Minor Media Normality

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Minor Media Normality in the East

Inke Arns, Andreas Broeckmann (Berlin/Rotterdam)



1. Autogenerative Europe

In our imagination, eastern Europe was always black and white. Traveling to
East Germany or Poland meant suddenly leaving colorful western Europe and
entering a movie from the forties or fifties. Later we simply couldn't
remember having seen any color, not the green of the trees, nor the red of
the brick buildings. When we went to the movies to see a film by Wajda,
Kieslowski or Tarkowsky, the filmmaker's experiments with color only
reinforced our image of the east as gray. Europe clearly had an
ideologically motivated neurosis when it came to the perception of color.

This particular brand of European Orientalism has now grown tired. Nearly
ten years after the social upheaval in eastern Europe, these countries have
ceased being part of an "eastern block". Each is stepping out of the shadow
of the Soviet empire and taking on once again its own particular face in
the international arena. Each is becoming recognizable as a participating
unit of the European patchwork.

While the European Union attempts to somehow defend the idea of a Fortress
Europe and the negotiations with the central European countries for their
admission into it reveal its own shortcomings, while NATO uses its plans
for expansion to try to hold onto the front of the Cold War by shoving it
along, while the arms of western Europe are constantly opening and closing,
opening and closing to refugees and immigrants, the network of business
contacts and personal acquaintances branches outward, bringing the Europe
of Europeans slowly but surely closer together. Little media such as
letters, the fax, local radio and Internet mailing lists are contributing
far more to mutual understanding than governmental objects of prestige such
as the German-French television project ARTE or the exclusive efforts of
the European Commission. In order to understand European differences and
put them to productive use, swarms of little sentences, of little images
are needed.

Of course, genuine heroes do occasionally appear on the domestic screens.
In the mid-eighties, a new pop star emerged on the global media scene:
Gorby Superstar, a Soviet Secretary General who could walk, talk and laugh,
a real guy, even if he was a Russian. After the senilocracy of the period
of stagnation beginning in the mid-seventies, from 1985 on, Gorbachev set
off on his travels, speaking to his own people about Glasnost and
Perestroika, signaling his willingness to open up a dialogue with Reagan,
presenting himself as a decent, charming sort of fellow to Thatcher, and
almost penitently to the Pope, chatting with Kohl, building trust — and
all that in front of television cameras. Finally, here was someone who
could sell bad politics like cola and ice cream as well as any western
advertising agency and who could play the modern propaganda machine better
than NATO and the Communist Party combined.

No wonder that for the other countries of the Warsaw Pact — East Germany,
for example — Gorbachev was to become a factor of ideological insecurity,
and therefore, a domestic political threat. In June 1987, three British
rock groups played a concert at the Brandenburger Tor. They turned the
speakers to the east where thousands of young people had gathered to listen
to the concert. When the situation built to a confrontation with the East
German security forces, they called out not only "Down with the Wall!" but
also "Gorbachev, Gorbachev!" because they presumed he was on their side in
this matter. Two years later, at the celebration for the fortieth
anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, Gorbachev himself justified
the presumption with the words he delivered to the gentlemen of the Council
of East Berlin. They'd come too late and would immediately be punished by
life, the demonstrating masses and the television viewing public.

The changes set off by the Gorbachev fan club occurred at a time when
things seemed to have actually happened when a camera was present. Like the
fall of the Berlin Wall, the second Gulf War, the coup in Russia or the
televised revolution in Romania can be classified first and foremost as
media events. Politics, national as well as international, is increasingly
becoming merely a reaction to media events, to whatever is perceived by the
media, and consequently, the public which forces its hand. Supposedly,
President Clinton's advisors decided in 1992 that the war in Yugoslavia was
not of U.S. national interest, and so, kept relevant information from the
president. This changed when Clinton happened to see television reports
about the siege of Sarajevo in a Tokyo hotel and insisted on U.S.
intervention.

Such influence of the media, and at the moment, particularly television,
is, of course, not news. As early as the First World War, battles were
fought or halted as a result of public opinion on the home front. And the
photographers of the nineteenth century and Greek philosophers were also
aware that media representation did not merely reflect, but rather,
constructed reality. This is why it's difficult to determine how the famous
Parisian reality crisis came about exactly in the eighties (Baudrillard,
Virilio). One fortunate consequence of the Party's propaganda was that the
media on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain was never perceived as the
source of reality production, whereas in the west, this illusion was clung
to fiercely. The techniques of dealing with media such as whispering,
turning a deaf ear or reading between the lines are aspects of such useful
central European virtues — hesitancy, skepticism and irony.

Throughout the Cold War, the public propaganda machines of the east and
west told their great stories of the crime-ridden system of exploitation
and of the Evil Empire. At the same time, the readers and watchers in the
east were better prepared for what was to follow, not only for matters
effecting the pseudo-east, namely, learning how to live, as the Agentur
Bilwet put it, in the society of the debacle. The creative engagement with
the impossible, the avoidance of the seemingly necessary, the refusal to
identify oneself negatively with inevitable failure — Motto: The reward of
playing dumb is free time — those are the survival tactics of the
post-industrial society. The little stories of this tradition most commonly
told by the small, independent propaganda machines, the pamphlet
distributors and poster plasterers, the local pirate radio stations,
student papers and the networks circulating forbidden books and records.
This isn't so much a romanticized review as a glance into the toolbox of
the everyday media.

2. Eastern Europe Watching

One of the first lessons to be learned as the Iron Curtain rose was that
the east bloc was hardly a bloc at all in the sense of a homogeneous, solid
whole. Various mentalities and various socialisms had been brought together
under red flags large and small which waved more for Big Brother than for
the other sisters. Distance, and often a deep skepticism, separated the
countries of the Warsaw Pact. In 1985, the Hungarian author György Dalos
described a few of the reasons for the differences between the small
central and eastern European nations: "Their religious backgrounds are
different: Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox and Islamic traditions
live next to each other and the historical experiences are not any less
divergent. There are countries in which tremendous revolutions occurred in
the nineteenth century (Hungary, Poland); there are those where none have
occurred (Romania, Czechoslovakia). A few of the countries in the region
have mixed populations (Romania, the Soviet Union), and in others, national
minorities are insignificant. The overall picture is further politically
differentiated according to whether the individual countries were annexed
to Nazi Germany during the Second World War or were members of the
anti-fascist coalition. Besides these past differences, or those which can
be attributed to the past, there are those that derive from the current
situation in the individual countries. Among these are size, economic
strength, the level of consumerism, the role of the public, freedom of
movement, etc." (Kursbuch 81, p. 4)

Since the beginning of the nineties, these historical and cultural
differences have been importantly instrumental in the race to the west.
Slavoj Zizek, psychoanalyst and student of Lacan, upon whose couch in
Ljubljana the New Europe lies, has said, regarding these revived and
strategic differences: "What's truly at stake in the current crises of the
post-socialist states is precisely the fight for one's own place now that
the illusion of the 'third way' has dissipated: Who will be 'let in',
integrated into the developed capitalist order, and who will be shut out?
Ex-Yugoslavia is perhaps the exemplary case: Each player in this bloody
game of collapse attempts to legitimize its place 'within' by presenting
itself as the last bastion of European civilization (the current shorthand
for the capitalist 'within') against Oriental barbarism.

And then Zizek describes a game also being played in East Germany, Poland,
Hungary, Slovakia, etc., etc. — a postmodern variation of "Who's 'It'?":
"For the right-wing nationalists in Austria, there are these imaginary
borders of the Karawanken, the mountain range along the border between
Austria and Slovenia: Just beyond it begins the realm of the Slavic hordes.
For the national Slovenians, this border is the Kolpa River, separating
Slovenia from Croatia: We are central Europe, while the Croatians are
already part of the Balkans, entangled in irrational ethnic feuds which
don't actually have anything to do with us — we're on their side, and have
sympathy for them in the way one has sympathy for victims of aggression in
the Third World... For the Croatians, this all-important border is
naturally the one between them and the Serbs, that is, the one between
western Catholic civilization and the Eastern Orthodox collective spirit
which cannot fathom the values of western individualism. And finally, the
Serbs believe they are the last line of defense for Christian Europe
against the fundamentalist danger embodied by the Islamic Albanians and
Bosnians. (By now it should be clear who within the borders of what used to
be Yugoslavia actually acts in a civilized 'European' manner: those who are
on the bottom rung of this ladder, the ones shut out by all the others --
Albanians and Muslim Bosnians.)" (Slavoj Zizek, "The Malaise in Liberal
Democracy", in Heaven Sent, Nr. 5, 1992, pp. 47 - 48)

Only in Russia, the game is played the other way around. A few of our
friends in St. Petersburg, all of them artists and intellectuals, insist
that Russia is not a part of Europe, but rather, of Asia. They were born
and raised in Siberia, Kasachstan or the Ural, and refer to what Tartar
blood they have within them and speak of Petersburg as a Russian simulation
what is "European". So Europe then stretches from England, which itself
speaks of Europe as a foreign continent, to Russia, perhaps the last great
empire of the nineteenth century where the claim on the Asian colonies
justifies the denial of Europe.

Besides these attempts to draw borders and to be west of the east, there
have always been attempts on the part of European intellectuals to come to
an agreement to do away with borders altogether. At critical points in
history such as 1956 (the Hungarian revolution), 1968 (Prague Spring), 1977
(Charta 77, Prague), 1979 - 1981 (the Solidarity movement in Poland), or in
connection with the arrest or extradition of dissidents such as Biermann,
Solzhenitsyn, Havel or Sakharov, great international movements of
solidarity took hold which insisted on human rights without borders and
which referred to the existence of a multitude of unofficial channels of
communication. Another important moment in the history leading up to 1989
was the revival of the idea of central Europe (Mitteleuropa) by
philosophers and writers during the eighties. The debate was intended not
only to counter the hegemony of the Soviet Union but also to revive the
memory of a time when Europe was not divided down the middle. In 1985,
Vaclav Havel wrote about the skepticism of the central Europeans: "A bit
secretive, a bit nostalgic, often tragic, at times even heroic, now and
then even a bit incomprehensible in their unassuming awkwardness, tender
cruelty and in their ability to combine the outward appearance of
provinciality with universal and historical foresight." (Kursbuch 81, p.
40) It was this sort of contradictory overlapping in the understanding of
what "Europe" is that ensured the debate over the many centers of the
continent — Brussels, Cracow, Berlin, Sarajevo... — could so quickly fly
out of the Washington-Moscow hyperbola.

There was also a plethora of varying maps in the media, a transparency and
translucency of borders, not only to the west but also within the east.
Hence 80% of East Germans could receive West German television with their
normal household antennae, and only in the valley of the clueless, the
southeastern region around Dresden, was anyone safe from the onslaught of
western propaganda. But there, they had Polish and Czech television, and
so, a differentiated image of the various televisual standpoints of the
states in the neighboring countries. In western Romania, as the
Romanian-German author Richard Wagner reports, besides the Romanian
program, one could also catch the Yugoslavian and the Bulgarian. Wagner
writes in one of his stories: "The game's about to begin, he says. The
Serbs are showing the derby on TV. And there's going to be a movie tonight.
With the one with the big tits. You can actually see something when they
show it. They don't just cut the whole scene out like ours do." (Kursbuch
81, p. 128)

Besides the national television stations and the official papers which, as
Karl Schlögel notes, were just as thin everywhere with the same bad photos
and the same chemically sanitized articles, the international western radio
stations with their much wider broadcast area, such as the BBC World
Service or the Deutsche Welle, played an extremely important role in the
distribution of news and discussions which were not reported by the state
media of eastern Europe. Of overwhelming importance was the Munich-based
U.S.' Radio Free Europe which reached all of central and eastern Europe via
dissidents' broadcasts during the Cold War.

And of course, on the local level there was an abundance of small
unofficial media, niche media which was often short-lived and yet could
maintain an exchange of information and communication which, according to
the official version, could not exist. Records and audio cassettes were
just as effective and meaningful, as well as jokes passed on by word of
mouth — Radio Eriwan! — traced maps and endlessly circulating copies of
books. In countries in where no private use of photocopying equipment was
allowed under any circumstances, a multitude of illegal publication
strategies for the distribution of ideas were invented, most of which were
referred to by the umbrella term Samisdat. A related principle was ramka,
which was originally Polish but then spread to Hungary and elsewhere.
Miklos Haraszti writes: "The ramka in the east is the equivalent of the
photocopier in the west. The recipe for ramka goes like this: Soviet power
minus electrification. By the way, this cross of silk screen and offset
printer can be built in two hours at home — and is capable of several
thousand impressions. There are times when the police, like worrisome
gardeners, mow down the boldly sprouting Samisdat to the roots. but the
ramka is ineradicable. Ramka is virtual freedom of the press; he with the
fingers smeared black with ink, the human rights professional, points to
the free, electronic future." (Kursbuch 81, p. 31) In these times of
electronic networking, we should not forget that a hand press can have a
practical dignity which the Internet, with its susceptibility to control,
will never attain.


3. Soluble History

Each of the central and eastern European "revolutions" in the eighties has
its own history and series of events in each country: From the Polish
"interruptus" to the halted Russian perestroika and the Hungarian slippage
to the capitalist goulash, the abrupt collapse of the East German regime to
the brutal Romanian Christmas story. In the Baltics, it was song, in
Prague, soft-spoken words, in Berlin, candles and bad shoes that rang in
the new era.

Although it's clear now in retrospect that there was a certain logic in the
developments of the late eighties, from Gorbachev's perestroika, the
political liberalization in Hungary and Poland to the occupation of the
West German embassy in Prague and Warsaw by East German citizens in the
summer of 1989, the events that late autumn came in a form which was more
or less unexpected. The western media were all over these events, or
rather: they wanted to be all over them. Because the events were hard to
come by in terms of flight schedules and hotel bookings. Where should a
U.S. or Japanese television programmer send a camera crew at the beginning
of December 1989: to Berlin to wait for the opening of the Brandenburger
Tor, to Prague where the students were out in the streets, or to dark gray
Bucharest where a Transylvanian self-laceration might occur. Once again,
life was punishing those who came too late. Impossible choices and a
bonanza for television viewers with a satellite disk who could zap their
way among the various glances into the events of the day by watching the
news from Berlin, Bonn, Paris, London and Atlanta all at once.

The result was a blanket of suspenseful media happenings that went on for
weeks, and we even forgave the live media the endless repetition of the
same video, over and over. It was here that life was happening, here that
history was happening right in front of our eyes. And not just for western
television viewers, but also and especially for the people in the countries
themselves, the medium of television was serving an important catalytic
function. For weeks, the people of Leipzig watched their Monday marches on
western television and went out on the streets in even greater numbers the
following week. After all, in the end they'd attained their Warholian
fifteen minutes of fame. At the symposium "The Media are with us!", held as
early as April 1990 in Budapest, the art critic Magda Carneci said of the
role of television in the Romanian revolution: "Television wasn't simply a
giant, tireless eye that continuously beamed the absolutely irrepressible
images, but it also served as something of a collective brain: It received,
selected and distributed news throughout the whole nation which was utterly
essential for the coordination and upholding of the fighting spirit, and
created a state of consciousness which was coherently directed toward
battle, awareness and victory. Television made the entire population a sort
of highly sensitive network within which each individual took part in the
act of revolution, both physically and mentally. (...) In a certain way,
television justified the revolution for most people." (pp. 19 - 21)

A short time later, the revolutionary reality, in the light of the great
number of competing authentic documents of the collective experience,
naturally ran up against doubt. Hardly four months after the events in
December, Carneci remarked: "Since the first days of the revolution, things
have rapidly changed. What one sees now on television about the Romanian
revolution is becoming, it seems to me, more and more a fiction." (p. 22)
Similar adjustments occurred in East Germany and in Czechoslovakia where
competing versions of the history circulated and called the victory of the
little revolutionaries in the street into question. Within a few weeks,
what seemed authentic at first on the screen as well as on location, was
revealed to have an inextricable and contradictory complexity, especially
as journalists ceaselessly continued their search for new "facts". Reality
and fiction were brought closer together and then blended into each other.
The supposed experience of "instant history" had proven itself to be as
authentic as a cup of instant, soluble coffee: "If you believe in me, I
exist."

For the west, there was the additional difficulty of distilling ways to
deal with all that had been gathered by the media. While the good guys and
the bad guys were still clearly distinguishable in 1989, and hence, an
optimistic, futurist look ahead was called for, the western perception of
the war in Yugoslavia was considerably less sure of itself. But how can a
politically and historically complex story be packed into three and a half
minutes. Western intellectuals such as Peter Handke, Alain Finkelkraut and
Susan Sontag went to Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo in search of the
"authenticity of experience" and the "reality of life", a search that had
brought German and French artists and intellectuals to opposing trenches in
1914. And while historians and military strategists quarreled over the
formulas for understanding and intervention, the media created a perception
of a downward trend which would demand action. But the media achieved the
opposite and the reports on the war in the Balkans led to paralysis in
western observers instead of the will to intervene. The media triumph of
1989, when the media could make history, met its Verdun in Dubrovnik,
Srebrenica, Gorazde and Sarajevo, where it couldn't stop history.


4. "Open Society" and "New World Order"

The "end of history" (Fukuyama), which seemed almost tangible in 1989, was
suddenly brought to the "return of history" ad absurdum. And yet: the short
moment between the supposed zero hour of history and the unexpected "entry
into the present" (Schlögel, p. 9) briefly revealed an astounding piece of
>theater. In the fall, the Australian media critic McKenzie Wark sits in
front of his television, following the events in Europe, which for him are
a part of the ongoing global media spectacle creating illusions of identity
and history out of images and snippets of stories: "One thinks of Europe in
1989 as the opening night at the theater where the curtain goes up and the
audience comes face to face - with another audience. One has to be outside
the theater altogether to see the whole thing together as one big
spectacular show." (p.60) The western public had followed the revolutions
of 1989 with enthusiasm, but the object of the fascinated gaze was not the
mere new discovery of democracy as such: Those in the west are all too well
aware of the shortcomings and cul-de-sacs of real, existing liberal
democracy to be fascinated by it. What fascinated the western "viewer" was
much more, as Zizek's Slovenian colleague Rado Riha writes, "an assumed
fascination without reservation on the part of the eastern European with
western democracy, the naive, blind, as it were, belief in it. This is how
the west looked to the east to see confirmation of its own truth. (...) In
the assumed fascination with democracy of the eastern Europeans, the
westerner could see himself in his 'pure' form, not yet tainted by
empirical disillusion and false steps, and grasp the untarnished origin of
his democratic being." (Rado Riha, Reale Geschehnisse der Freiheit. Zur
Kritik der urteilskraft in Lacanscher Absicht, WO ES WAR 3, Vienna: Turia &
Kant, 1993, pp. 14 - 15).

Strengthened by this supposed naive gaze from the east onto the fascinating
west, actors of the most varied of stripes (sects, banks, parties,
cultures, private set ups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)) began
a race to see who would be the first to bless the east and hope some of
their luck will rub off on them. The "new world order" proclaimed by George
Bush at the end of the eighties found its first expression in the
occupation of the east by ideological pioneers. In Croatia alone, 790
representatives of international or regional NGOs are currently witness to
an unbelievable boom in the private sector. At present, the vacuum left by
the retreat of the state and public supervision in many post-socialist
countries of eastern Europe is being filled by the unregulated activities
of NGOs.

NGOs are active on a broad social level and are generally perceived as the
"voice of civil society". They support the upholding of human rights (for
example, amnesty international) or environmental protection (Greenpeace) or
offer humanitarian aid (for example, the International Red Cross). NGOs are
financed by companies, foundations, private individuals, regional or global
bodies (for example, the EC or the UNHCR) or governments (USAAID).

One of the most important and influential NGOs in eastern Europe today is
the "Soros Foundation for an Open Society". Besides its engagement in the
areas of education, humanitarian aid, human rights, art and culture (via
the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art, SCCA) as well as its support for
social, legal and economic reform, this foundation is particularly engaged
in the creation and support for independent media (for example, Radio Zid
in Sarajevo, Arkzin in Zagreb, Radio B92 in Belgrade, the daily newspaper
Koha Joone in Albania, as well as Internet and email communication). By
financing media, organizations and projects independent of the governments,
the development of a new political consciousness is to be encouraged, and
with it, a corner stone is laid for the development of a civil society, or
"open society". With its support for new eastern European democracy
movements, the Soros Foundation has not always won the approval of the
respective governments.

The Soros Foundation, created by the Hungarian-American multimillionaire
and philanthropist George Soros, takes its cue from Karl Popper's concept
of the "open society". In his book "The Open Society and Its Enemies"
(1940), Popper turned against historicism, i.e., against the idea that it's
possible to recognize the fundamental laws of historical development and
predict future developments based on these fundamental laws: whether that
be that the revealed will of God is the victory of a chosen race, laws of
dialectics and/or the inevitable social-economic processes which are to
determine the course and outcome of history. Each attempt to create and
realize a complete concept of human society, according to Popper, is
destined to failure and lead to the loss of freedom — to a closed society:
"The attempt to create heaven on earth instead produces hell."

The "Soros Foundation" network, established in the eighties, now consists
of around thirty autonomous national foundations in almost every
post-socialist country of central and southeastern Europe, the former
Soviet Union and central Asia. The Open Society Institutes (OSI) in New
York and Budapest provide for the work of the national foundations the
necessary administrative, financial and technical needs (a total of US$350
million in 1995). The Central European University (CEU; at first in Warsaw,
Budapest and Prague, now only in Warsaw and Budapest) and the since closed
Open Media Research Institute (OMRI; an extension of the Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute in Munich) are also a part of this
empire of beneficence.

Due to either insufficient or completely lacking alternative support --
>from the public or private sectors — George Soros' foundations in eastern
Europe have become in many places the only source of financing for
independent projects. Considerable sums of money flow here which are
subject to neither democratic control nor any form of governmental
regulation. Soros' "open society" implies parallel structures similar to
governments populated by nine bureaucrats. The resulting problems related
to the sovereignty of a country as well as the possible economic interests
are obvious to John Horvath: "The most likely use of the ISF (International
Soros Foundation), however, would seem to be as a means for shrewd market
penetration in an economically prostrate region. By concentrating on the
media and telecommunications infrastructure development, to what extent is
the ISF building a Soros-controlled telecommunications empire that spans
>from the Pacific to Central Europe?" (John Horvath, The Soros Network,
Nettime mailing list, Feb. 7, 1997 and Telepolis Journal, Jan. 31, 1997)

Numerous opinions are circulating regarding Soros' "true" motivations and
he's prime fodder for conspiracy theorists. His strategies sway between
selfless philanthropy, western capitalist utilitarianism and alternative
concepts of the state and society, an approach which, when compared to the
"Mother Theresa Syndrome", other NGOs can only call the "Brother George
Strategy". The more selfless, perhaps more Protestant variation, for
example, would be represented by the Dutch organization Press Now which,
based in Amsterdam, has supported the maintenance and further development
of independent media in former Yugoslavia for years. Small radio stations
outside of the cities, weekly magazines of the opposition and individual
journalists are often unbureaucratically supported — not easy in a
situation of perpetual political-tectonic shifts.

Of course Press Now also often finds itself facing moral dilemmas or
political pressures; how does one measure the political independence of
radio broadcasters such as Radio 101 in Zagreb or Zid in Sarajevo? And the
national governments in Slovenia, Croatia or Serbia naturally have their
own positions on the possibility that difficult spirits, whom they very
well might consider to be dangerous radicals, might be kept alive by
foreign forces. But the structures upon which Press Now bases its work are
founded on the contacts between individuals and small groups, and it's such
personal contact that also provides the motivation for many of the
invitations, trips and projects which independent federally supported
organizations such as Press Now and its employees make possible.


5. Commonplace Media Art

The borders between journalistic practice and artistic methods are not
always sharply delineated. Since 1989, the eastern European landscape has
been in upheaval: It began with a sort of media supernova which resulted in
an explosion of commercial radio and television broadcasters. For a while,
the public media presented a playground for artists and media activists.
The Romanian artist Calin Dan, who now lives in Holland is they'll allow
him to, wrote in 1995: "In Romania, the media environment turned from an
ideological desert (prior to December 1989) to a complete jungle.
Everything began with the printed media revolution, which created from the
very beginning a climate of vulgarity, violence, new-age fabulations, and
conspiracy theories. The local pulp fictions and the big global truths were
blended in a way that flattened the senses and modified attention. The new
radio-scape became another example of the media environment as numerous
independent radio stations mushroomed immediately after the revolution, and
Bucharest became one of the most interesting radio broadcast cities in
Europe." (in: Czegledy, 1995, p.30)

A friend who was in Skopje in 1995 also reports on a new, extravagant
television experience: Late one evening, "The Third Man" was shown by the
first program of national Macedonian television. Dan's friend was
fascinated; thanks to German television, she had never seen this film in
the original English version. Or perhaps, one should say heard — there
wasn't much to see of the picture. Then, there were French subtitles over
which, after a few moments of hesitation, Macedonian subtitles were
superimposed. The subtitles covered half the picture. In the upper right
hand corner, the logo of the western television program which had
originally broadcast the film was visible, and the upper left hand corner
of the picture was covered by the logo of the Macedonian national
broadcaster. Dan's friend was perplexed. When she asked her Macedonian host
about the meaning behind it all, the host replied that surely she had seen
the huge satellite disk on top of the roof of the national broadcasting
building. She should simply think of it as a sort of giant vacuum cleaner
switched to "superhigh". All the data sucked up was either stored or
immediately broadcast on television.

Enes Zlatar from Sarajevo, an employee of the newly set up Soros Center for
Contemporary Art (SCCA) there, has a similar report on the media scene in
Bosnia after the war: "Independent production of home videos continues. The
national TV experiences programmatic and productional involution. The only
TV show made by young, creative and professional authors, within the youth
programme, is a monthly show, 'Vatrene Ulice' (Streets on Fire). There is a
new phenomenon of emergence of many small, local TV stations which do not
have an interest for author production. The programmes of these stations
consist mainly of stolen satellite programmes and bootleg films on VHS."

Strategies and forms of media art were and still are quite different in the
individual countries due to the varying possibilities for free access to
new media (for example, video cameras, computers, photocopiers, etc.) as
well as varying degrees to which "independent" mass media and "divergent"
opinions are put up with. For example, while the so-called subcultural or
alternative scene in Yugoslavia — especially in Slovenia — has been
working with video since the early eighties, and Yugoslavian television --
late in the evening, but still! — shows experimental videos, and video art
in the eighties in Poland and Hungary could lean on the experimental films
of the seventies for support, the situation in countries such as
Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania or Bulgaria is entirely different
because access to the technical means was not possible, for either
political or economic reasons. Despite the difficulties, the group
"Piratskow Televidenie" (Pirate Television, 1988 - 92) in Petersburg
produced alternative, eccentric and mostly illogical television programming
which were to be fed into the state television channels with the help of
military broadcasting equipment.

Varying strategies in the field of performance as well: When in the
eighties the multimedia art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (New
Slovenian Art) weren't tired of their role fronting for the rock group
Laibach, "overidentifying" with the socialist ideology of Yugoslavia,
publicly and loudly, stirring the audience and the state into a rage, the
Czechoslovakian secret organization B.K.S. (Bude Konec Sveta — the end of
the world is nigh) worked since the mid-seventies in hiding on the creation
of their own laws, their own structures, their own rituals and their own
mythology, their own art and their own tradition; in short, an autonomous
culture.

After the analog avant garde of the eighties, media art went digital in the
nineties. New media centers and initiatives have been set up in the last
few years in several post-socialist countries of eastern Europe. They focus
on various forms of media art and Internet projects and are increasingly
taking an active role in global digital culture. The E-Lab in Riga, the
WWWArt Center in Moscow, C3 (Center for Culture and Communication) in
Budapest, the SCCA Media Lab in Macedonian Skopje and in Bulgarian Sofia
are just a few examples.


6. Critical Technology

Bart Rijs arrived at an astounding insight in his article in Volkskrant
(December 2, 1996): Not only have, is Rijs' headline — not only has the
revolution in Serbia set up its own home page on the Internet, no: "Even
revolutions aren't what they used to be, since there is internet. The times
of illegal printing-presses in wet cellars, seditious pamphlets spread by
revolutionaries in duffle coats, are over." One could almost come to the
conclusion that the author displays the tendencies of a technological
utopian: the Internet as the subject of history — the revolutionary home
page as the perfect example of the liberating power of computers and the
Internet. The conclusion would perhaps be drawn too quickly, according to
John Horvath, because ultimately, the revolution is being carried out by
Serbians, not the Internet community. Internet access in Serbia is rare.
Not that the home page put up by protesting students is useless, on the
contrary: it provides us with a personal view of the development of events.
But attributing revolutionary qualities to media and technologies leads to
a crude misunderstanding of the situation, says John Horvath: "No doubt
John Perry Barlow et al will distort the reality of what is happening and
start extolling the revolutionary virtues of the Internet, thereby missing
the whole point of what is going on in Belgrade and, to some extent,
downgrade the heroism and courage of those who still revert to the 'by-gone
methods' of 'illegal printing-presses in wet cellars' and 'seditious
pamphlets spread by revolutionaries in duffle coats'." In a country in
which "new" media have still not been widely distributed, the value of the
"old" media should not be underestimated.

At the same time, these winter protests of 1996 - 97 in Belgrade, crowned
with a certain success, provide a good example of the surprising power that
the supporting help from the Internet can bring about. The local radio
station B-92, the Soros-supported oven of cultural and political opposition
in the Serbian capital, had been regularly placing news programs in English
and Serbian on the Internet as audio files since the fall of 1996 thereby
making them accessible to an international audience. When the protests in
November and December began to grow stronger, journalists throughout the
world, including the widely dispersed Serbian diaspora could hear the
latest news firsthand. When the Serbian government tried to put a stop to
the reports by jamming and then shutting down B92, the manufacturer of Real
Audio software presented the station the opportunity to broadcast its
program live twenty-four hours a day across the Internet. Local radio,
which is only heard over an area of a few city blocks in Belgrade was
suddenly the most well-known radio station in the world, its signal
accessible via a server of the Amsterdam Internet service XS4ALL. The
attention of the international public which this aroused put further
pressure on the Milosevic regime and may well have contributed, after three
months of protest, to the eventual recognition of the election results.

Informal networks, newsgroups and Internet mailing lists which are often
used by hundreds of people to keep in contact and exchange news and
discussions also play a role which isn't to be underestimated. A prominent
example is the Nettime list devoted to Net criticism and numerous related
themes, from censorship and cryptography to Net art and the WebTV of the
future. Nettime, brought to life and moderated by Pit Schultz in Berlin and
Geert Lovink in Amsterdam, is an intricate channel, an intellectual medium
and an international community, primarily European, but also with members
from other continents, the best sort of quick, tactical small medium which
not coincidentally has been called "the European answer to Wired" (Wark).

The use of technology in art and media does not necessarily imply either a
fundamentally critical or — as the politically correct among us still have
not tired of saying — a per se affirmative position regarding technology.
It becomes interesting when one asks in what way technology is normative
for cultural and social behavior and in what way it "unifyingly" effects
this behavior. In the broadest sense, the question is one of how far
technology allows or hinders individual artistic expression. Does the
introduction of technology — and the immanently unifying or "normative"
tendencies of translocal technologies — even lead to a dissolution of
cultural differences, or, toned down: does it hinder specific local means
of expression? Can technology be "culturally neutral" at all? Or — this
was the question brought up at a symposium in Prague in December 1996 --
"Does media art imply (a) kind of thinking which is West-oriented and
linear, masculine, etc.?" Promptly, from Bratislava, came Martin Sperka's
just as difficult opposing question: "Feminist thinking is East-oriented
and non-linear?"

The meaning of media cultural practice is not only technological, and
therefore, translocal, in nature, but also constantly presents itself in
local contexts. A careful look at local cultures and local codes is
therefore urgently required. Various artists from eastern Europe have
repeatedly referred to the meaning of the always disrupted relationship to
"the media". The Albanian artist Eduard Muka said in an interview in 1996:
"We inherited a sort of hatred towards the media. There were a lot of lies,
nothing was exact, there was only propaganda. Still there is only one state
television channel and it is even worse than it used to be. The distrust
towards media could be a good starting point for artists to make their
critical approach in regards to media. I look at media as the highest
degree of manipulation humanity has ever invented. In this sense, this
could be really used (to) raising social or individual imperatives."
(Eduard Muka, interviewed by Geert Lovink, "Media Art in Albania, First
Steps", Syndicate mailing list, Sept. 29, 1996). Lev Manovich, too,
prompted by Alexej Shulgin's polemical text "Art, Power and Communication",
underscores the meaning of varying experiences: "The experiences of East
and West structure how new media is seen in both places. For the West,
interactivity is a perfect vehicle for the ideas of democracy and equality.
For the East, it is yet another form of manipulation, in which the artist
uses advanced technology to impose his / her totalitarian will on the
people." (Lev Manovich, "On Totalitarian Interactivity", Syndicate mailing
list, Sept. 1996)

The "heterogenizing" of this sort of thinking in blocs could well be the
task of little media. The Agentur Bilwet wrote 1995 in "Gesellschaft des
Debakels" ("Society of Debacle"): "If, as Kroker maintains, in the new
Europe, with its new, invisible, electronic war, everything is about 'the
bitter division of the world into virtual flesh and surplus flesh', then it
is up to the independent media like Zamir, B-92 and ARKZIN to ridicule this
split, and in an ironic, existential manner, to give shape to the universal
technological desire, cyberspace."


7. Going East, Going West

Traveling in Europe is still difficult but is becoming simpler and more
normal. The borders are more porous, even if visa matters still hinder
movement in Europe. Slowly the incline is decreasing and a rediscovery of a
not exclusively historical cultural space in Europe is beginning.

Seen cynically, cities such as Sarajevo, Moscow and Tirana have been the
unrecognized cultural capitals of Europe for years (which other European
city has one seen as many pictures of as these?), where the hardcore
European cultural inheritance is dealt, the average of which may be
presented in Copenhagen, Antwerp and Prague. But why are Albania, the
"Balkans", Russia, Chechnya, etc., covered so thoroughly by the media?
Certainly not because they are a "normal" part of Europe, but rather
because they maximize the production of media reports. The bloodier it is,
the more mass media (especially television) can report live on
extraordinary situations (choosing from "ethnic cleansing", governmental
collapse, bloody uprisings, human tragedies, separations, various attempts
at coups). The media image of eastern Europe has been characterized by
extraordinary situations; normality is hardly ever communicated.

The importance of the "minor media" on the other hand is that it is able
-- as opposed to the "major media" — to get across something of the
"normality" and to make understanding possible. The "minor stories" as an
alternative to the "major stories". This is what we call the minor media
normality in the east.


(Berlin/Rotterdam, April 1997)


‘Small Media Normality for the East’ was published in the following publications and online magazines: P. Schultz / D. McCarty / G. Lovink / V. Cosic (eds.), ZK Proceedings 4: Beauty and the East; Ljubljana: Digital Media Lab, 1997, pp. 17-21 and in Rewired - The Journal of a Strained Net, June 9-15, 1997. An abridged version of this text appeared under the title ‘A Toolbox of Everyday Media in Eastern Europe’ in Mute. Critical / Information / Services, issue 9, London 1998, pp. 22-27, ISSN 1356-7748.
The German version was published in May 1998 in
diss.sense, the online journal of the Graduiertenkolleg at the University of
Konstanz and in an abridged version in springerin. Hefte für Gegenwartskunst (Vol IV, No 3, Vienna, Sept.-Nov. 1998, pp. 22-25).

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