Petja Grafenauer: That’s What LabSUs Meant To Me

LabSUs [1] began five years ago. Wishing to follow what it has given me, I have to keep the story as true to what really happened as possible. I will also rely on the participants’ subjective notes from the SCCA−Ljubljana archives to help me. However, I am writing only one of the possible stories, which would be, as in Rashomon, told with a different emphasis by each of the seven primary participants.

The tenth year of the World of Art was conceived as a meta-course and an attempt to introduce a second year of school. It was attended by seven curators, critics, theorists and artists selected by the SCCA based on an internal call for participation from former students and seminar participants. The seven were Ivana Bago, Monika Ivančič Pfeifer, Petra Kapš, Vasja Nagy, Mojca Puncer, Jaka Železnikar and me. With our help, SCCA researched the possibilities, conditions, methods and goal of reorganising the school. We were handed a framework programme and were even paid for working on an exhibition, while we lived off mutual benefits in the remaining time that we invested in the programme.

In order to answer the question: “What would have to be changed so that curators would be better prepared to enter the world of art?”, the students had to think through who a curator is and what we do, what education we receive and what we lack. We faced our shortcomings and talked about them. We lived the dream of those who love their work, but never have enough time to do everything. We received the funding, public and work space and time to engage with our work, and − what a pleasure – with ourselves. We also had a spy whom we thought would “switch sides” in the meantime, although he did not: Jaka Železnikar clearly stressed that he was not a curator. In a group of curators, the artist – the person with whom a curator of contemporary art is most closely connected, as his acts and statements influence him or her most personally – challenged every decision by posing questions. This was happening at a time when the discussion on the relationship between the artist and curator reached a peak: in 2003, Gabriel Orozco and Rikrit Tiravanija were invited to curate the Venice Biennale, while e-flux invited the most prominent artists of the period to think about the statement The Next Documenta Should Be Curated By an Artist. We answered the question, which was in the air, together with Dara Birnbaum.[2]

After our first meeting in November, we went on a study trip to the Slovenian coast and chatted with Andrej Medved, visited Žiga Pilih, who then worked in Izola art studios, and Forma Viva, where Toni Biloslav told us about its history. The study trip ended in Meduza gallery, in front of the Videowall by Polonca Lovšin and we enjoyed getting to know the details of how the visual arts scene on the coast operates. We ascertained that communication and reviewing always reveal new layers of the world of art, while realising that our activity has a history which we will have to know in order to find out who we are.

On January 20, we travelled to Labin on a working weekend. I think we functioned as a group then, began liking each other, or at least accepted each other. In a café before the fortified hill town, we met curator Sabina Salomon who then ran the City Gallery Labin. We then started working. Saša Nabergoj had already told us in Ljubljana what our job was to be: to analyse the exhibitions of previous courses. We became enthusiastic critics, chatting away even when we were visited in the evening by the artist Alen Floričić, who brought red wine which kept us warm almost until dawn. At that time we returned to analysing, “the positive and less flattering aspects of exhibitions, selections of art works, disregarded angles, references to art practice and theory and analysis of the exhibition concepts (…) We thought about whether the prerequisite for juxtaposing works is that they are similar in terms of quality; whether selection means an assessment of quality; whether the selection of a topic means a statement on the relevance of the topic and if works which fail to thematise the selected topic are therefore ‘worse’? Exhibition analysis proved to be a very important step in the operation of the Laboratory, as it provided a new view of curatorship, both from the perspective of organisation and content”.[3]

With our meeting in February came the decision to organise two round tables and attempt to find out what had not been archived: what is the history of curatorial practices in Slovenia and what can we learn from it? We thought that the event might be worth recording, which led to the publication of the first round table in the Likovne besede (Artwords) magazine[4]. From a list of almost forty Slovenian curators, we selected eight participants, opting for preparatory meetings and talks with the majority, which took place in March. We decided that the two round tables would take place on 9 and 17 May in SCCA Project Room.

The first round table was conceived as a historical overview of curatorial practices with Zdenka Badovinac, Aleksander Bassin, Tomaž Brejc and Barbara Borčić. Nevenka Šivavec, Jurij Krpan, Tadej Pogačar and Gregor Podnar participated at the second. The practices promoted by the guests revealed various working methods: from supporting and promoting radical art, integrating the local and international environments, combining curatorial and art practices, establishing an art gallery and entering the market. The diverse approaches presented a wide range of phenomena that are currently addressed by curators.

Online conversations played an important part during this time. According to the course scheme, we were divided into production groups; however, organisational work seemed irksome at that stage, as we wanted to hold discussions, listen, read and understand, and not calculate and organise. “Due to the organisational structure and specific working method, the participants of Laboratory were divided into working groups, which would enable a greater overview of different areas of work, and keep them up to date. The groups comprise: public relations (Petja Grafenauer, Monika Ivančič and Petra Kapš), funding (Vasja Nagy and Jaka Železnikar), and technical crew (Ivana Bago and Mojca Puncer).”[5] We did the urgent work, started sending out requests for funding, writing PR messages and inviting media, while the technical crew was still resting for the most part. Our main interest lay elsewhere. We researched, talked about our findings, looked for articles and magazines, read, talked, and immensely enjoyed ourselves doing that, and realised that, in addition to the history of curatorial practices, we were very interested in methods of collaboration between curator and artist (not the curator and the art work, but a person with his/her desires and needs) and significant for us was the fact that the laboratory itself reflected “crisis”, “critical”, a “transient” situation in the area of educating curators and writers about contemporary art.[6] We knew that we did not want to prepare a classic exhibition, as it would only have illustrated what we were interested in: curators. Given the subject, we could have afforded to do that, as we had been invited to the school for curators to research curatorial education – by repeating the procedure included in the curriculum, we created a meta-level of knowledge about curatorial practices and the school, which is what we wanted to show. We wrote: “If an exhibition is to take place, it seems that we are more interested in the meta-level, in the sense of researching the art system.”[7]

As the framework of our interests became increasingly clear, we still did not know how to translate it into a public event that would take place at a certain time and in the space of Škuc Gallery. So everyone had to say what their wishes and interests were: “Several variants emerged: from an exhibition conglomerate, where everyone selected an artist according to their personal preferences, to using the gallery space as a living environment which we would inhabit as curators by doing in person activities which are part of what we do. Another possibility was an exhibition with a small number of artists, or only one, and the extreme variant of using the gallery as a space closed to the public.” The notes reveal that the focus was on the relationship between the intuitive and rational-theoretical approach to curatorial practices. It caused some concern when we discovered that the former (at least in a clearly expressed form) was rather rare, and that a curator can even hide behind the theoretical discourse justifying their existence in their own hermetic position. With regard to the question of intuition, we could not forget the significance of social networking that is typical of art, and that the Slovenian art scene is so small that friendships almost necessarily overlap with work. “Where and how to establish distance; how to assess what is pointed criticism and where should this give way to wider social engagement. Ethical insight does not refer to the neutrality of theoretical discourse, but the consequences that a curatorial and artistic act can have in time and space.”[8]

In April, we met briefly for a trip to Celje, and then came May, when both round tables took place, while we were also occupied with thinking and preparing for Škuc Gallery. We needed a title for the event. We realised that we would be “on show” in the gallery the whole time. At first, we wanted to sleep at home, but when reviewing the time spent in Labin, we agreed that breaks would undermine our experiment. We would run away from Škuc and the Laboratory every day and have time for a view from the outside, for being late and for running away from the project. Therefore, we decided to stay in the gallery for the whole time the duration of the project. The army lent us beds and we made a makeshift bedroom. At first, we did not think that visitors to the gallery would find the actual stay the most interesting aspect. But thus it was, as there was tension, tiredness, the necessary morning hangover and the continuous public presence – it was a physical and psychological test. We made mistakes, but we knew this would happen, as one of our key wishes was to have the time and space for curating, writing, theory and dialogue, a place where we could experiment and do something wrong. A slip, lapsus in Latin, was an expected part of the experiment, a part of the lab. So we coined a word LabSUs, including a slip, a mistake, in the title.

We thought about how to get others excited about our project. We held a presentation picnic, which in view of the coming summer, was organised by the River Ljubljanica at Špica. Looking at the photographs, it seems as if “everyone” was there. The first entry in the LabSUs blog[9] was by Petra, who was obviously enthusiastic about the picnic: “The main topic within the radius of hearing and my own speaking activity was art, questions of aesthetics, beauty, taste, writing about art, methods of interpretation and theoretical inclusions, fruitful collaborations between the artist and curator, development, the interdependence of texts and production … And if it proves that people’s time has to be occupied to create fruitful situations for discussion, then LabSUs is our appeal to do just that.”[10] I, too, was full of idealism: “the LabSUs approach, which is not directed to a goal, acquiring mass audiences, perfectionism, but debate, questions and opening impossible opportunities, is what we should actually keep in mind all the time …”[11]

Then came LabSUs’ first mistake. On 21 June, it was over 36 degrees Celsius well before noon and there were no media representatives at the press conference. We realised that it would be more difficult to share our enthusiasm about the project than we had thought. While we had been immersed in LabSUs, the world had gone on its way and a minor art event did not mean much to it.

LabSUs lasted seven days. It began with breakfast at ten, which Jaka described as follows: “At breakfast, we were joined by several registered freelancers (or candidates for this − according to some fat people − very suspicious and socially harmful occupation). We had a great time, drank tea and coffee, nibbled morning pastry (Thanks, Toljen.) and wild cherries (Thanks, Barbara.), which prepared us nicely for discussions on art. Well, to be honest, we were more occupied by organisational matters in the morning, and deliberated with the help of Dialogi magazine in the afternoon (“About curators and exhibitions of contemporary art”, No. 5−6, 2007), which prompted us to rest lazily on the cushions in the gallery and to contemplation spurred by print media.”[12]

Every day, we locked the doors at 11 pm, sometimes even later, and opened them at 10 am. The Škuc team was sceptical about such a “closing exhibition”, but we were happy that they had given us the space and included the gallery’s content in LabSUs. We set up a makeshift bar with some crates and dedicated one evening to a discussion about Škuc Gallery’s programme policy past and present. We brought our favourite books to the gallery and set up a temporary library. The public events attracted many visitors, and the media responded too. We held three evening debates with invited guests, with the bar providing stimulation and motivation, as we could not deny the fact that relaxed conversation can only take place in a room where a guest is appropriately stimulated and feels good. We talked about the history and contemporary nature of Škuc, about the programme of the School for Curators and art training programmes carefully studied by Mojca. We also focused on what it means to be an artist with children, while organising day care. Vasja prepared a video wall. Mateja Velikonja showed us new graffiti and tags on the streets of Ljubljana, while Jaka provided advice on the Internet for artists. We also had breakfasts with croissants, entertainment with a presentation on the occasion of the opening of LabSUs and the final Day of Enjoyment and Art, which provided an opportunity for chat, poetry readings, performance and culinary delights in the backyard, where Vasja ran a proper barbecue.

Every day, we would open the doors of Škuc for “the presentation of art work, ideas and concepts, production of projects, people for action, discussion, talk, engaged defence of our own views and complex evaluation of what was presented, a pleasant chat and intimate conversation, criticism and empathy!” This unstructured part was not a complete success: we had expected more visits from artists, but visits to prepared events were much better than the time when we offered undefined socialising and talk. Supposedly, rumours circulated that we were aloof, while it did not occur to us that a group of seven talkative curators brought together by several months of socialising were perhaps not the most desirable people for a single artist to talk to. As I have said, there was no influx of artists in the morning. And then we even lost an artist: “She took her paintings down from the wall and left. She is not resentful towards us in any way – at least, that’s what she said. It seems we did not grasp something well enough in a situation we had created through concepts. Something to think about.”[13]

We realised how important inter-personal relationships between curators and artists are (perhaps they are even among the most important ones). It was difficult to maintain concentration and energy. We soon discovered that people were coming to Škuc fresh and after a good night’s sleep, while we were growing increasingly tired and worn out. Despite the best intentions, we did not calculate sufficiently the time needed to organise and edit the material of the previous day, which had to be presented daily on the web as promised. Despite that, we worked as well as we could and the exhibition which was coming into existance during the project assumed an acceptable form at the end and ran parallel to the exhibition about the ten years of the World of Art which was hosted in the neighbouring room: “The problem is that we – you don’t know what will happen until it happens – are literally running out of time to promptly publicly archive the unforeseen events forming LabSUs, at every moment, the whole day, since its inception. (…) Interesting, even much unforeseen guests talking about interesting things, interesting conversation among everyone involved – and we are running out of time. Perhaps this is part of the charm of unpredictability? Perhaps it is its ‘darker’ side. I don’t know. Perhaps everything must be seen from a distance once thoughts have calmed down. After so many days, so many conversations, unscheduled meetings, so many events – tired but happy (to put it better, perhaps: content). Very tired (very content?).”[14]

Then we did not see each other for the whole summer until the moment when the majority of LabSUs took a trip around Herzegovina on their own initiative in mid-August to think through what had actually happened in Škuc. At home, I was preoccupied with an overload of work – I was envious of the travellers, and remembered LabSUs, which in a week, despite all the mistakes, had offered a real and metaphorical space in the field of art, with loosened time and space determinants. Those who travelled the hilly landscape managed to temporarily re-establish this space and break the routine, while I lived the everyday life of a curator. But this everyday is still different precisely because of the seven-day experience and all the preparations. I dare to say in Hollywood fashion: because of LabSUs I am a different curator today. LabSUs was a group which stressed individual engagement and responsibility in expressing and implementing views and developing environments for exchanging experience and knowledge. LabSUs gave me time to think about the status, position and practice of the curator. It emerged because we were not happy with the existing production methods and formal framework offered by galleries and museums for presenting and distributing art, and because we were not content with directed, goal-oriented instrumentalised exhibition activity which does not offer time for research, thought, discussion, constructive idleness or disorder. We took the time and we tried to offer it to others. During this time, which was not goal-oriented − in fact, the path was the goal – we stressed content over organisation.

Naturally, we realised that this was an exception, as a gallery is still a place intended for the display of art and we had to serve the system in order to survive. Our task as curators is not to engage only ourselves and our work, but to stand side by side with artists.[15] But we still wanted to remain in the personal sphere. Therefore, we prepared LabSUs osebno/osobno[16] (LabSUs Personal) in City Gallery Labin and set rules: we would prepare an exhibition. Each could select two art projects connected to their perception of the personal and to which they have a personal attitude. The selection had to be publicly clarified, while the installation was the collective work of all the participating curators, who had to achieve the best possible presentation of the projects together – in dialogue, dispute, disagreement or harmony.

The exhibition, which opened on October 20, appeared coordinated and coherent, despite the fact that we did not coordinate the selection of artists. A double challenge: the curators openly faced their personal preferences, which are indeed major factors in the decision-making process, no matter how professionally impartial it may seem, while the installation of the work selected in this way was different, as were the content and formal criteria for it; we passed both successfully.

Ivana’s choice, Meeting contravened the constant quest for production; in it, Božena Končić Badurina did a silent performance in the office of the city gallery where the participants of Laboratory SU had held their first working meetings. Her second choice was Leave, in which Tanja Dabo and Igor Grubić made a gesture of micro-rebellion and subversion of the art system by spending funds from the Culture Department of the City of Rijeka on holidays instead for an exhibition. I selected books which to me represent the pinnacle of pleasure and intimacy: five tiny books, Hortus conclusus by Ksenija Čerče, and Huzjan’s installation About words, sentences, paragraphs and an exclamation point, where a wild gesture of destruction pointed to its form as an object. Petra’s choice was very carefully considered. She presented the project An exercise for the end of the world, action, documentation, video projection which was submitted in 1994 to a call for Urbanaria exhibition project organised by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Ljubljana by Marko Košnik and was rejected on the grounds that the author had tried to deconstruct the Soros institution. At the LabSUs Personal exhibition which was organised by SCCA−Ljubljana (the “former” Soros Center) thirteen years later, Petra Kapš presented An Exercise in a contemporary context, while Košnik used us as extras for the clip, and we became objects of our own volition. Vasja selected a video screening by Robertina Šebjanič Bubble and invited Roman Zel to do a site-specific work. An artist friend. What would Jaka have chosen if it were not for Vuk Čosić and his project Nation – culture? Mojca also made a carefully considered selection, and chose Simon Macuh, a young artist interested in art based on communication which poses questions and promotes dialogue – topics which interested us at LabSUs.

At the end, there was a final “slip”, LabSUs was over. We wanted to publish a book. We definitely should have published a book. We had plans. We had the know-how. We had material. We even had some will, but not enough. We did not have the money, but the key problem was that we did not approach the project enthusiastically enough, so it sank under mountains of other work, projects, life in general, which occupied us all. This is how I experienced LabSUs, and there should be seven contributions like it.

[1] LabSUs, coined from Laboratory and SU (World of Art in Slovene) and with reference to lapsus (Latin for slip).

[2] “Should a musician become an orchestra conductor? Should a poet open a bookshop and become a publisher? Should an artist become a gallerist? Should an artist become an architect? Should a painter become a feature film director? Should a theoretically positioned artist become a hollywood film director? Should an actor become a film director? Perhaps even more profound examples are: should a film actor become the head of the NRA? Should a citizen run for political office? Should an actor become the political leader of a country? Should a body builder become a governor? In conclusion, why not have an artist curate the next Documenta?”

Dara Birnbaum, Answering a Proposition with a Question – Or, What Is Wrong with This Picture?, The Next Documenta Should Be Curated By an Artist, (5. 3. 2012).

[3] (14. 3. 2012).

[4] “Kuratorske prakse na slovenskem”, Artwords, No. 79/80, (Summer 2007), 8−20.

[5] (7. 3. 2012).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] (10. 3. 2012).

[9] (25. 3. 2012).

[10] (14. 3. 2012).

[11] (9. 3. 2012).

[12] (9. 3. 2012).

[13] (14. 3. 2012).

[14] (11. 3. 2012).

[15] “A dynamic range of activity, paradox, and potential is with the curator. The curators’ role should be, and is, posed as a conceit or statement or question alongside that of the artist, and this process should not be stopped through excess projection around the historical construction of the idea of what an artist may or may not represent. There is an assumed separation of roles here that does not exist in the most productive projects now and has not done for many years.”

Liam Gillick, Untitled, The Next Documenta Should Be Curated By an Artist, (5. 3. 2012).

[16] (25. 3. 2012).