Here at Site-Specific Conversation, we have initiated a collaboration with Barcelona Gallery Weekend 2022, offering a series of conversations that will be published weekly over the summer.
The proposal takes Lucy Lippard’s novel, I See/You Mean, as a reference and uses its title to talk about affinities in the choices made by artists and gallery directors and about practices, projects and work dynamics. During the writing process, Lucy realised she was ashamed of being a woman. This same feeling has been experienced by many over the years, and still is to this day. For this reason, we have selected eight galleries exhibiting works by women at this edition of BGW. Throughout this series, we will be conversing with artists and gallery directors, focusing on the relationships generated in a field like this, where the creative is often mixed with the affective.
In this sixth instalment, we converse with artists Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet, a couple who have been sharing both their lives and their artistic project since they started to work together in 2009. Alongside them, Isabel Lázaro from Alalimón tells us how their almost family-like connection was enriched by Rebeca Méndez, the other half of Alalimón, when they pooled their strengths and experience together in 2019 and embarked on their adventure together. In a brief break from preparing for their next three exhibitions, which they will open almost simultaneously with their project at Alalimón during Barcelona Gallery Weekend, the artists talk about their journeys from residency to residency; about technological processes involving artificial intelligence, robots and new technologies; about the depth of relationships; and about how all these different layers interact with each other. In this series of interviews, we always begin with a somewhat basic question to get our bearings.
In this series of interviews, we always begin with a somewhat basic question to get our bearings. It’s about your professional relationship: how and when did it begin? Isabel / We met quite a while ago. It’s a relationship that’s evolved from the professional to the personal. I like to think we’re like a little family. We were first in touch when I was working at Mollet Museum, coordinating a publication, through which I met Mar. Later on, when I decided to set up my own project, I wanted to work with them. It was an agency for curated projects to be presented in different places. That project gradually mutated until we opened our own space, with its corresponding line-up of artists. Varvara and Mar are also part of the seed from which Alalimón grew in 2019, along with Rebeca Méndez, and they have been involved with it since the very beginning. I think Mar and Varvara were destined to work with us, and Rebeca was clear about this because of their unusual way of working. They are a couple and they work together, so their way of working is very different to that of other artists who work alone. Mar / I have fond memories of us meeting through that publication Isabel mentioned. Then, the first project we did together was for the JUSTMAD fair in Madrid. We were also selected for a residency in the city. There are two of us plus our daughter. We divide the work and travel between us. For example, right now I’m talking to you from Slovenia. We’re at an artist residency in Trbovlje, an old mining town. In one of the industries that were abandoned, some entrepreneurs started a DDS software technology company. In their team, they have someone with a PhD in Robotics, who runs a robot centre. We’re working on a project with a robot that looks for a needle in a haystack, which we’re going to present here at a festival in September, just after Barcelona Gallery Weekend. In your case, as well as working together as an artistic duo, you’re a couple. How did you meet? Did your personal relationship begin before or after the professional one? Varvara / We started out as a couple. We were very young and really excited about art. In our free time we always talked about art, about our respective projects, about ideas. We’ve always helped each other, so starting to work together seemed natural. We made our first piece of art together in 2009 and it won an award. We made more art every year until we decided to go full time with it in 2011. That’s when a long period of artist residencies began. Mar / We did thirteen residencies in a row in three years. Three years travelling constantly. Varvara / I was 25 and Mar was slightly older. I felt that it was the time to do it: it was now or never. It was a very enriching experience, thanks to all the contacts we made and the intense relationships we built. And working together as a couple means that one of us supports the other during slumps, and that’s so important. When there are too many projects, the work gets divided up. For example, when we open our next exhibition at Alalimón in Barcelona, we will be holding two other individual exhibitions at the same time in Malmö and elsewhere in Ronneby. Isabel, you said that Mar and Varvara were very involved in the opening of your first gallery. Did they also help to select other artists or with the gallery’s programme? Isabel / No, mostly they gave me strength and made me feel empowered, and they encouraged me to open my own space. They helped me to find out the first steps to take and to make the project more solid. And to set boundaries. When we embarked on our first project as Alalimón – the one for JUSTMAD – they met the other artists they didn’t know, who Rebeca brought to the new project. I like those little encounters where bonds are formed. The harmony that’s generated between the gallery’s different artists shows that, though their work may be very different, there is a common professional direction and artistic sensibility. I work with creators at the beginning or in the middle of their career, and I’m very aware that they might tell me they can no longer work with us one day. I would love them to come up to me one day and tell me they’ve signed a contract with a super-mega-gallery in New York. That will come one day. And it will mean that I have done my job properly. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re going to present at your next exhibition in Barcelona, coinciding with Barcelona Gallery Weekend 2022? Mar / We worked on part of the project in a residency in Bilbao, at Espacio Open, in the old Artiach biscuit factory. Nerea and Karim set up a ceramic printer a while ago. We made some ceramic pieces there, which is a material we had never worked with before. We tend to work a lot with transition, with the shift from digital to analogue. We’ve been interested in artificial intelligence processes for a long time. We’ve been modelling using text and artificial intelligence, making traditional ceramic pieces that are printed with a 3D printer. As it was clay, sometimes when the printing part was done and the piece was freshly made, the shape collapsed. In terms of sustainability, the great thing about clay is that you can reuse it. Varvara / The exhibition is called Psychedelic Trips. I think it’s like a summary for us of our creative processes with AI as an artistic tool. Nowadays people talk a lot about autonomous creativity and co-creativity between humans and AI, or algorithms. Every tool has its limits, and in the end, you realise the important thing is the artistic concept. We started off in this project by working with groups of images we found on the internet to create new images. Postcard Landscapes from Lanzarote was our first project in this area. This new direction, based on images, is being presented for the first time on this occasion. We’ve started to create something we could never have imagined before. Obviously, we experiment with tools and everything is guided by our concept, but one project takes us to another and we never know where we’ll end up. We couldn’t have predicted the aesthetic of this project, for example. This has led us to come into contact with a Swedish curator, who has invited us to work with a local company that prints with recycled plastic using an industrial robot. We’re creating our own model that can create a shape or modify it using words. The exhibition shows both digital creation – our conversation with the smart models – and a material and physical conversation with limits, where the world corrects and changes many things. The whole process has been really inspiring. The models you’re referring to, upon which you have created these sculptures made from ceramic that you will present at Alalimón, are based on ancient sculptures, right? Mar / Yes. We’ve been impressed that some people have identified that one was a Venus, for example. It’s peculiar because there are two transformations in the process: one is carried out by artificial intelligence, and the other occurs when the printing takes place. Clay shrinks by ten percent when it dries and the printing process doesn’t allow for total perfection, so there’s a lot of variability. After all, the material is living and when it shrinks, it’s because it’s moving. Until it’s fired, the real form is not finished. Varvara / And then, of course, it’s painted by hand. The processes have been very psychedelic for us too!
Barcelona Gallery Weekend seeks to reinforce and make visible the rich and varied artistic scene of Barcelona, promote art collecting and highlight the work of the galleries, as culture generating spaces open to citizens, and the artists they represent. From 15th to 18th September 2022, we celebrate our 8th edition in 32 galleries, presenting the work of more than 60 artists.