Crack Up - Crack Down, The 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts; identity by Nejc Prah

In the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood in Berlin, a green storefront opens into the studio of artist collective Slavs and Tatars. There’s a room with a large shared work table, where members of the collective work from laptops, and a room with floor-to-ceiling book shelves looking out onto the street. And in the center is a spare room with some peculiar stainless steel furniture that I’m told will soon be the Pickle Bar, set to open next summer. The room can be cordoned off by pulling shut large plastic paneled blinds adorned with an enormous advertisement for Pickle Juice, rendered in an electrifying Gatorade-esque graphic language.

The soon-to-be Pickle Bar in Slavs and Tatars studio in Berlin

The soon-to-be Pickle Bar, and the various pickle-themed works within are part of the artists’ ongoing Pickle Politics research, which uses the idea of pickling and fermentation—an act of simultaneous preservation and deconstruction—as a frame for examining history, politics, and geopolitical relations. The graphics on the room divider, for instance, are a play on the recent phenomenon of pickle juice being repackaged and sold as a sports drink—a Western appropriation of a drink long used as a hangover cure in Eastern Europe. They’ve also applied the concept of fermentation to the nationalist rhetoric in Poland and as a counterpoint to ideas that arose from the Enlightenment Period.

“It’s a stupid medium, pickles, and it’s a way of using humor,” says Slavs and Tatars’ Payam Sharifi, standing in the empty proto-Pickle bar, which will offer vodka and fermentation parings and feature standup comedians. “There’s nothing more pedestrian than a pickle, right? And yet through this very simple idea of fermentation and pickling, you can unravel much more complex things.”

“The subject of satire was really a question for us. We were asking: ‘What is the relevance of satire today?’”

It’s an apt description of the work of Slavs and Tatars in general, which tends to use satire and humor to both break down complexities and draw parallels across cultures. Founded in 2006, the collective is dedicated to exploring “an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China,” through publishing, exhibitions, lectures, and performances. The group has exhibited from Warsaw to Zagreb, Vienna, Seoul, New York and Paris. In June, it had its curatorial debut with the 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, which again, focused on the subject of satire.

According to Sharifi, the biennial became a chance not only to survey other artists and designers employing satire in their work, but also to probe how effective the genre is in a contemporary context. “The subject of satire was really a question for us,” he says. “We were asking, ‘What is the relevance of satire today?’”

Make Mongolia Great Again, 2016, outline map, acrylic paint, 95 × 135 cm.

Satire has long been used in art, design, and literature as a method of speaking truth to power—of pricking people’s consciouses, particularly in times of political strife or authoritarian rule. As Sharifi points out, some of satire’s power lies in its ambiguity: the best satirical language is so clever and so coded that the butt of the joke can’t quite work out that he’s the punchline. Satire has bite—or a briny acidity, depending on who you ask—and unlike more palatable jokiness, it’s long been associated with subversion and societal upheaval. As George Orwell once wrote, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

Within the context of the biennial, entitled Crack upCrack Down, Slavs and Tatars also drew a connection between satire and graphics, both of which they consider to be important in their accessibility. Started in 1955, the Ljubljana Biennial was significant for bringing together artists and graphic designers from both the East and the West of the world during the Cold War, primarily through its emphasis on graphics and printed materials, which could be created cheaply and relocated easily. Similarly, satire can be considered a form of “popular philosophy,” as the collective puts it in intro to the biennial catalog; a genre resolutely “for the people.” “These two historical G-spots of the Biennial, if you will—the geopolitical and graphic—retain their currency, if in a more dissonant manner,” it writes.

There’s also, of course, satire’s association with political cartoons and printed journals. Slavs and Tatars looked toward Simplicissimus from Germany, Punch from the UK, Molla Nasreddin from the Caucasus region, and Slovenia’s Pavliha for curatorial guidance. Nejc Prah, who designed the biennial’s identity, took inspiration from the early 20th century Slovenian satirical newspapers Osa (meaning wasp), Bodeča neža (silver thistle), Jež (hedgehog), and Rogač (stag beetle). Picking up on a common thread in all of the titles—spikes, stings, and pricks—he created a visual language that subtly conveys the jab of a joke, featuring a hedgehog-like character as something of a branding mascot.

“Today, when anyone can create a meme on their phone, we wanted to test the waters and ask, ‘What are the limits of satire?’”

Just as the affordability of print provided fertile grounds for these satirical journals in the last century, the accessibility of software and the ease of publishing on social media platforms has allowed for an increase in satire today—and in meme form in particular. “We noticed an interesting phenomenon, which was that we’re now witnessing this kind of proliferation of satire online in the same way that we saw in the early 20th century with political satire journals,” says Sharifi. “Today, when anyone can create a meme on their phone, we wanted to test the waters and ask, ‘What are the limits of satire?’”

To answer the question, Slavs and Tatars looked outside of what’s traditionally thought of as satire in art and design, and even beyond those who consider themselves as artists. One of the projects featured in the biennial centered around the German book collector, art historian, and Marxist activist Eduard Fuchs, whose patronage of and scholarship in caricature helped frame a discourse around the rise of fascism in Germany. In biennial project No More Fuchs Left to Give, book dealer Arthur Fournier and scholar Raphael Koenig present selections of the lithographs Fuchs published, including ones that directly impacted philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin and his influential ideas around mechanical production.

The show also includes new works by artists like Martine Gutierrez, who last year received acclaim for project Indigenous Woman. In the 124-page fashion magazine, she served as the sole model, refashioning herself for each ad and fashion spread in style of performative self-portraiture in the vein of Cindy Sherman. Another of the show’s standout entries is the media artist Ferdinand Kriwet’s text-based works: aluminum “text-signs” and cardboard buttons that feature various plays on words. His texts are arranged in a circle as if on badges, with words flipped and bleeding into each other to create funny and poignant portmanteaus. This focus on language is also echoed in the work of Hamja Ahsan, who won the biennial grand prize, and his book Shy Radicals: Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert.

KRIWET, Button 10, 1967; cardboard, paint, glue; Ø 51,7 cm, 66,5 × 66,5 × 2 cm (framed); courtesy: the artist and BQ Berlin

For Slavs and Tatars, part of the drive behind their approach of looking far and wide—before digging deep into work that the artists themselves might not even consider satire—was that it seemed to them that satire as a genre is somewhat losing its edge. Sharifi points to shows like Saturday Night Live and other late night TV programs, and suggests they’ve lost their potency as political reality becomes more absurd than their satirical portrayals. As a counter to this phenomenon, the curators included the show Top lista nadrealista (“The Surrealists’ Top Chart”), considered “Yugoslavia’s answer to Monty Python.” Running from 1984 to 1991, many of the show’s satirical plot points—i.e. a Croatian-Serbian domestic squabble that turns into an armed battle in their home—foreshadowing the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.

“For people living in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, it’s nothing new for reality to be outstripping fiction,” says Sharifi. “It’s not a new phenomenon, and satire has been very effective in the past, during communism, and still today.” By contrast, he sees satirical TV shows in the United States more as therapy than effective satire, and finds they can be reinforcing of norms, especially when they imply that everything was fine before Trump took office.

“I would argue that satire doesn’t have that power today that it had a hundred years ago.”

In that vein, one thing that Slavs and Tatars learned from putting together Crack Up – Crack Down is that satire can be pretty conservative, or even regressive, particularly when it’s used to suggest going back to the way things were before. With the rise of nationalism around the world, there’s been a boom in comedy and satire—but putting out a Tweet or slapping together a meme doesn’t exactly pack the same punch as satirical traditions in the past. Sharifi suggests that the glut of imagery today has served to dilute the potential for satire in art and design. “I would argue that satire doesn’t have the same power today that it had a hundred years ago,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant, it’s just that it has to be kind of configured, or expressed, differently.”

New and different ways of expressing satire is a clear through line in the works in the biennial. Thanks to Slavs and Tatars’ thoughtful and thorough curation, effective satire certainly appears to be alive and well, if in a different forms than it’s been celebrated for in the past. Veering from the biennial’s origins in “graphic arts” and printed works, Slavs and Tatars considered graphics in their curation less as a medium and more as an “editorial agency,” much as they do with their own publishing, performance, and exhibition work.

So where does Sharifi think satire is best found today, if it’s lost it’s force in visual culture, as he claims? “I believe that poetry and verse are quite important nowadays, and that technology hasn’t corrupted them as much as it has visuals,” he says, after a pause. “Language still has a kind of polyvalence, which is key to satire and this idea of encryption.” He brings up the historical trope of the king who doesn’t realize that he’s being made fun of by his court jester, and laughs at his own expense. “That’s the power of satire,” says Sharifi. “So the question is, ‘What media, or what positions, today have that level of ambiguity and sort of potency?”

Slavs and Tatars, Figa, 2016; screenprint on polished steel; 198 × 76 cm;