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25 September 2022

Dr. Margarita Kuleva: on equality, cultural production, and the future of art in decentralised paradigms

by Sofya Chibisguleva

Dr. Margarita Kuleva: on equality, cultural production, and the future of art in decentralised paradigms


Dr. Margarita Kuleva — MK

Sofya Chibisguleva (TAEX) — SC


All meetings with Margarita Kuleva are informal by nature, be it a lecture, a panel discussion, or an interview. The formats cannot confine her playful air of presence, which in my opinion, is best described as an atmosphere of an engaging midnight kitchen debate, minus the intoxication. Although, her ideas and the almost graspable flight are surely viral for the mind. Our conversation started effortlessly, yet quickly thickened and started simmering.


SC: Let's begin with the first question. Could you start with some words about yourself, namely, how would you describe your curatorial and artistic self in 3 words.


MK: That is a challenging one, I would say collectivity, or even conviviality, different entities that are able to exist together. Also, singularity, then attention to the socio-economic condition to cultural protection, which is not one word really. Then, again, they are connected, specifically to the feminist approach and de-centralisation. They are important to me because of the way I was educated and shaped as a curator and thinker. 


SC: It is one phrase so I think we can let it slide. Where and what did you study?


MK: My background is rather interdisciplinary, I started as a philosopher, but I was really into literature as a teenager. So, I was a poet, a young teenage poet. I first looked at the Moscow Literary University, but then I checked out their description more closely, changed my mind and went to the Faculty of Philosophy at Saint Petersburg State University. I studied aesthetics for about a year and a half but then I realised that the university was rather conservative, and I became a philosophy dropout. Now that I am in the US it sounds so interesting, because this is what Steve Jobs did. He was a philosophy dropout. 

I guess I always had an interest in the arts. Both of my parents are artists, and I literally grew up in an art studio, which has some issues because it is always a little bit more disorganised than the usual house. Early I became rather independent, and my parents gave me a lot of freedom, which I think shaped my personality a lot. After dropping out from the Faculty of Philosophy, the most important thing which happened to me was ... well I met my first advisor. She was a philosopher and a film critic with an interest in psychoanalysis, but close to poststructuralism and feminism. Then I entered my next degree, which was in the Smolny College (Bard College and St. Petersburg State University), which is the only liberal arts college in Russia.

I graduated as a Sociologist because I changed my subject while studying. I wanted to be opened to different kinds of art, so I chose sociology with a strong attachment to art. I have always been thinking about the social context of art: how to open it to more people and to dissolve the boundaries that sometimes art would construct? Here, in the US it is called "social practice". At that time, I didn't know the term. Later, when I did my PhD I wrote about these boundaries and the cultural labour in the UK and Russia, and what I found striking was a case of one commercial UK gallery. I asked a gallery assistant, who was responsible for buying bottled water for the gallery, and he was tasked with buying 3 kinds of water — the very expensive one for the collectors, the less expensive ones for the honourable guests, and cheap water for the openings. Tap water was for the rest.


SC: Seems like there is a hidden water hierarchy in the art world!


MK: Exactly! Recently there was a clear turn to openness in the rhetoric, especially in the US with the BLM and Me Too movements, and the fight against cultural appropriation. But I think that we need to do more work on the hidden hierarchies. Especially in application to new kinds of art, like NFT, which isn't exactly new, but the NFT platforms are. We have so many problems with the existing art world, we must not copy and paste them into this new space. 


SC: Speaking of the transferring which occurs between IRL art spaces, like biennales, galleries, etc. into the NFT spaces, have you already observed any cases of such copy-pasting of biases and stigmas? And do you believe that the NFTs and the metaverse eradicate some of them simply due to their nature?


MK: I think there is a struggle going on. NFT started as non-institutional, but then people from the traditional art world saw opportunity in it and there are multiple agencies which are trying to “normalize” it. Also, there is the fact that a lot of people are annoyed with NFTs. There are many reasons for that, especially in terms of sustainability, and the fact that people try to make NFTs out of basically anything, and obviously because there was an issue of hype. I think that everything that brigs that much hype will annoy people. NFTs are media and every media can be used differently. We are to decide what kind of benefit it can bring to the community. Perhaps the dynamic of the NFT market would be better with less interest from people who just want to make money. Let's see what is going to happen, but for me personally, art collecting, and the possession of art are a long-term thing. It is a decision that should be made very carefully and should be sustainable. 

If we are to go further with this topic of why NFTs are annoying, it is also because people believe that artists who work with NFTs do not invest their creative talent, time, and energy and as a result create something like the Bored Apes. That is such a wrong attitude! Sure, there are a lot of cases where “effortless” artworks became successful, but there are also a lot of cases where artists experimented with NFTs and didn’t acquire success immediately, but made complex art. This situation reminds me a bit of the fame of the minimalist artists of the 60s or the YBAs in the 1990s. Artists like Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst gained very quick success because they used very unusual media provocations. The annoyance around them was enormous. People would focus on specific artists and artworks which became famous very quickly. The broader public is annoyed by the quick fame and refuses to dig further, and I hope that our platform can show that there is so much more to the technology, as well as bring the approach of institutional critique to show how the change is possible through slow and thoughtful action. 


My Bed by Tracey Emin

My Bed (1998) by Tracy Emin, a member of the YBAs


SC: It seems that the general link between the immediacy of the success of the Bored Apes and the YBAs is provocation. There is a certain provocative effect not in the works themselves but also in the media. NFTs themselves are also very provocative because they are linked to money and money is a very sensitive topic in the art world in general.


MK: I think that this is very true, money issues are very problematic in the art world, and it has been like that for many years before NFTs came. However, fundamentally the issue lies in unrecognition of creative work as work. I was just talking with a colleague here in Berkeley about NFTs and I quite liked what she said, that it is not that easy to support an artist you like, especially if you are based in different countries and with everything that is going on in the world. I think that NFTs can be a platform of support for artists. By supporting them people may support other physical works for artists to create. For example, our drop by Pavel Brăila, who works within an intersection of art and sport, aims to ideally save one of the Soviet stadiums, which is about to be demolished soon, or if not to save than to commemorate the architecture. He wants to donate part of the commission to save the stadium and build a better campaign for that. NFTs can serve different needs, socially driven too. I hope there will be more projects like that, especially in terms of the de-globalisation of the art world. 


Javelin Throw by Pavel Braila

Javelin Throw by Pavel Brăila


SC: Do you think that NFTs can help the world to finally come to an acknowledgement that art work is work and that as any other labour it has to be paid for?


MK: I think we need an enlightenment of NFTs, to show that it requires a lot of work to create. Behind the drops which we've created so far at TAEX, there is a whole team. It is a product of our creative activity, and it is not a "nothing created in a second". It takes time and energy. That is also a good example of the invisible labour discourse. 


SC: To circle back a little bit — a significant part of NFTs is comprised of digitised works, like paintings, collages, even 3D scanned works. I know that in your first drop Metaverse Dérive: NFT Cities the "NFT stage" of digital architecture and 3D modelling is the original, moreover, it has already been a part of the professional process for so many years. Digital form is natural for architecture. What do you think about physical works that make the crossover into the digital realm? Do they become some versions of Joseph Kosuth's works or should they not be digitised altogether, as some critics suggest?


Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965)

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965)


MK: I think it is completely the right of an artist to choose whether to digitise their work or not, because it is their intellectual or creative property. But the materiality of a painting, for instance, is not its only feature, there is also its presence and the presence of an artist within the work. In regards to the architecture, I would go theoretically to Walter Benjamin, and then to John Berger, his original BBC show Ways of Seeing from the 1970s. In it he noted that it is revolutionary that art can travel from apartment to apartment via a TV. Physical art has been existing digitally for such a long time. Today, we can find copies of artworks in print. I think, what NFT does here is affix artistic value onto the digital versions of painted objects, sculptures or so on. The other thing is that sometimes we do not have the physical opportunities to ship monumental paintings, but it can come to your apartment in a form of a projection. 


“We need to be thinking of ways to store and display an NFT collection. NFT collectors must be creative, there is simply no other choice.”


When you go to a colleague's or a friend's house and see art there, how much of it is media art? Personally, I have seen permanently installed media art in a house only twice. Which devices can we use to display digital art? A screen or a tamagotchi, perhaps? NFT collectors must be creative, there is simply no other choice. What I like about new technologies is that they bring up new issues.


Going up by Jessica Baldivieso

Going up by Jessica Baldivieso — an artist of Metaverse Dérive: NFT Cities


SC: Do you believe that media art in general and NFT specifically will shift the collectors from the consumer role of into the role of a co-creator? A similar shift has been happening with the spectator-participant dynamic too. You have mentioned how much easier it is to exhibit international art digitally and your first drop with us is indeed very international. How does it benefit the concept and the integrity of the drop?


MK: I would always go for plurality of experience. I met all artists personally before, with some of them I have worked in the past and I think I personally would go for building professional connections with those people who have experienced cultural transfers. I wouldn't say that it is very typical for an artist to be on the move all the time, especially during COVID-19, but I'd rather think that this is something that makes the experience more special. The experience of travel teaches the artist to constantly search for alternatives and to build their own. The three works are a good combination, but they are very different from each, yet the question they are trying to address is the same.


SC: In general, why did you pick architecture and the situationists? Why did these subjects resonate with you in connection to NFTs and the metaverse?


MK: I was always interested in mixing different genres and disciplines, and I thought that maybe we need to expose the more flexible borders of architecture, art, and their intersection. There are not too many shows concerned with this issue and dérive is something that I am a big fan of. I practise it a lot personally and with my students. I thought it would be a very interesting and engaging experience for the artists and the collectors who want to see how we can put these images of a city together in a digital dérive. It is a stress on critique of capitalism because a lot of people would say that NFT is the most capitalist way of seeing and producing art. I thought that it would be ironic and subversive to bring logic of dérive into NFT cities.


“By growing NFT economy we can show that a bigger collector audience exists.”


SC: Going back to Sociology, NFTs have been around for many years before they went viral. Have you encountered any interesting NFT projects in terms of sociological analysis, or have you analysed the behaviour of NFT consumers?


MK: It is a big question. I would say that the process of institutionalisation of NFTs is something that bothers me a lot. Speaking of the social factors and dimensions of NFT, interestingly it brought many different people to art collecting. Sometimes what attracts people is not fine art, bit things like Pokemons and other phenomena of contemporary culture and here I see an opportunity for democratisation. It is a provocation towards fine art and collecting. By growing the NFT economy we can show that a bigger collector audience exists. Myself, I see art as a social good, but sometimes having money in a certain industry is not a bad thing. 


SC: At the beginning you have mentioned that you are interested in collectivity and singularity and I think it resonated a lot with your remarks on the process of institutionalisation of NFT. If we were to imagine right now a big bright world of the future, where the NFTs and the art world are more pluralistic and diverse, which types of projects and technologies you think might emerge. What is a utopian future for NFT?


MK: I would say my dream is that it would give a piece of art multiple chances to be created and to be affiliated with an institution. For example, I would go to different workers of an institution to inter-create art. The other thing would be to open new genres of NFT, for example, NFT performance in the metaverse. Right now NFT is more of a product, than a process. Could there be an NFT of goodness, an NFT of cleanness, NFT of cats? How can we make it into an engaging process? Another question for the future is: how can collectors and visitors change NFTs?


“Could there be an NFT of goodness, an NFT of cleanness, NFT of cats? How can we make it into an engaging process?”


SC: Going into the close future of TAEX, what are you planning next? Could you give us any hints, a cloud of influences perhaps? 


MK: I would like to bring more feminist art to the platform, as well as something organic in terms of digital, to experiment with how the digital and the biological can be intersected. For example, our next drop is by an American artist who makes digital rocks and digital cabbage.


SC: To conclude, during this interview you have mentioned a lot of interesting and quite important pieces of literature, which could be a perfect after-interview dive for a curious reader.


MK: I have already mentioned Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton (2009) and Ways of Seeing by John Berger (1990). In terms of cultural analytics, there is a fantastic book by Lev Manovich called Cultural Analytics (2020). Also, there is a brilliant catalogue of the AI: More than Human exhibition at Barbican, which has an interesting collection of essays.

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