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Interview

“Solidarity must be put first!”

Zdenka Badovinac in conversation with Tjaša Pogačar about concepts of "East" and "West", the independence of institutions and cultural politics in Slovenia nowadays

5. August 2021
Magazine > Interview > “Solidarity must be put first!”

Tjaša Pogačar in conversation with Zdenka Badovinac, winner of the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory 2020.[1]

Zdenka Badovinac, curator, art historian and writer, spent her formative years in the context of the subculture scene and civil society movements in Slovenia in the 1980s, when she was also actively involved in ecological issues. Today, she is one of the more prominent actors in the field of contemporary art in the region and beyond, where she is known for her breakthrough curatorial work, valuable contributions to the international discourse on the geopolitics of Eastern European art and her institutional contribution as the director of the Museum of Modern Art (Moderna galerija) in Ljubljana, which she headed between 1993 and 2020. She started working at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987, just before the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

In the context of the relative isolation of the Eastern European region, which was also plagued by poor infrastructure, the young curator immediately directed her focus towards establishing international connections, which, in her work, was always informed by the exigencies of the local space. That focus has remained the same to this day, as she tells author, curator and colleague of many years at the Museum of Modern Art, Tjaša Pogačar. They also talk about the recent development in Slovenian cultural policy.

The interview took place on 1 March 2021. By that time Zdenka Badovinac was no longer director of the Moderna galerija and Aleš Vaupotič had not been appointed as the new director, which he is since the beginning of April 2021.


From the beginning, your curatorial work seems to have been driven by a clear vision of the kind of institution the Museum of Modern Art is intended to be or should be. Although this approach was criticised, it enabled the Museum of Modern Art to establish itself as an internationally interesting and important actor. What is your vision?

Even though the Museum of Modern Art might have been in a better position than similar institutions in the Balkans in 1993 – when I became the director –, it didn’t have a clearly formulated concept as was the standard for Western institutions. Only later did I formulate that the collection and the museum can be understood as tools, tools for the communication between East and West, for example. Still, this idea has guided my work from the very beginning. It’s about acting in a relatively isolated space and enabling sensible dialogues with the broader, international context. It’s not about the promotion of domestic art abroad, the export of national art. I didn’t do that. Rather, I was interested in the lively dialogues, exigencies and concerns of this space. In the first years, my understanding of these exigencies was related much more to art itself than to politics or geopolitics, which later became an important part of the story, of course. I felt it was important to first make sense of the key questions – aesthetic, ethical, political –that mark the local space, and then try to resolve them in dialogue with the broader space. The institution served as a platform where those questions were discussed with local stakeholders and where others were also included in the dialogue. In my work, I was always looking for connections and cooperation with artists and other actors that don’t think about the institution merely as a space for the presentation of art. The latter is one of the museum’s tasks, of course, but I think it’s not enough for the institution’s shaping and vision.

Similarly, the Arteast 2000+ collection you built at the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1990s no longer addresses the question of what sort of a collection it is, but focusing instead on what one can do with it. The concept of the collection and the museum as tools was also at the core of Low-Budget Utopias. The instrumentalisation of art, for example by politics or the market, is usually criticised, but here the concept and strategy seem different.

That’s right. That was the main idea. That concept only brings to light what already exists: autonomy and non-instrumentality are pure illusions. It’s only when you reveal the mechanisms of instrumentalisation that you can use the tools for something more meaningful, which also enables the artists to cooperate in more meaningful ways. It’s interesting how the conceptions that I developed in my curatorial practice in the 1990s all received their names in the last ten years, especially in the context of L’Internationale.[2]

The exhibition "Low-Budget Utopias" was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in 2017 as the eighth in the series of presentations of the Arteast 2000+ collection, through which the Museum of Modern Art developed the concept of the collection and the museum as tools: in this case, tools for sustaining a utopian consciousness. Photo: courtesy of Moderna galerija

The topic of instrumentality was most explicitly explored by Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven in cooperation with Tania Bruguera in the project Arte Util. In our case, the projects of the Museum of Modern Art gave sense to the utilitarian aspect through the question of what an institution can do to improve working conditions for itself and the artists. And, at the same time, how that can serve as a basis to enable more just dialogues in the globalised world. In the 1990s, it became clear that Eastern European art would become a niche that the Western art system would instrumentalise. What I was interested in was creating a symbolic capital, a space from which we could enter a world that enabled the region not to become a commodity, but to speak for itself.

So the establishment of the Arteast 2000+ collection responded to the increased post-1989 Western interest in and appetite for the new and “unmapped” space and art of the Eastern European region. But how did it respond to or fit in the local context of art and cultural politics?

In 1998, I curated Body and the East at the Museum of Modern Art. The Arteast 2000+ collection grew out of that exhibition sort of organically, but with conceptual expansions. The exhibition gave rise to the question of how we understand internationality. Is it something universal or do we need a new, different conception? Our answer was that the conception needed to be narrowed and our “international context” defined based on the exigencies of the spaces with which we shared a common experience. “Eastern Europeanness” was a way to contextualise our internationality. Later on, a lot was written about whether the definition of the “Eastern European” involves identity or geopolitical questions. My answer was that it actually involved the questions of the material conditions of work. I wasn’t interested in the idea of a fixed Eastern European identity, but in the similar or at least comparable conditions of work that marked this space, including the problem of an undeveloped art infrastructure – museums, collections, the market, schools, publications, international dialogue… everything that makes up the art system.

"Body and the East" included works by more than 80 artists from 14 countries and thus presented the first large overview of body art in Eastern Europe since the 1960s. Photo: courtesy of Moderna galerija

This problem is the common denominator of Eastern Europe, which in a way sustains this region even today. That’s why it seems funny to use terms like “former Eastern Europe” and the “former West”, as if the fact that we live in global capitalism also means that we’re all the same. The differences still persist. Eastern Europe contains a social mechanism that enables certain patterns to repeat. That means the persistence of partial isolation, nationalisms, patriarchy, subordinate economies and underdevelopment in comparison to the West. The problem is also the rudimentariness of the art market that, in this part of Europe, hasn’t made any essential progress to this day. In the time of socialism and its cultural politics, some things actually functioned better than today, with art works being purchased for the furnishing of state buildings, companies, etc. In the territory of former Yugoslavia, there are only a few galleries that participate in the international market. Museums in this region have more problems now than when Yugoslavia still existed. Some breakthroughs were made in the 1990s; the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana changed its programme, for instance; new buildings were built, like the one in Zagreb, but then there wasn’t enough money for the programme. Some museums in this area, such as the Sarajevo museum, remained completely closed for a long time after the war due to the lack of funds for renovation and operation. They’re also building a new museum in Warsaw, which has been one of the more important institutions in the region even without its own building, but it has also been constantly under the threat of the political regime there. So everything that the region has managed to build and establish in the infrastructural, systemic sense is very fragile, subject to new political regimes with autocratic, conservative and nationalistic features and can very quickly topple like a house of cards. The institutions in the West are much more stable, although it is true that they’re constantly under the pressure of commercialisation.

Since the new government took office in Slovenia in March 2020, we’ve been witness to a series of political moves that have started a conflict on practically all levels of the cultural system, especially in Ljubljana. On the one hand, the infrastructure of what is called independent culture, i.e. the successors of the alternative scene and civil society of the 1980s, is being undermined. Recently, the City of Ljubljana began with the demolition of the old Rog factory, which had been a space for self-organised culture and social activism for more than fifteen years; the ministry of culture didn’t extend the leases of the NGOs at 6 Metelkova Street; the student organisation is threatening to cut funding for Radio Študent, the oldest non-commercial student radio in Europe. On the other hand, in the public sector, new directors of key national cultural institutions have been appointed in a way that many consider professionally questionable. The Museum of Modern Art is one of those institutions and, at the time of this interview, we still don’t know who’ll become the director. In addition, the ministry of culture has changed members of the expert committees that distribute public funds for culture, while also intervening in the field of self-employed persons engaged in the cultural sector by obstructing procedures and disregarding the opinions of expert committees granting the status of a self-employed person in culture and the related rights. Simultaneously with the processes mentioned of demolishing existing institutional positions and support mechanisms, they invest in the establishment of various new institutions. Recently, the ministry announced that it plans to build a new museum of Slovenian independence; the City of Ljubljana has almost completed the renovation of Cukrarna, a former sugar factory, which will become a sort of gallery and cultural venue in Ljubljana. In your work, you’ve introduced the concept of “institutional building”, so I’m wondering what kind of a “construction” is at the core of the current governmental and city cultural policies? What is your view on the matter?

Metelkova 6

The building at Metelkova 6 in Ljubljana now houses NGOs, independent artists and cultural professionals, researchers and an advocacy group for minorities and marginalised groups. They all operate in the tradition of civil society movements that were instrumental in supporting the democratisation and demilitarisation of society in the 1980s. The building is the northern part of a former barracks of the Yugoslav army, which was occupied in 1993, two years after Slovenia’s independence, by activists who founded the Metelkova City Autonomous Cultural Centre there. The renovated premises of the southern part of the barracks complex house various national museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, which, as part of the Museum of Modern Art, houses the Arteast 2000+ collection.

Picture above: Building at Metelkova 6. Photo: (CC BY-NC 2.0) stevekeiretsu / flickr.com

I understand institutional building – in the sense that I engaged in it in my work – as a practice that is an Eastern variant of the Western genre of institutional critique. The East didn’t and still doesn’t have rich institutions with international collections and influence on broader history and the art system. Here, the problem is still that the institutions, which were under ideological pressure and clearly still are, don’t operate in full, so in a sense they’re absent, fragile and need to be built rather than destroyed.

Institutional building is what I named the art practices that were interested in institutional work and in a way filled the gaps caused by institutional absence, while also suggesting different institutions of course. That affected my institutional work. Based on the “input” of artists, the community and knowledge about what is happening around the world, you try to change an institution into a critical museum, a democratic museum, a constitutive museum. None of the cases you mentioned that are now taking place in Ljubljana have anything to do with that.

The museum of independence, whose instrument of constitution has already been drafted and is waiting for government confirmation, involves completely ideological concepts, while Cukrarna, which is part of the Museum, and Galleries of Ljubljana, has a completely different agenda, a more contemporary one related to creative industries, which isn’t explicitly ideological in the sense that state institutions are. I think an interesting split is starting to emerge between state and city culture, at least in Ljubljana.

State culture is very tainted ideologically, which is why a lot of damage has already been done recently, while a different policy is conducted at city level. As a very successful, efficient mayor, Zoran Janković takes care of the city’s cultural infrastructure. His principle is very contemporary in the sense of connecting art and capital, art and creative industries as well as cultural tourism, which is why we have to look at the city’s investments in this light. An important element in all of this is the renovation of the former factory Rog, where the connection with creative industries is explicitly present. The questions regarding the future of Rog and what will happen with the previous users are still open and a matter of discussion. For example, we still don’t know where substitute premises will be provided for activities that were organized by initiatives as the Social Centre Rog. That’s undoubtedly a great loss for migrants and marginalised people, which the city could quickly make up for, but I haven’t seen any efforts in that direction yet. It’s all part of a broader process in which the city is quickly developing, becoming beautiful, elegant… and such a concept of the city, the one built by Jankovič, will probably be supported by the new city institutions that are now under construction. In light of all of this, it nevertheless has to be stressed that, in a year or two, Ljubljana will get an important piece of new infrastructure that the state is incapable of building.

How does the activity of the Museum of Modern Art fit into this cultural landscape, especially in the current pandemic context? What is (or should be) the role of such an institution in relation to cultural and broader politics?

(c) Nada Žgank

Zdenka Badovinac

Zdenka Badovinac became the director of the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana in 1993, during a tumultuous period characterized by radical socio-political changes and (re)formations of artistic discourses influenced by reconfigurations in local and global geopolitical power relations. Since the beginning of her mandate, and through her curatorial innovations, Badovinac has developed one of the most progressive, critical, and referential art institutions worldwide. Under her leadership, Moderna galerija has continued to build on its historical foundations (since 1948) of collecting and presenting the full breadth of 20th-century artistic production. She initiated the first collection of Eastern European art, Moderna galerija’s Arteast 2000+ Collection.

Badovinac was the Slovenian Commissioner at the Venice Biennale from 1993 to 1997 and again in 2005. She was the Austrian Commissioner at the São Paulo Biennial in 2002 and the President of CIMAM, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, from 2010 to 2013.

She has been a prolific writer and lecturer, making immense contributions to new paradigms in art theory, politics of art, curatorship, practices of exhibiting, institutional critique, and strategies of solidarity within the (institutional) contemporary art field. Her most recent book, Comradeship: Curating, Art, and Politics in Post-Socialist Europe (ICI, New York, 2019), is a unique collection of critical writing offering in-depth reflections on counter-hegemonic curatorial strategies and artistic discourses.

Photo: (c) Nada Žgank

I expect that, under the new leadership, the politics of the Museum of Modern Art will change to meet the state concept of national art and a more conservative aesthetics. The selection process for a new director hasn’t been completed yet.[3] I’m also one of the candidates, but in the current political climate, I have no chance of success. It needs to be stressed though that the ideological state and the neoliberal city concepts do not cancel each other out completely, but to a certain extent actually support each other. Under the new government, the national institutions will most likely also be much more favourable to neoliberal models, managerial approaches and the commercialisation of museums. Some of the institutions have already been implementing such politics for a few years now.

But I think it’s necessary to have an institution at the national level that could serve as a counterweight. So an institution that would continue in the direction that the Museum of Modern Art has followed so far, while heightening some of the focuses in relation to the current exigencies dictated by the post-pandemic period, which will undoubtedly mark and change curatorial and institutional work. Due to the precautions and physical distance measures, the behaviour in a gallery space also changes, as does the perception, and there emerges a need for more direct experiences, which will probably be related to a greater emphasis on the materiality of art. At the same time, we can expect that the army of precarious cultural workers will only grow bigger, and that the institution will have to react to this. I believe solidarity will have to be put first. Most museums around the world have dealt with this in the past year; “care” is the word of the year and a sort of a trend. The use of such terms has to be sparingly applied of course, so that their “fashionableness” doesn’t empty them of meaning too quickly.

You’re talking about an institution that would maintain a – let’s say – productive antagonism towards current (cultural) politics and at the same time foster a self-reflective stance. How, then, can an institution that shapes its politics in response to its local context and conditions enter a dialogue with the broader, international, global space?

I think that the Museum of Modern Art should simply further develop its existing concepts of the constitutive, democratic and critical museum. This model of a museum with different nuances lives in dialogue with various communities, which we shouldn’t define merely as local communities, for we now live in several spaces at the same time; we’re connected with the international space on a daily basis virtually, via the internet, so we must think about our communities more broadly.

For me and my colleagues at L’Internationale, the concept of “situatedness”, which also includes broader communications and a position regarding social issues, is more useful. The pandemic triggered an interest in the local: there’s much talk about returning to the traditional, craft skills, ecology, the earth and “indigenous practices”, which could all be encapsulated in the model of a sustainable museum, something we at the Museum of Modern Art are also concerned with, but it also sharpened the understanding for society and the technologies that connect us. We’re talking about an ecosystem that isn’t merely ecological but takes care of the balance between different actors that act responsibly towards their natural and social environment. In this sense, we need connections with post-humanist theory, since we can no longer think about actors merely as humans; we have to admit that other living beings also play an active role in co-creating this ecosystem, in which technology certainly has an important place too. The concepts that we at the Museum of Modern Art have developed throughout the years thus have to be upgraded in line with current exigencies – isolation due to the pandemic, which gave us other priorities, social and ecological precariousness and of course resistance against the modes and results of the political instrumentalisation of this crisis situation, which we can observe in Eastern Europe and which is also related to the rise of authoritarian regimes in the region.

[1] The Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory acknowledges exceptional achievements of curators, art historians, theorists, art writers, and critics whose work supports, develops or investigates visual art and culture in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. Named in honour of the distinguished Slovenian curator and art historian Igor Zabel (1958–2005), the award, an initiative of the ERSTE Foundation, has been conferred biennially since 2008.

[2] L’Internationale is an association of seven large European institutions and partners from the field of modern and contemporary art. It was established in 2010 on the initiative of Zdenka Badovinac and the Museum of Modern Art. In Ljubljana. L’Internationale aims to place art in the framework of a non-hierarchical and decentralised internationalism that is based on the values of diversity and a horizontal exchange between a constellation of cultural mediators that are locally rooted and globally connected.

[3] The interview was conducted on 1 March 2021 which was before the selection process came to an end and Aleš Vaupotič was appointed as new director in April 2021.

Original in Slovenian.
Translation into English by Maja Lovrenov.

This text is protected by copyright: © Tjaša Pogačar / ERSTE Foundation. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Playing cards in Metelkova. Photo: (CC BY 2.0) Andrej Jesenovec / Flickr