The city of Bihać in Bosnia and Herzegovina is about an-hour-and-a-half drive, or a day’s walk from the Croatian border, making it a key gateway to enter the European Union for people displaced by war, climate realities, and economic crisis. As a result, over the past several years, the region has seen a dramatic militarization of its border areas. In a bid to prevent or discourage migrants from attempting the crossing, the EU funds both humanitarian support for migrants in Bosnia, which is not an EU country, and strengthening the military apparatus in Croatia, which is part of the EU (but is not party to the Schengen Agreement).
Acutely aware of this bottleneck, artist Mladen Miljanović recently put his artistic skills together with the practical knowledge attained from his mandatory military training to help migrants survive their journey through myriad obstacles of natural terrain, border fences and walls, and sundry surveillance and emergency situations. He imagined the kind of information that would be most useful and created diagrams and drawings similar to those in military training manuals for a pocket-sized handbook. Each page of the book describes a different circumstance in simple, instructional, black and white line drawings accompanied by brief descriptive texts in Arabic, English, Spanish, and Urdu. By describing the best ways to get over a wall topped with razor wire, telling the time by the position of the sun, or how to avoid being spotted by drones, Miljanović provides essential survival information while simultaneously confronting the selective, unwritten rules of migration and the mythologies of national borders. Deeply aware that the book needed to be useful on multiple levels, the artist made it physically small enough to carry easily, black and white so as to be legible in low light, largely image-based to skirt problems of literacy and language, and he went even further by inserting a pouch of flammable powder in the cover which can be burned as a flare to signal for help.
Approximately 900 of the 1,000 books printed are now in circulation and there is also a free downloadable PDF available here, thanks to an exhibition titled Didactic Wall in the Bihać City Gallery that took place for three weeks in July. For the exhibition, Miljanović took the drawings and texts created for the book and engraved them into a large composition on a marble panel. This object served as an advertisement of sorts for useful information under the guise of art.
The City Gallery’s location was key to the project’s impact: it is physically located on the main square in Bihać, which until recently was the main gathering point for migrants coming to and through city. The exhibition’s opening gathered Bihać’s more permanent citizens and migrants alike. As Miljanović relayed the scene of the social gathering, it became clear that his artwork acted as a mixer to comingle the town’s longer-standing and aspirationally temporary residents, making each an embodied reality to the other and denying the perpetuation of the abstract “other” mentality. Further, a guided tour of the project explained in detail the strategies included in the manual, creating a moment of exchange between visitors about the realities of border crossing. At the end of the evening several people successfully tested using the guidebook as a flare.
Since the July 15 opening, migrants congregating in the main square have been moved to a camp outside of the center of Bihać. Miljanović has heard reports that migrants in this camp are sharing his book while discussing strategies to attempt a crossing.
If art and culture can go beyond symbolic power and occupy both poetic and utilitarian registers, Miljanović succeeds. With an exhibition strategically located to draw in his audiences, and a free book featuring straightforward, instructional drawings, he disseminates useful information as well as creates a social space to unite the co-inhabitants of this border zone in Bihać, making unlikely conversations between migrants and residents possible. Miljanović overcomes the borders of knowledge production and distribution, just as he makes drawings of how to cross actual territorial boundaries. In a transnational country like Bosnia, which indeed reflects the realities of many contested borders around the globe, Miljanović shines a bright light on the pretense that national borders naturally exist and on the truth that migration is both consistent with all of human history and necessary.
Didactic Wall was on view at City Gallery, Bosanska 15, 77000 Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina from July 15 through August 3. The manual can be downloaded for free.