19 October 2018

Going Both Fronts. Ekaterina Degot In Conversation

Adriana Prodeus
Ekaterina Degot. Photo: J.J. Kucek
Going Both Fronts. Ekaterina Degot In Conversation
Ekaterina Degot. Photo: J.J. Kucek
As someone who come from Russia and know Eastern Europe very well I am aware that there is such a phenomenon as desire to become European. There is also some kind of longing: 'when we will be part of Europe, then we'll finally find ourselves'.

Adriana Prodeus: This year edition of the oldest interdisciplinary art festival in Europe is the first one in which you have been appointed as Artistic Director. Could you explain the title: Volksfronten?

Ekaterina Degot: It is as if we took a word: ‘popular front’ with its very positive context of the anti-fascist movement from the 30s in France and Spain mostly [Stalin’s idea also – added by the author], translate it to German, which automatically makes the meaning of this expression in a sense nationalistic and reactionary and then give it plural form, because there are many of these nationalistic movements around us. There is no one established meaning of Volksfronte. It’s deliberately ambigous. Many people read it in a different way. And this is exactly what my intention was: complexity – we didn’t want to use a slogan like: „let’s all be anti-fascists”. Yes, of course, let’s be but the title is more complex.

The opening took place at the Europaplatz, because it is all about European ambitions. What do you mean by them?

As someone who come from Russia and know Eastern Europe very well I am aware that there is such a phenomenon as desire to become European. There is also some kind of longing: ‘when we will be part of Europe, then we’ll finally find ourselves’.

But then I discovered that actually in many other places in Europe actually the same feeling is present. Probably not in Paris, but even in eastern Germany there is this longing deep inside to become Europe, to be included, even if we are already a part of Europe. This is why I used the metaphor of Europaplatz, a crowdy transitional place near the railway station and it’s probably not accidental, that in many cities it is located near the railway station. Also giving names related to: ‘Europe’ is a relatively new idea. There were probably no Europaplatz in early 20th century. So they all emerged later in Eastern and Central Europe.

You have talked in your curatorial statement about the importance of political contradictions and contrasts, which exist in Europe. Why?

Contemporary Europe is a place full of big conflicts – mostly of social character or related to political order. But maybe we are losing our forces on small battles about introducing feminitives in the language or those concerning some other symbols, instead of concentrating on bigger things. I mean here the need of creating united front against the right wing danger and against nationalism.

I think it is necessary. If someone can be blamed for the return of nationalism ideas, it would be European intellectuals. Intellectuals all over the world are guilty of emerging nationalism movements everywhere. Nationalism is usually an intellectual project, developed by writers, philosophers and then somehow it influences the masses. Not another way round. It’s still the case also because it probably brings benefits of many kind.

Benefits could be different in different parts of Europe. What can be learnt by the differences between nationalisms in countries of former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland?

I am not sure if we can learn from differences, rather I am interested in similarities. Because it is too easy to see only the differences and no similarities. To find similarities you have to do a lot of intellectual work to connect the things and understand them. It is also more beneficial for our minds but also with respect to politics to recognize common grounds or even common enemies for Eastern European countries.

If someone can be blamed for the return of nationalism ideas, it would be European intellectuals. Intellectuals all over the world are guilty of emerging nationalism movements everywhere.

In your article ‘How to obtain the right to Post-Colonial Discourse’ published in 2005 in ‘Moscow Art Magazine’…

It was probably from the 90s but re-published few years later.

The date at the web page is 2005, but anyway you wrote:

‘All the countries of the former Eastern Block could try to gain the status of victims of Russian cultural imperialism, but this topic hardly interests anyone. Thus, the only possibility left is a consolidation of non-Western identities. For Russia, this would mean an enormous step – traveling this path, which make it possible to discuss Eastern European identity, which has always been ignored in Russia, because it destroys the basis of the discourse of Russia’s historical uniqueness. (Incidentally, feminist discourse in Russia has trouble finding its place as a victim because of the same principle, since the place of discursive exploitation in the Russian world-view is already occupied.)
So, attempting to distance itself from the strategies of the modern Russian state and simultaneously trying to find understanding by the leftist intelligentsia of the West, Russian unofficial culture suggests that we look for the identity of Russia not among super-powers but among minorities, thus demanding the application of the discursive privileges established for minorities.’

Is this opinion of yours still valid?

What has in fact happened is exactly the opposite. Eastern European countries including Poland adopted the Russian model, so I should not tell you about Polish cultural imperialism and „colonialism-oriented” politics in Ukraine and some sort of messsianism in general, which now is even stronger than the Russian one, because it’s becoming much more known in the world. As Hungarian messianism too. And both those countries are meant to save Europe from migrants, atheism and so on. And you are adopting the Russian model, so interestingly it happens to be just the opposite.

Have you got any idea how to fight this imperialism?

Steirischer herbst is the art festival so we are not interested in providing political answers. But we are inviting artists who are observing those contradictory ideas and some of the artists show even how the right wing ideas infiltrate society.

Could you refer to any of them, for instance?

Ekaterina Degot. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

Victoria Lomasco from Moscow interviews people and draw them with quotes of that kind in this kind of Russian icon. And Henrike Naumann from Eastern Germany in her ‘Anschluss 90’ builds a whole furniture shop exactly as the one from ’90, typical of the era after the fall of Berlin wall. Henrike said she absolutely hates this furniture and try to understand why people are still buying it. She keeps on exploring this ‘other people’ concept.

Why it is always about ‘other people’?

They are still excluded and unexplored in contemporary art. Of course you can see some abstract art in white cube where there is no right wing, there are no fascists there. None of them is addressed. But I’m not interested in such an art.

But why do the right-wing supporters remain ‘the others’?

This is the right question and artists try to overcome it.

Which of the invited artists You would attribute this approach to?

One can dream about the revolution, because it has a lot of charm, this one moment when things can really change for good. For many people it is the only chance for change.

Victoria Lamasco is talking to these people, as I said, Yoshiniro Niwa is talking to people who are bringing nazi memorabilia to the Main Square, Bread&Puppet Theatre’s parade is open to everyone. So they overcome it by involving people.

Talking about Bread&Puppet Theatre famous for their anti-war demonstrations from the 60s against Vietnam and also Laibach well reknown for their involvement – in the 80s- against Slobodan Milosevic and so on – it should be noted that both of them opened the festival. I can see that those famous revolutions of the past are gaining new life. Why do we need to return to them? To search for the new potential?

Who says that they return?

One can see it in steirischer herbst program. And I wonder why.

One can dream about the revolution, because it has a lot of charm, this one moment when things can really change for good. For many people it is the only chance for change. But unfortunately we cannot plan the revolution, so there is a nostalgia like in Roman Osminkin’s performance at the stairs but it seems that the revolution is not ripe yet.

So we need to be patient?

We need to be attentive and when the ‘revolutionary situation’ – as Lenin called it – would finally happen, we will have to catch our opportunity. There is a whole theory concerning what the politians and masses should feel to carry out the world revolution properly. But this has not come yet here, apart of unhapiness of many people, which is already present. Maybe it will come, I believe.

There is lot of irony in the works of exhibited artists. Is it because there is no optimism with regard to ‘Europe’ issue?

But irony is optimistic! Because it also presupposes that others will understand it, so there is a connection between people. I am coming from the tradition of Eastern European irony. Also in Austria irony was present in literature of Czech Jaroslav Hasek and Franz Kafka among others. Many things have this double meaning and we got used to it.

There is a co-production, with Polish theatre, icluded in this year program: ‘Iranian conference’ by Ivan Wyrypajew. Why have you invited it?

It is actually one of the first works I decided to include in the program when I read the text written by Wyrypajew. It’s very much to the point of the cultural wars nowadays in the world. And very much to the point of the Volksfronten: meeting each other while not understanding each other. Very ironic view on the reality itself. It is about western intellectuals who expect Iranian writer to be someone they assume him to be, however he turns out to be completely different. We are very glad to have this play in the festival’s program. Especially it is in fact a critique of the West and Wyrypajew is probably identifying himself with the Iranian writer, someone from the East, as far as I properly understand his intentions.

There are a lot of Russian artists invited, most of them are confronted within an interesting dialogue with Austrian artists at the exhibition in Minoriten. Why?

They are just these artists whom I know well but then it turned out that there are many similar moments in the history of Red Vienna and Russia. And social democratic Austria resonates with the history of Soviet Union. The time of this so called ‘communist block’ was the same time when social democracy had power in Western Europe. And in both places this time is over. Admittedly there was iron curtain and some differences in the life of citizens but basically 20′ century passed under the star sign of socialism on both sides of iron curtain. It is interesting to see from that point of view the similarities between the East and the West. At the exhibition in Minoriten we have phantasmatic worlds: religion as a strong topic: kolonski and Martinz films, Lomasco icons. All this together with unexpected comparisons.

You named an interesting kind of imagery there: ‘Heimat Horror’. It is a film genre but Laibach’s concert based of ‘The sound of music’ movie from the 60′ is Heimat horror too.

You are right. Heimat is a prison. If your motherland says that you have to do something to protect it, to enroll in the army, to die for it, then the notion of the Heimat can be dangerous, because it excludes some people, divide them into those which belong to it and those which don’t.

Therefore it starts to be very problematic. And everywhere ‘Heimat’ it is taught to the children from the very early age. We present it in Irina Korina’s objects: rivers, mountains, flowers that are our motherland’s nature and everywhere it is said to be unique. I remember that as a child I thought the same about birch, that it is unique for Russia. And then I saw it almost everywhere else.

Heimat is a prison. If your motherland says that you have to do something to protect it, to enroll in the army, to die for it, then the notion of the Heimat can be dangerous, because it excludes some people, divide them into those which belong to it and those which don’t.

One of the problem that most art festivals must usually face with is an attempt to produce organic art in site inviting artists from all over the world. How do you work with regard to this matter ? Do you expect Graz’s art scene to flourish by steirischer herbst?

Art scene in Graz is really good and it does not need developing by the festival. Rather we try to develop the local audience. It is not easy at all, because in order to take part in discussion that we proposed, one need to get involved and also to have a big sense of humour. But I am happy to see that nevertheless more and more people decide to visit our festival.

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