Transversality as a Hierarchy-Resisting Concept

This year’s C-MAP seminar series, Transversal Orientationscomprised four panels that took place on Zoom in June 2021. Textual responses to each of the panels were commissioned to further discussion about the seminar’s central concerns. In this essay, Laine Kristberga (Assistant Professor and Researcher, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the University of Latvia) reflects on Acts of Transfer and the Repertoire, the second panel in the seminar series featuring Tsitsi Ella Jaji, Laura Anderson Barbata and Lina Lapelyte.

As an art historian from Latvia, a country that was incorporated into the USSR from 1940 to 1991, I am intrigued by the prospect of building upon the discussions at the panel “Acts of Transfer and the Repertoire” and applying the concept of transversality to the sociocultural and political field in Latvia in this period. I will draw parallels between the etymological explanations and interpretations of the concept of transversality in the context of cultural and artistic practices in Soviet Latvia as a continuation of the ideas expressed by the seminar participants. I will follow the notions that “transversality opposes both verticality (in the sense of hierarchies and leaders) and horizontality” and that it “is non-categorical and non-judgemental” and “defies disciplinary categories and resists hierarchies.”1Helen Palmer and Stanimir Panayotov, “Transversality,” New Materialism Almanac, online ongoing version, September 13, 2016, At the same time, transversality, according to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, can be interpreted as “shared deterritorialisations,” namely as “zones of proximity, nonlocalisable spaces of relation, that bring the underground and the aboveground, movement and home, inside and outside, into the proximity of one another.”2Nevzat Soguk and Geoffrey Whitehall, “Wandering Grounds: Transversality, Identity, Territoriality, and Movement,” Millenium: Journal of International Studies 28, no. 3 (1999): 6, Consequently, I will apply transversality as a concept in my essay to the interrelational trajectories of art disciplines, politics, and geographies. It is a challenging task to draw such parallels, because following the late art historian Piotr Piotrowski’s advice, the comparative approach should be implemented in a non-hierarchical way, emphasizing locality as a theoretical construction that is open to exchange with other localities, as well as cultural centers.3Piotr Piotrowski, “Towards a Horizontal History of Modern Art,” in Writing Central European Art History, Patterns—Travelling Lecture Set (Vienna: ERSTE Stiftung, 2008–9), 4.

The concept of transversality becomes especially evident in such creative practices, where collaboration between the author and the spectator/community is cherished. Often, the community becomes involved in the work of art to such a degree that it can be seen as a coauthor of the work. This kind of socially engaging and reciprocal strategy—and we could even say work ethic based on relationships—can be observed in performance-based works of Laura Anderson Barbata (Mexican, born 1958) and Lina Lapelytė (Lithuanian, born 1984). However, I would like to use the definition of transversality proposed by the poet Tsitsi Ella Jaji, who reflected on the Pan-African festivals of the 1960s and examined the parallels between rehearsal and repertoire, reproduction and reproducibility in Pan-African art and culture, as a thread in this essay. Jaji proposed that we look at the idea of transversality as a conceptual tool that allows us to recognize parallels between us—various social actors embodying non-fixed identities and living in different sociopolitical circumstances.

One of the first parallels discussed in this essay could be the particular temporal dimension—the period of the 1960s–70s. The beginning of the 1960s, especially, can be identified as an intense stage in the Cold War political climate—it was marked by the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, which triggered even fiercer competition between the two politically opposed superpowers, namely, the United States and the Soviet Union. In Western Europe, in May 1968 in Paris, Guattari (1930–1992) participated in the student revolt against autocratic, hierarchical, and tradition-bound values. A bit earlier—in 1964—he wrote an essay entitled “La transversalité” (“Transversality”), in which he critiques institutions and their methods—the psychiatric hospitals and the forms of therapy applied within them. The anti-institutional ethos reverberated with the overall anti-hierarchy sentiment prevalent in the 1960s and manifested in the many political rallies and marches in which young people and students increasingly took part. This kind of rearrangement of long-held values, demand for change, and accumulation of revolutionary energy can be described as “social drama” according to cultural anthropologist Victor Turner.4Victor Turner, “Social Dramas and Stories about Them,” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1980): 141–68. Pursuant to this spirit, in the democratic West, “the ‘state’ was perceived as being bureaucratic, patriarchal, authoritarian, and repressive, and the individual as alienated.”5Deirdre Heddon and Jane Milling, Devising Performance: A Critical Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 15. The desired political model, consequently, was that of a popular participatory democracy, one that would enable “ordinary” people to have control over their own lives, “expressing a new force outside of existing institutions, a society apart from the state.”6Dominick J. Cavallo, A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History (New York: Palgrave, 1999), 209. The participatory model, especially focusing on one’s agency and free will, could be exercised in such domains as art and culture, where both the presence of the artist and a socially active and engaging position were possible.

Performance art, which emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s as a global phenomenon, was such a platform, where through corporeality and presence, artists could address various issues, including those of inclusivity and non-hierarchical relationships. One scholarly argument presented in this field is that the sociopolitical environment, the leftist ideas, and idealism thus became catalysts for performance artists in the West to undertake “collaborative creations.” According to Deirdre Heddon and Jane Milling, the idea of a performance being produced collaboratively means that all the members of the group are contributing equally to its creation. Moreover, the ideology of collaborative practice implies freedom and an emphasis on methods that support intuition, spontaneity, improvisation, experimentation, and innovation.7Heddon and Milling, Devising Performance, 4–5. These artistic practices and strategies can also be considered manifestations of transversality in the context of resisting verticality in terms of hierarchy, and horizontality in terms of “groups of people organising themselves within a particular ‘section’ or compartment.”8Palmer and Panayotov, “Transversality.”

Andris Grinbergs. Untitled. 1974. Performance. Photographer: Atis Ieviņš. Participants: Andris Grinbergs and Inta Grinberga. Courtesy of Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga

Paradoxically, for performance artists in Latvia, too, performance provided such a platform, although in a totalitarian state. In 1969—so around the same time, when student demonstrations were taking place in the West and Pan-African cultural festivals in Dakar, Algiers, and Lagos—Latvian artist Andris Grinbergs (born 1946) made his first performance piece Romeo and Juliet, which in 1971, was followed by—what is now considered a chrestomathic performance piece in Latvian art history —The Wedding of Jesus Christ, with fifteen participants. The latter work was implemented as a nontraditional wedding of Grinbergs and Inta Jaunzeme, who “assumed the personae of Christ and Mary Magdalene,”9Mark Allen Svede, “Hippies, Happenings and Homoeroticism: Latvian Performance Art’s Opening Act” (essay presented at the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies, 14th Baltic Conference, University of Illinois, Chicago, June 9, 1994), unpaginated. Available from the Dodge Collection Archive at the Zimmerli Museum, New Brunswick, NJ. whereas the title was borrowed from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, thus making the effort “more contemporary.”10Andris Grinbergs and Anda Kļaviņa, “Andris Grīnbergs,” in The Self: Personal Journeys to Contemporary Art; The 1960s–80s in Soviet Latvia, ed. Helēna Demakova (Riga: Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, 2011), 255. According to Grinbergs, the title did not have any religious implications, because he was against religion as a dogma as well as violence against human free spirit (this is perhaps an indication of internalized Soviet atheist politics), and thus the iconic image of Christ served as mere decoration.11Ibid. The combination of collective actions involving “indecent,” irrational behavior and nudity, explorations of shifting and changing identity,12Non-fixed identity is also a sign of transversality. Moreover, Grinbergs’s sexuality is fluid. With his liminal sexual identity, which floats between heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual trajectories, Grinbergs challenged the criteria of Homo Sovieticus—the new Soviet man (an ideological construct). Therefore, his performance venues had to be transferred to a depoliticized space and distanced from the Soviet reality: on Carnikava Beach, in the Mazirbe boat graveyard, in his own apartment. These geographically and culturally peripheral locations were partly necessary to avoid legal repercussions, because in the Latvian SSR, homosexuality was criminalized and subject to a penalty of up to five years in prison. Moreover, the power structures could use evidence of homosexuality to force an individual to cooperate with the Council of Ministers of the Latvian SSR’s Committee for State Security (KGB). and references to the Bible and Western culture was something that could only be implemented in the cultural and geographical periphery of Soviet Latvia, or in other words, in the nonofficial sphere, which was not subjected to the strict censorship mechanisms imposed in the official sphere. Moreover, this performance and the resulting accompanying photographic images also place Grinbergs in the history of mediatized performance art, since the image of Christ was appropriated as early as 1898, when American photographer Fred Holland Day (1864–1933) presented himself as Christ in a photographed performance The Seven Words. Such games of representation within the photographic medium acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between photography and performance resulting in intermediality or the hybridization of art disciplines. In this sense, transversality as cutting through disciplinary boundaries13Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012),  93–115. becomes evident.

Andris Grinbergs. The Green Wedding aka Summertime. 1973. Performance. Photographer: Atis Ieviņš. Participants: Andris Grinbergs, Inta Grinberga, Jānis Kreicbergs, Jānis Sējāns, Irēne Birmbauma, Ingūna and Alfrīds, Ināra Podkalne, and Ināra Eglīte. Courtesy of Zuzeum Art Centre, Zuzāns Collection, Riga
Andris Grinbergs. The Green Wedding aka Summertime. 1973. Performance. Photographer: Atis Ieviņš. Participants: Andris Grinbergs, Inta Grinberga, Jānis Kreicbergs, Jānis Sējāns, Irēne Birmbauma, Ingūna and Alfrīds, Ināra Podkalne, and Ināra Eglīte. Courtesy of Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga

However, if we compare the efforts of performance artists in Latvia with those in the West, there is one crucial difference: Latvian artists lived under a totalitarian regime, where the power was concentrated and orchestrated vertically and freedom of speech—including freedom of creative expression—was restricted and subjected to ideological purposes. The art and cultural field was constantly surveilled and censored. Participatory culture, of course, was facilitated by the regime, but only in a strictly controlled environment as one of the instruments of Sovietization. It demanded that people regularly participate in politically apologetic demonstrations in which the collective spirit and brotherhood/sisterhood would be demonstrated. Such formalized collective spectacles, celebrations, and rituals of ceremonial nature—the new Soviet traditions, as they were called—were important for the ideological upbringing of Homo Sovieticus, or the new Soviet man. Indeed, the social experiment of breeding a new human species lasted for nearly half a century. In retrospect, it can be argued that certain values or even characteristic traits have been internalized over such a long period of time. Contemporary sociologists are trying to detect the consequences of the regime in the culture of civic society (low interest in political participation and engagement), entrepreneurship (corruption, tax-avoiding schemes, etc.), and state administration (often heavily bureaucratized) in the post-socialist space.

In this ideologically permeated and controlled environment, artists in Latvia could not and did not openly reflect on political issues. If they risked expressing their political views against the USSR or the regime, they would be punished. Nevertheless, working collaboratively on creative projects in non-hierarchical groups outside the system was the strategy that they applied in creative processes similar to those undertaken by artists in the West. By doing so, they could exercise democratic participation14This democratic participation should not be mistaken for the democratic centralism that was postulated as “democratic” in the USSR. The USSR was a highly centralized empire whose constitution empowered a single party, which in elections, usually won 90 percent of the vote. The political power was exercised through a highly hierarchical structure involving repressive mechanisms—the secret police, censorship, etc. Thus, in the USSR, the term “democratic” was Aesopian. and create depoliticized art free of ideological dogmas—something that the political regime denied. This microenvironment and networking in the cultural periphery ensured certain creative freedom and an opportunity to avoid the indoctrination and internalization of Soviet values. However, it can be argued that Latvian artists were punished in a different way, namely, in their exclusion from state support and access to art studios, art supplies, exhibition opportunities, etc. (Performance artists, for example, could not perform in public spaces or participate in official cultural programs or events.)

Andris Grinbergs. Two Faces. 1972. Performance. Photographer: Jānis Kreicbergs. Participants: Andris Grinbergs, Miervaldis Polis, Eižens Valpēters, and Līga Purmale. Courtesy of Zuzeum Art Centre, Zuzāns Collection, Riga

Yet, the situation was also paradoxical, because works of art that did not correspond to Socialist Realism were also created and existed somehow in parallel with the official discourse. When analyzing such cases in the discipline of painting, local art historian Eduards Kļaviņš refers to them as deviations or mutations of Socialist Realism.15Eduards Kļaviņš, “Socreālisma mutācijas: socmodernisms un socpostmodernisms Latvijā,” in Padomjzemes mitoloģija, ed. Elita Ansone, Muzeja raksti (Riga: Latvijas Nacionālais mākslas muzejs, 2009), 1:103–13. However, in the field of performance art, these were not mutations, but rather documentation that was camouflaged in the official discourse through the channels of other disciplines, for example, photography or design. Since these “other disciplines,” according to Soviet ideologues, were not considered “serious,” they were not scrutinized as closely as painting and sculpture, for instance. Moreover, the peripheral position as a relatively power-free zone was often favored by artists seeking to avoid the panoptic sight of the KGB (Committee for State Security). In this marginal territory, experimentation with styles, forms, and disciplines took place, evolving in hybrids between officially non-accepted and yet possible manifestations such as kinetic art, installation and object art, land art, and performance art, among others. And this is another example of transversality—in terms of not only cutting through the disciplines, but also bringing the underground and the aboveground into proximity.

When thinking about the art production contexts viewed by researcher Tsitsi Ella Jaji, artists Laura Anderson Barbata and Lina Lapelyte, and myself, it seems obvious that transversality as a notion is connected with such epistemological practices and knowledge production systems whereby social, cultural, scholarly, and artistic practices encourage parallelism, namely, non-hierarchical relations based on a respectful dialogue.16Both in terms of interlocutors and disciplines. Although a relatively short period of time—sixty years—has passed since the 1960s, many crucial changes have occurred not only in terms of the geopolitical situation, but also in terms of the transfer and hybridization between disciplines and thus knowledge production. Since then, crossover disciplines characterized by interdisciplinarity, diversity, and criticism of previously accepted “truths,” such as “African American (‘Black,’ at first), women’s studies, and ethnic studies,”17Allen F. Repko, Rick Szostak, and Michelle Phillips Buchberger, Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2020), 38. have emerged with a great emphasis on the discursive integration of the political into the social and vice versa. They have been accompanied by environmental studies, human ecology, cultural geography, and the studies of the Anthropocene, offering new concepts, theories, and methodologies to speculate on the interaction between the natural landscape and humans. These are signs of modern education systems,18Surely, knowledge production also takes place beyond officially recognized “education systems.” and yet also of knowledge hybridization reflecting “the complexity of human life.”19Obrillant Damus, “Towards an epistemological alliance for the decolonization of knowledge of the global South and the global North,” Futures of Education, UNESCO website, April 12, 2021, Here, “transversality” is just one of many concepts; however, what becomes evident is that the arts can be used as an interdisciplinary and transversal language for facilitating human connection and togetherness. By integrating these human needs in art through collaborative and socially engaged artistic practices—whether for conceptual, ethical, or other purposes—artists become active social actors with undeniable agency. Although strong authorship can be criticized (for example, by putting artists in a more privileged position than the communities they engage with), it is clear that dialogic art implemented through such a communicative pattern is “less interested in a relational aesthetic than in the creative rewards of collaborative activity—whether in the form of working with preexisting communities or establishing one’s own interdisciplinary network.”20Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum 44, no. 6 (February 2006), Emphasis original. The reciprocal dynamics between the social and the political, thus, appears to be crucial in understanding the multidirectional manifest of transversality in the period from the 1960s to nowadays.

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