Joanne Richardson: Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) was formed in the early 1980s in Slovenia from the discrete groups Laibach, whose musical performances exhibited a fanatical overidentification with totalitarian rituals, the visual arts group Irwin, whose montage paintings juxtaposed fascist and communist symbols with avant-garde iconography, the theater group, Scipion Nasice Sisters, which proclaimed an exorcism of religion and ideology into the mirror image of art, and the design group, New Collectivism, best known for a scandal that ensued in 1987 when their remake of a Nazi poster was awarded a prize in a national competition–thereby showing the proximity between socialist realism and Nazi Kunst that was indistinguishable to the jury. Following the scandal, the yearly ritual of celebrating Tito’s birthday was abolished. After the collapse of socialism, the group’s most popularized projects of the 1990s have been the NSK "State in Time," the creation of various embassies, and the issuing of passports. I want to hold off talking about these transformations until later; for now can you give a more concrete, personal account of the formation of Neue Slowenische Kunst in the 1980s and the relationships between its different departments.
Eda Zufer: Probably each NSK member would have a slightly different story, a different memory. The story about how NSK was founded is quite well known. In 1984 three groups joined Laibach (founded in 1981) and created the larger collective NSK. A bit later some new departments were formed, but the only one that really functioned was the Department for Pure and Practical Philosophy with Peter Mlakar. I personally remember the beginning of the eighties as a sudden and quickly progressing explosion of alternative art, culture, and discourse that challenged the existing social and political system. Laibach did this in perhaps the purest and most radical way. Already at the beginning Laibach deliberately distinguished itself from the rest of this alternative culture in a clear manifesto: "Art and totalitarianism are not mutually exclusive. Totalitarian regimes abolish the illusion of revolutionary individual artistic freedom. LAIBACH KUNST is the principle of conscious rejection of personal tastes, judgments, convictions … free depersonalization, voluntary acceptance of the role of ideology, demasking and recapitulation of regime, "ultramodernism." Around the core of the ideas of this Laibach manifesto, a kind of community was created. Those of us who were working in different groups realized that we had common goals, that first of all we shared Laibach’s reflection and approach to the existing society, and that we had a similar approach for using Laibach’s formula in developing different formal languages for the different group (visual, theater, design, etc.) We created this whole social field–through conversations, through normal social life.
Miran Mohar: It is important first to emphasize the political, cultural, and social circumstances of the 1980s in Slovenia. There was a very strong civil society movement; philosophers, politicians, and intellectuals opened discussions about the political system and ideology. A lot of new media appeared, like Mladina and Radio Student, and independent art productions started. This political and social context also helped to shape NSK as a group. Laibach started in 1980 and by 1983 all the other groups had already been founded: Irwin, Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater, and New Collectivism. Each group has its own field, its own media; each has been functioning as an independent group from the beginning, and still does today. When we found out that we were gravitating toward similar goals (analyzing the relation between art and ideology, working on the internationalization of the art scene in Slovenia, linking different media of art) we started to communicate more widely. The first important act at the beginning was publishing an issue of the Slovenian magazine called Problemi. This was the first time we used the name Neue Slowenische Kunst, which appeared on the cover of this magazine. After that we collaborated on various projects. In 1985/86 we worked together on the theater production entitled Retrogarde Event Baptism below Triglav (conceptually prepared by the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater). This production was very important because it was our first collaborative art project. I think this was a turning point in how NSK was perceived in Slovenia. The event, which took place in Cankarjev Dom, Slovenia’s central cultural institution, was at the same time the inauguration of the biggest stage in Slovenia. One of the main topics of the show was the permanent conflict between avant-garde and tradition. It is important to stress that our position from the beginning has not been to operate against existing institutions, or outside these institutions, but to create a parallel institution. This was the important difference that distinguished NSK from other alternative groups in Slovenia at that time.
J. R.: In what sense do you think of NSK as a parallel institution, because parallel implies something that is alongside and moving in the same direction? Maybe perpendicular would be a better word?
Borut Vogelnik: Parallel is not a very exact word, but neither is perpendicular. The fact is that there were no institutions to be parallel or perpendicular to. From the beginning it was our conscious decision to establish an institution, to occupy a position. It is important to say something more about the social and political situation at that moment. During the 1980s art would circulate only on the borders of Yugoslavia, and really mainly on the borders of Slovenia. There was no possibility to exhibit abroad. Only certain artists who were favorites of the central committee would be in a position to move outside. The whole situation was not controlled in the same way as in Russia or Romania, by excluding the possibility to travel. We had passports and could travel, but the situation was controlled by two means. The salaries were so low that it was nearly impossible to allow yourself to travel, so there was no real possibility to function in Western countries. The possibility of certain artists to have state exhibitions outside was based on the choice made by the cultural bureaucracy. The position of being or not being an artist was defined externally, by somebody who would give you a job as an artist. And the art that circulated within the borders of Slovenia was also limited. There was no abstract art exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana until the mid-1980s. Even the importation of American abstract expressionism or minimal art was considered to be an act of heroism. To decide at that time to establish our own social grupation was to decide not to accept such a system. For this reason I said NSK was not parallel. There was no possibility to enter any kind of normal circuit, to break the borders in other ways. What we did in a way was to establish an artistic field in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of word. Looking backwards, exactly such social entities existed throughout the whole history of the avant-gardes.
J. R.: What is the relationship between NSK and the previous avant-gardes? In an earlier manifesto you defined the retro-avant-garde project of NSK as "reviving the trauma of the avant-garde movements by identifying with them in their moment of assimilation in a system of totalitarian states." What exactly is the nature of this trauma?
E. Z.: The nature of this trauma is the assimilation into the totalitarian political regimes in Russia and Italy, to be perhaps too concrete. But I would first try to explain the context and the significance of the idea of "the avant-garde" for us. At the beginning of the 1980s there was a huge intellectual production in Yugoslavia by aesthetic philosophers who wrote books that for the first time brought the history of the avant-garde to the readers, to the students. There was a parallel worldwide process of redefining the historical avant-garde, but it was important that this also happened in the Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian languages. At that time, this was a kind of radical discourse because the stress on internationalism was used to oppose hermetic national and communist ideological models. We of course read these books, and they were a source of knowledge for us, but at the same time, we were standing on completely different historical and sociological grounds than those writers. Maybe I’m wrong but at least this is how I see things today. There was an ideological shift in the value system, a real difference between the "retro-avant-garde" and the early 1980s academic interpretation of the avant-garde. The attempt by philosophers to place the avant-garde in a historical and theoretical framework was based on the perspective that socialism would never collapse. Here was the shift: we used this potential of the avant-gardes from another, rather twisted perspective--that socialism will collapse. We were deconstructing it. At least this is how I see this process today.
B. V.: The relation to the avant-gardes was very different–it was not unified within the larger group.
J. R.: Can you elaborate about these differences in the relation to the avant-garde among the different groups? I am hearing two different things: on the one hand NSK is the reaffirmation of the utopian project of the avant-gardes, but you also define NSK as returning to the trauma of the assimilation of the avant-gardes into totalitarianism, which seems to express a critical or negative relation to them. The return seems to be a kind of exorcism. What is this exorcism?
E. Z.: This was, as Borut mentioned, very different for each group. Laibach was representing the field of ideology; the theater was representing the field of religion, and Irwin was representing the field of culture. Each group had its own strategy. If I can speak for the theater group, the subjective and utopian potential of the historic avant-garde was a huge inspiration. I think this return to the initial trauma of the historic avant-garde was true for the whole NSK project, which I see as a critical project. But the story is not finished of course, and the evaluation has to be done from the outside. The term "exorcism" that you mentioned was only used in the Scipion Nasice Theater manifestos as the strategy of a specific Retrogarde event, Marija Nablocka, which took place in an abandoned design studio in the center of Ljubljana.
M. M.: We even used different expressions. Laibach used the expression "retro-avant-garde"; Irwin used "retro-principle"–strictly; the theater group used "retro-garde." The meaning of these words differed, as it is obvious from the expressions themselves. For Irwin, in the first manifesto, this was declared as a principle, as a way of doing things. "Retro-principle" was connected to the organic eclecticism of Slovenian art; we accepted eclecticism by birth, we took it over as an obvious standpoint, even though everybody at the time was trying to speak about the "originality" of Slovenian art.
J. R.: NSK is frequently defined by critics primarily in terms of a strategy of overidentification. To paraphrase loosely, this means not a parody of totalitarian codes, but an obsessive identification with them–in a sense, taking totalitarianism more seriously than it takes itself. This fanatical identification through a kind of excess has the function of making manifest what the power structure usually needs to suppress in order to function unquestioned. In this context it is perhaps important to mention that the Communist authorities banned Laibach performances. The mechanical rhythms of Laibach’s performances, the use of the quasi-fascist military uniforms, the adoption of a fascist pose during an interview on Slovenian television are all instances of overidentification. Do you think that it was primarily Laibach that used this principle of overidentification, or does it pertain to NSK in a wider sense? Can you explain how you understand this concept and practice?
B. V.: This principle of overidentification is very important for all of us, but it is not the only one. The fact is that it was started by Laibach; they were the ones who introduced it. It is necessary to stress the different roles the various NSK groups play. Laibach are the politicians. Irwin, we are the chroniclers and we do overidentify with NSK itself, more precisely with the construction of the system. We overidentify with the future construction, which is going to be shaped at least partially by our present description of it.
E. Z.: Laibach’s use of it was definitely the most total. Until 1986-87 they practiced their role everywhere, in the coffee bars, in social spaces. They were always in uniform. The design of the uniform was an art in itself. It was impossible to say what kind of uniform it was, but it was very militant and also very sexy. This was very important for the urban, social climate; it was a highly visible social ritual in a very small Ljubljana. The ritual created the sense of physical presence of this entity; it conjured this ideological-artistic construct in real life. All the other groups were much more "professional"--the rituals were framed in the context of art events. Irwin, for instance, wore the uniform strictly around their projects, for their openings. Each group applied this strategy of overidentification in to their own field. It is quite difficult to explain what this looked like. For the theater, I would need to explain how each performance was constructed since we had different strategies of inviting people, initiating them into the show, and so on.
J. R.: I’m thinking of the early organagram of NSK divided into different bureaucratic departments. Is this an instance of overidentification with the structure of the State? What is the relationship between NSK and the State–not the actually existing state at the time, but the State as a form or a concept?
E. Z.: The State and state rituals was always the main subject of NSK already during the 1980s. In the 1990s, this idea was conceptualized into the so-called "State in Time" project. I think that Irwin worked the most on this project trough the Embassies and Consulates. Recently Jani Novak from Laibach told me that from Laibach’s point of reflection, NSK was finished as a movement by the beginning of 1990s, and that it transformed into a State with an unlimited number of citizens in the 1990s, which I think is a relevant point. The approach to the subject of the State, its rituals, and its language can be understood through another statement from the same Laibach manifesto I quoted before: "Who has material power, has spiritual power, and all art is subject to political manipulation, except for that which speaks the language of this same manipulation."
J. R.: But is Laibach speaking the same language of manipulation? This is a question about how you define overidentification. If you’re just speaking the same language of manipulation or mirroring the same structure of the State, what’s the point? Even though overidentification is frequently distinguished from a "critical" stance, there is obviously a critical distance between these two moments. Overidentification does not speak the same language but makes use of a kind of supplement or an excess, and it is precisely this that has a critical function.
E. Z.: I agree. Identification, mimicking, rewriting something always brings a new moment, insight, or perception. I don’t know how to explain this in words. I think all these NSK strategies functioned best on stage, in action, as real performances. Of course the energy in the 1980s was stronger and the language more ambiguous, while in the 1990s it became more analytical, more openly critical, more reflexive. The languages of the State and ideologies are rituals, and rituals are really designed for two things: for repetition and for direct impact in the given context.
J. R.: Can I ask another question apropos of this strategy of overidentification? The term itself was first popularized theoretically by Žižek, before it entered the language of art criticism. In fact, several critics have suggested that NSK can be viewed as an aesthetic equivalent of Žižek’s theory, precisely in the context of this strategy of overidentification. How do you view your relationship to Žižek? I ask because it seems that Žižek’s name has been invoked to explain, perhaps not NSK as a whole, but at least Laibach. People will say, oh you know Laibach, Žižek speaks about them. It seems Laibach is legitimated and rendered important because of the association with the value Žižek’s name has on the intellectual market.
M. M.: Laibach in fact, at the beginning of the 1980s, first started using this method of overidentification. Žižek used or theorized what Laibach did, so the temporal relationship was in a sense reversed.
J. R.: Do you want to say that Žižek is really the theoretical equivalent of the aesthetic practices of Laibach?
M. M.: Why does this possibility seem so impossible for you?
B. V.: But it is a fact that the Slovenian Lacanian school, Žižek and XXXMolnik, in the early 1980s began to hold open lectures. This was extremely important and it influenced us a lot. We all went there. So there was a real interaction.
E. Z.: Lacanians were very present at that time in Ljubljana. From today’s point of view you can observe the whole NSK phenomenon as a kind of theatricalization of a few Žižek theses, but at that time this way of thinking (which you can say Žižek took the best elements from later on) was already in the air; it was the language of the alternative society. You didn’t need to read the books, the original Lacan or Žižek; you could get it from the journal Mladina, or from Radio Student--it was everywhere in the media, in private talks, etc.
J. R.: Do you think of the later concept of the NSK "State in Time" as a continuation of this practice of overidentification, or as a break?
M. M.: In the period of the 1980s we were still living inside an ideological block, in a one party system. NSK was an entity inside this system, especially defined within the frame of this political reality. After the collapse of Yugoslavia and the entire East, we found ourselves in a different situation. Some people were thinking that NSK was dead because it depended specifically on the political conditions of Yugoslavia. What they overlooked was that we had not a logic of opposition to the system, or just deconstruction, but we were constructing ourselves as a group, in terms of our art, our methods, and so on. We created a social base that was independent of existing institutions. In this sense we were different from Sots art, which was overwhelmed by their political reality. In the beginning of the 1990s we created our own state, NSK, as an idea to move to other territories, for instance as in the Moscow Embassy project. We didn’t change NSK, but we switched from the organization of NSK to the NSK State in Time, which started to move, to construct.
B. V.: This continuation should be defined more precisely. In the first phase we took advantage of the sociopolitical system which fell apart in the 1980s. We were used by the system for political purposes, and we used the system that was falling apart for our own purposes. In the 1990s the second phase started and was directed primarily toward the formalization and contextualization of our own entity constructed in the favorable circumstances of the 1980s. If the boundaries of Irwin and NSK in the 1980s were shaped by the resistance of the authorities, we needed to establish our own way of defining our borders. And here lies the reason for moving: to move with a social entity means to establish the visibility of its form. This logic is connected to something peculiar, which probably you have noticed: all avant-gardes are somehow fixed to certain places. Berlin Dada, Zurich Dada, French Surrealism. You would never have bodies that would move, which was characteristic of heresies. All these movements disintegrated when they moved; Surrealism disintegrated when some of them moved to NY. The definition of the avant-gardes by their space is very interesting. On the other hand, we decided to move with this body and the projects in Moscow and America stemmed from this reasoning.
J. R.: The Moscow Embassy project during 1992 is described in the subsequent book edited by Eda as trying to create a direct communication about art structures and systems that’s outside mediation (by galleries, by exhibitions). It seems that the Moscow Embassy project, as a revival of the apartment art scene of the previous decades, was trying to re-enact the model of the art community organized around the kitchen table. In what sense then is the Moscow Embassy project an overidentification with the structure of an embassy? It seems to me rather to be trying to create an alternative space for art, which is a different project. Why did you choose the word "embassy" to describe this project?
M. M.: It is exactly through the NSK Embassy Moscow project that NSK itself transformed into the NSK State in Time. In 1992 we were invited to participate at APT-Art International by Victor Misiano, Lena Kurljanceva and Kostantin Zvezdochiotov. This invitation was very important because it was an opportunity to talk directly about what happened in the East after these social and political changes at the end of the 1980s and about how we saw ourselves in the beginning of the 1990s. They asked us to do our project in a private apartment. What could be added to the context of apartment art in the beginning of the 1990s? At that time Moscow artists were already showing in galleries and museums, and just to make an exhibition in a private apartment seemed to us a very nostalgic idea. Victor and his colleagues wanted to find out if the idea of apartment art was still relevant, if it still had some elements that were useful in this new period of time. For us the double-anchored space of the project was important. The embassy, first of all, represents the State territory–in this case not a physical territory, but the territory of our work and activity. Secondly, the NSK Embassy Moscow took place in a private apartment, so the conjunction of the embassy (as a public space) and the private apartment created a very specific situation for communication.
B. V.: One other element is extremely important for me. The wave of Russian artists coming to the West had already ended by that time, at least for most of them. The enthusiasm with which they went West was over. All the big expectations about a democratic art system which were shared by artists from all former socialist countries, including us, were destroyed when we found out that these expectations were not linked to reality. We realized that the previous situation, sitting in these private apartments, was much more important for forming a community. After the 1990s, we lost exactly this social field, and this is what we wanted to rethink–whether this was possible again in any sense. Our own idea was about movement. If you are moving as a person, you get absorbed by the city you’re moving in, you are reformed as you get connected to certain circles. But with such a social entity as NSK we had the opportunity to establish our own kernel; we could become a circle, and retain our shape in Moscow or in USA as well.
E. Z.: This whole apartment art idea is extremely interesting sociologically. It expresses something that disappeared with the collapse of socialism, and the entering of the Western value systems and capitalism into these societies. This movement was crucially connected to the question of audience. In the 1980s Scipion Nasice Theater also did the first performance in a private apartment, and the second performance in an abandoned studio. This was the time when you got the impression that art was really needed by somebody, by the audience. The fact that we did all these rituals to create this interest gave us extreme satisfaction. Today it would be difficult to achieve this kind of attention and hunger from the audience even with the most brilliant public relation strategy. But at that time, it meant something else. Today it seems like just a cheap trick to send these invitations around, but at that time it had an impact. In the East, you could really say that you had art in this APT-art situation because there was an audience who needed it for survival–spiritual, mental, intellectual survival. There was a need for art. Apartment art was not a social contract relation; it was an organic relation between the audience and the art. This history and this existence was unrecorded, or very badly recorded, which is of course an inseparable part of what this experience was. You had Josef Bakstein going around with these poor videos of Collective Action. I saw them in Vilnius and it was really touching. Something really important was taking place for those people, but it was not mediated, so it just vanished. So in this context of the non-structured social space, the Embassy had a very special task.
J. R.: Eda, in the book you edited you describe Transnacionala as "an art project in the form of a journey." During June-July, 1996, 10 participants (Eda Zufer, Irwin, Michael Benson, Vadim Fishkin, Yuri Leiderman, and Alexander Brener) set out in two RVs across America. The proclaimed goal was to organize a "direct network" that "would take place outside the established international institutional networks, without intermediaries, without a curator-formulated concept, and without any direct responsibility toward its sponsors." Do you see Transnacionala as a continuation of the Moscow Embassy project?
E. Z.: For me, there is a difference between Moscow Embassy and Transnacionala. Moscow Embassy was a transitional moment between APT-art and public space, between 1980s and 1990s, between NSK as a collective experience and the need for individualization. With the Embassy we tried to create a public space out of private one, while Transnacionala was something else. Transnacionala was not a trip of a collective but of individuals, or even a trip of individualization. I am convinced that nobody during the Transnacionala conversations was thinking about how they would sound, and what it would come out like. The public, except in a very few places, did not care much about us and we did not care much for the public either. This was a kind of self-contained experience and it was designed to be a private experience, more a gift to ourselves than to a public. This is what I found very interesting about the project, and my part in putting together the book was to catch these moments of intensity–the fact that these conversations were not made for the camera or the tape recorder but that they had their own, autonomous intensity. Of course we had recorders and cameras as well, but this is another issue.
M. M.: The difference between Moscow Embassy and Transnacionala was that in Moscow NSK came as a body. In America it was much more personal, there was much less stress on the fact that this was Irwin or an NSK project. Only the last stop in Seattle put some more stress on NSK, because the people who organized the Seattle station of Transnacionala expected a more attractive event from us than just communication with the local art scene.
E. Z.: They wanted Laibach. They wanted the NSK icon.
M. M.: The organizers of the Seattle event, Charlie Krafft and Larry Reed, suggested that we should have a kind of embassy in Seattle, and we said no, this is not about an embassy, we just need a decent place to sit down and talk. When we arrived in Seattle, there were already NSK flags and posters, and a jazz orchestra was playing. There was a real difference between their expectations and ours. They were good hosts.
B. V.: Transnacionala was a continuation of the NSK Embassy Moscow, but there is a difference between these two projects. The formal difference is that in Moscow we decided to occupy the flat to install our works in it–pictures, videos, posters, and performances–and to transform it into a space for communication. The Transnacionala journey was conceived differently. We expected that permanently changing circumstances would establish a shape by themselves, and that the act of moving through America would shape us.
J. R.: What is the relation between the artwork "Transnacionala" which you did subsequently for museum exhibits and Transnacionala the event, the trip?
M. M.: For us the book and the film (directed by Michael Benson), which is not finished yet, are the tools for communicating the event to a wider audience. The Transnacionala wall is neither the illustration nor the documentation of the Transnacionala journey. We used the experience of the Transnacionala journey as an anchor for the Transnacionala piece.
B. V.: It is important to mention how the Transnacionala piece was built. It was exhibited five times. We decided to use the exhibitions as generata, proofs, rehearsals. For each exhibition one of the group members was the curator, and the others would subsequently accept some elements from the previous one. So through the five exhibitions we considered this piece to be finished. It was finished already in Vienna two years ago; after that, in Stockholm for instance, it was presented as a finished piece. The relation with the trip was exactly the relation of how the piece was built up. We would send invitations, postcards from different cities.
J. R.: The reason I asked the question is because I consider the artwork as very different from the event. Perhaps I’m just a fetishist of the event, but to me it seems the event attempted to escape mediation by galleries and the exhibition system, while the piece you produced subsequently for museums sought participation in this system. In this sense, the projects appear not only different, but antithetical.
E. Z.: The art system gains its power from disintegrating and fragmenting a certain philosophical or aesthetical or personal position that is behind the artifact that you see. The art system is not interested in what NSK or Irwin is saying, as it is interested in picking up a certain piece and expanding its own ideology upon that–the ideology of the curator, or an institution, or a gallery. The dynamic of the NSK collective was exactly to resist this disintegrating power of the art system or any system.
B. V.: I agree with Eda, but I would put it the other way around. A lot of artists today try to produce pieces that are supposed to be connected to real life. The problem with a lot of these artworks is that they compromise themselves in trying to be both at the same moment–to be exhibition pieces and on the other hand to show up as something that has nothing to do with this formal aspect of art, but completely drowned into real life. I have problems with this, because it seems to me that they lie on both sides. Very consciously, we make a complete distinction. Museums are museums. They are getting what they are asking for; in fact they usually ask for what they need.
M. M.: The Moscow Embassy was not an installation nor a performance, but a creation of the space that would serve in the best way the purpose that we wanted. Someone may say this was a performance that took one month. But for us this was not the case.
B. V.: In the case of the Moscow Embassy it was important for us to establish communication with Moscow artists in such a way that we would learn something from it. We wanted to establish friendships, and further communication and common projects. In doing Transnacionala our intention was to speak about problems in the field of art and elsewhere that no one seemed to be interested in.
J. R.: Do you think the piece produced for the exhibit was a recuperation of the event by the museum, by the art system? Of course, the question would be a recuperation of what? Cornelius Castoriadis once said, in the completely different context of the social movements of the 1960s in France, "of course everything can be recuperated, but on the other hand what is recuperated is a corpse."
B. V.: This question would be proper if the exhibited work tried to present the trip positivistically, but it is no so. Between both projects there is a relation; this is exactly the relation of exchange, when one project represents the other. This takes place in a manner and with means that are immanent to the field in which they are placed. I’m not going to discuss corpses as a necessary result of recuperation. What I would like to stress is that the concrete trip remains excluded from any possibility of museum recuperation precisely because of the Transnacionala wall. Oscillation between these two poles is constitutive for Irwin. I would remind you of the statement that we published on the cover of all our catalogues from the 1980s: "We are artists and not politicians. When the Slav question is solved, once and for all, we want to finish our lives as artists." But without any doubt the trip itself is recuperated in the Transnacionala book and through interpretative and theoretical texts dealing with it. In this case as well, if we are consistent we can describe it metaphorically as a corpse.
E. Z.: Yes, maybe the only thing that is recuperated is a corpse. But at the same time if you are honest, you admit that to try to re-create a life force constantly when the system is always pressing on you to produce corpses is an impossible position.
J. R.: I suppose the question for artists is how to relate to a system that demands the production of dead things for the market. I would like to re-pose a question asked by Anatoly Osmalovsky during the Moscow Embassy project. He asked Irwin members if you feel manipulated by the Western art market? Your answer was, "of course we do." You then repeated one of your earlier slogans, "the more you are exploited the greater is your freedom." At first the ironic reversal of this statement made me smile, but in retrospect I find it unsatisfactory. Do you really feel that the more you are exploited, the greater is your freedom? In what way?
E. Z.: The question is also what is the price of our freedom? But I don’t know the answer.
B. V.: It is really interesting that you are pointing at one of Irwin’s slogans that I can’t recognize. "The more you are exploited, the greater is your freedom" was never Irwin’s slogan. The closest formulation which we used is one of the answers from the interview Ten Duesseldorf Questions published in 1987:
"Juergen Harten: Do you not feel that achieving political freedom from a totalitarian aesthetical foundation is a contradiction? Do you do this because of your faith in the political mission of art or just the opposite: because you feel that this mission is anachronistic anyway?
Irwin: The avant-garde in its utopia wanted to change the world like an architect, but cooperated in this change more like a victim. We have no illusions about totalitarianism and art being naturally exclusive, which is why we are convinced that the more we are exploited, the more we are artists."
The slogan you are mentioning in your question fits perfectly with the activities of the so-called free world when it encouraged us to change the socialistic system.
J. R.: What do you think about globalization, insofar as in art this means the imposition of Western standards for the East? I recall a quote that an art critic made about a Hungarian artist, namely that this artist could be exhibited in the most advanced galleries of the West. Another Hungarian artist defined "underground" in this new socio-political situation as a resistance to aesthetic globalization.
M. M.: You may feel the effects of globalization, but the East is still unstructured by institutions, by the art system, by theory and so on. There is no structure that could define a system of values, so it remains a question of building it.
J. R.: But isn’t it significant that you don’t have these institutions, which appear so stifling in the context of Western art? Perhaps in their absence other models can be produced?
M. M.: But without these institutions, without a system, you only have one position: exclusion.
J. R.: I’ll ask a related question. A few days ago Borut said to me "we have no theory in Slovenia." Can you explain what this means? From my perspective it seems that not having theory produced from the outside by art critics, can mean that you become the producers of your own theory. Compared to the 1960s when artists were writing manifestoes and defining their own sphere and production, theory now seems to be producing art retroactively. Art is produced backwards by reference to (and by specific citations of) theory, which seems to have become ubiquitous. So why exactly do you consider the lack of theory problematic?
E. Z.: Official critics in Ljubljana are not speaking about rational procedures, but about myths. They are not able to put together one formal analysis of a painting. They read Western theory, but they only adopt ideological patterns. They cannot analyze the syntax or the language of the artwork; they only speak about myths and try either to raise them or demolish them.
B. V.: This is the basic difference: an in-between field that would permanently connect art production with a rational field of transmission is simply missing. According to your point of view, this field may be problematic in the West. I would agree with you. But here the lack of this field is producing a very problematic persistence of certain myths and is simply preventing artists from producing communication. What functions as a problem in the West, functions as a constitutive lack in the East. And this is something that nobody wants to see. Exactly this lack of theory from the East is so useful for critics from the West because it’s very easy to paternalize somebody if this infrastructure is missing. This lack is also important for critics here because they can keep control over the situation more easily. In the 1960s, the primary theory of artists was immediately accepted as a material for critical and theoretical analysis. Probably you have in mind American art in the 1960s. If it is so, it is necessary to stress that at that time America had no competition, America is where the rules were set.
M. M.: It sounds as if we’re talking about local problems, but in my experience this kind of pattern repeats.
J. R.: Do you think that the lack of this art infrastructure has economic consequences? I was talking to my friends in Romania, and it seems that many artists who are frequently invited to international exhibits don’t get local funding and recognition. Artists who are producing very traditional kind of painting are the ones getting local support.
E. Z.: Absolutely. I talked to Lia Perjovschi when I met her in Bucharest, and it was perfectly clear to me–she has the same rage I have here. The lack of any developed critical mediation creates the possibility for a certain rigid and evil structure to dominate completely.
M. M.: The silence of critics produces the reasons for repression. Maybe you know about this polemic we had here. Twenty-five artists who work in contemporary art, and a lot of them working internationally, wrote an open letter asking why one critic can have fifteen functions in the state, along all the major points where money is given. In fact, there are no strict rules that can determine how the money is given, which means that the critic’s taste decides for everybody.
E. Z.: These are not photogenic things. Can you ask some more photogenic questions?
J. R.: It has almost become a cliché to insist that the crucial distinction between the West and the East is that there is no art market in the East. In America, artists produce with a view toward being able to sell their goods. In Eastern Europe, artists produce, hoping that they will be incorporated into international exhibits. Doesn’t the exhibition circuit of Eastern artists function in an analogous way to the market, insofar as it creates a similar structure of standardized production?
B. V.: These exhibitions offer one possibility–the possibility to circulate. They offer the possibility to get informed directly and to inform directly. Exhibits are first the circulation of ideas, even if these ideas are only the visual impact you would get there. You would feel the atmosphere; you would measure the temperature. They provide very important information about the art situation. Then there is this element of personal introduction, shaking hands, saying hello, which is very important. Through that, you are existing, you are participating in a certain ritual. By the way, we met at the exhibit in Stockholm didn’t we?
J. R.: Yes, exhibitions do function on more than just an official level, and are important places for meetings and communication. But I would still like to pose a question about the structure of exhibitions and their function in the system of contemporary art. I’ll ask the question indirectly, by referring to a statement made by Alexander Brener about the collusion of curators, critics, and the art system as a whole to produce the idea that nothing else is possible than this desire to be part of the system. What are your own sentiments about the nature of the "art system"? Is anything possible outside it?
B. V.: I’m afraid that the problem is similar to the problem when capitalism is in question. Of course, it is possible to act outside the art system but in that case these activities are not art any more but science, or political activity, or simply a journey. I want to say that dealing with the system de facto means participating in it, especially if you allow others to call you an artist. If we take seriously the discursive nature of art, it is very difficult to imagine a complete exclusion. What we, Irwin, find is that it makes sense to collaborate in creating an art system in Slovenia. In doing so we consider East-East connections extremely important. In short, we are not interested in bumping into the Western art system, but in collaboration within the limits of our possibilities, in building an art system in the East. Our opinion is that, paradoxically, a desire for an art system in the East nowadays makes more sense than the traditionally rebellious position of a radical artist. So on this point, I constantly disagree with Brener. It’s true, you can decide to negate, or to adopt a romantic approach to things. But you simply have to deal with facts, with reality, and to get through certain traps. One of these traps is this quantity of activities–I think it’s even intentional. Exhaustion is part of this system; Brener is right. Artists get so many invitations that they can simply not reject because they are too much of a temptation. All of them complain after the third or fourth exhibition that they simply cannot work any more. But I consider this system as a physical necessity, and you have to accept it as a fact.