Issue 2/2016 - Parallax Views

Eastern European … Solidarity!

Rasha Salti in conversation with Branislav Dimitrijević

RS: I would like to start this conversation with projects I am preoccupied with at the moment. I’ve been involved in two exhibitions that are based on intensive research, focusing on the 1960s and 1970s. The first exhibition was called Past Disquiet, the history of another exhibition that took place in Beirut in 1978, organized by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This was a very peculiar exhibition with 200 works by international artists from 30 different countries. The story behind this project confronts the documentation of an exhibition, which was destroyed during the 1982 Israeli invasion; the works were either destroyed or disappeared. I started this research with a partner, Kristine Khouri, who also lives in Beirut. This research unfolded into other important stories. We realized that this exhibition was presented as a „museum in exile“. Trying to excavate what is a museum in exile, we found out that it was a Brazilian curator, Mário Pedrosa, who had been in exile in Chile because of the military dictatorship in Brazil; but after the Pinochet coup, he and a vast number of Chileans were exiled in various countries in Europe. They launched this „museum in exile“, a very interesting museographic initiative, where artists donated works to a touring exhibition that constituted a „museum without walls“. During the research, we tried to find out who were the artists that donated works to the Palestinians, like Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies, but there were also Italian, German, Polish and Japanese artists. By trying to find out who they were and how they came to support the cause of Palestine, we were in fact uncovering a variety of artistic and museographic practices in the former East and the former West of Europe. One of the findings was discovering artists who were still alive but completely unknown, i.e. they were excluded from the canon. They were neither the vanguard nor were they mediocre artists; they are artists who were very political and whose political engagement has continued to the present day. There are no books or articles about them, which led us to reflect a great deal about what it takes for art to remain in public, in social life, and in public space. In the case of former Eastern Europe, this implied interrogating the notion of solidarity, in contrast to the kind of solidarity that comes organically from „civil society“. In the former East, solidarity was a paradigm of the state-sanctioned international socialist friendship paradigm. In other words, we are contending with semi-official artists, who have not openly been dissenting, and who have not been in danger of going to jail, but rather artists that state institutions allowed to circulate and travel to countries in order to witness first-hand the reality of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. They produced art, which has been completely marginalized and forgotten today, having come back with the memory of an extraordinary experience. We generally dismiss this kind of solidarity because it was state-sponsored. The politicians behind it were most likely cynical, but the artists were not. Secondly, we learned that the former East represented a realm of mobility and circulation that was exceptional for stateless people like Palestinians, and for exiled Chileans. In this context, the story of the GDR is astounding, they took 100,000 Chileans in exile, some were artists, and some were not. That’s why Erich Honecker ended up in Chile after the fall of the Berlin wall.

BD: Let me remind you of the kind of stories that have not been very much present in the canon. You all know the institution called Student Cultural Center in Belgrade, which, since the early 1970s has been the main hub for what is called New Artistic Practice or historical Conceptual Art with the most prominent figures like Marina Abramović and Raša Todosijević. These practices, which were going on in that space, have become part of the canon. At the same time, when they were doing this experimental work, a big mural on the wall of the Student Cultural Center was painted as an act of solidarity with the people of Latin America, foremost to the people of Chile, which corresponds to the processes you have been exploring. Over the years, this mural was fading. A few years ago, the artist Darinka Pop-Mitić started a project of renovating this mural and researching its background. She pointed out that this, as an important part of the Socialist heritage, is an issue below the general radar and thus difficult to research, but it was meant to be something very visible at the time. There is a certain practice among younger artists, like in the Ukraine among artists like Nikita Kadan, about whom you gave a presentation yesterday, to get to know more and dig deeper into the notion of socialist heritage. There is a lot of space between the two canonical paradigms, transcending a kind of dialectic that is inserted into the identity of Eastern European art, which used to be between Socialist Realist Art and Socialist Avant-garde Art. When we talk about Eastern European Art, we always have this dialectic in mind. Boris Groys is one of the key figures that have structured this as a central issue. Most of our historical work so far is related to this dichotomy, which doesn’t really allow for a full ability to understand what else has happened beyond this dichotomy. When you talk about the Yugoslav situation, which has always been somewhat different, the inclusion of Yugoslav art into the Eastern European canon has always been very problematic. Here you are entering the most dominant framework of thought, which is a totalitarian paradigm, an easy dismissal of the society as a grey zone as in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Central for the totalitarian paradigm is the dichotomy between official and dissident culture. Over the last years, there has been a lot of research by younger scholars in film studies and visual art, trying to combat this omnipresence of the totalitarian paradigm. I think that there are three important points in breaking away from this paradigm when we talk about Yugoslavia. There is the People’s Liberation Struggle as a very unique form of the anti-Fascist movement and mode of self-organization, which even in Socialist Yugoslavia was out of the canon. When you think about art museums of that time, they never included art from the people’s liberation struggle as part of the high-art modernist canon. This interest has been something very recent.
It is about people coming from different backgrounds organizing themselves, going to the forests and fighting against the Nazis for four years. It is about the culture of the rupture. The other legacy is the self-management Socialism, also becoming more important for the younger generation now. The third strand is the non-Alignment movement and the solidarity of the Third World. These are some of the legacies that were omitted or neglected when creating the canon of the Eastern European paradigm.

RS: It is basically from working underground that I feel challenged and have to reinvent certain paradigms. The second project that has forced me to rethink the totalitarian legacy of the former East started from the South, from where I come from, and has to do with the scholarships afforded to Palestinians to study film, art, theater etc. Even in Lebanon, which was not a Communist country, the Communist party was able to send people who never dreamed of becoming artists to Moscow, Warsaw or Prague in order to access university or academic training. The second research project I am presently working on (with Koyo Kouoh), is an exhibition about African and Arab filmmakers who studied in Moscow at the VGIK film school. My interest in this subject started a long time ago when I curated a retrospective on Syrian cinema, and I realized that a large number of Syrian filmmakers had studied at the VGIK. The scholarship program there started in 1971 and ended in 1989. When they came back to Syria to make their films, for the most part, their films were either censored or frowned upon by the regime. At the same time, these films screened in Cannes and other big festivals and received international acclaim. Most were not shown to the Syrian public. In a very quick sketch, the paradox was as follows: citizens of the totalitarian Baath regime had studied in Moscow under the aegis of another totalitarian regime, to become master craftsmen of subversion. This is the paradox: how does one go from Damascus to Moscow and become an exquisitely subversive filmmaker? We learned from the research we conducted that the mentors teaching at the VGIK were perhaps not openly dissenting filmmakers, ? they did not want to leave the Soviet Union, and perhaps did not quite choose to become teachers, but when they were „busy“ with teaching, they were not making films, or not as prolifically. In other words, they didn’t want to be like Tarkovsky – outside the system –, but they defended criticality and subversion and communicated that to their students. The VGIK didn’t produce propagandists. How do we write the mentors and their students into film history? How do we locate identity and subversion within mainstream Soviet cinema as well as the transnational travel of the language of subversion to Syrian and Arab cinema?

BD: This is also where to mention Yugoslav cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, the so-called Black Wave cinema, which also goes along with the paradigm of a quintessential dissident position. These films were measured in the way they were censored or not allowed to be distributed. If we think about the circumstances of production, then you realize that all these films were produced through government schemes, because there was no other way to do it. This raises the question of whether something produced within such a cultural policy can be considered official or dissident art. Censorship was a process of negotiation rather than a straightforward banning. We could talk about Želimir Žilnik who is one of the quintessential filmmakers and quite active, whose film Early Works from 1969 won the Golden Bear Award in Berlin. The film was put in front of the Yugoslav court in 1969 in order to be banned, but the judge made the decision not to ban it. Finally it was through the coup in the production house and the hardliners’ wing of the party that the film was banned and not circulated. Hence, the Communist party turned out to be a complex of negotiations. At that time you talked with politicians about film and were able to engage in a discussion. At that time you could openly discuss whether Žilnik was exaggerating with the „Lumpenproletariat“ issue officially not belonging to Socialism or was he pointing out at something crucial in the social texture. Žilnik is verbally very skilled, and also a lawyer, and responded to all of the accusations in a Marxist way. This complex field of negotiations should be considered when rethinking the issue, which is a parallel to the Syrian filmmakers’ story you mentioned.

RS: I’ll continue with two stories as somebody who writes about art and often tells stories, because theory sometimes seems to fail my experience. The Syrian filmmaker I want to talk about, Ossama Mohammed, graduated from VGIK in 1979 and went back to Syria. At the time, there was a simple process for film production in Syria: filmmakers had to join the National Film Organization (they received a salary), they submitted a script to a committee, it had to earn approval, and then move to the next step, pre-production, then production and eventually, once the film was edited, it needed to earn the license from another committee for release (or public viewing). Cinemas were owned by the state. Mohammed went through the whole process after he completed his first feature. The committee decided not to write a report but to call the director of the National Film Organization, informing him that they are unable to write the report and recommending strongly that he should see the film to issue the verdict. The director was obviously intrigued and watched the film, and came to the same conclusion as his committee that he would refrain from taking a decision. Circumstances were such that a French critic was visiting Damascus, Ossama showed him the film and somehow it was invited to the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs. The National Film Organization had to issue the permission for the film to travel. The director decided to defer to the Minister of Culture, she watched the film and and decided that the only person to sign off on that permission was Hafez al-Assad. Hafez al-Assad watched the film and said that it could go to Cannes, but that no Syrian should ever see it. The reason for this was that the film was about an arranged wedding that takes place in a small village so that two families could expand their land. The patriarch who engineered this worked in a small town nearby as a telephone operator. So he listened in to everyone’s conversations and drew power from that. He was violent and a misogynist, he beat his wife and his sister and [...] looked exactly like Hafez al-Assad. This is what no one wanted to write down on paper and shoulder that responsibility. Ossama titled the film (which is a masterpiece), Stars in Broad Daylight. When I interviewed him, I learned that his mentor at the VGIK, Igor Talankin, had made a film about the siege of Leningrad during WWII and that it had been censored. It was also titled Stars in Broad Daylight. This act of transmission and generosity reveals a different kind of history of film. These encounters of people from different geographies, cultures and references, who for a moment feel that as artists and creators they write a different kind of history, they realize unfulfilled dreams for one another. (I don’t think Ossama knew his film was going to be censored.) So there are two censored films with the same title.
The second story is related to the first project I mentioned. The GDR had signed an agreement with the PLO for a number of collaborations including an exchange program of visiting artists. Five GDR artists traveled to Beirut in 1979 and engaged in solidarity actions, visiting camps and seeing the poverty of the people and meeting the fighters. One of the artists produced a portrait, not of a Palestinian fighter, but of himself, dressed in the Palestinian freedom fighter’s signature keffiyeh. He took it back with him to the GDR. To me this portrait is like the story of Stars in Broad Daylight, the story of subjectivity as an artist and creator, who is profoundly affected by an encounter. As art historians and curators we fail these stories. We should be as generous and creative as they are. This is what re-thinking the former East should lead us to do.

BD: This kind of discussion is what is happening now, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall and this paradigm shift. In the 90s we were driven by the dream-world of the West. The conservatives dreamed of the West as a solid, orderly, religious, and ethical world. The liberals dreamed of it as a space of free speech and a free market. Everyone invested a lot of energy in this kind of dreaming as if being disconnected and having to run after this train and catch it. The accumulated frustration with transition is now turning into different stories, leading to a speculation of what really happened. For others this transition was maybe not a frustration. There are also success stories of transition. In economic parameters, when you compare the GDP of Yugoslavia in 1989 and now, the GDP in Serbia is much lower now than back then, but maybe it is higher in Estonia now. In our, sometimes-called „West Balkans“ experience, this shows a totally different world and setup, from which it is difficult to dream certain dreams. We are getting back to things but not in a nostalgic way, dreaming of a non-existing fantastic world, but getting back to a model that once existed, which had its own legacy and tradition, being functional to a certain point although Socialism has been deemed as non-functional, like: ideologically it may be interesting but not really functional! When we talk about the self-management system, I remember I had the privilege to talk with Tony Benn, the famous British labor politician and backbencher, who was a minister in Wilson’s government. I asked him about what Yugoslav self-management meant for him, be it just a token thing he was curious about or was he really interested in. He said that in the British government they were seriously studying and even trying to apply some of these models. It is something that cannot be dismissed as it happened in the 1990s and especially in the Balkans war, which made this story much more complicated. I think these are the new potentials of research. There is still a lot of space, which, with this frustration can become a positive agency to do something. Otherwise we all complain, which this region is all about. The question remains, as in Rasha’s project about the destroyed international exhibition for Palestine, when they went to Italy to find the Italian participants there, about being part or out of the canon there. This was the reason why this legacy is somehow forgotten, because it had nothing to do with the Western canon. West was the mediation of the East, when you think about Russian avant-garde, which in 1960s Yugoslavia was mediated through Camilla Grey’s book.
But here we are also talking about the easy dismissal of political and social models established in socialism and post-colonialism, together the collapse of the non-Alignment movement in the 1980s and the identification of socialism and post-colonialism as the breeding ground for dictatorship and totalitarianism. When you dismiss something so easily as the past, it appears again in the future. Or, to use a different example of the blurred past-future divide: In Serbia it was the case with Milošević, whom we considered a remnant of the past. He was seen as a relic of the past, which was to be removed to open the doors for the future. Now we see that these Milošević’s appear again in the European Union. Viktor Orbán is a model and in Croatia you also have a new, almost Fascist government, the Polish situation is also a case in point of this trend we had in Serbia in the 1990s. This time-lagging experience also says something about the future. It’s like in athletics when a runner who is so slow and finally in the last round appears in the same group of runners.

RS: The transformation in Italy is tragic for both the former East and former West. If you examine the legacy of the Rome Experimental Film School, you have radical Algerian filmmakers studying with Brazilian filmmakers like Glauber Rocha for example. The films betray fascinating shared aesthetic sensibilities. Rome in the 1970s and its art scene were completely open, it wasn’t just about solidarity, there was as much engagement with local struggles as with international causes like the opposition to the US war in Vietnam, or the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the dictatorship in Greece. Political subjectivity was organically worldly.

BD: This is again a question of perspective. We are confronted with the process in which politics is becoming only identity politics. When I talk about the Yugoslav model, I sound like a vegan or member of some kind of sect, and want my own chunk of identity. When you talk about solidarity, you talk about the solidarity of all these identitarian groups and solidarity all of a sudden becomes quite impossible and public space is endlessly fragmented. How to establish solidarity when you don’t have some kind of common ground? If identity is taking everything, then it is difficult because at those times there was something in common, some idea of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-fascism. Now the question remains of what we do have in common? The rise of the right wing movement might help us in a way. The whole legacy of anti-Fascism is wiped out somehow, especially in Eastern Europe, which is the location of a neo-Fascist renewal. This danger of strengthening would eventually have to lead to some kind of solidarity; otherwise we are lost in our vegan-Yugoslav identity. Žilnik made a film two years ago about Syrian refugees in Serbia before the most recent and biggest migration of Syrian refugees hit Europe (Logbook Serbistan / Destinacija Serbistan). This is a question about the artist’s responsibility to react in time. His work has always been about noticing in the right moment what was really going on.

RS: Unfortunately we were not able to interview the Soviet mentors at VGIK of the time, but we interviewed the African and Arab filmmakers who were students there. Mohammed repeated several times how much the mentors were intent on communicating – albeit in coded words – the importance of freethinking and liberating one’s mind from ideology. Students felt that there was a competition on who knew the dogma better and who could recite full sentences from „official ideology“, and Mohammed actually always failed on that score, however everyone was also pushed towards an unbridled imagination. Filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako also confirmed it was his experience.