Borka Pavicevic: Word of thanks & speech
Your royal Highnesses, dear Princess Margriet, dear Princess Laurentien, Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed and gracious hosts, friends:
Diversity acknowledges that we share space and time, but that our landscapes and histories differ.
Right now, we are sharing this grand and beautiful moment in a city that for centuries has been a gateway to and from distant lands and peoples. Centuries of travellers have shaped this place, its identity, its understanding of culture, and they continue to do so. It's all about defiance: they defy geography to reach a place that is the center of a community without borders, the symbol of freedom of movement. We are here this evening because of them. In gratefully accepting the honor accorded me by the European Cultural Foundation in this European city that has thrived on diversity and wrestled openly and often painfully with what it means, I thank you -- and all those travellers -- for a legacy that celebrates restlessness, movement, rebellion and resistance.
There is a famous program used in European educational systems that teaches what culture and diversity mean by walking with students, schoolchildren and their families through the streets and neighborhoods of their towns. The program began in a primary school in Amsterdam. Let me follow that example and take you on the walk to work that I make every day. To paraphrase, Professor Stuart Hall, last year's recipient of this award, perhaps in that way you will see how we "try to resolve the contradictory realities of belongingness," and how we, in turn, "disturbingly see” into the worlds of others.
The Center for Cultural Decontamination is on Bircaninova Street in downtown Belgrade. Bircaninova, our street, is a steep hill. It starts at the river that divided the Austro-Hungarian from the Ottoman empires and ends in an intersection with a street called "Boulevard of Liberation."
At the bottom of the hill is the old railyard, the railroad workers' settlement of small flats built on what was then a Soviet model and, a little farther away, a police station that has many tasks, as you might expect of a police station across the street from a railyard. One of the tasks is to regulate the movement and registration of foreigners. Another is to prevent Roma migrants from reoccupying the space under the railroad bridge.
Just a short walk away, halfway up the hill on Bircaninova, are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, across the street, the Ministry of Defense. Both were severely damaged -- destroyed, really -- in the 1999 multinational NATO "humanitarian intervention" that was supposed to stop ethnic cleansing but failed to do so. Taking pictures of the damage is now one of the city's major attractions for tourists who come to the city. Giant stone and concrete pieces of the Ministry of Defense still hover precariously over passersby on the sidewalk. Across the street from the Ministry of Defense is a new Chinese restaurant.
Further up the hill, on a corner, is another cafe, called "Little Paris." The name was ironic or maybe black humor. Last year, "Little Paris" was mysteriously renovated to look more like what someone thinks Paris looks like -- and now the sidewalk of the sidewalk cafe is impassable from all the big, black Jeeps and Audis.
Lodged a little farther, among the Bulgarian, Italian, Swiss and Finnish embassies, is our Center for Cultural Decontamination. We are right next to the German consulate. It used to be the East German embassy. For many years, people would line up in the wee hours of the morning, several hundred every day, camped on the sidewalk, waiting to apply for visas. They concocted makeshift chairs and stools to ease the pain of the wait. We made an art exhibition of the chairs and stools.
The great humanitarian and advocate for justice, the late Vane Ivanovic, who spent most of his life as a refugee, visited us, saw the mass of people camped outside the German consulate and built a toilet in our courtyard for the exclusive use of Center for Cultural Decontamination theater- goers and visa-seekers for Germany. For years we had to make a special footnote in financial reports to explain to donors why the Center for Cultural Decontamination used so much toilet paper and cleaning supplies. They thought it was ironic or maybe black humor.
The other day, walking to our Center, I beheld an amazing sight: there were no lines in front of the German consulate. No one. The sidewalk was empty. That was the day the visa requirement was repealed, and the current citizens of the current country whose current passport I currently hold could once again travel freely, in defiance of geography. They had been able to do that years ago, in the space and time called "Yugoslavia".
I am a real-time witness to how the idea of multiethnicity or the policy of multiethnicity has become the formulation of diversity. I have been both an actor and acted upon in that process.
Let’s say that you can experience it all, all at once, the whole spectrum from internationalism to multiculturalism to cultural diversity. You don’t have to go anywhere. No, you stay where you are. Sometimes your country changes borders around you. More often, though, you become a foreigner because your country starts to treat All Those Other People like foreigners.
You may expect someone from the Balkans to say that. You may think it is a reference to what is euphemistically called "the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia." It is more than that – or we would not all be here this evening. Reterritorialization is not a Balkan invention. Edward Said calls it "not belonging," the perpetual formation of majorities that reject minorities. New states form that perpetually invent enemies and histories, so that we get what Gil Anidjar calls "history of the enemy."
It's not about nationalism or ethnocentrism or religion: it's about marking territory and claiming (or expropriating) property. War and the process of transition from socialist property use identity and "the national question" so that new owners can establish territories under their control. Culture in those circumstances becomes either a commercial product or the expression of "spiritual values" that help maintain national hegemony. Its ultimate product – you will have heard this terminology before – is the New Man, but one who doesn't think much, is generally apathetic and remembers nothing. And he doesn't have any problem whatsoever with violence.
Diversity in those circumstances is primarily a political categorization. One can be "diverse" according to how much (or whether) you are seen as loyal or patriotic, how much you agree with the origin of things, including the origin of the species. It is never measured by how much you are defiant. Diversity in those circumstances means subversiveness – and, above all, autonomy. It does not acknowledge boundaries. It denies the uniformed man's demand for papers, regardless of his uniform. It is a creative challenge, the precondition, the First Principle of making art.
We are back to where we started. It's all about defiance.
On the southern end of the European continent, we have a sea, and we were also once the center of a community without borders, with our own diverse travellers who have come and stayed or come and gone. Like you to the north, we honor their acts of restlessness, movement, rebellion and resistance. And that is why the doors and windows of the Center for Cultural Decontamination are green.