What is it happening with the museums of ex-Yoguslavia?
Por Bojana Piškur

“There is probably an archive here,” I said. “This is a hospital in Bombay,” the doctor answered, “forget your European categories, they are a presumptuous luxury.”

This short passage from Antonio Tabucchi’s "Indian Nocturne" shows how western/ Eurocentric categories, systems of thought, and methods of accumulating knowledge can mean very little and remain alien in other cultural spheres. It also symbolically describes the way we are conditioned and institutionalized by the established order of things. Unless we go beyond these categories, as the doctor in the passage suggests, we are bound by the network of rules establishing what is meaningful, who has the authority to decide, and who the privilege to speak. In this context, we should perhaps re-read Franz Fanon, to understand his ideas in a new light, not only as a way of arriving at a different social organization and cultural identity of the colonized and repressed, but also as a way of understanding the instability of the systems, regardless of how stable their institutions might appear, and the potential this instability represents for disturbing the new forms of governance and for empowering new kinds of public spaces.

Old institutions are changing and looking for new directions. A lot has been written lately, especially by the theoreticians of the new social movements, about the possible new ‘mental’ prototypes of institutions and the new kinds of institutionality. These debates focus not only on the crisis specific to the traditional forms of organization, such as trade unions and political parties, not excluding universities and art institutions, but also on their constituent practices, on possible associations between movements and institutions, and on the so called ‘knowledge protocols’ – structures of norms governing institutions and prescribing research, evaluation procedures, and in the case of art museums, collecting policies (and subsequently their political, ideological, and aesthetic dimensions), displays of objects and documents (in this way constructing certain histories), and so on. But is it possible to overcome the dichotomy between institutions and movements? How should we reflect on the openings that this conflictual relation provides? How should we develop the idea of “learning from” institutions, passing on the knowledge to movements, and inventing new conceptual, expressive and organizational tools? How should we deal with the new forms of political experience? In short, what is the role of art institutions in this new context?

Since these dichotomies have not yet been implemented in practice, especially in the light of current political, economic, and social changes and the crisis of institutions, it is not surprising that in most cases art museums still remain as they were in the past and are considered representations of spaces where nothing can change the established order of things. Unlike universities, art museums have not yet experienced occupation by artists.

Because the vast majority accepts the logic of the existing order, we should formulate experimental and opposing views to that order, not just in formal ways, but also on the level where, in Foucault’s words, the unproblematic field of experience becomes a problem, stimulates discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces crisis in previously silent behaviors, habits, practices, and institutions.

I suggest that there exists a potentially new prototype of an art museum that is being created on the ‘border’. These borders can maintain specific attitudes, which are described – to paraphrase Guattari - as a reactivation of micropolitical vitality, of the politics of desire, of subjectivity, and of relations with each other. On the other hand, borders also concern defense mechanisms, which “protect” the space from intruders, the undesirables. These borders, therefore, have a double identity, similar to what Konstantin Cavafy writes about in his poem Barbarians:

“Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly, and all return to their homes, so deep in thought? Because night is here but the barbarians have not come. And some people arrived from the borders, and said that there are no longer any barbarians. And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?”

Under the term border I understand a specific geopolitical and cultural position, a liminal space between already canonized histories and a multitude of narratives, between the museum’s constructed identity and a more fluid one that permits a variety of forms and experiments. The border is signified by social production and political struggles on the one hand, and the fixed system of values in knowledge production, on the other, as well as between the notion of a museum as a heterotopia of time, whose function is to accumulate ad infinitum, and its utopic vision of social collectivity, which could also be seen as a remnant of the former socialist experience. I also understand border as a situation, a kind of anomaly between different translations: a translation of living knowledge into existing standardized categories, of artistic gestures of resistance into commodified objects, of operations of desire into institutionalized forms. Such anomalies might appear as sequences of different events and might use artistic inventions to express their “protesting unconscious”. The new museums would be some sort of “desiring machines”, not in the sense of desiring objects, i.e., works of art, but in the sense of producing new realities, new constituent dimensions, while at the same time radically re-examining their role in society. This would, of course, entail redefining their “mission”, from collecting policies to evaluation criteria, the accessibility of information, the publics… while creating different transversal networks, alliances, and so on. Perhaps the final aim of these new prototypes would be to invent a mode of cultural production that would radically break up the current schemes of power in this area, as Suely Rolnik suggests.

We can also compare some of today’s more progressive ideas about the new types of museums with the former socialist cultural policies, museum models, and directions, and their emancipatory utopias, as they are in some way similar. In 1972 a round table was held in Santiago de Chile on the development and the role of museums in the contemporary world. At this event a concept of the new type of socialist museum was drawn up, the so-called integrated museum, which would link cultural rehabilitation with political emancipation. The dialogue created between cultural communities and museum workers would change the significance, content, and recipients of the different types of knowledge produced by the museum. The museum would closely follow social and cultural changes, that is, it would be socially progressive without being ideologically restricted by any political representations. These ideas were never realized in full.

Even though it might not be very obvious to an outside observer, perhaps due to the historical amnesia of our socialist past which led to the isolation of certain ‘strata’ of history, also Moderna galerija has experienced disruptions in and transformations of its linear historical and conceptual narratives, ever since its founding in 1948. These disruptions enabled the beginning of something different, a rebuilding of the previous foundations. Later, these changes brought about new networks of rules, establishing what was significant, acceptable, relevant, and so on.

On the one hand, these processes mirrored the changes occurring in the state politics. For example, after 1945 socialist realism was the favored ideological form of engaged, proletarian art, and was supported by the communist party.

At that time, even an exhibition of Slovene impressionist art was problematic. After the break with the Soviet Union, modernist tendencies were introduced in the visual arts. Rather than becoming a parallel artistic trend, modernism was adopted by the political elite, which was at that time trying to build a new kind of socialism, a new representational politics.

In 1979 Moderna galerija staged an exhibition that was very polemical at the time. Entitled Slovene Art 1945-78, it represented an important break, a rupture with the pluralist tendencies in art and in the museum exhibition policy. The negative responses could also be understood in terms of the political climate, which was following a hard line after the liberalization attempts of the late 1960s. It was common at that time for high ranking politicians to address the issues of social change through art: “We want our artists to be freer to create than anywhere else in the world, with no one prescribing the form, the content, or the genre of their artistic expression. Our self-management democracy allows us a cultural policy that could be called the policy of a hundred flowers.”

On the other hand, there were also processes which slipped by or evaded the official art discourse and gradually affected a whole range of alternative social and artistic forms. Such an example was the 1960s neo-avant-garde, or more specifically, its main protagonists, the OHO group, which was – historically speaking – perhaps the most influential event in Slovene contemporary art. OHO introduced international trends into Slovene art, from arte povera, process art, land art, and body art, to conceptualism. Despite their international connections, the artists were able to create without the interfering interests of the state or the art market, which in any case was non-existent at that time. Zdenka Badovinac calls this moment “an expression of authentic interest,” which I believe is something worth further contextualization, especially in the field of the so-called “processes of singularization,” which reject modes of preestablished encodings.

Looking back at what happened in the 1990s, it is quite obvious that museums in Eastern Europe slowly integrated into the global art system, adopting to a lesser or greater degree the Western cannon of art history. Boris Groys says that with the demise of European communism we lost the most significant alternative to Western uniformity in recent history, in terms of differences and alternatives.

But some directions, such as the Moderna galerija’s Arteast 2000+ collection, have successfully found their position in-between, that is, between the Western art canons and the Eastern European models of national museums, focusing on a wide local avant-garde context, yet at the same time taking into consideration international trends. Among other things, the importance of the collection is in that it changed the previously held notion of an Eastern European artist, who was no longer seen as an “incompletely developed Westerner”, but as an empowered Other.

It is in that context that Moderna galerija envisioned a new kind of approach, a future museum model: a strong network of diverse, local, and international spaces, supporting art-related research and collaboration in a variety of fields, particularly the research of the still uncanonized histories of Eastern European art, and at the same time a space for art production, research, and study. Currently, Moderna galerija is proposing a new concept for a different kind of a museum, dividing its work between the museum of modern art, which will be housed in the renovated Moderna galerija building, and the museum of contemporary art, which will open in a few years in the former army barracks complex in Metelkova Street.

Even though some museums are not in favor of this kind of ‘separation’, we, at Moderna galerija, think that besides placing the older art works in a new context, it is absolutely necessary to have a space for contemporary art that is critical, constantly responding to social change, that sees beyond the mono-narratives which are too often created around museums. We believe this concept, this kind of situation, will enable not only the division of the museum’s work into two segments, but also a destratification of important historical moments and the creation of a possible new mental prototype of the institution, as mentioned above.

1 - These particular questions were formulated by Gašper Kralj in the introduction to New Public Spaces: Dissensual Political and Artistic Practices in the Post-Yugoslav Context reader by Radical Education and the Jan van Eyck Academy Maastricht.

2 - From the speech by Mitja Ribičič, President of the Yugoslav Communist Party at the time, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Moderna galerija and the opening of the Slovene Art 1945-78 exhibition.