ESR 10 Blog February 2021: Anna Fech

Пусть каждый сходит с ума посвоему![1] is a Russian saying that requests us to accept how others go crazy even if it looks weird from the outside. Having been raised between two cultures – born in Kazakhstan and growing up in Germany – I experienced that cultural understanding does not have to do with logic. Sometimes there are things you literally cannot explain that have existed for generations and been accepted by local society even though they might seem strange.

The research topic I chose for my PhD project is inspired by my own curatorial work and my observations of different political systems that raised my concerns about ideology conveyed by art. It made me more sensitive towards representations of power, which pretend to make the world a better place in the name of democracy and social engagement but run the risk of repeating imperialist patterns. Having received my curatorial degree in Zurich at ZHdK, which is mainly focused on socially engaged practice, I supported among others, community-based projects as the curator of ARTIM project space in Azerbaijan. Within this context, I have been noticing the emergence of social engagement especially through social media. It made me wonder: Can socially engaged art act through digital networks without falling prey to ideological concepts?

The experiments of the Russian avant-garde art in the early days of the Soviet Empire included ideas of removing hierarchies; contributions from a large number of participants aimed at violating the rules of the bourgeoisie. Of course, looking at these attempts from today’s perspective they are problematic due to Soviet ideology: art had a clear agenda, which was to transform and change society in order to make it fit into a modern and progressive era. Additionally, the aspect of Soviet colonialism needs to be considered, given that the population of the Soviet colonies was understood to be inferior and therefore had to be ‘civilized’.

The 1990s are interesting in two aspects:  A real boom occurred in terms of digital networks with the surge of the World Wide Web, through the dissolution of the Soviet Union the former communist countries faced challenges economically and socially due to their integration into the democratic and neoliberal system. The digital world seemed to provide an easy, accessible opportunity to explore so called freedom, along with possibilities for cross-global connectivity, new forms of collaboration and the immersion into a bright, post-human age. At the same time, however, the former communist countries were exposed to an even greater public observation and as such the expectation to adapt to the values of the Western world at turbo speed.

Against this background, my PhD research will be focusing on three main theoretical pillars. Firstly, it aims to discuss how alternative models of socially engaged art can be defined and function within the post-communist context considering as a point of reference for initial research: the regions of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and former East Germany. In order to obtain a more comprehensive and diverse view on the topic, the dissertation actively investigates perspectives from the former communist countries that go beyond European borders. Secondly, the research intends to take a look at the discussions around the politics of digital art and networks within the neoliberal system. The interaction of social media, the democratic agenda and political activism will be examined in more detail, involving voices from less known theorists of the post-soviet space. The third theoretical pillar will be an attempt to reformulate strategies of social digital engagement at the intersection of quantum physics and social sciences. Can the world be influenced in a different way rather than through social activism? Can alternative strategies be found in inherited mythologies or cultural practices of Eastern and Central Europe to approach social engagement differently? What role can digital networks play within this context?

In the current pandemic situation of Covid-19, the cultural sphere experiences the effects of digital presence immensely. Even cultural platforms and artists who have previously kept a distance from digital space are forced to deal with it. The uncertainty of the outside world is suggested by the pseudo-security of the virtual world, in which hyperactivity replaces the external world-at-standstill. However, what effects does this have on those involved? The accessibly of knowledge intends to bring solutions and improve problematic situations. The internet intends to make knowledge accessible for everyone, connect people and give the unseen a voice. Taking a closer look at social media channels, knowledge is often used to criticize and judge others. The hashtag activism, that is supposed to be a sign of solidarity, moves towards a new form of political peer pressure, as non-participation at the same time means having allied with the other side. The digital world appears to become an extension of polarity, which intensifies unrest, aggression and incitement familiar from the traditional media, only functioning at much faster pace, at a more personal level and intelligently networked. The PhD project aims to provide a deeper insight into these structures and ideally strives to find alternative forms of digital social engagement that avoids them.

[1] engl. Let everyone go crazy in their own way!“

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