Let us begin this interview with one of your substantial theses – the one you used in the interview for Novi list: “The idea that art cannot change the world is fatalistic.” Considering the current state of affairs, how is it then at all possible for contemporary art to be an actual alternative to indifference, fatalism or reconciliation?
I think that the root of that which you consider to be indifference, fatalism and reconciliation with the current state of affairs lies at our very perception of nature. We tend to designate each lasting state as natural, which automatically means it cannot be altered. Thereby, it is often forgotten that change is a natural process, and that changing the world is not only necessary and legitimate, but also possible. Of course, it would be naive to believe that such changes could be big and dramatic because, unfortunately, heroic feats are a matter of the past. The Variable Risk Landscape project deals exactly with the concept of nature as a virtual space of changing values.
Ever since your earliest multimedia works up until your latest projects in which you radically contemplate the relation between the artist, art and social environment – I Am Addressing You Man to Man, Variable Risk Landscape, J.B.T., you have been addressing the deconstruction of the mythological consciousness of the public space as the fundamental issue. Unlike Tomislav Gotovac’s (Antonio Lauer’s) approach in which he explicitly abolishes the difference between the world of art and the real world, your actionism is reflective.
Being explicit has never been my thing. I hope that my tendency to reflect on matters does not pull me back from real life, ha, ha. Since you’ve mentioned the stage, I must admit that it has never appealed to me. I believe that this is why I have always been closer to the sphere of action than to the sphere of performance. Action, at least the way I see it, is a process, a sequence of gestures which may be directed at the environment in which an artist works, but which does not turn him into a performer along the way, i.e. the performance does not turn his working space into a stage. Action is neither spatially, nor temporally limited; it is inconsiderate of the spectators’ time – it is not a show. Theatralisation of artistic work indicates its removal from the social sphere, whereas action allows me to participate in it. Artistic work is public not only when it is exposed to public, but also, and primarily, when the public is transformed by its effects. A minimal, barely visible gesture or intervention is sometimes enough for that to happen.
I see my artistic work as a gesture which does not aim to obtain any interests. Recently I have discovered that Giorgio Agamben, at the time of general social and political apathy, has defined another possible true political activity in exactly the same way – as a gesture which represents the means free from any ends. That is when I realised that my work was political as well; i.e. although it always starts in the sphere of aesthetic, it in fact ends up acting in the sphere of ethic.
This is what I was trying to approach in the artworks that you’ve mentioned, I Am Addressing You Man to Man and Variable Risk Landscape, which explore the common area of the artistic and political acting, individual and social experience.
To what extent is the body an “obsolete” medium of art today? Are the text and the visual message a more trustworthy means than the performative relation towards the stage of the public spectacle?
The body is a legitimate art medium, but today it is difficult to counteract the procedures which are performed by various performers on the body (even their own) in this overall media spectacle. It is questionable whether an artist should enter the race with, for example, the Kostelić family who perform a continuous series of surgeries, changes or extensions on their limbs; or with Michael-Jackson-like people who cannot even maintain their present condition without the constant nips and tucks which are aimed at postponing the effects of nature. Humans have definitely gotten out of their bodies and now they see it as a suit which may and should be tailored. The next step is probably a memory upgrade and boost. I am afraid that people might end up just like angels who, as sublime as they may be, are still just creatures made according to the same model.
The binary code which you’ve tackled in your works has become the public code of the digital age. Even today, many people dread the possibilities of technological development. I remember our first encounter at Paul Virilio’s Open Sky book presentation at the French Institute. You’ve mentioned that the media theory and the contemporary art should find a new language for that what is already going on as an “absolute event” of simultaneity. Is it a mathematical symbolic language or something else...?
Unlike the language which describes the reality, the code controls it. Lyotard claims that reality consists mainly of messages which we receive about it. Those messages are conveyed by ever more complex machines, and digitalisation represents the final stage of abstraction transforming them into one universal code which is no longer analogous with its source. The space of language is becoming smaller, and the sector of pure text is becoming larger. The readable, the iconical, which may be called the phenotext, is controlled and powered by the hidden, binary but effective – by the genotext. Those are the moments which made me deal with the binary code, i.e. code in general, in a more serious manner. This potentially dual nature of the artwork which becomes the structure that shows its form outwardly, even when it is called “content”, and hides a message inside, is the area of my research. In works, such message often contradicts the visible form or takes effect as a subversion of it. All works from the Binary series are based on the opposition between iconic and coded, and I have made a whole series of them since 1985, ever since I have embedded the encrypted message into the first video (Dutch Moves). In the German city Rosenheim, I conveyed an encrypted message in the centre of the main town square by parking new black and silver VW Golfs in a 150-meter-long sequence (Parken Verboten, 2000). The event of conveying the message was hidden and disguised into something that looked as a marketing or commercial spectacle. In the famous American film noir The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart, I entered the second, binary encrypted narrative sequence (Inside Maltese Falcon, 2001), which was a political essay by a social activist for the rights of Indios in the Mexican state of Chiapas – the renowned Subcomandante Marcos. Within the scope of the binary principle where all numerical values can be expressed by a series of “zeros” and “ones”, I re-edited the movie in such a manner that the “ones” remained the original frames of the movie, and the “zeros” were replaced by darkened frames. Thanks to that, the film screening has a shimmery quality to it, such as in the earliest movies. From the bell tower of St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb, I broadcasted encrypted daily news using two bells (News Broadcast, 2001). Since St Mark’s Church is situated on the square between the Government building and the Parliament building, it is an ideal place for broadcasting the latest news. In one of Berlin’s parks, I installed a work titled the Garden of the Worst Swearwords (Vrt najgorih psovki ) which consisted of a birdcall recording which contained a text hidden within it. That is how an encrypted message, whose content is self-evident from the title, was mixed with a real birdcall of live birds from trees nearby.
You’ve started the online magazine for visual arts Art-e-fact. I think that conceptually absolutely the best project which originated from your and your associates’ “workshop” (Nada Beroš, Tihomir Milovac etc.) is the one with a name so damn subversive and metaphysical – Motel Ježevo (Ježevo Motel) – about the fate of illegal migration and human trafficking. Everything was perfectly depicted: the fundamental problem of the contemporary social theory and politics of the 21st century, the global actors and story, the fatality of history, transmediality of art and its present radically-critical position. Tell us more about the project. It seems as it is the only event which will, unfortunately, outlive your projects, actions, events.
From the very beginning, we envisioned Art-e-fact as an open platform which was to be the place of confrontation between art theory and practice and the social reality. The issue of illegal migration was proposed, and during season 2002/03 edited and hosted, by Nada Beroš. At the time, Motel Ježevo became one of the critical points in our transitional landscape. Therefore, we weren’t just a part of social transition, but we also became the transition point for illegal immigrants. Motel Ježevo is situated on the highway Zagreb-Lipovac, formerly known as the Brotherhood and Unity Highway, nearby your home town of Ivanić-Grad, isn’t it? Recently I was checking some information about the place on-line and guess what? The first site to open was the one containing your text Prisoners of a Global Paranoia for Art-e-fact. So, the topic seemed to have been chosen perfectly, but only when it comes to us, I’m afraid. The Reception Centre for Foreigners was the official name of in fact a camp, a space bordered by a high fence with barbed wire where people with no valid documents were placed, i.e. those who were caught during their “illegal residence” in Croatia. A camp is, according to Hannah Arendt, the space of exception, the space which is hence exempted from the socially legal system, making it possible for anything to happen there. It is possible to treat people as criminals, even if they hadn’t committed any crimes; to keep them in a place where they have no civil rights for an unlimited amount of time, etc. The model of a man of the world, an individual walking freely around the world, to whom each place is equally familiar and “homely”, is the foundation of the modern and contemporary artistic practice, whereupon, categorising people outside or beneath that category was the fact which made artists sensible to that question. I believe that all participating artists have recognized the importance of the issue and have shown that using artistic intervention or theoretical texts, they draw the attention of the public to the issue of the dark side of globalisation.
In the trash movie of a similar title – Motel Hell from the 1970s, one of the characters says: “There’s too many people in the world and not enough food. Now this takes care of both problems at the same time.” You have to admit that cynics have the simplest solutions.