Fear no fiction

Stojan Pelko

When Slovenia was packing the exhibition of the best contemporary design in 2011 there was double modesty, both in title and in scale. The title was Silent Revolutions, and the content was literary defined by the scale of few travelling boxes: what fits in gets to be exhibited. So, when Slovenia travelled to London, Eindhoven and Milano (and will continue to Moscow) it was like going to the desert island or projecting the time-capsule to travel through space. What does a curious visitor to the exhibition see when he or she opens a box? The skis that make it possible to jump over 200 metres, a chair that wriggles free of the force of gravity by its desire to dance on one hand, the lamp that strives to be thinner than the light or the music machine, whose massive weight is chased away by the sublime quality of the music that it emits, not to mention ultra light aircraft that soars high above the clouds and the hybrid motorboat that can capture solar power in order to navigate the vast expanses of the sea. There’s something deeply vertical in all those attempts to escape from the force of gravity.


As long as we are confined to the ground, we dream about going to the moon; but the moment we take off in a simple balloon, not to mention a plane, rocket or satellite, our notion of normal concreteness becomes radically abstract and our supposed reality virtual. Ascent into the clouds not only facilitates better orientation amidst valleys and streets, it also opens the possibility of radical ethical and artistic gestures, such as Mondrian’s colour avenues or Malevich’s black squares. Only the starry sky truly opens the moral law in us, only ascension along the vertical gives proper meaning to the ethical imperative. So when a curious eye takes a look around the contemporary Slovenian artistic landscape, what arises most persistently are exactly such attempts to lift the body above the earth, to escape it from the force of gravity and take the gaze to the stars – in order to better see the vertiginous depth bellow.


For this reason dancer Iztok Kovač in his film Vertigo Bird, made in association with director Sašo Podgoršek, imitates a hawk atop the highest chimney in this part of Europe – on the chimney of Trbovlje’s electric power plant. For this reason science-performance artist Marko Peljhan and his complex Macrolab follow the geostrategic communication routes as far as to the extreme poles of the planet. And for this reason theatre director Dragan Živadinov follows the satellites, from the pioneering book Problem of Space Travel by Herman Potočnik Noordung to such distances that he stages a curious “culturalization of space” in a dance and theatre spectacle in a zero-gravity space created in a freefalling airplane above the Soviet Star City. It is all about the same obsession: to go away to see more; to reach higher to go deeper.


If the views of contemporary Slovene design should not remain solely an exercise in collective aesthetics or individual poetics, but should reach as far as universal ethics, the ethical imperative here should be understood as set up by French philosopher Alain Badiou: “Do everything you can to go over your bare duration. Persist in the interruption. Grasp in your existence what has grasped and broken you.” A true silent revolution therefore begins only in the moment when you connect your ingredients into something bigger that makes it possible for the truth to cross you. Then you fall silent over the grandeur of something that you’ve shaped, but it has surpassed and overgrown you, reaching for the universal because of a single touch of the singular. Artistic poetics never appears at the beginning (not as a genius idea and not as a moment of inspiration), but at the end of the process: when something is created in the gap, when it survives, when the new shape becomes universal precisely because of its singularity, real art is born.


This was our starting point when Danish minister for culture Uffe Elbaek invited twelve of us in “Team Culture 2012”: to find singular examples of art influencing social and mental landscape of contemporary Europe so strong that we’ll able not only to show them to the decision makers in Brussels, but also to persuade them not to make foolish mistakes in future governance of culture and arts. In a way, I was twice prepared for such discussion. First, we have discussed it in a smaller scale in November 2011 around Slovene lake Bled – in a strategic think-tank organized in partnership with the Council of Europe’s initiative Culture Watch Europe under the title »Cultural governance: from challenges to changes.«  The casting includes Slovene philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar, but also film-directors, university professors, community activists and active ministers. No surprise that we quickly agreed that “the crisis has deep practical, ethical and philosophical challenges for European culture and for those who work in, support and value it.” But in our final statement we also insisted that »the economic crisis is not a tsunami or an earthquake: it is man-made. Its causes lie in decisions made collectively and individually, by governments, businesses and institutions: by people. One of its incidental results is that many of those same people are now turning away from art, culture and heritage as irrelevant to the crisis. From Amsterdam to Athens, governments slash cultural budgets in symbolic gestures of austerity of no economic importance. This rejection of culture is like starting a search for a path out of a dark forest by blowing out the candle.“


And second, I came to Copenhagen only a few days after one of the first policy moves of Slovenia’s new coalition government was to abolish independent ministry of culture and to include it into so-called »super-ministry« that now covers education, higher education, science, culture and sport. Slovene public reacted in different ways to this »get-thin-three-to-one« cure: from NGO’s activists burning the cello to protest through “hacking” the official state celebration of the Day of culture to open support of some neo-liberal economists to the measures against »spoiled cultural left«. Coming to Copenhagen to debate the crisis was for sure not to draft another Brussels-talk manifesto, but to promote guerrilla fighting in order to move things. Being for three years State Secretary for culture I’ve learned that on one side our daily work is structured into four-year mandates, but on the other side – do we really know which street will burst in anger tomorrow and what town will explode? Do we really dare to change anything? This simultaneous situation when everything is so meticulously planned and radically open at the same time, when sometimes, as Slavoj Žižek would say, “it’s easier to think the apocalypse than simple social change”, is the perfect time to reflect and to react, to provoke and to open new spaces: from the underground of cities on the shore of the Mediterranean all the way to Greece to the sources of inspiration high above in the Alpine or Baltic clouds. It’s always “mental” because such radical moves cannot be even thought without radical openings in thought, a certain »ground zero« of thinking. Or, like Hegel wrote: “It’s a modern folly to alter a corrupt ethical system, its constitution and legislation, without changing the religion, to have a revolution without reformation”.


So, instead of the usual ecumenical talk about “culture in conflict”, why not turn the context upside down – and talk about the role of conflict in culture? Culture is not something you take with you when you go on a trip: culture happens when you meet the other. Or the other in yourself … In former Yugoslavia, we experienced that the war is not something happening to the others somewhere far away. Out of this experience we wanted to tell the world that culture can not prevent conflicts, quite on the contrary: culture alone is never enough. Once you’ve heard a poet shooting from the hills above Sarajevo, once you’ve read about the film director shooting on the spot of human tragedy, you become suspicious. It is only by dealing with real powers, with the potentials to change the social conditions that we are in a position to really encourage and empower the people.

That’s why, in order to understand the change, we need to study the conflict. Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, the co-authors of Empire and Multitude, distinguish in their book Commonwealth (2009) between two traditions: the majority line takes the social contract as the basis of institutions, while the minority line sees the basis in the social conflict. If the majority line would, in order to keep the society homogenous, try to chase the conflict out (once you are “under contract” your right to conflict is consummated), the minority line understands the conflict as inherent and permanent basis of society. The development of social institutions is democratic only if it stays open for the conflict that constitutes it. We should first not reduce the conflict only to the usual movement vs. institution, but to recognize it as the internal to the multitude itself. And second, we should understand that the institutionalization is not necessary the way to kill every initiative but could consolidate the revolt without denying its original power of break and strength. Here, art process is one of the best lessons: because of its double nature of cutting the tissue of stereotypes and clichés and being able in the same act to articulate it with the content that maintains and even consolidate the inherent conflict. To break and to create new – it’s exactly because art is such a process of separation, isolation of the singular, and common re-creation of universal, that it is a laboratory of new social trends.

Those who create cultural politics should be therefore combating for different kind of cultural dialogue: against cuts in budget people should be taught how one cut in a movie scene can change the whole meaning; instead of firing people we should be lighting the fire of cultural education in schools; and when they want to see culture as romantic stars in the sky, we prefer to culturalize the space, as Dragan Živadinov would say. Sometimes you can do it with one simple word, sometimes you need a manifesto. During our two-days-get-to-know session in Copenhagen in February Team Culture 2012 under the guidance of minister Uffe was already drafting some of these directions, such as the importance of the cultural capital versus other forms of the capital, the essential role of the education (of both creators and the audience), the need for smarter redistribution of financial resources (even inside art & culture field), the celebration vs. destruction debate (let’s rather play instruments than burn them) and, last but not least, the necessity of direct political dimension of culture. If we were taught that politics is the art of possible, it’s time to teach politicians that art is the politics of the impossible. And to »talk the impossible« doesn’t mean (to borrow the conceptual couple from Tony Judt’s Thinking 20th Century) to talk the big truths (»the beliefs about the great causes and final ends which seems to require sacrifice«) but the small truths, “the facts as they can be discovered«.


Can we discover “small truths” such as the establishment of the EBCD (European Bank for Cultural Development) as an homage to Berthold Brecht’s saying that “bank robbery is nothing compared to the establishment of a bank”? Can we fight for the mandatory introduction of art history and media literacy classes in basic schooling system all over Europe? Can we add to golden fiscal rule also the »golden cultural rule« of the lowest allowed percentage of the BDP to be spent for art& culture inside government annual budget? And finally , can we, please, return the ministries of culture in all those EU countries where they were recently closed, including my own country on the sunny side of the Alps? Can we?


One of the most precise and efficient reaction to abolishing the ministry of culture in Slovenia was a simple street poster action “No fear, no führer” by a team of guerrilla warriors including some of the most prominent Slovene avant-garde artists from the movement Neue Slowenische Kunst, among them – again! – theatre director and performer Dragan Živadinov. I choose his personal attitude as »the best practice« example to show European decision-makers in Brussels in June how sharp mind with clear ideas and relevant back-up in history of art and science can open new spaces. His obsession with a pioneer of space travel Herman Potočnik Noordung didn’t only make him travel to space to defy the gravity but was  also materialized into Cultural Centre of European Space Technology that is being built with European funding in small town in Northern Slovenia, called Vitanje. A very particular obsession, combined with daring artistic discipline, can move things from the aesthetical attractions to ethical attitudes, so desperately needed in those days of crisis. It is with such artists that the cultural actors and political decision-makers can learn how to fight stereotypes, how to break clichés, how to find new ways of approaching completely new issues – and how never to surrender. It’s through fighting with the gravity that the real forces of emancipation are born.