19 July 2020

The End of the End (of Post Communism). In Conversation with Boris Buden

Cristina Bogdan, Piotr Sikora
The End of the End (of Post Communism). In Conversation with Boris Buden

The New Dictionary of Old Ideas is a project whose goal is to create a network of artists and art workers from Central and Eastern Europe to reframe the vocabulary we use when describing the region and its specificity. The intention of the two curators, Piotr Sikora and Lucia Kvočáková, was to challenge concepts and terms we know and use when it comes to the issues of the semi-peripheries uncannily located in the middle between the former East and West. The necessity to work on the new dictionary was determined by constant changes we can observe, taking CEE as non-obvious case studies where an uneasy past transforms into the future that brings about both hope and anxiety.

The direct reason why the curators approached Boris Buden was his concept of the dawn of post communism and the problems of post soviet countries entering the new era after the end of history. Buden’s writings – very popular in the region and promptly translated into Czech, Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian – were a source of inspiration that brought to the table terms such as the misery of catching up, the immaturity of the post soviet countries or retro utopia. Several years after the first publication of his best-known book, Zone des Übergangs: Vom Ende des Postkommunismus [Zone of Transition: The End of Post Communism], it was interesting to check how some of his concepts respond to the financial crisis from a decade ago and to the rise of populism that makes countries from the region the protagonists of an unwanted future.

This interview, conducted by Cristina Bogdan, a participant in the project, and Piotr Sikora, took place on 25th November 2018, the day before the symposium that was a crowning event for the first chapter of the project.

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

Cristina Bogdan: We wanted to start directly from your paper tomorrow as part of the symposium “The New Dictionary of Old Ideas”, because we have based a large part of this dictionary on concepts taken from your book, Zone des Übergangs: Vom Ende des Postkommunismus [Zone of Transition: The End of Post Communism].

Boris Buden: Actually, in my talk I will simply emphasize the subtitle rather than the title. The title was The Zone of Transition, but the subtitle was The End of Post Communism. I think that today this end is taking place, and it is also about us having awareness of this end and coming to terms with what has happened.

My point is we now need a sort of honest diagnosis: the so-called post communist transition to democracy has failed. When I am saying failed, I mean that the very historical teleology of this process, democracy as harmony between liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism, is a failure. The time has come to declare not simply the end of post communism, but its failure.

And failure is not a statement of a general perception, in the way in which everybody knows that the Czech Republic’s transition was much better than the one in Bosnia and Herzegovina; for me, former Yugoslavia is a place where the process failed before it even started. Yet even in former Yugoslavia, Slovenia is a very successful story, while until nowadays there is no solution for Bosnia, there is no solution for Serbia, etc.

But my point is that this emancipatory promise, the capacity of democracy to move forward on all levels and make something live, make it better, has been exhausted. Masses no longer believe that we have to work ten years more and then we will be like… the British or the German? This so-called Western democracy is no longer something you can take as a role model, and that is part of the problem.

C.B.: Do you see that the failure in Eastern Europe is also due to the failure in the West?

Yes, I will talk tomorrow about the following moment. During the process of transition, the notion of democracy was a sort of hub, connecting all other spheres and levels of life; say, you had a very egoistic private interest, it would go through democracy and get legitimized, or you had a fairly noble, cultural value, it would also become legitimate through democracy.

In Eastern Europe there was this feeling, “well, this is the beginning, it is a little bit difficult, but tomorrow there will be democracy”. The problem is that, after a while, this word was emptied out of any content and especially of emancipatory content. You could ask yourself, where is that emancipatory energy with which people in Romania or here in Prague took to the streets and toppled down these old regimes. But this utopian energy is also completely exhausted.

C.B.: And what do you think mobilizes people now?

I always keep in mind Habermas’ definition, which I think is crucial, of the so-called democratic revolutions of 1989-90 as “catching-up” revolutions. Revolutions that removed obstacles – the communist regimes, obstacles for the societies so that they can catch up with the missed historical development, catch up with democracy, with market economy, etc. I will mention tomorrow the role of this Dahrendorf story about how societies would need 60 years to become properly functioning liberal democracies, market economies, etc.

But for me the most interesting idea is this projection of people catching up: 60 years is quite a lot [laughs]. People who were hardly born or were kids at that moment were told that probably by the end of their lives they will be living in proper democracies, which is I think worse than when the apparatchik told you, “it’s difficult now, you have to work, but communism is there in 60 years, one more generation and we have it!” [laughs].

P. S.: Your book was published in 2009, how do you see the actions that took place right after 2009, the crisis and protests that spread not only in Spain or in the UK and US, but also in Poland and the Czech Republic? In my view, these protests gave us another tool to fight for this sort of dream come true, the democratic system, and then they immediately were stopped by the rise of the right wing.

C.B.: Yet in Romania protests were directly anti-communist, the elites were fighting for things like the free market, so it was already rigged. There were some social claims in the beginning, but this was immediately confiscated and the status quo prevailed.

The crisis came as a confirmation of sorts. It was seen as something happening in the West, and I am coming now back to this picture of the East working hard to catch up with the West; the question that ensues is, what was happening during these 60 years in the West? Does democracy simply sit there and wait, as it is, as an eternal and perfect form?

In fact, things have been changing all that time in the West and people have been analyzing those changes – I will mention only one book that is probably very accurate in its diagnosis, Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void, published in 2013. He uses the notion of the hollowing of western democracies, he talks about mutual withdrawal on both sides of the political spectrum: party politics withdrew from the people, social space, from civil society, from what is happening.

Everybody could see at that time that the parties not only moved away from the masses, from the people, but they also came close to each other – it has become extremely difficult to understand what is, for instance, in economic politics the difference between social democrats and the Christian democrats. And the paradigmatic example was actually Tony Blair, who was dubbed as the biggest success of Margaret Thatcher. He actually succeeded in having Labour implementing the neo-liberal dreams Thatcher had always had but needed a really strong party and a strong leader for that. The problem became that the classical ability of people to differentiate between these parties also disappeared. Which does not mean there is no more competition, but Mair says that this competition, which can be very hard and strong, resembles in fact sports, without any substantial content. So what happened?

This hollowing of the democratic system in the West was taking place while the East was allegedly catching up with it. This is now where so-called populism thrives. We have the feeling that democracy is now being revived. Masses tweet together with Trump. They are thus more interested. This is suddenly called populism. But what was before populism? Empty space, totally disengaged people and the elites. This empty space is now filled up by the so-called populism.

So this is what actually happened and we cannot say if crisis now is in the East or in the West. Today, when you compare the situation in Central Europe, you have only the Slovenian government that is not right wing. If you take Italy, Austria, Croatia, Hungary – in these parts it is clearly a right-wing government. Even in Croatia it is a clerical fascism, which is something very specific, it has a long history, it has much more to do with Spanish Francoism than with classical German Nazism.

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

C.B.: I wanted to ask whether you think that changing the frame of reference a bit and discussing Eastern Europe in relation to other geographical and mental spaces than the West is interesting.

Problematic is the idea that the political world is divided into different areas… Take the West, the West is an area, but what sort of area? It’s a normative identity block.

C.B.: But we talk of global South or global North, for example.

But the problem is how they have been created, which are the meanings and who has the power to territorialize the other, to define other spaces and areas. And the problem is the difference. This is just to remind you what Gramsci would say; every place on earth is in the same North and South, West and East. These are the notions we have used, and they are of course heavily ideologically determined; these notions and the aerial division of the world mirror the power relations.

C.B.: True, but my idea was… our generation feels that there is not much to learn from the West. It’s a connection that we can have quite easily, but we don’t look at it as a model. I think we are more interested to look at…

P.S.: … South East Asia, South America or Africa.

Yes, finally yesterday, Doreen Mende showed part of her project about the non-aligned countries. But this political legacy has been systematically erased; there is a huge problem to talk about former Yugoslavia. From today’s perspective, it is interesting just to see the economy of the loss. Former Yugoslavia was within Europe, but part of non-aligned countries. It was politically of course, not culturally. It was something positive for Europe. I would say, Europe could have a different idea of itself if it accepted this Yugoslavian turn. The colonial legacy was already politically addressed there in a critical way, in this movement.

But today is the moment of the post communist transition, and democracy comes with the notion of the West. Suddenly, all say the West is the final destination. Which effectively means NATO membership…

Václav Havel is the perfect example of how smoothly the emancipatory promise gets involved in a sort of new military arrangement. It’s not only about militarization. This is about how, at that time, the notion of the West was simply this universal answer to everything what was in the world, destroying other legacies.

C.B.: Indeed, what we are concerned with is this lack of political imagination, because this unique comparison that is defining us just doesn’t work anymore.

[laughs] Actually, imagination is probably a problematic word, because what the right wing imagines is nothing new, they call it nativism. We know that nations are imagined communities.

In certain historical situations, people come to a crisis, and think that the possibility to solve problems goes only through imagining something new. It’s not just repeating what it used to be [laughs] or just following the West. Where is the West now heading to? Should we follow Britain in separating from Europe, or Europe in punishing Britain, or should we follow Trump? You know, whom to follow in the West?

But this is a new experience. This is like the beginning of the 90s. It looked like this is the answer so this is why I am resisting the whole concept of transition; the whole concept of post communist transition was deeply ideological. Not only did it not prepare us for the history to come, we also believed history was over, as if the West were beyond history itself. Now history comes from the West.

Just to give you an example. We in Croatia knew it already: I have a colleague, a young sociologist, she analyzed online publications, online magazines of the right-wing Croatian movement, pro-life, etc. The point is that everything, content and design, is copy pasted from the United States. 2-3 years ago, there was a debate on religion in post communism, on national TV, and the opponent was actually a lawyer from the United States, from the Croatian former immigration, but a lawyer of the tea party, pro-life movement, where Steve Bannon is coming from, Trump, etc. The topic was how to define marriage, abortion, etc. It was in Croatia, but it was like in America. In this case, we did not need 60 years to catch up with the United States. America is everywhere here, the West at its worst.

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

P.S.: When it comes to catching up, I was thinking about this void as a political aspect of life somehow connected with the economic growth, with the fact that people were not so much concerned about the political aspect of their life, while the rising consumerism was the most important aspect of catching up. I often get back to the past and think about phoney Adidas and this desire to have a proper Adidas… How can we find these objects of desire, these material elements of everyday consumerism nowadays? How did this mechanism of misery change, this misery of catching up, or is it the same, maybe it doesn’t have any meaning attached to it?

This logic that the market economy, liberalization will secure economic growth of GDP, or production, raise the living standard, etc. was projected onto the power almighty, the power of market economy and privatization, etc. The dialectics of growth was also in the climate change. And now this is very contested, a hot topic.

Measuring of economic data would say there is growth. At the same time, politicians in Eastern Europe, when it comes to questions of economic growth and perspectives of their societies, can see only one possibility. Either you make your labour force cheap so as to attract capital, or you protect your labour force and then capital moves somewhere else. Growth was always connected with cheap labour.

Of course, Eastern Europe is not alone now. Globalization came, it changed everything. But in Eastern Europe you have places that somehow still function like the Czech Republic, when you see what happened to Croatia, not only due to the war but the destruction of all industry and you have just one industry, which is tourism, you think what this means in the long run, it means this nation will not have any need for engineers, for chemistry, for machines, etc.

So whole spheres of knowledge that were common are threatened; shipyards are closing, not after communism, but after more than 2000 years, on the Adriatic coast, tradition of building ships ever since the Roman empire. You have sailors, captains, the education system produces something, but it’s not of local use, you don’t have ships. Who to produce it for? Why be an engineer in Croatia? You cannot work as an engineer there.

P.S.: And what about the state being the one who protects this kind of industry?

We still have this picture as if the United Nations had some sort of real meaning, all equal, all different. When you look closer, beyond the abstract idea of egalitarianism, you have pariah states; I would say these little Balkan states play certain roles that are given by other states.

So the international political system and how we perceive it has nothing to do with reality. You have these political elites, which are completely dependent on global financial elites, not so much on their electorates. The people who are supposed to vote for them, to decide, the big words of people’s sovereignty… it’s a joke.

Today, both in culture and politics on international level, we come to the point when we can probably more easily compare the situation of today to the Middle Ages than to something like the dreams of Renaissance, the eternal peace in Kant’s sense, of equality, etc.

The Westphalian system that was established in the 17th century, after the 30 Years War, meant that the world had a cluster of sovereign states – this is what is also collapsing today. You know, Bosnia has a system imposed by the West, the Dayton Agreement. Richard Holbrooke said at that moment that it is a turn from the horror of war to the promise of peace… The horror of peace? [laughs] Totally dysfunctional. The problem has not been solved. Today, George Soros moves from Budapest to Berlin. The Central European University moves to Vienna, but the Open Society Institute as such moves to Berlin. And there were discussions, the so-called West-Balkan forum, and there was a question what to do, how to solve the problems…

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

C.B.: There is this notion now of West Balkans!?

West-Balkan Forum, yeah… This is a pragmatic concept… Bosnia is the West Balkans and Croatia is not. Because they cannot call Balkans what is already in the European Union. But everybody knows you cannot solve any problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina without Croatia [laughs]. And the only thing that drives discussion is how to solve the problem with Kosovo and Serbia. They have produced a problem and they cannot solve it. We usually forget here, the Czech Republic and Hungary are functioning states, but they are in Europe. They claim that we still have this idea that this is the Balkans, but it’s not the Balkans. It is simply a space where the westernization, democratization, this whole process has totally failed, while they would say, “you Balkan people cannot deal with such complex sophisticated forms as democracy”.

But I will mention tomorrow what Maria Todorova said, this is the problem of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the war is not big enough, in western terms, this is the Other, culturally inferior, historically belated Other of Europe, the Balkans. So they kill each other because they are belated. If they would be normal Europeans, of course, they would drink coffee together instead of killing each other…

The war was created by the final Europeanization of Bosnia and Herzegovina, meaning the introduction of the concept of state into a space which can, only by use of extreme force, be cut into nation states. All these war criminals were actually trying to have their nation state. But they had to kill hundreds, thousands… These unsolved problems were only forgotten, left there, until today nobody has any idea how to solve the problem. Even the system is created in such a weird way that it contradicts human rights; they cannot be applied in this system.

So just talking about this part of Europe, the divide between West and East… This is the form in which the Cold War divide survived. We believe it is only about cultural violence, about cultural differences, but now you see that with militarization and with the danger of new wars, the nightmares of the Cold War are coming back through the very logic of this division, through the very logic of implementation of democracy through transition, through catching up.

C.B.: You think the conversation is the same but take Romania for example; it still has this peripheral vibe. I’m not trying to be self-colonial here, but it feels that the conversation is not actually taking place on a very sophisticated level and that there is a lack of access to the bigger themes. It is something that we’re doing to ourselves; we are not contextualizing our situation in a wider sense. I am not sure that in France people are necessarily good in contextualizing; yet it feels as if they wouldn’t do it, it is being done in any case.

Their contexts are so well defined that they cannot see out of their context [laughs]. I really understand what you mean by this, I’m just thinking how much work and how much radical change in the way we think and the way we make politics and the way we imagine the future, how radical we have to be to deal with this problem, not to be simply self-Easternizing…

C.B.: Exactly. Like raising the question they’re not asking, they have not even thought about.

P.S.: And what about over-identification as some sort of structure…

C.B.: Even if you go outside of over-identification in the facts, it feels a bit like you are talking too locally.

This is obviously a problem to be tackled, but there is some change within the generations that earlier believed what they want is the West and that the East was their own problem and they had to figure out how to get out of it. This was the vision.

In art, in culture, this is where this problem of self-Easternization started, the political concept of the logic or the paradigm struggle for recognition. As Axel Honneth says, this is identitarian politics where an excluded element of identity struggles to be recognized by the excluder. This is the classical paradigm of identity politics.

When the Eastern art man makes Eastern art map, you see, this is an attempt at reconstructing, imaging Eastern European history of art for itself. They are completely separated from the West, it’s a radical statement, a counter position, a challenge.

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

C.B.: But a lot of people in my generation have left the country at one point and lived a long time abroad. They went through this first stage of over-identification and being more Eastern, more Romanian than when they had left. Then when we came back and some of us were leftists! Many came back and they wanted free market, they wanted Romania to finally become civilized. But I think many of us came back and are wondering what questions should be asked – this is why I was asking you earlier the questions of other frames of reference, is there a way of getting out of this… because it feels like this East-West is not doing it for us anymore.

Yes, but this is the problem. You cannot simply jump out of it. But I think that there are so many levels, the level of legacy, this was a non-aligned country. Simply to say, Yugoslavia was not a Balkan part of Europe, it was better connected already to the South, and this is where Europe should have learned something.

C.B.: We were also thinking that some of those coming back are in the arts and the way in which we are organizing is a good way to have a conversation, a lot of good questions are being asked in the art world, which is super tiny and insignificant and has no political power – at least not at all in Romania. So not just in terms of content, but also in terms of organization: people are thinking what kind of frameworks can we create within which we can ask the questions that we want to ask.

I think it is time for new connections and new developments. However, there is not a big difference between what happens in art and the rest of society when it comes to terms of the relation between East and West. Art still functions according to this global art system with more than a hundred and fifty biennials, with enormous sums of money, with the most powerful institutions of the art system that are Western, etc. And there is this struggle for not only East-Europeans, but generally of those who have not yet been admitted into the global Western art system.

Think of the East Art Map, not as a counter art history that challenges radically, but this map as an idea of new infrastructure that has yet to be created, connected in the East itself.

P.S.: I think this is exactly where we are heading.

The problem is that without Western institutions, without financial institutes, banks, those who are in the art market can hardly do anything.

C.B.: I believe we can, I think there is a lot of attempts. There is the precariat, people in the art world who avoid…

P.S.: … the dark matter of art.

The dark matter of art!

C.B.: People who want to avoid the system and who connect with us also. I think it’s a more nuanced, understated connection to the West, because we are not rejecting it in block as if we’re…

P.S.: … a second option?

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

But I don’t think it would be possible to simply invent art institutions and an art infrastructure. Social infrastructure must be created and understood in terms of social infrastructure. Providing social services, not only art exhibitions, etc. One of the points of my book is that, in the transition to democracy, a crucial element is the destruction of society.

Peter Mair mentions the effects of individualization and globalization: this is where the void is created. I always repeat, Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society”. Yes, the destruction of society, the concept of actually existing socialism where the state was like the society itself, claimed to be a society providing social services and so on. This has failed definitely and historically.

What in former Yugoslavia could be interesting is the self-management system. This is how society can organize itself in terms of production, in terms of social services, in terms of solidarity. And this is where I see art should think, not how you connect to civil society, art institutions or a parastate, but how to embed art production into new forms of social infrastructure that fill this void. This is where you can challenge the West, because they still have in Germany for example this sort of preserved welfare state, but look what happened to Greece, to its welfare state.

P.S.: But I know two examples of this kind of practice that you can follow in the arts. One in Poland where Citizens’ Forum of Contemporary Art (Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej) ask other art institutions to establish the minimal wage of artists. Whenever there is a solo or a group show, you have to make sure that the artists will receive the right money.

And in the Czech Republic there is a new concept called Feminist (Art) Institutions, all about enabling people who are not only beholders, but also people who work in the art institutions to feel that the art institutions care about them. From organizing corners for kids to getting a proper salary, from starting this whole discussion on how this small universe can have a bigger effect on society to just providing decent conditions for the art world.

And this can be problematized, articulated. Any sort of creation can start only if these new initiatives are aware of the major problem of what is public, what is common, which should be protected and developed in contrast to the private.

One shall start with the very question to whom water belongs… It’s the starting point of the commons. Art must rearticulate itself in such terms to perceive its own activity as being a kind of social commons. But how to deal with the powerful institutions of the art market?

C.B.: In practice… I don’t know why, people are so depressed about things when all around us are actually people who are trying, connecting, going to places, talking, thinking, imagining, but overall…

Overall, yeah, the political situation is getting worse and worse [laughs].

C.B.: But we all know that and yet we are surrounded by and connected to people who do amazing things, who have ideas that already transcend all of the basic things that are being discussed… somehow, I mean, it doesn’t work on a global scale.

No, yeah, it cannot.

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

C.B.: This is funny, because we are all surrounded by people who do these things and which on a super small scale work. MeetFactory created an ecosystem that works. In Bucharest also several small initiatives have managed to create all kinds of safe spaces.

Are these supported by the state? Or a city council? I am just trying to compare it to something like the WHW initiatives in Croatia, these are private…

C.B.: By grants from the state, otherwise they wouldn’t survive. There is no private money.

P.S.: Same here in Prague.

Not yet here a problem, but the cultural revolution of the rightwing… When they take the state, you will see that all this won’t survive.

C.B.: In Hungary, the art scene was very well funded and now they have been boycotting state funding for years.

If I now told you the stories of how rightwing initiatives function, how they mobilize workers… The political struggle intensifies now and in the meantime, left initiatives – non-nationalistic, bottom-up grassroots, social and artistic initiatives – seem to dry out.

C.B.: So you are pessimistic?

I am very, actually, very pessimistic. When it comes to Croatia at least.

P.S.: How about Berlin?

Berlin, no… you know, Berlin is not Germany. Berlin is surrounded by Germany. Berlin is surrounded by this white supremacist AFD environment. It’s a completely different world.

C.B.: When you think of this massive trend in Berlin – recall the latest show at Hamburger Bahnhof, Hello World – it seems that they are taking onto themselves this role of the good people of the world…

Berlin is now sort of a refuge. In the Balkans, young people really feel that they no longer have opportunities to develop, to do something at home, and so they leave. Now in the last 10 years, all sorts of intellectuals form Zagreb and artists have moved to Berlin – for example, one of them moved because he could no longer survive the pressure of the Catholic Church. Piotr, the Polish Catholic Church was not collaborationist during the Second World War, but in the Croatian war this was the case. They have such a deep influence that they make the survival of people impossible. It does not have to be direct in terms of censorship, but your wife cannot find a job and they tell you openly she will never get a job.

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

C.B.: A question that is perhaps more relevant in the case of Romania, but could be asked generally in the East European context: we decided we would erase 50 years of communism, so what are we left with returning to? In Romania at least, intellectuals are very nostalgic about the period before the war, but Romania was in fact a fascist country back then, so it doesn’t feel like there’s any solution to go back there. Nevertheless, there is a massive nostalgia for the king who died last year and there was a massive national funeral. I saw how on Facebook my friends, who are intellectuals, educated people, were all mourning for the king, as if Romania had lost its hope, everything that was ever good in Romania had died. And also think of Brazil or other countries that were doing such avant-garde things and now…

It then makes this idea of organizing some sort of transnational social and artistic infrastructure even more important. Because this will be obviously the infrastructure of resistance. Not like making exhibitions, also to… take a refuge from the west [laughs]. I’m reminded of the situation in Berlin… People in Croatia have been searching for a place to stay, for a job, etc. They want to stay and they stay. All this while the Croatian state has its own embassy, they have their artists, approved by the church. A completely parallel world.

The next step must be some kind of organization. Berlin provides a refuge for so many people, from gay people from Afghanistan or Turkish lesbians to Americans trying to escape Trumpism and now Brazilians will come…

C.B.: On the other hand, Germany is also currently colonizing the rest of the world, culturally through the Goethe Institutes, they are all around, in South-East Asia, South America… I was talking to some Brazilian friends who were saying, when Goethe gives us money, they give us money for Germans to come, so we cannot do things without them.

Yes. This is one of the richest, most powerful states in the world. I constantly think of Habermas. In a way, his theory corresponds to the reality of Germany, because that is the reality of a state that can protect its financial interests in Greece, so that the Greeks pay, and not German taxpayers. Someone is winning; there are not only losers.

In the 1990s there was a belief that the invisible hand of the market will solve all the problems. Nobody believes this any longer. Even those whose interest is that everything stays as it is, even they don’t believe it and are thinking already how they will protect what was privatized… A historical period is over; it was a period of a very strong irrational trust. Belief in the future, in the system that works and that sooner or later will bring solutions.

P.S.: Capital optimism.

Yeah, capital optimism. This is over and the right-wing populist movements are also a symptom of the closure of this belief. This is the end of utopia. Very fast actually, historically.

P.S.: Done. Checked off the bucket list.

C.B.: But is there a radical left that you think has emerged or not?

[laughs] If you read today the Guardian articles about populism, then you’ll think there’s left populism, right populism… but what is left wing? You had Podemos, Syriza, yet now…

P.S.: … the leftist populism?

Yeah, leftist populism, you don’t have it. It’s not in power.

P.S.: Bernie Sanders?

Yes, but what does it mean to call Bernie Sanders populist? I don’t know. I think that the elites invented the word populism so as to protect themselves. Because populism is turned against the elites.

‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas II”, exhibition view, courtesy of TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art

C.B.: Also maybe the right, the alt-right in fact, has been able to completely reinvent the images, the media, the strategy, everything that the left hasn’t done at all.

There are new media technologies that make things possible that were unimaginable 20 years ago.

C.B.: But the left didn’t really get it. Which is disappointing, considering its diagnosis is closer to reality. Maybe some ideas of acting in terms of infrastructures, but there is no actual media discourse that would sustain the project, that would make it visible in the media, in the way the alt-right makes its discourse super visible. So there’s an imbalance between what we have and what the other side has, or what we would need. We have theory and interesting thinking on the left, but then there is little media strategy.

It is difficult to think of a strategy, you need some subject. I have this feeling that even these words are of no use, because in these infrastructures we think we will build, who will then be a subject to create a strategy? There must be something that is not strategy, but works even better than strategy.

This is a question of institutions. Who is in possession of the institutions? Institutions are art infrastructure and they are very powerful. I think that in this precarious situation one should create one’s own institutions. Parallel institutions. Because it so easily happens that state institutions betray you: they like your art now, at least a little bit, but tomorrow this little bit can disappear immediately and then it’s over. This is because state functions according to a logic of distribution, who will get which part of the cake. Solidarity is not necessarily distribution. Solidarity can be articulated in a different way.

We say that the United States is a state, Germany is a state, Romania is a state, Croatia is a state, but these are different institutions with so different power relations, different ability to accumulate power and apply it, but there are obviously states which are beyond the rest… there are dependencies, like in feudal systems which we should study, and think what can emerge out of the cracks of the system and develop something new.

Today, we should also think of those who can’t find themselves, who are in the cracks of the system. And the system does not function perfectly, it’s full of cracks. And then what happens to these cracks? Does society hold the possibility of creating some social relation within these cracks? This is something…

C.B.: Parasitic?

Parasites… they are ok. Parasites are even better if they finally kill the system…


ArtistErick Beltrán, Verónica Lahitte, Elena Lavellés, Irmina Rusicka, Adéla Součková, Katharina Stadler, Sandro Sulaberidze, Nino Zirakashvili, Jiří Žák
ExhibitionThe New Dictionary of Old Ideas II
Place / venueTRAFO Center for Contemporary Art, Szczecin
Dates18 June – 16 August 2020
Curated byData Chigholashvili, Alba Folgado

See also