What Keeps Hope Alive?

What Keeps Hope Alive?
Imagine a world where our most urgent political, social, and economic issues are elucidated and debated within the public sphere — through an engagement with contemporary art. For the last decade, the Zagreb-based curatorial collective What, How & for Whom (Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, and Sabina Sabolović) has been transforming this fantasy into a vital reality through a tenacious, multifaceted approach that unites exhibition-making with a wide range of discursive practices (including lectures, screenings, public discussions, and publications). This interview was conducted with WHW’s Ivet Ćurlin via email shortly after the opening of their latest curatorial endeavor, the 11th Istanbul Biennial, titled "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" (Read a review of the Biennial here.)

David Spalding: Let’s go back to WHW’s formation in Zagreb in 1999. What were the particular cultural conditions in Croatia at that time that shaped your thinking about what WHW should be?

Ivet Ćurlin: In the late 1990s, when WHW started working together, Croatia’s right-wing, nationalistic politics had finally started to loosen their grip. We felt that there might be a space for us to express our deep discontent with the governing ideas on art and politics. In a cultural landscape characterized by the bureaucratic sluggishness and conceptual disorientation of institutions that sprang up in the 1990s, in the confusion of the so-called “transition,” with its rediscovery of capitalism, crumbling social infrastructure, the quest for the holy grail of national identity, and the complete suppression of socialist history, we felt intellectually closer to the civil society scene that developed in the ‘90s than to a system of art institutions. Arkzin, which started in 1991 as a fanzine for Croatia’s Antiwar Campaign, was especially important for WHW as a forum for independent critical debate. In 1998, Arkzin published a 150th-anniversary edition of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, with an introduction by Slavoj Žižek, and they approached one of us to organize a contemporary art exhibition that would trigger public debate on issues related to the Manifesto, since the publishing of the book didn't generate any reaction.

All four of us studied art history and comparative literature at the University of Humanities in Zagreb. We knew each other, and we were all individually involved in cultural projects such as radio journalism, writing on art, and curating, but what really brought us together was the possibility to organize an exhibition addressing the Communist Manifesto. This immediately seemed like an opportunity to intervene in the art field on all levels, in terms of content, obviously, and organizational know-how, as well as in terms of assessing and building local and international contexts, which were goals not only beyond our individual capacities, but actually opposed to individualistic understandings of cultural work.

From the beginning, we were aware that collaboration enables us to do things that none of us individually would be able to do: to create and influence new spaces and modalities of art production, thus challenging the environment of ossified and closed art institutions in Croatia at that moment.

The resulting exhibition, What, How & for Whom, on the occasion of the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, was realized in 2000. As curators, how did you approach such a complex, loaded subject?

We devised this project as a collaboration between Arkzin, the Croatian Association of Artists, and a self-organized multimedia institute called mi2 — all from Zagreb. In this complex collaboration, we acted as a curatorial collective, and with these three partners we organized the exhibition. It was a really ambitious task to make an exhibition on the anniversary of a book of such powerful ideological and political history and potential, particularly within a society that has collectively mystified and obliterated the archive of politics, economics, and style of the failed project of socialist society. We started from the fact that today the Manifesto is domesticated, a harmless cultural artifact. But then again, as Boris Buden wrote in his text for the exhibition publication, “Not a revolutionary politics, but culture is today the only field of political struggle.” With that in mind, although we started with the experience of Croatian post-socialism and linked it to other post-socialist societies within Eastern Europe, it was important to us to claim the Communist Manifesto as a universal cultural and political heritage, particularly when neo-liberal capitalism and parliamentary democracy still seemed to many like the only “natural” and acceptable solution and the optimal norm of political consciousness.

We commissioned new works by more than 10 Croatian artists and also presented the works of artists from abroad. By bringing together the recent production of artists who emerged on the Croatian art scene in the late ‘80s and ‘90s with artists whose practices belong to socially engaged art from the late ‘60s, the exhibition attempted to intervene in the local contemporary art scene and to stress continuity rather than breaks.

For example, one of the works we produced was by Sanja Iveković, one of the rare artists who worked a lot during the ‘90s on collective amnesia and erasure of the anti-fascist Croatian past. The series of works she started as a part of our exhibition was called the Nada Dimić File. Nada Dimić was a People’s Heroine, a real person executed in World War II by the Ustaše, Croatian quislings, for her anti-fascist activities. But Sanja’s work also addresses the fate of the factory named after Nada Dimić. This textile factory, which had, throughout the socialistic decades, been successfully functioning under the name Nada Dimić, went into bankruptcy under the name it was given in the ‘90s, Endi International. Iveković realized the simple urban intervention SOS Nada Dimić, in which she renovated and re-lit the neon sign reading “Nada Dimić” on the factory’s façade. At the time, when this particular bankruptcy case and many similar to it had been filling the news, state regulation of bankruptcy procedures bureaucratically administrated the fates of hundreds of pauperized, mostly middle-aged women who were about to lose their jobs.

This exhibition contributed to the creation of a cultural climate in which it was possible to talk about these things. Like all our subsequent projects, we tried to counterbalance the hegemony of the exhibition with discursive activities. We organized a number of lectures, performances, and presentations, primarily with practitioners from Bosnia, Serbia, and Slovenia, but also with theoreticians, writers, and artists like Fredric Jameson, Hito Steyerl, Mark Terkessidis and Richard Barbrook.

In 2003, WHW took charge of Gallery Nova, a state-funded, nonprofit art space in Zagreb. How does the space function in relation to your other curatorial projects?

Gallery Nova’s program consists of bi-monthly exhibitions and includes lectures, presentations, screenings, and public discussions, creating an open space for exploring contemporary art, theory, and media. The program is based on the principles that we have been intensively investigating since the beginning of our work: the development of models based on a collective way of working and the articulation of sensitive social issues through artistic practice. Through moving away from presenting the artwork as a finished and unquestionable act, toward different forms of knowledge production and critical reflection, the program is trying to redefine and challenge the gallery environment as a “homogeneous” and “neutral” structure. But even more important, this structure is used as a referential frame that enables perspectives in which new questions and reflections of social, historical, economic, and cultural relationships can be posed.

Through the programming, we explore certain thematics over time. For example, the exhibition “Collective Creativity,” presented in Kunsthalle Fridericianum in 2005, was a continuation of our long-term project “Collective Action,” which started in Gallery Nova in 2003 and consisted of a series of lectures, round tables, and a smaller exhibition. At the moment, the gallery’s program is in close dialogue with the Istanbul Biennial, as we wanted to open it up to the audience in Zagreb.

The exhibition “Collective Creativity,” which you mentioned above, brought together a large cross-section of artists engaged in collaborative practice. As a collective comprised of four individuals, how does WHW operate internally?

The notion of collective work was at the center of "Collective Creativity." The exhibition in Kassel tried to emphasize different emancipatory aspects of collective work where it is not only resisting the dominant art system, but can also serve as a more productive form of criticism. The exhibition dealt with different forms of collective work whose protagonists share common programs, ways of life, methodologies, and political standpoints. The exhibition presented over 40 artists and artist groups, with historical and contemporary positions ranging from “mainstream” Western historical groups already integrated into the market and official art history, including a number of political collective practices that were related to the conceptual, neo-avant-garde movements of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, especially in Eastern Europe and Latin America, to a number of younger groups and collectives whose work makes creative use of public space and reshaping political potentials of group work within the new circumstances of neo-liberal conditions.

What we call collective curating in our case was a product of the motivation to continue to develop in time what was spontaneously achieved throughout the experience of our first project. The idea of a long-term collaboration came as an afterthought, resulting from the enthusiasm that developed around our first exhibition and the recognition of the ideas and political stands that we shared. In that sense, sharing a political outlook is an essential element of our collective work.

One of the rather basic specifics of our work in comparison with more flexible or project-based models of collaborative work is the continuity; we have been working collectively for 10 years now. Group work always involves a lot of energy, flexibility, tolerance, understanding, commitment, and negotiation, a balance between professional relationships and friendships. But the real question of many collectives is “How strong are your motives to continue?”

Although we firmly believe that in group work there is a surplus of desires, perspectives, and ideas that infuse each other in a very special way, we are always quite reserved about the glorification and essentialization of our group work as such. Collective work is not of value per se; nor should we subscribe to assumptions that collective work necessarily presupposes and constitutes a set of coherent and homogenous interests.

What are the key issues addressed by the Istanbul Biennial? In what ways is the project an extension of your ongoing curatorial concerns?

We see the engagement with the biennial as a continuation of the same beliefs that have been shaping our curatorial work since the beginning. The exhibition includes many historical works and avoids insisting on very recent production, since it is interested in the dialogues between works happening through different times and through changes of context. Starting from WHW's own social, political and geographical background, we were interested in bringing together artists of different generations, many of them from the “marginal” or “ghost” geographies of European modernism.

We composed a very classic, white cube-style biennial, an almost museum-like exhibition that is very much interested in its educational potential, and our intention is to address both a local and an international audience. The way in which we shaped the biennial was governed by the belief that within the exhibition context it is still possible to take a critical position and to produce temporary agencies of perception — to make one think something that one could not have thought otherwise, to change the ways in which we see things around us.

Working on the Biennial was the most intense period of learning on many different levels. The most beneficial parts of that preparation are connected to the research process. The research travel had a specific geographical orientation, stemming from the fact that our curatorial activities in the last 10 years have been deeply rooted in the social reality of the so-called “marginal geography” of Eastern Europe. While devising the focus of our research travels, our proposal was to extend our existing regional work to the south and east, not only to the Balkans and Eastern Europe, but also to the regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. The research was, from many perspectives, essential for the development of the Biennale; it served as a strong catalyst and starting point for developing the exhibition concept and geographical focus. Since the communication and knowledge of the cultural and artistic developments from those regions are usually mediated and filtered through Western institutions, the first-hand knowledge resulting from curatorial research was especially valuable.

Throughout the exhibition and accompanying publications, we reflect on the position that the biennial occupies in concrete ideological and economic landscapes, which dictate the world of art, too. We are especially interested in exploring the possible ways of exiting the impasse of the double-bind discourses of global neo-liberalism and local ethno-nationalism that is often presented in the form of a false choice. For us, the question is what the biennial can offer toward the questioning of the position of culture, and especially of critical art practice in Turkey, and in what ways such a representative event can contribute to the discussions about the alliance between art and activism today.

The 11th International Istanbul Biennial will be on view until November 8, 2009.