On a Possible Mapping of Appropriation Strategy Juliane Debeusscher

It is now taken for granted that we see in the failure of the communist political model in Europe both a sign of the end of a bilateral world and the advent of an age offering no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. In this process involving a new distribution of powers, Eastern Europe has taken on the problematic status of a territory that is now catching up, having been encouraged to deny its communist heredity, but without assuming any honorable position within the global system.

One sector, however, has been spared by this ideologically constructed vision of a former “Second World” that is chronically lagging behind the world leaders. If we take a look at international cultural output, we can note that over the past few years there has been a rise in the number of projects harking back to the legacy of the Soviet avant-gardes and the nonofficial artistic practices developed in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. In contrast to the process of “invisibilization” of the communist project which went hand-in-hand with the break-up of the Eastern Bloc, these experiences are undergoing a new surge of visibility, and their critical reexamination is associated with a conscious reintroduction of it. This attitude conveys a keen desire to (re)generate operative models of thinking and action based on this theoretical and artistic input, in order to broach specifically contemporary issues. The preferred vehicles of this rediscovery—which are often, incidentally, susceptible to each other’s influence—are, on the one hand, antiglobalization activism and, on the other, the mainly collective artistic practices which trigger a form of social questioning by way of interventions undertaken in public places. We find a type of dehierarchized collective organization, and a desire to deprofessionalize praxis, as well as the development of devices focused on visibilization, which refer, in particular, to Soviet avant-garde procedures and certain representational strategies used by Eastern European artists in the 1970s and 1980s.1

In latter 20th‑century socialist Europe, the sway held by politics over social life called for the establishment of representational devices permitting a remove from the system, and the possibility of criticizing it without a head-on clash. In this respect, the adoption of a paraphrastic type of language turned out to be extremely effective, insofar as the reformulation of elements drawn from the ideologically dominant discourse made it possible to remain on the side of legality, while at the same time introducing a performative reformulation. In a space contaminated by ideology, the paraphrase is an unimpeachable procedure, precisely because it comes about through the very thing that it endeavors to dismantle. Its use may be extended as far as a personal identification with certain principles and values, and in any event its effectiveness depends on the sharing of certain codes, and the public’s ability to decipher real content hidden beneath a mimetic appearance. A statement such as An Attack on My Art Is an Attack on Socialism and Progress, formulated by the artist Mladen Stilinović in the Tito-ruled Yugoslavia of the 1970s, obviously plays on this strategic foray into the Other’s camp, the better to rail against the impossibility of barring oneself from a system that packages and legitimizes all production.2

Likewise, and in a more systematic way, his installation Submit to Public Debate (1980) brought together fragments taken from political speeches and divorced from the context in which they were given. This kind of exhibition made it possible to highlight the existence of a rhetoric made up of “linguistic viruses,” as Stilinović called them—extremely common verbs and nouns which, when used as props for a political speech, are in a way confiscated, to be attached to a single ideological signifier.

What is the situation with linguistic viruses today? Have they succumbed to the assault of a language of transparency and been subject to a democratic washing? There can be no doubt that nowadays we are witnessing the replacement of a single official language by a whole host of different forms of discourse and representation, and that this openness to a multitude of linguistic possibilities is merely shifting the problem. It is no longer a matter of attacking a monolithic form that can be easily circumscribed, and it is a fact that certain present-day examples attest to this shift from the reproduction of unambiguous concepts to that of individual figures embodying the values of a system, or even constituting an actual brand, as in the case of projects developed around the figures of Milan Knížak and Janez Janša.3

If we follow this line between reproduction/usurpation of real and make-believe identities, we should also mention one of the operative methods, favored by antiglobalization groups, which proceeds by way of the duplication and reproduction of procedures borrowed from advertising and marketing. It is worth noting that this antihegemonic struggle is being conveyed by a language that was nonexistent in communist Europe, and that the strategies of appropriation and performative repetition are forever being transformed at the same time as the object which is in their line of fire.

In the face of a fecund and emancipatory use of a subversive tactic inherited from the age of socialism, it is nevertheless as well to mention that, in certain instances, instead of encouraging the formation of counterpowers and alternative struggles, this operation of rehabilitation is fixed in a set of ready-made critical theories and lines of thinking. Actually, this “battle of means” leads to the borrowing of critical instruments and systems from the East, which are then restored to it in the form of new teachings, which have been duly filtered by Western specialists. How are we to envisage the idea that, after having been silenced for several decades, the historical experience of the East still has to pass by way of the West before being routed back to its original territory, through international channels? As Boris Buden emphasizes: “ … if there exists in the East something resembling a left-wing involvement, it must involve something totally eclectic imported from the West”; it is an import that distorts and weakens, and keeps in check relations of power and subordination which are having to be constantly reexamined and resisted.4

In the line of thinking that concerns us here, it is precisely a question of identifying bridges and affinities between activities that are historically removed from each other, but which are nevertheless conceptually and contextually close, in order to formulate the possibility of another genealogy and a shared field of practices that is independent of canonical spheres of influence.

Light can be shed on some of these potential factors by referring to the Collective Creativity exhibition curated by the What, How & For Whom collective in 2005 at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel. In my view, this was one of the first events that helped to underscore the indirect bonds linking various artistic productions originating from socialist Europe with those of art groups active in South America between 1960 and today, hallmarked by a radical political stance. In presenting groups and individuals who had specifically developed a collaborative praxis, the curators’ intent was to release “the different emancipatory aspects of collective work, where collaborative creativity is not only a form of resisting the dominant art system and capitalist call for specialization, but also a productive and performative criticism of social institutions and politics.”5 Among the projects presented, hailing from differing geographical and political periods and contexts, a transversal reading helped in particular to identify a vocabulary and a method common to Eastern European and South American artists, sharing at different moments of their history the need to withstand conditions in which freedoms were being restricted or suppressed.

The paraphrase, understood as a procedure for appropriating and recontextualizing an all-encompassing model, is thus asserted as a valuable way of highlighting asymmetrical power relations, whether they be manifested in the framework of authoritarian regimes or the capitalist system, or alternatively through a hegemonic construction of History. If we were to draw up a map making it possible to visualize the dissemination of this method of reappropriating dominant forms, what would stand out would be those territories which, nowadays, are the most subject to a reconsideration of past and future political, cultural, and historical models, and the need to confirm a radical and uncompromising stance. Perhaps such a diachronic and transversal approach would offer a way of sidestepping the pitfalls of an unambiguous and neutralizing reading of these practices.


1 / I am here referring to the article by Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse titled “Subversive affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance,” East Art Map, ed. IRWIN, London/Ljubljana 2005, p. 444–455, http://www.projects.v2.nl/~arns/Texts/Media/Arns-Sasse-EAM-final.pdf. In it, the authors examine the activist media and networks on the Internet in the 1990s and single out an “influential input from the East” hailing from strategies “of subversive affirmation and overidentification” developed from the 1960s onward.

2 / Mladen Stilinović, An Attack on My Art Is an Attack on Socialism and Progress, 1977. See Alenka Gregoric, Branka Stipancic, Igor Zabel, Mladen Stilinović, Artist at work 1973–1983, exh. cat., Galerija Skuc, Ljubljana 2005.

3 / The exhibition “Milan Knížák. Podivný Kelt “ by the Prague artists‘ collective Guma Guar, used the name of the artist Milan Knížák as a brand intended to certify the authenticity of a fictitious show, in order to question the problematic relations between artists, institutions, and the art economy (Vernon Project, Prague, March 2008). Janez Janša is a collective project which operates a triple capture of the Slovenian prime minister’s identity, producing various projects under this ready-made name.

4 / Boris Buden, “Re-Reading Benjamin’s ‘Author as Producer,’ in the Post-Communist East,” Transversal (October 2004), http://eipcp.net/transversal/1204/buden/fr.

5 / What, How & for Whom, “New Outlines of the Possible,” Kollektive Kreativität, exh. cat., Revolver, Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 14.