Looking in an unlikely place for signs of a world in transformation, William E. Jones’s video essay The Fall of Communism As Seen in Gay Pornography (1998) compiles footage from gay porn films produced between 1993 and 1998 in the former Eastern bloc and distributed in the United States. Watching this film recently I was struck by how disturbing Jones’s montage remains today. Under twenty minutes long, the footage is arranged into two chapters, each constructed around a visual motif. The first assembles brief close-up portraits in which young men look straight at the camera, some with pleasure, but most with insecurity, disgust or blatant indifference to the sexual exchanges taking place off-screen. The staging of the scenes in modest domestic interiors, alongside the artist’s commentary, underlines the actors’ inexperience and points at the conditions of exploitation surrounding these productions, which were made at a time when the porn industry sought to reap economic profit from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Presented as auditions, but distributed for consumption, longer sequences in the second part of the film show interviews conducted by a British male, whose face and body remain largely off-screen. He asks young men intimate questions about their sex lives and reasons for appearing in these films, at times stroking them as they pose for the camera — the contrast of his gold watch and fine blue shirt against their cheap clothes, or bare skin, standing as a sign of capitalism’s victory over communism. Their short replies leave us with no doubt: they are loaning their bodies to the camera in exchange for Western money ($50 per session, according to the artist).
In the simple gesture of a glance back at the camera, Jones captures the vulnerability of a generation that came of age in a moment of political uncertainty. Two decades later, and at another geo-political turning point — when the United States and Europe’s hegemonic position within global financial capitalism is in crisis — those glances are a poignant reminder of the human experience that lies behind the economic statistics on newspaper front pages. Likewise, this issue of Afterall attempts to shift our attention away from the intangible drama of fluctuating and ever-faster flows of abstract capital, and towards the question of how the mobility of people, information and affects shapes subjectivities, our bodies and our desires. Concerned with an embodied politics of mobility, the essays brought together here ask whether an aesthetic and political imaginary based on change still holds a subversive potential today. Can mobility encapsulate a critique of the way identity is policed, or has its meaning been reduced to a state of permanent adaptability to the needs of the market?
In the opening essay, Vassilis S. Tsianos and Dimitris Papadopoulos counter the common understanding of migration as a merely reactive force, considering instead the creative agency of migration and its ability to stir political change. Charting the role that migrant labour has played in the consolidation of neoliberal capitalism over the past fifty years, the authors propose that today’s trans-migration constitutes the death drive of capitalism — as well as the death drive of the left liberal and revolutionary thinking, since it ultimately undermines any political imagination based on national citizenship. Conceiving of migration as an autonomous social force, they call for a redefinition of political subjectivities as the working classes become both transnational and precarious.
Such a shift in perspective — one that understands migrant subjectivities not in relation to a static definition of political identity but as a process of becoming — is not only relevant for a representation of transnational mobility, but also of queer subjectivities. As Roger Cook, quoting Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, reminds us in this issue, ‘queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive — recurrent, eddying, troublant’.01 The crossing of positions characteristic of queer subjectivities is manifest in Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s film installations, which portray ways of being that defy normative definitions of identity and celebrate self-determination instead. In their films, queer performers re-stage historical portraits of characters that have resisted the constraints of capitalism, patriarchy or colonialism, and whose ‘otherness’ has often signified marginalisation, if not persecution. Lukas Duwenhögger’s theatrical paintings and installations also draw from the history of homosexual social and cultural codes, and their use of irony, to visualise an identity built on difference. Tracing a parallel between Jacques Rancière’s theory of disagreement and queer theories of difference, Cook suggests that Duwenhögger’s incarnation of a specifically queer experience of dissent in an aesthetic form transcends any categorisation as ‘homosexual’.
Attention to gesture and the staging of the self are also significant features of Sven Augustijnen’s films. As with Duwenhögger’s, his work is also invested in a specific context — Belgian history and its postcolonial ramifications — and yet it speaks of how any collective and personal identity is performatively constructed by means of more or less conscious omissions, and even delusional self-inventions. His latest film, Spectres (2011), portrays a man’s obsession to erase from history his personal involvement, and that of his country, in the suffocation of the independence of Congo and the assassination of its prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. Augustijnen’s use of a personal (and distorted) lens to address such a vast political issue as postcolonial trauma contrasts with Paul Chan’s obliteration of the images of violence in his video essays on the recent American war on terrorism, Tin Drum Trilogy (2002—05). As Paolo Magagnoli argues, Chan’s abstracted images are also an attempt to restore a human dimension to the media’s ‘pornography’ of war.
In this issue, we also consider how artistic practices have addressed the fluidity of geographical and cultural borders following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Held in a Budapest apartment in 1987 and organised by the artists’ group Inconnu, the exhibition ‘A harcoló város’ (‘The Fighting City’) brought together international and local artists’ tributes to the 1956 revolution. Just before the opening, however, the artworks were seized by the police and later destroyed. Juliane Debeusscher analyses Inconnu’s use of Western media to give international visibility to both the exhibition and the confiscation of the artworks, thus exposing the regime’s politics of censorship and countering the government’s attempt to launder its international reputation via the promotion of a politically innocuous ‘Eastern European art’. Working in neighbouring Zagreb since the 1950s, Ivan Kožarić’s radically self-questioning sculptural practice has been irreducible to such political branding, while also defying artistic categorisation. Impermeable to Socialist Realism as much as modernism, Kožarić has refused to align his work with either geo-political or stylistic divides, following only the trail of artistic intuition.
The unstable boundary between East and West and their fruitful encounters is the focus of the artistic collective Slavs and Tatars. Discussing the potential pitfalls of their intercultural artistic approach, Anders Kreuger gauges the balance between socio-political concerns and aesthetic style, exoticism and nuanced analysis in their exhibitions and publications. Slavs and Tatars’ interest in syncretism, which is the subject of their most recent project, Not Moscow Not Mecca(2012), resounds in the work of Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibayeva, whose filmed performances merge together different historical periods and cultural influences. Yuliya Sorokina considers Menlibayeva’s practice as the incarnation of a nomadic culture, while Viktor Misiano contextualises it amongst the first post-Soviet generation of artists working in Central Asia, analysing her redefinition of the role of women and their representation within Kazakhstan’s new national identity.
Menlibayeva’s portrayal of a heroic Central Asian female is a response to the same world in transition that The Fall of Communism As Seen in Gay Pornography so chillingly depicts, similarly reflecting on the changes brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union through the representation of embodied subjectivities. In contrast to Jones’s materialist analysis, however, Menlibayeva embraces the representational gap left by a crumbling regime as an opportunity to make up a new and more autonomous image of women. Many of the artists discussed in this issue of Afterall also attempt to represent subjectivities in flux, which respond to the increasing porosity of borders between territories, but also political and gender positions. Each invested in particular histories, geographies and contexts, they seek to embody universally accessible experiences of aesthetic dissent.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, p.8. See Roger Cook’s essay on Lukas Duwenhögger in this issue of Afterall, pp.61—71.