PhD student in the Balkan Studies program, Ljubljana
Eric Ušić is a PhD student in the Balkan Studies program at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is currently working on his doctoral thesis and researching post-World War II graffiti in Istria, Croatia, under the supervision of professor Mitja Velikonja. Eric holds an MA degree in Cultural Studies, received at the Faculty of Philosophy in Rijeka, Croatia. He published papers in Croatian and Slovenian scientific journals and participated in several international conferences. His field of interest includes cultural studies, visual ethnography, memory studies, Balkan studies, and Istria’s contemporary history.
- Starting on a more general note, could you tell us something about your research background and interests?
I am currently researching political graffiti that were created during World War II and predominantly in the immediate aftermath of the war (1945-46). The study is framed as a historical and visual-anthropological research. From a historical perspective, I am analyzing the context of production of these political public writings and their position in it, examining their meanings and functions in the historical period in which they were written, as well as exploring experiences and memories of their authors, and various media representations and interpretations of graffiti. From a visual-anthropological perspective, which is the central part of my research, I am conducting a visual ethnography of the surviving post-WW2 graffiti. This includes the following: documenting and mapping the surviving graffiti, analyzing their compositions, aesthetics, contents, patterns and their symbolic relation with the surroundings. Furthermore, I am attempting to interpret their position and meanings almost 80 years after their production. This refers to a different socio-political, post-Yugoslav context shaped by political forces and dominant ideologies that are in stark contrast with those political positions and ideologies that supported the writing of post-WW2 graffiti and were articulated and visualized through them.
- Exploring graffiti that were made during and after WWII is an intriguing topic. As you’ve mentioned in another interview, people often pass them by without paying a lot of attention, although there seems to be much we can learn from graffiti. What inspired you to pursue this topic?
A couple of years ago, I started to notice red inscriptions on the walls of my hometown, Vodnjan, as well as on public surfaces of other Istrian towns; inscriptions such as «Long live Tito«, «Long live Stalin«, «We want Yugoslavia«, etc. I have seen them before, but I didn’t pay much attention to them until I realized that I know nothing about those graffiti. Then I started to ask myself some questions: who wrote them, when, why? What do they mean? I started to dig a little bit, but found almost nothing in the broad scientific and non-scientific literature dealing with recent Istria’s history, except for one essay written by Ivan Zupanc in 2003, and some occasional remarks on the margins of historical studies. Then I realized that this unexplored topic has great research potential, both from a historical and visual-anthropological perspective. However, except for this «empty» space that could be filled with broader research on post-World War II graffiti, there were two major triggers.
First, what moved me was my amazement caused by the huge quantity of surviving graffiti that I found during my preliminary research: I simply couldn’t believe that there were hundreds of graffiti out there, graffiti with such strong and – from a post-Yugoslav point of view – «controversial» political messages that survived for more than 70 years and are still undocumented and unexplored. Then I decided to abandon a purely historical perspective and to combine it with thorough visual-ethnographic fieldwork. The second trigger that motivated my research were the numerous interactions and informal talks I had with many different people living in various parts of Istria. While talking with them about my research interest, I received useful information, remarks and (post)memory fragments, and realized that these post-WW2 graffiti are small parts of the Istrian «collective knowledge» or, from a Gramscian perspective, fragments of the Istrian «common sense». During these interactions, I observed how people contextualize and understand them, and deduced that these graffiti are taken for granted as remnants of the past, as self-evident «truths». But wherever there are self-evident truths, there is a need for a critical reflection and systematic research.
- What makes Istria particularly interesting for exploring graffiti?
Firstly, there’s the quantity and quality of post-war graffiti present on walls across the region: by quantity, I mean that graffiti can be found in many Istrian towns in great number (not to say almost everywhere); by quality, I mean that many of them are still well preserved and can be fully read. This combination makes them a kind of «open air» archive. Therefore, those graffiti can be conceived as fragmented spatial notes of Istria’s political and cultural (auto)biography. Namely, the graffiti somehow reflect Istria’s recent and tumultuous history, they are visualizations and expressions of particular historical ruptures, processes and events that radically reshaped Istria’s political, social and cultural life.
Another important aspect of Istrian graffiti is bilingualism, a cultural characteristic of the region. Namely, graffiti were written both in Croatian and Italian language. Croatian writings can be found in those parts of Istria historically inhabited by Croatians (mostly in rural areas), while Italian inscriptions can be read in areas historically populated by Italians (mainly in the then urban, industrial and commercial centers, mostly on the coast). Thus, graffiti are also a kind of cultural-historical and socio-linguistic markers.
The third and last aspect that I will introduce here is that Istria was not part of Croatia or Yugoslavia until 1947. The majority of these graffiti were written in 1945-1946, when it was still unclear whether Istria will be reintegrated into Italy or annexed to Yugoslavia, and they functioned as visual and public expressions of those parts of the population that strived for the Yugoslav solution. Thus, those graffiti can serve as symbolic reminders of the contingency and temporality of borders, nation-states, and hegemonies – of those things that are perceived as natural and (re)presented as eternal.
Also, it should be noted that some aspects I have pointed out here apply to the surviving post-WW2 graffiti in the Slovenian Littoral and in Rijeka – this whole region went through more or less similar processes in the immediate postwar period.
- Have you noticed any intriguing differences between war time and post-war time graffiti?
Yes, there are many differences between them, so I will highlight only two aspects. The first main difference is the context of their production and the mere practice of writing. Namely, writing graffiti during the war was a hazardous activity. For instance, there are some written testimonies of resistance activists (i.e. graffiti writers) who remembered how they were shot or arrested by fascists when writing graffiti. I had the chance to interview two graffiti writers that were writing during the war, and one writer that was active in 1945-1946. While the two «war-writers» had to be very careful and used to write political slogans and resistance messages only at night in small groups, the «postwar-writer» emphasized the sense of euphoria while participating in collective graffiti writing actions.
Another difference is their function. During the war, graffiti were used as «symbolic weapons» in the struggle against fascists, and they were a particular «mass media» employed by the Partisans: on the one hand, by writing on the walls the activists were subverting the dominant symbolic order and the fascist control over space, while on the other they were dispersing condensed resistance messages to local population, explaining political and military goals of the resistance movement, informing local inhabitants about their presence, trying to mobilize fighters, etc. The functions of postwar graffiti were different. Their main function was to express «the will of the people» to live in Yugoslavia, and to highlight the Croatian and Slavic background of certain places. On the third level, another function of postwar graffiti was to emphasize the readiness of those pro-Yugoslav and pro-Communist Italians to continue to follow Tito after the war victory. The context and functions thus shaped their contents and meanings: for example, while Partisan wartime graffiti consisted of slogans condemning fascist rule and celebrating the resistance movement and antifascist fighters, postwar graffiti pointed out how many fighters «fell in the struggle for the annexation of the region to Yugoslavia«, or explicitly expressed pro-Yugoslav claims. However, there are some constants: both during and after the war, activists wrote graffiti that were celebrating Tito, Stalin, communism, antifascism, Yugoslavia and «the brotherhood and unity between Italians and Slavs«.
- Fieldwork is a significant part of your research. How do you usually go about it? Are there any related anecdotes you could share with us?
Wherever I go, I try to thoroughly inspect the public space of towns and villages in order to find still present, surviving graffiti. In other words, I observe walls and other public surfaces. Until now, I visited and scrutinized around 200 locations in Istria and found more than 600 examples of graffiti – fully readable, fragmented or only faded traces of the inscriptions. I am using my camera to document them, doing fieldwork from the position of an ethnographer-photographer as elaborated by the visual anthropologist Sarah Pink in her book Doing Visual Ethnography. I have three ways of searching and finding graffiti. First, while reading and analyzing historical sources, I single out certain locations and then I go there to inspect them and check if the graffiti are still present. This is especially the case with archival photographs or media records of graffiti. Second, my friends, colleagues and acquaintances often inform me if they come across graffiti when they are travelling in Istria. This helps me a lot and I am very grateful to them all. Third and last, when I don’t have specific information, I simply travel randomly through different places and try to cover as much territory as I can.
Beside the visual documentation, I interact with local people when there is a chance to talk. I am interested in their reactions and how they interpret graffiti when I tell them what I am doing and ask them if I can take a photo of an inscription on their house. People are often amused by what I do, and some of them even told me that they actually never noticed these writings on their walls until I asked them. People with whom I had informal conversations had different ways of contextualizing and interpreting post-WW2 graffiti, but for the majority of them the graffiti were triggers for a comparison between Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav times, and as such, triggers for a sharp critique of the current socio-political situation and a nostalgic look backwards. Of course, there are many anecdotes in these situations and in fieldwork in general. Some people invited me to their homes to drink their wine, some of them wanted to show me some «hidden» interesting stuff in their hometown, while others proudly showed me their home collection of Yugoslav memorabilia. Except for people, I met friendly goats, cows, dogs and cats, and once I had to run from an angry dog that was chasing me.
- You once mentioned the possibility of planning an exhibition as a practical output of your doctoral thesis. Could you tell us a bit more about this idea?
Although I am not a photographer and I’m not trying to be one – and this can probably be noticed by looking at my photos — I think that a photo-exhibition of the ethnographic material collected during my fieldwork could be interesting for those who are not familiar with post-WW2 graffiti. Since both the research and topic are highly visual, photography – that I am using as an ethnographic research tool – is an adequate way of documenting and (re)presenting the surviving graffiti. Such an exhibition could potentially function as an introduction to a widely unknown and particular political practice, and as a short visual introduction and overview of less known symbolic aspects of Istrian post-war political and cultural life. In addition to a historical perspective, a photo-exhibition of surviving graffiti could give an insight into the contemporary Istrian political, cultural and memory landscape, with its emphasis on historical political texts embedded in the everyday public space. For now, there are plans to create an exhibition in Rijeka soon, and some talks about a photo-exhibition in Ljubljana are taking place as well.
In addition to exhibitions, I would like to create an open archive with all the material I collected during my visual-ethnographic fieldwork. If all those photos of surviving graffiti remain exclusively with me, I think they will be useless and the photo-documentation process will be pointless.
- Are there some aspects of your topic that you would like to explore further in the near future?
Of course, since there is never enough space and time to explore every aspect. I had to focus on particular questions and leave other questions aside. I hope that I will manage to deal with them later. Further on, I would like to extend my research to other regions as well, since graffiti were written almost everywhere across Yugoslavia in the World War II period. Beside the topic of graffiti, my historical research opened many new and intriguing questions related especially to the postwar context in Istria: the establishment of the Communist government, relations between local Italians and Yugoslavs, the mass departure of Italians after the war, everyday life, cultural activities and political rituals in the immediate postwar period, and the memory culture of World War II in Istria.
- Last but not least, what are some thoughts that you associate with conflict?
The reflection on conflict could go deep into history, so I will focus only on modern times. What comes to mind first is that we live in a system where conflict is a structural problem, a system that is in itself a deeply conflictual one and is based on sharp class, national, and gender divisions that produce conflicting interests and asymmetric relations of power between different social groups. It is a kind of «factory» of both material and symbolic conflicts, both on the social level and on a subjective, existential one. The question of conflict in such a system is thus deep and broad, it crosses both the macro and micro scales of modern society and it has its explicit and implicit motives and causes. Namely, when looking at the bigger picture of more drastic modern conflicts between different groups of people or different states, there are foreground and background interests and triggers: usually, the so-called national interests in the front, with private interests lurking from behind. For example, the wars during the dissolution of Yugoslavia are depicted as struggles for national emancipation and realizations of common national interests, while in the background they were in fact struggles for a radical redistribution of wealth and social property in favor of the then future elites closely tied to the ruling parties. Thus, social and political conflicts are Janus-faced, both on the discursive and material level, and are tightly connected to asymmetric relations of power, social hierarchy, and interests of those in power. But conflict is not always associated with the «top-down» perspective: conflict is sometimes the last available tool for the oppressed, for those whose voices cannot be heard and for whom a direct material or symbolic conflict presents the only way to point out their problems and needs, to try to achieve emancipation and improve their living conditions, to react to injustices and discriminations faced on an everyday basis.
Interview: Katarina Damčević