The text was originally published in an edited version at Lacuna Magazine (the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick): Kontic, Iva. “Mechanical Dream.” Lacuna Magazine (February 17, 2017)
In 2011, I was invited to make an art project for the 12th edition of Premio Cairo, art competition taking place at Museo della Permanente in Milan. Being born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, now Serbia, where I grew up before moving to Italy for studies, I looked for a topic which could interweave my background with my place of residence at the time, and to underline my specific position as an artist who had been shaped by the two geographical and social contexts.
Around the time of the competition, the Italian media was dealing with a series of protests organized in the south of the country due to the closure of one of the FIAT plants.
There was a strong feeling of betrayal as the public saw that FIAT the national car magnate which had been always supported and financed by the state, had been recently expanding its facilities by investing in the East European low-cost labor market – in this case Serbia – and acquiring the local Serbian car manufacturer Zastava. Like others coming from the territory of ex-Yugoslavia, I was familiar with the unfortunate story of the once state-owned Zastava (flag in Serbian). Founded just after the World War II and originally called “Crvena Zastava” (red flag), the factory made cars that were considered a major industry product of the former communist state and which contributed, both in a historic and a symbolic way, to creation of the ‘authentic’ national identity of the Yugoslav nation (despite mostly using the designs of foreign car models, including FIAT’s). Those cars represented something of a collective “mechanical dream” which was, in accordance to the paradoxes of the system that produced them, synonymous with the 20th century progressive West and the capitalist consumer-driven society where they were even exported during Zastava’s golden years.
With the breaking apart of Yugoslavia in the 1990s the country’s economy collapsed, lead by the failure of Zastava itself. Simultaneously, the image of the socialist society changed dramatically, its ‘authentic’ values disappeared and its former identity was entirely deconstructed. Similar to the fate of many other industries in the countries born from the Balkan Wars, which were in the so-called “state of transition” and submerged in the economic and cultural colonialism, the Serbian car producer found the solution for its almost twenty-year-long crisis in selling its stakes and factory to a foreign investor, FIAT. While Italian public was wrapped up in the scandal of FIAT moving its investments out of the country (already in a state of hardship triggered by the Great Recession), the Serbian government was glorifying the same event and making the acquisition look like a success that would revitalize its economy.
This event and the contrasting consequences it had on the two economically and politically different realities, yet bounded through the globalizing dynamics of neoliberal capitalism, were the inspiration to start the art project Mechanical Dream. On the other hand, the social reality which was hiding behind the news and the imagery produced by the Serbian media and the state officials became the focal point of the work itself. I started an online investigation into Zastava’s history and present situation, and looking for its car models and promotional material through the years, tracing the company’s marketing strategies which closely corresponded to the shifting economic and political dynamics in the very system it belonged to. In parallel, I looked for people who were a part of Zastava in some way – its former employees, those still employed, their relatives, the inhabitants of the city of Kragujevac where the factory is situated – anyone who could give me a first-hand insight into the factory’s life.
I was surprised to discover that very few people wanted to talk to me. Some were reluctant to revive bad memories and others were unwilling to risk their position since they were bound by the confidentiality clause to their new employer. I also made a few visits to the city itself and I tried to see the inside of the main plant under the reconstruction at the time (the Zastava car factory was bombed and mostly destroyed in the NATO bombings in 1999). I was denied permission to enter the site after an interview with the head of Human Resources in the factory and a letter I had sent to FIAT. This failure to gain access might have been related to the circulating rumors that the reconstruction project was happening at a much slower pace than the new owner had guaranteed and the media was hugely publicizing. Some unofficial sources were even suggesting that the rebuilt facade of the plant was actually an empty shell. It was, of course, hard to confirm or deny such information without a possibility to actually document the place. Nevertheless, what stroke me were the real barriers created when one tries to reach beyond the surface of news and images generated by the media, which potentially implied the existence of a strong dissonance between the Zastava’s reality and the officially promoted narrative (independently of the political adherence of the ruling government in the region). The unavailability of visual and verbal testimonies and first-hand experiences became the constitutive element of the video Mechanical Dream, and my struggle to approach the subject transformed itself into a sort of leitmotif of the work.
The lack of recorded testimonies was “compensated” by my own off-screen reading of the statements obtained from the members of the local community and the people directly involved in the past and present life of the car factory. The reading resembled the monotonous, one-voice style of TV and cinema dubbing in the East European countries from the Soviet era. The individual experiences – the intimate expectations, the fears and the mood towards the important moment for Zastava and its context – were thus mediated by my voice and “neutralized”, left concealed from the viewer. Similarly, I compensated the failure to see inside the factory by using images of the factory’s architecture and location documented from a window of a car being driven around the city and around Zastava’s main sites. In the relay of moving camera and the steady shots caused by the red traffic lights or traffic congestions, I sought to capture the geo-historical and social context of Zastava through the panoramic view of the factory buildings, the city landscape, fragments of its architecture, and the cars on its streets.
The unstable nature of the documentary footage, always recorded from a distance, is interrupted by the old Zastava advertising material – the TV commercials made for foreign and domestic markets in the past few decades. Those 30-second inserts were meant to provide a contraposition to the reality of the demolished facades of the factory, its worn down headquarters, the old socialist, never renovated architecture and the streets which reveal a society wrapped in the ever-present struggle to emerge from the ruins of the past marked by almost ten years of economic embargo and sanctions caused by Serbia’s politics under Milosevic and the four wars it fought, as well as the struggle to adjust itself to the volatile and often cruel dynamics of the new neo-liberal capitalism which has substituted the old system abruptly and wildly. Yet, the steady reality of ideals and referential values to believe in, aspire to and rely on, which the commercials offer, is “destabilized” and deconstructed by the time distance from which we watch them. From today’s disillusioned perspective, their narrative and accompanying music appear comical and tragic, almost abstract in comparison to the documented reality they interrupt and suspend for 30 seconds; but they are sadly nostalgic too, naïf in comparison to the contemporary seductive mechanisms of high production commercials and mass-media propaganda.
The events from 2011 – which set off my aspiration to depict the multifaceted reality of Zastava and disclose the conflicting and concealed implications that those events brought about – don’t actually belong to the past. In the last few months, local media have been flooded by the news of the dismissal of more than one thousand workers from FIAT Automobiles Serbia (formerly Zastava Automobiles and since 2014 FIAT Chrysler Automobiles Serbia 1 ), due to low sales of the car models assembled in the Serbia based factory. What was once called the “business deal of the century”, which would recover the country’s industry and economy, is now being interpreted as a purely political move with disastrous long-term consequences, which could bring back to the factory’s region its infamous nickname from the 1990s, “the valley of hunger” 2 . For someone who had a brief encounter with Zastava’s story – it’s historical, social and political background – through an artistic “case study”, the shift of the public perspective doesn’t seem surprising at all.
My curiosity that leads to the sporadic following of the news about the car factory in the years after Mechanical Dream, made me take notice of the parallels between the instrumentalization of the former Zastava for creating and maintaining the ideal of collective identity defined by the socio-communist system and dream of the powerful, progressive Yugoslav nation, and the idealistic image forced by the media (and by the government) in the recent times showing the Italo-Serbian car producer as bringing back the country to the playground of international economy and shaping the new identity of a progressive, now just Serbian, society. One could comment – the house of cards has collapsed, though much faster this time and, apparently, with considerably less astonishment from the part of the local community and the public. And while the former Zastava and its “transitional” society is tasting the bitter aftermath of yet another economical colonization with unknown consequences, FIAT has just announced the relocation of the headquarters of the company from Italy to the Netherlands in order to reduce taxes; yet another blow to Italian economy by the ultimate symbol of country’s industrial might 3 and synonym of what once was called the dolce vita.
This almost calls for an epilogue of Mechanical Dream, but today, I would dare to rename the work to “Mechanical Nightmare”.
1 FIAT merged with the American car manufacturer in 2014
2 The contract between the government and FIAT expires in 2018 and, according to many local analysts, it won’t be renewed by the Italian company due to low profits. Instead, Serbia would be forced to buy back the part of the car company sold to FIAT and try to find a new foreign investor (source: www.politika.rs)
3 source: www.bloomberg.com
Iva Kontic (b. Belgrade, 1982) graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, Milan, and studied MA Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London. She obtained her Ph.D. in Multimedia Arts from the University of Arts in Belgrade. Her doctoral thesis AGIT-PROP-FLASH-MOB (or The Workers’ Dance into the Twilight) was published by ProArtOrg in 2017. Iva exhibited in various group and solo exhibitions, art and film festivals in Italy, UK, Spain, Germany, Austria, Serbia, China, Mexico, Slovenia, Poland, India, etc. She won and was nominated for several art awards (Biennale Giovani Monza, Chelsea Arts Trust Award, ViennaContemporary – School of Happiness Award, Premio Cairo, etc), and she received grants from the Serbian Ministry of Culture and Kulturreferat Munich. Iva took part in academic conferences, international workshops and residential programs (The 4° Annual Conference at the University of Malta, IAS Summer School at the Warwick University, FilmForum at SKC, Prime Time Nationalism at the Open Society Archive, VISIO at Lo Schermo dell’Arte Film Festival, etc). She also co-curated the Festival of Young Serbian Cinema (Madrid, 2014).
Currently, Iva works as an associate professor at Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan.
website: Iva Kontic
Vimeo: Iva Kontic
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