Alessandra Cianetti: Tanja, your practice has been concerned with the notion of the border for many years and I wonder, what role in your opinion do borders play in interfering with, shaping, or influencing your specific approach to Live Art?
Tanja Ostojić: To be honest the border itself, physically, is not something I related to as a kind of aesthetic object, and my approach in general is research based and interdisciplinary. As a matter of fact the frustration that borders bring and the difficulties they cause because they are there, they have been constructed, put one in the situation of having to deal with these obstacles. I have seen them as obstacles throughout my whole life and I looked at the issues of crossing borders through migration— political and economic history and at the strategies migrants have been forced to apply in order to trespass the borders, and at the biopolitics that have been imposed through the border regimes.
So from those aspects and for these reasons I have been researching this topic for decades and have been producing performative interventions and long term projects since the year 2000. I can talk about certain performative gestures that were inspiring because one has to involve one’s creativity in order to deal with such a frustrating matter, such as constantly applying for visas, constantly queuing, etc. And I started working from my own perspective because I think it is necessary to work from one’s own perspective, to see who is speaking and what motivates it. So I started to speak as a Serbian passport holder, European, non-EU, immigrant woman, white, female, educated, etc. It is similar to when you go through certain administrative procedures, you have to go through with all this, and this is how the borders became visible to me.
AC: In the first half of the 2000s, you created your Crossing Borders, a series of works about the effects of EU regulation concerning movement across frontiers for non-EU citizens – i.e. Illegal Border Crossing (2000), Waiting for a Visa (2000), Untiled/After Courbet (2004). I wonder if you could tell us about these performances where you use your own body to actually cross borders and reflect on them.
TO: The Crossing Borders series ran from 2000 to 2005. With the Illegal Border Crossing (2000), as I lived in Slovenia at the time and I couldn’t get the permission to go to Austria, I decided to go in a non-registered way both directions, using detailed maps of the territories in the border area. Both countries – Slovenia and Austria – were part of the EU at the time. Due to the fact that Austria was part of the Schengen border-regime and Slovenia was not, my temporary residency permit in the tiny country of Slovenia did not entitle me to cross the border to the neighbouring Austria. And as the duration of my residency permit was due for renewal in less than 3 months at the moment I applied for the short term visitor’s visa in order to attend an artistic workshop to Austria, I was refused one.
Waiting for a Visa (2000) was a 6 hour long queuing action integrated in the endless regular queue with several hundreds of other people in front of the Austrian Consulate in Belgrade, without success, so to say, as the consulate already closed down by the time I and about one hundred other people were getting closer towards the entrance door of the building. The follow up was Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000–2005): a five year long project where I published a marriage ad of my self employing particular aesthetics, and exchanged over 500 letters and emails with people around the world who responded to it. The first meting with a future husband was set as a public performance inside the park in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, that was recorded and streamed online. A few weeks later I officially married to obtain papers, and moved to Germany with a family unification visa issued on the basis of the international marriage certificate. From there on, I started in parallel my “Integration Project” looking from the perspective of immigrant women within Schengen and the European Union borders. After three-and-a-half years of marriage the project was concluded with the exhibition of the full archive of the project and the Divorce Party event that were hosted by an art-project-space in Berlin (Gallery 35, in 2005).
With Untiled/After Courbet / L’Origine du monde (2004) I dealt in a more visual way with the issue of biopolitics referring to who is allowed in and who not in the EU, and the practice of ‘checking the ´warmth of the bedsheets’ in marriages between EU and non-EU partners. This means that the immigration police basically does check if the marriage ‘is applied’, whatever that means, and that one has to be somehow prepared to know what this is supposed to mean. Presumably approving if marriage is properly applied should be subject of those checks – that is the practice I was interested to somehow refer to. Within the project Looking for a Husband with EU Passport we were aware of these aspects in order not to become suspicious to the eyes of the representatives of the law. Untiled/After Courbet is a visual work created in 2004 and in 2005 it was placed in the rotating billboards in Vienna at the time when the Austrian PM was overtaking the rotating chair of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and the billboards exhibition was used to mark this occasion. Of course the artistic positions were critical of such context and my work was removed after two days, as result of media scandal created by the yellow press of Austria. They (Kronen Zeitung) labeled my work and the one of Carlos Aires as pornography, and enormous political pressure was put on the exhibition curators who decided to remove those two art works that they had initially explicitly curated for the show in the public spaces. My work stayed however very much present in the press. Even after 6 months it was still quoted in caricatures about this kind of double standard of the Austrian press, double standard of moral in political life and has raised a lot of debates about art in the public space and politically engaged art.
AC: In your practice your feminist body is always at the forefront, physically, legally, aesthetically also the notion of ‘femina sacra’ is linked with your work in a few writings and talks (e.g. Dr Suzana Milevska). How does this concept translate in the passage from pieces focused on your own performer’s individual body (i.e. Looking for a Husband with EU Passport, 2000–2005) to projects looking at the performative potential of collective work (e.g. Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić, 2011–2017, Misplaced Women?, 2009– ongoing)?
TO: There are many different ways in which I use my body, biographical elements and social perspective. Some are for example rather symbolic, some are transformative and some embody solidarity. When I speak from my own position than I politicise my own body and perspective, using the fist hand experience that gives my feminist body credibility to talk from this perspective. When I embody a certain theoretical term or certain references from art history then I rather use transformative elements and strategies. With certain works I show my feelings and solidarity, and expose my own vulnerability in regard to other communities and perspectives who in my opinion deserve our attention greatly. As I consequently spoke from my own perspective (in those projects you kindly mentioned) once in a while I exhausted own position, and wanted also to look at experiences of people coming from different continents, of different skin colour, of different class, who were in an even more difficult position, therefore I went to interviewing these people. For example when I made the Sans Papiers documentary in a deportation jail in Berlin or when I was following undocumented guest-workers’ hunger strikes for two years in Greece that I’ve never managed to produce something out of it because the economic situation there escalated so badly. As you see besides first-hand experience, I was very interested in following other people’s stories, to learn in this way about their particular life experiences and perspectives, and trying to give them voice and in certain more complex projects as well possibility to express in a creative, human or political way via joint artistic practice and self documentary practices (like with the community of my name sisters in the Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić project).
The differences between methodologies in those projects are substantial. For example with the Naked Life project (2004–2016) I looked at historical and contemporary, systematic and different sorts of discrimination of Roma, Sinti and Travellers Europe-wide. Each piece had a focus on researching the local context and giving comparative perspective Europe-wide, as I did for example in the UK, Sweden, Germany, the Balkan countries, France… This was a long term project and each itinerary was based on a research process based on different sources including interviews that had been done by authorised associations involving human rights activists, Roma communities and sometimes I did the interviews myself. In Naked Life I used my body as a symbolic body to embody these stories and show solidarity with other people’s destinies and what they went through. These pieces, in contrast to journalism, carry an enormous emotional engagement beyond the information that are very complex and detailed regarding individual histories and destinies. I was symbolically and literally undressing: after reading each of the cases, I was taking off a layer of clothes to get down to the naked life, the bare life.
AC: Through your practice you have been using art contexts to empower the voices of marginalised people. Do you feel your practice has crossovers with social activism’s tactics? In your recent publication Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić you refer to your approach as ‘cultural activism,’ what did you mean by that?
TO: In recent years since there is an increase of artists of Roma heritage that are getting visibility and their voices heard in the artistic context I stopped doing projects like Naked Life. It’s not that I stopped trying “to speak for them”, actually, I was never trying to speak instead of someone else. I was expressing my solidarity with those histories and I also involved some of them directly, creating “coalitions against white ignorance”, so to say. For example in the last two of the Naked Life performances (2016), one was at the Society of the Advocates’ Hall in Aberdeen, I created a work about the historical and contemporary discrimination of Roma in different parts of UK. My performance was followed by a statement from Sonia Michalewicz, singer, dancer and cleaner of Roma origin who was initiated as an activist by my act that very day, because for the first time she started talking as an activist and for the first time she told her and her family’s story that was very complex (including daily racism in Poland, escape to Germany, deportation from Germany to Poland, escape to the UK, discrimination in the UK…); and then a few weeks later she started working in an emancipatory way with her community and elementary school in Glasgow. This was very important for me, to give the torch on. On the other side in Berlin in the frame of the Naked Life 7, I looked between others, at the cases of three talented hip hop musicians, three brothers Prizreni that were deported from Germany to Kosovo. I followed their cases for years and when I made my performance in the Volksbühne, Berlin I had them playing a concert afterwards and it was really amazing that we got together performing on the same stage that night…
I call this ‘cultural activism’ because it somehow rarely has a direct influence on particular cases and is being delivered in the first line (but not exclusively) with the language and in the field of cultural and artistic production. For example when in 2004 I went to the deportation jail in Berlin, I would say to my interview partners that I could not help directly with their individual cases, but was trying to bring the issues of concern to another level that could touch and concern other people and contribute in the longer term to the debate and platform of political change. On the other side I was pleased to additionally exchange information and recorded material with activist groups such as Initiative gegen Abschiebung and with political science students that were involved in the project. That means that our footage from the deportation jail was as well used for antiracist educational school projects.
In the case of Peter Oshiomegie, who was the main character of this small documentary (Sans Papiers, 2004) with David Rych, we continued following his case for another two years and became friends, while another joint friend paid for Peter to go back to Africa to avoid deportation and then, when he came back, he was married and then he got the legal status. Following his case all these years never became a part of the film because of working on it without budget. With unfunded projects it takes years and sometimes one does not manage. (The Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić has been one of first participatory partly funded projects of mine.)
That’s why I called it ‘cultural activism’, as it brings the issue to the art spaces, it’s communicated further with theoreticians, contributes to discussions at political film festivals, etc… but it rarely influences to a larger extend specific cases directly.
AC: In your talks and writings you are quite clear about your ethical stand on the involvement of external participants in your art pieces highlighting fairness, respect and clarity as fundamental. Can you tell us what has been your approach towards co-authorship, co-ownership and participation with the women involved in projects such as Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić or Misplaced Women?
TO: You are right in regard to my ethical standards with people who collaborate on my projects. I learned a lot about how to improve those relationships with time. For example I remember interviewing a Palestinian man in 2011, who was walking to Turkey and who in his third try in three years managed finally to reach Greece. He was part of two successful and famous hunger strikes (in 2009 and in 2011). Actually in the case of the later one he was not officially part of the 45-day-long, 300 sans papers hunger strike, but he was fully supporting them staying on the same hunger strike regime with them. After amassing conversation we had, he actually asked me not to publish anything to do with his interview before showing it to him. And he was right. You cannot treat people, their material, their life stories as if they belong to you, and this is very important especially when we work with people in very unfortunate situations. Do we own a picture of them? Do we own their stories? My idea was to go to Chaniá (Crete, Greece) and to edit together my own footage and documentary footage from the Migrant Forum (who were the organisers of the hunger strike), so that it is done in a way that we all participate in that, that we are all happy with that. But I didn’t manage to get any funding from any of three different countries in which I applied for it; it was impossible for me to realise this project and I couldn’t go. Then the political and economic situation escalated so badly in Greece that it didn’t make sense to continue because you couldn’t look anymore to issues of immigrants’ emancipatory movements separated from issues of politics and economy. That was possible at a certain point but it’s definitely not anymore.
So, at the beginning of the Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić project I wrote an ethical codex to ensure the highest ethical standards would be applied. With the same motivation I subverted the position of power of the interviewer (my own) in the ethnographical part of the research, as each of the participants (interviewed women) had a chance to suggest some of the questions for the interviews for each other too, and I answered myself to the same questions in order to be equally exposed. So we were all having the possibility of getting involved in interviews on both sides. All the participants had as well full control of what about them goes out to the public. Furthermore they could resign from the project at any stage and have received all documentation material: photos, videos, press coverage, publications, etc. The project involved as well creating a joint art work and in that case full crediting, shared authorship and shared ownership has been granted to each and every participant. They were present at book launches, exhibition openings, participated in guided tours, and many social and creative events.
The issue of authorship in Misplaced Women? is clear because everybody is author and owner of their own work that are all part of a joint platform. What is important to me is to share all the materials, and to credit everyone and to consult each other on how things are publicised.
AC: All the Tanjas of the Lexicon come from former Yugoslavia and the language spoken by the participants was a fundamental requirement for them to be involved. Can you tell us a bit more about the role of language in the project and what new lexicon you and all the Tanjas have created together?
TO: The Lexicon’s entries are Tanjas’ life stories, their life experiences and what they have to say about certain issues. I was in particularly interested to find out how the dissolution of Yugoslavia, wars in the region, and the economic transition from socialism to capitalism have influenced women’s lives and what has happened with the emancipated Yugoslav women. So I asked questions about gender roles and how one feels in them, about history of family violence, access to education and employment and about labour conditions to the intergenerational community of women coming from different social backgrounds. I wanted to know what other Tanjas have been achieving, what they believe is important, etc. In the book there are questions like ‘what is important for you in life?’, ‘are you happy?’, ‘what are your plans?’ These are some of the Lexicon entries in a way. What I looked at particularly in my research was also a question of migration, because Tanjas Ostojić happened to be experts on migration. Some have been refugees, some moved multiple times for work, for marriages, education, really for many different reasons. And we have tried to thematise those same issues within creative work. I have also collected and published favourite recipes of Tanjas Ostojić in a chapter of its own. That is, one has to be aware, a cooking book with many cakes and calories :-).
For all those reasons it is important the project has a colour code of its own — established in collaboration with Vahida Ramujkic, together with whom I led the workshops in documentary embroidery — as in the large embroidery we tried to summarise the issues with all their complexities that have been woven in, (e.g. red for emotions, black for war, grey for administration, blue for work, green for education, orange for creativity and also for Tanjas Ostojić, because we realised that we all have the need to creatively express ourselves, etc…). Once one looks at the work with the knowledge of colour code, one can read it through these different topics. Also the interviews with the Tanjas could be read through these different topics and I didn’t want to take those topics out and summarise them to say something about each of them. I thought that it was more authentic and beautiful if one is able to read them directly, the way they are spoken. The issue of translation from Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian was not easy to do because different women have also different ways of saying things, when we were translating the interviews to English we also lost part of what they are saying and how they are saying that. As we talk about language, I did not translate textual parts of the embroideries to make it also clear that there are a lot of things that are codified in the Yugoslavian history, culture, cinematography…, certain aspects of cultures are not translatable and not easy to grasp for somebody from different perspectives, that doesn’t know them. But they are precious to the generations of people who have identified or are still identifying as Yugoslav.
AC: The element of time is fundamental in your practice and most of your projects are a long-term commitment. They have years of practice-based research and are often in progress. I’m thinking here of project such as Misplaced Women? and also Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić that you mention in your writings as still possibly ongoing. What is the importance of the element of time in your work? Where do you see your current open projects going in the future?
TO: You are right, time is one of the crucial elements for my projects’ development and there are several reasons for that. First in regard to the community and participative projects it is very important that the projects are long term as it takes a lot of time for trust to develop and for relationships and collaboration between people involved (including myself) to develop. The quality that time spent together, or even spent apart, produces cannot be replaced by any other means. Secondly people can profit better from the participative projects when they are spread over a longer period of time. And my next point is related to the economic reasons, as I’ve been doing my projects usually without any, or without proper funding, I had to spread them over very long periods of time until small scale opportunity clusters in which different project elements or steps could be realised would appear. And another interesting aspect I find is the possibility to think and make decisions while the actual projects are developing. While one explores a certain subject deeper and deeper one starts to realise how complex it is and opens up for those complexities that one comes across during the research and development of the project…
With the Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić I edited the book…, and all the essays from the other contributors were ready and I only had to write my own texts. I had to struggle with that because I realised the project was so complex and had opened up many expected and unexpected questions. I realised that I cannot close the issues raised, I can just mark them and open them up, scratch here and there and leave them as a material for further research. I think most of my other projects are like this: open for further research.
The Misplaced Women? project consists of a series of individual, group and delegated performances, performance workshops and the collection of writings I have practically been doing for nine years, and have published on the projects blog over eighty contributions so far. They are stories of participating people (including myself), essays, and also visual and perforative contributions from around the world (I have planned two workshop also for this year). I would like to exhibit Misplaced Women? archives in an extended exhibition with videos, photos, maps, drawings, signs, artefacts and stories and to make a book out of the chosen material as well. I’d really love to exhibit that in a proper size so that people can see in depth all the contributions and what has been done.
I love books, there is a special relationship when you are working on a book, you can go further with something, have different chapters, different types of stories, different cities where a project has been tangled in another way, etc. We looked at the displacement/misplacement and the different reasons for that and each workshop raises a new issue and that makes the project richer and more amazing.
Tanja Ostojić is a Berlin-based performance and interdisciplinary artist, researcher, educator and cultural activist who studied art in Serbia, France, and Germany. From 2012 to 2014 she was a fellow at the Graduate School of the University of the Arts Berlin. She uses diverse media in her performative and artistic research, thereby examining social configurations, power relationships, feminist issues, racisms, economy, and bio-politics between others. She works predominantly from the migrant woman’s perspective, whilst political positioning and ethical participation define the approaches of her work.
Since 1994 she has presented her work in numerous solo and group exhibitions and festivals worldwide, including: Lexicon of Tanja Ostojić, MoCA Belgrade Salon (2017); Feminism is Politics!, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York (2016); Busan Biennale, South Korea (2016); HOMOSEXUALITY_IES, Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin (2015); Economy, CCA Glasgow (2013); Tanja Ostojić: Body, Politics, Agency, Škuc Gallery, Ljubljana (2012); Call the Witness, Roma Pavilion, Venice Biennale (2011); Integration Impossible? Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić 2000-07, Kunstpavillon Innsbruck, Austria (2008); Global Feminisms, Brooklyn Museum, New York (2006); and Plato of Humankind, Venice Biennale (2001).
Ostojić has performed at, among others: Misplaced Women?, Art in Public Space Tyrol, Innsbruck, Austria (2018), 7a*11d – International Festival of Performance Art, Toronto, Canada (2016); Volksbühne Berlin (2016); KRASS, Kampnagel, Hamburg (2010 and 2016); Live action, Gothenburg, Sweden (2015); Spoken World Festival, Kaaitheater Brussels (2010); Re.act.feminism, AdK, Berlin, and Performa New York (2009); ICA, London (1999); and Manifesta 2, Luxembourg (1998).
Ostojić’s work maintains a high level of theoretical reference and has been acquired by a growing number of museum collections. She has given talks, lectures, workshops, and seminars at academic conferences and at art universities around Europe and in the Americas, including Misplaced Women?, at Live Art Development Agency, London (2016). She has published several books, including: Lexicon of Tanjas Ostojić, ed. by Ostojić (LADA: London, 2018); Integration Impossible? The Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić, ed. by Ostojić and M. Gržinić (Berlin: argobooks, 2009); Strategies of Success/Curators Series, ed. by Ostojić (Bourges and Belgrade: La Box & SKC, 2004). misplacedwomen.wordpress.com / tanjaostojicshop.wordpress.com / van.at/see/tanja/
Featured image credits: Tanja Ostojić: Misplaced Women? and The Tourist Suitcase (2018), 60 min performance by Tanja Ostojić, at the Goldenes Dahl, Altstadt, Innsbruck. Photo: Daniel Jarosch, Copyright/ courtesy: T. Ostojić (cropped)