Dystopian Realms / Idyllic Meadows, the 8th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial focused on European identity and the values on which it is based and built. Europe, as a project based on values such as individual liberty, tolerance, free expression and capitalism, is being tested by substantive shifts in political and social reality. The project was conceived as a tool to analyze this emerging in statu nascendi cultural and political order and to discover some of paradoxes that accompany the processes of adapting to the forces of change.


The leitmotif of one of Zygmunt Bauman’s recent books is Europe as an adventure.[1] The author reveals the source of his concept by quoting Denis de Rougemont who, interpreting one of the European founding myths (the abduction of Europa), noticed that it captured Europe’s nature: “Europe exists through its search for the infinite – and this is what I call adventure.”[2] 

Following on that theme, Bauman[3] analyses the meaning of the English word “adventure” which combines a curiosity about the world and a kind of chronic adventurism, an incurable need to transgress the familiar. It is precisely in this quality that Bauman sees the power of European culture. Without shrugging off the ambivalent historical and social consequences of Europe’s expansion so far, he sees its future opportunity in a globalising world precisely in its anxiety that hates all borders, constancy and finiteness, as well as in its tendency to transgress and its ability to internalise difference.

Through its name, combining “art” and “adventure,” the Artventure programme, anchored in Europe but focusing its attention chiefly on the artistic potential of the peripheries (Baltic, Balkans, Caucasus) and of non-European regions (Middle East, Africa), expressed its partners’ notion of art as a domain of experimentation, bold transgression, critical negation and openness towards the unfamiliar, insufficiently or wrongly understood. The physical and mental trips undertaken as part of Artventure took place not only to see what is there to see[4], but also to see whether what we find can help us understand more.

In this sense, Artventure is a quintessentially European project, with the reservation that it takes place at a time when the critique of cultural imperialism has fundamentally changed the climate of the intellectual debate and remodelled the way in which we perceive reality.

Over the last three years, Artventure has generated several platforms for the exchange of ideas and energies – exhibitions, publications, conferences and artistic residences. The Windows upon Oceans project, presented simultaneously in France, Belgium, Greece, Cyprus and Poland, is the programme’s final event. Its poetic title again refers us to an openness toward the Other and an alert self-reflection as the basis of communication.

In Poland, the Windows upon Oceans project, accompanied by the subtitle Dystopian Realms – Idyllic Meadows, was integrated into a series of exhibitions realised by the National Museum in Szczecin, where the curatorial programming aims to present art that is “connected to the blood circulation of cultural discourses and (is) constantly vivisecting them.”[5] Art that is a function of creativity construed as a kind of constructive dispute and lively reaction to the paradoxes, incongruities and collisions observed at the junction of ideas, phantasms and reality.

If Europe is an unfinished adventure, as Bauman suggests, it is a risky one today, unfolding in a battlefield located no longer in the former overseas colonies. Rather, the new sphere of cultural conflict lies at the very centre of the Old World, where the aporias of the Continent’s symbolic capital are manifesting themselves today. Europe, always restless, which “feeds on questioning the order of things – and on questioning the fashion of questioning it,”[6] – cannot by nature exclude its own axioms from its firing range. In the course of an intense debate, virtually all of Europe’s Enlightenment-based principles have been called into question.

It seems that Old Europe’s only remaining indisputable value is its closely observed attitude towards the individual, codified in the Universal Declaration of Rights. But to what extent do the Declaration’s provisions, drawn up in the mid-20th century, define contemporary reality? To what degree are the rights to freedom of opinion, to freedom of movement and residence, to privacy, to a decent life and to social security, respected today? What processes are responsible for their most drastic violations? It is these questions that the Dystopian Realms – Idyllic Meadows project addressed, putting the phenomena that are dynamically changing the world we live in – globalisation and transculturalism – at the centre of its focus.

Due to an apparent paradox, a continent that for centuries intensely exported its value system as part of its “civilising mission,” has today become the world’s least culturally homogeneous region. One in which different mindsets, traditions and needs coexist. The Europe of today is not just an effect of the ‘vengeance’ of the colonial nations, of politically- and economically-motivated mass migration. Rather, it is being shaped by the effects of much broader globalisation processes that have, in an unprecedented manner, intensified human mobility. It is a laboratory in which unpredictable processes are taking place.

The contradictions between social reality and the visions that are marshalling collective imagination defined one of the main conceptual axes of the Dystopian Realms – Idyllic Meadows project. Artists for whom observation of these cultural processes is a fundamental creative impulse were selected for the exhibition. For many of them, the tensions arising from the meeting of cultures are a daily experience, either because they are immigrants themselves or because they are nomads moving from place to place, and narrow national or ethnic identification is too tight corset.

In Europe, filled with codes of various cultures, the model of their cohabitation is of fundamental importance. For several decades now, the doctrine of multiculturalism – a doctrine that sees inner diversity as a value and opportunity rather than a threat – has attempted to give a positive answer to a new situation. Its dictum of cultural integration is as tempting as it is difficult to fulfil. Despite of the official promotion of tolerance and openness towards the otherness, Europe continues to be haunted by the spectre of fundamentalism, both in everyday life and in the symbols and signs of Europe’s cultural variegation.

The transculturalism discourse, which, in the face of escalating conflicts, has in recent years found itself clearly in crisis[7], unfortunately seems to describe today’s realities less accurately than Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” concept. Criticised for its confrontational character and ethical harmfulness,[8] this concept holds that the dynamics of the post-Cold War world are being driven by a radical conflict over values. This conflict has manifested itself not only in the field of politics – witness the French dispute over the hijab in public schools, or the ongoing debate in Poland about the need to defend and promote Christian values – but also on the battlefield, such as the war fought over ethnic and religious differences in the former Yugoslavia.

As those conflicts make clear, the antagonism between Islam and Christianity is the most provocative collision taking place as a result of this changing ethnic order – and one whose effects are reverberating in European contemporary art. Frequently employed by Damir Nikšić, and whose drastic consequences are highlighted by Šejla Kamerić, the works of these artists reflect a world of social interactions and their tangible effects in a specific time and place (the ethnic conflict-torn Bosnia). Meanwhile, the works of Adel Abidin and Tomasz Mróz are devoted to cultural signs and their power to organise the collective imagination. Abidin and Mróz use the strategy of dislocation – the former shifting a lump-sugar mosque into the domain of animal instincts, the latter confronting a confused extraterrestrial with the image of Holy Mary. In both cases the symbolic order is disturbed, causing the symbolic reality to elude dogmatic interpretations. 

Transcultural nomadism characterises the practices of Ronald Dagonnier, Joanna Rajkowska, Kalle Hamm, and Dzamil Kamanger. Dagonnier’s works are based on images picked up in various places of the world, which the artist then subjects to medial distortion to compose hypnotising visual frescoes that draw attention to the fundamental similarities of the functioning mechanisms of different cultures. A joint project by Hamm and Kamanger highlights the fragility of human micro-histories and communities and their vulnerability to disintegration in the face of adverse political events. Rajkowska enters into the very epicentre of disputes, realising socially sensitive projects involving persons or communities that have succumbed, in one way or another, to the xenophobic rhetoric, hostility and violence of outwardly insurmountable cultural difference.

This capital of fear, often exploited and increased by politicians and the media, is the basis of social consent for an escalation of preventive violence and the implementation of new ‘security measures’ that are, in reality, ever more sophisticated methods of surveillance. In this veiled way, the domain of civil liberties, physical inviolability and right to privacy – areas that in the European discourse that always have been seen as inviolable now find themselves under threat. The most effective instrument of control is technology, which permits virtually unlimited possibilities for the collection, processing and distribution of sensitive data. The ambiguous potential of technology as an ethical problem is a field of interest shared by Johan Muyle and Robert Aliaj Dragot.

Muyle’s robotic sculptures are most often complex hybrids in which brilliant fusions of cultural quotations and semantically surprising stratifications take place. Muyle vivisects the modes of the visualisation and aesthetisation of violence present in contemporary culture as it evolves towards a culture of supervision. The uncontrolled digital documentation of acts of violence and distribution of such recordings over the Internet is the point of departure for Dragot’s project selected for the exhibition. Dragot subjects a film recorded with a mobile phone and published online to a succession of artistic transformations, revealing a dangerous multiplication process in which the distinction between reality and its medial representation is blurred. The image no longer references reality but, in a series of transformations, fragments it dulling the viewer’s reaction. Voyeurism armed with advanced technological gadgets becomes a transmission belt of a “culture of total indifference.”[9]

Superimposed on the dystopian picture of an atomised reality exposed to the negative effects of an increasingly emancipated technology is the optimistic political vision of a Europe in which unification is a method to exorcise cultural particularisms. Petja Dimitrova examines the ever more restrictive immigration regulations and naturalisation procedures faced by those looking to settle in “fortress Europe.” From their point of view, civic integration means a “standardisation of speech, norms of behaviour, and cultural as well as religious values.”[10]

An overly aggressive political promotion of uniformity often provokes civic or artistic counter-initiatives. Created in radically different contexts (the thriving metropolis of New York City and the peripheral Latvian town of Seda), documentary films by Daniela Kostova and Kaspars Goba portray essentially the same phenomenon – subversive opposition against the uniformisation and absorption of unruly micro-communities by the cultural and political mainstream.

Kostova’s film features the Bulgarian Culture Centre in New York, a nightclub that anarchically takes its name from the official institution committed to the promotion of national culture abroad. Here, the strains of music provide a medium for the crossing of individual cultural coordinates among a diverse crowd of patrons. This creative transgression lessens the antagonising potential of cultural difference without the need for its bureaucratic neutralisation.

Similarly, most of the inhabitants of the multicultural Seda – a community Russified under Soviet hegemony that is the subject of Goba’s film – negate the need for national affiliation and European integration, creating a kind of exterritorial zone in which ethnic difference is supplanted by a sense of belonging to a local community. Still, Seda’s chances of maintaining the status quo in the face of globalisation and ‘turbo-capitalism’ appear slim. If the industrial plant that is the town’s main employer collapses, the residents, left to their own fate, will in most cases be condemned to a local reality in which employment opportunities are few and social insurance is fast becoming unable to provide for more than a base-level existence.

The loss of social security and people’s helplessness in their confrontation with the effects of broader, translocal processes turning them into human waste is certainly one of the most acute problems of the nowadays Europe that is commonly perceived as an oasis of prosperity. The creative response to the struggle for survival amid such adverse circumstances is a theme that often returns in Adrian Paci’s works. His monumental video portrait of the Albanian town of Shkodra reveals a place where, immobilised by local ties, people passively accept any change that affects the place where they live. Paci uses the response to constant electricity brownouts as a metaphor for human dignity, illuminating a picture that is dominated by stillness. By skilfully highlighting its dramaturgy, Paci creates a uniquely powerful work that transcends the cosmos of social determinants. 

Armando Lulaj’s employs an equally powerful metaphor in his representation of a poetically transformed dystopian reality, that of a waste dump inhabited by a Roma community. Inserting a large block of ice amid the heaps of trash, the artist films reactions to this opalescent object, whose immaterial transience is emphasised by its gradual melting, that allusively touches upon various social, ethical and aesthetical issues that otherwise resist narrow interpretation.

In both works, important social issues (marginalisation, impoverishment, exclusion) are indicative of fundamental existential problems, which are made possible by the unique power of the generated images. The same ability to intensify the underlying message by coding it into a simple image is evident in Christian Niccoli’s video work. Exploring a similar phenomenon – the loss of a sense of security – Niccoli operates in a radically different environment. His film centres on the inhabitants of the contemporary cosmopolis, individuals spiritually and materially independent from the place where they live. Theoretically beneficiaries of the dynamics of social change; in reality, castaways drifting on a sea of uncertainty – a world in which the traditional family, communal and spatial ties have eroded.

The logic of disintegration applies also to ideological ‘inventions’ that organised the mental and political landscape of 20th-century Europe. Michael Blum deals with the theme in his “Three Failures”, whose protagonist – an ideological castaway and the artist’s alter ego – plies us with a brilliant tirade that reveals the mechanisms that force individuals to submit to the collective will and the ways in which that will is manipulated. Just as Communism oppressed the individual in the name of collective interests, social democracy incapacitated him through state control over virtually all areas of life. Capitalism went a step further by squeezing him into the logic of compulsive consumption. While announcing the failure of the latter might seem premature, it is not an altogether impossible prospect. What ideological adventures are we yet in for? Perhaps 150 years from now the global village will be governed by the Utopian laws of a mutated phalanster, as Blum perversely suggests?

Will a practice as individualistic as art retain a reason to exist in a reality in which the area of personal freedom appears as constantly shrinking? In this context, distanced strategies and projects stemming from purely personal motivations that are difficult to locate within this or another discourse may prove most effective. Two such examples, Ján Mančuška’s intricate narrative installation and Pavel Braila’s video performances based on the elementary visual qualities of material, rhythm, colour scale – appeal to the imagination and emotions rather than the analytical faculty.

Postmodernism freed art from excessive obligations – to improve people and the world – and, in the extreme interpretation, discredited it by proclaiming its ultimate failure.[11] Today, art certainly determines nothing. Yet it remains a sensitive barometer and an early-warning zone, a “guerrilla force” in the sphere of symbolic communication. As Brian Holmes writes, “art can offer a chance for society to collectively reflect on the imaginary figures it depends upon for its very consistency.”[12] If art no longer solves problems or neutralises antagonisms, it at least creates an area where they can be freely expressed and confronted. So construed, art comes closer to the concept, promoted by Chantal Mouffe, of agonistic space – an area where differences can be manifested, revealing spheres and issues that the dominant consensus suppresses.[13]

Of course, the journey is far from complete. The “European idiom” continues to compete with other positions in agnostic, discoursive space. If it is to continue its adventure, Europe must – according to Bauman – consolidate itself again around its fundamental values: rationality, justice, democracy and liberty,[14] seeking innovative ways to genuinely fulfil them in a dynamically changing environment.

Magdalena Lewoc

[1] Zygmunt Bauman, Europe An Unfinished Adventure, Polity, Cambridge, 2004.

[2]  Denis de Rougemont, ‘L’aventure mondiale des Européens,’ in: Écrits sur l’Europe, Paris 1994, quoted after: Zygmunt Bauman, op. cit., p. 1.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, op. cit., p. 3 and following.

[4] James Cook’s words in: Nicolas Thomas, Discoveries. The Voyages of Captain James Cook, London, 2002, quoted after: Norman Davies, Europe East and West, Jonathan Cape, 2006.

[5] Jacek Zydorowicz, Artystyczny wirus. Polska sztuka krytyczna wobec przemian po 1989 roku, Warszawa,

2005, p. 68.

[6] Zygmunt Bauman, op. cit., p. 12.

[7] The multiculturalism debate was intensified by the Madrid and London bomb attacks in 2004-05 and the phenomenon of so called ‘cultural regression’ (shift towards fundamentalism in the second and third immigrant generations).

[8] The ‘clash of civilisations’ conception, put forward by Samuel Huntington in 1993, was radically criticised by, among others, Edward Said, who accused its author of cynically promoting a chauvinistic, conflict-mongering vision of the world.

[9] Jean Baudrillard, ‘From the Universal to the Singular: The Violence of the Global,’ in: Jérôme Bindé, The Future of Values: 21st-Century Talks, Berghahn Books, 2004, p. 20.

[10] Petja Dimitrova, press release for Neo-Citizens, video, 2006-2008.

[11] Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), 2005.

[12] Brian Holmes, ‘Artistic Autonomy and the Communication Society,’ http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0310/msg00192.html, retrieved on 8 August 2009.

[13] Chantal Mouffe, ‘Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,’ http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html, retrieved on 8 August 2009.

[14] Zygmunt Bauman, op. cit., p. 188.

Translated from Polish into English by Marcin Wawrzyńczak. Proofread by Rick Butler.

Text originally published in Windows upon Oceans /Dystopian Realms – Idyllic Meadows/ – 8th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial in Szczecin, Szczecin, 2003, ed. by Marlena Chybowska-Butler and Magdalena Lewoc, published by the National Museum in Szczecin.

Organization: Museum of Contemporary Art, dept. of the National Museum in Szczecin

Venues: Museum of Contemporary Art, dept. of the National Museum in Szczecin; Pomeranian Dukes' Castle in Szczecin, 13 Muz Gallery

Project realized within the ARTVENTURE  - Visual art Network program (www.artventure-network.net) supported by the Culture 2000 program of the European Commission.