Blue Exhibition: Access & Metahistoricity in Beograd

Indeed the guard almost seemed to have been hired by the curators to bring to the viewer’s awareness the context of an oppressive regime, on which the work with which the viewer is initially confronted, was designed to comment ...
Blue Exhibition. Curated by Senka Ristivojević and Katarina Krstić. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop

Comprised of twelve works from the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art selected to imitate “the symbolism and values that are most often associated with the colour blue,” including its significance as a colour acquired by French and American revolutions—Paris militia wore blue at the storming of the Bastille in 1789 while Americans favoured the colour because of its opposition to the red uniforms of the British Army—Blue Exhibition (May 18th, 2023 – September 4th, 2023) felt distinctly Belgradian in its simultaneous emulation of liberal democratic ideals and resentment towards historically oppressive regimes (symbolized in the navy of the Serbian military police pictured above), a theme palpable in the month of its opening, with tens of thousands gathering and dispersing and gathering again in the Belgrade city centre like a heart beating just often enough to keep its host alive.

But because I don’t know enough to relate more than that the city-on-a-fence-between-the-east-and-the-west quality of Belgrade is signified by the Sava/Danube confluence-overlooking Pobednik, a statue to victory by the Serbians over five centuries of Ottoman empire—which, significantly, faces away from Istanbul and towards the democratic possibilities of Vienna—I’ll focus on how Blue Exhibition was as accessible an installation as I encountered in all of Belgrade during my one-month residency at the Belgrade Art Studio: curated by Senka Ristivojević and Katarina Krstić in collaboration with Union of the Blind of Serbia, as well as experts from the School for Visually Impaired Students, both Braille and Serbian audio were provided throughout the exhibition, which included texturized and palpable works and was guided throughout by Braille block. [For those unfamiliar with the term (as I was until lately), Braille block is a protrusive floorplate—of two types, “linear” and “punctiform,” the linear indicating continuity and the punctiform indicating warning or a prompt to action—recognizable to the foot sole or white cane.]

Homo Volans, 1965. Radomir Relic. Mixed media. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop

Prompted by friendship and responsible design, I’ve been thinking about accessibility a lot lately. At Tangled Art Gallery in Toronto, for instance, I was expanded by accessibility measures I hadn’t considered before: screens featuring ASL interpretation tilted downwards off the wall to accommodate the sightline of wheelchair-users and a soundproofed room to which attendees were invited to privately stim, tic, take meds, and generally take a moment to themselves. (“You do you” was a phrase that came readily through the voice of Jack, our immaculately hospitable and knowledgeable tour guide.) The exhibition, called Cripping Masculinity, featured clothing customized to non-normative, masc-identifying bodies, prompting, for instance, awareness of clothing’s loudness: it’s considered impolite among sign-language users to wear bright, complexly patterned clothing because, as they say in the theatre, it pulls focus, distracts, and even fatigues the listener. News to me.

But back to Belgrade. Using the camera function of Google Translate, I read the curator’s statement, scanned the QR code for the introduction, and listened along to discussion of the emotional/social/cultural significance of colour; but when I scanned the first artwork’s accompanying QR code, a Serbian voice was speaking. I tried to toggle the website and find the English audio—no dice. I went to the front desk and asked the person there where I could find the English audio description for the context of the actual artwork. “There’s isn’t one.” “Was that for aesthetic reasons?” “Budget.”

Blue Exhibition Curators’ Statement via Google Translate. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop

So, I’m not a went-to-school-smart-person—okay, I’m not a graduated-from-school-smart-person—but I recall reading Barthes, who describes experiences of this kind as a “punctum” (Latin for “a point”—hence “punctiform,” formed of points). I was punctured: in this life of obscene, near-universal opportunity—cishetero business-owning well-connected Canadian-passported muscleymasc whiteguy residing at a lux European arts residency—the idea that it “wasn’t in the budget”—a euphemism invoked by organizers everywhere meaning “we didn’t budget for it”—to accommodate my needs was, for a brief, sharp moment, actually incomprehensible. I sat for a moment in the knowledge that one of my more basic accessibility needs hadn’t been met. How readily and always I assume they would be. How many of us, do you think, enter public space with the assumption that their accessibility needs won’t be met?

But returning to the work at hand once more, consider the stand of dummy Serbian militia of the Beograd installation featured in the first photo in this response: their uniforms are fitted with speakers emanating digitized bleeping sounds, radio hiss, and gruff, muffled chattered, a sample of which is included in the sound file above. Consider that the likeness of that very audioscape was produced by the museum’s blue uniform-clad security guard’s walkie talkie and chiming cellphone as he moved throughout the exhibition, keeping an eye on things. Indeed the guard almost seemed to have been hired by the curators to bring to the viewer’s awareness the context of an oppressive regime, on which the work with which the viewer is initially confronted, was designed to comment …

Keeping an eye on things, 2023. People, task, space, institution. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop
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