The activities of Prelom kolektiv involve the making and editing of Prelom journal, organizing exhibitions, conferences and discussions, and participating in other artistic and cultural projects and events . In a terminology often used today, this makes us “cultural workers” or even so-called “content providers” for the expanding “cultural industries” within the neo-liberal capitalist system. Although we oppose this kind of positioning and the whole constellation that produces it, this is precisely the starting point for an objective, i.e. materialist understanding of what the institution of culture is today.
The term culture has expanded boundlessly over the last 30 years. This hypertrophy stems out of the abolition of high/low, elitist/popular, official/marginal or mainstream/alternative oppositions, which represented dichotomies functional for the maintenance of the political arrangements after World War Two. What is nowadays known as the process of “democratization of culture” is only superficially about the participation of all the people in activities previously reserved for elites, by claiming that it seeks to promote and realize the vaunted values of equity, access, and participation. But in fact, the incorporation of the “third sector” – non-governmental and non-profit organizations – in the distribution of shrunken welfare-state services is a trend that has been underway for some time. This non-profit sector currently represents a prospective market for the so-called “creators of culture”. It is supposed to play the role of a catalyst for the process of replacing the retreating “second sector” (the state) and fostering the growth of the still insufficiently developed “first sector” (market).
This process has its own definite economic – and, therefore, political – logic. The last decades have witnessed an obvious neo-liberal effort to culturalize the economy or, conversely, to economize culture. The principles of free-market competition have been introduced to the once privileged sphere of artistic and intellectual production. This does not simply mean the massive introduction of market-relations into the “sphere of culture”, but is more about establishing the practices of entrepreneurship on the level of subject. Today’s cultural producer is supposed to deploy her/his cultural capital as a “funky businessman” in contemporary “karaoke capitalism”.
The neo-liberal strategy of culturalization of politics  operates according to a very similar logic. The articulations of political struggles and social antagonisms have moved from their “classical” domain of the state apparatuses to the dispersed field of competing “cultural options”. But, culturalization is more than just a translation of political issues to cultural ones. Culturalization is also a “school of subjectivity”, a moment in the ideological education or, better yet, formation (Bildung) of “the masses” – properly speaking, of subjects (in both senses of this term) of the capitalist order. In this sense, the culture of tolerance, the culture of communication, environmental culture, digital culture, etc. provide neo-liberal forms of a new social literacy – which Althusser termed as savoir-faire (“know-how-to-do”) . This notion is what grounds our basic premise on the “nature” of institutions – a materialist thesis on what the institution is. An institution is less a particular building populated with administration and upheld by a hierarchy of positions with a top-down structure of decisions, but more an institutionalized, power-structured code of conduct, a material reality created and re-created by individuals in their everyday practice. It is precisely this kind of material practice, constitutive of the contemporary neo-liberal institution, that Prelom kolektiv is trying to criticize, oppose and change.
“Culture” under contemporary post-Yugoslav conditions certainly shares the aforementioned general traits of neo-liberal capitalism, but it also displays some specific qualities. In the post-conflictual region of the “Western Balkans,” art and culture are supposed to play the role of reconciling antagonists. They culturalize us in order to renounce the “non-civic” or, simply, “un-civilized” ways of solving conflicts by adopting the “non-violent”, symbolical mechanisms that the “cultural field” supposedly offers. In short, “culture” has to insure that tolerance for the Other is respected, while the pressing problems remain hidden behind this screen of folklore or multiculturalism.
In this sense, Prelom can be seen as an effort for de-culturalization of those political issues out of their culturalized form. What we are collectively striving for is a re-politization in the sense of a certain and definite partisanship in theory and in practice that aims for an effective materialist critique. It also represents a struggle to debunk, expose and oppose the dominant anti-Communist consensus. Words and images like Yugoslavia, partisans, Socialism, Marxism, Communism are tabooed for specific reasons, and their usage is generally understood as little more than a prank. But, their articulation – that is, the articulation of the tendency they represent – introduces an active practice of rethinking and reinventing revolutionary politics – something that is exactly foreclosed by today’s neo-liberal “rationality” as a relic of those rebellious, naïve and digressive times.
However, all this is manifesto-like discourse, which functions well in theory, but what is the actual material practice of Prelom?
Prelom operates in a specific context of the cultural production in the Western Balkans, with all the contradictions, ambiguities and shortcomings that accompany it. Established in 2001 as the Journal of School for History and Theory of Images of Belgrade’s Center for Contemporary Art, Prelom was functioning as a peripheral project of this institution, which gave the editorial board a relative independence and autonomy. Like many other projects, the school was something rather subsidiary to the art programs. It paralleled the usual form of discursive events that accompany main art programs with the task to provide a space for reflection and criticism, but those are actually becoming places where critique is fostered, institutionalized and, finally, neutralized or appropriated.
In the summer of 2004, the Centre for Contemporary Art collapsed and Prelom lost its former institutional background. The editorial board entered a long period of discussion on how to proceed. The analyses of the situation showed that the format of the publication we produced was usually connected to either artistic or academic institutions or to temporary art projects (exhibitions, manifestations, events, etc.) that provide the basis for production. The alternative was a kind of “separation strategy,” resting upon what is today called an “alternative economy” – either through the model of subscription, or through the transformation into a fanzine, leaflet or internet-publishing project. The majority of editorial board finally agreed that this would deprive us of the possibilities for intervening within already existing cultural or art projects. Therefore, we were forced to start up a non-government organization as the necessary tool to continue publishing. Actually, we decided to take the challenge head-on and to confront the perils succumbing what we called “NGO logic” in the course of our discussions.
After being registered as NGO and as soon as donated money appeared on the bank account it becomes equivalent to running a private bussines. This means to hire professional accountant for dealing with taxes and other fiscal obligations, and requires, at least formally, a legally stupulated hierarchy. All this is quite at odds with the principles of the non-hierarchical structure that we had from the very beginning. It also means that we had to get involved in the “business of fundraising”, which in turn requires a substantial amount of administrative work, called “networking” nowadays. This “NGO economy” – like the so-called “new knowledge economy” of media, fashion and art in the “creative industries” – relies heavily on US-style internship systems to perform the necessary but routine gofer roles that hold it all together. It is effectively a system of bourgeois apprenticeships or – putting it more bluntly – an elaborated and up-dated system of capitalist exploitation.
Foundations and the institutions of culture focus on supporting programs or exchanges – something that actualizes in an evident form of the immediate product such as artwork, exhibition, symposium or publication – but rarely or never on providing for the organizational maintenance. Associations, collectives or working groups are in this way forced to overproduce in order to survive – that is, to have as many subsidized programs as they can get. As the process of overproduction increases administrative tasks, it leaves less and less space for the proper conceptualization of actual programs, as well as their critical reflection. Thereby what was meant at the beginning to be a critical production is replaced with an “aesthetics of administration” – to use Benjamin Buchloh’s term – which represents the neo-liberal institutionalization of critique.
How is it, then, possible to produce a critical stance within this context? Moreover, how is it possible to develop emancipatory strategies in the field of art and cultural production? Well, there is no simple answer to this question. The contemporary institution of culture is a battlefield, and – to paraphrase Foucault – since there is no power without the resistance(s), each position is an outcome of struggle. What we can do and what we are trying to do is to articulate those points of resistance by intervening within the existing constellation. But, criticism as the discursive form of an intervention in the “public sphere” can only be a starting point. Critique – a veritable materialist critique – in order to be efficient, i.e. to produce effects in the material reality of the social exchange, must be practical – it must intervene within and strive to tackle the existing and ongoing social practices . This kind of criticism entails a self-criticism whereby one reflects his/hers own role as well as the effects and repercussions of one’s own actions.
Therefore, our position is – strictly speaking – a “non-existing impossibility” . By evoking the Marxisms and Communisms that supposedly “no longer exist” today, we are invoking the possibility of a definite “impossibility” – a radical alternative to the prevailing material practices of social exchange. At least, this is almost a “natural” position for anyone opposing the omnipresent neo-liberal anti-Communist consensus of both the pro-European “democratic” forces of “civil society” and the likewise obligatory pro-European nation-building forces of the ex-Yugoslav governments. Prelom (meaning rupture, break, Bruch) is an attempt to break with this given constellation – and in the last instance, with the capitalism itself. It is a synonym – a makeshift word – for what today appears quite impossible – revolution.
1. More info on www.prelomkolektiv.org, with all the previous issues of Prelom freely downloadable in PDF formats.
2. cf. Boris Buden, “The Pit of Babel or The Society that Mistook Culture for Politics” and “Translation is Impossible. Let’s Do It!” available on www.eipcp.net; also in Boris Buden: Vavilonska jama: O (ne)prevodivosti kulture, Fabrika knjiga, Beograd, 2007
3. cf. Louis Althusser, Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants
4. By intervention we mean producing an effect that enables the present positions and divisions to become evident. To use a metaphor, intervention is like a signal-gun shot over the battlefield that lights the trenches
5. cf. Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, Verso, London and New York, 1999; especially on theoretical dispositive, etc.