Politics of Art

Political campaigning and debating about the role and impact of arts in a politicised society need not be located in parallel universes.

This article originally appeared on 18 March in BalkanInsight

It is electoral campaign time in Macedonia. It is the time of hollow speeches, of absurd political appearances and of odd campaign slogans. It is the time of a last minute frenzy of inaugurations of half ready building projects.

It is the time when public space is contaminated by hypocrisy to an unbearably higher degree than it has become the rule anyway. It is the time when the political scene consists only of winners and successes. As if there were no reality out there. And maybe there isn’t.

Reality is what we choose to believe, anyway.

It is a period of intellectual black-out, of moral used cars salesmanship. Kooperacija, an independent arts initiative active in the extra-institutional space in Skopje and dedicated to an independent exchange of ideas, decided to choose this period for an exhibition and a debate.

The exhibition, bearing the title “Where is Everyone?” set out to explore “the possibilities of defining the role of the artistic act as a critical step towards the deconstruction of power systems, but also as an attempt to create parallel, alternative spaces for activity.”

Set in an unrented private business space, which holds some institutional memory, having been the seat of one of Macedonia’s larger daily newspapers, the exhibition started from the physical premise of darkness, or rather the lack of electricity and constructed the exhibition around that reality.

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In the meantime, in the darkness of the political arena, Macedonia is confronted with the revival of ethnic policy making. In a reaction to an Albanian strive to “take” the municipality of Kicevo and to “defend” Struga at any cost, including flying in the diaspora voting sheep herd, the Macedonian political sworn enemies, PM Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE and Crvenkovski’s SDSM formed ethnic coalitions in the two municipalities.

The battle for power between the two parties rages in the rest of the country, while Kicevo and Struga have mutated to ethnic paradises, where sworn enemies organise rallies arm in arm. Democratic progress, they claim. And we believe them. Right. Right?

The artists of Kooperacija took the physical situation and developed a variety of approaches to “enlighten” the visitors.

While some of the work was explicitly political, other artists tried more subtly to address issues of communication, of inter-action in a context, which is occupied and contaminated by the predominance of the political, trying to develop an artistic language to escape populism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlmost at the same time came the announcement of the social-democratic candidate for one of the Skopje municipalities that his party would initiate the building of an additional church. Yes, a church and a social-democrat.

Or whatever passes for a social-democrat these days. The amount of amusement parks, swimming pools and sports centres being promised in this campaign would probably equal the surface of a mid-sized municipality.

Debating on Sunday noon, we tried to find possible beginnings to an artistic answer to the pseudo-political contamination of society.

In a context of a changing notion of arts and its impact, in a context, in which contemporary art is marginalised at the expense of megalomaniac projects, the artists’ work is political, it aims at the deconstruction of power systems, at exposing them, at raising the stakes of aesthetic, moral ethical thresholds for what is acceptable political behaviour.

Meanwhile the ethnic campaign rhetoric, especially in Kicevo and Struga, is hardening. One of the Albanian candidates for mayor poses on his Facebook profile in full UÇK gear, including his AK47, claiming that it is not something to be ashamed of, but rather something that fills him with pride.

In reply, PM Gruevski’s ethnically militant speech sounded like it addressed an enemy, not a coalition partner. Decency and politics in the Balkans. An impossible couple.

One of the questions that artists find themselves confronted with is that their impact stands in no relation to their wish to induce change. All the more is it important to communicate with the audience, to use spaces accessible to everybody, to engage in self-reflection.

The only valid answer that we have so far to totalitarian post-democratic reflexes is a democratic culture that lives off exchange of ideas and concepts, off the ability and willingness to a participative concept of society. And off a political subject that takes these issues seriously.

At an event this week, I was approached by a young Roma politician who blamed the government’s ignorance for the misery, in which virtually all Roma settlements in Macedonia find themselves.

I could not but remind him of the fact that most Roma political parties and their leaders have been part of this very governing coalition for more than seven years. He had little to say to that.

Vision! You’ve been framed…

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