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“East” as geopolitical category

Nataša Ilić and Peter Osborne in conversation

Magazine > Voices > “East” as geopolitical category

How are references to “the East” or “Eastern Europe” to be understood in art-critical contexts? What shifts have such references undergone over the last 20 years? And what critical function, if any, might speaking of “the East” still serve today? Nataša Ilić, member of the curatorial team What, How & for Whom/WHW, which has been involved in cutting-edge exhibition-making since 1999, and Peter Osborne, renowned philosopher and author of the 2013 theoretical take on contemporary art Anywhere or not at all, set out to tackle this and related questions in the conversation that follows. Their exchange leads them from various geopolitical considerations through a critical assessment of Biennale curating to speculation on the potential obsolescence of New York’s MoMA.

Nataša Ilić: “What, how and for whom – anywhere or not at all,” to combine the titles of two projects we have been pursuing, sound like a good motto to make a provisional break from Eastern Europe. But let us perhaps talk about Greece first. It looks like Greece has nothing in common with Anywhere or not at all, but it does in the sense of what you are proposing in your book, viz. that contemporary art is post-conceptual art and that contemporaneity is not given but has to be constructed, that it is fictional, geopolitical and transnational. You were also writing about a horizon of expectations that you placed in relation to the fall of communism, and you said that this event came as a surprise in terms of time, but did not really breach the horizon of expectations and was inscribed in the capitalist logic. So how is Greece following the apocalyptic capitalist logic?

Peter Osborne: To answer the question about Greece means to begin with the story of Eastern Europe. For me, all these regional categories that look as if they are geographical categories are of course geopolitical categories. That means that their unity is historical and not geographical, which means that Eastern Europe does not exist geographically. Eastern Europe exists as the shadow of the former political unity of the Soviet Bloc, as a sort of memory and political entity.

Greece is interesting in this respect, because if we believe like I do that pseudo-geographical categories are geopolitical categories and that these geopolitical categories are essentially geopolitically economic categories, then Greece reveals to us the extent to which current, deregulated-capital-market-type capitalism is re-inscribing regional boundaries. At the level of culture it was very hard for people to imagine only a year ago that there might be a real sense that Greece would no longer be part of Europe, not in the sense that it would no longer be part of the EU, but that the EU would be the only effective meaning at the level of geopolitics to the term Europe.

So Greece is shocking and revelatory at the same time, as it reveals the political determination of such geographical categories. What is a problem is the process of economic denationalization, which is the condition for transnationalization that has necessarily as its other side cultural renationalization. Cultural renationalization is the necessary internal effect of economic denationalization. The danger is that people try to combat economic denationalization with cultural renationalization. We all gather around the historic heritage of Greece as a culture and its relation to fantasies of Europe, particularly in Germany. There is nothing so ‘Greek’ as the culture produced in the 18th century by German Hellenism. What we mean by European culture is a fantasy produced by Germans of Greece.

“The danger is that people try to combat economic denationalization with cultural renationalization.”

– Peter Osborne

Nataša Ilić: Which brings us to the move by documenta 14 to go to Athens, which I find interesting and daring, especially under such contested circumstances. The fact that this is a German thing happening in Athens is of course full of contradictions, but maybe also open to possibilities. There aren’t any prescriptions how to do that, and the possibility of a grand failure is obvious, but one has to push it to the end and live with the consequences.

But what you said about the focus on national culture as a possible consequence of losing sovereignty has, to my mind, a lot to do with Eastern Europe. In my practice as a curator of WHW, Eastern Europe has always been more of an operative term. It was carved out of the Cold War, carved out of revisionist post-Cold War triumphal ideas. For us, thinking about Eastern Europe always meant looking for similarities, on the basis of which one can look at particularities and differences. Similarities not only in terms of artistic practice – like how much do Eastern European conceptual practices look like those in New York – but more about the political legacy of socialism and communism, whose fall was not something that affected Eastern Europe alone, but was significant for the whole of Europe and the entire world beyond.

We used the term as a technical notion to designate certain power relations. We thought that if we ignored it somebody would profit from this ignorance and we should be aware of this. But I would like to go back to your proposition in Anywhere or not at all, that contemporary art is post-conceptual. I would like you to elaborate on that and see if the terminology you are using makes the category of Eastern Europe obsolete and the whole debate over it unnecessary.

© Damir Žižic
My sweet little lamb (Everything we see could also be otherwise), Zagreb, 4 November 2016 – 8 May 2017, Photo: © Damir Žižic.

Peter Osborne: I think there are different categories of analyses involved here. The question is to what extent you can try to think the history of post-war and especially post-1960s art in terms of another historical ontology of art, and how you can articulate that level of discourse with a historical discourse. The main mediating categories are political and economic ones. In terms of what is currently going on in critical art history, there is a very liberal tendency to think of the history of the 20th century as containing an enormous parenthesis, which stretches from 1917 to 1989.

A significant part of the globe went into this parenthesis called the project for the construction of communism. After it ended, having returned, the project was to go and pick up all the national pieces from within the project for international communism and reintegrate them into the old national historical narrative by multiplying that narrative. So the basic move that applies to Eastern Europe is the same as the way of extending the history in Latin and South America and also in Southeast Asia – which is to expand the canon, render it more inclusive and accept its plurality. These are the basic movements of a liberal art history. They try to recover non-communist content through these other categories.

But it makes no sense if we think of globalized processes in this regard, because the way in which the Soviet Bloc was conceived at the level of global history was in terms of the concept of the Second World. There is an East-West narrative, which has always been very problematic and goes back a long way. But the political narrative of the post-war world was the Three World narrative. What happened when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, as a conceptual effect, was the abolition of the Third World, because there was no longer a Second World. The whole imaginary of what, under conditions of anti-imperial nationalisms and constructive post-colonial nationalisms could be conceived as a Third World, disappeared.

People haven’t known how to think this new geopolitical entity. That’s when they came up with the concept of North and South. This is a constructive but wholly political-ideological category. South means ‘the extent to which your solidarity extends’. It has a definition in a certain body of countries. It’s also an American continental term. So it’s a metaphor that doesn’t work for Africa at all, and doesn’t work for Russia. If you are in the South, you belong within the circle of an anti-capitalist, anti-globalizing category of solidarity. That’s why Greece is now part of the South, as a part of the category of solidarity. This however, is dangerous, because people think there is more reality to it than there is.

The São Paulo Biennial was centered on this notion of the South because of the journal South. But what that journal reveals is that the South is an ideological projection of a certain European Left. On a more general categorical level, it opens up the lower level to a greater possibility of determination. If you think in these categories as a curator you simply reproduce the system. So do you reproduce this new set of spatial divisions, or do you disrupt and deny them, or simply not use them at all? What annoys me about biennale curating is the way in which a regionalized globalism has renationalized artists at the level of their biographies. Individual artists are doomed to represent regions or nations, or nations without a state. In order for them to be represented, they have to be coded and decoded like this.

Nataša Ilić: A lot of biennales are trying to avoid the trap you’ve been talking about, but whether they succeed is questionable. Biennales do not exist through the intentions of artists and curators alone. Although biennials are still a place where difference is negotiated – and have proved useful in this respect for quite some time despite all the criticism – the biennale model has become rather exhausted. What might be a suitable replacement?

© Walter Seidl

Kontakt Art Collection

The conversation between Nataša Ilić and Peter Osborne was held on the occasion of Parallax Views – Repositioning the East at mumok Vienna in 2015. This series of conversations aims to take a closer look at the changing parameters of perspectives on art from the former East.

The full transcript has been published in the catalogue of Kontakt. The book is the first publication providing an overview of the eponymous art collection.

Kontakt. The Art Collection of Erste Group and ERSTE Foundation was founded in 2004. It focuses on Central, Eastern and South-Eastern European artistic activity which has accompanied the social and political developments of the past decades and has been contributing significant works to European art since the late 1950s.

Peter Osborne: The idea that the biennale model is exhausted is propagated by a small number of circulating curators who are getting tired and starting to drop out of that circuit and move into smaller art spaces where they can do things they consider more interesting. There is only one category of global art history, which is the Biennale, so actually it’s a single-category discipline at the moment. Who will replace these curators? People with more energy? Historically you would expect that there would be a generational dimension to this. There is a tendency to think that the political economy of art is about the art market, but in fact it is not. The political economy of art is about the functioning of such institutions in relation to international property markets, municipal development, and the creation of markets in states that didn’t have markets before. The latter is far more important than the art market. Places that don’t have markets want markets and biennales. Eastern Europe has to be located within these 100 new biennales of the last few decades.

My problem concerns the categories through which we think about art in relation to current curatorial projects. The more critical biennales and the artists they choose and show have had to rely a lot on historical rediscoveries. The strategy of rediscovering Eastern European conceptualism at documenta 12 became a paradigm for how historical works have become a source of critical support that lends or confers art-historical credibility. This opens up the question of how you use these heritages, how you position them within a contemporary art exhibition, how you collect them in their geographical integrity.

Nataša Ilić: This might serve as a link to the Kontakt collection. At some point it made sense to collect Eastern European art, even if the notion of Eastern European art was always problematic, often applied as a kind of brand and similar. And yet it enabled and gave way to a lot of research.

Peter Osborne: These works definitely have to be collected – but what do you do once you have collected them?

Nataša Ilić: Yes, that’s the question, and how to work with the collection so as not to completely mummify the many works that often resist or defy a fixed form and format? Not to authoritatively assign them a form, which would otherwise help put and place them on the market, turn them into something immutable, lasting forever etc.

Peter Osborne: Yes. For instance, the inclusion of Edward Krasiński in the last São Paulo Biennial: it didn’t seem to me as if the Biennale’s were curators thinking in terms of having to include Eastern Europe. It seemed more like an intuitive idea of an obscure association between a certain kind of conceptual constructivism in Poland in the 1960s and certain legacies in Latin America. This is more about the relationship between formalism and its specific locatedness – which is not geographical but political.

Nataša Ilić: In what sense is it political?

Peter Osborne: Historically there are strong connections between the concept of national cultures and the notion of the aesthetic. The history of these two concepts is very close, particularly in their Germanic origin. Aesthetisization is very much part of reactive cultural nationalism. Historically, conceptual art has always been associated with political art because of the latter’s conceptuality and the former’s rejection of aesthetisization. There is a strategic use of aesthetic materials. There is something inherently political about the strategic instrumental use of the aesthetic dimension within a work. Yet, there is nothing leftwing about conceptual art.

Nataša Ilić: I agree that there is nothing leftist in conceptual art as such. Actually, in Eastern Europe conceptual practices are often interpreted as dissident in relation to dictatorial regimes, as gestures of venerated and unproblematic artistic autonomy, and for us the task was how to complicate these questions, how to claim them within the frame of a broad leftist discontent, historically and in the present. Our work comes from a very specific time in former Yugoslavia and Croatia, where curating and contemporary art were uninhibited by academic traditions, uninhibited by political activism. It was a place where one could articulate certain political demands some 20 years ago. Remnants of this heritage travel with us in the three questions in our title WHW.

© Damir Žižic
My sweet little lamb (Everything we see could also be otherwise), Zagreb, 4 November 2016 – 8 May 2017, Photo: © Damir Žižic.

Peter Osborne: I appreciate that. But I am against over-epistemological notions of art. That was a heritage of the semiotic side of the culturalization of art history. The idea that art produces knowledge was a reaction to the aestheticist idea that there is a categorical distinction between art and cognition – and a correct one. Obviously art is a form of knowledge. But to conceive it primarily in terms of knowledge is mistaken. It has always also, and primarily, been a particular form of production; and in modernity, the production of the new. However much ‘the contemporary’ might be the current temporal articulation of history, the question of the production of the new remains internal to it, and is still the basic question for all practices. This is also the question of the avant-garde – whether what is called ‘the contemporary’ has an active relation to particular futures; and which elements of the contemporary those might be.

Nataša Ilić: Which brings us back to the role of the collection, as the question of the relation to particular futures should be central to every collection. What about the concerns related to the way Eastern European art could be presented in an institution like MoMA?

“The tragedy of the American, and in particular the New York art world, is that the global hegemony of the US is over, but even the American Left as a critical establishment has no clue that they are no longer the center of the world.”

– Peter Osborne

Peter Osborne: I think we can forget about MoMA. MoMA is part of a history that’s over. The tragedy of the American, and in particular the New York art world, is that the global hegemony of the US is over, but even the American Left as a critical establishment has no clue that they are no longer the center of the world. They have intuitions but do not really accept them. MoMA is no longer a model for anything. The issue lies elsewhere. Maybe the big new Hong Kong museum is the one that will attempt to define the model. The old institutions have taken on different strategies in terms of confronting globalization. Some have gone back to their roots. Tate Modern has a ‘buy-anything from Africa’ policy, and hope. MoMA thinks it is more dominant and wants to inscribe everything into its own history, which might be a danger.

There will be institutions in other places, but none are exemplary, and the field is quite open. Look at the exponential growth of universities in India and China: the educational cycle of passing generations of cultural elites through European and North-American universities will come to an end some time soon, which will be a real shocker for those countries. It might only be a few decades away. Europe and America depend on, prey entirely upon the migrant intellectual labor that is generated through that educational circuit. Constituting their own internal diversity is the way they understand external diversity.

The conversation was held and recorded in English.
First published at Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne 2017.

This text is protected by copyright: © Kontakt. The Art Collection of Erste Group and ERSTE Foundation / Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König / Nataša Ilić and Peter Osborne. Published with courtesy of the above-mentioned. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Everything we see could also be otherwise (My sweet little lamb), London, 20 September 2016 – 11 November 2017, Photo: © Daniel Brooke. Info box: Parallax Views – Repositioning the East, Vienna, 2 July 2015, Photo: © Walter Seidl. Courtesy of Kontakt Art Collection.


Kontakt. The Art Collection of Erste Group and ERSTE Foundation
Kontakt