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Unsettled: Where the Border Cuts the Land...
by Maja Ćirić
Archive Books, Berlin, Germany 2019
This is not a work about borders. Rather, it is a work about overcoming the influence of politics on the land within the borders of unrecognized or semi-recognized states. It is a document of the fragmented symptoms of the “Bosnian pot”1 character of governance, in which all components simultaneously complement and eliminate each other. This unsettling principle of governance, in which elements unable to withstand the pressure collapse, while those that are more powerful survive (and are subsequently absorbed within the system), has been known for many centuries. By not taking sides, what this book highlights, from a bird’s-eye view, are the contrasts and conflicts provoked by contemporary attempts at preserving a semblance of safety within those borders. Unfortunately, many of these attempts did, and continue to, constitute crimes.
Much more than a mere cinematographic idea, Fragments I is a series of video documents detailing a journey through specific socio-political pulsars: The Republic of Abkhazia, a state of limited recognition; Varosha, a silent town in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey; through the Field of Blackbirds2 in the Republic of Kosovo, a state of limited recognition; at the edge of the Tskhinvali region of the Republic of South Ossetia, a partially recognized state; in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic or the Republic of Artsakh, a state unrecognized by any sovereign state; and in Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, a self-proclaimed, non-recognized, autonomous territorial unit with a special legal status.
The Journey: Strolling, Riding, Biking
Vangjush Vellahu’s journey takes place through the ruined urban and rural landscapes of these semi- or non-recognized post-Soviet (the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, the Republic of South Ossetia, the Republic of Abhkazia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) post-Yugoslav (the Republic of Kosovo), and post-colonial (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) states during the period between 2015 and 2017. The dystopian reality that he encounters lies on the obscure side of world unification, symbolized in the “blue marble,” the first image of the enlightened world as taken by NASA’s Apollo 17 in 1972.3 Under the assumption that there is no given authentic state, Vellahu deals with the realities of these contemporary states, which consist of polarized zones of influence that could not be further from those that are financially and administratively superior.
He strolls, rides, bikes and adjusts his means of transportation to the conditions of the trip. He redefines what strolling,4 riding and biking can be, as an artistic practice, through exposure to these lands. Sometimes it is about crossing a border illegally; other times it is about being completely lost in translation. Holding an Albanian passport eases his path slightly — with the exception of Northern Cyprus, where he is interrogated, the identity of a citizen of a poorer and more minor country does not seem to be a cause for concern in unrecognized states.
His actions are driven by an inquisitor’s gaze5 and personal emotions in reference to the status of the Republic of Kosovo, the independence of which was unilaterally proclaimed by his fellow Albanians in 2008. On this trail, without a predetermined plan and without any preconceived judgments, he experiences the familiar and the unfamiliar all at once. Struggling to understand the reasons behind this partial déjà vu, he creates these films. He does not act as a corrective force nor strives for emancipation; instead, faced with quasi-fixed identities, both humanist and urban in nature, Vellahu looks out for moments of rupture within communities that, to different degrees, have managed to break free or continue to remain under the control of larger political forces and their interests.
He talks to the local people — informants of the first degree. All these interlocutors are an effect of the liberation from a society of strictness, at least for the purpose of the films. They come from the military, education and art: a soldier, a student, a teacher, a scenarist. Only represented by their voices, they remain invisible individuals, who are trying to find an explanation for the causes and consequences of the fragmented alma mater states at stake. By speaking up and proposing their own narratives, the cycle of silence, which is otherwise established by disciplined mainstream media, is broken. In interviewing them, Vellahu occupies a position of externality and transcendence, thus surpassing the concept of Machiavelli’s The Prince, by definition unique in his principality.6 The goal on his journey is to interrogate what has been unspoken and what has failed and, as a result, come to an understanding of disharmony. His initial concern about these unrecognized territories drives a rebellious art of living, a Foucauldian ethical idea of a walk beyond the border of art and life — “aesthetics as ethics.”7 By insisting on understanding rather than taking sides, Vellahu puts forward a refusal of the kinds of subjectivity that have been promoted.8
Capitalocene in the Cut
These contrasts and “conflicts that make visible emergent spaces of citizenship”9 represent the obscurity of the Capitalocene in a different fashion. Much more than capitalist slaves, citizens of unrecognized states are also victims of conflicts. But which is the lesser of two evils here? Of course, the fight for survival is more difficult than the fight against instrumentalization, although these are not necessarily mutually exclusive battles. But let’s not get into that yet.
To transcend the architectural, governmental, capitalistic and even ecological transgressions in the semi-approved states — and even in an entirely negated one, like Transnistria — is to witness a condensed situation. These semi- or non-recognized disputed lands, in their multiplicity, provoke the historical questions of how (strictly) one is to be ruled, by whom, to what end and using what means.10 They also inevitably spur thoughts on the relationships between sovereignty, co-dependency and independence. If expulsions occur when the familiar becomes so extreme that our categories of analysis — our statistics — stop recording them,11 Fragments I is an artistic project that sheds light on the invisible brick that deconstructs the edifice of a stable and solid state. The fragile intersection between military power and financial power has a direct influence on the character of the independence of these states. On the one hand, recognized states are paradoxically independent from the “world of private power,” shifting the locus of authority12 to that operating under the umbrella of public institutions. On the other, and through a more critical lens, it is by visually mapping these unrecognized states that Vellahu identifies an array of hybrids situated between the fight for survival and the imminent acts of exploitation that take place once recognition is attained. It would be wrong to say that Vellahu video-mapped the resistance to the unavoidable globalization of neoliberal capital, and thus a specific resistance to the Capitalocene. With poor governance on one end and low capital influx on the other, Vellahu’s visual document serves as a testimony to the uncertainties of what an unrecognized territory is in the face of a compromised legal infrastructure.
And although they only seem semi-frozen, the unrecognized states serve a bigger tactical purpose — in lieu of an enormous influx of global capital, these territories become devastated strategic territories that are sacrificed in order to prevent the codependent integration of the states they are separated from into larger structures (NATO, for instance). By visualizing the effects of political conflicts and disagreements, Vellahu represents an antagonistic dimension13 as a contrast to the other sovereign states, whose dynamics of change are swifter but slightly more stable. Take, for example, Varosha’s ghostlike character, an index of the sacrifice of the urban tissue for the sake of a strategic geopolitical position preserved by the Turkish military in alliance with the UN. In the case of Transistria, Sheriff — a local corporation — runs all industries and facilitates the flow of money within a neighborhood economy, whereby it manages the largest amount of capital circulating within the country. Nonetheless, rumor has it that Sheriff is tightly connected to the Russian Federation and its intelligence service.
If “the Capitalocene proposition locates the origin of the crisis in capitalism’s exploitative relations of labor, food, energy and raw material,”14 unrecognized status means a poor quality of life, but also exploitation by another name. For instance, in some of these semi-failing, semi-rising and often isolated post-states, both former Soviet communism and the neoliberal capitalist project of exploiting natural resources are put on hold.15 Unrecognized states are thus the result of both of these brutal logics. The prevention of the processes of exploitation of national resources seems like the only spin-off of the fact that these countries are stuck between the old modernist structures and new ideological interpolations.
The Land: On Nature and Architecture
If nations have used architecture to demonstrate their strength and solidity since the walled city-state,16 the hybrid — consisting of wilderness that has penetrated abandoned architecture, as captured on camera in Fragments I — can be labeled as the architecture of estrangement,17 which is not necessarily bad. Although it is a result of unequal global progress, a sign of failed production of the collective space, it also points toward resistance. If architecture is a collective act, then it is a result of some kind of social hierarchy that prevents a dialogue of equals. Nature, when allowed to expand freely, on the other hand, does not presume human hierarchies. This combination of natural wilderness and architecture can be explained by Hinterland, a term that justifies looking at the “physical, irreducable relationship with a broader territory from where the resources come from.”18 Restoring Hinterland’s holistic character is also to understand architecture as controllable and nature as uncontrollable, both depicting, in an intertwined fashion, cities and states — the governed spaces. This redefined habitat, in the words of Saskia Sassen, is a result of forced migrations. If the majority of people had not abandoned these lands, the wilderness would not have spread and systemic edges would not be redefined by nature. Unrecognized states are not only spaces of expelled citizenry and shrunken operative spaces for economies; many are also lands destroyed by the act of turning “borders into frontlines, drawn in human blood and [which have] led to mass expulsions, and mass murders.”19 Some are full of toxic materials (from devastated construction to the leftovers of military intervention), extracted and at the mercy of further destruction, whereas others are peculiarly revitalized. As is always the case, the ruins are proof that social and architectural plasticity are strongly intertwined.
So what do these unrecognized states, as grouped together in this project, have in common? This act of classification serves to freeze long-term politics, which is a result of the selfish interests of powerful structures that aim to stop the transgression of all these lands into their borders. As long as these states are legally in flux and semi-isolated, they contribute to the perseverance of the larger political status quo. However, all of these states do deprive the “sovereigns” of seeing their terrain and scope of power in totality, because they are also similar in their decay of humanist political forms of government, as well as in the cognitive and practical disruptions of old structures. They are not fully granted their due rights, as they lack the essence to be fully recognized, and are a step outside ideological state apparatuses. Indeed, they are pulsars of networks of interpersonal relationships, interactions and historical dialogues that are based on all kinds of inequality, and crimes on every side.
On the Function of the Border and the Role of Art in all of the Above
What is the meaning and function of borders for unrecognized states? Borders are much more than a pure division of geographical or legal entities; they are also mental, conceptual borders, ones situated between separated worlds that do not operate together in the same timeframe, one being a matter of the past, the other a matter of the future. The borders of these unrecognized states remain in between these two ideological cycles, one that is gone and the other one that has yet to arrive. If stuck, these realities defy globalization and progress. If saved, they preserve the land, with all its natural processes and the myths it embodies. However, myths and related rituals reign in the spiritual, which transcends physical borders and, thus, are more resistant to commodification.
Art is capable of treating and archiving the condensed symptoms of this contemporary era. It is also capable of redirecting the viewer from experiencing the tensions of separation anxiety that borders impose to a more holistic outlook.
Where is art in all of this? It appears in making the expelled visible and tangible, in the crossing over, in the breaking free, in the breaking open, in the search for freedom. In finding oneself in what is lost, in finding belonging among that which is distant. In finding a space on the brighter side of the planet by confronting, accepting and redistributing all of our imperfections. By connecting all that he encounters on this journey, Vellahu bridges between distant countries bound together by a common status, or, more importantly, bound by the effects of that status, and the visual and the conceptual consequences that are ruled by it.
As he redistributes his personal, yet objective impressions on the content that he encounters in unrecognized states, by means of art, Vellahu embodies Foucault’s emancipatory claim for rights.20 By breaking free from forms of discipline that benefit only those in power, he deconstructs the ways of governing. He neither arms nor disarms the power dynamics, but uses artistic poetics as a tool for empowerment, to make visible the decay he experiences.21 Beyond witnessing the situation, he uses art as the ultimate means to defy death22 of the specificities of these countries, which will inevitably be erased once the influx of capital grows.
As is the case for any artist who works politically (in the sense of producing films in a political manner, not producing political films23), the social and the artistic are not divided for Vellahu. By treating these unrecognized fragments with a same approach, and by implementing poetics, Vellahu steps out of the niche of political manipulation, which is omnipresent in the art world. Instead of adopting a particular kind of identity politics of one of these states (The Republic of Kosovo, for example) to promote himself as an artist, he attempts to establish a post-Anthropocene identity, one in which we are able to jointly understand the relational effects of power and capital on humans, nature and architecture. It is in visualizing the gap between past and future ideological cycles, as well as the struggle for the post-identity, that the otherwise impossible unification of the spaces of those who have been expelled takes place. As such, Fragments I fulfils art’s deep humanist and utopian aspiration toward service to freedom and a society that is not based on unsettling hierarchies. It takes a lot to perceive damaged and isolated land under pressure. If the act of fertilization is impossible, there at least exists an artistic gaze to witness the destruction and injustice inflicted on the humans who have been left unsafe beyond borders, and because of them.
1 A traditional Bosnian stew consisting of meat and various vegetables, used here as a metaphor.
2 The term the “Field of Blackbirds” refers to the Battle of Kosovo, which took place in 1389 near to what is known as Pristina today, and where Serbs fought against the Ottomans alongside other nations. It also marks the first time Kosovo was officially mentioned in history, using this term.
3 T. J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017) 19.
4 Other famous examples of artistic strolling include Robert Smithson’s walk through Passaic, or Richard Long’s and Hamish Fulton’s walks, Maria Finn, Every Landscape Tells a Story, Plum Velvet #4, 2009.
5 Lucius Burckhardt from Kassel Comprehensive University developed the term and field of “strollology,” the central issues of which revolve around perception and image composition.
6 Michel Foucault, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 91.
7 Foucault aimed “to define the conditions in which human beings ‘problematize’ what they are, what they do, and the world in which they live” in The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
8 Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4. (Summer, 1982), 777-795 and Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (London: Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1982), 208-226.
9 Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui and Mimi Zeiger, “On Dimensions of Citizenship,” Dimensions of Citizenship (Los Angeles: Inventory Press, 2018), 28.
10 Michel Foucault, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87-88.
11 Sasskia Sassen. “On the Brutal Logic of Contemporary Capitalism.” YouTube video, 22:29. March 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBwkNekicak.
12 Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
13 Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, (London: Routledge, 2005).
14 Michel Foucault, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 97.
15 T. J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017) 86.
16 Adrienne Brown, “Architectures of Habit,” Dimensions of Citizenship (Los Angeles: Inventory Press, 2018), 56.
17 Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui and Mimi Zeiger, “On Dimensions of Citizenship,” Dimensions of Citizenship (Los Angeles: Inventory Press, 2018), 27.
18 Milica Topalović, “Hinterland.” YouTube video, 4:03. May 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcv9OyhJFh4.
19 Adi Ćerimagić at the 2018 European Forum Alpbach in reference to the forced ethnic borders provoked by the attempt to resolve the conflicts of the Yugoslav War.
20 Michel Foucault, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).
21 “Gilles Deleuze on Cinema, What is the Creative Act? (1987).” YouTube video, 46:58. January 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_hifamdISs
22 Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 4: 1938-1940, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 270.
23 Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1986), 8.