TRANSARTISTS & CISARTISTS
By Goran Stefanovski
(Key note speech for the 11th Res Artis General Member meeting and Conference ‘Artists in Dialogue, Transforming Communities’ October 9th – 12th, 2008 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
Good morning. It’s a great privilege to be here in your company.
It all started for me one fine day, a few months ago, when I received a letter from Maria Tuerlings. At first, as one does, I mechanically glanced through it to pick up the buzz words: … key note speech… conference… ‘Artists in Dialogue, Transforming Communities’”… global reach … 200 organizations …500 residency programmes…
Wow, I said, this sounds exciting. Then it went on: Trans Artists… Res Artis… anniversaries. Yes, I thought to myself, this can’t be bad.
And then it finished on a poignant note: urgent issues… international, European and Dutch cultural policies… exchange of knowledge and ideas …mobility of artists.
I’d made up my mind there and then, Urgency, Mobility, yes, I accept. This is a conference for me!
Then I went into a brainstorming and gestation mode. Every time I am about to start writing an essay I first have a good long look at its title. I gaze at the words. I check them in various sources of reference, looking for something I could steal. So this time I went to Google and typed in the term “Artistic residences”. It came up with 5,640,000 items. And it boasted it did that in 0.21 seconds. It’s become so difficult to steal these days. Where does one begin? It’s easier to start from the heart and work from memory. So allow me to do that with a few reflections on the question of Mobility and how it is understood where I come from.
A friend of mine, who is now a seasoned traveller and a theatrical man of the world, years ago had just returned to Belgrade, in then Yugoslavia, from Yale University, where he had graduated. He was cornered by an older colleague, a famous nationalist Serbian dramaturge who told him: “You move about too much, young man. Don’t you know that travel is a vexation to the spirit?”.
What a telling remark! And what long shadow it casts! There was the young Yale scholar cut down to size. There was his diploma thrown out of the window. He was shown, in no uncertain terms, that he has come to a place which doesn’t think much of his mobility.
All provincial nationalist philosophers think that their backwater is the centre of the world, that it is the very essence of things. Any movement would only compromise that luxurious position. The nation has reached utopia, it has surpassed history and change. Artists should realize their sacred national task and stay immovable and automatically keep the balance of the universe. What lovely pressure for them and what sweet dilemma!
And indeed some people in my neighbourhood do exercise inactivity. I ask someone “What are you doing” and they snap back: nothing! As if doing something was banned by law. It’s ok to do all manners of shady things as long as no one notices. Ideally, not even you yourself! Certainly not your wife! The facade must stay static and immune to action. And indeed, why travel away from this best of all possible worlds? Those who sin against this principle are outcasts. Cursed and restless! Like the Flying Dutchman.
My mother in her more morose moments would say “Why travel? They have people there just as we have here and they have houses there just as we have here”.
The idea of a traveller in the Balkans is someone out of his mind. Picture an old man sitting on his suitcase, on an empty platform at a railway station, in the middle of the night, wearing his Sunday best, his head on his clasped hands, clutching his walking stick. He knows there wouldn’t be a train in ten hours, but he can’t sleep. He is simply ready. He thinks: “It’s better for me to wait for the train than to expect the train to wait for me”. A man suspicious and paranoid, cheated too many times by the terror of time, history, politics, change of regimes, variations of religious fundamentalism and now – trains.
Just as the train leaves the station passengers feel a sense of metaphysical dread and reach for the chicken drumsticks, the brandy, the hard boiled eggs. Complete strangers fraternize, join forces. When a plane touches down there is a prolonged and spontaneous applause. For the captain who landed them safely, for the Gods who showed mercy and for themselves who endured the ordeal.
Travel is symbolic death. Or sometimes real one. At the beginning of the last century, my best man’s grandfather joined the multitudes of migrant workers looking for luck in the new world. He boarded a ship for New York City and was told weeks later that he’d arrived in Buenos Aires. He asked what happened. They told him: Oh well, what difference does it make? He died in Argentina and was never to see his village of Carev Dvor again. My best man grew up with this story as the formative narrative of his childhood.
Luckily my father was an exception. When my brother and I were small children, he fearlessly whisked us from our little landlocked country to the azure island of Hvar in the Adriatic. Out of this world. Certainly out of the world I’d ever seen before. The smaller egg I lived in had irrevocably broken. I was bitten by my travel bug, forever luring me ever further. And just as I thought I’d conquered it all my son and daughter surpassed me and told me I was old fashioned and started where I’d left off.
My neighbours sometimes hush in whispering voices to warn me that travel is spiritual death: “A stone which is not rooted in the ground, is easy to kick around”, “A you have come back to recharge your batteries, haven’t you”,“Oh, you have changed”. They do know how to make me feel good.
You would think that such primordial fears of travel have been eradicated in the more sophisticated post-modernist nations. Not necessarily so. Millions of modern day Brits fly across the globe, to places exactly like the one they left. Where they have fish and chips, all day English breakfast and premiere league football on plazma TV. Many fake travellers carry with them their caravan homes, their canned meat and vegetables, not so much travelling as exchanging home with home-from-home.
Beyond their domestic bliss lie risky lands of greasy natives, strange languages and food which gives you diarrhoea. Yes, one fine day they might pluck up courage to venture out there for cheap souvenirs and quick photographs with the donkeys and camels. And then rush back to their home-sweet-home. Global Village? Well, more village than global.
But people are people. There are communities who hate travel everywhere on the globe. From the heart of Russia, to the heart of America, from Asia to Africa. However, if we go back to the title of our conference, these are the very communities in question. These are the communities in need of transformation. And within them are the groups and the individuals and the artists faced with the inertia, the fear, the reluctance, the prejudice. About travel, but also about much else. And these artists are in dire need of – quoting the conference title again – dialogue.
Real travel is a spiritual affair. It requires imagination, talent and effort. It’s risky, adventurous and unpredictable. It often means trespassing into uncharted territories. Real travel requires interest in other people, tolerance, empathy. Respect for the Other. Real travel is art. It goes beyond, to the other side. It transcends.
We often quote the examples of the wonderful artistic globetrotters of the 19th century. The romantic souls who undertook serious journeys in search for the exotic. But often that was connected to the colonial push. And often it was sheer arrogance. “Hello, I have come to visit you, and you can’t touch me because my passport says “allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance”.
Wherever my English wife goes the winds of her ex-empire, whether real or imaginary, still blow in her sails. She travels with a certainty that wherever she is she will at least be able to hear the news, or watch a film, or read the menu in her mother tongue.
The moment I step out of my motherland I arrive in the ultimate elsewhere of Fortress Europe, having to blow my own wind into my own sails. Ah, what cliché this has become, oh what stereotype! Still, every artist from my country who wants to visit Britain must first have someone to invite him, write a letter of invitation, send the embassy his last pay slip, a copy of his work contract and bank balance. Then the artist will fill in an online visa, book a meeting, enter the consulate at the precise time, not one minute earlier or later, go through a metal detector, give fingerprints of all ten fingers, a biometric photograph of eyes, wait for a tannoy to call out his name, leave his documents and go home for a week to wait and pray.
A few years ago I wrote a performance script for a theatrical production in Stockholm dealing with these issues. It was called “Euralien”. It contained a number of artistic provocations including asking audiences to fill in immigration forms to get their tickets. In it there was a short scene called “The Interrogation”, taking place at an immigration point at Copenhagen Airport. An Counsellor is having a conversation with a Student who has just arrived from the third world.
COUNSELLOR: Why do you want to get into Denmark?
STUDENT: Because of Soren.
COUNSELLOR: The philosopher?
COUNSELLOR: I don’t understand.
STUDENT: His concern with individual existence, choice and commitment profoundly influenced modern theology and philosophy.
COUNSELLOR: You are a Kierkegaard fan?
STUDENT: If you must put it that way.
COUNSELLOR: What do you want to do in Denmark?
STUDENT: I’ll visit the University of Copenhagen where he studied. And the cafes where, at one time, he led an extravagant social life.
COUNSELLOR: Do you know anyone who’s still alive in Denmark?
STUDENT: Soren is still pretty alive.
COUNSELLOR: I mean physically.
STUDENT: I know Lotte.
COUNSELLOR: Who is she?
STUDENT: A girlfriend of mine.
COUNSELLOR: What does she do?
STUDENT: She’s a thinker.
COUNSELLOR: What does that mean?
STUDENT: Isn’t it self explanatory?
COUNSELLOR: Do you have a letter with her invitation?
STUDENT: She doesn’t know I’m coming. I want to surprise her.
COUNSELLOR: But you can’t get into the country.
STUDENT: She could get into my country three times and I never wrote any invitation letters to her.
COUNSELLOR: Do you have any money?
COUNSELLOR: How come?
STUDENT: Because I don’t make any money.
COUNSELLOR: What are you going to eat?
STUDENT: Kierkegaard. And Lotte.
COUNSELLOR: What if you get sick?
STUDENT: I won’t.
COUNSELLOR: How do you know?
COUNSELLOR: What if you die?
STUDENT: You are a depressive, aren’t you?
COUNSELLOR: How are you going to travel?
STUDENT: I’ll walk.
COUNSELLOR: If I let you in, you might want to live in
STUDENT: Why can’t I live in any country I want to live in?
COUNSELLOR: It’s easy for you to say that.
STUDENT: No, it’s easy for you to say that!
COUNSELLOR: Do you want to hear some hard facts?
COUNSELLOR: There are three million seven hundred East Germans trying to figure out what to do with themselves. One and a half million Iraqis uprooted after the Gulf War. There are more than two and a half million Palestinian refugees. Two
million ex Yugoslavs. One million Albanians. That’s the objective truth.
STUDENT: The highest truth is subjective.
COUNSELLOR: There are state laws.
STUDENT: And there’s human life. The fundamental problems of which defy rational, objective explanation.
That was the scene. I don’t know what happened to the poor characters. All I know is that ten years ago most of the people I collaborated with on the project came from Eastern European states which have since become members of the EU. And mine has not.
Reading the materials for the Conference I saw a passage called “Travelling restrictions in a global village” about a committee initiated in part by Transartists to resolve current problems regarding visas for foreign artists in the Netherlands. Well done and good luck! There was a poignant line saying that: “Whereas in Science and in Education the Dutch Authorities stimulate international mobility by a clear and generous policy regarding visa- and working permits, in the fine arts and in the performing arts arbitrariness rules”. Arbitrariness. Where have I heard that word before?
But being a member state of the European Union, however perfect that union may become, is not going to automatically solve all problems of mobility. There will still be communities who exclude each other, people who don’t want to say hello to their neighbours, partners who live under the same roof, but would rather erect walls between the beds or implement visa regulations for passage between the kitchen to the bedroom. Trans is not an easy concept.
Trans. What a beautiful and potent and fertile and pregnant prefix! Such rich notions: transaction; transfer; transformer. Listen how wonderfully they slip of the tongue! Transit! Translation! Transpose! Transverse!
Trans is a Latin prefix, meaning “across”, “beyond” or “on the opposite side [of]”. In geography we have Transalpine, Transvaal, Transsiberian and of course Transylvania (“beyond the forest”). In the context of sex and gender, Trans is an umbrella term for people who at least partially reject the gender they were assigned to at birth. How exciting!
On the very opposite end of the spectrum of Trans stands Cis. It is a Latin prefix, meaning “on the same side [of]” or “on this side [of]”. Only now I start to understand what Cisjordan meant. The name was always on the radio when I was a child and I never liked it. There was something clinical and sick about it. Like a cyst. Of course it was as a name for the British Mandate of Palestine, the West bank and Israel interchangeably. In medicine and sociology, cisgender and cissexual describe people whose gender identity matches their physical and/or assigned sex. Sounds a bit like Tom Jones. Rather boring!
The forces of Trans and Cis wrestle with each other in continuous embrace. The Trans world of constant change and dialectics and negotiation versus the Cis world of rigid fundamentalism. They are like a centrifugal and centripetal force, in constant tension, often synchronous, within the same community, often within the same artist. Sometimes these contrasts and contradictions and opposites are in pregnant and creative and delicate balance. In fact often their disagreements and divergences result in mature cultural diversity and show ways to reconciliation and cohabitation. But often these forces are in poisonous and destructive collision.
It’s relatively easy to discuss “Residential Art centres” in the “changing art world.” Yes they can offer artists space and time to shield them from the market place and “the commanding pressure of art promotion”. But what about those artists from the unchanging world of societies of fixed religious or ideological or patriarchal or nationalist dogmas? With not only “mild” but strongest of protectionism. Where artists are not Transartist, who go beyond and across, but rather Cisartists, who stay under, bellow. This is where “taking a stance” is really crucial.
We talk about the Trans quality of Art as if it is a given and taken for granted. Well it isn’t. It has to be earned, over and over again, sometimes on a daily basis. And this is where the work of our host Transartists becomes indispensible.
I love the metaphor of it “being a tool for curious artists”. The word tool is humble. It deals with the craft. Yes we all talk about art with a capital A, but craft is its essence. Tools are nothing in themselves. They have to be used to be useful. And Transartists not only makes these tools available but it also presents them in a way which makes “fruitful connections” possible and likely.
While learning how to use these tools some could and should make fools of themselves. I remember well the scars from my artistic residence at the Iowa Writing Programme, many centuries ago. One evening I went to Gabe’s Oasis watering hole. I asked some Americans around the pool table why they, as the mightiest nation on earth, put up with beer which is like cat piss. One of them turned towards me and growled: We like it that way. That was a rude awakening for me. I still don’t know who was Trans and who was Cis in this encounter.
A few days later I overheard a black guy saying he had a culture shock. I turned patronizingly towards him, in my Yugoslav non-alignment way and asked where he was from, expecting he’s from some small god-forsaken African tribe. He said “Harlem”. So there is this guy from New York who’s having a culture shock in Iowa City and I, a guy from Skopje, would offer to help him out.
To get out of the corner, but still being patronizing, I told him that I was soon going to go to New York and were there any dangerous parts of the city I should avoid. He looked at me and said “You look like a Chicano. People will cross to the other side of the street to stay out of your way.” There I was, Transed and Cised to oblivion.
I found out, first hand, what it is to, I quote, “collaborate with artists from other cultures, to confront oneself with other visions and views on art and the world. There is nothing to be ashamed of anymore in exposing oneself as an artist to all kinds of influences.” You travel away from home until you come home again. T.S. Eliot says to get home and “recognize the place for the first time”.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate our host’s Trans Artists’ tenth anniversary and the Res Artis fifth anniversary and to raise a glass, or at the moment at least my voice, to celebrate their partnership. I believe that their sterling work in enabling intercultural dialogue and mobility is weaving the very fabric of European integration
So, without further ado, let us get down to work. I’m really looking forward to the workshop at 1.30 this afternoon called “Towards a new European hospitality” given by the EU Mobility Working Group.
I’m looking forward to meeting my colleague Nora Naranjo-Morse, from Santa Clara Pueblo, who will be giving a key note speech tomorrow. This is what I read in her blurb “Her work, often reflects on the tensions of producing art for a Western art market that often praises its innovative approach while, at the same, marginalizes it as “native” art. Oh how I understand that, Nora, my sister in arms! And also Koulsy Lamko, from Chad, a poet, playwright and teacher of Theatre and Creative Writing. Same job as mine, brother!
(By the way, I sent the programme of the conference to a good friend of mine, a lecturer in anthropology. He sent a message back saying: “Interesting choice of keynotes, from the Pueblo Indians, Chad, and Macedonia. Don’t feel in the least ‘third worlded’, do you?” He’d hit a sore point. Masochistically, I asked him if I could quote him. He replied “Please do”.)
I’m also keeping my eyes and ears open for the workshop on Saturday called “Mobility, safe heaven and refuge”. And for the presentation with the fabulous title of “Artscollaboratory”. And for the examples of the whole range of practices from the Baltics to Mali.
For me Transartists is a place where pilgrims stop for a breather, to exchange news and change horses. A haven. I go to my dictionary says again. And it says: Haven. Definition: Something that physically protects, especially from danger. Synonyms: asylum, harbour, refuge, retreat, sanctuary, shelter, oasis, port.
Shall I go on? No. I will stop here and let you all – take it away! Let’s have a great conference!
Goran Stefanovski 2008
18 Martyrs Field Road
Canterbury, CT1 3PT, UK