HEKLER is a New York-based artist collective founded by Nataša Prljević, Joshua Nierodzinski, and Jelena Prljević. The name HEKLER not only references the English definition of disruption, but also is the Serbo-Croatian word for the communal act of crocheting, and slang for the sound of rapid fire from an assault rifle. The confluence of meanings is conceptual ground for HEKLER’s platform which creates intimate, reflective, and celebratory gathering spaces to nurture critical thinking around ideas of hospitality and conflict. The expansive collective hosts alternative educational environments, exhibitions, roundtable discussions, performances, and communal food experiences. Their publications and archives provide a better understanding of power and oppression systems. FRONTRUNNER chats with Nataša and Joshua about their approach to art as a resistance and healing method in their expansive, collaborative programming.
How was HEKLER conceived?
Nataša: HEKLER began in 2016 as [a series of] conversations with Jovana Djajic, a writer and a good friend based in Belgrade. We discussed how the irreparable, violent ideological shifts in the Western Balkans, deep corruption, economic devastation, and civic complacency affected our ability to speak to power – that made our society ill. We felt compelled to examine the sources, consequences, and mutations of these conflicts, and how to move this knowledge forward. These conversations continued through close work with the artists from the region, and our community of friends and colleagues in New York. As a consequence of a global neoliberal economy that exploits physical, intellectual, and emotional labor, there is no space or time to address issues such as collective PTSD, the roots of oppressive behavior, ongoing systemic violence, and our roles in it all.
Joshua: In 2018 as a result of these conversations, we organized our first collaborative events: [The] artist and allies screening at signs and symbols with Boshko Boskovic; War, Memory, Protest: a roundtable discussion and screening with Farideh Sakhaeifar and Sadra Shabab; a night celebrating Filipino food and poetry with Francis Estrada and Ramyar Vala (both at De-Construkt [projekts]), and AnnexB Forum: Against Nostalgia presented by the Art and Culture in Contexts of Authoritarianism (ACCA) workgroup that we hosted at our home. HEKLER continues to center hospitality in engagement with conflict using art, pedagogy, and community-building to support the disruption of oppressive processes.
Did it come from a place of wanting to create something that seemed absent from the current art world structure?
Joshua: HEKLER is grounded in institutional critique. In New York, it can be difficult to connect in a meaningful way at art openings, critique groups, lectures, or even educational events (if one even has access to them.) We identified a need for intimate, reflective, and celebratory gathering spaces that nurtured critical thinking through continuous collaboration. It has started to happen in exciting ways. A great example is a collaboration with Nadežda Kirćanski, an artist from Serbia, who was inspired by the HEKLER Medium and Host events she attended last fall. This experience led her to organize a group exhibition at U10 Gallery in Belgrade, Hybrid Narratives, Hybrid Histories, that brought together artists and poets from areas shaped by conflict. One of the participants is a New York-based Iranian artist Sahar Sepahdari, whom Nadežda met at HEKLER MEDIUM: War, Memory, Protest. We are working together on organizing a month-long residency program for participating artists in Belgrade where everyone can spend quality time together to share concerns and ideas, rather than transactional networking interests.
Nataša: Even if there are meaningful, institutional spaces for these conversations to take place, they quickly get absorbed and commodified by the market or by the institutions and artists, themselves, for the purposes of raising funds. This is why we are trying to operate in DIY lineage with what we have as individuals, and can contribute collectively, without entering the non-profit discourse. We host events in our house, with collaborating venues, and fund programming from our daily jobs, practices, and collective efforts. As much as the sustainability of artistic practice is a matter of personal and communal health – which I think is the only valid reason to sustain it – the extent to which it is being instrumentalized is overwhelming. The art world structure has been lacking integrity since its inception, and what we are witnessing in New York is a Stockholm Syndrome…on steroids.
Tell me about one of your favorite events.
Joshua: One of my favorite events was HEKLER Host with Francis Estrada and Ramyar Vala. Francis is an artist, educator, and chef committed to celebrating Fillipino art and culture. Ramyar is a sculptor exploring the stories behind cultural ornamentation and the circulation on traditional motifs in craft. Together with Jelena Prljevic, along with Andy and Magda from Sculpture Space, New York, we created a publication and one-night exhibition reimagining Fillipino finger food, pulutan, with multi-sensory and interactive sculptures that wove these interests together. Poets Joseph O. Legaspi and Nita Noveno gave readings. The night was magic. There is really something electric that happens when people work together sincerely and with their whole heart. It makes for a joyous and welcoming atmosphere that everyone can feel comfortable to be themselves and meet other people in that spirit of openness. That is why we keep doing this.
Nataša: Our current exhibition, Clear-Hold-Build at Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia is the most demanding programme so far. It is realized in collaboration with Shimrit Lee as an extension of her PhD dissertation on the commodification of counterinsurgency. The exhibition features works by eight artists, and one collective, that deal with lasting trauma of global counterinsurgency. Besides the artists we are working with for the first time and who recognized the relevance of this topic, the show includes works by our ongoing collaborators Farideh Sakhaeifar, Bisan Abu-Eisheh, and Vladimir Miladinovic. For this show, we designed a publication with additional essays available at the gallery. Our goal was to make a generous exhibition with strong educational content that can be discussed with local initiatives and educational institutions.
Can you talk about the structure of HEKLER?
Nataša: HEKLER is an artist-run platform that fosters the critical examination of hospitality and conflict through collaborative programming, pedagogy and archiving, and it continues to be informed and transformed by these collaborative actions. It operates as an expansive collective with active collaborators in and outside of the United States, with Joshua Nierodzinski, Jelena Prljević and myself on the operational end.
Joshua: Overall, we think of it as a network of committed individuals across disciplines, ethnicities and geographies that shift to fit the scale and needs of the projects. HEKLER events can take place anywhere, with anyone who is searching for alternative educational environments where presentation, discussion, and the cross-pollination of ideas relevant to contributing to political contexts can take place.
How do you curate your programming?
Nataša: Our programming is very organic and always collaborative. It emerges from prior events and discussions. It is self-generating. This structure encourages shifting roles, pushing practice outside of imposed categorizations into a more interdisciplinary implementation of knowledge and development of organizational skills. We have limited resources and capacities individually, so working with passionate people committed to the realization of ideas and respectful towards the labor of everyone involved is crucial.
What is most fulfilling about hosting this collective? Does it relate to the fulfillment of your object-making practices?
Joshua: The most fulfilling thing for me is the feeling of solidarity both planning for and during events. It is a perfect compliment to my studio practice where I am responsible for all the decisions and also limited by my own methods. HEKLER connects me with a much larger discourse, approaches to art making, and gives me more global and nuanced perspective.
Nataša: In a way, HEKLER is a hybrid combination of our practices, personal and professional experiences, and collective work. I’ve been employing collage and assemblage principles conceptually for the past ten years. The most gratifying aspects of my artistic practice were collaborative and those projects dealt with mechanisms of displacement, dissonance, and conflict. They were collaborations with my family and close friends. Since we started doing this, I started believing again in art as a resistance and healing method that I almost lost while working in a non-profit sector soaked in performative generosity and the illness of hyper-production.
What makes a successful social practice? Is HEKLER a social practice experience?
Joshua: Yes. By definition, HEKLER is a social practice, but I really don’t think of it in that way. I feel that it is a way to create a social and sensorial experience, yes, but not with the problematic trappings of social practice that often masquerades as savior activism. We are interested in connecting people that can learn from each other. I would say socially conscious and community-minded, where the consciousness is dependent on the collaborators and the community as inclusive, but definitely not limited to, cultural workers. We do this out of a need to create discourse that we believe in with the people we admire, trust, want to support, and who are ready to commit to work that goes beyond their individualized practices.
Since starting this collective, what have been some changes you’ve witnessed in yourselves or the community?
Nataša: We have seen the community expand significantly and respond to the mission and shared experiences in a range of meaningful ways. The continuation of many collaborations come from a recognition of personal value and growth through the process. We all know it is challenging to work with people, but these are the challenges that shape us. I cherish the accountability that comes with collaboration. It is beyond facilitating and organizing; it requires openness and trust in each other’s intentions and ideas, as well as questioning them, better understanding of the places that we come from, in order for positive transformation to happen. It requires friendship and the strengthening of imagination through work.
How do you envision HEKLER growing in the future?
We see HEKLER developing towards a nomadic alternative educational hub and residencies realized in collaboration with like-minded individuals and collectives.
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