Ekaterina Degot isn’t afraid of a little confrontation. The curator recently used her debut as director of Steirischer Herbst in Graz to expose the ‘little fascisms’ underpinning the far right’s resurgence, provocatively entitling it Volksfronten. Born and raised in the Soviet Union, Degot worked as a critic before coming to wider attention as co-curator, with David Riff, of the first Bergen Assembly in 2013 and as director of the Akademie der Künste der Welt, Cologne between 2014 and 2017. We talked to her in the wake of Steirischer Herbst, which proved predictably controversial in a country now governed by a coalition including the far-right Freedom Party, about freedom, identity and protest.
ArtReview Does art have any power politically?
Ekaterina Degot When I am asked something like this all I want to say is ‘it is complicated’. There is a short story titled ‘She Straightened Me Out’  by Gleb Uspensky, an obscure nineteenth-century Russian writer. The protagonist, whom we meet as a teacher in a remote village, recollects what happened 12 years before, when he was a ‘nihilist’ political activist, working as a private tutor for the children of a rich family. With them in Paris in 1873 he witnesses the dead bodies of communards on the streets and the defeat of the revolution he hoped for. Depressed, he goes to the Louvre, where a miracle occurs: he sees the Venus de Milo and suddenly the feeling of being a crumpled glove evaporates. For a Russian reader of that time, the untold story is clear: in 1885, the protagonist is in exile, suggesting that in the late 1870s he must have resumed his political activism with the radicals of [the revolutionary organisation] Narodnaya Volya. He failed again, but the picture of the Venus is on his wall.
That an artwork might have political power is an unpredictable longshot. As is the requirement that it reach beyond the artist’s own class, gender, ethnic or political group. I am gradually less fascinated by hermetic and self-referential post-Duchampian art that made me laugh happily for so many years – the rightwing turn in the world has probably something to do with it – and nowadays I am more inspired by artists, in whatever form or media, who profess or question realisms. But then, the whole point of art is to create very different things, and artists have no obligation to supply anti-rightwing works. That is where a curator might come in, to interpret even an artist's most hermetic work politically. We curators have lots of work in front of us in the years to come, as the rightwing nationalist fog seems to persist.
AR Should art in this political climate seek to foster unity or to provoke opposition?
EK It should foster unity in opposition, include as many people as possible, and be very open to a nonprofessional public. Create alliances rather than alienations. It is a huge challenge, I know. But it is not even being acknowledged.
AR Are there any particular curatorial strategies that you think might help in this?
EK Times are dark, but not so dark that art would be denied its public role. One has to use the chances that are still with us, and use the opportunity to speak politically to those who might be rejecting or ignoring this belief in political art, or even to those who disagree with our political positions. I am so disappointed that the artworld so often preaches to the converted. Curators should make shows that are challenging, but are still generous with the audience, to whom, I believe, we owe the image and the story of their life. The worst thing is to remain unapproachable. And I do not mean any shift towards ‘emotions’, no: this generosity should be intellectual, aesthetical.
AR There seems to be a general crisis, or disquiet in the biennial format – perhaps acknowledged by your work in Bergen. What point do they serve that a ‘normal’ exhibition cannot? What is their future?
EK I am for biennials and festival formats, because this is precisely where art has a chance to go public, to those who are not typical museum visitors. In Bergen, where we did the first Assembly in 2013, there were perhaps expectations that we as curators would question the form of an exhibition, that instead of a show there would be endless talks addressing if we need biennials or not. This approach is a form of navel-gazing self-sabotage though. We did make an exhibition and it was, I dare to say, anything but dry and boring. I believe this is what big international exhibitions like biennials can do: tell a story that is relevant. But museums shows can and should do that as well, it is just that they are in the business of writing art history, while a biennial is perhaps akin to a journal, or a newspaper even.
AR Can art be more than a victim?
EK One must resist this feeling of being a victim. As someone who lived in the Soviet Union, I can say that oppressive censorship might be stimulating for art and engenders lots of irony and other nice artistic devices. But this is not what is happening in Western society currently. What is happening is self-censorship, an ‘internalised fatwa’ as Kenan Malik put it, where the left itself gets obsessed about the different sensitivities of various groups. I believe, not to be a victim, art has to be aware of existing in an agonistic public sphere – that is, of course, if an artist is privileged enough to live in such a context and not under a life-threatening dictatorship.
From the November 2018 issue of ArtReview