Communication Front 2000 Book, "Crossing Points East-West"

On Translation in Deep Europe

Nina Czegledy

"On Translation" is the title of an ongoing installation series by Muntadas. The term "translation" is used by the artist to imply the conduit currents embedded in the process of (cultural) interactions. Those engaged in these operations are considered translators. Muntadas has been especially interested in what he calls "filters," the physical manifestations of exchange which operate between audience (participant) and cultural artifact. The increasingly popular temporary media labs, international cultural exchanges, including the Communication Front project signify for me the very essence of this translation process.

A recent discussion on Nettime [1] on the cultural bias of translation as well as my own Web-translated contribution to the CFront project [2] inspired this text. The term "translation" is commonly used for the act of rendering words in another language. In this text, "translation" is employed to expand the concept into a wider frame of reference to include cultural "interpretation," "clarification," "transposition" in an East-West context. The interpretations or rewordings, to use a linguistic term, are specifically focused on intended (cultural) clarifications between Central/Eastern Europe and the rest of the world. While a wider reading of this cultural translation would ideally embrace literature, film, visual arts, theatre, music, etc., this article, apart from general observations, is predominantly concerned with media art developments and activities.

Cultural translations are performed in a constantly shifting global framework and thus involve divergent, often contradictory paradigms - while raising numerous questions. Where is the real translation taking place, who are the actual translators, for whom is the translation done, where and how is a cultural bias employed and most importantly what is being translated? On closer scrutiny, it seems that in the context of this particular investigation, we find not one but many "translation" sites including the extensive use of cyberspace. The translator's role has also become ambiguous. The promotion and broad use of interactivity (especially in media arts) tends to blur the line between the translator, facilitator and his/her audience, obscuring individual roles in the process. Does this eliminate or reinforce distortion?

What is being translated is of course one of the most important and also most difficult questions - seemingly without well-defined answers. How much of the content is being translated might be yet another issue. Do we receive a "word by word" translation of artistic, cultural values or only peephole views contributing towards completing the entire picture? Instead of providing definite answers to these queries, recent cultural changes and exchanges ("translations") will be described for the reader to reach his/her own conclusion. It should be noted that this is a subjective report, based mostly on personal involvements over the last decade. Consequently, in addition to the observed events, recounted in the following, many other factors and people enriched the translation process which is still in progress.

"Deep Europe," the metaphoric term of the title, was coined by Luchezar Boyadijev, [3] and as noted by Eric Kluitenberg, "the notion is a metaphor which could be problematic. In the logic of this metaphor, deepness or depth is where there are a lot of overlapping identities of various people. Overlapping in terms of claims over certain historical past, or certain events or certain historical figures or even territories in some cases. It could also be claims over language or alphabet, it could be anything. Europe is deepest, where there are a lot of overlapping identities." [4] Allowing for this metaphor, it becomes evident that in the recent political transition period the density of overlapping cultural identities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans has necessitated a thorough revision and rearticulating of the "filters." Indeed, since the Fall of the Wall, sociopolitical and cultural translations between the former Eastern Bloc (where Europe is very deep) and the "West" have gained fresh significance. For the Western Eye, at the time of the dissolution of the Bloc and for decades before, the art and people of the region seemed exotic and somehow alike. For the inhabitants of the former Soviet Empire, the seemingly dazzling variety of opportunities west of Vienna obscured a considerable amount of the underlying stark reality. In the 1991 editorial for the "Mittel Europe, Artists Speak," issue of the New Observations journal, I wrote: "The currently 'unblocked Eastern Bloc' has now become a giant multifaceted jigsaw replacing a hitherto amorphous territory. Full realization of this diversity and the re-establishment of ethnic cultural identities will need a concentrated effort of all participants including the West." [5]

In this critical period of changing political, economic and cultural interpretations, the subject of newly found (or newly lost) identities - a fundamental element in the chemistry of cultural translations - preoccupied many of the artists in the region, including several of the contributors to the New Observation issue. My working relationship and subsequent friendship with Luchezar Boyadjiev, one of Bulgaria's foremost contemporary artists, dates back to this time. In his essay for New Observations, entitled "The Lack of Identity as a Past-Post Communist Originality," he wrote: "It has always been difficult for me to think of a specific Bulgarian cultural identity. On the one hand such a reflection would constitute a retrospective utopian project - observations over areas of cultural space and time may prove pretentious. On the other hand, the history of peoples living in the territories now called Bulgaria makes me doubt any possibility of a distinct cultural identity. Somehow we have experienced with the passage of time all kinds of cultural "drifts" through the privilege of living at one of the main crossroads of Europe." [6]

While historically, the (often tragic) absurdities of this part of the world have included armed as well as civic combats, uprisings, insurrections and revolutions, none of these terms might be quite accurate for annotating the recent cultural changes taking place in the region. Undoubtedly the political and economic changes of the regional macro-climate over the last decade have been extensive by their very nature - even radical. In addition, the gradual shrinking of global purse strings in the nineties (especially in the cultural and art section) have precipitated far-reaching effects, regardless of the exact geographical location. These new pressures made the translation process and the required adjustments even more unsettling. The recognized harsh reality showed that Economics has gained the upper hand on Ideology as the dominant social paradigm. Despite the difficulties throughout the region of adapting to a market economy, the liberal atmosphere has facilitated unprecedented developments especially in media arts. In addition to the widening art market the temporary euphoria with East-European art and cultural products prompted a wave of exhibitions showing works from Eastern Europe, which swept Westwards - as far as Australia and the Americas.

The long list of these exhibitions is outside the scope of this article; however, the rapid development of the intercontinental exchanges and festivals can be gleaned through personal experience. In 1991, within the same year, I was involved in "Free Worlds. Metaphors and Realities in Contemporary Hungarian Art" hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Hungarian Poetry and Video Festival at the Gas Station, New York, the Unblocked Festival presenting contemporary videos from Slovenia, Russia, Croatia in Toronto, Videobridge connecting art student performances between Toronto and Budapest and the "Budapest!" exhibition where contemporary Hungarian art was presented for the first time in Dublin, Ireland. Undoubtedly, all of these remarkable events (and many similar milestones outside of my own experience) furthered cultural awareness, but how effectively?

Validity is easier measured in the proximal environment of the region. In the beginning of the nineties - in addition to international exchanges -, profound changes were noted in inter-regional relationships. For the previous decades, insular and parochial attitudes had been officially encouraged and practiced (with some exceptions) by the various communist regimes while the dissident underground sought to establish international links (mostly) to the West. This parochialism prevented collaborative contact among artists living in these countries. In the beginning of the nineties, inter-regional alliances and collaborations started to appear. Following the first tentative initiatives more and more regional events were organized utilizing exchange programs, international exhibitions, and most importantly the establishment of advanced educational exchanges. These changes have been brought about mainly through the dedication of remarkable individuals, rather than by government policy.

Groundbreaking events in Eastern Europe showing local as well as international artworks included the WRO (Poland), [7] SVB Voce (Hungary) [8] and Ex Oriente Lux (Romania) [9] festivals among others. OSTranenie 1993 under the title "Shattered Myths - New Realities," [10] the largest showcase for East and Central European videos, as well as installations and performances, took place in for the first time in 1993 in Dessau, former East Germany. Much more than just another festival, the OSTranenie forums up to 1999 served as milestones in inter-regional art communication, drawing together East and West in an unprecedented fashion. These events proved to be a better elucidation in the (cultural) translating process between the East and the West than any theorem.

It should also be noted that exhibitions which were showcasing exclusively East-European work in the West, or French, Italian or American selections in East Europe, contributed to a certain "ghettoization" of the art scene. Of course, this was only the beginning, the introductory phase, and while the "ghetto" mentality is still persisting, by the end of the decade the second stage of "translations" took shape in the form of closer, more intimate collaborative projects.

The appearance of the Internet has brought not only a new communication tool, but a fresh spirit of activism, collaborations and a radically different art form. New, loosely or virtually based organizations were founded such as the Syndicate, [11] creating vital information and communication channels between physically dispersed people. Within a few years, particular areas of East-European media art attained a high level of sophistication, and most festivals in the region included complex installations, CD ROMs and net-based projects in their programs. By the end of the nineties it was noted with interest - more so in Europe than in North America - how some of the most intriguing and innovative international on-line art of recent years was of East-European origin. The emergence of new art forms also brought eminent international artists to work in newly established media centers, such as C3, Center for Culture and Communication in Budapest [12] and created opportunities for further international and inter-regional exchanges, including workshop projects such as Virtual Revolutions, [13] Crossing Over, [14] Polar Circuit [15] and Communication Front. The intimate yet functional environment of these workshops conveys best what I would call a "simultaneous" translation.

Moving from a general overview to a specific south-east direction, a recent quote from Eric Kluitenberg will serve as an apt introduction: "In the Balkans, where Europe is at its deepest, the battles over identity and memory are the most severe. The clashes over history, territory, belonging, language and religious identity have a traditionally violent character and are linked with some of most tragic chapters of European history. In the wake of European integration and the emergence of globalisation the regional fundamentalist wars seem to have reached an unprecedented level of intensity and destructiveness." [16]

In the Deep European context, the transpositions of the last decade have embraced - by necessity - political and economic translations and translators far beyond cultural processes. As recently witnessed, this was often unsuccessful with widely ranging interpretations and detrimental results. As a possible consequence, in 2000, ten years after the political turning point, Luchezar Boyadjiev wrote "Traditionally, the geographical, historical and cultural context of the Balkans has been associated in the European mind with chaos, disorder, hatred, irresolvable ethnic conflicts + trouble. And for a good reason. Composed of numerous small countries that always seem to be in some state of dispute over culture or history, and/or in a war over identity or territory, the context of the Balkans is a dangerous candy to play with. However, the image of the Balkans is usually constructed through some form of representation which is based on clichés, or facts which are seen through clichés. Then, the usual pattern of external action is based on these clichés. And very rarely the unmediated voice of people from this part of Europe is heard in human face-to-face encounters, without either politics or politicians." [17]

As a genuine gesture, the art in the Balkans after 1989 was very well reflected in a recent exhibition, "Permanent Instability" featuring the work of nearly 30 artists from Balkan countries, curated by Edi Muka of Tirana, Albania in 1999. To quote Iara Boubnova: "The constant turmoils in practically all of the Balkan countries, with the possible exclusion of Slovenia and Turkey, are reflected upon and the concept of 'permanent instability' is meant to pin-point the never-ending process of transformation which doesn't seem to have a stable upward mobility to better ends but rather manifests a tendency to move in a spiral-like movement of ups and downs, periods of relative stability alternating with recurring plunges into total chaos." [18] Ironically, Edi Muka, who has worked for several years on promoting cultural changes in Albania, has recently been dismissed from his post. [19] This absurd dismissal reminds us that absurdity continues to be a feature of the region.

My own experience in the deepest part of Europe, began in the mid-nineties with the Crossing Over Project, initiated by Iliyana Nedkova of Sofia (currently also in Liverpool). Since then, we have curated together five media residencies and workshops on two continents to address the need for an alternative, free-access framework for developing, producing and presenting experimental video works. These workshops with their multilayered collaborations reflected the "temporary media lab" concept described by Geert Lovink in 1998. [20] Echoing Geert's characterization, we stated: "Through its small-scale format CO (Crossing Over) corresponds with the currently surfacing phenomenon of the temporary media labs - a crossover between a meeting space and a computer-networked environment." [21]

In 1996, when we were working on our first Crossing Over mini festival in Sofia it was hard to imagine a show of video installations or digitally based work, by Bulgarians. There were a few exceptions, such as the Soros sponsored exhibitions, but who could predict the practically inconceivable changes that took place in the last five years? One of the remarkable examples of these initiatives, the 'Institute of Contemporary Art' [22] was founded by Iara Boubnova together with a closely-knit group of Bulgarian artists including Luchezar Boyadjiev, Nedko Solakov and Kalin Serapionov. Working in collaboration with prominent established venues as well as organizing extremely well attended lectures in their small headquarters, ICA hosted and presented some outstanding events such as the Artists & Refugees [23] event in September, 1999, or the unique "Locally Interested" [24] project introducing to the Bulgarian public internationally known artists of the younger generation. This privately initiated alliance has proved to be a truly effective element in the Bulgarian translation process. While access to video production or computer-based work remains a difficulty, recently several media labs and media initiatives were organized in Sofia, such as the Interspace Media Arts Center, [25] Ventsislav Zankov's Web zine [26] in collaboration with Boryana Dragoeva, and significantly the two editions of the Videoarcheology Festival. [27]

Thus it came about that in 1999, barely a few years since my first working visit to Sofia, most of the intriguing installations presented by Communication Front in the ancient Turkish Bath of Plovdiv were created by Bulgarian artists, proving how in a short lapse of time the ground can and does shift. I participated in both of the Communication Front events (1999-2000). At the first event, observing the antique building of a bygone purpose in Plovdiv, I was contemplating on how both the CFront conference and the site itself reflected the topic of various aspects of communication, connections, links, media intercourse and dissemination.

Communication Front spoke for and embodied the vision of the curators who, facing incredible difficulties, brought into existence an event providing all the participants with an opportunity to discuss issues of communication - one of the most prominent themes of our present day as well as our future. For this event they chose and transformed a site very much grounded in the history of local culture.

When I arrived to Plovdiv in 1999, the various empty chambers of the building reminded me of similar places in Budapest, a city which once belonged to the same empire as Plovdiv. Both there and here I was reminiscing in the half-light, under the cupolas on the everyday life of those people who used these places not only for their own needs and comfort but also for communication. Barely two days later (by means of some miracles) monitors, projectors and VCRs - never actually meant to be functioning in Turkish baths - filled these spaces and an Internet connection united us with a wider world. The placement of this equipment here was also a strong reminder of how artists subvert the original intention of manufacturers and producers by appropriating commercial hard and software for artistic purposes, in this case by placing data projectors in Turkish baths.

By resourcing this ancient building in 1999, by holding an open workshop for the local public and by displaying local and regional work, the event firmly grounded us in local reality. Simultaneously, by presenting topics and speakers coming from an international context and by using the Internet, we were transported into a translocated space. In the age of instant electronically mediated communication, the terms "local" (physical) or "translocal"(distant, remote, global) acquired new definitions. While our days were filled with the most interesting discussions and our nights with great dinners and lots of fun, I was most moved by the success of the public workshop organized by members of IDEA from Manchester, UK. [28]

This miraculous transformation of the Turkish Bath was once more repeated by the curators of Communication Front in 2000, with yet another exhibition by Bulgarian and international artists. While the Baths were utilized for the exhibition, most of the workshop activities took place this year in the Mexican House on the hill, where each day for two weeks, participants were working on their common Web site long into the night. One could analyze at length the daily presentations, chat sessions, communal dinners, blossoming friendships or personal disagreements of CFront 2000, however I became preoccupied with the fluctuating currents in the closely-knit workshop environment. The collaborative Web-site development by this cluster of people speaking in many tongues led me to reflect on manual as well as mechanized translations as metaphors for a wider frame of reference. The multiethnic backgrounds affecting the nature of the participation, the variety of spoken languages, the collaborations, the very "filters" or physical manifestations of exchange - all reminded me of the "translation" process as characterized by Muntadas. I embarked (with a lot of help) on translating a brief text by Dimitrina Sevova between the languages of the participants using a Web translator. Translators are mostly programmed for use between "dominant" languages such as the colonizing languages of English or French. But try Turkish or Serbian for a change! In the program I used, a red bracket appears when the translator does not find an appropriate word. These red brackets signifying "untranslatable" words, increased alarmingly and thirteen transactions or iterations later on translation back to English, the - by now unintelligible - text became oversaturated with red brackets. The cultural bias as well as the behavior of programmed translators might have only very tenuous connections to translations in cultural landscapes. But it is interesting to note that this experiment of the pervasive red brackets took place in Deep Europe, using predominantly languages spoken in the Balkan region. "The Balkans have been thought of as either a door or a corner at any given historical period," wrote Luchezar Boyadjiev back in 1992. [29] Whether the various cultural "interpretation," "clarification," "transposition" events effectively contribute to transforming the corners of Deep Europe into open doors to the so-called "Center" remains a question and could be the subject of a future workshop, a future text on translations.


[1] Nettime <> - eds.

[2] Nina Czegledy, Language Crossings - Translations <> - eds.

[3] Cf. Luchezar Boyadjiev, Overlapping Identities, in this volume <> - eds.

[4] Eric Kluitenberg, The Politics of Cultural Memory, in: Media Revolution, ed. Stephen Kovats, Bauhaus/Campus Verlag (1991) <>.

[5] Nina Czegledy, An Epoch of Transition, in: New Observations, No. 91, September-October 1992, New York, USA.

[6] Luchezar Boyadjiev, in: New Observations, No. 91, September-October 1992, New York, USA.

[7] WRO Center for Media Art Foundation (earlier WRO/Open Studio, since 1989) <> - eds.

[8] SVB Voce: Contemporary Hungarian Video Installation - exhibition in the Mûcsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest, 1991 - eds.

[9] Ex Oriente Lux - exhibition of video installations in Dalles Hall, Bucharest, Romania, 1993 - eds.

[10] OSTranenie 93, Shattered Myths - New Realities, Video Focus on Eastern Europe. Archive at <> - eds.

[11] Syndicate <> - eds.

[12] C3 - Center for Culture & Communication, Budapest <> - eds.

[13] Virtual Revolutions <> - eds.

[14] Crossing Over <> - eds.

[15] Polar Circuit 2000 <> - eds.

[16] Eric Kluitenberg, op. cit.

[17] Luchezar Boyadjiev, A project in Paris, Syndicate, 27 February 2000, see <> and <>.

[18] Iara Boubnova, Permanent Instability in Tirana - Info, Syndicate, 25 January 1999 <>.

[19] Cf. the petition against Edi Muka being fired at <>, and Edi Muka's post at <> - eds.

[20] Geert Lovink, "TEMP: Temporary Media Lab, Kiasma/Helsinki, Oct 8-Nov 14," Syndicate, 7 September 1998 <>.

[21] Iliyana Nedkova and Nina Czegledy, Crossing Over (CO) is about dreaming through video, 2001.

[22] ICA <> - eds.

[23] Artists and Refugees <> - eds.

[24] Announcement of "Locally Interested": <> - eds.

[25] InterSpace <> - eds.

[26] Ctrl-Z Magazine <> - eds.

[27] VideoArcheology <> - eds.

[28] IDEA (Innovation in Digital and Electronic Arts) <> - eds.

[29] Luchezar Boyadjiev, The Balkanization of Alpa Europea, in: Catalogue of the 3rd International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, 1992, pp. 54-63. Reprinted as "The Balkans - a Door and/or a Corner" in: BulgariaAvantgarde <>.

Tazi statiq na bylgarski / This text in Bulgarian
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