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Collective Work – Đuro Seder’s response to Gorgona group’s homework assignment

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Date: 1963

Participants: Đuro Seder, Gorgona group

Organized by: Radoslav Putar and Gorgona group

Location: Zagreb

From 1961–63, members of the Gorgona group (comprising artists, architects, and critics) collectively organized and self-funded a series of exhibitions in the “Šira Salon,”[1] a frame shop in Zagreb that Gorgona occasionally rented for its exhibitions. Gorgona’s activities could be seen as a precedent for numerous self-organized artistic exhibitions and spaces that would become a significant marker of the Zagreb art scene of the 1970s.

In place of an exhibition, however, this chronology presents a material trace of another, less visible aspect of Gorgona’s work: activities such as meetings, discussions, collective walks into nature, the exchange and circulation of letters, quotes, thoughts, surveys or assignments among group members. Documentation of these activities were only presented to the public in 1977, when the first exhibition of Gorgona group was organized at the Zagreb Gallery of Contemporary Art, curated by Nena Dimitrijević. Until then, their visibility remained limited to the small circle within and around the group itself, but since its presentation, Gorgona has been seen as a precursor to the New Artistic Practice even if the new generation of artists was able to identify this “point of origin only retroactively.”
In 1963, Radoslav Putar gave all group members a homework assignment – an example of their customary appropriation of bureaucratic and authoritative discourse — demanding that they answer the question as to whether it was possible to produce a “collective work.” Most responses posited collective work as a utopian, or simply an impossible project, unfit for realization. Ivan Kožarić, for example, proposed to make collectively, plaster casts of the inside of of the heads of all Gorgona members. Đuro Seder’s response distinguished between the “critical-rational” and the “Gorgonian” approach to the idea of collective work. In both cases, collective work was a desired ideal, a way to overcome narrow individualist interests and concerns. However, whereas the “critical-rational” approach exhibited a level of certainty in the successful achievement of this ideal, the “Gorgonian approach” highlighted its ultimate impossibility. In each of the four scenarios outlined by Seder, the attempt to create and exhibit a Gorgonian collective work fails as it transforms from idea/desire to materialization/representation. This failure is in all cases bound with the constraints of the exhibition space and its management—here epitomized by “Šira,” the owner of the frame shop. Seder’s four imaginary, failed exhibition scenarios construe the exhibition itself as the epitome of the paradoxes inherent in the (re)presentation of art: the exhibition at the same time communicates and undermines the art’s utopian potential.

The “Collective Work” homework exercise is presented here as an artifact housing questions that continued to haunt and preoccupy artist groups during the 1960s and 1970s: the dialectics between individualism and collectivism, self-organization and institutionalization, visibility and opacity, professionalization and amateurism, state support and autonomy.

DocumentĐuro Seder: The Collective Work (1963)

Guide for the chronology (Ivana Bago: Something to think about: values and valeurs of visibility in Zagreb from 1961 to 1986)


[1] Officially named after its owner, but it became Studio G when Gorgona made exhibitions there.


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“I do not wish to show…” (1971); “The fact that someone was given an opportunity…” (1973); “Retrospective” (1981) exhibitions by Goran Trbuljak

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Dates: 1971/1973/1981

Participant: Goran Trbuljak (1948)

Location: Galerija SC (Student Center Gallery), Zagreb / Galerija suvremene umjetnosti (Gallery of Contemporary Art), Zagreb / Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade

In the early 1970s, Goran Trbuljak made the first in a series of exhibitions in gallery spaces showing nothing but the poster that advertised the exhibition. The poster typically included a photograph, the place and date of exhibition, and the title written in the form of an artistic statement. The first exhibition shown in 1971 at the Student Center Gallery presented a poster with Trbuljak’s photographic self-portrait and the statement: “I do not wish to show anything new or original.” In this first major public presentation of his work, Trbuljak articulated his position as that of an artist refusing to be an artist in the conventional sense and rejecting participation in the tried-out formulas of novelty and originality that condition success in the art world. At the same time, he showed how difficult it was to extricate oneself from the existing system: precisely by declaring not to wish to show anything new or original, he managed to introduce something that was both new and original. The novel and original form of a poster-exhibition functioned by way of appropriating the tools by which art events get promoted and incorporating them into the artwork. The poster and the exhibition thus became conflated and reduced to the same PR function: that of communicating the condensed statement of the artist’s project.

This process of deconstructing the logic of authorship, promotion, and success governing the art world, was continued in his second solo presentation in Zagreb in 1973, this time at the Gallery of Contemporary Art (today the Museum of Contemporary Art), the most prominent contemporary art venue in the city. Here, the exhibition consisted of a poster with the photographic image of the gallery’s building and the statement: “The fact that someone was given an opportunity to make an exhibition is more important that what will actually be shown there.” What was implicit in his previous work (i.e., the fact that the announcement was equal or even more important than the exhibition), is here made explicit by a statement that foregrounds institutional granting of “opportunities” as the primary condition of art production. In 1981, at the Belgrade Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Trbuljak presented his “Retrospective”—a poster merging two previous statements with a new one: “With this exhibition I maintain continuity in my work.” Again Trbuljak at the same time deconstructed and perpetuated one of the postulates of achieving success: continuity, i.e. the creating and maintaining of an idiosyncratic artistic style.

What makes these works by Trbuljak so relevant for the history of exhibitions is precisely that they were not conceived as individual works to be presented at exhibitions, they were conceived precisely as exhibitions, or as he himself described them in 1981 as “works-exhibitions.”[1] Thus, his artistic practice was based on the appropriation, translation and deconstruction of the institutional and curatorial discourses and methods, but without eliding the issue of his own position and complicity as an artist in the existing art world.

Guide for the chronology (Ivana Bago: Something to think about: values and valeurs of visibility in Zagreb from 1961 to 1986)


[1] Goran Petercol, “Interview with Goran Trbuljak,” Studentski list, January 23, 1981, 15.


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Exhibition by painters Līga Purmale and Miervaldis Polis

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Date: August 1974

Participants: Līga Purmale and Miervaldis Polis

Location: Riga Photo Club in the Central Printing Workers’ Club

This exhibition of photorealist works by fourth year Art Academy students Miervaldis Polis and Līga Purmale was the first serious manifestation of its kind not just in Soviet Latvia, but also in the wider region. It was unprecedented for students to organize an exhibition on their own initiative open to all outside the academy. To make it happen, the artists had to collect recommendations and permits from almost ten different institutions. The artists vividly recall[1] an episode in which members of the Central Committee suddenly turned up at the exhibition, apparently on the basis of an anonymous report that one of the paintings made a mockery of Lenin. But while the painting Brass Band (1974) did have a figure of a little trumpet player in a peaked cap in the foreground, it bore no resemblance to the proletariat leader.

At one of the exhibition’s public discussions, the artists were approached by Estonian art enthusiast Matti Miliuss, who subsequently arranged for the exhibition to be presented at the Deaf Persons’ Society in Tartu and the Tallinn Art Institute in Estonia.

The exhibition gained a lot of public attention despite receiving no press coverage. This resonance was connected with the unabashedly photorealist and hyperrealist manner of painting. The exhibited works formally complied with the official line of Soviet art—realism—but in reality they were much closer to contemporary trends in Western art. The professional art scene greeted the young artists with a mixture of genuine admiration and resigned or harsh criticism, but in time Purmale and Polis would come to be regarded as masters of the genre.


[1] An interview with M. Polis in May, 2011.



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Oktobar 75 – An Example of Counter-Exhibition (Statements on Artistic Autonomy, Self-management and Self-Critique)

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Date: October 1975

Participants: Dunja Blažević, Ješa Denegri, Goran Đorđević, Vladimir Gudac, Bojana Pejić, Zoran Popović, Jasna Tijardović, Slavko Timotijević, Raša Todosijević, Dragica Vukadinović

Location: Student Cultural Center (SKC) gallery, Belgrade

The Oktobar events at SKC1 presented vital moments of linguistic-political forming and development of New Art Practices2 in Belgrade during the first half of the 1970s. SKC gallery was regularly organizing alternative Oktobars” as a sort of oppositional, counter-cultural activity to the official art event called October Salon, which contained the conventional (bourgeois) prerogative of a salon, and was following l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) trends of late modernist aesteticism. At that time, October Salons were being held annually at the Modern Gallery located in a former garage on Masarykova Street, opposite to the SKC building and in a sense, SKC’s Oktobars literally operated as a sort of “door-to-door” counter-salon.

Oktobar 75 was (self-)organized as a participatory project in which the community of cultural workers—art critics, curators, and artists gathered around SKC gallery—decided to publish a series of individual critical statements on the concept of self-managing art. For the opening night, the gallery was left empty: the only “object” was small table, with a pile of stapled A4-size publications with the designed print Oktobar 75 on the front page (the print can be seen among the pictures accompanying this article). In other words, what makes this project a counter-exhibition is the very decision by SKC’s artistic community to not to show the artworks as objects of contemplation, but to use the gallery space to present their individual statements and texts that comprise the hectograph notebook, Oktobar 75.

The topic of art and self-management corresponded with the ideological program of Workers’ Self-Management that was part the official state politics of socialist Yugoslavia, initially developed by the prominent politician, economist, and intellectual Edvard Kardelj.3 However, counter to all possible “literal” translations from the sphere of politics to the sphere of art and vice versa, the issue of self-management art in the Oktobar 75 debate didn’t remain closed within the circle of ongoing discussions about workers self-management in state institutions and in the production sector, which were often occupied by bureaucratic questions. It is equally worth mentioning that the Oktobar 75 debate hasn’t been considered a straightforward, frontal critique of the state (cultural) apparatus on behalf of an alternative art practice. The issue of self-management actually evolved here into the larger debate on the politicization of cultural activity, and the experimental change of the language of art with the emergence of the new paradigms of Conceptual art and New Art Practice.

Many of the texts published in Oktobar 75 explored the relationships between the autonomy of art and artistic engagement in specific ideological and institutional constellations along the line of political division of the world into the socialist East and the capitalist West, and their dominant ideological worldviews about what art should be and what culture should represent. Taking into account the specificities of Yugoslav self-managed society, but also its shared viewpoints with sometimes Eastern, sometimes Western ideologies, the real cultural political target of Oktobar 75 became the bourgeois institution of art and its preservation within “the official” institutions of culture, mostly located centrally in Belgrade, as the capital of former Yugoslavia. Socialist self-management was applied rather generally and routinely in the actual practices of various artistic associations and public cultural institutions. The institutions at the time enjoyed the program of a “relative autonomy of culture” and the official state policy can be described in terms of a generalized modernist tendency that was often defined as socialist modernism in the field of visual art. The Oktobar 75 collection of statements showed how nominally progressive socialist modernist tendency advocated by the Yugoslav state in the very practice proved itself as the conservative one. Oktobar 75 directly criticized the aspect of art management that neutralizes the political through the use of abstraction and modernist abstract forms, enclosed into the traditional bourgeois structure of the “admiration of precious objects.” Let’s hear some voices of the original participants of the event.

 

Oktobar 75 (excerpts)

Art should be changed! As long as we leave art alone and keep on transferring works of art from studios to depots and basements by means of social regulations and mechanisms, storing them, like stillborn children, for the benefit of our cultural offspring, or while we keep on creating, through the private market, our own variant of the nouveau riche or Kleinbürger, art will remain a social appendage, something serving no useful purpose, but something it is not decent or cultured to be without.

THE SELF-MANAGING SYSTEM OF FREE EXCHANGE AND ASSOCIATION OF LABOUR THROUGH SELF-MANAGING COMMUNITIES OF INTEREST REPRESENTS A NEW NON-OWNERSHIP RELATIONSHIP that examines and revises the existing models of artistic work and behavior.

Dunja Blažević, curator of the SKC gallery

The ballast of the past is such that we, who have different social circumstances today, and therefore greater possibilities for ANOTHER ART, are incapable of understanding correctly society’s need for art. Even though we have perceived that the classical antagonism of class provenance concerning the division into two “types” of labour should be overcome, even though art has the status of an equal-footing phenomenon in society, that same art, endangered and confined for centuries, is showing its old class face again.

Only when we really come to understand that art is a SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE ACT, the same as any other social act, shall we be able to say that art has finally been released from its decorative authority.

Bojana Pejić, associate curator of SKC

A continual wish for a total autonomy of art is nothing else but its effort to attain a self-conscious and efficient functioning within the framework of its own language.

It is only when functioning as a critique and self-analysis of its own language that art is capable of raising the issue of the analysis and critique of social practice and demanding its change.

Art that celebrates victory stops fighting.

Raša Todosijević, artist

Art must be negative, critical, both towards the external world and in relation to its own language, its own (artistic) practice. It is pointless and hypocritical to be engaged, to speak and act in the name of some humanity, of mankind, political and economic freedoms, and to remain passive on the other hand in relation to the system of “universal” artistic values, the system that is the basic prerequisite of the existence of artistic bureaucracy, and therefore of the outrageous robbery perpetrated by star artists.

Zoran Popović, artist

The alternative October events at SKC, as we may conclude from the reading of excerpts from the statements of the participants of Oktobar 75, have functioned not only as a response of one exhibition to another one (i.e. the larger October Salon exhibition), or as an act of confrontation between the “official” and “alternative” cultural spheres, but also as an effort at building a different perspective on art and artistic activity, which is based on the processes of democratization of the production and reception of art. Art critic and curator Jasna Tijardović, who advocated different informal and anti-disciplinary behavior in the gallery space,4 metaphorically named this new, democratic practice of art the utopia of hectographs,5 which for her became a brand mark of the art of SKC, and of many other critical approaches within 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 (political) position or the attitude.

Oktobar 75—a declaratively critical counter-exhibition—can be seen as a window for looking at one of SKC’s many “characteristic faces” cohabiting its permeable institutional walls. It shows the “face” of the critique of the Yugoslav socialist state from the leftist, Marxist positions that emerged in the circles of the student protests of 1968 with the slogan (which is tautological at the first glance): fighting socialism with socialism. That characteristic face of criticism can be recognized in the institutional politics of SKC’s first director, Petar Ignjatović, and the artistic politics of Dunja Blažević, the first editor of the SKC gallery art program.

There are two explanations for the initiation of Oktobar 75. One is connected to a broader international climate of political art and the questioning of the legacy of late modernism. In this context I should mention the influence of the group Art & Language, who were in contact and collaboration with Zoran Popović and Jasna Tijardović, and who came to SKC in early October 1975 to organize a symposium on the political engagement of art. The seminar consequently led to the “localization” of the questions on art and politics and focusing to the practice of self-management within the community of artists, critics, and curators gathered around the SKC gallery. The second explanation is connected to Dunja Blažević’s personal and political inclinations toward rethinking the actual social transformations within Yugoslav society, and her interests and beliefs in the politics of socialist self-management. This explanation, of course, places Blažević in the position of curator of the event, with which she completes her five-year work as the head of the SKC gallery,6 after which the management of the visual arts program is delegated to the curator Biljana Tomić, who would choose a different cultural and political approach.7

According to the protagonists of the SKC scene, some of the artists and critics refused Blažević’s proposal for Oktobar 75 as “a form of collaboration with the regime in power” (since that was a time when the duty of citizens was to express their opinion about self-management as “the optimal social system” practiced in various types of institutions, from factories and schools to cultural institutions), but numerous actors of the SKC community accepted the challenge, using the theme as a starting point for exploring some fundamental issues related to the social role of art.

Oktobar 75 was documented in the form of a publicly distributed notebook—a hectographed reader with texts written by all participants on the project in the form of proclamations or statement-essays. Some of these texts were republished in the journal Književna reč, and provoked a public polemic in the official press. Moreover, some of the texts in Oktobar 75 were presented and performed (read) by their writers in the Vertovian documentary Cinema Notes by German director Lutz Becker. In the film, Becker portrays the artists, curators, and art critics as cultural workers by juxtaposing the performance of individual statements written for the reader of Oktobar 75 with other narratives or gestural expressions of various people involved in SKC, including some who had refused to participate in Oktobar 75. The film speaks of SKC as a production site, a gallery-as-a-factory that, instead of an idealistic picture of modernization and industrialization with its glorification of production and its ideology of hyper-productive work, enthusiastically produces the ideology of not-doing and not-working—the fetish of contemplation.

Documents:

The translated version of the script Oktobar 75 from the notebook in the exhibition SKC in ŠKUC: The Case of SKC in the 1970s by Prelom Kolektiv can be downloaded here: prelomkolektiv.org/pdf/catalogue.pdf.

My essay with the title “SKC as a Site of Performative (Self-)Production: October 75 – Institution, Self-Organization, First-Person Speech, Collectivization” closely examines the political intervention of the SKC in the institutional landscape and the art system of the time by using the counter-exhibition Oktobar 75 as the case study. The essay, available in both Croatian and English, was originally published in the Zagreb-based journal Život umjetnosti and can be downloaded here


1 Starting in 1972, Oktobar events took place annually over the month of October, and were diverse in format and content.

2 The term New Art Practices was introduced by art historian Ješa Denegri, who closely cooperated with the community gathered around SKC in Belgrade. For the further explanation of the term, see my introduction text into the exhibition chronology: The Student Cultural Centre (SKC) as the Art Scene (especially the footnote 3).

3 For better understanding of Kardelj’s position I’m quoting one of his famous statements: “As far as Yugoslavia is concerned, the choice is not between multiparty pluralism or a one-party system, but rather between self-management, i.e. the democratic system of pluralism of self-management interests, or the multiparty system which negates self-management. […] The pluralism of interests is incomparably closer to the individual and immeasurably more democratic than any form of political party pluralism which alienates society as a whole from the real man and citizen, even though it decides ostensibly on behalf of the citizen.” Edvard Kardelj, Self-Management and the Political System (Belgrade: Socialist Thought and Practice, 1981). A recent study on Yugoslav self-management available online: Gal Kirn, From the Primacy of Partisan Politics to the Post-Fordist Tendency in Yugoslav Self-Management Socialism, http://p-dpa.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Kirn-post_fordism_and_its-discontents.pdf.

4 For contextualisation of Tijardović’s position see my introduction text to the exhibition chronology: The Student Cultural Centre (SKC) as the Art Scene.

5 Jasna Tijardović, the conversation with the author conducted on the occasion of the research of Oktobar 75 in August 2012.

6 Dunja Blažević was the curator of the SKC gallery until the end of 1975. In 1976 she became director of SKC, but also participates in different ongoing programs (see the chronology on Comrade Woman conference as an examples).

7 The art and exhibition policy of Biljana Tomić can be traced in this archive through the projects of promotion of New Art Practice in the Tribune of Youth (Novi Sad), BITEF Festival (Belgrade), early exhibitions in Museum of Contemporary Art (with Ješa Denegri), participation in various SKC programs before she became the head of the SKC gallery in 1976 and later, through her exhibition projects and participation with Group 143.


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