Elephant in the room: Art Weekend Belgrade at the Hotel Belgrade

A restituted hotel building in Savamala district, near the Belgrade Waterfront complex, was used as scenography of an exhibition set up in sixty-eight hotel rooms. Was it creative collaboration or so-called "artwashing"?

“Hotel Belgrade is an ideal location for presenting the local art scene”, states the introductory text on the website of the event called Art Weekend Belgrade, organized by The GRAD European Centre for Culture and Debate (KC Grad).

The battle for restitution of the modernist five-story building located on the corner of Balkanska and Nemanjina street has been filling newspaper headlines for years. Recently the location was used to serve the “promotion and development of the local contemporary art scene”.

Infamous for decades, formerly dubbed “Štajga”, situated near the so-called “Whore Park” and the cult “Partizan” adult movie theatre, this corner of used-to-be-industrial Savamala district is rapidly changing. Besides the now shabby main Belgrade bus station – stinking of discarded Toi portable toilets, with its rickety arrival platforms lacking clear signposts, and an overall appearance of a long-abandoned construction site – the landscape of Savamala is going through a speedy urban transformation.

New tourist guides could describe Hotel Belgrade as being situated at the edge of Belgrade Waterfront urban renewal development project, between the new “grandiose” monument to a Serbian medieval prince, Stefan Nemanja (which dominates the “smartened up” Sava plateau in front of the old Railway Station – the future Historical Museum of Serbia) and the representative building of the Government of Serbia on its well-known address, Nemanjina 11.

Noisy, polluted and chaotic international and domestic transport hub, through which trains, buses – and famous Yugoslav heavy trucks produced in industries in Maribor and Priboj – rumbled for decades, is now being radically changed and “cleansed” by the urban renewal development project which the state facilitated by introducing a special, and according to many – unconstitutional, piece of legislation (Lex specialis).

The exhibition organizers claim that they were surprised by the high turnout, which even made them extend the exhibition’s duration; the owners of the restituted hotel say that they have a business plan according to which they want to “restore the old glamour” of the dilapidated building, and we are wondering what do the city and its inhabitants stand to gain from such an event, and what’s in it for the artists whose work was presented at the exhibition, and the art scene itself. We talked about that with a researcher who focuses on issues of urban change, but also with some of the artists and cultural workers who participated in the exhibition.

Exhibition “Hotel Belgrade” 2021; Photo: Mašina

Disappearance of the “deserted areas of Belgrade where no one tries to sell you anything”

Artist Aleksandar Jevtić has a positive opinion of the concept of Art Weekend and the current exhibition based on his experience as an exhibitor and accompanying reflections.  He considers the exhibition to represent a shift on the art scene because, in his words, the selection process has been impartial and the curator was active and readily available. Meanwhile, Vladimir Bjeličić and Senka Latinović, a curatorial-artistic duo who go under the name Vocal-Curatorial Syndrome (VKS), consider the whole event to be lacking political awareness.

“It is a big step forward that the exhibition is clearly promoted as a place open to all citizens of Belgrade. Promotion of the hotel certainly plays a part in the event, but I wouldn’t call it ‘artwashing’ and I would refrain from excessive criticism because what’s more important in my opinion is that the exhibition is a de facto open field for art to be presented to the general public, which contemporary art institutions have been neglecting for too long”, Aleksandar Jevtić stated for Mašina. “It turned out, of course, that the wide audience is curious, perceptive and much more eager to explore the art scene than to be exposed to random art spectacles that have been used as audience bate for years, framing people as stupid consumers who has to be shocked by the magnitude of an event or an author’s fame to decide to visit an exhibition”, he added. The drawings that Jevtić exhibited explicitly focus on the disappearance of deserted areas of Belgrade, areas, as he puts it, “where no one tries to sell you anything”. “What bothers me with the local contemporary art market is that it is mostly designed for collectors and foreign diplomats, and that people are all packed in competitive teams”, explains Aleksandar Jevtić.

Vocal-Curatorial Syndrome, “Knock and it will open for you”, 2021; Photo: Mašina

The curatorial-artistic duo VKS, on the other hand, are critical of the fact that the organizers didn’t problematize the choice of the location for the exhibition or their own attitude towards former societal property and restitution processes. Bjeličić and Latinović say that they were hesitant as to whether to respond to the invitation because they saw the very concept of the exhibition to be problematic and had issues with artists’ participation “in something that they themselves don’t understand fully “. However, they chose to participate and exhibit a work that sheds light on a particular way culture and art are being treated, which they dubbed the “nouveau riche-foundation-excellence” concept, which, in their words, “finely illustrates contemporary cultural policies”.

Indeed, the exhibition included a number of inspiring, layered and suggestive works by artists who problematize the privatisation of self-governing factories in Yugoslavia and the 1990s wars (Ráðhildur Ingadóttir, “Vortex”), the history of the hotel and its surroundings (Tamara Tomić-Vajagić and Lena Melentijević, “The reception is in the room: the soft history of Hotel Belgrade”), property and anti-capitalist social relations (Nebojša Yamasaki Vukelić,”Building as a present(ation) (diptych) “/” Architect of a classless society, currently unemployed, wanders Utopia “), history of Yugoslav socialism and the League of Communist of Yugoslavia (Dragan Srdić, “Disinformation 1”), alternative education (Group 484 + Škart, “Good News Drummers”), and many others.

However, a critical review of the processes often referred to in critical urban studies as “artwashing”, gentrification by means of art, or urban commodification, this time seems to have been completely absent from public discourse.

Ana Vilenica, a housing activist, theorist of urban change, housing and art, explained for Mašina that there are different ways in which the so-called “artwashing” is carried out. When contemporary urban change is in question, she emphasised, artwashing is initiated by investors or the state with the aim to speed up or cover up the dislocation of poor residents from a city area (or, in other words, social cleansing). Sometimes such processes are also initiated by foreign cultural missions who wish to “modernize” the (semi) periphery, she adds, giving an example of a 2014 Goethe Institute project called the Savamala “Urban Incubator”.  The “Urban Incubator”, as she explains, prepared the ground for later investment projects. In Ana Vilenica’s opinion, “artwashing” represents “instrumentalization of art for the sake of urban development, with the effect of destroying local communities and fencing public and common space, a process in which artists participate more or less voluntarily”. “Art gives a human face to processes that produce new social inequalities”, she added.

Exhibition “Hotel Belgrade” 2021; Photo: Mašina

“Donate” (.) “Donate” (.) “Donate”

One of the first things you come across at the very hotel entrance is a small white cardboard box, similar to a shoebox, with the words “Donate” written on it in large Latin letters. On the pedestal below, a small photo of an artwork is printed on an A4 piece of paper, with the inscription: “Help us to make up for the loss of a young artist whose work was stolen. Donate according to your abilities! ”

“We heard only hearsay about the new owners’ intentions. Allegedly, they plan to keep the place running as a hotel and introduce some innovative contents. Based on everything we have witnessed in recent decades, we can’t say that we expect any positive change – we can’t tell how exactly do the hotel owners plan to continue their communication with the cultural scene in the future? “, Vladimir and Senka from the art group VKS answer the question about the choice of exhibition space. They pose a question of their own: “Was this event just the owners’ gesture of good will (an euphemism for ‘artwashing’?), done with the purpose of proving themselves as something more than just owners of financial capital and heirs who now own a hotel building in an exclusive location? We don’t have enough information to comment any further. “

Nevertheless, many artists are satisfied with the audience turnout, which we witnessed ourselves. During our visit, the hotel was full of visitors — mostly young people, who gave the impression of having a good time snooping from one room to the other, some of the rooms already fenced with security tapes and prepared for redecorating that the new hotel owner has announced.

All this makes the appeal to visitors to help the managers compensate the young artist’s loss seem a bit unusual. Didn’t such an impressive artistic manifestation foresee the possibility of such and similar organizational problems? Is it possible that the owner of the financial capital, who, we assume, has large investment plans, cannot finance insurance of a work of art on his own? How could it be that the exhibited works weren’t insured, bearing in mind the fact that the hotel is an unsafe space that is about to be reconstructed and which doesn’t have any mechanism for the protection of exhibited artwork?

Jovana Blagojević and Pavle Ćurčić, „Wireless“, 2021; Photo: Mašina

Such dilemmas call for further questions, which refer to the conditions under which the artists agreed to exhibit their works. Did they sign any exhibition contracts and under what conditions? Did they receive a fee for participating in the exhibition or any kind of financial compensation for the services of exhibiting their artwork? What is the policy of the organizers of the exhibition on all these issues, and, finally, whose interests in these capital relations they protect – the interest of the (new) owner of capital who, we assume, got “on a tray” a cultural and artistic event that drew public attention to his hotel, which has yet to do good PR, branding and advertising, or the interests of the artists themselves and the art scene, as indicated in the announcement. Namely, the goal of the Art Weekend event is “promotion and development of the local art scene, presentation of local art to a wider audience and enabling meetings and cooperation with foreign curators”, as it is stated in the introductory text.

One last look “before the door closes forever for all of us”

“Restitution is the elefant in the room of this exhibition. We are witnessing the realization of the pre-war owner’s dream, as the current owner of the once societally owned hotel pointed out in an interview. The exhibition is set up to confirm the alleged fairness of the act of re-privatization, out of which, in fact, one person came as a winner while all of us others lost”, Ana Vilenica is categorical.

“The two of us discussed this issue while the exhibition was being set up “, Vladimir and Senka say. “We’re still not sure as to who is meant to connect with whom, and if this isn’t again a kind of an art safari, where someone from abroad will drop by for two days to check out if they can spot something worthwhile and draw a’ lucky winner ‘ who has the potential to take the title of an emerging “, they answer honestly.

“According to what we saw, the exhibition was very well attended and covered by the media, thanks to the space being very attractive and inspiring. So, there’s popularity as one side of the coin. But the other, less visible, but far more important side of the coin, as far as the local scene is concerned, is precariousness, i.e. the question of whether artists will get anything more than mere promotion for their time and money”, our interlocutors wonder. At the same time, they wish to refrain from excessively harsh judgments, stating that they may not be right and that some artists “may have already received great business offers, recommendations or residencies”. However, as they conclude: “We haven’t”.

Ráðhildur Ingadóttir, „Vortex“, 1998-2021; Photo: Mašina

Marija Radoš from the Remont Gallery answers similarly: “‘Artwashing’ is a disgusting problem, disgusting insofar as it is not transparent to everyone”. Situating the problem in a broader social context and wondering how to fight such processes, she gives a somewhat pessimistic assessment: “When I think about how to join forces against such things I come to the conclusion that I have as much issues with the citizens who still use state health insurance and rely on state polyclinics – where they are made to wait endlessly for exams and treatment and receive lousy service – thus giving credibility to a kind of a sleepy charade and the rip off of the national health insurance fund. In a way, I’m one of those people, too. That’s a very fucked up situation”. Still, in her answer we can trace a hint of the optimism of the will, specifically the will to fight artwashing and similar tendencies: ” We need to invent new ways to unite against problems in such an atmosphere?”

“There is a good intention behind every project”, says Ana Vilenica. However, the question is – who is it good for, as she adds. “Judging by the artists’ comments on social networks, Artweekend is certainly an event that allowed several artists who got selected to show their work to meet an audience that doesn’t usually attend art events, and who rushed to the Belgrade Hotel to see that space for the last time, before its door closes forever for all of us”, warns Vilenica.

A paralysed art scene, unwilling to face reality

“We weren’t paid for our work, we financed part of the art production ourselves, and we borrowed some props from the organizers. In the beginning we had a more ambitious idea to do a performance, but we realized later that we, for one, didn’t have the financial means, but also the time and energy to constantly exhaust ourselves at all levels”, said Vladimir and Senka when asked if they were paid for exhibiting.

Marija Radoš, a curator at the Remont Gallery, which exhibited publications whose transporting, printing etc. was paid for by Art Weekend, believes it to make sense that the publications will reach the audience who’s interested in them:

Aleksandar Jevtić, „Bad Drawings Series“, 2021; Photo: Mašina

“It’s hard for me to comment on the event because I have the impression that I’m flogging a dead horse (meaning the local art ‘scene’) and that there’s just no use. The problems in the art profession are a part of a broader range of problems, and the degree of paralysis of the art scene corresponds to the degree of individual actors’ reluctance to acknowledge that fact and determine their positions accordingly. I see the situation as a limbo that we all go through, each relying on their own abilities to understand what’s going on. Art Weekend has brought together a lot of individual impulses that see this gathering as a reaction to the all-permeating entropy and apathy, so I don’t feel like pissing on that — especially given that I think that the inability to perceive the total abuse in other contexts clearly trends towards becoming a mechanism by which the whole world is spinning. With that in mind I stopped expecting anything from anyone. This is exactly what I personally think and feel. No one can ‘explain’ anything to anyone anymore – not even that we participate in injustices and frauds, which the whole deal in Savamala most certainly is”, she explained.

However, in a world where the conflict between labour and capital is intensifying, there are more and more cases of struggle against investor urbanism and gentrification, and the demands of a growing number of citizens to stop the expansion of the real estate market and return to the ideas of ​​nationalization and expropriation of huge real estate ownership are becoming more often. Hence, it seems that the art world will have to take responsibility for the role it plays in such social processes.

Translation: Iskra Krstić

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Nov 01, 2021.

The text was created within the project which is co-financed from the Budget of the Republic of Serbia – the Ministry of Culture and Information. The views expressed in the supported media project do not necessarily reflect the views of the body that allocated the funds.


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