Srđan Tunić

art historian, freelance curator, cultural manager and researcher

One day you will miss me: An interview with Julia Gaisbacher (2018/2019)

One of the exciting aspects of working with artists is that you have a chance to see how they work, to peek into their creative process. It’s like standing behind the stage of a play. Or in this case, to walk around the city, to be behind the camera (and, inevitably, the computer screen).

Many photographic images unravel in front of me while we’re sitting in bookstore Booka in Belgrade, Serbia. Julia Gaisbacher, Graz-born, Vienna resident is introducing me to her new work. She shows me a frame of an old train station which will stand as a cover of the forthcoming exhibition at the Goethe Institut in Belgrade. It’s a black and white image of the (now ex) Main railway station’s terminals, dating back to 1884, with a board saying “Beograd” in Cyrillic and behind it, like in a mist, in the background, rising high buildings of the Belgrade Waterfront. For cities such as Belgrade, black and white photography seems to give the grayness and brownness of the city almost a dignified, or even nostalgic approach. In this case, it documents the changing city landscape under a recent urban development project, right in the heart of Belgrade.

Belgrade Waterfront (BW), a new luxury district with an area of 1.8 million square meters, was initiated in 2014 as a top-down decision by the Serbian government to finally solve the question of old Belgrade’s access to the river, towards the Sava river, which has been discussed and planned for about the last century. This area, called Savamala, occupying the city municipality Savski Venac, lies in an area which has seen many shifts. Once an important link between the river and its ports, towards the city core, following a promising area with fashionable art nouveau-inspired buildings, until recently it was a dilapidated part of the city, with bus and train stations, noisy and dirty. In the second half of the 2000s, art and culture initiatives started to raise visibility of the area, now becoming hip, followed by the hospitality industry. That is, until Belgrade Waterfront took over the stage, following a typical gentrification scenario, where the grass-root initiatives are slowly leaving, either pressurized by raising real estate prices or being physically on the way, being replaced with construction yards. The project is subsidized by the Serbian government, developed jointly with Eagle Hills, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, sparking many controversies about its (lack of) transparency, top-down decision making, accusations of illegal actions, tenant evictions, followed by numerous protests of the city architects, different communities and citizens, among other. A whole movement “Ne davimo Beograd” (Don’t drown Belgrade) was formed in regards to the project, to expose its lacks, take issues to the court and organize protests. Disappointed and angry with this dictatorial treatment, many Belgraders are hoping that the project would be changed or brought to a halt this way or another, preventing the coastline to literally build a wall between the city and its river.

How an artist, coming from a different context sees this situation, often heavily politically charged? “I am trying to balance my position as an outsider, using the documentation technique of the ‘fresh eye’ ”, Julia says. “I would say that it is my personal perspective of the city that is covered… Worldwide and in a lot of different cities urban development projects take place but mostly they are not directly in the city center, like Belgrade Waterfront is. Next to other topics, I find it problematic that there is such a drastic change in the skyline and no connection between the old buildings from Belgrade and the new ‘alien like’ towers”.

We have first met through a mutual friend in May 2017 during Goethe Institute’s project Actopolis: the Art of Action which took place in the Museum of Belgrade. This, as previous Goethe’s project in Belgrade called Urban Incubator, was focused on urban development, international collaboration and support to self-organized local and critical initiatives. There I learned more about Julia’s ongoing work, focused on Savamala district and Belgrade Waterfront (also called Belgrade on Water), which interestingly as a tread started in another city, in Dresden. She states she is interested in “observation and documenting the changes in (living) surrounding”, while urban development focus was “initiated by studies in Dresden, moving there and seeing the city with outsider’s eyes”.

“When I moved to Dresden in 2006 I started to work on urban development because at that time I lived in a very fast changing district called Dresden Neustadt. Dresden in general was, still with the background of the former GDR, in a development process. Most of the places that I worked with are connected with my biography (like Brussels – Nord train station and the district Schaarbeek, Dresden-district Neustadt, Graz-Annenviertel, Gent-district Brugse Poort, Vienna-district Hernals). I always need time to stay at a place, somehow connect with it and start to observe it for a longer period of time.”

“A book that influenced this work is called Warum Dresden/Why Dresden by the Japanese photographer Seiichi Furuya which is based in Graz/Austria. In 1984/85 he lived with his wife and his son in Dresden and took pictures of the family and, as he said, not with the purpose to create pictures for an exhibition. In 2015 he was invited to have an exhibition in Kunsthaus Dresden and he again took pictures of the city. Since I lived for 6 years in Dresden, especially family pictures from the 1980s are very interesting because without the intention of the photographer, they became a portrait not only of his family but also of the architecture and the society at that time. Through the fact that this was actually not wanted, for me the images tell a very interesting story.”

We walk around Belgrade, relating what we see with her ideas and plans for the forthcoming exhibition. We stand in front of the iconic Belgrade Cooperative building, also known as ex-Geozavod, which stands as the seat of Belgrade Waterfront. This beautiful, secession-inspired building finished in 1907, seems to be the main image of all changes at Savamala district. If it were not one of the architectural gems from the turn of the century, we might not notice it so badly. Initially, it used to be one of the symbols of the urban development in the newly-build area before WWI, then turning gray after WWII with a change of tenants, in an area full of neglect. An ideal place to film (horror and post apocalyptic) movies and have rave parties, its decayed charm attracted artists around 2010s until recently. Now, it’s restored, while some interior details have been removed from public view (like glass panels made in Venice), dedicated to BW project. It’s surrounding, however, has been changing or disappearing more drastically.

I was interested to know why she decided to work on this project. “Already in previous projects I was working and I am interested in urban development projects and therefore I started to research about what was happening in Belgrade. I was writing the concept when the protests of Don’t Drown Belgrade started (demolition of Hercegovačka street in spring 2016) and through that I heard about it for the first time. Then I started to read more in international newspapers about Belgrade on Water, or Belgrade Waterfront. My concept was not very concrete, I left it open knowing that it would develop further when I was in Belgrade.”

Armed with her camera and not required to know the local language, she roamed the streets of Savamala, with the support of contacts from the Goethe Institut Belgrade and Austrian Cultural Forum. She had many talks with artists, curators, Belgrade citizens, researching on historical, side specific and political topics.

“As a starting point, I took a touristic map and walked every day for 3-4 hours through Savamala to understand the district and the dimension of what is happening there. By that time, some streets and paths on the map did not exist anymore and it was a bit difficult to understand the new structure influenced by the construction area and the new paths that were created. I also spend a lot of time in Cafe Suri at the train station to observe what is happening there, who comes and goes, I saw a lot of volunteers that were working at the barracks, I saw police and maybe military people that were not letting refugees come to the cafe and spend some time there or just stay at the train station, etc. By becoming part of that scenery (by being there every day), I more and more understood the dimensions, the controversial sides, the absurd situations etc. For the work and observation at the train station I had to think about a book by the French writer Georges Perec An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris from 1975. In that book the author observes a small square in Paris on one day and describes very detailed about what he sees that would usually pass unnoticed.”

Julia shows me images of different locations, photographed from roughly the same spots in the past two years, where one could note two things – areas of Savamala disappearing and rising skyscrapers of BW project replacing them. Watching now historical images on Google maps, we are able to see from above how the project reshaped the area, even taking a “walk” through streets that do not exist anymore. It feels both fascinating and creepy, knowing how it was to walk the very same places just a few years ago.

After Belgrade, our conversations continued online and at some point in Vienna as well in January 2018. On my way to meet her, I’m passing through Stadtpark where one of my rare memories of last visit to Vienna 10 years ago unravel. Passing the street, I enter Cafe Prückel, a sweet old fashioned place in a historical part of the city. Vienna is cold in March, it will snow soon, I’m taking a glass of hot chocolate. After discovering what, I am more and more interested about the hows of her work.

In general I use photography and documentary images as a starting point for my artistic pieces. In Belgrade, at the beginning I did not have a very good orientation, but at a certain point I started to realise that the two towers of BW were a reference point for me and they helped me find my way (also because they had lights at night). This is how I developed the existing concept. On every image of the b/w series somewhere and somehow one or both towers are visible. I used them as a reference point to capture what I saw during my stay here. The more I focused on the towers, the more details got visible for me.”

Light snow of Vienna was replaced by humid summer of Belgrade in July 2018. It was a historical moment, when the trains were leaving the Main railway station in Belgrade for the very last time. The station was operating from 1884 when it was built and current plans envision it as a museum of Nemanjić family – the Serbian middle ages state rulers, warriors and saints. The last trains departed just a day before when we got there, and now the whole station is in a transition phase with temporary exhibitions. I just met with Julia who is carrying a professional camera with extra lenses, recording almost everything.

We’re walking around the soon to become ex-main train station, across several terminals on the open, when we spot the famous blue train, or “Tito’s train”. It is a one day exhibition, open for tourists before saying farewell to the station. While we are marveling the old train composition, with miniature bathrooms and living rooms, decorated with lacquered woodwork and paraphernalia related to the old SFR Yugoslavia (now looking retro). When our eyes depart from the close-up details and catch the rounded window frames, other images are present in the back plane. At the end of the rows of train terminals, there’s a small house with a family which is hanging the laundry to dry. It looks like a shack, in contrast with now already four high towers of BW behind it, brand new, as heralds of the new, future image of Savamala. The little house and the twin resident buildings have something in common, and it’s not an assumption that they are both living quarters, however different. Both lie on the ground whose price is rising in the last period, and the new flats – still in progress or not even made yet – have been sold to future tenants. The shack, as one of the last remaining buildings behind the railway station, will soon disappear, as did the several barracks nearby which hosted temporarily dozens of migrants from the Middle East between 2015 and 2017.

Back in the cafe, we’re watching the photos and a video that will be featured at the exhibition. Luckily, I am able to see the material which won’t be exhibited, to know the context better. Not just the photos that did not pass the selection criteria, or those that might be part of future exhibitions, but also ones Julia won’t ever exhibit at all. I’m looking at the scenes when a crane is demolishing one of the barracks, where migrants use to reside, just behind the train station. Space filled with blankets and small personal belongings, dirty and chaotic, is disappearing under clouds of dust and crumbled walls. A silent drama, frozen in space and time of black and white photography.

She tells me more about the title itself. “Already in earlier works I liked to use titles that I ‘found’ at the place where I was working or I was dealing with. The title One Day You Will Miss Me came up when I took pictures of the barracks at the train station when all the refugees had already been relocated and the demolition started. The graffiti on the wall said One Day you will miss me. Die or Germany. It was emotionally affecting me to read such a sentence and with some distance from Belgrade and the topic I realized that this would be the title for the entire project.”

After seeing the harsh realities of the development project process, the opposite pole is imagining the future residents and “high life” presented in the advertising panels, abstract and familiar at the same time. This opened a way for collaboration and the short story “Eagle Hills Vertigo” with writer Barbi Marković, echoing H. G Ballard’s High Rise novel.

“I was in contact with the curator Astrid Kury from Academy Graz and she had chosen me to present a piece of mine at the Styrian art and literature magazine Lichtungen. There they have an art section where they are presenting a collaboration between an artist and a writer. She suggested Barbi Marković and that is how we started to work together. In December last year Barbi asked me if I would like to visit Belgrade together with her and when we met here I showed her the building site and explained about what I had done before. We were both interested in the advertisement banners and the images of the perfect life that apparently everybody would have access too. Barbi created the text Eagle Hills Vertigo around the characters that you can still see on the billboards. I focused on the layers between the reality (building site) and the perfect life that is presented.”

(…) Jede Frau ist schön in den Eagle Hills, so viel ist klar. Jede Frau ist verheiratet. Jede Frau hat gute Zähne. Jedes Kind ist gesund, blond oder Albino. Jede Familie hat zumindest einen kompakten Golden Retriever mit 0 % Hundehaarausfall. Jede Person trinkt aus papierdünnen Tassen. Jede Frau bekommt einen leeren Brief und sieht ihn kurz an. Jedes Kind träumt vom schwarzen Mädchen. Jede Hochzeit war ein Traum. Jede Hochzeit war der glücklichste Tag im Leben der jeweiligen Braut, die wunderschön ausgesehen hat, und das Kleid wurde nie wieder verwendet. Jeder Mann ist Alpha. Jeder Mann trägt gern Anzüge. Jeder Mann ist schön und braungebrannt. Jeder Mann hat ein Boot gekauft. Jede Freundschaft ist eine schöne Erinnerung. Jede Mahlzeit ist gesund. Willkommen in Eagle Hills. Mitten in Belgrad! Jede Uhr tickt. Jeder nimmt am Wettlauf teil. Alle Hemden sind gebügelt. Alle Pläne werden umgesetzt. (text in German)

(…) Svaka žena u Eagle Hillsu je lepa, toliko je jasno. Svaka žena je udata. Svaka žena ima dobre zube. Svako dete je zdravo, plavo ili albino. Svaka porodica poseduje baš jednog kompaktnog zlatnog retrivera s nula posto dlake koja ne opada. Svaka porodica pije iz šolja tankih kao flis-papir. Svaka žena dobija prazno pismo i kratko ga posmatra. Svako dete sanja tamnoputu devojčicu. Svako venčanje je san snova. Svako venčanje bilo je najsrećniji dan u životu te mlade, koja je prelepo izgledala, a haljina nikad više nije bila korišćena. Svaki muškarac je alfa. Svaki muškarac rado nosi odela. Svaki muškarac je lep i preplanuo. Svaki muškarac je kupio brod. Svako prijateljstvo je lepo sećanje. Svaki obrok je zdrav. Dobro došli u Eagle Hills. Usred Beograda! Svaki časovnik kuca. Svako učestvuje u svetskoj utakmici. Sve košulje su ispeglane. Svi planovi se sprovode u delo. (text in Serbian)

After all the conversations we had, we were ready for an art talk. It would be a shame not to share this information with others as well. Barbi’s text appeared in newspapers Danas, announcing the exhibition. In July 2018, the exhibition opened at the Goethe Institut’s gallery (called Menjačnica – exchange office). Apart from all the pressure when showing the work publicly, a few doubts sparkled in my mind, which now sound like an unnecessary paranoia: why would a foreign artist deal with these ugly (or provocative) images of our city? Will it be perceived too political, or in a wrong way? Of course, it is rather foolish to prescribe the “right way” to read an artwork, given the postmodernist twist, acknowledging multiple interpretations and viewpoints, all – if not valid then – accepted as possibilities. Here, observation mode is central to the work, but then again “the beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”.

With some artworks, rather than being “finished”, they are constantly taking different shapes, finding new ways to communicate the artist’s vision and many stories around it. In Julia’s case, the project covers several residency phases starting from springtime 2017, planned to last until 2020. “At the end of 2020 the first phase of Belgrade Waterfront is planned to be finished. I will also use that schedule for my project to evaluate the last years by then. Until then, I will be in Belgrade for every six months. In 2021 I plan to publish a book with the photo material and interviews from the last 4 years.”

The complexity and ongoing changes challenged her starting intentions. “This is my first long term project. Previous projects were always much smaller, sometimes even with the result of only a single image.” Starting with her fer visit in springtime 2017, until now Julia has covered events such as presidential elections, demolition of the migrant barracks, transformation of the Main railway station, protests organized by Don’t Drown Belgrade movement, and many little stories taking place at Savamala. “I did not imagine that already one year later it (my work) would serve like an archive because the changes are going to fast…”

It’s December 2018, Belgrade’s under snow, a nice, thick layer over all the ugly details, making it look dreamy and peaceful. I am looking at a photo of the construction yard of Belgrade Waterfront, taken over one of the bridges over the river Sava. River, coast, new towers with blinking red lights and few details in the background. The snow and mist have colored everything the same pale colors. Like a dream which might or might not take place, bordering with a nightmare, its real and troublesome existence we will remembered through Julia’s work.

You could find more about Julia Gaisbacher’s work at: 

Interview conducted between spring and winter 2018 by Srđan Tunić, art historian and freelance curator.

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