In the statement of the jury of last year’s Igor Zabel Award, the Czech curator Edith Jeřábková was described as “an innovative cultural producer, prolific curator and writer as well as a passionate teacher and researcher”. In her short but inspiring acceptance speech, Jeřábková referred to herself as a “hybrid” and besides being grateful to her colleagues and friends, she also thanked Mother Earth and shared her vision that she’ll maybe purchase a piece of land form the Igor Zabel grant. We interviewed her after the Award ceremony in Ljubljana in December.
East Art Mags: How do you connect all these activities, being a writer, a curator, a researcher, a professor?
Edith Jeřábková: To tell the truth, I don’t really have a strategy behind that. I react to the things that happen around me, that’s why I like being flexible as much as possible. That’s also the reason why sometimes it’s difficult for me to work in institutions, as its structure doesn’t provide this flexibility. That’s why we founded our collective, ARE because we wanted to be between spaces. We wanted to connect with individuals, with institutions and to react on those things that are of our interest. We also like to work with those who come to us and propose some projects, so we actually want to be hybrid in a positive way – of course there is a high possibility that this flexibility has also the negative aspects – not enough time to plan things, precarisation, and others, you can imagine yourself.
EAM: Could you please tell me a bit more about ARE and how you function as a group?
EJ: What I just described is the basic idea why we founded it. But the other aim was to connect the Czech art scene who, we felt, were sort of isolated from the international scene. Our aim was not to bring artists to Prague and only show their work but more like developing projects together with international collectives, artists, curators, philosophers. For example, we did quite a big project in Athens before documenta 14. We went there a year prior and researched the structure, and how the scene is ready to receive such a format, such colonisation power, I would say. And it was really interesting to get to know all the collectives and curators who reside there. We did residencies in Athens (as because of funding it was more like a Czech-Athens project), and we invited about 70 artists, writers and curators to be residents in Athens. And then we also invited curators and artists to Prague. This is more or less how we started this communication. Also, we produced exhibitions, for example in places like the State of Concept with iLiana Fokianaki (Note: also a speaker at the Art – How Much is it Still an Idea for the Future? conference) or Hyle and others.
Last year we researched an island Nisyros in Greece, which we used like a case study where you can really see many of today’s problems of the World in a small visible scale: the fall of agriculture system caused by tourism, water dependency, export of natural sources to the point of exhaustion – full excavation, unilateral economy based on tourism only etc. Then this year, based on the research, we invited Nadja Argyropoulou, a curator from Athens, who made a project Making Oddkin —for joy, for trouble, for volcano love. She invited artists, philosophers, anarchists and they did a 5-days-long festivity going through the island, exploring all the topics which are really obvious if you research them in this island environment. This is just an example but it describes really well how we operate and what we work on.
EAM: In your speech, you mentioned that after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, you had to reinvent a structure you’d like to work in. It was often mentioned about you that you usually work in non-institutional settings and I can see that an institutional format might be restrictive for your work. But how do you manage to be connected to institutions and still stay out of them?
EJ: Very early on, I became the vice-director of a regional museum. The director was a really great colleague, it was a kind of non-hierarchical structure on the curatorial level of the institution, and as a first experience in an institution, it was very nice, because we could do a lot of things there. And the support you had due to the institutional umbrella, it gave you power in a good way that you could really do things. I spent 3 years there and it was a fantastic time in the development of my work. But then the political situation changed, they kicked out the director and as a protest, I was the first, who left the institution. It was one of the first institutions that started to collect contemporary art, it was pioneering on a couple of areas, so the disruption of this development was a major disappointment for me. And there were few other incidents where it happened again that the political power took over. And they really stole the history, as after we left,
they erased the online archives as if we never existed. So I decided that I don’t want to contribute to the institutions if they are so fragile.
I tried to work in smaller galleries, and it was also interesting. I worked in Fotograf Gallery obviously focused on photography and I tried to open the view more towards the contemporary art than photography as a discipline and introduce an international program, which was quite difficult with the money we had. The gallery was part of the samely named magazine and festival, which is now quite big. Then I worked at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague on a research project about Czech art after the revolution and eventually ended up in the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague, and I think that in the academic field these days this is the place where quite a lot of writers and curators find some kind of freedom. Where you can maintain your research, ask for grants, etc., so this is kind of a zone, where we can really do and produce something within the institution and develop projects together with students, which I like, since you can really suppress the hierarchical structures other institutions are still based on. I have a big problem with the idea that the institution represents art – I would rather have institutions which present art.
As ARE, we work with institutions often, as they often use freelancers to maintain their program. I guess I don’t have to comment on that. So it’s more or less easy for us if we want to approach institutions and do projects together. But it also means sharing the funding. On one hand, I find it problematic and less transparent, but on the other hand, it’s a way that makes you capable of doing something, because otherwise, the funding is never enough. We’re very happy that the government and the city still give us support since we could not exist otherwise.
EAM: You are also a co-founder of the so-called Institute of Anxiety – what is it exactly?
EJ: As ARE, people often ask us to produce projects together. Czech artists Barbora Kleinhamplová and Eva Kotatkova approached us a year and a half ago that they would like to do a kind of Anxiety Festival. We proposed that the festival format might not be appropriate for this theme, so we came up with the idea that it could be something that lasts during the whole year. We are in a good relationship with Goethe Institute, so we approached them and they agreed to do the first year of the Institute under the umbrella of Goethe Institute and ARE, as we thought that the institute within the institute can be an interesting format. It is also a paradox, as it has a format that deals with anxiety in a non-institutional, non-hierarchical way, but still calls itself an institute.
So we deal with anxiety more in the social area, not because we don’t want to focus on the subject or subjectivity, it’s really important, but
we also think that anxiety can be a place where people can connect because it is based in every kind of activity.
This is something where we can join and get together and start a conversation to build something up.
This was the starting point, a common land, let’s say, to do something because artists are quite frustrated these days, asking: how can art be relevant? Activists are frustrated the same way, asking the same question: how can activism be relevant? We always ask ourselves whether we should be activists, and activists ask themselves whether they should use some symbolic language, how to be more universal, so it’s a common ground.
The first public event we did was a public hearing: we invited a very diverse spectrum of organizations and individuals from the Czech Republic and we were seeking for where anxiety is present these days. Everybody could give their speech without moderation, it was the initial evening we had together. And then we are trying to develop more specific formats of addressing different issues, less stereotypical than lectures and discussions. For example, Goethe Institute gave us their residential apartment and we set up a bed in the apartment where we invited guests overnight and asked them to share their thoughts until they fell asleep – and we were live streaming it. This was a project for the sleeping deprivation topic.
This year we dealt with the de-institutionalization of psychological treatments and medication, next year we are going to focus on protection of farm animals, intensive animal farming and how to change our relationship to animals on the level of the school education. Also, the disappearance of soil and water is our concern now, monocultural fields, small-scale farming, land sharing and non-industrial, sustainable production of food.
EAM: In your speech you mentioned that you might use the Igor Zabel Grant for purchasing a piece of land. Is this really your plan, what would you do with it?
EJ: Yes, that’s definitely our plan. We are buying this land as a part of the Institute of Anxiety because eco-anxiety is a big issue we’re dealing with now. We also practice these topics at the academy with our students, I’m working in the Sculpture Studio but we are trying to reflect bigger scale than sculpture itself, and I can see that a lot of us share this anxiety, feeling not being able to do anything. Feeling that even if you as an individual do everything you can, it doesn’t have an impact. I can see that some of the students suffer from that. This is a very important thing for us to solve. I believe that practising the matter is a way how to deal with such complex and – for an individual – too big systems such as Anthropocene or Capitalocene.
With the land, we didn’t define the program precisely yet, but I think it will be a long-term project, maybe a lifetime project, as we see it now. We already found a land, we are now in the process of purchasing it. So fingers crossed!
Cover: Stillness without still life, part of Making Oddkin – for joy, for trouble, for volcano love. Photo © Gabriel Baharlia