In international circles, Yugoslav art of the 1960s and 1970s is recognised in terms of performance and related forms of contemporary art. What is less known is the role of theatre in the development of these forms, usually associated with visual art. A special chapter in this history belongs to the Belgrade International Theatre Festival—Bitef. In this respect, since the role played by the Student Cultural Centre (SKC) in Belgrade has already received attention in extensive researches, in this text I will complement them with a brief study of Bitef and its Fine Arts Programme from 1968 to 1973. Using it as a case study, I will try to give a broader insight into the curatorial practices in performance art in Belgrade during the Cold War, in order to allow a comparative perspective with other cultural contexts at that time.
Regarding Belgrade’s Performance Art Scene: A Few Rough Cuts
In order to enter this narrative away from the Western art canon, I shall begin with a few rough contextual cuts. The constant attempts at writing a universal history of performance art have merely resulted in closing off that relatively new art form into the Western canon, whilst generating, in methodological terms, confusion instead of better explaining the emergence of performance in different contexts. I would therefore note here that Eastern European and Yugoslav performance art is a rather asymmetrical namesake to its Western European and American counterparts. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was mostly preoccupied to resist socialist realism and moderate modernism, while being also concerned with the individuality of the human body and existence; also, it was often positioned as an appeal for a democratisation of art and society, that is, as an expression of dissent within the socialist order, perceived as repressive and bureaucratised. I would single out the following three as the main functions of performance art in these contexts:
– artists’ need for direct action (praxis) in public,
– venturing out of one’s main art discipline (painting, theatre, poetry), and
– experimenting new forms of artistic expression for rebellious youth subcultures.
Beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the late 1970s, Serbia saw a flourishing of various forms of artistic performance, alongside other ex-Yugoslav countries such as Croatia or Slovenia. In this context one might observe different neo-avant-garde performance practices, such as the multimedia performances of Vladan Radosavljević as early as the mid-1950s, Leonid Šejka’s para-rituals, Olja Ivanjicki’s happenings in painting as well as actions involving body painting with Šejka, Vujica Rešin Tucić’s poetry performances, the happenings of the Slovenian OHO group at Bitef, Katalin Ladik’s poetry-acting performances, etc. In the 1970s, the most active protagonists included the groups KôD and ($, Vladimir Kopicl, the Bosch+Bosch group, Tomislav Gotovac, Radomir Damnjan, the team ekipa A3: Akcija Anonimna Atrakcija [A3: Anonymous Attraction Action], the group of artists associated with the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade: Marina Abramović, Gergely Urkom, Zoran Popović, Raša Todosijević, Neša Paripović, and Era Milivojević, Group 143, Opus 4, and others. Performance scenes developed in particular in Novi Sad and Belgrade, where Tribina mladih [Youth Forum] and the SKC respectively emerged as the main hubs of activity. In Belgrade, Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme with its experimental and activist performance arts curation preceded it.
Bitef: The Place Where The Living Theatre Met Grotowski
Bitef was founded in 1967, as Belgrade’s first international festival. It was initiated by director Mira Trailović under the auspices of Atelje 212, a theatre in Belgrade. Trailović was the festival’s main selector for over 20 years (1967–1988), together with theatre scholar, Jovan Ćirilov (from 1967 until his death in 2014). In the beginning, Bitef focused on discovering new and emerging practices and forms in theatre, and then also on exploring the wider field of the performing arts and presenting works from member states of the Non-aligned Movement. For a number of decades, the festival’s subheading was Nove pozorišne tendencije [New Theatre Tendencies]. According to Ćirilov, innovation, experimentation, and provocation were the main criteria in the selection process. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bitef’s programmes typically consisted of neo-avant-garde theatre, which was developing at the time, in different ways, in the East and in the West alike. Most of these performances were not only formally provocative, but also politically engaged. The same often applied to the texts and discussions that accompanied them. Under the auspices of Bitef, they helped create a micro-public sphere where, under the heading of new theatre tendencies, various issues were discussed, such as disillusionment in Yugoslavia’s socialist revolution or the bureaucratisation of society.
Bitef came to be in the politically fraught context of the Cold War where, due to the special status of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [SFRY] as a non-aligned socialist state and the selectors’ openness to new artistic forms, it emerged as an important meeting place for experimental and critical theatre artists from the East and the West, such as Jerzy Grotowski and Teatr Laboratorium, The Living Theatre, Otomar Krejča, Víctor García, Richard Schechner and The Performance Group, Luca Ronconi, Bread and Puppet Theater, Andrei Şerban and La Mama Repertory Troupe, Liviu Ciulei, Joseph Chaikin and The Open Theatre, Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine and Théâtre du Soleil, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Peter Stein, Eugenio Barba, Robert Wilson, Andrzej Wajda, Pina Bausch, Tadeusz Kantor, etc. According to the Austrian curator Georg Schöllhammer:
“In the post-war history of European avant-garde theatre, Belgrade has, since the 1970s, been considered a canonic place—among other things because of the Bitef Festival, which, from 1967, has been one of the most important experimental fields of the international scene. […] In the mid- 1970s, Yugoslavia was a mecca of theatre, a laboratory of late modernist architecture, a point of crystallisation for unorthodox Marxism and one of the most internationally highly networked hotspots of avant-garde in Europe.”
However, these artistic freedoms of Bitef are debatable. Namely, the selectors did enjoy a high degree of autonomy in their work. The festival was under no political obligation to represent any macro-social values; rather—which may seem paradoxical at first sight—its obligation was to present new and provocative tendencies in art. However, that task was not that paradoxical and certainly not apolitical either. In Yugoslavia, the 1960s were a time of opening to the West and diverging from the Eastern Bloc, especially following the establishment of the Non-aligned Movement in 1960. In that regard, with its international character and openness to innovation, Bitef closely adhered to Yugoslavia’s political agenda at the time. For the West, Yugoslavia was the last point going East and vice versa, and this enabled Bitef to be a “meeting place” for artists from the East and the West, which would have been impossible in other countries, separated by the Iron Curtain. Owing to all of that, in 1967 Bitef became the historical meeting place of The Living Theatre and Jerzy Grotowski, American alternative theatre and Eastern European theatre anthropology. Unlike Schöllhammer, however the Russian critic Nataliya Vagapova argues that “its task was to illustrate to the world the openness of the cultural policies, the tolerance of the Titoist leadership and its break with the theory and practice of socialist realism in art and in fact, while the festival, as well as Yugoslav culture as a whole, persisted amidst an essentially primitive and brutal political censorship, which was shrewdly kept hidden from public view.”
Taking into account these two conflicting perceptions, I would argue that Bitef was a result and hallmark of the process whereby the SFRY was established as a free socialist society, where one could openly examine different aspects of social reality. Its ideological function was to use its freedom to cover up, in the eyes of the public and especially the international public, the many instances of non-freedom that existed in the country. It seems as if the Yugoslav authorities were already in full command of the concepts of cultural diplomacy. Bitef is an exemplary model of their understanding of it, since its free curating seamlessly stemmed from a peculiar (foreign) cultural policy, without censorship or pressure.
Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme (1968–1973)
Right from the start, Bitef was a curated festival, probably one of the first festivals in Europe that did not boil down to a review of a selection of performances. One of its most significant side programmes was in the fine arts, organised from 1968 to 1973 by Galerija 212 and co-organised from 1971 with the SKC. Fine Arts Bitef emerged amid the lively intellectual atmosphere of Atelje 212, which also gave rise to Galerija 212. Its editor was Biljana Tomić, in collaboration with Irina Subotić and Ješa Denegri, who were joined in 1971 by Dunja Blažević, director of the SKC Gallery. This team of art historians and curators provided Bitef and Belgrade with an extraordinary art programme, as well as a novel approach to organising art programmes in general.
Like the main festival programme, the conception of the Fine Arts Programme was non-representational and depended on the affinities of its editors. The programming thus had a Yugoslav and international character, focusing on Western European scenes and the US scene, almost without addressing the context of the Non-aligned countries. It took various formats: there were performances, happenings, exhibitions, actions, lectures, environments, Fluxus events, and public interventions by artists and theorists. Its programmes took place in various locations, at a rather quick pace; the shortest exhibitions were on view just for a day. Among its most significant programmes, I should single out the exhibition titled Permanentna umetnost [Permanent Art] of 1968, which featured concrete and visual poetry, optical art, objects, and graphic design, and for the first time it presented in the local context happenings of the Slovenian group OHO. Then, there was the presentation of a group of young artists in the exhibition titled Generacija 1971 [Generation 1971] who, during the 1970s, became key actors on the local scene: Marina Abramović, Raša Todosijević, Zoran Popović, Gergely Urkom, Neša Paripović, Slobodan Milivojević Era and Evgenija Demnievska. The closing event at the 1973 Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme was an exhibition titled Informacije [Information], in collaboration with over 20 galleries from countries across the world, whose work was presented through documents and conversations with their managers. The exhibition featured works by over 50 artists, and was driven by a desire to encompass all those tendencies in art that called for new ways of working and exhibiting. On that occasion, Biljana Tomić published an editorial text that provided Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme with a clear and daring set of coordinates:
“Since every kind of engagement in the domain of art and culture has a social and cultural function, I would like to posit that engaging in the organisation of Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme as a non-festival, non-mercantile, and unofficial event, and on behalf of a new culture, new art, and a new kind of acting in art, whether finding a proper response from the public and official critics or not, does have its cultural and social relevance and justification at this time.”
During the six years of activity, the Fine Arts Bitef featured numerous major actors of the late 20th century art as well as emerging authors, such as Germano Celant, Guilio Paolini, Joseph Kosuth, Tommaso Trini, Achille Bonito Oliva, John Baldessari, Lucio Amelio, Giancarlo Politi, Catherine Millet, Gina Pane, Robert Morrris, Johan Gerz, Franco Vaccari, Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Daniel Buren, Giuseppe Chiari, Michelangelo Pistoletto & Lo ZOO, Vito Acconci, Art and Language, Jan Dibbets, Hanne Darboven, Sol Lewitt, Walter de Maria, Yoko Ono, OHO group, group KÔD, Mangelos, Goran Trbuljak, Braco Dimitrijević, Nena Dimitrijević – Baljković, Dalibor Martinis, Peđa Vranešević, A3, Ilija Šoškić, Marina Abramović, Raša Todosijević, Zoran Popović, Gergely Urkom, Neša Paripović, Slobodan Milivojević Era, etc. In light of the subsequent development of contemporary art, even if it did not engender “a proper response from the public and official critics,” today the Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme may freely cite the history of art itself as an argument in favour of its “cultural and social relevance and justification.”
In my view, there are two aspects of its programme that seem especially significant. One is that it succeeded in bringing new artistic practices to the local scene, thereby making a lasting impact on the establishment of performance art in 1970s Belgrade, which I will explain in the next section, while moving to the performance scene of the 1970s. One could not make the same argument about Bitef as a whole and for decades, there has been much debate about its impact, if any, on local artists and audiences, positing that Bitef was just a festival for presenting new theatre tendencies from abroad. Related to this, the other important aspect of Fine Arts Bitef was its activist approach to curating. As I mentioned above, it proposed programmes in various formats, which also made more room for socialisation as a connective tissue, rather than reducing the programmes to a handful of exhibitions. In addition, an important role in this new approach was played by the postulates of “acritical criticism.” At the time, it was promoted by the Italian art historian and critic Germano Celant with whom Tomić, Subotić, and Denegri collaborated. Celant based his notion of acritical criticism on Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation, building on the idea that criticism should not be just about judging artworks, but should instead seek to engage on the art scene actively and strategically, as a public cultural practice, that is, an event. These theses by Celant provided the organisation of Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme with a theoretical ground, on the basis of which it moved away from the genuine art criticism as a meta-level of interpretation of the art world, towards the curatorial work as a first-degree practice. Besides, this curatorial work was in line with the local phenomenon called Nova umetnička praksa [New Art Practice], whose active, processual and activist dimensions also informed the way of curating art.
The Performance Art Scene: From “New Theatre Tendencies” towards the “New Art Practice”
This understanding of programming, namely curating, which also influenced the shaping of a scene, caused the Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme to become a generator of a new art scene in Belgrade during the 1970s, which subsequently moved to the Student Cultural Centre. Taking these into account, it comes as no surprise that Ješa Denegri titled his book about the SKC: Studentski kulturni centar kao umetnička scena [The Student Cultural Centre as an Art Scene]. It hosted a vibrant art scene, involving many actors and positions. When it comes to performance, in the early 1970s, the SKC hosted the activities of the A3 group. Their street actions were closely related to the urban activism of the 1960s neo-avant-garde and were ludic and provocative. Then, I should also mention the festival Aprilski susret—prošireni mediji [April Meetings—Festival of Expanded Media], which featured from 1972 to 1977 a large number of performance and conceptual artists from Yugoslavia and abroad. It was an interdisciplinary programme, whose goal was to transcend the boundaries between art forms: video, performance, and photography. Besides bringing together various art forms, the festival gathered large numbers of mostly young artists from various countries. These exchanges enabled the establishment of new art practices as the current local phenomenon that simultaneously corresponded with critical contemporary art in the context of Western Europe and the US. At the same time, there was exchange in both directions, with a number of Yugoslav artists going abroad, in Kassel, Warsaw, Venice, Edinburgh, etc. The apex of performance art at the SKC was reached in April 1978 with the organisation of Performance Meeting international festival, which recognised performance as a key form of contemporary art in Belgrade. Such practice has been prominent in the work of the informal group of six authors mentioned above.
According to performance theorist Branislav Jakovljević and art historian Jelena Vesić, the performance scene at the Student Cultural Centre was a direct legacy of the events of 1968. Vesić has looked at the SKC as an institutional issue, positing in historical perspective two possible interpretations of the outcome of the student protests and asking: “Did SKC mean closing into a ‘ghetto’ or opening up space for critical intervention?” Jakovljević makes the anthropological argument that performance art—examining the endurance of the body, its vulnerability and public exposure—just like the student protests, effected a cut in the allegorical order of mass socialist performances organised by the state. In his view, therefore, “Belgrade performance artists from the early 1970s represent the only legitimate continuation of the aesthetic intervention made by the students on 2 and 3 June 1968.”
To conclude, I shall return to Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme. Recently I took part in a panel discussion at Bitef, titled Inter-spaces between Visual Arts and Theatre. Both my fellow panellists—art historians and curators Jelena Vesić and Dejan Sretenović—referred to Bitef’s Fine Arts Programme at Galerija 212 as the first curated programme. While that may be an exaggeration, it is not far from the truth, given the facts that Celant began his engaged curatorial practice in 1967 and 1968, while Harald Szeemann’s earliest curated exhibitions took place in 1969, 1970, and 1972. In that regard, the curating of Fine Arts Bitef belonged to an avant-garde tendency in the organisation of art programmes, being a pioneering venture in curating, an experimental encounter between “new theatre tendencies” and “the new art practice.” It appeared at the intersection of new art practice with its active, public, processual and activist understanding of art making and the new theatre tendencies, connected with the neo-avant-garde of that time.
With that tie in mind, this text is an attempt to shed light on the position and role of Bitef on Belgrade’s performance scene, as well as to point out the transdisciplinary and social character of performance art. In the conception of his notion of arte povera, Celant himself was inspired by Grotowski’s “poor theatre,” quoting Grotowski and The Living Theatre in his manifestoes as early as 1968. Their poetics are precisely an example of how theatre in the 1960s—when it removed the dramatic text from its throne and focused on the human body in a live situation—changed the boundaries of an artistic event, from a play to the uncertain domains of sociality that the performance generates. The fact is that this potential was not recognised as a tool for an extended curating of Bitef’s theatre programming. As I showed above, its Fine Arts Programme was its most articulate segment in that regard, which, among other things, caused performance to migrate to visual arts. Nonetheless, the initial phase that I described here suggests that performance in Belgrade was not a visual arts phenomenon, even though it was hosted by the visual arts. It was a phenomenon that came into being and then subsequently went beyond the three key points of the local cultural context at the time: the student protests of 1968, Bitef’s neo-avant-garde theatre, and the new art practices. Without the establishment of those links, performance art in Belgrade could be seen as an individualist gesture of artists within and against socialism. This is how the artistic figure of Marina Abramović is created. Nevertheless, performance in Belgrade was not that. It was a communal art that opened space in the public sphere for the voice of an individual as the singular of a plural.
Ana Vujanović is a theorist of performing arts and cultural worker based in Berlin.