Ekaterina Degot


The Moscow-born art historian, author, and curator Ekaterina Degot, who was appointed in April 2017, was the first artistic director from a non-German-speaking country. Degot had made a name for herself with exhibitions that critically examined the cultural history of the former Soviet Union as well as international shows such as the first Bergen Assembly, in 2013. As the recipient of the renowned Igor Zabel Award in 2014, her “critical positions on the official politics of her home country” were highlighted—a stance that she maintained in her new home in Austria.

In conjunction with Degot’s start as artistic director and chief curator, other appointments were made, including Henriette Gallus as deputy artistic director, Christoph Platz as head of curatorial affairs (with a focus on curating as production), David Riff, Degot’s long-standing colleague, as curator for discourse and subsequently senior curator, and as curators Dominik Müller (starting in 2018), Övül Ö. Durmusoglu and Katalin Erdödi (both in the first year), and Mirela Baciak (in the second and third years). The cultural education department was renamed the Office of Open Questions (until 2021). Rita Puffer became the chief financial officer in 2020. The altered titles and responsibilities of the core team reflected the restructuring of the festival.

Degot concentrated the individual strands of the festival into one single exhibition with a core program spread out over multiple locations to a much greater extent than her predecessor, Veronica Kaup-Hasler, who had left her mark on the festival during her twelve years as artistic director. Degot curated this exhibition herself in cooperation with the team listed above; there were no longer any externally curated projects like the herbst exhibition.

Each edition started with a very personal opening speech presenting the curatorial concept in a performance. The festival was to transform Graz into a stage each year and be spread out over the entire city “as an exhibition interwoven with performances and discussions,” as Degot stated in the welcoming address to her first steirischer herbst in 2018, with the provocatively ambivalent title Volksfronten (Popular Fronts).

By concentrating on a continuous parcours whose elements are time- and site-specific and rigorously reject division into genres, Degot decisively altered the festival’s structure. A festival pass providing free access to almost all the exhibitions and events in the core program for the duration of the festival was introduced in 2018, at a cost of twenty-nine euros. In the first year, 2,200 visitors purchased the festival pass (due to the changed circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was done away with in the third and fourth year). Prior to the opening, the online magazine Vorherbst presented preparatory and accompanying material and information on the current edition of steirischer herbst.

The festival’s look also radically changed, not least because of the striking graphic design by the Grupa Ee collective from Ljubljana, in which martial-looking forms and symbols were overlaid and the festival title “steirischer herbst” was crossed through. The pocket-sized program booklet was replaced by a guidebook of the sort that is familiar from biennials. A division into categories such as visual and performing art was done away with in the first year, while, in the second year, a distinction was made between installations and performances as components of equal status in the parcours.

Discourse and theory formats were part of the staging as “ideas,” while the staging was oriented toward as broad an audience as possible and emphasized the festival’s role as a forum for public art with site-specific and sociopolitical aspirations—not so much on a theoretical level, but instead as a sort of political magazine addressed to the public intellect. Furthermore, a reader with essays and extensive documentation of the festival was published retroactively for each edition of steirischer herbst. Another retrospective endeavor undertaken under Degot’s artistic direction was a historical reappraisal of the festival and its archive, for which a separate position was created.

musikprotokoll, which has been a fixed component of steirischer herbst from the beginning, was the only series listed as a “traditional partner festival.” Exhibitions and events by cultural institutions in Graz that were not curated by Degot and her team formed the accompanying or parallel program. Local initiatives were involved in a transparent and democratic procedure by means of an open call.

The festival began more intensive, long-term collaborations with various local partners: the Theater im Bahnhof, a self-managed theater collective that had already been a frequent guest under Kaup-Hasler; CLIO, an association for critical history and education work; and the Literaturhaus, in cooperation with which the three-year festival Out of Joint was initiated. Between 2019 and 2021, steirischer herbst also incorporated the project STUBENrein, situated in the remote town of Murau, as a partner festival.

Among the locations that were fixed components of the core program in the first editions were the Palais Attems as the headquarters of steirischer herbst, the Forum Stadtpark, the Künstlerhaus Graz, the Helmut List Halle, Orpheum, and many other locations that were selected based on the theme of the parcours as historical and social spaces with their own specific histories.

Under Degot’s artistic direction, particular attention has been given to the production of new, site-specific works, which comprise up to one hundred percent of the festival. Many of the commissioned works were created through long-term involvement and research work as well as by taking into account, in the words of Degot, “urban and regional narratives in their at times bizarre relation to global processes.” She stated that true to the original concept of the trigon biennial, making social and political urgencies in Austria a subject of discussion was to go hand in hand with an international orientation—with a traditional focus on artists from Central and Eastern Europe. Since inequality and nationalism continue to spread in Eastern and Western Europe, it is of vital importance for the festival in 2018—just as it was in 1968—to “rekindle this interest in the search for points of connection and solidarity.” Particularly the feeling of marginality as it can be experienced in Styria encourages “sensitivity to other frontier regions, where the purported normalcy of the global order appears in all its surreality and weirdness on the fringes.”1

The titles of the first four editions specifically reflected this surreal uncanniness of Graz as a historical “bulwark”: Volksfronten (Popular Fronts, 2018), Grand Hotel Abyss (2019), Paranoia TV (2020), and The Way Out (2021). In accordance with these suggestively ambivalent parameters, which are less of a theme than a catalyst for opening up spaces for ideas—and the conditions, which changed in a very concrete way in 2020 and 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—the stagings and particularly the openings were shifted from institutional and ceremonial spaces to the virtual sphere, and, with the last edition for the moment, out of institutions and into public space. When direct contact with the audience became practically impossible in the year of lockdown, the program shifted primarily to screens and the digital realm. In the following year, with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the festival left the “safe” institutional framework and specifically sought encounters with an uninitiated audience.

Ekaterina Degot, “About,” steirischer herbst, https://www.steirischerherbst.at/en/about/6/steirischer-herbst, accessed 13 August, 2021.


Photo: Marija Kanizaj

Ekaterina Degot
(1958, Moscow)

Art historian, curator, author, and journalist

1981 graduated Lomonosov Moscow State University as an art historian
2004 PhD in art history, Russian Institute for Cultural Research

1987–93 Senior Researcher at Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
1993–2000 Staff Art Critic and Columnist (arts, culture, society, politics) at Kommersant daily, Moscow
2000s Columnist (culture, society, politics) at Vedomosti and other newspapers and magazines in Moscow
2008–12 Senior Editor (Arts Section) of the online cultural magazine OpenSpace.ru
2014–18 Artistic Director of the Academy of Arts of the World, Cologne, initiator of the biannual interdisciplinaryfestival Pluriversale

2010 and 2014 Innovacia State prize for the best curatorial project in Russia
2014 Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory (main award)

Teaching (selection)
1998 Fulbright Scholar at William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA
2007–17 Professor at Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia

Exhibitions (selection)
2000–03 Body Memory: Underwear of the Soviet Era (with Julia Demidenko). State Museum of the History of St Petersburg. Helsinki City Museum. Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art, Vienna.
2003–04 Berlin–Moscow / Moscow–Berlin 1950–2000 (with Jürgen Harten et al.). Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin. State Historical Museum, Moscow.
2001 Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial.
2005 Soviet Idealism. Musée de l’art wallon, Liège.
2008 Struggling for the Banner: Soviet Art Between Trotzky and Stalin. New Manege, Moscow.
2008 Citizens, Mind Yourselves: Dimitri Prigov. MMoMA—Moscow Museum of Modern Art.
2009 Kudymkar – Engine for the Future. PERMM—Perm Museum of Contemporary Art / Winzavod CCA, Moscow.
2010 Shockworkers of the Mobile Image (with Cosmin Costinas and David Riff). First Ural Industrial Biennial, Yekaterinburg (main project).
2011 Auditorium Moscow (with Joanna Mytkowska and David Riff), a self-educational initiative and an international exhibition. Fourth Moscow Biennial. White Chambers (Belye Palaty).
2012 Art After the End of the World. Discussion platform of Arsenale: The First Kiev Biennial of Contemporary Art.
2012 Time/Food (with Anton Vidokle and Julieta Aranda). Stella Art Foundation, Moscow.
2013 Monday Begins on Saturday (with David Riff). First Bergen Assembly.
2013–14 What Did the Artist Want to Say with That? (with Yuri Albert). MMoMA—Moscow Museum of Modern Art.

Publications (selection)
Ed. with Marta Dziewańska and Ilya Budraitskis: Post-Post-Soviet? Art, Politics and Society in Russia at the Turn of the Decade. Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art – Chicage University Press, 2013.
Ed. with David Riff and Jan Sowa: Perverse Decolonization? Berlin: Archive Books, 2021 (in print).

Festival editions