Thanks for the memories!
l-r Sara Lerota, Rebecca Ilett and Robert Good in Mostar
Our travel grant trip is over and although only we have only been back a few weeks it already seems a lifetime ago as we plunge back into the daily routine and attempt to assimilate the political mayhem that took place in our absence.
And so whilst memories are still fresh it is time to reflect on what we saw and draw out some themes and lessons to be learnt; plus take a look ahead to possibilities in the future!
Art and Politics are not the same thing
We left for our travels to Europe on the day after the Brexit result, and like everyone else we were stunned and confused. A massive bluebottle had just flown into the ointment, and our optimistic mood for our travels was replaced by growing disbelief. We issued sheepish apologies to our hosts as we all tried to make sense of what had just happened and what it might mean.
But as our travels progressed and the news became ever more surreal, it became clear that we did not want the purpose of our trip to be drowned out by political events. We wanted to meet artists and discuss art, we wanted to find out how others were managing to make art in different (and often very much more difficult) circumstances.
So we learnt that art is not the same as politics. Nor is art a political surrogate – politics by other means. Art is art. Of course art feeds into politics, history and much else besides, and art is likewise fed by those same things. And in our interwoven, postmodern, deeply interconnected world nothing can be completely disentangled from anything else any more. But nevertheless, by deciding to stay focussed on the artfulness of our travels it felt as though we were making a stand for the importance of art as a pursuit in its own right. And that if we had ended up talking politics all day instead then somehow the politicians would have won.
Our political woes in perspective
Of course we could not completely avoid politics as we discussed art and nor would we have wished to, and in our conversations we had many opportunities to compare and contrast the state of play in the UK with that of our hosts. And we found that in many ways the social complexities of our host countries far exceeded anything that we are used to.
We were amazed to hear that in Slovenia there are still 40 different dialects actively spoken amongst its population. We heard how Trieste is, for some of its residents, still closely aligned to Austria. And we realised by seeing in Trieste the milestone erected in WW2 announcing how many miles to Berlin, by visiting the local museum in Celje (Slovenia), and by seeing the evidence of relatively recent conflict in Sarajevo, Mostar and across the Balkans how fortunate we have been in the UK to have had such relative stability for so long.
The grass is always greener…
As our talk turned to art, we noted many common issues to do with making art that (perhaps somewhat reassuringly) seem to transcend borders and political systems – perennial problems of how to attract funding, how to raise awareness, where to show work.
But there were differences too. It felt to us that in some cases there was perhaps a greater generosity of spirit towards artistic endeavour, or maybe just a greater sense of community in which art could be made – although these things are so subjective and difficult to assess. Our new friends in Trieste said that it can feel quite insular to be an artist in Italy, and they were astonished to hear that we had received a grant to come and visit in order to exchange ideas.
There was also less evidence of Big Art – the blockbuster approach with all the trimmings – and it was refreshing to see art being made without that cultural and corporate baggage. Our ready access to so much ‘great’ and ‘cutting edge’ art via the many art institutions available to us in the UK is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to seeking out the authentic in art.
Would we swap? Well, the grass is always greener and it is easy to see the positives and ignore the negatives in any new place you visit, but it did just seem to us that maybe Celje, with its subsidised artist studios, social support for artists and enlightened contemporary art gallery was a little bit of secret art paradise…
On meeting fellow artists
We met many amazing artists, gallerists, curators and organisers on our travels, and many had experience of making some pretty impressive art interventions: more ambitous work, more challenging spaces and on a larger scale. This was refreshing and encouraging, as it was great to learn from their experiences and hear how their projects were realised – though sadly it seems that there is no magic bullet, only inspiration, determination and dedication.
And it was lovely to find out more from the artists we met about their individual journeys. Behind every artist there is a defining moment, a favourite artist, a trusted mentor or a major influence, so many thanks to Guillermo Giampietro, Barbara Stefani, Adriana Torregrossa, Dalibor Nikolic, Maja Rubinic and many others for sharing their stories with us.
Making things happen
The biggest message from our trip was perhaps simply that art is at its best when it helps to create that unique sense of community and shared enterprise around the process of making new things. We met many inspirational people who in so many different ways were just getting on with making art happen.
In Trieste, we met Maria Campitelli who has curated over 400 events in 40 years in order to bring more contemporary art to the city. In Klagenfurt we met Gerhard Maurer, who started a contemporary art project to help regenerate the canal area near his home. In Celje, Matija Plevnik decided to set up a contemporary art gallery and project space despite the shortage of funding and the lack of an established art scene. In Trebinje and Široki Brijeg we learnt how the Academies there are looking to share more contemporary art with their students. In Sarajevo, Remy Ourdan is creating a permanent centre for War Studies, using art as a means to inform a difficult subject with new approaches, insights and understanding. Also in Sarajevo, Pierre Courtin is reviving the contemporary arts and creating a new generation of arts infrastructure and support for the city’s artists.
All of these people were undertaking projects that they were passionate about; and in many cases they were doing them in the face of considerable logistical, political and artistic difficulties. The key, it seems, is no more or less than to simply (and perhaps obstinately) keep on keeping on. It goes without saying that all of the projects we saw require funding, resources and support to enable them to happen – boring but important; but the process, the creativity of the project and the shared sense of community that arises provide the motivation and forward momentum.
So back home and to our own project, Art Language Location (www.artlanguagelocation.org), which kicks off again this October at Anglia Ruskin University and locations around Cambridge. We hope to welcome artists to Cambridge with that same sense of shared endeavour and enterprise that we encountered on our travels.
And in the future? Well we definitely would love to create some collaborations between the artists and communities that we have met, and we are already thinking about ideas to make this happen. Perhaps we can arrange some exchange visits, maybe a shared exhibition or an online project of some sort. As always, the boring but important aspects of funding, resources and support will need to be addressed, but these things have a habit of sorting themselves out.
As Matija Plevnik said to us as we said goodbye to him after an all-too-brief visit, “I don’t mind what you do, just bring some more art to Celje!” Now that’s an attitude that I can work with…
Many thanks to everyone who helped to make our trip such a wonderful experience, most especially our hosts and local fixers Elisa Vladio in Trieste and Sara Lerota in Mostar, who generously shared their art friends and contacts with us, arranged our programme of events for us and even took us sightseeing too.
Thanks also to everyone below who took the time to share their experiences with us. (With apologies in advance to anyone I’ve missed!)
Trieste, Klagenfurt and Celje – with Elisa Vladilo, and special thanks to Nora Leitgeb for fixing our Klagenfurt visits
Guillermo Giampietro, Maria Campitelli, Carlo Andreasi, Barbara Stefani, Adriana Torregrossa, Federica Purgatori, Nora Leitgeb (Kunstraum Lakeside Gallery), Alex Samyi, Hannes Zebedin, Gerhard Maurer, Matija Plevnik, Andreja Dzakusic, Simon, Maja Hodoscek
Mostar, Trebinje, Široki Brijeg, Sarajevo – with Sara Lerota
Igor Bosnjak, Josip Blažević, Danijel Vidovic, Milan Sitarski, Dalibor Nikolic , Maja Rubinic, Mario Sunjic, Remy Ourdan, Pierre Courtin, Stjepan Skoko, Marko Musović, Veselin Brković, Tatjana Mićević Đurić, Christopher Yggdre.
And finally, thanks to a-n for giving us the travel grant which was the catalyst that made it all possible.