January 2008, An interview with Sabrina van der Ley

European Art Projects, Utopia, and Berlin:
An interview with Sabrina van der Ley

by Adriana Richardson, Whitehot Berlin

Sabrina van der Ley is the Artistic Director of Art Forum Berlin and one of the curators working on the current European Art Projects series Utopia Revisited.

AR: How was European Art Projects started?

SV: Everybody involved in the artistic part of Art Forum is in European Art Projects. The management didn’t want to employ us several years back when the fair was founded. There were fourteen gallerists, which created a limit. The fair was its own project, so to say, and the fair’s management, Messe Berlin, was the only executive sort of body to do the fair when it was founded in 1996. So we decided to create our own company—European Art Projects, and to employ ourselves. The company then got a contract from the fair to organize Art Forum Berlin from the artistic point of view, including the acquisition of galleries, professional audiences, and all the input on everything related to the art scene and the art business by itself, of course. When this happened, it was clear that European Art Projects was going to do things. Right now, there is a second exhibition being set up that allows us to do all kinds of different stuff.

AR: Was the focus always on urban planning?

SV: No. The first show was a public art project in 2002 at the Sony Center called Art Expeditions: Eastern Europe with five or six artists. The second one also had a strong focus on Central and Eastern European artists. The series we are working on now is Ideal City- Invisible Cities and Mega-structures Reloaded, which is coming up in 2008 under the umbrella of Utopia Revisited. This utopia quite often falls into the same place with a kind of society creation, also meaning city creation, of course. All this urban planning falls under the topic, but one of the things we want to focus on is Finnis Terrae: The End of the World (laughs). There’s no city planning there and the last topic we want to do is Arcadia, also no urban planning…green and watery.

AR: Was the city of Berlin an influence in creating these topics?

SV: The first show Ideal City-Invisible Cities was completely triggered by the invitation to do something in Zamosc, Poland. It is an ideal renaissance city. It was planned as an ideal city in the late 16th century. From that came the idea to deal with this concept and make it a bit broader. While working on this topic we really felt that this has to be a series of exhibitions that re-questions this idea of utopia. In that sense Berlin does have an input because, of course, it is a city that is under, or has been under, or has been experiencing the fall of the last utopia—Communism and Socialism. Ever since that happened, you can say that everybody lost the idea of utopia. It completely disappeared off the philosophical picture, for good or for bad. I wouldn’t say that having the dream of a utopia is good or bad. You have to at least think about it and question it. Is this contemporary pragmatism that we see now something very helpful or could one use a little bit more vision in utopia? This interest is what we would probably like to pursue with different viewpoints in upcoming exhibition.

AR: The idea of utopia has not been discussed in the past 25 years but there is kind of this revival in the discussion again. Do you think there is a reason for utopia cities becoming a question again?

SV: For several reasons. In 2000 and 2001, I think there were sort of millennium projects. Actually, the Bibliothèque Nationle in Paris and the New York Public Library worked on a big exhibition and research project about utopia. That was probably like the millennium anniversary kind of “kick off” idea. As I said, since the fall of the wall, there was probably no longer a big social, political, or societal model that could inspire people. It is just now that anything goes. People are maybe in need of some kind of model to define themselves with or in dialogue with. You can say, “No, I don’t want this kind of social model,” or “for me it’s something else,” but basically now everybody is just going to work, making money, and going to bed. I mean nobody seems to think much about big society plans anymore. Maybe that’s for good because, when they did, something awful came out of it (laughs). This is probably the reason why you see more people looking into the idea of utopia and all these social questions and so forth.

AR: Concerning European Art Projects, I was reading about the Luden society and creativity and trying to develop a classless society. I feel like parts of Berlin can kind of show this in some ways with the unemployment rate and the creative scene. I guess Berlin is sort of anomaly. Do you see it developing into a city that will be productive or a city that will be creative?

SV: I think the two fall together. I mean, you can’t be creative without being productive and the other way around. I assume that Germany’s main hub for the creative industry will be Berlin. Berlin will never turn into an industrial city again, as it was at the turn of the 19th and early 20th century. This will just not happen anymore. First of all, because generally industrialization is just working completely differently now and whoever is going to build a big factory will do so on the pastures in Brandenburg or who knows where, but definitely not in Berlin…or rather unlikely. You see more clean industries and health related businesses settling in Berlin. So it’s a whole different notion of production that will play a role here. But what is definitely the most intriguing to people moving here is the creative scene, and it is from design to IT branding or games productions. One of the big things is the games society sitting in Berlin and drafting all these weird hacker things.

AR: Do you see the creative industry maybe dying out with these other industries coming in?

SV: No, it seems to be one of the strongest, actually. The growth rate in the creative industries is higher than any other industry’s growing rate that is growing in Berlin. So I think for the next ten or fifteen years this will be the strongest industry you will see in the city.

AR: Yeah it is just crazy because I feel that art has gotten so trendy, so it is hard to know if it will just be a flash in the pan or what?

SV: (Laughs) Well, I mean, art is a different thing. Look at Cologne. For thirty years, Cologne was the art city in Germany, basically from ’65 until ’95 or so. It then started to get quieter and quieter once the scene here in Berlin started to build up and it just has much more potential right now. That is why the last local patriots from Cologne are moving to Berlin now. Given that everything gets faster, you have this ‘generation’ so to say. I would say, that is, if Cologne was it for thirty years, then Berlin will be the art city for twenty years or something. Then it moves on further east to who knows where, maybe to Istanbul or Mumbai.

AR: I feel like sometimes the concept of communities is dying too, because of this whole concept of being an individual in a world of consumerism. Do you feel like this is affecting artists’ communities, like in Berlin, too?

SV: It is obvious that this is happening. You don’t have so many, at least, in Europe or in the Western civilized world. You don’t have the family or what was always nuclear, however big or small, play such a long role in everyone’s life. Everyone just gets out of school and moves off and starts his own life. Now people even stay single by intention or, at least, they may have a partner, but they don’t move in together and they never think of creating families. So it is obviously a highly individualized society, which is maybe, I don’t know, a form of decadence of societies that are too well off (laughs). People get too bored that they sort of get “stuck” with themselves. But then again, you see that there is sort of a “conservative roll back.” In many countries, especially in Europe, you see now and again, it’s rolling back. After several years of conservative government, some European countries that just had elections are falling back to more liberal or more left wing governments. But that is step by step. It seems that for the younger generation, they got a bit disoriented and became more interested in religion and family values again. So for a generation like mine or even older ones, they look at those kids and think, “Wow, what’s happening here?” You know, after all this liberation that we were excited about, suddenly, this roll back to a very conservative lifestyle. That may be that people feel like they lost that in a too individualized world. Maybe they can’t work on it themselves.

AR: Have you seen any developments in Berlin that are particularly interesting to you? What direction you see the art world going?

SV: Yeah, I mean, the development of the art world seems to be growing, but I don’t know. If you start counting the number of artists in late 17th century Holland, you would probably come up with the same number as nowadays. As a theme, there was, you could say, kind of a schism between what is happening in the institutional scene and the exhibition scene. They were more and more, probably until now, socially and politically related art works, and in the art market more painting—figurative painting. So, if you wanted to be blunt, you could say superficial work, which is of course unfair to the artists (laughs). Maybe the audience just wanted, after all the conceptual work they were seeing in big exhibitions, something more visceral that they could take home. That has changed again now. Now especially, this year during Art Forum and during some exhibitions during the summer, there seems to be a revival of conceptual art in contemporary vocabulary and a strong interest in questions of modernism that artists are addressing again in different kinds of way. It is less irony and play stuff now. Yeah, maybe that is the shift now—more of this seriousness.

AR: Do you find this to be a good thing? Or do you find that there is kind a lull in the direction things are going?

SV: No, actually I am quite happy with what artists are doing. I am not a fan of figurative panting at all. I am not interested in painting since, say, the 16th century until something of the early 19th century or so, but I am very happy that people are dealing more with installations and concepts and a lot of drawings, maybe even figurative drawings, sometimes. In general, and in what I like in exhibitions and what I was happy to see naturally fell into the place in the art fair, as well, was this strong focus on conceptual work as well, of artists of all generations.

AR: Last question, how have you learned from your past experiences until now, with your work on European Art Projects?

SV: You definitely know you don’t want to work for a public museum because it will drive you totally mad (laughs) because, like any public administration, it is a really slow body, and if you want to work with artists, it is just the slowest possible way to do it. Which is probably why we are using this European Art Projects as a kunst Halle without a space. It is a virtual place where we can react rather quickly and work totally independently. I mean we have to fund raise completely, because each project, of course, has to found itself. We are spending probably about 70% of our time fundraising for the projects. But it is worthwhile, because you can really do what you want and you find the space you want to realize it in. You find the space and the locations, I mean in the last case it was two cities we were working with Zamosc and Potsdam. I mean space that is really ideally suited to the project you want to do, and that is of course a dream, which you could never do when you are a museum curator. It is a lot of work, it’s a lot of stress, but it is also a lot of fun.


Adriana Richardson

Adriana Richardson completed Mass Media and Propaganda studies at New York University. Currently, she lives in Berlin, where she works as a freelance writer.

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