Iulia Popovici - The New Eastern Block

A month ago, when Marta Keil asked me to talk about does the notion of ‘East’ and ‘West’ actually mean nowadays, the crisis in Ukraine hadn’t reach its most dramatic moments and no border had been redrawn. Yet. By the time I finish this text, I don’t know whether I will have to update it for the day I’ll read it – when a country might not exist at all anymore or an unknown kind of war might have broken out.

Actually, if for the past 20-so years we’ve talked about Eastern Europe as a historical burden – otherwise known as ‘post-communism’ - that needed to be overcome for us to join the bigger family of our cultural and social references, somehow, the recent developments in Kiev, Simferopol and Moscow made the concept out-of-date – thus delivering us from the need of justifying our past. Going through the American, British, or French press writing about the violence in the East and the press releases speaking about the need to ‘save Eastern Europe’ and rely more on ‘our Eastern allies’, it appears that some of us were finally saved from this ideological and geographical hotchpotch – Eastern Europe has moved further east.

We all know that „Eastern Europe“ has never been a purely geographical notion and it was coined, putting together the heirs of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires that most of the time were making everything possible to distance one another, in order to cover the wild, hic sunt leones territory east of the Iron Curtain. The Iron Curtain, that interesting theatrical term naming a device intended at protecting the community of the theatre (actors, technicians and audience alike) from the menace of a fire. Who was the fire and who needed protection from it when using the notion politically it’s still debatable. One can never escape vocabulary, in fact: the term used for the Identity. Move! project – the Eastern belt (of Europe) – has a similar ambiguous understanding, with the belt being in the same time a protection device and a purely practical one that supports and embellishes.

Just to quote an article (or several ones) on the topic, some countries in Eastern Europe, like Russia or Belorussia or Ukraine, are so far east that nobody can contest where they belong. For all the others, it has always been, again, a question of vocabulary – a very complex one, since everybody wants to get rid of somebody else in order to singly save itself from the eastern nightmare. So we have Central Europe, Middle Eastern Europe, Southeast Europe (that would be the worst, it never serves as self-identification, the concerned countries call themselves the Balkans), Northeast Europe, North-Middle-South Europe, and maybe we could even have Middle Central South to North Europe. Just like Southern Europe was suddenly reinvented at the pick of the economic crisis – the simplest mechanism of exclusion by narrowing a definition. ‘Eastern’ equals the historical remains of the Ottoman Empire, corruption, payoffs for everything, no social or sexual revolutions, an impossible ethnic mixture where everybody’s white and, for the ears of the innocents, speak the same language – the one accused of colonizing them -, an over powerful state that needs to adapt to the enlightening force of the market, too many subsidies and a cheap labor force that needs to increase its productivity in order to be taken seriously. But above all this, the East is the lost sheep forcibly removed from the flock some time ago, now having to re-learn the set of values lately put under the umbrella term of aquis communautaire. That’s why the idea of ‘post-communist countries’ replacing that of ‘East European states’ came so handy: it canceled a formally geographical opposition and replaced it with a transitional one, that allowed the reading of the Eastern realities not as something inherently different but as an immature version of one, universal possibility of existing, something that Boris Buden called ‘an infant condition’.

In fact, first the establishing of the Eastern Partnership (in which the ‘partners’ were the EU countries as a whole and the Easterners were states that in other times and contexts would have been called ‘post-Soviet’) and now the confrontation around the faith of Ukraine have redrawn the ideological map once again. The former EU East is now cast in the role of the young adult, able to teach to the new generation of toddlers the bipedal walking. And somehow, this is a dangerous moment and a decisive one: it’s the moment to decide, at a social and political level, if the ‘former East’ gives up any aspirations it might have ever had of performing the difference – or not.

Legitimizing ourselves, here, East of Berlin and West of Moscow, means not searching for our artistic, social, ideological roots but inventing them, researching the recent past as if it were a form of Middle Age that needed to be mapped and reconstructed through lost and subjective archives, reconsidering the concept of archiving itself as being – in certain social contexts – not an objective form of preservation but a constant act of performing a failing memory.

Let’s take a superficial look at the most interesting project I know dealing with how Eastern European artists self-identify their masters and sources of inspiration: komuna warszawa’s re//mix. Among the very different references and influences a respectable series of instrumental Polish dance and theatre artists went back to, in a four-year long production endeavor, only a handful of non-Western figures or collectives made it to the canon of the younger generations – and some of them (like Grotowski or Kantor) had made the subject of Western canonization in the name of the exotic mirage.

Just like in similar endeavors in the region (like those in the program What to Affirm? What to Perform?, for instance, that generated, among other things, what would become the Romanian Dance History series), the interest of the artists went mostly towards the peripheral, the less known, the less visible that in certain cases was also the subversive, not towards the mainstream – like the ‘reading’ of Lidia Zamkow as an icon of non-conformism and avant-garde feminism. 

If one doesn’t have a universally accepted history, one has the unique chance of choosing and rewriting, a chance to a brand new history (which is not to be mistaken for the past…) and gallery of heroes.

When performing artist Manuel Pelmuș and his colleagues started what would become the Romanian Dance History (RDH) project, there was never a question about the non-existence of such a history. But somewhere, deep into this contesting of the idea of history written by the all-mighty winners – the Western canon, there was the thought of redefining the very concept of history – so it could be written by its own protagonists, in total denial of a one and only universal version of the world. 

And they chose Stere Popescu as the subject of their rewriting of history. A mythical figure that everybody considered a great, unrecognized choreographer who was bringing together all the important themes of communism as trauma: author of a performance way ahead of its time that neither the East or the West was ready to acknowledge as such, persecuted as a gay and as an artist, forced to join the democratic emigration, driven to suicide in a foreign country. It was neither the lack of documentary material nor the impossibility of finding actual witnesses of Stere Popescu’s artistic work that finally led the authors of Romanian Dance History to challenge the legend – but their own inner process of moving forward from an imagined past towards the present condition of their own bodies and their producing of art.

The catching-up revolution Jürgen Habermas was talking about when defining 1989 meant a general social engagement in reproducing sameness (in both its understandings). And a similar process happens in the arts. Could it be a valid question to ask whether it is not this sameness, the experiences possibly similar to the Western ones, that we are searching for when going back in time to look for a new history and new heroes? In the end, the tendency is to prove the failing of our predecessors in acknowledging value, not to question what they did consider representative for social and artistic values that marked generations of artists and spectators. And it becomes more and more difficult to look for the moment when this reproducing of sameness does turn into reproducing difference, and when looking for another, a better past becomes looking for the actual present.

It’s a question of subjectivity – how could I, we or anybody else tell artists that, in spite the fact that they read almost exclusively Western literature, watch Western movies, go to international festivals West of the German border, know nothing about what happens artistically in Budapest, Prague or Warsaw and everything about the older and the newer figures of the theatre and dance scene in Paris, London, New York, they are and they remain Easterners because their own bodies are carrying the ‘real’ past (of always paying attention, of the cold inside the houses…), whether they lived it or not, and the present (of preferring to dress in dark colors, of needing to publicly perform the compulsory hetero-normativity…)? And that they are forcing their bodies and minds to mold in forms that are denying the conditions of production that they are working in?  

Contemporary dance in Romania – as it has developed in the last decade – seems atypical in certain aspects even for Eastern Europe: we are the only ones having a National Dance Center, a public institution designed after the French model, assuming the role of producing and presenting new work (the Institute of Music and Dance in Warsaw deals mainly with promotion, research and archiving); in terms of legislation, the idea of performing companies doesn’t exist (as it does in Hungary), therefore collaborations between artists tend to be somehow accidental and mobile, and there are very few organizations (associations or foundations) producing exclusively or mainly contemporary dance, the administration of the scarce resources and the lack of a training framework lead to the scarcity of actual producers, managers, etc. (and I think that nowhere in Europe 90% of the artists are their own tour managers). Complex reasons - including personal incompatibilities and illusory power struggles – make it that there is no admited continuity between the (modern/ avant-garde/ experimental) dance of the ‘70s and ‘80s and the one after 1990 (which is self-identifyed  and generally perceived as the Romanian contemporary dance). Which makes this art to claim its roots in personal and professional experiences influenced by the French and Austro-German choreography grafted on a production environment totally different from its assumed references. The Romanian scene ‘produces’ mainly not dancers (hence the detail that here, artists tend to travel and work extensively abroad – mobility being more the condition of the author rather than the performer – but rarely emigrate even for short terms – an aspect that is about to change, however, if the local conditions of production don’t change) but choreographers and "performers" – a neutral term meant to cover the reality that many important dance artists don’t have formal training (the expected university degree) in the field.

But contemporary dance in my country is the direct product of the environement that generates it. It is said to be conceptual – but it is like this because of its inner generational fractures. It is said to be very close to performance art – but it is like this because the lack of resources put it in close contact with the much more dynamic field of visual arts. It is said to highly exploit theatricality – but it does that because that’s where the resources are (the monopol on venues, available performers, an interest of theatre directors in choreograpgy). 

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a group of Romanian critics around a text I’d written, on the topic of independent theatre, for a regional dictionary the East European Performing Arts Platform is preparing. In the end, we talked less about the actual content of my approach than about the use of the term ‘independent’. It should be ‘alternative’ or ‘fringe’ or ‘off’, if it is to be published in English, I was told, in the Anglo-Saxon world there’s no such thing like ‘independent theatre’. Well, maybe in the Anglo-Saxon language those terms don’t cover public, subsidized institutions offering to young artists the unique opportunity of performing in their venues without being paid and the funding authorities cannot menace another public institution with dissolution because its activities resemble too much those of an independent organization. And by saying this I am not complaining or passing a judgment – I am just describing the constant struggle between coexisting systems generated by radically different political and economic contexts that tend to act totally opposite to their theoretical perception (state institutions that act like corporations and a ‘private’ sector asked to fulfill a social mission). This is the present of making performing arts – inherited from the mainstream past and mixed with the aspiration of suddenly waking up in a different society.  

There are different words for different realities – and if I consciously avoided, until now, the word identity, it’s because I hope it was not definitively decided and will keep on moving.