the works of Petra Zanki
OOUR: Aesthetic Activism as a Necessity in Renewing One’s Own Freedom

When in 1948, Tito rejected Stalin, it  had disadvantageous repercussions on the entire economic situation of Yugoslavia. The economic stability of the entire country was in question. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia decided to supplement the former Soviet model of planned production, the so-called Five-Year Plan (пятилетка), with a new one – thus introducing self-management. The idea of self-managing socialism, in which workers were to rule all factories and organizations, was regulated by ZUR (Joint Labour Act). According to that law, a person was not employed by the company, but rather “joined” his or her labour to an OUR (abbreviated from Joint Labour Organization). These OURs and other, similar forms of economic self-management were the keystones of the new self-managing economy that formally survived until the fall of Socialist Yugoslavia. As one of its units, OUR was later subdivided into Basic Joint Labour Organizations – OOURs.
Somewhat more than ten years after the fall of Yugoslavia, in 2003, a group of artists founded an art organization of the same name, albeit in completely different political and social circumstances.
Its members are representatives of a generation that was born in the 1970s, in a country that no longer exists, in a system that could not persist. They grew up during the war (1) , but remember it rather vaguely, either because they were too young or because they were far away from it, just as they were too young in socialism to be able to remember it today, except indirectly, from stories told by their parents and elder relatives. Nevertheless, their work and work of their colleagues from the same generation is directly determined by the territory and time that generated the current socio-economic frame. The spirit of socialism, the current dominance of neo liberalism, and a good amount of turbulences and unrests define that frame.
Speaking about the work of artistic group OOUR and other artists of their generation, we are also speaking also being an artist twenty years after the collapse of self-managing socialism. Their engagement has evolved and taken form in the framework of rampant, unrestrained capitalism which has in this region been implemented and used „approximately“, and which emerged during and after the civil wars on the Balkans.

Generaly speaking, work that is generated in this region finds no backing in a historical tradition that it could rely on with relief. Unstable and uncertain, always under surveillance, it is doomed to a relationship with a past that is undesirable, a neighbourhood that is unreachable, and a future that is unforeseeable. These are the features of all forms of activity in all segments of production, so art is no exception. Now, before and tomorrow (in socialism it was better/worse, now it is better/worse than it will be in Europe, capitalism was better/worse than communism, etc.) are temporal categories that, fused with the place where they occur, acquire a monstrous shape of a ghostly creature that cannot be ignored and that needs negotiating with on a daily basis if one wants to be allowed to act.

The combined, although contradictory circumstances in which the OOUR artists are forced to reassert themselves and act is perhaps best revealed by the very name of the group. The authors themselves like to read and interpret the name OOUR in two ways, as a direct loan from English (“our” as in capitalist “our, private”) and as a term with the connotations of “ours, common” (as in ex-Yugoslav “OOUR” ). This apparent contradiction describes very precisely the space of their action, similar to the space between the quotation marks and brackets: the space of (o)ours in “(o)ours”.
Therefore, it is small wonder that the artistic work of OOUR is largely and forcibly linked to the working conditions and daily changes in modes of production.
The obliterated battlefield, the privatized wasteland, the public good that has been bulldozed in order to make foundations for yet another private investment – these are the grounds on which these artists work and their performances come into being.


But who exactly is OOUR and what are its features and specificities?
The group consists of two performing artists-dancers, a musician, and a designer, as well as numerous collaborators: video-artists, dramaturges, theatre directors, etc. All of them emphasize horizontal decision-making and equal rights when participating in the creative process as one of the primary principles of their work. Even though some authors are more active under the name of OOUR than others (Selma Banich, Sandra Banić Naumovski, Ana Banić, and Adam Semijalac), the group also includes those authors that are invited to collaborate on particular projects. Thus, for example, theatre director Oliver Frljić, video-artist Sebastian Vukušić, and performer Mila Čuljak collaborate on different projects and their aesthetic handwriting is quite visible in those performances on which they worked as collaborators.

Understanding OOUR as a model through which they can work on their own ideas within a manifold field of interests, without experiencing it as a factory for producing commodity, these authors take the common space primarily as a polygon for research and experimentation, refusing to produce a specific type of art intended for the art market. Aware of the fact that their performances will often remain incomprehensible to the broader public, they nevertheless refuse to subject themselves to the aesthetic canon or build their performances according to a model of what they think might be acceptable or attractive to prestigious European festivals. Since OOUR’s authors are all engaged in other projects and work for other theatre companies as well, the group is for them primarily the space of freedom for living out those decisions and processes that are not determined by the economy or guided by profitability.
Ignoring the market, regrouping into always new and ephemeral collectivities from one project to another, not having outspoken representatives, and even refusing to define OOUR as an art group, rejecting the mandate of comprehensibility, and opting for the declarative porosity of aesthetic determinants (since what is new in one performance is supplanted by something even newer and always different in another) – these are the features that mark the work of those who collaborate in OOUR or join their work to it.
Regarding the fact that OOUR does not function according to the producer-commodity-consumer principle, it is also superfluous to think about their artworks in categories in which artworks intended for the market are commonly thought.

OOUR’s performances are done collectively – a new direction is visible each time, depending on the initial idea that can come from any of the group’s members. Rather than describing each performance of the group separately, it is more important to look at the OOUR unit as an artwork per se, considering their shows as the integral part of that unit.
The artists define their artistic work as a principle, a form of “public statement” realized through the form of theatre performance. That “public statement” is essential in defining what we commonly describe as a performance or an artistic product. In other words, their “public statement” is an activity that must be viewed with respect to the specific time and place in which it is created and performed.
The authors approach each new process not by starting from a predefined idea, inscribed in a theory, aesthetics, or politics, in order to elaborate on a given material; instead, they start from their own artistic positions and work, interpreting those positions in order to create something new.
A personal perception of one’s own existence in the real world is here justified and far from being perceived as a simple gaze into one’s own bellybutton. Questioning one’s position in accordance with the living situation, opposite to the “narcissism of one’s existence in the universe”, becomes the area of necessary creation of freedom on the one hand, and the field of defining identity on the other. (2)
The aesthetic membrane of OOUR is permeable and porous: it is formed anew each time when OOUR is re-established as a unit of labour – from one year to another. In a way, the aesthetic signature of a particular performance includes the aestheticisms and ethical principles of individuals that join a particular project. Therefore, incoherence within the group is considered an advantage rather than deficiency.

Every new project or work on the material is regarded as something that must be questioned and justified again and again: (3)Every interest field that opens up in a project creates the possibility of a new field of interest: therefore, each piece is a continuation of the previous one, yet beginning anew at the same time. But the metastructure of work remains unchanged – it is the same, again and still: questioning one’s work and one’s position within the group, again and again. The constancy of processes that precede the decision on what will eventually be performed actually becomes the basic object of artistic concern.
And yet, should we venture into identifying something that permeates all performances of the group as a red thread, regarding their thematic incoherence and diversity of interests, then it would certainly be struggle against various institutionalizations of aesthetic and other structures of creative work, beginning with the institutionalization of the group as such and ending with the institutionalization of the interest field; in other words, it is avoiding all those common denominators that might be assigned to their work in order to institutionalize it.
Radically insisting on the porosity of their work, balancing somewhere between self-annihilation and survival on the edge, the authors of OOUR take their positions to the extreme, tending towards a situation in which they could neither defend nor articulate their work– and they do it on purpose. Any assertion of one’s personal convictions is linked to the creation of a new ideology, which is what they want to avoid at all cost.
In view of that, one can understand their need to be on the edge of everything, including their own expectations. Existence on the edge of economy and aestheticism is crucial for OOUR and originates in their need of redefining the field of aesthetic and artistic freedom. “We are here to serve a particular concept, and that is called ‘making art’. We make some sort of personal art. Our capacity for action must be equally fragile as the art we are about to make.” (4)
In a way, artists that are active in OOUR, with their intention of working with art and working on art, are consciously encroaching upon the field of some new aesthetic activism, the activity of which does not remain within the borders of the aesthetical. Their work cannot be studied only through dance or performing arts. We may rather say that their art is the art of active bodies that reinvent and assert themselves as active by making art, their visibility proclaimed in each particular public statement. In the public statement of OOUR, the dominant body is always the one whose role can be recognized as dominant with regard to its prevalence in that statement. That is why the dominant body of a statement is sometimes purely visual, at other times musical, often related to dance and performance, depending on the prevalence and engagement of particular authors/generators of collective public statement in a particular project.

What one might extol as the special value of the group is its survival on the edge, with permanent shifting of the borders of one’s own annihilation. Its authors, who are inventing the strategy for the renewal of work as such, testify to the desperate efforts of art in this region to become self-sustainable and to remain self-manageable, resisting the circumstances in which it has come to life, first using the resources of the market, but then adopting a hostile stance towards them.
OOUR’s art can be interpreted as an attempt at such resistance, an act of courage, and a precondition of survival. Freedom persists as long as the time the freedom needs to be established – as long as it is forced to renew itself, the work of OOUR most certainly is one.

text by Petra Zanki (ed. “OOUR 10 years-essays”, 2010. Zagreb)
1. What I have in mind here is primarily the Croatian Liberation war, which lasted from 1991-1995, but also the Kosovo unrests of 1989, the separation of Slovenia, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the bombing of Belgrade, briefly all that was defined as the 1990s wars on the Balkans.

2. Beside the dispersion of collective identity caused by the war, the non-existence of another, purely artistic identity is linked to the consequent post-war transition process: We are so marginalized that we must engage in a number of other things if we wish to create any conditions that would enable us to dedicate ourselves to the creative process. What I am talking about is the right to have dance trainings on a daily basis, given the fact that most of my colleagues spend that part of the day organizing, negotiating, lobbying. I am talking about the dancer’s right to focus on himself or herself, rather than on politics. Interview with Selma Banich, Iva Nerina Gattin, KULISA. 5 May 2008.

3. From the recording of an interview with Selma Banich and Sandra Banić Naumovski, Zagreb, 20 February 2010.

4. Ibid.