Location of the Problem: Always a Bit More to the South East

Call Me Istanbul ist mein Name, ZKM, Karlsruhe, 18 April – 8 August, 2004

Mangelos (retrospective) and a project by Marjetica Potrc, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, 20 May – 19 September, 2004

L’arte del mediterraneo, MACRO, Rome, 3 June, 2004

Cetinje Biennial, Montenegro, July 2004 

Coming from Slovenia – a young nation state ever-navigating between the ideas of Central Europe and its recent Yugoslavian past, and slated to join the European Union in May 2004 – I am intrigued by the increasing interest that the region referred to as the Balkans, or as the more politically correct South Eastern Europe, has received lately.

Despite breakthroughs in established, politically fixed territorial boundaries, ethnic groups or borders in art, and everyday reality, since the early 1990s, and despite the present moment of “fast-forwarding” conventional notions of space through information and communication technologies, contemporary art authorities still feel there is more to be said in how Europe shifts its mental and physical borders.

This phenomenon seems to go hand-in-hand with the present status of Europe, searching for a means to consolidate what is left of its resistant particles, or, to put it more directly, of its recent and sensitive area of political re-orientations in the East and South East.

In this context and in the context of the worldwide generalisation and division into “us” (Western freedom-oriented civilisation) and “them” (the non-civilised Enemy from the East) as a result of last year’s horrifying war events, any possible obstruction to human insanity seems not just heavily wanted, but also heavily impossible.

There seem to be many ‘peripheries’ in Europe, on a continent that is speeding up its impulse to unite all the existing differences among its constituent nation states within the coming years.

Europe’s deepest layers lie on its Eastern – more precisely South Eastern – horizon, as revealed by one of the earliest manifestations in the discussion of Balkan issues: the series of workshops Deep Europe taking place during documenta X.

The term was coined by Bulgarian artist Luchezar Boyadjiev, who understands the depth of Europe’s different regions residing in places where there are overlapping religious or cultural identities and claims over a certain historical past, historical figures, or even territories.

The Balkans, with its factual delimitation being constantly indefinite, contain a sense of depth that generated a centuries-long succession of fantastic images and pejorative stereotypes. This succession served as a kind of projection screen for Western Europe’s repressed ideological anxieties and desires.

Slavoj Žižek wittily alluded to the escapist character of the Balkans as being the “Other” and lying always a bit more to the South East. Žižek makes it clear that the Balkans can be compressed into a single unified geopolitical or cultural discourse but with quite a number of difficulties:

For Serbs [Balkan] begins down there in Kosovo or Bosnia, and they defend the Christian civilization against this Europe’s Other. For Croats, it begins with the Orthodox, despotic, Byzantine Serbia, against which Croatia defends the values of democratic Western civilization.

For Slovenes, it begins with Croatia, and we Slovenes are the last outpost of the peaceful Mitteleuropa. For Italians and Austrians, it begins with Slovenia, where the reign of the Slavic hordes starts.

For Germans, Austria itself, on account of its historic connections, is already tainted by the Balkanic corruption and inefficiency.

For some arrogant Frenchmen, Germany is associated with the Balkanian Eastern savagery – up to the extreme case of some conservative anti-European-Union Englishmen for whom, in an implicit way, it is ultimately the whole of continental Europe itself that functions as a kind of Balkan Turkish global empire with Brussels as the new Constantinople, the capricious despotic centre threatening English freedom and sovereignty.(Žižek, Slavoj, “The Spectre of Balkan,” The Journal of the International Institute (1998).)

Re-emerging after the Cold war, and following Edward Said´s denotation of a post-colonialist organised system of knowledge, such as ‘Orientalism,’ the terms ‘Balkanism’ or ‘Balkanisation’ have been coined around a “sense of binaries (rational/irrational, centre/periphery, civilisation/barbarism) arranged hierarchically so that the first sign (Europe) is always primary and definitional of the second (Balkans)”.(Bjelic, Dusan I., “Introduction: Blowing up the ‘Bridge’,” Dusan I. Bjelic, Obrad Savic (eds.), Balkan as a Metaphor. Between Globalization and Fragmentation. Cambridge, M.A.: MIT Press, 2002, 3.)

As scholars have argued, Balkanism differs from Orientalism in many ways, such that the latter can be applied to other geopolitical situations, whilst the former refers to the history of a specific locality.

Furthermore, although the concept of Orientalism may be employed as universal critiqueof the Western core of thinking, Balkanism “affirms constitutive differences and paradoxes for the sake of the Balkan’s representational concreteness”.(Ibid.)

The ongoing exhibition programme of an independent space Rotor in Graz, the exhibitions In Search of Balkania (curated by Roger Conover, Eda Èufer and
Peter Weibel, Graz 2002), Blood and Honey (curated by Harald Szeeman, Klosterneuburg 2003), and In the Gorges of the Balkans (curated by René Block, Kassel 2003), are the most evident examples of the latest attempts of the coming to terms with the discourse surrounding this area.

Encompassing countries from Slovenia to Moldavia and Turkey, these three large-scale exhibitions, and each on its own, comprised some unavoidable constructs and clichés.

Specifically, Szeeman’s point of departure restricted production from the region to spectacle and trauma, thus imposing his own views heavily and eliminating such elements as the strongly conceptual slant that the region’s art has taken.

Designed as a year-long project, The Balkans Trilogy in Kassel differs from these other manifestations in initiating the activities that will take place in the cities of participating countries, and in being organised by curators who are also active within their local contexts, thus aiming to give a voice to the actual perspectives of the location itself.

The exhibition In the Gorges of the Balkans is but an essay, adopting the documentary view of a traveller visiting, for the first time, most of these countries, and trying to record their many stories.

Edi Muka decided to call the generation of Albanian (probably all “Balkan”) artists that became recently prominent within the global art world as “the new proletarian”.(Muka, Edi, “The A-Factor or The New Prolets of the Art World”, In den Schluchten des Balkan (cat.), Kassel: Kunsthalle Fridericianum, 2003.)

They are all players in an ambiguous game; they are reminiscent of ‘working class heroes’ serving wider society’s general benefit by educating it. The artists present to the audience issues that this audience expects to have delivered and explained, according to its own stereotypes and representations of the country from the mass media.

Simultaneously the artists go beyond this stereotypical image by presenting some unexpected features (and these features are usually advertised as the main goal behind such peripheral exhibitions in the era of post-territorialism).

The behaviour of these artists corresponds to the ‘in-between’ identity of the whole region, steadily playing off its assigned and accepted attributes.

In the case of the Balkans, these are the attributes – projected within the Western nostalgia for emancipation, subversion, and wildness – of “a state in which the art in its own social reality still has something to say without instantly being reduced to the effects of the art market”.(Buden, Boris, Jebe lud zbunjenog, Zarez, no. 107 (2003).)

However, “the Balkan artists” are at the same time not completely naïve. As Boris Buden writes in his critique on Szeeman’s exhibition, the Balkan artists “know that Balkan does not denote a fateful or cultural community to which they necessarily belong, neither does it label the art they are making. Balkan is first of all ‘terminus technicus’ of their relationship towards the global art market dominated by the West that dictates actual demands under which they have to act to be accepted.”(Ibid.)

Interestingly enough, this position could be interpreted as corresponding to the concept of the “new” as postulated by Boris Groys in his thesis On the New.

In his thesis, Groys asserts that ‘being alive’, that is, transcending the dead museums and entering life in the sense of “making something different from that which has already been collected”(Groys, Boris, On the New, 2002, www.uoc.edu/artnodes/eng/art/groys1002/groys1002.html.), means being new.

The paradox, which corresponds to the contradictory situation that ‘the Balkan’ artists smartly take advantage of, is that the inner logic of museum collecting compels artists to go into the everyday life.

As Groys remarks, “Modern artists … know (in spite of their protests and resentments) that they are working primarily for the museums’ collections. These artists know from the beginning that they will be collected – and they actually want to be collected.”(Groys, Boris, On the New, 2002, www.uoc.edu/artnodes/eng/art/groys1002/groys1002.html.)

As revealed by events in the region itself, such as the 2nd Tirana Biennale in 2003, the real is still different from the perception of Reality.

The Real here is the sad fact of the utter indifference of Albanian authorities (with the exception of Tirana, with its charismatic mayor Edi Rama) towards the ambassadors of Albanian contemporary culture who have gathered around the Biennale to promote in the West an image of an open-minded Albanian community, more than any CNN documentary feature on Albania would ever do.

This leaves the directors of the Biennale, Edi Muka and Gëzim Qëndro, with very little hope of transforming the situation within the next few years.

Thus, a swift consolidation of the existing differences within ‘deep Europe’ is a mission that, viewed from the present moment of Reality, appears to be both imperial and pathetic.

The article is a revised version of “Tracing the Deepness of Europe,” originally published in Arco Contemporary Art Magazine, no. 30 (2003).