Writing on the Janez Jansa Project and Conceptual Art

The main focus in this essay is on three Slovenian artists and their project the Janez Jansa Project which is currently in progress today, taking the conceptual ideas of how to create art to the extent that the artists as personal human beings are the conceptual artwork.

In the start of the development of contemporary art in early 20th century there was the Cabaret Voltaire organization with Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball, who also were a part of the Dadaist movement. Instead of entertaining and escaping from reality, which stage performance before was mostly about, Hennings and Ball revealed daily life and issues on stage in radical actions such as masturbating and urinating on stage.

Dada was a movement allowing artists to collaborate and be free in their creation by having continuous meetings. They explored the conceptual idea about art being about the process. Their work was not profit driven, neither about getting publicity. The people who founded Cabaret Voltaire and Dada withdrew when the movement became conventional. For them, it was a way to through art escape from the war and the materialism. As soon as the work became public it had sold itself to the capitalism the movement had tried to escape from.

In the same era as Dada, there was Duchamp, who is often mentioned as “the father of conceptual art”. Duchamp developed the thought of art being about the process even further. By his work Fountain (1917) among others, he established the concept Readymade, also known as found art. It is the idea of putting a non-art object into an artistic context by giving it an artistic label. There is no relation between the artist and the artwork, which causes a lot of questions around whether it is justified to label the work as art or not.

Conceptual art is about the concept rather than the aesthetics or the result. It is about showing the investigation, defining the intention of the work and the idea, rather than let the process result in a shape or symbol that can be interpreted subjectively. An idea within conceptual art is that it wants to take away the division of artist and spectator, which today is developed even further into the idea of interactive performance. The work shall not entertain and serve the audience without them making any effort to experience or understand it. Conceptual art forces the audience to be active intellectually and some times physically.

Conceptual and performance art seem to be bigger in Eastern Europe today than in Western Europe. A theory is that this is grounded in the fact that the Eastern European countries were more severely affected by the communist regime that ruled after WWII. For several countries the war resulted in a regime which was strongly right-winged, with dictatorship and closely fascist. Today, the Eastern Europe are still weaker financially than western the and many of the eastern countries are still not enough democratically developed to be a part of EU. They have strongly right-winged leaders, which differentiates the artistic needs and possibilities in Eastern Europe from the ones we have in Western Europe today. Which could be a reason to why conceptual art has a greater function there than in west.

A problem I find with conceptual art is that the people who choose to see it they often already have an opinion that goes in line with the politics of the art. Because it is clearly about one certain idea, it makes the possibility to like or understand it restricted, as the symbols which the performers communicate with are not so open to interpret. A performance which on the other hand consists of the result of an investigation, might deliver more abstract symbols and be able to be interpreted subjectively by people from different backgrounds.

As an artist it is impossible to reach out with your message if it is not public. An idea is then that if we want to reach out with an idea to as many as possible perhaps we have to sell our selves to the conventional, commercial and profit-driven art, by putting our message into the conventional.

NAME – Ready made

In Slovenia until 2007 there were three well-known conceptual artists, Emil Hrvatin, Žiga Kariž and Davide Grassi, collaborating and working individually with producing, performing, directing, making visual art but also publishing articles and books. Their work are often conceptual, indirectly left-wing political, have a strong social connotation and are sometimes even provocative. By showing their artwork in public they criticize the capitalistic, materialistic and prophet driven society in Slovenia and the control media has in it.

In 2007 they started the Janez Jansa project. The starting point of this project was the three of them legally on the paper changing their original name to the name of the prime minister in Slovenia at that time – Janez Jansa. The Prime Minister Janez Jansa ruled between 2004 – 2008 and his party is according to them an “obscure combination of nationalistic ideology, neoliberal economics and totalitarian tendencies in overruling mass-media”, they also express that if this continues Slovenia will end up as a post-fascistic society.

Since the day they changed their name they consistently present themselves as Janez Jansa, it is the name used by media, friends, family and collegues among others. In every work they have created before the name-change, every document and in every different registers they are in it now says Janez Jansa. There are many aspects of the reason to the name change and the consequences; I will now try to explain a few of them.

A direct assumption when hearing about this action is that it is a provocation against the prime minister. The Prime Minister had a slogan which was “The more we are, the faster we will reach the goal”. As the prime minister indirectly ruled all the posts in the government, they interpreted it as the prime minister meant the more of him and applied it literally. The three Jansas also joined the prime ministers party – which is a “common” political act to indoctrinate and get inside information from the enemy. Although, officially they have never mentioned that it is a political act, the only answer they give is that it is for “personal reasons”.

What they did later in 2008 was to open a public correspondence in the daily newspaper Dnevnik in Slovenia, in their names Janez Jansa, where they independently wrote about their work, travel impressions, culinary advice, their children’s adventures etc. It is a fact that they are indirectly in these articles subtle expressing left-wing opinions in the name of the right-winged Prime Minister, as they are strongly left-winged personally.

What these three artists in fact are doing is making their life an ongoing performance. When they changed their name they made themselves to an artwork in the way that Duchamp made the toilet a fountain by the concept of Readymade. Suddenly they put a new label on themselves and are revealing their life as Janez Jansa. They are the readymade object. Their life has not changed, they are doing exactly the same as before and they do not know yet what the result might be – it is the process that is central. The situation of having at least four public figures in Slovenia with the name Janez Jansa, the uncannines it causes and how that affects the perceivers is the art-work.

One of the Jansas explains that what he finds interesting with art is the position it puts the spectator in, how the spectator is negotiating with himself to decide how to perceive and understand the gestures and symbols of the art-work. In this case the perceiving is happening without any conscious comprehension, the spectator must directly in his daily life decide how to understand these gestures – that they all have the same name and the name of the prime minister.

 Another aspect is how big importance the name has on the art market, and the control the state and media has. We are all defined in different ways by media, and often generalized as a collective. When we are judged individually it is our name in different contexts which is judged. One of the Jansas is explaining that if several people has exactly the same name it is like a virus has broken down the system, we cannot distinguish people without have really seen, listened to them or got to know them personally.

In one way our name is the least personal thing we have. It is used by everyone except yourself, it is created for and by others, to be able to judge you, especially in the world of art. The name is not your personality and it is not your art-work. Your real name is actually how you act and what you create.

Today we have three famous artists often mentioned independently in media, they are not a collective called Janez Jansa, but now you cannot distinguish them from one another. It is a way of making it evident that we are living in as they say a “neoliberal-capitalistic” society where your name is working as brand on the market, especially as an artist. Conceptual art which is about the idea and the process is clearly against this way of being prophet driven. By changing their name they are withdrawing from the art-market, stepping into autonomy and stepping out of the celebrity.

A question that then occur is – how would it be if all artists had the same name? Would you still like to be an artist if you as an individual would not get any attention from it? Why are we actually making art – to get attention and be famous as an individual, to make our creation being seen or because of the process of art making?

If all artists would have the same name it is just the performance, the actions in a certain space in a certain time that is visible. You would only perceive the performance rather than unconsciously judging in relation to the name as we often do.

As spectators and as artists we categorize things according to who has made it, the name behind it, which is the opposite of what art should be about. Every art-work is different from one another, and even though one artist has produced something amazing it does not mean that it will be amazing the next time. I think it is easy to become blind and miss a lot of great art-work because we are choosing it by referring to well-known names on the art-market.

The importance of a name became even more evident when I read an interview with the artists and it said Janez Jansa everytime someone was speaking, even though they were three different people being interviewed. I found myself disliking that I could not create an image of each of them according to the importance of what they were saying.

The Jansas claim that they are making themselves undistinguished, but it is contradictful. Even though the whole thought about autonomy and withdrawal from the art market is working literally, the fact that they have changed their name have given them publicity. Though, the name-change has not caused major attention and they are still living exactly the same way as they did before. However, just the fact that I am talking about them right now is a sign that it gives them constructive publicity.

This way of being affected by the importance of the name relates to how we categorize artists and styles of performing according to movements, groups, and sometimes politics. We evaluate the artist and performance according to the category that the artist is put in, or that we decide to put them in as we see their work. Again, the definition becomes the name, instead of just looking at the context. This will limit us in our way of perceiving and also our way of creating.

A question is then whether the definition of art and ways of creating art will always limit us in our creative freedom and development. If we would only practise art and not define it commercially we might be able to dare to do more and break the rules to explore more.