In 2016 ALL committee members Robert Good and Rebecca Ilett embarked on a week-long fact-finding trip to Europe sponsored by Artists Newsletter (a-n) – to visit ALL friends and artists Elisa Vladilo and Sara Lerota. The trip, which was kindly sponsored by an a-n travel grant, was to explore possibilities for future exchange exhibitions between ALL and art communities abroad.
The trip started in the same week as the UK Referendum on Europe, aka “Brexit”, thus providing a somewhat surreal backdrop to the journey.
Preparing to Leave…
As part of ALL we have always been interested in the ‘Location’ element of art, which is why we originally planned the visit, but of course in the current circumstances our trip is tinged with a wholly unexpected new political dimension. As we try and come to terms with the new realities it seems even more important than ever that we use art as a means to reach out to other communities and make new friendships and connections.
Tomorrow Rebecca Ilett and I leave the UK for Europe. Our fact-finding trip to meet with artist friends across the Channel has taken on a new and wholly unexpected twist in the light of the events of the last couple of days. We suddenly find ourselves able to get some first hand reaction to the news and we shall no doubt be having many a long conversation in the days ahead. We leave in sombre mood but mustn’t lose sight of the possibilities ahead and indeed remind ourselves in the current circumstances just how important cultural exchanges are as a way to extend friendships and share experiences. Art is a great way to transcend politics and to connect to others through altogether different channels. So to our European friends we say thanks for having us to visit and we’re looking forward to some very fine adventures!
Day 1 – Acclimatisation…
Well this art malarkey is tough but someone’s got to do it.
After the joys of a 6am flight we arrived in Trieste to be met not only by our wonderful host Elisa Vladilo but also by a mini tornado and torrential rain. So that’s what Europe now thinks of Brits abroad.
A coffee and local cherry strudel later and calm was restored as we arrived at Elisa’s amazing apartment overlooking the Gulf of Trieste. We talked through our plans for the next few days and Elisa has quite clearly laid on our very own Grand Tour of local art essentials. But that is for tomorrow. It is Sunday afternoon in Trieste and it would be churlish not to join in the local promenade of the beach front. We even have a dip.
Talk of politics in the current climate is never far away – “Ah, Si, Brexit” greets the news that we are from the UK and our apologies on behalf of the nation are met with somewhat baffled amusement. We in turn try to keep up with the latest news from home.
So we are acclimatised. Apart from this iPad which insists on posting photos upside down, for which apologies, I would try to fix but a cold beer on the balcony awaits. So even amidst the turmoil the small pleasures remain.
And tomorrow we get to work.
Day 2 – In which we meet some artists
After yesterday’s gentle start it was definitely down to business today as we met artists and curators in Trieste with an interest in public art.
We began by meeting Guillermo Giampietro (above), a video and performance artist from Argentina.
Moving on for coffee we met curator Maria Campitelli and photographer Carlo Andreasi and after lunch and a tour of art space XOPP we had tea with artists Barbara Stefani and Adriana Torregrossa.
This was a fantastic day of exchanges of ideas and experiences. Guillermo showed us a short film of his protest art against the regime of 1970s dictatorship – work of genuine jeopardy that led to his arrest and a reminder of the role that art has to play in political life. I was very struck by the thoughtful philosophical underpinnings of Carlo’s photographic project – a big contrast with Adriana’s relational work engaging with Muslim communities and making evident their ways of life, whilst our discussions with Barbara about her monochrome, figureless reworkings of Hopper paintings on found boxes showed once again that painting as an art form is alive and well!
Overall our experiences (and difficulties) of making art felt reassuringly familiar. We talked about funding, locations, audiences, permissions, opportunities and much more and my head was spinning by the end. We agreed to keep in touch – I’ve no doubt that connections and collaborations will emerge: this was just the start of a conversation and there is plenty more to say….
Many thanks to Elisa for organising and to the the artists for meeting with us. A very good day!
Days 3 & 4 – Across the Border
Another amazing day of conversations and exchanges as we headed out of Trieste and across the border into Austria to meet Nora Leitgeb, curator of art space Kunstraum Lakeside in Klagenfurt. Over lunch I chatted to Alex Samyi about language and the idea of language frames and then we went to the city gallery to meet Hannes Zebedin who had a show opening that evening.
Later that afternoon we met Gerhard Maurer who has been leading a contemporary art project in his local area of town.
Back in the car and across the border again (thanks to our wonderful driver, curator Federica Purgatori) and into Slovenia (via some spectacular Alpine scenery) and so to Celje to meet Matija Plevnik, Andrea, Maja, Simon and others. By this time it was 10pm and definitely time for refreshments. We stayed the night in Celje courtesy of Matija and next day back to Trieste via train and tram after a morning’s cultural endeavours.
It is becoming clear that we have been treated to so many new and interesting experiences that it will take some time for the dust to settle and for us to get any sort of perspective on everything that we have learned. This blog is a record of our travels but so much more will have to be written in due course.
For now it is to bed before we head off to Mostar in the morning but we cannot close this chapter without recording huge thanks to Elisa Vladilo for arranging everything and to all the wonderful new friends we have met already.
We interrupt this broadcast…
Getting in late last night after another fantastic day of conversations and catching up with social media I am struck by how out of step we are with the mood back home.
On the one hand our trip seems to be irrelevant compared to the seismic shifts taking place and the alarming stories that are emerging, and trying to focus on art is tricky at times whilst wondering what the latest developments are.
But on the other hand it also seems that in fact this trip is only reinforcing just how important art continues to be as a way of extending friendships and linking communities through shared enterprise. The conversations we are having and friendships we are making seem more important than ever.
And now, onwards, as we are now in Slovenia and our guided tour of the Celje art world with our wonderful guide Matija Plevnik is about to begin!
Day 5 – Looking ahead
The trip is becoming ever more surreal as we continue to enjoy so many good times against a backdrop of increasingly unbelievable political events back home. We’ve talked Brexit with our hosts but, perhaps surprisingly, after the shock of the initial result the topic seems to have died down: the huge consequences of the result and the shockwaves to come have yet to ripple outwards.
And so for now we can only continue our travels and catch up properly when we get home. We are only getting intermittent updates and so it can feel sometimes like we are fiddling whilst Rome burns, but equally we feel strongly that it is vital that our art connections continue to be made as one way of replacing the cynicism of politics with something more positive, creative and affirming.
So we leave the wonderful hospitality of Elisa Vladilo in Italy and join Sara Lerota in Bosnia Hercegovina for three more days of artiness. Sara writes:
“Yes, we are making a connection between the UK and Bosnia and Herzegovina now, but it was always a connection of thoughts, of ideas, of people that was our primary focus since the first time we got in contact, three years ago through Collect Connect organisation and a wonderful mutual friend Alban Low. It is such a pleasure to host my dear friends and colleagues Robert and Rebecca here in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to see that our collaboration has reached the point where we are connecting artists from all over Europe! The power of art is bringing us all together and it is wonderful to be a witness of such an amazing process and to able to contribute too.
I´ve been a part of Art Language Location for the last three annual exhibitions and every year brings something new, every years elevates the quality of the event to a higher level and enables us to move forward. I visited Cambridge last October and meeting the Art Language Location committee in person was a turning point in our collaboration since we definitely confirmed that distance means nothing when ideas and thoughts are close and compatible. This week we will meet in Dubrovnik (Croatia) and start a journey through the regional art world of this part of Europe. For the next few days we will have the pleasure to meet deans from art academies in Bosnia and Herzegovina as representatives of official art/education institutions, the representatives of national art centres and art organisations and, most importantly, we will be glad to have direct conversations with local and regional artists so we could all explore their perspective on overseas collaborations and potential mutual projects.
This step is just one of the first steps of a very long and fruitful collaboration and I already look forward to our future challenges! The world is just as small or big as we imagine it to be. ;)”
Day 6 – Oil on canvas
Now for something a little different as we paid a visit to the Visual Arts academy in Trebinje where we met with the Dean and staff for a tour. In complete contrast to most art schools in the UK this is a traditional school in which drawing, painting and sculpture are taught as foundation stones for expression: this grounding is common throughout the region.
Our visit was followed by a trip to meet Josip Blazevic and colleagues to hear about their InterAcademia project and future plans. Very interesting to hear about the ways in which the arts communities are starting to reconnect after the recent war throughout the region.
Finally we had a long chat with artist friends from Sara’s community and some sightseeing around Mostar. Sara’s family treated us to some fabulous home cooked food and hospitality and we talked late into the night.
Day 7 – A WARM reception
To Sarajevo where we met Remi Ourdan, founder of the WARM festival. WARM uses the arts, music and a cross-disciplinary approach to explore, commemorate and help move beyond the world’s conflicts. Remi is a renowned war reporter himself and it was a privilege to meet him and his colleagues and hear about his project. We took a look at the current WARM exhibition and saw examples of reportage from around the world.
Hearing about WARM and walking around Sarajevo, itself a recent siege city, made us realise how fortunate we have been in the UK to have had so much relative stability and calm for so long. The political complexities of the region, and indeed those of Trieste, feel as though they are several orders of magnitude greater than anything we are used to and helped us to put the current turmoil in the UK into some sort of perspective.
Previously we met Pierre Courtin (above), a gallerist in Sarajevo who is supporting the region’s artists through a rolling programme of exhibitions and by showing at international art fairs. His desire to bring contemporary art to his adopted city resonated with our aims for ALL and it was a very fruitful discussion.
We rounded off the day with a walk through Sarajevo and a drink at a wonderful lucky-goldfish themed bar. Only a two-hour drive back to Mostar prevented us from joining our new found friends for the closing events at WARM.
Another long and mind bogglingly interesting day…
Days 8 & 9 – Home Sweet Home
So we are sitting in the airport at Split and wondering about all the news that we have missed in the last week, but also reflecting on all the amazing experiences and conversations that we have had. It will take a while for the dust to settle but we have already started to discuss possible ways to carry things forward and I’m sure that there will be many fruitful collaborations and connections ahead as a result of this trip.
The last two days have been spent with further meetings, particularly a visit to the academy at Siroki Brijeg where we met the dean for a tour, plus some sightseeing around Mostar.
I’m planning to write some reflections on our travels in due course but for now it is time to sign off and head for home. Thanks to our lovely hosts Elisa and Sara for looking after us so well and a-n for awarding us this grant that has made it all possible. Now, where’s my boarding pass?
Postscript: Arrivederci Trieste – and Goodbye Mostar!
Thanks for the memories!
l-r Sara Lerota, Rebecca Ilett and Robert Good in Mostar
Our travel grant trip is over and although only we have only been back a few weeks it already seems a lifetime ago as we plunge back into the daily routine and attempt to assimilate the political mayhem that took place in our absence.
And so whilst memories are still fresh it is time to reflect on what we saw and draw out some themes and lessons to be learnt; plus take a look ahead to possibilities in the future!
Art and Politics are not the same thing
We left for our travels to Europe on the day after the Brexit result, and like everyone else we were stunned and confused. A massive bluebottle had just flown into the ointment, and our optimistic mood for our travels was replaced by growing disbelief. We issued sheepish apologies to our hosts as we all tried to make sense of what had just happened and what it might mean.
But as our travels progressed and the news became ever more surreal, it became clear that we did not want the purpose of our trip to be drowned out by political events. We wanted to meet artists and discuss art, we wanted to find out how others were managing to make art in different (and often very much more difficult) circumstances.
So we learnt that art is not the same as politics. Nor is art a political surrogate – politics by other means. Art is art. Of course art feeds into politics, history and much else besides, and art is likewise fed by those same things. And in our interwoven, postmodern, deeply interconnected world nothing can be completely disentangled from anything else any more. But nevertheless, by deciding to stay focussed on the artfulness of our travels it felt as though we were making a stand for the importance of art as a pursuit in its own right. And that if we had ended up talking politics all day instead then somehow the politicians would have won.
Our political woes in perspective
Of course we could not completely avoid politics as we discussed art and nor would we have wished to, and in our conversations we had many opportunities to compare and contrast the state of play in the UK with that of our hosts. And we found that in many ways the social complexities of our host countries far exceeded anything that we are used to.
We were amazed to hear that in Slovenia there are still 40 different dialects actively spoken amongst its population. We heard how Trieste is, for some of its residents, still closely aligned to Austria. And we realised by seeing in Trieste the milestone erected in WW2 announcing how many miles to Berlin, by visiting the local museum in Celje (Slovenia), and by seeing the evidence of relatively recent conflict in Sarajevo, Mostar and across the Balkans how fortunate we have been in the UK to have had such relative stability for so long.
The grass is always greener…
As our talk turned to art, we noted many common issues to do with making art that (perhaps somewhat reassuringly) seem to transcend borders and political systems – perennial problems of how to attract funding, how to raise awareness, where to show work.
But there were differences too. It felt to us that in some cases there was perhaps a greater generosity of spirit towards artistic endeavour, or maybe just a greater sense of community in which art could be made – although these things are so subjective and difficult to assess. Our new friends in Trieste said that it can feel quite insular to be an artist in Italy, and they were astonished to hear that we had received a grant to come and visit in order to exchange ideas.
There was also less evidence of Big Art – the blockbuster approach with all the trimmings – and it was refreshing to see art being made without that cultural and corporate baggage. Our ready access to so much ‘great’ and ‘cutting edge’ art via the many art institutions available to us in the UK is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to seeking out the authentic in art.
Would we swap? Well, the grass is always greener and it is easy to see the positives and ignore the negatives in any new place you visit, but it did just seem to us that maybe Celje, with its subsidised artist studios, social support for artists and enlightened contemporary art gallery was a little bit of secret art paradise…
On meeting fellow artists
We met many amazing artists, gallerists, curators and organisers on our travels, and many had experience of making some pretty impressive art interventions: more ambitous work, more challenging spaces and on a larger scale. This was refreshing and encouraging, as it was great to learn from their experiences and hear how their projects were realised – though sadly it seems that there is no magic bullet, only inspiration, determination and dedication.
And it was lovely to find out more from the artists we met about their individual journeys. Behind every artist there is a defining moment, a favourite artist, a trusted mentor or a major influence, so many thanks to Guillermo Giampietro, Barbara Stefani, Adriana Torregrossa, Dalibor Nikolic, Maja Rubinic and many others for sharing their stories with us.
Making things happen
The biggest message from our trip was perhaps simply that art is at its best when it helps to create that unique sense of community and shared enterprise around the process of making new things. We met many inspirational people who in so many different ways were just getting on with making art happen.
In Trieste, we met Maria Campitelli who has curated over 400 events in 40 years in order to bring more contemporary art to the city. In Klagenfurt we met Gerhard Maurer, who started a contemporary art project to help regenerate the canal area near his home. In Celje, Matija Plevnik decided to set up a contemporary art gallery and project space despite the shortage of funding and the lack of an established art scene. In Trebinje and Široki Brijeg we learnt how the Academies there are looking to share more contemporary art with their students. In Sarajevo, Remy Ourdan is creating a permanent centre for War Studies, using art as a means to inform a difficult subject with new approaches, insights and understanding. Also in Sarajevo, Pierre Courtin is reviving the contemporary arts and creating a new generation of arts infrastructure and support for the city’s artists.
All of these people were undertaking projects that they were passionate about; and in many cases they were doing them in the face of considerable logistical, political and artistic difficulties. The key, it seems, is no more or less than to simply (and perhaps obstinately) keep on keeping on. It goes without saying that all of the projects we saw require funding, resources and support to enable them to happen – boring but important; but the process, the creativity of the project and the shared sense of community that arises provide the motivation and forward momentum.
So back home and to our own project, Art Language Location, which kicks off again this October at Anglia Ruskin University and locations around Cambridge. We hope to welcome artists to Cambridge with that same sense of shared endeavour and enterprise that we encountered on our travels.
And in the future? Well we definitely would love to create some collaborations between the artists and communities that we have met, and we are already thinking about ideas to make this happen. Perhaps we can arrange some exchange visits, maybe a shared exhibition or an online project of some sort. As always, the boring but important aspects of funding, resources and support will need to be addressed, but these things have a habit of sorting themselves out.
As Matija Plevnik said to us as we said goodbye to him after an all-too-brief visit, “I don’t mind what you do, just bring some more art to Celje!” Now that’s an attitude that I can work with…
Many thanks to everyone who helped to make our trip such a wonderful experience, most especially our hosts and local fixers Elisa Vladio in Trieste and Sara Lerota in Mostar, who generously shared their art friends and contacts with us, arranged our programme of events for us and even took us sightseeing too.
Thanks also to everyone below who took the time to share their experiences with us. (With apologies in advance to anyone I’ve missed!)
Trieste, Klagenfurt and Celje – with Elisa Vladilo, and special thanks to Nora Leitgeb for fixing our Klagenfurt visits
Guillermo Giampietro, Maria Campitelli, Carlo Andreasi, Barbara Stefani, Adriana Torregrossa, Federica Purgatori, Nora Leitgeb (Kunstraum Lakeside Gallery), Alex Samyi, Hannes Zebedin, Gerhard Maurer, Matija Plevnik, Andreja Dzakusic, Simon, Maja Hodoscek
Mostar, Trebinje, Široki Brijeg, Sarajevo – with Sara Lerota
Igor Bosnjak, Josip Blažević, Danijel Vidovic, Milan Sitarski, Dalibor Nikolic , Maja Rubinic, Mario Sunjic, Remy Ourdan, Pierre Courtin, Stjepan Skoko, Marko Musović, Veselin Brković, Tatjana Mićević Đurić, Christopher Yggdre.
And finally, thanks to a-n for giving us the travel grant which was the catalyst that made it all possible.