Written November 2014.
Published (abridged) in “Forgetting”, Spike #42, Winter 2014. Available for purchase here.
Learning to Forget or Obsession With Terabytes
55th October Salon in Belgrade
Exhibition review by Jelena Vesić and Vladimir Jerić Vlidi
“What comes after the end of history?” – asks Boris Buden in his recent text examining the rise of extreme right wing sentiments in Europe, referring, perhaps, not on the occurrence of the event we encounter for the very first time, but rather on an end of cycle, to say, that makes us wonder: did it happen before? How many times? And how can we ever know?
Buden found the diagnose of the present state of the affairs in the writings of French historian Pierre Nora, who wrote that “’memory’ has taken on a meaning so broad and all inclusive that it tends to be used purely and simply as a ‘substitute’ for history”. And, indeed, today, a new and different understanding of these same words adds to the growing confusion: if memory now refers to everything that used to be called data, where does this leave the notion of history as the analytical, interpretative discipline of memory, the collective narrative that interconnects individual recollections?
This seemingly simple entanglement of the notions of history and of memory also underlines the contemporary sentiment of forgetting – by obsessive memorizing and historicizing. Ever since the mere storage capacity of digital devices in our bags and pockets obviously exceeded the amount of words, images and sounds we could ever consume in our lifetime, the decision “brought itself” into enforcement, in a way. The ‘history’ became one various and diverse (and frequently also perceived as random) absolutely incomprehensible volume of different data, that could always be accessed to check a date or a name, but never to produce any meaning.
In such concept, where any understanding is expected to be found is precisely in ‘memories’ that follow the data, in recollecting ‘the personal facts’ that may or may not support the narrative of a certain story.
Such themes and questions underlay the 55th October Salon, titled “Disappearing Things” and curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen and Vanessa Müller in Belgrade this autumn. The project dealt with the nature of memory and the power or the weakness of images and narratives as both something fixed and contextualised in archival consciousness and something unfixed but entirely normalized, like the simple gesture of swiping a screen. The curators examined a potential shift in the function of collective memory and questioned the representative status of the image. In the words of Jennifer Kabat in the catalogue:
“In this year’s October Salon, history is torn asunder, memory appropriated, ghosts float free and technology provides the tools that keep haunting alive.”
But, it can be also said that the mode of “disappearing”, or the way of ‘forgetting’ offered by this year’s instalment of the Salon was performed with a certain tautological literalness. How this looked in terms of the curatorial approach was that the works were organized within a string of rooms, or perhaps better described as “units”, each hosting a separate artist, an isolated singular memory. These were spread over the magnificent and charmingly derelict space of the former Military Academy, now officially the Belgrade City Museum (regretfully without any apparent proper use of the last word of its name – but with the memories of an earlier Salon there four years ago).
A walk through the rooms was like visiting a network of small labs, where each hospital-like isolation unit catered for one brain in a jar – like those in Gary Gibson’s SF writings or The Matrix series, where, typically, each isolated brain of the otherwise dead or dysfunctional body is kept safely in a high-tech container, nourished with enough energy so to dream-cycle through the records of its own history – forever, or at least until somebody pulls the plug and breaks the self-referential chain apart. Some readers may remember Wim Wenders’s 1991 film Until the End of the World, where a similar technology is used on the living, who end up helplessly addicted to recordings of their own dreams.
As each artist chose to remember a particular something, each unit displayed its own and singular history, so visitors could monitor various conditions of the present state of rewind and playback on themes such as childhood memories, family relationships and various personal experiences, and also observe the psychological, emotional or aesthetic sediments of the important historical events, social dreams, broken utopias and false promises of a different era. The pictures on display, as to be expected in such a setup, significantly vary from each other in the terms of approach to what a subject of memory could or should be, or what method should be used to examine it. Ana Adamović’s multi-channel video projection The Choir (2014), for example, deals with representative images of childhood in socialist Yugoslavia, combining her personal memories with photographs gifted to the country’s former president Tito, while Dušica Dražić’s New City (2013) thematises the modernist obsession with experiment, novelty and urbanisation in a monumental installation containing numerous examples of “failed architecture” – edifices that didn’t live up to their potential, couldn’t fulfil their purpose or were eventually, for various reasons, destroyed.
According to the curators, “memory is seen as the retrospective per se, since it does not commence before the experience it recollects is concluded.” Thus, a possible artistic play with chronological shifts and detaching memory from its embeddedness in the past – or in time itself – did not feature in any prominent way; remembering, on this occasion, was a causal, literal and more or less linear affair. But unlike the curatorial statement, which, interestingly, founds its paradigm of forgetting in Snapchat-like messages (a service that forces digital messages, once read, to be irretrievably erased), the works on view were seemingly all-too happy to continuously live through their pre-recorded memories, and, like brains in jars, seemed completely oblivious that they were, indeed, dead. For the internality of each brain, this may be somewhat irrelevant – but the same applies to the rest of the jars, as the material conditions of such a state demand that no interaction seems possible.
Now, alongside all the seductive speculations on how we remember, and following Pierre Nora’s advice from the beginning of this text, it is important not to forget the “old” (historical) questions – what do we remember, why do we remember, and for whom? And how do we situate these questions in the present moment?
This years’ Salon offered none of the answers on those particular issues – but it did offer it’s own way of how to forget about all of them. In other words, if the curatorial statement sounded promising and current, it resulted with a rather conventional exhibition that repeated the “fetishistic memorialism” of many projects haunting the art world over the past twenty years. A relatively exhausted repertoire of nostalgic and grainy old home videos, modernist utopian dreams, and the ghostly presence in absentia of the socialist era was presented in artworks that can mostly be described as unsurprising or average, especially those coming from the so-called local scene. In the panel accompanying the exhibition, art historian and himself a former October Salon curator Branislav Dimitrijević pointed out: “But, attention and memory are situated and localized.” A thorough curatorial research – a task that assumes a certain dedication, passion and curiosity – seems to not have been performed on this occasion. Instead, the majority of artworks came from an open call, while the curators added a few interesting names from abroad (including Susanne Kriemann, Liam Gillick, Meggy Rustamova and Federico Acal). This approach transformed the exhibition itself into a disappeared thing, a kind of distorted afterimage of the exhibition of contemporary art as we know it – a string of cubes in an interesting and good-looking location, a mandatory chill-out space with bean bags, a very professional set-up of videos, films and installations, visitors walking around, a nicely designed catalogue, all very well done. … But the old questions persist: why, and for whom?
Ending up with these uneasy questions does not help, however, in taking a stand against the recent attacks on the institution of the October Salon by the city government and the ultra-conservative right-wing alliance currently in charge of cultural affairs. At the time of writing, it does feel somewhat odd that this could, perhaps, be a review of the very last October Salon as we have known it for fifty-five consecutive years. The entire institution is being officially dissolved, and if it ever returns, perhaps in a few years’ time, it will be in the biennial form and “with a strong accent on Serbian artists.” Whatever happens, no one is holding their breath. The entire thing, like so much else today, might have simply, and suddenly, just disappeared.
 Boris Buden, “Cultural Heritage: The Context of an Obsession”, Art and the F Word: Reflections on the Browning of Europe, ed. Maria Lind and WHW/What How and for Whom, pp. 37-75
 Pierre Nora, Reasons for the current upsurge in memory http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2002-04-19-nora-en.html
 Jennifer Kabat, The Geometry of a Hole, exhibition catalog of 55th October Salon, published by Cultural Centre of Belgrade, 2014, p. 10
 Nicolaus Schafhausen and Vanessa Müller, Foreword into exhibition Dissapearing Things, exhibition catalog of 55th October Salon, published by Cultural Centre of Belgrade, 2014, p. 8