Faces of the Zagreb Drift

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Thirty years ago, Mladen Stilinović did a piece called Artist at Work. It consists of four black-and-white photographs that show him lying in bed, rolled up in blankets, facing the viewer or the wall, fast asleep. Irreverence is something he takes seriously! Maybe in hommage to Mladen who was present at the Drift, or more likely following his own inspirations, Vladimir Jeric a.k.a. Vlidi took pictures of all the participants while they spoke, listened, gazed out into space, sank into reflections or somnolence, drifted away into dreams… And somebody caught a pic of him too, in the corner of the frame, a sandwich in hand, laughing. So we had another working session of this quixotic seminar.

Too many crucial themes came up in those four days to list them all at one go, but I want to remember a few that struck me. Straightaway on the first night, after the bus trip around the financialized sprawl of Zagreb, Süreyyya Evren asked about political audacity, based on his reading of Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig” (The Erl King), which describes the terrified visions of a young boy sinking into deadly fever. Is it possible to somehow embrace the threatening force that seems to be spiriting your life away? Süreyyya was trying to look beyond the incredibly polarized Turkish situation, caught between militaristic Old Left nationalism and a local bid for neoliberal globalism that nobody can precisely define, except to say it’s somehow mixed with the Islamism that traditional secularists abhor. But anyway, the great thing about literature — and maybe even better, about a Turkish anarchist twist on classical German lit — is that no one can say exactly what it means either; so it sticks in your imagination while the discussions continue.

stilinovicArtist at Work, Stilinović, 1978

I’m just recalling ideas, scattered comments. Mirko Petric, from the Croatian city of Split, wondered why there had to be an international meeting with hotels and per diems just to be able to get together, like in the seventies, and actually speak with each other about basic issues? Claire Pentecost from Chicago showed diagrams of the transnational food system as a strictly linear, waste-producing machine inserted in a cyclical ecology. Constantin Petcou, a Romanian working with the AAA “self-managed architecture association” in Paris, insisted that if you do not make a concrete change, if you do not succeed in constructing something and consuming what you produce, then you have gained nothing. For Miklós Erhardt in the Hungarian context, it is clearly the nationalist Right that now has the creativity to make a change, as he showed in scary and sobering mass images. We could say similar things in America, but about the neoliberals. Angela Melitopoulos, who moves between Greek and German origins, tried  consistently to bring the discussion back to artistic processes in the mediated societies, saying that by picking up a camera and filming your own life you can escape the scenario that someone else has stuck you in. Finally, in the closing discussions on Sunday morning, Jelena Vesić from the Prelom collective spoke the “heavy words,” party and state, saying that their economic and political situation is fundamentally different from anything American artists or intellectuals could face, and in Serbia that they don’t have the luxury to avoid such basic political issues. After which Dejan Krsić from Zagreb, reviewing his notes of the whole seminar, made the observation that the New Left is lacking exactly what used to form the strength of the old one, namely an idea of modernization and a vision of progress.

download the video of the last hour here

For me, these last hours of discussion brought the whole seminar together: both the basic predicaments and the possible solutions. But it isn’t easy or obvious, instead it’s a starting point from which something further could begin. Ayreen Anastas, from Palestine and the US, was the first to object to the word “progress,” but you could sense the same feeling coming from all the Americans. Those who have been on the receiving end of imperialism, and also those who’ve spent their lives trying to resist it where it originates, can’t hear that nineteenth-century word as anything but a mistaken and dangerous ideology. This is yet another place where the “coloniality of power” mentioned earlier on by Ovidiu Tichindeleanu comes in. Western European Leftists shoud pay more attention to that phrase, and all the realities behind it. From the postcolonial perspective, the disaster of progress means the absolute necessity of resistance and critique. But what about modernization, which was the key twentieth-century word on which the great egalitarian programs were founded? Can’t we think of it in a more open way, as the continuous transformation of the territory through the application of science and technology? Couldn’t there be a better, less deadly way to carry that out, without accepting the idea that there is a single, nightmarish technological destiny? Earlier in the seminar, Charles Esche from the Vanabbemuseum in The Netherlands had asked about the need for a new ideology, by which I think he means a system of operational and regulatory ideas, a way to actually run things. Again it seems like a poisoned word: but at the same time, in the absence of an articulated and sharable project that can guide the processes of transformation, it is almost certain that scattered forces of resistance will have no hold over anything, that they will never be able to move beyond an intimate or small-group scale….

My own belief is that we need to produce both concrete projects and a vastly multiplied vision, if we want to make our lives count beyond ourselves and if we want to return some kind of future to the pasts of the Left with which we may identify. A radically democratic ecological critique of progress can yield a new understanding of modernization, one that includes cultural difference and self-determination along with a practical understanding of the cycles of the earth, far beyond the old narratives of an industrial proletariat in a national frame. I think that all the great productive blocs now have their edges, their exploited or abandoned peripheries whose populations are leaving to become the laboring mainstays of the very center that helps destroy their homelands. Liberal fascism — a name for the present social order when it gets ugly — tries to divide into a hierarchy the people who could oppose its projects of destruction. It sets up a gradated system of inclusion and exclusion to divide classes of people from each and to set them against each other, with police, borders, barbed wire and militaries marking off ever more extreme gradations. Crucially, it tries to divide the precarious classes who have had some access to official education from the excluded classes who have had none, who have had to learn everything as they could, the hard way. What the Left needs, in order to offer anything at all to huge numbers of people who no longer see it or hear it, is to envision something like ecodevelopment on a continental or regional scale, a political process for improving life and movement across the territory, through methods that are both collaborative and ecological, and therefore span the divides between classes and also transform the very linearity of the rationalized production systems. What the Left needs, what the world needs, is to be able to give both the precarious classes and the migrants an active role in building a better world, in a system where the most educated and capable can also participate on the basis of something other than a pure quest for personal profit. We need to envision a chance for the potentials of technological change to be redistributed by their root producers, beyond national borders and racism, in an economy of embodied and responsible flows that organizes itself in a productive relation to critique and to radically democratic debate. A modernization that carves out the places for localized decision-making, for the affirmation of communities of value, but also for artistic experiments with the process of becoming. It’s clear that nothing like this exists in reality and that many promises have come to nothing, so there is no use to be naive, for sure. But is it clear, in a unifying world society, that movements of political resistance can do without this kind of constructive proposal?

These questions are as important in Europe and East Asia as they are in the Americas and around the world, they are the crisis-questions. Yet the philosophical and critical aspects will only count if we can also seize technology, reshape the real forces of productivity. The gap left by failed ideologies has to be filled by strong new claims on science, including critical claims, in order to answer all the sides of the Brechtian demand, “What keeps mankind alive?” WHW, the curatorial collective who welcomed us in Zagreb, has taken that question for the central theme of their exhibition project in Istanbul. Who could disagree that it’s timely? The predictable crisis that never seemed to arrive in reality is now at hand. Mumbai was hit with violent suicide attacks while we were in Zagreb; since we left, Greece has already been through an insurrection, still unfinished as I write. And I have the impression there are many more events on the horizon. If there was ever a moment to invent something, this is it.

Circles bring you back to the beginning, it’s a rhythm. How to embrace the threatening spirit and change it into something entirely different? Pedro Lasch — whose genealogy defies all resumé — reminded us of the political inventions that have been unfolding over the last fifteen years in Latin America, from the Zapatistas to the many diverse forces behind Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales. Isn’t this something that we need to understand much more deeply, also on the level of party and state, in order to translate that experience into terms that can make sense in other contexts? Another thing that no one understood in the early discussion of political audacity was Angela Melitopoulos trying to get back to Deleuze — and actually, to the ecologist Von Uexküll — with the idea of the tick and its three affects (it’s attracted to the light up in the branches, sensitive to the smell of passing animals, desirious to dig into the softest place it can find). For me this was another question of the New Left and the old one. I still don’t know exactly what Angela was trying to say, but I guess most of the New Left has three political desires, three fundamental and sometimes contradictory attractions, before any project can even be discussed. They are the responsibility of equality, the chance to cooperate, the right to be different. Communists were short on the last one, anarchists don’t always take full stock of the first one, and since 1968 the New Left has been paralyzed between the two. Isn’t art about waking new affects out of feverish dreams? What keeps mankind alive are complex sets of desires that can also become reality. First the vision has to awaken those desires. You have to see the light to let yourself get carried away. Then you can take the leap. And if there’s a warm body down there on the ground, maybe we can run with it!


photos by Igor Grubic




One Response to “Faces of the Zagreb Drift”

  1. J. A. Niland Says:

    I have just discovered your writing (via Transmediale) and read with excitement. I have only one wish….that as you proof read what has flowed so smoothly from your brain thru your fingers…please filter it once, imagining you are female. Fifty percent still feel gender issues just will not go away though we are tired of even speaking of it.

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