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 abstract realised by the team to help us follow the path of their creative work.

The Former State Project | Progress Post #2On imagined geographies and the gaze from afar

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 aimed to trace the journey taken in a travel-book written prior to the formation of a socialist Yugoslavia. Yet as the world stopped due to the pandemic the ways in which academics have approached their research has inevitably changed. At the end of progress report #1 the team envisaged that we might still be able to travel to the former Yugoslavia before the end date of this grant. Yet this was not to be, and as such we worked on three outputs. The first is a paper about the former Yugoslavia that is soon to be published in Dialogues in Human Geography (co-author Carl Dahlman), the second is a series of poems that will become a collection called Spomenik, and the third is a lyric video which aims to get at mobility and text, fitting the theme of our project. In this second progress report, we consider the academic output from this project by focusing upon a contentious borderscape that reveals a lot about the region and its post-socialist, post-conflict transition.



This article extends work in human geography on thinking space relationally and topological space, arguing for a relational conceptualization of space that employs montage in small seemingly confined spaces to tell big relational stories. Empirically it explores a micronation projected onto watery western Balkan no-man’s [sic] land and reveals an exploitation of Balkan history and geography that underpins perceptions of the southeast European peninsula. Liberland is a new right-libertarian unofficial country that claims a disputed tract of middle Danube riverbank in a contested riverine borderscape between Croatia and Serbia, where the fantasy geography of emptiness and terra nullius reappears in a new imperial present. The hackneyed performances that self-proclaimed micronations undertake to legitimize themselves are placed alongside a relational story of regional cultural landscape and more-than-human geographies in this fluvial political-ecological borderland in order to undermine alt-right libertarianism, Balkanism, and imperialism.

The paper is about a self-proclaimed micronation that occupies what they claim is terra nullius between Serbia and Croatia. Gornja Siga is an island, orphaned by competing boundary claims, lying beyond the winding cadastral border – which Croatia asserts – and beyond the main channel of the Danube – which Serbia asserts. The result is a small pocket of riverbank and a narrow point bar that neither Croatia nor Serbia claim lest they undermine their possession of other more desirable Danubian adas or river islands on the east bank. This territory becomes the site through which we understand the former Yugoslavia and the former state in the present. We were unable to visit the site and as such pieced together what we could find on the internet about the small river island:

Gornja Siga lies in a flood-prone borderscape that was once the southern Hungarian counties of Baranya (Croatia’s Baranja) and, across the Danube, Bács-Bodrog (Serbia’s Bačka). The historical cohabitation of Hungarians, Danube Swabians, and various Slavic peoples has given rise to layered toponyms that belie the now official Serbo-Croatian signage. Nearby are the villages of Zmajevac (H: Vörösmart), Mirkovac (H: Keselyüs), Suza (H: Csúza), and Zlatna Greda (H: Bokroshát) in the Croatian municipality of Kneževi Vinogradi (H: Hercegszöllős; G: Weingärten), while Bački Monoštor (H: Monostorszeg) sits directly across the Danube in Serbia on the way to Sombor, the closest city. ‘Gornja Siga’ is a mix of the Hungarian word for ‘island’ (sziga) and the Serbo-Croatian word ‘upper’ (gornja). It was once the site of a village whose residents fled a major flood in 1722, rebuilding across the Danube at Bački Monoštor in Serbia, which today has a majority Croat population. Kneževi Vinogradi, the Croatian municipality that abuts Gornja Siga, is a rural landscape dominated by arable farming, viticulture, livestock breeding and dairy farms. It is the only municipality in Croatia today with a majority of Hungarians, slightly outnumbering Croats; the once numerous Germans now just 1.8% of the community (DZS, 2013: 45). Since 1991 the area has lost 20% of its population and was targeted for development as an ‘area of special state concern’, not only due to its demographics but primarily because it was under rebel control during the Croatian War of Independence (1991–1995).

This material landscape was under threat from a textual colonisation. As such we began to think about this place as a site that was bombarded with fragments of representation. Borrowing from literary montage we worked to undermine the textual colonisation by remembering the material landscape and the politics of this landscape. This approach neatly fits with the final aim of the wider DiSSGeA project to become a research hub for the humanistic study of mobility, meaning the movement of people, objects, ideas and texts in space and time. In terms of how we went about doing this, we draw in the paper from literary montage, and go back to the work of the geographer Allan Pred (1995) who was inspired by Walter Benjamin (1982) by

using a fragmentary literary technique to display juxtaposition by representing space inherently as a montage of ‘things, meanings, and practices’ (Cresswell, 2019; Pred 1995). Thinking beyond the discipline, we extend debates on space and relational thinking, or ‘thinking space relationally’ (Jones, 2009), in a borderland, intertwining flow-like takes on space, and more fixed takes on space. We express sociospatial relations from a topological stance and acknowledge relationality yet insist upon ‘the confined, sometimes inertial, and always context-specific nature of geography’ performing a ‘moderate relationalism’ (Jones, 2009: 487). We extend the conceptualization of ‘phase space’ (Jones, 2009) and place a renewed emphasis in a virtual present upon digital representation, reanimating ‘the symbolic life of landscape’ (Cosgrove and Daniels, 1988).

Space we argue is played-out ever more so as montage in an era of mass digital image-making and we use montage to describe space as images affect how we witness, experience, and understand spaces in a now more virtual reality. Increasingly human engagements with space occur through digital encounters, processes, and technologies, from data ‘harvesting’, to platform urbanism, to smart cities, as smart-phone apps direct humans through space and digital interventions reconfigure our encounters with space (Kitchen, 2014). Cyberspace is no longer viewed as separate from everyday life, rather the ‘digital turn’ has led to theorizations of the virtual and physical realms, as entwined (Ash et al, 2018a). Building upon a nascent ‘digital geographies’ in this article we argue that new epistemologies and ontologies are needed to reflect a digital revolution (Ash et al, 2018b). Here montage is enacted and could be further exploited – through diverse media (writing, film, photography, gaming, mapping) – as a metaphor, a description, an epistemology and an ontology (for a classic example of montage see Benjamin, 1982). 

We made sure to return the materiality of this landscape beyond the merely representational too, as this was the only way in which to undermine the textual colonisation by a self-proclaimed micronation:

The act of claiming territory, of planting a flag, suggests Gornja Siga is dry land and it is distinct from the waters that bound it. Yet the island lies barely above the Danube in a floodplain. The ‘land, marshy and prone to seasonal inundation, is choked with unregulated scrub, with here and there the lone tongue of a poplar or the gentle shag of a willow’ (Lewis-Kraus, 2015). Flooding of 2.5 meters or more has regularly submerged the ground of this little isle until it has become part of the riverbed (Hrvatske Vode, 2020). As territory it is fundamentally permeable, consisting of recent Holocene alluvial sediments that formed fluvisols and gleysols in riverine paleochannels, a legacy of repeated flooding visible in the complex terrain of meander scars and oxbow lakes (Bogunović et al, 2018). Just upriver, at Bezdan, the average discharge of the Danube can range from 992m3/s to 4788m3/s, a nearly fivefold difference (Sommerwerk et al, 2009). This section of the middle Danube was a wide marshland made legible as land and water only in the nineteenth century with the advent of levees, drainage, and transportation canals.

In addition, we began to pull apart the representational acts that this self-proclaimed micronation had bestowed upon this landscape:

A right-libertarian political movement has begun a performance of space that is captured in the digital map of Gornja Siga (Branch, 2014; Kitchen and Dodge, 2007). Ground-truthing this performed and represented space by travelling through this Balkan riverscape, reveals something rather different. Gornja Siga is difficult to access by car from Zmajevac, driving along Ulica Maršala Tita (E: Marshal Tito Street) until it becomes Ulica Dunavska (E: Danube Street), before turning south onto Ulica Siga (E: Siga Street) though a flat floodplain kept dry by drainage canals. The final part of the journey must be taken on foot, entering the northern tip of the disputed drop where it clings to the Danube’s western bank. A Liberland Settlement Association provides assistance to cross the border but to do so, you must first visit a base camp about three kilometers from Bezdan, across the river in Serbia. After arriving at the base camp, you are required to join the Liberland Settlement Association and must volunteer during your stay. Once on the deserted island, a winding single-track trail takes you to a clearing where a yellow house with a roof yet no windows or a door nestles in a clasp of trees (DeSilvey and Edensor, 2012). A yellow and black Liberland flag hangs beneath the gable end and the Liberland motto – ‘to live and let live’ – is scrawled above an arch in black spray paint, a reminder of a fleeting memorial presence constellated here (DeSilvey, 2007). Provenance unknown and abandoned thirty years ago, the ‘hunting hovel’ was later demolished in September 2017, and the first unofficial Liberland dwelling in Gornja Siga is no more (Lewis-Kraus, 2015).

We concluded the paper by deconstructing the imperialism of the geographical imagination and the use of travel writing, and in a sense questioned again the project of following an old text by a British travel writer:

Reportage and travel narratives about apparent ‘geographical oddities’ is a shop-worn imperial genre, which includes atlases of ‘improbable places’ (Elborough and Horsfield, 2016) and ‘countries that don’t exist’ (Middleton, 2015). Liberland certainly fits the mold of the sort of place that once surprised readers of National Geographic and that now appears in the Atlas Obscura franchise (Sack, 1959; Schulten, 2001). Edging between stolid and sideshow, this genre recounts the strange and uncanny alongside the serious and solemn: displaced peoples are presented on the same plane as remote lighthouses or archaeological excavations. Displaying the idiosyncratic in encyclopedic detail, the visuals are sublime achievements of image and map, yet the effect is to objectify a world for discovery by the reader’s knowing, metropolitan eye. In Keating’s (2018) journeys to the ‘edge’ of nationhood, Liberland is featured as just such an oddity to take seriously, placed alongside other ‘outlier states’ in an inquiry as to what makes a country. Its exposition alongside Abkhazia, Kurdistan, and Somaliland, a Mohawk reservation, and an island nation threatened by climate change leads to a conclusion that the borders of earth may be emerging from a period of ‘cartographical stasis’ and that examples such as these reveal an international order that may not hold (Keating, 2018).

Yet it is perhaps this paragraph from the paper that reveals what is at stake when outsiders write about the former Yugoslavia, as this is not a blank space to be filled. There are political questions at stake in this landscape that are yet to be resolved and this space is perhaps symbolic of the difficulties that remain after the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia in the early 1990s:

In the geopolitical terms used to describe the political-ecological spaces in the Croatia-Serbia border dispute, the disclaimed territory of Gornja Siga is a ‘pocket’. This hybrid socio-natural boggy pocket was created in the late nineteenth century when Austria-Hungary cut a wider, straighter path for the main channel of the Danube from Bezdan/Batina south to Apatin, and again through the marshes at the Danube’s confluence with the Drava River (Klemenčić and Schofield, 2001). The old Baranja cadaster, which Croatia claims, runs with the old meanders, now just scars and oxbow lakes thus crisscrossing the main channel of the Danube, which Serbia claims as its frontier. Control of the pockets was a significant issue raised before the Đjilas Commission in Belgrade in August 1945 after the liberation of the region. Here during the third session of the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ), the administrative boundary between Croatia and Vojvodina was to be set. The decision was made more delicate by wartime expulsions and competing post-war policies to resettle new majorities of Croats and Serbs in the area following the ‘withdrawal’ of Hungarians and Germans (Zečević and Lekić, 1991: 24-27). In the end, the Commission could only recommend a provisional settlement using ethnic and economic criteria and, like other Yugoslav borders, left precision for later, producing roughly 10 adas on the Danube from Hungary to the Drava River.

The final paragraph of the paper which is the first output from The Former State Project is key and describes our motivations:

In the absence of an ‘intimate geopolitics’ of bodies residing in this small island space who embody this little territory as a lived experience, we trace relational stories from the region to resituate this contested space in the human and more-than-human geopolitical landscape of a post-conflict, post-socialist, post-Yugoslav, western Balkans (Smith, 2012; Smith, 2020). Extending relations beyond the proximate, we trace lived and embodied geopolitical relations to represent this right-libertarian colonization across various state boundaries to elsewhere in Europe and on to the U.S., to reveal their individual and collective political agendas and affiliations (Ahmed, 2000). Balkanism provides the grounds for colonial violence, and as we show here by montaging the connection between space, nature, and politics (Catz, 1995; Ekers et al, 2013), it is possible to reorient, subvert, and sink a Balkanist imaginary, gaze, and claim. Liberland is a discomforting imperial act of planting a flag in the ground and in the imagination; an imaginative, textual, cyber colonization described by Todorova (1997) in Imagining the Balkans and Goldsworthy (1998: 211) in Inventing Ruritania as

the way in which an area can be exploited as an object of the dominant culture’s need for a dialogue with itself.

The final progress report will describe the creative outputs from the project and to conclude the academic outputs progress report, we wish to restate our desire to undertake this journey through Yugoslavia and yet, with the world trauma of the pandemic and immobility, we have given much thought to what this journey should look like. While we envisage tracing the journey made by Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, like in the first academic output, key sites along the way will be exhausted, and the horizontal, thin, floating across space done in much travel writing will be deconstructed through static, slow, intimate, grounded, and vertical geographies of symbolic sites. Thanks to this initial research the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust funded extension of this project will begin moving from a more thoughtful footing.

James Riding, Jan 2021



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