What options of personal and collective imagination are still open in a society whose “Shop till You Drop” consumerism philosophy gets strongest opponent in the Catholic Church and whose primary patterns of social behavior are patriarchal representations of national identities? Can there be a rift, a critical change in perception that will unearth complex relationships that that keep getting ignored, made unfashionable by their lack of “New Europe glamour” and non-marketability, swept under carpet or even openly suppressed, such as relationship to the past and construct of history, negative impact of economic transition, questions of national identity and nationalism, post-war normalization, pro-EU orientation and status of ethnic minorities (primarily Serbian) in contemporary Croatian society?
Or will superficiality and self-deception continue to be focal points of society, elevating the raw and cruel distinction between haves and have-nots to the supreme criteria of success, making it increasingly hard to figure out what we need and what we want? The uniquely Yugoslavian blend of ideology and consumerism, which often made its citizens conceitedly proud about their Western goods bought in the border cities of Trieste and Graz, courtesy of free traveling (as long as one did not become a dissident by publicly challenging the system) and generous’ IMF and World Bank loans, opened the way to the recently historicized narrative of progress from planned economy and one-party totalitarianism towards the free-market and liberal democracy grail. Freedom to buy and to create identity through lifestyle was presented as a basic human right, and in the manner elucidated by Suely Rolnik in her descriptions of simultaneous processes in Brasil, the advent of cognitive capitalism was experienced as a salvation, and almost a whole generation placed “itself in a position of submission and perpetual demand for recognition”, seduced by “the image of self-confidence, prestige and power of the characters inhabiting these image-worlds, as though they had resolved the paradox, forever rejoining the ranks of the supposedly guaranteed'” . But the feeling of powerlessness and disappointment followed soon, with the realization that affluence or feeling of security, let alone happiness, does not come prepackaged with more brands on the shelves.
Two video works made during 2005 in Zagreb, in buildings and on sites historically overburdened with expectations, question the feeling of uneasiness, confusion and mixed desires created by the sweeping changes and traumas of transition towards the new better tomorrow’ of consolidated democracy of the West’ during the last two decades in Croatia. Both works test our perception of relationship between everyday reality’ and place’, and through focusing on young generation’s dealing with the present circumstances, offer rethinking of the ways in which we are determined by seemingly unavoidable geopolitical positions, and how do we deal with them in turn.
The video by Johanna Billing, “Magical World”, was filmed during one summer day, in collaboration with the children’s choir from a cultural center at the city’s periphery. In the manner of a music video clip, the camera zooms in from the city to strange and a bit dilapidated building and takes us through its hallways towards the group of children in summer clothes, rehearsing a song in a foreign language with its ambiguous refrain: “I live in a magical world…” As always in Johanna Billing’s works, the continuation of the video in a loop is devised as an antithesis to the linear reading of the story, and it accents the feeling of understatement, continuous repetition, and the erasure of boundaries between the beginning and the end, so that we are not quite sure whether the musicians that are accompanying the kids pack their instruments back into the car, or take them out. The Dubrava Cultural Center, located in Zagreb’s most notoriously uncultured’ suburb, was during the socialist times one of the biggest of numerous cultural centers, built to foster the cultural emancipation’ of workers in different city districts. However, being built in the economically volatile 1970s and 1980s, when aforementioned IMF and World Bank loans were becoming due, it has never actually been finished. The worn out surroundings of the center combined with the melancholy of the tune sung by kids in patchy English can be seen as a metaphor of the ghost geography of so called Eastern Europe threatened by a rush to adapt to the normal’ European standards of the West. The melancholy inexplicably surfaces in almost every frame, induced by the music, pensive children’s faces, summer in Zagreb and the deserted hallways of the Dubrava Cultural Center, and yet there is magical effect, as suggested by the title, that continues to linger long after, along with the music and the lyrics of the song that one just can’t get out of the head.
Shot just a few months after the “Magical World” the video “These Days” by David Maljković takes us to the former Italian pavilion of the Zagreb Fair, designed by Italian architect Giuseppe Sambito, and finished in 1961. Few people in their late twenties and early thirties are sitting in and around parked cars in front of the building, almost without moving. Both the Zagreb Fair and the modernist beauty of Italian pavilion in “These Days” remind us of the time of optimism, development and vigorous growth’  of the city, but contrary to previous works by Maljković, people in this video seem trapped in time. Even when they look into our direction, their gaze is always distanced and goes right through us. It seems as they are waiting for something, but it is not clear for what. While waiting, with a slow, tired, disinterested voice they pronounce sentences from the tapes for learning the English language. Along with the phrases that tell us of their tiredness and feeling not so well, we hear the typical falsely optimistic phrases from the English language primers, like: “It’s beautiful sunny day!” and “Fantastic!” When pronounced with a tired, depressive voice, the oppressiveness of the good mood of these phrases becomes even more evident. Representatives of resigned generation in “These Days” are tired of waiting for the better tomorrow’, of repeated attempts to get integrated’ into Western system, of feeling constantly exposed to the outside gaze and of the need to position and define themselves in relation to this gaze. In one of his previous videos, “Scene for the New Heritage”, Maljković provokes surprise through using the incomprehensible language composed of the so called gange’ – folk songs which in the urban racism of Croatia in the 1990s became linked with refugees and immigrants from rural areas who contaminate Croatian Europeaness’, while in “These Days” he makes the so called urban Croatia’ incomprehensible in a metaphor of its disillusionment with the project of accession to Europe. However, even in this state of tiredness, resting, waiting, the topic of travel as transformative experience is present in the parked cars. Dead end is a good start, says David.  The topics of confusion, resignation, depression but also of travel that is bringing the change are discernible in all his works. In a study of relationship between the contemporary art and dominant depressive states of today, art historian Christine Ross starts from the sociological research (Alain Ehrenberg) that analyzes depression as a state of fatigue resulting as consequence of individual acceptance of neo-liberal norms, based on the need for constant self creation and recreation of one’s identity.  However, can we also see the depression, as manifested in this fatigue, also reflecting a refusal to accept the normativity of neo-liberal “you can make it if you want it”, embodied in the figure of happy (and successful) entrepreneur?
In a time when a half of the world population is expected to experience depression during their life, and yet this condition is treated as a disease, merely an obstacle toward reaching success, can the opening of the space for a stance and skepticism bring a new type of energy, a new beginning, consciously created means to dodge the advertising tools for taming the citizens? How can passivity and resignation resulting from disillusionment of entire generations be turned into a positive creative experience, and get the public discourse past the omnipresent “there is no alternative,” without resorting to media cynicism or even worse, false optimism?