ifa: How did your institution cope during the crisis and how has it managed since? How has the current situation changed the work of your organisation and its conception of itself?
Sanja Kojić Mladenov: In Serbia, as in other countries, the pandemic period was marked by border shutdowns, a state of emergency; population control; prohibition of movement; media censorship; and violence against migrants, the Other, and those who think differently. The Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina in Novi Sad has for months been operating between partial and total lockdown, working under restrictive emergency measures, with regulated physical contact, difficult and uncertain financial operations, closed borders, cancelled or postponed programs, no possibility of realizing public events, and with a more pronounced need for online activities.
These months have raised significant questions for our team about the institution's readiness for new digital demands, as well as the openness and interest of the public for such changes. We are constantly considering how much the sphere of digital media and relations can fulfil the museum's strategic goals, and how much innovative and experimental methods of work can contribute.
We noticed that for many permanent museums, existing digital archives of museum publications, artworks, events, as well as interviews and conversations with artists, critics, and theorists, constituted a significant amount of digital activity – particularly on social networks. Realising new content and attracting new followers has become more difficult because of the abundance of online information. At times, it also seemed to us that the standard activities of the museum were simply not appropriate to the weight and ethics of the moment.
ifa: How do you address your public under the changed conditions? What kind of public do you expect and what do you expect from your public?
Mladenov: Social media saw plenty of entertaining content during the pandemic – artworks featuring protective masks, or photographic content reinterpreting compositions of well-known historical works. Regardless of the much-needed relaxation and amusement these interventions allowed for during the quarantine period, it somehow seemed that contemporary artistic practice could, with its contextual mechanisms, provide a more appropriate and necessary reaction to the pandemic situation.
With several projects I am involved in, our activities have expanded to include a more intense involvement from the contemporary art scene. Conversations and discussions, texts, interviews, and succinct artistic and exhibition reactions – both on and offline – have allowed for specific personal responses to current events. We have also given particular presence to conceptual and procedural art works dedicated to the changes in everyday life – as well as current environmental, social, and political problems. This type of content has attracted significant public attention; enabled wider professional, local, and international exchange; and opened up space for re-examining our current way of working by introducing 'fast' digital content and more intensive connections between art (museum) and life.
ifa: What do you consider to be the primary social responsibilities of your institution?
Mladenov: In the immediate term, the Corona crisis has seen a major reduction in financial support for the development of contemporary Serbian art. Funding of public sector cultural projects, including museums, has been suspended or reduced. Regular open calls for financial support have also seen a marked decline. This has led to significant financial insecurity for many independent artists and NGOs, who were nevertheless expected to maintain their social activities and critical vigilance.
After intense public pressure on the Ministry of Culture by professional art associations, cultural institutions, and professionals, a budget has been approved for short-term assistance to independent artists. In this sense, the museums have played an important role in backing the local art scene. Some members of our own staff have also joined a newly-formed and independent Solidarity Fund for cultural workers.
ifa: How should museums convey and reflect stories, images and narrative patterns?
Mladenov: The changes in museum practice and the relationship between the observer and the art object has established new tasks for the museum, including creating a new audience, implementing change in the presentation and reception of the meaning of an artwork, and forging a more active connection with social reality. Today, museums have the role of a performer, i.e. interpreters, of artistic content. Museum and curatorial staff, with the help of modern technological means, digital applications, and social networks, explain the art by creating a kind of visual 'performance' for the visitor.
ifa: What concepts do you pursue regarding access to, participation in, and interpretations of the art you display?
Mladenov: Our exhibition content is presented to the public in the form of educational and creative conversations, presentations, and workshops, in order to bring the artistic material to a wider audience in an interactive way. Multimedia is very important, as well as the understanding of artistic narratives through a contextual and interdisciplinary approach, including other artists (musicians, writers, dancers, filmmakers ...), as well as architects, scientists, technologists, and engineers.
ifa: Do you see your museum as a place of political discourse?
Mladenov: The pandemic situation imposes an urgent need for re-contextualization and critical deconstruction, as well as analytical thinking about the course and direction of future development. With constant vigilance and sensitivity, museums of contemporary art are places ready to reconsider problematic social settings and relations, such as the rise of nationalism, racism, autocracy, and dictatorship, and attendant discriminatory policies towards the Other and different, vulnerable, and minority groups – a trend that has only intensified during and in the wake of the Corona crisis.
ifa: How can museums work internationally, post-nationally and responsibly today?
Mladenov: The civil war in former Yugoslavia, and associated sanctions and bombing campaigns, created a significant period of cultural closure and isolation throughout the 1990s. Since then, the local art scene has still not established a new value system, hampering the democratic transformation and transition of our society. Unresolved and accumulated problems directly affect the so-called national cultural policy, as well as attitudes towards international and / or European cultural policies.
The absence of a state strategy for cultural development creates a lot of uncertainty in public cultural institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina, towards global cultural policy, European goals and strategies, or foreign foundations that invest in cultural cooperation projects. In practice, vague messages are conveyed and confusing and absurd constructions are made, directly influenced by constant changes of government and the influence of nationalist policies.
It is clear that with Serbia's unstable position as a kind of semi-periphery or periphery of Europe, international cooperation based on supranational identity is extremely important for Serbian artists, curators, and theorists. It establishes visibility for the local art scene abroad, helps us present new content, and builds knowledge of new methodologies, practices, and phenomena.
Of particular importance is the renewal of the network of associates across the region of the former Yugoslavia, with whom we share a close artistic and social experience, and with whom the process of reconciliation is of utmost importance and responsibility. In recent decades, our museum has become increasingly present in regional meetings and projects, and I have personally initiated several such initiatives for exchange and cooperation.
The question that arises is to what extent supranational projects are supported by the ruling state structures, and to what extent they are the subject of personal struggle and the wishes of individuals, who are often marginalized in their efforts to cross local boundaries. The problem that museums in transitional societies face is the lack of continuity in their work, which is key to developing international visibility and upgrading networks of collaboration.
ifa: Museums nowadays perform many functions. How would you define what the museum is or should be today?
Mladenov: Museums of contemporary art should, in essence, be accessible and open spaces for research, presentation, historicization, and valorisation of artistic practices in the context of the changing social trends. As institutionalized spaces intended for the affirmation of critical consciousness, pluralism of opinion, dialogues, and experimental and risky actions, their mission strives for the emancipation and democratization of society.