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How the heritage can be communicated

by Maroje Mrduljaš, design and architectural critic

If on a winter’s night a traveller should stop by at one of the picturesque little towns on the island of Krk on the northern coast of the Croatian Adriatic, in one of the taverns or houses he or she will perhaps hear the peculiar sounds of a very typical and authentic music that gives the impression of being archaic and yet to the contemporary ear, already alert and accustomed to the various values of the non-classical tonal scales and complexes, is perhaps for a moment close. This will be one of the many versions of the performance of the untempered hexatonic scale that is one of the most important elements of the local vernacular cultural tradition and an essential feature of its identity, which goes on obstinately persisting and is attentively cultivated together or in spite of all that the modern times and decades of turbulence have brought with them: changes of states and political systems, demographic oscillations, radical economic transformations and explosions in the built environment. And anyway, not even Krk is an island any longer, linked with the mainland by a bridge the arch of which is the second longest reinforced concrete structure of its kind in the world.

But islanders have always loved tradition; they adapt to new circumstances but feel their homeland a special place apart, and want it to stay that way. So it is on Krk. It is interesting that on an island that is the most industrialised in Croatia and strongly oriented to the tourist industry, the traditional vernacular culture and customs subsist, not as frozen nostalgic memories, but as the living tissue of everyday life. This heritage is vital and cohabits, coexists with all the new dynamics and phenomena of the modern social landscape, and we still expect, for example, the potentials of tourist migrations to be made use of as a possible form of content-filled trans-cultural exchange that today is still sadly lacking. Sabina and Mario fill up this empty space in which the folk heritage and the local ambiences are communicated and mediated in such a way as to retain the integrity and specialness of tradition, yet being all the while interpreted in a contemporary language, that of design in this case, which is completely universal and potentially intelligible to all.

In a series of fifteen posters, the authors with professionally impeccable and yet artistically neutral photography record characteristic motifs from Krk island—the architecture, costume, nature, customs… These photographs in their polished aesthetics, their deliberate insistence on the clichés of the genre and their focus on fragments recall the refined but somewhat distanced manner that we meet with in the advertising industry in tourism or in travel writing in up-market magazines. This creates a communication context that is known and secure, that does not rely on the exotic, rather on conceptual exactitude of the recording of what is met with. Still, the selection of motifs, frames and compositions borders on a somewhat largely emotional feeling, an absorption with the local milieu that excites empathy in the observer and attracts with its almost naïve sincerity. Via the photographs, a graphic riddle develops, an enigmatic abstract structure that flows in a regular rhythm. Clearly, this is the visual substratum, a record of some subject that has sense outside the powerful aesthetic effect. This is a transcription or a translation of the untempered hexatonic scale that has been worked out by folk music collector Ivan Pavacic Jecalicev, and so every poster also conveys a vernacular composition in the traditional two-part instrumental or vocal performance. Hence the two parallel sequences of silver or gold columns with one to six circles that represent the tones. This kind of structure associates with a whole sequence of formal methods, from Modernist, neo-Constructivist and system art that had their powerful backing in the New Tendencies movement, based in Zagreb during the 1960s and 1970s, to contemporary experiments with generative, algorithmic forms in the new media. Since this is a graphic translation of musical notation, the authors have not composed a structure, rather given shape to a manner of transcribing and communicating the auditory via the visual and so the compositions themselves create diverse forms on the posters. A translation of the coding of the individual tonalities from conventional transcription into a graphic assemblage is presented in the form of a little caption on the basis of which the musically literate observer can imagine for themselves the tonal register within which the compositions move. So that the translation from the auditory to the visual should be the fuller, along the poster there are gently waving lines the vertical density of which marks the tempo. And so by observing the posters in the series it is possible to acquire the impression of the various tempos of each composition. Finally, the last layer of the posters consists of the words of the songs that bring in the written word, thus concluding the sequence of three fields of content: in the physical and tactile space of abstract photography, in music coded through graphic structure, and language that is represented in its pure form. In the juxtaposition of these three layers, the milieu of Krk is reconstructed, its cultural heritage and its ambiental features. But instead of a peaceful but passive cohabitation of tradition and the current time that we meet in everyday life, Sabina and Mario offer reciprocity and simultaneity, a kind of two-way translation of local and universal, concrete and abstract. With the linkage of different fields of meaning and communication, they mediate tradition and ambience, but in such a way that a new and autonomous value is created, which feeds back to tradition its image refracted and analysed through the prism of contemporary designer procedures. Design is not a medium of aesthetisation but of interpellation and interpretation of cultural phenomena and the relation of content and design concept becomes an active one.

At the end, we should stress that the project is self-initiated, that the still very young Sabina and Mario were motivated by a personal affinity and love for both the vernacular heritage and design and lots more besides. Thanks to their serene and investigative spirit, we are witnesses that design really can be stimulating in communication, which in this case reminds us that tradition and contemporaneity are not opposed poles but can be part of an organic whole, that the heritage can also be read a- temporally, as a fact of the present, that various forms of culture do not have to be contextualised or fixed in historical time to be experienced as phenomena. Artists such as Sabina and Mario help us to open our eyes better, to hear with more attention the uncommon tones that have come down from the past, from our or the other settings, and to understand that culture is not just an evolving process but also the wealth of the coexistence of cultural events and cultural artefacts the importance of which is not evaluated with either antiquity or with newness but only by the capacity to enrich our lives.