Realismically Speaking, Irena Haiduk — Monika Szewczyk

Mousse #50, 01.24.2017

Art institutions in the western world are constantly on the lookout for artists capable of becoming agents of social change. Irena Haiduk, in her recent work Seductive Exacting Realism—presented in its two components at the Renaissance Society and the 14th Istanbul Biennial—reveals how this desire may be fulfilled in the arena of consultancy, but at a price. The conversation with Monika Szewczyk explores many of the themes examined by the artist, including her pointed questioning of the recent rhetoric of hope and the risk of a resistance that—like the Siren’s song—lures countries into indefinite periods of waiting for the promise of prosperity, while new market economics lay waste to the land.

MONIKA SZEWCZYK
Let’s start this interview by talking about another interview— the one that grounds your current work, Seductive Exacting Realism or SER, which has parallel parts at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society (curated by its director Sølveig Øvstebø) and at the current Istanbul Biennial (“drafted” by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev).

IRENA HAIDUK
At the center of SER is an interview with Srdja Popovic´, co-founder of the organizations Otpor! and CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies). The interview took place at Harvard University on January 14, 2015, where he was teaching (on the executive education faculty) at the Kennedy School last winter. We walked over to the Carpenter Center to talk. The work has two channels, one in Istanbul and another in Chicago. The Renaissance Society located inside Cobb Hall on the University of Chicago campus connects to the Department of Economics and the Booth School of Business via a window facing east. In fact, this is the only source of light in the show. Those departments, which hosted the famous Chicago Boys, have provided the founding logic for our present meteorological market economy. Istanbul was chosen because it is a site where CANVAS has been active for a while, and a place where a lot of thinking on how history is made through revolutions has happened (Trotsky resided outside Istanbul, on the island of Büyükada, while he wrote his version of the Russian Revolution).

MS
At Harvard, you walked with Srdja Popovic´ from the school of government to the school of art. How did you get the idea of conversing with him?

IH
Just as the Global Intelligence Files were being released by WikiLeaks (https://wikileaks.org/the-gifiles.html), I received a question: What Is Revolutionary Art Today?, from certain art institution personnel. The word revolution is as political to me as wedding planning. It is a bankrupt term in the financial wars, which we have been intensifying for a while now. The word revolution has a cycle built into it and it is a rhythmical complement to market crashes and bubbles. When I got the question about revolutionary art, Srdja Popovic´ immediately came to mind as the artist that the First World art institution is dreaming of. He goes around the world fomenting revolutions. By walking Srdja from the Kennedy Center to the Carpenter Center, I started to turn him and CANVAS into a work of art. CANVAS, having the ring of art, and the form of consultancy, with the failure it repeats in every event it orchestrates, is already a work of art in the Western sense, because it is useless.

MS
The interview that transpired has been transcribed and rerecorded. In the version created for the Istanbul Biennial, which I just witnessed, we sit in total darkness and listen to the exchange. The voices are no longer yours and Popovic´’s but the ethereal, electronically perfected voices of two women. At one point in the dialogue, precisely the point where you state to Popovic´ that you as an artist and CANVAS, the consultancy, share certain funders, the voices switch. I want to delve into this dark place where art and veiled world domination strategies meet. It seems that as an artist you were being consulted and you went into the realm of consultancy to produce not so much an answer but…

IH
The place that SER is making in Istanbul is blind, engulfed in total darkness. It is meant to demonstrate blindness to the seeing viewer and also demonstrate the advantages of blindness. Blindness cannot immediately tell if something is alive or not, and it makes contact with features of a thing by testing it outside of the optical. In blindness we cannot really tell what is in the room with us. The structural equivalence between Srdja and me is a result of this type of testing. When it is achieved, especially in the realm of finance, the real equalizer in the market sense, the voices switch to emphasize absolute equivalence. The voices I chose to retell the interview are agents of two ideas that form a kind of dialectic.

MS
How so?

IH
Lin Qian is the voice of Siri for Asian markets and does a lot of Apple Inc. Interactive Voice Response. She puts you on hold when you call and institutes waiting. CANVAS is also an agent of waiting; it institutes transition and exports waiting in every country it operates in, from Ukraine to Burma, through Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine again, Syria, Iran. Most of the revolutionary events CANVAS has helped to produce leave transitional capitalism behind and new markets for the First World. CANVAS initiates a new waiting—waiting with a hope that the benefits of capitalism will arrive. The second voice is actress Jennifer Estlin, whom we have selected from over 200 women cast to sound like the replicant Rachel from Blade Runner. She is the voice from how we imagined our future, speaking from a screen-based media environment not unlike ours. We are living in the years of the replicant’s memory implants. In this moment, Rachel is a voice of both past and the future—sirenic, since the sirens know all past and future. They are out of time. If you think about their screen sources, both voices are connected to a kind of opticality, but perhaps more importantly to this dialectic of waiting and timelessness.

MS
I will get back to the sirens in a second. But in terms of time-framing (and I will submit that this is what your work is constantly tarrying with), I was struck by the passage in the dialogue where you (masked in the voice of the replicant) invoke the Nobel Prize laureate Ivo Andric, who thought that there was something worse than dictatorship—namely waiting. Immediately I recalled waiting for the albino Boa Constrictor in your earlier work, Night of the World (2011-13). The slithering of the live and somehow mythical creature removed scratch-off paint covering the bottom of its terrarium to reveal text: testimony of the commander of the Jasenovac concentration camp, which made for great historical provocation when it was first and purportedly self-published in Yugoslavia in 1980. In SER, Popovic´ masked as Sino-Siri is accused of instituting waiting after revolution and you also induce this hoping time by creating a “waiting room” as part of both installations. Which brings me to a Serbian saying that was prominent in the promotional video you shot for the Borosana shoes that were at the center (or shall I say permeating) your work Nine Hour Delay (2012-2058): HOPE IS THE GREATEST WHORE (also the title of a book you published which contains a manifesto against “polite art”). Nine Hour Delay involves the female workforce of an institution wearing ergonomic Borosana shoes developed by the female workforce of the Borovo factory in Vukovar, now Croatia, but at the time of research and development (1960-69) in Yugoslavia. The shoes are good for nine hours of standing or walking. But in your work, set in art institutions, they are used for what we now often call “immaterial labor”, though of course its workforce has bodies. In SER, Borosana shoes reappear on the feet of models in Istanbul and mannequins in Chicago, and the saying HOPE IS THE GREATEST WHORE also returns. There is a constellation of pessimism swirling around your work. (Or shall we call it cynicism in the sense of Diogenes, the dog philosopher (b. 412 or 404 BCE d. 323 BCE.) But there is also a sense of productivism—your ability to put the Borovo factory back to work, effectively perpetuating the state of Yugoslavia which incorporated the enterprise; your collaborations with metalsmiths in Serbia to produce the furniture for the waiting rooms of SER; your work with bespoke fashion patterns from the Mussolini era (worn by the mannequins and models in SER). I don’t want to bring this around to a nice happy resolution. I feel I would be spat upon in the dark if I did. But I wonder if you can say something about the part of your work that tarries with use-value rather than the uselessness that you invoke in CANVAS and in western art…

IH
Hope is the vehicle of waiting. Hope is something that CANVAS needs. By ridding oneself of hope one rids oneself of the cruelty of waiting. It allows for realism, which is not pessimism, but a dark kind of optimism (Diogenes would agree).

MS
So hope is useless. What about your production of useful things?

IH
Nine Hour Delay allows for liberation from hope by mobilizing production and creating another place of demonstration. This demonstration was (is) embodied by wearing the ergonomic shoes and financing the continuous zombification of Yugoslavia. Nine Hour Delay (NHD) has made something half alive, and by delineating between labor and leisure (women wearing the shoes wear them only when working), art work imposes an opposition to the endless labor hours that fill the “new spirit of capitalism.” Under new management (of time and the shoes that clock it) NHD puts capitalism on hold. The women of SER are wearing Borosana shoes and thereby telling time too.

MS
Full disclosure—I still wear the Borosona shoes I procured while we staged Nine Hour Delay at the Logan Center for the Arts for the exhibition “The Fifth Dimension”. In fact, I’m wearing them right now. Can we call this solidarity with your bottom-up approach?

IH
Precisely

MS
I think the other thing buried not too deep under the surface of your work is a mythical space-time. Now can we get back to the sirens?

IH
Every project has an internal clock, its own time that works against the instantaneous loading time of the Western image and the kind of desires that this regime creates. Mythical space-time is a time we can invoke through orality, and occupy instantaneously, because it is our archaic weather. The myth of the sirens becomes a vehicle for SER and other works. The voices are engineered as a device for listening to how history is being made. I think of them as the sirens that seduce by uncanny familiarity (from a voice we talk to when we use our cosmopolitan digital devices to the voice from a cult sci-fi film). The sirenic is also a vehicle of waiting. Sirens are divine. They do not eat the sailors, they waste them to death. This wasting stands for the waiting, transition and sucking the life out of things (making things art in the Western sense).

MS
On the back cover of your book carrying your manifesto, which I won’t quote here, but which I would simply summarize as being “on the punishing side of the sirens,” you have a quote from Ivo Andric’s Black Notebook, written in Belgrade in 1948: “To the West: When you say that we are cultured people, you actually mean that we understand the subtleties and complexities of your culture. You mean that we should dream your dreams, since you do not have or acknowledge any others, but that we should live our own lives, since we cannot have yours.” Outside the space of the West, outside of the time of waiting, there seems to be a blind spot, or a dark space, which allows for a different dream. The question becomes how can this be imagined?

IH
Yes.