Friday, August 13, 2010

The archive is closed, long live the archive!

About two weeks ago I received an alarming email from artist Dan Perjovschi, about the state of his and Lia Perjovschi's Center for Art Analysis/ Contemporary Art Archive (CAA/CAA), located in the backyard of the Art Academy in Bucharest. Namely, I found out that the Perjovschis, both internationally renowned artists and researchers, were being kicked out of their studio, where almost twenty years ago they founded the CAA/CAA. To mark the event, the artists had invited a score of artists, curators and researchers for a final round of networking at their soon to be evacuated studio.

I was outraged by this news, also remembering many vital art spaces around Romania which shared the fate of the Perjovschi studio. But what really made me angry was that the CAA was being destroyed by the Art Academy itself! The artists had been keeping their studio-archive alive on their own expense and they offered the Art Academy (National University of Fine Arts) an opportunity to collaborate, then appealed to the UAP (Union of Visual Artists) - offering the archive as a study basis and the studio as a meeting place for art seminars; unfortunately their proposals fell on deaf ears. How can such an important space be torn apart by an official cultural establishment that is supposed to promote these very type of practices? And why weren’t more people offended that this was happening?

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's rewind to how CAA/CAA came into being and why I think it's so important for our cultural legacy. Lia Perjovschi started her practice with performances in her apartment flat in Bucharest in the 1980s, which were witnessed and photographed by her husband, artist Dan Perjovschi. To a great degree, the censorship of the time impeded the artists from exchanges with the unofficial art scene in Romania or abroad (except for Mail Art circles, in which the Perjovschis took part). From the beginning, Lia has been preoccupied with creating a space for normality, knowledge and resistance, driven by a curiosity to understand, discuss and share with the public - from what intellectuals were forbidden to know during the dictatorship to making sense of the boom of information today. Describing herself as a "Detective in Art," the artist has stressed her drive to recuperate for the community what her generation was denied before 1989. In the early 1990s Lia and Dan have transformed their studio into much more than an archive. CAA/CAA is comprised of a collection of books, magazines and reproductions that deal not only with Romanian and international artists and art platforms, but more generally with the production of knowledge in the humanities, social sciences, science & technology. Lia called the latter development “Plans for a Knowledge Museum,” an open-structured archive focused on the process of learning.

Moreover, the Perjovschis have opened their studio space as a meeting point for young and mature artists, researchers from all fields and students, offering a productive environment for dialogue and critical perspectives: lectures, talks, presentations, exchanges between Romanian and foreign curators, open studio programs, coaching, one to one discussions, resistances attitudes. Using the archive as a basis, as well as the experience of international experts, the activities at CAA were aimed at analyzing strategies in the Romanian art scene and beyond, supporting innovative programs, criticizing those who abused power and offering a concrete basis for art-activism. Through the experience of communism, when informal structures were the only breath of normality, the Perjovschis understood how sharing and teaching can become a survival strategy. Today, when the country’s obsession with integration has crumbled into nostalgia for the dictatorship, CAA/CAA proves even more necessary as a model to build and sustain civic networks based on trust and transparency.

I came to know the Perjovschi’s practice through a seminar on Representations of Trauma in Art, taught by Prof. Kristine Stiles – who has been writing about the artists since the early 1990s and who also organized a mid-career retrospective of their work at the Nasher Museum at Duke University in the summer of 2007. It was then that I first had the opportunity to travel to the studio, in preparation for shipping the artworks to the museum. Since then I have been impressed by the Perjovschis’ humility, boundless optimism and energy to inspire, support and advocate for young artists and professionals across Romania – a far cry from the local neo-communist educational system breeding mediocrity, where the best students are those who don’t question their professors or the curriculum.

From the outside, The Center for Art Analysis hadn’t changed much from when I had last seen it in 2007: a decayed neoclassical block of artist studios sandwiched between rising skyscrapers and scores of commercial banners hiding more decay- a familiar sight for Bucharest’s urban landscape these days. On the door, Lia had posted a blank sheet with the message: "The Contemporary Art Archive will be closed for consulting. The Center for Art Analysis will stay open because it doesn't need a physical space to exist. lia " Lia’s text hints back to an intervention by American artist Robert Barry, who in 1969 hung a sign in three art spaces in Turin, Los Angeles and Amsterdam, announcing that during the exhibition the gallery would be closed. People were invited to find the doors locked. The interplay between presence and absence, materiality and invisibility suggests a criticism of authority and invites the participants towards some kind of action. As Lia stated, the empty space of the Center for Art Analysis will be exhibited until it can be replaced by something intelligent.

Well I didn’t find the entrance to the studio locked, but the archive, together with the works of art the Perjovschis had stored over the years, were definitely gone. The only remaining traces were a black on white cluster of Mind Maps by Lia, several self-produced publications (Detective Draft, Zoom, Sense, Subjective Art History and the book Contemporary Art Archive. Center for Art Analysis) as well as a visual timeline of the activities at CAA/CAA from its inception to the official letter of evacuation. It was startling to see the space once populated with books, slides, files, postcards, photocopies, printed material about international art and artworks –the core of the Perjovschis’ philosophy of public education as an art practice – almost empty; except for a table around which the artists invited us to talk and enjoy a typical Eastern European buffet. People came and went, conversations sparked between strangers and old colleagues, printed matter was exchanged – Dan and Lia stopped to talk to each one of us, questioning, advising, answering questions about what comes next. The palpable absence of the archive revealed its most important legacy – creating a network of civic-minded people through ongoing discussion and exchange. Taking part in the last stand at CAA, I felt the artists shared with us the responsibility to carry on the survival strategies stimulated by their archive, in a period of social amnesia and confusion.

While the contemporary art archive will be preserved in a studio the artists have built in Sibiu, it will not be as easily accessible to the public; as Lia herself mentioned, it will take some time to re-organize things and the artists are unsure whether they will carry on hosting in Sibiu the same type of activities that energized and supported the art community in Romania. Although knowing the Perjovschis they will continue to stay involved in the Romanian socio-cultural-political space, the disappearance of their studio in Bucharest leaves a permanent scar. The artists are optimistic that the move away from the capital marks a new chapter in their practice, and the new space will be more manageable and functional for an archive of this size. However, I remain skeptical and saddened that the Romanian educational system and a large part of the art community have failed to grasp the necessity to preserve and enrich CAA/CAA for generations to come.

What is to be done for a more engaged and promising future?

All photographs taken by the author at CAA, Bucharest on Friday, August 13th 2010.

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