Our Slovenia month wouldn't be complete without looking at the work of Marjetica Potrč, the Slovenian artist whose practice is deeply rooted in architecture. In her long career, she has collaborated with communities — everywhere from Caracas to Johannesburg — in developing on-site public projects, which she then translates into drawings and sculptural case studies exhibited worldwide. uncube’s Elvia Wilk talked with her.
It’s been a few years since you were based in Ljubljana, but you lived in the city for several decades and studied both art and architecture there. Did this background lay the groundwork for your interest in socially engaged practice?
The cultural spirit in former Yugoslavia was not about objects. With no art market at the time, the art being made was about ideas. The spirit was not about owning but sharing. This has trickled down into my own contemporary production.
Slovenia’s population is roughly half urban, half rural, with Ljubljana by far the largest city. From the outside this suggests a major centre to periphery split. Is this the case?
I was a very urban child but spent every summer at my uncle’s farm in eastern Slovenia, so I learned to love the balance between rural and urban life. I see this as a core part of Slovenian culture. When I was growing up, if you had a house, you commonly had a small garden too. Socialist ideology pushed for farming cooperatives, but they failed in rural areas because of the terrain and topography.
In many parts of former Yugoslavia, public space has become a kind of no-man’s land. Reconstructing a city after social change means creating community space, like community gardens: symbolic projects that allow citizens to reclaim a neighbourhood. In Ljubljana, an excellent example is called Onkraj Gradbišča, or “Beyond a Construction Site”, where artists, architects and sociologists work in collaboration with local residents, combining strategies to create a community garden as a tool for engagement.
Slovenia has a long history of social housing. What can social housing be today, in relation to what it meant for socialism or modernism?
In 1944 Jože Plečnik, the most famous Slovenian architect, approached the city of Ljubljana with a proposal called “Under a Common Roof”, in which the city would build a roof to provide shelter and infrastructure under which citizens could build their own houses. It was a precursor to Yona Friedman’s large scale modernist utopias, but Plečnik’s project proposed a different kind of modernism.
Something very similar was realised in post-apartheid Johannesburg. The city built skeleton houses in which people could construct their own homes. In 2001, I had an exhibition at the Guggenheim that showed how this happened.
The socialist state and modernism made a great couple. With the decline of the welfare state in the EU, people have started self-organising through cooperative housing, but unfortunately I don’t know of any examples of this in Slovenia. I think the trauma of the previous political system makes it hard for people to revisit the concept of cooperatives.
In our recent uncube issue: “Construct Africa”, we explored the architecture and planning of informal settlements. What characterises public space in these settlements?
I think about this a lot because of my work in Caracas, where Urban-Think Tank invited me on a research project in 2003. I ended up making my best known project there: Dry Toilet. Caracas is often called “dos ciudades” – two cities, one formal and one informal. When you look at the city, you understand that modernist architecture produces public space, while rural culture produces community space.
When we started research in Caracas, we heard a lot of negative ideas about informal cities, one being they are chaotic. When we were there, however, we discovered a highly regulated structure in the informal city, but one regulated through spoken rather than written rules. Another assumption was that there was no typical infrastructure, but in fact the existence of libraries and hospitals was simply communicated in different ways. I propose that we look at cities not in terms of architecture, but in terms of culture.
You do a lot of research on-site, often spending several months in the community where you’re working. How do you negotiate your position as an outsider?
I’m not interested in architectural constructions; I’m interested in social architecture. When working with my students at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, we stay in a location for two months to complete a project. It would be superficial to do a workshop for only a week – merely cultural tourism. You always change your ideas on arrival; only then do you understand the needs of people who live there. The students and I were just talking about how “participation” might not be such a good word anymore; now we talk about “co-creation”.
In your “case studies” you reconstruct buildings from informal settlements in exhibition spaces. Why represent a building outside its context in an art space?
My architectural case studies are portraits of cities. The reconstruction is a sculpture, a theatrical figure addressing the visitor. I also make sure there’s a black-and-white photo in the exhibition showing the origin of the building. We tend to forget that museums are primarily educational institutions – in the nineteenth-century tradition. Even if they are now more about entertainment, they still reflect contemporary culture. In my case studies I tell you what contemporary architecture is. I’m on a mission to tell a story.
I have several practices. Each one informs the others. My drawings are a studio-based practice, but wouldn’t exist without the on-site projects. Working on-site, I consider myself an artist-as-mediator. As an artist I’m not linked to an institution, so I can think outside the box and process the vision residents have about the future. This isn’t the typical utopian modernist vision, but as humans we need to have personal utopias. Life is not just about eating and sleeping; you need to have an imagination. Future visions of the city have to be articulated. In this sense I consider myself a conceptual artist.
Your drawings and diagrams explicitly predict or declare a better future. Is there an ambivalence to your optimism?
Today is not the time to dwell on criticism. Institutional critique is important, but I’m not a part of that. You have to act, propose, and do things. As an artist, I believe I can contribute to society. Art is part of culture, and its role changes. In turn, art is a tool to change culture.
– Elvia Wilk