The Montenegro born Danilo Prnjat uses the autonomy of art to reflect critically on the Serbian and European society as well as to develop alternative models of community building, including economic alternatives with equal and righteous relations of production. As an art critic, he challenges the dominant neo-liberal ideology, the mass privatisations and commodification of art. He is involved in, among others, the founding of cooperatives, in the reclaiming of cultural centres that once belonged to the Serbian community but nowadays to the state and last but not least in several participatory projects, such as The School of Economics with its pop-up classes in streets and parks on alternatives for present-day neo-liberalism.
“I’m Danilo Prnjat. I am an artist from Belgrade and I’m also preoccupied with art criticism. I’m engaged in a portal, named ‘DeMaterijalizacija umetnosti’ (‘TheMaterialisation of art’), it’s about art criticism and I’m one of the editors of this portal. It’s a kind of collective project that is not financed. It’s a local initiative to stress the local cultural issues, somehow to confront the mainstream tendencies in art and culture.
“I discovered that art could create new models of organising communities, new models of thinking, not only to express myself but also to reflect on our society.”
My parents are working class people. Since I grew up in a small village in Montenegro, I really felt limited and I discovered that art could gave me some ‘space’, that art gave me the opportunity to express myself. When I started to educate myself, I discovered that art could create new models of organising communities, new models of thinking, not only to express myself but also to reflect on our society. The autonomous character of art creates an experimental and simulating space. You don’t find this easily in other fields. Of course, the art field has its own restrictions but you still can handle them in a smart way. In the art field you develop new approaches, you can mobilise people in new ways and it can affect a collective imagination. It’s important to fight for a larger freedom and autonomy in this field.
“[Through the Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung] Die Linke spreads a kind of political thinking that is similar to the German one, according to the interest of the German people. But they often ignore the local and historical context of a country or region.”
Serbian art schools and institutions are very academic, conservative and traditional. State schools dominate our school system and the state has a specific role. After the 1990s we saw a boom of NGOs and more independent initiatives that criticised the state and the Milosevic regime. Some of those foundations, like the Rosa Luxemburg- or Heinrich Böll-Stiftung, are still one of the most important financial resources for our civil society. It is a kind of colonialism actually. Every political party in Germany has its own cultural foundation and they try to spread their ideas over Europe. Die Linke has the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Their idea is to spread a kind of political thinking that is similar to the German one, according to the interest of the German people. But they often ignore the local and historical context of a country or region.
“[In Serbia] there was a transition from social property – owned by the community – towards state property.”
Our government started to support very commercial activities and events, some with a very nationalist character. This is part of the last phase of transition here in Serbia. They try to build a new national state, with an art market. Their choice is to install a cultural industry. There is no real autonomy here as an artist. I’m part of the system, but I struggle and question this struggle. Currently, we are ‘attacking’ the houses of culture, the still existing cultural infrastructure in almost each village. Those cultural centres were for many villagers a kind of grassroots spaces where they had their own space to screen films, to develop projects. These centres were social property and then, the governments came in and took it over. So there was a transition from social property – owned by the community – towards state property. The government is spreading their own ideas and paradigms of culture now in many of those centres. In July we want to conduct research on one of those cultural centres with the idea to socialise this space again, to bring it again to the people and to the youth. The idea is to create a kind of alternative or new institution. But, of course, this is not easy. It means more than just opening the door. These are the questions we must reflect on and discuss about: how do you make democratic negotiated decisions? How will we react if fascist groups want to come in? And many more.
As an artist, I’ve been also involved in many participatory projects. One was The School of Economics, a school where people could learn about alternative economies, not only based on profit like in a neo-liberal economy. We tried to come up with new ways of thinking, ideas that are unknown today. They don’t teach this in regular schools and institutions. We shared the idea of alternative ways and models of production. We had classrooms that popped up in the streets or in the parks. I created a public hall where people could come to think and work together. Many people were interfering, even businessmen came to discuss bitcoins, all this was quite unexpected.
“I think the [neo-liberal] system will crash, as the class divisions are still growing. It will eventually explode.”
I made the choice to do something, to act. I started with performances that departed from concepts, like in the 70s: small and shy interventions in public spaces. And after this, I tried to collectivise that and I started to collaborate with the people. I have finishing a PhD now in Switzerland about art and critical thought. I’m very much inspired by Sylvain Lazarus, a French Marxist thinker and theorist who wrote the book Anthropology of the Name. We lack spaces to discuss those thinkers and authors. We are suffering a right-wing orientated society. If it’s not market oriented, you are being marginalised. They want to build a new nation based on private, commercialised activities. I have the impression that we are returning to the Pre-Second World War period with the bourgeois society, the same fascist ways of organising, the financial crisis… Again, it’s literally the bankers that are ruling our countries.
I think the system will crash, as the class divisions are still growing. It will eventually explode. Thus, we need to create and work on alternatives, because we can learn from the past. The negative accumulation of capital occurs, but it gives the opportunity to develop a new model, another society. This system cannot last forever in this way. In Serbia, we have a pure neo-liberal system. The people are declared as ‘enemies’, openly. They blame the people for being lazy because they don’t want to work for 200 euros a month. They are imposing new labour and educational laws that are very bad for the people. With their new laws they are legitimising child labour. The youngsters will be able to work 35 hours a week, just like an adult working week, but they will only receive half of the minimum wage. They will work for 80 euros a month. And the schools will make a contract with the private companies. The interest of the private company is not to teach youngsters, but to recruit cheap, unqualified workers. Youngsters will socialise in an area where they are forced to accept cheap and unprotected labour without any syndicate. This government wants also to privatise the pension funds, this will be their new gold. People need to have 40 years of registered work, while many people will suffer precarious, often non-registered work. And they will install more and more interim agencies.
“Art should be engaged in social and political issues. It needs to develop ideas on how to change the system.”
Art should be engaged in social and political issues. It needs to develop ideas on how to change the system. At the moment, I’m very active around the housing problems of many people. More and more families are evicted from their homes. It’s the worst system we ever had. Our current city hospital is a bunch of big houses, seized after the Second World War. These houses belonged to rich people who exploited the common people during centuries. Nowadays, the children of those former elites want to take back the hospital and they want to receive money as reparations. In order to succeed in this, they’ve sent the police to this hospital. This is crazy, we have a state that is totally against the people, they only want to serve the interest of the rich, Western European and American companies.
“In [Serbia] most of the farmers are suffering, because most of the imported food products are subsidised by the strong European countries, while our farmers are working without grants.”
The EU supports this kind of economy and dictatorship here in Serbia. Our president is transforming the whole society in the way the EU likes it: a total privatisation of our country, they are selling everything. In our country, most of the farmers are suffering, because most of the imported food products are subsidised by the strong European countries, while our farmers are working without grants. They don’t receive an honest price for their products. So German farmers are receiving grants for their milk so they can come to our market with ‘cheaper’ milk than the Serbian farmers can offer. This is the so-called ‘free’ market. A lot of farmers cannot bring their products to the market, so they are suffering poverty and hunger is increasing. We try to connect those farmers, in order to develop alternative distributing systems, not through the market. We try to contact ‘open kitchens’ in the hope that they want to pick up the products, making and creating new networks. But again, we’re confronted with restrictive laws. If you want to employ people in a public kitchen, there is a law that makes it pretty impossible.
Personally, I’m also involved with the people of the October Centre, which is a left orientated group of people. This Centre doesn’t receive money from the government, only from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Recently, a fascist group attacked the centre. They’ve beaten the people who were there. I’m also active in the movement Who Steals the Labour. We want to map in which way people produce labour in factories, bakeries, the huge super markets and we will try conduct a research on what is happening with all the food that is not being sold. Then we hope to bring more and better products to the public kitchens, so they can receive more and more people. I hope that based on this research and mapping, we can create some new cooperatives with new ways of more equal production. We hope to change the law about cooperatives in order to bring back the basics of ‘social property’.”
Interview by Victoria Deluxe
Photos by Maria Littl