An European Excursus: Peripheries and Places of Diversity
By Sanja Kojić Mladenov
Current conflicts and the increasing division in society have lead ifa to realize the new art project EVROVIZION.CROSSING STORIES AND SPACES. The author Sanja Kojić Mladenov, one of the curators, explains the project in more detail in her text by making historical and political references. She pleads for not losing sight of so-called peripheral Europe regions, because in their polyphony and diversity they reflect Europe's cultural identity.
In these circumstances of fluctuating value systems, of re-examination of borders and formal media and space frameworks, and of emphasised hybridity in art, the multi-layered nature of contemporary art practice develops in the crossbreeding process of its different components, through mutual communication and networking rather than the separate functioning of each. The seemingly infinite and elusive European art scene focuses on the many diverse existential conditions of the multicultural world, in which critical questioning of the current status quo, of multiple different standpoints, systems and power relations is important and challenging, especially by raising issues of (self)sustainability, utopia and realities.
Every year, nationalism is growing globally, becoming more present and more visible in many countries of the European Union preoccupied with immigration, integration and governance. The refugee crisis that started in 2015 with a wave of migrating populations from Southwestern Asia and then North Africa toward the developed European countries, caused much instability both in transit countries and the countries of their final destination – from the functioning of both administrative and financial institutions, to political, ideological and value systems. Simultaneously, although generations of Europeans have already witnessed and / or participated in various movements of population as a result of wars or economic, political, educational and other migrations, the question is to what extent the European 'richness of coexistence of different cultures' is sincerely present as the ruling doctrine, and to what extent it has succumbed to the challenges of conservatism and xenophobia.
Rise of right-wing movements
The aforementioned geopolitical changes in living conditions, the seemingly established 'equality' of civil rights for vulnerable groups (based on class, race, religion, sexual orientation etc.), as well as an increase in capitalist exploitation and misuse of natural resources all led to the rise of fascist, ultranationalist, racist and authoritarian movements around the world, as a reaction to the allegedly lost 'naturally given' (biological) privileges of access to wealth and social power of mostly white men and Christians. Since the first attacks on Muslim migrants in Germany in the 1990s, such as the arson attack on a Turkish family's house in Molln (23 November 1992) and the Solingen massacre in 1993, today we are witnessing growing right-wing extremism that directly inspired the Halle synagogue shootings (9 October 2019), the recent terrorist attack on shisha bars in Hanau (19 February 2020), the mass shooting at Christchurch mosque in New Zealand (15 March 2019) and the murder of George Floyd (25 May 2020) in Minneapolis.
The ethnic model of identity strongly present through heightened conflict and a paradigm for the exclusion of the other and the different, is based on classical binary oppositions of observation and on naturalisation which imbues primary value on collective identities, such as national, ethnic, religious, linguistic and geographical, while abandoning gender and micro identities, personal denominators that contribute to the specific, particular characteristics of an individual. Such conditions of the emphasised collectivisation of conflict, the us-versus-them division, lead to easily inflammable aggression and conflict escalation, which is exceedingly difficult to stop. If German statistics1 show that one in five residents perceives Muslims as enemies, the insecurity felt in parts of cities with Syrian refugees and Muslim populations becomes palpable.
The virus is a control variable
Not only in Germany, right-wing parties have been on the rise since the 2007 global economic crisis and bolstered by the migrant crisis over the past few years. Some of them come to power easily through democratic electoral procedures2 (because democracy often remains blind to media and any other manipulation) and the reinforcement of national sentiment that has become both 'salon-capable' and 'sticky' for the impoverished disillusioned broad population, willing to support their anti-immigrant, conservative nationalist policies. Such is the case in Austria, Hungary, Sweden etc. Similarly, the election of Donald Trump in the US, of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the triumph of Brexit in the UK, indicate that the acquired democratic and civil liberties can easily be lost and are difficult to regain.
Whether it is a deep lust for authoritarianism and dictatorship evident on the side of those in power or an appealing consolation for the crowds of their supporters and henchmen, a tendency to close borders, impose a state of emergency, control population, ban movement, censor the media, use violence against migrants, dissidents and the others, became commonplace in many European countries during the Covid-19 pandemic. 'Over these months we are witnessing the largest experiment in comparative governance we are likely to see in our lifetimes',3 the virus is a control variable and approaches and methods are adapted to one's own political traditions. Quarantine, isolation, obedience and abuse have made it clearer what the degree of political power is, what the ruling hierarchy and international politics look like, but also what the extent of their incompetence is. The fragility of certain institutions of the system, established values, civil and media freedoms is more visible, but the question remains whether solidarity, forgotten in the past time of crises and common liberating resistance, is simultaneously reinforced. 'Each organism is a transmission medium for information',4 each is part of the system, each connected to the next in a chain, and thus the success of overcoming the crisis depends on all of them individually, while the risk is collective. In contrast to subjectivism, collectivism should be in force, not based on material interest or political demagoguery, but on the epidemiological view of society, which we should maintain after the pandemic as a common value.
Europe is not an island lost in space
Unfortunately, Europe, as well as other parts of the world, did not pay attention to the many signs which nature gave us with the previous epidemics of SARS, MERS and Ebola or with last year's fires in Australia. While plague and cholera epidemics have long been forgotten, locked in archives and libraries, in most countries infectiology has reached the margins of health systems as an archaic field. We naively expected that the abuse of nature would pass without consequences. Global warming, extreme air and water pollution, deforestation, destruction of flora and fauna have become our everyday life, all to facilitate enriching the neoliberal market while strengthening deep socio-economic problems, the stratification of population, hypocrisy and huge injustice. Do we know how many Rwandans were killed between April and July 1994? 'That news could only be found in some corners of the world's newspaper columns'5 and it was in fact a genocide that occurred as a result of colonial, national class policies and exploitation to which the UN did not react adequately. What will the situation with the pandemic be like in Africa? According to Noam Chomsky6, 'the Corona virus will make us think about what kind of world we want' while the struggle for capital leads not only to new threats, a new virus, social stratification, but also a nuclear war and global warming.
The new situation imposes recontextualisation and critical deconstruction of basic issues such as European identity today. What is the mainstream policy of the European Union, what are the centres of power – whether it is the Germany-France axis as popularly stated – and who are now the negative disobedient others? Is it Eastern Europe, the enemy from the time of the Cold War and Soviet influence, or Southern Europe that increasingly no longer adheres to the rules of the neoliberal world and lives overly relaxed, or perhaps the Balkans with all its retrograde stereotypes and fragmentation? 'Despite political sociologists such as Ulrich Beck and Edgar Grande arguing that European identity should be defined upon the richness of coexistence of different cultures and hence a cosmopolitan social structure, many views on the subject focused mainly on the white racial and Christian characteristics', as stated in the text by Nurgul Beker7, with a traditionally drawn borderline separating that other world in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. 'Moreover, prominent politicians claimed that Islam had no place in Europe and that Europe historically had Christian characteristics.'8 Is the Balkans in the European tradition, due to its historical diversity and coherence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish culture, as well as its specific crossroads of the East and West, North and South, 'perceived as savage, barbaric, negative, backward, primitive, retarded in every sense' (Luketić 2013: 20)9? Also, what about the ancient Mediterranean culture of North Africa and Asia Minor, do they belong to the European cultural space or are they there only when we need archaeological evidence of the Europe's ancient development of civilisation? What about the European colonies, do they exist only outside the borders of Europe or inside it too? Who is whose colony? Maybe, after all, there are no answers to all these questions because 'no one in Europe knows the borders of Europe, no one knows where its centre is,' as the writer Dževad Karahasan10 states. Likewise, Europe is not an island lost in space, it builds its identity through global intercontinental relations.
Stories and spaces in between
As the identities of space are mainly formed in differences, opposites and the traps of possible dichotomies, such as centre and periphery, development and backwardness, culture and barbarism, so does the new ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) project face rising challenges when it comes to critical analysis of the current situation. How can a project that examines the status quo and the European identity today be conceived without the less visible, marginalised geopolitical and cultural spaces being taken into consideration? How important is it to explore stories and spaces in between, the semi-peripheries, the peripheries and the meeting places of diversity, when it comes to both methodology and media, content and space? 'By the term semi-periphery, first of all I refer to the former communist countries that were relatively industrialised and that have completed or are still going through the transition,' states Marina Blagojević11. In a certain sense, the introduction of this term creates a distinction from Third World countries. Namely, semi-peripheries are places between the centre and the periphery, places on the margins, neglected in many theoretical discussions, as well as in the exhibition practice of large international exhibitions12. In the formal sense, it is a kind of disorder that is a consequence of constant changes, of the strategies that are in almost constant instability and transition, in the process of shifting and on the path to achieving a problematic goal. Moreover, these are open structures that enable a simultaneous coexistence of different elements, both social and artistic, architectural and cultural.
Europe today is still dealing with the consequences of key situations in its recent history – the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the moment Europe was uniting and Toto Cutugno singing 'Insieme: 1992' at the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb, while Yugoslavia was falling apart in the brutal wars of the 1990s. These events were followed by the fragmentation of the map of Eastern Europe, a difficult and long-lasting transitional change of social orders and systems which became a burden to generations of its residents. The question of the importance of universal and personal stories of artists about their own attitudes towards changing social movements and current social and political narratives, visible in contemporary art practice, was raised.
During the 1990s, the break-up of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was marked by regression in every sense – a series of civil wars, militarisation of the state and society, nationalism, genocide, migration, international sanctions, hyperinflation, economic poverty and aerial bombing. These were accompanied by increased retraditionalisation, repatriarchisation and clericalisation of society based on the establishment of ethnonationalist ideology and war policies, which stopped and reversed much-needed democratic and emancipatory social trends.
In the centre of these events was Sarajevo, the heart of the former Yugoslavia, the multi-ethnic capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a city considered to be the Jerusalem of the Balkans. A city that was a symbol of the Eastern sin, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, European and global conflict, became a victim of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and nationalist politics in the 1990s. After almost four years of siege, incessant armed activities of Serbian forces, huge human and material losses, today it is administratively divided, economically and politically destabilised, rife with accumulated pain and traumas that are little talked about and that remain trapped in oblivion, in untold stories with no end, in the feeling of emptiness, injustice and uncertainty about what the future brings.
Intersecting different views here and now
The new co-creative project under the name EVROVIZION.CROSSING STORIES AND SPACES critically explores the current socio-political situation in Europe through the prism of various views and opinions, focusing its research on problematic topics and relationships such as the rise of racism, nationalism, autocracy and dictatorship, gender issues, minority rights, the refugee crisis, neo-colonialism, wars, borders, neo-liberal capitalism and environmental abuse.
The very title EVROVIZION is a construct of similar and yet different language forms – Eurovisione, Evrovizija, Евровизия...: a fusion of possible units, a free version of potential togetherness. The project title does not only imply the traditional Eurovision Song Contest, one of the mainstream symbols of European cultural identity and a place for the joint presentation of the participating states. It also refers to history (EVROPA, Εὐρώπη) and the creation of future views and objectives (VIZION, Vision).
The necessity to inspect the present moment by intersecting different views into the project is emphasised by the inclusion of curators and artists outside the German cultural space, from the so-called marginal concepts of Europe, as well as by the choice of specific presentation locations for this modular exhibition’s perennial tour. The selection of the Southeast / Eastern European region therefore has a significant role in exhibiting the interdisciplinary, cross-media and process-oriented studies of contemporary art practice. The exhibition structure will strive to observe the project concept with its open and permanently fluid form that develops and changes, and constantly expands through fresh local perspectives, all the way to the tour finale in Germany, where perhaps a different Europe will be presented instead of the usual representative array.