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Belgrade Calling

Coronavirus entry

25 Apr 2020

Katarina Kostandinović

DIARY ENTRY no1. A few weeks ago, right after the WHO has announced the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, I found myself scrolling through the internet in search of some news explaining what that means. Since the beginning of the 21st century there’s been two pandemics, the first one was the 2009 flu pandemic or the so-called swine flu, and the second one is the current coronavirus pandemic. Also since the beginning of the new century there’s been numerous deadly epidemics worldwide – Ebola, SARS (another zoonotic disease caused by the SARS coronavirus), just to name two. I cannot recall the situation in Serbia during the 2009 pandemic, and probably the situation then (even though just a decade ago) was a lot different…

DIARY ENTRY no2. The situation with the coronavirus in Belgrade began its outbreak in the second week of March, almost a few weeks after the scandalous press conference of the Crisis Management arm of the Government of the Republic of Serbia and medical experts. While the epidemic was on the rise in Italy, Serbian government officials and experts made jokes about the “funniest” virus in human history, and that the Serbian people had endured so much suffering and distress over the past three decades that such a virus would be nothing to “us”. More than a month has passed since the conference, the number of people infected in Serbia is increasing day by day, intercity and inner-city public transportation has been stopped, a curfew has been introduced in all cities from 5pm to 5am during weekdays, and a total lockdown during weekends. News reports say that this is the biggest movement restriction since World War II.

DIARY ENTRY no3. Like most people in the world I now work from home, programs in public and private institutions across Serbia are suspended until further notice, only markets and shops operate. Every day is the same, I wake up, scroll through the news online that contain corona headlines, foreign, domestic news, everyone reports the same, and statistics change day by day. I don’t have a TV, so I filter sources and information as much as possible. We are forced to minimize our daily habits and even abolish them, but somehow the human psyche is resilient and wants to test whether things will really “explode”, waiting and doing things the way we are used to. The flow of time is strange, my days have never passed faster, and leisure and working time blend into one another. The very thought of future projects becomes a hazy projection, and the question that logically arises is: does it matter at this point? All of a sudden everything becomes bizarre, like a commercial for space travel. I’m thinking the virus could mutate and turn some into feverish zombies who cough and sneeze at people, and these people immediately turn into them and continue to spread the virus. Something between the Jim Jarmusch movie “The Dead Don’t Die” and British apocalypse comedy “Shaun of the Dead”. That seems like a good idea for a comic book in the graphic form of “The End of The Fucking World”. 

DIARY ENTRY no4. Overwhelmed and frustrated. Don’t make a podcast – I keep telling myself. Spend less time on Instagram, post less on Instagram. I am so surrounded by all this social media content that it just pressures me to produce something similar. But then I realize how stupid that sounds, and continue scrolling. Then again, in what other situation would I say,“let’s see which opera is streaming now on Vimeo?” By now, a large number of institutions and organizations have cancelled and/or rescheduled their programmes, coming up with meaningful ways to re-design them and finding innovative ways of communication and presentation.  But then the logical question arises: what after? Is all this content temporary? The internet is already a space of overproduction, it is already becoming overwhelmed with loads of information, virtual tours, podcasts and other content. Social media platforms are the perfect virtual meeting places, so it is only natural that as museums and galleries are closing their doors they are focusing on their online accounts. Many are sharing videos, live streams and online events etc. The movement and circulation of images and words is quite literally what we all do. I think it’s important to look at online programs not as a space to memorialize the exhibitions that were, or the exhibitions that could have been, but as its own medium – some installation shots, a few photos collected together, or a virtual tour just isn’t enough. Many articles also appear to suggest the acceptance of this new pace, us slowing down in this state of uncertainty, staying at home to rethink our future plans, if any. Being surrounded by such overwhelming digital content makes me think about different ways of rethinking accessibility, archiving, and documentation of the “site specific” content.

DIARY ENTRY no5. It seems that slowing down and accepting this new pace isn’t beneficial for everyone, like some lifestyle blogs are suggesting. Due to COVID-19 we are also facing the biggest economic crisis since 2008. Many Serbian people, gastarbeiters, migrant workers, freelancers that are living abroad are being faced (or threatened) with job losses and forced to return to Serbia. Public funds for culture in Serbia are definitely going to be reduced even though for years now the sum has been very modest, except of some special (state) cultural projects. Many independent spaces, freelance curators and independent artists are, even more than before, very much endangered. Just before the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe it came to my attention that many contracts made with public institutions that facilitate exhibitions and discursive programmes don’t have provisions concerning change of circumstances of the contract in the case of “higher power” (as it literally translates from Serbian – “viša sila”). Many contracts between institutions and independent workers are made in a way that exclusively protects the institution where the event takes place, and all responsibility rests entirely with the other party. For example, I was invited by two artists to curate their exhibition in one public institution in Belgrade scheduled to open in mid-March. Having realized the severity of the situation, the number of infected people increasing, Italy “shutting down”, we urged the institution to postpone the exhibition, explaining that all public institutions would soon cancel their programmes and declare a State of Emergency. Representatives of that institution threatened us with a lawsuit, however luckily we succeeded to cancel the exhibition two days before the opening, and without any legal consequences.

DIARY ENTRY no6. I found myself google searching for photos regarding environmental changes caused by major industries shutting down, banned tourism and social distancing. There are many images of clearer water in Venice canals, “clear” sky over China and Europe, wildlife walking the streets of UK. There is also a sense of immense solidarity among people, helping endangered groups during the pandemic, sharing and delivering food and other supplies. I then scroll through some conspiracy theories and fake news (to humor myself) – most interesting are those about 5G network, and Dean Koontz’s novel “Eyes of Darkness”, among others. And there are many google searches about those who seek to benefit out of the situation, and these are mainly politicians. The State of Emergency in a way blurs some priorities in the time of movement restrictions and raises alarms about how human rights are being balanced against the risks posed by COVID-19. It seems like a flashback from a recent history; something is rotten in the state of Serbia.The most dramatic example in Europe so far has been Hungary, where Prime Minister Orban used his Fidesz Party’s parliamentary majority late last month to push through legislation that allows him to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. Though his government says the measures are necessary to protect lives, there are worries that Hungary, a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has become an effective dictatorship [1]. Similar accusations are being made about the Serbian President, who shut down the country’s parliament as part of an open-ended State of Emergency he declared on March 15. The army has since been deployed to parts of the country, a 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is in effect and people older than 65 have been banned from leaving their homes. And a recent public debate about the Government’s decision on information duringthe coronavirus pandemic, which prohibits crisis staff of municipalities and cities from giving information to the local media and the public regarding public health, just proves these suspicions right. Luckily the decision will not come into effect, due to many protests coming from the EU, but it seems that it was definitely motivated by the case of the journalist from Novi Sad being detained by the Serbian police after writing a critical text on the handling of the coronavirus epidemic. [2]

(Not a conclusion) It seems that all we can do is wait and hope for the best. The urgent is highly likely to crowd out the important. We can just speculate the options for a world after the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic is a new kind of crisis, one that involves testing the behaviors and beliefs of billions of people, and that has public health, economic, political, social, psychological and cultural dimensions.

Katarina Kostandinović is an art historian and curator based in Belgrade, Serbia.
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