Interview with Kontejner, part 1: Body norms in art and science

by deborah on 05/1/2011

Kontejner | bureau of contemporary art praxis is certainly responsible for placing Zagreb on the international map of new media art, performance art related disciplines, cybernetics, curatorial practices, nanotechnology, device art, biotechnology, science, robotics…

Kontejner was founded by Olga Majcen Linn and Suncica Ostoic almost ten years ago in Zagreb (Croatia). Till now they have organized more then fifty internationally referred and recognized events that include exhibitions, festivals, symposiums; with special accent on fostering regional networking, promotions and collaborations. We can say that Touch Me Festival, Extravagant Bodies Festival and Device_art present Kontejner’s body of work.

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Kontejner members – first 10 years (from left to right): Tomislav Pokrajcic,
Tereza Teklic, Olga Majcen Linn, Ena Hodzic, Ivana Bago, Suncica Ostoic
Photos: Kontejner (c)

Kontejner are: Ivana Bago, Tihana Bertek, Ena Hodzic, Ivana Jelaca, Olga Majcen Linn, Maja Mihaljevic, Suncica Ostoic, Tomislav Pokrajcic and Tereza Teklic.

Therefore, as I wanted to scan all triggers and art roots of this progressive collective, here we have curators Suncica Ostoic and Ivana Bago to tell you the story about Kontejner…

I’m interested how the whole story started, considering that you (Suncica) and Olga know each other because you studied art history together and Ivana joined your curatorial collective later on…

SO: In Kontejner we are dealing with the position of the body within technology, within contemporary society, and ultimately within contemporary discursive practices. Since the beginning of our curatorial practice we have had rather clear concept of what we want to engage with, and what the fields of our interest are: art + technology/science and art + body.

That includes new media art on one hand, and performance, body art and live art on the other. These spheres are not disparate, as it might seem at first. They are inter-connected for it is the reality of our social and private condition. Having a strong point of interest was a crucial motivation for the start of our curatorial investigations. Of course it was triggered by something…

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Marcel.lí Antúnez Roca (c)

What triggered the whole story? Because the 1990’s were relatively undeveloped in this field, especially as compared to what is happening today… But then, the new media were interconnected with net.art, the whole approach was more conceptual…

SO: In many senses the 1990s were extreme and intense years in Croatia and in the region. At the time we were students and getting our introduction to the contemporary art scene and progressive activities and initiatives both in Zagreb and Ljubljana. We entered this world first of all through the magazine Arkzin, which actively covered these topics. But the start of our engagement in contemporary art is quite surrealistic… Let me say no more than: it started with someone’s dream… I mean literally… And it was not from one of us, but about us. 🙂

The dream led to Olga and me being invited in 2000 to organize the 26th Youth Salon, which was located in Pavilion 5 of Zagreb Fair and presented a wide range of local and international artistic trends. The event was set up on 10,000 m2, in about 50 containers forming a mini-city. It was the biggest project we ever did, and yet previously we had never done anything connected to organizing contemporary art events! We were all keeping diaries a bit before and during the event, and when I read them now I can say it was a crazy adventure.

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Stahl Stenslie (c), from the performance Ka-Boom edition
by S.U.F.I. – Suicide Fashion International

As members of organizational board of Salon, also consisting of Boris Sincek, Bozidar Raos and Petar Paradzik, we invited Jurij Krpan from Kapelica Gallery (Ljubljana), Michal Kolecek (Usti nad Labem) and Slaven Tolj from Lazareti Workshop (Dubrovnik) to curate the Salon. There was another crucial person, the artist Vuk Cosic, who was also a close member of this curatorial team. These collaborators gave us an introduction to and an overview of the international new media art scene that was active at the time, actually the most progressive currents and subversive art tactics, the ones that were shaking up the art and cultural world like 0100101110101101.org, RTMark.

On the other hand, we got a vast insight in the local art scene. They brought to our attention all these bean sprouts that got us doing things the way we are. We also learned that the starting point of engaging with art should be the project itself – its concept and content, not the artist’s position within the art world, market value, or anything else outside the work and how it influences and affects the public.

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Eva and Franco Mattes (0100101110101101.ORG):
Perpetual Self Dis/Infecting Machine (c)
Photo taken from serialconsign.com

OK, let’s switch now a bit to your festivals and projects that have developed within these frames from the beginning… Touch Me Festival, Project Hospital

SO: One of the first projects was Touch Me, initiated in 2002. At the beginning it was a presentation of individual artists and theorists, but after few years we realized that in order to increase the communication with the public and to increase the number of visitors, it was simply more pragmatic to do festivals.

Festivals attract a larger audience because they have a diverse program. So, after a few years we decided to organize festivals, and now we have in fact three ongoing projects, structured as three triennials: Touch_Me, Device_art, Extravagant Bodies.

However, beside these two big international festivals and an exhibition, which is actually what Device_art is, from time to time we still present some artists individually, unrelated to the festivals, simply because we have the opportunity because of our collaboration with, for example, Kapelica Gallery.

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William Linn: peer-to-peer technostalgia (c)
Photo taken from Kontejner

I see, as a side project…

SO: Well, usually as part of one of our umbrella programs. Hence, let’s go back to the beginning. From the beginning Touch Me aimed to present the new media art scene, in fact trends in the fields of art & technology, and art & science, focusing on how are they essentially influencing and transforming our lives, and on ethical issues like for example in the controversial field of biotechnology. The erotic sound of the project’s name comes from the interactive nature of technology-based artworks, and their haptic qualities.

In 2005 the Touch Me Project developed into a triennial international thematic festival. The other line of our general interest is connected to the ‘raw’, ‘difficult’, ‘unorthodox’ body and presented through the Hospital Project, which deals with the critical discourse related to the norms, codes, pathology, health and illness. For instance, Kira O’Reilly was one of the first artists featured within this concept and Extravagant Bodies Festival comes from this program.

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Kira O’Reilly: Wet Cup (c)
Photo taken from Kontejner

What was the feedback to Kira O’Reilly here like? I find very interesting that when I was talking with some international performance artists, they all cited Kira O’Reilly as their model, even more often than Marina Abramovic… although, Marina is a central figure of performance art… So, I’m interested in what the feedback to her performance was like, because Kontejner has related in its latest projects to the Croatian reality in performance art, and even our performance artists tend to refer to Tom Gotovac aka Antonio Lauer, or Vlasta Delimar… Taking also into consideration the fact that, beside anything else, we, people from the Balkans can sometimes better understand each other, because we share similar histories and problems…

SO: Beside the fact that her performance was extremely well visited, I think this was one of those performances that stay in the memory, not because it involved her cutting her body, but because what she in fact did by exposing the viewers to the wounded body remains ‘inscribed/incised’ in the brain. It was an exquisite, subtle and powerful performance and reactions from people were quite surprising.

They really reacted because they all plugged into the work. They realized that cutting yourself doesn’t necessarily mean only cutting. To open the body means to expose and share your vulnerability, fragility and beauty through a ‘difficult image’. I have to say that this was one of my favorite performances that happened in Zagreb. Especially because it showed us how the scene in the West is communicating with the body, blood, the female body, bloodletting…

IB: I saw this performance, which was also my first contact with Kontejner. I found Kira O’Reilly’s performance rather striking, but it wasn’t just the performance itself that made an impression on me, it was also its entire framing within the discursive and curatorial agenda of the KONTEJNER collective. I recognized that what Kontejner was doing was absolutely unique in the context of the local scene. I was still a student at the time, and didn’t have a relevant overview of what was going on the international art scene.

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Kontejner Book: ‘KONTEJNER | Curatorial Perspectives on the Body,
Science and Technology’, 2011, Kontejner & Revolver

What fascinated me was in part exactly this feeling that what Kontejner was doing was something ‘alien’ to the local context. As Davor Miskovic (cultural worker and theorist, Drugo more, Rijeka) put it, in the text in our recently published monograph ‘KONTEJNER | Curatorial Perspectives on the Body, Science and Technology’: “I’ve always thought that Kontejner is from Slovenia!”

Kontejner doesn’t have the ‘arte povera’ ‘Balkan’ aesthetics, which we inherited from the conceptual practices of the 1960s and 1970s, but operates within a completely different register of presenting and branding its projects. In that sense, Kira O’Reilly was really important for me. For the first time, I had an opportunity to witness a performance that dealt with the body in such way; an act of opening the artists’ body, in an extremely blunt and terrifying way.

The fact that her performance was deprived of any kind of expressiveness was for me its most striking aspect. I experienced it more as an evocation of Nazi experiments, for example, and I certainly didn’t read it as enacting an emotional or intimate connection. That’s what in some way attracted me to Kontejner, because from that first impression and a small statement on the Hospital project in the accompanying brochure, I got an impression that the project was engaged in questioning how institutions, and society in general, are using forms of terror and violence against the body, how they define and regulate what the body is, what it should look like, how they define normality, beauty, health.

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Franko B by Nicholas Sinclair (c)

And what actually linked me to Kontejner was the graduate thesis I was writing in 2004, which dealt with the relation of art, the female body and illness from the perspective of feminist theory and specifically focusing on an analysis of works by Katarzyna Kozyra, Hannah Wilke and Jo Spence. Being introduced to Kontejner’s work through Kira O’Reilly’s performance, I naturally identified common interests, which was more precious to me, since they tend not to be shared by many other colleagues or artists on the local scene.

This recognition was mutual, since Suncica and Olga invited me to work with them. The first project I worked on was the Touch Me Festival, during the Operation:City event in 2005. At the beginning I was working as a volunteer, involved in organization and coordination, and later on I joined in as a co-curator on several projects.

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Lisa Bufano: The One Breath is an Ocean for a Wooden Heart & Five Open Mouths (c), Photo taken from Kontejner

Usually we speak in the name of the collective, with a concerted voice, but in situations such as in this interview, when communication is individualized, things become more complex, especially considering the fact that I’m not a founding member of Kontejner, but one that joined the team. This implies that I necessarily have certain interests and preferences, within Kontejner’s agenda, that have been informed by my own, and entirely different, professional history. I’m personally much more interested in the ‘body and performance’ part of the story, than in the one dealing with new media and technologies.

Jump into the second part of the interview with Kontejner: Technology and conceptualism walking along…