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SONGS OF RESILIENCE AND RURAL COUNTERPUBLICS – A CURATOR’S TRAJECTORY


A text by Katalin Erdődi


In the following text I trace my curatorial trajectory from its beginnings—from my interest in urban public space and the post-socialist city—to my current focus on critical art practices and social change in rural places. I re-visit experiences and influences—both professional and personal—that have shaped my way of working, leading up to my recent collaboration with visual artist Alicja Rogalska and the Women’s Choir of Kartal on News Medley, a collaborative artistic work, in which many of my current and past concerns intersect, and that I will discuss in detail.

 

Responding to a Lack: Curating in Post-socialist Urban Space


We huddled close to each other on a small tribune built inside the cargo space of a lorry that normally transports transnational goods. The side wall had been changed to a transparent, mirrored glass pane, our 'fourth wall', allowing us to observe the outside world in an uninhibited way. Through headphones we listened to the stories of two truck drivers from Bulgaria. They drew us into their everyday lives, enmeshed with the reality of global freight transport, as we drove through the city, which acted as a backdrop to their accounts, as we made our way from the centre to the peri-urban landscape of logistics companies. We looked outwards, but were ourselves shielded from the gaze of the outside world. However, only until a dramaturgical turning point: in the midst of the Belgrade wholesale food market, someone stepped closer to the window pane, addressed us and revealed our presence inside the truck to everyone outside. It was a key moment of interpellation[1] in which we, the voyeuristic spectators, were no longer invisible and protected, but had to assert ourselves as part of—or even accomplices to—the reality of global transportation, which unfolded before our eyes as highly functional and exploitative, fascinatingly complex and problematic.

 

Cargo Sofia-Belgrade by Rimini Protokoll at BITEF Teater Festival in 2006. When asked about the beginnings of my curatorial work, I always think back to this performance, which was one of the triggers for our conversations with Fanni Nánay, a theater critic and colleague from Hungary, with whom we got more closely acquainted at BITEF and started envisioning a common project that later became PLACCC Festival. We co-founded PLACCC in 2008, as an international festival for site-specific performance and art in public space in Budapest. Our desire was to create a platform where we could present the work of international artists as well as support local artists interested in experimenting with site-specific approaches, which were little known in Hungary at the time. Artistic projects in urban space were sporadically organised by larger cultural institutions [2], but they didn’t have a dedicated platform. We were interested in addressing this lack for several reasons. After having worked as programmers for contemporary performing arts institutions focused on black-box stage productions, we both wanted to work more closely with the city—its public spaces, transformations, unusual locations—striving to engage with and shift perspectives on this messy complexity. We wanted to address other publics, eager to provoke chance encounters with a wider audience, including random passersby, through artistic interventions across the city. We were interested in exploring new ways of working, developing a curatorial practice that relied much rather on self-organized cultural work than institutional frameworks—with all the precarity, freedom and uncertainty this entailed.


Our festival editions were loosely curated around relatively open, associative themes, such as the notion of home(land) and belonging, with which we also addressed larger social phenomena like migration movements from Hungary to Western countries. In the performance The Place Where We Belong [3]  by Tg Space, audience members sat behind the tinted windows of a hotel’s bridge lounge and looked out onto a busy square in the centre of the city—from a voyeuristic position not unlike the one we experienced in Cargo Sofia-Belgrade. Equipped with headphones, they followed the movement of the theater-maker and performer Petra Ardai in the pedestrian area below, listening in on her conversations with random passersby about how they feel about living in Hungary or alternatively, about leaving the country as Petra herself had done.


Tg Space (Petra Ardai & Luc van Loo): The Place Where We Belong © Tg Space

While curating PLACCC, I was concerned with the following questions: what does it mean to work in public space in a post-socialist city, where decades of authoritarian state socialism have defined—controlled, limited and transformed—the ways, in which we conceive of and use the public sphere? What impact did the political transition have, with its processes of democratisation and liberalisation, but also its irrefutable neoliberal turn? How can we address the architectural, socio-political and cultural changes that the city is undergoing? Due to the complexity of these questions and the variety of approaches with which we wanted to address them, after the first edition of PLACCC in 2008, we decided to work across disciplines, inviting not only artists from performing arts, but also visual artists, designers and architects to collaborate with us. For me this was an important step towards a cross-disciplinary curatorial practice that has defined my work ever since.


We launched PLACCC at a time, when many cultural workers started their own initiatives—from festivals to autonomous cultural centres and project spaces—most often with the hope of institutionalizing on the long run. This optimism drew on a few outstanding examples in the Hungarian context such as Trafó House of Contemporary Arts that was born out of the self-organisation of the contemporary performing arts field and the political will of the city to create a new institution for this scene in 1998. In hindsight, I would say that Trafó was a result of post-transition momentum, in which Hungary—after having suppressed critical artistic practices for decades during state socialism—was eager to ‘catch up with the West’ and willing to (modestly) invest in more progressive cultural politics. However, after establishing a few flagship institutions, this intention proved rather short-lived, hindered by post-transition economic crises, the rise of austerity politics and the lack of lasting commitment to contemporary art. As a result, most of the initiatives launched in the mid-2000’s by the younger generation of cultural workers that I also belonged to, faced challenges of sustainability and struggled with a permanent lack of resources (both human and financial), trapped between the need to earn a living and the uncertainty of project-based cultural funding. I co-directed five editions of PLACCC Festival (2008-2011), but the festival continues until today, under the direction of my former colleague Fanni Nánay—demonstrating the resilience of these precarious, self-organized initiatives despite the difficult conditions, thanks to the determination of committed cultural workers.

 

“Politics of the Small Act” as a Strategy Against Anti-democratic Tendencies


“Warning, bees!” - the sign fastened to the railing of Kunsthalle Budapest’s back terrace read, where the Mixed Bee Group was holding one of its first meetings led by the Frankfurt-based artist collective finger (Florian Haas & Andreas Wolf) who introduced their practice in urban beekeeping. We gathered near the three beehives that we would tend collectively in the next months and everyone shared their motivation for joining the group. A soft-spoken young man talked about how his older brother did beekeeping, but he always put him down and called him names, so he had given up learning from him and decided to do it on his own terms. A couple had joined collectively and planned to take turns participating in the meetings—he was currently unemployed and she was a pensioner. Another man was a homeless activist, but he didn’t mention this publicly, instead he told the story of his grandfather who had tended bees in a small village. Other members included a museologist, an eye doctor and his teenage daughter, a mother of four whose family loved honey, a student who had recently returned from Erasmus and was still re-connecting to the city, and a young businessman with a family tradition in beekeeping that he had not been able to practice in Budapest. I remember thinking that most of these people would never have met, not to mention worked together if it hadn’t been for the Mixed Bee Group and their interest in beekeeping. Over 70 people applied to the open call we had published—not having expected such an overwhelming response, we had to close the call before the deadline expired.

 

In 2011 I left Hungary to spend a year in Germany at the Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig with a work fellowship, which came to be a turning point in my curatorial practice. Due to the on-going political changes since 2010 (after the rise to power of the current Fidesz-KDNP government) I became increasingly interested in politically and socially engaged artistic and curatorial practice as a means of resisting the anti-democratic crackdown on public spheres that the new government had started—first attacking the freedom of press, then the autonomy of higher education and cultural institutions between 2011 and 2013.

In this regard I was particularly inspired by Chantal Mouffe’s and Ernesto Laclau’s notion of ‘radical democracy’, and Mouffe’s agonistic approach to public spheres, according to which “public spaces are always plural and the agonistic confrontation takes place in a multiplicity of discursive surfaces” (Mouffe 2007:3). Mouffe had formulated her theory in the context of Western liberal democracy—focusing on the agonistic struggle against capitalist domination and the hegemony of neoliberalism—nevertheless I found the way, in which she conceptualized this struggle “as the core of a vibrant democracy” and “as  a struggle between opposing hegemonic projects which can never be reconciled rationally” (Ibid.) very insightful in understanding how we can confront the anti-democratic stance of the current regime in Hungary and its aim to establish neoliberal, right-wing authoritarianism as a new hegemonic project. Thinking with Chantal Mouffe, in the face of on-going attempts to control, centralize and homogenize public discourse, our agency lies in the creation of agonistic public spaces, to which critical art practices can contribute by fomenting dissensus and making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate—without wanting to create consensus themselves. I found it liberating to consider the political potential of art as counter-hegemonic intervention, because it lessened the feeling of powerlessness that many of us experienced in Hungary, as we tried to oppose the overpowering symbolic order—later dubbed the ‘System of National Cooperation’—the ruling party coalition started building 12 years ago.


Another important impulse for re-thinking my curatorial practice came from curator Paul O’Neill who talked about the political potential of curating in an interview titled The Politics of the Small Act in 2009 (O’Neill 2010). In this text O’Neill advocates curatorial work based on collaborative processual structures; he resists the idea of the curator as grand auteur or autonomous producer, and considers the forming of an exhibition as an accumulative structure. Drawing on the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s politics of a gesture, he claims that “curating operates on a micro-utopian level—with slight political action” and thus “making small changes may be sufficient in itself, because on this micro-level you can be certain that something is notably happening” (O’Neill 2010:10). He calls for a politics of the small act, arguing that a “micro-revolution” can be sustained through the accumulative effects of many such small acts, as they gather collective momentum over time.


O’Neill’s thoughts on ‘slight political action’ paired with Mouffe’s call for creating agonistic public spaces inspired me in a political situation, where it was clear that my self-organised efforts as a curator could only result in what O’Neill called ‘small acts’. The long-term perspective of these having cumulative potential (connecting to one another as well as other people’s efforts over time) made such micro-level work seem not only meaningful, but also empowering. In this spirit, in 2012 as the final outcome of my fellowship year in Leipzig I organised an international workshop and action space titled politics of the small act that brought together activists, artists and cultural workers from 13 countries, “to discuss ‘small acts’ as micro-strategies of self-empowerment and self-organisation, taking the recent socio-political developments in Hungary as a point of departure”.[4]  The two-day exchange between circa 35 participants resulted in several interesting conclusions. The need for ‘interclass action’ was discussed as an important criteria for building larger scale social movements, but also as something to consider in the context of socially engaged art practices and in collaborations between art and activism, as it raises the question of who speaks or acts on whose behalf, especially in the case of more marginalised social groups, whose voices are often not heard or wilfully ignored. Another central concern was political participation and its lack or potential crisis, manifested in different forms of disengagement such as political apathy. We asked ourselves how artistic projects could become ‘sites of attraction’ enabling participation and engaging broader, more diverse publics from different social groups. Learning a new skill was identified as such an attractor, also resonating with the notion of ‘useful art’ (arte útil) [5] coined at the time by the artist Tania Bruguera. However, it did not reduce learning to its usefulness, but embraced a broad range of motivations, such as the pleasure of learning something new.


The New Museum for Bees is open! finger group: Social Honey (2013, Budapest). Photo © Péter P. Seprűs

The call for ‘interclass action’ and conceptualizing artistic projects as ‘sites of attraction’ were both important impulses for my collaboration with finger group on Social Honey (2013, Budapest), a public art project that included the Mixed Bee Group as a community of learning about urban beekeeping.[6] But we didn’t stop there: speculating on what human and honeybee societies could learn from each other, we opened the New Museum for Bees, a conceptual art institution akin to Marcel Broodthaers’ Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles (1968). The bee-scale exhibition spaces on top of the beehives were transparent mock-ups that human visitors could inspect from the outside, with members of the Mixed Bee Group as their exhibition guides. The thematic rooms raised burning questions in the local socio-political context of Hungary and also globally: Do bees do democracy better than we do? Should we eat them? We were inspired by Thomas D. Seeley’s research on honeybee democracy and the ‘swarm smarts’ of collective decision-making (Seeley 2010), alongside the global debate on edible insect meat as a more ecological, lower emission alternative to industrial beef or pork production, in response to climate change. As a para-institution, the New Museum for Bees also addressed the polemics of Hungarian cultural politics; ranging from attacks on the autonomy of leading art institutions and their politically motivated takeovers (among others, of Kunsthalle Budapest whose back terrace we occupied) to the large-scale urban development project in the neighbouring City Park, which included controversial plans for a new ‘museum quarter’ and the creation of several new institutions. Social Honey was the first project in which my focus shifted from urban public space to include agricultural practices and rural-urban entanglements. 

 

Beyond the City Border: How to Challenge the Urban Hegemony?

 

During my childhood, every two weeks we would travel to my grandparents’ village Szamosangyalos, a hundred kilometers from my hometown Debrecen, to spend the weekend. We always left the city via the same route, passing by the Soviet military base on the outskirts. A monolithic row of concrete buildings and watchtowers, soldiers were stationed there after the 1956 revolution to signal that the Soviet Union was ready to intervene and repress any unrest. Shortly after the political transition in 1989, the concrete fence was sprayed with the message “Ruszkik haza!” (Russians, go home), which became a recurring graffiti across the country. After the last soldiers left in 1991, the base was re-purposed to house Hungary’s largest refugee camp, first receiving people fleeing the war in former Yugoslavia. For me, all these years, it was the place where the city ended and the countryside began. A liminal space. The trip to my grandparents lasted more than 1,5 hours due to bad road conditions. With my brother we passed the time memorizing the names of all the villages and towns that we drove through, chanting them in advance, before we reached the road signs announcing them. Szamosangyalos is a cul-de-sac village and I remember always anticipating the last turn we would take, leaving the main road. This usually coincided with my father switching to his local dialect, which he never used with us otherwise. Another liminal space.

 

These liminal spaces, this experience of moving between rural and urban contexts as a child has both inspired and shaped my interest in working in rural areas, with artistic approaches that engage with rural change. I grew up with an understanding of and an appreciation for different ways of life, even though as a city child and merely a regular visitor, I remained an outsider of sorts to my grandparents’ and my rural relatives’ everyday realities. In subtle, gentle ways they always made it clear that I had to be spared of the hardest work, I was not fit for it, which made me even more eager to prove my usefulness and drove me to spend long hours picking cucumbers or sour cherries in the summer heat, alongside family members and dayworkers, in an attempt to contribute to their small-scale farm’s economy with my labor.


I remember that after the political transition in 1989, on-going changes were much easier to grasp in the way they impacted the lives of my family members in the village. I remember the excitement and anxiety that accompanied the extremely volatile rise and fall of prices that local traders offered for fruits and vegetables. These changed every day—often even during the day—and determined whether or not we would set out with the cart loaded with cucumbers or sour cherries to sell them. These were times of great unpredictability, which stood in stark contrast to the relative stability of the 1980’s. People were struggling to come to terms with the ‘free market’ capitalism that replaced the more reliable and less volatile state socialist market mechanisms. This produced curious phenomena, such as the sudden spread of cucumber farming in the region. Cucumber was first produced by a few ‘innovators’ and as it sold well, many farmers ‘imitated’ them, which resulted in the prices dropping dramatically due to overproduction after just a few years. I witnessed these changes as a teenager, but only came to understand them in the context of more complex structural change when years later I translated the PhD dissertation of a friend, who studied this phenomenon through the lens of regional development and rural sociology. This made me re-think my childhood experiences of rural change as processes of transformation that were relevant subjects for both social and artistic research. I was already studying in Budapest, when I saw the theatre performance Portugál (Portuguese) in the József Katona Theatre (one of the most progressive city theatres), a play that talked about the social destitution of post-transition times in a small rural place, and infuriated me with its stereotypical, biased representation of rural people and village life. I was taken aback by how people from peasant background—like my grandparents—were misrepresented as ignorant, backwards people, who escape into alcoholism and only communicate with one another in crude monosyllables. At the same time I realized that many people who had little or no connection to rural realities, were totally oblivious to the problematic aspects of this play, which became one of the most popular productions in the theatre’s history, still on repertoire, after twenty years.Retrospectively, I believe that the key to its success was the way in which it underpinned discourses of ‘internal colonization’ and stigmatization of rural ‘others’. Polish anthropologist Michal Buchowski has observed that this othering was particularly prevalent in post-transition times, when workers, agricultural workers and peasants were blamed for their own degraded circumstances, while they themselves disappeared from public discourses (Buchowski 2006). They were constructed as the losers, as the “new others” of transformation (ibid: 467), but their voices and experiences were not heard; unemployment, the black market and economic problems were addressed as macro-level issues, largely missing their grassroots perspectives. This discourse of blaming the victims of post-socialist transition and accusing them for strategic economic failures was also widespread in Hungary and other Eastern European countries. Rural communities were not seen as people with problems; they themselves were the problem. This stigmatizing logic is re-kindled today in discussions around the rise of authoritarian populism in the region that often ascribes the shift to the right to the support of rural communities, who are portrayed as uninformed, gullible, liable to being corrupted or manipulated. It is rarely discussed that the lack of engagement with the realities of people living and working in rural areas has been a great deficit of progressive political movements, who have mainly been active in urban contexts. That is why—thinking with Chantal Mouffe—I find it important to consider the potential of counter-hegemonic interventions in public spheres that foreground rural perspectives and subjectivities, fostering subaltern counterpublics as conceptualized by Nancy Fraser (Fraser 1990).



Video still from Kartal Roundtable, video, 30’, 2021. Courtesy: Katalin Erdődi, Alicja Rogalska.


Learning from the Rural: The Kartal Women Choir’s Songs of Resilience

 

Large sheets of paper flutter in the wind. We hold them up for the choir members to read. The new lyrics we have collectively written for their local folks songs, resound across the premises of the former agricultural cooperative, where we are shooting a music video as part of the collaborative artistic work News Medley. For the first scene, in front of the water tower, we ask the women and girls to stand in a circle, facing to the outside. Their arms intertwined, they hold each other close in a gesture of collectivity and solidarity. The choir members had proposed the cooperative as a filming location; this was where the choir was founded in 1969 by female workers—most probably inspired by the popular TV show and folk singing contest Fly, Peacock! which was launched in the same year. Although television sets were scarce at the time, the show attracted close to 5 million viewers (basically every second person in the country) and sparked a massive cultural movement—a self-folklorization of sorts—that led to the formation of over 600 local singing groups. State socialism actively promoted folk culture in an attempt to suppress bourgeois culture, but these groups were not only proxies to the central cultural agenda, much rather they became resilient forms of self-organizing in rural contexts at a time when associations were otherwise prohibited. Later on many became independent from the cooperatives—as did the Kartal choir in the early 1980’s—and still exist today, with long-standing members who have been part of the group for over 20 to 25 years. During our collaboration—which spanned two years due to the pandemic—I often had to think about this, wondering why, with all the discussions we have about the challenges of sustainable self-organizing in the cultural field and beyond, we rarely turn to rural women’s choirs to learn from their practices of resilience?


I initiated News Medley (2020-2021) together with the London-based Polish visual artist Alicja Rogalska. Our inspiration was an earlier work by Alicja (Broniów Song, 2011) that she had created with a village choir in Poland and in which she had already experimented with writing new lyrics for a traditional folk song. In Hungary we decided to work with a rural women’s choir, not only due to our feminist approach, but also because they are the most widespread form of self-organised folk singing groups. I suggested the Hungarian title Hírdalcsokor (News Medley) as a play on the “medley of folk songs” (népdalcsokor), replacing “folk” (nép) with “news” (hír). We were interested in contemporary micro-realities, in sharing news about the life situations and experiences of the choir members by using folk songs as a form of grassroots community broadcasting. In such a way we wanted to critically reflect on recent changes in the media landscape of Hungary, where several major print and online newspapers had been shut down, and regional media outlets were bought by pro-government companies. This has resulted in an increasingly centralized and controlled flow of information, strengthening the ruling party’s hegemony over the public sphere and silencing critical voices. We wanted to raise the question: what means and channels do smaller rural communities have to talk about their situation? And also, more broadly, what do we even consider news nowadays, in the times of clickbait journalism?


We invited the folk singer Réka Annus to join us, who contributed with her in-depth knowledge of folk music. She suggested working with the Women’s Choir of Kartal, because Kartal belongs to the Galga River region where singing groups still sing authentic local songs, not only more widespread, generic folk songs. The choir immediately said yes to our invitation, although later on they admitted that they couldn’t really imagine what we were planning. However, they were open, curious and eager to perform, which is one of the main drives for being in the choir. Our first meetings about possible content for the new lyrics were anarchic and wide-ranging, but one thing quickly became clear: rather than talking in general about life in the village, the choir members were much more interested in talking about women’s lives and their personal experiences. They shared with us plurivocal micro-histories told from the perspective of rural women in a moving articulation of what second-wave feminist movements have called “the personal is political”.


The local songs we chose from the choir’s repertoire were mostly landworkers’ songs, fitting to the women’s accounts of how hard they had worked all their lives: from farming the land, selling their produce at the wholesale market, and commuting for work to Budapest, to the housework and care work that awaited them at home. The choir members made no distinction between paid or unpaid labor when they described their never-ending workdays, underlining the fact that reproductive labor is only ‘invisible’ to those who don’t deal with it as part of their everyday realities. Alongside our focus on women’s work—as we built trust with the choir members—they also shared stories of more personal struggles, from oppressive family relations and forced marriages to separation from partners due to alcoholism, also talking about the greater freedom of young women today, as the choir includes teenagers. Together we decided to break the silence and trouble the boundary between private and public spheres by sharing these stories, as they not only speak about difficulties, but also about the power to overcome them. The final song of the medley is a recruiting song that draws on the tradition of soldiers’ songs in Hungarian folk music, but subverts their military content to talk about strategies of self-organizing, of ‘recruiting’ new members, and the sense of community that the choir gives.


When writing new lyrics for the songs, we adopted a verbatim approach—often used in documentary theatre performances—to stay true not only to the content shared with us, but also to the personal wording and style of storytelling. This enabled the women in the choir to strongly identify with the new lyrics: it was a source of pride and emotion for them that their life stories were documented, transformed into songs that gave value to all they had experienced.[7] With the act of re-writing we drew on the vernacular practice of adapting folk songs to talk about personal situations and emotions, as well as the feminist practice of women ‘re-authoring’ their lives [8]. I see the five songs of News Medley as songs of resilience—articulations of feminist counterpublics—in which the choir members’ heterogeneous and subjective realities are shared in a collective voice inherent to choir singing that also provides them with a certain anonymity.



Video still from News Medley, video, 9’, 2020. Courtesy: Alicja Rogalska, Katalin Erdődi, Réka Annus, Women’s Choir of Kartal.


In addition to shooting a music video on the premises of the former cooperative and the local cultural centre, we also documented the process of discussing, writing and rehearsing the new lyrics, which mainly happened during a three-day workshop we organized in Kartal prior to the film shoot. This footage became a making-of documentary titled Kartal Roundtable [9] that gives insight into the inner workings of the collaboration. The two video works were first presented at the OFF-Biennale Budapest (23 April - 31 May 2020) in the space of a former laundrette, as part of our exhibition We Are Not Made of Sugar, We Are from Concrete. The title was inspired by one of the choir members, Marika Kozjárné, who made this comment about their resilience, when I asked her if she was tired after rehearsing and shooting all day. 

 

Back to the City: Re-inscribing the Rural into the Urban


I was also there when the National Theatre got demolished. We were released from work to go see it. I worked at Astoria and Kálvin Square. On construction sites, as a construction hand. I was fourteen and my body couldn’t take the hard physical work. My bosses transferred me to a delivery job. I lived at a workers’ home on Szentkirályi Street. I started too early and finished too late to travel home. I lived there until I got married. I was not yet eighteen. I didn’t marry for love. My mother chose him for me. We lived, we struggled together for seventeen years. The liquor was stronger.” Her voice is soft and persistent, amplified by a chorus of young women who mingle with the audience. They repeat her words, transforming her singular experience into a collective one, shared by many women of her generation. The choir members take turns speaking, seven personal stories are told on changing locations. At the former headquarters of the Hungarian Radio, the country’s main public radio station, radically transformed by the political changes of the past years. In the intimate surroundings of a feminist community library housed in a turn-of-the century building with crumbling patina. In the glass-paned inner courtyard of the East-West Business Centre, opened in 1991 as one of the first modern office buildings in the city. It is situated on Astoria, where Piroska had toiled as a construction worker. The choir members first shared these stories when I asked them about their connections to Budapest. Their accounts made me realize how little we know about the ways in which the lives of working-class rural women are entangled with urban change. About how they had literally built the city, catering to its everyday needs and growth—on construction sites, in factories, cafeterias and cleaning departments, or as agricultural producers, sneaking into the wholesale market to snatch the best place before it opened.


These personal stories formed part of the site-specific performance-walk that we staged in Budapest in September and October 2021, after a longer pandemic-induced break. Performing News Medley live had always been a crucial part of our concept with Alicja, but it couldn’t happen as originally planned—during our exhibition at OFF-Biennale—due to Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings in public space. As it turned out, the delay worked in our favour, as we had more time for further conversations with the Kartal choir, which resulted in new stories that added even more nuance to their life experiences, shared in a condensed form in the lyrics of News Medley. Choir members who had hesitated to open up beforehand, now seized the opportunity. I perceived a certain urgency with which they wanted to tell their story, not wanting to be left out, which is why it was essential for us to find a good way of including these testimonies in the performance. Together we decided to break with the collective anonymity of the lyrics: everyone agreed to tell their stories as monologues, which first surprised me, as I had rather anticipated that they would not want to perform individually and we would need to look for other solutions. The collective echo performed by the Varsányi SIrens made it possible for us to amplify the choir members’ voices naturally and not worry about the fragility of such an ‘unplugged’ situation.The Varsányi SIrens[10] are a self-organised choir made up of young women from Budapest, who have gained notoriety for their feminist lyrics and their subversive way of covering well-known pop songs. We invited them to join the collaboration, as we were interested in initiating a dialogue across generations, rural and urban contexts, but also pop music and folklore. The Varsányi SIrens wrote their own medley in response to News Medley, juxtaposing their everyday experiences and struggles with those of the Kartal choir. We devised a dramaturgy of on-going call and response, interweaving songs by the two choirs to entangle and collapse onto one another their distinct perspectives, thus creating an unexpected and powerful space of resonance. The performance-walk spanned several locations across the city, mostly chosen for their relevance to the content of the songs and stories. We staged each situation differently to bring more complexity to the relationality between the two choirs and what they had to say to one another. This ranged from a ‘battle’ about marriage and relationship struggles in a public park to a duet about invisible work in an abandoned laundrette that culminated in both choirs singing the refrain of J-Lo’s “I ain’t your mama” unisono. The final scene was a joint performance of News Medley’s recruiting song—with an additional verse written by the Varsányi SIrens—that celebrated the liberating potential and joy of singing together and the importance of community in their lives.



Women’s Choir of Kartal & Varsányi SIrens: News Medley Live, performance-walk, 2021. Dramaturgy: Katalin Erdődi and Alicja Rogalska with Réka Annus and Laura Szári. Photos © Szabolcs Vida


During the four performances we had, the choirs guided audiences of 60 to 90 people through the city, often attracting the attention of passersby who were not entirely sure what they were witnessing—a procession, a political march or a performance? The traditional folkloric dress of the Kartal choir added to this confusion, while creating a strong visual impression. Due to the distances between the locations, the performance-walk involved longer stretches of walking. What walking together actually meant became clear to me, when we started rehearsing on site: due to their age, the women from Kartal could only walk in a certain tempo to which all of us had to adapt, including the audience during the performance. This collective ‘slowing down’—which did not come easily, nor naturally to many of us used to the unrelenting pace of the city—created an atmosphere of mutual care and attention. An embodied practice of solidarity that the Zapatista movement from Mexico has so fittingly called “walking at the pace of the slowest.”


“Instead of sighing we turn to singing”: Collaboration as a Form of Resistance


We end the performance-walk in the centre of Budapest, on Ferenc Deák Square, one of the busiest spots in the city. As the choir members raise their voices to be heard over the white noise of bustling traffic, I am reminded of Polish theorist Ewa Majewska’s notion of ‘weak resistance’ (Majewska 2021). She suggests a feminist re-interpretation of political agency that embraces the weak, the ordinary and the non-heroic, citing Poland’s Solidarność movement and the more recent Black Protests as examples of such everyday resistance. “This form of resistance does not involve exceptionality or heroic gestures,” Majewska writes, “it requires persistence and everyday life strategies.” (Ibid: 220)“Instead of sighing we turn to singing” - the Kartal choir sings. What is this if not an affirmation of weakness, but also a move away from it, to raise their voices and share their stories? They break the silence, rejecting the shameful stigma of failed marriage, and speak out about the invisibilized burden of house and care work. And they are aware of their  power: “The world stops if we stop[11] / The time for change has come.” These lyrics are our artistic-curatorial contribution—a shout-out to current feminist struggles and the call for feminist strike—but they also reflect the choir members’ views on how much their environment depends on their work. This commonality of women’s lives resonates with the biting humour of the Varsányi SIrens’ song Girl from Pest, which unravels the contemporary reality of young women in the city, who run from office jobs in male-dominated environments to do the groceries on the way home, while their partner forgets to buy toilet paper.


Our initial desire to inscribe the micro-histories of rural women into urban public space and performatively manifest subaltern feminist counterpublics with News Medley, was expanded in manifold, often unexpected ways. We discovered that these herstories are inextricably linked with urban change: they speak about entanglements and interdependencies, thus challenging binary thinking around the rural-urban divide as well as highlighting the need for decolonizing interventions with regard to how we conceptualize the rural and the urban. The dialogue between women from different generations and backgrounds—older rural women and their younger urban counterparts—also underpins this, giving voice to heterogeneous experiences and transversal struggles. This plurivocality, however, does not imply consensus, nor does it obscure tensions or differences in opinion—which are very present in both the lyrics and the stories—much rather it holds space for the agonism advocated by Chantal Mouffe.I find that the true potential of the counterpublics created by News Medley lies in its collaborative nature and the fact that it was born from the encounter of very different people—in our case members of the two choirs and our artistic team—who all contributed with different views and perspectives to this agonistic public sphere. Collaborating across difference over a longer period of time involves extensive negotiations and confrontations, moments of discomfort and occasional crises (especially in the process of getting to know one another) alongside moments of togetherness, proximity and catharsis (especially when sharing time and working together very closely, as we did on the video shoot or on the performance). Last but not least, collaboration also implies a great deal of emotional and affective labor as well as maintenance work in the sense of feminist artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles.[12] I do not list these to make our achievement sound heroic, much rather I embrace them as non-heroic aspects of collaboration as a form of resistance. This is the point where I contend with Chantal Mouffe’s call for counter-hegemonic interventions to create agonistic public spaces. Rather than advocating such an interventionist approach—which Mouffe herself describes as disruptive, giving examples of Alfredo Jaar’s artistic work (Mouffe 2007)—I would argue that counter-hegemonic collaborations are necessary, which not only create, but also maintain these agonistic public spheres. While the performance-walk of News Medley clearly had interventionist potential in terms of how it disrupted the hegemonic public sphere with feminist messages and rural narratives, I believe that such a collective performance would not have been possible without the collaborative process and sustained dialogue that nourished and empowered the counterpublic we created.Inhabiting a wide range of formats—from two video works, an exhibition and a publication to a live performance and an online reading (which I have not discussed in the current text)—News Medley aspires for the cumulative potential that Paul O’Neill talks about, when advocating curatorial work based on collaborative processual structures and slight political action. In my understanding of feminist curatorial practice—in which I engage with feminism not only thematically, but also in a structural way—I strive to bring together O’Neill’s ‘politics of the small act’ with Ewa Majewska’s notion of ‘weak resistance’, embracing the inevitable failures of collaboration as well as its potential for rehearsing togetherness, while holding space for its content to be shaped by the different people involved in a plurivocal and agonistic way.

 

[1] I use the notion of "interpellation" here in reference to the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser and his theory of "ideological state apparatuses". Althusser uses this term to describe the act of invocation through which the individual becomes a subject by accepting the social position assigned to them and recognizing it as their own (Althusser 1977).
[2] Some important initiatives from this period were: Gravitáció - Moszkva tér (Gravity - Moszkva Square), Ludwig Museum, 2003, https://www.ludwigmuseum.hu/en/exhibition/gravity-moszkva-square, 20.06.2023; pont:itt:most (exactly:here:now), Budapest Autumn Festival and ARC, 2003-2004. In addition, a public funding program for new genre public art projects was established in 2007, initially focusing on Budapest and regional capitals of Hungary, then from 2009 also on rural areas. However, this was very short-lived and discontinued in 2011. Publications of this funding program: László Kertész, Zsóka Leposa (eds.): Te itt áll (Here you stand), Magyar Művelődési Intézet, Budapest, 2008; László Kertész, Zsóka Leposa (eds.): A mi kis falunk (Our little village), Magyar Művelődési Intézet, Budapest, 2010.
[3] Tg Space (Petra Ardai & Luc van Loo): The Place Where We Belong (Performance, 2005-2011), https://www.spaceexplorers.nl/project/the-place-where-we-belong/, 20.06.2023.
[4] politics of the small act (A Call for Action at the Intersection of Artistic and Civic Practices), 2012, Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig. International workshop and action space initiated and organised by Katalin Erdődi in cooperation with Julia Kurz and Radmila Joksimovic. https://gfzk.de/en/2011/small-acts-ein-aufruf-an-der-schnittstelle-von-kunst-und-zivilgesellschaft/, 20.06.2023.
[5] More about Tania Bruguera's take on useful art: https://www.arte-util.org/about/colophon/, 20.06.2023
[6] More about Social Honey (2013, Budapest) by the artist group finger, curated by Katalin Erdődi: https://kozossegi-mez.tumblr.com/ (project website) 20.06.2023, https://fingerweb.org/files/content/pdfs/beejournal_FIX_KLEIN.pdf (publication), https://fingerweb.org/projekte-2013/neues-museum-fuer-bienen-budapest.html (artist website), 20.06.2023.
[7] See also: "We Stick Together - Members of the Women's Choir of Kartal in conversation with Katalin Erdődi." In: Erdődi 2021: 14-21.
[8] See also: "There Is a Strength in the Collective Voice, Especially the Collective Female Voice - The artistic team of News Medley in conversation." In: Erdődi 2021: 22-37.
[9] Katalin Erdődi and Alicja Rogalska, Kartal Roundtable (video, 30’, 2021), https://vimeo.com/543623349/4d312552b9, 20.06.2023.
[10] The name Varsányi SIrens is a word play, combining the name of a famous actress Irén Varsányi with the term ‘sirens’ as mythological figures of dangerous women. Therefore, the choir uses the spelling ‘SIrens’ to emphasize both connections.
[11] Reference to the slogan "If we stop, the world stops" of the 8M feminist strike in Spain in 2018. https://www.transform-network.net/en/blog/article/if-we-women-stop-the-world-stops/, 20.06.2023
[12] More about Mierle Ladermam Ukeles’s notion of maintenance art, https://monoskop.org/Mierle_Laderman_Ukeles, 10.04.2024.


Bibliography

Althusser, Louis: “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”. In: Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press 1971.

Buchowski, Michał: “The Specter of Orientalism in Europe: From Exotic Other to Stigmatized Brother”. In: Anthropological Quarterly 79(3) 2006: 463-482.
Erdődi, Katalin (Ed.) We Are Not Made of Sugar, We Are From Concrete. Zürich 2021.
Fraser, Nancy: “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, Social Text, Nr. 25/26 1990: 56-80.
Majewska, Ewa: Feminist Antifascism: Counterpublics of the Common. London 2021.
Mouffe, Chantal : “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces“, Art & Research, Vol. 1, Nr. 2, Sommer 2007: 1-5.
O’Neill, Paul: “The Politics of the Small Act“ (interview). In: The Political Potential of Curatorial Practise, Hg. Gerd Elise Mørland, Heidi Bale Amundsen, OnCurating #04, 2010: 6-10. https://www.on-curating.org/files/oc/dateiverwaltung/old%20Issues/ONCURATING_Issue4.pdf  20.06.2023

Seeley, Thomas D.: Honeybee Democracy. Princeton, 2010.
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