Live Projects: Yugoslavia Suite


Still image from Yugoslavia Suite

Yugoslavia Suite is a major work for sound and video created in 1999 in response to the crisis in Kosovo and the bombing of Yugoslavia. The work was premiered at Real Art Ways (RAW) in Hartford, CT, September, 24, 1999, and was toured in the Balkans, including former Yugoslavia, immediately after.

Since then Yugoslavia Suite has been performed extensively, including at the Musique Accion Festival (Nancy, France), the VIPER Festival (Basel), the Sons d'Hiver Festival (Paris) the Futuresonic Festival (Manchester), the Montreal Festival of New Cinema/New Media, the Mountain Standard Time Festival (Calgary), and many more.

The tour of the Balkans was the subject of a lengthy journal, which was published in The Wire and will also be included in Ostertag's forthcoming book, Creative Life.

The work is highly unconventional and difficult to describe. Below is a DESCRIPTION OF THE CONCERT, and well as the PROGRAM NOTES FOR OCTOBER 1999 BALKANS TOUR. Both of these are available as downloadable files in the Promotional Materials section. 


The piece has two movements: WAR GAMES and THESE HANDS

* For War Games, I sit on stage and play a fighter-bomber computer game. The game is projected large on a screen. But I have specially programmed the game controllers to manipulate the game in unorthodox ways, and also to mix in footage from actual US Army and Air Force training videos, cartoons, actual bombing videos from Yugoslavia, and more. The piece proceeds from the unaltered bombing "game" through various kinds of collage to total chaos.

* In "These Hands," the entire stage is dark except for a small light on my hands, which are all that is visible. The hands are also projected on a large screen. The work is a sort of "hand opera". The gestures made with the hands manipulate sound and images, all from the civil war in former Yugoslavia. The work is difficult to describe, as I don't know of anything that has been done like it.

I will try to describe one part in more detail: There are separate video clips of Tudjman, Milosevic, and Karadzic. As they speak, of course they move their hands. On the stage, I make the same gestures with my hands, and the images of my live hands are mixed in with the video clips, so, for example, my hands and Tudjman's appear to be moving together, or almost appear as one. But the gestures I am making with my hands are also manipulating the sound, which is the sound of people applauding Tudjman at a rally.

* After the concert, audience members will be invited to stand in front of the camera and make comments on the piece or the situation in former Yugoslavia. These clips will become the basis for an eventual third movement, which will be created after the tour. Hopefully the tour will cover enough different locations to get a real cross-section of comments.


Yugoslavia Suite
A. War Games, B. These Hands

by Bob Ostertag with Richard Board

Perhaps it is a crazy idea that an American artist should go into the Balkans in the wake of 10 years of war culminating in the NATO bombing. What could an American, coming from so far away and knowing so little, have to say to those who lived through these experiences every day? Isn't this part of the problem, that Americans feel they can sit in judgment on far away peoples?

I do not think, however, that it falls to art to pass judgment. What art can do is open new windows for reflection, to help us contemplate more deeply and see things from new angles. Judgments people make may be influenced by art, but only indirectly. Art that seeks to judge stops being art and becomes political speech.

Not to belittle speeches, which are important and necessary. I have made some myself. But hopefully tonight's concert will not be a political speech but rather art.

I do believe that we live in a global community, in which we are called upon to reflect on, and take positions on events in far away lands. 

I come to this from the position of an American citizen, whose government is unique in the world at having amassed the technological means to project military power anywhere in the world, at no risk to itself or its soldiers. The recent bombing of Yugoslavia was the first time that American spokesmen explicitly articulated a moral position vis-à-vis this capability: that there are causes for which Americans should be willing to kill, but not willing to die. A truly shocking development.

I also come to this as an artist who has used technology extensively in his art. And it is striking that the technology NATO used to bomb Yugoslavia is the same technology I use to make art. Which is also the same technology used to make the computer games which simulate the real-life wars. 

This is an historically new development. The technology used to make, for example, violins, soccer balls, and automatic rifles couldn't be more different. But today, the tools we use to play, kill, and compose music are the same tools.

I have even worked personally with an instrument designer who, when his musical work doesn't keep him busy, supplements his income by selling the same technology he develops for music to NASA (the US government agency that builds satellites and rockets).

War Games is a reflection on this new reality. The video mixes footage of computer games you can find in an arcade or play on a home computer, computer games the US military uses for training airplane pilots and tank personnel, and actual footage of bombing missions in the Balkans. 

As a member of the audience it will be difficult to tell which is which. Not to worry: neither can anyone else. As I learned doing the research for this piece, the experience of playing a computer game of flying a bombing mission is now so similar to the experience of actually bombing a real city, the US military actually seeks out recruits with extensive experience playing computer games. 

Or take a gunner in a modern tank. Even in actual battle, when he pulls the trigger he is not looking at the actual target he is firing at, but at a screen showing an animated computer version of the target, the same image most of us associate with computer games. 

These Hands, by contrast, is a reflection on the "old-fashioned" kind of war which recently occurred in, for example, Bosnia. The kind in which killing happens at a distance of 3 meters instead of 30,000, and perhaps there is even eye contact between the executioner and the executed.

I have only experienced this through the mediation of American television. Thus this work is more accurately described as a reflection on the experience of watching these images flashed around the world by satellite to my TV. And this again is of course the same digital technology we just discussed. 

I have no idea how these works will be perceived by people whose experience has been at the opposite end of this technology: who saw the real bombs really explode, and lost real friends and real homes, and now worry whether their water is really safe to drink, and their air really safe to breathe.

We sit on opposite sides of a technology chasm unfathomably wide. My hope is that these performances will be part of a dialog across that divide, a dialog we urgently need. 

After each performance, audience members are invited to express their reaction to the performance in front of a video camera. After the tour I will edit these comments into a tape which will be shown when this concert is performed in other parts of the world. I will also make the video tape available to any artist in the Balkans who wants it. If anyone makes something with it, I will try to arrange to have that shown in conjunction with future performances as well. Hopefully, in this way the dialog will continue. 

Many many thanks to the many friends in the Balkans who have done so much to make this happen. 

To jump to the Promotional Materials page for Yugoslavia Suite, click here.