Dan Mihălțianu, La Revolution dans le boudoir, 1999. Image courtesy of the artist

New Video / New Europe
interview with curator Hamza Walker, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago

published in IDEA arts + society, nr.19/2004

Eastern Europe is part of a game whose playground is not yet fit out and whose rules are more flexible than ever. The Western intellectual Europe is avid to re-conquer this space, lost once by politics, but its methods are not so different from those of the politics itself. Every cultural discourse, no matter how sympathetic, seems to reinforce the discrepancy between the two poles, since the “difference” is delivered in a package containing, indistinctive, artistic sensibility and political identity. Can this emerging sensibility resist within a broader and heterogeneous space? The exhibition New Video / New Europe at Tate Modern (October 2004), does not offer a straight answer to this question, but reactivates its necessity.

New Video / New Europe is the first major exhibition devoted exclusively to recent video production from Eastern Europe, equally in Western Europe and United States. Its American debut was in January in Chicago and afterward the exhibition has traveled to London, getting at Tate Modern, this October. The works reflect a variety of genres and approaches, addressing such topics as the lingering trauma of civil war and violent regime change; from isolation to globalisation; documentary, diary, and disclosure; experimental video pre and post digital, pre and post MTV. Spotlighting contemporary video from sixteen Eastern European countries, the exhibition aims to locate the medium’s practice not only within a particular geographic region, but also within a broader cultural discourse. As the curator Hamza Walker states: “What emerges from this exercise is not simply an understanding of the medium as used to portray the region, but a sense that the region, in its varying states of political, economic and cultural development, portrays facets of the medium.”

Three of the four thematic series of the selection introduce artists from Romania and Moldova. La Revolution Dans le Boudoir by Dan Mihaltianu and Essential Current Affairs by Dan Acostioaiei are presented alongside with Maja Bajevic’s film Double Bubble, Adrian Paci’s Albanian Stories and Dragana Zarevac’s MOST, Programme 1 attempting to make sense of the senseless: the civil war and the violent regime shift. Programme 3 examines the changes from isolation to globalisation, including Mircea Cantor ‘s preposterous account of the Double–Headed Matches, Sislef Xhafa’s ingenious insertion of Wall Street Stock Exhange into a Ljubljana trainstation, and Krassimir Terziev’s disclosure of clichés about Bulgaria in the video On the BG Track. Also revealing for the “new” relationship between East and West are the videos from Programme 4: Pavel Braila’s Shoes for Europe, Stefan Rusu’s Brezhnev Likes Mamaliga and Mamaliga Likes Brezhnev, Kai Kaljo’s A Loser, and Arturas Raila’s The Girl Is Innocent.

A memorable work, representative equally for the political and cultural frame of Europe, is the video Rhythm of the Serbian artist Vladimir Nikolic. Screening before each programme, it shows four men and a woman standing expressionless in a mock line-up, performing signs of the cross set to a hypnotic techno beat; starting in unison, they fall out of synch, and then eventually regain rhythm. The scene could be seen as an act of defiance or symbolical solidarity against the harsh westernisation, drawing attention to the dissonance that comes with rapid social and cultural changes.

So, is art at least as powerful as politics, when it shows up its slips? I don’t know, but this sub-textual tension between the Eastern and Western discourses reminds of Maria Todorova’s remark about the Balkans as the incomplete Self of Europei. There is a safe psychological distance between the two. From the ancient dolce far niente regime to the recent post-socialist, post-communist, pre-capitalist and pre-EUnionist hypostases of the same indefinite transition, the East is forced to fill the gap, with the ability of a bungee jumper or any other extreme sportsmen. On the contrary, giving us the opportunity to become so competitive, the West develops new and elaborate theories, most of them self-referential, detached by the too tight connections of history. However, if the New Video / New Europe programme has not managed to change the Western perception on the East, what emerges from this exercise is that East European identity, both political and cultural, still remains to define.

Simona Nastac: It seems that intensive representation of Eastern European art is going on outside of its borders in the last few years, several exhibitions focusing on Balkan contemporary art, i.e. the exhibitions In search for Balkania (Graz, 2002), Blood & Honey (Vienna, 2003), and In the Gorges of the Balkans, (Kassel, 2003). Certainly, the main reason of this particular concern is the new geopolitics of Europe. However, you stated that the New Video/ New Europe programme is not arranged as a geographic survey, being more medium-specific rather than region-specific. How you define, in this context, the motivation of this transcontinental project?

Hamza Walker: Given the three Balkans exhibitions, all of which took place in the span of a year, the last thing I wanted to do was construct a regional survey. I think it was Branko Franceschi, a Croatian curator, who jokingly pleaded with me not to do a Balkans exhibition. I could do anything but that. His plea was inspirational insofar as it encouraged me to cast a wide net, encompassing Northern Central and Southern Eastern Europe. Other than geographic adjacency, these regions (the Baltics, Mittel Europe, and the Balkans) are obviously distinct, so NVNE could be seen as encompassing more of what you are referring to as a transcontinental sensibility. This productively undermined an expectation that the exhibition be a cogent representation of what was now a tripartite, transcontinental region, each portion of which has its own history. This in turn provided enough latitude so that NVNE could incorporate work from the region with no obligation that it be about the region, particularly now that the region was sufficiently large enough to resist being considered a singular entity. It is at the point where a range of practices is on view, where experimental work is being screened alongside documentary work that I think a shift in emphasis, from region to medium, occurs.

S.N. Researching the project as curator, you’ve traveled a lot; have met artists, a variety of genres and approaches of video art, and also very different political, economic and cultural realities. Beyond the geographical aspect, there is any distinctive feature of the works that makes them part of the same matrix? Can they be promoted further on as having an intrinsic value, detached from the “strategic” frame of a “New Europe”?

H.W. To answer the last question first, NVNE is an artificial frame that I was willing to construct simply for the sake of getting the work shown. All of the work is detachable in that sense. I am extremely pleased when viewers respond to work because they like it, period; when they like a work not because of the context, e.g. because it is good Romanian video art, but because it is good video art. I am perhaps most pleased when colleagues ask for information about artists whose work they would like to consider for group exhibitions having nothing whatsoever to do with regional specificity. With that being said, I would also like to suggest NVNE be seen as asking (rather than answering) that very same question regarding an Eastern European matrix. We tend to think that by grouping these artists together, there is an attempt to create a matrix of commonality rather than bringing out what are informative differences. I prefer to think of NVNE as an exercise in comparative video much like the field of Comparative Literature. The differences yielded by comparing video art from two Eastern European countries might be more informative, particularly in its subtleties, than the standard East/West dichotomy. This is true not simply between but also amongst those countries for which video art is relatively new and those that boast having a rich tradition of video art. In other words, it would probably be more interesting to compare Croatia and Poland for example than say Poland and Romania where there is a discrepancy. But I tried to avoid constructing programs that would suggest an internally heterogeneous space in favor of examining what could be seen as heterogeneous responses to external conditions. For example, self deprecating humor, which is something of a shared trait amongst Eastern Europeans, is more interesting to consider against the backdrop of a transition from isolation to globalization than as a phenomenon in and of itself. Here I am thinking of program 3, where three very funny and very different works by Sislej Xhafa, Kai Kaljo and Azorro are united by an issue more substantial than their humor.

S.N. How did you find the Romanian art scene, especially that of video art practice, in comparison with the others from Eastern Europe? Is it symptomatic that there is no any Romanian film in programme two of the selection, dealing with video art’s relationship to pop culture or advertising industry; and pre- and post- digital experimentation? Can one say, consequently, that Romanian video is self-referential, focused on country’s recent history and dramatic changes rather than on the possibilities of the medium to explore a multi-layered contemporary reality?

H.W. I can’t speak to the Romanian art scene as a whole since I was interested in video. But my impression was that it was a very youthful scene whose energy outpaces the academy. I was interested in Peripheric, a festival that takes place in Iasi that is organized by Matei Bejenaru. He was kind enough to introduce me to the work of artists, from eastern and western Europe, with whom I was unfamiliar. I think this kind of international dialogue is as important as the desire for recognition. With respect to experimental traditions, I didn’t find much activity under the rubric of “new media” (which is where video often falls) in Romania. There are conclusions one could draw about the absence of Romania in program 2 that are telling of its relationship to both pop art and experimentation. But I would ask to what extent these conclusions are true across the board and not exclusive to the medium of video. There is much material from Romania’s recent history to be processed. I think Dan Mihaltianu’s La Revolution dans Le Boudoir exemplifies this. But I do not think the amount of material would account for a reluctance to avail oneself to the “possibilities of the medium to explore a multi-layered contemporary reality’ as you put it. For answers to that question, I would look to the educational infrastructure and ask how if at all is video or “new media” being taught.

S.N. Please tell us more about your Eastern European experience and particularly about the collaboration with Romanian artists and institutions. What were the selection criteria of videos? Some countries are represented in a larger amount than others, for instance Estonia, or less, such as Hungary or Bulgaria. Has this any significance for video art practice of the region, reflecting different states of productivity?

H.W. Part of the reason why some countries are represented more than others has to do is a simple question of time. Hungary for example has a rich scene and I certainly did not give it the time that it deserved. (I’ll have to do some sort of sequel.) Another part of the equation of why certain countries were represented more than others has to do with contacts and administrative infrastructure. In addition to Matei Bejenaru, I am indebted to Branko Franceschi from Croatia, Sirje Helme from Estonia, Dzintars Zilgalvis from Latvia and numerous others who sent me tapes, or let me sit in their offices and peruse their video archives. With that said, there is also a discrepancy in states of productivity, with productivity being a qualitative as well as quantitative judgement. Latvia and Slovenia, for example produce lots of video art, but much of it is by a cadre of artists with a skill set geared for advertising. It is very slick and professional but ultimately not as interesting as work coming from say the Romania/Moldova region or Estonia.

S.N. One of the issues raised by the exhibition is the persistent discrepancy between East and West, masterly illustrated by Estonian Kai Kaljo’s A Loser, Bulgarian Krassimir Terziev’s On the BG Track, Serbian Sislej Xhafa’s Stock Exchange and Moldavian Pavel Braila’s Shoes for Europe. I don’t know anything about the exhibition’s feedback in Chicago, but in London, the audience’s response seemed to reinforce this discrepancy. Only a few people have attended the programme in the first week, and I assume most of them were East Europeans. There is an obvious lack of interest, difficult to deconstruct, especially when the display of the works is not so striking as in the Time Zones exhibition, for instance, where the absolute concern for the spatial experience of the viewers is undoubtedly a trump. Do you think that New Video / New Europe programme managed to create a breach in Western perception on the East? Could be this a step towards a “New Europe”, where “politically correct” will mean also “aesthetically correct”?

H.W. The context, namely NVNE as a screening with the exhibition Times Zones as larger backdrop is not applicable to Chicago where NVNE was mounted as an exhibition. Although it consists of four discrete programs, these were each given their own screening room where they ran continuously. This was in addition to several looped works that were projected and shown on monitors in the gallery. But I am glad that you compared it with the Time Zones exhibition. NVNE was not simply a video show, but specifically a single channel video show. With the rise of “video installations” I thought a lot of good, simple, direct video work, that didn’t submit itself to that type of spectacularization, was falling through the cracks. This not to mention that the spatializing of video has eclipsed aspects of the medium’s history and politics, namely video as an alternative practice. But I wanted to challenge the notion of video made precious through its isolation and spatialization with the density of four rich programs. (And here, I like your conflation of terms, politically correct and aesthetically correct.) On another level, while Time Zones is clearly global in its reach and international in character, it also reinforces a sense of exclusion for a lot of the countries represented in NVNE. Again I think the spatialization versus density metaphor applies to this dilemma as well. I do, however, find it unfortunate that the pairing of these programs would reinforce any sense of a persistent discrepancy between East and West. This would undermine the intent, which I think was to have them function in a complementary fashion rather than see one as subordinate to the other. As for those who did not attend, I would write it off as their loss. As for the pairing of the NVNE with Time Zones, to quote Mae West “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

The Romanian version of the interview can be read here.

i Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997, p. 13 – 44.