Synthesis: Retro-Avant-Garde, or, Mapping Post-Socialism in Ex-Yugoslavia

One always searches for some symbolic point from which one can claim that something ended and something else began, even though there are no beginnings and no endings. From a Western European or an American point of view, the changes that affected Eastern Europe were symbolically marked by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. From an ex-Yugoslavian perspective, this point would be the death of Tito in 1980. How will we be able to symbolize this developing, but as yet un-completed, so-called “new world order”? Sol Yurick has called this new world post-industrialist, post-modern, post-nationalist, post-neocolonial, post-structural, porous- bordered, cannibalistic, post-materialist, hyper-polluted-and so on, ad infinitum. (Cf. Sol Yurick, “The Emerging Metastate Versus the Politics of Ethno-Nationalist Identity”, in: The Decolonization of Imagination, eds., JanNederveen Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1995.)

I prefer the label “post-Socialism”. I want to use the term “post-Socialism” in order to deconstruct the modern myth of a global world, a world without cultural, social or political specificity, a world without centres and peripheries. What other strategy if not a post-Marxist model can we use for (de)coding the topic of post-Socialism? In his The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984), Fredric Jameson has proposed proposed an aesthetic of cognitive mapping. For Jameson, a cognitive map is not exactly mimetic in the older sense; rather, the theoretical issues it poses allow us to renew the analysis of representation at a higher and much more complex level. What is a cognitive map called upon to do? It allows us to create a situational representation for the individual subject ofthat vaster and logically unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole. An aesthetic of cognitive mapping will necessarily have to respect this enormously complex representational dialectic and invent radically new forms in order to do the itself justice. (Cf. Fredric Jameson, “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, in: Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso, London and New York, 1991, p. 51.)

Jameson’s is only one way of understanding the notion of “mapping” post-Socialism. How do we understand post-Socialism as the basic cultural, social and political condition for most of the former so-called Eastern Bloc? We must not understand it as a new mode of production. As Slavoj Žižek once quibbed, since nobody seriously considers alternatives to capitalism any longer, it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than a change in the mode of production. It is as if liberal capitalism is “the real” that will always survive. (Cf. Slavoj Žižek, “Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology”, in: Mapping Ideology, ed., Žižek, Verso, London and New York, 1994, p. 1.) I want to develop the idea of post-Socialism as a generative matrix that regulates the relationship between the visible and the non-visible, between the imaginable and the un-imaginable. This is an act of mapping that charts not the point at which differences manifest themselves, but the point on the post-Socialist map where the effects of these differences are represented.

I will try to pinpoint the coordinates of this generative matrix in the territory once known as Yugoslavia-more specifically, in Slovenia-through the projects of three artists: Mladen Stilinovic, Kasimir Malevich and, last but not least, the group IRWIN, especially their NEUE SLOWENISCHE KUNST (NSK) Embassy projects. With regard to Malevich, I will focus not on the “original” Malevich but on the 1980s Malevich from Belgrade and Ljubljana… I propose that we reread the term “post-Socialism” in ex-Yugoslavia through different visual displays. Why? A visual display is related to exhibitionism rather than scopophilia. In his seminar on “The Purloined Letter”, Jacques Lacan demonstrated how display might be thought of as the best method of concealment. Whereas in “The Purloined Letter” the police chief overlooks and misses the incriminating letter (the signifier on display), the uncanny Dupin (the figure of the Lacanian psychoanalyst himself) immediately sees the signifier displayed in full view, just as the signifier desired. This demonstrates, despite Guy Debord’s claim to the contrary, that in modern times an excess of display has the effect of concealing the truth of the society that produces it. It is through display that political regimes reveal the truths they mean to conceal. Each historic period has its own rhetorical mode of display, because each has different truths to conceal. (Peter Wollen, “Introduction”, in: Visual Display, eds., Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, Dia 10, Bay Press, Seattle, 1995, pp. 9-10.)

All three artists and groups I want to discuss utilise specific strategies of visual display for their portrayal of aspects of Socialist and post-Socialist ideology. I will focus on the way they envision ideology as a changing system, rhetorically and otherwise, in ex-Yugoslavia and the former countries of so-called ‘real Socialism’. This is also the best way to grasp the post-Socialist system itself. In other words, we might ask to which social bodies the 80s Malevich, IRWIN-NSK Embassy and Stilinovic belong. The essence of the presentation of this triad represents a journey from frontier to frontier, a journey by which the inexorable presence of artifacts materializes the dialectical, cultural, political and, above all, artistic environment that is coded as Eastern Europe, stigmatized as the Balkans, and traumatised as the former Yugoslavia. My primary thesis is that post-Socialism can best be grasped through the way they display the ideology of the Socialist and post-Socialist system.

In one of the exhibition catalogues for the Steiresche Herbst exhibition in Graz, Peter Weibel subsumed the productions of Stilinovic, the 80s Malevich, and IRWIN under the common signifier of “Retro-Avantgarde”. The label was adopted by the trio itself for an exhibition entitled “Retro-avangarda” in Ljubljana (1994). While in the past I had reflected on their work individually, this exhibition gave me the opportunity to develop a kind of dialectical loop between their different projects. I developed a dialectical interrelationship within which I designated their positions as those in a Hegelian triad: Mladen Stilinovic as the thesis; Malevich and the projects of copying as an antithesis; and IRWIN, with the projects of the NSK EMBASSIES (presented in the framework of NSK STATE IN TIME), as synthesis. Although I concluded that these specific artistic productions took the place of the (retro)avant garde movement, I never fully succeeded in answering the question what the key referential moment would be that pulls all together as a movement, allowing us to think about them dialectically. The answer is-ideology! What is at stake here could also be formulated as the problem of the status of the word “and” as a category. According to Žižek, in Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology, the word “and” functions as a precise theoretical category. Žižek argues that when “and” appears in the title of some of Althusserl’s essays, this little word unmistakably signals the confrontation of some ambiguous notion with its specification (contained in what comes after the “and”). What comes after the “and” tells us how we are to render concrete the initial notion, so that it begins to function as non-ideological, strictly theoretical concept. (Cf. Žižek, “Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology”, pp. 23-24.)

How did NEUE SLOWENISCHE KUNST (NSK) and Laibach function during the 1980s and 1990s? NEUE SLOWENISCHE KUNST, or NSK, is an art movement (or rather an organization) that was established in Slovenia during the early 80s. It comprises the music group LAIBACH, the fine art group IRWIN, the “retrogarde” theater group SESTER SCIPION NASICE (later re-named RED PILOT COSMOKINETIC THEATER, which in its turn during the ’90s was renamed THE NOORDUNG COSMOKINETIC THEATERCABINET), and the design group NEW COLLECTIVISM. NSK sees itself as an abstract social body situated in a very real socio-political space which simultaneously represents a Western and an Eastern perspective. Its structure and organization resemble a demonic capitalist machine, a corporate system that cannot be found in the Western art world where a similar organization could exist only if it was linked to some real financial capital). By contrast, thanks to its socialist heritage, NSK was able to rest on purely ideological foundations.

In the 1980’s, the strategies of representation deployed by the NSK collective were often equated with totalitarianism. Their art was considered a menace to the existing social order. Laibach appeared in the context of the Slovenian/ex-Yugoslavian punk movement, but nevertheless the group was often associated with “Nazism” because of its performances.(“The group’s first lead singer had to play with cut lips and a thin stream of blood on his face for his insistence on a Mussolini pose and his costume (he was wearing a pseudo-military uniform) as well as for the infernal industrial sound.” in: Ales Erjavec, Marina Grzinic, Mladinska knjiga, Ljubljana, 1991, p. 97.) The position of other members of NSK towards Nazism was different. IRWIN, for example, developed more subtle attitudes to this topic. One of their earlier works/ installations, “The Four Seasons”(1988), depicted four monumental female portraits in the style of the Nazi period. I believe that we cannot base our criticism of IRWIN/NSK/Laibach purely on this iconography. The importance of “The Four Seasons” lies, I think, in the way its “recycling” of the Nazi aesthetic leads to the latter’s subversion and deconstruction, displaying the system of perceptual codes that directed the mode of representation (of women) during the Nazi era. In this way, the invisible logic that structured the portraits of the period is made visible to the spectator. In its labelling of NSK’s activity as “potential terror and destruction”, the state merely re-inforced the opinion that, in fact, “terror and destruction” resided nowhere but in the state itself. During the 1980s, the activities of NSK questioned the mechanisms that compel us to think, as Norman Bryson once put it, “of a terror intrinsic to sight, which makes it harder to think what makes sight terroristic.” (Hal Foster, “Preface”, in: Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster, Bay Press, Seattle, 1988, p. XII.) The NSK did not posit the gaze as a menace, nor as a natural fact, but rather showed that its menace was a social product determined by power. The result of NSK’s strategies was that previously “natural” Socialist cultural values and rituals became denaturalized. NSK laid the foundations for a different mode of politics(!), a “politics of sight.” It was by dint of the totality of their concepts and the complexity of their productions that NSK managed to occupy a space in a social and cultural reality which was otherwise utterly dominated (if not totalized) by political discourse.

What, then, is ideology? As Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, ideology has nothing to do with illusion, nor with a mistaken or distorted representation. Ideology is not simply a false consciousness, an illusory representation of reality; it is being itself insofar as that being is supported by false consciousness. An ideology is thus not necessarily false, since what really matters is not content as such but the way that content relates its own enunciation. (Cf. Žižek, “Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology”, in: Mapping Ideology, p. 8.) We are within ideological space in an inherently nontransparent way: the very logic of legitimizing domination must remain concealed if it is to be effective. In his introduction to Mapping Ideology (1994), Žižek proposed to read “the logico-narrative reconstruction of the notion of ideology” (Ibid., p. 10.) as a Hegelian triad of ideology “in-itself”, “for-itself”, and “in-and -for-itself”. In what follows I will juxtapose the Retro-Avant-garde with Žižek’s Hegelian scheme. In order to perceive the work of the Retro-Avant-garde, we do not have to leave the dialectical Hegelian-Marxist structure; instead we have to redouble it. Instead of evaluating the adequacy or the “truth” of different notions of ideology, I want to read the different incarnations of ideology (“in- itself”, “for-itself”, “in-and- for itself”) as indices of different concrete historical constellations in the era of post-Socialism. According to Žižek, ideology “in-itself” “represents the imminent notion of ideology as a doctrine, a composite of ideas, beliefs, concepts, and so on, destined to convince us of its ‘truth’, yet actually unavowedly serving particular power interests.”(Ibid.) When applied to the context of the former Yugoslavia during the 1980s, “ideology ‘in-itself” suggests the ideology of self-management, an ideology then presented as specifically Yugoslav, as a new mode of Socialism in the world.

Mladen Stilinovic, one of the major artistic figures of contemporary Croatian art, began his artistic career in the 1970s as a linguist. (Mladen Stilinovic is one of the major artistic figures of contemporary Croatian art.) The artist variously questioned “ideology in-itself” through his own idiosyncratic readings of that ideology. In 1977 Stilinovic wrote the following phrase, in red on pink silk: “An Attack On My Art Is An Attack on Socialism And Progress.” In his earliest work, Stilinovic explored the relationship between the visual sign and colloquial speech by decoding verbal and visual cliches and trying to detach language from political commonplaces and imposed connotations. As the artist himself commented, “if language is the property of ideology, I too want to become the owner of such language; I want to think in it, with all the consequences that entails.”(Cf. Branka Stipancic, “Words And Images”, in: Words and Images, SCCA, Zagreb, 1995, p. 3.) Stilinovic further developed his critique by cleverly exploiting extinct visual codes, a project that took several years to complete and that involved the recycling of the visual and ideological sign systems of Constructivism, Suprematism, and Socialist Realism, as well as the colors red and the black, and the symbols of the star and the cross.

At first sight, Stilinovic’s project seems to be semantically transparent. It appears as if Stilinovic is submerged in a world of Yugoslav dinars and cakes, a world which can easily be recognized without any grounding in concept art. Stilinovic’s work is the result of a meticulously elaborated post-Socialist conceptual strategy involving poverty and kitsch; one could call it a tautological x-ray of Socialist and post-Socialist ideology. One of the last projects by Stilinovic, realized in 1994-95, consisted of the vivisection of the evolving position of post-Socialist art as it became a part of the capitalist market, a position that appears in condensed form in one of Stilinovic’s statements in English: “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist.”

Stilinovic knows very well that stepping out of (what we experience as) ideology is the very precondition for our enslavement to it. (Cf. Žižek , “Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology”, in: Mapping Ideology, p. 6.) This position is far from a position of cynical distance, laughter, or irony as the underlying premises of contemporary society, democratic or totalitarian. The greatest dangers for totalitarianism are people who take its ideology literally, and for Stilinovic this literalism has the status of an ethical stance. Avoiding simple metaphors of demasking and discarding the veils that are supposed to hide raw reality, Stilinovic has succeeded in developing a different critique of Socialist and post-Socialist ideology. The artist succeeded in subverting and twisting totalitarian ideology by literally repeating it (the same could be said of Laibach during the 1980s.)

The passage from “ideology in-itself” to “ideology for-itself” is the step towards ideology in its otherness or externalization. For Žižek, this step is articulated in the production of ideology by what Louis Althusser calls the “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISA). According to Žižek, this passage designates the material existence of ideology within ideological practices, rituals and institutions. (Cf. Žižek, “Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology”, in: Mapping Ideology, p.12.) The key consequence of Althusser’s theory of the ideological apparatuses of the state, especially in the field of art and culture, is that he shows how these apparatuses give rise-through schools, the media, etc.-to entities such as “national painting” or “classical art”. Most importantly, Althusser highlights the role of ISAs in creating and maintaining the hierarchy between different artistic and cultural practices and values; in forming the so-called institution of art with its system of values; and in reinforcing the art market as a reproductive force.

In post-Socialist art, this “passage” was marked and continuously reproduced by the “resurrection of Russian suprematist [Kazimir] Malevich” in 1980s Yugoslavia. His resurrection was announced in a letter “authored” by Kazimir Malevich, Belgrade (Yugoslavia), published in Art in America in September 1986. The letter asked: “Why? Why now (again), after so many years?” The project of the “Belgrade Malevich” was exhibited in Belgrade and Ljubljana in 1985-86 and, in a fragmented later version, in Ljubljana (1994). It consisted of the reconstruction of Malevich’s “original” “Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10” which was held in St. Petersburg from December 17, 1915 to January 19, 1916. This curious exhibit also included a series of neo-Suprematist paintings in which Suprematist elements were translated into petit-point or combined with classical reliefs and sculptures-all in all, an iconodulism verging on kitsch. The point to this exercise was not, however, to copy the paintings as such, or to create “forgeries” on the basis of period photographs, or reproductions of the originals. The idea was rather to recreate the (avant-gardist) system that had elaborated the very institution of contemporary art as we know it today.

In 1980s ex-Yugoslavia, the post-Socialist step from “ideology-in-itself” to “ideology-for-itself” was elaborated also in the “International Exhibition of Modern Art-Armory Show”. The exhibition reconstructed more than 50 “masterpieces” by famous artists from the turn of the century. These works were supposedly authored by famous dead painters and philosophers, yet they were known to the public only by their titles. In the same spirit, in 1986, a lecture entitled “Mondrian ’63 – ’96” was given in Ljubljana by one “Walter Benjamin”. Both these projects elaborated the tactical position of the artist who conceals his identity; the strategies of postmodern art in general; and the conditions specific to post-Socialist art. In one sense, they interrogate the distinction between the original and copy, but they also construct a referential background for the socialization of vision and the role it plays in the formation of a new subjectivity.

e cannot interpret these projects by simply stating that they play around with the original and its “criminal” negation, the copy. The reason is that there simply is no art market in East-Central Europe. In Western art, the production of copies during the 1980s was linked to the market and its postmodern context. Artists such as Mike Bidlo, Sherry Levine, and Cindy Sherman signed their own recycled and copied works which could then easily become part of the art market. By contrast, in ex-Yugoslavia, wherever artists during the 1980s engaged the relationship between original and copy, the real artist’s signature was usually missing and even some of the factual circumstances concerning the production of the work (dates, places) were distorted or concealed altogether. While the question of ideological consequences may be secondary in the context of a capitalist art-market, it becomes essential in the formerly Socialist societies where until now no art market has existed. The post-Socialist production of copies and the reconstruction of historical avant-garde projects, while it is based on the continued totalization of history, has also had the distinct effect of elevating art to the status of an institution.

Copying represents a dysfunction that raises crucial questions concerning language and the law. In fact, what we call an original is nothing more than a universalized copy. The dialectic of original and copy lies not only in the fact that “there is no copy without an original”, but primarily in the fact that the original itself is nothing but a universalized copy. For this reason, the projects described above do not conceal the difference between original and copy; instead, they accentuate non-authenticity as the most authentic concept in the art of the 1980s. We can think of the “copying projects” as an attack against art as an institution empowered by history. Through the production of alternative histories, these works make the point that what is repressed in art as well as in society is not the obscure origin of art or the law but the very fact that legal and artistic authority are authorities without truth.

The next step in our reconceptualization of art and culture under the influence of post-Socialist ideology is “ideology in-and-for itself”. What takes place at this third stage is the disintegration, self-limitation, and dispersal of the notion of ideology. It seems that the system, for the most part, bypasses ideology for its own reproduction, relying instead on economic and legal coercion. Here, however, Žižek warns us that things become once again blurred, since the moment we take a closer look at these allegedly extra-ideological mechanisms that regulate social reproduction we already find ourselves within that very ideology. This is precisely the point at which non-ideology reverts to ideology. All of a sudden we become aware of the “for-itself” of ideology within the very “in-itself” of extra-ideological actuality. (Ibid., p. 14.) This is the form consciousness takes in 1990s post-Socialism as well as in late-capitalist post-ideological societies.

In their NSK Embassy projects, IRWIN presented these assumptions in a highly concentrated form. What they developed was not primarily ideology in its materiality (its institutions, rituals and practices), nor an attack on the institution of art, but the “elusive network of implicit, quasi-spontaneous pre-suppositions and attitudes that form an irreducible moment of the reproduction of the so called non-ideological elements”(Žižek). One of the most spectacular projects by the NSK group during the 1990s was the “State in Time” project (primarily carried out by IRWIN). It was on the basis of this paradigm that the NSK Embassies were realized. The NSK EMBASSY and NSK CONSULATE projects can be read as specific social installations which symbolically and artistically simulate the transfer of the NSK phenomenon into another cultural, social and political context. NSK Embassies were set up in Moscow (1992), Ghent (1993), as well as at the Berlin Volksbuehne Theater (June 1993). NSK consulates were opened in Florence (1993) and in Umag/Croatia (1994; in the kitchen of the private apartment of the gallery owner Marino Cettina). IRWIN established the NSK Embassy in Moscow in a private apartment (Lenin Prospect 12, apt. ( 24) in May and June 1992. The facade of this residential building was embellished with all the insignia of a real state embassy.

NSK’S Moscow Embassy project was developed in the context of so-called apt-art (apartment-art), the cold-war practice of holding exhibitions in private apartments. Apt-art emerged during the 1980s and represented an effort to establish political, personal and artistic strategies that would be politically and culturally disconnected from the official institutions. Moscow apt-art emphasized private space as a center of communication and self-organization for those whom the system marginalized. The fantasm that structured artistic life in the countries of the East-Central Europe during the cold war was grounded in the private sphere, the kitchen table surrounded by artworks. In the present context the very real fear that accompanied this fantasm is often forgotten. The NSK-EMBASSY MOSCOW project did not attempt to achieve an equilibrium between totalitarian ideology and the “non-ideological” private sphere; it attempted to suggest that both spheres were but two sides of the same coin that were both going to disappear within post-Socialist democracy.

In Specters of Marx (1993), Jacques Derrida has suggested the term “spectre” for the elusive pseudo-materiality that subverts the classic ontological oppositions of reality and illusion. (Cf. Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx, Galileé, Paris 1993.) Slavoj Žižek has argued that perhaps we should look to this spectre as the last refuge for ideology: “We should recognize the fact that there is no reality without the spectre, that the circle of reality can be closed only by means of an uncanny spectral supplement. Why, then, is there no reality without the spectre?… [Because for Lacan] reality is not the ‘thing itself’, [rather] it is always-already symbolized…, and the problem resides in the fact that symbolization ultimately always fails, that it never succeeds in fully ‘covering’ the real…[This real] returns in the guise of spectral apparitions. ‘Spectre’ is not to be confused with ‘symbolic fiction’… reality is never directly ‘itself,’ it presents itself only via its incomplete-failed symbolization, and spectral apparitions emerge in this very gap that forever separates reality from the real, and on account of which reality has the character of a (symbolic) fiction: the spectre gives body to that which escapes (the symbolically structured) reality.”(Žižek, “Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology”, in: Mapping Ideology, pp. 26-28.) In the light of this, what name can we possibly give to the spiritual element in NSK’s State In Time project, and the corporeal element in the Embassy project (the real apartments)? I propose, in both cases: “SPECTRES”. The NSK “State In Time” is the spectre of the state, while the NSK Embassies are the spectres of real embassies.

A shorter version of this essay was published, among other venues, in the catalogue for an exhibition held under the same title at the Visconti Fine Art Kolizej Gallery, Ljubljana (1994).

Marina Grzinic Mauhler works as researcher of aesthetics and philosopher of new technologies (virtual reality, internet) at the Ljubljana Institute of Philosophy at the Scientific and Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts. She also works as a freelance critic and curator, especially in media art and is herself involved in videoart and media installations for 20 years.