Posting as a Calling | kulturpunkt

English Essay

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Posting as a Calling

Željko Badurina is the artist of the middle generation who has, in Croatian and regional context, been most fully engaged in dispatching his work on the internet’s social networks.

by: Bojan Krištofić

Is it possible to question the primacy of artistic expression in the seemingly infinite space of the internet without getting entangled in the paradoxes of the relationship between authenticity and originality in relation to the logic of copying, multiplying, dividing, reshuffling, cut-and-paste and other media procedures specific to cyberspace? The answer is probably negative, but it is also irrelevant for reflecting on the (visual) art whose life cycle, from creation to dissemination, takes place (almost) exclusively online. Partly due to the variety of reasons for the creation of images and meanings circulating the Web 2.0 (from mere jokes to agitation and propaganda, etc.), partly due to the great variety of formats they are distributed in, and therefore an increasing amount of different, horizontally expanding information, it is very troublesome, and perhaps unnecessary, to draw a line and declare that one thing is art, while another isn’t. One of the recent examples that most complexly and poetically illustrates how the museological context of contemporary art is walking on thin ice, always burdened with materiality despite all the conceptual and post-conceptual tendencies, is an event that took place in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco in the late May of 2016. The symbolism of this wondrous case wouldn’t have been nearly as important if it hadn’t gone viral on social networks (especially Twitter), with direct participation of "physical" and virtual audience, whose reception was actually crucial for establishing it as a work of art.

While touring the museum exhibition, two teenagers, sixteen-year-old Kevin Nguyen and seventeen-year-old TJ Khayatan, decided to pull a prank on other visitors and the management of the institution. Khayatan simply put Nguyen’s glasses on the floor of the gallery, with an A4 paper containing some official text on the wall above it. Hiding nearby, they photographed the reactions of the audience, who eagerly photographed their intervention (believing it was an exhibit), and promptly posted them to Twitter. Of course, there were reactions. The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones said that the glasses in the gallery were not only a work of art, but a masterpiece, while Twitter user Rhymes & Oils suggested that the authors brand and sell the glasses as a museum souvenir. Whatever our evaluation of this act of spontaneous transformation of entrenched notions of contemporary art, the fact is that its authors once again underlined the following: at a time when the virtual and the material sphere equally constitute human reality, anyone with an internet connection is invited to broadcast whatever content s/he wants to the world, and "the world" needs to decide how to position itself, through a reaction of its defence mechanisms, or the gradual transformation of its own mode of functioning. Of course, it’s a two-way process, and many formally educated artists realized long ago that the Internet is a powerful tool for the distribution of their work, suitable for partially ignoring standard, institutional presentations of art - a tendency present in the mid-nineties, for example, in the work of the informal international group net.art (Vuk Ćosić, Jodi.org, Alexei Shulgin, Olia Lialina etc.). In the Croatian and regional context, the individual artist of the middle generation who has been most fully engaged in dispatching his work on the internet’s social networks, so much so that we can consider him a leader, if not a pioneer, is certainly Željko Badurina.

I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that Badurina had a good, hearty laugh at the prank pulled by the San Francisco teenagers, since erasing the borders between the material and the virtual, making humorous and satirical critiques of the worlds of art, and inviting the audience to directly participate in the genesis of an artwork are the basic settings of his modus operandi. The last feature has been a constant in the artist's work since the nineties, but what changed were the media he used to send the audience his messages, sometimes particularly intimate or obscure, intended for a specific, small circle of people, and sometimes consciously populist, to be easily and instantly read, aimed at the general public. Depending on its social function, each work of art from the Paleolithic to the present day has without a doubt been made with a specific recipient in mind, at least in the role of consumer or commentator. But Internet art, and therefore Badurina’s art, usually counts on participants, and highly depends on them for its scope, its meaning, and even (as we have seen in the example of Glasses in the gallery) its very nature, which is perhaps more fluid than ever in the history of art. Badurina certainly knows this very well, and although he usually only publishes completed and polished images on the web, they wouldn’t be what they are, nor would the whole (greater than the sum of its parts) be complete and meaningful without the exhaustive feedback of other users of social networks, who themselves post content hierarchically equal to his on their profiles. In his own way, which is quite specific, Željko Badurina in the end does what so many other internet chroniclers do – he captures the reality with the same intensity with which it flows, so that his notes are no longer just its mirror; they are a different, but logical form of the same reality.

The passion with which he has in recent years embraced the internet as his primary art platform is primarily a testimony to Badurina’s vibrant creative curiosity. Born in 1966, Badurina got a classical art education, graduating in 1996 from the graphics department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb in Professor Miroslav Šutej’s class. My personal interest in the author's work coincided with the rise in the intensity of his Facebook communication, although Badurina’s virtual work stems directly from his analog oeuvre, especially his years-long series Post-Art. It is made up of authorial postal cards that Badurina started sending to select addresses back in 2005, exactly one year after Facebook was launched and a year before today’s most important social network started rapidly growing in popularity. Although Badurina realized a number of different exhibitions and projects during his two decades of artistic work, and his pieces can be found in relevant private collections of Croatian contemporary art (among other places), in the rest of this text I will focus on the author's Facebook Art as the most recent, still-growing segment of his opus, and the above-mentioned analog project as a kind of "entry" into the artist's reflection on the possibilities of the internet.

In greeting cards and postcards sent as part of the Post-Art project, Badurina highlighted several thematic fields, which he continued developing on Facebook with relentless intensity. First, there is the self-referential reflection on his authorial position with regard to the social, economic, political and other contexts of art and culture production; and, therefore, the questioning and provocation of the local art scene, which Badurina views from a satirical, but, in principle, sympathetic angle. Second, there is the absorption of mass media and society of the spectacle influences, which Badurina, on the one hand, mocks in his photomontages, but, on the other, qualitatively brings to a rank equivalent to contemporary art, perceiving them as legitimate expressions of the culture of the broad population, whose reception he also indirectly targets, i.e. predicts the potential of this reception happening. And the third, which is based on the logic of the second, is moving the boundary between "beautiful" art and so-called kitsch in the aesthetic sense, which takes Željko Badurina’s work to the edge of camp, never crossing the line. Big words aside, having perfected the concept in the Post-Art series, Badurina repurposed it for Facebook, keeping in mind that in this way his subversively funny rebuses address a much wider circle of people than sending mail to individual, well-known addresses. Although the distribution of work via Facebook has its limits, with greater possibility of immediate feedback comes greater risk for the artist. In a world where there are fewer and fewer users between the satire’s author and its target audience, yearning for the followers’ mass reaction is a double-edged sword, because as quickly as they can elevate a certain work, they can also bury it or, even more lethally - ignore it (although Badurina’s Facebook work has so far mainly been met with approval). But the paradoxical nature of the Internet is also reflected in the change in the artist's creative responsibility - since the vast amount of information causes a negative entropy of its totality, it is liberating to know that whatever you post will soon inevitably be squeezed out by the new and even newer. But does this not create an unrealistic pressure that everything you post has to be fateful?

Knowing that the virtual environment is not really the safest place for storing important information raises the question of how to preserve and create an alternative public archive of the art produced on the internet, and whether it is necessary at all, given its highly consumerist nature (another interesting paradox!). Badurina responds to this by periodically organizing offline exhibitions of his online works, and two of them stood out this year as reasons to critically evaluate the author's Facebook opus: his participation in the collective exhibition T-HT award@MSU.HR (in March 2016) and the solo exhibition Lajk end šer (Like and share) in the Gallery Forum (in April and May 2016). While the MSU exhibition only presented the most representative selection from the couple of thousands of Badurina’s Facebook pieces, the Forum set up "a little bit of everything" - the so-called memes (separate images, usually photomontages with comic clouds as bearers of simple dialogue between characters) with accompanying comments from other Facebookers, video-works (mostly self-ironic, very funny diary notes), as well as footage and photos from the series Weekend painter (where Badurina generously gives the audience instructions on how to paint a perfect and commercially potent painting), selected posts from the series Nulla dies sine linea and Thoughts for a day, and so on. Seeing the .jpgs we previously scrolled through on Facebook walls printed and hung on gallery walls was a strange experience; and the shift from one medium to the other on this occasion didn’t seem as natural as one might expect, showing that presenting such art in a gallery environment takes more than materializing a collection of virtual content, because it leaves out what we previously identified as crucial for art on the internet - direct interaction with participants which is immediately documented. Although this opens Facebook-Art to an audience that is not (yet) on social networks, it’s certain that a lot is lost in its relocation from its natural habitat, especially a dose of casualness and spontaneity that to this day characterizes this kind of virtual communication. Which leads us to the question from the beginning, rephrased: is a certain piece of internet work art if it justifies its showing in a different context, thus proving its universality? But is it not wrong to evaluate a specific type of art using criteria that are outside of it and don’t take into account that which is immanent to it? Is the audience (layman or professional) therefore the final demiurge of art on the Internet, the only one who can show the extent to which a piece may be layered, and thus express all its complexity? As we can see, there is no light and simple answer as of yet, and it’s possible there won’t be one. 

Željko Badurina, whose artistic credo we’ve used this time as a pretext for ontological-poetic reflections, might not care too much about the whole thing. His satire is universal in its approach, and particular from one case to the next - some resonate with more people, and some with fewer, but that was the idea from the start. The author who meticulously thinks about the reactions of the audience, consciously trying to inspire and direct them, and attract them to participate (although he never fully predicts the course of this process), might be the paradigmatic example of an online artist – the one who knows that communication is the beginning and end of all creation.

Translated from Croatian by Lana Pukanić

Objavio/la vatroslav [at] kulturpunkt.hr 22.12.2016