Who is “Boska”? (with Jelena Vesić) for “5th December 1978”, the exhibition by Bojan Fajfrić

Written May 2009.

Published in the catalogue of “5th December 1978″, the exhibition by Bojan Fajfrić, Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, May/June 2009.

Who is “Boska”?

[whois: boska]

Jelena Vesić and Vladimir Jerić Vlidi

“It took me 17 years to visit Banja Luka again, a place in Bosnia where I used to spend my summer holidays. What I encountered there was beyond my expectations. I discovered a physical site that preserved images of my childhood – the old fashioned department store of Boska remained, the most recognizable symbol of the city and also the symbol of my memories. The concrete mega-structure inspired by the American shopping malls of the 60’ ceremonially opened its doors to the public in 1978. Boska is the last Yugoslav department store (…)

(…) I developed the affiliation with this building since I recognized it as some kind of a monument to the self-management system of former Yugoslav socialism, paradoxically embodied in one department store, a symbol of capitalist consumer society. Still, the system was long gone, after the years of wars and crisis, while Boska remained the same: same interior decoration, same surveillance cameras, saleswomen in the same uniforms as ever, even the price tags resisted all those years of inflation (…)”

(Bojan Fajfrić, 2008)

How would someone today try to understand the story of Boska? Most people would probably enter the word ‘boska’ in the search engine of Google and glimpse over the first ten results retrieved; there, only one result related the word with department store in Banja Luka. And so we find a photo archive of one fan of the memorabilia of the eastern-european socialism in architecture, somebody apparently based in Latvia; under the ‘boska’ entry there are some interesting pictures of a big and customerless commercial space designed in the futuristic aesthetics and equipped with cutting-edge technology of late 70’s, and a text at the bottom of the page describing the experience of walking trough through it as “surreal”.

It is almost certain that already the next time anyone drops by, this “timeless” space a visitor could find at the department store Boska would not be there; instead, it would be in the hands of some rich entrepreneur, surrounded by scaffolds, parceled into future boutiques and grossly enlarged (in this system, a central city location must be used to its maximum potential). It is also clear that the new (or, rather, the first) private owner would not be very sensitive towards the social and aesthetic ideals found at Boska – anything “not contributing” to the pragmatic sphere of the fast acquisition of the profit will end up on the dump (including the people) – after all, privatization is perceived as ‘securing the perimeter’ of the market, unnecessarily clogged by different complications and obstacles, mainly connected with this “people”. Well acquainted with such a scenario of society-in-transition, played out so many times in the different cities of former Yugoslavia, Bojan Fajfrić decides to take over some ‘pictures’ of Boska under his control, in order to provide the future for his memories.

In her book The Future of Nostalgia Svetlana Boym tries to defend this concept from the burden of sentimental kitsch or the de-politicizing tag of “the history without guilt”, frequently attributed to it by contemporary interpretations of nostalgia. Nostalgia, according to Boym, first of all points to the desire towards “unrealized dreams and visions of future, which are becoming obsolete with the progression of time”. But nostalgia does not necessarily have to be the mirror of idealization or an observing of the world through ‘the pink tinted glasses’. Its function may be connected to what Freud calls “the screen of memory” – to the way of mapping a certain problematic issue, a certain place of traumatic experience. In the case of the old images of Boska department store, that place of the trauma may be precisely the dramatic loss of the promise of “a better future” – or any (acceptable) future, for that matter. As it is possible, in one accepted system of understanding history which may or may not be restricted to the domain of “art”, to notice that the XX century begun with a futuristic utopia and ended up with nostalgia, it is also possible to imagine the scenario in which the memory of some better past/future joins to a number of alternatives to the existing order. Emphasizing this two-foldedness of the possible alternatives and its possible political projections, Svetlana Boym differentiates between two kinds of nostalgia: reflexive and restorative. “While restorative nostalgia puts an accent on nostos and refers to the attempt of the trans-historical reconstruction of the lost homeland, reflexive nostalgia is powered by algia, the longing itself (…) Reflexive nostalgia may appear as ironic and witty. It witnesses that longing and critical thinking are not mutually opposed, as memories do not free us of compassion, the power of judgment or the ability of critical examination.”

“Ever since the Comrade Tito died situation in society is very bad, therefore also in football”, Muki’s scrap-book, slide show, 2007-2008, bojanfajfric.net
“Ever since the Comrade Tito died situation in society is very bad, therefore also in football”, Muki’s scrap-book, slide show, 2007-2008, bojanfajfric.net

The Doppler Effect

If Boska was understood in the society and era of “socialist consumerism” as the part of the future, as promise and potential, then today, from the perspective of national-state and pseudo-liberal capitalism, it is interpreted as the “ex”, as something which without any doubt belongs to the past. And not the kind of past that society in its current constellation wants to reconstruct in any way. That is, it is not the past society chooses to remember – in this sense, Boska is not a monument. There is no socially reconstructed space of its past future in which it could serve the role of the initiator or a prototype. Boska is also not what we could call “the ghost of the past”, which could haunt the aforementioned society exactly in spite of this decision to be left out from the collective memory – it has no such powers, as it belongs to the time we know that does not exist. Like in some SF movie, Boska was transferred from the possible future to the forgotten past without existing for a moment in the present, in its own “real time”. This kind of asynchronicity can occur only from within society itself in which the speed of Boska’s time is being measured; in an almost identical (even in colours) way as in the Doppler effect, the social understanding of Boska is exclusively determined by the information of whether society is departing from Boska, or if it is approaching towards it.

It seems that Boska could be viewed today only through its incapacity to be placed in any specific scheme of social relations. So it is perceived as ‘timeless’ – not in the way the newly reconstructed national myths are perceived, as dynamic and in ‘constant progression’, but in the way in which we perceive, for example, documents archived outside the folder which could place them within a certain coherent narrative, through connecting it with a specific date or some other reference.

5th December 1978. still from single channel video, 2007-2008, bojanfajfric.net
5th December 1978. still from single channel video, 2007-2008, bojanfajfric.net

The evocative installation dedicated to the reconstruction of the memories of the micro-community of Boska in the work of Bojan Fajfrić relies on three primary documentary sources whose singular meanings and especially their mutual relations produce other meanings, and all of which create the system in which we can see Boska as an entity, with all the visible and invisible attributes constituting something we understand as ‘the entity’.

From up there, then downwards – top floor, next to the director’s office: the silence of the lambs

An important source offered by this exhibition is a collection of images of the micro-community of Boska from 1978 to 2007, once exhibited in the so-called ‘hall of samples’ and located on the top floor of the department store, right next to the director’s office. Catering for the display of the archive and its conservation was the task of Muki, who took the role of some kind of proto-curator and self-proclaimed archivist in charge of preserving the historical memorabilia of this socialist business structure. Muki is brought on stage by Bojan Fajfrić who now takes the role of the narrator:

“(…) Some days later, I met Muki, a man that has worked all of his life in Boska in the administration department. From that time on, I saw Muki as some sort of alter-ego who helped me to define my own position in relation to the subject of my research. (…)”

Although this note is a witness to the “real” existence of Muki-as-the-person, he at the same time remains to be the ‘character’, that is, he does help in defining the position of the author-as-explorer/researcher but he also becomes the fictional character who speaks from within the story – through the voice of the guide, the voice of the curator of the archive who himself produced it and as a practical DIY-man-for-everything. What we know about Muki the “character” which in this story cannot be separated from Muki the ‘real’ person? Mustafa Ekić-Muki was born in 1956 in Banja Luka. After receiving BA in economy and commerce he started to work in Boska in 1978 after the opening of the department store. He started as ‘commercial referent’ and became the manager of the wholesale department. He was also the president of the Federation of the Trade Unions of Boska for two mandates. Muki was in charge of all the sport activities, celebrations and social gatherings, parties, excursions, etc. He organized the internal bingo lottery among the employees which he, according to his own statement, always ‘fixed’ so the most diligent workers would win. On one occasion, Muki took 1000 women to Trade Union-organized excursion and this enterprise he illustrated with several big photos from his scrapbook which today serve as the source of documents which at the same time establish the story of Boska and which play the main and marginal roles in it. A part of the story of 1000 women on the excursion which is especially interesting here is the kind of economy developed for the purpose of organizing such a venture; in order to feed 1000 women, their male colleagues had to slaughter a large number of lambs and to, of course, grill and serve it; but, they also managed to sell the large quantity of sheepskin which came out as the surplus of this process, and with the money they acquired they paid in advance for several months of collective sport activities in the local Hall of Sports.

“Ever since the Comrade Tito died situation in society is very bad, therefore also in football”, Muki’s scrap-book, slide show, 2007-2008, bojanfajfric.net
“Ever since the Comrade Tito died situation in society is very bad, therefore also in football”, Muki’s scrap-book, slide show, 2007-2008, bojanfajfric.net

Muki in this story does not figure only as the medium for communicating the anecdotal information, his presence is metonymical – he appears as one universal voice from the past encompassed by the story, and that voice is in the function of many others – maybe it is the echo of “collective ethics”. This voice is not only pointing us to the time before the saying “time is money” became the common daily prayer – his witnessing, first of all, is establishing again the very existence of the time during which such a saying (still) was not ‘true’. More precisely, what invokes the feelings of nostalgia actually derives from the era of ‘the surplus of time’ – that bizarre product of socialist economy – time which people used to talk and think or, as was the case in the story about the lambs, to develop alternative economies and collective performances. Such performances did not aim to be a part of the sphere of art, but today, deprived of any other histories, they retroactively appear precisely as a part of “the history of art’.

5th December 1978. still from single channel video, 2007-2008, bojanfajfric.net
5th December 1978. still from single channel video, 2007-2008, bojanfajfric.net

Although today society chooses to believe in the future perceived only as the sum of (mainly predetermined) personal histories, the possibility that one common and universal future of the society-as-the-entity may exist still maintains the possibility to reproduce itself and to repeatedly create the space of its ‘history of the future’ – Muki becomes Boki (Fajfrić), and the future is still looking at us from the past. Today, this gaze creates a certain uneasiness – we are not capable of returning the gaze, because we can not locate the source of it, as we consciously decided to forget where it is coming from. But, it can be the gaze of encouragement and optimism, as well – whatever the fate of Boska will be, the story of the lambs and all the other stories may not be looking from the walls at the new management ‘up there’, reminding them of the collective ethics of the community they are entrusted with, while they bring the decisions affecting the future of that community; nevertheless, ‘imaginary future’ still finds a way to appear in the collective present, over and over again, as the voice of 1000 women on the excursion, as the bingo in which the most diligent always wins, as the sports activities enabled for the entire collective, as the surplus of time which does not mean the loss of value…

Ground floor: shining

The artist’s documentary video which represents ‘the visible’ of the Boska of today functions as the kind of a ‘silent’ memo on the current state of things, a portrait of the interior with (half full/half empty) shelves displayed, followed by the accompanying inventory. The dynamism of the transactions between buyers and sellers, the customers and the staff, is entirely missing because the customers are simply not there; only one mega-buyer is waited for, the one who will approach the whole micro-system inhabiting this space as a single good, a joint offering. In the meantime, there is the apathetic dedication to waiting or the aesthetic fascination with the modernistic forms of the commercial interior, preserved in hibernation during several previous decades. Boska is simply absent from the ‘today’ of contemporary society and her ego, social perception and visible construction, as well as lack of any position, is not something the society perceives as its own problem – if Boska wants to take some place desired within contemporary society, then it is up to Boska to make it happen and to reconstruct its own appearance as something that society is able to fit into its scheme of social relations. There is no Boska, nor there will be one, until Boska ‘disciplines’ itself according to the canons imposed by the ‘contemporary state of things’… In Fajfrić’s documentary video, the workers of Boska are looking at us while we look at them (just as we are looked at from the perspective of the half-empty shelves and ancient TV cameras hanging from the ceiling, that is, from Boska-as-the-entity); today, the gaze of these female workers may not have the same strength as the gaze of 1000 women behind every single eye, and maybe this greater power over the spectator maintains their lack of motion and ‘silent existence’ within this space which, because of the absence of sound and movement and with its empty shelves, points to the absence of the human activity, the absence of any function which could make it relevant for the people; therefore those pictures of women in which it appears as if they are looking at us from the past and from a space which we today believe doesn’t exist in the social (‘human’) sense could appear as uncanny, and as if the footage is coming from the lost reel of the “Shining”. As observers, we feel instantly ‘captured’ by this space which appears to somehow generate these images of people by itself – and which might be the source of fear in the “Shining”, as we in no way expect that this building could produce such images of humans. The ‘normal’ would have to be the opposite, that is, something we consider to be dead cannot produce life; on the other hand, something we consider as alive, something which looks human, turns out to be the people who died a long time ago and now appear as undead. This constant carousel of rotating the attributes of life and death and their signifiers produces a terrifying disorientation which threatens to take away from us the essential ability of making the distinction between the two. But, where the fear in the “Shining” only begins, in the case of Boska the uneasiness is soon replaced by relief, as this particular past which we recognize as the place from which Boska stares at us, by using forgetfulness, we once have already defeated.

Boska today, bojanfajfric.net
Boska today, bojanfajfric.net

The cellar – “nuclear from the left” [1]

The third research offered at the exhibition is the short avanturistic video footage of the expedition to the “restricted area” – which is the pitch-black vault of the atomic shelter, placed within the deep foundations of the department store. To this hidden space we are introduced by the calm voice of Muki who reminds us along the way of the turbulent times of the loss of the public sphere and the traumatic shift in the principles of ownership. The remark that the atomic shelter is a “public space” directs contemplation to the privatization of Boska in one lateral direction and towards the relation of the future owner and this “public space” – what does the law say, are atomic shelters still considered to be public spaces? Would the future owners be obliged to maintain the space and provide public access to it or would they be free to use it as their storage space or whatever they may need it for? Or will they continue to ignore and neglect it, as it is today, if it can’t become “theirs”? One of the most interesting scenes in this video happens at the very beginning while trying to enter the shelter. For this operation, a kind of a hatchet or a meat cleaver had to be used by Muki for the lock to be removed as the key of the atomic shelter could not be found. This symbolic “throwing away the keys” of Boska’s id is finally starting to speak about not only the external forces which placed Boska in its non-position of today but of the collective consciousness of Boska itself which, however much declaring the idealized future, was still being produced from the very imperfect position of its present (note that this is the first time that we noticed something which indicates that Boska did exist in its own present). What then, to entirely misuse the psychoanalytic apparatus, we find repressed down there in the basement of Boska’s unconscious? Not going into where those objects come from, from when they are there and what their purpose might have been, and observing them as the symbols framed by the film itself and not by some imaginary reality, we follow the weak beam of the flashlight which made a few objects emerge against the darkness – namely, artificial flowers, fresh as the first day they blossomed, a panel with the photographs of the high school class of IV/5 and a pile of stacked plates, actually hundreds of plates (or so it appears), disposed in an orderly manner and apparently without any trace of food. Is the class of IV/5 ‘the youth and the future’ which Boska, accepting the dominance of the new constellation, decided to displace into the darkness and to forget, becoming the accomplice in its own displacement to the past? Or was this displacing to the basement anteceding and providing the conditions for this new constellation to emerge? Were those plates the plates in which the lambs, as envisioned by the top floor, were served, and were all the plates once full?


Those are the questions Boska itself should provide the answers to, if it considers this connection between the lambs and the plates important. The current situation in the ground floor might be the consequence of that connection, but also a consequence of that the ‘outer world’ is interested in the ground floor only; but let this question pass as unanswered and let thinking about the possible solutions be the recommendation for whoever will take the role of Boska and accept the task to ‘port’ it, for the first time, into the present. If the aim is that the ground floor will shine out once again with the power of the satisfaction of 1000 women after the collective excursion, then probably one should sit in the atomic shelter, contemplating on the empty plates and thinking about Boska in the present; if the aim is something else, just to gather once again all those missing customers of whom we are also reminded by the pictures exhibited in the top floor, through the sheer stuffing of the ground floor with new goods (and new people), nothing then. The plates will make another full circle and sooner or later the ground floor will look similar to what it looks like today. And that will be because we successfully managed to forget both about Muki’s exhibition on the top floor and about Boki’s expedition to the basement.


[1] Here, a bit of clarification might be necessary for the foreign and younger reader. The culture of following the saying that all the members of society should work like it will always be the peacetime, but should be prepared like the war is about to start tomorrow, was the doctrine behind the concept of Yugoslav Peoples Army and the idea that each citizen could be the soldier, if necessary; in schools there were courses in something roughly translated as “the all-peoples defense and the protection of civilians”, teaching the basic procedures and techniques of acting in the times of crisis and using of provided or improvised means of protection. Each citizen was issued and required to maintain a “personal protection kit”, and “atomic shelters” had to be orderly maintained and tested, as well. The cry “nuclear from the right” (or left, as it addressed the direction the nuclear blast supposedly could come from) meant that it was the exercise, that hypothetically a nuclear attack just happened, and that the instructor actually demanded that you should throw yourself to the ground in a proper orientation towards the blast, in order to reduce the damage to your body, wherever you were at the time and however clogged, muddy or filthy that particular ground appeared to be. That kind of exercise was common in the army, and in schools kids perceived it as the kind of a game.