Video Art in Slovenia and in the Territory of Ex-Yugoslavia

By Marina Grzinic, Ljubljana, 10 January 1997

Toward an Electronic Art Media Theory in Eastern Europe

Not so long ago, I read that an electronic calculator can serve a capitalist as well as a post-socialist "world". So why have I chosen such an ideological title? Modern theories which currently attempt to convince us that we are living in the best of all possible worlds would provoke a similar question; so why can't we simply talk about ideology-free electronic instruments? I will try to show that we can not think in this way and to address these dilemmas. Last but not least, I will end by proposing a general thesis with which to define how the video and electronic media communities in the territory once known as Eastern Europe function as a system. A thesis that can contribute to a future theory of the possible critical and social discourses surrounding the new electronic media art situation in Eastern Europe. A theory that will allow us to surpass the often superficial, romantic (hi)story telling - that is sometimes not even a specific history - about the state of Eastern European art's involvement in electronic media.

Interpretations attempting only to explicate the national or ethical media identity in the East miss or consciously hide the power structures lying beneath this supposedly innocent (and mostly Western) cultural pluralistic inquiry (or should I say Western tourism<1>). This "tourism" maintains the separation of Western and Eastern European art-cultural productions, and in so doing masks the economical and political power relations inherent in such separations. To be more clear, one must ask what motivates the primary inquiry or interest of most instances of Western cultural inquisitive tourism in the East. Such tourism is an examination of the "East" which focuses on the condition of human rights and the principles of autonomy, equality and dignity which have emerged in the Western world, or better, an examination of the regularity with which these rights are practised and sustained in the "East". But we must bluntly ask not only if these principles of autonomy, freedom and humanity contain a special political-post-colonial interest for the West with regard to the rest of the world, but even more importantly, whether these principles are still valuable? NO! Because we cannot conceive of a future today, for example, if we reflect on the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina adhering to these principles. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina has, in my opinion, put into question the credibility of all the fundamental civil legislative relations in the world in which we live - not only the paradigm of the future but the elementary supposition of humanism and the rhetoric of freedom, humanity and civil rights developed in the industrialised and Western world. Above all, this war has brought a lot of "supplements" to the theories of mass media and new/old communications technology (radio-TV-satellite communications). For this reason, it not only calls into question the role of televised and printed information in (new) war strategies (in ascertaining the differences between the wars before and after the invention of television), but also the methods of redistribution of information in a technologically developed environment (the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was/is taking place in Europe!). This war could then be, speaking cynically, the first contribution of the ex-Yugoslavian territory, or, more generally speaking, of the Eastern European territory (do not forget about Chechnia and the Kurds!), to the theoretical conceptualisation of the media condition in the West.


In the territory of ex-Yugoslavia, the eighties was a time in which a new scopic regime of contemporary reality took shape, one which gave priority to works proceeding from the eye and intended for the eye. This occularocentrism can be perceived in political and social events as well as to cultural and artistic ones. Throughout the decade it was possible to witness the progressive disintegration of the watchful eye of authority. It is possible to better understand this if we recall, for example, one of the most notorious trials in Slovenia known as The Trial Against Four Persons (the Four) who supposedly stole a top secret army document in 1988. This trial can be considered as visual in an exemplary sense: the indictment of the Four was not founded on any actual offence - the Four were not indicted for the abuse of the document - but for having caught sight of a punitive secret army document. This affair demonstrates that, in the eighties, it was the visual media and their technical gadgets that played a decisive role.

The eighties were also witness to a renaissance of the video medium in Slovenia. This is not to suggest that we can speak about a "birth" of video art in the whole of the ex-Yugoslavia of the seventies. There was no 'Yugoslav" video per se, only, as in the eighties, video productions which were the products of the individual urban centres throughout the Yugoslav republics, i.e. of Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Skopje and Sarajevo. The differences in production between these centres was acknowledged by Kathy Rae Huffman in her 1989 presentation at the New York ARTISTS' SPACE of "Deconstruction, Quotation & Subversion". Here she referred to "video production from Yugoslavia", not Yugoslav video production. Furthermore, in the eighties, video production within Slovenia was so radically different aesthetically to local film-making and visual style, that the designation "Slovene video production" could not in any way allude to such a "national" unifying style which had tried in the past and still tries almost obsessively to "colour" the cultural and social artefacts of an Eastern Europe in decline.

The end of the seventies in Slovenia, commonly referred to as the end of authoritarian politics, was a watershed for what had been until then an empty space or void in art. It was followed by the growth of a new youth "sub-culture" - punk - which provided an uncompromising and critical energy which could evaluate and feed artistic creativity in the eighties. Punk culture and its artistic off-shoots provided a critical energy which provoked shifts in art in general. It constituted and legitimised a space for new art production and granted a relevance to diverse practices. It encouraged different socialisation processes, forms of social activity and behaviour, and the acceptance of "deviant" social and artistic "realities". During the eighties numerous new social movements were established in Slovenia around the 'coming out' of male homosexuals and, somewhat later, lesbians from Ljubljana's underground, and the appearance of 'gay' culture. The eighties confirmed that we had to face the fact that Ljubljana earned the title of an urban topos for at least one reason: the "coming out" of Ljubljana homosexuals and the creation of gay culture in the nineties.

So, the beginnings of the Slovene renaissance in video are linked to the local phenomenon of alternative culture or sub-culture in the eighties. Video in this context established itself quite quickly as an appropriate medium for the expression of the radical standpoints of the new generation. The video productions of the eighties were focused on and in the work of two Student Cultural Centres. In 1982 these centres established a video department together, which became the basis of the SKUC-Forum independent video productions. The simple handling, extremely fast production and reproduction of non-professional video equipment (VHS) made it one of the most popular, and radical forms of media for the eighties generation. Access to video became a status symbol in itself.

Though a post 1991 'war' (which took place in June 1991 against the tanks of the Yugoslav government!) and a post-independence economic crisis (Slovenia became an independent state from June 1991 onwards) have caused interruptions in the availability of this video equipment and thus a production gap which is increasingly threatening the growth of video production, we can say that because of the wealth of strategies for visualisation and narration, video art constitutes an autonomous paradigm within art in Slovenia, one which can be defined and understood also as a new economy of seeing.

The strategies of visualisation reflect two territories especially: 1.) that of the body in connection to sexuality and the "social body" of film and TV media, and 2.) history in connection with politics.

1. The eighties witnessed an over sexualisation of the video medium. This was not only a process of an art-political reflexivity responding to the repressed sexuality in Socialism and Communism, but also one of the video medium distancing-disassociating itself from it sisters: film and TV. This externalising of sexuality was derived and adopted from the underground film tradition headed by Fassbinder, Rosa von Praunheim, Warhol, etc. (their films were shown in the underground venues in Ljubljana in the eighties). The externalisation of sexuality took the form of overtly staged pornography and gender confusion (gender-bending) of gay, lesbian and transvestite sexual attitudes. It was a process that can be described simply: the sexual stereotypes and civil rights prototypes were not only consumed in and by the underground, but immediately performed and staged in private rooms and bedrooms in front VHS cameras. In these works the masquerade of reappropriation ensured not only the simple question of the formation of identity of the artists or of the underground community but the process of negotiation with multiple realities deployed in the production of continually ambiguous and unbalanced situations and identities.

In this period we can also find several video projects that were created by copying the products of the national television network; subsequently procedures of re-adaptation and re-montage were applied. In the so-called post-socialist countries video has, by the end of the century been developed into a specific "viewer", enabling us to read history, to see through the surface of the image, and possibly to perceive the future. It could be argued that through an electronic and digital process of "encrustation" a new destiny for film and documentary material are being realised.

2. Socialist societies had functioned through a painful recourse to a psychotic discourse which attempted to neutralise the side effects of pertinent interpretations and productions by means of hiding, masking, and renaming history. Rather than a yearning for the past, recent political and social shifts represent a desire to co-opt, to reappropriate history. In the Slovene 1991 "post war" period, history had begun to play a starring role in art and culture generally, not as a means of retaking possession of the history of socialism, as deformed as it was, but in order to reject the blind retaliation, nationalism and racism that can and does rise out of the "ruins of war". Video in Slovenia was/is also the eye of history: in the mid-eighties and nineties video films were not merely a means of expression, but also a method of documenting political events. Documentary video projects (realised by amateurs with VHS equipment and by independent film and video groups with professional video equipment), captured different periods of political and social struggle in Slovenia: the ten day long war in Slovenia against the Federal Yugoslav Army in 1991; protests against the attempt to abolish abortion rights in Slovenia in the end of 1991. That is why one can define video art as providing an alternative history, which gathers the names and the faces of forgotten or discarded cultures. It redefines their place inside a contemporary construct of power relations, which also feeds back into the status of video itself.


1. This short essay is not capitalising, for the benefit of a Western reader, on the "how we survived communism and laughed" point of reminiscence, as the writer Slavenka Drakulic has called it, but is trying to show that all the big notions and goals of Western democracy such as freedom and humanity have to be perceived in relation to the fall of socialism and in relation, as I remarked at the beginning, to the war within the territory of ex-Yugoslavia. In this respect Eastern Europe has to be understood as a symptom (in strictly psychoanalytical terms) of the West, revealing to the West its proper internal borders. The same symptomatic reading can be applied to the territory of new media in the East - the brutal, sexually perverse, and dehumanised messages and media structures generated in and through Eastern Europe function as a reverse picture of what is yet to come in the media after the year 2000. Allow me a small correction: this reverse picture might be shown similarly, here and now, by the film Trainspotting.

In the first part of this paper I wrote that in the eighties the video medium in Eastern Europe was appropriated by desire, obscenity, pornography, politics and history. It lost its innocence becoming an index of time and subjective politics. The same happened in Russia. If we recall the spiritual state of Russia after the eighties crackdown, according to Slavoj Zizek, the atmosphere was/is the atmosphere of pure, mystical spirituality, of the violent denial of corporeality on one side, accompanied by an obsession with pornography and sexual perversion on the other. Cynically speaking, the Perfect Western Europe will have to include, to subsume in its perfect image the Imperfect East. In other words, as if the Perfect itself needs the Imperfect in order to assert itself (the film Trainspotting again comes to mind).

Such an interrogation is necessary because the Enlightenment paradigms have also fallen apart due to the changed relations between the nation state, citizenry and corporate power on one side, and the effects of communications and computerised technology on the other (Zizek).

2. Even though Post-Structuralist thinkers such as Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari have offered a differentiated view of the workings of power, it is interesting to see that some aspects of the political crisis of postmodernism are linked to the ostensible impossibility of an alternative working of power <2>. Significantly, whenever an ambitious history of power is written, the aspect of individual power and that which comes from the merging of individuals (such as citizens' initiatives and social movements), is systematically neglected (Wilhem Schmid <3>). With reference to the electronic media and video art situation in the East, we can assert that it is not only possible to establish such a history but, if we want to draw upon it, that we must establish it in such a way. The video medium in the East tries to subvert the very concept of politics - what it entails is a subversion of the body politic. In the East the notion of (individual) politics and of the politics of the medium goes beyond the mere question of resistance.

3. One of the main topoi in the new media is the problem of simulation, the other is the rapidity of information exchange. The extreme rapidity of communication leaves no time, according to Burghart Schmidt <4>, for controlling or thinking about the information. The way of dealing with the structure of the video image and with its political and sexual topics in Eastern Europe is to reveal strategies for slowing down the streams of communication and information, and creating new paradigms of information's values, meanings and perspectives.

A longer version of this paper was first presented as part of the V2_East Conference (16 - 18 September 1996, Rotterdam, the Netherlands).It can be accessed at

Marina Grzinic <margrz AT> is a video artist and media theorist from Ljubljana, Slovenia.

FOOTNOTES<1> Jean Fisher, "The Syncretic Turn", in: Issues no.3 in contemporary culture and aesthetics, Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht 1996.

<2> Knut Harald Asdam, "The Smallest Deviation, the Minimum Excess", in: Issues no.1 in contemporary culture and aesthetics, Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht 1995.

<3> Wilhem Schmid, "Politics of the Art of Living with Reference to Michel Foucault", in: Issues no.2 in contemporary culture and aesthetics, Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht 1995.

<4> Burghart Schmidt, The Rest is Utopian Fiction: Art as Showing of Information, Against Pure Information in Acceleration", in: Issues no.2 in contemporary culture and aesthetics, op.cit.