Branislav Dimitrijević: Interpreting and Situating Contemporary Art: Observation, Participation, Motivation, Research and Empathy

School for Curators and Critics of Contemporary Art
Season 14
1st Year (November 2011–June 2012)

Workshop on writing about contemporary art
Friday-Saturday, May, 18 and 19 2012

Participants: Neža Mezek, Lela B. Njatin and participants of the 14th year of World of Art.

"Art is what makes life more interesting than art." One of those catchy sayings that we feel will bring us closer to the ‘essence’ of what we want to say or what we want to do with the fact that we want to say something about and do something with what we consider art. I am not sure where I read it, but I may recall that it relates to the work of the performance artist Gina Pane, or maybe to someone else of that generation, because in general it has that air of the 60s and 70s when the question "What is art?" not only mattered, but was asked to the point of obsession, ending up in ironical violence as in the seminal work from 1977 by Raša Todosijević : Was ist Kunst?

Nowadays, the question is no longer what art is, but what can we do with it. It seems that the answer to the first question has become obsolete, unnecessary rhetoric, something to keep silent about. As one curator recently maintained in his "curator’s statement": "I think that if you are constantly pointing out where or what art is, you may underestimate the spectator’s ability to relate to it."

It is a symptom of contemporary art which tends to champion (real) experience over interpretation. But, a certain overvaluation of "personal experience" is evident everywhere. Only-in-direct-experience-we-trust!, may be a slogan of the times; experience becomes the basis for true, reliable and authentic knowledge about culture and the self. Contemporary art is just one of the manifestations of this overvaluation, with the most apparent ones to be found in the confessional mode of the popular media – from television talk shows to big brothers and trauma drama. There is therefore an established ideological connection between "experience" and "voyeurism", between a desire to be an active participant in the world-at-large and an ultimate commoditization of experience. How does one handle this without reinstating established types of media critique or reverting to the evident recognition of the standard logic of developed capitalism? Debord cannot help us any longer.

Cities on the move, artists on the move, transitional spaces, transitional societies, mobility, exchange and direct participation: here is how the contemporary art world is usually described. The type of artist created here does not belong to any fixed circumstances, but is dedicated to mobility, globetrotting, to discovering differences, to a constant contextual flux. "Artists must be tourists in our society to stay alive," says another curator’s statement.

Mobility comes out of a need for individual self-organization outside of institutional confinement. Yet that mobility is linked to the governing mechanism itself of developed capitalism. The capitalist entrepreneur and his critical "other" are on the same mission of permanent mobility. As Brian Holmes remarked, "The whole ambiguity of capitalism, in its concrete, historical evolution, is to combine tremendous directive power over the course and content of human experience with a structurally necessary space for the development of individual autonomy".

  • Where does one stand in these circumstances?
  • Do we travel just to gain new experiences or do we travel not to stick to the old ones?
  • How do we situate ourselves in this transitory condition? How do we gain meaning in this "everything goes / everything moves" condition?

It is the ethnographic impulse which at stake here, with its double edge of curiosity and colonialism, of direct experience and structural thinking, of observation/description and understanding/interpretation. In our culture everything may become an object of ethnographic inquiry: it is not only moving "between cultures", but a "perpetual displacement" of the object of inquiry in which specificities, localities and situations are less and less distinct. The useful concept here may be the concept of "participant observation", which we borrow from James Clifford. This concept "encompasses a relay between an empathetic engagement with a particular situation and/or event (experience) and the assessment of its meaning and significance within a broader context (interpretation)".

It is the stress on the former which has recently been of much more ethnographic and artistic interest, but here instead of either we may stress the word "relay" in order to express a concern for activating dynamism between a motivated and a situated position. So, how can we think about the concept of "participant observation" in art which functions as a relay between empathy and meaning? We will speak about the issues involved in our general inclination to share the world from the position we find ourselves in, or in which we tend to situate ourselves in order to "be with" the others, and to speak about notions as unrelated or conflictual as empathy and laughter, cynicism and naiveté, observation and interpretation, the humanitarian gaze and the ethnographic gaze, hard facts and flexible idiosyncrasies, and just a little bit about football and Socialism.

Branislav Dimitrijević

The workshop will be conducted in Serbian language.


Friday, 18. 5. 2012:
11.00–14.00: Introductory lecture of Branislav Dimitrijević
16.00–18.00: Distribution of tasks to participants of the workshop: each participant will have to write text (min. 1800 signs) on selected/assigned subject till the next day.

Saturday, 19. 5. 2012:
10.00 – 13.00: Presentation of texts (10 min. on each text), discussion, evaluation