Internal Contradictions of Contemporary Independence and the Cultural Logic of the Latest Capitalism

jelena
Removed from the Crowd: Dissociative Association – Associations outside the programmatic collectivities in the art of the1960s and 1970s in the Socialist Republic of Croatia, discussion on Independence and Collectivity curated by Institute for Duration, Location and Variables (DeLVe) as the part of the exhibition Political Practices of Post-Yugoslav Art, Retrospective 01, Museum of History of Yugoslavia, November 2009. Photo: Vladimir Jeric

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 journal appropriates the well-known spatial metaphor to name the turbulent cultural layer where such escape is contemplated and practiced (with varying degrees of success) over the last two decades—the “layer of our contemporary art and cultural world [operating] in-between grassroots and institutionalized practices.”1 The journal inquires different (tactical) potentialities of the different actors of “Mezosfera” and presents turbulent movements in this tiny social layer pressed from bellow and above—by the desires of grassroots cultural-political activism and by the requests of mega-art-institutions reinforced by private capital. Under this shifting shape of being, mezosfera operates “between subversion and complicity, between critique and acceptance.”2 The journal gathers together considerable insights that summarize the long-lasting contemplations taking place in this ever growing layer of critical cultural practices, in order to make possible small but significant departures from the apparent unbearable lightness of the market flow and the restlessly fast metabolism of the contemporary cultural industries.

The writers of this issue delineate ideological analysis of the present historical moment and think about the other potentialities and alternatives. We live in the culture of competitive opportunism—yes, true, but can we think of a radical form or use of such conditions (Kuba Szreder and Vlad Morariu);3 we speak about contemporary proliferation of theory—yes, but can we think of a theory that has a real body and real life, that walks together with those who protest against passive maintenance of existing hierarchies (Ana Vujanović);4 we name our times as the era of knowledge production—yes, but can we turn this production towards the what Nora Sternfeld calls unlearning,5 towards resisting the “epistemic violence” produced by institutions of power; can we institute these new forms of knowledge through the creation of what Jan Sowa calls undisciplined unacademic zones?6 While reading the Mezosfera journal, but also on several other occasions, I have pondered on the internal contradictions of contemporary independence, thinking through the concrete circumstances of post-Yugoslav and (Eastern) European cultural spaces and placing the phenomena in a wider historical and production-focused perspective.

The ongoing speculations on new organizational models and tactical forms of para-institutional action are part of the broader social questioning unfolding under the theme of self-organization—a theme which has acquired a wide currency in contemporary international art circles. The magical words independence and self-organization are have been gaining their momentum in the last two decades. In the time of network cultures and in the wake of the absorption of institutional critique, critical art practitioners have often talked about producing new culture through cooperation and sharing, through platforms and networks, through working outside of “isolated” and “traditional” state-run institutions as well as their representative and repressive socio-political functions. Focus on the internal contradictions of contemporary independence (shared by the contributors in the second issue of Mezosfera) actually problematize these proliferating declarations of the value of self-organization, coming from an ever-increasing number of (so-called) “independent” cultural actors, regardless of their actual material ties to institutions of culture and of governance.

In the global post-socialist context, the very idea of an independent cultural scene triggers numerous kinds of uneasiness in an ideological and economic sense. Some are implied by the very name—e.g., independent— but a lot of this uneasiness stems from the ongoing discrepancies between the nominal and actual positioning in the wider space of culture, between the statement and the practice, the content and the form.

How has the cultural layer of the “mezosfera” come into being?

The cultural systems of the countries of the former East (as well as those of the former West) have undergone retrograde processes of the renationalization of culture over the previous decades, on the one hand, and the introduction of market principles, on the other. These processes of the atomization and disappearance of the socialist-modernist public sphere were followed by the processes of the atomization of labor-communities in the state institutions of culture and the ever-growing numbers of free actors without permanent employment. Such tendencies are becoming intensified, especially in the geopolitical space of Eastern Europe, with the establishment of “democratic” post-socialist regimes and their “transitionalist” economic and social restructuring. This restructuring meant a gentle request for institutions to enter the market and become self-sustainable. The contemporary post-socialist institutions had to accept, whether they wanted to or not, the idea of self-sustainability, which in practice often meant accepting this or that model of public-private partnership or, in a more dramatic shift, accepting the full and complete privatization of the former public sphere. Institutions that previously were, in their funding and mission, wholly public are falling into a schism of “double standards.” On the one hand, maintaining a tight connection with the state produces the pressure to perform in terms of national cultural programs. On the other hand, their increasingly liberalized or flexible relations with the state necessarily produce another kind of “institution”—the institution of self-organized individuals and professional teams.

The contemporary field of culture and education—especially in the sphere of so-called content production—is mainly inhabited by “independent” and often individual actors who are expected to be invested in (economical) self-reinvention, meaning either their “reinvention” by positioning in the field of cultural industries, or by entering the system of project management (projectization in the context of EU, or the “culture of opportunism” as the new mode of production of art and knowledge characteristic of the era of contemporaneity). The professionalization of independence in the East of Europe as a part of post-socialist “transitionalism” is the political-administrative reflex of the processes of European integration in the field of culture, financially tied to the corporate “safety valves” for social responsibility.

In contemporary event culture—to which the practice of “independence” perfectly fits—the very notion of institution and its firmness, power, and durability changes, as the contemporary forms are always temporary, including (con)temporary institutionalism. The majority of cultural workers active today are “compelled” to act as alternative cultural scene, as so-called independent initiatives.7 Self-organization and independence today assumes growingly flexible and precarious working conditions as well as mobile and adaptable forms of cognitive and body survivalism, not so distant from the Darwinist representation of the natural world in which only the fittest survive.

The contemporary free actors—whose freedom is of course very much conditional—still tend to ground their position of relative independence through dis-identification with national state institutions, but also with the contemporary expert culture and corporatization of the art institutions of public good.8 At the same time, some of these independent cultural actors, especially those who are continuing the historical project of (neo)avant-gardes, are restoring the interest in the artistic working process and the political economy of art, re-thematizing cultural labor and working practices and creating new spaces that express the tendency to be more public, more democratic, and more collectivist.

The transition from “really existing socialism” to liberal democracy and free-market economy (“really existing capitalism”) can also be seen as the ultimate victory of self-organization and (oppressive) self-care. It is a transition from “childish immaturity” to a “full maturity” in taking the sole responsibility for one’s own beliefs and actions, life and work. Achieving such “full maturity” in the contemporary era means becoming a truly entrepreneurial individual: marketing oneself, being at the same time one’s own labor-force and employer, being simultaneously one’s financial and PR manager, not finding but rather creating jobs, “self-organizing” one’s healthcare and retirement plan, and many other things—in short, acting as a “funky businessman in karaoke capitalism.”9

In such context, the apparent political confinement of artistic and theoretical projects by a new generation of self-organized, “independent” cultural workers is a consequence of the (extreme) reformist background in which they exist and/or perform. On the one hand, cultural workers’ tendency to self-organize can be read as the process of genuine construction of micro-spaces or micro-fields of better and more just communities. On the other hand, they are firmly tied with the system of project-based art—a frontline in a battle, most vulnerable to attacks of the “market in disguise.” However, despite the objective circumstances (the theme of many texts in the second issue of Mezosfera and many other “sister-research”), the main question is: who is the subject of independence, and even more importantly, what does the subject of independence do?

In other words, practices of self-organization and independence cannot be thought of in terms of politics per se, or merely as a direct opposition to some dominant institutionalism. Quite the contrary—to paraphrase Godard’s frequently cited “making art politically rather than political art”—it is necessary to think self-organization politically. Only in this case we may independently question and politically reinvent our participation in the production of culture through self-organized initiatives, independent social networks, and temporary collectives.

A contribution to issue #3 Back to Basics. Responses to the Issue Inside the Mezosfera.

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Parts of this text are based on my previous research of the topics of Independence and Self-organization published in longer essays and case studies such as:

“SKC as the Site of Performative (Self) Production: Oktobar 75 – Institution, Self-Organization, First Person Speech, Collectivization,” Život Umjetnosti No 91, Zagreb, 2012.

“’Administration of the Aesthetics’ or On Undercurrents of Negotiating Artistic Jobs – Between Love and Money, Between Money and Love,” Frakcija #68/69, Thematic issue: Art&Money, Zagreb (ed. Blok), 2014.

“Post-research Notes: (Re)Search for the True Self-Managed Art,” in Curating Research (Occasional Table), eds. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, London: Open Editions, Amsterdam: de Appel, 2014.

“Persistence of Independent Culture on the East and Internal Contradictions of Contemporary Independence, Open Calls 2011-2016, Salonul de proiecte, Bucharest, 2016.

 

About the author:

Jelena Vesić is an independent curator, writer, editor, and lecturer. She holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary studies from the University of Arts, Belgrade and currently is a researcher and Goethe Institute fellow at Haus der Kunst Munich, working on the topic “Postcolonial: 1955-1980.” She was co-editor of Prelom—Journal of Images and Politics (2001–2010) and co-founder of the independent organization Prelom Kolektiv. Active in the field of publishing, research and exhibition practice that intertwines political theory and contemporary art, she is also co-editor of Red Thread journal and a member of editorial board of Art Margins.

 

Notes

  1. Nikolett Erőss, Eszter Szakács, ”Future Scenarios Now, Mezosfera 2 (2016),http://mezosfera.org/mezosfera-future-scenarios-now/.
  2. As Vlad Morariu rightly diagnostifies the present state of affairs. See: Vlad Morariu, “The ‘Independent’ Condition. Perspectives on Eastern Europe’s Cultural Sector,” Mezosfera 2 (2016), http://mezosfera.org/the-independent-condition/.
  3. Jakub Szreder, Politicising ‘independent’ curatorial practice under neoliberalism: critical responses to the structural pressures of project-making (PhD thesis), Loughborough University, 2015, 76–77, available at: https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/dspace-jspui/handle/2134/18484; See: http://mezosfera.org/the-independent-condition/
  4. See: Ana Vujanović, “Walking Theory,” Mezosfera 2 (2016), http://mezosfera.org/walking-theory/
  5. See: Nora Sternfeld, “Shaking the Status Quo. Note on Unlearning,” Mezosfera 2 (2016), http://mezosfera.org/shaking-the-status-quo/#fnref-8113394-10.
  6. See: Jan Sowa, “Undisciplined Unacademic Zone,” Mezosfera 2 (2016), http://mezosfera.org/undisciplined-unacademic-zone/.
  7. For example, the network of independent initiatives Druga scena in Belgrade or Clubture Network for self-sustainability of independent initiatives in Croatia, http://www.clubture.org
  8. This is usually the protest against traditional professionalized division of labor and hierarchical structures of production—the system according to which everything is pre-set according to the logic of capital: an artist performs his work as an initial potential value; a curator, art historian, or critic increases the value through the elaboration of contents as well as through exhibiting and through presence in the space of evaluation; finally, the work is purchased by the museum, while its price, or “value,” or compensation, in this case, is the sum of all the values of the collective work which participates in this process.
  9. See: Prelom Kolektiv, “The Neoliberal Institution of Culture and the Critique of Culturalization”, Transversal 11, EIPCP (2007), http://eipcp.net/transversal/0208/prelom/en. (Together with my colleagues from the Prelom kolektiv (leftist theoretical-political journal and collective, self-abolished in 2010), we were facing the same urge of self-questioning in long community debates concerning all the problems lying on the path of the politically dedicated collective, tactically using “independent culture” in the harsh “oportunistic environment” and the project based existance).

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