The refugee crisis that is now concentrated in West Asia and both Eastern and Western Europe is either a symptom of some deeper defect or possibly a harbinger of a some catastrophe to come. I had heard about Tomáš Rafa’s New Nationalism exhibition at MoMA PS1, that his work is about a long-term project of documenting the activity of nationalist and far-right groups in his native Slovakia. He began in 2012, so promised to provide some historical perspective on what looks to me here in America like waves of political and physical violence visited on people who are migrating to a country unknown to them, already fleeing situations of violence and therefore at their most vulnerable. I visited the exhibition with my friend, Nile Davies, a Columbia University PhD candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. I thought with what he knows, he might also provide a broader perspective on this work. We saw the show together and were riveted for more than an hour. It took time to digest the work, so we wrote our responses to it several days later.
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Nile Davies: About halfway through Tomáš Rafa’s “New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe” (2015–2016), at the edge of a forest on the border of Hungary and Croatia, a family ambles down the center of a train track, through thick mist and mud, the rails receding and narrowing until their distant vanishing point. Women, children, and men amass, carrying bundles, backpacks, and babies, lining up to get into vans to go somewhere unspecified. Their presence seems precarious here, unwelcome. Soldiers — not police — arrive. A huge military apparatus: trucks, camouflage, deadly weapons. They seem ready to fight an army — but who? Trains sit idly on the landscape, closely watched. Barbed wire fences are unrolled like sheets of aluminum foil, marking the transparent frontier at which point the strangers can go no further. A sea of bodies surges against the steel netting. The volume swells to deafening: voices of the very young and very old. A din of screams and crying. Someone’s mother appears to be drowning in the crush. “Please don’t push,” a soldier begs, politely through the fence.
The scene is at once similar and atypical of the many that compose Rafa’s arresting, urgent work — the main component of a two-room exhibition of reportage from the frontlines of Europe’s reckoning with its “others” — which is to say, a reckoning with itself. Part visual ethnography, part war reporting, Rafa stages this human drama as a series of short, cinema-verité-style fragments compiled into a long film that lasts over an hour, as well as a series of shorter films which play simultaneously in an adjacent room. The use of a handheld camera gives the footage a visceral intensity that is hard to stomach for the duration — deafening explosions of teargas, smoke, chants, and bellows bleed into each other, echoing through the gallery space, creating an experience that is fittingly chaotic.
Since 2009, Rafa has been documenting the intensification of far-right extremism in Europe, beginning with the segregation of the ethnic minority Romani population in his native Slovakia, when locals constructed a huge, concrete wall in the neighborhood of Michalovce to cordon off the unwelcome neighbors. His scope has spread outward to contain more and more of the uncontainable: scenes from the biggest migration in Europe since World War II, and the ragtag coalitions that gather in reaction to them.
The exhibition title references an abbreviated form of the main video work as, New Nationalisms, but it is the rest of that work’s title, “in the heart of Europe,” that offers spatial and metaphorical resonance to Rafa’s work. Nearly a thousand miles from Paris and London, it is not in the great cosmopolitan centers that Europe’s heart beats most furiously, but in the Central European nations of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, where much of the documentary video is shot.
Of all the elements of Rafa’s soundscape that pull together the disparate moments of human drama, the sound of the mob echoes the loudest. Even in quiet moments, the sound from other screens can be heard in the main space. It is the strangest thing: to speak your fears and hates and deepest desires out loud and in unison, in the hope that they come true. Echoes of the ghosts which have haunted Europe for the best part of a century are voiced by an anonymous chorus that seems to reappear irrespective of context. “In the name of the people,” we are told, but who is the “people”?
In other instances, it is clearly a vocal minority that comes into the street, and larger crowds that come out to counter them. To some, these will be familiar images: men and boys in short haircuts waving sticks and banners; the throwing of bottles and bricks; Nazi salutes; burning the EU flag; symbols of hate. “Send the Gypsies to the gas chambers,” a voice declares — one of many invocations of an unthinkable past that seems never more present than now.
There is a timelessness and internal unity about these dispatches. Those with even a vague familiarity with Europe’s history will recognize New Nationalisms as a disquieting portrait of an ideological uniform paraded prominently at various points of the 20th century — one which has never been completely taken off.
Seph Rodney: Like you, I had a hard time with Rafa’s work. What he’s filmed is deeply disturbing. Three aspects in particular shook me: the repetitive visual motifs that all essentially signaled “crisis,” the tools used by the police and protesters depicted in the videos, and the rhetoric wielded by those hostile to refugees — especially Muslim refugees.
Let’s begin with the recurring visual elements: white men, seemingly in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, with severe haircuts, almost always wearing shorts, holding hand-written signs, loudly exclaiming their grievances. These were contrasted with the soldiers in their uniforms, often viewed in formation, marching or preparing for physical contest. And while the protesters often wielded rocks and bottles and sticks, the police forces generally answered with flashbangs, tear gas, water cannon, and batons swung wild and hard. It occurred to me that history does repeat itself, that this scene with changes to background scenery, the ethnicity and the dress of the participants, could be transposed to Palestine, or to Los Angeles, or Standing Rock.
It’s an odd situation for me to witness, because in other contexts I am suspicious of or furious at the police who often use their power indiscriminately to maim or kill people who are supposed to be in their care. Yet, in these documentary videos I am grateful for them because they often are the main line of defense for immigrants who wash up on unfamiliar ground and find themselves the object of severe hatred from a very vocal faction of the citizenry. In one scene, a family consisting of a mother, father and several children huddle together as the anti-immigrant crowd lobs bottles and rocks at them and the police are the only ones available and wiling to shield them from harm.
Then I have to confront the rhetoric and that is in itself a kind of violence that looks to make the purported enemy not worthy of consideration as human.” This othering of immigrants is accomplished by an appeal to a “white homeland” as one of the angry residents declares is needed. Signs and speeches insist on “only white Poland,” as they burn the European Union flag and burn the flag of ISIS. Both the EU an ISIS are conflated in their nightmare concoction of a civilization that yields, as one depicted demagogue says “only faggots, perversion and death.” This imagined future is a stew of liberal social policy, atheistic ethical scaffolding, and relatively porous borders that makes up this eschatological fantasy of the world ending in a homosexual bacchanal in which their traditional ways of life are abandoned. One sign refers to this phantasm as “Multi-Kulti,” clearly a cognate for “multiculturalism.” One nationalist protester tells us that he is attending the protests for his family. It never ceases to astonish me that people can say the most reprehensible things in the name of protecting their family.
Rafa’s work does something that may pieces like his have been leading to: explaining how the wars that are being fought in the modern world are very different from the wars fought before. In the not too distant past we fought to create the food stocks to survive, and then many of us, having secured that, fought to create and guarantee a certain lifestyle, and now we fight to maintain that lifestyle. Thus at the moment when we might be most ethical, we abandon principle to wallow in fear and loathing of the other. History repeats, and I wonder when it is we will be tired of this song.
Tomáš Rafa: New Nationalisms continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through September 10.