Christiane Erharter is an artist and curator. She lives in Vienna. Christiane was interviewed by Verina Gfader, via email, during April and May 2008. The conversation circled around questions of: motivation in DIY practices in media and music; sound lectures; curating as discursive field; punk; and shifting cultural economies.
Verina Gfader: Your various practices embrace non-profit, non-commercial and DIY movements in media and music; what is your motivation for working on modes of resistance?
Christiane Erharter: For sure the main motivation for using DIY is that things can be produced quick and cheap. As a teenager when I grew up in a small town in Tyrol I was already fascinated and influenced by Punk music and was aware of its connections to visual art. That was a reason why I wanted to study art, but unfortunately my art education was very traditional and conservative. During my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna I got the most inspiring input from the art theory and cultural studies lectures at the Institute for Contemporary Art (now Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies).
Together with a friend I started a small label – Kessy Lux Organisation. Everything was very small scale. We released some tapes and CDs, catalogues and videos. All music by the Austrian brother/sister duo Skizze was released on our label. Some years ago we all split up. The website still exists: kessylux.cccp.at. One can even download a mp3 version of New York City Medley – a track I contributed for an exhibition in New York in 2000.
And of course I do believe in the emancipatory potential inherent in DIY practices.
VG: How can your practice be sustained by using tools and platforms that operate against prefabricated structures? Do you see this as a kind of activist position and if yes, in what way? I am thinking here of the shifts in the value of production and dissemination of material, be it visual, audio, or something else... through the infrastructure of the net, and fairly easy access and availability of technologies.
CE: I do not necessarily see myself as an activist but use activist practices in my work. I am interested in artists' self-organisation, collaborative practices, the artist’s role in society. For me this brings along a position of constant reflection and engagement. In 2007 Sonja Eismann and I organised the exhibition "DIY - Wir machen es uns selbst! Feministische Strategien in der kulturellen Selbstorganisation" (DIY - We do it ourselves! Feminist strategies in the field of cultural self-organisation) in Vienna. We gave a platform to all the initiatives, groups, organisations, magazines that contribute to a feminist discourse. I was a co-organiser of Ladyfest Vienna in 2007 and I am a member of the feminist DJ collective Quote.
VG: This self-organisational approach (as curator, as artist) – how do you relate to the net economies, to new systems of distribution?
Also, your collaborative practices, did it change through being integrated more in the global net?
CE: Of course I use the internet for research and networking. Maybe not so much for distribution. No doubt the internet made many things in artistic and cultural production possible and faster. We still have the vision to put the material we collected for the Re-Punk Electronic music! installation online to make it accessible as an online archive.
VG: In your last email you told me about giving a sound lecture recently; can you talk a little bit more about this?
CE: The first sound lecture I did at Centre d'Art Santa Monica in Barcelona. I was invited by curator Miguel von Hafe Pérez to create a work for their re-opening in 2003. I met Miguel already in 2001 when I presented the audio-fanzine XX01 at the exhibition First Story - Women Building / New Narratives for the 2st Century in Porto; review by Hedwig Saxenhuber in springerin, issue 1/02 > Main Section > "First Story ...". I wanted to continue with the research I did already for XX01 and suggested an installation/archive. The idea was to show the continuity of feminist approaches in music history – from Punk to Riot Grrrl up to the present. So additionally I prepared a sound lecture to introduce the material. The sound lecture works a bit like a live radio show - I had a radio show with two friends in Vienna. I play certain tracks and in between tell stories about them and give some information. This is why the work was entitled "XX01/2003 – Infotainment". The sound lecture is a great and useful format to introduce the material and contextualise it in a way that is understood easily and it develops further each time. I did several ones individually and together with Sonja Eismann (http://www.plastikmaedchen.net/) with whom I collaborate regularly.
VG: Your practices seem to be quite variable and the sites you are/were operating in range from a self-institutional and self-organised approach, to being part of a curatorial team in an established gallery, or now also working in a private economy? How do you think does this interweaving informs your making?
CE: When I was studying at the art academy still I knew that I wanted to work in a discursive field, but also had an urge to change something (working conditions, the discussion of artistic work). It became more and more clear to me that this needs to be done within the institution as well. So I started, besides for pragmatic reasons (making a living), to work in the Institute for Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna which is a place of education. Afterwards I entered the curatorial field in a classical understanding by working at Galerie im Taxispalais, a public gallery, where I was organising exhibitions. But my understanding of curatorial practice goes beyond curating group, solo and thematic exhibitions. Curatorial practice for me is a constant discussion of artistic work: its circumstances, contexts, the theories and ideas that inform it.
When I was working at the Office for Contemporary Art Norway in Oslo I built up an international studio programme and invited among many others Raqs Media Collective and the film maker Amar Kanwar, all from New Delhi. India is not seen as a hot spot for contemporary art production. But what place is seen as this? The world is changing as well is our perception of centre and periphery. We had very interesting discussions about this changing perspectives in cultural production and about globalization. Raqs Media Collective are part of the curatorial team fort this years Manifesta 7 in South Tyrol. And Amar Kanwar is exhibiting and screening his films extensively throughout the whole world. The foundation ERSTE Stiftung I am working for now has a geographical focus on Central and Eastern Europe. Many countries in this region were communist until 1989 and are undergoing transformation processes since then. There are many artists whose work is still little known internationally. Since 1989 Vienna turned from the periphery into the centre of Europe and plays now a new role as mediator. I am interested in these particularities and how they fit into the contemporary understanding of a global world. Of course it is necessary to differentiate and be critical towards certain developments for example economic interests and neoliberal forces undermining everything.
Besides I never gave up on my own artistic practice that is research-based accompanied by a serious interest for music and popular culture, and is always done with a feminist approach.
VG: You mention the installation/archive with a slash in between? I am curious about this idea of an installation (operating in the present so to speak) and the archive as something that re-verberates, there is always the re----. and history as continuum. Do you want to subvert this somehow?
CE: Together with Sonja Eismann I produced the installation Re-Punk Electronic Music! for the 3rd berlin biennial for contemporary art in 2004. Consequently we presented this work at Ladyfest Vienna 2004, at a new media festival in Lima in Peru and at a conference in Bremen.
The point of departure for the work was the observation that it is predominantly women, lesbians and gays whose performative approach have provided the most interesting impetus in electronic music for deconstructing gender clichés. These projects challenge commonly held notions of live performance, employing a transgressive sexuality on stage, reflecting on the question of how electronic music could be performed differently. This has occurred in relation to the Punk aesthetics and its careless do-it-yourself attitude which countered the question of ”Are we allowed to do that?“ with ”Anything goes!”
In the installation we wanted to make visible the continuation of these practices, show where they are coming from and set them in relation to each other. Since the 1970s women musicians are turning gender relations upside down and are using strategies of deconstruction, subversion and affirmation against the male dominated guitar and computer play. Therefore their contributions can be seen as chapters in music history and as an attempt to write their own feminist music herstory. Therefore the installation functioned as an archive as well. I also would like to mention here the great work the women at ELECTRA in London are doing with their Her Noise archive.
VG: As a curator, do you think it is possible to create projects which form their own archive as part of the process? For example, what has happened to the 'archive' of that project now?
CE: In curatorial work archives are sometimes build and used to cement and “historicise” the curator’s position. I am interested in the aspects of archives that bring to light stories that were forgotten or unknown and therefore contribute to a better understanding of the past and present. I understand the archive as something in process. Besides it is challenging to exhibit an archive, and a lot of artistic work was and is done about this issue. How does one display all the material in an appealing way and not end up in the aesthetics of an infoshop?
VG: I am quite interested in how you consider biennials, and the proliferating festivals, big art events everywhere as kind of productive, or counter-productive in relation to small-scale, independent projects?
CE: You know that this flood of biennials in almost every city - some countries even have several biennials e.g. Romania has a biennial in Iasi (Periferic) and in Bucharest – is inflationary. I think there are many people around meanwhile who are against this spectacular productions that evoke expectations that they cannot fulfill in the end. Besides there are many well working institutions and projects doing serious work throughout the year.
VG: To be able to realise projects (as curator or initiator of an idea) it often depends on economies, fundings, etc. How do you negotiate the art market and the self-organisational, independent practice?
CE: I always managed to realise my projects provided with the small budget of the institutions I was invited to. Austria is a country that is proud of its culture, it has functioning cultural politics and gives funding to a wide range of projects and initiatives. Private cultural funding is something pretty new in Austria that started some years ago and is developing still. The public funding on the one hand and the artistic, cultural and activist self-organisation on the other make possible a diverse art and culture scene that is able to exist besides the economy of the art market. But you know that the field we are working in is based on self-exploitation. Artists are for sure not paid appropriate to the amount of work they do. Also in Austria artists can hardly live from their artistic production but have to do graphic design or video production to make a living. They have to be flexible and their position within the art field is changing: sometimes they create art works, sometimes they organise exhibitions, sometimes they write texts or critiques.
Of course there is a functioning art market in Vienna and Austria with its galleries, the Vienna art fair, collectors etc. But I am just not so interested in that. I do not want to be misunderstood as arrogant, it is just things going on here besides the official institutional programme I consider interesting. Further a city like Vienna is aware of its cultural potential and therefore invests in the cultural sector – creative industries, cultural economy. This is a development not only favoured.