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Tito’s Bunker, codename ‘istanbul’, is hosting the second Biennial of Sarajevo, which is curated by Branko Franceschi and Basak Senova.

Picture this: just outside an average village in the foothills outside Sarajevo, a winding road runs along a babbling brook, through pine forests and green hills, leading to a small house, white with red roof tiles. If you were not informed in advance, you would never guess the utterly generic building is the entrance to a spectacular military defence project: D-0 ARK.

Built between 1953 and 1979, 6500 m2 large and having cost 4.6 billion U.S. dollars to build, this underground structure is now referred to as Tito’s bunker. He himself code-named it: ‘Istanbul’. The floor plan shows a secession of 12 connecting blocks forming a horse-shoe that contains private rooms, auditoriums, offices etc. The bunker was conceived and built to be entirely autarkic, enabling Tito, his wife and some 300 party elite members and soldiers to take refuge in the event of a nuclear attack and survive for at least one year, independently from the outside world. Homey, 1950’s floor patterns and furniture exist alongside the nostalgic industrial aesthetics of huge ventilators, generators and communication devices: from room filling radio technologies to the iconic red phones scattered around the offices.

2nd Project Biennial D-0 ARK Underground

On April 26th 2013, the second version of the Project Biennial of Contemporary Art, D-0 ARK Underground opened in the bunker in Konjic, some 47 km outside the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Curators Branko Franceschi and Basak Senova combined two concepts respectively: The Castle, approaching the bunker as inverted version of the classic power symbol, and Time Cube, problematising the ruling notion that time and therefore narratives are linear.

Thirty-five artists were selected, their work was placed amongst the residu of the first edition of the Biennial in concurrence with the Biennial founders’ (Edo Hozic and Sandra Miljewic Hozic) concept, an idea that has charm as the artworks are not treated as disposables, taking up residence in the space, but it does make the coherence within the different exhibitions hard to trace.

Threading deftly into the Time Cub and confronting the building in a surprising way is the video piece What is it that you are worried about? by Banu Cennetoglu (1970, based in Istanbul) and Yasemin Özcan (1974, based in Istanbul). Using a floor plan, a ‘habitat and human energy rebalancing coach’ performs a holographic energy scan to analyse the building, and ‘heals’ it by rebalancing its energy flows. She finds the building to be suffering from a lack of confidence, due to its problematic past and its unclear present identity. The therapist is firm and confident; her analysis is as assuring and convincing, as it is surreal and at times comical. The clear and sober framing and editing of the video pass no judgement on the credibility of the technique or its validity. The piece creates a completely different vision on, or even version of, the bunker. Following a logic or realm of thought that clashes with all the other realms present, the military, the technological etc., the space is effectively (re-)appropriated.

Introducing the outdoors inside, Paul Devens (1965, based in Maastricht) recorded sounds from his road trip from the Netherlands to the area around Sarajevo and pressed them onto a vinyl record. Reproducing and scaling down the information from a GPS logger that tracked his route, a robot steers the record player’s arm over the vinyl, the arm hovers, moves around and dips down onto the record. The sound then bursts in unexpectedly, filling the room with town clamour or bucolic countryside noises depending on where the recording was made. A one-line drawing on the wall traces the journey.

A work which almost, but not quite, disregards the exhibition space is Memorial by Adel Abidin (1973, based in Helsinki). In an animation video Abidin tells of a childhood memory in Bagdhad during a bombardment in 1991, when an important bridge over the Tigris, to which he was particularly fond of, was bombed by US troops. When he goes to see it for himself, he finds the remains of a cow that got separated from her herd on the destructed bridge, and had died alone. In the video the bridge is a generic structure, the city in the background could be anywhere.

The somewhat innocuous story, stripped of its visual site-specificity and told at an unspectacular pace using unsophisticated black and white digital imagery with stiff figures, effectively addresses the need to group together, thus indirectly reflecting on the bunker.

D-0 ARK as an Exhibition Space

The Biennial exhibitions at D-0 ARK are faced with two potentially conflicting points of departure. The initial incentive and on-going driving force for the project is to save this extraordinary example of military heritage from decay. The aim of the cultural strategy is to transform the building into a performative exhibition space with a new lease on ‘life. This artefact however, with its overwhelming history and highly specific aesthetics, is stringent and dominant as an exhibition space. Any artwork exhibited in this context, whether it is site specific or not, can barely escape being little more than a footnote to the spectacle.

Entering the structure, one begins tunnelling deeper and deeper into the bunker. It is a visually, physically and psychologically disorienting experience. The air is humid and the corridors labyrinth like, causing one to grapple with the scale of this man made contraption.

En route, artworks are to be found in all possible nooks and crannies. All artists respond to the context, either directly or indirectly. Some address its appearance, some offer possible analysis of the bunker itself or its political reality. Others introduce analogies to similar structures or dwell on notions of fear, repression or warfare in general. Some succeed in creating a space within a space, allowing the viewer to step into a lee, the work performing as a gateway to the outside world.

In all cases the specificity of the site is ever present in the works. This forces the exhibition into a model that is to be regarded with suspicion: the thematic exhibition. Certainly in this exotic context the artworks risk being diminished to illustrations of a ‘theme’. The role of art within this endeavour comes into question. Artists are brought to the bunker to teach, to challenge, to preserve or to transform. Their work is instrumental to a host of agendas, some of which have little to do with the practices of the artists themselves.

The question arises whether the urgency to preserve the site justifies the ambitions projected upon it. Without question the site is phenomenal but the local art scene, students and general public where conspicuously absent at the time of our visit.

Moreover, when other sites of historical and cultural importance such as the National museum are closed, how does one legitimise the choice for this place over others? Without problematizing the fetishism of military aesthetics itself, one could read a new trend in the way we deal with the lack of public funding in relation to the preservation of cultural and industrial heritage. Whilst for some time it was the former factory that was designated to be transformed into an exhibition space, a newer development shows the former military site as the object of gentrifying forces. And, now that both NATO and Unesco are politically and financially involved, another question would what is the price to pay, i.e. which alliances should or shouldn’t one make, where does one draw the line?

Hybrid Audiences

The existence of the bunker was kept secret until the 1990’s. The schizophrenia of its double function as a military heritage site and as a contemporary art exhibition space is best illustrated by the fact that, independently from the biennial, the structure is now opened up for guided tours which take place twice a week and are operated by local tour operators. Soldiers perform the tours as the museums’ guards. The different groups of visitors mingle within the context, mirroring and merging, as some come to see the building and all it stands for, boldly posing behind Tito’s desk, the red phone on one ear and Tito’s portrait overlooking the scene. For the art-world public, the same red phone is an untouchable, a part of an installation, as the distinction between artwork and art space is, in this impressive context, almost impossible to make.

We had been inside for some hours and as we meandered through the maze-like building two soldiers caught up with us. They politely but firmly informed us it was closing time. With one soldier behind us and another in front we formed a small column and, pausing at works or points of interest along the way just long enough for us to snap a picture, we were briskly marched out of the building.

The Project Biennial of Contemporary Art, D-0 ARK Underground
26 April – 26 September, 2013

Saskia van Stein (1969, Leiden) is Artistic Director & Curator, Bureau Europa, Maastricht, The Netherlands & Philippine Hoegen (1970, Kitzbühel) is an artist based in Brussels, Belgium

Saskia van Stein & Philippine Hoegen

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