Tremors in Voiceover

Our reality is structured by interactions, relations, and tactics. Sometimes we decide about them consciously, but often we merely adopt them, using them to interfere with each other within the communities that we belong to. Can art become a part of everyday life and one of those tactics that we choose because we recognize their relevance? Art in the community, participative art, relational aesthetics, social practices – as omnipresent categories in contemporary art – entail something of that utopian idea that art can change the world. Perhaps it is for this reason that they occasionally indeed manage to trigger permanent change in the community they intervene in, a shift from an artistic gesture to continuity. Such micro-resistances, small subversions based on participation, communication, collaboration, and critical positioning in a system sustained by power relations, in which social justice, sustainable development, and public good seem to be mere platitudes, are often in the focus of interest when it comes to artistic activity.

As a platform “designed and driven by cultural organizations at the edges of Europe,” Corners approaches these issues by encouraging the audience to broaden their understanding and perception of art and art practices, and by encouraging the artists to reflect on the key economic, social, and political questions, as well as historical, cultural, and social narratives, circumstances, and relations, including their impact on various areas of life, in order to open themselves for the specificities of the local communities in which they are active. In this way, the Corners platform places an accent on the importance of art for the society at large, channelling it towards public space at the same time. 

The communities that the platform chooses are highly interesting as they are located on the geographical margins of Europe, which crucially determines their art practices and their artwork production as an additional challenge for the participating artists. Divided into groups, artists with various interests, media, and art disciplines must find the way to articulate their own artistic positions in a relatively brief period of time, discovering common working media and positioning themselves with regard to the context that they are about to deal with. Thus, they are exchanging the safety of their own studios and art disciplines, familiar places and communities, for precariousness, changeability, and unpredictability of art practices that evolve in public spaces at the edges of Europe, questioning the social context and positioning themselves with regard to its multifaceted mature, its contradictions, correlations, and tensions, with the aim of linking, collecting, and transmitting various narratives by using art as a channel.

By creating archives that vary in their form and content, they translocate stories, experiences, and specificities from one end of Europe to another: stories typical of particular towns and their inhabitants may thus become commonplaces – particular experiences are transformed into something familiar, recognizable, and common despite the geographic distances. The multidisciplinary projects Atlas of Tremors and Voiceover have managed just that.

Creating a collage archive of stories told by the inhabitants of Blythe and Middlesbrough, recently joined by Zagreb, was part of the process in Voiceover, a project by Bojan Mucko, Julie Myers, and Lucyne Kolendo, which may be classified within the category of social practice: it is a medium, a method, and a genre at the same time, fitting with its form into the commonplaces that we think of when considering social practices as art that focuses on people, or rather on particular social groups, political and social changes and issues. However, it also involves aesthetics, composition, and planning as it questions and redefines the traditional relationship between audience and art, production of artworks, and the issue of their documentation and sustainability – Voiceover, same as other projects produced within the Corners platform, remains archived on an open-access website that is available for further inscriptions, reproductions, and interventions. 

Structure of this project focusing on the local communities consisted of three interrelated parts: a workshop, a lecture performance, and a happening. In each city/town, the process started with the workshop. In Zagreb, the first session was held at Pogon and the social group mobilized by the artists consisted of senior citizens living in the district of Trnje. The district map served as a trigger for a conversation – as Mucko and Myers emphasize – with which the inhabitants were “caught up” in the process combining various aspects of the district, including spatial, structural, and environmental issues, the attitude towards the local and municipal authorities, as well as personal, biographic data, memories, and remembrances. The workshop was followed by a lecture performance – an experiential collage of the visited places – consisting of video-documentation, photo-documentation, and audio recordings: stories directly told by the district inhabitants or brief, succinct impressions added to the image/video by the artists. The project ended with a happening, a re-enactment/revival of the key moments from the workshop (historical, urbanistic, social, intimate, and other stories that proved relevant for the community during the workshop process), performed in a combination of free form and conversation structured as a radio programme, broadcasted live through the Corners web platform. Artistic methods were thereby interlaced with those of cultural anthropology. Art interfering with other disciplines, and its hybridization, implied asking to what extent art practices could meet the standards of those disciplines, in this case anthropology: Were the results credible with regard to the investigated community? Were the questions truly relevant for the anthropological issues of today? 

These are the topics discussed by Roger Sansi in his book Art, Anthropology and the Gift, where he argues that the main issue at stake is not whether anthropological methods are used accurately, but what elements art practices take over from anthropology, and with what aim, idea, or consequence they use them. In other words, artistic, social, and political positioning, as well as the interdisciplinary approach, although inherent to the social practice, do not guarantee actual change or progress, even on a small scale. One should go back and evaluate each individual project in order to see to what extent it penetrated the local community, which is also the stance of the abovementioned artists with regard to the goal of establishing a long-term relationship between the inhabitants of Trnje and Pogon.

Even though this direct, affirmative approach in Voiceover managed to create the feeling of confidence between the artists and the participants/audience, demonstrate the possibility of social engagement through art practices to an audience that normally would not participate, and actually encourage them to do so, the question of establishing a permanent cooperation and link, and of using the forms of culture and art that had rarely been perceived as one’s own, remains open. The future will show whether the independent culture scene, as a channel for articulating its own positions, may become a tool of resistance and struggle, organize the inhabitants of Trnje, and offer them a sustainable spatial, organizational, and conceptual support.

Another way of entering a community and a different approach, medium, and performance in these issues was presented by the project Atlas of Tremors, produced in cooperation between Ivana Ivković and Phil Hession, Christian Cherene, and Ivan Marušić Klif, which may be classified within the generic definition of performance as a procedure on the borderline between the visual and performing arts.

Evolved in the framework of Corners Triangle and aiming at the creation of micro-archives, it focused on the “transformations of labour and local communities as production of textile transitions from a man’s craft into the industrial age” – from manufacture to factories during the industrialization process and further to the closures and dislocations of textile industry, with the exploitation of workers. The main audio-visual image throughout the performance is the Jacquard weaving loom, which symbolizes the transition to the post-industrial society, finding common points between Eastern and Western Europe. This revolutionary device for the development of textile industry, which was also the predecessor of punched cards as one of the first media for data storage, made it possible to obtain finely structured patterns on large surfaces, although this type of design was complex and slow. In the performance, video and digital sound are combined with traditional songs performed by the artist, repetitively, dominantly, and confidently, while their rhythm and articulation, owing to their permanence and repetition, are seen as a reminiscence of the flow of time that this project seeks to enact. In this way, the artists have achieved a transmission of sound through time and space as permanent categories, as well as a live mapping and evocation of historical, cultural, and social memories related to the dramatic development of textile industry. Digital sound modulation as a reflection of modern technology, and the traditional songs as part of a cultural heritage, are accompanied by modulations of the visual representation of the weaving loom and the worker’s hands operating it in close-up; later on, the modulated representation of the performer-artist is directly projected onto the video wall and graphically transformed.

The world of today suffers from “an overabundance of sound and the proportionate diminishing of our ability to hear the nuances” – as Murray Schafer has written in his book The Tuning of the World. In the Atlas of Tremor, the sounds of the weaving loom and the traditional chants achieve precisely that: they create links and map the marginal communities of Eastern and Western Europe through the theme of decline of the textile industry, reconstructing the imagery of traditional songs, archiving it, and transposing it to new localities.

Participatory art has always had a double ontological status: by using people/community as its medium, it is both an event in the world and, during the performance, at one remove from it, as Claire Bishop has concluded in her article Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now? In this way, it breaks the communication discourse that it has established with its activity as it seeks to achieve a change of perspective, while its interventions remain precarious, legitimated only through repetition and enactment in various contexts. In the context of Zagreb as one of the three cities in the Corners Triangle, both performances have achieved their aim.