Zvonimir Dobrović

Resisting temptations

© Zvonimir Dobrović

Zvonimir Dobrović is the Artistic Director of Queer Zagreb and Perforations festivals. He is the producer of Sounded Bodies Festival in Croatia. He has been an invited curator of several festivals or events – Limit Festival Belgrade, Balkan focus Onassis Cultural Centre Athens, Contrefuge Le Quartz Brest. His next international curating projects are Ciclop Festival Mallorca (September 2023), Perforaciones Buenos Aires (November 2023), Queer New York / Skirball Arts Center (February 2024) Zvonimir managed the Raimund Hoghe company from 2011 – 2014 and has executive produced several international network meetings and arts management education programmes (IETM Zagreb 2012, Kennedy Center Arts Management course in Croatia).

He is editor of over 40 books, taught arts management and curating classes as guest lecturer / speaker at Yale, Columbia, NYU, Academy of visual arts Zagreb, Academy of dramatic arts Zagreb and numerous other informal education programmes.

When I founded Queer Zagreb in Croatia in 2003, Croatia was a society burdened by patriarchy, religion and tradition. The social norm was heterosexual and a very narrow understanding of heterosexual at that. It was not enough to be straight to be ‘normal’ and tolerated, let alone accepted. Gender (and ethnic) roles had been clearly defined and it was easy to fall outside those social norms. Introducing the term ‘queer’ into that system of values required creativity, thinking beyond traditional understandings and readings of queerness.

That is why one of the first definitions of queerness I offered in order to illustrate the subject in a public forum was that queerness was ‘anything outside the norm’ and that norms depend on geography. In that sense, at the time, a single mother could also be seen as queer in Croatia – or any other society similarly obsessed with patriarchy, religion and tradition. Understanding queerness in such a way initially allowed Queer Zagreb to open up a discussion about marginalisation beyond purely sexual identity or (artistic) practice. Queerness could also be understood as socially conditioned – and a whole range of circumstances and individual realities can make someone queer in certain societies. In that constellation, it was easy to think that what might be queer in Croatia was not so in the Netherlands; what might be queer in Brazil might not be in Thailand, and so on. Queer Zagreb introduced different spheres into our discussions of queerness around the world – social, ethnic, class, and racial dimensions, among others.

What is queer depends on geography – and that conviction has made all the difference when curating queer art. This has allowed Queer Zagreb to suddenly follow a very specific curatorial and artistic line which would make it artistically innovative and in a way break with the common curatorial understanding and expectation of queer performing arts. Suddenly, in the most unexpected of places, a festival emerged seeking to challenge the position not only of a queer community in a conservative society but also to challenge the position and understanding of queer art in a wider artistic landscape.

And when we come to a wider artistic landscape, we must be very careful to foster consciously a landscape that continually allows more daring and radical ideas to form within the sector, without fear that challenging current ideas with new ones will hurt our position -or the prospects of that next job we have been eyeing for a while.

Organising festivals a lot of the time these days seems like resisting temptations. There are many pressures laid on top of festivals in the form of expectations beyond their artistic role. These are political, economic, commercial, educational pressures that are potentially soundproofing the strength and creativity of artists into silence or complacency. I am not completely sure what would actually be required to resist those pressures collectively, but I guess the resistance to those pressures would also depend on geography – just like concept of queer does, as explained above.

However, one common thread could definitely be shared among us all – we as a sector need to learn to share the power that we have, to empower those outside of our “safe” circle to also have a place within it. We need to learn to see the “others” on the horizon better and be prepared to make room for them and their ideas. We need a glytch in the current system of power-dynamics and work on pushing the margin to the centre – so that we can discover new margins we do not even see from our current positions of power whatever for each of us they may be. To be able to do so it is crucial we understand that wherever we are as curators, directors, policy makers etc. it most certainly is a position of power in relation to someone or something outside ‘our’ circle.

This glytch in the system is of course not going to be done by organisations whose programmes you could not distinguish from one another, if by chance you looked at them without their logo on top. Those replicas seemingly curated on autopilot are not the ones pushing boundaries. Change lies somewhere else; it lies beyond the revue programmes that are the easiest ways of serving the lowest common denominators – and those are driven mainly by numbers, whatever they may be counting and representing: audiences, sponsors or budgets. Once we give into measuring our success through those parameters, the philosophy is usually the bigger the better and the margin goes out the window. True transformation lies beyond programmes that are driven by appeal and numerical success. Instead, it requires a commitment to artistic integrity, risk-taking and exiting the comfort zones of – audiences, sponsors or budgets. Of course, it can be argued that one approach does not always exclude the other.

The problem with that argument in the long run would be that, without fail, the numbers we are forced to chase after are always generating some kind of trap, usually in the form of needing to be “safe”. Safety in arts, like resistance or queer, depends on, you guessed it – geography. Safety in arts is also recognised quite easily in the most dangerous understanding of the word: non-challenging. So, whatever in (y)our own local context does not challenge (any) ideas is pretty safe to do. However, even if the boat is perhaps not being rocked, it is slowly sinking nevertheless. By not doing exactly the opposite of safe or non-challenging from and to our own positions we hold, we have to understand that we are co-responsible for the landscape in which we work. Art is always political – even when it is conforming to it, of course.

This is even more visible in societies where funding of the arts is depending on a smaller pool of opportunities and more often than not those are closely tied to politics filtering through two main levels of funding (municipal and national). In those situations there might be nowhere else to go but into the measurables that we are required to reach to show we are really – needed. Because in this new system we are adhering to, art is simply not enough.

We are faced with taking on other roles that might belong to social and educational services of the state – artists today must be educators, facilitators, giving workshops for whomever and whenever as part of serving communities – so that we can keep justifying our existence to funding bodies at different levels. And you know who loves those activites, too? Sponsors and corporations. We somehow bit by bit agreed to be jumping through hoops designed by those to whom art simply is just – an activity. Ideally, a safe one.

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