The acrobatics of the position of enunciation: interference of the unauthorised in established processes of heritagization
The doctrine of critical heritage studies is based on the idea that cultural heritage does not exist in itself, but requires hegemonic, authorised dialogue. This “establishes and legitimises what heritage is, and determines who can speak on its behalf, about its nature and meaning” (Smith 2006: 29). Social processes of heritagization are not spontaneous. Consensus on a set of “inherited” goods is ensured by heritage institutions (e.g., the R.S. Ministry of Culture, museums, etc.) mandated by the politically organised community through specialised administrative measures (e.g., records in the various heritage registers). However, the ideology of the post-colonial world no longer fits such mandated heritage discourse, and museological academic literature has been calling for a descent into a participatory paradigm for decades (cf. Valič 2019). Even if the back-end processes of heritage-making still run smoothly, one can hardly come across a museum today that does not seek to share part of its mandate, at least at its position of enunciation, with different, hitherto unempowered communities. Many believe that the dismantling of authorised heritage discourse is taking place too slowly or in an inadequate manner, and in this paper, I will analyse my own experience of participating in the European TRACES project, which, instead of criticism, offered an alternative – a systematic and long-term collaboration between contemporary artists, heritage institutions and scholars.
Using the example of the Casting of Death exhibition (Match Gallery, 2017) within the framework of the previously mentioned three-year project, I will focus on the role of the artist in heritage discourse and on the production process itself. The exhibition is part of a broader research on the phenomenon of death masks in Slovenian public collections (these objects are characterised by their ambiguous status – differences in classification, problems of “originality”, authorship, provenance, etc.), and I will analyse it from the material and narrative point of view, as well as from the point of view of production relations. The most fundamental purpose of the autoethnographic approach is to become aware of one’s own biases (cf. Fikfak 2004). In my case, these are not related to any a priori advocacy of artists’ creativity (or taking “our” side), rather the opposite. These are rooted in personal attitudes, values, principles and interests, as shaped by thirty years of working in the non-government sector, and an orientation towards developing the field of contemporary art at the local level. The latter is characterised by a transition between positions of enunciation.
The TRACES project further complicated the usual acrobatics of positions of enunciation – it was based on “creative co-productions”, i.e., interdisciplinary research teams in which we artists collaborated with researchers and managers of (controversial) cultural heritage, and experimented with innovative research methods. In addition to manoeuvring between the usual positions of enunciation for artist, co-author, producer and administrator, member of an art and curatorial collective, friend, member of an international consortium and heritologist, it was also necessary to find one’s way within the interdisciplinary research-artistic-creative co-production.
Casting of Death at the Match Gallery
The Match Gallery is located opposite Ljubljana’s Križanke performing art space, next to the City Museum and Slovenia’s National and University Library (NUK). It is dedicated to contemporary art and Casting of Death was the last exhibition of the 2017 programme. From a dramaturgy perspective, it was divided into three distinct parts requiring different engagement from the visitor – in the initial part, discipline and attentive unpacking of data visualisations, in the second, empathy and emotional response, and in the third, the possibility of participation. Three aspects of the phenomenon of death masks as cultural heritage were presented – collection, casting and resuscitation.
The first exhibition space was dedicated to our research work and presented interim results for data collection of objects in Slovenian public collections. The visualisations showed data on death masks according to three criteria – the occupation of the persons depicted, the year of their death and the number of casts per deceased person. Wall-based disclaimers informed visitors that the exhibition was part of a larger European project. The current practice of making death masks was presented in another room using a reconstruction of the studio of Viktor Gojkovič, a sculptor from Ptuj, and a recording of his account of both the technical and human aspects of working with corpses. In the third room, the theme described the resuscitation of human beings. The phenomenon under study was linked to the centuries-old pop culture phenomenon of the alleged death mask of an anonymous suicide in Paris (The Unknown Woman of the Seine), which was used as a model for “Annie”, a manikin even used by the Slovenian Red Cross to teach methods of resuscitation in the event of cardiac arrest. The mask was included in the exhibition because it was part of the estate of the architect Jože Plečnik. This three-part narrative structure – collecting, casting, resuscitating – was explicitly described by didactic graphics and wall-based text (see the exhibition catalogue).
None of the exhibited objects were considered as works of art: “We avoided presenting a clear-cut taxonomy of art- or heritage-making. Instead, we opted to manipulate such taxonomies.” (Pirman 2021: 337). The exhibited masks were exclusively on loan from various private collections, while those from public collections were discussed only through digitised visuals. Equipment for practicing basic resuscitation procedures was also loaned, and the CPR demonstrations themselves were facilitated by an external provider (the Slovenian Red Cross, Ljubljana regional unit). The discursive equipment of the exhibition was carried out using customary museum methods, ranging from didactic to art-historical style, and was consistently supported by legal disclaimers and warnings as indispensable components of museum communication. Adherence to the conventions of the exhibition format “enabled visitors to easily orientate themselves in a familiar setting”, while the unspecific status of the exhibited material opened up possibilities for critique or further appropriation beyond aesthetic appreciation (Pirman 2021: 338).
The collective author of the exhibition was the Domestic Research Society, which also announced its collaboration with sculptor Viktor Gojkovič. Attentive visitors could also find the Institute of Contemporary History (collection and preservation of data) among the collaborators, while the disclaimers also acknowledged cooperation with over thirty Slovenian public institutions (museums, archives, institutes, etc.). Together with the highlighted context of the European project, as the exhibition’s designers, we wanted to give visitors an impression of validity and credibility.
I note two challenges in the response to the exhibition: the first was raised by visitors to the exhibition and relates to the ethical question of exploiting the dead (Pirman 2021: 340-341).
Visitor: What about some anecdotes, some juicy details? I remember my mother – she worked in the hospital in the prosection room for years and she was full of such stories.
Artists (Pirman): Yes, we encountered them, too. In fact, we gave it a lot of thought – are we going to tell them to you at such occasions or not…
Visitor: …so you opted not to tell !?
Artists (Kracina): Yes. We left it to Viktor Gojkovič, the sculptor who actually deals with bodies when casting the death masks. We filmed him and you are invited to watch the interview. He speaks beautifully about this.
(Personal notes; cf. Pirman 2021: 340).
The second challenge is more meaningful for my reflection on the acrobatics of the positions of enunciation: our closest collaborators, as well as art critics, wondered what was “artistic” in this exhibition (Pirman 2021: 331-333). Even in our first joint project in 2004, members of the DDR realised that we should not bother with making artworks. Of course, we have to create a bridge between research and the dissemination of its “findings” to a wider audience, but the goal is not a work of art, but an open format of public presentation that has to be reinvented again and again for each occasion. Perhaps this is why it was much easier for us to enter into a creative co-production, because we are not pursuing “artistry”. But that doesn’t mean that we are not expected to do so.
The production and institutional framework of the exhibition
For the case of Casting of Death, and as a member of the DDR, I was involved in complex institutional relations on three levels. The first level relates to the DDR’s position as a legal entity and cultural producer within the international partner consortium of a three-year European project. The second concerns the role of the DDR as an art and curatorial collective and as the responsible producer within the workings of the creative co-production (i.e. the interdisciplinary research group), and the third level relates to the actual co-production relationship with the host institution, the Museum and Galleries of the City of Ljubljana (MGML), which manages the Match Gallery as the chosen exhibition space.
Within the exhibition, the European Commission was reduced to an iconic brand that legitimised the narrative, even though it not only provided funding, but also defined the discursive framework. The underlying premise of the TRACES project was the belief that art can contribute to the interpretation of contested cultural heritage and thus to processes of “Europeanisation”, and that established project-based modes of collaboration such as artistic intervention are no longer sufficient. Creative co-production as a new model of collaboration is expected to help achieve “significant and sustainable change in heritage institutions and beyond” (Adler 2021: 287). In this model, artists, scholars and heritage managers should work together on an equal footing from the outset. The model assumes the establishment of “equal relations by sharing resources, budget ownership, self-reflection and external observation” (Adler 2021: 295-297).
Among the eleven partners in the consortium, DDR was in a unique position, being the only art and curatorial collective and cultural producer with direct access to funding (Domestic Research Society 2020: 122). This had a significant impact on the way we worked, as DDR members had control at the local level or had a significant influence on the whole process of the research, from the formation of the creative co-production itself, through the development of collaborative and research methods and the conception of events, to the interpretation of the work undertaken and findings, and the production of the final report. Control of funding (and thus the guaranteed payment to the artists) allowed for two things – direct interest-based networking with individual experts in heritage institutions, who regulated their formal status within the project depending on their specific situation in employing institutions (NUK, MGML, Moderna galerija), and immediate in-depth substantive collaboration without administrative ballast and annoying negotiations around the project’s production conditions and artists fees.
In the following passages, I highlight the role of the exhibition in the research process. The members of the art and curatorial collective did not conceive of the exhibition as a final, representative format for displaying the research results or artworks, but as an open platform part way through the project being a constituent part of the research in terms of its interaction with the public. The combined use of both art and museum conventional taxonomies established a vague genre open to critique or negotiation beyond aesthetic or scientific criteria (Pirman 2021: 338). This approach was (deliberately) unpretentious.
How can one strip an exhibition of its spectacularism and instead deploy it as an open platform where you could simply convey: Look, this is an interesting phenomenon. We are part way through researching it and here are some teasers to make you think about it, too. What else is there that we might have overlooked?(Pirman 2021: 337)
One criticism of the media was that the lack of any definition for an intermediate space between science and art may have given visitors the impression of inconsistencies of thought: “… the DDR are not scientists, they are interdisciplinarians, their modus operandi is supposed to be artistic. But what does this actually mean? What is artistic about this project? What is there that science cannot do or could do worse?” (Brglez 2018).
The exhibition format played an important role as a methodological tool for developing the internal dynamics of group work. As members of an art and curatorial team, which also acted as producer of one of the five research segments within the European project, we introduced into the work a scepticism towards any preconceived positive treatment of the artist’s contribution to the interpretation of contentious cultural heritage, which at its core preserves the traditional division of labour. Rejection of essentialist notions of the artist’s creativity – an assumed moral and ethical compass combined with a set of effective, transformative artistic practices and technologies (cf. the call for proposals) – was practised both in relation to the consortium and within our own creative co-production, thus opening up the possibility for a different division of labour, i.e. a departure from the expected roles of production and expertise. In this way, the self-evident positions of enunciation for all members of the working group were loosened (Pirman 2021: 342).
The true value of the creative co-production model is that it allows the team members to (re)negotiate their positions and to overcome an initially defensive attitude. Such a collaborative approach is only suitable for those who can temporarily disregard their ascribed skills and doxas.(Pirman 2021: 335-336)
The collaborative process was not particularly highlighted at the Match gallery exhibition, nor were the individual contributions of the individual members of the creative co-production, which were expressed mainly in the accompanying discursive programme, while authorship of the exhibition as a whole was attributed to the DDR.
The design of the exhibition as an experimental, open platform was also possible due to the specifics of the Horizon 2020 financial mechanism – here, the administrative requirements are tailored towards greater definitions of standardised scientific production, while artistic formats could escape standardisation. This looser approach, less committed to the final results, was also a fallback position. The DDR members were not as free-handed as it may seem, as the consortium partnership and management of the obtained funds also brought additional work, which often outweighed the substantive, research and authorial work in terms of their scope and time-consuming nature. In this collaborative model, DDR as an art and curatorial collective was subordinated to DDR as a producer. Casting of Death was co-produced with MGML, which caused particular ethical and production quandaries. One of the members of DDR was simultaneously employed by this public institution as a curator and head of the programme at the gallery where we exhibited. He therefore represented two organisations at the same time and occupied several usually incompatible positions of enunciation.
At this point, I must add a fourth level to the three levels of institutional relations, which on the micro-level produced daily challenges, glitches, and even anecdotal self-reflection situations. This level stems from the specificity of DDR as being typically representative of the so-called independent cultural production in Slovenia, as it is a private non-governmental organisation with no employees, which, if its three co-founders so decide, can also act as a collective author. The above-mentioned co-production circumstance produced a loss of the independence that DDR members were accustomed to, and diplomacy had to be introduced into the relations between DDR and MGML because of potential conflicts of interest. As a result, we lost the clarity of our position of enunciation, but outwardly we nevertheless maintained the preferred and typical stance of agents provocateurs. The project production relations established by the DDR in the context of TRACES, both within the creative and institutional co-production, have not been preserved, nor have they produced lasting traces, and the treatment of the exhibition has primarily crossed over into academic discourse, while summarising the findings of the TRACES project (Schneider 2020).
Having already agreed to the political agenda of the European project by participating in the Horizon 2020 Call for Proposals, this was an exemplary articulation of a standardised postcolonial discourse, which also encompassed post-socialist and post-conflict political contexts through five creative co-productions across Europe. The key was the production’s repositioning from the field of culture to the field of science. Not so much because Casting of Death would have occupied a less important position, but because the consortium was dominated by universities with different priorities. While managing the project they aimed to deliver what was promised, yet having to stick to what was meaningful for their own research work and ratings in the field of academic scientific production. Positive discrimination of artists and the belief in their transformative potential and social responsibility was embedded in the very conception of the TRACES project. Here again, artists and our contribution were treated affirmatively (cf. Macdonald 2021), with the model of creative co-production in the position of being able to promote “participatory art as a critique of institutional structures” (Milevska 2021: 386).
The members of the international consortium have continuously pointed out that a three-year period is too short for such an ambitious project to actually show its benefits, such as a more lasting impact of creative co-productions and their influence on real change in the attitudes of museum professionals towards contentious cultural heritage. The internal dynamics and hierarchy within the consortium, expressed both in terms of finance and control over the production of the final products (conferences, proceedings, a synthetic international exhibition), mirrored the hegemonic, standardised discourse of Western academia. In the case of research on death masks in Slovenian public collections, the latter was reflected, for example, in the insistence of the international ethics committee that we should also address (and exhibit) the casting of masks for racist motives, even though we were able to claim – on the basis of an examination of the history of anthropology in Slovenia – that we had not encountered any in the course of our research in Slovenia (Bajič 2020: 111). This well-intentioned recommendation was explained by a local ethnologist with a pinch of irony: “Europe ‘has’ colonialism, but Slovenians are a people without a history, so if they want to be Europeans, they have to accept colonialism” (Bajič 2018).
Despite my scepticism towards the default positive treatment of the role of the artist and the belief in the transformative potential of his/her creativity, I find that the model of creative co-production represents a possibility to move away from this role and to participate constructively in an interdisciplinary working group. By looking into the acrobatics of the positions of enunciation, I have shown the dependent nature of positions of power, which must be re-established each time and be contingent on the production conditions, the situation, the hierarchical relations between the participating institutions and the career situations of the collaborators involved. The model presupposes their equality, which in this case must be understood at a symbolic level since the TRACES project only wanted to introduce artists fully into the “club of the empowered”. I have set out to analyse a case of the interference of the unauthorised (i.e., artists) in the established processes of heritage. I can conclude that in the case of creative co-productions, it is an academic model that keeps the relations within the social processes of heritagisation unchanged.
- Adler, T. (2021). The Creative Co-production: An Experimental Model for Artistic Engagements with Contentious Cultural Heritage. V M. Hamm, K. Schönberger (ur.). Contentious Cultural Heritages and Arts: A Critical Companion (str. 287-308). Wieser Verlag / Založba Wieser.
- Bajič, B. (2018). Fenomenologija kosti. Blog Društva za domače raziskave.
- Bajič, B. (2020). From Something to Nothing: A Peculiar Ethnography of a Peculiar Art Project. V A. Schneider (ur). Art, Anthropology, and Contested Heritage: Ethnographies of TRACES (str. 103–119). Bloomsbury.
- Brglez, Ž. (2018). Ovekovečenje posameznosti. Radio Študent, 3. 1. 2018.
- Društvo za domače raziskave (2018). Casting of Death. Exhibition Catalogue. Društvo za domače raziskave.
- Društvo za domače raziskave (2019). Challenging the Artist’s Role as a Producer and Facilitator in Heritage-making. V S. Milevska (ur). Contentious Objects / Ashamed Subjects: TRACES Exhibition Catalogue (str. 34–39). Politecnico di Milano.
- Društvo za domače raziskave (2020). Casting of Death. V A. Schneider (ur). Art, Anthropology, and Contested Heritage: Ethnographies of TRACES (str. 121–124). Bloomsbury.
- Društvo za domače raziskave (2021). Creative Co-production: A Reflexive Glossary. V M. Hamm, K. Schönberger (ur.). Contentious Cultural Heritages and Arts: A Critical Companion (str. 377–379). Wieser Verlag / Založba Wieser.
- Fikfak, J. (2004). From Ethnography to Autoethnography. V J. Fikfak (ur.). Qualitative Research: Different Perspectives – Emerging Trends (str. 75–90). Inštitut za slovensko narodopisje ZRC SAZU
- Hall, S. (1990). Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In Rutherford J. (ed.). Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (p. 222–237). Lawrence & Wishart.
- Hamm, M., Schönberger, K. (ur.) (2021). Contentious Cultural Heritages and Arts: A Critical Companion. Wieser Verlag / Založba Wieser.
- Macdonald, S. (2021). Contentious Collections, Contentious Heritage: Risks and Potentials of Opening Europe’s Memory Bank. V Hamm, M., Schönberger, K. (ur.). Contentious Cultural Heritages and Arts: A Critical Companion (str. 95-127). Wieser Verlag / Založba Wieser.
- Milevska, S. (2019). Contentious Objects / Ashamed Subjects: TRACES Exhibition Catalogue. Politecnico di Milano.
- Milevska, S. (2021). Becoming Contentious: Participatory Art and Artistic Research as a Challenge to Difficult Cultural Heritages. V Hamm, M., Schönberger, K. (ur.). Contentious Cultural Heritages and Arts: A Critical Companion (str. 381–399). Wieser Verlag / Založba Wieser.
- Pančur, A., Pirman, A., Kocjančič, M. (2018). Spregledana kulturna dediščina in uporaba digitalne raziskovalne infrastrukture za humanistiko v raziskavi Odlivanje smrti. V D. Fišer, A. Pančur (ur.). Zbornik konference Jezikovne tehnologije in digitalna humanistika (str. 203–210). Univerza v Ljubljani.
- Pirman, A. (2021). Artistic Upgrade: Impossible Attempt to Harness the Spectacle. V Hamm, M., Schönberger, K. (ur.). Contentious Cultural Heritages and Arts: A Critical Companion (str. 331–343). Wieser Verlag / Založba Wieser.
- Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. Routledge.
- Schneider, A. (ur.) (2020). Art, Anthropology, and Contested Heritage: Ethnographies of TRACES. Bloomsbury.
- Valič, U. (2019). Etnologija in kulturna antropologija v muzeju sodobne umetnosti: O na videz neuporabnih in nekonvencionalnih muzejskih praksah. Etnolog, 29, 113–132.
- I use the term ‘position of enunciation’ to emphasise the processes of transforming and establishing (self-)representation and agency. According to Stuart Hall, identity (e. g. artist, curator, cultural producer) is a work in progress and “is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (Hall 1990: 222).
- The programme was quite extensive: over 30 different exhibition tours and interviews, six cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) demonstrations, and two educational workshops with focus groups (Domestic Research Society 2018: 17).
- This coincidence was fortuitous, as the DDR member started his employment on the same day as the start of the three-year European TRACES project (1 March 2016), for which DDR had submitted an application one year earlier. In order to allow him to work on the project in the first place and not to jeopardise its implementation due to a conflict of interest, the staff member and the management of MGML concluded an agreement in advance on the co-production of the exhibition.
- The project coincided with my PhD studies in Heritology at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana.
- Members of the creative co-production Casting of Death: Sculptor and educator Damijan Kracina, artist and publicist Alenka Pirman, art historian and curator Jani Pirnat (members of DDR, the latter concurrently head of the Match Gallery, MGML), art historian and curator Marko Jenko (Modern Art Gallery), art historian and curator Janez Polajnar (City Museum, MGML), comparativist and curator of the Manuscript Collection (NUK) Marijan Rupert, anthropologist Blaž Bajič (University of Oslo), art historian Maruša Kocjančič (documenter), and restorer and painter Katarina Toman Kracina (MGML). In the course of the research, the historian Andrej Pančur (Institute of Contemporary History) joined in, securing a place for the database of death masks in Slovenian public collections on the Sistory.si portal and permanent storage within the Research Infrastructure of Slovenian Historiography (Pančur, Pirman, Kocjančič 2018).
- For example, a deliberately highlighted mandatory disclaimer that producers of co-funded projects are required to publicly state, usually relegated to the fine print: “The TRACES project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (under contract no. 693857). The exhibition reflects the personal views of the authors, which do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission” (see also the exhibition catalogue).
- The TRACES project involved five different creative co-productions across Europe. In the other four cases, universities or an intermediary NGO received money for their operation (cf. Milevska 2019: 93-94).
- In the pre-production phase of an institution’s collaboration with any artist, contractual relations are usually established, and in these negotiations the artist usually acts as the weaker party, so the relationship between the future content collaborators is often antagonistic. This phase is absent in the current situation.
- The complexity of collaboration in a research group – creative co-production – is discussed in more detail in a paper by ethnologist and cultural anthropologist Blaž Bajič, who, under the supervision of Arnd Schneider at the University of Oslo, used participant observation to study the work of a Slovenian creative co-production (Bajič 2020).