30 Years In One Spot – It Is Just the World That Keeps Moving Every Once In a While: A Conversation with Dejan Kršić

07stu.11

Vid Mesaric: You have been active on the cultural scene now for three decades already – at first in the so-called alternative camp and later on in the independent scene. How did your creative and political position change over the period marked by the break-up of Yugoslavia and the labour pains of an independent Croatia? To begin with, could your activities be classified as “alternative”?

DK: I wrote about the notion of alternative ten years ago in a text (“Alter-native”, Reč /Word/, Magazine for Literature, Culture and Social Issues, 62/8, Belgrade, 2001, pp. 208–217) where I was trying to explain to myself at that concrete moment in time the sense of the syntagm “alternative scene”, which was until recently regularly used to define that which we usually call the “independent scene”.

Back then, I came to the conclusion that in contemporary society – in the period we call postmodern, in which culture, as Fredric Jameson says, “has exploded” and permeated all aspects of everyday life by way of the spectacle – each “avant-garde” or “subversion” is very quickly being absorbed and processed as fashion, i.e. it emerges exclusively as cultural alternative, one niche in the variety of market offer. In such a situation, the discourse on alternative culture has lost its previous sense, e.g. the opposition between youth culture and parents’ culture.

I advocated the understanding of alternative as political, that which points out in various ways different social antagonisms while maintaining the vision of a possible – even imagined – different society. The consequence of that is that relevant cultural production cannot be based on aesthetic (on promoting novelty, new forms, no matter how radical and unconventional) but on political confrontation. In the final consequence, this means opposition to the dominant capitalist model.

I would say that ten years ago this sounded quite idealistic, even utopian. If you ask about my activities, I feel as if I have spent 30 years in one spot and it has been the world that would periodically move, changing along with it the entire context and meaning. For a very long time, this kind of thinking was unpopular, marginal, at times oppositional and even alternative (In the editorial team of Arkzin(*), we have always emphasised that our goal was not merely the opposition to Tuđman’s rule. This was the role of the Feral Tribune, which was carried out with more or less success. Moreover, we often found it to be more imperative to articulate the critique of the so-called leftist and liberal positions, which were in general conforming without conflict to Tuđman’s national-ethnic hegemony). Capitalism was a non-questionable frame; the majority of people still lived in the illusion that the advent of the package named “parliamentary democracy & market” meant the fulfilment of their thousand-year-old dream. Some ten years after, it seems that the sobering up is happening even on the global level – for instance, with the on-going student protests, occupations of city squares, etc. – and one can see the shift: a readiness, even a necessity to go back to political thinking and the models of organisation of society.

VM: The magazine Arkzin was an important part of your work. Not only did it have a great influence on the designing practices in the region, but it also significantly marked the development of political culture, being one of the first independent media in Croatia. You once stated that in the 90s Arkzin had the reputation of being “the magazine of Serbs, communists, faggots, lesbians, feminists…”. Arkzin ceased to be published in 1998 – is the reason for that because it had fulfilled its social role?

DK: No. Unfortunately, we witness on a daily basis that none of those problems – nationalism, chauvinism, transition robberies, war crimes, etc. – that were pestering us in the 90s have been entirely resolved. Meanwhile, new problems are becoming increasingly obvious, e.g. the treatment of the public and of the public space in particular.

Given the economic conditions of Tuđman’s Croatia, Arkzin could not be a commercially viable newspaper or magazine. And that was not our goal. In the beginning, Arkzin was truly the shelter for all the abjected and humiliated. Hence the statement you were quoting was a form of excessive identification with the accusations and critiques coming from the nationalist right wing. Our answer to their critique “This is the magazine of Serbs, communists…” was: “Yes, this is the magazine of Serbs, communists…” The sense was in preserving certain symbolical positions, the values of internationalism, solidarity, non-violence… Arkzin was extinguished when its financiers concluded that it had accomplished what they perceived as its role, which more or less encompassed a certain pluralism in the media, opposition activity, etc. We resisted that decision for a while with guerrilla strategies, but one needs to know when to stop. Conclude a project. The conditions had changed and with them the operating strategies.

Every once in a while, I still come by people who were teenagers in the 90s and they talk with great enthusiasm about the importance of Arkzin for them back in those days, what they saw and recognised in it. Those people are the most important, if not the only, true outcome of Arkzin.

VM: As part of the curators’ collective, you have carried out the projects “What, How and For Whom – On the Occasion of the 152nd Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto” (Zagreb, 2000; Vienna, 2001) as well as “Project: Broadcasting, Dedicated to Nikola Tesla” (Zagreb, 2001/2002). What were the reactions to those projects in the time of their inception, given the attitude of Croatian society towards the Yugoslav past but also towards the Serbian minority in Croatia? How has the situation changed in the past 10 years, given the changes in the dominant political rhetoric?

DK: Well, we can say that, media-wise, those projects had fairly good coverage. The opening of the first exhibition dedicated to the Communist Manifesto has already been announced on the central TV News programme. All of the projects were covered by the majority of the print media. The Tesla project and the work of the sculptor Vojin Bakić proved to be good media stories. But the type and quality of distribution of the reception of that information is another story. By rule, the texts of highest quality were those written for the radio, which is not practically considered to be a serious mass media any longer. The print media were merely reproducing the biggest clichés in the most banal way. This is generally the fundamental problem of contemporary society. We cannot say that there is no coverage – not just of the independent scene but of the problems of public space, transition robbery, corruption, whatever, as well – but the problem is how it is being covered, i.e. how it is being reflected. It seems as if today texts are being written in such way that they basically prevent any possibility of serious debate. The lack of serious analytical discourse is evident in big media, be it public or private.

VM: The Soros Open Society Institute performed an important role in the development of the cultural scene in Croatia. How difficult was it for the independent cultural scene to make the transition from that source of financing to local and state sources?

DK: The procedures for applying for project financing are very similar, hence this was not a problem. That was a moment(**) in which certain political obstacles for financing particular projects by the Ministry or City municipality of Zagreb were gone. But nevertheless, I think that the Open Society Institute has left too fast and too early. There was this perception that now that Tuđman was gone and the political change took place, “our guys” were holding principal positions and everything was going to be different. Of course, this proved to be an illusion. Unfortunately, this period of downsizing and the pullout of foreign foundations has brought down many initiatives, groups and organisations for which the basic infrastructural operating conditions were not provided.

VM: What do you think about the role in the region of other foreign foundations such as Balkan Incentive Fund for Culture (BIFC), Pro Helvetia or European Cultural Foundation (ECF)?

DK: I am by no means an expert on this subject. In the past 10 years, my contacts with these types of foreign foundations are exclusively indirect, i.e. I collaborate on some projects that are also financed by some of these foundations (mostly ECF – I don’t believe that Pro Helvetia is financing anything in Croatia) but all applications, contacts and reports are being handled by someone else. Hence my comments are rather a compilation or selection of attitudes present on the scene.

On the one hand, it is certainly good that such foundations exist and are still in operation and it is certainly good that they are supporting connecting and networking on a regional/European/international level. Nonetheless, one can notice a certain passivity of such foundations: they seem to be satisfied with project financing without having an interest for larger structural programmes and cultural policy issues.

As with the Croatian Ministry of Culture, the main problem lies in the practice of project financing (of approx. 12 to 18 months), which supports neither the sustainability of initiatives and projects nor a more extensive research. Thus, the recommendation to such foundations would be to establish at least three levels or types of financing: project, institutional, and for research projects.

Considering that regional collaboration is the eligibility condition for financing, another problem is that those collaborations are often very pragmatic and mechanical and in the end they turn out to be formal, without any more sustainable consequences on society. The blame for this cannot be addressed merely to the organisations applying for funds but to the policy of the foundations as well.

The prevalent tendency is to continuously support and instigate new projects and initiatives rather than supporting the existing ones and providing for their sustainability. It’s as if there is a big (and unjustified) fear of institutionalising the scene. Also, it is very hard to obtain money for the production of new works.

VM: What is symptomatic for Croatia but also for other countries in the region are the big inert cultural institutions on the one hand and local cultural centres on the other, which survive partly as the heritage of the socialist approach to production and consumption of art. What are the realistic models of institutional transformation and where is the place for municipal cultural centres in today’s system?

DK: Unfortunately I don’t see a clear place for them. It seems that these local cultural centres are functioning mostly by inertia: there are buildings, they receive some budget, there is also a certain sentiment of obligation to provide some financial means to that type of culture and production. We might approach the answer to your question by yet another question, which is: where is the place for local management and self-management in the existing system? Until this question starts being resolved, I am afraid that we will not come near resolving the problem of local cultural centres.

But what bothers me far more is the overall problem of politics. I deliberately do not use the term “cultural politics”, which signifies a somewhat narrower problem of administering culture. I would be happy if our political parties would truly become political, thereby, among other things, opening the debate and coming forth with some attitudes and visions concerning what political and, more widely, social goals they want to attain within culture and with the help of culture. You can see I am not much in favour of cultural autonomy. Those who demand that culture should be out of politics just want that culture doesn’t question their politics.

The fundamental question is how we understand the position of arts and culture in society. Do we want to remain within the frame of the classical perception of fine arts and high cultural values as an elite and elitist field, or do we opt for perceiving culture as a space for collective creation of new values, symbolical but also economic, a space for advancing society and public, a space for public discussions on all social, political and even moral questions, rather than a non-productive budget expenditure and waste? Such questions haven’t crossed the minds of our political elites, not even in the pre-election campaign, which included an attempt to offer some relevant answers.

The “Kukuriku Coalition” has only come up with the idea of connecting culture with tourism in its Plan 21. Naturally, there is no mention of what kind of culture or what kind of tourism, or how to achieve that connecting either or what results, apart from the actual connecting – which is, I guess, positive by default – they intend to achieve.

VM: Recently, a new law has been passed on the Kultura Nova Foundation, which was initiated by the independent cultural scene and launched by the Ministry of Culture. This foundation will distribute lottery funds for infrastructural programmes of independent culture. How important is the establishing of such a foundation for the independent scene and what are the concrete contributions expected?

DK: Unfortunately, I am not informed on what has happened since the passing of the law, i.e. if, how and when the Foundation is going to go into operation. As far as I remember, the first concrete initiatives began during the Coalition rule(***), when Antun Vujić (SDP) was the Minister of Culture. He rejected with repulsion the idea that even a part of the financing – and with it the control, suitability, clientelism etc. – would be excluded from the Ministry of Culture’s jurisdiction. As the coming elections are expected to be won by the SDP-led coalition, I hope that this project is not going to fail amid some re-shuffling of political and party power. And I can only say that the independent scene as well as the entire cultural and civil scene have been seriously harmed by the fact that such a foundation hasn’t been established long before now. In our situation, each and every act of decentralisation and pluralisation of financial sources is welcome. What we have been advocating for years – without success, naturally – is the resolving of the problem of long-term financing. The existing project system is based on annual financing. Realistically speaking, for any ambitious project this is too a short period and it doesn’t contribute to the stability – either financial or organisational – of the actors on the scene. I expect that a good part of the Foundation’s projects will be precisely the long-term financing of projects.

VM: What are the expectations concerning entering the EU: will the institutions be obliged to reduce their means and change their operating ways? What will be the effect on the financing of independent culture? And who is better equipped for EU membership – the institutional or independent cultural scene?

DK: The expectations are high. On the one hand, too high, on the other, catastrophic. The requirement for reduced means comes even without the EU. In that sense, and generally speaking, the independent cultural scene is far more prepared. It has been in a precarious position already for decades, maintaining its existence through project financing and having international contacts and relevancy. It is completely opposite from the institutional scene living on the state budget, with international contacts being exclusively of a representational nature and production-wise mostly irrelevant.

By this, I am not advocating the abolishment or reduction of the institutional scene and its budget support; I am rather pleading for necessary human and organisational-programme changes. But there is no political will for that.

VM: For the successful usage of EU funds and infrastructure, there is a need for elaborated strategies and long-term planning. Is there any cultural policy in that direction in Croatia?

DK: I have already established that no domestic political party has any clear programme on politics of culture. And cultural policy – as something that should be beyond administrative management and “positioning of its people” – barely exists. And that which does exist mostly focuses on the construction of new institutional buildings, which have no clear long-term plan or action programme.

VM: Creative industries are often mentioned as one of the fastest growing economic sectors. Is there an awareness in Croatia and the countries of the region on the possibilities of this sector and is it at all institutionally developed?

DK: This awareness exists “in the grassroots”, among a part of the workers in the sectors covered by the title “creative/cultural industries”. It doesn’t exist practically in political spheres, i.e. we aren’t seeing any concrete results of the materialisation of that awareness. For instance, some years ago, the proposal for a National Strategy of Design, which came about as the result of collective efforts of various actors, vanished without a trace amid the bureaucratic procedures of the Government of Croatia and no one has ever mentioned it since.

So we haven’t even reached the model of creative industries and it is already being strongly criticised in the West. The diverse experiences from the development of creative industries ought to be examined and we should try to take on what has proved to be positive and what could be implemented in our context, that which has cultural, social and economic sense and justification and at the same time strives to avoid traps and mistakes – for instance, the usage of culture as an instrument for the gentrification of “wild zones” that are subsequently taken over by “entrepreneurial” capitalism, replacing cultural content with commercial entertainment and consumption.

Instead of copying the ready-made neoliberal model of creative industries as it has been developed in the past decades, mostly in Britain, perhaps we have a chance to develop our own hybrid concept, which, besides the “entrepreneurial model” of creative industries, includes and preserves the tradition of social and cultural value, social awareness, democratic participation in decision-making and maintains diverse forms and sources of public financing.

To speak about Croatia as “the society of creativity” sounds, at the least, idealistic, and at the worst, misplaced, when we know how little respect there is for creative, authorial and artistic work – not only financially, but also in the hierarchy of social values. Cultural sections in newspapers are being abolished; TV programmes deal with culture in a sensationalist manner; in these times of strong visual communication, the number of Art Education lessons is increasingly being reduced in schools, etc… But this is where enter politics, politics of culture and cultural policy. Politics is performative by its nature. By introducing certain concepts into the discursive public sphere, the imaginary becomes possible. And not only that: it is possible to instigate certain desired processes by legal propositions (financing, tax reductions…) and institutional solutions (e.g. founding public institutions such as the Kultura Nova Foundation).

VM: Design is one of the key branches of creative industries, but Croatia still doesn’t have a coordinated national design strategy. Does the economy use design in a satisfactory way?

DK: Design in Croatia still doesn’t exist in the national classification of activities. Thus we don’t have any official statistics on what are the concrete financial results of design as an industry. When it comes to the economy, it uses design almost exclusively in the sphere of marketing and advertisement and far less in the sphere of new products and services. The situation is far worse in the area of administration (state, regional and municipal institutions), which at best perceives design only as the visual identity of a city or region as a tourist destination.

A future national strategy of design should not reduce design to styling, depriving it of inventiveness, innovation and development. It also should not boil down problems that design deals with merely to the production of objects and the increase in their market viability, neglecting all of that which does not necessarily result in the material object of industrial production – a product intended for commercial exploitation on the global market. I have in mind here the span from inclusive and interactive to information design. Still, the field of creative (culture) industries is certainly the one in which we have the best chance to enter the world/globalised market. Although the “Kukuriku Coalition” quotes in its pre-election programme Plan 21 “the development of biotechnology and nanotechnology”, it is hard to expect in such conditions the development of a sophisticated and technologically progressive industry. But it is much easier to make a breakthrough in the area of creativity, art, design, fashion, the development of software and applications… The concept “MADE IN CROATIA” should not be altogether abolished (particularly in light of the actual crisis and theories of de-globalisation), but should be abridged and developed through the concept “DESIGNED IN CROATIA”. Moreover, the development of production in Croatia reaches its true sense first and foremost in the frame of designing in Croatia, i.e. as its consequence. Croatian designers – mostly graphic designers but also product/industrial as well as fashion designers – are often recognised in the world by the quality of their ideas and solutions. This cultural potential, unfortunately, is still rarely transformed into social and economic capital.

VM: The independent cultural scene in Croatia has been marked in the past years by the fight for space – both for space for its own activities as well as for public space. Considering some positive examples such as the opening of the POGON – Centre for Independent Culture and Youth, the long-term work and engagement of Rijeka’s Molecule or the survival of Social Centre Rojc in Pula, should the independent scene be satisfied with these still scarce positive examples?

DK: The independent scene cannot be satisfied. But I think that the bigger problem is that not even society as a whole can be satisfied. Take a look at the streets in our cities. Zagreb shop windows are marked at every step with the labels “Space under construction – the City of Zagreb”. This somewhat cryptic label actually marks something entirely different: no one does anything in that space owned by the City Municipality of Zagreb. There are lots of spaces like this under city ownership, but their managing is completely opaque. There is reasonable suspicion that we are dealing here with clientelism. Meanwhile, downtown Zagreb has turned into a slum. Craftsmen and small trades are crumbling down. Independent cultural and civil initiatives as well as new entrepreneurial endeavours are faced with enormous rents for space that are making their work truly difficult.

VM: This important subject, the relationship towards public space, reached its peak of clarity with the (lost?) battle for the pedestrian zone in Varšavska (Warsaw) Street in Zagreb, the prevention of the devastation of the park-forest in Split and the opposition to megalomaniac projects of golf terrains in Dubrovnik. Together with other civil society organisations, one of key actors in these processes was the independent cultural scene. What strategies of socially engaged activities will mark the coming period?

DK: I don’t think that anybody can predict this. These days we are witnessing the global expansion of the movement to occupy city streets and squares. Perhaps this is only one direction. Local battles for resolving particular problems will certainly go on. It is interesting, for instance, that the EU is financing works on projects of some 20 waste disposal sites, one of which is the so-called Regional Centre for Administering Waste “Kaštijun” in the region of Istria. Local communities, citizens and ecological organisations are against the planned purpose, functioning mode and location of this waste disposal project. On the other hand, the EU will not finance waste disposal projects that as a condition introduce any system of waste selection and recycling. Hence the battle will be internationalised.

VM: You are active in the academic community – you teach at the Department of Visual Communications at the University of Split Art Academy. How do you perceive the current battle by a part of the student body for preserving free higher education?

DK: Certainly with sympathy and support for it. Yet one should point out that the situation is not the same everywhere. During the current protests – and I refer here mainly to Zagreb – an “unfair coalition” has been formed through which an entire academic machinery that doesn’t want any kind of changes in its own business is glomming onto the justified student requirements. It was the Law School, the School of Economics and even the School of Philosophy that were accepting a large number of students for “personal needs”, i.e. those who pay tuition. According to the good neoliberal model, schools were privatising profits made this way while socialising the expenses of studies and making everybody else accountable for them: society, the Ministry and also the regularly enrolled students whose quality of studies has decreased due to drastic increase in the number of students. Of course, the Ministry is to blame for not preventing such actions earlier or not reacting in a different way.

In these pre-election months, our Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and the Government are threatening the employers with strict penalties in cases of non-payment of salaries. How do they imagine then penalising the state and their Ministry, which have been late for two years with the payment of earned income (whether we call it salary or fee or honorarium…) to external collaborators at all of the Universities? It is again a matter of structural problem – some teachers have moonlighted in several schools while the entirety of the study programs have practically been formed without a sufficient number of full-time employed people. Being unable or lacking the will to resolve this problem, the Ministry has decided to halt the payment of fees for external collaboration, thus jeopardising regular lectures and those places where things were being done honestly and by the book. In brief, it would be good if the state would clean in front of its own threshold first.

VM: From the perspective of a professor, how do you comment on the visual culture of students who were growing up in the time of the collapse of visual and political culture? What are the values they took on and/or introduced?

DK: It depends on what we are referring to. In the past few years, with the arrival of those generations of university students who have grown up and were educated in the so-called post-socialist period, one can perceive the decrease of the classical notion of general education. I think there are several reasons for that. One reason is certainly the collapse of primary and secondary education. The other is the collapse of serious media. The students are surprisingly brilliant if the measure of visual culture is recognising brands. But nowadays, candidates come to entrance exams without reading any of the recommended literature. In that sense, the university must recompense for what high schools have failed to do: stimulate students to tackle reading, writing and researching on their own. It happens more and more often that I find phrases from Google Translate in students’ papers. Students feel neither obliged nor have a need to shape those sentences in a sensible way. On the other hand, it is clear to me that we are not dealing here merely with their shortcomings. Twenty years of terror produced by nationally ardent linguists and language editors have produced an illiterate nation. It’s not only that no one has a clue anymore as to what linguistically correct writing is, but also that no one dares to write according to one’s own feeling for language. For the time being, the perishing of the Croatian language is the greatest and practically the only single success of the Croatian nationalists. There is a certain poetic justice in it.

Notes:

* Arkzin – the magazine of the Anti-War Campaign of Croatia, a movement that was the beacon of opposition to the war-waging nationalist politics of Croatian president Franjo Tuđman in the 90s. (Translator’s note)

** 2001, the year in which the Social Democrats won the elections. (Translator’s note)

*** Coalition led by Social Democrats from 2001 to 2005, (Translator’s note)

Translated by Katrina Pejović.

http://www.bifc-hub.eu/interview/30-years-in-one-spot-2013-it-is-just-the-world-that-keeps-moving-every-once-in-a-while-a-conversation-with-dejan-krsic

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