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Partner Cells in Co-Immunity

15 Nov 2020

Conversation between Zdenka Badovinac, Director of Moderna Galerija (Ljubljana), Larys Frogier, Director of the Rockbund Art Museum (Shanghai), Nikita Choi, Chief Curator of Times Museum (Guang Zhou), Aigerim Kapar, founder of Artcom platform (Astana) and Biljana Ciric, founder of WCSCD and initiator of As you go…roads under your feet, towards the new future.

Conversation conducted through zoom on August 26th, 2020. Robel Temesgen and prof. Sinkneh Eshetu (Addis Ababa) were two partners also intended to be present though were not able to be. A reminder that our basic functionality is not same for all of us within this project, as we continue to learn how to respect urgencies of the cells within their situated context. Even if only through the small gesture, such as this exchange, of finding a way to listen.

From where I am sitting, this conversation was conducted very late in the evening. The evening always seems to somehow spell magic for ideas – but being together in a liminal space of existing in an everytime was even better. It was some kind of wonderful to be connected across the globe, to hear these artists, curators and researchers be united over this beautiful mission to find a way to relate their urgencies to one another – and then from themselves to the rest of the globe.

The effects of this pandemic, and the urgencies that are now impossible to ignore, have not been lost on any of us. It is clear that a greater efficacy and criticality is required of our modes of working and the conceptual relevancies we will proceed (or be expected) to put forward. This idea of the intimacy of strangers, the power of the small, and the insistent call of unlearning, are perhaps not entirely new ideas, but throughout the life project, has shown itself to be an extended consideration of care that I’ve yet to see be engaged in such a way.

Although we are maintaining our communication, we dwell within different modes of existing, and there were those intended to be present but were not able to be. From them, we have requested responses to this transcript. Robel Temesgen and prof. Sinkneh Eshetu were two such parties. Watching Robel intermittently cutting in and out of the call was a very clear indicator that within this digital sphere, sometimes absence is not a choice. Upon asking him to respond to the transcript of the conversation, he generously re-situated himself within the context. I have maintained these above in italics to expand the framing and possibilities of this dialogue. Prof. Sinkneh, who is currently away, I’m sure shall also see his responses make their way into this conversation, expanding the dialogue once more.

This interview, and the project at large, is continuously growing. As we adapt to the world, we also adapt to one another, and if indeed we can talk about dreams publicly, then I would like to hope that the strength of this co-immunity transcends the virus that seemed to give birth to it, and lives on in its own working methodology of care and solidarity.

– Ed.

Biljana Ciric (BC):

Since the project started in February 2020, we have been meeting every two weeks, but this is the first time that we are all meeting together afterwards to have [a] conversation [with the] partner institutions I organized in Addis Ababa in February this year.

Some of us had a chance, as a partner cells, to spend time together – to walk and work through the Addis that today, seems very far away. During this month, we learned that the partners, or the cells – I call us “cells” of the project – are not only institutions, but [are also] individuals producing differences within the context situated in. Being already half [a] year into the project – [which] was postponed and had very fragile moments – this conversation serves as a platform where we should look at that half year we spent together, [where we] started as a strangers, [to look at] how this intimacy of strangers as cells can become a productive force.

Some of the partner cells are private institutions, some public, some are [single] person institutions, but what is very important [is] that being together today within this project is driven by a personal decision of addressing and reflecting on issues that we all find relevant and [hold] in common, rather than repeating professional modes of working within [the] contemporary art world.

As I said, we went through half a year of uncertainty and fragility with this project, and we were all strangers within [it]– well my position was slightly different because you [all] came aboard the project upon my invitation – but through sharing and recognising urgencies that I’m trying to address through this project, I’m hoping [we] can create [a] co-immunity in the times to come and the times of separation we are entering.

This conversation is meant to help us reflect on the projects: where we are and [on] the pandemic [which has also] shifted the project – but also addressing your own position within the project, and how you see yourself within the group and things like that.

Maybe because Zdenka and I are the only ones who [were] together in Addis Ababa, where we established [the] commonalities of the project that we are trying to work through, I would like to ask [Zdenka] to reflect.

Zdenka Badovinac (ZB):

Oh okay, shall I start?


Yes…the conversation is [being] recorded just to let you know.


Oh, okay. So I very [much] like being [a] part of the project, and that our institution, Moderna Galerija can contribute, at least a little, on the Balkans – from how the new economic influences reflects in our culture, [but] also the social and political issues here.

 [In] the beginning with Biljana, we decided that our roles would be related to our [respective] regions. I also went to Addis Ababa with Biljana [where] we met extremely interesting people: we learnt a lot about this context that is completely different from ours, but at the same time in Ethiopia, we found part of our former country, Yugoslavia. Ethiopia was a member of the Non-aligned Movement; and business corporations, artists and cultural workers also went there – there were sculptures all around the city built by Yugoslav sculptors, with traces of this also [in] the architecture. You [begin to really] see how the distant past can somehow make the world smaller again. It isn’t only [the] internet, but also history, which reconnects us.

After we came back from Ethiopia, the pandemic started soon after – at least, here in Europe and China, [as] it [was already] happening beforehand. It was also [a] very important lesson for our project, for [the] four of us [to realise] how this small virus could affect the whole world. This is [an] important lesson that is based on economic dominance, but also [a] different kind of communication. [You have] this global world with different powers who fight for dominance, and then suddenly you have [this] small, invisible virus that has an influence [on] the economy, politics, the existing power relation[s] – and this is new. Before the world was globalised, the small and invisible – the local – couldn’t influence the world as heavily as [it does] today. This is [a] very important lesson and Biljana, [along with] all the collaborators, decided [on] how [to] follow the developments [that] resulted from the alternatives.

And of course, the pandemic that is everywhere (and I think Biljana was just saying that she’s in Melbourne and [in] lockdown), probably [gives us] more time in this world for [a] different kind of online communication. This is important because she [is also] somehow pushing us – at least like us in Ljubljana, for us/art and apparent normality’s sake but you know, it is only an illusion.

We don’t know how long it will last and we need to learn how to stay connected – this is very important – and how to reflect from another perspective: [this] new force which [has] homogenised the world. It is not economic or political, but [instead], comes from nature. Nature that has been affected by humans – the result of the Anthropocene. It is very much about rethink[ing] the forces of different commonalities, and this project is perfect [for] it.

 [But it’s] also how to reflect [on] the non-human aspect of colonialization. I think here, traditional knowledge [or] pre-modern knowledge, is also important. Because modernity is very much about the fast, about progress; and the virus is, of course [the] result of it. Now here we have different localities very much into something pre-modern, and where we can learn from them. Although these pre-modern aspects are somehow also in danger.

So it’s a question [of] how to relate the dialogue without being exotic or without romanticising the past. This is something [that] I [also] think [is] very important. Of course, the Balkans is, at least it was, very distant, from Chinese economic influence – but now, we are living in a completely new global situation. There are also, as in [the] Balkans, former Yugoslavian territory [that] was heavily influenced by [Chinese economic powers]. For example, there are investments from China that [are] in power, in infrastructure (like railway roads, highways), and there is a priority at the moment to connect Greece via Serbia to Europe. In the past this route was via Hungary, not via Croatia or Slovenia, so the former infrastructure between Ljubljana and Belgrade in the times of Yugoslavia which lasted 6 hours, for example, takes 11 hours today, because of the bad condition of the railway. It was not modernized for at least three decades. So you can see how the new economic influence and new powers indirectly organises life in the Balkans.

I am very much looking forward to collaborating with all of you [in] the near future, and there will hopefully be a symposium in Ljubljana in Moderna Galerija, in March or April, where all the contributions will be presented and where hopefully, we will [finally] meet in real world.

Larys Frogier (LF):

I am truly happy and honoured to join this project, that has a lot of meaning, from the Rockbund Art Museum context in Shanghai and China. What I find extremely precious in this research project is the concept of the cells: something small that can grow by connecting with, what we call, strangers – and I think we are all strangers to each other, which I also find very beautiful and very constructive, in a way.

The As You go… research project also raises the following question: what is a locality today? In a global remapping of the power structures framed by different forms of  occupations, Imperialisms, economical warfare, legal warfare, cultural warfare, we need to reinvent other networks and methodologies of connecting and working with each other…Of course, the current context is very violent, in relation to the above mentioned issues and especially to the pandemic. But because each context has different, [has] layers of  histories and very specific contemporary challenges, I am very interested in the small for major changes in the future. Instead of working on and raising a big topic, I truly believe that change today comes from the small – maybe even invisible at the beginning, and on the surface – but extremely incisive and powerful, for implementing possibilities to foresee the future, and invent new forms of solidarities which go beyond the concept of domination or occupation.

I also truly believe that this research is a way of curating. That is very important for me working inside an institutional framework (as if we are locked down in a museum). It’s how we can question our own institutions in relation to our local contexts, to broaden [into] escaping dominant areas and narratives. Often from Mainland China, when we talk about the international, we always talk about the relation between the west and the east, but these kinds of dichotomies are very reductive for me; building a lot of stereotypes, generalizations, misunderstandings. That is why this project is crucial in the way we can really raise different problematics and new forms of collaboration; learning from our different localities [of] the violence, the inhumanity, [and] the oppression that each of us are facing from our own context, and in the same taking the risk and the desire to step out of it towards constructive contradictions and the unknown. This requires humility at the same time it requires us to take radical constructive positions. As you go…is very meaningful, because it goes in-between the meta-narratives we can find in the economy, in the politics, but also in the art market. We can thus build a research program that gathers together different practices, individuals, and organizations – which could it be artists, anthropologists, scientists, curators and so on. I truly believe that this kind of format fits the implementation of change and cooperation. I believe that we are all connected in a way, even if we cannot travel. Even if we cannot meet each other.

I like the concept and the practice of friction-opposition-contradictions. It means not only trying to endlessly talk about colonisation or big histories, but trying to really create the conditions of how we can infiltrate these big narratives and be critical, engaged, and supportive to each other in  such difficult contexts. That’s also why this project is meaningful.

Now, about the specific context between Mainland China and the rest of the world: I love this country, I love its people, I love where I’m living. It is just that the political and economic system today is extremely problematic to face, and according to myself, no longer valid. So I think this project can also contribute to bring within China more complex angles and richer  perspectives – and at the same time, contribute to real, sincere, and multiple engaged voices to the outside world.

I think [it] is important to learn from this and go deeper into [what] the details mean across the various and very specific localities both in Mainland China and globally. For me, localities are made of tradition – that is very important – but it is also a practice that is not only tied  to something from the past or to a fixed and frozen context. We need to avoid romanticis[ing] and ideologizing these histories and these localities. [The] Locality is made up of different layers. Multiple on-going combinations.

Last but not least, we are trying, here and now, to create something that is very valuable for the art scene, and I also hope the professionals [may] engage closely with more human values – but not like humanism as the west and the new eastern powers used to define what humanism is, with all the violence and the colonialism that it engaged with. Art has the power to remake histories, bringing more criticality and more complexity to what we are doing.

Nikita Choi (NC):

Do I need to have my camera on?


It would be great to see you! I haven’t seen you for a long time.


Okay…Hello! Okay, so. [We were] interest[ed] to join the As you go  project as a cell, largely [inspired by] the project we launched three years ago (the All The Way South Project) where we worked together with [the] artist to revisit what is currently happening [with] the supply chain between China and the rest of the world (but mostly related to the Souths of the world) [which] was also informed by an early history of trading, even dating back to some colonial history when European empires arrived at the border of [the] country [and at] Canton and Macau. I think [what] would be great is to also expand this trajectory of research, and the geographical imagination related to the migration of labour – but not only restricting [it] to what we think of as objects or materials, colonial goods, or what we are now [calling] consumer products – and what has been underrepresented in history (in other cultural forms or in the arena of contemporary art – this so-called economic purpose of trading).

But another thing is [the] trajectory of subaltern migration, and the migration of labourers intertwined with the fluidity of materials, goods, and objects. I think after[wards], in response to the urgency of COVID-19, one thing we [will] probably have to learn from the ongoing crisis is the vulnerability of our existing structure of globalisation. I think we all know that contemporary, or Chinese contemporary art – or China in general – benefitted from globalisation – [saying this] as a member of this community and as someone whose personal trajectory also actually benefitted from that. But now it’s not going to be the same globalisation we recognise – so what [becomes of] our position?

We also realised, by working with artists and other researchers over the years – heard a lot of individual stories, and precarious voices – [that] local or empirical knowledge can also be filtered by ideological constructs and power relations. Part of it, [and] I also agree with Larys’ critique of [the] institution itself, is the lack of critique about the Euro-American canons of institutions  or exhibition-making in China; and we have to further interrogate the dominance of art markets after the shock of the pandemic. As an institutional practitioners and cultural makers, we should think beyond the current hegemony and divide, and really try to stay connected with people.

The last thing is about the crisis of exhibitions and what curating means. What we used to think of as the norms of curating might not be possible. So how do we think of other disciplines, or what curating might be? What about audiences and communities? What is the relationship between locality and physical proximity? Can we also cross media or disciplines, and reach out to other kinds of communities and audiences?



Aigerim Kapar (AK):

Thank you. So actually, the Artcom platform and I just joined the project and I’m very glad that we have this opportunity to participate in something so interesting. I’m very interested to see how the project can really develop through our collaborations, and the way Biljana noticed the way strangers can become partners.

Especially in this difficult and incomprehensible time, [which has] on the one hand divided [us], and on the other hand, made [us] closer through the online sphere and zoom meetings. It is really important for me that during the pandemic we stay connected and somehow productive.

My interest in this project is immense due to [how] the ecological situation in Kazakhstan in Central Asia, and around the world is becoming more and more complicated and aggravated. This pandemic is also the result of these unresolved problems and [poses] a big challenge for all of us. Economical and transport projects and initiatives, like the BRI, will increasingly have an influence on the ecological and environmental situation.

Significant for me within the project, is to focus on how art practitioners (artists, curators, researchers) can contribute to understanding or rethinking – or even creating – change, and finding ways to solve social, environmental challenges posed by our political and economic situations and frames.

Robel Temesgen (RT):

I also would like to say that, this project came in time for Ethiopia. As you have all witnessed, the connection with China is vivid but there hasn’t been a deeper analysis or intervention – especially within the cultural field (at least from what I know). So when I hear about the circumferences of the project from Biljana, it excites me for two major reasons. One is that this is not a sole intervention to investigate Ethiopia and China. This encompasses a broader range to cross check and learn from each other. With that, we all have to remember that it is not an institution, but rather an independent interest that has brought us all together. That is power.

This has also been my sub-conscious interest to look into, though I never took action. Of course, there are many more motivations, but two is enough to mention [for now].


Thanks. I mean, this project is actually [the] first curatorial inquiry of What Could/Should Curating Do, [which] is a small institution that I founded in Belgrade three years ago. It started as [an] educational institution running [a] curatorial program for artists and curators [who] focus on looking at curatorial practices on [the] margins of the global. Many of you today who are partner cells actually participated and shared your knowledge during these workshops. So the plan is to try to work throughout [this] inquiry on a longer term. To actually start [to] try [and] propose establishing different forms of relationships through slow modes of working.

But what is really interesting within this, [is] that most of our contemporary art practices – and I think Nikita mentioned this a bit, specifically from [the] context of China which is very much Western European and American oriented – [is that] there has been very little contact with other parts of the world. I think it’s [also] the same with many countries within [the] Balkans, except specific cases like Moderna Galerija and the way Zdenka and her team work. Most of the contemporary art communication is through very short-term exhibitions, and [is] very much funding structure oriented – that again, I would say, is related to Western Europe.

I think before we established this working platform, we actually knew very little about each other’s local contexts and the local practices, because there was actually no channel to do [so] – even though some really fragmented channels throughout history existed through Non-aligned Movements or early connections during [the] 60s and 70s.

But one other thing that came out during our meetings, and maybe we can talk about this, is the aspect of visibility. What does that mean [for] the project? Because [this] project does kind of give visibility to certain local contexts in [a] different way and ambiguity of that visibility., even in times of unrest, and this is what we try to do through our online journal – reflecting on unrest that [has] happened in different places where the project is situated.

So maybe if you have any notes to add about [the] importance of this aspect of visibility? Through the projects, especially in this time of the pandemic.


I also think that we think visibility is positive thing. That we need to make more visible the marginal place: marginalised places, marginalised histories, neglected artists, subjects and so on. But like most other things, visibility also has [another] side. This visibility can also be something that, after certain types of art or cultural production has been somewhere, let’s say protected from instruments of the dominant art system, [that] it has more autonomy – at least in regard to broader power networks – in a way.

As soon as something becomes more visible, it becomes also [a part of the] market. [The] market prioritises specific content, enforces the dominant epistemologies, artists, curators….And I think our group has this potential: to avoid the problems related to visibility, [since] we are of very different institutions [and] none of our institutions are [at] the centre of power. But I would say at the same time that we must all sustain critical thinking.

The international art world is very much orientated to the unknown, so of course we will contribute to the visibility of our context, artists, and topics, but at the same time, I think we should be aware of the possible instrumentalization later.


I – Can I-?


Go ahead.


I also think as museums, institutions, or curators, [we might need to] shift from focusing on visibility to thinking about our roles in mediating the production and circulation of common knowledge. The divide of [the] infosphere, physical and ideological borders, makes it even more difficult and challenging for cultural makers to claim that, “something happened [in] a far-away community or [to] a strange individual, [and it] has something to do with me.” It’s becoming more difficult for people to think, “we are related,” even with the development of technology. That’s why we have to keep saying that we are all part of [this], even though [we’re] confronting the reality of isolation and separation.

That was something I also recently picked up from a podcast between several young Chinese scholars, and how they think of the role of public knowledge. One of the interlocuters said [that] if you don’t try and provide a different perspective, other cultural products, such as soap operas or [other forms of] mainstream media, will occupy that vacancy of discourse, or manipulate people’s ideas – or as Zdenka said, use history as a tool.


To the question of visibility I would answer by one of invisibility… Indeed I strongly believe it is very precious and important to cultivate active strategies of invisibility today.   As Nikita and Zdkena were saying, by promoting extra visibility we are either appropriated by the market, or we go into a formatted way of thinking and curating. Invisibility is a huge paradox, especially when you are working with art in a museum to curate exhibitions, to showcase artists, to display artworks, to promote art projects. But I truly believe today, in a society of extra surveillance, permanent self and political propaganda, overloaded mega art industries and markets, the most interesting artists and researchers today are the ones trying to dig deeper – escaping the surface of art and social media, exploring micro-dimensions, creating the conditions for new forms of creating and experiencing art. 


For our project, I think it is very important to raise questions and challenges that can  challenge the  dominant discourses and institutions: going step-by-step, learning deeper, not compromising, but also taking radical and decisive positions… Invisibility today is not to be inexistent, but is exactly the contrary. It is an act, a choice, a practice, a strategy of resistance and opposition that allows other forms of action and visibility.

Invisibility today also touches the crucial notion and practice of time. It is no longer enough to only be visible once and then disappear (like many big exhibitions curated all over the world). Time is also linked to the practice of caring. This concept of caring is important to develop in this project that makes artworks and texts, and for me, is also related to sounds.

I’m very engaged [with] music production in different parts of the world, and I look very closely [at] what is happening in the arts in different localities – to not only look from a Western or Chinese perspective. For example, if we take the momentum of Black Lives Matter (that is a very big topic at the moment),  I think it is much more important to listen to artists like Robel [Temesgen], who are literally invisible within the political and art scene, but who are interrogating similar, if not much more important, forms of violence that are never talked [about] on the media. 

It’s the same when you see and listen to some people like the Aural Archipelago in Indonesia. They are going [to] different islands and archipelagos to record traditional instruments – because Indonesia is not only one country. [It] is made [up] of thousands of islands with different cultures, and these very small, tiny [communities] and contexts. So I think it is important to be invisible to embrace the multiplicity.

But at the same time, of course, it is our responsibility find another modes of visibility as professionals working within institutions, or as independent curators and researchers. I just think it is important to keep ourselves safe from the big façade (or what we call here in China the “good face”). Frankly speaking, I just don’t care at all about this. My priority is  to step out from this system in order to show the real face of the people [laughs]. It’s also the about the importance of trying to unveil and reveal our own monstrosity as individuals and societies, because we need to face this. As you go… has the capacity to reveal what is constructive [within] these unexpected interconnections between different people and areas that we are trying to understand, to learn from, and to develop.

I believe this is also something that will make a change. Not in a spectacular way, but in [the] long-term. Such [a] project can decisively contribute to a better understanding and constructive way of working in the art field.


I view this aspect of visibility (for the sake of this conversation), as a person living in Ethiopia. [A] few weeks back, [the] internet was shut down throughout the entire country and it made me realise, even in somewhere as unexposed as Ethiopia, that little visibility still matters. It made me realise how important it is to be passively visible and seen. I was so focused on how I was missing out on what was going on around the world, but [I realised] to be visible and maintain accessibility to others, plays a great role when it comes to artistic production and interactions at large.


Aigerim, would you like to add something?


Yeah, maybe some small things. Art, artists and curators are less visible in Kazakhstan – our voices do not sound from the main news or information platforms. Kazakhstan, and the entire Central Asia region as a whole, are not visible in the world. Especially today, when it is completely impossible through [the] news and media, or social media, to clearly understand what is really going on somewhere. Visibility is becoming a challenge. There is so much online, [that the] noise of information does not allow [us] to put together a reliable picture. The online journal As you go… and our meetings made it possible for me to establish a connection with regions and localities involved in the project through these alternative ways, to see your situations and hear the voices of local people and communities.


And there are always both sides: positive and negative. Visibility also entails [a] manipulation of information, and sometimes it is really destructive.


Larys, do you want to say something?


I am just interested in knowing how each of us can engage [as] we are developing this research. Because for me at the beginning, to take the metaphor of water again, it was [a sort of] “floating” process. But I also like this feeling of not knowing what the big topic or big question is. The more I delve into this project, the more I’m excited [by it], the denser and richer it becomes. So I just want to [understand] the feelings of each of you – how do you believe in this project?


That’s a nice question for the end.


Beautiful end [laughs].


I think it has its own life, this project, and I always like projects that are not too structured in the beginning. That [are] informed by social experiences, and changes within its own duration, and this is what is happening with our project.

The pandemic happened during the project, and so what would [it] be if this started with a very structured frame? We would lose very important historical moments. It’s very exciting to be part of it, and who knows where the project [will] lead us. It’s very unpredictable, and I am very happy to be a part of it.




I think for me, being part of the project is really to unlearn what we have learned. Especially because the majority of the education that I had within China’s educational system [made me] aware of how uneven, or asymmetrical the narrative of history [is] and how it is dictated by national ideology, and all [of] that. So it’s really important for me to unlearn that.

But also in terms of curating and what we think of contemporary infrastructure – I myself don’t know much. Don’t know enough…beyond Euro-American contacts and references, so it’s very inspiring for me to go outside of our usual comfort zone.

Another thing is to find a way out [of] this trap of [contemporary art], because contemporary art [has] always had this cosmopolitan vision – but how to do we, especially now after this pandemic, navigate a way between this dichotomy of the universality and the particularity?

And what has also probably been mentioned before: globalisation and the global. The global and the local used to be such an important or heated topic, I think in the 90s and early 2000s, but the context has [now] changed. This optimism, and what we are now negotiating within…we should remind ourselves not to fall into the traps. So that’s why I believe in being [a] part of the project: it will open up different paths.


I’m also excited by this project and inspired by our way of working. I have a deep interest in the regions which are connecting through this project. I really believe in these aims of knowledge production, and how we will think about our commonalities and features, and futures.


The belief in this project from my side also came from a short, but physical, conversation I had with Biljana. I wonder if I would have been equally interested or as happy to be involved if the initial conversation was virtual (or at least textual). Because for me, what I see in this project is that there is also (to an extent) emotion. That is the drive I believe in to help structure the ‘bigger question’ within this independent and collective interest.


What about you Larys?


We don’t know where we are going, but at least we are going out. We are stepping out of something. So it’s a very constructive way for me as an individual, and also [as] someone who is in charge of curatorial projects.

I think this research program is also about substance, right? It’s about what we call substance, today. It isn’t only [about] a program of exhibitions. It’s not just a program of education activities. It’s something that is much more related to its content, and brings us together today. [It’s] about how can we have a voice.

Yes, we talked about invisibility, but this project also has the capacity to raise multiple voices from those who are often forgotten, or excluded and invisible. This makes it very important work, at least from my own position. It’s something that is very precious for me [with]in the institution: to try and develop this other way of working and thinking, to actively try and support artist’s projects. But I believe nowadays, even artists are not enough anymore. This [project] is also about people looking [at] climate change, or [a] female working in Asia related to agriculture – all developing new projects that very much remain invisible. All [of] this for me is very important.


Yes. I mean of course these long-term projects are about establishing deeper relationships and connections, but [it’s] also [a] steady dynamic in response to the world and change, and how [the] world truly [has] greatly changed in a last half a year.

There is a big structure [in] three years, but what I am hoping is maybe we [can] have this exercise: of three years of knowing [each other] and understanding each other’s urgencies, to establish a long-term relationship and [a] different horizontality [of] how we can work together within the places that we’re situated in.

[In] the back of my [mind], there is this great example that Zdenka initiated in the LInternationale European museum confederation, linked to this unity [that had been] successful for ten years and produced some really important knowledge, as a contribution to the global from their own specific contexts.

My dream, if we can talk about dreams publicly, is to walk towards [the] possibility of working together through our set of different commonalities and [this] established network.


But this is [for] something that is after three years, let’s say – after [the end of the] project.


I think three years is a beautiful commitment. Based, or working, in China, it’s really hard trying to imagine such [a] long-term commitment. So I like that thought.


Yes. I know…for all of us, I think it’s hard to imagine what will happen in the next three years, no?




I guess we have to –


But when you…the age thing also. When you were younger it’s easier to imagine. You’d think, “oh! [I] know what’s going to happen ten years later!” [laughs]


 [smiles]. Okay, I think we should call it an end here, but thank-you for your time today (it’s been very long).

Sinkneh Eshetu:

When this conversation happened, I was in the Gamo Highlands celebrating maskala – a pre-Christian holiday (New Year) – of the indigenous Gamo People. It is labelled, however, as a Christian holiday: Maskal (the finding of the true cross). This is how easily naming can lead or mislead, denote identity or deny voice.

The landscape is as ancient and natural as the holiday. Upon first sight you would be sure you could breathe freely out there. The political turmoil agitating the government and the people in Addis seem to be very far away. Concerns over Coronavirus and the over-saturation of information seems to be non-existent here.  Not seeing anybody observe the officially enforced anti-Corona procedures (that once used to send you to prison for not wearing a mask when walking alone), would almost lead you to suspect that no one here had heard of the virus.

When you start to breathe free and deep, however, some thoughts begin to infiltrate your soul and disturb your peace. You have heard and seen that churches and houses are being built on the sacred lands androutes of indigenous communities. You have also seen a sacred tree, considered the node of the Gamo universe, dried up, with the people denied permission to replace it. You have heard that there is a huge drive to urbanize these places, mainly to keep the transient political machine humming. Mobile phones and Coca-Cola drinks are becoming part of the people’s everyday life. All of these make you worry over how long tradition will be able to preserve itself.

When I was preparing to travel to the Gamo Highlands, I had imagined Wi-Fi would be unthinkable there (which I communicated to Bilijana). However, I saw an Oxford professor who was accompanying us, one of the few Gamo people who were able to access an education, order a Huawei Wi-Fi router in a town there. The drive to modernize is very aggressive. It’s making life, politics, and the economy transient. You can see the impact of this transiency on the environment as well as the culture. But whatever the change and whoever its author, you can’t help but see it as a threat, for speed is often alien to the natural flow of things.

You want to act fast and speak loudly to make people aware of what is at stake, but with everyone caught in their urgency to have a voice and be heard, the noise becomes deafening. Humanly and ecologically sensible songs and poems can easily go unheard. This makes artistic endeavours such as As you go …, and the curatorial inquiry that birthed it, very crucial. It gives you the confidence that, although alone you are a chirping cricket whose song is swallowed by the croaks and crows everywhere, together we are roaring lions who could move slumbering hearts. Alone, you are a helpless breath that could hardly flip a dried leaf. Together we are the surging wave of an ocean that could move mountains. The symbolism of the cell makes so much sense with this regard, for it is with other cells that you can become a recognizable organism.

I was fortunate to be present when Biljana and other “cells” of this project gave a presentation at Guramayne Art Gallery in Addis. I must admit I didn’t quite understand it. However, I had an opportunity to meet the group again and discuss the project at Zoma Park the next day. That gave me the chance to learn more about the project and think aloud on how I could be a part of it. Perceiving this is as an art project, I was proposing ideas that I thought were “art-like”. I guess then, the ideas I raised did not fall in line with the objective of As you go…  

During our break, I was walking with Biljana in the park when I mentioned my concern over the river restoration project that our Prime Minster initiated. That caught Biljana’s interest and it was then I easily became a part of As you go…However, it made me wonder, and I am still wondering, how that research project could be art.

This marks the second time I am part of an art project. The first was for the Travelling Communique on the Non-aligned movement, organized by the Dutch Art Institute and Belgrade History Museum. I remember then that I did not feel I was making art. I just wrote a proposal. I have the same feeling this time, too. I am so busy with my personal projects that I am finding it hard to focus on this project to the extent that it remains inspiring and enjoyable. “Is that my fault or the nature of the project?”

I wonder.

Still, I see the importance of being a part of As you go … for I believe it will enable the research we are doing to be heard – to influence future decisions locally and globally, saving river ecosystems from irreversible destruction. I hope that with my research partners, Aziza and Berhanu, whilst adjusting the communication and other issues within our work, that we may ultimately deliver on our objectives.

This response was written following the original conversation on the 16th Oct 2020.


Click to read Russian and Kazakh version of the conversion.


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