A Glossary of Migrations: One Plausible Interpretation of the Nineties

Simona Ognjanović, curator

Because we are always caught in the middle of a network of historically constructed concepts and practices, every story, including those produced by museums, necessarily begins in medias res. Apart from there not being any “absolute” beginning from which any historical narrative can start, the challenges of storytelling are all the greater because each time has its own operational concepts that do not have rigidly defined semantic frameworks, but are involved in constant struggles and negotiations around a hegemonic system of meaning. In other words, locating the beginning of a story means constructing it, “putting things into context,” producing a (desirable) context for interpretation, as well as conceptually articulating underlying problems, which suggestsinterpretation rather than the objective mapping of facts. Therefore, even the fragmentary articulation of each of the termscomprising the title of the exhibition The Nineties: A Glossary of Migrations, prepared by the Museum of Yugoslavia in 2019, is by no means and cannot be a neutral act.

The Nineties. During the 1990s, there were at least three interrelated processes at work in the region of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: the disintegration of state unity, the collapse of the socialist socio-economic order and the rearticulation of all cohesive ideological and symbolic formations (the heritage of the anti-fascist and people’s liberation struggle, the brotherhood and unity ideology, the ideology of Yugoslavism – to name just a few). Although, these processes did not begin in the 1990s,  it was in that decade they were dramatically radicalized, fundamentally altering the Yugoslav political, social, economic, and cultural space. “Non-violent” secession and armed conflicts created so-called nation-states, legitimized by the creation of new or the rearticulation of old nationalist myths, followed by the revitalization of ethnic and religious divisions. In addition to legitimizing wars and newly formed political entities, national-populist discourses successfully stifled the class basis and economic goals of the war conflicts, rationalizing transitional neo-liberal strategies and introducing most of the new states to the so-called peripheral capitalism countries zone.

Migrations. The traumatic effects of this process are felt not only by the citizens of all the states created after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, but partly, also, by those who permanently left the country in the nineties. Mass migrations of the population that were ongoing throughout the decade were one of the most obvious indicators of the mentioned processes.According to causalreductionist views, the displacement of the local population within the former republics is most often treated as the goal,[1] not the consequence of radical nationalistic politics that affirmed the homogenization of the local population on an ethnic basis. Also, the same reductionist views arethe starting point of the view that emigration was primarily the result of destructive political processes, economic breakdown and fear of mobilization,[2] while the organized immigration of Chinese citizens in the second half of the 1990s is interpreted to be an obvious indicator of the start of the implementation of neoliberal transitional measures.[3]

The Nineties: A Glossary of Migrations. All three migration flows (displacement, emigration, immigration),with a corpus of social, legal, political and cultural issues they directly produced,will become the subject not only of public policy and academic research,[4]but also the frame of reference for action in the fields of art, activism and civil society. The exhibition The Nineties: A Glossary of Migrations maps different forms of engagement through which the protagonists in the fields of art, activism and the civil sector addressed the problems caused by mass migrations to Serbia and from Serbia during the decade being dealt with. The primary focus of the exhibition is directed towards marking art positions and practices, while the choice of activist initiatives and organizations is exclusively centered on those that either involved, in their work, cooperation with contemporary artists or which were instigated by artists themselves. Of course, this is just one possible overview, which is by no means comprehensive. Aside from intersecting different positions and domains of action, the exhibition also merges different temporalities. Almost half of the presented artworks and activist initiatives were created in the nineties, and in that sense, they stand for extremely important examples of engaged thinking and action at a time when society was being actively traumatized. This is particularly important in the context of art practices and the rare examples of the type that occurred in the first half of the nineties. Essentially, the war period was heavily marked by the phenomenon of so-called “active escapism” (L. Merenik) in art, which implied escapism into the creation of a “parallel – fictional reality and entirely personal histories that, again, would never have arisen if they did not have (had not had) a cause in actual existential reality, which at certain points surpassed fiction itself.”[5] It was not before the second half of the nineties that a greater number of artists was to turn to socially engaged themes, and in 1995, the signing of the Dayton Agreement clearly coincided with such a shift. In addition, the exhibition features art and activist positions that form the basis from which, during the 2000s, the implications of these processes in an already significantly altered political reality were considered; also, it is from these positions that the topic is dealt with today and wherefrom solidarity is demonstrated with the people still living the consequencesof the nineties in the present.[6]

As anticipated, the approach to working in and with such a context is materially different. Regarding art practices, certain artists primarily thematized issues that they directly witnessed, others reflected personal experiences of being a refugee or migrant in a way that may be relevant to the wider community, while others worked face to face with vulnerable communities and individuals, with friends and colleagues, even casual passers-by, establishing different types of relationships through direct encounters and symbolic exchange. Of course, there are those who intersect these methodologies in their work. All these different approaches have generated a variety of formal and media articulations such as spatial and ambient installations, drawings, comics, various forms of appropriation, artistic practices that are at the intersection of relational, participatory and performative arts, as well as photographs and videos mostly used in the service of documenting social phenomena and/or art processes and actions. At the same time, their different approaches have produced conflicting discursive positions. In addition to sharing a critical attitude to the context that triggered mass migrations in the 1990s, the artists demonstrated either a primarily negating discourse that initially diagnosed problems, or they developed affirmation discourses, using the art field asplatform for reparation, that is, foremost for strengthening interpersonal relationships.

Civil sector representatives and activist initiatives also demonstrate different approaches. By targeting traumatic but not clearly visible social problems, which are often recognized as the subject of various forms of manipulation, part of them opt toresearch and present their results either in the form of exhibitions in cultural institutions and/or make themavailable to the public on internet platforms. Others focus primarily on “fieldwork” with vulnerable groups or individuals, helping them build more or less sustainable networks of solidarity. They did, and continue to do so by organizing humanitarian, legal and psychosocial aid, as well as by creating context within which it was/is possible for the members of the community in question, to leave the passive position of aid receiver and achieve permanent self-sufficiency. Also noteworthy is the constant engagement of activist and civil society representatives in alarming the public about the endangerment of refugees’ or displaced persons’ rights, even providing protection from official and other structures that are not sensitized enough to understand the full complexity of the problem these people face. As already mentioned, a vital component of the otherwise customary activities of certain activists’ groups and organizations (workshops, activist and humanitarian actions, public presentations, exhibitions, etc.) also includes cooperation with contemporary artists.

Finally, regardless the different approaches and institutional forms of action, orientationally, it is possible to observe[7] the twenty-nine art, activist and research positions,through six problematized sections: faces and things, regimes of (non)movement, housing regimes, decisions and coercion, encounters/ networks of solidarity, nations and territories.

The faces and things section suggestively guides the observer through the refugees’ and displaced persons’personal history registersresulting from the wars of the nineties. The unknown facesof people who, for the most part, permanently left Yugoslavia, as well as their alienated or discarded things located in the point of separation or operating as links with a long “lost place,” inform the observer about the traumatic experiences of forced displacement and sudden “loss of place,” and the various “placement strategies” they resorted to in the new environment in order to reconstruct their “disconnected identity.” (Vladimir Radojičić, Dušica Dražić, Bálint Szombathy, Aleksandrija Ajduković, Kiosk – Platform for Contemporary Art).

In the second section, artists place emphasis on the restrictive, legal and political mechanisms which, in the 1990s and later, regulated the (non)movement regimes of the citizens of Serbia and the region. The artists demonstrated the discriminatory nature of immigration policies and relevant laws on the European Union level, which deprive persons of their citizenship, ethnicity, gender and class. They point to the restrictive visa regime of the 1990s and the role of new citizenship laws, which legitimized the process of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, privileging citizens of the stem ethnic community (Tanja Ostojić, Association “Apsolutno”, Goranka Matić).

By mapping the housing regimes of refugees, deportees and forcibly displaced persons, the artists,using various means, highlight the grave consequences of housing policies and relevant laws in both the local context and the European Union framework. In some cases, they develop different forms of political action to protect the rights of those who have been left without the option to return to their apartments and homes, or those whose homes have been demolished or are threatened with forced evictions. Also, housing policies issues areproblematized through personal memories and the refugees’ and displaced persons’emotional experiences of the spaces they once inhabited, casting light on the way these old memories resonate in a state of displacement and in relation to their current surroundings. (Joint Action “The Roof Over Our Heads,” Rena Rädle and Vladan Jeremić, Milorad Mladenović).

Directly or indirectly, the artists question the nature and consequences of the decisions that many in Serbia had to make,as well as those decisions forced upon themin the 1990s. To leave or stay in the country, to serve (willingly or unwillingly) in the military or (at least to try) to avoid mobilization, were decisions and/or coercion directly conditioned by the degree of privilege (or lack of it) determined by class, status, gender, age, as symbolic capital (family ties, social networks). Therefore, in the given context, it was difficult to discern between choice and coercion, that is, between the possibility of stepping out of the discourse of absolute victimization and passivization. (škart/Đo-Dju, G. Matić).

In the context of refugee and migrant experiences, the artists often used the art field as a platform to initiate encounters[8] and symbolic exchanges with vulnerable communities and individuals, but also with friends, colleagues, even bystanders, producing or enhancing interpersonal relationships[9] through these encounters (Jusuf Hadžifejzović, Ana Miljanić/Center for Cultural Decontamination, Collective Migrative Art, Ivana Momčilović/Lorent Wanson, Dejan Dimitrijević/Nebojša Šerić Shoba, škart). Activists’ initiatives, which also involve direct meetings with vulnerable individuals or communities, developed extremely significant networks of solidarity, not only in the form of providing humanitarian, legal and psychosocial assistance, but also by permanently empowering refugees and displaced persons (Group 484, Women in Black).

In the last problematized section, the artists and researchers raise some of thelocally most sensitive political issues of the nineties, questioning, among other things, the relationship between nations and (their) territories. In this context, the artists and researchers problematize the ethnically motivated expulsions of the population from Serbia and to Serbia, as well as the consequences faced by citizens who suffered these“transfers”and the accompanying processes of “territorializing national identities.”[10]At the same time, key political mechanisms and discourses producing and legitimizing those operations were markedand, ultimately, they continue to be legitimized or relativized today and supportedbydiscourses of (self)victimization.Finally,the artists also dealt with the issue of the organized immigration of Chinese citizens, which were politically and economically motivated in the context of the implementation of neoliberal transitory measures (Milena Maksimović, ČedomirVasić, Nikola RadićLucati, VahidaRamujkić/DionisEscorsa, Vojvodina Civic Center, Association “Kardan”).

A Glossary of Migrations.The map of the various forms of engaged thought and action that this exhibition provides, allows us not only to get acquainted with the ways in which the represented protagonists, at different periods, treated the complex corpus of problems in question, but such a map should stipulate a context for questioning their possible impact on the reshaping of hegemonic discourses and concepts that dominate the public sphere. In order to do so, ruling discourses and concepts were included in the exhibition, however, on the level of secondary narrative lines, and they can be followed through a selection of particular laws, political agreements, national strategies, fragments of academic research, official statistical reports and other documents, which were selected by the curators and all participants of the exhibition.

Bearing in mind the traumatic background of the 1990s migration trends in Serbia, it is necessary to clearly articulate the basic challenges of this project, since they motivated the key methodological and curatorial explanations on which the concept and structure of the exhibition rests. Namely, at the very beginning of research it became clear that the corpus of the problem in question navigated (us) towards the reproduction of several very controversial concepts and discourses, and that the “methodological nationalism”[11] that defines the thematic framework of the exhibition would further boost this. Two of the most controversial discourses that we as curators came across involved the affirmation of “counting the exiled” or “displaced” on a national and ethnic basis, and fixating the subject of migration as “displaced” individual, which was the direct result of the logic of the legal-bureaucratic apparatus and identity politics.  Such a discursive framework objectifies “the displaced” as a problem that should, as a rule, be solved through technical and administrative means, neutralizing therefore, or completely erasing all class, racial and gender discriminatory immigration politics. In addition, such a discourse of the subjects’“displacement” implicitly normalizes the state of “rootedness” and belonging, especially to the nation-state of origin.

Because of all of the above, we realized that it was necessary to highlight the controversial discourses in the exhibition, even though this implied that they would,in part,be directly or indirectly reproduced. Therefore, we tried to find a way, besides the hegemonic one, to generate a new vocabulary that would at least temporarily rearticulate such dominant concepts and discourses.Namely, all the artists were invited to, in collaboration with the curators, choose a term, syntagm or idiom that they thought articulated the position of the work, initiative or community in the most accurate way – of course, primarily from the perspective of the exhibition’s problematic focus – and they were also asked to write a statement explaining that choice.It was possible to think either of returning “banished” terms, or of choosing some counterintuitive, even poetic and extremely personal idioms and syntagms, or of, ultimately,indicating the controversial implications of various euphemisms and technical terms from the legal-bureaucratic register that define or “solve” the problems in question.

As “the same events can not only be told in different ways, but also be varyingly conceptualized,”[12] the already mentioned secondary narrative line was introduced to the exhibition, which can be followed through select official documents. The exhibition’s register partially illuminates the contexts in which the artworks and activist initiatives are created –such as housing for refugees and displaced persons, readmission, desertion, refugees’forced mobilization, the diaspora, legislation determining the conditions of expelled persons’ return and 1990scitizenship regimes in Yugoslavia–or to which they implicitly refer. Thus, a different, primarily legal and administrative “vocabulary” was introduced and countered, through which it is necessary to reflect on these problems, since the decisions of the highest state representatives, as well as various public policy measures and legislative procedures largely define the status of people affected by migrations. The “alternative” glossary produced by the participants in the exhibition, by no means claims to simplify the complexity of the problems it addresses. It is more likely that it is an attempt to temporarily condense them within the art and activism registerin order to test the path towards the “transfiguration of the commonplace”[13]that incessantly dictates our thoughts and actions, thus, opening also the question of the role of art, activism, civil society and, of course, public institutions, in the reconstruction of the past and reshaping the public sphere.

A Glossary of Migrations and the Museum of Yugoslavia. Assuming that language determines how we understand reality and that underlying notionsdo not necessarily have to be “indicators of social change” but also “a working framework for change,”[14] then, an active role in their articulation can also be treated as a form of engagement that is opposite to the uncritical and even critical take on hegemonic conceptual definitions. Nevertheless, one should always bear in mind that even though they may be helpful to our orientation, by “selecting what is important from an impenetrable reality,”[15]concepts also have great manipulative power. In order to avoid manipulation, even “illuminating” the context is sometimes insufficient, especially since “context itself is always ambiguous or at least not equivocal, and it should not be mythologized and absolutized.”[16] Therefore, we accept that the ultimate effect of such a methodology is entirely open-ended, and in some respects it can produce the effect of depoliticization or dehistoricization, which would in fact imply the risky universalization and essentialization of experiences that, it should by no means be forgotten, nonetheless primarily refers to the very specific historical and political context of Serbia and the former Yugoslav republicsin the 1990s.

However, being of the opinion that the museum as public space should encourage the confrontation of voices from different registers, not to neutralize and pacify them, but precisely to demonstrate differences over which there can sometimes be no consensus, this exhibition purposely intersected different positions which we consider to be relevant in the given problematic frame. It is possible to observe them on at least two levels. First of all, there is a “tension” between ideologically different art and activist positions, and at the same time between two “vocabularies” belonging to the so-called sphere of “non-expert” and “expert knowledge” which in this exhibition synchronously illuminate the same events and phenomena. These confrontations serve to examine the relationship between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses, as well as the role of art, civil society, activism and cultural institutions in their production or reproduction in the public sphere.It is important to mention that, in this case, the public sphere implies an incoherent multitude of different spaces in which the pluralism of voices reigns, among which the struggle for hegemonic discourse is constant. According to the political theory of Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe, “hegemonic confrontations” are never limited to traditional political structures such as institutions of legislative and executive power; we also find them in the domain of culture, civil sector, art and activist practices, where under certain circumstances it is possible to create a platform for the production of a so-called agonistic public space,[17] which, in her opinion, excludes any fiction ofconsensus. The purpose of these confrontations would be to “defuse the potential of hostility that exists in human societies by providing the possibility for antagonism to be transformed into ‘agonism,’”[18] or, in other words, to avoid having the “different, other, from becoming the Other,” that is, “the enemy, and someone who threatens my survival,”[19] which is the definition of social antagonism. In conclusion, the agonistic public sphere means to “relinquish the ideals of a reconciled democratic society” and “to regardone’s adversary, the legitimate enemy, with whom the conflicting consensus is shared, in such a way that the adversaries fighting each other do not question the legitimacy of the position of one another.”[20] We believe that the Museum of Yugoslavia, because of all of the ambivalences that resonate Yugoslav heritage in the local context, necessarily represents not only a productive, but also an extremely important platform for such confrontations.

[1] M. Bobić, „Migracije, demografsko-sociološka analiza“, u: I. Milenković (ur.), Studije o izbeglištvu, Beograd, 2005, 124.

[2] For more on people’s motivations to leave Yugoslavia in the nineties, cf.:J. R. Despić, Migracije visokoobrazovanih lica iz srbije od 1991. godine u Kanadu i Sjedinjene Američke Države, doktorska disertacija, Beograd, 2015; M. Korać, U potrazi za domom, Beograd, 2012.

[3]  For more on “transition economymarkets” and the migrations of Chinese Nationals to Central and South-East European countries, see: S. Milutinovuć, „Kineski transnacionalni preduzetnici u Budimpešti i Beogradu: u potrazi za tržištima tranzicionih ekonomija“, Sociologija, Vol. XLVII, 2005, N. 2, 143-160.These causalreductionist understandings of extremely complex processes should under no circumstances imply that the causes and consequences can be clearly distinguished, and that other possible links cannot also be drawn.

[4]And, although there is a large production of academic texts on the subject, they are mostly very narrowly oriented, often covering only one aspect of the problem. To the best of our knowledge, no attempt was made to look at and cross-reference all migration processes within a single research project.

[5] L. Merenik, „No wawe: 1992–1995“, u: D. Sretenović, L. Merenik, Umetnost u Jugoslaviji 1992–1995, Beograd, 1996, 28.

[6]Certain artworks were recreated for this exhibition, and where that was not possible, documentation on the actions were included. Because of the framing of sensitive issues, it was important to recognize artists, activists and civil society representatives who at their own initiative addressed and activated these themes, and not to commission the works. Regarding new works, they were already being conceptualized when the curators decided to include them in the exhibition. Several artists produced for exhibiting purposes new documentary and art materials that are directly related to their regular art practice or they complement already selected materials for the exhibition. Two video works were produced for the context of the exhibition (Collective Migrative Art, Vesna Pavlović+ Women in Black) and three murals (Collective Migrative Art, Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremić).

[7]In order not to overburden the exhibition with an additional level of interpretation and to divert attention from the “vocabulary structure” we consider to be primary, we dealtwith these units only as orientational ones; their titles were working ones, therefore we did not even communicate them in the exhibition space.

[8]The suggestive syntagm “impossible encounters” is constructed by the members of the Collective Migrative Art who approach them as key artworks and interventions. The collective was made up of “artists from the former Yugoslav area in exile, and invitations to encounters and gatherings were forwarded to artists from the post-Yugoslav space.” For more, see: M. Marković, „Migracijakaonužnost: umjetničkodjelovanjekolektivamigrative art 1991–1996.“, Životumjetnosti, 101, 2017, 114-135.

[9]Art practices of the nineties in a global context were dominantly defined by the occurrence of relational aesthetics, which was theoretically articulated by Nicolas Bourriaud. Relational art includes different forms of participatory and collaborative practices and, according to Bourriaud, the art form itself is equated with “the domain of human interrelationships and their social context.” For more, see: N. Bourriaud, Relacijskaestetika; Postprodukcija: kulturakaoscenarij: kakoumjetnostreprogramirasuvremenisvijet, Zagreb, 2013.

[10] For more on the concept of “national identity territorialization,”see: L. Malki, „Nacionalna geografija: ukorenjivanje ljudi i teritorijalizacija nacionalnog identiteta iz ugla teoretičara i izbeglica,“ u: I. Milenković (ur.), Studije o izbeglištvu, Beograd, 2005, 29-63.

[11] In the context of the exhibition The Nineties: A Glossary of Migrations, methodological nationalism implies the problematization of mass migrations to and from Serbia, defined, due to a lack of resources, to be conductedas comprehensive research on a regional level.

[12] T. Kuljić, Prognani pojmovi, Neoliberalna pojmovna revizija misli o društvu, Beograd, 2018, 32.

[13] The citation is borrowed from the title of the seminal essay by Arthur Danto. Reč je o tekstu: Arthur C. Danto, “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,”The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1974, 139-148.

[14] T. Kuljić, Ibid., 26.

[15]Ibid., 70.

[16]Ibid., 72.

[17]Chantal Mouffe, “Strategies of radical politics and aesthetic resistance,” 2014.Accessed: 16.9.2019.http://truth.steirischerherbst.at/texts/?p=19

[18] Simon Sheikh develops his thesis by relying on Chantal Mouffe’s political theory. For more, see: Simon Sheikh, „Public Spheres and the Functions of Progressive Art Institutions”, 2004. http://eipcp.net/transversal/0504/sheikh/en/print.html, pristupljeno 16.9.2019.

[19] Biljana Đorđević, „Agonistički pristup raspravama o budućnosti demokratije u Evropi”, Časopis Humanističke studije, Vol. 4, Univerzitet Donja Gorica, 2018, 14.

[20]Ibid., 13.

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