Sava Stepanov. Photo courtesy of the Festival

We live in unsettling times: ravening capitalism at home and throughout the world ruthlessly preys on human strength without offering anything acceptable in return. Man is victim of the system. The individual is divided from his or her work and life functions, since big capital has no use for autonomous beings aware of their own economic, political, social and cultural needs. Danger to the individual has reached a global apex. We grasp at straws to save us from growing alienation and the loss of identity brought on by the universal deformation of the lives we lived hitherto. In the midst of today’s chaos the human need for art is ever more pressing and art must play its special part. As Dostoevsky once wrote, it is a well-worn truth that ”art cannot change the world, but it can make it better and more tolerable. ”Conceptual artist Yoko Ono warns us to ”take care to make yourself a better person, but at the same time think of making a better world.” It is vital to establish a systemic functioning of art whose very character would contribute to its becoming contemporary, modernist and avant garde, injecting itself into society as an example to other kinds of knowledge and other practices, and thus providing an alternative. In the midst of global insecurity we need new concepts, new systems. Therefore we need to see today’s artists “come out” into the broad expanse of the new media, if the world-wide digital network is not to swallow us up, leading us into automatism and even more drastic alienation, more convoluted dependence and despair.

Nona Inescu, Waterlily Jaguar. Photo courtesy of the Artist

The organisers of the exhibition, ambitiously titled Quo vadis mundi?, wanted to see how artists react to the present state of the world. A merciless liberal capitalism, originating in the most developed democracies, has divided populations into two groups: the first a minuscule number of mega-rich capitalists (a mere 300 of whom own over 50% of the world’s capital), while the second group is made up of the remaining billions of inhabitants, now turned into an expendable resource.  The main means by which this minority achieves domination over the rest of the world is through the power of technology. Shoshana Zuboff speaks of a concept she calls ”surveillance capitalism”, based on the legacy of the technological revolution, where the goods most highly priced are Shoshana Zuboff data. She speaks of the abuse of data as money-making machinery on the one hand and an important psychological process on the other, enabling not only penetration into the thoughts of others, but having the power to transform them.[1] 

Zuboff also points to the astonishing influence of technological progress on economics, politics and human psychology. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism emphasises the fact that the users of technology are no longer clients but have themselves become the raw material of a revolutionised industrial system. In this way, personal freedom has become a good. General psychosis, depression and alienation have become the hallmarks of human consciousness in our age. In Slavoj Žižek’s opinion, mankind has arrived at this pass due to rushed attempts to change the world in the 20th century, which led to the formation of giant corporations closely allied to government agencies, economies and the secret services. This led to ”neofeudal capitalism”, a system given to the open exploitation of humans, the degradation of personal dignity and billions of lives, while threatening our essential humanity.

Adrien Ujhazi and Nemanja Milenković, Vivarium. Photo courtesy of the Artists

The crisis facing today’s world is multi-dimensional. Clearly, we are in need of radical ethical change, a new global ethic where art should act as a corrective.  Can present-day artistic practice produce such a thing? Novi Sad art historian and theorist in contemporary artistic practice and new media, Dr Sanja Kojić Mladenov, in her introductory paragraph to A European Excursus: Peripheries and Places of Diversity, sounds a note of hope: “In these circumstances of fluctuating value systems, of re-examination of borders, formal, media and space frameworks, and of emphasised hybridity in art, the multi-layered nature of contemporary art practice develops in the crossbreeding process of its different components through mutual communication and networking rather than the separate functioning of each. The seemingly infinite and elusive European art scene focuses on the many diverse existential conditions of the multicultural world, in which critical questioning of the current status quo, of multiple different standpoints, systems and power relations is important and challenging, especially by raising issues of (self)sustainability, utopia and realities.” 

So far, all Danube Dialogues exhibitionshave mooted themes that occupy the contemporary mind: Art in the Age of (Un)emotionality, Art in the Age of Global Insecurity, The Use of Man, Quo Vadis Homo? and so on.  This objective was fulfilled by the artists, who consistently respected the aesthetic dignity of works that suggested the importance of an ethic inherent in their individual systems, and visualised in a way that was clear and legible. The multi-disciplinary communicativeness, contextualisation or medialisation of their expression direct us towards a spiritual solution of the biological threat to man and nature (human and natural resources), while accentuating the moral and ethical slippage occurring before our very eyes in the early decades of the 21st century. This ability to observe with a thinking artistry raises awareness in situations where we need to become involved.

After all, is that not the whole point of art?                                                                                     

Sava Stepanov, Artistic Director

[1]     In 2020, billionaire Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, announced the merging of the human brain with machines, creating cyborgs that would enhance human efficiency: ”Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.  It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.” This is necessary”, Musk explains, ”because computers can communicate at a speed of a billion bytes per second, while people whose main means of communication is tapping on a mobile device, can communicate at only 10 bytes per second”.