Berlin and Bonn-based curatorial duo Nora Cristea and Saskia Höfler-Hohengarten run KubaParis, an artistic platform and creative space within which contemporary artists are invited to showcase and sell their work, as well as connecting with a community of fellow artists. Within the often restricted structures of the contemporary art world, Nora and Saskia seek to counter this exclusivity and to promote work made by emerging artists. Having both undertaken university studies in design, the two are invested in applying the design concepts of communication to uplift the voices of young artists so that they might access a network of art practitioners and investors and thus further their creative careers. Another key facet of the work that Nora and Saskia do is, in their words, “making art more accessible to people who are not connoisseurs”—delivering art to a non-exclusive audience through freely accessible digital content, as well as offering affordable editions of artworks from the KubaParis artistic community.
As designers, Nora and Saskia are the founders of their own design studio, preggnant agency. Through the agency, the pair not only provide the creative direction and design work for KubaParis, but also deliver virtual and physical tools and platforms for artists institutions, such as website and print designs, digital media and creative strategy. In terms of their approach to discovering and engaging with visual art, Nora and Saskia’s emphasis is on work that is progressive, that “captures the zeitgeist”, or perhaps subverts it. Having spent much time drawing while growing up, Nora in particular is keen to uphold the process of making art as integral to the final artwork. Ultimately, the pair behind KubaParis aim to implement their design expertise as a way of challenging the conception that art is only accessible to the few, the moneyed, the privileged. Nora and Saskia’s answer to this is a space that is open, that encourages the makers of art to grow their practice in both a creative and entrepreneurial capacity, that fosters community and that is not aloof from or condescending to its audience.
Nora and Saskia speak to ArtMaze here about their respective approaches to curatorial and design work, the background of their professional collaboration and what draws them to particular artists, as well as offering some key points of advice to young, emerging artists when it comes to cultivating their practice.
AMM: Hi Nora and Saskia! Let’s start off by talking a bit about your respective backgrounds, studies, previous professions and what inspired your interests in visual art. Has art always held an important place in your lives?
KP: We both studied design, at the same university, in the same city and at the same time. Funnily enough though our approach to visual art is very much unlike the other.
During our studies Saskia moved to Berlin and got in touch with the local contemporary art scene pretty quickly. She started collaborating with young artists creating catalogues, establishing an art book publishing house and increasingly worked on ideas to create different means for communicating their work and giving it a larger audience.
Nora grew up in an art enthusiast’s household, which led her to start drawing at an early age, something that is still important to her — her caricatures can be found hidden on the KubaParis webpage. Thus, her approach to visual art is very based on recognising and appreciating the process of making art.
As a team we believe in our ability to detect art that is not only exceptional to us, but also captures the zeitgeist or even pushes further in some way or another.
AMM: Can you talk us through the history of your collaboration together?
KP: Sometimes you have the best friend and business partner existing next to you for years without even noticing. It took us nine years, two diplomas and a cat to finally get together.
Saskia moved to Berlin while still studying in Karlsruhe. Soon after, she founded KubaParis together with Amelie gr. Darrelmann in 2014. With news that Nora also moved to Berlin and in dire need of a cat sitter, she contacted her old fellow student.
One thing led to another: first we founded our design studio preggnant agency which delivers all of the design, art direction and programming work for KubaParis, alongside creating catalogues, webpages or other useful means for emerging artists, galleries and art institutions.
In 2018 Saskia continued KubaParis without Amelie as editor-in-chief. This year she expanded online editorial content by collaborating with various photographers and artists. She is also mainly responsible for the curating of our daily posts.
After Saskia moved to Bonn, Nora got more and more involved in the magazine’s content, while still being responsible for technical endeavours like programming the awesome new webpage, which we also designed together!
Our newest baby is our artists’ edition shop offering young emerging art at an affordable price.
Almost five years later, here we are! The kitty lives with Nora’s family now.
AMM: How would you describe your roles as curators and directors, and what do these roles require of you?
KP: Next to going through tons of submissions, we are constantly on the lookout for progressive contemporary art. Sometimes on Instagram, sometimes in real life at exhibitions, at graduation shows or other events.
In the last decade it became possible to consume a lot of content in a short amount of time. If you aren’t careful, the utter mass of input might shrink your attention span tremendously. Curating and directing nowadays means the process of searching and recognising has to be accompanied by heavy filtering and especially staying focused! But having the opportunity of being in the position to constantly receive such a multitude of submissions from all around the globe means a lot to us. We find it difficult that we can’t respond to all, but nonetheless we feel we were and are able to support artists, galleries and institutions through our work. Frankly that is a huge motivator.
AMM: Alongside your submission guidelines, you write, “KubaParis is a platform of trying-things-out and growing together”. What have been your most significant learning curves and challenges over the course of developing your platform and “trying-things-out”?
KP: The business part! It might be unromantic for some but, yes, we want to make a living with this. Both of us are far away from businesswomen, TED talkers or accountants. Numbers make us dizzy! The “hustle“ didn’t come naturally to us, which can be pretty taxing (and shows up in a hilarious learning curve).
What helps us grow into these larger roles is being aware of our strengths and weaknesses every step of the way. Especially weaknesses! Sometimes “trying-things-out“ led us to the realisation that it is indeed quite useful to invest in people who can absolve certain tasks better than us.
AMM: It’s fantastic that the submission process for your blog and Instagram is so open and accessible – you must get an enormous quantity of submissions! How do you select which works and artists to showcase? What qualities do you look for?
KP: This might be the hardest question, because we are very intuitive in our selection. The work has to be somehow engaging. But “engaging“ is pretty hard to characterise as personal taste plays a huge role prima facie. Luckily those taste buds are diversely formed and developed over the years by a lot of input, realisations and discourse. Naturally re-reviewing is inevitable. If you want to grow you have to take time to think and rethink information that seems hard to understand and classify at first sight.
AMM: Do you think that ‘good art’ requires a poignant or potent concept and message to drive it? Or can art just be something that’s nice to look at?
KP: Usually something nice-to-look-at is nice to look at because of a second layer underneath. We believe that appreciation and comprehension of art is taking place when your whole consciousness is stimulated. Exclusively decorative art is not able to perform in that way. Unconsciously or not, some sort of a narrative has to be perceived. It might not be immediately decryptable or incredibly poignant, but communicating to humans needs some sort of exchange in addition to the purely visual one.
AMM: What do you think about the role of social media in the contemporary art world? What do you think the advantages and disadvantages of social media are for emerging artists looking to promote their practices?
KP: Independence is an important benefit! Artists can control and decide how they present their work — and who responds to it. This gives an artist the possibility to create his own network, regardless of a gallery and opinions of various art critics. And in a very introverted way, if so chosen.
But, seemingly a place free from unwanted interaction, social media is not a safe space for your mental health. Working towards various algorithms puts a whole other form of performance pressure on you. No patron, gallery or supporter expects you to produce works daily, but the algorithms do. Not only that but your content has to be engaging in some form too. Some artists might interpret the low engagement on their art posts as indirect critics or people being uninterested. Some might start rating the worth of their work based on if the post is failing or not. This and constant comparison with other output can result in a focus shift and may have a negative impact on an artist forming and developing their own language.
Yes, social media is a productive medium to share, keep people updated and network. But it is no indicator for value or quality in any form!
AMM: It’s great that you have the KubaParis calendar as a way for artists and events organisers to share exhibitions, shows, talks and performances with your audience! You must get a very interesting range of events submitted – do you get good feedback from people or collectives who have used this online diary system? And do you use the calendar yourselves to seek out new creative talent?
KP: The tool is quite new and not frequently used. We hope to have more submissions in the future.
AMM: What, for you, are the factors that go into making an exhibition or art event successful?
KP: For us it’s solely art that forms an event. And for that to be possible, space is important. Like a 2D layout in a catalogue, the wall or the room need to let the art communicate to its audience as directly as possible. That’s why we prefer solo exhibitions — more space for one artist to let the work be perceived.
After this unhindered observation, a good old, healthy dialogue with the artist, curator and other appreciating observer should be possible and is needed. For that, some drinks are always welcome 😀
AMM: With the global reach of digital platforms like your own that showcase artists and create networks of practitioners, curators, writers and buyers, it seems like the worldwide artistic community has never been more connected. Do you think that the art world has become more accessible and inclusive by virtue of this greater connectedness? What work still needs to be done to open up spaces and opportunities?
KP: The “Art World“ is pretty hard to grasp to begin with. There are so many layers and communities, ways of showing, seeing and buying art that we cannot completely understand it in its entirety.
Especially places where the big money floats are pretty restricted. We hope that our influence in those areas exists – especially by promoting young and emerging artists. But the bottom line is we are no part of the blue chip market, with little insight and fewer chips. We don’t think this space will open up soon. But these structures are not unbreakable! What we try to do is grow with and help to grow a new generation who continue to support each other to create a new powerful way to make art more profitable for more people. Meaning people can make a living, normal people can buy art and hopefully everything is less based on that exaggerated monetary aspect.
That also includes making art more accessible to people who are not connoisseurs. Here in Germany the phrase “I don’t get art“ is used pretty often. A sad and unnecessary statement (with a truthful double meaning), which is a reaction to the often exclusive and elitist behavior in the art world. We hope we can modify that, at least a little bit, through our platform and our affordable art editions.
AMM: What is the most important piece of artwork that you have encountered in recent years? Or one that has particularly stuck with you?
Saskia: One exhibition that I particularly remember is Martin Belou’s “Objects, Love and Patterns“ at Ciap. The materiality and tenderness of those art pieces touched me. I am also impressed by the work of Gertrude Abercrombie and Sanya Kantarovsky.
Nora: I tend to have a new favorite every week. However, what shaped me as a child and woke my interest in art was “Hommage a Goya” by Odilon Redon. This work satisfies my wish to expand my little earthbound consciousness with strange compositions and weird narratives.
AMM: How does the way in which you approach print differ from the way you approach your digital platform? Does the print medium alter your processes of selecting and curating?
KP: The digital space gives us the opportunity to react much faster. We can present exhibitions and showcase artists to a large public within a few minutes. This leads to different forms of direct interaction. A follower might change his plans and maybe decide to visit a featured exhibition the day they saw it in our feed.
Possibilities of publishing online are pretty much unlimited, which also changes the selection to a wider range. But we still curate each of our postings thoughtfully!
Since a print medium is more limited by the number of pages our selection is very condensed and thought-out. Mainly it is more focused on the artist and their work.
AMM: How do you sustain and nurture your relationships with artists?
KP: Fortunately, due to both our business locations, we are able to be present at two main areas in the cultural landscape in Germany. This gives us the privilege to directly meet artists at openings, venues or during cosy studio visits.
It is important to us to keep in touch with as many artists as possible outside of regular reporting. This exchange takes place at eye level and we are happy that we can grow together.
AMM: What is the most rewarding part of the work that you do?
KP: Positive feedback in every aspect.
Also there are quite a few artists we have accompanied on their way from art school to the museum. Seeing someone’s art gain support or an artist emerge over the year is very gratifying. Especially if we were able to boost that process with our support.
Selling art editions is also surprisingly very pleasing!
AMM: How do you work with artists to create editions for sale on your webshop?
KP: We contact artists whose work we have followed and admired for a longer time. Thankfully the feeling is always mutual. As we try to keep the process beneficial for both parties, we attempt to find balance between keeping the price low, while creating a new way of representing emerging artists by creating editions that capture the essence of their contemporary work.
AMM: You also run a creative agency, preggnant – in what ways does this and your other ventures intersect with your work for KubaParis? How do you balance these multiple projects?
KP: With preggnant we offer artists and cultural institutions various additional services in addition to the platform. We design and supervise artist catalogues, program websites for artists or galleries or create print products for events in the art field.
Considering balancing all those things we cannot give you a straight answer. We try to manage our time wisely, but since we are both mothers this remains an ongoing challenge!
AMM: You are based in Berlin and Bonn – what is the creative scene like in these cities?
KP: Our separate locations are primarily for individual reasons. But we made a virtue out of this necessity. In Germany, the Rhineland and Berlin are hubs for art, culture and design. Both offer great art schools attracting all kinds of creative people. Being in both locations gives us access to play both fields at the same time.
The exchange between those cities is pretty lively and it is hard to point a finger at the differences. Berlin seems busier being international; meanwhile the Rhineland creates more economic venues for art.
AMM: We see that you are currently offering digital exhibition spaces to exhibitors whose current shows have been affected by the covid-19 pandemic. How has the role of your platform changed in response to the pandemic and what kind of engagement have you had from artists and from your audience? Have you noticed an increase in the amount of people accessing the platform?
KP: We are fully aware that there is no real appreciative experience created by showcasing art digitally. Many, but not all, works need space. The digital space offers communication not experience. This doesn’t lower the worth of digital art spaces. Communication is the way to the experience in the first place anyways. We tried to create — compared to the blog — a less busy more spacious online space to work against art vanishing into oblivion.
Especially in trying times we need art! Depiction of reality in art is infinite in its possibilities. It can be an exact copy, an allegorical reference, or an un-decodable abstraction. A mean reminder and memory escapism at the same time.
Depending on where our mental place of retreat is, we tend to get drawn to the image that meets us with the desired head nod towards our anxiety.
We hope our platform can give a little of that catharsis. Which, next to the obvious ones, might be one of the most desired substances of 2020.
AMM: What is the main piece of advice you would give to a young, emerging artist looking to develop, expand and establish their practice?
KP: We strongly believe in painful self-awareness! You should always keep in check with your strengths and weaknesses!
Concerning your artwork: find your essence. That doesn’t mean look or style, this changes very often with growth. But we believe that every human has a main interior resource that is there to plunder. This is the true treasure hunt, because for some it takes many years of trial and error to find!
Be aware and accept all the phases. A painful learning phase means a lot because we truly believe that no great skill comes easy. So be patient and keep trying.
Exterior influence is important for the mind but not for your style.
And in the end a very practical tip: communicate — offer what makes you special! Showcase your work on a professional website, with good documentation of your output. If possible create catalogues or smaller print products (in collaboration with preggnant of course!). Don’t be shy — network! But be humble and keep asking for advice from professionals, teachers and people with more experience, who can support you.
AMM: What do you envision for the future of KubaParis?
KP: We hope to grow as a team and offer a safe, stable, creative working space. With room for self-fulfillment, family and without any form of existential fears.
We also want to be able to provide more editorial content and host events. Create more possibilities for artists and art workers to connect. And maybe be a reliable and less exclusive space to buy and offer art.
Find out more: www.kubaparis.com
Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.