Free School for Art Theory and Practice

Politics of Collaboration. Apolonija Sustersic and Maria Lind in Conversation with Emese Süvecz


Contemporary Collaboration: Pleasures and Discontents. Seminar with Maria Lind and Apolonija Šušteršič


Emese Süvecz: In its first year, the Free School for Art Theory and Practice, launched by, focused on collaborations between curators and artists. You were invited to lead a seminar together, since you have been collaborating for several years now. How did you start working together and what were your shared interests?

Maria Lind: While I was in Ljubljana, we saw documentation on Apolonija’s work. I think it was at the Centre for Contemporary Arts. I was curious, particularly about the work that was made. Working with the feeling, making casts on the floor, and making casts in wax, and changing the space rather minimally.

Apolonija Sustersic: That was a mutual meeting because I got to know Maria through Manifesta in Luxemburg in 1997. Later on when she invited me to Stockholm, I worked with her in a dialogue for the Moderna Museet Project, which was in 1999. The name of my project was Light Therapy.

ML: Light Therapy was one of Moderna Museet’s commissioned projects which we did over four years—many of them taking place in the temporary project space outside of the main building of the museum. What architecture is supposed to do in the northern part of the world—as opposed to the south—is to bring in the light, rather than to prevent it from coming in. This was something that was discussed in relationship to the Moderna Museet’s new building, designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, which in fact does not let in a lot of light. Apolonija, related, with great interest, the role of the Moderna Museet, within a local context and historically, as part of the development of the social welfare state in Sweden.

Emese Suvecz: I guess the idea of the Free School concentrating on dialogues between curators and artists has been inspired by the shift within curatorial work, which took place in the late ’60s art world. Many curators work in dialogical settings today—instead of giving the key of the exhibition space to the artists and leaving them alone with their thoughts and possible problems, curators get involved in the development of a certain idea, which may be the starting point of a specific artwork. How can we perceive these dialogues?

ML: Like dialogues with other people, when you have a shared interest, regardless of whether or not they are artists. It is important to underline that from my perspective the ambition has never been to be an artist, or to move into artistic practice. Whatever dialogue there is, it’s sort of prior to the work, and relative to the work but not a sort of co-authoring in anyway. In our case, the shared interest has been somewhere across architecture, urban development, issues of economy and politics.

Apolonija Šušteršić: Fényterápia, 1999. Moderna Museet Stockholm.

Apolonija Šušteršić: Light Therapy, 2009. Moderna Museet Stockholm.

ES: How was the institutional background in Moderna Museet transformed in order to support this kind of curatorial approach?

ML: With Apolonija’s project in the Moderna Museet, both myself and the director David Elliott were very conscious about the fact that we wanted the museum, as a structure, as an organization, as a community of people working with different capacities, to start becoming part of the artistic process as producers. So museums should not only displace what already exists, they should also make new things come about. In the case of Light Therapy, the carpenters literally produced the benches in the workshop, beside which an assistant was helping with research and so on. I was personally interested in collaboration because I think, in most cases, that it is more fun than working alone. However, I didn’t really conceive the series of the Moderna Museet Projects as a strict collaboration. For me, as the curator setting out the infrastructure, it was the possibility to produce the work, so that it should also be accessible to the world in one way or in another. I was selecting the artists. They were asked to write a proposal, in terms of content, practicality, and budget. But apart from that, it wasn’t thought of as a collaboration. In some cases, the dialogue was more intense, in other cases it was not so.

Apolonija Šušteršić: Fényterápia, 1999. Moderna Museet Stockholm.

Apolonija Šušteršić: Light Therapy, 1999. Moderna Museet Stockholm.

ES: Apolonija, what was your experience at that time, working in such a framework?

AS: A curator does, in this case, maybe consciously provide the set up for a dialogue but curators are also aware that artists differ greatly. Some artists are prepared for a dialogue and they are searching for one, but there are some artists who are not prepared to do that. I don’t know how consciously Maria selected artists in terms of how artists would be in dialogue with her. I guess, nevertheless, we were all quite different. But we did share many things. For me, somehow it is a consequence of my previous education—that I was never used to working in an isolated way in my studio but that I always look for some sort of interaction within the process of working. To me, the curator is this conversation partner, somebody who is listening to me when I can explain the reasons or an idea for doing a certain project. On the other hand, it is also somebody who can provoke a conversation, or challenge, or question the idea. I guess I have always been somehow open to comments and of trying to think, what am I doing? Why am I doing what I am doing?.

Concerning Light Therapy, it was extremely important that the curator, Maria, was very supportive. However, I am not sure she was aware of how much work had to be done because she had to take over a lot of work. I don’t know how many problems she had in producing this work, but I can imagine, as it is a non-conventional project, one that it is not something that I am producing in my studio and then implement into reality. It was actually with the museum stuff at the location, and there had to be a bit of research before—in this case some collaboration with a psychiatrist—not all done by me but very much also by Maria, and by the Moderna Museet. In this case, not every curator is prepared to take on that kind of project. I have noticed that many curators today are not aware how hard it is to produce a work like that.

ES: If we compare this your work, Maria, in Munich, do you consider it a more strict framework for collaboration or not?

ML: It was maybe less about providing the framework than at the Moderna Museet because of the fact that it was the Kunstverein as opposed to a big state museum. But it offered more to consciously thinking about different forms of collaboration.

ES: For you, this dialogical form of working together is a kind of partnership, however, all dialogue involves power relationships. I think it is important to refer to existing power relations when we are speaking about the exchange of ideas between artists and curators. Maria, in one of her lectures on curating, has formulated a beautiful metaphor of how she identifies with curatorial work: curators should play the role of midwife to emerging art, which allows for the continuous learning from art and artists. Basically, it is a gendered metaphor. Does gender matter in the collaborations in the art world? What are your experiences?

AS: If I think back to the projects that I have produced through the years, I realize that I had collaborated mainly with women curators and very little with men. I don’t know why. Working with women seemed to be a good conversation. Maybe it’s to do with some kind of power relation, but it would be very subconscious. Or perhaps it is just a coincidence in my case, I don’t know.

ML: The question of gender is highly present, as we live in a patriarchal culture, whether that is to do with career path, or production possibility, or other things. An observation I have had recently is that when it comes to particularly young curators, people with whom I have worked for about six or seven years, there is a clear difference between men and women. That is that men have—and this is a generalization, so there are certainly exceptions—a much harder time figuring out the practical aspects, they have a much harder time, in a way that I have not seen women have, to really function properly as curators; when you have to produce, you have to meet deadlines, make sure that things are moving forward. So it makes me think that certainly, for men, it is easier to think they are relevant, good curators just by them having a good idea, rather than by you both having to have a relevant, good idea, and the ability to make things happen.

ES: I think the issue of the geopolitical context of collaborations is also important to raise when we speak about the politics of collaboration. Hungarian society, due to its communist past, has become an individualistic society. Apolonija, being from Slovenia, how do you see the collaborative practices in the Central European context?

AS: I would say that any kind of collaboration is, first of all, based on respect. Partners in a collaborative situation have to respect each other. If that is not the case, the collaboration will collapse. If there is a situation whereby somebody wants to conquer and wants to patronize—that only happens when one person doesn’t respect the other. My background is architecture, where collaboration is very common, is an everyday reality, and people have to collaborate in order to produce a project. I would say I never felt that, even in this case, it had anything to do with cultural differences. However, I agree with you, that the post-communist states are moving into a more individualistic society and rapidly, because they want to produce this opposite to what before was forced on them from above. It is true and I notice this a lot. But on a personal level, I would say it is extremely important to establish trust and respect between the collaborators. If that is achieved somehow, then I can imagine that collaborations will run. This of course not only applies to relationships between curator and artist but in general also.

ML: What I think about in terms of the collaboration between Apolonija and myself during the last ten years, is that it is not only myself as a curator invited by her as an artist, but also her as an artist having been invited by me as a curator. For the project at the Moderna Galerija in 1999 or 2000, Apolonija was invited first, and then she invited me to be the curator of the project.

Apolonija Šušteršić: Fényterápia, 1999. Moderna Museet Stockholm.

Apolonija Šušteršić: Light Therapy, 1999. Moderna Museet Stockholm.

ES: Dreams of collectivism have been a driving force of many anti-capitalist communities. However, working collaboratively does not necessary means equality in terms of resources.

ML: When we are talking about power relations in collaborations—as in many other situations—money is the key issue and as the curator you are most often the one who brings the wallet and this certainly lends the curator a figure of authority.

AS: Do you think it is true that curators would invite an artist when they recognize that that artist has the possibility for funding; for example they come from a country where funding is much easier? Does that, in some cases, influences the curators decision?

ML: I think it can. I don’t think that it is hardly ever the case that a curator would consider working with an artist when he or she could never get funding. And maybe if there is a choice between three very interesting artists, there are occasions (because of the way the economy is looking in the art world) that they would go for the one they know or they think they know there would be funding for: coming from whatever source (whether it is a commercial gallery, connected to the artist, or a national fund, or indeed something else

Apolonija Sustersic: If I look again from my own perspective, I see collaboration with somebody as necessary because my own knowledge is simply not big enough. That is one thing. The other thing is to work on your own can be quite boring and doing so all the time—I can’t imagine. It’s fun to collaborate. It is sometimes also painful and, perhaps, you have to compromise maybe or you have to discover a solution together. And I guess if I were alone in my own studio, I could only produce something on my own and I would have a much a harder time relating to the world outside. It is just not my way of working. I would say I employ very many different kinds of collaboration in my work. From those that start perhaps more like a consultation, consulting with a specialist about a specific kind of question, to more directly when somebody is sharing a co-authorship with me. And in between there are many nuanced levels of collaboration. That’s one thing. The other is maybe the participatory element of the audience that is very much used with socially engaged work. This participatory moment is perhaps, in some ways, trying to question authorship and accessibility, ie. how much people can say or want to say and to what extent they want to be actively thinking about a specific issue, that I, as an artist, am putting forward to the public. Not only myself, but other artists as well, are working in a similar way and that probably means something. I don’t think it’s so strategic but it just has some kind of reaction toward what we experience every day in the world, in our society. The author doesn’t want to be important anymore, but rather tries to put forward the issue to discuss.

ES: Iaspis produced a book[i] on collaborative practices, which Maria edited together with Johanna Billing and Lars Nilson. How and why did you produce a book that is dedicated to the issue of collaboration?

Taking the Matter into Common Hands- On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices

Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, Lars Nilsson: Taking the Matter Into Common Hands: Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices, 2007.

ML: One of the first things I wanted to do when I became the director of Iaspis in 2005 was to do something on collaboration within the field of art, between artists, but also between artists and other people. The point being that Iaspis, in several ways, is the artists’ own institution, when it used to be the artists’ along with many others’ institution. So I thought it was an appropriate platform to bring this up and also because, at that point, we hadn’t seen a lot of collaboration in the art world locally. So I contacted Johanna Billing and Lars Nilson in Gothenburg. Both are artists who have been involved with very interesting collaborations and I asked them if they wanted to work with me on this and we shaped the ideas together. So it became a symposium in two parts, with a number of groups, collectives, and other types of collaboration coming and presenting their work and having discussions. And everything happened within the framework of a setting set up by the artist Michel Boisler in Iaspis’ project studio, which is also a working space.

I think it was really productive on many levels: the presentations were interesting, and new information came out. More than anything, the discussions with the audience meant the people who were not invited speakers were nonetheless super active. In fact, afterward, several people said that they have never been to a public event in the art world.


The interview was conducted in January 2008 via skype.

Emese Süvecz is a cultural worker, studied art history, gender and critical studies. She was the founding editor of tranzitblog (2007-2013), curator of Catalyst Award at (2010-13), the project manger of action days (2013-14). Her current project is Regional Workshop and a follow-up for Women’s Rights Advocates: How Should we Reframe Pro-Choice Messages in Central and Eastern Europe? in collaboration with Tactical Technology Collective, Berlin at Patent Association Against Patriarchy.

[i] Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, Lars Nilsson (eds.): Taking the Matter into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices. London, 2007, Black Dog Publishing