THE BALKAN AFTERIMAGES
On the programme of Malta Festival Poznań 2017
I have a guilty conscience whenever I cross the Drawa or the Danube rivers. On my way there I feel as if I was sneaking up. On my way back – as if I was fleeing. I have an idiotic sense of guilt as if I owed something to those regions. But in fact, I am simply drawn to the Balkan disintegration and I am trying to describe this poignant feeling. I owe them nothing. After all, you need to have necrophilia in your blood to send a good part of your own peninsula up in smoke. There was something to that burnt offering of the country. After all, no one there was such an idiot to think they would win. There was some selflessness in this slaughter. Some art for art’s sake. Europe watched and they said: “Look, that’s how you do it. Remember this, because you seem to be forgetting it slowly. That’s how you do it”. This is a reminder and we should be grateful to them for it. There was someone to remind us of the old skills.
Bridges and walls
Bridge is a metaphor for the Balkans. The most famous is the stone one over the Neretva river in Mostar, Bosnia, one of the most beautiful achievements of Balkan architecture. Built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, in the course of four centuries it had become a symbol of the co-existence between Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. It survived until 1993, when in a symbolic gesture it was destroyed by the Croatian army. The Balkans thus are not only a vivid slightly archaic European retreat, lying in the shadow of the Orient, but also an area of bloody wars opening and ending the 20th century. In 1912-1913, a multinational liberation movement against the Turks turned into a war for a division of the territories taken back from the Ottoman Empire. Nearly 80 years later, in 1991, the breakup of Yugoslavia once again stirred cruel wars for the division of the Balkan lands. The message sent by the Croats demolishing the bridge in Mostar was clear – there was no unity in the Balkans.
In fact the very designation “the Balkans”, even though it refers to a geographic area – the lands on the Balkan Peninsula, brings with it controversy. For the inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia), Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, it is too uniform, eliminating cultural, political (e.g. EU member states and countries aspiring to the EU) and religious differences between those countries. It even has pejorative overtones. Even more so, that the term “Balkanization” has entered many European languages (as a result of the events from the early 20th century) as a synonym of national fragmentation and suicidal war, which ultimately contributed to the Balkans been attributed negative qualities. It was so with the designation “Eastern Europe” coined in the 18th century, when the centre of Enlightenment Europe moved to the north (and the previous division along the North - South axis was no longer relevant) and the West needed a new Other to create its own, positive identity. The dividing line “we – others” was delineated early, creating simple oppositions: civilization – barbarity, modernity – tradition, purity – dirt, progress – darkness, city – countryside, rationalism – superstition, and then: modernization – backwardness, capitalism – communism. To many, this negative otherness of the Balkans, identified in general with the benighted irrational East, still provides satisfactory explanations for the extremities pervading this region and conflicts breaking out there. Also in Poland, which itself has for a long time been identified with the East (which is why Polish writers and politicians in the late 1980s and early 1990s fought for the popularization of the new term – “Central Europe”), the Ottoman elements are considered an explanation of the Balkan extremities. Yet, are the tragedies of this region so far removed from our Polish tragedies? Ethnic and religious conflicts lie not only in the stereotypical nature of the Balkans. The pogroms in Kielce, Jedwabne, Wołyń, as anti-Semitic propaganda which in 1968 led thousands of Polish citizens of Jewish descent to leave the country. Those stories differ in scale and context, but it is hard not to notice a close affinity in the recurring mechanisms of neighbourhood violence, segregation and hatred.
The Balkan spectres
Stereotypes simplify yet also reveal some truth – not about how it is, but about how we think it is. In the modern hypermedia reality, it is easy to believe that by using technology one can get to know everything, without engaging the body or too much attention in the process. Content floods our eyes, existing in a spectral fashion. They seem to be, rather than are. The presence of the Balkans in our consciousness is likewise ambiguous – it is an image which was partially experienced and partially imagined, living and created, specific and virtual, existing and non-existent.
Many of us – the audience of Malta and viewers of TV news shows – remember quite well the war which took place slightly over 1000 km away from the southern border of Poland in the 1990s, when our attention was chiefly focused on the newly regained freedom and the prospects of economic advancement. It was the first armed conflict of such a scale in Europe since World War II. Also for the first time, bombardments, the suffering of civilians and accounts from the front line were broadcast live, making them a part of everyday life of the people who were not directly connected with that story. The scenes of cruelty intertwined with the beautiful landscapes of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. The latter, in turn, were interrupted by camera close-ups of the self-assured faces of generals, commanders, politicians. We even learned how to pronounce their names: Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić, Slobodan Milošević. The war seemed improbable, yet despite that, by all means real. Could it be any different, if we sent humanitarian aid convoys to the Balkans, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister in this part of Europe, served as a Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission of Human Rights (which he resigned from in 1995, after the Srebrenica massacre)?
Thus, The Balkans’ spectral substance is composed of a conglomeration of images which appeared in mainstream European media, only to disappear a moment later, a collection of associations, clichés, prejudice, gossip, persistently recurring postcard views, and strong emotions – fascination and brotherhood, compassion, horror and contempt.
The platform of knowledge
The Idiom “The Balkans Platform” does not aim to paint the region as culturally uniform, or to reduce it to the role of a foreign territory looked upon with curiosity or anxiety. The assumption is different. First of all, we are not talking about a stable image, even if it was, as we like calling it, “a multicultural mosaic”, which is worth exploring because it casts a light on all of Central and Eastern Europe: its awareness of the passing of existence, identity conflict, the sense of insecurity, the shared legacy of socialism, afterimages of war and the imperfect implementation of capitalism. There is no one image which could encompass the entire matter, was extensive enough, objective, stable, unambiguous or just enough. This image is constantly being negotiated, which is why during Malta Festival Poznań 2017 we would like to invite you not a darkroom, where we develop already taken ready photographs, but to a mobile platform – “The Balkans Platform”.
In this way we not only oppose a simplified vision of this part of Europe, but, above all, advocate revealing the relativity of all these images and experiences. Therefore, the principal idea in this year’s Idiom is to bring notice to the conventionality hiding in the systems that often tempt us with the benefits of utopian, common solutions. Regardless of whether we speak about the global capital, Yugoslavia under Tito’s rule, the policy of the United Nations or the state apparatus which – as the creators of the performance The Republic of Slovenia, showig at Malta, wish to convey – is directing our life, we function in the constellations of artificial arrangements. This is the fundamental diagnosis of “The Balkans Platform”.
Where is the role of art in this diagnosis? Don’t we already have enough information, images and advice on what the world should be like? What can art bring to the growing sense of chaos? In the context of this year’s Idiom, artistic creation is not only concerned with aesthetics, but also with creating knowledge. We understand this as a peculiar type of activity which, bringing artificial worlds to life (on stage, on screen, in a gallery, at a university or in a public space), offers new methods of description and critical confrontation with reality. The programme of the Idiom “The Balkans Platform” is, thus, a generator of reflection on the changing world, a world upon which today a peculiar light is cast by the history of this region.
The artists, intellectuals and scholars invited to Poznań will address, here and now, the issue of this light. They will not be limited to canonical genre forms. They will create performing installations, performances reminiscent of a reconstruction of the political facts, avant-garde films, and objects. In this way, they will expand the territory of the struggle with such subjects as; capitalism versus the legacy of socialism, pop culture as a soft power of nationalism, neoliberal violence, modern concentration camps, the arms trade and corruption.
The Balkans are close and distant, familiar and alien, comprehensive and extravagant, elevated and demeaned. We would like this year’s Idiom to create a space for deliberation on the emancipation strategies which we can practice in a Europe that is experienced in wars, peace, and a fascination with capitalism, and which is currently struggling with the return of dangerous nationalist and fascist ideas. Today, we live in a world where we need to defend ourselves from hatred, paranoia, political and church hypocrisy, in a world more and more dominated by hostility and the building of walls, in which the idea of Europeanism, and hence the values which are at its foundation, are in crisis. The experiences of the Balkan inhabitants acquire in this context a particular meaning. Their history shows the consequences of the (headlong) ideological pursuit of ethnic and religious purity within homogenous nation states, having become a living warning, written in the memory and body of many of the living.
Dorota Semenowicz, Kasia Tórz
programme department, Malta Festival Poznań 2017