Irena Knezevic is a young Serbian artist living in Chicago. Before leaving Serbia, she was a student organizer rallying against Slobodon Milosovic’s government (1). She moved to Chicago after receiving a scholarship to attend college, where she studied mathematics but later switched to art. She studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago and earned an MFA there in 2007.  In 2008, she had a solo exhibition at the MCA Chicago as part of its 12×12 series. That show, like much of Knezevic’s work, examined “the search for knowledge and the dangerous avenues through which people seek and receive it,” according to the press release.

Knezevic’s current solo show at threeewalls, titled Gesture Guild, closed last weekend. Since Knezevic’s installation had the (fairly unusual) ability to leave me at a loss for words, I’ll rely on the show’s press release to describe it:


Friday, March 19th at 6 pm sharp, the Gesture Guild will open its doors at its new headquarters at 119 N Peoria in unit 2C. Join us at 8 pm for the commencement dirge, absinthe induced and sailor sung. (Ed. note: Sailor attire is strongly encouraged, those who do not arrive as sailors will be made into sailors.)
The League of Dark Departments have joined forces in the Gesture Guild, a bureau for the recovery and acquisition of lost gestures. The Gesture Guild aims to return and reinforce the primordial anxieties responsible for head-bending weight and other liquid spiraling disasters, topical and tropical.
The public, inflicted with involuntary movement, nervous twitches, and ticks, due to the loss of solid surfaces and time-space incongruity, can join various Guild programs in search of gravitational re-calibration.
Determined via a brief questionnaire, members of the public are initiated into the Guild, thus participating in prescribed Guild activities at individually appointed times.
Throughout the exhibition the Guild will change weekly – please return for:
– Duplicate Office of the Dead
– Department of Repetition
– Department of Manual Re-Education
– Department of Polychoral Antiphony
– Department of Trade Secrets
– Department of Denial Operations and Barriers

So, yeah.

On the night I went to see Knezevic give an artist’s talk at threewalls, held in conjunction with this exhibition, I was feeling especially lazy. I didn’t want to do much more than lean back on my wobbly wooden folding chair and let Ms. Knezevic do all the talking while my own mind drifted desultorily from one thought to another, as my mind is wont to do.

Alas, this was not meant to be. I should have known that Knezevic wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily, given her history of crafting installations and other situation-based events that challenge linear paths of understanding. There’s a strong sense of the cryptic and the mysterious and even at times the dangerous surrounding all of her projects–the secret society-like Gesture Guild, sponsored by something called “The League of Dark Departments”(3), being no exception. Since I’m a girl who likes a good mystery I set out to discover for myself what membership in The Guild would actually entail. Knezevic’s  talk seemed as good a place as any to start.

Knezevic, seated behind a big wooden kiosk of the sort you might encounter at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the post office, asked everyone arriving for the talk if they wanted to fill out a card (like this one) in order to be initiated into The Gesture Guild. Knezevic herself projected a warm and friendly persona which was not at all off-putting–the polar opposite of the type of bureaucratic interpersonal discourse that the desk kiosk signified. Knezevic directed me to the adjacent gallery space in the room next door where the talk would take place. Clutching my pen, clipboard and sign-up sheet, I was the first to head to the next room. Rounding the corner, I came face to face (give or take a couple of feet) with a man in a black ski mask who was bending over. He may have been tying his shoes. He was also wearing a sailor suit.

The sailor scared the crap out of me, just for a second.  I quickly regained my composure after realizing he was one of the performers, but what can I say? I walk into a darkened, nearly empty room by myself, I see a guy wearing a ski mask– yeah, I flinch!  I took my seat, and not too long after that the talk commenced. Two masked performers, one of which was the aforementioned sailor-suited man, seated themselves at a table in front of the audience. The performer designated as “The Scribe” wore the sailor suit, while Knezevic, who appeared here in the guise of an all-knowing Oracle, wore a glittery black ski mask and a nondescript outfit that may or may not have included black leggings.

The Oracle informed us that the talk would proceed in the form of a Q&A. (4) Audience members could ask any question they wanted to, and they could direct their questions to the Oracle or the Scribe or to both. We could ask as many questions as we liked but were required to ask at least one. The Scribe would select the next questioner by pointing at him or her with a long stick that had a small heart-shaped spear at the end (the stick reminded me of Satan’s tail, except that it was straight, not curved). It was also the Scribe’s job to record all of the questions and answers in a huge notebook resting between the two performers (5).

The Sailor/Scribe began by reading a quote from a notebook in front of him on the table (6), however, the subject of that quote I cannot for the life of me now recall. After this, the audience questions began. Here are some of the questions asked, and the answers given, during the event (please note: I am paraphrasing all of the below based on my notes and memory, and I make no guarantees of accuracy or authenticity):

Questioner: What is an appropriate gesture for expressing joy, thanks, and grief?

Oracle: Jumping up and down.

Questioner: For all three?

Oracle: Yes.


Questioner: Should I buy a banjo?

Oracle: Depends on what you want the banjo for. What do you want it for?

Questioner: To play it.

Oracle: Then no.


Questioner (to the Scribe): What happened to the decapitated head (lying on a chair in the next room)?

Scribe: Loss is something on which we fixate instead of what is happening now.


Questioner: What is the question that you cannot answer?

Oracle: One where I lose my hands.

Questioner: When will you lose your hands?

Oracle: With too much repetition.


Questioner: What can you make out of chaos?

Oracle: Feelings.


One of the questions whose answer I failed to write down was ‘Do you think the critique of instrumental reason has run its course?… Is it useful for us to spend our time still critiquing humanism?’ One of the answers whose question I failed to write down was delivered in the form of song sung by the Oracle:

“When you’re sad and feeling lonely, just remember my friend, that death is not the end…”

The scribe requested that The Oracle repeat her answer one more time so he could write it down. She obliged, and sung,

‘When you’re sad and feeling lonely, just remember my friend, that death is the end….”

It seemed clear that Knezevic was trying to provide answers to questions of Cosmic breadth and humanistic depth in as straightforward and genuine a fashion as possible, that this was indeed an attempt on the artist’s part to establish a meaningful channel of communication between herself and her audience. I don’t believe that it was performed ironically (which is why I myself cared enough to write about it) and yet, that being said, I must also admit that I wasn’t all that interested in what the Oracle had to say. After all, why should the Oracle/Artist’s answers to “the Big Questions” be any more interesting than anyone else’s? Nevertheless, as the talk progressed, the Oracle and the Scribe seemed to get into an almost magical sort of groove, hitting their marks with uncanny sharpness and accuracy.  I wouldn’t deny that there was something there, some type of knowledge (if not wisdom) in the process of being conjured. Maybe it was just the Magic 8 ball kind of knowledge, maybe it was something more, something having to do with human empathy and the ability of the Scribe and the Oracle to feed off the combined energies of the group.

And then there’s the matter of the masks. The masks hid the performers noses and cheeks and pretty much all of the face other than the eyes and mouth. But they highlighted each of the performers’ mouths in a manner that I found mesmerizing and strangely significant. Especially in the case of the Oracle/Artist. Knezevic’s lips kind of naturally turn up at the corners, which makes her look as if she’s always laughing just a teeny little bit. It is an extremely charming quality. Knezevic’s upturned mouth, which the ski mask neatly abstracted from the rest of her face in the manner of the Cheshire Cat’s bodiless grin, perfectly encapsulated the nonsensical logic of the evening’s event: You can find answers anywhere, anywhere…as long as you’re willing to look, listen, and consider everything surrounding you as a sign. (7)

Alice: Oh wait!
Cheshire Cat: [reappears] There you are! Third chorus…
Alice: Oh, no, no. I was just wondering if you could help me find my way.
Cheshire Cat: Well that depends on where you want to get to.
Alice: Oh, it really doesn’t matter, as long as…
Cheshire Cat: Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go.


An interview with Irena Knezevic, by way of footnotes.

(1) Can you tell me about your experiences in the student protest movement? I organized the gymnasium students and did the pamphlet printing and dissemination, most days I would help keep the student radio broadcast station from being shut down by moving it around the city, and I marched daily.

(2) What is the source of this quote? Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, describing a love of a woman for a man.

(3) Who/what is the League of Dark Departments? League of Dark Departments is an overlord of secret Masonic organizations, it only knows all the lists of members and complete list of lodges. How many members, approximately? The Dark department can confirm that the Gesture guild has a 198 members.

(4) Why did you choose this format? See the question on the book; I chose the format because I wanted the talk to be in the pace of the scribe’s hand.  He was to write it all down in the Ledger, stopping and starting the talk in the speed of his pen.  I also employ the audience as the main protagonists during all my “art talks” because I am bored as well by silence, predictability and overall boredom of click, click, click, powerpoint, does anybody have any questions?

(5) Did the notebook have some kind of official name and/or function? The note book is the official Gesture Guild LEDGER, it lists all appointments, members, black lists, plans and programs, and corresponding scores including the talk, the Guild determined all the initiations in advance and the space in the ledger was allotted for every one.

What are the ‘black lists’ you refer to? You mean like, black-listed people? Or verboten subjects? Naturally this kind of work, like a manifesto, has supporters, soon to be supporters and enemies.  The black list is a collection of enemies.  People who have betrayed an oath, or who stand against the ideals of the Guild.  The list is secret, of course.

(6) Where did the scribe’s texts come from? The scribe holds the discretion of this answer.

(7) How can people find out more about The Guild? The guild endures online until it reconstitutes in 7 years.

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.