Maja and Reuben Fowkes:Your Herbarium brings together two fields that are usually not closely associated, that of botany and labor – why did you choose a botanical field-trip as an occasion to talk about the experience of precarious labor?
Iva Kovač and Elvis Krstulović: We started the Herbarium as a remedy for stress and fatigue, caused by our working and living conditions at the time. Our principal aims were to “free time” and open it up for contemplation, relaxation and re-thinking. Walking seemed to consolidate all of this. It slows you down, it is inefficient, and makes no sense if your goal is simply to reach a certain destination quickly. Since the symptom of the goal-oriented attention is a kind of tunnel vision, it seemed to us that looking for and picking plants while the conversation is taking place is contradictory to that kind of attention; it acts as a sort of Verfremdungseffekt that, for a short time at least, makes us perceive our surroundings. The conversations we have with the people whom we invite to join us are affected by the properties of walking and picking plants. They are somehow structured by the fact that the conversations are done while walking — and interrupted while picking plants.
MRF: How far does the active contemplation of the natural world, and in this case plants, offer a liberated space for activity that escapes the mechanisms of the post-Fordist economy?
IKEK: We do not manage to escape the mechanism of the post-Fordist economy. Although we continue to persist, our attempts are in vain especially given the fact that as artists we exemplify the ideal post-Fordist worker while the Herbarium in many ways exemplifies our failure to escape. While we try to “produce” space that is informal, slow and nonproductive, the walks become art-works, and as such are instrumentalized. The time we “liberated” is thus not quite free but neither is it alienated labor. The dichotomy of the weekend, the time “for what we will”, which enables productive week-days, has been lost for most workers today.
MRF: Why is it important that the walks you take with people are not conceived as public art events, nor photographically-documented, and that the conversations themselves not recorded?
IKEK: When plants are used as documentation of the walk, it influences the way we behave to each other while walking and conversing, at least as much as photo, or video-documentation would. The question is in what way it influences these behaviors and experiences. We believe that audio-video documentation would introduce the future audience into the conversation and thus put the focus on self-representation rather than on the conversation, the walk, and passing of time. Herbarium samples function more as traces then documents of the event, and as such they seem to be less intimidating. This semi-private nature of such event has to do with establishing a sort of temporary solidarity between participants, temporary friendship maybe. Whenever a work of ours involves documentation — it is never treated as a given. We believe that the way we choose to document the process affects the process in a fundamental way.
MRF: Your work refers closely to Rousseau’s vision in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker, what do you find appealing about ‘reverie’ as a mode of walking and how far does it offer a critique of today’s less leisurely, goal-oriented pedestrian habits?
IKEK: Reveries of a Solitary Walker is more then just a reference for the Herbarium. We in a way re-enact Rousseau’s desired routines described in the fifth chapter of the book, taking them as “instructions” that guide our walks. This is also why we felt it important to include elements of the text as part of the presentation of the work. When Rousseau defines leisure as something different from lethargy, he goes on to propose necessary activities for “a precious far-niente”. In order to attain this “state of bliss”, characterized by moderate mental and physical activity, he sets out to compose a herbarium that would categorize the complete plant life of island St. Pierre. The fact that people know so little about plant life is caused by the fact that all research is done with a specific goal in mind — Rousseau maintains. His interest is according to him outside of this goal oriented domain, although one cannot ignore the fact that the impetus to find, categorize and organize the complete plant life of the island, square meter by square meter, is a colonizing endeavor, typical for the enlightenment and modernity.
Approached from today as a form of critique of labor conditions, Rousseau's, “disinterest” correlates to the Situationists' refusal to work. While trying to take control of our time and body — away from the commodification of every waking and sleeping moment, the refusal to do art-work is in contradiction with that which, although often self-exploitative, is nevertheless our “labor-of-love”.
Would you agree that the practice of pressing flowers and plants has taken on new associations in recent times, reflecting the sense of ecological endangerment and threats to biodiversity, or to put it another way, how have our motives for collecting, identifying and preserving plant species changed since the time of Rousseau?
In the time of Rousseau, botany was linked to (heroic) exploration of the unknown (natural) world. A lot has changed since then and we recognize that today the same might be understood as rapprochement to both nature and non-productive time, not as something to discover but as something that should be preserved, or invested in.
Fokus Grupa, Herbarium, walks & documentary installation, 2013-ongoing
Fokus Grupa is an artist collective based in Rijeka, Croatia. Borrowing their name from a contested research method, used equally for independant research as for PR purposes they point to the social, economical and political frames of the art field. Their practice is collaborative and interdisciplinary, and they work across art, design and curating.
Fokus Grupa concentrate on the relations between art and its public manifestations, in terms of working culture, aesthetics, and social and economic exchange values. Their work investigates the inherent power structures of the art-system. To this effect, they explore its economic, spatial and legal implementations. The collective tries to expand the boundaries of their artwork, using printed matter, films and installations, works on paper, discussions, workshops and texts.