Olga Shparaga Crossing Borders to Resist Injustice Together
The materials that accompanied the “The Border” in Minsk, which I, like any visitor, received upon entering the exhibition space, ended on the question of where Asia ends and where Europe begins. This familiar question, which I asked myself not long ago while arguing for a European path for Belarus, sounded distastefully provocative to me this time. Because the very idea that Asia ends somewhere while Europe begins validates the premise that Asia and Europe have certain altogether stable essences, thanks to which it is possible to define borders for these formations. The main problem with these essences is that people and communities become prisoners to them, as we see most distinctly today in discussions about refugees, who inspire such fear that we contemplate them not as concrete and suffering people, but as carriers of cultures and values that inspire apprehension and aversion. And in this case the discussion is specifically of “Eastern” cultures and values.
Does it follow then that nowadays—that is in a time when human rights are regarded as the most important of values that cannot be sacrificed to any sort of cultural or political formations—that the differentiation between East and West not only loses its central meaning, but actually becomes dangerous? Or course, the enabling factor here is globalization, that is the interrelatedness of transnational economic, political, social and cultural processes over at least the past 30 years, which has turned human rights—along with their violation—into top priority in practically all corners of the planet.
It follows from here that regardless of how societies and cultures may differ, it is precisely the refusal by governments and on the level of various discourses to respect human dignity and guarantee fundamental rights that is today becoming a demarcation line that is overtaking previous geopolitical and other borders—in as much as these borders can no longer function to justify the denigration of human dignity and human rights violations. Taking into account, however, that denigrating practices and the denial of rights have many fine nuances and frequently turn into the subject of political negotiation and compromise, does this defining border not sooner turn into a trigger that reveals entirely new borders, include those not free from an essentialist understanding and reading?
Between Patriarchy and Inequality
The video “Hostages of Eternity” by artists Umida Akhmedova and Oleg Karpov of Uzbekistan, which opened at the exhibition in Minsk, did not go unnoticed by either the art critics or viewers with whom I discussed the exhibition. A woman in an orange boiler coat, sweeping puddles in the rain on the road along which the president of Uzbekistan’s route runs, serves as an expressive metaphor of the modern patriarchal hierarchy. A range of other works at the exhibition are dedicated to this as well, above all “I Met a Girl” by Alla and Alexey Rumyantsev from Tajikistan and “Super Taus” by Taus Makhacheva from Makhachkala.
Although it is unlikely we would encounter this exact image in Germany or France, woman in these countries are still discriminated against on the labor market, significantly take a second row to men in terms of presence on the political arena and are subjected to discrimination in how they are represented in the media and in everyday life. The end of 2017 will go into history for a series of incidences of harassment in Hollywood being exposed. How these were received, however, is illustrative not only of (both male and female) advocates of being sensitive to differences and unique qualities coming together in solidarity, but also the polarization of contemporary societies, а significant or not so significant—depending on the state examined—part of which have voted in recent years for outwardly ultra-right politicians, something that would have be met with bewilderment just ten or twenty years ago. These changes testify to the fact that, in bringing together societies and cultures, globalization works not only in the direction of values serving emancipation, but also in the opposite direction, toward the uncritical acceptance of traditions, social hierarchies and inequality. In the first decade of the 21st century, more and more theorists are paying attention precisely to the negative consequences of globalization—the growth of inequality and injustice, which are keeping up step for step with neoliberal economics and populist politics.1
It is for this specific reason that the border between traditions on the one hand and contemporary lifestyles and ways of perceiving the world on the other, which is finding expression not only in cultural symbols but also in economic relations, is clearly recognizable in this exhibition as well. For example, Katya Isaeva, born in Kazakhstan, constructed something along the lines of a map of Central Asia using tea bowls—what’s more, each tea bowl is unique thanks to the drawings on it and also the story of its owners. Brought together, the tea bowls symbolize not just “friendship of peoples” in the former Soviet republics—where tea bowls, as a rule, were brought as souvenirs—but also the economic dimension of this friendship, embodied in the work of industrial enterprises that came about specifically thanks to the connections between the Soviet republics.
The collapse of the Soviet Union provided a strong push toward deindustrialization in its former territories, although in recent decades similar processes have touched other—particularly so-called developed—countries as well. In these cases—for example in so-called “rust belt” cities in the United States—deindustrialization was aggravated as a consequence of the neoliberal policies of the 1970s, such as financialization—replacing labor force salaries that had stopped growing with credit, which was accompanied by the destruction of social cohesion, and also a breakdown of the social structure in industrial cities. 2 Precarious employment and economic vulnerability, which, alongside stagnation of the middle class, are synonymous with financialization and seen today as key factors behind the rise of populist politicians throughout different parts of the world.3 Another factor is the growth of income inequality and the concentration of a greater and greater portion of wealth in the hands of a completely insignificant portion of the population—the 1% who are true beneficiaries of globalization.4
The Nonsynchronism of Modernity and the Politics of Identity
One of the key concepts that I think best expresses this situation over the past twenty years is the concept of “contemporaneity,” which arose from Ernst Bloch’s “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous” (die Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen).5 Bloch used it to describe the context in which National Socialism emerged in Germany in the 1930s, and today theorists of contemporary art also connect the non-synchronism of modernity with new and electronic technologies. These technologies support the illusion of a total co-presence of the most diverse periods and experiences within a situation in which the possibility to present and assemble them becomes increasingly illusory.6 And, like in the 1930s, one of the responses to this is attempting to go backwards or to insulate oneself from global processes with the help of harder line political identities.
It is interesting that this type of politics comes up directly in only two works—“Three Borders” by Alisa Berger (an artist with German, North Korean and Jewish backgrounds) and in Olga Jitlina’s “Nasreddin in Russia”—while at the same time a critical reaction to the consequences of these political trends can be found in an entire array of declarations throughout the exhibition. For example, in the project “Mutual Incompleteness” by Aytegin Djumaliev (Kyrgyzstan), “Kazakh Funny Games” by Saule Dyussenbina (Kazakhstan), “Mugham-Karaoke” by Farhad Farzaliyev (Azerbaijan), “Wrongly Constructed Church” by Anton Karmanov (Russia), “Georgian National Anthem” by the art group Khinkali Juice/Nadia Tsulukidze (Georgia) and “19 a Day” by Taus Makhatcheva (Russia).
This reaction can be explained with the help of the concept of incompleteness/openness of identity, constructionism, successes and difficulties relating to the connection between local traditions and global practices. The politics of identity, which I am well acquainted with in Belarus as well, insists on the purity of ethnic groups, the clarity of the principles defining them and the justifiability of the hierarchies between them. Nowadays this is, as a rule, associated with xeno- and homophobia and therefore advocates the exclusion of people and groups/communities based on all sorts of different attributes. These practices are predicated on the necessity for responding to different types of internal problems—economic, political, social—that have been carried over to the language of identity politics. Whether the premise is “America first” or how in a national state there can be only one official language and one version of memory, all these grounds conceal beneath themselves the aspiration not only to use simple methods for resolving the problems of mutual recognition that constantly come up in “societies of singularity” (Rosanvallon), but also to establish behind these processes strict controls, more often than not accompanied by a (re)distribution of economic, political, symbolic and intellectual power.
Borders as a Condition for Cultural Translation
This brings us back to the original question about the relation between the politics of identity—from ethnic and national identities to the one that makes us either Asian or European—and respect for human dignity. If criticism of essentialized identities leads to the uncovering of numerous and all new borders—gender, economic, moral and others that, furthermore, we should not conceive of as entities but rather as processes7—then does the challenge of constantly remaining within the borders of our own, individual and collective experience not follow from here? This would allow one to see the conditions and uniqueness of one’s own situation without negating the realities of other situations—because otherwise our own experience borders upon nothingness, which is next to impossible in the interhuman world where one human experience inevitably borders another.
Judith Butler proposes solving this problem with the help of the practice of cultural translation, which does not describe the cooperation between insular, closed and complete linguistic, or, more broadly, sign systems, but rather to describe stimulating various languages to change in order to facilitate understanding of others.7 And, according to the philosopher, it is this understanding in a situation of being on the border between communities that fosters the problematization of that which seems ordinary and well known. In such a way, determining the location on a border leads to disorientation and, as a consequence, the chance for human existence to acquire a new shape. After all, locking oneself inside one’s own experience and thoughts while refusing to recognize their limits forces action in relation to whatever or whomever does not fit into the perspective of one’s own past experience.
Defining the differences between Asia and Europe, between ethnic and social groups, national characters, genders and lifestyles can be justified in cases when it is possible, despite differences, to communicate in a common language and ferret out those common and special conditions that make this language possible. Contemporary art, like academic research, enriches this language through new words and syntaxes and provides more and more opportunities to speak about uniqueness without turning away from a common conceptual and moral perspective. In the case of the exhibition “The Border,” this perspective is the problematization of some borders and drawing others in a such a way that allows us to define them as economic, political, social and cultural constructs and, consequently, as being open to our interpretations and change.
1 Compare Milanovic B., Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Harvard University Press 2016; Piketty T., Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press 2014.
2 Мейсон П., Посткапитализм: путеводитель но нашему будущему. М.: Ad Marginem 2016. С. 36 и 3 Ср. The spread of populism in Western countries. Guiso L., Herrera H., Morelli M., Sonno T. 14 Oktober 2017. VOX. CEPR’s Policy Portal; http://voxeu.org/article/spread-populism-western-countries
3 Milanovic B. Cit. Op. P. 21-22.
4 Bloch E. Erbschaft dieser Zeit. In Werkausgabe. Band 4. Suhrkamp 1985. S. 122.
5 See “Contemporaneity in the History of Art. A Clark Workshop 2009, Summaries of Papers and Notes on Discussions” (see T. Smith’ remark). in Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture, Vol 1 (2011). P. 12; http://contemporaneity.pitt.edu
6 Compare with thoughts on “community of refugees” as a way of thinking in terms of processes: Aber wer sind “sie”? Roundtablegespräch mit Manuela Bojadžijev, Nikita Dhawan, und Christoph Menke, moderiert von Helmut Draxler zu Flucht und Migration als Herausforderungen des politischen Denkens. In: “Texte zur Kunst” Heft Nr. 105 / March 2017; https://www.textezurkunst.de/105/tzk-105-roundtable/
7 Butler J., Ausser sich: Ueber die Grenzen der sexuellen Autonomie. In: Butler J. Die Macht der Geschlechternormen und die Grenzen des Menschlichen. Suhrkamp 2012. S. 68.