09-03-2008An interview with Igor Stromajer door Annet Dekker
Last fall I was invited to Split, Croatia, to take part in a panel discussion consisting of Dutch and Croatian cultural representatives to talk about our views and experiences regarding the topic of European identity. Why the connection between Croatia and the Netherlands one could wonder. Well, the relation between Croatia and the Netherlands, as moderator Renato Baretic pointed out, is quite interesting. First of all there is a similarity in the national flags, both wear the same colours and - apart from the Croatian shield - while blowing in the wind you won't notice the difference. Furthermore there are several Croatians staying in Scheveningen waiting for their trial dates to stand before the international Yugoslavia-Tribunal. And thirdly, in the 1990's quite a few Croatians decided to move abroad, many of them choose to go to the Netherlands. But what does this say about the two countries and moreover about identity? Although answers to these questions are hard to distill in a single and short discussion some interesting points were raised. Most vivid in my mind was the remark that Croatians are to this day moving to other European countries after their studies, especially those with higher education and professional qualifications. One could say that the Croatian elite is becoming European (as Michaël Zeeman remarked in his article in De Volkskrant after the discussion), leaving their Croatian marketing slogan “Croatia, the Mediterranean as it once was” behind them. There certainly is a tendency with other countries as well to look at their history when forming their current or future identity. But does this give us something new, something to look forward to or will it repeat existing stereotypes and lead us further astray from the forming of a European Union? For our monthly program Visual Foreign Correspondents in which we invite artists to create site specific work for urban screens we asked Slovenian artist Igor Stromajer to give his comment on European identity. This resulted in the work “Netherlands is respectful. Russia is corrupt” (the work can be seen and more information can be found on the website www.visualcorrespondents.com). Following is an interview I had with Igor about his work, about presentation, communication and art and of course about his view on Europe.
Igor Stromajer describes himself on his website as an ‘intimate mobile communicator’. He continues: “- researches tactical emotional states and traumatic low-tech strategies. He has shown his work at more than a hundred exhibitions in forty-two countries and received a number of awards. As artist in residence he lectures at universities and contemporary art institutes. His works are included in the permanent collections of various international museums [slightly abbreviated]”. However impressive the list is that follows more interesting is his statement: “I believe in intimacy, individualism, emotions, frustrations, traumas, artificial, communication, impossibility, mobility, montage, radicality, sensibility, silence, strategy, tactics, tears, orgasm, concept, pleasure, fantasies, philosophy, transfer, utopia and angels. I do not believe in media, tourism and the end. [Art is a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it]” www.intima.org
[a.d.] An important part of your work is the relation between public and intimacy, you describe the way we deal with the computer as just as intimate as if it were our own body. Now you have made a work for VFC that gets projected on public screens, how do you view the functioning of public screens in this respect?
[i.s.] I see it in a very same way. As computers and all their derivatives (mobile phones, mp3 players, digital photo cameras, personal satellite navigators, medical equipment, surveillance systems etc) are an extension of our bodies and therefore parts of it, so are the more external devices, like public screens. The public screens are mostly showing commercial advertising, a modern version of the 20st century brain-washing totalitarian ideas, and in that respect they are as connected to our bodies as the computers. The public screens are showing what we are thinking about, deep inside our brains and what lies in our subconscious. They are also displaying what our society thinks as a large body. They are publicly showing our intimate thoughts and desires. Because we don't have anything to hide anymore, our traumas, complexes, desires and wishes have been made public for a very long time already.
What I am actually saying is that the we have to look for intimacy on the periphery of our own body, not inside it.
[a.d.] Would you say that there is a shift taking place from the private to the public. Will there be a new meaning of public (and therewith private), maybe more related to your notion of privat and intimacy?
[i.s.] Somehow we already have a new meaning of the public space and the public sphere. The intimacy and privacy are becoming more and more publicly displayed, exhibited, shown. With the intense use if the internet all our private and intimate acts and thoughts are also being noted down, registered and even archived on servers and in various databases. And since our private life is becoming so very public, it effects also the structure and the systematization of the public sphere itself. That is why the public (and political!) is becoming so personal, individualized and consequently confused, more and more under pressure of so many different truths and also displaced and disorganized. One of the most visible and significant result of that proces is for instance the clash of civilizations related to the radicalization of religions and modern terrorism.
[a.d.] When I read some of your interviews you are very pessimistic about our society; the way we can, or better cannot influence things, our lives that have been totally ‘capitalised’ and our world that has changed from a 'philosophical concept' into an ‘economical concept’. Do you believe that there is still a place for art and do you think that art can help to overcome this situation?
[i.s.] No, I do not believe that art has anything to do in the economical concept we are living in. There is no place for art at the beginning of the 21st century and I am sure the so called »western society« could easily live without it nowadays. It actually already does. Art is a closed, hermetic, self-sufficient system which masturbates on its own ideas and has no influence on the real world and real problems people have today. Art and non-art live separate lives and they are extremely distant one from another. The capital could easily survive without the art. Just think for a moment about any art project in the last fifty years which has changed something in the development of the world, which has influenced our way of thinking and understanding the society and our relationships, which has moved the human being forward (or backward), and which has not only echoed inside the safe cocoon of the art world – is there any? What we need today is not art, but a social revolution to fight the capital – again! Despite the catastrophy of the 20st century utopian revolutions, we have to try again, as Alain Badiou suggests, in order to make the world a better place. Otherwise the capital will eat itself and we're going to sink together with it.
[a.d.] Do you see any signs of this already? Are there maybe artists or groups that you can think of?
[i.s.] Sure. The radical YOMANGO collective from Barcelona and the »GWEI - Google Will Eat Itself« project by Alessandro Ludovico and Hans Bernald, to name just the two of them as referential examples. There are many artists and projects dealing with activism, biotechnology, hacktivism, social interventions, surveillance and other tactical topics.
[a.d.] With the web2.0 hype in mind, an area where anyone can and is posting to anybody about everything, do you think internet is still an instrument of rebellion, where change can happen or should we look for other communicational tools and behaviours?
[i.s.] Internet was never really a functional instrument of rebellion, it was the dystopia from the very beginning. Nowadays it is even worse, because the internet is – as everything else – becoming so much commercialized. I would not put so much hope (and pressure) in the internet, because it is just one of the essential and much needed tools for our modern life. The so-called Web 2.0 is fictitious too. All they want is our money. It is just another game of the capital to make us believe we communicate more directly and more personal. This is a trick, a public-relations propaganda made by the capital, because the 2.0 communication is extremely superficial and emptied. Believe me, I am coming from the ex-communist country and I know what propaganda is and how to create it. More we are communicating, less we are saying.
[a.d.] Will change be possible at all?
[i.s.] It will be. But only after the serious and profound rethinking of the contemporary capitalism and our superficial consumer society. Let's re-read The Capital by Karl Marx. Quite some answers are there already.
[a.d.] Many artists try to make a statement by using humor as a strategy. Can you relate to that?
[i.s.] Partially. Perhaps I can relate more to irony, provocation and perverseness. I'm not so good in humor, but my irony often comes from using the twisted reality or tactical changes of contexts. I do serious projects in twisted contexts, and that creates irony.
[a.d.] Most of your work is oriented at a global audience, again by presenting work on a public screen you approach a more or less specific group of people and moreover you have to compete with many more outputs. How do you deal with that?
[i.s.] Quite hard. But I have made a work which wins the competition with other outputs, because its visual and textual structure is so very different comparing to what the other urban outputs are offering in an urban cityspace. It even looks from the outside, at a glance, that – by having such a different appearance and message – my work doesn't want to compete with them at all. And this is the point where it beats them all.
I do act globally, because the kind of art I'm doing uses the internet as its artistic platform, but I always understand the audience as a local one, not global. As an example: the spectators in Singapore understand my guerrilla internet performance in La Scala opera house in Milan completely different, in a different context as Italian or Finnish spectators. That teaches us to always think of the audience in a local way. Only the capital is global, all the rest is still very local.
[a.d.] What do you think about the remark that Gorbatshow made when he said »I for one am sick of the attempts by some politicians to teach others how to live and what policy to conduct. They proceed from the arrrogant assumption that the life and policy of their own country is an example and a model of freedom, democracy, economic activity and social standard.« What are the stakes in following this through?
[i.s.] Gorbachev was a very soft person, his rationality and sensitivity have saved millions of people's lifes (soviet transition period with a brutal hard-liner on power would be much worse and much more bloody). But he was a very bad statesman without a vision. That makes him a tragic figure.
But I am very sceptic about his statement. He wrote it in the Pravda newspaper, published on 8th of December 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the statement was given by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the biggest non-democratic and repressive regime on our planet, and it was addressed to the western, open-market and democratic countries, and to their freely elected governments. The statement actually means: we, the Soviets, we know much better what democracy, freedom and social standards are, as you – the western countries with a longer democratic tradition, strong civil rights movements and freedom of speech.
Quite strange, isn't it?
What he wrote is also exactly what all the other guys (like Fidel Castro, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, etc) are saying, when someone mentions democracy and civil rights to them, aren't they? And that is exactly what the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was repeating all the time.
I believe in equality and in the rule of law, so for me that »arrogant assumption« is not arrogant at all, but rather essential for the rule of law, transparency of the civil rights, and citizens' safe, healthy but critical relationship with the government.
In that sense I am the real communist and Gorbachev is a fake one!
Gorbachev's statement is an example of a very dangerous romanticism, and so many people has died in previous centuries because of glorifying such romantic differences and uniqueness which were often a disguise for autocracy. Ok, the history is not Gorbachev's fault (and at the end of the day he is a positive guy), but that doesn't put his statement into a better light.
[a.d.] This bring me to your project. What are your underlying thoughts in this project?
[i.s.] There is only one: We are all equal. But some are less equal as others.
[a.d.] Where and how did you assemble the texts?
[i.s.] I have selected one cliche attribute per each European country. The attributes are representing what average European citizens think about each other. Several friends and artistic colleagues from the countries mentioned in the project have helped me to select the characteristic (tourist!) and banal designations.
[a.d.] On the basis of what criteria (if any) did you make the final selection?
[i.s.] I was only trying to make things simple. I have been in all the countries mentioned in that project in person, so I also have some cursory experiences with them. It was very easy to find the attribute I wanted to have, but I am not denying the fact that some of the chosen attributes are nothing but my pure manipulation with the spectator.
I often lie, but I do not know when exactly.
[a.d.] What reference did you want to make with the sounds/noise, is there maybe a link with computer / internet – a slight reference to communicational media?
[i.s.] Yes, the sound I am using represents the tenderly and delicately fragile communication noise, it is meant to be relatively silent, not loud at all. Something that comes from behind the scene and makes you feel cosy and comfortable. Even safe. The sound is a hypocritical frame for the text as a visual material.
[a.d.] Why did you choose the two firm straight lines, what do these signify for you? Even though the content is hardly poetic the work comes across like poetry, was that your intention and could you say something about the rhythm, the stanza?
[i.s.] Two lines are simply representing the two political and cultural groups: Western and Eastern Europe.
Yes, you are right about the poetry. Politics is the poetry of today, and modern politicians are the poets of the 3rd millennium. It is a hard core poetry, but it is the only possible one.
I see this work as a radical one, although it is extremely simple. But most probably the simplicity is a key to radicality. Two lines of texts are crawling in different speed. Upper (faster and smaller) line talks about the western European countries and mentiones positive and pleasant cliche-attributes these countries have in the average European citizen mind. The lower (bigger and slower) line talks about the eastern European countries and mentiones negative and unpleasant attributes about them.
I have had no mercy at all ...
But because of the size of the texts and the crawling speed it is never possible to see or read the sentences in total on one screen, one has has to always read them in motion, with the eyes following the two text lines in parallel, so it is also possible to make a 'reading mistake', that is to assign one attribute to the 'wrong' country. The rhythm forces us to make mistakes, to confound one country with another, to mix east and west by mistake. Isn't that beautiful?
[a.d.] What does the division between East and West mean to you? Is there something like an East/West division in your opinion? If so, do you incorporate this in your work?
[i.s.] Eastern and Western Europe are still strongly divided into two parts and they can hardly communicate, although it is getting better and better. There are so many prejudices and forejudgements on both sides, which are blocking the real and open communication. The west is afraid of the barbarians coming from the east, because it does not want to lose its fictitious Disneyland. And the East feels subordinated and inferior to the West, because of the degradation which lasted half a century. Sometimes I feel very western: I am responsible, organized, clean, I obey the rules and the law, but sometimes I feel pretty eastern: I dance wildly, drink and have a lot of fun. It is written in our brains that Western Europe is bright and sunny, while Eastern is grey and cloudy, and it doesn't matter that in reality it is exactly the opposite: it often rains in Belgium and Holland, and it is mostly sunny in Romania.
I was dealing a lot with the east/west division in my early works, but in recent years I am more focused on low technology as an artistic tool for guerrilla and revolutionary tactics and strategies.
[a.d.] What or why did you move away from the east/west division?
[i.s.] Not that I really moved away from it, just my focus if a bit different. And perhaps the guerrilla and revolutionary tactics (as my current interests) are the right artistic tool for better understanding the east/west division.
[a.d.] Do you think the meaning of these sentences will ever change? Is there hope for Europe to overcome its own stigmata?
[i.s.] Yes, there is hope. Despite the European Union being a project of the capital (an ideal opportunity for the rich countries to enlarge their market and to become even richer) and not of the democracy, I still believe in it, because at the moment there is no better option. EU is a bureaucratic system, mostly quite annoying because of its bureaucracy, but is is exactly this bureaucracy which is preventing conflicts and which is creating more or less the same rules for all the citizens of this fortress (with the huge question remaining: what happens to the countries left outside?). Therefore we may be on the right way, although it will take more than one generation to overcome the historical emotions and deeply recorded stereotypes we have about each other.
But in fifty years from now my project will be senseless and absurd. And people will look at it with indignation.
Well, we do same now, don't we? Because we are afraid of our own thoughts and of our own history.