Branislav Dimitrijević.

Branislav Dimitrijević: Enjoying the relative seclusion in Suomenlinna

The Academy of Fine Arts' Resident Fellow Programme brings together scholars, curators and artists working in the field of contemporary art: to collaborate, think and create. The programme includes two to four residency periods arranged annually. 

Branislav Dimitrijevic (b.1967), Professor of History and Theory of Art at School for Art and Design (VŠLPU) in Belgrade, is the current Resident Fellow until mid December 2015. He is a specialist in art and film in socialist Yugoslavia and also regularly writes on relations of contemporary artistic practices and socio-political issues. Dimitrijevic has been active as a curator and his projects include large contemporary art exhibitions. He kindly told us about the projects he's been working with during his stay.

You've been in Helsinki for over a month now at HIAP residency in Suomenlinna. Can you tell us about the project you've been working with? 

– Thanks to a grant from the Saastamoinen foundation, I feel privileged to make use of the Suomenlinna seclusion to finish some writing which is now long overdue. The conditions of calm and tranquility on the island allow me something which is otherwise quite difficult in normal working relations when one cannot fully dedicate to the process of writing which is, along with lecturing, my primary activity now.

As a curator I find Finland and Finnish art scene always inspiring. I already know many artists but there are many interesting things going on which I have become acquainted just recently. Here on a residency I am also mostly surrounded by artists and by being a non-artist in such a context I will try to contribute to “open studio” days and to the otherwise very dynamic HIAP program.

And there’s a movie night coming up, too…

– In late November and early December I will be organising an ad-hoc, or “makeshift”, Free Cinema in my studio where I will screen some films from the Yugoslav cinematography of the 1960s and 1970s which is in my opinion still relevant today as an impetus to think, discuss and share knowledge about alternatives to dominating cultural and political hegemonies. The selected films have in common an attempt to highlight and reflect the relation between radical politics, avant-garde art and alternative tactics of everyday life. Also, the cultural production and social agenda of the Yugoslav socialism has been my primary field of research, and the books I am writing are related to that.

In your opinion, what are the advantages for a curator/artist to travel and work abroad? What is it about getting away that you personally enjoy the most?

– For artists and curators, as well as for artists-curators (the kind of an operator who is becoming more frequent) it is essential not just to travel abroad, just to see, record and touch some different locality (like a tourist), but to actually spend some time in that locality. I think that a very important experience emerges out of this condition of a changed living and working encounter. Getting away, as you out it, for me means to challenge my own perspectives but also to re-confirm something that is common for all of us.

What does your typical work day look like? How have you divided your time during your residency between working intensively and getting to know the local art community?

– What is primarily important for my work at the moment is to reach a “disciplined” working seclusion, as this is something I have practically never experienced in my, now 30 years long involvement with art, and something that I find impossible in my hometown. This is for me precious.

However, it is a relative seclusion as I am regularly meeting colleagues and artists here, and also students as I am engaged at the Kuvataideakatemia with some seminars and talks with students. I am meeting colleagues from different departments and I learn about educational practices here, which is quite important for my regular teaching work. Frankly, I am not a “monastic” type so I cannot stand being isolated for a long time. In the nutshell, I find Helsinki a very interesting place, I enjoy talking with people here and exploring similarities and differences in our backgrounds and opinions. I will also conduct a small research about the conceptual art scene here in the 1970s.

Your curatorial interest evolves around site-specificity. Are the locations where you work of any importance to your work's outcome? 

– As I tried to explain, the seclusion of this location is for me very site-specific in relation to my normal working environment, so it is not any place, it is a very specific place where you both have a sense of isolation, which is good for writing, and the sense of connectedness with Helsinki, which is just 15 mins away by ferry.

The “physical narratives” of a place are always something that keeps me engaged. I am interested for example how the historical narrative is inscribed and presented in Suomenlinna, which is both a tourist attraction and a residential area. I am involved in issues of the “politics of remembrance” in my own country so it is interesting to explore how some traumatic historical events (like the Finish civil war) are represented or not-represented on a site like this.

One of your research interests have been consumerism and popular culture in socialist Yugoslavia. Can you tell something about the topic?

– It was quite a vibrant and interesting culture. Generally I oppose the usual dichotomy, when culture in socialist Yugoslavia is analysed, between the so called “official” and “dissident” culture. It was much more complex then that.

You are particularly interested in film production of the 1960s and 1970s.

– Yes, it gave some remarkable results, but I'm interested also in other kinds of art production. Basically I am interested in conditions of production of art in that period which seem rather remarkable in comparison with the post-socialist crisis. My research is interdisciplinary and it involves visual theory as well as cultural and social theory and and some limited understanding of economy.

And, yes, consumerism… This is for me on one hand a very dull issue and on the other a crucial matter for understanding both the crisis of socialism in Yugoslavia and the crisis of the social-democracies in the west. Consumer culture is a powerful tool for replacing imagination with fantasy, and therefore for creating a world which is driven solely by private interests. I am intrigued by the psycho-social genealogy of this cultural logic.

You will give a lecture in Exhibition Laboratory on 18.11. What can we expect to happen there?

– I may call it a “position talk”. I am aware that my narrower field of research is concerned with issues which are mostly not known here, so I will rather focus on my method as a lecturer of history and theory of art for art students.

I will talk about the importance of “critical theory” in art education but not in a way which is now dominant and which provoke students either to believe that theory is some incomprehensible boogeyman or that it is a recipe to be followed. What keeps me involved in the field of art is an assumption that it may be a practice of emancipation, personal and social. However, I am primarily a historian and I have been always committed to finding a role of historical knowledge on art which is not commemorative, identitarian, nostalgic or fixed but which is a tool for intervention in the present. The present we live is lacking both critical thinking and social imagination, and in the notion of art there is still a historical promise of emancipation, but we seem to have lost track with that in our neo-liberal world and in culture which has become calculated by algorithms. 

And finally, a bonus question: What kind of advise would you give to a young artist going on a residency, perhaps for the first time?

– Go there. Keep open. Think about it… But, in general the only advice I tend to give to young artists is something that I have learned from the artist Adrian Paci who said that he finally became an artist when he stopped being so concentrated upon himself and when he let the others and his immediate surrounding inside his work.

The Academy of Fine Arts' Residency Fellow Programme is implemented in co-operation with HIAP, Helsinki International Artist Programme. The Resident Fellow programme is supported by the Saastamoinen Foundation. The previous Resident Fellow in autumn 2015 was artist, filmmaker Renée Green.