The Blind Leading the Blind

Our present day has a desire for images so fierce that it threatens to destroy us, according to Irena Haiduk, whose exhibition at Kunsthal Charlottenborg is shrouded in total darkness.

Irena Haiduk, Seductive Exacting Realism Waiting Room, Neue Neue Galerie, Kassel, Documenta 14, 2017. Shoes by Yugoexport. Photo: Anna Shteynshleyger.

If you look up Irena Haiduk in the catalogue accompanying Documenta 14, you will find no information about her age or where she lives. Her entry simply says, “Irena Haiduk is against biography.” If you visit the website of her company Yugoexport, it seems to offer the opportunity to buy a variety of clothing – dresses, shoes, and so on – from a web shop that does not feature a single image of the products.

This secretive strategy is underpinned by a belief that our current culture, based on images and the faculty of sight, nurtures a desire that has brought the world to the brink of destruction. To restore balance, Haiduk works in the dark, employing oral storytelling and deliberately eschewing photographic representation.

Haiduk’s ongoing project SER – Seductive Exacting Realism was first launched in 2015. Today, it opens in the cinema at Charlottenborg. Plunged into full darkness, visitors can experience a sound installation based on Haiduk’s interview with Serbian revolutionary activist Srđja Popović. The interview reveals a number of similarities between their strategies, as well as their shared complicity in the financial interests that fund non-violent warfare and large parts of the art world alike.

The presentation of SER marks the start of a two-year collaboration between the artist and the Charlottenborg venue, due to culminate in a major exhibition in 2021. As part of the project, Yugoexport will open a branch in the Charlottenborg bookstore, the proceeds from which will fund the upcoming exhibition. Using Yugoexport as a model, Haiduk presents a strategy for an alternative economy, one that does not leave a trail of blood in its wake. Through such efforts, we may begin to create a new aesthetic language that nourishes new types of desire.

But what does art based on such a new aesthetic language look like? And what is the connection between a Serbian activist and the funding of Irena Haiduk’s upcoming exhibition in Copenhagen? To find out, we need to go back to the Balkans of the late 1980s.

Who is Srđja Popović, and how does his story connect to the idea of the Yugoexport shop at Charlottenborg? 

Popović arrived in Belgrade at a time when students and workers came together to protest Milošević’s illegal re-election in 1988. He stepped in and started organising students with a project called Otpor!, which means “resistance.” Otpor! had substantial financial resources and created a humorous resistance campaign. At the time, I thought it was very much like ad campaigns by Benetton: effective and shocking. After the revolution in 2000, Popović started branding the idea of non-violent resistance and testing it in places he thought needed it.So, Popović is a sort of consultant and organiser of movements like these – the most notorious being the Arab Spring.

Otpor logo

In your interview with him, you find several parallels in your strategies and approaches to what you do. What are some of those?

Like me, Popović does not come from the Western tradition of making history, which is mostly image-based. But he knows how to use those conventions. So, we started discussing how, in our culture and through the Ottoman empire, history was made with oral technology, and loaded as songs. One of the most important things about this way of making history is that the images created by the mouth cannot be owned. When common history is preserved orally, it’s nobody’s and everybody’s story. 

I think that today we have created a world of our own desire. We have made history through images and desired things through images, and every single surface we’ve encountered is optical. We are basically big eyes, and all other senses are secondary. What we want, through the way we have been wanting – through images and the idea of possession – seems to be the destruction of the planet and ourselves. We need to look to places that don’t make history that way, and don’t desire that way. 

Another similarity in your work has to do with the funding of your projects, right?

Yes. In 2013, Wikileaks revealed the funding source of Otpor! It was traced back to this American intelligence think tank called Stratfor, through which all the major corporations in finance, oil, and food sectors were commissioning depositions or revolutions. One of the things that was leaked was a pitch Popović made about how to depose Hugo Chavez. Popović and his company were described by a Stratfor analyst as more effective than physical, violent wars. Popović comes in, and assesses which side of the rebellion or resistance movement should be backed, so the outcome is favourable to the people who want to expand their market into this part of the world. When I asked him about this, he refused to take responsibility for the negative consequences of his work, even though he would take credit for good outcomes. It’s a paradox – at the same time having and not having power.

I lived through the period where the Serbian dinar devalued by three million per cent. When you understand that money is just paper, and can’t buy you anything, it becomes a picture. Nothing else. You understand that this idea of property, and the financial market upholding property, does not work very well. Popović came from this experience. But even though we’ve lived similar lives and still have similar lifestyles – we both fly around the world for events, political activism, teaching – in the end, we stand for opposite things.

When Wikileaks happened, I realised that the same corporations that funded Popović also funded art – and the art institutions I was exhibiting in. There’s an equivalence between us, all the way to our funding. 

Today you’re funding your projects in a different way, through this company called Yugoexport. At Documenta in 2017, the designs produced and sold by Yugoexport in the exhibition were hidden in wrapping, and on your website there’s no imagery of the products. Why is that?

Jugoeksport was a corporation that existed in former Yugoslavia, but fell apart in the 90s. I followed Jugoeksport through its demise, and when it was completely dismantled in 2016, I applied to incorporate under the same name, phonetically rendered as Yugoexport. I put out a call to see if any of Jugoeksport’s former workers would be interested in working with me. For Documenta 14, we serialised some of the designs from Yugoexport and sold them in order to support our economy. 

After Documenta 14, we decided to use art institutions for what they are really good at, which is bringing audiences together and providing infrastructures for the work – but we want to control the work’s economy. All items produced by Yugoexport demonstrate its maxims. We sell things on a flexible pricing scale, which means we have a lower, middle, and upper-income price for every item. And Yugoexport is an oral corporation, so we don’t operate through images.

Irena Haiduk, Spinal Discipline: Julia Allnoch, Isabella Artadi, Annika Katja Boll, Beryl Chepkirui, Mona Eing, Ozgür Genc, Mila Gligorić, Josefine Mundri, Andara Shastika, Wenti Sheng and Alma Weber working, Kassel, Documenta 14, 2017. Photo: Anna Shteynshleyger.

When you browse through Instagram, the most photographed things are probably fashion items, so how does that strategy work? Doesn’t it just mean, that you’ll lose control of how the items are being presented?

We can’t prevent people from taking pictures, but we have to heal peoples’ need to do so. We hope people will experience the objects, firstly, as things that make contact with their body.

We position it as art because we want to make an art that is lived. We are not interested in making dead things. People like art to be dead; they like it to be polished, deodorised, archived, kept in storage, and accumulating value. But we believe in ingesting art, and you can’t ingest something sterilised.

I think we must forge an economy with an aesthetic side. Aesthetics cause a particular type of behaviour and a particular type of desire. We have to be careful about how we arrange our institutions and about what we show people. We have to figure out an aesthetic language that will create a different type of desire – one that doesn’t make us dispose of ourselves. 

What would an art like that look like?

I think the development in visual arts in the 1960s – where art could be anything – has helped. We usually look at the art economy like this: state or market philanthropists put money into the art world through funding. Then, art is produced and it becomes a derivative used for hedging or investment. It’s like a stock that raises in value whenever someone buys it. But art can also change the market. We need to become aware that it’s a two-way street. The ability of art to change shape and discipline means we have an opportunity to reach anything, to reach anywhere. I think art can do a lot, because what powers people, psychically and emotionally, is desire and Eros. 

In the title of this project, you define it as “realism.” How do you make a distinction between reality and realism in a project like this?

I’m always asked: “What is revolutionary art today?” I think they should ask Popović that question. He’s the person they really want! The Western art institution wants to make history, to have direct action in the world and to facilitate change. Most of these institutions are funded by the same forces that destroy the world. So, they provide band-aid solutions with minimal imagination and infrastructure, responding to a problem which is super complex. How can our institutions facilitate change if the economic ground on which they stand is not changed? So, if the art institution won’t do it, maybe it can host someone who will do it. What I really admire about Popović is that he believes what he does can have a demonstrative effect. I think that’s what many artists think too.

Do you perceive this project as a form of institutional critique?

No, because once you’ve exhibited in institutions like Documenta, you don’t have an ethical ground to stand on. Institutional critique is a kind of commissioned portrait of the forces composing this world. That means I know more about the Whitney board member’s resignation than I know about the exhibition at this year’s biennial. It’s like art has given up its space to these people, painted portraits of them, made it all about them.

We need to deal with the complexity of the world with as many minds in as many fields as possible. Art can be the branch which calls all of those together, because it can be any of those. We need to use what we have at our disposal, which is our infrastructure, and make something else out of it. For this, we need imagination and complex, systematic, communal, common thinking. 

This intelligence does not exist in criticism. Criticism may be a first step, and I’m sure it can keep us busy for a while, but that’s not what we need. We need to work together to develop a muscle that will allow us to think constructively about how we live together. We need to WANT to do that – and wanting is an aesthetic form.

Irena Haiduk, Siren Bay, Seducting Exacting Realism, 2015. The Renaissance Society at University of Chicago, 2015.