Balkan Stone Soup

A Rough Guide to Doing Research in the Balkans

Plan to be Flexible

“Americans are great planners,” someone once told me. It’s
true, we are a nation of planners. In English, we have several different ways
of talking about the future, with each tense expressing different grades of
certainty about it: for example, we use the present simple for train schedules,
because they are about 99% certain (the train to Belgrade leaves at 9AM), and
future simple for a resolution, because it is less certain (I will quit smoking
next year!) We even have ways of talking about the future as if we were already
in it, looking back on the past. For example: “by this time next month, I will
have been in the Balkans for 3 weeks” (future perfect). So we think about the
future a lot, and this anecdotal cultural linguistics demonstrates that

In the Balkans, however, it is good to have plans, but is also
good to be flexible about them. Two weeks before my trip, I had hardly any
contacts in the region, and virtually no appointments or meetings set up. I was
nervous, and wondered if I was going on a wild goose chase. I brought extra
books with me, thinking that I would be spending a lot of down time in my hotel
rooms, killing time before my next trip. Oh, how wrong I was. 

Balkan Stone Soup

We are all familiar with the story of Stone Soup. A villager
wants to make a pot of soup, but doesn’t have any ingredients. So she starts a
cauldron boiling, and brings a stone to cook. The other villagers are confused
– what kind of soup is this? Little by little they bring vegetables, spices and
other more appealing ingredients, and by the end of the day, there is a pot of
soup for everyone.

In the Balkans, I was the stone. I was the lonely, isolated
little stone that couldn’t really make a pot of soup without the help of the
villagers. Having done research in Eastern Europe for several years, I had a
tried and true method: start with the Centers for Contemporary Art (the former
Soros Foundations up across Eastern Europe that were set up after the fall of
communism, to help boost the development of contemporary art and culture in the
region, which had officially been under the yoke of Socialist Realism for
decades), then contact the museums, key art historians, etc., get the contacts
of artists, set up meetings, make appointments to come to archives, etc. While
this method worked brilliantly in Central Europe, it had no effect in the
Balkans. I wrote to several museums and centers for contemporary art and got no
response. Finally, I resorted to the Internet. I started Googling “performance
art in Albania/Kosovo/etc.” I found some names, and hesitantly wrote to these
random strangers, hoping they wouldn’t think I was some weirdo:

“Dear So-and-So, I am a researcher from the UK writing a
book on performance art in Eastern Europe…” all of my emails began.
Surprisingly, people started to respond. Some immediately, some after a while,
but absolutely all of them were more than willing to bring the vegetables and
meats to add to my pot of soup. Soon I had not only a delicious pot of soup
awaiting for me in each city I was about to visit, but I had a veritable feast.

“There are no books,
the best way is to meet people”

The other challenge with doing research in the region is
that there really are no books. Sometimes, there are catalogues. Sometimes,
they are in English, but there really is very little written material
available. This is why the personal connection is so important. Throughout my
2.5 weeks in the Balkans, I filled an entire notebook with pages of information
about artists, art works, and the art scenes in general. I devoured every bit
of the soup available to me. And I think this is why the personal connections
and networks are so important here, because everyone knows how scarce written
information is, and everyone is eager to share it, in the hopes that someone
will write it down. And that is also the reason I decided to start this site,
to offer one place where people might be able to go for this type of

“Call me when you get

As I said, Americans are planners. Personally, I like to
have at least some of my meetings set up in advance, to have some sense of
security that I will actually meet the people that I need to. I also worry that
they will forget about me, and jet off to the beach or some other place – after
all, it is summer. Indeed, people in the art world in this region travel a lot,
and there are plenty of people I missed because they were elsewhere. But I did
find that most people didn’t like to set up meetings too far in advance.
Everyone told me, “call me when you get to [insert name of city here.]” That is
all well and good, but why can’t we just set up a meeting in advance? You said
that you would give me some names of artists and people to contact. Why can’t
you give me those names before I arrive? In most cases, this worked out ok in
the end; I got the contacts and made appointments while I was in situ. So, I learned to take a more
relaxed approach. But in some cases, advance planning would have helped. For
example, when I was in Skopje I found out, on the day that I was leaving, that
there were some archives at the Center for Contemporary Art, and also at the
Museum of Modern Art, but it was already too late to visit them. I was also
given some contacts of artists when I was on my way out the door. I don’t think
that anyone was withholding information intentionally. I just think it was a cultural
difference. I was well aware of the short amount of time I had in each place
and the necessity of having a plan in advance. In the Balkans, there is a much
more casual attitude toward making plans. Most of the time, their system worked
for me, but sometimes, a little advance planning, and using of the future
tenses, would have helped.

The Place Where
Everybody Knows Your Name

It is quite fitting that there is a café in downtown
Podgorica called Cheers. Everyone’s favourite Boston bar from the 1980s, where
everybody knows your name (“Norm!”) has been transformed to a coffee bar, but
the principle is still the same. Because in Podgorica, and in the Balkans,
everyone does know everyone else’s name.

 Cheers Cafe in Podgorica

Cheers Cafe in Podgorica

I read a story online about an American guy who broke his
arm in Podgorica
, and soon the whole town knew who he was, and asked him how
his arm was as he walked around town. When I first read this, I thought it
might have been a bit of blogger’s hyperbole, but after having spent a week in
Podgorica and nearly three weeks in the region, I’m pretty sure that the story
is true. In the Balkans, everyone knows everyone, and once you know one person, you then know everyone, too.

 The place where everybody knows your name

The place where everybody knows your name

And the connections are amazing. In looking for some
Montenegran performance artists, I came across one who was then living in
Savannah, Georgia – Blazo Kovacevic. My boyfriend’s family lives in Savannah,
and I go there once a year to visit. I thought the coincidence was too
interesting (as was his art), so I contacted him, and asked him if we might be
able to meet in Savannah someday. “By the way,” I told him, “I’m in Podgorica
right now.” He wrote back immediately: “you are in Podgorica and I am not! I’m
jealous!” He told me that he was soon leaving Savannah, but invited me to visit
his studio in Podgorica. He said that there wasn’t much of his work there
anymore, but it was a kind of “performative space,” as his father was an
artist, and he grew up surrounded by art. He gave me the address, and it turned
out it was just a five-minute walk from my hotel! How amazing that we were both
so close to each others’ families, on opposite sides of the globe. I took him
up on his offer to visit his studio, and it was an absolutely amazing place. Full
of modernist sculptures, and the house itself had been designed and built by
his father. Another thing I discovered in the Balkans – most artists had
parents who were artists too. The art runs through the blood.

Unexpected Surprizes

On virtually every leg of my trip, there was a glitch. My
flight out of Edinburgh was delayed, which resulted in me having to take a
different flight to London and change airports along the way; my flight from
Tirana to Prishtina was canceled, making me a day late to Kosovo; my bus from
Prishtina to Skopje was not delayed – it was late, but that is usual. It was
also horribly hot. Finally, my flight from Skopje to Podgorica was changed from
7:30PM to the uncivilized hour of 7:30AM, and when I left Podgorica, the driver
for the car service I had booked overslept, and I nearly missed my flight. But
it all worked out in the end.

 Cooking up a pot of Balkan Stone Soup with members of the  Montenegrin Alternative Culture  NGO

Cooking up a pot of Balkan Stone Soup with members of the Montenegrin Alternative Culture NGO

And while I was there, little by little, my
calendar started to fill up, and the books that I brought to keep me occupied
were left untouched, bindings uncracked, never to be opened. So the lesson
learned, for this hyper-planning American, is to plan to be flexible in the
Balkans. When you do, you never know what is going to happen next, and quite
often, you will be pleasantly surprised with the delicious soup that you can
make out of a simple stone.

About Amy Bryzgel

I am Professor in Film and Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen, where I specialise in modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe.
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