Once, when I spoke with Francesca von Habsburg about the current Hungarian art scene, she highlighted Blood Mountain as one of the most exciting initiatives. I met Jade Niklai, founder and director of the Budapest-based independent, non-profit organization. She gave insights into Blood Mountain’s history, current activities, and future plans – which also involve Vienna.
The Blood Mountain Foundation is situated in a privately-owned Habsburg villa, and its identity draws from its namesake location, the site of one of the bloodiest battles fought between Hungarian and Ottoman forces in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Given the international focus and background, all activities take place in English.
Jade Niklai, could you describe the ambition of Blood Mountain?
Niklai: The aim of the foundation is to bring a certain selection of artists and approaches to Hungary, which is arguably absent not only in Hungary but also in the region of Central Europe. Beside the Hungarian office of the Central European curatorial think tank tranzit (spearheaded by Dóra Hegyi), we are the only independent arts initiative in Budapest with an international focus and certainly the only one with equal interest in contemporary art, architecture, and design. We are consciously multidisciplinary.
You were in London before you returned to Hungary, your country of birth, to establish Blood Mountain?
Niklai: Yes, for many years I was working in London with my Australian-born partner, Tom Sloan, making other people’s projects and dreams come true: Tom as an industrial designer and myself as a curator of contemporary art, architecture, and design. By 2009 we both felt that we wanted to start something of our own. I proposed to Tom that we do something in Hungary. Fortunately, he was very happy to join me.
Apart from you and Tom, there are international high-profile members in the board of trustees. Was it easy to convince them to cooperate?
Niklai: Absolutely. We worked with all of them before, and they completely understand what we are trying to do, not just in the Hungary context but the international arts sector. Being transparent in our content and management, which also extends to our board of trustees, are key factors in making a genuinely non-profit, but more importantly, independent arts organization.
Your special projects are given great publicity in several places in Europe, the “Stories from Central Europe”…
Niklai: “Stories from Central Europe” is our first research and production project, which has been investigating the region’s rich design heritage and future creative potential since 2011. Part of the project is currently on show at the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach and is curated by the Düsseldorf-based artist collective lonelyfingers, which originally began as a digital platform.
and the “Ikarus Archives”…
Niklai: “Ikarus Archives” is an ongoing research and photographic project with our in-house photographer András Káré that explores the growing discourse of design nostalgia through the story of the Hungarian-made Ikarus bus company, which was omnipresent in Cuba, China, and the Soviet Bloc for 50 years. We will present this next month at the Belgrade Design Week and, hopefully with further findings, later this year at the Budapest Design Week.
So, now in its third year of operation, Blood Mountain is dedicating 2013 to one of its main curatorial ambitions: new research and production?
Niklai: Between 2010 and 2012, the program was largely dedicated to the artist-in-residence and educational programs in Budapest. During this time we developed plenty of new interests and began to conduct research, which we are starting to present as Blood Mountain’s broader curatorial program. From 2013 on, Blood Mountain’s focus will expand internationally in both content and location. As our projects take us abroad and there is more and more interest in our personal work, we are going to devote more time to our international interests and obviously we are going to take Blood Mountain with us.
Where are you going?
Niklai: At the end of this year we are invited to a kind of residency of our own in Vancouver, Canada, where we will set up a Blood Mountain satellite program for six weeks at 221A, a fantastic artist-run center with a similar cross-disciplinary focus as ours.
And you also have plans for Vienna, right?
Niklai: One year ago, in June 2012, Blood Mountain was invited to guest-curate the MAK NITE LAB event in collaboration with Fritz Haeg. Since 2005 the Los Angeles-based artist-activist-designer has been running an urban garden project around the world called “Edible Estates”. We extended it to Hungary with great success and then presented it to the Viennese audience. We are planning to run one or two residencies in Vienna between 2014 and 2015 and look to develop more institutional collaborations.
Could you tell us something about your residency program?
Niklai: Until now Fritz Haeg has been the fourth artist-in-residence. The objective is to invite international emerging to mid-career artists at a critical stage of their practice to live and work with us for a month at a time. The selection is made by invitation, and it is important that the time is used to produce new works. We collectively establish a theme on the basis of the artists’ respective practices and our own curatorial ambitions. We also ask our artists to contribute to our public program, which we curate with our in-house art educator Panni Váradi. It includes educational events for 6 to 12-year-olds, professional development (workshops and talks) for university students and young professionals, and general admission events suited for enthusiastic teenagers and the general public with no prior knowledge of art, architecture, or design.
What were the artists’ responses like?
Niklai: I am pleased to say that all our invitations to date have received positive responses. We started with Diango Hernández, a Cuban artist based in Germany. The second residency was with Asim Memishi, an Australian-born Albanian artist, who was followed by The Otolith Group. They produced two new works, including a new commission conceived for last year’s critically acclaimed DOCUMENTA. Here we worked with tranzit and the Open Society Archives (Central European University, Budapest) to develop a critically relevant public program.
As Blood Mountain is an independent institution, how do you fund the projects?
Niklai: We self-fund all core expenses and, over time, look to develop expanded project budgets from independent funding sources, as we did during Haeg’s residency, which was supported by the Chicago-based Graham Foundation. This means that Tom and I are constantly working parallel to Blood Mountain’s activities in a variety of freelance and consultancy positions. We strongly believe that working commercially is the only way for Blood Mountain stay agile, relevant, and independent.
How has Blood Mountain been received locally and internationally?
Niklai: Once the works are completed, they go into the world and tell a wonderful story of their own. For example, one of the works that evolved from Fritz’ residency called “Domestic Integrities” has since been presented at MoMA (New York) and the Hammer Museum of UCLA (LA) and will be shown in his retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis later this year. We have found that if you give a little you get back a lot, and this is actually the point: When these artworks enter the broader international arts community, they tell a story not only about Blood Mountain but about Budapest, Hungary, and Central Europe.
Blood Mountain is an independent non-profit organization working at the intersection of contemporary art, architecture, and design. Based in Budapest, its mission is to generate fresh discourse and to encourage the production of new works inspired by its location and Hungary’s broader sociopolitical context as a member state of the European Union since 2004. Central to Blood Mountain’s objectives is the belief that culture is an agent for social change and its open discourse and unrestricted practice are fundamental to the life of a participatory democracy. With an ambitious program of exhibitions, educational projects, public events, workshops, residencies, and publications, its mission is to attract world-class thinkers and to create new opportunities for local talent on the broadest possible international platform. – www.bloodmountain.org
Jade Niklai is a curator with specialist interest in contemporary art, architecture, and design. She has fulfilled curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2000–2001), the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest (2002), and at London’s Architecture Foundation (2005–2007). She has also worked in the commercial sector as the founding director of a leading art dealership in Melbourne and as the first and only curator in Norman Foster’s 40-year architectural practice Foster + Partners (2008–2009). Jade has been active as Blood Mountain’s founding director since January 2010 and as a freelance art writer and juror (Esterhazy Foundation, “Artist Under 35 Award”, Eisenstadt/Budapest, 2009 and 2011, and Apexart, New York, “Unsolicited Proposals”, 2012).