The Influencing Machine
Published by CCA Ujazdowski Castle, 2022
In the 1990s, a network of twenty Soros Centres for Contemporary Art sprung up across Eastern Europe: Almaty, Belgrade, Budapest, Kiev, Ljubljana, Prague, Riga, Sarajevo, Tallinn, Warsaw, and Zagreb among them. These centres, funded as their name suggests by Geroge Soros’ Open Society Foundation, had as their mission the cataloguing of dissident pre-1989 art and the introduction of new forms of artistic practice to the art scenes of post-Eastern Block states. Within a decade, the centres wound up their operation and their histories have been forgotten but not because they made a mark on Eastern European art and societies.
The Influencing Machine, Aaron Moulton’s exhibition and book traces the network’s history and evaluates its outsized impact on its host societies. Through the use of template annual exhibitions and synchronised open calls, the Centres pioneered forms of socially engaged practice that preceded the form’s development in Western art capitals and gave artists access to unprecedented production budgets, international networking opportunities, and access to new media technologies.
Moulton proposes that the Centres played an underappreciated role in orienting artists ideologically in pro-Western and pro-neoliberal directions, a that the extent of their influence has been underappreciated. In societies making the transition from socialism to free-reign capitalism, the actions of a single NGO which habitually outspent all other funders appear to have been glossed over if not outright expunged from memory.
The book invites a conversation about the global art world, the role of activism in art, and the power of institutional critique. Its proposals should be a warning to anyone attempting to understand the role of capital in forming cultural consciousness today. If a single NGO could be credited with creating the cultural values of a whole region without once being called to account, what other ideologies is contemporary art producing and on whose orders?
Aaron Moulton speaks to Pierre d’Alancaisez about the legacy of the Soros Centers of Contemporary Art Network, gonzo anthropology and conspiratorial theorising as methods for writing art history from neglected vantage points, and the antisemitic, bogeyman tropes which appear along the way.
Aaron Multon trained at the RCA, London and was the editor of Flash Art International and a curator at Gagosian Gallery. He founded the Berlin exhibition space Feinkost.