Intro

Theme

Even decades after the official end of the Cold War, “the East” remains the Other. Only because of this reinforced Othering of what most media designates “post-communist” space could it so comfortably be instrumentalized as a black box of the West’s profit-driven “ethical imperialism.” The much-invoked opacity of “the East” was and still is presented as a lack of transparency and hence a legitimation for ostensibly “civilizing” therapies and impositions. Meanwhile, that very opacity has been used to veil economic processes such as privatization in obscurantism, that is, beyond the light of rational comprehension and democratic accountability.

Black-boxing “the East” in this way makes it possible to conceal abuses of power, wide-ranging mechanisms of exploitation and extraction, and privatization-related aggravation of structural problems, such as the deterioration of public institutions and public services at large. Last but not least, it provides perfect conditions for the misuse of subsidies, for white-collar crime, and for organized crime.

Scrutinizing the double standards underlying capitalism’s post-1989 expansion, the Berliner Gazette (BG) project BLACK BOX EAST takes Germany as a starting point: a nation-state whose entrepreneurial agenda (“first we take East Germany, then we take eastern Europe and beyond”) has reached a critical limit. The most obvious signs of this would be the increasing precariousness and radicalization of identitarianism in “the new states,” as BG founding editors Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki show in their introductory essay. Read it in English (EN) or German (GER).

Exploration

The BLACK BOX EAST project takes East Germany as a starting point for a critical inquiry of “post-communist” states as laboratories of blackboxed processes of privatization and globalization. The project intends to look at these very processes from different international perspectives, rethinking “the East” from within, against, and beyond national borders. Participants from more all over the world have been invited to embark upon an analogous exploration and to collectively create points of intersection. The overall aim is to generate common paths of transnational discourse and struggle by challenging the BLACK BOX EAST as a predatory capitalist system of excessive economic and political dispossession that can no longer be obscured or ignored.

In the course of this exploration, three dimensions of the BLACK BOX EAST are being tackled: First, the project investigates how the black box in question is constructed and whose geopolitical and economic interests it serves. Second, the project examines what economic and political realities the black box conceals and favors. Third, the project intends to create a common – and above all, decolonial – discourse about and from within “the East” and thus, not least, shape strategies to unlock the black box and recode it into a common space of transnational struggles. The most systematic exploration of these dimensions is to be found in the texts section. See below.

Milestones

Conceived as a year-long project, the Berliner Gazette is initiating diverse activities.

Texts and works
The BG has created a space for the project within its online newspaper. Here, around 40 essays, reports, and interviews are being published in the course of 2021. While the texts appear in German in the BG, English versions are published in cooperation with the BG’s international media partners. Submissions that have reached us in the form of audio and video pieces are selectively published in the works section. See below.

Talks and projects
The BLACK BOX EAST conference took place on September 23, 24, and 25, 2021. The keynotes were recorded as videos. Check out the talks below. Moreover, five workshops brought activists, researchers, and cultural workers from more than 20 countries together. Using Big Blue Button, an open source alternative to corporate ‘data surveillance’ tools like Zoom, participants were invited to come up with cooperative projects. The results include various multimedia stories, two games, a digital exhibition, and a play. Please see the projects section below. We documented the processes in a photo album.

Partner events
The BG held various partner events, including a webinar in cooperation with the Transnational Institute Amsterdam, which was entitled “Decoloniality and Eastern Europe.” The recording of the live stream has been archived on vimeo here.

Talks

The Elbow Principle


After the fall of the Berlin Wall, “the East” was intended to quickly become a functioning part of Germany’s national economy. Shock therapies were prescribed, including the largest ad hoc privatization of state-owned enterprises in the world. Meanwhile, the dispossessed were called on to make particular use of certain body parts, especially their elbows: these were to be conspicuously extended, as a sign of a successful appropriation of the individualism by which the free market economy swears. What might be referred to as the elbow principle was supposed to come into play everywhere, be it in job centers or in basements that had been turned into undercover stores. Following this call, some succeeded, others failed. The theater-makers Johanna-Yasirra Kluhs and Tanja Krone give these people their say: many-voiced narratives of the economic realities in the post-unification period emerge, running counter to the official historiography written by capitalists (from the West and the East) as a success story of liberalism.

Capital and Memory


Historic images of jubilant people in view of “German unity” are often juxtaposed in Western media discourses with images of war in Yugoslavia during the process of its disintegration. Used to illustrate that nationalism can mean the fulfillment of longings for “us,” and death and ruin for “others,” this juxtaposition advances the notion of “good” and “bad” nationalism reserved for “good” and “bad” nation states respectively. In the course of this, the common denominator of these image-based memories is suppressed: after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, the expansion of neoliberalism – be it in neo-Germany or ex-Yugoslavia – was only possible as folk narratives appropriated by commemoration. In the course of this, identitarian gifts were supposed to make us forget economic robbery. Political theorist and organizer Gal Kirn shows that “the enemy” of emancipatory politics knows no borders, although it is continuously busy marking (identitarian) borders.

Bureaucratic Bordering


On paper, Eastern Europeans from, e.g., Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, and Romania are considered EU citizens. In reality, they are systematically degraded. In a perfidious interplay among authorities, employers and placement agencies, a bureaucratic bordering is staged that makes a dignified life practically impossible. At the same time, the degraded migrants are indispensable for the labor market, especially in Germany. Social theorist and activist Polina Manolova reports from an EU that celebrates freedom of movement but where, above all, precarization and injustice rule. Exploring how during the Covid-19 pandemic these deadly contradictions are coming to a crisis, she urges us to understand that mobile laborers from Bulgaria, for instance, cannot simply be depicted as victims of an exploitative and dehumanizing regime. Instead, it is key to see how they are managing to organize themselves in loose networks of solidarity and care, without which survival would not be possible.

Ghost Workers


Large and small online platforms have become “essential,” especially in Western societies. These platforms are kept in operation – as are large parts of the digital, seemingly fully automated world – by crowdworkers, who are systematically rendered invisible. Bringing light into this shadow world, research has brought “ghost workers” to the fore who are located in countries of the Global South such as India. Less attention is paid to the growing number of crowdworkers in Eastern Europe, and the relationship between the European “center” and the “periphery” in the global digital economy. This is despite the fact that a World Bank study in 2015, for instance, ranked Romania and Serbia as the world’s leading online outsourcing countries – defined as the proportion of crowdworkers in relation to the countries’ total population. Social scientist and ethnologist Mira Wallis takes stock of the increasingly exploitative platform labor dynamics between Romania and Germany.

Infrastructure Struggles


Huge infrastructure projects were undertaken in the former Soviet Union under the heading of “reconstruction,” holding a territory together that stretched across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus to Central and all of Northern Asia. Today, decades after the downfall of the centrally governed, federal one-party state, the infrastructure network is in the process of disintegrating. What is actually more alarming: Rather than being halted or diverted in a more sustainable direction, the disintegration process is accelerated by privatization – even, or perhaps especially, privatization under the banner of “green” solutions imported from the West. Here, as elsewhere, the interests of the private sector are foregrounded, while the common good is neglected. Citing debates about infrastructure projects (e.g. public transport), critical geographers Lela Rekhviashvili and Wladimir Sgibnev show how images of the past and future are activated to defend a compromised present.

Disruptive Territory


Starting to destroy the state economy of the GDR in 1989 and making room for runaway capitalist nation (re)building, East Germany’s transformation managers created perfect examples of ideologies such as “creative destruction” and “disruption.” In doing so, they provided the ideal situation for capitalist players including, most recently, Tesla, Amazon, Google, and Red Bull. However, hailing disruptive conditions as the necessary basis for seminal innovation, they are in fact ignoring legal frameworks, bureaucratic procedures, workers’ rights, etc. This radicalization of excessive and exploitative economies in “the East” is possible last but not least because the media discourse suspends the region between “backwardness” and “avantgarde” – the stigma of a dark past and the promise of a bright future. Political scientist and curator Stefan Kausch shows: by constructing “the East” as such an ambivalent normality class, the interests of capital can be served quasi at will.

Projects

New Cold War



What imaginaries of the Other are intended to hinder “us,” whoever we are, from unlocking and exploring the BLACK BOX EAST? What are the real and virtual obstacles that Western propaganda (and Eastern counter-propaganda) create? What does it mean to avoid the trap of binary bloc thinking and revitalize, for instance, the legacies of the Non-Aligned Movement? Aleksei Borisionak, Lara Luna Bartley, Max Haiven, Ela Kagel, Andrea Liu, Greg McLaughlin, and Olia Sosnovskaya looked for answers to these questions. The resulting workshop projects are bundled here.

Shouldering the West



Who are the Eastern workers shouldering the profits of the West? What are current struggles inside and outside the labor union context? What are the differences and commonalities between labor struggles in East Germany and Eastern Europe at large? What role does the rise of platform labor play here? And, last but not least, since “Eastern” workers are in demand at home and abroad (hence doubly needed and doubly exploited), what does it mean for mobile workers to struggle at home and abroad? Sana Ahmad, Rutvica Andrijasevic, Miglè Bareikytè, Anna Calori, Stefan Candea, Slobodan Golušin, Adela Hincu, Holger Kral, Dunja Kučinac, and Rena Raedle looked for answers to these questions. The resulting workshop project is accessible here.

The Wretched of “the East”



What does it mean to tell, share, and listen to stories from within historical and current social movements in former Yugoslavia (e.g., the Balkan Route), the former Soviet Union, and other parts of the former Eastern Bloc (Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, etc.)? Are these struggles linked among each other? What are the gaps where interventions have the best hopes of creating impact? How is it possible to pave ways for new common grounds and create bridges between struggles? Sylvain Alias, Marta Bogdanska, Mika Buljevic, Kalina Drenska, Alina Floroi, hvale, Gosia Jagiello, Cristina Pombo, Lela Rekhviashvili, Karolina Sobel, and Martina Staneva looked for answers to these questions. The resulting workshop project is accessible here.

Post-Covid-19 States



What is the fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic-related multiple crises in the post-Soviet Union, post-Communist Eastern Europe, post-Yugoslavia? What kind of information is available? What are the criteria to measure the consequences? What are the political and economic dynamics in “the East” that in the course of the pandemic further aggravate structural problems? Jose M. Calatayud, Mark Cinkevich, Géraldine Delacroix, Anna Engelhardt, Andrada Fiscutean, Adriana Homolova, Martina Freyja Kartelo, Monisha Martins, Lira Ramadani, Sasha Shestakova, Sotiris Sideris, and Dzina Zhuk looked for answers to these questions. The resulting workshop projects are bundled here.

Politics of Liberty



What notions of “liberty” manifest outside of an East vs West ideological divide? What does it mean to disarm Western propaganda of “liberty” as an imperial weapon of capitalist expansion without replacing it with yet another oppressive system? And what does it mean to work in the shadow of imperialism from both “the East” and West while creating transnational solidarity for a more just and inclusive world? Susanne Braun, Laura Burtan, Abiol Lual Deng, Aslı Dinç, Katrin Kämpf, Mathana, Shintaro Miyazaki, Nina Pohler, Nicolay Spesivtsev, and Cagri Taskin looked for answers to these questions. The resulting workshop projects are bundled here.

Texts

I

How is the BLACK BOX EAST constructed? What interests does it serve?

With invited contributions by historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk about the (un)friendly take over of East-Germany (GER | EN); sociologist Yana Milev about the politics of blackboxed devastations in East-Germany (GER); political theorist Stefan Kausch and discourse analyst Jürgen Link about East German normality between deviance and avant-garde (GER | EN); historian George Bodie about decolonisation and the German Democratic Republic (1960-1989); culture theoretician Marco Abel about the role of “the East” for the birth of Germany as a neoliberal nation-state (GER); activist and researcher Christoph Marischka about technological landscapes in “the East” (GER); decolonial researchers Kasia Narkowicz and Zoltán Ginelli about how anti-colonial rhetorics against “foreign powers” are obstructing decolonial critique in Poland and Hungary (GER | EN); social scientist and tech researcher Tsvetelina Hristova about how capitalism blackboxes the human costs of post-1989 transitions (GER | EN); culture theoretician Neda Genova about knowledge production and the politics of transparency/opacity (GER | EN); curator Aleksei Borisionok and artist Olia Sosnovskaya about the concept of “the New East” as a paradigm of reinforced Othering (GER | EN); conflict and media researcher Greg McLaughlin about how Western media narratives of the “Fall of the Berlin Wall” and “Brexit” cater to capitalism and nationalism (GER | EN); social anthropologist Florin Poenaru about how the Orientalization of Romania is propelling unequal power relations in the EU (GER | EN); the photographer Petrut Calinescu about Western images of Romania, precarious archives, and the politics of documentary photography (GER | EN); digital thinker and artist Darija Medic about the construction of the computer user in Yugoslavia; artist Marina Gržinić about the EU’s turbo-politics in ex-Yugoslavia (GER); sociologist Sanja Milivojevic about the black-boxed mobility infrastructure in the Western Balkans (GER | EN).

II

What economic and political realities does the BLACK BOX EAST conceal and favor?

With invited contributions by scholar-activist Sabrina Apicella about how Amazon’s logistical network connects “the East” with Europe at large; urban researcher Jochen Becker about Amazon’s logistical chains between Berlin and Poznań; researcher Mira Wallis about Germany’s digital ghost workers in Romania (GER | EN | RU); urban transformation researcher Ina Valkanova about labor and automation in Bulgaria’s shrinking economy (GER | EN); digital media researcher Miglè Bareikytè about the incommensurability of labor politics and AI strategies in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (GER); architects Kateřina Frejlachová and Tadeáš Říha about the politics of logistics centers in Czech Bohemia (GER | EN); geographers Lela Rekhviashvili and Wladimir Sgibnev about struggles over infrastructure that holds post-Soviet space together (GER | EN); investigative journalist Stefan Candea about the political economy of cross-border journalism in “the East” (GER | EN); scholar-activist Zsuzsi Pósfai about debt precarity in Eastern Europe (GER | EN); anthropologist Sabina Stan about the politics of avoidable Covid-19 deaths in Romania (GER | EN); photographer and researcher Karolina Gembara about hybrid warfare at the Belarus-Poland border (GER | EN) scholar-activist Christine Braunersreuther about care migration and Balkanism as a special form of racism (GER); sociologist and activist Polina Manolova about the bureaucratic bordering of Bulgarian migrants in Germany (GER | EN); anthropologist Tanja Petrović and journalist Maja Ava Žiberna about invisibilized workers from the Balkans as drivers of “European integration” (GER | EN); literary scientist and novelist Marlen Schachinger about the last-minute-society in Kosovo (GER); scholar-activist Rutvica Andrijasevic about the political economy of China’s electronics industry in Eastern Europe; researcher and writer Lesia Prokopenko about how Ukraine’s working class consumes shanzhai goods as a phantom of “Westerness” (GER | EN).

III

What is the potential of the BLACK BOX EAST as a common space of transnational struggles?

With invited contributions by dramaturge Johanna-Yasirra Kluhs and director and performer Tanja Krone about social practice theater with networks of real people in East and West Germany (GER | EN); researcher and artist Anna Stiede about deindustrialization, labor struggles, and TreuhandTechno (GER); theater-maker Kevin Rittberger and artist Nicolas Mortimer about labor struggles and cybernetic futurism in the GDR (GER | EN); artist and activist Rena Raedle about how workers in the GDR organized themselves in writing circles (GER); political geographer Evelina Gambino about lessons from 19th century labor struggles in Georgia for today’s transnational fight against logistical capitalism (GER | EN); historian Vijay Prashad about the role of “the East” in the Western radical imagination (GER | EN); scholar-activist Kalina Drenska about unboxing “the East” from within transnational activist networks; literary scholar Karolina Golimowska about social struggles in Poland during the COVID-19 pandemic (GER | EN); cultural anthropologist Maria Gutowska about activism at the Belarus-Poland border (GER | EN); critical geographer Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro about what current movements can learn from the eco-politics of the USSR (GER | EN); political theorist Gal Kirn about “primitive accumulation” of capital and memory, or how the Berlin Wall fell in Yugoslavia (GER | EN); researchers Sanja Bojanić and Marko-Luka Zubčić about what it means to be up against the Right in Croatia (GER | EN); sociologist Paul Stubbs about the legacies of the Non-Aligned Movement for today’s activism (GER | EN); historian Anna Calori about transethnic workers’ struggles against privatization in Bosnia and Herzegovina (GER); activist hvale about intersectional struggles in Bosnia and Herzegovina (GER | EN); journalist Mihajlo Vujasin about food sovereignty in Serbia (GER | EN); researcher Sara Nikolić about urban commons in New Belgrade.

Works

Diasporian Dissonances

The Eastbloc Antifascist Sound Alliance (@eastblocsound) is a community initiative created around the desire to connect an eclectic group of people working with sound in Eastern Europe, post-Soviet space, and Eastern European diaspora. In this geo-cultural context resistance against the rise of right-wing populism and the resurgence of fascism at large is very important. “Building an antifascist alliance around listening, based around sound and music, does not erase our specific experiences, shaped through pacts and ideologies and geopolitical conditions, or even ‘how we survived communism and even laughed,’ (Slavenka Draculic) it does not stand for nations or even forming a power alliance, it stands for this specific diaspora standing up.” The Eastbloc Antifascist Sound Alliance’s first cooperative product is the mixtape “Diasporian Dissonances.” It features more than 30 artists from from the former Eastbloc and the Eastern European diaspora and has been mixed by AGF @poemproducer.

Gastarbeiters & Migrants

Facing the EU’s increasingly militarized migration regime, the Zagreb-based collectives WHW and Kurziv (publisher of Kulturpunkt.hr) have created a beautifully designed publication entitled “Gastarbeiters & Migrants.” The publication looks at the history of migration, specifically in relation to worker migration. The main parallel, or rather opposition, established is between the historical figure of the gastarbajter (guest worker) of the 1960s and the contemporary migrant worker. What were the conditions that gave rise to and also defined the gastarbajters, workers from ex-Yugoslav countries, in comparison to contemporary migrants, who are worker migrants but also refugees? What is the image of the contemporary Western state today, and what are its structural deficiencies in dealing with the influx of people from different countries? You can download the publication in English and in Croatian. You can download the publication in English and in Croatian.

Workers’ Museum Trudbenik

The Workers’ Museum Trudbenik was established at the workers’ colony of “KMG Trudbenik,” one of the biggest construction companies in socialist Yugoslavia. As depicted in the video produced by Radnički muzej Trudbenik Collective, the museum documents the tradition of workers’ self-management and represents the struggle against the cruel and cynical relation towards the lifework of the workers, who built thousands of housing complexes and institutions serving the society and who – since privatization has progressed – live under the constant threat of being evicted from their homes. (Click at the CC button in the play bar below to choose the subtitle language you’d like to see.)

Safe Distance

Eagerly supported by ‘united’ Germany, the 1999 NATO campaign against FR Yugoslavia was the first in history using exclusively air strikes. Accordingly, it was based on the “ethical” premise that this was a clean humanitarian intervention without any collateral damage – and certainly not a war. Found inside a plane that was shot during the air strikes, the video was processed by the art activism collective Kuda.org for public access. It documents the plane’s cockpit electronics: the basic graphical interface and the voice communication between pilots. After each impact, the pilot is calm, and the only thing that indicates his personal drama is his breathing – a sign of the mission’s false (“ethical”) premise.

Thoreau Walking

This sound piece is based on a rereading of classics of anarchist and ecological literature, by authors such as Thoreau, Goldman, and others. Many of the lyrics, though they are over 100 years old, take listeners to still emerging grey undercurrents in the BLACK BOX EAST. Under the collective name Looking For, Gosia M. Jagiello, Agata Chwola, and Jarek Wasilewski, all from Poland but nowadays living abroad, meditate on the problems in their home country, since these have a huge impact on their lives. The artists state: “Creating our identities especially online gives us a false sense of control over ourselves. […] We forget to recognize the dissonance that our disconnection from the environment creates within and beyond us. The choice of music is based on a disagreement with capitalism that asks us for more and makes us want more.”

Info

Berliner Gazette (BG) is a nonprofit and nonpartisan team of journalists, researchers, artists, and coders, experimenting with and analyzing emerging cultural and political practices. Since 1999 we have been publishing berlinergazette.de under a Creative Commons License with more than 1,000 contributors. In dialogue with our international network we create annual projects, exploring the issues at hand not only in the form of text series but also conferences and books. Our latest projects include Black Box East (2021),  Silent Works (2020), More World (2019), Ambient Revolts (2018), Signals (2017), A Field Guide to the Snowden Files (2017), Friendly Fire (2017), Tacit Futures (2016), UN|COMMONS (2015), BQV (2012), and McDeutsch (2006).

Organizer

The curators of the BLACK BOX EAST project are Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki. Magdalena is editor-in-chief of the internet newspaper Berliner Gazette and professor of Digital Media and Journalism at the Macromedia University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She is the author of “Disruption des Journalismus” (2018) published by Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam and co-editor of numerous readers, including “Invisible Hand(s)” (2020) published by Multimedijalni institut, Zagreb. Krystian is a critic, photographer, and the co-founder of Berliner Gazette. Blending writing and photography, he has created books such as “After the Planes” (2017), co-authored with Brian Massumi, “Fugitive Belonging” (2018), and his most recent work “Undeclared Movements” – published by b_books in 2020.

Curators

If you wish to be updated via email, you are very welcome to join our mailing lists. On our English language mailing list we share updates on BG projects as well as initiatives from our network associates and neighbors. You can subscribe here. On our German language mailing list we provide updates on what we publish in the online newspaper berlinergazette.de as well as selected info on events in Berlin. Please find more information and a subscription option here.

Mailinglists

If you want to get updates on the SILENT WORKS project, please follow BG. For instance, you can keep in touch on twitter or on facebook. Please use the Hashtag #BLACKBOXEAST when posting messages on social networks.

Follow us

Partners