University of Disaster began for us with an invitation from artist Radenko Milak and cultural producer Christoffer Yggdre, who since several years were engaged in an intellectual collaboration on catastrophic aesthetics in art, and now wanted to establish a tentacular platform for exploring the aesthetic and philosophical possibilities in catastrophe. Milak had been appointed to represent Bosnia and Herzegovina at Venice. We were in turn invited to work with him, Christopher Yggdre and the commissioner Museum of Modern Art Republica Srpska in developing the project and create the multipolar, transnational platform University of Disaster.
We were immediately struck by the trans-institutional character of the project. This was a collaboration between the nation Bosnia and Herzegovina, the public museum Museum of Contemporary Art of Republic of Srpska, artist Radenko Milak based in Banja Luka and Christopher Yggdre in Paris, Hans-Ulrich Obrist who is director of Serpentine Gallery in London, and us, who share the experience of leading Paletten Art Journal in Sweden.
We wanted to develop an exhibition form capable of absorbing and dealing with this project’s specific material and historical conditions in all their complexity.
It became crucial for us to understand the possibilities of this project as a way of organically building a platform together with its different participants, including the artists and Paletten Art Journal, which could develop itself over time and space to include many different actors. We didn’t want to simply invite artists to present their work at a national pavilion, but also expand the notion of what a national pavilion in Venice is and what it could be, as well as how each new rendition of this exhibition could be renegotiated in relation to new contexts. We had for some time discussed art’s autonomy in our age of catastrophe within the framework of Paletten. Yet what would it mean having an exhibition with these specific conditions as the starting point for a mutual thinking on how to move ahead, rather than as an illustration of fabricated ideas?
The contemporary political, geological and financial crisis actualizes the catastrophic and gives it new dimensions. Catastrophe signifies possibly neither the end of a tragedy, nor the promise of a new world. The contemporary political, geological and financial crisis actualizes the catastrophic and gives it a new part to play. Catastrophe signifies possibly neither the end of a tragedy, nor the promise of a new world. Perhaps it is through the catastrophic state of uncertainty that we must learn to create meaning, through new collective organizations, even when making art.
What is crucial for us is attempting to create spaces for action within the catastrophes of our time, especially when the two dominant responses to catastrophe is either withdrawing into the kind of human subjectivity idealized by capitalist and colonial modernity, which today has given up any notion of solidarity, community or human survival on earth – or, conversely, a protectionist identitarian politics that in the worst cases manifests as nationalism and racism.
In his artistic practice Radenko Milak appeared, on the one hand, as a terrifically skilled watercolor painter and a creator of Aby Warburg-like montages, on the other as a collectivist with the courage to initiate the University of Disaster and invite us and others to a project that challenges traditional conceptions of a national pavilion in Venice.
Aside from his individual works, Milak collaborates with artist Roman Uranjek from IRWIN group and Neue Slovenische Kunst on a series of diptychs based on different historically significant dates and events. These include everything from the day Thomas Moore was born, to a brief moment of the crisis in the Weimar Republic, to the aftermath of the Gulf War, presented through Milak’s watercolors juxtaposed with collages by Urjanek. It was precisely the dialogical, confrontational and parallel nature of the diptychs that guided us in inviting the exhibition’s other artists.
We wanted to work with artists who have different relations to disaster and desire today, in terms of both their medium and presentational forms, as well as how they view their artistic practice. The purpose was to have different practices of art and audience coexist and confront each other in an experimental exhibition montage.
Artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen explores biopolitics after Foucault and patriarchal power exercised by the digital porn industry in a second sex war taking place here and now. In Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena’s art on war, which is equally a war on art’s desire to represent, we perceive both the power center of war and the psychological trauma it generates. In Geraldine Juarez and Joel Danielson’s collaborative project Storage, a fridge becomes an hourglass where the melting ice shortcuts the distance between the non-linear stories of media history and climate change, between humanity and the time after our finitude. In his psycho-geographic soundmap, sound artist Lamina Fofana explores spaces of empathy in the city of Venice, the possibilities of this world and what lies beyond, while artist and singer Nils Bech in his totemistic love performance in collaboration with Ida Ekblad’s sculptures, uses love and the uncanny fragility of human relations as the ultimate material, in order to find another way through our time’s emotional disasters.
University of Disaster begins with an exhibition at the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Venice, followed by a conference during the last week of the biennial after which it will travel in 2018 to Banja Luka, Gothenburg and on into the world.
Anna van der Vliet