What is the ‘New’ in the ‘New East’?: The New East and the Western Gaze

 

I think it’s a cliché invented by the media. They can’t come up with a name for the energy that comes from this part of the world. This new generation does the same things as youth from around the world” – Gosha Rubchinskiy in 032c

 

Reflecting upon the past ten years of writing in English about culture in the former USSR countries, one basic trend can be identified in the slow emergence of an interest in the present. Prior to the past couple of years, writing about the post-Soviet region was antiquated. In naming ten Russian books that were ‘must reads’ in 2005, Guardian journalist James Meek, who worked as the correspondent from the fall of the Soviet Union till 1999, was only able to include two books of the contemporary period. Both largely pertained to the 1917 revolution.

In the turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union, all existing frameworks for understanding Russia and the other post-Soviet republics were rendered obsolete, and apparently all interest in post-Soviet culture in the Western media. Both cultural articles reverted to stereotypes of the intellectually lazy references to the Bolshoi, Lenin, Dostoyevsky, and perhaps Tarkovsky for the more daring parties. It was a dire affair with abundant references to the Russian soul. The hybridity of curiosity, euphoria, horror, and uncertainty that marked the post-Soviet era attracted scant interest in artists, designers, writers, and narratives that emerged throughout the 90s and 2000s.

Since the start of the new decade, this apathy towards contemporary post-Soviet culture has seen a steady shift. There has been a sudden uptick in interest in designers, artists, writers, film makers, and other thinkers from the post-Soviet along with the other ex-Warsaw Pact and former Yugoslav countries under the guise of “The New East”. This shift perhaps can be credited to social media enabling different designers to be discovered by Western cultural writers and the desire for new ideas. What exactly defines the newness of this East remains conceptually vague, however, it faintly refers to the emerging talent coming out of these countries that came of age during the free marketization of Eastern Europe.

In terms of different mediums, it has lacked a pronounced aesthetic. Beyond long existing tropes like communal apartments or former Soviet monuments, it is difficult to say whether there is an exact notion of what defines New East photography, music or movies. The only medium to entirely embrace the title has been in fashion. An unassembled group of street wear designers have to come to signify what New East fashion is, like Russia’s Gosha Rubchinskiy, Georgia’s (via Germany) Demna Gvasalia, and Ukraine’s Yulia Yefimtchuk, who, over the past couple of years, have brought tremendous acclaim among Western writers as well as a renewed interest in the region.

New East fashion is marked loosely by its reflections regarding the spectre of the 1990s post-socialist era. As the main New East authority Anastasiia Fedorova argues, “the new east in contemporary visual culture is not a reflection of a real space but more a multi-layered myth.” In contrast to past fashion designers from the region, the so-called New East designers do not find inspiration from high street brands from Milan and Paris, but instead look to convey local narratives through fashion. It rejects the highbrow tastes of high fashion brands that flooded the market when socialism fell. It was during this period where cheap Gucci and Prada knock-offs could be found in every open market. These designers find inspiration through these knock-offs with their suspect material that was poorly designed and cut horribly. They find a certain irony in the tormenting failure of individuals from the post-socialist region to replicate the stylish American characters that were being seen on TV for the first time.

With greater frequency, there has been a marriage of fashion and rave culture which has given the New East a larger degree of territoriality. Siting influences from the early 90s, when club culture was first exploding in the ex-socialist states, designers have started to stage their shows in clubs, collaborating with those that inspire their work. Most notably, Gosha Rubchinskiy staged his SS18 collection at the same location where the first raves in Russia were hosted, by artist Timur Novikov. Likewise, a similar collaboration has occurred between Tbilisi-based designer Situationist and Bassiani. This comes at the exact moment when the last embers of club culture in major cities like New York and London have died and the search for the ‘next Berlin’ begins. These clubs have become the spaces where the fashion inspires the club goers, and the fashion finds inspiration from the club goers.

This successful marriage of rave culture and fashion under the guise of the New East has blown up in the Western media. Not just some niche geographical anomaly, it has seen major publications like Vice, BBC, and Dazed regularly publish about new artists emerging and the latest collections/collaborations of established designers. In 2016, highsnobiety went as far as to declare post-Soviet fashion the trend of the year. Furthermore, the London-based Calvert Journal, which has a substantial following, positions itself as “A Guide to the New East”, while The Guardian even went as far as to name a section on their site The New East Network. The concept has gained a sustained traction within Western media. From being critically ignored, contemporary post-socialist culture under the mantel of the New East has become uncritically praised by Western press.

With some measure of surprise, the concept of the New East has yet to be dealt with by any critical assessment, despite the popularity and the mass cultural interchange happening through it. However, this year’s Kyiv International – Kyiv Biennial will be taking a political turn, and will involve a show that critically assesses the concept of the New East. Under the curatorship of Serge Klymko, the exhibition Dance, Dance, Dance will address the notion of the New East and look at the ideological underpinning of the concept. The exhibition looks to address

“the hype around the East-European rave scene and its promotion in Western media — and present a critical view on this phenomenon. But not exclusively about rave – also about what is now fashionable to call the New East, the attention of the West to the former Soviet Bloc countries after the Maidan in Ukraine, and the new political cartography of youth cultures. Mythologization of the vast space around the European Union, still external, but attractive as a place to get the thrills that are inaccessible at the traditional “West.””

Speaking about the depictions of Ukraine and, by extension, other post-socialist states, this exhibition challenges the western gaze that reduces this region to a vague space of discovery, exoticness, and lawless pleasure unattainable in the west. The name in itself is predicated upon its ‘newness’, suggesting a recent emergence and discovery once it became relevant to the western palate. It begs the obvious question of what exactly was the old east?

Chatting about what truly constitutes the old east, Klymko notes that the change from old to new merely reflects a shifting gaze of what is Eastern Europe: from a space to conquer economically and military into a space to consume and commodify the culture. Speaking about the subject, he states

“during and after Maidan, Kyiv experienced a mass invasion of global media interest from Al Jazeera to Vice. First, they were interested in the political events but then came the cultural journalists. Journalists found themselves on the improvised dance floors of abandoned public spaces or factories. And the local rave was loud enough to notice it. That’s how one of the milestones of the New East agenda was set.”

As such, the shift from old to New East reflects an evolution in the gaze, but the continuous juxtaposition of the post-socialist Europe to the more civil Western Europe.

What has emerged is an entire industry whereby western media looks to discover the east with each passing discovery being momentarily labelled “The New Berlin”, hinting to the shocking discovery that counter-culture exists beyond the perimeters of a civilized western Europe. The very notion of New East is a vacant signifier that operates to affirm every imaginable stereotype regarding the post-socialist space with its regular depiction of shaved-headed men in tracksuits not smiling. The notion of that wide space of territory that contains diverse and complex relations to the previous governing regime could be summarized by such a reductionist title hints to the shallowness of the concept. A host of unrelated creative expressions that emerged after a fractured and polyphonic experience of the post-1991 years is now being described shorthand as “New East.” Such is the shallowness of the concept that the superficiality appears to be readily acknowledged by many of the voices that are regularly lumped into the New East category, like George Keburia and Sasha Mademuaselle.

The cultural impact of this gaze has affected less so the output of artists and designers hailing from the post-socialist countries, but instead impacted a host of Western photographers. These photographers have taken up the mantel and decided to become the Columbuses of the counter-cultures in Eastern Europe. The likes of Andrew Miksys, Matt Moran, and collaborators Max von Gumppenberg and Patrick Bienert have looked to make club kids the subject of their work, while pontificating over the unspeakable freedom these club goers project. Perhaps the most vulgar of these is the 2013 Lithuania-based series Disko by Andrew Miksys. Rich in clichéd references to Lenin and Tarkovsky, Miksys speaks about his journey into the uncertain terrain of Lithuania to “discover” clubs where it is a free-for-all of dancing, making out, and fighting. He notes Lithuania was the last area of paganism in Europe and links this freedom illustrated by clubs as the continuation of this uninhibited freedom by club kids. He states his outsider position as an American in these clubs yet unwittingly he didn’t realize it was because of his colonial disposition. Like Westerners before them, these individuals look to entrench the distinction between East and West Europe while handcuffing their subjects to outdated cultural references and fetishizing the freedom they practice. In a perverse fashion, they embody far more than any other artist of what defines the New East, because the concept never belonged to artists from the post-socialist region. It was something to be projected upon them.

At the heart of the problem with the entire concept of the New East has been the lack of critical reflection among Western writers. To date, there really had not been a serious reflection, perhaps due to the fact that new narratives about the post-socialist region were finally emerging. This is not just another fad that will pass but a result of deeper colonial mentality within English speak Western media. Luckily, Serge Klymko’s exhibition Dance, Dance, Dance comes at an ideal moment, because like any other concept, it eventually becomes tried and people’s taste for the so-called New East will eventually fade. This does not make the cultural output of the region any less significant, but offers the opportunity to present a far more locally-driven narrative that reflects a greater degree of authenticity. In doing so, we will be forced to see less empty headlines of “New Berlins” and bemusing statements of wonder that counter-culture could actually exist outside Western Europe and North America.

Photo Credit: Omara Gogichaishvili