If we adopt a Council of Europe definition of social cohesion as “the capacity of a society to ensure the welfare of all its members, minimising disparities and avoiding polarization”, we can say that social cohesion has not been acknowledged as part of the cultural policy issue in Serbia yet. With the recent shift towards strengthening national identity, many identity policies are directed at the social cohesion of Serbian ethnic group, in fact reinforcing social boundaries.
Where there is thinking on marginalised groups within the official governmental system, it is the social policy that is tackling specific needs of migrants, refugees, minorities, etc. However, within social policy, it is very rare (only as an exception through the help of foreign donors), that art and culture are used.
However, in several museums and cultural centres there are programmes and projects that are inclusive regarding groups with different handicaps. The Museum of Yugoslavia has developed special programmes for associations of persons with hearing and speech impairments, educating their members to be guides/translators in sign language. At the same time, they trained its curators for understanding the needs of people with hearing and speech impairments. Newly built venues (cinemas, museums, etc.) are planned to host persons with physical handicaps. Sporadically, there are also programmes and projects for the visually impaired (Faculty of Music, Workshop of Integration, etc.) and for children and young people with autism. Since 2014, the Theatre at Terazije enables children and youth with autism to perform together with professional dancers and musicians in the inclusive musical “Enchanting travel”. That also raised awareness of the local community that autism does not prevent communication and participation in cultural life. The project continued with a group: the vocal-instrumental ensemble “Nebograd” (Skycity) that creates their own music (text written on computer by a child who does not speak and performed by autistic children that master different performing skills). For New Year’s Eve 2018, they performed together with the Children Philharmonic Ensemble at the Sava Centre under conductor Ljubiša Jovanović. Although it seems that all these efforts are sporadic and linked to personal enthusiasm, it has to be underlined that public cultural institutions are offering their venues as support (i.e. Yugoslav Drama Theatre for performances of children with Down syndrome; Theatre at Terazije and Sava Centre for children with autism, etc.)
The main actors involved in the social cohesion programmes and projects are NGOs and international donors. In this respect, we can cite several cases of good practices carried out in the last several years. Such projects have particularly been developed within the latest “migrant crisis” in which Serbia was an important passage for those travelling to EU. In comparison to other countries on the route (Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary), Serbia has been praised as welcoming and friendly. However, when it comes to cultural and artistic activities, it was mainly independent organisation and artists who took the lead, except the Museum of Yugoslavia that hosted several and organised few programmes by themselves.
In recent years, since the migratory route through the Balkans has become more common among migrants and the borders more heavily policed, the transit through Serbia for migrants trying to reach the EU has become more difficult. The documentary “Welcome to Hotel Europe” by Sara Preradović shows the everyday life of migrants in the “jungle”, an informal station for migrants on the outskirts of Subotica, at the Serbian-Hungarian border, as they attempt to reach Europe. Their hopefulness, strength and solidarity helps them survive the life in hiding, the police repression and the cold winter. In the process of making the film, Sara built really close relations with migrants before filming.
NoBorderSerbia is a non-hierarchal self-organised network of people who share a freedom of movement perspective on migration issues in Serbia. To show at least a symbolic support to migrants, the NoBorderSerbia organised a small solidarity action called “Chai, not Borders”. Action involved distributing tea, info materials and donations to migrants who waited to continue their journey. During the action in 2015, the park in front of The Faculty of Economics (situated next to the main bus station) was re-shaped and defined by banners, posters and slogans which had clear messages against current migration policy of European countries.
The seminar “Human on the Road” was cultural centre REX’s second debate dedicated to the public attitudes towards the institutional treatment of migrants passing through Serbia on their way to Western Europe. The seminar “Human on the Road 2” focused on issues related to negative phenomena in the Serbian public sphere (in spite of enormous efforts of public administration to organise hosting and passage), such as different forms of police repression towards migrants in Serbia. It also dealt with the analysis of structural reasons behind such practice, about the sensational tabloid media coverage that demonizes migrants and creates a climate of fear among the general public, as well as racist and discriminatory attitudes of some public services and many citizens. Contrary to the dominant narratives of migrants as illegals, victims of political regimes, criminals and objects of control and exploitation, the seminar discussed migration as a social movement.
Artist Zoran Naskovski continued his project “Mandala and the cross/farewell to arms” with the analysis of media representations of social processes in 2015, that resulted in a new installation: “Mandala and cross / blackness, refugees and economic gamble”. The research was based on archived daily papers and weeklies and a comparative analysis of crucial events depicted and presented. The archived printed media were: The Economist, The Financial Times, New York Times, Time, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Politika, etc.
Mikser is a good example of socially responsible, although a self-sustainable organisation. As soon as the number of migrants in Serbia and in Belgrade began to grow, they organised a series of actions to collect aid for them. The Belgrade community was mobilized to bring –in necessities, food and hygiene products, and Mikser House also urged people to voluntarily join and help this organisation in supporting migrants. After the first summer actions, they decided to launch official projects that will allow constant financial help and support to refugees and asylum seekers.
“Misplaced Women?” is an art project-workshop by Tanja Ostojić in which she and the project`s participants – artists, art students, cultural workers and activists – showed the everyday life activities that are characteristic for migrants, refugees and other persons forced to travel, extracting their bags and then returning all of its content. During the performance, which has been presented in the park in front of The Faculty of Economics in Belgrade, they were joined by individual refugees.
Mid-2013, Group 484 and associates started visiting centres for asylum seekers in various places in Serbia. They did not want to look at migrants as victims, but as brave people who had taken a big risk and decided to flee from war and misery. They met over coffee, food and dancing, and organised bazaars – the distribution of humanitarian aid looked like a festive fair. The resulting works have become part of an exhibition on the life and journey of asylum seekers and migrants: “The Border is Closed”, organised in cooperation with the Museum of African Art in Belgrade. The exhibition consisted of illustrated migrant maps representing life “in transit”, pillows and blankets decorated with messages and thoughts to the loved ones and other. In addition, there are stickers, badges, audio recordings of interviews with asylum seekers and the game “The Border is Closed”, conceived by migrants, after which the exhibition was named. The game resembles chess in which every player aims to carry his/her pieces across the board over the “border”, trying to avoid different obstacles along the way. Parts of the exhibition became an integral part of “We and the Others”, a seminar for high schoolteachers with educational material for a reflection on migration, discrimination, stereotypes.
Festival “WakEUp!” consisted of film and exhibition programmes and took place at several locations throughout Belgrade. Calling for solidarity and action, “WakEUp!” Festival was opened by graphic designer Mirko Ilić and playwright Biljana Srbljanović. They were participants of the 48-hour long public reading performance, where citizens of Belgrade read personal testimonies of refugees, as well as texts about exile and asylum seekers’ destinies throughout history. The public reading of refugee testimonies had been broadcasted live online, thus reaching far more people than the gallery space could host.
The reaction of the official institutional system to such initiatives is rarely welcoming. The same goes for projects that deal with internal others, like homeless people or Roma. For example: the NGO ApsArt has been working for years to build a bridge between prisoners and the community outside of the prison, creating possibilities for them to reintegrate into society through different art forms, as well as to show that the current penalty system is sometimes producing more damage. However, when prisoners started using theatre as their channel to explain their difficult living conditions, the Ministry of Internal Affairs closed their doors to ApsArt and similar initiatives.