NUNE AND MAGNET

Encouraging the necessity of rebellion 

I

It has been fifteen years since the street-artistic-media performances of Nune Popović and the Magnet Group. This should represent a ”historical distance” long enough to form definite conclusions about this artistic phenomenon and the activism of the nineties. However, after an initial, short-lived transformation of our society and state in the period between 2000 and 2003, from 2004 onwards a u-turn to the old political status was made: revision of political ideas of the Bulldozer Revolution and putting a halt to newly introduced changes with assistance of parties that constituted the government in 2004 and in coalition with parties that had by October 5, 2000 become the government. This historical distance has therefore ”melted away” to the extent that a kind of ”behind-the-scenes” continuity (that is becoming ever more visible!) has been established with the final decade of the previous century.  

That is the reason why it is nowadays more appropriate to view the activities of Nune Popović and the Magnet Group as a still relevant mode of behavior and a state of rebellion from the previous period, than to subject the Magnet Group’s activities to the process of mere historicization from the comfortable position of the academia.  That may also be the reason why this textual and visual retrospective exhibition represents such a special challenge and a tempting opportunity not to discuss (just) the past, but also the present (and maybe even the future?). Ultimately, that may constitute the fundamental message of the Magnet and Nune Popović, which was not properly interpreted at the time: no real changes are ever going to take place as long as the social matrix and especially the cultural matrix are changed fundamentally and not just formally. 

In the decade when Germany united following the fall of the Berlin Wall and Yugoslavia broke up following the wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, in the decade when the first Constitution of Serbia was adopted and the first multiparty elections in fifty years were held (although soon afterwards tanks were sent to the streets of Belgrade to uphold the election results), in the year in which Slobodan Milošević got re-elected to the post of the president of the Socialist Party of Serbia at the Party’s Third Congress, when the break-up of Serbia started in the form of a ”silent” conflict in Kosovo (that would soon escalate into a fully-fledged war), all the political and social preconditions were created for a part of the Serbian art scene to radicalize their work and to make a transition from academic and artistic production to a form of activism fitting to the brutal social reality.  The circumstances for emergence of committed art were ”perfect”, yet there were few committed artists in Serbia and the impact of their work did not go beyond artistic circles, or at least that was the case before the Magnet Group was founded. 

In the beginning of 1996, Nune Popović together with a handful of collaborators founded the Magnet Group which was the most radical artistic group in terms of its artistic activities and the reactions with which those activities had been met.  The Magnet’s goal was to come up with and present to the public a creative and non-violent method of mass struggle against the totalitarian regime of Slobodan Milošević in order to make it possible to create a new form of society in Serbia. 

Sharp scissors wielded by the hands (actually it is too early to state in whose hands exactly) of a monster kept severing all fibers of progress, a demonic dance has begun and has not stopped until now: Serbia is in danger, Serbs are on the verge of being victims of a genocide, enemies are all around, history and tradition are sending a warning, weapons, weapons, weapons!, by means of war defend yourself, by means of songs and science achieve a sense of national rapture and pride, bones from the graves must be vindicated – the agony of hatred and anger… When he wrote these lines for the introduction of the book Falus revolucija[1] (Phallus Revolution), Nune Popović showed how well he had been aware of the scale and the range of the disease that had infected Serbia in the final decade of the previous century. The disease that led Serbia into wars with Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, very nearly also with Macedonians and Montenegrins, and finally with Albanians, that is with all the nations with which it had coexisted for nearly eighty years.  The outcome was a bitter pill – the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 and an irrevocable loss of the southern province of  Kosovo and Metohija, which nowadays represents the biggest obstacle for Serbia’s political and economic accession to Europe. 

Nune’s response to such state of the society was an artistic rebellion in the form of performances and sudden, unannounced street activities conducted in the manner of guerilla warfare and having characteristics suitable for mass media coverage, which proved to be the most effective method of expressing one’s opinion in the public and of influencing public opinion and at the same time stimulated the need for social changes and for living a life worth living for a human being born in the modern world. 

Rebellions in art, realized in different manners, were a common occurrence in the 20th-century Serbian art.[2] Nune Popović and the members of the Magnet Group received practical education in the Avant-garde and radical artistic practices from Vujica Rešin Tucić (1941-2009) by attending his lectures as stipendiaries of the Literate Academy Tradicija avangarde (Tradition of the Avant-garde), which operated from 1993 to 1995 in Belgrade, Palić and in Ečka. One of the departments of the academy was Kontradiktorij (’Contradictorium’), which was headed by Ostoja Kisić, a writer and literary critic. It was exactly from the Academy Tradicija avangarde (Tradition of the Avant-garde) that the Magnet Group had emerged. 

From 1993 until the Magnet Group was founded, several of its members had been working under the group name Tradicija avangarde (Tradition of the Avant-garde), performing in a number of artistic projects at various institutions, publishing internal magazines Uac, Safet, Halucinacije, and later publishing a magazine specialized in contemporary art entitled Magnet (from 1994 to 1995), whose editor-in-chief was Nune Popović. The Magnet Group’s core consisted of: Siniša Tucić, Nikola Popović, Marija Lončar, Vladimir Acan, Dejan Jakovljević and Mina Vuletić, as well as other contributors from various walks of life and from various age groups. 

From 1996, when it was founded, until 1998, when the Magnet Group stopped its activities[3], it organized eight public, media-friendly, street, anti-regime performances that could be divided into two groups. The first five: PhalluSerbia, The Last Last Supper, Revelation, Exorcism and Gold Bar were performed between April 29, 1996 and June 24, 1996. The remaining three performances: Requiem for Serbia, 88 Eggs for the New Oppositionary Government and You Have Been Slaughtered. Our Sympathy, were organized between June 16, 1997 and July 2, 1997. 

In addition to having a number of features in common, such as always-present public announcements, the presence of Serbian independent media [4] and correspondents of global media,[5] the performances of the Magnet also displayed a number of idiosyncratic particularities that did not pertain only to the group’s ”thematization” of its works and activities, but also to the manner of conveying the message, that is to the manner of encouraging the sense of rebellion and creating a need for an active, creative and non-violent resistance to the blood-drenched regime. They renounced an institutional form of work and were the first ones to use mass media as a means of presenting their work, so, consequently, a much greater number of people was able to see and find out about their work than would have been the case if, as it was customary, they had worked in galleries and (pro-regime) cultural institutions, addressing a very limited audience. They caused strong reactions from both the regime, in which case the reactions usually took the form of arrests and show trials, and from members of the public, who, as chance passers-by, witnessed the Magnet’s performances, but also from those who later found out about them from the media and who represented the main target group for the Magnet’s activities and who were very vocal in acknowledging their support for the group. 

Each of the Magnet’s activities was always focused on one or several power centers of the totalitarian regime:  Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, the police, Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, Association of Writers of Serbia, Serbian Orthodox Church, National Bank of Serbia and those segments of the political opposition that displayed a tendency to get corrupted once having brought to power. The group’s activities were performed in the manner of guerilla warfare, having been a surprise for both the regime and the public; they were creative, direct and entirely non-violent with a clear visual and linguistic message, which was also suitable for coverage by mass media. The dates and locations of upcoming activities were circulated in a conspirative manner to the media, which in turn attached great importance to the group’s activities and gave them prominent media space by reporting on the activities of the Magnet Group as well as on the police arrests and trials against the artists, which ensued after the group’s activities. In this manner, the activities of the Magnet Group were known to both the Serbian public and world public, while the artists were protected from the possibility of being arrested, sentenced or assassinated in secrecy. 

Yugoslav modern art is characterized by a strong tradition of politically and socially committed creative expression; one of the first examples of such creative expression on record was Mirko Kujačić’s artistic (and political) performance in 1932 when he nailed a framed work shoe next to his paintings exhibited on the walls of the Artistic pavilion “Cvijeta Zuzorić” at the Kalemegdan Fortress. The true meaning of such an act was to be interpreted as a conscious insult aimed at the decadent and snobbish taste of the middle class, but it obviously also contained a clear message of explicit social criticism. During the final decades of late modernism in Serbian art, the public occasionally encountered politically provocative visual arts such as critically-oriented Nove figuracije (’New Figurations’), Slikartsvo surovosti (Brutality Painting), Crni talas (Dark Wave) or Mića Popović’s Slikarstvo prizora (Scene Painting). These cases emerged in our culture in very specific, ideologically critical and politically unstable times. It was particularly during the nineties that, for a multitude of familiar reasons, a series of openly committed expressions emerged in Serbian plastic arts.         

It is at the very end of this series of artistic phenomena that actively dealt with social, ideological and political criticism that one is to find the radical artistic group Magnet, which most directly and most explicitly identified some of the factors of the closed society which dominated the region and which had the most fatal influence on determining the fate of our culture and art, in addition, naturally, to all other spheres of social and economic life which took place under coercion. 

The Magnet gained fame thanks to performing a series of public artistic acts that could be generally classified as street-art. It was as early as during their first performance in 1996 that the direction of their activities became evident. That first act in a series of public acts of protest in the form of street-art already highlighted a high level of the Magnet Group’s provocative engagement which simultaneously also pointed to highly complex artistic contents comprised of a tightly-knit matrix of ideological, ethical and aesthetic components, which remain unmatched in our creative production in terms of their methods and intensity. With its works, the Magnet had shown that it was in the domain of strategies applied by traditional Avant-garde movements of the 20th century ranging from Dadaism, surrealism and ”the Russian art experiment“ of the early revolutionary years to happenings and performances of the late modernism, which all had one and the same goal: to change, to improve and to rise to a higher level the general ethical and aesthetic consciousness of the society.         

The Magnet’s first street-happening, performed on April 29, 1996 under the title FaluSerbia (PhalluSerbia), was an opportunity for the media to create a headline report on how the stunned chance passers-by in the main Belgrade street had been given a chance to “feel and stroke the creative force of Serbia”. And this force was symbolized by a red phallus on which a photograph of President Slobodan Milošević was hung. The members of the group also distributed free copies of the second issue of Magnet magazine while moving down Knez Mihailova Street in a carnival-like procession accompanied by a drummer and dancers performing a ritual dance around the phallus which was being pushed down the street in a wheelbarrow by Popović who, over the megaphone, also asked the passers-by to touch it ”so that they could become powerful creators” (which some of them actually did do). This action whose final destination was to be the building of the Presidency of Serbia and whose ultimate goal was to be the presentation of the sculpture to president Milošević himself as a “symbol of ultimate power”, was cut short by a police counteraction in which the Magnet Group’s members were arrested for the first time on charges of ”rude and brazen public disturbance and disorderly conduct“. The incriminating object – “a red-painted phallus measuring 80 cm in height” – was confiscated as police evidence. A sentence was never passed in this case because the indictment had been time-barred. The project of this street-theatrical performance, according to the official Magnet’s communiqué, represented the first act of rebellion of young artists against the existing cultural and artistic state of the society, which lacked any sort of positive ideation in the period of the embargo that had been imposed by the international community shortly after the end of the war which had led to a break-up of Yugoslavia and to a mass exodus.  It was at that time that Slobodan Milošević, as one of the signatories of the Dayton Agreement, was hailed by the international community as a “factor of peace and stability in the Balkans” and his dictatorship seemed unshakeable from within Serbia. 

Exactly two weeks later the action Poslednja Tajna večera (The Last Last Supper) was performed in front of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences on May 13, 1996 and it showed unambiguously the Magnet’s progressive ideas, that is the ideas that can generally be considered to be characteristic of youth and European (artistic and social) movements. “Through state-controlled art institutions and art associations, biologically and creatively expended mediocrities are preventing new artists from exerting a stronger influence on the society, state and planet. The lifeboat has arrived. We are at its helm.” – read the Magnet’s short explanation of the performance. The location of the activity was meant to show where it was that the officially acceptable culture and art were really inaugurated and where, together with these two, all values relevant for other realms of the nation’s social life were inaugurated (since the ideology that had originated in offices and studios of the Academy spilt over onto the streets in the form of the anti-bureaucratic revolution bringing about as its final product a monstrous red‑black, socialist‑nationalist coalition). While the police were busy trying to prevent the performance of Poslednja Tajna večera (The Last Last Supper), Nune Popović, with help of journalists and passers-by who had gathered to watch the performance, seized the opportunity to send a message through Radio B92, which broadcast the performance live on air, saying that the state was using repressive means in order to meddle with works of art, which was absolutely intolerable according to all existing conventions on human rights, since the police were not qualified to pass critical judgments on works of art. As had been the case in the previous action, the passers-by booed the police, but this time they managed to stop the police from arresting the artists and stopping the action.         

That same month, on May 27, the Magnet Group performed a street protest action which they called Otkrovenje (Revelation) just a few meters from the building of the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, at the spot which is just a couple of meters away from the spot which is today occupied by the monument Zašto? (Why?), which was erected in memory of the employees of the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation who had been killed in the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. The performance started at exactly 19:30, which was the start time of the main news program which the government used to send its poisoned messages to the viewers who had already been driven crazy by the tragedy of their everyday life.  The performance consisted of an act of demolishing a brand new TV set and a process of ”examining its possible aesthetic forms as a sculpture”, whereby this group of committed artists strongly expressed their revolt against the devastating propaganda of the regime’s central TV station at the time of total war in Yugoslavia and the country’s disintegration. It was the very title of the performance that stressed the necessity of ending the broadcasting-deceiving service of the mass media which had played one of the key roles in that war and one of the most shameful ones. This Magnet Group’s public protest against a pronounced info-mania of the time once more had managed to pinpoint the main distributor of propaganda lies and the central agent of inciting hatred of various kinds: from ethnic and political hatred to aesthetic and artistic hatred. 

Having successfully performed the action, they orderly collected all the bits and pieces of the demolished TV set, all of which were two years later used by Nune Popović to create yet another object-work of art which he entitled Srpska noćna mora (Serbian Nightmare) and which stood on display in the Media Centre for a number of years as a symbol of resistance to the Law on Public Information, which the regime used to silence independent media by means of draconic legal penalties and trials against journalists; the sculpture was later moved to the headquarters of the LDP party. The implications of this ultimate, i.e. final work, whose formal and semantic properties were constant, can be best identified and interpreted within the Magnet Group’s activism as a whole. Even nowadays, but particularly so during the nineties, watching television in these regions (which are characterized by dictatorships of ideological nature) has indeed become a nightmare for anyone who has, by using various tricks, managed to retain one’s mental composure. Therefore, if a nightmare begins (also) as a consequence of uncritical and unrestrained watching of (news and politics) TV programs, liberation or  recovery should be achieved exactly by an act of real or symbolic destruction of that dangerous box – just as one could have seen in the Magnet’s performance. Nune Popović, however, emphasizes that ”the Serbian nightmare is actually a demolished TV set!” What did this sudden U-turn mean? Well, simply put, it meant that the spiritual state of the population reached such a devastating level that the acute stage had turned into a chronic one, that the consequence had swapped places with the cause, that the end had become a means, that the unhealthy had finally destroyed even the last remnants of the healthy, in short, that a total inversion of meaning and a complete perversion of logic had taken place. 

Public attacks on the regime’s institutions:  president of the Republic, members of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and the editorial policy of the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, primarily of its news division, continued on June 10, with a performance entitled Isterivanje đavola (Exorcism) which took place in front of the National Library of Serbia. The choice of the location for the performance was symbolic – in front of the depository of literature spanning all cultures and languages including Serbian; however, the focus of Magnet’s attack was on writers who devotedly and explicitly lent their support for the suicidal policy of Slobodan Milošević. The Magnet’s idea was an inverse one, since they exorcized demons of Serbian literature that had possessed them: Ivo Andrić (who possessed Nune Popović), Desanka Maksimović (who possessed Jelena Marjanov) and Miloš Crnjanski (who possessed Ivan Pravdić). Hence, the choice of demons to be exorcized included three writers who undisputedly counted among the greats of Serbian literature in all respects possible – both literary and moral ones. A question immediately presented itself: how was one supposed to get rid of the real demons that had for years possessed Serbian literature and its innocent and naive readers? Whipping the walls of the National Library and sprinkling them with “the Magnet’s holy water” nearly resulted in authors being arrested one more time, but the police arrived when the performance had already been completed, so the event ended with onlookers being slapped across their faces and artists receiving verbal threats on the spot. 

Finally, this series ended on June 24 in front of the National Bank of Yugoslavia with a highly unusual event that was entitled Zlatna poluga (Gold Bar). Amidst monetary problems: hyperinflation, failed Public Loan for the Recovery of Serbia, government takeover of funds deposited in foreign currency accounts, government stealing funds from pension funds, false banks… the Magnet Group’s artists decided to give the National Bank ”gold (artistic) bars” worth 15,000 US dollars as a form of non-refundable financial aid aimed at alleviating a very serious financial situation in the country and setting a patriotic example that should be followed by other if the dinar were to remain a stable currency for all eternity. They carried those bars, which were actually ordinary bricks painted in gold bronze and with the Magnet’s Group logotype printed on their tops, on wooden stretchers through the center of the city, from the office of the National Bank in Bulevar revolucije Street (nowadays Kralja Aleksandra Street) all the way to the current head office and treasury of the National Bank of Yugoslavia in the then 7. jula Street (nowadays Kralja Petra Street). A completely unexpected turn of events ensued.  Having been received at a very high level by the head of the National Bank’s treasury, the artists then had their artistic gold bars officially recorded as donations and received written proofs of donation in presence of a number of journalists and TV crews who had recorded everything. This “donation” was not accompanied by any form of violent reaction by the regime, because the regime had come to a conclusion that any kind of intervention in this particular case would have been extremely counterproductive for it and that, in this particular instance, endangering artistic work could only have been interpreted as an unprovoked display of the government’s raw force.  However, the Magnet Group’s performance led the media and the public to mock and ridicule the regime, while reports on an event incomprehensible to a normal man’s mind spread around the globe. Leading global TV stations, such as CNN and Euronews, broadcast reports on the activities of the Magnet Group prepared by AP TV. 

Sparked by rigging of the results of local elections, four months after the  first series of Magnet Group’s activities, in November 1996, mass student and civil protests were launched, which eventually ended with the first defeat of Milosevic’s regime.  In the method and form of 1996/1997 student and civil protests,  one could clearly notice a considerable influence of the Magnet Group, since there were many similarities between the protests, on the one hand, and the activities and methods of the Magnet Group, on the other:  the protests started in Niš and ended in Belgrade with a remake of the Magnet’s act of demolishing a TV set (Revelation), they were conducted in a carnival-like fashion, they featured drummers and very often the protests used either the very same symbols that the Magnet had used or ones that were very similar to the Magnet’s. 

It is less known that Nune Popović played a role in starting the aforementioned student protests in Belgrade. The students who wanted to start protests at the Faculty of Philosophy asked Nune Popović for help. Following his advice, the students did not make a written announcement and lock themselves up in the faculty building as they had originally intended to do, but instead, on Friday, November 22, 1996, they first went out to Plato (the square in front of the Faculty building) and then started off the first in a series of protest walks that would last for more than three months.  First they walked around Studentski trg Square where they invited their colleagues from the Faculty of Philology and the Faculty of Natural Sciences to join them; since a great number of them did join them, the procession continued its protest walk until it reached the Law School from where they went back to Trg republike Square with even more participants and there announced that the protest would continue at noon on Monday, November 25, with a starting point at the square in front of the Faculty of Philosophy. Following their first successful protest walk, the students invited Popović to join them at the meeting of the protest’s preparatory committee. He then presented to them the concept and strategy of the Magnet Group’s actions and suggested that the protests should be creative, non-violent and conducted in a carnival-like fashion, so that they could get massive, so that they could be interesting for the participants and so that they could last for a long period of time – until their demands were met.  He also suggested that referees’ whistles could be used in the protests, because they represented a cheap and widely available protest tool, which the Magnet had initially intended to use in its performance Isterivanje đavola (Exorcism) by protest participants encircling the Headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox Church and using referees’ whistles to chase demons away from the Serbian Orthodox Church, which had been abandoned as an idea because of organizational reasons and the action was later conducted in the previously described manner. He also suggested that their demands should be impartial so that they would not get disqualified as the opposition’s young guns and that it was the reason why they should internationalize their protests and demand that the actual results of local election be determined and announced by a neutral international committee. That was exactly what later happened.  Nune Popović reported from student protests as a correspondent of Dnevni telegraf

After a successful conclusion of the protests which made it possible for the opposition to take power in the vast majority of urban centers in Serbia, in April 1997, Popović, together with his collaborators, prepared a project entitled “Beograd svetska umetnička metropola” (Belgrade – The Artistic Metropolis of the World) featuring a grandiose monument entitled “Beograd je svet” (Belgrade is the World). It was supposed to be a new form of the Magnet Group’s engagement. The aim of the project was not to allow for the protest’s energy to dissipate, but to conserve it and transform it, so that in the next step the whole of Serbia could be freed from Slobodan Milošević’s regime. Popović advocated for Belgrade to become an international anti-totalitarian and anti-war center, but also an artistic center that would attract people and organizations throughout the world and get them involved in activities that would help bring down the regime of Slobodan Milošević. In the streets of the liberated cities of Serbia, street activities were supposed to continue in a similar fashion for the purpose of letting go of fear of the regime and encouraging the necessity of a new rebellion: city squares were to feature Speakers’ Corners where the necessity of changes would be discussed and where the regime would be criticized, in the streets there were to be jugglers, fire eaters, street performers, musicians, actors and other artists, all of them entrusted with a mission of creating a positive and optimistic atmosphere and drawing attention of the local and global public. In order to bring down the dictator, international conferences were to be held and concerts of foreign bands were to be organized. Belgrade and other cities were thus to become open cities in the closed and internationally isolated Serbia, the antipodes of Slobodan Milošević’s system of trash art and crime. The image which was to be projected about Serbia was a complete opposite of the devastatingly negative image which the criminal regime of Slobodan Milošević had previously created. At the micro-level a new society was to be erected on the foundations of new values, and after the fall of Milošević the same thing was to done at the level of entire society. 

The central point of that complex project was Popovićev’s idea of the Active monument “Beograd je svet” (Belgrade is the World), which was envisaged in the following manner:

To build a grandiose active monument “Beograd je svet” (Belgrade is the World) in the very heart of downtown Belgrade which will each second pump up (in the manner of a fountain) an amount of red liquid (the exact amount of which is to be determined statistically) corresponding to the amount of human blood being violently spilt each second in the world, i.e. corresponding to the number of people being killed.  (e.g. 1 man = 4.5 liters of blood).

A monitor, i.e. a gauge showing the statistical data, which should  be “calibrated” once a week, is to be built into one part of the monument above which there is to be the following text written in Serbian and English: THIS SECOND (…) PEOPLE GOT KILLED IN THE WORLD, (…) LITERS OF BLOOD HAS BEEN SPILT

The monument should be circular in shape, encircled with TV screens constantly showing news programs of the leading global news networks in succession, whereas the red liquid, which gets accumulated in the monument, should cascade down the screens.

The idea was conceived by Nune Popović with assistance of Ivan Pravdić. An international tender should be announced for the technical realization of the monument. The architect, on the behalf of the author, is to be in charge of construction.

The sponsor of the project is to be determined at an auction in such a manner as to find an individual or an institution willing to invest the largest amount of money in the project.  The start-up investment totals 250,000 USD. 

When reading this description, those who are familiar with the Avant-garde and revolutionary art movements have most probably recognized ideas which are very similar to those of Tatlin and his Monument to the Third International which was to be constructed in Moscow after the Bolshevik Revolution but which – just like Popović’s monument – was never actually constructed.[6] 

Popović submitted the project proposal to the office of the Belgrade mayor, who at the time was Zoran Đinđić. Having inquired about the status of his proposal, Popović received a reply stating that the mayor had accepted the proposal and suggested that a special department be formed at the Cultural Centre of Belgrade whose task would be to realize his project; the mayor was willing to employ a maximum of eight people, which was two fewer than ten people that Popović had requested, but was nonetheless much more than Popović had expected. However, instead of realizing the project, the agreement was broken and the project was cancelled. The city’s cultural bureaucracy (which had already started to show monstrous symptoms of the government that they had replaced) formally forwarded the proposal to the committee of the Belgrade Summer Festival, a festival whose nature and production possibilities neither had anything in common with Popović’s project nor any logical connections with it, which meant that the project was actually rejected for good.[7]         

After a year-long break in the Magnet Group’s actions, when it had become obvious that the oppositionary coalition Zajedno (Together) was breaking apart and, in the process, was also on the brink of destroying any remaining hope which many people still had in social changes eventually taking place, when there was a sense of impending escalation of Milošević’s dictatorship and a break-out of a new war, this time in Kosovo, Nune Popović resumed his activities on June 16, 1997 with a project entitled Rekvijem za Srbiju (Requiem for Serbia). The performance took place at the most neuralgic spot at the time – in front of President Slobodan Milošević’s office. The performance was covered by an exceptionally great number of local and foreign journalists and, consequently, every single moment of the performance was recorded; just hours later CNN broadcast a No Comment clip showing the highlights of it. 

Nune Popović intended to present Milošević with a big, recently slaughtered pig on which the word Srbija (Serbia) was written and which held in its mouth a letter which read:

President Milošević,

You have slaughtered Serbia and everything in it: life, art, science, culture, industry, economy, education… justice and honesty. Nothing remains.  I am giving you this slaughtered pig as a gift, deeply convinced that this way I clearly present my aforementioned opinion about real consequences of your rule over Serbia.  This is my requiem for Serbia

This peculiar artistic cry of desperation meant that the Serbian society was at the lowest point of its years-long agony. Needless to say, this extremely harsh and explicit provocation was bound to cause a police reaction: once more, the police arrested the artist, Nune Popović, and brought a prosecution against him, announcing that he could face even graver consequences. The importance and meaning of that aesthetic action were confirmed by Yugoslav non-government organizations, which this time, contrary to their behavior on the occasions of his previous arrests, reacted by organizing protests. Ordinary people also liked the actions, to the extent that it received the greatest number of viewer votes in the TV program “Utisak nedelje” (Impression of the Week), which was at the time broadcast on the Studio B TV station.         

Immediately after that, on June 23, the action 88 jaja za novu opozicionu vlast (88 Eggs for the New Oppositionary Government) was organized, during which the members of the Magnet Group threw 88 rotten eggs, each of them bearing a number between 1 and 88, at the building of the City Assembly (which was at the time under control of the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together)). As had been the case on all previous occasions, the action was accompanied by a short communiqué: “False saviors and boring ventriloquists are trying to revive a slaughtered and worm-infested carcass of the state – instead of creating a new society.  Is this yet another cause of the looming civil war in Serbia? The Magnet Group is returning the butcher’s accomplices their 88 rotten eggs for each of the 88 wasted days of the Yellow Revolution (this refers to the student and civil protests from 1996 and 1997 – comment by J.D.). On top of not knowing anything, they do not know who it is that does know something.”  

This event marks an important turning point, from enthusiasm to the first signs of skepticism, from benevolence to the first traces of doubt – and it also provides indications as to some future far-reaching consequences. This second series of activities, conducted in a form of a triptych of sorts, showed the full meaning of the Magnet Group’s political engagement which had no match in the then Serbian art. It was obvious that the Magnet did not essentially grant anybody any concessions which constitutes a very important feature of their actions from the point of view of basic freedoms and rights – ranging from political and individual ones to artistic ones, regardless of whether an action was focused on the regime and its ugly institutions or it was focused on the ”new oppositionary government” that changed very few things in the manner of government’s operation and more and more resembled the government that it had replaced.  

The fate of the Magnet Group’s projects, as well as that of the group’s leader, Nune Popović, on the one hand made it crystal clear that the regime’s repression had remained virtually intact regardless of a cosmetic intervention on its facade and, on the other hand, that the oppressive character of the new government, which is a paradox that the group wanted to show, had also been preserved exactly in the cultural policy and the social matrix. Establishing this fact also reveals a real problem that modern artists are facing. Instrumentation of creativity by the new government presents itself as being equally important and equally devastating as the instrumentation which we unfortunately had an opportunity to witness in the previous period, which was, judging by all relevant parameters, much worse than the current one.  The phenomenon of the Magnet Group can be used to identify what is essentially the same relationship of the institutional cultural policy to culture itself, regardless of who the one determining the policy is and to what ends it is being created: the federal (Socialists) and the city (Opposition Coalition Zajedno) culture authorities both treated this form of artistic activities in virtually the same way; however it was exactly this form of artistic activities that had given the opposition a strategy for fighting the regime.  Consequently, it is from these observations that a fundamentally devastating conclusion can be made, which, unfortunately, holds true even today. 

It should be stressed that the then mayor of Belgrade, Zoran Đinđić, had nothing against the Magnet’s action taking place, but it was the police that, regardless of the aforementioned fact, brutally stopped the performance by arresting Nune Popović in an effort to provide an alibi for his earlier arrests and torture, because they were allegedly protecting both these and those (i.e. whoever was in power), but they  brushed aside the important fact that the situation had started to change and that the opposition government had no intention of preventing public criticism of its work, and in particular an artistic form of criticism. An indictment for ”interference with official acts” was brought against Nune Popović who thus faced a possible three-year prison sentence. Popović was faced with a very likely prospect of being sent to jail and, to top it off, the jail in question was a jail run by Milošević’s government. After a number of court hearings that the ”obstructed peace officers” did not attend, it became clear that Popović’s faith was in the hands of Milošević’s  praetorian guard – the police, both secret and regular. All his subsequent actions, both artistic ones and private ones, were conditioned by the fact that he had been involved in a rigged trial, that he was under surveillance and subject to threats for his personal safety, all of which ultimately resulted in him being forced to leave Serbia. 

Finally, the third and the last of the street-art actions was performed on July 2, 1997 in the form of ten minutes of silence which were observed in front of the building of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences; the performance was entitled Zaklani ste. Naše saučešće. (You Have Been Slaughtered. Our sympathy.) The goal of this project was to show the Magnet Group’s “deep grieving for ten million people who would soon have to face the fact that they, just as the state itself, have been slaughtered.” This prediction proved to be a right one, when 78 days of NATO bombardment ensued a year later. The Butcher and his accomplices are licking their bloodied hands, while their victims have become zombies that walk the earth carelessly. – read the communiqué which, as had become a custom, accompanied the action. The message is simple and explicit: the government bears the largest share of responsibility for the current state of the nation, but it also has some highly unusual accomplices: the opposition whose politics proved to be misguided and the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (in the capacity of the country’s top-most scientific and culture institution) which, according to the Magnet Group, was also responsible because its ideology (its unfinished Memorandum contained the seeds of all Yugoslav wars of the nineties and the majority of Serbia’s current problems)  found its way out of the Academy’s spacious offices and into the streets, causing the monstrosity of red-black national socialism to emerge and that monstrosity, in the manner of its historical predecessors, led to the same grave consequences on that same people that had wholeheartedly accepted such an ideology. 

In October 1997, the Cultural Center of Novi Sad published Nune Popović’s book entitled Anarchy (part of the Magnet series), the presentation of which, taking place at the Belgrade Book Fair, was stopped by the fair’s security personnel when Nune Popović started trampling on framed photographs of Slobodan Milošević during a musical performance. Next morning, the trampled portraits of the dictator appeared on the front pages of newspapers under the headline “Nune zgazio Miloševića” (Nune crushed Milošević). 

Nune Popović described the central premise of his work in the following way:

For the mediocrities in power, the quality in art is the so-called artistic aesthetics … It is a huge misconception to expect anyone living in the 21st century to be engaged in artistic aesthetics. Our central problem is the aesthetics of human consciousness. 

The creative baseline of the works of Nune Popović and the Magnet Group is characterized by explicitly pointing at the generators of the crisis: the highest ranks of political government, regime-controlled media, the stakeholders of cultural and artistic institutions (Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, Association of Writers of Serbia) and Serbian Orthodox Church. The Magnet Group always performed in front of one of those centers of power of Slobodan Milošević’s regime, using them as a form of pre-existing, ready-made scenography. By doing so, the Magnet Group criticized most harshly and drew public attention most explicitly to the ideational, ethic and aesthetic state of neglect and the devastating effects of the overall spiritual emptiness and civilizational decline of Serbia in the nineties.                                                                                                                                       

The Magnet Group’s example showed us how the wrath of state repression had been unleashed on our young artists and their works of art which possessed two important characteristics: a well-known form of a public (street) protest, which is nowadays usually termed ’performance’, which embodied experiences of visual, theatrical and literary arts, but which was for the first time given a ”format” tailor-made for mass media as a means of the Magnet Group becoming known to the general public, which was something that before then had never been achieved by any artistic institution or organization, nor by institutions and organizations of other types.  

On the other hand, the Magnet Group’s work had that particular feature, a very significant one exactly at that time, that it had taken a critical stance towards some dominant phenomena that shaped and determined the manner in which sensitive domains of our society, such as art, were functioning.  It is in that active, one could even say aggressive, fusion of the aforementioned elements – the aesthetic one and the ethical one – where one is to find a very significant feature of the artistic work of Nune Popović and the Magnet Group. Moreover, they were subject to repression exactly in a domain which was supposed not to allow any room for repression – in the domain of intellectual and artistic freedoms, whereby the regime of the nineties enriched its profile with the ’characteristics’ that it had previously lacked in order to be considered as truly totalitarian in its nature. 

II

After all the Yugoslav wars, after all the destruction, forceful and unforceful relocations, migrations of entire nations, restoration of communism and fascism in their new disguises, after first listening to the people and then beating the people, the only things lacking were police-enforced bans on artistic performances and arrests of artists. The younger the artists were the better, as was exemplified by Nune Popović who was 22 years old in 1996. That way, they were more likely to decide to leave Serbia (especially if they had been imprisoned and subject to threats involving grave bodily harm) and thus cease to disturb the dull force of the government. 

Nune Popović got arrested on several occasions while performing in the Magnet Group’s actions.  It turned out that without an artistic censorship, which constitutes a major oversight of fake democratic systems, the secret and regular police enthusiastically take on the responsibility of providing aesthetic assessment.  According to their criteria, Nune Popović was to be treated as a chance passes-by, a vandal who disturbed the peace by upsetting perfectly calm and content ordinary citizens with his acts. They perhaps entertained a thought that repeated arrests in the middle of artistic performances and repeated instances of abuse at the police station would discourage him in his efforts to use the aesthetics of street performances, in the manner of his well-known predecessors, in order to rise the overall social and cultural awareness of the society in which he worked and lived.  They most certainly hoped that a prospect of a jail sentence would stop his artistic work dead in its tracks and would discourage others to do what he had shown them.  They were certain that their own special form of repression in the domain of intellectual freedoms and artistic creativity would ultimately become a source of inspiration for current and future candidates for dictator roles.[8]         

Let us refresh our memory on how it was done in Nune’s case. After a pretrial investigation launched in the autumn of 1997 determined that Nune Popović did commit a criminal offence, the first public hearing in Nune Popović’s trial was set to take place in Belgrade on May 13, 1998 (exactly on the Day of National Security Agency, an agency that represented one of the numerous relicts of the past communist regime). He was charged with  interference with official acts for allegedly offending police officers and resisting their attempts to conduct an ID check on him during his performance 88 jaja za novu opozicionu vlast (88 Eggs for the New Oppositionary Government) on June 25, 1997. Incidentally, this act was performed in front of the building of the City Assembly of Belgrade, which the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together) had moved in when it came into power, where the coalition had agreed to allow for the performance to take place despite the fact that it criticized its own political actions.         

There were different interpretations as to why the then Attorney General[9] signed the accusation himself and why he allowed for legal proceedings against an artist to commence in the first place. Some people pointed to the fact that the government had tolerated, albeit angrily, his previous street performances, from the popular FaluSerbija (PhalluSerbia) to Rekvijem za Srbiju (Requiem for Serbia), although he did get arrested on those occasions and was found to have committed an infraction on three separate occasions, and that the regime then seized a good opportunity to commence legal proceedings against Nune Popović exactly for a performance that criticized the very city government that had come into power following the civil and student protests from 1996 and 1997.         

Be that as it may, this trial, which could have resulted in Nune Popović being sentenced to anything between 6 months and 3 years in prison, was meant to bring back fear into the hearts of ordinary people after they had initiated the process of their liberation from fear during the previous large revolt against Slobodan Milošević’s regime. Despite this, on May 11, 1998, at Belgrade Media Center, a protest entitled Protest uglednih javnih ličnosti, umetničkih udruženja, međunarodnih institucija za zaštitu ljudskih prava i drugih, povodom suđenja Nunetu Popoviću i proganjanja umetničkih sloboda u Srbiji (Protest of respected public figures, art associations, international institutions for protection of civil rights and other organizations, concerning the trial against Nune Popović and persecution of artistic liberties in Serbia) took place, during which more than forty participants delivered their speeches. A great number of intellectuals publicly voiced their support for Nune Popović, including Bogdan Bogdanović, Mirjana Miočinović, Filip David and Radomir Damnjanović Damnjan, but also Miroslav Mandić, Vojislav Despotov, Andrej Tišma and the members of Književni novosadski krug (Literary Circle of Novi Sad) whose members included Slavko Bogdanović, Vladimir Kopicl, Balint Sombati, Arpad Vicko, Dubravka Đurić, Oto Tolnai, Pal Bender, and many others.    That same day, Sandra Dulić and Ivan Pravdić staged a performance entitled Underground (Underground) at the Paviljon Veljković in Belgrade (CZKD), as a response to state violence and the trial against Nune Popović. 

Nune Popović’s defense lawyers in this case were Orhan Nevzati and Nikola Barović, who also addressed the public with the following communiqué:

The criminal offence that Mr. Nune is being charged with is covered by a special law of the Republic of Serbia – the Law on Public Order and Peace. This law, according to the explanation provided by the bona-fide legislator, was passed in order to provide protection for police officers. However, on many occasions, provisions of this law are used extensively against people who are politically unsuitable. All it takes is a testimony of a police officer: the defendant’s only option is to prove their innocence (and not for them to be found guilty) which is contrary to the basic principles of law! In Mr. Nune’s case, just as in all other similar cases, the charges are based on testimonies of two police officers who claim for the defendant to have offended them by swearing like a navvy and to have pushed them away as they were trying to conduct an ID check on him. We will prove that these testimonies are not based on facts. On the contrary, without having any legal grounds to do so, the police officers stopped a performance that had been approved by the mayor of Belgrade and then started humiliating Mr. Nune, who was later arrested without a valid court order and was ultimately subject to repeated humiliation and abuse at the police station.  We expect for the judge to pass a not-guilty verdict. We have legal grounds to sue the two police officers for abuse of power and in particular for giving false testimony in court proceedings.[10]         

During the first hearing, the trial took an unexpected turn as the presiding judge[11] said: I am so sorry to hear that the injured parties have not shown up so that they could explain to us how it was possible for two such fine officers of our police forces to have got so harshly and terribly threatened, which is what the indictment states, by a person such as  the defendant, which lead to the case being taken away from him in a very urgent fashion and reassigned to a newly-appointed judge.[12] New hearings, which, as a rule, were not attended by the injured parties (police officers), were scheduled at intervals of a couple of months, as required by the current situation: either to try to frighten Nune Popović and prevent him from launching new activates, or to strike fear of the regime into the hearts of ordinary people – to show them what the government had in store for them should they dare to revolt.         

III

In the beginning of 1999, when it had become obvious that a NATO military campaign was imminent unless Milošević was willing to change his policy, his regime launched a score-settling campaign against its opponents in Serbia – in case of Nune Popović it meant stepping up the pace of his trial and renewing threats for his personal safety.[13] 

Having found inspiration and new possibilities for developing methods of their own future activities in the activities of Nune Popović, on the eve of the hearing of February 15, 1999, the newly-founded student organization Otpor (Resistance) presented him with a gift in the form of a sweater with the slogan Živi čoveče (Keep Yourself Alive, Man) and the organization’s logotype – a clenched fist – printed on its front. That same day, at the entrance to the court building, Saša Stojanović, a painter and an artistic performer, staged a performance Čovek (Human Being) in honor of Nune Popović.[14] Mirjana Miočinović, a university lecturer, publicly showed her solidarity with Nune Popović by giving the following statement, which was later published by Dnevni telegraf: “The reason for me attending Nune’s trial is the solidarity that we all need, but which is increasingly lacking. What the Magnet is doing in that particular form of art is something most radical, because their works are characterized by both subversive humor and high theatrical quality.” 

In March 1999, in the process of storming the then Radio B92 and taking it off air, the police first confiscated and then destroyed a film about the activities of the Magnet Group, which Nune Popović had been just about to finish in collaboration with the director Radivoje Andrić. The release of the film was supposed to be accompanied by a publication of a monograph on the Magnet Group’s work as a kind of textbook for non-violent resistance to a totalitarian regime. 

Following the start of the NATO bombing campaign, in April 1999, Nune Popović was scheduled to attend a hearing at which the regime had been planning to sentence him to a long sentence in order “to set an example”, which was the reason why he was forced to flee Serbia, as representatives of foreign human rights organizations who followed his trial and reported on it had already done. Nune’s trial was given an international dimension with assistance of Barbara Davis, the head of UNHCHR mission in Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Jiří Dienstbier, a special envoy of Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Popović first spent a year in Montenegro where he worked as the head of the news portal Medija klub (Media Club), which featured news about events in Serbia in five languages, and later, in mid-2000, he moved to Slovenia where he participated in a series of activities against Milošević’s regime. At the same time, in the post-NATO-campaign Serbia, a significant number of elements of the Magnet’s methods and strategies of fight against the regime could be recognized in the actions of Otpor! (Resistance!), which had by then grown into a mass movement aiming to bring down the dictator, and, following the downfall of Milošević’s presidency in 2000, could also be recognized in various non-violent rebellions around the world. 

Even after the democratic changes in Serbia in 2000, the farcical trial against Nune Popović continued, but with potentially very serious consequences for the defendant. The trial was stopped only when the indictment against him was time-barred, towards the end of 2003. It was to no avail that Popović had previously appeared in court and faced the two police officers who had been visibly nervous as they clumsily made up stories about Popović having offended them and physically threatened them. Hence, not even the democratic government which was formed after the Bulldozer Revolution of October 5, 2000 found it appropriate to dismiss the indictment against Nune Popović and rehabilitate him, while the actions of the Magnet Group have been since then passed over in silence, have remained unresearched, marginalized and still lack an adequate verification. 

The fate of other artists who were tried after Popović was very similar. It was only Bogoljub Arsenijević Maki who was pardoned, which happened as late as 2010 and only in order to avoid a political scandal that may have emerged if he had been sent to prison for standing up to Milošević’s regime which had convicted him. 

Nune Popović lived and worked in Ljubljana until 2010 when he moved to Novi Sad. While living in Slovenia, from 2001 to 2006 he was in charge of creating the visual identity of the country’s Human Right Ombudsman and managed its production, while in 2003, together with Tamara Ćetković, he founded an independent studio Nune produkcija (Nune Production) for design, web production and creative guerilla – www.nune.biz

It is only now, fifteen years after the Magnet Group was founded and after it conducted its activities, that, at the initiative of Jovan Jakšić, the first exhibition of the Magnet’s works has been organized at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina and a monograph about the Magnet has been published. 

From the very beginnings of their artistic activates, Nune Popović and other members of the Magnet Group have been fully aware of the fact that history lessons cannot be reversed: representatives of the dull force of government go by, while works of those who are free and those who are free of fear stand forever as beacons for generations to come. And that may as well be their most important message to those who have remained calm and collected up to now. 



Notes 

[1] From the unpublished monograph on the Magnet Group.

[2] More on this can be found in Umetnost i angažovanost devedesetih – Antiratna estetika, XX memorijal Nadežde Petrović, Galerija Nadežda Petrović, exhibion and catalogue, Čačak, 1998.

[3] More detail are availible in (selected titles): Estetika svesti zabludelog naroda, Naša borba, August 2-3, 1997; Umetnička angažovanost devedesetih, Republika, no. 181, 1-15. 2. 1998; Umetnost i angažovanost, Republika, no. 189, 16-31. 5. 1998; Strah od promena / Svetlo i mraku, Republika, no. 208-209, 1-31. 3.1999; Dossier Serbien, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 2000, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Wien, 2001; Umesto pogovora. Dosije Srbija – aktivizam devedesetih, in the title Kolektivizam posle modernizma, (afterword of the Serbian edition), Clio,Belgrade, 2010.

[4] Naša Borba, B92, Beta, Fonet, Dnevni telegraf, and later also Danas, Studio B i BK TV.

[5] AP, AFP, Reuters, BBC, WTN.

[6] For additional details see: Tatljinov Spomenik III internacionali, 3+4, Časopis studenata Istorije umetnosti, Odeljenje za Istoriju umetnosti Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, pgs 26-31, Belgrade, 1978.

[7] Later, the long-standing city secretary of the absolutistic culture government of Belgrade  was even trying to launch a media campaign against Popović, initiatied in a party magazine Demokratija (Democracy) (where she was the editor-in-chief at the time), claiming that he had asked for the city government to give him 250,000 USD. Such an accusation was completely unfounded (which was also evident from Popović’s project proposal that had been given to the mayor), because Popović had envisaged the funding for the project in such a way that the City Assembly was not supposed to pay a single penny for it, since the project was to be funded exclusively through donations and sponsorship. Such monstrous lies about Popović had not been fabricated even during Milošević’s regime.

[8] Presentation: Policijsko vrednovanje umetnosti, Protest uglednih javnih ličnosti, umetničkih udruženja, međunarodnih institucija za zaštitu ljudskih prava i drugih, povodom suđenja Nunetu Popoviću i proganjanja umetničkih sloboda u Srbiji, Media Centre,Belgrade, May 11, 1998.

[9] Milan Bajić (For additional information on this type of  the then regime’s civil servants see: Kelneri i sobarice Njihovog režima / Kultura vlasti, Delo-Razgledi, Ljubljana, 5. 2. 1997, (published under the title Beograd: barikade za bodočnost), Republika, Belgrade, 192/193, 1-31. 7. 1998, (published under the title Kultura vlasti), Naša borba, Belgrade, 12. 8. 1998, (published under the title Kelneri i sobarice Njihovog režima).

[10] Presentation: Suđenje po nepostojećem zakonu, Protest uglednih javnih ličnosti, umetničkih udruženja, međunarodnih institucija za zaštitu ljudskih prava i drugih, povodom suđenja Nunetu Popoviću i proganjanja umetničkih sloboda u Srbiji, Media Centre,Belgrade, May 11, 1998.

[11] Zoran Savić

[12] Rastko Popović, see note no. 9.

[13] More on this topic can be found in: Umetnička angažovanost devedesetih, Republika, Belgrade, no. 189, 16-31.V 1998, pg. 8; Strah od promena / Svetlo i mraku, Republika, no. 208-209, 1-31. 3.1999; Protiv tame – Sloboda za Makija, Republika, no. 232, 1-15. 3. 2000; Kulturna Yu-alternativa – Represija i izazovi, Identitet, no. 45, Zagreb, 10. 2000; Kulturna i umetnička prava u (novoj) Jugoslaviji, Republika,Belgrade, 2002.

[14] See: Strah od promena / Svetlo i mraku, Republika, no. 208-209, 1-31. 3.1999.

 

Jovan Despotovic

Nune Popović and the Magnet Group, LONG LIVE LIBERTY!, Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina, Novi Sad, 2011