Cover photo: Nataša Berk, Personal Act of Censorship, 2016
Throughout modern history many artists have consciously followed an unwritten convention: to establish one’s own recognisable artistic language. In current social and economic circumstances such personal brands, based on various formal and conceptual elements, are expected from artists. However, due to changes in image and art making, the merging of different practices and media in a single work, or a body of work, as well as non-alignment with concurrent canonised artistic genres is inevitably becoming an ever more common phenomenon today. Nataša Berk is an artist whose practice from the past fifteen years would be difficult to define unanimously; she simply creates images and situations with the aim of challenging people and provoking their reactions.
In her recent performance at Fotopub Festival (4 August 2018) in Novo Mesto, Slovenia, she invited the audience to the town’s bus station to board a bus, with her as the driver. By driving it backwards she made a perfect circle of white paint on the vast bus parking area, she then drove the bus towards the road and disembarked. Then the bus driver took over the vehicle and drove the audience to an unexpected excursion to the Otočec castle, a tourist attraction nearby, where they were served sandwiches in a perfect setting. They returned from what was an unanticipated experience.
It is impossible to objectively evaluate what happened during this performance as expectations, moods, experiences and worldviews of the participants are always diverse. It would be impossible to inventory and process all of their responses. The key element of the action is therefore surprise; all that remained after the action had finished were the experiences of participants and photo documentation. One could argue that the piece follows basic postulates of conceptual art or, even more directly, so called “relational aesthetics” where artists create environments where participants collectively collaborate in a certain activity, instead of classic object-based works.
But the artistic practice of Berk is much more elusive than the aforementioned formula. Her work is rarely showcased in the clinical environments of art institutions or limited to controlled activities in public spaces. The artist sees her creative work as an integral part of her day-to-day life, during which she continuously and consistently makes images or creates situations. Moreover, Berk does not see her creativity necessarily as an act of art making as she often ignores the institutional conventions that require completed and tangible works of art and coherent bodies of work. Instead, her public actions are often intuitive, unexpected, sometimes unannounced and almost imperceptible.
Such public actions take place within online networks where Berk showcases her extensive visual production on an almost daily basis. She makes images using a wide variety of means, be they text, photograph, video, or a combination. Recently she has taken to using social networks such as Instagram and Facebook as her main distribution platforms because they enable her to communicate with broader public. Many of her documentary or staged photographs, often arbitrarily manipulated in the process, are created in this spirit. These are, for instance, images of spaces and people surrounded by figurines of animals or toy soldiers and complemented with found images and generic symbols from mobile applications. Then again, in the manner of concrete poetry, she also plays with words and slogans in order to change their usual meaning.
The process of creating textual or visual haiku is usually based on her instantaneous visual impulses. She is, above all, interested in composition, the suggestiveness of an image and its primal effect. Therefore images are created swiftly, impulsively and massively, the latter being conditioned by technology. In the past couple of years the artist has been making images mostly by using smartphones where she is limited by technical limitations such as the quality of the camera, the capacity of manipulation tools and the frame of the screen. Nevertheless, smartphones allow her mobility, freedom and promptness.
Her pieces thus work the best within the social media environment where she plays with the expectations of the society and conventions of visual culture. Several works could be described as digital collages that combine texts and images in an utterly suggestive and ironic manner, applying principles of the advertising industry, showing aspirational lifestyles and mass media reporting of success stories.
One of the earliest works that occurred exclusively online is PolyPlay (2004) in which the artist formed a band where she played the roles of all four members where each of them had her own identity. With some preliminary rehearsals, she recorded an album and a live video where her multiplied image appears in place of all four band members. The songs are composed of several clichés in popular music including meaningless and harmless lyrics. After the video launch, on Youtube, the group was disbanded, allegedly because of dissent between the singer and other band members.
In 2015 she appeared in the role of an anonymous curator who conceived and organised the exhibition Even for Dada Time is Too Abstract at UGM Studio in Maribor, Slovenia, in order to present contemporary Dada artists. The idea of a contemporary Dada movement is itself contradictory as the Dada movement was based on the idea of anti-art, which, nowadays, can no longer be radical because it has already been canonised. Berk created all the works for the exhibition and invented most of artists’ names. In doing so, she touched upon the phenomenon of an image from a completely different perspective, since the image making was the result of role play where she acted as both the creator of art works of several imaginary artists as well as the decision maker who gave them a place in the history of art.
Berk’s prolific visual production addresses prevailing social imperatives; people nowadays are expected to be communicative, pleasant, friendly, accessible and always present. They tend to create (self)portraits in situations that make other people feel envious and post them on social media platforms. All that is desirable is featured on social media platforms, which can easily generate a number of symbolically stimulating feedbacks such as likes, shares and comments. Her works thus critique the contemporary visual cacophony and social norms such as happiness, success and money; they point out the artificially induced attention that is enabled by social media networks, which gives users the notion of being (at least temporarily) at the centre of attention.
Probably the most direct and critical response to the nature of contemporary communication networks is reflected in her current and ongoing project where she aims to completely erase her presence on social media networks. By not allowing images of her face to be posted on social media she erases her own visual identity in virtual space and turns against the postulates of dominant culture. In our period of omnipresent extroversion and narcissism, not being present is almost a subversive act.
*Nataša Berk’s exhibition 1st Unlimited Edition at Švicarija / MGLC – International Centre of Graphic Arts, Ljubljana [2 April-19 May 2019] is one of the rare occasions at which she physically showcased her prolific visual production, which is usually left on social media platforms. It is was a spatial intervention where she collaborated with a group of artists in order to present their diverse visual production, which usually takes place in the virtual space of the world wide web and the social media networks. Thus Berk continues to explore the phenomenology of the image within public circulation and its impact on our perception of reality. In ironic ways, she addresses the norms of the advertising industry, the tendencies of the mass media, voyeurism, and the social convention of the individual’s appearance online.
© Miha Colner, October 2018 [edited May 2019]; proof reading Ana Cavic