Eastern Europe Will Be Yours!
In 2017 art historians and curators Reuben and Maja Fowkes published an article “Eastern Europe Can Be Yours! Alternative Art of the Eighties” (Afterall, September 2017). They lent the combative title from an underground exhibition Hungary can be yours! International Hungary organised by the unofficial Artpool Archive ‘apartment institution’ in 1984. The Fowkes’, who have since then published a book on post-war East European art in the celebrated World of Art series, are two among the many researchers who have recently turned their eyes toward the yet untold stories of the region’s cultural history.
As artists, designers and architects have moved on from traditionally Western-centred narratives of progressive development in art, new histories are emerging which present the cultural phenomena in the so-called second world in methodologically refreshing ways. The story on art does not necessarily have to go like this “an -ism started from New York and moved eastwards where it transformed into a rough by-product. A more relevant narrative would be like… well, this is yours to say, Eastern Europe will be yours!
During this elective course divided into seminars, lectures, discussions, talks, site-visits and presentations given by students we will take a closer look at the socialist and post-socialist artistic culture and politics in Eastern Europe. We will start by mapping the region, move on to conceptualising its borders and content, dig into case studies, talk with art workers whose practice is closely related to the topic, as well as work through individual projects presented as assignment works for this class. As Eastern Europe is one among several other regions in the world which has recently offered thought-provoking post-colonial alternatives to the dominant cultural and financial metropoles, this class should be of interest to anyone fascinated with the conundrum of our globalised world.
1) Where, when, what and how is Eastern Europe? 15.9.2020
In the first class we will try to define and map Eastern Europe and position ourselves against this map. Furthermore, the tutor will give an overview of the whole course and an outline for the assignments will be given.
Each student is required to bring with him or her a working definition of Eastern Europe. You do not have to write it down and it must be no longer than three minutes. A working definition is a subjective take on what does the term mean for him or her, what are the limits of the definition. Be creative and try to bring in keywords (max 3) which describe Eastern Europe best to your mind. It would be nice if you could also talk about your practice’s (either your BA or MA project, design or art work etc) connection to the topic of Eastern Europe.
2) Socialism is… Post-socialism was… 22.9.2020
Any discussion on Eastern Europe tends to lead to confrontational Cold War binaries: socialism vs. capitalism, captivity vs. freedom, East vs. West, communal vs. individualistic, failed vs. developed, war vs. peace. In this class we will delve into the so-called actually existing socialism and look at what has become of it. Are any of the dichotomies useful or should we come up with an entirely new synthetic terminology to describe art and culture in post/socialist Europe?
Each student is required to bring in at least one example which disapproves stereotypical assumptions about the East-West division.
3) Eastern Europe is the desert of the mikrorayons 29.9.2020
This class will be an urban trail through parts of Lasnamäe, Tallinn’s largest Soviet era residential complex which, if would be a separate city, would be the second biggest city in Estonia.
4) Populist Eastern Europe 6.10.2020
In May 2020 U.S-based think tank Freedom House declared that Hungary should no longer be considered a democracy after coronavirus fears ‘had forced’ its prime minister to consolidate even more power to his hands. The rise of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe has become a recurring trope around the world with researchers from East and West frightening readers that the region was never even fit for Western style democracy. At the same time several Eastern European capitals, such as Budapest, Prague and Warsaw are governed by progressive forces, thus making the political map more colourful than it may seem at first sight.
This class we will be a sequence of debates during which teams of three or four participants argue with opposing teams on specific political topics. Students will get to know the topic beforehand and will have at least a week to prepare their arguments.
5) Eastern Europe from an ecological perspective 13.10.2020
The region has a troubled relationship with the natural environment. On the one hand, it boasts some of the last remaining primeval forests in the continent and its citizens claim to be closer to nature than their Western counterparts (e.g. mushroom picking is considered to be a national sport and other relevant metaphors). Furthermore, various countries form the region claim that the authoritarian socialist rule was defeated with radical environmental movements. Yet, the region is currently witnessing enormous deforestation and confusion in terms of (not) meeting European Union’s CO2 regulations.
During this class we will talk with a couple of local cultural figures whose life and work is related to the topic. Each student is required to bring in at least two questions to the speakers.
6) Queering Eastern Europe 20.10.2020
The Soviet Union was both radically progressive and notoriously chauvinist in terms of its contribution to the emancipation of women. On the one hand, women were actively encouraged to pursue higher education and be employed in various economic sectors, while on the other hand the percentage of women working in management and leading political positions was extremely low. Furthermore, women in socialist countries returned home from work to start another working day at home. In comparison to the women in the capitalist West they did not have the option to enjoy various time-saving household appliances.
The status quo in terms of heteronormative – at times misogynist, homophobic – conventions and habits certainly seems to be one of the defining differences between the atmosphere in ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe. What needs to be done? What can we say about e.g. representation of women in Eastern European pop culture?
This class will be led by students who wish to fulfil their assignment by a 15-minute long presentation on a relevant topic.
7) The Baltic States as Little Eastern Europe 27.10.2020
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania form a specific sub-section within the region. Although physically close to each other and historically interrelated (at least Estonia and Latvia) it just does not seem to be ‘clicking’ on a daily basis. Ask any Estonian, how many Latvians or Lithuanians does he or she now personally and the answer will most probably be none or one. Or is it really that bad? Artists, curators and urban activists seem to be leading the exchange between the three countries. For this class we will invite art workers from other Baltic states to discuss their practice and the position of the region within their work.
8) Yevgeniy Fiks’s exhibition Progressive Revisionism at Tallinn Art Hall 3.11.2020
Fiks is a Russian-born New York-based artist whose work questions the commonly accepted historical narratives of Soviet history. We will visit the exhibition and talk to the curator of the show, Tallinn-based Romanian-born Corina Apostol.
9) East European art history 10.11.2020
Until recently art historical discourse was dominated by vertical narratives in which styles and narratives typically originate from centres such as Paris or New York and then disseminate around the peripheries where local artists “paint in the style of Henri Matisse” or “act like van Gogh”. During this class we will discuss how art historians such as Piotr Piotrowski, Igor Zabel, Maja and Reuben Fowkes have reshuffled the foundations of writing art history and what it implies for contemporary creators.
10) East Europeanising the globe 17.11.2020
This class consists of two parts. We will begin with a broader look around the world and try to pinpoint other regions which have either historically or recently emerged as potential gamechangers within a post-colonial situation. What about regions like Southern or Northern Europe, Maghreb or South America? Furthermore, normative Western Europe and Northern America which have now been dubbed as ‘the former West’ needs to be scrutinised.
In the second part of the class we will look back at the Eastern bloc (and the supposedly neutral Yugoslavia) and see how it built a powerful grip over the entire planet. This did not only imply Moscow-lead financing of Communist parties around the world, but individual artists, designers and architects alike were active in forming international relations. As an example, we will look at the travels of kinetic and op art across the so-called other Atlantic (Eastern Europe – South America).
11) Design, applied and decorative arts in Eastern Europe 24.11.2020
There are no world-known design brands from Eastern Europe. While there are several reasons for it, one of them is the legacy of the centralised state-run socialist economy which did not support either innovative product design development or competition for finding better solutions. Looking from another angle, why should we routinely want to consider global brands as a positive and normative example (with all their negative impact on nature and shameful working conditions)? What could be the Eastern European replacement for design? What useful lessons could be learnt from the state socialist period? What to make of the then-popular genres of monumental-decorative art, applied and decorative art?
12) Presentations of final projects. 1.12.2020
Students must attend at least 10 classes. In case of 3 missed classes, the student must write an essay (1500 words) on the topic of the missed class. In case of 4 or more missed classes the student will not pass the course.
As an assignment student can choose between four possibilities:
1) 15-minute presentation at meeting no 6.
2) An essay of approximately 1500 words. The topic of the text must be agreed with the tutor. Can be written in Estonian or English.
3) 10-minute manifesto presented on final meeting.
4) Artwork, installation, artist’s book, video, piece of creating forest, design proposal, paper architecture, performance, documentation of a performance presenting during the final meeting.
Naturally, all projects should be connected to the topics discussed during the course. Please discuss the topic with the tutor.