If we don’t organise ourselves, others will organise us!
What can you do if the country you live and work in has no developed art system that would enable artists and other art professionals to pursue their artistic activities and thus earn their livelihood? A system that would also encourage communication with other countries and be open to hosting foreign artists, thereby paving the way for local artists to be active abroad. If you don’t want to emigrate from your country, the only solution is to take matters into your own hands and try to change your working and living conditions for the better. And a lot can be done even with limited production possibilities.
In post-World War II Eastern Europe there was and still is a huge dichotomy between high-quality individual art production and national art institutions, which, in most cases, are still rather undeveloped (or exist only in some basic forms) and very local in nature. Quite often, they are thus not only underdeveloped but also developed in the wrong direction. We, the artists, have therefore been motivated to create or co-create elements of the art system that would enable us to live and work in such harsh conditions. Self-organisation was and still is one of our most important tasks.
We had no → choice – if we wanted to stay and work in our countries we had to construct our reality by accelerating the production of non-existing elements of the art system: organising public and private collections of contemporary art, producing and publishing theory, setting up appropriate educational institutions for contemporary art practice and theory, etc. Self-organisation in the context of Eastern Europe had (and still has) a different goal than in countries with well-established art systems, such as Western European countries and the USA. Institutional critique in the West is concerned with the excessive bureaucratisation of art institutions or their over-institutionalisation, whereas in Eastern Europe, with a few bright exceptions, good institutions have yet to be built. Practice has shown that poorly performing institutions usually cannot be reformed, and therefore new ones need to be set up in parallel with them in order to adequately serve the needs of today’s artists and other art professionals.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, I have been involved, together with the IRWIN group, in various projects aimed at constructing the missing elements of the art system in the environment in which we live and work. The decision to establish the IRWIN group and work collectively with other NSK groups (Laibach, Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre, New Collectivism), too, was linked with the undeveloped art system in Slovenia. By pooling the knowledge and economic resources of such groups, we were able to compensate to a substantial extent for the absence of art institutions and the lack of support. Such a mode of organisation enabled IRWIN to operate in all of Yugoslavia (as well as internationally) with relatively meagre financial resources and limited social capital (most of its members came to Ljubljana from smaller cities) from the very start.
When at the end of the 1980s our gallerist at the time invited us to move collectively to New York, we were seriously considering his offer. In the end, however, we decided that we would rather make regular trips to the USA and exhibit there but live and work in Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia). We understood that we would only be a few of the many immigrants there, and that it was important to do something for the environment in which we lived and worked. I believe we were among the first artists to have been living and working in Eastern Europe and exhibiting internationally, something we were already doing in the mid-1980s. Before that, artists who wanted to operate internationally and on a continuous basis had to immigrate to either Western Europe or the USA. But instead of relocating to the latter, we began to organise ourselves and construct our own reality. As artists coming from Eastern Europe, in addition to creating art works we also needed to create our own context. We were aware that if we didn’t organise ourselves, others would organise us. This would have been much harder to do if we had not operated as a group. And of course, we were not the only artists in Eastern Europe who self-organised.
Similar practices can be found in a number of other Eastern European countries. In some of them, they appeared only from the 1990s on, because prior to that date such a mode of operation was not possible due to their political systems. Self-organisation can take various forms, from artists-run spaces, Apt Art (art exhibitions in private apartments in the Soviet Union) and samizdat publications, to archiving and historicising art phenomena, initiating art collections and setting up non-state art schools, which are as a rule more adjusted to the needs of contemporary art than older state → schools. Thanks to such initiatives, contemporary art at the highest level also began to be produced in countries where modern art production had been virtually non-existent until the 1990s, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Albania. A number of artists from these are now present in the international art arena, and their works are shown at important international exhibitions and included in collections of the world’s best contemporary art museums, while several of them live and work in their native countries, which was almost impossible until quite recently.
I’m aware, though, that all these forms of self-organisation cannot replace well-functioning contemporary art institutions, which can ensure continuous art production through public funding or some other types of financing. The fact is that art initiatives, being temporary in nature, die out rapidly once financial support and motivation decline. Moreover, self-organisation strategies must be suited to the place and time they are being applied, because something that worked in the 1980s or 1990s is likely not suitable for the present. And finally, different art initiatives may enrich the art scene, encourage the development of new institutions and show that changes for the better can be made even without ample financial resources.