by Dejan Kršić /Arkzin/
One of the events of international biennial Manifesta 3 held in Ljubljana,  some would even argue the only event of Manifesta 3, was Aleksander Brener’s performance, who stormed into the press conference held a day before the official opening, sprayed the projection screen with the slogan “Demolish the neoliberalist multiculturalist art system now,” and lied down on the table in front of the speakers, curators and hosts of the exhibition. The action was unannounced. The curators reacted defensively, while the response from the audience was a loud cry: “What is the alternative?”
That is precisely the problem we would like to elaborate on here. We know that Slavoj Žižek often quotes Fredric Jameson saying that nobody seriously considers an alternative to capitalism any longer; that it seems easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production – as if liberal capitalism is the Real that will somehow survive even a global ecological catastrophe.  So, to begin with, we should pose the seemingly naive, but important questions: what is actually “alternative” in contemporary media, art and politics? Is there any reason – besides a historical one – for using the term “alternative culture”? Terry Eagleton’s book The Idea of Culture shows us the difficulty of grasping the term “Culture” itself, not to mention ‘alternative culture.’ It seems in fact that in Western theory, the very notion of ‘alternative culture’ is rarely used. We usually read about mass culture, popular culture, counterculture, subculture, subordinate culture, common culture, folk culture, while the alter… is missing.
As Mark Terkessidis (in an e-mail communication) answered to my question what “alternative culture” means for him: “Hmmm. I don’t know about translation but ‘counterculture’  means a lot to me – the whole field of ‘resistance through rituals,’ beatniks, pop music, style, etc. ‘Subculture’ means something to me in terms of the notion that specifically in the 80s succeeded to ‘counterculture’. But ‘alternative’ culture in Germany has always had a hint of pedagogic dance and theatre, of long-haired ecological fundamentalists telling you not to put sugar into your tea and so forth. But this may be a problem of translation.”
Obviously, it is not just a problem of translation, because although the notion of “alternative”/“alternative culture” was linked to the pop music scene (so-called “alternative rock”), coming from pop publications, music and trendy magazines, the concept for us in the former East (which we in ex/post-Yugoslavia are gradually becoming part of as we keep “approaching to the West”) has been of much greater importance than to people in the West.
Although it is a relative notion that may theoretically be of more general use (all things can be seen as an alternative to something else – for instance, Renaissance art as an ‘alternative’ to Gothic), just like in case of term ‘avant-garde’ it is really a child of its own time – the 50s, 60s, 70s. The long period is due to its slow spreading – from figurative arts over theatre and film all the way to pop music.
The notion of “alternative,” i.e./or “the alternative” in cultural production is connected with the terms “avant-garde” and “counterculture” as a style or a historical guideline of a given time period – a style or subculture that is different, “progressive,” “advanced,” “radical,” that moves the boundaries, gets out of the mainstream, or rather opposes the establishment, the traditional high, elite culture.
Linked to the political uprising of the time, the idea of so-called alternative media developed in the second half of the 60s and in the 70s – independent film production, pirate radio stations, fanzines, small independent publishing houses, do-it-yourself production connected to the advent of new media technologies such as silkscreen, audio cassettes, photocopiers, video, Polaroid… – as an opposition to the conventional cultural establishment, the steady norms of media industry. The passionate commitment of amateurs (literally “enthusiasts”) opposed the dry artisan or professional work.
In its heroic period (70s-80s), alternative culture or alternative cultural movements acted against the existing institutions or at least outside them. In the Yugoslav/East-European context that sort of self-organization and activity has appeared as strongly politically colored. But not in the way it is sometimes presented nowadays as “a struggle against the darkness of communist totalitarianism.” Rather, almost paradoxically in a state whose official ideology used to be “self-management” – as a struggle for a complete self-realization of each individual and culture, against bureaucratic limitations. While the counterculture movement of the late sixties and the early seventies in the West expected the liberalization of the attitude towards drugs and sexuality in culture to create a change in politics and shared the destiny of new social movements getting lost in the post-modern condition like a stream seeps into the sand, the extremely politicized alternative cultural movements of the seventies and the eighties in the East disappeared at the very moment of their alleged triumph – with the introduction of parliamentary democracy and the free-market economy, i.e., with the “return of capitalism.”
Both in the East and the West the problem arises when culture and we ourselves as its creators and consumers become aware of our “post-modern” condition, a situation where the economy starts overlapping with culture, in which everything, including the production of goods, becomes cultural, while to the same extent culture becomes economical, oriented towards the production of commodities…
At the beginning of new-wave period in pop music, that loss of cultural autonomy is best expressed by the piece “Pop Music,” a 1979 hit of the anonymous group M, which over the synthetic basis with a monotone technocratic voice exposes the key problems: “New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody talks about pop music” – the global omnipresence of the new disco dance, but at the same time also the dictate of impersonal, anonymous centers of interest; “boogie with a suitcase” – the shift of information, culture into the midst of the production forces; “we are living in a disco, forget about the rat race” – rhythmization of life, the loss of a sacred cultural status, its integration into everyday life, a feeling of the impossibility of an escape from the strictly given, global market space.
As Tomislav Wruss, pop-critic of the Croatian youth magazine “Polet,” put it 15 years ago: “The high position of that song on the list of best singles in 1979 in what was then the central organ for determining taste, the New Musical Express, and the stylistic and thematic correspondence with pieces of ‘established’ groups, legitimize ‘Pop Music’ as a significant expression of issues of the new wave. It is telling that precisely a group belonging to the anonymous world of pop music top lists, and not to the individualist world of author rock music, was the first to feel the new situation in which pop music had found itself. A moment of truth took place in an instant song of a group doomed to be forgotten, and not to go down in rock history or a rock encyclopedia. Besides, it is a piece of disco music.”
Consequently, if in pop music “the alternative” used to be formally determined as the opposition of one type of music to another type of music (e.g., punk vs. sympho rock); and later, with the new wave it becomes structurally defined – anything published by the independent companies (the so-called “Indies” – Factory with Joy Division/New Order, Rough Trade with The Smiths, Mute with Depeche Mode, 4 A.D. with The Cocteau Twins…), no matter what type of sound or style and commercial success it has achieved, is the alternative to what is being published by big corporations like EMI, RCA, CBS… Towards the end of the 80s “the alternative” remains a matter of pure capitalist competition within the system of free enterprise. Thus even in pop music which, as Bowie put it (“When in doubt, blame Bowie…”), always lags ten years behind the other artistic areas, we have “definitely” witnessed the breakdown of the high-modernist ideology. The “alternative” has been cleaned of any kind of ideological loadedness. The notion of “Indie” has definitely become an introduction to industry and not a declaration of independence, an element of difference.
Really, we are living in a disco, and the 90s have precisely confirmed this on the market by the expansion of techno/house scene with its all-night rave parties, mass happenings like the Love Parade, music that emphasizes rhythm and the prevalence of a production in which the boundaries of a particular song disappear in a mix. The original version itself is being replaced by a series of “equal but different” remixes.
The notion of the alternative has thus been attacked and destroyed from two sides: contemporary culture with its media/entertainment industry is swallowing even the most radical artistic expressions without any problem (body art, pornography, SM, body cutting, plastic operations... as in the case of the body radicals – Orlan, Stelarc, Ron Athey, Franko B, Annie Sprinkle…), colonizing the ‘alternative’, which is itself becoming part of the ‘mainstream.’ Those who had so far been on the margins have become stars and the entire so-called ‘other,’ independent or marginal production/scene is acting according to the same principles as the dominant cultural industry, with its own institutions, stars, media, mechanisms of promotion… While the classic modernist art opposed society, challenged, took a critical stand, acted negatively, frequently subversively or at least in the manner of an opposition even in cases in which it was aesthetic to the utmost, it always strove to something beyond pure aestheticism. The question is whether this can be said about the contemporary production.
The production of commodities, marketing, consuming, commercial success comprise everything, from ethnic music all the way to marginal sexual practices. Whether in form or contents, there is very little in contemporary art/culture that the modern late capitalist society could think of as unacceptable, unbearable, offending, or scandalous… Each particular form, style, or type or expression is understood only as a specific commodity addressed to a certain target group.
Critics would add that in a practical sense ‘the alternative/alternative culture’ has not only been overcome and made unnecessary, but also the notion itself is ready to be put away onto the rubbish dump of history because it insists on dualism where diversity is needed. The illusion of a non-antagonistic Society presents a global ‘container’ in which there is room enough for the whole range of cultural communities, lifestyles, religions, sexual orientations. But within the variations of lifestyles, in the glorified tolerance (cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual…) of diversity, in the multicultural ideology, is there not a hidden danger of a One, a dominant, something that is not put into question, and that underlies the global and omnipresent logic of capital? Is the very Oneness, the common field within which all sorts of identities are growing, not already supported by certain exclusions, does it not rest upon an invisible, negated, antagonistic breach? How about ‘diversity’ itself – starting with the variety of so-called ethnic cuisines that are available to the consumer in a contemporary megalopolis, to (the illusion of) the governing liberal dogma about a specific identity market on which any subject can freely and in full consciousness choose among a number of subjective positions/roles that can be changed over time? Is it not only the other side of the coin of a general global unification where political freedoms are substituted by the free market, and individual freedoms, freedoms of wo/man and citizen are reduced to the lowest common denominator of making his or her choice between two competitive trade marks – Coke or Pepsi?
If we want the notion of alternative to retain any sense at all in this society of spectacular globalization in which all styles are permitted, or if we want it to acquire new meaning and become productive, we have to understand it in a deeply political way. We should not connect it to the traditional issues of aesthetics but to the fundamental social antagonisms. Culture/cultural production can nowadays be an alternative not by its new, different, unusual form or means of expression… but rather in an exclusively political way. The alternative cannot be defined by means of a series of specific excellencies of contents or form, i.e., those qualities are not in themselves ‘alternative,’ but they have become such by their specific articulation as a definite – radical – political/ideological project. This is culture/art that does not consider the existing relation of domination and power as steady, petrified and unchangeable, as something that cannot be influenced.
Despite post-modern theory, the love of trash aesthetics, of so-called trivial literature, the world of B-movies, Las Vegas, pornography and radical sexuality – despised not long ago, and nowadays a completely integrated world of popular mass culture – is not in itself ‘subversive’ or ‘emancipated.’ It can be so only when it questions its own positions from a conscious political point of view, when it enters its own political engagement while summing up the situation as a whole.
By itself, any given type, sort or form of production does not necessarily guarantee an alternative position (e.g., street theatre vs. institution; performances or installations opposing gallery exhibits of paintings; …). Therefore, somewhat paradoxically, the alternative can these days appear at the most unexpected places – within the heart of elite culture, in the academic world, or just as well at the heart of the most massive popular culture, in Hollywood or within the discourse of world corporations. Neither the genre nor the formal style as such can warrant anything any more.
This alternative, which is not only the matter of a critical definition or a market/marketing definition, should be a matter of self-consciousness, of a deliberate decision for a definite position, for one political standpoint… a viewpoint that in the leftist tradition could be called emancipating.
In the case of the spectacular, incessant discourse of a governing system about itself, not a collection of paintings but a social relation, we can say that at present the alternative/everything alternative is an incessant discourse of subdued classes about the governmental system and their own position within it. The alternative is not a style, an issue of form, or expression, but an active questioning, the reconsideration of the existing social relations.
In Croatia, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, such traumatic areas are abundant. They are the issues of the relation between the major nation and the minorities, of language, of relations toward the political/ideological past and tradition in general, the role of the church, of ideological repression, of the control or rather the influence of media, the economic and legal problems of privatization and denationalization, sociopolitical problems of relations among political parties, the role of the parliament, civil society, problems of planning and projection of the future, economic and social development, joining the so-called European integration, facing the globalization process… But the political approach must not be understood in a narrow sense of the word as (a desirable and even necessary) engagement in daily politics. As we are reminded by Frederic Jameson, in the engaged, politicized, alternative production of the 60s-70s, innovations in art, and even more so in the theatre, in the case of the most aesthetic and least politically aware actors and directors, have always been initiated by a firm conviction that a theatre performance is a symbolic gesture of an aesthetic protest, but also some sort of praxis, and that changes in the theatre, as minor as they may be, also contribute to a general change of life itself, of the world of which the theatre is both part and mirror – a means of its intellectual reflection.
In a world in which it is much easier to imagine its end, the ecological catastrophe than an end of the capitalist production forces, where the old opposition left/right tends to be presented as irrelevant and philosophical ideas like ‘the end of history’ become relevant and support the unchangeable social relations, where the political freedom is substituted by the free market, the only alternative is political – the acceptance of the antagonism of social relations and of one’s own responsibility for the present and future development.
Any true artistic as well as political alternative is not a simple choice among possibilities presented, but an intervention that changes the coordinates of the very field of meaning.
In today’s liberal democracy we can “freely” choose between different political options (social democrats, liberals, Christian democrats, conservatives, laborites…) but only at the price of accepting capitalism as the “only game in town.”
Here we can evoke one more example – when in Serbia, during Milošević’s rule, representatives of so called Other Serbia kept repeating that they are against the regime, but not against their own country (homeland), that really meant that in the Serbian political spectrum, one could freely choose between Slobodan Milošević and Vuk Drašković, Zoran Đinđić and Vesna Pesić, between the identities of socialists, liberals, democrats, royalists and chetniks, and those identities could also in full consciousness be combined and remixed (communist nationalist, liberal fascist, democratic royalist…), but only under the condition that one remains within the constraints of patriotism and Serbianity. The price to pay for these alternatives was the rejection of the only real political alternative – universal political solidarity with the oppressed Others (Albanians, Muslims, Croats, …) and the joint struggle for emancipation.
The real alternative to the global is not the anti-global, confined within the frame of the nation-state. It does not lie in preserving the illusion of some authentic (national, ethnic, …) identity, but in a different definition of the global, of emancipation and solidarity.
In that case, alternative culture must not be understood as a given state and a static style but as an active struggle and political strategy. Because of the global culturalization of all political issues, today perhaps more than ever before the words of Walter Benjamin have become true, who says that the dominant aestheticization of politics needs to be confronted with a powerful politicization of the aesthetic. 
Although today neither theoreticians nor artists have a clear answer regarding the possible alternative to the dominant liberal capitalistic order and its deadlocks, the role of the politically active artist is to pose that question over and over again, constantly reminding us of the necessity of the search for a possible answer. An answer that cannot be posited in advance but can only develop through a series of trial and error. As ‘leftist terrorists,’ artists should dogmatically stick to the belief that liberal capitalism is not our “final horizon,” that the alternative, radical change, is possible.
An early version of this article appeared in Frakcija magazine No. 16, November 2000. Translated from Croatian by Neda Karlović-Blažeković
Dejan Kršić is a theorist and the editor of Arkzin magazine.
 Manifesta 3, European Biennial of Contemporary Art, 23/06.-24/09/2000, Ljubljana; curators: Francesco Bonami, Ole Bouman, Mária Hlavajová, Kathrin Rhomberg <http://www.manifesta.org/manifesta3/index.html>.
 e.g.: Slavoj Zizek, Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology, in: Slavoj Zizek (ed.), Mapping Ideology, London & New York 1994, p. 1.
 German: Gegenkultur – eds.
 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) <http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm> [17 May 2007].