The recent defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential runoff offered a break in the tide of political ugliness that has surged in recent years in Europe. But, given how deeply hatred and confrontation now pervade public life in much of Europe, any respite can only be temporary. That’s the overwhelming message of “New Nationalisms,” an exhibition of up-close video that the Slovakian artist Tomáš Rafa has made since 2009, traveling across Central and Eastern Europe, getting in the fray with fascists and antifascists, riot cops and refugees, queer and Roma activists, football hooligans, and others facing off in public spaces. On view at MoMA P.S.1, the show is intense, loud, brutal — and necessary.
“A few years ago far-right groups were on the boundaries of society,” says Rafa, 37, speaking via Skype from Bratislava. “It’s been growing exponentially since maybe 2012. It’s everywhere now.” His work as activist and documentarian has followed. Initially a sculpture student at an art school in Slovakia, Rafa was moved to act when towns in his country began putting up walls to segregate Roma settlements. He organized a soccer match with Roma youth next to one of these walls, filmed it, and put the video online. “It started discussion,” he says. “And I saw that this could be the role of the artist.”
Next came clashes between queer activists and neofascists in Bratislava; skinheads versus antifa in Brno, in the Czech Republic; and a roster of incidents stretching from Ukraine to Switzerland, eventually taking in the 2015 refugee crisis, which Rafa filmed in intimate detail, running with refugees through cornfields on the Croatia-Slovenia border, crowding with them at the entrance to Hungary, seeing them herded onto buses at the Budapest train station as skinheads approached, and filming the confrontation between the fascists and riot police. In the process he put into effect his second graduate degree, from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under Grzegorz Kowalski, a celebrated Polish experimental artist. The theme of Kowalski’s studio was “audiovisual space,” Rafa says. “It gave me good experience with video art and political critique.” He is now a teaching assistant at the academy.
A principle of Rafa’s practice is to make his work accessible: The videos are archived on his website (newnationalism.eu) and YouTube channel, and you can find a collection of stills on Flickr. The video sequences typically range from five to fifteen minutes, with relatively few cuts, the camera moving with the flow of events. At P.S.1, however, the organizers — chief curator Peter Eleey, museum director Klaus Biesenbach, and curatorial assistant Oliver Schulz — stitched together six longer films in collaboration with the artist, creating a viewing experience meant to both draw in and unsettle the viewer.
Five of the films run on monitors set around a small room. One focuses on xenophobic protests against the Roma, another on neofascist aggression toward refugees and Muslims; one follows refugees trying to cross southeastern Europe to get to Germany; one documents the Euromaidan protests in Kiev and the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The last one offers a measure of reprieve: It shows the painting workshops Rafa and fellow artists have organized for Roma children in Slovakia every year since his initial football match initiative. These longer films, lasting between 26 minutes and close to an hour and a half, run with the sound on, creating a purposeful din. “We didn’t use headphones,” says P.S.1’s Schulz. “You’re in a kind of cacophonous space that in some ways gives you a physical relationship to what it’s like to be surrounded by that kind of intensity.”
The sixth film is the pièce de résistance, including elements from several of the others. Titled New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe, it runs in an adjacent area on a wall-size screen, with several rows of comfortable cinema seating to encourage viewers to watch the full 52 minutes. It is harrowing stuff. It opens with Slovakian nationalists rallying at the grave of Jozef Tiso, leader of the fascist Slovak Republic during WWII; next come several sequences of virulent Czech demonstrators screaming anti-Roma slurs and fighting with riot police. Later comes a long series of very difficult scenes involving refugees; anti-immigrant demonstrations in Poland; men in Slovakia surrounding and threatening a Muslim family; demonstrators holding mock trials and executions of actors playing “suspects” such as George Soros. Racial slurs fly, along with sexual taunts and references to gas chambers. The insults draw on deep wells of grievance. “You occupied us for two hundred years, as the Turks!” the harassers shout at their cowering Muslim victims.
In keeping with the precepts of cinema vérité, Rafa offers no narration. “I am not commenting,” he says. Still, he makes decisions that consistently humanize the work and anchor it squarely in the antifascist camp. At times, he pauses for interviews with, for instance, volunteers who are trying to supply refugees with basic necessities amid squalid conditions. He lingers, too, on truth-tellers, such as the elderly Slovakian Jewish man who confronts the demonstrators in the name of his mother, who gave birth to him in Theresienstadt concentration camp. (“The Holocaust affected Slovaks the most,” someone shouts back. “Not only Jews!”) The close shots reveal affecting detail — witness the bewilderment of young border guards faced with a roiling tide of refugees in evident pain. By contrast, the smirk of complicity that one neofascist gives to a cop who is telling him to back off is downright sinister.
Getting into this tangle isn’t for everyone — being a young, white man with an all-purpose scruffy look, Rafa can get close without standing out too much, but riled-up neofascists have a way of spotting the interloper. “It’s about experience, and also adrenaline,” he says. “It’s dangerous, but it’s important to keep calm and focused. Of course there have been situations; I’ve been injured a couple of times. It’s good to know where are the limits.”
The work has carried other costs, too, in the loss of friendships with peers who have fallen prey to the ambient xenophobic discourse. “A lot of friends are antagonists now,” Rafa says. “This populism is everywhere — anti-Islam, anti-refugee, anti-Roma. People see this attitude on official TV news, and it’s impossible to discuss.” On the other hand, he says, artists are mobilizing: “There are more and more artists and culture institutions standing against far-right ideas, when three or four years ago there were just a few.”
Rafa says he holds out hope for nonviolent resolution to what ails European societies, but he is worried. “We may be beyond the crossroads of polite discussion,” he says. He hopes that staging his work in the United States will send Americans a message about forces that are at work here too. “I’m showing results: This is what’s happening in Europe,” he says. “This is reality. This is history. It’s a message, and it’s also a warning.”