“Harmonizing our strings in order to work together.” An Interview with VBKÖ
VBKÖ - Vereinigung bildender Künstlerinnen* Österreichs - is the Austrian Association of Female Artists founded in 1910 and located in the first district of Vienna. It started as a feminist emancipation project for female artists who were neither allowed to study at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, nor to be members of art associations like the Secession. VBKÖ has been supporting a contemporary art agenda and has served as a space for experimentation. At the same time, as an organization, it has been politically struggling internally and since the last few years there has been a shift to more diversity. At the moment, the association has 78 members (18 of those are people of color and 20 have a migration experience). In 2020, after years of debate between members and non-members on accessibility to the space and opportunities in general, the first board of migrant women* of color was elected. Denise Palmieri, Mika Maruyama, Neda Hosseinyar, and Louise Deininger will be representing the association until 2023. Throughout their term they will be curating “The Portal,” a three-year artistic proposal which questions the meanings of doors, gates, paths, holes... the limits and potentialities of the wor(l)d, as well as the difficulties for some and privileges of others to reach, or even pass through them.
Migrazine: First of all, congratulations on your first year as board members at VBKÖ (Austrian Association of Female Artists). How has this first year of transition been?
Denise: Well, it was a hard transition because our period started with the 2020 situation, and a lot of VBKÖ programs had to be postponed and shown in 2021. So, it was a slow step-by-step process getting to know how VBKÖ works, together with the support of the former interim board, who let us know they won't abandon us. It really seems like a never ending process, because it is an association where a lot has to be done, so we are still in this transition. However, we have slowly found our roles.
Mika: We were elected in the middle of the Corona pandemic, so most of the communication first happened online, and we barely had meetings in person at the beginning. It was a challenging process to get to know one another and understand the situation of running the VBKÖ space with all its limitations, while keeping communications and exchanges with members, as well as friends and colleagues of the association as lively as possible.
Louise: At the moment, we are finding a string that binds us all together so as to work in harmony. We are in that process of harmonizing the way these strings work together, metaphorically speaking, based on VBKÖ values laid out in the addendum, in line with a queer feminist agenda… However, we have already walked some miles already in terms of networking and cooperation by having consultative meetings with relevant individuals within the art and cultural sector in Vienna, who will support us in furthering the activities of VBKÖ, its membership, and the community at large. This has also helped us gain visibility for our association in the public eye since people are now more aware of our existence as a community of artists that represent diversity and inclusion by having a board that consists entirely of People of Color.
Migrazine: Could you tell us what your goals are as a new board?
Louise: When we took office, the first action was to organize an open call, titled “The Portal” in which artists or collectives from around the world were called to speak on that topic. We went through the selection process as a board, together with a selected jury. After coming up with the list of qualified participants, we planned a two-year program that will run during our mandate. Further we worked on the structures within VBKÖ that comprise different teams, namely education, communication, exhibition, archive, and renovation, with each member of the board taking the lead in one of them. Otherwise everything else is based on the activities that are going to take place as part of the program until 2023. Continuing with this is one of the goals of the board.
Beyond that, our vision is to make the space more vibrant, a space where we can listen to more artistic voices and different activities can take place. We, as a board and in terms of our members, are all different and diverse, and everybody brings in their strengths. A good thing is that we have some guidelines started by our predecessors, called The Addendum (attachment), which was created in 2017 by the then interim board. This gives us an outline of exactly what we stand for: welcoming all genders, being aware of our privilege, encouraging self-care, supporting each other, working against discrimination, etc. From time to time we go back to this document and reflect on where we are and where we are going as an association.
Mika: One of our principles is also to address the complexities and contradictions of the history in this 111 years of the association, especially in regard to National Socialism when VBKÖ expelled some Jewish members. We don't want to erase that history, and want to constantly review what this institution has done to marginalized members and people. The Addendum emerged out of a reflection not only on the violent Nazi history, but also from the association’s class-specific and colonial entanglements as well as from differences and conflicts between members. Therefore, this document was written to reflect on intersectional issues, and it is important that we ask ourselves what being an artist, a “woman,” or a feminist could mean for us today, with regard to queer, feminist agendas.
Denise: The Addendum also gives us a hint on how we communicate, how our politics of relation are, how we talk about sensitive topics, and how open we are to listening and giving voice. It is an association of people, so it is an illusion that there would not be conflict. We do not pretend to hide the history or sugarcoat it, but instead to have a dialogue through art and the perspectives of our members and other artists. And that is the most important thing: we don't want to forget. Therefore we have to be going back and forth, reflecting on how to deal with those ghosts in the exhibitions, the educational projects, and the archive. There were a lot of breaks in VBKÖ and now we are trying to put the Addendum into practice through open communication and engaging in a conversation about what might be hurtful.
Migrazine: In terms of reaching out to more members and a broader community, could you share with us your thoughts and goals regarding accessibility to arts spaces and art consumption?
Denise: When you give space to artists of color to talk about diasporic experiences and sensibilities, then you invite more people in. If you reserve the space only for individualistic art works then the community won't go to museums. Our goal is to bring in more artists that make art you can feel, especially those who don't have access to mainstream art institutions. So giving them a voice, giving them space offers other people to identify themselves with the work. We are trying our best with “The Portal” program to amplify those voices and attract the audience that wants to be part of it, and that we are part of.
Neda: The question of accessibility was one of our main concerns while going through the applications of “The Portal” and making the program. Our main concern was how to give a platform to unheard voices and marginalized groups who don't have access to the mainstream art scene. This is very visible in our current program and it is also a permanent principle. Regardless of what we are doing, we are always asking ourselves: Is this something essential to the community, especially to BPOC and marginalized communities? So, yes, this is a permanent ongoing process and concern for us.
Migrazine: You have certainly mentioned the problems throughout the history of the association and how you are trying to transform it during your period. Some artists, curators, art theoreticians would say this process is related to decolonization. Even though this is an endless answer, because I think we are all in the process of discovering what it actually means, as well as what the possibilities and limits are of being inside and outside of institutions, from your perspective do you think it is possible to decolonize art spaces created under an Eurocentric perspective? If yes, do you have proposals in regards to this process? And if not, what are your thoughts on why this could not be ever accomplished?
Denise: I think the steps we are taking towards decolonizing are slow and, in my opinion, should be more combative. But, as we say very often, VBKÖ is made of many people, so we have to be open to listening to every point of view. We are trying to work horizontally, because every single one of us has their strengths and brings them into the organization. It is a puzzle of little strings that make up the association and contribute to the construction of a decolonial practice. So, what is important is adding tools to every space to bring this into action and not only remain in the utopia of “burning the institution.”
Neda: I think our existence and resistance is deconolozing. We might not get to a point where it is all really accomplished, but the process itself matters. This is how I see the decolonization process. I think our existence and the fact that we are (re)-constructing these structures is essential and important. For me, it is worth fighting for and not giving up and accepting all the problematic history and contemporary structures we face.
Mika: It is a constant process that needs action and actual work, and as VBKÖ has transformed with internal and external conflicts, we are not doing it alone from scratch. I think that we, as a board with different backgrounds, are trying to contribute to this process by challenging the association’s structure and the (re)narration of histories while working horizontally with members, and inviting artists and activists outside of VBKÖ. It is crucial that we take action and listen to their voices in multiple ways, not only from inside our association, but also in an open manner.
Live interview developed by Lia Kastiyo-Spinósa via Zoom.