In Conversation with Katerina Gregos

This interview with Katerina Gregos appeared in Mousse magazine:

Annaïk-Lou Pitteloud, Neo-Logos, 2017-2018, The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia (Courtesy: the artist and Barbara Seiler Gallery, Zürich Photo: Andrejs Strokins)

Agnieszka Gratza: You curated RIBOCA, the inaugural Riga Biennial in Latvia, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, as well as the group exhibition The State Is Not a Work of Art, which opened at the Tallinn Art Hall in Estonia back in February. Where does your interest in the Baltic region come from? Is it a coincidence that you should be curating two shows so close in space and time?

Katerina Gregos: It’s entirely coincidental. I generally work within Europe and at its borders. I’m not one of these globe-trotting curators who’s working all over the place. It’s not that I’m not interested, but I think there’s enough to talk about in Europe—enough history, problems, paradigms, and complex issues that one can dig one’s teeth into here. I’m also tremendously interested in history, and of course Europe has played an important role in world history, very often in a negative way. I’m pleased to work here, particularly at this moment in time, because it’s an interesting geopolitical region of the world, symbolic of different pushes and pulls, conflicts and paradoxes, and fundamental changes. But why I found myself working here? Frankly, it’s a coincidence. I was invited to curate The State Is Not a Work of Art, and then I received an invitation to make a proposal for the Riga Biennial so one event organically followed the other.

AG: Why did the chosen theme for RIBOCA, which is change, strike you as apt?

KG: This is a region that has experienced successive, traumatic, systemic and often violent changes, most recently in 1990, shifting from one political ideology to another, from one economy to another, from one ethnic dominance to another. The Baltic region is a lens for looking at change and how a society reintegrates globally, restructures economically and re-negotiates its identity after having suffered occupation and oppression from a foreign power. I wanted to work with a subject that also has global implications and a more ecumenical significance. I’ve been preoccupied with how our lives have been accelerated through technology, the internet, and social media. All of this has been thrust on us without much thought or room to pause, let alone understand the implications of it for personal and existential issues, practical as well as psychological. It’s not a coincidence that for the first time in human history so many people are getting burnouts. People are overworked, and so overwhelmed by work that they can no longer function, and they have to take six months to a year off because they’re unable to operate.

AG: What about the laboring classes in the nineteenth century, the kind Émile Zola describes in his novels, or else slaves? I’m sure they had burnouts too, and maybe not the luxury to acknowledge it. If you look back on the history of work—

KG: If we’re to make a distinction, that is that this phenomenon is accelerating, and perhaps more widespread – extending beyond the working class – than it would have been at that time. I think we’re really in a moment of monumental shifts. And if you consider human evolution in the last thousands of years, or at least since Homo sapiens appeared on the planet, we’ve always had the chance as human beings to adapt very slowly to new realities, whereas now, things are changing and are becoming normalized so fast that we don’t have time to process them.

AG: I found Katarzyna Przezwańska’s diorama Early Polishness (2017), which is featured in both shows, interesting in this respect because it brings in a very different temporal dimension, as she tries to imagine what Warsaw might have looked like two hundred million years ago, during the Triassic period: a lush landscape complete with palm trees. Is the Anthropocene a frame of reference for RIBOCA in particular?

KG: It’s become a very fashionable word now, the Anthropocene. There’s something very hubristic about it as a term, it’s like: “We have come to the mastery of the planet.” I prefer to speak of ecological change and the huge question of sustainability versus the problem of incessant growth. That said, the biennial is not dealing only with ecological issues. A biennial in my opinion should not be too narrow. It should allow for different narratives and subtexts to be put into play, complementary to one another. So in the case of RIBOCA I’m looking at social, political, historical as well as ecological change.

AG: I was intrigued by the term homo deus that you use in your essay for the biennial. Could you explain what you mean by it, what it’s referencing?

KG: It’s basically a situation where humans feel that they have mastered the planet, to an extent that they seem to be playing ‘God’, and it is an idea discussed by Yuval Noah Harari in his new book of the same name. We’re not only playing with fire—there’s something very Promethean about it—but we have the illusion that we can play God without consequences. And there’s a lot of writing right now about how scientists are looking into prolonging life considerably, even contemplating the prospects of immortality (which to me seems ludicrous), which I don’t really believe in because it’s completely unsustainable. There’s talk of how maybe even in this century people will go live beyond 100 to 120, 130 or 140 years of age. I don’t know if you’ve read the novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle (2013)? It’s quite chilling. It’s like a metaphor of Google and Facebook, and all these tech giants. All they see is a brave new world facilitated by social media and technology, how it’s going to help make democracy paradigmatic and how the planet is just going to strive to this incredible future of progress. I find this is also an example of homo sapiens hubristically playing homo deus.

AG: When it comes to the Tallinn show, why do you feel the notions of nation, nation-state, and nationalism need rehabilitating?

KG: Because I think that the actual model of the nation-state—this kind of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century model of the nation state—doesn’t correspond very well to the new social and demographic realities of today. The concept of nation, as many people still understand it originates in the nineteenth century, when the world map was very different and many countries in Europe were colonial powers. We live in an entirely different geographic and geopolitical landscape at the moment. Former empires have collapsed; we have the question of the legacy of violent European colonialism to come to terms with; and we’re also living in a world where borders and mobility are not what they used to be, where societies are much more pluralist and where we have to face challenges that were not present two hundred years ago. That’s why I believe the needs to be revisited in a manner that’s more inclusive while acknowledging Europe’s historical mistakes or misdemeanors.

AG: Which ones in particular?

KG: The situation in the Middle East, for example. When you consider the refugee crisis that broke out in 2015, Europe and the United States are not without fault in this respect, and the West, of course, has a huge responsibility here; or the military expeditions into Iraq or Afghanistan. We created a mess, and now we’re looking the other way, when in fact we’re directly or indirectly responsible for what is happening to people in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

AG: In your essay “The State Is Not a Work of Art?” you mention “more benign forms of nationalism” that would be more inclusive. I wonder which works on display reflect that kind of nationalism?

KG: My text is not necessarily a reflection of every single work in the show and cannot be; it is illustrative of my own point of view. It has been rather challenging to find works, in all honesty, that deal with all these issues complex issues in an more unexpected manner other than the usual (and justifiable) critique of nationalism and populism. “Civic nationalism” would be a better formulation for more benign or inclusive forms of nationalism. Marta Górnicka’s piece Constitution for the Chorus of Poles (2016) is a work where people from different ethnic and minority backgrounds are interpreting, reinterpreting, and performing the Polish constitution according to what it could be, or what it professes to be but isn’t (more inclusive.) We can’t have people working as precarious laborers in Europe or being born into families coming from different countries and then creating obstacles in giving them nationality when they contribute to the economy and society at large.

AG: I was trying to put myself in your shoes, and imagine how it works if you have a concept and then artworks that don’t quite illustrate it. Obviously, you can’t cast them into a ready mold.

KG: You can’t. And you can’t instrumentalize artists. This is also the challenge of being a curator: to try and create something that is coherent, that corresponds to a certain argument, but also allow the artists freedom and breathing space. I would never say to an artist, “Can you make a work about civic nationalism?” But you can and should be in discussion artists. Besides, half of the show is newly commissioned, and when you commission new work you don’t know what the result is going to be, there’s always a risk you have to take as a curator. There are also two other projects that in some way answer your question: Jonas Staal’s project New Unions—this idea of a trans-European democracy based on criteria other than economy, which is what the European Union is based on—and Marina Naprushkina’s campaign on broadening the pool on who has the right to vote in Europe. I think these constitute good examples of a civic understanding of nationalism.

AG: So these are examples of new models you would like to encourage.

KG: Europe certainly has to be more inclusive. It cannot be based on homogeneous ethnic identifications because that’s not possible any more. Every exhibition that I make has a strong personal parameter. I’m interested in identity issues from my own personal perspective because I’m also a migrant, coming from a different country, living in a host country. I’m also negotiating these difficulties. For the first time this year I’ve considered applying for Belgian nationality, after twelve years of living in the country.

AG: Why is that?

KG: Well, because the future of my own country (Greece), in Europe is uncertain and far from guaranteed. Nothing is given. Who could have conceived Brexit a few years ago?  From the moment that there is a precedent of a country that has left, other countries may well follow suit. Let’s hope that’s not going to happen. I consider myself a European citizen, and I would find it tragic if I were not able to move around or work freely any more in Europe. When enquiring about the process and criteria that need to be fulfilled in order to be granted Belgian citizenship, I received a surprisingly strict set of parameters to which I had to respond. This was not the case 10-15 years ago, for example I’m a European, I speak French, I contribute to the culture and society of the country and the continent in which I live, and yet I have to go through a really stringent process of being ‘re-Europeanized’, so to speak. It became even more clear to me, even in the most benign way, how xenophobic policy making and bureaucracy can affect a person’s destiny and life.

AG: But you are a European.

KG: I’m European, but I could at any point stop being European.

AG: As a fifteen-year-old I gained Canadian citizenship and had to swear allegiance to the British queen.

KG: I have Canadian citizenship as well.

AG: Oh, you do? You’ve spent time in Canada, then?

KG: Never. My father was a Canadian citizen, so I inherited the passport. This poses a really interesting question: I have a passport, but does that make me Canadian? No. I’m not partaking in that culture or country at all. What makes you a legitimate citizen of a country, not only in terms of legal logistics but also cultural ones?

AG: So you consider yourself European.

KG: I feel totally European. And I feel also very Greek at the same time as well as having elements of England and Belgium (the two countries where I’ve spent half my life) in me.

AG: I am interested in the notion of cosmopolitanism, which crops up in the essay “The State Is Not a Work of Art?” as well as in the wall panels. You speak of a “haughty cosmopolitanism” that you oppose to the more populist forms of nationalism. Socrates never left Athens, and yet when asked where he came from, he would say, “The world.” Isn’t there scope for stepping outside the bounds of Europe and thinking of ourselves simply as humans? Perhaps if the space race had taken a different turn, people would be more apt to see themselves as inhabiting a single planet.

KG: Unfortunately cosmopolitanism has come to mean something that is the privilege of a globetrotting professional class as opposed to an open understanding of the world that’s also an understanding of how we’re interconnected now, so that what happens in one part of the world affects what happens in another, certainly in terms of environmental questions, and what we share in common. But I do agree that we need to reevaluate this cosmopolitanism as a shared responsibility for a planet that we co-inhabit and we now have to share. You can erect borders and define nation-states, but are you going to be able to control water, air, or oceans that are polluted? This cosmopolitan understanding you’re talking about can very well have an environmental parameter to it.

AG: Absolutely. This September I was traveling in Siberia, where you can see it very clearly. For example, if Mongolia decides to erect a dam on its own territory, it will affect the level of water in Lake Baikal and upset its unique ecosystem, which is our common heritage. It doesn’t just concern Russia and Mongolia.

KG: To go back to this idea of cosmopolitanism, a true cosmopolitan is someone who is open to other cultures, who does not look condescendingly upon them, who does not consider his or her own culture superior. It reminds me of Turkey in the times of the Ottoman Empire, when Jews and Armenians and Greeks and Turks were coexisting together, before Ataturkism and nationalism. These ethnic groups had their cultures and their communities, but they were citizens of the world and of Turkey. What has come to replace this is a situation that is mono-cultural and hence impoverished.

AG: Well, I’m picking up on what you said. I personally think cosmopolitanism as an ideal could and should be rehabilitated.

KG: I too subscribe to it as a worldview, but it has also become the premise of an elite that’s disinterested or disrespectful of local issues, identities, and cultures. What do I mean by “haughty cosmopolitanism”? You might be sitting at a dinner next to someone you don’t know, and you want to start a conversation with the person—

AG: —and so you ask, “Where are you from?”

KG: Right. This is not an ethnically presumptuous question, as some people interpret it. “Oh, it doesn’t matter where I’m from. I’m a citizen of the world.” Well, I’m a citizen of the world too, but I actually come from Greece, which gives me a certain culture and historical perspective. To say “I don’t come from anywhere” is like saying “I don’t have a mother or a father; I don’t have any history; I came out of nowhere.” We all come from somewhere and we all have a certain linguistic, cultural, family upbringing that shapes the way we are. I’ll argue back with a metaphor. Orphaned children, for example, or adopted children, nine out of ten times want to find out who their parents were.

AG: If I can draw an analogy, André Gide said that one chooses one’s friends but not one’s family, and in the same way nationality is something that’s not of your own choosing; it’s foisted on you by birth. Not long ago I heard Francis Alÿs say, “Mexico is my chosen country.” I find that appealing, too. For a long time the UK was my chosen country; it was a conscious, adult decision to move to that particular place. Coming from somewhere, and your ideal projection or conscious choices, are different types of identities.

KG: You and me and Francis Alÿs have had the privilege to be able to do that.

AG: I don’t know about you, but I was wrenched out of my country at the age of eleven, at a time when people weren’t free to leave it, so I wouldn’t consider myself privileged in that respect.

KG: Well, I was also wrenched out my country because of the economic crisis and the prospect of being jobless. I had to restart my professional life from scratch in a country where I knew no one because I knew that I was doomed to unemployment if I stayed in Greece. And when I say “luxury,” don’t get me wrong; what I mean is that the situation is such in Europe that I can work in Belgium because I have a European Union passport. That’s the sense in which I consider myself privileged.

AG: And I feel much the same. I marvel at the fact of all these artists from Poland being able to travel freely and having their horizons expanded in such an extraordinary way. It wasn’t possible for my parents’ generation, nor for my grandparents’ generation, for different reasons. And then there’s the dread that it all may be coming to an end.