PERIPHERY-RESISTANT: Different registers of engagements with reality

A dialogue between Suzana Milevska & Erden Kosova

This text was conceived and conducted as a dialogue between Suzana Milevska, a curator and writer from Skopje, Macedonia, and Erden Kosova, a critic from Istanbul, Turkey. It is an attempt to discuss the subtle differences between two peripheries and the various modes that the artists employ when dealing with different registers of reality.

Socially and politically engaged art practices from different corners of the world are usually considered as part of the same art discourse and cultural background, and often interpreted as being in opposition to formally and aesthetically determined art. However, the completely different political contexts mean that social and political issues in art never play the same role in the different art communities. What sound like attractive issues for research and study for artists working in more liberal democratic environments, who deal with the limits of democracy itself and the effect of those limits on the social quality of everyday life, do not, for various reasons, have the same relevance for artists concerned with contemporary global political strategies and their impact on the governmental policies of the new emerged and established countries in Europe, or of other peripheral cultural environments.

Some cultural contexts seem to show resistance towards such social engagement owing to a more complex political climate marked by serious threats to political stability, or as a result of differently structured art institutions and policies. The usual East/West cultural metaphors and dichotomies are too restrictive to allow any extrapolation explaining these differences in the approach of the artists towards political and social engagement. Zizek’s critique of what he calls "liberal fundamentalism" is based on a similar perspective. In his view, "the perverse game of making a big problem when the rights of a serial killer or suspected war criminal are violated, while ignoring massive violations of ‘ordinary people’s rights" actually results from the silent consensus of liberal-democratic hegemony not to change anything. [1]

It is important to locate the actual reasons for the different stances that artists take towards what they consider as socially and politically engaged art, but their art can also result in a constructive overcoming of the contextual framework itself.

Kosova: Suzana, on one of the few occasions that we met in the corridors of the myopic British academia, we discussed the fact that the "pre-conceived" conventions of European political philosophy do not easily translate into the cultures of the geographies we are more familiar with. And, in that conversation, I remember you mentioning a conference organised in Skopje in which the guest speaker, who was invited from a Western scene, had serious difficulty in communicating his paper, based on the principle of "political correctness", to the young local audience, which had completely different views on the concept. Can you recall the details?

Milevska: The event in question (a lecture given by David Eliot at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje in the mid-nineties) unexpectedly clarified some historical and contemporary debates about the art scene in Macedonia. Some of the points made by Eliot, and the questions posed by the more informed members of the public (e.g. "Whether there is a 'left' and 'right' in art theory?"), were provocative, because it was the first time since the debates of social realism that art and society were put within the same context. This theme had become taboo following some very heated discussions and conflicts among the communist leaders in the fifties; and it therefore came as a surprise that art, society, economy and politics could be discussed outside of the inevitable traps of ideology. Academic art education in the local Faculty of Fine Arts is still determined by strong modernist and anti-ethical principles that have been embraced by artists and art critics as an expression of their revolt and desire to critically distance themselves from the social realism of the 1950s and 1960s. The paradox is that what had once been a revolutionary act in the age of state-controlled art inevitably became conservative in the liberal seventies and eighties of the 20th century. Aesthetics were equated with abstract, content-less art, and for a long time there was no room for any kind of engagement with "other" elements. Many artists of the pre-transitional generations still take this easy and safe attitude towards social and political problems in society, giving only one excuse: that it enables them to keep art concepts independent of societal and political power structures.
Artists of the younger generation, if they are interested at all in any kind of interaction and engagement with reality, are more concerned with issues of the global economy and politics than with the social problems of underrepresented local communities and groups. The projects of Aleksandar Stankovski, Zaneta Vangeli or Igor Tosevski, for example, are mainly concerned with the problems of national identity, the role of international politics as regards local transitional traumas, and the phantasm of integration: the new grand narratives of transitional societies. I cannot speculate whether such interest in global political problems is what Zizek would prefer to mild "politically correct" projects, and I don’t agree completely with him that projects without a political agenda have no potential for making a radical impact.
Nevertheless, some social issues were present in a few projects over the last few years - Oliver Musovic’s projects "Neighbors I-II" is probably one of the rare and therefore important examples of an art project derived from the social environment of the artist and emphasising the mundane problems of a particular neighbourhood. For that reason, it was often selected in the international art context as representing so-called "socially engaged art". I can hardly imagine that all these projects are based solely on clear-cut individual artistic programs. I presume that such differentiation between the artists of different generations is determined on the one hand by the inherited historical experience with social realism and the resistance towards it and, on the other, by the current preferences and expectations of the international art community, disseminated through the policies of art foundations, which, while supporting art, simultaneously design its concepts. Of course, here "liberal fundamentalism" comes to mind, with its support for projects that are not too threatening for the system under criticism.

> Illusion of independence

Milevska: Do you think that there are some comparisons that can be made with regard to these different registers of engagements with reality in the contemporary art scene in Turkey? Would you draw some lines of connection between historical social realism and contemporary socially engaged art in Turkey?

Kosova: There are similarities between the histories of Macedonia and Turkey in terms of their distinctly modernist ideologies; yet, I guess, a full engagement in social issues has been officially side-stepped in Turkey: firstly, in favour of a future-oriented, yet classless, conflict-free construction of society; and then, from the fifties on, in favour of the myth of the artistic individual untainted by political urgency. Yet contemporary art production in Turkey seems to have a pronounced investment in a confrontational politicality. This is the constitutive factor of this production. A series of deprivations has produced a state, or an illusion, of political autonomy among the artists who have pursued radical and experimental paths. In general, there is a certain sense of their having been rejected from the social sphere: the previous generation was traumatised by the brutal coup d'état of 1980, and my generation experienced the shock of the Sivas massacre in 1993, in which fundamentalists burned 37 communist intellectuals to death. In the mid-nineties, the explosion of nationalism, civil war, terrorism of the Kurdish guerrillas, the army and the anti-terror squads and violence in everyday life reinforced the need for an enunciative response to the urgencies of social issues.

In addition to this, the state and local governments have been completely absent in the artistic field: these artists have been given no space in public galleries, there has been no support of quixotic artist-initiated exhibitions and no jobs in the academies. The commercial market is obsessed with dead painters, and the space allotted to culture in the media, which have prospered disproportionately in the last decade, remains somewhere between football and Turkish Pop. This isolation, in turn, offered a free zone for daring attacks on the most rigid social taboos, ranging from national(ist) symbols to the omnipotent icon of Atatürk, from xenophobia to the male hegemony in the public sphere. Yet this critical platform, putatively external to its topic, has been challenged by some critics and artists. A number of privileges - education, class, geography etc. - had opened up a sphere of dissent for the artists who came from »good family machines«, as Vasif Kortun once put it. They did not hesitate to operate critically on the political sphere, but some indirect routes of transgression remained intact, such as depictions of physical violence, nakedness, formal interruption in the presentation of art works, the retreat from the public space etc. Only the recent expansion of artistic production into other segments of society introduced a sort of productive self-criticism. For instance, the emphasis on the embeddedness of the artists within the value system of the social majority, as seen in the works of Aydan Murtezao lu and Bülent _angar, allowed an elaboration on spatial subtleties specific to Turkey or Istanbul. On the other hand, the recent emergence of young artists from the Kurdish part of the country highlighted the problem of the reproduction of hierarchies within the country and the art scene in Istanbul.

> Subaltern tensions

Kosova: Have the recent ethnic tensions had any impact on the approach to the political in art scenes in Macedonia?

Milevska: I have to admit that for me personally it is very difficult to answer this question. Taking into account that I belong to the Macedonian ethnic majority and am employed in a governmental cultural institution (the low-budget Open Graphic Art Studio, attached to the Museum of the City of Skopje), I must emphasise the fact that I cannot take the position of the "subaltern subjects" [2] without sounding like a ventriloquist who manipulates puppets and gives a voice to those who supposedly cannot speak. Not that I want to assert that it is impossible to talk about these issues only because we should enable the "subaltern" to speak for themselves; but I need to position myself first before entering this dangerous field of interpretation involving problems of representation, inclusion and exclusion.

In fact, the question itself is twofold. We all expected that the problem of hierarchies of representation, obviously a result of the long-term blind national, institutional and governmental politics that resulted in the ethnic conflicts (to be more precise, it was a proper war, with fronts, conquered territories, and several hundreds of victims and missing persons) would be gradually solved through an appropriate implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (2001) signed by the Macedonian and Albanian legal representatives. There are several clauses there that are directly concerned with just and lawful representation.

The other problem is how these tensions are reflected in the art projects themselves. I have to mention Zaneta Vangeli’s project "Integralism", 2003, presented this year in the national pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennial. In this project, there is a very strong ambiguity underlining many of the paradoxes that usually arise when actual documentary materials are employed within an artistic framework. The project itself consists of three spaces (Design Room, War Room, and Show Room), each of them related to the NATO-controlled operation called "Essential Harvest" that took place in Macedonia in 2002 (intended to collect and destroy the weapons of Albanian rebels after the agreement was signed).

In the War Room there are six glass boxes full of weapons cut in two, as well as the video documentary "Real Kunst – Essential Harvest", 2003, edited by the artist, which is shown continuously. The integration and the disintegration, the territorialisation and the deterritorialisation are put side by side, and it is emphasised that such processes are usually carried out by means of wars. In the "Show Room", a map of the world put in reverse perspective (as perceived from the inside – a principle used by the fresco and icon painters in Byzantine art as ‘God’s point of view’) is installed on a table, as is seen in war movies and TV documentaries when war strategists/cartographers discuss their next moves.
One of the paradoxes of the installation is that, despite all the horrors of the war, the installation makes an aesthetically pleasing impression. The perfectly arranged weapons, symmetrically cut into two pieces and thus turned into dysfunctional art objects, create an obvious tension between horror and beauty, attracting and repulsing simultaneously. The slow-motion video material, accompanied by a compelling soundtrack, seductively influences the audience in Wagnerian manner, so that it no longer seems so implausible to accept war as a justifiable integration process. The complex and ironic captions in the video, on the other hand, give utterance to the intimate anxiety and strongly transposed personal experience of the war shared by all of us.

All this ambivalence is emphasised by the fact that the project was officially presented as part of the national selection at the Venice Biennial, something which gave rise to many conflicting comments: for instance, concerning the budget of 50,000 needed to produce and transport the work at a time when the exhausted state economy is in an extremely difficult situation. This is the only art project of any complexity I know that directly addresses the latest political situation.

> Local points of friction

Milevska: My last question is related to similar phenomena and differences between social and political art in the Turkish art scene. Is it possible to distinguish different motives for each of these streams, and is there any radical activist project?

Kosova: The oppositional voice in Turkey or, more specifically, the Leftism of the last two decades, has operated less in terms of economy politics than of resistance in response to cultural conflicts, such as those concerning the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, rifts between the urban population and newcomers to the big cities, debates on corruption, "deep state" etc. One strand of the Left seem to have misinterpreted the concept of anti-imperialism and recently came dangerously near to employing ultra-nationalist rhetoric. Another strand has always been critical of the kind of introverted standpoint that perceives world events reductively, solely as they relate to national concerns; yet the whole force of this latter strand is being spent on developing a correct stance in view of a series of traumas, the violence of everyday life and numerous social conflicts. The contemporary art scene is to a large extent embedded in this second strand, and the issues that are addressed remain limited to those local frictions. This means there is a danger of artworks collapsing to become national allegories and expressions of narcissistic trauma. Just as the radical socialists in Turkey (with the exception of anarchists) are passive and hesitant in approaching anti-capitalist and global democracy movements, contemporary art production stumbles in its attempts to transcend its local agenda. Links to other geographies are rather of a cultural nature, such as the shared Ottoman past, the tensions between Islam and secularism, Mediterranean machismo etc. I tried earlier to point out the paradox surrounding the illusionary autonomy of the artist, which allows him/her to offer a harsh critique of the political situation and system of moral values, but at the expense of direct communication with a larger audience. This lack of direct confrontation (with institutions and the public) also harms the potential for activism. Not much artistic intervention is practised in the social space and, what is more, the exhibition space is too often surrendered to the luxury of the audience. A recent show in Istanbul brought together young artists from different cities around the country. Halil Altindere, who curated the show, used the suggestive title "I'm Too Sad to Kill You" (referring to a project of Marc Beijl) to frame the provocative character common to the contributing artists. There were a number of creative speculations on some delicate social issues. However, the whole concept was hijacked by the prominent presence of artists from the Kurdish part of Turkey, and the show was perceived by the event-thirsty media as heralding a post-traumatic era for that region.

Yet, despite the controversial content of the artworks and the promise of change that the show provided, the great majority of the works did not possess any relation to the exhibition territory in which they were installed. Nearly all of them were based on two-dimensional presentations: paintings, photographs and videos. None of them referred to the conflict-ridden social surroundings of the exhibition space, and none of them spatially challenged the audience in the museum. This spatial docility weakened the edgy dimension of their content. But, with the current tendency towards institutionalisation, things might change in the future. Closer contact with the audience and art institutions might produce a more situated critical approach.


[1] Repeating Lenin, Zagreb 2001, p. 10
[2] See the often misinterpreted text by Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak: Can the Subaltern Speak, 1982

Originally appeared in Springerin, issue 3 2003, "Reality Art".

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