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Where's the frame

Maribelle Bierens

July 27, 2023 4:44 PM


In an art world that often prioritises individualism, Pia Zeitzen and Sasha Shevchenko stand as a refreshing exception, forming the curatorial duo Kollektiv Collective. The name "Kollektiv Collective" speaks to their symbiotic and collaborative partnership; “kollektiv" is the word for "collective" in both their native tongues of Russian and German, showcasing a linguistic connection that mirrors their unity. Rejecting the competitive nature of the art world, their collective stands as a testament to the power of collaboration and support. Having found their initial curatorial footing through impromptu exhibitions in unconventional spaces, each show is a meticulous visualization of a concept, tailored to the specific space or context they’re engaged with. wtf? had the pleasure of conversing with them as they candidly shared stories about their journey, motivations, and distinct approach to curating.

Pia Zeitzen (left) and Sasha Shevchenko (right)

Could you provide some insight into your respective (academic) backgrounds?

Our practice is quite concept-heavy, allowing us to tie in curating with our academic backgrounds in the fields of philosophy and art theory. Pia did her BA in Critical Theory at University College Maastricht, Maastricht University, while Sasha studied Law at Queen Mary, University of London. Two very different degrees, yet both resulted in an appreciation for a multidisciplinary, intersectional approach to analysis. In a world that desires definite answers and, in a way, has developed a distaste for the open-ended , our studies embraced all that is not immediately answerable. Here, one inquiry might lead to exponentially more questions instead. This has shaped the way we curate immensely – it is the very opacity that has become our point of reference.

Parallel to our bachelor degrees we both found ourselves curating, intuitively. While Pia took advantage of the availability of warehouses in the Netherlands, Sasha discovered Bethnal Green’s railway arches. It was about finding alternative art spaces and the results were very makeshift and physically laborious. Working without any preexisting art structures, you erect upcycled gallery walls yourselves, borrow professional lighting if you're lucky, clean for hours, and back then, invite all your mates on Facebook. It may be the most classic story of curatorial beginnings but at the time we didn’t actually realise we were following the canon; we did what we liked, with little context or direction. However small or chaotic, these were the stepping stones that gave us the most immediate experience of exhibition-making and eventually led us to pursue an MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths University, where we met.

Could you tell me the story of how you both initially crossed paths and what factors motivated you to establish yourselves as a curatorial collective?

Story goes that it’s October 2019, and Pia sees Sasha on the DLR getting off at Deptford Bridge station way too late to make it to class in time. She has an intuition that the girl in a long black coat, black beret and black turtleneck, in other words, then unknowingly dressed in curatorial uniform, in other words, dressed exactly the same as Pia herself, must be her new coursemate. So she was. After a few brief exchanges in class and a few random and confused encounters in Mayfair’s shiny galleries, we found ourselves at the same table in a cafe at lunch. With us was Francisca Portugal, our dear coursemate and now close friend. The three of us were eating sandwiches when we realised we separately thought of three ideas that made most sense together as one, which we were lucky to realise only months after at the Swiss Church, a baptist church in Soho. Francisca left England shortly after, but for the two of us it felt like a logical conclusion to work together again. In fact, not working together wasn’t really an option at this point. From that point on, the formation of the collective was intuitive – it came to us almost like a given, and neither of us remembers the exact moment of its conception. 

Can you tell me a bit more about the name Kollektiv Collective? 

In a way our name is inspired by our friendship and professional collaboration. After we met, jokes about how similar we were in terms of character, looks and interests quickly became routine in our class and respective friend circles. Perhaps triggering for some, we always found it very amusing and in any case, the similarities were too obvious to deny anyway. We like to say that this speaks for our healthy egos. We quickly came to think of ourselves as “two halves of a whole”, “the same but different”… you name it. The repetition in our name attests to that. We are very fond of that repetition and how it ties in with the presence of (uncanny) doubling throughout art history. As such, the name is about us personally but also our research interests. We situate our practice in that space of discomfort and analysis of the self and the world around us, a space that oftentimes feels just right and slightly off all at once - precisely the feeling the doubling brings about. 

The Cholmondeley Ladies by Unknown artist. c.1600–10, oil on wood. 

‘Kollektiv Collective’ also recalls our respective cultural backgrounds and, again, the unexpected similarities in that. With German and Russian as our respective mother tongues, we’ve often noticed that there is a fair bit of similar vocabulary. It is such a fitting coincidence that the word ‘kollektiv’ is the same in both our languages and on top of that, almost identical in English. We are also big fans of idioms and phrases, which often become integral to our concepts and texts.  Incorporating visual language allows us to blend mediums and arrive at unexpected constellations between the literary and the visual in the exhibition-making. We sometimes exploit – knowingly and unknowingly – the fact that English is not our native language and use its established phrases in ways that are technically incorrect, once again echoing the feeling of something being almost right but it really isn’t. Our name is an accumulation of all these references, a (very) simple play on words and linguistics but also one that, in a rather intuitive way, promotes cultural connectivity across artificial borders. We are very happy with our name, and also with that we didn’t accept discouragement from some friends hinting that we will encounter a lot of misspellings. Which we do, of course, but nothing is perfect.

Kollektiv Collective’s logo using/inspired by Marc Chagall’s ‘Bella with White Collar’, 1917

What advantages or benefits have you encountered while working collaboratively as a curatorial collective?

Put simply, working together is a joy. Curatorial routines of articulating ideas, researching, writing, emailing go twice as fast. Being able to be at two places at the same time has also saved us a lot of trouble in the past. There are many downsides to collaborating - disagreement, clashes of interest, taste or opinion, but we feel we’re lucky in being an exception. We are no strangers to the casual sexism of being labelled 'argumentative' and opinionated', but in fact between ourselves we barely ever disagree. Testament to that is the story of the only time we came close to a real argument: one of our wall texts was meant to feature a handwritten question mark, and we realised that we had very different ways of writing it. Neither of us was accepting the other’s way and we started passionately insulting each other’s handwriting. One looked like a seven, and the other looked like it belonged in love letters from the 18th century. Eventually it looked like a child of the two. We trust each other enough to accept the occasional snappy comment or raised voice and always make space for emotions and open, honest communication. 

(Question mark in question) Installation view: Interlude (30 March – 7 April 2023) at Kupfer, London. Courtesy of Kollektiv Collective and the artists. Photography by Damien Griffin.

Because of our close connection, both personal and professional, perhaps we sometimes take our dynamic for granted. The support we have for each other has become so ingrained in our day-to-day life that it’s become a certainty; it is difficult to articulate the why and how at this point. But when really thinking about it, we acknowledge that our workload – parallel to day jobs, life and social responsibilities, cost of living and housing crises – would be unhealthy to uphold as one person. Not to say our work ethic is healthy, we burn out as two as well (our Instagram has plenty of screenshots of our WhatsApp chat for illustrative purposes), but it’s scary to imagine the alternative. 

Could you elaborate on your perspective regarding the role of your collective within the context of an art world that often emphasizes individualism?

Our collective, and our relationship, is rooted in a structure of support of our own creation, and we try our best to extend this to everyone we work with. Succeeding in the art world, especially in London, feels like an endless race to praise and glory, with everyone rushing from bloody mary breakfasts to openings with beer buckets only to then arrive late to a canapé-fuelled soiree. It’s a ‘network or die’ kind of situation, and our introverted selves learnt this the hard way. In the environment where you feel your life depends on whether this or that person e-accepts your ‘career coffee’ invite, the support we can offer to each other is a game-changer.  

Apart from the hostility and competition, we feel that the arts are also an industry obsessed with individualism and persona cult. The idea of the ‘creative genius’ has enjoyed centuries of establishing itself in the collective conscience of our society. And the same logic somewhat extends to curators, gallerists and collectors. While these professions are essentially about forging connections between art and audience, and thus, bringing people together, rising to these positions requires a special set of characteristics that may leave kindness and communality on the sidelines. With art often centred around communication, documentation, and emotional connection, we find this to be a shame. Especially considering that, at last, debates around accessibility and inclusivity are growing louder and louder and frankly, we don’t see the space for the on-going ‘everyone out for themselves’ mentality. We remain hopeful that everyone has the ability to actively shape this industry, and so we choose collaboration and care over a desire to prove how ‘different’ and ‘special’ we are. 

Our collaboration might have grown out of a personal desire, but it has certainly developed into a political stance. It is only natural that choosing this career path in London would leave us longing for support – emotionally, creatively and in terms of time and strength. Having built our own structure to better situate ourselves in this environment, we now face different issues. Open calls might not extend their opportunities to collectives, sales revenues out to be halved, and fees might not suffice to cover two curators. This goes to show that structurally, this industry does not nourish collaboration as it does individual creation, which kind of underlines our point. Luckily, these last years have seen increasing amounts of artist and curatorial collectives in the public eye and we hope that the arts will adapt to this apparent demand for more communal structures. Feeling out of place can be a collective endeavour. We don’t have to fend for ourselves alone.

Could you share details about your inaugural exhibition and discuss the evolution of your curatorial practice over time?

Our first exhibition together was entitled In Nihilum, a play on the latin phrase Ex Nihilo, meaning from nothing, rephrased as into nothing, which meant to serve as a visualisation of the climate crisis. The exhibition period of seven days, coupled with the context of the space, led us to think about the Genesis creation myth – in reverse. We collaborated with six artists whose bodies of work respectively represented the accomplishments of each day of creation. Reversing the narrative, we started out with all works present in the Church only to then remove each work, one by one, day by day, until we found ourselves in an empty space. In this state of nothing, the Church symbolically returned to its original function as a place of hope. The gesture of such physical removal served as a metaphor for the destabilisation of ‘nature’, religious myth as we know it, calling instead for post-human and feminist counter-narratives. We felt that through such an immediate and simple intervention, we found a way to translate the exhibition concept in a way that was highly accessible, visually and physically. 

Installation view: In Nihilum (2 – 8 March 2020) at Swiss Church, London. Courtesy of Kollektiv Collective and the artists. Photography by Hannah Archambault.

Gather to loose (one tonne), 2020, by Hannah Walton: In Nihilum (2 – 8 March 2020) at Swiss Church, London. Courtesy of Kollektiv Collective and the artists. Photography by Hannah Archambault.

Curatorial potential of turning the abstract into the perceivable is something we became very interested in very quickly. Call it a hook, an angle, our USP, or else, we are yet to find a word for it. In every show we do we try to find it, this something that is the visual embodiment of our thoughts. In our exhibition un/sense at Christie’s last year we were thinking about absurdity and the process of collectively making sense of the chaos we were submerged in. Inspired by the grandiose display of the action house’s past shows quoting Shakespear and the like, we decided to also incorporate wall quotes, only that ours went upside-down and diagonally in all the wrong directions and angles. When we were invited to do a show at Kupfer about 3 weeks before the proposed opening date, at the risk of not being able to finish the show in time we thought of Interlude – an exhibition about that which is incomplete, fragmented and unfinished. Naturally, we decided to paint the walls but not to finish painting. Most recently, we did a show at Guts Projects, an office space of Guts Gallery’s team, located at the back of their main exhibition space. Inspired, we did on the flip side was which explored the relationship between the front and the back, the clear and the blurred, embracing the feeling of having landed on the wrong side of the coin. 

Installation view: un/sense (19 July – 29 July 2022) at Christie's, London. Courtesy of Kollektiv Collective. Photography by Dominique Croshaw.

Installation view: un/sense (19 July – 29 July 2022) at Christie's, London. Courtesy of Kollektiv Collective and the artists. Photography by Dor Even Chen.

Installation view: Interlude (30 March – 7 April 2023) at Kupfer, London. Courtesy of Kollektiv Collective and the artists. Photography by Damien Griffin.

Installation view: on the flip side was (9 June – 7 July 2023) at Guts Gallery Project Space, London. Courtesy of Guts Gallery and Photography by Eva Herzog Studios. 

What specific areas or themes does your curatorial focus revolve around?

Our practice is inherently site-specific – the concept of our exhibitions arises in direct relationship with the space and/or the context we’re working with. Whether it’s the nature or background of the institution, the history or mere physical specifics of the space, the circumstances of the collaboration, our concepts take shape with and against what’s in front of us. As a result, all the shows we’ve done previously are different, unique to their locations and context. If we think about it formally, it’s the site-specificity and the resulting visual translations of the concept into space that run through our practice. Anchoring our exhibitions this way allows us to inquire into something that is already inherent to the site, and we like the idea that our chosen focal point already exists there regardless of our curatorial presence.

Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, we find ourselves coming back to similar themes, and those, ultimately, land in-between. We enjoy playing with binaries (sense/nonsense, finished/unfinished, front/back, etc) and testing the codependency of these opposites.This allows us to critically investigate socio-political themes at large, and dissect thoughts and feelings that forge the image of our present time. Reversing the framework or blurring it out all together is, perhaps, our curatorial way of coping. Like in our exhibition at Christie’s, our practice, collaborations and exhibitions are our attempts to make sense of the reality around us, usually through the ambivalent, unresolved and nonsensical, in which we search for solace. 

Trace by Hoa Dung Clerget: un/sense (19 July – 29 July 2022) at Christie's, London. Courtesy of Kollektiv Collective and the artists. Photography by Dominique Croshaw.

Can you share any upcoming projects or initiatives you are currently working on?

We’re currently working on a few things that we’re very excited about. We have a few projects lined up for the rest of 2023 and next year, and we’re also in conversation about other potential collaborations in the UK and Europe. Some are shows, one which promises to be our largest (in scale, concept and ambition) project to date. Recently we’ve started thinking more about stand-alone programming, and are currently working on a series of events. We are excited to experiment with it, like we do with exhibitions, and treat the format in its own right, not tied to an existing show. At the moment, we’re developing a narrative (that’s a hint) that runs through the events and securing collaborations. 

We always have some fun show ideas that come and go, with some existing in our minds only. The plan is to carry on experimenting with the exhibition as a medium. With our practice being very much process-based, we have a lot of excitement to see where our upcoming projects might take us. 

You can follow Kollektiv Collective on Instagram and website.

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