Kenneth McBride

Kenneth McBride is an artist, writer and educator as well as being the founder of agora8

In his durational performance installations he is interested in art as a form of memorial that can activate collective memory. He is author of many works and has presented in diverse locations and contexts internationally, often operating beyond the traditional gallery structures and in a wide variety of impermanent or public spaces. Works often engage the full range of senses.

Introduction: Methodologies and Curatorial Strategies

Since this written element is only one part of the thesis we will pause now to draw an outline of the methodologies and strategies that the project overall engages.

A three-pronged curatorial model has been conceived that contributes new knowledge to the field in three ways: first, there is this written element set out in this introduction and in the following chapters. Second, the thesis has created a unique Internet resource that contains the thesis and displays the works featured alongside available primary research materials. Third, the re-enactment by this author of a small number of historical works from the Eastern European past that we have come to know though their lingering traces.

Regarding what constitutes trace the thesis proposes it as comprising those documents that exist as relics of past works and which prove the work’s existence and sheds light on past events, for example, a photograph or text. These traces are the mediated experience of works that prove that they happened in other places and in other times.

While the issue of trace is complex and deserving of its own research study, we can assert that trace allows us to create a particular archaeology of absent realities. Trace documents carry not only the artistic and ideological references that “the document absorbs from society and carries in itself” (Guéniot, 2009, p. 4) but are also capable of revealing what is not shown, whether unintentionally or by design.

Trace can be employed as a strategy taken by artists in situations where dialogue with others is proscribed, trace can act as a basic recording of the physical state of an artwork within the time and space of the art event, or trace can be appended to an already performed work in order to complete its meaning. Thus, the status of trace can vary widely from one artist to another, and from one work to another, so that eventually we come to view it as “a contested subject and medium in itself” (Merewether, 2006).

In regard to the first two elements of written survey and visual display, we can say that, alongside trace documents, additional material has been collected from a range of other sources, including artists, theorists, critics, curators, as well as discussions between artists and this author. The process of collecting these primary sources placed great emphasis on collecting voices from within the region itself so as to be reflexive of its own contemporaneous discourses and histories.

If, “the understanding of cultural production begins with the revelation of its sources” (Hoptman & Pospiszyl, (eds.) 2002, pp, 10-11), then the use of indigenous material locates the thesis in far closer proximity to a credible historicization process of Eastern European art than would have been possible to achieve if it had relied on Western European sources. While there are many levels to this argument it would be timely to recall the example of Beuys proposed earlier by Irwin.

While Western European art history is, in comparison, ‘given’, through the meticulous documentation and referencing of aesthetic disciplines, networks, and countries, in Eastern Europe no such cartography or canonicity exists (1) While non-official art production did not lend itself it to an active historicizing process, due in part to its clandestine nature, inter-regional networks operated differently from those in the West: travel was severely restricted in most countries, ruling out opportunities for foreign exchange and exhibition support. Similarly, the lack of any art market in Eastern Europe produced different values through which work was made and would be judged.

The creation of this nonconformist tradition was impelled by the fact that an outsider in the Soviet empire stood alone against a tremendous state machine, a great Leviathan that threatened to engulf him. To preserve one's identity in this situation, one had to create a separate value system, including a system of aesthetic values. (Backshtein, 1995, cited in (eds.) Rosenfeld & Dodge, p. 332).

Thus the value of a work of art was not determined by trend or categorization but “in its interpretation, its message. We do not judge the object, but what it tells us” (Ilya Kabakov, 1995). Kabakov points to an even more fundamental problem where, “deprived of a genuine viewer, critic, or historian the artist himself [had to] guess what his work meant 'objectively'” (Kabakov, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 8).

It follows then that, if in our present day there is no coherent strategy, or strategies, through which to approach these practices, or more accurately, the contextualizing of these practices, artists will stay “deprived of a genuine viewer” (Kabakov, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 8).

The 1994 exhibition of Eastern European art Europa, Europa (2) in Bonn has been roundly criticized for its disregard to context. It brought together a range of artists from the ‘East’ but made no distinction as to places other than they weren’t from the ‘West’. Further, work form the pre-Yalta era was displayed alongside post-Yalta work, thus disregarding a pivotal turning point in both European history and the subsequent conditions for artistic production (Piotrowski, 2006). Europa, Europa is considered the paradigm that all later shows of Eastern European art were set against since,

It inscribed itself in the perspective of its mythology: into the myth of European universalism as a neutral tool of writing art history... and showed that there was no "other Europe," just Europe. (Piotrowski, 2006).

A paradox appears then: the fact that such an exhibition could even take place shows that there is interest in the works despite the disregard to context. That is, while it is relatively simple to exhibit works to a willing viewer it is altogether another matter to equip the viewer adequately so they can discuss them reflexively.

The case of Europa, Europa demonstrates that, in the hands of some curators, “art from Eastern Europe is still often approached… as an obscure margin” (Pachmanová, 2003). However, it can be from the “powerful position” (Piotrowski, 2001) of these margins that a critical discourse with the centre can be created. What is required is to find a language that will allow an analysis of these histories that reflect their unique contexts.

It is a task that we must acknowledges carries an innate sense of impossibility since, “a system fragmented to such an extent, first of all, prevents any serious possibility of comprehending the art created during socialist times as a whole” (Irwin, 2004). At the same time, however, this thesis is only one system or proposition among several more, each of which contributes positively to a research community that is passionate about how we read artistic activity from what was Eastern Europe.

In the past the agora was the public meeting place of civil society; people would meet to discuss matters of interest, goods would be sold, and entertainment would hold forth. It was, overall, a socializing realm defined by its own contributors. More recently the agora has been “invaded, colonised and destroyed by totalitarianism” (Martin, 2000), and the exchange of ideas, cultural activity, and economic markets censured; a set of prohibitions that led to a state of withering.

In the post-Communist world it is interesting to conceptualise a rebuilding of the agora as the site where the historicizing of Eastern European art takes place.

When this thesis talks about curating, or displaying, art works what it actually means is that it is putting forward a form of exhibition (Piotrowski, 2001). Piotrowski (3), who has written at length on post-colonialism in relation to the west’s reading of Eastern European art, points us to one meaning of the word ‘exhibition’ as "submitting for inspection, a public examination" (Piotrowski, 2001).

He shows that, after the collapse of the Communist system, art from Eastern Europe was subject to a “sort of inspection… from the ‘other’ side of the continent; knocking unexpectedly on the doors of the ‘right’ side of Europe” (Piotrowski, 2001).

The point he is making is an entirely valid one: power lies in the domain of the ‘examiners’ and it doesn’t help to have examiners, such as in our example of Europa, Europa, who are not knowledgeable, or are disregarding, of context. Zdenka Badovinac proposes that Eastern European artists do not necessarily wish to be included in already existing systems but to be a part of a new, and bolder, system,

When Eastern European artists raise questions of their own history of art or history of ideas, this is not because they are striving for the right to be included in the already existing system of canonical history. What they want is a new and different system of history in general. That is why the question of redefining history is not a question of identity, but a question of the priorities of today, one of which is also a possible global history, or better, a new system of different possible histories. The active difference of Eastern European artists is in their fight against amnesia, against forgetting a past that doesn’t fit in with the current political or commercialised forms of communication (Badovinac, 2007).

Piotrowski proposes one solution where art histories may be broken down into horizontal frames, for example, “around some particular key dates in both a history of art and politics, such as 1956, 1968-70, and 1980” (Piotrowski, 2001, p. 209). While this shares some sensibilities with the thesis there is a different point of departure in our interests.

The most critical aspect the thesis adheres to in its analysis of Eastern European art is that each country developed their own particular discourses and practices in relation to the unique social, political, and cultural conditions they were subject to.

As an example we can take the case of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960-70s. Following the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakian borders were effectively sealed to the import of western art and ideas whereas, in Poland, the government actively promoted cultural relations with the west, at least on an incoming basis and, crucially, as Piotrowski (2006) reveals, imposed no restrictions on art historical research. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that artists had different frames of local references to respond to.

Piotrowski’s idea remains close to the thesis however and interestingly invites an analogy: while the Polish trade union Solidarność was built around a horizontal structure, and was thus able to forge links with other party organisations and become an extremely effective opposition, Communism itself was a vertical political system (Machin, 1983). This impacted on many fronts including artists’ networks, which have been shown to suffer from a lack of horizontal maturity.

However, in our present age we must also acknowledge that the modes of preservation and display of art have now substantially entered the digital age and allow us to solve, retrospectively at least, a part of Kabakov’s problem concerning a “genuine viewer” (Kabakov, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 8).

With this in mind the thesis has constructed this Internet resource - Contemporary Art Histories From Eastern Europe, Time-Based - to display a number of works and materials gathered during the research period and around which the thesis has been conceptualised. It thus acts as both a curated space and a platform for the thesis.

The word ‘agora’ as a project name was chosen to reflect the conceptual reasons mentioned earlier and actively supports the argument for art historicisation beyond the dominant western model. '8' is adjoined to denote the eternal dialogue in art.

It shares similar sensibilities with a small number of exemplar web resources such as Art Margins, i_CAN, SocialEast Forum, and East.Art.Map, the latter which extends the invitation, “History is not given, please help to construct it” (Irwin, 2001). Published as a periodical three times a year Art Margins reflects the “processes of differentiation that continue to shape contemporary art in the region today” (Art Margins, 1999), and has been the primary online source for the thesis. East.Art.Map aims at, “(re)constructing the history of art in Eastern Europe between 1945 and the present beyond ex-Socialist 'official' chronicles” (East.Art.Map, 2001). i_CAN acts as an, “open platform for cross-cultural exchange and collaboration throughout East-Central Europe” (i_CAN, 1999), and SocialEast Forum offers, "a platform for innovative, transnational research on the art and visual culture of Eastern Europe " (Social East Forum, 2006).

All, however, clearly aim to fill gaps in knowledge and to counteract the lack of traditional print publications in the field. There are, of course, many other Internet sources engaging with the field of study but they are, on the whole, far less technologically mature and not curated around such defined frames of enquiry. Chief among these are the primary sources that the thesis draws on and that are, on the whole, either published online as individual articles or as part of an exhibition archive.

Furthermore, they are overwhelmingly and chaotically spread over many websites so that the researcher must traverse a minefield of search results, only and often to arrive at less than complete information. displays material in such a way as to reveal the primary sources that the thesis prioritizes between art and its social, political, and cultural contexts. It thus reflects a unique curatorial remit.

That is, that it treats each artistic production as a unique work that has emerged from an individual’s argument with particular contexts and the imposed order that they were subject to, and which impacted on their means of production.

It does not situate work within chrono-frames as Piotrowski and East.Art.Map do, although it does support a horizontal structuring of history, but privileges the unique individual’s exposure and response to landmark events, the ‘milestones’ we encountered earlier. It does not imagine that one work of art could ever speak authoritatively about an entire system spread fractiously across a vast area and timeframe, and that contains within it diverse demographics. It does believe, however, that one artist can respond to a locally lived and experienced situation in such a way that their activity reveals their own individual emergence within a larger historical process of emergence.

We will come to understand the Utopian drive behind the Communist project as a project of emergence distinct from any other contemporary ideology.

When we view these manifestations now we approach them from a contemporary spatial reference that allows archaeology of the past, a “trying to figure out from the ruins what really happened” (Abramović, 2005). Captured in images they become, in our present day, the mediated experience of the past. Arns (2007) argues that the mediated realm allows history to be all around us, to be ever present, whilst authenticity of the past is prone to a weakening through the status imposed upon the image as the bearer of events.

A more embodied, or experiential, relationship with what lies beyond mediated representation means to enter the image and to create it anew, to interpret and place a, “previously recorded gesture into a completely altered reality” (Klímová, 2006, p. 7).

The third pillar of the thesis’ curation examines re-enactment as an artistic strategy through the author’s practical engagement with four works from the Eastern European past. By choosing to re-enact historical works of other artists a particular aspect of dialogism is acknowledged within trace documents that forces a blurring of the roles of artist and spectator. This can be as true of corporeal experience as it of empathy.

We will understand these re-enactments as a mechanism that allows an experiential discourse with works that have influenced this author in one way or another even although they were not witnessed as live events. On a secondary level these re-enactments compliment the author’s longstanding interest in performance as a mechanism through which to engage notions of memorial and requiem.

Whichever way the viewer approaches and responds to these works one fact presents itself clearly: re-enactments demonstrate how historical work can be transferred from “the original environment in terms of exterior [to] a different socio-political context and a different period” (Pospiszyl, 2005:74). These concerns will be fully analysed when we look at the works in detail further on.

The author has selected the following three performances for re-enactment,

  • 1. Karel Miler (1977) Close to the Clouds. Prague region, Czechoslovakia.
  • 2. Nenad Bogdanovic (1984). A Minute of Silence for Performances. Odzaci, FYR/Serbia.
  • 3. Balint Szombathy (1972). Lenin in Budapest. Budapest, Hungary.

  • A further three performances have been devised by the author in response to the histories and materials unearthed during the research period.

  • 1. Meant Lament (2006). Piotrkow Tribunalska, Poland.
  • 2. Tutaj Między Teraz (Here Between Now). (2008). Tarnow, Poland.
  • 3. Requiem for The Line (2009). Giswil, Switzerland.

  • In order to allow the main body of the text to flow more freely the documentation of these re-enactments and performances are set out within their own section, both in the written element and on the website.

    1 It is interesting to consider the effects of Yalta on art produced in the West. Art historian Piotr Piotrowski considers it to similarly have a character of being political even if “less seen… in the West art was in the shadow of Yalta also” (Piotrowski, 2009). | back |
    2The exhibition was held at Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik, Bonn, 1994. | back |
    3 Piotrowski is one of the selectors for East.Art.Map | back |

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