— Interview with Jonatan Habib Engqvist (Sweden)
Reykjavík Arts Festival 2012 had its kick off at Harpa (Reykjavík Concert and Conference Hall) on Friday night. Since 2004 the festival has been held annually in the capital city of Iceland, each year concentrating specifically on different fields of arts. Last year it was music — this year it’s visual arts. As we mentioned in the post (I)ndependent People, the large-scale exhibition is a collaborative visual arts project that involves many of Reykjavík’s various exhibition spaces during the festival and throughout the summer. Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet up with the curator of (I)ndependent people, Jonatan Habib Engqvist, in his time-intervals between answering e-mails and preparing last-minute actions. Over a long cup of coffee Jonatan told me all about the exhibition, his personal speculations about the project and his own role as a curator.
From the opening at Harpa Friday night
ONE BIG EXPERIMENT
The idea of (I)ndependent people came after a seminar called Alternative North that was hold in Reykjavík in 2011, concerning the economical crises and artists initiatives. The last two biennial formats at Reykjavík Arts Festival (curated by Jessica Morgan in 2005 & Ólafur Elíasson in 2008) were some “big deals” with big budgets. In between there were the financial crisis — and now it’s Jonatan’s turn to curate a biennale with artist-run initiatives.
“The brief I got from Reykajvík Arts Festival (Alternative power station of the North) was strong, even though it seemed like a quite job with compound co-operation between different institutions. But there was something exciting about it in terms of curating and I thought that maybe this complex co-operation might be an interesting focus for the whole biennale.”
Jonatan tells me genuinely how he never thought it would actually work out. He already had his job and gave a radical counter-proposal to the organizers of the festival.
“I thought that maybe this could be the concept itself — the collaboration — to make the biennale to an experiment and see if it holds. I received 100% support. When they said yes to the unbelievable there was no going back. And this whole support makes it a pretty radical exhibition in terms of an international biennale. The conglomerate of art galleries, artist-driven initiatives and artists groups (and their will to co-operate) is what will make this possible. You could say that the entire exhibition is like a one big experiment. Why? Cause it’s fun!”
A SINGLE SIMPLE RULE
“I have received so much support, incredibly much freedom — the organizers are satisfied as long as I keep the budget. Which is incredible and actually pretty cool.”
And from there — the collaboration — the idea starts growing. Jonatan tells me about the idea and how he really wants to take it as far as it goes. There are no solo artists, only groups and collaborations between artists — which is something opposite to the whole biennale logic.
“Normally biennales are based on superstars. And for me the curatorial process is exciting, even though I’ve had to say no to artists that are “big” and which work I like. But I have been very tough — holding hard to a one simple rule. NO solo artists. This is what the whole thing is based on. Everyone work on the same terms, there are no solo exhibitions and beside that there has to be a genuine exchange between partners, a negotiation and artwork that influences the theme.”
HOW MANY CURATORS TO SCREW A LIGHT BULB?
We discuss further the collaboration and I ask Jonatan about his role as a curator. He throws me an insider joke and asks me if I know how many curators I need to screw a light bulb?
“It depends on the budget! Everything will work out (or as they say in Iceland “þetta reddast”) as long as you keep budget. Do it yourself if you can’t afford it … So what I am trying to do is just to take some of the on-going happenings and gather them at one place. That’s what you do as a curator. To gather stuff and see what happens if you put this stuff in the same room. I see one thing there and another thing there — and wander what happens if I put them together. It’s not really that complicated.”
But I’m not sure I can buy that from him. The whole process seems complicated — a hard work. Having a dialogue, sharing visual perspectives, finding the artists right places in the context of the whole …
LIKE A HOUSE OF CARDS
… the whole of which is the collaboration. That is — NO SOLOS. And for Jonatan, being the only curator, makes it a bit bissare.
“It is an exhibition of collaboration, but I’m the only curator — which might create some sort of hirarki. But there is a dialogue, support and a concept that holds and helps working it all out. Still I’m there at the top. But maybe that’s ok. I think that there must be someone in charge, so if there is a disaster they can blame it on me. I might be the one that builds the infrastructure and context but I absolutely see the process as collective. It’s impossible otherwise. But it’s an experiment — bit like a house of cards — and if one cards falls it’s important to have someone who can point out and remind, as a part of the experiment.”
WHERE IS THE ART?
An experiment which is really exciting!The whole concept seems to be a lot about structures, experiments and dialoges — but will there be any art?
“Of course that’s a question that’s popped up in my mind. Working with group of artists is incredibly fun and interesting yet also complicated. The concept of infrastructures, research and experiments is a big part of the exhibition — but at the same time we just want to express art. It’s a framework for the art which is exhibited but not a scale of what you like and what you see. It’s challenging to let the art stand on its own — to see if it holds — and bring to the point both the visual as well as its intuition.”
Photographs taken from Reykjavík Arts Festival facebook page
And that might be an experiment on its own. Be sure to experience you own (I)ndependent people, which was opened yesterday. And if you’re not in Reykjavík, follow the festival with us, we’ll be reporting as much as we can!