Ventsislav Zankov

For some years now, the Contemporary Arts Center in Skopje has devoted itself to a forced networking among artistic and theoretical approaches in the region under the motto "Understanding the Balkans." One central focus is the question of local, southern European identities, and conflicts and projections associated with them. A contribution to last year's symposium pursued this topic, taking a detour via "global strategies" and views reflected in the West. Finally, it deals with the question of how it is possible for a self-determined cultural "underground" to hold its own against this insuperable mirror.

The Balkans have been on the global agenda for some time now. "Global agenda" - doesn't that ring a bell with some of us? It is a concept that is both appealing, and pregnant with modernity. Moreover, it includes attitudes that were once described as the "East-West paradigm" - which, at the time this term was coined, seemed right. The growing curiosity to learn more about the people living in the region - namely, us - is another aspect of this phenomenon. If we want to explore more closely the forces behind this, we could think of the Balkans as the sanitary cordon between Western civilization and Islam - a sort of larger-than-life prototype of the Gaza Strip that has expanded in the course of several centuries: a time span that allowed our "enemy" to infiltrate us, grinning dirtily. You can call this Balkan nihilism if you want. But there are many names that try and capture the nature of this twilight zone with its great potential for conflict and its ethnic tensions under many guises.

A recent conference in Skopje had as its motto the fascinating title "Understanding the Balkans and Globalization," (Understanding the Balkans, 1-2 December 2001, Museum of Macedonia, Skopje) which was a source both of embarrassment and uneasiness. This gathering of speakers who consider the Balkans to be the heart of their world view (they were born in the Balkans and "lived there happily ever after") and were invited to hold forth on their local and global projections seemed somehow weird. They were all hunting desperately for that big, scary beast we call "our identity." The language used at the conference (guess what? English - of course) added scope and strength to this paradox.

Even the motto itself implies a high-maintenance, impartial, gigabyte point of view: in short, the global point of view. The transcending of the Balkan borders represented by the participants thus became of crucial importance. The schizophrenic effort to be the hunter and the hunted, the object and the subject of this search for identity, is indeed a dramatic one. Our drive to transcend everything that needs to be transcended at any cost can, however, take different shapes. One of them is the "research approach" to the history of the Balkans. The conference participants tried extremely hard to adopt a plausible and legitimate "Western" point of view ("hmm ... this is meant to be the point of view of a 'global observer.' I want to be one, ergo this is the only point of view there is.") It all ended up with no one knowing what exactly they were observing from this point of view. It would be only natural to gather together people from the Balkans under the motto of "Understanding Ourselves." "Understanding the Balkans," on the other hand, is like a false pregnancy; you have the symptoms, but no baby. So you end up in a safety net, the abstract, sterile certainty of having made up a theory and been nice to one another. That saves you the pains of delivery, troublesome conflicts, and the uneasy feeling of being naked, gorgeous, and vulnerable. In the long term you save yourself the whole birth of identity, because there was no conception in the first place. The discussion of our Balkan identity, so urgently needed, never took place in Skopje. Instead, we were all made dizzy by the bird's-eye view: the Balkans were comfortably reduced to the size of a map of a peninsula, an area of geo-strategic interests that it would have been politically incorrect to discuss. So we all served as brunch to "geo-strategy" (whatever that may be). Well, brunches are fine - a nice thing to have as a treat on a lazy morning on the weekend.

So far, so good: taking off into the global is, however, obviously not the first step to attaining a new identity. So here we go again: how do we identify ourselves, and in what ways does this identity help us in getting the proper 'indent' when communicating with our neighbours? How long do we still have to learn to be ourselves, even though we are so close to each other? It turns out that we have a long way to go - and that we have taken the detour via the global village only to end up at our neighbours'. So globalization brings us closer to our neighbors; everything is only a stone's throw away, anyway. It seems as if we need globalization only to put our neighbourly relations in order. We turn into cosmopolitans only to procure a firm, legitimate status in the world - particularly as regards our neighbors. And, in the process, we just happen to lose our ability to distinguish between "globalization" and "Westernization." We refuse to acknowledge that the values of "Western civilization" have taken a drastic leap and stretched their ethical, moral and esthetic concepts to the limit, in order to become global - cost it what it may. September 11 gave us a vague idea of the price paid for this process.

One legitimate question remains unanswered: what would be a rational strategy for regaining our identity? In my judgement, this would be a sort of alchemy that can only take place within a common discourse with our neighbors. The potential danger of losing yourself is always there, and only the centrifugal forces of your individuality keep you from falling apart. But there are also centripetal forces that cause you to define your differences by acknowledging the common ground on which you and your neighbors stand.

The formation of identity starts at a developmental level that Lacan calls the »mirror stage.« This is the stage at which a child first discovers its own reflection. If a child in front of a mirror is asked where his mother is, he points outside of the mirror, because the mother is the ultimate authority that confirms that the reflection in the mirror really is him. Unlike a drawing, the reflected image seems finished and whole. But the identity-yielding image is, in reality, split: "The very image that places the child divides its identity in two...." I have a nagging feeling that we in the Balkans are at the "mirror stage" in our process of socialization. In this metaphor, the "West" plays the part of the mirror: in fact, in the "West" we can see not only the reflection of our thoughts and attitudes, but also discern the reflection of the intent eyes of our neighbors, who, like us, look into the mirror in their quest for legitimacy. Our newly emerging democratic institutions (foundations, associations and other grant-giving organizations are the first things to come to mind) take the role of the "mother": that peculiar authority, convertible into "hard currency," that confirm for us that the reflection we see in the mirror is genuine - that this is us. We have finally grown up after all. It is somewhat confusing, though, that left is right and vice versa. But there is always the option of looking away from the mirror - and losing your image, losing your identity, losing your chances of success, and becoming a "global" nuisance.

At this point, I would like to ask a few important questions: How would it be if we were to communicate with our neighbours ourselves? What is the situation regarding our will to develop alternative artistic practices independently of institutions? How can our motivation and mindsets be determined, recognized and valued when the points of reference remain so adamantly Westernized? How can we give the Balkan "underground" a chance? How can we form one without its having the Western institutional stamp imprinted on it? And how can you prevent this underground degenerating into just another Mafia in a region where it is easier to hang out with your German neighbors than your Balkan ones? I call these questions "doubt in action."

At any rate, the essence of what I have said is as follows: alternative practices imply the ability to judge critically implicit and explicit values and social practices. Because this is too rarely the case, the timid alternatives to conventional, established artistic practices quickly receive too much exposure to the burning gaze of the wide international public, and usually lose their profile. Then they degenerate into "projects" related to minority enhancement, gender equality, drug abuse, regional cooperations, and a bunch of other "hot issues." (The EU and its cultural satellite institutions really buy this stuff, don't they?) This is the road to cultivating politically correct attitudes and group auto-censorship. It is better not to ask what has happened to the many artistic initiatives that did not meet the requirements of the bodies supporting them.

Last of all: does the Balkan "underground" still have a chance? It depends. Can we refuse to assimilate any and every point of view out there? Can we assess the potential gains on the rocky road to a new identity? We can only try.

Translation: Tim Jones. Originally published in Springerin Magazine in January, 2002, online at www.springerin.at.


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