Y? is a multilayered artistic and research project focusing on collecting and recycling the facts and myths about the Yugo car and the broader context opened by this phenomenon of the Yugoslavian automobile industry. The four members of the team understand the car as a pronounced symbol and the bearer of the identity of a specific period of time, which can represent a foundation for uncovering new ideas and for reflecting on the past through a contemporary perspective.
The story of the Yugo is dynamic and dramatic in its own way. In the US, the car plummeted from sales hit to object of mockery and an allegory for poor quality in a relatively short time. On the other end of the world, in the area of the former Yugoslavia, the former peak of Yugoslavian industry has become a symbol of the sentimental, socialist past and a catalyst of individual and collective memories. Today everyone has their own views on the idiosyncratic phenomenon that provokes smiles and comments regardless of the facts.
The Road Map of a Memory
Zavodi Crvena Zastava (“Red Flag Factories”) was an automobile and weapons manufacturer that left its mark on the collective memory of the former Yugoslavia with three legendary automobiles – the Fiat 600 or Fičo, the Zastava 101 and the Yugo. The latter made an impression in the USA as well – more than 140,000 units were exported there in the second half of the 1980s. Now we can again follow the reprise of this grand endeavour by the Yugoslavian automobile industry through the export-import journey undertaken by the project Y? Yugo four decades later.
True, the Yugo was most often known as the butt of jokes, as the best worst car ever made. But! Just like some films are first shattered by official reviews, then go on to become cult classics, the Yugo attained cult status as well. Of course it is foremost and at first glance a car, a means of transport that takes us from point A to point B like so many others. But at the same time, the Yugo is a symbol of a certain era: “This is my personal museum, when I sit in it, I’m in Yugoslavia,” smiles one of the featured people. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll keep it, I can sell everything, but never my Yugo!” swears another.
The path from Kragujevac to Pennsylvania, undertaken by our protagonist, is therefore a journey through time more than anything else, with the Yugo one of the most endearing time machines imaginable. Anyone who speaks about it speaks about the past, and if one can say that the future is the domain of science fiction, then the past we are talking about here is the domain of social fiction. From the standpoint of today’s generations, guaranteed, secure and predictable employment is just an idyllic image of the past. An even bigger fiction, especially in Slovenia, is affordable housing or affordable housing loans. Things that used to be the norm are today a luxury accessible only to an increasingly limited circle of people.
The reverse can be said as well. What used to be a luxury – endlessly stocked department stores, products from all over the world, accessible at any moment – is today the norm. We should not forget, however, that far from the public’s eyes, illuminated only through charity campaigns, live those for whom hyperconsumerism is equally unattainable. For them, life is reduced to the science of survival. That is why it is travelling back in time that, paradoxically, shows us an image of greater prospects, even more so in comparison with today.
“My kingdom for a horse!” exclaims Shakespeare’s Richard the Third after a lost battle. “Our job security and affordable housing for five different types of yogurt,” respond transition politicians in the area of the former Yugoslavia. Keeping the masses believing that the only real freedom of choice is the choice on store shelves is no easy task, however. Above all, social stratification needs to be constantly manufactured and excused. Those who succeed, who become wealthy and influential, have only themselves to thank. Those who do not have only themselves to blame. Every man forges his own destiny, whether born a blacksmith or unable to even afford a hammer – in the case of the latter, there will simply be less happiness to go around.
The image of society as imposed on us by the ruling ideology is an infinite obstacle course on which individuals compete. Social security can no longer be achieved through herd immunity to poverty, unemployment, homelessness. Instead we can only protect ourselves by leaving behind as wide a crowd as possible – the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, migrants, drug addicts, Roma… They provide us with the false sense of security that many are worse off than we are, and at the same time act as a living threat of what can happen to us if we stop running the rat race. Of course this is a race into the abyss, driven by the insane conviction that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. That is why it is all the more thrilling and rebellious in this race to sit in a Yugo and shift the gear to idle or even reverse.
The “back to the future” as directed by the Yugo is unique, as it has the power to bring a smile to the face of the last Zastava worker. A Belgian who broke off the trunk of an exhibition Yugo when closing it. A Brit who has nothing good to say about the Yugo, but must nonetheless admit the car has a special charm. Or a postal worker with a Jamaican accent excitedly taking in the car on the streets of New York. To them, the Yugo is more than just a means of transport; it is also a nostalgic jump into the past.
Nostalgia, this “homecoming” in its original Greek meaning, is impossible and therefore all the more sweet. But times aren’t equal to times. There are eras that provide inspiration and proof that changes for the better are possible. That what sounds utopian today once perhaps was not, and that is why it requires us to reflect on how to somehow arrive at this “no-place” (u-topos) after all. Because the more we think about it, the more real it becomes and the clearer the path to it. A drive in a Yugo is therefore not just a road map of a memory – this memory directs us to reflect on the present and thus on the possibilities for a different future.
Therefore: take a seat behind the wheel, take a seat behind the screen, and let’s go for a drive!
The basis of the project is the repetition of the story of the Yugo, which became famous due to being exported to the American market. More than three decades after the Yugoslavian industry’s major deal, the four project members embarked on a journey from Kragujevac, the hometown of the former Crvena Zastava automobile factory, with a Yugo 55 bought for this exact purpose. Their path took them across continental Europe towards England and then further on across the ocean, through New York, to Mercer in Pennsylvania, where the car was sold. On the way, the Y? team met with individuals linked to the operation of the former factory, current owners and aficionados of Yugo cars, theoreticians, and artists who understand the Yugo as a symbol of a specific time. The journey simultaneously represented the process of exporting the car to the US, the filming of an experimental documentary film, and the establishment of an open creative platform. In addition to the documentary approach, the authors of project Y? brought the ideas of the past back to life through interventions in European and US spaces, confronting the meanings of former symbols by placing them within contemporary contexts and situations. The interventions, created between the political and the poetic aspect, are linked by a site-specific guerilla approach, technical simplicity, and symbolic charge.
The documentary will premiere online on November 30 at 9 pm.
Exhibition 30. 11. 2020 – 1. 9. 2021
The project is supported by: Ministry of culture RS, Municipality of Ljubljana, I-Portunus
Organisation: Kino Šiška