Issue 2/2016 - Parallax Views

The Emergence of „Eastern Europe“

Cosmin Costinaş and Ekaterina Degot in Conversation

What various roles has the category „Eastern Europe“ come to assume in art discourse since the fall of the Communist Bloc? Does it serve a clearly defined purpose, or does its relevance lie in the kind of operative function it performs in its many different contexts? And finally, what is the relationship of this category to the paradigm of global art that has become dominant during the past two decades? Ekaterina Degot, a native of Moscow and currently artistic director of the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne, and Cosmin Costinaş, Romanian-born director and curator at Para/Site Art Space in Hong Kong, set out to address and explore a number of such questions. The breadth of their conversation ranges from considerations of the various shortcomings the term „Eastern Europe“ might imply, to speculations about a more nuanced, deliberate usage that might still be of real value in today’s discourse and beyond.

Cosmin Costinaş: What does the notion of Eastern Europe mean for your worldview and your current practice?

Ekaterina Degot: The reason we’re having this conversation is that the two of us have something in common: we deserted the field of „Eastern Europe“ entirely, or at least to some extent. You are working in Hong Kong and I am working in Cologne, which is very West; by the same token, however, the name of my institution, the Academy of the Arts of the World, is a euphemism for non-Western art. It consists largely of a nomadic festival and an exhibition space where we carry out projects dealing with non-Western practices questioning the West. There is a question I have to answer all the time on both a practical and theoretical level: How does Eastern Europe fit into this? Is it Western, or non-Western, or not Western enough? The main narrative I am dealing with is institutional multiculturalism in Germany, which tends to ascribe ethnicity to everything and to reduce social and economic problems to blood identity. Only this alleged authenticity grants the right to be represented. Eastern Europe is expected to provide a variety of those authenticities. For me, however, Eastern Europe is an alternative to this mono-ethnic approach, and especially to cultural fundamentalism, since it represents complex imagined communities, be it the remains of the Habsburg Empire, the remains of a buried Ashkenazi presence in Europe, or a post-war, non-market-driven society. In any case it represents resistance to mono-identities and provides an opportunity to think in a non-nationalistic and non-ethnic way – also outside any religious framework, which is rather unpopular nowadays. How do you see Eastern Europe from the perspective of Hong Kong?

CC: To a certain extent I also use the notion of Eastern Europe, not as an instrument of resistance, but more as an operative notion and as a case study for a particular type of change and evolving understanding both of geography and time. It is sometimes suggested that the marker of Eastern Europe has been dislocated over the last ten years by a global paradigm. In my view it would be more helpful to see this in a slightly different relational arrangement, where after the end of the Cold War a new global paradigm was ushered in, one that was itself creating regional markers. Eastern Europe should thus be seen as the creation of a global perspective on contemporary art, rather than a precursor to a global era that took its place. Every region constitutes a building block in the global art world (except perhaps the USA and the former European colonial powers that are not yet fully marked as regions or provinces). It is true that there has been a process of dislocation and of profound change over the last ten years, but this might have more to do with phenomena within this process of composing a global narrative that was already in motion from the early 1980s onward. When the forming of the global art world began after the Cold War, Eastern Europe entered the scene immediately as Eastern Europe, as did South-East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America (though building on – or perhaps in this case actually dislocating – previous narratives from within it and about it), or sub-Saharan Africa. In this respect, the 1990s was a time of negotiating terminology, borders and their scope – how should these markers be called, where did they begin and end, and ultimately what should they do? But these were processes developing alongside and in direct relation to global expansion rather than one dislocating the other.
There is another paradox here: While the global system of contemporary art claims for itself the ability of universal translation between contexts, this is in fact not particularly accurate. The global system of contemporary art is constituted by a complex array of vocabularies and institutions, both concrete and abstract, such as the new institution of the curator or the new version of the institution of the artist, prescribing how artists should behave and manage themselves in this new set of relations. This system, which has replicated itself on a global scale over decades, creates certain specificities, in a culturalist way, by always creating local stories, narratives describing what the local context should be like politically and culturally, also from an „identitarian“ as well as an art historical point of view. Contemporary art constructs a certain type of genealogy for itself in almost every context, there is almost always a place for a certain type of modernist figure that needs to be named or sometimes invented, for a figure of the neo avant-garde and so on. Different art historical moments that have had a different sense of their own historicity and a different geographical projection are being appropriated and integrated in the local or regional narratives of the global contemporary art system.

ED: But has Eastern Europe already taken its place in this globalized art world? Or is there a place reserved for it?

CC: I would say that almost all the notable agents of influence, forums and institutions are taking it into account. Whether all the international collections have actually developed in the direction of integrating Eastern European art in a broad, deep, and nuanced way, and whether this process is happening in a meaningful way, is a whole other question.

ED: I have to add that I see art from Eastern Europe in contexts I didn’t see ten years ago, for example at the São Paulo Biennial 2014, where considerable, central space was devoted to Edward Krasiński with two enormous complexes of work on display. The curators wanted to tell us something with that, because the Biennial included very few historical works. So it was quite a gesture to give such exposure to an artist from Eastern Europe, which was more or less unconnected with the rest of the material there that was focused more on regional themes.

CC: We can also think of documenta 12 – which included quite a number of artists from Eastern Europe – as a turning point. The artists were integrated in a way that acknowledged the histories that were reconstructed through these inclusions, and which was very nuanced in the different positions of each of these artistic figures. Many of them have had practices spanning many decades employing very different artistic languages and with different political allegiances. This was reflected in the exhibition. I can also think, more recently, of the last Gwangju Biennial, which had a very different strategy, trying very imaginatively to create counter-narratives to the issues of gender, body, and relations of power in the Korean context. It seamlessly included many figures from Eastern European art. The exhibition was not about positing Eastern Europe as a category that needed to be rewritten. It was more an example of a certain dialogue, going beyond the first level that simply acknowledged the existence of an interesting region of Eastern Europe.

ED: How is the „East“ related to the „Global South,“ or for example Greece in its present economic situation?

CC: Obviously the situation in Greece or the Ukraine should urgently move us to reconsider the sense of Eastern Europe as exception that has defined the first two decades of the post-communist transition, when Eastern Europe saw itself as Europe between brackets par excellence. Also, the eastern borders of Eastern Europe are now more firmly entrenched than ever they were, or at least clearer now because there have always been nuances and spaces of aspiration and potential, hybridity and ambiguity. Many ambiguities at the borders of Europe have been clarified now. The ambiguities have not disappeared though, they have moved, stronger and clearer, to the core of Europe.

ED: Overall, it is important to resist the culturalization and „othering“ of Eastern Europe. It is very pleasant to dwell in and delve into Eastern European irony and sense of humor as some sort of soft Otherness, but it only serves to camouflage the fact that politically, Eastern Europe also gravitates towards right-wing nationalism. If we are talking about political reality we see very different vectors. As cultural producers, museum people or even as collectors we are interested in keeping the specificity of Eastern Europe in order to speak about it and analyze it. At the same time, politics can work against this with the desire to blend with the West, or to subvert this longing for specificity in fundamentalism. How do you view this contradiction?

CC: The most important division in Europe now seems to be the culturalized North, which is the tax-paying, neoliberalist (of a nativist social-democratic persuasion), and hard-working, as opposed to its counter-stereotype. Eastern Europe appears eager to be counted in or among this cultural North. This North plus East versus South division is now far more acute than any hangovers of the West versus East discussions, even if it ignores the full economic and social picture, the (still) substantial income disparities between the former Communist Bloc and most of the rest of Europe, or to a certain extent the lingering institutional differences.

ED: What is also important concerning the general notion of Europe is the current Russian and Ukrainian debate on Europeanism. This noble notion is alarmingly acquiring explicitly racist overtones, as a statement like „we are Europeans“ is followed by „we are not those bloody Asians,“ in other words culturally and socially backwards. For Russians, that would be Ukrainians, for Ukrainians Eastern Ukrainians. Maybe it is important to keep „Eastern European-ness“ not as an essentialist notion, but as something with which to question the essentialism of Europe.

CC: I would like to emphasize something I referred to before: the configuration of regions as a product of the post-Cold War era, and of the emergence of global contemporary art. We need to underline the position of Eastern Europe in this, because it was the first region par excellence, the first built-up unit in the global arena of contemporary art. The Eurocentric imagination around the end of the Cold War pointed to a phenomenon unfolding across Europe, when in fact it was really a global one. The emergence of Eastern Europe in global contemporary art has been a defining component for the last 25 years, and it can also be taken as a model when trying to understand other regions, their emergence and crises, when looking at the changes and ruptures of the past decades, and when trying to understand how different geographies were created. This is where Eastern Europe as an operative concept is still useful.

ED: I am very much annoyed when Eastern European identity is objectified and exoticized. It is more productive to perceive Eastern Europe as the subject of a gaze, the subject of a reading by the West and its allegedly universal cultural production in the first place, be it Hegelian philosophy, realist painting, or modernist art. This sort of second-hand self-colonized universalism that you also see in Asia or Latin America is actually far more universal than the original. A cultural artifact aspires to be something and you see the distance between the two, which some would call incompleteness or imperfection but which represents something I would call productive vulnerability. Coming back to art, do you think young artists from this region still consider themselves Eastern European, or is this notion disappearing?

CC: The issue is less clear-cut today then it used to be, and also differs from country to country. There is always a demand and a market, albeit a shrinking and more marginal one for a certain type of identity politics and self-exoticizing art practices. On the other end of the spectrum there is an interesting intellectual production that still uses this notion, often in quite productive ways. Look at Romania and the leftist discourse there over the last five years. There, the notion of the East is still being discussed as a valid term. However, this is done from a new perspective that brings interesting points to the wider discussion(s) there. Despite all the exhaustion the term has experienced and the liberal connotations it has picked up, it is not irrelevant today when used in a thoughtful and critical way. This should also be the case in the Ukraine, shouldn’t it?

ED: In Ukraine the notion of Eastern Europe would definitely be a construction, because officially it has not been part of Eastern Europe for 70 years, having instead been part of the Soviet Union. With Ukraine's very complex historical background there is something to be rediscovered – but in a controversial way. To touch upon another interesting topic here: why do you think it is conceptual art that has become the normative tradition of the Eastern European neo-avant-garde? In Russia, for instance, I would not have expected private institutions to support this particular kind of art in the first place. I had rather imagined that they would be interested in something more conservative. Meanwhile, the bonding between private interests and institutions and conceptual art has taken place everywhere.

CC: I guess this is a question of validation and of legitimacy. If we are talking about the new elites who are supporting this artistic language, these elites are in need of being recognized and being connected to the global elites who they see as their peers. This language is immediately translatable and understandable for other power structures on a global level – so it is a very efficient fuel for fostering such connections. It would be more difficult to obtain this recognition relying on various local artistic idiosyncrasies. As an example from Asia, the otherwise very conservative and nativist dictatorship of the Marcos family in the Philippines was very enthusiastic about supporting conceptual and neo-avant-garde practices in their country, as a badge of recognition in the modern club of US allies.

ED: It also tells us how contemporary art opened up the way for neoliberal thinking, with its notion of immaterial production, something Alexander Alberro has described in relation to New York. There, conceptual artists were of course more directly related to advertising. In Eastern Europe they were not, but they were and have been dreaming about or playing out some of the metaphorical economic schemes and scenarios.

CC: Conceptualism in Eastern Europe often involves very narrative and lyrical practices employing conceptualist vocabularies. And indeed, it is often in strong solidarity with very conservative positions.

ED: Perhaps not in a classical sense, but there is a strong tradition of performance and participatory work in Eastern Europe. In my opinion this will go down in history as something extremely original. I recently saw that MoMA’s permanent exhibition now shows Latin American abstract art from the 1950s and 1960s that entered the canon and was legitimized as an important part of a universal narrative only very recently. I am not sure whether Eastern European art has arrived at that point yet.

CC: There have been efforts at MoMA and other larger global museums to expand their geographies for various reasons. Discussing new geographies in my opinion is part of the mainstream at the moment. The bastions of the North Atlantic art scene are aware of this and are responding to it. There is a sense of connecting peripheral avant-gardes from Eastern Europe with the avant-gardes of Southeast Asia and Latin America. The question is, however, how nuanced this form of integration can be.

ED: Still, I see the international artistic landscape controlled by formalist narratives. Despite all the interest in political issues, interdisciplinarity and so on, there is still a predominant formalist reading and still a lot of reticence to anti-formalist theory and attitude, which limits the space for understanding art from the former Communist Bloc. Still, Eastern European art also has to be put into and viewed from and within different contexts.

CC: By comparison, ten years ago in Hong Kong the local scene was very much lamenting their marginality amidst all the hype about China. Now that it has become an important center both commercially and institutionally for the Asian scene, Eastern Europe is perceived simply as an indistinguishable part of Europe. But looking at Eastern Europe from Hong Kong can perhaps help us define or speak of it from different perspectives, such as that part of Europe that did not participate in the colonial project. This should not be uttered self-righteously and uncritically, but it would be an interesting contribution to the debates of years to come within the ever-expanding globalized (art) world.