Issue #30-31, 2008

Interview with WHW realised by Ana Janevski
Collective Work As Effort

What, How and for Whom/WHW is a curatorial collective that organizes different production, exhibition and publishing projects and directs Gallery Nova in Zagreb, Croatia. WHW members are curators Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic and Sabina Sabolovic and designer and publicist Dejan Krsic. WHW is currently curating the 11th Istanbul Biennale (2009).

Ana Janevski ¬ “The three basic questions of every economic organization, What, how and for whom – are operative in almost all segments of life... These are the questions that also concern the planning, conception and realization of exhibitions, as well as the pro­duc­tion and distribution of artworks, or artists’ position in labour mar­ket.“ This is the introduction to your first project dedicated to the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, in 2000 in Zagreb. The three questions were the title of the project and since then they are implicit in the name of your curatorial collective. How did you come to the idea for this exhibition and how has your collaboration started?

WHW √ The impetus for the project came from the fact that the publishing house Arkzin (which was during the nineties publishing a magazine under the same name and was one of the rare left critical voices during those times) republished Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto with an introduction by Slavoj Zˇizˇek. The book was pub­lished on its 150th anniversary, and as it went by completely unno­ticed we were curious to see if we can trigger a discussion through an exhibition. From the curatorial point of view one of our main concerns was how to deal with anniversary of the book of such powerful ideological and political connotation and we decided to problema­tize it in the existing local context. Thus, the Manifesto functioned as a strong trigger to initiate a public debate on the issues of recent history and the exhibition in the end questioned wide range of social issues, focusing on complex relations between art and economy. The need to question our “communist“ past has been the result of dominant cultural politics in Croatia in the 90s, whose insufficient intellectual contextualization disabled any serious reflection of both immediate communist past and of present “transitional“ moment.

At the time we started to work on the exhibition we were still mostly in our twenties. Working together was a great and formative experience. From the beginning we were aware that collaboration enables us to do things that none of us individually would be able to do: create and influence new spaces and modalities of art production, thus challenging the environment of ossified and closed art institutions in Croatia.

That exhibition established most of the aspects of our future curatorial approach: collective way of working, close partnership of different organizations, establishing links between different generations of artists as well as building the exhibition around social and political issues which we feel are being swept under the carpet... We did a modified version, on the occasion of the 153rd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, in Kunsthalle Exnergasse in Vienna in 2001. We are still looking forward to the possible opportunity to do another Communist Manifesto exhibition on another anniversary.

¬ Rethinking and coming to terms with the communist past was an excellent example how art projects can be used to introduce discussions on relevant social issues into broader public discourse. Your further projects as Broadcasting project, dedicated to Nikola Tesla, Normalization, Normalization: dedicated to Nikola Tesla and others, dealt with local daily politics, pointing out the cultural policy dominant in Croatia during the 90s. Can you tell us something more about those projects? What are in your opinion the specific roles of the curatorial practice in relation to the production of meaning and knowledge at work in the exhibitions and projects?

We understand exhibitions as forms of a unique emotional and physical experience, the main task of a curatorial role in that sense would be to create the context, discursive and physical space for reflection, a temporary point in which all these parallel processes are collected, contested, intensified and enhanced. For our curatorial work of key importance is articulating sensitive social issues, espe­cially in relation to the local context. The exhibition Normalization: dedicated to Nikola Tesla, presented in Gallery Nova in 2006, in a certain non committed way served as a closure and a case study of our long – term investigation of different aspects of normalization processes we have been facing recently. Tesla’s case is particularly interesting because it interlocks the existing tensions between national identity and nationalism and pro-EU orientation. Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) was a controversial genius scientist; he was a Serb from Croatia who died as American citizen. In the past decades he has been claimed and disowned by Croats, Serbs, Yugoslavs and Americans. Both of our projects dedicated to Nikola Tesla were also a reaction to the fact that during the 90s in Croatia his Serb origins seriously damaged his cult status as a scientist. After being a “public hero“ in Yugoslavia, during the 90s, over a whole decade Tesla was absent from public discourse. However, in just a few years he became a model of reconciliation and “building of bridges“ between nations and neighboring states, and his famous saying „I am proud of my Serbian origin and Croatian motherland“, overused in the socialist decades of brotherhood and unity, has been resurrected as a useful daily-politics slogan in politically opportunistic eagerness to express ethnical tolerance.

In 2006 the 150th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth was celebrated in grand style. Because of the Broadcasting project we did in 2001, we were invited by Serbian Cultural Center in Zagreb to organize again an exhibition on Tesla, and we decided to organize an archive exhibition on Tesla’s presence in the public discourse since the 50s, and an open call for an anti-monument to Nikola Tesla. We received about 50 proposals from artists, journalists, architects, scientists, designers, students, philosophers, writers etc., and we included them all in the exhibition, as an integral part of the exhibition. We also set up an archive material that made visible dramatic raptures in public reception of Nikola Tesla and its broader social and political back­ground throughout the last 50 years.

¬ Since 2003 you have been running the non-profit gallery called Galerija Nova in Zagreb. The gallery has an important avant-garde tradition from the 60s and 70s and under your direction it has become a platform for supporting critical local and international artistic production. The projects with some artists from the 70s as Sanja Ivekovic, Mladen Stilinovic, Goran Trbuljak seems revealing the lack of institutional engagement. What are in your experience the difference and gap between the institutional and independent curatorial activities and positions?

We would not associate some intrinsic differences between both positions, party due to the fact that we are all “in the system“ and “on the market“. We see ourselves as an independent and self-organ­ized team but also as a micro-institution that tries to create institutional space that is more sensitive to the actual needs of the local scene. When we started the Gallery Nova program, apart from working with both the youngest generation of the local artists and the most prominent artists who started in the seventies, international profiling, initiating discursive programs, the idea was to make the space available for collaborative activities of so called “independent“ local scene that has been very active since 2000. Just as with every exhibition project, when thinking about the Gallery Nova program we try asking the “what, how and for whom“ questions always again. Being opened and aware of changes of possible answers with time and changing circumstances is – we think – part of our responsibility. We can still see many institutions in Croatia not being aware of that, so there is not enough recognition not only of the experiences of the previous generation but also of current attempts of independent initiatives.

¬ Recently you gave a very interesting lecture within the Berlin Biennale night programme: Modernism and its Discontent: The Croatian Avant-garde of the 1950s, related also to the exhibi­tion about the Croatian sculptor Vojin Bakic organized last year in the Gallery Nova. Beside the legacy of socialism and its conse­quences you are focusing on the unsolved questions of Croatian modernism. How have you started to search for new terms of dis­course, for new readings of modernism in Croatia in postwar period?

Complex relations between »marginal« modernisms with a social­ist background and the supposedly ideologically free and neutral modernism of the West – have recently become the subject of more extensive research. The case of Yugoslavia is especially inter­esting, not only as the only socialist country that cut off relations to the Eastern bloc, as well as relaxing ideological barriers and opening up to the West culturally, but also as a cultural space in which parts of the communist political and cultural elite recognized correspon­dences between the universalism of modernist art and the universalism of socialist emancipation.Our research has mainly been focused on sculptor Vojin Bakic (1915–1992), artist on one hand perceived as “authentic“ modernist sculptor, main figure of the break-up with soc-realism who forged the paths for abstraction and freedom of artistic expression in the 1950s, and on the other as “state artist“ in service to socialist ideology who did a number of large state commissions for anti-fascist monuments. The problematic relations of the legacy of socialist decades is unavoidable also for understanding the context of the reception of Vojin Bakic’s work. Bakic is highly acclaimed in official art histories, yet his monuments to anti-fascist struggle have been devastated and destroyed in the heat of nationalism and anti-communism of the 90s. Current revisionist view inscribes into post WWII Yugoslavian abstraction a tendency of “restoration of belonging to Western European cultural circle“ and understands modernism as certain continuity of “bourgeois“ culture, failing to comprehend that exactly this bourgeois, traditionalist culture prone to academism strongly resisted modernistic tendencies, and that modernism stands on the positions of social changes, that ideologi­cally it is closer to socialist project than to bourgeois culture. That does not mean that modernist artists were necessarily Party men. It is not about mere manipulation and instrumentalization of modernistic tendencies for political needs related to Yugoslavia’s separation from Soviet bloc. In modernist abstraction enlightened communist consciousness saw closeness to universalism of modern emancipatory politics. Those artists were not modernist because they were communists following Party line, but as modernists they were necessarily leftist, anti-fascist, socialists, and communists.

The fact that Vojin Bakic used the same formal repertoire to simultaneously create global cosmopolitan cultural identity and collective memory of socialist Yugoslavia is thus not a paradox but true face of modernism. The point is not to neutralize or reconcile contrasted views on modernism, but to understand them within dynamics of their relations, to see contradictions as inherent to modernism itself, and to explore their specifics in given cultural space. The ideological battle over modernism in socialist Yugoslavia and its legacy and importance today is exactly that which can not be left to institutions, that needs to be taken over and invested with new meanings.

¬ Two years ago you have curated the exhibition Collective Creativity at the Fridericianum in Kassel about collective creating. The exhibition was focused on artists’ groups and collective artistic creativity. You are working as collective since nine years. What about collective curating? Is it also a way of productive and perfomative criticism of social institutions and politics?

The idea of a long-term collaboration came as an afterthought resulting from the enthusiasm that developed around this first exhibition and the recognition of the ideas and political stands that we shared. What we call collective curating in our case is actually con­nect­ed with the motivation to continue to develop what was spontaneously achieved throughout the experience of the first project. As Djuro Seder, member of the Croatian group Gorgona said in 1963, The collective work cannot be foreseen as a form, only as an effort. “The final appearance of the collective work is of no consequence at all.“ In other words, collective creativity is not a value per se, it exists only as a never finalized process in which creativity functions as a side-effect of the emancipatory powers of a collective.

¬ The 9th Istanbul Biennale curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kotun was a rare proof that biennials can be self-reflexive and con­structive gestures rather than merely tools of the tourism industry, urban regeneration and cultural globalization. Titled simply Istanbul, it was modest in its ambition – no grand narratives or portentous themes. The attempt to critically rethink the format of biennials is an inevitable challenge for every curator. Your previous curatorial expe­riences and approaches will certainly guide you in the concep­tion of the 11th Istanbul Biennale. Although is maybe too early, can you tell already something about some core projections which you regard as most important in the process of the exhibition taking its form? What about the relationship to the city of Istanbul, to its local historical and political content?

The problem we are facing is how to critically examine social, temporal and spatial limita­tions of representative “event“ culture, in the field of contemporary art paradigmatically exemplified by phe­nom­enon of biennial exhi­bitions, how to rethink the questions of production, definition, and presentation of the work and of artists’ identity in globalized (art)world. At this stage the 11th Istanbul Biennale is an open research focused on the examination of the status of the Istanbul Biennale in both local and international contexts, con­nected to a set of political and social issues associated with the wider region, considering the fact that Istanbul plays a major role in the political and social landscape of the region in the widest sense of the word. This research tends to become public in the attempt to also activate the two-years period between biennial exhibitions in the process of creating a possibility for sustained collaborations with existent inde­pend­ent cultural initiatives and programs. The format of the exhibi­tion itself is understood as a possibility of transient and temporary, yet ambitious plans for long-term communication and establishing new international platforms for artist and cultural workers from supposedly shrinking but still corporeally very real geo­graphical margins. Even if today one feels that there is no region excluded from the international art circuit, there still remains the issue of control, the unresolved and continuing play of inclusion and exclusion. In that respect, the role of biennial-as-process is under­stood as a counter-position to general weakening of any institutional safe­guards that determine (cultural) standards outside the market­place. The process of biennial is the active site for exploring the rules of conduct established in the Western art system, how is the circulation and reception of information regulated and how can we (and can we really) challenge it, focusing primarily on regions of the Balkans and former Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa, in which relationship with Western “mentors“ and dependence of avant-garde art practices on validation from the Western art systems still largely define the context of contemporary art. It develops across two interconnecting trajectories, one responding to hegemonic Western model of the role and position of contemporary art and its history, as perpetuated by globalized system of art institutions and net­work of markets that regulate them, and the other to artistic and cultural practices that are critically assessing commercialization that tends to dominate life under conditions of neo-liberal capitalism.