The Transgression of Bodily fluids Crossing Boundaries: An Interview with Zoran Todorović on the ‘Integration: Illegal People’ Project
***Chinese version below – Translated by Burong with thanks to Brian Stone******
In the 1960s American sci-fi novel ‘Dune’, the earth becomes so dry that the inhabitants have to wear a special ‘still suit’ that can automatically collect water from human waste and fluids and turn them into pure water to avoid dehydration. Zoran Todorović, a visual art artist living in Belgrade, has partially turned this fiction into reality but for a very different purpose. In a refugee centre in Belgrade where refugees from Near East and Africa resided/dwelled and through which they were passing, their urine was collected, on the basis of which a domestic beer was made according to a popular Belgian recipe. The beer was intended for export to first-world countries and for consumption by the audience and the artist as a part of the lecture performance accompanied by a video documentary to reveal the beer-making process, from the refugee toilet to the final packing of the finished product.
Importing the beer made of urine to the “first-class” countries that refuse to take refugees but heavily consume beer poses the question of who is responsible for the refugee crisis and how to make refugees accepted in some ways. Used as a medium to present refugees’ status in Europe, urine is both abject and object in Todorović’s project. Through this liquid made of bodily fluids, refugees cross the borders of countries that do not welcome them, symbolically.
The ‘Integration: Illegal people’ project was premiered at LADA in November 2017 as the closing party of ‘Extravagant bodies’, which is an international trans-disciplinary art festival initiated in 2007 as a triennial project. More information about this festival can be found in the book Extravagant Bodies: Crime and Punishment.
By using the form of lecture performance, Todorović showed the documentary and talked through the political struggles he experienced when collecting urine from the refugee centre in Belgrade. In the end, he opened the beer, which is probably quite pricey in terms of the labour involved, and shared with the audience. Then he exhibited in Belgrade the video and the pictures taken from the refugee centre and LADA. In November 2018, Todorović will bring ‘Integration’ to Brussels. (‘Integration’)
We did the interview at Todorović’s home in July during the World Congress of the IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) in Belgrade themed ‘Theatre and Migration: Theatre, Nation and Identity between Migration and Stasis’ where Burong presented Todorović’s ‘Integration’ project as the main case study for her research in bodily fluids in Live Art. Todorović’s home is on the opposite side of the History Museum of Yugoslavia where Tito and his wife’s cemetery lies. Todorović works heavily with symbols and syndromes. The location of his home inevitably adds one more layer of symbolic meaning to our discussion. Instead of ‘beer,’ this time we had Spritz mixed with apple juice and sparkling water, a popular summer drink in Belgrade.
Burong: I am very interested in the entire process of your project from collecting urine at the refugee centre to importing the final product, the beer, to London. There must be something unexpected, undocumented or beyond the project itself. Can you talk more about the process?
Zoran Todorović: First we did some research into the background of the refugees because we do not speak their languages. People at the refugee centre speak Urdu, Pashto, Dari, Sorani and many other languages, and they write mainly in Arabic script. Thus, in the beginning, we did not know how to communicate. We found out that people do not reside there permanently but mostly come and go, visit their friends or come for some information. Sometimes they stay for one day or just one afternoon, it depends. It functions as a sort of a distribution centre where refugees can get information about what Belgrade is and what the country can offer, similar to a tourist information centre but for vastly different purposes. If necessary, people can live there for a few days, but only women and children are permitted to sleep there or stay overnight. However, there are exceptions, as you can see from one picture where a group of guys is sleeping on the floor. They are usually very tired and it is possible to rest there during the day. A couple of refugees also manage to stay in Belgrade by working at the centre. I remember one guy from Afghanistan who works there and gives practical information to the refugees. You cannot imagine how many different languages are spoken at the refugee centre.
Image credits: Zoran Todorovic, Milica Pekic and LADA
Unlike the State refugee camp where I cannot get permission to record, especially for the sake of my art project, this centre is open to the public. However, even working at this particular refugee centre, I could not document or collect anything without the permission of the owner of the property. The place itself is actually very strange. Being a private facility that tries to help the refugees out, it is also struggling to get financial backing and support from other international organizations that work on the global level and have set up their offices in the same building, including the UNHCR and the French organization ‘Doctors Without Borders’. Therefore, the semi-private and semi-international nature of the centre makes it very complicated to carry out my project on the refugee crisis. I also talked with another organization regarding my project, but it turned out to be a real war between us.
In the last few days, some people who stayed longer knew that I was making beer, so they were willing to help, which is to pee in the urinal for my project. It took me four days to collect urine although my intention was to stay there a bit longer. On the one hand, I had to call it the end because there was an open confrontation between the Doctors Without Borders and me. They came to the former Yugoslavia 25 years ago and established their presence here. Now they have many offices including one in this centre. Their open fight against my project made me stop the urine collection immediately. I collected only 10 litres of urine, although it is not a small amount, I initially expected to collect much more. On the other hand, the conflict between me and other organizations reveals some hidden problems I am willing to confront and expose. Those problems are the symptoms of something I can hardly articulate, something that relates to the secret of our state condition. What is the problem if refugees choose to pee here or there? I have a tiny camera inside a regular urinal and there is, of course, an option not to participate. Some people do prefer mine while others choose different urinals, it does not matter. However, when the open conflict started the people from the UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders informed many refugees that they had become objects of my project, which made them feel very uncomfortable. They (the refugees) started to question my project on the ground that they could pee wherever they wanted but I forced them to make a decision. There was an open discussion at the centre for four days: Who is in charge? Who can tell where the right place is for peeing? What does ‘peeing’ mean in that context?
Image credits: Zoran Todorovic, Milica Pekic and LADA
Burong: Did it cause conflicts when you tried to find a place to filter the urine?
Zoran: Regrettably, I had to do the filtering in my faculty office. I asked many other places but I was rejected. I knew from the beginning that for this project I probably needed to distill it with my own machinery, which I bought online later. Many of my colleagues were very disappointed with me (laugh); when I worked at the studio they could immediately tell what was happening because of the horrible smell. Finally, I distilled ten liters of liquid in two days.
Image credits: Zoran Todorovic, Milica Pekic and LADA
Burong: If you spent four days collecting and another two days filtering, the whole project was basically finished within one week!
Zoran: Yes, it was done very quickly but not so easily. For instance, it did take only two days for distilling, but afterwards, I needed to bring the water to the medical laboratory to test it before adding the yeasts and other necessary materials, which took at least another two weeks for brewing beer. The liquid looked transparent but it was not at all only water, as there were still some remains of ammonia in it. Ammonia is the smelly chemical substance that is impossible to totally distil off and is not very good for health either. Of course, you can always drink urine directly even without filtering, but it becomes undrinkable after a few days because a lot of bacteria will grow during the process. Thus, it is very important to make sure the water is clean enough to store and make beer because we can consume ammonia without harmful effect for our health only to a certain level. After testing a few times, it was confirmed in the lab that the water I extracted from urine is okay for drinking in a certain amount. If you drink one glass, for instance, it is definitely fine, but it might not be such a good idea to have one bottle every day.
Burong: What kind of beer did you decide to brew and how many bottles did you make?
Zoran: I chose a very popular flavour of Belgian beer. I asked and got help from a professional brewer so I could get the special mixture of materials to make sure the beer had exactly the desired taste. At last, I prepared 24 small bottles of beer.
Burong: I am impressed! If it is 330ml each, actually more than 80% of urine is successfully turned into drinkable water.
Zoran: Yes, but you also need to count the additional materials added for beer brewing.
Burong: Did you meet problems to bring the beer to London?
Image credits: Zoran Todorovic, Milica Pekic and LADA
Zoran: I checked in advance how many litres of alcohol I am allowed to take on the flight, which is why I only brought 12 bottles. I told them it is beer because it is truly Belgian flavoured beer. However, I did not explain my point in details and managed to make it discreet. On the bottle, all the ingredients were written out, but it was written in such small print that it was virtually impossible to read.
Burong: What does ‘pass water’ in the ingredients mean?
Zoran: (Laugh) ‘Pass water’ is a polite English word for ‘urine’. I suppose customs officers cannot be bothered to read all the ingredients written in very small print.
Burong: Which is the most difficult or unexpected part of the whole process?
Zoran: Actually, every part is complicated: finding the places/facilities, getting permissions, as well as finding support for the project. Besides, the schedule to carry out the project is very tight. I knew the opening date in London before coming up with this idea, and the time was considered very short for making ordinary beer, let alone the beer with the special recipe. It was stressful from the very beginning because of the struggle with time. Nevertheless, I gave the lecture performance at LADA and the exhibition in Belgrade afterwards. If I have to choose the most problematic part, it is the negotiation with the refugee centre. Working with real people from different backgrounds is always the most difficult while the rest is basically technical stuff. For instance, at one point I did not know the methods of brewing beer, but I just bought the machinery and then consulted professional brewers who regularly work on the particular technical procedure. Collecting urine, however, is a political struggle without easy solutions.
Let us say who is peeing and where to pee is very important in the context of my project because it is a political question, even though it might not have been so relevant to the majority before I raised the questions. The moment when people realize that where to pee makes a big difference, it reveals the social symptom I am mostly interested in. It is actually a hot political question, about whom you present in terms of where you are peeing — which gender, what social status you have, etc. I work with symptoms regularly in other projects where people, in some ways, realize the problems for the first time.
Burong: How did you come up with the idea of working with bodily fluids to make political statements?
Zoran: In the case of ‘Integration’ I try to work on something different. After the long process of pondering over the topic of the refugee crisis, I decided to use the human biological materials just like I experiment in many of my other projects, like fat, skin and hair. The beer made from urine lays between abject and object at the same time, it is exactly the same situation with the status of refugees. Urine for me also serves as a symbolic tool to raise questions and represent the political pressure continuing in Serbia. As I have already mentioned, I had some doubts and unpleasant conflicts with some of the international humanitarian institutions that have established their offices in Belgrade.
I work with different mediums in a similar way, but in all cases, it is primarily the political situation.For instance, for my project ‘Warmth’, what does it mean to spend a year taking hair from 250,000 people and make huge carpets? In the beginning, I was asked many times about what the meaning was behind collecting hair and why I was doing that, but eventually, everyone comes up with his/her own answer. Many people here understand my work as referring to and playing with the experience of genocide from our history, which is a very familiar experience for everyone, as well as raising the issues of how our deal with this history. My work does look like the representation of a holocaust visually bit it actually does not reflect or investigate this topic.My work only represents a game with the real exploration of the image of a holocaust while the illusion of holocaust is the side effect of my project. The project is the game with our idea of normality and the related everyday hidden practice that, in the end, produces something very similar to the concentration camp. This is another aspect of a symptom of the politics of everyday life.
Burong: For me, your work also deals with consumerism and popular culture. For instance, ‘Integration’ deals with the ‘first class ’countries with huge beer consumption and ‘Warmth’ becomes clothing material for costume designers.
Zoran: Yes, a fashion designer from Belgrade organized a fashion show with the ‘Warmth’, which turned out to be a very popular event in Belgrade at that moment. For me, it is very interesting to work with designers because my project turns out to be much more easily accepted by the society than my own ‘raw’ approach as an artist. Notwithstanding the acknowledgement of the consistent theme of my practice, many of those who criticize my work have no problems with this particular fashion show (laugh). In some ways, in the context of fashion design, playing games with the concept of genocide is acceptable while the altitude towards an exactly same project can be reversed and much more complicated in the context of contemporary art. If I hang the picture of plastic surgeries of mine at a gallery, it is shocking and unacceptable for many audiences; but when they see similar images on the TV about inserting silicon into some girl’s breasts, it is okay and understandable. Again this is another game with phantasm. In the real world, some acts of brutality are not problematic while in the gallery the tolerance of brutality is not the same; witnessing brutal acts and images in the gallery is much more hurtful than in everyday life activities, which are ubiquitous in news reports and TV shows.
Burong: In your opinion, what causes this contradiction? What makes audiences super sensitive in a gallery space?
Zoran: Because ‘gallery’ is indeed a fictional space. Through the lens of fictionality, you can directly see some real substance. I do not know why but the artwork that exposes reality usually works better with fiction because it is more dramatic, it is unlike the real world. For instance, let us say, TV where everything looks like reality. In my work “Correction” I play the game of the distinction between art and reality. At that time, the guy who had come from a less known art organization was designated to be the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Novi Sad. He made an agreement with me after I convinced him that since now he would become an important figure, looking good is more important. He had the type of big bat ears, which is regarded as ugly here, so I suggested him to allow me to change the position of his ears with the doctors I have long collaborations and take pictures during his plastic surgery. It is also interesting for me to have this little revenge on him. Although we had had some small conflicts in the past and he knew it very well, he was hearing the jokes about his ears for so long that he was willing to take risks to solve this problem (laugh). Of course, he is also an artist and he accepted this game and our roles in that show. Besides, he was the museum curator who invited me to make a new work in the first place.
Burong: Concerning your investigation of bio art, do you come from a family with doctors or do you have any working experiences with medical content?
Zoran: No, not at all.
Burong: Or do you simply love working with doctors?
Zoran: (Laugh) No, neither do I have a particular affection for doctors nor do I have any background in surgery. This is just the consequence of my work with the idea of life managing where danger, pain or some medical interventions can be the tool or medium. In the 1990s, I made a sculpture from rolled iron. The device could produce the sound at the frequency whose destructive impact is felt in the abdomen and some other organs. The sculpture imposed invisible but real danger on audiences’ health for anyone who lingered in the gallery for more than twenty minutes.
In the different context but with the idea of mass control in focus, a few weeks before the NATO attacks on Serbia started, I put up cameras to capture the feelings of society in three locations very far away from each other — not geographically but in the context of social existence. That was a kind of a messaging machine. I put one in the psychiatric hospital (mainly for women sent by the court), one in the prison and one on the main street near the student’s square in the city centre. I invited people to speak and act whatever was on their mind in front of the camera (‘Noise’).
It is very interesting that when the war just started some BBC journalists came to me asking for the three-channel videos entitled “Noise”, as they knew my project and were so curious to gather the first-hand information of people’s reaction in Belgrade. They left very disappointed because people were talking about everything except the war (laugh). It was an opportunity to see whom they imagine as their audience when they talk to the slot machine. Who is the ‘Other’? What are the key topics for them? And finally what the slot machine might be for them? Actually, very few people mentioned something about the upcoming war but in such a manner that if you didn’t know the exact context you wouldn’t be able to guess what they meant. For some reasons, people do not naturally speak about big important political events or their opinions against the politicians and newspaper reports in the public sphere when they are recorded; they share the opposite logic of the normalization of public issues in terms of what is important and what is not. Now, we all think that the war must have been the most important issue for everyone in Belgrade at that time while I just captured some moments to show what was considered more important for individuals at the beginning of the war.
For the preparation of “Noise,” like many cases of my work, I had to convince officials about my work and went through complicated logistic and ethical issues, negotiating with the officers at the psychiatric ward and prison (It is interesting to note that the warden of the prison with whom I ran very tense negotiations about setting up a camera, later became a prisoner).
This is the beginning of my interest in exploring different aspects of danger, the real and the fictional, the invisible and the visible. In that context, I discovered that the idea of body and many games on the body in relation to danger and normalization. Body, for me, becomes a platform for juxtaposing many cultural and political influences. In recent years, I am particularly interested in the idea of “normality” or “beauty” of bodies. What is aesthetics? What does beauty mean in the context of technical normalization? In Serbia, we call plastic surgeries ‘aesthetic surgeries’, but what is aesthetics? What is the standard of beauty in that context? In another piece of my work ‘Assimilation’, I collect the remains of bodily tissues collected after plastic surgeries, to prepare beautiful and exotic food.
The work I make, above all procedures or situation, has a relational nature that does not have a finite form and the audience is somehow involved. The material used in the realization of my work is some kind of tactics in which its institutional and symbolic origin is inscribed. If I make food out of human tissue, then it is important that the tissue appears as a waste from the industry of aesthetic surgeries, and therefore, it acts as an ‘accursed share’ which hinders us to fit into some common standard of aesthetics. It is a fictional surplus that is problematic, socially produced both in an aestheticized form and in the form of delectable food that is returned to the public, especially to the audience who somehow must react to this kind of normative stoppage in which it found itself. Here the taboo of cannibalism is some kind of a method through which a symbolic interruption of its own kind is made, where the effect of the abjection occurs as a denied truth of medical and normative procedure that relates to the body and its aestheticization. When the beauty of food meets the beauty of flesh on one plate, it produces in most cultures a traumatic situation — a taboo of cannibalism.
Burong: How is the audience’s reaction to this act of digesting two entities of beauty at the same time?
Zoran: Ah! There was a very big confrontation among audiences between those who wanted to try the food made of human tissue and those who wanted to call the police.
Burong: But is your work against the law?
Zoran: No. In fact, at the invitation of a group of curators from Croatia, I once set up this work ‘Assimilation’ in Hamburg. The organizer investigated this and tried to find out whether this work was against the law but he did not find anything regarding cooking with elements containing human flesh, except the law against the act of killing to fulfil any task, which has nothing to do with my project. However, when my work travels to the UK, the main question is not about morality but health issues of the process of food preparation. Is it healthy to eat this dish? The same logic applies to brew the beer distilled from urine. When my work was brought to the National Review of Live Art (NRLA) in Glasgow around ten years ago, I did not have the British-standard food hygiene certificate. The organizers of the exhibition had no problems exhibiting the work but they hired guards to stop people from tasting it. It is very funny considering that the guards had no specific reasons to engage the audience except insisting that this edible artwork might not be very healthy.
Burong: Did you make any live performance at NRLA alongside the exhibition of objects?
Zoran: Actually I see ‘Assimilation’ as live art because it is not for exhibition but creates an ethical dilemma and situation for the public, urging them to do something with their uneasy feelings. I prefer the audience to get closer and use my work and see what might happen in a different context. For example, the other year, when the soap made from the fat and skin cut from my stomach was exhibited in Glasgow, a few members of the audience lost consciousness. Many of them understood, in a way, that the making of flesh soap represents sacrifice, while people in Zagreb thought more about the act of washing hands together as it creates a nice moment of having an erotic conversation with strangers. A boy and a girl who were not a couple wanted to test if washing hands together with a piece of flesh soap will somehow bring them closer.
Burong: I wish you exhibited the rest of the 12 bottles of beer at the performance art session of 2018 IFTR. Somehow I feel the lack of diversity of practical work discussed at the congress.
Zoran: IFTR is still considered a theatre conference. Some visual artists in Belgrade hear about IFTR but have no strong motivation to present their work in the context of theatre. I work with hybrid fields and see my work belong to the Live Art sector, so this is not a problem for me, but I just want to explain why many artists working on migration and refugee crisis do not attend the theatre conference because here the theatre and art worlds have very different references.
Burong: There is also an interesting documentation at the Museum of Yugoslavia named Project Yugoslavia now that reminds me of the syndrome you described in ‘Noise’ and other work. The video includes 100 interviews of participants of various age, history and background from the region of the former Yugoslavia.
Zoran: There were even more artists investigating the socialist period of Yugoslavia, the wars and political crisis in the 1990s when many European art dealers and curators came to Belgrade to collect contemporary artwork related to the war, which brought some problems and limits for artists too. However, some memories are rarely discussed in public. During the 1960s to 1980s of Tito’s time and a few years after his death, Yugoslavia was an important country where people lived a good life, at least compared to other socialist countries. These memories are the forbidden memories as a result of our new reality. Therefore, the Museum of Yugoslavia has to find some strategies to cover the problematic aspects of the narrative of Yugoslavia. During the war many influential exhibitions in Europe focused on the migration issues and artists in exile while now the focus has shifted to some of the hidden and undervalued sides of Yugoslavia’s culture, for instance, MoMA PS1 will put up a new exhibition ‘Toward a Concrete Utopia’ about the brutalism architecture built in Yugoslavia between 1948 and 1980, which will give a new angle for the audience who does not know much about the former Yugoslavia’s culture and history.
Zoran Todorović is an artist born in Belgrade in 1965. He lives and works in Belgrade. He holds the position of an associate professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Arts in Belgrade. His Work often deals with issues of surveillance and control, shedding light on uncomfortable truths and concealed motivations. He is a representative of biopolitical performance, radical body art, interhuman performance art and politicized postmedia art. He works with affective individual and collective situations and representations of the borders of “human conditions”. Todorović has exhibited his work in numerous leading media art institutions and events in Europe and beyond. He is the author of the Serbian Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. www.zorantodorovic.com
Burong (曾不容) is a Beijing/Brighton based live art practitioner-researcher and theatre-maker. Her work deals with the politics of intimacy, gut feelings and the posthuman aesthetics. She has exhibited and performed in the Pratt Gallery (Manhattan), PSA (Shanghai), G12 Hub (Belgrade), Royal Festival Hall (London) and various Chinese theatre venues. Her co-authored book ‘The Happening of the Contemporary Performance Art’, and a series of interviews with UK based artists and curators have been published in China. Currently, she is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex investigating the use of bodily fluids in Live Art and performance. www.burongz.com
佐：我选择的这个中心是塞尔维亚第一个收留难民的地方，向所有人开放，人们来到这里其实并不为久留，而是和人约在这里碰头后继续迁移，或者获取从贝尔格莱德前往匈牙利边境的信息。我在开始收集材料之前已经去中心做过多次调查，首先碰到的就是语言障碍，他们来自世界各地，使用的语言和书写方式都与我不同。其次，这个中心的特殊之处在于它其实是私人地产，但同时入驻了其他机构，比如长期从事人道救助的法国机构“无国界医生”（Médecins sans frontiers），曾在1999年获得过诺贝尔和平奖，他们在贝尔格莱德的办事处就设在这栋楼里。“非法移民”项目能够发起完全是靠这栋楼的主人的帮助，她联系我，建议用这个空间做些事情。 但同时尽管她拥有这栋楼，我仍然需要和其他国家的机构斡旋。
佐：（笑）你永远没有办法预计观众的反应，我喜欢那种在想尝试和拒绝尝试的观众之间产生的对峙感，有些人急着尝一口，有些人急着打电话叫警察。我曾经用自己的体脂制作肥皂，在英国格拉斯哥的“现场艺术国家评论”艺术节（NRLA: National Review of Live Art）展览。之后同一个机构在澳大利亚珀斯的分部也邀请我去展览这件作品。我邀请观众用肥皂洗手，在格拉斯哥的时候有几个女孩看到肥皂的时候晕了过去，不少人拒绝接触肥皂。在英国和澳大利亚的大多数观众将这件作品理解为肉身的宗教献祭。但是在塞尔维亚，更多人将使用体脂肥皂理解为与他人建立亲密关系的情色道具，有一对年轻情侣问我能不能两个人一起洗手，他们觉得这样能增进彼此的关系。