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.1 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.
Hope in this case means an almost hazardous adventure, namely that the actors of the mezosfera—that is, a fluid zone of unconventional structures or contexts—operate as if they are not simply consequences of present adversities but have a strong orientation towards a collectively envisioned future. This kind of hope had already become particularly significant for those of us in Hungary by the time our first ideas for a new online cultural magazine were emerging. The leading political forces, putting the “defense” of Hungary (primarily against “migrants” at this time) as the focal point of their governmental agenda, started to centralize state infrastructures with such intensity that the space for alternative thoughts and action has been severely narrowed. The initial feeling of powerlessness and disillusionment, however, has slowly given place to more future- and practice-oriented approaches. Although these strategies are closely intertwined with criticality and protest culture, they also put forward proactivity, grassroots operation, and a double engagement with practical work and utopian thinking in order to avoid becoming bound to the phenomena they are against.
While our point of departure was the current socio-political context of Hungary, it was evident that similar responses to authoritarian tendencies are present almost everywhere. An important aim of the magazine as a whole is to connect to and with initiations that prioritize various forms of independent—or more precisely, interdependent—operation that are strongly committed to local issues, yet also generate an international network of possible solidarities and juncture points. As a horizontal network more attentive to density than to growth, it puts forth a discursive space to envision cultural and social practices that are capable of raising and amplifying issues that remain outside of the scope of traditional art institutions.
In editing this thematic issue, which has taken on the interpretive exercise of delineating what the mezosfera comprises, we set out with the working methodology of a glossary. We collected terms that we felt addressed important aspects of the mezosfera: degrowth, deschooling, local engagement, independence, resistance, transnationality, or unlearning. What we were especially interested in was the manifestation of these concepts in practice. We thus invited contributors, mostly from a Central-Eastern European context, whose ongoing activities could relate to these notions. While looking at these concepts—and through these, at the mezosfera as well—we also became aware of their temporality, structural fluidity, and fragmentary character. Therefore, this collection of terms and the issue as such do not attempt to present an encyclopedic view.
Mezosfera is deeply engaged with antagonisms and contradictions. It is an ideal space to think about in-betweenness, a position of an intermediary, of concurrently being inside and outside. We argue for working out sustainable modi operandi, or even models, in a rapidly shifting environment, while also being aware of its difficulties, ephemerality, and its many discrepancies. At the same time, it seems perhaps that the visionary character of the work in the mezosfera lays more in the theoretical reasoning around it rather than its actual, practical manifestation. That is, as it is often times the case, it is a lot harder to develop a truly radical form in practice than to be radical in writing about it. This might also be due to the fact that, in a heavily altered or regulated context, what might otherwise be considered to be “normal” work or “business as usual” can only be achieved or carried out in radical, even illegal forms, with particularly laborious work that frequently runs on enthusiasm. The question, however, remains: can we step out of our own shadows? Can we imagine, and start, future scenarios now that constitute a rupture and a different path than the continuation of the present?
The authors in this issue address several contradictions inherent in the mezosfera. Vlad Morariu, while looking at the manifold meaning and significance of being independent over time in an Eastern European context, he underscores the impossibility of structural independence either from state apparatuses or neoliberal capitalism. The various forms of dependencies and a desire for a critical modus operandi, thus, holds a tension that necessitates a continuous self-reflection of the positions the initiators take. Such considerations include the notion of “radical opportunism,” the tactical use of hegemonic institutions, that Morariu advocates, and “opportunistic engagement,” the addressing of issues through a wide spectrum of collaborations that Jan Sowa formulated. Expanding furthermore on the concept of the “undisciplined unacamedic zone,” Sowa in his text likewise underlines that there is no outside of existing structures, that any opposition can only be “mounted from within,” which also entails that, finding one’s own position in relation to the establishment also amounts to a series of inevitable political and ethical questions. These nevertheless, as both authors demonstrate, do not preclude the possibility of meaningful work within this setting.
In her text, Ana Vujanović delineates and argues for the performative and embodied practice of “walking theory.” Differentiating it from the traditional conception of theory that is distant from, and profess to be “objective” about, the field it examines, she sees the potentialities of walking theory in its direct and deep involvement with its immediate socio-political context. Vujanović likewise underlines walking theory’s contextual contradictions: the difficulties of extrapolating locally-embedded practices and discourses to other contexts where the experiences from which it emerges are not shared. The mezosfera is equally challenged by the possibility of mediating pressing social issues and the limits arising from their context based-character. Vujanović, however, also stresses that due to walking theory’s particularities, it cannot be easily decontextualized, commodified, or universalized as traditional theories tend to be in cognitive capitalism.
Inside, outside, or in relation to the current establishment and institutional system, actors of the mezosfera intend to do something different and in a different way; still, it does not necessarily mean countering the institutions. Indeed, it would be hard to do so, as most of the participants of the mezosfera have or have had an institutional background and consequently owe much to these structures although they have also gained motivations to leave them behind. Mezosfera, therefore, is more than institutional critique. Nora Sternfeld in her text—exposing (un)learning via the Israeli artist collective Public Movement’s two political art performances, more precisely two dance interventions of an Israeli and an Arabic folk circle dance—also highlights that initiatives in the mezosfera are “para-institutional:” they do more than just direct refusal or theoretical subversion. She calls for practices that both inhibit existing infrastructures, while at the same time also question their premises and normative meanings—from within. That is, it is not only criticizing from a distance, but also envisioning new kinds of strategies precisely by doing them otherwise. It is from this perspective that civil-activist initiations such as Budapest’s Living Memorial are important for us. Even though the Living Memorial started as a protest action and flash mob, in the last two years it has transformed itself into a self-sustaining platform. The group, instead of only criticizing or negotiating with authorities, aims to build up something new that is based on re-thinking how social relations can be formed. Therefore, as Lóránt Bódi in this issue also points out in connection to the memory-historical and aesthetic turn within Holocaust representation, the Living Memorial, in a way, is also unlearning the hegemonic, authoritarian forms of remembering.
Even though we are constantly in the midst of trying to define and understand our work in what appears to be an unbounded yet substantial zone, the fluid practices of the mezosfera resist taxonomical order, disciplinary boundaries, and methodological analyses. It is perhaps not by chance that theory walks and (un)learning dances; the capacity of moving is indicative of the activities in the mezosfera. In this sense, shape-shifting, mobility, as well as temporary and precarious formats emerge both out of an emergency—when safety structures melt away or back-breaking walls arise—as well as a need to cut open and push ourselves through emergency exits: into a new start.
Undisciplined Unacademic Zone / Jan Sowa
Walking Theory / Ana Vujanović
Shaking the Status Quo / Nora Sternfeld
About the editors
Nikolett Erőss is a curator based in Budapest. Following her work at the Trafó Gallery, Budapest and the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, she is currently a freelancer, a founding member of the curatorial team of the OFF-Biennale, Budapest and a at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. She is a co-editor of Mezosfera.
Eszter Szakács is a curator at tranzit.hu, Budapest, where, among others, she has been the curator-editor since 2012 of the ongoing collaborative research project Curatorial Dictionary. Previously she was a guest lecturer at the Art Theory and Curatorial Studies Department at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts (2013–2016) and an assistant curator at the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest (2008–2010). She is a co-editor of Mezosfera.
Issue preview photo: The Montreal Biosphere by Buckminster Fuller, 1967. Photo: Ryan Mallard. Source: http://www.spatialagency.net/
- We would like to thank Maja and Reuben Fowkes for sharing this interpretation of the mesosphere with us. ↩