The “Independent” Condition

Perspectives on Eastern Europe’s Cultural Sector

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. This, as it were, has been codified in the vocabulary of deregulation and free market competition, and in the figure of the neoliberal entrepreneur, a competing subject in pursuit of private profit and self-gratitude. The same language is currently re-writing the very field of cultural production, distribution, and consumption. “Independency,” this paper suggests, sits well within the very heart of this struggle, between the public and the private, between state and private initiatives, and it does so not without contradiction: independence is already complicit and participating in the negotiation between these spheres.

Anca Benara & Arnold Estefan, An Artist Who Cannot Network Is No Artist (d'apres Mladen Stilinovic), 2015. Flag (acrylic on artificial silk), 150 x 250 cm
Anca Benara & Arnold Estefan, An Artist Who Cannot Network Is No Artist (d’apres Mladen Stilinovic), 2015. Flag (acrylic on artificial silk), 150 x 250 cm

By independent, I will refer to subjects in Eastern Europe who are neither tied to agendas of public institutions, nor seek private profit or private advantage, since they still advance a certain concept of the “public good.” These are subjects whose economically precarious lives unfold from one project to another, and whose political position ambiguously stands between subversion and complicity, between critique and acceptance. I am thinking here of what I have experienced as the independent cultural sector in Eastern Europe: independent curatorial projects, independent artists, independent institutions, and independent cultural programs. So, what shapes the Eastern European independent subject, and why do we maintain this veil of independency? The next lines will approach this question by discussing three inter-connected facets. Firstly, I would like to emphasize the ubiquitous presence of the independent producer in the global cultural scene and suggest that the entry ticket comes at the price of deregulated, flexible, institutionally unaligned, and psychically and economically precarious independent labor. Secondly, I will refer specifically to the Eastern European context and suggest that independency designates a realm of moral “purity”, a re-conquered autonomous zone, free from the intervention of the post-communist state. Thirdly, I would like to reconnect the local with the global by identifying, in the independent discourse, a critique against the post-socialist state, allegedly incapable of a faster recuperation and reintegration with the cultural scenes of the global West. Independent production, then, would abbreviate a better practical and theoretical knowledge and expertise. I am particularly interested in investigating the infelicitous consequences of independency—psychological and economic precarity, as well as the dismantling of collective networks of solidarity and mutual defense—from a perspective informed by my experience as a cultural worker in Romania, as a co-worker or collaborator of various cultural initiatives and institutions from the Eastern European region, and as an academic scholar who relocated to the UK at the end of the 2000s.

In the lenses of the global West and its economic system, which underwrites the context of cultural production, the entrepreneurial “independent” cultural producer has become the working paradigm. An interesting reference here, particularly relevant for artistic and curatorial work, is Pascal Gielen’s “Curating with Love, or a Plea for Inflexibility.” Gielen suggests that independent, that is free and autonomous work, is the poisoned gift of a globalized and networked neoliberal society, where the flexibility, mobility, and adaptability of the individual came to be praised against “rigid collective structures.”1 Whereas more or less institutionalized collectivities remain publicly accountable and responsible, “the independent curator can offer the flexibility of a self-employed entrepreneur, opposed to the unwieldy institutional structure.”2 The underside of this is that traditional collective structures (Gielen mentions unions, social classes, parties, organizations, families) are weakened and replaced by goal-driven temporary alliances, or “teams,” whose resilience are defined by the duration of an independent project. The impact of short term project making, and of its vocabulary, has had dramatic effects on cultural producers in Eastern Europe: for indeed, it was only those who were able to master the language of short termism that survived and were able to construct independent institutions, while those less skilled remained marginalized, often impotently witnessing how institutional structures that had previously represented their rights and privileges (e.g. artist unions) were being dismantled. Kuba Szreder’s PhD thesis (2015) shows, in a convincing and sincere manner, how difficult it is for the curator as producer, within a Polish, post-socialist, cultural context, to maintain an uncompromising position in a landscape determined by short-termism. Writing as an independent curator, and as a curator of the Free/Slow University of Warsaw,3 he points out that often his own attempts to articulate subversive agendas to various funding bodies have been “thematically subversive yet structurally complicit,” failing to intervene “in the project-related apparatuses.” Projects, for example, would respond critically to the themes proposed by funding bodies, “but remained opportunity-driven, and thereby undermined their own criticality.”4 Independent project making is, thus, often ambivalent, as it both facilitates independent, free, autonomous practice, but also imposes ideological and structural neoliberal conditions in which cultural agents compete for limited resources and have little choice in avoiding opportunism.

The restructuring of the field of cultural production by neoliberalism has been met with little resistance in Eastern Europe: the reason, I suggest, is the ideological context of post-1989 Eastern Europe. The term independent has played a pivotal role within the prevalent anticommunist ideology of the post-1989 political and intellectual elites of former Eastern Europe, and is a response to the blurred lines between “private” and “public” life in the pre-1989 context. 1989 marks not only a supposedly radical rupture from state socialism and communism, and the beginning of a hasty mass privatization with dreadful social, political, and economic consequences, but also the moment when subjects allegedly became free, unhinged, autonomous, and independent. In Romania, where the post-communist state has been perceived as shaped by the remnants of the communist system that prevail over those who attempt change from within, large sections of the independent sector has claimed, especially throughout the 1990s, a realm of moral purity, often professed from conservative and revisionist positions as well as with frequent nostalgia for lost historical opportunities that could have come, had communism never happened 5. The perceived problem here is that, as a project for the reconstruction of the social and political subject which, from the very beginning, repudiates any kind of association with socialism and with social forms of life, there has never been an alternative to the seducing neoliberal grammar of private initiative, entrepreneurship, and opportunist competition, often rehearsed under the “tutorial guidance” of supra-state institutions such as the EU.6 Thus, if integration in the global art world, sitting on top of volatile fluxes of capital, presupposed the unwilling acceptance of precarious independency, there was very little that the Eastern European subject could propose as an alternative model—since back home, cruel and unfair competition was articulating the transition to capitalism.7

The KNOT (2010) was a mobile platform for artistic presentation and production, traveling to Berlin, Warsaw, and Bucharest. The project was conceived and curated by Markus Bader, Oliver Baurhenn, Jakub Szreder, and Raluca Voinea. Source: www.raumlabor.net
The KNOT (2010) was a mobile platform for artistic presentation and production, traveling to Berlin, Warsaw, and Bucharest. The project was conceived and curated by Markus Bader, Oliver Baurhenn, Jakub Szreder, and Raluca Voinea. Source: www.raumlabor.net

Precisely because of the private (even “secret”), publicly unaccountable manner in which former socialist states have been privatized and taken apart—disastrous from the point of view of the public, common good, but entirely consistent with the logic of neoliberal competition—there came another, more practical sense in which it was necessary to maintain the term independent. Indeed, independent came to designate initiatives that were much more up-to-date, in-line with global developments and, essentially, in opposition to the perceived corruption, slowness, backwardness, and rigidity of state institutions. In other words, the independent sector has often been better at doing the job that state institutions should have done. Unlike museums, ministries of culture, and former socialist artists’ unions, the independents and independent institutions learned the language of global contemporary culture faster, knew better where to look for available European funds, and were more talented at acquiring the right support contacts. The independents would occupy a space on the fringes of the state: being non-for-profit, independent projects are not private, except in the sense in which independent subjects claim the autonomy and the rights to pursue personal or group agendas. Yet, in competition with what has been criticized as dysfunctional and retrograde state institutions, independent projects would often promote agendas serving the “common” good: the recognition of minorities, the proactive address of political, cultural, social, and economic exclusion, etc. This has, indeed, been part of my experience while working on the team that organized the Periferic Biennial of contemporary art throughout the 2000s and, again, the in recent position I have taken in the Council of the Romanian Administration of the National Fund for Culture.

The aim of the Administration is to support the production and promotion of contemporary culture, the widening of its reception locally, and the creation of a better representation in the global scene for local cultural producers. It does not offer direct subsidies: the funding mechanism is based on competition and the Council’s role is to assure that competition is, as much as possible, fair. Competition, as I have highlighted above, is part of the problem of a culture based on project making, short termism, and, by consequence, cynical opportunism. It could be said, therefore, that the Administration is caught in the same logic perpetuating a systemic problem with dramatic overtones, especially since resources for culture are limited and there is simply not enough for everybody. From a personal perspective, however, I have accepted to work in the Council believing in the idea that the logic of the system cannot be all-encompassing and exhaustive, and that there are cracks that must be identified and used. Indeed, I see much of my work there as an attempt to find ways in which institutional development, resistance, and long-term collaboration based on common ideals and shared values between independents themselves—but also between independents and state institutions—could be encouraged.

This is not an easy story with a happy end (the end is not near yet), for often there is frustration next to gains. Nevertheless, it has been a good experience, for it taught me how deeply entrenched entrepreneurial thinking is in cultural production and how difficult it is to imagine alternative mechanisms. More often than not, independents are too busy rushing from one project to another, without giving themselves the time to address the very conditions of this state of affairs. Against it, Pascal Gielen recommends a higher inflexibility, “which can interrupt. . . or perhaps extend the duration of a project indefinitely.”8 The problem remains, however, resource availability: for without resources, it would be difficult to imagine how duration could be extended indefinitely. Addressing cynical opportunism, Szreder, on the other hand, argues in favor of a “radical opportunism,” as an attempt “to tactically politicise the organisational processes of project-making in accordance with such values as solidarity, equality and self-governance [negotiating] between pragmatic concerns and ethical engagement, acknowledging its own incompleteness and not aspiring to political or moral purity.”9 I am sympathetic with his position: Szreder does suggest, indeed, the absolute urgency of articulating communities of friends who share similar ideas. This must invite, of course, and stresses the importance of re-questioning ethical values that we can share. Such a program, however, will have to negotiate carefully between political tactics and ethical allegiances, and I would suggest that it installs itself in a grey zone of both public and private, or neither public, nor private: for the radical opportunist still relies on the “primacy of individual interest,” while trying “to realise in practice ‘appeals for equality’ [aiming] to act for the common rather than individual benefit.”10

KNOTS (2016) investigated the connections between 1960s counter-culture, anti-psychiatry, and alternative education. The project was organized by Vlad Morariu and Cristina Bogdan, and took place at ODD (Bucharest), an institution whose program is developed in a space owned by the Romanian Visual Artists’ Union. Photo credits: Vlad Brăteanu
KNOTS (2016) investigated the connections between 1960s counter-culture, anti-psychiatry, and alternative education. The project was organized by Vlad Morariu and Cristina Bogdan, and took place at ODD (Bucharest), an institution whose program is developed in a space owned by the Romanian Visual Artists’ Union. Photo credits: Vlad Brăteanu

I would argue that part of the struggle of politicizing the organizational processes of project making is the need to embrace the will to abandon positions of adversity and the politics of non-involvement, especially in relation to state institutions. Thus, it appears to me essential that independents should take into consideration the possibility of becoming, in fact, more dependent. For a community of friends that share common ethical values to develop, one must think of tactics and strategies of getting involved and reoccupying the very structures of the system that have been abandoned: retake positions in ministries of culture, go back to public museums, use the existing artist unions to address artists’ rights and precarity. Securing for itself a place that can influence who and what is funded and, more importantly, how and for how long: this seems to me the only alternative at hand, for a progressive independent sector—if such a thing exists—to address political, economic, and ideological conditions that articulate, together, the all-encompassing context of its existence.

Eastern Europe is a curious case, as part of the socialist heritage remains a complex cultural infrastructure. I include here artists’ unions and their still un-privatized assets: exhibition and studio spaces, quasi-abandoned “camps of creation,” and derelict residency houses. I am also thinking about a vast network of chronically underfinanced “houses of culture,” “memorial houses,” and trade-union “recreation houses” that could become creative nodes of socially engaged work. I believe that a politics of radical opportunism articulated on this existing infrastructure would offer unprecedented possibilities; and I would go as far as suggesting that Eastern Europe is quite uniquely positioned, from this perspective, particularly as I witnessed, having already lived in the UK for seven years, the pains precarious cultural workers in England went through in order to organize themselves into a recognized artists’ trade union.11 If cultural independency is a global phenomenon leading to precarity and cynical opportunism, perhaps across Eastern Europe, from new centers run by a community ethos of solidary and equality, a strong and insightful counter-statement could be articulated.

 

A contribution to issue #2: Inside the Mezosfera edited by Nikolett Erőss and Eszter Szakács

 

About the author

Vlad Morariu (born 1983) is a London-based researcher, lecturer, and curator who teaches Art History and Visual Culture at Loughborough and Middlesex Universities (UK). He gained his PhD in Contemporary Art History and Theory at Loughborough University, with a thesis exploring possibilities of rewriting the intellectual history of institutional critique. His current research explores the links between the philosophical, artistic, and psychiatric discourses in the articulation of the British counter-culture of the 1960s.

 

Notes

  1. Pascal Gielen, “Curating with Love, or a Plea for Inflexibility,” Manifesta Journal 10 (2010), 15.
  2. Ibid.
  3. For an account of the Free/Slow University of Warsaw, including a well-sustained argument in favor of such a project in the context of the growing monopolies over knowledge production by corporate universities, see Jan Sowa’s “Undisciplined Unacademic Zone” included in Mezosfera’s current issue.
  4. 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.
  5. Romania offers, again, an interesting example here: president Emil Constantinescu mounted on a large anti-communist civic platform (Alianța Civică/Civic Alliance) to be elected as Romania’s second post-communist president, in 1996.  At the end of his mandate, in 2000, he famously stated that he was defeated by a system run by the communist Secret Service (Securitate). During the 2000s, one has witnessed the emergence of a new cultural (eg. Revista Idea) or militant left (eg. Criticatac), especially the latter being highly critical of conservative think-tanks and the right-wing “civil society.” Interestingly, the same militant Left that would distance itself from the art scene, which is often criticized for mimicking politics.
  6. See, for example: Ovidiu Țichindeleanu, “Towards a Critical Theory of Postcommunism? Beyond Anticommunism in Romania,” Radical Philosophy 159 (2010): 26–33; Boris Buden, “Children of Postcommunism,” Radical Philosophy 159, (2010): pp. 18–26.
  7. An interesting reference is Alexandru Solomon’s “Kapitalism: Our Secret Formula” (2010), a documentary film that interviews Romania’s first generation of post-communist millionaires. Some of the characters in the documentary (George Copos, Dan Voiculescu, Dinu Patriciu) have been or are currently sentenced for their involvement in illegal privatizations of state assets.  The trailer can be watched here: http://www.alexandrusolomon.ro/kapitalism-our-improved-formula-2/#more-152.
  8. Gielen, “Curating with Love, or a Plea for Inflexibility,” 22.
  9. Szreder, Politicising ‘independent’ curatorial practice under neoliberalism: critical responses to the structural pressures of project-making, 12.
  10. Szreder, Politicising ‘independent’ curatorial practice under neoliberalism: critical responses to the structural pressures of project-making ,42.
  11. See, for example, Artists’ Union England ‘s website, available at http://www.artistsunionengland.org.uk/

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