2016 / CEE Monthly

viennacontemporary 2016 | Amy Bryzgel | Interview

by Kate Sutton

I first met Amy Bryzgel more than ten years ago, in the St Petersburg studio of Sergey Bugaev-Afrika, when Amy was researching for her dissertation at Rutger’s, home of the Norton Dodge Collection. Since that time, Amy has parlayed her studies into a full-blown database on the art from the former communist and socialist countries of Central, Eastern and Southen Europe, under the heading “Performing the East.” Part of the project is an impressive online database of Amy’s honest, insightful and often humorous interactions with artists while researching for her groundbreaking Performing the East : Performance art in Russia, Latvia and Poland Since 1980 (I.B. Tauris, 2013). Now a professor at Aberdeen University, where she serves as the Director of the GWW Centre for Visual Culture, Amy teaches contemporary art, performance and visual culture, all with an emphasis on Eastern Europe. Her recent publications include a monograph on Latvian painter and performance artist, Miervaldis Polis (Neputns, 2015) and an upcoming addition to Manchester University Press’s “Rethinking Art’s Histories” series called Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 (2017).

I caught up with Amy as part of the preparations for her participation in this year’s ‘Keys to the Contemporary Art‘ Talks Program at viennacontemporary.

Bryzgel Photo

Kate Sutton: “Performing the East” is an online database that, as I understand, developed out of your research notes for your book, Performing the East : Performance art in Russia, Latvia and Poland Since 1980 (I.B. Tauris, 2013.) I know academics and art historians who have zealously guarded their research. What was your motivations for making them available as an online database? 

Amy Bryzgel: I think that in this field — East Central European art history — it is so important to share information. Compared to other fields, there are so few publications (although this is rapidly changing), and many important catalogues or texts are even out of print. Because Eastern European artists have been so grossly neglected by Western art historians and researchers of performance studies, I thought that one way to rectify the situation would be to have a web based archive where those who are interested in performance art can find out about the contribution to the genre by of artists from this area of Europe. A lot of people tell me they use it as a resource, even researchers in the region.

My theory about sharing research is that much of the significance of data is in the interpretation — if I share a fact or an anecdote, the person who reads it will probably never use it in the same way that I would, so why not share? The more interpretations of this work out there, the better.

What is the criteria for the artists you feature in your database? Is there a systematic approach or are you just open to the opportunities that arise?

It started out as a record of my research trips — when I was traveling for the research related to my book, in 2013-2014, I made an entry for each artist I met. Now that I have finished the research, and the book, I want to expand the site — I know that there are a lot of gaps. I am mainly trying to capture artists from the former communist countries of Central, Eastern and Southeaster Europe who have created performances — even if they are not exclusively performance artists (and very few of them are) — so the site functions as a record of performances by artists from the region. Eventually, I would like to add recorded interviews, both sound and video, and ask for contributions from the artists, in the form of statements about their work.

You touched on some of these issues in your essay “The Trouble with Living Artists,” a tongue-in-cheek take on the blessings and curses of writing about living artists, but what are some of the advantages of developing art historical research through interviews? And the drawbacks? 

There are definitely many advantages. I really enjoyed the research for this project, because it was so energizing — I got to meet with and engage with so many interesting artists and personalities. Some days I would have back-to-back meetings, non-stop, from early morning till night, and on the way to each meeting, I would think “not again, I just don’t have the energy….” But then the artist would start talking and I would just be captivated by what they were saying. There is so much that is conveyed in these interactions that goes far beyond the words they are saying. It is really useful to see the artists in their workspaces, too, to see how they work and what they keep around them. I am also grateful that so many of the artists I met shared with me same very rare and precious materials — images, catalogues, videos, etc. I really could not have compiled such a comprehensive history of performance art in the region without their help.

As for the drawbacks, well, at the end of the day you are interacting with a person. That person could have a different way of communicating or working, they could be someone you don’t necessarily “click” with, and they may even have opposing views to you that makes conversations difficult. That said, I genuinely liked and still maintain good relationships with the vast majority of artists that I’ve interviewed.

In particular, I would imagine that when interviewing artists whose work – according to your thesis – involves taking on a performative persona of “The East,” you would come up against that performance aspect in their answers. Have you found this to be the case? 

For me, “performing the East” is a reminder that all art is produced in a particular context. The context of communist and post-communist Eastern Europe is a very particular one. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the work by artists in the region is about that region, however, I think in many cases it is difficult, and even counter-productive, to ignore that socio-political context. It is also important to remember that it is just one context — artists in the region felt very much part of and connected to, if also distanced from, the West, which is why I always try to place the work in a local (the city/country), regional (East-Central Europe) and also global context.

As far as the performative personas, this is really important. I am often criticized for relying too much on the voice of the artist, but it is important to remember that all information — whether it is presented in a book, article or archive — is biased. Everyone is writing or speaking from a particular perspective. It is not that the word of the artist is more or less reliable than other sources, it is simple a source like many others. If you treat it with the critical eye of a researcher, you are able to use that material objectively. So yes, sometimes even the responses to my questions or statements by artists is performative in and of itself, and that can be very revealing.

What role does distance or disillusionment play in how they describe their work? Not to lead that question, I’m just curious at its seems to me that a lot of the work coming out of the 1980s was a sort of jubilant counter to the reigning systems of Neoliberal capitalism – a system which, for all intents and purposes, defines the global market today. 

Eastern European artists were often usually equally skeptical of Western capitalism as they were of state-sponsored socialism. They were disillusioned before many in the West even understood what the reality of communism in the region was! One of my favourite stories is regarding Polish artist Natalia L.L.’s experiences with Western feminists, many of whom had pinned their hopes on communism in Eastern Europe, where, in their view, women’s equality had been achieved! Nowadays there is the inevitable disillusionment with neoliberal capitalism which poses its own challenges.

Distance is also an interesting concept — many of the artists I’ve spoken to felt at the same time separated from yet connected to art and artists in the West. While on the one hand their work in performance and conceptual art connected them with artists and similar developments in the West, it wasn’t so much the physical distance as the geopolitical borders that kept them separated. That said, the mail art networks were a wonderful way to bypass those limitations, and many artists sent work abroad in that context — performance art traveled well through these networks, in the form of photographic documentation.

For viennacontemporary, you will be in conversation with Milica Tomić, who is an artist yet to be featured on your site. What about her practice intrigues you most? Are there any projects in particular which resonate for you or your research?

The image of a blonde woman striding through various European city centres with a (toy) machine gun is a very powerful one, as is the one of the artist’s back covered with wounds.

I find Milica’s work very striking both visually and conceptually, so I am eager to talk to her more about her work. The artist wasn’t in Belgrade when I visited, so I haven’t been able to meet her yet. I’m sure we will have a lot of interesting material to talk about on the subject of distance and disillusionment, not to mention identity, in the central meeting point of Vienna.

Amy Bryzgel will appear in conversation with Milica Tomić at 5pm on Friday, September 23, 2016, as part of the Keys to the Contemporary Talks Program at viennacontemporary. For more information, check the website.

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