Thursday, June 19, 2014

Taxonomies

What we call things, and how we classify those things, is necessarily an abstraction. We take what we perceive to be individual items and group them together according to some imposed or perceived structure, a commonality among them. Or we take a group, a collective, a mass, and individuate its various components. How we go about this process reveals our own ideological blind spots.

My project this summer concerns how architecture and public spaces, public art, serve to commemorate, preserve, or efface Central Europe's communist past. Before this week, I've always conflated the first two terms into something like commemorate/preserve. Part of my past research includes the Holocaust, the Shoah, and I think it must have been from that experience that I learned to put these terms together in such a way. 

To commemorate, according to Holocaust discourse, is always to preserve, to never forget. It is to bring up again and again. Preservation (of the camps, of the records) allows for commemoration to take place, both in the world as well as in thought.

After this week I now understand that those two terms do not quite as easily fit together. The slash produces an inauthentic experience insofar as my current project is concerned. 

Here, to preserve is to ascribe value to the event, place, person, thing. Because of the value we place upon the past (to resort to an easy metonymy), we want to keep it around, preferably in its original condition. (I realize the problematics of my language: what is original? is a thing's condition an inherent aspect of the thing itself or an ascribed or imposed estimation, perhaps as a result from our own ideological conditioning? etc.)

To commemorate, in this context, is to also ascribe value to the past, albeit a negative value. We remember so as to remind ourselves of our history of trauma, to never forget how terrible it was. In this way, commemoration is a critical act. Preservation, on the other hand, serves to celebrate in some way the achievements of the past as it was in its lived experience.

We attempt to preserve the sculpture from the normalization period (basically post-Prague Spring (1968) to the Velvet Revolution (November 1989)). But we commemorate by way of plaques, memorials, and statues the student Jan Palach, who early in 1969 set himself on fire to protest the Soviet occupation. On one side, we value what was created under extraordinary circumstances; on the other, the way in which one hero-dissident challenged those circumstances. 

Both camps have their heroes and villains, and often we can't really tell who is who. Heroism and villainy never take place in a vacuum, after all. Trying to make sense of how this dynamic plays out in the public sphere and beginning to ask these questions 25 years after the Velvet Revolution is my own attempt to help articulate a path forward for not only these two (remember: already abstracted) groups but also the group who would rather forget the past altogether at any cost and can only ascribe value to the present or to the future.


These are some of my accomplishments today: visiting DOX, the Center for Contemporary Art, where I purchased the massive volume Aliens and Herons, which was edited by an artist/activist I interviewed Monday. The book is a collection of essays and photographs of sculptures around Prague that were constructed during the period of normalization. And here, too, is my press credential so I could attend the reSITE conference on architecture and urban design. The keynote this afternoon was Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic from The New York Times.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Corpulent Force

I've been to Prague several times before, both as a tourist and as a student. When I was here in the summer of 2001, I studied political and economic theory at Charles University through a program at Georgetown.

It was a terrible course. At least the economics professor was a terrible old school, neoliberal bullshit theorist who didn't teach so much as pontificate about the inherent value of the so-called free market. My disaffected friends and I--the rare, truly critical students among us--dubbed his theory Fat-Bastard Economics. Not only was he mistakenly and misleadingly proposing capitalism as the only true path toward enlightenment, but he was truly a fat bastard. I'm talking at least 400 pounds.

If you were to search his name online, you would find that he is a well-respected economics professor with several publications. You will also find, surprisingly enough, that he is an award-winning athlete not just in the distant past but now as well.

He slobbered, sweated  and huffed his way along the cobblestone paths of Prague for a week and a half. I didn't hate him because he was fat, though. Some of my best friends are fat. I hated him because he represented to me--in the most literal of ways--everything that was low, base, and corrupt about America, about its hegemonic, systemic culture of violence and economic injustice. Fat as violence, fat as it reveals itself as terror.

The other American students in the program all seemed to worship him as the fattened golden calf of Kapital. I knew as soon as I met them at my connecting flight at JFK that I would have nothing in common with them except the color of our passport covers. One of the things that tipped me off was the leading question posed to me shortly after I arrived from Dallas: "People in Texas love George Bush, don't they?" My simple answer: no.

Over the course of the program, that same inquisitive woman also revealed how terrified she was of China taking over, although she really couldn't decided who frightened her the most, the Chinese or the Russians. Her father was on the board of the truly despicable organization who ran this program through Georgetown. At least that explained how she ended up in Prague.

The summer of 2001 was really a still moment in the otherwise chaotic maelstrom of history. It was the time between the US government's execution of Timothy McVeigh for perpetrating the greatest terrorist act in American history and the subsequent greatest terrorist act in American history. Looking back, it's pathetic how naive we all were. On September 11, 2001, I thought of this poor, already terrified woman and laughed, "She now has a new contender for those who would frighten her the most."

On that day she probably thought--assuming, of course, that she was capable of thought--that if only those Arabs had had capitalism and a free-market economy, then America would still be safe, never realizing that the violence perpetrated by the US might also be a possible contender.