Mila Panić ⎥ 23.12.2022
Zvono 2020. From Bihać to New York
Although the competition procedure for the Zvono Award in 2020 was organized by Sarajevo organization Sklop, the planned exhibition of the four finalists (Kemil Bekteši, Mladen Bundalo, Danijela Mihić, Mila Panić) was delayed due to Covid-19 pandemic and organizational reasons. The exhibition, which was named Zvono 2020, was finally held in the spring 2022 at KRAK Center. As such, the exhibition marked the transfer of the Zvono Award to KRAK, but it also opened several old and new questions. This blog-text of the winner from that cycle, artist Mila Panić, who stayed in New York in the spring of 2022, is an attempt to communicate more directly her personal experience recorded in the first person singular.
Who would have thought – Bihać brought together the finalists of the Zvono Award in KRAK. The road to get there was not an easy one. Together with curator Lilia Kudelia, I entered Bosnia on foot. Irfan Hošić, the curator and our private "pick-up" driver, welcomed us in another dimension and drove us deep into the Una-Sana Canton. I didn't expect much, because that's what many of us learned – whatever is organized in Bosnia, don't expect much. But still, there was much, maybe even too much.
The exhibition of the Zvono Award finalists was delayed for two years due to the pandemic and organizational reasons, as well as my departure to New York – maybe it's better that way. Just before my trip, Kemil, Mladen, Danijela and I gathered at KRAK and together with their team, Irfan, Mehmed, Sead and Adnan, we set up the exhibition. At the opening of the exhibition, there was a DJ set – the music played for a couple of hours, and Cuban food prepared by Cuban migrants temporarily housed in the reception center Lipa was served at the party. Locals and foreigners were united that evening, and tomorrow everyone went their own way.
Departure to New York
As the laureate of the Zvono Award for 2020, I was a background actor for two months in the movie about New York everydays. I walked up and down, eavesdropped and peeked.
At the counter in Berlin, I exchanged 250 euros for 260 dollars – while the euro was still stronger – to last me until I received my first scholarship. I flew on the first of April at 9:50 a.m. from Berlin Brandenburg Airport. It was my first transatlantic flight and I have to admit that I was scared. It was also the first flight on which I used the plane toilet. It immediately went wrong – my suitcase was four kilograms heavier than allowed. I threw a few things in the bin, I put some on myself, so the controllers let me pass by.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon I landed at Newark airport in New Jersey. I had already installed the Lift app to avoid the regional trains, because it's far – $67 far, to be exact, and no one waits for you there. On top of that, European PayPal doesn't work in the US on this app – luckily, I had a credit card. Through the car window I looked at the signs, the people, we were passing through China Town, but I didn't feel the wow-effect I was hoping for, like in the movies. Everything seemed so familiar, as if I had been there before.
I arrived at the Airbnb address – the apartment was nice and neat with clean bed linen. Upon arrival, my friend Rebecca was already waiting for me at the door. She took me out for soup and beer, without warning that a 0.33l can of beer costs $7 plus tip. Irfan Brković, a friend from Tuzla, joined us and we ordered a second round of drinks, $7 plus tip.
They kept telling me that I would get used to the prices, and that I should relax. I did not relax about the prices for two months. I survived the prices, but the tip. Every 20% tip came with the emotional cost of calculating daily wages in Bosnia. That feeling revealed to me that I was not only coming from a place with a six-hour time difference, but that I was also coming from a completely different timeline.
New York is something special after all. Going there at this point in my art practice was an absolute must. Strange to say, but if I had left in 2020 as planned, I wouldn’t have written this. Before I continue, I would like to thank my friends: Nataša Prljević for the deep conversations and the information that every 200th person in New York is a millionaire; Rebecca A. Leighton for tireless walks, advice, and beers at Fanelli's Tavern; Maria Nalbantova, my eternal "partner in crime"; Irfan Brković for guides and photos. I would also like to thank the RU team and everyone who took me through various parts of New York and kept me company during April and May of 2022. If I forgot someone, please don't mind.
Collaboration with RU team
As part of my residency in New York, I had various commitments, such as meetings with curators organized by the Residency Unlimited (RU) team, based on my interests and the curators they had available. I often call this part speed dating. Some meetings were great and very successful, and some were less successful. But even those less successful ones should be experienced and accepted as such. At first, I had Power Point presentations, and after a few meetings I mostly came with my hands in my pockets and those meetings were the best.
I met Alina and Caroline, program officers at the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the organization that finances The Young Visual Artists Award program founded in the 1990s, which, in addition to the Bosnian Zvono, includes eleven other countries from Central and Eastern Europe. TMU is an organization founded by an anonymous American philanthropist, a member of the Rockefeller family. I don't like this epithet “anonymous” too much, and I'm not a fan of American philanthropy either. The meeting at Rockefeller Center was pleasant. I came with the attitude of an important artist, and I talked a lot – which I think was necessary. I was interested in everything, and I asked questions when I had the chance. I would certainly advise others to do so. Of course, I am grateful for the opportunity that this award and organization offer, but I also have a critical review and critical questions for every opportunity. I don't believe in unconditional gratitude. I am known for my suspiciousness and I bring that from Bosnia. After a nice coffee and a few smiles, I was already back on the streets of New York.
A few words about the RU-team: they were always available, cooperative and open to organizing events. During my stay, we organized an online event in which members of the Fully Funded Residencies organization (of which I am a part, along with seven other members) discussed non-artistic work related to artistic residencies, applications, as well as their evaluations. In short, a critical review of all that is not seen when it comes to residency programs, especially from the artist's point of view.
Towards the end of the residency, I prepared a performance, or more precisely, an open forum, where I gave a form of verbal evaluation of this residency from personal experience, and thereby encouraged other artists, as well as the RU team, to share their experience and opinion on certain topics that were discreetly mentioned in that conversation. Some of these topics were the scholarship of $1,000 per month, the structure of the residency, meetings with curators, friendships, the tipping system, time difference, parallel timelines, the working class, American philanthropy, and many others. I don't think the RU team was the happiest, maybe because the event wasn't really fun.
Stay in New York
In this text, I will leave some guidelines on where to eat, drink and see what was interesting to me – even though I left a substantial amount of my scholarship in comedy clubs, which is not a priority for many, but it was for me and I would do the same again. After winning this award, I had no idea what to do in New York – no Google advice helped me, and that's ok. We should not create pressure that we have to achieve something while we are in New York, that we represent the young scene of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that we will discover great truths about art, ourselves or others. You may only discover that when you return. I believe I think about New York more now, after 4 months, than when I was there.
I have been lucky on several occasions. First, a couple of months before I left, I discovered stand-up comedy as something I was interested in as a profession, and New York is the center of that. For a $14 ticket a night at the Comedy Cellar, I got to see stars like Dave Attel, Steph Tolev, Sam Morril, Andrew Schultz, Matteo Iane, and more. The second night after arriving in New York, Chris Rock was a secret guest at the Cellar. I think I experienced clinical death the moment it was announced. He was standing in front of me on the stage, his cheek was still burning from the famous slap while my fingers were covered in BBQ chicken wing sauce.
Secondly, I had close friends who were born in New York, and they showed me the inner city and introduced me to experiences that I will never forget. Seeing Yvonne Rainer dancing and breaking at age 87, walking through Donald Judd's bedroom (fun fact – his daughter's name was Yvonne after the aforementioned dancer), having lunch at huge dinners after a tour of the Dia Beacon collection, eating a chopped cheese sandwich at a deli at 1:00 a.m. for $5 on Cardi B's suggestion – are just some of the experiences.
My favorite activity was eavesdropping on others talking. In the subway, in the park, on the street, in the supermarket. What were they talking about? What were their problems? What did they enjoy? How did they gossip? I was fascinated by the daily life of New Yorkers, because it was very similar to my own – and I did not expect that. It might be funny to some, but as I walked around the city, many scenes from Home Alone, Seinfeld, Friends and other TV hits played out in my mind.
I loved the ride on the cable car to Roosevelt Island because of the incredible view of the city from up high and the ability to see how the apartments are set up in many of the buildings. And all for free. New York has many windows. If I had pursued the American dream, my business would have been PVC windows and doors.
The first month went fast, and the second even faster. During April, my main companion was Marija Nalbantova, a laureate from Bulgaria who came a month earlier. Her residency was coming to an end, so while she was still there, I managed to see many tourist attractions, museums, monuments and galleries during the first month. I visited galleries in Downtown, Chelsea and other parts of the city which were on the way. I have to admit that it wasn't a huge pleasure for me to visit them, but if I had time – why not. Many thanks to the See Saw app for that.
Entrance fees to most museums are expensive. About $200 to get into the “magnificent seven” – MET, MoMa, PS1, Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim, Whitney Museum and New Museum. I sometimes included a double entry in this, because, for example, the MET and MoMA are too big of a bite for one day, and you'll need some money for a bite in your stomach plus a tip, of course. Now, it's up to you whether you want to pay for the tickets or get in for free with a plastic press ID.
I didn't manage to visit the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I regret it to this day. The repertoire they offer is excellent and acceptable for a modest scholarship budget. I managed to visit the Lincoln Center and that was quite by chance! Rebecca persuaded me to accompany her to a poetry reading by Ocean Wong, Yanyi and Solmaz Sharife. Three writers, i.e., poets on the rise who were definitely one of the highlights of my visit.
My favorite part of the city was China Town. Whether it's because of the bags and purses that are probably the best copies of big brands scattered on the sidewalk, whether it's because of the roasted ducks hanging from the windows, whether it's because of the crowds, peppers and unknown smells – it doesn't matter. It is certain that I always ended up with dumplings at Nom Wah Tea restaurant. For about $15 you get both the food and the experience. Let's not forget the tip! That was my diet – if it's not China Town then it's grilled cactus tacos, and the best is at Los Tacos No. 1. Fun fact, I found out that the owner of that chain is a cousin of my Mexican friend to whom I rented a studio in Berlin – I got free tacos. I've also been to the famous Bosnian kebabs in Astoria, $9 a fiver – they said to try it. In a tavern like in Bosnia. Bad fittings, naive hanging on the walls and aunts talking, half in English and half in Bosnian. I loved walking around Astoria, the wide streets, the sidewalks smeared with motor oil – no gentrification in sight. While in the neighborhood where I was, if I go to the right, there are many shops of handmade soaps, earrings, and breads. You can't walk down the street without $20. If you turn left, you will find yourself in South Williamsburg, one of the oldest parts of Brooklyn, inhabited by Hasidic Jews. And that's New York, in a few hundred meters you pass through the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. There is a barbecue on the sidewalk because there is no balcony, the music is loud, the hydrants are open like public fountains and all that is very tiring when you live there – but as a tourist – I shot seven analog films in the blink of an eye. One of the failed photos put me in an embarrassing situation from which I learned that it is better not to take photos while on the subway – even though everything is under cameras 24/7.
Over the last seven days of my residency, I had been counting blisters on my feet, saying goodbye to friends, and eating a few more tacos before leaving. It was hot. Some heaviness mixed with love and sadness because I was going home soon. It was not easy to be a tourist for two months. With the scholarship and credit card money spent, plus a new MacBook, I headed for Newark airport. This time with two suitcases, packed and encouraged, I was going there with the regional train. I put the last 8 dollars on the air train that connected the last train station to the airport.
I checked my bags and ticket with the feeling that I had not forgotten anything. I saw and did everything I wanted even though at the beginning I had no idea what it was. We flew past the six-hour time difference in an instant – it's a faster way to the future than it was to the past. Fun fact: the maximum possible time difference for planet Earth is 26 hours. So, you could be the day after tomorrow, or the day before yesterday, for two whole hours. It would be great for deadlines, or horribly bad!?
All this now sounds like it's wonderful there, like I'm having an orgasm on this “western dream.” Maybe that's true, because the Western dream is a genre of porn. In many situations I felt dumb, angry, underpaid, small and insignificant – just like a background actor in the same. American comedian George Carlin explained it well: “It's called American Dream for a reason, you need to be asleep to believe it!”
Mila Panić, China Town. Photo: Maria Nalbantova, 2022