Nearly two weeks ago I had a peek at the first Polish Biennale - I went to attend the Transunions, but also to see some of the theater performances, exhibitions, and music performances. I have learned a lot during this short weekend. But let me first unpack the Transunions, because this is where some key things happened.
First of all, my expectations were really high - Jonas Staal has become quite a stature in the art/politics world, organizing expansive, experimental formats for political debates, especially empowering for those who lack a voice and recognition. All that using as a backdrop the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw this time - a monument with its own incredible, complicated story. And yet it was so underwhelming - as if printing a colorful carpet and building colorful tables would give the much needed revolutionary edge to the meeting (if you go for constructivist esthetics, you probably count on it, right?).
As much as I love listening to smart people and learning new things about the world, I thought running this meeting in a form of a panel, where 14 speakers were asked questions by two moderators, with the audience sitting on uncomfortable benches behind them, having to look at the screens if they wanted to see the person speaking, had as little transformative potential as it gets.
I was happy to hear the journey of UNPO, an organization established in 1991 in Hague, that associates “nations” and groups that don’t feel represented in their countries or internationally while considering the complexity of these entities, their stories, needs, and desires. Many of them do not wish for statehood or independence, rather self-determination that drives them towards peace. Many were caught in between power struggles, often because of their strategic location (borders, natural resources). The speaker, Fernando Burges, called the nation-state problem a Russian doll - you would always keep on having smaller and smaller groups demanding recognition, which is not feasible. Instead, their members want a seat at the table. An interesting example he gave was the presence of Washington DC in the organization as a state that doesn’t have its own representation - while contributing one of the highest GDPs in the world.
Diouna Kcherie elaborated on the grooming process at the UN and the power struggles behind it. She had been working for years in the communications in New York’s UNICEF, UNHCR and others. She underlined the importance of the donor-receiver dynamics that create inequalities within the organization, as well as the young professionals’ program that is addressed towards citizens of developing countries and financed by the donors (rich countries). She saw it problematic - years spent at the institutions, where these young talented people would be taught how and what to say in their professional capacity. She also criticized other mechanisms at play - for example, the fact that Greece wouldn’t accept the help from UNHCR when dealing with the refugee crisis, because it didn’t want to be perceived as a developing country.
Andrzej Nowak, Polish philosopher, elaborated in a more scientific manner on the ills of the contemporary nation-state and what is being done to and with the underlying narratives. Poland, just like the US, loves its bombastic narratives, yet these are nowadays combined with other ideas, making the dismantling of the state as a protector (one that provides with stability, health, safety) possible. For example, the neo-liberal dream is manifested in anti-vaxxers movement or neo-tribalism. Adding to this the north/south division, we find ourselves in an increasingly difficult position to cooperate and build new kinds of unions. He called Poland a nationalist international, a cynical member of international institutions.
Abderrahim Kassou from FMAS (Morrocan Forum of Alternatives) stressed the importance of looking for solutions in the south - and how the rest of the world will benefit from these. He cried at the “almost-fatal impossibility” to migrate to Europe from countries other than the three that are at war and are given a chance to escape. Considering these circumstances, he doesn’t imagine nation-state surviving the challenges posed by the 21st century.
What I found really intriguing in this part of the conference was Andrzej Nowak’s suggestion that our role is now to do an ethnographic study of the nation-state and understand and hijack its roles, by determining what and how should they be provided and protected. His term for the times we live in was “festival of entropy”. John Jordan, an artist and activist, asked what we want to do with the power - to constitute, or destitute it? For him, the ideals that Zapatistas stood for - breaking up power and handing it out to autonomous organisation - was something worth bringing back to life. In times when corporations slowly take over many of the state’s traditional roles, while being relatively unregulated, we have an opportunity to build some of the roles bottom-up.
And then the first signs of what was about to happen: Diana Arce from the Berlin Black Lives Matter, started with raising the issue of violence that the nation-state is funded on, quoting a case of a British citizen, who happens to be black, who was stripped of her nationality because she joined ISIS - she is trying to escape, but she won’t be allowed back to her country. She was surprised by the lack of minority votes in the discussion, but also very western examples given - such as the artwork shown at the Biennale, where Spanish artist Nuria Guell shows the steps she took to denounce her Spanish nationality, which turned out to be impossible. The position of privilege here was definitely under-stressed.
Siana Bangura, black artist and activist from the UK, seconded that by saying removing yourself from a problem is not a solution, merely an escape - we should all face the underlying currents of violence on which the nation state was founded.
No questions asked by the public (no time for that), we move on to the second panel, where we start hearing other inspiring stories: John Jordan, who was part of a movement that squatted an area on which the French state planned to build an airport, talks about his role in the resistance and the movement that succesfully developed there over years. ZAD, located in Brittany, became a sustainable community seen by the state as a threat “worse than Mosul in Iraq” (quote from the president of the region). The government attempted multiple times to destroy it, until it finally succeeded in 2019. For him disobedience and direct action are the ways forward, as the state does not hand out help. Key challenges? When you try to convince others, you create monocultures. The idea is to learn to work and live together in diversity.
When Diana Arce and Angelo Camufingo from Germany started talking about the history of black people in Germany, with over 500 years of their presence in the country, and disappearing traces of first PhDs awarded to black citizens (the records are there, but the thesis isn’t - all the others survived, though), and the support the German state gave to slave trade in history, one of the German members of the public comes up to the microphone and takes over. He tells us his story of being a Sri Lankan born to a resistance fighter in Germany in the 80-ties, and denied to this day citizenship, because his parents are not German. He had to leave the country at some point due to this status and became a refugee in his parents’ country for a decade, then moved to India. He is now back in Germany, where he is raising a child with his partner, and experiences the incredible hypocrisy and injustice of the way states in Europe have been set up, addressing personally some of the panelists and accusing them of propagating the modernist, sick nation state, speaking from the position of power and privilege (those who came from outside of the “North” weren’t spared).
And this is when the battle started. Moderators were trying to steer the conversation back on the track and give voice to the next guest speaker - while Diana stood up and asked them to shut the fuck up and swallow their discomfort. She decided to give her space to someone who wants to share their experience, and this is what she demands now. Intervention from the minority voices continues, while the panelists stubbornly attempt at bringing back the “harmony”. Eventually, they succeed and Zdenka Badovinac gave her speech about her work in a contemporary art museum in Ljubljana and relations between wealthy art collectors and Eastern European countries. It couldn’t feel more out of touch than it did at this point.
Finally, Jonas Staal stood up and apologized for what happened at the panel - the way it was designed and led wasn’t benefiting the purpose of the debate. So the third part would happen in a setting stripped of tables. The microphones stayed where they were, but because those who represented female-and-minority-led (Kurdish Women’s Movement, Black Lives Matter) organizations decided to seat with the public in the outer circle, the format changed. The last part turned into an exchange of experiences, strategies and ways to mobilize that these alternative movements design and devise. It finally didn’t have the refined flavour of a professional and academic debate, but a frank conversation where people could discuss strategies that worked (Black Lives Matter in the UK successfully made it impossible for the British government to keep on selling arms to countries like Saudi Arabia, thanks to a lawsuit they won after trying 4 times!), Dilar Dirk gave a powerful explanation on the principles behind the female-led movement in Kurdistan: the need to decolonize ourselves from patriarchy, the way new structures of confederation have to be led by women, internationalization will be based on common struggle, which goes beyond efficiency, and beyond the circle of violence. An Egyptian artist, now in residence in Zamek Ujazdowski, talked about the need to develop new concepts of time, others criticised the NGOisation of resistance and the theft by these organizations of revolutionary ideas.
There were more interesting stories to quote, but my key takeaway from this event was: if we want to work on world-shaping and revolutionary ideas, these old school formats with their old school ways of leading the discussion, and their exclusive content, have to be replaced by something that is driven by minorities and women, and communities. It needs to be more organic, community-based, and then somehow internationalized - as there is an obvious need of developing collaborations between the countries in the global south, the poorer countries in the “North”, and various disadvantaged groups and communities all around the globe. This was not a setting where a strong platform and collaboration could be conceived - it rather showed how white, privileged men struggle breaking through some of the power structures in order to turn them into vehicles of radical change. Only when women, most of them of color, took over the floor, the debate seemed to be gaining the right energy - but then it was late, people were hurt and too much energy was already wasted.
I will update this post with a video of this conference when it shows online, as it was promised. I really recommend having a look at it, maybe some of you will see it differently. That’s a very subjective recap from that experience.