Igor Sevcuk

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May 24, 2020

 

 

Update:

Shortly after my previous entry, Aleksander announced the news: quarantine for travelers within the EU has been canceled. So I cycled to the Mitte to test my architectural expertise ‘in the shadow of widely spread wings’. I was defeated before I got to the ‘real thing’ from 1936, the building of the former Ministry of Aviation. The phantom has appeared in shopping malls, in housing complexes, in offices and official buildings, in old palaces. While retreating to my residency, I saw it in a miniature next to the entrance gate. The style topped with the Roman imperial eagle seemed to be neo-classical already before Christ.

 

Today I stay inside

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Among the appearances in the peripheries of the sliced family photo are two histories:

1. In Yugoslavia, at the time of the 1976 snapshot, Christmas was treated as obsolete and backward, if not reactionary, tradition. The official ideology of “brotherhood and unity” has pushed Christmas into the clandestine margins. At the same time, the Christmas tree was diverted to the much older, pre-Christian and pre-communist New Year tradition. It was unintentionally reset to its pagan magic at the darkest time of the year. The trees were sacred across the northern borders of the Roman Empire: the Rhine and Danube rivers.

2. Saint Nicolaus has travelled from Asia Minor through the Catholic South and the Protestant North to the colonies across the Atlantic. A hybridized Saint – under the guise of Santa Claus – was reintroduced through Coca Cola campaigns back to Europe. Annually reenacted ritual is still an exciting addition to the family-friendly version of Christmas. In the 1970’s Yugoslavia, Coca Cola was imported together with the repackaged legend of Saint Nicholaus. The suitable time for him to appear with the presents was New Year’s Eve.

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In addition, parallels have been noted between the two missing family men named Nikola. They are the negative image of each other, the thesis and its antithesis:

1. Nikola is a migrant worker, selected preferably for unskilled and hazardous labour. He has his reasons to expose himself to humiliating procedures of underpaid work abroad. As a construction worker on the limits of legality he is an outsider per default. At home, he is a trouble – a runaway from the parental house, a former sailor and a resistance fighter, twice imprisoned for rebellion against the authorities.

2. Nikola is adored religious and holly man, highly respected for his miracles at sea and for saving girls from prostitution. The patron saint of the harbours is especially appreciated for providing marvellous gifts for the good children or otherwise punishing the bad ones. He is a righteous caretaker, fatherly authority coming from afar and operating beyond rules of local everyday life. In short, he is a foreigner as well.

 

 

Quarntined

May 22, 2020

 

The other morning I have attempted to improve my German by re-reading the first pages of the experimental book from the 1920’s Berlin: ‘Einbahnstrasse’. I have compared the original text to my Dutch copy at the point of advice regarding the recollection of dreams. I do sleep very well here, but I have no dreams, or, I do not recall anything. Not yet an intruder, I am slightly above the city’s surface, a speck of dust among the monuments and tectonic shifts of its history. I went for a bike ride yesterday evening.

‘Not touching anything on my way!’

Experienced biker but here just clumsy – the traffic is out of any proportion I am used in the Netherlands. One thing seems to be the same; the locals on their bikes are openly annoyed by the newcomer getting in their way. I went down the street, along the Landwehr canal, to find Rosa Luxemburg’s monument smeared by layers of black paint. The signature was a few steps away.

‘National Sozialismus heilt corona!’

My actual plan was to bike next to another spot nearby. Surprisingly, the Nazi’s spray felt just as a mild shock comparing to my encounter with the statement on the square called Walter Benjamin. Later, I dug up online that I wasn’t alone in experiencing it as a textbook example of fascist architecture. This neo-antique two flats monument stripped to its bare essence was finalized in 2000. It consists of two symmetric blocks too high for the size of the square and, in this way, compressing it into a temple without a roof. The buildings are painted in greenish-grey, producing in me further militant associations. This square named after the famous exiled Berliner is an ongoing scandal. As I have now learned, it is not a small detail, or a footnote, that it served during the Third Reich as a ‘shelter’ for forced labourers. Any sign to commemorate those people would be on its place here. But, the inscription to accompany the architectural statement was the quotation of poet Ezra Pound. Not a detail that it was not Walter Benjamin. Also, it is not a small detail that Ezra Pound, in his later years, became a psychotic propagator of Mussolini’s fascism. Finally, the inscription was removed in January of this year. Intended as simple, uniform and solid, the grim architectural statement still stands. What went wrong, how is it possible that it was built even after massive protests by residents in 1995?

However, I am informed that, while in Germany, it might be wise not to engage publicly in controversies of the historical present. For any German person, this is unstable ground, and it might be rude in my position of the outsider to go into this. I have understood that a locally born person, who is not yet totally German, is not expected to deal much with this stuff neither.

I am thus back to my quarantine. Or, let’s say, I was not outside at all – I have viewed Walter Benjamin Platz via Google street view, and I have talked with Magali about Rosa Luxemburg by phone. All right, I am back to level zero of my raw material: the snapshot from 1976. As a way of introduction, and as mentioned here below, I said to re-read this (un)familiar image produced about one year after the disappearance of Nikola in Berlin.

 

At level zero

May 19, 2020

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A large sheet of paper on the highest shelve happened to be a drawing, a very tightly woven system of lines. It is a map without color or textual demarcations. Tiny lines spread like a web to capture the course of guest interventions in the city of Berlin. Upon my arrival in the apartment on the third floor, after crossing the Dutch-German border with a mask on my face

as was required by the states of virus emergency

I scanned with my host, Aleksander, through the guest residency. Surely, we have talked about other kinds of mapping, the experiments capturing space-time by the irregular structure of recollections.

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The serial image-texts that I am publishing here refer to the points of the triangular shapes shown on the map posted here below. I expect to re-familiarise a few traces, a few photographs, a few recollections, a few books, and a few other realities of the search for the missing and (un)familiar person marked by the name Nikola.

I start somewhat outside of the map at level zero, or, the New Year celebration. The next three entries refragment the photograph made at the end of the year 1976. Previously to my Berlin trip, at my new home in Utrecht

that still feels like a temporary residency in a city where I do not belong

I have divided this old photograph into three new frames. It is an image that I have occasionally reviewed for a few decades now. It contains three familiar faces. The three slices of the old image, now waiting to reappear, seem to be cut by abstract aesthetic reasoning. Yet, the cuts serve a practical purpose – by reviewing the fragments separately, I have a bit of a new distance to see something that has become too intimate. The opposite might be true with someone not familiar with the photograph. The sequence of isolated details, a mini-narrative, might push the surface of the image closer to a viewer’s mind. In both cases, the cuts between the fragments are the openings in the fabric of a particular space-time.

As a way of preview and demystifying the transitional gap, I include the contours of the photo above as I retraced it some 15 years ago. For some reason, I did not trace the face of the person on the left. She was Nikola’s wife and a widow at the time. Perhaps the reason was that I still idealized her. As a child, I could not grasp or find a place for her religiosity.

 

 

Map as a departure

May 14, 2020

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I have drawn a map in the context of The case of transnational memory called Nikola. I will continue it as the text-image entries of a sequence that overviews a vertiginous grounds. It will need continuous corrections, trimming, sharpening, and rewriting. The task is to balance the selected everyday details and familiar situations with the abysses of impersonal time. It goes together with the legend of the ‘angel of history’ – when we find a safe residency from where we can rethink the pails of ongoing disasters.

The map of the investigation is a helpful device. It has the legend, as a very compressed and relatively intuitive short introduction. However, the map, even as a simple sketch, is in itself always a provocation. To draw any line of demarcation on highly contested grounds, in this case, the ‘old’ Europe, provokes multiply heresies. It is certainly the case in the area of the recent civil wars in the Western Balkans. Or, many might be offended that somehow Romania, Hungary, and Slovenia are included in the ‘Balkan triangle’ (or any other kind of Balkan contamination). Drawing a line between Amsterdam and Berlin, which are traditionally cooperative capitals of increasingly open / less contested northern regions, also might be suspicious. On the map, these two cities are two upper tips of the ‘German triangle’. Its southern tip is ending in Banja Luka, previously a provincial town, and now next to Sarajevo, another capital inside of a triangled puzzle called Bosnia and Herzegovina. Banja Luka, my former home city, is in multiply ways (post)colonial. Not accidentally, the strait geometry of two triangles meeting at Banja Luka resembles the colonial geography. The straight lines and fused geometric shapes are cutting decisively through any cultural and geographic borders, guided by fast reasoning of external power games.

The straight lines on this map represent operational fields and trajectories of a trans-national or trans-border memory. This memory goes through all obstacles since it is in its turn formed in thin air and – for its producers as well – opaque process. Yet, the memory is not contained in any form of demarcation. Repressing it in a geometrical shape serves the purpose of a shortcut to bring it back into this world, in this case, on the material surface of a printed map. While the magic of memory is in its imprecise nature, it does not hold on to any official borders or the historical and political/tribal limitations. It is indeed a fleeting thing, switching between macroscopic and microscopic levels of existence.

It is a montage to be continued. Tomorrow, May 15, I will depart at 10:54 to retrace the line: Amsterdam – Berlin.

Turkish coffee around 1975

May 11, 2020

 

Today I was supposed to take a train to Berlin. I have postponed my trip for the third time. The following few days, I am working from home to fit the current global crisis and its motto: stay at home/work from home. However, the subject(s) of my investigation planned for Berlin are meant not to work from home, and in the process, many of them will not come back home.

While reading John Berger’s ‘A Seventh Man’, the documentary essay published in 1975, I was hooked with a photo detail. It shows a skill that I have recently learned to do: preparing the ‘original’ Turkish coffee for one person. I thought, at least this, I should know how to perform to get closer to a sense of displacement that previous generations of migrant workers – in this case from the former Yugoslavia, or, Bosnia to be more precise – have tasted. It is a part of detective inquiry regarding my mom’s father, Nikola, who has spent his last years of life as ‘gastarbeiter’ in West Berlin.

Coincidentally, his time in Berlin corresponds to the period that John Berger went to collect the materials for his essay about migrant workers in West Europe. There are some further coincidences and parallel histories with other personalities spread throughout different moments of this and the last century, but also other epochs. Perhaps too many of it. There are layers of family affairs to be recovered and reconnected as a part of cross-border memories… specifically, in Nikola’s case, they are at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, just as the skill of making a solitary Turkish coffee.

Thus, today I am ordering the raw materials I have collected during my pre-research during the last four seasons between the Netherlands and Banja Luka (in Bosnia) before my departure to Berlin.

Ps.
Berger’s collaborator & photographer for ‘A Seventh Man’ was Jean Mohr.