Archive(s) Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez

“In the countries of the former Eastern bloc, the media of technical reproduction and archivization, which the historical avant-garde had viewed as so many emancipatory organs of a newly mechanized collective social body, were declared state monopolies … transforming the archivizing, collective social subject envisioned by the avant-garde (to everyone his camera) into the fragmented, archivized object of near-ubiquitous audiovisual surveillance.”1

“History occurs in a space between the archive and life, between the past that is being collected and reality, understood as everything that has not been collected. Yet this zone where history occurs does not simply disintegrate, it does not become fictionalized. On the contrary, it becomes more and more homogeneous because the archives—partly through the electronic media—gradually merge to form one large world archive, a formalized universal memory. What we call history is the question after everything that is in the world but has not yet been incorporated into this universal memory. The dynamic process of history is the search for what is new—‘new’ not in the sense of a narrative but in the sense that it has not yet been included in the archive.”2

Under the socialist and communist regimes the museums and fine art academies promoted art that corresponded to the governing party and its ideological discourse, be it socialist realism or the abstract language of socialist modernism (in ex-Yugoslavia). However, the interest and tolerance of the official art apparatchik for experimental art production varied immensely from a country to country, thus affecting their respective scenes to develop in different directions. In the Yugoslavia of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the artists who belonged to what was coined as “new practices of contemporary art,” using the visual language and discourse of Conceptual, Body, or Land art, belonged at first to an unofficial circle and were closely connected with the policies of experimentation organized around experimental theater groups, student art centers, and film clubs. Information, documentation, and printed matter circulated among groups of same-minded critics, writers, and artists, and rarely entered the official art institutions (the exception however being the Slovenian group OHO and its productive relationship with the progressive programming of the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana). The artists and directors of student cultural centers and other experimental art events kept collecting and piling up documentation within their personal and spatial capabilities, being very aware that nobody else would do this important work for them. By the end of the 1970s, the increasingly liberated atmosphere of what could be called “the attempts of early civil society in a socialist state” emerged hand in hand with the underground creativity and thus more insight into these artist-created archives was enabled.

Boris Groys in numerous writings describes the mechanisms of collections of art, museums, and archives in the former Eastern Europe which in his opinion have not yet found a legitimate place among the museums in the “former West.” Among other principal causes of this ignorance he sees the fact that art in the former Eastern Europe was created in an ideological context and not within the logic of collecting, as was and still is the case in the former West.3 Instead of being incorporated in those collections, the artists of the former Eastern Europe, Groys concludes, have created imaginary or alternative “collections-installations,” histories, and narrations that fill the entirety of museum spaces (Ilya Kabakov or Irwin are exemplary cases here). In the foreword to the most recent exhibition dealing with art-archiving strategies in the former Eastern Europe, Interrupted Histories (Moderna galerija Ljubljana, 2006), its curator Zdenka Badovinac wrote that “because local institutions that should have been systematizing neo-avant-garde art and its tradition either did not exist or were disdainful of such art, the artists themselves were forced to be their own art historians and archivists, a situation that still exists in some places today. Such self-historicization includes the collecting and archiving of documents, whether of one’s own art actions, or, in certain spaces, of broader movements, ones that were usually marginalized by local politics and invisible in the international art context.”4 The exhibition provided an important assembly of practices which generously offers material for further necessary art-historical research and at the same time discusses one of the most obvious aesthetic tendencies in contemporary art that experiments with documentation and with found and archival images. Ilya Kabakov explains the artistic strategy of self-historicization which has been present since the early 1960s onward in the then Eastern European artistic practices with the term “self-description”: “ … the author would imitate, recreate that very same ‘outside’ perspective of which he was deprived in actual reality. He became simultaneously an author and an observer. Deprived of a genuine viewer, critic, or historian, the author unwittingly became them himself, trying to guess what his works meant ‘objectively.’ He attempted to ‘imagine’ that very ‘History’ in which he was functioning and which was ‘looking’ at him. Obviously, this ‘History’ existed only in his imagination and had its own image for each artist …What was important was that these images, which had nothing to do with reality, burned rather brightly and constantly.”5 The artists of these unofficial scenes became responsible for much of the best writing on the visual arts that has come from Central and Eastern Europe. Their proclamations are frequently more open and uncompromising than those of critics and theoreticians, who consciously or unconsciously self-censor their writing in order to be published in official journals. Many of these writings are articulated in the form of manifestos, thus clearly demonstrating an affinity toward the avant-garde legacy. They differ in the fact that the later manifestos were created usually as the only existing document about a certain artistic activity. They are self-explanatory, programmatic and self-contextualizing and function as the basic material for thinking about the strategy of self-historicization, the undertaking of which can furthermore be seen as one of the characteristics for an Eastern European institutional critique.6

These artist-archivists were thus “constructing their own context,” where the artists functioned at the same time as the observer and the object of observation, if we draw the analogy with the main slogan of the Irwin group from the 1990s. Irwin’s essential maxima, “construction of one’s own context,” emerged from the fact that an individual (artist, intellectual) in the East could actively intervene in the field of articulation on levels which otherwise belong to the activities of the institutions. As early as the 1980s Irwin became aware “that an artist has to set up a context within which his work is read, because if an artistic work, artifact, is not part of one story, narration, one system, then it does not exist, it cannot even happen. The development of Irwin was the construction of our own context … Our own context is constructed as a form.”7 Reading from the programmatic diagram of the Irwin group, a drawing about the construction of the context, Irwin’s recent project, East Art Map, an ambitious ongoing project in phases, is a continuation of the “instrumental politics” of collections. Irwin presented the first part of the project based on the axiom “History is not given!” and the belief that one has to intervene actively in its construction. Irwin invited 23 curators, critics, and art historians from Central and Eastern Europe to select 10 artists from their respective local context that they considered the most crucial for the development of contemporary art in Eastern Europe.8 The aim of the project was to show the art of the entire space of Eastern Europe in a unified scheme, out of the national frameworks. “In Eastern Europe there are as a rule no transparent structures in which those events, artifacts, and artists that are significant to the history of art have been organized into a referential system accepted and respected outside the borders of a particular country. Instead, we encounter systems that are closed within national borders, whole series of stories and legends about art and artists who were opposed to this official art world. But written records about the latter are few and fragmented. Comparisons with contemporary Western art and artists are extremely rare. A system fragmented to such an extent … prevents any serious possibility of comprehending the art created during socialist times as a whole. Secondly, it represents a huge problem for artists who, apart from lacking any solid support … are compelled for the same reason to steer between the local and international art systems. And thirdly, this blocks communication among artists, critics, and theoreticians from these countries.”9 Understanding history as the ultimate context and the importance of potentially existing archival material out of the reach of the invited researchers, Irwin decided to “democratize” its construction. In the second phase they established an online portal of the project, where anyone who is interested can add his/her proposals or suggest substitutions within the established East Art Map,10 following the invitation: “History is not given, please help construct it!”

Similar archiving aspirations can be observed in the projects of at least three other artists and artist groups from the former Eastern Europe. Lia Perjovschi, Romanian conceptual and body artist, has been for almost the past two decades recovering, collecting, sharing, and spreading information that was inaccessible in Romania until 1990. Since then she has been developing an extensive archive that includes books, texts, images, and videos on cultural developments that have occurred in the last 50 years. Her project, Centre for Art Analysis (CAA), is an investigative practice that aims to examine what, how, and ultimately who enters into the archives of history. Apart from collecting material, Perjovschi actively creates new systems of knowledge and ways of accessing them through glossaries of key words in the contemporary cultural vocabulary, visually maps in drawing the synopsis of a particular knowledge or book, or a project in progress, Subjective Art History, dating from Modernism to the present day.

The basic activity of the Romanian group subREAL (Calin Dan and Josif Király), founded in 1990, consists of performances and installations of gathered notes, recycled and recombined material traces of art and culture. One of their projects is the series Art History Archive which derives from the archive material of the Romanian art magazine Arta, established in 1953. Both members of the group were for a short period the editors of the magazine before it was discontinued in 1993, and they could rescue its archive (weighing 526.5 kg). Since then, this “absurd collection of works constituting an impossible history of Romanian and international art”11 represents the base of all the works of the group subREAL.

Through the 1970s, the Hungarian artists György Galántai and Júlia Klaniczay conceived the first artist-run space, Chapel Studio at Balatonboglár in Hungary, and thus the phenomenon and artist-run institution Artpool was born. It welcomed artists who refused to submit to the conditions imposed by the state on the cultural scene, and held more than 30 exhibitions, happenings, events, concerts, sound poetry reading. In 1976, Galántai and Klaniczay decided to “institutionalize” within the walls of their apartment in Budapest the documents that accumulated. Artpool was thus founded, and sought new forms of social activity to present its “active archive.” During the 1980s, Artpool organized exhibitions and events, published anthologies and catalogs, and functioned as an illegal archive of rare collections of artists’ books, sound poetry, stampworks. In 1992, the nonprofit public institute Artpool Research Center was set up and has been running up to today as a public library, multimedia archive, and exhibition space. It continues conducting research and theoretical analyses of the Hungarian and international art scenes.


1 / Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2008, p. 11–12.

2 / Sven Spieker, “Interview with Boris Groys,” Artmargins (1998),, (accessed June 27, 2009).

3 / Boris Groys, Logik der Sammlung. Das Ende des musealen Zeitalters, Carl Hanser, Munich 1997.

4 / Zdenka Badovinac, “Interrupted Histories,” in Prekinjene zgodovine/Interrupted Histories, ed. Zdenka Badovinac et al., Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana 2006.

5 / Ilya Kabakov, foreword to Primary Documents. A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, ed. Laura Hoptman, Tomáš Pospiszyl, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2002, p. 8.

6 / Nataša Petrešin, “Self-Historicisation and Self-Institutionalisation As Strategies of the Institutional Critique in Eastern Europe,” Conceptual Artists and the Power of their Art Works for the Present, ed. Marina Gržinić, Alenka Domjan, Center for Contemporary Arts, Celje 2007.

7 / “A Vehicle, a Tool,” Kollektive Kreativität/Collective Creativity, ed. Birgit Eusterschulte, WHW/What, How & For Whom, Kunsthalle Fridericianum and Siemens Arts Program, Kassel 2005, p. 240.

8 / The 23 selectors are: Inke Arns, Vladimir Beskid, Iara Boubnova, Cãlin Dan, Ekaterina Degot, Branko Dimitrijević, Lilia Dragneva, Marina Gržinić, Sirje Helme, Marina Koldobskaya, Solvita Krese, Elona Lubyte, Suzana Milevska, Viktor Misiano, Edi Muka, Ana Peraica, Piotr Piotrowski, Jiří and Jana Ševčik, Branka Stipančić, János Sugár, Miško Šuvaković, Igor Zabel, and Nermina Zildžo.

9 / IRWIN, “East Art Map,” Prekinjene zgodovine, ed. Zdenka Badovinac et al., exhibition catalog, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana March—May, 2006, footnote II, not paginated.

10 / See:

11 / Miško Šuvaković, “Art as a Political Machine: Fragments on the Late Socialist and Postsocialist Art of Mitteleuropa and the Balkans,” Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism, ed. Aleš Erjavec, University of California Press, Berkeley 2003, p. 130.