1. Research Congresses
        2. 1st FORMER WEST Congress
        3. Text

        Only Winners? No Answers, Just Questions at the First Day of the 1st FORMER WEST Congress

        Jeroen Boomgaard

        5 November 2009

      1. What are we doing here? I mean here in the so-called former West at the first congress on the former West talking about the former West. Where are we when we are in the former West and what has changed since the time when the West was still safely the West because the East was the East and the rest just was the rest? Can we start to get a grip on the changes that have occurred, and on the fact that the end of the Cold War also gave rise to the warm blanket of the Internet that now covers everything, and that the meltdown of the conflict gave room to new superpowers and the birth of another complex global system? A can we look at the new world through art and through art at the world, according to the approach that co-curators Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova so hopefully sketched in their introductory notes?

        At the end of that day, when it’s already dark outside, we find out that all these questions may be seen as symptoms of neurosis. That all our doubts, fears, and anxieties are, as Renata Salecl explains, a consequence of a dominant belief of capitalism: that we can, no, that we have to turn ourselves into a better self—and that we are neurotics because we never really manage to do this. We fail, and because we have the feeling that we’ve failed, we know that we have to make better choices. Our ideology is the belief in the belief of choice. Salecl seemed to imply that the lack of choice in the East before the fall of the Wall made society less neurotic. Nothing to consume, so nothing to worry about. There was room for cynicism and ambiguity in the former East, she suggested, because as long as you pretended to believe in the belief of the system, you were relatively free to think what you wanted. But choice is our destiny and even Salecl, although there was a glimpse of nostalgia in her words, admitted that we had passed the point of no return.

        But if we are doomed to the domain of choice, does that mean that we can choose a new direction that really takes account of the changes for the former West? According to Boris Groys we can, and even more, we do so every day. Not because we have left the state of neurosis and entered a situation of psychosis, as Salecl would put it, in which we no longer have doubts and are completely convinced of what we do. No, we reinvent ourselves everyday because since the fall of the Wall, since “the end of history,” it is the posthistorical present that puts its demands upon us. According to Groys, the fall of the Wall put an end to communism as if it never existed. Most of the countries of the former East regard the end of communism as a return to a normal situation, the end of a time-consuming stagnation, while Russia regards the regime change in terms of rebirth. As a consequence of this, the victory of capitalism is total, but no one admits defeat. There are only winners. Yet this victory has a price: we have to sacrifice the notion of history and live in a permanent present. To create this present we must imagine a new past and be faithful to our own fantasy. This right to negate the world as it is and create a new past/present is, to Groys, an artistic gesture. Art today has become mass consumption because in the virtual realm, anyone and everyone can reinvent her/himself and be an artist. The research into the notion of the former West is not an answer to this situation, he suggests, but a symptom of it.

        So, amusing as it might be, this voice from the former East too seemed to offer a quite a fatalistic perspective. There is nothing to realize: just invent your present by inventing your past. Neurotics or victims of a Zeitgeist stuck in an eternal present: for those attending the congress it became a hard choice. But the demise of the idea had not yet come to an end. Paul Gilroy called the topic of the congress an example of the deluded thinking of the West. Winners that pretend to be losers to gain an even bigger victory. Nothing is lost on this side; the losses are mainly counted on the side of the ever growing “Other” that lives below the “visa-line” (as Sarah Maharaj called it in his keynote) and believes too strongly in the “wrong” belief. To really go into the notion of a former West would imply an estrangement from our own culture and an opening of our eyes to the war that is going on today. Gilroy called it a global media war, a war with images in which innocence is forever lost, a war that rages right in the middle of these countries that long to be the former West. It is the relation to the Other that haunts this idea of former West, Gilroy contends, an idea of integration that we can only attain if we are able to integrate instead of demanding an impossible integration of others. Any reflection on the former West should, according to Gilroy, start with a critical anti-racism.

        This, at least, was a strong statement of what to do. But it lifted the question to a global scale that did not completely fit within the parameters set out by Esche and Hlavajova’s introductory notes. And it hardly offered any clues for the role of art. In that sense, for most of us, trained in the field of culture, listening to Sarat Maharaj was a relief. Maharaj set out with a sketch of three exhibitions that all took place in the year 1989 and that all in their own ways tried to formulate alternatives to the existing discourse on art. And although all three were strongly criticized for being either too Napoleonic (Francophile, domineering) or anthropological (Magiciens de la terre, Paris), too politically correct (The Other Story, London), or simply too heavy handed in a definition of art on the level of common culture (Havana Bienal, Havana), they all tried to discover curatorial paths that would open up new possibilities instead of locking everything inside. However, the fall of the Wall put an end to this because it was the start of a free-market creativity that abolished any intention of making a real choice between different potentialities. Now that capitalism in its turn has been condemned to the ashcan of history, it is time, according to Maharaj, to reflect on the possibilities of “repristinization,” becoming pure again. The rise of “the Rest” seems to offer possibilities in this direction but when he looked for direct sources for this repristinization, Maharaj had nothing else to offer than the former East. There, elements such as anti-politics, parallel politics, and civic enthusiasm had been crucial in an atmosphere undermining the reigning system and contributed to the revolutions of 1989.

        This was a slightly disappointing conclusion, not only because it testified to what Groys called the “envy” of the former West towards the East, but also because it offers no way out of the system of choice we are locked in. The only choice we cannot make—and would rather not make—is to return to an openly repressive system that would make those counter-tactics possible. Or, to return to Salecl, how can we escape from an ideology that is not satisfied when we pretend that we believe the belief, because it is much better in pretending that it believes in us?

        At the end of the day one important question from the audience remained unanswered: if capitalism is an ideology just like communism, how then is it possible that we do not seem to be able to undermine it with art and culture? To answer this question the project Former West will need a lot of research, not only in theory, but also in practice.