Alliances and Solidarities: On the Evolution and Reception of my Naked Life Performance Series (2004-16)

Tanja Ostojić: Naked Life 6 (2016), 45-min performance by Tanja Ostojić, performed at the Society of Advocates Hall, Aberdeen, Scotland. Photo: Maja Zeco; Copyright/Courtesy: T. Ostojić

Taking as its point of departure research from the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s reports on violent deportations of Roma from the European Union, my project, Naked Life (2004-16) addresses the fate of Balkan, German, Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish and British Roma, Sinti, Gypsy and Traveller populations. In this framework, I produced a number of multimedia installations, video-installations, video performances, series of live performances, events and a TV documentary. Naked Life deals with issues of bare life, social and political exclusion, deportation, racism, bio-politics, xenophobia and diverse cultural identities, asking: how is it possible that in contemporary Europe, certain ethnic groups are constantly exposed and stripped of their political, social, and human rights? I expose colonial wounds that come along with opening a platform for discussion with local communities and activists, sharing feelings of sorrow, and processes of initiation and healing. This project considers important questions around advocacy, politics and provocation in performative practice, exploring the ethics of movement and migration through a consideration of experiences within Roma populations Europe-wide.


For my art practice, I have consciously decided to abandon the production of “one-off” artworks in favour of developing a series of strategic projects that span a period of several years. This position gives me the opportunity to engage in a much more consistent and deeper analysis and development of the issues of concern in my work.[1]

In early 2004, I came across the document entitled, Written Comments of the European Roma Rights Centre Concerning Germany for Consideration by the United Nations Human Rights Committee at its 80th Session (2003-04), that contained highly disturbing information with regard to the discrimination of Roma families based in Germany, especially the fate of those from the section on deportations (to Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro and Romania). I should mention that I am gadja, who attended school together with Roma and non-Roma kids, and that I came to Germany from Belgrade, just two years earlier, on a family unification visa based on a marriage that was arranged in the frame of my Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000-05) project. At the time, I was based in Berlin, while being registered in another German state. My art practice has since 1996 engaged with agency, political and feminist concerns.

In order to process this emotionally painful content, I decided to try to make an artwork out of it, in De-colonial terms, by exposing colonial wounds. In my home studio, I used an empty wall as a background, turned on a video camera and read seven testimonies from the report’s section on deportation. Each testimony was more disturbing than the next. While reading, after each story, I placed the report on the floor and stripped off a layer of my own clothing from my body, remaining naked in the end and symbolically vulnerable as bare life. The structure of this 24-minute video-performance, recorded with a static camera in one take, was simple: a reading session, then a stripping session, then a reading session, until finally I took off my reading glasses and a golden ring (from my late mother), and remained standing, exposed and vulnerable, in compassion, crying.

A few days later, I visited Christopher Hewitt, a performance art curator and a friend of mine at the time, who previously curated two of my performances in London, Personal Space (1996) for Hollywood Leather, and Would You Digitalise Your Soul (1999) for the ICA, where he was head of the performance art programme. While he initially welcomed the chance to see my newest work and discuss it, after I showed him the Naked Life 1 video, he said he would rather not give any comment. This brought me down, and I felt alone in this completely new direction of my work.

Tanja Ostojić: Naked Life 1 (2004/2013), video-installation (including 24-min video-performance). Installation view: Spoken World Festival, Kaaitheater, Brussels, Belgium, 2013. Photo: T. Ostojić; Courtesy/Copyright: T. Ostojić

It took some four years before I was able to show this work to an art audience — as I was discouraged and no venue had an interest in showing it — and even more before it has been accepted, with its very minimal aesthetics, distinguished agency and expression of compassion and solidarity towards the expelled and discriminated. It was exhibited for the first time in Kunstpavillon Innsbruck in 2008 as a video-installation, and the transcript and images of this work were published in several publications in Austria, Germany and Sweden. I continued my research regarding the historical and contemporary racism and Antiziganism against Roma throughout Europe. Over time, the materials I collected formed a distinguished section of my Integration Project Archive (IPA) and were used as source material for art installations[2] and further itineraries of the Naked Life performances.

Naked Life 2

For Call the Witness, Live Testimonies, Roma Pavilion Collateral Event, in the frame of the 54th Biennale di Venezia, 2011, Naked Life was performed for the first time live. For this occasion, I developed a new performance that focused on diverse kinds of systematic and daily racism against Roma across the European Union and south-eastern Europe, on national and local levels, from the most recent cases of forced migration and NGO racism, to the cases of violence and racist killings Roma face on a daily basis. I performed on a large table inside the UNESCO office, before an audience consisting of the Roma community, artists of all backgrounds, and the art crowd, and I was very grateful for the reception.[3]

Paul Ryan: Tanja Ostojić: Naked Life 2 (2011), documentary drawing on paper; Call the Witness, Roma Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale. Copyright: Paul Ryan; Courtesy: T. Ostojić

Our Roma Media Archive (RMA, 2011-16) initiated by Dr Suzana Milevska, who invited a range of international artists to share their archives as testimonials of their research endeavours, in solidarity with the Roma people, was also inaugurated there. RMA was an accumulation of artistic, documentary and activist works produced by a wide range of artists of both Roma and non-Roma ethnicity. The varied and multi-disciplinary approach of these works showed everyday life and urgent issues that Romani communities and individuals face in contemporary society. It lasted for about five years and was solely funded from donations by us contributors, with an average of 50 Euro per person per annum, in order to cover the technical support costs of this pioneering project.[4] Given the fact that this was less than a decade ago, when the situation was very different, I should underline how important it is that we have today in Berlin several art institutions, such as ERIAC, Roma Digital Archive, Galerie Kai Dikhas, Theatre Aufbau Kreuzberg, Gorky, that are dedicated to the art of people of Romani descent, and that an increasing number of visual and performance artists of Romani descent get into the public eye.

Flyer for the web launch of the Roma Media Archive (RMA, 2011-2016); Call the Witness, Roma Pavilion Collateral Events, 54th Venice Biennale, 2011. Courtesy: T. Ostojić

Particularly fragile, the Naked Life 3 performance (Marseille, September 2013) included an interactive development phase, as I carried the performance manuscript in French on public buses along the city coast, asking fellow passengers to correct my pronunciation. They helped me learn to read this activist material. I also met local activists and visited institutions that had distinguished Romani cultural production, which helped to get perspective on issues that are locally and nationally central (in Marseille and France), that I juxtaposed with the situation across Europe. During the evening performance that was set inside one of the theatre spaces in la Friche La Belle de Mai (by Préavis de Désordre Urbain performance festival), emptied of chairs, I stood, and the audience sat close to me, also on the floor. For those I had difficulties reading, or felt exhausted, I asked for a volunteer from the audience to come stand next to me and to read in French. Assister à une performance means to watch a performance, but literary translated, it means: to assist in a performance, so I am pleased that the interaction, besides adding to the fragility and the involvement of the audience, was in the spirit of language.

In a small, packed gallery in Gothenburg, I delivered a very intense, marathon ninety-minute performance with no breaks, climaxing at the end. A huge pile formed from the many layers of long skirts and dresses that I took off during the performance, while I was fully naked, bending down, shouting the information that over 4000 Romani people, including over 1000 children born in the 21st century, have been unlawfully registered in a contemporary racist database maintained by the Swedish Police – and they are on the list for one reason only: being born into Romani families. This moving performance, delivered in September 2015 at the Live Action 10 festival, left everyone in the room knocked out, and I, too, took a while to recover emotionally from it.

Tanja Ostojić: Naked Life 4 (2015), 90-min lecture-performance about 500 years of systematic discrimination of Roma and Sinti in Sweden. Performed by Tanja Ostojić at Live Action 10, Gallery Rotor, Valand Academy, Gothenburg. Photo: Christian Berven; Courtesy: T. Ostojić

Besides the stories from my IPA archive (shown at the exhibition, Normalisation, in Rooseum, Malmö in 2006, around the topic of human rights atrocities that Roma face in Sweden), the sources of my performance material for Naked Life 4 included the newest information from Roma activist circles, and I performed some of the histories of the best known Swedish Roma. It might be of interest to mention how I found them: in 2013, after delivering a lecture, On Documentary Formats, at the Clandestino Institut in Gothenburg, I went to see a moving anthropological exhibition at the City Museum on over half-a-century of Roma presence in Sweden, that influenced my work and changed the tone of my further performances. The bilingual exhibition (Swedish/English) was accompanied by a catalogue only in Swedish, which I purchased, took with me to Berlin and brought back to Gothenburg two years later, when I went again to the City Museum, to ask if the exhibition, that later travelled to Stockholm, now had a catalogue in English, or if there were any files in English accessible to me as a researcher. The answer was no – as if the Swedes somehow wanted their shameful racist history to remain internalised. I asked the festival to support me with a translator, so we could work together on extracting and translating to English some of the stories from the exhibition catalogue that I was particularly interested in. My translator was a festival volunteer, and a photographer, a Swedish man slightly older than I, named Christian, employed as a teacher in a local grammar school. At first, I was unsure if we would be able to work on this properly, as I knew this was sensitive material. I went to meet him at his office in school. While he read aloud and translated for me certain parts, he went several times outside the room, as I realised later, in order to cry, as the stories were so painful, and he did not want to cry in front of me. I realised I could trust him and was thankful for the support. The testimonies from different periods of time included stories of two Romni girls – Holocaust survivors – who made it to Sweden on so-called white buses after World War II; cases regarding the five-century long systematic segregation of Roma in Sweden; the systematic sterilisation of over 60,000 Scandinavian Romani women operated in Sweden against their will or knowledge between 1935 and 1976; deportations of Balkan Roma from the 1990s on, etc.

Naked Life 6

In its sixth iteration, a 45-minute performance, Naked Life 6 was delivered on 12 March 2016, inside the historical building of the Society of Advocates Hall in Aberdeen, Scotland. I chose to perform in the courtroom, on the table where many law cases were placed in the long history of this house. To underline some of the statements from the cases I was reading from, I used for the first time signs that I hand-wrote during the course of the performance, that I showed to the audience (full house) while looking into their eyes and making warning sounds with the heels of my shoes that resembled flamenco shoes.

The rage in Ostojić’s performance, coupled with its emotive effects, asks us to reflect on the inhospitality of what Agamben (1998) refers to as the sovereignty of the capitalist nation state. Not for the first time in Ostojić’s practice, which offers a close-to-the bone bio-political critique of discriminatory systems within globalisation, we are asked to consider the borders that define political spheres and the people who occupy these threshold spaces.

Furthermore:

She stands outside as an angry guest knocking on the desk of exclusive frameworks. Yet, she does not stand outside alone; she gathers support through the moving dimensions of the performance.[5]

After the performance that was deeply emotional, we all shared hugs and tears and a soup. A Polish Romni performer based in Glasgow, Sonia Michalewicz, acted as a respondent, sharing her personal experiences of the issues raised in the performance, and in conversation with the audience and invited guests. This was followed by more tears as she told her life story, marked by racism, for the very first time, directly provoked by my performance, and in the presence of her two daughters and her husband, and she sang a song. Following on from the performance, a very relevant discussion considered the radical negotiation of ideological, physical and social borders in my art practice took place. The discussion event was moderated by Jonathan Baxter, with the participation of a number of invited guests from the council, local government and representatives from activist contexts, minorities groups, and NGOs, who commented on the possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration and performance advocacy as a means to inform social and political change.

Tanja Ostojić: Naked Life 6 (2016), 45-min performance by Tanja Ostojić, performed at the Society of Advocates Hall, Aberdeen, Scotland. Photo: Maja Zeco; Copyright/Courtesy: T. Ostojić

Most of us will never forget this evening! As a result, Sonia Michalewicz became an activist. She started a Romni dancing group in her daughters’ school, where she worked as a cleaner. In Aberdeen and Glasgow, since April that year, International Roma Day has been celebrated. Thanks go to Caroline Gausden, who hosted this evening, where such an amazing and engaged group of people gathered, including the scholars, and the audience that was lovely and diverse. Gausden published an essay analysing this event and defended her PhD at Robert Gordon University.

Naked Life 7: “I don’t want to go back and live like that. I would rather kill myself”.

Naked Life 7 was a central performance of the event entitled, Roma Protest — a format of various artistic modules dealing with the status of Roma in the face of deportation practices against asylum seekers from “safe countries of origin”. Roma and non-Roma artists articulated positions of identity, threat, politics, solidarity, history and pain in performance, photography, lectures and music – that I co-curated and organised in collaboration with Branko Simic. For me, it was particularly important that the brothers Prizreni: Kefaet, Selamet and Hikmet, who were subjects of my research and performances, played a concert this evening on the same stage with their hiphop bands K.A.G.E and RollinHopp, thus transcending their status as subjects of my performance-research, as artists invited to share the stage with me, and in discussion with me.

After sharing research information on and with minorities, I created this performance by telling stories describing the brutality and exclusion with which minorities are confronted on a daily basis. I exposed not only stories on discrimination and violence; I also exposed my own naked and vulnerable body, along with compassion. This time, at the end of the performance, I asked the audience, including fellow performers, to come on stage and share a hug with me – this was a really amazing procession of diverse people, Roma and non-Roma, artists, activists, scholars, the Yugo crowed, etc. It was a really good feeling to conclude my Naked Life performance that premiered that night in the Green Salon of the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin.[6]

Conclusion

I would like to see all of these Naked Life and Digital Media Archive artworks, and the documentation springing from the discussions and topics raised over the course of those projects and initiatives that are built on alliances and solidarity, in some of the distinguished sections of the future Digital Roma Museum, but not only in the digital one! I believe that especially today we need physical museums for art from Roma – and non-Roma artists as well, where we can meet and exchange, and where we can get close to the materials, objects, artworks and artefacts. I would like to argue that inclusion of artists with Roma background into exhausting white-dominated museum collections is crucial, as well as the inclusion of topics that are relevant for Romani histories and cultures Europe-wide. But I believe as well that Roma deserve to have a number of their own — local, national and European — physical museums, with their own collections, galleries, temporary and permanent exhibitions, live events, film screenings, activist, theoretical and publishing activity that they will manage on their own. I do not think that those spaces need to be Roma only, but the people running them should be of Roma origin, and can decide if they are going to invite black or white, or feminist artists, as well. It is not only artists with Roma background that need to be included into white spaces; it is rather that all spaces – some that still need to be built and funded – need to transform and to build alliances and solidarity towards envisioning and building better societies.


Tanja Ostojić (*1972 Yugoslavia) is Berlin-based performance and interdisciplinary artist, researcher and educator. She is internationally renowned as a pioneer of institutional gendered critique, and for her work in the field of socially and politically engaged and public art, particularly with regard to migration politics. She uses diverse media in her artistic research, examining feminist issues, power relationships, social configurations, racism, economy, and bio-politics between others. Ostojić includes herself as a character in performances and works predominantly from the migrant woman’s perspective, while political positioning and ethical participation define the approaches of her work. Since 1994, she has presented her work in a large number of solo and group exhibitions and festivals worldwide, including the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Venice Biennale in 2001 and 2011, and MUMOK in Vienna. She has given lectures, seminars and workshops at academic conferences and art universities throughout Europe and in the Americas. Ostojić’s work maintains a high level of theoretical reference and has been analysed and reviewed globally, and included in numerous books, periodicals and anthologies, while The Guardian has chosen her, with her project, “Looking for a Husband with EU Passport” (2000-05), as one of the 25 best artists of the twenty-first century.


Endnotes:
[1] T. Ostojić: “Crossing Borders: Development of Different Artistic Strategies”, in New Feminism: Words of Feminism, Queer and Networking Conditions (M. Gržinić & R. Reitsamer, eds.), Löcker Verlag, Vienna, 2008.
[2] Example of a multimedia installation (English/Slovak/Czech) shown in Space Gallery, Bratislava, and in City Hall, Prague:
The Roma Question (2006) is the result of several weeks of research that I conducted in Bratislava, following the petition from ERIO (European Roma Information Office, Brussels) for the removal of the Dutch politician Eric Van der Linden, who was head of the EU delegation for Slovakia in May 2004, when Slovakia joined the EU. Eric Van der Linden is known for causing a scandal for his racist ideas, suggesting that Roma children in Slovakia should be ‘forcibly separated from their parents’, to rather be brought up in boarding schools and thus become ‘more useful members’ of the dominant society. I asked many people in Slovakia who seemed to have a relevant position to comment from their perspective on the issue: activists, people who write and coordinate policy for Roma communities, Roma press agency, governmental institutions, pedagogues, social workers, NGOs, artists, philosophers and journalists at the time when the case was already officially closed as an ‘unfortunate choice of words’. The installation display consisted of these collected comments, original materials from the Dutch TV and the Slovak TV, interview transcripts, EU press briefings and petitions, as well as the Rabbit-Proof Fence film, a poem from Robert Lax that he sent to me a few years before his death, and the poem, What Mr Cogito Thinks About Hell from Zbigniew Herbert.
Tanja Ostojić: “Naked Life: The Roma Question” (2006), in: Integration Impossible: The Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić (Gržinić & Ostojić, eds.), Argobooks, Berlin, 2009, pp.141-159.
[3]
Tanja Ostojić: Naked Life 2 (2011), 24-min performance at Call the Witness, Roma Pavilion Collateral Events, 54th Venice Biennale. Research/directed/performed: Tanja Ostojić. Information sources: ERRC, European Roma Rights Centre, Budapest, Romano Chachipe: <http://romarights.wordpress.com>, Roma National Congress, ERIO, European Roma Information Office, Brussels, DUR Demokratsko Udruženje Roma [Democratic Association of Roma], Belgrade.
[4] Roma Media Archive (RMA, 2011-2016) was initiated by Suzana Milevska, who invited a range of international artists to share their archives as testimonials of their research endeavours, in solidarity with the Roma people. Participating artists included: Bruce Barber, Katalin Barsony, Cristiano Berti, Bodvalenke Fresco Project, Tina Carr, Edouard Chiline, Hannah Collins, Leone Contini, Nigel Dickinson, Konstantina Drakopoulou, EU-Roma, Eduard Freudmann, Alexandra Gulea, Maria Kjartans, Marta Kotlarska, Ivana Marjanović, Dusko Miljanić, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Tanja Ostojić, Nihad Nino Pušija, Claudia Radulescu, Eva Sajović, Marika Schmiedt, Annemarie Schöne, Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić and Manuela Zanotti.
[5] Caroline Gausden: “Performing advocacy”,in Accessibility, Inclusion, and Diversity in Critical Event Studies (R. Finkel, B. Sharp, and M. Sweeney, eds.), Routledge, Oxon, UK, and New York, 2019, pp.134-149.
The performance and event production were made possible, thanks to: the University of Aberdeen, Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen, Guest @ Gray’s, Arts & Humanities Research Council, Scottish Contemporary Art Network, and Aberdeen City Council.
[6] Research sources included: Abgeschobene Roma im Kosovo, journalistische, juristische und medizinische Recherchen, Alle Bleiben!, Roma Center Göttingen, Süddeutsche Zeitung, TAZ.
Researchers: Tanja Ostojić, Kenan Emini, Jean-Philipp Baeck, Malte Stieber, Allegra Schneider.

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