Peter Werner on Sat, 16 Nov 96 06:01 MET

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

nettime: Transnacionala review

"TRANSNACIONALA":  A New World Order Comes To Seattle
by Frances DeVuono
[from "Aorta: Contmporary Arts and Culture", Oct/Nov 96]

The "Transnacionala" project, an ambitious international call for an 
art nation, came to Seattle for three days this July and left with 
barely a public ripple. Produced locally by Larry Reid and Charles 
Krafft, "Transnacionala" was spawned by Slovenian artists who 
comprise the industrial rock group Laibach, a theater collective, and 
the visual art collective called IRWIN. In the early '90s these 
artists, who collectively referred to themselves as Neue Slowenische 
Kunst (New Slovenian Art, or simply NSK), founded their own art 
"nation". Part performance, part critique, they have issued passports 
to their art nation-as-an-idea in England, Poland, Germany, Slovenia, 
Bosnia, and the U.S. Traveling from Atlanta in two large recreational 
vehicles, this trip was predicated on the idea of meeting with 
artists throughout the country.

NSK's appearance in Seattle began with a well-attended "diplomatic" 
reception at the Kline-Galland Mansion. While a big band played such 
nostalgic numbers as "Summertime" and "It Had to Be You" on the side 
lawn, IRWIN artists were busy taking photos and stamping out 
passports to their transglobal nation in a smoky, sweltering hot back 
room on the first floor. These little booklets, purchased for a mere 
$30, were the only real art objects that exchanged hands during their 
stay here, and a few prints on display in the mansion were the only 
visible evidence of their work. The purpose of this trip was about 
the exchange of ideas.

It was difficult to tell whether this was conceptual art at its most 
austere or art theory at its most arch. In the written material which 
describes their planned sojourn here, Eda Cufer, spokeswoman for NSK 
wrote: "One cannot avoid the simple macropolitical contextualization 
and interpretation of the 'Transnacionala' project as a meeting and 
confrontation of the two myths (the U.S.. and Russia) of our recent 
history, in which Slovenia plays the role of a minor, hardly known 
actor in the westernmost post of the Eastern territory on the 
planetary geostrategic map." 1 With dialogue as arcane as this, 
perhaps it is not surprising that attendance for the two days' worth 
of symposia after the reception dropped off precipitously. But in 
many ways that is unfortunate. For all their talk and their heavy-
handed use of post-modern language, these artists highlighted 
difference - not only between east and west, but between developed 
commercial art spheres and art on the periphery' between rich nations 
and poor, and between cultures which have a rich history of 
intellectual fervor and cultures which pride themselves on "Just 
doing it".

A five-plus hour symposium was held at the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry. 
Slovenian artists from IRWIN, Russian artists Alexander Brener, Vadim 
Fiskin, and Yuri Leiderman were joined by Steven Shapiro, a cultural 
scholar at the University of Washington, Stuart Swezey, editor of 
Amok Journal, and the Foundry's own best known conceptual artist, 
James L. Acord. The sum was an oddly ramified collection of ideas. 
Comparisons between art's apparent freedom here and former Soviet 
repression were suggested by broadcasting a telephone conversation 
with the then incarcerated Jason Sprinkle. Perhaps that struck the 
Europeans a bit like listening to shrimp entrepreneur Forrest Gump 
talk about NAFTA trade agreements. In any event they did not publicly 
comment. Neither did they respond to Shapiro's very relevant remarks 
that today "it is hard to imagine artists playing an avant-garde role 
in contemporary culture [because] . . . everything is culture; the 
difference between art and advertising is too difficult to define." 
He ended his talk with a key observation for anyone curious about art 
theory in the developed world, by pointing out that "in America with 
its economic imperialism there is no more polarization, simply an 
intricate spiral of economies." Acord described his odyssey through 
the bureaucracies of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to equally 
little response. The highlight of the forum was Russian performance 
artist Alexander Brener's piece. Ignoring Shapiro's claims about art 
in America, Brener's work hearkened back to an era when art was seen 
as revolutionary. Since Brener spoke no English, fellow Russian 
Fiskin offered to act as his interpreter, and an awkward rhythm was 
established. Like a poorly subtitled movie, Brener's long streams of 
Russian dialogue would be met with a few English sentences. First, 
Brener indicated that the world needed to be destroyed before art 
could be made. He then professed admiration for the Unabomber and 
ended (through the translation) with the claim that "since he wasn't 
a chemical scientist, can't produce a bomb, all he has is big hands, 
so he'd like to go to New York and box."

It is often easy for us to forget the mythic image that America 
projects to the rest of the world. And the small number who attended 
the next day's discussion, held in the back of the Speakeasy Cafe (in 
an even smaller, hotter, smokier room than the Foundry's), were given 
the opportunity to hear, explicitly and implicitly how IRWIN artists 
see the West. Most significantly, Cufer stated that she found not 
necessarily "language differences - Slovenian/English or 
Russian/English, but different theories." Uniformly, IRWIN spoke of a 
lack of both history and theory in their native Slovenia. Borut 
Vogelnik pointed out that, "In Slovenia theory was not distributed, 
[and] if it is not distributed it does not exist." Dusan Mandic more 
passionately added, "The whole structure was already organized. The 
period from the '30s to nowadays . . . it's like it doesn't even 
exist; if you want comparison, you cannot find the sources. Now it is 
important to build our own interstructures."

For those closely following NSK today, it is useful to put them in an 
historical, (albeit recent) context. In the late '80s the art 
collective IRWIN had successful exhibitions in New York and other art 
centers of the western world, and their work was seen as a near 
prototype for the post-modernism being discussed at that time. They 
tended to fill gallery spaces with lush painterly pieces, filled with 
appropriated images from a host of art idioms. Usually shown salon 
style, it was as if the efforts of this group (where no one work was 
ever attributed to single authorship) were a vast conflation of 
European modernism with no one locus, either personal or historical. 
Indeed, in the manifestos published alongside their work, the crux of 
their concern was modern history's biggest bugaboo - the nation-

At this time, IRWIN was avowedly pro-Slovenian and they made liberal 
and curious use of totalitarian imagery, particularly images from the 
Third Reich. Like their counterparts in the Slovenian musical group, 
Laibach, who dressed in SS uniforms, these public displays of Nazi 
regalia were deliberately disturbing. But today these artists, as 
members of the NSK, repeatedly distance themselves from early 
accusations of sympathy for Hitler's brand of fascism. Nationalism, 
however, is another matter.

Neue Slowenische Kunst's nationalistic fervor, their cry for a 
national theory, their mourning of lost history, may seem oddly 
anachronistic to us here. Indeed the Contemporary Art Council of the 
Seattle Art Museum was quoted describing NSK as "passe." But that 
dismissal may speak more of our tendency to see ideas in art as mere 
trends. While theorizing in the visual arts has dropped off since the 
80s, our ability to ignore theory and national style arguably comes 
from a place of privilege. While that privileged art world is 
increasingly multi-national, it is still lodged in the wealthiest of 
nations. We need only look at the United States' rise to power in 
world culture during the post-World War II period. As the U.S. 
entered the world stage with Jackson Pollock as their poster boy, he 
was portrayed as intuitive and personal rather than intellectual and 
political. Writers like Clement Greenberg, in describing the 
significance of his work and the New York School, were quick to claim 
an "American painting." The ability to create a movement with an 
impact as large as the New York School of that period clearly had to 
do with positions of power and it took more than either great theory 
or great painting to place the U.S. in its dominant position. In 
1949, James T. Soby wrote that it would take federal economic 
intervention on the part of the United States in a war-torn Europe to 
make the notion of an American avant-garde succeed. And it did. 2

In this light, the slightly stiff, often boring presentations of talk 
by this earnest group of Eastern Europeans suggests something rather 
important. Obviously the nationalism espoused by NSK has little to do 
with the modernist notion of nation-state and everything to do with 
cultural autonomy. And while cultural autonomy in the extreme can 
become xenophobic and dangerous (witness the former Yugoslavia 
itself), its need to be heard is too crucial to ignore. We live in a 
world too small and too complicated to do less than listen.

1 Eda Cufer. "First Letter, Transnacionala, A Journey from East to 
West Coast, June 28 -July 28" (press materials, 1996). 

2 Serge Guilbaut, "How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art", Arthur 
Goldhammer, trans. (Chicago. London: University of Chicago Press. 1983),
pp. 193-94.  
Soby was writing for The Saturday Review when he called for federal
intervention, approximately one year after Clement Greenberg heralded 
"The Decline of Cubism," in Partisan Review, publicly challenging the
cultural hegemony of Paris.

*  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
*  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
*  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
*  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
*  URL:  contact: