On East European Art: Positions We Can Stand Behind and Speak From

Interview with Maja and Reuben Fowkes from Translocal Institute

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 on the art production from the socialist era to contemporary artistic responses to the transformations brought on by globalization. Maja Fowkes completed her PhD at University College London, and is the author of The Green Bloc: Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism. Reuben Fowkes’s thesis at the Essex University was on socialist realist public monuments in postwar Eastern Europe. In 2010, their collaborative practice was recognized with a grant from the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory. They are currently based between London and Budapest.

The Translocal Institute, Vegetal Mediations Book Salon, 2017
The Translocal Institute, Vegetal Mediations Book Salon, 2017

Zsuzsa László: In the transnational positioning of our regionally committed but international practice, we propose to revisit Hungary’s former, now forgotten “friendship” with “Third World” countries. What relevance do you think the legacy of the region’s participation in anti-imperialist movements might have today from your point of view?

Reuben Fowkes: If we look at monumental sculpture for example, it is noticeable that statues of Third World revolutionary leaders were not immediately targeted during the period of the system change in 1989, suggesting that initially people were relatively neutral towards socialist internationalism and much less hostile than they were towards mainstream communist ideology. There has though been a more recent wave of renaming of streets and removal of plaques and monuments that date back to the communist era and which attempt to show solidarity with post-colonial struggles.

Maja Fowkes: There have been a lot of attempts recently to reassess the legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement that was founded in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, both from art historians and artists, such as Milica Tomić and Jasmina Cibic. It is one of the legacies of socialism that are considered worth recovering.

Jasmina Cibic, Spielraum: Tear Down and Rebuild (2015), production still, single channel HD video, stereo, 15 min 28 sec
Jasmina Cibic, Spielraum: Tear Down and Rebuild (2015), production still, single channel HD video

ZsL: It seems that just as Third World figures and themes are being erased from public space, they are becoming crucial references in the globalized art world.

MF: In a way, it relates to the empowerment of local and regional art scenes. There was a tendency in the first post-communist decade for East European Art scenes to respond primarily to the West, while second decade was dominated by looking introspectively at everyone’s local art histories. However, as soon as sufficient work had been done on local art histories, and the narratives were more settled, regional art centers and projects started to look beyond their own spheres. Meanwhile, the West has also been regionalized. This transnational expansion is not only happening in East European but in other regions as well.

One year ago, we were at the College Art Association’s annual conference in Washington, and there was just one panel on East European art, but there were two panels discussing socialism in global terms. Some of these discussed socialism through case studies such as socialist realist monuments sent from North Korea to African countries. We tend to think that the legacy of socialism very much belongs to us in Eastern Europe.

RF: There are two aspects here, on the one hand, there are stronger regional approaches comparing parallel regional histories of socialism, on the other, thinking about socialist internationalism more generally is becoming a distinct field of research.

ZsLDo you think that East-European Art as such can be reinvented in a similar way that other, emerging regional art platforms, such as the Asian Art  aspires to do so? Can it be discussed with the same methodology on similar platforms? Or is it only market logic behind regional art branding?

MF: We don’t think that the market plays a significant role in defining East European art, and if it does, it might seem like hijacking it. A few years ago we would have definitely argued that East European Art is an empowering, emancipatory concept. The post ‘89 generation, to which we belong, could use this discourse as something we all have in common, despite all the differences. A position we can stand behind and speak from. If you speak about Hungarian art with others representing, for instance  Asian art, it’s not really a strong position, but if you speak from a regional perspective—and there are a lot of other reasons to do so—you can make a much more relevant statement. However, some art historians who were active during actually existing socialism are not so happy to embrace this concept, and I understand it fully. I understand why they prefer the notion of Central European art to East European art. On the basis of our recent research on the topic of East European art history, it seems that as soon as there’s a danger that certain countries would lose independence and democratic standards, and go back to the so called Eastern Bloc, the idea of East European art is also rejected.

RF: Before the changes in 1989, Eastern Europe was rather a geopolitical reality and artists were more concerned with universal themes. So it’s only after ‘89 that people started to explore and negotiate actively and internationally what East European art is. Partly as a response to the interest of the West, there was more willingness to explore the idea of East Europeanness, even if there were debates whether it was the “other” of the West, and so on, but during the 1990s it was a central theme. There is East European art as a creative, liberated, existential territory, which arrived as a concept after Eastern Europe as a geopolitical reality ceased to exist. And it shifted again, and now the question is where we stand today. In the last few years, as we wrote about it in our article in Art Monthly “the return of East European,”[1] the notion of East European is coming back in a biopolitical way, rather than geopolitically. There’s a returning feeling that there are divisions in Europe, in connection with what’s happening in Ukraine, and the threats to the Baltic, with the fear that things are going back.

MF: In a sense, East European art can only exist in a liberated condition when it cannot be associated with exclusion or the threat of losing independence and democracy. When East European as a geopolitical concept is reinvading the region, the concept of East European art cannot function properly. In Poland people told us that they don’t want to go back to Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria they are also not happy being East Europeans, they rather want to be Europeans.

ZsL: In your upcoming book on East European art, how could you define the territory of Eastern Europe?

MF: We decided not to start with the definition of the region, as there are so many books that start with such definitions, “Where is Eastern Europe?” And we hope by now it’s not so necessary always to start from geography and geopolitical categories, and the region has always been fluid after all. We also discussed what should be the title and finally we will have Central and East European Art, so it’s both, I think it works for most people. We decided to be pragmatic and go along the legacy of Piotr Piotrowski, focusing on so-called Eastern Bloc countries and Yugoslavia. Tamás Szentjóby’s Nuclear-free European Green East European Flux Zone,[2] which went from the Baltics to the Balkans, could also be an important reference. From former Soviet countries, we don’t include Russia, but we do look at the Baltic states, since artists from these countries have been generally represented in East European art exhibitions since the 1990s, as have Albanian artists, although Albania was not in the Eastern Bloc.

 

Tamás St. Auby (superintendent of IPUT), NEWNEEFLUGREEZ (Neutral Weaponfree Near East European Fluxus Green Zone), 1989/1999/2002
Tamás St. Auby (superintendent of IPUT), NEWNEEFLUGREEZ (Neutral Weaponfree Near East European Fluxus Green Zone), 1989/1999/2002. Source:  http://www.europe.culturebase.net/EUROPE_CULTUREBASE_N/CONTRIBUTION3F75.HTM?media=13

ZsL: Yugoslavia is an interesting question as it wasn’t part of the bloc, but exhibitions that wanted to look behind the Iron Curtain always integrated Yugoslav artists. At the same time, Yugoslav artists did not find it always evident or acceptable to participate in such shows as Eastern Europeans, like in the case of the exhibition Works and Words (De Appel, Amsterdam, 1979). Since in the seventies, there was still a utopian internationalism present among, say, conceptual artists; many took it as an offence if they were invited to participate in a geopolitically defined concept. Goran Djordjević called it, for instance, a “ghetto exhibition.”[3]

MF: Yes, but it tells us more about artistic strategies, and I guess half of the Hungarian artists would not like to be called Eastern Europeans either, but still use this category. Artists in Czechoslovakia also wanted the same universalism in the ‘70s. Later Goran Djordjević and Mladen Stilinović were exactly the artists who most played on the idea of “East Europeanness” in their art.

After World War II, artist unions, the academy, and the whole art system was reconfigured in Yugoslavia in the same way as in the rest of the region. Despite the Tito-Stalin split and the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia still belonged to the socialist world rather than the West. It was the communist party in power, it was one-party system. After 1989, all the advantages of the Yugoslav system were counterbalanced by the war. While the other countries of the region could develop and transit neatly in the post-communist economic system, Yugoslavia was held back by turmoil for ten years.

ZsL: Did you use specific criteria for your selection, such as which artists participated in exhibitions about East European art?

RF: Yes we looked at what exhibitions of the region have been organized, how the region has been approached in art historical accounts, both national and comparative, as well as how collections and museums have related to this region to define their focus. The point is that we are not inventing East European art, we are just historicizing it. We can historicize through exhibitions and research projects, like tranzit.hu’s art Always Has Its Consequences and all the similar initiatives.

ZsL: You are saying that there is a consensual canon on which the history of the art of this region can be written? Do you also face a difference between the global perspective of the big art institutions, like MoMA’s C-map project, the market logic behind private collections, and the choices they make, and the locally committed initiatives, which are based in and work with the region more closely and consistently?

MF: If a consensus is emerging, it is based on the negotiation of these various positions, with global institutions, collectors, curators, and art historians, as well as artists, all contributing to comparative accounts. We see it unconditionally a conversation between both global forces and local initiatives, as they are interdependent. We also considered these issues in the context of the Bookmarks exhibitions in an essay for Tate Papers.

ZsL: In this sense it is symptomatic that whereas the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest presents the Marinko Sudac Collection [4], the Kontakt Collection, which has a similar focus on East-European neo-avant-gardes, has just recently been presented in Zagreb in several small, off-site venues.

"My sweet little lamb (Everything we see could also be otherwise)" - a series of exhibitions based on the Kontakt Art Collection, sixth episode, 2017 Photo: Damir Žižic
“My sweet little lamb (Everything we see could also be otherwise)” – a series of exhibitions based on the Kontakt Art Collection, sixth episode, 2017. Photo: Damir Žižic  Source: http://www.erstestiftung.org/blog/my-sweet-little-lamb-6-interview/

R&MF:The Sudac exhibition in at the Ludwig Museum was a first chance for many to see the extent of this collection, it was a great source of information on some important works, even if without an overarching curatorial concept. The Kontakt collection was shown in Zagreb within the framework of a contemporary art project, while the selection of off-spaces interestingly reflected the trend set by the first OFF-Biennale in Budapest in 2015, and it might be interesting to compare the socio-political contexts of the two countries. In terms of curatorial approach My sweet little lamb (Everything we see could also be otherwise) was more eloquent, however in some respects the neo-avant-garde works in the Kontakt collection were subordinated to the whole framework of the exhibition display. In the case of the Sudac exhibition you might miss the context, while in the case of the presentation of the Kontakt collection, an external context dominates the reception of the works.

ZsL: On the level of the composition of collections it’s also astonishing that what Sudac has of Hungarian neo-avant-garde outweighs all state collections. He also calls his collection “Avantgard Museum” and runs— himself—a Research Institute.

R&MF: Sudac works in a very passionate and much quicker way than state institutions, without committees and fundraising, he reacts much quicker. But it’s a momentary phase. Many private collections like this end up in public museums after some time. It is a very raw, unprocessed compilation at the moment.

MF: About MoMA in New York, it is important that they do not initiate but respond to tendencies, and they are only started recently to catch up with what has been happening since 1989. They are not imposing something on others from the center, but rather respond to what’s happening. They were forced to reconsider their own canons. Of course, some had genuine interest in the region, but what is happening now with Tate, MoMA, and Pompidou, is that they just keep up with the art world at large, and adapt to global changes.

ZsL: Do you suggest that these big institutions in the centers of the art world are not writing canons, but just represent already written ones? But who writes them? You referred to a concept of canon in your lecture at the Invisible History of Exhibitions symposium we organized in 2009, saying that the canon is an empty structure and can be filled with interchangeable contents.[5] So, after the posing the question whether regional arts fit into this structure, we also have to ask if new or parallel structures are needed. And most importantly, to ask  where the change can come from: market players, academia, artists, and what role small but progressive initiatives can play?

MF: At the moment, it seems that art historians are unfortunately at the end of the list, and the whole non-profit scene is very fragile, and not adequately valued in comparison to the mechanisms of art fairs and galleries.

RF: When the dust settles, they will have to reconsider the canons, as what is established now, is not really accurate, but in time it has to settle. At the Contested Spheres conference we organized last year there was a big debate at the end, if there are outside (Western) and inside (local/East European) points of views.

MF: We insisted on speaking together rather than speaking between two poles. In this region a lot of movements are explained as being brought in a suitcase from another center. It has a long tradition to think about art history formed exclusively by such individual moves, because someone brought a catalogue, and this kind of thinking also needs to be deconstructed, as there are always a lot of other factors that played a role. Piotr Piotrowski wrote,[6] for instance, that Tadeusz Kantor came from Paris and brought informal in a suitcase, which proves to be very simplistic if you unpack it a bit. Today, in a globalized world, art historians are connected to a lot of different scenes and cannot be positioned in the old fashioned inside and outside axis. In the present situation all the concepts like self-colonialization have to be reconsidered.

ZsL: It’s true on the level of individuals, but if you look at institutions and the cultural capital of a certain scene, there are still harsh differences and it still happens that narratives about East European Art are written or at least are financed by Western institutions. Like in the case of the Roma Cultural Institute,[7] which  has just opened  in Berlin, when the ones in Hungary are closed down.[8]

MF: Because of the economic situation the Western universities are still much more powerful, and have positions which are utterly unjustified. But you can no longer tell where this “inside” is, which was a reality when communist states were defining the biopolitics of professional practices.

ZsL: In this situation, when individual professional practices are not connected any more to geographically defined positions, is the whole emancipatory process of cultural translation transgressing from otherness to our own self—in Gayatri Spivak’s sense[9]—is lost or internalized? There’s also a long tradition of hybrid identities, for instance, when in emigrant literature the nostalgia for the homeland is transformed to rebuilding a symbolic and ideal image of the home in another country. How has your practice been influenced by being based in Hungary, in addition to your different backgrounds, adding up to a fortunate mixture?

MF: In the 1990s, Hungary was a very open scene, it had quite a different atmosphere. We met in the nineties here, I just finished university in Zagreb, we did not have East European studies obviously, and when I saw the exhibitions After the Wall[10] and Aspects-Positions[11] at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, they really did raise my interest, and I thought this is what I would like to do. I did not want to stay in Croatia, and be defined by that scene completely, I wanted to be transnational, and do comparative research, but stay in the region.

R&MF: It was the spirit of the 2000s, things seemed to be going in this direction, everyone was on the way to join the EU, there was internet and cheap flights, it seemed it did not matter so much where you were based, there was a tendency for laws to make it easier for you to stay wherever you wanted. We were translocal from the beginning, and did not want to negate that we are from Croatia and Britain respectively, and wanted to have the right to be from different places but not be too identitarian. We believed that we can have these fluid, nomadic identities, but still be strongly connected to the region. There were many advantages and disadvantages of this position. Translocal was at first a very practical term, meaning that you could work on projects in different places.

RF: The idea of translocality is always changing. Before it was related to the concept of the global and counter-global, which wanted to understand what’s going on locally. After time, the focus shifted to civil connections between movements and people and spaces, with ecological aspects. You cannot ignore climate change any more, it’s selfish to think about translocality only in human terms, ignoring what’s happening with the planet; this not only includes the movement of people but the movement of ideas too.

ZsL: This aspect of translocality might be different in a place like London where many other localities are represented, and it is often approached as a melting pot of many different global circuits. How do you intend to relocate you practice to London in this sense? What localities do you intend to work with?

Everything we see could also be otherwise (My sweet little lamb), exhibition of the Kontakt Art Collection, The Showroom, London, 2017. Courtesy The Showroom
“Everything we see could also be otherwise (My sweet little lamb)”, exhibition of the Kontakt Art Collection, The Showroom, London, 2017. Photo: Daniel Brooke, Courtesy The Showroom

RF: There are a lot of art projects that focus on local specificities in London, e.g. ones about gardening, local communities, grounded in a local site and the ecology of locality, like The Showroom’s program.

MF: Regional art histories, contemporary art, and the environmental aspect will definitely be important. At the beginning Translocal was an online platform, a dematerialized institution, and had just a short materialized phase, and now we’re in another phase of transition.

RF: We do not intend to go back to being an online platform. There’s a very fluid situation in Britain, it’s still a question what shape the country will take, and with all the debates and discussions on it, it’s potentially a truly interesting environment to work in.

MF: There’s a huge constituency of people: artists, cultural institutions, museums, and galleries, art fairs, in London representing East European art. And of course, there is a large diaspora of artists from the region working in the UK.

ZsL: You propose in your book The Green Bloc some substantial and specific correspondence between ecological concern and East European art. In the ‘50s-‘60s anti-consumerism was mostly an official policy whereas in the ‘70s-‘80s, partly as a response to economic reforms creating more market-based socialisms in the region, it connects to dissident movements.

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MF: I researched how artists responded to international ecological movements after 1968, but in East European art, it has a longer history and it has continued till today, with activist or just personally committed positions.

RF: It also connects to the economic effects of transition, when factories were closing down and when levels of pollution were set, how artists reacted was a bit different  in Eastern Europe than elsewhere.

ZsL: So being based in London, you keep on “believing in” Eastern Europe.

M&RF: I think it’s really necessary to keep the region as such as there are many similarities, shared experiences that defined the region before and after communism. There is still a lot of potential to think this way. The practice of Piotr Piotrowski can be a model, the way he looked to the specificities of each East European art scene, and made comparative art history of and from the region. It was very empowering to see that it’s possible and necessary. The generations following him have the responsibility to continue this. After him anyone focusing on only one national narrative cannot think that they can get the full story, without studying how it correlates with other practices under similar circumstances.

[1] Maja and Reuben Fowkes, “Identity Crisis,” Art Monthly, no 365 (2013): 11-13.

[2] http://www.c3.hu/scca/butterfly/IPUT/project.html, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGgOHkkte68

[3] Goran Djordjević, “Letter to de Appel” in Works and Words, de Appel, Amsterdam, 1979, p 98.

[4] http://magazynszum.pl/rozmowy/historical-carriers-of-vital-dna-interview-with-marinco-sudac/

[5] https://www.dukeupress.edu/partisan-canons

[6] Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta, p 72.

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/08/roma-artists-launch-art-cultural-centre-institute-berlin

[8] http://hungarianspectrum.org/tag/roma-parliament/ https://budapestbeacon.com/independent-roma-organizations-protest-eviction-from-budapest-district-8-offices/

[9] E.g. Spivak, G. Ch. 2000. “The Politics of Translation”, in Lawrence Venuti (ed.), The Translation Studies Reader. London. New York: Routledge.

[10] http://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/exhibitions/after-the-wall/about-the-exhibition/

[11] https://frieze.com/article/aspects-positions-50-years-art-central-europe-1949-1999

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