Consciously building one’s own recognisable trademark has throughout history become an unwritten convention of many artists in the field of visual arts. Such type of creating personal labels, based on formal or content elements, is what is expected of artists in today’s social and economic conditions. At the same time, today, the combining of different practices and media in an individual opus or work in art and visual culture as well as non-alignment in contemporaneous canonized artistic genres, is a rather common phenomenon. Nataša Berk is definitely one of the artists whose work of the past fifteen years would be difficult to define unambiguously. Her practice can be labelled simply as the creation of images and situations, which in different ways challenge the recipients to respond.
In her recent performance as part of the Fotopub Festival (4 August 2018), she invited visitors to the bus station in Novo mesto. The audience could choose a pay-per-view tour from the bus (for a fee of 2 EUR) or a free tour of the performance from the outside. The bus, where the author herself sat behind the steering wheel, was packed, and then, by driving backwards she created a perfect white circle on a spacious parking lot. Then she stepped on the accelerator, drove towards the road, stopped at the intersection, and got out. Then, a bus driver, who had been sitting in the bus the entire time, not too enthusiastically, continued to drive in her stead. The author was not allowed to drive in traffic as she did not have a driving license to operate a bus – but does, as she says, want one most enthusiastically. With this move she killed two birds with one stone: she realized her aspiration (to drive a bus) and offered passengers an unforgettable excursion to nearby Otočec, where they stopped, got sandwiches, strolled around, and then returned to the starting point, enriched by the experience.
It is almost impossible to objectively evaluate what had happened in this performance, for the expectations, moods, experiences and beliefs of its participants, after all, vary. It would be impossible to record and analyse all of their reactions. The performance’s key element was therefore a surprise, and all that was left for the artist were the participants’ experiences and photo-documentation of the event, which had already been measured in the course of preparing for the campaign via social media networks – after all, the event simply had to be promoted. At first glance, this work follows the postulates of conceptual art or, even more directly, so-called relational aesthetics, where, instead of artistic works in the form of objects, artists create an environment in which people collectively participate in a particular activity.
However, Nataša Berk’s practice is much more elusive than the above-mentioned formula. Its operation is more or less placed in the secure shelter of art institutions or limited to controlled actions in the public arena. The artist perceives this creation as an integral part of everyday life, which has been consistently and continuously playing out for many years. At the same time, Berk does not necessarily see her work as an artistic creation, as she usually does not take into account the rules of the world of contemporary art, which strives toward complete and tangible works of art and the creation of a transparent opus. Her public actions are usually intuitive, unpredictable, sometimes unannounced and almost unnoticeable.
Also, these actions continually take place on the networks of the World Wide Web, where Berk presents an extensive visual production on a daily basis. She focuses on creating images with a variety of means, whether it concerns a text, a photograph, a video, or a combination of all of them. She recently used social networks, such as Instagram and Facebook, as her distribution platform, through which she can best embody her desire to communicate with the widest possible audience. In this spirit, documentary or staged photographs are produced, which are often arbitrarily manipulated during the process. These are, for example, images of places or people surrounded by animal or military figures, complemented by found images or generic symbols of mobile applications. And on other occasions, in a strictly poetical manner, she plays around with words and slogans, which change the meaning by deleting carefully chosen parts.
The process of creating written and/or visual haikus is commonly based on entirely visual impulses and moods. The artist is mainly interested in composition, the suggestiveness of the image and its initial effect. Consequently, work is produced quickly, impulsively and en masse, while the mode of work is conditioned by technology. In the past few years, she has created exclusively with a smartphone, where she is limited by the technical capabilities of the camera, the capacity of the manipulation tools, and the screen frames, while on the other hand, it is exactly the use of smartphone that give her mobility, freedom and speed.
Hence, her images and content work best in the framework of distribution through social networks, where a considerable degree of irony is placed on society’s expectations and conventions of visual culture. Many of her works could be described as digital collages that combine texts and images in a suggestive way, serving the principles of the advertising industry that present desirable lifestyles, and the mass media that report success stories. As a result, this infinite series of intangible, immaterial and transient parts rarely appears in galleries. Their place remains in the virtual world, where they are surrounded by countless competing content.
One of the earlier works, which was revealed to the public exclusively in the virtual domain of the World Wide Web, was PolyPlay (2004), for the purpose of which the artist formed a band in which the roles of all four members were played by her. In addition, each member was also given an identity and a name. With some practice, she played all of the instruments, recorded the music and a concert video, where her multiplied image appeared in the places of the other members. In the presented composition, it is possible to recognise a number of cliché phrases of the then popular music, including non-destructive and harmlessly positive lyrics. After the release of the clip on YouTube, the band broke up, supposedly due to disagreements with the lead singer.
On more detailed inspection into her works it become clear that Nataša Berk’s various identities appear continuously through time in different situations. The author adorned many of her characters with appropriate pedigrees and personalities, which decisively determines in what roles they will appear again, and a careful psychological characterization of the characters is of key importance in this process. In 2006, after finishing her studies at the Academy of Performing Arts in Vienna, she moved to Ljubljana, and, in order to get deeper insight into the behind the scenes world of contemporary art, enrolled in the school for curators, Svet umetnosti (World of Art). In the middle of her studies, due to certain discrepancies with participants, she decided to leave the course, but returned with her other name and identity – the curator Mojca Lešnik, who caught up with the team and then for some years occasionally prepared exhibitions of contemporary art. The news of her sudden death came to the public at the very moment when she was supposed to lead a debate with Nataša Berk as part of the Horvat-Stegnar Family project at the Contemporary Art U3 Triennial at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ljubljana. The event, in which Berk was to delve into conversation with her alter ego, was cancelled right before it was supposed to start and when the audience had already gathered.
In 2015, she held an exhibition of Even for Dada Time is Too Abstract as an anonymous curator, where she presented contemporary Dada artists. Of course, the very idea of modern Dadaists is contradictory, since the movement of Dada was based on the idea of anti-art that today can no longer be controversial and radical, since it has long been canonized in the history of art. She created all the works for the exhibition singlehandedly, while she invented most of the names of participating artists. Nevertheless, this was probably one of the most visited exhibitions of the year at the UGM Studio in Maribor. In this way, Berk devoted her attention to the phenomenon of an image from a different point of view – as a creative artist of works by dozens of imaginary authors and as a decision-maker, giving them a place in the history of art.
With the idea of transmitting images via online networks, she was involved in performance and exhibition Revolucija brez plesa je revolucija, ki se ne splača (A Revolution without Dance is a Revolution that’s not Worth It, 2017) in Kino Šiška. It was the task of the visitors to open the exhibition via YouTube, to play music of their own choice, and to which the artist herself would dance while physically dislocated from the central event. The visitors were able to see the artist only with the help of a camera that projected her performance on the wall (many also doubted that the action took place in real time), while she did not see the audience, but only heard the selected music. This prevented direct contact with the audience and created one-way communication, just as it is offered by channels such as YouTube. By not seeing and feeling how the audience reacts to her solo dance, she highlighted the issue of contemporary exhibitionism, which is reflected through the desire for visibility, the need to share one’s experiences with others and the popularity of voyeurism.
Like many others, the abovementioned work also relies on the predominant social imperative of the modern era, which demands from the individual to be communicative, kind, accessible and present at all times. Photographic and video (auto)portraits of people in situations that others might envy for are the most desirable and successful content on social media networks, for which an individual earns the most symbolically stimulative responses. Therefore, in the works of Nataša Berk, it is possible to perceive, even if never directly, a critical response to the mentioned social phenomena, with which and with the help of her own ludic approach, create a humorous atmosphere, caricature contemporary social imperatives, such as happiness, success and money. It responds to online images and explores how their creation varies depending on the platform through which they are distributed to the public, while at the same time devoting artificially generated attention that social networks enable us to do, with features such as sharing and embellishing content, which constantly provides an individual with the impression that he/she is (at least temporarily) in the centre of attention.
Perhaps the most direct and critical response to the nature of modern communication networks is mirrored in her current and purposefully long-term project, in which she deletes her own face from photos that circulate on social media networks. Since today it is almost impossible to avoid photographic documenting when participating in public events, the artist asks photographers to blur her face before publishing, or to simply not publish the photos on which she appears. Of course, she also does this with the photos she takes and publishes herself. By blurring her visual identity in a public virtual space, which is almost subversive in the period of generalised extrovertedness and narcissism, she turns to the postulates of the dominant culture. Nevertheless, it is with this steady state of absence, during expected authenticity, that she receives a new and different type of attention from the users of social media networks. In this way, many of her online images turn into universal metaphors for the state of things of everyday life, which is intrinsically intertwined with visual culture.
Translated by Tom Smith.