Interview with Tomislav Medak
We met Tomi six months prior to this inteview, in Rijeka (and Zagreb), while visiting a friend there in Croatia. Unexpectedly, Tomi was then scheduled to speak at a conference in Cyprus, just one city away from where we stay. We took the opportunity to catch up with Tomi, and when the conversation started rolling, we decided to switch on a recorder and see where we ended up. Tomi was here to talk about care, amongst other things, so naturally we began with that. — A!kira

            A!KIRA
What is care?

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
It’s fundamental to existence… not just human existence but also human existence in non-human nature and the existence of non-human nature as well. Throughout our lives we depend on the support of others to sustain ourselves and the world we and human and nonhuman others live in. That interdependence defines the relations of care and the work invested in sustaining them the labour of care. Taking it a more abstract level, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was a conservative allied with the Nazi regime later in his life, suggests in his early work Being and Time, we as human beings with a sense of time are disposed to worry and care for ourselves and others – which in German are two related words Sorge and Fürsorge.

           A!KIRA
So he positions them as a pair?

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Yes, as something fundamental to the human condition, because we are mortal, we are finite. Following his existential analytic, we face death, we know it, and that makes us human.
           Lately philosophers such as Martin Hägglund have tried to shift that understanding of human condition to say: indeed if we and the world we inhabit are finite, then the questions of time, how we spend it, and who controls it, become important — and the capitalist system of production controls a large part of our time, while the market-driven system of consumption controls mostly the rest of it.
           In any case, there are many ways to explore the question of care. What it boils down to however is in order for you to carry on, things around you have to carry on; we have to invest some effort, labour and love in sustaining others to sustain ourselves — so that is one way of seeing interdependence [and care].
           Care though has become a very popular notion of late because it’s all warm and fuzzy – an affect. The problem is that the care systems are usually very inequitable. It’s usually migrant, racialised, gendered labour that take care of those who receive care, while those care workers typically receive the least care. Feminist care theories emphasise that aspect. For instance, the whole narrative around frontline workers that was articulated at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t amount to much. There is now a huge exodus from the NHS of exhausted care labour.

          A!KIRA    
Yes, it is ironic; there is a dramatic labour crisis in the care industries now due to a clear lack of care on behalf of those who care.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Well, that will be replenished in affluent countries through migration. With the pandemic nothing has changed, except that at least people now realise that things must change.
           Also, you could view care critically from the perspective of disability studies, or disability in general. A “disabled” person is interdependent at the most fundamental level, but their agency and subjectivity is frequently denied. And nobody wants to be in the position of being reduced to an object of somebody else’s actions. The core issue is that dependence is framed negatively when it should be affirmed. It goes as far that often the idea of assisting someone is seen as a lesser form of labour.

           A!KIRA
I would agree that we are almost being judgemental of interdependence, and the notion of care gets caught up in that as it must try to explore the notion of interdependence while actively trying to disconnect it from these cultural connotations. There is a particular contradiction here with the idea of hyperindividualism, where interdependence is seen as directly contrasting to an important ideological aspect of capitalism. In order for care to develop as a notion, it needs to be disentangled from care as a capitalist/neoliberal notion, as embodied by the healthcare industries and, as you say, through the discourse around disabilities and disabled persons.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
I think also the culprit is the liberal subject… look, there are some undeniably brilliant aspects to liberalism in the sense that it allows for self-determination. Ultimately, however, [liberalism] tends toward maximising possessive individualism, you are entitled to yourself and you are entitled to owning private property at the detriment of others, and those are the roots of the problem — but you cannot just solve them by going back. Prior to liberalism was feudalism, which had desubjectivisation on different terms, so I feel that...

           A!KIRA
[interjecting] that “the only way out is through”? You cannot regress.. you cannot cancel.. you cannot accelerate...

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Well, more that I think collectivising many situations will help. If you want to read one interesting book on care and Marxism, there is This Life by Martin Hägglund. It’s mostly a book of literary criticism, but it has passages and large parts that have a lot to do with what I told you about Martin Heidegger’s notion of care – but equally Hegel and Marx. In Hägglund’s view true freedom comes from collective deliberation on how we allocate time to do the socially necessary labour, something he defines as democratic socialism. It’s a uniquely accessible book for its intellectual ambition. I warmly recommend reading it.

           A!KIRA
Well, that name seems to be everywhere at the moment, Heidegger.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Well, earlier you mentioned at some point the Philosopher Byung-hul Chan, who comes from that same tradition which is culturally conservative or culturally pessimistic, so I don’t really subscribe to that, and neither does This Life actually.

           A!KIRA
I’m quite glad you say that, as part of my attempt to reassert cynicism as a framework for political discourse includes the attempt to distinguish cynicism from pessimism, which are too often equated. Yet, cynicism is not in-of-itself conservative, and it is not in-of-itself pessimistic — cynicism can just ask that we be conscientious of the need for change, and to be conscientious of suffering, whereas pessimism is more fundamentally suggesting that there is no hope for anything better, so grab what you can and hoard it.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Right.

           A!KIRA
So it makes sense to contextualise the notion of care within the finitude or finality of human existence. It leaves us with an idea of care as something that’s firstly has to do with interdependence, and then with some acceptance of the finality of our existence, leading to the question of what should we do with our limited time here.
           It brings me to the question of cultivation, as cultivation strikes me as something important here — if I give the most obvious example of cultivation, we might think of plants, of growing plants. What I find interesting about this simple symbolic image of cultivation is that plants grow in something, they do not grow in a vacuum, they are planted somewhere and they need specific conditions and to be cared for in order to prosper. These days I am seeing flowerbeds everywhere, in particular with such things as the project you started a long time ago called MaMa.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
MaMa indeed has a moment of cultivation in its humble beginnings, in so far as MaMa was founded after Marcell – and then a couple of us joining him – received an invitation to take over some activities, and later the entire department for internet development within the local Open Society Institute, that is the Soros Foundation.
           Throughout the war-ridden 1990s, the Soros Foundation helped support many things that survived in the wake of Croatian nationalism’s rise to power. In the early 1990s, everyone who was progressive, socialist modernist, internationalist or alternative in their outlook got pushed out of institutions because of nationalism. The new nationalist narrative was trying to build a Croatian identity separate from Yugoslav, and particularly, Serbian. Whereas with Serbian people, for example, we have had almost an entire century of shared history starting with the breakdown of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. All that legacy, particularly of socialist Yugoslavia, in the 1990s became censored. Over 4 million books were thrown out of public libraries, for example, because they were by Serbian authors, printed in cyrillic, published by Serbian publishers, dealing with socialism and anti-fascist resistance.

           A!KIRA
Anything that was somehow contradicting the emergent hegemony and the Nationalist narrative was pushed out?

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Definitely, the narrative was about Croatia national identity, defined by denied statehood and subjection to empires, harking back to the 7 Century, when the Slavs arrived in the Adriatic.
           So, all progressive people were pushed out of the institutions of the system in the 1990s and the institutions were reduced to the pillars of national bourgeois culture: museums, theatres, cinema and literature. Before this, during Socialism, there was a highly diverse cultural system: community cultural centres, factory-based cultural activities, youth cultural activities, centres of the Socialist Youth that were the epicenter of a strong alternative and underground culture. All of this was either dismantled or starved from resources. So everyone involved in those structures or progressive in larger institutions were pushed out of the cultural system and they had to come together out of necessity. They converged around the anti-war and human rights movements. The Soros Foundation supported that anti-war movement. Notable in those movements was the Anti-War Campaign – a network of peace, human rights and environmental activists well connected with anti-war movements in various places around the world, including Holland, Germany, the UK – they form a network of anti-war initiatives across former Yugoslavia and in this context most of us who would later found MaMa became immersed in cultural work.
           The Anti-War Campaign activities included a zine called Akrzin (ARK stands Anti-ratna kampanja), which was immensely formative for us. For example, one of the editors was Boris Buden, nowadays a prominent cultural theorist internationally. Arkzin was highly interested in technological, critical media cultures and the alter-globalisation movement, so in a way we were cultivated into that.
           Thus, when we were invited to start developing activities within the internet department of the local Soros Foundation, we were really not interested in supporting civil society initiatives with yet more PCs and modems, but rather building something different. As the nationalist lost the elections in 1999, the Soros Foundation decided to close their operations in Croatia. To help the activities of the internet department continue in the future, they offered to do something ­– so we asked them to help us get a space, because at the time none of the cultural and activist initiatives had access to space. Nobody had a place in which to work together and mobilise communities. There was only one other place with two organisations – Močvara and Attack. We wanted to address this, to create a space that would be a shared resource for all these initiatives, a commons if you wish, although that’s a term we would encounter much later (around 2005).

           A!KIRA
Is that space the same as the one we visited?

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Yes, it’s the same space. It used to be a leather shop and we found it in a condition of disrepair after a decade of disuse. We were able to get some money to renovate it and get the latest computers, DJ decks and a beamer ­– not much from today’s perspective. That allowed us to really help cultivate or build an ecosystem that was now in the early 2000s emerging from that anti-war movement, but the venue would allow us to meet, to cross paths in space.

           A!KIRA
It’s quite interesting that the first requirement of the internet department was a physical space. To say “yes we are an internet culture department, but that is not to say that everything should be done without ever meeting and so on.”

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Back then MaMa was operating partly as a cyber cafe as a means of generating income, but the rest of it was free for everyone. If you can recall the space, to the right of where you enter was the cyber cafe, and to the left was the screening room, with the meeting room in the centre. It became extremely lively within a couple of months because of the enormous need for space to meet, work and present. There was, as I said, this one other venue, but it was more of a concert venue, whereas we were a venue for talks, screenings and activist meetings.

           A!KIRA
It’s clear that you asked for this space because you recognised the need for it, and it was probably no surprise to you that it became populated quickly.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Yes, that’s why we wanted it. We need to have a place to meet and conspire, whether it’s an anti-McDonalds, anti-fascist or anti-heteropatriarchal protest or whatever… Just the fact of meeting was hugely important, and I think that our imaginary formed around that capacity.

           A!KIRA
It’s interesting to me because, especially in light of COVID-19, there is a general tendency now to assume that everything can be done online, virtually, or that it should be. It seems to me that, in recognising from the beginning that the internet department needed a physical space, you were able to ward-off from the beginning, this problematic emergent tendency. Your cultural imaginary helped to prevent the issue that we face today.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Definitely, we understood that MaMa could operate as a space for communities and communities did converge and form around MaMa especially in the mid 2000s. It was really very diverse.

           A!KIRA
So, these organisations would approach you and ask to use the space?

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
It was more than that. Just as we had our own scheduled programming, they would have their own scheduled time slots. Then there were young DJs accessing the decks for the first time in their lives, playing their music in the background, which in turn attracted early music producers who were creating their tracks using Fruity Loops on their PCs to start meeting on a regular basis in MaMa. At some point, around 2003-2004, we had 50 acts that we talked into publishing on our free music label. We told them: you are already meeting here every Friday to practise, why not organise? So we founded a proper label printing CDs and organising shared gigs. It was the early days of electronic music production – something you could do on your PC could outperform something produced in a studio, so small acts could just “make it”.

           A!KIRA
Does this exist anywhere still? Can we find it?

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Yes, they do. I think Marcell has uploaded all the records to Last.fm (which no longer streams tracks I believe), but we need to upload them to archive.org or something like that.

           A!KIRA
You must! It’s very important for my generation’s cultural imaginary that we know that this cultural organisation—internet department—cyber cafe, beyond just the lectures, the organising, the publishing, the translating, was also a populated record label. We might find it hard to believe now that this was happening all at the same time in one space, twenty years ago in Zagreb.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
Right, but it’s just because we were already composed of communities that this happened. Over the last ten years, this has been less so, because people have opened their own venues, and venues have diversified, so it’s not really like that anymore; it’s not so much a hub for meeting in the same way. Still people do use our space for free and we still do some of our own public programming, although even the core team of MaMa have gone on to do their own things, but we are still committed to maintaining MaMa.
           For example, Marcell is not in Zagreb, and we work together on an adjacent project, pirate.care, which is adjacent to MaMa, but it’s not directly MaMa’s activity. Things have changed over time, but I wanted to go back to the point of cultivation. I would like to think in retrospect that we were building an ecosystem, even though we weren’t coming from a background of ecosystems thinking. We were coming from a perspective of marginalised people in the context of 1990s Croatia, trying to support each other, and each other’s projects or visions. When we got the space, and this convergence started to happen, we started to look outward toward the context of the cultural work, where this repressed and marginalised part of the cultural system was forced to function without much access to resources.
           We call it independent culture insofar as none of the groups or organisations were founded by either the State of the Municipality. They are not public, they are non-institutional actors. Again, the Soros Foundation asked us around 2001 if we would help them develop youth-oriented policy and activities, so we said okay, but let’s first map out what exists out there across Croatia as there were people doing things in small places beyond Zagreb. Zagreb, even in the hardest of times, is a city of a million people, so you can find your niche, your people, your group or community, and even work stealthily. But it’s really hard in places with around 10,000 people to run a cultural centre, a club, an initiative that is into... say, permaculture or metal music or anarchism, or what have you. So we mapped out all of these places and we proposed to the Soros Foundation that we create a network of all of these places, communities and organisations that would enable them to share their programming. Everyone was producing something, but none of it could travel, there was no money to travel or to distribute what one did outwards from one’s own isolated locality.
           We proposed a program of sharing, anything from punk concerts to electronic music, curators talking, book launches, linux install tests.. really diverse. The model of sharing was that at least three organisations from three places would propose a programme they would tour between themselves. It allowed for that large group of organisations and initiations to create collective agency. Within the first five years of that network – called Clubture – they had organised collectively almost 800 events and most of it outside of the five largest cities in Croatia. Small communities could feel empowered, they learned how to fundraise and how to advocate for better support structures with their local municipalities.

           A!KIRA
To arm them with language.

          TOMISLAV MEDAK
That allowed us, when in 2004 the nationalists came back in power, and they wanted to dismantle what social democrats had created in terms of meagre financial support at the national level, to push back.

           A!KIRA
So in 2004 they actively pushed against you?

           TOMISLAV MEDAK
No. We pushed against them. They tried to dismantle the arts council for new media culture from where most of these independent actors were financed. Overnight we were able to bring people from 70 organisations across Croatia and say “no, you cannot do this”. I think that was a catalysing moment where we understood what it means to build collective [trust]... well, trust is not a good word, but let’s say a collective capacity to act, but also our collective commitment to building and sustaining structures that support our daily work.
           Our fundamental lesson was that you have to sustain that allegiance. People have their own primary focus with their organisations, which in our case is cultural work, so these seventy initiatives were doing programming just as we were, but the realisation that you can call on these 70 initiates to fend off an attack is a very different capacity than just exchanging programming. One is related to the other, but the lesson there is that you need to nurture that collective capacity in periods of relative peace so that when the peace is disturbed, or when you must fend off an attack, the infrastructure and organisation for collective agency is already there.

           A!KIRA
Thank you Tomi, for your time, it is a pleasure to see you here in Cyprus.



          POSTSCRIPT
The recording died sometime around here, when discussing the neoliberalisation of Zagreb and the industrial corridor, where the State wanted to bail itself out of a financial crisis by privatising and selling off infrastructure and public space. Tomi confessed that, in this case, they were unable to intervene as effectively as before and it was important to Tomi to remind me that it is not always about success stories and not everything always ends happily.
           We concluded the interview by going back to the notion of care as being interrelated with finality in the way that Heidegger discussed. What care means today, is to once again recognise the finality of things, and to ask those questions about time and who controls it. We revisited the idea that care relates to recognising that “for us to continue, the ecosystem must continue”, and that caring then, is a creative act that actively builds systems and structures with mutual benefit and sustainability in mind.
           To care is to give a shit about something, no?

BECOMING.PRESS
©️MMXXIV