Contemporary Performance From the Balkans Comes to NYC

Zvonimir Dobrovic, founder and curator of Perforacije (Peforations) and Queer Zagreb.

“My idea was, we need a platform, and that’s how Perforacije came about,” Zvonimir Dobrovic told me, by way of explaining the birth of Perforacije (Perforations), the contemporary performance festival dedicated to artists from the Balkans that he founded several years in his native Croatia. “It was just, ‘Let’s try to support the artists we support anyway, but just give them more visibility.’ Because of the political and historic situations of the wars, even though it’s a very small area–from Ljubljana to Zagreb it’s like one and half hours, from Zagreb to Belgrade it’s like five hours–but people don’t travel so much and they don’t know so much. So you wouldn’t know what’s happening in Belgrade, you wouldn’t know what’s happening in Ljubljana.”

Dobrovic and I met in late February for an interview over happy hour drinks at a West Village bar, as he ran from meeting to meeting in preparation for the debut New York tour of his festival, which opens this Friday at La Mama (the festivals runs through March 20; tickets $15). Over two weekends, La Mama’s Club space (and occasionally the downstairs theater) will play host to ten different companies from Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia, ranging from experimental political theater to solo performance to dance. In the process, audiences will have a unique look into the world of contemporary performance coming out of the Balkans that circumvents the normal gatekeeping process among non-local curators who determine which shows make it to a theater near you.

A while before we met, an American programmer described Dobrovic to me as “hardcore in skinhead territory,” so I was, needless to say, intrigued to meet the guy. In person, Dobrovic comes off as anything but a radical. Rather, he appears to be an affable and earnest arts advocate who only every so often betrays a flash of anarchic glee, as when recounting a story (off the record, of course) that he charmingly dismisses as more evidence that he’s always shooting himself in the foot, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Dobrovic joined the staff of Zagreb’s largest theater festival, Eurokaz, in 1997 when he was still in college, and after only a couple years was getting bored. After helping coordinate a “body art” themed edition of Eurokaz that featured artists like Annie Sprinkles, Orlan, and Ron Athey, Dobrovic had the bright idea of starting his own queer performance festival, which he launched at the age of just 23 ten years ago. Its opening year, Queer Zagreb was met with angry protests held back by riot police, but was overall a success from the beginning.

“They never said it’s ‘queer,'” Dobrovic said of Eurokaz’s programming and his own decision to be blunt. “It was always, ‘It’s art! Blah blah blah!’ And I just thought, Croatia being such a traditional, conservative society, to change things we have to name things.”

I also gathered that from the beginning, Dobrovic displayed the (arts) business acumen that’s made him so successful, a fact remarked upon by no one less than the Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser. Rather than simply finding a venue to bring queer artists to, Dobrovic from the beginning partnered with the largest, most central and established arts institutions. His goal was to ensure that the art couldn’t be marginalized, even if the staff of the places he was working with were sometimes at a loss as to what they were presenting. And by putting queer art in front of the public in a way that couldn’t be ignored, he’s been able to challenge preconceptions about queer artists. Despite being inspired originally by some of the most radical performance artists, the opening act of 2009’s festival was anything but a BDSM-y body artist. It was none other than Portland, Oregon’s own indie-folk guru Holcomb Waller.

After only a few years, though, Dobrovic found himself restless again, and the idea for Perforacije was born. Originally, the idea was inspired by Dobrovic’s acknowledgment that whether it was Eurokaz, Queer Zagreb, or some other festival, all the work being presented in the Balkans was either traditional mainstream fare produced locally or experimental work being imported from elsewhere. Nowhere was there a platform for emerging artists, despite the radical increase in the independent work being made following the end of the wars that broke up Yugoslavia and the embrace of liberal democratic values after years of state control.

When I asked what, in broad terms, were the commonalities in the work he was presenting, I was expecting an answer that had something to do with the socio-political situation, religion, economics, war, conservatism, or the like. Instead, while Dobrovic acknowledged one or another artist might be tackling such a topic, his main argument was that the similarities between the artists’ work, such as they are, were all the product of responding to the realities of the structural environment (or lack thereof) for making contemporary art in the region.

“It’s always difficult to generalize, but what I always think is a common content–or maybe not content-wise, maybe just the way it is,” he said, “is that it’s impossible [for these artists] to penetrate the institutions. So there’s this directness, a rawness [to their performances]. It’s almost, ‘unfinished’ work.” He paused, displeased with his description. “My English isn’t helping me here,” he said with a dismissive chuckle (his English was fine). “But it’s work that’s just raw. You can feel the energy. It’s very energetic, it’s very passionate, very strong. You’ll see, all the artists that came here are so in your face. And I like in La Mama, the space where they are performing is very small, in the club. So I think it’s going to be very good for the audience.”

The thing he was getting at it is a knife that cuts both ways. On the one hand, the lack of sophistication in presenting institutions served to produce raw, powerful work with a direct audience connection, similar to punk rock. On the other hand, with nowhere to go, the artists suffered from an inability to develop. I supposed this might have something to do with politics in the Balkans, but was again disappointed to have my narrow-minded and ill-informed notions embarrassed by reality. At least in the case of Croatia, Dobrovic went to pains to make clear, the issue has nothing to do with the art itself or its content, which for all intents and purposes is off the map for politicians who might want to meddle. And anyway, even if Croatia is socially conservative, as a member of the EU, they’ve affected and are dedicated to policies upholding liberal social values. Queer Zagreb has always received direct state support, just not much. And the reason is that Croatia, like all the Balkan nations, is a “transitional society” that’s inherited an old, statist model of bloated and inefficient institutions.

“In the region there is also a difference of destinies, in a way,” he continued. “So the dance people–in Croatia, for example, there is no school for contemporary dance. So everyone’s doing workshops and traveling around and coming back. So dance depends a lot on travel abroad, and it depends on personal initiative like that.”

So the problem is neither the budget nor censoring conservatism. In reality, it’s just that, as Dobrovic put it, to the government, “Culture is these institutions,” the existing state-funded theaters and centers, who eat up public funds and inadvertently starve innovation or the creation of new alternatives, a common enough theme throughout the former Eastern Bloc. They receive the majority of cultural expenditures, which mainly goes to pay the salaries and pensions of bloated staffs. According to Dobrovic, the national theater in Zagreb has a staff of over 600, including ensemble actors who receive wages whether they’re cast or not. In such an inefficient system, there’s simply no money left over to support emerging artists or emerging models. And with no tradition of philanthropy, there’s no alternative source of money.

So the first step was just to create a bigger platform for the local artists, to bring them in from the outside, much as he’d done by placing queer performance in the context of officially sanctioned cultural institutions. Partnering from the beginning with a half-dozen like-minded national and international presenters, Dobrovic helped establish a network for the artists to work. Then, in contrast to Queer Zagreb, which relied on centralization, with Perforacije, Dobrovic de-centralized the programming, spreading works across three cities in Croatia. In order to “see” the entire festival, you have to travel the length and breadth of Croatia. Not only does that help expose artists to new audiences in the still closed-off Balkans, but it also raises the profile of the local artists.

In programming the showcase tour to New York, Dobrovic started from the necessity of wanting “to give an overview, so I had to chose from all the countries and focus on something.”

“And Ivo [Dimchev], I’ve worked with for like five years, and he’s presented many shows at my festival, and I always wanted to open with his show.”

Dimchev, who does in fact open Perforations NYC this Friday, is an artist with backgrounds in physical theater, dance, and visual art, and probably the most anticipated act appearing. When the line-up was announced, I heard from people outside of New York telling me I had to see Dimchev, and our own Andy Horwitz has been interested in his work for several years. In Lili Handel: blood, poetry, and music from the white boudoir of a whore…, Dimchev offers a gender-bending solo performance as an aging stage actress struggling with her fading looks, as an exploration of the commodification and consumer exploitation of the human body.

Other artists include BADco., a dance theater company from Croatia, Slovenian theater company Via Negativa presenting two works, and director Ivan Buljan’s Mini Teater. Experimental collaborative theater director Oliver Frljić will be presenting Damned Be the Traitor to His Homeland, a devised exploration of socio-political norms and crime that the director developed with artists from Mladinkso Theater, the Slovenian “youth” theater. Dobrovic made clear that “youth theaters” in the former Yugoslavia are not the same as American children’s theater. They’re professional theater companies for young performers (not all of whom qualify as children), and have been one of the few sorts of established institutions open to emerging experimentalists like Frljić, whose work directly addresses sensitive political and social topics and who has worked with the youth theaters in both Slovenia and Croatia.

Another artist whose work Dobrovic gushed about at length is Croatian conceptual artist and performance-maker Zeliko Zorica, who will be showing examples of a recent project Digitalization of Monumental Heritage and its Commercial Exploitation. This series, which began in 1993, is based on a fictional scholar Zorica invented whose work explored the ways in which no one pays attention to memorial plaques, providing the onus for Zorica to develop a new mode of digital memorial plaque and historical marker, which explores the intersection of official narrative and commercialization. With his tongue-in-cheek subversive playfulness and the use of fictional characters through whose perspective we view his own art, Zorica recalls the Russian conceptual giant Ilya Kabakov. Dobrovic provided me some media of Zorica’s previous work with Perforacije to demonstrate his use of other media, including, fascinatingly, food. See the video at the end for an example; the first three minutes are priceless.

That sort of diversity and anarchic approach to art-making is what drives Dobrovic. “For me, and I think it’s the case with a lot of people who work with the arts in the Balkans–probably like everywhere else–it’s a very difficult area to work in,” he told me. “So you don’t go there to earn money or anything like that, but on the other hand, it’s the best job because you are always with a lot of creative people. And when you work in the Balkans, there are so many things to change. So for me, the work these people do is a society changing work. And I think they need to get more attention, and more support to do it.”

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