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Oblivion as a Measure of Being Present: An Interview with Slobodan Stošić

 

Slobodan Stošić was born in Novi Sad, Serbia, where he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, and where he currently works. Stošić's art is responsive to specific contexts, exploring possible narratives of individual and collective subjecthood, as well as the relationship between political institutions and artworks as propositions. He received the Mangelos Award in 2012, and his work recently appeared in the Mediterranea 18 Young Artists Biennale, held in Albania, as well as in the exhibition Double Feature #6 at Tirana Art Lab. His work will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Art Encounters 2017 in Timoșoara, Romania, on view September 30 through November 5. He spoke with Raino Isto by email.


Raino Isto: I'm curious about two sets of works you recently created and exhibited in Albania: a trilogy of works as part of the Double Feature exhibition with Sokol Peçi at Tirana Art Lab (TAL), and your work in the Mediterranea 18 Young Artists Biennale (BJCEM). Could you say a little bit about how you came to the ideas for these works? Who were you imagining the audience of the works to be, and what kinds of messages did you hope to convey?

Slobodan Stošić: First I read the propositions of the open call of Mediterranea 18 Young Artists Biennale, and what I found in the concept was a kind of disciplinary discourse that is exemplary of art becoming an ideological tool of the state, the discourse of mimicry that is constructed around an ambivalence. I decided to write that in the proposal of my work. I proposed an insult, and started to think of the proposal form as a conceptual gesture, but that wasn't enough. I needed some kind of negotiation (rather than negation), to start from some analysis of the hierarchies through different means of communication. That is my methodology, and I don't know how to work differently. It's more about starting from the middle. It was about questing the terms of the openness of a call. In other words: what is there to accept from an artist in the proposal, and should artists correspond to this, and blatantly become part of governance. The curator of the visual section of the Biennale, Maja Ciric, responded and invited me to be part of the exhibition, which is another important step. That is when negotiation starts, and in that exchange I further developed my response. Adela Demetja also invited me to participate in the Double Feature exhibition, and I decided to make some kind of connection between the two situations, and to articulate question of how do we reverse the loop of manipulative constellations of power relationships in the contemporary art world.

Stosic Nothing Will Happen to You

Slobodan Stošić; Nothing Will Happen To You. You'll Be a Very Happy Citizen; 2017; at BJCEM. Image courtesy of the artist.

For me, both works were some form of translating, re-thinking the language that invests all fragments, that is crucial for certain contexts, with a different meaning. Not translating words or images but concepts and thinking.

The starting point for both works was Edi Rama's response to Eriola Pira, after she asked him a question in the Marian Goodman Gallery, and the text you later wrote about it. I used his sentence addressed to Eriola: "Nothing will happen to you. You'll be a very happy citizen". I started with that, and then went backwards to structurally unwrap the context of the state where the BJCEM is being organized, "the artist-run state" as Hans-Ulrich Orbits defined Albania while talking about its Prime Minister—the artist. ("In the art world we talk about artist-run spaces, but it's very exciting to talk about artist-run countries"). Where does art belong, and what kind of art is the one that shouldn't criticize and provoke, as was mentioned in the concept of the BJCEM biennale? The answer is simple: the art that belongs to (in) the state. If art is in service of the state, then people, citizens, and artists too, should insult and protest against that kind of art. But I wanted to develop this idea: what does it mean to insult or protest, to think of those statements as prescriptions? The trilogy of works in Tirana Art Lab dealt with those issues in the language of images, and the work in the Mediterranea 18 Young Artist Biennale was questioning the boundaries of expressing that kind of language and its echoes. The three works at TAL were fictitious, placing certain metaphors in a small narrative about a cut, and about what abstraction hides. The installation at BJCEM was based on the "real" as a blantly opposition to "fiction", composed of multiplicities. However, both works, with different analogies (like copying Rama's doodlings for example), were posing the question of what is possible from a decentered point of view.

Stosic Possibility of a Cut_2

Slobodan Stošić; The Possibility of a Cut; 2017; at Tirana Art Lab. Image courtesy of the artist.

For me, developing distance from the state is affirmative and crucial simply because there is no politics in the state, and when I say politics I mean politics as thought. This could be one of the messages, if you like, that I thought should be posed for everyone, to think possibility as a subjective category, and to ask myself and others: can those principles be thought in art? It is necessary to constantly ask where the subject is located, and what the responsibility of an image is. In both cases, those two questions are posed through my personal doubts and knowledge about them. The most important question for the context of the work is this: can an attack on Edi Rama's art also be an attack on his political position?

Stosic Possibility of a Cut

Slobodan Stošić; The Possibility of a Cut; 2017; at Tirana Art Lab. Image courtesy of the artist.

RI: I was struck by the ways these works addressed aspects of the Albanian political and artistic scene that both local and foreign artists tend to avoid in their works--namely, criticizing Edi Rama's cultural and political role. (Even if many artists think this and say it in conversation, I find that they seldom or never address it in their art.) I'm curious how you think the contexts of the works exhibited in Albania added to or changed what you wanted the works to convey. Did you get a sense of people's reactions to them?

SS: This avoiding of the subject is what contemporary art provides for artists. The predominance of formalism without any critical thinking is one of the "materials" that feeds their appetite for success; it separates them in the comfort of the gallery or a studio where they can nurture their quietness and denial, which is their agreed-upon "freedom". I think that without questioning positions from where, to whom and where do we ask (direct our?) questions, we get impossible art, in the limits of the law, limits of representation. I still believe that images must upset hierarchies in search of possible decisions, and that art should trigger conversation about all issues people usually ask themselves in the safety of their privacy. To use art as a language (as an act of connecting), in a sense, to question what does it mean to read, to step aside and react to the existing state of affairs. Art should be read out loud.

When I finished the text at the National Museum, and wrote Edi Rama's name at the end (Writing Edi Rama's name at the end), in order to question what he is the name of, one person approached me and asked in a low voice "Do you know Edi Rama? Do you collaborate?". Later I heard that, two days after the opening, Rama visited the exhibition, and that someone suggested he pay attention to the wall drawing. He probably didn't, but I'm sure he saw it and was informed about it.

Stosic Nothing Will Happen to You_3

Slobodan Stošić; Nothing Will Happen To You. You'll Be a Very Happy Citizen; 2017; at BJCEM. Image courtesy of the artist.

RI: Many of your works strike me as related to institutional critique (perhaps you disagree). I've recently heard several scholars debate what precisely constitutes a tradition of "institutional critique" in South/Central Eastern Europe, given that the "institutions" that artists were critiquing in the postwar years up to the present were sometimes different than in Western Europe or America. Some would say that now, with the art world as globalized as it is, institutional critique is almost always in some ways aimed at global institutions.

I wonder a number of things: do you view your own practice as importantly related to institutional critique? If so, do you think your works belongs to a particular tradition or trajectory of institutional critique as it has developed in South/Eastern Europe?

SS: I can relate to it, to the point of using quotation marks for the term "institutional critique". The quotation marks, and the reason that I can relate to the term under those circumstances, is that then I could use it as a copy, as a break to investigate whom that term belongs to and the ways that I can function as a user of that term. It is already translated into something common, but then it hides what is making it common, and you can easily be lost in those categories because you are simply thrown into them. I'm not sure that if "institutional critique" has a tradition that it is still then a critique. In that case it's more a cultural production, and in that way it also becomes generalized conformism. I think that there should be disruption, and risk is what should distinguish it. Maybe it could be a risk of not naming it, a risk of interpreting interpretation, rather than interpreting mere objects, a risk of finding a risk when dealing with those relations.

It is a paradox: aiming to solve a problem, and it seems like that problem has not yet been set properly. Are there any people in those global institutions, or are they just real abstractions. We know that ideologies are made in institutions, in their rituals and practices, but if there are some people still inside, then what must be determined is whether they are just keeping their positions, or if they are ready to make subjective decisions and question their positions. Every system is a dead system unless there is someone to act. The term "global institutions" is just ideological intimidation. The idea of global institutions should be abolished, the same as idea of global resistance. Instead, as something let's say the opposite, I believe in smaller, local initiatives that could intervene gradually in plural strategies.

Stosic Nothing Will Happen to You_2

Slobodan Stošić; Nothing Will Happen To You. You'll Be a Very Happy Citizen; 2017; at BJCEM. Image courtesy of the artist.

As for the institutional critique in South/Eastern Europe, it is already historicized, and therefore sold. At this moment, I'm wondering if I could read those works as a simple gesture of the production of an idea by a certain artist. Or at least I have some thoughts about certain pieces, or I'm stuck in interpretations and present legitimizing views of those ideas, because I'm not sure who is speaking (artist or institution, market, collectors, curators etc.) . I consider some of these works to be important, but only when I read them as anti-historical, by considering them outside of the structure, based on a personal impression. I can keep the strategies of sincerity that I saw in some of the works, while not knowing anything about them. It is another distinction: not asking what those images do, but what they make us do.

Still, if we represent it as an acknowledged space of identification, there is always a trace, more like a limit, that can be the basis for further thinking. It can provide the space for the play of constantly replacing already-existing parts. Art should be an invitation to that play.

Stosic Tomorrow tomorrow and tomorrow

Slobodan Stošić; Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow; 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

RI: You have worked a great deal with drawing. I wonder how you see your work in relation to a long history of drawing (I'm thinking about drawing as a practice going back to the Renaissance)--or is this not something you are interested in? How does drawing operate as a medium for you?

SS: I am mainly interested in using drawing to create an imperfect repetition, in the context of its history. What I think is important in drawing is a moment of decision, a judgment, as a distance but also as a refusal. This doesn't necessarily have to do with skills of making a drawing, but more with deconstructing the language of the medium, using it as an orientation, rather than as information. The potential of the drawing's transformation, the potential of its artificiality and the uncertainty of space that it can create, is useful as a practice, to deal with dominant claims of market logic, of the visible and its industries, of its violence, because the visible also produces violence.

Perhaps this potential can respond to the actual, to create an image as a question of content, and to deal with the trauma of something that is "to come". The asset of the drawing's uncertainty is interesting in creating discomfort for dominant opinions, and we must find points of rupture within dominant opinions.

I also consider drawing a very cheap medium, and to that extent I use it a lot, but always as a part of a context. I've forgotten how to draw for the sake of drawing; it's just an extension of the idea. That's the ambiguity I'm interested in: drawing is something basic, an institutional tradition, and using it is one way of overcoming it. By investing both gaze and time in accumulating images, I find a relation in the labor of producing a drawing that is similar to the labor of cleaning shoes. The time spent in making a drawing, and how it's value is defined—all the while testing the limits of control of my hand and the gaze of the other.

RI: What is the status of history in contemporary art? Maybe another way of putting this would be to ask: what kind(s) of history does or can contemporary art work with?

SS: History itself is a given result inasmuch as this accomplished body of knowledge thinks instead of us. Therefore art can, or it should, be suspicious of that. It should develop a way of thinking that is not given per se for us as accomplished thought, by intertwining the theory of transition of forms from one model of production to another one, and by capturing changes in the result, which is always given to us by non-theoretical instances (moral, religious, nationalistic, and all other identitarian myths). The problem of history is the illusion of retrospective rationalization (as Cornelius Castoriadis puts it, and I find that formulation interesting). Today, this illusion is constructed by the mechanisms of political parties and their clientele in the dominant form of the state, in ceremonies that create a crisis of subjectivity. Culture and art play their role in that totality, the role of de-politicization, the role of equation leading to result. But if, for a start, we consider history as a given result, then history can also be thought of as a capability, since there is not one unchangeable history. Therefore, we must track the possibilities of history's temporality in the present. What is interesting for me in dealing with history through the practice of art is problematizing the space of something that could happen in relation to what currently is, and investigating conditions of what is given. I'm against historicism; I'm more interested in fiction, a social fiction, where I can use art history as a ready-made. And I use it in that sense—it's at the same time both the negation of art and an expansion of its field. But it is also important to distinguish between fiction and ideology.

RI: A related question: what is the status of narrative in contemporary art? Do you think that new kinds of narrative(s) have emerged through the medium of contemporary art, or are existing narratives simply recycled/deconstructed/re-presented?

SS: The new narrative that has emerged is the narrative of contemporary art, and in that sense new is the repetition. Sometimes it appears to me as artificial problem that serves only to perpetuate itself, to serve as its own mirror and practical evidence. It is condemned to its lack of idea. But that mystification can also be triggered by thinking about what is given to us in the form of description. In order to question its totality, I should first consider it and read it as a totality in order to be able to see what it is possible to change. I love narratives, and to structurally break them down and construct new ones, but narrative should be an invention, not a tool of representation. By thinking of it as an invention, one makes room for posing the question: is narrative possible at all, and can it be used to demand truth?

Stosic the one who becama a colour on a flag

Slobodan Stošić; The One Who Became the Colour on a Flag; 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

RI: Many of your works (at least those I am familiar with, which certainly is not all of them) are small or intimate in scale. Sometimes this is because of their size, sometimes because they are short pieces of text, sometimes because they are partially or entirely hidden. I wonder about the role of scale in your works--can you say anything about this? Is it an intentional strategy, or simply something that worked in specific cases because of context or materials?

SS: I'm just interested in the scale of a concept, and then the scale of its boundaries. I don't repeat any of my works, and they are all constructed as a reaction to a certain context. Depending on each situation I try (by asking a question) to respond to that given situation. Images exist through the gestures and words that describe and construct them, and by virtue of the context in which they appear, but this context may also dishonor and destroy them. I could relate to the term Spivak uses, "affirmative sabotage"—not to destroy but to repurpose and use tools for something else. So, I want to investigate the problems of production of art and at the same time to attempt to make and show art. Destruction can be applied when there is a loss.

In terms of hiding, and intimacy of scale, I was interested in forgetting, as a contradiction, and in possibilities of looking. I was interested in oblivion as a measure of being present.

RI: You've created several works related to rooms, property, buildings, and so forth. What kinds of relationships do you think contemporary art should/can have with its spaces of display/exhibition/creation? How have you conceptualized your own works in relation to their spaces of display? I'm thinking both in a general sense, and specifically about spatial choices you make when displaying objects in a space. What kinds of viewing experiences do you think are most ideal/most important when viewing your work? Or when viewing art in general?

SS: I'm not looking for anything ideal; I would always display some kind of an error or a mistake, in sense of aesthetics, means of producing art, its reception and value. I'm more interested into ruptures. I could even say that in most cases I have been annoyed by artists wanting to present their work in the most ideal way, in their necessity of his or her uniqueness. At a certain point, I just wanted to oppose that, the fact of exhibiting somewhere is ideal enough, if I could mingle with the idea of ideal. In the displays I do, I occasionally reinterpret ideal display positions, or contemporary display situations. I like to mimic them, to play with those significations while making arguments about the conditions of labor and time invested into a certain work. My displays are usually lazy, and the works function on the premise of an offered possibility. There is always something left for anyone who encounters the works—they can finish it for themselves; every individual can find their own memory in the work. But that is part of a choice, or a principle in my case. Spaces are crucial, since my work is context-based. They are concerned with questions of content, but that is only half of the work. Once exhibited, artwork is not mine anymore. Another aspect of the "scale", are practical limits of working environment, issues of distribution and investment. At one point i decided that resources of producing artwork should be cheap. With those issues i started dealing recently, creating temporary works that are shared with the audience, but parallel with those artwork, to also create pieces, which are created very cheaply, but they are expensive to buy. Viewing art in general should be a "free play"; encountering something incomprehensible at the first glance, that puts us in a confrontation, and could be disidentification with established social categories.

RI: I'm curious in general what you think about art institutions in Europe broadly and Southeastern Europe particularly today. What kinds of political or economic flows seem most important to defining these institutions? What kinds of strategies seem to represent 'successful' navigations of these institutions and political flows? (I'm wondering about your own experience, or if you've seen other artists and though 'ah, yes, that is how one should interact with this-or-that institution/space/political structure).

SS: Institutions are framed with meaning, and therefore they have no idea; they are dressed at the same time with nostalgia and revisionism, thus liberated from consequences. In societies dominated by identitarian myths, institutions have a broad space in which to impose themselves as teachers. Inside, people who work in the institutions have created their own personalized state there. It's all very successful from the state point of view. There is always a certain interdiction you encounter, produced by the ambivalence of mimicry. Institutions are ratified by political parties on all levels, and these parties frightens people by depriving them of labor, without any debate on what is common to all. And let's not forget: isn't power always commanding and promising at the same time? Breaking the configuration of parties is one of the important things while dealing with institutions. Sure, even though we could notice certain structure patterns in its constituent core, not all institutions are the same, and to each of them approach should be different, regarding modes of reproduction of each institution.

Institutions must be pushed to the point that they allow themselves to be put into question, to convince themselves that they are disempowered. But that also means questioning the idea by allowing and asking for differences that could deepen the base, and by demanding public space—public in the sense of "being together" in inhabiting and occupying space without abandoning one's singularity. With whom, and how you organize to address those issues, is an uncertain exercise that unfolds as a search for subjectivization.

This interview has been edited for grammar.

Raino Isto
Author: Raino IstoWebsite: afterart.orgCountry: USA
Raino Isto is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research addresses the relationship between history and memory in socialist-era monumental sculpture, and the ways postsocialist art engages with socialist monumentality.

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