Thursday, January 22, 2004

Exhibition: Lastwinterspringnevercame

Last winter spring never came. There was no stepping stone into summer, no gradual descent into the sudden all consuming heat of the city. Istanbul missed out on displaying its colour and moments of passion, freedom, desire and love, that spring induces.

This month Platform will exhibit works by artists which pave the way for spring, raising spirits and planting smiles a little earlier than expected. The vibrancy, colour and spirit of the exhibition will change moods, creating feelings of heady spring like abandon to result in a celebration of ‘the quirky, crazy and beautiful things “we” do.’

The deliberately reckless behaviour of a young woman seen smashing parked car windows in Pipilotti Rist’s documentary version of Ever is Over All screams of a lust for life. In the video work Family Sha-La-La, artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen films herself and family members attempting to perform a choreographed dance routine to ‘Sha-La-La.’
22 January - 28 February 2004

The installations Untitled (North) after Felix Gonzalez-Torres and a version of Jim Lambie’s ZOBOP Broadband created on site fill the space with pattern, movement and light.

Finally, photographs by Erwin Wurm and Basir Borlakov present staged compositions, which juxtapose the apparently ‘normal’ with bizarre and dream-like scenarios, the two extremes balancing each other out until neither appears more unusual than the other.

Untitled 2001, Basir Borlakov; Family Sha-La-La 1998, Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen; Untitled (North), 1993/2004, after Felix Gonzalez-Torres; a version of ZOBOP Broadband 2004, Jim Lambie; Ever is Over All, documentary version 1997/2004, Pipilotti Rist; photographs from series Indoor Sculpture - CC Graz, 2001, Erwin Wurm.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Suzana Milevska / south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

The Neither: About Balkan Subjectivity
Suzana Milevska



‘At first we were confused: The East thought that we were West
while the West considered us to be the East’.
Sava Nemanjic (1175-1235) [1]

'They live at the crossroads of Europe and are the most resilient race on this earth’.
Romanian Queen Marie 2 (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) [2]

At the very beginning of this text I want to introduce the term ‘neither’ in order to avoid the dichotomic distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Namely I find that this binary opposition, already much too often applied when differentiating the West from the East, is even less appropriate when discussing the Balkans. In contrary, I suggest that ‘the neither’ can be more useful as a model of interpreting the Balkan subjects as being neither Eastern nor Western. It can replace the hierarchical cultural model of distinction between the West and East, between the coloniser and the colonised, between the civilised and the primitive, etc. with a more open model for negotiation the relations, similarities and differences between these two cultures.

The self/other distinction used to be the crucial model for interpretation of the Balkans. It has been already applied within the Orientalism - the discursive phenomenon established on West as a means to comprehend and represent the East as the 'other' of the West, but it showed its limitation when it reduced the complex nature of Orient to ‘exotic’ otherness within the framework of the definite order of Western intelligible and rational categories. [3] Neither the complex psychoanalytical analysis based on Lacan’s, or Kristeva’s writing, nor Derrida’s différance helped much for better translation of one cultural framework into another. Namely, Orientalism is a phenomenon where the East is regarded as an object of knowledge assuming power of interpretation over it and thus East becomes inevitably inferior, exotic, and univocal, is conceived both as ‘construct and real’ [4].

Many writers (Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden, e.g.) [5] recently pointed out that Orientalism should be differentiated from ‘Balkanism’ as the Balkans is a region with a concrete history and geography in contrary to the vague definition of the Orient. Instead to focus on the difference between Orientalism and Balkanism that has been already extensively elaborated among many other theorists concerned with the issue of the Balkans, I want to consider the common sense metaphors of Balkan as a bridge and crossroad.

These everyday figures of speech obviously emphasise the fact that the Balkans is a region where the East met the West and through all these different sorts of encounters and entanglements it created the space in-between where the point of facing each other did not necessarily resultinproducing a third synthetic ‘hybrid’ space as Homi Bhabha proposed in his postcolonial writings. [6]

When in 1911 the Sultan Mehmed Reshad V visited Bitola (today Republic of Macedonia) his visit was recorded with the cine-camera 300 that the Brothers Janaki and Milton Manaki had already brought in 1906 in London. The moment when the Sultan was asked to look at the camera is recorded as a moment of confusion and hesitation. It is obvious that the Sultan is not sure what is expected, and what will happen next. He was confused with the modern device that he was told will preserve his visit for history.

What really happened soon after this visit of the Emperor to his remote subjects in the Balkans and after he faced the modernised parts of his Empire was the inevitable dissolution of the Ottoman Empire: the space where the Southern part of Europe and Asia were continuously under the same ‘roof’ and for more than five centuries were exposed to each other’s influence was fragmented and divided gradually according to the still existent differences.

I want to emphasise this because in my opinion the constant encounter between East and West did not result in a substantial synthetic culture that could be defined as any kind of hybrid. The folk costumes ‘a’la Turk’, the food recipes, or the influences of oriental instruments and rhythms in music are hardly enough to make a case for hybridisation. The constant conflicts are the negative side, but they are also evidence that each culture thought and fought to have rights to preserve its specificity.

It should not be forgotten that the continuous encounter between the East and West also added a lot of positive nuances to the cultural map of Europe, a new type of knowledge which could not be gained through journeys in the foreign lands. Nevertheless the process of meeting and interacting with subjects of different religion and culture was accompanied with processes of identification through negation.

Therefore I want to investigate the usefulness of the concept of ‘neither’ as a chain of continuous negations of and negotiations with the previous experiences that in my view enables the construction of a different kind of subjectivity.

I find inappropriate the Aristotelian decisive model applied in self/other dichotomy where the self excludes the other through the either/or logic and doesn’t allow anything else to happen. The same problem remains within the postcolonial discourse wherein the deconstructive model of dialectical overcoming of the binary logic of self/other is brought to a closure with the offering of the synthetic concepts such as hybrid or creolité.

Instead of comfortably using any of these established formulas in my presentation about the construction of the Balkan subjects I want to try to apply the apophatic logic of the neither. The negation neither/nor is known mostly from the realm of negative theology and its denial of defining the term God in itself when negating the essence of each of its components, but without ever closing the possibility to establish of relations among the different appearances of any phenomenon. [7] The danger of borrowing from negative theology is of course the assumption of a hyperessential being entailed in any theological discourse. It is the main reason that kept Jacques Derrida from accepting any relations between his deconstruction or difference, and negative theology. [8]

The other take on ‘neither’ and its ‘neutral’ space can be located in the concept of ‘utopics’ by Louis Marin that in my opinion offers a more appropriate point of departure to negotiate the meaning of the ‘neither’. [9] Marin defines the neutral as ‘the spam between true and false, opening within discourse a space discourse cannot receive. It is a third term, but a supplementary third term, not synthetic’. The difference between the postcolonial demands for hybridisation and third space and ‘neither’ lies exactly at the heart of the difference between supplementary and synthetic. [10]

It should be noted that the most important issue here is the nature of the pre-given choices from which one can chose and the questions such as who and under which circumstances these options were given in the first place. If self and other are the only possible choices that we were given, especially in the postmodern discourse of 1980s by the dominant Western discourse, when a reciprocal change and exchange of roles in between self and other was first promised and for which we are still waiting, it becomes really important to start circumventing this binary. So it is important to emphasise the fact that it is not important to investigate the possibilities of the neither only for the sake of criticising the dichotomic relations in the comfortably situated couple self/other – the neither becomes a very important space in-between that should allow us a flexible movement in some territories that have remained closed ever since the Orientalist discourse and the Western dominancy over the relation between East and West begun.

At the end I want to restate that to apply the concept of the neither as a concept in further discussions on the Balkan subjects does not mean a demand for synthetic reconciliation of oppositional concepts within a third space. On the contrary, it should be understood as an invitation for a new discourse that can overcome the curiosity for exoticism, hedonism, or primitivism and will give way to the current lack of curiosity for varieties of thinking and being that are so abundant in the Balkans.

It is very important not to insist on answering the question ‘what is the neither,’ but to try to understand what ‘it is not’: it is neither the Self, nor the Other, neither the West, nor the East, nor the oppositional relation between the both. It is also not any third mixed identity that can synthesise the both without supplementing them.


Notes

1,2. Quoted according to Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania – The Imperialism of Imagination, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, http://www.yale.edu/yup/chapters/073127chap.htm

3. For criticism of Edward Said’s take on Orientalism in his Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.see for example:
Michael Spinker. Edward Said: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, Bryan S. Turner. (Bryan Stanley). 1945- Orientalism, postmodernism and globalism. London; New York: Routledge, 1994,
Reina Lewis. Gendering Orientalism : race, femininity, and representation. London: Routledge, 1996, or for a more recent critique of Edward Said’s writing as a postcolonial discourse see: Peter Hallward. Absolutely Postcolonial. Writing between the Singular and the Specific. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 2001

4. Reina Lewis. Gendering Orientalism. pp. 16-17

5. Maria Todorova. Imagining the Balkans. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. The debate was followed by Vesna Goldsworthy. Inventing Ruritania. New Heven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, in several articles by Milica Bakic-Hayden, and by Slavoj Žižek. The Spectre of Balkan. The Journal of the International Institut. Vol.6. No.2: Winter 1999 http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/journal/vol6no2/`i`ek.htm but only in 2002 the whole debate received wider academic attention when the reader Balkan as a Metaphor. Between Globalization and Fragmentation. Ed. by Dušan I. Bjelić and Obrad Savić. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002 was published in the occasion of the exhibition In Search of Balkania in Graz.

6. Homi K. Bhabha. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 175

7. For a comprehensive interpretation of Dionysius Areopagit’s Mystical Theology see Frederick Copleston, S. J. A History of Philosophy Vol. 2. Mediaeval Philosophy. Part I – Augustine to Bonaventure. Garden City; New York: Image Books, 1962. pp.106-115. For a different, more Orthodox view on apophatic theology, see the book by the Russian theologian Vladimir Loski. Mistična teologija na crkvata od istok. Skopje: Tabernakul, 1991

8. Jacques Derrida. “How to avoid Speaking: Denials” in Derrida and Negative Theology. Ed. By Harold Coward and Toby Foshay. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 73-142

9. Louis Marin. Utopics: Spatial Play. London: Macmillan Press, 1984, p. 7

10. This clarification was provoked by the question about the difference between the neither and hybrid that Boris Buden asked me during the conference South…East…Europe…Mediterranean at Platform Garanti Contemporary Center, Istanbul (14-16 December 2003).

Jack Persekian / south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

art / occupation in eight points
Jack Persekian


History

In 1948 the State of Israel was established on land that was formerly Palestine, and approximately half the Palestinian population were driven into exile, where they still reside in the Diaspora, outside the former boundaries of Palestine. “The other half live in what became of Palestine which is known as the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel. This geographical reality has meant that the work of Palestinian artists begins from varied locations, from the city centers of Europe and the States to the various refugee camps, and is formed by different experiences, education, backgrounds and opportunities.”[1]

The history of Palestinian art may be divided into three phases according to Kamal Boullata [2], one of the leading Palestinian artists and art historians. In the first phase (1885-1955), - the period mainly prior to 1948 which also came to be known as the year of the Nakba, the Catastrophe - icon painting was developed as one of the country’s earliest traditions of picture making. Yet the possibility of an indigenous art was aborted as a result of the uprootedness and dispersion of the Palestinian society. The two decades after Palestine’s fall (the second phase) were characterized by radical political and cultural changes in the Arab World. The visual arts enjoyed an unprecedented presence in the cultural arena, which had traditionally been dominated by the oral arts. Pioneers, mainly raised among the refugee population, forged a new Palestinian art, making their debut in Beirut which became the region’s cosmopolitan art center.

Revival

The third phase is marked by the 1967 war which led to the displacement of many Palestinians and where entire segments of the population fell under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. This region turned into a cultural ghetto. Insulated from the Arab world, a new generation of artists emerged. They came from Christian, Muslim, Druze and self-proclaimed aetheists’ backgrounds. Some received academic training; others remained self-taught.

These young Palestinians had been greatly disappointed by the defeat of the Arab armies and hence decided to take up the struggle themselves by all available means. Wherever they lived, these emerging artists sought to articulate their personal predicament in relation to the collective dream of regaining their homeland. Under military occupation exhibitions constituted a new form of political resistance. Since art was a means for expressing collective identity, Israeli authorities began to impose military censorship on all exhibitions and art activities. Even the combined use of the four colours that made up the Palestinian flag was banned, and an attempt to establish a local gallery in 1979 was aborted.

This was an important revival of the arts with an emphasis on addressing the political issues and the plight of the Palestinian people. This revival brought about innovation and creativity on the one hand, yet restricted the scope of that creativity on the other, and limited the horizon of imagination. It actually put restrictions on what’s do-able and what’s not; that it is politically motivated is desirable, and apolitical forms of expression are not supported.

Politics

As most of the cultural production was encouraged to stand in the face of the overwhelming power of the Israeli occupation - which was tearing at the very fabric of the Palestinian society, trying with all its might to deny the mere existence of the Palestinians – and to give proof to and ascertain the existence of the Palestinian identity and people in Palestine long before the establishment of Israel and the emergence of the Zionist dream, a P.R. machine was put in motion fed by the sprawling popularity of the ever expanding political factions and the enthusiasm of the young generation to be part of the liberation movement of Palestine. This P.R. machine needed cadre, and as there were so many factions operating in the field, they all had to be represented. Hence, the cultural production’s relevance was gaged against its popularity and outreach, not against its intrinsic creativity and artistic merit. To a large extent numbers mattered and political affiliations dictated the choices and preferences, and those who made it had to master, first and foremost, how to play the political game.

Size matters

In those heydays of the PLO (the Seventies) Palestinian artists found great support and enjoyed a whole lot of possibilities for exhibiting and travel. They would be invited to participate in all sorts of solidarity affiliated events, exhibiting in the corridors of the United Nations and other conference and meeting halls, presenting their work and representing Palestine and its culture and people. Yet, as most of these events were held on shoestring budgets, artists were requested to literally carry their art with them; for packaging, shipping, handling and insurance was no way to be covered. Hence, this size constraint was somehow internalized by the artists and with time not only limited the dimensions of the artwork produced but also the medium and material utilized in its production.

From another perspective, which is understood in almost every other way I tried to put it in this text, there is absolutely no serious public money for art in Palestine. Hence, artists try in most cases to fulfill demand rather than initiate supply. The most accessible market for these artists is the upper-middle and the upper classes who would want to decorate their homes with artworks which match their living room colours. This has reduced the scope of production to two-dimensional works and almost done away with sculpture, not to mention art in public places.

Public Art

When thinking about public art and its state in Palestine, trying to exercise some comparative aesthetics with other places in the world, it becomes very evident that we are dealing with incompatible situations, circumstances and contexts. These are nowhere close to normal conditions that we have to deal with in Palestine. The perpetual state of occupation, humiliation and destruction has pushed the Palestinian people beyond the limits of forbearance, and it was only but natural for people to take to the streets and start the Intifada (the popular uprising). Monuments, anywhere and in any circumstance “have to satisfy the eternal demand of the people for translation of their collective force into symbols. The most vital monuments are those which express the feeling and thinking of this collective force, which is the people”.[3]

In the context of the situation and in the last 500 years, Palestine has always been occupied by some foreign force that took control of all aspects of life, including art for that matter. Artists within this context could not take control of what is beyond the limitations of their homes, i.e. they could not consider (even if they wanted to) what is beyond the confines of their dwellings and studios as a possible venue/platform for their artwork. That’s on one level; on another level, and in this given situation, art becomes a form of resistance. Thus, what is against the occupying force cannot, only but naturally, be exhibited in public spaces, and only for devious intent would an occupier invite or commission an “enemy” artist to present work in public or private domain. Consequently, it’s not just that possibilities and resources are not available but the sheer existence of what it takes to conceptualize and realize art in public spaces is nowhere to be found.
In recent years and particularly after the empowerment of the Palestinian National Authority over parts of the occupied territories few initiatives surfaced in an attempt to urbanize the local scene (i.e. do what others did) and beautify public spaces. The concept of public sculpture in these few instances was introduced as a compromise between what could be monuments interpreting people’s force and what might have been a public work of art. Yet, according to the book Nine Points on Monumentality “periods which exist for the moment have been unable to create lasting monuments”. Graffiti immerged to become the most enduring, expressive, popular and accessible form of public art - art manifestation under occupation.

Change

In the occupied territories Suleiman Mansour is a leading figure in the art scene not only due to his articulate and expressive artwork but also because of his capability to mobilize artists, access resources for exhibitions and other projects and also connect with the outside, particularly the Arab World. With other colleagues he established in the early 70s the local chapter of the League of Palestinian Artists and worked extensively in the 70s and 80s to mobilize the artists as one body in the national struggle. But as this work was fueled by the PLO, its downturn in the mid 80s after the expulsion from Beirut and the in-fighting amongst the different factions choked-up the resources coming in to the League and hence this collective effort was nipped in the bud. This condition also reflected all aspects of life under occupation. Frustration, humiliation and desperation pushed people in late 1987 to take to the streets with anything they were left with to fight occupation. In the early years of the Intifada, disobedience and boycott were very important forms of resistance. Likewise, few artists started reflecting on their practice and wished to express this new notion of struggle in their work. Sliman Mansour, for one, wanted to participate in the boycott of Israeli products in his work. He dropped the oil paint, gouache and water colours which he would normally buy in Israel and reverted to the motherland and what it produces. Mud, straw and natural dyes substituted the imported materials and started to constitute the construct of his two-dimensional and three-dimensional reliefs. More importantly the toppling of the old ways of struggle by the Intifada – from regimented, restricted and politically captive resistance orchestrated by the PLO and its factions to an outright popular confrontation with the occupying forces – led Mansour to rework and deconstruct the former national imagery that appeared in his earlier work (the utopian images of the olive pickers, the peasant women, the traditional embroidery and Jerusalem) with mud which alluded to the actual reality of the homeland - fragmented, cracked and parched; a clash of the real with the ideal. This constituted a sort of shift from the representation of the collective national identity to questions about identity and individuality, particularly after the commencement of the peace process where a decline in the impetus to create nationalist works for popular consumption became clearly visible.

Young generation

The emerging artists in that period (i.e. early 90s) were unburdened with the need to express external emblems of nationality through overt symbols. Instead they concentrated on more subtle subjects utilizing suggestive materials that evoke personal memories as well as collective cultural textures. At the same time the first and only independent gallery opened in Jerusalem. Timed with the beginning of the peace process Anadiel gallery doubled as both a permanent exhibition space for Palestinian artists and an address/reference point for all those who wanted to make contact with local artists. It was actually the renewed interest in the Palestinian people and their affairs which was brought about by the extensive media coverage of the Intifada that gave the gallery a more important role than just selling art and making money. I should make it clear at this point that the idea of the gallery started with a commercial underpinning in the background, but this idea soon came face to face with the dire economic reality and had to be aborted. Hence, the decision to close the gallery down or keep it running was not up to a simple profit and loss calculation, but more important considerations, such as providing a venue and an opportunity for local artists to present their work, possibility of accessing venues, events and exhibitions abroad through contacts established by the gallery, and the prospect of securing financial assistance (even though little) for art projects from mainly European organizations and governments. It was actually the latter consideration that gradually led to launching the project of hosting foreign artists in Palestine, the initiation of exchange programs and residencies abroad, and securing needed financial assistance for continuing the work of the gallery. Contact with the international art scene and exposure to varied ideas, techniques and experiences re-energized the young generation and provided the fertile soil for jumpstarting the local art scene. In addition to that a fresh wave of young Palestinian artists who studied in Israeli art academies came in to break the stale and stagnant art atmosphere with bold and daring new ideas which somehow shook the foundations of the dominant old-guard aesthetics.

The gallery started a project of hosting Palestinian artists living in the Diaspora, some of whom had never been to Palestine. Having had secured foreign nationalities and passports, these artists were able to visit, of course as tourists. This project was made financially possible by the artists’ respective governments. Mona Hatoum, Nasser Soumi, Samir Srouji, Jumana El-Husseini, and Susan Hijab were among the artists hosted. Very interesting discourse ensued between the visiting and local artists on issues of representation, questions of identity and modernity, and more tangible concerns of articulation and relationship to the land and the popular imagery. The wind of change which cuts across all aspects of life, brought about much needed reflection, the revisiting of predominant dogmas and set off a new effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and expression.

Al-Ma’mal Foundation for contemporary art

The gallery was a private initiative which did not qualify for important funding from international organizations. Yet its function was quite visible and the expansion of its capabilities and resources was imperative to propel it into a more extensive role. Hence a group of artists, architects and active individuals in the cultural scene got together and established Al-Ma’mal Foundation with the main aim to promote, instigate, disseminate and make art in Palestine. They envisioned Al-Ma’mal as a catalyst for the realization of art projects with local and visiting artists, giving at the same time special attention to working with youths and children. Al-Ma’mal, situated itself in the Old City of Jerusalem, it currently runs three programs; the Artist-in-Residence, the Workshops Network and the Productions and Publications.
Al-Ma’mal attempts to give art more possibilities to become a mode of expression and a way of life.


Notes
[1]Tina Sherwell-AlMalhi, Articulations of Identities: changing trends in the contemporary Palestinian arts, July 2000
[2] Kamal Boullata, ART, The Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, New York, Facts On File, Inc., 2000
[3] Jose Luis Sert, Frenand Leger and Sigfried Giedion, Nine Points on Monumentality, joint statement written in 1943 and republished in the Harvard Architecture Review IV, Spring 1984, MIT Press, pp. 62-3.

Katerina Gregos / south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

Contemporary Greek Art: From Terra Incognita Towards Defining a New Territory
Katerina Gregos


Very often I am confronted by the rather uncomfortable and awkward question “But do you actually have contemporary art in Greece?”. It may come as a surprise, but many ‘improbable’ countries – like Greece, for instance - actually do. Nevertheless, for most people contemporary Greek art is terra incognita. Until recently, it rarely crossed the borders of Greece and is thus little known outside. As is common with many countries that have a renowned cultural heritage and world-famous antiquities, contemporary culture is often relegated a secondary role in favor of preservation and promotion of this heritage.

In many ways, the modern Greek nation-state has based its self-image on the notion of historical continuity and its links with its weighty, but remote, classical past that persist today. Moreover, these links have more to do with a romanticised, idealised version of the classical era, as propagated, for example, in the 19th Century by northern European Philhellenes on the Grand Tour. On the other hand, Greece is probably considered too ‘westernised’, too ‘Americanised’ even, less ‘troubled’ to arouse the curiosity that its hitherto isolated Balkan neighbours have aroused. Similarly, it is not ‘exotic’ or remote enough to have become assimilated into the discourse about the ‘Other’ that has become so popular in post-colonial discourse. Neither is it large or powerful enough to be a ‘player’ in the international mainstream. As a result, in terms of how our cultural profile is perceived, we appear to occupy a grey zone, an ambivalent, indeterminate unspecified territory. In many ways, in terms of our contemporary cultural production, we could be called the Invisible Europeans. There are, of course, numerous reasons for this.

The reality is that the development of modern Greece began in 1829, following the Greek War of Independence after nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule. During the Twentieth Century, Greece has undergone the transition from a rural to a predominantly urban society that has gradually emerged from the poverty of the mid-world war period to become, recently, one of the world’s thirty most developed countries, according to the OECD. Thirty years after the fall of the dictatorship Greece is now a democratic country, an EU member, and a burgeoning multi-cultural society which is trying to come to terms with its new position on the world map. This position is somewhat different from that of its South Eastern European neighbours. Though the region widely known as the Balkans has been an almost permanent source of unrest, conflict or social upheaval, Greece has - in the post World War Two and post Civil War period which immediately followed - managed to stay outside the flammable situations that manifested themselves around its borders. Unlike many of its Balkan neighbours, and discounting the dark years of the 1967-1974 dictatorship, the country has seen growth, stability and democracy for a steady period of over 30 years. So, although geographically Greece is part of the Balkan area, it has not really ever considered itself a ‘Balkan’ country and has not, perhaps as a result, been assimilated into the typecasting wild, rough Balkan myth. Greece has always thought of itself as more ‘European’ than ‘Balkan’ (as if the Balkans are not a part of Europe), though it has not really ever been an industrial power nor was it particularly infiltrated by renaissance and enlightenment ideas or any of the artistic modern movements.

Many views of post-war Balkan history also omit Greece precisely because of its free-world status. By extent, it has not, for example, seen the economic hardship and suppression of civil liberties of its former Soviet bloc neighbours. Indicatively, and by comparison, the transitional changes that have taken place in Greece in the post World War Two era are less of a political and more of an economic and social nature. In 1981 Greece joined the EU and (save one brief interval in the beginning of the 90s) has since been governed by a socialist government with a liberal attitude to market economy. Despite our economically privileged position in the region, the burning social problems that beleaguer most of Europe are becoming serious issues here too: education, healthcare, social welfare, an aging population and the growing divide between rich and poor are becoming everyday realities in a country which until recently prided itself on its high standard of living and “quality of life” and a large middle class that has begun to dwindle. Despite changing economic conditions, consumerism and materialism are rampant, culture (particularly contemporary art) is not a priority on the government agenda and the importance of art in a civil society is ignored. In addition, the privatisation of television and de-regulation of the media have resulted in an increasingly populist notion of ‘culture’ with television having become the dominant medium for visual experience. To add to that, the proliferation of trash TV, yellow journalism and banal, debasing reality shows have become the norm in ‘entertainment’ and news casting. As a critical alternative to this kind of visual culture, contemporary art has a very important, if admittedly marginal, role to play.

Social conditions are also changing in Greece. Until the end of the 1980s Greek society was largely homogeneous, i.e. white, of the same ethnic origin, and of Greek Orthodox faith. Perhaps the most marked change since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, is the steady increase in immigration, predominantly from the former socialist states but also from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Asian nations. In the past, the Greeks themselves were archetypical emigres; the opposite now is true: Greece is becoming a primary destination for immigrants and displaced persons from all over the world. This is rapidly turning the country into a multi-layered society of different ethnic and religious groups which is still not fully accustomed to the assimilation of others.

Modern Greece is a country that is characterised by cultural hybridity and cross-cultural fertilisation, largely the result of history and geographical location. Dwelling between its ancestry and the will to modernise, an eagerness to import consumer goods and information and the anxiety to preserve tradition, it has only recently begun to come to terms with this complex, double-sided identity.

Contemporary Greek society has assimilated both Mediterranean and Oriental influences as well as Occidental lifestyles and consumerist habits. Though long-standing traditions such as the close-knit family and the belief in and strength of the Greek Orthodox religion persist, at the same time Greece is a fully westernised nation, where life is not much different from other European countries.

Contemporary art has begun to flourish in its own small way during the last ten years or so in Greece. The lack of a well thought-out and structured public policy regarding the promotion of contemporary culture, the scarcity of public funding, as well the shortage of institutions and the necessary infrastructure to support it have contributed to the longstanding isolation of Greek art and artists from the international mainstream. Until very recently the visual arts (and culture, in general) were conceived of in terms of a tradition that was largely ethnocentric and inward looking, where provincial, academic axioms of “Greekness”, and the worship of antiquity were key concerns. “Advanced” contemporary Greek art mostly manifested itself abroad (through the work of artists such as Kounellis, Samaras or Takis), or was marginalised at home. Greece missed out on the modernist experiment and was more concerned (at the beginning of the century) with preserving the classical ideal in art, an ideal to which it looked to German art academies for validation.

Therefore only very recently has it become common consciousness that we need to re-invent our identity based on recent or present experiences and not those of the distant past; experiences which are our own and not mediated by external perspectives. Nevertheless the weight of our classical heritage still haunts us and there is still much suspicion about contemporary art. Just to give an example about how fixated we are on the past I want to give an example. Much has been made, in Greece, of the so-called Cultural Olympiad, instigated by the Ministry of Culture to coincide with the Olympic Games; the Cultural Olympiad is a series of cultural events - from performing to visual arts - scheduled to take place in the run up to the 2004 Olympic Games, with a view to promoting Greek heritage and cultural exchange, or what the Ministry vaguely calls “a civilisation of civilisations”, whatever that may mean. Large amounts of money – millions of euros – have been spent on this. Indicatively, in the field of the visual arts, many exhibitions are scheduled or have taken place. Less than a handful are about contemporary art. The rest, to give an idea from their titles, are as follows:“Post Byzantium”, “Mycenean Views”, “The Bull in the Mediterranean”, “Byzantine Icons”, “Alexander the Great”, “Under the Light of Apollo”, “The Sporting Spirit in Ancient Greece” and lastly but by no mean leastly “Pleats” - the history of, believe it or not, the pleat, from antiquity to now. If one were to look at the web site of the Cultural Olympiad, one would assume we still live in the 5th Century B.C. The only large international exhibition of contemporary art to take place is “Outlook”, a blockbuster featuring 85 international contemporary artists, which is on view as I write this. In short, in Greece we often tend to forget that today’s cultural production is tomorrow’s cultural heritage. Which translates into what I would call a “contemporary identity problem”.

Given this background one can imagine how difficult it is for contemporary artists. There are no official channels of financial support such as the British Council or Mondriaan Foundation, for example; national representations in all biennials are handled by the Ministry of Culture, often erratically, and with decisions shaped by political considerations or favoritism. This has contributed to an art scene that was, until very recently, provincial and inward looking. Those who are worst off are the artists who rely on the occasional gallery show or, in most cases, have to self finance their work.

This, in general, constitutes the background out of which contemporary Greek artistic production has tried to emerge. Despite the longstanding lack of support for contemporary art and the traditional, atelier-style education offered at the two national schools of fine art, things have begin to change in recent years and there has been great development and activity in the field of contemporary art, most of which has depended largely on private financial support. In the last ten years or so, the contemporary art scene has gradually become more de-insularised, it is casting aside its occasional suspicion of the foreign, and is becoming increasingly open to international exchange despite the numerous home-grown problems in the field of the contemporary visual arts.

New exhibition spaces, galleries, and artist-run initiatives have opened ; Athens and Thessaloniki, the two largest cities where most artistic activity is concentrated, now finally have recently established state museums of contemporary art. A handful of notable collections of international as well as Greek contemporary art are now being shaped and the audience for contemporary art is gradually growing, though the art market is still small and provincial. Nevertheless, there are more exhibitions taking place and much more exposure of contemporary art in the public arena than ever before. The main problem is the lack of proper institutional infrastructure. Though the newly established museums are a welcome addition to the Greek artistic community, it sometimes feels that they have been established half-heartedly and that the government seems unwilling to supply them with the necessary means that would make them internationally competitive. Both these state museums of contemporary art do not, for example, have curators of contemporary art ( !). The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST), relies – to a large extent – on donations from artists, something highly problematic. Who, if not museums, should be supportive of artists? The State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, on the other hand, bases its claim to fame on the acquisition of a part of the Costakis collection of Russian avant garde art – something for which it paid a considerable amount of money. Its exhibition programme thus revolves mostly around this time frame or around shows of mediocre Greek artists. The Thessaloniki Centre for Contemporary Art (CACT) – which was established as a branch of the Museum to showcase younger art – still lacks a building and curatorial staff. Moreover, there are no kunsthalles or ICA-type organisations which stage temporary exhibitions of emerging art. In this respect, private foundations and galleries have played - and still play – a key role in raising awareness of contemporary art.

Another problem that we are faced with is that while there is an increasing number of shows of international contemporary art taking place in Greece (something that is, no doubt, more than welcome) when it comes to the promotion of Greek artists abroad, there just isn’t the same amount of zeal. In short, it seems we are more interested in the ‘import’ of contemporary art, than in the ‘export’ of Greek artists. Maybe because the former is also much easier. Attempts to place Greek artists in international exhibitions are fragmented, based on the efforts of selected individuals. No wonder then, that contemporary Greek art is virtually unknown outside the boundaries of Greece. What is needed above all, is an organised network that would enable Greek artists to gain exposure abroad and more financial assistance when they do cross the borders of Greece.

Regarding contemporary art practice per se, as in most places it is varied and polymorphous; there is no one style, movement or dominant set of conventions. In the work of younger generation artists the notion of Greekness or ‘national identity’ is no longer such an important issue. They realise that the identity problem is a much more fluid issue that cannot be defined in all-too-certain terms. They are much more likely to be concerned with the notion of cultural specificity, i.e. those particularities and individual characteristics that give rise to a place’s unique qualities. If their work does articulate a sense of cultural specificity it is neither didactic, chauvinistic, or ethnocentric. On the other hand, some artists may not be interested at all in any such issues of locality or cultural specificity, but are concerned with examining universal culture and its systems of representation. In either case, it is clear that there is no one dominant sphere of interest, rather a freedom to choose, reference and create.

As elsewhere, the artists question and reflect the times in which we live; they tackle their social, cultural and dominant reality as well as convey their personal worlds and microcosms. They probe contemporary urban phenomena and ways of life as well as exposing their inner, private worlds as shaped by their particular experiences of time, place and personal circumstance. The question of culture-identity codes is of course prevalent, as it is all over a world in the throes of “globalisation” (a word that mostly refers to economic parameters and systems of exchange). In Greece, this is an often confusing and paradoxical issue. On the one hand, one could say that daily lifestyles are fully westernised; that sometimes we appear to be a misprint of American culture; on the other hand, traditions like religion and the Greek Orthodox church persist, indeed appear to be getting stronger and the male dominated-patriarchal society still persists on many levels (though women now mostly work).

This culture-identity question becomes all the more pertinent now that almost everything is being diluted through the filter of ‘globalisation’ and the communication networks. As a result, certain questions seem to arise and prevail. How do we define ourselves? In a world that is increasingly homogenised, what is it that makes us different from someone else, in some other country? Language? Religion? Daily lifestyles and patterns? Small, inconspicuous habits? The vestiges of old customs or traditions, some of which we still exercise mechanically? The question is rather difficult to answer. It is perhaps all of those things together and others that one cannot pinpoint, too. Identity is becoming such a fluid, almost ungraspable concept that it is increasingly difficult to to define. How “Greek” is one? Or “French”, “Chinese”, or “Slovenian” for that matter? And yet one is something, and our place of birth or domicile in many ways shapes who we are. What is it, then, that makes us what we are as social entities of a particular ethnic origin? These are questions we all toil about and for which there are no definitive answer. Perhaps contemporary artists have grasped better than any one else that identity is not a monolithic structure and is more liable to be fragmentary and fluid in nature, but nevertheless imbued with specific particularities.

One of the most important recent developments in Greece has been the emergence of a highly active generation of artists, born predominantly in the 1960s and 1970s, who have been keen to re-define their roles, who view art practice in less hierarchical terms and have shaken off old-fashioned rules and “ought tos” in art freeing themselves from the guilt syndromes of times of yore. They realize that there is no one way of making art just as there is no one correct way of making art. These artists severed their links with the past, abandoned the neo-figurative and neo-expressionist traditions that were dominant in the 80s and early 90s, and have been instrumental in consolidating a neo-conceptual tradition in Greece. Their work is most probably less concerned with materiality and process and more concerned with content, context and critique. They are aware of the international art scene and are trying, despite limited support, to find a niche in it. The activities of this generation have been instrumental in the regeneration of Greek contemporary art. These artists are less (if not at all) concerned with now tired and old-fashioned notions of “Greekness” and national identity, issues that have been more significant for artists of older generations. Their work is also less politicized or overtly politically oriented as opposed to that of many artists from some neighbouring countries who have had more than their fair share of totalitarianism, violent conflict, and political strife, much of which is still very fresh in collective memory. In general, however, there seems to be less political work; younger people seem to have lost faith in it. In Greece, younger artists’ work is more concerned with socio-cultural or personal codes of representation. It tends to be more sited within an international context, makes use of the communication networks, is more socially critical, globally aware, inter-disciplinary, technologically savvy and disregarding of artistic hierarchies. This is a generation that has grown up in Greece but has set its eyes on Europe and the rest of the world and has shed the weighty “baggage” and guilt complexes of the past. This generation of Greek artists could well be the most promising of the last fifty years, as they are more ‘open’ and no longer bogged down by the xenophobic insular mentality that characterises a large part of the artistic establishment in Greece, nor do they blindly follow international trends. Rather, they embrace every field of experience at home or abroad in order to express their own sense of individuality and to articulate a wide variety of concerns, global as well as local. What these artists share in common are similar experiences of perceiving the world and their surroundings, a metropolitan genealogy and the reality of living in a rapidly changing urban environment. Other than that, it is virtually impossible to pin down their work by categorising labels. In concluding, one could say that the Greek art scene is heterogeneous, emergent, non-identifiable in categoric terms, and full of promise which needs to be nurtured by institutional infrastructures and a systematic, decisive push for contemporary art. Exisiting under the shadow of the Acropolis does not sometimes help. But, let’s not forget that as Mario Merz has stated, “All art has been contemporary”. Maybe that is the most valuable lesson we in the art world in Greece can learn.

Mijgen Kelmendi / south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

How come two identical statues appeared in the two different cities of the Balkan
Mijgen Kelmendi



Allow me to start this short essay with a question: how come those two identical statues have appeared in two different cities of Balkan: the original one, the statue of Albanian medieval hero Scanderbeg, in the Albanian city of Kruja, and the xeroxed one, in the very centre of Prishtina city?

If we regard this question with the known distinction – Objective and Subjective culture – where Subjective Culture refers to psychological aspects of culture, including unique patterns of beliefs, attitudes, norms and values, and Objective Culture regards institutions and artefacts of culture, than which are the values, patterns of thinking that extrapolate the appearance of two identical statues in two different cities of Balkan? The original one in the Albanian city of Kruja and the xeroxed one in the very centre of Kosovo’s capital Prishtina.

Now that Milosevic’s regime is no longer threatening the Albanian population in Kosovo, ethnic Albanian mobilisation is over. This allows for more political diversity and gives the possibility for the appearance of civic resistance over great ethno-political projects. And maybe, why not, the appearance of a new territorial kind of identity, a kind of supra-ethnic identity, which I regard as – KosovoKosovo Identity.

But is it so?

Kosovo Kosovo anthropologist Besnik Pula, claims that there appear to be two “identity currents” in Kosovo right now. The first presses on with dogmatic conservatism inherited from past socialism, playing on recognizable images and symbols, which are underpinned by Enverist images of the Albanian nation taken during the 1970s and 1980s. It is the dominant current, having integrated the figure of the UÇK warrior in the grand narrative of Albanian history constructed by Enver Hoxha’s Institute of History and readily espoused by the Prishtina Institute of Albanology, the foundry that molded Kosovo Albanian identity using the ideological “raw materials” produced by Tirana’s institutes.

The second current, builds on the social revolution which took place in Kosovo – ironically, also in the 1970s and 1980s – when the Yugoslav state with the zealous support of Kosovo Albanian communists, had the region embark in a project of thorough industrialization and urbanization. Yugoslavia was opening to foreign influences and western – primarily American – entertainment, which became available with easy and accessible media such as radio and television. The managers and technocrats of the 1970s and 1980s were giving way to a new generation of western-influenced children and teenagers. The portrait of the dead Tito and the salute to “continue his path” were competing for the attention of the new generation alongside The Clash, Pink Floyd, and pop acts such as Michael Jackson and Cindy Lauper. There was an entirely new generation growing up in urbanized areas and under the influence of western pop culture.

However, how to explain two identical statues appearing in two different cities of Balkan?

If we will succeed to find the answer to this question, I think we’ll succeed to understand why the probability of a new Kosovon identity, an identity which is not based upon ethnicity, were comprehended by both the Albanian and Serbian sides as a threat.

In my opinion, the answer lies in language. Explaining in a fast manner how Kosovor Albanians understood and accepted Albanian Lingual Standard, I hope that we will shed some light on the answer to the question: “Why the two exact same statues appeared in two different cities of Balkan.

These days I have met in Prishtina two Turk researchers, Pelin Tan and Sezgin Bojnik. They had been interviewing some youths in the most beautiful town of Kosovo, Prizren, where the majority of the of Turk minority in Kosovo lives. As Pelin was telling me, their strongest desire was that one beautiful daythey have will succeeded to cleanse and sterilize themselves from this old outdated Turkish of Kosovo, in order to prepare themselves for today’s Turkish, High Turkish, the modern and standardised one. To say it better, the Turkish that they are perceiving through the Turk-Sat television content.

I was dilated by this research. What Pelin had discovered among these young Turks of the city of Prizren, their way of feeling and understanding was the very same way of understanding what Standard Albanian Language means for Kosovors. I think these are the matrixes; the patterns of thinking that make possible the appearance of two identical statues in two different cities of Balkan. Kosovo Albanians would also like to cleanse and purify themselves from Gheg idiom, from their native idiom, in order to replace it with the new language, with Albanian Standard Language, thus to become, as this pattern of thinking led them – Real Albanians. Albanians of a High Culture. Without this lingual implant, they feel as deformed, abandoned, felerik or, as in Pelin’s case – not original Turks – but some forgotten Turks, remote and abandoned, a provincial model of Turks, which deserve to be rejected, sterilised and cleansed. The Purification reminds me of Roland Barthe’s Loyola and his instruction on how we should prepare ourselves through purification for acceptance of God.

The God these people eagerly want to encounter is the new idol – Nation.

Very briefly about the background of Albanian Standard Language.
Gheg idiom is the native idiom of approximately four million Albanians. It is a spoken idiom/mother tongue of all Kosovos, of approximately 500 thousand Albanians in Macedonia, and of aprx. 1.5 million Albanians in Albania. During these 30 years, since the codification of Albanian Language took place (1972, Tirana), Gheg idiom was almost a kind of doomed language, a banned language, which was exposed to a certain glotocide.

“Albanian has been standardized making the task of isolating dialectical differences more difficult. As defined by Janet Byron, a standard language, or alternatively, dialect, or variety, is "a superposed variety of a language which serves as a national medium of discourse, primarily in education, administration, and science". Politically Albania has not always been democratic. When the communism took control of Albania, standardization was implemented and enforced as the only permitted form of communication. The government destroyed most of the literature written in non-standard Albanian. Also, if an Albanian desired to obtain positions in which they would be employed by the state or to be in positions of respect, they were required both to speak and write using the standard form of Albanian language, which is based on the Tosk dialect. Enver Hoxha who was the leader of the communist party, when standardization was implemented, chose the Tosk dialect.
In addition, under communism many of the records written in non-standard Albanian were destroyed….”

These people eagerly need to be a part of the whole. They long to belong. This is the mechanism of thinking, which produces visual mistakes such as copies of statues…
I am convinced that this phenomenon of xeroxed statues has its roots in the huge misunderstanding of the notion of Nation, State, Ethnicity, and Culture. This gives and takes more with the invention of whom we are.

Still I am not certain why they should be identical. All that I can recall is the exaltation and delirium of gathered mass with Scanderbeg’s statue. The statue of this Albanian hero had to travel from the Albanian city of Kruja, up to the centre of Prishtina. The journey lasted four days. The crowd, which was waiting for the statue, extended from the Albania-Kosovo border up to the centre of Prishtina. I forgot many thinks, but what I can exactly recall are the introductory words of Mark Krasniqi, a member of Kosovo’s Academy and the leader of the Demo Christian Party of Kosovo. As soon as the mass was getting a bit quiet, he turned to face the hero on his horse and started to talk to the statue: 'Welcome oh you mighty hero Scanderbeg!'

I realised in that moment that this man knows exactly to whom he is talking!

Lejla Hodzic / south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

Great Expectations
Lejla Hodzic


For more than one year, from October 2002 to December 2003 < rotor > association for contemporary Graz became the Balkan Konsulat. Project Balkan Konsulat, consisted of a series of 6 exhibitions, featuring the art scenes of Belgrade, Prague, Istanbul, Budapest, Sarajevo and St. Petersburg as special guests, in the year when Graz was the Culture Capital of Europe. Invited young curators from those cities (Stevan Vukovic, Olesya Turkina, Michal Kolacek, Erden Kosova and Basak Senova, Judit Angel and Lejla Hodzic) involved in the development of contemporary art in their environment, composed multi-layered projects for Graz. Apart from the presentation of visual arts in the gallery space, where curators showed through selected artworks the environment of their art scene in an atmosphere corresponding to the spirit of each city, a number of exterior locations were also used. The exhibition openings were accompanied with events, such as workshops and artistic interventions at Celery’s_the juice bar and DJ/VJ events with music and screenings at the bar Vipers at Thienfeld by the artists by the respective cities . In collaboration with Museum in Progress Vienna, works of two artists from each city were presented on billboards in a public space, in front of the National Theatre in Graz as well as being published in Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard. Finally, a selection of short films and videos from each city was presented in the Mediatheque of the City of Graz.
What makes this project different from the recent series of exhibitions which explore the thematic of the Balkans is that the Balkan Konsulat project went further in playing with the notion of the Balkans. While other exhibitions were searching for the Balkans in that specific geographical and cultural point, where western view usually expects to see images, or 'ghosts' of the Balkans, the 'black hole' of the Europe, the curatorial team which made a conception of the Balkan Konsulat (Margarethe Makovec, Anton Lederer and Lejla Hodzic) decided to play with the relativity of the borders which define the Balkans. Where do the Balkans start, where do they end? It is not easy to trace the Balkans’ borders. The attempt to locate its mentality leads to never-ending discussions. Every country interprets the "Balkans" differently. From a German perspective, they start in Austria, from there in Slovenia, from Slovenia in Croatia, from Croatia in Serbia etc. Balkans is always somewhere else, there where our view does not reach, or like philosopher Slavoj Zizek says: „The Balkans are always the Other."
That is the reason why in the frame of the Balkan Konsulat it was possible to find, on the first site, a bizarre choice of the cities whose art scenes were presented, cities which from a geographical point of view cannot be considered as a part of the Balkans. Besides Belgrade, Sarajevo and Istanbul, as a typical Balkan capitals, in the frame of Balkan Konsulat the art scenes of Prague, Budapest and St. Petersburg were presented. (In the original concept of the project it was planed to feature Vienna and its art scene, as the last exhibition in a series of seven. But, during 2003 unfortunately it became clear that the realisation of this Vienna exhibition would not be possible due to the financial difficulties in which , together with many other Graz based art institutions were found, because granted year budgets for the institutions were cut off in favour of funding for the realisation of the Cultural Capital projectIn this way the notion of the Balkans was deprived of this expected essence. That's why it is not strange that the sign of the Balkan Konsulat is in fact a symbol of a state without any standard symbols, ornaments or colors. An empty form which can be filled with wanted contents.
The other specific of the Balkan Konsulat is in its approach to curatorial practice. Balkan Konsulat is in fact a continuation of activity - dealing with contemporary art from the south-eastern part of Europe over several years. In the mid nineties, Margarethe Makovec and Anton Lederer, curators from , became aware of the influence from South-East Europe to the culture of their city - Graz. They started to work intensively with artists from that region, including their works in a number of exhibitions together with the works of western artists. The result of this work is an extensive network of artists and art institutions, reaching from the Czech Republic to Turkey and from Slovenia to the Ukraine. (Entering the gallery in October 2001, during the opening days of the Steirisherbst Festival and seeing a lot of artists from 'balkan' region, Serbian artist Uros Djuric said: ' you are the real Balkan Konsulat'.) In 2003, when Graz was the Culture Capital of Europe, instead of curating their own exhibitions Makovec and Lederer, offered their space and premises to curators from various regions to create a program for this very important year, presenting inner views of specific art scenes.
Similarly, to the unexpected choice of 'balkan' cities, presentations of specific art scenes in the frame of the Balkan Konsulat projects, were always what was expected. Michal Kolacek presenting the Prague art scene featured artists from Poland, Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The intention of the Sarajevo part of the Balkan Konsulat project, was to present this new art scene which developed after the war, including Bosnian artists living in the country or abroad whose works reflected the social and political situation, and artists from the region who are connected in different ways with Sarajevo, both influencing the scene and influenced by it. The creation of this new scene is closely connected to the activity of the Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Arts, founded in 1997. The works of the artists presented at the exhibition deal with different issues which were at the same time specific for the country and its experience of war as well as being relevant on a global level considering problems such as; displacement and notion of a home (Sejla Kameric, Sarajevo; Lala Rascic, Sarajevo/Amsterdam); consequences of the war (Vanda Vukicevic, Sarajevo/London); closeness and fear of death (Aleksandra Vajd, Maribor/Prague); fears and feelings caused by living in urban surroundings (Danica Dakic, Sarajevo/Dusseldorf); isolation and impossibility to integrate to the domestic (Slaven Tolj, Dubrovnik) or foreign (Kristina Leko, Zagreb) society. An archive presented in the Balkan Konsulat's café comprised a selection of video works, films, catalogues, and artist's documentation from and about Sarajevo.

Beside the exhibition in < rotor > gallery space, a group of young graphic designers intervened in the Celery space of the, representing another characteristic of new artistic practice in Sarajevo - coming out from the art institutions to the public spaces and creating a direct contact with the wider public. Their graphic works were realized on everyday objects used in the restaurant, for example the plates. Dubioza Kolektiv, who performed a live act on the day of the exhibition opening, represented the Sarajevo music scene. They create a music which combines traditional ethno with contemporary electronic sounds. In October a selection of videos from Sarajevo was shown at the Mediathek Graz.

In a similar way to the Sarajevo exhibition, which was exploring post war problems in Bosnia through the works of artists from other countries, the Balkan Konsulat project explored problems of Balkans in a different way, changing the essential cliché image, of the Balkans.

Mai Abu ElDahab/ south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.


Contextualization: The Dynamics of Cairo’s Contemporary Art Scene
Mai Abu ElDahab



The catch phrase in international art discussions today with regards geographically-delineated exhibitions is contextualization. How should art be presented in locations different from which they originated, namely non-Western art in Western contexts? (Let us maintain the redundancy in explaining why these are the two faces of the dichotomy.) This issue with regards representation is an old and unceasing debate, however, contextualization is today put forward as the cure-all for errors past (exoticism, orientalism, and so on.). What I would like to suggest, is that the contextualization necessary in this scheme of exhibition-making is discursive art theoretical analysis, rather than mere socio-political prescription, and I will focus my argument by discussing the current dynamics of Cairo’s contemporary art scene and the local impact on international interest in art from the Arab World.

The issues surrounding contextualization seem to revolve around a process or exhibition format by which viewers are provided with the necessary tools or information enabling them to decipher the codes of a visual sensibility presented as alien to themselves. Socio-political circumstances, historical facts and explanations are thus presented alongside the artworks in the form of explanatory texts, relevant books and such, thereby providing the Western viewer with, let’s say, justification for the visual language and forms with which they are confronted. In other cases where the art seems to utilize familiar codes and sensibility, it is articulated as art that has gone through a process of self-translation into global language, and is now detached from its place of origin. Both arguments seem to miss the point. Two non-exclusive factors are at play here (elaborated below): the cultural project and the art market.

In September 2002, I attended the opening of the exhibition “Contemporary Arab Representations: Beirut” curated by Catherine David and presented at Witte de With, Rotterdam. The exhibition’s aim in part, according to the curator’s text, was “to acquire more specific knowledge about what is currently going on in certain parts of the Arab world, to look at the complex dimensions of aesthetics in relation to social and political situations…” and was presented several months earlier at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona. A critique of the exhibition in terms of its aims or the artworks presented is not what I am opening up for debate, but rather the format by which the so-called contextualization was produced. The first floor of the gallery space was set up with various televisions and one projection room airing satellite news channels from the Middle East, Arab magazines and newspapers were also available on the seating platforms for the audience to skim through. Being one of the Arabic-speakers present, I was privileged to understand what I was viewing, and also realize that the publications present were months old, perhaps simply shipped along with the artworks from the earlier exhibition in Barcelona. The viewers in this case were bombarded with inaccessible visual information that added little, or in fact, diminished their engagement with the artworks present through this form of linguistic alienation. This is one example of contextualization, which serves to problematize the notion of the cultural project.

At a recent lecture by Slovene theorist Marina Grisznic at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, she presented the notion of constructing a ‘genealogy’ of an artwork, citing the evolution of the Young British Art generation as a prime example, as the dynamic necessary for its consumability. (Where did this work come from? How do we know it is a pedigree when we don’t know the family tree? Hence, from the cultural institution, to the gallery, to the magazine, to the Biennale, to the art fair, and thus history is written). To make it to the museum or collector’s home, its genealogy must be established as a credible product within its new location by virtue of association. Thus it is displaced; this is not the authenticity debate, but simple marketability. This is the art market factor.

In the more established art scenes, where institutional, academic, curatorial and market structures are developed, artworks are contextualized through discursive debate. By that I mean, art historical or theoretical analysis aimed at broadly defining a genre, for lack of a better word, through investigations of the artworks’ form and content, and the multitude of connections it affords to other ongoing practices and bisul cultue theory. Within historical exhibitions, Picasso is presented alongside Braque (cubism) and today Pierre Huyghe alongside Rirkrit Tiravanija (relational aesthetics). This discursive process often begins locally, and finds its connections within the broader theoretical writings and debates focusing on art practices and sensibilities. This brings us to the Cairo art scene and let me begin by providing a brief background of contemporary art developments in Egypt and the ongoing issues.

Although the Egyptian visual arts community is Cairo-centric, many of the emerging contemporary artists originate from Alexandria and are the pioneering graduates of the Alexandria Atelier. The Atelier at the time was privileged to have a number of well-trained and informed professors who injected a new dynamism into the institution. In the early 90s these young graduates began experimenting with contemporary mediums such as video, performance and installation and as opposed to their modernist predecessors, their work was conceptually grounded and posed questions on the social, economic and political environment. These were the pioneers of what is today contemporary Egyptian art. (Of significant accomplishment amongst these artists are Wael Shawky, Rehab Elsadek, Amina Mansour and Mona Marzouk.) By virtue of their production quality and notwithstanding the novelty factor these new works gained a very positive response and gained much acclaim at the new government-sponsored “Youth Salon”, an annual event that was established in 1989 to provide artists under the age of 35 the opportunity to present their work. It is important to note, that the only available venues for the presentation of visual arts at the time were public institutions, whose selection processes were and remain either ad hoc or nepotistic.

Unfortunately, after this initial success, these new artists had nowhere else to present their work as the government’s infrastructure impeded presentation in other local venues. Moreover, the work itself was stagnating due to a lack of exposure and exchange opportunities, lack of theoretical debate, little resources for production, and most importantly lack of critical analysis. Along with the internationalization phenomena associated with technological developments and transfer as well as the proliferation of media tools, the local contemporary visual languages became globalized. This type of hybridity is now often accepted internationally as a mundane norm; the pluralistic authorship of which, if at once economically imposed, today has vast implications that are yet to be fully understood (globalization, representation, identity, etc.).

Later in 1996, a number of Cairo-based commercial galleries (Mashrabia Gallery, Espace Karim Francis, Cairo-Berlin Gallery and soon after the Townhouse Gallery) opened with a specific interest in presenting contemporary art. Contemporary languages began to be visible, and the artists began to attract the interest of local media and a wider audience. This new momentum reached its peak in 1999, when the galleries, co-organized Al-Nitaq Festival, Egypt’s first and only independent visual arts showcase. Although the festival did not manage to sustain itself as an annual event, it clearly marked the split between the art of the public and private institutions, and with it came much competition and mutual hostility. Unfortunately, these commercial galleries were destined to fall into the same trap as the government institutions by grappling on to the cultural project forum often as the only way of acquiring funds whilst lacking both the initiative and know-how to infiltrate the market.

Today, the institutions have not developed to accommodate the increasing number of promising artists or to actively participate in the international art scene that is beckoning them. On the local scale, art is presented solely within the framework of cultural development, as part of a larger holistic nationalist agenda, ignoring the discipline’s internal dynamics and development. Wherein, the aim comes to be about attaining resources for production and presentation dismissing the significance of qualitative judgement in cultural production and policy. Meanwhile, the artists are slowly becoming internationally visible, and their work is presented within contextualizing exhibitions, as their work easily transfers within the rhetoric of the cultural project; Hassan Khan within “Contemporary Arab representations: Cairo” at Witte de With (May 2002), Wael Shawky within “Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes” at the Biennale di Venezia (2003), Sherif El-Azma within DisORIENTation at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (March 2003) and so on. Some works are successful yet the discourse remains cultural.

It is perhaps lack of local theoretical contextualization intertwined with absence within the international academic and discursive debates that leaves the art scene vulnerable to imposed contextualization and often mis-representation. Although the artworks themselves are inevitably subject to similar historic cross-border references, the academy today aims to re-create history with the view that cultural crossover is a new concoction. Hence, the circularity of confusion continues further emphasized by institutionalization of concepts of “otherness” reigning in various academic spheres and disciplines whose influences at present on cultural policies tend to have a stronger impact than that of some equal opportunity multiculturalism advocates. The contextualization project becomes the mere residue of the rampant culture of “otherness” whose outreach is infiltrating intellectual circles in an attempt to disentangle history.

Thus, to be an Arab artist within the international art arena today is to bear the Scarlet Letter, until another paradigm is to presents itself and local actors attempt participate in the dialogue.

Luchezar Boyadjiev / south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

Luchezar Boyadjiev
Crawling Carpets


(Text for the follow up publication on the conference

1/
Surprisingly, I witnessed tension and excitement in the intellectual circles of Istanbul while on a working visit to the city in December 2002. Even the most clear headed and analytical friends - curators, artists and critics, were in a state of nervous expectation. They were waiting for something to happen but were not quite sure what, how, when, why, etc. It was the time of the EU enlargement meeting in Copenhagen. Turkey had submitted a bid for membership amidst debates and speculations. Everybody was waiting for a breakthrough. There was a lot of gossip about negotiations and behind the scenes political bargaining. In Istanbul we had late night talks and lots of heresay. A kind of societal tremor mortem (but exactly the opposite) was in the air.

The politicians did not come to terms, and as a result Turkey was left in the waiting room. This atmosphere of nervous insecurity, hopes and pride, frustration and letdowns seemed quite similar to the situation in Sofia a couple of years ago. It did not work out for Turkey in December 2002. Whatever the reason but it probably has more to do with the EU’s insecurity about its own agenda and priorities, rather than with Turkey’s qualifications, human rights record, economical situation and so on and on.

I felt the not-so-nice urge of the “superiority” complex for Bulgaria already had a date for accession… as if it matters that much. So, I came up with a suggestion for the EU: if the EU is so unsure about what exactly it wants/expects from Turkey, then both sides should agree on progressive negotiations and accession process, uniquely designed to accommodate the specific status/needs of the country. The idea is: let’s take it in stages, at first negotiate for EU membership the part of Turkey all the way to the Bosphorus (let’s say in 2008); in another five years (2013, for instance) - Turkey all the way to Ankara joins the EU; finally, by 2018 the whole of Turkey, all the way to the Iraqi border, ends up in the EU, for all the good that is. The suggestion is for a kind of “crawling carpet” process of negotiations and accession.


2/
The process of navigating the identity of a region (if there is such a totalizing notion) is very much like a process of peeling off layers. Layers that have somehow settled down on top of each other, overlapping in some areas, thus forming historically “negotiated” sediments of references, trauma, conflict or understanding, etc.; layers that are thinner where the region is gradually loosing its identity while acquiring features of some other identity. One may think of these layers as carpets. There is no place on earth, which is not a region in some way or another. At the same time, there is no region on earth, which does not connect to other regions through its multi layered “carpeting”. Even Antarctica is by now a multi “carpeted” region reflecting the rest of the globe/world and its expectations and aspirations through all the “layers” of its great ice cap. The way in which regions connect to each other could be described as “pulling the carpet(s)” from under each others’ “feet”. Areas of regional connectivity are those where static identity, concepts and notions slip away… The regional map of the earth is a heavily carpeted surface, with “carpets” heavily overlapping in most places, that looks very much like the insides of a carpet shop in the Sultan Ahmet area of Istanbul near the remnants of the ancient Palace of Constantine the Great.

3/
Take for example the “carpeting” of the Balkans. If we start from its upper left corner of Slovenia it verges on Italy, Austria, and Hungary. A distinct “carpet” is the Central European one. Ljubljana looks like a small, claustrophobic and suicidal Austrian city, not at all similar to the interface of Bucharest or Sofia, not to mention Istanbul or Thessalonica. That is one very solid “carpet” there which is however, constantly pulled from under the feet of its people by the powerful ex-Yugoslavia “carpeting”. Although, the Ottoman “carpet” is hardly visible there it is still present by proxy, because of all those ex-Yugoslavia hangovers. The Ottoman “carpet” is a bit more visible in Croatia where the Central European pull coming from Hungary (and the “carpeting” of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire) is in rivalry with the Bosnian-Croat “carpet”, while on the Adriatic Sea Coast the pull of the Mediterranean (via Italy) is strongly felt. The force of the ex-Yugoslav “carpeting” is much stronger here not only because Tito was a Croat but also because of the grave proximity of Serbia. This particular “carpet” is identified very much as Balkan and here it is rather obvious how the Ottoman “carpeting” has been extended and transferred further up north and west by the ex-Yugoslav, mini-empire. The “carpeting” on the southeastern edges of Croatia (around Osjek and Vukovar, let’s say) was definitely marked by the Balkanization paradigm quite recently, during the war from the early 1990s. Most recently, after the Croat language publication of Prof. Maria Todorova book “Imagining the Balkans”, the all-over Balkan identity is less strongly opposed in Croatia, especially in intellectual circles. Even more so in artistic circles for currently there are benefits to be drawn from being identified as Balkan.

The Balkan “carpeting” thickens significantly in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the lush Muslim “carpet” could be found for the first time in our crawling geographical progression. This land of many “carpets”, so many that it is really hard to enumerate, is the ultimate example for the incestuous relations between the Ottoman Empire of old times and the modern time mini-empire of ex-Yugoslavia. One might even argue that just like the Ottoman Empire inherited and preserved the heritage of the Byzantine Empire, the mini-empire of ex-Yugoslavia inherited the Ottoman on these territories. And let’s not forget the Byzantine “carpet”, which is exemplified here by the heritage of the medieval Christian sect of heretics, the “krstyans”, who actually came and settled here around the C 13 th. after its proponents were kicked out of medieval Bulgaria, which of course was within the cultural sphere of Byzantium. In Bulgaria these heretics were called Bogomils, after the C10th . founder/leader of the sectö priest Bogomil (“Dear to God” in translation) and they had links to the Catars and Albigoians in later times. They were a dualistic sect and once in Bosnia, were subjected to pressure from both the Hungarian Catholic and the Serb Orthodox Church. When the Ottoman came to conquer this land around the C 15 th -16 th. the heretics easily identified with the new comers and their new faith which explains why the local population converted quite fast to Islam in such large numbers, unlike elsewhere north-west of the Bosphorus. Of course, there were economical incentives as well but the main aspect is that the population was already in opposition to the existing power structures in this region.

Further down south and east in Montenegro one of the main “carpeting” details is the historical fact that although all surrounding lands were under Ottoman rule, the Montenegrin “carpet makers” are proud to mention that no Ottoman soldier stepped foot on their soil. It was just feudal dependence without actual occupation. The Albanian “carpeting” is so old and varied because in all probability the local ethnicity is most closely related to the oldest indigenous peoples of the Balkan peninsula who were progressively pushed out in the mountains by the waves of the new-coming Slavic tribes at first, then all sorts of nomads from Central Asia, and finally by the Ottomans. Jumping to the outer edges of the Balkans in the north-east, along and beyond the Danube river is Romania, where the “carpets” of the pre-Roman Thrace (linked to what’s now Bulgaria), of the Roman legions fighting and then mixing with the Dacians, as well as of the post-Slavic wave make up for an ethnic diversity that is so complicated that even today the country is claiming shared “carpeting” with very distant lands and peoples. Let alone the shared “carpeting” with Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece and so on. The descriptive crawling is endless. Suffice to mention here that with Serbia and especially Romania and Bulgaria the “carpet” of Socialism of the Soviet Empire type is introduced in full swing. The fabric and extent of this “carpet” is linking the Balkan region to such outlaying lands as China, Cuba, Mongolia and even countries in Africa.

The further south and east you go the thicker the “carpet” because of the Ottoman heritage. The interesting aspect is that this “carpet” seems to be much more acknowledged outside of Turkey, at least until recently. At the same time, the “carpet” of the Ottoman Empire is linking the region of the Balkans with the regions of North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, all the way to South-East Turkey, otherwise known as Kurdistan which also provides linkage to the neighboring Iran, Iraq, Syria, etc. It doesn’t really matter if in Lebanon for instance, the Ottoman heritage/past is not a matter of investigation or something to be proud of. The important thing is that it is there as a resource of the “crawling carpets” of regional identity. In Bulgaria for instance, the main source for historical research for the period between the 15th and the 19th centuries are the monumental archives of the Ottoman Empire, which are recorded in Arabic, and are not so appreciated in Turkey itself. On the other hand, during the last century of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria (from 1396 until 1878) when the country was one of the most developed and industrialized regions of the Ottoman Empire, it was a status symbol of wealth and national pride to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visit the Grave of God (the Christian one…). The person who made this trip would be awarded the honorary “title” of “hadzhi” (for instance, the family name of such a person would be transformed after the trip from Dimitrov to Hadzhidimitrov). Of course, the etymology of this word/title comes from the Muslim “hadj”, the pilgrimage to Mecca. What’s also important is that the “hadzhi” people would bring back home symbolical objects and depictions of Jerusalem, printed graphic views of the city, to remind them of the trip, as well as to indoctrinate the younger generations. Now, if that is not an example of “carpeted” identity background I do not know what is.

And I do not even want to go here into the complicated history of the Roma Gipsy people who live in heavily underprivileged minorities all over Europe, or of the Sephardim Jews who migrated from Portugal and Spain through Northern Italy all the way down to Thessalonica, Bulgaria and Istanbul to find in the Ottoman Empire a much more tolerant environment. The Jewish community in Bulgaria, for instance was not more then 50 000 people at the end of WW 2 but the important aspect is that a few years after the so called socialist revolution in Bulgaria (actually the entry of the Red Army in Sofia on September 9th 1944…) Jews in Bulgaria were encouraged to emigrate in large numbers to the newly established state of Israel in order to help bring about and build up Socialist society… As far as I am informed Jewish people migrating from Bulgaria became an important part of the kibbutz movement. On the other hand, in the 1970-1980s the socialist state of Bulgaria was welcoming a large number of Palestinian students, as well as Kurdish students (although far fewer) in order to assist them in receiving education in a number of disciplines not all of which are to be mentioned in public. I wonder if nowadays one can locate people who went to Sofia to get their education… I do remember however that while I was in the National Art Academy in Sofia (between 1975 and 1980), there were at least three to four students from Kurdistan, some even from South Africa…not to mention Mongolia, Angola, Nicaragua and Cuba.

4/
The notion of the “crawling carpets” of regional identity are forms of an unrecognized background of the nomadic notion so very popular in the contemporary art discourse some time ago. The problem with that notion was that it looked like artists were jumping from place to place, either to live and work or just to exhibit, as if there was nothing to connect the place of their “taking off” with the place of “landing”… This might be true if one thinks only of airplanes, airports, hotels and white cubes but it is hardly true in terms of what goes on in an artist’s mind and studio. I am not so sure though it’s the same with audiences who are by rule less mobile then artists and curators. At least in my mind I always drag along all these “carpets” and they turn out to overlap in most unusual places – for instance, while in Sao Paulo for the Biennial in 1994 we walked into a supermarket and at the cash register we had a no-words-only-gestures “conversation” with the salesperson about football, the stars Stoichkov (from Bulgaria) and Romario (from Brazil) who at that time were playing together for the Barcelona football club in Spain. A minor “carpeting” link but a real one nonetheless.

Another problem with the nomadic notion was that it easily translated into globetrotting… After a while the artist or the curator seemed to behave like a tennis star doing the circuit of tournaments – you go, you install, you do the press conference and the opening, and you split, never touching the location you happen to be showing the products of your work and life. I prefer the “crawling carpets” notion with all the problems that might arise there for this notion seems to be grounded in history and a level of awareness about cultural anthropology which is not necessarily part of the artistic equipment. Yet, this seems to be a valid notion because if we say that all the earth is covered with regional and local identity “carpets” and these are overlapping in a “crawling” succession, we have already a global image and metaphor of the cosmopolitan character of contemporary art.

I will quote here Vasif Kortun, the project leader of this conference, who said during the proceedings that all things considered, contemporary art is an “urban and cosmopolitan thing”. It is quite clear why contemporary art is an “urban” thing. It is however, not so clear anymore why and how it could be a cosmopolitan thing… In a city, in its local versus global economy situation, in its educational and research institutions, in its art and culture scenes and practices, in its minority and majority populations, even in its airport and hotels and so on, the “carpets” are easy to see. In a city art is produced and consumed in ways that cannot happen in the countryside. In a city all the problems of modern civilization are there and all the artists and curators dealing with that material are also there. They live, work and travel from and to their cities.

But the problem is how do cities connect in the cosmopolitan perspective of contemporary art outside of the flight routes of Lufthansa, SAS and British Airways? When the traditional discipline of aesthetics was around it was easy – there was beauty, there was talent, there was craft and so on and all these things were supposed to be the same for everybody… But what about now? In a city the issues are very specific and not easy to grasp from the outside. So, if there is an answer it must be found in cultural translations and in the never-ending process of negotiating the differences between the ways issues are explicated. When approaching another city (urban situation) it seems that if you are an artist or a curator the cosmopolitan thing to do is to first do your homework by building up a “crawling carpeting” succession of thinking/investigation which takes much longer then flying there on a plane but fills up the void inbetween cities and art scenes (or art events for that matter) with anti-global reality and references. In one word, you might be as urban as you wish in your own city but in order to be cosmopolitan in another city you need to negotiate the distance by crawling over so many “carpets” of overlapping identities. It is this slow negotiation and crawling that makes you cosmopolitan. An old song claimed that “people are the same wherever you go…” but it is the specific process of “going there” that makes the difference between globalization and cosmopolitanism in today’s art.

5/
Of course, there are also the “flying carpets”… By this I mean a conceptual tool or notion that is derived from the clash between already existing historical “carpeting” (such as the Ottoman Empire) and a kind of “carpeting” which is in the process of becoming (such as the enlargement process of the EU). In the region of the Balkans the EU enlargement process, seen against the “carpet” of the Ottoman Empire, seems to be a “flying carpet” mechanism for negotiating distances between the various capital cities of the 12 or so countries. It is not only the fact that the Ottoman Empire is no more, while the EU might provide in the future a similar all-encompassing framework of a “democratic empire” kind. It is not only the fact that once Slovenia is a member it will pull the “carpet” of identity from under the feet of its ex-Yugoslav neighbors, just like Greece is doing for all the Balkans, and after 2007 Bulgaria and Romania will do undoubtedly too in a feast of “superiority complex”. It will also be good that soon after the projected EU accession in 2007, Bulgaria will have the right to issue its own version of the common EU currency, the Euro, as all other member states are doing. This will be good because a certain “anti-globalization”, consciously provocative but currently illegal cultural practice will be considered normal and legitimate. You see, the Euro bills printed nowadays in Bulgaria are called fakes, forgeries, etc. After 2007 and maybe 2010 it will no longer be the case. I suppose it’s a matter of perspective, yes?

On a much smaller but more recent scale the “flying carpet” mechanism is operating as a background for all the exhibitions of contemporary art from the Balkans that took place in 2002/2003. The process of research, negotiation of distances, curating, exhibiting and so on, all the way to the second leg of events “In the Cities of the Balkans”, is a perfect example for a “flying carpet” shortcut across a certain regional identity (if there is such…) triggered by current developments in the world. However, I would insist that regional shows of contemporary art make sense nowadays only if these are paired up with other regional shows. That’s in order to avoid exoticism… A region is a region only next to another one. For instance, a show of contemporary art from the Balkans should be paired up with a show of artists from the Southeast states of the USA (as Dan Perjovschi suggested in his work for “In the Gorges of the Balkans”). Or more to the point, Balkan related projects make sense now only if they are linking the region to other regions either to the southeast (the Middle East) or to the northeast (Russia or Central Asia). I think that’s the only way to avoid both regionalism and globalism, to have cosmopolitanism in a kind of “Honesty International” movement…

6/
The “flying carpet” of “In the Gorges of the Balkans” exhibition in Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel (September-November 2003) provided me with an opportunity to test such “crawling carpets” notions in action. What I did there was to stay for as long as possible within the show as a “living, talking and walking sculpture” providing “guided tours” around the show. Out of the twelve weeks of the run of the show, I was there for five and a half weeks or more. Every day between 11 am and 6 pm, the working hours of the museum, I was there and anybody who wanted to could get a free tour of a kind (my kind) around the more then 120 works by 88 artists in the show. I have to admit that my tours were not easy on the visitors… A full (more or less full, for I could never pretend to “know it all”…) “Schadenfreude Guided Tour” (as was the title of the project) lasted about four and a half hours or more. Part of the reason for that was that the other artists were not there to talk on their own behalf, so I was free to say anything I wanted to… For obvious reasons the curator of the show could not be there most of the time either... I worked with the entire physical space of the show, the building and its exterior, jumping from work to work, artist to artist and country to country, connecting them all within the layers of references to the Balkan context that only an informed insider could provide. I think of this project as one huge performance lasting day after day, which depended as much on insider’s knowledge and penetration as on the flow of adrenaline, and the eyes of the visitors shining with enthusiasm, interest, sometimes – exhaustion… I worked with the inner space and logic of the show and tried to make it visible and almost physically perceptible for the visitors, to give flesh and blood to the lived reality, culture, history, concepts, visual language, and so on ingrained in the works.
In a way it was like “carpeting” with word and action the insides of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, “crawling” through the layers of the Balkans as well as some layers connecting the regions to far out places.

For instance, the curator has included in the show a group of works from Kurdish artists, as far as I know for the first time in an international art show of this scale and scope. On one level, the informed visitor is able to recall instantly the current political context of Turkey and the status of the Kurdish population in its Southeast region. The texts in the catalogue of the show underline the fact that for these artists, coming from a remote and isolated (in art world terms) region, Istanbul with its energetic art scene and regular Biennials is the “natural” center of attraction as well as revolt. Thus the inclusion seems justified in terms of current artistic production. However, the question that sometimes arouse in my tours was related to the geographical fact that Kurdistan is not really part of the Balkan Peninsula and in a show so very loaded with regional contextual references this fact seems a contradiction. I think it’s a matter of curatorial perceptiveness to recall that Kurdistan has always been within the Ottoman Empire. The inclusion of these artists on the other side, indicates a rich potential for further investigation into the cultural heritage of the Ottoman Empire that at some times in history overlapped not only the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor but also the Near, the Middle East and even Northern Africa… One can only marvel at what fertile ground for contemporary art research and exhibitions this former united world would provide considering the fact that at those times all kinds of ethnic and religious communities of people were living side-by-side within the administrative world of the Ottoman Empire. Peoples, who are now again together in the world but are experiencing difficulties getting along together, understanding and/or appreciating each others’ cultures and contributions to humankind.

The way I dealt with such issues was to provide precisely a brief personal glimpse at what the “shared childhood fairytales” (to quote what Joseph Bakstein once remarked in private)…, that are otherwise termed “identity background”, or “carpets” could offer. For instance, when in the 19th century Bulgaria, the country I come from, was undergoing a period of national liberation struggles (from the Ottoman Empire) there would be uprisings. The main one in 1876 was badly organized and meant to function as a “performance” – the fighters would sacrifice themselves and thus would attract the attention of the Great Powers who would eventually come to rescue and liberate us… Which actually happened at the end. However, the uprising was crashed in blood and the fighters who survived were sent in exile and jail to the city of Diyarbakyr, now the main city of Kurdistan, located all the way near the border with Iraq… They were forgotten and never came back after the liberation in 1878… Consequently, the city has totally negative connotations in the national psyche of Bulgarians – it is a black hole and there is no way out of it, the ultimate end of the world. Those fighters were forced to walk all the way to Diyarbakyr for thousands of kilometers, barefoot, chained, with scarce water and food. The irony is that they took the same road, which one can see depicted now in the work by Sener Ozmen/Erkan Ozgen titled “The Road to Tate Modern”. These two artists from Diyarbakyr are symbolically taking the same road but in the opposite direction and with totally different “objectives”, clothes, vehicles, etc. in their self-ironical video…

So, there you go, the “carpeting” of the ex-Ottoman Empire is still in action, at least in my mind…