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Francesca von Habsburg: “artists should be explorers and think of our planet, not wait for the phone call from their gallery”

In spite of being heiress of the dynasty of industrialists and art collectors Thyssen-Bornemisza, and being the hypothetical empress of the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire, having married its direct heir, Francesca von Habsburg doesn’t like to sit on her throne. If you have the opportunity to be invited to one of the interdisciplinary expeditions on board of the vessel Dardanella, you won’t see her basking in the sunlight, taking pilates classes, or having conversations about the Paris fashion week with a court of botoxed desperate millionaire housewives. You will probably join her on a tender with one of the maximum sound artists Carsten Nicolai, to listen and record the undersea sounds. And she will be the one to manoeuvre the instrumentation. You would listen around a bonfire to the stories of her Maori friends in a far-off New Zealand island, that not even many people from Auckland ever visited. Or you might see her trouble-shooting the production of the many cultural projects she initiates, with that mix of patience and resignation of those who would like to take care of bigger problems. In fact Francesca has bigger plans than enjoying the great reputation of her collection, built through her TBA21 Foundation, which has commissioned over the past 12 years some of the most acclaimed, out-of-the-box artworks presented at the most important biennales and institutions. Her favorite artists, among them also her best friends, include renown names like Marina Abramovic, Olafur Eliasson, Doug Aitken, Carsten Holler, but also many emerging talents. Preoccupied by the progressive and rapid increase of critical mass of the business side of the art world, over its cultural and social function, Francesca is now leading her Foundation and her recently started TBA21 Academy to focus and expand their efforts to promote art as a tool of change, particularly towards what she feels is the biggest challenge that humanity has to face nowadays: the conservation of our environment. Encouraging artists to face in their work the biggest global woes in an emotional and personal way, she hopes to empower the public to take them on in their daily lives, eventually aligning economy with ecology.

Photos from the Dardanella art+science expeditions by: Markus Reymann, Julian Charrière, Francesca von Habsburg, Dayne Buddo, Nico Ghersinich

francesca VH dardanella

Tell us about your commitment to art: what was the defining experience in your life that brought you to dedicate so much effort into sustaining art?

To be honest it was more the people that I met through the art world that surrounded my father. People assume that it’s the fact of growing up surrounded by so many artworks, and that might have taught me to have a good eye, but it didn’t really teach me the appreciation for art. That came through the discussion and the conversations that I had regularly at lunch with my father and with his friends. They were all pretty conservative people in my eye, as one always sees his parents, but they were all always having incredible discussions about discovering something, changing something, planning something, thinking of an exhibition that nobody had ever done before: there was always excitement about everything that they were doing. Regular visitors were people like John Carter Brown, at the time director of the U.S. National Gallery of Art, Simon de Pury (Swiss art auctioneer and collector), all huge fans of my father’s old masters collection. I remember there was this possibility of doing exhibitions in the Soviet Union back in the early 80s, when it  was considered taboo even going to Budapest, for the diffused misconception that beyond the iron curtain there was no culture. My father wanted to overcome this challenge and open up a dialogue with the East Block countries, so he made exhibitions in the Ucraine, Lithuania, Russia, Budapest, during the Reagan and Breznev era, and this is what intrigued me the most, because I learned early that culture becomes a really powerful tool, even a weapon to break down prejudices, political cliches, and open people minds by touching them. Modern art at the time didn’t even have the strong language that contemporary art has today, but it was the way that my father manipulated it in his projects in a very personal way, that gave it a visionary sense. And I think that this gave me the feeling that art went way beyond what is hanging on your wall.

The recent happenings in Paris showed us again the power of creativity, and its ability to bring to light the big issues of our time. Do you think institutions are doing their job in making of art an element of cohesion, rather than separation?

There was a couple of Manifesta and dOCUMENTA, that were very focused on social political commentary, and they were very driven on what was going on in the Middle East. I think that art and politics always had a very common field. The minds of the artists are preoccupied with social injustice and prejudice. But what I fail to see is art responding to science in an intelligent way. All of that data published on scientific magazines and traditional media, particularly those that illustrate environmental issues, they’re all very dry, very often confusing because of the marketing and pr driven by the petroleum industry, that counters the data about global warming or oceans acidification, for instance. If you’re not a specialist it is really difficult sometimes to grasp what the real issues are. Quiet a lot of artists seem today to be pretty knowledgeable about science and new media, so why isn’t more work generated about the environment, making the connection to nature and science more personal than the one you could have reading a review on the Scientific American? So even if there’s an increasing number of artists touching these topics, I don’t think institutions are giving them and this issues the right space. That’s why we are really excited as TBA21 to have taken this path, because I think we’re rapidly going to become a mothership for these artists.

Dardanella by Dayne Buddo

What’s the role of the TBA21 Academy and the vessel Dardanella in your foundation?

TBA21 is a foundation that very frequently commissioned to important artists works informed by socio political or environmental issues, observed under a particular angle, that also satisfy my own personal commitment. I just felt that art for art-sake, or just for the curiosity of it, or the provocation of it, unless it was to provoke some reaction and emotional response, just felt rather flat and didn’t interest me. That’s been a trademark that led us to have a pretty good reputation. Then I started to spend more time in the ocean on the Dardanella, I realised that sharing these experiences was a way to give back. I was hoping that by inviting artists to explore very remote places was not only an occasion to commission new works, but also to publish new material online, and produce new knowledge. So while the Foundation responded to my need of commissioning new artworks, the Academy and its itinerant home Dardanella came about as my need of a new beginning, and create a new source of change of our lives through art. I know that there were a lot of scientific expeditions that invited artists to their vessels, but that was a sort of brief flirtation, where everybody gets really excited about doing something together, but quickly part their ways. I know of many scientists who were introduced to artists, who found their knowledge fascinating and inspiring, but after they produced maybe an artwork, they disappeared, passing to the following project. There was no sense of continuity, no sense of collaboration. We don’t even want to do the opposite, and invite scientists onto an art boat, and have the same sense of frivolous superficial flirtation that never really goes anywhere in the long run. So now it is becoming a discipline to invite curated people from different cultural and scientific fields to work together on our boat, as our foundation has always been working in a profoundly interdisciplinary way. Cross-pollination always brings to innovative results, not necessarily big installations for biennales, but maybe some strong personal experience to take to another context. I remember Carsten Nicolai (established Berlin based sound artist) during our expedition to Cocos Island looking like a teenager again. All of a sudden there was this sense of adventure, of “what’s going to happen next?”, that has a particular value especially when you’re in a business like the art world, at the moment so cutthroat and hard to navigate. Artists need to escape, feel free to explore and find again a reason to do what they’re doing, which is different from the phone call of the gallery that tells you “You have a show in September and we need twelve new pieces”: where is the idea of the artist as an explorer, a discoverer, somebody that pushes the limits? There’s of course a very romantic side to our endeavour.

Artist Jana Winderen recording coral reef sounds with hydra phones for a new composition premiering at the next Venice Biennialeartist on tender

So how do you envision the future of the Academy and the Foundation, how is it going to change?

We need to transcend the language of apocalypse and be extremely optimistic about the planet, without falling for all these dramatic “turning point”, “end of the line”, “we’re melting away” kind of thing. Some of that is very true, but art has intrinsically an alternative way of reading this, and gives an opportunity to liken ecology itself. I’ve been reading a book about ecological thought, and it gave me the confidence that what we are doing at TBA21 is not just playing with life forms, but it’s a way of transcending this very regressed scientific way of looking at things, which is very limiting because it’s always proving what we don’t know. What I want people to feel is that there is a possibility that we can come out of this ecological and economic mess that we are in. With the Academy we want to find a new way of evoking the environment, that should spread like a virus, and a new open minded vision from which we cannot turn back. We need to reach a point where we can’t turn back to these old exploitative practices, like inconsiderate extraction and overconsumption. Art can have a say because it helps us to question reality, like the project we did at dOCUMENTA 13, the Sovereign Forest by Amar Kanwar. a very poetic and beautiful project, but at the same time the most brutal we’ve ever commissioned. Everybody could bring to the artist evidences in all shape and forms about the crimes committed in Odisha by national and international corporations against the ex-agrarian community and the environment. People coming from the most illiterate regions in India identified with what was an incredibly sophisticated art project, and it became a flagship for everybody that had issues in that area. So I think that aligning the Academy to this mission, we can become a home for artists that are transcending the boundaries of art and ecology, that has so many layers, also social.

In the next pictures: the burial of the art treasure in Cocos Island, Costa Rica, to raise money and awareness for the protection of the sharks of the area
brady by charriere

Which expedition was particularly effective, and how did it unravel? 

I would say that the expedition so far more complete, was the one to Cocos Island, a place famous for its pirates and the numerous treasures that were documented to be buried during the age of the Conquistadores. The myths and the legends about the pirates all started to make sense in contrast to what is happening today with illegal fishing, the massacres of the shark population. We had the idea to bury an art treasure to bring back the attention to what is the real treasure: the ocean. A lot of young artists donated us their works, like Julien Charriere, but also big names like Olafur Eliasson, Marina Abramovic, Ed Ruscha, Raymond Pettibon, Doug Aitken, Laurence Weiner and many digital artists. It was amazing packing all of these incredible works and taking them to the most impossible location, where people would never find them, certainly not by accident. One of the reasons why many of the treasures buried in Cocos Island were never found is because it is full of landslides: apparently the island moves of 5 centimetres a year. So even when somebody found a map with X marks on it, the spot could have moved of meters. We have recorded the GPS coordinates of the buried treasure, and sold them in an encrypted form to a collector giving the potential treasure hunter the possibility to unravel the clue, decoding the coordinates. But even then, how would you go to reclaim your treasure when Cocos Island is a UNESCO protected area? How would you treat these laws? A Mexican collector was interested because he said to know how to bribe an official. This opened up a lot of contemporary questions about conservation, plus we raised the money to start a project to study the sharks around the islands in cooperation with the local authorities. They were very happy of this creative solution, that was not a 50k check by a watch company that wants to have a handshake with the minister. The island receives many generous donations, but none of them brought as much media attention to the island, their issues, and the issues of the sharks. The media keeps on talking about those 5 shark attacks per year, but we’re way more dangerous to the sharks. I came to realise that if you tell people how many sharks we kill every year, which is 100.000.000, they go “But that’s good, isn’t it?”. If you ask a marine biologist, he tells you that everybody would like a shark in their reef, because as top predators they keep the balance of the ecosystem, getting rid of anything that is injured, sick or mutated. When you see a shark, you understand that it is a healthy part of the coastline, not overfished.

treasure cocos

We know more about the dark side of the moon then we know about our oceans. An interplanetary mission gets more media attention than one to the sea, hence gets more money. Do you think that your efforts will help to reestablish the priorities in the media driven scientific world?

I noticed that over the past six months people have really started to pay attention because they’ve realised that without the oceans having an opportunity to replenish and to revitalise themselves, we’re gonna have a mass extinction on earth of one of our great favourites, the tuna. Maybe we don’t eat sharks or dolphins, but we do eat a lot of tuna. It is like caviar until we ran out: did we really have to massacre a whole population of sturgeon before we realise the consequences of our actions? This is the unfortunate side of a consumerist society. But the awareness has just surfaced and it is a very potent and a fertile ground for creativity, where we think we can do a lot.

explorers cocos

Do you think that by bringing artists and scientists here in New Zealand, where the oceanic ecosystem is healthier than let’s say, the Mediterranean, we could make universal a case of good relationship between man and environment? 

This is a very eco-friendly country, a little bit like Iceland. I think it wants to be one of the first carbon neutral countries. And it is not very populated, so you jump off your boat and pick up six lobsters, and it’s legal because there are so many. Fishing here is a way of life. You fish what you need to eat. For me understanding like a healthy ocean feels, it is just extraordinary. In other parts of the world we really need to back off of the ocean. Luckily it’s got an incredible power to regenerate, but it does need to be given that chance, time and space. There have to be periods when fishing is blocked by a global police. Tuna is a very big fish, it takes a long time for them to grow, and for us it costs 20, 30, 40 dollars each. No wonder why they’re getting smaller and smaller.

hammer sharks

You contributed to redefine over the past 12 years the figure of the art patron, especially in Europe where private supporters of culture are not many. What do you say to the young people who want to start collecting and what do you say about the glamorisation of the art world?

I always tell the other collectors to think of art as a personal pursuit, because many people define themselves through their collection, show off their pieces in their elaborately decorated homes, focusing on how art makes them look, instead of thinking “How can I make the art look? What perspective can I bring to the artworks that I’m supporting and making possible?”. It’s not prestige and glamour. I find that side of the art imploding, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I don’t align myself with it, I feel like the black sheep that doesn’t join the elegant masses. Every time an industry reaches huge masses and attracts big capitals, which is what is happening to the art world, if you’re in it with your heart you suffer and you need to find your own untouched niche. To the young collectors that come and ask me how I find art, I tell: how can you walk through an art fair and look through 5 to 10.000 artworks in a day or two or three, and be able to make a choice, and fall in love with the piece? People ask me how I choose: I don’t! It’s a longer process, a relationship with the artist, you get to know their work and understand it. But I see that the younger generation is much more critical, much more informed than we were. Just look at how they buy their jeans, I used to have two, three brands to choose from, now you have 400 brands. Young kids today are learning very early how to make a lot of choices, they know that at the end of touch of a button they can find out anything they want to find out: they’re not just saturated, they make the choice. They’re going to make the same choice with art, and it’s going to be much more personal, much more intelligent. The old way of collecting will just die like a dinosaur, probably that day when we all go party at Art Basel Miami until six in the morning, and eventually someone is going to say “I’m too old for this shit!”.

whale shark Dardanella photo by Juan Oliphant

What do you think is the situation of contemporary art and culture in Italy?

As long as you have people like Vittorio Sgarbi that go around saying that you need to have classical art at the Venice Biennale…I mean, this is just the opposite of what Italy needs. I have absolutely no time for this ridicule! It’s offensive, it demeans all the efforts that a city like Venice has made, becoming a Mecca for all collectors who want to present there their collection as I do, and has developed a very informed and intelligent audience. Art is not only about the artists, but the institutions and the public, that in Venice makes a huge effort walking around for days to see all these amazing installations, waiting to be provoked, listening to every panel, reading on Twitter where is best to go and when. I think this is really happening in Venice. For the rest of Italy I don’t know, I haven’t been there for a long time. I’ve been to the Maxxi, but…can you see the art there? Fondazione Pirelli and Fondazione Fendi, for instance are very good private initiatives. The fact that there was always this fascination between art and fashion is very positive, even if the rest of the world went “Oh, how cheesy and dreadful!”, but it actually generated some good institutions, curators and art. We shouldn’t be such snobs.

The Foundation will inaugurate on February 19, the new exhibition Rare Earth in its space in Vienna.

by Marcello Pisu