The names Anja Henckel and Nadim Samman keep popping up lately in articles praising the best young curators in Europe / worldwide. Berlin knows them as the most charming curator couple running Import Projects, the non-profit art space located in the unlikely Wittenbergplatz area in Schöneberg.
Since 2012, Import Projects serves them as a platform for exploring the intersection of technology, personal identity and community, and showcasing pioneering artists in the post-digital landscape. We spoke to Anja and Nadim to find out more about the space and numerous outstanding side projects they have been working on.
How did you two meet?
We met through mutual friends in London, had much to discuss, romance blossomed, and later we became artistic collaborators.
When and why was Import Projects initiated?
After finishing our studies in London (Anja in Fine Art, Nadim in Art History) we were looking for a change. Nadim had been there for just over a decade, and Anja, eight years. Anja grew up in Berlin, and we would visit regularly, often toying with the idea of moving here - to be closer to independent art production and the amazing artists of the city. London is dynamic, but its artworld can feel like a bit of a catwalk. A curator colleague of Nadim’s told us about a great deal on a space in Schöneberg, and we jumped at the opportunity to check it out. It was amazing - a platform we could never hope to have in the UK. That was it. We moved here for the space. Nadim had just curated the Marrakech Biennale (with Carson Chan, in 2012) and it was a natural time to take on another project - this time, together. From the beginning, Import Projects set out to be a non-commercial entity, a place for us to develop our curatorial interests without another - commissioning - stakeholder, sponsor, or patron. Over the last four years, it has also become a place where we develop projects and artist relationships that feed into our external curatorial projects.
What kind of art are you mostly interested in?
When we started Import we were quite sure that we wanted to work with artists who were engaging with the wholesale impact that emerging technologies are having on our cultural life (and this includes life beyond art). This focus, if you want to call it that, was based on the presumption that ‘contemporary’ art elucidates, questions, and challenges the texture of the times that it is made in. We have exhibited works across all media, from installation to screenings, performance, music and more. If we dig it, we do it!
What is your curatorial strategy at Import Projects?
(1) Work with artists whose vision we find exciting (2) Follow our intellectual interests and curiosities (3) Try to work with fun people. (4) This is not a job, it’s a way of life (5) The 'bigger' the picture, the better.
How is the location of the space working for you so far? Is the area in any way influencing your work here?
When we opened, in 2012, people found it amusing/faintly unfashionable that we were based just off Wittenbergplatz. It was very West, and it took a while for some people to make the effort. Since then, a couple of commercial and non-profit spaces have opened up on Keithstrasse, next to us Silberkuppe and on the other side of the street Between Birdges. We kicked off the contemporary art vibe in our immediate area, but not without some letters of complaint from neighbours! It is a street with antique shops and appointment only hair salons… Our gallery door is directly opposite a lawyer’s office. When we opened up we thought it would be fun to install a brass plaque on our door, opposite theirs, as a little joke - gesture - about fitting in. Now we’ve been here 4 years we’re happy, have settled and made great friends with neighbours.
Besides the gallery, do you have some projects currently on the side?
We just curated an exhibition in Los Angeles, at Steve Turner, called DESERT NOW. We brought three Berlin based artists over - Julian Charriere, Julius von Bismarck, and Felix Kiessling - and sent them on a cross-country road trip to engage with the American landscape, in all its art-historically overdetermined glory. The resulting exhibition took the form of a ‘museum’ of the desert, borrowing modes of display from visitor centres, gift shops and natural history museums. This was our first co-curated exhibition outside Import, but we have also collaborated on exhibitions in Austria (Rare Earth, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary) and Venice (The Antarctic Pavilion). There will be more! We’re both on the Organising Committee of the 1st Antarctic Biennale, which will take place at the end of the world, geographically speaking, in March 2017.
Any short or long term plans you would like to talk about?
Anja together with the english art historian and curator Alice Planel has just created a monster of an exhibition, which will be inaugurated with a performance at KW this Thursday, April 14. It is a performative installation by an artist we are really proud to be working with, Aoibheann Greenan. On April 23 the exhibition at Import Projects opens in its entirety with Greenan's porno-libretto channeling of Wagner. Expect ribald turns of phrase, a variety of hand-made costumes, live music and performance. We are taking our monster to Ireland and Iceland all in the space of the year. We are also very excited about hosting The Digital Museum of Digital Art and the Print Wikipedia project by Michael Mandiberg jointly opening at our space on May 27 running parallel with the Berlin Biennale.
Preview: Aoibheann Greenan’s "The Wagner Rite", One Night Stand #8, 14/04 @ KW
Nadim, can you tell us more about your curatorial ideas for this year's Moscow International Biennale for Young Art?
The biennale will feature 87 projects by 96 international artists, across all media. The title is DEEP INSIDE, and the exhibition concerns the condition of ‘ungrounding’ wrought by our increased ability to denature ‘nature’, as well as how today’s intense connectivity shakes the foundations of established social institutions – destabilizing them in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, running parallel to the rhetorical ascendance of ‘disruption’ – pursued by terrorists and captains of new industry alike – we are ever more surveilled and regulated; the gorgon’s stare boring further into our lives. The show is a view from this contemporary black hole.
Do you think that Berlin is still a good place for aspiring curators?
Yes, in terms of the amazing society of artists and creatives that you can be a part of. The city is still full of interesting, affordable/free, spaces in which to stage exhibitions. There is a great museum and gallery scene, and good schools. All of this makes it a wonderful place for curators to be. The only challenge is finding enough paid work as a curator to support yourself full-time. For this, you will need to be very proactive, and embrace the strategy of travel abroad for remunerated projects. This is how we do it. Let us know if you’ve got a better model!
What has your experience in the field taught you so far? What advice(s) would you give your younger self?
Nadim: I don’t think I would do anything differently. As for advice: Don't insult your audience’s intelligence, and do not flatter it. Give it an opportunity. Don’t work on art, and don’t work in it. Work with it.
Anja: Enjoy the moment because it will only come once. Collaborate as much as you can, working in a great team can bring you huge pleasure and best results.
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Import Projects / Keithstrasse 10, 10787 Berlin, U Wittenbergplatz / more info