Serbia: International Multi Media Art Festival 2020
In March 2020 I was in Japan for my annual trip, but this time I joined NIPAF (Nippon International Performance Art Festival) Run by the founder Seiji Shimada. I joined five other international artists from all over the world, we were also at the beginning of the pandemic, so it was an intense two weeks of travelling and performing, lack of sleep, lack of rest, exhaustion kicked in, which added a bit of an edge. In all the experience was extraordinary and many positive things came from those two weeks that I am still filtering. This is where I met Nenad Bogdanovic the founder of IMAF.
In the summer of 2020 I received an invitation to attend the 22ND IMAF20 annual festival September 4th-26th in Odzaci -Novi Sad in Serbia. We were in the middle of a Lockdown in the UK, an opportunity opened in-between one lockdown and the possibility of another lockdown in London. Initially I was under the impression that there will be other artists as there are normally fifteen international artists that attend the festival performing alongside many local Serbian artists.
I was met at the airport in Belgrade by Nenad and a local taxi man from Odzaci then it was a two hour drive to the village. I felt a sense of relief as it was such a great feeling to be in the countryside, being able to breathe, to get out and do things. The airports were practically empty, the plane was half filled, and each of us had three seats each. I was taken to my hotel and settled in, then had a wander around the village. I was immediately drawn to the graffiti art around on the surrounding buildings, this attracted my attention as I had just been in a debate about graffiti art in Barnes and how it spoils the place, though some people would welcome proper art? whatever that meant.
I thought the Serbian graffiti certainly was a bit more imaginative than our local taggers, also some graffiti was in memory of local people that lost their lives, though you still had your taggers. Later I discovered most of the young kids head off to an old motel to do a bit of spray painting which was the venue I would be performing in. (Photo bellow is graffiti from Odzaci)
Nenad was very worried how Covid had affected the performance art festivals across the world, he wasn't sure if his festival can happen, along with his trusty right hand man Andrijia who works quietly behind the scenes on technical and other issues regarding the festival. Nenad had decided to put most of it online, so opened it up, this had a fantastic response from over forty artist all over the world. So having at least one artist present and forty artists online, helped the festival to go ahead. You can check out the video performances online on you tube, or check out IMAFs website: ( https://imaf-festival.weebly.com/ )
IMAF 2020 festival participants live, online and live stream performances:
Alexandra Holownia (Poland-Germany) Amy Guilfoyle (Ireland) Anita Cheng (Hong Kong-China) Artur Tajber (Poland) Calum Eccleston (UK) Craphone Liu (Taiwan) Dagmar I. Glausnitzer-Smith (Germany) & Vincenzo Fiore Marrese (Italy) Dimple B, Shah (India) Edwin Jimeno (Colombia) Eva Dabara (Israel) Fausto Grossi (Italy-Spain) Heather Warren-Crow (USA) Hortense Gauthier (France) Ileana Gherghina (Romania) Irena Paskali (Macedonia-Germany) Izabela Brudkiewicz (UK) Janusz Plota (Poland) Lavoslava Benčić (Slovenia) & Marcello Lussana (Italy) Lorenzo Papanti (Italy) Makoto Maruyama (Japan) Maura Prosperi (Italy) Nenad Bogdanovic (Serbia) Nitesh Kushwaha (India) OPEN ACTION - John G. Boehme, Madeleine Elia, Brenda Petays, Judith Price, Grace Salez, Jayne Storey (Canada) Paloma Orts (Spain) Ras Sankara (Togo) Ruth Vigueras Bravo (Mexico) Sanskar Verma (India) Sarah H. Paulson (USA) Sasa Denic-Spena (Serbia) Satadru Sovan (India) Seiko Kitayama (Japan) Sofia Vera (Mexico) & Makame Orozco (Mexico) Spike Mclarrity (UK) Stephanie Hanna (Germany) Syporca Whandal (Hungary) Vaishak Raj (India) Valeria Barbas (Moldova-Romania) WWW Johannes Deimling (Germany)
I was aware how this year will be different even though I haven't ever performed at IMAF, I have seen the archives of past years performances. Nenad and Andrijia had to re-invent the format as each day passed.
Having at least one artist present I think helped, also we were the only festival that was having a live performance in Serbia as all other festivals had gone fully on line. In some strange way this worked well for us as we had a news crew that followed us for two days.
There were three of us going to perform live over two days. Nenad Bogdanovic and another local Odzaci artist called Sasa Denic-Spena who I met briefly on my first day in Odzaci. We were also going to to perform at a gallery in Novi Sad. We were aware that we could not invite audience but were going to attempt to live stream the live actions of the performances. I think just having the news crew around became our audience.
I am generally self sufficient and was aware of the pressures the organisers had to face, so I just got on and explored the town, a shop that hired out and fixed equipment lent me a bike so I could explore the country side, it turns out the owner went to school with Nenads son, so this made it easy and he never charged me to rent it. So off I went to explore Odzaci and its surrounding fields.
I met up with Nenad and Andrijia on a regular bases mainly in the evening to eat, but also we spent time preparing the old deserted motel Sumice outside the town near the swimming pool. There is a long history of the motel being used for money laundering and corruption, which sadly fell victim to greed and so was left to decay.
It turned out the head of the news crew use to play in the motel in a band when it was in its hay day. Now its vandalised, no windows, doors, everything of value stripped bare, the local kids spend time practicing their graffiti skills, the police are present, but they seem happy that they are there than spraying the walls in the village.
I hadn't really thought about what the venue would be like, I never expected what I arrived at, no electricity, nothing jut a raw space which really appealed to me, I had planned to do a piece called the Deep Cleaner, the last time I performed it was in 2009 at Bone Festival in Berne Switzerland. It seemed like the right piece to perform with in light of the COVID and the new found obsession with cleaning.
I loved having so much time to explore, to be, to create, to just soak up a the vibes of the local community, there was no pressure, I think if there was fifteen of us it would be a different experience, even Nenad and Andrijia were relaxed, as they are use to having to get artists from the airport and to their accommodation and then to the venue. Somehow through one of my wanderings I managed to find a cafe called Galleririja where it became the place that I felt relaxed in, though I did try some of the smaller local cafes, but no one really understood me, and I had no idea what to do, at least in Galerijia the waiters who were very welcoming to me also spoke English, it also helped that they had a menu written in English. This is also the place I met one of the waiters called Marko Manic, who turned out to be an artist, and knew Nenad.
Meeting Marko Manic: Steam punk magician!
While Marko was working at cafe Galerija we talked about art and performance, through this discussion he invited me and Nenad to his home and studio, I said that I would speak with Nenad, which I did and managed to organise a day for us to go and visit. Its funny really as if anyone in Britain invites a stranger to come to their house, this would generally not happen. Over the many years of travelling I have been privileged to receive invites in many countries, where I have been invited to peoples homes and even been given accommodation by complete strangers on my travels especially in Japan.
I suppose Brits are a bit suspicious of strangers, its not a bad thing its part of my culture, though as a kid I was use to many people coming to our house, it was an open door, it is something I still practice, though not during lockdown, thankfully its an inherent part of my culture I still hold as important. Generally in Britain you need to make an appointment to visit people, its frowned upon if you just show up.
Marko met us from the taxi as he lives in a village just outside Odzaci, the structures in the village were built by the Germans, so it makes it a unique village in Serbia. Marko was such a gent, he had prepared food in his studio, his young son was being looked after by his grandmother, though a very active little guy, and loved his sugar! We looked at Markos artwork, but what caught my attention and I have to say I got quite excited was his steam punk inspired objects, radio's and lights. Marko is a trained engineer so can apply many skills to many things, he is also currently rebuilding his grandfathers house that he lives with his wife and son, so the the place was a bit of a construction site, but his studio was one of the tidy studios I have seen. This is one extraordinary guy, though he paints as an artist, he is also a commercial painter and creates large murals for local business and bikers clubs. I had seen a lot of his work around Odzaci before I ever met him.
His home use to be a pig farm, it is where his grandfather use to slaughter the pigs and cut up the meat, its amazing the work Marko has done on the house, still a lot of work to do but the garage has potential to be a gallery? Nenad perked up when he saw Markos fishing rods neatly hung on the wall, it reminded me of my dad as he was into fishing, its not something I did, but appreciate what other people get out from the activity, so the discussion went from art to fishing.
I came away feeling inspired, I felt I wanted to create something, I was motivated, as I had just done my performances at this point, I decided to make a Spike ball with the old costumes, (will speak about that a bit later). I have always said to people it is important that artists mix with each other, talk about their work, as we can inspire each other, it awakens up the the porthole of the imagination. (photos below of our visit to Marko's studio also one of Marko's murals on a local farm shop)
The performances happened at the Motel, a cloud of dust, broken glass, buckets of water filled the place. We took the building over. I performed on the first evening of the festival then we all performed in the same space the next day. It was a brilliant space to perform in, there was no restrictions to what we could do, we had the freedom to be true to ourselves and use the space as we see fit, in fact because of my performance the deep cleaner the space was ready for all of our performances the next day.
The second day of performing at the motel, the camera crew returned, they were quite shocked at the transformation, as they had filmed me in a cloud of dirt and dust before they left, so never got to see the outcome. Nenad and Sasa Denic-Spena and myself were performing live to the film crew, though we had difficulty with the live stream Andrijia was in the background trying to make everything work.
The day of the rabbit: Back in the UK I do a performance called first of the month where I dress up as a large white rabbit and sit on a wall in South West London near Barnes Bridge waving at traffic in the early hours. It was also first of the month when I arrived in Odzaci so I got up as normal and stood near my hotel waving at people going to work, it certainly turned heads, as seeing a white rabbit in the morning is something the residents of Odzaci don't see every day. I also organized to do a rabbit walk around the town, which was well received. I am hoping in the future in collaboration with IMAF we can create the day of the rabbit in Odzaci on a yearly basis?
The experience being in Serbia was nothing like I had been told it would be. My Government at the time tried to install fear and discourage people from travelling to Serbia even though it was on the safe list. Everything I read at the time was alarming, but this did not put me off. I have currently checked recent information on Serbia and it seems to have a lighter tone. The word essential travel is actually very difficult to define, but this is my life and I considered it to be essential. What it actually comes down to is insurance, who is going to pay for my medical bills if I became ill?
I made the decision to travel, the airport was empty, the plane was half empty, there was a fantastic safe structure in place, in fact it was safer to travel to Serbia than it was to travel through London on the underground where people were still at the time packing into the trains, without face covering. We all respected the guidelines, but here I was in a small town two hours from Belgrade still being as safe as I could be, taking all the necessary precautions, covering my face, washing my hands and limiting any physical contact with others.
The next performance was at Suluv Gallery in Novi Sad, again myself, Nenad and Sasa were performing. This time attended by a local art critic. The performance we did at the Motel was shown live on main stream Serbian news.
The making of the Spike ball:
the morning I left Marko Manics house as I said I was really inspired and motivated as I didn't want to throw away the clothing I wore for the deep cleaner performances, so went through various thoughts in my head what I could do, in the end I made a Spike ball, it was only once I had made it and photographed it at the motel and also around the village I gave it to Nenad for the up and coming exhibition at the Suluv gallery, the moment he saw it, Nenad just said "Its Corona Virus".
To be honest I hadn't actually seen it, I was so lost with the intention to do something with the objects and the contaminated clothing. All the photographs I had taken suddenly had a new meaning, it did actually look like the virus lurking around the village, as is the Covid virus, we cant see it but we know its present.
For the short time I was in Odzaci and Novi Sad because of attending IMAF20 festival, it was an incredibly productive time, creativity just flowed from me, a porthole had opened. I know from experience when it does you just have to seize it. I loved my time in Odzaci and also meeting many different artists through Nenad and Andrijia. Its amazing really to think a few months before we were destined to meet, I had never heard of IMAF or had ever come across Nenad.
I suppose if you are open to opportunities they are there if we have courage to seize them. I never questioned anything, in my heart all I knew I wanted to go, I was so unaware that the other artists had decided to have pulled out from attending due to the pandemic. As Nenad said that I came with nothing being offered and in doing so I had everything in abundance.
Now I am in London in the third lockdown, so have been trying to go through those jobs of putting work online and writing these blogs. Serbia was a delicious rich experience that fed my soul as an artist, one that I will treasure. I know it will never be like that again, but in my gutsy determination to attend I was rewarded with many new experiences, new performances and new art objects. The image of the Covid virus was used for IMAF catalogue and poster for exhibition at Suluv gallery.
During my performance at both venues I used some scrubbing brushes that I bought locally, again inspired by Marko Manic and his object making, I was able to see what to do with the brushes, so made them into super scrubbing skates, which were also shown in the IMAF20 exhibition and the Suluv Gallery in Novi Sad. I really enjoyed making in the hotel room as I turned it into a temporary studio.
THANK YOU Nenad, Andrijia, Nikola and Vesna and their team, Sasa and to you Marko (the steam punk magician!)
Thank you Serbia for embracing me with kindness and openness and the greatest gift to perform, make work and be present as an artist.