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The Invisible Other

There There, “Trigger Warning”, 2017. Image credit: Maria Tanjala

Iniva Programme and Operations Coordinator Simina Neagu transcribed and edited a conversation between performance company There There (Dana Olărescu and Bojana Janković) and curator and academic Dr Lina Džuverović, as part of the ‘Duties of Self-Care’ Research Network programme. The event gravitated around strategies for representation and building solidarity through diasporic and immigrant art practices, particularly from an Eastern European perspective. This text has been published in Kajet JournalIssue 3, “On Struggle”.

There There’s work, informed by personal experience, addresses discrimination faced by immigrant communities, or what Ambalavaner Sivanandan refers to as xeno-racism,1 “a xenophobia that bears all the marks of the old racism”, especially in the wake of the EU referendum.2 However, as There There point out, Eastern Europeans are considered to be a “half-recognised demographic.” Classified as “other” or “white other” on equal opportunity forms in the UK, they don’t fit within the traditional segmentation of racial and ethnic diversity and sit uncomfortably in other tick boxes. This is amplified by a paradox that writers such as Catherine Baker examine in detail: the reliance of south-east European cultural critique on postcolonial thought to explain the region’s past and present marginalisation and its simultaneous difficulty in articulating the region’s relationship to whiteness (and implicit identification with modernity and empire).3 So with a theoretical framework that is still working through its inconsistencies, how can artists attempt to both explore and advocate for their identity?

Dr Lina Džuverović responded by highlighting the pitfalls of essentialism or the idea that particular groups share qualities of essence, and encouraged a more intersectional approach. She posed the following question: “How do we work with our complex intersections of identity without falling into the trap of essentialising?”

The discussion, organised in the framework of Stuart Hall Library’s Research Network programme, stemmed from the concept of self-care, introduced as a political act of “self-preservation” by Black feminist thinkers such as Audre Lorde.4 Care and self-care become essential elements in the relationship between art institutions and artists who fall outside of the majority demographic. So what are the strategies artists employ in countering anti-immigrant discourses while also creating spaces to care for themselves and their audiences?

What follows is a series of exchanges between There There and Lina Džuverović around these questions.

Dana Olărescu: We are a performance company, jobs and arts funding stealers, as well as Eastern European immigrants  – absolutely no doubt about the latter. Around 2013, we started reading horrific headlines about Eastern Europeans in the British media and asked ourselves how we could counteract the mainstream discourse as artists. Soon after, in 2014, Croatia became part of the EU and we recorded an album of advice to Croatians, called Text HOME to 78070. This was also a reaction to a Home Office campaign taking place at the same time, “Go Home or face arrest”, encouraging people to deport illegal immigrants.

Bojana Janković: Actually, the Home Office was encouraging people to self-deport. Text HOME and we’ll send you home!

Dana: And this is how we decided to disseminate the album. Wearing politicians’ masks, we went to public spaces and arts institutions and tried to make people listen to these tracks in a one-on-one interaction. This sort of audience approach led us to a model of audience participation; we abandoned the theatre side of our practice and focused on live interactions as they naturally fit best with our type of socially-engaged work, thus creating a dialogue between ourselves and our audiences.

Our latest project, an installation called “Trigger Warning”, is a series of five fete games that we subverted. We collected all the negative stereotypes we read about ourselves in the media and turned them around. One of them is based on the classic “Hook-a-duck” game, but it’s actually called “Hook-a-job”. You come in, try to grab a rubber duck and see the job you managed to steal.  Another one is a  “wheel of fortune” game, called the “wheel of benefits”, based on general Job Centre allowances. A popular favourite is a NHS “Wish you were here” banner, pointing towards medical tourism. But what we really intended was to share the space with other Eastern Europeans. In thinking how to bridge the gap between audiences and artworks, we decided to invite other Eastern Europeans to invigilate the “Trigger Warning” games so we can create a platform where varied opinions are heard. Their presence allows audiences to interact, question and relate to the piece in a more intimate way, and sparks conversations on immigration matters, which in turn, makes space for these vital informal connections in arts institutions.

Not long ago, a reputable art institution offered us a ten-minute slot to respond to an artwork, and what we did was devise a 10-minute crash course on submitting permanent residency applications. I was doing the EU part, Bojana the non-EU one. This caught regular visitors unaware, who took notes and recorded some of the advice particular to their case. At the end, the curator came to us, all red and flustered, saying: “We really did not expect this. We wanted an artist response, but not that kind of response”. And this is really where our work sits now; it started off from a specific Eastern European experience, and developed to address community inclusion.

Recently we travelled to Romania, where we worked with former immigrants who had returned, to create a new “Trigger Warning” game based on Snakes & Ladders. We were very interested in what it means to navigate identity in your home country even when your own country becomes alien. We acquired an interest in co-authoring, and take pleasure in not always having full control of what happens next.

Bojana: Now I’d like to tell you a bit about how we came to think about our practice as audience focused. When we realised – actually accepted that we make work about immigrant experience – we started to think about whom we are presenting our work to. Our audience at the time was almost exclusively a White British audience, in part because in theatre or devised theatre, this is regularly the core audience. This was becoming very frustrating and made us re-orient our practice. At the same time, making work about Eastern Europeaness made us think about how we can engage with Eastern European audiences more. We realised we have to form relationships with immigrant and diasporic organisations and communities, because many first-generation immigrants don’t generally participate in ‘cultural’ activities and don’t engage with and mistrust mainstream media. At the core of this thinking is the participation model Dana introduced earlier, but we also want institutions to think about Eastern Europeans as a demographic. For example, the person Dana mentioned earlier invited us to talk about Eastern European art from the Cold War, but when we spoke about the experiences of Eastern Europeans today that became somewhat alien, unacceptable. So we want to bring in Eastern European audiences, we want to create spaces for other Eastern European voices and detach from this idea that we, as artists, are the authority on Eastern European experiences.

What we realised is that when we talk to curators and programmers from various contexts, we have to start by explaining what Eastern Europeans are and clarifying that this is a demographic that faces serious discrimination and marginalisation. Responses to this idea range from saying that “Eastern European” is a slur and we shouldn’t call ourselves that or, post-referendum, “Sorry, we have already programmed work by this German artist about what it means to be an EU immigrant”. But most of the time, there’s a reaction of puzzlement at the fact that people from different countries started to develop an identity within this label. So you have to start by demonstrating that first of all, you are a demographic, and secondly, that you are discriminated against. The situation got better after the referendum, unfortunately, because of the horrible rise in hate crimes against Eastern Europeans.

Another thing that’s important to mention is that, when you are working with marginalisation in any shape or form, the work takes more time, it’s ethically more difficult and costs more money. We always pay our co-authors or invigilators at least the living wage because we reject this idea that people are happy to just participate in art. Yes, we credit our participants as co-authors, but sharing cultural capital – as opposed to monetary capital – is sometimes more important to artists and institutions who benefit from it, than participants.

Another problem we face is that work about a half-recognised demographic, such as the Eastern European one, poses serious problems of positioning. Because we’re not White British, we don’t fit in the mainstream programme of arts institutions but we also don’t fit in standard models of diversity, because Arts Council England doesn’t provide a box for this demographic yet. This sometimes results in particular political irresponsibility, when people suggest applying for funding streams dedicated to artists of colour or programme us alongside work about the refugee experience without contextualisation. We don’t want our work to further marginalise others. This kind of approach results in pitting artists who don’t fit in the mainstream demographic against each other. It’s a competition that can create enemies of artists who are actually allies.

One final point is that this marginalisation of Eastern Europeans is not conceptual, it is experienced every day by us and by our collaborators. But in our conversations with institutions, we are made to constantly repeat, re-state and re-define our marginalisation. This is nothing new and various groups that are not part of the majority demographic experience it, but in the context of tonight’s discussion, it’s not an act of care or self-care and it also influences our ability to care for our participants. So the question is, how can we both advocate for recognising experiences of marginalisation, while also caring for ourselves as artists, for our audiences and participants?

Lina Džuverović: I want to start by identifying the problem we’re dealing with from an institutional perspective and perhaps from a policy, top-down point of view. I want to start from the question of diversity. The predominant view of diversity, both in terms of funding and in the modus operandi of institutions, rests on essentialising strategies. In their work with audiences, our institutions tend to apply something akin to with what Gayatri Spivak has called ‘strategic essentialism’ – tactically grouping specific segments of the population in order to ensure access and opportunity for them. The impetus being one of ensuring wider access to cultural spaces, by grouping many different others into various broadly defined segments. The flip side of this strategy is simplification – the fact that we are grouping communities on the premise there is a shared essence, something in common with the others who fit the same category, where there may not be one. The underlying assumption of such diversity policy is that culture should be accessed by more people and specific communities, and the aim is to encourage access and opportunities. This can be positive, of course, as it aims to broaden access and engagement but this approach can also be slightly problematic and patronising as well. For me, any form of grouping by geography, gender or age entails a process of simplification. In the case of Eastern Europe or what I would call the “Former East”, the association with a certain region or nation-state is for me very problematic. To turn to a very personal point of view, as a Yugoslav-Sudanese person, I have spent my whole life trying to articulate my identity against heavy, overwhelming assumptions.

What I want to ask you is, what are advantages and what are the disadvantages of reclaiming that space (by calling yourselves Eastern Europeans)? I have doubts about how productive the claiming of this identity can be. By doing this, are we enabling the discourse to migrate to the realm of the simplistic, the binary? I work a lot with questions of gender and this of course, is an intersectional question – none of us are just women, just eastern Europeans, just representatives of our age or race, not just able-bodied or disabled, but all of the above and all of it shifts all the time anyway. Is there a danger that the attempt to reclaim and ‘own’ such labels (eastern Europeans) is simultaneously enabling and legitimising exclusionary, xenophobic discourses that are most often found in the right-wing press? Is it more productive to break such assumptions down, to ridicule them or does their reclamation create a platform?

Secondly, is Eastern Europe even ‘a thing’? Isn’t that a historical category located in the pre-1989 era and is it relevant to talk about it or is it more relevant to talk about the “Former East” and “Former West”? What and where is Eastern Europe today and what are the commonalities across the region? To me, the way power and capital move today have very little to do with geography. For me, a symbol of today’s Europe might be the massive injection of capital into the region as can be seen, for example, in the development project called “Belgrade Waterfront” in Serbia, displacing communities that have been living there for decades. I know it’s problematic to connect everything to capital, but I think that power, capital and culture move in such ways that I find it difficult to think about associating cultural production with specific geographies. What I think we’re working with here is the difference between policy attempts to grapple with identity politics and the situations you face in reality, and I think you’re tapping into that in very interesting ways.

Is this “Eastern European” label something that you’re coming across and needing to negotiate or do you feel it’s an essence that you yourselves wish to communicate? Is it a label that you feel is imposed on you by others?

In terms of art production, artists connecting their work to their country of origin is interesting, it is interesting to observe ways in which the hegemonic gaze marks and shapes the work before it’s even produced. What I mean by that is the way artists tend to adapt the tone, the visual language of the work to fit with what the international art world wants to see come out from the region. There are certain tropes that we see repeated: such as the recent obsession with monuments, the varied images that symbolise the supposed ‘failure’ of socialism, the statue of Stalin or Lenin being removed, the reinforcing of communism as failed, the interchangeable use of the terms socialism and communism, which of course are not interchangeable. This is how the hegemonic gaze perceives the region, and these are all ways to perpetuate this view.  By the ‘hegemonic gaze’ I don’t at all mean the West but the shifting, migrating power of art and commerce. Is it more productive to be working with that or challenging that? Of course, I’m not expecting a simple answer.

The strategies that you work with reminded me of a wonderful piece by Adrian Piper, “The Mythic Being” (1973), where she invents a character, an African-American man, who embodies all the stereotypes associated with black masculinity. She creates this other identity to experience what it is like to live and experience the stereotypes imposed on a specific body. Of course she is herself subject to stereotyping, but when she performs the Mythic Being she/he experiences a whole different set of prejudices.  I was also reminded of an interview with Yinka Shonibare MBE, where he talks about the beginning of his artistic career. Back then, he was very interested in Perestroika because that’s what was happening at the time. His tutor at Byam Shaw School of Art told him: “Why are you making work about Perestroika? You are African, aren’t you? Why don’t you make authentic African art?”.5 And I wonder, in my own work as a curator, what did I want to do before all these layers of identity came were projected onto me, before developing a consciousness of being a first-generation immigrant, a woman of colour, from the former East, with an accent? Obviously, Stuart Hall’s idea of hybridity seems to be a productive way of negotiating these questions.6 This is an obvious point to make, but an intersectional approach to your gender, class, race and specific conditions of living, all inform the moment you’re living in and it is important to return to that as one negotiates everyday situations.

Dana: In regards to your first question, why do you define yourself as Eastern European and when do you find out you’re that? From a philosophical point view, I never saw myself as Romanian, I somehow saw myself as a citizen of the world. Now, what happens when you come to the UK as a migrant is you get asked where you’re from perhaps three to four times a day. Your passport can only go that far, physically and politically. All of these xenophobic discourses start seeping into your brain and suddenly you have to start defending this “Eastern Europeaness”, which, as you say, is a ridiculous concept. But in my day-to-day life I had to learn how to negotiate and respond to that, which is why we try to reclaim this label in our work. Okay, you’re calling us Eastern Europeans, then let us tell you what we think Eastern Europeans are. Most importantly, we are aware this is a mechanism that’s been used for decades, and we are just the current scapegoats.

To give you an example, we did an event at the Romanian Cultural Centre where we tried to duplicate lots of work permits. We tried different printing shops, and they all rejected us due to the legal repercussions, until we found a Nigerian-owned shop. We explained the concept to the owner and he understood it immediately. He told us: “It used to be us, but now it’s you. Of course we will do it.”

Bojana: The idea of Eastern Europe, which I would argue, is not at all a geographical notion, but rather a conceptual and political idea, is actually much older than the Cold War. Europe re-orientated itself from the North-South binary to this idea of the West and East, during the Enlightenment. Voltaire and Rousseau, among others, started identifying themselves as the West and because of that, they needed something to identify against, and that becomes Eastern Europe. There are eighteenth-century travel journals of people passing through the territories that will later become Poland, Romania, Serbia and further into Russia, basically using the same language the Daily Mail uses today, talking about poverty, lack of hygiene, criminality and this idea that it’s not really Europe. The Cold War was a re-staging of that political tension. We have so many names to define ourselves today: “post-Soviet”, “post-Communist”, “Former East”, “Central-Eastern Europe” etc. – these are all political concepts. I also know that you could wander through Belgrade and would probably struggle to find somebody who identifies as Eastern European. This Eastern European identity is something that exists only in the West. It’s a hybrid, diasporic identity that gets plastered onto you. But what we actually all share is the experience of 90’s turbo-capitalism and real existing socialism, not to mention that a lot of us have these transnational lives that are deeply connected to huge movements of people.

Audience member 1: You’re producing East European art outside of the geographical region so for me that’s a marker that it goes beyond geographical categories. The idea of diversity is becoming more complex and I expect the Arts Council of England to soon provide a box for Eastern European. How do you position yourselves in the context of East European art?

Bojana: That’s an interesting question, and not just in the context of art. While we were in residence in Bucharest, for example, we attended a lecture by academic and theorist Ovidiu Țichindeleanu that was re-conceptualising this idea of Eastern Europe as part of larger region that historically extended across Central Asia, while looking at histories of the Ottoman Empire.7 And I saw that a lot in Romania, a country that is somehow trying to re-establish its identity away from the Eastern Bloc and Eastern Europe. I was a bit jealous, but Dana told me to get over myself because what I was seeing was the work of a very small intellectual circle.

Dana: Actually another thing that happened while we were there, a statistic came out, highlighting the fact that between 2000 and 2015, Romania had the second highest emigration growth rate globally after Syria,8 which made my head explode.

Lina: I think this idea of hybridity and accepting multiple belongings is crucial. But I think this brings us to the question self-care. How do we find connections, a voice, ways of operating that are productive with all these labels attached to us? What are the positive ways that will lead to a different understanding of the complexities of identity? I constantly return to the idea of self-organisation and solidarity, creating spaces for specificities of complex, layered experience, and also the concept developed by Piotr Piotrowski of “horizontal art history”9 in relation to which he exclaimed: “Peripheries of the world, unite!”.10

Bojana: It’s something we think about when we’re trying to position our work and tick a box. I don’t particularly want a box, but I don’t want to be told by yet another arts organisation that I’m not discriminated against, and for that reason my work is not valid. Another thing is that I agree with Lina, it’s very difficult to talk about the East of any kind without self-orientalising yourself, and attempting to avoid that is part of my strategy of reclaiming this label.

Dana: This sort of takes us to the original goal of our work: creating connections. This has implicitly happened in our projects. The other side is having these conversations with art spaces. We walk into places such as Tate Modern or the National Maritime Museum, institutions with huge colonial histories and try to think how to re-contextualise and decolonise ideas of what a migrant, Eastern European or otherwise, should be. To be honest, I’m much more influenced by John Akomfrah than any other Eastern European artist.

Bojana: A funny thing happened when we made our “Trigger Warning” installation. We had organised a “Hook-a-duck” game and two Serbs went past and recognised it as a symbol of the activist movement against the “Belgrade Waterfront” development and to be honest, I never thought of that. It’s always interesting to find out what people see when your art travels. For me, our practice will always be immigrant art, rather than Eastern European.

Audience member 2: One of the questions that came to my mind while listening to you was this idea of passing. I’m thinking a lot about how we’re benefitting from these structures and have these privileges in navigating day-to-day life, but then also how other markers, such accents or passports for instance, would put you in a different position. Another thing that I was thinking about is how these spaces of self-care can be co-opted very quickly. How do you deal with that?

Bojana: Eastern Europeans are majority white, which of course entails privilege, but they’re also marginalised in the UK. This duality is partly what we point towards, in our relationships with institutions, because we want to expose our marginalisation but we don’t want to co-opt other spaces of care.

Dana: I think your observation is spot-on and pointing out the danger of co-option. It took us four years to accept that we are making work about Eastern Europeans or even consider ourselves that. It started from conversations with people and their real need to discuss these things and we acknowledge that we sometimes don’t have control over how these projects develop.

Lina: The larger question remains: how to best operate without falling into these pitfalls of simplifications? We return to this point that the structures of power shape the work, by imposing what one should present as, what identity is desirable, useful.

Bojana: I would agree but at the same time, I think Eastern European audiences sometimes like to see work about themselves. And that is partly to do with the fact that in the UK, they are constantly discussed in absentia. You read about yourself in the papers, the EU referendum happens and it’s largely about your existence, but representation remains minimal. From our experience, people from immigrant communities, want to see work about them that hasn’t been produced to demonise them.

Notes:

1. Ambalavaner Sivanandan, "Poverty is the New Black", in Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, London: Pluto Press, 2008.

2. Luke de Noronha, Race, Class and Brexit: Thinking from Detention, London: Verso Books Blog, 9 March 2018.

3. Catherine Baker, Race and the Yugoslav region. Postsocialist, post-conflict, postcolonial?, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018.

4. Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: and Other Essays, New York: Firebrand Books, 1988.

5. Deborah Sontag, "Headless Bodies From a Bottomless Imagination", The New York Times, June 17, 2009.

6. Stuart Hall, "Cultural Identity and Diaspora", in J. Rutherford (ed.) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990.

7. Ovidiu Țichindeleanu, "The Non-Occidentalist Turn of Eastern Europe: Resources and Hopes", lecture at ODD/Tranzit.ro, Bucharest, 3 November 2018.

8. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, International Migration Report 2015, New York: 2016.

9. Piotr Piotrowski, "Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde", in Sascha Bru, Peter Nicholls (eds.), European Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009.

10. Piotr Piotrowski, "Peripheries of the World, Unite!", in Urška Jurman (ed.), Extending the Dialogue. Essays by Igor Zabel Award Laureates, Grant Recipients, and Jury Members, 2008–2014, Ljubljana: Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory, 2016.


BIOGRAPHIES

There There is a 50% Romanian, 50% Serbian performance company, founded in London by Dana Olărescu and Bojana Janković. Their work explores immigrant and national identities, exclusion and heritage, and uses participation to encourage inclusive, alternative debates on migration. The questions of authorship and ethics shape the way they approach the process of making performances and installations. They strive to gather audiences whose diversity reflects the world outside the venue; audience development, focused on immigrant communities is an essential part of the creative practice. Over the last nine years, There There have received regular support from Arts Council England, forged relationships with migration-focused organisations (Counterpoints Arts) and universities (University of Warwick, Open University), and presented their work in theatre, performance, Live Art, and visual arts settings across the UK and internationally, including at the Tate Modern, National Maritime Museum, Center for Art on Migration Politics (DK) and ODD (RO).

Dr Lina Džuverović is an independent curator and Lecturer in Arts Policy and Management at Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. Previously Lina taught at the Reading School of Art, University of Reading, and TU Graz, Austria. Between 2011 and 2013 Lina was Artistic Director at Calvert 22 Foundation in London. Prior to this she spent seven years as Director of Electra, a London-based contemporary art organisation that she co-founded in 2003. Selected curated and co-curated projects include ‘Monuments Should Not Be Trusted’ (Nottingham Contemporary, 2016), Sanja Ivekovic – Unknown Heroine (South London Gallery and Calvert 22 Foundation, 2012/13), Archive As Strategy: Conversations about Self-historicisation across the East research project (Calvert 22, 2011- 2014); IRWIN – Time For A New State and NSK Folk Art (Calvert 22, 2012), 27 Senses (Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2010; Kunstmuseet KUBE, Alesund, Norway, 2009), Favoured Nations, Momentum, 5th Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art (co-curated with Stina Hogkvist), (Moss Norway, 2009), film/performance Perfect Partner by Kim Gordon, Tony Oursler and Phil Morrison (Barbican Centre, London and across Europe, 2005), group exhibition Her Noise, with Anne Hilde Neset, (South London Gallery, 2005), amongst many others.