"Politics Within"Group exhibition at Center for Contemporary Art Celje
Fokus Grupa, IC – 98, IRWIN, Borut Peterlin, Nives Sertić, Jonas Staal, Hito Steyerl
Curated by: Irena Borić
"Meanwhile, with this programme, as with all programmes, you receive images and meanings which are arranged. I hope you will consider what I arrange, but be sceptical of it."
John Berger, Ways of Seeing
When John Berger made the Ways of Seeing, a BBC television series, back in 1972, he introduced a new set of ideas about meanings and the ideological framework of historically acknowledged artworks into the mainstream media discussion. He exposed possibilities of manipulation with the ways of seeing and interpreting art, as well as issues of value, commercial images and institutionalised misogyny. These ways of thinking contradicted the common understanding of art history in which art is seen solely through the categories of style, form and genre. By outlining the effects and consequences of representation, Berger recognized the political as already inherited within the art field, and it is precisely this that makes his contribution so relevant today.
Referring to Berger's thoughts on politics of representation the exhibition Politics Within emphasises two main assumptions. The first one deals with the context of art practices, regardless of whether it has already been set up and defined by various political, economic and social elements or, created anew. The second assumption has to do with the politics of display inherent to the processes of exhibition-making and the mediation of its meanings. Despite of the ambiguity that allows negotiations between various readings, the construction and production of meaning is conditioned by a specific, often ideological, context. For this reason, the exhibition Politics Within tackles not only the meaning of artwork, but its ideological constructions as well, by posing questions on the effects and consequences of representation, its origins, content, intentional and hidden meanings, and the specific usage of visual language and message. Based on Berger's understanding of the context: "Everything around the image is parts of its meaning, everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning.", the exhibition presents different positions artists take in relation to the ideologies of the image, its representational role, and the strategies of its deconstruction (subversion).
Furthermore, the essential question that the exhibition tackles is what is the political within art, and how political are the ways of seeing today? For instance, at the time when Ways of Seeing were broadcast on BBC, Berger used the most popular medium of television to be critical of the media manipulation of images. Which contemporary media are to address political urgencies today?
The photo series Flower Power (2008-2013) by Borut Peterlin shows that meaning is not simply given, but that it can be subverted, deconstructed and recreated. Working as a photo journalist for years he shot various political meetings in which the scenography and dramaturgy were set in advance. All he needed was to find the right angle and light, and the image was ready for repository. The politicians, as the assumed main actors, use defined codes of style, speech, tone of language, smile (if needed), handshake gesture. The scenography of these events entail visual codes as well, since their design is conceived for an image that is supposed to be spread around the news. There is nothing extraordinary about the images, except for the flower arrangements that bring some colours to the dark suit scene. However, even though the intended meaning had been already arranged, Peterlin denies the politicians the right to power by transferring it to the decorative flower arrangements. Sharpened by the camera focus, the flowers have become the main protagonists of the scene, whereas the politicians remain passively present and their political importance irrelevant. They have become empty signifiers, as the alleged power they represent has been given to the flower arrangements.
The politicians ceased to bear meaning in Borut Peterlin's Flower Power, whereas in the Art, Property of Politics by Jonas Staal, politicians have the role of mediators, communicating the meaning of art to the public. The work Art, Property of Politics was originally presented in the form of a classical exhibition within another exhibition called The People United Will Never Be Defeated, which took place at Rotterdam’s Tent Gallery at the time of the City Council elections (2010). Perhaps there would not have been anything odd with this exhibition if the owners of the exhibited artworks had not been political parties, the candidates for the City Council of Rotterdam. Staal interviewed the politicians on the meaning of the exhibited artworks and on the relationship between art and politics. All of them found that art should be free and that the task of politics is to ensure this, although none of them questioned their own ideological partake on understanding the role of art in society. Just like the artworks from party “collections”, their opinions on the relationship between politics and art in fact reflect their parties’ ideological positions. Moreover, the original context of the artworks integrated in Art, Property of Politics were the party quarters of Rotterdam City Hall, but as they were shifted from the political into the art gallery context, their meaning changed as well. Interestingly enough, the works placed in a political context function as art, while in an art context they function as representations of particular ideologies.
But what happens when an image with clear ideological purpose gets deprived of its meaning? In Kapital 1986-2013 the artist collective IRWIN use socialist-realist, Nazi art and folk art images in a very precise, repetitive and programmatic way. Yet again, these visuals are chosen because of their implications and the propaganda role they had in specific historical circumstances. Coming from contexts loaded with ideological connotations and as such composed in a single composition, these signs are deprived of their original content even though this very content is the reason of their selection in the first place. Assembled as icons, they frame a familiar repository creating at the same time the context of its representation. As Igor Zabel wrote: "The reconstitution of the notion of the icon represents, then, a reflection of the group’s own practice and development as painters, a redefinition of the icon, and the establishment of a frame that delineates in a new way the territory of the icon1. The territory of the icon is in this case emphasised with flanking animal trophies. As they were often symbols placed on government buildings, their new position between the icons gives the icons the legitimacy of holy presence, which cannot be doubted.
Newly established state ideology needs a new historical legitimacy, which often implies the process of creating new archives of events. Through a careful selection – the existing materials can perhaps be re-arranged only through casting shadow or shedding light on certain events from the past. As this pattern of social behavior was in practice in Croatia, the Fokus Grupa framed an archive of events offering a different reading of the materials used. In a case study of Croatian nationalism of the nineties, they relate the language of nationalism to the discourse on nature and sexuality. The point of departure for the work P.H.S.H.N. (2014) was a monument Altar of the Homeland by the Croatian sculptor Kuzma Kovačić, erected in 1994 by the medieval fortress Medvedgrad above Zagreb. The monument reflects romanticism and delusions of grandeur by using the iconography celebrating the Middle Ages and by referring to the Altare de la Patria built in 19th century Rome. Conceived as an assamblage of cubes made out of various kinds of stone, the monument at first appears minimalist, but its total shape is that of the Croatian coat-of-arms inscribed with historical iconographic elements. The Fokus Grupa transforms the shape of the monument into plywood cubes of the same size, altering its function into furniture that opens up an ideological dispositive of an image of Croatian nationalism. The newly formed archives not only archive certain events, but produce them as well. Stored into the furniture set, organized in piles and caches, not all archival materials can be seen. Hence, the presented materials are just fragments, and as such they cannot be grasped at once. Therefore, this unfinished line of thought functions as a raw material of meaning.
Whereas the Fokus Grupa uses documentary material, IC- 98 take off from a myth and build up a fictional narrative. In their work Abendland: The Place That Was Promised (2013) the artist duo confronts the mythological past with a future fiction. When thinking of the past one, the reference is a myth on the Garden of Hesperides, where the evening nymphs resided somewhere in the West, the place of the sunset. While this place is often depicted as a beautiful, fruitful garden, in their idea of a possible future, IC-98 depicts a very old, crooked tree that exhausts rather than nourishes its surrounding environment. The dream of the West as a place of wealth is confronted with its darkened future. The decayed, barely alive ecosystem is situated at an old nuclear fuel repository site. Depicted as a rotten, forgotten place, it proposes the idea of Western Europe with a future of a parasite, resting on what we could hardly call the leftovers of a failed economy.
Hito Steyerl in video work HOW NOT TO BE SEEN A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File. (2013) gives out a set of instructions on how to be invisible in an age swarming with images. The video was partially shot at one of the aerial photo calibration targets in the USA, land-based two-dimensional optical artefacts used for the development of aerial photography and aircraft. The targets function like an eye chart at the optometrist, where the smallest group of bars that can be resolved marks the limit of the resolution for the optical instrument that is being used.2 Hito Steyerl's work brings to mind Monty Pyhton's sketch How Not to Be Seen3, in which the narrator attempts to explain the importance of not being seen, since those who are seen end up being shot. On the one hand they are the targets of the camera, while on the other hand as they are shot they disappear out of the picture. Furthermore, in Hito's work the unseen are not only pixels of an image; she also refers to pixels of an image that represent people. She poses a question on today's invisible people: of the discrepancy between the extremely powerful ones, and the ones completely underrepresented in power. However, the proposed instructions on being invisible seem like a rather utopian objective in the given context, and yet the form of a moving image allows various kinds of visibilities. When shown in art designated venues, the video has a high resolution and distinct visibility, while when this video is transferred into a so-called "poor image"4 due to the lack of resolution, it easily travels all over the digital media.
Unlike digital media that allow reproduced, low resolution images, white cube spaces still tend to follow a museum model that plays safe on what is displayed and how. When thinking of the politics of display within a white cube there are often certain predictable models to follow, and it is not often the case that such settings invite experimentation. And to see is the most important tool for understanding the displayed works. Nives Sertić approached the issue of seeing by transferring it into some sort of a choreography. Can ways of seeing physically become (path)ways of seeing? While doing performance Everything I See, It Moves, she explores the designated space for the first time, even though the instructions on the desired movement are set up in advance. The movement and the view are intertwined in a set of given directions that result in a ludic choreography of imaginary pathways, forms and geometrical shapes. Later on, the viewers are invited to follow the instructions coming from the headphones and repeat the choreography. In a sense, the viewer becomes the visible one.
 Zabel, Igor (2006) Irwinove ikone. V: IRWIN:RETROPRINCIP, (Ed.) Arns, Inke. Mladinska knjiga Založba, Ljubljana. str. 77
2 Optical calibration targets. BLDG BLOG. Retrieved at 27 February 2014 from http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2013/02/optical-calibration-targets.html
4Steyerl, Hito (2009) In Defense of the Poor Image. In: e-flux journal #10. Retrieved at 20 February 2014 from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/