Dejan Habicht. Ljubljana group portrait

© Dejan Habicht

Beti Žerovc interviewing Sabine Hänsgen

Beti  Žerovc: Exhibition of contemporary art today is often a directed multilayered event, in which the physical exhibition plays only one part of a total. Or, to put it more precisely, it is an event constructed from a chain of events (exhibition per se and its opening, lectures, media events, performances, screenings etc.) and also other elements, where the artistic and the scientific are somehow unproblematically mixed by the curator. Thus, we get a product which is very complex, complicated and far reaching, while usually it is not seen as such a product at all, nor is it interpreted as such. When we are visiting such events in galleries we are usually not aware that our experience is carefully directed and that somebody took the chance to "load on" us bits of a particular story, a way of thinking. 

In a way the events by Collective Actions have some similarities with the above described curatorial practices. They are also organised as directed and carefully prepared experiences for the ones who attend them, where their authors build and control the context and also the following interpretation. Of course, we are far from saying that those two types of actions are the same. What we are trying to suggest is that maybe reconsidering some aspects of the functioning of CA while having at the same time in mind the contemporary curatorial practice could bring us to some interesting conclusions.

First some questions about facts. Who was »paying« for those events in the 1970s and 1980s? Was there at all any financial structure behind those events or did the artists just pay for the material needed themselves? Has this situation changed until now?

Sabine Hänsgen: In the 1970s and 1980s the members of the group were paying themselves, they bought all the material which was necessary to realize the performances. For instance, for "Time of Action" (1978) they had to buy 7 kilometres of white rope – it was quite expensive at that time, because they had only little income, working at academic institutes, at the literary museum, at a library or as illustrators of children's books.

Basically, this situation hasn't changed until now. However, beginning from the 1990s, there have been a few exceptions, when collectors or institutions were paying: "Archaeology of light" (1995), which took place in the countryside near Rome, was subsidized by Paolo Sprovieri, "51 - Archaeology of light-2" (Centre Pompidou, Paris 2002) by Siemens Art Programme and "625-520 in Berlin" (Schaubühne, 2001) as well as "Adventures of the Blind / The Sack-2" (University of Frankfurt, 2002) by academic and cultural institutions.

B.Ž.: How is the  following interpretation of the event organised? Please explain as precisely as possible how the author of the event is involved in it?

S.H.: At the beginning of their activities "Collective Actions" concentrated on the performances themselves which were commented on in theoretical texts by the members of the group. From "Place of Action" onwards different forms of interpretation were systematically included into the aesthetic practice of the group. In "Place of Action" (1979) the photographic documentation was part of the plot and in a kind of reportage statements of participants were recorded on tape. It was, by the way, Ilya Kabakov, who himself first suggested to write a text about his experiences during the performance – in order not to forget them.

Later on, the group as collective author regularly asked the participants to write down their experiences. In the year 1980 Andrei Monastyrsky compiled the first documentation volume of "Collective Actions", consisting of different types of interpretation: theoretical reflections, diagrams, narratives, reports, transcripts of tape recordings etc. In the 1980s the so-called speech actions – the central part of them were "discussions" –  played quite an important role.

B.Ž.: The event seems to be today a very strong artistic medium, maybe even a stronger and more attractive medium than a picture or a sculpture. Why is that so? What are its effects? Could you explain them also from the position of a participant in many of the CA actions? What was the pleasure? How was it brought about?

S.H.: I think, the event is not a stronger medium as such, it is another medium, which opens up a new spacial and temporal experience. Maybe, it feels stronger, because as a participant you are more actively involved in a situation which is organized especially for you.

In the statements of participants of the "Collective Actions" we repeatedly find the description of a special kind of experience, the feeling of "Luft" (a German word in the Russian texts) . It appears to me that this experience of freedom (breathing freely) cannot only be explained as liberation from or in opposition to the social-political conditions in the Soviet society.

B.Ž.: Was it also a pleasure to belong to some »elite« circle? The circle of »the chosen«  who are more sensible and understand more?

S.H.: It is rather an existential experience which becomes possible through a shared aesthetic practice in a circle of friends (friendship is a central principle here) who are interested in similar philosophical and artistic questions. What attracted me, for instance, in "Collective Actions", what was a pleasure for me, was the situation of a permanent dialogue without really consuming art. In my opinion, "Trips out of town" – this genre of the "Collective Actions", is originated in the common principle of travelling which opens up the "liminal" experience of looking on the usual as the unusual.

The principle of "Collective Actions" can also be defined as "anti-massmedial", because an event is organized for only a few people – in the extreme case, this can be one person, for whom a performance is organized as a dedication – in contrast to massmedia whose function it is to reach as many people as possible.

B.Ž.: The group which attend such event, seem to agree, to »submit« themselves to the director/author of such an event. In whose name? In the name of art?

What legitimated those particular Russian artists to do those actions at the beginning? How did they succed to bring all those people together to participate, especially since this demanded a lot of time and energy?

S.H.: For the activities of "Collective Actions" there was no legitimation, they developed parallel to the official cultural institutions in the Soviet Union. They were rather based on an aesthetic tradition: Marcel Duchamps, suprematism and futurism, OBERIU, John Cage and so on.

The participants of the performances  were invited personally – directly when meeting before, in a written form, or by telephone. And (until today) there were and are enough people interested to make "Collective Actions" possible. For some reasons, they spend their time and energy, because for them it seems worth-while.

But what is – as you ask – the relation between submission and this feeling of "Luft" in "Collective Actions" ? I would like to compare it to a play having its own rules. When submitting to them, you can on the other hand gain a special feeling of freedom.

And some people found their own way out of the play of "Collective Actions". For instance, the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov during "Ten Appearances" (1980) did not follow the instructions to the end; he didn't return to the center of the field, but instead he left and went home to Moscow on his own.

B.Ž.: It seems that this kind of author can through ritualized events like that attain a very strong aura. Can this position be misused?

S.H.: In the "Collective Actions" – that is at least my impression – we can find different notions of common practice: a) collectivism in the ritualized form particularly characteristic of the Soviet culture which might create an aura around a leading figure, so to say the General Secretary – in the context of "Collective Actions" embodied by A. Monastyrsky who edited all the documentation volumes; but also at the same time b) the idea of team-work, a cooperation of equal members with their own talents and qualities, representing different lines of development in "Collective Actions" such as Nikita Alekseev as artist and critic, Nikolaj Panitkov as collector and expert in far-eastern cultures, Georgij Kizevalter as photographer and artist, Igor Makarevich as artist and photographer, Elena Elagina as artist and sculptress, Sergej Romashko as philologist and translator.

And there was some criticism within the group: At the beginnig of the 1980s Nikita Alekseev left the group, because it seemed to him that the "Trips out of town" had turned into routine and into a kind of artistic tourism. Some years later, however, he corrected his view and declared, that there was rather a school-building effect in the systematic development of a series of performances. He, once again, became a participant of the "Collective Actions".

B.Ž.: Would you agree that an event as a form in contemporary art is still not very well researched and explained? It is very intransparent, especially in its effects, isnt it? Could you point out any connection between events of the CA and contemporary curated events?

S.H.: Taking the example of A. Monastyrsky's exhibition "Winter 1983 – 2008"  for me it is really quite interesting to discuss the question of the relationship between exhibition and event. Here – in my opinion – we don't have the typical case of a contempory art exhibition as an event – in contrast this exhibition refers to an event which took place beyond the exhibition space. For his exhibition Monastyrsky uses the documentation material of a performance from the year 1983 "Sound perspectives of the 'Trips out of town'", presenting particularly the portraits of the participants of the past event.

Making a photographic group portrait of the listeners present at the Ljubljana lecture about  "Collective Actions", an event was created which later will be documented in Moscow archives, once again, beyond the exhibition space.


This text was published in a slightly shortened Slovenian version, in: Likovne besede (Ljubljana), Number 85, 86 (zima 2008), S. 40-47.

Beti Žerovc is a Slovenian art historian and art theorist. She teaches Slovenian art from 1800 until today at the Faculty of Arts/University of Ljubljana. Her areas of research are visual art and the art system since the mid-nineteenth century, with a focus on their role in society. In the past ten years her research has concentrated mainly on the phenomena of the contemporary art curator as a profession in the process of establishing itself and the contemporary art exhibition as a medium. Žerovc conceptualized and organized various scientific meetings, among other: Exhibition as the Artistic Medium, Curator of Contemporary Art as the Artist. The Changing Statuses of the Exhibition and the Curator in the Field of Contemporary Art (Igor Zabel Association, 2010), The Event as a Privileged Medium in the Contemporary Art World (International Centre of Graphic Arts, Ljubljana, 2011). In 2011 she curated the 29th Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, titled The Event. Žerovc is the author of numerous articles, as well as several books, among other: The Curator and Contemporary Art: Conversations (Maska, 2008; in Slovene), and Curatorial Art: The Role of the Curator in Contemporary Art (Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete, 2010; in Slovene). In 2012 Žerovc edited The Event as a Privileged Medium in the Contemporary Art World (Maska, for the electronic English version see: http://issuu.com/zavodmaska/docs/maska_2011_147-148_web/1)


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