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A Round Table on Post-Socialism, Post-Colonialism, Nationalism, Travelling and Belonging

Maarin Ektermann (4/2017)

Maarin Ektermann in discussion with the curator and artists of "The Travellers: Voyage and Migration in New Art from Central and Eastern Europe".


25. VIII 2017-28. I 2018
Kumu Art Museum

Artists: Adeìla Babanovaì, Daniel Baker, Olga Chernysheva, Wojciech Gilewicz, C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, Flo Kasearu, Karel Koplimets, Irina Korina, Taus Makhacheva, Porter McCray, Alban Muja, Ilona Németh and Jonathan Ravasz, Roman Ondák, Tímea Anita Oravecz, Adrian Paci, Vesna Pavlović, Dushko Petrovich, Janek Simon, Radek Szlaga and Honza Zamojski, Maja Vukoje, Sislej Xhafa.
Curator: Magdalena Moskalewicz.

Maarin Ektermann (ME): First I would like to ask, what experience of your own voyage or migration has influenced your artistic practice?


Vesna Pavlović (VP): I have a story to tell. I come from Serbia, former Yugoslavia, where travelling with visas was always a problem. Well, it wasn't and then it was – during the golden age of socialism it wasn't and it was actually a valuable passport. But in 1990s, during the wars, we all got separate passports. Anyhow, in 2006 when I was in residency in Helsinki, my husband and son came to visit me. They have American passports and back then I had a Serbian passport – with the single entry visa to Schengen countries, to get to Finland, to this residency.

One day we wanted to come on a daytrip to Tallinn – and then, on the boat I realized that I couldn't get to Estonia, because I had this single entry visa! So we stayed on the boat. I couldn't also return to Finland. This situation – that you can't go in and you can't go back, being somewhere in between, on the boat – made quite an impression on me. So they cancelled my visa and gave me another single entry visa, so I could go back to Finland to continue my residency. And now, more than a decade later, I'm finally here in Tallinn – with my American passport.


Daniel Baker (DB): I come from an English Gipsy community and one of the words we use to describe ourselves is "Travellers", a term which is used quite commonly across the UK. My community has been subject to restrictions of mobility throughout our history, mobility partly as a lifestyle choice but also as an economic imperative. So this idea of restricted movement is very much what I deal with in my work, both in terms of aesthetic territory as well as physical space.

There have been restrictions specifically targeted at "Travellers", or the Gipsy community, in many public spaces including pubs, for example. This has meant that my sense of travelling and its restrictions are very much embedded in my ethnic and cultural identity.


Dushko Petrovich (DP): I was born in Ecuador, but my mother is half-Ecuadorian and half-American. She was born in US, and had gone back to Ecuador by the time I was born. My father was from Yugoslavia; he left Yugoslavia after World War II and he couldn't go back. So I was born to (half)foreigners in Ecuador, but we all moved to the US when I was six.

This positioning among countries and among cultures has influenced me a lot; I know that other people may have a more straightforward relationship to nations and places. I have had various passports, various national identities, and experience of being in and out at the same time.


Magdalena Moskalewicz (MM): My experience is exactly the opposite to that of the artists participating in this exhibition: I was born in Poland, to Polish parents and Polish grandparents; I have learned all the other languages I speak as a second language later in life. Poland in the 1980s and the early1990s was a very homogeneous country linguistically, ethnically, religiously.

As a result, my own interest towards multiple identities came from that longing and that lack, having grown up and been educated in an extremely homogeneous country – on the surface of course. We need to realize that this seeming homogeneity comes at the price of the exclusion of particular groups, if you think of Polish Jews and Roma. And not only ethnic minorities, also cultural and linguistic ones, such as Silesians or Kashubians. This exclusion takes place so that on the level of representation, for example, in the media, the nation looks very homogeneous.

This is not only the situation in Poland, but it is similar in other countries in the post-socialist bloc. The ideological focus in those countries under communism had been so much on the economic differences, that any other differences were wiped out under the pretence that they did not exist – the same goes for gender differences, for example.


Wojciech Gilewicz (WG): I was born in Poland and when I was a child we were only able to travel to the Soviet Union, and maybe also to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. In the 1990s, when the borders opened, my mother emigrated to the US. I visited her during my summer vacations and finally decided to also move to the US.

Right now it is very hard to imagine life and practice without travelling. There is this constant drive for change. In New York they say if you have had one job for two years, it is time to move on.


Flo Kasearu (FK): The travelling experience that has influenced my practice as an artist was due to an Erasmus stipend – one year abroad that I spent in Berlin. It was the first time I was away from home for a longer period and it got me thinking more about identity and nationalism. All my other trips have been much shorter.

This video that is in this exhibition, is actually filmed during my second longest getaway period – I was in Istanbul for three months on an internship; my grandmother and aunt happened to travel to Turkey on holiday as well and so I went to see them. But after those two experiences I have been active mostly locally and working site-specifically here.


ME: I have question to Magda about determining common ground for artists participating in this exhibition. You propose using "post-socialist" instead of much more known "post-Soviet" term – could you open that up a little.


MM: There is a difference between "post-socialist" and "post-Soviet." The latter relates specifically to the situation post-1991 for the former USSR (e.g. today's Russia or Estonia). This is different from "post-socialist," which is mainly used for the "post" moment of the satellite countries of the former Soviet bloc who were not part of the Soviet Union.

If we think all the way back to the October Revolution in 1917 – socialism originated in Russia and then migrated to other countries after World War II, where its implementation took place much later and was very different. It was experienced much more as direct, foreign occupation. These satellite countries were also initially often more developed than the Soviet Union if we think in the traditional terms of the modernist linear development of industry; for example, of modernization. Also, during socialism, their political situation was often slightly more favourable towards their citizens, for example in terms of travelling – there is actually data showing there was much more mobility for people between the former satellite countries than outside of the former Soviet Union. These are just a few examples of why it is good to use two different terms. Also, one has to remember that the word "Soviet" relates not only to European subjects but also to Asian subjects of the former USSR, which has again its own complexity. This is in a nutshell why I emphasize the difference between "post-socialist" and "post-Soviet".

In the context of this exhibition, what allows us to make some generalization, and to actually go from the Balkans all the way to Dagestan, is that we speak about experiences, and not about political data. It is important to understand the historical past, but it is also important to speak about the personal experiences of the current generation. All the artists in this show are alive, most of them were born in the 1970s and 1980s, but some also earlier. They all speak about their relationship to that past, how they live with it today, how their societies have lived it. Of course, the experience of life in the former Yugoslavia was different to the situation in Estonia, it was different in Poland, etc. And the exhibition shows these differences. But I really believe that there is a shared multi-generational experience of having lived through that transition from the mainly closed borders of the Soviet bloc to the sudden participation in the globalization processes.

Other countries had been experiencing these developments for a long time. If you think of the UK or the US, globalization happened as a gradual transition for the citizens of these Western democracies. For us, it happened almost overnight as a sort of a shock. That experience resurfaces in the stories told by the artists in this exhibition.


ME: I have an impression that it is important for you to bring forward more solidarity between those experiences, maybe to balance the more common gazing towards the West?


MM: Yes, definitely. When I first organized this exhibition in Warsaw at Zachęta – National Gallery of Art (14. V–21. VIII 2016), it was with two main issues in mind. The first was knowing that Poland, as the biggest country from among the former USSR satellites, refuses to identify itself as a post-socialist country and that its eagerness to orient itself towards the West comes with some hidden imperialism. It wants to take a lead and not to identify itself with the experiences of the smaller countries. I believe this identification is crucial.

The other important issue for me was the rising nationalism, which is dominant in Poland, and which can also be observed in many other places beyond Eastern Europe. I think it is extremely important to identify our shared experiences across those different countries, languages and cultures, since nationalism is a great threat that we should try to resist, as art workers and as citizens.


ME: Turning again to the artists, I wanted to ask about your current work in this exhibition. Maybe you could point out what was the most complex issue that appeared while you were making this artwork, during research, deciding what to include and what to exclude, etc?


VP: My work for the exhibition is called "Fototeka" (Phototeque, 2013/2016), it is a slide-projection onto a curtain. The slide-projection includes 80 photographs that I found in the history museum of Yugoslavia when I started this project in 2012; in the meantime they changed the name – now it is called Museum of Yugoslavia. The archive I worked with shows the former president Tito travelling around the world from 1945 to 1979, he died in 1980. So those photographs present the language of socialist propaganda, but also state travel; they were taken by four different photographers and they present Tito and his meetings around the world. But they were taken for him as personal photographs, at the same time they belong to the state archive. So for me there was this conflict between the personal and public in the archive itself.

The curtain that I used comes from one of the photographs and it symbolically represents the backdrop for the communist party meeting or the Iron Curtain or the curtain of socialism, the curtain that hides and stops – this curtain has many different associations! It is grey because it corresponds to the nature of that archive – the photographs were all black-and-white – and it is important that this curtain hangs in deep folds and the images that are projected onto it are not stable, not perfect; it suggests that the concept of history is fragile. This can been seen from both sides, both positive and negative.

So how did I arrive at all of this? I was actually looking at Tito's Polaroid's, he was an avid photographer himself, and I found that photo archive, and then I found myself in one of those photographs! I found myself in a Barthesian sense – I participated in 1979 in one of the big performances for Tito's birthday, I was Tito's pioneer; I was there and this photograph is now also projected onto the curtain. For me it was witnessing something that I have lived and participated in, that choreography of socialism.


ME: Did you decide to exhibit all of the photographs in the archive or just a selection?


VP: I made a selection, choosing images that represent the stages of Tito's travels, and symbols of socialist propaganda. In my work I often look at the photograph as an element of ideology, a reflection of ideology. So those photographs also reflected that connection – between the image and socialist propaganda.


DB: The starting point for the work I am showing here is racism and xenophobia, and how to explore those ideas without being too didactic or too sterile. One of the pieces I am exhibiting is a collection of wooden signs ("Copse", 2006) and the other a mirrored sign ("Sign Looking Glass", 2005). The same phrase appears in both these works – "No Travellers". These pieces examine the impact of different registers of materiality by playing with how the same message might differ in meaning depending on form. Wooden signs suggest restrictions on private land, but the mirrored sign suggests something more complex. The mirrored sign is a very seductive object, it draws you towards it, but at the same it repels you. The idea of that contradiction is important here and is a key motif throughout my work.

The challenges for me I suppose are always in terms how to best manifest ideas so that they can become more complex in interpretation, and therefore more accessible to wider groups. For instance, I don't use the word "Gipsy" or "Roma" in my work because that would pin things down too much for me. I want to explore my own community in terms of how we relate to other groups. I'm also interested in the idea of xenophobia and nationalism in the UK and the restriction of certain ethnic groups to certain territories; and of course how now in the UK we as a group, as a country – against my personal wish – have decided to pull out of the EU. Here the idea of restriction of movement has been taken to the extreme.


ME: I actually didn't know that Gypsies or Romas are called "Travellers" in the UK – it is kind of a nice word?


DB: We were named Gypsies by external sources, and in order to have a private name for ourselves, which was unsullied by external description, we called ourselves "Travellers". We use the word "Traveller" as an internal identifier in order to know how others fit into our universe. But increasingly the term "Gypsy" has gained acceptance in our community and we have re-appropriated it as a gesture of strength. I was chair of the Gipsy Council in the UK for a number of years. In earlier times the word "Gipsy" was thought of as derogatory, so taking control of that term has become a political stand in itself.

In the UK we now use the words "Gypsy, Roma and Traveller" to determine our groups but on an international level, the term "Gipsy" is still problematic. This highlights the issue of presumed homogeneity. Using the term "Roma" is useful in terms of political agency, but as with any political identity the differences within become subsumed, and that creates other difficulties.

I like the word "Gipsy" because it is powerful in its contradictions; in one way it is acceptable and in another it is not. So "Travellers" is the word we use for ourselves in the UK, but you're right, it is kind of a nice word, people think you just move around a lot, which has in essence been true historically.

It was at the first meeting of the International Romani Union in the UK in 1971, that Roma activists from around the world decided that we should call ourselves "Roma" as an international community. This happened in the small town where I was born. I find it strange to think that this new global collective started in this very small place where no one knew the term. They thought they were Gypsies and Travellers.


ME: Dushko and Wojciech, how about your work in the current exhibition and challenges you may have faced


DP: My work here ("El Osa Carnal", 2013–2016) is a bus that uses the template of an ordinary Ecuadorian bus, but all the things that are out on it are things that happened to me when I left Ecuador. It is trying to imagine how those two things would look when put together.

I am a member of two diasporas at the same time – part of Eastern-European Slavic diaspora, which is very large and resulting from a lot of restrictions, but I am also part of Latin-American diaspora. First, I thought about that work only in terms of the Latin-American diaspora, I was a person who started out in Ecuador and then moved to the United States, so I struggled with how to put those two frameworks together. But being in the show has made me think of it in a deeper way, because when I was born, my father himself was already part of a diasporic movement; I started to see the work as containing all of those things, being not only from 1981 forward, but from 1948 forward, and including more than I originally realized. 


WG: I actually graduated from the painting department so most of my early works were paintings. The work I'm showing in this exhibition ("Painter's Painting", 2016) was a work in progress, but the idea was very simple and didn't change during this process – I'm travelling with the same canvas, which I'm always painting on.

For me the question was that sometimes I think that reality itself is much more interesting than creating something, like a potential painting. The video is edited in a way that it is deliberately confusing – I'm jumping between different cultures, different contexts, you don't get a clear narration. So what is more important – this potential painting, that holy object hanging on the wall of the gallery, or the experience of the real scene?


ME: You have very humorous aspects in this video when you are fighting with waves, etc?


WG: I remember I started to work with video in 2004 and at the beginning I was very surprised that people were laughing. But when I started this "Painter's Painting" in 2010, I was totally aware of it, I think the humour aspect is very important in art.


VP: I have just one comment to you, Wojciech. Its' a subversive work of art because it is an en plein air genre, but it is also à la Grand Tour, which was the ultimate travelling experience both in the context of art and tourism. 

WG: Yes, it tells you something about the history of art, you can imagine that this character who is painting everywhere is on a Grand Tour, like in the 19th century. But it also gives you the hint that everything is on the surface – the current level of accessibility is making us really lazy as well.


ME: Flo, what were the challenges or decisions that were important for you while making this work ("Two people by the Beach, Nothing Else", 2017)?


FK: I shot this material in 2009, but cut it into a video work this year. So it was quite old material and I'm very glad I was finally able to finish it. My main challenge was what I would even do with this documentary material, but when I started to edit it, my grandmother got sick and went into a coma, and now she is almost blind. When I showed her the rough cut of the material, I asked her to say what she could see, so I put together this documentary material and her comments now, which gives it a certain distance, another layer.


ME: I now wanted to ask you about living the life of a contemporary nomadic artist – it is expected that you should work on a project in one context after another, to travel a lot professionally, etc. How do you ground yourself and do you see this lifestyle imperative as causing more excitement or exhaustion?


MM: I just want to say one thing – the time difference between Tallinn and Chicago is eight hours. So making this exhibition was a good example of this hectic lifestyle.


DP: I would say that the only reason that the work in this exhibition is interesting is because artists are no different from anyone else; I would also say that our version of this is quite privileged compared to other people's versions. Yes, it can be hard sometimes, but where our luxury is grounded, is that at least we can share our own voice. We are operating in art systems, but it is a privilege to express our own feelings and experiences, we have tools and resources. A lot of people suffer in jobs they never wanted and are in circumstances they can't change, so I always keep that in mind.

And to point out, it is also interesting how today a lot of exhibitions travel, but this here is an exhibition about travelling itself! For me it was very interesting to see two contexts in the show, two museums, two buildings, two cities that the work enters, and it has helped me to think about how my own work plays in different situations. 


DB: I think also that the current lifestyle of an artist that demands a lot of travelling is useful, because after the isolation of my studio, I can see how my works get read by different people in various contexts. Sometimes it is encouraging, sometimes it is not, you don't quite get what you wanted, but that allows you to feed that right back into the work, so it is very useful as an analytical tool. It is often exhausting, but exciting at the same time. We are very lucky to go and see where the work ends up, how it is received.


VP: I am also here with Dushko, I think it is a privilege, and to quote my colleague Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, to have as an artist this position to freely say what you think without the risk that someone will die, to have different kinds of responsibilities to what, for example, surgeons have with their work.

My experience is also of someone who lived a long time in the former Yugoslavia and then moved to the US, so I never felt entirely like I belonged. There is this beautiful word by Serbian writer David Albahari – "Apatrid", someone who is gone, but never left. I don't feel like I could go back, but I don't feel like I fully belong. But being an artist who travels or who reflects on different situations, I can be universal. I am not an Eastern European artist or American artist, I am just an artist. This history that I have with me is important and I reflect on that history, but I also reflect on any other problem that I see. I think through my medium and reflect on politics and ideology, whether it is an American as tourist, or Tito as tourist, etc.


FK: I took my first residency this year so I haven't seen so much of that nomadic lifestyle. I have just travelled because of exhibitions, but these have been short trips. And my first residency was in Finland, so also not very far away. I also feel that my art makes sense here in Estonia and maybe it would be difficult to transform it into another context. And we don't have that many artists here so we actually need more artists here, so not everybody should go away.


WG: I never considered myself to be a nomad. Maybe it is kind of overrated for me; it was some years ago when it was kind of fashionable. And if you would ask the question of my mother and my sister – they are not nomads, but emigrants. I feel very strongly connected to the Polish art scene and culture.


DP: I have a question for you, Wojciech: how many artist's residencies have you been on? Because I think you are the king of residencies.


WG: Hah-ha, well, maybe ten. But it was a particular period in my life when I finished my studies at the art academy and I didn't have a commercial gallery representing me so going to different residency programs was like a life-saving experience because I could keep on working, continuing to produce new works. But now, the older I am, the more sceptical I am about those residency programs. I think I used them as long as it was possible, but it has changed now, getting more politicized.


ME: I wanted to ask you, Magda: could you add something to the idea of the traveller in this exhibition? Is it somehow also a problematic experience?


MM: I follow Edward Said on that, and although a lot has happened in post-colonial theory since his writings, I still find him extremely inspiring on many levels. Said wrote a beautiful essay "Reflections on Exile" (1984), where he states clearly that exile is an extreme, terrible experience. But it is also one that gives you the plurality of vision that other people often do not have. He doesn't mean only political exiles, but also the people who choose willingly to live in a different country. So, following Said, I recognize that uprootedness can be difficult and painful, but I also feel it is a great privilege of sorts to be granted such plurality of vision; to be able to speak multiple languages, also multiple visual languages, understand different cultures, have a greater sensibility for things.

One of the main reasons I decided to build this exhibition around this essay is that this sensibility grants one the ability to recognize the threat of nationalism. Said writes that the feeling of uprootedness can result in two different things – it can result either in this plurality of vision, this sensibility to things, but it can also result in choosing triumphant ideologies. People away from their homeland often feel so estranged and lonely that they harvest those ideas of nationalism, which we can see in any diaspora. For example, often Polish people living in the US are more stereotypically "Polish" than the Poles living in Poland. There is that threat inherent in the condition of exile, but therein lies also an opportunity to recognize these issues. I hope these two threads come together in this exhibition. Nationalism is not the flagship theme here, but I really hope it forms an undercurrent, something you start to think about afterwards – how hybrid identities have the power to counterbalance the exclusive, homogeneous national identity.


ME: And lastly, Magda, could you please tell us how this exhibition was received in Poland? Did it also evoke some discussion, for example, about this warning on the current nationalist tendencies?


MM: The reception was very positive, especially towards new works, and some of the artists were shown for the first time in Poland. I think it didn't cause actual debates in the press, but I found one critical review very telling, that raised one issue. It focused on the lack of any economic difference in the exhibition and claimed that the show speaks about travelling without admitting that not everyone is able to travel, or is privileged enough to do that. This is not exactly true, but the reason I find this interesting is that in focusing on this topic, the review downplayed the actual political element of the exhibition. It didn't recognize, or ignored, that the focus is not on economic but on cultural difference. Which I find telling since it shows clearly how in Poland people are still often blind to cultural difference and do not consider it as important an issue as economic imbalances in society. Intersectionality is a term that comes to mind to marry these two crucial points.

I first envisioned this show for a Polish audience; later it got picked up and is now presented in Estonia here at Kumu Art Museum. So it is difficult for me to foresee what the reception will be here. I didn't want the exhibition to travel as a ready-made product, always the same regardless of placement. This is why I invited Flo Kasearu and Karel Koplimets to participate with new works that specifically speak about the Estonian situation – and we shall see, what the reception is.


Maarin Ektermann is an art critic, and manages and lectures at the centre for general theory courses at the Estonian Academy of Arts.


C.T. Jasper & Joanna Malinowska Halka/Haiti 18°48'05''N 72°23’01′′W

C.T. Jasper & Joanna Malinowska Halka/Haiti 18°48'05''N 72°23’01′′W 2015
Multichannel video projection,
82' 00''
Collection of Zachęta—
National Gallery of Art, Warsaw Project curated by Magdalena Moskalewicz for the Polish Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition—la Biennale di Venezia

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