Kristina Leko: About the Monument for a Just City, an action initiated by Martin Krenn (2008)

Introduction. To be guided by ideals. This is a text about the work of a colleague with whom I have exhibited several times and participated in the same manifestations. I wish to say that we are guided by the same, or very similar ideals. It wasn’t easy writing this text. I just couldn’t finish it. Why? For artists who deal with the sphere of art that is politically aware and engaged, the issue of efficacy and functionality of a particular work, of the activity, of working, is a fundamental issue. Rethinking this topic often gets me in a bad mood, sometimes even disrupts my breathing. Conversation about the topic in a like-minded circle is mostly unproductive and comes down to being a sort of protocol-prescribed support. My experience tells me that conversation with persons of a different political orientation is pointless. Following this introduction, which bears a bit of an air of remorse and impotence, let us move on to the matter at hand.

About the author of the work. Firstly, it should be said who Martin Krenn is. Or should it? Is it really important who Martin Krenn is, what he did and what he is planning to do? Or should something called Monument for a Just City be a work emancipated from the author? If we asked the artist, he would say that one shouldn’t mention him, but write about the work. This is where artists interested in promoting socially progressive ideas differ from artists interested in material advancement (for building, for increased production, for art for art’s sake). Plainly speaking, they prefer other moments of creation over personal promotion, the concept of genius, originality, grandiosity. What motivates them and keeps them going is the reshaping of reality, influencing public opinion and the social surrounding. They prefer seeing something they came up with being immediately efficient and driving people to think or act, rather than having this thing stand in its place for 300 years to eternal admiration (oh, how terrible this reactionary word is). For the beginning, let us try not to say anything about the author.

Description of the work. At noon one spring Saturday, on Marshal Tito Square in Zagreb, next to Meštrović’s Well of Life, young people of twenty to thirty years of age gather and bring plastic bottles, creating thus a sculptural form, a monument of a couple of hours. A preceding announcement, or call, reads: „We invite you to the cooperative construction of a Monument for a Just City. On Saturday, the 10th of May at 10 o’clock on Marshal Tito Square. We are putting up a monument, a social plastic of protest, built in a day, from beverage industry waste, used plastic bottles, recycled to ’save‘ the environment, the gathering of which from garbage bins has become the income of the increasingly impoverished inhabitants of Zagreb. This monument is a demand, a demand to the authorities here and in Europe: stop the impoverishment, instead of encouraging it! Everybody, bring your plastic bottles! Allow us to celebrate! To erect a monument on the Square so that we can no longer be ignored.“ A month or two later, following the action, there emerge 10×10 cm stickers on various surfaces around the centre of the city, bearing the words: „Why do more and more people have to gather plastic bottles to survive?“

Context. In 2006, a half-kuna compensation for plastic bottles was introduced, after the model set by other European countries. Since then, we have been observing the initial shaping of a stratum of people who search dumpsters and gather plastic bottles, and then they increase in numbers.

My contribution to the Monument for a Just City. Ideals have failed. One week before that Saturday, I returned home following a six-week absence, before which I had put aside some thirty plastic bottles, knowing that the action I’m writing about will take place in the end of May, and I wanted to participate. However, having returned from the trip, I discovered that in the meantime my mom had tidied up my apartment. The bottles were no longer there. During the week, I gathered several bottles. That Saturday, I headed towards Marchal Tito Square, my one year old son in tow. Just as we were leaving, the kid pooped, so we returned to change the diapers. Already being late, in the hurry I forgot to take the bag with the bottles. Not to arrive empty-handed, I bought two bottles of Jamnica water along the way. Thus, I completely fell short of my potential in this social sculpture and action. The reasons for my failure in the struggle for a better society in this particular case are, as stated: unpredictable objective circumstances, family situation and the burden of everyday existence. Still, all these reasons can be reduced to insufficient motivation. There is no reason why, provided there is good will, a healthy female person with a relatively large family and lots of friends wouldn’t gather at least a hundred plastic bottles in one week.

Others‘ contribution to Monument for a Just City. Going towards the site of the action, I was embarrassed about not bringing along any bottles for the monument, and even thought of going back home. But then I also thought: If this monument depends only on me, then it shouldn’t be anyway. There are others, who certainly have less engagements than I… and so on along these lines. Arriving at the Well of Life, I was honestly taken aback. Because neither were there many people, nor were there many bottles. I spent maybe two hours there altogether, and in the meantime went for a coffee. I was surprised to see some of the participants in the organization of the action arriving empty-handed. That disappointed me as well. Because, it seemed to me, there is no reason why in a week everybody present, and I think that in these two hours around a hundred young people passed by, shouldn’t gather at least a hundred plastic bottles from friends and family, spending maybe 5-6 hours of their time. A hundred times a hundred bottles would be ten thousand. In the end, the Monument for a Just City contained some thousand bottles. Indeed, what is someone’s 5-6 hours in terms of justice?

Why did we come empty-handed? Being a decent host, after the action I asked my colleague Krenn whether he was disappointed with the organisation of, and response to, his action, by its size. He answered that he wasn’t. That is the state of affairs today. He expected something like that. I was impressed, not only by what he answered, but by the way in which he did, so I asked myself whether the response, the mass of people and the mass of bottles, would have been larger had some other people, from some other social circles, taken on the organisation. From which circles? Is there a social group with an interest in successfully organising a similar affair, without it being a pre-election campaign? In other words, why didn’t anybody bring a hundred bottles? Doesn’t coming empty-handed in fact mean saying that we don’t believe that change, that is, improving the current condition, is possible. We don’t believe in change. Change isn’t real. And change, or, in other words, revolution, requires belief. Because that is the only way … Hem, hem…. You know what I would like to say, but I don’t know how. I wouldn’t want to sound out of tune with the times…

Is the size of the artwork essential? Later we were talking with Vesna and Martin primarily about what should be done, and how, in order to build a larger social sculpture and to erect a larger monument. And then, is the performative equally forceful in the case of a small Monument for a Just City as it would be in the case of a large one? In what terms would the size of a social action influence the quality of an artwork? Let’s imagine that the action was very well advertised, and that several thousand people showed up there, that a million bottles were assembled, to make a monument higher than the theatre building. Would the action hold out in an artistic context, would it still be an artistic happening? Or would we reproach the artist for not playing by the book, for desiring power, and publicly declare it all a populistic action with which decent intellectuals, of course, desire no involvement. Furthermore, does this mean that the question about social justice, when set forth in an artistic context, always must be rethorical, that is, not really demanding an answer. I do not wish to believe that.

Something like a conclusion. In the foreword to the UrbanFestival, Vesna writes: „So we love our passions and reasons, our analyses and convictions more than we love the existing world which we are allegedly trying to change. Because all too often we are more committed to a certain political analysis or ideal – and even to the failure or collapse of that ideal – than to grabbing opportunities for radical change in the present.“ It is precisely because it is frustrating and difficult, and perhaps impossible in this artistic discipline, in art that is politically aware and engaged, to be successful, that is, to affect the social surroundings, to foster positive change in these times when the hand on the clock of history seems to turn in a direction contrary to that of social justice, that I have a need to make a note about the author, instead of the planned final paragraph about freedom of spirit.

About a free spirit. In his posters, videos, interventions in public space, Martin Krenn is concerned primarily with those who are deprived of their rights, creating artefacts that promote anti-racism and social justice. A critique of the bourgeois Austria is also present, as well as a critique of globalised capitalism. Several instances. A copy of the letter that Martin Krenn had addressed to the current owner of Vienna’s Prater was published in papers and on posters, accusing them of concealing historic facts connected to the Big Wheel in Nazi Austria, when in ambiguous circumstances the wheel was taken from Eduard Steiner, who in 1944 was killed in Auschwitz. Martin demands that the injustice be righted, he demands that authentic data be publicised. An intervention on a tombstone whose text glorifies Nazism deals with the same subject. Although such texts are forbidden by law, nobody had the strength to erase it. In line with similar detections of effective remains of the Nazi ideology in the contemporary Austrian society is the project Monument to Defeat, meaning the defeat of Nazism. The artefact alludes that Nazism never did completely vanish. Various projects in the form of posters promoting anti-racist messages, concerning today’s situation in a country with a large number of immigrants with whom politics is dealing in the wrong way, follow the same line. With the recommendation that you should by all means visit, here is the translation of the poster that was removed, that is, censored out of public space in Denmark in 2006, created in cooperation with Oliver Ressler. „The ruling principle of capitalism legitimizes itself by means of two contrary ideologies: on the one hand the universalistic claim of the competitive society and on the other hand racism and sexism. Capitalism’s non-redeemable promise of equality is in need of ideologies of inequality like racism. Racism makes legitimate the existing relations of inequality in capitalism and thereby contributes to its reproduction. Anti-racist practice should therefore always also aim at the demontage of the capitalist system.“

text was commissioned and first published in the catalog of the UrbanFestival 2008, [BLOK], Zagreb, 2008