With Nina Kovacheva and Valentin Stefanov talks Irina Genova, January 2022
Nina Kovacheva and Valentin Stefanov, Nina &Vale.’NinaVale’ are visual artists from Paris and Sofia who for decades have served as an example for exhibition nomadism, specific for the contemporary art practices. Separately or together, they participate in various art forms and present vibrant artistic places in the world.
I invited Nina &Vale for an interview for the series on ‘The influence of Internet on the artistic knowledge and practices in 21st century’, because of their exhibitions at various places in Europe during the pandemic (self-isolation and competition between real and virtual events).
In the unknown until now experience of alternating periods of (self) isolation under the threat of a virus pandemic it turned out that it is possible to find a safe place in the virtual: to visit (art) museums and galleries virtually, to meet our interests with video productions on the net, to buy and sell (art works) online, etc. Did this situation reaffirm the total influence of the Internet, or it introduced some hesitation about it?
N&V: Neither the former, nor the latter. Rather, Internet is yet one more possibility to communicate and access information, part of the variety which the contemporary world offers. All of the already known media has its advantages and disadvantages.
During the first closure in 2020, most of the people, just like us, tried to make up for the lack of real contacts with the help of the virtual. Many galleries, museums, art centres, concert halls quickly adapted and created online programmes, exhibitions and presentations. This enriched the sources of information, but it could not replace the need for a live contact at an event with the art work and the audience. After overcoming the first stress, shock and euphoria after the ‘reopening’ everything went back to normal. The expectations for dominant Internet communication and distancing did not happen.
In this period, you had an exhibit in the KULTUM Museum in Gratz, in the Dom Museum in Vienna, in Paris and now you have a mutual event in Sofia. The expositions are with a clearly expressed title ‘The Paradise is Temporarily Closed. GOD’; ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’; ‘OFF and ON, and on and on’. What do we win and lose in a virtual communication with an artwork? In such case, do you think more about how to present your exhibitions for online visitors?
N&V: The Internet is a cheap and widely accessible way to find information and to communicate. It gives the extraordinary opportunity for quick access to various spheres of human knowledge and activity. The virtual visit of an exhibition gives to a greater extent an idea about it, but it cannot fully replace the influence from the immediate contact with the art works. The physical move, the hall, how the art works live in the space and how they change the space, the matter and the formats, the approximation/distancing, even the silence – all these give a different sensation, a different perception.
This is valid even for the video works. Let us imagine, for example, how Bill Viola’s works influence us (see: www.billviola.com) when we watch them online and, in a museum, or a gallery. We use different media, together or separately – video, photography, drawing, sound, light. The choice of a specific medium is always dictated by the rule: which medium would best represent the main idea and would have the greatest effect on the viewer. The installation we exhibit at Structure gallery was especially designed about this particular gallery space. It could also be seen in video documentation. We usually say ‘seen’, but when the viewer is physically in the space of the gallery, he becomes an active part of the art work – he is in it.
Most of the time, our mutual projects have been created for specific spaces, or they have been ‘site specific’ – building facades, museums, galleries. The elements follow a strict order with regards to how the whole installation should be perceived by the viewer. If any particular installation is to be exhibited in a different space, then it is reworked and adapted specifically for the new space. Similar is the approach towards individual events. I.e., if the specific artwork is intended for virtual medium then the approach would be different to the one related to a real physical space. As we all know, there are art forms that are specifically thought of to be shown and ‘live’ in the virtual medium only.
We were lucky with our exhibitions during the period of ‘opening and closing’, both with our individual and mutual exhibits.
N: The exhibition ‘Family Matters’ at Dom Museum in Vienna, in which I took part, was launched just before the first ‘closing’. And because I did not manage to attend the opening and then the closing happened, Dr Johanna Schwanberg, the museum director and curator of the exhibition, sent me the catalogue and a link via which I could ‘walk’ in the museum and see how my works were presented and to fully experience the event.
A bit later, in May 2020 I had a virtual exhibition with drawings at Structure gallery. The title of the exhibition was ‘From the highest to the lowest’. Maria Vassileva challenged me and I liked the idea as a sign that despite the closure, life goes on and there are always opportunities.
My individual exhibition in Paris of large-sized drawings, titled ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ was in November 2021 during the period of ‘opening’, so the audience could be physically present in the gallery space, to walk between the art works, and I could talk to visitors at moments when I was there in the hall.
N&V: Our mutual exhibition in Gratz, ‘The Paradise is temporary closed. GOD’ was launched two weeks before the closing during the second wave of the pandemic. Due to the closing, the exhibition time changed from the end of December 2020 to March 2021. In a sense, those openings and closings became part of the exhibition idea and the exhibit could be visited both in present, virtually and back in the space again.
‘OFF AND ON, and on, and on’ in Sofia had a huge flow of visitors. We documented it well, but since the installation included the visitors as an important part of the work then the documentation failed to present the complete picture about the atmosphere and its effect as a real visit of the exhibit would.
Valentin Stefanov led courses of the type workshops with students from universities. Whether and to what extent educational classes could take advantage of the growing number of internet resources? Could you please define the positive and negative aspects, the potential and the loss with the virtual practices in art education?
V: Indeed, I have led courses as a guest lecturer at the Art Academy in Dijon, Stony Brook University, Long Island. Together with Nina and separately in Thessaloniki, Belgrade. Novi Sad, and other places. The contact has always been in a real, not virtual space. In my opinion, teaching theoretical subjects over the internet could be completely replaceable, although, I suspect that the lecturer and some students might miss the real contact and reaction. However, I do not think that teaching practical subjects online is effective. Last year I was invited and participated in an international virtual round table, organized by Grafichki kolektiv in Belgrade. The papers of the presenters from the USA, Australia, Canada and Europe were quite interesting, but the spontaneity of discussions at a ‘round table’ did not happen.
In the global network, it becomes harder to follow the intricate trajectories of educational, informative, museum and commercial sites. Equally difficult it is to gain access to the initial intellectual property of images, music, texts and ideas. How, from your perspective as visual artists, these complications concern creative practices?
N&V: As an option for quick access to information, Internet is an extreme relief, especially at moments of hardships or even impossibilities for physical movement like this which the world is currently experiencing. The best situation would be to use both the Internet and all other forms of communication as sources of information. It is true that all kinds of information are currently available online – from you name it number of sources. Internet, though, has a different face and it depends how and for what purposes it is used. This depends on the social, intellectual, geopolitical location of the user. Questions like how something is read, viewed or used seem imperishable. However, these questions have always been modern, regardless of the form and carrier of the information. The artist creativity, regardless of the sphere, is a strictly individual process. They could be provoked by either positive events or negative, even critical/life changing moments. The information ocean that Internet offers is dangerous for people who are not aware what they look for exactly. They could obviously be easily misled and manipulated.
How did the recurring situation of (self) isolation and vanity of human contacts affect your creative energies? Do you find ways to rework in images your own frustrations?
N&V: Actually, during the first closings, everything happened as though we were watching a film – a bit scary, surreal, but also quite interesting, there was even a bit of content in it, because all of a sudden, a lot of the routine functions disappeared and a lot more time for work and thought appeared. Something of the sorts of going back to one self, happened, which, in our opinion, seem important. Even before the pandemic, we have had periods of self-isolation (some for shorter, other for longer periods of time) in order to rethink and revaluate things. But for sure the difficulty to travel had a negative effect.
Exactly this question our installation ‘OFF AND ON, and on and on’, exhibited at Structure gallery aimed to posit: the closing and the consequences from it, not only physically but also mentally. To rethink the boundary between joy and pain – a strong experience and, at the same time, with a dual meaning: what we are and what we are not; and whether our own perception is not founded on a permanent illusion? Freedom is a question of constant negotiations.
 The interviews with Pravdoliub Ivanov and Krassimir Terziev are already published on the Art platform
The whole exhibition is a possession of KULTUM Museum, Gratz
All reproductions have been granted the kind permission for publication by Nina Kovacheva and Valentin Stefanov