The Future is Now

And so, for almost fifty years, the people of the camera obscura, of the darkened rooms, have burned the imaginary to warm up some reality. Now reality is taking revenge, demanding real tears and real blood.
-Jean-Luc Godard

 

The institution known as the embassy is as familiar to me as the reality behind the word “neighborhood”, “community” or “country” are to most other people. I grew up in the embassies of the American post-war imperium; their condition, if not their function, was as natural to me as they were unnatural (sometimes hated) to others. A chain of capitals unreels like a roll of archival film: Ankara, Belgrade, Moscow. In each, the American Embassy looms. The iconography of Pax Americana surfaces through a grainy texture; black cars cruise through automatic gates; ornamental Marine guards stand at attention; a surveillance camera peers through the branches of the Christmas tree, behind the American flag, attached to the US Embassy, in Moscow, USSR.

What is the condition of an Embassy? Well, apart from its material condition we know that it is a kind of metaphorical construct, a national/ideological island within the sea of another culture. An embassy is officially the territory of the country which owns it. Therefore the flag can be raised, military ceremonies can take place, political asylum can be claimed, etc. It is a microcosm of a distant macrocosm; a kind of fragment of a hologram, in which all the essentials of the parent country are preserved. During the cold war, the community of western embassies in Moscow were an inverted Gulag, an archipelago of privilege – but also a succession of gilded cages, serviced by hard currency shops, under constant surveillance.

***

Making a film within a new state is like constructing a model of a new structure inside a building still under construction. Workers climb over and across the building. When it rains, the floor gets wet; the economy shifts into second with a grinding of gears; new issues of new newspapers accumulate in the corner; homely transitional currency is replaced with the well-drafted bills of the new era. Meanwhile, plans and diagrams for the production are gradually converted into an actual artifact made out of time more than space. And the whole while that workmen are pounding nails, and cultural ministries are falling, and electricians are laying wire, all for the external state structure – all this time these sounds and events mix with the noise of the production team making the internal structure. And even the bureaucracy helping to realize the film undergoes transition: the media nexus housing the production and equipment has to deal with the structural stresses of the post-Yugoslav period; personnel changes, equipment failures, currency devaluations, etc. etc.

***

As a kid, it did not necessarily occur to me to consider strange the fact that, half a dozen times daily, I breezed past the gauntlet dividing the “superpowers.” Past the US Marine in his bullet-proof booth, through metal detectors and reinforced doors, then between the two huge Soviet guards planted, like legionaries, on either side of the main entrance. My freedom, I realized years later, was something both envied and despised by surrounding populace. It took a brave Soviet citizen to try to enter the American Embassy without official permission. “Anonymous” black Volga sedans idled quietly on Chaikovsky Street at all times, available to usher the unfortunate to Lyubianka prison, a short ride away.

My own effortless, multiple entry-exits of that front door should have produced a kind of ideological disorientation. I was, after all, exiting the land of the free, entering workers paradise, buying subsidized black bread at the corner store, and returning to the home of the brave – all within twenty minutes. But to me, it was simply a natural condition, a “given.” The events taking place around the Embassy door were only a small part of the mystifying and frightening game played by human beings as both sides built ever higher piles of nuclear weapons systems, in preparation for seemingly inevitable Armageddon.

***

Belgrade, July 1991. Former artist Goran Djordjevic and I listen for several hours to the radio in his small studio in the center of the city. There is a military stalemate in Slovenia. A tide of voices – the same dismal Balkan chorus that had bickered for a decade over the tragedy of Yugoslavia – are analyzing the situation, now that blood has finally been spilled. The short Slovene war is rapidly building into a series of fin de siecle convulsions which will rumble through the Balkans and into Western Europe for years to come. The Yugoslav Army is on the move. Tank columns extend out from Belgrade, chewing roads heading west.
The center of the capital, however, seems unchanged. Djordjevic and I go for a walk to a local xerox shop. By some infinitely strange coincidence, under the glass of the counter is a precise architectural drawing of the new buildings of the American Embassy complex in Moscow. Peering through this unlikely window, they can make out the square, flat roof of the central brick cube.

On top of the Embassy is an exact replica of a Malevich cross.

***

Like the “no man’s land” in innumerable war films – although only about one foot wide – a tenuous grey area existed just beyond the threshold of the American Embassy in Moscow during the cold war period. This ill-defined place – where neither power had true jurisdiction – was where a struggle would occur, several times a month, as those with nothing to loose tried to crash past the Soviet guards. Some would make it into the virtual reality of the American Zone; safely inside, they could claim asylum, or protest persecution, or threaten suicide by revealing a form-fitting bomb strapped, flak-jacket style, to the chest.

One could say with only slight exaggeration that the Slovenian art movement Neue Slowenische Kunst, and all of its artistic production, is the product of a similar gray zone. Encamped in under banners bearing ideological signs and signifiers of both Europes – of various Europes – NSK is indelibly marked by the micro-historical experience of a country so thoroughly suspended between East and West, for so many centuries, that it actually disappeared. Or to be more precise, it didn’t appear at all – until the spring of 1991, that is. Slovenia’s limbo within this East-West “twilight zone” – most recently, between the great Orwellian blocks of the century’s second half – did nothing to lessen the struggles fought on her soil. (Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, which chronicles the carnage of First World War’s Socha Front, never once mentions Slovenia – despite being set almost entirely within the borders of present-day republic.) Slovenia’s obscurity on the global stage, the concomitant inconsequentiality of her fate, have made the Slovenes unconsciously attuned to historical and ideological pressure changes.

NSK, on the other hand, became a kind of consciously politicized aesthetic barometer. Barometers enable a prediction of upcoming weather conditions: If one examines even the opening chapters of the NSK phenomenon, one can already see a kind of predictive barometry. In the early 80′s, Laibach’s first front-man appeared on stage wearing a military uniform, was pelted with bottles, and later killed himself. In 1986 NK Studios, the NSK graphics “department”, submitted what they thought was an appropriate poster to commemorate Tito’s birthday. But the victorious poster – based, as it later came out, on Nazi artist Richard Klein’s “The Third Reich” – was more appropriate than the judges intended. By winning the nation-wide competition, NK Studios ended up marking the death of the Tito cult – a definitive stage in the final solution of the Yugoslav question.

The participation of the state judges, who unwittingly chose the most fascist design to define the officially-sponsored concerns of Yugoslav youth, was a quintessential achievement of Neue Slowenische Kunst in their prophetic mode. In these incidents and others, details of the past, transposed as metaphors to the present, predicted the future.

The future is now.

***

A product of summer sunlight burned into 24 frames per second of color stock, film footage spins through the projector, reconstituted by cog-wheels and light. Red Square, Moscow, 2 PM, June 7th, 1992. The Black Square, at first rolled up like a funeral shroud for rapid transportation from the bus, is opened by innumerable hands with a twisting, clockwise motion. Extended in the heart of Red Square, it functions as Malevich first designed it: inscrutable, radiative, possessing an indefinable power. Hundreds of people, gathering at its perimeter, define the Suprematist archetype. As cameraman Ubald Trnkoczy observes, they look “like a swarm of ants around a giant sugar-cube.”
Contrary to expectations, the Militia simply hang back and observe. Apt-Art curator Elena Kurliandzeva has tears in her eyes. She points to a Militia member. “Go talk to him,” she says. “Finally I can believe that things have really changed.” The uniformed officer is indistinguishable from the legionaries who once cordoned off the Western embassies of Moscow. “It’s a black square, it’s a painting,” he explains. “I don’t understand this work – but I don’t see anything wrong with it.” Asked about the Balkans, he looks grim. “My wife and I worry about Yugoslavia,” he says, slowly. “We watch it on television every night. Women and children are dying there… Thank God nothing like that is happening here.”

The projector changes its tune. Scrawled hieroglyphics whip illegibly across the screen; the tail of the roll emerges, flapping, on the spinning take-up reel. The film medium, as of this writing, is almost exactly one hundred years old. By now it has been around long enough – and has become powerful enough – to be used as a political tool not just for contemporaneous manipulation but for the resurrection of the past. The footage exists: the banners and salutes, archaic uniforms and political rituals – they’re all still there, preserved on celluloid, like bugs in amber. They come to life and run around again inside the TV screen. Film predates and predicts CD technology, which “samples” time, converting it into digitized information. Film also “samples”, slicing history into 24 frames per second, then re-assembling it in the future.

***

With the temporary “transmigration” of their “soul” to Moscow in the summer of 1992, NSK again exhibited a kind of prescience. Alone among “Eastern” artists, they successfully have taken the spirit of Malevich and “made it flesh” – specifically his illustrated axiom, first delivered to a German audience, that art should be a third, equal power between the twin poles of religion and ideology. Their arrival as an Embassy, their willfully contrary insistence on contact between the Slavic world’s outer perimeter and the imperial center – at a time when most of the progressive forces of the old East seem oriented in an exclusively Westward direction – accomplished several things. It served notice that communications links within the East must not be abandoned. It reinforced the idea that denial of the past only leads to another cycle of tragedy. And, at the dawn of an ominous revival of Russophile pan-Slavicism, it urgently brought home the fact that the alternative to communication is either wordless capitulation to market forces, or mindless nationalistic xenophobia.

***

Churchill’s Curtain and Ulbricht’s Wall – two sides of the same machine – are gone. What has happened to “seemingly inevitable” Armageddon? Did it just evaporate? Or has the decline and final dissolution of the cold war brought a new paradigm, in the form of multiple miniature Armageddons in the old East – catastrophes that history has shown are quite capable of linking together to produce a chain reaction?
There is a dark side to fundamental human needs – a drive to exclude, to “cleanse”, to conquer, control, dominate, and murder. For 40 years, each side of the East-West divide focussed this energy on a concrete dam. But there was always the danger of it breaking, of European flood-waters rising once again. For more than a decade, Neue Slowenische Kunst and a small group of fellow travellers (Anselm Keifer, Joseph Beuys, Ian Curtis, Lars Von Trier, Goran Djordjevic, and others) have attempted to recapitulate and expose these drives; to unearth their complex mechanisms in the harsh light of day. “The past is now part of my future; the present is well out of hand.” (Ian Curtis, 1980)

***

We are returning now, back to the future. After 40 years of “cold storage”, the banners of the past fly again in the power vacuum of post-Communism. They flap eerily over the battlefields and ruined cities of the Balkans. Further East, the Cossacks ride again, wearing the uniforms of their grandfathers. Rummaging through previously locked basements, the democratically elected standard-bearers of the New World Order found newsreels of the atrocities. Using central television (still under state control), they bombarded their respective populations with these images during prime time. In an age where televised images count for far more than the dry words of speeches and newspapers, moving images exist in the eternal present. They are happening NOW every time you see them. The Croatian fascist executing the Serbian villager in 1943 does so forever – and he does it NOW. The Serbian royalist destroying the Croatian Catholic church in 1944 does so NOW. Therefore, these actions have to be avenged NOW. The consequences of these emotions play themselves out in the future, in the East, in “real time.”

And an endless reservoir of new images is edited, transmitted, and fired into the retna’s dark backwash – plowed back into the compost heap, the muck, the blood and soil of European historical memory.

***

Reality, as Godard predicted, takes its revenge. In the winter of 1992-93, an ominous fog hangs over the Continent. In Bosnia, groups of heavily armed men line villagers up – people like themselves, people from the same land and another faith. They force them to lie face down in the dirt, and drive over them with tanks. Horror returns to Europe.

 

Michael Benson
11/22/92-3/13/93

 

From NSK Embassy Moscow: How the East Sees the East (book)

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