170 Kilometres In a Decade Master Plan (Siarhei Liubimau)
Opening the Door? in Vilnius was a successful and useful project if accepted that it fulfills the function of a master plan which has merely documented, upheld and consolidated the persistent discourse on the Belarusian art sector, political culture and national identity, and, served to put this in a long-term perspective.
Putting the phrase ‘Opening the door’ into the title for an exhibition framing the most characteristic approaches, personalities and imageries of the art sector of a country A shown in a country B seems to me a bold statement. It seems bold to me because in recent years I was doing research on architectural forms and spatial projects which show how various state border regimes function and because I am aware how fashionable Georg Simmel’s hundred year old essay ‘The Bridge and the Door’ became in last 10–15 years.
What Simmel does is demonstrate how human action creates an appropriate geography and vice-versa how a distinct geography creates channels for human action. Bridge and door are for him two models of bounding space, or two models of merging geography with society. The core feature of a bridge is that it cannot connect without separating: in order to connect two riverbanks a human should comprehend them as separate. The core feature of a door is that it marks the border between finitude and infinitude through different regimes of opening (confrontation) and closure (isolation) which are determined by a human.
In Europe, the bridge is now a much more wide-spread element of the symbolic machinery. Bridges regularly serve as a fundamental element of European strategic architecture. We click on them as logos and mottos of EU-funded political, cultural, educational, social and scientific projects. We also see them on each Euro banknote. Yet this multiplication of bridges generally seems to overlook the twofold nature of the bridge’s function noted by Simmel.
A critical eye might thus ask the following: through the building of bridges are spatial planners implying that infrastructures connecting areas which were before separated will engender new divides? In the same fashion, may EU funded civic initiatives which use mottos centered on the words ‘bridge’ and ‘bridging’ actually be spatial metaphors not only for networking, but also for new, less obvious and more tangled confrontational clashes? Or were the engineers of the common European currency and banknote designers unconsciously intending to show that this new monetary configuration will not only unify EU financial space, but equally enhance its unevenness?
Simmel’s essay was important for social science because it revealed hidden aspects of human action embodied in two types of built form. Currently it has become so intellectually inspiring because thinking of these types of human action embodied in two types of built form has proven useful when scaled up to the level of the entire European Union.
From this angle, saying that ‘the door is opening’, and putting a punctuation symbol after it, is a bold statement because it sets the trajectory for both the rhetorical and practical local configuration of Europeanisation within the domain of contemporary art. The semiosis of ‘door’ as another architectural tag used for depicting a place-specific articulation of EU cultural dynamics — in this case the cultural exchanges taking place on the Union’s frontier — legitimizes the dominant agendas within the relations between Belarusian and Lithuanian/Polish cultural sectors and promises to have long lasting effects.
To a great extent this tag, whose essence is to enable an artistic shortcut for the Belarusian way to Europe and the reception of Belarusian art by its EU neighbours, is now substituting the tag of ‘swamp’ which was used to artistically shortcut meditations on unique Belarusian identity for something like a decade. Although the symbol of a door is not that popular in Europe in comparison with the symbol of a bridge (we see arches, and not doors, pairing bridges on Euro banknotes), leaving a ‘door’ ajar is nonetheless an imaginative fix of European cultural geography. Even though Poland and Lithuania should for many reasons be expected to have different layouts of ‘doors’ for artistic outsiders, both the regimes of networking in their cultural sectors and the regimes in which their imageries work, or, more fundamentally, the regimes of opening and closing via art should be expected to be similar.
The differences in the door’s layout and function should primarily be sought in the frame of time. The exhibition’s opening in Vilnius was scheduled just one month before the last presidential elections in Belarus and the unexpectedly brutal reaction to them by the state, and thus to understand the Vilnius door we have to understand how this retrospective state affected the exhibition’s reception in two parallel directions. First, at this time there was a growing interest in the potential of neighbouring the EU — and hence in developing international connections — as a new constellation within which the Belarusian case can be examined and adjusted. Remarkably, especially from today’s perspective, it was assumed that both state and non-state players should be interested in promoting these connections, which however did not presuppose that this interest was understood by the two parties in a similar way or that there was a consensus as to how this interest should be pursued. And, second, there was a discursive endeavour to disenchant the specificity of the ‘Belarusian model’ by regarding it rather in terms of underdevelopment than in terms of incomprehensible deviation.
Both aspects basically dominated all segments of intellectual work in Belarus for two years and were equally straightforwardly articulated — specifically in terms of what this means for Belarusian culture — by those who have written for the catalogue prepared for the Vilnius exhibition and in subsequent discussions and feedbacks. The exhibition in Warsaw — taking place after the illogical and unprecedented post-election persecutions for political reasons, whose effect was strengthened by the recent explosion in Minsk metro, is likely to be echoed both by the representation of Belarus as fundamentally split (pro- and anti-state) and by its at least partial re-enchantment as a deviant space. It would thus be justified to expect idioms like ‘the last dictatorship of Central and Eastern Europe’ or a part of ‘the axis of evil’, used before the Vilnius event with quotes and interrogation marks, to now be used more confidently.
The door’s similarities would lie in the very way of utilizing a symbolic grid or archive to which we routinely refer in order to make sense of what is topical in Belarusian art and culture today. The major message of the theoretical reception of Opening the Door? in Vilnius was how to move closer to the CEE mainstream and normalize Belarusian art with the help of European institutions. In Warsaw, it would be reasonable to expect the domination of the issues of the prospective repression of Belarusian alternative culture and the promise of Europe. Yet in the two cases, the striking continuity to be noticed and expected is that, in order to make sense of what is going on in the art field in Belarus, artists, managers and interpreters decode local trends and processes referring to a symbolic grid which is external in relation to this sector both horizontally (in terms of genre, field or discipline) and vertically (in terms of hierarchies of decision making).
It seems then that policy makers, political scientists and sociologists of the cultural sector did not only their own job, but also that of artists, art managers and art critics: analogically constructed scientific models which are indispensable for political science or routine EU engineering have simply been transferred to the domain of thinking about art and culture. But isn’t one of the major advantages of this domain precisely its potential and need to go beyond analogies? A good way to call it is — the domination of mechanical, secondary and mimetic ideological thinking about what is a door and how it can be opened over utopian thinking of what opening the door might be. In other words, opening the door as the encounter of the meaningful infinitude of outside (Belarus) by the meaningful finitude of inside (new EU) is now happening due to templates which are not of artistic origin.
Opening the Door? in Vilnius was a successful and useful project if accepted that it fulfills the function of a master plan which has merely documented, upheld and consolidated the persistent discourse on the Belarusian art sector, political culture and national identity, and, served to put this in a long-term perspective. Yet, the issue is whether art projects are able and should think and create beyond the master plan, which is always in effect a discursive status quo and an ideology. The opposite of an ideological master plan is utopian re-programming.
To make direct reference to artworks dealing with issues of Belarusian urbanism, good examples of an ideological reception of the city environment — both stemming from prevailing master plan structures and legitimizing them — would be those of Artur Klinau and Alexander Komarov. They neither program anything new in the urban settings of Minsk, nor overcome the commonsense reception of these settings. They both, first, document and metaphorize the city’s master plan and, second, mechanically visualize the cultural-political order in which the architectural forms are set. A contrary example is Anna Chkolnikova’s project which goes beyond the direct reception of sedimented ideologies in bounded space and political culture. By experimenting with cultural, economic and political aspects of the built environment, she shows opportunities for re-programming these aspects and therefore opportunities for living and creating beyond the master plan.
Master plan here is equally a spatial metaphor, which is helpful to scale up the tag ‘opening the door?’ to the international level and to think about what can art itself do and articulate about current relations between Belarus and Lithuania, Poland and Belarus, Belarus and the EU, Poland and the EU, Poland and Europe, the EU and Europe, etc. In this case, the aspect of border becomes the key one, while the major stake will be how to complicate — shrink, or vice-versa, extend — the 170 kilometres separating Minsk and Vilnius (and the distance between Minsk and Warsaw), yet retaining cross-social perspective and elaborating more cultural intimacy.
This text was written in May 2011 for the exhibition “Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today” at Warsaw Art Gallery Zacheta.
 Here I mean Balota Empire, a previous symbolically influential Belarusian exhibition staged abroad, in 2005 in Kyiv.
 Curator Kęstutis Kuizinas has written that although there are just 170 kilometres between Vilnius and Minsk, in Lithuania ‘we have known little about Belarus and its people’. My immediate question was, what is ‘we’ and what is ‘have known’, since, I thought, it is difficult to find a taxi driver in Vilnius who would not work on Belarusian gas.