Playing with ‘Variations on Mobility’, the four Creative Commissions teams in 2019-2020 have developed their projects along different trajectories traced by the unfolding movements of People, Objects, Texts and Ideas across times and spaces. As small groups composed of academics who have embraced art in their research practices, or artists working in collaboration with scholars across various disciplinary backgrounds, the Commissions engage different Theories and Methods of mobility, working with ethnographic, archival, historical, anthropological, geographical and creative methodologies. The following text and original images represent a short progress post realised by the team to help us follow the path of their creative work.

The Former State Project | Progress Post #1On travel writing in the Balkans

The Former State Project: A Journey through Yugoslavia studies mobilities and the geo-humanities, the textual landscapes represented in a travel-guide and the project team update the form through a novel take on the travel-writing genre: a multi-media travel-guide about a place that is no longer. The project team will trace the journey taken in a travel-book written prior to the formation of a socialist Yugoslavia. Yet before we reach the beginning of this repeat journey, we backtrack a little in this first Progress Report and attend to some of the questions which have arisen regarding such attempts to describe the Balkans. This archival groundwork is the opening of our mobile project on mobile texts, which is presently stilled while in lockdown and immobile as a deadly virus travels the earth. We describe and analyse European imaginary geographies and excursions through this region known as, the Balkans, while we are unable to.

The unlit eternal flame located on the slopes of Trebević Mountain in a former Yugoslav republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is part of a neglected memorial park (Spomen-park Vraca) completed in 1981 and dedicated to the victims of World War II in Sarajevo—after the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was dissolved, the site became a tactical position for artillery and snipers during the siege of Sarajevo (1992–1996) and was subsequently destroyed (Photograph: James Riding).

It is possible, according to Robert Munro (1895) in his Rambles and Studies in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Dalmatia, that from the earliest times the Balkan peninsula was inhabited by a mixed population, open to fluctuating civilizations from the shores of the Mediterranean to the nomadic hordes from Asia and northeastern regions of Europe (Munro 1895, 4). Little is known of this period, when the western half of the Balkan Peninsula was called Illyria. Northern wanderers—Avars, Serbs, Slavs, and Croats—found a footing in mountainous Bosnia and the Romans were driven to the Adriatic coast (Munro 1895, 4). Without ever being in a commanding position, the Ottomans took control in this liminal land of Orthodox and Latin Christendom.

By the mid-fifteenth century the Ottoman Empire stretched across much of the former Yugoslavia, linking Europe and the Middle East. A rival of Orthodox Russia and Western Europe, it lasted for more than four centuries. In 1875, when Arthur J. Evans was writing, an insurrection was underway against four centuries of Ottoman domination, with Bosnian peasants demanding a redistribution of land and fair taxes (Evans 1876). Only when Serbs, Croats, and Montenegrins joined the insurgency did it become a national war of liberation of the south Slavs—the Yugoslavs. The revolt lasted three years and was brought to an end only through the diplomacy of the Great Powers, culminating in the 1878 Congress of Berlin. It was decided that roughly half of the former Yugoslavia—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Vojvodina—would be occupied by Austria-Hungary. Several decades later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was shot in Sarajevo in 1914 by a revolutionary, Gavrilo Princip, precipitating a declaration of war against Serbia, and World War I. After the mass conflict, in December 1918, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes emerged. The revolutionary movement, though, was hampered by lingering religious differences—Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam—coupled with a renewed sense of nationalism across Europe post-empire.

As is revealed in these shifting regional geographies, the western Balkans have been a meeting point of cultures for centuries. The culture of the region was formed through this interaction, undermining a sense of a nationalist political identity in the form of a homogenous nation-state. Nonetheless, as Arthur J. Evans travelled through the region, he noted its Islamic nature (Evans 1876). This was a standard response in the travel writing of the era, evident also in the Rambles and Studies in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Dalmatia undertaken by Munro (1895). In 1851, Edmund Spencer wrote, “Scarcely a ray of Western thought had penetrated during the four centuries that had passed away since the Crescent replaced the Cross on the dome of Saint Sophia, and the empire of Constantine crumbled before the might of the Othman; centuries of ever increasing intellect, civilisation and prosperity” (Spencer 1851, 1). For Spencer, the dawn of a brighter day had arisen on the night of Turkish misrule, rekindling the hearts of a neglected and uncared-for Christian people:

Awakened from a trance, to a consciousness of their own power, to an appreciation of that lofty destiny, from which for centuries they have been excluded … Unheeded and uncared for, by those nations of Europe claiming the swarthy son of distant India and Africa, while a portion of her very self remained torpid and corpse-like. (2)

What is more, Paul Edmonds (1927) extolled the hospitality of these exoticized and primitive locations in, To the Land of the Eagle, where an Englishman could travel without fear of being shot. The places through which Evans, Munro, Spencer, and Edmonds travelled, walked, and rambled were for centuries known by the Ottomans as Rumeli. Only relatively recently did the name Rumeli fall out of use, the region becoming instead European Turkey, or Turkey in Europe, and, eventually, around the time Evans and Munro had completed their travels, the Balkans. The name the Balkans refers to the mountains near the centre of the peninsula, across which travel writers would journey to Istanbul.

When we travel through the former Yugoslavia, we intend to drift somewhat against this previous work by outsiders on this area of southeast Europe. Perceptible in historical-geographical travelogues of the Balkan peninsula is Balkanism, and these older regional texts are reminiscent of the more recent ontopological accounts of a fractured landscape that Campbell (1998) identified more than twenty years ago in the western Balkans. Indeed the Balkans of today is known and enframed via the collapse of Yugoslavia and its enduring aftermath, and the discursive designators of place are here drawn from a Western imaginary geography of the Balkans (Goldsworthy 1998; Todorova 1997). A repetitive Balkanism takes place, where the region is viewed through an idea that the Balkans is a place of immutable ethnic hatreds outside of a cosmopolitan Europe: a place of mindless slaughter on formless ground (Toal 1996). This imagined Balkans can be found in the opening lines of Glenny’s (1999) magnum opus, The Balkans, 1804–1999, where Stoker’s (1897) Dracula is said to be representative of an almost gothic region. In the old Orientalist tradition, it seems as if the Balkans occupies the center of some sort of imaginative whirlpool where every known superstition in the world is gathered (Glenny 1999).

Echoing the well-established literature on representations of the Balkans in literary studies and geography—such as Inventing Ruritania (Goldsworthy 1998) and Imagining the Balkans (Todorova 1997)—Mazower (2002) argues that representations of the Balkans loaded the Balkans with negative connotations: inharmonious conditions, small antagonistic states, and hostile nationalities, all of which conspired to form the intractable Balkan or Eastern question. Writing of the Balkans as Europe’s ghost, Žižek (2000, 1-2) argues the region is always somewhere a little further to the southeast, and the Balkans are a photographic negative of a multicultural, post-political, post-ideological Europe. A “postmodern racism” exists, Žižek argues, where an imaginary Balkans is constructed as the intolerant other, while the rest of Europe has supposedly come to terms with otherness in its much vaunted – indeed marketed – language of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism (Žižek 2000, 1-2). An imperialism of the imagination is projected onto the Balkans, where an exploitation of Balkan history and geography in Western cultural representations and performances has created a region that is the “Wild East” of Europe and Oriental at the same time (Goldsworthy 1998).

In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, a story of a six-week ethnographic trip taken by the British writer Rebecca West (1942), the past is shown side by side with the present it created. Publication of the book coincided with the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia and the epigraph reads: “To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.” Spomenici—the plural form of the word spomenik, meaning monument in this part of the world—emerged after the conflict, built to memorialise the dead to whom West referred. Unlike many of the monuments built after World War II across Europe, they could not remember a triumph. After the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis powers in 1941, internal fighting began between the Partisans—Europe’s most effective anti-Nazi communist resistance movement, led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito—the Ustaše—Croatia’s fiercely Catholic, fascist, ultranationalist, terrorist organization, murdering Serbs, Jews, and Roma while ruling part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia—and the Chetniks—Serbia’s anti-Axis movement, seeking to retain the monarchy and striving for an ethnically homogenous Greater Serbian state. World War II in Yugoslavia was not simply a war of liberation against an encroaching occupier, Nazi Germany; it was instead a multilayered and divisive conflict in Yugoslavia, which could still be felt long into the twentieth century.

The giant monuments built to commemorate World War II, on sites where battles were fought and concentration camps existed, are not statues of human warriors. Spomenici instead resemble abstract organic sculptures, emerging from the Earth, as if there was a silent acceptance that to use the body—the site of trauma, violence, degradation, and extermination—was both ethically and aesthetically impossible. Nature, apparently, is less problematic. Indeed, what type of human form might be possible here after a divisive and multilayered conflict that dehumanized so many? Nonfigurative concrete spomenici stand as an alternative to statues of human figures, alone in dense forests, teetering on the top of mountain peaks, or clinging to cliffs. Solidly anchored to the land beneath, abstract swirls of material large enough to top the trees round about them, socialist-era spomenici take on the organic form as if grown straight out of the soil. These giant swirling concrete shapes, dotted across the landscape, each gesturing toward the organic, provided a shared monumental history and identity for socialist Yugoslavia. They commemorate those who died as a result of fascism, remember the antifascist struggle begun in the region during World War II, and celebrate the socialist revolution achieved in its aftermath. Despite their massive, somewhat ambiguous, organic material presence—a warning from history of the evils of Nazism and fascism—nationalism returned to the region before the end of the twentieth century.

After the fall of communism and the death of Partisan guerrilla leader and unifying symbol Josip Broz Tito in the same decade, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia seemed increasingly doomed. Remembered affectionately by many, the benevolent dictator, “father Tito,” eventually became president for life, serving concurrently in various other roles until his death in 1980 at the age of eighty-seven. Many citizens of Yugoslavia who lived through the Tito regime actively removed themselves from nationalist and identitarian debates, which were geared toward the ending of socialism and Yugoslavia (Alcalay 2004, ix). Ammiel Alcalay (2004, ix) writes of an “intellectual surrender” fed by the heroic imagery of Partisans, and the promise of stability that socialism and father Tito provided. Without Tito, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–1992) soon ceased to be.

There remains a nostalgia for this bygone socialist era in the seven successor states that stand where Yugoslavia once stood. Yugo-nostalgia is a little-studied psychological and cultural phenomenon. It refers mainly to a nostalgic emotional attachment to desirable aspects of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, economic security, a sense of solidarity, socialist ideology, multiculturalism, internationalism and non-alignment, includes customs and traditions, and looks fondly back upon arguably a more rewarding way of life. Such nostalgia effectively reclaims cultural artefacts, even propaganda films. Present cultural manifestations of Yugo-nostalgia include music groups with Yugoslav or Titoist retro iconography, artworks, films, theatre performances, and tours of the main cities and monuments of the former Yugoslav republics. These positive facets are placed in opposition to the perceived faults of the successor states, many of which are still burdened by the ongoing fallout of the Yugoslav Wars and are in various stages of economic and political transition.


Prior to the formation of Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia, in spring 1936, Rebecca West visited the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and in spring 1937 West travelled through the former Yugoslavia, returning once more in the summer of the following year. Published in two volumes in 1942 as a thousand-page travel-book, the 1937 expedition remains today an important, evocative and rigorously researched guide to a former state. West’s book acts as a vivid exemplar, a guiding through the landscape and a dense document of the past which provides a template to follow in the present. Yet, it also evokes a Western gaze upon this peninsula known as the Balkans and is guilty at points of Balkanism. The project team as stated at the beginning will cautiously follow the route of West’s 1937 journey, which took in the north of the former Yugoslavia first, travelling south initially to Zagreb, Croatia, from Nazi Germany.

Entering the former Yugoslavia became the first descriptive section of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, following a Prologue, and was called Journey. West described Zagreb and travelled through Croatia to the coast and the Adriatic by road, stopping off at the Plitvice Lakes, before travelling by sea south along the coast past the island of Hvar and Split to Dubrovnik in Dalmatia. This route was described in a section devoted to Croatia and another section on Dalmatia, each including chapters on certain sites, cities, towns, and villages, which were stopping points on West’s journey south. From Dubrovnik, West took an ‘expedition’ by road, and in a section called Expedition, West travels to nearby Tsavtat (Cavtat) and further into Montenegro visiting Perast and Kotor, before returning to Dubrovnik. Following the short ‘expedition’, West travels east from Dubrovnik by road into Herzegovina and this becomes the next substantive section of the book, Herzegovina, and it is made up of two chapters on Trebinye (Trebinje) and Mostar. The next section of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is titled, Bosnia, and begins with seven chapters on Sarajevo that amount to almost 100 pages of description. From central Sarajevo, West travels to the nearby suburb of Ilidzhe (Ilidža) and to Treboviche (a mountain in Sarajevo) and beyond Sarajevo to Travnik, Yaitse (Jajce), and Yezero (Jezero), writing a final chapter on Sarajevo to conclude this section of the journey.

From Bosnia, West travels to Belgrade, Serbia, by train from Sarajevo and she remains in Belgrade, writing nine chapters on the city and former capital of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in a section titled, Serbia. From Belgrade, West takes a train to Skopilje (Skopje) and in the section on Macedonia she travels more extensively to a monastery, a mountain, and a convent, to Bardovtsi (Bardovci) by road, before taking a horse drawn cart to Neresi, and this is followed by a longer trip to Lake Ochrid (Ohrid) where she writes a number of chapters about places surrounding the lake before returning to Skopje and concluding the section there. The following section is called Old Serbia and begins with a chapter called The Plain of Kossovo (Kosovo) before West reaches the capital of Kosovo, Prishtina (Pristina), and Mitrovitsa (Mitrovica) and Petch (Peć). The final substantive section of the book is titled, Montenegro, a place that West returns to, this time visiting Tsetinye (Cetinje), Lake Scutari (Skadar), Podgoritsa (Podgorica) and Budva. That was the end of her Easter journey, as she writes in the Epilogue, travelling by boat north along the coast of Croatia and back to Zagreb to conclude.


At a crossroads of memory in the former Yugoslavia, this Creative Commission aims to analyse, document, and perform a former state in the present by repeating a definitive yet contentious journey, incorporating contemporary understandings of memory, heritage and mobilities in human geography and the geo-humanities. Analysing multi-directional memory, post-memory, and trauma this project about a former state, describes and explores acts of memory, memorial practices, monuments, nostalgia and socialism, and conflict, politics and memory, through a mobile and multi-sensory approach in lived landscapes of memory. Previous work in the western Balkans has focused primarily upon conflict, economic and political transformation and transitional justice, here however we are interested in the spatial practices of memory, literature, and place in post-conflict, post-socialist states and we explore how collective spaces of memory, and memorial acts, objects, and texts affect the present in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.

Having existed in various forms throughout the previous century, Yugoslavia retains a certain territorial shape and authority in public discourse as a former state in Europe. Yet lacks any recognition or legitimacy as a state today, over twenty-five years after its collapse. Despite this, Yugoslavia is a non-aligned feature on world historical maps and is still remembered and mobilised in different ways by former citizens. Yugoslavia remains within living memory and is tangibly present in the built heritage and cultural representations of the former land of the south Slavs. It is a post-conflict, post-socialist, post-Yugoslav landscape. While Balkanist stereotypes continue to define this region after the series of armed conflicts, ethnic cleansing and genocide that took place here at the end of the previous century, bringing to an end the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. West’s journey taken in the lead up to World War II enables us to think temporally as well as spatially about the region, as the multilayered and divisive conflict continues to be felt, memorialised and remembered in the ex-Yugoslavia. Here these two periods of mass violence are brought together through a performative intervention in post-Yugoslav space on personal and collective memories of a socialist Yugoslavia and its collapse, for both are intertwined, define and drive the contemporary (geo)politics of memory in the region (Riding 2019).

In the past decade, there has been a convergence of transdisciplinary thought characterised by geographical engagements with the humanities, and the integration of place and the tools of geography into the humanities. This emerging intellectual terrain is of course not entirely new, as it speaks back to a long tradition of topographic books and travel-writing by authors in regions such as the Balkans, however the emergence of a newly geographical humanities is explored anew and re-performed in this project by bringing the geo-humanities and mobility studies (the new mobilities paradigm) together. Incorporating a sensuous and materially sensitive approach to grounded fieldwork we undertake a poetic, more-than-representational, and more-than-human reading of the post-conflict, post-socialist landscapes encountered. Arts-based mobilities methodologies identified as part of the new mobilities paradigm will as such be developed in the post-Yugoslav landscape including mobile interviews, time-space diaries, site-writing, poetry and filmmaking.

We have indefinitely delayed the mobile fieldwork in this immobile time, and as such the next Progress Report will be a project trailer—film footage gathered from previous journeys through the region—while Progress Report #3 will be—if travel is possible—field notes taken in the former Yugoslavia while tracing West’s route through the landscape.

James Riding, May 2020

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