Presenting Boris Ondreička, the new Artistic Director of viennacontemporary

Under the direction of the newly appointed Artistic Director Boris Ondreička, viennacontemporary pushes to involve the city itself as an artistic space. Ondreička, who lives in Bratislava and works in Vienna, is excellently connected within the Eastern and Western art world. Get to know Boris and his plans for viennacontemporary in this intimate portrait.

Boris Ondreička. Photo: Kristina Kulakova

Every day you travel from Bratislava to Vienna, going to work and returning back home.

Vienna is 60 km away from Bratislava, but from Vienna to Bratislava it feels more like 360 km—not only because of the border and cultural differences or the Soviet history, but mainly because of its size: Vienna is bigger and more developed in a cultural and institutional sense. Nevertheless, Bratislava has always played the role as a sort of hideaway from Vienna, especially for aristocrats — Maria Theresia was crowned there because Bratislava has a strategically safe position. The German title of Bratislava is Pressburg — which means Bratislava had an exclusive right to sell wine from the whole region, and Burgenland was a part of that. So there’s a huge historical connection, which was disturbed by the post-war division of the world. 

Why do we still talk about the axis “East vs West”? How is this dichotomy still relevant?

To speak about the division between East and West is clearly unpleasant, and it’s because we lack new vocabularies.

Things changed (after 1991) and developed massively, but economically, these territories still differ a lot. The political systems are divided. In our case, what is often forgotten is the division of languages: Slovakia belongs to the Slavic territory, with its particular sentiments and nostalgia, but as a fundamentally catholic country, it does not belong to Eastern dogma, it was always part of the western world. These are important things and I believe it’ll take time to reach full equality of these territories. You can still see it in regards to how Vienna is developed in terms of a network of private galleries or other cultural institutions. Bratislava is absolutely not comparable, and neither is the number of collectors. 

As you mentioned before, you are coming from quite a rebellious punk-background.

I am a kid of the eighties! Those were my teenage years, so obviously we had (as any generation of teenagers) the inclination to drift towards the most progressive corners of arts and just generally, including music. So logically I was also a part of the punk scene, which was always a hybrid thing. There were punks hanging around in pubs, and there were punks hanging around in cafes. And at the time I studied at a Kunstgewerbeschule, secondary school of applied design, and it was a mixture between my spontaneous environment, which was arts — I was born into a family of artists — and different subcultural things and movements, which at that time were illegal. 

It is quite a way from playing in a punk band and becoming an artistic director of an institutionalised art fair. Don’t you see any contradiction between those two sides of yours?

You know, there are many subjects and objects which work with the arts.

One of the fruits of avant gardes is that we claim anything as art. But we have very limited means to say what NOT ART is if this has already declared itself as such.

This also comes to the transgressive and subversive natures of different cultures, subcultures or occultures — cultures which are not seen. So there’s no contradiction in what we are fighting for. Obviously, the main value of art is freedom and individualism but it also shares the values of belonging and solidarity—and these are extremely meaningful values. 

How can established and underground scenes benefit from each other? What can the art market learn from underground culture?

Basically, these things are not new at all. There were things formulated by Georges Bataille, or later by impresarios like Malcolm McLaren. He used this funny term in his mockumentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle — “cash from chaos”. And this is 1979! With the start of the internet in the mid 1990s this phenomenon of “mainstream” was completely deconstructed. So these days there’s absolutely no strict division between what is official and what is not official—so even if we’re speaking about off-spaces which we would like to integrate into our fair both mentally and intellectually to add to the whole cosmology of our activities, it doesn’t mean that those things are not official. These things only operate on different production and economical bases. They are much faster than we are and that’s why they are an extremely important source of information and fresh air.

Talking about economic matters, can underground be a threat to an official market?

This is what I said: I believe there’s no underground at all! What we call underground these days is actually a very criminal environment, but also “criminal” is problematic. If we speak about the internet, and we speak about dark or deep spaces, the extension of so-called “grey economies”  has been enormous in the last 2 decades.

To me underground (which actually comes from military vocabulary) is very sentimental and very nostalgic and a very old-school term which does not work today. 

Getting back to Vienna and its potential as a contemporary art center: what is contemporary Vienna?

Vienna is on the one hand an extremely classical space, but which was massively rebuilt in the 19th century. Vienna was super rich in those times. At the same time, Vienna has the creative foundation of many avant gardes: secession was, as far as I know, the very first white cube worldwide, and the platform of style which was called Jugendstil, “young style” — and I think this is something that is kept in Vienna. In the late eighties Vienna was extremely progressive in establishing new gender politics, political correctness — not only in cultures but also social ethics. In the 1970s it had a fabulous environment for performative behaviour, so the foundation for formal and non-formal in Vienna is extremely great. I believe Vienna still profits on this foundation. It has great schools, private collections and strong institutions. This is something which is very extraordinary in the whole region. And it is a crossroads, not only the former East or West but also South and North—and it was always extremely dynamic. And also that’s why Austria was kept as a neutral environment. This certain neutrality works perfectly for the arts. And another thing which was felt strongly in the 19th century was (for example) the exchange between arts and medical university. Vienna brought us Sigmund Freud (who actually was born in Moravia), Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard, and Elfriede Jeninek — people who are non-replaceable in the global history of general thought and change. So it’s great to be in Vienna! 

Most of those things which you mentioned — Secession, Jugendstil, Viennese Actionism — are things from the past. It’s a huge cultural heritage but what is it now? What would you say is the strong side of Vienna at the moment in terms of contemporary art?

As I mentioned before, foundation—extraordinary, stable, like a stone, but which is hybrid. And which is not solid in this hybridity, and it is a good point of departure for hybridity these days, but Vienna is not only rich with strong stone-based institutions, like museums or collections, public, semi-public collections, or the structure of private galleries, which is extremely large in comparison to the size of Vienna. The density of artistic and cultural life is great, but also there’s been a huge development in the last 15 years on the basis of self-organised DIY spaces and activities, non-formalism, and immediate action. If we compress Berlin to the size of Vienna, I believe Vienna might have more density for artistic and cultural production. 

What are the advantages for Central and Western European collectors who are coming to Vienna and, specifically, viennacontemporary? 

We are trying to be a very specific art-fair, and we are trying at the first offer and hopefully very soon to represent something in the territory in regards to missing language, what we started calling spontaneous territory.

And our spontaneous territory is not represented globally as it should be. Collectors who come here can experience very specific arts. We would also like to be a certain platform of meeting and exchange between former East territories and Central Europe. This is a large territory which has an ecological extent — to be busy with your spontaneous environment also means to be nature-friendly. To come to Vienna is to experience something which you can’t experience anywhere else. 

And finally, we can not miss the topic of the current situation: What is post-pandemic art-fair for you?

We can’t say that we are already a post-pandemic art-fair, because we don’t know how far the pandemic gap will go. The pandemic isolation brought many of us pain and caused huge struggles, but at the same time it provided us a very productive gap in time which we used for meditation about our possible future operations. That’s why we started organising this art fair a bit later — because we took this time to critically reconsider not only who we are but especially what our chances are. In-between these pandemic conditions we feel even stronger than before and we believe what we put together in around only 2.5 months—what people will experience at the beginning of September—will not be comparable to what we will do in the next 13 months. This is a fabulous team of experts — of new people but also those who have years of experience.

To bring about change is not only to establish everything new, but also to very sensitively monitor and judge the best routines from the past.

Boris Ondreička works as a curator and artist in Bratislava and Vienna. He describes the rhythm of his professional work as: “five days as a curator, two days as an artist, and an occasional singer”. His most important projects as a curator included his work as the former director of the art initiative and the curator of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna. He also heads the Class of Interpretation Prague, which he initiated – a unique project that examines intellectual processes, art mediation and critical thinking and brings together international thinkers.

In addition to numerous other exhibitions, he has co-curated Rare Earth, Olafur Eliasson Green light – An Artistic Workshop and six editions of frequence of spoken- word Ephemeropteræ for TBA21; The Question of Will, OSF, Bratislava; Empire of the Senseless, Meetfactory, Prague; Manifesta 8, Murcia, Cartagena, ES; Being The Future, Palast der Republik, Berlin, DE; Auditorium, Stage, Backstage, Frankfurter Kunstverein, DE.

He is co-founder of The Society of Július Koller. Recently, he curated Abyssal Seeker [Benthic Zone] the solo exhibition by Joey Holder, Futura, Prague and is preparing an extensive exhibition on Stano Filko at Fait in Brno (opening October 5, 2021). His artistic projects include the Bergen Assembly 2019, the Manifesta 2, Luxembourg, L; the Venice Biennials (the Czech-Slovak and Roma pavilions); Prague, Taipei, Athens, Kyiv and Jakarta; MoMA-PS1 NYC, USA; BAK Utrecht, NL; Maastricht, NL; W139 and De Appel, Amsterdam, NL; Smak, Ghent, BE; Kunsthalle Loppem, BE; Marres, Tramway Glasgow, UK Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Turin, IT; Le Plateau, and Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, both in Paris, F; Frankfurt, Cologne, Badischer, Munich, Stuttgart Art Associations, DE; Kiasma, Helsinki, FI; HKW, Berlin, DE; ACAF, Alexandria, EG; the Slovak and Czech National Galleries; Secession, Mumok, Kunsthalle, Tanzquartier, all in Vienna, AT; Donaufestival, Krems, AT; Magazin 4, Bregenz, AT; and many more. HI! lo. was published by tranzit / jrp Ringier, CH; One Second / Out of Time from Revolver, DE and Brak, SK.

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