Woman imprisoned in the patriarchal logic of monumentality. The victorious gesture with sword upraised passes over into an embrace with arms outspread, bare-breasted, in the manner of revolutionary Liberty. Her tremendous body is raised to the lonely heights on the summit of Mamajev Kurgan and floats in the air over the city of Volgograd. Carefully arranged cuttings from the photo-reportage that filled the pages of popular magazines in 1977, the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution, capture the monument in spectacular poses. It is seen from below and in dramatic lighting, as it towers on high above the swarming Soviet people. You drift with that current of images, and right there next to the victory sculpture Родина-мать зовёт! (The Motherland Calls) you miss a counter-monument: a pictorial montage painstakingly layered from calendar reproductions, at the centre of which is the face of Květa (a wild but friendly Flora), Július Koller’s partner. The face is placed on the petals of a flower whose image covers other images, views of city gardens and panoramas of her native town. Then further images add to the flow: a scenic advertisement for Port wine, which distantly recalls the monument described above; wrappers of everyday consumer items; the strange colours and structures of waste materials; surfaces that are torn or marked by traces of blemishes, handled with exceptional painterly sensitivity. The archive’s river opens into a delta; appearing on the horizon is an entire panorama of the material world from which the action space of Koller’s cultural situations is sustained…
Agreed conventions of cultural practice were questioned by critical artists from the territories of the former Eastern Bloc, and one of their challenges was connected with the methods and processes of archiving. The study of documents in the archives of artists such as Artpool, Goran Djordjević, Stano Filko, Tomislav Gotovac, Július Koller, KwieKulik, Mladen Stilinović, IRWIN, and Jiří Valoch, shows many similarities and divergences in the purposes that artists had when they resorted to self-archiving. Here I define the archive as a “para-institution.” And this relates to the fact that I conceive the archive as an artistic instrument of self-historicising (which in many cases blends with the artwork itself). The para-institution of the artist’s archive was designed for recording, presenting and diffusing ephemeral, often subversive activities, and it produced autonomous contexts. Artists’ archives often reflect on how the ideological apparatuses manipulate everyday life, moreover they inscribe the artwork in history from the artist’s standpoint. That does not only mean that they put the artwork in circulation and communicate it within a limited circle of kindred spirits. Frequently the artist’s archive has a further role, involving an attempt to control the reception of the work in the local and international setting. Such an approach takes a number of levels of comparative research into account. Work at the varying levels of textual or pictorial documents demands a re-evaluation of the relationship of original and copy and must reflect the documents’ modes of production and reproduction, and must also take into account their unique, unrepeatable arrangement in the artist’s archive.
One cannot reduce the artist’s archive exclusively to purposes of communication. With the deliberate multiplication and diffusion of documents, things come to a point where archival practices break free from the instrumentalisation, reification and commodification of the artwork. In Czechoslovakia post-1968, when artists shifted their activities to a non-institutional setting, documentation and archiving, together with self-historicising, became inseparably part of artistic practice. For this reason one can trace certain parallels in the practice of artists who distributed their works by mail (Milan Adamčiak, Peter Bartoš, Ľubomír Ďurček, Stano Filko, Július Koller, Petr Štembera, Jiří Valoch, and others). The institutional-substitute framework was not merely the activities connected with networking and mail art: rather, for many artists these activities were combined with processes of self-historicising. The accumulation of records was facilitated by easy reproducibility, which itself carried the marks of authorial signature. Record-keeping was precisely structured and reflected in textual description; it took on the distinguishing marks of a private institution. For this generation of artists archiving represented an indispensable part of their work, comprising among other things a report on associations formed with the international milieu.
I will go on to describe the processes of self-historicising in the work of Július Koller (1939–2007), whose archive is the one I am most closely acquainted with. In this case work and archive are very closely interconnected: that part of the artist’s production which is now internationally distributed as individual artworks is only the jutting tip of an iceberg whose body remains submerged. The voluminous system of notes, documents and printed pieces becomes unmanageable if one does not know the logic of its arrangement. I am trying here to elucidate the complex link between work and archive by focusing on Koller as performer and defining the archive as the extended body of the artist. Consequently the archive—extended body of the artist—, dispersed in fragments of another medium and, as it were, in the limbs of his archival “body,” fulfils its futurological mission. Philip Auslander has used the term “performativity of documentation” to define documents which are not simply an indicative access point to a past event: rather, these documents themselves are performances which fully reflect the sensibility or the aesthetic project of the artist and for which, at the moment of reading them, we become an active public. Therefore the unique presence of performance in real time, its disappearing “now,” is not necessarily in contradiction to the archive, whose logic is enduring repetition. Rebecca Schneider points out that if we perceive performance as an act of enduring and repeated manifestation, we need not approach it as something that vanishes after its completion. Precisely in the work of artists such as Július Koller, the document or object does not merely contain isolated relics of performance: these documents anticipate and generate further performances. With the three-letter acronym UFO, in 1970 Koller launched his mechanism of designation, the Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations. I would associate this practice with the notion of performative archive by which I understand the assembling of works, documents and other ephemera to form a system of language, where every individual document is part of universal activity of questioning. In this complex system every signifiant has its signifié, and often there are multiple designated entities. Accordingly, under a single name a concept is found in variable versions. So as to keep track of the broad range of his work, Koller began systematically writing chronological registers, which he gradually adapted and refined. His system of language enables us to appreciate the extensive range of his activities, working methods, interventions and records as part of the permanent linguistic activity defined by the artist, linking apparently divergent spheres of his work: painting, action, conceptual art.
A tropological reading of the archive, which I am proposing here, enable us to interpret, ex post in theory and practice, the figurative significances of the archive and to contextualize them anew in texts, exhibitions, lectures, and so forth. Comparative research of the rhetoric of images in broader cultural and political contexts could lead us to a study of the tropes that code the affects (pathos formulae) of conformity and defiance in the artist, and this might be an inspiring probe into cultural memory. Such a reading opens up the significances of the affects of conformity and defiance in the artist under a political regime that incessantly controls public space and the flow of information, as in the period of “normalisation” (1972–1989) in Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, it discloses the paradoxes of the artist’s private and public functioning and illuminates his libidinal energy, unconscious processes, delights and rages. Tropological reading creates new linkages between otherwise separate layers of the archive, and enables one to create a provisional depository, a visual apparatus where the relationships, inner tensions and contradictions of images are stressed. This further enables us to make soundings into selected motifs, or to lay out entire panoramas of the socialist world with its consumer life and technological optimism, or to make visible the subject of the covert, desire-filled observation of the former Western Bloc, which formed a number of layers over time.
One of the tropes of the archive, where an economy of libido is realized, is handwriting. The landscape of Koller’s archive is largely inhabited by manuscript notes covering the archival production of the period 1965–1995, which is predominantly written with blue ballpoint pen and collected in school notebooks of the standardized A5 form. At that time Koller was making a kind of personal library of manuscript copies from scholarly books, catalogues of international exhibitions and foreign art journals. Koller’s manuscript has a processual character on the one hand, because part of this notebook production labelled “Časo-pis” (UFO), from the years 1981–1988, is a complete daily transcript of news reporting for every day in the year. On the other hand, we uncover here a privatisation of the international discourse on art, at that time absent from the public sphere, which is present in the archive in the form of a collection of copies or “observations” (using the Koller’s term) that serve as autodidactic and critical tools for his own art practice. The breadth of cultural scope is truly astonishing: the journals Domus and Kunstwerk (transcriptions from selected issues from the years 1978–1985); the catalogues Documenta in Kassel and Biennale de Paris; catalogues of important exhibitions such as When Attitudes Become Form (1969), Westkunst (1981); theoretical books and texts (diffused by samizdat) on action, conceptual and minimalist art.
Because Koller’s work has an improvised character of its interventions, dialectical games and commentaries, the libidinal economy of his (hand)writing in numerous manifestos, notes in an endless flow, commentaries, copies and transcriptions, is not a complementary but rather a central aspect of his artistic practice. This extensive and heterogeneous set of manuscripts brings us to an autonomous context of self-history, which offers us not one but immediately several narrative lines of the story. Hence specifically the example of Koller’s archive, together with the archives of other artists of the former Eastern Bloc, is both a source and above all an instrument of non-reductive thinking about the legacy of the neo-avantgarde in this region. These alternative readings contained in the structure and arrangement of the archive may be of considerable help to unlearn the hierarchical methods that dictate the national history of art, and perhaps to define in a different way the position of East European artists in relation to the western canon of art.
Daniel Grúň is an art historian based in Bratislava.
English translation by John Minahane