The Zagreb-based curatorial collective What, How and for Whom, while adopting a decidedly political and critical position, addresses a number of salient political, social, economic, and cultural issues, which crystallize out the transforming society in which they happen to live and work. Their practice could be characterized as promoting a set of critical ideas and challenging approaches to the mainstream ideologies and discourses within existing society. In the interview, we recalled some of these issues and approaches with the two members of the collective, Ivet Ćurlin and Natasa Ilić, who led the tranzit seminar in Budapest.
Bea Hock: Your seminar was structured around some of the major exhibition projects WHW has organized and the issues tackled therein. One such issue is cultural geopolitics. In your case, this may entail the designation of “the Balkans” as a cultural entity as well as an attempt to re-open the former “Yugoslav” cultural space—at a time when such endeavors are regarded as nostalgic or even suspicious. Can you tell us what is to be gained by a re-opened cultural space, and whether or not Western-organized “Balkan exhibitions”[i] help this aspiration?
WHW: What we have been trying to do from the very beginning of our work is re-open the channels of communication in what we believe is a shared cultural space, and the benefit clearly lies in expanding the claustrophobic and xenophobic little circle into which we felt we had been forcibly pushed. But we are also very much aware of the fact that in recent years several big projects in Western European institutions focused on the Balkans, and all of them suffered, to a certain degree, from a wish to clear Western European consciences in regard to the war in the former Yugoslavia, and to fulfill Europe’s Balkans-related mission. As we know, the geographical label “Balkans” has been transformed into one of the strongest derogatory terms in history, in international relations, in political sciences, and even in today’s general intellectual discourse. During the ’90s it acquired social and cultural meanings that on the one hand transformed it into a symptom embodying all that was wrong according to the utopian notions held by the aseptic (multi) cultural consensus of the “European Union.” On the other hand, it came to signify a virgin soil whose dynamism, vitality, and “authentic” life could challenge empty Western consumerism and its decadent art world. As a European “other,” its role is in fact to secure Western identity as a single and coherent unity, covering up for the fact that the West is also a heterogeneous, inconsistent system with its own centers and peripheries, imbued with antagonisms, and that these very antagonisms are constitutive for every contemporary society.
When we talk about cultural geopolitics, we are aware that an artist or a curator coming from any of the marginal regions—which in truth is just about the whole world minus the United States and “Western Europe”—is somehow expected to “represent” the region she’s coming from, and that art practices are understood as “documents,” almost anthropological-sociological material about the reality of the “Other,” and the state of the societies where they were produced. It is a very ambivalent situation, yet one might opt for taking up such invitations even if these are often clearly “identity” and “regionally” based, and then try and find the best way around it, hoping that new models for cultural action can be created and new relationships within existing hierarchies can be engendered. One tactic that WHW has been using is that we accept an invitation to do an exhibition of Croatian art and then just work around it and do our own thing: invite people from other countries as well, making it clear that we want to put Croatian art production into a wider context. Another option may be to establish long-term relationships conducive to “translation” rather than one-time events for “representation,” and we have approached this through organizing exhibitions that grow or evolve from one another—such was the series of exhibitions that started out with “Looking Awry” at Apex Art, New York in 2003, and continued with “Repetition: Pride and Prejudice” at Gallery Nova, Zagreb in 2003 and “Side-effects” at the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade in 2004.
BH: Another international exhibition of yours was called “Normalization.” Was there a difference in how artists from “the East” and “the West” understood, and related to, this term?
WHW: In 2000, a few years after the war, extreme right-wing nationalist governments lost the elections both in Croatia and in Serbia, and the “normalization” process started. Through discussions in 2004 with Charles Esche who was at the time director of Rooseum in Malmö, Sweden, and Vasif Kortun, director of Platform Garanti in Istanbul, Turkey, we decided to start a project that would explore aspects of “normalization” in different European societies and examine how the term has been variously used in different socio-political programs. Due to financial and time constraints, we have never developed a joint project, but each institution organized a separate one dealing with this topic.
In Zagreb, the “Normalization” project started with a round table, which was followed by a series of talks and an exhibition.[ii] Each activity dealt with different aspects of normalization, ranging from the everyday normalization of the body, to postwar political normalization (or rather, the masking of the continuation of conflict), and referred to the particular context in which it was made, so we would hesitate to speak of the differences in understanding between the “East” and the “West.”
It was especially interesting to look at how “normalization” has been used in political discourse within the Croatian context: how it is activated and how it has changed over time, and whether normalization today serves to legitimize liberal capitalism and the political system of parliamentary democracy as the only natural and acceptable solution, the optimal norm of political consciousness. Liberal-capitalist normalization works as ideological interpellation—we were not “forced” to become “normal” liberal-capitalist, free market subjects, we “want(ed)” to become like that, as we had some ideological fantasy that we would immediately become “like the normal world.” One of the pre-election campaign slogans of the Social Democratic party in Croatia was “To live like a normal world.” And Vojislav Koštunica, the Serbian president who won the elections over Milošević in 2000, promised in his campaign that Serbia would become “a boring society” like the societies of the liberal order of the European Union. Obviously, nobody ever asked what would be the price of that “normalization,” and consequently, its many ugly results—unemployment, poverty, crime, widening class differences, deteriorating health and social security, a conservative backlash, rising ethnic, racial and sexual intolerance, etc.—have not been understood as essential products and symptoms of the liberal-capitalist system, but as mere “side effects.”
Normalization as ideology is especially concerned with the production of consent and consensus. One of the main ideological traps of the current liberal-democratic free market normalization is that it is represented as an almost natural kind of process—slow, gradual, unstoppable, irreversible, inevitable, and one which human forces and longings simply cannot affect, and it therefore passes almost unrecognized and not reflected.
BH: Another exhibition of yours explored the potentials of “Collective Creativity”. Do you, as a collective working together for seven years now, find it easy to collaborate—what are the kinds of difficulties you face and what are ways you overcome them?
WHW: For some reason, people always ask: “So, what are the difficulties in working together? What are the points of conflict?” We, on the other hand, prefer starting from Victor Misiano’s term of “institutionalized friendship” that implies solidarity and trust, and also hints to the fact that the beginning of our collaboration happened spontaneously, around the first WHW exhibition: “What, How and for Whom, on the occasion of the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto,” from which we also took the name of our organization. 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 strong political stands that we apparently shared. After having started working together, we very soon realized that collaboration enables us to do things that none of us individually would be capable of: create and influence new spaces and modalities of art production, thus challenging the environment of ossified and closed art institutions in Croatia. The possibility of self-organizing is a fantastic thing and we don’t seem to be an isolated phenomenon in this respect; quite the contrary, we form part of a broader local, non-institutional scene.
The collaborative platform “Zagreb – Cultural Capital of Europe 3000” (CK3000) involves eight member organizations from different fields of cultural production.[iii] Since its inception in 2003, it has developed many collaborative practices within the local and international cultural scene that have drawn attention to the inadequacy of dominant models of cultural production and developing new practices for influencing cultural policy and transforming the cultural production in Croatia.
By accentuating the good things about collaboration, we are not trying to whitewash our problems or deny the possibility of disagreement and conflict which is a constitutive element of any collective endeavor if it is not to became “party-line conformism,” but we would like to stress the fact that through the constant process of discussion and negotiation one becomes aware that “the collective is much more than a sum of its parts,” to quote Jon Hendricks.
BH: You have already mentioned that the first exhibition you jointly curated, “What, How and for Whom,” took place “on the occasion of the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.” You also stated that you view art as a transformative cultural practice and artists as responsible thinkers. All this suggests you embrace Marxist thinking and have a pronounced political stance.
WHW: On the one hand, traditional divisions between the political Left and the Right have become insufficient and even an impediment for articulating the real political issues that are surfacing in contemporary societies, and one sometimes simply feels uneasy at being identified with any of the current actors of daily politics. On the other hand, in Croatian society there is an inappropriate tolerance for, and even glorification of, what clearly qualifies in any political language as right-wing options. As many of our projects have been developed in direct opposition to these events and tendencies in Croatian society, we are aware of being perceived as “leftists” and, indeed, our political and ideological stance is pretty obvious from our exhibitions and publications.
BH: You said that you learned a great deal of your organizational and managerial/institutional know-how from civil organizations operating outside the realm of art. Yet, more often than not, you show your rather socially and/or politically oriented projects in traditional exhibition spaces and institutions. Is it because you believe that there is still a need for the classical exhibition venue? Or what other factors are involved?
WHW: The reason why contemporary art practice still refuses to completely abandon the contested “classic” exhibition venues is not only its dependence upon the representational mechanisms of the art system, but also the fact that it is precisely the exhibition as “genre” that can, and should, offer different formats for temporary modifications of the social frame and its creative redefinition. The program of Galerija Nova in Zagreb that WHW has run since 2003 firmly invests in the potential of the white cube to shape various forms of interaction process. Moving away from presenting the artwork as a finished and unquestionable act, and moving towards different forms of temporary occupation, appropriation, and “privatization” of space, the program is trying to redefine and challenge the gallery environment as a “homogeneous” and “neutral” structure. Even more importantly, this structure is used as a referential frame that makes possible perspectives in which new questions and reflections over social, historical, economic, and cultural relationships can be posed. In the end, the question of whether it is possible to radically transform the basic conditions of the reception of the artwork coincides with interrogating the political potential of art. This implies art’s ability not only to locate and articulate sensitive topics within society but also to outline new forms of resistance and collectivity. In this respect, the gallery space is seen as an urban public space of social visibility, intense circulation, a site for showing, passing, spending time, interacting, conflicting, and enduring.
We hope to open up new spaces for different modalities of art production and critical thinking within the existing systems, and to sustain this effort over a long period of time. We have been working together for seven years now and feel a strong need to develop new structures for our own work, and to leave the space open to keep rethinking them, both when they fail us and when they seem to be successful.
BH: What do you think about the two/three day seminar format that tranzit.hu invented for its Free School, and how did you feel about—or in—this relatively unusual setting?
WHW: We liked it a lot, as the slow unfolding of the three-day structure allowed a lot of time in which to screen and discuss numerous video works and films. In this setting we also had an opportunity for in-depth discussions both about the practicalities and theoretical premises of our projects as well as the geopolitical context in which these projects developed. The second and third seminar day, following the public lecture and the first day, which were still mostly of an “introductory” character, enabled both us and the participants to get more relaxed and open up in our discussions. For us, it was also very valuable to get a perspective on the Hungarian art scene and its social context, and to learn about the similarities as well as the considerable differences between Croatia and Hungary, particularly in the perception of the post-socialist transition in Central and Eastern Europe. The seminar made us acutely aware that in our future research into the current social, economic, and cultural transformation, we need to move even further beyond the post-Yugoslav context and to engage in long-standing research and discussions with cultural workers from the region.
The interview was conducted autumn 2006 via email.
Beata Hock holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Gender Studies and is currently Research Associate at the Leipzig Centre for the History and Culture of East Central Europe, contributing to the work of the research cluster “Transnationalisation and cultural identities” with the project Inscribing Eastern Europe into a socialist world through art. Beside scholarly articles published in international journals, Hock is the author of the monograph Gendered Creative Options and Social Voices: Politics, Cinema, and the Visual Arts in State-Socialist and Post-Socialist Hungary (Stuttgart, 2013).
[i] “In Search of Balkania” (Neue Galerie, Graz, 2002); “In the Gorges of the Balkans: Europe’s Art and Cultural Scene” (Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, 2003); “Blood and Honey: The Future is in the Balkans” (Klosterneuburg, Vienna, 2003).
[ii] Participants at the discussion events were Charles Esche, Vasif Kortun, Luca Frei, Boris Buden, Roger Buergel, and Erden Kosova, in collaboration with Community Art, a group from Zagreb that run informal studies. The exhibition was held in Gallery Nova from December 2004 to January 2005; participating artists included Johanna Billing, Phil Collins, Goran Dević, Luca Frei, David Maljković, Dan Perjovschi, Platforma 9.81, Marjetica Potrč, and Jasmila Žbanić.
[iii] Member organizations are BLOK, Center for Drama Art; Community Art; Kontejner; Multimedia Institute mi2; Shadow Casters; Platforma 9.81; and WHW.