This conversation is part of a series of interviews with women artists from the former Eastern Europe who live and work in Berlin. The city has attracted artists from Russia and Eastern Europe for a long time: especially during the cold war and into the 1990s, its peculiar political and economic situation gave it a uniquely impermanent, transitory ambience that attracted migrating artists. Over the last two decades, neo-liberalism has more or less successfully transformed life here as elsewhere, aestheticizing and monetizing what was once a serious proposal for a different way to live and work. What is it like to work here as an artist under these conditions? Is Berlin more than a (albeit less and less) affordable production site for contemporary art? Does the provenance “Eastern Europe” still matter, or not? Those are some of the questions we asked our interlocutors.
Sven Spieker: In your film Blue Black Berlin (2009), Berlin seems to hover between “somewhere” and “nowhere,” or between place and no-place, in Robert Smithson’s terminology. Is Berlin a place or a no-place?
Ana Bilankov: Berlin is both, a place with some no-places inside it. Blue Black Berlin is one of my most minimalistic videos. All seven shots detect some kind of no-space somewhere in Berlin. The video is shot at night behind the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The work is autobiographical, even if it is also very abstract. I wanted to develop the whole drama through the sound, which was created by Berlin-based, American composer Tyler Friedman. In the beginning you can see an idyllic night promenade along the Spree River with walkers, cyclists, and boats. This slowly turns into a fictitious and potentially catastrophic scenario of militarism. The video questions the dynamic and changing conditions between peace and war, the moment when normality may turn into war. The idea for this work came to me after a I was invited to the exhibition called Seafaring Route: Berlin, Tel Aviv, Beirut at Artneuland Gallery in Berlin, which does not exist anymore. I became curious about these cities in relation to (un)visibility of war. Berlin is now at peace, but what about 75 years ago, or Croatia 25 years ago? By the way, Smithson’s photostat “Proposal for a Monument at Antarctica,” which I saw at the archive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was a big inspiration for me for my New York video New Town Future Film (2015).
SS: How did you end up in Berlin?
AB: Berlin was my youthful dream for some reason. At the end of ‘80s, in the former Yugoslavia—I think in ’87, when I started my studies—I had this feeling that I had to go to this city. Before coming to Berlin I had been to Mainz as an exchange student from Zagreb, and I decided to stay in Germany but still finish my degree in Zagreb in art history and German. At this point, in the beginning of ‘90s, in Croatia there was the war and all of life was shaking, both personally and collectively. I had lost my brother very tragically and was looking for some new space in my life. I was twenty-six and everything had been turned upside down. And the whole intellectual and theoretical discourse didn’t really mean anything to me anymore at the time. So I started a photography course with a friend and then went to art school in Wiesbaden, where I stayed for two years. The program of the school was very much influenced by the Bauhaus. Photography was a very important new world for me, especially this possibility to experiment in the dark room and construct your own little visual world with fragments of reality, and turn them into something abstract. Then I discovered the postgraduate course “The Fine Arts in Context” at the University of the Arts in Berlin, and I came here at the end of 1999 to study for three years.
SS: What did you know about Berlin before coming here?
AB: I was very influenced by urban culture in the former Yugoslavia, but I also knew about the art and music scene in Berlin, the band Einstürzende Neubauten e.g. who were playing on their metal bottles in some underground clubs like SO36. I also knew about the painters of the Neue Wilde generation, and I just thought, “ I have to go there” since this was evidently the place where the avant-garde was happening. In 1987, Wim Wender’s film The Sky Over Berlin came out, and I was immediately in love with this city. Even when I see the film now, many years later—the atmosphere!
SS: Can you say something about the atmosphere at the University of the Arts (UdK) at the time?
AB: The Fine Arts in Context at Udk was an open course of collaborative projects and new ideas. I had a really good time learning, networking, and creating there. In the beginning I had trouble with the Foreigners’ Registration Office to get my visa in order to survive as a student and as an artist, which was not easy. In the UdK course we were all thirty or older, and we could design our projects with the real prospect of showing them in an exhibition. My first project was a site-specific group show in a local church. At the same time I started to be active at Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (NGBK) in the Kreuzberg district, the left-leaning art cooperative and gallery in Oranienstraße. I was also a co-founder of the group Kunstcoop© whose emphasis was on art education and mediation. We were seven women who for two years worked together as a group. We wanted to create something new in the area of gallery education which was very conservative at the time. So we invited people who might otherwise not visit the gallery to come to NGBK, including refugees from Bosnia or the Turkish community from the streets around the gallery. With them we created different formats of art mediation, including workshops, talks or actions in public space. At one point the project became a bit overwhelming for me and I just wanted to make more art. Still, this period has influenced me very much politically, even though in general I’m not an explicitly political artist, and I always try to connect the political issues in the backround of my works with some kind of poetic and abstract language.
SS: Cities such as Berlin, New York, Moscow, and Zagreb play an important role in your art. What makes Berlin special for you?
AB: Berlin is changing a lot. Earlier, when you would walk through the center of the city there were always these undefined empty “no-spaces” that had been, for instance, part of the Berlin Wall. Now you cannot even find such spaces anymore. It’s a big city, a very open minded city, and I used to feel that I could do whatever I want. On the other hand, I also had big problems with all of the bureaucracy, a pretty traumatic migrant experience. Now of course since Croatia joined the European Union, these problems do not exist anymore, but it took me eight years, until 2008, to get my resident status.
SS: Has life for an artist in Berlin become more difficult over the years, personally and as an artist?
AB: Yes. Berlin is really a transitory city: it’s great to come here and stay for a while and then go away, but it’s really difficult to remain. I have my friends here, a social network, but yet somehow things are getting harder and the city is losing a little bit of the “wild” urban culture from earlier on. And it’s still a struggle to survive here as an artist with teaching and similar jobs; the competition is huge, and you are one of more than 10,000 visual artists. Eighteen years ago, when I first came here, there were more possibilities than now.
SS: What can artists do to gain some degree of visibility here?
AB: There are no big opportunities to show your work here, unless you organize and fund them mostly on your own, or network all the time, which is exhausting. Many international artists who came to Berlin in the last few years, because it is still cheaper than New York or Paris, are invisible here. They typically work with international galleries and get financial and other support from their countries of origin. Everyone would be happy to exhibit in Berlin, so the bigger art institutions do not have problems to attract the artists from all around the globe, and they are not necessarily supporting Berlin-based artists. There are some grants for artists administered by the city of Berlin, but not so many compared with the huge number of artists who live here. I was lucky to be supported by them three times, twice for international residencies in Moscow and in New York, and recently with a research stipend for my new project.
SS: You began your career as an artist in the post-Socialist era. Still, the socialist past is strongly present in some of your works. Your films suggest that history is best approached through its material layers—layers that can also overlap and intersect. Could such thinking about history and its materiality be linked to Berlin as well? I was thinking of your film U Ratu I Revoluciji (In War and Revolution) from 2011, which deals with the political situation in Croatia in the early 1990s, yet which begins with a shot of the Monument to Burnt Books in Berlin’ s Bebelplatz. In your film, the memory of your grandmother intersects with memories of these vanished books, and both these things, even though they are removed from each other in time, are brought together.
AB: The first shots are filmed on Bebelplatz, with the shadow people mirroring themselves in the glass above the empty shelfves of the underground “library” that is the Monument to Burnt Books. With this introduction I wanted to place the film’s story in a broader historical context. And yes, there are several historical jumps and overlappings in the film. The main person in the film U Ratu I Revoluciji (In War and Revolution) is my grandmother who at the point of filming was 97 years old. The beginning of her biological amnesia became for me a symbol for the politically motivated amnesia in Croatia at the beginning of the ‘90s regarding the disappearance of the “communist” books. This was the time when the new Croatian national state was created, after the collapse of Socialist Yugoslavia.
SS: Could you say a bit more about the book whose disappearance your film mentions?
AB: The book is The School in War and Revolution, a historical book with a lot of archive materials about school education during the resistance against the Nazi occupation in WWII. It was written by my grandfather. My grandmother appears on one old photograph inside as an anti-fascist teacher, somewhere on the hill. The book was published by a big publishing house for school books and history books in Zagreb in 1988. In 1991 I couldn’t find it in any bookstores. Like many other books it was labeled "communist” and hence inappropriate, and it disappeared.
SS: Does “Eastern Europe” as a concept matter to you as an artist, or for the way in which your work is understood here and elsewhere? If it does matter, how does Berlin figure on a global map in which the “New Europe,” which is also rapidly changing now, still overlaps with older divisions, such as the old East/West divide that date back to the Cold War?
AB: I like to work contextually with different geopolitical places, but in my Moscow videos and photographs you can see that Eastern Europe really does matter a lot to me. I was there in 2004 with a grant from the city of Berlin, and the city had a huge impact on me. I wanted to see what we find nowadays in the empty spaces left behind by the big Communist or Socialist utopia. I saw old people demonstrating in Red Square with their red flags, and I had the feeling that this was some kind of a staged performance or a fatamorgana, something that is present and absent, or reality and fiction, at the same time. These pensioners seemed like aliens in the turbo-capitalist picture of the city, they were totally lost in time and space. Young people can jump into the boat of capitalism very quickly, but these pensioners were floating. There were also other strange and absurd things, and I was questioning things a lot, which was very creative. When I came back to Berlin I thought I would try to get a flat in the Eastern part of the city, just to preserve a little bit of this sensation from Moscow. It is not so strong here, but I thought maybe you can still smell it a little bit more of the East there than in the Western parts of Berlin.
SS: What about the Balkans? Do you feel connected to the Balkans as a space, a concept, or a fantasy?
AB: I do not feel like a “West Balkan artist”, a term that is used often now. I do not know what it means exactly. The art system likes to pigeonhole you, but that does not work with me.
SS: Thank you!
Berlin Pankow, October 2018
Other interviews in this series: