05/27/2013 02:52 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2013

The Artist as Bullhorn

We quickly become inured to stimuli. We put on a shirt and immediately feel it against our skin. But then, unless we have a neurological disorder or something in the shirt causes a chemical reaction with our skin, we no longer feel the shirt. The same holds with other senses. We become accustomed to the odor of our offices. By the fifth spoonful of an ordinary bowl of soup, we are no longer tasting it. We fall into habits of seeing as well. The tree outside our window, the face of a family member, the shape of a pear: these become commonplace through repetition. We see them. But we no longer see them.

Because we are inundated with stimuli every second, this accommodation of the senses plays a vital evolutionary function. We'd go crazy if we reacted to everything as if for the first time. Imagine being constantly aware of every piece of clothing we wore: we'd have no perceptual energy left to interact with the environment beyond the shirt on our back. We must be selective in what we pay attention to. We are attuned to changes in patterns, for these represent both risk and opportunity. Red apple, good, eat. Purple apple, hmmnn, interesting, take note, pause before biting into it, save the seeds in case it's a fantastic new variety.

Art, in some sense, upends this relationship between the world and our perceptions of it. Artists provoke us into looking with fresh eyes at the things that we take for granted.

Andreja Kuluncic applies this principle to social issues. Her art often involves people on the margins, people who have lost the power to command the attention of the majority, people who have become invisible. She has worked with migrants, the jobless, pregnant teenagers, prisoners, stigmatized minorities. She has used her position as an artist as a kind of bullhorn: to grab the attention of passersby. One of her projects, for instance, used advertising posters to draw attention to the plight of workers at a state-owned store in Croatia that the government wanted to privatize. It was the early days of the transition to the market, and Kuluncic realized that billboards and bus shelter ads were novel enough to attract interest. She deployed this "shock of the new" to make people look again at something that had faded into the background of the "transition."

A bullhorn can grab people's attention -- but if you keep using the bullhorn, eventually that tactic also becomes easily ignored. So Kuluncic is constantly seeking out different ways of making the invisible visible. "Today I'm using other media: mobile phones, direct sales, joint action with the community," she says. "Because now we are just sick of advertisements: nobody's looking at them anymore. So, I have to do something different to grab people's attention, to get their eyes and thoughts, to get them to think about whether we are doing what we want to do or simply what everybody around us is doing."

The range of her projects is extraordinary, from engaging pregnant teenagers in England to reimagining community development in the Hungarian countryside. Last October, I visited her studio in Zagreb where she showed me the documentation of several fascinating projects. We talked about a number of these projects as well as the rise of nationalism, the disappointments of European integration, and the challenges of censorship.

The Interview

Your work often engages with people who are marginalized.

I've worked with people in a mental hospital, people in jail, pregnant teenagers, asylum seekers, Roma people: people who are vulnerable. When you and I talk, we're careful with our words. We're taking the measure of each other. But with people who are vulnerable, it's so easy to slip and be really kind of patronizing. And there are a lot of laws that make these people's lives even worse. It's one thing if you personally don't like someone, but it's another thing if you have a law that allows you to make that person's life really shitty. This is what I'm trying to do when I travel -- in Switzerland, in Austria, in Germany, but in my own country as well. I try to find out about these laws: the legalized racism, the xenophobia, or, as you saw in Serbia, homophobia.

These projects in a way strip away the official version of what it means to be European or to be in a European space. In effect, they say, "This is what's really going on." Also, it's fascinating that much of your work is in the form of advertising.

I used a lot of advertising before, but not that much today. Under socialism we had some advertising, but it was state-controlled. The advertising was a bit more ethical. So, for instance, you couldn't advertise food for kids that was junk or things that would kill people. Well, that was the idea anyway. After the Berlin Wall fell, advertising was everywhere, and people believed in it. And they were buying like mad. They're still buying! So that's why I was using advertising in my work. I saw that this was the main thing that people watched and really cared about.

The first piece I did was about the workers at Nama, which is short for NArodni MAgazin, which means the "people's store." At the time, these workers were working in empty stores, but the stores next to them, which were from West Europe, were completely full of goods. This was our department store, built during socialism, and we really loved that they were all around Yugoslavia. And then the state wanted to bankrupt these stores because the buildings were worth a lot.

They wanted to privatize and sell them?

Yes, and there was a lot of stealing involved in this and other similar state-run stores, factories, hotels on the seaside, and so on. So, the people were working for six months in empty stores at the time. Some of my artist friends from West said to me, "Oh, this is a great performance!" I said, "No, no, no, this is real life, it's not a performance! It's not a piece of art!" The workers were standing there for the entire eight hours, without selling anything, just keeping their jobs.

They were waiting to be paid. Everyday they were told, "Yeah, yeah, we will pay you." But for six months nothing happened. Meanwhile some of the workers went on strike. They chained themselves to the bank and went on hunger strikes. But nobody was watching them. Nobody was really interested.

I talked with the labor union and the workers, offering them three different works about their situation. They chosen this one: a poster with one worker on it, the logo of the Nama, and a text "1,908 workers, 15 department stores." Nothing else. I thought that people don't look at a person in need but they do look at advertisements. When I put them on the posters, I wanted them to look nice, to look like the other advertisements -- not to look sad and depressed, which they were. So I brought in my friends to do the makeup, to style the hair, to have professional studio photographs, everything.

We put the ads on billboards, and for three days nothing happened. I thought, "Okay, nobody saw them." I didn't want to make an issue of it. I didn't want to say, "Okay, this is an art piece, what do you think?" But I wanted to see what would happen.

But then, after three days, people began going to the Nama stores, because they all thought that the stores had re-opened. But it was actually still the same thing: workers standing next to empty shelves and not getting paid. People called up the director of Nama and asked, "What the hell are you doing? Why are you paying for these really expensive advertisements? You're not paying these people. You don't have anything to sell. What's wrong with you?" And he said, "I don't know anything about it. It's has nothing to do with me."

And then the journalists found out. The story wasn't in the culture pages. It was in the section about what was going on in the city of Zagreb. A whole debate started up about what we are selling. We are not selling products. We are not working. We are just selling our stores, and our people. We are just selling ourselves out. And that was my intention: to start a discussion about what we are selling, the visible and the invisible: the hotels, factories, islands, everything. We're selling everything that's possible to sell. We are becoming tourists in our own country. It's a horrible way to run politics, you know? And that's why I was using advertising.

But today I'm using other media: mobile phones, direct sales, joint action with the community. Because now we are just sick of advertisements: nobody's looking at them anymore. So, I have to do something different to grab people's attention, to get their eyes and thoughts, to get them to think about whether we are doing what we want to do or simply what everybody around us is doing. Is it something we need, something that helps us, something that makes us happy? If we are living in this greedy capitalism, at least we should make our own choices and think about our own choices.

What year did you do the Nama project?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.