Art has long since, as specific domain of work, ceased to be the privilege of the elite, although, just like other specialised activities it was never a great subject of interest for a very large number of people. In a society in which there is great emphasis on functionality, its lack of utility constantly gets it called into question, in the domain of financing and in that of consumption. However, somewhere between real and concrete work, like, for example, banking and the civil service and the entertainment industry, which nobody calls into question, notwithstanding the fact that the concept of free time that entertainment fills up in today’s society for many people has become a merely theoretical postulate, art too has modestly dug into its niche, surviving much more in spite of the system than because of it or for it. We might even rather pretentiously claim that artistic and activist work are the only remaining domains of idealism, whether social or spiritual, or both.
Located on the very demarcation line of these two practices is participatory art, ideally borrowing the most noble from both of the worlds. But the history and direction of participatory practices show that they have also been known to go astray. For example, Clare Bishop thinks that the beginnings of participatory practices lie in the activities of the Italian Futurists, who with their specific strategies of going out onto the street, offending the public and continued provocations, as well as the use of mass media, planned in great detail, involved the masses in their activities, insisting on a break with tradition and the creation of a new society, often, alas contaminated with nationalist tendencies. The Russian Constructivists also subordinated their activity to the reprogramming of the newly created Bolshevik class, dealing with industrial design, propagating amateur dramatics, creating art for the purpose of the creation of a new society. Such initiatives came upon numerous problems, upon a marked decline in quality, bad organisation, conflict after conflict, and at the background of it all was the huge disproportion between the actual quality of life and that which they wanted, through the creative processes, to achieve. During the twentieth century there were other strategies of involvement, like the Situationist activities, the practices of GRAV, of Boal’s Forum Theatre and so on. In 1998 Nicolas Bourriaud wrote his Relational Aesthetics, defining it as an art that posited interaction and social context as its theoretical framework, as against the personal symbolism of the individual (Bourriaud 2002: 14). Engagement with social structures, roles and context employ various methods, but common to all works is the aspiration to restructure social relations.
And participatory practices presume a genuine identification of the problems of a community and the individuals within it, they require a specific sensibility, flexibility as well as a carefully devised methodology. Such processes in their ideal form are durative and have to be accompanied with a suitable organisational infrastructure. Above all else, they require a step back from the person of the author, intelligent conduct of the process, and intelligent channelling, not control over the situation. From the artist it requires getting away from the ego, dedication to others’ and not one’s own process. Such work can be entertaining, and often is, but its transformative potential is not easy to grasp, since it requires a methodology that is at once precise and yet flexible, obtaining the trust of the community, paying heed to an interdisciplinary pondering of the given topic. But most important of all, it requires humanity, compassion and relinquishment of the covert prejudices that we all have inside us. In this sense the work of Sonja Vuk is one of the few that do not halt at experimentation, sometimes the exploitation of the situation, but probes deep into the tissue of the problem with which it deals, with the sincere objective of transformation via creativity and belief in the potential of the individual.
The exhibition To Go Towards the Self by the artist Sonja Vuk contains documentation concerning six participatory works that appeared in the 2006 to 2017 period.
These meticulously worked out and deeply pondered projects are characterised by an interdisciplinary approach, by collaboration with experts from various areas (sociologists, for example, psychologists, educators), linking various institutions (CES – the Croatian Employment Service, schools, museums, libraries, psychiatric hospitals) and above all else the emphasis on creativity as a means of transformation. Taking up precisely detected social problems (unemployment, peer bullying, elder care, to mention just a few) and the location of a possible solution for them, the artist approaches this work from the position of mediator, setting the parameters, engaging the experts and giving the participants in the process sufficient room for them, within the given situation, to find space and solutions for themselves. Employing diverse methods, depending on the situation, objective and need, Sonja Vuk functions as an artist whose work is primarily for the community and not with it. Absenting herself from her work in this way, at the same time completing every task with dedication and devotion, from research, workshop management and administrative affairs, she wins the trust of those taking part.
In spite of the various methods, collaborative ventures and media that she uses, the point of departure for every one of Sonja’s projects is the same – creativity as the basis for personal transformation. Self-actualisation of the individual in this sense is the objective, while the process unfolds with the help of diverse artistic or creative process, from drawing to cooking. The process that has been worked out, in which various experts will take part or which the artist will lead herself, is aimed at the strengthening of communicative skills, achieving insight and transformation, devising life practices, often with clearly visible results.
For example, the six-day-long interdisciplinary Zorro Project produced in 2006 with seniors in the VN Gallery took as its subject a wide range of aspects of the life of this “sidelined but numerous group”, as the author says in her description of the project. While the project was on, numerous activities were organised, devised according to the needs of people in the third age, including medical check-ups, the organisation of social life, participation in the political life of the city of Zagreb. The project also took up the issue of the economic status of the community, which, as is known, is disgracefully low and degrading. Every day, reports were sent to thousand of emails belonging to the media, institutions and relevant individuals. Taking part in the project was the then president of the City Council Tatjana Holjevac, who as part of the project discussed individual problems of the participants, seeking solutions together with them. Bringing a whole series of activities to the gathering place of the community, the VN Reading Room, Sonja Vuk in a short time placed under the magnifying glass numerous problems including the underprivileged position of members of the older generation. With the appearance of the programme funds of the European Union, the problem of the older population, the organisation of their time and the particular care they need an attempt is being made systematically to bring improvements, in which numerous artistic organisations are taking part. But in 2006, this was not of particular interest to the public, which says plenty about the social awareness of the artist herself.
The projects What Game Are You Playing and Old for New were created in the same period, between 2008 and 2010. The themes of the projects were once again pressing social problems. What Game Are You Playing is a new-media, interdisciplinary work produced with secondary school children, and takes up the issue of the growing problem of peer-bullying. Combining knowledge from psychology, to be precise, applying the basic postulates of transaction analysis and artistic strategies, like the writing of scenarios, in which themes like peer bullying could be crystallised out, and those of violence in relationships and the exclusion of others, the project offers an alternative educational model that results in the establishment of an alternative, non-violent model of communication, founded on respect and tolerance. Those taking part in the workshop acted and recorded materials that were later used for the making of an interactive video installation (put on in the ŠKUC Gallery in Ljubljana).
Old for New was an interdisciplinary project produced with the CES and with the Museum of Contemporary Art, and concerned itself with unemployed young people and the employment of the creative process through a change in attitudes to life and taking the initiative, taking responsibility. The project included a workshop about communication skills that were run by a psychologist and a drama teacher, a movement and dance workshop, and sociological research; one outcome was a publication.
Ready, steady – here I am! (2012-2013) is an interdisciplinary project that was put on with patients of St Ivan’s, a psychiatric hospital in Zagreb. The three-month project was structured in three cycles. The first, with the use of colours and free associations, aimed to boost the optimism of the participants. A second cycle emphasised the space of communication, creating a symbolic and safe space, including an analysis of verbal and non-verbal communication. The third cycle was aimed at a positive vision of the future. After a long transformative process, the works of the participants were displayed in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, which must have made a contribution to increasing the self-confidence and creative potentials of the participants.
The All the Best project of 2016 is an interdisciplinary project taking up the subject of the reprogramming of life plans in line with contemporary educational guidelines. In association with a Gestalt psychologist, the participants identified various types of constraint and control, like the control of behaviour, of information, thinking, and emotional control that prevented them from developing their full potential and, using Gestalt methods, transformed them into more flexible and open patterns more suitable for their own desires and visions of life. All the Best, the very title of the project, came into being as a version of the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, referring to the need to be aware of imposed values and manners that often lead to profound dissatisfactions and frustrations, as well as taking the responsibility for one’s own choices and psychological mechanisms.
All Together [sic] of 2017 is an interdisciplinary project mounted with the long-term unemployed clients of the Red Cross in Vigo in Spain, within the context of the EU PAIC project. Seeking a common method of communication and taking into consideration the linguistic and cultural constraints, Sonja Vuk chose cooking as a medium for familiarisation, exchange and empowerment. The first day of the workshop, the participants came quietly and shyly, while after the process of cooking together and exchanging recipes was over, they went away vocal, jolly and empowered. Unlike many similar projects, we could see the results of this work even six months later, when the same people laid on the catering at the opening of an exhibition still within the same project. The artist herself says that the premise of her projects is to “spur the universal creativity of all people so that they can successfully express themselves as persons, create their own personality, relations, the course of their lives and their future and ultimately to feel more complete, more satisfied and free, readier to discern the possibilities of life”. In this sense the activism of Sonja Vuk is directed at individual experience, at the bettering of society via the empowerment of the individual. Society as community of powerful, self-confident individuals, even if utopian, is the only variant of any kind of fight for a just society today. According to Hannah Arendt evil arises from the lack of communication with the self. In an overburdened, too rapid and information-saturated world, there is often neither the space nor the time for introspection. We forget to be with ourselves. For this very reason, more than ever, art, awakening the inherent aspiration for self-knowledge and self-expression, creates a space outside and a space for. And we must never think of the concern for subtle individual processes as a form of escapism. Social awareness starts from the individual awareness, and individual awareness should not, as a result of the rapidity of decision making and the neglect of self, become a mere copy-paste of social trends. It is in this context of asking questions about the individual within different social categories that we can read the activist and artistic practice of Sonja Vuk.