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Symptom – Dialogues About Art in Isolation

In 2020, at one point, the world came to a halt, but not all production processes stopped, the flow of goods and capital didn’t stop and, more importantly, the inequalities engraved into all the pores of the world in which we live – social, economic, gender, racial, ecologic – didn’t cease… In fact, they became even greater. Female and male artists, male and female workers in culture are mostly found on the weaker side of that inequality of inequalities. The consequences of the pandemic on contemporary art are clearly visible today in the cancelled and uncertain presentations, reduced funding, the restriction of movement, endangered artistic existence, involuntary adaptation of artistic practices to the given circumstances. And what did all this look like in the beginning?

Symptom, a series of eight conversations with representatives of artistic practice, theory, education and media, was the first reaction of the New Galley of Visual Arts to the lockdown and the inability to work. The online format provided a series of unusual artist talks, without anyone even going out of their way to come up with how to make them unusual. Just the dislocation of the debate and social life that we are accustomed to into an exclusively internet sphere was enough for such an effect. Since the beginning of confinement in Serbia, up until the end of lockdown, more precisely 27th March – 15th May, Marina Marković, Selma Selman, Miško Šuvaković, Dejan Atanacković, Ana Knežević, Vesna Milosavljević, Milena Dragićević Šešić and Tanja Ostojić participated in the conversations and spoke about their work, positions, affects, and anticipations for what would happen next.

Social Statuses

The inevitable question for the beginning of these conversations had to do with the current situation, individual positions, and how it all affects art. As much as isolation is inherent in the work of artists (Marković, Selman, Knežević) the awareness of the crisis that the pandemic brings was simultaneously expressed in the conversations. Cancelled or postponed exhibitions, halted sales and fees, and impossible planning are the global and collective experience of the artistic community, which is always endan- gered in times of crises. It oscillates between work and productivity on the one hand, and total inability to work on the other.

A difficult situation in the sphere of culture and non-profit media is nothing new; however, everything is even more difficult and uncertain now. It seems as though the pan- demic further reinforced, stripped, and made more visible the mechanism of late capitalism, each problem and each inequality. The social problems of the cultural-artistic sector in Serbia in this crisis were clear as day: the difficult position of independent artists, a large number of unregistered artists that are listed as unemployed, inadequate cooperation between public institutions and the independent scene, the lack of interest from the state, insufficient funding… Conversations with Vesna Milosavljević and Milena Dragićević Šešić highlighted all these problems.

Even though artists showed both solidarity and empathy for the community through shared works, reflections, and aid, the state followed slowly. Furthermore, it opted for an approach that more resembles charity than systemic assistance that might, for example, be implemented through the purchase of works and a well-thought-out cultural policy. At the same time, the crisis has made the gap and differences on the cultural scene even more visible: between independent and unemployed artists, who are not recognized by the system as such; as well as between independent and public sector employees. Cultural institutions showed a lesser capacity for self-organisation and solidarity, despite having resources, and even the responsibility to give support to the independent sector that does not possess those same resources.

Virtual Ghosts

The newly created virtual community of locked off people, empty city streets and tourist centres caused a feeling of an encounter with something ghostly, or as Dejan Atanacković puts it, a feeling of an elegant and silent end of the world. And truly, it seems that our world, which we are used to and which we live in, is changing irretrievably. That close possibility of precariousness, insecurity, and discrimination was reflected in the conversations. In addition to social issues, the Symptom series also considered social dynamics, new forms of sociality, policies, and dis/utopia. As Šuvaković remarked, we have been witnessing changes to the planet related to ecology and a post-human world in the last several years that have changed the very notion of politics. Politics, thus, no longer refers only to the community among people, but also to non-human factors, to the ecosystem, to plant and ani- mal species that are changing and disap- pearing due to the endless exploitation of the planet. Capitalism treated nature as otherness; the virus originated from those disturbed ecosystems and is now intervening in our life and policies. The consequences of the effects of the virus support the tendencies of right-wing policies for greater control over social life, and our privacy, too.

We are aware of digital surveillance, the endless monitoring and recording of our behaviour on the Internet, data manipulation, and yet we are all there, immersed in the digital world, social media and Facebook live, in an attempt to overcome introversion and loneliness, and maintain sociability and common sense. In the talks, a desire for reflection on political-economic implications of using the internet is articulated. Although we are safely locked in our homes, paradoxically, there is no safe space today (Šuvaković) – and that is a topic and a challenge for art, necessary for its future potentials. Or, as Ana Knežević notes – fear of non-freedom technology shouldn’t be a limitation in our artistic practice.

New Fields
The Symptom series, thus, articulates faith in the transformative power of art, trust in artistic reactions to crisis situations that open a field of creativity when it comes to social relations and artistic practices. In a way, our world is at a turning point and we are faced with the question of whether it will head in the direction of constant crises, great inequality, new pandemics, and the destruction of the ecosystem; or con- versely, towards coexistence and social and environmental justice. Art is necessarily linked to social imagination, and how we envision a better world during and after the pandemic, as opposed to going back to the old, to “normal”. Because, as Selma Selman reminded us of one of the iconic graffiti of the pandemic – “We can’t return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem”. The pandemic that changed the world will change us too, and our free time, and our art, which we create or which we observe, listen to or absorb.

So let’s repeat to ourselves that we should be smarter, envision the future and fight for it, at a time when, just like our nerves, the image of the future is uncertain, unclear, patched and constantly changing.

Olga Dimitrijević