Aestheticizing the Everyday

Put yourself in my place, a performance by Milijana Babić and Ida Hansson produced for the Corners platform, explores the social perception of art in Croatia and Sweden.

Besides being based on the idea of decentralization achieved through research on the marginal areas of Europe – beyond its cultural, political, and social centres – the Corners platform seeks to de-aestheticize art and aestheticize the everyday by presenting art practices as important functions oriented towards the society. Even though the idea of art as a social function emerged as early as the avantgarde movements, namely as a critique of art based in itself (art as an Absolute), one should ask to what extent the Corners platform is actually socially attractive for the broader strata of the society, including those unrelated to artistic production? 

The long-term performance Put yourself in my place, work of Milijana Babić from Rijeka and Ida Hansson from Sweden, was produced within the framework of the Corners platform and may thus offer an answer to this question. Using the medium of performance, the two artists have explored the social perception of art in Croatia and Sweden on two outspokenly individual levels: (1) the social substrate / origin / set of values determining the interpretation of a work of art, and (2) the relationship / boundary between public and private, work and life. The social perception of art and the ways of adapting one’s own needs to the social expectations are the sets of problems addressed on the first level of the performance. Our system of values and experiences is defined by the setting in which we were born and the mentalities that surround us, influencing the formation of our attitudes. This is the sort of experiences that the two artists seek to explore by using the methodology of performance. The relationship between private and public, addressed on the second level of the performance, is related to the fluidity of boundaries between work and private life. With their art, or rather life, Milijana and Ida deprive the observer of the possibility to set a clear boundary between the public and private spheres of life, between work and privacy, at the same time criticizing the capitalist treatment of individual private life, as it is inseparable from, and subjected to, the demands of the market and entrepreneurship. 

Both levels are complemented with remakes of the performance, It’s a Sin and Working Day, which elaborate on the attitude of the society towards art, on one’s own social adaptability, and on the boundaries between public and private spheres. Milijana’s remake of Ida’s performance It’s a Sin, which is about the life of a drag queen behind the stage, who wants to feel like a man and a woman at the same time, yet feels frustrated for failing, combines the two levels through the issues of gender and femininity – a subtle leitmotif permeating the entire performance. Throughout history, the relationship between public and private has been perceived differently in the society when it comes to a woman than it has been the case with men. Women have mostly been associated with the private sphere – home, children, domestic chores – and it is always seen as more important than their public activity (if there is any). In their performance, the two artists mix the private and public spheres, indicating that their public activity is just as important as their private lives, and both Ida’s performance and its remake can be understood as an expression of female frustration over the capitalist image of struggle for equality, often interpreted as the woman’s attempt to feel like a man, or even be one. Frustrations of the 21st-century woman, her public and private sphere, have been additionally discussed in video excerpts from conversations with psychologists. The social perception of women, their work, and their fulfilment in private life reveal the hypocrisy of a community in which they must choose between public and private, contrary to men. In their conversations with psychologists, the two artists voice their dissatisfaction in the context of an unspoken question “Have I done the right thing?” – since the society will make it difficult for a woman focusing on the public sphere (her job and career) to find fulfilment in private life (family, relationship, children), which is a problem men will rarely have to face. On the other hand, all that is private / intimate in the life of the two artists and expressed through performance is also a reflection of their work, since their art (work) is their life. For this reason, Ida’s remake of Milijana’s performance Work Day – collecting plastic bottles and bringing them back to the supermarket for money – may be interpreted as their understanding of the importance of art on the scale of social priorities. Just as the socially threatened collect discarded bottles, art is for the two artists their life and their source of income at the same time. 

The form of performance as a substitute for life can be considered as a reference to popular culture and reality shows, while on the other hand, the discourse and the context within which the exchange is taking place seems contradictory to the demands of popular culture, i.e. closely related to art codes, with no shocking events or sharp turns. The artists have indicated that their aim was not to quote the form of reality show in order to attract a wider community or to draw attention to the social function of (their) art. For this reason, even though initially aiming at a wider social context in terms of social perception of art, their performance remains exclusively a reflection of their individual minds, or as Ida succinctly explained to a psychologist: “It’s me that makes this place.” Their art makes them and their world to the same extent as they as individuals make their art. For this reason, their performance can be interpreted from two angles. The first is the individual level, on which Put yourself in my place allows the artists to explore their boundaries and their feeling of social adaptation, and to present both their art and their vision of the social perception of art. The second level is the one of the wider social context, the level to which the Corners platform gives the actual meaning, and that is the immersion into a different society through exchange of lives and by seeing how that other society perceives art. From this point of view, a weak point of the performance consists in the fact that both artists belong to the same field of cultural production (art) and share the same habitus, ethos, and taste, which is why their exchange is exclusively physical and geographical, while the context has remained unchanged as they remained in their own field of cultural production – art.

Dubravka Oraić Tolić has argued that in the 1960s, with the emergence of media culture, the paradoxical theory on the autonomy of art, art as an Absolute, was completely discarded. Based on this hypothesis, the art of today, as well as other forms of cultural production, have abandoned the idea of autonomy and consist of a large and complex set of references, complements, links, and influences. But even if art may no longer be based in itself or regarded as an Absolute, it remains a reflection of the individual mind of an artist, which is why aesthetical re-evaluation of the society through art is something that rarely happens. A proof of that is the performance Put yourself in my place, but also the Corners platform as such, since it gathers individual artistic expressions with the aim of creating an impact on a wider social field by intervening in public space. This practice seems to be the only way to make the broader social strata, unrelated to artistic production, interested in art or willing to notice it in passing. In this way, the social function of the Corners platform acquires its meaning only if imposed upon the public space of a wider community, counting with the potential and accidental passers-by to see the exhibit, with the forever open question whether it will create any significant impact upon their private and public lives.