Understanding the Balkans[íà áúëãàðñêè]


The Balkans have been on the global agenda for some time now. The ‘global agenda’ rings some bells to any of us, doesn’t it? It is as appealing a concept as it is pregnant with modernity. Moreover, it managed to take over attitudes, that were formally described as the ‘east-west’ paradigm…and it seemed to be the right move at that time. The increased curiosity towards gaining a better judgement about us, the people who live their lives in this region, outlines another aspect of this phenomenon. If we need to explore the working forces behind it, we may choose to think of the Balkans as of the sanitary belt between the Western civilization and the Islam.  A somewhat larger-than-life prototype of the Gaza strip, expanding over a couple of centuries: a time span that allowed for the ‘enemy’ against us to become an insider and to smile murkily inside us ...you can call it the Balkan nihilism if you wish. It has many names, and each of them tries to grasp this twilight zone, potent with conflicts, where the ethnic tensions have many faces.


‘Understanding the Balkans and the Globalization’ was the fascinating motto of a conference held in Skopje, which was also a source of embarrassment and uneasiness. It felt somewhat weird to gather together people who consider the Balkans to be the core of their world picture (they were born in the Balkans in the first place and “….have lived there happily ever after’) and invite them to spell out their local and global dimensions and projections,… in the desperate hunt for this big scary animal …which we call our identity. The working language of the event (guess what? English of course) added scope and strength to this paradox.


The motto itself implies a high- maintenance, impartial, gigabyte point of view … the global one, to put it briefly. The transcending of the conference participants beyond the Balkans, becomes of crucial importance. The schizophrenic effort to be the hunters and the hunted, the object and the subject of this search for identity, is a dramatic one.


Our strife to transcend whatever needs to be transcended at any cost may take different shapes: ‘the research approach’ to the history of the Balkans is one of them. The conference participants tried really hard to adopt a plausible and legitimate point of view of the ‘Westerners’ (‘hm, …this should be the global observer’s perspective, I want to be one, ergo this is my perspective per se’). And they ended up becoming observers to …what exactly? It would only feel natural to get together people from the Balkans under the motto of ‘understanding themselves’. ‘Understanding the Balkans’ on the other hand, is like a false pregnancy, you get the symptoms, but you don’t get the baby. You end up in a safety net, the abstract sterile background of ‘let’s make a theory and be nice to each other’ saves you the pains of delivery, saves the trouble of conflicts and carefully avoids the uneasy feeling of being naked and gorgeous, and vulnerable. It saves you the delivery in the long run, because there was no conception in the first place. The discourse on our Balkan identity (so badly needed indeed) never happened in Skopje. We got all blinded by the bird-eye perspective instead: the Balkans were comfortably reduced to a map of a peninsular, to an area of geo-strategic interests, which is not politically correct to discuss. We were all used as a brunch to the GEOSTRATEGY (whatever this is meant to be). We-e-ll, brunches are fine, …and a delicious treat thing to have on a lazy late weekend mornings.


So far so good: transcending into the global is obviously not our first step. Here we go again…how do we identify ourselves, and in what ways this identity helps us gain the proper ‘indent’ when communicating with our neighbors? How long does it take to learn be ourselves when we are so close to each other? It turns out that we have a long way to go… we would rather take the shortcut instead, all the way through the global village, … to finally reach our neighbor instead. Globalization brings us closer to our neighbors, anything turns out to be within our arms length, anyway. It seems we need globalization set our neighborly relations in their proper mode. We turn into cosmopolitans, only to be able to hold our firm, legitimate stand in this world, …and in front of our neighbors in particular! We happen to loose the difference between ‘globalization’ and western-ization’ in the process. We refuse to acknowledge that the values of the ‘western civilization’ have made a drastic leap and stretched their ethical, moral and esthetic concepts to their limits … to get global …at any cost. September 11th gave us some vague idea about the price-lists, didn’t it?


A legitimate question remains unanswered: what will constitute the meaningful effort to gain one’s identity. To my judgement this is alchemistry that can only happen within the discourse of sharing yourself with your neighbors. There’s always the potent dander to get lost and it is the centrifugal forces of your individuality that keeps you from falling apart all around them. On the other hand there are the centripetal forces that urge you to define your differences by acknowledging and respecting the common ground on which you and your neighbors stand.


One develelopmental level of identification occurs in what Lacan calls the “mirror stage” in which a child first discovers an image of self. When a child staying in a front of mirror is asked where is his mother, he points out the mirror, because the mother is the ultimate authority which confirms that the reflection in the mirror is him self...Unlike a sketch, the reflected image seems finished and whole. But the identity-yielding image is, in actuality, split: “ the very image which places the child divides its identity into two…” I have this nagging feeling that we, in the Balkans, are at the ‘mirror stage’ in the process of our socialization. The ‘West’ plays the part of the mirror in this metaphor: we in fact can see the reflection of our thoughts and attitudes, we can also discern the image of our neighbors, their intent looks, into the mirror, in their quest for legitimacy. Our newly emerging democratic institutions (foundations, associations and other grant-giving organizations are the first thing that comes to mind) take the role of the ‘mother’: this peculiar ‘hard-currency’ convertible authority, which confirms for us that the reflection we see in the mirror is a genuine one, …that this is us. We were brought up, finally. It is somewhat confusing though that left is right and vice versa. There’s always the option to look away from the mirror … and lose your image, lose your identity, lose your chances for success and become a nuisance.


I have an important question to ask here: how about communicating ourselves to our neighbors? How about our intent to develop artistic practices, institution-free? How about personal contacts, professional associating and outreach? How can motivation and mindsets be determined and recognized and valued in their regional, local, and balkanised specificity when the reference points remain so adamantly westernized? Can we still give the Balkan ‘underground” a chance? How to constitute it without making it dependent on the institutional stamp of the West? And still preventing its possible degenerating into just another mafia, in this region where its easier to hang out with one’s German than with one’s Balkan neighbors? Well, I call this doubt-in-action, feel free to name it as you please. Here is the essence that I want to communicate to you: underground practices imply the ability for critical judgement of inherent and articulated values and social practices. Customarily, the shy alternatives to the socially acceptable, already established art practices quickly get overexposed to the burning eye of the wide international public, and would usually lose their profile in this process. Next they would mutate into ‘projects’ related to minority enhancement, gender equality, drug abuse, regional collaboration …and a bunch of other ‘hot issues’ (The EU and its satellite cultural institutions buy this stuff quickly, DON’T THEY?). This is the road to cultivating politically correct attitudes and group auto-censorship. I would not ask what happened with the numerous artistic initiatives that haven’t met the requirements of the supporting parties.


Last, can we still give the Balkan underground a chance? It depends. Can we refuse to assimilate whatever points of view are out there? Can we assess our gains on our way to self-identity? Our losses? We may try, then. 



February, 2002                                                                          Ventsislav Zankov