Turning the Page to Twenty-Twentyone
With a year of hardships, in the wake of a still ongoing pandemic, coming to an end, we turn the spotlight on representatives at the helm of three art institutions that were particularly influential and inspiring in their decision-making this year. Richard Julin (Acclerator), Anneli Bäckman (Botkyrka Konsthall) and Theodor Ringborg (Bonniers Konsthall) all get to grips with reflections on the challenges of 2020, offering a future perspective and insight as well into what's yet to come and awaits the public further ahead. For some light-hearted relief we turned to Sackarias Stenius to illustrate each of the three.
Richard Julin, Artistic director, Accelerator
C-P: Accelerator found an ingenious and tech-forward way to accommodate the public to see then current exhibition at the height of the pandemic in spring. Looking back over the year that is now about to end, what comes to mind about various pandemic-driven considerations on your end and specific actions that were carried out?
R.J: Accelerator's new space had just been open for 6 months when we had to rethink how to be in contact with our audience. Our main goal was to be able to continue to have a dialogue with our audience and to be able to carry out the program of talks we had planned. Although it may be a bit of a cliché, the key wasn't really technology, but people. We quickly made a sort of inventory in the staff, including the hosts of our exhibitions, who all kept their jobs and hours we had scheduled. Not surprisingly, many of the hosts who are artists are truly multi-skilled and we were able to quickly shift or tweak tasks for many in the staff. As a result, we started digital tours via zoom that I'd describe as lively in discussions and imagery. The camera person and guide have (we are continuing to do this) a kind of choreography that includes going quite close to art works and to include viewers' questions into the tour. I could write much more about this, but also want to mention other things. We made a point of reaching out with these digital tours quite quickly. As a new space that underlines the importance of dialogue, we wanted to be able to offer possibilities of just that. We had to learn quickly how to translate our public program into digital talks and films. We ended up realizing the program we had planned, with very few exceptions.
Important details were also that our hosts instead of working in the space transcribed and translated some of the digital talks we had, which made them more accessible. Also, research in different fields was carried out that we could use for our current exhibition The Experimental Field. In short, we worked intensely on keeping going.
C-P: On a more personal note, what were some epiphanies about working in this field, in your position, that arose as a result of the hardships that came with covid-19?
R.J: In my role as artistic director the task to keep discussions going has been one important thing. The crisis everyone is going through hits on many levels and the professional side of things is but one. I found that routines in having frequent meetings of both practical character but also inspirational, most of them digital, has been very important. It seems to help people feel better, at least ok at times and occasionally it's been real fun. The hardships have given rise to thoughts on why we work with art and to use the time that we suddenly had to talk about that. This leads to some more abstract thoughts but also to more concrete discussions on how we can develop what we do in the university context further. Another level of difficulty has to do with the artists' financial situation in this crisis. We have tried the best we can to see how we can help artists who we're currently working with. This has meant to make payments earlier than contracts stipulate if that is of help and add funds to some budgets when possible.
C-P: Glancing over at 2021-2022, what can be expected from Accelerator and what does the program have in store?
R.J: We hope to open our next exhibition The Experimental Field early 2021. The exhibition has a program of talks that we've initiated now that continues through spring. Apart from several artist talks and performances we continue our Art + Research series in which researchers are in dialogue with us exhibition makers, with artists and other invited people. Also our collaboration with the Curating Art MA course at the university will continue with talks and events. The exhibitions we had planned for spring are now scheduled for autumn 2021. Our aim is to address current societal issues through our exhibitions and the program in relation to them. We've initiated discussions within our team, within the university and are reaching out to artists with diversity as a main issue of focus. We see this issue in our future program of exhibitions and talks but parallelly as important to incorporate in our work together as a group.
C-P: On the note of diversity, there was an article in Paletten addressing what an anonymous group of poc-artworkers believed was a weak response from Swedish institutions in light of BLM. What will change in the art scene?
R.J: As I mentioned, I see the issue being addressed. My personal experience in the last few months has been that dealing with racism needs a clear plan of action within an institution. We need to educate ourselves, formulate a vocabulary within a team and beyond so that change can happen. I believe change will happen. The process seems to go through phases that include things I just mentioned and others, like clear decisions to take action yourself with those around you, address and overcome fears of different kinds and to make the issues of diversity and racism a priority.
C-P: What greater vision do you see for Accelerator in the next few years? What will be Accelerator's position in the local (and international) art scene?
R.J: The mission of Accelerator is to engage actively with society, producing exhibitions presenting international and Swedish contemporary art. We're aiming at being more in dialogue with artists working in our region but will continue to reach out globally. Exactly how the latter will develop in the future in sustainable ways is on the agenda to develop and discuss with colleagues and others. We want to strengthen our Art + Research program, which frankly is more a budgetary issue than a question of ideas around the program.
We know how we want to develop and see that there is an incredible richness in research and researchers at Stockholm university. And the interest to work with us is growing. When it comes to a position, we've started good conversations locally and hope to continue to develop dialogue and collaborations. Internationally we're currently reaching out to other contemporary art venues at universities with the goal of exchanging ideas.
Anneli Bäckman, Curator, Botkyrka konsthall
C-P: Botkyrka Konsthall was among the institutions in Stockholm this year that remained very active and visible and opened an extensive exhibition with as extensive tie-in programming. MAMI: AMA: MÖDRAR is a very timely exhibition that places empahsis on collective processes of presenting art together.
Looking back over the year that is about to end, what comes to mind about various considerations on solving challenges that arose for Botkyrka konsthall with covid-19? Botkyrka konsthall being a suburban venue, one would think your realities might irrespective of a pandemic differ slightly from the innercity venues.
A.B: Yes, it has really been a year that has challenged everything that we are doing, but it has also been interesting to explore new ways of working in this field. During spring there was definitely an energy in trying out new online formats and experimenting with lo-fi technology while also grappling with this unexpected scenario. I think the positive side effects have been this open and accessible digital realm of talks and programs.
Botkyrka Konsthall being an art space located in a neighbourhood, has together with the Fittja Library become part of people’s everyday lives where our joint entrance space and the Fittja Kitchen usually is a lively living room for all ages. These social spaces are central in our work as this is where ideas and exchanges of all kinds happen, and it is difficult to imagine that these spontaneous meetings can happen online.
We are lucky that we have access to a variety of public spaces close to our art space but also around the municipality that artists have engaged with in different ways during this summer. We have seen art walks and the harvesting of local clay by artists Juanma González and Ivana Kralikova, a beautiful land art project by young artists in Junior Residence, sensitively created in the nature reserve of Ekholmen, Kulturens Mamma - an edible allotment garden that brought kids together in a creative gardening and harvest experience by Sarasvati Shrestha. Our residence artist Bianca Hisse spent the late summer researching the local surroundings through her performance practice, a work that turned into an exhibition Especially Vulnerable that is still showing in the Archive (although currently closed to the public).
C-P: On a more personal note, what were some epiphanies about working as curator in art that arose as a result of the hardships this year?
A.B: Working with the group of artists and cultural workers who initiated MAMI : AMA : MÖDRAR and joining their collective process during the height of this period has been a unique experience. The exhibition was about to open in May but had to be postponed until late August, which gave us a generous timeline to work in a hybrid mode, shifting and mixing online and physical meetings, going through all details together and allowing for reflections and adjustments to happen along the way.
The exhibition theme is also very timely in that it bears witness to the structural violence that mothers with a migrant history carries in our society. This has been especially poignant considering the unsustainable logics that covid-19 has exposed on a brutal scale. I think that the collective strategy as a way to resist and heal, has been very powerfully articulated through the artworks, performances and a program that has been adapted to the current situation during this autumn.
Concerning our field, artists' precarious work situation is also something that the pandemic has made painfully obvious. It has really been a time to reevaluate our world on many levels, so let’s hope that a more sustainable and healthy system can grow from this.
C-P: Glancing over at 2021-2022, what can be expected from Botkyrka konsthall and what lies ahead for the public?
A,B: We are super excited to open a new exhibition on February 27, The Dream Keeper that is a future-worlding experiment led by Afro-Swedish artist Cecilia Germain and by our curator-in-residence, art historian Temi Odumosu. It draws on a long history of Black radical thought and practice, in order to produce a multidimensional space for “borderless being”. The exhibition will also be joined by an extensive programme and continue until the end of August, and we hope that this long exhibition period will make it possible for many to see it, considering the uncertain times ahead.
Residence Botkyrka is marking its 10-year anniversary this year but it will be celebrated in 2021 trough an archival journey in collaboration with curator Abir Boukhari and graphic designer Johnny Chang. We are reaching out to our previous artists-in-residence and are planning a number of iterations dealing with the past, present and future through an online publication, a cookbook and a program taking place in the Archive at Botkyrka Konsthall in the autumn.
We are also looking forward to work with artist duo aghili/karlsson who will present a site-specific project later next year. More to follow on that!
The exhibition MAMA : AMI : MÖDRAR is still up until January 16, but has now moved online with two more programs coming up in January: Sonia Sagan’s Self Care S.O.S. and Shiva Anoushirvani’s cooking show Taste of Memory which will be livestreamed from the Fittja Kitchen, and there will be a final livestreamed tour of the exhibition on January 13. The programme will then continue later in the spring with a release of the exhibition catalogue together with a couple of programs and a release of an artist’s book.
C-P: There was an article in Paletten addressing what an anonymous group of poc-artworkers believed was a weak response from Swedish institutions in light of BLM. Botkyrka konsthall would be among the fewer institutions to which such criticism doesn't apply (as much) since you would be found at the fore in terms of addressing global realities of minority groups and poc-communities. Looking around you in the local art scene, outside of your own locale, what do you see is and will be changing?
A.B: The open letter Silence is Violence was addressed to all arts and cultural institutions in Sweden, including us. The matter at heart is what institutions are made of and the professional field that mirrors its exclusivity and aesthetic values rooted in colonial and national histories, and this is something that we all have to deal with and actively challenge from whatever position we have.
We see a lot of artists, initiatives, activists and academics that are influencing the arts field through own platforms and collectives, but it is rarely happening within the institutional framework. The latest issue of the magazine Konstnären highlights many of these influential voices and collective movements. I am also very much looking forward to the exhibition by Cecilia Germain and Temi Odumosu that we will host this spring and that will engage with ethnobotanical knowledges and practices in the Afro-diasporic heritage but also ask questions such as: where are black futures located?
C-P: What greater vision do you see for Botkyrka konsthall in the next few years?
A.B: In 2019 we opened the new space in Fittja, and our main vision is to explore what an art institution can be in collaborations with others and in close dialogue with the locality. The coming years will see an expanded program in the intersection of art and urban development as well as exciting collaborations that will bring new perspectives to our field of work. I think that every exhibition and program that has taken place and will take place also speaks of possibilities to create and imagine new ways of thinking and doing. So, exciting times ahead!
Theodor Ringborg, Artistic director, Bonniers konsthall.
C-P: Bonniers Konsthall was at the forefront among institutions to accomodate the public to see art at the height of the pandemic in spring. Looking back at 2020, what comes to mind about various considerations on your end and specific actions that were carried out?
T.R: On the one hand, I’m of course preoccupied with questions about what we’ve learnt as an institution. On the other, many thoughts move in a broader spectrum. The simple fact that "normal" is what brought us here and that many seem to be working to bring us back to that "same normal" is, I think, shocking. The pandemic has, to put it quite simply, revealed a great many things and in that I think there should have emerged a different kind of mobilization. Yet, of course, it’s rather hard to mobilize nowadays.
As an institution we felt compelled to keep to our programming for several reasons. They’re too many to cover comprehensively. At the heart of it though, there was recognizing what kind of institution we are. We’ve always thought of the value of our work as more than the amount of people that come visit us. We of course care deeply about those who do, but to be frank, the audience is not the only thing that counts. There is artistic value to exhibitions in and of themselves and to keep the integrity of the practice was to me as crucial. There was also our place in this landscape’s economy to consider, and what it would have meant to the many people who work in and around Bonniers Konsthall. It would have had a terrible impact on them if we closed.
What we did was to keep open as planned, with safety measures in place for those who did come visit and those who work here. The only thing we changed in our program was a collaborative exhibition rather quickly organized with other institutions, Mint, hangmenProjects, Signal and Index, who were facing, of course, the same crisis. Instead of retracting into ourselves it made more sense to open up, invite others, and try to organize. It was quite difficult to know exactly what we were doing and how to do it. Perhaps it was an institutional exercise. Or maybe we just wanted to show that it could be done. In whatever case, we learnt a lot. The plan is not just to let that sit with ourselves, but that when we can meet and organize something, a talk or something along those lines, to explore the exhibition and process behind it.
What I bring with me as we go forth is a sense that cultural institutions should be very hard to close. The next time it might be a different kind of crisis and we’ve at least shown that we can and will remain open in spite of all. I understand others doing differently. Especially colleagues abroad who have been mandated in a different way that we in Sweden were. There still, though, is a notion that culture should not be so easily erased and that we who practice and facilitate it are its guardians.
That said, however, as I write this, new restrictions and guidelines are being imposed. With tougher measures the Swedish government are asking, in a new way, that institutions like ours close. The message, as they for the first time shut libraries, for instance, is rather clear. So, we have taken the decision to close as well. I am grateful to the artists Fathia Mohidin and Ida Idaida, whom we have on view at the moment, for their understanding and grateful for having had the opportunity to show their remarkable work up until now. As of now we plan to reopen on February 3 with Ann Böttcher’s major retrospective and Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn’s exhibition Untitled (Entitled), although nothing seems certain anymore and we will just have to see how the situation develops. There’s much more I’d like to say about this, but I’ll stop here for fear of running too long.
C-P: On a more personal note, what were some epiphanies about working in this field, in your position, that arose with covid-19?
T.R: I wouldn’t have made it through all this with any kind of sanity without Radio Alhara, that’s one thing I know. Another is that everyone who works at Bonniers Konsthall cares deeply about the work they do. The intricacies of a place like ours, the different things that need to be considered and the infrastructure behind it can sometimes still surprise me. But they’re part of the reality of what we do and what many other places do too. It’s therefore been amazing to see people adapt so quickly and work so hard to make things work.
But like I said, I still feel that we’re very much still in it and that’s against the backdrop of lots of people losing their lives and livelihoods. There’s also going to be far reaching consequences when this is “over”. Just think of all the check-ups people aren’t able to do now, where a disease would have been caught. All the mammograms for instance, cancelled. And all the people losing their jobs, forced into even more precarious situations as austerity measures to cover all the crisis-packages are surely coming. And the people who work in the health-sector. What will happen after?
With regard to what Bonniers Konsthall does I think talks and other public programming is something to still be better figured out. Although I do appreciate everyone’s Zoom-lectures and all the digital tours, there is something to be said about presence in spaces and to sit with others and experience a performance or talk. Not only do I miss it. But I think there is a greater lesson to learn of how vital not just actually seeing exhibitions are but also engaging in these surrounding events and what can be accomplished in organizing them. Perhaps that’s the space where we can carve out a new mode of working that responds to a greater extent to what we’ve all now been through.
So, if there’s anything to consider now it is how we as an art institution fit into a relatively uncertain future. We claim a piece of the public space and so should have that in mind when we do our work. What are our responsibilities and how can we, simple, do good in our community?
C-P: Glancing over at 2021-2022, what can be expected from Bonniers Konsthall and what does the program have in store?
T.R: We plan our exhibitions about three years in advance and are committed to seeing our program through. That’s to say, we’re (almost) not changing anything directly in our exhibitions program to fit or respond to the crisis. I take there to be other ways of response than through exhibitions with a pandemic or crisis theme. What we always want to do as an institution, and which is very much part of how we see ourselves, is offer artists time, space, resources and freedom for the sake of the individual practice. One example is our upcoming exhibition with Ann Böttcher, which is the first comprehensively exhibition of Böttcher’s work, including a new piece. Or, similarly, the following exhibition with Lawrence Abu Hamdan, which is one of the most expansive exhibitions by Abu Hamdan to date and includes a series of new work alongside pieces by the artist that allow for an interrogation of witnessing and testimony. To both these exhibitions we’re also producing major monographic publications that allow for scholarly and creative reflections on their work.
Next year we also have exhibitions with Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, Outi Pieski and Cooking Sections, all of which show new or to an extent new work. And although it’s not a requirement for an artist engaged in Bonniers Konsthall, our way of working often results in new works of art. Any shift in our program therefore risks disrupting the artists at work and that’s the last thing we want, so we’ve been very hesitant to make any direct changes.
Bonniers Konsthall has always had its immediate neighbourhood as a primary scene of engagement. We come from a foundation which in 1985 began handing out grants to young artists around here and so it’s very much our heart and soul. And so when it comes to new work, and the repercussions of the pandemic in the sense of art and artists, it is quite clear to me that we have a responsibility to engage even more in our neighbourhood. Jeppe Ugelvig has a good essay about a new localism in the recent Spike Art that touches upon a lot of what we’ve been trying to think through. And one thing we’ve done is shift the structure of one exhibition for the fall of 2022 to include only newly commissioned work by people in and around our neighbourhood. And coming up there’s a lot more work do to in those terms.
C-P: There was the article in Paletten addressing what an anonymous group of poc-artworkers believed was a weak response from Swedish institutions in light of BLM. What do you see is and will be changing?
T.R: Here I can only speak for myself and do not want to be interpreted as speaking for all the staff. There are a variety of experiences at play and different roles within an institution like ours, and to do justice to the issue is to recognize that each member of staff must formulate their own response and role with regard to the issue. Of course, there’s an overarching commitment as an institution to address the obvious problems pinpointed by this group, but the outline of that would I think require an interview with more people than just me.
I read the article and also received a letter from the group with a series of questions, to which I responded. Because I come from practice, of doing stuff, I believe that a response that does justice to the issues raised in the letter are best expressed in practice rather than theory. What that means to me is to offer not so much of rhetoric and instead show and instigate necessary change by doing.
What would interest me is a historicization of these problems in Sweden. There are people who have and are working on something to that effect, but a historical narrative of art institutions in relation to the problematics raised by this group would be something that I would wholeheartedly engage in and support because it would lend further tools for attending to these issues now. What exhibitions and artists have been overlooked? Who did what in, say, the 60’s and 70’s? We’re often quite knowledgable when it comes to exhibitions in New York during that period, but less so when it comes to exhibition-histories closer to us. At least I feel like I lack in that department.
C-P: What greater vision do you see for Bonniers Konsthall in the next few years? What will be Bonniers position in the local (and international) art scene?
T.R: Here I think we come back to the way we work, and how we offer time, space, resources and freedom to artists so as to enable ambitions exhibitions and facilitate something for the individual practice. Like with Ann Böttcher, who has never had the opportunity to comprehensively view her work or Abu Hamdan, with whom we investigate a particular strand of his practice.
There’s also a point to be made in that we’re not a museum and so do not necessarily have to practice in a rigorous museological way or adhere to questions of art history in everything we do. This could mean that exhibitions take on a form like Éva Mag’s recent show, where it was an extended process and not a “finished” institutionalized work of art, or something like Cooking Sections, who we will exhibit and whose practice is actually situated way beyond the walls of any space.
The distinction between local and international has always been for me rather tricky. It’s easier, takes less time, and is sometimes cheaper to get to New York than to, for instance, Jokkmokk. Distance is not measured in kilometres anymore but in the hassle of getting somewhere. That has skewed the relation to our immediate surrounding, our neighbourhood so to speak. It means something to bring that to the table which we intend to do.
For several reasons that have become apparent this past year the landscape of institutions that work with art will no doubt change, and while we will keep to the work that we do and make exhibitions with contemporary art, what I hope for in the next few years is to be a meaningful participant in that change.
All illustrations by Sackarias Stenius.