Interview with WHW Collective (Zagreb)


What, How & for Whom/WHW is a curatorial collective formed in 1999 and based in Zagreb. Its members are Ivet ?urlin, Ana Devi?, Nataša Ili? and Sabina Sabolovi?, and the designer and publicist Dejan Krši?. WHW organizes a wide range of production, exhibition, and publishing projects. The collective directs Gallery Nova in Zagreb. “What, how, and for whom” are three basic questions that are central to any economic organization. They also concern the planning, concept, and realization of exhibitions and the production and distribution of artworks together with the artist’s position in the labor market. “What, how, and for whom” formed the title of WHW’s first project, dedicated to the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto (Zagreb, 2000). In 2009, WHW curated the 11th Istanbul Biennial, entitled “What Keeps Mankind Alive?.”

Sven Spieker: Please tell me a little about the history of the collective – the degree of institutionalization that you have experienced over time, and maybe some of the initial projects that you pursued when you began your work.

WHW: The beginning was in 1999. The group was formed around the first exhibition called What, How & for Whom, on the occasion of the 152nd anniversary of The Communist Manifesto, and later we took the three questions as the name of our collective. This exhibition took place at the House of the Croatian Association of Artists here in Zagreb, in collaboration with the publishing house Arkzin and the Multimedia Institute mi2.

The impetus for us to start working together came from Arkzin, which started in 1991 as the fanzine of the Antiwar Campaign of Croatia and later became a publishing house. In the 1990s it was perhaps the most important critical voice. In 1998 they published the 150th anniversary edition of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, edited by Boris Buden with an introduction by Slavoj Žižek, and approached one of us to organize a contemporary art exhibition. The book itself was completely ignored, and the idea was that the exhibition format might trigger a much needed public debate on the issues of suppressed socialist history and political thinking that would imagine a future beyond the immediate reality of a transition to neo-liberal heaven which at that time was still seen as the only solution to all post-socialist maladies. As this was a topic of immense importance it was clear to us from the beginning that it had to be a collective project.

The exhibition that opened it 2000 was not, however, an exhibition about the Manifesto. The Manifesto was a trigger for an exhibition focusing on the economy, and the three basic questions – what, how and for whom – that are coming from economic analysis, later on became a motto for all the projects we have done, and we took them as a name for the collective. It’s been ten years, and of course things have been changing and we have evolved. In 2003 we became more institutionalized by receiving a permanent space that we are still running. This is Gallery Nova in Zagreb, a non-profit, city-owned space whose program we run. But the structure of the organization basically stayed the same. We are a very horizontal organization of four curators plus a designer and a publicist. Our practice today is influenced by the social conditions we work under in Croatia, where the dominant cultural setting is characterized by an identity-based understanding of culture, especially with regards to national identity. Our work is opposed to this understanding of culture. In our approach, we try to translate different social and cultural conditions. In this sense, our work is never really about Croatia per se, but about Croatia as a symptom of the formation of post-socialist national identity.

SS: What were the most important projects you did over the first ten years – real milestones that you would consider more important, perhaps, than others?

WHW: For our work is characteristic that we don’t do only exhibitions, but we try to conceive and develop projects that are unfolding over a long-term period of time, opening up discussions on either traumatic or critical points within society. Our second project, after What, How & for Whom, was Broadcasting, dedicated to Nikola Tesla (2001-2002). This was a year-and-a-half long series of cultural events in different formats where we questioned issues related to the media; the distribution and communication of information; copyright; intellectual property; the politics of science; and descriptions of artistic and scientific working processes and outcomes. Again, Tesla was the trigger to talk about the issues of free information in the context of both new technologies and new social conditions; this wasn’t an exhibition about Tesla. But it can be seen as an example of the way in which we take public figures, cultural events or historical facts as a kind of starting point for opening some issues within society. Topics opened through Project Broadcasting, dedicated to Nikola Tesla, continued in a project called Normalization (2004) . This was an exhibition and a series of talks, lectures, and publications that we started in collaboration with Rooseum in Malmo and Platform Garanti in Istanbul. The project dealt with questions of what is suppressed, closed off and swept under the carpet in the process of “normalization,” and as a result of the 1990s wish to become as “normal” as the rest of the world. Actually, the neo-liberal Western systems were imposed as the only valuable and “normal” ones to the post-socialist societies, but nobody raised the question what would be the price of that “normalization.” Consequently, all its ugly results – unemployment, poverty, crime, the widening of class differences, a decrease in social and health and security, a conservative backlash, the rise of ethnic, racial and sexual intolerance – have not been understood as regular products and symptoms of the liberal-capitalist system but merely as its “side-effects.” We wanted to point to the impossibility and falsifying effects of this “normalcy,” of promising a society without social antagonisms, in which no extremism makes life difficult.

Two years later, Broadcasting and Normalization were merged in a new exhibition entitled Normalization, Dedicated to Nikola Tesla that we organized in 2006 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Tesla’s birth. Tesla (1856 – 1943), who is often called the “Man Who Invented Future,” was a scientist who invented more than 800 patents and laid the theoretical grounds for the development of radio, radar, satellites, the electronic microscope, the microwave, the fluorescent light bulb, etc. He was a hero in former Yugoslavia when we were growing up, and then pretty much persona non grata in Croatia during the 1990s due to his Serbian origin. Then in 2006 he became a powerful rhetorical symbol of the political reconciliation between Croats and Serbs, and the 150th anniversary of his birth was celebrated in grand style in Croatia. His famous saying ”I am proud of my Serbian origin and Croatian motherland,” overused during the socialist decades, has been resurrected as a useful political slogan in an opportunistic eagerness to express ethnic tolerance. Our position was that current celebratory inclusion of Tesla in the narrative of national culture presupposes the exclusion of the public reflections on the war period, and that those are ritualistic gestures that want to proclaim an end to the unsolved traumatic processes of the 1990s.

The cynicism of Tesla’s case was most visible in the re-location of his existing monument in Zagreb from a secluded park in the university research center to the city center (in a street that conveniently bears Tesla’s name), as well as the erection of numerous new monuments. At the same time, in the officially proclaimed Year of Tesla, the Croatian Electricity Company promoted its operations with posters featuring Tesla. However, the blind spot of his anniversary in Croatia was the fact that 166 villages populated by Serb minority returnees (following the 1995 exodus) that had had electricity before the war were still without electricity ten years after it was over.

We tactically decided to challenge the dominant political representation of the collective memory by initiating an open call for an anti-monument to Nikola Tesla. Here we included the information about the villages without electricity as a telling example of the real official attitude towards reconciliation. In the local context our exhibition critically questioned the role of public space, and especially of art in the public space, and its relations with history, politics, and memory. We received about 50 proposals from artists, journalists, architects, scientists, designers, students, philosophers, writers etc., and we included them all in the exhibition, as well as archive material related to the reception of Nikola Tesla and its broader social and political background throughout the last 50 years. By emphasizing these proposals rather than finalized projects we explored the possibilities for redefining the monument as a public symbolic gesture. Together with the archive material the exhibition referred to the fact that there cannot be any significant change as long as culture is understood as the domain of identity-based representation.

Of course, as one of the most important of our projects, we have to mention the Istanbul Biennial that we curated in 2009 under the title What Keeps Mankind Alive? The title was taken from Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. Prior to that, our biggest international project was Collective Creativity at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel in 2005. We worked with over forty artists’ collectives, both historical and contemporary ones. The exhibition emphasized different emancipatory aspects of collective work where collaborative creativity functions not only as resistance to the dominant art system and the capitalist imperative to specialize, but also as a productive and performative critique of social institutions and politics.

The program of Gallery Nova in Zagreb reflects and often runs parallel to our international projects, combining long-term projects, solo shows, and group exhibitions of both Croatian and international artists.

SS: What is an exhibition for you?

WHW: It really depends. Sometimes an exhibition is a format with which to open up the really crucial issues within society. Sometimes an exhibition is a vehicle for working with artists on the production of new work, for making things happen, and ideally sometimes it’s both. We view an exhibition space as a space that is still open to question things that are not so easily questioned in other places. It’s one of the remnants of the public space that can be used to open up questions of what both cultural policy and culture can be today, that can be used to give room to art, and to the questioning of the social reality around us. The question of the role of art in society is for us closely tied to the exhibition format. Of course, this does not imply that fundamental questions about art should be exclusively formulated in relation to an exhibition format. We recognize exhibitions as specific sites where art is critically presented and where knowledge is produced. We believe that the exhibition has the capacity to reframe the times and spaces of the social world. The exhibition is a creative redefinition that opens up a different perception of the political environment, whichin turn might offer a different view of social reality.

SS: How difficult is it to unfold this program of critical intervention in the context of big events such as international biennials?

WHW: Very difficult, although the possibility of critical intervention should not be dismissed a priori – not all the biennials are the same, and not all institutions are the same. There is always space for negotiation, and room for trying to change things. In Istanbul, we tried to do this through several layers, one of which was by making a statement to conduct curatorial research and consequently to include artists that were not necessarily and predominantly from the West. So, to try to take Istanbul as a center and to do research in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and to construct an exhibition that would question the role of art in societies where contemporary art is sometimes still seen as a kind of a cosmopolitan import. The other way we tried to do challenge the biennial format itself was by explicitly turning the exhibition into a propagandist tool, and by stating clearly that we were trying to send a political message through the exhibition. This is why we also introduced a tension between our approach and more classical forms of display. In a way we instrumentalized the works. On the other hand, we left them with enough room to speak for themselves as well. Another such attempt was to publish information about the process of constructing the biennial exhibition. The data we published both in the publications that accompanied the exhibition and in a room called “classroom” within the exhibition itself included information such as curatorial research, sources of funding, structure of expenditures. Of course, this type of “transparency” is possible only to a certain extent; there are things that one can publish about the project, but there are always things that stay behind the scenes. So transparency is always accompanied by opaqueness.

SS: The question of knowledge seems to be central to your work: the spread of knowledge, the distribution of knowledge, the creation of knowledge, the display of knowledge, and so forth. How important is knowledge to you? Do you believe that knowledge is progress?

WHW: If we all acted immediately on what we know, then the world would be a completely different place. The free supply of information does not immediately change attitudes. This is one of the things that we became aware of by going through the 1990s in Croatia. One of the obsessions of the Western supporters of civil society in Croatia during the conflict was the idea of funding independent media. Learning or acting upon knowledge are not necessarily linear processes, and one should not expect that just by reading a text people will immediately change their minds. And yet, maybe precisely because of this historical experience a lot of what we do as a collective is about stubbornly repeating things again and again. So we are coming back to propaganda, to exhibition as a tool.

When it comes to knowledge, to a certain extent maybe you are right, because we started working in the circumstances where the institutions were not doing their jobs, so we created ways of gaining knowledge also for ourselves. We came together in the early 2000s, we were all art history and literature graduates with some prior working experience doing different things, and the information we were interested in was not really readily accessible. Not only concerning the political situation, but also regarding contemporary art practices, in particular those from 1960s and 1970s. Books were hard to find and rare, and a lot of the things had never been covered in print before. None of the artists belonging to the conceptualist generation were teaching anywhere. So if you wanted to find out about their work you basically had to knock on their door. It was the same thing in caseyou wanted to find out about what was going on in the world in terms of new curatorial practices, or any other interesting things people were doing. To find out you had to invite them over or create a lecture series. That’s essentially what we did.

SS: Is it your goal to write the history of Croatian art, specifically of the late 1960’s and 1970’s?

WHW: You could say so, although we weren’t really looking at it in that way at the very beginning. We were really looking to find out about more about things we were interested in, to work with people whose art we respected, and to establish connections between the generation of artists who started working during New Art Practice in the 1970s, on the one hand, and our generation, on the other. And then, yes, we are in a way participating in writing the art history of those times, and we very soon became aware of our role and responsibility in this process. Because when it comes to history it’s always also a question of interpretation.

SS: It does seem as if many of the ideas that feed into your curatorial work have strong links with the conceptualist tradition. I am thinking of your emphasis on information and knowledge, or your de-emphasizing of the visual aspects of art.

WHW: To emphasize the precarious means of art production, or to make sure that we are not making art more spectacular than it is—these are things that we learned, for sure, from the artists who started their practice during the 1960s and 1970s. And in that respect it was really important for us to be able to work with artists such as Mladen Stilinovi?, Sanja Ivekovi?, Goran Trbuljak, Vlado Martek. The fact that they were open to working with us from the very beginning had a strong impact on our work.

SS: Do you have more possibilities for being critical than artists did during the 1960s and 70s?

WHW: No, not really. You have to bear in mind that we started doing these things when they became possible. The exhibition on the Communist Manifesto for instance did not happen in Zagreb in 1995, but in 2000. When we made the exhibition of course it seemed to us that we were opening the question of communism – the exhibition made the news, and after years of silence, you could see The Communist Manifesto on the main evening TV news that day. But on the other hand, the year 2000 was the time when such a discussion was finally possible. In a way, we are also a symptom of normalization. To make an exhibition dedicated to Nikola Tesla became possible in 2002, and so we did it then, and not in 1994, when his monuments were blown up. Also it is important to stress the critical potential of art in the former Yugoslavia, and its very specific space within the system of art institutions. In fact we cannot really talk about the stereotype of the “dissident artist” then. In the 1970s and 1980s self-organization and activism were politically engaged, but not as a “battle against the darkness of Communist totalitarianism” but aimed at complete self-realization for individuals and culture and as a fight against the bureucracy. The alternative cultural movement at the time took Socialist ideology more seriously than the cynical political élite that was in power. Paradoxically, the deeply politicized cultural movements of the 1970s and 1980s actually disintegrated at the moment of their supposed triumph, with the introduction of parliamentary democracy and the “return of capitalism.”

SS: A number of projects have sprung up in recent years that have focused on Eastern Europe in dialogue with other “peripheral” parts of the world, such as Latin America, South East Asia, or North Africa. It seems as if Eastern Europe is increasingly being thought about in ways that don’t just refer back to the Cold War, but that place it into contact with other areas of the world that may have had a similar historical experience.

WHW: This is a question all of us are becoming much, much more aware of. We are all part of one global process, and we are trying to learn or figure out what is going on. This includes the lessons of the past, as we try to position ourselves within a network of global relationships and developments. It has always been interesting to us to find out the ways in which the same structural processes can be observed throughout the various constructed ‘ghost geographies’ of the contemporary world. We have dealt with this issue twice on a large scale: first in Kassel with the project Collective Creativity, when we researched different modalities of collectivity in Latin America and in Eastern Europe; and then in Istanbul, when we focused on the parallels between the artistic and political developments in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Additionally for us it is of crucial importance to question the causes of the conflict – we are the generation that is primarily marked by the conflict…

SS: The Yugoslav conflict?

WHW: Yes, the Yugoslav conflict. And yet recently we have become increasingly aware that it has been twenty years since this conflict began. Somehow it is surprising how alive or present it still seems in society after such along time, and how its various manifestations and symptoms can still be observed. It is still very present, of course, in the minds of the people, and how people refer to it as a breaking point in their lives, perception, subjectivity, everything.

SS: Tell me about your current situation; what you’re working on; what the situation of your collective is at this point; and how you see your future.

WHW: At the moment we are in a very precarious and quite paradoxical situation in terms of finances, space, everything. On the one hand, according to our formal contract with the City of Zagreb we can never program the Gallery Nova space for more than one calendar year, and almost all of our support is short-term and project based. On the other hand, we are developing several projects and we could be called very successful. We just started a two-year research project called Sweet Sixties with Tranzit from Austria and with Anadolu Kultur from Istanbul. We are also preparing a series of exhibitions with steirischer herbst festival in Graz in September this year, and we were the curators of the Croatian pavilion in Venice, with works by Antonio G. Laurer a.k.a. Tomislav Gotovac and the theater collective BADco. It’s true that all this does not sound too precarious, and yet it is, especially in terms of long-term planning and our need to find more space and time for research and the development of new programs. We feel that after 12 years of work we are truly at a crossroads in terms of creating new structures and ways for our work, but we have yet to figure out what these might be. More importantly, there is a need to create new programs that will address the generation that is just finishing university now, and whose preoccupations are often radically different from ours.

SS: Many thanks for this conversation.

Zagreb, November 12, 2010.

Sven Spieker. Image courtesy of the author.
Sven Spieker lives in Los Angeles and Berlin. His most recent book publication is The Big Archive. Art from Bureaucracy (MIT Press, 2008). He is the editor of ARTMargins.

Sven Spieker
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. He specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. Spieker's book publications include The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (2008; Korean translation, 2013); Destruction (ed., 2017); Art as Demonstration: A Revolutionary Recasting of Knowledge (forthcoming, MIT Press). He teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.