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.

Chapter 3: Turning Over the Graves

Artists: Irina Botea (Romania) | Anri Sala (Albania) | Monika Sosnowska (Poland)

For the people of Eastern Europe to even believe that such a night in Berlin in 1989 would come had increasingly taken on the character of fantasy: no one really believed it would ever arrive. The problem with such helpless dreaming is that when fantasy becomes flesh it comes in such traumatic proportion that it is often quickly followed by amnesia.

This condition can be understood to operate on two distinct levels: on the one hand, many who lived through Communism have disengaged from talking about the past as a way to avoid revisiting cultural trauma and, on the other, there are the generations too young to have any real memory of it and who often consider the stories of the older generations to be too fantastic to be true.

Marada, in his analysis of cultural trauma, proposes that Cold War Communism deserves the same level of attention that is given to the Holocaust and African-American slavery, since “it is the historical case upon which this concept can perhaps be even more readily applied” (Marada, 2007, p. 8). The paradox that lies in the collapse of Communism is that, while reunification opened the East and West sides of Europe to one another, it also bore “an intensified generational cleavage in its wake” (Marada, 2007, p. 3).

Palonen (2008) has earlier demonstrated the extent to which the legacy of the Communist past impacts on the present day so that, when we talk about cultural trauma or cultural amnesia we are, in fact, dealing with an intergenerational problem.

At the same time, now that we are able to look at the past from a twenty-year distance and, we should emphasize, increasingly via the acceleration in technological advances that itself defines the pace of our historical perspectives, it is easy to think that the Communist era has simply melted into an abstract relation of the simulacrum.

But the process of emergence is complex and porous, and transition can be likened to an open wound. Relations between the individual and the State have been re-drawn and with it the spaces of memory have been realigned.

Nations have lost their assumed privilege to memorialise for us as we are inclined towards a deeper analysis of the past and the rules by which it is written. Spaces once solely in the domain of the State have been activated through a diverse range of political and civilizing activity and encounter where representations of revitalized cultural ethnicities have replaced the ideological fetish icon so beloved of the Communist parades. (1)

A binary has been created:people have no wish for this recent past to be publically raised or analysed, while whatever capital it might contain is clearly oriented towards western touristic initiatives (2) and entrepreneurial political gain. (3) The Communist kitsch that replaced the Communist experience neither promotes reconciliation nor acknowledges trauma, but simply repackages the simulacrum while self-serving politicians treat the past with a level of contempt that is itself thoroughly contemptible. 

The fundamental problem with this binary is that it leaves no space for the memories of the actual people who are most in need of reconciliation. (4) The binary simply contributes to the erasure of the past, towards a condition of amnesia that has come to characterize much of the post-Communist condition.

Clearly, it is one thing to talk of history but quite another thing to talk of memory.

Scribner suggests that, “what both capital and Communism first sought to exploit as a productive capacity, cultural practice might reclaim as collective memory” (Scribner, 2005, p. 6). In recent years a number of artists have engaged with this discourse of memory and memorialising of the past and carved out new ways of re-reading history.

Some have embraced advances in modern technologies that allow an updating and adjustment to the traditional performance of storytelling through which the past has historically been handed from one generation to another.

Video is at the frontline of this change, partly because of an influx of cheap cameras and the relative ease by which anyone can effectively apply the required skills in a short space of time. Simple editing processes allow a multiple layering of histories from which new meaning can be constructed. Others prefer more tactile sensoria where the physical act of remembering merges with the emotive realm of memory.

This chapter examines a number of works made after regime change that make us consider how the past is remembered and what it means to us in our present age.

Contemporary approaches to the analysis of the past and the role of memory in it overwhelmingly privileges the individual and the community over the State. Law (2007) shows that the essential task of what we call ‘cultural memory’ is to fill a gap “between the anthropological mining of memory and traditional historiography” (Law, 2007, p. 7).

While the latter proposes that we can know the past through the collected sets of data that authenticate it, and to some extent is capable of recreating it, it is therefore necessarily concerned with what happened in the past. On the other hand, with cultural memory we can say that the object of study is not what took place in these other times.

The various tasks memory undertakes: healing, denial, revision, invention, recreation and re-creation, forgetting… Remembering the past can be a creative process, and situating oneself in a shared temporal web is a necessary part of being in a society (Law, 2007, p. 7)

While traditional forms of re-enactment can be understood as driven by a desire to imagine oneself in some historical past or, in the case of the scientific world, to recreate a crime scene for forensic examination, in contemporary art the impetus comes from an altogether different reference. This orientation does not seek to recreate history for history’s sake but to analyse “the relevance of what happened in the past for the here and now” (Arns, 2007).

As has been demonstrated in the introduction a characteristic of our increasingly mediated world is that we mistrust the “authenticity” (Arns, 2007) of what the image actually means since technology allows history to be omnipresent. Re-enactment presents itself as a strategy fit to analyse the image in the artist’s own spatial plane, and to arrive at an understanding of what the images we see “might mean concretely to us, if we were to experience these situations personally” (Arns, 2007).

While restorative nostalgia seeks to reconstruct the past, reflexive nostalgia, conversely, reflects the authority and time of the past and allows it to be prospective towards the future (Boym, 2001).

In her 2006 video, Auditions for a Revolution, Irina Botea (Romania) engaged student actors from the School of the Arts in Chicago in a re-enactment of the historic siege of the Bucharest television station by the leaders of the Christmas 1989 Romanian revolution. [Fig. 18,19].

The Romanian revolution, that overthrew the brutalizing Ceauşescu regime, differed significantly from the other revolutions that took place throughout Europe as the Communist system crumbled. While these had been more or less peaceful affairs the Romanian experience was marked by violence and bloodshed in which over 1,000 protesters were killed (Siani-Davies, 2005, p. 97).

And, unlike the media coverage of events in Berlin that were filmed almost exclusively from the western side of the Wall, the cameras in Bucharest were rolling live in the studio and relaying images and statements of the those who would become important players in the post-revolutionary governing body. The television became an organ of the revolution.

At the time, however, their faces were not known to the wider public so the broadcasts came across as having “no coherent structure” (Maierean, 2006, p. 27), where the roles of reporter and citizen-revolutionary were confused. Maierean (2006) demonstrates how on-camera news read by the reporters was interrupted by short speeches making it difficult to distinguish between appeals and facts,

Sergiu Nicolaescu [Romanian film director]: Now, we have here Mircea Dinescu [poet and dissident], whom we do not know unfortunately by face, only by voice [From Radio Free Europe broadcasts]. Few months ago, he was fired from “Romania Literara” magazine, as a result of an interview against the dictator, granted to the French newspaper “Liberation”. He was arrested at his residence…Please…

Mircea Dinescu: I will make a short statement for the country. I am addressing now the workers, the peasants, the intellectuals and especially the students, to whom the entire country is thankful for their blood and life sacrifice from this heroic days…Do not leave your television sets! They are very important…Tonight, let’s hope that till tonight…We make a call to the leadership of the army. Some high representatives should come here…from the Army and from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Be with us! Speak to the army and to the people! Workers, intellectuals…come to the Romanian Television. We will put together a declaration for the people…

Voice: The manifestations should continue…

Dinescu: Manifestations…Calm, be calm, calm…The people won in Romania.

Voice: The manifestations should continue…

Dinescu: The Romanian people rediscovered his present and his future that is so important in these moments… (Maierean, 2006).

Botea set herself the task of recreating the scenes from these original newsreels sixteen years after their broadcast from Bucharest. She analysed the original footage frame by frame and subjected her actors to a precise duplication.

She shot her footage using the same type of camera and film as the original and then transferred it to digital media for the editing and presentation process. She chose a split screen presentation so we become viewers of both the original and the reenactment. We watch as the actor’s progress from clumsy awkwardness to acquiring a real commitment with the project as knowledge of events embolden them.

While Botea has gone to considerable lengths to find forms in the American landscape that correlate to those in the newsreels, her primary concern is not to simply recreate, forensically, the Bucharest television environment. While the tension evident in the re-structuring of place serves to draw out our analysis of the context, what it is that is being re-enacted, it is in her coaching in Romanian language skills that we begin to realize that there is a metaphor at work. The discomfort of the American actors attempting to grasp Romanian fluency clearly signals an allegory of the difficulties involved in interpreting history.

Although Botea had been physically present in Bucharest at the time of the revolution she was not in the television studio at the time the broadcast was made, and so her knowledge springs from the same mediated space as it does to us. By attempting to “re-insert herself into the endless sequences of images and events that comprise history” (Arns, 2007) Botea experiences more fully the social effect on the present day.

The Romanian revolution has spawned a significant culture of claim and counter-claim as to its legitimacy as a revolution vis-à-vis a coup d’état, and it is these events as much as the historically mediated that “have etched themselves indelibly into the collective memory” (Arns, 2007) that Botea has tackled in her attempts at authenticity in Auditions for a Revolution.

We understand that this form of memory functions as counter-memory thanks chiefly to Michel Foucault’s (1980) research into how the discourse of power is shaped. His favouring of the term ‘archaeology’ rather than ‘history’ underscores his attempt to break with traditional views of historiography since history does “not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence” (Foucault, 1980a, p. 162).

Bouchard refers to Foucault’s counter memory as “other voices which have remained silent for so long” (Bouchard (ed.), cited in, Foucault, 1980a, p. 17), and thus are able to “confiscate, at least temporarily, power to speak on the specific issues” (Misztal, 2003, p. 65).

Counter memory, then, can be understood as a counter discourse that allows us to concentrate on localized experiences by reframing the dominant narrative. As such, counter memory is not the “content of a memory itself, but rather the role a particular memory is playing in a larger construct of remembrance” (Law, 2007, p. 8).

And there is no more ‘localized’ context than the relationship between a mother and son. It is this dynamic that lies at the heart of Anri Sala’s 1998 video work Intervista. [Fig. 20, 21]

The story begins on his return to the family home in Tirana during a break in his film studies in Paris. Looking through some family belongings he finds an unprocessed 16mm film reel in plastic wrapping. His parents have long forgotten of its existence and neither of them can remember its content or the circumstances of its making.

Holding the film up to the light he sees the face of his mother as a young woman delivering what looks like a speech. Sala, with no projector to view the film on, examines the negative by hand and, frame by frame, sees a young woman of around thirty years of age who is, unmistakably, his mother.

Curious, he waits until his return to Paris to begin restoring the film when, to his astonishment, he watches his mother deliver what appears to be an impassioned speech at the 1977 Albanian Youth Congress, immediately next to Enver Hoxha, the Secretary of the Albanian Communist Party. Sala’s problem was that there was no sound and therefore he had no idea what she was saying.

Sala’s ‘detective story’ begins in earnest when his mother says she cannot remember the date of the interview contained in the film but identifies the interviewer as Pushkin Lubonja. Lubonja says he does not remember the woman, Valdet, from the more than 2,000 interviews he conducted because they were designed to reflect the Party, not the individual subject, and thus were “foreseeable and so were the answers” (Lubonja, cited in Boym, 2009).

Sala then traces the sound engineer who can’t help him either but, undeterred, he carries on his quest and hires lip readers from a school for deaf and dumb children to help recover the ‘lost words’ of his mother.

The instantaneity offered by digital technologies is at odds with Sala’s early specialism as a fresco painting at Tirana’s art school (Boym, 2009). When approaching the fresco it is necessary that the artist has prepared a well thought out drawing beforehand since the medium does not lend itself to change or correction in the same way as other forms of painting do. Painting onto wet plaster takes great skill, as does the application of each new area of plaster so that it matches exactly those previously applied.

Each day the performance of the fresco painter is re-enacted bit by bit as the painting grows toward completion, and this makes time a primary material in the work. We could say, in fact, that it is the antithesis of the modern world. Sala has carefully applied these skills in his transference to video as his preferred medium of choice and doesn’t seek to hide the process as conventional documentary does (Boym, 2009) but, rather, elects to reveal it as the key to the past.

Hence, there is no discussion with the camera by Valdet. Instead, Sala takes an off-camera approach that reveals the tension and love in the relationship between mother and son. When the film is finally restored he arranges to show it his mother. Valdet is confronted with the ‘text’ of ideology against the age of her experience; it is an exemplary exercise in reconnecting “the visual archive to its proper temporal context” (Enwezor, 2008).

The video shows Valdet confronting the Communist ideals of her younger self while considering the contemporary chaos of Albania as the economy collapses in real time and civil unrest manifests itself on the streets. The video, “in equal parts documentary, memoir and mystery” (Godfrey et al, 2005, p. 46), is imbued with intense psychological drama and a sense of memorializing something that, over the years, his mother had forgotten.

The film draws to a close with his mother reflecting that, “we were living in a deaf and dumb system… I think we’ve passed on to you the ability to doubt. Because you must always question the truth” (Sala, 1998).

However, there is more to Sala’s work than memorializing his mother’s lost words. Majaca and Bago show that “every new telling of a story perfects its narrative but also rearranges, edits and moves it further from its original, authentic plot” (Majaca & Bago, 2007).

When Sala shows his mother some early progress he has made on her Communist Youth Congress speech her embarrassed reaction is to suggest that he has made an error in the interpretation process,

This meeting was held to express a clear support of the country in the struggle against imperialism and revisionism and the two superpowers, which is only possible if the youth unites under the guardianship of the Communist party (Sala, Intervista, 1998).

It’s absurd... not the ideology but the grammar. I know how to express myself (Sala, Intervista, 1998).

Sala’s relocation of the plot from the Youth Congress to the domestic realm, and of Valdet from Hoxha’s side to the living room sofa where she watches the video, confronts the erasure and amnesia of the past not in a critical way but as a strategy that embraces Law’s various tasks of memory; “healing, denial, revision, invention, recreation and re-creation, forgetting... situated in a shared temporal web” (Law, 2007, p. 7).

It is, overall, an inter-generational text. We understand the reenactments of Botea and Sala to engage Boym’s notion of reflexive nostalgia, where the possibility of nostalgia acts not in a reconstructive manner but as “prospective towards the future” (Boym, 2001).

Returning to our topic of counter memory then, we can locate these re-enactments within a subverting of the dominant memory that, in this case, was a mediated historical memory, and that neither Sala nor Botea were concerned so much with confirming or validating the past, but with the “questionings of the present” (Arns, 2007).

The stone columns of Lenin and Marx, and all the way down to the lesser Party officials that occupied the streets and squares, as efficient in their occupation as any physical army, are now gone. What remains physically of the Communist past are the traces of the rapid growth in industry following WW2 that saw large segments of Polish society migrate to the cities from rural areas. 

In order to accommodate these recent settlers a new type of ‘osiedle’ (settlement) was needed. The modernist, Soviet-styled architecture of high-rise tower blocks became the model, with each osiedle containing a number of buildings that individually came to be known as a ‘blok’. (5) This particular form of Soviet modernism was determined most of all by producing a basic, functional habitat characterized by undecorated, bolted-together, Plattenbau slabs that gave them a dour, depersonalized appearance.

The architectural installations of Monika Sosnowska communicate the memory of this “bastardized version of modernity imposed on Poland by its Communist administrators” (Kalinowska, 2005). Sosnowska belongs to the generation whose lives have straddled a near equal split between Communist and post-Communist times, and was part of the first generation to graduate from art school under the new political reality.

She allows her anti-architecture to speak of the “traumatic experience” (Szczerski, 2007) of the Communist past that continues to resonate in the present, so that they act as “tropes of the memory discourse” (Vidler, 1994, p. 178). If the content of Polish modernity was determined by the conditions of the nation’s stateless existence throughout the nineteenth century, its form grew out of the processes that took place in the aftermath of the Communist takeover of power (Kalinowska, 2005).

Never quite completed due to materials shortages these bloks were constructed in often absurd ways: common stairways painted in muted colour, corridors often leading nowhere, kitchens without windows, a maze of exposed hot water pipes running throughout the rooms often with no means to regulate them and, almost exclusively, all fitted with beautiful, rolling, wooden parquet flooring that imbues them with a grandeur at odds with their erstwhile function. It was common practice for inhabitants to redesign corridors and hallways in an effort to salvage storage space that had been mysteriously omitted form their design.

Architecture critic Grzegorz Piątek (2009) laments that, in the rush to rebuild Poland amidst a period of high economic growth, present day Polish architects are not interested in “discussing and arguing or dealing with critical architecture which would attempt… a critical reflection of the surrounding world” (Piątek, 2009).

One reason he cites for this is the generation of young architects who grew up on “cheap air flights and Skype [and who’s] perverse” (Piątek, 2009) engagement with this form of Communist-era architecture does not pay due attention to the ecology of its past.

Rather, he condemns it for contributing to the destruction of an architectural and social heritage by not preserving landmark buildings that are part of the nation’s memory: “when architecture falls silent, fine arts become its conscience” (Piątek, 2009).

Sosnowska’s installations are designed to be physically experienced; they are unexpected and strange misrepresentations of scale that disorient the visitor, exaggerating but not parodying the original. If there is an exaggeration, it is that she attempts to manifest the hallucinatory qualities of these bloks that were at one and the same time home, uncanny and, externally at least, depersonalized spaces where residents lived in a “Kafkaesque situation in which architecture starts to control human emotions and becomes a medium of oppression” (Gorzadek, 2004).

In place of utilitarian function Sosnowska introduces “chaos and uncertainty instead” (Sosnowska, cited in Jeffrey, 2007),

I am especially interested in the moments when architectural space starts to acquire the aspects of the mental one (Sosnowska, cited in Gorzadek, 2004).

The idea is to question reality, not just absorb it. I’m not really inventing, or creating fantastic images. Rather, I am manipulating things that I remember, things that I have found in reality (Sosnowska, cited in Jeffrey, 2007).

In Untitled (2003) an L-shaped green and white corridor narrows as the body passes through it, producing a sense of anxiety that is heightened when we come across a number of doors that are seen partly open. [Fig. 22].

The interior of the 2003 work, Corridor, is painted stark white and divided by 6 pairs of doors. [Fig. 23, 24]. The attention to emotional response is acute in the ordering of space and place. It reveals a condition explicit in the work’s form that allows memory to assume a physical flesh of an anxiety associated with this chaotic, imported, and imposed architecture.

Sosnowska has allowed herself to “quote the fragments of the PRL [People’s Republic of Poland]” (Szczerski, 2007) as a method that permits her to take an anti-architecture stance: by creating aesthetically beautiful, minimalist, works apparently devoid of function she draws attention to how function can act actively against the people it was in fact intended to serve.

By extending the memory of a ‘bastardized’ architecture composed of a “claustrophobic labyrinth of corridors, architectural decorations falling apart, or ruined walls” (Szczerski, 2007), she juxtaposes the dislocation of the past with the present day and presents an architecture of the “post-Communist era of shattered dreams” (Szczerski, 2007).  

We can call these installations ‘re-enacted architectures’, not in a way that mirrors the experience of everyday life in the People’s Republic of Poland but, rather, as the flesh of “dead ends and false starts” (Jeffrey, 2007) that embodies the memories of the failed Communist Utopia. (6)

If the works of Sots Art and Ilya Kabakov illustrate how heteroglossia operated in relation to the dominant ideology through their appropriation of the Socialist Realism lifestyle, in the post-Communist era there is no such readymade simulacrum that artists can agitate.

Despite the continuing reverberation of the Communist past (Palonen, 2008) heteroglossia, as an analytical discourse, has been replaced by the alienation and individualism that characterizes the accelerated transition into a global system of democracy. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of a collectivizing culture.

It is no longer a time of emergence, as was the Communist project, but a moment in time when people gape at the wreckage wrought by the clash between the old and new worlds of Europe. In the post-Communist era there are no more heroes. Neither has there been much time to adjust.
Warsaw is the biggest building site in Europe (PCRF, 2009), a continuous development project throwing up futuristic structures. (7) The pace of change is breathtaking but the cost is being left for future generations to lament. Glass and steel towers rise skyward side-by-side with the now dwarfed osiedle’s. The new shiny crowns extend the ceiling of dreams and fill the empty holes in the sky where the giants of Communism once looked down upon their subjects. [Fig. 25].

In 2006, in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Sosnowska installed, The Hole, a jagged puncture in the (false) ceiling with shattered debris lying below. [Fig. 26]. Somewhat reminiscent of Kabakov’s installation, The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, it differs in one critical aspect.

While Kabakov’s hero was propelled by the Utopian drive to the cosmos, and Kabakov by a critique of it, Sosnowska’s hole has been made from the outside in. We know this because the debris consists of forms that, if forensically pieced together, would not account for the “shapes of prisms, rhombuses, or other geometrical figures” (Sosnowska, 2006) that lie on the floor.

And why would forms that contain within them cosmic properties appear to have crashed through the hole and into the room from space? With neither simulacrum nor cosmic space to fly into there is only “a small piece of well-illuminated ceiling” (Sosnowska, 2006) to ponder.

The answer is located in a metaphor of the post-Communist condition: while spaces of memory are being sharply erased in the headlong rush into an “atmosphere of curiosity and potential, but in the end, impossible damage” (Sosnowska, 2006), the installation reveals the new reality as “something that from a distance looks like a recognizable thing, but on looking closer, becomes something else” (Sosnowska, 2009).

1 See, Balint Szombathy’s 1972 performance, Lenin in Budapest | back |
2 For example, there are ‘Crazy Communist Tours’ in Krakow, Budapest, and Prague. | back |
3 In Poland the PiS (Law and Justice) party, led by the ultra-Catholic and homophobic Kaczynski twins, went on a highly publicised and resource-heavy witch hunt for communist collaborators and informers while shouting down instructions from Brussels to become more open in line with reforms set by the European Union. | back |
4 The Czech Sociologist Radim Marada (2007) categorizes the trauma that accompanied the transition from communist to post-communist society into three distinct parts:
First, there has been the question of who was guilty for the widespread injustice of the communist regime, from imprisoning people for stating publicly their political views opposing the policies of the Communist Party and the regime in general, to withholding passports or making it impossible to pursue a carrier for which one was qualified or to study at a university or even a high school. Who was responsible for creating the atmosphere of fear, docility, and opportunism of a large part of the population? Second, there has been the more immediate concern with people’s past, when new elites and leaders were looked for after the regime change, not only in politics, but also in the media, at schools and universities, in the state bureaucracy and other institutions. How to find someone reliable when those who were qualified for these positions had often been part of the old communist “nomenclature” or too close to it? How to recognize the true proponents of the old regime from those who just played the game and did not harm anyone directly, at least? And third, the question of guilt arises as many problems of transition towards and of the new liberal democratic regime are attributed to the communist heritage. Who is to be accused of the current problems in political life, the economy, and social relations, which we could have avoided if only we had not started with the burdens the corrupt communist regime? | back |
5 Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski turned the osiedle into a metaphor of the human condition onto in his 1989 Decalogue series. | back |
6 Vidler (1994) demonstrates that modernist architecture, inherited from futurism, ironically sought to erase any sense of the past from its architecture. The irony is that, while Sosnowska’s installations generally end up destroyed after exhibition (Sosnowska, 2006), the osiedle’s and bloks that remain standing undergo mass exterior renovation throughout Poland, receiving cosmetic facelifts, more optimistic colour schemes, and the roads and paths that maze around them re-laid decoratively and with tree-plantings. | back |
7 Warsaw is, of course, a unique example that also incorporates the wholesale destruction of the city by Nazi Germany. Berlin is classed as the second biggest building site in Europe (PCRF, 2009). | back |


Irina Botea
Anri Sala
Monika Sosnowska

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