Past –> Present brings together artistic and curatorial positions associated with the ifa-gallery since its founding in 1991. Using the gallery’s program as a reference point, I will converse with a group of guests about ifa’s general ethos and research interests in the early 90s and today.
What’s the relevance of cultural institutions that foster artistic & cultural exchange, such as ifa, back then and now (especially in times of rising nationalism and cultural isolation)?
In contrast to many West German cultural institutions of the time, the ifa Gallery Berlin concentrated early, throughout the 1990s, on collaborations with artists and curators from Eastern and Southern Europe. How have artistic approaches, curatorial practices and working methods changed over the years? And what is the situation regarding public space, which historically has been more actively incorporated into artistic practices in Eastern and Southern Europe?
This podcast links these and similar questions to wider contemporary issues and offers a podium to artists and cultural practitioners affiliated with ifa at some point in their career.
I’m Sandra Teitge, Berlin-born and based curator and researcher, and the moderator of this podcast.
Today, for this third episode of Past –> Present, I’m very happy to welcome and give the floor to Vienna-based artist and chair of the Institute for Contemporary Art at the TU Graz Milica Tomić and to artist and activist Selma Selman, currently based in Amsterdam where she is pursuing the Rijksakademie residency. The two of them will converse about their respective work with and beyond ifa; their exchange is accompanied by the audio piece “Miss Kosovo” by the Amsterdam-based artist Astrit Ismaili, which is actually the sound extraction of a performance Astrit did at the last Athens Biennale in September 2021, also available as a bonus track in full length on the Untie to Tie website.
“Miss Kosovo” is Astrit Ismaili’s alter ego. Inspired by Kosovo’s transition from part of Yugoslavia to an independent state, “Miss Kosovo” is a fictional figure drawn from Astrit’s pop-operette work “MISS”, that represents this transition, acting as testimony of intense bodily experience and transformation.
Milica Tomić was born in the 1960s in Belgrade when Yugoslavia was still a country, the so-called Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In her work, she explores different genres and methods of artistic practice that center on investigating, unearthing and bringing to public debate issues related to political violence, economic underpinnings and social amnesia. Milica has participated in major international exhibitions such as the São Paulo Biennial (1998), the Venice Biennale (2001/2003); the Istanbul Biennial (2003). She has equally taken part in numerous projects and international workshops as an artist, researcher and lecturer, amongst others at the Piet Zwart Institute; the Summer Academy Salzburg; Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna, Austria; and in the DAAD Berlin Artist Program.
Selma Selman is of a different generation than Milica, born in the 1990s in the newly founded Bosnia and Herzegovina and coming of age as a woman of Romani origin during the Yugoslavian War. Selma’s work seeks to re-interpret identities, cliches of, for example, statelessness, as well as multi-generational trauma, especially with regards to women. She understands art as a transformative tool that is capable of fighting those mechanisms of marginalization, whilst empowering collective emancipation. Selma is a founder of the organization Get The Heck To School, aiming to empower Roma girls who face ostracisation from society and poverty. She took part in the FutuRoma Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale and has exhibited among others at: Kunsthalle Wien/AT (2020); Queens Museum, NYC/US (2019); Villa Romana, Florence/IT (2019); Good Children Gallery, New Orleans/US (2016); Kunstquartier Bethanien, Berlin/DE (2016); Museum of Contemporary Art, Banja Luka/BA (2014).
ST: Welcome Milica! Welcome Selma! I’m so grateful to have both of you calling in from your respective homes, Vienna and Amsterdam. It wasn’t so easy to find a date that works for everyone but here we are! I’m especially pleased to have you two here with me, as each of you represents a different generation of artists from former Yugoslavia – I had already hinted at that in your bios.
I don’t want to give a history lesson but just quickly so we are all on the same page: Yugoslavia, led by Tito, was a rather fascinating country – especially to me having been born in the rather rigid and Moscow-controlled German Democratic Republic (East Germany)– and Yugoslavia was the only one in the Eastern bloc that practiced market-based socialism (“laissez-faire Socialism”) and was also one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (a forum of states that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc; are therefore neutral).
Milica, as already mentioned, you were born in Belgrade in the Socialist Republic of Serbia –and capital of Yugoslavia– when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was still a somewhat functioning country (Tito died in 1980… and with that ethnic tensions began which eventually led to the breakup of the region); Selma you were born in 1991 shortly before the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina became independent and, eventually simply Bosnia Herzegovina.
That being said, I’m curious to see how that history possibly reflects in each of your work, especially with regards to the works you showed and are showing in the frame of the ifa exhibitions.
Again, thank you for joining ifa and me today for this podcast.
I briefly mentioned in the intro both of your involvement with ifa.
Milica, if we could start with you. If you could talk a little bit about your involvement in the ifa-exhibition that took place in 1998 and was called “Focus Belgrade – Fragments of Serbian Art and Culture” in the ifa Gallery in Berlin. Perhaps you could talk about who invited you, which work you showed, what the context was, what you remember.
MT: Yeah, maybe it’s interesting to observe this moment, the title of the exhibition, which was “Focus Belgrade” and then as you said, “Fragments,” and that it refers then to Serbia. It was organized by Bojana Pejić. She was the curator, together with, with Dejan Sretenović, who was a curator working at that time at the Center for Contemporary Art, which was part of the Soros Foundation, actually. And he was working in Belgrade. So it was actually a very tricky moment. It was in ‘98, when the war on Kosovo, started, but wasn’t, you know, it was before NATO bombing. But now I would like to say something about this exhibition, and maybe also to explain my work that was in itt. So it was a work that I that I made in ‘96. It was a work that was about a massacre on Kosovo, that happened in ‘89. And this was the moment actually when the constitution of Serbia was changed. And it was the 28th of March. And it was a new constitution that actually took over and the sovereignty of two independent parts that were part of Serbia, but they had its sovereignty and another kind of self-determined status. It was actually Kosovo and Vojvodina. So in this moment, they lost this opportunity and the sovereignty. And in Kosovo, they were continuous demonstrations, like in three days. And it was a very peaceful demonstration, actually, with students, with people who were against this loss of sovereignty. And 33 people were killed, men and women; and it was never actually published. And it is still not published. In the moment when, in ‘96, the Belgrade demonstration against the government of Milosevic started, I actually felt that this is the right moment to talk about Kosovo. And there were demonstrations against Milosevic and his government. And it was the moment when for the first time, actually, from ‘89 till now, till this moment in ‘96, there were no demonstrations in such masses and there were not so many people on the streets like in this moment. I actually got in contact with my friends from Kosovo, who had sent me to documentation of these people who were killed. And before that for years, I was trying to find the context and the way how to talk about this. And parallel in this moment, I was invited for the exhibition in this Center for Contemporary Art, that was actually part of the Soros Foundation. And I was planning some other piece. But in this moment, when I turned around and went home, I started working on this, getting all the information about the people who were killed, and then inviting, actually, my colleagues to record them. And I reconstructed clothes that I have found on the identity pictures, you know, just photos of people who were killed, but not as killed in living persons, you know, like from identity cards, and passports. And I collected and I reconstructed actually, their clothes. And I invited my colleagues to get into these clothes, and recorded actually this moment of bringing into relation this with us, actually with, with the part of Serbia they didn’t want to know about. And I titled the work, “XY ungelöst – Reconstruction of a Crime”, that is actually referring to this German contact show that was so popular in the ‘70s when I was a kid, and I was living in Germany. I was actually with my grandmother, who was a guest worker or a “Gastarbeiter”, in Germany, in Frankfurt. And there were lots of demonstrations at the time on the streets when I was a kid there; it was in ‘68, and ‘69. And this show was so popular, actually. And the whole work was, was meant to be how to establish a communication between us, and that what happened that is hidden. And it was meant to be just in Belgrade, because I didn’t think that I could approach a wider audience than these people who would come to the show and be part of this [xxx] because there were 33 people. And at that time, this whole art scene was somehow isolated also from the state institutions. So there was a parallel, let’s say, life in art at the time. And my idea was actually just to establish a, like relations between death that we like relations with that that is so brutally cut out from our, you know, awareness and the publicness. Yeah, so this was this piece.
And in the moment when this was actually being shown abroad, I came actually to Berlin for this ifa-exhibition, from the São Paulo Biennial. And this was the moment actually when I realized that this work is coming into another context. And the whole interpretation, actually, of that what we were doing and what I was doing was then interpreted, of course, in a totally different way, let’s say. And this decontextualization of an intellectual context was for me, let’s say, the first moment of this desire to work and to establish a context from where I can speak that will actually accompany the work.
ST: I think it probably also worked quite well in Berlin, no? Because I grew up in Berlin and I remember that in the 90s a lot of people came from former Yugoslavia –because of the wars– to Germany and also to Berlin. So the exhibition probably had quite a good reception, I could imagine, and also, an understanding.
MT: Yes, yes, of course. And it was maybe one of the rare situations where the reception and the way it was discussed, it was quite deep. Also, in a sense, there was really a wish to understand the context and the framework from where it comes and how it should be also interpreted. Maybe something that we forget very often is that exactly the time in already the beginning of the 90s –I wasn’t part of this; my work was more related to the end of the 90s and 2000– was very much, let’s say, colonized from the view of the Western European and the Western, you know, art world. And we were not so much aware of this at that time. My only worry was how to place myself, you know, my work and what to bring there and how to, what kind of statements to give, and how to present my work. When the title was, for example, “Eastern Europe this,” “Eastern Europe that,” or “Balkan” exhibition, or all this kind of, you know, representation that was around Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Balkan. And Yugoslavia, actually, at that time was kind of a “dirty” word. (I say a dirty word under, you know, quote). But it was actually a word that was not appreciated, it was not appreciated, actually, till the middle of or beginning of, I don’t know, 2010. It was never mentioned, you know,
ST: But you mean in the West or within people from former Yugoslavia?
MT: I could say both. Because in these former Yugoslav countries, you had all these countries that were actually newly established states; they had to construct new histories. And on the other hand, you had Europe, also, that wanted to place all these newly established countries in a different context. And this context, the first idea was actually “Aha: Balkans and Eastern, former Eastern European countries.” So it was established in this way; they had to establish this new kind of relations. But we were still part of Yugoslav culture. And we were still part of the same language, or three different languages or even more, because there were also minorities, and also different languages. But these three majority languages, they were a part of the same culture, and the same educational system, you know, and this was actually what was part of our… all these artists, we were trying actually, to make our relations visible, you know. All my work that was shown all around, was always brought out of the context into this new way of articulating the space from where it comes.
SS: Can I ask a question?
ST: Yeah, of course.
SS: So Milica, I remember your work, which you did, I think, in Austria. This was a performance with this famous folk singer, I think, Dragana. And I wanted to always ask you, how people reacted to that work, and how they understood this work in relation to Yugoslavia, because you made this work after the breakup of Yugoslavia. And then all people were together, like all people who are living in in former Yugoslavia. When did you do this performance? 2000 something, right.
MT: No, 2000.
SS: So this is like, right, immediately after the war and everything, the breakup happened. So I’m very curious to see your opinion. How is that to put all people together again? I don’t know who were the people who came to the concert. But you know, when you make such a concert, where usually those kinds of people would never come, right? But they came to see the singer. But then you somehow, I would say, triggered them to come to be together to listen to the concert?
MT: Yes. It was about the specific music that was called turbo folk music. And it was actually very much part of the turbo folk culture all around; that was, you know, another phase of capitalism. “Turbo,” you know; you had “turbo diesel,” you had “Turbo Staubsauger”, you know. You had all this stuff that actually was announcing another phase of capitalism. And there was a really big exhibition in Vienna, as part of Wiener Festwochen. It was part of this, actually. My work was called “you are the world” with small letters. And it meant “You are the world but you cannot participate.” So the question was, what are these global tendencies that are influencing local parts and that are never coming to the international level of communication or they’re not part of global culture, but they are influenced by global culture. So for me this Turbo Folk was a perfect example of this. Turbo Folk was during the war the major popular culture, you know. But my intention was actually also to bring this into question. Because I was thinking actually that the most important thing is that the university didn’t change, theater didn’t change. There were the same people running these institutions. So I invited one of the most popular singers at the time to Vienna, to this exhibition. And it was the called: “This is contemporary art.” It was a kind of a delegated performance; just her her five songs that she was singing, this was the performance. And she printed around, I don’t know, 5000 posters all around the city. And there was an enormous group of people coming who were actually guest workers in Vienna from the whole of Yugoslavia. Because this music is still an amalgam for the whole of former Yugoslav countries, it is still part of, of the same culture. And this culture somehow, the turbo folk culture, is the only one now that really represents this for the wider audience
SS: It brings people together.
MT: Yeah, it brings people together. And my idea was actually, in Vienna, to invite people who are not represented in the public space. So her presence was a moment to somehow address these people who are hidden from, you know, working all these jobs; and I know how they still relate so strongly to their homes, you know, and …
ST: Often stronger than people that actually live in the country.
MT: Yeah, of course. And this was also an interesting moment, when global television started, like satellite programs, that the diaspora was, it was, a global issue; as soon as the turbo folk was a global connection for everybody who could understand the language, you know. And the most incredible, you know, things were happening also during the war that people were in the war but listening to the same music that was coming from different regions. So this was also during the war something that that was connecting people. So for this exhibition, there were so many people coming from, from all around Vienna, and from Vienna, that were actually guest workers or not, I don’t know, who wanted, you know, who maybe came for the first time to the museum, because they had a relation to this; and also then see other works, you know. But they were, they were addressed. Somebody had invited them to come there. So there was the audience that was made of artists, of people who were interested in contemporary art, and the people who are interested, actually, to listen to this in another environment, not the clubbing, you know, culture or turbo folk concerts that were just for Croats or Serbs or Bosnians. But there were all together, you know, being there at this opening when this performance took place.
ST: So this is actually a great transition to the exhibition that you’re part in, Selma, because it’s called EVROVISION, which, I assume, is based on this singing contest, right? It’s called “EVROVIZION.CROSSING STORIES AND SPACES.” And it’s also organized by ifa. And the current edition is taking place in Novi Sad, right, where you were actually just coming from this morning. And before that, it was in Sarajevo?
SS: Yes. The first one was in Sarajevo; the opening of EVROVIZION.
ST: Yes. And it will travel to Athens Tbilisi, Nicosia, amongst many other places.
ST: So Selma, if you could please talk about the work that you are showing in this exhibition EVROVISION.
SS: Sure. Well, yeah, I’ve been working with ifa since last year. So I’m just at the beginning. I’ve been working with Sabina Klemm and Sanja Kojić Mladenov. I don’t know, for me, this is a really great opportunity, because I really like the concept of EVROVISION, because we will be traveling for the next seven years all around the world to exhibit and to make new works. My initial idea for the show in Sarajevo was to do something completely different. But unfortunately, because of the time, I couldn’t do it. However, I still did a project. This project is a permanent collection in my house. So my idea was actually to reconstruct my mom’s childhood. So I approached them with the idea to rebuild my mom’s dream room. My mom never had a childhood; she was married at a very young age, age 12. So from the age one to 12, she never experienced, you know, this feeling of how is that to have a girl’s room. And I though, okay, I will do this interview with my mom and draw the room, which she imagines. And after the drawing, I made the 3D print. And then when I started working with with ifa, and I told them about this idea, they said, “Okay, we will do the production of the room.” And for my mom, this was like a dream come true. And we made this room and it exists now. But unfortunately, only people who would come to Bihac would be able to see the the work. And for the show in Sarajevo and for Novi Sad, I showed older works like, “You Have No Idea” and “Viva la Vida” and the work with my mom, “Do Not Be Like Me,” just one part of the room. For Athens, I’m preparing something completely different, which is more kind of universal and which is related to the my older works with scrap metal and breaking up the different objects. So I’m now in the process of writing the proposal and talking with the curators.
ST: And is it always the curators from ifa that are the only kind of mediators or do they always collaborate also with people in the places, in the locations?
SS: They do collaborate with the people in the, you know, specific institution where the exhibition will be. So that’s the kind of initial idea and also, they’re inviting the artists from the country, in which we will have the show. So if it’s Sarajevo, then the main artists are the local artists; if it’s in Athens, then artist from Greece. So that’s how it goes.
SS: So the context always changes with the location. You also work a lot in performance, also outside, in urban space and public space. Perhaps we could talk about that kind of topic a little bit, art in public space. Also, because it was in the former Eastern Bloc quite, let’s say a popular medium by artists to do performances or actions outside. So perhaps we could, or both of you, from your own perspective, could talk about that notion of perhaps what the urgency was of it in you know, before the 90s, Milica, from your perspective, … and how it has changed now, and how it’s maybe also different, how you have experienced that differently depending on the place where you have lived. Because Selma, you’ve lived in the States for a while; now you’re in Amsterdam. Milica, you’re based in Vienna. If we could talk about that a little bit.
SS: I’m actually a postwar child. So I don’t remember Yugoslavia. I only have these… I had these conversations with my family and with older friends who would tell me how much they loved Yugoslavia. So for me it’s just a utopian country where everything was fine. But on the other hand, I know a lot of stories where things weren’t okay. And of course, my work is inspired by that. And it’s reacting to the collapse of Bosnia, but also to the current situation, in which we live. And the reason why I started doing performances, even though before that I was painting, is because I just felt that with performance, I can really connect with people. And it’s not that I want to convey a message. It’s mostly like using art as a tool to speak the truth. And for me, it really works.
ST: But you’ve performed in different places. You’ve performed in the US and Europe and Bosnia … have you performed in Bosnia, also?
SS: Yeah, I actually left Bosnia when I went to study in Banja Luka; in 2010, I went to Budapest. I was studying sociology, and anthropology. And then I went to study in the United States. So basically last year, I had my first solo show in Bosnia where I did my first performance ever. And to be honest, it was very different; it was the hardest thing to do. Usually, I would do my performances for a long time, 30 to 45 minutes; but this time, it was just like, I don’t know, it was too much. I think people would expect too much from me. And I was so scared, you know, to kind of disappoint them, because I’m from that country, right. And I left when I was no one. But then I came back, I was, you know, a public figure. So it was always this challenge, if I’m going to disappoint someone. And of course, in the Balkans, everyone is 100% more critical towards art than in the West, you know, where I could just speak about myself nicely. And everyone would to say, “You are amazing.” But the Balkans are very raw, you know. You have to prove why you’re good. So that’s the difference.
MT: Selma, I have a question. Why do you think there is this difference?
SS: Why is the difference… I think, because of the education we got. Because I remember when I was studying at the Academy, my professors were very strict. So we had this authority: professor is here, the student is here; you had to listen. But when I was studying United States, I was equal to the professor. I could say what I think; I could critically think about… I could have an opinion. And I wouldn’t say that I didn’t have this opportunity to speak the truth when I was studying in Banja Luka. It’s just the fact that I was limited, also with the information I was getting. So I don’t know, maybe people are more vulnerable. But they also know more to be honest. I could say that I gained a lot of knowledge from the Academy in Banja Luka. Maybe because of that.
ST: And you Milica, do you have some sort of thoughts or observations on that topic: art and public space?
MT: Yeah, you know, Sandra, there is a big question, you know, what is public space?
ST: I know, I know. That’s why I used urban space instead of public space. Because this reflects this issue of the “public.”
MT: Yeah, it is. So for me, it’s more about exploring this. And understanding, actually, what stands behind this. So in this light, let’s say, maybe one can think about all these exhibitions that were made in these former countries or former republics of Yugoslavia, today, new states. It was so much about public space, you know. And you could say that sometimes it was about establishing a new space, a new public space that refers and translates something that was a Yugoslavian context, into specific national states new context, which was Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina – more complex. And they had also the great opportunity to have not a fixed nation state. But they have also another kind of divided society, which is actually a society that is ethnified and has no other possibility. So to exhibit in the public space, it was a call for a society that didn’t exist outside ethnic division. I see it like this. And I think I have to refer then to Dunja Blazevic when we are talking about the 80s and 2000s, who was actually really insisting on this, that all this art has to happen, actually, in the public space and not anymore in the galleries, in the spaces that are meant to be art spaces. So, I think this is an interesting context. And in other countries, you know, I was exhibiting internationally and very often I was working also in relation to the public space. I think in the moment when we are losing that what is called public space, it is actually a claim for something that relates to the public that has to be analyzed, you know. Sometimes it is a claim of public space that still exists, even though it is being privatized and also taken out from that what it was before. And it is interesting to think about this division of Eastern Europe and Western Europe. For me, it is a bigger difference in Western countries, the European countries, between the 70s and today, then, in the time of the Cold War. This division was not so huge as it is in time today, you know, looking back.
ST: Because of the changes in privatization, the development.
MT: In everything, economy, how we live, how the progress of that what is called capitalism, you know, actually made this division stronger. And I think the whole idea around art in public space relates always to this. Or you have this idea to produce a counter public space, that doesn’t exist, but you make it through your artwork, through exhibitions. Or you claim something that is part of constructing a new context. Or whether this is, if we look at former Yugoslavia, or new nation states, let’s say, or in Europe, claiming some other sociopolitical economical changes, you know. And for me, working with groups, with the Monument Group, it was about this: establishing a counter public space, where we can talk about that what is trying to be avoided, and this is actually [for] a post-genocide society.
ST: And you do that also within institutions, not only outside?
MT: Yeah, but when we talk about public spaces, it’s not “inside outside.”
ST: Yeah, sure. You know, I’ve thought about this a lot, because I lived in the United States. And I organized a lot of performances or actions, whatever you want to call it, outside of the institutional space, you know, which is generally called public space. But it’s actually not at all in the United States. And for me, always, this question came up, you know, well, can the point actually be made if you do it or just because you do it outside of an institutional space. Does it mean that it’s –in the US specifically– less controlled, or more open, more accessible, or more kind of interventionist because it becomes so controlled, since it is happening in the private space, that you might as well do it inside of an institution, and potentially to be more accessible. You know what I mean? I think it’s very complex.
MT: Yeah, I know what you mean, but I’m not sure. With the situation today, around COVID regulations, we see actually, that it was never like this.
ST: I think you’re completely right. Also, what you said earlier about this shift, that is not so much about East and West, but about the general economic development and the shift to privatization when it comes to to public space. There’s rarely public space left or public space is getting smaller and smaller, everywhere you go. And probably even more so in former Eastern Bloc countries than in former Western countries, because of the turbo neoliberal shifts that have taken place there.
Selma, do you have any experience with that? Or any kind of thoughts?
SS: I do but I don’t want to interrupt you. I’m coming from this other perspective, where I did a lot of performances in public spaces, but on my own. Because many institutions would never stand by me, because all my work would be too dangerous for the society. So I had to take responsibility for all my performances, for example, when I destroyed the Mercedes. So they gave me the space outside [and said], “you’re responsible if it’s going to blow up,” right. I was like, “okay, no problem. I’m doing this on a daily basis, it’s not going to explode.” And then, I remember, when I was supposed to do a performance in Austria, at the Kunsthalle, I also asked whether I could destroy the Mercedes outside with my family. They said, “We cannot put you in in the middle of the museum inside, neither outside… or we could put you outside, but we have to build a fence around you.” And I’m like, I’m not an animal to be in a fence. So I always have these problems. And also for documenta this year, I wanted to destroy a private jet. But they said the government has to agree with this performance. And I’m like, “Okay, what is art today?” I think art itself has become too private. Because when you think about the museums and galleries, everything is too commercial. Everything is about the specific audiences, even the work outside, the public spaces, the works which are about activism. Activism is not any more about activism. It’s about social media. It’s about who’s going to get more likes. So this is the world in which we live now, unfortunately. And I, to be honest, haven’t seen any good works in public space recently because everything became too much capitalistic because this is what we are now. And unfortunately, we as artists depend on this art world, which doesn’t make any more sense. Because when you think who are the artists that are really successful, who are the artists that are constantly exhibiting, it is always like this privileged white men.
ST: I think even if you look back at history, you know, a lot of artists have done actual performances by themselves without institutional backing. And those are actually the most interesting ones. Because I think as soon as you get involved with a larger body, it changes it completely. And you can’t do whatever you want to do, because there’s this control mechanism. So I think that the only option in a way to just do it. And these works will take their part in art history. I mean, there are so many examples of this.
MT: Yeah, Sandra, on one hand, you’re right. But on the other hand … I worked a lot around this. So looking now, at artworks that were possible 20 years ago, 30 years ago, or 15 years ago, they are not possible anymore. And not because they’re dangerous… But I liked so much how Selma explained this; it’s so beautiful. How putting, you know, fences around you like you are really an animal. So it’s something that is completely controlled. What I wanted to say is also about the labor that is being paid in a different way. It’s about that, how public space can be used, not just because it is privatized, but because there’s so many regulations. And what is interesting, and, I think, Selma and I, we have the same experience, in a way, even though we are coming from different backgrounds, even though from the same place, actually, because I grew up in Zenica, in Bosnia. So just to explain this, in the Western art world, there is this idea that democracy enables the free space for art. And that in this free space, anything can happen. But this space is also very limited and very controlled by curators, by the institution. And with the time, with this development of capitalism as it is now, it is coming more and more advanced, closer, smaller. When you have this space, which is called a free space of art, it doesn’t have a strong impact on society. Because you say, “Okay, aha, they’re doing this, but this is just art; it’s not dangerous. We don’t take this seriously.” We don’t see that there can be a huge influence on the society that can change maybe a view of those who are looking at this and who are the audience. But what is happening in the world that is not part of the democratic world, is that art is really taken seriously, and that it has these dangerous forms where art is being destroyed; artists are in jails, you know. This is really an interesting moment, how democracy on the one hand controls art … in these autocratic societies it happens as well. But they take art seriously. So it’s an interesting development, you know, how this frame of art functions differently.
MT: Back to ifa.
ST: Back to ifa. Thinking about ifa, what would your expectations or hope be of an organization like ifa, what it could be in the future, or how it could act in the future, what it could provide in the future.
SS: For me personally, I am about to discover that because I just started working with them. And so far, it’s very sustainable because somehow when you think about the next seven years, you exactly know what’s going to happen. You are taken care of. And they’re really taking care of each artist that this artist is healthy and that this artist can produce the work. And plus, on top of that, you get a support to do the projects which you just imagined to do. So for me that, at this point of my age, really works.
ST: ifa has been, and still is, a space to invite different discourses and different positions because it always has a director for the specific gallery but that director has always invited other colleagues to curate, to organize different shows, with with a specific focus.
MT: Yeah, maybe this is a good example. Because Bojana Pejić was invited as a curator. And then she invited another curator to take part who was locally involved. And she wanted to focus on specific artists. But then she invited the curator who could work with these artists directly. And Bojana Pejić and Dejan Sretenović were working together. So we were a product of this exhibition, a product of a more complex collaboration, and not about, you know, having a great curatorial name, who then just makes, you know, a big exhibition that actually is part of that what I said colonialized [context]. So we come in from Eastern Europe and from the war and the conflict zone being actually colonized by the Western audience and institutions that are art institutions in the Western countries. With ifa I can say, maybe, because also of this role of this institution that works with international artists, it was different; it was very much based on, you know, changing your perspective. Who looks from where. So it was more about collaboration.
ST: Yeah, and I think the show that you’re part, Selma, also reflects that, from what you’ve said.
SS: It’s exactly what Milica said. It’s about artists themselves that are more important than curators. And it’s not about making the differences between the artists who are exhibiting because there are so many international artists. We are at the same [level]; each of us has the same opportunity. So that’s something that I really like. And this is the first time that I feel equal to other artists, regardless of the age, regardless of the nationality, regardless of where they’re coming from. When we had the opening, a lot of journalists came. And they had interviews with all artists. And they also asked me, “How do you feel that you have the chance to meet all these famous artists?” And I was like, wow, how do they feel to meet me? You know, so it was very funny because people in Sarajevo, they were still thinking about local artists as lower artists not as equals. So I think with this show, what ifa is doing is showing the equality between all of us.
ST: Thank you Milica, thank you Selma, for this insightful conversation. Obviously, we only scratched the surface of rather pivotal questions regarding art and its function within and beyond the institution. But I hope it gave you, the listeners, an idea of both of the artists’ practice and the context that they are and were working in.
As mentioned in the intro, please also check out the bonus track by Astrit Ismaili of which fragments accompanied this conversation.
I would like to thank Inka Gressel and Susanne Weiss for the invitation, Ev Fischer and Stefano Ferlito for the general support, and Kolbeinn Hugi for post-production and additional sound.