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From Neue Slowenische Kunst to the NSK State in Time


Borut Vogelnik

Borut Vogelnik


Member of IRWIN | http://irwin.si

Mail: borut.vogelnik@guest.arnes.si

Web: http://www.nskstate.com

born 1958 is an artist based in Ljubljana. He is co-founder of artists group Irwin and of the art collective Neue Slovenische Kunst. He is also an assistant professor at Academy for visual art in Ljubljana. [more]

NSK was established in 1984 by three groups: Laibach, active primarily in music, Irwin, active in the field of visual art, and the Theater of Scipio Nasica’s Sisters. More precisely, Neue Slowenische Kunst was founded by a vote of the members of the three groups, who also adopted the name of the new joint entity on that occasion. Within NSK, the groups retained their autonomy regarding work and decision-making. The prefix retro- (retro-garde, retro-avant-garde, retro principle) was used within NSK in the 1980s largely as a synonym for freely tapping into the history of images and more than just images. Theft in art was ontologically denied in one of our texts, as we did not appreciate deception and fraud. Comparing our type of explicit appropriation to copyleft may not be out of place.

Tanz 1
IRWIN, Transcentrala, New York, Moscow, Ljubljana, 1992/1997, NSK Panorama, Ljubljana, colour photography, 1997, photo: Michael Schuster, Courtesy Galerija Gregor Podnar.

If asked about their reasons for founding Neue Slowenische Kunst, the founding groups would in all likelihood give different answers, and to a certain extent, also the answers of the members of individual groups would probably vary. Just as there have undoubtedly existed many similarities in the artistic activities of the groups, the differences between them became more distinct over time, and can be retrospectively traced back to the beginnings of each group. But the founding of NSK cannot be explained only in terms of artistic collaboration. At least equally important as artistic collaboration was the cultural-political dimension of the founding of Neue Slowenische Kunst. It was founded as a pledge of artistic collaboration and an alliance in disagreeing with the then situation in the field of art in Slovenia and (former) Yugoslavia. These two basic premises were so closely intertwined that they made each other possible. This relation between art production and its emancipatory potential is essential for understanding the founding of NSK – after all, we did compare ourselves to the Liberation Front [A] , and not just in jest. On the other hand, our approach to artistic practice linked us with the so-called Alternative Scene, an informal, broad front uniting artists from all fields as well as non-artists who felt connected to the alternative orientation of this young social scene, part of which were also the members of NSK.
Two interrelated reasons for founding NSK keep resurfacing in the interviews with the group Irwin. We doubted the allegation that in the early 1980s, the Slovenian, or more broadly Yugoslav, art system was part of the international art system. When the question was raised why Slovenian artists so seldom participated in international exhibitions, and then only through the involvement of the state, the answer would typically be that Slovenia was simply small. We felt that the lack of communication between the Slovenian and international art spaces could not be attributed solely to Slovenia’s smallness. After all, a significant number of artists who had emigrated from Yugoslavia in the 1970s had managed to establish communication with the international space. We believed that the difference between the Yugoslav and the international spaces was not quantitative but dialectical, and that successfully adapting to the practices and principles of the former obstructed communication with the latter. We hoped NSK would reach the critical mass to facilitate direct communication with spaces outside Slovenia on the one hand, and on the other, to allow open confrontation with the existing institutions in the field of art in Slovenia. The earlier activities of the group Laibach laid the essential groundwork: broaching issues that had been taboo and using the method of over-identification, Laibach had literally opened up a space for artistic work that was not only autonomous, but reinstated its autonomy almost on a daily basis by maintaining a continuous conflict with the existing art apparatus. The term “temporary hegemonic zone”, formulated by Alexei Monroe much later, describes the state of affairs much more accurately than “autonomy”.

State in Time 2
IRWIN, State in Time, Lagos/Nigeria, 2010 Courtesy Galerija Gregor Podnar.

And the apparatus did not remain indifferent. The fact that such a number of artists prominently active in various fields of art should organize in a complex social organism generated a great deal of interest in and of itself, perturbing to a certain extent the cultural-political scene and triggering reactions from official figures, curators, art historians, and other artists. There are two things that need to be taken into consideration here: due to Slovenia’s small size it is much easier to reach even the highest functionaries than in most other countries, and, only a few years earlier, in the 1970s, the then political system would have most probably quickly put paid to any such activities. The situation was new for both sides, us and the political authorities. The latter were slowly losing their grip and were themselves unclear as to where the boundaries they would not allow to be crossed lay at that time. Although no concrete action was taken in most cases, the authorities did react by publicly condemning actions deemed undesirable in one way or another. Now, since the change of the political system in the early 1990s, Slovenia has become like the rest of Europe in that it would be hard to provoke such extensive feedback through artistic activities as we did relatively effortlessly in the final stage of the socialist period.
I will refrain from speculating about the contribution of NSK as a whole and of its individual groups in their respective fields to Slovenian art, but it is beyond doubt that by following our activities and commenting upon them, the then art apparatus treated us as consequential and relevant, giving us public exposure with its occasionally excessive reactions. At a time when the group Irwin was only outlining its field of activities, the continued media response traced its contours from the outside, thus substantially shaping the process of Irwin’s development.
By the end of the 1980s we had come to exhibit continuously outside Yugoslavia, for two years even living between Ljubljana and New York. This led us to the point that at the beginning of the 1990s, when the conditions for our operations changed radically with the collapse of Yugoslavia and the transformation of the political system, we turned to the East. There were many reasons behind this decision, ranging from the fact that we had always been interested in the art of the East but it was only with the political changes that real cooperation was finally possible, to the fact that while in New York, we had met a number of Russian artists and curators, among them Viktor Misiano, who later invited us to Moscow. But the crucial reason was that the issues that artists in the West were dealing with at that time differed considerably from the issues that interested us. We wanted to talk to people who had similar experiences and problems with the situation in which we found ourselves. When we were invited to take part in Apt-Art International in 1992, we came to Moscow to look for our counterparts with whose help we could clear up the view on the complexity of the tectonic shifts in the midst of which we had found ourselves. In Moscow, just as before that in Zagreb and Belgrade, we not only found our counterparts but also allies and friends with whom we later collaborated in a whole range of projects.
Formally, the NSK Embassy Moscow [B] was based on transposing the entire structure of NSK to Moscow – if possible. The substantial effect that the migration of European avant-garde artists to the USA at the time of the Second World War had on art is stressed in various publications. This was a unique event of such complexity caused by external factors and not intentionally. In fact, groups of artists were usually immobile, with only their members relocating. Groups were fixed to their spaces to such an extent that it was not unusual to see location names used as integral parts of the name of the group: Zurich Dada was distinguished from Berlin Dada, for instance. Just the opposite was true for medieval heresies that flourished among pilgrims, for instance. It seemed to us that there was a certain potential in the temporary displacement of the social entity of NSK.

Map 4
IRWIN, Distribution of the NSK State in Time Passport Holders, 2008.

We expected two things from it: that the relocation would draw a clear outline of NSK and in particular that it would allow us to establish communication with the Moscow art scene on a more or less equal basis. At the same time the NSK Embassy Moscow represents the starting point for a series of events tied to the NSK State in Time into which the Neue Slowenische Kunst collective decided to objectify in the fall of 1992. NSK State in Time was in fact conceived both as an act of formalization of NSK and as an art project. If it was, by responding to the changed conditions in which NSK found itself, factually political in its simultaneous public existence of being an art project, this was in fact not the case. It was just later on that it gained a political dimension on the basis of this double inscription through a series of actions and reactions by and between the NSK members and citizens. The creation of this virtual, non-territorial state was a response to changed relations between different groups in NSK on one hand, and on the other, to the ambivalent status of the nation state and to supposedly fixed ideas of territoriality, ethnic group, and borders. Instead of to a territory, NSK assigns the status of state to thinking, which alters its boundaries in accordance with the movements and changes of its symbolic and physical collective body. The State does not identify itself with other real or actually existing states and has to date grown into a collective of approximately fourteen thousand members.

Embassy 5
IRWIN, Slovene Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Latest announcement, 2007, Courtesy Galerija Gregor Podnar.

The results of the self-organization of NSK citizens are increasingly on display. It is important that NSKstate.com, the key domain where one can find information about NSK, is organized and managed by NSK citizens and not by the original Neue Slowenische Kunst. Communication between the citizens of NSK has developed around and through this internet project, and gradually grown into joint campaigns and projects. Pleased by the level of self-organization, we proposed to the citizens to hold an NSK Citizens’ Congress and share responsibility for the state’s future development. The First Congress of the NSK State in Time was held in October 2010 in the Haus der Kultur der Welt in Berlin. Thirty delegates and 20 observers from all over the world along with invited experts analyzed the operation to date, formulated conclusions, and made decisions about the future operation based on their findings.

Team 3Delegates, NSK members, Congress team members and guests of the First NSK Citizens’ Congress, Berlin, October 2010, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, photo: Christian Ditsch.

If we keep in mind that the NSK State in Time was conceived as an art project, it is necessary to admit that it is most unusual how an “artifact” became emancipated to such an extent as to formulate the Congress Findings, a text in which a high degree of agreement with the principles of its own coming into being is declared, and on the other hand, how the social body recognizes, or at least seems to recognize, itself as an “artifact” to a significant extent. But it does not stop here. Although its outcomes were inconclusive, we can claim now, three years later, that the Berlin Congress was a turning point in the history of the NSK State in Time [C]. In the time since then, a series of events, meetings, and presentations occurred in various parts of the world, all under the common title NSK Rendezvous. A book on the Congress was published, edited by Alexei Monroe,  most involved in conceiving and organizing the Congress beside Haris Hararis. Several initiatives and projects have been launched. NSK Folk Art, a project started by Irwin in collaboration NSKstate.com in 2007, has been well received by NSK citizens. Over the past three years it has been featured in a number of exhibitions, and will be presented next year at the first NSK Folk Art Biennial in Leipzig, organized by NSK Lipsk.

[A] The Liberation Front (Osvobodilna fronta or OF in Slovenian) was founded by a number of political parties and other associations to organize popular resistance in Slovenia in 1941 after Yugoslavia had been attacked.
[B] For more information on the NSK Embassy Moscow see NSK Embassy Moscow. How the East sees the East (edited by E. Čufer), Koper: Loža Gallery, 1993.
[C] For more information on the NSK State in Time see State of Emergence, (edited by A. Monroe), Leipzig, 2012, and State in Time (edited by Irwin), Ljubljana, 2013.

Borut Vogelnik, born 1958 is an artist based in Ljubljana. He is co-founder of artists group Irwin and of the art collective Neue Slovenische Kunst. He is also an assistant professor at Academy for visual art in Ljubljana.
The Irwin group was founded in Ljubljana in 1983and consists of Dušan Mandić, born 1954; Miran Mohar, born 1958; Andrej Savski, born 1961; Roman Uranjek, born 1961; and Borut Vogelnik 1959. Irwin, along with music group Laibach and the performance group Gledališče Sester Scipion Nasice, comprises one of the core groups within the artists' collective Neue Slowenische Kunst ( NSK), established  in 1984 in the Slovenian republic of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. At the beginning of the 1990s the artistic collective NSK transformed from an organisation to a State in Time, in the framework of  which Irwin played the role of protagonist as well as cronologist by analysing and recording the processes which had started in Europe after the fall of socialism. In the project East Art Map they created, together with collaborators, a history of contemporaty art in Eastern Europe.



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