Thursday, January 6, 2011

Archive Fever and the East, Part 3

Lia Perjovschi’s CAA/CAA (Contemporary Art Archive/ Center for Art Analysis)

Lia Perjovschi’s work is also engaged with the complexities of historiography, addressing critical themes such as political and personal experience, as well as representation itself.[i] Informed by her experience during the periods of intermittent repression and relaxation of Soviet communism and Romanian socialism, Perjovschi’s oeuvre has transformed from “art with her body[…] to the research of the body of international art.”[ii] Since 1990, the artists has been actively engaged in collecting, archiving, structuring, mediating and disseminating a variety of knowledge about artistic practices as well as socio-political models, for an originally local audience in desperate need of them, and later cast into the international context of institutions and informal gatherings of all kinds.

Part and parcel of this artistic philosophy, CAA/CAA (Contemporary Art Archive/ Center for Art Analysis)[iii] functioned as a non-institutional space, based on the artist’s archive, accumulated over 20 years, and a series of conceptual and pedagogical workshops. CAA/CAA is an aesthetic model related to public education, interdisciplinary connecting art practices, art institutions, as well as constructions of history.[iv] Since August 2010 CAA/CAA has been temporarily closed, as the Perjovschis have been evacuated (together with several mature artists) from the premises of the studios owned by the Art Academy in Bucharest – which stated its intention to create an institutionalized archive in the space. The Contemporary Art Archive is at present stored in the Perjovschis’ new art studio in Sibiu.[v]

Her venture, is an interdisciplinary collection related to several projects: namely “My Subjective Art History from Modernism to Today,”(1990-2004) “The Timeline of General Culture from Dinosaurs to Google Going China” (1997-2006) as well as "Diagrams / Interdisciplinary Research”(1990-today). Akin to IRWIN’s prompt in the introduction to East Art Map, Perjovschi explores relevant events, theories, and figures that affected art history in her own subjective way, instead of charting a strictly academic art history.

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. For example Annulment (1989), which was staged in Perjovschi's apartment was directed as a critique of the social and political context at the time. Her action symbolically connoted the lack of communication that was the numbing corollary of the dictatorship in Romania. To a great degree, the censorship of the period impeded the artists from exchanges with the unofficial art scene in Romania or communities abroad -except for sporadic Mail Art circles, in which the Perjovschis took part[vi].

After the Revolution, several socio-cultural-political organizations emerged to facilitate the formation of a civil society;[vii] in these collectives, scholars from the Humanities and Social Sciences played a germinal role.[viii] In conjunction with these attempts at opening up the segregated or singular artistic endeavors to each other, the community felt an impetus to connect with contexts that were similarly emerging under repression of all kinds in the area, and Western Europe which had been previously out of reach. The "Zone Performance Festival,” organized for the first time in Timisoara in 1993[ix] offered Romanian artists the possibility of systematically engaging an international audience, many of them for the first time. It was under these auspices that Lia Perjovschi performed I Fight for My Right of Being Different. During several hours, the artist treated a full-size stuffed doll (which she dressed with a pair of her own clothes) to alternating displays of affection and violence, at times lunging her doll-double at members of the audience who remained passive throughout. This figurative motion suggested the metaphoric pendulum between power, abuse and submissive conformity, typical of a people that had yet to come to terms with the recent past and the civil liberties and responsibilities that came with the forming democratic order. [x]

Describing herself as a "Detective in Art, A Text Jockey, reading, copying, cutting and remixing texts and images,"[xi] the artist has repeatedly stressed her desire to recuperate for the community what her generation was denied before 1989. Indeed, in the early 1990s Lia and Dan Perjovschi 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.

In 2003 the CAA modified its function and has since operated under the title Center For Art Analysis. Lia Perjovschi’s installations took the form of “open spaces, discussion areas, reading rooms, waiting rooms, meeting rooms.” The artist assembled and organized in logical order books, slides, photocopies, files, postcards, printed matter about international as well as Romanian contemporary art began. Lia Perjovschi also produced comprehensive drawings and texts aimed at bringing together all possible knowledge about the history of contemporary art, calling her works “Subjective Art History. “Moreover, since 1990, 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, critical methodologies and offering a concrete basis for art-activism.

Through the experience of socialism in Romania, when informal structures were the only breath of normality, the Perjovschis understood how sharing and teaching can become a survival strategy. This concept of artists as a “social workforce” has lately emerged as a global focus for art historians – but in communist countries such as Romania, the position of artists at the service of their country has been a century-old cultural tradition, and it is within this conceptual approach that the Perjovschis still practice their art.

In the past 4 years, Lia Perjovschi has been working on and exhibitingPlans for a Knowledge Museum,” a museum-like temporary structure based on files accrued in CAA. Characterized by an interdisciplinary approach, this future artist-run museum is dedicated to moving away from the exhibition as spectacle or form of entertainment, and towards a learning process of working with an open-structured archive. The installation of Plans for a Knowledge Museum comprises of drawings, objects, charts, photos, and color prints. This constructed museum can be conceptualized as a mental map, offering a lens into the processes of selections that inform the artist’s view of socio-political and cultural practices and their consequences. They quite transparently reveal Perjovschi’s methods of associating objects and concepts, of building her subjective understanding of the world. This material is there for viewers to investigate and make use of, enacting notions of self-archiving and openness which largely correspond to the aspirations of IRWIN’s project.[xii]

Towards a critique of self-archiving practices

Arriving at a richer understanding of the possibilities and limitations of artists’ self-archival practices – of being at the same time witness and part of the object or process witnessed, should include Victor Tupytsin’s cogent critique, which he formulated in the “The Museological Unconscious.”[xiii] The theorist begins his foray into the strategies of the Russian avant-garde to “museify” their collective praxis -which had been ignored or suppressed in the past- with a rhetorical question:

The eternal Russian question, which apparently has no answer, is “What is to be done?” In this case the question is What is to be done with art that has not realized its “museological function” in time, even if this is through no fault of its own?[xiv]

Even though Tupytsin’s agenda to describe the history of the Russian avant-garde through a distinctly Russian lens or “communal vision” (informed by communal living, perception and lexicon)[xv], his inquiry stands no less valid as a development of the practices I am concerned with. Indeed, the Russian theorist similarly notes the revival of a tradition in artist strategies to produce and control material documenting their works and interpretation of these artistic projects. He further problematizes the slippery domain of claiming the museological function on the artists’ own terms as a way to:

become psalmodists of their own “scripture,” their own visual texts. To read them in a direction deviant from signification means to engage in an egocentric reading regarded as an alternative to an institutional one. […] Egocentric readings can compensate for the absence of institutions.[xvi]

An integral part of Tupitsyn’s argument in this chapter is based on the suggestion that, in the Russian context, this egocentric survival strategy emerged in opposition to the Institution, which did not extended support to unofficial art production. It is a suggestion that can be extended to the Slovenian or Romanian context, where similar restrictions apply to the neo-avant-garde. The latter continues to be largely excluded by state institutions, although at non-identical degrees.[xvii]

The charge of egocentricity, related to Derrida’s initial critique of how archives construct meaning, problematizes the notions I have just applied to describe IRWIN and Lia Perjovschi’s self-constructed archives. In both circumstances the keeper of the archive is very much involved in the way material has been selected and how it is going to be interpreted. But the archiver in these instances is not the sole authority to decide on the results of the selection. In both cases the platforms suggested by the Romanian artist and the Slovenian art collective, function as open-ended matrixes informed but a multitude of voices- of different agents involved in the production and dissemination of art, coming from different generations and various regions including, but not limited to the former Eastern bloc.

One can therefore arrive at a dialectic understanding of these archives, as spaces in between the artist’s subjectivity (or the drive of the ego, as Tupitsyn would have it) and openness or engagement of the view of the Other – as in both instances, meaning is never confined to one subjectivity in particular.

The promise of the future

The historical definitions of archives fundamentally shaped by Foucault and later Derrida, Hal Foster and Victor Tupitsyn, have been trans-modified in the interrupted histories

and non-linear aesthetic models[xviii] emerging in Eastern Europe. The unconventional archives I analyzed can be conceptualized as a strategy to move away from binaries (East-West, center-periphery) and towards the awareness of the implications and imbrications of cultures that do not conform to linear models. As the projects launched by IRWIN and Perjovschi suggest, art histories can alternatively be understood as interacting, transgressing and transforming each other in a far more complex way.[xix]

Such is the response of those who have been forced to submit to the active distortion of and restructuring of historical events, as it was in Romania or Slovenia under ideological repressions of all kinds. Moreover, dealing with the system of production, as IRWIN and Lia Perjovschi have, by occupying the liminal space between unofficial scene, the exhibition and the institution, positions them not as radical dissidents, but active participants: collaborating to create an art system in the East, as much involved in creating East-West relationships as it does between East and East.

Through these two case-studies, I suggest the possibility of a critique with larger implications. Namely, that these unconventional renditions of time and events intrinsically question the notion of historical fact and the linear progression of time applied in the scholarship. As aesthetic models for larger negotiations of how history is shaped and by whom, CAA/CAA and EAM focus on key historical figures and representations of them in the art and politics of the time. Further, as the product of self-historicization or, as Lia Perjovschi suggests “Subjective Art Histories,” they bring to the fore the complexity of visual images, putting forth other ways of seeing in relation to time and memory. And most importantly in my opinion, they enunciate inter-relationships among power, status and oppression, skirted in national and international histories. Introducing a complexity of layers which troubles historians’ attempt to organize straightforward chronologies, these archives simultaneously seek to capture and parody History.[xx]

Instead of a conclusion, I would like to end with some questions. The crux of my essay revolves around how the writing of Art History can be deconstructed as an ideological venture with far-reaching socio-political and cultural implications for those excluded or marginalized from its Archives. By focusing on two archival alternatives to official Histories of Art that have been disseminated internationally, I suggest that scholars and the general public have been given an unavoidable challenge: of imagining different ways of understanding and constructing not only art history but history in general, its theoretical models and practices.

But what of the museum, the gallery or the biennale? The history of exhibitions is also the history of the circulation of ideas, giving artists and scholars the possibility to inform and become informed, and through the visual impact on audiences. These practices are not only tacit deciding factors in how art history is being written, but also more related to the other big unmentioned- the art market.

The latter, though originating in the West, can be observed to create a similar standardized production in the East. These imbrications have been dealt with in the scholarship as isolated critiques, instead of an integral part of a shared or even global Art History. If we deconstruct the history of Western (U.S., French, German, Italian) avant-garde and neo-avant-garde art and transform it into a history of modern art including the Eastern avant-gardes, what will the renewed or re-created corresponding institutionalized spaces look like?

[i] Lia Perjovschi (b.1961 in Sibiu, Romania) lives and works, sometimes with her husband Dan Perjovschi, in Bucharest. She is the founder and keeper of CAA/CAA (Contemporary Art Archive/ Center for Art Analysis) in Bucharest, in 1990. Her solo exhibitions include “States of Mind,” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC (2007); “Vid /Defragmentare,” Atelier 35 Gallery, Bucharest (2000); “Hidden drawings and objects, “Duke Institute for the Arts (1997), “Like everything else, is more complex than first meets the eyes,” Dieu Donné Gallery New York (1994). Additionally her work has been seen within group shows such as the Biennale of Sydney (2008); Cetinje Biennial, Cetinje, Montenegro (2002); “Double Life,” Generali Foundation, Vienna (2001); “Small Talk,” Skopje Museum of Contemporary Art, Skopje, Macedonia (2001); “ArtEast Collection 2000,” Moderna Galerija ,Ljubljana (2000); “Body and the East,” Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana (1998).

[ii] Dan Perjovschi, “Alone for the Others: Lia Perjovschi,” in Again for Tomorrow(London: Royal College of Art, 2006), pg 119.

[iii] I will thereafter refer to Contemporary Art Archive/ Center for Art Analysis by its abbreviation CAA/CAA.

[iv] Also see Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, “Innovative Forms of Archives: Exhibitions, Events, Books, Museums, and Lia Perjovschi’s Contemporary Art Archive,” E-Flux Journal , No. 13, February 2010.

[v] The author was present for the last open studio workshop or the “Last Stand at CAA” (as Dan Perjovschi’s invitation stated) , on August 13th 2010. For more information see my text “The Archive is Closed, Long Live the Archive,” available at

[vi] The Perjovschis in conversation with the author, August 13th 2010, Perjovschi Studio, Bucharest.

[vii] For example, “The Group for Social Dialogue,” “The Civic Alliance,” “The Student League,” all founded immediately after the Revolution, which continue to be active in cities across Romania today.

[viii] Dan Perjovschi in an email with the author (May 11, 2011) explained that the Group for Social Dialogue was mainly made out of intellectuals living in Bucharest, in fields such as literature, history and philosophy , lots of them in "various degrees of dissidence with the communist regime". Pejovschi also remarked that almost none of the visual arts practitioners had this postition. Dan Perjovschi became a member in 1996 as he was working at 22 Magazine, the magazine edited by the Group for Social Dialogue. Perjovschi was not a founder member of this Group, as wrongly asserted in contemporary accounts. 22 Magazine was an "opposition" magazine against the neo-communist power but in fact was a right-wing publication, as Perjovschi states "actually it was very right to compensate the communist past and now it is more to the center."

[ix] Initiated and organized by the Romanian art historian Ileana Pintilie, “The Zone Festival” (which consisted of performances, symposia and workshops) started out as a manifestation for artists from the former Eastern bloc (Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Russia, Germany) but soon grew to include artists and scholars from Ireland, Scotland, the U.K., France, Norway and the U.S. Using performance as dialogue, the festival sought to restore socio-cultural links that had been destroyed during the pre 1989 segregation; especially in the case of Romania, which is considered one of the most extreme cases of isolation together with Albania. For 10 years it functioned as a regular artistic platform, even though developed in a country with extremely fragile and marginalized socio-cultural networks. “The Zone Festival” was discontinued after 2003, because of insufficient systems of financing and ideological support; these constraints continue to affect the majority of art platforms in Romania, making it harder to create a modern artistic legacy, leaving fissures and deterring innovative programs. See:

[x] For a comprehensive description of Lia Perjvoschi’s performances during the 1980s and early 1990s, see Andrei Codrescu, “The Arts of the Perjovschis,” States of Mind: Lia and Dan Perjovschi, ed. Kristine Stiles, (Durham, NC: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2007), pg. 115-130.

[xi] Lia Perjovschi quoted by Dan Perjovschi in “Alone for the Others,” in Again for Tomorrow (London: Royal College of Art, 2006), pg 119.

[xii] “Plans for an Knowledge Museum” has been exhibited at Dorottya Gallery, Budapest in 2009.

[xiii] Tupitsyn, Victor, “Notes on the Museological Unconscious” in The Museological Unconscious: Communal Post-modernism in Russia (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), pg 229-247.

[xiv]Ibid 46, pg. 230.

[xv] For a critique of Tupitsyn’s text and style of writing see Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Museological Unconscious, Third Text, Vol. 24, No. 4, July 2010 , pg. 505- 506.

[xvi] Tupitsyn, Victor, “Notes on the Museological Unconscious” in The Museological Unconscious: Communal Post-modernism in Russia (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), pg. 230.

[xvii] For a discussion of working conditions Eastern European artists are developing their practices around see Maja and Reuben Fowkes, “Contemporary East European Art in the Era of Globalization: From Identity Politics to Cosmopolitan Solidarity,” Art Margins, 29 September, 2010, available at .

[xviii] The expression “interrupted histories” was introduced by Slovenian art historian Zdenka Badovinac in 2006. Badovinac curated an exhibition with the same name at Moderna Galerija in Ljubjliana, Slovenia. The exhibition presented works from Eastern European and Middle Eastern artists, representative of areas that have not been able to integrate fully the processes of modernity, for political and economic reasons. ”Interrupted Histories” probed the implications of the absence of standardized historicization in regions on the margins of the Western World, while suggesting cultural models needed in the process of historicization. See Tamara Soban & Zdenka Badovinac, eds. Prekinjene zgodovine: ArtEast Razstava (Interrupted Histories: ArtEast Exhibition), (Ljubljana: Moderna Galerjia, 2006).

[xix] For a recent analysis of ways to redefine history in terms of different avant-garde and neo-avant-garde traditions see the discussion among Sven Spieker (Los Angeles/Berlin), Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez (Ljubljana/Paris) and Zdenka Badovinac (Ljubjliana), Creating Context: Zdenka Badovinac on Eastern Europe's Missing Histories (Interview),Art Margins, 30 August 2009, available online at

[xx] By spelling the term “History,” I am implying the conventional understanding of writing history as a linear progression, rooted in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

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