Low Budget Utopias

The Metelkova Case: From Army Barracks to Museum of Contemporary Art

Bojana Piškur



When the Yugoslav People’s Army vacated the barracks at Metelkova in 1991, some of the space became available for contemporary art. But the emptied space had lost all of its previous performative functions. Instead it became “susceptible to being diverted, reappropriated and put to use quite different from its initial one”[1], thereby enabling different configurations of forces, performative acts and social relations that called the future museum of contemporary art into being. Zdenka Badovinac has pointed out that it was the war in the former Yugoslavia and in the Balkans that marked the beginning of our contemporaneity. Similarly, it was the former military complex that marked the beginning of Moderna galerija's Museum of Contemporary Art (MSUM).


I would argue that what has given this space a specific meaning was neither its architectural frame that is, its representational and ideological function, nor the notion of space as a 'historical idea'. Instead I would like to call attention to various performative functions; performative acts and repetitions that have defined it and vice versa. In performativity, as it is generally understood, repetitions through time play a vital role and they have to do with the concept of identity. When something, a sentence, an utterance, an act, is repeated often enough, it gains power, it constructs an identity. For example, in communist Yugoslavia the slogan 'protect brotherhood and unity' became a kind of a 'performative speech act', where, according to Austin, to say something actually means an action has to be performed to realize its effect. The slogan 'protect brotherhood and unity' designated the official policy of ethnic relations in former Yugoslavia, and the authority behind the particular performative speech act was the Yugoslav People's Army. Whenever the effect, i.e. the unity of the country was put into question the sanctions that followed demanded an intervention. In the 1980s when the political situation changed, this normative ideology regained new performative functions and repetitions, which no longer demanded unity but instead, fragmentation of the country leading to a break-up of Yugoslavia.


Similarly, the museum's legitimation consists of those discourses that have the capacity to produce what they name. What they name are the works of art. And this is what performativity in the art context means; the way the identity of a work of art is constructed and invested within the art environment. This had been the museum's main objective until the second half of the 20th century.


Now, really interesting things emerge when we not only investigate conflictual acts, events, gestures, behaviours, affects etc. that constitute the so-called counter-knowledge within such performative environments, but also connect them with the body, with desire. What does this counter-knowledge do? Through it, the identities, borders, disciplines, hegemonic narratives, automatic responses are being questioned and deconstructed, subsequently leading towards the production of a space that is different.


The contradictory new space is being produced out of differences which are found, for example in the “lived bodily experiences”, “socio-spatial tactics”, “rhythmanalysis” and should be considered, as Henri Lefebvre pointed out, “with all the senses, with total body” in order to become aware “of the conflicts at work with it”[2]; to put it more specifically, to become aware of the forces that demand its normalization, its abstraction. In art, for example, once the particular environment recognizes it, the difference between the inside and the outside cannot disappear again. In the context of the contemporary museum the repetitive acts that grant the artwork identity are inevitably linked to the subversive repetitions that question the very same identity. Subversive repetitions could be seen as analogous to the Deleuzian model of time, where a repetition actually makes itself the form of time. It is this antagonistic relationship between repetitions-as-time and performativity that has legitimized the idea of contemporary art and subsequently of the contemporary museum in the last half-century.



The barracks at Metelkova Street were built between 1883 and 1895 for the Austro-Hungarian army. Michel de Certeau put it very precisely when he said that the tendency of functionalist totalitarianism was to erase everything that compromised the univocity of the system[3]. Following his idea the relationship between spatial practices and constructed order can be observed more clearly. The same logic could be discerned at the Metelkova complex. The formalized and strict architectural order of the military complex fostered authority, hierarchy, discipline and control.  All of these operations subsequently effected the routinization of human actions, efficiency, and disciplinary bodily activities; in other words, the construction of a “docile body”. 


The regulated bodily acts and the repressions of desire, which prevailed in these military spaces, were an inevitable part of the 'performative exercises of power'. In military barracks, any potentially dangerous or disturbing behaviour was sanctioned, life strictly planned and regulated, and time dictated and organized in timetables. In other words: “the space of a (social) order [was] hidden in the order of space”[4]


When the Yugoslav People’s Army moved in after the Second World War, it exercised its power precisely through these same regulated behaviours, instrumental actions, and punitive social conventions, outwardly manifested also in embodied performances such as military parades and other highly performative acts and spectacles. In order to impose an authoritarian order, these performative acts had to be repeated in time.


As already mentioned, the performative acts, which are inevitably linked to power, make us re-think the disciplinary boundaries not only of the embodied behaviours in culturally restricted, regularized spaces, but also of the counter behaviours that occur in the very same spaces. [5]


The first gesture of such rebellion is, as philosopher Mladen Dolar says, an “epistemological rupture, which establishes authority as an object.”[6] The subversive acts then occur as interruptions disturbing the stability of the system where ideology of those in power is put under question and can therefore no longer be valid as such or taken for granted. Its performative power is lost forever.


The list of various “subversions” in the context of the former Yugoslav People's Army and the dominant ideology of that time is too long for the scope of this talk. But there were also cases where artistic subversions which could, in a certain way, be considered “events”, disturbed the continuous linear time of the dominant ideology to such degree as to enable the beginning of something different. Many such works are now part of the Moderna galerija’ collections. What makes all of this especially interesting are the antagonisms between the two environments / the two spaces: one that prohibited subversive (artistic) expressions and persecuted the authors, and the other which has since recently, or more precisely, since the beginning of our contemporaneity, included and conceptualized those expressions within the museum narrative.


In 1969 Želimir Žilnik filmed Early works, which takes place during the time of the student riots of 1968, in the former Yugoslavia, with four young people as the main protagonists. They leave home and travel around the country looking for true revolutionary socialism, with the intention of raising the workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary consciousness. But theirs is a mission that can not be realised and the film attempts to express this state of helplessness on the part of the revolutionaries trying to change society. Throughout the film slogans such as “Down with the red bourgeoisie!” can be heard but these slogans are not performative utterances, instead they could be interpreted as mocking of the system. The film was banned.


In 1972 Karpo Godina made a short film, which was originally commissioned by the Yugoslav army as a propaganda film. Instead, the film called On Love Skills was pacifist, taking a hippy maxim: “make love not war” as its point of departure. Where the Army repressed and encoded differences and desires this film not only openly showed them, but it was, constituted, a desire in itself. It was an act of rebellion, a threat to the system, doubting the authoritarian ideology via embodied counter-behaviour, in the sense of Lefebvre who said: “Any revolutionary project whether utopian or realistic must make the reappropriation of the body, in the association with the reappropriation of space, into a non-negotiable part of its agenda.”[7]


All the copies of the film were destroyed and Godina was not allowed to direct any films for 10 years.


In his 1971 Streaking, Tomislav Gotovac runs naked down the street in Belgrade shouting “I am innocent!”. Gotovac's performances were embodied subversions par excellence of the existing socio-political order, where his naked and desiring body was the main protagonist of the action. Such expressions were not tolerated because they questioned the very system based on control and discipline.


However, there is a difference in the way bodies were affected: for example, in his work where he cleaned the streets of Zagreb in 1981, and with the residue of that event, a pile of garbage now in Moderna galerija’s permanent collection[8]; or in another event from the same year, where Gotovac walked naked in downtown Zagreb. This event was an unmediated experience, but only until its affects were recognized as “signifying gestures” perceived as a threat to the order of the State (after 7 minutes Gotovac was arrested by the police).


A similar principle can be observed in Sanja Iveković’s Triangle 2000+, but with a difference. The work is a performance that taked place in a private space, where the artist sits on her balcony pretending to be masturbating and drinking whiskey while on the street below a mass spectacle (President Tito’s visit to Zagreb in 1979) is unfolding. After 10 minutes the police came to Iveković’s door and ordered that “persons and objects should be removed from the balcony”. Bodily acts in private spaces were often observed and proclaimed as subversive.


Mladen Stilinović in Red Era (1973-1990) adapted the “language” of socialist Yugoslavia, more specifically certain socialist phrases. Those phrases (Freedom to red, Work Cannot Exist, Dead Optimism, Consumption of Red, Exploiting Red, We must be alert, Despite the State of Emergency, …) were emptied of their ideological power by becoming “absurd statements”. Making use of irony and paradox, Stilinović took the brutality of this political speech upon himself, and this so-called “abuse” of socialist speech became visible as manipulation[9]. The issue [in question/at work] was how to manipulate what manipulates you.


In 1987, New Collectivism (or shortened, NK) took part in the competition for the visual design to commemorate The Day of Youth, May 25th, President Tito’s birthday, which was one of the major performative acts / spectacles in the former Yugoslavia. NK won the competition and the poster was to be distributed and displayed all over the country. However, a striking similarity to Nazi artist Richard Klein's painting was soon discovered; the Nazi symbols had been replaced by Yugoslav ones. The events led to the so-called Poster Scandal, embarrassing the “ideology of those in power.”[10] In the proclamation that followed, NK stated that a political poster should have some disturbing appeal to the masses and that its slogan was humanistic propaganda. Tomaž Mastnak, a political philosopher, pointed out that the key moment of any social or political struggle was the outbreak of the “strange utterance”, leading to a restructuring of ideological speech. This was also the case with the Day of Youth poster.



While a military complex at Metelkova corresponds to the repressive, dominant space, legitimated by the repetitive performative acts and a “man's servitude to quantified time”, the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova corresponds to the appropriated, differential space; put more precisely, to an ideal/utopian projection of that space, which Foucault would have called heterotopia[11]. Why so? Because in reality there are various antagonisms at work: not only those antagonisms between the forces of domination and differentiation, but also antagonisms between abstract space and the space of lived experiences, of the in-time, which demands of us an answer to the question – how to preserve human temporality and its ‘pure historical essence’? When back in the early nineties Moderna galerija acquired a building at the southern end of Metelkova a new kind of museum model had been envisioned, a future model which would foster a relationship to those practices from the 1960s onward, in which artists would manipulate time in a variety of ways, not only to become historians of their own time, but to challenge the dominant, ideological one. This was only possible “not [with] a new chronology but [with] a qualitative alteration of time[12]”, with, as Agamben might put it, an authentic history. Therefore it is actually the antagonistic relationship between the “liberating time” of authentic history and the “continuous linear time” of the dominant ideology; or between repetitions-as-time and performativity, that defines our idea of both contemporary art and the contemporary museum.



The text was originally commissioned by CIMAM, International Committee of ICOM for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, and presented at CIMAM's 2011 Annual Conference ‘Museums and the City’ that was held in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Sarajevo from November 14 to 17, 2011. It was slightly rewritten on April 2, 2016 for the exhibition Low Budget Utopias.



[1] Henri Lefebvre: The Production of Space (Blackwell, original French edition 1974, English reprint 1999), 167.

[2]    Ibid., 391.

[3] See Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City”, in the Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1988).

[4] Henri Lefebvre: The Production of Space (Blackwell, original French edition 1974, English reprint 1999), 289.

[5] See Diana Taylor, “Acts of Transfer”, in: The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke UP, 2003), at, accessed 16 Sept. 2011.

[6]  Mladen Dolar, Odsekati kralju glavo (Ljubljana: Založba Krtina, 2009), 100.


[7] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell, original French edition 1974, English reprint 1999), 166–167.

[8] Besides this work of Gotovac’s Sanja Iveković’s Triangle 2000+ and Mladen Stilinović’s Red Era (all mentioned in the text) are part of Moderna galerija’s 2000+ Arteast collection.

[9] Branka Stipančić,  Auction of Red at

[10] Rastko Močnik, “Demokratične sile in poskus vpeljave izjemnega stanja”, in Mladina (Ljubljana: 27 March 1987), 8.

[11]  Michel Foucault elaborated the concept of heterotopia in his text Of Other Spaces. Foucault spoke about various heterotopias; in the text I refer to heterotopia in the sense that several different spaces can be juxtaposed. I also refer to heterotopia as being an effectively realized utopia.

[12]  Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History, On the Destruction of Experience (Verso: London-New York, 2007 (first ed.1978 1978)), 115.