OSTranenie - International Forum for Electronic Media


OSTranenie is the biggest European media art festival looking to the East

The 1997 Ostranenie Festival took place at the Bauhaus in Dessau, (former East) Germany. The videotape screenings and Forum sessions --in English-- where held in the Bauhaus Aula, a multipurpose auditorium that was filled to capacity (160 persons) for most programs of the festival. The central space of the festival, and the historic location of the famous Bauhaus architecture/design collective who influenced contemporary design and aesthetics so completely, is a setting that instilled a sense of history and purpose to all participants.

It is sometimes spelled OSTranenie, giving emphasis to its focus on the development of media in Central and Eastern European countries and issues surrounding the East/West "transformation", the resulting cultural relationships made possible by the melting of the cold war, and the opening of borders into the east. This festival was a warm and lively meeting place of media artists who normally live in the gray area of their newly emerging cultural situations at home. It stands apart from the many European media festivals because of its inclusion of minority viewpoints from remote areas of Eastern Europe, and for the participation of women who were strongly involved in programming the festival and the presentation of female media artworks.

It all began "small" in 1993 as a "project" according to Stephen Kovats, a Canadian who came to the Bauhaus in 1991 with an architecture background, for research and to lead a workshop in media art. He started the festival concept as a personal exploration to find out more about the role media played in the "revolution" against Communism (and against Soviet control) that began throughout East Europe during the late 1980s. With no real experience or financial support, Kovats, along with the participation of numerous advisors and collaborators, has developed Ostranenie into a major international event.

Kovats felt that the Bauhaus it was the "perfect place" for a festival in 1992, when he began to plan the first Ostranenie. He was able to launch the event strongly with about 120,000 DM cash, raised from the regional and local sources. Most of the money was used to bring artists to Dessau. Without a real infrastructure, Inke Arns (Berlin) and Kovats (co-directors in 1993) joke that they organized the first festival from phone booths. The initial festival was strongly orientated towards video art, as that was the experience of the advisors, which included Keiko Sei (Prague), Marina Grzinic (Ljubljana), and Alexander Koprin (Moscow). However, one of the first interactive Internet installations, "Handshake", created by members of the Internationale Stadt Berlin, linked the local Dessau residents with the festival. This first major international festival meeting of East artists was held in an "East" environment before the Soros Foundation established its regional Contemporary Arts Centers, and before the Syndicate was established by V2_East in Autumn 1995.

By 1995, application to the Ostranenie festival, and (as more experienced festival organizers might have predicted) the support money diminished almost by half. The 1993 event clearly revealed the spectrum of media activity going on in the far corners of the unpenetrable East, so for 1995, Kovats was determined to establish dialogue between the participants. He also notes that the work itself began to change in 1995, from the more professional style video productions of well known influential filmmakers (who worked in video for television or to gain access to high end equipment) to works by a new generation of what would be called amateur artists in the East, who worked exclusively with VHS and High 8. These young artists came of age during the conflict for independence, had little interest in the east/west analysis, and were more curious to explore their regional turmoil, often using the media as a tactical tool to expose the subtle tensions and conflicts otherwise unknown to outsiders. Ostranenie offered them a neutral zone in 1995, a place (for example) where Croatian and Serbian artists, or Russian and Latvian artists could show their tapes, installations, and speak-up in podium discussions, meeting on common ground in dialogue about their personal and political realities.

The reputation of Ostranenie spread far and wide. More than 500 proposals inundated the festival organizers in 1997. Kovats admits that they were really unprepared for this overwhelming growth in interest, and did not know what to do. The neediness of artists from all over Eastern Europe was far greater than the festival structure could accommodate. In a greater attempt at "inclusion" a curatorial committee was formed, which included several bi-cultural representatives, and women. Nina Czegledy (HU/CA), Adele Eisenstein (USA/HU), and Bojana Pejic (YU/DE) were strong influences on Ostranenie 97. A primary goal of these associates was to locate the 'revolutionary' media pioneers, for discussion and interpretation on how the 'new order' of Europe was defining national identity. By curatorial intervention, it was hoped that the pioneering work in the East would be brought into clearer perspective.

The opening address was given by Dr. Lev Manovich, a theoretician and computer art historian, professor at the University of California San Diego (and frequent contributor to Telepolis). Manovich referred often to the Bauhaus group as an example of a 1920's collective, which refined "new ways to see" and in the process brought life and art into closer proximity to industry, in much the same way that the new multi-media collectives do today. He used Art+Com (Berlin), de Waag (Amsterdam), and Anti-Rom (London) as current examples. Manovich's research into the 'new' also addressed the technology of computer graphics, which he finds to be a typical 'modernist' idea, as it generally records the surface of things, and allow a shifting point of view. He heralded several new resources that artists can utilize in their multimedia artmaking, such as the database as art (i.e.: George Legrady) and the website, not only as a catalogue but also as an associative personal experience with links and narrative elements. There were several websites on view at Ostranenie (see: Telepolis text by Tilman Baumgaertel, (in German)) but few examples of computer graphics were shown at the festival to back up Manovich's thesis. Ostranenie 97 was --primarily--a festival of videotapes.

The strongest tape selections included works by women, and the programs and discussions featured the war in Yugoslavia. An impressive selection of video from Bosnia premiered a new sensibility from a generation which has emerged from conflict and strife (see"Meeting Point in Sarajevo" Rhizome, 7-31-97: www.rhizome.com). A delegation of five Bosnian artists drove two long days from Sarajevo, overcoming restrictive visa requirements that severely limit the travel outside the protected borders of their newly recognized country. The journey was made possible by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art Sarajevo, and the tapes were presented in-person by Enes Zlater, Timor Makarevic, Jasmila Zbanic, and Srdjan Vuletic. Their personal testaments revealed the courage of the human spirit to continue to search for humor and interest in life under the most unbearable conditions. As Jasmila Zbanic, winner of the prize for video at "Meeting Point" stated in her video, "Autobiography", "...one day I woke up and realized that I had survived the war..."

Likewise, Podium presentations from Yugoslavia, revealed both historic and new visual information from Belgrade and Novi Sad, both active centers for the opposition since the early days of the war in Yugoslavia. Dr. Velimir Abramovic, a scholar and historian from Belgrade, revealed fascinating information about Tesla, the famed inventor who he calls the father of radio. He states in his catalogue essay that Tesla's 1889 patent for a remote-control device provides that basis for all telecommunications to follow. Dejan Sretenovic, director of the Center for Contemporary Art Belgrade, described the annual SCCA exhibition in 1997, "Murder" and the struggle to convince both the Open Society Institute, local art historians, and journalists about the necessity to give artists an opportunity to reveal a human response to the war.

The Yugoslav videotapes were exceptional. Presented in several sections of the festival, highlights include Janko Baljak's "The Crime that changed Serbia" a tape that reveals the horror of a wartime (now post-war) social political system controlled by Mafia thugs, through interviews and documentation of their assasinations and terrorist tactics. Alexander Davic showed several short videos that document the demonstrations that took place in Belgrade and Novi Sad. Neither of these works relied on a pathetic or apologetic point of view, but took a clear and critical look at the reality of the crisis situation in the hope of bringing truth to the local audience --living under government controlled television and restricted news coverage-- as well as to bring a human message to the world, letting us know that individuals in Yugoslavia are working steadily for peace.

From the juried selection, a special program of video by women was presented. It included Yugoslav artists Dragana Zarevac, with "Ocaj-Le Deuil/the Despair", a tape produced in Paris which portrays a traditional practice of female chanting and mourning as the background for a horrific off-air selection of media representations of the brutalities of war. Biba Vickovic, also from Belgrade, bought a performance art to the video medium in her work "The Democrat", which presented the alternative youth scene of Belgrade and their strong political consciousness. The two-channel video installation "XY-Ungeloest - Reconstruction of a Crime", by Milica Tomic of Belgrade, brought a historic perspective of today's troubled Yugoslavia. She traces the incidents in Kosova from 1989, direct events that preceded the current war. The Net projects of Novi Sad based group Absolutno were presented by three members of the group, who have created a full program of conceptually based / theoretically sound political strategies through the year 2000, for the confrontation of power: misused and misplaced.

Gender and identity in the Net was a topic explored in the performance panel presentation entitled "Sweater in the Nether: Mufti from the Land of the (Cyber)knitters". Created by an international group of men and women who have discussed issues of gender, especially as it relates to the East, have prepared for months by E-mail and IRC. Although not entirely convincing, this experimental form is the kind of "action" that should be tried more often within the supporting environment of a festival. The participants were seated on-stage in the usual discussion semi-circle. Side by side video projections beamed over them, and in fact were the sole illumination (only the heads) of the speakers, presenting a collection of clips. But the selection and reason for excerpting was unclear.

Katy Deepwell (UK), editor of n.paradoxa, a feminist online journal located physically in Liverpool, UK, moderated the "discussion" in a great deadpan portrayal, of a slightly bored intellectual, posing questions to her panel participants who were interrupted constantly by the performance actions of Novi Sad group Baza. Baza not only tied the panel members to their chairs, and moved their chairs into various non-conversational configurations, they also attempted to intertwine (or knit) the audience to their seats and to each other by crawling beneath the seats and weaving thread around the feet of the spectators. Although the individual statements by panel participants were interesting, personal and often humorous (Inke Arns, Nina Czegledy, Erika Pasteur (HU), Eddie Muka (Albanid) and Calin Dan (RO/NL), and others), the biggest breakdown occurred when requests for audience participation was solicited. It was difficult to determine what would be an appropriate response for a serious discussion set in this ironic staged performance work. A subsequent IRC chat, it was reported (by the organizers), attained too few participants.

By incorporating the full spectrum of interests of artists from Eastern Europe, including a new focus on multi-media (especially new CD ROM works) the Ostranenie festival is a special accomplishment, and a tribute to the Bauhaus thinkers who were so concerned about spirituality and art. In 1997, it shows that media artists are indeed living up to the standards of honesty, and sense of purpose that the artists, designers, and architects from the Bauhaus would surely appreciate.

Kovats will change the structure completely in 1999. Why? Because the work itself has changed, and systems have emerged to link individuals and institutions outside of the festival. The Syndicate, for example, a loose group of East artists and individuals has become a serious connecting force for East media artists. The mailing list (syndicate@aec.at) and informal face2face gatherings at various conferences and festivals have been held under the guidance of Andreas Broeckmann (V2, Rotterdam). Likewise, the Regional network of Soros Centers for Contemporary Art has emerged since the first Ostranenie festival in 1993, and now supports regional events, and the travel costs and production funds of a large number of the artists who are invited to visit festivals and exhibitons in all parts of the world.

In 1999, the Bauhaus and Dessau will no longer be the focal point of Ostranenie, which Kovats plans to enter the next Century with a CD ROM and book, reflecting on the transformations of the opening of the East. Kovats also hopes that Internet connectivity will improve substantially in the various Eastern countries, and allow for the organization of an on-line conference which will ultimately be able to include more than the handful of artists from each country. It will also expand the audience for and allow individual interventions into the expressions and creativity coming from the East. (Kathy Rae Huffman)