The recent scandalous arrest of the Belgrade-based artist Vladan Jeremić, which happened in the Serbian capital at the re-opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art—after 10 years of closure—has angered the art world again. ArtsEverywhere recently published Jeremić‘s finely sharpened political drawings, and so we asked Jeremić and his accomplice Rena Rädle, a witness to the arrest, to analyze in more detail what it means to criticize, through the metaphor of bribery, the state’s use of an art institution as a political tool.
This text was written by Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremić for the Unbribables. The Unbribables was founded in Belgrade in 2017, by Tony Maslić, Nikola Radivojević, Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremić.
Before discussing how the recent arrests of artists in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade connects to transnational struggles vis-a-vis art’s complicity with the world of capital and the rise of the New Right, it would be helpful to outline the general situation in Serbia and Eastern Europe. The global financial crises in 2008 has provoked a wave of austerity measures at the European periphery. The so-called post-socialist and post-war countries that emerged after the destruction of socialist Yugoslavia are situated—economically and politically—at the European periphery. We have witnessed the rise of the New Right in Europe, backed by Trumpism in the United States and Putinism in Russia. Austerity measures, criminal privatization, partocracy, re-traditionalization, and dependence on the global financial system have led to a neocolonial condition that has allowed the establishment of authoritarian regimes to take hold, in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, and Turkey. In the cultural field, this goes together with an attack on public institutions of art and art education. Artistic work has become an entrepreneurial activity within a restrictive framework, conditioned by the expanding art market and hegemonic political agendas. The division of labor in the creative and knowledge industries has formed masses of artists that serve as a “reserve army” for cheap or non-paid creative labor.
This prompted us to think about a way to escape from these massive negative developments. Is it possible to be unbribable in an environment that claims that everything—and everybody—has a price? Here, we do not understand unbribability as a tendency towards a certain value or a moral attitude. We position the practise of unbribability in contradiction with the Real. Being unbribable is a form of protest against the power game, with its give and take dictated by those in power. In short, unbribability is protest and utopia. A call to take on militant unbribable positions is a call to broaden the crack into a rupture. To challenge contradictions. A moment of exposure from where our dreams come true. Partisanship and unconditional love.
We, as a small group of artists, simply fed up with this atmosphere of fear, apathy, and systemic corruption in society, came together to think of a way to break the silence about this situation in public. We came up with the idea of constructing the personality of The Unbribable, a funny person that is naive enough to not involve him or herself in bribery. We recorded video clips to promote this perplexing attitude in a social media campaign.
One of the scenes was recorded in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, the only national institution of this kind, and one which hosts a valuable collection of twentieth-century art from the region. The fact that the museum was closed from 2007-2017 due to difficulties encountered during the renovation of the building is an enigma for which the public is still owed a comprehensive explanation.
It was not so easy to find colleagues who would star as the Unbribable. Yet, the call for participation in the Salon of the Unbribables, which was to follow the campaign, yielded several entries. Here is an excerpt from the invitation we issued:
The Salon starts on October 20, 2017, on the day of the spectacularly announced opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, to unveil the real state of culture in Serbia.
The Salon of the Unbribables organizes a platform which aims to break with the habit of public silence about the state of culture and art. Although almost everybody is unsatisfied with financing, party pressures, amateurism of the leading cadres, and (self)censorship, only a few speak about this in public. Media control and political surveillance have led to a situation where most cultural workers—out of personal interests and in fear of losing their job or financial support—are silent about the economic and mental repression they are exposed to.
In these times, Serbia is experiencing a sort of putsch in culture, leading towards total commercialization and ethnification of arts and culture. The manifest of these processes is the so called “Outline for the strategy for cultural development in Serbia until 2027.” With The Salon we want to bring together “unbribable” positions, that criticize the situation in Serbia clear and loud…
For the opening day of the Salon of the Unbribables, (and the re-opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art), we thought to create a performance that would serve as a backdrop for the activities of the Salon. It needed to be something that everybody would immediately understand, a simple visual metaphor for the situation in Serbia and beyond, and it should not be linked to art or culture-inherent problems only, even though the current events we were targeting was the political-ideological streamlining of cultural and educational institutions into a repressive, national, conservative state apparatus under neoliberal administration.
We decided to create and perform a piece called “Becoming VU,” which would cast multiple people as Vučić, the president of Serbia, and who would give out sandwiches to the people in front of the museum.
Visitors and guests coming to the opening were invited to wear a paper mask closely resembling the president, while handing out leaflets with only an image of a sandwich printed on them. The performance, symbolizing the participation of the majority in a system of corruption and blackmailing (call it capitalism) while struggling for daily existence in an economically devastated country, was positively received by most of the public that understood it as a visual metaphor for the structural situation experienced by most Serbian citizens.
The Government of Aleksandar Vučić, prime minister of Serbia since 2014 and elected president since April 2017, has grounded its power on a system of nepotism, intimidation, “buying” of supporters (by giving jobs and privileges to party members), mudslinging against political opponents, and control over the media. At the same time, his rule is supported by many right-wing leaders of the EU, the United States, and Russia as a force of stability in the Balkans. A system that can be named authoritarian stabilocracy has led to an atmosphere where raising a critical voice can turn your colleagues against you and endanger your job security.
Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that private security staff stationed at the entrance to the museum reacted immediately, when they detected the image of the president and flyers with sandwiches in the bags of some of the visitors. Those individuals—one of them a visiting curator from Denmark—were treated very rudely and given over to the police for an identity check. Vladan Jeremić, who came to the scene to explain that he was one of the organizers of the artistic performance using these props, was arrested immediately. Even though curators from the Museum of Contemporary Art tried to intervene in the arrest and explain that he was an artist from Belgrade doing an artistic performance, Vladan Jeremić was brought to the police station for interrogation.
Uroš Jovanović, an independent artist and performer, experienced this same reality (that it’s risky to show a critical stance towards the country’s leader) only half an hour later. He was arrested when he tried to enter the museum with a giant, golden framed photograph of the Serbian president with the previously published statement: “Vučić – the best artist.” A few months ago, the image of the president became a hot topic when Minister of Defense Vulin and Minister of Education Šarčević proposed to put up his picture in public institutions and schools. The proposal was welcomed by Serbian Prime Minister Brnabić because, as she said, the cult of national symbols of Serbia should be strengthened.
With the re-opening of the museum, this cultural institution has the potential to become one of the platforms for the promotion of the progressive image of Serbia in Europe and the world. But the arrest of two artists in the context of its opening, even if only for interrogation, casts a shadow on the country’s political system that—on paper—protects civil rights, minorities, and freedom of speech. Silencing critique about the actual effects of their social, economic, and cultural policies through the declarative integration of liberal values is a mainstream tactical move of the New Right that establishes its strongholds across Europe and the US.
In Serbia, the integration of rightwing political goals with liberal values becomes evident, for example, in the cultural strategy for the country recently proposed by the Ministry of Culture. This policy document includes a list of criteria that defines Serbian culture in Serbia and beyond. In almost every detail of the program, the integration of liberal values (cultural tolerance, democracy, etc.) legitimizes the pushing through of a highly problematic understanding of Serbian national culture. The preliminary document contains a catalogue of precise criteria rooted in folklore, national myths, and national hardship that have historically formed “Serbian national identity,” which needs to be “defended from globalization.” With such a program, the cultural strategy fosters backwardness and re-traditionalization of the population, while the economic politics of the government support the opening of the market to primitive global investors looking for cheap manual labor and low taxes.
Art and cultural workers from Poland, Russia, and Hungary are sharing quite similar experiences. Censorship and attacks on the autonomy of cultural and educational institutions are part of a “culture war” waged by the far-right that hold power. (For more on the ongoing struggles in Poland see politicalcritique.org.)
The other side of the coin, outlined by Noah Fischer in his concise comment at e-flux conversations, is the commercialization of art driven forward by the art market and all connected players: corporations, banks, and oligarchs who have degraded art into an asset of financial speculation (not to forget the key role art plays in gentrification and fuelling of real estate speculation). The interconnectedness of art institutions and banks, oil and weapons industries such as BP (Tate), Koc (Istanbul Biennale), Deutsche Bank, and countless other exploitative corporations has been continuously criticized by initiatives such as Liberate Tate, Gulf Labor Coalition, G.U.L.F., and others who have often successfully confronted these corporate interests with situational boycotts and protests organized by artists.
Nevertheless, to paraphrase Mike Watson, the request to break with art’s complicity with the world of investment will hardly come from within the art world, due to the massive proportion of middle and upper class people employed in the arts who have an interest in suppressing debate on the social structure of the cultural fields. It is this lack of interest in open confrontation with the upper class that urges art workers to make coalitions with actors from other fields. On top of this, the precarity and absence (or non-functionality) of labor organizations—in the art world and elsewhere—forces workers into self-censorship and silence.
It was this condition that the Unbribables articulated with their artistic action in front of the museum, and this is why it produced repercussions beyond the art world.
The reaction of the museum concerning the arrests came late, and was divided. Interestingly enough, even after it became apparent that the prosecutor couldn’t find any evidence of infringement of law concerning the performances using the image of the president, the museum director didn’t condemn the proceeding of the police and denied any responsibility for the arrest of Vladan Jeremić.
There was no comment on the fact that private security searched visitors explicitly for paper sheets, cardboard, sketchbooks, drawings, and flyers during the week-long opening, nor was there a statement on the identity-check of several visitors that had been taking pictures during the performance of Uros Jovanovic.
It appears that private security was the main means for implementing censorship and selection of a desirable and undesirable public. It seems that security—and control itself—became the chief curator of the most important institution of contemporary art in Serbia. The performance generated a chain of reactions that revealed the whole hierarchy of mechanisms and techniques of governing and laid bare the function of the Museum of Contemporary Art within this apparatus. Clearly, the museum lost its place as an institution where urgent issues of contemporary society can be addressed. Instead, it became part of the repressive state apparatus. The marriage between the New Right and corporational art will happen—and can only happen—inside of the state institutions. They are the platform where their class interests can be realized.
What are the consequences and what can we do?
Further negative consequences could include surveillance and attempts to intimidate involved artists. Blacklisting of critics and stigmatizations as “foreign elements” or “state enemies” through the state-controlled propaganda media is common in Serbia. Therefore, it is important to strengthen ties with independent journalists and to communicate the case in the media, which we did in time.
Locally, the public condemnation of the arrests by NKSS, an association of over 90 independent cultural initiatives of Serbia, stressed the unity and solidarity of art and cultural workers in this question. ArtLeaks followed the case immediately and published it widely. ArtLeaks is a collective platform initiated by an international group of artists, curators, art historians, and intellectuals in response to the abuse of their professional integrity and the open infraction of their labor rights. We need to establish more stable, local, intersectional alliances and we hope such artistic interventions will help in this, as this one reached out far beyond the art world. For example, a group regularly organizing solidarity actions against evictions of persons and families from their homes took up the idea of the masks and staged a protest called “Take off the mask.” The action become an inspiration for the social movements which fight for equality, solidarity, and freedom beyond the country.
Equally important is to coordinate actions of already existing transnational independent associations of cultural and art producers in direct opposition to corporate/state institutions. The actions of Occupy museums in New York, Dark Matter Games at S.A.L.E Docks in Venice, Red Rijeka Assembly in Croatia, and The School for Engaged Art of Chto delat? are an example for institutionalizations beyond the corporate and state controlled surroundings. All these and similar actions confront the Real and connect with wider social movements, trade-unions, and social struggles. As Milan Rakita states in his comment on e-flux conversations, “strategy and tactics can be viable only through establishing transnational independent associations of the cultural and art producers in direct opposition to state apparatus.” This will allow the creation of space towards the genesis of transnational structures to combat the centralization of political and economic power worldwide.