Precarious Conversations, conversation between Ben Cain, Siniša Ilić and Tina Gverović in the catalogue of the exhibition Life in the Forest (Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok, Poland)

Precarious Conversation

Conversation between Tina Gverović, Siniša Ilić and Ben Cain in preparation for work for the exhibition Life in the Forest (Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok, Poland).

Ben Cain:
While I’m here taking on the role of interviewer, I’m also collaborating with Siniša Ilić and Tina Gverović on the work for the Life in the Forest exhibition for which this interview has been commissioned. On previous occasions when we’ve worked together my role has always been one of part-time collaborator, meaning that I’ve stepped in temporarily to design books or produce exhibition design for them. Whether creating 2D or 3D platforms, the role always involves constructing frames for dialogue, open structures – or a ‘work-space’ in the case of their recent exhibition Uncomparables. Forming a Suspicious State, at Nova Gallery in Zagreb – which Tina and Siniša can then use as they see fit. Similarly, this interview is being considered as a forum, as a place where we can discuss forthcoming work, and as such the interview is itself work-in-progress.
I think that the best way to begin would be for me to ask a few initial questions which are addressed to both of you, and then for us to try to develop something of a conversation once you’ve replied.
While in some cases it’s not possible, nor is it necessary (and I know you never make a point of indicating any sort of division of labour), to distinguish each artist’s individual contribution, in places it is clear that each of you respond quite differently to the same themes. For example Siniša’s drawings often present dramatic outbursts of violence which might ordinarily be experienced via screens or print media, and this might be presented alongside visions of organized immaterial labour, silent micro-factories whose seemingly ineffectual role is related to the culture industry’s own version of immaterial labour where academic ‘doing’ of politics is to be found in stagnant scenes where Apple Mac’s glare and passivity abounds. Whereas in some of Tina’s work the ‘disaster’ is the very fact that in the light of constant emergency, affective action seems impossible. However here the devastation that comes with that realisation is offset with representations of micro-movements that suggest a very furtive form of agency which understands that impacting upon ones immediate environment is first and foremost all about deciding to do so, i.e. picking up a pencil, a hammer, a brush…
And so the question – and I’m assuming that you might answer for each other – is to ask you about the differences between making your own work (which you both continue to do) and making collaborative work – how do you approach each process?
Tina Gverović:
My approach to making collaborative work is rather similar to when I am working on my own installations, which are always comprised of elements produced in various media. The space of the work is considered as a scene where visitors are involved in the process of ‘reading’ and ‘navigating’ through different works. When working on collaborative projects there is less of an overview of the final outcome, which allows a different level of flexibility. This flexibility often means that the initial idea constantly questions itself and ends up being something quite different from that which was initially thought of.
Siniša Ilić:
I agree with Tina that collaborative work is rather similar to when I am working on my own. I start from some problem, observation, image, text, do research and start realization.  What I like about collaboration is the dynamic of conversation and exchange of concept notes and common interests. Showing your work to someone while it is still fragile and in-progress makes me both more articulate and more vulnerable. I find the collaborative process a constitutive part of my artistic practice. The process of shaping and molding the methodology of work and communication, the reorganization of hierarchies, forms or phases which can oscillate from strict and defined to open and/or friendship-based is what keeps me active, attentive and critical.
BC:
Having earlier mentioned labour, passivity and agency, I also wanted to ask whether you could say something about the ‘politics’ of the work. Is politics an inappropriate term here?
TG:
I find it very difficult in the contemporary art world to come across works which self consciously address ‘politics’ without them being very direct, even didactic, following a particular pre-established pattern. Although most works of art can be seen as being political, the question is more about what kind of politics come into question in any particular work, or, what is it that makes that work political apart from it simply being involved with obviously political topics and themes. The complex internal politics of the work is perhaps a more interesting area to explore than the political situation that that the work might be commenting upon.
The work that I produced over the last couple of years doesn’t aim to conclude or finalise ideas but rather to open up the process of making and defining. So with avoiding definitions and conclusion the work escapes being related to any particular category of art, which I suppose can be seen as a political act.
SI:
Ben, why did you ask if politics is an inappropriate term here?
BC:
Obviously the work is ‘political’ -its such a broad term that it can easily ‘catch-all’- it’s immediately clear that it’s about combinations of agency and inertia. In bringing this up, I just wanted to provoke a response to the idea that politics is not always where you expect to find it – which is something that you both mention.
SI:
Yes, the topics we already mentioned at the beginning of this conversation: division of labour, collaborations, artistic positions, renaming positions, or frames for dialogue as you put it, I see as spaces for political, lets say, intervention, through trying to reorganise the ’rules’, and power relations within those topics.
In relation to the drawings that Ben described above, I realized that my environment, very often consists of people, young, old, children, art workers, singles… in front of computer screens. That image was so strong while their ‘politics’ and ‘agendas’ were so hidden. It was impossible to discern or represent what they are actually doing. I am sure you participated in so many similar occasions, and you can never be sure if the person is: reading his/her text drafts, adjusting images for portfolio, surfing, skype-ing, X or youtube, instructing revolutions or riots via social networks, or just being bored… It suddenly became a mystery for me.
And on the banality we mentioned. Maybe it is because of a certain period in my life, the context I am in, but things seem banal. I cannot escape that impression. So in my work I am trying to move the focus away from representations of those main, lets say banal, events by drawing attention to their consequences, i.e. the marginal, secondary realities that we could, or often are in fact a part of.
BC:
And to expand upon the last question, the last three exhibitions have included repeating motifs such as post-catastrophe landscape, and have all dealt in slightly different ways with states of emergency and the idea of a type of incessant, barely-tangible disaster. What is it that promotes an interest in these themes? Can this disaster be located, and is it something that impacts upon yourselves directly?
SI:
Dealing with motifs of post-catastrophe landscape in recent works is an attempt to work with different ways and concepts of visual representation of catastrophes. Catastrophes as such, especially as visual templates, are the perfect site for the manipulation of subjects within the society of images that we are currently witnessing.
In this sense in the case of Precarious Adaptations we reorganized familiar or stereotypical images and linear narratives and abandoned representational strategies and patterns such as sensationalism, sublimity, monumentality, epics…
TG:
These topics may be closely related to both of our recent histories or rather the histories of our countries, which is something that inevitably influences our practice. Although, the ‘disaster’ that emerges in my work is ‘disaster’ as a state, not as a particular event which is geopolitically locatable. Disaster and Emergency seem to be states that we find ourselves inhabiting on social, personal and emotional levels regardless of the specific geographical location. The issues that we plan to deal with in Life in the Forest evolve out of the concerns of our recent work, i.e. issues related to confusion, entrapment and density, which we feel are relevant and pressing issues that surround us on a daily basis. We feel that in this contemporary moment, directed towards classifications, definitions and precision-based bureaucracy, formed on exact, confident facts, it is the right moment to deal with micro-identity rebellion, to irritate conventions and to rearticulate our own positions.
BC:
I think the idea of density is really interesting here. Density is a term that I’ve considered in the process of developing a platform for the work in Life in the Forest. I wonder if it might be useful to try to be more specific about what you have in mind when you say ‘density’? Of course ‘density’ is used to describe a physical characteristic, and when we think of being surrounded by an environment which is ‘dense’, it’s a very physical experience of space (swimming, being buried in sand, air in which particles are very close together and so produce heat, tension, friction…?), which is perhaps interesting because your work often depicts or at least refers to immateriality, and work who’s outcome is unfathomable or illusive. There are a couple of questions here… One might be about the degree to which you want to make an explicit reference to the so-called omnipresent spirit of late capitalism? The other question is about whether you have any strong ideas as to how the platform/structure/set for the work ought to engage with ‘density’?
TG:
As with previous installations the set, as a place, or as a representation of a place, is very un-locatable and difficult to place. With the installation Uncomparables we had a structure that reminded of a post office waiting room, with an emphasis on the difficulty of finding privacy, being apart, separated, of the inefficiency of such places. Precarious Adaptations had a wall structure that took over the gallery space mimicking rocks or cliffs, creating niches and separations. In one way the space always shrunk but in another it became movable, alive with extra space appearing behind every corner. So, yes, we can talk about density as a disorientating physical experience, which is also the plan for Life in the Forest where we’re are thinking about creating a structure in the form of a maze, always leading somewhere and yet with no clear exit or entrance points.
As such, the above mentioned experiences can be attribute to late capitalisms’ disorganization and confusion, endless waiting rooms and bureaucratic walls however there is no intention to depict these places but rather to focus on the states that are the products of such a society.
SI:
Right, but while reading the questions and reactions above over again, I think of density also as an unbearable structure of obstacles, demands, standards, and traps that characterize what at first glance seems to be a messy space, but later reveals itself to be the extremely strict and exclusive atmosphere of late capitalism. Density as set of various tricky rules presented to us as the only way to survive in contemporary societies.

August 2011.