On July 15th, the Bihać City Gallery in Bosnia and Herzegovina opened its doors to exhibit The Didactic Wall, an installation by Mladen Miljanović and curated by Irfan Hošić.
In recent years, the city of Bihać has become a migrant checkpoint due to its bottleneck route; a ten-minute drive to the Croatian border, or an hour’s walk. Many refugees displaced by war and economic crisis attempt to cross into the EU from Bihać. The residents' collective memory of the Bosnian War, as well as it being a predominantly Muslim city, initially reinforced sympathy towards the migrants. But the community being already poor, ressources to house and relocate these migrants began to strain. Consequently, the region has seen a dramatic militarisation of its border areas.
An educational third space
“This project was partially due to frustration that culminated last year. Regional, cultural and artistic communities in this region were ‘ignorant’ or 'impotent’ to react in circumstances of migration that have been very dynamic in the past two years,” explains Miljanović.
"As an ex-soldier and refugee, I wanted to see how I could re-use my gained military knowledge for civilians.”
Miljanović's installation acts as an area of education that is twofold: a main fresco and a handbook. Whilst the Didactic Wall consists of drawings, diagrams and illustrations to convey obstacles when crossing borders and how to overcome them, the handbook gathers similarly useful information in a plain, instructional, and practical pocket-sized book. This manual, given freely at the exhibition or available in PDF form online, contains black and white line drawings with short and concise text in English, Urdu, Spanish and Arabic.
“These illustrations are taken/scanned from books that I got during my military education (2000-2001) and redrawn/transformed from military related illustrations into civilian context."
A further element of the handbook’s utility is its pouch of flammable powder in the cover, which, when burnt, gives off coloured smoke to signalise your location.
The importance of the installation happening in Bihać cannot be overlooked. Being a zone of conflict, tension and uncertainty, it is also a place blossoming with potential and opportunity to change the paradigm and stigma that surrounds the refugee crisis. The City Gallery’s location accentuates Miljanović’s practical impact. Indeed, some scholars believe that borders are politically charged and multidimensional: whilst some are ‘natural’, such as mountains or rivers, others are ‘artificial’ and state-created.
Miljanović’s approach interprets borders not as multidimensional bordering processes, but as static lines. This contrast is amplified by the simplicity of the drawings, as well as its instructional “point-A-to-point-B” design.
He assists these migrants in successfully crossing the first important theoretical barrier: language. Indeed, his handbook does not take into account the complexity of the border politics, but rather necessarily simplifies it to allow solutions and guidance for people in dangerous or difficult situations. This radically differs from the familiar political rhetoric that usually results in making life harder for migrants, creating a ‘handbook' for precisely the opposite. Miljanović additionally erases the border between military and civilian knowledge, as well as the social border between Bihać’s permanent residents and temporary migrants, allowing them a shared space.
The Didactic Wall was created in collaboration with NGO Revizor, who emphasise the importance of interdisciplinary scientific work and humanities throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a focus on Bihać.
“The idea of the project was not to collect any donations after its launch, but that for every next exhibition, the hosting institution would have to pay for additional prints of the Didactic Wall manuals and billboard ad space in Bihać. As the city is on the road to the EU-border, migrants who are passing will be shown a set of useful illustrations from the book.”
Today, the project is still very active, presently installed in Montenegro and making its way to Maribor in Slovenia on October 11th. Miljanović seeks to continue art that goes beyond the borders of possible, and use it to make the world a better place.