On Socialist Utopia and Stojadins

Radenko Milak and Mladen Miljanović, Triple Canopy event, Collegium Artisticum, 26 June

The first Triple Canopy Perfect Strangers event, well-attended, took place last night at Colegium Artisticum, featuring presentations from the Banja Luka artists Radenko Milak and Mladen Miljanović.

Radenko Milak

Milak presented a 1958 film from Socialist Yugoslavia, focusing on New Travnik. He discussed his relationship with the Central Bosnian city, his birthplace, and the building of the new part of the city, first planned in 1949.

The film (unintentionally) was hilarious to a twenty first century audience.  The naïve utopianism and belief that, under socialism, Yugoslavia was progressing inexorably towards the better, made for a rather bittersweet retrospective view. Milak talked at length about the nostalgic feelings that the film provoked, and its focus on young people as the future, and on industry. The newly built Bratsvo factory was one of the central characters in the film.

The main issues raised by Milak in his presentation focused on the use of architecture, on the political direction of the new society in Yugoslavia, and how such films appear now, with our knowledge of the present. He suggested that such films offered the possibility to learn lessons from the socialist past; to observe some of the good things about the old system, and to really challenge ourselves as to how a new future could be created in contemporary BiH. In parallel, in artistic practice, there was also a good analysis of the aesthetics of the movie, and how individual scenes and frames could be used as a starting point for individual paintings or further video projects.

A great deal of discussion followed; there was some criticism based on the gender stereotyping of the film, and the losses that women had faced in Yugoslavia after the end of World War Two. Having played a full part in military campaigns and worked at administrative level to fashion the embryonic Titoist state, women were encouraged back into traditional homemaking and childrearing roles in the decades after the defeats of the Nazis. The film’s presentation of “New Travnik” as a city without women, as a city of factory workers shown humiliatingly incompetent in simple domestic tasks like making coffee, underscored the re-emergent gender polarization, and patriarchy, in Socialist Yugoslavia in the late forties and fifties.

There was also some interesting discussion about the purpose of the film as propaganda, (the film was tightly controlled and didn’t present an accurate picture of “Really Existing Socialism” in Yugoslavia) and the wave of optimism that existed well beyond Yugoslavia regarding the potential of new cities and Bauhaus style architecture, to lead society towards the better. In a different language, this film could easily have been made by the BBC about Harlow or Basildon, or by the East German state broadcaster on the new housing being established in the ruins of post-war Germany. There was a universality about the movie that was rather unexpected, given its specific focus on Travnik.

Mladen Miljanović

 Mladen Miljanović focused on his wrap-around exhibition of the Zastava 101 car at MUMOK, in Vienna, in 2010. He presented the car not only as being produced unchanged from nearly 40 years, but as a symbol of the former Yugoslavia. The exhibition presented the Stojadin as found object, as altered ready-made, and also included a performative element, with the artist operating a free taxi service, for visitors to the Museum. The artist explained, at length, the symbolism of the Stojadin, and his adaptation of the four cars that he bought for the show; the most remarkable being covered in mirrors and featuring a Bentley-like interior.

The discussion that followed was very interesting, largely for the comparison that was offered between “stagnation” in former socialist societies- something the we could present the Stojadin as- and development in capitalism. There was some debate as to whether “stagnation” might not be thought of as “consolidation” and not necessarily a negative thing; a questioning of the capitalist imperative to continually re-invent things and make new products for profit was questioned. The idea of an artist’s responsibility to critique the present based on knowledge and understanding of recent history was also opened out; as was the broader idea of where responsibility lay, for changing the forms and organisation of contemporary society.

The event lasted for nearly three hours, and was stimulating and thought-provoking; taking basic symbols and forms and using them as a basis to interrogate not only the Yugoslav past but the Bosnian present. If you couldn’t make last night, try and make one of the remaining three events- tonight again at Collegium, next Tuesday at Kriterion, or next Wednesday at the historical museum. The exchange of both ideas, historical knowledge, sometimes heated debate, and contemporary critical theory offered at these events, is extremely valuable.

The Stojadin that took SCB across Europe in 2008. Self-indulgent, I know. Sorry.

There is another Triple Canopy event tonight at Collegum, starting at 1830hrs, as well as events on the 3rd and 4th July- details of the programme can be found here. SCB’s interview with Mladen Miljanović will be published in the interviews section next Monday.

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