10 2008

How to politicize the depoliticization of art?

13. Biennial of Art Pančevo / 49. October Salon, Belgrade

Ana Vilenica

Is there political art today in Serbia? Or can we even speak about specific crises of recent art production and local curatorial practices in relation to the political, and their inability to provide adequate articulations of, responses to, and engagements in what constitutes effective political interventions today?[1] Is it possible to say that while in the 1990s artistic practices effectively functioned as a political front, today there is not such a thing as critical-political art? Or perhaps, something else is at a stake? During the 1990s, the period of the so called „Soros realism“[2], new, politically engaged art appeared as a consequence of the well-orchestrated work of the Soros Centers[3] in Eastern Europe. The Centers were instrumental in establishing a unison politicized art production, aiming to bridge the so called “period of transition” (from socialism towards capitalism) by creating a new neo-liberal value system based on critique of local ethno-nationalistic state administration. After their retreat, a new period of culturalization[4] started. Earlier NGO sectors were transformed into state institutions and radical art practices were not needed anymore. The Serbian society was entangled with a new wave of progressing normalisation through dominant anaestheticised and completely depoliticized culture. This brought us to the current state in which there is virtually no radically critical position in Serbian art, neither towards regressive fascist-nationalist movements nor towards neo-liberal normalization. In this situation the main problem concerning contemporary art in Serbia is not whether there is political art or not (because there is one), but it is the question of  exclusion of critical artistic practices from public space.

Two recently held bigger exhibitions in Serbia, the Biennial of Art in Pančevo[5] and the October Salon in Belgrade[6], show an effort to bring back engaged political discourse in art through contextual and socially engaged positioning. Historically, both exhibitions gradually assumed the character of international events, broadening their previous narrower focus on Yugoslavian art. The October Salon, founded by the municipality of the city of Belgrade in 1960, was designed to present  the best production in the field of visual arts; by 2004 it was transformed into the most significant local international visual art event.  Similarly, the Pančevo manifestation, started as the Pančevo Biennial of Yugoslavian Sculpture in 1981 and was transformed  into the International Biennial of Visual Arts in 2000.[7] Both manifestations, as they developed in time, survived different conceptual and critical-ideological approaches, from review parades to authorial-curatorial enterprises. None of them during their existence had a permanent critical platform or an expressly articulated engaged politics.

The last edition of the October Salon, realized under the title Micronarratives by Hungarian curator Lorand Heđi, was heavily criticized as endorsing escapism with promoting a post-utopian state of non-conflict postmodern pluralism. This year’s choice to give the curatorial responsibility to  Bojana Pejic brought the clearly articulated socially and contextually oriented concept Artist Citizen. The exhibition contained different contextually profiled art works from the 1970s till now related to different issues and problems of contemporary society, putting forward  the idea that the existence of civil society is a constant work in progress. 

Unlike the October Salon, the Biennial of Art in Pancevo lacks this precise critical contextual premise, owning to the depoliticized concept titled Pure Expression. A clear critical-political position is only developed by the visual segment with the subtitle “Pančevo Republic!” This segment is conceptualized as a performative act aiming to constitute territory in time, through an appropriation of the right to pronounce a state of exception. It brings a multiplicity of  materialist critical alternatives to  the writing of history, dominated by a nationalist post-socialist culture and global neo-liberal capitalist narratives.

Both exhibitions show, in different ways, the clear intention to become more engaged in the reorganization of public space, effected by processes of culturalization and the normalization of critical speech - and what I found most important - to react to the progressive fascization of the local society.[8]

But the question of depolarization cannot be showed with these two singular exceptions. The question now is how to create conditions for maintaining this space for a continuous  implementation of critical art, and how to create a space in which these two events will not look as singular exceptions but as triggers for changes in institutional politics. In that sense, producing a critical art discourse demands that we reopen a critique of the institutions which this critical discourse wants to inhabit. So the key issue today is not the question “Is there a political art in Serbia?”, but it is the question of its representation and communication in public space, or more precisely, how to radically politicize the depolarization of art not only by reintroducing critical discourses (although this is an important step) but also through the active re-organization and political re-invention of the cultural institution itself. This should be our project for the future.

[1] These are just some of the questions raised at the first RUK (Workers in Culture) conference in Belgrade organized as a response  to the violent closing of the exhibition Exeptions: Young Scene from Priština (Kosovo), whose opening was violently interrupted by right wing organisations. (more on: http://radniciukulturi.net/files/7februar_Glasilo%20Radnika%20u%20kulturi.pdf; )

[2] Miško Šuvaković, The Ideology of Exibition: On The Ideologies of Manifesta, available online:  http://www.ljudmila.org/scca/platforma3/suvakoviceng.htm

[3] Centars for Contemporary Art, Fond for Open Society

[4] Boris Buden, The Post Yugoslav condition of Institutional Critique: An Intro, available on line:  http://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/0208/buden/en

[5] www.bijenaleumetnosti.rs

[6] www.oktobarskisalon.org.yu

[7] In the year 2004, this institution changed its title again, this time to the Biennial of Art, broadening its focus by introducing two more independent segments dedicated to theatre and film, and thus  marginalizing the visual art segment.

[8] I am using these two cases as significant positive  interventions in the local context, which deserve support and public interest. They can also be problematised on various issues but due to the space limitations of this text, such critiques cannot be elaborated here.

How to politicize the depoliticization of art?