Hito Steyerl’s installation Mission Accomplished: BELANCIEGE was co-produced by Georgian artist Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze and Bosnian artist Miloš Trakilović. The work has something crucial to say about the contemporary conditions of Eastern Europe. This attempt is more than just a symbolic gesture since the video installation is based on the performance they originally presented back in 2019 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein.
Gagoshidze and Trakilović were both born in the former Eastern Bloc, hence they relate to the topic also on a personal level. This might explain why they are capable of providing a nuanced explanation of the otherwise complex cultural aspects of their story. The artwork centers around the luxury fashion brand Balenciaga, whose creative director Demna Gvasilia is of Georgian origin and who, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has fled to the West with his family due to the Abkhazo-Georgian war in Abkhazia.
This is the main thread of the artwork through which we are guided to the consequences of the economic and social transformation of the Eastern Bloc contested with serious traumas (which by no means were of the same extent and character in the region). Although it gives insight into the topic, the installation digs way deeper than the luxury consumption and status representation of the newly-born oligarchy of the region. The marketing strategy of the brand is truly innovative, limit-testing, boundary-pushing, provocative, and pioneering. It incorporates tactical media, which was born originally in the field of contemporary art a few decades ago and since then has permeated and transformed the visual culture of the entire marketing media machinery.
The visual and media strategies of Balenciaga penetrate and affect at subliminal and visceral levels, and are intertwined with politics on multiple levels. These strategies integrate everything that comes their way. They rather generate than merely satisfy consumers’ needs. The marketing tactics of the brand also effectively utilize social media by using various memes and fashion bots, generating ever greater visibility, especially among the younger generations (which is also the key target group of the brand).
Miloš Trakilović points out precisely the perspective of the millennial generation of the former Eastern bloc formed by a strange and extreme social transition: „My generation born in ‘89 got to know the world not through walls but through transparent screens. It’s a generation that understands usership but has problems with meaning. A vast, so-called ‘free’ generation of the free market economy grew up with some freedom of movement; freedom of expression, and no future. Balenciaga and Vetements appeal not only to the global elite but to this post-’89 generation in specific because they craft their brand on meme-bait strategies. They test on principles of framing and reframing thereby co-opting their consumers in creating hypes.”
But in fact, the most interesting part of Balenciaga’s history is its relation to Demna Gvasalia’s own fashion brand, the Vetements. In Steyerl’s formulation, „Balenciaga is more reminiscent of a large corporate aircraft carrier”, while Vetements is „the DARPA of fashion, a laboratory suitable for testing the politics of fashion”. These politics of fashion was in line with the central concepts in the politics of capitalist transition in the former Eastern Block.
Or, in Gagoshidze’s words: „The Balenciaga Method. How come Balenciaga items overcome the law of gravity and trickled up to the bodies of the 1%? When people who wore those clothes before keep trickling down. It has nothing to do with Balenciaga as a fashion brand that dresses bodies but BALENCIAGA as the ultimate method of privatization to separate bodies from clothes.”
But the „politics of fashion” is not limited to the flashy consumption of the elite on one end and the independent, underground fashion movements on the other end, since haute couture can also be seen as ideologically driven contemporary art. Thus, the creators of the installation remind us that professionals are already working with similar strategies to sell products, ideologies, and politicians. In other words, these fields of power and interest already intertwine with each other. It’s not by accident that Christopher Wylie—who stepped out of the shadow as a whistleblower and sparked off the Cambridge Analytica scandal—is presented in the work.
The role of fashion in the process of subjectification and the role of identity in our postmodern age are also highlighted in the work. By rejecting identity politics, the creators of the installation represent a somewhat radical position (which also aligns with Francis Fukuyama’s standpoint) in contemporary political and cultural discourses. Furthermore, identity politics has different connotations in Eastern Europe, partly due to the ethnic conflicts following the collapse of the Soviet Union that abused the importance and meanings of identity. To quote the artists: „[…] before ‘89, as you all know, this is the famous slogan, Proletarians of all countries, unite! A quotation from the famous Communist Manifesto. After ‘89, this is how inequality looks like.”
According to Steyerl and her colleagues, identity is more about the political fragmentation of the masses. In their own wording: „Identity is currently an opioid for the masses. It’s a free handout for people who have little else. But like a lot of seemingly free stuff in digital economies it comes with a lot of toxic strings attached. Above all, the idea that you cannot change. Identities are a trap to keep people in their places and divide them, for example as either Team Crocs vs. Team Chanel.” Later they add: „And not only that, but they quite frankly might not even give much of a damn whether it is fake or not. Because if identity is indeed a property for those who own nothing else, then this means that that same property can also be dismantled.”
Our imagined communities moved to Instagram and become real spectacles a while ago. Workwear has been put on a Möbius strip of the production line so that the rich can now buy it thousandfold overpriced at Balenciaga. Only social climbers flaunt their possessions, truly obscene amounts of wealth are kept hidden by their owners. In return, the final form of the workers’ strike could result in an editorial in Vogue Magazine. The political potential is leached to total chemical inactivity. It’s quite cynical, one might argue. And it’s also arrogant, just like the richest 1%. Maybe it’s good that we see all these. The question is if we truly understand it or not.
The mission of the artist trio is, therefore, to teach us how to read the actions of tactical media. They remind us to not let ourselves be fooled by the propaganda and manipulation that affects and floods our everyday lives.