Edit András (ed.), “Transitland. Video Art from Central and Eastern Europe 1989-2009” (Book Review)

Transitland. Video Art from Central and Eastern Europe 1989-2009, Edit András (ed.), Budapest: Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art / ACAX, 2009

“Video,” writes the editor of the volume, Edit András, “was pretty much the medium of transition (…) it was the first liberal media of the period (…) the strand of visual arts that through its inherent characteristic, kept and reflected recent history to the utmost.”(Transitland. Video Art from Central and Eastern Europe 1989-2009, Edit András (ed.), Budapest: Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art / ACAX, 2009, p. 226.) András’s volume Transitland. Video Art from Central and Eastern Europe 1989-2009 accompanies the collaborative archiving project of the same name, which was organized by InterSpace Association (Sofia); the Transmediale Festival for Digital Art and Culture (Berlin); ACAX Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange; and the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest in 2009. The archive contains 100 single-channel video works (five of them new commissions) selected by an international jury from 350 works nominated by regional experts. The selection process was designed so as to include work from all the countries designated by the EU to be Central and Eastern European (“not only the larger more sophisticated centers of video production, but also those from the newly emerging countries, with artists whose voices are rarely heard”) and to focus on videos whose content reflected critically upon the “social and cultural events, ideas and responses” that took place in Central and Eastern Europe in the two decades since 1989.”(Ibid. p. 233-234.)  The accompanying reader is valuable but of mixed quality. Among the eighteen texts (six of them especially commissioned) most are by well-known artists, curators or art historians from the region. Among them there are a number of excellent polemical contributions, but also several that do little more than summarize a series of videos without offering a substantial analysis of them.

The volume opens with an introduction by Marina Gržinić entitled “Video in the Time of a Double Political and Technological Transition in the Former Eastern European Context” in which the author characterizes her artistic and curatorial engagement with video and media art as a way to “de-link” herself “from a certain ghetto situation that establishes a simple geography as the only specificity of the medium from Eastern Europe.”(Gržinić, p. 17.) Gržinić proposes that in the former East, video served as a “vanishing mediator between history and the spectator in front of the television screen,” like a “third eye” for “perceiving the future.”(Ibid. pp. 29-30.)  She goes on to argue that new media remain a vital weapon in today’s struggle against “the dehumanizing logic of capital and its processes of deregulation, privatization and expropriation.”(Ibid. p. 29-30.)  The author attacks the amnesiac hypocrisy of the West’s re-discovery of “Communism as a concept for the future” and states that projects such as Former West backhandedly serve to reinforce rather than to genuinely rethink the West’s “historical and present hegemonic power.”(Ibid. p. 18-19.)  Re-politicizing video, Gržinić argues, is central to the ongoing project of reforming and transforming art history post-1989, and she proposes that this new history should locate former-Eastern European experimental film “as its center.”(Ibid. p. 20.)  Gržinić’s Eastern Euro-Centrism highlights fresh tensions between different globalized, post-colonial revisions of art history. The forthcoming conference at the Clark Institute entitled “In the Wake of the “Global Turn:” Practices for an Exploded Art History without Borders,” for example, proposes that we now need to “pursue a radically de-centered or polycentric art history or one re-centered around a different locus, such as Africa rather than Europe.” From the perspective of the European former East, of course, the Euro-phobia of the ongoing disciplinary “global turn” threatens to extend and even  repeat the Cold War ideological erasure of the East European experience from the historical map, even if it does so for new, more politically correct reasons. Gržinić’s proposal to make the former East a new global historical center offers a deliberately antagonistic refusal of this double erasure.

Gržinić’s sense of an ongoing ghetto-like situation of the former East is echoed in the tone of most of the other texts in the volume. These tend to be inward looking (some in more sophisticated ways than others). In this sense, the volume offers a fascinating survey of the state of writing about Central and East European art from within. Still, Transitland’s recourse to the geographical framework of “Central and Eastern Europe” does little to explode the walls of what Gržinić calls the “ghetto.” As the editor is all too well aware, a Central and Eastern European framework that brings together post-Soviet, Yugoslav and Romanian experiences risks homogenizing and potentially reinforcing rather than deconstructing the regional specificity of the historical “Eastern Europe.” The comparative strategy adopted by the Transitland project may have the merits of placing national art histories alongside one another, but it does not address the place of the former East in a global context. And although the former Eastern Europe is increasingly a focus of interest for researchers, curators and institutions outside of the region, the present volume does not engage the presence of these outsiders from beyond the “ghetto” as discursive partners. Whether investment in a Central and Eastern European regional discourse will further isolate the former-East from the all-too-Western “global” scene, or whether this will be a staging post en route towards participation in a new “world art” with or without further sub-regionalization remains to be seen.

Boris Buden’s text “Getting Out of Here” thinks beyond the confines of the sub-regional box and reflects on the problem of Europe as “sort of social and political work-in-progress.”(Buden, p. 74.)  Illustrating his argument with references to Goran Dević’s video Imported Crows and Chto Delat’s Builders, he argues that the former-East must break with fear if it is to deal with what he describes as the problem of the “empty place of society,” caused by the fact that “it is not only Socialism that has collapsed. The society as such has gone, as well.”(Ibid. p. 76.)  Mihnea Mircan’s text addresses similar problems, although from a different angle. “Monuments to Nothing” analyzes the use of monuments in films by Deimantas Narkevičius and Gintaras Dzidziapetris. Mircan’s  conclusions about post-wall European cultural dialogue are also far from upbeat. He describes the discursive “drive to reunite Europe” as “disoriented yet well-meaning,” arguing that international initiatives designed to “bridge the gap” and “explore the divide” between East and West or “analyze or invent common problems,” while being “excellent opportunities to appraise each other’s insecurities or perplexities” have so far only “strengthened the separation, maintained as a focal point of the difficulty, the awkwardness even, of talking to each other.”(Mircan, p. 206.)

Nevertheless, some of the contributors to the volume cannot resist taking a swipe at the “West” by way of setting up the specificity of the “East”.  Thus, in her essay entitled “Modernities out of Sync. The Tactful Art of Anri Sala,” Svetlana Boym claims that “in the case of artists from traditions other than those of Western Europe or the United States, where historical violence is not an armchair fantasy, tactfulness is less about abstinence than about a conscious reticence, […] than about a deliberate choice not to violate further that which has been violated by history.”(Boym, p. 85.)  In Sala’s “tactfulness,” Boym sees a way to eschew “both the media-driven sensationalism of the new and of nostalgia and ostalgia alike.”(Ibid. p. 90.)  East-West difference, for Boym, remains a useful rhetorical strategy.

If, as Mircan says, projects designed to “promote dialogue” are ultimately doomed to reinforce rather than break down cultural differences, is the former-East doomed to eternal self-analysis? Mircan reasons that “the post-Communist condition is a personal or collective archaeology of everything at the infra-political level, below the threshold of sensitivity of power, where displacements or distortions are stronger and harder to visualize than revolutions or reforms. This is perhaps the place from which to rethink Communism – starting from a multitude of low resolution images of history and inconclusive data.”(Mircan, p. 206.)  For Mircan, video is the place from which to “rethink Communism.” Gržinić, however, goes further: for her, Eastern European video is the place to rethink the world as a whole.

Interestingly, Boris Groys’ text makes no reference to politics or to the post-communist condition. Instead, his essay “From the Image to the Image File – And Back” contains two arguments. First, that the significance of the video-installation as a form lies in its thematization of “incomprehensibility, uncertainty and the viewers’ lack of control over the duration of his own attention in museum spaces,” which forces individuals to confront what Groys calls an “uneasy compromise with time.”(Groys, p. 37.)  Second, that the video image destroys the “illusion of the self-identity of the image,” making it impossible to conceal the traditionally invisible “curatorial practice of presentation.”(Ibid. p. 37.)  This, Groys argues, is testimony to the paradigm shift caused by the radical transformations in reproduction technology that have occurred since Walter Benjamin first formulated his argument concerning the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Today, Groys concludes, “we are not dealing with copies, but exclusively with originals, including the original presentation of the same image files, because the space of the circulation of images is not homogeneous, but heterogeneous, and so each new contextualization of the image is its originalization its reinvention.”(Ibid. p. 42.)  Groys adopts the subject-position of a formalist theorist, speaking of space and time in the disinterested language of philosophy. One cannot help but notice that his concerns are something of an anomaly in this volume and wonder how this is relates to the fact that Groys is one of the few former Eastern intellectuals who has successfully entered the “global” discursive field. Is the prioritization of philosophical and formal concerns over socio-political and historical considerations a pre-requisite for entry into the globalized mainstream?

Călin Dan’s essay “Media Arts Get Media Free: a Small Anthology of Older views” provides a series of witty reflections on the experience of Romanian culture’s initiation into “transition.” Dan recalls, among other things, the setbacks he encountered while organizing the first Romanian video event Ex Oriente Lux in 1993 at the Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts in Bucharest. Despite never having owned a VCR or having processed a text on a computer, he was convinced “that since the old media were exhausted, at least the new media promised some entertainment,” imagining “that the promotion of media would be kind of healing operation in a country tormented by the role media played in its destiny.”(Dan, p. 38.)  Dan recalls that his illusions were soon shattered: “After spending a month in the darkness of the show, I felt like an Eskimo lost in the Northern night, where nothing happens.”(Ibid. p. 131.)  The billionaire George Soros had been skeptical about the project from the outset of course. In the end Dan came to agree: “The social arguments in which I wrapped the whole event were wishful thinking […]. At best, video art is a (pious?) lie meant to prove that, even in the context of new media, art continues to play a role in our civilization. I will not waste my computer time writing about the distribution crisis confronting video art […]. In Romania, the media environment turned from an ideological desert (ante-December 1989) into a complete jungle (post-).”(Ibid. pp. 131-2.)  But Dan did not give up of course, particularly not when he heard that  ““George” (Soros) was very keen on the internet!”(Ibid. p. 133.)

I was disappointed that no analysis or explanation for the troublingly neutral term “transitland” was offered in the volume. It seems to me to weld together time, space and economics in interesting, if problematic, ways. The term “transition” carries with it the desire to neutralize itself into a period, normalizing the often violent social changes that the politico-economic process it designates entailed. The transition of the so-called “transition economies” from centrally planned economies to the “free market” understood  liberalization as the dismantling/privatization of State enterprises and the lowering of trade barriers, with far-reaching social consequences. The risk implicit in the  adoption of the term transition,  even in altered form, for a research project such as Transitland is that the term and the process it describes may become naturalized instead of without accomplishing any sort of détournement. In order to make the possibility of a more critical relationship explicit, I would therefore be tempted to ironically re-name the project tranzitland, thereby drawing attention to the new role played by corporate sponsors such as the Viennese Erste Bank group in promoting and funding cultural initiatives such as the transnationalorganization tranzit. Such a  title might better reflect the shared economic realities of “tranzitland” and Disneyland in a globalized economy firmly controlled by multinationals.

Transitland charts a disjunctive and a discontinuous history. The volume contains a videography of the archive that was compiled by the project director, Margarita Doravska. This is an extremely valuable resource for further viewing and research. I also recommend a visit to the transitland.eu website where a good number of the selected films can be viewed in full. Although Transitland emphasizes the pluralism of the emerging discourses in post-socialist video, its lack of structure makes the book more appealing for dipping in and out of than for cover-to-cover reading. The volume’s editor seems at ease with this chaos, calling the selection of texts “wild.” An uninitiated reader might do well to read the volume backwards, first browsing the videography, and then reading the Gržinić piece for its conclusions.