Выпуск: №2 2007

Рубрика: Reflections



The material is illustrated with photos by Luchezar Boyadjiev from the series «Doubletake(s) on Double-talk». 2006

Luchezar Boyadjiev Born in 1957 in Sofia (Bulgaria). One of the leading Bulgarian artists. Participant of various exhibitions and big international art forums. Lives in Sofia.

(It's better to be a neo-modernist "without a cause" then a "renaissance" addicted ostrich caught by danger on a concrete floor...)

Decades after the decline of the heroic age of Modernism Woody Allen asked a memorable question: "Why the hell did they decide to have the Renaissance in Italy?" A bit earlier Erwin Panofsky, the renowned art historian, wrote a book titled "Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art" (1962). Of course, art historians of lesser cultures are also known to come up with funny national versions of the Renaissance without necessarily lumping them together under the heading of "in Eastern Art". The point is that evidence seems to accumulate in the practical, as well as the theoretical domain (s) that everything in human culture has its "ism (s) " – there is modernism but there were modernisms; there is socialism but there were socialisms; there is capitalism but there were (are) capitalisms. By the same token – there was modernity but it is very possible that there were modernities; there was antiquity but there were antiquities as well... Isn't it so? Here by "antiquities" I do not mean some lousy set of relics or monuments of ancient times put on display in either a top museum or a second-hand antiquarian's shop... The purist/dominant attitude in defining trends, periods, and epochs in human history and culture will always be so very much given to identifying the (a) mainstream that the "side stream (s) " will never be taken seriously, at least not until a major identity crisis looms over the horizon.

So, here comes the ?100 000 question – "Is the Modernity our Antiquity?" Just like in the popular TV game show – there are several options to choose from and give an answer... Unlike in the popular TV game show though – none of the answers is entirely correct, nor will any of the available options get you the prize money... It's just one of those questions that have as many answers as there are people answering. Not in substance, rather in the telling details.

I for one, feel an inclination towards the "yes" answer. Maybe that's because I do share in some unexplainable wish to have a new "renaissance"...Having said that though, I would like to back up a bit and ask a question: whose antiquity; or more importantly: whose modernity? Who is this "we" implied in the "our" part of the ?100 000 question? How is this "we" constructed? Yes, of course, I understand the clever trap I am falling into by even beginning to ponder the answer to this question – that automatically puts me within the "we" group... Yes, of course, I do understand the challenge of casting myself within the "we" and "our" positions. But I hope I am getting right the meaning of this presently posed challenge – it seems the time has come to establish a new kind of a group-like or a community-like "renaissance" agent based on a human-to-human kind of dialogue/encounter and so on. Isn't that so? I will risk getting it wrong and will get on with my answers, right or wrong, for there is nothing to loose, right? We are not on TV, after all... I will start from "our antiquity" simply because from where I stand it should be clearer then "modernity".

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In my personal human/professional background (history textbooks, local museums, teachers in the art school, archeological sites I go to with my kid, etc.) the reality of what "antiquity" might be is very simple – that's ancient Thrace. Whatever it was and whatever its relation to present day Bulgaria/Sofia might be, one thing is for sure – as far as classical Ancient Greece (or Rome) antiquity goes it beats the hell out of anything one might think of in the vicinity of either Kassel or Moscow... Vienna is a bit different. Still, "Vindobona" from the year 15 BC or even the Celtic "Uindobona" from 500 BC is much farther removed from a good-enough sample for Renaissance material/resource then any archeological bric-a-brac found in a Thracian mound. (Not that there was ever a Renaissance period of art in Bulgaria based on inspiration from Thracian art samples...well, never mind that...)

Unfortunately, as far as classical Modernism in the visual arts and architecture goes, my personal human/professional ego has much less reason to feel like an equal partner in the "we" equation. At least it may seem so at a glance... But that's just the point – the question is about "modernity" not about "modernism", although at some point one has to consider what kind of configuration between "modernism" and "modernity" might be valid/available today? In any event, my background knows one kind of modernism mainly – the trend of extreme and very successful social modernism that actually won the battle... (while ultimately loosing the war, as it were). I think by now it's taken for granted that the socialist (of the soviet type) societies in Europe stand for the victory of modernism, or at least of one version of the many modernisms that were around in the first half of the 20th c. Starting from the context of an "under-developed" modernity at first Soviet Russia and then all the other formerly socialist countries in Eastern Europe (with a little help from our friend), produced an "over-developed" version of modernism. Taking much too literally the ideological and socio-political agenda of early modernism, the social "artists" of this trend committed the lives of millions of people to the construction of the new society achieving one way of extreme and fast modernization. They sided with one of the two main trends in modernism – the one that embraced modernity; they certainly did not side with the other main trend in modernism – the trend that questioned modernity and it's ironical to recall that Lenin was once a hero and a major identification figure for DADA and the Dadaists...

In any event, in the history of modern age the emergence of socialist countries is considered to be one of the main features of modernity, right? But how is the failure of real socialism (we will not go into exploring the reasons for that...) related to modernity and what relevance that failure might have in terms of: a/ modernity being our antiquity; b/ new modernity, its resources and agenda; c/ the ethics aspect, etc.? I mean there was the failure after all! It's true that no matter how often I keep on reminding myself that I am a survivor of utopia, I still entertain hopes for a new "renaissance". Yet, I want to know – how and why is this possible? Let's start from a joke that was popular in Sofia in the early 1990ies and then we will move on to see if there is any legitimate reason to think there might be a new modernity at hand, at least from where I stand.

"Why the hell did we have to take the hardest way to Capitalism – via Socialism???" asked the Sofia vernacular in the early 1990ies. Neither then nor now there is anybody who can furnish a convincing answer, though many of us, survivors of utopia, have suspected all along that it somehow has to do with an ongoing process of modernization. However, it is not quite clear what kind of modernization might be at play now, provided that the kind we went through between (1917) 1944 and 1989 was quite radical as it is... Of course, there will always be thinkers who will tell you that what we had was not really socialism but state capitalism, that the nomenclatura was nothing else but a red bourgeoisie, etc. Be that as it may, I would not use these notions to think of the current situation (the middle of the first decade of the 21st c.) because it is defined by more aggressive new developments.

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In a nutshell – if the rise of capitalism and urbanization are two of the main defining characteristics of modernity, then what is happening during the last 5-10 years in countries such as Bulgaria (not that it's the best example but this is where I stand at the moment...), Romania, Poland, etc.; or in a slightly different but much larger format in Russia; and better yet China (although that case needs many additional clarifications), is nothing short of a new stage of modernization, a new kind of modernity. Considering the direction, the scale and the ever accelerating rhythm of the changes in these countries after 1989, one may say that it's a hyper modernity, a new age of super fast modernity, and so on. The changes in economy and urban living, as well as in the visual interface of the main cities of these countries, are tremendous, especially when compared to the starting point from before 1989. No matter what other terms one may use to give a name to this unique kind of new and quite strange society, it seems that neo-capitalism is the most all-encompassing possibility. True, this new society is not really productive, is quite corrupted, chaotic and unsettled, and it has little to do with innovative technology or new advanced means of production... Yet, I think there was never ever in human history such a wide, wild, and fast scale of capitalist development (just think of Roman Abramovic and the visibility/size of his wealth, of the geography of neo-capitalism...). It is frightening to think that it is this kind of super modernization in quite a large segment of the "civilized" world that may turn out to provide a new resource for modernity. Would that be "our antiquity" as early 20th c. modernity was? I have no idea. Would it lead to a re-run of the re-volution vs. e-volution scenario and a second chance/attempt for the good guys with, let's say, a Sweden based "side-stream" version of socialism? Who knows, probably at some point?

But, for the time being, let's ask another question – what is "neo-capitalism"? I will offer a working definition under the condition that I am neither an economist nor a sociologist or a political scientist. Let's say that I will be talking about visually detectable neo-capitalism.

Neo-capitalism is one of the many kinds of capitalisms... It is the only kind of capitalism that originates in late socialism, as it was known in the countries of the soviet block (and beyond). Neo-capitalism is rooted in the post-socialist situation and its main problem: the re-distribution of the common (public) "wealth" accumulated prior to 1989. The resolution of this problem is masked as a process of re-definition of the concept/notion of property, private property more specifically, and the construction of a framework for its legal and fiscal fortification. There is always a plan for the construction of neo-capitalism no matter how ironical that may sound (after the "five-year plan" economy of socialism). Supposedly, in theory, there is a concrete model for the construction of neo-capitalism – the model of the western European market economy and parliamentary democracy. In reality, the construction follows its own logic of seemingly obvious decline, which is actually masking the hidden process of re-grouping of the elite (s), of re-distribution of property, of the formation of new political and economical alliances and their entrenchment into the new social fabric/structure of society.

Neo-capitalism is becoming visible only when the re-distribution/re-grouping has basically ended and a country, undergoing this process, embarks on a course of stabilization and "normalization". That is usually accompanied by the asked-for interference and goes under the welcomed surveillance of powerful international institutions/alliances with highly visible economical and/or political profiles such as the IMF, the World Bank, the EU, etc. We have neo-capitalism in its purest form when the whole process is legally channeled within the parameters of negotiations for full membership into the EU with all of the unavoidably following hard monitoring, pressures for stricter regulations of all activities, profound changes in the legislature and the allover framework of the economy, as well as modest degrees of growth and secured basic creature comforts for the population. The early stages of neo-capitalism will be over, at least in the case of Bulgaria and Romania for instance, when these two countries enter the EU (well, at least on paper...).

Thus, neo-capitalism is defined by two main factors: a/ the legacy of post-socialism; and b/ the self-inflicted pressure from the EU. Both factors are inherent to neo-capitalism in terms of both origin and choice.

From this perspective Russia, and even more so China, appear not to be neo-capitalist countries at all. That's misleading for there are also neo-capitalism (s)... Things may start looking differently if one takes a closer look at one of the defining factors – the interaction with the EU and other international institutions... The negotiations, the monitoring, the accession treaty with the EU and so on are nothing else but official and legal terms masking the substance of the overriding tendency – the neo-capitalist countries want to "sell" themselves, it is all a question of marketing and marketability. Compared to the Russian Federation or China, the former soviet allies have little to offer in terms of natural or other resources, of growth and market potential, of political and/or military interaction. They can only sell themselves. They can only offer themselves as members of a symbolic alliance with political and economical aspects. So, the more they negotiate, the better off they will be afterwards; the harder the "deal" of accession, the more marketable they will be in the long run. The process though is far from being a simple one-sided exchange for the entry of a neo-capitalist country is providing a renewal of the system, whatever the system may be at the moment of accession (consider the currently unsettled status of the EU, or in other words – the looming identity crisis that makes it possible to think of "ism (s) "...)

On the other hand, the marketability and marketing strategies of the huge neo-capitalist countries like Russia and China is more the type of "trial and error" on a scale that affects the whole global economy. The spearhead of the normalizing pressures they impose on themselves is the global market economy, the global arena where they want to play, and for sure that's a much harsher tool for self-inflicted "normalization" then anything the EU may come up with... (I am still not sure what to do with the state socialist ideology in China though...)

The neo-capitalist society/situation creates super cities... That does not necessarily mean that such urban entities are economically vibrant or attract immense influx of migrants to the point of bursting (although many Chinese cities are certainly like that). It simply implies that in these cities issue (s) such as the nature of urban communities and their existence; the rivalry between public and private space (s) and interest (s); the role of politics vs. the role of economy in the life of the city; the re-mapping of the city according to new priorities and social hierarchies; the structures of development of the visual interface of the city as a reflection of the local configuration of global processes, etc. acquire immense urgency. Disregarding the size of a neo-capitalist city, these issues usually heat up the social as well as the visual "temperature" of the urban centers, often quite disproportionately to their role/status in the global economy/world. In other words, in such cities life itself is (most often subconsciously) a negotiating process that "questions" the very nature of what a city is. That's why they are super cities or UrbanoPolis (whatever that means... but I like the metaphor), or too much cities, human environments that are overly contested by their own inhabitants, too contested for their own good. Life in a super city is a challenge because one has to discover/negotiate on a daily basis what "city life" is.

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Furthermore, as the sites of extreme urbanization neo-capitalist cities are the physical environments where neo-capitalism is made visible and becomes materially present through the process of modernization in economy, politics, architecture, infrastructure, etc. This is a kind of visibility that creates specific urban visuality – one can talk of the visual interface of the neo-capitalist city as a reflecting/modeling surface, which manifests all the underlying hierarchies, structures, processes. It is a "readable" and "projecting" environment, the product of city-specific configurations of global/local factors and processes – it is the true media of the new hyper modernity. Unlike the interface of cities of mature capitalism such as New York or Paris, the neo-capitalist city interface is unsettled, it displays the overwhelming dominance of economy over politics, of private over public interest in the life of the society. These are "hot visual cities" boiling over with conflict and energy, much to the delight of an artist (like myself) willing to explore and/or question the visuality of the new modernity...

a/ Neo-capitalism, at least in its early stages, is capitalism without bourgeoisie. That's because the October Revolution and the following construction of real socialism was such a successful project of social modernism (and modernization) that it entirely eradicated the initial enemy of modernism – in some socialist countries йpater le bourgeois reached the final solution until there was simply nobody left to "йpater". But nowadays that victory has backfired... The new phase of the "modernization" (civilization) of these ultimately backward societies (like Bulgaria, for instance) comes under the guise of all-round "normalization", "europeanization" and so on. That however, is nothing else but a camouflage for the re-introduction/re-constitution/re-creation of the bourgeoisie.

The process is somehow linked to the debate about public space in the neo-capitalist cities, its use, regulation, definition, etc. It seems that the process of negotiating public space in neo-capitalist cities is lacking a clear referent and I think that's because there simply is no clear notion of what exactly "public" might mean? At least in the context of urbanity the presence of historically formed bourgeoisie creates historically formed notions of living in a city. The notion of public space is related to the notion of "polis", urbanity, etc. On the other hand, part of the socialist legacy is the lack of concepts/notions of private and public. In the case of Bulgaria, to give a rather awkward example, it's rather more complicated because in Bulgarian language (in Russian as well, for that mater...) there is simply no word equivalent to the English word "privacy". So, how could one negotiate "public", "publicly" and so on, when there is no clarity as to the limits of "private" and "privacy"? For the time being that's not just a linguistic problem...

b/ Furthermore, neo-capitalism is consumer society without consumers, or at least not yet, not massively... There are the rich and the poor, true. What's more – in neo-capitalism the rich appear to be richer (see R. Abramovic) and the poor – poorer! (Neo-capitalism is very much about appearances to begin with...во многом игра в позы) But there are no consumers yet. It's a matter of scale really, and time... The process of city area (s) definition according to wealth has started recently, true. But the massively "professed" consumer identity in neo-capitalism is so far visible/real mainly in the visual interface of its cities, mainly in the context of advertisement and the new "wild style" architecture (a mixture between Las Vegas, Disneyland, the city center of Tirana from around the end of 1998 and the waterfront of Dubai from about a year ago...) The re-birth of the bourgeoisie is intimately linked to the practice of imposition of a new type of urban identity in the space of the city – the educated consumer. But who are the concrete human agents in this process; how exactly is this process visible in the urban interface; what is the semantic substance of the total visual message of the neo-capitalist city?

It seems that the active agent in this kind of city environment is the already emerging neo-bourgeois, the neo-burgher. He/she may come from any social strata. He/she may be a corporate player of international/national scale or a small-time shop owner of very local market impact. The defining factor is that he/she participates actively in the definition of the city visual environment on either the corporate (center of town, top of the buildings, fancy logos and billboards, etc.) or the neighborhood level (hand-made signs, aggressive and concrete, bodily present, eye-level, etc.). Either way he/she wishes to be present in the media space of the city; to construct the place, the human subjects and their desires while being retroactively constructed by the same place already existing as constructed (with it's own visual intuitions, hidden and/or manifest clichйs, "dirty little secrets" and so on). Either way, the measure of involvement is defined as a configuration between the means and the will to define the visual environment of the city.

The most visible signifier for the emergence of the neo-bourgeoisie is the already mentioned wild-style architecture – clearly post-modern in style with lots of glass, oversized architectural metaphors of wealth and importance, ignorant of its immediate urban surroundings, this kind of new architecture has a surprisingly "modern" mission (or commitment, if you wish) – it aims to transform the whole city/society after it's own image, which is to say, after a neo-bourgeoisie image.

c/ The most entertaining process to observe in the development of the neo-capitalist society is the birth of the "consumer" from the corpse of the labor-hero, and the birth of the "neo-capitalist" businessman from the corpse of the "apparatchik" (the high level member of the nomenclatura). I am not saying that the neo-bourgeoisie is emerging only from the ranks of the former socialist nomenclatura, on the contrary – there are a lot of crossings-over and interspecies breading. Actually, the main goal of a neo-capitalist society is not production or consumption as such – it is the creation of something like an all-encompassing bourgeoisie life-style environment. In fact, that is the overriding characteristic of the new urban visuality in a neo-capitalist city.

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Such cities are probably the best examples for places that, as places, control human subjects while at the same time they, as places, are being humanly constructed. Такие места, которые имеют отражающую поверхность, всегда находятся в движении,и общественное пространство, которое эксплуатируется личным интересом. These are places that have a reflecting/projecting interface that is constantly in motion, and a public space, which is raped by private interest. As a result the urban environment is turning into a media space. And as in any media space the main question here is the question of access. Access is guaranteed by money, but also by the dominance of economy over politics in a neo-capitalist city and society where one can put up anything, anytime, anywhere as long as one can pay. While in cities like New York and Paris corporations are paying to gain access to consumers, in a neo-capitalist city one is paying to impose a model to be followed. In the first case advertisement sells goods; in the second case advertisement sells the (image of the) neo-bourgeoisie.

Neo-capitalism and its cities are marked by relatively low amplitude of civic will and means to influence the urban surroundings. Unlike the neo-burgher of any kind, the regular city dwellers, artists included, are rarely able to react to the neo-capitalist surroundings in any other way but through activist gestures of questioning and transgression. These however, may sometimes look like a "will to order" and wish for political/social domination of the educated elite over the urban environment. It is ironical to mention though that in neo-capitalism there is simply no room for an educated elite. It is marginalized. However, as long as it is linking up to the "educated consumer" module while staying away from embracing it, it can secure a modest degree of autonomy and influence.

Going back to the initial question I have to say that neo-capitalism confronts an artist with a sad realization – it seems that the whole new stage of rapid modernization and thus, the whole new situation of re-activated modernity (fast rising capitalism, extremes of urbanization, etc.) appears to be little more then a vehicle for the re-creation of the bourgeoisie. We have now a drive for "modernization" of society the end goal of which is the creation of something like a bourgeois "life-style" environment. That's why the new modernity is a suspect – it is hard to embrace entirely (although the city of Sofia looks more exciting then ever before); but it is just as hard to negate entirely (although the city of Sofia is more unbearable then ever before with the car traffic, the arrogance of wealth, etc.) One can only question and challenge the new modernity. That is a sad realization but hey – there must be some positive resource for a new modernist project in there (if not alternative modernity...)! So, take it or leave it... And since it's hard to leave it, it seems to be better to take it...by looking for truth, at least provisional, through reshuffling rather then negating the new order settling in; by looking for an alternative public space, or counter public space if you wish; by taking the autonomy of art as an asset rather then a liability; by fortifying that autonomous space for art that actually matters rather then sells, and so on.

The space of neo-capitalism is fundamentally a media kind of space – so, a neo-modern kind of questioning project/approach would imply disruption and interference into the media frequencies, formats and messages of that space via the utilization of the Dadaist legacy. The space of neo-capitalism is fundamentally a kitschy version of that modernity we may choose to see as our antiquity – so, a reductive approach would imply boiling down its basic substance/meaning to a few simple targets.

I guess the bottom line of what I am trying to promote is disfunctionality, or counter-functionality, or human-to-human functionality. I guess, it's better to be a neo-modernist "without a cause" then a "renaissance" addicted ostrich caught by danger on a concrete floor...


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