In-depth | Yugoslavia

You can(not) live on memories

By - 24.02.2023

The archival project “They Live” documents student dorm life across former Yugoslavia.

“In a city along a cold river / it doesn’t matter which / where the streets fade off in fog / stands the student dorm.” These lyrics come from An A in Camaraderie (“Desetka iz drugarstva”), an ode to living life to the fullest in student dormitories. The author Miladin Šobić, a legendary singer-songwriter from Nikšić, Montenegro, is known across former Yugoslavia as the poet laureate of dorms. His finding inspiration in student life is no isolated case, as demonstrated by many others’ experience across time.

For example, Mijodrag Kujo Novović is very much fond of the numbers 149, 71, 102, 426 and 314. These were the numbers of the dorm rooms he stayed in during his mechanical engineering studies in Podgorica.

“Even if I was to live my life again, nowhere else would I be able to find the cheer and carefreeness I felt in my dorm. It was a one-of-a-kind school of life where we all became the people we are now,” he said, recalling that part of his life with a bittersweet smile.

Student dorm life is a special phenomenon. Regardless of other social or political developments, living in a student dorm means living your life in miniature, an experience always to be retold, a collectively built experience.

In front of the new student dorms (Podgorica, 1975—1985). Photo: Kujo Novović.

For Novović, a native of Pljevlja who began his studies in 1975, Podgorica (or Titograd, as it was then called) was a real metropolis and moving there was a real shock.

“We had this wonderful professor, Vuko Bezarević, who taught us about what to expect in a bigger city; he held those classes out of love. He started from the basics — first, he taught us how to cross the road, given that Pljevlja didn’t have any traffic lights,” Novović said.

“Another thing that had a great impact on me was that my father used to be quite strict; I’m still a little scared of him although he passed away,” he said.  “After freeing myself from the constraints that marked my early youth, I went all devil-may-care.”

It’s these types of stories that the international exhibition and research project “They Live: Student lives through context-based art practices” explores. Led by several public institutions, universities and non-governmental organizations from Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia and Spain, the project has collected photographs, testimonies and memories about generations of students’ lives in the student dormitories.

One of the projects’ interviewees was Srpko Leštarić from Belgrade, a member of the first generation of students who pursued their studies in Belgrade University’s Faculty of Political Sciences, founded in 1966. Later he took up Arabic studies. Leštarić lived in a number of dorms, including the now famous Studentski grad — more commonly known as “Studenjak.”

“If you ask me, student life is the most precious stage in any person’s life. Over the course of their studies, young people are given various tasks, which enables them to learn and gain experience. In spite of being hungry and thirsty, doing manual labor, having no money and struggling with bad public transportation in the city, university years are so valuable and everyone holds them dear,” Leštarić said.

Students dancing in a cafeteria (Belgrade, 1980). Photo: Courtesy of Miodrag Babović.
A courtyard get-together (Belgrade, 1968). Photo: Courtesy of Radmila Đurđević.

However, he said that some people had trouble adapting to this new stage of life though.

“A lot of my fellow students were struggling. They ate poorly and managed their finances poorly. some would often splurge all their pocket money on food or booze in one day. ‘Can you lend me 100 dinars? I ran out of smokes’ became an iconic question,” Leštarić said.

They live

The project “They Live” explores student lives from World War II up to the present, examining the everyday reality of dorm life, cultural habits, free time, relationships, gender relations among students and their participation in social and political currents.

Ongoing since September 2020, it is a collaborative project run by the Belgrade-based Student City Cultural Center alongside the Montenegrin Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), the International Center for Archival Research: ICARUS from Zagreb, the Rijeka Academy of Applied Arts and the Madrid Rey Juan Carlos Universidad Faculty of Audiovisual Communication. The Berlin Art University Institute for Art in Context and the Belgrade Center for Public History are affiliated partners. The project runs through October 2023.

Coordinator Milena Prelević from ICA explained that the idea sprang from a smaller project that the Student City in Belgrade created titled “A Portrait of Studenjak.”

Hanging out in the dorm (Podgorica, 1981—1987). Photo: Sadija Hodžić.
Girlfriends (Podgorica, 1981—1987). Photo: Sadija Hodžić.
Friends (Podgorica, 1981—1987). Photo: Sadija Hodžić.

“It was an exhibition of photos contributed by former and current Belgrade dorm residents. It came to fruition through a photography workshop titled ‘Izvan okvira’ [‘Outside the Box’] and the Student City Cultural Center’s photo archive, coupled with support from the people who stayed at Studenjak any given point between the 1950s and today,” Prelević said.

Due to a large turnout and positive response of the audience, the organizers decided to take the project to a new level. The idea was for the partner countries to set up and digitalize their own student archives, generate discussions on the topic and create guidelines on how to further develop student audiences.

Lorenzo Javier Torres Hortelano explained how Madrid took interest in this seemingly regional story.

“When I saw the call for ‘They Live’ and read about how it would integrate [art and photography], it piqued my interest, so I contacted the people in Belgrade who’re in charge of promotion, Maida Gruden and Andrija Stojanović,” he said, “and we were quick to get to work.”

Students dancing in a cafeteria (Belgrade, 1980). Photo: Courtesy of Miodrag Babović.
A courtyard get-together (Belgrade, 1968). Photo: Courtesy of Radmila Đurđević.

Ivana Bošković from Zagreb also took part in the project. As a student of archival studies, she was tasked with collecting materials, including photographs coming in from the former and current residents of Zagreb student dorms. “They Live” is also close to her heart because she lived in the Stjepan Radić Student Dorm in Zagreb over the course of her studies.

“I have a personal connection with that dorm. This project offered me a glimpse into how significant and impactful campus life actually is. I had such a nice time living in the dorm, so now I’m able to reflect on it,” Bošković said.

Students as the vanguard?

Through cooperation with current and former university students, the goal was to elicit a wide variety of responses to the question of what it means to be a student throughout history.

“Students have always been the avant-garde, pioneering change,” said Novović, though he feels this has changed in recent generations.

There have been some student protests in Montenegro in the last two decades — some of which proved to be successful — but Milena Prelević said that many students interviewed for the project noted a lack of participation and engagement themselves, as well as a lack of confidence among the wider student population.

“When it comes to university students, the activities organized as part of our project — including workshops, curated exhibits and exhibition tours — aimed to spark their interest in examining student life in Podgorica while challenging their role in today’s context. Most of their feedback revolved around the conclusion that students are now overwhelmingly apathetic and unaware of their role and power,” Prelević said.

Party (Podgorica, 1975—1985). Photo: Kujo Novović.
Speech (Podgorica, 1975—1985). Photo: Kujo Novović.

The most momentous student protests in recent history were in 1968. Leštarić remembers the Belgrade protests of that time very well, but he is skeptical of the impact student protesters made.

“Worldwide, 1968 was a year marked not only by student rebellions, but also by the Vietnam War and related bloody demonstrations. Yugoslavia was no exception — blood was spilled, but no one talked about it. Few people mention it even nowadays; even though June 1968 is the subject of a large body of literature that contains a lot of things, but no mention of crackdowns,” Leštarić said.

Student protests and constant clashes with the police lasted for seven days before Josip Broz Tito made a public announcement. Speaking on television, he confirmed that the students were right, and not the government.

“It was all sugar-coated so as to actually crack down on students and their demonstrations,” Leštarić said, explaining that from today’s perspective it is clear that it was a demagogic move, and that the students’ demands were mostly neglected.

Despite all this, 1968 went down in history as a special year that is still fondly remembered.

The exhibition has made Kujo Novović think about the differences between his student days and the life students face today. In his time, he said, “the middle class share of the population was 80%, there were no considerable differences between people and we were all aware of our respective positions within society. It was never a shameful thing to lack money, but it’s different now — if you have little money, you’re automatically ostracized.”

“Do I live now as much as THEY:LIVEd then?”

Part of the project culminated in an exhibition of archival photographs titled “Do I live now as much as THEY:LIVEd then?”

“The title question was conceived as an invitation for all of us together to reflect on student life as a phenomenon, precisely through the archival records that were collected and displayed,” Milena Prelević said.

The exhibition is a collaborative curatorial effort undertaken by ten students, two from each institution or organization that participated in “They Live.” A selection of around 75 photographs taken between the end of World War II and today was collected from former and current dorm residents’ private collections.

“I can say that we curated a fine collection of photos from various periods; for all the former dorm residents, these are bound to have a somewhat nostalgic undertone. It’s really nice and interesting to see a host of such photos in one collection,” said Ivana Bošković, one of the curators.

Milena Prelević added that the photographs and audio recordings they collected gave them an additional insight into the lives of contemporary students and those from long ago.

“Photo materials show us how it all looked back in the day — the get-togethers, the dorm rooms, the halls, terraces and cafeterias — which also enables us to track the spatial changes that took place over time. We can see the dominant trends in terms of fashion, entertainment, diet habits and meeting points, while some photos capture influential socio-political developments.”

Tome is studying (Zagreb, 1990). Photo: Ivana Ferber.
Val magazine (Rijeka, 1 January 1988). Photo Courtesy of Edi Jurković.
Watermelons (Podgorica, 2020—2021). Photo: Magdalena Tošić.

In one of their earlier announcements, ICA said that the process made it possible for current university students to get in touch with different aspects of the lives of former students in order to communicate with them on a deeper and more meaningful level and thus learn more about them as well as their own lives and student experiences.

Moreover, Torres Hortelano said that it was particularly interesting to see how similar student culture and dorm life are between Spain and the Western Balkans.

“Since the Western Balkans and Spain are relatively far apart when it comes to culture, this project managed to show how people enjoyed their campus lives in very similar ways. So, the photos and cultures don’t separate us, but express the same thing in different ways,” he said.

Partner institutions from each country are planning to continue the project and follow it up with additional archival collections and publications.

In the wake of this research, Novović revealed that he has a yet unpublished manuscript on his dorm life.

“I wrote down my memories of the days and people who I hold dear, with some of them being long gone now,” Kujo said. He shared an excerpt from the preface to his book.

“Involving numerous coffees and bottles of alcohol, numerous games of cards or yahtzee and numerous sleepless nights, so many wonderful moments transpired behind the gray walls of my dorm, so cold from the outside, but so warm from within,” he writes.

Among many people he shared the dorms with, Novović recalls one with special warmth, Miladin Šobić, the Yugoslav poet laureate of dormitory living. Šobić surely left fond memories in his wake. As his song goes:  “It’s never easy to leave that circle / Every outing dispirits me/ ‘Cause if I was to grade them, my fellows would get / An A in camaraderie.”


Feature image: A post-study session mandolin, guitar and flute jam (Belgrade, 1974). Photo Courtesy of Radmila Đurđević.

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