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Joseph Backstein: That’s Simply How It Is Now 0

Interview by Anna Iltnere

The 4th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art was unveiled on September 22, and will be open through November 30. The biennale’s central show is set up in two places in Moscow: on the fifth floor of the high-end shopping center TSUM and in the extensive industrial space of the newly opened ARTplay design center. During the short period between openings at each of the locations, the commissioner of the biennale, Joseph Backstein (1945), found time for a conversation with

Joseph Backstein is one of the leading figures in Russian contemporary art. He studied computer science, has a doctoral degree in the sociology of art and culture, and is the founder and director of the Moscow Contemporary Art Institute (established in 1991). Backstein also served as curator of the Russian pavilion at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, one of the curators of the first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, in 2005, and commissioner of the next three (including the current biennale), as well as the curator of a whole string of exhibits.

This summer, a curator from St. Petersburg named Olesya Turkina was visiting Latvia during the Cēsis Art Festival. One evening she shared a bottle of Coca-Cola with a small circle of friends, saying, “Don’t be afraid of catching a virus; all of us have already caught the same illness—art.” Have you caught it too? 

Working on large-scale projects, the risk is always there. Particularly if each biennale has a new location, which encompasses a whole string of unforeseeable circumstances. For example, the extensive space of the ARTplay design center, where a portion of the biennale’s central show is exhibited, only recently was still under construction. Extensive art projects always demand lots of efforts and result in enormous exhaustion, that is, if we are speaking about art as an illness.

What drives you to continue working, to be “ill” with it for so many years?

That’s my duty. (Affects being out of breath, and loughs).

An internally assigned duty?

Both that and a duty placed upon me by many biography, my involvement in Russian art history and theory since the early 1970s.

Bet why art?

You might even say that this happened accidentally. I’m not an art historian by trade. Yet things happen, circumstances coincide. I studied sociology, it was the  Soviet era. I searched for an independent field of study, and in this way I discovered the underground—underground philosophy groups and also underground art. 

The magazine Russian ArtChronics once called you one of the most influential people in Russian visual art. Perhaps this status also places upon you a certain responsibility?

I let that nonsense go in one ear and out the other. At my age, what else can I do? I don’t think about fame, I’m simply trying not to die yet.

In the 1970s, when you began to be interested in art, did you gradually begin to form a vision about something like the Moscow Biennale, which you could strive to work toward?

No, nothing like that; we didn’t think of anything like that back then. During the Soviet era, along with other people of my generation, we simply tried to get involved in interesting projects. What is more, my best projects have been realized without any funding. The biennale has a budget, but this immediately creates additional restrictions, problems.