Kenneth McBride

Kenneth McBride is an artist, writer and educator as well as being the founder of agora8

In his durational performance installations he is interested in art as a form of memorial that can activate collective memory. He is author of many works and has presented in diverse locations and contexts internationally, often operating beyond the traditional gallery structures and in a wide variety of impermanent or public spaces. Works often engage the full range of senses.

Introduction: What and Where is Eastern Europe?

Spectacle in the latter part of 20th century Europe is characterised, perhaps most of all, by a single event: the 1989 breaching of the Berlin Wall that signalled the collapse of the Communist system in Europe. Played out as a live event in a cold November, the sight of hundreds, then thousands, millions, of people gathering from all over the world to protest and chip away at the Wall, making holes and passages so both sides could join together in celebration became, in the Western continent at least, the abiding image of the times (1).

Simultaneously, thanks to advances in satellite technology, it was beamed around the world on live television and witnessed by tens of millions more (2). It seemed for a short while that the freezing and reunification of Europe had been condensed into a single historic televisual moment, and one might be forgiven for being carried away by the moment and thinking that the collapse of Communism simply returned Europe to a natural state of things, a historic spectacle where the will of the people had triumphed, overnight, over the forces of oppression.

For the majority in East Central Europe, who shouldered a decades-long struggle with Communism to arrive at this point, the Autumn of Nations was nothing less than a miracle. History, however, also has a terrible knack of forgetting.

Although linked together by an overarching ideology each country developed its unique brand of politics that was a mix of exported hard-line Soviet rule and “homegrown socialist experiments of one kind or another” (Hoptman & Pospiszyl, (eds.) 2002, p.9). While some enjoyed a peaceful transition to democracy, and all at different times to each other, others were drawn out in blood, most notably, the 1989 Romanian revolution.

Gržinić (2004) demonstrates further that, despite the mythic status that surrounds 1989, from an ex-Yugoslav perspective it was the death in 1980 of President Josip Tito (3) that marked the arrival of a new epoch, one that would be marked by a gradual but chronic descent into the hell of incendiary nationalisms and ethnic conflict. Hoptman and Pospiszyl (2002) present the case of Russia; that despite having their own unique history and culture, they were inextricably linked to Eastern Europe through the Communist project. Thus the thesis includes Russia within its frame of reference.

In seeking a definition of ‘Eastern Europe’ that will serve the thesis, we discard any notion of Eastern Europe being one place, one culture, one time. We assert instead that, while ‘East’ and ‘West’ were essentially mythological structures created at the Yalta conference in 1945 (4), the resulting histories “are produced under the sign of ‘not being the West’” (Sandomirskaia, 2007).

Similarly, when we apply the words ‘Communist’ and ‘Communism’ to Eastern Europe we do so from an ideological perspective while, in reality, it was much closer to State capitalism. That is, that the Communist governments exclusively managed the means of production while, from a Marxist perspective at least, Communism advocates the people's control of the means of production.

While the secret world of Communist Europe is gradually becoming more widely known to the rest of the world through documentary projects the representation of its art practices is altogether less adequate. The fragmented nature of both the Communist sphere and the unstable transition period that followed its collapse makes the task of analysing Eastern European art practices infinitely more complex than any Western European equivalent would be.

The Slovenian art group, Irwin, illustrate this contrast by applying an analogy regarding the problem of locating artistic production in Eastern Europe to Joseph Beuys: mention the name Beuys to anyone familiar with his work and they would “instantly perceive it in relation to an entire network of other artworks and artists, among whom Beuys occupies an important place” (Irwin, 2004).

Conversely, the opposite is true if we reference an Eastern European artist since “one is at a loss to say just where and in what way such-and-such a work belongs” (Irwin, 2004). One of the many reasons for this, they claim, is not only as a result of the secretive nature by which non-official artists practised but was, “rather a constitutive part of the art system in these territories” (Irwin, 2004). Therefore, the emergence of a self-historicization industry, such as the Irwin project belongs to, is highly significant and much needed, although a lack of knowledge is also attributable to the ambivalence and dominance of Western European art canons,

Even though Central [Eastern] Europe is nearby, the West did not reveal any serious interest in the art of its close neighbours before 1989. (Piotrowski, 2003).

However, it is not only within Western Europe that these histories remain elusive. Pospiszyl (2003) shows that within the region itself there is a large and eager audience who seek to discover what were to a large extent works produced clandestinely within their own, and neighbouring, countries.

Therefore, we may question how these works might fit into existing European art histories or whether an altogether different method of reading and positioning is required. It is a concern that artists and art historians are being faced with in an enlarged, and increasingly enlarging, Europe: chiefly, its complexity in terms of how to approach the interfaces of cultural and historical spaces, and art histories and their representations. The issue is an extremely complex one, not only because of the conditions imposed upon artists and artistic production but also because understanding requires the acquisition of knowledge about context,

What is recounted… happened in distant, closed countries that, at least in the case of the Soviet Union, virtually did not exist on the artistic map of the world from the 1930’s until the 1980’s. (Kabakov, cited in, Hoptman. & Pospiszyl, (eds.) 2002, pp. 7-8).

The accelerated pace of our globalized world seems recklessly prone at times to prefixing the context ‘post-’ to everything in its rush to create new discourses. And, quite rightly, a fair degree of doubt is cast on the validity of this practice since it inherently suggests that we are no longer ‘there’ but are somewhere ‘new’, and thus we must develop new stratagems accordingly. Therefore, in our search to find a legitimate way to talk about the post-Communist period the thesis adopts the definition offered by Emilia Palonen as being,

“the era that started in the late Soviet sponsored period and that which stills bears the legacy of the previous era” (Palonen, 2008, p. 219).

Altogether then, it is not simply a matter of (colonial) art history being updated or rewritten to become more inclusive, or accommodating, of a still emerging history of practices emanating from Eastern Europe. What is required is a commitment to engage the intersections of these art histories - the social, political, and cultural conditions under which artists operated - and to understand Eastern Europe as having a unique history of art practices that are vying to find their place alongside other global histories.

This thesis has been charged with bringing some order to this fractured state of affairs, and to contribute uniquely to our understanding of time-based art practices by teasing out inter-relationships between framed contexts, named conditions, and assumed behaviors.

Time-based art has been singled out as the field of practice most capable of communicating temporal and corporeal experience (action art and performance art); an engagement with environmental impermanence (installation); and the deconstruction of the past in order to more fully understand our present (video and re-enactment).

A number of such works have been selected for analysis and are contextualized in relation to historical ‘milestones’, or events that, in one way or another, affected the internal dynamics of Eastern Europe, the effects of which resonated through the lives of artists.

These milestones are not presented as anywhere near a complete guide to the complex history of the Soviet-era in Europe but, rather, they act as contextual frames that will assist the analysis of why particular artists produced particular works at particular times and how these works were produced.

We will see as we move along that the activities of art and artists share a state of emergence with the contexts from which they sprung, and that we are wholly reliant on these contexts to ascertain the work’s meaning. We will understand them as exemplar examples of what became known as non-official art, that is, art that dissented in one way or another from the official realm as was promoted by the ideologically dominant political discourse.

At this point it will be useful to set out the primary questions that the thesis will engage with.

  • 1. What was the past, how did it impact on artistic production, and how did artists respond?
  • 2. What is the status of trace documents (image, film, and text) through which we know these works, and what insights into context do they offer beyond mere representation of visual acts?
  • 3. What strategies do artists employ that allow new readings of the past for our present age, and what forms of memory are being engaged?
  • 4. How did artists respond to the disintegration of the Balkan region? And how did artists throughout Eastern Europe respond to the transition process?

By approaching these questions as a sequence of chapters in this written element, we will see that they are overall linked to our enquiry into the Communist and post-Communist context. The thesis will demonstrate its analysis of selected works and make clear its unique contribution to our understanding and knowledge of these art practices and to the historicization process of Eastern European art.

1 The Tiananmen Square Massacre in China had occurred in June the same year so it is doubtful if events in Berlin overshadowed the gravity of events in China throughout the Asian continent. | back |
2 Applying the emergence of satellite technology to the domestic realm had been championed by the United States since the 1960s as a means to instill civil unrest in foreign countries. The broadcasting of western soap operas and cultural content alongside information was seen as a way to influence people so that they would bring about resistance and change themselves. In other words, a new front in hostilities was perceived that, in certain contexts, could do away with the need for traditional invasion. In the 1964 Committee on Foreign Affairs paper, ‘Winning the Cold War: The American ideological offensive’, they stated that, “Certain foreign policy objectives can be best pursued by dealing directly with the people of foreign countries, rather than with their governments. Through the use of modern instruments and technologies of communications, it is possible today to reach large and influential sections of national populations... to influence their attitudes, to motivate them to particular courses of actions. These groups, in turn, are capable of exerting, noticeable, even decisive pressure on their governments”. See, Morley & Robbins. | back |
3 On May 4, 1980 Tito died in Ljubljana after a long battle with his health and was buried in Belgrade in The House of Flowers. 209 delegates from 127 different world nations attended his funeral, making it the largest funeral of any political figure in the 20th century. The funeral procession attendees included Margaret Thatcher, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Leonid Brezhnev among others. | back |
4 In 1945, following the end of WW2, Britain, America, and Russia met at the Yalta Conference to draw up the administrative authorities of Europe. The geo-political division of the world was irrevocably decided at Yalta as a consequence of the Second World War. It set out to redraw the European map according to economic and political ‘zones of influence’. The subsequent carve up saw the Soviet Union administering the territory between East Germany and Russia, as far north as the Baltic coastline and south to the Mediterranean Sea. America held on to West Berlin. Russia itself did not come under the Yalta agreement since it remained one of the powers deciding the fate and administration of Europe. Nonetheless it is fair to say that for artists in the Soviet Union this was of no comfort and certainly did not bring any privilege. | back |

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