|Hermann Noering, curator and co-director Electronic
Media Art Festival - EMAF, Osnabrueck, Germany:
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak, Reality Is Out
(catalogue text from exhibition MOVE Forward - New Mexican and European Media Art, Halle, Germany)
With their installations, videos and images, the Slovenian artists Nika Oblak and Primoz Novak query in witty and ironical fashion the consumerism of modern capitalism and the way the media generate norms and realities. In their new piece Reality is Out, Oblak and Novak create a reality, which is not a complex of physical entities but rather a reductive sign. In one performance video they build and paint a sign with the word "Reality". At the end of the short performance they hold it up and issue the message to the "outside". Their sign appears within the exhibition space, whereas they themselves remain within the medial.
The duo's performance is not before an audience but rather repeats continually in film on an LCD monitor in a box. The only problem is that the sign over their heads is too large for the picture frame. By means of pneumatic mechanics it edges out of the world of 2D video and into the world of the viewer. "Reality" becomes an object and part of our three-dimensional reality, or at least of what we prefer to regard as such. Reality has however disappeared from the medial world of the performance; reality is out.
In earlier installations, Oblak and Novak already connected their performances with pneumatics, joining the virtual space of the medial to the three-dimensional space of the Real. With The Box, Box 2, Box 3 and Sisyphus Actions, short film sequences are used to probe the spreading out of movement beyond the picture frame into the world of objects. As protagonists in their own films they can indeed stretch the rubber outer skin of their monitors, but they can't escape them. They remain the content of their mediums and those mediums' surfaces.
Reality is Out is the latest in a series of works characterised by machine-like, unending repetition of scenes deploying factory rhythms. Nika Oblak's and Primoz Novak's humour is reflected in their works. A subtle wit is common to all their videos, images and installations, illuminating the absurdity and the blind spots of the Real in order to render cognitive understanding possible. Instead of offering solutions the artists intensify the absurdity until a means of illumination begins to emerge. Their occasionally black humour combines with the melancholic sense of being stuck in a situation with (almost) no way out.
Oblak's and Novak's work can be read according to their motto "contemporary art is nothing but a business but we take it as a joke". As artists they regard themselves as part of a social system based on unconditional consumption with a capitalist face in which media present the pursuit of maximal accumulation of material wealth as the meaning of existence. According to Guy Debord, an important reference for Oblak and Novak, consumer capitalism transforms everything into a superficial spectacle. The consumer is more or less an appendage and the passive end point of the product, whose promise of happiness already fades at the instant of purchase. But another product is always immediately available to renew the promise. In this pseudo-world of harried consumerism reality becomes invisible and repression latent. The media are the main vehicle of this "society of the spectacle", controlling the individuals' desires by means of stereotypes, images and ideology. Yet the content of the media is less decisive than the fundamental structures of media itself. Structure in fact determines content. The form of media inscribes itself into its messages. Media shape society.
"The medium is the message", as we know since McLuhan. The system message of media, their "operating system" itself, conditions community, dictating norms, rules and codes of behaviour that barely anyone can free themselves from. And it is not alone techno-media that form reality. Already with the beginning of language, the first human-made images and the emergence of writing human reality constructs itself according to the requirements of these sign systems. Writing was the precondition for larger systems of dominance, shaping trade in process of expanding and the states in process of formation. Much later, book printing altered society and its members, shifting class distinctions and pushing economic development. Oblak and Novak play with this structural context. In Reality is Out, it is not the protagonists who escape the media frame, but rather the sign "reality", which breaks into reality while at the same time putting in question our notion of reality.
Here they follow Slavoj Zizek, who has again and again emphasized with verve that wit, jest and the openness of playful action can open up little windows to "truth" for subjects in a constructed reality. Otherwise, the individual, so Zizek closely following Lacan, is entirely controlled by desire and from the triad of the Symbolic, the Real and the Imaginary. Human wants are controlled by consumerism as the engine of modern capitalism, while the media are both guardians and the tarted up world in which we live. Global pop culture and American dominated cinema in particular are like the photo wallpaper of this holding cell, concealing its true character. The signs obtain autonomy; the world of signs becomes the simulacrum (Baudrillard) of a world caught in self-reference. Reality remains illusion, since people are unable to tell apart the Real from the Symbolic. At the instant the "Reality" sign moves out of the box it designates the reality of the viewer as such. The artists' hope of obtaining an instrument of knowledge rests on this humoristic tautology. Like Zizek, Oblak and Novak also seek artistic strategies to undermine the constant seduction, without resorting to moralistic, ideological argument.
The combination of robot mechanics with message-bearing signs already belonged to their praxis prior to Reality is Out. The mobile robots from Activists (2011) carry signs with protest phrases reminiscent of occupy and outrage movements, though chiefly appropriating the protest culture of the Situationist International from the 1960s, in which Guy Debord was a central figure. The machines make demands like "Defend The Right To Protest", "Give Me Back My Future" and "Time's Up", moving freely within the exhibition spaces of the art world. Consequent on their social analysis, the artists view the machines as bearers of free social expression and as the legitimate occupiers of public space, while humans petrify in sedentary consumerism. The apparatuses lay claim to the subjective freedom of volition that German romantic philosophers ascribed exclusively to humans. In this sense, reality has "really" jumped out of the box, Pandora's box, which serves not to conceal the uncanny but to cultivate our illusions. Outside is the rule of the uncomprehended, disorder, horror. Reality Is Out - but we prefer to remain inside.
Jovana Stokic, curator Abramovic Studio, Location One, New York, USA:
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak, Absolutely Fabulous 5
(text from solo exhibition Absolutely Fabulous 5, MC Gallery, New York, USA)
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak humorously explore contemporary media in our capital driven society as they dissect its visual and linguistic structure. Their works draw parallels between the commercial and the art world. They inhabit the role of standardized individuals within these worlds. Nika and Primoz start from the premise: ”Contemporary art is nothing but a business, we take it as a joke.'' As we accept that the art world remains structured as a set of multiple hegemonic systems, What is to be done? The two artists, a couple in their private life, have been working as an artist’s cooperative since 2003. They work with the notion of the artist as a brand: even their notion of retrospective is ironically intoned: this is the fifth iteration of the “absolutely fabulous” duo. They explain that the title Absolutely Fabulous referred initially to their movie trailers Shund and Cab Driver, and the series of posters Coming Soon. Although not all their Absolutely Fabulous exhibitions were retrospectives, artists like to keep the title: “We just like to keep the same title for several shows, since it is like with a good movie, where no. 2 is made immediately when no. 1 succeeds.”
Nika and Primoz position themselves as protagonists in a media saturated environments, rather than creators of fine arts products. In the practice that comprises of video, photography, installation and new media they use advertising visual tactics to lure the consumer – in this case to subvert the seduction by activating the viewer’s response. There is no product that is seductively pitched – the set of visual tactics are employed in a “emperor’s new clothes” fashion. The title of the show becomes thus their artistic credo: the dictate to be absolutely fabulous refer to constant competition in our contemporary late capitalist consumerist society. The artists feel the pressure: “We have to be the best in something, have the best lifestyle or best car... Consumerism is keeping one in the frame of ego, we work more and more to be able to shop more...” Art practice thus becomes a strategy of resistance, accessible to the viewers. In the series We Did This and That, Nika and Primoz subverted the idea of endurance performance by replacing it with an image. There is no action behind the image – the performance never happened – it is simulated for the camera. This is their idiosyncratic seductive representational strategy - alluring and arresting, the images lure the viewers to consume them. In fact,” there is no there there”: actions have never happened, the end result is the image showing the protagonists. The reality of the image is the only one that exists – simulacrum prevails. The metastases of enjoyment continue.
Paula Orrell, curator Plymouth Arts Centre, UK:
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak, Do They, or Don't They?
(catalogue text from exhibition Future Relevance, Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Architecture / Urbanism, B10, Shenzhen, China)
Playful and inventive moments curiously unfold the ideas behind Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak. The humorous, films, sculptures, robots, question the ambiguity of reality and fiction in the domain of everyday life. In copying with and also playing with cultural phenomena they suggest the blurring of reality in mediated society.
Protagonist and placing themselves at the centre of the work, they construct situations to confuse and deliberately unsettle common perception. In this new work ‘Activists’, is a consequence of the circuits of power than representational of true democracy. The idea of democracy has become globally autocratic. The robots hold banners stating that democracy is a fallacy. What state of governance does work, what does pure democracy look like?
The value of art and cultural production is also an important aspect to their work. To reveal the systems that are ever omnipotent and that the art world has become victim of. The construct of production not just only in art is part of the Sisyphus effect of the global economy. The impact on the market is a prospect for China. However, the consequence is critical in an overlaboured and saturated market.
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak clashes together a parody of media, the world of contemporary art and contemporary cults. Theorist such as Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd is a text that analyzed with meaningful insights the implicit philosophy behind the dark humour. Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, Esslin argues that their work conveys the stark reality of existence, which the human condition is to seek purpose in a purposeless life. Absurd drama attacks religious, political and social convention in order to show the difficult truth.
Irena Cercnik, curator Center for Contemporary Arts Celje, Slovenia:
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak, Sisyphus Actions
(catalogue text from exhibition Sculpture Today, Contemporary Art Gallery, Celje, Slovenia)
By employing the visual language typical of advertising and consumerist mass culture, and through humor and irony, Nika Oblak and Primoz Novak deal with the society of late capitalism, of consumerism, of the general commodification and of the media construction of reality. They speak about the commercialization of society, about the decisive influence of mass media on the shaping of public culture, about the media production of representative individuals, about the expansion of fascination over celebrity, fame and success, and about the non-critical individual who considers important those contents, images and patterns presented as such by the media. They make fun of social stereotypes and question, by way of parody, absurd and funny actions and deeds, both their own position and role within the world of art as well as the functioning of the world of art and, and above all, of its marketing processes. They apply various kinds of media, in particular video, photography and installation, and often take the role of the main and only actors in their works, performing different roles and situational scenes.
Their most recent work, Sisyphus Actions, presented at this exhibition, is a three-unit video installation composed of a rubber box, an LCD TV, a pneumatic mechanism and a compressor. An accurate synchronization between the digital image and the pneumatic system allows the 2D image to be transferred into a 3D space: the consequence of each action performed by the artists in the video results in a convexity on the box’s surface. The artists achieve the illusion of the real and the state of absurdity by merging video image with haptic effects and by continuous repetition of nonsensical actions, respectively. Representing the state of being stuck in an endless situation, the work is an allegory of the contemporary way of life, of the state of being caught up in the consumerist mentality, in the desire for the new and better, in a constant need for accumulating material goods. The work speaks about the state of being stuck in an everyday routine where, as the authors explain, people work more and more in order to be able to consume more. Sisyphus Actions is a work in which the artists, who have been working in tandem since 2002, reflect upon capitalist society through the use of a purified and carefully thought out formal language, with attention being paid to the smallest detail, and through the use of technology that allows for innovative special effects.
Susanne Altmann, curator, art historian, art critic, Dresden, Germany:
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak, Absolutely Fabulous
(text from solo exhibition Absolutely Fabulous, Motorenhalle, Dresden, Germany)
The trailer of Quentin Tarantino's cult movie „Pulp Fiction“ starts. Who has seen it before, will be able to identify every single scene. But there is this strange and striking similarity of the main characters: Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak themselves slip into all female and male leading roles of the film, they copy setting after setting, using the title „Shund“. The same happens with the cinematographic advertisement of the classic „Taxi Driver“, here introduced as its new version „Cab Driver“.
In their recent movie remakes, that are completes by stylish posters, Oblak & Novak again ask the question for the source and the expiration date of fame, but at the same time that of how the audience is influenced by the media. They state: „In this way we subject ourselves to the influence of mass media and materialize a common fascination with celebrities. As actors of all parts in the trailer of a fictive, non existent film, we become fictional superstars. Visually reconstructed trailer becomes like a de-ja-vu of original, reflecting global pop culture and exploring the position of an individual as a passive consumer of monopolized, one way communicated media content.“
That way and by means of popular reenactment-strategies, the artists from Slovenija articulate media criticism, yet remaining entertaining. Furthermore, this criticism does not happen from an elitist distance, but by a „complicit“ acting of the artists – who quote the ubiquitous desire to be famous, if only for five minutes.
In that context, too, we can understand their series of short films and staged photography titled „We did this and that“. Here, Oblak & Novak offer their personal version of „Guiness World Records“ and invent numerous curious competitive situations as „We stuffed 516 drinking straws in our mouth and held them for 10 seconds for this photo“. While demonstrating the absurdity of related TV programms, the artist refrain refreshingly from using a moralizing undertone. It is certainly more than a mere side effect, that these works recall the bizarre experiments with body and material as executed by Erwin Wurm, thus evoking the oeuvre of a successful colleague.
Yasmeen Baig-Clifford, curator and director VIVID Birmingham, UK:
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak, Recommended by Curators Worldwide
(catalogue text from exhibition MOVE - New European Media Art, Intecta, Halle, Germany)
‘Contemporary art is nothing but a business; we take it as a joke.’
The work of Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak draws parallels between a society driven by personal needs and capital and their own role as artists in the contemporary art market. Infused with humour, their work adopts the visual tactics and seductive constructions commonly employed in the mass media to lure the consumer. A correlation is thus invited with the attention seeking tactics employed by a particular strain of contemporary artist and the corresponding tendency, widespread in media culture, to celebrate the glamorous, the successful – ‘fame’ at all costs.
Oblak and Novak’s practice spans the moving image, photography, new media and installation. Their use of commonplace communication media familiar to the consumer creates a very direct relationship with the audience and engages the viewer in a terrain which is accessible and familiar. But nothing is quite as it first seems. Fact and fiction collide. For instance, in a series of gleefully short videos inspired by globally popular films Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver, the duo produced shot by shot pastiches of the movie trailers in which they take on all of the roles – including Novak in cartoonish ‘blackface’. Shund (2008) takes the original trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and remakes it, shot by shot with a lo-fi twist. Toy cars and guns stand in for the heavyweight originals, and the backgrounds are constructed from photo-collages incorporating images culled from internet trawls. In this way, the artists dive straight to the swelling image bank which is the internet and situate themselves within it as fictional superstars of their own making.
The inane antics of the Big Brother generation are alluded to in their photographic and video series We Did This And That (2007) in which they confront our obsession with celebrity through 43 carefully constructed photographic images and 13 videos, which appear to show the artists as record holders through a re-staging of absurd and often futile feats recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. The playful undertone cuts across any potentially moralizing stance, although the critique of our easy acceptance of the video document as ‘proof’ is clear. The futility of the re-staged acts introduces a strong element of doubt. Should we believe in them?
The Box (2005), shown recently in the 2009 Sharjah Biennial is a video installation in which the artists are trapped in a fictive space – in this instance, inside a rubber encased monitor. Frustrated, they attempt to physically beat their way out to the outside world. A pneumatic contraption lies under the rubber and is timed to work in unison with the futile actions of the human protagonists on-screen. As Oblak appears to punch at the walls, the rubber film flexes and responds with protrusions. There are clear allusions within the work to the position of the individual in terms of the technological controls inherent in the mass media, and the grip the media has gradually established over the individual through such controls. Preceding the residency for EMAN by four years, the core theme of the work nevertheless isolates the artists from the outside world through entrapment within a media construct of their own making.
During their residency with VIVID, the duo playfully critiqued their own commodity status. Utilising their tactic of taking on the roles of protagonists in their own work, in Recommended by Curators Worldwide (2009), Oblak and Novak have produced a billboard poster in which they feature as the must have commodity. Beneath their image is the slogan ‘Recommended by Curators Worldwide’, a familiar rhetoric device used by advertising companies to lend their product credibility.
In contradiction to the visibility and ubiquity associated with urban billboards, Oblak and Novak chose to locate Recommended by Curators Worldwide in a private arboretum within a secluded Welsh forest. Locating the work in this way alludes to the perceived ‘need’ to consume, and to the notion of access to advertising being almost a statement of inclusion, of being desired as a consumer and of being worthy of the goods advertised. Using themselves as a ‘brand’ within the work critiques the way in which the commercial art world markets and packages artworks but at the same time, the perverse location allows the artists to take control of the space and means of distribution. In contrast to the struggle to break free seen in The Box, the artists in this instance take full control of their space and of consumer access to them. With full scale, face on images of the artists, the work is brazenly discordant with its leafy surroundings. There is only an incidental audience, an occasional passing rambler or solitary holiday maker. But hey … it’s because we’re worth it.