mission statement

by Branislav Dimitrijević

The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 held an entirely different meaning for the citizens of Yugoslavia than for people living in other "socialist" countries in Europe. There was little sense of jubilation and there were no high hopes; the country was caught in a confrontation between the reformist legacy of socialist Yugoslavia and the imminent catastrophe of the wars in the 1990s. Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, who took power in the same year, has almost unanimously been identified as the main culprit and the reason for Serbia's reputation as a pariah state.

'Every stereotype represents an attempt to construct a difference, to distinguish an other from what we are and what we think of ourselves. However, it hides the similarities that we have in common. The image of the war in Yugoslavia is one of brutal ethnic conflict that was widely explained by historical, cultural, as well as religious differences both within Yugoslavia and abroad. These differences were overemphasized and instrumentalized in order to create sharp-edged new nationalistic identities on the presumption that coexistence in one state is "impossible by nature." What we witnessed could be called the "culturalization of political and economic conflict," a situation where power struggles and socioeconomic conflicts are transformed into identity politics.

This process of culturalization made it possible to disguise the underlying antagonisms and conflicting interests that lie behind the ideology of war. The Yugoslav wars became part of a transition to a new system for which new economic elites were formed. This process resembles what Marx would have called the "original accumulation of capital," which takes the form of "resource extraction, conquest and plunder, or enslavement" - all of which we have seen in the Yugoslav wars. This transition, as well as the process of privatization, happened at the expense of a large majority of citizens - many of who were lured and blinded by this heated nationalistic rhetoric of politicians and "intellectuals." The Serbian case, therefore, is rather a "symptom" of the political economy of conflict than some particular "disorder" of the "gory" Balkans.

The recent rapprochement with the European Union seems promising considering that the country was blocked by sanctions during the 1990s, that the leading anti-Milošević politician, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić, was assassinated just two years after taking office, and that in the wake of the catastrophe of the 1990s it suffers twice as much in the current economic crisis.

However, how does an individual actually cope when caught for two decades in the midst of ethnic stereotypes, capital accumulation, and local and international economic crises? Serbia - Frequently Asked Questions presents works that reflect both the sensitivity and the autonomy of artists in this historical experience. It presents contemporary artistic strategies from Serbia and abroad that expose the culturalization of conflict as a larger, universal phenomenon. The main aim, therefore, is to at once clarify and complicate our understanding, not of the particularity, but of the universality of the Serbian and Yugoslav experience.

 

BRANISLAV DIMITRIJEVIĆ is an art historian, writer, and curator; teaches history and art theory at the School for Art and Design Belgrade; consultant and part-time curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade