by Annelys de Vet
At a quick, unsuspecting glance, the line between nationalism and talking about cultural identity looks hair-fine. As we were putting together this atlas, this conflict was a constant subject of discussion. This book is meant to show cultural diversity and emphasise personal experience as part of the collective. It thereby underlines that culture is not static but in constant motion and different for everyone. This certainly does not mean we cannot talk about shared values or a national spirit. But how we talk about them is always a delicate matter that demands awareness, especially in the present period.
While we were compiling this publication, Hungary took over the presidency of the European Union, and the international newspapers were full of the controversial media law that had taken effect in the country. There was a remarkable contrast in making a book designed to let a broad spectrum of voices be heard at the same time as several Hungarian newspapers were publishing blank front pages in protest at the new law. I wanted to understand the reasoning that had led to the law, and also its possible impact. And so I asked several contributors to the atlas to explain. While their opinions widely varied, I could hardly avoid the conclusion that the law could fundamentally damage freedom of expression. Some people went as far of raising the question whether we could receive a fine for publishing this book because of the subjective and sometimes critical contributions. Others argued that it was not a question at all and that the current government would value the book, also because of the Hungarian qualities it portrays. Wherever truth lies regarding these questions, it was obvious to me that in the current political climate an express portrayal of diversity, complexity and multivocality was an urgent and supplementary statement.
The situation in Hungary is not an isolated one. A vicious populist wind is blowing through most parts of Europe. Populist politicians are hijacking national symbols and rewriting their countries’ history by appropriating and reconstructing collective narratives. Each state’s story is told as an exclusive chronicle of and for indigenous people. Those who are not part of the established canon are given no role; the “other” threatens what is “ours” and is best kept out of sight. The empire of fear being built this way systematically reduces collective interest in “the other”.
I believe that as designers and artists, we cannot and should not tolerate this. We, the specialists in images and representation, must be capable of offering constructive alternatives – representations based on personal experiences and observations that stand apart from the control of mass media and their all-encompassing tendencies. Rather than folkloristic clichés that show identity as an unmoving, unchanging fact, we need personal visions based on involvement and disarming stories that express the way cultural identity is always in motion, always influenced from multiple sides, and, in that sense, multicultural by definition.
This is what motivated me to accept Kitchen Budapest’s invitation to make a Hungarian edition to accompany the previous subjective atlases I have produced. In the many unique conversations I went on to have with all the participants, I heard impressive, confusing and beautiful stories; poetic observations, witty inversions and critical analyses of and about Hungary. Together, they exhibit a vast richness marked by visible and tangible traces left by many cultures and ideologies. This book does not tell the story of Hungary but an extensive collection of them. Although a different group of designers and artists would have produced different content, this atlas most certainly sheds light on today’s Hungarian “soul”. I hope that it will thus contribute to a dynamic cultural dialogue and serve as a gentle and delightful instrument in the battle against the jabbering chorus insisting on a simplified, static version of reality.
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In October 2010, Annelys de Vet gave an amazing lecture at Kitchen Budapest about her previous subjective atlas projects. Watch below: