Against Inertia and Indifference
The silent performance of Maria Diaz was, in fact, the loud message of Performance Art Festival: solution for social problems and political violence is in solidarity, action and protest.
Maria Adela Diaz, In Transit, PHOTO: Kristina Marić Kia
As one of the rare long-term cultural events in Osijek focusing on the contemporary and independent art scene, Performance Art Festival (PAF) has just had another success edition. As a festival organized by M-art association, which has its equally famous project Barutana (Gunpowder) housed at the Museum of Fine Arts owing to their fruitful symbiosis, this continuation of their collaboration comes as no surprise, including the fact that the programme of the 16th PAF is partly taking place under the institutional umbrella. Same as with Barutana, this circumstance has not deprived Performance Art Festival of its programmatic integrity, and the list of its participants has now been complemented with prominent international names, authors whose work has revealed the universality of artistic language in the fields of existential, political, and social activity, as well as in progressive artistic engagement.
This year’s topic and title of PAF in Osijek (October 14-15) was Political Bodies and its programme was designed by curator Radmila Iva Janković, who sees it as expressing the essence of performance as a social act and artistic response to the strong presence of social and political tensions throughout the world. Female artists prevailed in her programmatic concept, since she believes that women have been increasingly present as artistic voices of social engagement and as active factors in artistic venues as places extending to conquer public spaces and take them as their framework of action – be it by lending them voice or by triggering change.
However, the first performances at this year’s PAF were two male artists, Siniša Labrović and Marko Marković, whose artistic activism somehow logically relies on the poetic and also local contexts of their work. Labrović’s performance The Artist Doesn’t Give a Fuck is a part of his Phrases series and speaks of man’s indifference towards the social moment and social context, at the same time showing that this indifference will leave painful scars. Marković’s performance Look, Son is autobiographic and combining the child’s perspective of the open sky in a country struck by war with an insight about the loneliness of an adult. These performances took place on the first festival day, before a small audience, and thus one may say that both of them, even though easily readable and not too intriguing, opened up the issue of wider contextualization of political topics in Osijek, a city that has often responded to the whirl of extremely topical social issues by escaping into immaturity or indifference. In a city that tends to hide behind an apolitical stance even though it seems like a silly and pathetic gesture taking into account its past and its present, the performances of two South American artists resounded like a bomb.
Columbian artist Maria José Arjona presented her performance Birdcage, produced during her London residency at the peak of the migrant crisis. During ninety minutes, Arjona was subjected to stroboscopic light while moving naked through a cage made of spikes that are usually used to protect building from birds. It was an act of subjection to multiple violence: physical, visual, and acoustic (the "bars" of the cage were mobile and resonated as she was moving), which was transmitted to the audience, bringing them into a state of agitation suitable to the social tensions that each new wave of migrations brings. At the same time, Birdcage questioned the scope and the perspective of limited space – do the spikes represent prejudices and fears with which we meet the refuges, limiting their personal space, or is the cage actually our own habitat, where we agree to violence and tragedies as they recur so often that they gradually blunt our humanity?
The performance of Maria Adela Diaz, a Guatemala-born artist currently living in the US, was in a similar mindset and likewise dealt with the migrant crisis. In Transit may be considered the pinnacle of this year’s PAF. It took place on the Drava river, in a boat where persons of various ages, physical appearance, and origin were lying on jute bags, their faces covered with rags and invisible to the passers-by. The reference to migrants coming to Europe on boats and risking death was quite clear and not that original at the first glance. However, what made this three-hour performance so special was a sort of re-semanticization and de-contextualization, in which the bodies in a boat presented a horrifying spectacle. The boat, namely, although carried by the current, remained firmly in its place, right below the favourite promenade of Osijek, which symbolizes domesticity, comfort, and security of its everyday life. Osijek has been merely brushed by the arrival, or rather passage of the migrants, a city where a foreigner is everything else but a common sight. The boat with human bodies, drifted by the political and physical current, is a spectacle that disturbs the city’s calm and serenity, showing that the "global problems" do not happen somewhere else, on distant margins, but are present among us and make an impact, triggering that elementary humanity in all of us.
But then again, rather paradoxically, Osijek is a city whose lack of awareness and inertia reflect the historical amnesia and the lack of feeling for the dynamic circulation and movement of ethnicities that used to have its pulsating core in this very place. The historical migration line used to run right through Osijek at the time when Germans, Slovaks, and Hungarians came to stay before and after World War I and II, bringing their heritage and assimilating to the lowland mentality only to have their descendants, elements of that variegated ethnic patchwork, leave it owing to the devastations during the Croatian Liberation War. Moreover, working emigration remains a chronic problem of Osijek and its consequences will only add up in the years to come, when the statistic balance of population drain has been calculated and realistically assessed. Migrant experiences have been deeply and permanently inscribed into this area, in which one may logically expect that the sight of the boat would remind people of the existential "transit" they survived rather than make them look away.
The silent performance of Maria Diaz was, in fact, the loud message of Performance Art Festival, which sees a solution for social problems and political violence in solidarity, humanity, action, and protest. It was a protest against the touching experience of a casual passer-by, who was relieved when she heard that the bodies in the boat were participants in a performance rather than a part of "something horrible" as she had first thought. Osijek indeed is a perfect setting of social inertia and indifference towards all possible and impossible social turbulences, as well as a space where sources of humanity and social sensitivity, about to dry up in so many places, can still be found. And if one may judge by the increased interest of the public, perhaps it is not too hasty or pretentious to hope that the artistic sensitivity that Performance Art Festival has been intensifying may eventually ensure cultural continuity and encourage increasing programmatic aspirations.
Translated from Croatian by Marina Schumann.