FROM LOCUS TO LOCIS
– Saša Nabergoj
A place’s cultural identity is constructed from many segments that sometimes complete but often overlap or even contradict each other. It gradually forms through time, in a complex relationship between people and environment.
The invisible stitches that glue together place and its multiple identities are very often tackled by the world of art. I believe artists with their practices, but especially with their modus operandi, offer another view or shed light on things that have been overlooked, neglected or forgotten in society. Artist residencies that bring artists, curators and thinkers from the realm of contemporary art to a specific place can, therefore, play an active role in rethinking and reshaping prevailing structures, especially as vital arts contributions seem to push towards losing the fear of the time/vacuum/space in-between where shifts can happen.
How can a local context be reconceptualised by the temporary invasions of others? Carefully selected individuals always bring with them different knowledge, topics and even strategies. They can be constitutive, disturbing, enhancing or just stimulating. Allow me to show two scenarios; one that I know well and one the other I instigated myself.
First, let’s look at a scenario embedded within the small city Celje in Slovenia. The cultural context of the city has changed radically from a sleepy traditional periphery to a vibrant and culturally strong (albeit still) small town. About two decades ago, the Centre for Contemporary Arts Celje gradually started putting together an ambitious programme, including research and exhibition projects that made an art historical analysis of the local art scene through the important decades of the seventies and eighties. Exhibitions and publications contextualised, and added to, the prevailing art history of the recent past, but crucially also the present, thus bringing local artists wider recognition. This type of in-depth curatorial work in the centre of the city functioned as a catalyst; creating and providing a stimulating context for others to self-organize within, or just become actively engaged in. It also brought new potential; empowering those that previously felt the need to relocate to bigger cities, Ljubljana especially.
The programme was composed of several formats to address and communicate specific local issues. Parallel to the research and exhibition projects that focused locally, an extensive international exhibition programme gradually brought interesting art and curatorial practices from different parts of the world to the city, slowly building up the audience and local art practice, and gently introducing a vocabulary to decipher contemporary art.
The artist-in-residence programme, AIR Celje (developed by same art centre), followed the overall process (of empowering the local art scene) and enabled a more intense international infusion of diverse artistic and curatorial practices. This proved to be a crucial element in a gradual shift in the respective local cultural milieu. It also focused on artistic and curatorial research processes and shed light on tactics and strategies used by artists and curators. This provided the local audience with necessary insight into the working methods of art professionals and facilitated a way of deciphering the final outcome.
The AIR Celje residency programme played and is still paying a crucial role in shifting the cultural identity of the city of Celje. This is mainly connected with the residents’ longterm engagements with the local environment. The artists-in-residence are specifically asked to get involved in the local context and are expected to come up with projects involving local residents.
These are important factors of the residency contributing to its success interlinking art with the local society. Last but not least (and this is especially interesting for me) is that the impact of art residencies is reaching out, outside of the art world, explicitly fostering and enabling situations of potential exchange between artists, curators and people who may rarely encounter contemporary art.
This brings me to the second scenario. The idea of bringing together artists and specialists from various disciplines such as urban historians, oceanographers, philosophers, curators, critics, sociologists, fashion and industrial designers, and landscape architects, who all share similar affinities, are engaged in similar topics, but approach them in different ways. This was of utmost importance for me when I started to work on the conception of the third international contemporary art triennial PORTIZMIR3 in Izmir, Turkey, back in 2012. I wanted to show the potential artistic practices, based on research and engagement in the social and political fields, have when operating on the emancipatory level in knowledge production.
Therefore, I structured the triennial not as a single big exhibition but more like a series of smaller events (many of them included a research residency format) and developed it specifically for the needs of the locality; partly enhancing some but mostly infusing practices I believed could shift the rather small art scene of Izmir towards a more complex one. My own curatorial working process were structured as a series of intense residencies (seven days each) spread out over three years as I always work on a specific site, trying to invent formats that correspond to the local environment through active engagement with it.
Five fieldworks were created in order to show how strategies and tactics that artists develop within their practices could represent a valuable contribution to a change in thought, leading to changes in the prevailing general artistic methods. I was especially interested in generating synergies from two seemingly diametrically opposed work procedures: scientific methodology based on specialisation versus artistic methodology based on the principle of bricolage. Artists, who often work as bricoleurs, manage to solve various tasks and problems mainly because they are not specialists but are resourceful when using different tools they find, often applying them without knowing or even caring about the instructions on how to use them. Sometimes they manage to reach incredible solutions that are only possible when people think outside the box. This approach joined by its counterpart, in this case scientific methods on the emancipatory level, is capable of creating genuine interdisciplinary collaboration and opening different perspectives in the reading of the ordinary and expected.
This was the case with the fieldwork by the group Deep Blue, composed of various individuals from art, culture and science, who considered the sensitivity of the some of the aquatic ecology linked to the Izmir bay raising questions that turned out to be locally relevant in some aspects and highly global in most.
Deep Blue spent an intense one-month residency bringing together a new media artist from Slovenia with a local photographer, an underwater photographer, a physicist, oceanographers as well as an artist working in the medium of traditional Islamic art. The oceanographers, for example, had no previous knowledge of contemporary art or artistic practices but found it very effective when different experts engage in the same topic, in this case the immortality of jellyfish. The group has since further developed their collaboration in many different ways through exchanges and interests in new knowledge. This platform seemed to allow for all actors to contribute from an emancipatory position, creating a fairly traditional collaborative project where each presented their field and then slowly learnt about each other’s as well as the actual format of working together. The intense collaboration resulted in a separate fieldwork exhibition during the Izmir triennial: Archive Visualised.
I believe residencies, when focused on tailor-made situations and based on research can intervene into a local context and make the invisible tissue of the city visible, in both symbolic terms as well as in reality. The diverse collaborations between artists and experts in different fields have the potential to shed light on important topics for the city, establishing platforms for interdisciplinary collaborations that continually bring knowledge and skills to the city.
However, even more important I strongly believe the potential of the contemporary art world, for establishing operational models based on cooperation through mutual and respectful exchange of knowledge should be taken into the account. This would lead us to implement a responsible work methodology with principles that could serve as a case of good practice when negotiating the new world order currently being experiencing at breakneck speed.
Saša Nabergoj is an art historian, curator and critic based in Ljubljana, Slovenia.