This interview first was published in Czech on Artalk.cz.
This year, the Tzvetnik online platform will celebrate five years of its existence, during which it has become an influential medium publishing photo documentation of art shows from around the world and interviews with contemporary artists. It allures the Middle and Eastern European art scene with its specific and selective aesthetics, which gave rise to the phenomenon of “art from Tzvetnik”. In the interview, Tina Poliačková focused on how the founders of the platform, the philosopher Natalya Serkova and the artist Vitaly Bezpalov, reflect on this position. And also, how they consider the online distribution of contemporary art in the present day.
Tina Poliačková: I would like to open this conversation with a seemingly trivial question, what is tzvetnik? Why did you start it and what is its background?
Tzvetnik: TZVETNIK was found in 2016 as a result of our interest in contemporary art. The post-conceptual discourse still reigned supreme in Russian contemporary art scene, while we were interested in post-internet art, the phenomenon of Internet aggregators, tumblr blogs that featured bizarre gifs, etc. At some point we realized that we would want to involve ourselves into this kind of scene, so we created our own project. This is where TZVETNIK started. Shortly after the launch of the first version of our website we got a lot of positive feedback, that made us really excited. We wanted to work and communicate with young colleagues who would share our tastes and views in art and thanks to TZVETNIK this became possible.
How do you maintain it financially? Do you have any support from the state, prive sphere or is it purely a DIY project?
In a sense, all four years up to this point our work on the project has gone against the context in which we find ourselves. Unfortunately, in Russia it is difficult to find state or even private support for a project like ours. The thing is that we mainly promote art of foreign-based artists, and we publish materials in English, without duplicating them into Russian. For this reason, the project is not perceived as supporting Russian artists or Russian culture (which, in our opinion, is completely wrong). So we can say that, yes, at the moment it is a DIY project, incorporating help from our colleagues and generally maintaining a positive outlook towards exploring new ways of capitalizing in the near future.
It is true that the rapid expansion of the internet became a kind of game changer, especially in distribution and reception of art. Tzvetnik itself is based on photo documentation of exhibitions which has fundamental effect on the perception of art – flattening of art object, de-contextualization of the meaning or maybe reduction of its complex entanglement with physical space to photoshoot background. How do you reflect this specific medium which photo documentation undeniably is?
One often may hear that Internet blogs and aggregators changed the viewer’s perception of art—there is no more physical contact with the object of art, no more thoughtful presence in the silence of an art gallery. The viewer can no longer design his or her own logic of encountering an exhibition project; instead, he or she is presented with a sequence of shots of photographic documentation of the project already built up for them, with the angles chosen for them. Usually, the display of art on the Internet is criticized for this. However, few people mention the fact that the art itself is changing along with the new conditions of display. It doesn’t just adjust to these new conditions (we think this would be a very superficial and essentially incorrect point of view), it uses these conditions as part of its own functionality, as a feature built into its own production that affects what art eventually becomes. In other words, we are looking at the situation from a slightly different angle. The Internet is not changing perception of art—the Internet is changing art. This new art is a child of the Internet, search engines and social media, a child of age of blogging and totally displaced coordinates, and this is exactly the kind of art we are interested in. In this sense, we could say that all of our work within TZVETNIK is a reflection on the current situation in art distribution and the medium of photo documentation. We are trying to figure out what kind of art we feature and how it differs from, say, Post-Internet art, in case of which the disposition of digital and physical in the conceptual sense has been quite clearly established.
Speaking of „changing art“, thanks to documentation platforms such as Tzvetnik it is possible to follow continual change of certain „aesthetics“or recurring formal expression. How do you choose exhibitions you wanna publish, what is your curatorial strategy?
In the beginning, we selected projects intuitively, on a ‘like-dislike’ basis. At that time, we didn’t fully understand what kind of art we tried to highlight. We saw it as not quite Post-Internet art, but some kind of next step forward, still it was difficult to formulate what this step was that art had taken. Later on, when we gradually began to form some kind of understanding of this new art, we began to be more conscious of the question of selection. However we still cannot say that there is a set of conventional hashtags that art should possess in order to be shown on TZVETNIK. It happens sometimes that we don’t feature a project that seems to fit all the parameters, but at the same time we feel that something fundamental about it is missing. In this sense, we still wouldn’t be able to articulate criteria for art we do choose to publish.
But of course there are certain scenarios that can be discussed. At the moment, TZVETNIK is about art, in which objects and the relations between them play a huge role. We are curious about how objects behave in the space in which they are placed (this relation we believe, is able to be shown through photo documentation), how they behave towards those who look at them (both viewers in a gallery and on the Internet, as well as the neighbouring objects), what they are capable of, how strange and repulsive or attractive and disturbing an object can be. We are interested in effects an object can have, and we mean not only an aesthetic side of things. We believe that objects of art, particularly, thanks to their display on the Internet, inherently carry a capacity of being much more than that.
Another important point is the semantic assembly that each exhibition and each object presented in it, contains. It is interesting for us to see how the process of meaning-making and meaning-translation is transformed in art today. If, in our opinion, the project and the individual objects within it show some meaning in a new, unexpected and unobvious way, we select such a project. To assemble meanings in a brand new way is indeed a difficult task, and often artists do it intuitively, in the process of formal experimentation. Therefore, formal and semantic characteristics go hand in hand here. And it relates closely to our curatorial strategy: to show new ways of producing meaning in art.
On your website, you also compare today’s art to the rotting body which poisonous fumes could be considered as „pharmakon“ – greek notion encompassing opposing meanings of remedy, poison, and human sacrifice. This apocalyptic vision, and also snappy metaphor for ongoing pandemic, impinges on necessity to deal with the death, as a productive junction for transformation. Do you think we are at the turning point towards completely new or let’s say, posthuman experience of art?
Of course, one would like to answer positively to this question right away. But it is way easier to talk about the post-human condition than to manifest it in reality, especially in art. Art in the modern sense of this word has always been the practice of people addressed to other people. Other entities, like plants, stones, or landscapes, might be addressed accordingly, but the ultimate addressee of art (we are referring, of course, to the institutionalized art which already has been or aspires to be included into the history of art) remains human. In this sense, it becomes not at all obvious what post-human art is. Can art exclude human beings? But then who produces it? Who looks at it and will write about it in catalogues? And if today we are talking about some kind of transformed and poisonous post-human art, then we have to go to the logical end and say that art seems to be heading towards its own abolition.
We are not talking about abolition of art as an intellectual and creative practice, of course. We are talking about a movement towards the end of the project of art in modern history, which has been going on for more than 400 years. This may sound unreasonable at first glance, but why not assume that along with the 21st century, which has apparently begun in 2020 at the same time as the new post-Covid world emerged before our eyes, new art will also begin? It is still difficult to say what kind of art this will be and how it will function institutionally. Already, we’re seeing a change in the way it is produced and represented. Everything is moving towards online, and perhaps soon to talk about an incredible and unique experience of physical interaction with the original piece of art will become a nice conservative naivety. Artists are beginning to simply ignore the difference between the physical and digital environments: increasingly, their projects are blending these two environments in such a way that you can no longer simply tell them apart. This also relates to artists’ affection for themes of decay, rot, death, and the formal redundancy of objects. No one knows what death is but everyone knows that after death comes a new beginning. Perhaps the artists’ attention to the post-human is a promise of such beginnings of post-art in a post-human world.
From another perspective, curator and theorist Chus Martínez writes in her article “What does it mean to feel” that art is essential because it renders complex experience of feeling alive, which is of course a privileged position, because it requires time, money and space to be sentient. Today’s digital experience is full of heterogeneity, plurality of stimulus circulating in a fast pace and producing low attention span and fatigue. Isn’t just the pandemic that shows us that what we need now is being with art with all senses and being fully involved with irreducible physical experience?
Generally speaking, during 2020, the theses about the need for physical presence, Zoom fatigue, the lack of digital experience have become something obvious and self-evident, in other words, they have become commonplace (and a very trendy one). As a rule, common statements require the most analysis and careful handling. For example, we very rarely visited exhibitions physically before—in that sense, not much has changed for us. We work with the online representation of art—and in this sense, we have, again, continued to work in the same way as before. Artists all over the world continued to make exhibitions and we did not get the impression that the process had come to a halt. It might have put to a halt plenty of large institutions and projects, but as we are working on a much modest scale at the moment, it has had almost no effect on us.
To talk about the lack of physical presence and the lack of experience of encountering art, one should have had that experience before, while it was always available to only a small proportion of the population, even in the developed countries. In essence, we are being asked to empathize with a loss of a rather elitist experience on the part of some people, and we unfortunately cannot share this longing. The world is digitizing whether we want it or not. In our view, all we can influence is what place we will eventually take in this digitized system. And even this possibility of influencing our position is already elitist to a certain extent as most people are simply deprived of even that. Art, which requires the physical presence of the viewer, in turn, continues to insist on this non-digitized, unique, elitist experience which cannot be replicated. In this sense, it’s not entirely clear why contemporary art continues to separate itself so vehemently from other technically reproducible arts like music or film. It is certainly great when there is art aimed at the experience of direct physical presence, but we cannot insist, in our view, that such a quality should be sewn into art as its inherent feature. Otherwise, art runs the risk remaining in the camp of not just technically, but morally obsolete practices.
TZVETNIK is an independent online curatorial platform founded in 2016. TZVETNIK is aimed at documenting and archiving the international contemporary art process. It facilitates curated aggregation of the cultural output coming from various creative communities, individual artists, visual art specialists and global trendsetters in the art world. TZVETNIK was founded and is currently run by Vitaly Bezpalov and Natalya Serkova.
Cover photo: ‘L’amour ‘, Group Show Curated by TZVETNIK at BDSM Lounge, Berlin, 2019 / Installation view, Julian-Jakob Kneer, Romeo, 2019