Echoes in a Vacant Lot: Curating Contemporary Art in Bosnia & Hercegovina

This edited text was part of a lecture delivered at the ‘Continental Breakfast’ conference at Palazzo Zorzi in Venice, organised by Trieste Contemporanea, on the30th of May. The conference featured interesting discussions from curators, critics and art professionals from across Central and South Eastern Europe.

In response to the call for papers I have decided to focus today on notions of ‘excellence’ in relation to the culture in which I am active- that of Bosnia & Hercegovina. I don’t know about you, but I am somewhat fed up of hearing and reading terms such as ‘excellence’ and ‘world-class’ in funding applications, usually arbitrarily defined by a committee of bureaucrats, who, if they curate at all, last did so whilst the Berlin Wall was still standing. My contention today is that notions of ‘excellence’ must be relative to the culture to which they are applied. In a country where the ‘official’ art world suffers from a permanent existential crisis, artists who would normally be associated with the ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ scenes have filled the vaccuum left by a functioning set of ‘official’ cultural discourses. Clearly, then, bureaucratic notions of ‘excellence’ have little or no relevance in contemporary BiH.

 This necessity for self-organising groups of artists to produce a range of cultural discourses is not a new thing, however. The history of cultural production in Bosnia and Hercegovina shows us a long line of practitioners equally at home working in both ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ art worlds. The relationship between the two has always been an overlapping one. For example, Jusuf Hadžifejzović co-curated the ‘Yugoslav Dokumenta’ shows in ’87 and ’89 whilst at the same time mounting adhoc, short run and last minute shows all over former Yugoslavia.

The relative late arrival of an art academy in the city- in ’72- also encouraged a close relationship in a small scene between different ‘layers’ of artistic activity. However, whilst we might say that the different layers had a mutually enhancing co-existence before ’92, the reality now is that the almost total absence of the state in the territory of culture, has meant that- with the exception of Collegium Artisticum and the former Museum of the Revolution in Sarajevo- artists have to re-build their own art world on the scorched earth of ‘transitional’ culture. The complete lack of a cultural infrastructure or transparent overview of how the very little money in culture is allocated or spent, means that this process happens at different speeds and in varying ways. Today, then, I want to talk about three separate case studies which I believe might be presented as ‘excellent’ in curatorial terms; the work of Jusuf Hadžifejzović in Skenderija; the collective of feminist curators and artists associated with the Crvena grouping; and, the private sector example represented by Pierre Courtin and his gallery duplex ten m2 .

 I want to briefly address the notion of ‘biennale’ culture in Bosnia, too. Whilst ‘Biennale’ activity is welcome, in such a fragmented and incoherent cultural landscape, this has little chance to develop into something of long term benefit for people producing and consuming culture in BiH. Biennales in Bosnia are like tanks in a partisan war; impressive on paper, but easily picked off and manipulated by much more mobile and cynical political opponents, at the appropriate time. The biennale model in Bosnia is too cumbersome, and not agile enough, to improve meaningfully, the conditions of artists living and working here..

In a society where all but a tiny percentage of people active in culture live from week to week, often buying themselves time to produce culture by working jobs in another sector altogether, the notion of a ‘biennale’ with no relationship to the local grass roots, is of highly questionable value. Before biennales can meaningfully develop within Bosnia and Hercegovina, a whole new cultural infrastructure has to either emerge organically, or be put in place. Holding a biennale in the Bosnian context, is like owning a Porsche in a country with no roads.

Given the almost total indifference of the state to cultural infrastructure, and their utter failure to grasp the importance of the cultural economy to post-industrial twenty first century societies, this infrastructure can only be produced and developed by artists and art professionals themselves. Inevitably, this is an extremely slow and contentious process, and in the continuing absence of an overall cultural strategy for the whole country, the results will be varied and uncertain.

The Sarajevo sculptor and installation artist Daniel Premec said last summer, in an interview, that ‘Bosnia and Hercegovina is an observer in the international art scene, rather than a participant’.  Such a view seems to be challenged by the welcome return of a representative from the country at Venice this year, but the reality is that artists from this country who have gone on to make international careers, have done so in spite of the cultural conditions in their native land, rather than because of them. In the past decade we can point to individuals such as Nebojša Šerić-Šoba in New York, or Maja Bajević in Paris, as examples of artists who have made international careers; of the younger generation, the likes of Mladen Miljanović, Radenko Milak, Adela Jušić, Lala Raščić and Lana Čmajčanin are all in a position to make good a very promising current position, on an international level. Yet, in BiH, the nation’s five art schools- Sarajevo, Trebinje, Široki Brijeg, Banja Luka, Mostar- churn out an estimated two to three hundred graduates per year, into a domestic art market that barely exists. In some ways, the fate of those who are not fortunate to develop an international exhibiting practice, should concern us more than the fifty or so restless talents that have emrged in the last decade.

The cultural economy is now of vital importance to post-industrial, and transitional, societies.  In the UK, for example, the cultural sector now contributes more to national GDP than manufacturing industry- a remarkable indicator of just how much industry has withered in the UK since the end of the seventies. Culture is now inextricably tied in with tourism strategies, and with being monetised; one doesn’t have to be a particularly sensitive observer to note that global cultural ‘brands’ such as Tate or MOMA have irreversibly intertwined culture with leisure, retail and aspirant ‘lifestyle’ discourses in the last twenty years.

Whatever one’s ideas on how culture should be funded, the current hegemonic political view- that the state should retreat from funding all but the most basic aspects, and the rest should be found from corporate or private sources- has little application here. As visual culture moves headlong into the private sector in the neo-liberal economy, so too BiH’s culture has been largely privatised- although for legalistic reasons, rather than as a result of a political decision. Owing to a catastrophic oversight in the drafting of the Dayton agreement, the responsibility for funding culture, lying with government in the defunct Yugoslav constitution, was omitted from the post-95 BiH constitution- meaning that national institutions were plunged immediately into a battle for survival, with the National Museum of BiH notoriously shutting down last year. The conclusion is obvious therefore; waiting for a weak central government to do something about cultural funding is going to be a waste of everyone’s time, at least in the short to medium term. So, if the governments of BiH don’t have any answers,  how to solve such a problem?

Notions of ‘excellence’ with regard to curatorship can only be defined in the light of the particularly difficult circumstances for cultural development in BiH. My first example of such excellence concerns the practice of Jusuf Hadžifejzović both as artist and curator. Together with Enver Hadžiomerspahić, he produced Yugoslav Dokumenta in the last years of Yugoslavia, with the exhibitions at Skenderija in Sarajevo proving to be amongst the most significant events in the production and consumption of contemporary art in the old Federal State; perhaps only the legendary exhbitions of the French modernist and the Abstract Expressionists in the early-mid fifties had more impact, and this is an arguable point.

In 2009, Jusuf re-kindled the spirit of the old Yugoslav Dokumenta shows by curating and organising Subdokumenta, again in Skenderija. Formerly one of the key shopping venues in Yugoslav Sarajevo, Skenderija today has been superseded by more modern shopping centres built since the end of the war, and has a large area of vacated shop fronts lying empty for most of the year. With the co-operation of the centre’s authorities, he was able to bring these empty spaces into play, displaying the work of young and emerging artists from all over the country, in an exhibition that was reviewed in the New York Times. Jusuf’s aim here was simple- to show that, with very little money, an international art scene, of credibility and depth, could still be created and sustained in the city, and in this he was successful. Unfortunately, his efforts were little rewarded in terms of extra funding.

Similarly, the relentlessly active and imaginative group CRVENARed merge feminist politics, art activism and a nuanced perspective on contemporary art production in their activities. In regard to curatorial excellence, the four day event held last September in Sarajevo, the Bring In Take Out Living Archivestands as their most noteworthy recent intervention. Taking a brownfield plot of land at the Marshal Tito campus, in Marin Dvor,  the group cleared it and turned the space into a children’s play park, reflecting a general concern amongst citizens that there were few usable parks for the city’s children to enjoy themselves in.

This new park was used as a venue for talks spread over four days, on all aspects of cultural practice and development across the region; finally, an old security guard’s booth, found on site, was restored and turned into a temporary art and documentation space, with a rolling loop of video pieces from across the Balkans. Combining art activism, a refreshing new look at how the many vacant brownfield sites could be transformed and how a different Sarajevo might be imagined, together with contemporary art, this was a landmark event. Subsequently, the Bring In Take Out Living Archive has travelled to other cities in the region and strengthened hugely, the international ties and links of the ‘Red Mined’ curatorial collective responsible for it. This was an event that not only addressed issues in contemporary art in a meaningful way, but suggested the ‘fit’ of that art in a contemporary society seemingly defined by permanent instability and uncertainty.

The third example that I would like to bring to everyone’s attention is Pierre Courtin’s duplex gallery. Open since 2004, and recently moving to new premises by the river Miljacka in Sarajevo, this gallery has to all intents and purposes been the private sector in the BiH art world during its time in existence, alongside Damir NikŠić’s Jawa Galerija.  This is a gallery which seeks to present the best of emerging talent from BiH alongside international shows, and whose profile, through representation at Europe’s most visited art fairs-Paris and Athens so far this year alone- is hugely significant for the international profile of art made in this country, and for the profile of represented artists.

Ultimately, curatorial ‘excellence’, as represented by my three chosen examples from the contemporary scene in Bih, have a number of factors in common. Key to all these projects is a simultaneous deep rootedness in local circumstances, also comprehensible to international audiences and with an international appeal; these are adaptible and mobile art events, not only physically in terms of moving around, but mentally, occupying and developing a range of aesthetic and critical discourses; lastly, all these initiatives are capable of functioning effectively on tiny budgets,  navigating the complex and parched labyrinth of cultural politics in this country ably, and turning the force of the many obstacles to cultural production against themselves.

Only the development of a functioning cultural infrastructure in the next few years in BiH will see meaningful change in the way that work and business is done in the shattered cultural economy here. It is not enough to expect the vestigal institutions of culture from the Yugoslav period, initiative, and enthusiasm, to continue to make up for that lack of a functioning infrastructure. As we have already observed, any wait for central authorities to put something in place  will be a forlorn one. These three projects that I have mentioned also fall into the category of ‘excellence’ because all of them, in their own way, hint at the development of a new cultural infrastructure put in place by artists and art workers themselves, firstly as part of an ongoing battle for survival, secondly as a means of opening out contemporary art to new audiences. The designing of a new cultural infrastructure by cultural actors themselves, and the making of the infrastructure work to an agreed common strategy, is the biggest challenge facing art in BiH in the next decade. If such a challenge can be met successfully, then the art world in the country will be all the stronger for it.

Nearly one hundred years ago now, Ljubomir Mičić professed one of the aims of the ‘heroic’ avant-garde Zenitist philosophy was to ‘Balkanise Europe’. A century on, Mičić’s pronouncement seems ludicrous, but it still has an unexpected echo in our time. It is to be hoped, as I have suggested, that a new infrastructure for art and cultural production emerges organically in BiH in the next few years, and that such an infrastructure, sustained and developed by loose, self-organised, semi-detached groups of artists and art workers can in time sustain and nurture the generations of young creatives to come. But in times of austerity, where budges for culture in other countries are being cut relentlessly, and the reasoning behind public money being given for art subject to constant scrutiny, it may be that the art worlds of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and neighbours such as Serbia and Macedonia, are well placed to withstand the cultural landscape that may be coming later in the century, simply by virtue of being more experienced in adapting to and coping with conditions that, at times, border on the hopeless. The adaptability, creativity and mobility of artists and creatives in such a dystopian cultural landscape, is ultimately the strength that will carry art production in BiH forward, hopefully to better times.

Jon Blackwood

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