alternative’ histories in the Nordic region? If so, what are they and is it relevant to peruse these connections today? How have these networks changed over time? Is it possible, or even desirable, to create dynamic and sustainable collaborations?

We also hope to produce a post-publication on this.

Iceland has been through an interesting ride over the last few years. What is your impression of the local context in the country at this point in terms of how the artworld and cultural sector has adapted?

It is pretty clear that three years after the financial crisis in Iceland a large-scale exhibition like this is a challenge for everyone involved. Not the least the artist, and the focus on collaboration is informed by both interest and necessity. Three years on, new methods for exhibition making are being invented. “If everyone pitches in with what they’ve got, we might pull through” is perhaps the message communicated to an international art world now meeting its economic turmoil. Basically, the cost of mounting this exhibition can only be met through close collaboration, sponsorship and with the help of the contacts of all the participating venues and artists.

Your background is in Philosophy, do you think this has influence your curatorial work?

I am interested in the relationship between how we think and what we do.

Are there any particular curators, artists or institutions who inspire your way of putting together exhibitions?

The ones I am working with at the moment.

What would you like to change in today’s artworld?

Big question! Being in the middle of this project, the answer is perhaps obvious; I sincerely believe that there exists a potential to express and present new ways of collaboration to society at large and that this potential could be realised within art institutions. From the perspective of this exhibition, there are many examples around. As Foucault famously, and in fact anonymously, stated, we still suffer from channels that are narrow, paternalistic and insufficient, “There is no point in adopting a protectionist attitude, to prevent bad information from invading and suffocating the good.”