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On East European Art: Positions We Can Stand Behind and Speak From

Maja and Reuben Fowkes interviewed by Zsuzsa László
Published in Mezosfera (October 2017)

Zsuzsa László: In the transnational positioning of our regionally committed but international practice, we propose to revisit Hungary’s former, now forgotten “friendship” with “Third World” countries. What relevance do you think the legacy of the region’s participation in anti-imperialist movements might have today from your point of view?

Reuben Fowkes: If we look at monumental sculpture for example, it is noticeable that statues of Third World revolutionary leaders were not immediately targeted during the period of the system change in 1989, suggesting that initially people were relatively neutral towards socialist internationalism and much less hostile than they were towards mainstream communist ideology. There has though been a more recent wave of renaming of streets and removal of plaques and monuments that date back to the communist era and which attempt to show solidarity with post-colonial struggles.

Maja Fowkes: There have been a lot of attempts recently to reassess the legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement that was founded in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, both from art historians and artists, such as Milica Tomić and Jasmina Cibic. It is one of the legacies of socialism that are considered worth recovering.

Natural, Artistic, and Political Ecologies of East-Central Europe

Maja and Reuben Fowkes interviewed by Júlia Laki
Published in Mezosfera (April 2016) 

Art historians and curators Maja and Reuben Fowkes are engaged in pioneering research into the interconnections of art and ecology, with a special focus on the East-Central European context. In 2013, they established the Translocal Institute in Budapest, which serves as a meeting point, a library, and a framework for research, curatorial, and educational activities on art and ecology. I conducted this interview with Maja and Reuben on the occasion of the recent publication of two of their books. First, the River Ecologies (published by Translocal Institute), is a selection of essays, interviews, lecture transcripts, and images from Translocal’s River School project (2013–15) that brought together people of various disciplines in a discussion around creating more sustainable lifestyles and less anthropocentric ways of thinking on the banks of the river Danube. Second, The Green Bloc: Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (published by CEU Press) is the extension of Maja Fowkes’ PhD dissertation at University College London that proposes a history of East-Central European art practices dealing with nature in the aftermath of 1968. When read together, the two books show how environmental discourse, albeit an essentially global one, has important regional dimensions and specific local histories. The books sketch out some major shifts in the availability of information on the state of the environment and the corresponding civil and artistic engagements with ecological issues. They also demonstrate how a concern for the environment inherently involves a political stance that often goes hand in hand with a critical view on the institutional structures of art.

Anthropocene Index

Maja and Reuben Fowkes interviewed by Aleksandra Jach
Published on the Anthropocene Index December 2015

Aleksandra Jach: At the Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art you are trying to “combine the particular insights gained from being deeply based in one or more localities with the comparative perspective gained by working in more than one discursive context”. I think you share this attitude with many environmental scientists and activists. The difference is that you are working mostly in the ecosystem of global art world. How do you evaluate the potential and limitations of this network?

Maja and Reuben Fowkes: We are concerned with the art world, but we don’t see ourselves as working within one closed system, such as the global art world, which is associated with the circuit of biennials and art fairs, but rather inhabit an art world that is part of other systems. We also try to open the art world up to other trans-disciplinary perspectives, as ecology itself is trans-disciplinary and all-encompassing. This often means working at the interstices of the art world and the worlds of academia, science, eco-activism and so on. Both scientists and activists face challenges in seeing beyond not only their disciplines and specific campaigns, but also their geographical contexts. With greater awareness of the interconnectedness of problems on a planetary scale, there is a growing tendency to relate specific local questions to what is happening elsewhere, and contemporary art has the potential to galvanize these more outward-looking and comparative perspectives.

Politics, the Environment and Art Across a Changing Political Landscape 

Maja and Reuben Fowkes interviewed by Janeil Engelstad
Published in Art Margins Online (July 2014)

Janeil Engelstad: Taking a broad look at Central European artists working today in ecology and with sustainability, do you sense that there is a collective art/environmental scene? And if so, do you see this work as strengthening the larger Environmental Movement?

Maja and Reuben Fowkes: It is certainly possible to identify various trends and flows within contemporary Central European art that are connected to the spread of ecological thinking, although, in our opinion, without coalescing into a movement. Environmental activism is one pole around which artists have come together, but again this tends to be related to specific issues or campaigns. In that sense, it was interesting that when in 2013 mass environmental protests sprung up in Romania over plans to develop destructive open-pit gold mining in Transylvania, on the whole artists took part more as citizens than by addressing the issue through their art practice.

Critical theory in art historical discourse

Maja and Reuben Fowkes interviewed by Victoria Popovics
Published in Exindex (March 2014)
Victoria Popovics: Your practice is characterized by translocality, you travel across Europe from conferences to workshops, and you organize exhibitions in several institutions and galleries in various countries. Why did you decide to create a basis in Hungary?

Maja Fowkes: I’m Croatian and Reuben is British and it happened that we met in the nineties in Budapest. That was one of the reasons why we also stayed here. I graduated in 1999 from Zagreb University, department of art history. At that time there were two important exhibitions in the Ludwig Museum Budapest - After the Wall [2] and Aspects-Positions [3], which I happened to see and also wrote reviews about. In a way it kind of provided an impulse for me to make the decision to stay in the region and research more about East European art.

Reuben Fowkes: Looking back at that precise period around the end of the nineties - by that time I had completed an MA in East European Studies at the University of London. The subject of my dissertation was public monuments in Hungary after the Second World War. Later my interest widened and for my PhD research I took a comparative approach, focusing on monumental sculpture in post-war Eastern Europe. I compared Hungary, Bulgaria and East-Germany, looking at socialist realism and changes around public sculpture in the 1950s and up to the 1960s.

Maja Fowkes: We started to work together as well, and we tried to catch up also with Hungarian contemporary art, started to curate exhibitions, so professionally we were interested in staying in Budapest. In the current times we live in, you don’t have to cut ties - from here it is possible to travel more often to Croatia, studying and working in UK, and you can still be based in Hungary. When we were thinking about our website we decided to call it Translocal. [4] Translocality describes the position we are in - it provides a critical standpoint, you compare the situation from different localities, you see things clearer and better, and you also have distance for observation.

Reuben Fowkes: Translocality can be understood as simultaneous situatedness across different locales, being situated in different places at the same time, not just restricted to one location. Translocality in Eastern Europe has tended to be seen in terms of multiple ethnicities, as lots of different traditional nationalities inhabit the region. What we also see is the situation at the end of the Cold War, the counter flow of non-native artists, curators, art historians also coming from all directions to the capitals of Eastern Europe, creating a much more cosmopolitan and transnational situation. They have the possibility to articulate and re-imagine how a post-national landscape would look.

Antennae Interview

Maja and Reuben Fowkes interviewed by Giovanni Aloi
Antennae (Summer 2009)

Giovanni Aloi: What is a Translocal curator?

Maja and Reuben Fowkes: We understand translocality as a situation which combines the particular insights gained from being deeply based in one or more localities with the comparative perspective gained by working in more than one discursive context. This position stands in contrast to the superficiality of viewing art from a purely international and generalising perspective, as well as providing a way to surpass the limitations of considering contemporary art primarily through the prism of nationality.