“Exit From the White Cube Ghetto”
Interview with Peter Bencze, founder and organizer of the hybrid institution of Everybody Needs Art [ENA]
In this series of interviews, Új Művészet presents non-profit, for-profit, commercial and internationally relevant galleries. These conversations reveal how certain institutions were affected by the pandemic, and what kind of online and offline strategies were developed to confront current situations. Today we are asking Péter Bencze, founder and organizer of the hybrid institution Everybody Needs Art [ENA].
How would you describe the complex infrastructure of ENA? What are your most important goals?
The primary goal of Everybody Needs Art – apart from the diverse development of art market tactics – is the achievement of non-profit success. Being active in the non-profit venues and museums is vital for the canonization of an artist. It also helps them in becoming visible for the curators of these institutions. In the case of my practice, the core idea is that there are no recipes that will work in thirty years in the contemporary art scene. Instead of focusing on the fixed solutions provided by “stone galleries”, my aim is to work in the most complex and flexible way.
A gallery – which is a necessary stepping stone for someone to become a vital ingredient of the everyday artistic bloodstream – is a serious financial investment. As an alternative, I initiated ENA Viewing Space, an open-air, rooftop venue and concentrated on collaborations where the exhibition isn’t bound to a fixed location. János Brückner’s 2014 text, “Exit From the White Cube Ghetto” had a profound impact on me. I define my ars poetica by adding – as a kind of subtitle – “Through White Cube Spaces”, as I can’t omit the otherwise valuable white cubes from my personal story. Though, in the end, I’m still mostly preoccupied with diverse spaces and hybrid collab structures.
Are you planning on expanding your project?
Unfortunately, a day consists of 24 hours. In my local surroundings, I have already found the 10-15 artists whom I like to work with. However, this does not exclude the young generation: as our program also reflects, I initiate many one-off collaborations. I would absolutely love to work with several additional foreign artists. But managing an artist is a serious responsibility, like a marriage. I am involved to some extent in the everyday life of these people. Gradually an emotional relationship develops in addition to the business-level interactions. The basis of this is a highly personalized design of communication modes. This is the reason why even if I had fifteen art historians working for me fulltime, I wouldn’t want to work with exponentially more artists.
How does the experience of the epidemic emergency impact the situation? After months of developing new, alternative plans, how can you adjust your operations to these whimsical turns? What new perspectives seem to emerge from these experiences?
Since 2013, I have worked on more than a hundred exhibitions ranging from Japan to Budapest, in various institutions, nomadic venues or in collaboration with other galleries. That is 12-19 exhibitions per year, which – if you break it down into months– can be quite stressful, especially considering the practical implications. So this period also meant a great deal for my personal health. It is a basic fact for those working in the field of contemporary art that nothing is permanent. The novelty in this current situation is that we may have never experienced such an all-encompassing phenomenon. I note in parentheses that there have been no drastic changes in the lives of the artists who I collaborate with.
In comparison, there have obviously been more serious modifications regarding the communication with collectors or in the implementation of exhibitions and institutional programs. For the first few weeks, I tried to understand what was happening around me and how I could get something new out of the situation. The online viewing rooms, which appeared after two or three weeks, have been around for a while; the multi-million-dollar, decades-long project of Saatchi Art is a great example. However, the online viewing rooms seemed to backfire, as everyone became overloaded with information very quickly. I think it is inconceivable that we will settle with this construction for the long run. Maybe the artistic activation of outdoor spaces could provide a fresh perspective. It would be an exciting trend to transform public parks and areas with artworks.
Do you think the art market was affected by the global situation?
The fact that people were able to do only a few things between the four walls in terms of fine art is probably one of the reasons for the shopping panic that one could experience with American and Western – in some cases newly emerged – collectors in this period. In the case of certain media, I find it downright unthinkable for the art market to relocate to the online sphere: to buy a statue on the web?
What initial insights led to the creation of Keep Showing Club? Who participated in this Secession-style exit from the institutional framework? How did the situation of a brandless and whitecube expectation-free open space influence the range of interpretation in the case of these artworks?
In the case of Keep Showing Club, two projects have been implemented in the last few months. The first one was Neopangean Forest, which was inspired by walking around Martinovics Hill with a dear friend of mine. During one of our conversations, he showed me a tree where he played a lot as a kid. What interested me was the idea that this average tree, externally identical to the others, encompassed his entire childhood. If people can no longer go into closed institutions, why not create an exhibition outdoors? Due to the restrictive circumstances, a hybrid system had to be devised that would function in the gaps of online and offline platforms. The offline episode – the installation work, the photographic documentation – took one afternoon and approximately twenty people witnessed it: forest goers, picnic groups with kids, dog walkers, etc. The New York-based magazine Artnet and many other platforms reacted to our project, as it was not a simple online gig, but a cutting edge on-offline initiative that resonated in an enigmatic way. The second act was János Brückner’s exhibition titled Heritage, which featured a short film series of the same title. We wanted an online exhibition where a film appears instead of artworks, which one can interpret in the context of everyday video consumption as well.
What kind of strategies are you developing to confront a potential next wave? Do you think it makes sense to work on the digital-virtual architecture of galleries in the long run?
I have many potential ideas for Keep Showing Club, but since offline events are momentarily in revival, I’d rather store these for a potential, second, third, or fourth wave. Online appearances, which are indispensable in some ways, are not among my favourites.
What do you think about the long-term consequences of online presence? To what extent can we merge and combine the processes of art historical canonization and online expansion?
In the case of the global cultural scene, it is a basic expectation to upgrade your orientational skillset to an acceptable level. There are trends, artists and happenings which are very present right now, yet I do not think every single segment of these will be significant in the future. For an artist to melt into the narrative of art history and to gain the acceptance of the art market the combination of many factors, independent of the artist, is required. Sometimes it seems as if the viewing ratios, the number of followers, and the current auction results decide who gets where career-wise, and even whether if they will find their own place in art historical terms. I feel that anyone who makes their bets based on these factors alone can lose big time in the long run.
In itself, an open attitude and a collaborative mind-set seem to be able to move things forward…
After the conference titled Criticism – which was organized last year by the Hungarian section of AICA – I talked to some participants and ended up asking everyone; why is a significant part of the performers and the audience so melancholy, so sad…? I am always surprised when someone – meeting for the first time – questions my optimism. If you love what you do, it is a natural reaction to treat the obstacles in front of you as a task to be solved and not as a problem. The art scene often creates situations for itself to grieve over. The project hasn’t even started yet, but the developments are already hindered by the grievances of the past and the collection of “whynots”. My aim is to transform turn this over.
How do you relate to the supposed lack of criticism?
I feel as if there was an unspoken expectation towards art criticism in Hungary, to be either exceedingly exalting or destructively humiliating to be called by its name. Maybe there is something after criticism, that we have not figured out yet and that could help a wider circle? It is easy to open magazines and shove everything off as shit if you feel like your being left out of something. It would be high time to clean up this shitspiral, which is tainted by blaming external conditions and slagging off others. Thinking ahead to the next few decades, it would make a colossal difference if everyone criticized their own actions first.
What is your art mediation mission about? How do you want to bridge the gap between the work of art and the audience? In what sense can art influence society?
I want to turn the attention to what a work of art can do face-to-face with a person at any level in terms of the spectators academic knowledge. When someone asks me how I would define myself; if I am actually a curator, an artist, a gallerist, an aspiring museum director, then I usually answer that I am an art mediator. Contemporary art is a path between understanding and non-understanding: this thought by the Hungarian artist János Sugár is very important for me. I build bridges while providing company for the people making this journey.
Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is one of my unresolved reading projects. There is a term at the beginning of the book: “sense of opportunity”, that I like a lot. To see in a given situation what could unfold from there. How do you interpret your own role in the freely evolving future of art?
My job is seeking possibilities. If I think about “future prediction,” or ransacking the cognitive as an important ability, which might help me in getting closer to understanding the phenomenon when different artists around the globe create similar things at the same time. Opportunities are always conditional. To discover something in an artist is a vain project if the artist does not recognize this in himself/herself. The ability to live with circumstances and the interactions between the artists themselves is what I focus on.
It is a well-rehearsed commonplace concerning the Hungarian scene that we maintain a closed, tiny art market. We live in a kind of quarantine situation, where we keep on peeking at international trends through social platforms. Opening up towards the global infrastructure seems like a cautious process. We are surprised to see a local artist on the other side of the transparent surface of social media. What do you think about the role of Hungarian artists in the European and global art scene? How do you feel about participating in the global buzz?
Among the artists, who are currently in their thirties there are few names – such as János Brückner, Botond Keresztesi – who appear in several international exhibitions connected to non-profit and for-profit institutions. If I think about this as only approx. 10 people, then Hungary completely disappears on a global scale. However, I think it is a huge success to be able to show up one or two internationally significant individuals from a country with only ten million inhabitants. A twenty-centimetre-thick volume about art history holds an innumerable number of names, but the average person will not remember ten thousand artists. You can’t call the scene to account why there aren’t a hundred defining Hungarian artists on the global palette… A Hungarian artist can talk about the restrictive aspect of his/her surroundings, just as much as a Russian pole vaulter could tell a similar story. As long as a painter can buy the canvas and the paint, he or she can 100% decide what will the painting be and what it will communicate to the world. There is a lot of talent of course in Hungary as well, but this can easily be decimated by taking a look at who is actually a complex individual who can also communicate professionally about his or her own practice and is OK personality-wise as well.
My practice takes place on a global stage; working together with artists can only bring outstanding results if I try to broaden their room for manoeuvre instead of narrowing it.
What is the next step for you?
We recently opened the solo exhibition of Ádám Ulbert at ENA Viewing Space and we are working on the shows of József Csató in Ljubljana and Botond Keresztesi in Kiev. If all goes well, the next exhibition of Borsos Lőrinc will be at VUNU Gallery in Košice. Meanwhile, in addition to ENA, we are working on the development of a new studio building, which will be in the 11th district. Plus: I’ll be back soon with a Long Term Hand Stand!
cover photo: Éva Szombat