curatorial lens vol.1 / borbála kálmán

Curator photographed by Szilvi Tóth. Copyright of the photographer.

Borbála Kálmán (born. 1982) is a curator and an art historian at the renowned Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest. She holds an MA in Art History (2007) and one in Cultural Heritage Programme Studies from the Central European University (2017).

She recently contributed, curated or led the following exhibitions and programmes at her institution: Emplotment (2022), Extended Present – Transient Realities (2022 ), HyMEx (2021), The Whale That Was a Submarine: Contemporary Positions from Albania and Kosovo (2016), etc.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: I wanted to start the conversation with your educational and (pre- Ludwig Museum) work background and how they contributed in shaping your curatorial interests and practice?

BORBÁLA KÁLMÁN: I had a quite traditional university education in art history. I started in 2000 and at my university the emphasis was on the art periods prior to the 20th century. Parallel to my studies, I worked at a radio station, founded with three other students, it was a short-lived but innovative little museum of pedagogic organisation. I also worked as a translator in cultural topics, so I did many things on the side. Art for me, was something that I really liked from the beginning – I always felt very connected to objects and history, the life they had through the past, the context they grew out from.

I never thought that I could become an artist, what interested me was research; active research. I grew up in France, Lyon and went to the French school in Budapest – this bilingual aspect also influenced strongly my curiosity in parallel cultures.

My first real job in the art world was with a private gallery just after my studies, focusing on contemporary arts, and it was a huge shift as I had a big gap to overcome as my university studies didn’t quite cover the contemporary era. I think it’s still an interesting problem – contemporary studies are still a very small part of the curriculum, at least in Hungary or in the region, whereas it could quite have in itself several sub-sequences to choose from. There is so much to understand and learn about to be able to enter the scene in a relevant way. If you enter already late, it’s much harder to find your balance.  You are also from the region, so you know exactly what I mean.

For seven years I was managing and working for this private contemporary art gallery (Várfok Gallery), which is quite a pioneer in Hungary. The very good thing about that period was my role and my ability to work closely with a circle of gallery associated artists. The gallery was founded on very stable ethical pillars that were very important in Hungary in the 90s, which was undergoing political and economic changes that completely shifted the whole art scene.

After seven great years in which I have intensely invested, I felt the need for a change, especially to take a step back from working so actively in the front. I moved to Myanmar with my partner – it turned out to be a year-long period and I worked as an independent researcher. Furthermore, I started to collect stories / data on Myanmar artists, basically interviewing local contemporary artists to paint an understanding of the Myanmar art scene, as the available art material, especially in English was almost inexistent due to the decades of complete isolation and the dictatorial regime. I also met Nathalie Johnston who at that time managed TS1 Gallery and later on opened her own art centre Myanmart in Yangon – I have big respect for her brave stamina and also for Aung Soe Min, an incredible person and a patron of the arts. I helped as much as I could in his gallery, Pansodan Gallery (Yangon). It was a very precious time because I could connect with incredible artists, people who believed in the changing power of art. I helped create exhibitions and programmes. It was a fantastic learning experience.  All this rich artistic activity has been completely jeopardised by the 2021 coup – a nonsense, violent reverse in time.

When I got back home to Budapest, I got the chance to be accepted as an MA student at the CEU (Cultural Heritage Programme Studies). It is also at that point, parallel to my new studies, that I started working at the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest (2015).

Opening of the TS1 exhibition, Yangon (MM) in 2015. Photographed are from left to right: Nathalie Johnston, Aung Soe Min, Borbála Kálmán. Image is copyright of the curator.

LŠ: If I can keep it light at the second question – I would love to hear of curators and authors that influenced your work?

BK: For me it is crucial to have personal connections and of course, there are big names of curators who are absolutely undeniably important in art history and have obviously created incredible work. I could cite a lot of them. However, what I really take with me is how a person approaches the scene in its details, the connection to the artists, the understanding of small nuances. Although I had worked just shortly with the art historian and curator Krisztina Jerger, who sadly passed away about two years ago, I remember well how strong her position was. Always smiling and full of energy, she talked once about the fact that the moment of the exhibition opening is for an artist one of the most intense moments in life, because it is when the person opens up and encounters directly reactions to the work he / she has been incubating for perhaps years – hence one must be really thoughtful when this encounter happens and the curator has responsibility surrounding that.

I’m always also quite inspired by people who are shaping the art scene through their direct actions. As a curator, I think I can never really separate the idea of curation from the pragmatic aspects. Additionally, not many people talk highly about the importance of true-hearted gallerists, who create milestones by providing – even small, seemingly unimportant platforms for artists, curators and writers, by risking their own economic situation. I think it is very inspiring to learn about them and especially in contexts where critical art is not mainstream, or when the artists taking refuge in some small window shops have their first possibility of becoming respected for their art. We could be talking about the Paris of the 1960s or politically more constrained places even yesterday.

LŠ: The nature of curatorial work and exhibition- making is crucially based on the individual experience, physical location and an overall sense of tangibility. The global pandemic has disrupted both – how do you see and have experienced the challenges of shifting these notions online?

BK: We organised HyMEx Symposium at Ludwig Museum a year ago, addressing as one of the partners of the ZKM | Karslruhe within the Creative Europe project Beyond Matter, the hybrid museum experience: how the physical museum transmogrifies through the digital platforms into hybrid entities. While I’m quite an analogue person in many ways, (for example I don’t have a smartphone) I’m also completely fascinated by the digital shift, evidently being reinforced during Covid in the online space what you are supposed to see locally/globally. I think there is a possibility of understanding the shift through different valid perspectives. The intriguing thing is: do you get to the same point in the end, do you see the same contemporary world through each and all perspectives?

We are living through dynamic times and changes and we have a possibility to rethink a lot of things that are basically set for valid and obvious. Although I talked about this idea in the presentation for HyMEx but I think it’s interesting to mention it here: this idea of the detachment of the exhibition. To explain, we need to make one step back. We saw that during these past two years many of the exhibitions needed to have digital scannings, virtual alter egos, because either their physical entities were closed or they never even opened. They needed to be documented in a different way for a specific purpose. We can also think of museums wanting to connect with international audiences. At Ludwig Museum, we had one particular exhibition on the walls, which never opened (Tamás Konok’s individual exhibition), we waited for months and could not present it to the public. Nobody saw it, hence the doors that the digital “alter ego” opened. Another one, just before the first lockdown went almost through the same process but we were able to install it a year later (Slow Life – Radical Everydays). Of course, we were not the only ones, there were many other institutions in Hungary, in the region and in the world in the same shoes, which naturally led to big discussions about the priorities of future exhibitions and the priorities in the exhibition-making. So getting closer to  to my initial thought, through HyMEx we fully realised that you can invite “everybody” from all around the world to join an event/exhibition online, and you can schedule your programme thinking ahead of your super-international audience. I think it’s a huge step because you can see / hear what otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see 5000 kms away. It can’t replace the personal experience, but it can add a lot to the professional experience and connection. It can create shortcuts in a good sense. It’s absolutely great to be able to connect and somehow present an exhibition completely detached from the original physical location. However, the exhibition needs to be aware and prepared for the different gazes it encounters: it has a completely unscheduled trajectory when detached.

Backstage photo during the live stream of HyMEx - 2021. Courtesy of the Ludwig Museum - Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest.

LŠ: In our initial talk, you also mentioned this fascinating project at Ludwig – Slow Life – Radical Everydays.

BK: Yes, I wasn’t personally involved in that project because I was on maternity leave, however its complex trajectory kind of directly influenced my work over the past almost two years. It was commonly conceived in 2019-2020 by my curator colleagues based on issues that seemed relevant and important to all of them. However, three weeks prior to the opening the first lockdown was ordered (March 2020 in Hungary). What was interesting in the method of co-working is that it grew out of a “marketing gimmick” called The Curator Cloud for the 30th anniversary of Ludwig Museum (2019). The idea of knowledge-sharing, horizontal workflow, etc. were already in use for Slow Life, however these approaches intensified when the lockdown came. Towards the end of 2020 we further developed this experimental atelier method. We are about to open the next exhibition co-curated by six curators from the Ludwig Museum: Extended Present – Transient Realities based on a more layered approach, though this co-working experimental set up.  In the end, Slow Life existed for a year only through its online platform and opened physically to the public one year later, in the summer of 2021. We don’t know yet how this experimental working scheme will continue, but it surely gives a different possibility for the experience of exhibition-making.

LŠ: I appreciated how Slow Life’s exhibited artists tried to offer environmentally friendly advice or even possible alternatives for everyone. In the spirit of sustainability – how do you see the future of art institutions?

BK: I’m quite interested by this question because my CEU thesis in cultural heritage studies focused on how the organically developing contemporary art scene in Myanmar could offer an alternative and valid discourse against pre-formulated cultural narratives, including for example an art museum (which Myanmar does not yet have). How the institutional comfort zone well developed in some places is perhaps not relevant everywhere.

I do not think that the traditional concept of the art museum is a formula that should be just dropped all around, for the sake of having museums. I do work in a museum and naturally there is a lot museums can do and have to do. The pandemic showed that in some aspects the physical part and role of an art institution can be rethought from scratch. Also from a sustainability aspect, sustainability needs also to be seen from the cultural scene that has these museums – will the museum help that scene to remain sustainable towards its own, intrinsic values? Yet it’s a very difficult moment as suddenly, nicely elaborated theories built through years of research need to face the struggle of artists, institutions and the entire scenes – so many efforts were washed away the past two years. What is certain is that it highlighted some crucial pillars to take care of. Physically, these places (museums) exist, these collections exist, but the idea is to slowly (or perhaps rather quickly) find a way to make it usable in a new and sustainable way in the long term.

LŠ: In this digital narrative can we recreate the tangibility of exhibitions and the personal experience of physical shows?

BK: I think keynote speaker Christiane Paul was quite right, when she mentioned during her HyMEx talk: virtual exhibitions need a reason to be, need to be justified, they can’t take the place of the exhibitions by themselves.

The question arises – is a virtual exhibition really a form of exhibition that is acceptable? In a way, I might refer back to what I was saying earlier about the detachment of the exhibition and how it just goes around on its own. Meanwhile as curators, for us virtual exhibitions are important, you know as well as me that for research, checking past exhibitions is quite important and sometimes only low quality photos are there for references. Having a fully scanned interior opens up a wider spectrum of interpretation, and that is also important when basically there is no time to read and follow what’s happening in real time – it gives a possibility to catch up.

With the Beyond Matter project, led by Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás, what is fascinating is that it interconnects cultural heritage and contemporary art; digitally and physically. And the link between the two, I think is the most important to find, because it brings sense to both sides. If we only see the physical or digital aspects of the two entities separately and we don’t acknowledge this intersection, then there is a huge loss in understanding the potentiality their connection can create.  I do believe that we need to be aware that these shifts from physical to virtual do not occur quickly, they do take time. Realising that is important, as with the digital everything goes quick, sometimes quicker than you can follow. Taking the time to understand crucial connections and in certain ways, some things such as exhibitions need to happen at a slower pace. So, I think the processes need to be synchronised.