Electronic Witches by Maja Čule
Within this OVR we are presenting a text on a video installation Electronic Witches by Maja Čule that was first shown at an exhibition at Mochvara Gallery, Zagreb in March 2022 called Electroničke. The exhibition was curated by Lovro Japundžić and Lea Vene. The text is accompanied by a video that is not a piece from exhibition, but a recording and an interview filmed within the exhibition. The installation is a part of upcoming feature film that will be released in 2023
Electronic Witches is a video installation by Maja Čule consisting of 7 different videos creating one installation. The story in Čule’s installation takes place in 90’s Croatia following an American and a British activist who moved there to start workshops to teach women how to send emails using BBS network. Calling themselves Electronic Witches, they taught women across Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia the basics of the internet and computers during the Yugoslav Wars.
Many historians often attribute the political and emancipatory powers of the Internet to the resistance of the network’s design to capitalist and militarist control. The victorious narrative of the creation of the Internet resembles something similar to a hero’s journey in classic comparative mythology. Since it’s predecessor, ARPANET, a US military network founded in 1972, the Internet has been the blood diamond in a long-lasting combat between the yuppies, the US military state, and a society of good willed communitarians, which includes scientists, activists, hackers, and programmers.
During the Yugoslav wars, some of these Western Internet activists found their way into the separated states to help establish local computer servers that enabled cross-border communication otherwise cut up by the military state leaders. The ZaMir network (‘za mir’ – ‘for peace’ in Serbo-Croatian) enabled local activists to exchange information and messages by connecting to a Bulletin Board System (BBS), which was running on hacked dial-up networks, and could deliver a message from, for example, Kosovo to Zagreb within a day – a speed of connectivity unattainable otherwise.
From a non-Western perspective, one could argue that the communitarian society appears as a ‘controlled opposition’ to dominating power structures in a somewhat morbid way. Not so much because of the community’s reluctance to finally accept the worst possible outcome of this confrontation that had already manifested itself in the modern-day Internet, where neutral connectivity has been made unattainable, and the network is powered exclusively by the desire for profit and facilitating relationships of control. More so because the stakes were never that high for a free internet activist in a war-free Europe or North America in the first place. If any political impulse was to be observed, it tends to culminate in a figure of an individual martyr, a hero set out to protect their individual desire to send and receive data. For free, with zero oversight. Even if their respective political context hardly ever restricted them from doing so. This individual freedom, seeing the internet as ethereal, open domain or unmonitored public common is the discussion surrounding this technology within contemporary cultural analyses.
Maja Čule’s Electronic Witches is based on historical events, staged, red and embodied by contemporary characters, Čule has cut scenes they filmed together with archival footage from Croatian Radio Television. The cast is predominantly queer, first time actors who were not familiar with the history behind the electronic witches prior to filming. Čule preferred to lead the participants to explore their memory of what it felt like to be queer in the early days of internet. Deconstructing the process even further, the film has been shot entirely in Croatian, in which the vocabulary around the online world isn’t as wide as in the anglo saxon languages, and it is also not the first language of many of the participants. In one scene, we see a character struggling to read the VNS cyberfeminist manifesto in Croatian. The actors, struggling to pronounce the words, depict a whole new group of womxn able to reach online networks after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Referring not only to the divide in access to technology on both sides of the iron curtain but also signifying the deficiency of vocabulary surrounding the western materiality and the value systems that come with it. New identities that could be embodied.
The first video within the installation depicts “found” VHS footage of the Electronic Witches workshops set in the 90’s. The second is a montage of footage from the archive of the Croatian Radio Television. The third video is a transcript of an interview with the founder of the Electronic Witches group set in the present day, the fourth one is again directed interviews with participants of the Electronic Witches workshops. The last three are loops of glitching TV podcasts that were projected on pages of Računari (Croatian magazine about computers).
Within larger global systems of power, the importance of the work, we would argue, lies within the locality of it. The focus is not on one common line of analyses, nor is it defined by that specific momentum in history, rather Čule has created an alternative and caring composition of reality to dream of a different past. Here, it is not the future that has been lost, instead, one could think of it rather as a look into a past that has been taken.
When Yugoslavia collapsed, the media and government receded partly into patriarchy. Croatian Radio Television was (and still is) publicly owned. Using means of narratization Čule fights back against the propaganda infused means of media production using their own weapons. Producing alternative kinds of content within a cultural sphere in hopes of materialisation.
The interstice opens up in a context of the contemporary art world, a world where references to the cyberfeminist manifesto are quick to be picked up. In this instance, Čule’s use of tried-and-tested references to identity politics post-social media are not meant to be a straightforward reference signifying all the queer and female identities that have carried the story throughout the years, but rather a grounding exercise to look back on the physical, material reality of things in a part of the world where queer politics are far from being so normalised as to become a subject of a transient topic. The installation represents or becomes this grey area in which many repressed identities and cultures have always existed within.
Using the VNS manifesto written by Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini and Virginia Barratt in 1991 there is a scene in one of the videos where the protagonist (native english speaker) is trying to read the manifesto in Croatian, mispronouncing words like pička (pussy), matrica (matrix). Heightening the divide between East and West of Europe depicted via language.
Although the current leftist feminist discourses in Eastern and in Western Europe have arrived at a similar place, they have followed very different trajectories, where the former actually only joined the discourse during the third wave of feminism, from a point of view of no prior waves as such. Although the communist ideology, in theory, (and in its propaganda) stood for equal rights of both sexes, the female figure always played a part of a commodity, either as a worker for the Soviet state, or as a subject of an ideological antagonism against the West which was used to construct an image of gender inequality on the other side of the wall. The reality of people’s everyday lives was of course very different.
Čule brings together cyberfeminism and queer politics to create an alternative history in which those cultural roots can be cut. Working from New York and presenting the piece via a London gallery within the western discourse, Čule gives Eastern European womxn existing within this sphere a nod, helping them to find a space in contemporary waves of feminism. They position these womxn in a world of vertigo, using tactics of rewriting history, which are so very familiar to post-communist identities.
On a less local scale, in Čule’s work, connectivity to the internet means something far more critical and urgent. The heroic character of a western protagonist evaporates in its triviality. However, Čule’s historical interrogation doesn’t offer immediate resolution. Neither to the Eurocentric tradition of historiography nor to the political issues in Croatia. Instead, the ‘positive anti reason’ attacks the presupposed rationality of the ‘controlled opposition’, by joining the witches in a transhistorical fight against oppression. When facing an enemy of that kind, the electronic witches chose to fight with love, care, and technology. They connect globally through the clitoris which is the direct line to the Matrix. They are both modern cunt and future cunt.
Mischa Lustin & Niina Ulfsak
Exhibition Organisers: URK + Klub Močvara
Curators: Lovro Japundžić i Lea Vene
Technical support: Andrija Santro
Installation photography: Palma Poljaković
Poster design: Marin Berović
Film Executive producers: Kreativni Sindikat, Igor Grubić, Sara Čučić, Marijana Veljović
Producers: Sabmarine, Sabrina Herak Smoković i Marin Leo Janković
Cinematographer: Ana Opalić Sound: Alis Aljić
Costume Design: Studio Mau Mau, Tomislav Mostečak
Scenography Assistant: Anđela Zaninović
Make-up: Pavao Kantor
Sound Mix: Jason Binnick
Performers: Dino Belamarić, Emma A. Gould, Helena Janečić, Matea Jocić, Pavao Kantor, Melanie Messina, Sabrina Herak Smoković, Anđela Zaninović.
Props: Peek and Poke Museum.
Film development was supported by HAVC – Croatian Audio-Visual Centre