MANUELA PACELLA INTERVIEWS KATE STRAIN ABOUT HER NEW ROLE AS ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF GRAZER KUNSTVEREIN IN GRAZ, AUSTRIA.
Manuela Pacella: You have spent a number of years developing important partnerships and working as an independent curator on a range of exciting projects across Ireland and internationally. What have you learned during this time that continues to inform your engagement with contemporary art?
Kate Strain: The main thing I have learned over the last 10 years, working on independent projects as a freelancer, is the importance of art as a practice and a process. This means seeing art beyond any kind of outcome, and instead seeing contemporary art as a way of enacting ideas, as well as a way of being in the world. Almost all of my longer-term curatorial projects have started with imagining something, and then figuring out how to make that real. From RGKSKSRG (a joint curatorial partnership with Rachael Gilbourne) to The Centre For Dying On Stage (online commissioning body) to the Department of Ultimology (co-founded in 2015 with Fiona Hallinan, and hosted by CONNECT Centre for Future Networks and Communications at Trinity College Dublin) each project begins with a hunch and grows into something like a practice.
MP: As the newly appointed Artistic Director of Grazer Kunstverein, can you share any details of the 2017 Visual Arts Programme or future aspirations you may have for the institution?
KS: Throughout 2017 all of our new commissions, presentations, and research collaborations will be guided and anchored by a single leitmotif: The Necessity of Art, taken from the title of a 1959 publication by Ernst Fischer. Fischer was a journalist, politician, writer, dramatist, poet, orator, exile, returnee and thinker who studied philosophy in Graz in the early 1900’s. He spent the last day of his life just outside of Graz, at Prenning’s Garten, with his partner (Lou) and friend (John Berger). Berger wrote an account of that day ‘Ernst Fischer: A Philosopher and Death’ which I came across by chance last summer. Fischer immediately fascinated me, for his passion, convictions, contradictions, and capacity for self-reflection. He believed in art as not only a tool for recognising and changing the world, but also as something inherently magical. He saw art as a way to unmask the potential in things: as a process much more than a product. This is what drew me into his admittedly dated but wholly thought provoking writings. As a politican he fought fascism with communism, and sought in culture a place of refuge, reflection, and empowerment. Today his ideas are less known that one might expect, especially here in Austria, and so we endeavour to enter into conversation with him as our ‘spirit guide’ for the entire year of programming at the Grazer Kunstverein.
Structurally, we have decided to work in seasonal cycles, rather than through rolling exhibitions (group shows, solo shows, etc.) that are discrete and fixed. Instead we are seeing what happens when we work through an accumulative process of display and presentation over a longer temporal frame. In this way, each body of work potentially overlaps, feeds into, informs and shapes the development others. Our focus is to realise at least one major new commission each season, inviting artists from all over the world to locate the production of new work here in Graz.
For our spring season, which opened on 10 March, we launched new commissions by Chris Evans and Morten Norbye Halvorsen, who realised a permanent sound-piece for the gallery—a jingle that is activated upon entry through any one of the six entrance doors to the Grazer Kunstverein. Fiona Hallinan was commissioned to develop and realise a long-term collaborative project called Fink’s. This is an experiment in hospitality, decidedly in lieu of a commercial café. Fink’s operates as a library of tastes, the artist works with local producers from Styria and around, to collect ingredients, tastes, flavours and recipes, which will be offered to visitors in the form of a powder, made up of all the elements that have been collected. A new powder will be produced for each season, as a way of archiving a particular set of experiences at a particular time. Gradually over the next four years a library will emerge.
Also as part of the spring season, we extended an existing work by Céline Condorelli, originally commissioned by previous director Krist Gruijthuijsen in 2013. This work, titled Things That Go Without Saying, houses The Members Library, a collection of over 200 books selected and presented by each of our members. Other works currently on display (which will stay with us throughout the whole year) include an incredible, impossible rug by Isabel Nolan; sculptural and typographic furniture by Isabella Kohlhuber, and a poem by Adam Zagajewski.
As for future aspirations, I want the Grazer Kunstverein to become the kind of space for art that I have always wanted to visit. A place where things are made possible – where the mode of presentation, temporal frame, developmental supports and conditions of display reflect the context and potency of the works being produced or practices being presented. The Grazer Kunstverein is a place that foregrounds the work of artists who are developing compelling, sometimes challenging, always considered, and most importantly meaningful work, and it’s important to me to see this as a practice, and the Grazer Kunstverein as a living entity that enables that.
MP: During the previous directorship, a number of exhibitions focused on specific editorial and publishing projects. Do you plan to continue to explore these areas?
KS: Our focus is on preserving what has already been published, more than publishing. However we do plan three publications over the coming year; The First International Journal of Ultimology, a published script for The Seed Eaters (a new play by Emily Mast), and the thirteenth edition of DURCH, a magazine style publication first published by the Grazer Kunstverein in 1986.
With a focus on active research, we’ve also begun a number of research collaborations, as a means through which to critically reflect on the programme and on the kunstverein as an institution or community. We have a number of different kinds of libraries (the newly opened Ernst Fischer Reading Room, The Members Library, Fink’s library of tastes, The Elisabeth Printschitz Library, the thirty year archive of the Grazer Kunstverein, etc). We are working with students from IZK (Institut für Zeitgenössische Kunst/Institute for Contemporary Art) in the architecture faculty of the Graz University of Technology (TU), on a project entitled ‘Let’s build a Library Together!’ The students will act as custodians of each library to see how best to bring the contents of these books beyond their pages.
We are also working with Dr Sabine Flach, Professor of Art History at the Institute of Art History, University of Graz, on a fashion-oriented relational aesthetics research project Fine Feathers Make Fine Birds. The Institute’s postgraduate students will use the research spaces of the Grazer Kunstverein to host and develop reading groups and conferences. In this way we hope to generate a kind of critical feedback and art historical theorisation of our practice and activities as they unfold.
Another ongoing research partnership is with the Department of Ultimology and CONNECT Centre for Future Networks and Communications at Trinity College Dublin (where I am curator in residence throughout 2017). We hope to establish a second Department of Ultimology here in Graz, and ultimately, to establish a Department of Ultimology in every time zone across the world.
MP: What will be your approach in meeting the needs of the local arts scene while also addressing national and international concerns?
KS: One of the main things we want to facilitate and encourage is the production of new work. We will invite international artists to come and spend time in Graz and to work with local communities, experts, organisations and publics. For example, in the lead up to our summer season we’ll have Irish artist Ruth E Lyons working here in residence on the development of her incredible conceptual artwork and business venture: WWWW – Women’s Wear for Worldly Work. This will unfold in conversation with Edward Clydesdale Thomson (our future gardener) and Fiston Mwanza Mujila (our writer in residence), and in dialogue with the many and varied communities of Graz who make up our peers, collaborators, and visitors. For our autumn season, Emily Mast will come from LA to develop a new performance work, in collaboration with fifteen locally-based (non) actors, in co-production with the Steirischer Herbst festival. As part of our on-going public programme, the Artist’s Homes initiative was established as a forum to learn more about Austrian and Graz-based artists and has recently been extended to include architects, designers, collectors, curators, practitioners, performers and musicians. Graz has a number of art institutions that work together in solidarity, with each space having its own voice. Groups like CMRK (Camera Austria, Künstlerhaus KM- Halle für Kunst & Medien, <rotor>, and Grazer Kunstverein), or Open Modes (made up of 11 Graz based cultural institutions) are examples of initiatives that have been developed with the aim of engaging with a national art-curious public, in a city that doesn’t have a dedicated art academy (and therefore doesn’t have the kind of readymade audience that would typically exist within or around an art school). This continues to be a really interesting context within which to work.
MP: Your previous and ongoing projects appear to blur the traditional sites of art, with live experiences (including lectures, performances and residencies) in which you and artists are involved in a sort of constant ‘on stage’ experience. Is this something that you wish to further explore in Graz?
KS: I hope that over the next few years, the Grazer Kunstverein will come to be defined by its commitment to performativity. Seeing performativity as the constitution of meaning through acts or practices is really a key for me in understanding the potential of art as a practice or a process, and ultimately as a way of making things happen.
 Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, 1959, trans. Anna Bostock, Baltimore: Penguin, 1963.
 Fiona’s nickname is Fink, which in German means “little bird” or “finch”.
 The Department of Ultimology was established at Trinity College Dublin by Kate Strain and Fiona Hallinan. Ultimology is the study of the dead or dying, to investigate that which is conclusive in a series or process. Through embedded research across the University they propose to identify endangered or obsolete elements in particular departments, as a way to research the evolution and disappearance of forms of knowledge within academic disciplines.
 Steirischer Herbst is an annual festival of contemporary art in Graz that is referred to as an “avant-garde festival with tradition”. Steirischer Herbst takes place this year from 22 September to 15 October.