The Question of Epistemic Materialism I identify my general philosophical approach with the name of epistemic materialism.1 I simply intend thus to join the cultural workers around the world for whom the questions of knowledge and expression, of the conditions of learning and imparting, […]
“Issue” is a thematic column, appearing four times a year, which is compiled each time by a guest editor. Our guest editors are invited to collaborate with authors from different countries, regions, and backgrounds to discuss issues that are relevant and urgent within the cultural field of Eastern Europe.
The burgeoning crisis of populist nationalism and trade protectionism within Western societies now point to the threshold of liberalism in a global context. The underlying teleological principle of modern liberal democracy coupled with economic liberalism that is supposed to gain universal application seems to be […]
Maja and Reuben Fowkes are art historians and curators, the founders of Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art, a center for transnational research into East European art and ecology that operates across the disciplinary boundaries of art history, contemporary art, and ecological thought. Their work focuses […]
SPARCK (Space for Pan-African Research, Creation, and Knowledge), founded in 2008, is a program of experimental multi-disciplinary arts residencies, workshops, symposia, exhibitions, publications, and performances centered on innovative, ethically driven approaches to urban space. SPARCK is run by a two-woman, activist-artist-writer-scholar team: Kadiatou Diallo, a Cape […]
Red Conceptualismos del Sur (RedCSur), established in 2007, is a self-organized, grassroots network of about 50 researchers and artists in Latin America and in parts of North America and Europe. In the last ten years, RedCSur has been breaking ground both in the thematics they […]
Asia Art Archive is an international archive and research center based in Hong Kong. Asia Art Archive also produces exhibitions and publications in collaboration. By making unknown art historical materials—connected to artists works and activities, as well as sources about art events—accessible online, Asia Art […]
Taking the thematic issue Inside the Mezosfera (published in September 2016) as a point of departure, we have invited contributors to reflect on the themes that the preceding issue’s essays bring forward—including unlearning, independence, “unacademia, resistance, or walking theory”—as well as a concept of the mezosfera we have proposed. An overarching theme that has emerged in the texts are the contradictions and complexities of the state of independence, underlining the near omnipresence of the fragile, conflictual, and in-flux positions art and cultural workers assume.
Reading the inspiring essays of issue #2 made me further reflect on what has been a longstanding preoccupation of mine, namely, the relationship between the arts/cultural production and the state, or, more specifically, between the mezosfera and the state. It seems to me that the question of how to dis/engage the state (and how to theorize this dis/engagement) is a crucial one for the cultural producers inhabiting the mesosphere. I will immediately lay bare my own stand: disengagement can only be a tactical one, a move within a complex war of position, and no long-term option.
The Mezosfera journal in its second issue invited us to think the “future scenarios now.” At first glance such an invitation may resemble the contemporary dictum future is now that forefronts the brutal forces of speculative capitalism, the financial-info economy and social consumption in the latest capitalism. However, the urgent mobilization of future scenarios here obviously means something else. It means to think the future beyond the notions of projection and postponing typical of the modernist-utopianist teleology of history and time, but it also means escaping the vicious circle of self-sufficient present-ism and now-ism of the contemporary experience regime, obsessed with the consumption of the present moment, with a momentariness of now. Mezosfera dares to claim that such “double escape” is possible.
The second issue of Mezosfera takes as a starting point a poetically written introduction. The editors Nikolett Erőss and Eszter Szakács write with spatial awareness incorporated in their metaphors, helping the reader “see” the “space” they want us to read from—or in. The spaces that are generated in our mind's eye are defined by conditions that seem to apply to much of Europe today—an increasingly regulated context. They point out that “it is a lot harder to develop a truly radical form in practice than to be radical in writing about it.” The editors thus also highlight the conflict expressed between practice and theory (which came into full force in the context of art with the advent of Postmodernism in the 1970s and thereafter), and the authors of the issue respond with texts that discuss what I would like to call professional social practices.
Actually it is in the stratosphere where we are mostly working. We are privileged enough to get a bird’s-eye view, one which most people don’t have access to, burdened as they are with watching their steps, but we are constantly threatened to either be hit by a plane or to fall down with a speed that leaves us hallucinating, in both cases losing our stability and composure. Sometimes we get close to the chilling mesosphere. We get a glimpse of blue lightning and become fascinated by the solitude of these upper realms. We wonder what it would be like to explore this stratum more, which seems to consist of beginnings and ends, where meteors burn and auroras emerge. It is a brief glimpse though, as scientific research has had its funding cut in our post-socialist countries after its token role in the Cold War was over; therefore, no one knows how to build the special costumes for this kind of exploration.
The Greek prefix mesos, meaning intermediate or position in the middle, is representative of Ukraine today—a situation in flux—and also in line with other post-Soviet or post-socialist countries. It is worthwhile thinking about and responding to the repurposed notion of mesosphere put forward by the editors of the issue. Mesosphere, in a way, likewise articulates the socio-political, economic, and cultural conditions of these countries in transition that, since 1989–1991, have started to re-establish their identity.
In the Earth’s atmosphere, the mesosphere is the layer between the stratosphere, where the airplanes travel, and the thermosphere, where the spaceships fly. It is thus the strata that is the least impacted by human activity, and one which we like to think of as carrying hope. Taking this layer of the Earth’s atmosphere as a metaphorical point of departure, the magazine Mezosfera—with a fictitious “pan-Eastern European spelling”—sets out to look at, connect, and engage initiatives that can be conceived as working in the middle ground, in the mezosfera layer of our contemporary art and cultural world, in-between grassroots and institutionalized practices.
It would be difficult to identify, within the post-1989 Eastern European landscape, another realm that has undergone an equally intense labor of dispossession and resistance, of redefinition and reconceptualization, than the realm of the “public:” the state and state assets, public life, public institutions, and the public space. There is hardly anything, at the same time, that challenged the public heritage of the socialist state more than the neoliberal understanding of the primacy of the “free,” “unconstrained,” private initiative.
Having recently had some time to indulge in guilty pleasures, I watched through four seasons of the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series, originally aired between 2001 and 2005. I enjoyed the show more than one might expect; nevertheless, I could not guarantee the same would hold true for someone who does not have a soft spot for science fiction. What is unquestionably interesting, however, for anyone trying to understand the dominating symbolic order we are all submerged in is an ideological reading of the series. Seen through the lenses of ideology critique, it turns out not to be about the future at all.
My interest in “walking theory” initially came from an education in art and humanities, which taught us that art was an intimate activity of the artist-genius who creates directly from his guts, while theory was an abstract speculation, which, if you let it come closer, can castrate artistic freedom. Paradoxically, all this was promoted in Belgrade in the 1990s, in the context of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, the international sanctions, the regime of Slobodan Milošević, and the transition from socialism to capitalism.
It is difficult to imagine unlearning. One thing that stands in our way is our initial understanding of the word. Is it even possible to simply leave dominant knowledge behind? My immediate answer is “no,” for two reasons. First, there is no way back. There is no path that leads us to a time or place before the history of relations of power and violence that are responsible for what we know today. Secondly, unlearning is not an easy task. For these reasons, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at how it is discussed in postcolonial theory.
For East-Central European countries emerging out of the period of state socialism, it was only after 1989 that the civic sphere and civil society could make themselves felt as constructive elements of democracy. An agent of the development of the democratic order, civil society represents a significant force in opposition to political power, for instance in its capacity to thematize sensitive social questions, form public opinion, assert values, and keep the government in check.