Mention "the Balkans" and certain images come to mind. Most Europeans associate the region with ethnic cleansing, religious strife and genocide. The very term "balkanisation" implicitly links the countries of former Yugoslavia with violent fragmentation. "The Balkans" has become a byword for all that is inhuman in eastern Europe, but why?
The region's recent history has obviously played its part in creating this image, yet I think there is a deeper reason. The Balkans are Europe's Orient within. They were the colonised part of Europe - ruled by both the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires - and as such could only be seen as Europe's internal Other. The Balkans became the no man's land between Europe, with its Enlightenment civilisation, and all that is not Europe, and hence not civilised. It came to be defined as the ambiguous expanse where hints of colour, and hence racism, began.
Our reading of the Balkans inevitably became tied
to stereotypes centred around hybrid ambiguity, irrational ethnicity and confused races.
This perception is problematic not just because it is rooted in racism and orientalism, but also because stereotypical thinking is always a barrier to progress. How can we envisage positive change if we see a region as static? It is not possible for us to develop a vision of a viable Balkans if we insist on seeing this as a region of ancient hatreds, forever distained by strife.
Now that Europe has rediscovered the Balkans, and there is talk of closer political and economic ties with the European Union - indeed, even of full membership - it is also time to rethink the very concept of the Balkans. It would help to free the region from its orientalist baggage if we ditched the term altogether and replaced it with "south-east Europe" as an overall description. South-east Europe suggests that the region is not some added extra, there simply to be of strategic use to western Europe, but an integral part of Europe itself. And it is as rich, diverse and enlightened as the rest of Europe, despite its recent history.
Moreover, we should see the ambiguity of the region not as a weakness but the source of its strength. Balkan identity has always been transitory and in-between. Such plural identities sit uneasily with conventional modernity and with the old, monolithic notions of Romanticised nationalism. Where do you fit in if you belong, to use the title of Danis Tanovic's 2001 film, in No Man's Land? In this hinterland, as the trailer for Tanovic's masterly work suggested, "no one knows who they are". How do you negotiate this openness, this indistinctness, if you are Croatian Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, or Bosnian Muslim, but are forced into an artificial nation state that insists you belong within a geographical boundary?
The problem of identity in the Balkans is essentially one of cultural identity. Culture - championed through preserving foundational myths and celebrated in art, literature, ritual and folk songs - shaped Balkan nationalism and served as the means of sustaining its exclusive identities as well as the attendant animosities. This was the bedrock on which Balkanisation - the impossibility of sustaining diverse identities within one polity - was constructed. I would argue that we cannot ignore cultural identity and its multiple histories. But I would pose the question of identity in a different way: what is there in culture that makes it possible to be who you are, with the history you have, and still cohabit and co-operate with people of other cultures? Incidentally, the only people who actually wrestled with this question during the Bosnian conflict were the Muslims, dismissed, ignored and feared by everyone else.
Now the question has become central to any discussion of the future of the Balkans. It is also at the heart of a series of exhibitions and lectures to be held during the coming month at City University, under the title "Art Under Construction: the Balkans in context". It is art, says Louisa Avgita, co-ordinator of the event, that is questioning the "return" of the idea of the Balkans and all the stereotypes associated with it. Balkan artists, Avgita suggests, are raising such questions as: How is "Balkanism" formulated? How are the Balkans defined in relation to European Enlightenment? And is there really such a thing as "the Balkans" that needs to be defined and defended? In the process, artists in the region are constructing notions of what it means to be south-eastern European; they are also developing mechanisms for defining Balkan identities in relation to cosmopolitanism and globalisation.
Globalisation makes it quite impossible for us to ignore issues of cultural politics. But cultural and hybrid identities based on ideas of difference and commonality can also be a boon in a pluralistic, globalised world. They can generate a magnetic force, bringing people together. Art also has an important role to play both in healing the wounds of history and in banishing the fear of heterogeneity.
The peoples of south-east Europe may yet amaze us all by transcending their recent history imaginatively - choosing peace and harmony rather than war and disunity.
Art Under Construction: the Balkans in context takes place at City University and other venues in London from 25 May to 16 June. For more details e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org