sixth year: 2002/2003 series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers

course for curators of contemporary art: course participants / study excursions / program collaborators / exhibition


Nevenka Šivavec
The Lure of the Local

In this text I will take the opportunity to try and show how the local cultural and artistic environment in which I work has changed during the last ten years. During my lecture in Kapelica I have limited myself to the presentation of the following projects: The Town of Celje, Alternatives of the seventies and The Town of Celje - Phantasms of the eighties. Since both exhibitions were accompanied by catalogues I will not deal with them at this time. I will try to describe (in short) the key moments that influenced the ever-increasing recognition of the art events in Celje. Of course I will describe them from my own perspective and experience. However, I would by no means like to expose myself and my curatorial position in the foreground, for my role in the projects that I am about to describe is merely that of a mediator. I see myself as a co-speaker and occasional co-ordinator of the complex local artistic network, which has played a part in the creation of almost everything that I am going to describe in this paper. Of course somebody could reproach me that as a representative of an institution, I operate from a position of power. In my defence I would like to state, that this was the main purpose for my attempts to create a network, which would at least partially diminish the position of power.

This year's project entitled Vstop prost 5 (Free Entrance No. 5) encouraged me to describe the projects, which include also some of the most current, still active processes.
In the beginning of this summer the fifth annual Free Entrance project took place in Celje. The carrier of this project is the Celje Association of Artists. The project takes place every year in the form of an exhibition in the Art Salon Gallery. On the opening day it also includes a series of public interventions or performances at various locations in the town centre. The most active artists in Celje co-operate at the project every year. The participants do not have to necessarily be members of the association, for sometimes also members of other associations are invited to co-operate. This year's project was especially noticeable, for it had a certain consistency as regards the contents, it emerged from the real town problems and the public has, even though most of the projects were performed in the language of contemporary art, the public approvingly participated or expressed its disagreement. Three of the participating artists dealt with the issue of the town park, which has been conquered during the past three years by secondary school youth and has thus became unusable and even dangerous for other age groups (children, cyclists, dogs, etc). The other projects discussed the issues of homeless people, the lack of green areas within the town and similar.
Free Entrance is a project in which I was not directly involved as a curator, however the institution which I work for gives the organiser the space and the basic infrastructure at their disposal. I consider Free Entrance to be one of the most realistic indicators of the current state of the local art community. I also think that the fact that this artistic community produced a contemporary and vital product that can be read in multiple layers is a positive symptom and a consequence of the past events.
Years ago the Celje association exhibitions were similar to any artistic association exhibition - a few water colours, a few paintings, a graphic print, a lonely statue - characterised by the stuffy air of provinciality, of a closed milieu. Association exhibitions were (most probably they still are in many places) a synonym for something that can be more or less predicted. I am confident in stating that the fresh energy of the Celje local art scene was greatly contributed by everything that we have done in the gallery (as a town institution), for our work has generated intense communication between artists and the institution, between artists and non-artists, between formally educated artists, self-thought artists and outsiders. Personally I was also deeply involved in this discourse. Throughout these years I have been grateful to learn a lot from the artists and gradually it became clear to me, which methods are appropriate for establishing the local cultural discourse and identity and which ones are not. Exhibiting famous, internationally acclaimed artists is of course necessary and desirable, however, we should not on a regular basis and in a patronising manner show 'real' artists from elsewhere to the local public. As was colourfully and suggestively described by Lucy Lippard in The Lure of the Local it is much more efficient to cultivate artists from the local source. I came across this book in 1998 and as it will become clear I use it regularly and I also try to make others realise the benefits of the good ideas described within the book. Lucy Lippard discusses the great importance of preserving the local specifics, i.e. events and spaces, for they can efficiently support the events in the present. On the other hand they might have no connection to the present as they might lean on overstated, idealised events or even certain pseudo-utopia historic sources. The parallels with the town in which I live have clearly shown themselves: immediately after the declaration of independence the state as well as individual towns tried to obtain a new cultural identity and Celje has impotently and humourlessly attached itself to the counts of Celje. For this purpose even some historic facts were discovered, which elevated them to princes. Thus Trg Svobode (Freedom Square) was changed to Trg Celjskih knezov (Counts of Celje Square) - does freedom have the wrong ideological connotation? We gained chivalry games, a mediaeval day, Veronika's prize for poetry, etc. The cultural identity of the town was thus firmly embedded in a sort of misty fairy-tale, which can not have any connection to the present. It thus seemed necessary, at least in the field of contemporary art, to find the true local roots. Following the suggestive ideas of the artist Marijan Krošelj, Irena Čučnik and myself came up with the exhibition The Town of Celje, Alternatives of the seventies, which covered the extensive blank mark on the local map. At the same time it has also proven to be a great surprise for entire Slovenia. It shed some light on conceptual art, which was emerging locally, independent from the centre, almost autonomously on the true margins. It has also proven that the rehabilitation of this period with the historic method was an extremely good move. The analysis of the 70's could easily lean on the existing critical discourse of conceptual art, which made it fairly compact and unproblematic. A much more open structure was present at the exhibition The Town of Celje - Phantasms of the eighties. In this exhibition I wanted to establish the example of local auto-poetics as an initiative, a base for thinking about the simple and eternally unanswered questions as regards the human primary desire for creativity. This research was obviously unusual, unnecessary or strange for Slovene milieu, for it did not receive any critical reflection whatsoever.
Over the years we have paid a great deal of attention to the local artists in the Art Salon and the Contemporary Art Gallery. When there was a certain lack of local artists we focused on artists that were connected to Celje in any way. Thus we presented a whole array of local artists, students, self-thought artists and the criteria for presenting them were pretty slack. In fact, the only artists that we did not want to present were the ones who have placed commercial success as their only criterion. I will of course limit myself merely to a few projects in which I was directly or indirectly involved, or projects that I have conceived by myself or with others. One of them was a series of exhibitions entitled Neobičajne dvojice (Unusual Pairs). I would find it hard to state that the project was successful in its entirety, but in certain segments it encouraged fruitful discussions and most probably influenced a lot of things that can currently not yet be noticed. Unusual Pairs was conceived as an experiment, with which we tried to encourage teamwork. The starting point was that every exhibition would present at least two artists, who would otherwise find it hard to be at the same exhibition due to their various conceptual, aesthetic or even non-artistic reasons. The basic idea of Unusual Pairs was thus to try and overcome the so-called artist's principle, which belongs to the romantic aesthetic ideology. Within this project the artist was invited to 'step outside of his ego', denounce his 'trademark' and thus avoid non-solidarity individualism and self-promotion, which often accompany an individual artist. The artists accepted these demanding starting points in different ways. From the very beginning it was clear that Unusual Pairs was conceived as a process that cannot be planned and foreseen in advance. For some of the invited artists the challenge was too great, which resulted merely in the exhibition of two artists in the same space, while others used this starting point to develop projects that went into unexpected directions. One of these pairs was represented by Jože Barši and Radio Celje. The project took place in the media of the radio, while in the gallery one could only see the internal daily radio programme. During the time of the exhibition Radio Celje transmitted a 10-minute show every evening at 10. In the show Jože Barši spoke to various people who explained their everyday obsessions.
An unexpected turn was also made by the pair Andreja Džakušič and Radivoj Mulić, who decided to sign up for the co-operation on their own initiative. The main reason for the joint project was their common intimate history. They decided not to produce new art objects for the Unusual Pairs project; instead they opted to recycle. They changed the gallery space into a cosy living area equipped with second-hand furniture and filled it with small objects from their everyday life. The opening event was conceived as a family and friends gathering at which the hosts prepared food for their guests. Amongst other things Radivoj Mulić served a chocolate replica of the Discus Thrower (which the guests were only too happy to attack). With this action he meaningfully pointed towards their understanding of the art object within a public space and the issue of the role of art in everyday life. Their apartment, which was in public use within the Art Salon Gallery, was not merely an approximate replica of an apartment, but a truly useful space in which the guests and the gallery staff cooked, ate and relaxed. Unusual Pairs have thus paid an important contribution to the debate on the collective.
Important contents and debates were brought into the local events also by the renewed issue of art activism and the social dialogue, which emerged from the artistic operation. In relation to this I have to mention the work of the so-called Skupina (The Group), the first public appearance of which was within the frame of the Celje Povečava (Celje Blow Up) project that was created and realised by Irena Čerčnik in the year 2000 and represents one of the most important projects that have emerged from the local issues. The project displayed various levels of thought and operation in town; Skupina Miha 23, Brane 45, Franc 45, Tone 60 published its manifest in the catalogue. In their manifest they emphasised (amongst other things) that they are an informal group, which operates on a voluntary basis; they endeavour to raise the urban culture, the quality and diversity of life within the town. At the opening of the project they organised a round table with a provocative title I Hate Celje.
The special feature of Skupina is that it is quite variable. Anybody can leave the group, return for the next project, and anyone who is interested can join it. In one of their projects I joined Skupina as an active participant. At the moment they are involved in the project Borut's House. This is a continuation of the project House from the Small Gallery Ljubljana by Jože Barši, which will become the new home of the local artist Borut Hlupič.
Amongst the projects that successfully link the artistic practice and the everyday life I would also like to mention the work by Boris Oblišar in which he draws a parallel between his art and the educational system. By constructing a visually attractive space installation from 'surplus, refuse and attempts that have gone wrong' in the Celje Nulta Ura (Zero Hour) he placed the 'surplus' into the field of the representational. This gesture could be understood as a commentary or a pseudo-criticism of the education system. His comments come from within the system, for he is an active participant and actor within it. Oblišar does not use the school material merely as the material for his own artistic operation, for he also uses it to create an active intervention into the certain circumstances of life into which all participants are involved. Zero Hour became the trademark for an individual deconstruction of the system (Oblišar also designed a logo for it), for the unconventional operation of the users of this system, a sign for the space of freedom and a dialogue within the more or less rigid institutionalised machinery. This is an artistic operation, which without any provocation or spectacular, revolutionary gestures efficiently changes its microenvironment through small steps.
Through the five-year continuous organisation of the already mentioned project Free Entrance numerous Celje artists have managed to create names for themselves. For many an artist his co-operation within this project has radically changed the view of his artistic production in relation to the environment within which it has emerged.

In this very brief overview I tried to show that the role of the gallery in a small town environment should not be merely of a representational nature, but could also function as an idea generator, catalyst and catcher of initiatives and signals that derive from its proximity.