Oktobar 75 – An Example of Counter-Exhibition (Statements on Artistic Autonomy, Self-management and Self-Critique)
The Oktobar events at SKC presented vital moments of linguistic-political forming and development of New Art Practices 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. 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, metaphorically named this new, democratic practice of art the utopia of hectographs, 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, 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.
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.
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.
Starting in 1972, Oktobar events took place annually over the month of October, and were diverse in format and content.
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).
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.
For contextualisation of Tijardović’s position see my introduction text to the exhibition chronology: The Student Cultural Centre (SKC) as the Art Scene.
Jasna Tijardović, the conversation with the author conducted on the occasion of the research of Oktobar 75 in August 2012.
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).
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.
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