Curating Intra-nationalities


In 2010, Zuzana Štefková, together with the artist Tamara Moyzes, curated a show entitled Kassapoint in the Eastern Slovakian town of Košice, formally known under its Hungarian name Kassa. Kassapoint drew its rationale from the geopolitical situation of Košice, which lay within the precincts of what had been, until the end of WWI and then again between 1938 and 1945, designated Greater Hungary. The curatorial concept of Kassapoint was to revisit the list of participants from the exhibition entitled Czechpoint [1], curated by Štefková and Moyzes four years earlier, and to select only those artists who declared themselves to be at least partly Hungarian. By this gesture, the curators sought to problematize the discursive and legal framework surrounding the historical and contemporary relationship between Slovakia and Hungary [2] and, by doing so, trigger a discussion that would challenge and deconstruct the nation-centric logic at the heart of geopolitical identification.

An email, addressed to those artists who had taken part in earlier incantations of the Czechpoint exhibition, contained a question that asked whether the recipient was at least one quarter Hungarian. This ¼ rule copied the infamous Nuremberg laws that served to identify Jews and their “mischlings” while simultaneously evoking the – as of 2010 – heated discussions surrounding Hungary’s decision to grant dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living abroad if they spoke Hungarian and had Hungarian ancestry.[3] The move had come after the two countries, Hungary and Slovakia, had quarrelled over a new Slovak language law that, according to Hungary, would hurt minority rights. Hungary’s action led to immediate retaliation, with the Slovak parliament voting to amend its own citizenship laws, such as to strip anyone of their Slovak citizenship if they applied for a second nationality.[4]

In this atmosphere of dispute, the concept of the exhibition sought to dismantle the notion of a homogenous and clear-cut national identity as utilized by nationalists and xenophobes on both sides of the Slovak–Hungarian border. The project came out as a hybrid between a curated exhibition and a conceptual meta-artwork. The installation consisted of the emailed responses of all exhibiting artists, displayed in large print. Responses were included regardless of the artist’s hypothetical Hungarian origin. At the centre of the gallery, the curators presented a video entitled Ötödik kolónus (“Fifth Column” in Hungarian) featuring themselves and a Slovak–Hungarian friend dressed in a strange mixture of Slovak and Hungarian national colours, waving Slovak and Hungarian flags, and singing the Slovak anthem in Hungarian.[5] The video was subtitled and the installation included a microphone, thus encouraging viewers to participate and sing along to this cross-cultural karaoke.

A poster setting out the scheme of Nuremberg laws


             [5] Tamara Mozyes: Ötödik kolónus, video, 2010

[1] The exhibition Czechpoint featured works dealing with explicitly political issues and presented international artists from Israel to Mexico. It was premiered in NOD and c2c galleries in Prague in 2006 and subsequently toured Budapest, ICA Dunaújvaros (Hungary) and Arsenal Gallery in Poznań (Poland) in 2007.

[3] This would include every person who was a Hungarian citizen or is a descendant of a person who was a Hungarian citizen before 1920 or between 1941 and 1945.

[4] Ganczer, Mónika 2014." Hungarians outside Hungary – the twisted story of dual citizenship in Central and Eastern Europe", VerfBlog, 2014/10/08, Retrieved on April 4, 2017.

[2] The relationship between Slovaks and Hungarians is shaped by their complicated history. Until 1918, when Czechoslovakia was formed, what is today Slovakia had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The post WWI division of the Empire, outlined by the Trianon peace treaty signed in 1920, took away two-thirds of Hungary’s territory, making one third of Hungary’s population citizens of different countries. Between 1938 and 1945 Hungary restituted parts of its former territory as it allied with fascist Germany. However, after World War II, the 1920 frontiers were more or less restored. With the formation of the independent Slovak Republic in 1993, Slovak Hungarians gained in social standing and political influence, as they represented nearly 10 % of the population. This in turn fuelled Slovak nationalism and anti-Hungarian rhetoric.

[7] In her article “Not You/Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference”, Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests that in order to endorse the rights of the oppressed, one has to acknowledge the differences that constitute these groups and avoid the reductive Hegelian dualism of the Self and the Other.

As Iris van der Tuin summarizes in her entry on Diffraction in the New Materialist Almanac: “Minh-ha’s diffractive conceptualization of identity and difference focuses on a non-dualistic, non-separational model of identity and difference, in which identity categories, identified groups, and even identified single entities, diffractively crisscross, interfere, and co-establish one another, and differences are respected and allowed to exist and flourish.”

Retrieved on August 6, 2017 from

[6] Apparatuses do not only create phenomena but are themselves phenomena which – as distinct from the phenomenological tradition – do not merely refer to perceptions of mind, but are real physical entities or beings. (Barad 2007, p. 129)

Division of Hungary after the Treaty of Trianon

Hungarians in Slovakia (Census 2001): Red: 50-100 %, Yellow: 10-50 %, Blue 0-10 %


Surprisingly, fifty per cent of the artists answered positively to the query sent by the curators. Their answers presented a diversity of approaches to the issue of national identity, from downright absurd, sarcastic, and careerist ones, to those that seriously questioned the ethnic-centred logic of the concept. For example, Argentinian artist Enrique Jezik reflected on the contingency of the national identity of his grandparents, who spoke Hungarian and were born in Slovakia during the monarchy. Other artists tried to critique altogether the idea of national identity based on the “right of blood” or jus sanguinis. This was the case with Austrian artist Robert Jelinek when representing the virtual State of Sabotage, where nationality is real and ethnic origin irrelevant. There were others who suggested alternative approaches to identity construction: for instance Borbála Luca Sárai problematized her otherwise obvious Hungarian origin evoking the role of epigenetics, while a Czech artist Martin Zet envisioned possible identity changes introduced by marrying someone of a different nationality, stating that: “if a man and a woman make one whole, I would be 50 % Hungarian.” In a substantial number of responses, the participating artists questioned their ability to determine whether they qualify as Hungarians and many of them saw their origin as not only essentially hybridized by the historical instability of shifting borders (thus illustrating the material-discursive quality of nationality) but, moreover, open to permanent negotiation.


The artefacts within the exhibition spotlighted the concept of national identity while simultaneously unhinging it as a given. Following Karen Barad, we might see these artifacts as not only interactive objects and processes, but as intra-active devices targeting diverse materialisations of national identity. The concept of intra-action applies on two levels here: within the framework of broader macro-sociological conceptualizations (where the agencies of geographies and borders, laws and legal systems, languages and cultures, ethnicities and genetics intra-act), as well as on the micro-level of an individual (and his or her relationship to herself or himself), thus engaging large-scale conceptualizations of national identity on the one hand and the individual embodied manifestations of national identities on the other. Furthermore, these intra-actions can take place in between or rather from within the “objects” in the exhibition and the “subjects” encountering them (i.e. artists, viewers, and curators themselves). Following Barad, national identity – as with any other identity figure – is always intra-actively produced. Only through intra-actions do entities become determinate and meaningful. In her refusal to pursue a “metaphysics of individualism”, Barad sees the “individual” as being in the making rather than as a defined and closed entity: “According to my agential realist ontology, or rather ethico-onto-epistemology […] ‘individuals’ do not preexist as such but rather materialize in intra-action.” (Barad 2012, 77) So, regardless of whether one is writing an email denouncing chauvinism, searching for a grandmother’s birth certificate, or singing a national anthem with words in a foreign language, these discursive practices create specific boundaries and properties of “national identity”. This process of simultaneous making and unmaking of “identity” is potentially endless since there is no immutable, distinct, and finite national (or any other) identity. To use Barad’s terms: “Discursive practices are boundary making practices that have no finality in the ongoing dynamics of agential intra-activity.” (Barad 2007, 149) These discursive practices cannot be reduced to linguistic constructs or confined to a purely semantic realm. Even if the artefacts within the discussed exhibition use language and written text as the main conveyor of meaning, they cannot be stripped of their materiality – which is a materiality that directly challenges and incorporates the embodied selves of those partaking in the intra-active process. Thus to perceive the artefacts through the lens of agential realism means to abandon an a priori distinction between “art objects” and their “viewers” and to see instead the whole constellation of intra-active processes as generating “specific material reconfigurings through which ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ are produced”. (Barad 2007, 148)


To stay with Barad’s terminology, we could maintain that artefacts function as apparatuses. The term apparatus derives from Barad’s discussion of laboratory experiments, yet it expands to become synonymous with material-discursive arrangements productive of matter and meaning. Apparatuses are not simply laboratory setups – or to use the analogy here – artefacts within an exhibition – they are material configurations that re(con)figure boundaries “productive of, and part of, the phenomena produced”. (Barad 2007, 146) [6] Thus, as a productive apparatus, the anthem-karaoke video-installation containing technologically enhanced singing bodies and their performance of hybrid identities, creates an entanglement of the human and the non-human, organic and technological, natural and cultural, physical and conceptual, material and discursive, while simultaneously materializing the boundaries and forming the co-constituting phenomena. In this way, both the “artefacts” and the “viewers” do not precede the situation, but emerge from the intra-action within the arrangement. In like manner, the national identities at stake here are not pre-existent but produced as a result of “differential patterns of ‘mattering’” (Barad 2012, 77) orchestrated by the apparatus. To speak of oneself as Hungarian, Slovak, Czech or any other nationality is to perform these differential patterns and to produce various national identities. Embracing agential realism does not amount to rendering these distinctive descriptors meaningless; instead it leads to problematizing the allegedly self-evident nature of the differences that constitute them.[7] There is no set of given or fixed (national or other) identities. Instead, if we understand identity as intra-active we are instructed to pay attention to “how differences are made and remade, stabilized and destabilized, as well as their materializing effects and constitutive exclusions.” (Barad 2012, 77)

Let us look closely at the karaoke-apparatus employed by the curators and follow the history of the Slovak anthem in order to see how this differentiation operates within different spaces and times. The lyrics of the anthem, originally composed in the heyday of Central European national upheaval in 1844, call on Slovaks to stop lightning bolts over the Tatra Mountains. These bolts of lightning symbolize the enemy of the free Slovak state. This enemy – at the time of the song’s inception – would be decidedly (even if not explicitly) identified as the Hungarian Empire. However, during the times of the Czechoslovak republic, when the song became part of the national anthem, its Hungarian version was drafted and officially promoted among the Hungarian minority living in Czechoslovakia. This insistence on an equitable approach to minorities, intended to ease nationalist tensions, produced a rather contradictory situation where, by singing the state anthem, Czechoslovak Hungarians commemorated the national revival of Slovaks and their resistance to Hungarian rule. At the same time, its existence complicated the otherwise sanctioned ideology of Czechoslovakia as the nation-state of the two Slav nations explicitly articulated in its title. As for the contemporary staging of the Slovak-Hungarian anthem, it could be seen as a positive gesture embracing visions of ethnic plurality, yet ultimately it would serve as a provocation aimed at Slovak chauvinists, for whom the hybrid performance “defiled” Slovak national symbolism and promoted the revisionist politics of Great Hungary. As this short excursion into the past and present materialisations of the inter- or perhaps intra-national anthem demonstrates, performing it could produce multiple sets of differences, bringing forth different versions of national identities on an individual as well as macro-political level.

The resulting “national identity” is very different from the distinct, exclusive, and antagonistic notion preferred by politicians, who use differences between nationalities to pit people against each other, covering up differences within one particular nationality in order to produce a homogenous, monolithic identity on the one hand, while excluding whatever does not comply with its narrowly defined and fixed boundaries on the other. In this sense, we can see the radical political implications of the concept of intra-action. Given the current rise of xenophobia and aggressive nationalism(s) throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Barad’s ethico-onto-epistemology reveals the limits of a traditional essentialist approach to national identities and challenges the dangerous supremacist ideologies that stem from essentialism.

Personal post scriptum:

As we have already argued, the intra-active materialisations involved and transformed the curators among other “subjects”. That said, we should not imagine that simply by realising their performative gesture, the curators would emerge from the process displaying some brand new national identity; yet the experience of playing with and subverting of the notion of a fixed and distinctive national identity has left its mark. Out of the two curators, Tamara Moyzes continues strategically operating with her multiple national identities (she alternately performs her Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, Israeli, and Roma identity) in order to orchestrate and politicize differential patterns within her own identity. Štefková says that the silence after the Czech national anthem – where the Slovak part used to be before the split of Czechoslovakia – leaves her acutely aware of the missing yet present part of her own national identity. She always liked the Slovak part of the anthem more than the Czech one. It would not be overstating the matter to maintain that intra-action takes place within every creative enterprise. As Barad states in the introduction to Meeting the Universe Halfway when musing upon her own experience of writing: “It is not so much that I have written this book, as that it has written me. Or rather, ‘we’ have ‘intra-actively’ written each other.” (Barad 2007, ix) The same could be said about the process of curating.

Martin Piaček: My Non-Slovak Blood, 2015

Wooden pie-chart painted in artist's own blood.