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What is international?

The head of Kyiv's Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC) and 2018 Igor Zabel Grant recipient, Vasyl Cherepanyn, asks, where international solidarity stands today?

21. December 2018
Magazine > Voices > What is international?

Ukraine and the countries of the European Union share a great number of challenges and threats today. Ukraine has recently weathered several powerful new experiences: enthusiasm and disappointment at the Maidan revolution, the shock of war, ongoing infractions to established territorial parameters and protection mechanisms, and the mass displacement of people, whilst the EU has experienced increasing flows of refugees, the shrinking of its territory after Brexit, and the rise of far-right populism, becoming a battlefield for new forms of terrorism. The absence of ready-made patterns for dealing with these experiences, discontent with preexisting structures, along with a strong desire and urgent need for change, provide a conduit for an intense intellectual and creative search for the new.

If we look at the recent “square movements” and social uprisings throughout the globe – from Occupy Wall Street and Europe’s Indignados to the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian Maidan – in spite of the differences, they all were aimed at some utopia in the future, they presented the politics of hope. Today the logic of revolutionary utopia has turned into reactionary post-apocalyptic dystopia – the wars in Syria and Ukraine, ISIS, extreme right-wing populism, Brexit, Trump – all of them represent the politics of ressentiment, they lack a vision of the future – quite the opposite, they are obsessively concentrated on the past, on memory wars, acting out social frustrations through history. The radical substitution of a revolutionary chance with warfare has become the mark of our time.

Zombieland – that is our status quo today. Repression and regression form the current ideological coordinate system – the repression of emancipative political potential and regression to barbaric sub-political discrimination and isolation. We live today not in the post-truth world but in the pre-truth world – in a world where truth has not arrived yet. That is the world after the end of the future, and the past is what remains when the future is over. Wars are always about the past, they pretend to solve some antinomies of the past, and it is revolutions that are about the future. War is basically a poison against the future, the method how to stop it.

“Transnational is not something we aim at; it is something we begin with.”

Paolo Do

The attempts of establishing some founding, usually national myth, are often based not on history but on false memories, nostalgia for what has never happened. The right question to ask regarding the main slogan of the assorted populists of today – the famous Trumpian “Make America Great Again!” – is when was that “again,” what does he really mean saying it? This “again” has never existed, it is not history but a false projection: that kind of isolationistic backwardness is a dead-end in ontological sense, it is literally a fake itself.

The current political vacuum is being occupied by militarism, violence and terror. Never-ending hybrid civil war of a global scale, newly emerging anti-migrant walls and necropolitics of memory are the basic stones that are defining the lives of our societies. The political unconsciousness nowadays is counter-revolutionary; therefore, the key question is how to make a shift from political Thanatos to political Eros, from nightmare to daydreaming. The fundamental problem being tackled here is how to think the political alternative, what do we need for that? That is a very challenging task, and we have to be ready to meet the unexpected and put aside our political clichés and prejudices. Speaking from an institutional perspective, this question lies on the intersection of three realms – knowledge, art and politics – which reflect three “isms” pivotal for the idea of the International today.

The Kyiv International

The Kyiv International – Kyiv Biennial 2017 aimed to explore and reveal the emancipatory potential of the idea of the political International, which emerged in Europe.

Today, in the age of structural crisis of global institutions — when the maintenance of a transnational status quo is constructed from violated borders, peripheral wars, and the emergence of new walls and conflicts — the idea of cross-border unity and international solidarity is of utmost urgency for the future survival of Europe.

The Guidebook of The Kyiv International is a collection of texts by historians, political philosophers and artists, some of whom were participants in the Kyiv Biennial 2017.

The Kyiv International was edited by Vasyl Cherepanyn and Kateryna Mishchenko. It is a project of the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC) and Medusa Books and was published in Kyiv in 2018.

Emblem © Experimental Jetset, Amsterdam 2017

Universalism, or the Politics of Knowledge

As a university teacher and cultural practitioner, I am confident in the key principle which one must remain faithful to – that society has invented places of knowledge (universities, educational and cultural institutions) as topoi where it can comprehend and analyze its own foundations. These places in the social structure provide a crucial and extremely important possibility – to think, criticize and debate about the grounds that society itself is based on, to trace and propose alternatives and different variants of social development. Knowledge is not a luxury but a responsibility, it is neither a privilege nor a commodity but a tool for social change, a method of rethinking and transforming those a priori we are built on. Lack of proper reflection and critical analysis leads to a rupture between “theory” and “practice,” in which knowledge turns into theoretical hallucinosis and political practice – into vulgar cynicism.

Humanities, critical theory, socially engaged knowledge are anti-isolationist in principle, because they enable the manifestation of the universal – that is universitas, university itself. This position is universal for all specialties or modes of ‘doing’ something. As Gadamer noted, the humanities are not studied in order to then be those who studied them. Studying humanities – that is humanitas, human as such; their development is the development of human capabilities, what everyone of us can be.

Thinking and reflection are urgently needed in the Ukrainian context today, in the times of the current counter-revolution or, rather, two counter-revolutions, amid which we find ourselves. The first one is external, in the form of Russian military intervention and occupation of Ukrainian territories, and the second one is internal and no less dangerous – corruption, oligarchy, lack of justice, political assassinations, far-right populism, the expansion of everyday violence that are gradually destroying society. In the post-revolutionary time, learning and reflection are the most effective antidote against counter-revolution, even in the form of war.

Critical knowledge is anti-violence, the primary means against spreading violence. The lack of reflection creates a vacuum in society – a void that is filled with political populism and violence. Language of violence and physical violence replace reflection, overshadow its critical stance and attack – precisely because they are incompatible with it. Critical knowledge stops violence by cutting off its channel; in this regard, paper and pen are much more radical weapons than Kalashnikov guns, tanks and armored vehicles taken together.

Ukrainian society today is in an extremely traumatized condition, and it is not just one trauma but a historical complex, a layering of both past and recent traumas. The trauma of Soviet repressions, the trauma of the wild capitalist “transition” period that produced the oligarchy, the trauma of permanent absence of social and legal justice, the trauma of revolutionary violence, the trauma of war – all of them remain not worked through, not properly articulated and unresolved, overlapping and superimposed on each other. In this situation, society is being kept as their hostage; its sensitivity is eroded together with its constantly increasing rejection of all new cases of violence and death.

Reflection is a way to overcome social regression. Violent traumas require articulation, analysis and comprehension, not censoring and tabooing. We need to analyze and critically reflect on our past and recent social and political experience, to work through what we have lived through – without repression or negation, but with full awareness of our responsibility. This task, paraphrasing the purpose of psychoanalysis defined by Freud, can be formulated as follows: where violent Id was, reflective Ego should be. The work we must do to get out of the current deadlock of violence is long and hard, but necessary – because there is just no other way out of it.

© Oleksandr Kovalenko
Vasyl Cherepanyn addressing the audience at the opening of "The Kyiv International - Kyiv Biennial 2017". Photo: © Oleksandr Kovalenko

Violence destroys social, political and artistic space. Thinking and truth do not tolerate fear and threat. Freedom from fear is the basis for critical knowledge. Without reflection we will have only populist reflexes; without reflection we will have not politics but social physics; without reflection we will be not a society but a Dogville community. That is the fundamental political task of the famous owl of Minerva – it should take its flight with the falling of the dusk, because if it does not, if there is no reflection a posteriori, we will still remain, as Hegel put it, in the night of the world. Her flight is a guarantee of the coming of a new day. Therefore, “Learn, learn and once again, learn!” – This slogan is relevant today more than ever.

Modernism, or Lenin After Maidan

As we know from Habermas, modernity is an unfinished project, it needs fulfillment and accomplishment. What we can learn from modernism as a total phenomenon is what is at stake in politics nowadays – instead of sticking to a left-right divide, we must make the radical step to rethink the whole political spectrum as such. One hundred years ago they were competing who is a better socialist, today we are rivaling who is a better nationalist. The question of modernism is about the political power of imagination, what vision can outline our common future.

Modernism has an aesthetic and political relevance today carrying a high degree of latent potential for thinking and inventing alternative societal projects critically needed worldwide. Originating in Europe, modernism spread around the globe throughout the 20th century, demonstrating the capability of being local and global at the same time, preserving its national particularities along with the development of its international universality. Modernism is a readiness to create utopias for social change, to search for political alternatives, the priority of equality, and anti-conservatism. It also means an aesthetic revolution – the emancipation of art and its ability to capture our experience in its wholeness.

Modernism is the main cultural and political phenomenon of the period from the end of the 19th century till now. But what we can observe today is the fusion of pre-modern barbarism and postmodern cynicism, when the chorus of post-political technocratic wisdom is accompanied by neo-Nazi marches. In Eastern Europe, and Ukraine in particular, the dominant form of repressing modernism is called “decommunization.” This anti-communism without communists has become a substitute for social politics along with imposing neoliberal austerity measures and reconstructing neo-feudal oligarchic structures of governing.

Communist memory is hotted up, and in regard to the city space, “decommunization” takes the form of destroying the imagery and monuments inherited from the socialist past. In Ukraine, together with Soviet memorials, the visuality of the modernist avant-garde tradition has been wiped out from the public space as a disturbing symbol for counter-memories and alternative historical narratives. “Patriotic” populism externalizes the Soviet period and retroactively nationalizes historical memory, using the communist past for redistribution of political and symbolic capital today. This repression of memory results in the revenge of memory in all new forms of social destruction that we observe today. The regressive politics of memory lays the grounds for conflicts that will tear the social fabric to pieces in the future, widening the funnel of violence and pulling the whole society into it, a society for which it is becoming harder and harder to come to its senses and to its own memory.

Photo: © Nada Žgank

Art Under Attack

Today we find ourselves at a time when the conditions of political reaction, violence and extreme right-wing populism are harshly challenging the modus operandi of the artistic and cultural field.

We all have been used to the model, in which art becomes politicized and socially engaged when it steps out of its territory and meets politics – meaning facing a real ideological conflict, sometimes even in a violent form.

But now a major shift is that it is rather not art that is stepping out but political violence that is stepping in. Art and culture ceased to be a safe haven, today censorship of all sorts, political persecution or physical violence step onto the territory of art and knowledge and attack.

We are living in the age of a new violent iconoclasm, and art as such is at stake. From Palmira to Budapest, from Moscow to Istanbul, from Kassel to Kyiv, the artistic image is under severe assault, and that is inscribed in the attack on civil society, which has already become a global trend.

Critical artistic position is under threat, it has to fight for its survival. Nowadays, when art is often the only territory for free thinking and critical reflection left, one of the main tasks for all of us, especially those affiliated with institutions and structures in the artistic and cultural field, is to counter and struggle against this violent censorship in all the forms where it’s possible and impossible, because it means the main thing – establishing a really functioning freedom.

If we are not able to achieve that in art, we will never be able to do that in the political life of our societies.

The speech “Art under attack” by Vasyl Cherepanyn was held at the ceremony of the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory 2018 and published on 12 December 2018 at Political Critique.

Photo: © Nada Žgank

But the modernist epoch contains a real emancipative potential – it was the most modern period in the history of Ukrainian culture. What we can learn from it is something very urgent and challenging for today’s counter-revolutionary status quo, which is how to be contemporary. “Decommunization” is a continuation of the war by other means, it is a war against being modern. As a project open to the future, the modernist legacy in contemporary cultural and political practices can indicate a possible exit strategy from the political deadlock of economic crisis, nationalist populism and war.

The main political event of modernism was of course the October Revolution. It was not by accident that all the avant-garde movements were constantly referring to it. And it was exactly the abandoning of an internationalist approach that degraded the outcomes of the revolution and resulted in the horrible atrocities and repressions of Stalin’s time.

This event is crucial for Europe since what was started only after the Holocaust and monstrousness of World War II had been planned after World War I – that is the European Union. The very basic idea of launching the project of a united Europe was about establishing peace on the continent – where there is Europe, there is peace – and this task remains urgent on the current political agenda. The first decree Lenin issued on the very next day after the October Revolution was on peace. “Immediate democratic peace concluded by all the belligerent nations without annexations and without indemnities” sounds as an incredibly radical claim for today.

Just a day before the October Revolution, when talking to John Reed regarding the further development, Trotzky said: “The Federated Republic of Europe – the United States of Europe – that is what must be. National autonomy no longer suffices. Economic evolution demands the abolition of national frontiers. If Europe is to remain split into national groups, then Imperialism will recommence its work. Only a Federated Republic can give peace to Europe and to the world.” That way of thinking applied to the whole planet, but the revolution in Russia was first of all aimed at Europe. Initially, the capital of the Union was not to be Petrograd or Moscow, but Vienna or Berlin. The official language of the Third (Communist) International founded by Lenin (as the Second International discredited itself by supporting the war) till 1922 was German.

What appeared as the Soviet Union was first supposed to be a European one. It was restricted to “socialism in one country” because of the defeat of communist revolutions in Europe in 1917–1923, foremost in Germany. Internationalism was then abandoned by the Comintern, which became a means of geopolitical foreign force of the Soviet state. A united Europe was a communist idea which was restarted in a different form only after the downfall of the Nazi regime. And in a special irony of history “The Communist Manifesto” was written in Brussels.

Internationalism, or the Subject and the Square

Modernism is clearly connected with gaining political subjectivity. Modernity is basically the time when the contemporary political subject was born – we just do not have any other subject than a modern one. The subject in both philosophical and political sense is the main product of modernity. And what we have recently observed during the revolts and uprisings from Puerta del Sol and Syntagma to Tahrir and Maidan was in fact the search for a new collective political subjectivity, an alternative to the former ones (i.e., party, trade union or alter-globalist movement). Occupation of the central square – the agora – has become the main political form of nowadays.

The square in the political, urban and artistic sense is a key point for the contemporary subject. A cultural institution with political awareness functions as the continuation of the square – as a small square or a public platform that creates a common political space. We need to multiply squares in an institutional sense, and the square as such should be institutionalized. The square movement is not enough, it is just a start. To sustain, proceed and broaden the political agenda, we need an institutional form which prevents dispersing, accumulates and can be present and act on an international level as some formation. Institution means establishing, founding, setting things up, arranging. The institution is the real estate of politics, everything else is superstructure.

The basic political question is the question of the space. The very first challenge the political subject faces is not to lose the space. Spatial and urban issues in their core are about materiality and corporality of politics. Emancipative politics is always a body politics. The subject is embodied, it needs a space to exist, to represent itself and to act. The same logic has a sculpture or a statue – as Heidegger points out, the presence of a monument indicates that it is a public space. To have a space is to have the means of production, it is the basic stone of political activity. Virtual space is not enough, the political subject needs to be physically present in the city space to influence the public sphere.

© Nada Žgank
Vasyl Cherepanyn (VCRC), award laureate Joanna Mytkowska, who nominated VCRC as 2018 Igor Zabel Award Grant recipient and Oleksiy Radynski (VCRC) at the Igor Zabel Award ceremony in Ljubljana. Photo: © Nada Žgank

The concept of the International is intertwined with the idea of the public, from an institutional point of view as well. Publicum, the public is the aim, modus vivendi and result of institutional activity. The public is not a ready-made but a work-in-progress, it should be in the process of constant per-forming. The public is basically the performance of the institution, it is what the institution constitutes – an extension of the institution in the McLuhanian sense. The public is the media of the institution, but it is not an object – it is the common, which needs the space, the square to manifest itself. We are the public, society as such.

The International is possible only as an institutional one. The key question here is the formation of institutions – groups, circles, communities, which can articulate their message with their own ethos. Creation of the international cooperative of politically engaged institutions acting together on the basis of common ideas, conducting transnational politics in spite of existing borders and new walls at the age of globalization – that is the art piece we really need most. Today it is crucially important to revive internationally the ancient Roman notion of sensus communis – the feeling of commonality, civic consciousness or public spirit that has been eliminated in the atomized capitalistic society. That is why we should combine the means of knowledge, art and politics aimed at the transformation of reality to form a new collective political subject as a coalition of struggles against exploitation and exclusion in the context of cleansing of the political alternative.

The urgency for creating real international solidarity is best reflected in the famous old slogan “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” Yes, proletarians and cognitarians of education, culture and politics, the excluded and underprivileged, refugees and the displaced, unite! It is a long, incredibly hard and challenging path, and we are just at the beginning, but that is genuine politics – the possibility of the impossible. If we could start moving in that direction, unity itself would already be our common victory. That is the task to be achieved.

First published in 2018 in the guidebook of “The Kyiv International”, a publication of the “Kyiv Biennial 2017”. An abridged version of this text was published on 14 June 2018 at eurozine.com

This text is protected by copyright: © Vasyl Cherepanyn / VCRC / Medusa. 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: The Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC) was selected by Igor Zabel Award laureate Joanna Mytkowska as Igor Zabel Grant recipient 2018. Photo: © Oleksandr Kovalenko.