|NIKA OBLAK & PRIMOŽ NOVAK
Becoming the spectacle
(text from solo exhibition And Now for Something Completely Different 10, Aksioma Project Space, Ljubljana, Slovenia)
A man is trapped inside a screen, walking endlessly. His movements, careful and repetitive, generate a rhythmic,
hypnotic sound. As he moves, the rectangular screen moves too, rotating like a big hamster wheel. Where do we come
from? What are we? Where are we going? is a kinetic video installation that playfully reflects on our
contemporary condition, depicting humans in a perpetual and pointless engagement with technological devices. Screens are
portals to other dimensions: they help us to learn, remember, create and connect with each other, but at the same time
they are powerful traps. Locking our eyes and our attention, monitors can become prisons, preventing us to establish
more profound and complex relationships with the world and the people around us. The more we use the machine, the more
we tend to resemble it: like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, when he morphs into a human screwdriver, the man
inside the LCD adapts to the screen movements and limits, transforming himself into a gear of the mechanism. In a wider
sense, the work can also be considered a reflection on progress itself: we are constantly moving but making no real
advancement, forced into an hectic activity with no clear purpose. The title chosen for the project, which is taken
after Paul Gauguin’s iconic work D'ou Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Ou Allons Nous (1897), reinforces this
Nika Oblak and Primož Novak use technology as a a self-reflection tool; they build complex machines capable of bridging the physical and the virtual, the digital and the mechanical, the natural and the artificial. Since 2003, they produced a large amount of projects, including performances, films, photography and installations, that together constitute an ongoing investigation on contemporary life, focusing on its most controversial aspects: the traps of consumerism, the oppressive structures of work and politics, the ambiguous relationship between reality and fiction, the hidden perils of an uncritical use of technologies. In The Box (2005), for example, we see the artists inside a tv screen, trying to find a way out by pushing and kicking the walls. Their actions infiltrate the physical world by bending the frame of the monitor, but they are never able to break out: the mass media system is a giant rubber wall that won't let us escape its influence, no matter how hard we try. This idea of helplessly trying to establish a physical connection between what's inside the screen and what's outside, opening a breach, remind us of The Last Nine Minutes (1977) a seminal performance by American artist Douglas Davis. Like many other artists of the period, Davis was engaging in a profound reflection about the rising world of telecommunication, considering its profound impact on human consciousness and social relationships. Despite these similarities, however, Oblak and Novak's work is very different, aesthetically and conceptually: humans today are not just exploring new tools of communication, they are completely fused with them, to the point of not being able to recognize their true impact. To describe this new situation, the artists build alternative machines, ironic devices capable of depicting in a very accurate way our daily life: a circle of recursive actions that are both entertaining and exhausting.
In Endless Column (2017), which contains a direct visual reference to the work of media art pioneer Nam June Paik but also pays an homage to avant-garde sculptor Constantin Brancusi, the protagonist tries to balance several monitor on her head, in a circus-like performance. All of her attention is focused on the action of keeping everything in place, without losing a single piece. In a world saturated with media contents, and surrounded by devices that continuously demand our attention, we always feel challenged, chased, and in the process of missing something. Distracted by this impossible task of managing everything, we slowly turn into entertaining machine ourselves, becoming part of the global media spectacle.
(text from solo exhibition And Now for Something Completely Different 12, Aksioma Project Space, Ljubljana, Slovenia)
The work by the duo Nika Oblak & Primož Novak entitled Infinity (digital) focuses on the influence of
contemporary means of communication on one’s life. Their artistic practice over the past twenty years has continuously
addressed the position of humans in the clenches of consumerist doctrines, media cacophony and popular culture. Along
the same lines, in their latest work they have created a spatial video installation consisting of screens, cables and
other heralds of everyday modern life.
Employing a good measure of humour and self-irony, the artists focus once again on the human being that is – no less than in the past – caught up in the absurdities of daily routines and subjected to the conventions of tradition and the patterns of dominant culture. Infinity (digital) shows the motif of running, symbolised by an ordinary man involved in the multilayered mechanisms of today’s neoliberal reality. The image of the protagonist running in an infinite and senseless loop from screen to screen can thus be seen as a manifestation of the myth of Sisyphus who, by means of divine punishment, was condemned to repeatedly roll a boulder up the same hillside. With this gesture, the artists point out people’s self-evident attitude to technological progress, show the imperative of adapting to all kinds of changes and call attention to the loosening of basic humanistic values. Even though, in the last few decades, society and technology have advanced to the degree that there is seemingly less and less monotonous work and jobs, the abundance of everything that is available in the material and virtual world can still make one feel caught in the metaphorical aimless run. Contemporary society worships constant fulfilment, whether through work or leisure activities. Subjected to all kinds of stimuli, people today are consequently overloaded with activity. Regardless of whether it relates to one’s job or one’s vacations and travels, activity is ever-present, such as on social media networks where there is a constant absorption of information.
That is why the video’s protagonist, dressed in casual clothes, who persistently and endlessly runs through the screens, can symbolize precisely this inevitable entrapment of individuals in the shackles of prescribed lifestyles and activities, which they cannot resist – at least not without the risk of extreme social deviation or ostracization, The monumental, white, spaceless environment of the video, into which the runner moves in an even straight line, metaphorically suggests the self-evident fact that an individual is always subordinate to the collective – that is, to society – and always has to adapt to it, for his or her own comfort. The infinity examined by the artists is highly abstract and formless. But, at the same time, it is very familiar since people are consciously or unconsciously prone to repeat patterns, which actually fulfil them and provide them with a feeling of security. The infinite run and its monotonous sound could thus be a lucid depiction of the artists’ relation to the world and their own position in it.
Nika Oblak & Primož Novak, And Now for Something Completely Different 16
(text from solo exhibition And Now for Something Completely Different 16, Ivan Grohar Gallery, Škofja Loka, Slovenia)
The exhibition And Now for Something Completely Different 16 presents the works of visual artists Nika Oblak and
Primož Novak, who have been part of the contemporary art scene as an artist duo for twenty years. Their artistic
practice includes video, photography, installations, kinetic installations, spatial interventions and performance. The
exhibition at the Ivan Grohar Gallery showcases a selection of works from an extensive oeuvre, in which direct
implications for the current economic and social reality can be recognized. The two artists deal with the absurdities of
the modern world in a lucid and humorous way, while also exploring the complex mechanisms of today's neoliberal reality.
We have selected five projects that focus on controversial aspects of modern life (the pitfalls of consumerism, the
dangers of uncritical reliance on various technologies, the ambivalence between reality and fiction, repressive
structures of work and politics) and social relations. The works created between 2005 and 2020 highlight an individual
trapped in the wheel of a day-to-day routine, filled with repetitive protocols of (often) totally meaningless
The exhibition And Now for Something Completely Different 16 is an illustration of the present age, where reality and the world of media are closely intertwined, while humanistic principles are (unfortunately) subordinated to economic ones. The exhibited works are stories about individuals subjected to repetitive patterns, competitiveness, social media presence, work, constant absorption of information and stimuli, which on the one hand provides them with a sense of security, belonging and fulfilment, and on the other hand all this is a departure from one's own essence and the basic humanistic values (the metaphor of "running on empty").
Room One features two works titled Where Do We Come from? What Are We? Where Are We Going? and Untitled, and Room Two contains the works The Scream, Infinity and We Did This and That.
Where Do We Come from? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, created in 2019, is a kinetic video installation that can be seen as a reflection of progress and an allusion to our constant use of technological devices. The male performer inside the LCD screen moves continuously, but does not advance whatsoever. Trapped inside the screen and adapted to the way it moves, he keeps walking and is transformed into a cogwheel tooth (in terms of suspension). This is when he becomes part of the device and its slave. The unusual device alludes to the rat race, to endless and (often) senseless and even stressful interactions with modern technology. The title of the installation is based on Gauguin's identically-titled iconic work, the content, however, is a reference to Charlie Chaplin's film Modern Times.
The Untitled photo series was created between 2010 and 2020. It is based on a concept that places both creators in different roles or contexts, which is, in fact, a fundamental characteristic and constant (continuum) of their artistic practice. As part of this photo series, they play around with the cliches that have been present in the art world for decades or even centuries. The titles of the works are derivatives of typical, ever-present titles that are recycled in art constantly (regardless of geographic location or ethnicity), Untitled, Fountain, Self-Portrait etc. The series consists of the photographs Fountain, after Duchamp, Nauman, Signer and many other prominent twentieth-century visual artists, Homage to Nika Oblak and Primož Novak, Untitled and Self Portrait (2061).
The 2015 video titled The Scream is based on Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream. The video content is condensed, symbolically strong, expressively shocking and meaningful. It presents a radical (timeless) symbol of human anguish. It shows the female protagonist in deep concentration and then she screams out in pain and distress at the top of her lungs, thus breaking the screen with her voice (the scream). The video reveals a personal, dramatic narrative, confronting one's own traumas and the omnipresent, ever-topical existential questions. At the forefront of the story are the atmosphere and feeling that evoke associations with German expressionism. The scream is a central symbol of expressionism, both in film and theatrical performances.
Infinity (digital) is a 2020 video installation that (digitally) depicts running. The main protagonist, who is shown running in an endless and senseless loop from screen to screen, can be seen as a manifestation of the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned by God to repeat the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again just before reaching the top. The two artists have used the gesture of perpetual absurdity to draw attention to how people take technological progress for granted, to emphasise the necessity of adapting to all kinds of changes, as well as to critically highlight the loosening of basic humanistic values.
The We Did This and That project, created between 2005 and 2007, consists of a series of 43 photographs and a series of 13 videos. It is a humorous (pseudo) interpretation of achieving the Guinness World Records based on unusual, almost absurd ideas. Nika Oblak and Primož Novak arouse the viewer's attention with spectacular and entertaining stunts that are parables for the modern society's widespread obsession with success and fame. The sense of directness evoked by the project is also characteristic of advertisers, reporters, authors of reality shows.
As a medium, video production has existed in Slovenia for almost half a century. It is a medium with its own specific characteristics and is embedded in social and production frameworks. Its beginnings are closely related to conceptual (alternative) practices; the latter used to use video as an element of artistic action and a means of documenting various artistic practices in public. Nika Oblak and Primož Novak use video as an independent medium - as a more-than-convenient means of expression for realising ideas that cannot be realised through any other media, as well as the possibility of direct communication with the audience. Their works are self-reflexive, filled with a great deal of irony and humour, as well as social criticism, with less emphasis on image manipulation and transformation. Their complex stories in the context of artistic inter-medial practice come close to a film presentation. As such, they establish an arc with home video production in the 1990s, which highlighted individual authorship, while video "migrated" from alternative venues to galleries and film festivals.
Nika Oblak and Primož Novak's video stories are a synthesis of personal experiences, transplanted into a wider context, where the two artists usually also take on the roles of the main protagonists. They draw inspiration from the real world and imaginations, and share information through stories that the viewers may find entertaining, captivating, moving or as something that helps them pass the time. The two artists have enriched the contemporary Slovenian art scene with a fresh video genre that follows the feature film narrative. It is a combination of fiction and reality, which shows fictional events in a documentary, yet thoughtfully structured, visually perfected and refined way. They present the content in the form of documentary accounts - a subgenre of mockumentary prank docs, thus consciously blurring the boundaries between film genres and video art, and co-creating the world in a participatory and interactive way.
The Scream and Its Echo
(text from solo exhibition And Now for Something Completely Different 7, Kresija Gallery, Ljubljana, Slovenia)
Works of art generally reflect the zeitgeist in which they were created; the more effective ones furthermore
universalise their subject matter in order to be topical and comprehensible years, decades and even centuries later. In
1893 when Norwegian artist Edvard Munch first painted his most celebrated and iconic work The Scream its
appearance and its edginess prodded the very neuralgic points of society at that time. The painting caused unease among
the audience as it showed the unthinkable – the expression of pure emotion. Munch painted it at the height of the
Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era when the cultural code relating to public appearance and behaviour was
extremely stringent and rigid. In the late 19th century in (what is now) Norway, as well as in other parts of Europe, a
genuine display of emotions stood out in stark contrast to the expected norms of behaviour of responsible adults.
The Scream sets up a mirror to the severe and uniform society of the old continent, a culture that was at the
peak of its colonial hegemony against the rest of the world–importing cheap raw material and exporting rules and norms
of the so-called “civilised world”. Hence, the self-portrait reflects the artist's own anxieties and fears as much as
the collective state of mind. It is the ultimate display of primal and animalistic instincts of human
beings–characteristic increasingly suppressed in modern, urban societies. The Scream is (was) therefore a
subversive work of art.
The world, however, has not changed in essence in one century. Even nowadays, one is a subject to number of social rules, conventions and expectations long perpetuated with significant help from mainstream popular culture as well as political and economic propaganda. The societies of the so-called “developed world” still export their basic social values (often by violently imposing parliamentary democracy and free market economics) to already devastated, marginal countries of the so-called “third world”, even though these principles have been proven unsuccessful and damaging again and again. The educated and engaged individual may be well informed nowadays; nevertheless, he or she will also very probably be powerless and frustrated.
The homonymous work by the collective Nika Oblak & Primož Novak, representing thoughtful paraphrase of Munch's The Scream, focuses on similarly quintessential questions–be they intimate or political. In addition to uncensored expression of a human being’s most basic instincts and feelings reflected in the painful scream of the protagonist of the video piece, the installation may as well be understood and interpreted as a metaphor for the transiency of the superior position of the privileged part of the planet at the expense of others. The work is set in the present, i.e. in the period of fast communication devices and rapidly developing new technologies that largely distract one's attention from the dissolution of the fundamental human and social values. The TV screen, on which the video is played, carries a powerful symbolic message: it showcases the shameless manipulation by mainstream media; people's addiction to constant virtual interaction; and the dominance of catchy, simplistic media content. Among the cacophony of all types and means of communication available in the past couple of decades, television emerges as the ultimate medium that has irrevocably marked the periods since the mid 20th century, unopposed and uninterrupted. Nika Oblak's & Primož Novak's The Scream hints at their own disbelief in the prescribed world of everyday life, as seen in the media, while on the symbolic level it radically breaks with this spectacular world, as much as it is possible. The cracked glass of the TV screen, the consequence of the pitching scream, emphasises the fragility of television and other means of communication. They can still be unplugged or broken by a man.
In their kinetic installations the artists have always wanted to see beyond the usual self-evident status of contemporary technology and their works have always reflected their relative scepticism towards the conventions and expectations of the society. In the past fourteen years of continuous creative output the tandem has produced an extensive body of work including of videos, relational works and multimedia pieces which testify to the absurdities of modern life; to the subjugation to conventions of tradition and popular culture; and to contradictions within the world of art–with great sense of humour and self-irony. The exhibition presents works that deal with the idea of expanding two-dimensional video into spatial installation by using advanced technological means. In this way, the artists address an individual who is unavoidably part of the multifaceted mechanisms of the currently prevailing neoliberal ideology with the inevitable entrapment of people in their everyday routines, reminiscent of the monotony of operating machines. The kinetic video installations therefore indicate humanity’s seemingly self-evident relationship with technological development, the imperative to adapt to any kind of change as well as highlighting the prevailing economic principle, which is a consideration above scientific and humanistic principles nowadays. The works showcased on the exhibition are therefore exceptionally direct, lucid and remarkably visual. In these works, the tandem enacts a number of everyday routines, which are creatively interpreted and reflected in the repetitiveness of relentless Sisyphean work.
The desert of the real, part V
(text from solo exhibition And Now For Something Completely Different 5, Kunsthalle Bratislava, Slovakia)
Nika Oblak & Primož Novak are an artist duo. They are representatives of the new, global art village, moving
from one place of the globe to the other, doing residencies, developing projects, exhibiting worldwide.
Slovenia’s art scene where they started their journey is vibrant internationally since the late eighties. In the nineties, when Oblak and Novak were studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, the conditions for art were improving on a monthly basis. Of course, as the whole world felt, in 2008 a crisis followed. In Slovenia it was as unexpected as everywhere else, with the exception that we, the citizens, were for at least ten years brainwashed into thinking that we are becoming the new Switzerland. In art this ideology at first felt like a time is coming, when the artists will still be funded by the state, with no necessity to produce art for the nonexistent market. There was this idea that art is produced, because it is important, because it enriches our lives, because it is good for us. Not because it will have to be sold at some point. Not because artists also has to earn a living. Not because there's this constant capitalist yearning to produce more and faster. Art was, for a short period of time in the nineties and early in the new millennium, produced because it was Art. This brought forth many interesting projects, artist’s art, people's art, smart and profound art working on various levels. The early projects of Nika Oblak & Primož Novak came into being amidst this situation.
But of course this state of things did not survive the crash. Today it seems that Nika Oblak & Primož Novak felt this before everybody else did. Already in the beginning of the new millennium they depended more on the international scene, as they did on the local one. Their works, be it appropriations of famous films like the videos Shund or Cab Driver , where they took over all the roles from the actor to the director, or their hilarious series of photographs recreating the weirdest Guinness records or even their apparatus Smartist , which was inscribing their names on every surface it came upon, were already from the beginning very certain of the importance of the artists name and presence which they mockingly exposed in their projects.
The form of the works by Nika Oblak & Primož Novak is shiny, appealing, as if from an expensive western tabloid. This is not a fascination with the global pop culture; it is a conscious use of the existent form of popular culture to make the ridiculousness of the reality even more real. As Hermann Noering, curator and co-director Electronic Media Art Festival in Osnabrueck has written: »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 & 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.«
There is some terror behind the glossy surface. There is the terror of impossibility, a terror of unfulfilled wish, a terror of Sisyphus who is pushing his rock to reach the top of the mountain over and over again. Trapped in the television set the work speaks about the current, media society, which spends much more time looking at screens of this or that sort, than contemplating in front of paintings, turning book pages or feeling the space of an installation.
The pneumatic video installations form the exhibition And Now For Something Completely Different 5. They expose the daily routine, artificially produced consumerist needs and illustrate our existence as the monotony of operating machines. Despite their appearance and this wider possible reading, the pneumatic video installations presented are also very personal works of art that say as much about the artists as they do about society at large.
A short while ago at some symposium in Zagreb a German art critic Hans Jürgen Hafner presented his paper titled Pfff. This was one of the rare and truly personal lectures I have heard in recent years. He was hip, even hipster like, contemporary in his words and image and his speech fitted perfectly to what Nika Oblak & Primož Novak bring to the audience with the exhibition And Now For Something Completely Different 5. He has enough – he said standing in a dark hall of the Museum of Contemporary Art with an inexcusable bear bottle on a speaking stand – of all the wishes, all the personal investment in art, enough of fruitless theories that support the unfulfilled wishes of the art world and most of all enough of money talk. Art is not strong enough to withhold that. It will never save the world, we should stop hoping. It will not help the rivers of migrants. It will not persuade people to behave towards other people in better ways. None the less, he still adores art. He finds it necessary for his wellbeing. The goal of art is for us to enjoy it. It can make us open for new ways of thinking, acting and living, but the decision and the struggle is not in the arts, it is in us, the observers. Art just opens up the door.
Art is always an elitist endeavour but the elite are not the mighty and powerful as in the times of the Paris salon, when it was already a marketable good. Today the elite which is dedicated to art is mostly an elite of possible free thinkers, a writing proletariat, an audience of art villagers, of precariat, self employed artists, young university professors, exhausted curators, lovers of sushi and I-pads who organize welfare events for the fugitives, people who understand what is happening in Syria, but can’t do much about it, as they have their own struggle to attend to. They have to create, do yet again another production – hence the number 5 in Nika Oblak & Primož Novak's exhibition title – answer a never ending line of e-mails per day, set up exhibitions, travel, represent, produce, distribute and sell, if possible. Or get grants, or take on new and new residencies ... On their way, this art proletariat is lucky to form new networks with the likeminded of the globe, but these networks are not strong, as they have to be woven in a day, a week or a month to answer to the funds given for the opportunity. To keep the fragile relationships alive it is necessary to rely on the World Wide Web with all its youtubes, facebooks, gmails, instagrams, twitters and pinterests. This world brings connections but also a constant flow of information, the needed and the unwanted ones.
Primož Novak & Nika Oblak present the pneumatic video installations: Sisyphus Actions, Reality is Out, The Box and a new production, presented in Kunstalle Bratislava for the first time with the title Border Mover. The installations are seemingly a part of this world, but they are more than that. Technically based on a pneumatic mechanism they are able to transmit the two dimensionality of the screen into 3D. The image seems to be strong enough to move the border outside into the real world. In reality, there are the pneumatic mechanisms placed behind an LCD monitor, and this is controlled by a computer and synchronized with the video. Still the works bring out an unexpected sigh in the viewer. This sigh is a sigh of excitement, a small fulfilment of a child’s magic wish. Also involved in the story of And Now For Something Completely Different 5 is humour which is specific for the entire oeuvre of the duo.
The works by Nika Oblak & Primož Novak are communicative and inviting. They are impressive when seen live and draw crowds of all generations wherever they are presented, since they are easy to approach. People are curious of how they function, they are drawn to ask technical questions, which leads to questions about what art is and whom it is intended for...
When the audiences are lured in and when the loud laughter stops, the reality steps in. We get a story of a small man trapped in a box which he cannot get out of. He repeats his actions, never quitting, never stopping until his last day, when the television stops working and the laughter gives place to the awful silence of the desert that late capitalism has left behind.
Nika Oblak & Primož 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 Primož 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 Primož 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.
Nika Oblak & Primož Novak, Absolutely Fabulous 5
(text from solo exhibition Absolutely Fabulous 5, MC Gallery, New York, USA)
Nika Oblak & Primož 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
Primož"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 Primož 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 Primož 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.
Nika Oblak & Primož 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
& Primož 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 & Primož 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.
Nika Oblak & Primož 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 Primož 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.
Nika Oblak & Primož 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
& Primož 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 & Primož 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 & Primož 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.