Shelters of Babylon by Peter Tomaž Dobrila
Being is life.
Any kind of being (habitation) is meant here: interiors, buildings, blocks, houses, tents, earth houses, igloos; provisional, temporary, or permanently set up spaces, trailers, campers, modules, laboratories, space stations, shrines and palaces; or outdoors, in the open space, under the open sky, in water or in the air.
Being is also existence, a continuation, which expands the mere biological notion of life and introduces certain meanings and dimensions to it, while at the same time it reduces existence to an individual level and “personalizes” it.
In any and every way, either in the sense of existence within a particular group, society, or system, or in the sense of fighting for existence, which always implies conflict, or perhaps rejecting aggression through defense. All these things can be observed in the light of numerous current problems, from wars, imperialism and colonialism, to economic conflicts, which, as a rule, have social consequences, because they wish to use domination to subjugate masses of people, level them down to the position of consumers, and ultimately reduce their rights as much as possible.
Conflicts generated by the ruling class and supported by capital (or vice versa) through various groups inside their own countries or societies, are becoming ubiquitous on a global level. They can be defined in terms of various conflicts between the so-called civil society groups and non-formal political-capitalist structures, such as the GX multilateral system, which appears as nothing more than a classic democratic circus when compared to the wars the same countries are instigating across “the remaining world”, i.e. in countries that are not members of their network. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, northern African counties, etc., do not belong to any of the notorious cliques, but they possess a lot of what the great ones do not have, but want to have, or must have. Regardless of the cost. Torn down countries, devastated environments, victims, scattered families, exiles, refugees, and migrants are a consequence of the acts of the great ones, those with 99% of capital in their hands, and 1% of in their brains. And then they call the situation “a refugee crisis”, although it is in fact the war that has been kindled by this same class of people for several decades, which is the reason for the refugees’ “misfortune”. Cause and effect.
As part of the project Risk Change, the exhibition Shelters of Babylon was conceived to tackle questions related to the notions of being and existence. It is high time for all of us to revive some of the concerns already addressed historically by existentialism, which advocated not only liberty and equality for all people, but also the right to personal autonomy and freedom of expression. The times may have changed, but the context is identical: survival.
A variety of artistic procedures have been used to present artists’ original visions of being and existence in distinct and diverse forms, and reveal them through various media. Life on the planet, Spaceship Earth, which travels through space-time along settled trajectories, the rotation of the Earth around its own axis and the Sun, the revolution of the Solar System inside the galaxy and of the entire Milky Way in the wider system – these are journeys, which can be illustrated by a human being/artist on a personal, physical, mental, metaphysical, fictional, fabricated, or symbolic level.
Babylon as a historical fact brimming with mythology, the symbol of an ancient civilization, this romantic notion of harmony between people, races, religions, languages, cultures, has been perceived so far through artistic processes and works mainly as an idealistic idea, rooted in numerous literary works and visual depictions. The once independent city-state with its two defining rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, the Ishtar Gate, the Hanging Gardens, and the most famous tower in lost history, was always in the firing line of capital and politics by different means, its grip not ceasing even today in Iraq, a country torn asunder by foreign forces, resulting in millions of exiles and refugees.
It seems that the world today is more global than it was in the past, although it is indeed the fate of Babylon that convinces us of the opposite, which has, for that matter, been clear for ages. Humans have always sought, as have all living beings on earth, the best chances for survival. It usually began with a formation of some kind of group, which created a center of their existence, out of which through years, decades and centuries, a civilization was formed. It is the latter, the fact of being called a civilization, which is the opposite of militarization; civilization is in constant discrepancy with militarization, and therefore in danger of collapsing from the state of being made, constructed, living – to a state of destruction, devastation, and death.
To live means to be and to create, and, as Ivan Volarič Feo says in his poem Smrt (Death): “Death has no color, taste, or smell. Death does not react to alkalis or acids. Death is an insulator. Death shows no signs of life.” Although religions thrive on the promise of just the opposite, and indeed, art has followed this promise in countless depictions, these are nothing but picture books of someone’s imagination based on texts that are considered the pivotal works of humankind. Religious stories thus intertwine facts, mythology, and ideology, to provide an answer to our existence in all its forms, in the physical and metaphysical, in the earthly existence and in the afterlife.
In any case, our life cycle becomes realized through what we do in the here and now. The ways in which we imagine this are presented through various forms, media, and materials in the present exhibition, encompassing a palette of works ranging from the most intimate, to the more widely engaging, socially committed ones. In each case, the personal and the social aspect are the crucial postulates of a person’s integration in the environment, in natural landscapes or in rural areas; in deserts, mountains, and woods; in urban settlements, which have become the most densely populated areas on earth; but also in some of the most inhospitable places for man to live – glaciers, rivers, and seas.
Man’s harmony with nature is a syntagm of alienation, because it means that the human being is no longer considered as one of nature’s integral parts, but rather as something alien to this nature; we are intruders who need to adopt to our only habitat – nature, because during the course of our evolution, the evolution of our own civilization(s), we have altered this habitat so much, that it no longer acts as our ally, as the friendly environment in which we reside, but is starting to rise up against our interventions, and is becoming more and more our enemy. Even though man is primarily his own greatest natural enemy, hostile and aggressive towards his own kind, his fellow human beings, and all things living.
The exhibition Shelters of Babylon thus focuses on personal artistic experiences, derived from distinctive spaces of thought and creation, and the natural environments and cultures in which the artists work. The underlying issues concerned include being (living, existence), survival, migration, as well as other processes in the modern world, which is not only defined by earthly experiences, but also looks towards alternative forms of living in space, on other planets, in neighboring galaxies, even in faraway constellations. Although for now the only human-friendly environment is our planet, artistic perception ventures further, to outline various forms of potential human dwellings, bodies, clothing, settlements, buildings, relationships, etc., which, presented through different media, constitute the central theme of the exhibition. As the title suggests, the art show captures a historical view, a present perspective, and a futuristic vision, and uses artistic codification to communicate these ideas in a number of different ways.
Existence (or, existing, to imply a more permanent sense of the word), existentiality, even existentialism, are seen as the establishment of man’s social and artistic relationships on numerous levels; in interpersonal relations, which we perceive as intimate; in our attitudes towards life; in our attitudes towards the planet as our common domicile, our spaceship, our shelter.
Related to the concept of basic human rights, “shelters” can be associated especially to the notion of safety. Shelters are places where we can hide, where we go to have a sense of safety. It is about the feeling of being somewhere, where it is neither unsafe nor dangerous. When a sense of insecurity is linked to fear, however, it creates a powerful collective push: today, we are discussing at a global level about which is more important, human rights, or safety. We are coming up with ever new ways and methods of controlling people, who consequently just want to retreat to their shelters. To their peace. To their own space, whether it is mental/virtual, or physical/real. To safe ground. But even there, they cannot find safety, as their intimacy is watched over by a much more sophisticated eye, diagnosing their inwardness, their private sphere, their will and desires, their thoughts. The exhibition Shelters of Babylon acts as a mirror reflecting these dualities.
And it searches for a further path, it looks behind the mirror, trying to enter it like Alice from wonderland, to discover that world behind the curtain. The way we pull back this curtain, however, is entirely our own and personal matter; something left to our own choice and desire, to our willingness to dive into this adventure, careless of what exists beyond it; the future is there, or it’s like it’s not there (Ivana Ivković).
Opening up new and different realms is one of the fundamental missions of art. And departure from the real is the beginning of a transition into the surreal, into a state of artistic experience, which either has its cause or its consequence in the creation, or in the perception and acceptance of the artistic. The latter is made up of countless functioning processes, all of which start from the inside, from the self (Marko Jakše).
Art always finds itself playing multiple roles (Vlado Gotvan Repnik) to proceed from this or that kind of reality – or unreality, as some may add – but it is a fact, that after a specific and unique treatment of any segment of reality through artistic means, and through the use of artistic methods, art builds its own world.
The transformation of the existing, of the physical, is established through an immanent codification as the surreal, the metaphysical, “the behind-the-real” – by which it affirms its exceptional, one-of-a-kind and incomparable nature, perhaps best conveyed by the words of Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 B.C.): “no man ever steps in the same river twice”. This is a philosopher’s thought, but it can also be argued by physics, which uses various calculations to scientifically formulate the world in terms of a natural sequence of causes and effects, trying to present it through a system of models and thus determine its formal arrangement. The only question remaining is where we stand and what is the point of our perspective (Lujo Vodopivec).
Looking from the inside, most often in terms of the body-and-spirit dichotomy, it is the heart that is not emphasized enough as perhaps our most personal and intimate part (Bojana Križanec), and probably the most explosive, which is something that cannot be subject to control.
There is no doubt about the control over the body and the soul, because they are constantly exposed to the effect of certain social structures, which take this privilege as the main goal of their own operation (Ema Kugler).
The physis, or the body of the art work, refers to its manifestation in various media – painting, sculpture, photography, (intermedia) installations, AV works (PureH, Trevor Brown, Borut Kržišnik and Simon Svetlik, Blaž Veber), music (Irena Tomažin) video and film (Isabelle Arvers), literature, performance (Peter Purg), applications (Petra Kapš), radio (Simon Macuh) – and forms, of which some have been more or less canonized, while others are more research-oriented and experimental, but still defined by the medium itself.
A shift inside a particular medium or even outside of it, is an illusion, it is even a characteristic of the arts that creating art is in fact existence itself. When the chosen elements are put together into a work of art, the created space provides them with a living environment, in which the physical and metaphysical are entwined. And it is precisely these intertwinements that are inherent to art, which has always transcended the run-of-the-mill routine of everyday life (Metka Kavčič).
Language is one of the greatest and mightiest shelters for humankind, and also one of the foundations of Babylon; both the spoken and the written language (Huiqin Wang).
This basic means of communication brings us closer to those who understand us, and distances us from those whom we cannot understand. As literate as we may be in our own writing system, we are instantly illiterate in another. On this point, the separating syntagm of ‘cultural difference’ is often used, by which we incorporate everything expected to separate us from one another, even though we are actually all among equals, we are all people inhabiting a common planet. In his 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded, William S. Burroughs introduced the concept of language as a virus (language is a virus from outer space), as an infection, which through the real and the virtual unlocks the space of ‘simulated reality’ (Magdalena Pederin).
Opening up real spaces is often a virtual doing, through which ‘our’ and ‘not-our’ spaces are melting into a palimpsest of personal simulations of our own ideas about who we are, where and how we live, and what we imagine constitutes our environment and thereby our reality, in which stripped-down architectures exist on their own (Igor Andjelić).
Whether ‘mere existence’ already implies ‘existence in the sense of living’, is a question asked by biologists, and discussed by social scientists and humanists. The proportions of the world are (too) large not only for the individual person, but even for humankind in general: due to our entrapment in the (internal and external) environments, it is difficult for us to even understand something that is distant or remote from us, much less accept it, which we often don’t, as we forget about our common origin, regardless of how far back we venture into the time of the creation of mankind, the Earth, the Solar System, the galaxy or the Universe, even the big bang and later the primordial soup.
We are made up only from the elements found in space; we can think of ourselves either as star dust, either as creatures made of flesh and blood, or simply as – people. We have more things in common than not, both in the physical and non-physical worlds, in political and economic systems and arrangements. From up close, all countries are the same, ruled by the same systems, with identical structures established (Matjaž Tančič).
Ideology, i.e. the ideological apparatus, is nothing but a fabrication for everyday use, so that enemies can be created and conflicts kindled; so that the world evolves according to the laws of Hegel’s (27 Aug 1770 – 14 Nov 1831) dialectics, the co-existence of thesis and anti-thesis, to produce a synthesis of eternal opposites, changes and shifts, eternal lifecycle, spiral development.
While art may well be an individual and intimate act during the phase of development, it becomes a social activity once it is created, and through its public manifestation it is given a committed social role, regardless of, or regarding that, which it touches upon (Marjetica Potrč).
If political and economic reality are undoubtedly parts of the social, and their existence is founded upon the latter, then we can say about art that it extends this reality, and thus actually constitutes the social. The simplest way to illustrate this is by cultural heritage, a basic doctrine of civilization, which tries to preserve ‘the eternal’, and forget ‘the ephemeral’. This is where art also weaves a connection to the natural, and opens up within its peculiar ecosystem a variety of topics comprising the triangle art – nature – society. Everything is interconnected – this is the paradigm that art constantly manifests, while science tries to prove it through laws of physics.
Symbiosis of the living (all is living, non-living does not exist) has created the universe; it has created the world and it has created us; art brought meaning to this existence, and the symbiosis appears on different levels of communication within the complex ecosystem and within collaborative processes that we are able to perceive (Saša Spačal and Miran Švagelj).
It is a natural fact, rather than tolerance (social or any other kind), that we should be pursuing in our co-existence on this planet. Differences are a fact, but it depends on our awareness to what extent we consider them in the complexity of the given space and the emotional states we are subject to, regardless of the preferences in terms of local or global perception of the environment and ourselves inside it; and regardless of the burden of countless social or systemic factors, which can be perceived as a kind of repression, or as belonging to a certain community (Sabina Štumberger).
As much as art, performed in any kind of medium, implies a physical action, in terms of content it is an entirely metaphysical act, established through the laws of physics – to say that it is above them would be dubious. Art looks for new dimensions, connects the past to the present and transforms the relationships between humans and non-humans; it goes back to the beginnings of the universe in relation to geological processes, invisible structures, geo-traumas and deep time, becoming a fictional visual meditation about contemporary science at the cross section of the larger systems of power and the politics of desire. It can become a measure for the gigantic terrestrial and cosmic forces: evolution, black holes, biosphere, magnetic fields, photons, crystals, minerals and gravity waves (Emilija Škarnulyte).
In other cases, art stands up as a determinate action of an individual against all systems. The system is the antipode to individuality, and there is a relentless fight to the end between the two; a fight, which is not about domination, but about freedom, the only thing that an artist/individual/everyman can really stand for (Pyotr Pavlensky).
That, which is considered an artistic action or rebellion against the system in a state of general resignation, is seen in a different kind of environment as the documentation of a place, of an existence shattered before our very eyes, stripping us of the possibility of choice. The only choice left is life or death, whereby surviving inevitably implies migration, departure, a retreat caused by politics, by way of military intervention, i.e. by war, which has devastated places, homes, and people. With little space left for allegory, it becomes all the more bitter when it uses symbols of popular culture and communicates through global iconography (Tammam Azzam).
The human body, the being, as the central object of an artistic event, is established as a focal point around which the entire world revolves, like a ring spinning around the body: seemingly powerless and vulnerable, and yet dignified and determined, so that it can live through the afflicted and the wounded, and even play while doing so, although this kind of “playing” is painful and cruel (Sigalit Landau).
It is as if the body with all its shortcomings, subjected to lengthy, continuous, everyday processing, therapy, and treatments, carries the meaning of our existence, demonstrating its individual and social dimensions, which are enabled by science and realized through creation (Damir Pečnik aka D’SUN).
The body as our primary shelter unfolds its tenacity, persistence, and the ability to exist in even the toughest, sometimes extreme conditions; it has the exceptional ability of adapting to external and internal influences, and of healing injuries.
In the same way, a shattered space (a devastated environment, an abandoned dwelling place) can be healed, if we choose to inhabit it, make use of it, or even build it from materials that were found, collected and recycled (Branislav Nikolić and Boban Mladenović).
Artistic interventions are best for revitalizing entire neighborhoods or city quarters, as they instill new contents and breathe life into such places across the globe, whether in Africa, Europe, Asia, America, Australia… The establishment of spaces, physical and ideological, new and revived; as well as pointing them out and calling attention to them – this is one of the fundamental missions of art in the processes triggered by creativity. It is like conscience wagging its tail at us (Sandra Požun).
A reminiscence of the past, which exists on the surface of consciousness, in which the acquired and the learned mix with experience, while pieces of information are exchanged along our synapses, creating the landscape of our ancient memory, made up of an endless variety of stimuli and presented through the imagery of the conscious and the unconscious, on personal and collective levels; home-like or strange; life or still life (Gašper Capuder).
The Tower of Babylon is undoubtedly one of the most popular images from our collective consciousness, though in its most recognizable form it was depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1530 – 9 September 1569) in 1563 exclusively according to his own imagination, based on the available written sources. Today this representation has become estheticized and extremely romanticized, yet at the same time almost eerily isolated (Narcis Kantardžić).
Where myth and history collide, stories, ideologies and religions are born, while social systems disintegrate in order for new political systems to be established. In the era of the internet, with everything this medium has to offer, but also everything it gobbles down, control is the most widespread activity: we are under constant surveillance of intelligence services that are able to intercept all of our communication. It is almost illusory to talk about intimacy, which flows naked through the myriad of information channels, while we live, function, and create in the public sphere, as we are driven by our individual, intimate inspirations (Aleksandra Farazin).
The militancy of the ruling class and the eagerness with which they pit people into conflict, has been ubiquitous since time immemorial, only today it seems more intense due to the seemingly greater connectedness of the world and the rapid flow of information across networks of endless distribution channels, through which the information is not only generated, but also tailored and used to manipulate and persecute us. Motif esthetization is art’s task, yet in the esthetics of military objects, which offers to us an array of digitalized files through the internet, this triggers our socially critical attitude towards the space-time in which we live (Jure Zrimšek).
The collective, conscious or unconscious, as an entirely physical co-existence, collaboration and co-creation, is the identity of our society, which builds on an individual’s intimacy, however, not in the sense of a physical departure out of society, but rather in terms of creativity and a constant connection, which is why a psychological (mental) escape from community is doubtful.
Living in communities, intimacy is a narrow space, unless we perceive the community in the sense that no one cares about us, nor do we care about anyone else. But this would be an overly superficial conclusion made by “individualists”, because there is (always) someone there, who will “take care” of us. The social system builds an identity related to the visual image, which is crucial for the establishment of a system in all its broadness, though by far most oftenly it is used to control people, which is why – when it doesn’t exist – it is being generated even from DNA, or, acting against the dominance of System as the constant trigger of conflict, they opt for a reverse path of disintegration, disembodiment, and anti-control (Divina Mimesis).
Such systems produce captives and refugees. Politics, disputes, conflicts and wars limit and define the parameters of our existence; they determine the suitability of certain spaces and set up obstacles to their accessibility, while art exposes them in order to transcend the divisions (Ana Vujović).
‘Individualism’ is a synonym for the unrestrained submission of people, ostensible individuals, who are in fact only segmented according to certain parameters (age group, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) and their affinities, with the ultimate goal of becoming a malleable mass.
The mythology of living spaces (implying a retreat to our own selves) has affected us since as long as we can remember. There is, of course, such a thing as a ‘retreat to intimacy’, but this refers to the inner, rational and emotional retreat, which we are able to make. However, any kind of action in our environment is a form of social action, which can also be intimate, and at the same time public and therefore a part of the society and the social (Agnes Momirski).
Art is the most intimate and personal even when it becomes public, because it derives from personal inspiration, creativity, perception, and all those intimate things that enable us to be, in the present. Art is both truth and illusion at the same time – and it has been so since the time when the whole earth shared a single language, before languages became mixed up and people lost their ability to understand each other. We might not have a common language anymore, but we inhabit a common planet, and we will continue to do so in the future.
Peter Tomaž Dobrila