No.3, Ljubljana, Januar 2002
PlatformaSCCA ISSN 1580-738X
platformaSCCA 3 platformaSCCA 2   platformaSCCA 1
Izdal SCCA, Zavod za sodobno umetnost-Ljubljana, 2002
Published by SCCA, Center for Contemporary Arts-Ljubljana,
Nata╣a IliŠ & Dejan Kr╣iŠ
Political Practices of Art

Chances for Alternative Culture

In regard to cultural production, the term 'alternative' is usually linked to notions such as anti-art, avant-garde, neo-avant-garde, contra-culture, to everything and anything which is different in form and content, progressive, radical, which gets out of the mainstream and opposes the establishment, the traditional bourgeois high culture. But in today's circumstances of culturalising everything, in a situation when every 'avant-garde' or 'subversive' act is immediately absorbed as a fashion, an exclusively cultural and temporary alternative, there is no alternative culture. Alternative culture existed when there still were alternative ideas about the order of society, ideas of alternative politics. Or, it might be better to say that alternative culture is to be articulated only if there is a policy that articulates the alternative to the truly existent capitalism. In the current situation cultural and artistic production can remain alternative not by the virtues of new, different, unusual forms or ways of expression, but exclusively in a political sense.

In its heroic period of 1970s and 1980s, the alternative cultural movements in Yugoslavia acted against official institutions or at least apart from them. Self-organising and activism were politically engaged, but not as 'a battle against the darkness of Communist totalitarianism', but, paradoxically for the state whose official ideology was 'self-management', as a fight for complete self-realisation of individuals and culture, against the real bureaucratic limitations. Alternative cultural movement was indeed taking socialist ideology more seriously than the cynical political Úlite in power did. Paradoxically, deeply politicised, alternative, sub-cultural movements of '70s and '80s in the East actually disintegrated at the moment of their supposed triumph - with the introduction of parliamentary democracy and the 'return of capitalism'.
Instead of ' the normal' integration of the previously alternative culture into the market mainstream, a process started in Croatia in the late '80s, in the '90s we had witnessed its complete breakdown. With new nationalist government, within the general suffocation of all liberal-democratic tendencies, but also due to the brutal early capitalistic economy, the institutional framework through which 'other', 'alternative' cultural scene managed to act, was completely destroyed.
Within the independent Croatian civil scene in the '90s, often called the alternative scene(1), the notion of alternative was used differently in two broad periods. The first one, in accordance to the general regression, characteristic of the period of the Croatian Democratic Community party's rule, is actually a continuation of '70s ideology that perceives alternative culture as the low opposition to high, Úlite, institutional culture. That scene, roughly identified with eco/punk/hardcore/anarcho groups and movements, really was marginal and marginalised, completely outside of the funding system, which it had slowly entered only after the establishment of the Open Society Institute (OSI) in Croatia in 1994.
In the second period, the alternative ceased to be synonymous with the marginal and the sub-cultural and it developed specific political meanings, regularly strongly based in ethical demands for non-violence, equality, multi-ethnicity, non-hierarchical structures, etc. Unfortunately, OSI-Croatia mostly held onto the liberal, bourgeois mainstream position that had not been quite receptive for politicised, alternative cultural and political praxis. The leading people of OSI Croatia did not have a clear cultural policy, and starting from their cultural-Úlite positions and the political phantasm about local liberals being capable of winning the elections, they perceived the alternative scene as something necessary, yet unwelcome. They hardly acknowledged or financially supported alternative culture, and when they did, it was often by miserable funds and under humiliating conditions. Amongst the leading people of OSI Croatia, the alternative in the culture was perceived as a system of parallel institutions that were not nationalistic or statehood-oriented, but their activities were limited to fill in the gaps left open by the state and its conservative institutions.
Therefore, in Croatia of the '90s, the real alternative had been born out of resistance to Soros cultural phantasms, as well as to state phantasms; out of the critique of nationalistic politics and culture, but also in resistance to parliamentary opposition that had not for a second dared to seriously question the broader ideological framework and rhetoric of Tu­man's rule.

Subversive strategies of Sanja IvekoviŠ

Amongst the very few contemporary Croatian art practices that are close to the ideological position that defines itself as alternative, the most consistent is without a doubt the art practice of Sanja IvekoviŠ. With her works in the '90s the artist had tried to reply to the intellectual urgency, which is even more dramatic when considering the circumstances under which those performing 'the social function of intellectuals' have mobilised extreme right ideologies. Many of these works were realised in various models of collaboration with organisations that emerged within a broader context of the alternative scene, while official art institutions were involved in the processes of its mediation. The production and reception of her artistic projects has been outlining the sliding terrain of the transformation of traditional political art into political practices of art. It also includes all the uncertainties and shifting positions of the attempt to pose the questions whose answers cannot be announced in advance, but can only develop through a series of failures. It is an effort not just to illustrate the political thesis, thus making it clear to those who already know it, but to include art into the political praxis, form new ideas and spread them into society.
The struggle for uniqueness of the national culture fought by right wing intellectuals has been realised as a struggle against left cultural hegemony, interpreted as the foreign, external element that threatens the purity of the national culture/national identity. A vital part of the project of cleaning up the national culture has been suppressing the important part of history and producing a silent collective amnesia.

Sanja IvekoviŠ, Gen XX, 1997-2001

Sanja IvekoviŠ's project Gen XX has been realised as advertisements published in various magazines. The women in the photographs are professional models whose faces are familiar to the contemporary audience, while the text accompanying the photos presents National Heroines known to the generations that lived in socialist ex-Yugoslavia, but have been completely erased from the contemporary collective consciousness.
The manoeuvre that Sanja IvekoviŠ performs within the Gen XX media action consists of appropriating the media talk and subverting it by its own means. Using the media is always a manipulation, a technical treatment of the given material with a particular goal in mind. When the technical intervention is of immediate social relevance, manipulation is a political act (which it is by default within the media industry). Gen XX turns this commonly accepted fact into its advantage, appealing to people's sophistication, addressing a 'target group' that takes pleasure in being taken seriously and should not be left to advertising.(2)
Gen XX gives lessons in both history and media dwelling in the imaginary space that shapes the formation of the public. Its subversive tactics do not reside in the practice of provocation but in its accommodation to the social codes and conventions of everyday life informed by mass culture.
It is a certain translation from a specialised language into the media code, re-translated by media recipients into their own language of the every-day. The effectiveness of its communication strategy consists of this translation based on the analysis of the moment of performance and transmission of knowledge in relation to the moment of the conception and of the research itself.

Sanja IvekoviŠ, SOS Nada DimiŠ, 2000

The urban intervention SOS Nada DimiŠ was realised in June 2000, at a time when bankruptcy cases have been heading the news and the optimism caused by the change of the government a few months earlier(3) did not drain out completely yet. The work refers to the National Heroine Nada DimiŠ, a real person killed in World War II for her anti-fascist activities, but also to the factory named after her. The textile factory, which traditionally employs mostly women, had been successfully functioning under the name Nada DimiŠ throughout the socialistic decades, but went into bankruptcy as Endi International, which is the title it obtained in the '90s.

Renovation and re-lighting of the neon sign Nada DimiŠ at the factory's fašade, in the situation when the state bureaucratically administrated the bankruptcy procedure and the fates of hundreds of pauperised, mostly middle-aged women who were about to lose their jobs, was a highly symbolical act. To let the light shine on the factory and its troubled workers functioned not only as a reminder on the times when brutalities of the market economy were not accepted as a natural and objective state of things that can not be altered, but also as a call and warning.
At the same time it was about a beautiful logo whose neon lettering functioned as a personal signature, an unique and proper sign, an authorisation of legal validity that links the factory's name to the real person, Nada DimiŠ. To light the logo with the name of the heroine forgotten and turned into a brand name is not only about re-establishing her both as a person and a role model in the male-dominated society, but also about urban landscape appreciation. It shows a certain sensitivity for urban layers of the past so crudely dismissed in the renovations undertaken during the '90's in most of the Eastern European 'metropolisis'.

Rosa Luxemburg at the Heart of Capitalism

Sanja IvekoviŠ's biggest public art project so far, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, shows many of the artist's preoccupations expressed in her earlier works. The work also testifies to a certain shift, in many ways connected to the different context of the Western social and art system. Lady Rosa of Luxembourg was realised in the spring of 2001 within the exhibition Luxembourg, Les Luxembourgeois that intended to define and question the issue of the national identity of Luxembourg. The exhibition was organised by MusÚe d'Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg. Like Gen XX and Nada DimiŠ File, it also links the issues of social remembrance and amnesia to the women's position in the society. The project has been realised as a copy of the Luxembourg monument GŰlle Fra (Golden Lady), the strong national symbol of Luxembourg's independence and resistance erected in commemoration of the victims of World War I.
The work was first conceived during Manifesta 2 in Luxembourg in 1997, when the artist proposed to place the statute of GŰlle Fra in front of the women's shelter during the duration of the exhibition. Since it was not possible to realise this, Sanja IvekoviŠ initiated an international project (Women's House), which was developed in close collaboration with women's non-government organisations, shelters for women victims of domestic violence and women who sought help in shelters in Zagreb and Luxembourg. The artist exhibited plaster casts of the heads of the women with whom she had been working in shelters, mimicking traditional high-art exhibition set up and at the same time elevating anonymous traumatic experience to the level of universal social relevance.

The original monument of GŰlle Fra, dating from 1920's, represents an elegant female figure standing at the high obelisk, draped in clothes through which the outlines of her body are clearly visible. As such, it belongs to the corpus of monuments developed during the French Revolution and has become representative for forms of political constitution and political iconography, characterised by an allegorised femininity that signifies freedom, the Republic, as well as the nation or that upon which a nation's self-understanding can be grounded, that is, arts and sciences.
The replica was staged not far from the original monument, from which it differs not only in the materials used (golden polyester for the figure and wood and iron for the obelisk and base), but also in a few other important details. The female figure is clearly pregnant, the original captions on the monument's base are replaced by words in French (le rÚsistance, la justice, la libertÚ, la indÚpendence), German (Kitch, Kultur, Kapital, Kunst) and English (whore, bitch, Madonna, virgin), and the Golden Lady is subtly renamed to Rosa Luxemburg and thus moved from the abstract allegorical context into concrete historical circumstances.

Lady Rosa of Luxembourg was installed on 31st March 2001 and in the weeks to follow it had triggered a violent set of polemics within the Luxembourg's media. At certain moments even the question of resignation of the Luxembourg's Minister of Culture, who had been against the calls to demolish the monument, had been raised, and before the summer started press clippings had filled several hundreds pages. The polemic started when anti-fascists veterans and liberal-national politicians and men of prominence proclaimed the newly erected, temporary monument to be blasphemy that makes a mockery out of the Luxembourg resistance and its victims in both world wars. Strangely enough, it seems that the most violent attacks were not provoked by the figure of the pregnant woman, but by the text in three languages. At the beginning, most photos in the press had shown only the monument's base with the text, while the figure of the pregnant woman at the top of the obelisk had often not been represented at all. What is it about the text by Sanja IvekoviŠ that provoked such strong reactions? Or maybe the text had served just as an excuse for the aggression whose real object is a golden woman whose blatant pregnancy insults not only the sophisticated aesthetic feelings, but also the national values represented by allegorical feminine?
The text at the monument's base alludes the complex and problematic issue of language as the ground for a national identity of Luxembourg, but it also points towards the entanglement of the modern construction of the ostensibly natural two sexes and the construction of the modern nation-state. The transitions between culture, politics and political representations are fluid and the political is always already determined by that with which it is supposed to have nothing to do, and the text quite clearly exposes the problematic 'naturalness' of the national monument.

Sanja IvekoviŠ, Lady Rosa of Luxemourg, 2000

The English text locates stereotypes about women (Madonna, whore, bitch, virgin), the French words (le rÚsistance, la justice, la libertÚ, la indÚpendence) point towards the realm of political values that the feminine figure allegorically represents while in reality women had been excluded from them, while the German text (Kitsch, Kultur, Kapital, Kunst) comments the cultural production and the production of culture that lies at the very base of such a constellation.
By naming her sculpture after Rosa Luxemburg, the artist unmasks not only the fact that women are symbolically constructed as the symbolic bearers of national history (but at the same time they are denied any direct relation to national agency), but it also affirms the revolutionary politics of Rosa Luxemburg and questions the very notion of national identity. Rosa Luxemburg, a 'left terrorist', as she was proclaimed in one of the angry letters in Luxembourg's daily press, deeply annoys the myth of capitalist ways of production, and capitalism as a social order supposedly being capable to reproduce without non-economical oppressions. As a pregnant woman, she threatens to affect the framework of the collective memory that consists of things which are 'always already' understandable and reproducible, without having to be made explicit or explained in words. Her words 'Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all' are exactly those that are not to be heard in today's Luxembourg, the embodiment of smooth economical functioning and order, just as they were not to be heard in Europe of 1919.
Judging by the reactions, to erect this public monument is an act just as serious as it was at the time when the original monument had been erected, even more so when erected by the artist who is also an Other - woman, artist, feminist, coming from the Balkans, from a country of doubtful democratic traditions - an act that seriously challenges the aseptic (multi)cultural consensus at the heart of Europe.
But the set of polemics also shows how these arguments were largely ignored and the emphasis generally shifted to less relevant concerns. An increasing number of leftist intellectuals and women's groups got engaged in the defence of the temporary public monument in the name of abstract artistic freedom, thus excluding most effectively all those unpleasant questions that the Lady Rosa of Luxembourg tried to open. Such an approach had situated the whole story within the framework that the artistic and general community knows how to deal with, turning it in an 'undemocratic' incident quickly channelled back into the system. The fact that the system's efficiency is not to be doubted is best confirmed by the events that followed after the exhibition closing, when the monument was finally removed, at the relief of most involved parties.
The show is over, let's get back to more practical things. Where to place the monument? The Museum had offered the artist that it will take care of it, asking the artists to donate it in return. By that time it was quite clear that it is in the community's best interest to prevent further irritations, so Museum's officials suggested not to display the monument until some appropriate exhibition in the future, which the artist did not accept. Lady Rosa of Luxembourg ended up in the courtyard of the women's shelter in Luxembourg. Which, paradoxically, brings us back to the original proposal of Manifesta 2. But the circumstances are quite different. Traditional allegorical values of the original female figure are strongly fixed within its physical existence as an artistic object. As for its symbolical values, an initiative to legally endow the state authorities with copyrights over GŰlle Fra was instigated in the media, ensuring not only the protection of the highest national values from future blasphemies, but also its position within the market economy's rules of the game. And it is quite obvious that the pregnant replica located in a women's shelter, away from the public eyes, does not trigger questions of displacement as the original monument would. Then again, the women's shelter seems to be a place quite appropriate for it.

1. Projects like Anti-war Campaign Croatia, pop-political magazine Arkzin, Zagreb Anarchistic movement, Autonomous Cultural Factory - Attack, festival of alternative street theatre FAKI, and many other feminist, ecological, anti-war, anarchistic organisations, groups, initiatives and movements.
2. Advertisements were published in magazines such as Arkzin, Kruh i ruże, Zaposlena and Frakcija. They emerged within the circle of the Zagreb independent civil scene of the 1990's that accentuated the openness to the Other at the time of ethnic intolerance, war, violence, and conservative attacks on gender and sexual rights and freedom until recently thought of as obtained and unquestionable.
3. In January 2000 a right-wing government in power for a decade lost the election.

Nata╣a IliŠ: art historian, independent curator and art critic,
founding member of NGO for visual arts What, How & for Whom.

Dejan Kr╣iŠ: art historian, designer and Editor of design studio/publishing house Arkzin.

Copyright: Avtorji & SCCA, Zavod za sodobno umetnost-Ljubljana /Authors & SCCA, Center for Contemporary Art-Ljubljana