How Does a Collective End? An Interview with Robert Gabris and Ľuboš Kotlár

Robert Gabris and Ľuboš Kotlár, "mould mix melt stir break pinch SUGAR repeat *receipt against racism," 2022 (installation image at the Biennale Matter of Art in Prague). Photo: Ľuboš Kotlár. Courtesy of the artists.

It is the middle of the summer in Prague and the art nouveau Šaloun Villa’s glass ceiling and glass wall recalls a greenhouse. The heat is at moments unbearable, and the gallery visitors keep escaping outside to cool down. This makes the Šaloun Villa the perfect place for this sugar installation by the i pack* collective, which is left alone in this heat to melt, break, and merge. Hands and arms cast from sugar hang from the ceiling and lie on the floor, now in melted, golden-yellow puddles. Titled mould mix melt stir break pinch SUGAR repeat *receipt against racism (2022), the installation is part of the Biennale Matter of Art in Prague, a fairly new initiative which first took place in 2020, organized around public space interventions and focused on the social and political aspects of art.

An hour into the July 22nd opening of SUGAR, three singers start walking through the installation, looking closely at the hanging sugar casts and singing a song in Romanes language. They are all dressed very casually, suggesting, intentionally, that this is not a staged performance. The unexpected event in the middle of the opening transforms the space, opening it up to another dimension, evoking those who, according to the artists, “were not invited.” Written by hand in black pencil on the big white wall behind the sugar installation is the text titled Material for a collective imagination/Diaries of possibilities, a meditation on the possibilities and complications of working collectively.

The artist Robert Gabris decided to form the i pack* collective after receiving an invitation to exhibit at the biennale in Prague. He felt that the Roma queer community is not often represented at international art exhibitions and he wanted to extend his invitation to others. He formed the collective with two other artists he trusted: Ľuboš Kotlár and Cat Jugravu. Initially, the collective’s three identities fluidly grew together through their art and their desire to construct new narratives around the non-binary queer Roma body. The artists spent about two months in Prague for a residency prior to the opening of the biennale. Halfway through the residency, Jugravu decided to leave the collective. Gabris and Kotlár agreed to continue working as a collective but they were forced to rethink the importance of building a safe space within a collective. Here, Gabris and Kotlár talk about the reasons their collective broke up and how their concept of the puddle represents their collective’s break up, disintegration, and subsequent fluidity. As Robert says: “Acceptance and solidarity are not enough. Building a safe space means working hard on a foundation with many exits and windows. […] We are learning to be good architects.”

How did you decide to work together?

Robert Gabris: Actually, it took us about five minutes, and we agreed right away that we’re going to tackle this topic of art institutions, and we’re going to talk about a broader spectrum of our own Romani identity, queer identity, non-binary identity. Each of us used to work in a completely different medium, and we decided that we are going to go beyond our artistic boundaries, and we are going to push them further.

Ľuboš Kotlár: Not only that—we decided that we’re all going to cross some of our own personal boundaries. But also, my own experience in general with collective work has been very positive. I think once you get some people together, then understandably you’re able to create something much more complex and much more challenging than you’re able to do on your own. And many times, there is that moment which is very precious for me, personally, and that is that the work itself—the whole process, but especially the result—is something that I feel goes beyond me as an individual.

Robert Gabris and Ľuboš Kotlár, “mould mix melt stir break pinch SUGAR repeat *receipt against racism,” 2022 (installation image from the Biennale Matter of Art in Prague). Photo: Ľuboš Kotlár. Courtesy of the artists.

It’s very interesting. I see the parallels here with forming a collective and the concept of the collective body, but even further with the questions of safe space. How did these questions resonate in forming and working as a collective?

RG: We have actually hastily created a collective that was supposed to ultimately represent the Roma queer community, and then broke up in the middle of an art residency in Prague. We then stopped for a moment and started thinking about the concept of the collective body and the fact that the collective body isn’t born in a quick and spontaneous way, but rather it involves a long process of working together as well as it requires trust or acceptance of otherness.

When our collective broke up, we had to acknowledge that we cannot automatically represent something that we have no previous experience with yet—the representation of the Roma queer body in an art institution—as we don’t have any references for such works from the past. We started looking in the literature for other artistic, political, social, [and] some philosophical positions for examples of collectives that collapsed and why.

Even if there were some previous examples, it’s always about starting from scratch, is it not? Because as you described, collectives are built on trust that has to be created and it takes time. Or do you feel like other examples might have helped to do it differently, in a more sustainable way?

LK: I personally don’t think that the problem was that the collective [was] so quickly formed. It is important to remember that we’re talking about a multiple minority, which means that actually Roma bodies are marginalized in the queer community as well as queer bodies are marginalized in the Roma community. Meaning that we’ve realistically come from the assumption that once we’re united, when we focus on this very specific identity that we share, it will not really even be a question of us sharing some common vision or principles, worldviews, whatever. It’s just that the perspective was, at least on my part, very personal, and that [feeling of] “wow, we’ve finally found each other.”

RG: We started talking about our bodies and the existential real needs that maybe, in many parts of art, we’re not addressing yet. We started talking out loud about these needs, and I’m sure you can imagine what a terrible clash it is in the bodies that have to process all of this, so I would argue that the fact that we sort of disagreed and that we broke up was the most natural way to go, because we’re really talking about the inescapable needs of our physical and mental bodies in an art institution that, to this day, isn’t prepared to protect those aspects at all.

When you talk about this from your personal perspectives, about hoping that this shared marginalization of yours was supposed to unite you until you realized that it wasn’t enough—can you maybe talk more about that?

RG: From my experience, I can say that your community can hurt you the most, because they know exactly where your weak points are. We are not homogeneous; skin color or gender does not automatically ensure safe spaces. This requires much more intensive and sensitive work to get along with each other. Acceptance and solidarity are not enough. Building a safe space means working hard on a foundation with many exits and windows. Often collectives close themselves in a given space; it feels like being in a basement where you can’t breathe. We are learning to be good architects.

LK: An important factor here, I would say, is a sense of belonging. When you live your daily reality in a non-normative body shaped by the fact it represents multiple minorities at once, you never truly belong anywhere. Of course, we can talk about chosen families and communities and acceptance that potentially comes with them, but as Robert suggested, this requires a lot of work on both sides, a lot of constant explaining and mutual understanding, yet there is still no guarantee it’ll work out. I think our assumption that through our shared identity we would for once automatically create such a community, no matter what, was rather utopian, but I still very much vibe with that idea. We have to keep trying, at least.

Robert Gabris and Ľuboš Kotlár, “casting moulds and sugar,” 2022. Photo: Richard Hodonický. Courtesy of the artists.

For the installation, you made sugar casts of your hands that hang in space as an installation, and they gradually degrade, they break, they melt, and so on. So that’s actually the goal of that installation, that it continues to live and work . . .  

RG: Yes, we have created sugar hands that show the fist. This gesture sort of has multiple aspects. One of them is that we’re sort of fortifying the institution with our other-wise bodies and corporeality, and we’re talking about a caring institution [in the same way of] the queer concept of fisting and penetration of the human body, which requires a great deal of care and caution and trust towards one’s partner. So it is also a hand that seems to want to trust the institution of which it is fisting and penetrating the internal structures, which are so patriarchal, racist, sexist, and fully dominated by cis hetero males. Then it is also the hand that demonstrates and resists these patriarchal structures. And at the same time, that hand is falling and breaking into these puddles, and it’s drowning.

LK: It’s also very important to explain why sugar. Sugar has many meanings. When we were talking earlier about the collective body, sugar is something that somehow unites us all and we all have it in our bodies; we all basically need it for survival. The context in which sugar performs has changed in some way. In the past, it was a commodity that represented wealth and was the privilege of the privileged classes. Today, it is exactly the opposite. It is that the privileged in society often try­­—in terms of wellness, fitness, and so on—to just stay away from sugar. It is those very segments of the population that live in absolute poverty that depend on this commodity, because it is available, and it provides them with energy. It is precisely in these Roma communities in Slovakia that there is a high incidence of diabetes.

Part of the opening was also a performance, a song performed by three signers in Romanes language. They sang the song spontaneously during the official opening while walking through the sugar installation. You explained to me at the opening that it was meant to be for people who weren’t invited there. Can you describe the performance and what your intention with it was?

RG: In a simple way, we transformed this space for one moment where all the people and the invited guests of this institution stopped understanding the form of this song, and the language of this song, and only the Roma community understood it. These three people who started singing also completely, spontaneously started going through those hands and through that sugar and it started to crackle. I was live-streaming the performance over the phone to my family, who were sitting on the couch at home. We welcomed those who weren’t invited to join through the phone. This song was for them. All of those people in the gallery at the opening stepped back towards the walls. The performance shifted the whole function of that space for one moment, and suddenly it was for that Roma community that is not acknowledged [by the art institutions]. Because the Roma community members are living in the ghettos in absolute poverty, they don’t come to Prague to see an art exhibition.

What do you mean when you say that some people were not invited to the opening? Do you feel like the institution could have done more?

RG: Art institutions don’t have the capacity—they don’t have the resources to start changing those structures. Representation of Roma nonbinary trans bodies needs to be happening regularly in the art scene. We have to stop overvaluing art institutions, because art institutions are limited by the structures that they are embedded in.

LK: When we talk about an art institution, we’re not pointing the finger now at a particular [one]. It’s a problem that is much broader and is systemic. It comes mainly from the state, from social assistance, from education. And so, although we say that these people won’t come from Eastern Slovakia to the opening in Prague, because it’s a huge privilege, but these people from Eastern Slovakia probably wouldn’t come even if we were opening the same exhibition in Košice, because it’s just a really different systemic thing there. We’re not just talking about some economic possibilities; we’re really talking about where these people feel invited and where they don’t.

RG: Ultimately, it’s really about those spaces that sort of don’t belong to everybody. What we can do, and what I see as the big crux of it, is that we have to articulate this out loud and we have to sort of pass that voice on to other Roma artists, so that they, too, can have a voice in these institutions—so that there are more of us.

What about the text on the wall in your exhibition. Should we see it as some kind of manifesto?

RG: The text is actually like a diary of what’s happened in terms of how we perceive the collaboration or the existence of some collectives. In this text, we talk about imagination, about not focusing on producing some finished result for an exhibition, but rather sort of stopping, looking around, and imagining what we would like to be. Then this text talks about these collectives that are collecting material, and it also talks about the dysfunctionality of those collectives, and there are also references to other philosophical and artistic theses which talk about collectives. Because when our collective broke up, we started looking into theory and into other artistic positions.

LK: I would go back to the question you asked. Is it a manifesto? What is it? But I suggest, away with those definitions. Who cares? It’s just, in a way, a stream of thought. But basically, what does the text say? On the one hand, it talks about the encounter of one person with another. Because at the end of the day, we’re in artistic discourse, so we’re talking about collectivity, but we’re three people who have had a falling out, so the text is talking about how one person functions with another.

Robert Gabris and Ľuboš Kotlár, “mould mix melt stir break pinch SUGAR repeat *receipt against racism,” 2022 (installation image from the Biennale Matter of Art in Prague). Photo: Ľuboš Kotlár. Courtesy of the artists.

In the text you write about the concept of a puddle. It kind of reminds me of Legacy Russell’s glitch concept, which for her offers an opportunity to resist history and to construct new potentiality. What does the puddle symbolize to you?

RG: In our project we were creating sugar hands, and then our collective fell apart, and we created a sticky saliva-like substance between the two [sugar] hands that were penetrating the institution. And this saliva, it’s always changing shape and we have no control over it—we really liked that. This is the space between those worlds in which we find ourselves. We are like that saliva, and the fluidity of that space is within us. For me, that is the puddle.

LK: Even when we talk about the decay and degradation of that puddle, we’re very open about the fact that we really have no idea how the installation is going to behave. All of those tests that we’ve done behave in different ways. We don’t know how to control it.

And that’s what strikes me as quite important and new about your artistic creation. In contrast to the art historical association with an old white male genius and him putting some truth in front of his viewers, you enter into a dialogue and the answers are created in the process, which is a very important shift. What’s next? Will you continue working as a collective?

RG: Each of us has the right to be invisible. Yet we often don’t have the right to be invisible, because we still have to represent that Roma identity. Every question that comes to us is aiming at exactly that vulnerable point. So, there is again another concept of that visibility and invisibility and the right […] of different bodies to be invisible. Is it even possible in our society to be invisible when we live in these bodies?

Whether we continue working as a collective is a political decision; it has nothing to do with whether I want to or not. It’s about whether we really overestimate the arts institution’s ability to make change. Are we going to go to that next institution to represent the Roma body and try to sensitize the space around us, or are we going to decide to make art? And outside of that, for example, [continue to be] engaged in social work in the Roma ghettos? I don’t know.

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