New Dynamics: “The Big Shift” at Moderna Galerija

New Dynamics: “The Big Shift” at Moderna Galerija

Moderna galerija

October 3, 2019
Tjaša Pogačar
Moderna galerija
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In the last week of August, a small international crowd gathered at Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana for the launch of “The Big Shift: The 1990s. Avant-Gardes in Eastern Europe and Their Legacy.” Tote bags distributed for the occasion printed with the slogans “After the Cold War Global Warming” and “I Live in a Postmodern, Neoliberal, Former Something Global World” set the tone for discussions to come. 1 “The Big Shift” was the second edition of Summer School, an initiative begun by Moderna Galerija director and curator Zdenka Badovinac and theorist Boris Groys, who served as the program’s director. Part of the institution’s participation in the four-year L’Internationale initiative “Our Many Europes – Europe’s critical ’90s and the Constituent Museum,” Summer School was designed for postgraduate students and art professionals with an interest in research in Eastern European art and the legacy of its avant-garde. “The Big Shift” emphasized specifically the 1990s and the major sociopolitical and economic transformations that defined the period and continue to influence the present. Thirty-six participants, most from Europe and the United States, embarked on a dense seven-day program of public lectures and closed-door workshops, guided tours, institutional visits, presentations, an exhibition opening, a performance, and a live-action role play exercise. 2 And though the program looked back at the recent past, “The Big Shift,” and the kind of programs it is emblematic of, offers considerable insight into the future of learning with art.

Both the first Summer School, “Constructing Utopia: Eastern European Avant-Gardes and Their Legacy,” which focused on neo-avant-gardes of the mid- to late twentieth century, and “The Big Shift” were intended to serve as introductions to an extensive exhibition on avant-gardes that Moderna Galerija is currently developing with Groys. Conceived initially as a two-year project, the Summer Schools were so well-received by international participants—more than 130 professionals applied this year—that Moderna Galerija hopes to organize future editions. Indeed, many members of this year’s cohort participated in the first Summer School, with fifteen provided scholarships by the museum and collaborators Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory and the ERSTE Foundation. Based on the participants’ feedback after the program concluded, “The Big Shift” offered a stimulating and engaging learning environment that allowed for enriching intellectual exchanges underlined by a sense of camaraderie and care. Full immersion in the school, however, resulted in relative exhaustion among the participants after seven twelve-hour days of lectures and workshops with international art historians, artists, curators, and theorists including Inke Arns, Zdenka Badovinac, Sezgin Boynik, Boris Buden, Branislav Dimitrijević, Keti Chukhrov, Eda Čufer, Charles Esche, Marko Jenko, Viktor Misiano, Marko Peljhan, Bojana Piškur, Walid Raad, Igor Španjol, Anton Vidokle, Martina Vovk, and Arseny Zhilyaev. Most events took place at Moderna Galerija and the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, but extramural sessions included a Walid Raad performance staged for Festival Mladi Levi and meetings around Ljubljana with protagonists of the city’s NGO scene—another legacy of the 1990s—such as Vuk Čosić, Ljudmila Art and Science Laboratory, SCCA-Ljubljana Centre for Contemporary Arts (a successor to the Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts – Ljubljana), Maska Institute, and International Festival of Contemporary Arts–City of Women, among others.

The contours of the world that emerged from the geopolitical ruptures of 1989 and the early 1990s gave shape to much of Summer School’s discussion, as theorists from both the East and the West developed positions on this dynamic change and how artists and curators strategized within it. From the challenging schedule of thought-provoking and critical discussions, four major topics emerged: the global expansion of neoliberalism and related changes in cultural production in the region and beyond; the war in the Balkans and its influence on the work of artists and institutions; Eastern European art, identity politics in the 1990s, and the rise of new nationalist and populist movements in Europe today; and various current global alliances operating beyond centers of power. On this last note, “The Big Shift” drew specifically on the history of the Non-Aligned Movement and offered a guided tour and workshop dedicated to the concurrent exhibition “Southern Constellations: The Poetics of the Non-Aligned,” curated by Bojana Piškur at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova.

In his lecture “’Labor’ Market: Post-Soviet Art through the Prism of the Shuttle Traders Model,” Arseny Zhilyaev considered the labor and lives of the first private entrepreneurs trading foreign goods at street markets in post-Soviet Russia as a possible model for understanding the activity of the Russian art community. Working with deficits, readiness to risk, and mobility were tendencies shared by shuttle traders and “shuttle intellectuals” alike, the latter travelling abroad and bringing back information, trends, and theories that were exchanged in their local contexts for symbolic capital. Viktor Misiano, a curator and critic based in Moscow, described the decade as an extremely complex historical period that could not be exhausted with a single definition. The sudden collapse of the socialist system and its related social and institutional structures resulted in a void filled by a certain euphoria and, later, a rapid succession of megalomaniacal projects in both political and art spheres. Even before they were realized, these projects were often replaced by new, even grander ones. “The 1990s were a decade of transition which endlessly prolonged the transitionary phase” Misiano explained in his lecture, “The Russian 1990s: Dialectics of the Transitional Period from Nowhere to Nowhere.” Culture reflected political ambitions and dynamics: Moscow Actionists (Alexander Brener, Oleg Kulik, and Anatoly Osmolovsky) obsessively repeated the revolutionary gesture of rupture with the past that caused the big shift, and reenacted the overproduction of catastrophes that reflected the era’s official political strategies. The political task of building a democratic society based on a market economy was also taken on by the art community, which expected the 1990s to bring a new market-based art system, and “provide conditions they considered canonic, and which they were observing on the international art scene,” Misiano remembered. However, due in part to the conditions caused by the collapse of political and cultural institutions and the consequent loss of mediation between artistic activity and representation, a “community” based on friendship emerged. This particular community, which substituted for a larger functioning society and was forgotten as soon as the decade ended, remains the most valuable legacy of the 1990s, Misiano said, calling for its reevaluation.

The drastic sociopolitical changes experienced by the now former socialist countries in the East were definitively not shared by their neighbors in Western Europe. Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, devised his inspiring and self-critical lecture “Places for Art to Happen” as a reflection on his “personal institutional history” to offer a relativizing look at the 1990s in Western Europe. He noted the lack of critical consideration and debate by art institutions in Western Europe at the time, which had favored, instead, artistic and curatorial endeavors that were uncomfortably close to neoliberal ideas and aspirations. The sentiment of Francis Fukuyama’s end of history prevailed and was “really hard to push against,” Esche said, illustrating his point with a 2005 work by Olof Olsson that asks, “Why run if you’re already there.” 3 At the same time, making local art visible on the new, global map of contemporary art became an essential concern for many underrepresented spaces. The work done in Ljubljana, especially the activities of Moderna Galerija, Esche said, “was a unique attempt to set a parallel narrative that was not the narrative coming from the centers and was not about inclusion.”

Central to Summer School’s curriculum was the Arteast 2000+ Collection, initiated in the 1990s by Badovinac and realized with the help of advisors Misiano, Piotr Piotrowski, Harald Szeemann, and Igor Zabel. In the new social and political circumstances of the 1990s, Moderna Galerija internationalized its collection, moving beyond its original focus on only Slovenian artists, and positioned itself regionally and internationally as the first institution to systematically collect Eastern European neo-avant-garde art. Concurrently, the institution acquired works by well-known Western (mostly European) artists to establish a dialogue between Europe’s East and other regions. Through various installations of selected works from Arteast 2000+ and different curatorial approaches—repeating exhibitions, for example—Moderna Galerija has been able to address different circumstances that frame cultural production regionally (like the conditions of contemporary art and local cultural politics) while using the collection as means of self-reflection (such as defining the idea of the museum of contemporary art and contemporaneity and deconstructing expertise). By exhibiting and researching works in the collection, the museum provides insight into historical and current sociopolitical contexts and urgencies related to Eastern European art and the means necessary to articulate a different model of cultural production. As Badovinac wrote for exhibition “Low Budget Utopias”: “A museum that seeks to transcend its role as the representative of state power or capital interests can do this only by integrating a self-critical stance in the content of its work.” 4

Shortly after “The Big Shift” concluded, Badovinac explained that the museum uses its collection as a tool for thinking and for producing knowledge about the region to help answer the question of how to go forward. “It is a case study for an alternative institution, which holds universal relevance” she said, pointing out that the “museum is actually a performative museum that reacts to different urgencies in real time.” When asked about the role that a program like Summer School might play for the museum institution, especially one with such a specific curatorial approach, Badovinac clarified that it provides Moderna Galerija another way of disseminating knowledge contained within its collection while simultaneously serving as a tool for building new alliances and collaborations with international partners—the mentors and students of “The Big Shift.” “The school is thus also a tool for building an international community which relates to the topics Moderna Galerija is interested in, that is, it not only enables the participants to access our knowledge, but allows us to learn from them as well,” Badovinac said.

One of the benefits of instituting a summer school program in a museum is the possibility for the reciprocal exchange of knowledge between the museum and international participants, who are figured here as potential coproducers of knowledge, partners of the museum institution and its “constituencies”—a term used several times during the summer school. With this in mind, “The Big Shift” could be positioned somewhere between the curatorial and museum-educational, both influenced by the legacy of the educational turn in contemporary art and pointing to the future of museum education as envisioned by the idea of the “constituent museum,” which analyzes “what is commonly known as education, mediation, or interpretation within museum institutions.” This institutional model was explored in a recent book of the same name edited by John Byrne (John Moores University, Liverpool), Elinor Morgan (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), November Paynter (Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto), Aida Sánchez de Serdio (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya), and Adela Železnik (Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana), all members of the confederation L’Internationale. In an essay introducing the concept of the constituent museum, the editors write that it “figures the visitor not as a passive receiver of predefined content but as a member of a constituent body, who it facilitates, provokes, and inspires.” 5 However, for viewers to be empowered—and for the institution to be open to their influence—museums would need to “renegotiate certain levels of control in collaboration with their constituencies or, at the very least […] begin to problematize previously received wisdoms surrounding traditional and sedimented forms of operational logic.” 6 The realization of such a radical proposition would require equally radical formal restructuring of the institution and is, as such, not yet achievable. A summer school wedded to a museum institution—should it continue in the future—nevertheless could assist in this process. In a project-oriented and results-driven contemporary art system where participation is often a euphemism for unpaid labor, the focus of “The Big Shift” on learning and not on producing or developing a project should be considered a benefit, as one of the participants, art critic and curator Jakub Gawkowski, emphasized.

Recent years have seen an increase in parallel art education programs in the post-Yugoslav region—WHW Academy, Zagreb; “What Could/Should Curating Do,” Belgrade; “Summer School as School,” Prishtina—and it is tempting to assume that such educational formats supplement contemporary art education in contexts where formal education might be lacking or is underfunded or underdeveloped. The answer is not that simple. The conditions in art education and its institutional support differ significantly throughout the region, and an evaluation of the extent to which parallel school programs compensate for the shortcomings of formal education—if at all—would have to be grounded in a more in-depth analysis than this text can offer. What is evident, however, is that such programs provide a means for the internationalization of the local scenes as well as temporary networking opportunities, or at least aim to do so. Such a capacity could be considered a response to persistent shortcomings of local art systems that lack proper institutionalized entry points to a highly professionalized global art world. By bringing prominent international speakers and young professionals and internationally relevant topics and practices to local contexts, they supply the latter with temporary but highly necessary points of access and connection to international contexts.

Meeting potential collaborators from different countries and, in short, expanding one’s professional (but also informal) networks are primary benefits and expected outcomes for students of Summer School. “Being with people whom you had not known but whose interests and sensitivity are extremely relevant to you and encounters like this are crucial for building transnational alliances,” Gawkowski said, adding that such parallel educational programs create international platforms for the exchange of knowledge, thus overcoming its fragmentation by offering the means “to connect the global circuit of art professionals with different local scenes.” Summer School, along with similar programs organized by various other art institutions and platforms worldwide, he said, “are often a chance to decentralize knowledge production from main academic or cultural centers. However, I feel like sometimes those programs (intentionally or not) become a way to maintain the power of centers over the peripheries, and set up the narrative.”

“The Big Shift” meanwhile provided temporary local embeddedness while propelling global mobility and circulation through its precise thematic focus and strong connection to other activities of Moderna Galerija, like its research interests and Arteast 2000+. Regarding the specific curriculum of “The Big Shift,” Gawkowski noted the importance of the host institution’s activity in the period the program critically reflected on. Moderna Galerija was engaged then in constructing “a narrative, and now (among others, by organizing the summer school) it’s also self-historicizing its own position.” Learning from scholars and curators active in the 1990s who supplemented the narrative about the period, “in which often it is the periphery that is more interesting than the center,” Gawkowski said, enriched the program as a whole. Still, he added, “It’s [the students’] job to remain critical towards their narratives.” Darja Filippova, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Princeton University who attended “The Big Shift,” found such a focused curriculum very important and Moderna Galerija an inspiring place: “You feel like there is a possibility for art to make a change in the world, and to act out one’s ideas.”

While drawing comparisons with academia and more traditional programs, the historical role of alternative programs in shaping the future of art education must be considered. Since the 1960s, various projects advocating for alternative approaches to education and related to the endeavors of institutional critique have called for the democratization of education and the development of anti-hegemonic teaching methods. In Eastern Europe, samizdat forms and self-organized educational activities staged in private apartments and other noninstitutional settings enabled the circulation of knowledge and information that was prohibited by the state authorities. The role of such self-organized educational projects shifted after the political changes of 1989. Functioning at first as alternatives to the official cultural policies of socialist regimes, which varied greatly in quality and content, they came to supplement public education as parallel or independent educational projects. “With the increasing bureaucratization and commodification of education, and especially with the general decline of humanities, alternative/parallel/independent forms of education become very urgently needed,” explained Branislav Dimitrijević, one of “The Big Shift” lecturers who has been engaged in many self-organized educational initiatives. “Especially if this education is understood as a multi-perspectival and trans-disciplinary exchange that may lead to some form of challenging and emancipatory thinking. Art education is particularly affected by these processes.” However, a “bigger shift” in art education in the 1990s might have been the transformation of art institutions into educational platforms in which alternative educational formats, programs, and methods took on curatorial practices.

The future of art institutions and the future of alternative educational formats are, of course, connected, not antagonistically or symbiotically so but on mutually informative and transformative terms. Near the end of our conversation, Badovinac said that

education within museums should be considered not in the sense of building a counter-educational process, but rather in terms of changing the institution of the museum itself, which is becoming increasingly a hybrid between a museum in the traditional sense (with a collection, archives, etc.) and a school. Although this is nothing new, I think that with the strong emphasis on discursivity from the 1960s onwards, there is a great need for interdisciplinarity, which is reflected first and foremost by artistic practice. I always say that not only did I learn from the artists, but the institution did as well; the institution learns from artists inadvertently, whether the curators want to admit it or not. Since the inception of the museum of modern art, art has been a key influence on the model of the institution. Of course, this can be problematized by how the institution instrumentalized certain art, but I think it is more about organic processes of mutual influence. Just as art adapts to the institution and the market when it works for them, so the institution adapts its architecture and all its services to certain artistic practices and introduces into its vision also the artistic mindset. These processes are very much intertwined.

“The Big Shift” is a (still unclear) sign of institutional transformations rather than shifts in education in general, but it offers a possibility for speculating on how such an institutional approach, if implemented as a norm, could influence the future of art education. Radek Przedpełski, a participant in “The Big Shift” who has extensive academic experience and is not optimistic about the future of art education in academic settings, offered his own vision: “If I can see a future of art education, it lies with pragmatic intensive groupings such as summer schools affiliated with actual art institutions which create a real community and a potential for change.” The history of alternative educational practices is closely connected to concerns of community and transformational change, but the summer school format’s future as a venue for organizing these activities remains to be seen. Perhaps by assisting broader institutional and art educational change, the adoption of the summer school format might gradually transform dominant practices and relations within contemporary art while creating spaces where new forms of community, however impermanent, can be imagined.

Tjaša Pogačar


The quotes are from Dan Perjovschi’s work “In 1990 we spoke about freedom, now we speak about money,” on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana since 2011.


The LARP workshop, “IMT’s Ljubljana Training,” was led by Arseny Zhilyaev’s Institute for Mastering of Time.


Olsson’s work was presented in the 2005 exhibition “Whatever Happened to Social Democracy?,” curated by Charles Esche at Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art.


Zdenka Badovinac, “Low-Budget Utopias” .


John Byrne et al., “The Constituent Museum,” in The Constituent Museum: Constellations of Knowledge, Politics and Mediation: A Generator of Social Change, eds. John Byrne et al. (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018), 11.


Ibid, 13.

Education, Museums, Avant-Garde, Contemporary Art
Soviet Union, Neoliberalism, Curating, Eastern Europe

Tjaša Pogačar is an independent curator and writer based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. She is a member of Šum, a journal and platform for art and theory where she has developed projects related to alternative formats of presentation, interpretation, and (self)organizing within contemporary art since 2013. Her writing has appeared in various Slovenian journals and in publications produced by Zavod P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E., Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, and L’Internationale, among others.


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