Refuse Heritage?

 Over the centuries, Europe figured as a space in which cultural encounters and fusions were both embraced and repressed. Colonialism, Christianity, socialism and Islam - to mention but a few political and cultural forces involved in them - left by turn indelible marks on the landscapes of the continent’s various city-states, larger political enclaves and nation-states. Today, the material dimensions of these influences are not always recognised as aspects of national – or indeed European – heritage. Specific (often overlapping) narratives of European-ness and nation-ness partake in such self-definitions, resulting in decisions to discard alternative narratives of identity - or identification - as irrelevant. Reversely, where such identifications take place, they might strengthen racist and other exclusivist agendas in the name of ethno-national unity. It is worth bearing in mind of course that such reactive agendas are brewed by cultural oppression: Islamic fundamentalist writs large for example in those ethno-national contexts that constantly repress Muslim identities. However, as globalization continues to sweep away territorial-as-national attachments, encouraging cross-cultural rendezvous though tourist consumption, artistic and economic mobilities, reformulations of emotional belonging seem more and more inevitable outcomes. ‘Tradition’ dies hard but fades beautifully in chiaroscuro cultural narratives that single out elements from one’s past to commemorate their significance when no actual memory of it seems to survive any more. One might wonder: what happens in this fluid context to those material pasts that have always been considered too ‘abject’, offensive and intimate to be conserved? What sort of rationale can we justifiably offer for those pasts that are conserved and venerated at the expense of other ones? Which versions of our history are mere ‘litter’ to be disposed? Is denying our heritage a way forward – and who should make such decisions? How do we treat the futures of our socio-economic heritage – the stages of artistic production that foreigner agents enable within our territorial boundaries?

 Heritage is, of course, a material complex of architectural and embodied structures – not just the surviving pretty buildings of older times, but also rites and customs such as dancing and singing, cooking and eating rituals and many more habitual attributes we take for granted in everyday life. It would be futile to clinically separate these two aspects of ‘heritage’: not only do conservation policies are managed and manipulated by man-made institutions, such institutions have a visible impact on the material traces of national and transnational pasts but also the utilisation of conserved areas by human beings. Conservation and preservation beautifies national territories but also banishes or excludes human beings from such master definitions of national belonging and identity.

The present collection of images relates to aspects of national pasts in different parts of Europe. It is a repository that is growing every time I physically or symbolically move across space and time. But it also a repository that constantly maps, stretches and distorts the symbolic boundaries of my chosen public sphere. ‘Europe’ has always been a malleable concept, subjected to varied policies, providing an imaginary of humanity both replete with possibilities and tired of violations. There is no ‘Europe’ for me as such, only a series of desperate or calculated attempts at togetherness, which crumble under the pressure of individual national agendas. Each country I have visited has its own troubled relationship with collective constructions of European heritage in relation to ‘Self’ (nation, empire, locality and region) and ‘others’ (Europe, non-Europe, multiple ‘Orients’ including Islam). Beware readers, for I do not always encapsulate hegemonic versions of ‘heritage’: sometimes the quotidian and the abject tells more potent stories of memory and forgetting than those aspects of history and culture proudly projected or the celebrated both at home and abroad. I operate therefore more as a devil’s advocate, spotting possibilities for cultural mobility where politics and policies endorse a stagnant condition.