Decolonial AestheSis in Eastern Europe: Potential Paths of Liberation

The postcommunist transition has been characterized in Eastern Europe by the return and rearticulation of capitalism and coloniality in this region of the world. Seen from Eastern Europe, the postcommunist transition can be understood as the top-to-bottom integration of East European governmentalities into the political (European Union), security (North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Frontex), and economic orders (International Monetary Fund, World Bank) of Western governmentalities, at the cost of the general population, and with the open support of the Eurocentric intellectual and formal civil society, including most of the former anticommunist dissidents. In so far as Romania is concerned, the depression of the late 1980s was followed — without any period of recovery — by the catastrophic depression of the 1990s, when poverty and social insecurity reached levels unheard of since World War Two.[i] After a brief period of growth in the early 2000s, with the onset of the crisis of global capitalism, Eastern Europe was confronted with the third depression in three decades — and maybe the least dramatic one. However, since 2008 the eruption of the crisis within the Western world and the rise of the Global South has dramatically eroded the ideological power of postcommunist foundational narratives. In the past three years, a wave of popular movements has risen throughout the former socialist bloc, at a scale unseen since 1989, leading among other things to the demise of the neoliberal governments in Romania and Bulgaria. In other words, the post-1989 civilizational promise of Europe and Occidentalism has currently reached a critical point of saturation in Eastern Europe. However, the direction taken by the accompanying disenchantment and reinvention is by no means predetermined.[ii] Consequently, one is faced today with the historical task of decolonizing the imaginary and rebuilding alliances, against the dissemination of cynicism, ethnocentric nationalism, and postcommunist racism.

Before the “objective event” of the 2008 global capitalist crisis, the besieged life of postcommunism had arguably allowed the germination of critical imagination and innovative theoretical practices in contemporary arts and philosophy more than in social sciences. To give just a few points of flight, the much-anticipated end of the transition received a humorous iconic visualization in Ciprian Mureşan’s Leap into the Void, After Three Seconds (2004),[iii] while Daniel Knorr’s European Influenza, the empty Romanian pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005),[iv] conceived as a “powerful countermodel to the eastern expansion of the European Union,” proved the aggressive resonant power of the named void. Around the same time, Moldovan playwright Nicoleta Esinencu published her piece FUCK YOU (2005), a monologue-letter by a young woman addressed to her father, a powerful rejection of both nationalism and Europeanization. The work was received with indignant cries in the mainstream Romanian public sphere. Mona and Florin Vătămanu’s photo series Obor Cocor. Natural Resistance (2006) then proposed seeing the value of resistance in local urban surroundings that had previously been viewed as damned or hopeless.[v] Related theoretical preoccupations led to a positive epistemic interest in decoloniality, and the publication of the “Decolonial Aesthetics Manifesto” in IDEA arts + society,[vi] was followed by a theoretical appeal for the decolonization of Eastern Europe and the need to reimagine Europe “from East-South,”[vii] launched with the occasion of the 2011 Venice Biennial.

Such forms of criticality, whether in iconic form or through philosophical imagination, have been accompanied by a different body of work, one which brought to visibility positive forms of resistance, while also documenting and analyzing dominant historical phenomena such as anticommunism, nationalism, immigration, border politics, generalized precarity, and the burden of transition upon women. These directions of research show the political potential of a decolonial aestheSis of liberation in Eastern Europe — not as much in the sense of the development of a new chapter of artistic virtuosity or new perspectival objectivity, to which one could attach a new aesthetic theory (and with it new principles of appreciation, collection, and commodification), but as a call to the whole world: the manifestation of an active way of perception, transnational yet embodied and localized, able to confront and reorient the present by seeing or sensing the reality of past historical changes, and ready to propose other options based on the power of resurgence dwelling in certain everyday-life experiences.

Thus, the film Red Tours (2010), by Joanne Richardson and David Rych, takes a tour of the museums and statue parks of communism in the former socialist bloc, showing how these institutions are doing their part in the work of self-colonization, by instituting a normative history that asks people to take an absolute distance from their own past, while simultaneously adopting a modernist, civilizational, or simply consumerist standpoint from an eternal ahistorical present. What emerges is that anticommunism was instrumentalized as the regional articulation of the coloniality of power in the former socialist bloc.[viii] Rather than working for social justice after totalitarianism, the establishment of anticommunism has instituted an insidious repression and even fabrication of people’s relation to their own historical experience. In the history of transition, the establishment of anticommunism cannot be separated from the process of selecting the new postcommunist elites and the new model subject, by way of adopting and articulating the social hierarchies of the colonial matrix of power in the local public spheres. In Eastern Europe, one can often trace a straight path from anticommunism to Westernization. Consequently, since the trope of communism refers in Eastern Europe to a real historical experience, and one can either engage in the resistant yet modernist project of developing a “purer” doctrine of communism, or search for possible avenues of liberation in the alternative epistemologies and noncapitalist economies that already proliferated in the everyday life of real socialism, beneath official ideology.

Joanne Richardson’s Letter from Moldova (2009)[ix] shifts the discussion on postcommunist nationalism onto the terrain of a border epistemology, showing with clarity that nationalism actually enacts an erasure of history from everyday life, which is particularly troubling during a time of paradigmatic changes. The filmmaker’s failed history of actually crossing the borders east of the East is compensated in the film with ready-made images of the East beyond borders, found in abundance on the Internet. The resulting disembodied perspective can be correlated both with the disappearance of Eastern Europe after 1989, called by Marina Gržnici the “former Eastern Europe,”[x] and with Manuela Boatcă’s observation that “Easternness, in its European variant,” is traditionally seen as a place “continually passed on.”[xi] Or, in Joanne Richardson’s own words: “These are images of a place where I have never been. For all I know, it may not even exist.” The produced nonexistence of Eastern Europe is thus correlative with a recent abundance of images about it, which are defining a particular repertoire and regime of visibility.[xii] If the global sense of “Europe” owed much to the transformation of the “former East” into the image of a fictive past of Europe itself, then today it is highly important to shift the perspective from a state of allochronic projection to a self-standing location of knowledge with its own sense of time, as in Pavel Brăila’s film Chişinău – City Difficult to Pronounce (2011), which follows the life of the city throughout one year.[xiii] The film does not propose a description of the city in terms of landscape and sightseeing, or discursive narration, but a visual and visceral naming of the city through loaded experiences, actions, and intimations: traveling on the bus early in the morning; the cleaning of public places even earlier in the morning; the serving window of one of the remaining public canteens at lunch time; the industrial interior of the bread factory that covers and unifies the whole city; the work of the factory that multiplies that ubiquitous object of Moldovan rural and urban life, the very colorful plastic basin; and, of course, the warmth-suggesting outside-drying habits within the interior courtyards of the famous neighborhoods of gray concrete. Beyond the confines of contemporary art, the explosion of sign, graffiti, and stencil creativity in Romanian cities after the popular revolts of 2012 showed already the power of creating a community and consecrating places of “perpetual political re-invention,” like Piaţa Universităţii of Bucharest,[xiv] through artistic practices that name and give epistemic dignity to one’s own historical experience, without reverting to ethnocentric nationalism.[xv]

The videos of the collection Young, Female, Precarious (2008), by the collectives D Media, Candida TV, and AK Kraak, laid the foundations of a feminist critique of precarity in Eastern Europe,[xvi] while the art collective h.arta has engaged in a decade-long revival of feminist imagination and feminist collective practice, beyond the hegemonic liberal model.[xvii] Here is how the members of h.arta describe their own work:

What is most important for us in our practice is to constantly question our position as artists, as citizens, as women based in a country that used to be part of the former ‘East,’ as ‘white’ women living what is now a ‘European’ country . . . this work of continually examining one’s own role and position cannot be done outside collective practices, outside collaborative work and inter-disciplinary practice, trying to create models for work that bring theory as close as possible to practice and that also encourage debate and continually attempt to correct the inherent hierarchies that are created inside groups. We consider art to be a good method of making this sort of analysis possible, of creating the situations for meaningful encounters and discussions.[xviii]

This personal and experiential positioning enables the members of h.arta to reach the point where it is possible to see and ask questions such as:

Which are the differences and similarities between the ‘state feminism’ of the communism era and the new ‘European’ gender mainstreaming? How should we relate to the post-communist silence regarding feminism and the role of women in the communist period, to the necessity of an objective analysis of them? How could one use the feminist strategies and perspectives as a way of analyzing the privileges and power relations which global capitalism is structured on? What relation does occur between patriarchate and capitalism? How could one talk about feminism and gender-related issues avoiding copying a ‘Western paradigm’ and, at the same time, talk about local problems without imprinting exoticism onto oneself?[xix]

The questions asked by East European feminism make visible another history of silencing and different points of struggle, resistance, and liberation. One such perspective, developed by Biroul de Cercetări Melodramatice (Bureau of Melodramatic Research), takes a generalist approach, talking about the “spectres of fetuses” haunting the postcommunist imagination, up to and including the idea of “aborted Romania.”[xx] But when and where does one see and experience the intimate intersections of gender, race, and coloniality in Eastern Europe?

East Europeans learned after 1989 to put on their European masks; reinventing the process of conscientization is anything but easy or predictable. Decolonizing the imaginary requires small but heroic acts that amount to nothing less than epistemic revolutions. In a way, it means bringing “tickets to another planet,” as Adel Idris put it recently, in the short reflection of his immigrant experience in Germany.[xxi] In another formulation, it means materially bridging the sense of another world, beyond modernity/coloniality, based on concrete historical experiences and alternative knowledges. Decolonial aesthetics try to overcome the internal criticism of modernity, but this path of liberation, as James Brown warned, is a messy, “funky” affair. It is not “new” in the clean, formalist sense of an abstract New: the weapons of decolonial thought and imagination are growing from memories and experiences of repression, resistance, and liberation.

The Romanian artist Ioana Nemeş succeeded in creating just such an opening, ripe with that messy mixture of felt embodiment and intimate alienation of any experience of racialization, by way of a standpoint reversal of identity. In a contemporary art event dedicated to the motives of children, she chose to tell from the perspective of a gray toy rabbit the story of its blond boy-owner. Not unlike the story of Europe discovering its own maturity through a telescope looking at the “infant postcommunist democracies,” this is nothing less than the story of transition from childhood to maturity of the blond boy. Only from this standpoint, seemingly outside gender, race, and class, the story takes another internal twist, thanks to which it finally becomes the story of the toy rabbit itself. Thus, we learn that the toy has been manufactured in a factory in Arad, Romania, after the photographed image of a Viennese model rabbit. The gray toy rabbit appeared thanks to the mediation of a black-and-white photograph of a real blue rabbit. And thus we get to share what the gray rabbit feels:

Those who have designed me, filled me with synthetic wool and sewn me had all-along the process a black-and-white photograph of an excellent representative of the blue Vienna rabbit in front. I have only seen it once, very briefly, before the accessories workshop master attached my last labels – actual tomes, explaining my superior origins, the textiles used at my assemblage and all those boring details of EU protection norms. The rabbit in the photograph stood with a serene air, aware of his assets. . . . I had only spotted him for a second or so yet I’ll never forget the content expression of his face. . . . I cannot find words to convey the significance that rabbit bears in my eyes. . . . I couldn’t say he was my ancestor, as a matter of fact there is no link between us, but still, I am made in his image and likeness. This almost verges on religion, only my ancestor is mortal to the bone. And ephemeral. And perfect, I would say. I met his soft, noble eyes, and then darkness descended upon me. I saw nothing except for the cardboard box into which they were trying to squeeze me. These packaging things can be quite uncomfortable.[xxii]

What happens next, as the blond boy decides one day to categorize and package his toys in boxes labeled “Past,” “Present,” and “Future,” is a matter of open imagination.

Here, by shifting the way of ideas to the sense of the grey rabbit and to the local sensing of the gray neighborhoods of concrete, we are only glimpsing the immense liberating potential of a decolonial aestheSis, linking the experience of the racialization of East Europeans with the radical transformations suffered by Eastern Europe in recent history. Before 1989, the difference between East and West Europe was one between radically different epistemologies. After 1989, the only difference between East and West Europe is a mode of colonial difference. In a time of global historical changes, one cannot emphasize enough the importance of valuing the wide range of such practices, the gathering of nonmodernist voices, senses, and sensibilities into an alternative epistemic and political horizon.


Top image: Ciprian Muresan / “Leap Into the Void, After 3 Seconds” (2004).

ovidiu tichindeleanu