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Forced Labour and Art

A brief overview of the exploitation of human resources with regards to culture in Serbia

Nikola Radić Lucati

History as a science treats occupation as a political and military occurrence, which it certainly is. Historical relations which are followed by area studies attempt to grasp as wide as possible a field of meanings and a longer time span in which there is enough space for following the long term consequences, established connections, mutual influencing, economic and cultural interdependencies. Among them are the fields of economy, labour and migrations, as well as culture which, with migrations, expanded and permeated the narratives interwoven into the basics of art. The generation that in the course of the 20th century had experienced the traumas of war, occupation, mass crimes and forced labour, and then the catharsis of self-liberation and mass voluntary, and then joined labour, also continued its path of life and experiences by emigrating and working abroad in the late 1960s, at the start of yet another economic crisis. In addition to independence, this generation also created a specific culture of remembrance, parallel with the official policy of Yugoslavia, more intimate and family-oriented than explicitly dissident in character, but not apolitical. The causalities and cycles of politically induced traumas overlapped with the life cycles of families. The life stories of the war generation were passed on to the next, future ones which, after this new cycle of wars and migrations, but also towards the end of the lives of those who bore witness in person, are building their identities in accordance with their own needs and their ethnic reading of what has now become collective memory.

Those who are also part of the generation whose formative period was in the course of the 1990s and their aftermath are the curators and artists gathered around the “Missing Stories” exhibition, held in the Salon of the MoCAB in the winter/spring of 2020, which directed the focus of a heterogeneous group of contemporary authors to one of those topics that also determine the character of contemporary Serbia – the topic of forced labour during the period of occupation and its influence on collective memory. This rarely viewed root of contemporary precarity and rights violations has to be taken into account at a time when both the work relations and the terminology of the past are making a comeback, and man is stripped down to a subject that needs to be “guided” in a neoliberal manner, and in a place where the management, just like when Serbia was occupied, has become a paragon and a validation of ethics. Contrary to this, one of the possible paths to returning the subject to its autonomous position and culture to a stable place in society is also the re-establishment of the position of the policy of remembrance in public discourse, not only with regards to the historical frame of the past, but also the economic and cultural “open frame” of the future.

Dependent on an artist’s view is also the possibility of culture to “return the gaze” and point to directions for rehumanizing society through a return to fact-based narratives that citizens can identify with in the plane of public discourse. Different narrative and formal artistic approaches have shown that each historical narrative is at the same time a personal one, that behind every story there is an individual and a family, that none of them could have happened without the active presence of the others, and that any one of them could also have belonged to any one of us. In the dynamics of a group of women in the film/video installation titled “Dignity” by Burkhard Schittny, in the very motif of the group, drawn by the paintress Ágnes Lukács, as a manner of resistance and survival of women through mutual support, we can also see a reflection of personal testimony and education that to many surviving inmates, such as Ágnes, was a secondary medium through which they attempted to share their experiences. The encounter of the oral, family tradition with its locations is a thread that is also woven through the works of Donika Çina, diSTRUKTURA, Christian Hörl, Milorad Mladenović, Remijon Pronja and Ivan Salatić who have contributed narratives based on testimonies, mainly by the members of their families. In the graphic novel about the “Bor Notebook” of a meticulous observer, the poet Miklós Radnóti, Aleksandar Zograf has also pointed to the possibility of forming a joint, international context of memory, but also the need for a unique historiography of a period as a basis for education – the pioneer research and work by Dr. Tamás Csapody about the mines in Bor and the role that Hungary played in connection with them have still not been translated into the Serbian language. In the intimate space of the exhibition, even those works that elude the direct line of narration occupy the place and space of man, their body and their spirit, made even more visible due to their absence. The work by Dragan Vojvodić could also have been the single work of any memorial centre, any camp, any conflict. It is rare for a work to succeed in using such simple means to communicate from a position of a universal, visual language. The symbolism of being which is and is not life is translated into the binarity of the lamps’ flicker between shelves that resemble the multi-tier camp bunk beds which were used across occupied Europe and which were also described in the testimonies from Belgrade’s Sajmište concentration camp. Through the work by Lenka Đorojević, titled “Exit”, the physical space and ontological reality of a clear communication of camp experience have been moved to the space of phantasm, that refuge of the spirit – the same one from which comes the line of camp artists and documentarists, such as Ágnes Lukács. This place makes it possible to point out to people that they, and their lives, are the result of the experiences of others, and that with them, those of the past and those of the present, they are in constant interdependence.

The path towards art from a conscience- and humanism-oriented position was not easy, nor did it follow a straight line. Coming from the position of a relatively wider space for work, of freedom and a reigning autochthonous anti-fascism and socialism, the domestic practices of the 1980s and 1990s for the most part remained behind the development of the post-communist scene in other countries of great civilian plight – the genocide and the Holocaust, such as Poland, where artists such as Zbigniew Libera in the 1990s (LEGO Concentration Camp), Dawid Marszewski (Warm-up) and Artur Żmijewski (Game of Tag) re-examined, in an active and bold manner, the place of the policy of remembrance, the respect for memorial space and the role of artistic intervention in the self-victimizing, thanatophile environment of the emerging Catholic re-conservatization of Poland into an authoritarian society. The work by Żmijewski, consciously conceived in such a manner as to exert scandal, and which was met with odium from the international public, in its sub-context also laid bare the precarious working conditions of “its own” volunteers, as an illustration of the position of those quite poor Polish people of the middle-aged and older generations who are without qualifications that could be employed in the new economy. For the purpose of Żmijewski’s filming, the game of “Tag” in the gas chamber of the Auschwitz camp was played by unemployable people, once loyal voters of Solidarity – the former workers’ movement, and, today, of one of the parties that have betrayed them and handed them over to right-wing politics and foreign capital. Żmijewski has shown that the traditional mainstream of Poland itself has become the subaltern population and that its self-perception does not correspond with the cruelty of the economic position it finds itself in.

This wave also owes a part of its vitality to those artists who have to a certain extent stepped outside their work and taken a protesting stand in front of the factories themselves, bringing into direct connection the contemporary forms of forced labour and violations of national and EU labour rights in the “Special Economic Zones” which enabled foreign companies in Poland to come to a position of power from which, within the confines of their factories, they practise the abolishment of union, human and labour rights, thus making Poland face its legacy of forced labour and its roots in the corporate profit of what are often those same companies that were present at the same locations in the period of the occupation and the Holocaust as well. In these practices which are personal, interventional and protesting in character, Polish left-wing avant-garde conceptual art has taken the only possible side it could have taken in a conflict that will yield a space for freedom and culture. Works by Rafał Jakubowicz,  “Arbeitsdisziplin” more than a decade ago and “25 lat” (with Wojciech Duda), have passed through both the filter of political repression and local instances of exhibition censoring.  As an answer to the pressures, artists and lecturers have become organized in powerful unions through which they manage to maintain a spirit of resistance and concrete job positions in culture and academic life. When a biopolitical law was passed banning women in Poland to have the right to an abortion, artists were ready and on the front lines of the protests.

Out of step with the avant-garde of the international scene which launched a decisive attack against the centres of power by promoting and humanizing the subaltern populations of migrants, repressed minorities, labourers, farmers, victims of violence, human trafficking, forced labour, state and economic terror, when it comes to culture in Serbia, in the process of forming their relation towards the subaltern/untermensch populations, the theoretical-artistic seemingly-antagonistic groups continually did not take into account the existential crises which their subjects found themselves in, and they did not target the power structures – the state, the winning side in the transition and the like, but the vulnerable populations themselves, those which, aside from having the role of material that is to be worked on and discussed, were also a point of focus from which the authors’ gaze did not diverge towards wider analysis or empathy. The political minimalism, along with the required minimum of “art taking on a critical position”, set up conditions that did not include the auto-emancipation of the subject and an affirmative and subsequently equal inclusion into a wider cultural-artistic context. The discussion took its course, usually with a years-long distance along the diving line of the two theses – the defence of the autonomy of artistic work and the defence of the human rights of the subject. Both sides placed the subject in a position of irrelevance, in other words the represented, cementing the positions of their works, guaranteeing that, from the position of human rights, labour and existential ones would not be entering the domain of the discussion.

During this same period, after the year 2000, and especially after 2010, through the profiling of the artistic-cultural portion of the anti-war scene of the 1990s, on the cultural scene of Serbia a parallel scene was formed, built on the basis of ethical distancing from the legacy of war-related abuse of the lives of citizens, from the mobilizations, through war crimes to the victims of the criminal privatization of the economy, public space and work. From a position of ethical humanism and empathy, artists started to delve deeper into an ever more serious conflict with nationalism, but also its generator – transitional, state-controlled neo-feudalism, with which they entered into an increasingly aggravated conflict that is still ongoing today. The drawings of court archives, newspapers and journals from the period of the neo-fascist expedition wars of the 1990s put Vladimir Miladinović not only in the position of a defender of the victims but, together with the director Ognjen Glavonjić, a founder of the culture of remembrance regarding recent conflicts as a contrast to the renewed rise in neo-fascism. A portion of the artistic emigrant circles from Serbia also acts from the position of anti-fascism and an aggravated conflict with the culture and art of the authoritarian state – the artist and literary author Dejan Atanacković, as well as Dejan Kaluđerović, who was perhaps the first to establish wide-scale and methodologically sound work with sensitive, vulnerable subjects – children. In his long-developing work titled “Conversations” (2013-2019), children are active subjects, and the production methodology of the work is conceived in such a manner that utmost care was taken for it to be anti-exploitative. When it comes to art in Serbia, “Conversations” is, perhaps, the first work that could also be recognized under the definition of “relational aesthetics” by Nicolas Bourriaud (“Relational (aesthethics) Aesthetic theory consisting in judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations they represent, produce or prompt.” (Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 2002, p. 112)) and it stands in the position of an antithesis to the tradition of exploiting vulnerable populations. This development also announced the emergence of an entire generation of female and male artists who used the work of others, mainly performers, and which remained in the production sense strictly regulated by a clear and non-exploitative work relationship. In the performative social contructs of “The Final Judgement” and the eschatology of the bodily, Ivana Ivković performed both from the position of work ethics and cooperation with performers from a place where, already at the level of movement and gesture, one could clearly sense, in the body language, the performance, a feeling of freedom and an active, voluntary participation of the subject, the performers who are protected from the atavisms of the tradition of coercion and exploitation.

By focusing on the historical place of voiding all rights, the “Missing Stories” exhibition also manages to draw the public’s attention to the fact that, within the vast field of art, there is also space to look backwards, towards cultural heritage as an obligation to treat human rights and equalities in a humanistic manner, but that it also has as a precondition a renunciation of the logic of economic and political isolation of sub-categories of the population, a denouncement of exploitative economic models, above all, in cultural production itself. The place from which the rehumanization of culture and society starts is a place of empathy, but it does not necessarily have to be a place of the past. The contemporariness of the problem and the topic has shown that the choice of an institution that deals with the future of culture is perhaps quite a good point from which the line for drawing the new face of society can embark on its nomadic journey.