Laupäev, detsember 07, 2013

Online Art Criticism: South

Artishok meets Arterritory

In the beginning of May 2013 Arterritory.com – “art and culture website in Latvian, Russian, and English, which focuses on Baltic, Scandinavian, and Russian art and its manifestations elsewhere in the world.” - came to Tallinn and to Estonian Academy of Arts to introduce itself to the scene and find contributors who would cover local art life. Artishok in the team of Maarin Mürk and Gregor Taul sat down and made an interview with Latvian editor Anna Iltnere, Russian editor Sergej Timofejev and Art Market editor Elina Zuzane to talk about their experience with Arterritory and about art criticism, its audiences, online writing etc.  

First of all – what is your background and how did you get involved with Arterritory? 

Anna Iltnere: I came from an artist family, my grandfather is a famous Latvian painter and my father is also an artist, so everybody paints around me. I didn't want anything to do with art because it`s such a pain and struggle, so I went away from art and wanted to study journalism. My teacher told me that it`s better to study something with content and then study journalism, so I went to study philosophy. But I started to write about aesthetics – so somehow I got back to my roots. I worked in art book publishing house and then was invited by initiators of Art Territory to become involved. 

Elina Zuzane: I come from a family of art collectors, we always had artworks in our house, so I wanted to study something creative. I studied fashion forecasting in England in University for the Creative Arts and started working in same sphere, but then I moved back home. Some acquaintances were just about to open a gallery and invited me to join them – Gallery 21 in Riga. Daiga Rudzate, who also is behind The Purvitis Prize, asked me to help her with that and later on invited me to join Arterritory. This is how I stepped into a role of art market editor of English section. 

Sergej Timofejev: I am actually a poet. But already ten years I'm involved with a project that is very multicultural and mixing texts with music, video, sound installation etc; we are actually pioneers of this post-soviet poetry-video. We started this already in the mind 1990s, but from 1999 with the name Orbita – everybody has their own planet, but we are all moving on the orbit. Now we were slowly moving from live performances to art installations, we even participated Cesis art festival last summer and were nominated to Purvitis art prize, but didn't get it this time! So I am from literary field, but have always been interested in all other things going on in visual culture, music etc and I know quite many people in Russia and in Baltic states, who could be invited to write something, so probably that's why I got involved.  

Is it typical in Latvia, that backgrounds of the people who write about art are so diverse? In Estonia, most people come from the discipline of art history. 

Anna Iltnere: Not so typical. That was also one of the ideas of Arterritory that Latvia is missing a different way how to talk about art. We also have art history department in the academy of arts and it represents one certain school of teaching. But it is not art criticism and not art writing, it is just art history. They are not very critical. One of the best art critics in Latvia is actually an artist! Overall there is also lack of writers, so we write ourselves, but also translate from Baltic-Russian-Scandinavian writers just to show the other way of writing – besides giving information of course. We also give opportunities to young writers. We want to talk about art in a not very dry or just an historical way.  

But there is no specific art criticism education in Latvia, it is just learning-by-doing? 

Anna Iltnere: Yes. 

Last autumn we had a huge discussion here about how the wider audience is alienated from contemporary art and one thing (among others) to blame for that was lack of art criticism. What is the position of contemporary art in Latvian society and what kind of criticism is needed? In Estonia we just and first of all seem to need more, more, more! 

Anna Iltnere: We also need more, not just one or two good art critics! What I am missing besides evaluating analytical side is the writing that would give to the visitor the feeling to go to the exhibition, to see art! How great that could be, what we could find there! 

Elina Zuzane: In Latvia we do not only need contemporary art criticism, but also contemporary art museum! There is definitely also a gap between contemporary art and society, there is just very narrow group of people who are interested in contemporary art, who are willing to read reviews etc. Mostly people are just not that interested in contemporary art, although they might read about design and architecture. 

Anna Iltnere: There is this feeling that “here am I” and “here is the culture”, but we are not connected. People don't understand that culture can effect society and the other way around and that we are the culture! 

Elina Zuzane: This gap is quite hard to bridge, it must start with children. 

Sergej Timofejev: Exactly, children must be taught how to like a work of art! And art criticism should talk about culture more generally, try to find things that relate from other fields, what is the Zeitgeist. Culture is about context, if you can get this context, if you are feeling this context as something close to you, then you are feeling comfortable around art, music, whatever.  

Arterritory is created as a response to the lack of this type of criticism you described earlier. But how much coverage does art get in Latvian mainstream media – dailies, weeklies, radio, TV? 

Anna Iltnere: Two newspapers have cultural supplement, one weekly is dedicated to culture, and there is one art magazine that has been around for ten years or more – they have also online version and archive as well. And then we have magazine for photography, Fotokvartals. 

Sergej Timofejev: Arterritory is actually not “in position” to Latvian cultural media, but to international one, trying to bring information together from different regions, give wider perspective.  

Have you written to those channels yourself? Is this something you would like to do?  

Anna Iltnere: I haven't thought about it, because when I started to write I already started working for Arterritory. But I think it would be sad if I could write only one text per week or two weeks, and short ones! I don't think I am “ready” as a writer so I need writing, writing, writing. 

You as art critics – how do you start, what are your writing rituals? 

Anna Iltnere: Deadlines are really-really good things and I mean REAL deadlines – I know that in the morning everybody will look at the website and there must be something there! It really educates to mobilize. Of course there are texts that you need to write within a week or two weeks, but there are texts that don't need that much time. When I am at an exhibition I don't think what I'm going to write about this, it`s when I come home I start asking myself questions like – why I liked that, what it evokes in me, what do I know from other fields that relates to this etc. I may not use all the treads eventually, but it helps me to put things into context. Then I do a collage of thoughts and when I put it all to paper I see how it could be structured. And then it`s necessary just to start writing, not to ponder too much, but to write and then you see, how it goes together and what is missing. But first you need somehow to talk it through in your head – if you start with writing immediately, you'll struggle. Sometimes I think and read about it a whole day and in the evening it`s half an hour and it`s done! If I have found the main idea, it all comes together very quickly. 

Elina Zuzane: Anna explained quite well, how website mobilizes you to publish something every day. We have such a varied content – news, reviews, interviews etc so you just have to see what you can do in one day or one week. I just try to stick to my to-do list and if I manage something more than was planned for that day it makes me really proud of myself. I really like doing interviews, every interview is a bit like a therapy – as you go through them you go back to the initial place of conversation. 

Anna Iltnere: Critic Bo Nielssen once said to me that the best school he got was when he was working for the newspaper where he had to write short texts about every opening and to decide is it good or bad and why. Maybe it`s not the best art criticism because it is for the newspaper, but it`s a great school – you have a deadline and you have to formulate your opinion. 

What kind of demands do you have for your writers? 

Sergej Timofejev: To write a good text! (laughter) 

Elina Zuzane: Not to be just descriptive, but to provoke thought-processes reader could think about afterwords. More personal approach. 

Sergej Timofejev: Because we can`t review all the exhibitions that are happening, so for one review about an exhibition for example in Tallinn we have to get an idea what is going on there on more general level as well. 

Anna Iltnere: I need to see a story, not just a description, what did you as a writer get out from that experience, but what did it provoke in you? Maybe it could then provoke more universally too!  

How far does your work as an editor go? Do you send texts back and forth, give lots of feedback, work with the writer etc? 

Anna Iltnere: I don't spend much time with completely new writers, because it demands lots of effort. But if I see that he has potential, he just needs a bit of guidance how to put it together then I will work with him. 

Elina Zuzane: Sometimes we work with a writer only once. 

Sergej Timofejev: We had one write in St Petersburg and when he started to write to us, we had quite big discussions with him. But with the time he started to write more and more perfectly and now new portal for visual art in St Petersburg has hired him and we have to find new reporter from there! (laughter) 

All your editing and all your writing and commissioning-editing-giving feedback-holding it all together takes a lot of time. Usually your own practice is the first thing you sacrifice. How do you manage to keep things balanced for yourself? 

Elina Zuzane: You need to structure your day. If you answer to all your emails in the morning, rest of the day is yours. 

Anna Iltnere: You just have to limit the editing part to, lets say, two pieces a day and then concentrate on your own stuff. It`s totally possible to edit and publish and edit and publish whole day long, but what`s the point? 

Sergej Timofejev: It is also a question of how much information can your audience read? One or two articles a day is enough. 

Anna Iltnere: Exactly, now we have started to collect for example short news like opening of this week etc. together and we publish them all at once. One entry every day takes more time and also our readers like it more how we do now. 

I just wanted to ask you this – how well do you know your reader? 

Anna Iltnere: It is quite hard to know precisely. We know how many people visit the page from each country. 

Elina Zuzane: We know the statistics. 

Anna Iltnere: We would definitely like to get more students, reach younger audience – they are growing with that information, so they are the most important audience we could have. 

Sergej Timofejev: I think Facebook is also quite good way to get at least some overview of the audience we have. Like for me it seems there are more women then men. 

Anna Iltnere: Women are just more active in FB, they are “liking” more stuff. Generally, it is interesting to see, what is getting “liked” - if you share something with more humor, not just beautiful, everybody are like “hmmm...”, but if you go with something “inspirational”, it`s going to get very many likes. So it`s actually pretty easy to understand what FB will like. 

Sergej Timofejev: Sometimes you try to construct this response, but it`s not always possible. Some material that you don't expect anything from are getting lots of “likes”. 

Anna Iltnere: I remember when we published article about Tallinn cultural capital experience – lots of people shared it, but very few actually opened the article. When I looked into statistics, it really surprised me.  

But to ask about numbers: how many visitors do you have per day? 

Anna Iltnere: Around thousand, together from all the countries. Proportionally most from Latvia, so now we try to get more from other countries, having more reporters spread out. 

Elina Zuzane: We have to be realistic as well – we know the audience in Latvia better. People in the Baltics are keeping the information to themselves, they don't give you the feedback, but we would like to know our other audience members better as we do in Latvia. 

Anna Iltnere: Good thing is that everything that is published, is there and if in the future you search for some name, you are able to find that article, it`s not getting outdated. 

Sergej Timofejev: It`s also interesting how those search systems as Google and Yandex work – if you are popular, you'll turn up via search, which makes you even more popular etc. FB is quite meaningful, breaking those systems. Anna Iltnere: Our visitors come also mostly through FB, it`s not like they are sitting in front of the computer and think “what to do” and then type in www. arterritory.com.  

About writing online – do you feel this technological framework influences the way you write? And there is always a question about how lengthy articles people are willing to read online. Do you have any writers who don't want to write online? 

Anna Iltnere: That`s why we have “Interview” magazine, because long conversations are more comfortable to read when printed. But generally, when we started, we had more shorter entries – short news, articles were shorter etc, but now we have found balance between theoretical, long articles and short news entry. When writing is interesting enough, it keeps you to it! But if it`s boring, it will be boring also in short and in printed version! (laughter) 

Elina Zuzane: Online you can always add something extra, like a video. We also post more and more images. 

Anna Iltnere: With those two years we also learned more about how to use this online medium, like using video we didn't do at first. We also changed page design – first it was long and narrow like a sausage and with many pages, but our readers said, that they would rather scroll. So now it is wider, everything is bigger etc.  

Do you rewrite history as well what online allows you to do so easily? 

Anna Iltnere: Sometimes I edit mistakes, a letter missing for example. I find it a great opportunity! 

Elina Zuzane: We also publish interviews very quickly and this means that if the person later discoverers that he doesn't like anything, we can edit it later on. But it doesn't happen so often. 

Do you get lots of comments? 

Anna Iltnere: At first we didn't have any comments and now we have very few. We thought that we have to write first comments ourself, because if people see that there are no comments, they also don't dare to be the first ones. More discussion happens under FB posts, people feel it`s more “their” space. 

Sergej Timofejev: I see also that all those stupid comments that flooded under political news are also starting to happen in cultural media. There is another cultural website in Latvia, quite interesting, more about politics, theatre, literature etc and comments get quite stupid there already. Interesting comments just drown. In our Latvian section where we now have more comments, we have quite a good balance. 

Elina Zuzane: In Arterritory if there is very critical review of an exhibition, people start defending it, making conversations and arguments – this is an ideal! But it only happens when author has been brave enough to have a judgement.  

On your page you also have sections like “Art market”, “Lifestyle” etc. Art criticism in the context of art market has very specific role, and lifestyle feels more like easy browsing. How do you balance the more serious and the more promotional, easy readings? 

Anna Iltnere: This “Lifestyle” is a bit misleading, because we mostly don't write about design and architecture and cinema, but it goes all into there. But what is important to me is that everything we publish is a good text, it should be interesting, have a good language and give some information. 

Sergej Timofejev: There is a lack of understanding among the audience that we are not looking for information, but for understanding. How to put pieces together. 

Do you already see some gaps in the art writing scene in Latvia generally, that you have decided you are not going to fill? Is there space for something else? 

Anna Iltnere: Maybe because there is Fotokvartals, we rearly write about photo exhibitions. 

Elina Zuzane: Same thing with architecture – we only choose from this field the topics that are interesting to the broader audience.  

What about sharing the Baltics with Echo Gone Wrong? 

Elina Zuzane: They publish press releases more or less, so it`s already slightly different.  

So you don't feel like overlapping or competing with them? 

Elina Zuzane: Not really. 

Anna Iltnere: What`s good in Echo Gone Wrong is that they very equally represent all countries in English – we have in English more about the exhibitions in Stockholm than in Riga. 

Do you have role models, both personally as writers and also for Arterritory, how to develop it? 

Elina Zuzane: It`s a very difficult question because nowadays you get information through very different sources. I like to read books about art and art market, about people who are key figures in the art scene. I don't think there is one single person or single outlet. I did and interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and there is this moment when you meet someone you have been reading a lot and who has been involved with so much and he is finally sitting in front of you – it is a surreal moment. I was probably a bit starstruck, ooh, celebrity… and disappointed, because we didn't have enough time. But we have this mission now to find those key personalities and do interview with them. That's when you learn something about yourself as well. 

Sergej Timofejev: I myself also lack the understanding of what is going on in the world like everybody else, so maybe that`s why interviews are interesting. Of course nobody gets the whole answer, picture is composed out of small pixels. It`s just our time now with no big ideologies, no big pictures. So it feels much more meaningful to have more channels, small rivers of information – this is also what Arterritory does. 

Anna Iltnere: When I write I check out lots of nowadays art criticism in different media. I really like Guardian Adrian Searle, he knows how to give you a circle of knowledge and context and he is so inspirational, with all of his knowledge! At the end of one review he said very nice thing that he wants to finish this writing now and go back to view exhibition more. Other one I like is Dave Hickey, I like that he is not from the typical pristine background of how to write. He says that most important is to write well, because you are a writer. It`s not only what you say, but how you say it, because your medium is words. For Arterritory it`s important to see other art websites globally, that are very colourful, have easy feeling to them, but with great content. Because it`s life, it doesn't have to be super serious, it`s not what art is. In Latvian language it`s hard to express something with humour, but with great content, in English it is more easy. I don't know why it`s harder in Latvian to be playful, but also meaningful!  

What are the next steps for Arterritory? 

Elina Zuzane: We want to do second edition of Arterritory conversations magazine in autumn, so we have to have strong enough content to publish it in a magazine again. 

Anna Iltnere: First edition we complied from the already existing material, but now we knew that we had one year and we contacted lots of people. Our long term goals are to increase audience outside Latvia, in Russia for example. 

Sergej Timofejev: It could be also good to get some more funding! I still do some other jobs to get through, but it would be totally desirable to dedicate oneself only to Arterritory!

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