(Re)considered Strategies – Self-Management in Former Yugoslavia by

by 25. 11. 2020

Judit Árva interviewing Jelena Vesić

The critical examination of art practices and cultural policies, especially the issues of self-management and self-organization, in former Yugoslavia have intensified among researchers and curators in the last two decades, locally as well as internationally. Self-management is a “horizontal” social and economic system that emerged in the 1950s, the basic criteria of which is to reduce the dominancy of the state, where social groups or communities participate in decision making processes, and manage themselves from the designation of aims and programs to developing strategies for realization. In the realm of art, the concept of the participatory, “open museum,” or practices of museum pedagogy in former Yugoslavia, are all rooted in the idea of self-management. Today – when critical voices and independent initiatives are often suppressed (again) with regulations and the autonomy of institutions often get damaged – the issue of self-management, as an alternative model, could not be more current. 

I talked with Jelena Vesić, Belgrade-based independent curator and writer, about Yugoslav self-management, who is one of the most prominent researchers on this topic. She has examined art practices and self-management of several research projects, texts, and exhibitions from 2008 onwards, such as the project and exhibition Political Practices of (post-) Yugoslav Art: RETROSPECTIVE 01, which took place in Belgrade in 2009, or in her essay “Post-Research Notes: (Re)search For the True Self-Managed Art,” published in 2015. 1 She was the founding member of the Belgrade-based Prelom Collective whose research project The Case of the Student Cultural Center has contributed to the rediscovery of socialist self-management in art.

I would like to thank Dóra Hegyi, art historian and curator, and Eszter Szakács, curator, editor and researcher for their valuable advice and helpful suggestions. 

Judit Árva: “Political and administrative decision-making created the atmosphere of fear and endangered progressive thinking, freedom of creation and made working in the art field sickening and hazardous. Self-management practice in the reign of terror atmosphere is impossible, because the trust of the government is always given to politically ‘correct’ individuals.” 2  

This excerpt comes from the “Open letter to the Yugoslav Public,” written in 1971, and signed by the new art group “February,” and KOD, among others. This passage, I think, is relevant from two points of views. On the one hand, it refers to the political-social circumstances of that time, and on the other, draws attention to an idea, a system or a “social process”: self-management. I would like to ask you about the latter, from a historical aspect. What exactly was the Yugoslav socialist self-management?

Jelena Vesić: It is important to emphasize that it is first of all the workers‘ self-management, that is, the labor management and organizational self-management rooted historically in the socialist movement, in democratic libertarianism and anarcho-syndicalism. Workers’ self-management – also called workers’ control – ideally referred to the decision-making process in which the workers themselves agree on the working conditions and processes, instead of an owner or a manager telling them what to do and how do it. As the social strategy of development in the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia workers’ self-management essentially stemmed from an anti-Stalinist critique of bureaucratic 

hegemony, which, in theory as in practice, encompassed all spheres of the society: economy, politics, and even culture itself. When the curator Dunja Blažević 3 speaks on the roots of Yugoslav self-management – and her engagement with the Student Cultural Center – Belgrade (SKC) and the concept of self-managed art which will be the subject of our conversation – she refers to theorist and politician Pierre Joseph Proudhon. In his book The General Idea of the Revolution from 1851, he called for a “society without authority,” and proclaims that “to be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, numbered, regulated, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, valued, censured and commanded by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom to do so.” 

One of the first theses on workers’ self-management in Yugoslavia could be found in the magazine Communist in the 1950s and are drawn by the significant Yugoslav communist, theorist and partisan Boris Kidrič. At the time of the split with the SSSR (1948) and the sudden shift of the country from state communism to self-managed communism, Kidrič was the chief of economic politics. His first thesis speaks about socialist enterprise as the economic-legal entity within the state of working people (dictatorship of the proletarians). For him, the socialist enterprise should be developed inductively, from within the working collective, so from the bottom up in opposition to the Soviet mastodonic state governing apparatus. In other words, the enterprise is not any longer the object of state administration and state accumulation of “profit,” but replies to a certain extent to “objective economic laws” and is led by plebeian creativity and not by the command from above. Kidrič compares the principle of socialist self-managed enterprise to the capitalist market economy and to the Soviet total administrative planning economy, criticizing enforcement and the privileges of bureaucracy as social parasites as well as the disappearance of socialist democracy in establishing a monopoly of the state-capitalist character. Self-management is a complex and differentiated theory that has many creators and interpreters, and I’m mentioning here just fragments of the whole picture.

Edvard Kardelj, a highly ranked politician and the architect of Yugoslav socialism, linked socialist self-management to the politicization of the individual and the society at large through the democratic system of pluralism of self-managing interests, emphasizing that it was a system that had truly overcome the choice between multi-party pluralism and the one-party system as options that alienated society from the real man and citizen. 4

For Kardelj, self-management was yet another road leading to the withering away of the state, in the classical Marxist sense of the term, and replacing the state structures by the communitarian property of the communist society. The idea of the socialist state being merely a transition stage on the way to communism, in which the state will wither away, is found in both Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program (Marx’s letter to Bracke of May 5, 1875), and Lenin’s State and Revolution. In the Yugoslav context the concept of Society was most prominent and reflected most manifestly in the principle of social ownership – neither state ownership, nor individual ownership but OUR, common ownership. Organizations of Associated Labor, symbolically abbreviated as OUR in Yugoslav languages, were ideally imagined as associations of free producers and their foundation began after the enactment of the Constitution of 1974.

Six artists, nine art historians, SKC Gallery, 1972, photo: Milan Jozic.

JÁ: How did the idea of self-management leak into, and shape the field of art?

JV: First of all, I wouldn’t use the expression “leak from,” since it assumes separate containers – leaking from this into that. As I said in answer to your previous question it was a comprehensive social phenomena encompassing all the social fields. The very socialism, also in Kardelj’s understanding as far as we can see, had advocated for more than the social separation of the autonomous spheres as in western democracies. So, the cultural workers were also understood as citizens and working people, which is the essence of the meaning of the expression of cultural worker that is sometimes in focus today as well. But it is part of the rather comprehensive socialist social construction.

When the critic and curator Ješa Denegri speaks about his relationship with the institutions, he also uses the language of self-management, namely the concept of associative labor – he said to me “I associated my labor with the Museum of Contemporary Art.” 

Yugoslav society, like many others, was full of contradictions – it was very important politically to keep “freedom of speech” formulated to stimulate the critical attitude in democratic socialist societies as different from the Soviet Blok cultural policy of censorship. But, on the other hand, there are examples of censorship, banning, and jailing. The year 1971 when the Letter to the Yugoslav public was issued by the February group is also full of contradictions, if one attempts to draw the firm line between state institutions and alternative institutions, that is between the nonconformist art and the omniscient state. The year 1971 notes the first exhibition of international conceptual art in Yugoslavia curated by Braco Dimitrijević and Nena Baljević At the Moment in Zagreb and At Another Moment at the SKC Belgrade, and the first exhibition of Conceptual Art in Yugoslavia at the state institution the Museum of Contemporary Art – Belgrade and curated by Ješa Denegri and Biljana Tomić, and the official participation of Yugoslavia at the Paris Biennial of Young Artists with a selection of participants of New Art Practice made by Denegri, but on behalf of the State Committee for International Cultural Relations and the Museum of Contemporary Art–Belgrade. I wrote about these controversies in the MoCA Reader published in 2016. 5

Lutz Becker, Cinema Notes, SKC, 1975, movie still.

JÁ: What strategies and tactics of self-managed art were operating in the specific context of the SKC?

JV: I call the SKC a “performative institution” – an institution created in a sort of performative mode as an institution-in-movement, or institution-movement, since it grew out of the student and workers’ protests of 1968 6 and continued that movement from the inside as a critical wave supported by the international influence of its artists, intellectuals, and activists. Performativity for me means “surpassing” all those dualisms that the SKC embodied as a movement-institution, self-organization-institution, or critique-institution. It is the “substance” that erodes the firmness of the walls, the enclosure, isolation, and self-sufficiency of a classical institutional venue in regard to everyday life and sociality “from below.” Its links with self-management can be read through Ješa Denegri’s paradigm of the artist in the first person 7 , in the aesthetical-cultural corpus, or in the Edvard Kardelj’s paradigm of pluralism of common interests, in an organizational-working-political corpus. And, it is no wonder that the institutional representative of the SKC became exactly a photograph showing the multitude or plurality of those “first persons”: A photo by Milan Jozić showing various artists, critics, gallerists, and friends, protagonists of New Art Practices, portrayed standing in a line, leaning against the wall of SKC’s Gallery.

JÁ: I would like to ask you about the October events, particularly about October 75, which critically discussed the concept of self-managed art through statements and texts by artists and art critics who gathered around the SCK. What was the context of this debate?

JV: The October events at the SKC were specific to the formation of New Art Practices in Belgrade, particularly during the first half of the 1970s. The SKC regularly organized alternative “Octobers” as a sort of oppositional, counter-cultural activity with regard to the official public event called the October Salon, which contained the conventional and bourgeois prerogative of a “salon” and was generally larpourlartist oriented. At that time, the October Salon was held at the Modern Gallery, located at the site of a former garage in Masarykova Street, so that the SKC’s “Octobers” quite literally functioned as a sort of door-to-door counter-salon. 

October 75 was organized as a counter-exhibition, documented in the form of a publicly distributed notebook – a hectographed reader with the texts of all the participants of the project (Dunja Blažević, Raša Todosijević, Bojana Pejić, Goran Đorđević, Vladimir Gudac, Dragica Vukadinović, Jasna Tijardović, Zoran Popović, Ješa Denegri, and Slavko Timotijević), written in the form of proclamative statements-essays. So, the cultural workers active around the SKC Gallery were invited by Dunja Blažević to publish a series of individual critical statements on the idea of self-managing art, which evolved into a debate on the politicization of cultural activity and the experimental change in the language of art related to the emergence of the new paradigm.

One way of contextualizing October events is SKC can be found in Zoran Popović’s interview for Moment magazine that conducted Ješa Denegri. This interview is an important historical resource for me personally, since this is exactly the trajectory of Yugoslav art that I’m interested in, tracing it in my historical reading of Yugoslav art and its broader implications. Popović spoke about the link between the generation of conceptual artists that evolved at the SKC, with the postwar conflicts within the left during the 1950s and 1960s. 

In his contribution to October 75, Zoran Popović stated the following: “Art must be negative, critical, both to the world outside and to its own language, its own (artistic) practice. It is senseless and hypocritical to be engaged and to speak and act in the name of humanity or mankind, or for political and economic freedoms, while simultaneously taking a passive stance towards the system of ‘universal’ artistic values, which is the basic premise for the existence of artistic bureaucracy and, by that very fact, the shameless robbery performed by art celebrities.”

Another way of contextualization can be traced in the very negativity of the event of October 75, in the line of thinking about and attacking what Popović called “universal artistic values,” which are today, interestingly, preserved in cultural industries and their vision of contemporary production of culture. This line of thinking of art in socialism, interestingly again, provokes and brings to the fore the conservative critical voices of the beaux arts provenance and their moralizing sentiments. Some waves of this can be traced in the critical articles on the SKC and its provocative “cultures.” Namely, in the official press the SKC was almost never attacked for its political ideas, but only on account of its morality. And the reaction to October 75 was similar in its intonation but expressed in a more sophisticated manner. An illustrative example of such an address could be found in the article under the inspiring title “All Is (Not) Possible” by Ambro Marošević, published in Mladost on 19 May 1978. Actually, it was a typical critique directed against the artistic activities at the SKC. He says: “One must ask inevitably whether it is enough in art merely to break the old … to destroy, de-fetishize, and remove the old, and to place something new in its place simply because it is new, even if it is weak or powerless… At the Performance Encounters this was often the case, especially in the vulgar ‘action’ of a German ‘artist’ whose art is even unpleasant to mention, since it consisted in plucking hairs from the body and all sorts of other things for which the word ‘morbid’ is too mild. It needn’t be emphasized that such ‘art’ cannot even be found in nonsense….” Moralizing was the prevailing type of criticism, and something that was immoral or decadent was also considered as Western and therefore harmful for man and socialism. 

 JÁ: The rediscovery of self-management in the arts started from the 2000s, through many important research projects and exhibitions. What generated this rediscovery? Why did you start to research these issues?

JV: We can speak of a few sources of the phenomenon of new interests in the politics and practices of socialist self-management in the former country that is taking place on the contemporary scene of cultural practitioners: One can be traced in the different strategies of unionizing collectives, groups, independent organizations and individuals into associations that will later manage to influence official cultural policies, as was the case with the independent cultural scene in Zagreb, or not, such was the case with the network of independent organizations Druga Scena (Other Scene) in Belgrade.

The film by Marta Popivoda – Cultural Worker 3 in 1 – speaks about the whole phenomenon. It is a documentary film about the role of the left-oriented independent cultural-artistic scene and cultural workers in the region of ex-Yugoslavia. The author is following the life and work of several characters in four cities of former Yugoslavia, unfolding the story on cultural work and its discontents in our liberal societies. The film explores two issues – what does it mean to be a cultural worker in the post-socialist contexts of Skopje, Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana, and what are the possibilities for action and intervention in the immediate social reality, using the means of art.

Lutz Becker, Cinema Notes, SKC, 1975, movie still.

The interest in self-management and direct democracy are also shown in the wave of student protests in Belgrade and Zagreb, and later Tuzla and many other cities in former Yugoslav countries. The 2008 student protests against the commodification of knowledge were organized in the style of the world-wide series of anti-capitalist “occupy” uprisings at the time. 

So these would be some practices that renewed interest in the history of Yugoslav self-managed socialism as an inspiration for current struggles. As for the investigation of the links between New Art Practices in former Yugoslavia and self-management socialism as “a background,” I think that our (Prelom Collective) research The Case of the Student Cultural Center, presented in Škuc, Ljubljana, 2008, was the first proposition and a call for further thinking on this relation.Jelena Vesic is an independent curator, writer, editor, and lecturer. She is active in the field of publishing, research and exhibition practice that intertwines political theory and contemporary art. Her most recent exhibitions are Story on Copy (Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart) and We are Family (with Natasa Ilic) presented in Pawilion, Poznan, part of www.d-est.com. Vesić also curated Lecture Performance (MoCA, Belgrade and the Kölnischer Kunstverein, with Anja Dorn and Kathrin Jentjens) as well as the collective exhibition project Political Practices of (post-) Yugoslav Art, which critically examined art historical concepts and narratives on Yugoslav art after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Her recent book, On Neutrality (with Vladimir Jeric Vlidi and Rachel O’Reilly) is part of the Non-Aligned Modernity edition of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade.

Judit Árva is a writer and critic in Budapest. She has worked as an assistant curator at tranzit.hu since 2018. She was a volunteer at OFF-Biennale Budapest in 2017. She is currently completing her MA in Art History at the Eötvös Loránd University Budapest. Her research interests include 1960s and 1970s artistic practices, visual and experimental poetry, and relations between Vojvodinian and Hungarian artists.

Exhibition The Case of SKC-Belgrade in the 1970s by Prelom kolektiv, Museum of History of Yugoslavia, 2009, photo: V.Jeric
(On display: video-interviews with different art-historical “witnesses” talking about SKC in the 1970s; in the background Cinema Notes by Lutz Becker, 1975, scene with Marina Abramovic’s performance Art must be beautiful).


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