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<nettime> subREAL - th Art History Archive
calin dan on Tue, 23 May 2000 21:46:24 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> subREAL - th Art History Archive


POLITICS OF CULTURAL HERITAGE
- on some mentality handicaps-

The history of the 90s starts and ends under the sign of the ARCHIVE. The
archives compiled by the secret services of the Communist "block" are one
side of this reality. The corporate databases meant for monitoring
potential customers are the other. Let's have a look here at the
symmetrical cases of the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate
archives, and at their respective faiths. 

The German case is one of bureaucratic efficiency, where ethical targets
are met by the simple reversal of the operating system in place until the
WallFall: data gathering is replaced by data dissemination; limited access
is replaced by public access; institutional oppression by individual
interpretation; top-to-bottom regulation by horizontal self regulation. 

The Romanian case is a messy one, with competing attitudes and solutions. 
Starting in December 1989 with the unfortunate sacking of the Communist
Party's Central Committee; then with the deliberate fires set at various
location of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and of the Securitate (the
most troubling case is the complete burning of the Central University
Library which, due to its location, was hiding also "conspirative" 
facilities of the Securitate).  Continuing with the fierce debates (in
both Parliament and media) about:  closing the archives for x years;
opening the archives only to authorized (?) persons; opening the archives
for full access; destroying "unnecessary"  materials (the latest became
policy at least in one notorious case, when several truck loads of files
were dumped in the junk area of Berevoiesti, not far from Bucuresti). 
Ending with the use of secret service files as weapons in political fights
and as sensational material in trash publications. 

All the previous facts and attitudes are rooted (besides corruption and
selfishness) in a deep ignorance about the nature of archives, and about
the role they play at this point in history. At the end of modernity,
archives are, next to and beyond their functional aspect, an embodiment of
cultural heritage. They have to be protected, and made available for
public visit and scrutiny - in the same way that old churches and
monuments, museums, theaters, and libraries are. 

But unlike those institutions, archives do not carry ethical
characteristics; they are in that sense a-moral. Moral quality is the
input of those who access them: people make sense of archives - not the
other way around.  The emotional way in which the Romanian political class
deals with the Securitate archives proves the difficulties the society as
a whole has in dealing with issues which are prone to be interpreted in
different, even opposite ways - an impossibility to accept dialogue,
basically. 

And also a refusal of history as another dimension of the present: things
of the past have to be buried with the past, as for the future - it is
something that can be determined right now, by decrees. A paternalistic
culture profiles itself from that bizarre contradiction between the
superficial adoration of a past seen just as a series of amorphous
clichés, and the concealed despise for a future to which no free space of
opinion is left. Because that is the very source of the archive-phobia
manifest in the Romanian society: fear. Fear of interpretation and
judgment, fear of exploration and analyzes that might uncover hidden
truths about the other but also about the self. 

The inside-out operation of Stasi proved that: a. the East Germans were
heavily surveyed; b. large parts of the population compromised with the
regime up (or down) to collaboration; c. Stasi was a well run and
successful operation, under the criteria of functionality asserted to
oppressive systems. 

The Securitate carnival managed to plunge Romanian society in yet another
painful set of dilemmas. Was Securitate: a. an efficient system of
oppression as proven by the terror experienced in the last 50 years by
major parts of the population; or b. an amateur operation, as proven by
the quality of so many writings by and interviews with top officials of
the apparatus, which are practically polluting the media of the 90s? If a.
- then Romanians come out of communism as a people that suffered major
wounds, and needs special consideration from the international community. 
If b. - Romanians can look at themselves as a population of accomplices. 
Unfortunately there are no answers in sight to this dilemma, since there
is no archive at hand where to look for them. 

The wanderings of the "Arta" magazine photo archive are a case in point
that illustrates some of the statements made above. Although it was not a
secret archive, it was not a public one. And, considering the state of
legal mess in which we inherited it, it was also a self ignored archive,
in danger of being destroyed due to institutional negligence.  Although
there is no eagerness to open access to this archive, or to submit it to a
necessary operation of classification/research, a certain aura of concern
floats randomly around it. The "Arta" archive is an a-moral corpus like
any other archive, but in this case amorality is expressed in a somehow
graphic manner.  The right to access and to use of the material by subREAL
comes periodically under scrutiny not because of some ethical concerns,
but because of personal discomfort. Copyright and property issues are just
a smoke screen meant to hide the good old reflexes of censorship: subREAL
did work with an archive, instead of stashing it in a dark corner or trash
it - as the standard procedures go. This is enough reason for discontent.
But even more - subREAL is using the archive in a discourse which does not
fit the official views on the national artistic values.  The freedom of
expression cannot be questioned in the 90s, it would be politically
incorrect. Therefore the right to discourse is questioned by the bias of
questioning the means of the discourse. As soon as the suspicion of
appropriation comes in (subREAL "has stolen" it), the "Arta"  archive is
about cultural heritage, about historical value, and it needs protection
against abusive appropriation. As soon as subREAL makes an artistic
statement starting from the archive, the archive itself becomes a negative
entity, putting "us" (Romania?/Romanian art?/the people?/the Government?)
in a wrong, "untruthful" light. Under the cover of virtue (one cannot use
what one doesn't own) lies the scared quiz of the old offenders : how dare
they say this about me? 

What fascinates us in this archive, what made us visit it for years
(starting while it was still stored in the magazine's office), is a
combination of chaos and comprehensiveness. Those piles of photographs, no
matter how you look at them, are the exciting, unpredictable and still the
most accurately true image one can get about the Romanian visual arts in
the given period. With its personalities and failures, with its sordid
secrets and its moments of triumph, with its daily efforts and
compromises, with its lust for survival and its passion for decorum, with
its intrigues and its frantic partying - with all. Part of the excitement
we experienced entered, we hope, in the A.H.A. project. 

Another fascinating aspect of the "Arta" archive is its unflattering
character. In a domain (the art system) where hypocrisy is (still and
everywhere) the rule, and in a society (the Romanian one) where the
pompous discourses defined all aspects of life for so long, it was
extremely refreshing to see how the shallow peaks crumble, how power
figures are massified, how fake masterpieces turn ridiculous, how
oppressive paranoiacs become a pile of paper. And all that by just looking
at pictures, by browsing, by putting b/w image next to b/w image, until
the reality accepted its dominant color - gray. 

And then the boredom, of course. Archives embody the mystique of boredom,
and the "Arta" archive is no exception to that. Boredom is a front cover
preserving archives from intruders looking for easy excitement: you have
to fight your way in a flattening environment, which puts the context
above the individual value. That is also what makes art archives an
endangered species: oddly enough, 6 decades after W. Benjamin's luminary
essay, people keep a strong distrust of technical reproductions, and a
fanaticism for the uniqueness of the art piece. 

In this context, Romanian culture is particularly ill prepared to
"swallow"  the various appropriations that fed modern art history -
otherwise than qualifying them as eccentric. In a country that still has
to fight with the traumas of industrialization and urbanization, the cult
of the uniqueness is overwhelming.  In a country where mass media was cut
from any natural development for 50 years, the way printed media and
photography are building myths at the level of culture is still a novelty.
In that context, where we can even say that photography belongs to "new
media", the appropriation art (archive art, citation art, plagiarism etc.
- phenomena already settled in a system of references) is ignored and even
potentially unacceptable. 

But trying to implement such realities in our culture by an artificial
operation would be inefficient and arrogant, and our mentioning of them
here is contextual. We started our trip with A.H.A. as a query about our
own identity, about the way in which - through our very profession as
artists and art journalists, but also through more general shifting
phenomena, we became what we were (still are) - the Serfs of Art. 

Some will find our tone pessimistic, others ironic or disrespectful. A
third party will question the artistry of our discourse. Other will bring
in copyright issues, image property issues a.s.o. We can agree with all of
them, thanks to our comprehensive position: with the legs widely spread
between the totalitarian 80s and the libertarian 90s, between the illusory
localisms of Romania and the fake globalisms of Europe, we are doomed (if
not by merit at least by birth) to be part of all systems and to please
them all. 

>From our prospective - that is what the A.H.A. says: living realities
(individuals, networks) are swallowed into amorphous data. Data processing
blurs the border between individual identity and political identity. 
A-politism is illusion, as dissidence without compromises is illusion (or
madness). Privacy does not exist: whenever a line is drawn around a
person, a statement, an art object, something alien falls within that
border and something valuable falls out of it. 

We are certain that our contribution to the archive phenomenon, namely to
the analysis of A.H.A. is historically determined. At this moment we
consider that the Romanians live in denial of their political
participation to the previous regime just because they can't see
themselves surviving out of that denial.  We believe that people have a
problem with institutional specificity: they love to be part of
institutions, but do not know how to use them.  We noticed that
institutions do not have the practice of individual reference. That is why
archives do not become data bases and why public access is still a random
reality. 

Of course all those negative aspects will disappear very soon and our
A.H.A. point of view will become obsolete. But this is another positive
aspect of archives: they get always renewed by fresh approaches. We will
be happy to lay back and enjoy the many ways in which archive issues will
be developed further, by other actors. 

Amsterdam, 1999

(NOTE. Text first published in: subREAL - "Art History Archive", catalogue
issued on the occasion of the participation in the Venice Biennial 1999 -
the Romanian pavilion. The "Art History Archive" is a project developed
with the archive materials of "Arta", a Romanian art magazine where Calin
Dan & Josif Kiraly (subREAL) have been leading editorial staff members
just before the publication's termination. subREAL is currently developing
other strings of the project under the title "Re-enacting...", in Vienna,
Amsterdam, Helsinki and elsewhere.) 


Calin Dan
Rozengracht 105/D4
NL-1016 LV Amsterdam
T: + 31 (0)20 770 1432
F: + 31 (0)20 623 7760
e-mail: calin {AT} euronet.nl
http://www.v2.nl/v2-lab/hd



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