*SNAP* Bring it on Bitches!
Nadja Sayej makes Art Criticism Conversational

Interview by Katharina Galla, Photos by Violeta Leiva Martinez

Nadja Sayej

Introduction

Nadja Sayej has a mission that suits Berlin’s fancy. She first studied visual arts in Toronto, Canada, but quit painting in order to dedicate herself to undercutting the art scene using gonzo journalism. Together with Ryan Edwards and Jeremy Bailey, Nadja Sayej founded ArtStars* in May 2009 in Toronto. By the end of 2010 Sayej brought Artstars* to Berlin to focus on openings at art galleries, institutions and art fairs in Europe. Already, the Berlin art scene is split into lovers and haters of this travel show on contemporary art. No wonder. Nadja Sayej challenges art criticism with her ballsy personality, which paves her way to glory and contempt at the same time. Some call her the Borat of the art scene because of her virtuosic attire, the blatant rhetoric and unexpected appearances at art openings. She scrutinizes Carsten Höller’s reindeers at Hamburger Bahnhof, she gets a spontaneous statement from a tipsy Cyprien Galliard sitting on top of his sculptural work made of Turkish beer cases at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, she chases down Gilbert and George on Potsdamerstrasse and gets a short albeit rare interview with John Waters at the Venice Biennial. One way or the other “Artstars* always gets the interview, don’t you forget it!”


Interview

For BAL’s new Art Critics Interview Series, I meet Nadja Sayej at Silverfuture in Neukölln, the neighborhood she lives in, only this time the spotlight is on her.

KATHARINA GALLA: How did you get into journalism after graduating from Art School?

NADJA SAYEJ: After some internships I took a night class at the Ryerson University in Toronto, where people with day jobs learn how to copy right or to fact check or to edit or whatever. After that I made the disastrous move to go the day program of the Journalism School, but they did not even have one class devoted to art journalism. That is why I want to open my own school of art criticism one day. You could go to journalism school and learn radio, video, print and magazine and you would be sort of well-rounded but there was no depth of content. I wanted to do radio about art, video about art, so I said fuck you, I’ll figure this shit out by myself by watching YouTube tutorials.

Art Schools are increasingly trying to bridge the gap between art practice and theory by offering MA’s in critical art writing, such as the School of Visual Arts in New York. Such programs based on the history of art and the history of criticism might arguably face challenges from the dynamic changes in communication, which affect the way we read and write. Artstars* resides in the middle of this movement, the social media world, can you tell us more about the ‘new wave of art criticism’ that you are creating with Artstars*?

I am definitely the leader of the new wave of art criticism, as arrogant as that sounds, because I think that the old pretentious, arrogant, pompous, academic and jargon filled way of writing about art is dead. I think it should be funny and humorous and colorful. And I think art criticism is an important voice in the art world that has been overlooked in recent years.
I mean we need some more active critical voices if we are going to give context to people for the years to come about the meaning of what is going on right now. To me that’s the essence and the purpose of art criticism.

It seems that you thereby extend your focus beyond the art work itself, into…

… history..

and also the artist’s persona, the way it is perceived by the art world and where the works are shown?

Yes, the art world is based on relationships. They say that the new is history on the run, so art criticism is in many ways art history in the making. I think that this is important to pay attention to, the world around you as it was art history in the making.
The goal of my wave of art criticism is to make it accessible in an intelligent way, to make it succinct, to make it social media savvy, to make it impatient, to make it compatible with how we are absorbing information these days. Who is going to subscribe to October and sit there and read a ten page essay on formalism? Because I do not want to go back to art school, I do not know about you. I read a snappy quote and then watch a video through linking, that is my style.



Would you say that art writing should become accessible to a broader audience, that is, should become faster and even have people who filter these long articles into shorter versions for an audience which does not have a background in art or art history? Is there a risk of leveling art criticism for the sake of the masses?

A part of the new art criticism is translation, it plays a very important role in the sense that it has to be accessible to all the viewers.
You do not necessarily need an art education in order to be critical of something. I think that critics are very much in competition with the audience’s comments. I can post a YouTube video and I can say critical things about the art that I see, but in essence the people who have the power are the ones who comment on my video.

What exactly do they have the power of, your art criticism, your skills, or the artwork?

Everything. You know, it could be “Oh she looks fat” but it could be something else and I think that many Artstars* viewers are insightful and intelligent and have also gotten to know me over the years. I am pushing episode 59 now, so we have a hard core of followers.

It seems we are taking a step further from glossy magazines with sites like Facebook and Twitter, where we find critics like the pioneer Jerry Saltz and you along with him, on his Facebook page. How is social media influencing your work and art criticism in general?

Social Media is definitely connected to the new wave of art criticism. To me it is also about not being pretentious, it is about commenting back on people, it is about making art criticism conversational rather then the final word for an art show. If an artist or a group of artists mount a work in the White Cube, the critic responds with a review, but after that it would be even more interesting if artists responded to the acute criticism, rather then taking criticism as the final word because I do not think it necessarily is.

With online journalism and the Web 2.0, they certainly have the means to do it. Some look at it like collecting ribbons.

You are right. A friend of mine, an art critic, his name is David Balzer and he once said to me something along the lines of “and I gave them a bad review and they still put it on their CV”. I thought that was amazing. A) not a lot of people would have the balls to say something like that and B) not a lot of people would have the balls to put it in their CV.
I am hosting a panel talk at HBC in September about the ‘Death of Criticism,’ it features Sam Williams who writes for Freeze, Ana Finel Honigman from Artforum, Travis Jefferson, and Andreas Schegel. These critics will come together to discuss what is the death of criticism, which could be writing about your friends, it could be dating an artist, the death of criticism could be a huge colossal scene in a city like Berlin but not enough critics to say enough things in order to be powerful.

Powerful for what?

Their criticism. I am not saying that critics have to be feared in order to be powerful, but they do need to have a voice. One of my favorite journalists, Hunter S. Thomson, founded gonzo journalism and wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He said once that true gonzo reporting ‘needs the talent of a master journalist, the eye of an artist and the heavy balls of an actor’. The balls is what you have to have in order to go into an art gallery opening wearing a house coat and pair of blue glasses with a camera man at the Carsten Höller exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof, which is what I did. And then you have people staring at you like you are a complete maniac, but you keep on doing your job, because that is how fucking abstract what I am doing is. That is how avantgarde it is, being in an art gallery with a video camera.




It is true, many people do not realize that filming at an art opening is so unusual. And I think I speak for many other people when I say what you offer with this format is an anticipated relief, not only for the writers and critics, but for everyone who is there to enjoy the art. I also do not want to say that what you are doing is mass compatible, because it is not necessarily, if we just look at the profanity…

Yeah, a lot of it is edited out. We hope to release that in a DVD, there is actually one in the making. But the show has changed over the years. Let’s just say, if Jerry Saltz posts us on his page, then I will continue doing it.

The 100 something posts that followed Jerry’s post lost the topic. Jerry had arguments in that section that did not have anything to do with the video anymore. Nevertheless I do think that you reached a right audience there.

It was definitely weird, there were a lot of haters. But that is the thing about Artstars* whether you love it or hate it, everyone feels passionately about it.

You have a similar stance on criticism to the artists who put negative critiques in their CV’s.

Totally, Art in America called me demented, and I think that that is the moment I made it. Let’s be real for a second. You cannot be a critic and not take criticism. You have to laugh at it.

What was the most exciting episode in Berlin so far, for you?

The Cyprien Galliard episode was great and people will read about the story that leads up to that in my book ”Artstars* – the star of the art world”.
When I finally got there I checked inside before I started filming and thought it was the coolest show I have ever seen, I was really into it. And then I criticize it on camera. Why? Because it is a show which is worthy of criticism. And why does Cyprien not talk to me when I see him at parties but still looks at me? Maybe I am worthy of his criticism too.



What are some of the unexpected things that happen when Artstars* show up?

Unexpected things always happen after the episode is online. I have had artists call me on the phone crying, angry PR people calling me saying I got the facts wrong, in the case of Cyprien Galliard I received an email saying that the artist did not sign a release form and that I had to take the video down.

Did you ever think you would be sued?

We have legal representation in Germany and Canada. Thank God.

Did you ever feel that you could be harmful to artists?

Any attention is better than no attention. But I am fully convinced that art collectors do not go to the openings. A friend of mine told me that the art opening is the most boring time of the show, because by then everything has been done, the sales, the PR and then the gallery sits there for the rest of the time like a dead corpse.

Considering Artstars* is a radically casual approach to art criticism, do you think that there is a demographic in Berlin that you will never be able to reach?

We are bringing together high and low culture, even comedy and theory. Even art criticism and performance, I have been called a performance journalist!
It is really difficult to get through the crust of the uptight play-by-the-rules German, a type, which I have met here in Berlin. They definitely hate what I am doing and I think that is a good thing because they need to know what I am doing.
Generally, I think our demographic is really broad, but art students in particular love us. From New Zealand to India, you name it, but our biggest audiences are in Toronto, New York, Texas, California, the UK and Berlin. 60% of them are men, I do not know if it has to do with the size of my breasts.

The popularity of Artstars* is highlighted by the fact that it has a constantly growing amount of followers on social networks. Do people offer you payment for showing up?

Yeah, that is kind of a problem. Because I’m not sure I can accept money for it. I need to be able to speak freely. They only want the hype, the PR side of Artstars*, they do not want the criticism. We do not have a backbone, unless we have the criticism. But we are working out some deals.

Is there anything about Berlin that you would like to reiterate?

If there is anything I could teach the Berlin art scene, it is to not take themselves so seriously. I would make them willing to see my American approach, to have fun with the art world. To turn the opening – the social side and the electricity – into a spectacle. And to respect my genius when it comes to that.
Some bitches love to hate me, some people love to defend me… some people are my friends and others pretend to be my friends.

Why Berlin, do you think you could meet more art stars elsewhere?

Everyone is always dropping by in Berlin. If I was not here, I would probably be in London or New York, but my bank account dictates that I stay in Berlin now.

Who would you love to interview?

My top 3 are Damien Hirst, David LaChapelle and Yoko Ono.



Nadja+Artstars
___________________________________________________________________________________

Additional Information

artstarstv.com

Artstars* newsletter:
nadjasayej.tumblr.com/newsletter

Artstars* You Tube channel:
www.youtube.com/user/ARTSTARSTV

ArtStars*55 on Berlin Art Link:
Interview with Gilbert and George:

Nadja Sayej is also a freelance writer about visual art for artUS, Border Crossings, C magazine, Canadian Art, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and has guest lectured at NYU Berlin, University ofToronto, Ryerson University and the Ontario College of Art & Design

Upcoming events:

ArtStars* Writing & Publishing Art Criticism workshop
Saturday, August 6, 3-6 pm
NODE Center for Curatorial Studies – Berlin
Waldemarstr 37A, back building, 4th floor
Kreuzberg, Berlin
Admission: 5 Euros
nadjasayej.tumblr.com/notes

Death of the Critic
A panel discussion with Ana Finel Honigman, Travis Jeppesen, Andreas Schlaegel, Sam Williams
September 2011
.HBC
Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 9
10178 Berlin

___________________________________________________________________________________

Katharina Galla is a freelance writer and is currently Community Manager for the transmediale. Check her blog on the cybernetics of the public sphere thecops.wordpress.com and get in touch on twitter@tweetingcops


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *