Socially Engaged Art After Socialism: Art and Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (Book Review)

Izabel Galliera, Socially Engaged Art After Socialism: Art and Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017), 304 pp.

Socially engaged art practices emerging in former communist Europe represent a very under-researched field of study, and Galliera’s Socially Engaged Art After Socialism is the first scholarly treatment of socially engaged art (SEA) projects in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).(On the other hand, socially engaged art and collaboration in art in the West has been the research interest of a number of art historians, art critics, and curators since the 1990s. Among them are: Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain – New Genre Public Art (1994); Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another (2002); Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, English edition (2002); Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces (2004); One and the Many: Contemporary Collaboration Art in a Global Context (2011); Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells (2012); Shannon Jackson, Social Works (2011); Nato Thompson, Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (2012); Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, Nilsson Lars ed., Taking the Matter into Common Hands: Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices (2007); Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette ed., Collectivism after Modernism (2007).) The book addresses the following three main questions: What do democratic notions of civil society mean within post-socialist transitional contexts? How are these achieved and made visible? What can be and is the role of contemporary socially engaged art in such broad and yet vital societal processes? Galliera’s position concerning these issues is that in the post-communist environment, SEA projects had a relevant role to play in the shaping of a democratic notion of civil society. Her research reveals that in post-socialist contexts, social capital has been used by artists and curators as a vital means for communication and action, even though the author stresses that such capital can have also negative connotations and can even serve as a mechanism for exclusion. It is exactly social capital’s dual nature that, according to her, “requires that we perpetually articulate and rearticulate its politically subversive potential within the dominant yet shifting spaces of power, such as institutions.” (p. 10) Galliera stresses the importance of these complex negotiations between social, political and cultural capital by art practitioners within the CEE post-1989 context. For CEE countries, the transitional period and their eventual acceptance into the EU meant the achievement of democracy. During the post-communist period, neoliberalism became the dominant ideology and economic policy, shaping the CEE countries. It is precisely in this context of increasing privatization that civil society emerges as a key focus for SEA practices. As Galliera explains, “it is both in the working towards and the acting within civil society that a number of socially engaged artists, curators and institutions examined in this book should be retrospectively understood.” (p. 3)

The term “socially engaged art” is used by Galliera as an umbrella term for self-organizing institutions, site-specific contemporary forms of art, and exhibition making that unfolds in public spaces. The author describes some of these art forms as participatory (realized through the physical involvement of people) and others as collaborative (they emerge from specific ways of working together among diverse individuals); others combine both strategies. While Galliera uses the umbrella term “socially engaged” to refer to participatory and collaborative art that engages people and unfolds in public spaces, what is central for her discussion is the practitioners’ understanding of the “political” and of being “politically engaged.”

The book is organized around three major tendencies, which are viewed both chronologically and synchronically within SEA in a specific CEE sub-region. Based on this, the book is divided into three main parts, each with separate chapters. Galliera’s study geographically concentrates on Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. The term “Central Eastern Europe” was chosen to represent these countries. As the author states, “while Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary do not stand in for the entire CEE, they represent an opportunity to examine specific factors common across this region that played key roles in the emergence of socially engaged art and curatorial practices in post-socialist contexts.” (p. 9) Galliera provides a brief history of the three chosen countries and their similarities, although sadly she does not explain the reason why she chose exactly only these three countries (other than that they geographically share borders and historically were part of the Ottoman Empire) to represent the region. Indeed, it is arguable whether these three countries can stand for the totality of the region.(The term “Central Eastern Europe” itself requires a definition. Indeed, the inherent ambiguity of the term “Central Europe” has been addressed by many authors, among them Tony Judt in his book The Rediscovery of Central Europe in 1990 where he argues that what “Central Europe” means has shifted over time. These shifts have been both geopolitical – the result of altered borders – and cultural, as power changed hands in the shift from German dominance to the Soviet conquest in the region.” Tony Judt, “The Rediscovery of Central Europe,” Daedalus, Winter 1990: 23-54, 24.)

The first part of the book is dedicated to the transition from socialism to democracy in the early 1990s. In the first chapter, Galliera discusses SEA in relation to contemporary theories of socially engaged art emerging in the West that “have articulated a particular set of terms, frameworks and evaluative criteria to approach art as social practice.” (p. 20) The author’s research in large relies on direct interviews with artists, curators, and members of funding institutions, as well as archival documents. Galliera notably engages with primary and secondary sources in Hungarian, Romanian and English. Still, when referring to art from the CEE region, she heavily depends on Western art historians and practitioners, especially Suzanne Lacy, Suzy Gablik, Grant Kester, Shannon Jackson, Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriaud, and Maria Lind. Galliera claims that “art historians and critics in CEE have not considered the growing number of local artists and curators engaged in art as a social practice to amount to an emerging art tendency in the broader field of contemporary art.” (p. 18)

While it is true that a theoretical contribution to the field of socially engaged art in the region has not as yet been developed–nor does there exist an extensive comparative study on SEA in CEE–there have nevertheless been several articles and books focused on individual countries, albeit not the ones on which Galliera focuses her research. For instance, in 2014, Pavlína Morganová published her study Czech Action Art, and Barbora Klímová’s Navzájem: Umělci a spoloečenství na Moravě. 70.-80. let 20. století. (Together: Artists and Communities in Moravia, 2013) appeared a year before. Both focus on participatory arts and art performances in public spaces during communism in Czechoslovakia. Further, Ján Zálešák’s Umění Spolupráce (Art of Collaboration, 2011) discusses participatory art practices in the Czech Republic after the fall of socialism. In Slovakia, Zora Rusinová has dedicated a significant part of her research to street art actions and performances from the 1960s. In 2014, Ján Kralovič published Teritórium Ulica (The Territory of the Street), where he discusses street art actions from the period of Communism and observes links with contemporary participatory art practices. Kralovič has also examined contemporary community art projects in Slovakia. In Poland, Stanisław Ruksza, has been active publishing extensive exhibition catalogues in the form of books (all of them in English) and related to social practice in Poland (for example in 2012 he published Social Works, a book whose aim was to demonstrate the potential of contemporary art in society). In Lublin, Szymon Pietrasiewicz in 2012 founded in Rewiry – the Studio of Socially Engaged Art, and since then he has dedicated his work to supporting and documenting these art practices in Poland. Summing up, even though these countries do not represent the focus of Galliera’s research, it would be inaccurate to claim that art historians and curators in the entire CEE region have not considered the growing number of local artists and curators engaged in art as a social practice.

Galliera observes the relevance of social capital in the early 1990s when friendship networks based on informal social relations were essential. The 1990s also represented a boom for the founding of private art galleries such as ATA-Ray (founded in 1991) and the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Sofia (established in 1995). The author sees the ICA as an effective example of the potential of social capital for generating strong public and independent initiatives, a way of institutionalizing existing friendships. Galliera correctly observes the importance of the Soros Centers in the 1990s, but she also stresses that they created only short-term public platforms limited to one particular arts community. The ICA, on the other hand, operates at the grassroots level of existing networks for the generation social capital, and from these small community groups it successfully builds strong publics.

It would have been beneficial for this study to engage to a greater extent with research coming from the region itself, if only because that research was conducted by art historians and critics who have worked for decades in the local context, in local institutions, and in close collaboration with local artists. Even though Galliera aims to do the opposite, her book tends to perpetuate the dominant Western discourse. She seeks to support her strategy by pointing to the fact that since 1989 there has been an increasing influx, into the CEE region, of scholarship and information from non-CEE countries. However, such self-colonization should not become an excuse for perpetuating the West’s quasi-colonial Wester position in relation to the former Eastern Europe. Galliera certainly engages with primary and secondary sources in Hungarian and Romanian, and she uses interviews with local artists and curators for her research. However, by putting the emphasis on Western theory and its pre-eminence, she tends to prolong the already imbalanced and unequal relationship between East and West.

For instance, in connection with the SEA project Inside Out (1998) by Big Hope the author writes that “the socialist housing model ensured a place to live for virtually all of its citizens” and that “most citizens in socialist nations were employed.” (p. 236) However, she does not mention the fact that under Communism, work was less the citizen’s right than his or her legal obligation. Economic and social historian Jacek Kochanowicz, argues that: “The promise of full employment, that is, the right to a job promised by the state, not only gave access to the means of survival, but also served a s tool of social control, and work was treated as much as a right as it was a duty. Those who did not work were treated as parasites, or even criminals.” (Jacek Kochanowicz, Backwardness and Modernization: Poland and Eastern Europe in the 16th-20th Centuries (Albershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), 288.) Prices, wages and all basic commodities including housing were subsidized by the state, and all other commodities which were considered luxurious were exchanged as rewards for political loyalty.

The core of Galliera’s argument in chapter two is the term “social capital,” a term she understands as the accumulation of a multiplicity of informal collaborative modes of production, organization, and exchange among networks of individuals within a group and among groups of individuals. In the context of the increasingly dominant neoliberalism and the privatization of public space, Galliera correctly observes the importance of friendships and social relations. She believes that social capital “contains a politically subversive possibility even after the fall of socialist regimes.” (p. 11) The author examines how social capital can become a tool for artists, curators, and art institutions to promote discussions, and she points to social capital’s dual nature, requiring the constant articulating and rearticulating of its politically subversive potential. She usefully compares the concept to Grant Kester’s duplicitous notion of “collaboration” which involves both unity and betrayal. (The author further demonstrates how this might work in practice in chapter six, using the example of Bulgaria, where friendly relationships among artists generated strong initiatives and influenced the emergence of contemporary private art galleries in the 1990s, such as the Institute for Contemporary Art in Sofia).

Chapter three focuses on the pre-1989 period. Here Galliera examines the informal and alternative culture of “the Second Society” under socialism, drawing her examples from participatory art projects that were created thanks to friendships and unofficial networks in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. For example, Miklós Erdély’s Unguarded Money from 1956 unfolded as a gesture in support of the 1956 revolution. With help of his friends from the Hungarian Writers Union, the artist placed unguarded Red Cross collection boxes in six central locations around Budapest to collect money for the families of the fallen martyrs. Informal communication and friendships were key for the realization of participatory projects such as this one. However, what is missing from this chapter is an art historical evaluation based on the genealogical differences between different art projects from the period.

The second part of the book, “From Localized Public Sites to EU Transnational Public Spheres,” addresses the mid-2000s, when the notions of civil society in CEE increasingly became equated with values put forward by EU laws and agreements that outlined accession principles for prospective members. In the 2000s, exhibitions became important sites for negotiations between ideas promoting the civic values of Western-style liberal democracies. Galliera distinguishes two tendencies here: the first shaped by the already mentioned George Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts, which had a pivotal role for art as social practice, and a second marked by European funding of culture. Galliera discusses art projects that aimed to explore local discourses belonging to the European transnational public sphere, such as Visual Seminar (2002-5), Bulgaria; Public Art Bucharest (2007), Romania; and Moscow Square (2003), Hungary. She pays particular attention to the following socially engaged art projects accompanying the above mentioned exhibitions: János Sugár, Time Patrol (2003); Ivan Moudov, MUSIZ (2005); Luchezar Boyadjiev, Hot City Visual (2003) and h.arta, Project Space (2007). All of these SEA projects address counterpublics and inequities in their local environments.

Visual Seminar consisted of three years of interdisciplinary and collaborative projects aiming “to interrogate the uncontrolled avalanche of advertisements” in the public space of the city emerging after 1989, as well as to provide platforms for the public discussion of this issue involving citizens, artists and media. One of the art projects, Boyadjiev’s Hot City Visual confronted the generally negative attitudes towards the Roma minority by depicting four Roma men (one of them, Stefan, being the artist’s long-term friend) advertising a family-owned small business on the façade of Sofia’s National Art Gallery for two weeks. These examples highlight the importance, in CEE, of these and other art initiatives in the mid-2000s for addressing newly raised public issues after the end of the transformation period. Galliera discusses two more SEA projects, both of them directly engaging members of immigrant communities in Italy (Big Hope, Re:route, 2002, Turin) and in the UK (Matei Bejenau, Together, 2007, London). Both of these projects focus on the idea of belonging to the European community and on the politics of exclusion connected with it. Galliera here very importantly observes that these projects, through their emphasis on the shifting conditions of belonging to national and transnational space, became important temporary public platforms capable of addressing specific immigrant groups in their own social contexts.

In the third and final chapter “Institutionalized and Institutionalizing”, the author observes that the rightist, nationalist and corporatist governments in power in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc have, paradoxically, become an inspiration for art initiatives in recent years. A vast number of curators, artists and critics have begun to respond to these rightist governments by developing quasi-independent alternative art institutions and organizations, something Galliera refers to as “self-institutionalization.” Examples include IMPEX (2006-2009, the continuation of DINAMO, 2003-2006); E-cart’s Department for Art in Public Space (2009-11) in Bucharest; 0GMs (2010-present) in Sofia; and Inside Out (1998) and Disobbedienti (2002) in Budapest. The last two were initiated by the artist collective Big Hope with the aim of forging a public discussion about what “leftist” might mean in post-89 Hungary. Galliera sees these projects in contrast to community-based art programs such Art for Social Change (2000-2004) and cARTier (2004-2007), which were funded by European and American international organizations and which, according to her, often act as moral legitimizers for neoliberal capitalism. Galliera rightly criticizes these initiatives for their top-down organizational structure, for their obliviousness towards existing power structures, and for their undifferentiated understanding of community. Instead of addressing structural change, the author argues, these initiatives teach citizens to assume responsibility for their own environment. One of the self-institutionalizing initiatives founded in Sofia was 0GMS, a collective project initiated as a form of institutional critique that existed as a nomad art gallery occupying the space of a drawer. Galliera observes that self-institutionalizing practices such as 0GMS, in comparison with the previous period when artists understood civil society in anti-political terms, view civil society as “a critical sphere challenging nationalist state directives and neoliberal market forces, while often acting from within these very structures.” (p. 280)

In her conclusion, Galliera explains that the critical history of SEA as told in this book is not a linear narrative: “Rather, it is the changing story of parallel art initiatives and of a complex battle between collective and individual interests” (p. 283). Arguing for the relevance of self-institutionalizing initiatives that managed to convey an understanding of civil society as a critical and perpetually shifting political process requiring continuous negotiation of individual and collective rights, she concludes by naming those features SEA projects from the CEE share with SEA discourse worldwide, to wit, the fact that their “practitioners are concerned with socio-political interventions and social justice.” (p. 286)

As a first scholarly treatment of SEA practice CEE, this relevant publication fills a gap in existing literature and constitutes a stepping stone for the future study of such practices in the region. This is despite the fact that the book often does not provide the kind of in-depth analysis one might expect. For example, when the author addresses the issue of full employment and the housing model under the former Socialist regime in relation to the SEA project Inside Out (1998, initiated by Big Hope in Budapest), she presents these issues somewhat tendentiously as facts, rather than analyzing them critically. Similarly, when discussing the Roma minority in relation to Bunea’s project Exodus Traces and Boyadjiev’s Hot City Visual, Galliera sadly omits the reasons for the Roma’s stigmatisation and segregation. A more comprehensive analysis of these reasons would have helped the reader better understand the significance of these art projects and their place in post-communist society. Consequently, and despite its merits, Galliera’s book leaves the reader unconvinced because as relevant facts and nuances are elided, the argument at times comes across as rather one-sided.