Montenegrin Alternative Culture

One of the drives behind the development of performance art in the West was the desire to involve the viewer or spectator in the artwork. Performance artists relinquished their control over the work to the viewer, by inviting him, and sometimes forcing him, to participate. Joseph Beuys proclaimed that “everyone is an artist,” a claim similar to that made by Dada and Postmodern artist avant la lettre, Marcel Duchamp. So it is quite fitting that there is an activist performance art group in Montenegro composed entirely of “non-artists” – those with no artistic training, but equipped with a desire to “change the system” (or at least some ways of thinking) by using performance and interventions into the everyday to do so. The people behind Montenegrin Alternative Culture all have day jobs – one is a lawyer, another a journalist, and one is a sociologist. They came together to form this NGO not primarily to make art, but to change things in the greater society by using art to call attention to the issues that they feel need changing.

The group has received some criticism from those in the art world. “That isn’t art,” I’ve heard people say. But I have to wonder what Joseph Beuys would think, and I think he would recognize what Montenegrin Alternative Culture does as art. After all, he was interested in “social sculpture” – the idea that discussion and conversation could be art. He wanted to change society, and so does this NGO.

The main point of criticism for the group is the patriarchal nature of Montenegrin society, one that is based on parochial and rural traditions that may no longer have meaning in contemporary society. More importantly, they challenge the fact that many of the traditions that are adhered to are ones that people no longer think about – they just do them mechanically because it is customary to do so. The performances of Montenegrin Alternative Culture challenge their viewers to do otherwise. It is the hypocrisy of society that they object to – these false traditions that remain unchecked.

For example, they staged a mock funeral/exhibition opening, drawing parallels between the rituals involved in the two acts. At this funeral, there was a coffin, which was empty, but above it was a mirror, so in paying your respects, you are forced to honor yourself, not the dead. Both funerals and exhibition openings involve standing around and drinking alcohol, but not necessarily paying attention to the “main attraction,” so to speak (the deceased or the artwork, respectively). Both also involve empty and vapid speeches about the main subject, regardless of one’s real opinion about the person who has died or the artwork on display. The group find these parallels interesting, and an example of how the rural traditions of the funeral have been transformed into the urban tradition of an exhibition opening. As is customary with performance, the element of chance brought an additional twist to the piece – the person from whom they rented the casket showed up early to take it away, and the audience was none the wiser. The group played along, and acted as if they were removing the deceased from the room, just as at a funeral.

Historically, performance art also developed as a way for artists to challenge the market system and the commercialization of art. Likewise, the Montenegrin Alternative Culture group use performance to challenge commercialism in everyday society – especially the commercialization of religion. They talk about the fact that most churches have a small kiosk where one can buy not only icons and religious paraphernalia, but also souvenirs of football clubs and photographs of war criminals.

Furthermore, they observed how religious symbols penetrate every aspect of society – they can be found hanging from the rear-view mirror in a taxi, on the wall of a café or in a barber shop. Their recent event, “Pop Ikona” (Pop means "Pope" in Montenegrin), attempted to draw attention to the interpenetration between the religious and commercial spheres. They created a picture of a saint with a cloak emblazoned with the Chanel logo. They filled perfume bottles with holy water (surreptitiously taken from a church), and the bottles were labelled “Heresy,” their new brand of perfume. It has no scent, but it supposedly had a religious aura. At the event, girls wearing Heresy t-shirts walked around and spritzed the viewers with this new perfume.

While the group may not be officially trained artists, they are certainly aware of the traditions in which they are working. When I met with them, they spoke passionately about Marina Abramovic (as I’ve said before, she is very much present here in the Balkans), and the shamanistic role she plays as an artist in society. For them it is the spiritual component of her work that makes it effective. While not every artist can be a shaman, this group certainly has passion. They declare that they are not “haters,” and feel that one cannot accomplish change with negative energy. They decry empty political activism that is without any real goal or aim, other than to protest. They create their work in their free time, not for profit, but because they enjoy it, and really feel that with their work, they can make a difference, even if it is just changing one small aspect of society or way of thinking. And that sounds like the true spirit of an avant-garde artist to me.