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18 Oct 13

Bringing Feminism Alive Through Art

One of the curators of the biggest arts festival in Serbia, Jelena Petrović, discusses the experimental feminist ideology that underpins this year’s exhibition.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade

This year’s October festival is not just an art exhibition. For the four curators of Red Min(e)d, the group that selected the works for the event, the exhibition is also about putting feminism into practice.

Red Min(e)d

“The name originates from two organisations that we are all connected to. They are the Institute for Socially Engaged Arts and Theory, MINA, and the Association for Culture and Art from Sarajevo, RED.

That’s how we generated the name.

It is also a political statement that we support; leftist, but in a specific way, one based on feminism.”

Jelena Petrovic, one of the four female artists that make up the group, told BIRN that the exhibition explores the relationship between contemporary art, feminism and the post-Yugoslav space.

The topic of this year’s festival is connected to everyday life, says Petrovic, standing in the cavernous hall of the Zepter Expo building in the midst of the exhibits – a motorcycle, several balloons hanging from the chandelier and two red shoes.

“We are trying to establish a working model that is feminist when it comes to the selection of works, presenting the topics and determining what can be discussed or presented within feminism,” she says.

Red Min(e)d comprises Danijala Dugandzic Zivanovic, from Sarajevo, Dunja Kukovec, from Ljubljana, Katja Kobolt from Ljubljana but who lives in Munich, and Jelena Petrovic, who is from Belgrade and lives in Ljubljana.

The four women have collaborated for eight years, cooperating on various projects across the region, connecting theory, contemporary arts and activism.

The group was officially formed in 2011 when the four artists started working on a major project, Living Archive.

“In ‘Living Archive’, living was only what happen within the exhibition. We brought artists, feminist, theorists, students – all kinds of different people into the same space. The exhibition is what happen around it, the way it’s being read,” Petrovic recalled. 

Living Death Camp

One of the controversial events within the October Festival was the debate about two death camps, Staro Sajmiste, in Belgrade, where the Nazis held and killed nearly 40,000 Serbs and Jews in the 1940s, and Omarska, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where according to ICTY data Bosnian Serb forces killed some 5,000 to 7,000 Bosniaks and Croats in the 1990s.

The comparison was not welcomed by survivors of the death camps in Serbia who claimed it diminished the significance of the Holocaust. Petrovic said the whole story was misinterpreted by the media, as well as by groups who attempted to stop the gathering organised on October 5.

The debate was “not claiming that the two camps were the same historically or structurally, but dealt with the policy of remembrance, and the way that those places are memorialised,“ she said.

What connects death camps, according to Petrovic, is that both locations kept on living after the camps closed.

“Staro Sajmiste today has art ateliers, different people live there now, while Omarska today a mine where ore is extracted,” she observed.

The concept of this year's festival is based on the same idea of a living archive and so supports the development of an experimental feminist ideology.

“The theme of the festival, ‘No one belongs here more than you,’ means everyone is invited to participate and build on this space, and also to discuss the topics such as permanent violence, war, the functioning of the art system, labour, and stereotypes in everyday life in a feminist context,” she says.

“We have tried through this exhibition to show all the different layers of everyday life,” she adds.

Petrovic notes that the four curators also attempted to present various media within the arts, from painting, sculpture to discursive events, and “include them as much as possible within the concept of the policy of everyday life.

“We didn’t want to provide finished answers and ideological concepts, but, through the history of such emancipatory movements as feminism, socialism and communism, also to examine their meaning today and by what measure they are appropriated by the system and society we live in now,” she says.

The group aimed to see what lies beyond and explore “whether we can think of another ideology that involves all those emancipatory moments but in a different way,” she continues.

Petrovic explains that the way to do this is not through the perpetual historical repetition of the same patterns of feminist or leftist rhetoric, but by realising what connects these ideas today “in the sense of the social imagination – impossible demands that are partly utopian.

“Feminism is always being ‘medicalised’ - categorised as a disorder requiring medical treatment or intervention,” she observes. 

“So we question how these ideas can live in everyday life and how we can translate these concepts from the field of art into the social space that, through these works and the exhibition, will enable people to get a grasp not only of feminism, but also of the everyday topics that are of interest today.”

According to Petrovic, the exhibition puts up for discussion the problem of the human and non-human nature, by trying to define what defines social space as human or non-human.

“We have tried to cover various aspects from ecological and political concepts to what human nature means on an individual level and collective level - what our relation is towards the concept of togetherness,“ she explains.

An important tool for presenting this question, according to her, is the policy of “affect”, made out of memories, emotions and conditions that exist but are not articulated in the society.

“By attempting to translate this policy of affect in some social concept, we also tried to leave the question open somehow - not to make it hermetically closed in the way that exhibitions of contemporary politically engaged art have done in the past ten years have done.”

The 54th annual October Salon takes place from October 11 to November 17 at Zepter Expo (Masarikova Street 4).

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