Started in 2009 in the form of exhibitions and a conference, Parallel Chronologies is a project by transit.hu that aims to present and share with an international audience a collection of data of exhibitions and events that took place in East Europe during a period characterized by the rise of a heterogeneous and parallel culture, in the frame of different versions of state-socialism and capitalisms. Since 2012 it is an online exhibition archive managed by Zsuzsa László and Dóra Hegyi and it is based on professional interest of the many authors that have shared their personal knowledge to create an uncharted history of exhibitions. Interpreted as a “history of situations”, exhibitions are meant to be fundamental resources to think of and introduce new methodologies of studies.
Alessandra Franetovich: Parallel Chronologies is an archive of exhibitions that you and other art historians filled up with materials collected during your studies and researches. How important is the role of archives to the study non-conformist Russian art?
Yelena Kalinsky: When I first began working on this subject, I was a graduate student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I was working as a graduate assistant at the Zimmerli Art Museum, which houses the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. This collection is the best one in the US, and perhaps the world, for having preserved tens of thousands of artworks – paintings, objects, photographs, and especially works on paper – from all over the Soviet Union from the 1950s through the 1980s. Norton’s collecting strategy was eclectic, but had a clear logic to it: if a work did not conform to the principles of socialist realism—if it is abstract or formalist, if it worked with religious or non-Marxist-Leninst political imagery, any critique of the status quo—he collected it. This was already a kind of archive, a snapshot of a time and place, but it was very difficult to work with curatorially, because in many cases, there was little other information about an artist, whether they also worked in the official art system, who they exhibited with, all the traditional art historical questions. This is where the archive is so important, particularly for these artists who worked outside the dominant art system with its critics, galleries, and bureaucracies. Unofficial artists understood this intuitively and compiled their own archives, which have been crucial for art historians and curators trying to make sense of the work, to find the proper interpretive frameworks and to understand it in its own context and on its own terms.
AF: Archives are a resource, as they enable us to de-construct historical studies and to rebuilt them as many times as we want or need to. How do you see this task for art historians who are focusing their efforts on studying art from “Eastern Europe”, as it is clear that this part of the art world has been only partially historicized, mostly following a Western art system canon?
YK: Every curator and scholar will come to a project with her or his own interests and questions, and will thus produce a history that will be as much of the present as of the past. In a way, Eastern European art is in a great position, because it doesn’t have such a calcified, accepted history that art historians have to work against. For a long time, the Cold War paradigm of official vs. dissident culture made it difficult to see the complex relationship of aesthetics and politics within unofficial art, but we are far beyond this. Art historians and critics, like Piotr Piotrowski, Katya Degot, Klara Kemp-Welch, and many others are writing these histories with lots of nuance and with many of today’s concerns about contemporary art and society in mind. What is most interesting to me is the ways that unofficial artists shaped their own histories through the strategy of self-institutionalization—exhibiting their own work, theorizing it, and archiving. This has allowed not just curators and art historians, but younger artists to engage with the work in rather deep ways. Not as descendants trying to go beyond the shadow of the previous generation, but on a more equal plane of engaging with ideas.
AF: In Moscow Conceptualism and in particular in the experience of Collective Actions, the collection of documents and the creation of archives has been a fundamental strategy to self-legitimate their own art activity. I’m thinking of the commentaries to the actions collected in Poezdki zagorod [Travels outside the city], in the name MANI Moskovskij Arkhiv Novogo Iskusstva [Archive of Moscow new art] used by Monastyrsky to define the Moscow conceptual circle, an his interest in definition that inspired him the creation of the Slovar’ Terminov Moskovskoi Kontseptual’noi shkoly [Dictionary of the Moscow conceptual school]. Has this strategy been successful?
YK: In the case of Moscow Conceptualism, I would say that legitimation was not the primary reason for archiving, even if that was the original impetus for Poezdki za gorod and MANI. Very quickly, the archive became part of the artistic practice and reflections on the text would become part of the artwork. The scholar and artist Sabine Hänsgen described this point very nicely in a recent interview with ARTMargins. www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/766-2015-08-28-00-33-52 As she says, the focus of the Moscow Conceptualist circle was not on the completed work, but on the interaction between text and commentary, which is a continuous process and is part of the work. By this measure, I think the strategy has been successful, because the process still continues to function in their work, many formerly unofficial artists, like Monastyrski and Collective Actions, Vadim Zakharov, Yuri Albert, Yuri Leiderman, Elena Elagina & Igor Makarevich, continue to explore new ground and make new work. And there are younger artist like MishMash, Andrey Kuzkin, Ilya Dolgov, and many others, whose work engages with the process in a new context.
AF: Parallel Chronologies aims to create a new platform to share hidden knowledge and to communicate it to an audience, as exhibitions always do. There is a transformation from private material to public information. In your opinion, did the nature of this information and documents change, and if so, how?
YK: This is a very interesting question that is really about exhibition practice, how to make items in archives accessible to audiences. It’s not just a matter of tacking documents up on a wall, any exhibition has to somehow frame the materials and take into account what a viewer can reasonably be expected to bring to the encounter. What Zsuzsa Laszlo and Dora Hegyi did with Parallel Chronologies is, I think, very powerful. On the one hand, there is a strong didactic component, where the website technology allows the viewer to draw connections across different national contexts, different media. Each object in the online exhibition is framed through descriptions and supporting documents. But they’ve also asked the contributors to take a curatorial perspective. For my part, in the Russian section, I wanted to highlight the aspect of self-institutionalization through apartment exhibitions, performances that brought together alternative publics, artists as archivists and collectors, and the unofficial artistic network, all of which, to my mind, really shaped unofficial art from the 1950s through the 1980s in Russia/the USSR. Other contributors took different directions. In this way—through both the individual didactic components and the different curatorial directions—the exhibition aims at a collectively written history of Eastern European art.
AF: In a way, the site could be defined as a digital exhibition of exhibition materials and at the same time an archive proceeding from more and more archives, seeming therfore to arise from a tautological method. In your opinion, could this kind of project be accomplished not in Eastern Europe but in another “uncharted territory” of the world?
YK: Definitely. I think the potential for de-centering postwar art through this kind of digital project, one that draws connections, parallels, analogies, and networks across cultures, not just in Eastern Europe is tremendous. I think art historians and curators are beginning to do this already, looking at both imagined and actual connections between Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, as well as Western Europe and North America.
AF: How can an internet archive by serving as a mirror of the exhibitions “conserve the complexities of their historical moment”?
YK: Here I would again take as my example Collective Actions and Moscow Conceptualism: the aim was never to show someone something, or to beat someone over the head with a message. Instead, viewers were invited to participate, and as they entered the discussion, they themselves furthered the artwork by becoming part of the process of commentary and reflection. The truest way to use this archive, I think, is to engage with it and let it inspire further reflections, further ideas, perhaps further artworks, and not to treat it as complete and finished.
Parallel Chronologies, An Archive of East European Exhibitions: http://tranzit.org/exhibitionarchive/
Photo: Hajnalka Tulisz [Exhibition in Budapest, 2009] and Igor Makarevich [documentary photograph of Collective Actions, slide film & discussion from the action Sound Perspectives of a Trip Out of the City, in the studio of Igor Makarevich, March 10, 1983 from the site: http://conceptualism.letov.ru/21/slides/zppzg-6.html#picttop].
Yelena Kalinsky is an art historian and translator. Her new translation with Brian Droitcour, Andrei Monastyrski: Elementary Poetry is forthcoming with Ugly Duckling Presse. She lives and works in Lansing, MI.