4—Undoing Nationalism: Laurel Ptak, Art in General, and ArtsLink alum Michal Novotny

4—Undoing Nationalism: Laurel Ptak, Art in General, and ArtsLink alum Michal Novotny


LAUREL: Hello everyone, I’m Laurel Ptak,
the director and curator of Art in General here in New York City. Hi, I’m Michal Notovny
and I’m the director of Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague. I want to say quick thanks to CEC ArtsLink
to Simon and Maxim especially for organizing us here today,
and for also allowing Art in General to host an amazing fellow
this year, thank you for that. And I’m here speaking with a
former CEC ArtsLink fellow, Michal, who I have had the
pleasure of working with for the last five years in
different ways to bring artists from across Eastern and
Central Europe to New York. And I had the pleasure
of just opening an exhibition last night at Art in General
that was guest-curated by Michal, called School of Pain. The show is up until January 26th. I encourage you to come
by and have a look. In brief, the show looks at
different ways to think about economies of desire in
relationship to the work of some very interesting
artists, and Michal, maybe you could say a few more
words about the exhibition. Maybe I could just invite you on Saturday
for us creating a performance that will be between,
between 4:00 and 6:00 in the afternoon, where Mark Ther, who is a Czech artist,
will screen a selection of his movies from the last 15 years. They deal with two very different,
but somehow connected topic of his queer identity and
stories of the Sudeten German. It’s about the Czech German
that were expelled from the country in 1945
because before the Second World War, 50% of the citizens of Czech
Republic were actually Germans and it’s still a very taboo topic
and there will be also a DTM and I am doing a kind
of singing performance that also deals with his
complicated cosmopolite identities. He is half Sri Lankan,
half-Indian, but grew up in the UK and the United States and now
lives in Warsaw in Poland. So this will be ’til 6:00. So I couldn’t help but want
to ask some impossible, unanswerable questions in eight minutes
and knowing Michal to also be a complex thinker,
I thought he would be up for the task. But really, I guess the very
subject of global citizenship, really, and you know, the work
that we do institutionally at Art in General in an
international context has me thinking a lot
about the kind of climate of the world in which
we’re working right now. And in a cultural
moment, when we’re seeing such a disturbing rise in nationalism here
and in many other parts of the world, I’m thinking a lot about,
you know, what is art’s role? How can art work to
counter or undo such extremism? And I thought Michal would
be an excellent person to talk about this with because actually
in your broader career and also, in the kind of grouping of artists
and even some of the themes of the works in the show
that’s up now at Art in General, I think you’ve done a really exemplary job
of working together with local regional and international contexts and scales
in your curatorial work over the last many years,
and I was wondering how you think about this,
and you know, how can we maybe think about the local, the regional,
or the international as ways to kind of counter
ideas of nationalism? Maybe I can. So of course, it’s a difficult question. But I somehow wish that the
global kind of citizenship would work and that we
could all be humans. This is a big topic in the
philosophy that I studied where the people somehow never accepted
the post-colonial and post-human studies idea that unfortunately
we cannot be all humans because there have been so much bad done
that we need to first undo somehow that. So the question is how to deal with it. I mean, I think that
maybe the answer is always to kind of try to consider full scale. But so, when I’m for
example doing the program FUTURA Centre for
Contemporary Art in Prague, when I arrived there,
it was mainly a international art center. So in the context of the first
decades of the millennium, it was very important
to bring international artists to Prague. But when I arrived, I also
understood and at the time still many directors of art institutions
were publicly claiming that they are considering their program,
like if it will be anywhere else in the world,
like that they would do the program, wherever they would be,
which is impossible, you know, we are always in a
certain place in the world and this place has a meaning. So I try to add of
course many local artists that I think would need some
help to be exhibited there. But I think at least our
institution should work as a certain bridge, so they
should bring people there and also help other people
to live on this bridge. And they should somehow
work with this from a certain point that needs to be built. So they also need the
international acclaim, but they also need a local acclaim. And what is mainly my technique is that
I’m trying to smuggle people somewhere. I’m trying to smuggle people
in the local discourse, I’m trying to smuggle people
in the international discourse. I’m trying to hide them
in some trendy ways that they could be helping them to go up
or the same to come to Prague. And the same, I’m trying to
play maybe with the public that comes in the garden of FUTURA
we have those two public sculptures that I do not find very extraordinary
what comes to the artistic quality, but they bring a lot of wide public. And then we kind of
testing this wide public in exposing them to maybe
something what Inga showed here to some problems that they
didn’t really come to deal with, because they just came to take a selfie
with those sculptures. But I think that this
exposure, anyway, works. And maybe this is, you
know, more a deep question that I would love to continue to think
together with many people in the room and who are presenting later today about. But I think, you know, for me,
thinking about this question, how can contemporary
art negotiate identity when on the one hand it’s something
that is extremely tied to cultural belonging
and geographical context in really meaningful ways. But also to think about maybe,
what are the ideological structures that underpin much arts funding? Because we see those
structures as often legally, politically and economically
being quite bound to the logic of the nation-state. So how can we kind of maneuver
and work between those poles and terrain to think about what does it mean
to undo or counter nationalism? There is usually two
approaches in public funding and I’m running an
institution that only runs on very different kind of public funding. At the beginning, it was
maybe the passport, right? The foundations usually
support only the artists who hold the right passport. Over the years and also by pushing of me
and other directors, we more came to the agreement
that it’s more the place of residency. So for example, now Czech
artists can be supported, or let’s say artists can be supported
by the Czech cultural institution, even though they do not
have the right passport, if they reside and work there. But I mean, this in a way
is also complicated, right? This is just another way of exclusion. So what I am also very often
questioning in my practice and maybe coming back to the
kind of upheaval of nationalism in also the region where I come from,
the central east Europe is experiencing a big wave of nationalism. And I think that this grows from
the fact that we have all a kind of big inferiority complex. That in some ways, we
need a sense of belonging. And maybe also the art
has pushed it away a lot from the discourse that it has. So one of the thing that
I’m also questioning, how art could create
this sense of belonging? And therefore I think that
institutions that receive public funding should may be in concert
not so much of course with who they doing, but
if it’s really meaningful. Because also, often the kind
of the culture in Prague has policy that for example,
residencies have been so much time used, can be used well also
despite the original fact that it is supposed to promote
a certain nation culture. In Europe, this is omnipresent. And of course, the developed countries
have much more money for the cultural policy,
that the institute is a very strong funder for elevating other funders. But it doesn’t mean that what
the result is is actually bad. So we are somehow still of course
bound in the national state, which kind of collapse
with the global world. But we don’t really know
and I do not have the answer how to really overcome that,
except in some kind of positive sense of belonging,
some kind of positive sense of patriotism, because we do need also this patriotism,
otherwise it may strike back as a, as the kind of hardcore edge nationalism. I guess we’re, we have one minute? Maybe then I would ask
you the same question. How do you conceive your program
being one of the few nonprofit institutions
in such a difficult space like New York? It’s also concerning to the
question that you asked me. Yeah, I guess Art in General has had
a really long-standing relationship to working with international artists
and it’s an institution that was founded in the early 1980s,
founded by artists and I think was very early
to think a lot about what would it mean to bring artists from all
different parts of the world to a place like New York and to do that
with a very interesting (beeping)
like paying attention to geopolitics. So I think for me, maybe in brief,
listening to the noise (beeping)
that is gonna drown me out any minute now, I just think one has to be really careful
in thinking complexly about these things and to realize that we are, you know,
we are bound inside a much larger system. Thank you so much. Yes! (applauding)

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