/ 10 September 2019

Week of the Festival: Struga, Macedonia

Life is Void When There is No Culture

Resistance becomes manipulated when it is not creative.

Education becomes sterile when it doesn't include spirituality. 

Ideas become colourless when they are not followed by solutions.

Understanding is futile when there is no empathy.

The idea for a better world becomes naive when there is no real struggle.

Life is void when there is no culture...

What lays under the umbrella of the word ‘culture’? In local, Macedonian context it is everything that's missing for this society to be wonderful and free. It's always easier to write about things that are present, what one has, about the visible, the tangible, the audible, but the challenge is greater when you try to visualise what appears and disappears on the horizon as a pale shadow - the free, autonomous cultural centres - spaces freed from conformity! In some European cities they spring up like mushrooms after the rain, but in the Republic of North Macedonia they are barely existent. Living culture is built every day, far from the claws of the powerful ones, and its connecting fabric is the very culture and art. 

Jean-Paul Sartre reminded us that ‘man is condemned to be free’. In fact, many philosophers and authors have written about the urge for freedom or the desire to be free from the confinements (constraints) of external authority and to be able to decide on one's own life. Everything begins with this urge, from the individual need of free expression whether this is artistic, political, avant-garde or what have you, all the way to the democratic capacity of the whole society. And although ‘man is a political animal’ or, as Aristotle called it, a ‘zoon politikon’, when the term ‘politics’ is mentioned, many people have their hair raised because people confuse the meaning of party with the political. Actually, everything is political. 

Politics are the educational reforms, the health conditions, cycle tracks in urban infrastructure, public spaces, art in response to the system, cultural policies... All these things that are lagging behind in Macedonian society. In this article, I would like to focus on cultural practices that should awaken citizens who often act like sleeping beauties when it comes to important social issues. So, the question that arises here is: Do we have free, autonomous spaces in which artists, writers, poets, actors, directors... can meet, get to know each other, exchange ideas, socialize, be able to create? The answer is: There’s no such thing in Skopje! 

Despite awareness that ‘artivism’ (a term defined as symbiosis between art and activism) can save us from what Aldous Huxley envisioned in his book Brave New World, today’s imperative is to seize and to keep the audience's attention, even when it comes to politics. Apparently, we don’t have proper public spaces and communities where artivism can develop and flourish. Huxley was quite right in saying that the primary motive of the powerful ones was to offer hypnotic entertainment, so that people would be excluded from serious political issues. Are we, in the Republic of North Macedonia, facing the danger of having fun or are we afraid of death? On the thin line between reality shows and turbo-folk culture on the one hand, and violence and fake news on the other, are the passive citizens who think that they are well-informed, via superficial news, shock scandals, trivial entertainment, while in fact they are socially or politically inactive. Their paramount art boils down to commenting on social networks, the easiest place to vent frustrations, parodying the situations on Facebook or Twitter. In this context I’d like to quote Lichtenberg: ‘It doesn’t matter what one thinks, but what thinking makes of oneself.’ And so, while people accept their livesin a conformist manner, lives in which others decide for them, some kind of a cultural counterpoint or set of tools to counter social engineering is inevitable. Here, primarily, I’m thinking of artistic, avant-garde and subversive ideas or the sub-cultural, antinormative voices of poets, writers, painters, designers... So, the official, elitist culture, the one with a big C, the institutionalised art produced in elite cultural centres is not the only one we need, but we also need the independent cultural scene, a kind of cultural guerrilla born and created in small alternative spaces, in youth art clubs, squats, in the street, in the garage... 

Such cultural production can be created in spaces that are free from the constraints of institutions and mainstream flows. Such art is a derivative of direct democracy. And in Skopje, AKSC/ACSC - the Autonomous Cultural and Social Center, which unfortunately ceased to exist, was such place. It was established six years ago by a group of enthusiasts, as a free zone for the independent cultural scene. AKCS/ACSC was a beautiful city story created by people tired of kitsch, turbo-folk culture, injustice, gender stereotypes, nationalism... This community of young people in Skopje (and I mean young in spirit, above all) unfortunately existed for only three years, because it functioned without any financial help from institutions, funds or grants. The only funding was voluntary donations from individuals who had visited and animated this small alternative space in the centre of Skopje which, unfortunately, turned out to be an unsustainable model. 

Still, this ‘home’ has changed many people's lives. As part of the AKSC/ACSC’s three-year programme, numerous exhibitions, poetry performances, alternative theatre, children's workshops, film screenings, philosophical debates, free market, environmental actions took place. From today's perspective, I realise that a collective like that is an extremely important testament for a society and time. For me personally, AKSC/ACSC was a free zone for art and activism, trapped between people's ideals of a better world and the real local traps, such as the suppression of the voice of freedom, censorship, political crime, defeatism, indifference, (air)pollution... ‘What do you think you could change in this rotten society?’ – they asked us. Are you going to solve air pollution? Will you put the oligarchs who impoverished the people behind bars? Will you overpower political sheriffs? Are you going to hush turbo-folk bars? These were just a few of the questions asked by many people who did not believe in the idea of a small group of optimists. 

For me, personally, it was a brave move. That was my way of showing a middle finger to the fear of the system as a crushing beast and I decided to do something useful every day for the benefit of the culture in this society and the people around me. 

Changes are made with creative resistance. I was constantly meeting conscious people through the various artistic activities that took place in the modest, alternative space of AKSC. In that small space different people met: Friends and foes, awake and asleep, intellectuals and people of action, and in that mutual interaction they were growing and changing, and in changing ourselves for the better, we were changing the world in which we participated. Some of my friends would often tell me I was an unrecoverable hippie, but that didn’t discourage me. Some of us saw fighting through street protests, some through poetry, I did both.We were inspired by each other. 

The students at the beginning of the Student Protests Initiative in Skopje in 2014 and the Student Plenum of ‘Ss. Cyril and Methodius’ used this space for meetings, brainstorming and drawing banners. Environmental unions from the country had the opportunity to exchange ideas. Countless movie screenings have opened our eyes wide shut. The first Macedonian organic food cooperative was created there. It reminded us that organic food, which is a worldwide trend, should not be a privilege of the rich but a right of every human being. There were many guests who came from abroad, cyclists living in eco-communities, communes... We exchanged books, made a library, a free market and even few editions of a fanzine were released. 

Now, that the six-year anniversary of AKSC opening date is approaching, I feel proud to have been a part of such initiative for better values and I would be happy to see similar initiatives being realized in Skopje. AKSC was a spark of light in the city. A rock from which ideas sprouted. An atom of positive energy. A core of sincere and authentic cultural workers. I spent hours there and I'm not sorry for a single day! Voluntary deeds are done out of love. AKSC was my love affair with society  and love should not be forbidden. 

By Ana Jovkovska (Skopje, 19 March 1982), a journalist, editor, writer, producer, TV presenter, communication and PR specialist, educator for soft skills, communication and public speaking, activist and humanist.