The research introduces the artistic leading role in the production of alternative spaces for dissent and negotiation of meaning, in the local context of Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina.
In a contemporary state of uncontrollable capitalistic privatization and corruption, after a past of recurring imposed narratives, issues of legitimacy and representation become every day more relevant. The public space, as a not-given territory for dissent and counternarratives can, therefore, be relocated and reinterpreted. The artistic practice leads our gaze elsewhere, toward a collectivization of the domestic and vulnerabilities as interstitial territories where bodies are informally invited to generate new forms of common agency and renegotiation of meaning, far from the leftover of privatization and one-way narratives.
The unfolding of the geographic, socio-political, and historical fabric, woven across dominations and colonialism, kingdoms, socialist federation, and wars, becomes a procedure, that knot after knot opens up new words and perspective to read the complexity of the social space; the artistic activity in the public space in Sarajevo becomes a testimony of the necessity to constantly re-inform it through human interactions and vulnerabilities, to negotiate the narratives and imagine new social structures. The vocabulary originated from the context specificity can therefore be transliterated to inform other structures of thoughts.
The research has been supported by generous interviews with local artists and activists such as Smirna Kulenović (artists), Mak Hubjer (artist and founder of the Galerija Brodac), Alma Midžić and Borisa Mraovic (Crvena), Adnan Bajramović (artist and activist), and would not have been possible without the precious help and collaboration of Claudia Zini, Curator, Doctor of Philosophy at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London with the Thesis: Bosnia and Herzegovina: art from a post-conflict society and Founder of Kuma International, a Bosnian NPO founded in Sarajevo in 2018 as the first research center dedicated to visual arts in the aftermath of the war.
History and trajectories of expressions
Vijećnica or Sarajevo City Hall was designed in 1891, under the Austro-Hungarian domination, following the pseudo-Moorish architectural style and reflecting the Austro-Hungarians’ perception of the Bosnian Mêlée (Cirkovic, 2016, p.12).
The first Kingdom of Bosnia aroused in 1377, followed by more than four centuries of Ottoman domination. The Austro-Hungarian Empire succeeded in 1878, intending to found a model colony. Indeed, progresses in the international law envisioned the modern nation-states and the necessity to establish a legal framework of belonging. In 1910, the multicultural regime of the Pax Ottomana overturned: the first ethnic-religious distinction between Serbian Orthodox, Muslims, and Catholics, with a proportional system of political representation, was established within the Bosnian Constitution imposed by the Austro-Hungarians (Cirkovic, 2016).
The ethnic fragmentation was later challenged by «the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Citizenship law of 1928, which established single Yugoslavian citizenship for the whole territory of the Kingdom» (Cirkovic, 2016, p.10).
With the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, multiculturalism and coexistence became one of the strongest points of Tito’s political vision. After his death in 1980, progressive nationalist movements arose: ethnicity and religion reinforced their narrow narratives of geographical identities and played a fundamental role in the breakdown of the SFRY, culminating in the Yugoslav Wars.
The Town Hall was converted into the National Library in 1949 and was destroyed during the siege of Sarajevo. The restorations, initiated in 1996, ended in 2014 and the Town Hall is today a National Monument, a symbol of the perpetuation of colonial power and the fixation of over imposed meaning around which many contestations arise.
In 1995, peace was established by the Dayton Peace Agreement, together with new internal boundaries, following pre-existing ethnic principles: the largely Serb-populated region merged in the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted to the Croat-Bosniaks population. From the Agreement for Peace, the new Bosnian Constitution emerged by paradoxically embodying the ethnic belonging principles which eventually led to the war three years before.
In The Cunning of Recognition, Elizabeth Povinelli (2002) states that the inequality of multicultural recognition of indigenous people in the northwest of Australia is caused by the imaginary of national cohesion and the impossible purpose of building up an authentic traditional culture, not committed to diversity or co-selfhood (Nancy, 2001, p.62).
In BiH it is possible to read the colonial power dynamic and legacy in the way Austro-Hungarian first, and International Community after demanded the population to identify with imposed identities, without any participation in the constitution-making process, as Vijećnica majestically shows. Vijećnica, arose within a community deprived by its voice, forced to constitute itself on the principle of its own negation, addresses the question about legitimacy and representationalism.
In the ethnic distinction and fragmentation resides the unbalanced system of immunization of a group against another one, or what Roberto Esposito defines Immunitas, the antinomy of Communitas (Cvejić and Vujanović, 2015, p.83).
Unlike other theories, Esposito thinks that what keeps a Communitas together and creates the possibility for its existence, it’s not the lowest common denominator or the excess in the difference, but the munus: an owed gift, a debt, an obligation towards each other; a shared lack, instead of a shared common. In this empty space, resides the potentiality of the community: its negotiation, a distanced territory where the sense of immunity from the other is abolished, where our bodies open up to vulnerability, to the occurrence of agón. Munus – is a share of debts and shared responsibility of the individual toward the collectivity.
In addition to ethnic role-imposition, Vijećnica can also represent the extreme, often illegal, privatization of public spaces, or urbicide. The rapid switch from a Socialist Self-managed society toward capitalistic privatization made it extremely difficult to rethink the common good outside the socialist epistemic, and thus to consider public space as shared and democratic (Tomaševic et al., 2018, p.65).
In 2016 an informal group of local artists initiated a performing protest, consisting of reading books in front of the ex-National Library, claiming the publicness of the space, and contesting its privatization. From the interview with one of the initiators, the artist Smirna Kulenović (b.1994): «Every day, for the three-months long gathering in front of the library, a police officer arrived asking if that was a threat to the City Hall. Even reading books was observed as an attack on the Government». The protest eventually merged in the proactive Galerija Brodac ’s proposal of setting up a new alternative open library and memorial in the gallery space, right next to Vijećnica.
Smirna is one of the main contemporary artists from Sarajevo who intervene in public space. In our conversation, she highlighted the citizens’ difficulty in recognizing the publicness of spaces. That constitutes the reason why performative artistic intervention able to invite people to take part in re-appropriation processes are so important: protests can be seen as a performed social drama wherein latent conflict becomes manifest, by questioning which identities, means, or values have to be represented. The affective-experiential performance in the public space, opposed to the sedimentation of legitimacy, challenges the fixation of meanings, the state of things, by a process of listening, reaction and re-activations.
The artistic intervention in the Public Space is very much connected with the historical and political past of Bosnia and Former Yugoslavia and therefore entangled within an identity negotiation claim.
After the fracture with the Eastern Block in 1948 and the constitution of the Non-Aligned Movement, a new cultural policy, independent from the socialist realism, was demanded.
The NAM brought in anti-colonial and anti-imperialist claims, and therefore a strong sense of emancipation. The Yugoslav New-Avanguard period began in 1960, after the liberalization of policies and the articulation of new modernism, independent from the European one.
A new artistic scene prefigured an alternative sphere of expression, a semi-autonomous system with the freedom to self-define and express dissent (Dietachmair, 2017, p.209) also called ‘the second public sphere’ (Šuvakovic, 2017).
In the book Alienation Effects, Jakovljević (2016) relates the New Avantguardes to the birth of new empowerment, fulfilled in the desire to create a revolutionary, independent, and responsible subject and the artistic representation of it. Alongside the performance of the large scale rituals – as the celebration of the Youth Day, a new system of collective Action-Critique and new organizational strategies of bodies took form (2016). Furthermore, the independence recognition, empowered by the federalist vision, somehow encouraged Bosnia Herzegovina to work on its own artistic identity and expression, partially neglected in the past by stronger narratives coming from Belgrade, Zagreb or Ljubljana.
The artistic group New Primitives emerged in Sarajevo after Tito’s death, as a sort of Bosnian response to punk culture, able to grasp and recognize a sense of local common identity.
«The movement began without any kind of firm system, except for the basic idea, which was the “re-examination of identity”. Thanks to the media and the technology, the long-term cultural colonization of Bosnia-Herzegovina was thrown out in practically one stroke» (Prijatelj Pavičić, Matijašić & Germ, 2018).
Almost simultaneously, the artistic collective Zvono emerged.
Informally born as six students gathering in a cafè with the same name, the group was one of the first in Bosnia to privilege actions in the public space.
This was partially due to the fact that the Academy of Fine Art, officially opened in Sarajevo in 1972, prohibited students from exhibiting in institutional sites before their graduation (Zini, 2018).
Besides that, Zvono recognized a new need to encounter with the citizens, an interest in informal gatherings. Zvono managed to embody the dualistic nature between members’ liberal individualism and a collective existence structure, focusing on the capacity and impact of acting together as a collective body. «By acting together, as a gathered body, in what was ostensibly free space, it was possible to create something that an individual artist could not have accomplished on their own. As intended, the street temporarily became an unrestricted discursive and accessible public space, where artists and the visitors could simply meet as fellow citizens, in other words the exhibition understood as a temporary formation that under specific socio-political conditions created a certain public space». (Prijatelj Pavičić, Matijašić & Germ, 2018)
The new enthusiasm in the art field in Bosnia, empowered by the national community coming to Sarajevo for the Olympic Games in 1984 and which further fermented into the Jugoslovenska dokumenta  1987 and 1989, was radically disrupted by the war in 1992.
Citizens, and artists, went under violent progressive displacement and dispossession: of spaces, identities, memories, lives. War occurred as a deep moment of reconfiguration, a bottleneck of meaning toward a new mono narrative.
But, retrospectively, wartime had the potential to show how the dichotomy between public and private, individual and common easily come to compromises, and how fragile are their boundaries and epistemic when informed by collectivized emotions.
In a private conversation with the artist Mak Hubjer , he comments:«The war took the concept of public space to another level. It made everything a public space, and shared space. The fear took away from people all of the nonsense and made them one huge family. The symbols in-between people, which usually took them apart, disappeared. And thus, every safe private space had the potential to become shared, public: shelters, rooftops».
Shared vulnerability as an inclusive safe space.
We can find this idea of an extended shared space also in the words of the artist Jusuf Hadžifejzović, transcripted by Zini in her thesis (2019, p.123):«We became Sarajevo nationalists. There was nothing more important than our city. […] You are defending your family, and your town becomes your family».
The liminal subversion of the transposition of the private into the public, toward the making of public space domestic, familiar, collective, appears fundamental.
In her contribution to On Coexisting, Mending and Imagining: Notes on the Domestics of Performance, Giulia Palladini (2018) envisions the domestic as a new realm of politics, a space informed by intimacy, relationships, care, and meanings, able ‘to become a resonance for other voices’.
«Perhaps a domestic of performance is a form of inhabiting and anticipating the ‘marvelous real’. It is the triggering, for spectators, of ways to extend themselves beyond the encounter with performance: techniques for inventing different ways of ‘feeling at home’ in a live gathering, albeit not safely, not protected from conflicts but in touch with palpable possibilities of recognizing a distinctive social space». (Palladini, 2018, p.97)
Can the public space become domestic, as a space of care, and therefore able to re-discuss its representational role?
Might the collectivized domestic space be the one in which people can identify and feel a sense of agency?
Detecting a problematic sense of legitimacy/agency in the Bosnian public arena, Kappler (2014) explores the idea of semi-public space. Due to a never-ending process of imposition of narratives, she problematizes the public sphere as disconnected with the lives of people and therefore unsuccessful in its representational role. The semi-public becomes thus a space for a new redefinition of ownership and legitimacy, toward collectivization. Borrowing Andrea Cornwall’s definition, she proposed to rename Invited space (Kappler, 2014, p.10) this new hybrid and privileged territory between the domestic and the public.
When I first encountered this term, I associated it with Smirna’s practice, due to her attitude of inviting people to take an active role and self-organize . Smirna is also one of the initiators of Dobre Kote, a grassroots project of urban intervention and reappropriation of neglected spaces, led by local communities of inhabitants in Sarajevo. Discussing the term Invited Space with Smirna, she pointed out the concrete necessity of “inviting” people, as connected to the cultural expectation of being invited, as a ritual. For her, experiences such as Dobre Kote highlights and responds to people’s need to feel they have agency and can concretely change things.
Furthermore, in our conversation around the Invited Space, Smirna explained me how the concept of public space in Sarajevo might be possibly informed by the traditional Ottoman’s house structure: internal rooms conceived as private space; the inner courtyard where all the domestic activities were carried out – as public space for hospitality, and the street as the trading space.
By embracing this architectural notion, Invited space can, therefore, easily embody the negotiation between domestic and public, and thus, the practice of hospitality: the liminal time-space of the domestic habits’ sharing, wherein the unpredictability of results materialized (Petti and Hilal, 2018), and thus the political – the rupture with the previous procedures, as a catalyst of potentials. I would then further propose the figure of the artist as a trader of meaning, able to create bridges between the realms.
Inviting practices in Sarajevo
The research concludes with two glimpses on how the Invited Space has been shaped in the local context of Sarajevo. Aware of their incompleteness, they are rather introduced as a proposition to further analyze the many other forms that the Invited space could possibly assume.
The first example is Meeting Point, a summer-long event of site-specific projects and performances in the public space, occurring in Sarajevo in 1997, right after the war, and organized by Soros Foundation (and the newly established Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art) and curated by Dunja Blažević. The event took place in the living space (Blažević, 2003) of Ćulhan, Baščaršija, in the heart of the old city: a former ottoman bath or hammam, today a cafè-summer garden.
«The idea of choosing outdoor spaces was a response to the concrete situation of the city, which was physically ruined by war and in need of a massive clean-up and reconstruction task» (Zini 2018, p.145). Public space had therefore to be re-informed and all the war experiences and vulnerabilities to be traded, discussed, shared, expanded, dissipated.
Through performances and installations, the 55 invited artists were able to create moments and prefigurative spaces of encounter, of coexistence of languages and means of expression, a sharing of stories, emotions, traumas. Every night, one of the 20 home-videos – shot during the siege, «created from the feverish need to record the moment between life and death» (Blažević, 2003) were presented, giving voice to the first unaware multimedia-art generation in the country.
Meeting point appeared as a collectivization of processes, a renewed sociability made by the casual meetings, by the willingness to share vulnerabilities in a new familiar space re-appropriated by the arts. In the intersection of different media, artists were able «to create social games, to transform the space into some kind of theater in which the audience and the performers exchange roles» (2003), to pre-form a new system for the negotiation of private and public experiences, and the spatialization of new meanings within a collective imaginative process of re-appropriation and reconstruction.
The second example is the “performative monument” in process Što Te Nema, by the artist Aida Šehović (b.1977) dedicated to the victims of the Srebrenica genocide, firstly performed in Sarajevo in 2006 and beautifully described by Claudia Zini.
The installation is composed of hundreds of traditional coffee cups – donated by Bosnian families – arranged on the floor of public squares.
«Each cup represented a person who perished during the genocide in 1995. Over the years, it has evolved into a participatory community art project organised in close collaboration with Bosnian diaspora communities. Since 2006, Što Te Nema has travelled to a different city annually as a nomadic monument, built around the traditional coffee ritual». (Zini, 2019, p.256)
The domestic rituals and ceremony of coffee overflows in the common space and encourages casual gatherings. Informed by the familiarity of gestures, and the inherent invitational practice, people spontaneously start sharing their war experiences and stories. In the course of Claudia Zini’s interview with Šehović, the artist said:«I understood that once you remove every symbol, you open the space up». (2019, p.263)
Što Te Nema indeed, opens up a liminal moment for a preformative sharing: for every coffee offered, a vulnerability might take the street.
Spaces where meanings are flexible, opaque, residual, or deleted are probably the ones where the new communitas can gather.
Nevertheless, the deprivatization of the intimacies (Federici, 2018) couldn’t be led exclusively by the potentially coercitive feeling of responsibility – the munus. Instead, it might be moved by the strength of the non utilitarian, by a renovated desire toward the others (2018). Desire, as Cuter writes in her recently published book Ripartire dal desiderio, coincides with the authentic approval of its risks of subjugating to it (2020): to the dialectic tension toward someone other than me, to the unexpected conflict that might be generated. If the shared responsibility of the munus could easily become a sense of common obligation, the desire has the power to drive us further, within the embracement of risks and pleasures of the collective doing: a creative process.
«Desire is not a force but a field. It is the field where the struggle takes place, or better an entangled network of conflicting forces.[…] The field of desire is central in history, since within such forces that are crucial for the formation of the collective mind, and therefore for the main axes of social progress, meet through position and conflict» (Bifo Berardi, 2009, p.118).
Sarajevo, its complex history and stratifications, drove us toward the identification of new threads, each of which would deserve proper analysis. Its many narratives and the potentiality of living within the opacity of the undefined, opens up to unpredictable realities, where identities overlap, collapse, and ferment in a thick palimpsest, a syncretism of historical, political and social layers. The generative power of the potential conflicts find its way where Public Space opens up – and it is informed by the re-activation of the neverending negotiation: it implies a defixation of meanings, a not sedimental space, where particles are shaken by the affective dimension of acting together.
Desire, as the performative movement toward the others, drives the invitational force, enabling the creative unpredictabilities of the encounters. Within this new expanded field of domestic habits and rituals, the invited space, potentials can finally coordinate and new forms of community might reveal themselves.
«Rituals and other performances belonging to the liminal moment are practices where social structure is breached, reflected and restructured by means of collective actions in public that presuppose affective-experiential aspect of bodily movement and their symbolization, which, instead of relying on preexisting language and symbols, advances new ones». (Cvejić and Vujanović, 2015, p.176)
 An experimental Balkan version of Documenta in two editions: 1987 and 1989
 Mak Hubjer Artist and Founder of the Galerija Brozac (2016), Sarajevo
 In her website there are many examples, such as the work Bosnia-Portugal: 1-0, a ludic performative-call to citizens in Lisbon to organize again the gentrification process or 77h, where citizens of Sarajevo were invited to interact, both digitally and in real life, during her performative 77 hours-long stay in the Museum of History of BiH, for the Brian Eno’s installation “77 million paintings”.
 n.b.k. | video-forum 2- Meeting Point
 IMG 2 “Books for Brodac / Knjige za Brodac”
IMG 3 “Daily Routine” by Daniel Premec, SCCA_Meeting Point
IMG 4 “So close, and yet so far” by Lejla Hodžić, SCCA_Meeting Point
IMG 5 Daul Nedim, Aida Šehović’s work Što te nema
The images in this article are from the web and are used fairly as an illustration of the author’s observations. In the event that the subjects or the authors of the images have something to object to their publication, they can report it to the editorial staff and request their removal.
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Giulia Palomba is an independent curator and researcher based in Turin. In 2017 she co-curated the first edition of Gramsci CampoSud. A visionary Camp. Between 2018 and 2020, she was part of the Vessel curatorial team for the Institute for the Imagination of the Mediterranean. In 2020, she earned a MA in Commissioning and Curating Public Art at HDK Valand Academy (Gothenburg) and since June ‘20 she is the communication manager at FundAction, a participatory fund making grants for social transformation.