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Jelena Vesić:

The Student Cultural Centre (SKC) As the Art Scene1

The examples of exhibitions presented in this selected history of alternative and experimental interventions into the traditional, modernist practice of exhibition making points to the specificity Student Cultural Center (SKC) in Belgrade as alternative institution that opened up its space to experimental art and exhibition practices, social activism, and critical intellectual developments. As I already pointed out in my previous research of the topic2, the SKC can be observed as an institutional space created in a sort of performative mode as an institution-in-movement, or institution-movement, since it grew out of the student and workers’ protests of 1968, and continued that movement from the inside as a critical wave supported by the international flux of artists, intellectuals, and activists. SKC was a result of the political activities of a group of young intellectuals who led the protest and the student union. Control over the building of State Security (UDBA), which was undergoing reconstruction and was located in the center of Belgrade, was given over to the student union at the very end of the 1960s, and what is more important is that it happened after the student protests, which ended with the symbolic, ambiguous, and equally assimilative words of Comrade Tito: “The students are right!” The cultural climate in the network of student centers established throughout Yugoslavia may be seen as unified in its tendency toward a leftist critique of the official cultural policy of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), which followed the idea of self-management as the unique model of Yugoslav socialism, resulting in the fields of art and culture as something that may be described as the model of “relative autonomy” or, more generally, as a modernist-progressive tendency that was often referred to as socialist modernism. Whereas in the 1970s Yugoslavia was characterized by processes aiming at the liberalization of the society, New Art Practices,3 which evolved in the context of new liberal institutions such as the SKC were influenced by the Western, neo-Marxist, post-’68 criticism.4 That criticism was in the local context primarily directed against the politically passive (in the sense of maintaining a status quo) bureaucracy of the Yugoslav state and the emergence of the “red bourgeoisie” as a new class (including possible class differences in the existing system of art).5

The end of the protests in terms of “redirecting” the students toward the space of SKC has been understood in two different ways, both of which have had their revered representatives among the protagonists of the epoch and art historians who deal with this issue. For some it was the state mechanism of control that turned SKC into an “organized margin” or a “peripheral social lab” in which critical ideas and practices could be easily identified, isolated, and controlled;6 for others it meant “conquering and producing a space of genuine freedom,” which made room for a different artistic expression and a free circulation of critical ideas coming from the new generation of (conceptual) artists from all over the world.7 Did SKC mean closing into a “ghetto” or opening up space for critical intervention? These ambivalent issues still haunt the history of its work over several decades.

As an expression of multilayered and laminated rebellion, SKC community was heterogeneous and hybrid, just like any other self-organized group with no political leadership. It was the lamination of leftist critical options—from French Maoism to Yugoslav “humanist Marxism,” feminism, and anti-colonial struggles, dissidence and liberalism, mysticism and nationalism, with a touch of soft hippie, and later glam-punk subculture. What unified all of these different policies was their critique of the official state structures,8 which ranged from the radical left to liberal turns and proto-nationalisms (that gradually prevailed and became the “official option” during the 1990s). In other words, in a less overt and more moderate, culturally specific form, SKC expressed a whole spectrum of critical views on the state, in various protests during the 1960s and 1970s.9

SKC’s performativity as an experimental institution is reflected precisely in its unwillingness to settle itself on the one side of the binary opposition of institution versus self-organization as an euphemism for the strict division of cultural space into official art and alternative art—a partition line that has often been used as the principal epistemological tool in the more recent cultural histories of the countries of real socialism.10 Instead of that, SKC offered a different model of production, which may be expressed as self-organization – institution – self-organization. This formula results from the fact that the self-organized generation-in-protest created space for establishing a new institution; that the end of the student protests was “crowned” by the inauguration of SKC as an institution established from above, by the state; and that the same ’68-ish, self-organizational, and communitarian modus operandi evolved under the “newly conquered institutional roof.”11

In other words, SKC as a venue was characterized by that ambivalent combination of horizontal and vertical forms of organization. It was simultaneously a state institution of culture (with all the attributes that accompany a state institution) and the site of spontaneous, occasionally subversive gatherings of heterogeneous communities of artists, intellectuals, and political activists. Even though it intended to be a professional cultural institution—in terms of personnel and as a venue created from “above”12—SKC operated in a nonhierarchical manner, rejecting the traditional disciplines and the professional divisions of labor, as well as the illusionistic separation of “cultural producers” and the audience or “consumers.” Its functioning mode introduced new forms of cultural activism, based on volunteer and enthusiastic work combined with professional and paid labor, which was also sometimes a source of various internal antagonisms, productive conflicts, and debates.

As the different exhibition cases presented in this archive would show, the overall activity of SKC was not merely the consequence of the curatorial engagement of the official program editors (such as Dunja Blažević or Biljana Tomić in case of visual arts program), but was rather the consequence of collaborations with various communities gathered around SKC and other similarly minded colleagues, coming to SKC from different cities in Yugoslavia and from abroad. Numerous people participated in SKC activity without being a part of its formal institutional structure, but worked instead in the same space within the self-organized communities, often influencing the regular program through the newly formed editorial boards, councils, and groups.

SKC as a “performative institution” represents its departure from the classical national welfare-state institution as an expression of power and a guardian of the canon. Performativity would here mean “surpassing” all of those dualisms that SKC embodied as a movement-institution, self-organization-institution, or critique-institution; performativity emerged here as the very “substance” that eroded the firmness of the walls, the enclosure, isolation, and self-sufficiency of a classical institutional venue with regard to everyday life and sociality “from below.”

 

Milan Jožić: Protagonists of New Art Practices—portrayed in a line facing the camera and leaning against the wall of the SKC gallery.

Milan Jožić: Protagonists of New Art Practices—portrayed in a line facing the camera and leaning against the wall of the SKC gallery.

That maneuver of various positions, which was constant in SKC, can be read within Ješa Denegri’s paradigm of the artist in the first person,13 which in a way was captured in a famous “institutional representative” photo by the young art historian Milan Jožić, showing various artists, critics, curators, and friends—protagonists of New Art Practices—portrayed in a line facing the camera and leaning against the wall of the SKC gallery. The photograph shows the multitude or plurality of those “first persons,” representing people who used to be there (in Roland Barthes’s terms),14 who used to be that institution, and who made it precisely what it was with their permanent presence. In contrast with the ideology of “white cube” and the restricted and controlled conventions of behavior, pedantically organized around isolated art objects, SKC was removed from the institutional map of classical artistic venues. SKC was a place where one practically lived; for all its participants, it was a sort of self-organized school or alternative university, whose keywords were democratization, process, and experiment, and it was that very difference between the elusive field of eventfulness and the firm, objectified structure of physical space inhabited by hierarchies and objects, that would mark SKC as a “performative institution.”

 

Milan Jožić: Protagonists of New Art Practices—portrayed in a line facing the camera and leaning against the wall of the SKC gallery.

Milan Jožić: Protagonists of New Art Practices—portrayed in a line facing the camera and leaning against the wall of the SKC gallery.

In the essay by then young critic Jasna Tijardović published in the exhibition catalogue of Oktobar 72 (SKC, 1972), these tendencies are clearly reflected: “If an exhibition serves only to show artworks to the public, then the public sees only the petrified results of artistic work, while the process itself—that is, what New Art Practices have termed democratization of the production and reception of art—remains inaccessible and unknown.”15 Tijardović goes on to call the practice “a utopia of hectographs,”16 which was a kind of “brand mark” of the art of SKC, as well as many other critical approaches in a more widely understood corpus of Conceptual art. The utopia of hectographs would thereby encompass all of those artistic forms that emerged from the student protests and the corpus of “poor art,” which refused to be a “social luxury” or a “precious object,” striving instead to become a reflection of one’s position or attitude. As Charles Harrison has observed (and Art & Language group had some influence of numerous members of SKC):17 “The substantial aim of conceptual art was not simply to displace paintings and sculptures with texts and ‘proceedings’, but rather to occupy the space of beholding with questions and paraphrases, to supplant ‘experience’ with a reading, and in that reading to reflect back the very tendencies and mechanisms by means of which experience is dignified as artistic.”18

Indeed, New Art Practices offered two fundamental contributions, which are still in the focus of attention when it comes to global research on the history of Conceptual art and its contemporary manifestations: one is the demystification of the process of artistic production, whereby a work is understood as a process or an open experiment, but not necessarily a product; the other refers to the issue of democratizing artistic practices, based on the gesture of “opening the code” of artistic production and presenting the actual artistic act as possible and accessible to all, rather than something that remains within a firmly defined artwork as an exclusive material object.

PS

The main theme of this exhibition chronology is the different aesthetical-political positions and trajectories of SKC over the politically and artistically fertile and divergent 1970s. However, I’m not making an “objective archive” in terms of presentation of the most art historically significant exhibitions (although such exhibition history have not yet been written). The exhibition projects that I write about fluctuate in artistic quality and art historical recognition. Rather, I am focusing on some “cases” that are representative for various currents of art, life and politics of the artistic community of SKC, taking into consideration its “social outside” —the cultural-political developments in the socialist self-management of Yugoslav society, including different paradoxes that “color” the selected exhibition projects from within and in the interaction with a broader public. Besides, my exhibition chronology is not based on “neutral” historical data, but assumes the “first person” of the speaker (writer), and therefore escapes the “unifying principle” of archival methodology. The chronology is written as a succession of mutually connected blog posts, each focusing (monographically) on the singular event. The texts are written in different styles and from variety of art-historical approaches and methodologies.

One thematic thread traces the various processes of promotion and historicization of the New Art Practice. These processes are considered, not only through the exhibition history, but also by thinking through the exhibition as a form of art historicization.

  • Different “cases” presented in this thread point to the political-aesthetical polarization of the “official” and “alternative” culture, but concrete analysis of exhibition history also shows a mutual interconnection between the official and alternative institutional spaces, often linked via individual actors of the artistic scene at the time—sometimes by critics and curators as initiators, negotiators, and organizers, or sometimes by artists as participants or even initiators of exhibition projects. This interconnection can be observed through the comparative analysis of the first exhibitions of New Art that took place in SKC (Drangularijum, Objects and Projects, At Another Moment) vis-a-vis the first promotions and historicizations of New Art in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade (in exhibitions such as The Examples of Conceptual Art in Yugoslavia, Young Artists and Young Critics 71, and Documents On Post-Object Phenomena in Yugoslav Art 19681973). The concrete analysis of exhibition history in one real socialist country, which presents concrete examples and mechanisms of the communication between the official and alternative cultural spheres, also confronts the epistemological paradigm of reading art histories through the division between the official and alternative art, characteristic for hegemonic discourses of the so-called Eastern European Art and accompanying post-socialist ideologies.
  • Tracing the processes of promotion and the historicization of the New Art Practice also shows this movement wasn’t merely related to the changing status and form of the artwork, but to the exhibition process itself. For the first time what we are faced with is the figure of curator, who is not only an exhibition maker neutrally presenting current tendencies in art, but one who also (re)thinks the exhibition form, experimenting with the contexts and canons of exhibiting in various ways. These processes are analyzed in the “cases” of Drangularijum, At Another Moment, and Against Art projects, and various other exhibitions that also show the transgression of the traditional exhibition formats: Comrade Woman and The Week of Latin America – Murals by Salvador Allende (Ramona Parra) Brigade—in combining political conferencing and contemporary art; Seminars of Group 143, and Oktobar 75—in replacing exhibition format by different strategies of collective knowledge production; The action Autobus by the group A3—in taking art and artistic life outside of the gallery.
  • The processes of historicization and (self)articulation of the New Art Practice also shows certain ambivalences between the preservation of the traditional individual authorship (of artist, curator, and art critic) and the genuine collective developments that break with the traditional disposition of roles in the world of art. These processes can be followed through such projects as Drangularijum, Oktobar 75, Comrade Woman, Seminars of Group 143, the Autobus action by A3 Group, etc. The ambivalences between the individual versus collective practice, or institutional versus self-organi`ed action were also part of the SKC alternative institutional experiment, which has already been discussed in this text.

Another thematic thread traces the various artistic politics and positions that cohabitated together within the open institutional space of SKC. In some cases I examine the relations between art and politics, while in others I discuss different politics of art. Sometimes the two intertwine, as in Oktobar 75, or in the cultural-political intervention of Yugoslav artists into the presentation of Eastern European Art in Amsterdam for the exhibition that was later renamed Works and Words.

  • Many projects realized in SKC discussed some of the burning issues of Yugoslav politics, culture, and society, such as the processes of withering away of the state, socialist self-management, anti-colonial struggles, relations between Marxism and the feminist struggle, and so on. All of these issues were often observed through the glasses of post-’68 international youth culture activism, and in some cases portray this heated atmosphere within the semi-permeable institutional walls of SKC. In that context we can distinguish the “activist art” projects exemplified by the Comrade Woman conference, or the artistic program for The Week of Latin America, and projects that contemplated the politics of art together with the social politics, as in events such as Oktobar 75.
  • Numerous other projects positioned themselves around issues of collectivity and collective ethics that were also in line with socialist and anarcho-liberlist art-political worldviews. Differentiation of the various attitudes on the issue of collective practice can be traced through the exhibitions, actions, and discursive performances, such as Drangularijum, Oktobar 75, Seminars or Autobus by A3 Group.
  • One of the mainstream lines within the SKC (including SKC’s “culture exports” to the other institutions) assumed sophisticated investigation of the internal art issues. These artistic politics can be traced in the comparative analysis of several divergent cases that I present in this exhibition chronology, such as Objects and Projects, At Another Moment, The Examples of Conceptual Art in Yugoslavia, Young Artists and Young Critics 71, Documents On Post-Object Phenomena in Yugoslav Art 19681973, and Seminars by the 143 Group.
  • The exhibition Against Art may be seen as exception that proves the rule or the logic of this chronology. It encloses the decade of the experiments of the art of 1970s and invites us to reflect on the new in New Art Practices. Against Art produces a series of curious ambivalences that shed light on the entire decade—its promises and failures, it hopes and disappointments.

1 The title is the quote of the book Studentski kulturni centar kao umetnička scena (The Student Cultural Center as the Art Scene), written by Ješa Denegri, the most prominent critic of the scene of New Art in Belgrade. The book comprises his critical essays published during the 1970s, or about art of 1970s, and was published by SKC, Belgrade, in 2003.

2 See Jelena Vesić, “SKC (Student Cultural Center) as a Site of Performative (Self-)Production: October 75 – Institution, Self-Organization, First-Person Speech, Collectivization,” Život Umjetnosti 92 (2012): 30–53. Also see: Prelom kolektiv, “Two Times of One Wall: The Case of SKC in the 1970s,” in Political Practices of (Post)Yugoslav Art, ed. Zorana Dojić and Jelena Vesić (Belgrade: Prelom kolektiv, 2010): 124-154.

3 The term New Art Practices was introduced by art historian Ješa Denegri, who closely cooperated with the community gathered around SKC in Belgrade, as well as other experimental communities of artists throughout Yugoslavia. Denegri borrowed this term from Catherine Millet’s text “Conceptual Art as Semiotic of Art,” which was translated in the Novi Sad-based journal Polja 156 (1972). Millet visited SKC on two occasions: once in 1971 when she gave lecture on Conceptual art, and another time in 1972, when she presented a segment of exhibition on Conceptual art that she previously curated for the 7th Paris Biennial of Young Artists in the same year.

Denegri elaborated on the term New Art Practices, autonomously linking it to the new phenomena in Yugoslav art of the late 1960s and 1970s in the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition Nova umetnost u Srbiji 19701980 (New Art in Serbia 1970s–1980s), published by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, in 1983. As Denegri explains later in his book Sedamdesete – teme srpske umetnosti, nove prakse, 19701980 (The seventies – the motives of art in Serbia, new practices, 19701980) the term New Art Practices was chosen because “there was no adequate theoretical ground for the use the narrow and specific term of Conceptual Art. […] The term New Art Practices is chosen because it encompasses the following meanings: the term new tells that it is about innovative neoavantgarde phenomenon, radically different from the other previous currents in the local art scene (discrete modernism, informel, new figuration, neoconstructivism, etc); the term artistic is there to abolish all doubts that it is legitimate form of art (not an anti-art activity or a work outside of the field of art, as many critics who disagreed with this New art often emphasized); the term practice boldly underlines that it is about processes, operations, durations, events, happenings etc., and not about final and finished aesthetic objects (paintings, sculptures, etc.). In the local context the term practice, also alludes to philosophical notion of praxis, which could point to the meanings of activism, social critique and political engagement in accordance with the radicalism and militancy of artistic phenomenon comprised by this term.”

The “new” in New Art Practices can also be thought in terms of the formation of new subjectivity; that is, a new subject of cultural policy created through the criticism of the ruling aesthetic and political regime. New Art Practices that evolved around the student cultural centers emerged from the critique of both capitalist and socialist society, and their stereotypical cultural visions—the art market, a cultural policy linked to the representative principles of the welfare state in the sense of hegemony of institutional bureaucracy and hierarchy as the prevailing principle of social and artistic organization.

4 Speaking about critical art practices in socialism, Dunja Blažević stated the following: “The original critique—on which we insisted as the first postwar generation, in a sort of conflict with the generation of our parents—actually insisted on a more genuine socialism or a return to the original values of socialism. […] I have always been interested in this social function of art, rather than in merely revolutionizing art within art or in a change of means, strategies, and so on; I have always been interested in what we should do further with that, how far this art can reach, and what it can produce in a wider social context. I still truly believe in self-management as a possible social project. However, it was neither the only nor the fundamental focus of artists gathered around the gallery of SKC.” See Prelom kolektiv, “SKC and New Cultural Practices: Prelom kolektiv in Conversation with Dunja Blažević,” in The Case of SKC in the 1970s – Exhibition Notebook, ed. kolektiv (Ljubljana–Zagreb–Beograd, 2008), 84; http://www.prelomkolektiv.org/eng/PPYUart.htm (last accessed June 1, 2014).

5 See Prelom Kolektiv, “Istraživačke bilješke: Slučaj Studentskog kulturnog centra – Beograd 1970ih godina” [Research notes: The case of Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade during the 1970s], Život umjetnosti 83, 2008/9: 66–79.

6 See “Student Cultural Centers as Reservations, Prelom kolektiv in Conversation with Miško Šuvaković,” in The Case of SKC in the 1970s, 85-90.

7 See Prelom kolektiv, ed., “SKC and New Cultural Practices” 81–84.

8 Self-management as the new model of social management brought some unforeseeable counter-effects; for example, the fact that it gradually created space for a better structural position and economic formation of the “new class” of techno-managers (technocrats), who actually began to organize working processes in various factories, companies, and institutions. Gal Kirn has considered this phenomenon, which is almost a classical element of capitalism, as the process of introducing post-Fordism (i.e., post-socialism) into socialism, which resulted in the flexibility and precariousness of labor, and the gradual dissolution of links to the “social contract.” These circumstances enabled the emergence of very different waves of criticism of the state during the 1960s and 1970s, among which Kirn has singled out three distinctive positions: 1. Leftist revolt of students and workers, supported by critically minded alternative movements; 2. Critique from the liberal positions (representatives of autonomous capital and technocracy); and 3. Various national movements. See Gal Kirn, “Jugoslavija: Od partizanske politike do post-fordističke tendencije” [Yugoslavia: From partisan politics to post-Fordist tendencies], Up&Underground (Art Dossier Socialism) 17/18 (2010): 207–30.

9 That lamination and hybridity can also be observed in SKC’s specific programs. The art theorist Stevan Vuković emphasizes this moment in his testimony on the policies of historicization of SKC: “What I find interesting when it comes to the historicization of SKC’s programme is to search for those programmes which are still relevant today as a sort of historical reference points for what is happening today. It is something related to that complete heterogeneity of programmatic matrixes. I’ve recently consulted the history of the 1980s and one can see clearly there that at the same time, let’s say on the same evening, something like Golubnjača could take place, as a performance that introduced nationalistic discourse into the cultural setting, then a concert of some new-wave band striving to shift the local culture towards a sort of ‘glamour’ entertainment, and eventually a round table on national liberation movements in Latin America. It is hard to reconcile these things and call them a product of one and the same matrix.” Source: Exhibition video material Slučaj SKC-a 1970ih godina [The case of SKC in the 1970s], Prelom Collective, interview with the theoretician of art Stefan Vuković.

10 This division is reflected in two binomials or binary pairs that have constantly reappeared in studies on Eastern Europe and the New Art history in the countries of the socialist bloc. The first would include the concept of authoritarian/totalitarian art (within which socialist realism, Nazi art, and fascist art are considered without any ideological differentiation, as opposed to the concept of free art (which encompasses various avant-gardes and modernisms). The second binomial would include the concept of official art (which evolves in accordance with the dictates of an authoritarian state) as opposed to the concept of alternative art (which is in formal opposition to the state, “hiding” on the margins of the public, in “dark” spaces of the alternative scene, artists’ apartments, or in nature). There are similar binary oppositions both in the corpus of New Art history with its specific geopolitical focuses on art and culture, and in the contemporary interpretations of the so-called independent culture, such as the theories of parallel networks or the alternative models of civic organization. See Jelena Vesić, “SKC as Space of Production,” in ART IST KUKU NU UT, exhibition catalogue (Tartu Art Museum, 2011), 39–48.

11 In that sense it is important to mention that the SKC was partly financed by the state and partly forced to engage in entrepreneurial activity (which means that it depended on fund-raising and a proactive attitude toward its own sustainability), and partly it was volunteering and self-organized, which are all tendencies that are close to the present-day exclusions of public institutions from the state budget or the attempts of the new self-organized, project-based institutions to “force” the state to participate in their work and maintenance.

12 Dunja Blažević considers SKC as a fully a professional institution. She states: “If we look for the possible models, we may say that SKC resembled the London ICA—Institute for Contemporary Art—which also situated in a single building, under a single roof, various professional programmes and was programmatically involved in current political issues and New art. What I was involved in as the Editor of Visual Arts Program, and after me it was Biljana Tomić, was something that we referred to as applied criticism. It was a concept that led to the establishment of a new model of cultural institution.” See Prelom kolektiv, ed., “SKC and New Cultural Practices,” 81.

13 Ješa Denegri developed a hypothesis about the first-person artist in regard to the new artistic phenomena, which broke the “fixed norms defining the notion and borders of a praxis we call art.” Instead of the white cube as a modernist salon, the praxis of art became “independent artistic expression.” Denegri related that historical figure with Duchamp’s legacy and the “unconditional egocentrism of the artist, aimed at overcoming and tricking all the attributes that the morality of a bourgeois society attaches to the phenomenon of art, treating it both as an object of trivial commercialization and as a phenomenon of often idealized cultural superstructure.” Ješa Denegri, “Umetnik u prvom licu” [First-person artist], in Razlozi za drugu liniju: Za novu umetnost sedamdesetih [Reasons for the second line: For the new art of the 1970s] (Novi Sad: Marinko Sudac Collection and Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, 2007), 219–20. Originally published in Umetnost 44 (October–December 1975).

14 Roland Barthes wrote that photography always says that was it or that’s it, or that is so, owing to its ability to multiply endlessly what happened only once and will never be repeated in life—an idea that photography does not represent memory, an imagination, a reconstitution […] but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 82.

15 Prelom kolektiv, “Two Times of One Wall: The Case of SKC in the 1970s,” in Political Practices of (Post)Yugoslav Art, ed. Zorana Dojić and Jelena Vesić (Belgrade: Prelom kolektiv, 2010), 141.

16 Jasna Tijardović, in conversation with the author, August 2012.

17 Jasna Tijardović and Zoran Popović made first contact with the group Art & Language in New York in the first half of 1970s and continued to collaborate with the group through the magazine Fox. Goran Đorđević also collaborated with some of the Art & Language members and wrote for Fox, and Dunja Blažević, Bojana Pejić, and Raša Todosijević shared a lot of similar attitudes toward art and society with Art & Language, although they didn’t collaborate directly with the group, except during Art & Language’s visit to the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art and SKC in 1975, which also influenced the initiation of the project Oktober 75. In his later theoretical writings Miško Šuvaković also claims influence of Art & Language on his thinking and artistic positioning.

18 Charles Harrison, Essays on Art and Language (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 55–56.


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