Precarious Adaptations, conversation between Jelena Vesić, Siniša Ilić and Tina Gverović in the catalogue for the exhibition of the same title (Cultural Centre Belgrade, Serbia)
Towards the end of January 2011, the artists Siniša Ilić and Tina Gverović invited me to collaborate on an exhibition that would present a cycle of their recent works dedicated to the themes of uncertainty, insecurity, tension and expectation – works that deal with the construction and production of these states in the sphere of visual representation. I agreed to be the curator of the exhibition, but not to perform curatorial services in the manner of the established institutional order of classical exhibition-making. I proposed to them that we might step outside of our servicing roles and jointly approach the exhibition production. We tried to consider the exhibition in terms of a material practice which is based on a common language, a practice that does not hide its process-based approach nor mystify it in the form of the completed mise-en-scène of a finalised work. On the contrary, the work is revealed through the production of space where meaning is formed through mutual dialogue.
There was a time when artists worked in a studio, while galleries preserved the documentation of their work. Today the gallery is their working space, while the art studio has become a place where documentation is produced, as well as communication and ideas. I proposed to commence the destabilisation of our “servicing roles” precisely by visiting the gallery as an art studio. I came for the purpose of a study visit on the third day of installation, on March 15th 2011, when the gallery was already inhabited by the sense of work-in-process. From that moment on, our joint work, or conversation, was recorded and became the basis for a script, a fragment of which we enclose as a sort of guide through the process of working on the exhibition.
Each exhibition is a scripted space whose narration unfolds by means of the physical participation of the observer – her or his movement through the completed and designed space, and, first of all, her/his acceptance of this fictional relationship. Instead of a total immersion in the illusionist apparatus of the exhibition, what we propose through this scenario is a monitoring of the actual process of the development and staging of an event.
(Any resemblance to “real” persons is purely coincidental.)
CURATOR: What will the exhibition we are working on be called?
ARTIST 1: Precarious Adaptations.
ARTIST 1: Because the exhibition is produced on the spot through our work and through our presence in this space. The outcome is uncertain, and our work and our presence produce certain adaptations in something that, before this, represented a neutral space… certainly in physical terms.
ARTIST 2: We have brought along some “equipment” that may be contained in some objects or thoughts, but the exhibition comes into being here and now, through an uncertain process of adaptation lasting five days.
CURATOR: Those two words – uncertain and adaptation – carry a certain charge within themselves, perhaps even a contradiction.
ARTIST 2: Uncertainty is a state, feeling, something that has a depth to it, and pressure. Adaptation is something that is completed, ordered, adapted to something…
CURATOR: That is to say, within the framework of some kind of relationship between these terms, uncertainty precedes adaptation and might produce a need for adaptation, although, on the other hand, adaptation does not necessarily mean some kind of completeness – it is also an incomplete state of sorts, insufficient completeness.
ARTIST 1: These two words are in a circular relationship, just like a hen and an egg.
CURATOR: Was there a specific event that preceded your entering this particular space and temporarily appropriating it as your work space?
ARTIST 2: There was our mutual exchange and joint work… also, we often repeated the word catastrophe, which we started pondering…
ARTIST 1: … a feeling of being at home when you say the word catastrophe…
ARTIST 2: … but the question remains whether through this repetition the word is emptied of its original meaning.
CURATOR: Why, yes, the repetition of the word catastrophe is jargon-like. As a slang word, it is even used as a blasé expression of continuous dissatisfaction or of positioning oneself above the situation at hand… for example, when we say that it’s a catastrophe that there is no shop or kiosk nearby where you could buy water, or because the gallery keeper is shouting at the artists because the gallery door’s been left unlocked.
ARTIST 1: Yes, it’s like when they say, in Anglo-American slang things like “ugly”… as in “Oh… so ugly” or “a very ugly guy”, while actually meaning that something is super or that the guy in question is very handsome.
ARTIST 2: Or when they say in Split “My God, how funny you are”, which actually means that you’re looking good… However, that’s besides the concerns of this exhibition, we made no direct recourse to those linguistic games here.
CURATOR: All right, if we go back now… the word catastrophe, which you’ve mentioned so often, which you might even have tried to present in a roundabout manner through situations of work or experience that you produced for others, to what extent is all that connected to “external factors” in the sense of “leaking” from art into life and the other way round, or to the relationship between art and social reality? Is what we have here now a “reality framed anew”, to put it metaphorically, an “image” that tries to deconstruct some structures of the relationship between cause and consequence that we link to the actual catastrophic events in the reality of life and society, or are we talking about “linked vessels”, about some kind of direct connection?
ARTIST 1: I believe it’s the former.
CURATOR: But, for instance, catastrophe is not a word that only you two share as artists who have realised some kind of community in language and mutual communication, it’s a word that carries some universal charge, first of all in the sphere of representation, or, if you want, the production of pictures. It is interesting that these pictures are at the same time hyper-real – for instance, reports from the field (tsunami, earthquake, terrorist attack, wartime action, holocaust, atomic bomb) and “cover pictures” – in the sense that their production serves to sever our connections with reality, with real political processes that are of the cause-and-effect type, which we can influence through our participation or through various forms of resistance. For example – a picture depicting a big wave destroying many buildings, carrying cars like Lego cubes, leaving behind a wasteland of civilisation in the form of a garbage dump, such a picture functions as a screen of fear, but also as a screen of oblivion. We look upon those pictures as The Raft of the Medusa or, for example, works by Caspar David Friedrich – they take one’s breath away, they are mediated by romanticist pathos, connected to the notion of the sublime or magnificent, which distances us from “a concrete analysis, a concrete situation”.
ARTIST 2: Yes. And we had no intention of producing anything sublime, spectacular or representative here… we dealt with ephemeral phenomena connected to “before” or “after” the event.
CURATOR: Yes. Images of catastrophes are for the most part served to us as anaesthetic pictures. They tell us – the world is huge, nature is implacable… what is your tiny reality, what is a hundred-year piece of history compared to all that… remain where you are and be happy… this is an event and you have seen it… this is a wave, but don’t you try to make waves … your attempt at making waves is nothing more than plankton drifting on the surface of the ocean anyway. But that is not the end of it. They want to present social effects to us as natural catastrophes. The horrors of the Holocaust or genocide are thus presented as the other of humanity, as if, for example, some “abstract humanity” represents the norm or a guarantee that the catastrophe will not be repeated. And we’re talking about events that have their political causes and are mediated precisely by civilisation and humanity, not by a fall into a natural/animal state… To conclude, it appears to me that representing various catastrophes is actually this “disciplining image” that participates in the governmental techniques of contemporary capitalism. And it seems to me that the borderline between reality and fiction no longer exists in the sphere of ideological representation. For example, impassioned reports about terrible events sent from the actual locations become aestheticised images that feed our imagination, images that we start liking and enjoy as much as action movies, horror movies or catastrophe movies. They tell us that horror is somewhere outside, that it happens to someone else, and that we may freely succumb to visual pleasure and a moment of security.
ARTIST 1: Yes, all these different but interlinked things you’ve been talking about have influenced our decision to deal with the logic of this micro-world of causes and consequences that are often invisible.
ARTIST 2: Which don’t have the social and media visibility that a catastrophic event has.
ARTIST 1: Although this space contains drawings as well, a series of small-scale drawings I made after the earthquake in Japan… so that perhaps there are “linked vessels” there, or leakage against and from specific events that have become strong symbols of uncertainty.
ARTIST 2: We’re thinking about whether to include these drawings in the exhibition or not. Here they are, propped up against this middle wall, partition or barricade – call it what you will… I would leave space for free association enabling any kind of reading – and there are all these hypnotic and blurred videos to the left and right of them, totally out of joint when it comes to presenting video as an art form… they are somehow pushed aside, as if the picture could fall down or disappear at any moment…
CURATOR: Those are some “video crumbs” left over on the table after the “exhibition-dinner”, as in a memento mori-type scene, for example… in this case, a symbolic death of the gallery apparatus of representation. I say this because the gallery apparatus is all about representation, a kind of completeness that we come across even when we find an empty “white cube”, whereas through this procedure of layout, work and dialogue, we actually become a total opposite of that kind of orderliness… this is more likely going to be a kind of open workshop or studio, a working-laboratory area of sorts…
ARTIST 1: You might put it like that. However, those drawings should be placed in the way the gallery apparatus requires – in succession and in the middle of the wall.
CURATOR: They should be 165 mm above the floor level – that would be a literal fulfillment of museum conventions.
ARTIST 1: Yes. And then again, it is a series of small formats and pale contours, almost invisible in the semi-darkness of the gallery’s belly… so that it becomes a sort of crumb itself, a leftover of something that used to be, something that is connected to “reality leakage”.
CURATOR: If you agree, we can arrange those drawings immediately.
ARTIST 2: Done!
(Placing the drawings on the wall)
CURATOR: Let’s now go back to the gallery entrance, I’m interested in the architecture of the exhibition layout and how the exhibition is developing as a kind of scripted space. Today is the third day of work on the exhibition. The exhibition space contains a kind of “proto-architecture”, old furniture recycled from previous exhibitions staged at this gallery, then there’s the technical equipment, several art works, material for the exhibition and several situations that have already been designed, that is, set in place.
ARTIST 1: There’s the two of us as artists, and there’s you as the curator of the exhibition. It would appear that we have enough material and people for further work.
CURATOR: If we look at the gallery space from the entrance, the situation definitely gives one the impression of “work in progress”, of the gallery being closed to the public. Then, through this narrow passage we enter the exhibition space, which surprises us by its decomposition… by the out-of-joint quality of the arrangement of objects and events. However, one first has to overcome that under construction-type of barrier and understand it as an invitation, or as a kind of metaphor for what we’ll encounter as the exhibition space.
ARTIST 1: That, then, would be the first sentence in the exhibition narrative scenario. On we go.
(To be continued)