Reflection of the research project and the group exhibition Collective Practices and Photography in the Region at Artget Gallery, KCB, Belgrade (9 November – 12 December 2017), curated by Fotodokumenti. Cover photo: Peter Rauch, Community, 2012-2013
Collectivism in art and other branches of creative endeavour is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it dates thousands of years back in history, to the periods when being an artist wasn’t very respected role with huge symbolic value. In the middle ages, for instance, artists in Europe were seen as merely craftsmen, however, the commissions they received from their patrons were often too grandiose and complex to execute it individually. They thus formed workshops, associations and groups. Moreover, the concept of an artist with a complete freedom of expression, who depicts and reflects his or her emotions, was developed relatively late, in the second half of 19th century, when painters and drawers ceased to compete with new technologies, namely photography and later film, in realistic representation of the world. Therefore personal ideology, intimate urge and deep emotion have become common features of artworks, abandoning their traditional role to depict ideologically and religiously determined iconographic motifs. In doing so some completely new forms of collective practices emerged among artists and cultural workers who formed groups, movements and institutions. These principles proliferated in the period of flourishing avant-garde movements when progressive-thinking artists genuinely believed in an advent of a new man for new times.
But the modern era has also made collective practices more eclectic and diverse. There are number of different agendas and reasons why artists have joined forces and worked together, often entirely giving up their individual authorship in favour of the collective. Beside common formal, expressive or ideological agenda as driving force behind converging into groups, there are also very practical reasons to join forces under a certain brand; it could be based on a mere administrative, production-based or financial terms, particularly in places where public funding and/or private support for arts and culture is not sufficient, not systematically organised or where there is simply too much competition – artists’ run spaces and institutions are the direct consequence of such situations. But there is another significant issue accompanying increasingly common collectivisation of artists.
In the period of high modernism in the West, cult of individuality in art making seemed to be on its peak and therefore collective practices were perceived as almost subversive. Fluxus was a very loose group of artists that managed to deeply shake the well-established conventions within the world of art, simply by reluctance towards individual authorship and by refusing to produce pieces turning instead to ephemeral actions. Furthermore, in the Cold War era collectivism was perceived as a symptom of the socialist internationalism which was utterly demonised in the US and in the West. In Yugoslavia, on the other hand, reasons for collective actions of artists and thinkers, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s with Constructivists in Trieste and Zenitists in Belgrade and continuing in the 1960s and 1970s with the neo-avant-garde movements, lay in a combination of different socio-political and cultural occurrences. If the tactics of pre-war era were turned mostly against political and artistic conventions, the after-war period often resorted to appropriation of models of the official policy, known as self-management, and combined it with ideas of liberalism.
In contemporary photography on the territory of former Yugoslavia, in the period after its break up, very distinctive tactics of collectivism can be found, often reflecting the political, cultural and economic divisions in this region in the past twenty five years. Commonly lens-based artists didn’t follow established principles of institutional collaboration as it was developed within networks of Camera Clubs, as much as they referred to models of interdisciplinary artistic groups such as Exat 51 from Zagreb, (1950-1956) or FV112/15 from Ljubljana (1981-1990) but adopted it to the new social, cultural and economic reality of the new era, however one may call it – democracy or transition.
The tactics are therefore very diverse; some artists use collectivism as modus operandi on a rather project level where each collaboration is temporary and ephemeral, as for each new venture different collaborators are chosen (Peter Rauch, Davor Konjikušić); some artists form more coherent groups that work together on a more long-term or even permanent basis (MarinRust, Kamerades, Belgrade Raw, Chkrap!); some groups of artists and creators would gradually grow into institutions whose role is to enable mutual support for artists in production process or to establish an infrastructure for organising public events, educational and publishing platforms, or festivals (Fotopub, Rostfrei Publishing, Organ Vida, Ured za fotografiju, Centar za fotografiju). In this way, in the absence of institutional framework, contemporary photographers from Western Balkans whose works are created and distributed primarily for/in artistic context, are able to function vividly and vibrantly though always only on half-professional level. In many cases, multitasking, fragmentation of interests and discontinuity are not necessarily negative features.
Rostfrei Publishing, trailer for Tadej Vaukman’s Dick Skinners photobook, 2015
© Miha Colner, November 2017