Artists have used Yugoslav World War II monuments as elements in their works to criticize official policies or inaction. In the process of performing such artistic interventions, these artists have created contemporary monuments. Three such artists, Siniša Labrović (Croatia), Elena Čemerska (North Macedonia), and D.A. Calf (Australia) discuss their interventions.
Featuring the songs “Termopil” (“Termopylae”) by Sara Renar (Croatia) and “A bre Makedonče” (“Macedonian Boy”) performed by Zbor Praksa (Croatia).
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
Over the past three decades, many World War Two monuments from the Yugoslav era have deteriorated or been neglected or even purposefully damaged or destroyed.
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: After the 1990s there was a kind of re-semantization of the history…and nationalists started to ruin these monuments.
PETER KORCHNAK: A number of times on this show I’ve already contrasted the physical, cultural, and political decline of these monuments with the exponential growth of pop-cultural interest in them.
These monuments, however, are not just objects of popular fascination, photography, or graphic art. Artists have utilized Yugoslav socialist monuments as elements in their works, as canvases or as stages, if you will, to criticize official policies or inaction that led to the sorry state the monuments are in.
“They have indeed created a respectable body of work that can be considered counter-memorial in itself,” said art historian Sanja Horvatinčić, whom you may remember from Episode 5, “Future Mo(nu)ments,” in an interview for the magazine Historical Expertise. She added that, “in the future, this very kind of artistic production will be evaluated as the monuments of this era.”
In other words, in the process of performing artistic interventions at socialist-era monuments, these artists create contemporary monuments.
ELENA ČEMERSKA: Our separate relations to the place connect us into being able to together form something which will continue on in the future, and which will be a bit better than not doing anything and remaining in this status quo sort of position.
PETER KORCHNAK: Whether you call it political art or activism or whatever, this kind of artistic and artful engagement with monuments, with memory, with memory politics, this creation of new monuments not only points to problems but also, and perhaps more importantly, raises questions.
D.A. CALF: What approach to these sites, to thinking about history, to memory studies can we get from imagining these connections actually being possible?
PETER KORCHNAK: Today on Remembering Yugoslavia: artistic interventions at socialist-era World War II monuments.
A Croatian government minister, multiethnic ghosts, and anonymous geologists also make an appearance.
A couple of notes before we get to it. In addition to great conversations, you’ll hear two songs. “Termopil,” by the Croatian singer-songwriter Sara Renar, is about the famous Greek battle; I read in the song some parallels with the Partisans’ fight in the People’s Liberation War as well as allusions to commemoration and remembrance. “It’s over, they’re coming, there is no saving us. It’s over, what remains is the memory of us.”
“A bre Makedonče,” performed by the Pula-based choir Zbor Praksa, is a Macedonian battle song about fighting for freedom. This will make sense later on in the show.
Follow Sara Renar and Zbor Praksa on social media and, more importantly, buy their music! I’ve included all the links in the show notes.
Finally, as always, this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to support me and Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon or donated on the website via PayPal.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]
Monument to Fallen Fighters, Sinj, Croatia: “Bandaging the Wounded” – Siniša Labrović
PETER KORCHNAK: Siniša Labrović was born in 1965 in Sinj, a small town near Split, Croatia. He is a Croatian language and literature teacher by training and has been a freelance artist since 2000.
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: My main practice is performance, but I also do some multimedia works, interventions, video, in the field of, let’s say, politically engaged or socially engaged or socially conscious performances.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana in 2018 called Siniša “currently the most socially and politically engaged Croatian artist.”
One of his main tools is his own body. Some of his best known performances include, in 2010, Artist sells his skin at a discount whereby he had parts of his skin surgically removed, then cured, cut into the shapes of a square, a circle and a triangle and affixed to three canvases. The same year, A Boxing Match for the Title of the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Croatia was exactly what it says, except the then minister failed to show and so Siniša declared forfeit, claimed the belt, and showed up for work at the ministry the following Monday.
But before any of that, his first performance as an artist was “Bandaging the Wounded” in his home town Sinj—
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: —on 22nd of June in 2000.
PETER KORCHNAK: June 22nd—
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: —was the day of the anti fascist uprising in Croatia in 1941, when the communist and other antifascists uprised [sic] against the Nazis in former Yugoslavia and against the collaborators.
So in 1952, there was a monument raised in memory of [the] antifascist struggle.
PETER KORCHNAK: —in Sinj, in the then Socialist Republic of Croatia. The monument in the city center consists of two bronze statues made by Ivan Mirković in the style of socialist realism. On a central plinth a soldier holds a flag with arms raised to the sky. On a smaller platform below, a seated woman comforts a wounded Partisan in her arms. It is this figure Siniša Labrović used in his performance.
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: There was a lot of these kinds of monuments who commemorated antifascist struggle during the Second World War in former Yugoslavia and in the after the 1990s there was a kind of re-semantization of the history, and nationalists tried to establish another reading of that history that so they accused antifascists and especially communists that they are against the Croatians and especially they’re against [the] Croatian state or Croatians as [an] independent nation. And they started to ruin these monuments.
They put explosives in this monument in Sinj but they didn’t destroy it totally. So [the] monument stayed, the sculpture stayed after that, but it looks like it is wounded. So it shows [an] already wounded person, it is kind of like [a] pieta.
What I did is that I treated [the] monument as a wounded person. So I cleaned the garbage which was in the monument. And then I cleaned the wounds with water, or with the gel which we use for cleaning the wounds of the human person. And then I wrapped all the monument in— I bandaged all the monument as we would somebody who is wounded.
So I wanted to commemorate again this antifascist day but I also wanted to express my attitude that I’m against this practice of totally destroying these monuments.
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PETER KORCHNAK: What was the immediate response to your performance? Did you have any spectators? Was there any fallout later?
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: I believe it was on Sunday. And there was no so much [sic] people there because I started when it was time for lunch. But mostly on that day there was no reaction.
This building of the city government was very close to the park and they reacted. They were very confused and maybe even angry and they called [the] police. So [the] police started to explore who do [sic] this and they called the guy who I asked to film, to document this action. He told them that they should address these questions to me, but they never— I believe that they understood in the meantime that there is nothing to investigate in this case. So they stopped.
But I had some consequences. Some people later told me that some nationalists was [sic] prepared to attack me or to beat me or, I don’t know, to do something about it because it was in the newspapers, and they were upset about this action. And I was accused as a communist, I was accused as a— that I’m not Croatian, I’m not [a] good Croatian, especially I’m Yugoslavian.
In Croatia, the Catholic Church is in great power behind the scene[s], so more or less, I couldn’t get a job in the field of education for, I don’t know, next 10 years, eight to ten years. So I gave up on this career. I worked as a replacement to some people when they are ill or pregnant, I could work instead of them. But I couldn’t get [a] permanent job.
PETER KORCHNAK: The story reminds me of what used to happen in socialist countries like mine, Czechoslovakia, where people who ran into conflict with the powers that be would be barred from certain levels of employment, certain professions.
According to Siniša, this was the case in socialist Yugoslavia as well, albeit on a smaller scale and in much milder form. But the practice has continued in independent Croatia, to different degrees in different areas, except now it’s the Catholic Church that’s holding the reigns behind or along the dominant right-wing party.
I am curious about the monument today, twenty years later.
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: The Ivan Mirković monument is still there, it’s [in] a little bit worse situation than in the time when I had this intervention, but it’s, yeah, it’s still there, it’s in the park. So they can’t use more or less any kind of excuse to remove it, because the monument is not in this state that it can put people in danger. And more or less, there is no need to remove it to build something there or something. And I believe that my action also helped that this monument is still there.
PETER KORCHNAK: Siniša moved to Zagreb in 2007 and made it as an artist. In 2011, he was invited to present his work at the Istanbul Biennale and in 2012 at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: And that little bit helped me to survive in the field of art. And yeah, some other works also gained some recognition. So I succeed in a way to live out of art.
PETER KORCHNAK: Until 2018, when Siniša moved to Berlin. I’ll feature the story of Siniša’s emigration in a dedicated episode on the topic, sometime in late spring.
For now, know that Siniša made it as an artist in Germany as well. He had his best year in fact, last year, odd as it may sound. Smack in the middle of the pandemic, on July 17, 2020, Siniša performed his most recent artistic intervention in Croatia. Not quite at a monument per se, perhaps just a metaphorical one, but just as critical.
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: I organized to move [the] Croatian Parliament for [sic] one millimeter.
I made the investigation with some people on the position of the Croatian Parliament in [the] universe, connections with the planets or the day of establishment. And its horoscope showed that parliament is not in the [sic] good position. And if we move this parliament in this specific time for [sic] one millimeter, then the parliament should become independent and work not as a tool for corruption, tool for banditism, it will became [sic] the parliament who will establish justice in Croatia. So, I organized this moving Parliament for one millimeter that it should be in a good position from the point of the stars and planets and everything.
PETER KORCHNAK: “One Millimeter” wasn’t Siniša’s first performance at the Croatian Sabor. In 2012, he protested the law banning public gatherings on St. Mark’s Square, where the parliament is located, by urinating in a circle to mark his own territory where people would be allowed to gather.
After the performance of “One Millimeter”—
SINIŠA LABROVIĆ: I was a little bit accused that I’m guilty for these earthquakes in in Croatia, in Zagreb and Banija, because of moving the Parliament for one millimeter.
PETER KORCHNAK: “Bandaging the Wounded” may not have caused a physical earthquake two decades ago, but the performance continues to reverberate. It is now one of the most cited works and a kind of a reference point for artistic interventions at Yugoslav-era World War Two monuments.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – SONG]
“Termopil” by Sara Renar
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]
Monument to Freedom, Kočani, North Macedonia: Salonika, City of Ghosts – Elena Čemerska
[SOUNDBITE – THEATER PLAY]
“Salonika City of Ghosts” performance
PETER KORCHNAK: On August 20, 2018, the Skopje-based independent Theatre of Navigator Cvetko performed the play Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 at the Monument to Freedom in Kočani, North Macedonia. The play is—
NATALIJA TEODOSIJEVA: —based on a historical book from Mark Mazower.
PETER KORCHNAK: Natalija Teodosijeva was one of the actors in the theater troupe performing Salonica, City of Ghosts.
NATALIJA TEODOSIJEVA: And the story is about [a] metropolis, I mean, Salonika. The city of different religions and ethnicities where Egyptian merchants, Spanish Jews, Orthodox Greek, Sufi dervishes, Albanian brigands, all rubbed shoulders, you know, lived and work together as one; how this bustling, cosmopolitan and tolerant world emerged and then just vanished, disappeared, you know, under the pressure of modern nationalism, I guess.
ELENA ČEMERSKA: The text is developed by Rusomir Bogdanovski. The director of its name is Slobodan Unkovski, he is a quite well known theater director in Macedonia. And the music is played live by a musician called Zlatko Riganski.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s Elena Chemerska, an artist who was the creative engine behind the organization of the performance at the Monument to Freedom.
ELENA ČEMERSKA: The play was originally played in the Jewish Museum in Skopje. And that’s where I saw it. And I really, really much enjoyed the theater play because it’s really nice how it deals with the convoluted history of the Balkans in quite like this humorous way.
PETER KORCHNAK: The municipality of Kochani and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation provided a portion of the funding for the performance. One of the reasons the play resonated in multiethnic North Macedonia which is dealing with nationalism of its own was that it’s about a multiethnic community that was forever changed by nationalist forces.
ELENA ČEMERSKA: And so I really thought that if these characters were to come alive within this scene that’s got its own characters that are inscribed in this monument in the mosaics but also our ghosts or the ghosts of all the people who had their own experiences at the monument and that this whole bunch of people would come together in that one place. And I thought that that would be a very nice thing to start off, to kick it off.
PETER KORCHNAK: It being Elena’s documentary and activist project Fatherland: A Monument to Freedom, which aims to revitalize the memorial complex called the Monument to Freedom in Kočani, North Macedonia.
The 1981 monument commemorates the struggles of Macedonian people in the first half of the 20th century. The spomenik comprises a number of walls shaped around an amphitheater and featuring nine large mosaic friezes created by Elena’s father, Gligor Chemerski. Since 1991, the monument complex has fallen into disrepair, and through a number of interventions, including theater performances, Elena is collaborating with a range of people to revive, if not reinvent the monument as a community space.
The play’s announcement stated the performance was part of “an attempt to re-open the existing and discover new perspectives towards the possibilities that the Monument to Freedom could offer to the citizens of Kočani, as well as anyone else who feels or could potentially feel this space as their own.” End quote.
Elena and Fatherland: A Monument to Freedom will headline an upcoming episode of Remembering Yugoslavia.
ELENA ČEMERSKA: The night of the performance, it really became a festive night for the whole the town of Kočani. People came, they were so happy, like everybody was well dressed and the theater play lasted for a half an hour longer than it should have originally because people enjoyed playing that so much. And so this was very, very encouraging start because it was really like this big festive occasion. And everybody was so happy that you could see that there is material to be worked around here. And then it’s not just my idea of how it should be or but that there are a lot of people who feel the same and who would gladly participate and contribute in some way to this.
PETER KORCHNAK: Kochani is Natalia Teodosijeva’s home town and the Monument—
NATALIJA TEODOSIJEVA: —one of my favorite places. I have a lot of stories there, on the Monument. And it was a pleasure for me to play in front of my home audience. I love this place so much and I was more than proud to be performing there. And the place was awesome. It was like a magical night.
It [a] was summer night, and the auditorial [sic] was full, there was no free seat. I was nervous like never before. I was performing here at my favorite place, my town, friends, family, they all were here. And my colleagues, too, you know, they felt the energy as well.
Something like magic happened. Like everything fell in the right place. This event brought the people from Kochani together, even if it was for a couple of hours only.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the description of the performance in her master’s thesis on the Fatherland: Monument to Freedom project at the St. Joost School of Art & Design at s’ Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, Elena wrote, “The visitors, the theater crew, the monument and the surrounding environment mutually engaged in a complex web of relations where each element enhanced the life and the energy of the other. The narrative of the play intertwined with the narrative of the monument, and then they intertwined with the narrative we, who were present, produced at that moment in that place. It was as if all the spirits of the characters of the play, the faces of the people that fought against fascism and the spirits that the monument honors came and sat besides us for a while.”
NATALIJA TEODOSIJEVA: There were like a lot of people who were there and said, This is what we miss here in our town. This is the right thing to do here on this monument, this is what this monument was made for, to just bring people together to go there, see theater, see concerts, you know, maybe some exhibitions and every kind of events that brings people together.
ELENA ČEMERSKA: The same year, there was a huge festival that was made by local people, by local musicians, and it was called Freedom Music Festival. And it had two editions. The next year I went to it, I had a great time.
NATALIJA TEODOSIJEVA: There were like 2,000, maybe more, people who were there dancing on the stage all around the monument. Actually, you know, it was like, the monument was reborn.
PETER KORCHNAK: Elena hesitates to take credit but it would seem her efforts around the monument are paying off.
ELENA ČEMERSKA: The municipality currently is quite keen on regaining its former sort of glory, let’s say. I think that there are different people and different efforts that are being done in order to restore this monument in all its utilitarian potential.
PETER KORCHNAK: All these collaborations and now multiple parallel efforts are key to reviving the monument in the local community and by the local community.
ELENA ČEMERSKA: This sort of friendships that came out of it, and these are not empty words, I’m not just saying it because solidarity sounds nice. But because really, you see that there is a lot of people who come from their own background and have their own sort of like a relation to this place. And our separate relations to the place connect us into being able to together form something which will continue on in the future, and which will be a bit better than not doing anything and remaining in this status quo sort of position.
And I think that the status quo position is quite a painful point for many of us who come from come from countries such as Macedonia, which don’t have, on their own, the power, the manpower, the brainpower, the organizational sort of infrastructure, the anything to sort of get out of this vortex of deterioration in which they have fallen. So I think that such smaller maybe, and very often, completely enthusiastic groupings and decisions to work together towards something, I think they’re really healthy, and they produce a culture that is alive.
[SOUNDBITE – THEATER PLAY]
“Salonika, City of Ghosts” theater play performance
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – SONG]
“A bre Makedonče” by Zbor Praksa
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]
Various Monuments: A Spectral Geology – D.A. Calf
[AMBIENT SOUND – URBAN LANDSCAPE]
PETER KORCHNAK: The black-and-white photograph shows a solid white blob in the shape of a tower with protrusions up the middle and pointed at the top, set against the background of a village square beneath a hill enveloped in fog. Under the photo, handwritten notes.
D.A. CALF: Solid tone. Crows. Schoolkids walk past, talking. The rumble of traffic. One block back from the main street of a small town. The spomenik sits in a small square. On one side, a carpark, mostly empty. Small shops on one side, the rear of main street shops on the other side. A council housing block on the other side. And on the last side of the carpark is a sports oval. A motorbike through the carpark, riding above the oval gate. Beyond the playing field, the ground slopes down into a valley. A creek down there, maybe? There’s rubbish strewn throughout the carpark and the occasional bird. Various conversations. An older woman accompanies a small child. A stray cat and the sun has gone behind the clouds. Door shut.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s D.A. Calf, an Australian sound researcher and artist reading notes he took while recording that ambient sound at the monument to the local fighters and victims of the People’s Liberation War in Bratunac, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The sound recording, the manipulated photograph, and the text appear at the website of his project A Spectral Geology, which investigates, quote “new conceptions of the relationship between sound, memory, historical agency, and time,” end quote. For this project, D.A. made 10-minute recordings of ambient sound at 23 Yugoslav socialist monuments, photographed the monuments, then obscured the monument structures themselves with a white overlay, and described the scene in his own words below.
I spoke to D.A.—David—last December, shortly after he launched the project website, aspectralgeology.info.
D.A. CALF: I guess from my philosophy background and together with a sound background, I came to think that there’s something more to be investigated in that connection.
I tend to say to people that I’m medium agnostic, so I’m most comfortable in sound, but whatever gets the job done, whatever illustrates the concept or investigates the problem most aptly is what I’ll use.
PETER KORCHNAK: So what is the problem?
D.A. CALF: Well, there are a myriad problems that I guess I think I’m addressing in my work. One of the most obvious I think, is the way that we tell history, the way that history can be co-opted. And I think, connecting it to the region that we’re interested in mutually, we can see how history has been co-opted into nationalist movements and arguments.
You know, it’s good to deal with the past and to move from it into some more constructive future. And so I think that sound has a role potentially to play in that process.
And so I’m sort of looking at sound from a geological perspective. We all know what geologists do and they can look back through the structure of things and learn things about the past, which is, I would say, is a bottom up way of doing history as opposed to a top-down one, which is when, for instance, nationalist governments impose upon a region, a peoples, a nation, a orthodox, historical narrative. So that’s probably the prime issue that I’m dealing with.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: Hi there, it’s me, Peter Korchnak, the creator and producer of Remembering Yugoslavia, with a snapshot of the making of the podcast.
I talk to people across the Balkans and beyond, do a great deal of research, writing, and recording, and when possible travel to the region like my guests today to bring you the stories of this podcast two to four times a month.
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Alright, back to the story.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: What does that look like in real life, in terms of your art? In what ways do physics, geology, and history intersect in your work? At the Yugoslav socialist monuments?
D.A. CALF: There’s probably two parallel, sort of lines of research that somewhat by chance sort of meet up. And one of them is what you would call sonic materialism, which is: What is sound itself? And where does it live? And what does it adhere to? And what can it tell us? And what’s it a vehicle for?
I started to think about the speculative concept of geological forms of sound. We think of sound as something that exists within a certain subdivision of the frequency spectrum that humans can hear. We define sound as that 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz, to be technical. We also think of it as something that if it can’t move our tympanic membrane, our eardrum, then it’s not really a sound. And I’m trying to be a bit more speculative and trying to expand that. So what that says is, no, if you hit something, it makes ripples, in matter, any wave form, and strikes your eardrum, and you can hear it. But over time, that force, the volume of that sound, depletes to a point where it’s no longer audible. And I’m thinking about, what happens if that’s not the case, what happens if, if we can still speculate or even imagine those sounds? Even if it’s not moving our tympanic membrane, to the point where we think of it as audible, it’s still there. And what if it’s still moving, still vibrating at a very, very small amplitude, but it’s laying in soil, like, you know, the fossils of creatures or dead skin cells, they’re all still there and they create this sort of stratified earth that exists in every site, that if we have the right tools, we can exhume and examine and for geologists, that tells them something about the past. I’m thinking speculatively about sound being able to potentially do the same thing. So that’s one strand.
The other strand is the sheer density of human stories: conflict, forgetting, contestation, that’s happened in the Western Balkans in the last, let’s say, 150 years. And for me the spomeniks can potentially be understood as loci of those of all of those contestations and stories. So obviously, you have the political contestations, which continue to date. Some of them have been forgotten, some have been dynamited, some have been erased, some are still commemorated, but around these spomeniks you have people that are just going about their daily business, they live there.
And then going into history, the problem in the region, and the problem across the world, is how history can be co-opted. Now, if we look at those sites, and we look at the surroundings of them, and not the story that’s been plunked on there, and we’ve said this is an important battle, this has to this has to be subservient to this new story we’re going to tell about this nation.
Instead, we look at those everyday people who were existing, they’re trying to survive, the family stories, the tales, the things that they lost, the things that they gained, the things that they still remember. And how can we think about those stories being told by the sounds that live dormant in the earth in those sites?
PETER KORCHNAK: Okay, so that’s the logistics, so to speak, of A Spectral Geology. Does the project have any aspirational aims, in terms of, let’s say, bettering the human kind?
D.A. CALF: I think the thing to remember is that it’s very speculative, the things that I’ve tried to bring together. No physicist, no scientist would say, “You’re right, you’ve discovered some connection that we’ve never—” I have no scientific training, I need to note that. But what I’m thinking about is, what approach to these sites, to thinking about history, to memory studies can we sort of get from imagining these connections actually being possible? And for me, what that means is, I guess, a gentler way of doing history that listens more and orders less.
So in history, quite often, you know, we say that the victors tell the story of history. It’s the loudest voices. And I think that brushes over a whole lot of really important stories that are history as well. All of our memories of our past are a form of history as well. And I think that if we did history in a way that was more like that, rather than the way it’s done now, I think we’d have a more harmonious existence in many contested areas.
We know that things are troublesome in Western Balkans in terms of how history is co-opted. So wouldn’t this be a possible better way to do things. But I must say, I’m totally not trying to be prescriptive. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do or anything. I mean, this is a methodology that I’m trying to generate that would also be applicable to other parts of the world. It just happens that it coincided with my deep interest in that region. And then also, I feel like the density of the stories in that region make it quite apt for a first place to try this methodology.
PETER KORCHNAK: And why these monuments? They’re static structures existing in space, often in remote locations. In and of themselves they’re silent, it’s people that give them meaning, a symbolic voice. I mean you could tell history better from places that are alive, where people live and work and play, a market or a train station, a cemetery even. Plus, given that they are pieces of visual art or architecture, they’re so much more, perhaps even better, presented and re-presented in photographs.
[BACKGROUND AMBIENT SOUND]
D.A. CALF: Like anyone when I first became aware of the spomeniks, I was floored, like, I was taken aback. It’s impossible not to be.
And I wanted to move past that sort of surface level engagement with them, that’s how most people know them, and they never get any further and they never understand the context in which these were built, commissioned, and continued to exist. And I think it’s imperative upon anyone who’s interested in them to dig a little deeper.
And then I realized all the portrayals of them were through imagery. And that’s pretty much how, you know, most documentation happens. Visual primacy is a thing, we tend to like things presented visually, we don’t have much patience for anything else. So I, you know, coming from a sound background, where I thought deeply about sound and I understood the value of listening deeply, I thought, what happens when we listen to these sites? What happens if we listen to the monuments themselves, but also the sites around them.
PETER KORCHNAK: The way you present your work, the monuments themselves are obscured with white overlays, as though they aren’t really what we should be thinking about.
D.A. CALF: When you look at the work, and you see the sort of the way I’ve—erasure is a bit of a violent word, and I don’t like to use it, but I’m struggling to find a better word at the moment—but the way I’ve sort of erased the actual monuments from the images, is to bring up the background and push the foreground back a little bit.
We always see the sort of more figurative portrayals of these monuments but we’re sort of ignoring the context in which they sit. That’s the bottom-up history. The people who still live nearby and for them, it’s just like an old tree that’s been there for quite a while. It’s a thing, but they don’t think about it every day.
For me it’s not just about finding the most architecturally striking ones. You know, I respect the works as architectural design pieces. And I think that’s really important. And you know, I’m really interested in the work of people like Sanja Horvatinčić who you’ve profiled and some of the other people you’ve talked to, but that’s not my main bent.
For me, it doesn’t matter whether the spomenik that I’m listening to is intact, whether it’s been demolished but the rubble is still in situ, or whether it’s a site where there once was a spomenik but it’s been erased. I’ve tried not to curate that element too much.
PETER KORCHNAK: How does a short recording of ambient sound at a monument site at any one particular time tell the story of that monument, of that place?
D.A. CALF: I don’t think it’s meant to tell the story, but it tells a story.
You know, I haven’t spent that much time in any one of those sites, so how could I possibly claim to sort of be able to sum up that site. The randomness of when I was there, and what became audible in that site when I was there and when I was recording, that’s fascinating as well. And what it tells us about history is that there are so many chance occurrences, you know, so many things that we don’t hear that we don’t write down, but are all consequential.
PETER KORCHNAK: So where does your fascination with former Yugoslavia, or the Balkans in general, originate? How did you start on the path to A Spectral Geology?
D.A. CALF: I grew up in a household where the news and current affairs were a topic of the daily discussion. I was aware that things were happening in what is now former Yugoslavia. I didn’t understand them. I remember all of the sort of terms and I remember finding it quite confusing.
And then at one point, a new kid turned up at school, and he was from what is now North Macedonia. And I seem to be one of the only people who knew what he was talking about, or at least had heard some of the words and was interested to sort of welcome him into the community, and was just really intrigued, so I asked a lot of questions. And that was before the official breakdown of Yugoslavia, that would have been about ‘89.
And then sort of kept in check with it. There’s quite a large diaspora community, from the Western Balkans in Australia. And so then having friends in the intervening sort of 20 to 30 years and being the one that really wanted to ask them questions, sometimes, maybe a little overbearingly so.
And then I’ve always been interested in geography, particularly human geography. Twentieth century European history has always been of great fascination to me, political history particularly. I first visited the region about five years ago, and just fell in love with it. And even though I also recognized there was a lot in the region that wasn’t idyllic, I could feel the darkness straightaway. And I felt that that was something to investigate. And so I basically just became obsessed from that point and have been back subsequent times, I would have gone back mid-year this year, obviously, it was impossible.
It’s not unusual to hear of people who you know, find themselves in a place and just for the rest of their life become obsessed with it, move there, and feel something in that place that really is either of them or really connects to them. And that’s really what I got. And sometimes I describe my project as a way of understanding myself through another space. And even though I don’t have genetic links, as far as I know, with the space and with the region, I’m figuring myself out as I’m doing the field work, as I’m trying to learn about the people there and trying to connect with them and the past that’s happened there.
To me, it’s still enigmatic. I actually find that sort of intoxicating in myself, and that’s probably what’s driven the obsession, but I also have to step back constantly in question: Am I being voyeuristic here? Am I just being a tourist?
I go back often to Maria Todorova’s concept of Balkanism. That’s been an important sort of check-in point. For me, that’s the last thing I want to do, is be [a] voyeur, or a tourist, or take advantage of any one else’s stories.
PETER KORCHNAK: What’s next for A Spectral Geology? Are you going to continue working on the project? And what comes after?
D.A. CALF: You know, it’s a resolved form in the way it exists. But I also see it as potentially a continuing archive, to which I will add new sites but also new elements for each of those sites. But they’re also not meant to be exhaustive. That’s totally counter to what I’m trying to do. I think I want to move more towards sort of some of this research into actual community and social stories about memories of these sites.
So before this outcome, which is sort of an online archive, there was actually a book that was being built and my hope is that there will be some published work in 2021.
I’ll be commencing soon a doctoral candidature here in Australia and the main beginning stages of that is looking at the diaspora community here and looking at their memories of these sites. Now, for some of them, they might almost have no memory, or they might, their memory of them might be that they’ve seen a photo of them or they, they heard that their grandparents once, you know, used to have to go out there in school groups and visit these sites, but that’s all they have. And to me, that’s valuable as well.
You know, I talk a lot in the work about the phenomenology of memory. Memory slips, it’s scattered, it’s fragmentary, you know, and so hearing someone talk about something that they have this vague memory of, but it definitely has an inculcation in their life and in their history, yeah that’s the next stage, I think that would be really fascinating.
PETER KORCHNAK: Siniša Labrović, Elena Čemerska, and D.A. Calf are among a handful of artists who have intervened in Yugoslav socialist monuments.
- Igor Grubić has tied red scarves around the faces of memorial busts of Partisans around Croatia and made an experimental documentary about the spomenici;
- the Secret Mapping Experiment has projected abstract images on the monuments at Podgarić and Bubanj at night;
- Kristina Leko is in the middle of a multi-year collaborative project at monuments to 20th century wars…
The way I see it: when life gives you memory politics lemons, you make art lemonade.
The other interesting point Sanja Horvatinčić has brought up, in a recent conversation with me, is this: the kind of artists who today protest official policies, or lack thereof, toward World War II monuments with their interventions, around Croatia in particular, opposed the construction of spectacular monuments during the era of socialist Yugoslavia. I guess you have to leave it to artists to raise a voice against the government politics du jour.
And to show what art is for. I’m no art critic. I judge art along a simple question: Does it speak to me in any way? Eyes, ears, brain, heart. Art that makes me feel and think, art that engages with the world, art that, to use a cliche, makes the world a better place; art that preserves, restores, and revives the memory of something positive, art that brings people together, that moves them forward—now that’s the kind of art I can get behind.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia:
[SOUNDBITE – SONG EXCERPT]
“Bella Ciao” by KIC Pop Hor
PETER KORCHNAK: Across former Yugoslavia and beyond, songs of the Partisan struggle, resistance, and revolution reverberate anew. Why is that? And who’s that singing over there? On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: activist choirs and the songs they sing.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photographs, and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
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Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens, Puh, and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Songs by Sara Renar and Zbor Praksa played with permission and eternal gratitude. Buy their music!
Special thanks to Sanja Horvatinčić and Aquarius Music Publishing.
I am Peter Korchňak.
“Termopil” by Sara Renar
kralj je uporan i lud / the king is persistent and mad
zna da više nema natrag, nema više kud / he knows there is no going back, no way
pa okupi ljude, kaže „zadnja nam je bitka / so he gathers the people, he says “our last battle here
evo jedna poruka za kraj / so he gathers the people, he says “our last battle here
nema predaje / No surrender
gotovo je, oni dolaze / It’s over, they’re coming
nema nam više spasa / There is no saving us
gotovo je, samo ostaje / It’s over, what remains
sjećanje na nas / Is the memory of us
sjećanje na nas / The memory of us
izdani smo zadnji nam je dan / We were betrayed, it’s our last day
omjer snaga nije povoljan / Our forces are mismatched
nema bogova samo naša hrabrost, naša srca / There are no gods, only our courage, our hearts
danas se sami borimo / Today we fight alone
u hladu / In the cold
i pitaj se stranče, tko ovdje leži / And ask yourself stranger, who lies here
i jesu li pali / And whether they fell
Uzalud / In vain
“А бре Македонче” peformed by Zbor Praksa
А бре Македонче, за каде се спремаш? / Hey Macedonian boy, what are you preparing for?
Борба те чека, борба за слобода / A fight awaits you, a fight for freedom.
Борба за слобода, за Македонија / A fight for freedom, for Macedonia
за Македонија, земја поробена. / For Macedonia, an enslaved land.
Момци наредени, моми накитени / Young men, decorated, young women with flowers
борба ќе одат, борба за слобода. / They’ll go to fight, to fight for freedom.
Борба за слобода, за Македонија / A fight for freedom, for Macedonia
за Македонија, земја поробена. / For Macedonia, an enslaved land.
Нека разберат клетите фашисти / Let the damned fascists know
македонско име нема да загине! / The Macedonian name will not die
“Sanja Horvatinčić: ‘The story of Yugoslavia is used as a lesson on the acceptable version of socialism without its negative sides.” Historical Expertise (2020). Accessed at https://istorex.ru/New_page_46 on 2/18/2021