Serbian Social Space of the 90s
Art as the Critical Reflection of the Public Sphere in Serbia during the 90’s

Stevan Vukovic
Talk given for the event of the first M/SOS session, "Halluzinationer"

In my work I am trying to explore the meeting points of urban geography, spatial-cultural discourse, and theory of radical democracy. I would define my approach and discourse that I am developing as “spatioanalysis” – analysis of libidinal circuits between subject, society and space, and their political implications.

I would like to use these theoretical tools to reflect the cultural phenomena, and especially art that is dealing with the proposed issues.

I would define this kind of art as the work in socius borrowing from the analysis of the French art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud, or in the more neutral, broader phrase - art in the public sphere…

On the construction of the public sphere

If we try analysing the concepts of the public sphere we should first take into account when the concept of the public was conceived.

The left wing critics contend that the concept of the public was brought out by the bourgeoisie with the aim to protect the rights of private property and legitimate state control of urban spaces. (1)According to Craig Owens, for example, "the public", "is a discursive formation susceptible to appropriation by the most diverse – indeed, opposed – ideological interests." (2)

But after the definitions are being brought to the fore, we have to be aware of the dilemma whether publicness of certain site is defined through ownership or through use.

In the language of radical cultural criticism, the rather neutral term "public space" is being altered with "public sphere", understood as an arena in which citizens engage in political activity.

There are two competing critical concepts of the political public sphere that could be distincted and outlined here. On the one side there is the concept based on a strict division between an abstract, universalist public and a private arena of conflicting, partial interests. The exponents of this concept, like Habermas, treat public space as a realm of social plenitude that is disappearing in a post-modern epoch of conflict, heterogeneity, and particularity. (3) On the other side there are critics like Bruce Robbins who claim that unitary public space is just a "phantom" and it was never fully inclusive and that the very notion of an undivided social space is irremediably deceptive, constituted by disavowing plurality and conflict. (4) German filmmakers Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt, for example, proposed the construction of a public sphere that would be oppositional to both pseudo- and private public spheres grounded in relations of exclusion, homogenization, and private property. This public sphere according to their statement would be an arena of political consciousness and articulation of social experience that challenges these relations… (5)

Art in the public sphere

This rhetoric is shifted to the field of art criticism and art, where attempts exist to initiate such challenges within art practice by constructing what could be coined “cultural public sphere”. The idea is that art cannot assume the existence of a public but must help produce one and that the public sphere is less a physical space than a social form. For critics like Rosalyn Deutsche this idea has a consequence that any exhibition venue, be it museum, private gallery or park, plaza, could potentially be a public sphere. In this respect the most important issue raised by Deutsche is the necessity to "…define public space as the space where society constitutes itself through an unending declaration of rights that question and limit power." (6) In consequence, Deutsche sees the democratic possibilities of site-specific art with its role of questioning of power in public art’s urban sites, that is against the conservative definitions that make site-specifity consistent with the concealment of this sites and collaboration with the dominant power structures. (7)

As a practice within the built environment, "public art" participates in the production of meanings, uses, and forms for the city. Since the contradictions within urban processes stamp the image of the city with a basic instability, public art can be, in an Althusserian sense, a 'site‘ as well as well 'stake‘ of urban struggle. (8) According to the critical view of Henri Lefebvre, the role of public art is that it must appropriate space from its domination by capitalist and state power, and that it should disrupt the apparent coherence of its urban sites.

As I mentioned before, in the radical cultural criticism this term is defined as an arena in which citizens engage in political activity. "Public art" is henceforth redefined as work that enters or helps create such a space. So one possible strategy for intervention in the city is the "appropriation" of a certain site in the city and its diversion in a manner similar to what the Situationists called “détournement” from its prescribed functions…

Production of social space in Serbia of the 90’s

The question now is how to outline the concept of the public sphere in post-socialist countries and especially in FR Yugoslavia. It could be argued that the specific socio-political frame and context in FR Yugoslavia was unique in Europe. The strongest wave of ethno nationalism that was incidentally conceived and conceptualized in the highest scientific and cultural institution, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, by its Memorandum on Actual Social Questions, triggered the political processes that lead to the disintegration of the Federal state. The consequent events like war, first in Croatia and then in Bosnia, sanctions by UN and the "economy of destruction" (9), economic collapse with the highest rate of inflation ever recorded, resulted in the complete isolation of the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and breakdown of official communication with the rest of the world. Another aspect that came along with the wave of ethno nationalism was the wave of populism, favored by the political oligarchy, which respectively came back to the sphere of culture and "contaminated" it. The effects were so strong that they produced the social milieu dominated by patriarchalism, authoritarianism, a warlike spirit, xenophobia, and national-chauvinism which devastated the most important cultural institutions that started to reproduce this ideological matrix. The exhibitions that were organized and shown in the National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, had the task to glorify the history of Serbian people and to recycle the national myths from the past, mainly from the golden period of the medieval Serbian Empire. The "works of art", presented at those exhibitions could be therefore read as symptoms of the social pathology of the milieu in which they originated...

The Serbian artistic scene generated by the socio-political frame

From the beginning of the 90's on, Serbian critics have been discussing the issue if such a thing as the "Serbian Art Scene" exists at all. This dilemma was raised from the point of existence and survival of the so-called "independent" or "alternative" scene. The arguments that were brought to the fore included the claims that: "escapist and partisan" strategies suggest that the more appropriate word would be the "artistic community" than the "scene" (10); that the scene is at the beginning stage of its profilation (11); or that the basic functions of the scene are provided by the particular "world of art" that frames it (12). Whatever term had been in use, the definition was necessarily drawn in opposition to the dominant tendency in art, favored for ideological reasons by official governmental cultural institutions. Although the art system in Serbia was not developed and some of its most important components were not present at all (13), or were atrophied, certain dispersed and sometimes opposed art networks existed. It may be even said that several parallel "scenes" functioned at the same time.

In terms of artistic expression several paradigms could be outlined:

The national-epic, alias photo-realistic tendency, or, in its pastoral variant, the oniric-fantastic "Painting of Scenes" (14) was the most aggressive, and had a very strong official backing and a stronghold in the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as in certain private galleries.

Closely tied and sometimes interwoven, was a tendency which consists of anti-modern disposed, nationally revived painters, who cherish a kind of cult of unique artistic genius and of original artistic expression that drives inspiration from the local environment.

More moderate was the scene which consists of conditionally called traditionalists, i.e.: the so called Belgrade School of Painting, intimacy painting, poetic realism, painting on the traces of Paris school, etc. that constantly had its place and institutional support.

Apart was the phenomena described above as the "independent scene" which gathered artists of different provenance, but in given composition the general attitude of this scene was that it identified itself through aspiration to follow and reflect the global currents in art and cherish universally acceptable artistic expression. This scene was tentatively isolated by highest institutions of culture, and was supported only by NGO's and dependent mostly on Soros Foundation… (15)

Art as the critical reflection of the public sphere

Due to the socio-political circumstances, the condition in which Serbian artists worked could be without exaggeration called traumatic. The lack of information and cultural contacts with international centers of art as well as the psychological feeling of deprivation, confinement, and even repression has certainly left their mark on them. For the artists who didn't want to conform to the dominant ideological matrix and accept this "mainstream", the trauma experienced had a different effect and caused strong reaction. One aspect was the withdrawal from the social, public sphere into the closed, hermetic artistic circles and the strategy defined as active escapism (16). Another was the gathering of artists into groups and associations like Urbazona (17) or Led Art (18) with the aim to criticize, oppose, and "face" the social reality with the engaged artworks.

This problem regarding the relation of the artists towards the social sphere could be defined through the "ever-present" dilemma whether to emphasize aesthetical or ethical aspects of their work. For the beginning of the 90's, in the hardest situation of war in the surroundings and total economic collapse, it was remarked that Serbian artists were primarily concerned with aesthetical issues in their art, and rarely openly reflected, either analytically, critically, ironically or committedly, social issues. The impression prevailed that the majority of Serbian artists did not work in socius, and reacted to social circumstances nor to their marginalised position, but had turned to formal problems immanent to the artistic medium and material.

The exception were some artists of the older generations formed in the language of conceptual art of the Seventies, like Rasa Todosijevic, or the ones from the generation of the Sixties, that always had strong conceptual agenda in their art, like Dusan Otasevic or Predrag Neskovic. Those artists not integrated into the dominant ideological structure were reflecting, thematizing and deconstructing the produced and recycled national mythology. In performances and installations, Todosijevic approached with a radical critical angle the myth of "national greatness" of Serbs. In the late Nineties he introduced the method of subtler ironical deconstruction with a series of posters. This attitude was characteristic also for Otasevic who was dealing more with fictionalization of national history, and Neskovic, who was playing with the kitsch aspects of traditional art and folklore.

Since the mid-Nineties first sporadically and then more overtly the socio-political sphere became the focus of reflection in the works of the generation of artists formed in this decade.

>It also marks the turning point in the careers and even in the artistic strategy of some of the most prominent Serbian artist in the nineties (Apsolutno, Skart, Milica Tomic, Uros Djuric, Talent Factory, Zoran Naskovski, Tanja Ostojic, etc.) who shifted their work form aesthetical to ethical issues, but also from the more conventional media like painting and sculpture to the more conceptual use of the various media, i.e., new digital reproductive technology, video, or video-installations. (19)

On the example of several projects from the production of artistic association Apsolutno (20) from Novi Sad I will try to show how the analysed strategy of “appropriation” of one site works in the local frame, which is as this artists claim the way to the universally readable, global. Development of the association Apsolutno went from the site-specific reaction to particular features of a venue for exhibiting art, to the "socio-specific" research and intervention into the socio-political, historical or cultural flows inscribed in the marks of certain site (21). The projects they realised in the urban core of the city Novi Sad were therefore conceived in response to a stimulus they got from the political, sociological or cultural sphere of their immediate surroundings. They used several strategies and procedures of intervention on the specific cites. One is for example the insertion of a new sign over other existing signs, with the idea to “loosen” their essence and ideological message. The other strategy was the exposure and emphasising of the specific paradoxical situation in the urban sites or locations with specific use or purpose. With all these operations, the idea of the intervention is to create a new contextual frame for the reading of the "absolutely real facts" with which association Apsolutno manipulates.

The project that would illustrate such a strategy is “Absolutely temporary” (22) realized in 1996. The location where the intervention took place is the bridge across the river Danube, which connects Petrovaradin and Novi Sad. The historical fact that is the motive for an investigation is that the bridge was built in 1945 as the temporary solution, until a much better and more beautiful one would replace it. Eventually the bridge was never replaced, and 42 years later in 1987 it was finally named "Marshal Tito's Bridge" and the plaque with this inscription was mounted to memorise the inauguration. It happened that the plaque after several years disappeared. The intervention of Apsolutno comprised a mounting and unveiling of the new plaque with the inscription "Absolutely Temporary". By doing it they made a metaphor for the temporality of ideological ideas which used the matrix of legitimization of the temporary urbanistic solution by the act of covering it with the name and omnipotent shield of the "father of the community".

Another indicative project realized at the Fish Market in Novi Sad in 1995 was "Absolute News(papers)". The site of investigation was the news-stand that was out of function, or to be more precise, changed its function with the brick wall built inside the stand. In the period of economic collapse and crisis in the country some people used this trick of occupying an existing space, like a news-stand, to avoid the legal way of getting allowance to build a small housing or other facility. The intervention of Apsolutno regarding this paradoxical situation was to put the sign NEWS(PAPER) on the door of the stand and "reactivate" it with this symbolic act. With the sign NEWS(PAPER) the whole situation, gained a completely different connotation.

Further step in contextualising the given specific local socio-political and cultural frame is the project called “United Artists Under Sanctions” (23). It is an association with the aim of exchange of ideas by artists from the countries punished by the international community by being put in "quarantine". UA!US deals with the position of the artist within the closed society where the even worse sanctions come from within. Therefore the idea of the different projects by UA!US is to: particularly emphasize the importance and responsibility of the artist's critical attitude towards that society in question.

The strategy of the artistic group Skart (24), was "strategy of small steps" (25), with non-institutional actions in the social space, like the posters with enigmatic titles that were placed at random near the bookstores or on the facades of the old houses, or the leaflets that they spread around in the city of Belgrade. All the materials that they produced had recognizable minimalist visual identity, and were made in simple, cheap materials. In 1992, they started with the edition called “Sadness”, and the first among many to follow, was the sadness of the potential consumer that was distributed in front of the big markets that due to the economic crisis looked empty and depressive. With this action they started their silent comments on the social sphere which in 1997 culminated with the series of coupons, for the purpose of consumption of things like fear or orgasm, that alluded to the economic regulation in the period of crisis and the lack of some of the most important goods.

Milica Tomic, after years of producing paintings whose aesthetics was coined monumental intimism (26), with the provocative work "XY Ungeloest" in 1997 started to work in the media of video-installation with a sharp critical agenda. The subject of the work was the reconstruction of the crime that happened on the 28th of April 1989, the very day of the declaration of the new Serbian constitution, when 33 ethnic Albanians, citizens of Kosovo were murdered (27). In works to follow, she reflected issues of identity (national, gender).

Uros Djuric, whose project with Stevan Markus, called “Autonomism” (28) was one of the most conceptually defined attitudes regarding the socio-political milieu, shifted from paintings, to web-projects reflecting issues like populism. Djuric's argument is that populism could be understood as the new ideology that replaced all other Social Utopias. One of the parts of his "populist project" (29) is the simulated virtual Serbian magazine (or the First Serbian Porn, Art & Society magazine as he calls it) Hometown Boys, just showing the front page with content of the issue that covers actual topics, whether related to his artistic career and the "world of art", or presenting his comments on the political sphere.

As the sum up of the events of the last decade and even of the whole 70 years long history of Yugoslavia seen through the filter of artistic fictionalization, could be taken the recent project "YugoMuseum" by sculptor Mrdjan Bajic, key figure of the Belgrade art scene of the eighties. This project also marked the turning point in his work towards presentation in the new digital media. In a virtual museum "placed" on Slavija, the biggest square in Belgrade, Bajic stored the items of collective memory of the years under Tito's communist and respectively authoritarian nationalist regime of Milosevic, creating a grotesque collection of power objects and insignia (sometimes real, sometimes simulated) of the authoritarian rulers, impregnated with ideological message and meaning…

1. Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions - Art and Spatial Politics, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1988, Introduction, p. xxi Throughout the text I am very much indebted to Rosalyn Deutsches essays and critical position.
2. Craig Owens, The Yen for Art , in Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition, University of California Press, Berkley 1992. p. 316
3. See Juergen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Oeffentlichkeit, Hermann Luchterhand Verlag, Darmstadt, 1962.
4. See Bruce Robbins ed. The Phantom Public Sphere, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993.
5. Deutsche, Evictions - Art and Spatial Politics, pp. 58-59
6. Ibid. p. 42
7. Ibid. Introduction p. xxii
8. Ibid p. 56
9. Mladjan Dinkic, Ekonomija destrukcije, Belgrade 1996.
10. Dejan Sretenovic, Art in a Closed Society in publication Art in Yugoslavia 1992-1995 edition of Center for Contemporary Arts, Fund for an Open Society, Belgrade 1996. Sretenovic analyses the period that Yugoslavia spent under the UN sanctions. He deals exclusively with the processes of formation of an independent art community which repudiates any identification with the social-political reality of the circles where it originates, in an attempt to establish its own, parallel world of art. Sretenovic argues that: "the scene is constituted through the art system and its institutions of representation and critical evaluation, while the community is a kind of forced and informal association aimed at ensuring one's survival."
11. Zoran Eric, Is a Shift Away from the Formal Level of Work Possible?, pref. cat. 2 nd Yugoslav Biennial of Young Artists, Vrsac, September 1996.
12. Stevan Vukovic, Personal Experiment in Art, in Uros Djuric, Works 1989-1997, Samizdat, Belgrade 1998. Vukovic used the terms "independent scene" and "compulsory alternative" in opposition to the "mainstream" that he analyzes in terms of the Baudrillard's notion of simulacrum.
13. See Jasmina Cubrilo, Beogradska umetnicka scena devedesetih, Radio B 92, Belgrade 1998. Cubrilo favors more the thesis of Sretenovic, and contends that throughout the nineties there was no proper scene or art system. For her one of the biggest problems was the non-existence of the art market.
14. A title of the exhibition held in Paviljon Cvijeta Zuzoric in Belgrade, 1996.
15. It was also indicative that the worst situation for the "independent" scene was in the capital city of Belgrade, where the influence of the dominant power structures was the strongest. The "independent" scene therefore had some important centers for exhibiting and support in cities like Novi Sad, Pancevo, Vrsac or Cacak. This sharp division as far as the exclusive support of governmental institutions to all other tendencies but not the "independent" scene, existed roughly till the mid 90's, when it started to be blurred, especially after the end of sanctions to FR Yugoslavia by UN in 1995.
16. Lidija Merenik, No Wave in Art in Yugoslavia 1992-1995 edition of Center for Contemporary Arts, Fund for an Open Society, Belgrade 1996.
17. The movement that emphasized the need for restoring the "urban values" and popular culture that was in danger of fading away and disappearing under the wave of populist "turbo-folk" scene.
18. Loose association of artists that gathered occasionally to make happenings, actions and performances. "Led art" means "Ice art" and it was a metaphor for the closed society in which the artists are forced to work.
19. The shift in work of some artists was probably the main reason for consequent international recognition of their art that resulted in the breakthrough on the European or even global art scene, mainly through their personal engagement and persistence.
20. The independent art association APSOLUTNO (Absolutely) was founded in 1993 in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. The members of APSOLUTNO are Zoran Pantelic (1966), Dragan Rakic (1957), Bojana Petric (1967) and Dragan Miletic (1970). The production of the association is a joint production and is signed APSOLUTNO, without any reference to personal names.
21. Stevan Vukovic, Umetnicka asocijacija "Apsolutno": Projekti za kalendarsku 1995. godinu,
22. Projekat, Magazine for Visual Arts, No. 7, Novi Sad, July 1996., pp. 94-97
23. (UA!US) was founded by art association APSOLUTNO and p.RT in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia in 1998.
24. Skart could be translated as "waste" or "leftover". It was conceived as the art group in the 1990 and consists of Djordje Balmazovic & Dragan Protic and Vesna Pavlovic, who left the group in 1995.
25. Mileta Prodanovic, "Strategija malih koraka", Projekat, Magazine for Visual Arts, No. 3, Novi Sad, July 1994., pp. 16-17
26. A term introduced by art historian Nikola Suica in the catalogue of the exhibition Jedna slika aktuelnog beogradskog slikarstva, held in Brussels and Antverpen in 1992.
27. Jasmina Cubrilo, Beogradska umetnicka scena devedesetih, Radio B 92, Belgrade 1998, pp. 136-138
28. Uros Djuric and Stevan Markus declared the Manifest of Autonomism in February 1994.
29. Populist Project consists of three segments: God Loves the Dreams of Serbian Artists, Celebrities and Hometown Boys.