Conversation – Adam Szymczyk A conversation between Neil Cummings, Marysia Lewandowska and Adam Szymczyk, director of the Kunsthalle Basel about artistic practice, everyday life and enthusiasm.

Conversation – Adam Szymczyk

Adam Szymczyk: Why have you been interested in the activities of the enthusiast?

Neil Cummings: The space of the amateur, enthusiast or hobbyist opens onto a range of interests and experiences generally invisible amongst the relentless flow of the state sponsored, or professionally mediated. The enthusiast is often working outside official culture and its products, frequently adopting a counter-cultural tone of tactical resistance and criticism.

Adam: I think one should also think about how the enthusiast or amateur was integrated into the communist system; because they enjoyed relative freedom and State support at the cost of distancing themselves from political issues. The activities of the enthusiast was perceived as quite harmless from the State’s point of view, as it was keeping a significant number of creative and curious people busy. It deterred them from becoming a threat to the system, in the way that dissidents were.

Marysia Lewandowska: Perhaps the more the state disarmed their potential opposition the more they invested in themselves, on a local level. The film club members seemed more intent, especially in smaller provincial centres, on creating spaces of discussion, of belonging and celebration. We could think of a process of politicising on the level of self-awareness. Their amateur status, the internal network of competitions and festivals helped to keep their views local and specific. And with the exception of occasional review in “Ekran” and “Film” magazines, limited in terms of wider interest and reception. But those small social acts of scripting, casting, shooting, editing, screening and discussing added a potential for action in what were often bleak local circumstances.

Adam: I don’t know if it adds to the discussion, but it’s perhaps important to remember that during the Communist time, there was a wide array of periodicals published, on various aspects of cinema. Perhaps not reaching many readers, but some of the issues of those magazines achieved almost cult status. I can remember very clearly waiting for a new issue of a pocketbook size black and white magazine “Film na Świecie”. It was more serious than “Film” or “Ekran”, with monographic issues on film directors, or styles in cinema. Then there was the “Kino” magazine with fantastically stylish pinups on the back cover, with some quite serious film criticism inside. And there were some local magazines like “Obscura” which I think was published in Lódź as a kind of samizdat-like photocopied booklet. In a way I agree that there existed a quite good climate for discussion among film-fans and academic writers, although not very visible to a broad audience, for obvious reasons. If political self-awareness was there, it was pretty hard to translate it into any kind of political act.

Neil: The film club enthusiasts often invert the logic of work and leisure, becoming truly productive when pursuing their passions, and using work for their own rather than the factory or States intentions. And in this sense we think of their practices as being political -in the broadest sense.

Adam: I like the notion of inverting work and leisure, but I think the politics of leisure in an authoritarian system belongs to a dominant and superior logic, which covers all forms of possible activity. Direct political action would be the only conceivable transgression of this logic. The big question is if art could be transgressive at all under these circumstances.

Marysia: Surely that’s right, the totalitarian dream of control and organisation in every aspect of social life, complicates the idea of that kind of separation between work and leisure. But could direct action ever be possible without beginning in self/reflection, and  with a desire for a different kind of organising principle? All that has to happen through a local and intimate social engagement, which we see amateur film making as an example of.

Neil: And I’m not so sure if this superior logic you refer too, ever existed; an authority that covers all forms of action? But I suspect that, if it did, then yes the only means of transgression would be direct political action, which sounds like violence and terror. What we were thinking through is how, given the actual circumstances of State intervention: control of housing, work, food distribution, the broadcast media, etc; and the (false) celebration of industrial production, that the film club members on a local level made a space for “themselves”. And this space works on many levels. As a social club – these people were bound together by their passion for film. They watched and discussed foreign films in what looks to me like an “underground” network.  To the clever and devious ways the film stock itself was siphoned off from officially sanctioned projects and used to make their “own” films; even the collaborative nature of scripting, acting, shooting, developing, and screening the films. So in this sense I think the members were truly productive, truly creative in time remaindered by labour. And it’s this enthusiasm – for all manner of activities- that all political and economic systems are trying to harness for instrumental ends. 

Adam: I think the dialectics which included emancipatory social processes on one side, and repression aimed at the conservation of old structures of power on the other – the dialectics leading to the awakening of civic society in the 1980 – has been changing dramatically throughout the last decades. What we have now is a consumer society where amateurs of any kind are not welcome, and professionalism has become a new religion. And I think this is precisely why it’s important to explore a kind of selfless attitude –that the amateur film makers embody- which is largely forgotten nowadays.

Neil: As for the big question as to whether art could ever be transgressive under these circumstances, I would suggest not. But it’s clear, even to someone who did not live under this regime, that ideas, emotions and aspirations find a form in these films that have no expression elsewhere. And in that sense they offer alternatives; mutual bonds of discussion and resistance. So no, not transgression, but difference.

The Exhibition

Our second group of exchanges relate to the exhibition, and how to find ‘exhibitionary’ forms; of “reconstruction” or installation, or through the use of contextual materials -printed, projected, etc- that can set a scene into which, or through which, the films can be approached.

Adam: How to make this exhibition without it only (mis)representing a certain historical phenomenon?

Marysia: Difficult question, and it sounds a bit like a warning, and so it should! But lets start with this: What is my own investment in this process of representation? 

On the conceptual level it forces me to deal with the historical phenomenon itself. It demands to reveal how that process was embedded, or not, in my consciousness. While we artists and intellectuals were all keen to attend the DKF (Film Discussion Clubs) screenings, no one I was studying with had the slightest interest in the amateur film-makers. Even less so when it was done by factory workers. Our indoctrination with the slogans of class solidarity kept us apart, until the events of 1980. So here for the first time is a chance to face those blanked out areas. In a way to acknowledge the repressed within my own relation to history. Of course, this cannot be easily done.

Adam: This is really interesting. I think there must have been a major difference between the 1960’s and the 1970’s as to how this possible creative alliance between the workers and the intellectuals was designed. For instance in the catalogue of the 1st Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elbląg from 1965 -which was organised and supported by local heavy industry- you see photographs of artists standing next to workers in a big industrial hall. They are engaged in a discussion about  the technology of production, and on the opposite page you see the result of this exchange; artwork installed in public space, the ideal sunny space of youth, with the hope of advanced real socialism. Images of artworks and “production stills” are alternating with images of ship engines and gigantic turbines that this factory produced.  What’s presented is a desire for melding together art and industrial production, work and leisure, reflection and action etc. In March 1968, the workers were manoeuvred into a clash with young intellectuals and given the role of defenders of the nation and socialism, against the “Zionists”. The “Privileged Youth” were given a reproach. 

Then came the permissive 1970’s under Edward Gierek, and an overtly consumerist decade, which brought some great and now forgotten films, mildly psychedelic imagery in graphic design, imported luxury goods for the few, and pop music through portable radios for everybody. This is the time when amateur film clubs flourished, and when the effort of authority is concentrated on creating this enormous space of entertainment, and also on giving a vast pop-cultural experience to the masses. This is the time when Park Kultury i Wypoczynku, a sort of socialist Disneyland, was created in Silesia, and when the organisation of leisure became a political priority. When I think of my childhood in 1970’s Poland, I always have this memory of beautiful weather and blue skies always open between the apartment blocks. I think amateur film clubs were no different to other harmless activities such as DIY, model-making, amateur photography, sightseeing, camping or “being an artist”. 

Marysia: Adam you seem keen to suggest that all amateur activities, including hobbies are the same. I recently came across an interesting review from of one of the film festivals in 1969, where the critic Janina Szymańska begins with a similar suggestion by saying “ So amateur film making is just a hobby, some fun and a way of relaxing after work, not dissimilar from fishing or playing cards.” But for us amateur film making is a different order of activity, because the result of the activity –the films- are in many ways a reflection, criticism or celebration of the conditions in which they are made; and then, this reflection is offered –through screenings- to others. It’s difficult to imagine the activity of a fisherman or a model-maker being subjected to such social scrutiny through exhibition. So maybe, as producers of cultural artifacts, these film makers were closer to “being an artist“ than a fisherman. They carried a different social obligation.

Neil: We have the intention of “curating” three separate film programs themed as Love, Longing and Labour that run concurrently, in three different cinema like spaces.  We want to reconstruct a small clubroom, and make an Archive Lounge. The Archive would make visible some of the vast variety of films, and enable our selection to be seen as a possible interpretation -one of many- and not in any way authoritative. 

Adam:  Well, how to keep the amateur film running and not let it fall apart into a series of disconnected film stills? I think one could depart from the very metaphor of film projection – a projection of a film image onto the screen can be translated into a projection of subversive content from the past into the present. And to try and free a possible speculative force of “quotation” from the linear history of amateur film clubs. I think the form of representation of the past needs to be meta-historical, in other words, it needs to deal with its own conditions; to represent but also attend to it’s own pretence to finality. This is all aside from representing the phenomena of the film clubs itself.

Marysia: Adam, as you not so long ago said yourself in Gazeta Wyborcza [national daily newspaper]  “An exhibition is not the same as window dressing, it’s closer to a re-furbishing of the mind”. So the practice of exhibition carries some responsibility; it participates in the interpretation of knowledge, or experience and in this case history; so this feels very relevant at the moment. Currently, we are thinking of the exhibition as some sort of archaeology of a “double repression” in contemporary social and cultural history. Firstly, and as you mention above the enthusiasts and their products are dominated by the image of the professional in all aspects of cultural life. And secondly, the places to which the clubs were predominantly attached – factories and industrial complexes- are being erased from our European consciousness and replaced with images of consumption, shopping, service economies and communication. Things are always manufactured elsewhere.

Neil: I like the sound of this “speculative quotation” and that it could exist between history. Part of our interest relates to what I suggested above, in that enthusiasm rather than labour, is a potentially unlimited source of capital. So the possibility that the film-makers were truly productive in their leisure-time is extremely relevant for us all now. That is, given the current struggles to harness intellectual property, open source software development and issues around the creative commons, etc.

The growth in immaterial labour, service and communication economies mean that we no longer know when we are working or not. Free time disappears, and enthusiasm becomes a major resource for capital.

And I’d like to think that we are very wary of the authority, and what Marysia called the “responsibility” of an exhibition has over the material exhibited. We are keen to allow visitors a space for critical reflection on the themes we are momentarily “curating” the films into. That’s why a searchable digital Archive of films we have found and collected, but not screened, is so important. It means that visitors will be able to make their own programme, to complement, or contradict ours. We’d like to avoid finality.

Adam: Thank you for the conversation.

London, Basel, Warsaw, April 2004