Can You Speak of This? The Exhibition As a Classroom of Difficult Questions1
Upon having been invited to curate a new edition of Spaport in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina, we decided to replace the one-time spectacular “biennial” event with a temporal subversion of the format, turning it into a slow, two-year project, gradually constructing and restructuring an unstable community gathered in various phases of its realization.2
The first part, Can You Speak of This?—Yes, I Can, developed in several stages, throughout 2009. Involving artists and co-curators from various contexts, it inverted the topics usually identified with the “Balkans” into different geopolitical constellations. This first exhibition set up the topics that had materialized gradually—questions of complicity, collaboration, solidarity, the articulation of trauma, the politics of language, the politics of memory and the politicization of art in opposition to the culturalization of politics. The second part, Exposures, evolved throughout 2010 and focused exclusively on the post-Yugoslav context, gathering a community of artists, thinkers, writers and activists around a set of difficult, post-traumatic and “transitional” (i.e. unresolved) questions.
The title, Where Everything is Yet to Happen (WEIYTH), contains references to duration, location and variables of the expected event, all of which are united by a conscious assumption of a position of radical uncertainty, of being caught in a breach between a past that does not provide support and a future that does not arrive; a past that does not offer (or in the best of cases, obscures the view of) an event to which we would, in Alain Badiou’s terms, bind ourselves to fidelity; and a future from which one expects precisely that—the “miracle” of an event.
Called upon to speak, we, representatives of the closer and more distant “international community” found ourselves caught at the same time in a forest of speech as well as in front of a wall of silence, which resounded with the question: What, in the first place, can one speak about and what must one speak about today in ex-Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Republika Srpska, in Banja Luka—and with what means?
One day someone from out of the crowd recognized me. Behind me, a young woman, her lips blue from the cold—who had of course never before known me by name—interrupted the silence created from the exhaustion to which we were all subject, asking me with a whisper (there everybody whispered): “Can you describe this?” I said I could, after which something like a smile passed over what had once been her face.
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem
As Giorgio Agamben pointed out in his essay On Potentiality, Akhmatova’s “I can”—her positive answer to the question of whether she could describe the horrors that were being committed during the time of Stalin’s purges—does not mean a conviction of the possession of certain capacities that guarantee success in describing the indescribable. Instead, it represents a radical acceptance of responsibility; an obligation to define one’s own position in the existing state of things. “Beyond all faculties, this ‘I can’ does not mean anything—yet it marks what is, for each of us, perhaps the hardest and bitterest experience possible: the experience of potentiality.”3
Accepting the invitation to take on the responsibility for speech, in spite of all the paradoxes and difficulties; articulating our own positions with respect to them; and inviting others to join this forum represented the foundations of the attempt to answer the question what we can (and must) do, or better still, what art is capable of doing.
In his elaboration of the modes in which ethnic identity is produced, Sarajevo-based philosopher Ugo Vlaisavljević argues that ethnic politics rests upon narrative pragmatics—ethnic identity is always created through the telling of the “most important stories” and these are always, in the post-Yugoslav space at least, war stories. How then to radically do away with the past, destabilizing those war subjects who rest on the telling of the “most important tales”? Can speech occupy the place of the tale—tale as a myth; tale of the past; tale as delusion?
It seems necessary, however, to first expose oneself to the truth; to confess; to lay bare; to reveal oneself in speech as action; to put an end to the past via direct statement.
In what manner can one address war crimes and trauma when going beyond the “unambiguous” roles of perpetrator, victim, accomplice and observer? Who is it that should speak, and with what means, if he or she is to avoid the simplistic telling of (the “true”) stories, the establishment of the “fundamental interpretations”? Must it be that speech continually happens elsewhere; negotiations and judgements happen in that same “international community”; or outside the spaces in which the past is the future; spaces where speech and the political wait patiently, and for long periods of time, to once again step into the sphere of the public?
The prospective framing of the project with the title Where Everything is Yet to Happen, was also formulated through positing an “impossible” equation: If the recent past is what creates the perversion and continuous paralysis of the political, social and economic present of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then this past should be done away with. This recent past, marked by war between the three dominant ethnic “communities” seems to be the only thing that still makes the country the object of interest and patronage of the international community; of the EU supports for the development of democracy, civil society, tolerance and multiculturalism. This same traumatic past is at the same time a key element in the external naming and in the mechanisms of branding the cultural and art production of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the “stable” and “well-ordered” Western democracies, apt to humanitarian exoticism and fetishization of the “suffering of others”.
Doing away with the past, not in the sense of a blind, escapist denial of its “reality”, but through an attempt to delegitimize it, assumes cancelling out the entire referential field in which the past and its violence continue to impose themselves as the only, “natural”, source of the narrative of present and future. Such a transformation is possible only through the creation of new narratives and fields of references; with the cancelled “naturalness” of the “pasts” remaining in view, now stripped of their mythic violence and subjected to scrutiny and critical reflection. In the originating point of the project, these preoccupations made us tackle the horrors of essentialist “communion” in which the “true tales” are embedded. Simultaneously though, recognizing this prompted us to look for a notion of community both outside and against any essentialist identitarian politics of nation or ethnicity, and outside the equally manipulative and simplifying formulae of “unity” and of the liberal categories of multiculturalism.
Called upon in 1993 to write a “eulogy of the mélange” (mixed), Jean-Luc Nancy started his text with the words: “Sarajevo has become the expression of a complete system for the reduction to identity.”4 Mixing and “bastardry” are impermissible and threaten the very heart of the idea of the immanence of community. In the foreword to Being Singular Plural, we again find a reference to Sarajevo, along with a lengthy list of scenes of armed conflicts in the world at the time, together with their protagonists; their “identities”. Precisely at that moment, Nancy recognises the necessity of thinking the community again, of beginning to address the problem of “we”.
In the context of the entire post-Yugoslav region, the question of how to think and how to utter “we” resounds with a particular gravity. This is especially so in the context of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the “normalisation” of which lags behind the states of the former Yugoslavia primarily because it was not possible to conduct it through the “one nation-one state” formula. Perhaps perversely, such a situation implies resistance to normalisation and opens up the possibility that it is precisely Bosnia-Herzegovina that could spur us on to imagining alternatives to the supposedly obvious and natural model of the nation state; the ultimate object of which is the unobstructed establishment of a free market and dissolution of all antagonisms.
In his lecture, Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, Alain Badiou defines art as the “production” and “process” of truth: “Art cannot merely be the expression of a particularity (be it ethnic or personal). Art is the impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to everyone [...] Art is the process of a truth, and this truth is always the truth of the sensible or sensual, the sensible qua sensible. This means: the transformation of the sensible into a happening of the Idea.”5
By accepting the invitation to do the project in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we decided to believe that we could find methodological and tactical ways of surmounting the particularities of various interested parties, and the individual and collective traumas that crossed paths therein. Attempting to engage in a process of searching for truth in solidarity with others, we accepted the possibility of finding ourselves and the “results” of our work instrumentalized for the purposes of a culturalization of politics and of representing its location as a normal, decent “Republic”. Yet it was precisely these possible traps that had led us to accept the process. For it is in exactly such complex conditions that our own postulates may be put to the test; namely, that critical practice should always take risks, depart from uncertainty about its own positions, continuous self-examination, a sense of responsibility, and finally—radical exposure to both external circumstances and to all of the people who (in one way or another) may become involved in a project.
Accepting and extending the invitation to participate in these uneasy conditions of multiple confrontations and exposures meant emancipating the search (or truth) itself, while accepting the unpredictability of the outcome. In the final instance, the continued commitments from everyone involved helped create a terrain for strengthening the existing alliances between disidentified individuals and groups in the post-Yugoslav space, and assisted in the forging of new ones. Most importantly, the multidirectional processes taking part within WEIYTH project enabled a different kind of community of learning and un-learning in the “classrooms of difficult questions”. Entering these classrooms meant embracing the contradiction between the often uncomfortable and unattractive slowness of reflection and the insistence on the prospective impetus of the overall endeavour. Finally, it all took place in the framework of an exhibition without results that could be easily measured or understood at a glance.
All stages of the project thus remained relatively invisible and were almost unequivocally ignored by the media and the local and regional art and intellectual community. Particularly Exposures, the last chapter of the project, was received with an active and frightening silence, and even boycotted in the local context. However, for the small number of people that joined these classrooms, including us, this process turned out to be extremely transformative. It was neither achieved easily nor without antagonism and confrontation, however. Summarizing the outcomes of these processes is not simple since they appear as a set of “consequences”: after-effects and echoes that can no longer be directly identified with the project or with our own agency. We believe however, that it is precisely such outcomes that need to be incited—often delayed, they become impossible to count or measure or bring into relation with their origination point. In that sense, the project itself might be thought of as merely a preparation for something that is itself always “yet to happen”—a soft incipiency of lines of resonances in the future; going beyond the more or less rhetorical task of prospectively oriented thinking, so often present in the curatorial discourse today.
Ivana Bago & Antonia Majača
DeLVe | Institute for Duration, Location and Variables
Participating artists and projects:
(2009) A.C.A.B., The Archive of Self-Management, Ziad Antar, Yael Bartana, Lutz Becker, Yane Calovski, Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson, Chto Delat / What is to be done?, Ronen Eidelman, Esra Ersen, Ivan Grubanov, Nicoline van Harskamp (in coll. with Thijs Gadiot), Danilo Kiš, Aydan Murtezaoğlu, Dragan Nikolić, Florian Schneider, Slaven Tolj, Liu Wei, Sharif Waked, Eyal Weizman, Judi Werthein, Arthur Żmijewski, Želimir Žilnik
(2010) Monument Group (Damir Arsenijević, Jasmina Husanović, Jelena Petrović, Branimir Stojanović, Milica Tomić), Working group Four Faces of Omarska (Mirjana Dragosavljević, Srdjan Hercigonja, Sandro Hergic, Vladimir Miladinović, Marija Ratković, Dejan Vasić, Jovanka Vojinović, Zoran Vučkovac, Milica Tomić) | STEALTH.unlimited (Ana Džokić & Marc Neelen) | Research archive Football as Metaphor for Life?’ (Abart, Mostar) | Borut Šeparović, Goran Ferčec & “Generation 91–95” | Igor Bošnjak | FACTUM Documentary Film Project | Lana Čmajčanin & Igor Grubić | Sandra Dukić & Boris Glamočanin | Flaka Haliti | Andrea Geyer | Nicole Hewitt | Amel Ibrahimović | Margareta Kern | Radenko Milak | Renata Poljak | Vahida Ramujkić | Lala Raščić | Ivan Šušnjar | Bojana Tamindžija
All images: Archives of Protok, Banja Luka and DeLVe, Zagreb.
All images courtesy of the artists if not stated otherwise.
- 1. The “Classroom of Difficult Questions” was used by Jasmina Husanović to describe her workshop as part of Exposures; the second chapter of the WEIYTH project.
- 2. Where Everything is Yet To Happen (WEIYTH) started in Banja Luka, in collaboration with a curatorial team consisting of Anselm Franke, Ana Janevski, Vit Havránek and Zbynĕk Baladrán, Erden Kosova, Nina Möntmann and Jelena Vesić. The outcome of this joint work was the exhibition of the first part of the project, Can You Speak of This?—Yes, I Can, held in October 2009.
- 3. Giorgio Agamben, “On Potentiality”. In: Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
- 4. Jean-Luc Nancy, ”Eulogy for the Mêlé”. In: Being Singular Plural (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 145.
- 5. Alain Badiou, Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, lecture held on 4 December 2003 at the Drawing Center in New York. The parts cited here have been taken from: www.16beavergroup.org/journalisms/archives/000633.php