The starting point for the thematic issue Proposition for a Pan-Peripheral Network was to pose questions about the geopolitical position of Mezosfera, a magazine based in Hungary, a member of the former Eastern Bloc. How can the notion of Eastern Europe gain a new definition and relevance today, not in relation to its opposition to the West, as it was constructed in the bipolar geopolitics of the Cold War, but to its affinity to the “Third World,” as it was likewise positioned in socialist internationalism? Hence, turning the table around from West-oriented discourses, the issue takes as a point of departure the history of the official international relations of state socialist Hungary with Third World countries, while also probing into questions and possibilities of grassroots transnationalism that is independent of a top-down ideology. The thematic issue, on the one hand, is the first stage of a long-term project that aims to look into the historical relations between the so-called Second and Third World; on the other hand, it also attempts to connect with currently active research-based art initiatives in countries and areas with which Hungary had historical-ideological ties with.
After the regime change in 1989, in Hungary, all sentiments connected to the former system were thrown out, the cultural links created through socialist internationalism with Third World countries were cut, and are mostly forgotten by now. How deep are the roots of forgotten cultural and political relations, even if they were state-directed? Can we reactivate the knowledge that was part of our consciousness in one political system and erased in the other? Can we construct new, viable models for transregional solidarity, politics of friendship, and a non-identity based understanding of community1 when today, globally, national identities as well as foreign politics are increasingly built on the demonization of cultural difference and otherness?
Hungary’s relations with the “Third World”
In Hungary, a state socialist country for 40 years, in the spirit of the internationalism and egalitarianism of socialism, the education of several generations included a state-directed solidarity with other leftist political systems around the world, from Latin America through Africa, the Arab world, and Asia, which also wished to fight imperialism. Hungarian students not only learned about Third World authors, like the anti-imperialist Bengali poet and intellectual of the early 20th century, Rabindranath Tagore, but also participated in the World Festivals of Youth and Students, which regularly brought thousands of young people from the Third World to Europe under the slogan of anti-imperialist solidarity. Many streets were named after politicians from those regions, such as Patrice Lumumba, the leader of Congo’s decolonization process. As a way of supporting the independence struggles of the Third World, texts by leading authors of the anti-imperialist discourse, such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Samir Amin, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson R. Mandela, or Salvador Allende, were translated and published in readers in Hungary. Hungarian editors and scholars wrote introductions to these textbooks with patronizing criticism, pointing out the weaknesses of these theories as well as their applications, compared to their framework of Soviet-imposed communist ideology.
At the same time, there have always been a strong European identity in the former Eastern Bloc countries, among them, Hungary, which also defined the view of Third World countries as less “developed.” In this vein, Third World students were invited to study in Eastern Europe in order to create markets for Eastern European products in their home countries. Also, for instance, Hungarian architect Charles Polónyi was directing the urban design of several African cities2 Hungarian economists introduced planned economy in Ghana3, and Hungary’s International Organization for Technical-Scientific Cooperation (TESCO) “prepared and implemented bilateral Technical-Scientific Cooperation Agreements with 57 developing countries.”4 Thus, by exporting these technologies and knowledge, Eastern European countries also participated in the cultural and scientific colonization of the Third World, which was motivated by economic interests as well.
While soviet satellites attached more importance to class struggle, i.e., the development of working class as well as planned and centralized economy, for Third World countries, racial equality and national independence was the priority. These differing agendas contributed to the foundation of the Non-Aligned Movement, formed by Third World countries and Yugoslavia.5 The Non-Aligned Movement kept friendly terms with the Second World, especially in the field of culture and economy, and it was an important way for Hungary too, to find more equal international partnerships than with the paternalizing Soviet Union. However, local advocates of Marxist-Leninist ideology also criticized the Non-Aligned movement for being “neutral” and thus rejecting to acknowledge the ongoing struggle between imperialism and socialism.
Interpreting Eastern Europe in the post-colonial discourse
Already in the samizdat literature in the 1980s, the dissident intelligentsia of Soviet satellite states started to interpret their own previous historical subordination as well as the current Soviet political, economic, and cultural domination as a form of colonization.6 The concept of Central Europe as an anti-soviet entity was also reborn in this discourse.7. In the case of Hungary—as literary theorist Tamás Scheibner pointed out—already in the 19th century the Turkish subjugation (1541-1699) in retrospective, and the Hapsburg rule (1711-1867) was commonly described as a colonial dependence.8 Thus, colonial subordination became a central metaphor in the 20th century in the construction of the Hungarian national identity, a notion that later also enabled to recontextualize within transnational “decolonialist” struggles several civil and dissident movements of the region which also paved the way for the regime change, such as Charta ‘77 or the environmental and disarmament protests. However, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern European countries turned away from the worldwide network of solidarities between countries sharing the experience of colonial existence and based their self-identification instead on newly invented national identities.9 Former Eastern European countries in the 1990s were trying to “catch up” with “Western modernity,” and always measured themselves in relation to Western canons. This phenomenon was also described by Alexander Kiossev with the concept of self-colonization, characteristic of this region.10
Today, with a critique of Eurocentrism and Western values, the revisiting of an Eastern European identity from a decolonial perspective, and the re-examining of the ties between the so-called Second World and the Third World seems pertinent. However, this critical attitude that Mezosfera also engages with is very different from the state-level EU-skepticism continuously mounted by Hungary and other EU member states in the last few years. While this kind of right-wing EU-skeptic discourse recites colonization, especially in Hungary—identifying “Brussels” as the colonizer—it does so, only as a propaganda campaign to incite fear and in order to enlarge support among citizens for the government as the only defender of the country’s sovereignty.
Propositions for a Pan-Peripheral Network
Besides interpreting Eastern Europe in the post-colonial discourse, the region is often figured in theories around the concepts of center-periphery and semi-periphery, which also enables us to understand the historical connections that Eastern Europe had with Third World countries. Among others, the world system theory of Immanuel Wallerstein in the 1970s already defined Eastern Europe as a semi-periphery, and also considered Eastern Europe’s economic relations to the Third World. Overcoming the binary opposition between East and West, this theory outlined instead the network of relations, dependencies, and the global division of labor, which are still relevant today.
In discussing how peripheries are created, Larry Wolf’s post-1989 book11 traced the invention of Eastern Europe back to the Enlightenment as a shadow of the West and as an imaginary other, stating that the Iron Curtain only strengthened an already existing division. Ihar Babkou, in 201212 claimed that the question is not how Eastern Europe was invented but why. He also points out that the whole discourse of Modernism, based on a momentary supremacy of capitalism in the West, marginalized not only Eastern Europe but the whole “rest of the world”—and thus through the decentralization of Modernism, the Second and Third world can be connected in the same interpretive framework.
The current issue of Mezosfera attempts to unearth—the still hierarchical—cultural connections between countries of the former Second World and the former Third World. The cultural exchanges with Third World countries in the Cold War era were confined to the official, diplomatic sphere; whereas underground cultural practitioners sought out relations mostly towards capitalist countries. That is, in order to reactivate these cultural links, in Hungary today, we also need to surpass the simple opposition between the official and unofficial/underground culture that was established during the state socialist regime. The question that Mezosfera is tackling is how to imagine a self-organized, contemporary form of relations between these two “worlds:” a “pan-peripheral,” transnational network which is based on horizontality and shared interests, while it also pays attention to “local” particularities. The following essays and interviews thus unpack further concepts and methods for transnational but regionally committed functioning.
In his essay philosopher Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu, introduces the term of “epistemic materialism,” which he proposes as a new basis for a communal existence in a globalized world. Following Deleuze, Ţichindeleanu, critically revisits Foucault’s concept of “epistemic differences”—how we are defined by historically different systems of power and ideologies—and uncovers Foucault’s Eurocentric point of view. Ţichindeleanu instead proposes a “radical existentialism” based on delinking from dominant forces (de-westernization and de-capitalization), which would overcome geographical determination and unite people as a counter-cultural force which could overthrow existing power systems. For this transformation he suggests to rely on the accumulated experiences from lived socialisms, on the international concept of the “friendship between peoples,” which created links between the Second and Third worlds. Ţichindeleanu also states that the common experiences of building “solidarity and relative autonomies” in repressive systems offer plausible ways to cope with current forms authoritarianism.
Curator and researcher Mi You in her essay looks into questions around the construction of “Chinese globalization,” also in relation to China’s transnational past. Taking as her point of departure The Belt and Road Initiative projects, a “platform for regional multilateral cooperation” that China announced in 2013, she maintains throughout the text—including her analysis of the paradoxical merging of Confucianism and capitalism—that the intentions of all transnational initiatives could be interpreted as “brotherhood at times or imperialism at others.” Similarly to Ţichindeleanu, You also proposes, in the case of contemporary China on the one hand, to reach back to China’s decolonization, third worldism period to counter sinocentrism and its palpable repercussions on a global arena. On the other hand, and on a more general level, she likewise pinpoints that today’s transnationalism and transregionalism should go beyond the Cold War’s logic of being “the only go-to solution” (of both sides), which would be able to accommodate, instead of a binary hostility towards one another, the co-existence of diverse groups and identities.
The interviews with critical, self-organized art initiatives established in the last two decades in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the former Eastern Europe reassess, theoretically and methodologically, the motivations and the requisites of working in and with a specific geographical region and its artistic-cultural-political heritage. The conversation with Maja and Reuben Fowkes, the founders of the Translocal Institute, a center for transnational research into East European art and ecology, focuses on the debates and changing interpretations of translocality and East European Art. The curator duo of British and Croatian background, who were based in Budapest for more than 10 years and have just relocated to London, talk about the post-communist development of an empowering concept of East European Art, which was made possible when the biopolitical reality of Eastern Europe as formed by Soviet dependency ceased to exist. They also point out that as soon as the concept of East European Art is again associated with exclusion, or the threat of losing independence and democracy, it will be rejected again. In relation to canon-formation and historicizing the art of the region, the role of private collections, the art market, and powerful Western institutions are discussed too. The interviewees also argue against the rigid distinction of outside (Western) and inside (local/East European) points of views, and advocated instead for a transnational /translocal approach to post-communist situations.
The discussion with Tímea Junghaus, director of the recently founded European Institute for Roma Arts and Culture (ERIAC) based in Berlin is an opportunity to think about transnational cultural identities not connected to one geographical territory. Roma, the largest minority group in Europe, are still not integrated and suffer from the historically rooted discrimination of being the close “other” of the white majority in the respective countries. In the interview, the understanding of Roma art as naive and exotic is compared to the positioning of other peripheral artistic practices (Eastern European, African, etc.), against the backdrop of Western Modernism.
Red Conceptualismos del Sur (RedCSur), established in 2007, is a grassroots network of about 50 researchers and artists in Latin America and in parts of North America and Europe. In the interview, the two current co-ordinators of the network, Mabel Tapia and Fernanda Carvajal expand on their work with artists’ archives of the 1960-‘70s-’80s in Latin America as well as working as a self-organized collective. While also discussing the network’s interpretations and strategic use of the concept of the “South,” the interview also touches upon the political aspects of their engagement with art as well as with broader political matters.
Sparck – Space for Pan-African Research, Creation and Knowledge founded in 2008, puts forth a translocal, non-hierarchical, collaborative, politically and ethically engaged, network-based understanding of institutionality. Kadiatou Diallo and Dominique Malaquais describe in the interview the importance of a self-defined approach to African worlds, by which they mean not a geographic territory but its people, movements, and actions like transnational cultural exchanges, hybrid urban cultures, or diasporas. They underline that decolonization is a very personal experience: the way the previously colonized have to engage with the process of decolonization is different from how the previously colonizing powers should and can ask the same questions. The interview also considers the strategic choices regionally committed grassroots initiatives can make to keep their independence, mediating between the roles of artists and organizers in the context of market mechanisms.
The interview with Michelle Wong, researcher at Asia Art Archive, underlines how the Hong Kong based art organization understands Asia as a complex geography and investigates it in a multidirectional construction of cultural imaginations. Asia Art Archive works across several cities and languages, and develops a growing online database of documents and bibliographies that render forgotten transnational relations visible. Bringing to light various archives through cross-country collaborations, Asia Art Archives makes also comparative research possible. To highlight the interconnection of the histories of exhibitions and political turning points was especially pertinent in Hong Kong this year, on the 20th anniversary of the Handover to China. The current cultural and political climate, the experiences of the Umbrella Movement are incentives to look at what artists and practitioners of earlier generations did in times of political instability.
The research to this publication was partially sponsored by Közép-Európai Egyetem and International Visegrad Fund. The theses explained herein are representing the own ideas of the authors, but not necessarily reflect the opinion of KEE.
- Leela Gandhi, “Friendship and Postmodern Utopianism,” Cultural Studies Review, vol 9, no 1, (2003) 12–22. ↩
- The activity of Polónyi was also conceptualized with the term “peripheral modernism:” Charles Polónyi, An Architect-Planner on the Peripheries: The Retrospective Diary of Charles K. Polónyi, (Budapest: Műszaki Könyvkiadó, 2000), and especially Ákos Moravánsky, “Peripheral Modernism: Charles Polónyi and the Lessons of the Village,” The Journal of Architecture, 17, no. 3 (2012): 333–59. On other Eastern European architects active in the Third World see Cold War Transfer: Architecture and Planning from Socialist countries in the “Third World,” thematic issue ed. Łukasz Stanek, The Journal of Architecture 17 no. 3 (2012). ↩
- Zoltán Ginelli, “Opening the Semi-Periphery: Hungary and Decolonisation,” Research Report for the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, 2017. ↩
- OUR ACHIEVEMENTS FROM 1962. Tesco Consulting, accessed October 20, 2017. http://www.tescoconsulting.hu/cegunkrol/hirek/tortenetunk2en.html. ↩
- Gábor Búr, “Hungarian Diplomacy and the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War” in Österreich und Ungarn im Kalten Krieg eds. István Majoros – Zoltán Maruzsa – Oliver Rathkolb (Wien – Budapest: ELTE Új- és Jelenkori Egyetemes Történeti Tanszék – Universität Wien, Institut für Zeitgeschichte, 2010), 353– 372. ↩
- György Konrád, Antipolitics: Pushing the State out of our Nightmares: An Essay (New York: H. Holt, 1984), 1. ↩
- Jessie Labov, “A Russian Encounter with the Myth of Central Europe.” Conference Papers: The Contours of Legitimacy in Central Europe (St. Antony’s College Oxford, May 24–26, 2002). http://users.ox.ac.uk/~oaces/conference/papers/Jessie_Labov.pdf ↩
- Tamás Scheibner, “Postcolonial Age, or Postcolonial Eastern and Central Europe? Critical remarks from a Hungarian point of view,” Baltic Worlds 3 no. 2 (2010): 41–44. ↩
- Scheibner, Ibid. ↩
- Alexander Kiossev, “The Self-Colonization Cultures” in Cultural Aspects of the Modernisation Process, eds. Ginev, Dimitŭr, Francis Sejersted, and Kostadinka Simeonova (Oslo: TMV-senteret, 1995). ↩
- Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe. The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford: University Press, 1994). ↩
- Ihar Babkou, A modern/posztmodern a kelet európai határvidéken (Modern/Postmodern at the Eastern European Borderland) in Szépirodalmi Figyelő. Kelet Európa és a posztkolonializmus szám (Eastern Europe and Postcolonialism issue) no. 4 (2012): 27–41. ↩