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The Building of the Future

The Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb. By Myriam Thyes, CC BY-SA 3.0
cultural institutionCultural Ecosystem

On 25 December 2017, I arrived in Zagreb, at the place I was staying for the following three months: the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb. There were only the security guards – and me – for the remainder of the winter holiday. I was invited to participate in a three-month artist residency hosted by POGON – Zagreb Center for Independent Culture and Youth as part of an exchange program organized with Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart where I had spent eight months in 2017.

What I hadn’t realized was that winter was not the best season to visit Zagreb. An atmosphere of hibernation filled the half-vacant streets during the holiday. To many – even the locals – the cold weather could be a reason to feel depressed and anti-social. Later I found out that the entire population of Croatia was around four million, and one million people lived in Zagreb. This number was steadily declining, and it was common knowledge as everyone I met had friends and relatives who had left the country in recent years from different professions. I began to wonder if the lethargy was due to the weather, or if there was something more complex at play.

For the first month or so, Sonja Soldo, Senior Associate from POGON, worked very hard to connect me with the museum staff as well as with other colleagues in the field, but the process was slow. When I at last met with some arts professionals, they tried to share why I experienced such inertia. The stories were quite similar: the right-wing government has been executing a conservative policy and a constant decline in funding and shrinking of public space has stifled the cultural scene. They all said that the best time was in history, in the early 2000s, after the fall of the authoritarian Tudjman regime. Their tone, as they spoke, sounded as if they were bracing themselves for stormy weather.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb. Photo by Enoch CHENG
Jedinstvo Factory. Photo by Enoch CHENG

Later on Sonja introduced me to Jasna Jaksic, Librarian and Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and she took me under her wing. During our museum tour she gave me a quick survey of local art historical development from socialism – when the country was known as part of Yugoslavia – all the way to today’s Croatia.

What often came to my attention was that there had been a pattern of avant-garde development since the 1960s, including art movements such as the renowned New Tendencies and the dynamic performance art scene. Major figures like Goran Trbuljak made a strong impression with his poster-works in the 1970s, such as The fact that somebody is given the opportunity to make an exhibition is more important than what is shown at that exhibition, which he presented in his solo exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary Art – now the Museum of Contemporary Art. As an artist, being able to stay inside this Museum may sound like a fantasy, but that privilege confronted me with the question of what it means to be an artist within the larger cultural fabric; or – elaborating on Trbuljak’s idea – what are the conditions that art and artists can operate under?

When I was shadowing Jasna as she performed her tasks to check the efficiency of this glass-box-museum that opened in 2009, what became apparent was that the humidity and temperature fluctuated greatly from corner to corner, and in essence, not ideal for the works inside. Another point was that, while the Museum presented many wonderful works from the contemporary art history, it was not well visited most of the time. I also commented that, if I hadn’t had Jasna’s guidance, it would have been difficult to understand the local art development as a foreigner. She agreed with me, adding that even for Croatians it was not an easy task. What was most discouraging was that even local art history students did not come to the museum. While it would have been convenient to criticize the Museum for failing in its role, my experience of meeting other museum professionals outside Croatia led me to understand that this was not unique to Zagreb.

I began to realize that an art institution ought to be an integral part of the cultural ecology, and its potential depended on a complex web of factors: from the government and masterplanners who lay down the physical, architectural, financial and policy structures; to the directorial and curatorial management of the museum’s operation, programs and promotional strategies; to public interest, as well as anyone who plays a role in the professional field. All of which are issues faced by art institutions throughout the world.

Jedinstvo Factory. Photo by Enoch CHENG

I began to realize that an art institution ought to be an integral part of the cultural ecology, and its potential depended on a complex web of factors.

One work displayed in the Museum offered a lens through which to look at these entangled issues – Behind the Looking Glass by the late Croatian actress and artist Jagoda Kaloper. In this work, the artist filmed her reflection in mirrors, windows, puddles, and juxtaposed these shots with archival footage from the Yugoslav films she had taken part in from 1960 to 2010. As her new film crossed over with the archival footage, her camera followed the motion of the footage and vice versa.

Without any prior knowledge of the Yugoslav films or the artist, this work presented me, as a viewer, with an awareness of my own viewing position. Sometimes in the old films, one saw through the eyes of the cameraman, and at other times one might adopt the female artist’s gaze. One looked inwardly to see a reflection of the self, and simultaneously one shifted between the different moments when each old film was made to consider the larger historical context.

In this one single work, Jagoda demonstrated that it was possible to look at macro and micro issues as an individual while being part of the internal and the external, the present and the past. What mattered was whether we could shift our focus, to reflexively adopt a new role, to instantly look again and adjust ourselves.

Reminiscing her experience working with Jagoda, a curator mentioned how shocked Jagoda was when she met with some poor retired Hollywood actresses in America, because she – a former actress – would be supported by the Yugoslav government with a pension. Although this system was crushed by neoliberal mentality, we should not let this memory fade away, or even learn from it – that it was possible for artists to be taken into the larger framework of the welfare structure and be part of the development of a civil society.

In 2005 in Zagreb, “a coalition started a few months before the local elections where the needs of independent culture and youth were articulated, publicly discussed, and stated in the policy document signed by the future political decision-makers for the first time”. 1 POGON, the organization responsible for my residency, is a direct result of this advocacy by civil society, and was founded to: ” provide the use of its facilities for cultural and youth programmes of the Zagreb based organisations free of charge” 2 – an open platform without any aesthetic limitations.

After years of fights, protests and occupations, POGON, besides its own office space, also runs the Jedinstvo factory. I was very much interested in this factory space because finding such a gigantic black box space available in Hong Kong is not easy. And my interest intensified when Sonja told me about the future plans to renovate this space into a multifunctional cultural center. Coming from Hong Kong where we have had over a decade of discussions on how to build a cultural district, how could I not be intrigued by this project in Croatia? For whom this future venue would potentially be for? Who are the artists and who are the audience? I asked.

Up until the middle of my residency, my connections with the cultural players in Zagreb remained sparse. Most people were not responsive. Sonja (and later other new friends) reassured me that they also found local communication among themselves consistently difficult. Somehow, I felt I was in the wrong situation.

I later learned from a local activist Sasa Simpraga that looking into unusual areas might raise more interest. Simpraga founded the 50 Poems for Snow, a poetry festival that takes place on the first day of snowfall in public spaces of Zagreb, and it has extended to other Croatian cities and across Europe. He placed poetry on public benches, named streets after important but lesser known Croatian and foreign figures, advocated for and recreated a network of public fountains of drinking water which existed in the past. Most of his gestures were small and took persistence to be recognized, but he left traces for the public to find their own links to the city and its micro-histories.

Local activist Sasa Simpraga founded 50 Poems for Snow. Photo by Enoch CHENG

To find links to alternatives beyond the mainstream that are yet to be defined is not just a way to expand culture into a larger domain, but it also propels one to evaluate the existing defined realms and instigate new ways of thinking. Such a mentality recurred after my conversations with the artists Dina Karadzic and Vedran Gligo who run the Hacklab for programmers and hackers. They invited me to host a workshop. I then proposed to think of a programming language that would allow the computer to “work” outside the system, or even for the computer to not “function” in the sense of “productive working”. This question became an opportunity to revisit what we knew (or thought we knew) about the logic of a computer. We had to stretch our habits regarding the status quo of doing things.

After this event, I was inspired to question whether it was too farfetched to think of AI as our future audience, or even collaborator in our cultural sector. But then – at this moment – who are our nearest audiences and collaborators? And are we connected to them already? This became my direction when I proceeded with my project at the Jedinstvo factory.

Perhaps the late Jagoda heard my thoughts. Someone referred me to the performance artist Nina Kurtela who was now the tenant of Jagoda’s former studio. The studio was in a residential building and Nina only found out its history as she moved into the building. It turned out that the government has always had studios available for artists around the city, except that these opportunities aren’t publicized well. From this studio, Nina has been running her own alternative programs, and I was invited to contribute to one of these with a performance entitled Sharing 11 Things in 111 minutes with 11 audiences.

In this performance, I responded to my experiences in Zagreb. I thought that: (a) there was no way I could get a large audience in three months, as people had also warned me that the local art scene had little interest in foreign artists, even the famous ones; (b) as Simpraga had thought, it was important that I left traces, albeit small, with people here.

In the context of a private performance in a semi-residential/working studio, the advantage was the intimacy involved, and the time shared with the audience. Throughout the performance, I used 11 things (food, wine, music, dance, smell, and more) to provoke various sensations, and initiated different conversations to tap into individual memories and interpretations. At the end, I deliberately left a long pause in which everyone had to decide what to “show” to an audience member in another room. To my surprise, we agreed to perform taking a nap together. This whole performance began with me laying down a route, and eventually collectively we headed down a new avenue. This process was a great exercise for me to not only associate myself with the audience, but also to learn how to disarm myself to be with others and create a situation where everybody could take ownership together.

Gradually, I felt a sense of attachment to Zagreb as a passer-by. This was especially so after Sonja took me to visit School of Applied Arts and Design, in response to my question on how the idea of architecture could relate to a cultural site. While the initiative for our visit was to meet architecture students, I was stunned that the school had not only been training to be architects, but also many other young students studying fabric design, fashion, stage design, as well as pottery, drawing, and other creative subjects from the age of 15. I was envious of these students being immersed in this environment to learn practical skills and to think in conceptual terms at such a young age. Yet, I had to ask the question: If for decades, these bright students were graduating every year having gone through such a progressive education, was there a strong enough cultural scene for them to participate? And would they want to be part of the scene or even build one?

Late one night, just a few days before the start of my project at the Jedinstvo factory, I followed a new acquaintance – a jazz keyboard musician to a jamming night in a bar. That night, not only did I see a group of musicians who were ready to play at a professional level, but also three special young gentlemen.The keyboard musician wasn’t entirely sure if they were rock kids, or if they knew how to jam.

But once these young men started playing, the audience grew silent, and some out took their phones to take videos. The audience included their parents. I later found out the young men were only 15 to 19 years of age. One of them told me that they could only perform once a year at their music school, so they knocked on every door elsewhere for more opportunities to perform. I immediately knew that I had to share my platform at the Jedinstvo factory with them because they would be the future audience and users of the new space – more so than me.

The idea for my Jedinstvo project was to think about the kinds of future activities it could include now, whatever the architecture of the future centre might bring. During my week-long occupation of the space, I proposed a program in which there would be film installations, performances, music events, rehearsals, meetings, conversations, food and drink, and parties – in essence turning my residency into a future arts center.

Throughout I didn’t forget that my residency was taking place as part of a larger system. Aside from the final written report, this system would probably be unable to recognize who I was, and the actual experience and challenges I had faced in relation to the local cultural scene. On the flipside, it was precisely because the system was in place that POGON could enable my stay. However, I was not satisfied to be a mere profile on paper, and refused to think that there was not a real person behind everyone involved in this system.

I asked Sonja for names that appeared in the system who had facilitated my residency, and I wrote to each of them to invite them to my project. As expected, most of them couldn’t come, but almost everyone wrote back – some even at length – providing their views of the system. Yes, I was the artist who enjoyed these resources, but I believe we were all working together towards culture rather than being submissive to a stagnant system. A good system, besides being efficient, should also have empathy and imagination to uphold the integrity of the lively cultures formed by real people.

The space in Jedinstvo Factory. Photo by Enoch CHENG

Finally, my event at Jedinstvo factory opened on a day at minus 20 degrees. Despite the cold someone from the Ministry of Culture came. The three young men arrived with their parents to perform. And they attracted a small crowd. A girl asked the band’s name, only to find that the young men were yet to name themselves.

I still remember the first audience member who came to my opening was a senior member of the Croatian Conservation Institute. She shared some the profound words: “Sometimes when we have to conserve a Renaissance building, the public and government expect it to be done so quickly, but little do they know that architectural restoration might take decades to finish. Every year we’d make a new report to justify our annual budget and ask for it to be renewed. Sometimes we’d go through a change in personnel, sometimes even a division of a country!”

She has worked in the same office for many years, and she told me, “It was only during the separation of my country that I began to understand the Second World War.” Here, I interpret her wisdom that it was necessary to be humble when trying to understand or cope with different times. One should not be limited by a temporary vision of the present, but one always needs to persevere by looking to the long term.

Time is a funny thing. We must work with time to build something substantial for the present and the future, which will be a gift that we need to both receive and give back. When I asked why the young musicians’ parents supported their kids’ pursuit of music, knowing that very few people could make it in this field, all of them said the same thing: Because it was the only thing their children showed passion and determination. One of the fathers even said that he was considering saving up to send his boy to Graz to further his studies.

Sure, the world is big and we should open up our horizons. But what is the significance of the future architecture of an art center if there are no calibers to play the appropriate roles there. So I asked Sonja to let the young musicians who have shown such willingness, to start programming their own future now.

cultural institutionCultural Ecosystem
Dinko Peračić, Miranda Veljačić, Slaven Tolj, Emina Višnić, WE NEED IT - WE DO IT, (Split, Platforma 9.81), 132
The introduction of POGON。
Enoch CHENGAn independent artist. His practice spans moving image, installation, curating, dance, events, theatre, and performance. Concerned with the everyday subtleties in contemporary urban lives, his works explore recurrent themes of place, travel, fiction, memory, time, and destination. He received his MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, London, and BA in English Literature and Art History at the University of Hong Kong; he has also lectured at Hong Kong Art School. He is the recipient of Award for Young Artist at Hong Kong Arts Development Awards. He is currently an artist fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany.
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