*This text was originally published in issue 1 of our sister publication, e-flux journal
Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez: You have become an almost regular guest in Ljubljana, and have a long history of working with art and cultural production coming from Eastern Europe, especially Slovenia. This resulted in several books, lectures, guest editorials of magazines, long-term collaboration with the groups Irwin and NSK, Marko Peljhan, and other artists and intellectuals. Looking back, what were the decisive points in the development of this very special interest?
Inke Arns: Being in Ljubljana again this time I asked myself how my involvement with South/Eastern Europe, and more precisely with Slovenia, first came about. I have to give you a cryptic answer: it came about through Gorbachev, Laibach, and my 1987 trip to Portugal. No joke. The order is not quite accurate though. While still being at school in Berlin (which was West Berlin back then) I did InterRail, and went to Britain and France where I absolutely did not have any problem with the language (I had lived in France from 1982 to 1986). But in Portugal I could not understand a single word—it drove me nuts! On the train back to Berlin, I decided to learn yet another language. At that time Russian was very popular because of Gorbachev (the first telegenic Soviet leader), and I learned my first words of Russian at the Volkshochschule I was attending in parallel to doing my Matura exam. Then in 1988 I saw my first Laibach concert. I had heard some very fascinating Laibach tracks at a friend’s place in East Berlin, and despite warnings of potential Neo-Nazi attendance went to see their show in the West. It was an amazing experience. Since that time the Laibach virus lay dormant! That same year I started my university studies at the Free University, Slawistik, in political science and art history, most of the time dealing with Russian cultural history (Eastern Europe then meant Russia). In 1993, together with my colleague Stephen Kovats, I initiated and organized the first Ostranenie video festival at the Bauhaus in Dessau. That’s where I came across two videos about Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), and it suddenly occurred to me that there was a much bigger collective behind Laibach. This is when I really got into it. I started travelling to Ljubljana quite a lot and when it came to thinking about a topic for my MA thesis in 1995, I decided to write about NSK’s artistic strategies in the context of the 1980s in Yugoslavia. All my Ljubljana activities you mentioned are connected to people I met over the twelve years: Irwin, Bojana Kunst and Emil Hrvatin (now known as Janez Janša) from Maska, Marko Peljhan, and many more (these are just the people connected to the activities you asked about).
NP: You were active during the time of the post-socialist transition, most notably as the founding member of the Syndicate list, which ended rather notoriously in 2001 with the retreat of the founding members and an open question about the life and successful operation of a mailing list and network. Syndicate was an important contributor to the development of networks of people in post-Wall Europe, and as Maria Hlavajova mentions in her text in the Manifesta Decade book, its network overlapped with one of the Soros centers, and also their objectives were similar in that they created networks of people to “foster communication, exchange, and dialogue between East and West in Europe and beyond.” What happened to the network of these people? In your opinion, is every network destined to [undergo] a dramaturgical process of rising, peak, and dissolution? How did the political situation help or prevent Syndicate to evolve?
IA: The trans-local Syndicate network was established in 1996 at the end of the Next 5 Minutes meeting in the Netherlands, and it existed until 2001. However, the fact that it ceased to exist in 2001 has nothing to do with 9/11. The termination of the Syndicate mailing list (mind you, the mailing list, not the network of people!) was very symptomatic of an overall change in the climate on the Net. Rules of netiquette that existed from the beginning of the Internet and helped smooth online communication were consciously breached by the behavior of individuals for reasons of self-promotion and ego-enhancement. You can read about this in detail in “The End of an Imagined Community” a text I cowrote with Andreas Broeckmann back in 2001.1
For me, networks are not ends in themselves but tools for reaching certain goals. In this case the goals were the establishing, fostering, and intensifying of contacts between individuals mainly from the media cultural field in Eastern and Western Europe. The Syndicate network was a very successful tool for reaching these goals. I think that it is perfectly okay if networks cease to exist after a certain period, when they have served their ends. Looking back, I am not nostalgic at all—I think the Syndicate was a very successful (and at times very effective) network of people. I am grateful that I had the chance to be part of that community.
In relation to what Maria Hlavajova said, I would like to stress though that Syndicate had nothing to do with the Soros network. It is actually strange and a bit awkward to find these two networks mentioned in the same sentence. I would like to remind you that it was at the first Ostranenie festival in 1993 where many of the later Syndicate members met for the first time. The contacts that Stephen Kovats and myself established at that time were not fostered by the Soros network—the network of SCCAs only came into existence in 1994.
Over a period of ten years, the SCCA network very clearly supported activities in the field of contemporary art (in many countries official support was painfully lacking in this field) and connected the local communities to a bigger European or global audience. I find it quite fascinating as a phenomenon that one single individual—George Soros, a Hungarian ex-pat who got rich through currency speculation—could, to a certain degree, change the post-socialist landscape of Eastern Europe by pumping a lot of money into the establishment of these institutions.
The focus of the Syndicate network was, after all, not to support (or even fund) contemporary or media arts, but rather it was about bringing people from various contexts and countries together. In the first two and a half years there were regular meetings every six months in different cities: Rotterdam, Tirana, Budapest, etc., and these were about creating a discourse or a dialogue between the participants—dialogue not necessarily meaning a conflict-free communication. In some instances, the network was used as a tool for rapidly calling international attention to local situations and supporting people who were e.g. sacked for (cultural) political reasons. Several times it was also turned into a platform for heated discussions. I especially recall some very painful discussions about collective guilt vs. collective responsibility in the context of the war in Yugoslavia around the year 2000. It involved people from all over former Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia, and also from other European countries.
Very much unlike the Soros network, the Syndicate did not involve any money. There was nobody paying us for what we were doing. Many people invested a lot of time and energy into creating what was to become a genuinely distributed network—it quickly generated enough critical mass for people to apply independently for external travel support to attend the regular meetings. The Syndicate was neither very “visible” (that’s why it was called the “Syndicate”), nor did it create any substantial material output other than the three readers documenting Syndicate network activities up to 1998 (which appeared in print and online).2 Yet it was effective on a much more substantial level for having created an understanding of the vast cultural similarities and differences in a changing Europe. The network of people still exists, even if since 2001 the mailing list has been (dis-)continued on a different server by other people.
NP: In the book Avantgarda v vzvratnem ogledalu (The Avant-garde in the Rear Window), which was published by Maska in 2006, you deal with the topic of avant-garde artistic, social, and political utopias and their various legacies in Eastern Europe from the 1950s till today. In an age of strictly defined rules in the contemporary art game, where critical work is so often co-opted and instrumentalized as a strategy of self-reinvention for the late capitalist system, how could one define a utopian potential in art today?
IA: I think it is the fate of most “critical” strategies to sooner or later be recuperated by the late capitalist (art) system. I don’t really mind, even if it is sad to see how shallow things (notions, terms, etc.) become when they get recuperated. However, I would claim that really important projects do survive such a recuperation if they are functioning well outside the art system. If they make it into the art system, why not? If they manage to generate some money for the “real” project without being corrupted, all the better (just look at the work of UBERMORGEN.COM or Marko Peljhan, who work precisely in this way). I would even claim that there are artistic/activist strategies that altogether resist recuperation. One would be the strategy of over-identification or subversive affirmation. These strategies are dysfunctional in the art context because a) they are situated practices, i.e., they are context-specific, and b) they do not stay at a safe distance from what they are criticizing—they are rather identifying with and becoming what they are trying to destroy.
Concerning the contemporary utopian potential in art: this is a tough question. Let me first clarify that “utopian” is not in any way or at any moment an equivalent to “critical.” Many projects can be “critical,” but “utopian” implies a step further, it designates a much more comprehensive vision of the world as it should be. There are some projects that could be called “utopian,” but they may be not very visual or visible, partly because they do not necessarily define themselves as art.
I think the introduction of the Internet in Europe around 1994 produced a genuinely utopian feeling. That was at least how I saw it. There was this utopian hope that this was the ultimate medium that would change the world, which now sounds strange looking back at it. Net art that developed in the mid-1990s clearly did not have this utopian thrust, but positioned itself rather critically towards what is called techno-utopianism which was identified as the “Californian Ideology” (the belief in “democratizing” effects inherent in technology etc.). What is interesting is that, until today, Net art resists recuperation by the art market.
I think it is very difficult today to speak of a genuine “utopian thrust” or utopian potential for art. It seems to me that, given the experiences of the 20th century in many projects (provided they are not completely naïve), there is a more mature relationship to utopia/s. Many projects prefer to look back at past utopias, and by doing so try to dissect the nature of these utopias, the reasons for their failure, and (what I find highly interesting) they try to dig up the buried emancipatory potentials in these past (technological) utopias and re-infuse them with the present in order to change the future. This is what I call “retro-utopianism.” It is a media archaeological interest on the side of the artists that is fascinated by the technological imaginations and inventions of the past that were never realized or actualized. Giorgio Agamben calls these past potential futures.3 As opposed to actualities, which can be described as “practical possibilities,” potentialities represent “abstract possibilities” that each present is pregnant with. Though such potentialities are present, they are not yet active or fully acknowledged—some of these potentialities will even lead to dead ends or otherwise become dead media. According to Agamben, reactivating these past potential futures is central to a politics of hope.
NP: I see two major ideas that you have been establishing in comparing Eastern and Western European and American art practices, which in your opinion shaped the art in Eastern Europe in drastically different ways. The first is the artistic strategy of subversive affirmation, which you established together with Sylvia Sasse as a distinctive mimetic practice emerging out of Eastern European conceptual art practice and transposed onto Western European practices today for the potential it offers for political resistance in the late capitalist system.4 In the other one, which features in your book Avantgarda v vzvratnem ogledalu, you discuss tackling Eastern European practices with the avant-garde’s ethical and socio-political principles, and not only their formal inventions.
IA: That’s correct. Both these distinct approaches have developed thanks to, or rather, as a response to the specific political conditions the artists were faced with in their respective times.
The strategy of subversive affirmation (or over-identification, although there are some minor differences) is best exemplified by the work of Laibach and NSK. It can be characterized as an “impossible complicity,” a term Craig Owens used for describing Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Studies for Film Stills. It is, according to Owens, about “participating in the very activity that is being denounced precisely in order to denounce it.”5 In the case of Laibach, it is about unveiling or stripping bare the mechanisms of totalitarianism by assuming an outward appearance (a collective) that’s even more totalitarian. Sylvia Sasse and I are tracing the earliest formulation of this mimetic practice back to the late 1920s, to the literary work of OBERIU, the Association of Real Art in Leningrad. Writers like Alexander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms were part of it. Their work, which is the earliest formulation of absurd literature in Europe, successfully twisted the meaning of language around while leaving its outward appearance intact. In some cases, like in Kharms’ 1940 text “Reabilitacija” (Rehabilitation), an uncanny observation of the structure of the Stalinist show trials, the author makes use of affirmative practices: the accused outdoes the (fake or pre-scripted) self-accusations expected from the accused.6 By claiming to have done things much more fantastic and strange than the accusers ever expected, the accusers were confronted with their own strategy laid bare. The confession turns out to be about Stalinist techniques of truth production.
It is interesting to see that these tactics that have developed in a specific, openly repressive context are today becoming important again in a different political, social, economic context that is supposedly more liberal (for example, in the work of Christoph Schlingensief, UBERMORGEN, etoy, Heath Bunting/Rachel Baker, -Innen, 01.org, or the (in)famous Yes Men). While in the context of openly repressive systems there were very clear limits on what could and could not be said, today we are confronted with a situation where everything (and thus nothing) can be said: the culture industry manages to recuperate and appropriate even the most critical viewpoints and render them ineffective. In both contexts, critical distance (an “outside”) proves to be an impossible or inadequate position. It is in this situation that the viral-like stealth tactics of subversive affirmation still seem to hold a potential for resistance against total recuperation and appropriation of critical viewpoints by the dominant political and economic system.
The other idea is, as you have precisely called it, the distinctive tackling of artists in Eastern Europe with the avant-garde’s ethical and socio-political principles and not only with their formal inventions. I am making this claim in my book that looks at a specific change in how artists in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s (and until today) relate to the historical avant-garde and the notion of utopia that is closely linked to it. I am dividing the development of this relation into three phases: the first phase right after World War II is characterized by a relatively naïve reconnection with the historical avant-garde that was radically suppressed and driven underground or into emigration by the totalitarian regimes. In this phase, references to the historical avant-garde are made through simple stylistic analogies (Suprematist forms, etc.). In the second phase, the relationship towards the historical avant-garde changes dramatically. Around the mid or late 1970s, artists in Eastern Europe began questioning the avant-garde and its potentially totalitarian elements. The notion of utopia here acquires a negative connotation. The third phase starts with the political changes in the early 1990s: now the focus shifts from an interest in the politically ambivalent elements towards an interest in the technological utopias of the historical avant-garde. I have called this interest “media archaeological,” as compared to the “discourse archaeological” of the second phase.
What is interesting is that in the West, artists (unlike theoreticians in the West!) have never bothered to discuss the ethical and socio-political principles and implications of the historical avant-garde. The so-called “neo-avant-garde” (e.g., Minimalism in the United States) was only interested in Malevich as the “father of abstraction,” which I am polemically formulating in my book. What becomes very clear is the fact that the questions you address to the past depend not only on the specific time in which you are asking them, but also on your political context. Boris Groys’ book, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, could not have been written in the United States. As Groys was a core member of that circle before he emigrated, his book formulates in nuce the relationship between Moscow Conceptualism and the historical avant-garde. Compared to this, the relation of the so-called retro-avant-garde (in ex-Yugoslavia) was not so polemical and hostile, but was rather more balanced towards the historical avant-garde. Though it definitely belongs to the same mindset.
NP: The lecture you gave at the Seminar of Contemporary Performing Arts in November 2006 in Ljubljana was a continuation of your theoretical research as well as [of] your curatorial interest, and it resonates with a lively tendency that has been present for some years in contemporary art, that of the re-enactment. In 2007, you also curated an exhibition, together with Gaby Horn, called “History Will Repeat Itself. Strategies of Re-enactment in the Contemporary (Media Art) and Performance.”7 Why is this mimetic strategy so present today, what does it enable? How can one read the selected cases of Artur Žmijewski, Rod Dickinson, Tom McCarthy, Jeremy Deller, and many others?
IA: Rod Dickinson recently wrote, “re-enactment operates as the uncanny of the spectacle. A live image, in real space and real time, but simultaneously displaced.”8 Sigmund Freud has defined the uncanny as something that is known (heimlich-heimisch) but that returns, and in this returning transforms into something uncanny (unheimlich), as if what we’re seeing in the spectacle cannot be fully grasped until it is repeated, in slow motion and [in] detail. That’s why Artur Žmijewski’s catalogue is entitled If It Happened Only Once It’s As If It Never Happened.9
The fact that in recent years, contemporary artists have increasingly utilized the element of re-enactment in their works is a really complex issue. I would resist any temptation (and I would agree with Steve Rushton on this point) to describe the work by these artists as collectively representing a genre or movement.10 In fact, on close inspection, works by artists who deal with re-enactment as an aspect of their work tell very different stories and utilize distinct and varied methods. There is, for example, a huge wave of re-enactments of past artistic projects—a tendency, I have to admit I am not too keen on.
I am rather interested in re-enactments that are about returning to the site of trauma by revisiting violent (unresolved) moments in history. Making such re-enactments can be seen as a way to gain further understanding of the present through the lens of the past. Re-enactment can thus be understood as a critical strategy for re-interpreting history. To put it very directly, re-enactments are questions concerning access to the past and to history: who has access to it, and how is this access structured (in terms of media or narrative)?
In his only (but very famous) re-enactment piece The Battle of Orgreave (2001) Jeremy Deller turns the audience into participants by having them re-stage personal memories that differ significantly from what was officially reported in the media. This project is going beyond “making the past into a site or spectacle for viewing” (Mendelsohn).11 It allows for an alternative history to be remembered.
While the first of the two major tendencies at stake in the current practice of re-enactment is about erasing distance and identifying yourself with the event, the second tendency (which very often is co-present with the first) is about creating distance—as a complex and in-depth reflection of the mediation of memory—which can be even described as the core subject of re-enactment as an art form. This tendency asks “how memory is an entity which is continuously being restructured—not only by filmmakers and re-enactors but also by us personally, as mediating and mediated subjects.”12
Rod Dickinson could be described as one of the key representatives of the second tendency. In his Milgram Re-enactment, we, the audience, are turned into witnesses of a historical event going on in front of our very eyes. Even if this event is completely scripted and enacted by actors—and thus rather resembles a theatre play—being placed in the position of onlookers allows for an immediate and personal experience that is unlike the effect of looking at photographs or reading the scripts or transcripts of the experiment.
NP: It seems to me that your theoretical writings revolve not only around the notion of historical reception—rewriting the histories and the legibility of the documents accumulated and distributed through different channels and mediums—but are mostly about the concepts and regulations of time as a utopian as well as a political concept. Following the terms you use, from retro-utopianism and media archeology to re-enactment, how can one escape the endless repetition of history?
IA: Why should we want to? Questioning history, by repeating and re-enacting, is not something negative, let alone something that happens exclusively. Artists are not exclusively looking back. Rather, they do this in order to look forward. It’s a paradoxical movement, which I like a lot. This is more what I am interested in with certain projects than anything specifically to do with forms of re-enactment, repetition, etc. These kinds of practices can also be boring if there is no clear concept behind them, i.e., if they are just being done because it’s fun or fashionable to re-enact things from the past.
The projects I am interested in perform this turning back—this re-enactment, this repetition, this questioning of the past—in order to learn something about the present and to “enrich” the present as well as the future. They don’t perform this turning back in order to banalize history, but to do exactly the opposite—to direct attention to something that has taken place in the past, but whose meaning within the present has not yet been fully acknowledged.
The media archaeological focus is interested in digging up buried potentials that can be reactivated and that can possibly act as resistant or emancipatory elements in the context of today’s mainstream technological development.
I find it increasingly interesting to look at how different pasts are becoming legible at different times. Just look at the massive current interest in artworks and performances from the 1960s and 70s. Another example could be early computer art of the 1960s. It was only through the development of contemporary software art that early computer art (which until very recently was considered to be very kitschy and uninteresting) suddenly became interesting and “legible” again. The interest in and the questions directed at the past are generated by present developments.
In a recent interview, Walter Benjamin from New York (who is in fact an artist, or a group of artists using this name as a pseudonym and, under different pseudonyms like “Mondrian,” “Alfred Barr,” or “Kazimir Malevich” is responsible for uncanny repetitions of exhibitions central to Western art history in improbable places such as a basement in Belgrade, a former small office space in Berlin, or a former shop in New York) has pointed to the fact that, while modernism was about turning unknown territories into known territory, today it is about realizing that what is seemingly known is in fact uncharted territory—today, the past appears to be this unknown territory while the future is largely known.13
NP: In an interview, your colleague Tom McCarthy, an artist and novelist with whom you have collaborated on several occasions, noted that in the current cultural climate, art—and not publishing—has become the place where literary ideas and themes are creatively discussed and transformed.14 Which science fiction novels are of inspiration to you or are closest to what you have been researching in the field of media archeology and so-called “past-potential futures?”
IA: Possibly Tom is right. But let me nevertheless give you some examples from the field of literature that I find highly inspiring for the topics I am working on. I actually just finished reading Tom McCarthy’s first novel Remainder (2005). It is a fascinating work about trauma and repetition—or, rather, re-enactment—and how re-enactment in this particular case becomes borderless and ultimately totalitarian, using humans and animals merely as material for making events happen again and again. I highly recommend reading this book. By the way, I just started to read another of his books, one in which Tom asks whether the classic comic series Tintin et Milou could be considered literature or not.15
More connected to my media archaeological interest are certainly the novels Omon Ra by Russian writer Viktor Pelevin (a book about the deadly truth of Soviet space travel), Gravity’s Rainbow by the American author Thomas Pynchon, a 1970s classic, writings by the Russian Futurist Velimir Chlebnikov, and much of Russian and Soviet science fiction published right before and after the revolution. Explicitly dystopian novels also come to my mind, like We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov.
On a recent trip to London I discovered Suzanne Treister’s work/exhibition HEXEN 2039 at Chelsea Space. The project charts a fictional protagonist’s “scientific research towards the development of new mind control technologies for the British Military. This work uncovers or constructs links between conspiracy theories, occult groups, Chernobyl, witchcraft, the US film industry, British Intelligence agencies, Soviet brainwashing, behavior control experiments of the US Army and recent practices of its Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (PSYOP), in light of alarming new research in contemporary neuroscience.”16
NP: Your activities also reach into the activist field of the open source movement. This term seems to be used often in the contemporary art field as well, especially as a counterpoint to art’s fixation on authorship and originality. Do you see these approaches converging in some successful and lasting way?
IA: No. Very often these notions remain extremely shallow in the context of contemporary art. I have a feeling that notions like open source, file sharing, etc., are often used because they are fashionable. Their real meaning would seriously threaten the art context, which is extremely conservative in this respect. Seriously questioning the notion of authorship and originality is impossible. Appropriation art was not seriously questioning the notion of authorship because the artists signed their own names—their works could be easily integrated into the art historical narrative and into the narrative of authorship (my claim would be that this is what they wanted from the very beginning, and appropriation was just a new strategy). If you play with the notion of authorship in a serious way, suddenly nobody finds it funny anymore. Just look at the 2006 exhibition “What is Modern Art? (Group Show),” which I co-curated with Walter Benjamin from New York. The works included in this exhibition seriously question what you think you know about modern art: the works are copies of famous artworks attributed to big names in the art world—and they are dated in a strange way. For many visitors this turned out to be a genuinely unsettling experience.
This interview took place via e-mail exchanges in November 2006 between Ljubljana, Paris, and Berlin around the time Inke’s book Avantgarda v vzvratnem ogledalu was translated into Slovene and published by Maska (Ljubljana). The interview was updated in autumn 2008.
*Image of Neue Slowenische Kunst courtesy delo.si