June 14, 2016
All the Good People in the World (And No Enthusiasm)
In times of rising extremism, it seems to me that the only possible solution is to create situations of dialogue, no matter how easily these can be vitiated by either the prevalence of the spectacle, or the questionable positioning of those initiating these situations. The case of the open forum & exhibition entitled “Universal Hospitality”, which the University of Applied Arts in Vienna co-organized with the ERSTE Foundation on the topic of the refugee crisis, is telling. From the outset, it is suspicious of uttering a master discourse, yet it remains undeniably necessary – a combination which, as a journalist and hence a speechless spectator, I could not fail to suffer from. Moreover – and this is something which the exhibition highlighted far better than the talks – my East-European origins were no longer a safe net for legitimation, as faced with the eruption of this Other, Europe as a whole reconfigured more clearly not nationally but economically, with the nationalistic discourse as tool to cover this.
Thus, the parade of good people’s accounts of good deeds, from all parts of Europe, was a tragic march, in most cases lacking humour or perspective. However, the forum was efficient in making two important points. First of all, it gave a full account of the situation of the refugee crisis from the European perspective, highlighting particularly sour situations of rising nationalism – or, as Gáspár Tamás calls it, ethnicisism – and putting on the table, via migration scholar Franck Duvell, the facts and figures which the various actors dealing with this crisis choose to read in distinct and highly problematic ways. Informing and necessary as this may be, it nevertheless succeeds in turning the full picture into just that – a sordid picture – and those who it is displayed for, into spectators. I am not aware to this day of an efficient method for countering the devastating effect of even the most well intended media spectacle.
Secondly, the forum made visible the numerous citizen initiatives that sprung all over Europe in response to the refugee crisis, something one easily forgets in the general climate in which all pride for good action is received with genuine distrust by everyone save those who accumulate symbolic capital over it. People are still good – at least for the first half of their action, until they or someone else decides to instrumentalize it. However, the lack of an ideological background – in fact, only now do I start to grasp the demise of those grand narratives – does not permit for the lot of initiatives to form a political position or even the possibility of one. They seem to be condemned to remain one-off initiatives, with no followers unless perhaps by echo. Distrust of authorities, reinforced by their refusal to once again address face-vault the issues that the media bombards us with, seems to have led to a general disbelief that organized large-scale initiatives, resembling institutions, can still be effective. The question I understand to be essential now is whether it is worth investing in such initiatives – or, perhaps more precisely, how to grow personal initiatives without them losing their authenticity yet gaining in political power. It is an almost identical question in the arts: how does artistic intervention gain impact through scale without becoming a mere reflection of the capitalist social and political mechanism?
Somehow surprisingly, the exhibition accompanying the forum offered a sort of response. It brought together a large selection of works whose integrity the two Hungarian curators, Edit András and Ilona Németh, were careful to preserve, first of all by presenting them separately in the large rooms of a disaffected Viennese post office.
I surely began responding to the show when I understood that the curators hadn’t selected illustrative works. On the contrary, the exhibition was born out of necessity – its ancestor was “Private Nationalisms”, a show responding to a most revealing political matter in Hungary – and immediately set out to draw premises which I think should be demanded from all those producing such large-scale events: the problematic apparent coincidence between Eastern and Western rise of nationalism and reactions to the political crisis whose symptom is the refugees one; the legacy of the Enlightenment (and hence modernism); the relevance of radical gestures and positions.
Bearing this in mind, the two curators populated the run-down rooms of the labyrinthic former post office with over 50 works which allowed one to grasp the extent to which a European citizen’s way of life has been transformed in the 21st century by displacements of all kinds. It is not just a matter of documenting living conditions of those at the margins, of putting faces where others force numbers in. The works all allow for the viewer to delve into private and collective stories, to understand marginality not just in geographical but also in social and therefore political ways. A most powerful work, Dante Buu’s “The Winner Takes It All”, relies precisely on extreme emotional impact to put forward a case of violent marginality: the video is a collage of found footage, one series from a NY gay club, the other from a Russian website collecting images of violence perpetrated on young gay people who had been lured into a blind date – everything accompanied by the famous ABBA tune, now a gay hymn, which one can sing-along to. The violence of these associations, the opening of the possibility that the viewer sing to the tune i.e., silently acknowledge the crime, is quite disturbing, I would say infinitely more powerful than raw images of the protests for or against minorities of all sorts which don’t fail to appear throughout the show.
There was a generally good selection of works that play at the level of the grotesque and others that take a rather poetical stance on the condition of marginality – the two main possibilities one can detect in East-European art nowadays. In a way, these two attitudes create a richer picture of one’s possibilities in face of the current crisis, and a fairer one than that of charity and benevolence that the Open Forum endorsed and Tamás’ talk offered an historical and philosophical account of. I suppose this leaves out the rather upsetting attitude in this part of the world of second or third generation families of migrants who oppose the current perceived invasion with more rage than those more sedentary families. The focus is indeed shifted towards the poetics – and by this I understand the politics – of marginality, which East-Europeans discovered progressively throughout the 90s, partly because it became an element that Western artists explored as a possibility of resistance.
One should leave the show with this possibility in mind – even though the opening it offers is almost immediately a closure. Perhaps such glimpses are what can be taken these days from established situations, no matter how powerless these make you feel.
Universal Hospitality, part of the program Into the City / Wiener Festwochen was in Vienna between 13 May – 19 June 2016.
Curators: Edit András, Birgit Lurz, Ilona Németh, Wolfgang Schlag
Artists: Catherine Anyango, Zanny Begg, Anca Benera / Arnold Estefan, Songül Boyraz, János Borsos, Dante Buu, Nicos Charalambidis, Anetta Mona Chişa / Lucia Tkáčová, Mansour Ciss, András Cséfalvay, Anna Daučíková, Yevgeniy Fiks, Petra Gerschner, GLUKLYA / Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya, Núria Güell, Sanja Iveković, Gülsün Karamustafa, Szabolcs KissPál, Martin Krenn, Tomasz Kulka, Damian Le Bas, Delaine Le Bas, Lőrinc Borsos, Victor López González, Angela Melitopoulos, Marina Naprushkina, Csaba Nemes, Adrian Paci, Martin Piaček, Lisl Ponger, Tomáš Rafa, R.E.P. Group, Oliver Ressler, Mykola Ridnyi, Juri Schaden, Marika Schmiedt, Roland Sejko, Tim Sharp, Société Réaliste / Ferenc Gróf, Hito Steyerl, Toledo i Dertschei, Artur Żmijewski and others
Participants: Edit András (art historian), Michael Backmund (journalist, writer, filmmaker) / Petra Gerschner (artist, filmmaker, curator), Gabriella Csoszó (artist) / Szabolcs Kisspál (artist) / Csaba Nemes (artist), Frank Düvell (sociologist), Can Gülcü (artist and activist), Dirk Hoerder (historian, social ssientist), Lisbeth Kovacic (artist), Daniela Krajčová (artist) / Oto Hudec (artist), Martin Krenn (artist) / Katharina Morawek (artistic director Shedhalle Zürich), Angela Melitopoulos (artist), Marina Naprushkina (artist), Nikolay Oleynikov (artist), Alessandra Pomarico (curator), M. G. Tamás (philosopher), Mark Terkessidis (writer, journalist, publicist) and others
Initiatives and projects: Cardamom & Nelke – Salon der Künste (Vienna), Free Home University (Lecce), ISOP – Innovative Sozialprojekte (Graz), Neue Nachbarschaft // Moabit (Berlin), Netzwerk Zuversicht (Schwanenstadt), Project Karavan (Bratislava), Szabad Müvészek / Free Artists (Budapest), The Whole World in Zurich (Zurich), Verein Vielmehr für Alle! (Vienna), Verein Nachbarinnen in Wien and others