Thursday, May 11, 2006

Ukrainian American Writer And Environmentalist Adrian Ivakhiv On Europe's New (Eastward) Heart

"Borders and boundaries have always played an important role in maintaining social order. There have always been centers and margins, cores and peripheries or frontiers, at least since the agricultural revolution, and with the intensification of human population density, margins and borderlands have tended to be ever more strictly managed, policed, and controlled, even while they have retained a mystery and fascination for those viewing them from afar. Talk of borders and border crossers, diasporic hybrids, creative creoles, mestizos, and other boundary defiers who traverse such liminal spaces has blossomed in the era of postmodern discourse.

The European Union’s eastward expansion lends itself to this kind of border interrogation, as it raises questions of the "Europeanness" of the new and the not-quite "Europeans" who may or may not be admitted into the "club," and in the process it uncovers complex histories of ethnic mixing alongside the better known histories of population displacements, ethnic purification, and imperial domination. Countries acceding to the EU agree to abide by the Schengen agreements by which member states abolish visa checks at their common borders, while harmonizing their external (non-EU) border controls. This generally results in a "harder" or more rigid external border vis-à-vis non-EU states and citizens. With Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic republics all EU members now, Europe’s new Schengen border runs down the middle of the continent’s largest mountain chain, the Carpathians, the Balkans to the south of them, and a forested and agricultural band of land running to the north. Inhabitants of non-EU regions of this Euro-borderland in such countries as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Romania fear that the stricter border regime will present a serious setback to the economic development of their communities, which are already marginalized within their respective nation-states.

This article will explore the ambivalent position of these borderlands, specifically the Ukrainian-EU borderlands, by examining a few of the ways in which their marginality – and ostensible centrality – are being refigured and contested within cultural and artistic discourses. We will begin by examining claims by specific locales within this part of the world to being the "heart" or "center of Europe." Countries to the east of the EU boundary, including Ukraine, have expressed a strong desire to be admitted into the "real Europe," and claims to being or containing Europe’s geographical center can be seen as part of this effort to refigure the marginal status of these nations. While the idea of a specifically geographical center of Europe may ultimately rest in the realm of the undecidable, the prospect of competing centers of Europe in some of the continent’s most "backward" areas lends itself to satirical exposition. In its quest for a nominal center of Europe, Stanislaw Mucha’s documentary Die Mitte (The Center), like his previous Absolut Warhola, portrays the Slovak-Polish-Ukrainian-Belarusian-Lithuanian borderlands as brimming with such "centers," most of which happen to be textbook cases of near-total marginality. In this article, I will compare the lighthearted Euro-borderland discourse of Mucha’s films with the longer-standing Polish tradition of romanticizing the life and folkways of the kresy (borderlands), a tradition emblematized, in recent years, by such groups as the avant-garde theatrical collective Gardzienice.

The second part of the article then focuses on an artistic collaboration which took place in the summer of 2004 as part of Ukraine's officially designated "Year of Poland." The "Immersions" exhibition, held at one of Kyiv’s leading centers for contemporary art, had as its goal an "immersion" into the myth and imagery of the border identities shared by the participants, all Polish-born artists identifying, to some extent or other, with the cultural and religious traditions of Poland’s eastern borderlands. That this exhibition and related events associated with the Year of Poland in Ukraine – with its slogan “Poland and Ukraine together in Europe” – took place in the same year as the so-called Orange Revolution testified to the desire on both sides of the Polish-Ukrainian border to "europeanize" Ukraine. Through the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians in effect took their most significant step toward "Europe" since the 1991 proclamation of independence. Of neighboring nations, it was Poland that came out as the most ardent supporter of these developments. Through a look at the exhibition in context of the cultural politics of contemporary Ukraine and its relationship to Europe, and to Poland most especially, I will show that nomadism and hybridity – the rather rootless terms of border discourse floating freely in intellectual culture around the world – occupy deep and tangled roots in this part of East Central Europe." ....

Adrian Ivakhiv "Total Immersion" TRANSITIONS ONLINE May 11, 2006

A substantially longer version of the article originally appeared on 'Spaces of Identity', a web journal exploring tradition, cultural boundaries, and identity formation in Central and Eastern Europe. Abridged and reprinted with the author's permission.

Kyiv, Ukraine's National Conservatory of Music, decorated for last Winter's [2005] Democratic Presidential Inauguration.

Photo credit: Stefan Seitz and With thanks. inauguration/


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