Smirna Kulenović is an up and coming artist based in Sarajevo and Lisbon. She collaborates with the independent art institutions SKLOP and Brodac in Sarajevo and at the moment she participates in the travelling exhibition Sarajevo Storage – Collection Pierre Courtin. Her art practice revolves around current issues of Bosnian society, including conflicting memories of the war and the construction of post-war identities. Her works are inspired by personal experiences and memories and they critically comment on everyday reality in Bosnia. In the following interview she shares her insights about the transition between the idea of Yugoslavia and the idea of the European Union, as well as how society copes with the lingering memory of the war twenty years on. Silenced traumas, unresolved conflicts and the ongoing irresponsible political manipulation underline the magnitude of damage nationalism and nativism causes in the long term.
This interview was made on 6th November 2018 in Sarajevo, in the frame of the East Art Mags residency program. Part I.
Réka Deim (RD): Over twenty years after the war, deeply embedded ethnic conflicts still determine everyday life and the construction of identities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. You have experienced the recent transformation of Bosnian society as a member of the young generation that grew up in the aftermath of war. How do you reflect on the interrelatedness of politics and identity in your works?
Smirna Kulenović (SK): My works are spontaneous reactions to the absurd situations of life in Bosnia because I need to find a way to cope with my own frustration of living in this system. The main problem with politics comes from the constitution of Bosnia, which is in conflict with human rights. It was drafted as a temporary peace agreement in 1995 and the country has been using it for more than 20 years as its constitution. According to this document, Bosnia is administratively divided into thousands of pieces so it ends up spending all the money – and it’s a little bit of money – on bureaucracy. We have three presidents, ten cantons and dozens of municipalities. There is no possibility for any progress, as the situation does not allow citizens to do anything legally without spending years on paperwork. This system oppresses citizens and blocks them from thinking outside of the box created by the constitution.
According to the constitution, there are only three constitutional nationalities (Serb, Croat and Bosniak) and you cannot declare yourself anything else, otherwise you don’t exist in the system. I have always declared myself on official paperwork as “nothing.” I even have a tattoo that says “ništa,” meaning “nothing.” I cause a bureaucratic problem this way but over the years they got used to me and sneaked me through somehow. But this year all my documents got stolen, and after the elections, where Milorad Dodik, the extreme right-wing politician won, I was told that I cannot avoid declaring my nationality out of the three because of the current government. Now I haven’t had a passport or an ID already for three months so I’m basically a voluntary prisoner in Bosnia. In the meantime, my passport was found with a deleted face in the photo, where I look like a ghost. This image started to haunt me so I decided to use it as an artwork. I multiplied the passport photo in big format and during this process, an EU star appeared from underneath. I wanted to show this work in a festival in Italy but since I couldn’t travel, I asked the curators to place an empty chair and people could feel my absence and create a dialogue around the topic. The most important thing about this work for me is to activate discussion and make the audience talk about its context.
RD: Alongside rigid state institutions and bureaucracy, a considerable NGO sector has also emerged since the mid-nineties. Is that not a feasible alternative?
SK: The NGO format is also bureaucratically very complex, which kills creativity and joy. After the war many NGOs popped up because of donations from all over the world, and people here started feeling that non-governmental organizations have the potential to change the situation. But with the involvement of foreign influence from Europe and elsewhere it so happens that those who give you money tell you what to do. So eventually people stop thinking with their own heads and, instead, they apply the rules according to the trends NGO’s and donors set year by year. For example, if next year the trend is to deal with LGBT, everyone will make a project accordingly, receive thousands of euros, organize a few seminars and nothing will change. After six years of working within the NGO format, I really lost all hope. I realized that the only way to truly get people moving is to completely avoid any kind of legal/official format, to be spontaneous, illegal.
RD: Why do you think art can and should be a space for discourse on sociopolitical problems?
SK: A lot of young artists of the new generation try to completely avoid political subjects because the war has passed and they want to focus on something else. I think that’s OK, we need a line of artists who celebrate life and who are not frustrated about the current political system. But I feel frustrated that it is not possible to create a quality dialogue about politics because here in Bosnia everyone is sick of it, and outside of the country, in Europe, nobody cares.
What Europe is going through right now regarding right-wing nationalism, we went through twenty years ago in the most horrible way
so I think we can teach something to the people of Europe and also to ourselves, especially now, when in the refugee crisis people are becoming fascist – even the very same people who were refugees in the war.
RD: Traces of the siege of Sarajevo are still visible throughout the city, where inhabitants follow their daily routines in streets full of bullet holes and marks of grenades. In order to contribute to the reconstruction, you have initiated urban intervention projects to revitalize damaged public spaces through creativity and art. Dobre Kote started three years ago to repair squares in destroyed neighborhoods and, taking the idea of reclaiming space one step further, in your most recent project you occupied empty shops in the socialist realist part of the city. Can you say a few words about how art and activism merge in these projects?
SK: During the three years of Dobre Kote, we repaired ten spaces in the city that had been completely destroyed in the war. It marked my and everyone’s childhood to see creepy places with a lot of trash and drug addicts. So we decided to map these spaces and initiate collective actions in the neighborhood. We would go around, interviewing people about what they would like their common space to be. We also collected money and people brought us food, coffee, materials and they started working with us. Now we have more than a hundred volunteers. In the end, we cleaned and transformed ten locations involving people from the neighborhood, making the spaces in front of their homes more livable, where kids could go out and play. It wasn’t contemporary art for me, it was a social project, which might be connected to street art in some ways.
With the idea of TAZ 22, I wanted to bring urban intervention to the next level, to make it more critical and disturbing by involving contemporary art. With two other artists we occupied five abandoned shops in the Skenderija, an area that was built in 1969 as the biggest Yugoslavian commercial and sports center. Now it’s falling apart, as it’s in a vacuum being outdated and not “capitalist” enough. The whole day we were cleaning trash and heroin needles in the area. During the one-hour-long guerilla action, I was overwhelmed because it was the first time I saw so many people gathering around such an event in Sarajevo. It’s not important what happened during the action. The most important thing to me was that people expressed their resistance. And we didn’t get arrested, which is another great thing, as it often happens here because according to the government, public space belongs to them. This was the first guerilla action and I plan to do twenty-two, each time in a new location and one hour longer. My idea for the 22nd TAZ would be to create a huge occupation of a public space, a sort of artistic-anarchist occupation.
RD: In the text accompanying TAZ 22, you refer to Top lista nadrealista (The Top List of the Surrealists), the popular performance group that actively criticized politics and society in the 80’s and during the war. What does the quote “Electricity is back, react as a thunder!” mean today?
SK: We collectively decided to use this quote with the other participating artists from Italy and Brazil because they were shocked to see the amount of resistance during the siege of Sarajevo and that Top lista nadrealista made a comical-critical TV series about the war. In the scene where the quote comes from, a family is sitting in the darkness, waiting. When electricity comes, the kid goes to play the electric guitar, the mother reads a book, the neighbours come over and everyone starts self-organizing. The idea of electricity during the war is something I want to create today, to see what our electricity is today. What do we need to be able to organize ourselves again? Once we needed only electricity. Right now we have a lot more but the whole society is passive. So many things can be done here. And it’s just about finding the ways to communicate it to the people who are stuck in passivity and negativity. I try to do things without money, as dirty as it gets, in order to show that even though we don’t have money, we have good will and solidarity, like amongst those few people who gave us cables and lights for the action. Things can really be built from nothing.
Part II. is here!
Cover image: Smirna Kulenović, Facebook