ESR 1 Blog August 2021: Gabor Erlich

Last time I wrote about some very personal anxieties and the ways I have been trying to cope with them. Going off-line, it seems, will remain my main tactic. August was a little hectic, I had to find ways to be able to focus on several issues, all linked to my research, although very differently.

I was asked to conduct an interview with some members of the assembly that had vocalised dissent and organised a protest-movement against the Hungarian government’s freshest achievement in creating a parallel state, that is, the outsourcing of the public university system to a number of ‘foundations’ – and surprised you won’t be – which are all led by high-ranking cabinet members, business executives and loyal oligarchs. Upon this move, there is only five universities left in the whole country that are still ‘autonomous’ in a sense that the university’s senate is the sole authority. All other institutions have lost this autonomy, since, from now on, these boards of trustees will govern the institutions, most likely resulting in major changes in curricula which will present itself either as an ideological reprogramming of the humanities, social sciences, arts, etc., or the adoption of a profit-oriented regiment that will try to focus on serving the interest of the multinational companies, by tailor-making qualified labour-forces for certain industries (agriculture, engineering, economy, etc.).
Such a crucial restructuring was carried out under the blurring cover of the ‘state of emergency’ the parliament has installed during the coronavirus pandemic. There was one outstanding case: students and teachers of the University of Theatre and Film (SZFE) in Budapest organised the most remarkable protest-campaign the country has seen over the past couple of years. It consisted of a strong international campaign supported by acclaimed members of the international community, which is to say, stars and celebrities endorsed the university and spoke out against the government’s ‘reform’; a long sit-in at the iconic building of the university where assemblies were held on a daily basis for the members of the community, while others guarded the gates so that the newly appointed leadership could not enter the premises; as well as an international advocacy campaign that secured a remarkable thing: universities from the ‘West’ will accept the training programme of the freshly funded ‘Free-SZFE Association’ and will issue diplomas to those who decide not to continue their studies at SZFE under the new leadership, but at Free-SZFE.

The upcoming issue of the Budapest-based online art theory magazine Mezosfera will focus on art/activism, and the editor of the issue, a fellow researcher who is completing her PhD dissertation at the New School, asked me to conduct an interview with some members of the assembly that focuses on art-activism.

Honestly, it is a very interesting topic for me, although not without problems. So currently I am working on putting together a list of questions that I feel are pointing towards issues that lie at the heart of the problem on two levels. On the one hand, there is the issue with film production as such. If you have been a reader of my short notes here, you may already know how much my work is indebted to critical theory. Therefore, I cannot but ask about the dependent nature of the film industry and the possible ways out of the heteronomous chains of the power of the mogul, which can be a very slippery ground. Consequently, what I need to do is to articulate my inner scepticism in a way that is not offensive, while at the same time not silencing my interviewee.

This takes me to talk just a little bit about the most stimulating reading I did this summer, especially since the author has this great line:

Industrial capitalism is a cinematic mode of production and cinema is a powerful technology of human abstraction, the artistic equivalent of money.

Yes, I read Massimiliano Mollona’s ART//////COMMONS book, a fresh fruit delivered from Zed Books. As an artist who has been involved in a number of collectives over the past ten years that all moved around the borders of art, politics, community, activism, etc., it is just exceptional to learn about initiatives through the lens of the author, it really does resonate with much of what I have experienced while working in communities. That being said, personally I love the Prologue the most.

On top of all that, Mollona will be the next speaker of the Feinart Lecture Series on the 23rd of September. I cannot recommend it enough that you tune in!

August was lucky, I was able to meet a comrade twice, a Hungarian cultural anthropologist whose research I have been following for years now and we had a long discussion on the Central-Eastern European region and the specific challenges we have to face when positioning CEE in the world-system. The most interesting part though was to hear about the background study of an exhibition-research project he and a fellow researcher did, which focuses on two art collectives both of which criticised the state-socialist regime in Hungary (one in the 1970’s, the other in the 80’s), and the ways the system-change affected the collectives as well as certain of its members. It is a fascinating story – well, a sad story with many fascinating elements in it, but I think it is best if I save that for the next time. So be prepared for some ‘tranzitology’.

August was a very intense month, as you might’ve guessed already. I am already certain that September will also be intense, hopefully the next entry will be from Iceland where I’ll begin my first secondment soon.

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