names, only names…

Anca Verona Mihuleț 

Vi-ste-Partiju-izdale.pdf web

Text from the second publi­ca­ti­on of the pro­ject “You betrayed the Party just when you sho­uld have hel­ped it”

In view of the recent deve­lop­ments in the his­tory of men­ta­li­ti­es and the cons­tant para­digm shif­ts, the explo­ra­ti­on of humanity’s recent past is a mat­ter not only for aca­de­mic rese­ar­ch or phi­lo­sop­hic ende­avo­ur, but a socio-poli­ti­cal res­pon­si­bi­lity that sho­uld be exer­ci­sed with dili­gen­ce and upda­ted ins­tru­ments. The res­to­ra­ti­on of our past deli­vers new modes of reading and tran­s­la­ting sus­pen­ded events, per­so­nal his­to­ri­es or con­tin­gent realities.

Each pro­cess of res­to­ra­ti­on begins with the iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on of the object to be res­to­red, fol­lowed by the analysis of its cur­rent sta­te, and the ack­nowled­ge­ment of its repre­sen­ta­ti­vity wit­hin a spe­ci­fic con­text. It is a soma­tic pro­ce­du­re as much as it is a psyc­ho­lo­gi­cal, invol­ving as it does cer­ta­in skil­ls that have to be com­bi­ned with visi­on and gen­tle­ness. Rebounding betwe­en visi­bi­lity and invi­si­bi­lity, a res­to­rer pre­pa­res the past for its futu­re repre­sen­ta­ti­on. The cre­ati­on of meaning thro­ugh res­to­ra­ti­on requ­ires an astu­te sen­se of time, spa­ce and con­text, but also the capa­city to deli­ver a form able to com­mu­ni­ca­te out­si­de a cons­truc­ted frame.

In 2019, when Andreja Kulunčić star­ted to rese­ar­ch the inter­nal mec­ha­ni­sms and the appa­ra­tus of cons­tra­int behind the oppre­ssi­on of women on the islan­ds of Goli and Sveti Grgur, she ini­ti­ated a com­plex pro­cess of his­to­ri­cal res­to­ra­ti­on, invol­ving seve­ral levels of artis­tic and soci­al prac­ti­ces – site visits, col­la­bo­ra­ti­ons with the femi­nist ant­hro­po­lo­gist Renata Jambrešić Kirin and the psyc­hot­he­ra­pist Dubravka Stijačić, inter­vi­ews with the fema­le des­cen­dants of a few of the women impri­so­ned on the two islan­ds, and the pro­duc­ti­on of a seri­es of art wor­ks, inter­ven­ti­ons and wor­k­shops that were tran­s­la­ti­ons of acti­ons and sta­tes of mind spe­ci­fic to life in the inter­n­ment camp. On the other hand, Kulunčić wor­ked clo­sely with local news­pa­pers having the inten­ti­on of expan­ding the nar­ra­ti­ve aro­und the pro­ject and tran­sfer­ring atten­ti­on to the women’s pri­sons on Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur, usu­al­ly igno­red by the tra­di­ti­onal acco­unts which focus on the men’s penitentiaries.

You Betrayed the Party Just When You Should Have Helped It is a rhi­zo­ma­tic pro­ject that aims to pon­der upon the tran­sfor­ma­ti­on of the body subjec­ted to self-colo­ni­za­ti­on in order to sur­vi­ve in a tra­uma­tic envi­ron­ment, and, fur­t­her­mo­re, to pre­sent met­hods of acti­va­ting a sym­bo­lic loca­ti­on depri­ved of modern for­ms of public acknowledgement.

One could deba­te the appro­ach to be used to talk abo­ut tra­uma and physi­cal oppre­ssi­on. How can we depict tra­uma and pain? More than that, are we enti­tled to depict and dis­cuss the tra­uma and pain of other people? When the Serbian wri­ter Danilo Kiš met Eva Nahir Panić and Ženi Lebl at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in 1986, he was deeply touc­hed by the con­fe­ssi­ons of the two women who had sur­vi­ved deten­ti­on on Sveti Grgur and Goli Otok, Ženi Lebl having also been an inma­te of the Gestapo pri­son in Berlin. Although armed with the rig­ht cri­ti­cal tools and the capa­city to under­stand that would have ena­bled him to wri­te abo­ut the­ir sto­ri­es, Kiš did not wish to take this missi­on fur­t­her. Therefore, he sug­ges­ted to film maker Aleksandar Mandić that he sho­uld pro­du­ce a docu­men­tary aro­und the­ir wit­ness sta­te­ments. In 1989, just befo­re the fall of com­mu­nism in Eastern Europe, the two of them tra­vel­led to Israel, whe­re Danilo Kiš medi­ated the tes­ti­mo­ni­es of Eva Nahir Panić and Ženi Lebl with empat­hy and care – his impo­sing body, hum­ble and tho­ug­h­t­ful in front of the came­ra, was always clo­se to the inter­lo­cu­tor, whi­le the set­tin­gs cho­sen for the fil­ming were ple­asant and full of vege­ta­ti­on, con­fer­ring power on the pre­sen­ces of Mrs Panić and Mrs Lebl and coun­ter­ba­lan­cing the­ir dis­tur­bing accounts.

Survival on Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur was par­tly possi­ble beca­use the women had to conqu­er the spa­ce with the­ir own bodi­es – the body took over the soul denying any tra­ce of sen­si­ti­vity, war­m­ness and not las­tly, femi­ni­nity. The inter­ned women had to objec­tify the­ir own exis­ten­ce for the pur­po­se of facing tor­tu­re and humi­li­ati­on. At the same time, they were subjec­ted to a double form of exclu­si­on – one by the sta­te that was sup­po­sed to pro­tect them, and one by the fel­low-pri­so­ners who sho­uld have pro­vi­ded sup­port and soli­da­rity – and a double form of con­fi­ne­ment – one coming from the camp, and anot­her one coming from the­ir own bodies.

The body of the oppre­ssed is a car­cass, limi­ted and emp­ti­ed of flu­ids due to the hard labo­ur, left bare of dre­ams or hopes – it revol­ves aro­und impo­ssi­bi­lity and rejec­ti­on. Unable to dis­tin­gu­ish betwe­en out­si­de and insi­de, the body of the oppre­ssed faces abjec­ti­on. In the study Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva analyses “the abjec­ti­on of the self”, which occurs “when the subject, weary of fru­itless attemp­ts to iden­tify with somet­hing out­si­de, fin­ds the impo­ssi­ble wit­hin; when it fin­ds that the impo­ssi­ble cons­ti­tu­tes its very being, that is none other than the abject.”1 Deprived from the day-body, the nig­ht-body, the body of the mot­her, and the body of the care­gi­ver, the body of the oppre­ssed fin­ds balan­ce in beco­ming the body of the oppre­ssor, as an effect of the loss of the dis­tin­c­ti­on betwe­en subject and object or betwe­en self and other, as Kristeva expla­ins. Abjection is gene­ra­ted by “what dis­tur­bs iden­tity, sys­tem, order. What does not res­pect bor­ders, posi­ti­ons, rules. The in-betwe­en, the ambi­gu­ous, the com­po­si­te,”2 and in this cons­tel­la­ti­on we can inclu­de the sys­tem of the camp (Kristeva men­ti­ons in this cate­gory the cri­mes of Auschwitz).

At the out­set of the pro­ject You Betrayed the Party Just When You Should Have Helped It, Andreja Kulunčić visi­ted the sites whe­re the bar­rac­ks housing the fema­le inma­tes on Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur were loca­ted. With the sup­port of Renata Jambrešić Kirin and Dubravka Stijačić, the artist map­ped the ter­ri­tory, trying to under­stand what the everyday life of the inter­ned women looked like; the rema­ins didn’t com­mu­ni­ca­te abo­ut the arc­hi­tec­tu­re of the pla­ce or the rhyt­hm of the com­po­und, so the recons­ti­tu­ti­on of life in the camp would have been impo­ssi­ble. Consequently, the act of res­to­ring and retra­cing life in the camp beca­me a cul­tu­ral cons­truc­ti­on that was enve­lo­ped in the form of six vide­os subli­ma­ting the con­di­ti­ons in which the women were wor­king. Together with Kulunčić, voca­list Annette Giesrieg, saxop­ho­nist Jasna Jovićević and dan­cer Zrinka Užbinec con­ce­ived a seri­es of move­ments and soun­ds, catalys­ts of the ten­sed bodi­es bearing the weig­ht of the sto­nes they were for­ced to tran­s­port or of the scre­aming which was part of the inti­mi­da­ting puni­sh­ment rituals.

Through enga­ge­ment and the pro­pen­sity for nur­tu­ring, Andreja Kulunčić attemp­ted to rever­se the ritu­al of puni­sh­ment and oppre­ssi­on – in the sum­mer of 2021, the artist tra­vel­led to Goli Otok whe­re she used sto­nes as plin­t­hs for model­ling a seri­es of clay figu­ri­nes, each dedi­ca­ted to one of the women con­fi­ned on the island. This tem­po­rary acti­on was the first step for the cre­ati­on of 850 figu­ri­nes, encom­pa­ssing the offi­ci­al num­ber of fema­le pri­so­ners com­mit­ted to the islan­ds of Goli and Sveti Grgur, which Kulunčić inten­ds to com­men­ce in 2022 thro­ugh a seri­es of col­la­bo­ra­ti­ve wor­k­shops, dedi­ca­ted solely to women, taking pla­ce in vari­ous loca­ti­ons and the­re­af­ter con­ti­nu­ing at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka. The figu­ri­nes pla­ced on the bur­ning hot sto­nes in recli­ning or sit­ting posi­ti­ons, some­ti­mes iden­tifying them­sel­ves with the roc­ks, act as remin­ders of the hid­den and untold nar­ra­ti­ves of the islan­ds. Never dis­played in gro­ups, always soli­tary, the figu­ri­nes are simu­la­cra of the divi­si­on betwe­en “the inner and outer wor­l­ds of the subject” as a con­sequ­en­ce of “a bor­der and boun­dary tenu­ous­ly main­ta­ined for the pur­po­ses of soci­al regu­la­ti­on and con­trol.”3

The cons­tric­ted clay sha­pes intro­du­ce the medi­ta­ti­on aro­und the soul of the puni­shed; in the opi­ni­on of Judith Butler, who also quotes Michel Foucault, “the effect of a struc­tu­ring inner spa­ce is pro­du­ced thro­ugh the sig­ni­fi­ca­ti­on of a body as a vital and sacred enclo­su­re. The soul is pre­ci­sely what the body lac­ks; hen­ce, the body pre­sents itself as a sig­nifying lack. The lack which is the body sig­ni­fi­es the soul as that which can­not show.”4 The figu­ri­nes are the repre­sen­ta­ti­ons of the pri­so­ners’ souls, born as part of a cre­ati­ve and res­to­ra­ti­ve ritu­al out­si­de the soci­al or artis­tic nor­ms, uncon­di­ti­onal­ly pre­sent whi­le they invo­ke an accu­mu­la­ti­on of absen­ces, toget­her with the ack­nowled­ge­ment of soli­da­rity, anot­her con­di­ti­on of sur­vi­val. In her book The Silent Escape, Lena Constante, a Romanian poli­ti­cal deta­inee who spent twel­ve years incar­ce­ra­ted in seve­ral Romanian com­mu­nist pri­sons (1950−1962), recal­ls the soot­hing effect of soli­da­rity: “When they were pushed, almost des­pi­te them­sel­ves, by the strong, affec­ti­ve, and com­ple­tely femi­ni­ne sen­ti­ment of soli­da­rity. The women, all tho­se admi­ra­ble, mise­ra­ble women of the peni­ten­ti­ary, demons­tra­ted soli­da­rity. For seven years I had time to come to know them. To study them. Young and old, peasant women, wor­kers, and mem­bers of the peti­te-bour­ge­oisie, ill and well, they all sto­od up for tho­se who main­ta­ined the ties.”5

For Andreja Kulunčić, the pro­cess of pro­du­cing the 850 figu­ri­nes toget­her with dif­fe­rent women in the vari­ous ins­ti­tu­ti­ons whe­re the pro­ject will unfold over the cour­se of a pro­lon­ged peri­od of time, goes beyond the ritu­alis­tic for­ce of such a self-regu­la­tory appro­ach. In its essen­ce, it is a cri­ti­cal and cogent ges­tu­re moti­va­ted by the con­tra­dic­tory exis­ten­ti­al thre­ads typi­cal for inter­n­ment cam­ps – soli­da­rity is coun­ter­po­ised by aggre­ssi­on aga­inst each other, just as trust is neutra­li­zed by dece­it com­bi­ned with fear. The figu­ri­nes inform of the appa­ri­ti­on of the meta-body or the body of the sur­vi­vor con­gru­ent with the fun­c­ti­on of the anti-monu­ment, evo­king a per­pe­tu­al sys­tem of inqu­iry over the self and the limi­ta­ti­ons of the self. The anti-monu­ment is as well an object of con­tra­dic­ti­on that invol­ves the disem­bo­di­ment of a per­ce­iva­ble, his­to­ri­cal­ly iden­ti­fi­able reality and its tran­s­gre­ssi­on to a sta­te of vul­ne­ra­bi­lity, whe­re­as the agen­cy of the subject is never surrendered.

On Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur, time was measu­red thro­ugh the repe­ti­ti­ve, Sisyphean acti­on of car­rying sto­nes up the slo­pe and then car­rying them back or rele­asing them down­hill. As Eva Nahir Panić men­ti­oned, most of the women iso­la­ted on the two pieces of land didn’t have the stren­g­th to per­form physi­cal work as they had never used the­ir han­ds in such a man­ner. Therefore, the for­ced labo­ur the inma­tes were exe­cu­ting was a way of tran­sfor­ming the wor­king body into a poli­ti­cal body, exha­us­ted of any form of agen­cy and una­ble to exer­ci­se the habi­tu­al con­duct of the­ir daily lives. The vul­ne­ra­ble women were pushed into an acti­vity direc­ted to deli­ne­ating the boun­da­ri­es of the­ir bodi­es, as limi­ta­ti­ons, soci­al sym­bols and struc­tu­ral or mar­gi­nal human expe­ri­en­ces are the ones that pro­gress toward pol­lu­ti­on, as des­cri­bed back in the 1960s by the soci­al ant­hro­po­lo­gist Mary Douglas. The pol­lu­ti­on powers “inhe­re in the struc­tu­re of ide­as itself and punish a sym­bo­lic bre­aking of that which sho­uld be joined or joining of that which sho­uld be sepa­ra­te. It fol­lows from this that pol­lu­ti­on is a type of dan­ger which is not likely to occur except whe­re the lines of struc­tu­re, cosmic or soci­al, are cle­ar­ly defi­ned.”6

Drawn by the epis­te­mic for­ce of the two islan­ds, Andreja Kulunčić shif­ted her atten­ti­on to the rock for­ma­ti­ons cha­rac­te­ris­tic of the area and recen­tly to the plants that live on Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur. Departing from the ima­ge of the silent bodi­es that were once enga­ged in moving the sto­nes on the slip­pery slo­pes, with han­ds too ten­der to hand­le such rough sur­fa­ces, the artist wor­ked clo­sely with the daug­h­ters, gran­d­da­ug­h­ters and nieces of some of the women pri­so­ners in order to mark the pre­sen­ce of the­ir ances­tors on the islan­ds. The mar­king was reali­zed by way of artis­tic inter­ven­ti­ons that hap­pe­ned in 2020, or in 2021, when two sepa­ra­te sta­te­ments were car­ved into sto­ne, one belon­ging to Vera Winter, and one to Ženi Lebl.

The two asser­ti­ons – We car­ri­ed the sto­ne from the sea to the top of the hill. When the pile at the top was big eno­ugh, we would take the sto­ne back to the sea and It was on your sho­ul­der, Sveti Grgur, that the cla­ssi­cal ques­ti­on to Be(at) or not to Be(at) star­ted. If you beat, you will be. If you don’t beat, you’ll be beaten. – were ini­ti­al­ly han­dwrit­ten by the­ir heirs, Nina Winter and Ana Lebl, and afterwar­ds, the­ir han­dwri­ting was tran­sfer­red to sto­ne thro­ugh car­ving. The sta­te­ments have the inten­ti­on of cre­ating sig­ni­fi­can­ce aro­und the iden­tity of a gro­up of women his­to­ri­cal­ly meant to sig­nify not­hing. Kulunčić uses a com­plex met­ho­do­logy enve­lo­ping arc­hi­val rese­ar­ch, con­tent analysis and artis­tic inves­ti­ga­ti­on in an attempt to gene­ra­te the leap from the poli­ti­cal to the cul­tu­ral body. The ins­cri­bed sto­nes are not spe­ci­fi­cal­ly sig­nal­led; they are left as wit­ne­sses of the inner wor­l­ds of the pri­so­ners, com­pre­ssed betwe­en layers of remem­bran­ce and bodily imper­ma­nen­ce. For the passers-by, the engra­ved roc­ks mig­ht seem direct expre­ssi­ons of the women once inha­bi­ting the islan­ds, not lin­ked to a spe­ci­fic chro­no­logy, but accu­ra­tely loca­li­zed in what is beco­ming a site of memory.

When in 2020 Andreja Kulunčić ins­tal­led the simu­la­crum of a com­me­mo­ra­ti­ve metal pla­te on one of the outer wal­ls of a bar­rack belon­ging to the women pri­son on Goli Otok, anot­her fold of the pro­ject was reve­aled. The pla­te as object, alon­g­si­de the ins­cri­bed text, sig­ni­fi­es the iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on of the locus with a site of his­to­ri­cal and cul­tu­ral impor­tan­ce, brin­ging up the possi­bi­lity of ope­ning it for anot­her type of audi­en­ce and for a con­di­ti­onal inter­pre­ta­ti­on of the sym­bo­lism behind the objec­ti­fi­ca­ti­on of the island, whi­le intro­du­cing the per­s­pec­ti­ve of “the other”. The bilin­gu­al text on the pla­te reads:

U ovoj uva­li i na obližnjem oto­ku Sveti Grgur naizmjenično se od 1950. do 1956. godi­ne nala­zio politički logor kroz koji je prošlo više od 850 žena optuženih za pove­za­nost s infor­m­bi­ro­om. Žene su same mora­le izgra­di­ti sta­ze i većinu obje­ka­ta koji su danas vid­lji­vi samo u tra­go­vi­ma. S iznim­no okrut­nim sis­te­mom kažnjavanja, u koje­mu su logorašice bile pri­si­lje­ne biti i vršiteljice tor­tu­re, logor je bio mjes­to pat­nje i poniženja. Šikaniranje optuženih žena i poli­cij­ski nad­zor nas­tav­lja­ni su i nakon izla­ska iz logora.

Alternating betwe­en this bay and the neig­h­bo­uring island of Sveti Grgur from 1950 to 1956 the­re was a camp for poli­ti­cal pri­so­ners thro­ugh which passed more than 850 women accu­sed of having Cominform con­nec­ti­ons. With an excep­ti­onal­ly cru­el puni­sh­ment sys­tem, in which the women inma­tes were for­ced to assu­me the role of tor­tu­rer, the camp was a pla­ce of suf­fe­ring and humi­li­ati­on. The hara­s­sment and poli­ce sur­ve­il­lan­ce of the accu­sed women con­ti­nu­ed even after they had been let out of the camp. 

By appro­pri­ating the role of a deci­si­on maker in front of an indif­fe­rent poli­ti­cal regi­me, Kulunčić reins­ta­tes a nece­ssary order of thin­gs, one that was missing after the clo­su­re of the pri­sons, almost as if the ins­tal­la­ti­on of the pla­te, a ges­tu­re of nor­ma­lity and res­pon­si­bi­lity in any demo­cracy, gene­ra­tes an alter­na­ti­ve iden­tity for the emp­ty islands.

In the case of Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur, the aban­don­ment of the women’s deten­ti­on cam­ps after the fall of com­mu­nism wit­ho­ut any exer­ci­se of soci­al, poli­ti­cal and cul­tu­ral res­pon­si­bi­lity, begot the ima­ge of the camp as a struc­tu­re of power that can be per­pe­tu­ated and repro­du­ced. “The camp is the para­digm itself of poli­ti­cal spa­ce at the point in which poli­tics beco­mes biopo­li­tics and the home sacer beco­mes indis­tin­gu­isha­ble from the citi­zen,”7 asser­ted Agamben. The pri­so­ners on the islan­ds of Goli and Sveti Grgur had to exert the­ir poli­ti­cal bodi­es in order to sur­vi­ve – they had to punish and beat one anot­her, repress others to esca­pe repre­ssi­on. Again, the invi­si­ble, yet sove­re­ign sta­te, allowed such hor­ren­do­us phe­no­me­na to hap­pen. Having this in mind, the pre­sen­ce of the pla­te shouldn’t be inter­pre­ted as com­me­mo­ra­ti­ve or even as a war­ning; it is a sig­ni­fi­er of the con­sequ­en­ces of a pro­lon­ged sta­te of excep­ti­on. In Giorgio Agamben’s per­s­pec­ti­ve, “The camp is the spa­ce that opens up when the sta­te of excep­ti­on starts to beco­me the rule. In it, the sta­te of excep­ti­on, which was essen­ti­al­ly a tem­po­ral sus­pen­si­on of the sta­te of law, acqu­ires a per­ma­nent spa­ti­al arran­ge­ment that, as such, rema­ins cons­tan­tly out­si­de the nor­mal sta­te of law.8 The exis­ten­ce of the pla­te repre­sents the ending of the sta­te of excep­ti­on and the begin­ning of a new regi­men of meaning out­si­de the new politics.

You Betrayed the Party Just When You Should Have Helped It inhe­ren­tly cre­ates a brid­ge betwe­en a dis­tur­bing event from the past and the inter­na­li­zed way of re-wri­ting our recent his­tory. Over the past three years, Andreja Kulunčić has reve­aled a nor­ma­ti­ve soci­al reality in which the sta­te, the camp, and the bearers of his­tory have been playing a game of hide-and-seek that exce­eds the boun­da­ri­es of a cer­ta­in ter­ri­tory or the­ore­ti­cal path and can be attri­bu­ted to the very con­di­ti­on of an obli­vi­ous humanity.


*An expre­ssi­on repe­ated by Eva Nahir Panić in the docu­men­tary Goli život (Bare Existence) in regard to the inter­ro­ga­ti­ons pur­sed by the poli­ce on Goli Otok. The docu­men­tary was bro­ad­cast in Yugoslavia in March 1990, from a stu­dio in Sarajevo.


Zagreb, December 2021


  1. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press: New York, 1982, p. 5. 

  2. Ibid., p. 4. 

  3. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge Classics: New York and London, p. 184. 

  4. Ibid., p. 184. 

  5. Lena Constante, The Silent Escape. Three Thousand Days in Romanian Prisons, University of California Press: Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 1995, p. 159. 

  6. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. An analysis of con­cept of pol­lu­ti­on and taboo, Routledge Classics: London and New York, 2002, p. 169. 

  7. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End. Notes on Politics, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 41. 

  8. Ibid., p. 39.