Thursday, August 20, 2009

Grožnjan: Crossing the Border to Planet Art

Iztok led the parade to Grožnjan, Croatia and this time, Wendy and I rode in his car. In the sunny back seat with jazz playing on the car stereo, I dozed off half-listening to Iztok and Wendy as they talked about music. Crossing the border in Iztok’s car took seconds—he bantered in Slovenian with the guards, made sure they stamped our passports, and sped through, leading the caravan down winding roads at the speed of a kamikaze.

When we arrived in town, Iztok gave a quick intro and let us loose.

Grožnjan is an artists’ community with narrow cobbled streets

faint strains of music

coming from open windows

galleries up staircases

and at street level

and an abundance of cats lounging in the middle of the street,

on stone benches,

and when possible, in the shade.

I stopped in a glass gallery

and found some beautiful glass jewelry. I bargained with the artist on the price and ended up with a deal of sorts. Here’s a pic of me with the artist, who was going for the just-escaped-from-prison fashion look.

The town is compact, but still I didn’t have a chance to see all the galleries

or shops

or hear all the music.

Stepping out to one side, grass-covered paths lead to a world of wildflowers and green

and rustic huts that don’t betray the secret treasures of the town.

The quickest food I found was soup at a local restaurant (when I asked what could be made in under 5 minutes, the waiter shook his head, then went into the kitchen and returned with minestrone).

Under the shade of evergreens, two Croatian writers, Natalija Grgorinic

and Ognjen Raden,

co-authors of Mr. and Mrs. Hide (and husband and wife),

gave a reading of their work and talked about collaborative writing.

Not just an experiment or detour from their usual work, Mr. and Mrs. Hide, an entirely collaborative project from idea to conception, represents Grgorinic and Raden’s pursuit and obsession. In the same spirit, they are pursuing a joint PhD at a university in the US, though they’ve returned to Croatia to work on the project while being supported by Natalija’s family.

Neither writes solo, and the result is a narrative that speeds in many directions at once, full of asides and flights of fancy. She writes the male perspective, he writes the female and they switch back and forth at whim. Instead of struggling with differences in collaboration, they see only possibilities, stretching boundaries as they write.

They co-edit a journal devoted to collaborative work, Admit 2:

Admit 2: Online Magazine

They strive for equality at all stages of collaboration, from brain-storming to editing. The act of editing itself, they pointed out, is an act of collaboration between writer and editor. The myth of the artist alone in a garret churning out work in streaks of brilliance is an image they seek to make obsolete or at the very least challenge in their work.

While presses are government-subsidized in Croatia, the pursuit of non-mainstream publishing does not yield enough revenue for big advances and sales. So the couple may be living with Natalija’s family for the foreseeable future. They are driven by artistic rather than economic goals and so this dependence doesn’t bother them in the least.

After their reading, the talk in the Grožnjan courtyard was animated and alive. The pair inspired talk about language and translation, process and theory.

“Every language is foreign,” Natalija said, a statement that rang true. Trying to put the world into words is itself an act of translation, making even English strange to a native speaker. In some ways describing the world in a foreign language is easier—you can step outside the words more than in a native tongue. After a week in Slovenia, I only grasped a handful of words but each held great meaning to me when I used them. I tossed around English like pennies but the Slovenian syllables were offered as gifts. “Thank you,” “good afternoon.” I said them, and I meant what I said.

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