Issue 1 – Editor’s note

As the editors of the Red Thread e-journal we are faced with certain heterogeneity. This heterogeneity is, on the one hand, requested by the project, since it is expected to involve people from certain geographies (i.e. what is known as South East and Eastern Europe or, more precisely, the Balkans, the South Caucasian region, the Middle East and North Africa, while Turkey seems to be the provisional center of this geography). On the other hand, it is precisely this heterogeneity that could prove to be productive in terms of “broadening the picture” and establishing connections between our respective regional networks of collaborators. By this we don’t mean the usual “networked” networks almost exclusively created for fundraising, but precisely a set of encounters, friendships and, finally, collective endeavors meant to jointly deal with various issues that these geographies have in common, thereby rendering this seemingly incomparable heterogeneity quite easily surmountable.

This heterogeneity can become productive precisely through an exchange that exposes the common ground – that the local constellations are embedded in the context of the neo-liberal globalized capitalism. Now, speaking of what do we all share in this given geography immediately calls to mind the often violent conflictuality present in our respective regions and the lack of “a political will to resolve conflicts in a civilized manner.” It is precisely this locus communis of the “Western gaze” that this e-journal strives to problematize. The image of the geographies in question constitutive of the Western political imaginary consists of ethno-nationalism, religious fundamentalism and so-called oriental despotism which gets perpetuated illicitly underneath the auspices of the official ideology of multiculturalism. Dealing with various political (re)articulations of intellectual and artistic, i.e. cultural, production, the journal challenges the separation and the specific (re)unification of “identities” within contemporary neo-liberal politics of culture.

The questions that this first issue specifically tackles could be put as: How does contemporary art as subject (both as a topic and as a manifestation of different artists, curators, art critics and theorists) get positioned within the broader field of cultural and socio-political contexts (between global neo-liberal multicultural policies and local national cultures)? Do we, as the actors in the field of contemporary art, intellectual production and culture in general get stuck between those two positions, unable to escape being attached to either one of them? Furthermore, how could practices of resistance and/or intervention in culture be imagined and realized? How do we relate to “reality” that is under constant re-construction by the technologies of neo-liberal capitalism? How do we re-appropriate the damaged concepts of “left” politics? In other words, how could artistic and cultural productions be political within the current crisis of representation both in art and politics?

The problematic of similarities and differences runs through the issue – besides some geographical specifities, there are other thought-provoking similarities in each context. “Resistance in the Asian Way” may not be that “Asian” as may seem from its title; although it points to the problems of “different culturalization” examined many times before in pre- and post-colonial approaches towards what is perceived as “the different mindset” or the “the otherness” or “Easterness” of the culture of the societies in the region, the text by Oksana Shalatova provides a firm set of clues to understand the “sameness” of the actual disposition of power. However much we try to “understand in a different way,” what happens when one is trying to perceive the world trough “intuition rather then logic” or to express it through the fundamentally despised and thoroughly rejected means of the “metaphor” is that some eerily similar “things” appear. The “problem with institutions” (which seems to remain “the problem” even when it seems like there is a lack of institutions to criticize), the longing for the 1990’s, when “things used to happen” (not only the perception of East Europe, we would say), the increasing difficulties in maintaining the momentum of “collective,” and increased speed of the different transformations of the public space – all that would sound very familiar to most of the possible readers of this text. Perhaps the most interesting one among these similarities is the figure of the yurodivy, “the holy fool,” the one who eventually finds a position to speak in public with a critical voice, only to find itself subject to deliberate self-marginalization in the process of articulating that position. The process may appear to be different in its form and to be very dependant on the specific “language,” but the artistic/activist subject is always determined by its function in this process; in this specific case, first you need to proclaim yourself as “irrelevant to life,” be it “being mad” or “being an artist,” in order to be allowed to speak.

The discoveries of “similarities” are also waiting in Armenia, as we explore “New Political Subjects in Armenia and March 1 Events” by Vartan Jaloyan. The well-known “transitional scenario” in which the idea of “public space” is first instrumentalized in order to bring “democratic changes” and then thoroughly suppressed and appropriated by the newly-established authoritarian regimes, as it “served its function” and now becomes “the problem,” is very familiar to whoever lives east of Berlin. And so are the controversies within capitalism itself, and the clashes between its “nationalist” and “liberal” poles; also, there is the confirmation that the abstract notion of the “nation” is actually a tool for “paralyzing” and hijacking the idea of the political from the society at large, and that the space for political action would either open up on a more immediate, “urban” level, or – we may add – a much wider but less abstract space than that of the “nation”: the international one. As pretty much elsewhere, there is a certain idea, not yet understood in its entirety, that technology may be the tool to be used for some substantial changes to emerge; indeed, even ten years ago it would not be possible to predict that we are going to discuss the Armenian “DVD revolution” on the pages of our e-journal. But, this “power” of contemporary networking and technological “means of expression” should be examined carefully, and its consequences should be evaluated in terms of the “effectiveness” of the purely “technological approach” in political action. Whatever belief we hold in the power of self-organized networks emerging all over during the previous decade, still there is a sentence in Jaloyan’s text which all of us can “sign,” regardless of whichever society we come from or whatever its perceived “level of development” may be: “The capitalist reconstruction of Yerevan also signified the restoration of the ruling electoral ‘caste’ which is currently solely composed of big business ‘oligarchs’ and representatives of the state nomenclature who concentrated in their hands enormous economical power…”

To continue with similarities, it seems that we have a whole chapter emerging around the topic of violent exhibition openings (or closings); there are three texts which examine in details “the case” surrounding the forced non-opening of the exhibition “Exception: Young Kosovo Artists” in Belgrade (by Jelena Vesić, Dušan Grlja and Vladimir Jerić), and a text exploring the background of the unrests and damaging of the works at the opening of the exhibition “Incidents of September 6-7 on their Fiftieth Anniversary” in İstanbul (by Balca Ergener). There are certain apparent differences regarding the two events; in Belgrade, it is the institution of “the autonomy of art” which was perceived to be under the attack, while in İstanbul, as the exhibition was a documentary one, it was “the right to public speech” which was proclaimed as threatened. Also, the exhibition in Belgrade was never opened and was soon removed both from the gallery and from the public sphere, while in İstanbul the exhibition eventually was displayed, and it seems that it had a certain public discussion surrounding its “case.” But what appears as important in both cases, are, again, similarities surrounding the events in question; in both cases the repressive apparatuses, the police, denied to the exhibitions the status of “socially protected” art events, and to the artifacts displayed the status of “being under police protection.” As we go through the texts and examine the reasons for such a denial of function, we do learn that the concept of “deep state” which is somehow always connected with Turkey is not that unique. Encompassed within the universe of “the politics of identity,” all the different elements of what we understand as “modern nation building” were thoroughly instrumentalized in order to serve to the new/old instances of power, which are always connected with the control of actual means and resources of reproduction of a certain “convenient” discourse. There are histories, and then there is the History; it is the latter that presents both the means and an end of the battle for shaping and controlling the world-as-we-know-it. Obviously, the exhibitions examined here, never mind if they were proclaimed as “artistic/actual” or “documentary/historical,” were perceived as attempts to intervene in “the History,” a no-go zone for those who challenge the existing constellation of power. Besides the non-function of the police, there are other identical mechanisms involved in both cases; easy instrumentalization of carefully maintained fascist mobs which serve the role of the “unofficial” repressive apparatus of the state, using the power of “media machines” to control and direct the public sphere and public opinion, and conducting the reaction to support the exhibitions by using the personal names of those subjects who are in defense of these events, rather then their institutional affiliations (albeit with somewhat different results, which is the case remain to be examined).

The commonalities that are shared not only all across the before mentioned regions that comprise the geography of this e-journal, but also across today’s globalized capitalist world are evident in Şükrü Argın’s text entitled “Shrinking Public, Politics Melting into Air and Possibilities of a Way-Out.” The encroachment of private capital on both public space and public sphere, de-politicization of politics through media imagery, and the twilight of the principle of representation as the core of parliamentary democracy, are quite known and represent constantly reoccurring topics for some decades now. Those are the main traits of what Şükrü Argın calls “politics melting into air,” and it is not by chance that this idiom was coined in the Communist Manifesto, since it is precisely one of the tendencies that capitalism brings to the fore. The loss of foothold for politics, according to the author, is also evident in the so-called representation and legitimacy crises: “[…] the main concern for anti-establishment parties and organizations is to deepen the ‘legitimacy crisis’ and thus to make it ‘unmanageable’ for establishment parties and organizations; and on the other hand, to urgently do whatever is possible to overcome the ‘identity crisis,’ to find ways of overcoming it before it is too late.”

Today’s structure of politics tends to be dual and hierarchized. On the one hand we have haute politique, represented by super-national entities, that is beyond the reach of ordinary people, while on the other there is “low politics” that deals with localized and particular problems which are supposedly delegated precisely to ordinary people, but which proves to be incapable of resolving anything since the root-causes of problems are on the side of “high politics.” Being only a little more than ordinary people in this neo-liberal (re)structuration of politics, the so-called cultural operators are faced with a longstanding dilemma of “What is to be done?” for which Şükrü Argın finds answers in three examples of concrete actions. The first one, the Campaign Against All Parties by the Moscow Actionists strove to produce a political effect by undermining the election process through placing invalid votes, thereby deepening and exposing the representation crisis. The anti-militarist initiative, the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, proposes an alternative which can be called “motherhood based politics.” The third example is from Turkey, representing the group of people who publicly condemned the assassination of Hrant Dink, journalist of Armenian origin who was the editor-in-chief of Agos newspaper. All those examples for Şükrü Argın stand for “way-outs” from the pseudo-representational and identity politics that keep us trapped within false choices fed by the contemporary structure of politics.

Zeynep Gambetti’s text “The Opposition of Power / The Power of the Opposition” starts from her experience of participating in conferences that gather speakers of different cultures and standpoints aiming to establish an “unfettered communication” and dialogical resolutions. However, the results often happen to be the contrary. Each speaker pursues ‘his’ own agenda by refusing to relate to others, and mostly feeling justified to do so by a certain position of victimhood. Criticizing the traditional idealist separation between speech and act, and emphasizing that every discourse is always a “speech act,” she analyses the implications of power and opposition in the all-too-known schisms on the left. In the recent case of Turkish left, the divisions ran along the lines of being pro or contra the Ergenekon operations, representing thus the separation on “true” and “liberal” left. In this division she finds that there is something like the power of opposition, which is the reverse image of the same power. Introducing Hannah Arendt’s metaphor of the ‘table’ that both connects and separates the people in conversation, Gambetti reflects on the possibilities of action that is geared towards freedom. She gives examples from the Zapatistas to discuss modes of action and subjectivity, in order to envisage opposition to power.

Like Gambetti, Tanıl Bora deals with the deep split that has divided the Left in Turkey in his article “The Left, Liberalism and Cynicism”, and problematizes the positions of the two sides of the debate. Bora argues that an attitude that remains limited to strategies of exposing the faults of its counterpart and reduces political reason into a binary identity opposition does not produce political action, but rather sheer cynicism. He calls for a reconsideration of the problematic relationship between socialism and liberalism. Besides the obvious disagreements on notions such as equality, the public and the social state, there might be some matching regarding rights and liberties. The definitions left abstract by the liberal discourse can be brought into concrete terms through socialism’s emphasis on conditions of material-objective realisation. Bora acknowledges the potentiality of radical resistance in Wallerstein’s call for appropriation and fulfillment of liberal promises for equal rights, liberties and status of equal citizenship, that are proved to be inoperative within the capitalist system. He underlines the need for elaborating a language that can voice separate demands side by side, and asserts that socialism can employ its tension with and separation from liberalism to enhance its political efficiency.

“Nationalism is becoming a concept which exists everywhere yet is tangible nowhere; which is infused with meaning according to the situation at hand, its contents later being emptied out and then replaced once again. And with its ever-changing contents, nationalism is becoming a concept which at once explains everything, and for this very reason, ultimately fails to explain anything at all… So much so that, although nationalism continues to exist as the founding ideology of nation-states, as times change, it begins to conceal within itself a multitude of very different realities.” This quote from the Introduction to the book The Indivisible Unity of the Nation: Nationalism That Tears Us Apart in the Democratization Process by Meltem Ahıska, Ferhat Kentel and Fırat Genç suggests to think about nationalism not in the terms of the monolithic ideology which reaches some supra-identity levels, but to examine how it operates in everyday life, and which desires and dissatisfactions of different individuals or communities it represents as the (only) cohesive force offered in the era of capitalist globalization. Siren İdemen, in her interview with the authors which is published in this journal under the title “On Nationalism,” tries to give a more concrete name/shape/face to this “tumult beneath the surface” or, “concealment of different realities” as the authors will put it. Stating that “talking about nationalism from the comfort of an armchair is one thing, but discussing nationalism after having traversed Anatolia and conducted face-to-face interviews is quite another,” she introduces the main issue of this conversation, which is how and why class differences, social injustice, humiliation, exclusion, insecurities and fear – all of which are comfortably settled under the shield of nationalism – cannot be expressed directly. Siren İdemen’s interview with Meltem Ahıska, Ferhat Kentel and Fırat Genç examines the specificities of the contemporary Turkish society and it’s inner clashes of tradition and modernisation, but it also points to the cluster of similarities and differences compared with the other peripheral societies, like, for example, Serbia or Latin American countries.

In the text “Ecstasy, Fear & Number: From the ‘Man of the Crowd’ to the Myths of the Self-Organizing Multitude” Brian Holmes departs from the concrete “exhibition report,” analyzing the strategies of contemporary art in comparison to broader social and political strategies. The exhibition No More Reality [Crowd and Performance], curated by Claire Staebler and Jelena Vesić and presented in DEPO, İstanbul, observed and examined the global transformation of cultural and political space during the 1990’s in which different mechanisms of control of public space have been invented under the propaganda of “guarantee and security.” Reports of mass conflicts, wars, demonstrations and strikes are turned into aestheticized images, which feed the imagination of the people and become objects of consumption, in the same manner as “action” or “natural disaster” movies. Their role is to tell us that the horror is somewhere else, and that we can freely surrender to the consumerist pleasure and the feeling of security. If the exhibition No More Reality put into its focus the subversive potentials of crowds in the streets subjugated to the permanent state of exception, Brian Holmes gave to this focus both a historical and an actual perspective. He offers three XX and XXI century figures which are “continuing to haunt the anxiety and ecstasy of political life in the present”: “First there is the relation of the nineteenth-century individual to the crowd, structured by the principle of general equivalence, offering its positive face in the willful metamorphoses of the flâneur and its negative double in the sudden swirl of the mob, which sweeps the onlooker into a violent and unpredictable explosion of panic. The second possibility is that of the twentieth-century mass, ruled by the quasi-hypnotic absorption of biological drives into the larger-than-life body of a disciplinary leader. The third figure is the contemporary multitude, governed by a principle of self-organization that appears in the positive guise of emergent collective intelligence in the writings by Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri.”

What could the potential of art be for intervening and altering the present configurations of power? Erden Kosova gives a critical reading of art practices in Turkey starting from 1980s. The relation between the artworld and politics has been uneasy and ridden by conflicts. By pointing to some significant political events and conditions, such as the major violent rupture of the 1980 coup d’etat, the war against the Kurdish in the South-east of Turkey, and more recently the assassination of Hrant Dink- a Turkish Armenian journalist- he discusses how the political climate has influenced the production of art and the position of the artists. Furthermore, Turkey being stuck in between the notions of the simultaneously desired and the despised West, Kosova points to the political implications of how some works of art have been regarded as “imported” as opposed to “local.” The contemporary art scene is much more heterogeneous and localized, and more overtly “political.” There are many alternative art collectives that immediately react to current political issues by producing art in different froms. However, the same art scene is not independent of tendencies of professionalization and individualization, and its hurting conflicts. By this critical trajectory, Kosova emphasizes the need to think about the political economy of art more deeply for being able to insist on the engagement with alternative art spaces and collectivities.

Rastko Močnik’s text Extravagantia II: Koliko fašizma? [Extravagantia II: How much fascism?] was one of the most important and influential contributions to the theoretical debates accompanying the disintegration process of Yugoslavia. Močnik asserted that the possibility of presenting a radical alternative capable of shaping the world history through the emancipatory discourse that had been perceptibly shaped in opposition to the official politics of Yugoslavian single-party administration was terribly missed, and the inherent critical energy was displaced by the political conformism of the emerging framework of nation-states, as initially exemplified in the institutional process of the Republic of Slovenia. As Močnik argued, the wasting of the possibility of radical differentiation in political terms was also conditioned by the theoretical positions coming from the Western hemisphere that had declared “the end of utopian thought.” He related the ongoing conflicts surfacing in Yugoslavia and similar geographies, including the problem of the rise of fascistic forces, to the structural consequences of the re-construction of peripheral capitalism. The dynamics, which were outlined in Močnik’s text, seems to have an effect on the political panorama at the present that has been narrowed down to the imposed binarism between democratic forces propagating integration into Western liberalism and chauvinist reaction of different strands of nationalist forces. Dušan Grlja’s text “Antinomies of Post-Socialist Autonomy” traces the impacts of this polarisation on cultural production. Grlja tackles the concept of “autonomy” to show how it has been usurped by the dominant post-socialist “reason” that invites people to join in the “free market economy” and embrace “their right to self-determination as members of a certain cultural (national, ethnic or confessional) group”, and as “solipsistic entrepreneurial subjects.” The dominating call for autonomy paradoxically creates new, though subtler, dependencies by reaffirming the main ideological tools of neo-liberalism, particularly anti-communism. Thus, “autonomy” becomes an imperative that defines a whole range of cultural activities and promotes the culture industry, especially within the context of the EU generated and funded projects that claim to be “progressive.” Art and culture are supposed to play the role of reconciling the former warring sides and enchance an “intercultural dialogue.” But, how to make a political break, a rupture in this situation? Are there any possibilities of being really autonomous within this constellation? Dusan Grlja argues that autonomy could not be an individual project but entails a collective material practice. And it cannot simply mean to stay outside and against the operations within the current cultural field. He succinctly discusses what is at stake in the notion of intervention. Autonomy or “a constant process of autonomization” in the author’s words, “can be achieved through a process of (con)testing the limits of a given ‘rationality.’” One cannot aim a single break, but rather make several breaks at several fronts. Interventions should be invented and re-invented within this precarious battle, otherwise, they can easily slip into opposite directions.

Red Thread

The project Red Thread is envisioned as an active network and platform for exchange of knowledge and collaboration of artists, curators, social scientists, theorists and cultural operators from the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus, North Africa, and beyond. It aims to create and widely disseminate new knowledge about paradigmatic socially engaged art practices in a wide geopolitical context, thus challenging the predominance of Western narratives in official art histories and exhibition making. Through initiating research, meetings, panel discussions and an active online site for exploring both historical and contemporary approaches that deepen and challenge broader relations of art and society, Red Thread intends to reopen the issues of joint modernist legacies and histories between various so-called “marginal” regions, and attempts to create new approaches to deal with questions of auto-histories, self-positioning and reinterpretation of art history.

The title of the project indicates a critical cultural and artistic engagement that has been present in the peripheral zones of the European modernistic project in different conceptual manifestations since the 1960s, when the crisis of the project of Western monolith high modernism in its relation to ideas of social progress became apparent. Metaphorical meaning of the expression ‘red thread’ suggests not only way out of labyrinth, but also a fragile, elastic link between different intellectual, social and artistic experimentations that share a desire for social change and the active role of culture and art in this process.

Red Thread is conceived as a possibility for starting a long-term communication and establishing new international platforms for artists and cultural workers from the regions considered to be part of supposedly shrinking but still corporeally very real geographical margins. Even if today one feels that there is no region excluded from the international art circuit, there still remains the issue of control, the unresolved and continuing play of inclusion and exclusion. In that respect, focusing primarily on regions of the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus and North Africa, the project is conceived as an active site for rethinking the questions of production, definition, and presentation of the artwork and the artists’ identity in the globalized (art)world. It will explore the rules of conduct established in the Western art system, and question how the circulation and reception of information is regulated and how we can (and can we really) challenge it.

All texts published in the Red Thread e-journal will be available in English and Turkish, as well as in the original language in which they were written. In addition to new contributions, each issue of the e-journal will contain a number of already existing texts from the region that were previously available only in their original language and thus inaccessible for a wider international audience.