We quickly become inured to stimuli. We put on a shirt and immediately feel it against our skin. But then, unless we have a neurological disorder or something in the shirt causes a chemical reaction with our skin, we no longer feel the shirt. The same holds with other senses. We become accustomed to the odor of our offices. By the fifth spoonful of an ordinary bowl of soup, we are no longer tasting it. We fall into habits of seeing as well. The tree outside our window, the face of a family member, the shape of a pear: these become commonplace through repetition. We see them. But we no longer see them.
Because we are inundated with stimuli every second, this accommodation of the senses plays a vital evolutionary function. We’d go crazy if we reacted to everything as if for the first time. Imagine being constantly aware of every piece of clothing we wore: we’d have no perceptual energy left to interact with the environment beyond the shirt on our back. We must be selective in what we pay attention to. We are attuned to changes in patterns, for these represent both risk and opportunity. Red apple, good, eat. Purple apple, hmmnn, interesting, take note, pause before biting into it, save the seeds in case it’s a fantastic new variety.
Art, in some sense, upends this relationship between the world and our perceptions of it. Artists provoke us into looking with fresh eyes at the things that we take for granted.
Andreja Kuluncic applies this principle to social issues. Her art often involves people on the margins, people who have lost the power to command the attention of the majority, people who have become invisible. She has worked with migrants, the jobless, pregnant teenagers, prisoners, stigmatized minorities. She has used her position as an artist as a kind of bullhorn: to grab the attention of passersby. One of her projects, for instance, used advertising posters to draw attention to the plight of workers at a state-owned store in Croatia that the government wanted to privatize. It was the early days of the transition to the market, and Kuluncic realized that billboards and bus shelter ads were novel enough to attract interest. She deployed this “shock of the new” to make people look again at something that had faded into the background of the “transition.”
A bullhorn can grab people’s attention – but if you keep using the bullhorn, eventually that tactic also becomes easily ignored. So Kuluncic is constantly seeking out different ways of making the invisible visible. “Today I’m using other media: mobile phones, direct sales, joint action with the community,” she says. “Because now we are just sick of advertisements: nobody’s looking at them anymore. So, I have to do something different to grab people’s attention, to get their eyes and thoughts, to get them to think about whether we are doing what we want to do or simply what everybody around us is doing.”
The range of her projects is extraordinary, from engaging pregnant teenagers in England to reimagining community development in the Hungarian countryside. Last October, I visited her studio in Zagreb where she showed me the documentation of several fascinating projects. We talked about a number of these projects as well as the rise of nationalism, the disappointments of European integration, and the challenges of censorship.
Tell me about your project “1 CHF =1 VOICE”.
The Swiss parliament was under construction at the time when we were doing the project. The idea was that we would give them a check and a plate as a gift from the illegalized people who lives and works in Swiss, and they would repair something inside the parliament with that money: they’d paint a wall or buy some physical thing for the building. We wanted to put on the plate that it’s a gift from “illegalized people” (Sans Papiers). They don’t allow these people to stay there, but at the same time they need them because such people do these, you know, shitty jobs. They get paid, but everything is illegal. So they can get deported. They don’t have any rights. And the Swiss always say that these people just want to take money from the Swiss government, that they just want to live on social welfare—which is not true. These “illegalized” people work hard! They want to pay taxes, and they want to have proper education and healthcare and everything you get by paying taxes. But they’re not allowed.
So that’s why we called the project, “One Franc, One Voice” (“1 CHF = 1 VOICE). Each of the undocumented immigrants who wanted to participate gave us one franc. In return they got a voice, a metaphoric voice, by buying a gift for the parliament.
The parliament first agreed to the donation, but then two hours before the meeting with us, canceled the donation! I wanted to confront them, but my partners in the project said that’s not the way to do it. So after a long communication with the parliament we decided to wait until a government with more understanding toward foreigners came to power in Switzerland. Until then the donated money (now more then 2,000 Swiss francs) remains in the account of SPAZ (the center for illegalized persons in Zurich).
I’m sure you know about the racism and xenophobia in Switzerland. The most powerful party in Switzerland is an extreme right-wing party called the Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei). When I was there in 2007, there were these billboards with these white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag. I found it really racist. And there was the referendum against the construction of minarets, things like that. So that’s why I initiated this project. Because I find it important that people know about these things.
And the project on distributive justice?
I did the “Distributive Justice” piece in several different places: in Naples, at the Whitney in New York, at Documenta in Kassel, at the Istanbul Biennale, in South Korea, in Croatia, Austria, Slovenia. The idea is that, through this project, we talk about a “just society.” There are six points in this space, and there is an assistant in the installation – which is more like a “social laboratory” — to help you with these points. And when you finish the points you understand that it’s not that easy to create a just society. For example, if you are in the desert with nine other people and you find water and everybody is thirsty, what would you do? Would you share the water? Would you sell it, but then pay a tax and expect the government to take care of the others who are thirsty?
In the end, the idea is that you understand this issue a bit more and also see what other people think. We did this project in many different social contexts. So, for me, this was a really interesting way to see how people think about justice in different societies.
Your work often engages with people who are marginalized.
I’ve worked with people in a mental hospital, people in jail, pregnant teenagers, asylum seekers, Roma people: people who are vulnerable. When you and I talk, we’re careful with our words. We’re taking the measure of each other. But with people who are vulnerable, it’s so easy to slip and be really kind of patronizing. And there are a lot of laws that make these people’s lives even worse. It’s one thing if you personally don’t like someone, but it’s another thing if you have a law that allows you to make that person’s life really shitty. This is what I’m trying to do when I travel – in Switzerland, in Austria, in Germany, but in my own country as well. I try to find out about these laws: the legalized racism, the xenophobia, or, as you saw in Serbia, homophobia.
These projects in a way strip away the official version of what it means to be European or to be in a European space. In effect, they say, “This is what’s really going on.” Also, it’s fascinating that much of your work is in the form of advertising.
I used a lot of advertising before, but not that much today. Under socialism we had some advertising, but it was state-controlled. The advertising was a bit more ethical. So, for instance, you couldn’t advertise food for kids that was junk or things that would kill people. Well, that was the idea anyway. After the Berlin Wall fell, advertising was everywhere, and people believed in it. And they were buying like mad. They’re still buying! So that’s why I was using advertising in my work. I saw that this was the main thing that people watched and really cared about.
The first piece I did was about the workers at Nama, which is short for NArodni MAgazin, which means the “people’s store.” At the time, these workers were working in empty stores, but the stores next to them, which were from West Europe, were completely full of goods. This was our department store, built during socialism, and we really loved that they were all around Yugoslavia. And then the state wanted to bankrupt these stores because the buildings were worth a lot.
They wanted to privatize and sell them?
Yes, and there was a lot of stealing involved in this and other similar state-run stores, factories, hotels on the seaside, and so on. So, the people were working for six months in empty stores at the time. Some of my artist friends from West said to me, “Oh, this is a great performance!” I said, “No, no, no, this is real life, it’s not a performance! It’s not a piece of art! ” The workers were standing there for the entire eight hours, without selling anything, just keeping their jobs.
They were waiting to be paid. Everyday they were told, “Yeah, yeah, we will pay you.” But for six months nothing happened. Meanwhile some of the workers went on strike. They chained themselves to the bank and went on hunger strikes. But nobody was watching them. Nobody was really interested.
I talked with the labor union and the workers, offering them three different works about their situation. They chosen this one: a poster with one worker on it, the logo of the Nama, and a text “1,908 workers, 15 department stores.” Nothing else. I thought that people don’t look at a person in need but they do look at advertisements. When I put them on the posters, I wanted them to look nice, to look like the other advertisements — not to look sad and depressed, which they were. So I brought in my friends to do the makeup, to style the hair, to have professional studio photographs, everything.
We put the ads on billboards, and for three days nothing happened. I thought, “Okay, nobody saw them.” I didn’t want to make an issue of it. I didn’t want to say, “Okay, this is an art piece, what do you think?” But I wanted to see what would happen.
But then, after three days, people began going to the Nama stores, because they all thought that the stores had re-opened. But it was actually still the same thing: workers standing next to empty shelves and not getting paid. People called up the director of Nama and asked, “What the hell are you doing? Why are you paying for these really expensive advertisements? You’re not paying these people. You don’t have anything to sell. What’s wrong with you?” And he said, “I don’t know anything about it. It’s has nothing to do with me.”
And then the journalists found out. The story wasn’t in the culture pages. It was in the section about what was going on in the city of Zagreb. A whole debate started up about what we are selling. We are not selling products. We are not working. We are just selling our stores, and our people. We are just selling ourselves out. And that was my intention: to start a discussion about what we are selling, the visible and the invisible: the hotels, factories, islands, everything. We’re selling everything that’s possible to sell. We are becoming tourists in our own country. It’s a horrible way to run politics, you know? And that’s why I was using advertising.
But today I’m using other media: mobile phones, direct sales, joint action with the community. Because now we are just sick of advertisements: nobody’s looking at them anymore. So, I have to do something different to grab people’s attention, to get their eyes and thoughts, to get them to think about whether we are doing what we want to do or simply what everybody around us is doing. Is it something we need, something that helps us, something that makes us happy? If we are living in this greedy capitalism, at least we should make our own choices and think about our own choices.
What year did you do the Nama project?
In 2001. It was 11 years ago. The war really ended in 1995-96. I say “really” in the sense of “okay, now we can breathe.” Then it took four or five years to ruin the country, and when it became visible what was going on. After the war, everybody was so happy to have Croatia. Yesterday a friend told me, “Now we have Croatia, but there are no Croatians.” She didn’t mean Croatian in the sense of nationalism but in terms of using our own resources to build a life for us rather than adopting this kind of capitalist standard of living that is not suitable for us. This ultimately is the problem. They destroy our agriculture and then they bring in organic food at triple the price. We have sped-up capitalism, something that took other countries 20-30 years. And we have all this bureaucracy and paperwork connected to the European Union, and a lot of our money goes to that. It’s really shitty. Everybody’s so frustrated about it. There are a lot of Euroskeptics.
For example, we used to have money here in Croatia to do cultural projects, even if it wasn’t always spent properly. Now we will have to give a lot of the money to Brussels, and we have to fill out this really complicated paperwork, which is not possible if you are a one-man show like a lot of visual artists are. Even if you have a small association, as I do with 10 people, it’s very hard to handle all the bureaucratic stuff. A lot of other countries are really experienced in this application process because they’ve been doing it for 40 years. Plus, there’s the matching fund, which the country has to help finance, will “eat up” a lot of the remaining money. So in a way the EU will decide about the cultural production in visual art, which is politically really problematic .
For example, if we look at the application forms: they tell you with whom you have to work, the kind of partners to have, the subjects you should do, the way of spending the money — almost everything that is essential for the project. You’re not able to do what you want. At the end of the day, you have to do art. Come on! It’s not biology or agriculture, where maybe you’re dealing with the same topics. It’s art, and I would like to do something completely different from what someone in the EU thinks I should do in my art …
They insist that your work has to fit into certain categories?
Yes, you have to fit the categories. And this is cruel. Who gets to determine the categories? And who will say who fits in and who doesn’t? I don’t need a million Euro to do a piece. I need 10,000 Euro. And so far, I was getting my 10,000 euros. I was doing pieces and I was having success in that sense: getting to the people, showing the piece, speaking to them. It isn’t success in terms of an artistic career, but in the sense of doing what I want to do. Now it’s really questionable. I’m not complaining. I will see. There are a lot of strategies, and we will find a way. But they ended a system that was functioning and replaced it with a questionable system that’s 50 years old and doesn’t function.
And they’re sending us all these really old advisors from the EU with their old system of dealing with stuff. They’re exporting them to our countries where they sit in the ministry eating well, earning a big salary, spending our money. They treat us like we’re all stupid here, like we don’t know what we need and what we want. It’s very strange. One curator in Austria told me three years ago, “It’s so great you will get into the European Union. Now you will not kill each other anymore, we will take care of it.” What?! It sounds as if they are re-colonizing us, doesn’t it?
The last time we talked, you also said that you were not enthusiastic at all about membership in the EU. We talked about the possibility of the countries in the region working closer together, where there have been greater connections, both during Yugoslavia, but even before that in the 19th century. Have you seen any signs in the last four years that that might happen, even if Croatia becomes part of the EU?
When I was studying in Belgrade, Budapest, Novi Sad, I felt that we shared a common space, common ideas, and common history. This was Middle Europe: Hungary, Croatia, Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia. Now we’re being pushed to work with Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and countries further south. This is maybe nice, but it’s not natural or what the people want. Why not work with Poland, or the Czech Republic, or Latvia? Of course, I was in Tirana working and it’s great, and Bulgaria too. But it’s not natural to force us to work with such and such countries. It would be like saying to someone from the United States that they have to work with Canada but not with Mexico, or vice versa.
There’s some kind of agenda behind this. It’s like our art here isn’t interesting (or in proper translation “ethno”) enough. And one of the ways of making it bigger is to make these big shows about the Balkans: to try to shape something that is not there and has never been there in that sense.
Sometimes people say, “Okay, we are not active enough here.” But I’d like to see you after a war: how active would you be? This country was ruined, the people were completely depressed, the hotels were full of people without anything, just a bag. How enthusiastic could you be? Then capitalism just came in, and the people couldn’t even lift their heads.
A friend of mine from Split told me that, when the war ended, you could buy a really great house on the Croatian seaside for 20,000 Euro. And his friends from Germany was pushing him, “Why don’t you buy one?”
He said, “Because I don’t have fucking 200 Euro to live on!”
And now he says, “when I have 20,000 Euro, it’s 200,000 Euro to buy this great house on the seaside, and again I don’t have 200,000!”
So, you’re never really able to be one step ahead of what is going on in your own reality. You’re always just trying to survive in new ways in response to what’s happening in your own country. And this is what frustrates people.
I remember in 1990 I was on a flight from Hungary back to the United States. I was sitting next to a Hungarian. He was young, a student, maybe only 21 years old, and he was very upset that he was going to the United States. I said, “Why are you upset about going to the United States?” He said, “Because this is the time to become a millionaire.” He felt like he was missing his opportunity to be a millionaire in Hungary. Even in war there is opportunity – as you said, to buy a great house on the seaside for 20,000 Euros.
An opportunity for maybe 4% of people, 5% of people. But I’m talking about the other 95%.
Or 99%. The number of people that become millionaires is very small.
That’s true. That was the time when you were able to steal. We were always joking, “If you steal from the shop, they will catch you. But if steal the whole building with the shop inside, nobody will catch you.” And you’ll be a kind of…
You will be a citizen of distinction. Yes, because you are rich. To be rich here was very important at that time. Which is really bad, damaging. There’s no responsibility towards society at all.
In America, our vision of Europe for so many years was of tolerance, social welfare, integration, inclusion. But in the last 10 years, Europe has become a very different place. A very intolerant place. As you said, Europeans are united in intolerance.
But America is not better at all.
No, it isn’t. That’s why we were always looking to Europe as being the better example in some ways. That’s why it is so disappointing.
Maybe that kind of Europe was never there. Maybe it was just the image on the surface. I don’t know. I was too young. But the hate spread so quickly and with so much power that it couldn’t have been created in one day. That’s why I think that it was always there.
I think you’re right.
I have a couple of friends, they’re really nice and not racist. But after the second bottle of wine, everything leaks out. And then I’m like, “What!?” I always think I should tape them and the next day show them what they said. They are good people, but you know…
That would be an interesting art project: you tape everybody, and then underneath their words you put, “One bottle. Two bottles. Three bottles.” To show the relationship between their alcohol consumption and the revealing of their intolerance. And then you go back and show it to them. And get their reactions.
So you see how hidden it is, and how really deeply rooted in the way they are brought up: what their parents or grandparents said or what their school taught them. All these different layers of intolerance. You can pretend that it’s not there. But when people open up their unconscious, everything comes out. Unfortunately.
Did you get, how can I put it, such “impolite” responses, to some of your work in Europe?
Oh yes, of course. Two were censored. One was in Liverpool. The Anglo-Saxon culture is not really open to critique. You can only critique what they want you to critique and how they want you to critique. It was not really something personal. It was a clash of cultures, I think, over our understanding of what art can do and what socially engaged art means. It was the Liverpool Biennial and they invited artists to do socially engaged projects. But then during the course of the whole project, I understood that they really wanted me to praise Liverpool. But there was nothing to praise. I mean, I wanted to do something the way I saw it, not the way they wanted me to see it.
I chose to work with teenage pregnancy. There’s a lot of teenage pregnancy, and it’s really visible in Liverpool. I wanted to do something outside: to make some billboards with a pregnant teenage girl who looks like a Benetton advertisement. But then she talks about how difficult it is to have a baby at the age of 14. And the billboard would say that the teenage pregnancy rate in Britain is the highest in Europe. The Biennial people told me, “Okay, if you want to do it so much. But remove these statistics.” And I said, “But that doesn’t make any sense. Then it would only be about this girl Tracy, and everybody would blame her rather than the system that produces so many pregnant teenagers.”
So, in the end, the only thing they let me to do was something inside, not outside in the city, and in a really small gallery, not in the Tate Liverpool as we first agreed. They warned me that “this theme would not enter the Tate,” but I did not want to give up. I proposed a kind of questionnaire with the presentation of the campaign: the people were able to say whether they thought anything could help the situation. Because people from the Liverpool Biennial were telling me that it’s her fault, the young girl, if she gets pregnant, that it has nothing to do with society …and I said, “let’s ask the visitors what they think.” The Biennial people promised me that if the visitors said, “Yes, this is an issue that has to be tackled within society and not just individually with psychotherapy,” then they would do the whole project in the next Biennial. And the visitors to the gallery answered, “Yes, we think it should be tackled socially.” But the Biennial never did the project. I was quite disappointed.
The other was in Hungary. I did a project in Dunaujvaros called “A Republic of One’s Own.” I proposed an interactive game through which the inhabitants of Dunaujvaros created a plan for the future of the town. The local politicians thought I belonged to some political party and that I wanted to do something political. Three days before the opening of the project, when we had everything ready, they said that they would have to close the gallery if the project went forward. So I said, “No, it’s not worth closing the gallery because of one project.” The gallery showed it as a documentation, but in a kind of hidden way.
I was really puzzled by that sentiment, “we will close the gallery.” I mean it’s not something we do anymore. There are other ways to fight with the artist: you don’t give money for the project, you don’t let them into the Tate. But you don’t close the gallery. That’s really formal-socialist behavior.
Have you had that kind of response in Croatia?
No. For example, I thought I would have a lot of problems when we used the official logo of Nama, that they’d sue us…
No, they could have, but they didn’t. We were ready to deal with that. But there were so many shady things taking place around Nama that I think they didn’t want any further publicity. They ended up closing a couple of shops, keeping a couple open with the workers still there. They found some middle way. I don’t think that was a result of my project, but I guess it helped raise the awareness of people a bit. But as I said, so many factories and hotels and so on were ruined that one shop doesn’t do too much difference. The point wasn’t that everybody should feel sorry for these workers, but that everybody should feel that they could be this person. If you don’t help the needy, then when you are in need, you can’t expect any help for yourself.
I hope that especially young people get this point, that society is real, that it’s not about just taking what you need from society and never giving back. I don’t mean charity. I saw a lot of charity work in the United States, and I don’t want to live in a charity society. I want to live in a society that provides equally for everyone, where you help people who are down not in order to be “nice” or to “feel good.”
A solidarity society instead of a charity society.
Exactly. It’s hard to live in society where people are dying of hunger, no? You can’t be happy in a society where some people are throwing away food and others are dying of hunger on the street.
Do you feel like there still is a strong sentiment of nationalist extremism here in Croatia?
For me it’s really hard to say, because my circle of friends is gay-friendly, people-friendly, friendly to all nations. I come from Vojvodina, which is now a part of Serbia, and this is just not an issue. For my friends, it’s not a question of what religion you have or what nation you belong to. But when you read stuff on the walls of buildings…Just today I saw a graffiti that said, “Kill the Serbs.” I was so shocked. Yesterday it was not there. And today there it was.
Why would they do that these days?
I don’t know. I don’t know why they write “kill the gays” or “kill the Roma.” I did a project about this called “On the State of the Nation.” Because I was puzzled about the same question. We measured social distance. We didn’t have enough money to do the questionnaire as we planned, so psychologists and students from the faculty of philosophy helped us out. The questionnaire included questions like “Would you accept a teacher of your child who is Chinese” or “Would you accept a Muslim person as a life partner, or as a friend?” or “Would you accept a neighbor who is gay?” It wasn’t: “Do you like them or not?” Rather it measured the distance between the person and members of various groups.
And it turned out that the people that were most distant were, of course, Serbs. But even the people who don’t like Serbs, they see them as equal— but as an enemy. With the Serbs it’s not about social distance, it’s about a completely different psychological state of mind. It’s the others who are furthest away: Roma, gay people, Chinese.
So then I started working with these three groups, particularly with how they are covered in the news. Because this is one way in which the image of a person is constructed, through news coverage. There are other ways, of course, such as education, the church, and the family, but these three reasons were just too big for me to capture in this small-scale project. So we focused on news analysis. We did a lot of workshops with students.
For instance, you can read in the newspaper that “a Gypsy person killed a Croatian guy.” But you’ll never see “a Croatian guy killed a Croatian guy.” Or you might read, “a Roma person finished secondary school.” What does this mean, that just one Roma finished secondary school? There’s the positive and the negative coverage, but both are really bad.
We tried to normalize the way these groups are covered in the mainstream media by together making what we called it “virus news.”
I was working a lot with journalism students and anthropology students. I think the way anthropologists treat people here, well, they often see the people as objects. So I was trying to invite Roma people and Chinese people to the workshops so the students don’t talk about “a Chinese person,” but they talk with the actual person who’s in front of them. One Chinese person told me she was a little bit offended because the students were talking about her like she was a frog! I said, “You know, I feel the same way when I’m around art theorists.” So we were laughing, but this is what the work was actually about: how to articulate the problem in such a way that everybody is equal in the dialogue. It is hard on many levels …
For me the most surprising thing was how closed the mainstream media was to this kind of news we were writing together. Take the example of Vox Populi, which is a short feature in the newspaper that asks people a question like “What do you think about this new building?” But the people they ask, it’s always Croatians! So, I wanted them to ask a Chinese person about their opinion of the new building, just one Chinese person out of five Croatians.
“No,” they said. “It’s impossible.”
I said, “Why not?”
And the journalist told me, “Okay, give me the phone numbers of your Chinese and Roma contacts.”
I said, “No, I don’t want to give that to you. You’ll just write the same things as before. You’ll write about the deprived area where the Roma are living. You’ll write about the Chinese shops or the Chinese food in this city. No, I want them to write the news and send it you. It’s not political. It’s just what this person thinks about this particular new building in the city, that’s all.”
“Oh, no!” they said.
The Internet was open to us: the newspapers on the Internet and, maybe you will be surprised, but also the women’s magazines. They said, “Sure, why not? Let’s do it. It will be fun.” But the mainstream media, no. It was completely closed.
I know some journalists working in the mainstream media. They said, “but I can lose my job for that. You don’t understand.”
I said, “No, I don’t. I really don’t. What’s wrong with you guys? It’s Vox Populi. It’s not about praising the Chinese or gay persons! It’s just Vox Populi!”
It’s the same the way the Muslims are presented in the United States. They’re never presented as just ordinary Americans. We had a reality television series called “All-American Muslim.” The right wing criticized it. Why? Because it did not have a Muslim terrorist on the show.
I can’t believe it!
Can you imagine someone insisting that a reality show that featured all white people should have a Ku Klux Klan member?
The show went of the air, basically because it was boring. In other words, it showed that Muslims were pretty much the same as everybody else, and their lives are neither more interesting nor less interesting. Finally a television show was treating Muslims the same as everybody else, but it could not succeed because of the logic of television.
And the logic of popular representations.
For all these projects, it’s about them, not about me. They have to be the main figures and subjects of the projects, not me. I really work a lot on these projects, like a year or years. And I learn a lot from them. For instance, the Chinese people said they also hate us. I said, “Why are you here?” They said to me, “This is just a step on the way to Western Europe.” I invited them to my house to have dinner. They said, “Really? We can come to your house and have dinner? That’s something new!” They were joking, but …
With Roma people, it’s another situation. It’s not as bad as in Hungary. I speak Hungarian, and I know what they do to Roma people in Hungary. It’s far better here. But still, there are problems. These people are completely underprivileged. If you live in a Roma area and you do stuff that Roma are “supposed to do,” then you can do it. But if you want to educate yourself, if you want to have a normal job, it’s another matter. You get on a train and everybody thinks you’re stealing. It’s really bad. The Roma feel it more acutely than the Chinese.
The Open Society Foundations has produced a couple of interesting projects, including one in Serbia in which Roma journalists write about Roma situations.
That was exactly what I wanted to do with my project: Roma writing about their situation and normalizing it. You know, writing it like, “We are one of you and this is the story” rather than “We are this ethnic minority and…”
Yes, it’s very difficult to get it into the mainstream press. You can get it on the Internet, because in some sense, the Internet is unbounded. There’s no limitation to space. Where there’s limitation to space, that’s where the battle takes place over every little inch.
Yes, even if it’s not important. There’s also another issue. There are a few Roma who have succeeded in society and don’t want to say they’re Roma. They change their names. Other Roma complain to me about that. They said, “This person is Roma but they never will come out and say it.”
We say in English, “They pass.” There was a very similar phenomenon in the United States with African Americans. I also interviewed a Roma journalist in Bulgaria. She was identifiably Roma, and she was successful. She was a television anchorwoman. It was one indication that Bulgarian society had changed enough that she could appear on television, but she still had to deal with lots of problems. She told me a powerful story about her brother. Her younger brother could pass. One day he saw a picture of her on the cover of a women’s magazine. And her brother was very proud of his sister’s success. But he was with his friends and he had to make a decision, “Do I say that that’s my sister, because if I say that’s my sister, they will know I’m Roma.”
He decided not to say anything.
Oh! And he told her that? That’s even worse. Oh, that’s terrible.
So these are the terrible choices that people are making. Do you think that joining the EU will make any difference in terms of tolerance?
If you want to enter the EU, you somehow have to open your mind. When we enter the EU, a lot of different races and religions will come here. And this is the only part of the EU I really like. It’s so boring to live here. Everybody’s white. Even when you go to Vienna, which is three hours by car, you will see a big difference. Here, everybody’s Catholic and Croatian and white. The Chinese are the only non-white minority we have, and Croatians don’t like them, as our research showed.
What do the Chinese do here, for the most part?
There’s a big section of the city with a lot of Chinese shops. They do business. They live well, but they work really hard. They’re always working, like 20 hours out of 24. I don’t know how they can manage it. They send their money home; they send their kids home. It’s a tough life. Like the life the Yugoslavs lived in the 1960s and 1970s or the Turkish gastarbeiter in Germany. You come, you work, you send the money back home, you build a house back home, and when you’re old, you go back home to die.
The difference for the Chinese is that they say, “Croatia is just one step, and then we go further to the EU and further West where there is better money.” Here there’s no money. You can’t make a lot of money here. People here joke: “Money’s not a problem because we don’t have any.” So that’s one reason why we don’t have foreigners here.
There’s a lack of opportunity.
So far yes, but I am a little bit afraid that we won’t be particularly nice toward asylum seekers or with people who will come here to make a living.
One of the questions I ask everybody is whether they remember where they were when they heard the news about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I probably was at home. I remember watching TV, I remember the images and being happy about it. The whole night was a show for us. For us, the Iron Curtain was not that strong. But I felt happy for my relatives in Hungary. They really had a bad history because of the Russians. We tried to help them however we could in the past when the border opened between Yugoslavia and Hungary.
I was born in the same place that my grandmother was born in the north of Vojvodina. But when she was born, it was Hungary and when I was born it was already Yugoslavia. So, half my family is Hungarian and ended up 10 kilometers from the border inside Hungary. For 10 or 15 years the borders were closed. There were these last trains, you know, after the Second World War, and people had to choose who will stay and who will go. But of course it opened in the 1960s. And by 1989, we were already going there a lot and they were coming to us. But I knew that they had a hard life because of the Russians. I was happier for them than for us when the Wall fell down. For us, everybody felt that something horrible would happen. We didn’t know that it would be a war, but we knew that it would be something horrible. Just not as horrible as what really happened.
You were in Hungary for most of that period?
When I finished the fifth year at the academy in Belgrade, that’s when everything really started. My professor said that it would be better if I go. He was a Serb, and he really liked me. He was a nice older guy who was doing big monuments of Partisans fighting the Germans. He was quite famous and he thought of these monuments as an abstract way of doing art. He was always joking that, at the end, you just put a red star on it and say to Tito, “This is for Communism and for the people,” and everything would be fine.
The monuments from that period are just amazing. They’re just complete abstractions.
That’s what I mean. He was bold in that way. He said, “Andreja, it’s better if you leave. You’re one of my best students. I will give you your mark, and you don’t have to come back for the final exhibition.” I thought, “Okay, I guess I really have to go.” So I went to Budapest. I was there for two years, and then I came to Zagreb. It was already more or less peaceful in Zagreb, which wasn’t the case everywhere in Croatia. So, I never was really in the war. But some friends of mine were, and family members also. It really depended on where you lived at that time, and if you were a man, and if you decided to go to war or not.
And why did you decide to go to Zagreb instead of returning to Subotica?
Subotica is a really small city. After the First World War, Subotica was the third biggest city in the region of ex-Yugoslavia, after Belgrade and Zagreb. But today it’s a really small, provincial city that’s completely ruined by politicians. The Partisans hated this city, because it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it was where three nations lived: Croatian, Hungarians, and Germans. So they did everything to ruin it. And now the Serbs politicians hate it, because the majority is still not Serbs. The city has such a bad history. It’s very deprived, and it’s a dying city, and there are a lot of suicides there. So, for me, the choice was between Budapest and Zagreb, because I like both cities. But I met my husband, and he’s also Croatian. It was easier for both of us to live here than for him to learn another language.
Hungarian is not an easy language to learn.
No, but it’s a nice language. And the Hungarians love their language. I sometimes joke, “I know two languages that are completely useless: Croatian and Hungarian!” There are 4 million here and 6 million there. But it’s nice, because even with these two languages you can see how differently the people think about history and language, and how differently they raise their kids.
From 1989 until today, on a scale from 1 to 10—1 being most dissatisfied, 10 being most satisfied—how would you evaluate everything that has happened here, from 1989 until today?
Oh, for us, the worst was the war. So, this is 0. It was so bloody stupid to kill each other, such a terrible mistake for everyone involved. But after that, I don’t know. We had a good chance, but we blew it. From 2001 to 2006, it was a nice period when people were able maybe to change something. But then we just sold everything. I really hope that entering the EU, even if it really seems bad for us, that we’ll be able to improve our laws, improve our human rights. And now there’s less money, so I hope that people won’t focus so much on this commercial way of life and instead focus more on the others around them, on society, on networking and solidarity.
Zagreb, October 15, 2012