The goal of using art in public space was twofold. On the one hand, the intention was to draw attention to a public space that can be other than commercialized. While on other to investigate new exhibiting practices, but moreover a new form of socializing in the public space.
Art in public space can play an important role in perceiving urban space. It is not about the beautification of the city, but more about creating the spaces which can foster socialization in public space and interaction (intellectually or physically) with public art. In this case, art was a tool to transform neglected passage in the centre of Belgrade into one of the city’s important cultural spaces. The idea behind was to present artworks and cultural practices outside of the white boxes, pass them to the street where it can be available 24/7, to everyone, both interested audiences, as well as to the unintentional passers-by. Being in public space triggered the program design of the space, which is politically and/or socially engaged, and fosters and encourages wider social dialogue.
Street Gallery (srb. Ulična galerija) project represents a pioneer venture in the attempt to reconstruct and activate neglected public space in Belgrade city center, for cultural and social purposes. Belgrade based collective Ministry of Space, successfully lobbied city officials to support the transformation of this public space into the city’s first Street Gallery for upcoming young artists and people coming from do-it-yourself collectives. Street Gallery is situated a hundred meters from the National Assembly, not very popular but still heavily frequented space, was a dark urban urinal and illegal parking until the action of the Ministry of Space. Although today some passersby may still use it in the same manner as before, the difference is noticeable, as today this space represents a Street Gallery. Only some puritans or usual cynics won’t admit the visible difference and its importance. They would probably find themselves unsatisfied with the results. As stated by the founders: the Street Gallery wasn’t created with the intention to improve the appearance of some passageway, yet to bring back dignity to its users. The gallery is located behind a burned-out cinema and it shows works in the display cases which used to hold movie posters. It is composed of nine exhibition niches, divided into three segments, and a welcoming billboard which is used for exhibition announcements. As there was not enough financial resources to complete the reconstruction of the passage, the Ministry of Space had to invite and rely on friends and the local community to help them. Thus, instead of benches, gallery furniture was made of euro pallets and the walls around the gallery were painted by local mural artists. The process of art relocation to the public space has brought a lot of visitors to the gallery, but most importantly it gave opportunity to introduce a wider audience to burning issues that collective MoS felt responsible to talk about, together with artists who have proposed them. Hence, very often the exhibition program introduces stories about resettlement of Roma people, workers of bankrupt factories, life of homeless people and asylum seekers, solidarity, frustration of a modern man, but as well it included critical turns to contemporary society and various forms of political and economic power. Beside a great number of exhibitions, the gallery has hosted several festivals, movie screenings and workshops. In association with the club Podmornica many concerts were organized. Together with them the initiative to name the passageway where the Street Gallery is located into Čavketov pasaž, after one of Yugoslav famous drum player and antiwar figure – Goran Čavajda Čavke, was successfully realized. Eight years of the Street Gallery have been marked by a variety of media and topics, many local and international authors and diverse artistic sensibilities. As collective states, they are especially proud of the fact that the gallery has inspired creation of several new similar places around Serbia. The network of street and outdoor galleries has been branched out in Novi Pazar, Valjevo, Šabac, Novi Sad, Smederevo, Vranje and Belgrade. The initial idea was to establish it as space which is an essential prerequisite of social cohesion and a common denominator of urban issues in a broader context. How space is organized defines the intensity, quality and durability of interactions among actors. Moreover, it stimulates people to engage in their immediate surroundings. By reclaiming and transforming this public space it became a space of commoning. As Stavrides states (2016) what makes the space of commoning is actually a process of space creation that unfolds through the practices of communing. These practices produce new relations between people and through the set of spatial relations, they create common space. The initial activity that tactically drove the process was exhibiting, which started as leisure activity and became the complex activity that reinvented the new form of practice. Little by little, the space was transformed into collective practice of reclaiming the space by involving numerous other activities and local networks and community. Furthermore, this is what makes the crucial difference between public spaces and commons. Public space holds a certain political power in relation to the state, while the commons possess the means for the public’s effective social control. Public spaces become a commons once the collective action and community takes ownership over it. Through its program and activities, Gallery showed a clear intention on dealing with socially engaged issues and thus established itself as a place that draws public attention to a variety of social problems. Furthermore, it became a place where people gather regardless of the specific program and in all times of the day. Thus, in the working hours it is used by people who work in the vicinity and spend their break there. In the afternoon, high school students on their way home spend time in the gallery as the center of the city does not have enough free areas where they can sit without having to pay. While in the evening, visitors to the nearby punk club make a break from noise and smoke. Altogether, Gallery serves as a passage which with artistic content refines movement through the city. As stated by the initiators: “Acting in public space is far more complex than we thought it would be. It was not easy to endure five years on the street, but giving up was not an option for us. Nor we allowed it to discourage us. Every difficult situation, and there were plenty of them, we have confronted as a challenge. The Street Gallery was not the call to paint Belgrade (although it does need one), but to reconquer it again, from the margins where its citizens have been pushed to. The success of the gallery is neither in more than 80 realized exhibitions, nor dozens of other events, but the results which have emerged from all of these gatherings. Its greatest value is the clear commitment to provoke dialogue, offer space for sharing and creating different social relations.”
The Street Gallery was founded in April 2012 by the MoS collective, which was formed almost two years earlier, with the goal to pursue spatial justice. From its founding, the gallery questions the potential of art in public space to continuously and actively produce change both in the urban structure of the city, but also in the symbolic capital of common spaces. The history of the gallery and its program activities consistently testify to that potential. The founding of this space was preceded by an artistic intervention in a neglected passage, which was carried out in cooperation by members of the collective Ministry of Space and the Italian artist Luca Donnini in 2010. On the dilapidated façade inside the broken windows that once promoted the film program of the nearby (meanwhile privatized) cinema, photograph prints by this artist were set, in guerrilla style, overnight. Black and white photographs of nudes, portraits, studies of human bodies of those on the margins, were supposed to be a one-day intervention in the public space. After only a few hours, the photos were torn (due to the content displayed on them), and the former cinema frames were emptied again. The act of demolishing the exhibition that testifies on the dynamics of street, communication between artwork and observers, antagonism within the domain of the public sphere, was a trigger and an inspiration for the Ministry of Space to launch an initiative for establishing the Street Gallery. Even after eight years, the Gallery does not give up on the basic value principles inscribed in the artistic intervention from 2010. With the selection of artists, art projects and events, the gallery is clearly positioned towards existing institutions, towards the activities of independent actors in culture, but also towards issues of wider social significance. The struggle for public and common goods, models of self-organization, labor rights, social inequalities, critical reflection on reality, activist-oriented action and subversion of the existing system of social and political norms remain the dominant lines of interest. By creating alliances with neighbors and surrounding active spaces, the Gallery makes a unique contribution to issues of importance within the community in which it operates. The gallery has become both a meeting place and a place of action, a dynamic subversive point in the heart of the city that confronts ideas, opens topics, intersects and connects different initiatives and produces critical audience potential by directly occupying the eyes of passers-by. Even though the program content continues to provoke and awaken, the windows have never been broken since the official opening. Casual passers-by, neighbors, citizens and visitors have adopted the space of the Street gallery, which testifies to the emancipatory potential of strategies that directly oppose the disastrous tendency of increasingly intensive privatization of public goods, infrastructure and resources. Perhaps more importantly, it testifies that the articulation of the exhibition format in conjunction with the profile of the program is never neutral but, clearly positioned, can become an argument in broader struggles for public and common goods.
Čukić, I. (2017) Five years of the Street Gallery. Mikro Art: Belgrade
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