August 9, 2019


Queering the East

I met Karol Radziszewski last year during a conference on queer culture In Eastern Europe, organized by the Literarisches Colloquium of Berlin, an event that brought together writers, translators and other professionals working with queer literary production that are isolated in the imaginary periphery of “Eastern European”. I had a terrible feeling of exhaustion during this conference; the cultural east is a conservative, self-sufficient world, diminished by its selection of queer cultures complementary to the modernist return to homosexual desire, which is exclusively white and exclusively cisgender. I then noticed the usage of the term queer with depoliticized meanings, with a reduced significance exclusive to the LGBT umbrella for literature or, to be very precisely: literature that addresses the subject of male homosexuality. From my point of view, any culture that defines itself in the theoretical space opened by the term “queer” has the obligation to balance precisely this masculine domination of a culture discourse. Limiting queer political otherness to the white homosexual experience is one of the first norms that cause tension within the marginalized queer, which, by definition are collective and non-individualistic.

I expressed my frustrations regarding the limits created within the culture by the affirmation of a new normativity to artist Karol Radziszewski, who was invited to talk about his practice for this event. We found common ground in frustration and the desire to identify or generate open queer contexts. Karol told me then: “I am not sure that I can define myself as a queer artist. When I talked about queer archives, I was attacked a few times in some conferences for being white cis male gay, and it is true that I define myself as a male homosexual. I have a gay male perspective in my projects. In my artistic activity in general I am interested in homosexual male desire, but in working with archives I try to be more open. In 2005 I had opened a homosexual male exhibition in my country, then everybody started to label me as a gay artist. The same year I started to run the magazine DIK Fagazine. And it took me a while to think in a wider perspective – I thought of it as wider as I was focusing on masculinity in post-soviet countries. So not only homosexuals, but also straight men on how they identify themselves in the context of the East. I had interviews with straight artists talking about everything except their art: feminism, fashion, cosmetics. I was kind of queering this straight culture. But it was all about men. Maybe it was a bit of a feminist approach what I asked of them, but it was still about men. This is the topic of the zine I am still making: reflections around the dick. Not exactly homosexual dick, but still dick. Two years ago, when I decided to make Queer Archives Institute it was because of my previous experiences, and I wanted to be more open. I was aware that using this word “queer” means that I have to do something more open, to research also outside of male homosexuals.”

We have agreed that a queer culture sets its coordinates within the specific causality from which it comes from, and it is essential to open up to otherness, to permanently question its limits and to periodically deconstruct its privileges. The so-called East, an otherwise empty concept, represents the label used by the West for framing a different Europe, traumatized, conservative and in a sense, uneducated. The iron curtain that hid us from the eyes of the West in the half century in which mass culture exploded is first of all a label and then an identity stemming from the affirmation of their differences. The East imagined by the West is built within an exclusively European binary, it is delivered to us over-defined, over-framed as an automatic complex of identity-label. Karol Radziszewski’s artistic practice is formulated as a proposition for escaping eastern alienation towards a global network of peripheries.

Speakers of ALMS 2019 – Queering Memory. Archives – Arts – Audiences. Photo credits: Sabine Hauff.

Returning to the topic of the conferences, a year later, more precisely a month ago, I saw Karol again, in the context of another conference, this time a meeting on a global scale, dedicated to queer culture. The ALMS conference is a major international event that investigates the collection, archiving, historicization and museumization of queer culture. The 6th edition of the conference took place at the end of June in Berlin, organized by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the host of the event, together with Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft and Feministisches Archiv. The ALMS conference is notable for its political awareness on the diversity that any queer culture implies. The large number of participants opened the possibility of articulating a global view on the methods of historicizing queer culture and succeeded in creating the illusion of diversity. The ALMS conference had a training role for me, to be in the presence of 400 specialists from all over the world concerned about the same subject opened the possibility of questioning my own methods, practices and especially cultural boundaries. In this global framework I began to see the invariable absences of any attempt to globalize culture. Within this “broad” framework, the discursive monopoly automatically returns to the institutionalized voices that invariably embrace precarious initiatives in geographical regions that are still homophobic. As in any scenario, Western discourses predominate, and the expertise tends to be reduced to the white perspective. The absence of queer people of color in the so-called Northern Queer institutions is striking.

The real queer space is not a white one, on the contrary: it is intersectional by definition. The cultural construction of the white queer space keeps us in the clichés underlying the maintained illusion that the space of queer cultures is predominantly white and, from my point of view, this tenses the veracity of an authentic queer discourse. What kind of queer culture could there be without a real representation of the voices of more than half of the world’s population? Culture, especially queer culture, cannot be predominantly white. It is time to question whether a space where only white people meet to discuss is a space that reproduces the logic of a racist system and holds some of us invisible. “Being less white means breaking the white silence and white solidarity and no longer put the comfort of white people first.”[1]

Another limitation I identified within the conference was organizing the panels predominantly according to the geographical distribution, without a deep connection when it came to methodology, practice or even the topics addressed. Although the panels were creatively named, which simulates curatorial work, this assignment was made according to comfortable criteria that seem reluctant, as if avoiding the risk of bringing people together in a queer panel. What would be the queer criteria? Perhaps, first of all, it would have been necessary to exercise a counter-logic of the trivial associations that maintain cultural binaries, borders and distances within. Certainly a map of practices does not generate a concept, but random proximities that appear as separate, captive individualities within their own context. Which is something real. ALMS had the tools to alter the reality of power relations, but instead chose to confirm them. I do not deny at all the cultural possibilities of fragmentation by framing geography as a principle, I simply would have found it more interesting a real openness towards challenging  queer proximities and the deconstruction of individualities, in the purely Derrida sense of the term.


Queer Archive Institute (QAI)

QAI is an artistic project for the subjective archiving of queer history, an institutional fiction personalized by Karol Radziszewski in 2015. The institution brought to the scale of personal practice can be a subversive positioning on the institutionalization of culture. And I say brought on a personal scale, not reduced, because the effect generated is that of amplification by simulating the community, without slipping into the trap of speaking on behalf of someone else. The artist operates within the range of the real with the tools of a historian, researcher and archivist. He performs the possibilities of the institution, he becomes the institution, he acquires the power of institutionalizing his own practice, thus finding a fair alternative to appearing in the public space beyond the particularity of its identity.

In mid-June, the Schwules Museum in Berlin opened Karol Radziszewski: Queer Archive Institute, as part of The Present is Not Enough. Performing Queer Histories and Futures festival. The exhibition includes the artist’s collection of gay magazines and gay zines from Eastern Europe in particular, perhaps the most important cultural production that attests to the existence of homosexuality within this space. This nucleus is complemented by other artefacts with an essential role in the historicization of homosexuality: a small cabinet of curiosities, consisting of photography, books, brochures, letters, clothing. These are materials that attest to the existence of homosexuals, fragments from an unwritten history, a memory threatened by oblivion. The queer artist’s position is marginal, the queer avant-garde rarely finds its place among the mainstream discourses of contemporary art. Karol’s practice is a natural response to the queer artist’s condition: the artist becomes the institution, and the exhibition is the art work. The exhibition is the work in the most Heideggerian sense, that is to say “the work of truth.” His art is object oriented and works almost exclusively with fragments. The artist does not seek to replace any of the professional practices from which he borrows working methods. He filters these methods through the subjectivity of the artist, and the conceptualization process consists in the construction of the exhibition as an aesthetic object.

Karol Radziszewski, Queer Archives Institute, Schwules Museum, 2019, exhibition view. Photo credits: Dorothea Tuch.

Karol Radziszewski often mentions the fact that he debuted in 2005 with an exhibition of gay images and was immediately labeled as a gay artist. This label creates anxiety for many gay artists who opt for universal subjects at the expense of exploring their own identity. Like any limit, the limit of heteronormativity becomes more visible once it has been asserted. This is perhaps the paradox of transgression: it does not tear down walls but isolates them. That is why a queer culture can only be intersectional and collective. An avant-garde queer culture is a culture based on solidarity on many levels.

Karol is a fortunate case that has reclaimed the label and started working with it unceasingly and increasingly consistent. His practice has expanded rhizomatically and has managed to become its own support system, which is constantly being validated internationally. “The medium is the message”[2] because homophobia pushed him inward, towards the opening of the imaginarium of the peripheral condition in a wider context, where the proximity of the peripheries cancels out the relevance of the concept of periphery. The exhibition as a medium creates tensions in an art system that is still stuck in its own already exhausted canonical constructions, it challenges the history of absences and encourages knowledge through subjectivity. The institution as a favorite medium of artistic expression is a subversive method of claiming a space in culture, in history, in art for queer periphery. As stated in the QAI curatorial text, “While not having a permanent space, QAI alternates between intervention, performance and pop-up exhibition, making use of this loose structure to rethink the notion of institution. Nevertheless, the archive offers consistency by providing access to transnational artists, activists and scholars interested in researching, collecting, digitizing, presenting and artistically interpret queer history.”

Karol Radziszewski, Queer Archives Institute, Schwules Museum, 2019, exhibition view. Photo credits: Dorothea Tuch.

With the emergence of QAI, the gay artist from Eastern Europe, Karol Radziszewski started, exactly as he states in the interview I recorded with him last year or in other interviews in the online space: an extensive process of opening his own work which critically reflects on the condition of the East in queer culture.“I am interested in gender issues, gender fluid, transgender people, crossing gender. I am interested in different perspectives on gender in post-socialist countries. Also I try to explain and write why male homosexuals dress in women’s clothes: they are not necessarily drag or trans, but before the fall of communist, the way they were playing with identity can be seen as queer. Then there is another thing that is crucial for me: how I relate to the concept of queerness: queer is political. And it is a tool for exploring difference. Everybody is different in their specific way, queer makes space for exploring identities.”


[1] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, Pinguin Books US 2018 (Kindle ed.), p.149.

[2] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message, Penguing Books 1996 (second ed.)


Valentina Iancu

Valentina Iancu (b. 1985) is a writer with studies in art history and image theory. Her practice is hybrid, research-based, divided between editorial, educational, curatorial or management activities ...

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