Thank You for Your Time, Boris Groys. Unhappened Conversation
Alida Ivanov, writer from Stockholm 02/08/2013
When I got the assignment to do an interview with Boris Groys, I was very enthusiastic; when I got a “yes” from him – I was beyond myself with happiness. He is probably one of the most interesting art and media theorists/philosophers of our time, and he has been a huge influence on the way I think about art, art production and theory. And I’m probably not the only one.
Boris Groys was born in Berlin in 1947, but he ended up studying philosophy and mathematics at Leningrad State University in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s. The cultural scene in Russia sparked an interest in him. He held the position of Research Fellow in the Department of Structural and Applied Linguistics at Moscow State University from 1976-1981. After that, Groys immigrated to West Germany, where he earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Münster University. Today he is a Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. Besides being a philosopher and theorist, Boris Groys is also an essayist, an art critic, and an internationally acclaimed expert on late Soviet postmodern art and literature, as well as on the Russian avant-garde. Groys’ writing engages the wildly disparate traditions of French post-structuralism and modern Russian philosophy.
The Curating Art Master's Program at Stockholm University, in collaboration with the Tensta Konsthall, invited him at the beginning of June to give a couple of lectures and to host a workshop for the series What Does Art Theory Do?. For my colleagues and me at the Curating Art Program, Boris Groys’ collection of essays, Art Power, has almost become a bible for us. There are so many layers in it that it has contributed to making up how we now think about art and art production. In many ways, he gave us the confidence to take on our roles as curators through the concept of multiple authorship, in which he states that today, exhibition-making has the same shape as, for example, a theater or film production – about which you can’t really speak of having just a single authorship. This is due to the fact that an exhibition has evolved into something more like the form of an installation. Everyone has their part: the artist, the curator, the architect and so on – which describes the collaborative nature of art production and validates all of the people involved. Another concept that has influenced me a lot is Groys’ thoughts on the documentation of art: that art that isn’t exhibited is, essentially, documentation. It becomes an archive because it’s not a part of the present. For me, this explains the importance of exhibitions and how art can be renewed; it becomes a state of mind instead of a theory.
His first talk was at Stockholm University, on the subject of Alexandre Kojéve (1902-1968), which was interlinked with the curatorial project After history: Alexandre Kojéve as a photographer, which Groys had presented at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in November 2012, and then at the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. The focus of the lecture was the collection of photographs in the Kojève archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. He talked of the photographs, privately collected postcards, and hand-drawn itineraries of the French-Russian philosopher, and through these, invited the audience to an exploration of Kojéve's philosophical and political thought.
For the workshop, we were asked to read Comrades of Time, by none other than Boris Groys. The other invited lecturers had literature written by others, not Groys. I have to admit that I haven’t ever really understood the concept of workshops, and with this one – even less so. I was so nervous about the interview – after it had happened – that I can’t really remember what was said during it. I had prepared questions that would, in some way, make him talk and give a personal portrait of himself. Can you tell me a bit about your background? How does your academic work influence your curating? Does it? Is there ever a clash between your different professional roles?Would you consider yourself more of a text-person, rather than an image-person? What does the curatorial process look like for you? Is it similar to your texts, or to your academic work? What are you working on right now? What are your plans for the future?
These questions always get people talking. Not too many questions, so that there is room for interaction and follow-up questions, and to create a dialogue. The workshop ended and we went outside to begin the interview. We had the noisiest bunch at the table next to us. After the first question, it was obvious that my tricks weren’t working. Five minutes into the interview, his wife crept in behind me and sat down at the table next to us. She had been a constant shadow during these two days. She never said anything, just skeptically observed and waited – impatiently. She made a signal – with her whole presence – to wrap things up. This made me nervous, and when I get like that, I (sometimes) make inappropriate jokes – to “lighten things up”. According to Freud, I probably have a very harsh superego. Anyway, I made a parallel between them, as a couple, and Vladimir and Vera Nabokov as a couple. Had they heard it before?
It might not seem “that bad”, but I lost them after that. Or rather, I never had him at all. He answered yes/no to questions I never imagined anyone answering yes/no to; or, I got an I don’t want to answer that/I have nothing to say about that. In other words: the interview was a total disaster.
Okay, so here I am writing about him anyway. I play this ten-minute-interview over and over in my head and try to think of what I could have done differently. More questions? Different questions? More theory? In the end, I think ten minutes of rudeness is enough for anyone to take.
I didn’t stay for the second lecture, entitled “On Similarity”, in which he highlighted the way we view our society as one of differences, and how that opens up the possibility of exchange.