We will not be successful in organizing our future if we only operate on a micro scale, even if we engage in the best kinds of projects, based on self-organization and self-management, we have to include and consider global or translocal levels. If we really want to have a future, we must try and take up the challenge of creating new, translocal organizations that will be designed differently from the current international organizations, which are often dysfunctional and ineffective. Think about the United Nations, an international institution that, in recent decades has repeatedly failed to meet the challenges of subsequent global crises. Could it be that one cause of the weakness of international organizations is that their processes, protocols, representations and decision-making are all based on the concept of a nation-state?
The nation-state concept is somewhat misleading. It is not always easy to discern whether what we are dealing with is a sign of its power or its weakness. Does the present rise of nationalist tendencies, neofascism and the turn to the right, which can be observed in many places around the world, testify to a renaissance of the nation-state or, on the contrary, its last convulsions, vehement attempts to defend that idea, undermined from many sides at once by transnational capitalism? The nation-state actually came into being in order to protect the interests of local capital and to regulate accumulation. Is it still playing this role? Does it still have any means to do so? The consideration of the nation-state cannot ignore the fact that it has oftentimes served emancipatory purposes, and that demands for new nation-states have formed a part of processes of decolonization and the liberation of the oppressed. Is it still possible for the nation-state to be a vehicle of progressive politics and emancipation? Or has it ever been? Without answering these difficult questions concerning the nation-state, we will never arrive at effective modes of acting on a global scale. However, that is just the starting point of our Biennale, a springboard for reflection on new initiatives that can be imagined and brought into existence on the levels below and above the nation-state.
A world of planetary interrelations requires envisioning new institutions
We are operating in a world of intensive interrelations, where very few problems can be solved at the level of local communities alone. Neighborhood self-help initiatives, trade unions, progressive and grassroots social movements’ activism, or many other kinds of local level actions – none of these will have a critical impact on the expansion of the nation-state, increasing economic disparities and uneven development, climate change, the global division of labor and its associated migrations, modern slavery, or new forms of structural violence. None of those problems can be successfully dealt with at the levels of any of the local structures. It is true that a return to seemingly safe havens of old institutions and old solutions – and to familiar scales and perspectives – is now happening as an automatic defensive reaction in many places around the world. This kind of response to globalization and its challenges is not new. We have witnessed similar processes many times in the past.
Increasing scales of international cooperation and interdependence in various historical periods have always provoked a reaction of opposite forces that aimed at separation, disconnection and closure. Think, for example, about the 19th century globalization, which saw its boom towards the end of the century, but then lost momentum after the political turmoil of World War I and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Interestingly, capital flows between some countries, expressed as a proportion of the gross domestic product, were bigger in the late 19th century than they were in 1990s.(1) As we can see, an international financial market is nothing new, and international interrelatedness has had its times of expansion, followed by phases of contraction.
This was, in part, because the institutional development necessary to effectively support communities and protect them against relations based on exploitation, theft or fraud could not catch up with the pace of dynamic changes in the economic and social environments. Institutions evolve more slowly than their environment.(2) In addition, various actors on the geopolitical power map are not interested in institutional maturity and the adaptability of the institutions to present challenges. They would rather have them archaic, devolved and in decline, sluggish and inefficient. Institutional chaos promotes “good deals”.
Still, it is apparent that there is no return to old scenarios, solutions and blueprints. This underpins the importance of working to develop a new type of translocal institution, one that has a power to shape relations among people from different cultures, nations and geographic contexts into new forms of alliances, solidarity and collaboration, so as to find adequate responses to the major challenges of our present global interdependence. That work must begin with some effort of social imagination; exploring limits in order to cross them. Gradually stretching and transforming the realm of what is imaginable today. Such action requires courage to speculate, to leave the comfort zones characterizing specific disciplines, to think and imagine “across the lines”, traversing disjunctive fields and domains, such as arts, science, politics and management.
To be capable of transforming the world, politics has to begin with specific material issues(3)
The Biennale, under the heading Let’s organise our future, will include four international forums, three of which will be translocal assemblies, and the fourth one will present the results of a translocal investigation into a case of environmental destruction. In these frameworks, we want to design new planetary organizations and institutions whose role will be to create, maintain and develop new alliances, new forms of solidarity and new models for cooperation. All of them begin with material specifics, historical or contemporary, forming a basis for their speculative potential.
The exchange of practices concerning plant cultivation and seed reproduction, and the sharing of knowledge on soil cultivation means and food preservation among women from Rojava (a Kurdish region of north-eastern Syria), Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the Lublin region in Poland, Mexico’s Chiapas state or the Indian Punjab make the material starting point for Marwa Arsanios’s Convention of Women Farmers. As members of ecofeminist collectives, mostly coming from the global South, share and exchange knowledge on agriculture, the curative potential of herbs and wild plants in places with limited access to medicines, they are at the same time creating foundations of new, transnational and progressive politics of commons. Those who are normally immersed and typically isolated in their local political contexts are getting a chance to see one another and to create a forum of cooperative networking.
Their activities frequently take place as part of global aid economy. They receive support from various NGOs that deal with combating starvation, achieving developmental goals or refugee relief. Such is the context of activity of people like Khadija, the leader of a women’s farming collective in the eastern Bekaa Valley, next to the Syrian border, which teaches refugee women how to use wild plants, preserve food, and practice cheap and green cooking. Marwa Arsanios points out that female farmers like Khadija are often made to accept and own the parlance of the global aid economy, where phrases like “economic independence”, “development”, “women’s entrepreneurship” and “women’s empowerment” are considered neutral, while they actually emphasize individual responsibility and individual achievements of women.(4) That perspective, Arsanios stresses, carries the danger of gender essentialism, which sees “global womanhood” as a category in itself, separated from real social class and race issues that have been fundamental for internationalist feminist politics. Instead of taking up the subject of the responsibility of the State and corporations for the roots of hunger and agricultural decline in the Middle East, such as uneven wealth distribution, the mismanagement of water distribution or the overexploitation of groundwater (as in the Bekaa Valley), soil despoliation by chemical fertilizers, toxic water pollution or the land ownership law, it seems that NGOs are trying to compensate the negative effects, while ignoring the causes and burdening women’s collectives with the responsibility of filling the void resulting from the State’s neglect.
Marwa Arsanios’s project involves material specifics related to agricultural practices (as women’s response to environmental destruction and the States’ misguided economic-development policies), become a vehicle for addressing a more general subject of a new program for feminist internationalism. It could be a framework for new forms of imaginary, cooperation and universal solidarity. Seeds, soils and plants, as well as the associated infrastructure, become a medium whereby planetary problems are projected. It is by starting from such specifics, rather than just abstract ideas, that a process of political transformation can begin. Arsanios’s idea is based on the concept of politicizing through internationalization. This, in turn, is done by creating a field of visibility for the collective initiatives of various female farmers, a forum that enables them to see one another.
This kind of perspective is shared by Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture, who refers to Arjun Appadurai’s “methodological fetishism” as a postulated multi-layer political practice. It involves a “microphysical analysis in which the part or detail becomes an entry point from the reconstruction of larger processes, events and social relations, conjunctions of actors and practices, structures and technologies, may take place.”(5) This is the methodology underlying Marwa Arsanios’s Convention of Woman Farmers.
In a similar way, Race and Forest by Nabil Ahmed (a Forensic Architecture collaborator) and INTERPRT – an investigatory organization concerned with environmental crimes – starts out with a historical detail, placing it in the wider context of the activity of the International Criminal Court. It deals with Case 1307/7150, in which Poland, as part of the UN Commission on War Crimes, raised charges against nine German people, mostly the heads of forest departments in the General Government territory in 1947. They were accused of the planned destruction of Polish forests. The indictment formulated by Polish prosecutors was among the first in history that dealt with environmental destruction and that was filed with international legal institutions. The crime, which, following the vocabulary of INTERPRT, today could be referred to as ecocide, a name imitating genocide, where nature is the victim, was treated by the Polish prosecutors as a part of war crimes. That pioneering approach can be an important precedent and model to be followed in the future.
INTERPRT is striving to make ecocide a crime in the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. This seems especially relevant and logical nowadays when nation-states and corporations are equally responsible for the destruction of nature. Nation-states are not interested in suing their own representatives who are responsible for structural crimes. The consequences of those crimes, however, extend far beyond the boundaries of national territories. In this situation, it seems necessary that the powers of trying crimes of ecocide be transferred to international institutions. The question remains whether the International Criminal Court, itself operating within the logic of the old paradigm of international institutions, would be able to undergo institutional transformation sufficient to include ecocide in the list of offenses that qualify for trial?
The INTERPRT project also brings into being another type of international forum within the Biennale, namely the Forensic Forum. The Latin origin of the word forensic also evokes the meaning of “forum” itself. The Latin forensis can be translated as “adequate with regard to the forum”. The original notion referred to the Roman Forum, the place where the realms of politics, law and economy overlapped. Gradually the Forum evolved into a place solely related to law, and forensics began to be understood only as the application of medical and scientific methods in judicial and investigative practice.(6) This kind of forum was a place where various material evidence of crimes – inanimate objects that had no power of speaking for themselves – were presented and explained. So they needed a special translator from the “language of things”. As Weizman notes, “Forensis thus establishes a relation between the animation of material objects and the gathering of political collectives.”
INTERPRT is creating a forum in a similar sense. It will not be a political gathering, like many other Biennale events, but rather a collection of evidence, material objects, animated, brought to life and arranged in spatial relations that make them speak. Archival documents, the aerial photographs of forests, interviews, spot analyses, cartographic and the results of legal research, will comprise an installation reconstructing case No. 1307/7150. The reconstruction purpose is not just to rewrite history or to tell a story that has been largely unrevealed until now. It is oriented primarily towards the present and future: it is pointing to current cases of forest destruction in Poland (Białowieża and the Vistula Spit), and ultimately looks to the transformation of the system of international legal institutions (International Criminal Court).
An Experiment in Cultural Geopolitics: the Eastern Europe-North Africa-Middle East Forum
Poland, as well as other post-socialist countries, had a history of continuous and intensive contacts with Middle East and North African countries from the 1960s until the moment of its political transition. That absolutely incredible period of geopolitical alliance with what was then called the Third World abounded in colorful examples of translocal solidarity, international relations based on a vision of planetary commons, as well as person-to-person and inter-institutional friendships. Many Polish people know somebody who was delegated to work in Libya, to conduct research in Iraq, or to build roads in Syria. We may also remember the Palestinian students who would come to Polish universities in the 70s and 80s, but few of us know that in the 1960s Warsaw, SGPiS (now the Warsaw School of Economics) had an Institute for Research on the Economies of Underdeveloped Countries, which created very interesting development plans for countries that today would be referred to as the Global South. Recalling that moment in Poland’s history may be very meaningful and inspiring today, given that the right wing is playing on prejudice against refugees and igniting islamophobic sentiments. Regarding that period as an archive of (partly) lost opportunities, the creators are aiming to revive some of them and trying to use them as a reference for designing present-day forms of relations, alliances and solidarities between the Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East and North Africa.
To better explore and understand that archive, two lines of research were initiated: ethnographic interviews in Lebanon and archival inquiries in Warsaw. Both of them will be presented during the performative lecture at the Biennale. The ethnographic interviews made by Inga Hajdarowicz (in cooperation with Prof. Beata Kowalska, Anna Galas-Kosil and myself) in Lebanon between 2018 and 2019 recorded the stories of Palestinians and Lebanese who lived, studied and worked in Poland in the 1970s and 80s, and then, for diverse reasons, decided to move back to Lebanon. Memories of the political transformation in Poland are mixed with those of the Lebanese civil war; we hear them comparing life in our country in the early 90s with the socio-economic realities of the Middle East. The other narrative line corresponds to fascinating archival research that was carried out in cooperation with renowned reporter Max Cegielski. From visual and text contents from magazines such as The Polish Review (1962-1972), and Poland, to the archives of Michał Kalecki and the Polish School of Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, LOT airlines, Orbis, Budimex, Polservice and other foreign trade companies, we recount colorful social situations playing out behind the scenes of official politics and trade exchange. Instead of focusing on art or architecture, our research is primarily concerned with hard and soft infrastructures created in the course of that cooperation, the social contexts associated with work, the political economy of the exchange between the so called Second and Third Worlds. These perspectives are our source of inspiration.
Now that Polish foreign policy towards the Middle East and North Africa is practically non-existent, or has taken on grotesque forms such as the so called Middle East Conference in February 2019, organized without the participation of Iran or Palestine, the time is ripe for outlining a new vision of relations between our region and the Middle East and North Africa. Our gathering will involve 12 international participants who are interested in designing such relations and founding an organisation that will work for new forms of transnational cooperation and solidarity. We want to discuss the challenges for the developing economy, ecology and climate change, arts and cultural policies, based on scientific knowledge in some cases, on artistic speculation and fantasy in others, with a view to making a map of transregional relations and creating a conceptual architecture of a new organization. We intend to propose program guidelines for such a project, as well as some concrete ideas that could be achieved within the coming years.
Our response to islamophobia, anti-refugee rhetoric and the discourse of cultural differences will be an attempt at defining the realm of the transnational common good, and identifying the best organizational forms that its daily practice could take.
Equally important, we find it essential to create an alternative cartography where Poland is not necessarily viewed as a part of the Modern West, but instead coexists on the same plane with other semi-peripheral and peripheral regions, within other modernities and their associated spatio-temporal logics. Poland and other former Eastern Bloc countries had better be looked for in the East and South, rather than the West and North. A Palestinian, an Iranian, a Syrian, a Pakistani, a Bengali and a Vietnamese will be the natural allies and friends of the region’s people under this experiment in cultural geopolitics. The outlining of these alternative demarcations and speculation on their possible ramifications seem exciting enough for us to dedicate an additional month-long residency that we are organizing together with ReDirecting: East, CSW Zamek Ujazdowski. The residency will include five curators from various European and Middle-Eastern countries, with whom we will continue the efforts to establish an organization that will, for at least two more years, work to create, maintain and develop relations between former Eastern Bloc countries and the Middle East and North Africa.
Trans-Unions: an experiment on radical political imagination
If a nation is an imaginary community, how do we imagine a transnational one? This question is the point of entry for the Transunions project, a collaboration between Studio Jonas Staal and Biennale Warszawa. Of all the forums within the Biennale, this one probably has the most universal ambitions. They include designing a new transnational institution that would not reproduce the shortcomings of nation-states or failing international institutions such as NATO or the UN. If the present crisis of political imagination means both an inability to envision alternative arrangements, or a third, fourth and fifth way, and the failure to understand the destructiveness of our present ways, then the only opportunity for a change process to be initiated seems to set our current imagination into radical motion. This is not about some unlikely speculations; what is needed is speculation within the hypothetical conditions to verify and test the viability of new, transnational subjectivities. This motion of imagination involves the creation of a new institution, as if it really existed. However, this is not a purely playful activity, because we will be operating on real data of concrete political demands, strivings, experiences and subjectivities.
What kinds of media, symbols, signs, anthems, means of communication, values and institutions could create a space of possible new relationships between organizations, parties, activists or movements that operate in the realm of global politics? How can we imagine a planetary government that pursues progressive policies of mitigating disparities or a radically responsible climate policy? Staal argues that artistic imagination can anticipate actual politics, creating space for it, mapping a “visual morphology” of the future, one that “unionizes” diverse alternative imaginaries into a new transnational gathering.
This test of artistic imagination, an attempt to bring into being and test some new, translocal institutions, forms a starting point of truly progressive future politics. If we want the future to be more than the object of trend reading and passive following, more than an outcome of technocratic probability theory, if we want it to result from ongoing agency of engaged political subjects in many places of our global reality, we need to speed up the movement of our imagination in designing new institutions, balancing on the thin line between arts and politics.
1 Hendrik van den Berg, International Economics. A Heterodox Approach, New York and London: Routledge, p. 10.
2 Ibid., p. 12.
3 The title paraphrases a fragment of Eyal Weizman’s sentence: Transformative politics must begin with material issues, just as the revolutionary vortex slowly gathered pace around the maggots in the rotten meat on board the Potemkin. See: Eyal Weizman, ‘Introduction: Forensis’ in: Forensis. The Architecture of Public Truth, Sternberg Press and Forensic Architecture, 2014, p. 11.
4 Marwa Arsanios, Who’s Afraid of Ideology? Ecofeminist Practices Between Internationalism and Globalism, e-flux, Journal #93, September 2018, reprinted in this catalogue.
5 Eyal Weizman, op. cit., pp. 18-19.
6 Ibid., p. 9.