DIANA NENADIĆ “Write no, think yes: The film personality of Mladen Stilinović”

The titles of his first two films – You are Alone (Sami si) and Stay at the Corner (Ostani na uglu) from 1970 – symbolically define the position of the multimedia/conceptual artist Mladen Stilinović in Croatian (alternative) cinema, as well as on the broader (Croatian and Yugoslav) art scene of his initial years, the 1970s. As time will show, ‘loneliness’ from the title of his first and so far lost film – despite vibrant artistic activity and period connections with certain artistic groups[1] – is one of his essential (desentimentalised) feelings for the world and a way of finding his place in it. The other (preserved) film, both in its title and content, illustrates complementarily Stilinović’s ‘cornered’ position on the art scene. In this early work, with a ‘certificate’ of a recently established student film club Pan 69, the author presents himself as a youthful figure in full bloom, in a static, contemplative position – leaning against the wall of a building connecting two streets in Zagreb. He is surrounded by other walls, fences, lanterns, sidewalks and other ‘real estate’ of an urban neighbourhood filmed by the camera alternately, switching between slanting/diagonal vistas and lateral rides and vertical panning. The ‘movable’ inventory of this early (self-portrait) film also comprises city trams, often present in later cinematic inventories of daily life, as well as a police officer whose appearance, with a full potential of meaning evoked by his ‘regime’ uniform, by way of ‘ironic’ editing (juxta)poses before the flickering ‘deideologised’ flowers from neighbouring gardens. Remaining alone by the walls and the flowers, at the crossroads of two streets, ‘armed’ with dialectic cuts, Stilinović in this early self-portrait symptomatically artistically positions himself at the crossroads between two artistically heated decades – the 1960s and the 1970s – together with everything they meant and brought, including the closing of artists in ‘individual mythologies’, followed by their opening to some sort of critical engagement.

The walk across his cinematic person(ality) in which both processes take place should be continued by watching his somewhat later films, in which individual positions, views and perspectives are articulated through idiosyncratic form. In the name of the pun, his favourite pastime (but not only because of it!), let us start from the Primer 1, 2, 3 – a short triptych made in 1973, at the time when the first coordinates of his anarchic appearance on the margins of cinema and art gallery scene were already drawn. Here is their short description.

At the beginning of the film the audience are asked to read out loud the following texts – the signs from hair salons, locksmiths’, barrel makers’, carpenters’, and other crafts filmed in Vlaška Street in Zagreb between the numbers 57 and 67. In part two, under the title Textbook, the image’s function is taken over by words and letters (from a poem by Stilinović), in fragments rendered pointless by editing or rearrangement of syllables and letters against a black backdrop. The closing part, Picture Book, once again addresses the audience in large capital letters, now with a plea to read out loud both the text and the accompanying images which should result in a story and the moral of Aesop’s tale of the lion and the fox.

Screened since the 1970s at amateur film festivals, artistic encounters and exhibitions, and in the new millennium in retrospectives of his ‘digitised’ 8 and 16 millimetres, Primer almost without exception turned into the central core of Stilinović’s creative presentations. The audience regularly accepted the author’s challenge and demonstrating their awareness of the uncanny (perhaps of the pointlessness too) with laughter and read out loud the signs torn out from their real (street) context and from their primary (informative) function. Then they tried to put together the scattered syllables and words from the screen into a coherent sentence, thought or expression in silence. However, the real linguistic mess, and in the metaphorical sense ‘pain’ – a topos Stilinović connects with language and the way it functions (sometimes with colours too) – arises only when images showing something are tried to be read by heart. Tautology is no longer of help here. Images cannot be read ‘mechanically’ and equally fast as words, even when they illustrate a recognisable object, because every object has a context of its own. The result is always a cacophony of voices that releases Primer from the two-dimensional space of a big screen into the three-dimensional space of a cinema show, and joins the response of the participative audience to the author’s humourist resistance to the tyranny of a monolithic or total(itarian) vision.

Exploitation of ‘cardboard design’[2] of the street, puns and turning words into visual signs, the performative (ideological and manipulative) role of language, elimination of cinematic illusion and provocation of communication (interaction) with the audience, techniques of defamiliarisation of everyday phenomena and provocation of absurdity, rejection of a possibility of a final or unilateral interpretation of linguistic expressions and images, finally what film scholar Thomas Elsaesser recognises as one of the qualities of Dada art – “the conceptualizing the art-work as event, rather than as object, no longer as products but as circuits of exchange for different energies and intensities”[3] – find themselves in this film in a particularly close harmony with the subjects, ideas and strategies that marked the entire creative activity of Mladen Stilinović since the early 1970s.

Primer arose at the time of his intense experimentation with cinema, somewhat before and in parallel with the earlier appearances on the alternative art scene with collages, artist books, photographs and artistic actions, later inscribed in the registry of the so-called ‘new artistic practice’ of the 1970s. Its protagonists, demystifying art and its institutions and dematerialising a work of art, imaged an artistic act first of all as an analytical and mental process, as an idea and/or concept transferrable from one language to the other, executable in different media. The self-taught Stilinović, one of them, moved around these media freely, unburdened by (academic) rules of individual métiers.

However, film, next to poetry – at least in the beginning – nevertheless has a privileged status in his artistic system. It functions as an autonomous language and simultaneously aspires to a two-way overstepping of the lines, offering to the author (editing) techniques applicable in other visual media. To Stilinović film is, first of all, the first point of creative unification of knowledge and energies accumulated by self-taught rummaging through modern age libraries, cinematheques or galleries, and experiences of historical avant-gardes, as well as a distanced observation through the language of socialist reality-‘occupied’ ideology in which he lived, and the observational participation in events that at the same time registered and marked this reality, that transcended it and undermined it.

All until the late 1960s, when he and a group of friends founded the student film club Pan ’69, Stilinović ‘passively prepared’ for a creative breakthrough. He became active at the moment when radical artistic tendencies and political movements of the 1960s, which greatly stimulated his rite of passage to cinema and conceptual activism, were reaching their peak. Therefore, to fully comprehend his cinematic activity one needs to take a step back – to a decade when the broader cultural scene – making a formative impact on him – saw a clash and intertwining of artistic phenomena marked by the prefix ‘anti’.

In the field of cinema, it was the time of Genre Film Festival (GEFF) – an interdisciplinary conceptual festival of ‘film explorers’ which will, at a biennial pace between 1963 and 1970, overlapping with the turbulent events on the broader social scene towards the end of the decade, cause turmoil among amateur filmmakers across the Yugoslav network of film clubs, ‘planned’ in the early 1950s. Breaking away in its early days from the fundamental objective of cinematic literalisation of the population (with the slogan “Technology to the people!”), the phenomenon in Zagreb’s case accidentally generated an atmosphere that in the early 1960s – under the aegis of ‘anti-film’ – oriented towards breaking the boundaries “between different forms of expression, exploration and living”[4], towards liberating film “from myths, authorities, from rules, laws and terror”[5], towards connecting film with other arts, art and science and integration of film into everyday life. Addressed from a complete margin, from experimenters who provoked backlash of both professionals and most film amateurs, the invitation was appealing to all those who despised the petrified and ideologised official cinema and setting boundaries to art(s). GEFF will hence be retrospectively acknowledged as a meeting point of free-thinking and radical creative energies from socialist Yugoslavia’s broader cultural scene, just like other international gatherings that preceded it (New Tendencies exhibition, the Music Biennale, experimental theatre festivals etc.).

In a series of principles of GEFF and its key ideologist Mihovil Pansini – who, among other things, referred to Heisenberg’s indeterminism, to Cage’s principles of non-intentionality and (inspired by the Gorgona group), advocated for the liberation of a piece from “any psychological, moral, symbolical meaning”[6] – there are plenty of other postulates with which young Stilinović, already excluded from all systems (‘alone’ and ‘at a corner’) thanks to anarchic authority, could identify with. It is primarily those principles that imply “an intellectual-critical standpoint to himself, the world and others”[7], a view on the society “without sentimentality” (“Non-relationship”)[8], play and complete freedom which “doesn’t terrorise with truths”.

Aside from anti-film hypotheses, Stilinović could finally be influenced by the performances and works of its most prominent envoys – from Pansini’s late reductionist experiments, to early structural Vladimir Petek and Tomislav Gotovac, to the Fluxus members presented in a section dedicated to the American avant-garde (GEFF 1967), to Ljubljana’s conceptualists gathered around the OHO group, to – finally – subversive Yugoslav black filmmakers (Makavejev, Žilnik, J. Jovanović) who marked the last edition of GEFF in 1970 and somewhat later the former state’s cinema in its totality. Films with which, as Hrvoje Turković observes, Stilinović almost as a lone voice continues the Zagreb-based experimentalist trend in the 1970s[9], thanks to this diversity of influences, nevertheless cannot be reduced to replicating or recycling the film experiments from the Zagreb laboratory. The direction of his cinematic explorations in the post-GEFF era or mixing radical and countercultural energies are defined in an equal measure by apolitical meta-media (kinetic/optical) experiments and formal experiments, and by the need to determine a personal position in relation to the ambience and society he lives in, as well as in relation to the art establishment, the need to communicate with the audience (of which the GEFF followers sometimes assertively renounce) and the deconstruction of reality contaminated by the language of ideology. That is why his filmography is quite dynamic. It is interspersed with subjects, material, approaches and references that surpass articulation in only one medium, and marked by self-reflexive and self-referential strategies that during the 1960s and in Yugoslav art were only awakening, as well as an ‘anti-stylistic’ and ‘anti-technical’ stand on the work[10].

In a relatively short period of time, from 1970 to 1977, Stilinović made around twenty short and one feature-length film mostly on amateur formats (8 and 16 mm), and one on 35 mm, but in a completely new atmosphere. The 1960s generation partly fell apart, the film club enthusiasm experienced a crisis, and his fellow fine artist with academic titles, the pioneers of conceptual art appearing roughly around the same time, will be drawn by the challenges of the new audiovisual medium – the video, which they begin to explore in the early 1970s, using it at the same time for their own artistic documentation. Stilinović nevertheless chooses the ‘old’ medium and doesn’t approach it pragmatically. In it he finds an immense unused potential for freedom and play, an ally in a personal showdown with norms and conventions, a possibility to reshuffle meanings and definitions, a creative dialogue with art of the past and of the present time, finally speech in the first person singular. At the same time he easily renounces technological amenities, a ‘lovely’ image and sound, but not editing or intertextual digressions and excursions into historical avant-gardes from which he inherited humour, subversion and absurdity. Right from the outset he makes us aware that ‘standpoint’ is more important than style.

‘No’ to anything and everything doesn’t exclude the author himself, and always includes opposites. Therefore, when he turns the camera to himself, like he does it in his identity card Write about Un-loneliness (Piši, ne samoće, 1973), Stilinović’s large capital lettered NO (from the palm of his hand) will often collide with a double YES (from the cover of a Dada magazine), just like life in the editing cut meets depictions of death, the front of a body with the back of a body, a head with a phallus, a thought with Eros, a film negative with a film positive, a live image with a photograph and drawing, a photographic record with traces of felt-tip pen on the emulsion… Finally his nihilism, summed up in the word NO, ‘drowns’ in the childlike (DA-DA) joy of bricolaging film ‘patches’. This dialectic defines the structural pattern of most of his films as well, even when they cast a glance outside as well as when they close inside their own four walls.

Write about Un-loneliness is, along with Primer 1, 2, 3, crucial for recognising his thinking in film, pointing that he learned a great deal from Vladimir Petek, with whom he shares an interest in expanded cinema and multivision (from techniques of direct intervention on the celluloid and playing with formats, to his method of ‘snatching’ film scenes from their visual purpose and context). Still, from his predecessor in ‘anti-film’ he couldn’t ‘learn’ is peculiar lifestyle and philosophy of art, the topic of his second cinematic self-portrait. The only (and partially preserved) feature film Much Ado about Nothing (Tresla se brda rodio se miš), made the same year as Write about Un-loneliness, presents this bricoleur and provocateur also as a Baudelairian flaneur in his daily (programmatic) praises of laziness (as a prerequisite to any art) – from lounging with Mayakovski’s poetry to aimless wandering the city streets. The first and only time a film by Stilinović had an audio record, with his avant-garde poetry, psychedelic jazz and monologues from his anti-drama texts; intertitles featuring slogans akin to his visual concepts about work (“Life Means Work!”), giving new instructions to viewers (in the voice of Zlatko Vitez) how to respond to the film (repeating everything that the screen character does). Everyday objects are also assigned the role of characters (a hammer, a watch, a knife etc.), conceptualised and rendered anthropomorphic by statements in speech bubbles… From this third of the preserved film it is evident that Stilinović, although quite attached to his own movements and behaviour, disturbs whenever possible the narrative, illusionist and screening logic on behalf of ideas, concepts and topics that he relates to in life and art in general.

Stilinović’s view on the film grammar is equal in the works expressing his experience of the historical world or what we call ‘social reality’. He expresses it allegorically as early as in Panic (Panika, 1971), his oldest preserved film produced by Pan 69, made in Grožnjan, as well as a series of initiative film clubs, filled with panicky and headless movements of the performer across the cobbled streets of this ancient town in Istria, trying to escape an invisible force. ‘Messily’ made, performative whimsical and directing-wise anarchic Keaton-style burlesque in a tight historic ambience is juxtaposed by way of editing with a reproduction of a historicist painter canvas with national/political connotations[11], so film was, even without knowing the time context, considered an expression of captivity or even persecution (by local conditions and histories)[12], and consequentially of existential unrest bordering on absurdity.

Even bigger restlessness and distance is provoked in Stilinović by the aggression of the historical present, the ‘here and now’, where reality polluted by ideological symbols leans on the consumerist inventory – ads, commercial windows and props, and it often programmatically collides with artistic artefacts from past times, resulting once again in a collage structure. For example, one of the first such films, I Love People, How About You? (Ja volim ljude, a vi,1971), borrowing the title from a newspaper caricature reproduced at the beginning, by way of editing confronts different manifestations of urban life and excerpts from entertainment TV shows with works of renaissance masters, in order to explicate the author’s view on the shown. Here the copper engraving Melancholia I by Albrecht Dürer, a frequent point of reference in Stilinović’s works, serves to imbue the film with the author’s melancholia, summarised in the poetic title of his next film Painfully Shouldering the Whole Funny World (Ramenim tako bolno ceo smešan svet,1972). This ‘ridiculous world’ is in this experiment also represented by Stilinović’s favourite (readymade) material – newspaper clippings with news and photos from different sections, together with the photographic leitmotif of the film – painfully grim Kafkian gaze of an anonymous Biafran, interpolated in the ‘moving image’ of contemporary idleness.

Stilinović’s distanced reference to social environment and disclosure of ‘forces’ that govern him by feeding his paranoia through gestural, traffic, commercial or ideological sings, will result in the continuation of this series with exceptionally hypothetical inventories of urban daily life, according to an established collaged pattern. These early works regularly depict a multiple dialectic – of physical chaos and metal regulation, of the found and the fabricated, the living and the petrified, civilian and uniformed – highlighted by structural and cinematographic procedures. Run Away (Bježi)from 1973 (just like the later Moving Towards / Pokreti prema, 1975) is composed of rhythmically organised repetitions of two groups of urban scenes, implying a conflict between a helpless individual and a bunch of street ‘attractions’, signs, mileposts and state symbols. The entire film seems part of a ‘crazed’ surveillance camera that whimsically changes focuses and evokes a hectic atmosphere of panic.

The paranoid evocation of ‘surveillance’ in the film They are Looking for You (Traže te, 1974) is achieved with another kind of interventions – painting and scratching the emulsion to, in line with the film’s humorous intention, ‘mark’ the spots in the street where what is observed and ‘looked for’ abides. The world is divided here too – with a horizontally cut screen – and our perception is divided as well – between the ‘ground level’ where we discerns grass and natural world, and upper floors of urban buildings across whose windows we pan together with the camera. The halves are united by the implied presence of ‘the big brother’, marked by the director’s ironic hand in painted spots and scratches.

However, a search for the (omni)presence of power need not be sought in every Stilinović’s film, because the desymbolisation of objects, colours and language is a parallel line of his artistic mission. Thus Walls, Coats, Shadows (Zidovi, kaputi, sjene,1975), replacing his early collage-rhythmic ‘chaos’, resort to structural ‘order’ to restore the functional ‘purity’ to everyday objects, portraying them as they are – expendable and transient. In a reistic taxonomy, the textures of plastered walls, by-passers’ coats of different cuts, but in typical socialist gloomy grey, and street shadows are liberated of symbolical meanings and strict figurative outlines, establishing – instead of a possible spatial and functional relationship (specific people in specific coats cast shadows onto specific walls) – only a tautological connection with the title.

A Room in Venice (Soba u Veneciji,1975) can still be connected with Stilinović’s system and (re)semantisation of colours as a frequent topic of his parallel ‘visual’ works, where the ‘consumerist’ or ‘petit-bourgeois’ pink opposes the (most often) multiply ideologically coded ‘red’. In a historicist ambience of a Venetian room pink is dominant as an omnipresent background of the neo-rococo furniture, provoking an ironic cinematographic inventory with sudden pans from one fragment to another. Pink is the colour of dress of a girl[13] who sporadically appears in the shot and almost becomes one with the other ‘found objects’. The space of the room this, basically a space of intimacy, is fragmented and de-intimised and turned into a museum of artistic craft.

But a pillow doesn’t belong to this type of object, and the Malevich-inspired whiteness of the film For Dürera (Za Dürera, 1976), which surrounds his feathery motif, is differently coded in the author’s semantic crosswords – as a colour of ‘inability, absence and silence’[14], as a colour of pain. As J. L. Koerner observes, writing about Dürer’s drawing Six Studies of Pillows, “Once used, the pillow preserves in its indented shape a loose impression  of the sleeper…”[15] Dürer’s drawing, made on the back of one of his self-portraits, is therefore often interpreted as the painter’s self-portrait of sorts. By analogy, Stilinović’s conceptual replica of the painter’s work, executed with his own pillow and (animation) pixilation technique (applied somewhat before in the sort of ‘homemade film’ Animation/Animacija, 1975), could be taken as one of his abstract portrait ‘prints’. Besides, in the midst of the white silence of the intimate space one can ‘hear’ the silent dialogue between the author and many poets of the void after Dürer, all until the Croatian pioneers of Gorgona and Josip Vaništa.

Focusing on ordinary and extraordinary objects, those with a surplus of symbolical meanings and those in themselves, testing different procedures, Stilinović gradually reduced the selection of expressive means resorting to literality and tautology. He went the furthest with two versions of film about time – Time 1 / Vrijeme 1 and Time 2 / Vrijeme 2 (1977), right around the time when this subject matter occupied him in other areas as well. He wants to deconstruct the notion of time which, saturating empty socialist slogans, connects with other contemporary phenomena – work, order and efficiency. At the same time, as the last two items in his filmography illustrate, he wants to translate it into mental categories and demonstrate the continuity of the time of illusions. That is why in the first film the alarm clock hand whose backward movement we follow in real time barely noticeably ‘skips’ two minutes back and then ahead, while in the second the fixed gaze on the hands is interrupted by turning the back of the clock with the winding mechanism to the camera. “Conscience doesn’t flow like a hand of a clock, it rather moves ahead and back,”[16] claimed Pansini writing about the anti-filmic perception of time. Stilinović follows in his footsteps; saying goodbye with time films to film as the art of time, he came the closest to his conceptual predecessors.

Beyond this minimalism is the hilarious collage Šarena laža (Colourful Lie) as a memoir of a time when Stilinović, making films as well, sought for – as Branka Stipančić calls it – ‘trans-sense’ language, which connects poetic thought and social issue and aims to free language from ideology[17]. Launched in 1976 as a work in progress, this short film is a sort of mnemonic container of the private and public 1970s, in which Stilinović, following the passions of a bricoleur and an idea of an open work, includes anything that interests him and anything he cares about – both in life and in art. It comprises everything: letters, words, public signs and slogans; colours, symbols and signs; anonymous children, famous men and nude women; coats on hangers and shoes in windows; phalluses and flags; private albums, cookbook covers and street ads; ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, Group of Six and artists without a group; Knifer’s meander and Dürer’s Melancholia; negative Nuša and positive Srečo (Dragan); scratched and painted blanks, Stilinović in himself and in others, saying NO to everything while meaning YES (DA-DA) and vice versa, and like this ad infinitum.

Zagreb, 2019.

[1] Stilinović is one of the co-founders of Pan 69 film club (established on 20 April 1970) and one of the members of the Group of Six (founded in 1975), alongside Boris Demur, Željko Jerman, Vlado Martek, his brother Sven Stilinović, Feđa Vučemilović.

[2] Branka Stipančić: “Razgovor s Mladenom Stilinovićem: Život ne znači ići na dvor“, in: Branka Stipančić, 2011, Mišljenje je forma energije. Eseji i intervjui iz suvremene hrvatske umjetnosti, Zagreb: Arkzin & Croatian section of AICA, p. 170.

[3] Thomas Elsaesser, „Dada/Cinema“, in: Rudolf E. Kuenzli (ed.), 1996 (second edition), Dada and Surrealist Film, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press, p. 14.

[4] Pansini, Mihovil, 1967, „Što je to antifilm?“, in: Pansini, Mihovil (ed.), Knjiga GEFFa 63/1, Zagreb: Organisational Board of GEFF, pp. 81-84.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cfr. Hrvoje Turković, “Filmovi opredjeljenja“, text published in a booklet with a DVD edition of Mladen Stilinović’s films Početnica 1, 2, 3 / Primer 1, 2, 3, Zagreb: Croatian Film Association, 2012, p. 9.

[10] Ibid.

[11] A painting known under the title Croatian Revival by the Croatian painter Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922) from the curtain of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, depicting the meeting between the poet and playwright from Dubrovnik Ivan Gundulić (1589-1638), the leaders and representatives of the national political and cultural movement from the first half of the 19th century (the so-called Croatian National Revival) in the atrium of an ancient temple. The curtain was mounted for the official opening of the theatre building in 1895.

[12] After the rebellion (of mostly students and liberal intellectuals) against the socialist establishment in Yugoslavia in 1968, the early 1970s in Croatia were marked by the cultural-political movement known as the Croatian Spring, focusing on the current political, economic and cultural position of Croatia inside the Yugoslav federation. The movement was soon stifled and it ended in political repression and criminal persecution of the ideologists and prominent members of the movement, which has put a halt to liberalisation process in Croatia for a while.

[13] The girl is young Branka Stipančić, Mladen Stilinović’s wife.

[14] Nataša Ilić, 2013, “Umjetnik ne smije ići tramvajskim linijama”, in the exhibition catalogue Mladen Stilinović Nula iz vladanja / Zero for Conduct, ed. Branka Stipančić, Zagreb: Museum of Contemporary Art & Mladen Stilinović.

[15]   Joseph Leo Koerner, 1997, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 28.

[16] Pansini, Mihovil, 1967, “Što je to antifilm?”, in: Pansini, Mihovil (ed.), Knjiga GEFFa 63/1, Zagreb: Organisational Board of GEFF, pp. 83-84.

[17] Cfr. Branka Stipančić, “Aukcija crvene – pogled na sedamdesete“, in the exhibition catalogue Mladen Stilinović Nula iz vladanja / Zero for Conduct, ed. Branka Stipančić, Zagreb: Museum of Contemporary Art & Mladen Stilinović.