In this project, I aim to challenge the stereotyped imaginaries[1] and captivating iconography[2] that renders Ex-Yugoslavia as the balkan[3] other to Western modernity. This project is not merely concerned with an alternate imaginary for the Balkans but to disturb the concept of “moderntity” vis-à-vis modernism(s). I make audio recordings of a moment in time at iconographic sites that have generally been cast as the backdrop to the narratives of socialist modernism and the telegenic collapse in the 1990s. Instead, I put the backdrop in the foreground; I record and montage the room noise, unsettling these stagings with a more distanced—rather than seemingly immediate—auditory image. By playing with the fidelity and proximity of the sound picture, this study unsettles the captivatingly simplified, politically potent imaginaries of “capitalist realism” and Yugonostalgia” that are staged against—and currently reshape—the “backdrop” of Ex-Yugoslavia’s built environment.  

I make recordings of a moment of time in the present day. Human sounds and structured music are not eliminated from the recordings but they are not in focus. In this collection of auditory materials, I endeavor to invert the general staging of the soundscape as symbolic, “charismatic,” well defined sounds against a backdrop of “the authentic place.” Instead, I record the “room noise,” the sound of the backdrop. The field recording captures and renders a specific moment in time and performs the duration of the moment. For my work, this moment is transmitted across media for making and remaking auditory material (through a montage of transformations) into a resultant composition. The resulting “soundscape” is constantly in state of ambiguity and tension between image, moment, and materiality.

The listening piece is the display of the moment and event of sounding and listening. The auditory moments are distanced and ambiguous, unsettling the iconography and the “clear-cut” implied narratives and veracity of the paradoxical immediacy and timelessness of the photographic image. Capitalist realism posits the triumph of authoritarian neoliberalism and the impossibility of an alternate world and; we must reconsider the pivotal role that the imaging of the Yugoslavia as rise and fall has played in justifying this narrative and its consequences in the Balkans and the world at large. Rather than merely presenting an alternate “other like us,” this collection challenges the currently relevant and politically potent staging of the narrative of modernity/balkanism itself.

[1] “Imaginary” has multiple meanings that vary widely. There are three major definitions for “the imaginary” in the realm of anthropology: Cornelius Castoriadis defines it as a culture’s ethos; Jaques Lacan defines uses it to mean a fantasy; and Benedict Anderson and Charles Taylor use it t describe a shared cognitive schema. In general, it is a sentiment or sense that individuals have that joins them with others in an abstract space of this shared idea. In this paper I use imaginary to reflect the duality of material/symbolic conditions and the individual, psychological, emotionally charged (and often aesthetic) experience. The concept of the imaginary captures the slipperiness of this. While this project mostly focuses on the abstract levels of geoculture, arts-based research allows us to explore how this connects individually and thus the term “imaginary” is the most effective (Stauss 2006).


[2] Iconography generally refers to the ways images create or are created by symbols and allusions and how this generates meaning. In this case I draw on this term and expand it to understand the ways images become symbols and how that creates a shared imaginary.


[3] Balkanism is a concept put forward by researcher Maria Todorova that describes the particular position of the Balkans a distinct form of other. Balkanism follows the concept of orientalism but differs as it is an intermediary or an “other” within (Todorova 2009).


Artist-Researcher Statmenet

Framing Questions

What do we make of these sites?

What do we make of these images?

How have the frames changed?

How is space in the 20th century made to be displayed, to be imaged, as a stage for the televised/photographed performance? What does that project? And what is behind the screen or on the other side? What is outside the cave?  

How have these images justified the narrative of capitalism?

Did modernism die with the telegenic collapse of Yugoslavia?

How does the set speak instead?

What are the ripples of socialism?

Why was the west so enthralled with the collapse of Yugoslavia?

The end of socialism in Yugoslavia is a profound rift, a trauma, a whiplash. How do we see the remains? (are they actually ruins (traces of a failure)?

How has the failure of socialism been framed and crafted narratively?

How was the concept of “socialism” staged?

In what ways are our concepts of modernity caught up in an implicit portrayal of the Other? Is postmodernism the present modernity? Is the socialist modernism “backwards?” Isn’t it the final extension of modernism? Did modernism fail? Or did modernity render modernism as failure?


Reflexive Positioning

For an American millennial, the iconography of the break-up of Yugoslavia was a formative and powerful. Yugoslavia has been highly imaged and narrated by western journalists, writers, and photographers, stationed at places like the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, presenting a clear cut, and pathos-laden image of the war (Smirl, 2016). Now, many millennials in the west and east alike are enticed by the allure of socialist modernism, representing this melancholic poetry across new photography media (i.e. Instagram). Here, the image makers and consumers trade in revisionist or fatalist narratives of Yugonostlagia or the ruins of “the other.” Something has always seemed untrustworthy about these captivating narratives. In these iconic imaginaries, Yugoslavia is treated as a backdrop to the charismatic, dramatic imaginaries that inevitably pull on standard “balkanism” tropes of the close, chaotic, backwards other (Hammond 2007). These narratives rely on a formulaic reading of both socialism and the Balkans that is simplified, flattened, and suspiciously coherent; yet still these narratives are powerful and pervasive. How do we actually understand the legacy of socialaism in Ex-Yugoslavia?

Architecture in the age of the photograph increasingly becomes a stage for the event of the image. This stage frames the ideological narrative of the “inside” and “outside,” of the social frame. In this research, I use my position within the society and imaginary of the “post-end of history,” “post-modern,” capitalist center to question the forces and implicit power of the construction of geocultural drama.

I worked on this recording project for a year and was a participant and actor in Belgrade, Serbia in activist and artistic circles in Belgrade, Novi Sad, with shorter activities with associates in Sarajevo and Pristina. I was heavily involved with activism in the New Left in Serbia. My personal discussions and informal interviews with friends and colleagues in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo have shaped my position and lens through which I view the forces of economic and cultural transformation from their perspective. I took part in protests, direct actions, and performances not as a mere observer but as an active participant—being part of large crowds, small groups, and duos, each with their own subjectivity. Coming from various tendencies that would be considered the New Left in the United States, this nested positionality within Serbia formed helped to situate my work with my positionality within the United States, coming to know the similarities, differences, and scalar relationships that relate us across these geocultural territories.

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Inside the Avala Telecommunications Tower, March 2019

Landing(s) -  Slavija (Hotel), March 2019

Underneath Terazije Square, Belgrade, 2018

01 (of 5,000,000)

Yugoslavia, 2019

Arts-based Research Methodology

The act of recording sound has particular associations with archiving. This usually connotes a veracity and fidelity of sound preserved. However this stability of the sound image is an illusion. The media used to record sound create noise and are modified by time and reproduction. The recording itself is more a staging of the event of the recording than a reliable capture of an objective environment. However, field recording generally takes many of these assumptions for granted. Yet, the moves that underly the construction of objectivity through technical manipulation also provide a grammar and gesture for reconsidering the archival.

Soundscapes[1] assume an acoustemology—a way of listening that requires a person to imgagine themselves emplaced within a space of listening (Helmreich 2010).  This necessitates and generates a dual sensation of interior subjectivities (the listener) and outside objectivities (the environment) (Helmreich 2010). Telephony, phonography, and architectural acoustics engender an experience of sound as an abstraction. The soundscape is, thus, a construct of modernity. Soundscapes render coherence, timelessness and discreteness, the perfection of which requires a technological abstraction of the auditory experience.

Rather than consider crafting an immersive sound image, perhaps we can consider the language of soundscapes as gestures of transduction. The experienced space of a photograph is the merging of the imaginary space of the photographic representation and the material space of perception (Dimitrijevć & Pavlović 2021). Likewise, the soundscape composition fuses the perceptual image with the reflexive materiality of the listening experience. Where immersion focuses on the emplacement of the listener in the sound scene, transduction describes the relation of the listener to the thresholds where a signal passes from one medium of encoding to another (Helmreich 2010). For most soundscape work this is done seamlessly, hiding the rigging of its production by enlisting the full set of modern technologies (Helmreich 2010). Therefore, I the orientation of soundscape work as entirely documentary/ethnographic and separated from discipline of acousmatic composition. A soundscape is not a representation of cultural life, cultural events but instead curates (along with architectural acoustics) the performance of the sonic event of sounding and listening (McCartney 2002). I argue that not only is it always both of these, but because of this dual identity it has the potential to reflexively problematize the formulaic assumptions that undergird both these disciplinary approaches.

Because of this position between documentary and art, it is informative to look towards documentary photography and the critical approaches to the medium developed within. Here, I draw from my transdisciplinary training as a composer, photographer, and perceptual neuroscientist. From this perspective, I aim to not merely augment each discipline with the other but to find new knowledge in creative and critical act of translation.

I come from the approach of Direct Cinema, which does not made arguments about reality rather than necessarily presenting the “the facts.” In the 60s, documentarians were frustrated by the simplified narratives of the newsreel format, however their answer was to merely search for the real truth beneath the surface, giving the impression of truthful immediacy. Viewers reach their own conclusions about the “truth”. One is to simply observe the action, do not make the artistic decisions, do not “stage” the scenes or set up the event beforehand (Aldridge 2019, Zuber 2004). This has laid the foundation for much of the documentary photographic style subsequently. There are contradictions present in this approach. How much of a role does stagecraft still play in constructing the reality of the image?

In composing this sound collection, I have included the traces of these transductions (i.e. the sound of tapping on the recorder, the hard cuts of the edit, the whirr of my laptop’s fan). Editing is a way to critically play with fidelity. While editing usually hides the construction of listening/viewing frames. These are gestures themselves but treated with an assumption of realism that makes their experessivity appear innocuous. But what if we invert this? How might we reconstruct the aesthetics in montage across (rather than within) the architectural space, the recorder, the computer, the speakers, and the ears?

[1] The concept of the soundscape was described first by R. Murray Schaffer, applying the principles of landscape (compositon and cohesion) to the sound world. It traditionally focuses on natural sounds and describes natural environments as high fidelity (where discrete elements are clearly legible) vs low fidelity (characterstic of human-altered environments, where the density of loud sounds in similar bands obfuscates the distinction of individual sound objects. Soundscapes are generally analyzed as with music analysis understanding a background “keytone,” with soundmarks (sonic landmarks), sound symbols, and sound objects on top of this foundation.  



Holiday Inn, noon, April 2019

Motion Sickness – April 2019 (Zenica)

Waiting for a train, Sarajevo, 2019

Anteroom, Zetra Ice Rink, April 2019

Momo & Uzeir - Elevator Lobby, April 2019


I would like to thank my advisors in this work Srđan Atanasovski and Svetlana Savić for their support and enthusiasm and I would like to thank my friends and colleagues Jelena Bogdanović, Ivan Marković, Marko Tucović, Matthew Zarenkiewicz, Marko Stričević, Igor Brajić, Maša Stojanović, Dunja Crnjanski, Frosina Dimovska, and Sinead Foley for their constant inspiration and help, and my partner Andrew Warren, for his patience and love through this process. This project was funded by a 2018-2019 Fulbright Student Research Fellowship and my host institutions were the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) and the Faculty of Music (FMU) at the University of Arts, Belgrade.

Open Space – Pristina Train Station (defunct), Fushe Kosova/Kosovo Polje, 2019


Projection room (and other spaces) – Grand Hotel, Pristina, March 2019

Reflections on collection as a whole

Yugoslavia invokes images, gestures, architectural forms, and ideas. These do not stand in isolation, but are evocative by how they appear frozen (museologically) locked inside now dominant system of neoliberal realism (Dimitrijevć & Pavlović 2021). The imaging of Yugoslavia has almost become formulaic cliché. Rehashing the memory is a kind of futile resistance to the “totalitarian paradigm” of the present/past (Dimitrijevć & Pavlović 2021). Projecting these conflicts through images is an attempt to cope with the catastrophe of the contemporary period (Dimitrijevć & Pavlović 2021). In the narrative of “post-socialism” and transition, neoliberal glocality is rendered as progressive/modern. This is achieved by casting itself against a fabricated backdrop of “backwards” and regressive socialist traces. However, in a previous cultural moment—when the west hoped that Yugoslavia would enter their sphere and the USSR had adopted an aesthetic ideology of socialist realism—the socialist modernism of Yugoslavia was displayed as free and progressive, both from without and from within (Kulić, 2009). Yet, even this association of capitalism and modernism is not an ontological one. Before the cold war, modernism was associated with socialism (Kulić, 2009, Hirt 2012). Is capitalism or socialism the furthest conclusion of the modernist cultural project?

How does modernity deal with modernism? Or how does modernism deal with modernity? Modernity is a slippery concept. What does a lens of balkanism show us about the role modernity and modernism has played in the world geocultural system? Yugoslavia is a unique context where these questions are problematized and rendered particularly visible by its position on the semi-periphery between the center of “modernity” and the “other.” At the same time, the transition has left modernist projects more intact than in the west where they have been either destroyed or more readily morphed into neoliberal capitalism. How is modernity mobilized to frame progress? Why do we trust it? What role does the modernity of Yugoslav socialism have today? How is it framed? Or how does it confound framing? How does it slip out of the grasp?

My study focused on the capital cities of Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Kosovo. I limited my selection to this region specifically because these three countries are in the processes of approaching the European Union but have not ascended to membership yet. Thus, they are in a particular position in the semi-peripheral economic and cultural system, which makes certain tensions between the past and future imaginaries particularly robust. Because of the significant and opposing roles the urban [1]has played in the periods of imaging Yugoslavia, I have also focused mostly on the capital cities. In the imaginary, each of these cities defines both a distinct moment in the modernization of Yugoslavia and in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Belgrade (and especially Novi Beograd) was a major work establishing the distinctive identity of Yugoslav socialism and the efficacy of the variety of Yugoslav socialism in the 1950s (Kulić, 2009). Modernization came to Pristina in the 1970s, becoming increasingly important for Yugoslav identity to centralize the regional identities of the federal periphery and to build up the newly formed capital city (Sylejmani 2019). Sarajevo, is instead most marked by the massive urban transformations that came to prepare the city for the 1984 Olympic games, erecting massive new infrastructures for sport and tourism and transforming entire neighborhoods to prepare the city for broadcast to the world (Zoranić 2020, Eastman, Brown, & Kovatch, 1996).. These early symbols of hope and prosperity became fatalistically recast as dramatically ironic as these same sites became transfigured by the progression of conflict in the 90s and early 2000s. Sarajevo is known by the from April 5th,  1992 to February 29th, 1996as displayed by foreign journalists from their balconies at the luxurious Holiday Inn (Smirl, 2016). Belgrade is made reframed (more locally than internationally) by the images of the NATO bombings in Spring 1999 and by the overthrow of Milosevic in October 2000. Pristina bookends this history. It is staged first in 1989 by Milosevic’s inflammatory speech in Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosova in commemoration of the national-mythic Battle of Kosovo (Edwards 2015). In 2008, Kosovo is recast by the West by Kosovo’s declaration of independence, staged with unquestioned positivity in the West and similarly unquestioned negativity in Serbia (Paterson, Andresen, & Hoxha 2012).

Within these cities, I selected sites based both on a study of visual and literary references written in English and Serbian and through conversations with my local friends and colleagues and multi-generational participants in “Workshops for Listening” (soundscape/soundwalking exercises/discussions) that I hosted at cultural centers and the American Corners across Serbia and Sarajevo, and Pristina.

In terms of recording, I sought out room noise and background sound. Locations with excessive overhead music or human/animal activity—where the room noise was covered entirely—were ruled out. These sounds were included but only when they were obfuscated by the room noise. I was especially attuned to sounds that were ambiguous or not easily recognizable as a sonic typology (e.g. “shopping mall,” “streetscape,” “park”). When I recorded, the recorder became a prosthesis for my own perception. I embodied the perspective of the recorder to consider the staging of the approach, perspective, and intimacy of the sound source to the listening device.

Soundscape compositions or acousmatic compositions tend to prioritize and valorize high fidelity sounds, recorded closer than possible. Instead of taking this construction for granted, I specifically collected a spectrum of sound materials across a range of levels of fidelity and listening distances. This ambiguity makes an interesting tension between moments when there are unexpected similarities and also unexpected differences between the different recording sites.

[1] The modernization of cities was one of the major terrains to stage and frame the aesthetic ideology of socialist modernism (Kulić, 2009). While, in the current neoliberal endless transition and their resistance, the urban plays in the playing out of new social movements (Wielen 2019).

Kosovo’s grains – Fushe Kosova/Kosovo Polje, 2019

Promenade (Metabolism) – Pristina, March 2019