Yugoslav Performance Art: On the Deferred Production of Knowledge

Yugoslav Performance Art: On the Deferred Production of Knowledge


Goran Pavlić
In order to fully understand the theoretical engagements with the specificities of Yugoslav performance art presented in this issue, it is necessary to first acknowledge the particular political heritage of this art. The position of the socialist Yugoslav state between the Western and Eastern blocs – manifested on the international level in its participation in the Non-Aligned Movement – deeply affected artistic production and its immediate theoretical reflection. The epistemological ambiguity of such a position leads to a “deferred production of knowledge”: delayed or marginalised within the Western European context, yet privileged and entitled in construing its own original political and artistic trajectory. Goran Pavlić introduces the themed issue on Yugoslav performance art with an outline of the theoretical approaches relevant to the included articles.
Yugoslavia; Europe; socialism; performance art; standpoint epistemology; revisionism.

What is Yugoslavia? And to what does the term Yugoslav refer? If we look it up in dictionary.com, which boldly boasts it is “the world’s leading digital dictionary”, we can find three definitions. Two of them signify a person: “1) a native or inhabitant of the former country of Yugoslavia, and 2) a southern Slav; a member of the southern group of Slavic peoples”. The third definition of Yugoslav is “of or relating to the Yugoslavs”. Here we already face some serious problems. The first – of minor importance – is the fact that Bulgarians fall into the category of Southern Slavs, but they were never part of Yugoslavia. Further, the notion of “the former country of Yugoslavia” is even less informative, since there were at least three separate political entities with this name: the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929–1941; formerly known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes), socialist Yugoslavia (1943–1991; bearing three names consecutively: Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, and Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), and finally the postsocialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992–2002).

But why do these terminological minutiae even matter? We are now almost two decades past the last instance of Yugoslavia, and the succeeding states (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and, as of 2008, Kosovo), which emerged after the civil war (1991–1995), have managed to find a place on a world map of politics, economy, and culture. This problem of precisely articulating a seemingly plain terminological fact arose already in the editing of Gal Kirn’s paper, which opens this themed issue. The dynamics of Yugoslav political development are far from widely known, and even among domestic scholars, there are so many controversies that hinder the formation of a single, minimally coherent narrative. The main obstacle to the construction of such a ‘non-partial’, ‘objective’ account is the Yugoslav socialist period, i.e. the socialist rupture which destroyed the purportedly evolutionary path to European-style liberal democracy after the Second World War. Communism, or, more precisely, its manifestation in the 20th-century socialist states in Eastern Europe, is mainly seen among postsocialist historians as a Bolshevik pest, a sort of intrusion from the East which disrupted the neat progression of European bourgeois political systems (for the Yugoslav case, cf. Radanović 2013).

Domenico Losurdo, the Italian Marxist historian, traces the roots of such a stance back to the wider dynamics of European historiography from the 1960s onward. In his lifelong and scrupulous research of the phenomenon of ‘historical revisionism’, he recognises a tendency among European historians to blame the Russian Revolution for all the subsequent political evils, including the rise of Nazism. The main aim of such endeavours is to discredit the very idea of communism and its socialist manifestations. If successful, this ‘project’ would lead to

the collapse of the ‘myth’ of the Bolshevik October [which then] inevitably casts a shadow over the worldwide antifascist Resistance, in which a leading role was played by political and social forces explicitly identified with Bolshevism. And an even more eerie shadow falls over the anti-colonial revolutionary movement, stimulated and strongly influenced from the outset by Communist agitation and participation. (Losurdo 2015)

According to such a perspective, the term ‘socialist’ is not a neutral adjective but a heavily contested concept with high stakes in current debates on European heritage.

Within the context of this themed issue, the term ‘Yugoslav’ is synonymous with ‘socialist Yugoslav’, that is, it includes political and aesthetic phenomena relating to the socialist period of Yugoslav history. Such a decision brings with it further problems. Although revisionist attitudes prevalent in post-Yugoslav theory and history cast it as such, socialist Yugoslavia was not a monolithic, totalitarian state. Even before the harsh split with Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1948, it drew its legitimacy from the People’s Liberation Struggle (PLS) through which it liberated itself from the Nazi occupation. Although guided by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, the PLS was carried out by the numerous autonomous political-military units. The socialist project emerged from this political heritage, as did the concept of Yugoslav self-management, which it served as a basis for the foundation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 (cf. Bilandžić 1985). Understanding this progression is key to understanding the particular and unique position of socialist Yugoslavia within the post-World War II geopolitical situation, which is dealt with particularly in Kirn’s paper.

As many other big political concepts, like the French Revolution or the October Revolution, the Cold War is not only an instance or event in the political development of a particular society, or societies, but represents also a mode of comprehending the world or, in Foucauldian parlance, an episteme. So, when speaking about the Cold War, we do not only refer to two competing political systems – the capitalist and the socialist one – but also to modes of understanding the political phenomena and the dynamics between them. In the Manichaean optics of the Cold War, all the differences among the socialist states were neglected, and these systems were thrown into the allegedly homogenous bundle of the Eastern Bloc. As a collateral victim of such an approach, Yugoslavia was treated as the European Other, as something not European, or not civilised enough. This image, constructed in the West, found a fruitful soil in the Yugoslav liberal intelligentsia. The imposition and self-imposition of such an interpretative perspective was meticulously analysed in Tanja Petrović’s 2012 book Yuropa. Jugoslovensko nasleđe i politike budućnosti u postjugoslovenskim društvima [Yurope. The Yugoslav Heritage and the Politics of the Future in the Post-Yugoslav Societies]. Petrović claims that the revisionist practices erasing socialist themes from the public sphere in post-Yugoslav societies gain wide support among EU officials who treat “‘overcoming the past’ and departing from socialist heritage as a precondition for the Europeanisation” (2012: 11-12). In such a view, there is little room left for due attention to the originality of Yugoslav experience, whether political or artistic.

As the Others in the European cultural matrix, Yugoslav artists and theoreticians share the fate of ‘not-yet-modern’ political subjects, still not entirely capable of participating in European culture on its terms. As such, the outcomes of their theoretical or artistic production always fall short of Western requirements (cf. Latour 1993). The problems of the evaluation and epistemological treatment of non-Western cultural and/or intellectual practices has gained serious attention in recent years, mostly with respect to the Global South, and its rich, versatile, and neglected intellectual heritage. Structurally speaking, the logic of exclusion is analogous, and Eastern European experience shares similar historical treatment in some aspects. Although not a minority in strict sociological terms, Eastern Europeans ‘suffer’ from comparable epistemic violence, being treated as a homogenous identity, unaccustomed to the procedures and mores of complex, differentiated Western culture.

In his perspicacious analysis of standpoint epistemology’s pitfalls in dealing with the minoritarian production of knowledge, that is, knowledge whose protocols of production, distribution, and acquisition do not fit established Western protocols, American Marxist political philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò raises important concerns about its emancipatory potential. The position’s core tenets seem rather noncontroversial. They contain three main propositions:

1) Knowledge is socially situated;
2) Marginalised people have some positional advantages in gaining some forms of knowledge;
3) Research programs ought to reflect these facts.

Yet, Táíwò (2020) acknowledges that the problem is “less about the core ideas and more about the prevailing norms that convert them into practice [...] the norms of putting standpoint epistemology into practice call for practices of deference: giving offerings, passing the mic, believing”. In other words, the problems we face are not of a cognitive nature, but of a social, or more precisely a practical, procedural one. By only “passing the mic”, we gain a sort of moral aura for being empathetic agents, but Táíwò stresses that “the same tactics of deference that insulate us from criticism also insulate us from connection and transformation” which are “prerequisites of coalitional politics” (ibid.). For such a politics to come into being, beyond mere symbolic gestures, the constructive approach would focus on

building institutions and cultivating practices of information-gathering rather than helping [...], on accountability rather than conformity. It would calibrate itself directly to the task of redistributing social resources and power rather than to intermediary goals cashed out in terms of pedestals or symbolism [...], it would be a world-making project: aimed at building and rebuilding actual structures of social connection and movement, rather than mere critique of the ones we already have. (ibid.).

This themed issue attempts to work along those lines. The “deferred production of knowledge” refers to the epistemological ambiguity of the Yugoslav position as conceived here. It recognises Yugoslav spatial and temporal deferral from the European model as a historical fact. And yet, it respects the originality of Yugoslav socialist experience. Beyond the mere granting of publishing space to hitherto marginalised identities, communities, or political subjects as a gesture of epistemic charity, the platform is shared to demonstrate, present, and even challenge the established theoretical concepts from performance theory devised by Western academia. The aim is not to boast of Yugoslav ‘originality’ or contrariness but, among other things, to confront the widely accepted prejudice that dealing seriously with specific cultural phenomena necessarily follows already authorised epistemic procedures, established in the Western metropolitan centres.

We open the themed issue with Gal Kirn’s paper on the possibility of modern dance and performance over the course of the Second World War and the parallel socialist revolution that took place in Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1945. Kirn highlights the transmedial nature of the chosen artistic events, stressing their inherent political potential due to the specific conditions of production.These performances were ‘staged’ during battles of the Second World War, in extremely dangerous circumstances and on the very battlefields. Their politicality stems not only from the content presented, but primarily from the audacity to depart from bourgeois modes of cultural production.

Jasna Žmak, in her contribution in Croatian, analyses the ritual aspects of Youth day celebrations that lasted over four decades (1945–1988) and served as a kind of reiteration of Yugoslav ideological project. These rallies, artistic in their nature, were organised in the form of mass events performed by thousands of performers – modern and folk dancers, singers, musicians, amateurs – celebrating the achievements of socialist system and its leader Marshal Tito. As such, they did not significantly differ from similar political rallies in the 1920s or 1930s in Germany or Soviet Union, but Žmak points to the need of a nuanced approach to these ‘social choreographies’ due to the particular genealogy in this case. In Siegfried Kracauer’s account of the collective choreographies he terms these phenomena as “mass ornaments”:

They are composed of elements that are mere building blocks and nothing more. The construction of the edifice depends on the size of the stones and their number. It is the mass that is employed here. Only as parts of a mass, not as individuals who believe themselves to be formed from within, do people become fractions of a figure. (Kracauer 1995: 76)

Žmak, drawing on Susan Brownell’s theses, stresses the crucial aspect that distinguishes Yugoslav rallies from seemingly identical events in capitalist contexts, and that is the true, sincere belief of the participants in the socialist political project.

Tanja Šljivar, next, delves deeply into the specificities of reading and listening in Bojan Djordjev’s performance The Discreet Charm of Marxism, stressing its politicality, particularly its potential to bring about a new community. Wary of the excessive optimism, Šljivar dissects the intricacies of reading aloud and listening as performing procedures sui generis, stressing their particularities and defying usual misconceptions about their passivity. In her account, reading and listening become processes of political subjectivation, and not mere instances of aesthetic enjoyment.

Petra Belc then presents three cases from Yugoslav film history, that is, three authors – Mihovil Pansini, Nikola Đurić, and Svetolik Novaković – whose avant-garde experiments challenge the usual narrative that sees socialist political films as a mere propagandistic tool. Questioning the shortcomings of the apparatus theory when applied to the artworks from socialist contexts, Belc offers insight into the rather original performance theory devised by Yugoslav Marxist aestheticians. Unlike the performance theory first proposed by Victor Turner, Richard Schechner, and Erving Goffman in the 1960s (cf. Carlson 2018, Fischer-Lichte 2008) inspired by new-theatrical phenomena that stormed Western avant-garde stages from the 1960s on, Yugoslav performance theory started from the premise that in the socialist society all ‘true’ art was always already revolutionary, since it was not subsumed to the commodification processes typical for bourgeois culture.

And finally, Dejan Sretenović’s article on the ontology of performance completes the themed issue. Starting from the seminal work of Peggy Phelan, Sretenović meticulously traces the transformation of the genre from the alleged sheer, non-representational materiality of the early works to the intermedial nature of later performances. Sretenović, drawing on Christopher Bedford, Amelia Jones, and Rosalind Krauss, stresses that there had never been some virgin period of performance, untainted by the discourse and representation around it. Such a perspective bears then significant interpretative consequences for the evaluation of the phenomenon of reperformance.

At the very end, one could legitimately pose a question: so, what is original about the Yugoslav experience? How do Yugoslav cultural and artistic practices differ from the Western performance history? Peter Bürger in his widely influential Theory of the Avant-Garde claims that there were two main tenets of avant-garde programme: the dissolution of the concept of the author as a genius, and destruction of the bourgeois concept of the autonomy of art. The Yugoslav experience, starting from a totally different historical background, managed to achieve, to a certain degree, both — without instrumentalising art solely for political purposes. Modes of artistic and theoretical production, deriving partly from socialist ideology, opened a space for alternative imaginative practices, ones not determined by the laws of the capitalist market. The papers included in this themed issue demonstrate to what extent such practices produced original content, and, as in the case of Šljivar’s contribution, how the socialist heritage resonates in contemporary performances.

Goran Pavlić
Academy of Dramatic Art
University of Zagreb


Goran Pavlic, PhD is assistant professor at the Department of Dramaturgy, Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb. His research interests include the political economy of the arts, performance theory, political theory, theory of ideology and Marxism. He co-edited two collections with Sibila Petlevski: Spaces of Identity in the Performing Sphere (2011), and Theatrum Mundi. Interdisciplinarne perspektive [Theatrum Mundi. Interdisciplinary Perspectives] (2015). In 2019, he published the book Glembajevi: dvojno čitanje [The Glembays: Dual Reading].


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Bürger, Peter. 1984. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Carlson, Marvin. 2018. Performance. A Critical Introduction. London and New York.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. 2008. The Transformative Power of Performance. A New Aesthetics. London and New York.

Kracauer, Siegfried. 1995. The Mass Ornament. Weimar Essays. Cambridge and London.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2015. War and Revolution. Rethinking the Twentieth Century. London.

Petrović, Tanja. 2012. Yuropa. Jugoslovensko nasleđe i politike budućnosti u postjugoslovenskim društvima. Beograd.

Radanović, Milan. 2013. “Istorijska politika u Srbiji.” https://www.yumpu.com/xx/document/view/17527837/radanovic-milan-istorijska-politika-u-srbijipdf-centar-za-socijalna- [Accessed December 24, 2020].

Táíwò, Olúfémi O. 2020. “Being-in-the-Room Privilege:Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference.” https://www.thephilosopher1923.org/essay-taiwo [Accessed December 24, 2020].

Suggested Citation

Pavlić, Goran. 2020. “Editorial”. Yugoslav Performance Art: On the Deferred Production of Knowledge (ed. by Goran Pavlić). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 11. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00011.247.

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner’s terms.


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