Saturday, January 1, 2011

Archive Fever and the East, Part 1

Framing the archival impulse

In the context of Eastern Europe [1], self-historicization[2] has emerged in the past decades as dual strategy: to compensate for a lack of institutional framework and critical discourse around the practices of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde; and as an implicit critique to the Western cannon of modern art which continues to marginalize or subsume these artists under a constructed universalism. In this bourgeoning inquiry, I will focus on one aspect of self-historicization –archives- in two specific instances, maturing from similar yet distinct contexts during the period between 1980 and 1990. Namely, the practices in my two case-studies emerged in the aftermath of the dual pressures of Romanian socialism and Soviet Communism in Romania, and the conflicts and political upheavals resulting in the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. These case-studies could be framed under the designation “unconventional archives” - that is, bodies of work at the nexus of art theory, history, politics and language , which examine what, how and who enters the Archive of History.[3]

Explicitly, I will investigate the mechanisms of archiving emerging in Eastern Europe[4] by comparing two projects: Slovenian collective IRWIN’S East Art Map (began in 1999), Romanian artist Lia Perjovschi’s CAA/CAA (Center for Art Analysis/ Contemporary Art Archive in Bucharest) (began around 1990). I suggest that is that these particular archives emerged from a desire to create a space for knowledge and resistance that simply did not exist in Romania and Slovenia in the wake of the socio-political transformations that gripped the nations during the 1990s. Driven by an inquisitiveness to understand, discuss and share with international audiences, IRWIN and Lia Perjovschi’s projects span a heterogeneous realm of information: from isolation -what intellectuals were prohibited to know during the socialist period in Eastern Europe to its extreme- making sense of the info-boom available generated by media today.

Before analyzing the concrete enunciations of these two projects, let me briefly discuss the debates around the term “archive” itself, and why I consider it representative for my case studies. Generally speaking, an archive can be defined as a set of records, documents and other materials of historical interest collected in a certain order; but the term also designates the institution or the physical space where the archive is housed. The purpose of an archive is to assemble, guard, develop and allow access to the public to the materials it contains. This seemingly straightforward definition was further problematized, most importantly by Michel Foucault in The Archeology of Knowledge (1972)[5] and Jacque Derrida in Archive Fever (1995)[6]. First, Foucault posited that an archive does not merely frame discourses but is “a general system of forming answers,”[7] decisively informing the possibilities and limits of expression. Archives are thus by no means neutral spaces (as neither is historiography), as, through the very practice of collection, they inform the vocabulary and the rules of language through which the material is received. Or in other words, archives streamline the appearance of texts as historical events. Through his deconstructivist approach, Derrida has further pointed out the ambivalent structure of the word “archive,” stemming from the prefix “arche”: a starting point which can mean “beginning/ ontology” or “authority/ law”.[8] Derrida conceptualized the archive as driven by the death drive, which leads to the annihilation of memory, thus eliding of all that cannot be incorporated into the archival structure. However, the philosopher also recognized the paradox that it would be impossible to construct an archive without the death drive or desire. Furthermore, he claimed that the archive represents a sign of the future – for whatever is not archived for the future perishes. As Derrida observed, analyzing archives must take into account their institutionalizations, which then begs the question of how meanings generated by archives are determined by its structures.

With this in mind, Hal Foster observed in “The Archival Impulse,”[9] that archival practices establish archives by revealing their structures as accessible and constructed, using facts but at the same time being fabricated. Foster associates the artists who follow the archival impulse with constructing historical narrations that have presciently been stifled by disruption or rejection. The art historian traces this impulse to the absence of meaning and consequences from reality or, more precisely the artists’ context.

Indeed, a feeling of emptiness preceded Perjovschi’s insatiable determination to research the organization of international art. Right after the Romanain Revolution in 1990[10], the artist performed an action through which she aimed to incite students at the Theological Institute in the University of Sibiu. Urging them to act for a just future instead of accepting the status-quo, Perjovschi handed out manifestos in the institution and later in the street, calling her intervention “Instead of Nothing.”[11] In the third part of this paper, I will return to Perjovschi’s art and archive in relation to audiences, especially her efforts to alert viewers to the urgencies of the present so that they can act for the future. [12] The point that I want to make in relationship with the “Archival Impulse” piece is that, despite the fact that this artist’s practice corresponds to Foster’s above mentioned comments, it remains distinctly different from the cannon of works considered by the author.

This brings me to the observation that in the case of Romania, Slovenia or Eastern Europe in general, this cannon is missing altogether. “Nothing” is an acutely precise term to describe the lack of tools of expression pervading the situation in Eastern European art historiographies- although that is beginning to change, and these archives as aesthetic models are key to bringing about that change. However, without a sound theoretical basis for comparison, one cannot even begin to consistently address the avant-garde or the neo-avant-garde in these territories. Thus, Peter Burger’s enunciations in his landmark study: the failure of the avant-garde to revolutionize society[13] and the failure of the neo-avant-garde “to return art to the praxis of life,” are not only inaccurate and insufficient when they fail to consider this region.[14] But looking at them from the perspective of the scholars and artists active in Eastern Europe, it reveals a theoretical gap through which they could be disputed systematically.

The region I chose to focus on is plagued by a particular kind of nothingness or absence, which engenders disorientation, as IRWIN observed, not only for artists, scholars and the public in the West, but also the East.[15] It is precisely the absence of a transparent art system, which is not only the consequence of socio-political conditions in the Eastern Europe, but a formative part of the art system in these regions. Instead of an accessible and intelligible model that would allow comparisons on an transnational level, what scholars invested in this region have to deal with are an art-historical narrations organized into local mythologies; the latter, IRWIN again points out are nearly impossible to discern in “the international language of art.”[16]

Given these challenges my initial questions -of who, what and how is recorded in the Archives of History- point to an acute need to develop research methods and theoretical models concerning the specific context of Eastern European avant-gardes and neo-avant-gardes. I want to make the case that by engaging this context, open-structured projects as put forth by IRWIN, Lia Perjovschi and others, also carry the potentiality of a shared history of European contemporary art.

By formulating this sinuous introduction to my project, I wish to illuminate the particular set of concerns for scholars, cultural administrators and artists of Eastern Europe, as their art production is still relegated to spaces of exclusion and confusion. Which brings me to the second part of my argument. This segregation is not only local, but international, as it is also the basis of the cannon of Western modern and contemporary art history. Generally speaking , the universalizing discourses of survey publications such as Art since 1900 [17]- authored among others by Yve Alan-Bois, Benjamin Buchloch, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, scholars associated with the October periodical- therefore, the vertical and hierarchical narratives constructed in these books - make extremely little efforts to include critical issues central to Eastern Europe[18]. Instead, the authors who have decidedly marked the formation and development of critical methodologies of Art History frame Eastern-Europe as another piece in the riddle of the universal history of art, collapsing obvious differences in milieu and reception. Without abandoning the ideal of a united history of art (which I see working more convincingly when applied to Europe, for example), I remain skeptical towards totalizing theories originating in Western scholarship which become a form of oppression in themselves.

Instead of a universal, linear and hierarchical model , the two projects I will analyze suggest a multitude of “horizontal art histories.”[19] Syncretic in content, these different approaches to writing multi-centric art histories are based on local narratives, trans-regional influences in Eastern Europe and constant exchanges with the West. An important point to emphasize in the case-studies I have chosen is that, these particular ways of thinking about local historiographies are based on a direct engagement. Originating from areas that have experienced wars, totalitarian regimes and all types of ideological repression, they embody and enact a discontinuity which cannot be explained nor grafted on the vertical and universalizing model Art History proposed by the authors of “Art since 1900.”

[1]“Eastern Europe” is a very debated term in the scholarship. Some scholars consider Eastern Europe the group of countries that lie to the east of France, Germany, Italy, referring to this region as “The Other Europe.” Futher classifying terms for this region are Central Europe and the Balkans. Whether or not to include Russia in the definition of Eastern Europe is also controversial. On the debate concerning the terminology of Eastern Europe see Janelle Rohr, Eastern Europe: Opposing Viewpoints,(San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1990); For the purposes of this paper, I take Eastern Europe to refer to the countries proposed in IRWIN’s East Art Map.

[2] I employ the term self-historicization to describe a common approach of East-European neo-avant-gardes to emphasize the need for documentation of their practices, adopting the tasks of official institutions, which generally offer negligible support. This can take the form of artist archives or re-enactments. For example: ArtPool in Budapest, run by the artist György Galántai, Zofia Kulik’s KwieKulik archive in Warsaw, Vadim Zaharov’s archive in Moscow etc. A exhibition-example of re-enactments is “Triglav”(2007) at the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana. The exhibition traced the original performance - “Mount Triglav”- of the Slovene group OHO from the 1968 ; its reenactment by the Irwin in 2004, entitled “Like to Like/ Mount Triglav;” and two subsequent re-enactments by Slovene artist Janez Janša in 2007, “Mount Triglav on Mount Triglav,” and in 2008 -“Monument to the National Contemporary Art (Golden Triglav).”

[3] A more comprehensive study of archival impulses in the former Soviet bloc could include germinal structures such as: Hungarian artist Tamás St. Auby’s “Portable Intelligence Increase Museum”(2001) on the Hungarian avant-garde; Uzbek artist Vyacheslav Akhunov’s miniature reproductions (in matchboxes) of all his works in “1 m2” (1978-2007); Hungarian artist György Galántai’s “Artpool Research Center” in Budapest, comprising of contemporary international avant-garde media arts; Polish artist Zofia Kulik’s “KwieKulik” Archive in Warsaw, on Polish artists active during 1978-1989 in Europe; Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s “The Palace of Dreams” staged as an archive of proposals in London, 1998. Also see Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008).

[4] These archives can also be framed under an impulse to make sense of the geographical ambiguities of “Eastern Europe” as applied to art production: by disentangling the different histories, languages and cultures of this region, while at the same time putting them in dialog among themselves and within global movements. This does not completely solve the problem that Eastern European art is in itself a term largely constructed in the West. For a discussion of Eastern European cultural consciousness post WW2, see Éva Forgács, “How the New Left Invented East-European Art,” Centropa, v. 3, No. 2, May 2003, pg. 93-104.

[5] See Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, (New York: Routledge, 1972).

[6] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, translated by Eric Prenowitz, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[7] Ibid 5, pg 154-155.

[8] Ibid 6, pg. 1-25.

[9] Hal Foster, ”Archives of Modern Art”, in Hal Foster, Design and Crime(and other diatribes) (London; New York: Verso, 2002), pg. 65-82.

[10] The 1989 Romanian Revolution began as a popular revolt in Timişoara; after the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown on 22 December, Ion Iliescu (Ceausescu’s former right hand man who had fallen out of favor) and other second-rank communists seized power and created an organization named National Salvation Front (FSN: Frontul Salvării Naţionale). The National Salvation Front was originally meant to be organizing the free legislative elections on 20 May 1990, and afterward disband itself - however, it eventually ran in the elections, which it won with over 70% of the votes. Iliescu was quickly acknowledged as the leader of the organization and then became the de-facto president of Romania. Many Romanian intellectuals claim that the Romanian Revolution was in fact not aimed at a full regime change following the communist dictatorship but merely a change of political leadership in the context of a revised communism. Controversy persists around the idea of how the popular revolt of December 1989 erupted and whom was it initiated by and for what purposes. It is widely believed that Iliescu had in effect organized a coup d'état with the help of high ranking Army Officials and has ultimately managed to manipulate the public anger towards the oppressive Ceausescu regime to install himself as a new leader.

[11] Lia Perjovschi email with the author, October 19, 2010. See also the press release for the exhibition “On the Other Hand,” at Portikus, Denmark, available at

[12] See also, the catalogue for the exhibition with the same name, Again for tomorrow, Royal College of Art, (London: Royal College of Art, 2006).

[13] Another important point to emphasize is that Burger refers to a critique of the bourgeoisie, understood under Marxian tenants , and the failure of the (western) avant-garde to revolutionize or supplant this ideology. This frame is not applicable to countries of Eastern Europe, where the capitalist market system did not exist.

[14] Peter Bürger, “The Avant-Gardiste Work of Art. On the Problem of the Category ‘Work’” in Peter Bürger,Theories of the Avant-garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pg. 58.

[15] IRWIN, “General Introduction,” in IRWIN, eds., East Art Map (London: Afterall, 2006), pg. 11-14.

[16] IRWIN, “General Introduction,” in IRWIN, eds., East Art Map (London: Afterall, 2006), pg. 11.

[17] Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster & Rosalind Krauss, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Vol I & II ( New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005).

[18] The survey also glosses over other commonly marginalized regions such as South America or the Middle East. For an in depth discussion of the cultural politics of exclusion see Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[19] Here I am borrowing a term which the noted Polish art historian and curator Piotr Piotrowski has employed to describe the region. See Piotr Piotrowski, “On the Spatial Turn, or Horizontal Art History”, Umeni/Art, No. 5, 2008, pg. 378-383.

Image Credit: Zofia Kulik, From the Archive of KwieKulik, 2006, Le Guern Gallery, Warsaw

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