I find compelling and further important the dimension of the practice of archiving that you imagined during the 1970s, starting with the moment of the Chapel Studio at Balatonboglár, and thinking at the then historical environment and the artistic paradigms acknowledged in the official realms. You included in the very practice the need to generate the (artistic) material which was about to be documented, collected and preserved. And you were aware about the necessity to record the things experienced and produced at the time, most of them situational and ephemeral. I also find interesting that you decided later to “institutionalise” the archive, as in your diary from that time you define the archive as a museum structure. What is the relationship between the archive and the museum?
György Galántai: It’s a metaphor. In the text Active Archive I describe what I think about the archive. I think that in an archive the material that comes in just accumulates there. There is the active person, maybe an artist; there can also be somebody else, who needs a space to do his activity, and in this space he is building connections. So there are other people needed in this space, too. This space can be the whole world. From a spiritual perspective we are all in a big space, where everyone should have the same communication possibilities. And the connections are created and may be built if these people can say things that are appealing for the others, if they can become exciting for each other.
Is the artist the connector? Is he / she the one who creates the connections?
GG: It can be anyone. An artist can communicate with visual materials, a musician with musical materials, any spiritual material via which thoughts can be exchanged.
The accumulation of materials was called in your initial statement “a museum of artistic inventions.” What does “artistic invention” mean? Maybe the English was not very specific in this case.
GG: When I used the term museum I meant it metaphorically, I did not mean it literally, like a Museum of Fine Arts. I was always thinking of a museum that didn’t exist, that could be possible, like a museum of inventions. So maybe Artpool can be considered a museum of inventions. Museums collect artworks, and we do not collect artworks, but information. For us an original work, or a copy, or a reproduction is the same. Does it contain any information or not? You can say that everything has some information, but what is it about? How can these pieces of information be connected? And the good pieces of information that can be connected to each other can form a big network, which will create a new world.
So, Artpool took this task in becoming a knot for information coming in and going out?
GG: This was the basic idea. We even have a rubber stamp with this text: “In—Artpool—Out” that we used in our correspondence. We were a closed society and we always wanted to be an open society. In an open society there is no secret and knowledge is shared freely.
Were you inspired by the communication theories of Normand Wiener or by the information aesthetics of Max Bense?
GG: The ones you mention, no, but there were some others like Vilém Flusser. If I were a writer I probably would have read much more, but as a visual artist, I could better understand and was influenced more by people who were speaking more condensed, like Flusser, who was an essayist philosopher, so these theorists were appealing to me. All those who influenced me were freedom fighters, revolutionaries, let’s say, not in a political sense, but in their mind. Scientists like Albert Einstein, János Neumann, who dealt with topics that are now important, like informatics, also influenced me. These were people whose ideas, I thought, would determine the society of the future. It will arrive slowly, but it’s good if you can believe in something. I think that you have to believe in something that is inapprehensible but at the same time is a reality, like the theory of Vilém Flusser concerning writing and photography. This is something that you can really imagine becoming reality. His definitions of photography are practically social models; the relationship between the photographer and the camera, for instance. Camera is the apparatus and the photographer is the functionary, and practically we are in society. And the most important duty of the photographer as functionary is to change the apparatus, the camera. If he is not doing it, he is not working well. There are models like this.
How is this translated in the practice of Artpool? How do you collect these materials, disseminate them—as your approach is both artistic and archivistic?
GG: These are our dialogues. It’s a continuous dialogue, sometimes with a lot of people, sometimes with fewer people. The main question is: What is the topic you ask the others about? It is very important, it determines if it will be a good project or not. Generally people are not much interested in knowing how a good project is born. We did a lot of good projects, but why were they so good? First there is a call, a letter that I am going to send. This letter should already address the people. It should be really clear, nothing complicated, and it should have a topic in which possibly many people would be interested. It’s almost like doing politics, because I, as the curator of the project, have the aim to make more and more people feel that they should take part in it. But not more than it’s needed. If it’s too easy then it becomes groundless, so there should be some difficulty in it. This should be understood, and be overcome. I never do the selection myself; the selection is made by the fact that if someone doesn’t understand the project, I cannot include him. If there is a reply that has nothing to do with the project, if it is not replying to the call, it’s clear that he doesn’t understand the project and the person excludes himself/herself. And this guarantees the quality.
From a certain perspective the founding of Artpool determined the existence of a world within the world of the real, existing socialism. So, your role was much more important. You “delineated” a second public sphere, connecting various people locally, regionally and internationally. Were you aware of this at the time and which was the impact of this alternative?
GG: In mail art there is a general saying that every artist is a museum. Naturally, in the mail art network there are some nodes that are more important than others, and Artpool was one of them, but practically every artist was a small node. For instance, traditionally in art, there are collectors. And if a collector is good he becomes a “museum.” Cavellini for instance started his career as a collector. He had a very good collection of contemporary artists that could not be found in European museums at the time, and when he decided to start his own art activity he sold all his collections and practically the best contemporary works were bought from Cavellini and went to the museums. And this huge amount of money that he got he spent it all on his own art activity and mail art, on postage costs, printing, stickers, books and catalogues.
You had a very good connection with Italy, how did it happen?
Júlia Klaniczay: It is thanks to me, or my family. My father was teaching in Rome, at the university, and we had the opportunity then to learn Italian and to travel to Italy. And this was just the time when I met Galántai, and it was this period when we could travel to Italy, and in mail art network we were already in contact with Italian artists and we wrote to them. So it was a very good opportunity. We went there several times, and this is how we could meet Cavellini personally and then we agreed to organise an exhibition for him. Then he came here, it was really fantastic. We met a lot of other artists with whom we had very good contact. But we also had very good contacts with French artists, too, like Julien Blaine or Ben Vautier.
Returning to this idea of “delineating” another type of public sphere within the socialist framework… After your experience of four years in the Chapel Studio, you decided to create a context of your own. Was Artpool a way to withdraw from the real context and propose a different trajectory in visual practice?
JK: Yes, in a way. The Chapel Studio was a real space, but when it was shut down, it was no longer possible to have a space. For an archive like Artpool you really need to speak languages, and when I met Galántai he needed someone to help him, to take part in the projects and to translate the materials. When we met I could help him in this, and with our team we could start an international activity. By pure chance it turned out that we could create an archive. Everything started with a poster. Of course Galantai wanted to get in touch with artists all over the world and he thought that if he could not organise a space and could not invite people, we should try to be in contact by post. He wanted to reach as many persons as possible. He had an exhibition in 1978 and he sent its documentation to a lot of people, and there was a very good response to this. It was a poster-like catalogue and there was a small stamp on it saying: “Please send me information about your activity.” Somehow this sentence worked like a charm, and a lot of people from all over the world decided to send their answers. In exchange for this small folded poster, they sent catalogues and documentation and so on. When he saw that there was such a big response to a small piece of information sent from behind the Iron Curtain, this was the moment when he decided to start the archive. But he always had something similar in mind, even before the Chapel Studio period. In 1972 he was able to go to the Documenta in Kassel, and on this trip he saw a space called Depot in Cologne, where he had seen artist folders, with documents of exhibitions… There were three boxes, not too much, but it became a decisive experience.
GG: Already in the Chapel Studio I tried to preserve the documents, because there were exhibitions one after the other and I tried to collect in a graphic folder what remained from the exhibitions, to be seen even later. There are some photos of this from the Chapel. I always had in mind that I should somehow preserve the information. Because this is how a community can be formed, if you know what happened before… Every artist is a very closed ego and I wanted to connect them already in my Chapel Studio. And it was also an opportunity for the audience to see what happened before, and have an overview of the process.
So it is about recording, documenting, archiving, but at the same time it is also about writing this history, according to your concerns?
GG: No, only according to documents! I was doing slides. And from time to time I was doing screenings of slides from previous exhibitions. I even combined two slide projectors in order to make it semi-automatic, an East-German projector and a Czechoslovak one.
Were these slides taken also during your travel projects?
JK: We documented the trips, it was already our practice. It was in 1972, when Galántai went to Documenta, and the two Artpool trips, one to Italy, in 1979 and a Western European tour in 1982.
When you returned, did you present what you documented?
JK: This was really an art project. We frequently organised projects based on our travels, but with Italy we were not really successful. From the Italian materials we wanted to make an exhibition because we had collected a lot of things, and we also wanted to extend it and add a mail art project to it. We sent out invitations saying that this is a “Package from Italy” (Pacco dall’Italia). This would have been the title of the exhibition, but it was banned and we couldn’t organise the show any more. It was quite rude, the idiotic reason for which it was banned, the authorities said, was that “Italians are fascists, you cannot organise an exhibition with Italian materials.” They confiscated the entire posting we sent, so the invitations never arrived. Our 1982 travel was even better organised, because we contacted the artists beforehand and corresponded with them, and we also announced the places where we would be during our trip and asked Hungarian and other artists to send us materials there. We got mail art in different places in Europe. When we returned, in 1982, we started our samizdat art review, and in the first four issues we reported about the different things we saw during the trip. Of course we collected a lot of material. When we had embarked on our trip we took with us the catalogue of our artists’ stamp exhibition, it was a very important catalogue at the time, The World Art Post catalogue. This is what we brought to exchange with the artists we visited. We organised the World Art Post project for two years and we received A5 stamp designs that we diminished to a stamp size and we published in this catalogue designed by Galántai. A film was also made from this project, because it was very interesting how the contributions arrived, one after the other, it was like a film: one work continued the other.
GG: What is nice and what I like on the cover I made for the catalogue is that there is a world map, but there are no borders in it, only time zones, no political borders. There was an important Canadian artist philatelist, Michael Bidner, who appreciated very much our work, and it seems that after seeing this catalogue he also started to collect artists’ stamps. Originally he was a philatelist and a graphic artist, and seeing this great variety of artist stamps he decided to turn to this field and he became very important. He was also a very important collector and organiser. He was the one who invented the term “artistamp.” But he got AIDS and died very young. We inherited his collection; therefore we have one of the biggest collections of artist stamps in the world from that period. He wanted to give it to American and Canadian museums, but no one wanted it. That’s why he asked us at the end. It was very complicated to receive this material; it was still before the change of the system… Once we got a photo from Bidner in which a woman was wearing a T-shirt with artists’stamps from our project, it was very funny because the T-shirt was bought in Paris. It was very euphoric to see this, that you can have such an effect. From Paris she went to Canada wearing this T-shirt, and we were living in Budapest, in a communist dictatorship, behind the Iron Curtain and had no idea about the life of our project. So it was really incredible.
Were you in contact with the Latin-American mail art networks?
JK: Yes. We have quite a nice collection. We didn’t realise it was so important, but during the last year several artists and curators have come from Latin America to look at our collection, seeking to grasp the connections between Eastern European countries and Latin-American countries. We have works and documents from artists such as Egardo Antonio Vigo, Graciela Marx, César Espinoza and, from Uruguay, Clemente Padin.
GG: We made this World Art Post catalogue by countries. The project was a very good one and very appealing.
But why were there fewer contacts with Romania?
JK: We did not get a reply. Or they never received our invitation, or the reply was confiscated. In mail art exhibitions you get catalogues and there are addresses. So we wrote to all addresses. There were fewer contacts from Romania, Slovakia, Poland or Yugoslavia.
You made an exhibition in 1988 at Vac, the term Ost-modern was used then.
JK: It was an exhibition of Galántai’s sculptures and it was Péter Esterházy who wrote the text and called it Ost-modern. Esterházy said he also took the term from another writer.
GG: It’s a word game. In Hungarian “Ost,” written “oszt,” means “then,” so you can understand it not only as “East modern,” but also look down on it.
How do you relate to this term?
GG: In this term, there is this feeling of not being accepted. What was happening behind the Iron Curtain (in East or Ost) was not accepted by the Western countries at the same level. In a way you can understand that this was East-modern, there is a duality here, a little insecurity, because you can understand it either way, as it’s written East and not Os(z)t. I understood it as a “looked down on modern.” But Esterházy’s text is impressive and very ironic in what it says about the poor Hungarians who do not know where to go and what to do. The text still has its value and reflects the current reality.
Do you consider there was a particular interest for a Fluxus-attitude in the Hungarian Neo-Avantgarde of late 1960s and 1970s?
GG: They were more interested in conceptual art. My opinion is different. In Hungary there was neither conceptual art, nor Fluxus, I would call it contextual art, because all these works depend on the context; the works have a very strong relation to the context in which they were created. Fluxus is softer. Conceptual art is very strict and insists on being without any tools. This is not characteristic for the Hungarians. They are not strict, nor are they humorous and easy like Fluxus, but rather contextual.
I did an exhibition with the title Impossible Realism – The Territory of Fluxus and Conceptual Art. It was international and I did it especially to understand what happened in Hungary, if there was conceptual art and Fluxus or not. I made a big panorama to understand where the Hungarians are in this context. It was like a big map, it also had a website. I arranged the works in thematic groups. I wanted to have an impersonal approach, where my feelings didn’t guide me, so that’s why I found topics in which I grouped the works and the artists. I also conceptualised one work of Marcel Duchamp by adding to it a text from an encyclopaedia, what he couldn’t do before, as he preceded conceptual art. I also made a Hungarian version of Joseph Kosuth’s chair.
At the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, the topic of realism in Hungary was important, because of the socialist realism; so what is, in fact, realism? There were large discussions, and there was even a project around 1980 to collect ideas about what realism actually was. But the question was still there. Conceptual art was realist and Fluxus was also realist. And there was a third realism that Hungarian artists did, about which I didn’t know anything. So this is why I wanted to make this exhibition, this research.
At the time when I organized this I was speaking with artists and theorists and my idea was that this could be called contextual art. Because it resembled neither this, nor that; but all the theoretical people I talked to did not agree and said this was either conceptual, or Fluxus. This is why I called it Impossible Realism, because if it was neither this nor that, then what kind of realism was it? An impossible one. I find it very silly that, although the difference is clear, the theorists are not searching for the reasons and are not trying to name it. And if you don’t name it, then it doesn’t exist.
We should give a meaning to our life. We give a meaning to our life because we are able to name what we are doing. Artpool started like this, it started when it was named. And the name was not incidental, because it had three reasons why we named it Artpool.
JK: “Art” was evident. We looked for an English name because we wanted to act internationally. So it should contain art. Pool first came from the term “genetic pool,” because I was learning genetics at the time. I liked this idea very much; it was a brand new term at the time. It meant the whole genetic material, genetic information of a population. A large gene pool meant high genetic diversity, a large variety and as a consequence increased chances of survival. So that’s why I liked this term, pool. So there could also be an art pool. And there were two more reasons for the word pool – one that you can describe the big Carpathian basin where Hungary is like a “big pool” (nota bene: in Hungarian we use the same the word for “basin” and “pool”), and second, we were living then and now also in front of a swimming pool, which we could see from our big window…
Could this process of naming things be related to your interest in historicisation?
JK: Naming has always been important for Galántai. Naming, as well as visualizing. He immediately designs the graphic logo, the outlook… and this was also the case at the Chapel Studio. For instance, when the half legal exhibitions were also banned he decided that he would break all contacts with the authorities and would continue his activities illegally, in private. He made and posted rubber stamp work in which he declared that from that time onward the chapel was a studio, and the Chapel Studio was a private place where he could do what he wanted.
GG: It has always been important for me to visualise immediately what I am speaking about. So when we invented Artpool I immediately designed the logo, the rubber stamp, the letterhead, everything. I already made the Chapel exhibitions like a Fluxus activity, but without knowing it. When I learned about Fluxus, I recognized that this was Fluxus. Also other Fluxus artists and critics considered this as a Fluxus activity.
There is also one thing that you wrote in your diaries: that it didn’t matter if you were a sculptor, a painter or a mail artist, what mattered for you was “the will to art.”
GG: This is something I said when I was young. And when I was young, in the discipline of art there were very strict separations between sculptor, painter, and so on. I finished as a painter; I thought that painting is the most important thing. I finished the Art Academy and I became member of the artists’ association where it was written I was a painter, and when I made a painting, then it was ok, but if I made a graphic piece, I couldn’t exhibit it, because I was a painter. And I became very upset because of this. The only important thing is if you want to say something or not. It is not the will to do painting or sculpture, but to do art. There were even more problems later, because my sculptures were made of iron, but at that time, even if you were accepted as a sculptor, you couldn’t work with iron, it was not a material accepted for art. These sculptures were never exhibited, except on my personal shows in the 1980s. And they were not modelled by hand, but contained found objects. It was very difficult in this environment to prove that I was an artist. So I always had to escape from these official categories and rules. It was very difficult to imagine myself as an artist in the existing art world. I thought that I should somehow find a living and then do what I wanted. What is considered important for artists is that they should have official merits or that they be able to sell the work, and for me this was practically non-existent. In such circumstances someone feels in a total vacuum. Then comes in the mail art.
You said you believe in the future, so what is the future of Artpool?
GG: Vilém Flusser says that the present is the root of the future. So we are always working on the roots. Concerning your name, Institute of the Present, my question is: What will happen tomorrow with today’s present? It will become root, only if you do it well; if not, then it vanishes.
György Galántai in Hungarian, with consecutive translation to English by Júlia Klaniczay.
Interview taken at Artpool in July 2017 by Alina Șerban & Ștefania Ferchedău.