Low Budget Utopias

Low-Budget Utopias

Zdenka Badovinac

 

The exhibition Low-Budget Utopias presents works that come largely from the Moderna galerija’s Arteast 2000+ Collection. This is the eighth installation of the collection in which we develop the notion of the collection as a tool. In the present exhibition we explain the collection and the museum as tools that help sustain a utopian consciousness; here we base our ideas not only on the exhibited artworks but also, partly, on certain theoretical concepts that view the utopian as possible and, indeed, as already existing, rather than projecting it into some distant idyllic future.

 

The Collection as a Tool

Over the past fifteen years, in various installations, we have been examining the Arteast 2000+ Collection as a tool. We have described the previous seven installations, and their variations, as follows:

  • The collection as a tool for entering into dialogue with the world: The collection was first exhibited in 2000 in an unrenovated former military barracks in Ljubljana.
  • The collection as a tool of self-definition: The second installation of the Arteast 2000+ collection was held in Innsbruck, Austria, in 2001. A year later, the exhibition travelled to the Karlsruhe Center of Art and Media (ZKM) and to Skopje, where it was presented as the opening event of the new building dedicated to contemporary art, Čifte Amam.
  • The collection as a tool for deconstructing expertise: Entitled Arteast Collection 2000+23, the third presentation of the collection was at the Moderna galerija in 2006.
  • The collection as a tool for producing new knowledge about the region and its art system: Exhibition The Museum of Parallel Narratives was staged within the framework of the museum confederation L’Internationale[1] at MACBA in Barcelona in 2011. In 2008 a selection of works from Moderna galerija’s international and national collections at the Art Gallery Maribor contributed to co-formation of the local platform of contemporary art. The project was part of the action Hosting Moderna galerija!.
  • The collection as a tool for defining the idea of a museum of contemporary art and contemporaneity: The exhibition The Present and Presence marked the opening of the new Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (+MSUM) in 2011. It centered on various ideas of time and defined contemporaneity as presence and the present.
  • The collection as a tool for a critique of the conditions of contemporary art: The Present and Presence / Repetitions 1, 2, 3, etc. (2012–2015). We decided to repeat the exhibition with which we had opened the new museum because the Moderna galerija and its new unit, the +MSUM, had had their exhibitions program budget so drastically cut that it hardly allowed for any new exhibitions and catalogues to be produced. Our repetitions were further a critique of our time, in which culture and art seem to be succumbing to the dictate of capital, fueling the consumers’ incessant desire for ever new things.
  • The collection as a tool for fighting a common enemy: The exhibition Grammar of Freedom. 5 Lessons was prepared for the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow (2015).

 

Each of these installations took account of the fact that this is predominantly a collection of art from Eastern Europe and, as such, a means for historicizing Eastern European art in relation to its historical and current socio-political context, while at the same time it is a tool for overcoming the local political and economic conditions of cultural production as well as the ever-present geopolitical limitations.

 

The concept of the collection as a tool seeks to make visible the simple truth that, in fact, every collection is a tool. Museum collections represent the state and the nation, as well as the state’s colonial power. Corporate collections show not only the company’s investment interests but also, sometimes, the cultural and social sensitivities of the owners. Museums do not normally trumpet their genuine interests, although these always go beyond a concern for art. Today especially, when hegemonic museums seek to present the art of the entire world, it seems particularly important to bring critical attention to the instrumentality of collections. A museum that seeks to transcend its role as the representative of state power or capital interests can do this only by integrating a self-critical stance in the content of its work.

 

The Museum as a Tool for Sustaining a Utopian Consciousness

Art and the museum play important roles in imagining a better society, especially at a time like today when historic changes are happening around us. But they do not simply project their ideas into some undefined future; rather, they can also present their own mission to serve, first and foremost, human creativity and the common good as an alternative to the commodification of contemporary society. Immanuel Wallerstein, in his book Utopistics,[2] discusses the current systemic crisis of capitalism as, among other things, the consequence of a profit-driven understanding of effectiveness. His utopistics speaks of goals associated with the experience of existing non-profit work models, such as we find, for instance, in hospitals and libraries – we might add schools, museums, and similar institutions. If such organizations can serve health care, education, and the imagining of better and different worlds, why shouldn’t the fulfillment of one’s professional and creative aspirations – rather than the accumulation of capital – one day become the dominant motivating force in society?

 

We could also describe museums using Michel Foucault’s term heterotopia,[3] which refers to spaces like prisons, military barracks, and psychiatric hospitals that set themselves apart from ordinary reality. In such institutions a different form of behavior is controlled by specific rules that also insulate it from the outside world. But in contrast to these types of heterotopias, the museum is neither an institution of control nor insulated; on the contrary, it constantly and actively reaches into the world and, through art and in partnership with others outside the institution, proposes ways to change the world for the better.

 

The utopian consciousness, however, is not present in every museum to the same degree and in the same way. Given that the content of a particular utopia depends on concrete social conditions, our exhibition considers the specific nature of utopias in Eastern European art, which operates predominantly in low-budget conditions. It presents, primarily, Eastern European post-war avant-garde art, from the 1950s to today. Two and a half decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems relevant to ask why we should still be talking about something like Eastern European art. On the one hand, we are witnessing the increasing hybridization of culture, while on the other, the current mass migrations to the promised lands of Europe are intensifying antagonisms based on cultural, religious, racial, and class differences. Meanwhile, the eastern part of Central Europe, occupied by formerly socialist countries, wraps itself in barbed wire in an attempt to protect Christendom and its own culture. It is as if they are afraid somebody will again take away the freedom their own citizens once sought as Gastarbeiter on the western side of the Iron Curtain. In our collection, we have never treated the art of these and other post-socialist countries in terms of cultural identity, but rather as works that, in many aspects, share similar material work conditions even today. Our collection speaks about the difference between culture and art and the fact that, through all these decades, Eastern European art has had more to do with the contemporaneous art of other cultures than with defending any “pure” local traditions. The promotion of pure traditions and the marketing of authentic differences both deal in illusions shaped by ideology and capital. Multiculturalism today tries to preserve a marketing utopia and what was, until very recently, Europe’s politics of open doors. But when the utopian dream of a world of harmonious differences is collapsing before our eyes, we need to think about otherness as something unappeasable. Slavoj Žižek finds an alternative to the utopia of a harmonious world in the “a-topic” – in an otherness that can have no place in any symbolic order and that establishes itself as “impossible”.[4]

 

Art and its museum very likely have something to contribute to the enacting of this “impossible”. Here, of course, we’re talking about an art and a museum that sustain the utopian consciousness as something that finds no place for itself in existing aesthetic and institutional models, which it constantly tries to transcend. In this regard, the suitable museum is one that itself transcends the existing museum models by overcoming the limitations of its work conditions. So we must ask ourselves what museum model best serves work conditions that are, for the most part, unsatisfactory, and at the same time pursues an interest that sets otherness above identity, knowledge production above unambiguous cultural trophies, and the process of becoming above institutionalization. In response to this question, the exhibition offers the utopistic concept of the sustainable museum, which is also the only museum model capable of dealing with low-budget work conditions. Unlike the wealthy, and still for the most part Western, museum, which endlessly accumulates objects from all over the world, the sustainable museum can survive only by continually developing its own knowledge and combining the emancipatory experiences of its environment with experiences from other parts of the world that today face similar urgent challenges.

 

The Utopian as the Potential of the Contemporary

The aim of the exhibition Low-Budget Utopias is to examine the state of the utopian spirit today. It does, naturally, this within the limits of its own capacities, namely, as an exhibition of works from a specific museum collection; in other words, it is not like the usual contemporary art exhibition, which looks for works that might “illustrate” some underlying premise. Instead, our installation spotlights the regenerative power of an art that comes to life in ever new constellations – which here we call ambiences – and that asks how the utopian dimension of the museum can be sustained. Why is this especially important today? Why is the issue of utopia again pertinent?

 

After being disappointed by the attempts of socialist societies to bring about genuine communism, and after seeing science and technology increasingly put at the service of total surveillance, we began to view utopian thinking as empty daydreams that could lead only to a new succession of disappointments. With the triumph of the phrase “there is no longer any alternative”, alternative ideas seem to have become nothing but utopian illusions, as the entire world wraps itself in an ever-repeating present without a future. What has brought us to this point is not only the collapse of ideologies and the instrumentalization of science and technology, but also the commodification of the utopian consciousness, which, at its strongest, was last expressed in the hippie movement of the 1960s, and in the translation of the spirit of freedom into borderless commerce. While utopias have always been used to manipulate the masses, they have also left lasting marks on society. Even if words like freedom, creativity, and authenticity have become slogans fully incorporated into neoliberal capitalism, many of today’s democratic values would be unimaginable without the 1960s counterculture. Like the communist utopias, so too the utopias of the counterculture left us with an experience of sociality, that is, the experience of a society of equality and solidarity, which today has disappeared and which, as Boris Buden notes, we are now trying to return to in its cultural translation: “Whereas the old, social utopia was prospective, the new, cultural utopia is retrospective. The possibility of a better world now opens before us only from the utopian retrospective.”[5]

 

The Low-Budget Conditions of Cultural Production

In light of all this, it is of course  necessary to ask about the conditions in which artists work today in countries that, during socialism, were famously spaces of state-subsidized culture. These are, certainly, places where the art market remained undeveloped (and is still not fully developed today), and where public museums were among the very few buyers of contemporary art. As a result, these institutions’ low budgets also meant poorer conditions for artists. While the socialist state paid for artists’ social insurance, in the 1980s, in places like Yugoslavia, private initiatives also began appearing in culture, as in other areas of life. They led, among other things, to the formation of commercial galleries, which were still partly subsidized by the state. These galleries helped foster a modest art market, which, at least in Yugoslavia, included as well not only public museums but also socialist businesses and what was still a very small number of private collectors. Compared to those earlier times, today there are fewer large companies in the region that can invest in “artistic decor”, while the economic crisis continues to have a negative impact on both private and institutional art purchases. Consequently, artists are thrust onto an ever poorer local market that is still not integrated with the broader international market. In addition, independent artists have lost their once-considerable tax deductions on artist’s fees and only the lowest-category health insurance is covered for them by the state. So they increasingly view their economic status as equivalent to that of other precarious workers.

 

But even so, it must be said that, compared to Western artists, who are left largely to the mercy of the market and private initiatives, artists in Eastern Europe still enjoy certain benefits of the socialist heritage, inasmuch as the bulk of cultural production here still depends on public funding.

 

While it is true that the socialist state offered social protection to workers, it is also true that post-war avant-garde artists, such as those represented in our collection, were marginalized in other ways and, for the most part, had little access to central institutions and official histories.

 

One way that post-war avant-garde artists in Eastern Europe tried to overcome these limitations was through artistic utopian gestures. And this is also true today. Thus we find in our exhibition works by artists from various generations who present escapes from problematic circumstances into worlds of creativity. But we also find proposals for alternative forms of historicization, for alternative methods of cultural production, and for equal exchanges of ideas on the international level.

 

Equal-sided international communications are important, too, when it comes to developing conceptions about a different world on a broader scale. Today what shapes the dominant idea about the world as a whole is, more than anything else, the media industry, which is largely in the hands of the much wealthier West. So it is more important than ever to underscore the fact that not everyone is included equally in the imagining of our common future.

 

On one hand, Low-Budget Utopias returns to the past, to the emancipatory ideas of socialist society, such as faith in the liberating power of creativity, in collective creativity, in the equality of nations and peoples, and in a different, more just internationalism (which is also what the non-aligned movement, created partly at the initiative of Yugoslavia, was fighting for). But on the other hand, the exhibition stakes out a critical position toward present-day Europe, which is marked by austerity measures, the refugee crisis, and a growing xenophobia.

 

The exhibition spotlights utopianism not only in the artworks but also in the Arteast 2000+ Collection itself, which was formed in 2000 as a foreign element, so to speak, within the Moderna galerija, a museum devoted primarily to the modern art of Slovenia. The purchases that were made for the collection, of works by Eastern European artists, were possible because in 2000 most of these artists were not yet part of the art market and the prices of their works were still quite low. This has partially changed over the past decade and a half, and at least some Eastern European artists are now selling their works to Western museums at prices that are mostly beyond the reach of their local institutions. But while a handful of Eastern European artists have indeed managed to penetrate the international market, the majority are still unable to live off their art. Both artists and contemporary art institutions are struggling under the conditions the state assigns to traditional culture, conditions that still lag significantly behind Western standards.

 

 

Three Museum Models and One More

In connection with the exhibition Low-Budget Utopias we discuss three models of the museum that have evolved since the early twentieth century. The first two, which I call the universal museum and the global museum, are associated with the dominant model of the modern art museum as it was developed, and is still being developed, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The sustainable museum, meanwhile, is a museum that is able to operate in a low-budget environment by drawing on its own resources for its developmental potential.

 

Alongside these three models, the exhibition also considers other possible museum models, which take the form of artistic or anthropological proposals. Such is the meta-museum of Walter Benjamin (2015), which is characterized by a meta-perspective on both art and the museum of art. In the meta-museum we find copies of artworks as well as original works, which, in the example we use, are no longer artifacts but merely symbols testifying to something the West once labeled “canonical art”.

 

Thus the sustainable museum bestows visibility on other museum models, even as it views itself as just one possibility in the formation of future visions of the museum.

 

UNIVERSAL MUSEUM

GLOBAL MUSEUM

SUSTAINABLE MUSEUM

META-MUSEUM

old canon

new canon

multiple narratives

anthropological approach

universal art

global art

local-to-local communication

unmaking art

no geography

supra-geographical approach

contextualization

recontextualization

different styles

thematic clusters

different material conditions

meta–art history

accumulation

accumulation

repetition

copy/original

white cube

opening of windows

ambience

Cabinet of Curiosities

abstract spectators

diverse publics

constituencies

co-actors in a play called art history 

 

The Sustainable Museum

The sustainable museum is, above all, a museum that is aware of its role in the co-formation of a community with others – with artists, various interested individuals, socially engaged groups and organizations, etc. – whom we here call constituencies. Both this community and the museum itself are continually being transformed by these constituencies through mutual coordination and discussion. We are talking not so much about a definitively structured community as about its constitutive elements, a multiplicity of relations in constant development with connections and interests that are diverse and changing. The museum, too, is understood as a museum in constant transformation as it interacts with other, extra-institutional constituencies. To describe this museum, we could use the term institution of the common, as Gerald Raunig explains it in his essay “Flatness Rules: Instituent Practices and Institutions of the Common in a Flat World”.[6] The institution of the common goes beyond one-directional openness and public accessibility; it develops the right conditions for proposals and interactions with the artistic micropolitics and social movements that Raunig calls “instituent practices”. Among other things, such an institution may even develop the conditions for reinventing the state apparatus from within.

 

Along with developing conditions for such participation and interaction, the sustainable museum also continually reimagines and redefines itself by means of the collections and archives it holds.

 

In this regard, our Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (MSUM) has defined repetition as one of its important work methods. Right after we opened MSUM, at the end 2011, we were informed that the Ministry of Culture had failed to allot funding for the new museum’s program, so we decided to repeat the same exhibition of the collection with which the museum had opened. Thus began a series of Repetitions where we presented our collection under the umbrella title The Present and Presence. The individual repetitions differed from each another in that certain works were replaced by others and there were shifts in the thematic emphasis, which highlighted one of the eleven “times” around which the concept of the exhibition was structured. Along with this, we wrote a manifesto that underlined the significance of the repetitions as a protest against the ministry’s benighted attitude toward the new museum. Such “recycling” – which as much as possible tries to exploit the potential of the earlier exhibition, re-examines its ideas, and so, essentially, creates a new work – was, we determined, our only possible strategy in a time of crisis. Among other things, we wanted our repetitions to make a point about the fast and shallow consumption of intellectual ideas and the importance of repeated readings. But for there even to be a repetition, there must first necessarily be a collection; otherwise it is impossible to refer to a given art practice. In this sense, repetition is also a principle element in the emergence of a history.

 

Ambience

If in the Repetitions series the installations of the collection sought to shed light on the different times in which we work, and through which we resist the dominant time, then Low-Budget Utopias employs the concept of ambience: temporary relations between works connected by the common atmosphere of the space. In our exhibition this is created by color, whose purpose, however, is not to influence the viewer’s mood or anything similar but rather to draw attention to people’s ability today to quickly recognize the atmosphere of a given situation and so also the meaning of their sense perceptions and affects.

 

Amelia Barikin and Nikos Papastergiadis, in “Ambient Perspective and the Citizen’s Moving Eyes”, discuss the notion of “ambient perspective”, that is, the ambient observation of the world. Due to an overabundance of information that can no longer by analyzed with total concentration, our perception is becoming better able to compress information. As the authors note, at a time of on-going attention deficit disorders, we have developed an ability for “attentive distraction”, but at the same time the once clearly drawn lines between intellect and affect have been obliterated: “Today, decisions that seem to reflect a specific and linear sequence of causations are also structured by a myriad of informed feelings and embedded intuitions. These affects are in turn formed by the vast surplus of signs that circulate but do not find a precise location in the imaginary.”[7] In the ambient consciousness, it seems, it is impossible to define a clear single source of information or model, nor is the goal of the perceived information clearly specified. As a result, we might think that questions about differences in the material conditions behind the shaping of information are irrelevant, as are, too, questions about who shapes our awareness, who shapes our ideas about the world. Low-Budget Utopias shows us how today’s way of perceiving things can diminish our sensitivity to differences that derive from material conditions, and how dangerous it is to think that chunks of information are simply generated one after the other without any clear position or responsibility.

 

The ambient installation of our collection opposes the concept of the permanent museum installation and, with it, the idea of a single true history. The idea of non-permanent relationships between artworks, however, in no way reflects their random combination and recombination but rather the awareness that we are both the result of the world as it is and responsible agents of its change. Even if viewers do nothing but look at artworks and move through the exhibition space, it is important that, in the very temporariness of the relationships between the works, they recognize a potential for new meanings and qualities in these relations and thus the continual undermining of authoritarian positions of thought within the institution itself.

 

Conclusion

Unlike the universal museum, which presents its idea of modern art as a totality, or the Global museum, which attempts to cover the entire world by filling its depositories with artworks, the sustainable museum strives to process and reveal the possibilities within its own environment and to develop alliances based on similar interests and visions. The series of Repetition exhibitions under the title The Present and Presence helped our museum survive the low-budget work conditions between 2012 and 2015 – until eventually repetition became a crucial part of our concept of the sustainable museum. And it is this concept we wish to bring to light through a new series of exhibitions under the general title Low-Budget Utopias. With this new exhibition series, also from our collection, we create an organic connection to the Repetition series and underscore the importance of persistence, of drawing on one’s own resources, and of developing alternative models of cultural production from concrete material circumstances.

 

In Low-Budget Utopias we discover that the low-budget work conditions experienced both by our museum and by the artists in the regions covered by our collection continually impose themselves on us as something permanent and that, to overcome them, we must find the potential that exists within these same conditions – without, however, actually consenting to them.

 

 


[1] L'Internationale is a confederation of six modern and contemporary art institutions. Moderna galerija (MG+MSUM, Ljubljana, Slovenia); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS, Madrid, Spain); Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA, Barcelona, Spain); Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium); SALT (Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey) and Van Abbemuseum (VAM, Eindhoven, the Netherlands). http://www.internationaleonline.org/confederation

[2] Immanuel Wallerstein, Utopistics, Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century, The New Press, New York, 1998.

[3] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias” (1967), Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité, 5 (1984), pp. 46–49; http://foucault.info/doc/documents/heterotopia/foucault-heterotopia-en-html.

[4] Slavoj Žižek, “The Liberal Utopia, Section II: The Market Mechanism for the Race of Devils”, published on the Lacan.com website, http://www.lacan.com/zizliberal2 (2007).

[5] Boris Buden, “Prihodnost: utopija po koncu utopije”, Cona prehoda: O koncu postkomunizma, Krt, Ljubljana, 2014, p. 156.

[6] Gerald Raunig, “Flatness Rules: Instituent Practices and Institutions of the Common in a Flat World”, in Pascal Gielen, ed., Institutional Attitudes : Instituting Art in a Flat World, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2013, pp. 11–35.

[7] Amelia Barikin and Nikos Papastergiadis, “Ambient  Perspective and the Citizen's Moving Eyes”, in Maria Hlavajova and Ranjit Hoskote, eds., Future Publics (the Rest Can and Should Be Done by the People): A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, 2015, p. 98.