03/06/2013 05:08 pm ET Updated May 06, 2013

High Times in Yugoslavia

In 1968, protests erupted around the world: Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, Warsaw, Tokyo. The protestors, most of them part of a new generation untouched by World War II, demanded an end to war, dictatorships, economic follies, and the culture of death promoted by sclerotic leaders in the East, the West, the North and the South.

Yugoslavia participated in the global events of 1968 from a different vantage point. It was not in the Soviet bloc, nor was it an American client state. It was north of the equator, but it also sought common cause with the South through the Non-Aligned Movement. It promoted a third path -- of worker self-management and a limited private sector -- between communism and capitalism. But it also generated the same communist elite that Milovan Djilas decried in his 1957 book, The New Class.

Yugoslavia experienced youth protests in 1968 as well, though they too proceeded along a different trajectory. In Belgrade, as in Warsaw, the protests began around a theater production. Students at the university were incensed that the administration booked a popular theater group at a small venue, with seats reserved for the Communist youth elite, instead of at an open-air amphitheater. The demands eventually grew to encompass a larger critique of Communist privileges and economic inequalities, and 10,000 students occupied the philosophy and sociology faculty at the New Belgrade campus for a full week. The Yugoslav leader Tito, addressing the nation on television, supported the student demands and temporarily resolved the crisis (he would later mitigate his enthusiasm).

What also made the student protests in Yugoslavia different was that they took place in an atmosphere of relative cultural freedom. Through music, movies, theater, and visual art, artists in Yugoslavia operated with fewer constraints and greater access to Western culture than their counterparts elsewhere in the region. It wasn't quite a situation of "anything goes." In 1963, Tito dismissed abstract art as quasi-art and a waste of money, and Yugoslav films attracted the close scrutiny of censors in the first half of the 1960s. But by 1968, Yugoslavia was a haven for the avant-garde: the Black Wave film directors, the Music Biennale in Zagreb, the International Theater Festival in Belgrade. And rock music was everywhere.

I've drawn this information on the Yugoslav avant-garde from the essay "High Times" by curator Branko Franceschi that accompanied his recent exhibition at the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in New York. In Tune in Screening: Psychedelic Moving Images from Socialist Yugoslavia, Franceschi pulled together examples of the psychedelic films produced in Yugoslavia in the 1960s. The Village Voice picked the exhibit as one of the year's best.

"The title was a good marketing idea since it combined psychedelia, socialism, and Yugoslavia, but it was also very interesting intellectually," Branko Franceschi told me in an interview in his apartment in Zagreb in October. "These experimental films were inspired by the music coming from West, like for instance The Rolling Stones and similar bands. In the essay I made a point of mentioning the famous song 'San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)' by Scott McKenzie, who recently died. This was a huge hit here. In the rest of the Eastern Europe it was sort of a hymn, which they were singing in the demonstrations. Here in Yugoslavia, it immediately became the first hit for the young, up-and-coming pop star Miso Kovac. The verses were translated so that he sang it in Croatian. Thus it was stripped of any political power. It became just another hippyish song. I guess this is a metaphor for what happened to Yugoslavia."

Franceschi has curated some of the most provocative art from ex-Yugoslavia. He and multimedia artist Kata Mijatovic were recently selected to represent Croatia at the 55th Venice Biennale. You can go to their page on Facebook, Arhiv Snova (Dream Archive), and contribute your own dream. In this project, "a large number of participants will create a global 'pool' of dreams; open a space to explore what it is that people dream about today, and ask questions to which we still don't have the answers -- why do people dream, and what is the function of the unconscious in the construction of reality."

In a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about his early experiences with music in Yugoslavia, his memories of war, and the state of the art world.

The Interview

Was there a point in the 1980s or earlier when in the art world you realized that Yugoslavia was not going to last as a unit?

I was an outgoing party person. I had a great time throughout the 1980s. In the 1970s there were shortages, and then of course when Tito died in 1980, that was the first thing. We were already aware of the tensions. Every 10 years there was some sort of upheaval here. So there were these centrifugal forces in the society. But then somehow you always believed that humans would find a way out, would negotiate their future in a logical and reasonable way. Unlike what history has told us, of course.

You could feel this neurosis in society. It got tough here with the troubles in Kosovo, which became such a big issue, and the different republics felt differently about how it should be handled. From the Slovenian and Croatians standpoint, we had this constant frustration that we were bringing the most economically to Yugoslavia. Basically our interests here were more to the west than to the east. So, for instance, I went to Belgrade for the first time on that trip to Greece, and I even had relatives there! That was also the first time I went through Macedonia. I had been maybe once in Sarajevo. In the 1980s, I went for the first time to Montenegro, to Budva. In the 1980s, I was a sort of film fan, so I went to Belgrade for the huge international film festival, which I believe is still happening there. There was also a very lively rock scene, so I used my relatives to go to see that stuff. Other than that, I didn't have any interest in going there.

In the 1980s, the explosion of new wave music and pop culture was actually really amazing. We had such a powerful scene. It was really international and you could love this music even more than something coming from England or the United States. Especially the new wave bands from Belgrade. They rocked much more than the bands from Zagreb, which were mellower. We were very concentrated on what was going on here and in the West.

And then came the magical moment with [Yugoslav President] Ante Markovic, one year before the war, when there was the international attempt to save Yugoslavia. They equalized our wages, dinar for deutschmark. Before that we went through the stages of hyperinflation. Then, one year our living standard improved dramatically overnight. That's when we realized that it doesn't really mean anything. We went from eating at the diner to eating at the restaurant. We went from smoking local brands to smoking international brands. We quit drinking rakia and switched to whiskey. It wasn't about the quality but about the branding.

You know the expression "swan song." So that was it: our swan song. We were young and reckless. We were just joking that this was the end of it all. There was no actual authority. At that moment, in terms of the level of democracy, you could do anything. There was no control. It would have been great if it could have remained that way. There were all these new radio stations starting up. There were lots of initiatives from a young generation full of vision. We felt that we had already become part of the so-called democratic free world. But of course we weren't.

This was 1990-1991?

This was 1989, as I recall. The best was when Miles Davis had a concert in Ljubljana, which I believe was his last tour. And the cost of the tickets was for the first time probably on the international level. It was a lot of money, but I wanted to see him, so what the hell. In the 1980s and 1990s, Ljubljana was much more exciting than today in terms of culture. And it was always beautiful to travel from Zagreb to Ljubljana. Sometimes you had more fun in the car, of course, than in the concert! For many reasons, this concert was sort of a cosmic experience for me. And in the middle of the concert, I was thinking, "My god, if I had been a little stingier, I wouldn't be having this experience." I realized that this is something that no money can buy. You cannot name the value of that experience.

I saw Ravi Shankar in Moscow in 1985. I had that same experience.

Despite all these hardships that we lived through, especially the economic changes like the shortages and hyperinflation, actually the social life was better in a way because we still didn't have any concept of the value of money. On a personal level, I believe it is good. But unfortunately without that concept, society has a lot of problems!

We used to go to restaurants with piles of bills in order to pay for the food. We were young and we were very cocky in comparison to the rest of the Eastern bloc. Everything was cheap for us whenever we would go to Budapest, to Brno. We would, of course, get drunk, insult people, throw money around. Now I'm a bit ashamed of this.

But as I told you, we really got it in the 1990s. That was payback time.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.