Collaborative Actions, Continued Omissions. A Feminist Revisiting of Yugoslav Collectives in the 1970s - the case of the OHO Group. Lina Dzuverovic, February 2020
Collaborative Actions, Continued Omissions
A Feminist Revisiting of Yugoslav Collectives in the 1970s - the case of the OHO Group
Lina Dzuverovic, February 2020
When writing about the formation of artists’ groups in ‘The Bloomsbury Fraction’ in 1980 British literary critic Raymond Williams observed that “the real point of social and cultural analysis, of any developed kind [is] to attend not only to the manifest ideas and activities, [in this case of artists’ groups] but also to the positions and ideas which are implicit or even taken for granted.”1 His critique addressed his belief that we had not not developed appropriate tools for the study of cultural groups, as opposed to larger social organisations like churches.
Williams was writing in reference to the Bloomsbury Group (a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century, including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Vanessa Bell and others, based in the Bloomsbury area of central London), in connection with a quote by its member, the author and political theorist Leonard Woolf in which Woolf characterised the Bloomsbury Group as simply being a group of friends, challenging the imposed readings on the group by what he called the ‘outside world’. Williams initially includes the quote and ends it with the reference to this group simply being a group of friends.
Later in the text, he repeats the quote but adds to it one simple sentence ‘Our roots and the roots of our friendship were in the University of Cambridge.’ and this immediately changes how we read what was hitherto perceived as a simple statement about the loose and informal association of those involved with the Bloomsbury group.
The addition of ‘Cambridge university’, immediately situates the group for the reader in terms of cultural, economic and social capital, instantly shifting from this being just any group of friends with shared interests and some interesting ideas to a very specific social and cultural institution, and a group of people whose creative activities cannot be read outside of the sociocultural meanings of Cambridge university - the embedded class marker, a group with enormous cultural capital and a lasting legacy. Besides the fact, of course, that it was only the male members of the Bloomsbury group that could study at Cambridge at that time.
In thinking about Yugoslav collectives in the 1960s and 1970s in this text, and more broadly in this research project, it is precisely the method of analysis that looks outside manifest ideas and activities to investigate the implicit positions and ideas. My argument is that there is a need to put under pressure the resistance mechanisms of the Yugoslav avant-garde (against institutionalisation, against singular authorship etc) in in light of their internalised patriarchal structures.
My research into Yugoslav practices over the past decade has been filled with images of either predominantly male or entirely male collectives starting from the beginning of 20th century. Frequently, when I would point out this issue, the response from those I was interviewing would default to the response of ‘yes, I know, the art world was very sexist, it was a different time’.
The idea that female artists in collectives, groups, clusters of artists played secondary or supporting roles is deeply ingrained in how we think of collective practice throughout the 20th century. This is frequently articulated as an awareness of an accepted necessary evil of the heteronormative patriarchal the 20th century art canon, which is in need urgent revision. For example in Maria Lind’s text ‘Complications: On Collaboration, Agency and Contemporary Art’, she states ‘even the lone artist in their studio is dependent upon contributions from others. This is especially true for many male artists who have been able to rely on more or less invisible support from surrounding women’. Having stated this, she then moves on and does not address the questions of gender in relation to collectivity further in the text.
Recently, however, general interest in processes of collaboration and collective versus single authorship has begun to gain momentum. On the one hand we see numerous exhibition projects shedding light on the many overlooked female artists of modernism, which are finally showcasing the work which should have been seen a long time. An example is Barbican’s recent exhibition of Lee Krasner’s work, as well as the exhibition of Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde which looked into artist couples, also at the Barbican in 2018. But this is frequently centred on artworld’s hunger for more geniuses, even if these days they have to be female.
On the other hand, we have the enormous body of scholarly work on collective practice, participation etc (Claire Bishop, Sholette, Elen Maria de Walcher, Maria Lind) as well as various initiatives by feminist scholars interested in collective practice, for instance the Group Work Network which has been meeting in the UK for the past year or so, organised by colleagues from the Courtauld, Goldsmiths and Cambridge. But rarely are the two discourses in conversation with each other – one being centered on recovery of neglected artists, the other on collective practice. Little work has been done on those female protagonists who did not pursue singular authorship and develop their own practices but whose input into collective endevours remained written out of historical narratives. Artists uncomfortably often by default thought as ‘support workers’ who enabled collectives to thrive.
Equally, little scholarly work has focussed specifically on Yugoslav practices in the context of female creativity. While I fully acknowledge the excellent feminist work of Suzana Milevska, Jelena Petrovic on women’s authorship in interwar Yugoslavia as well as Red.mined collective, Ivana Bago, Antonia Majaca, Chiara Bonfiglioli on the conference Drug-ca Zena, Sanja Ivekovic’s work with Eelctra, etc as well as the work of the Centre for Women’s studies Zagreb,little attention has been paid specifically to the problem of the gender bias in collective practice in the region.
This led to a need to investigate collaboration to understand better not only implicit positions and relations in terms of how these groups are historicised but also to seek within the collectives a broader spectrum of voices, who were readily seen and accepted as providing support and being in the orbit of the collective but certainly not being the creative leads of the work.
This research has two parallel tracks: firstly it seeks to investigate how protagonists who took part in collectives articulate their own roles and agency. Secontly the study investigates the historiciseation of these collectives. This is how the project ‘Collective Actions, Contiued Omissions’ first started.
My main interest lies in three groups of artists around the same period of time, which are each constituted differently (if constituted at all). These are artists who worked together around Belgrade’s Student Cultural Centre from 1971 onwards (slide), artists associated with the Podroom - The Working Community of Artists (slide) project in Zagreb, Croatia between 19xx and 19 xx and the OHO Group (slide) which later became the Sempas Family.
I am interested in the diversity of ways in which these there constellations of artists together used different strategies of collectivity to challenging the imperative of audiences, public exhibitions, institutioalisation, the difference in their articulation of their group activities, but also the different ways the female protagonists engaged with the group - in each case being central but also marginal in a range of ways.
For the purpose of this text, I will focus on the group OHO through a textual analysis as well as interviews with protagonists involved in Yugoslav art scene for some years now. From a small sample of transcribed interviews so far, as well as other material the focus of this paper is on the different conceptions of what constitutes authorship versus what constitutes participation and the gendered nature of these ideas.
Formed in 1962 in Kranj, Yugoslavia. The group was dissolved in 1971, moving to the Slovenian village of Šempas to live communally under the name The Šempas Family.OHO was an artist collective which comprised core members Milenko Matanović, David Nez, Marko Pogačnik and Andraž Šalamun and a host of collaborators including Iztok Geister-Plamen, Marjan Ciglič, Tomaž Šalamun, Matjaž Hanšek, Naško Križnar, Vojin Kovač-Chubby, Aleš Kermavner, Franci Zagoričnik, Marika Pogačnik, Zvona Ciglič, Nuša and Srečo Dragan. They predominantly worked in Kranj, Slovenia, as well as in Ljubljana between 1962 and 1971, and their activities ranged from literature and visual poetry to film, happenings, land art and conceptual performances.Their early work incorporates elements of Arte Povera, land art, happenings and different body art practices. While working together, the members of the collective realised that they were interested in exploring spirituality and incorporating it into their art practice. They became interested in ritual as a medium; this made it possible to transcend the boundaries of the everyday world and to establish a deeper connection with nature. Sudden international popularity and exhibition invitations led the group to abandon working within the art system, and instead they founded a commune in the village of Šempas, in the Vipava Valley, Slovenia, in order to be closer to nature and to work as a group in harmony with the environment and the cosmos.
‘Everyone’s mother’ - The Adoption of Familial Structures
In discussions with protagonists of the group and other cultural workers from the region (here I draw on other interviews, not just OHO) the first observation is the linguistic discomfort (show slides of different terms used) that emerges in the interviews. In discussing the roles of female protagonists in the group with those who have written about them as well as the protagonists themselves it quickly became apparent that there is an instant shared understanding of the gender difference in collective practice but that the language around it has not been fully articulated in order for the interviewees to speak about this topic comfortably.
Terms like lateral women, backing singers, the soul of the collective, everyone’s mother point to the implied affective labour and the imposed nurturing roles in which the women become care takers and surrogate mothers by default. We are reminded of Lucy Lippard’s observation made in 1971, in which she states that ‘It is far easier to be successful as a woman critic, curator or historian than as a woman artist, since these are secondary, or housekeeping activities, considered far more natural for women than the primary activity of making art’ (quoted in Bryan-Wilson 2011: 164).
The nurturing role was foregrounded in the first interview I held in 2014, with David Nez, a founding member of the OHO group, in which I asked him about the issue of authorship versus participation.
‘That’s a really good question. I don’t know - we just never really had any women. They always played more of a supportive role. Maybe that was just the 60s…[…] It wasn’t until feminism that women started coming out and having a voice. I mean, you could say that we were the continuity of the same old patriarchal…[…]
But it is a good question, I think it was just the fact that the 60s had not yet seen women’s liberation, it wasn’t till later than that really came along. We never even thought about that. there were not really any women that were involved in the avant garde as far as I know.
I had a girlfriend and she was always kind of jealous of OHO but she was never a part of the inner circle. We just had a strong bond between us, the four or five of us. Marika was always…the soul in a sense, she’d invite everyone for dinner, she was like everbody’s mother, she was like my mother, like my surrogate mother, you know?
LD: yes, nurturing, supportive and kind?’2
The relegation of women’s roles to that of carers and the transposition of familial roles onto the collective is also articulated in the way founding member Marko Pogacnik explains (in an interview last year) of how the collective functioned in the early days. He invokes private and public spheres through a spatial analogy:
‘That is Yin and Yang, something is towards the internal life of a group, not just the wives and friends but others that were part of this circle, that was facing internally. And facing outwardly were men. Internally women had the main role, facing outwards were the men. And there is some sense in that, in the end.’ 3
He goes on to state that later this changed and in their later works they searched for an equilibrium, as part of their quest for the unity of art and life. Pogacnik spoke about the works made as part of the Sempas Family in which the women and children were involved.
‘That changed, later we were not happy with that, that was one of the reasons why we formed a commune, where that shared moment was at the centre, […] we then moved onto works where women and children took part too. For example, the mobiles made of wool and wood, clay and steel, and drawings, Sempas family that we drew. That was life / work in the fields and in the workshops with clay and wool...we tried to find an ideal way to achieve an equilibrium.’ 4 (show image as example)
Pogacnik’s quest for an equlibrium and his interrogation of gender roles is especially pertinent in in the context of the work he was making at the time. I am particularly interested in his series of comics which I have written about elsewhere as what I perceive to be the first work in the country to directly address gender. Whilst I am not focussing on individual works in this text, these works entitled Tinza and Juno are particularly relevant to this context.
Show Tinza images;
In 1969 the Slovenian journal Problemi, a periodical for psychoanalytic theory and philosophy based in Ljubljana, and home to some of the most radical and dissenting voices in Yugoslavia at the time, published a series of artworks in the form of comic strips which dealt with sexual difference through exposing sexism in daily life. Pogačnik was at at the time one of the editors of Problemi and an active force in turning the magazine into what he perceived to be 'the most free and critically engaged journal of that time'.
The comic strips by Pogačnik published in Problemi entitled Juno and Tinza (both female names) and they are amongst many comic strips that Pogačnik produced and published during 1968 and 1969 in a number of magazines. These two works stand as clearest examples of his engagement with the problematic of gender in Yugoslavia.
Marko Pogačnik's comic strips Juno and Tinza were unusual interventions for Yugoslavia at the time two reasons. Firstly, the fact that they were authored by a male artist who found it necessary to articulate sexism and point to the double standards of Yugoslav society via this particular lens, is unique for this period in the country. Secondly, the comic strips stand out because of their feminist tone, in an environment which had no experience of feminism as a social movement at that point (feminism was seen as a 'Western ideology' and deemed unnecessary in Yugoslavia), lacking methods and ways of thinking necessary for a systematic analysis of the complex constructions of patriarchy.
Pogačnik's explicit tackling of sexual difference reads as proto-feminist in a counter-cultural artistic milieu which, although progressive, was not at the time yet actively engaging with the discrepancies between the publicly propagated socialist gender egalitarianism and the realities of patriarchal traditions of the private sphere. Or to paraphrase curator Bojana Pejić in her research for the Gender Check exhibition, who observed that for art historians, in state socialism the concern with femininity or masculinity was not yet a possibility (or not was not allowed, to which she adds a question mark), thus making it impossible to 'unmask the patriarchal matrix on which representations of femininity or masculinity relied’.
In my interview with Pogacnik back in 2014 he spoke of these works his attempt to address the hypocrisy of patriarchy:
‘The society of the 60-is on both sides of the Iron curtain pretended always to hold to the highest moral standards but in effect this was just an illusion. With different comics I tryed to portray this false morality and even show its awkward nature. Specially I was interested in the twisted role of women who seemingly were proclaimed as free human beings but in effect they were and are to certain degree even nowadays an object in the hands of the masculine ruling calss,’
‘So there is a clear social/moral message to the perverted human way of dealing with the feminine principle.’5
The works and Pogacnik’s articulation of these works clearly show an attempt to grapple with the issue of gender, that is but it is also evident that the language and the means to do so effectively are lacking.
Authorship versus Participation – Concept versus Delivery
What transpires in the work of OHO is a broad spectrum of undertstandings of what constitutes authorship versus what constitutes participation in group activities. The defining traits of authorship in OHO center on the overarching concept, while the execution and realisation are seen to be in the realm of participation. An example of these hierarchies can be seen in the titles of the work ‘White People’ (show slide), 1969/1970 in which the author of the work is Nasko Kriznar, with a host of collaborators working on the script, while the other participants are listed as ‘bodies’.
To return to the interview with David Nez in 2014, following his initial comments about Marika Pogacnik as a surrogate mother he goes on to say:
DN: yes, but she wasn’t really an artist.
LD: She didn’t think of herself in that way?
DN: yes, but she was very talented in terms of craft and sewing and all that and collaborated a lot with Marko. And she has, since then, assumed very much the role of a collaborator.
The presence yet simultaneous invisibility (remember the Nez quote starting with ‘we never had any women in OHO’) is evident for instance in the interview with Marko Pogacnik done by Beti Zerovc in Art Margins (show slide) in which Marika Pogacnik is clearly involved in the making of the work, as well as in decision making. Clearly the presence of Marika Pogacnik is prominent but what agency does she possess?
‘My wife Marika and I drew conceptual diagrams of all our projects so that we could make copies and distribute them.’6
‘When Walter de Maria came to Kranj to visit Marika and me, he tried to talk us into that, on the grounds that we could rank high, as it were, among conceptual groups internationally. In the end, though, we decided on a completely different step, based on our group spiritual schooling[…]7
At this point , I realise I have been speaking about the women of OHO and have so far only quoted the male protagonists. I should say a few words about the interview I conducted with Marko and Marika Pogacnik and the process involved.
Show slide of interview
In process of conducting the interview the dynamics of the different roles play out in Marika’s reluctance to be interviewed. The interview unfolded at their house in Sempas and within minutes marko takes the lead and answers question while I occasionally interject to direct questions at Marika. The interview started with them asking me several times whether Marika really needed to be there and it is clear that they would rather I spoke to Marko only. When I insist that marika stay, she does remain for the duration of the interview but it is Marko who mostly speaks.
She also frequently gets up to tend to the food that is being cooked Her tone is filled with humour. As a way of explaining her reluctance she says ‘I am a very bad speaker (conversationalist). I am a good worker but a bad speaker. So, it is all divided. Some of us work, some of us speak. (laughs).’ While marko adds ‘Without her, nothing would work’.
I am a very bad speaker (conversationalist). I am a good worker but a bad speaker. So, it is all divided. Some of us work, some of us speak. (laughs).’
What soon begins to emerge is that the locus of what I am trying to explore lies in the way members of the collective perceive authorship and participation. Despite OHOs deep commitment to the unity of art an life, I also sense deeply ingrained hierarchies between the way ideas are generated and their delivery and manufacturing. These often manifest as hierarchies between conceptual approach and the production of the work.
Marko Pogacnik: ‘And authorship did not exist, really authorship did not exist. This work was collective. The only authorship were my concepts, I thought it was important that what we were doing would have a concept and to express that, for it to be conceptually clear, to be presented.’
I will close with some ideas for how perhaps we may go about tackling the project of historicizing collectivity from a feminist perspective. I want to highlight to Griselda Pollock’s question ‘What kind of art history does history allow us to write?’8
Whilst my research into collective practice and insistence on ‘unpicking’ the workings of these groups, here OHO in particular may seem an imposed feminist revision upon a set of fluid, ever-changing and elusive artists’ activities under deliberately ‘slippery’ umbrellas of collectivity, the importance of doing this work lies in the in the insistence that the nuances and complexities of collectivity should not be simplified to make art history easy and palatable.
Apart from my research interest in the careers of female cultural workers, I think a broader significance lies in proactively doing feminist work to counter the complex and powerful forces in which shape hegemonic narratives over time through work of academics, curators but also the market (and we all know how female artist fare in the market).
For instance, we have publications such as coming out frequently (show slide of the Denegri book), written by one of the region’s most prominent and brilliant art historians, full of valuable information but which effectively presents a 100% male art history of art in the region (go through the contents pages). This is quite extraordinary and although it is an extreme example, it is still telling that such books do find a platform.
The fundamental discrepancies between the very ethos of group practice, especially the impulse to blur art and life, in a system in which life heavily relies on embedded structures of the patriarchal social order, based on outdated binaries of male and female, private and public, those who generate ideas and those who support the realisation, and often engage in the production of those ideas. If these embedded binaries are not challenged within collective practice itself, which by and large they were not, the collective cannot challenge the very structure it aims to resist in the first place because it has internalised its logic.
On the other hand, the historicization and institutionalisation of collective practice will continue to seek to identify key authors, to commodify and simplify, with lesser palatable narratives remaining unspeakable or difficult to incorporate.
So in closing I return to Williams’s call for us to to attend not only to the manifest ideas and activities, [in this case of artists’ groups] but also to the positions and ideas which are implicit or even taken for granted – in this case the work of untangling the problematic issue of art and life becoming one, when life is deeply embedded in masculinist, heteronormative patriarchal system.
1 Williams, Raymond, Culture and Materialism, Verso 1980, ‘The Bloomsbury Fraction’, page 356
2 An Interview with David Nez, July 2014, Porec, Croatia
3 An interview with Marko and Marika Pogacnik, Sempas, Slovenia, August 2019
5Marko Pogacnik, email interview, 14 January 2014.
6The OHO Files: Interview with Marko Pogačnik BY BETI ŽEROVC (LJUBLJANA) · PUBLISHED 07/27/2013, Artmargins Online
7The OHO Files: Interview with Marko PogačnikBY BETI ŽEROVC (LJUBLJANA) · PUBLISHED 07/27/2013, Artmargins Online
8 Griselda Pollock, ‘The Victorian Book I Never Wrote, or Why I Never Became a Specialist on British Art’12 February 2020, Paul Mellon Centre