Gallery objects as (un)friendly little creatures

Written by julia on September 7, 2016

Reaktiv is an artist group that creates interactive installations for museums, theatre and advertisement. It was founded in 2012 by Rene Beekman and Albena Baeva. Now, Rene comes to Bratislava to talk about his journey and what it means to be an intermedia artist in Bulgaria.

Hi Rene,
it is great that we can have you here in Goethe Institute Bratislava as our first Krakatoa – talk club guest this season!

I want to thank you for inviting us. I am sorry that Albena Baeva, with whom we curated the exhibition that I will be talking about and with whom we run Reaktiv, was not able to join us. She is currently working on a new theater production in Blagoevgrad, in south-Bulgaria. The play is called Shopping and Fucking and is performed in a large retail store for home improvement and do-it-yourself goods. In the performance, they use mobile phones to stream wireless video to large TV screen, and the costumography includes tablets with  custom-programmed apps. Albena works on this together with Petya Boyukova, Marina Genova and the director of the play Mariy Rosen.

Have you ever been to Slovakia yet?

I have been to Bratislava before, but only once, and that was many many years ago. We had meetings and discussions with artists, curators and organizers from the region then. Some projects and collaborations between various people who were involved did come out of that.

Could you please tell us something about your art beginnings?

It began in a completely different world. I graduated from the art academy in the previous century, with a specialization that was called “Media Arts”. Today, of course, all of these media that we at the time called “new” have become obsolete.
In the beginning, I worked a lot with video and sound, both single-channel and installation work. Then I did live cinema projects — collaborations with musicians and composers in which we programmed our own instruments to play video and sound in a live setting. We performed in a number of places in Europe, but also in the States.
Since I moved to Bulgaria, I have done more organizational and curatorial work. We ran several festivals and I have curated exhibitions, including Being Post-Digital (in Plovdiv in 2015, within the Design Week festival) and, of course, the Friendly little creatures exhibition that I will be talking about during the Krakatao talk.


What makes it attractive for you – this intersection or combination of picture and sound?

It is an obvious problem, of course, when you work with a medium like video, which is where I started. And it is actually something that artists have been interested in for ages. There is lots of wonderful work that was done in that area in experimental cinema in the 1960s and 70s for instance. But it goes back to way before that, to ideas about visualizing sound and music, and to ideas for color organs from the 18th and 19th century.
There are lots of ways you can think about the relationships between these two senses of seeing and hearing; how to visualize sound or make an image audible. So I did a lot of that in my work with video and especially in the live cinema performances.
If you look at the exhibitions we’ve done in recent years, or the topics of the Friendly little creatures exhibition, my interests have shifted quite a bit over time. Probably if I were to go back to thinking about and working with this question of the relation between image and sound, I would do completely different work.

rene beekman, silent garden, videoart

Silent Garden, Rene Beekman, 1992

You are currently based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Do you see any differences between Amsterdam and Sofia art scene? In what way?

Lots of differences, but also lots of similarities. You need a certain familiarity to be intimate enough with a specific situation to really understand it, but also a certain distance in order to more clearly see why things happen in a specific way.
There are of course the obvious differences. The Dutch art scene was traditionally well funded and is struggling to cope with reduced funding, whereas in Bulgaria there has been no significant funding and only a completely dysfunctional infrastructure for the arts ever since the regime collapsed. Opinions differ about how things were before then.
Over the past few years some things have been built up, but every now and again the dysfunctionality causes things to collapse again. Only a few months ago we witnessed how a prominent curator was sacked for openly questioning the soundness of the politics of the ministry of culture. The media paid a lot of attention to the issue and there were some remarks from the side of the ministry of the sort “oh ok, we’ll hire her back” which of course never happened, but the core problem — the inability of the minister and his institution to cope with critique or to enter into discussion — was never addressed.


Another difference is, of course, the educational system that is outdated and dysfunctional. It was only in 2008 that we managed to start the first programme at the National Academy that taught digital art. It was only a masters programme,  and to this day there is still no bachelor level programme of this kind in the country. I have taught in this programme for eight years and have fought many battles to try to improve and advance what was being taught at the academy. This summer I could no longer avoid the conclusion that there is absolutely no hope that this will improve beyond the point where we were. So it was no longer worth my time and effort.
This is not to say that everything is bad and nothing ever works in Bulgaria.
I believe that you do things until the point of failure. You fail. You learn from it. You get up and do something else. Or do the same thing again only differently.
Before we started the digital arts MA programme at the academy in Sofia, there was a very tiny scene of people working with or interested in arts, science and technology. That has changed in these eight years, partially because of this programme. We now have a large group of young, very talented colleagues that I feel extremely lucky to know and to work with.
It is with them that we work on projects for Reaktiv. It is with several of them that we did the Friendly little creatures exhibition.

Right now I am working with a different organization, outside academia, on a series of projects for the spring and summer of 2017. I am also working with one my former students, Stefan Donchev, on his first solo exhibition, which I am very excited about because it promises to be a really really good show. And just the other day I received a phone call with an invitation to join an interesting project for this fall.
It took me the better part of last year to accept my own conclusion that I would have to leave the academy, but doing so was as good a decision as setting up the digital arts programme was eight years ago.

Four years back, you have founded Reaktiv – a collective of artists who creates interactive installations. What was a trigger thought or situation to do so?

We founded Reaktiv together with Albena Baeva as an attempt to see if we could turn our interest in creating interactive installations into something that could pay the rent. Over these four years, we have created installations for several museum, ranging from a karaoke installation in a folk-art museum to an interactive telephone in the kids corner in the military history museum, as well as for a number of larger companies. We have also done several projects that are more on the art-side of things. So people seem to have a certain amount of confusion in how to perceive Reaktiv; whether as a purely commercial studio or as a group of artists doing art. Truth is, we do both, and quite successfully so, judging by the new projects we get to work on.


Reaktiv, MiReLa exhibition, 2013

What is the main message of your Friendly little creatures exhibition?

Friendly little creatures was a way to trigger a discussion with current and potential clients and collaborators about the role of interactivity. We tend to think about interactivity from a very human-centered point of view. It is always about “how do we as an audience perceive or interact with” whatever the machine or object is.
So we decided to turn that idea on its head and approach the question as artists. This resulted in a series of machines that each have their own reason to exist, but interacting with us is rarely that reason or, if it is, it is in a completely different light.
In the presentation at Krakatoa I will talk about the different installations and the ideas behind those installations.

Reaktiv, rene beekman, interactive installation

picture by Ivan Peykov, The friendly little creatures exhibition, 2016

rene beekman, interactive installation, gallery, object, Reaktiv

picture by Ivan Peykov, The friendly little creatures exhibition, 2016

Thank you for your answers and have a good day! We are looking forward to see you really soon!

Join our Krakatoa – talk club with Rene this Tuesday in Goethe Institute Bratislava at 6pm for the first meet up this season. We are looking forward to you and new, mind-thriving topics!