Slought Foundation Curatorial and Research Fellow Laurel McLaughlin spoke with Tanja Ostojić about her work and life as an artist and cultural activist. Their conversation interrogates mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion in everyday life and society, and is informed by Ostojić's own migrations within the European Union as well as her marriage to a random stranger. With the courtesy of the Slought Foundation and the author we are pleased to publish this interview in this Catalogue.
Marriage and Other Migrations
Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Resistance, provocation, and outright transgression are all modes of operation within the heteropathic and relational texture of artist Tanja Ostojić’s immigration-informed practice (b. 1972). Using the feminist lexicon as her compass, Ostojić stages her body and its many analogous forms as her primary vessel of communication and meaning. Her performances incarnate the twenty-first centuries’ globalized migratory struggles through their intimate engagement with relations of power, temporal and psychological quandaries, and gendered perspectives of movement across boundaries. In their invocation of contemporary biopolitics and ethics, her works defy a Western epistemological fixity that characterizes nations within the European Union; and instead, her works challenge viewers to forge bonds with “the other,” thereby creating new realities, as philospher Hannah Arendt eloquently articulated.
Ostojić’s works have garnered strong political reactions in Eastern Europe and beyond, ranging from the Austrian government censorship of her piece After Courbet, L’origine du Monde (2005), which featured the artist’s crotch wearing blue panties with the stars of the EU flag, to her public and yet highly personal performance Looking for a Husband with an EU passport (2000-2003), in which she circulated an ad “looking for a husband,” whom she later married. Both of these performances positioned markers of the European Union bureaucracy against itself, in order to reveal interior inconsistencies and consequently challenging the foundational fabric of such a “union.” Ostojić rendered the signage, the EU symbol of stars and its immigration policy as “othered,” making them strange within the site of her body. Whether stamped on her panties, as the EU symbol of “welcome” offers a hypersexualized invitation to the EU for Eastern European women, or posted as a marriage proposal advertisement in order to gain entrance into the EU, both performances challenge avenues of economic, nationalistic, and gendered access into the EU from Eastern European, non-EU countries. In demonstrating the “othering” of her body by the law, Ostojić calls for not only a change in law-making, but an expansion of meaning-making itself -- one that transgresses patriarchal paradigms and nationalistic alliances alike, proposing new networks of relationality.
In most recent years, Ostojić’s practice dares to cross even more boundaries -- from her own body to those of others. In workshops, performances, discussions, and online platforms, Ostojić’s initiation of Misplaced Women? (an ongoing project begun in 2009) brings the interior processes that actively “other,” such as migration, displacement and replacement, and national and social transformation, into the public sphere, revealing both the vulnerability and power of the human spirit. From literal sites of translocation, such as bus stops, airports, refugee camps, and borders, participants relay their psychological experiences or perform traumas in order to make their “othering” visible. In some instances these participants, like Ostojić, defy government regulations, cultural standards, and translocational space itself, but most importantly, they defy a globalized impulse to forget their struggle through their word and action.
L: The notion of resistance is prevalent in your work, beginning with your national identity, and extending through your feminine and artistic identities. Could you first discuss your conception of nationality and how that relates to your practice?
T: That's a very interesting question and a very complex one... I remember doing an initiation performance workshop in Tirana in 2002, with Albanian women artists of different generations coming from different parts of the country, entitled Confrontation. There was no history of performance art in Albania before; performance was unknown in that area. I am mentioning this since there is an ample potential for feminist politics in performance body art. In such a context, performance was a way to politicize one's own position and to confront certain gender roles that were so dominant in the patriarchal society. And that's the way I've been working -- involving confrontation and resistance. It started already as a natural reaction when I was a teenager as I confronted my parents and grandparents in terms of expectations, gender identity, and belonging. That stayed very present for me as a strategy in my early work. I also took part in the student and citizen protests in Belgrade in the 1990s when we were confronting certain harsh political realities.
When one realizes how things work and feels that it's not fair, then basically one has to confront them or go around them, right? Strategies of Success / Curator's Series (an art project of mine 2001-2003) was very much about institutional critique, confronting the power and gender relationships in the art world, and questioning how they function. My relation to my national identity in particular, well the question assumes that one has "national identity," and what does that mean actually...
I grew up in SFR of Yugoslavia in a political climate that was quite denationalized, with the ideology of non-aligned movement, brotherhood and equality -- and I found that very healthy. I was declaring myself as Yugoslavian. The first time I was declared as Serbian, it came from outside in 1998-1999 when I lived in France. They would always ask me for my nationality and they would present me as a Serbian artist; and to be honest, that sounded very strange to me at the time. Some people are brought up to be proud of their national identity like US Americans, French, and Norwegians for example, or as I was a proud Yugoslavian school kid earlier, right? Some others refuse to be reduced to one's national identity because aren't we all are so much more than that?
Especially in politics now. The 1990s were very turbulent times too. It was particularly hard to accept that you've been labeled with new national identity from outside overnight. War crimes had been committed for the sake of Serbian national interests and against them as well. Serbian nationality has been demonized in the media world-wide. So I felt at the time that I actually had nothing to do with any of that so-called Serbian national identity -- what ever that meant -- to be honest. Only in past eight years, as I bring up my child as a bilingual person in a multicultural context, I realize that my mother language is so precious to me. I could not imagine talking to my son in any other language as a matter of fact. Besides that I identify with the Yugoslavian arts, emancipatory movements, and the antifascist heritage.
L: So you were resisting against a dictated identity chosen by the larger European community?
T: Yes, if someone expects you to be in a certain way, they are putting you down as a societal expectation. Especially as a woman, or a so-called Eastern European woman. I address this topic in a number of my works.
L: You previously said, "Provocation is a speciality of mine. My experience tells me that while art cannot quickly change social or political reality, it is important that art not be apolitical." How does your work function as political work rather than operating apolitically; and, can art ever truly be apolitical?
T: Of course it's possible for art to be apolitical. Besides the explicitly market-oriented contemporary hyper-art-production, I can give an example from the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), where the official art that President Tito supported was modern abstract art. It was not like in the Eastern Bloc, that SFRY was not a part of since 1948, where at the time, Socialist Realism was the official art. I saw the art scene while I was studying art in Belgrade in the late 80s and in 90s and it was dominated by conceptual abstract art too. The 70s were political but they were marginalized. None of the people from the 70s performance art scene in Belgrade or Vojvodina received any position in art education, not even in elementary school, nor were any of their works featured in art publications until much later when the situation had changed finally.
L: So you're thinking of political art in a very explicit and direct manner?
T: It doesn't have to be a campaign or certainly not one-dimensional. But it is important to consider the politics of artistic production/exhibiting and how we relate to social, political and economic realities inside and outside of the art system. I feel, for example, provoked by racisms, economic exploitation, gender inequalities and I cannot avoid it in my art work. One should question the extreme commercialization of the art world that has been ruled by capitalist modes of production and consumption.
L: I'd like to discuss some of your early works which also define your current practice, notably your acclaimed work, Looking for a Husband with EU Passport, 2000-2005. It embodied the political within the site of your own body while you searched for a husband as a means to acquire an EU passport. Could you discuss your radical negotiation of ideological borders, physical borders, and social borders in this work, which also seem to be constants throughout your practice?
T: Yes, it was a complex 5-year interdisciplinary project. It started as an online exchange, then it moved into a media of performance art, and then with the marriage, it turned into the media of law. It continued as Integration Project... It was a very demanding project. As artists, the way I see it, we don't have that nine to five job where we can keep a distance. That's the point with this project, it asks all of you in a way. There are explicit consequences in your daily life. I ended up communicating with people I didn't know – this was before chat rooms and Facebook – so I emailed with applicants. There were some spooky people between them as well. And suddenly one realizes that one is researching other issues as well, such as the construction of online identity, and those online marriage markets... People have constructed online identities and I had to negotiate with them. I had, for example, someone writing to me from Holland who said, "If you marry me, you'll be in heaven." And that was the scariest one I ever got, because I thought, what is heaven for this person; it could be actually a hell for me...
At the beginning of 2002 I got married in a city where I'd never been before or exhibited, and with a language I didn't know and people I didn't know. And so once I moved to Düsseldorf to continue this project, I established work relationships quicker than my personal relationships.
I was grateful that the parents of my boyfriend at the time understood this project, as they escaped from Czechoslovakia to Austria in '69 and had their own interesting migration story. And so, when they figured out about my work, they told me their story. With my own family, they needed some years to catch up, so to speak. As they were informed that I married for papers in the frame of my project, my father was shocked—he said to me: "You didn't even ask for my permission to marry," and I laughed...
L: This project has been widely discussed because it directly critiques EU restrictions on migration, which then subsequently causes Eastern European women to search for alternative means of entry into the EU, such as marriage.
T: Yes, I wanted to address the so-called Fortress Europe biopolitics, violence of the borders existence, restrictions of the access to the citizens rights and in particular fragility of gender in the context of migration. The frame of this project was emancipatory for me regarding the segregation of my passport, that didn't allow me to move without a visa. Instead, I chose the husband, I chose the method, I chose the rules, and I financed the project. Initially, my intention was not to marry, I just posted an ad as a political statement, but after a while, my correspondence went in another direction. At a certain point, I had an offer to marry a German man, a fellow artist actually, K.G. and I thought it would be good to continue my research from another perspective, on another stage. I've let the project develop in that direction, so to say, and during this process, I made decisions.
L: In her book, Performing the East (2013), and in a recent talk with you in the Director's Cut at the University of Aberdeen, Amy Bryzgel calls such negotiation "massaging of the law" – could you discuss your process in working within and outside of established paradigms?
T: Indeed, in the frame of my work I thought it was very important to question certain wildly accepted societal norms and discriminatory laws. When I look, for example, how my child is taught in school, I have impression that especially Germans are very strict about rules and "the law." Everything seems to be prescribed somehow, and the one who is prescribing is in the position of power. I got an impression that I wasn't brought up like that, nor do I think it's a healthy way for a person to develop critical thinking skills and an internal feeling of right and wrong. I believe in humanity – it's no law or church that prescribes my opinion. So, if the law protects an un-human treatment of people or nature, or systematically discriminates against certain groups, I can't respect that authority. Hannah Arendt analyzes the concept of "naked life" – in the context of the Third Reich that also "had the law," right? But there, as we know, certain populations were inhumanely "out-lawed." Now-a-days we have a discrepancy between the high standards of improvement of citizens rights, while on the other hand, large populations have been illegalized and stripped of their political and human rights. Especially women and children. We notice a similar bipolarity between strict taxation regimes on one side and tax havens on the other. Look at workers' rights being protected by syndicates in developed countries and the severe exploitation of workers in outsourced production zones... We have to change laws and policies if they aren't right, whether gender rights or asylum seekers' rights. It's wrong to exclude people from access to human rights. Therefore, I believe we should not take laws for granted, we need to question them. This is one of the responsibilities of intellectuals, to question the law. If not, the law is just upheld by the position of power, then we risk being manipulated.
L: Is it the artist's responsibility to explain this human moral compass?
T: I don't think artists in general necessarily are responsible, because an average artist works from a place of privilege. Most of the art world is concerned with hyper-production, investments, money laundering, entertainment, and consumption, right? So the contemporary art system is in a way a product -- a child of the economic injustice. While some other artists work in low, or no-budget contexts. We have that privilege, in any case, to express ourselves creatively and to speak to the public. But it is difficult at the same time when we speak for those who don't have a political voice, do not have a right to vote, and do not have an access to media, etc... For example, in The Open Studio of New Belgrade Chronicle, a short TV series that I made in Belgrade around 2004, the idea was to give the access to media to the alternative communities in Belgrade. The media talks about those populations in derogative and humiliating ways, so my idea was to advocate media correction in this case.
L: Another of your well-known works, After Courbet/ L'origine du monde (2004), features a cropped shot of your panties with a prominent EU-flag design, and gained extensive media attention because of its association with the exploited Eastern European female body, social norms, and political representation. This image held immense political currency as it stimulated debate – do you think that images still have this power in global contemporary society?
T: One can always talk about images, especially images of violence. People look at these images and are shocked at first, but then they get used to them. We live in a time of overflow and over-consumption of images. Images alone don't have that much power anymore in my opinion. I was debating about this on a panel discussion with Erich Lessing, a historical Magnum photographer of the Post World War II Europe. We debated about that in the frame of a joint exhibition that was interestingly conceived (Europe - In Between Document and Fiction was a traveling exhibition by Este Foundation, curated by Dr. M.Grzinic and W.Seidl, and presented in 2010 and 2011 in a number of venues in Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Romania). Curators had chosen his black & white photos of the working class in Yugoslavia and from the Hungarian Revolution, and a number of contemporary artists (not photographers!) from the region of South Eastern Europe dealing with historical and contemporary political realities. Mr. Lessing stated in the discussion that he would never add any comments to the images. It seemed that he was also not open to the contemporary art presented in the show either. His perspective was an old-school perspective that the photography is the truth. For my part, I consciously decided to take part in that show with a research project, without using the medium of photography. My project referenced one of his photographs that was on display and that was showing Jovanka Broz, the former first lady of the life long SFRY President Tito, accompanied by Nikita Khrushchev (the USSR's leader at the time) in the very tense historical moment of 1955 when the two countries made their first difficult step of reconciliation after the split in 1948.
So my project The Case of Comrade Jovanka Broz was based on research. Jovanka Broz lived over twenty years of her life in Belgrade as Sans Papier basically, after she was isolated without a court process. I couldn't find any written documents regarding this famous political case in the archives of Yugoslavia, Serbia, or Tito's archive because they were top secret and censored. Nor was she ready to talk about it at the time. So after more research, I produced a list of questions for the former first lady of Yugoslavia that shed light on the case and I exhibited those questions along witht the enlarged "official document" signed by the head of the Communist Party of SFRY (that I had to fake). So I was juxtaposing this idea of reality, or the way I was seeing the truth, to the powerful image of this historical photography. The conclusion might be that sometimes images themselves aren't enough.
In terms of After Courbet (2004), the image alone was provocative and still is. It also references a lot of art history – Courbet as an artist, was banned from shows and was even imprisoned for his political work at one point. So these references function with this image—but the image alone, I doubt it would work in this complexity without the political and art historical contexts.
With this photo I wanted to reference the biopolitics that regulate who can and can't enter the EU, etc. It also brings up the immigration policy that checks the warmth of the bed sheets in marriages between EU and non-EU partners, etc. It is also interesting to look at it in relation to this most recently defined classification on "good" and "bad refugees", etc.
L: Such negotiation or "massaging of the law" also involved a "de-territorialization", a "becoming other," or a sense of "post-identity" within your own identity (in a Deleuzian sense) did this take on new meaning as your practice extended from early works which focused on your own body, to those bodies of others? And what is the role of empathy within such resistance?
T: That's right, with the Crossing Borders series, I personally experienced what it's like to be on the non-desired list, by trying out and applying, using all the strategies that migrants have been forced to develop and use for decades in order to cross borders. And it was precious that I could speak through my art practice, from my own position. I wanted that personal experience to reach people in a way that they could identify with me and the troubles I went through, and detect the mechanisms of exclusion of the EU and Shengen border regimes that affect people's lives. On the other hand, coming from the European continent, I could not speak about how it is for people of different races or people from difficult social backgrounds, or how it is to cross the Mediterranean – and so, in the later projects such as Sans Papiers, Naked Life 1-4, and Misplaced Women? / Missplaced Women?, I researched these types of cases. I wanted to express my empathy and solidarity with them.
L: Could you discuss your most current project Misplaced Women? / Missplaced Women? (2009-2015), which involves performances where women to carry packed suitcases in public spaces and repeatedly pause to pack and unpack as they move through the space, among other discussions and workshops. Could you explain the relationship between this piece and the ethics of migration and the specific female iterations of this project?
T: Misplaced Women? / Missplaced Women? is an art project that consists of performances, performance series, workshops and delegated performances, ongoing since 2009, including contributions by international artists, students and people from diverse backgrounds. Within this project we embody and enact some of everyday life activity that signifies a displacement as common to transients, migrants, war and disaster refugees, and itinerant artists travelling the world to earn their living. Those performances are continuing themes of migration, desired mobility, relations of power and vulnerability in regards to the mobile, and the female body as in numerous previous works of mine.
Participants are invited to perform Misplaced Women? / Missplaced Women? and to share there experiences on the web blog and during public discussions. Locations for performances that I suggested include migration specific places: train stations, airports, borders, underground, police stations, refugee camps, specific parks, prisons, etc. Contributions are posted in the form of images, notes, stories or videos to the projects blog: https://misplacedwomen.wordpress.com/.
While contributing to one of the group performances or a performance of her own, a participant gets the opportunity to develop sensibilities for related issues and processes, and that's the point where the important questions begin to get asked. The results of the workshops are not as important as the processes that are being documented, archived, and written about by most of the participants. Sometimes, very valuable contributions occur, such as the "coming out" by Marta Nitecka Barche of Polish origin, doctoral student from the University of Aberdeen who spent three weeks in a regular prison in the USA several years earlier because her visa expired. She wrote about humiliation and shame she experienced in regard to this administrative problem, that has been dealt with while she was handcuffed and ankle-cuffed. Marta's story has been archived in the section Stories of the project blog.
L: Do you see the nature of your performance work as being sustainable?
T: Well it depends on the context I think. Ideally I would be grateful to get involved in a longer-term project that is financed and as well in educational projects with other people. Then something really sustainable could be built up.
So far, with my art and cultural activism praxis, I am trying to add to knowledge and to provoke sensitivity in the cultural sphere, about the issues that are usually dealt with in the world of advocacy. My art practice is referential in the field of theory, so to say, as sociologists use it sometimes as an example. I think it is only when those three fields -- theory, art, and activism – start to truly exchange and establish joint platforms that one can expect some progress with the changes in actual politics, and within the lives of the people that are affected.
L: How do your works function or perhaps resist functioning within an art institution?
T: Well, when I am invited to exhibit or to perform in a museum context, or when I have a rare opportunity that my work becomes a part of important museum collection, it functions pretty well I have to say. Performance art, feminist art, and geographies I come from are extremely marginalised, and opportunities are rather rare and under-financed. My work is somehow hard to classify as I show up with unexpected mediums and modes of work.
On the other hand, I have no other choice than to cope with the consequences of my non-compromising work, so to say, and sometimes it is difficult to cope with existentially. For example, the result of performing I'll be Your Angel, at the 49th Venice Biennale (2001) was to be blacklisted because I enacted an institutional critique and a critique of the curatorial position of power...
L: What are you working on currently?
T: Currently I'm continuing to develop Lexicon of Tanja Ostojić that has been ongoing since 2011 as an interdisciplinary, participatory research project using on-line social media networks as well as collaborations with women who share the same first name and family name with me. Via personalized sociological research and direct social and creative exchange, I created a map that documents how approximately 30 project participants – 30 Tanja Ostojićs — have been migrating, and I asked them what identity issues, gender issues, and labor conditions concerned them. Some of the project files will be published along with the favourite recipes of the name sisters, as Lexicon of Tanja Ostojić – a book currently in preparation. Since 2012, a number of meetings, workshops, and Tanja Ostojić Conventions have been developed internationally together with the women participating in the project, such as: Zwei Namensschwestern von Tanja Ostojić -- a talk show — moderated by Dr. Suzana Milevska in HKW, Berlin 10.4.2013, and a creative workshop with Tanja Ostojić in TERRA (international sculpture symposium in clay) Kikinda, Serbia, July 2013. In 2016 and 2017 there are going to be a couple of creative workshops that each involve a number of name-sisters working on a joint documentary embroidery art project. Those workshops give those women of different generations, different nationalities, and different social backgrounds the possibility to travel, to speak with one another, and to be creative.
Another project that I actively continue to work on is the Naked Life. It's a series of performances, video performances, and video installations based on research of documentary files, and has been ongoing since 2004.The structure of the performances involves many layers of reading about individual cases that are each followed by a layer of my own clothes that I strip from my body, remaining at the end naked and vulerable as "Naked Life."
Naked Life 1 was built on my expressions of solidarity with the deportations of Roma people from Germany to Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Romania. Naked Life 2 revealed the full spectrum of Roma racisms across Europe -- from institutional racisms on the highest level to racially motivated serial killings in contemporary Hungary. It has been performed at the UNESCO Office in Venice in the frame of the Roma Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2011.
Naked Life 4, a 90 minutes long striping lecture performance at Live Action, Göteborg has included, for example: — just to mentions some of them — stories of two Roma girls holocaust survivors who made it to Sweden on white busses after WW2, cases regarding five centuries long systematic segregation of Roma in Sweden, systematic sterilisation of over 60,000 Scandinavian Romani women operated in Sweden against there will or knowledge between 1935 and 1976, deportations of Balkan Roma from the 1990-es on… Over 4000 Romani people, including over 1000 children born in the 21st century, that have been illegally registered in a contemporary racist database catalogue maintained by Swedish Police… They are on the list for one reason only: being born in Romany families.
For Naked Life 5 will be performed on March 5, 2016 in Kampnagel theatre in Hamburg will involve my current research regarding the Balkan Roma who are in constant danger of deportation from Germany to the Balkan countries that have been declared safe countries by German government, but in reality they are not safe for those ethnic groups.
The Naked Life 6, will take place in the Society of Advocates Hall Aberdeen Scotland, UK, on March 12 2016, in its sixth iteration, looks at lives of Scottish, Irish and British Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, asking: how is it possible that in contemporary Europe certain ethnic groups are constantly exposed and stripped off their political, social, and human rights? Following on from the performance, a discussion with invited guest including representatives from local minorities, NGO´s, representatives of local government, intends to establish dialogues with the audience, to initiate activism, solidarity and healing. Polish Roma performer based in Glasgow, Sonia Michalezwic, acts as a respondent, sharing her personal experiences of the issues raised in conversation and by the performance of mine, with the audience and invited guests.
LAUREL MCLAUGHLIN is a graduate student at Bryn Mawr College in the History of Art Department with a focus on Contemporary practice. She graduated from The Courtauld Institute of Art's Masters program with Distinction in her course, Global Conceptualism. Her research and curatorial interests explore the intersections among feminist performance art, migratory aesthetics, identity formation in globalized contexts, with a focus on the interaction between politically motivated art and its ability to ideologically transform communities.