Can politically engaged art help individuals to create vibrant, self-sustaining and inclusive urban communities, where they feel connected with their place of living and their fellow citizens? What are proponents of this unique fusion of socially responsible activism and individually inspired creativity able to achieve in areas where urban democracies hit serious difficulties? When taking the analyst perspective of a transition process from communist to neo-liberal and/or neo-authoritarian political systems, can we acknowledge remarkable similarities in this respect between, let’s say, street art in Poland and Russia? These were some of essential questions discussed on the occasion of the presentation of the new publication „Reclaim, recode, reinvent. Urban art and activism in Eastern Europe” in a panel discussion in the headquarters of Political Critique in Warsaw on February 22nd. The book was created by the Central, Eastern and Southern European members of the artist group “Coordinate System” supported by Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.
The fate of formerly extinguished cities
Cities are somehow like human partnerships, i.e. damned to success. They either thrive or get down the wrong way. If they lack a founding spirit or guiding idea and exist out of mere necessity or external constraint, sooner or later they will develop deplorable symptoms of decay, neglect and violence. However, they also have the potential to overcome severe trauma on the basis of honest collective efforts. Taking the example of Volgograd, Anton Valkovsky was surprised by the striking architectural similarities between Warsaw and his former home town: both cities were completely destroyed during the Second World War.
According to Anton, Volgograd, the former Stalingrad, is a city convulsively clenching to the past and taking its pride from the fact of the disastrous, yet historically pivotal battle of Stalingrad. Its current inhabitants are often descendants of those who moved to the annihilated city from different parts of the country, having non-sufficient emotional relations with the place they live in. Another common feature of the two cities is the fact of staging great soccer events: EURO 2012 in Warsaw and the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2018 in Volgograd – examples of strategies of creating false consciousness of community, which produces negative side-effects.
Where Varsovians back then scandalized street prostitution, Anton now referred to anger voiced by Volgograd inhabitants over the unfair distribution of wealth with regard to such kind of events, for which hotels are built in former parks or “inappropriate” private houses are being shielded through big walls from the view of foreign visitors. According to Anton, it can be the role of engaged artists to help and make visible again such unfair rules and the people excluded by them.
Engaged art and feelings of belonging
Another intriguing example of the urban offspring of extinguished cities was presented by Liva Dudareva from Latvia. Together with her working group she created a model for a new, imagined district in the Ukrainian town of Slavutych. This “atomic city without a reactor” was built – in a common effort of various Soviet republics – for personnel and families resettled from the city of Pripyat following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. As the number of workers needed to maintain security at the Chernobyl site is constantly decreasing, the artistic working group focused on questions related to the civic and urban future of Slavutych, whose inhabitants, just like in Volgograd, are not deeply connected with the town and tend to ignore the need for future-oriented and inclusive development strategies.
For the imagined new (14th) district of Slavutych, Liva and her team decided to take the city of Athens as a role model, because they see an analogy in the traces of ancient Greek culture continuously visible in the contemporary capital city and the way the shadows of Chernobyl and Pripyat can still be felt hanging over Slavutych. Although the direct material artefacts which emerged out of the artistic collaboration have been already removed from public space, Liva plans to go back to Slavutych this summer in order to explore how the project can further contribute to a continued activating dialogue with inhabitants.
Liberties and liabilities of engaged art
Although there might be many similarities between those and other examples presented during the debate, panelists agreed that in the same way as concrete social problems and political situations differ in various post-communist countries, so do approaches to overcome them. When referring to specific murals in a number of Polish cities, Cracow-based Artur Wabik asked his counterpart Igor Ponosov from Moscow about the context in which Russian street artists create their work. When juxtaposing politically engaged and critical murals in Poland with the secluded space of a private museum collecting street art in St. Petersburg, Artur was apparently surprised by Igor claiming that although the use of public space is much for regulated in the Russian Federation, in his work as a street artist he does not feel oppressed by the government; however, situations between major urban agglomerations and smaller towns might vary significantly.
Wherever street art wants to bear fruit, its biggest challenge is not politics, but the way artists include local communities in their work. Engaged artists must not entrap themselves in self-referentiality, but pave the ground for the effective and emphatic dialogue which politicians often fail to implement and in effect are busy managing the aggressive or hostile reactions they triggered with their own doings. Their aim should not be the maximization of attention, either – value-based community work needs a long-term, holistic and qualitative approach, no short-term provocations and “artistic fireworks”. This is the point where the spiritual kinship of engaged art and green politics becomes most obvious.