|A Short History of the SocialEast Forum||Published in Baltic/Balkans, Museum of Contemporary Art Szczecin, 2009|
The SocialEast Forum on the Art and Visual Culture of Eastern Europe was set up in order to address the many pertinent questions arising from the ongoing reconsideration of the history of art in Central and Eastern Europe. This project, which was initiated in 2006 at Manchester Metropolitan University by Dr. Reuben Fowkes, has from the outset been based on the principles of interdisciplinarity, transnationality and intellectual collaboration, reflecting a desire to generate alternative research structures and promote critical approaches to dominant (yet contested) art historical narratives produced under the influence of Cold War politics.
Interdisciplinarity in the context of SocialEast means an attitude of openness towards the complementary insights of academics, artists and curators that deal in their work with the legacy of the political realities of the post-war period for artistic production in the countries of the former Eastern Blok. Artists and curators are often well placed to adopt critical positions towards the canonical accounts of art history in specific national contexts and are able to open up fresh perspectives on under-researched periods and artistic phenomena. Artist presentations have played a prominent part in SocialEast by, for example, highlighting the unique experience of veterans of the conceptual art of the East European cultural underground, or the work of younger artists whose fascination with an ostensibly closed historical period can lead to bold insights that cut across conventional divides between cultural practices in East and West.
One of the main activities of the SocialEast Forum has been the organisation of a series of seminars focussing on specific themes in the new art history of Eastern Europe. These meetings are designed to encourage comparative and transnational approaches to topics that have until now usually been considered in restrictively national terms. The selected themes have included Art and Ideology, Art and Documentary, Art and Memory, Art and Revolution, Art and Empire and the Legacy of 1968 and have generated a productive mix of theoretical papers, international comparisons, and case studies from particular countries. The contribution of younger scholars operating outside of their own national context has often been particularly enlightening, especially set against firsthand accounts by participants in the East European art scene of the socialist period.
The advantages of transnationality have also been noticeable in the practice of rotating the seminars around venues in different countries, and thereby exposing the debate to a variety of discursive contexts. SocialEast Seminars have been held at Manchester Art Gallery, the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, Mimara Museum Zagreb, the Jagiellonian University Krakow, with plans to include venues in other cities in the future. The seminars often take place in the auditoriums of prestigious museums and art galleries, which has the effect of moving the frame of discussion beyond the purely academic into a contemporary art setting.
It can be observed that contrasting sets of assumptions operate across different institutional and national settings, as reflected in the comments and responses of the professional audience in particular countries, perhaps providing further indication of the advantages of a transnational approach for a project of this nature. In addition to overcoming the blinker-effect caused by dependence on particular national narratives, which tend to operate in relative ignorance of related developments in neighbouring countries, the practice of rotating venues may also mitigates against the emergence of a neo-colonialist Westernising perspective. Contrary to widespread assumptions about the cultural homogeneity of the socialist period in the region, it turns out that the diversity of experience and practices within East European art is one of its essential characteristics.
One of the key issues that mark out the research focus of the SocialEast Forum is discussion of the problems that arise in any attempt to create an internationally relevant account of art from the countries of Eastern Europe. This question points to issues such as whether it is possible, or even desirable, to draw up a definitive and acceptable list of significant artists and art events from the region and introduce them to the international canon of twentieth century art. Furthermore, we may wonder what is included and who is excluded from a revised art history of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, whether the experience of individual countries and the region as a whole is translatable and understandable for a wider international audience, and how we might establish who is qualified to draw up such a list. One problem to which discussion inevitably returns is how to agree on a shared and generally-applicable framework and terminology for discussing East European art.
Another key issue considered by the SocialEast Forum is how to identify the specificities and particularities of the art and visual culture of Eastern Europe in this period. This question produces content-rich responses that hinge on issues such as the nature of the divide (or relationship) between official and alternative artistic cultures during the socialist period. Furthermore, it points to the need to evaluate the consequences of relative isolation from the international art world, exclusion from the basic narrative of Western art history, and the absence of a commercial art market for artistic production in the region. Arguably, the absence of market pressures was from some points of view a positive factor, in for example the development of a distinctive and challenging path for conceptual art and performance art in Eastern Europe.
Another important aspect in this field of research is analysis of the process by which the picture of East European art has been constructed since the fall of communism. This question points to the need for reflexivity in the research process and for analysis of the contexts within which new assumptions about East European art are being formed, including the role of curated exhibitions, survey publications and academic discussion. The SocialEast Forum tries to contribute to the emergence of a coherent and accurate picture of East European art history through the synergy of accounts by senior academics and artists, who experienced the events at first hand, and the more dispassionate approach of younger researchers, who find it easier to maintain a critical distance from the turbulent history of art during the Cold War.
In addition to the SocialEast Seminars, the project has also involved in a series of exhibitions that address some of the theoretical questions broached in the discussions through curated shows of contemporary art. Each of the exhibitions is in turn accompanied by a SocialEast Seminar that aims to bring out some of the wider implications of the issues considered in the show.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes are the curators of a trilogy of international exhibitions dealing with the implications of the revolutionary moments of the twentieth century for contemporary art. In 2006-7 the exhibition ‘Revolution is not a Garden Party’ considered the resonances of social and political revolution in contemporary art against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising. The show was made up of new and recent works that examine the global economic and political context against which revolutions take place, as well as the intersection between personal and artistic heritages of revolution. The exhibition opened at the Trafó Gallery in Budapest, before travelling to venues in Zagreb, Manchester and Norwich, and was accompanied by a publication including essays by prominent art theorists.
The Second exhibition was entitled ‘Revolution I Love You: 1968 in Art Politics and Philosophy’ and dealt with 1968 as an interlude of liberty in both East and West, focusing on the interplay between the politics of the streets, radical philosophy, and the explosion of creative responses in that period. The exhibition opened at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, before travelling to venues in Birmingham and Budapest. Parallel to the exhibition, a SocialEast Seminar was organised on the Legacy of 1968 in Kraków, while the accompanying publication is a mosaic of interviews, statements and essays by theorists, historians, curators, cultural workers and artists that highlights the multipolar and interrelated experience of that pivotal year. In 2009 a third exhibition will complete the Revolution Trilogy and examine the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 for art and politics.
The website of the SocialEast Forum archives the abstracts, speaker biographies, as well as audio recordings made of the SocialEast Seminars. In addition to the exhibition catalogues, there are also plans for the publication of an edited book based on papers given at the seminars. The new special issue of Third Text dedicated to the project brings together a selection of papers from the first four seminars, which reflect the interdisciplinary approach cultivated by the SocialEast Forum, with contributions from art historians, philosophers and curators.
There is much work to be done in assessing and understanding the art produced in Eastern Europe, both on the level of particular national contexts and in understanding the singularities of art production under socialism. New comparative accounts are emerging through the confrontation of the histories of art of Eastern Europe with previously stable accounts of international art history. This process involves more than bringing in a few extra names into the existing canon and arguably necessitates a challenge to the narratives and assumptions that have structured dominant art historical accounts. The knowledge gained through the process of addressing the legacy of the East European art experience, including its heterogeneity, disobedience to accepted canons and the quality of much of the art that was produced by artists operating subversively within the system or in opposition to it in alternative cultural settings, can be seen to feed back in to contemporary artistic production. In short, a more complex and nuanced picture than the familiar stark binary divisions of Cold War art history is fast emerging, and the SocialEast Forum aims to both reflect on and be part of this turbulent process.
Looking back over the first three years of the SocialEast Forum, it is noticeable that there has been a progressive broadening of focus, and that while the starting point is still Eastern Europe, discussion tends to lead further afield. Although comparative research into the art history of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe remains a primary goal, it is increasingly hard to consider the art of the region in isolation from wider art historical debates, which can itself be taken as a positive sign of integration into wider accounts. Looking forward, the most promising area of research currently lies in the examination of exactly how a revised understanding of the achievements and circumstances of East European art, both historical and contemporary, will impact on global interpretations of art history.
See Revolution is not a Garden Party, edited by Maja and Reuben Fowkes (Manchester Metropolitan University, 2007), with essays by Simon Sheikh, Gerald Raunig, Benda Hofmeyer and Chus Martinez. The participating artists were Michael Blum, Nick Crowe, Igor Grubić, Sanja Iveković, Gergely László, Nils Norman and Adrian Paci.
See Revolution I Love You: 1968 in Art Politics and Philosophy, edited by Maja and Reuben Fowkes (Manchester Metropolitan University, 2008), with essays by Katja Diefenbach, Simon Ford, Rajkó Grlić, Jens Kastner, Konstantinos Kornetis, Viktor Misiano, Lukasz Ronduda, Krunoslav Stojaković and G.M. Tamás. The participating artists were: Zanny Begg, Heath Bunting, Nancy Davenport, Jean-Baptiste Ganne, Tamás Kaszás, Zofia Kulik, arko Lulić, Csaba Nemes, Oliver Ressler, Fia-Stina Sandlund, Mladen Stilinović, Tamás St.Auby and Stefanos Tsivopoulos.