Strategies of Visualization
In Brussels, eyes are closed to the West Balkans, while in the Balkans, eyes are closed to their own past. Are Europeans thus blind to Europe? Or are we just settling comfortably into a recurring circularity of perception? "relations" talks to Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), about myths, art, empiricism, and the necessary work of raising awareness.
Gerald Knaus, if you had to draw a map of Europe, what would you color red?
Gerald Knaus: If you go to the EU Commission website youíll find maps of the current EU candidates and Member States in different colors: sometimes blue, sometimes in different shades of red to indicate unemployment levels, sometimes green tones for the divergences in per capita income. And then there are the white spots Ė areas which are neither a member nor have EU candidate status, and which, from the perspective of the decision-makers, are still not regarded as part of this Europe. No data is complied on them. The current maps of Europe show a large white spot in the middle of Europe, and that is the West Balkans. Then there are the white spots on the edges: the Ukraine and Moldova. At the ESI we are attempting, so to say, to color these spots red: through applied empirical research undertaken on location we are trying to pick up those themes we believe to be important to the pan-European discussion, and present them in such a way that they become visible for the public. At the same time, our research concentrates on influencing those persons directly responsible for making decisions, locally as well as in Brussels or Washington.
Are these areas and their respective situations really going unnoticed? Or is it not so that they are being consciously ignored, or fading out of the picture Ė because any official recognition would bring with it changes to European policy, changes the political decision-makers wish to avoid?
They reinforce one another. Letís take Kosovo as an example. Forty percent of the working population is employed in agriculture, but this sector is still trapped on the level of nineteenth-century farming: tiny subsistence farms, without any capital at all, without any chance of putting anything aside. If the European institutions were to examine the situation, it would soon become plainly obvious that most of the produce on offer at local markets comes from Greece or Hungary, where the farmers are subsidized. The question is then of course: what is to be done? However, if this information is fading away, then very different questions emerge. For instance, it is claimed that underdevelopment is one of the results of organized crime, which also, in turn, prevents foreign investment. The solution is thus Ė how practical Ė to do what we are already doing, namely sending soldiers and police to Kosovo and tightening border controls. And this view of the Balkans, criminalizing problems that are issues of development policy, is reinforced every time a conference on the "trafficking of women," "organized crime," and "smuggling of drugs" is financed. The more international police we send there, the greater the number of reports they write, and, of course, they believe that these really are the gravest problems, simply because they are there to solve them. This leads to circularity of perception. In such situations, it is crucial to ask rigorous empirical questions.
As a rule, analysis based on the social sciences seeks to delineate problems and identify their causes. In contrast, "relations" seeks to promote discussion. We try to understand and convey how specific problems in specific places are being discussed. What visions of the future are artists and intellectuals developing there? What vocabulary is being used, what kind of artistic language and praxis? We cooperate with intellectuals and artists who tackle explosive themes and want to make a difference. The goal is to develop visions, to initiate discussions in the local context and make them comprehensible to an outside public. If anywhere, then the provocative impetus of our work resides in how we have made the decision not to discuss with artists themes like the mafia, the trafficking of women or war, and prefer instead to concentrate on the possible artistic and cultural trends, and, hence, developments in civil society. In other words: we avoid the "victim" discourse by focusing on a thematic approach. For us, the artists with whom we cooperate are experts from whom we can learn and with whom we can discuss.
Working with experts locally is also fundamental for the ESI. In Kosovo, for example, we are working with a group of young social scientists researching the relevance of Prishtinaís urban history for the cityís development. This is of immense importance because most tertiary institutions in the region have no empirical social research: they are in a deplorable state in the West Balkans. Students are forced to work with texts from the 1970s, and they have to buy them from the academics teaching them, who earn their money in this way. It is, therefore, necessary to help people get going. We are trying to do this by setting up local think tanks. In my opinion, too little is being invested in what "relations" is also trying to do in the arts and culture: to establish long-term working relations with new institutions and the media on a local level and researching the recent past.
Debates and arguments focusing on history and memory are very present in the "relations" projects. Over and over again we have observed that voices in the intellectual discourse are refusing to allow the 40 years of communism or socialism to be simply erased from memory, but are posing the provocative question: which experiences from this time can be made productive today? For example, does the collective experience under the auspices of socialism have the potential to counter neo-liberalism? A key concern for many of the "relations" projects is to rupture and disrupt the sometimes very selective way of dealing with recent history and to develop a language that enables alternative systems to be discussed politically.
And that is exactly the regionís greatest problem: the political, but also the social and economic developments have not been researched and discussed over the last 30 years. And while there has been abstract talk about a "third way," there has been no concrete discussion about what has happened. Let me give you one example: Bosniaís industrialization. The key to industrialization in Bosnia was the Yugoslav armaments industry. To manufacture arms and sell them to Third World countries or exchange them for raw materials Ė this was the core of the "third way." Bosnia was Titoís fortress. There was a military factory in Vitez, munitions were manufactured in Bugojno, artillery in Sarajevo, and fighter aircraft in Mostar. But nobody reflects on what this means for launching economic reform in Bosnia today. Things are talked about general terms like "capitalism" and the "Western model" and discussed in an unbelievably ahistorical way. Foreign consultants are no better; they simply say, "Create a good business climate and the investors will eventually come."
But isnít the refusal of the decision-makers to engage with the past connected to emotions as well, to a sense of shame or an inferiority complex? After all, it is in a societyís interest to approach its own past. The problem is that this past is being negotiated at present in the mode of nostalgia or being canalized into a disastrous identity discourse. A situation that we could easily tie into the controversy surrounding Germanyís election campaign, the use of terms like "nostalgia for the East" or the "frustrated."
I donít think that has anything to do with severing connections to the communist tradition. The most painful experience would be to look closely at how communism had really functioned in these countries. And many of the myths of communism are still alive today. Incidentally, it is not as if the Bosnians were the only ones who didnít look into their economic history. The World Bank also neglected this.
Letís return to our own work and interaction. After the first phase, where "relations" initiated and supported art and culture projects in eastern and central Europe, partnerships were then established with German cultural institutions, and these institutions will begin presenting the results of this cooperation in Germany this summer. Our chief concern when communicating these themes from the eastern regions to Germany is to point out that an urbane, innovative tradition of thought exists there, one which is interesting for us here as well, and furthermore, from which we can learn. A great deal in fact. It was amazing to observe just how many unexpected awareness-raising processes were set off by the long-term institutional cooperation alone. One example is the student exchange program between the alternative arts academy in Prishtina and the Städelschule in Frankfurt/Main. The outcome of the cooperation is not only, as planned, collective works and exhibitions, but a symposium will also be held, entitled "What is an art academy today?" In Germany, where this question seemed to have been answered long ago, the confrontation with a completely different world of experience has given the issue a new lease of life. And this is what we are aiming at: to focus less on providing assistance and more on stimulating discussion between equal partners.
This is very similar to our vision on how Europe should approach the West Balkans. To say, while resources are scarce there, they have to be contributed from outside sources in the transition phase; otherwise, no discourse is possible. To say, you are a part of us, but we are still going to help you. This kind of approach, as a principle for European policy, has to be extended to cover all other areas of society, so that students can study at all European universities because their diplomas are recognized everywhere, so that farmers can sell their produce throughout Europe, and so on. There is not one European model. There are thirty. For this reason alone we need to share our ideas and experiences. This model, cohesion in its broadest sense, says: we donít want any of those white spots on the map of Europe, and we have a responsibility to actively redress the situation.
Do those circles involved in practical policy, where you are active, believe that art and culture projects have the power to initiate change?
I recently attended a meeting of former state and government leaders, all members of an international Balkans commission that is working on recommendations for how European politics should approach the Balkans. The meeting was opened with a showing of the documentary film "Whose Is This Song?" by the Bulgarian director Adela Peeva. The film was about a folksong that every Balkan country is convinced belongs to its own folklore, even though there are versions of this song everywhere, from Turkey to Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, and Greece. A very touching and disturbing documentary, for naturally an enormous argument broke out as to whose song it is. I believe that documentaries from the region are an extremely effective way of rediscovering and visualizing hidden realities, and that there is great potential for closer cooperation between artists and social researchers in this field. But art projects are also capable of setting off positive discussions, as the initiative to erect a Bruce Lee monument in Mostar has shown.
For us, unusual combinations and confrontations between different actors, from both the artistic as well as the cultural and political fields, are extremely productive. "relations" has not been initiated to simply replicate what the international art market does. The result does not stand in the foreground of our three-year project, for instance, in the form of a large exhibition. We are concerned with the process of confrontation, and again and again with the necessary adjustments that emerge from this confrontation. When it works well, this leads to unexpected thematic turns and extends our vocabulary. In the end, nobody takes exactly the same position as they had before; or one has at least three more concepts for their original position. We are thus concerned with productive disputes, so that afterwards Iím in a different relay station and can enter into new relations. This grass-roots work is important to us.
The interview was conducted for "relations" by Katrin Klingan, Ines Kappert, and Peter Wellach.
Edited by Christiane Kühl.