|The Zagreb-based Croatian festival director Zvonimir Dobrović launched the Queer Zagreb festival in 2003 at the young age of 23 to take the concept of queer beyond the limited perspectives of the conventional LGBT (les, gay, bisexual and transgender) and create a wider platform for the arts. In 2009, he then started Perforacije as a festival focusing on the work of emerging artists in the Balkan region. This interview explores the activities and ideas of Dobrović as a figure who continues to speak out about the existing norms of society and the arts world from Croatia.
Interviewers: Kyoko Iwaki (journalist)
You have established three arts festivals, the Queer Zagreb festival (2003 – ), the Queer New York festival (2012 – ) and the Perforacije Festival (2009 – ). Particularly, the first two I have just mentioned are very progressive festivals that take the theme of “queer” and attempt to transcend the limited perspectives of the conventional LGBT (les, gay, bisexual and transgender) and expand the accepted meanings. To begin with, what made you decide to launch a festival on the theme of queer in a country with such a large population of strict Roman Catholics as Croatia? Could you begin by telling us what led to the launching of the festival?
It is true that 85% of the people in Croatia are Roman Catholics. So, there are many people who take a conservative attitude toward the problem of homosexuality for religious reasons. Also, out country has a history of ethnic issues and the population remains divided between those who have a fascist orientation and those who have the opposing “partisan” orientation. There are even some people who positively affirm Croatia once had an alliance with the Nazis.
It is easy to imagine that in a country like this it is easy for some incident to set in motion the wheels of reaction in the direction of conservative values. When catastrophe strikes and people are driven into a corner, the first thing they tend to do is throw reason out the window. That is why when one of the biggest catastrophes of all, war occurred (the Croatian War of Independence, 1991 – 95) many people in the country lost their ability to think with decency and allowed themselves to be swallowed up in very narrow-minded nationalist sentiments. For example, at that time many people came to accept the doctrines of the church that preached such values as single ethnicity, heterosexuality and patriarchal family structure, and came to view people who didn’t fit into this value system as “evil.”
The result was that people who fell outside that value system came to feel a vague sort of indebtedness with the sense that they were not contributing to society and came put self-imposed restrictions on themselves and being careful about the things they say and do. In other words, the people came to accept a certain “model” for the way they should live and act, and they preferred things that way, whether they realized it or not. I started the Queer Zagreb festival because I wanted to question that model and try to broaden the framework of that model.
Ten years have passed since the start of Queer Zagreb and roughly 20 years since the independence war ended. But, in December of 2013, a third national plebiscite was conducted (the first was the 1991 plebiscite to decide on declaring independence from the former Yugoslavia; the second was in 2012 to decide on joining the EU) and in it some 66% of the country’s 4.4 million people voted that marriage should be the joining of a man and a woman, thus stating agreement with the current national law. Does this mean that there has been some liberalization of the people’s “model” during this time?
Considering the fact that 85% of the Croatian population is Roman Catholic, this 66% vote could almost be considered a victory rather than a defeat [for the cause of homosexual marriage]. However, it was a truly sad result on a personal level for me. The reason is that, because of Croatia’s national law that does not recognize marriage visa’s for homosexual partnerships, I couldn’t be with my partner, André von Ah of Brazil, before he passed away three months ago, even though we had been lawfully wed in Brazil. I feel as if this national policy stole from me precious time when I could have been with the man I loved.
From a broader perspective, however, I feel that it is a positive development that the opportunity was given for a national plebiscite on this matter. Because, this plebiscite brought the debate about homosexual marriage to a far greater number of people than could have been achieved through any works of art. Of course, some made hate speeches against acceptance of homosexual marriage that deeply hurt many young homosexuals and their sense of identity. Nonetheless, since the plebiscite it seems that there is far more understanding with regard to homosexual marriage. So, if I were to offer an answer to your question, I believe that the people of Croatia have become freer in their thinking than before.
Was there severe censoring of artistic expression under the socialist regime of the former Yugoslavia?
There was no censorship in a traditional sense, or that it remained in consciousness of people as such. Rather, it was more the case that freedom of expression was possible in the arts alone. The government knew that the biggest threat to them didn’t come from the arts, so they let the artists pursue their arts with freedom.
In the first place, the socialist system of the former Yugoslavia was very different from that of the former Soviet Union, and unlike them, we were not completely shut in by an iron curtain. From a geo-political point of view, the former Yugoslavia of the day was a place where the arts of the Eastern and Western Europe met and there was a great deal of artistic activity. And, in fact, censorship by the government or self-imposed censorship didn’t begin until after the war of independence was over. It was then that the arts came to be used as a platform to show off, instigate and strengthen the new country of Croatia’s national identity by sending out a specific message.
Before the launch of Queer Zagreb, we hear that most of the grant money for the arts in Croatia went to the institutions like the national theaters and there was no financial or creative support platform for young independent artists. Is that true?
Yes, it’s true. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to make a living as an artist, the only way was to depend on support or grants from the national or regional government agencies. As a result, these public agencies came to hold a lot of the decision-making power. Another problem was that most of the grant money went to institutional operating expenses. Taking the Croatian National Theater as an example, about 85% of the budget went to pay the salaries of its 600 employees. And, only the remaining 15% went to creative activities. This is a ridiculous situation. Nonetheless, the creators and actors that worked at the National Theater were given a more stable creative environment. Supported by the state in this way, they continued to do productions of the old narrative theater works.
However, in my opinion it was the independent artists who were truly creative and were working with more energy and innovative spirit. That is why I decided that it was necessary to start Queer Zagreb in order to give them economic support. Now, the number of independent arts organizations like ours is growing and there are also more opportunities to receive funding for international projects from other European organizations, and this has made it easier than before for freelance artists to engage in creative activities.
One thing I don’t want to be misunderstood on is the fact that I am not opposed to the role of institutions like the National Theater. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It was institutions like this that were able to protect and keep their arts alive through disastrous times like the war. So, when we think about the future of the arts, we have to include plans to keep these institutions active.
Please tell us about your personal career background. Having studied journalism in the political science department of the University of Zagreb, why did you go to work at Eurokaz, Croatia’s only independent international theater festival, rather than seeking an internship at a newspaper or television station?
From a young age, I was always strongly attracted to the arts. That’s because the arts always deal with the essence of life and encourage you to think creatively. Especially in times of confused times like these, I think that devoting one’s life to art is one of the most positive ways to live. Selling shoes for a living may be a wonderful life too, but today, isn’t it true that many people are not satisfied with a hand-to-mouth existence in a simple job that just takes you back and forth between your company and home. People want to think about things, you might say, and they are not content to blindly accept the ways of the world in their lives. So, if they live a life that doesn’t require any creative thinking and just involves the daily commute to and from work, doesn’t life become dreary? And, before one knows it, doesn’t the soul become worn down and tired.
Especially for people living in cities like Tokyo or Zagreb, I believe that the arts are irreplaceable. Even if you have all you need in the way of clothing food and a roof over your head, without the arts life lacks enrichment and fulfillment. People also lose the ability to find creative solutions to problems and the nation becomes constrained in elements large and small. In countries everywhere there is no end to the debate about why the nation should spend money on the arts in difficult economic times like these. But, from my viewpoint, the arts are the things we need most of all. What’s more, the budgets necessary for the arts are really quite small compared to things like the military budget. If you translated the cost of the budget of the Croatian National Theater into bullets, I don’t think it would be enough to keep very many machine guns supplied.
At the age of 23 you left your job at the Eurokaz festival and established the Queer Zagreb festival. What made you decided to start a new festival from scratch and make it something innovative rather than [staying with Eurokaz and] making use of the strength of that noted festival to try to change the arts environment?
The Eurokaz festival established in 1987 was a truly outstanding festival that used its limited budget to put together programs of uncompromising quality that gave us of the young generation of Croatia the opportunity to see cutting-edge works of art equal to those seen in Paris or Brussels. It was the international festival that introduced the people of Croatia for the first time to the performing arts, which would come to be called “New theater” in our country. This included the works of artists from a wide range of genres such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jan Fabre, Jan Lauwers, Romeo Castellucci and more.
But, as is the tendency with many of the independent organizations of this type, there is the trap of it becoming one where all aspects of its direction is decided by the artistic director, and in this case it was naturally the festival’s founder, and my good friend, Gordana Vnuk who decided everything. But, I wanted the chance to test my abilities more freely. So, I left Eurokaz and established Queer Zagreb.
Where did you get your funding from mainly for the first Queer Zagreb festival?
Of course, I went to ask for support from the people at the Ministry of Culture and the Zagreb city officials I had come to know from my time with Eurokaz. However, in the end my strongest supporters were not them but the people at LGBT (les, gay, bisexual and transgender) organizations outside of Croatia. They are people who are working very actively to fight discrimination against LGBT and they showed an interest in my festival.
To be honest, these people didn’t really have much interest in the artistic aspect at first, but as soon as they saw the success of the first Queer Zagreb festival they realized what a powerful tool the arts could be in their activities. Then they began to use the arts strategically as a part of their own methodology for fighting for human rights. Now Queer Zagreb has grown to become one of Croatia’s leading performing arts festivals with a budget more than twice that of Eurokaz.
What kinds of artists have you invited to your festival until now?
The artist we have invited most often is the German choreographer Raimund Hoghe who was formerly a dramaturge for Pina Bausch. Others that have come to Zagreb for us numerous times are Jérôme Bel from France and Annie Sprinkle (performing artist, sex educator and former prostitute) from America. And of course, there are our local Croatian artists that have created new works for us. One of them is Željko Zorica, an artist whose work I especially love. Sadly, he passed away at an early age in his 50s, but during his life he was a good friend that I worked together with on many projects.
An example of his representative works is KroaTisch-Amerikanische Freundschaft
(Croatia-America Friendship) (Note: KroaTisch is the German adjective meaning Croatian and it also implies a table where food is eaten and secret documents are signed), which was a giant food installation. The installation consisted of a cake in the form of a bible and various dishes of traditional cuisine on a table covered with dollars standing in from of a photograph of the American and Croatian presidents smiling and holding hands, and sitting around it were dolls representing politicians made of meat foods. It was also set up so that the viewers could eat the foods as they viewed the installation. If you were to liken him to a novelist, Željko was a genius in the manner of José de Sousa Saramago. He skillfully mixed reality and fiction to create new realities and he presented the viewers with points of departure that at first glance resembled surrealism. From there, the works would radiate out in all kinds of crazy directions.
In addition to [the works of] choreographers and directors, the Queer Zagreb programs have included numerous body art artists. Many of the works resemble those of Marina Abramović, who was very popular in America back in the 1970s. What is the reason for the special focus on body art? And has the work of Abramović, who is a native of the former Yugoslavia, had a great influence locally?
Yes, Marina has had a great influence in the Balkan Peninsula. So, it is true that there are a large number of artists who have been inspired by her work. However, more than that influence, I believe that as a nation, Croatia is naturally drawn to body art as a form of expression.
The reason is that, as I mentioned earlier, religion continues to be a powerful force in Croatia. Therefore, for many people, the most private thing they have, their bodies, are controlled by the society, through religion and the educational system it influences. But, I think that when people give away to others the controls of their body, the very core of their personal existence, at the same time the individual loses not only their sexuality but also their soul and their will.
This is not only true of homosexuals. When a system denies people of the right to have sex with the person they love, it has the same meaning of, for example, denying a young woman the right to abort a child she doesn’t wish to give birth to. Liberating the body is not only a matter of sexual liberation, it is the first step toward liberation that connects to all forms of freedom of speech and action. And, body art is a very potent form of artistic expression for recognizing and fighting against the restrictions that exist in society today.
When we hear the expression “queer art” there is frequently a tendency to associate it with outdated images. In other words, the image of a gay performer wearing lipstick and a fake fur and telling stories about a sad past in a cabaret show style performance intended to be a form of self-cure. In short, rather than being a strong artistic statement it is associated with something closer to community art or art therapy. What is your opinion about that kind of stylized queer art?
I know that there is a lot of queer art than is very close to community art or art therapy. I don’t have very good feelings about that kind of expression. That is because, if you get to the heart of that kind of expression doesn’t go beyond the realm of “art as hobby.” That kind of artistic expression is no different from that of an older woman in the countryside who amuses herself with a hobby of making pottery. That is fine in itself, but I have no interest in inviting art of that level to my festival.
The important point in your question is the word “story” that you used. Many queer art performers have done nothing but talk about themselves. That is the kind of material that is appropriate for writing down in his or her diary, but there is no need to reveal it to the general audience.
To my way of thinking, artistic expression of the type that attempts to tell everything in words is inherently artless. We tend to think of words as the highest means of communication, but in art, the use of words can actually be an obstacle to communication at times. Art must promote discourse in ways that are different from everyday means of communication. If it doesn’t, that country’s audience will gradually forget how to use their minds creatively and their powers of thought will surely weaken. The audience isn’t stupid. That is why people involved in artistic activities must trust the audience. Everything begins from that relationship of trust.
In 2012, you launched the Queer New York international festival. Of all of the art capitals of the world, why did you choose New York to start a festival in?
The answer is simple. New York is where the term “queer art” was born. However, I am critical of most of the queer art born in New York, in the past and present. The reason is that most of it is the kind of “stylized performance” that you mentioned earlier, a kind of self expression that is close to “self help” with its style that indulges in very lyrical story-telling.
When I started Queer New York, I began by contacting the handful of curators I know in the U.S. who have an international perspective. Then I asked them to recommend some artists that they thought would be good to invite to my festival. And, when I heard their recommendations, I realized that my vision had been correct. The reason is that all of the artists they recommended were of the type that told stories full of self-pity in the cabaret, burlesque or transvestite show context. That was the only concept of “queer art” that the curators I contacted had.
But, in contrary, I found that kind of response to be favorable to me, because that is exactly the kind of preconception that I want to overturn. From the success [of my Queer Zagreb festival] in Zagreb, I knew that the concept of “expanding the meaning of queer” was an effective way to give birth to new artistic exchange and discourse. But, many curators in New York didn’t seem to care about my idea, even though they probably didn’t disbelieve what I was saying. If I introduced an interesting artist to them, they would steal the artist, discard the label of “queer” and then introduce the artist in their own festival. It was more important to them to remove the queer label in order to increase their audience draw.
I would like to leave the discussion about the queer festivals now and go back to 2009, when you started Perforacije Festival in Zagreb. This is a festival that focused of crossover art forms that don’t fit into the conventional genres of theater or dance. Why did you decide to start this new festival when you were already busy with your queer festivals?
The personal answer is that I like to be busy. I know what an inherently lazy person I am, and the only way I can keep from getting depressed and reclusive so I don’t want to leave my bedroom is to keep myself busy. I’m like a bicycle, if I stop, I fall over. (Laughs) Also, I’m the type who quickly gets excited about something and then lose the interest just as quickly, and I had already begun to lose interest in Queer Zagreb slightly. It didn’t offer me the daily challenges that it had at first, so I had reached the point where I could run the festival rather easily. I was looking for a new source of stimulation, so I decided to start the new [Perforacije] festival.
From my past experience, I knew that there are outstanding artists who always fall though the nets of all the arts agencies and organizations. And, it is frequently the case that artists who work with forms of expression that are crossover in nature and don’t fit into the conventional genres will not have their work discovered by anyone. But, continuing to ignore these artists with new forms of expression will be a big loss for the future of Croatia. So, I wanted to create a festival that focused on these artists who don’t fit in the conventional frameworks.
I also wanted to make the festival a platform where artists from around the Balkan Peninsula would gather. We [in the Balkan region] have too little interest in our neighboring countries. The people in Zagreb know much more about Berlin than they do about Belgrade (the capital of Serbia) or Ljubljana (the capital of Slovenia). This is a very dangerous thing. So, I thought this should be a festival where outstanding artists from around the Balkan Peninsula would gather and exchange information about the emerging trends in artistic expression, and also send out proper images to the countries of Western Europe about the true state of our arts in the Balkans.
That sounds like a form of resistance to cultural exploitation by Western Europe. In other words, you wanted to overturn the imposed image that art in the Balkans always had to speak about conflict, didn’t you?
That’s right. This is a problem shared by all non-Western countries. Even Japan is no exception. In Western Europe all of the [festival] presenters want to think that works like those of Chelfitsch
are the most “Japanese.” So, they buy works that fit that image they have of what Japanese theater is like. But, in fact, many Japanese artists are doing work that speaks about things that are different from Chelfitsch, and it is the same in the Balkans, where most artists are not dealing with the subject of conflict.
The art being made by young artists in the Balkans today can be divided basically into two types. One is a form of protest art. These artists create art that expresses their protests against things that oppress them like the [bad] economic conditions. But, art of this type tends to be too direct in expression, so I don’t really like it. The other type is that of artists who question the conventional existing forms of expression that may appear trivial to them. For example, in the visual arts they might question the conventional concept they are expected to show their work in galleries. Why do they need to show their work in the isolated spaces of galleries and the like, they will ask. This is a thrilling form of thought experiment. Because it forces the curators and the audience to re-construct all forms of conventional concepts they have.
Finally, I would like to ask you to tell us about any projects you are planning for the near future.
First of all, I am planning a large project in America to be implemented through Queer New York. There is still a big wall that must be broken down in the U.S., so it is a big challenge. We are also planning international projects in countries like Australia, Japan and Brazil. In Brazil we have a performance scheduled for May of next year in Sao Paulo. We are also involved in a performance by Marina Abramović that will take place in Athens.
All of these projects are different and unique, but in my mind they are all connected along a single line. In simple terms, I want to engage in a big projects with heavy workload. If the project is too simple or too safe, I start to get drowsy. (Laughs) Then I lose faith in myself. So, in order to stay true to myself, I want to continue to take on things that involve uncertainty. The day I feel that I understand everything in life is the day that I will stay at home and not move from in front of the television.