Jordanna Matlon received her PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. In June, she was invited guest at the Rezidencia Garáž and this is the text that she produced as result of her experience.
Life in Dúbravica – I recently had the good fortune of spending some post-doctoral R&R – and receiving more than a little inspiration – as a guest of PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ’s Rezidencia Garáž with Carlos Carmonamedina and founders Andrej Poliak and Igor Babiak. I met Carlos during an itinerant residency in Tlacotalpan, Mexico. As he told me about PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ I reflected upon sentiments from Beugre, an Ivoirian intellectual I had interviewed for my dissertation. Beugre had highlighted the dearth of cross-peripheral expertise garnered via exchange: thus while a French historian of Mali or Indonesia may be commonplace, one rarely encountered, say, a Malian economist specializing in Southeast Asia. Beugre dreamed what Carlos had realized: the global periphery as the source of and destination for knowledge production and creative engagement. PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ’s first artist-in-residence and curator of Landscape, Revisited, Carlos explained to me that as an artist from Mexico, his politics involve a commitment to exchange with artists from other peripheral spaces. While Dúbravica, Slovakia [population 300] is a far cry from my bustling metropolitan field site of Abidjan, Côte d‘Ivoire, establishing these peripheries as cultural nodes in their own right articulates a common struggle against neoliberal colonization and its contests of hegemony.
As a scholar of postcolonial urbanism my work explores two particularly urgent issues. The first is endemic to this era of neoliberal globalization: unprecedented migrations which have caused rapid urbanization and the disappearance of rural life. Its adverse consequences are a loss of local knowledge, culture, and social cohesion, as well as widespread environmental devastation. The second issue broadly describes the operation of twentieth century capitalism: hegemony. Hegemony is power realized through cultural domination and ideological legitimacy. The Sardinian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) first used hegemony to refer to relations between the Italian north and south, and scholars have since applied this concept to spaces that unequally relate to one another as core and periphery, often in a colonial context. Gramsci argued intellectuals from the core played a major role in colonizing the periphery with their ideas and way of life; hegemony entails the capture of hearts and minds.
I have argued that today, relations between core and periphery are crucial to our sense of self and how we engage with our communities and the planet. I suggest that neoliberal capitalism operates centrally through exclusion, unlike earlier manifestations which operated through exploitation. Questions of identity and claims of belonging influence people’s self-esteem and determine their access to resources. The core: urban centers typically located in highly-industrialized, wealthy nations, are the central producers of popular culture which disseminate outward via mass media. They espouse a consumerist lifestyle that equate being with having, or more precisely, being seen having. In short, participation in this world of free market capitalism generates a freedom to consume, which in turn dictates other freedoms. And whether it is what we drive, the fuel we use, what we eat, the music we download or how we style our hair, the core exercises hegemony over our wants and needs. Such a formula leaves little space to remain in peripheral spaces while fully belonging to the world of popular culture. So while globalization signifies the shrinking of time and space, many rural young men and women feel a great gulf between here and there, and fear that a life lived in the village will be a life that is disconnected, irrelevant, and anonymous.
To address these issues PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ positions art within an art-community-environment triad. In recent years this triad has gained momentum as a global movement. In this vision the artist is no longer simply responsible for her own work; she has transformed into an activist immersed in a politics of place. On their website, Andrej and Igor explain:
The young and enthusiastic network of artists is becoming a serious platform that influences the [Slovak] national art circuit, and importantly the artists’ own small communities in other disciplines like agriculture, architecture or ecology. We strengthen this key relationship between places that usually are outside the official budget, the art community and the rest of the world.
PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ proposes to achieve such intra-peripheral exchanges by establishing a Kunstdorf, or village of culture, that works innovatively with global problems best addressed locally. Thus its cooking micro-residency seeks to develop a cookbook using local ingredients to honor and share traditional recipes, enriching artists and the environment. It works closely with village councils to support educational initiatives and youth activities. Landscape, Revisited made the countryside its canvas, encouraging a close engagement with nature while creating regional tourist attractions. These projects and others offer a direct, efficient, participatory – and enjoyable – manner of addressing shared concerns around nature conservation, the production and distribution of healthy food, the preservation and cultivation of traditional aesthetics, the encouragement of cultural education and support of the local economy. And it is a symbiotic process: as artists circulate between villages to teach and to learn, the organization grows and adapts, picking up new challenges and insights.
Like drama therapy and urban gardens, the kunstdorf believes in making art useful, leaving the village a little brighter (or greener) as a result of its presence. The potential this holds for the issues I raised above are manifold. In looking to the periphery as a source and as a destination, PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ unravels the core-periphery linkage as an unnecessary bond. It tells young people in rural communities that they are equal members of a global culture constantly changing from the bottom up. By making the activities of their village relevant near and far, rural dwellers become living examples of the commitment to imagine and realize another kind of world. When we celebrate the ability to drink straight from a nearby stream or seek inspiration from a solo afternoon walk communing with God and nature, we offer the best possible answer to neoliberal hegemony.
A love of the countryside inspires Andrej and Igor, who trace the origins of PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ to Slovakia’s rural heritage and a half-century of Slovak Land Art and Actionism movements. Telling the world that their way of life is worth sticking around to enjoy is the greatest homage they can make to their origins. When artists rediscover the inherent harmony and novelties of the rural, they act as catalysts for making peripheral spaces viable for a creative life. During my three weeks with PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ I interspersed nature walks with a village festival, an international theatre festival, and a gallery exhibition. When my hosts were not applying for grants or renovating an old house to locate the kunstdorf, they picked berries and walked Piskot, the energetic puppy who had recently adopted them. As we strolled through the village on a hot day we greeted Slovak granddads tending their garden plots in Speedos like California hipsters. At the bar I met a man reverently described as the best mushroom picker in the region. An unassuming cool lay in the fact that this was simply how they lived and not an effort to return to some pastoral utopia where fresh and local are privileges purchased from a weekly farmer’s market. Perpetually open to how community and environment made art possible and vice versa, my hosts recycled glass jars to can fruit in the autumn, and planned projects of local interest like a scarecrow-making competition and amenities for bicyclists passing. The mark of their presence was clear in their collection of postcards on sale in the tiny village store, the murals painted on the bus stop shelters, their participation in the town’s Children’s day events, and the friendly hellos from the mayor and other village personalities they passed. It made me want to stick around.
Life in Dúbravica bows to the rhythms of the day and the seasons: collecting hay before dawn or tending the sheep before dusk, chopping wood for the winter and grafting fruit trees during the warmer months. Like the art PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ aims to produce, these projects of village life demand collective efforts or promise collective returns. Whether we consider such tasks mundane and brainless or ripe for cultural, epistemological, or philosophical insight reveals our politics. PERIFÉRNE CENTRÁ reminds us that what makes us part of something bigger does not have to be determined by a brand name or a zip code. In a world that privileges urbanity as the source of culture it is easy to forget that the etymology of culture relates to cultivation; our transformation from a nomadic to a sedentary existence predicated on an individual-community-environment triad. Such a life required an ecological [holistic] and a sustainable [lasting] approach. After many failed utopias we are here again. The present moment offers the opportunity to bridge the wisdom of the past with the innovations of ours and future generations.
Dúbravica, June 2012