The New Dictionary of Old Ideas

Central Europe – a formation between East and West which in the course of centuries has changed its geographic as well as political dimensions several times. Symposium wants to reflect the current cultural and political situation characterized by the rise of nationalistic politics, populism, Euro-scepticism and anti-immigration attitudes in Central Europe from the perspective of contemporary art and theory. This tendency can be observed not just locally but in the whole of Europe. We will foster an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas discussed in a group of art historians, sociologists, philosophers, and art theoreticians.

The symposium is an outcome of the whole year project The New Dictionary of Old Ideas in Meetfactory and it was curated by Lucia Kvočáková & Piotr Sikora.

The New Dictionary of Old Ideas is a network of independent cultural institutions within Central and Eastern Europe. The platform we aim to create comes along with the process of cultural exchange and intense research of our common identity. Through political issues, visual culture, art theory, and the history of the region, we wish to explore Central Europe as an intriguing phenomenon. Coming from the experience of cultural mobility, we have established a residency project as a helping tool in furthering research that goes hand in hand with a set of theoretical terms known as The New Dictionary of Old Ideas.

Retroutopia vs. Speculative Fiction
The idea of a retro-utopia is used by Boris Buden (referring to Inke Arns) which suggests that similar to the myths of the pre-modern era that it once replaced, utopia is now focused on the past. However, that is not to preserve it but rather to remain faithful to its liberating promise. He does not imply that a better world was only possible in the past, but that the improvement of the world without the past is simply impossible. Retro-utopism is turning to the past merely in order to extrapolate its unrealised ideas into the future.

The Misery of Catching Up
The very terms “revolution,” “velvet revolution,” and “transformation” still remain debatable. At the same time, they do capture the variety of ways in which particular countries viewed their communist past, seeking their way outside the Iron Curtain.
The much-desired West “overwhelmed” the neglected East with the dominance of VHS cassettes, fake shoes, cheap sun-beds and businessmen in tattered socks. It was an exotic mix of the 1990s in which the post-communist greyness was tinted by the new democracies of acid green and purple.

Common Task!
The “West” and the “East” neither share a common past nor a present. It is indeed the future where both worlds will meet one another. This is a statement given by Rastko Močnik in his text EAST! Although the West and East clash in times of instability caused by political turmoil, the boundaries between them are growing around us. Common task refers to a better future that goes against these tendencies and instead of being a particular claim, it refers to experiments with the strategy of memory.

Political Practices and Culture
In the time of national revivals in Central Europe, art was used, but also wittingly created, by artists to support the national idea of helping individuals identify themselves through the culture with the forming nation. The second wave of the strategic use of culture to promote the national idea emerged along with the formation of the new nation states after World War I as a result of the Versailles Peace System. Later, the relationship with public/state institutions became questioned during totalitarianism. What kind of political practices can be traced in the region to the so called Central European region, and how do these practices affect culture, or more precisely, art practices?

Identity Paradox
Central Europe had different geographic as well as diverse geopolitical dimensions at different times. Geographically, it was indeed an “elastic region”. Based on the current political situation, it was once expanding, and at another time shrinking. None of the terms used to define this region are neutral. They are all influenced by political and historical connotations and include a diverse territory within Europe – Mitteleuropa, Central Europe, Central East Europe, etc. Is Central Europe a fact, a utopia, a concept of thought, or just a chimera? Debates about the character, the existence or the non-existence of Central Europe, have been emerging in the waves since the 1970s, and the issue is still not resolved or concluded in any satisfactory way. Perhaps this intangible ability of Central Europe is its most important characteristic.

Solidarity vs Unity
Our union is a higher form of individuality! Through this term, we are eager to investigate how a model of an union embodies needs for collectivity in the post-Soviet democracies and reflect on why it is still powerfully present in the Central-European context. Does it stem from a basic need for self-defence expressed in a phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall,” or is it nothing but propaganda slogan, a spectre that haunts totalitarian ideologies? What becomes a natural counterweight supplement to unity is solidarity – a term that gained a lot of attention because of the Polish opposition movement in 1980. However, unity gives us an ideal status in an idealistic social stratification – all equal – solidarity answers to the question: what if there are equal and more equal. Solidarity is a way how carrying country balances social diversities and processes social justice.

01 Milena Bartlová - No Identities, No Art, No Future

At the moment, we have to finally face the radical threat there may soon be no future for the world as we have known it due to the climate breakdown. In Central Europe and elsewhere, national identities resurface and are being manipulated by authoritarian politicians in order to offer a false comfort for the insecure masses. Art and its history have been intimately interconnected with national identities for long. Have art and art history anything to offer at the time of the most profound crisis that has ever confronted humanity?

Milena Bartlová (CZ), Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague

02 Boris Buden - Short Life of Post-Communism

The time has come for an honest diagnosis: the epochal process of the so-called post-communist transition to democracy that was initiated immediately after the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe has failed. In fact, its very historical teleology—a quasi self-evident belief that the Western-type liberal democracy in harmony with the neo-liberal global capitalism is the only option on our historical horizon—has collapsed. We no longer live after the collapse of communism, but rather after the collapse of post-communism. What went wrong?

Boris Buden (HR)

03 Jan Sowa - Populism or Capitalist De-modernization in the Age of Perverse Decolonization.

Liberal optimism of widespread progress and modernization that shaped the mainstream of public debate and intellectual life in the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall has been put under serious doubts by the recent populist uprisings and related political developments. Democracy and human rights seem in to be in retreat and as the cases of United States, Poland or Brazil have demonstrated, free markets do enjoy the prospect of right-wing authoritarianism quite a lot. Central-Eastern Europe offers some interesting insights into this new condition of global political mind as a lot of current social and political phenomena occurred there earlier and with a bigger force than they do now in the better developed countries in the core of the capitalist world-system. As a matter of fact, the general pattern of universal history put forward by the so called modernization theory in the second half of 20th century – between Lerner and Fukuyama – has been not only disproved, but even reversed by the contemporary social and political developments that can be labelled as de-modernization: it is the periphery that shows the future of the centre, not the other way around. And it is not a bright future. What seemed to be a progressive decolonization of the (semi)peripheries a couple of decades ago gave way to a bizarre perversion in which the critical and progressive conceptual framework of dignity and diversity has been captured to justify obscurantist and reactionary agenda. This troubling turn of events forces us to rethink and redefine anew the old ideas of modernization, progress and emancipation and to re-examine the link between capitalism and socio-cultural modernity.

Jan Sowa (PL), Academy of Fine Arts Warsaw and Biennale Warszawa

04 Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius - Mapmaking as Image-making: The Case of East Central Europe

There is no point to reaffirm yet again that maps are the instruments of power, and that space is not given but produced. Over the recent decades, those once ground-breaking claims of the critical cartography, which drew on Foucault’s discourse analysis and Derrida’s deconstruction, have already gained the status of the established truths. They are both contested and supplemented today by the new post-constructivist approaches to the map, which redefine it as a process rather than a product, contingent, corporeal and performative. The theoretical discourse about cartography, however, has seldom focused on the eastern peripheries of Europe, where the map, both as a tool of power-knowledge and a script of resistance, constitutes an intrinsic component of the region’s identity. Not only does it precede the territory, but it is routinely chosen as the area’s ‘ur-metaphor’. The post-WWI launch of the first ‘cartographic mandate’ of the region identified the area with a bunch of the ‘small states of Europe’, drawn by ‘the mapmakers of Versailles’ on the bodies of the collapsed empires. The subsequent arbitrary gesture of reshaping the map of Europe in Yalta, conjured up both the territory behind the Iron Curtain and a whole range of competing geographical metaphors, from the ‘Communist Bloc’ to the ‘Kidnapped West’. Even if not preceded by the map, the ‘Fall of the Wall’, an instant metaphor in its own right, was hastily followed by the influx of new maps and atlases, redefining the boundaries and the physical make-up of the eastern periphery of Europe that has emerged from behind the debris. Regardless of the attempts to move beyond the map when rethinking East Central European area studies, the map is here to stay, and it is in need of critical interrogation. The intermediality of the cartographic language, utilising both text and image, makes it particularly open to the interdisciplinary inquiry from social sciences and humanities. One of the less explored avenues of further research is offered by visual studies. If the map precedes the territory, is it the image which precedes the map?

Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius (PL), Birkbeck University of London

05 Keti Chukhrov - The Ruptures and Continuities between Avant-garde and Contemporaneity

The avant-gardes – both first and second – brought art to its zero condition, to its sublation. This self-destructive zeal re-instituted art practice as a conceptual work of mind, but also as a radical and revolutionary modes of socialisation. Contemporary art as the Institute of global contemporaneity hijacked the narratives and lexicons of revolutionary emancipation from both avant-gardes. However, it had to integrate them in various forms of neoliberal globalisation while speaking the language of revolutionary emancipation. This paradigm seems to have collapsed with the election of Donald Trump and the rise of numerous conservative governments all over the world. This deflates both the heritage of emancipation after 1968, as well as the narratives of the avant-garde(s), and raises the following questions: what was irreversibly unmonetisable in the avant-garde? Was the avant-garde a form of radical enlightenment or counter-enlightenment? Can global art’s quasi-avant-garde social engagement be treated as progressive, and if not, why?

Keti Chukhrov (RU), National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow