Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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BALKAN ARTISTS IN MCWORLD

Part One: Greeks Bearing Attitude

Meet Aris Marangopoulos, full-time professional writer in Athens and member of the Society of Greek Writers; interviewed, in a literary hangout in Athens’ fashionable Kolonaki quarter. This was three months after the annual meeting of the International Network for Cultural Diversity (an initiative of the Canadian Conference of the Arts) which, in September 2000, had been held in Santorini, Greece. Aris had not been at the meeting, but, feeling grim about globalization and its impact on the planet’s smaller cultures, and wanting to do something about it, was duly elected to be Greek representative to its Steering Committee. When we talked in November 2000, he had drifted away from the Committee, overcome with pessimism about Greek artists’ ability to organize effectively around the issues.

“The Greek language has minor access to global civilization and is prone to be dominated by the English language and American television and cinema. Nobody in the arts community here understands this.”

Aris writes reviews, does translations, some teaching, he’s written a book about James Joyce. This is a man from a working class Athenian family who supported himself at the Sorbonne [during the years of the Greek colonels’junta 1968-1974] by distributing flyers door to door. As soon as the junta collapsed, he was back. Any regrets about coming back? He grimaces and turns away and I let it drop.

In the left-wing newspaper Avgi Aris wrote a militant article about Greeks’ right to cultural diversity. He addressed the Greek Left directly about what they are doing about cultural diversity, about how leftists can’t talk about politics without talking about the cultural fact and the essential nature of diversity. They have responded with sympathy but there’s been no follow-up. The Minister of Culture in the social democratic government of the PASOK party, Theodoros Pagalos, who has since resigned, seemed only concerned about the Olympic Games and the Cultural Olympiad. “Now here’s a problem of globalization: everyone, from the guy with the kiosk to the cabinet ministers, is anxious to make a profit during the Games. So the organizers will bring in glamorous artists who have nothing to do with the real culture here.” I remember that, for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, with a whole continent of diverse arts to draw on, the impresarios hauled out Olivia Newton John.

“In the last ten years, the ‘American Way of Life’ has been able to become the vision for everybody: everybody now talks about money, our novels depict a country where life is lived out in bars and on yachts, as if we were in Monte Carlo or Palm Beach. Twenty years ago, everything was manipulated by the Left intelligentsia; now we’ve passed on to the ‘cosmopolitans’ of a single American culture. The essential parts of Greece are absent. We artists are going through very hard times now – when you protest the public treats you like a clown, you are ridiculed, you’re an oddball. I feel like an exile.”

Marangopoulos is old enough to feel the generation gap. Younger artists, with their techno savoir faire, have easier access to the “techno-maniacs” of the multimedia and glossy magazines and television, with whom they engage in reproducing all the cliches of American mass entertainment: “a virtual reality that dominates the actual.”

If you had a meeting with Culture Minister Pagalos, what would you say to him?

“Very basic things. We don’t have a well-organized national library, it’s still housed in a hundred-year-old building, it has no computers. We should have a network of urban libraries; those we do have are barely functioning with a staff of local clerks. We have no film museum nor national cinematheque. Instead, a lot of the Ministry’s money is shoveled into the Megaron Musikis [concert hall in Athens] which is privately owned by a tycoon. Neither our museums nor our archaeological sites are being managed imaginatively enough to bring young people into real and useful contact with the past. Instead the Ministry is sponsoring the Olympiad. We don’t have a Translation Centre, we don’t have professional literary translators for languages other than the mainstream ones, nor training for them. There are five literary translators who carry the bulk of Greek literature on their shoulders.

“You notice I don’t bring up individual artist’s grants. That’s because this is utopian. Five years ago I made a big effort with a promising new Minister. I promoted a petition of forty-five writers asking for some kind of system of artist’s grants so we could live and work with dignity. Nothing happened. We repeated the petition with each subsequent minister and we know that for the next four years [until the Olympics are over] we will have no response at all.

The Greek Society of Writers is impecunious along with its 210 members. Government funds just cover the rent on offices and a wage for a secretary. They’ve been advised that even these funds will be stopped in two or three years because “‘all artists’ organizations should be self-supporting in the marketplace.’ This is the language of ‘harmonization’ with Europe. The stupid thing is that some artists here do believe the ideology that the artist should lead his miserable little life without state support. It’s a stupid romantic belief with no basis in reality.

“And so it is difficult to co-operate with foreign artists who don’t understand how undeveloped our situation is. We are a rich enough country – really, it’s embarrassing. At first, I was hoping to make some people here aware that our problems are also present in other countries and so they should take our situation seriously, but when the Greek journalists wrote not a single word about the INCD in Santorini, I began to have my doubts. I can’t be the only one writing about these subjects; I’ll be reduced to an ‘obsessive’.

“This is a difficult country. Some people’s only expression against globalization is to refuse to buy a computer.”

He was a man after my own heart and part of my generation and I understood him completely. But what I needed to understand was precisely that younger generation on the other side of the gap from us. I knew that part of that generation had turned up in Seattle, Windsor, Prague, precisely to say No to mindless globalism. In fact, in Prague, where once it was Sovietoid cops who beat up on dissenters it is now the Czechs’ very own independent and democratic and capitalistical men in blue who are doing the dirty work. Human rights observers in Prague are expressing concern over allegations that protesters still behind bars have been mistreated following last month’s anti-globalization demonstrations in the Czech capital. “When they took 25 of us to the third destination we had to run toward the bus through two lines of police who hit us in the kidneys with their truncheons and fists. They laughed as they hit us.” [Manchester Guardian Weekly, October 12-18 2000] Thinking of the shattered plate glass windows of Seattle’s designer downtown and looking for an analogy with south-eastern Europe, I wondered, as I left Greece and traveled north into Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia: Would alienated young Balkan artists be willing to throw stones through the windows of McDonald’s to make their point?

Part Two: Bulgarians Under Stress

Meet Milena Deleva, gracious, helpful and young, Writers’ and Publishers’ Liaison, Soros Centre for the Arts, Sofia

There’s a Soros Centre for the arts in every one of eastern/south-eastern Europe’s distressed cities (that would be George Soros, the Hungarian-American multi-billionaire who made a killing on currency speculation then ploughed millions – and still counting – into building civil society in the former Soviet zone). The Centre is where I go to ask my question, to a once-elegant now ramshackle building housing its cosy rooms in a “cool” part of downtown – near Internet cafes, self-serve cafeterias and the Cinemania cineplex that week showing premieres of Shaft, X-Men, and Ninth Gate.

Would young Bulgarian artists throw rocks at McDonald’s?

“The integration of the Bulgarian economy into the international market is just beginning,” Milena explains evenly. “This investment in the local economy is still seen as positive and hopeful, and so an ‘action’ against McDonald’s as in Seattle would be viewed as mere vandalism here. There is no public debate about globalization. There are individuals who are anxious and concerned but there’s nothing like a manifesto coming from cultural activists. (The manifestoes we see from the West smack of Marxism.)

“One set of articles recently appeared in Kultura (which has been an official cultural publication for a long time), asking the question: To what extent is capitalism good for human beings? But these were translated from a German newspaper. There wasn’t even a local event in solidarity with the protesters in Prague.

“If young Bulgarians smashed up McDonald’s it would be to get at the food. Many of them are hungry.”

Milena gave me the names of some young writers who would nevertheless be willing to talk on and around the subject of globalization and the welfare of Bulgarian writing. So Biliana Kourtasheva (English-speaker), Georgi Gospodinov (hot young writer and editor or a literary newspaper) and Boyko Penchev (teacher of Bulgarian literature) gathered in a typically smoke-filled cafe near the university on a chilly winter morning where our conversation took place amid a great deal of ambient clatter and interruptions from Georgi’s fans and one wizened babafrom the village who was selling knitted booties.

No matter how often one hears the tales of woe of young artists’ precarious lives in post-Soviet Europe, the recitation is always poignant, even though it’s been a decade since the euphoric overthrow of the Berlin Wall promised the triumphant entry of the oppressed peoples of actual-existing socialism into “shock” capitalism. Ten years later, twenty-something writers, who had been adolescents during the initial hoo-ha and whose creative lives have been lived entirely in the new economic order, are nostalgic for a past they can only dimly recall. In answer to my opening question about how they make a living, the trio’s first response was a reference to the good old days of socialist governments that “cared for literature and publishing and provided structures of support. Of course there was a price: the writers’ co-operation.” This is said without rancor or judgment. In fact, the account of established writers whose careers were consolidated in the 1960s and 1970s and who continue to be popular with readers and media and who can command decent fees for articles and interviews, produced only the wistful observation: “We can only dream of being full-time writers.”

At the same time there are uncanny resemblances with the situation of young and not-so-young Canadian writers as we all find ourselves dumped into the same shark pool of a marketplace. (The Bulgarians are dog-paddling frantically in the deep end; we Canadians swim in circles in the middle with leaking life jackets.)

The assumption by western triumphalists that the socialist past would rapidly become a foreign country to the young was too hasty. Georgi, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Modern Bulgarian Literature as well as writing novels and stories, has chosen the poetry of the 1940s as his subject, specifically its “media cultural context – radio and cinema – and how mass culture influenced poetry.” Of course he’d like to publish his thesis as a book but scholarly books have to be supported by academic institutions – or die. And the institutions are criminally underfunded. Is there a future in the Literature departments? Hardly. Faculty are paid a “symbolic” $70 a month. (Given that the Bulgarian average is $100, this doesn’t seem so symbolic to me.)

Boyko supplements his full-time university teaching job with articles for a privately-owned literary review, Literaturen Vestnik, which is non-profit and “pays” its writers in shares. No government is forthcoming for their operation or any other cultural periodical but good old Soros Centre for the Arts supports them, to a point. “There are months we have no salary at all.”

No kidding. Why do you do it?

“Because the journal has its own tradition and its own public and we don’t believe the market should regulate everything. We think we have a kind of symbolic power in that we are the only post-1989 publication that is still in print and the only place where young writers can be established. What constitutes cultural importance, after all? Of course the market is important and some of the writers who started in the literary journals did manage some market success.” Georgi’s second book of poetry, for example, has gone through two editions of a thousand copies each and his new novel is about to go into its second. [It’s not clear whether he means “edition” or “printing” and I forget to ask.] A literary memoir by a former chairman of the Writers Union is doing very well. It’s implied that the reason for its success is all the dirt the author spills on his colleagues from the Communist era.

But the government has come forward with a short-term “book support” program to support the publication of about thirty books. None of the fund is designated for writers who are not used to be being paid by publishers in any case. A novel costs two leva, say. The publisher pays the author 500 or 100 leva once and never again – there is no royalty regime and the publisher keeps all the profit, such as it may be. It gets worse: let’s say a writer has a friend in business who is willing to invest money with the publisher and advances him enough money to publish a thousand copies of his friend’s work. The publisher accepts the money, prints a hundred copies and pockets the difference. As for electronic publishing, younger writers are interested in posting their work even though they know it means they are foregoing even hypothetical revenue.

The writers’ associations have no funds and the government offers no project grant funds anyway. The Soros Centre did provide some subsidies for the new Bulgarian Association of Writers. “This is a problem of the mentality of writers, that they don’t go after other initiatives. The Bulgarian writer has a bad habit of not insisting on his rights to be paid for his work because the economic situation has been so bad for so long that literary publishing seems a luxury. The writer is happy just to be able to write and maybe publish. The bookstores are mainly interested in bestsellers. In the 1990s there were no stores at all, everyone depended on the used books stalls in the markets and writers got used to selling their own books.” The same with literary agents: there are none and writers perform this function themselves.

Are there Bulgarian bestsellers?

“Only a very few, like the one recently published about the Mafia in high political circles. It was a novel pretending to be a documentary and it sold maybe 20,000 copies although the author goes around boasting it’s 100,000. The average edition of poetry is 300-500 copies, of literary fiction, maybe 500-1000. So there is a split between the publishers who want bestsellers and writers who still believe in something called high literature. (The novels of Grishom, King, Steele and Updike have always been popular.) But in between these extremes there is a real diversity of genre.” After 1989, the ideological apparatus of state-run publishing was broken and the writers used their freedom to write what they pleased. So now books about modern feminist theory, post-modern trends, historical fiction, memoirs, circulate freely and previously-suppressed books of theory in the Humanities finally saw the light of day.

As for the possibility or likelihood of mobilizing cultural movements to resist the gross Americanization of everything that isn’t nailed down, I sense from this group that “international culture” is a fait accompli or, if not, is such an abstracted, off-shore problem compared to the nitty-gritty of the Bulgarian crisis that I do not even pursue the McDonald’s scenario. When “globalization” means that your publisher imports foreign bestsellers but declines to promote Bulgarian literature abroad or even go to the Frankfurt Book Fair where foreign rights are bought and sold, when the government lends no hand to this enterprise either, then globalization is a one-way street: “There is cultural intervention into Bulgarian cultural space but not vice versa. The question we ask ourselves is not how to ‘resist globalization’ but how to globalize Bulgarian culture?” As Goce Delchev, Macedonian revolutionary dead before 30, put it for his own time, during the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the fierce competition for its territory: “I look upon the world as a field for cultural competition among the nations.”

This is not where I thought our conversation was headed. But now I am grateful that I refrained from making my rant about the betrayal of Canadian cultural nationalism and the survival Canadian culture has in the embrace of the New World Order. Here is how Boyko concluded: “There were very strong nationalistic voices here some years ago that tried to promote ‘our Bulgarian values’ as against ‘foreign values.’ They attacked the Soros Centre for the Arts as ‘national traitors.’ These voices operated in powerful circles and totally compromised the discourse of ‘national values.’” I realize that, although we may use some of the same words – culture, identity, nation, values – they come freighted with the terrible weight of specific historical experience, theirs and mine.

Later, when I relate this conversation to a friend who teaches Byzantine History and Law, he tells me, over our canteen lunch, that there never has been a “spirit of dissidence” in Bulgaria. “We’re a nation of slaves. We spent 500 years under the Turks and have just come out of two generations under Communism. There’s no civic consciousness, no one cares about public space, there’s petty and nasty quarreling on the buses. The thefts. The total lack of influence of the Church. The elderly beggars. People scrambling every which way to make some money, their fear of never finding the way out . The criminals and prostitutes have no problem, but what about the rest of us?”

Outside the canteen we run into his friend, Diana, who’s just returned from a year in England. I think: Maybe I can ask her about McDonald’s? What could be normal after a year abroad? So I ask her: “Would you throw rocks through their windows here?” She doesn’t commit herself one way or the other but she does tell me she has boycotted the establishment from Day One. “It’s very expensive to eat there. It isn’t vandals you’ll find there, it’s the elite with their limousines parked out front.”

Part Three: Serbs You Never Hear About

On December 13, 1999, a group of independent Serbian writers decided to form their own association as an opposition to the Official Association of Serbian Writers. The main idea behind the association, Writer’s Forum, besides the protection and respect of the basic professional rights, was a formation of an independent body which will oppose the current political violence, repression, censorship and fight for a free, democratic and open society, liberated from all nationalistic and ideological dogmas and prejudices. [from their pamphlet]

A year later, the Serbian political scene had changed so utterly – the man most responsible for the violence, repression and censorship, Slobodan Milosevic, had been ousted from power – that the Writer’s Forum seemed not to know what to do with itself. At least that was my impression after several hours in their company in Belgrade one winter evening. They were meeting in a room in a dilapidated theatre space just a couple of doors down from a McDonald’s (and across the square from the renowned Hotel Moskva, now named simply “Hotel”, while the changing political order decided how it felt about Moscow, I suppose).

There was a meeting chairman, the Drama professor and writer Filip David, who made a stab at presenting an agenda, but it was clear from the mood around the table that people had assembled only to drink, smoke and gossip, as if they were in a club. There was a sizable hubbub about the recent attacks in the papers on the young and comely playwright, Biljana Srbljanovic, who was in attendance, by an older feminist writer who accused her of exploiting her youth and beauty to get ahead in the theatre without having very much to say, to judge from her produced works. Ms. Srbljanovic’s colleagues in the room were all heatedly in sympathy with her and against the bitter old crone of yesteryear. This seemed to be the gist of the scandal, which occupied the members of the Writer’s Forum for some considerable length of time.

A couple of returnees from political exile drifted into the meeting, flourishing bottles of duty free whiskey. And a woman from Amsterdam, formerly of Belgrade, arrived with her Dutch companion, and told us something of her work with an investigative team looking for the truth about the appalling events in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in the latter phase of the war in Bosnia, when Serb forces overran a Moslem town under “protection” of UN troops and massacred the men and boys. Listening to her, it occurred to me this was one of the very few moments of public reference to Serb complicity in war crimes that I had experienced in my travels to Belgrade over the decade.

I had arranged to meet one of the Forum’s “Initiating Board” to talk about globalization. He failed to show up but I did track him down in his studio a few days later and there, subsiding into a broken-springed armchair and staring back at vividly-coloured if lugubrious Byzantinesque religious paintings, sipping Turkish coffee, I heard Mileta Prodanovic’s explanation for the frailty of the anti-globalization movement in Serbia, namely that “Milosevic used the language of the movement.” For example, during the NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia, Milosevic rallied his people with the declaration that Serbia now stood alone amongst the civilized nations, all others having succumbed to the poisoned embrace of Americanization. Serbia, alone and battered but unbowed, still stood for the old cultural values of freedom and love-of-country and heroism that shaped Europeans before the “West” exported consumerism, individualism and pornography to eager decadents.

“Two Dutch playwrights came to Belgrade,” Mileta continued, “wanting to do some theatre against globalization. We told them we could only sign up after the departure of Milosevic. ‘Colonization’ was part of his vocabulary and it has to be recuperated. What does it mean to be ‘proud’ of being Serbian? We have to start from Point Zero.”

From the perspective of a friend in her fifties, veteran of the student movement and uprising of 1968 in Belgrade, tireless human rights agitator ever since, the most shocking identity crisis the Serbs have had to endure, under the Milosevic nationalists, is demonization of Communism and Yugoslavia. “We went from an identity as Yugoslav socialists who were proud of what we had achieved and what we represented in and to the world, to an identity that was told to look at that past as entirely rotten. The Yugo-Communism of the past failed the test of nationalism: it had ‘betrayed’ the nations in the name of a spurious higher value, socialism.”

In nationalist Serbia not a trace remains of the legendary Marshall Josip Broz Tito, who masterminded Partisan resistance to Nazi occupation, stood up to Comrade Stalin – who blinked – then went on to shape and control Yugo-socialism until his death in 1980. Not a street, not an avenue, not a shop, not a factory, still bears his name. Instead Belgrade sports the names of kings, princes, and bishops. Lolo Riber Street is disappearing to return to Holy Mountain Street. as though the public commemoration of a selfless young Croat in Belgrade who died with the Partisans at age 23 – Lolo Riber – were a “stain” on Serbian self-regard, as though the collective experience of building Yugoslavia over fifty years is “false,” whereas tsars and princesses and monasteries are somehow more authentic and meaningful as collective sites of identity. Even I feel affronted by what is happening to some of the name plates on street corners which still bear the Yugoslav-era names, how vandals have been at work in anticipation of their unnaming, scratching and gouging and painting over the offending names, just like Turks at work on the eyes of Byzantine saints.

Serbs are anti-American, in the sense that they blame the Americans for the bombing, even those who positioned themselves in the opposition to Milosevic. Mileta referred to an anecdote from one of his own short stories featuring a talking dog. Dog wants to know why “they” are bombing Serbia. Answer: “They’re introducing a new chapter in world history. From now on, no one will be buying bananas where they feel like it but only where the Americans want them to buy them.” And there was even a brief, flaring moment of cultural protest when protesters threw rocks at the McDonald’s in the city centre (provoking its local management to put up posters begging protesters not to trash them: “Stop! We’re not Americans! This restaurant is ‘ours,’ Serbs’.”) But even that act of outrage was ambiguous. I was told that mere days later the same protesters were lined up a few blocks away, waiting for Belgrade’s newest McDonald’s to open. For female friends of mine in Belgrade, McDonald’s means that, after the cinema, there is somewhere to go for tea. It’s smoke-free, brightly-lit, very clean, and has cheerful staff and public washrooms to die for. I saw for myself, too, how enterprising fast food operators renamed burek, the traditional Serbian cheese pie, McBurek.

I am being forced to accept that, even for Serbs, who felt the wrath of the western powers raining bombs down on their heads, our world of branded consumerism represents a cultural alternative to Serbian cultural space. Logofied commodification and “the globalization of cultural deprivation” (to quote the Greek actor and head of the Panhellenic Cultural Movement, Kostas Kazakos), is a “free zone” precisely because it is not about Serbianness. Official culture has been irretrievably corrupted by its occupation by post-Communist nationalists of the ilk of the men who drove Yugoslavia into war with itself. As one friend, a theatre activist, put it: “You start with talk about ‘identity,’ proceed to ‘roots,’ and you know what comes next – ethnic cleansing.”

Part Four: Macedonia for the Macedonians

Slavica Janislieva and I climb steadily out of the gloopy murk of fog squashing Skopje this morning and reach the delicious little 11th century church of St. Pantelemon in the now-Albanian village of Nerezi. Since my last visit in the bone-rattling rainstorm of a winter evening in 1997, this little compound, formerly a monastery, has become a popular tourist destination, with its vast glass-enclosed patio piled up with tables and chairs commanding the best view. Slavica hates the glassed-in idea: flies, drawn from the manure heaps in the village’s barnyards, splat themselves messily in front of diners. But it is gloriously clear and crisp and brilliant with sunshine up here, the flies are long dead, and Slavica, who is a professional artist, shows off the church’s celebrated fresco of the Lamentation of the Mother of God. Goce the church guide has swiftly abandoned us for the company of visitors who draw him into the cosy taverna, which is where we see him, holding forth over glasses of rakija, when we too come in for coffee.

I’ve known Slavica since she was an art student. I know that she was hoping to do graduate studies in the US but neither she nor her parents can afford to support her there. Now she’s hoping to make her living as an artist or at least as a freelance, and will not be easily persuaded the idea is lunatic.

I already know that the level of cultural funding from the government declines with every budget and that the Ministry of Culture with its historically very large staff has been vulnerable to cutbacks and layoffs, so the emerging generation of artists understand that they absolutely cannot count on state support for their development. The notion of the cultural NGO [non-governmental organization] as the “third way” between state and private sector management is only now emerging. In the meantime, there is much naivete about how “the market itself will be interested in our product if it’s really good,” as I was told by one young multimedia artist at a gallery opening.

As soon as she had her B.F.A., Slavica started promoting herself as a print-maker. Her thesis adviser gave her her first list of contacts and addresses, she contacted about ten of them throughout Europe, sent out her prints, and waited for their respective selection committees for international exhibitions to make their decision. This actually worked: she’s been in group shows in Japan, Argentina, Belgrade, Barcelona, Cracow, and Belfast. Encouraged, she went back to do her MFA “to learn more about how I can live as a professional artist,” and to have access to good studio space, and to experiment with new techniques of handling wood and photographs in prints. Traditional emulsion techniques require materials that are simply too expensive for artists on their own in Macedonia; necessity being the mother of invention, she is getting awfully good at computer and xerox art.

Besides, the artists’ centres and arts foundations funded by westerners won’t even offer stipends for traditional art practices, according to Slavica. “They’re interested in experimental stuff.” So if she approaches a gallery with an idea for a “prints-on-the-wall” show, she knows that she’ll have to pay for all the materials, the framing, the gallery space and the catalogue herself. “The good thing is that the ‘classical’ prints sell. But now I’m doing more installation work, which only big institutions and collectors can buy, and we know the institutions don’t have budgets. And the people who really appreciate what I’m doing don’t have any money either.”

In a word, the biggest threat to Slavica’s stability as a professional artist is the lack of local resources. Her fortunes will rise and fall with Macedonia’s economic and social well-being. The “market” is a kind of glittering carousel in the sky, shedding light on those who already ride it. She can only stand and gawk. I don’t even bother to ask her if she would storm McDonald’s and throw rocks.

When I drop by the Contemporary Art Centre near the city centre to arrange a meeting with its director, Melentie Pandilovski, who is also active in the intriguingly-named Balkan Art Network, I am handed an invitation to an opening at the Contemporary Art Museum up on the hill behind the Turkish walls. It’s called Tik Tak Tok, a Scottish-Macedonian joint exhibit. (What kind of mind makes these connections?) I make pleased and congratulatory noises but I’m warned that “the Macedonian part isn’t ready yet. This is the Balkans.” It will only be much later that I realize that this observation is only apparently self-deprecating.

In the same neighbourhood I’m directed to the office of Igor Isakovski, an electronic publisher and web site designer. He’s dewy-young, perfectly fluent in English, a graduate student of Central European University in Budapest where he studied Media Studies. Igor walks me through his website and others he has designed, for theatres and writers and rock musicians. They are all dazzling (What do I know from website design?) And I say so. “You never expected this, in this poor Macedonian place, did you?” Igor retorts. Again, it will be later that I hear the defiant, even hostile, tone in his rejoinder to what I had meant to be a compliment. For now, I am only registering that, within the space of an hour and two city blocks, I have heard from twenty-somethings that “the Balkans” is both a hopeless sort of place and one full of happy surprises. And that it’s “natural” to network and collaborate, given the new communications technologies.

As in Sofia and Belgrade, I begin my conversation with Pandilovski – affable, ruddy, a little portly for his age which I guess thirty – by asking about the anti-globalization protests in Prague a month earlier. Does he know anybody who went? or who organized a local “solidarity” action, as the Czech organizers had asked for? No, he doesn’t, but that isn’t the point. Of his and the younger generation as a whole he says they are deeply “politicized,” saturated with political telecasts all night, every night, on all the channels, engaged by what is now the most interesting “theatre” in the country, political theatre. “They may not know why they’re interested in politics but this is a time of deep social and economic crises and people are wondering what to do.”

He seems cheerful enough about it. (Lucky him, he works for one of the myriad NGOs funded by the beneficent Soros Foundation.) From his vantage point of the Balkan Art Network, he sees that artists are “changing things.” BAN was formed at the end of a big, bureaucratic cultural confab in Sarajevo in 1999, an initial conference on Reconstructing Cultural Production in the Balkans “that produced nothing,” so in a protest against such bloated exercises in corporate self-importance Balkan artists formed their own network, issued a manifesto, and six months later hosted a “huge” exhibition in Brussels of “Balkanian” art. The office of the Contemporary Art Centre – where we are having this conversation and which hosts exhibitions and digital “parallel realities” and conference proceedings and something called Meta Balkan Assembly on its website www.cac.org.mk – is BAN’s co-ordinator.

Pandilovksi sings the pleasures of the electric city: “We are transborder. We believe in propulsiveness and porousness, we believe that the Balkanian space is one space. We’ve had concerts here in Skopje with singers and bands from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, they all sell out. Even new singers, unknown in Croatia a year ago, are today’s big stars in Macedonia. Our Macedonian band Leb i Sol [Bread and Salt] has a bigger audience in Serbia than here! We have a continuous exchange of artists. Of course it’s been disrupted but now the exchange can be recuperated and even expanded. Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece. The cultural space still works.” Isolation is a curse.

In fact, he claims, the space has been working ever since the Byzantine era [roughly, 600 AD to 1453 AD] during which “the struggles between Greeks and Slavs did not preclude their sharing a Byzantine cultural space,” that is, a space larger than and different from the separate ethnic spaces. The same is true of the Ottoman era [1453-1919] when Turkish political domination was complete but the various “Balkanian” communities were left more or less to their own spiritual and cultural devices, absorbing Turkish manners by osmosis. But Pandilovski doesn’t mention the Turks. Almost no one ever does.

This was not the first time I heard Macedonians speak of a “shared cultural space” of peoples in the Balkans. It’s increasingly employed as young citizens consider the prospects before them of Europeanization, that is of their assimilation, through economic and political integration, into Eurocratic institutions and regulations. (As the kid joy-riding the brand-new escalator in a Skopje shopping centre said to his friend: “This is Europe!“) They appear to welcome the prospect even though it will inevitably mean the weakening of the geo-political importance of their very own recently-independent state-just-for-themselves, the republic of Macedonia (Officially: Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

Not to worry: they are going to have this creative shared cultural space, developed by their own civil societies, in which the “thoughtful reorganization of the Balkans” will encourage cultures to “interact beneficially with one another,” to quote Pandilovski from the text of a speech he made recently.

If he wasn’t going to say something about the globalization of culture pretty soon, I was going to have to. But he said it: “Now we have outcomes of the new global culture as well” – he mentioned the electronic arts, brand-name pop culture, and bio-technology. “There is nothing ambiguous about their reception here; they are universally accepted. No one can pursue a copyright regime here. Pirate CDs and pirated software are freely available. Since 1944 [with the incorporation of Macedonia into the confederation of Yugoslavia], we’ve had national television and radio and Academies of this and that. All the apparatus of an independent state. For forty years we had something called self-management in the economy. There’s no longer such a need to wave the flag. We’ve been through that movie.”

Well, he’s been through that one, but what about this other one right under our noses? The ubiquitous American videos and Coca-Cola adverts, the privatized Sheraton hotel alongside a field where Roma families camp, and the increasing exoticism of the Cyrillic alphabet (their own!) and the normalization of the English language in all available commercial space? What about McDonald’s? “Would you or anybody you know have been prepared to go on a demonstration against McDonald’s in downtown Skopje and throw rocks through its windows?” In a manner of speaking, of course.

He had to laugh. It’s the “Battle of Seattle” that seems weird to him – rich North American kids trashing their own playgrounds. Here in Macedonia the McDonald’s shops are seen as deeply positive alternatives to the former-Yugo now post-Yugo consumer culture of too little money chasing severely limited choices. That’s the old people talking, the ones who can remember when. The young ones are like Pandilovski’s own six-year-old who, in Washington with his father, lit up at the sight of the Golden Arches: they reminded him of home. For a time there was something like 20,000 foreign troops stationed in Macedonia during the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, and they all went looking for McDonald’s. No, there just isn’t the “critical mass” here in Macedonia to form a coherent protest against McWorld. (A few nights later, at dinner with a friend raising three little girls, I brought the subject up again: Would my friend be willing to storm a McDonald’s in protest against globalization? “Heavens no. All my women friends and I get together there for children’s birthday parties. McDonald’s does all the work while we visit.”) And remember, Pandilovski reminded me, that the young people of Belgrade who stood vigil on the bridges over the Danube and Sava in defiance of the NATO bombs, were dressed in their super-cool Nikes and wore their baseball caps backwards.

I began to sense the unintelligibility, to these young cyberwunderkinder, of my old, cultural nationalist’s fear of American cultural imperialism (now masquerading as “global” culture. As friend Brian Fawcett once said or wrote somewhere, “When Marshall McLuhan extolled the pleasures of the Global Village, he didn’t realize it was going to turn out to be Los Angeles.”) They simply work around it. They throw up e-mags by art students on the Internet, curate electronic galleries, lay down digital links with botanists and geneticists and astrophysicists, show up at conferences with people like themselves in Petersburg, Helsinki and Barcelona. Igor invites the still-unpublished to post their work at his website. Royalties? Permissions? Copyright? Ha ha ha.

I know my evocation of Canadian cultural nationalism gives young people here the heebie jeebies. “Nationalism” is the flag that Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and the late Franjo Tudjman of Croatia wrapped themselves in, to prepare the populace for the campaigns of ethnic purification, “nationalism” is the rhetoric of governments who call for artists to create uplifting and militant works in the kulturkamp of ideologies, “nationalism” is the Macedonian culture minister who tried for a time to block the presentation of concerts by Serbian folk musicians because their music is “kitsch.”

And they have other fish to fry. The legacy of their own recent past has to be exposed, the dead weight of the past has to be shrugged off. In a fascinating collection of essays from 1996-97, Deep Europe, published in Rotterdam as an initiative of a network of people and institutions in eastern and south-eastern Europe focused on arts and media [http://www.v2.nl/east/archive/deep_europe/], we learn from Alexei’s e-mail from Moscow that artists in that city aren’t all that interested in the Internet: “Most of them have the usual middle-class mentality and don’t speak English.” A participant from somewhere in the Netherlands responds that he found “outspoken resistance” to media art in Romania and Bulgaria and in “dull, right-wing, elitist circles in the West who are on their ‘decline’ trip.[presumably: Decline of the Western Empire].” Geert.nl concludes that, to top it all off, older folks have “an unspoken hatred of mass culture.” But Lev in San Diego understands their hostility: the Microsofting of the planet “has cast a uniform digital aesthetics over national visual cultures, accelerating the globalization already begun by Hollywood, MTV, and consumer packaging.”

Further on in the collection, Inke Arns weighs in from Berlin in a witty, mordant piece about the current jostling for “European” positioning among the post-communist states – Slovenes anxious to prove they are really Austrians cut off from the Mutterland, Austrians horrified by the proximity of Slavic hordes just across the Karawanken mountain range, the Croats who demarcate their Hapsburgian cultural zone from that of Eastern Orthodox, Turko-Cyrillic Serbs, the Serbs who see themselves as martyrs for the cause of Western civilization, defending the gates of Europe with their bloodied bodies from the assaults of Islam. It seems to me that all of this jostling to be “west of the east,” is the desperate effort of small nations – at the mercy of transnational capital – to draw borders that will put them “inside Europe” and keep the competitors for Bundesbank largesse out. (But suppose, just suppose, as one Bulgarian journalist speculated, you were to wake up one morning to find that “Europe” now included everybody but you and Albania.) Asia ends near Vienna. America is everywhere. So says Calin Dan, a Romanian in Amsterdam.

The term “translocal” is offered. It is as though the artists’ connectedness depended not at all on mediation through transcorporate or state entities but simply on digital synapses, sparks leaping through ether, joyously seeking each other out in the ‘hoods of their desires. That such jouissance may be throttled by political ineptitude and gross economic injustice doesn’t seem to occur to them.

At the end of my conversation with Pandilovski, feeling very frustrated because he has steadfastly refused to share my anxiety about globalization à l’américaine (What’s the matter with these people? Do they think the transglobalists are going to give two hoots about their hard-won Macedonian cultural specificity?) I blurt out that I am feeling desperate about the future of sovereign cultures and art practices. “Have you ever considered,” he asked gently, “that maybe it’s your ideas that make you feel bad?”

Post Script: Pandilovski’s question haunted me for months. Was it his own ideas in contrast to mine that made him so awfully cheerful? Then came the events of March, 2001, when armed terrorists from the Albanian population together with their political collaborators demanded expanded constitutional rights for their community, and came into direct armed conflict first with the Macedonian police and then with the army. It was a deeply disturbing development in a former Yugoslav republic that had so far managed its transition to independence peacefully. I stayed in touch through e-mail with friends and acquaintances, and the response to my “intervention” into the furious discussions they were having among themselves took me completely by surprise: several accused me of “knowing nothing” about Macedonia, of insulting them gravely by insinuating that Albanians are also Macedonians (I meant in the sense of citizenship entitlements), that I was an incurably naive Westerner, that “multiculturalism” could “never” work in Macedonia, and much else, more abusive still, besides. I received a flurry of e-mail attachments – interviews with artists, petitions to governments, historical documents – all pleading the innocence of victimized Macedonia and the culpability of war-mongering Albanians who want nothing less than the creation of a Greater Albania at Macedonia’s expense.

The point here is not the correctness or misguidedness of this or that argument, the point is the stunning absence of that language with which I had been entertained a mere three months earlier, summarized best, perhaps by the assertion, “The cultural space still works.” Back then, the “cultural space” was all about pluralities and porous borderlines, multilingualism and shape-shifting new media practices, trans-localism and Microsofting the planet. But now even that up-to-the-minute hipster, Igor, revealed himself just another unreconstructed national exclusivist when he wrote to me: “This is Macedonian country.” As for Albanians, Vlachs, Serbs and others, they are mere “minorities” with no claim to a Macedonian identity. So much for the “shared cultural space.”

Echoing his friend Melentie to me, I would like to ask him,: “Have you ever considered that maybe it’s your ideas that make you feel bad?”

So, it remains a challenge to understand ways in which cultural workers in such different political and historical ecologies as the Canadian and the Balkan can find common cultural purpose even as the apparatchiks of the transnational corporations come bearing down on us all.

Myrna Kostash
July 20, 2001, (uploaded May 5, 2002: 7557 words)

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Myrna Kostash

Myrna Kostash

Myrna Kostash lives in Edmonton when she's not traveling in Eastern Europe.

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