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.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Archive Fever and the East, Part 2

The first project that I want to bring into focus is East Art Map (which I will thereafter refer to as EAM); aimed at “horizontalization,” this communal endeavor was initiated by the Slovenian collective IRWIN[1] in 2001. I will take EAM to represent not just the survey first published in 2006, but conceptualize it as an artistic platform aimed at negotiating discourses and collecting information - therefore a non-conventional archive. In concrete terms, this means that I will situate it in the context of the exhibitions and symposia it spurred and also consider the website associated with it, available at The latter takes the form of a cyber-archive in which the viewer is involved in the constant process of negotiating the names of artists and art collectives it accumulates.

To understand the nature, claims and consequences of IRWIN and the EAM volume, let me begin by situating the art collective, emerging from the particular socio-cultural-political events in 1980s Slovenia. This was the time right after the death of Marshall Josip Brosz Tito[2], which spurred a period of uncertainty, resulting in power struggles between staunch Stalinists and more liberal politicians, a period marked by violent conflicts between the different republics constituting Yugoslavia.

This decade was also framed , as Marina Grižnić describes,[3] by the Lubjliana sub-cultural movements: the formation and dissemination of the multifarious texts, artworks, interventions of NSK together with projects of a young generation of painters, sculptures, photographers, video artists and philosophers[4]. The latter group, especially aesthetic philosophers, brought the histories of the avant-garde to the fore in the Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian languages, a process that was unfolding parallel to the global redefinition of historic avant-gardes. Founded on the work of the Student Cultural and Artistic center in Lubjliana (ŠKUC) the Ljubljliana subculture[5] created unique productions and cultural organization forms, which demonstrated the closely knit nature of culture and politics. In their 2003 “Retro-avantgarde” diagram[6] , IRWIN presented the retro-principle way of working in aesthetics, by constructing context.[7] At the nexus of art, politics and writing history, IRWIN posited the existence of “retro-avant-garde” of a (fictive)“Eastern Modernism,” that was nonetheless substantiated by making artificial connections between existing Slovenian artists. The group thus polemically attacked modernism(s) as constructed by Afred Barr’s[8] and Clement Greenberg’s[9], who put forward their models as universally valid. By adding the Eastern dimension to the concept , Irwin indirectly suggests that modernism is actually a “Western Modernism” as is therefore not universal. But “Eastern Modernism” and the principle of the “retro-avant-garde” evolved into much more than a critique of Western historiographies. As described by IRWIN, three imbricated conceptual fields frame the collective’s activities: “geopolitics” -projects likeNSK Embassy” in Moscow and Ghent, Belgium(1993), “NSK Consulates” in Florence, Italy (1993) and Umag, Croatia (1994), “Transnacionala- A Journey from the East to the West” (1996)East Art Map”(1999); “politics of the artificial person” – founding the collective Neue Slowenische Kunst(1984), “NSK State-in-time,” (1993) “Retroavantgarde—Ready-made avant-garde” (1997-2005); and “instrumental politics” - IRWIN’s involvement in introducing works by Eastern European artists into several international collections andEast Art Map”.[10]

Never asserting that theirs was the all encompassing, definitive narrative, IRWIN’s aim was to provide a research tool, on which a multiplicity of subjective analyses and voices of distinct generations and opposing aesthetic visions could be presented into an unconventional art history. That platform became East Art Map, as it was theoretized around 1999. As part of the project, IRWIN invited twenty-five artists, art historians, curators from Eastern Europe to their project, assigning them the task to propose different ways of thinking about the cultural narratives informing the art history of the regions they came from. The selectors were also given the task of choosing ten artists from their respective contexts that they considered the most crucial for the development of contemporary art in Eastern Europe. By doing so overall, IRWIN’s publication removed artists from national frames and the context of local mythologies about art and artists who were opposed to the official art world. Instead, the Slovenian collective proposed a work-in-progress, referential and transparent system. This matrix’s aim is two-fold: that it may be accepted and respected outside the borders of a particular region and to undermine the foundations of the Western Grand Narratives of Art.

An important part of the project was the symposium “Mind the Map,” in which young researchers from Eastern and Western Europe were brought together to discuss the topics related to art from the former Eastern bloc. The symposium, which took place in Leipzig in 2005, was prepared by Marina Gržinić, Veronika Darian and Günther Heeg.[11] This forum’s larger theme, informed by the premises of the EAM publication, was to negotiate the interpretation and presentation of art works and cultural processes emerging from the territories of Eastern Europe over the past 50 years. The symposium was another instantiation of IRWIN’s direct engagement to construct a theoretical matrix through which to discuss and disseminate these artistic practices and socio-cultural realities distinctive in the region. Namely, the fissures between national cultures of Eastern and Western Europe, the conflicts between historical and neo-avantgardes, and the inter-relatedness of social movements, artistic communities and the theoretical framework of the humanities.

Furthermore, in 2005, the “East Art Museum”[12] exhibition of works took place at Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, Germany. IRWIN curated this exhibition as a proposal to establish a Museum of East European Art, comprising of seminal works of art from these territories, created between 1950 and 2002 and selected from the EAM archive. Clearly modeled and intended as the Eastern counter-model to a Western Museum of Modern Art, this inviting platform was not merely a critique of the institutionalization and commodification of art in the West: its explicit goal was to facilitate the creation of an art-historical cannon and its corresponding institutional shell in the East.[13]

The online version of EAM is yet another facet of the complex conceptual project-archive to establish a cannon reflective of the interrelationships between eastern and western Europe, as well as transnational exchanges in the former. Through the virtual portal “”, the proposals of the scholars who drew the directions of the collections of art histories on the map of Eastern Europe are subjected to constant negotiations. Using forums and online submission, academics, artists and the general public can bid to supplement, add, delete or replace proposed artists by new ones. This is of course conditioned by argumentation and presenting evidence for the data of work to be included or excluded, which is then considered by an international committee of around 5 artists and scholars.[14] Under the imperative “History is not given, please help us construct it!” the design and function of the online portal emphasizes the temporary character of historical narration, revealing the mechanisms of its creation.

As IRWIN have emphasized, these Eastern cultural phenomena cannot be explained or subsumed in homogenous, progressive and linear constructions from the past to the present, or from abstract art to conceptual art. As in the case of the EAM book itself, the symposium and the museum proposal, the website is not merely a rejection of the established map of Western Art History, but a productive projection of a related but non-identical structure of a history of art.

[1] Irwin was founded in Ljubljana, acting within the NSK movement(together with the rock group Laibach, the design group New Collectivism and the theater group Scipion Nascice Sisters) around 1984. The IRWIN group consists of Dušan Mandic (b. Ljubljana, 1954), Miran Mohar (b. Novo Mesto, 1958), Andrej Savski (b. Ljubljana, 1961), Roman Uranjek (b. Trbovlje, 1961) and Borut Vogelnik (b. Kranj, 1959). IRWIN’s work is based on the "retro-principle," enacting a syncretic coexistence of various artistic styles ranging from national tradition of the historical avantgardes, to popular national imagery, to the visual production of the totalitarian regimes. Together with NSK, Irwin established the “NSK State in Time" in 1992, with embassies and consulates in Moscow, Gent and Florence. This conceptual state transcends a physical geographical location or a defined statehood within a prescribed ethnic, cultural or religious belief, providing what a form of identification for individuals from diverse nationalities. Another germinal project is “Transnacionala” (Journey from East to West Coast) in 1996. Irwin have exhibited widely in Europe and the USA, including Manifesta in Rotterdam(1996) and Ljubljana(2000), several Venice Bienniales and “After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe” (1999) at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest.

[2] Tito died in May 1980.

[3] Marina Grižnić, “Neue Slowenische Kunst,” Dubravka Djurić and Miško Šuvaković eds. , Impossible Histories, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), pg. 246-248.

[4] One of the most important was the Lacanian school, spearheaded by Slavoj Žižek. The Slovenian cultural theorist was one of the first scholars to theorize the practices of Laibach (and later NSK) as over-identification. In interviews, IRWIN has also recognized that they were influenced by attending lectures of the Slovenian Lacanian School in the early 1980s. See Mojca Oblak, “Neue Slowenische Kunst and new Slovenian art”, in New Art from Eastern Europe: Identity and Conflict, March-April 1994, Vol.9, No. 3/4, pg. 8-17.

[5] The Ljubljana subculture is also referred to as “The Art of the Eighties.”

[6] IRWIN, with the theoretical input of Marina Gržinić, produced the mixed-media montage Retroavantgarda in 2000. It included the following works: Irwin, Was ist Kunst, (1984-1998); Dimitrij Bašićević Mangelos, Tabula rasa, m. 5, 1951-1956; Avgust Černigoj,Construction, 1924; Braco Dimitrijević, Triptychos Post Historicus, 1985 (reproduction); Laibach, Ausstellung Laibach Kunst, 1983 (exhibition poster); Kasimir Malevich (Belgrade), Paintings, 1985; Gledališče Sester Scipion Nasice, Krst pod Triglavom (Baptism under the Triglav), 1985; Jossip Seissel, Balkanite Stand at Attention, 1922 (reproduction); Mladen Stilinović, Exploitation of the Dead, 1980.

[7] The term “retro-avantgarde” was coined by NSK and Marina Gržinić in 1994, with the occasion of the exhibition “Retroavantgarda” at Moderna Galerija Ljubljana. The term was employed as a strategy for charting out the Yugoslav avant-garde, from the present to the past, thus from the neo-avant-garde to the historical avant-garde. Therefore this term is intimately linked with NSK’s art practices and their particular use of signs from the art historical modern cannon, including: the historical avant-garde, national symbols, religious icons, totalitarian symbols , as well as the texts and manifestos associated with these movements.

[8] I am referring to Alfred H. Barr’s “Diagram of Stylistic Evolution from 1890 until 1935.”This diagram, central to the definition and derivation of modernism was developed in 1936 by the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It lists the European avant-garde movements as precursors of the abstract art of modernism. Irwin transferred this scheme onto Yugoslavia, in the form of a inverted family tree of the “retro-avant-garde,” which extends from the neo-avant-garde of the present back to the period of the historical avant-garde.

[9] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 5, 1939, pg. 34-49.

[10] Inke Arns, “Irwin Navigator: Retroprincip 1983–2003,” in Inke Arns, IrwinRetroprincip (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2003), pg.14-16.

[11] See Marina Grzinic, Günther Heeg & Veronika Darian, eds., Mind the Map! - History is Not Given (A critical anthology based on the Symposium) (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2006).

[12] This project was initiated by Michael Fehr. Also see Michael Fehr, “Constructing History with the Museum: A Proposal for an East Art Museum,” East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, IRWIN eds., (London: AfterAll, 2006), pg. 466-471.

[13] See East Art Map Newsletter, No. 6, March 9th, 2005, available on-line:

[14] Although this committee has fluctuated over time, according to the present version of the EAM website they are: Jesa Denegri (former Yugoslavia), Lia Perjovschi (Romania), Anda Rottenberg (Poland), Georg Schöllhammer (Austria) and Christoph Tannert (Germany).

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