Thursday, January 01, 2004

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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…

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…