Entuzjaści w Warszawie / Review David Crowley


Walter Benjamin produced his most unambiguously marxist statement about art in his 1934 lecture ‘Der Autor als Produzent’. Stepping back from inflamed Weimar debates about the ‘politically correct’ form of progressive art, he maintained that to argue the case for one artistic language over another was to miss the point. Whether socialist realism was more legible than abstraction was not the issue: the key challenge for marxist culture, he maintained, was to wrest the technologies of reproduction from the bourgeoisie. Taking his lead from the Soviet Union, Benjamin mythologised common Russian readers who picked up the pen and the camera to contribute material to the Soviet press. In becoming producers of culture, they would become conscious of the forces of progress in the world. Here, he claimed, was a properly marxist response to the alienating effects of industrialised culture and a challenge to the prevailing conception of the ‘creative personality’ which, in Benjamin’s words, had long been ‘a myth and a fake’.

The German philosopher was not alone in his estimation of the creative powers of the ordinary man or woman when harnessed by the collective. In the 1920s communist activists had organised groups of worker-photographers who took their cameras into the streets, housing districts and factories of Germany in crisis. They recorded their struggles with brownshirted fascists and rapacious landlords. Their images were reproduced in a specialist magazine, Der Arbeiter Fotograf, which gave advice about the ideological and technical ‘deficiencies’of their images. However, the utopian figure of the worker-artist hardly had a chance to mature into adulthood before the Nazi clinch on Germany strangled left-wing culture. The worker-photographer did not, however, die. Twenty years later, a new generation of socialist citizens were picking up cameras to record the new utopia being constructed in the Gomulka’s Poland. From the 1950s amateur photography and, increasingly, film making was given official imprimatur: workers were encouraged to establish clubs in their factories and offices, supported by an infrastructure of competitions, screenings and publications. Sociologists argued over its merits, part of a much wider debate of the socialist character of wczasy. This phenomenon would no doubt be forgotten, dissolved into the consumerism of the video camcorder, were it not fo Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1979 movie ‘Amator’ and Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings’ recent exhibition ‘Entuzjasci z amatorskich klubów filmowych’ at the Centrum Sztuki Wspolczenej last summer. Organised as a series of rooms in which films were screened, ‘Entuzjasci’ was entered through a foyer screening peerlu-era newsreels and an amateur film club interior furnished with drab socmodernist furniture, thumbed copies of ‘Film’ and kitsch trophies awarded to prize-winning films. This self-consciously nostalgic space led to a series of rather more spartan galleries in which dozens of amateur films ran on a continuous loop. The short 16 mm films of the 1960s and 1970s which form the core of the exhibition were organised by Lewandowska and Cummings by genre, using categories which were surely unfamiliar to the film clubs. Whilst the classification ‘labour’conforms to the political economy of the old order, others, ‘Longing’ and ‘Love’, suggest more liberated uses of film. Here the appeal of the project to Lewandowska and Cummings became more evident: produced in the liminal space between official culture and dissent, many amateur films represent dreams and desires which could hardly be mentioned. The erotic impulse which propelled one film maker to represent his fantasies of love, filming in the unsteady orange electric light of a small apartment, was simply too commonplace when measured on the scale of high ideals proclaimed by State and, in the 1970s, the anti-communist opposition. Whilst most euphoric celebrations of everyday life, such as the writings of Michel de Certeau, have proclaimed it as a site of undetected and unseen resistances to power, the problem is precisely that: it remains invisible. Unlike most of their fellow citizens, amateur filmmakers possessed the resources to imagine and project other ways of living. Lewandowska and Cummings have compiled not simply an archive of films, but one of dreams. ‘Entuzjasci’ can be slotted into a wider body of interventions made by Lewandowska and Cummings into institutions like museums, department stores and archives since the mid 1990s. In ‘Free-Trade’, for instance, at Manchester City Art Gallery last year, they explored the relationship between heritage and culture the cotton town at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. They gathered together all the objects – paintings, ceramics and silver – given by a bequest by a wealthy industrialist to the gallery, some of the many thousands of objects which had once filled his home and marked the height of taste.

Each was labeled with a tag displaying its economic value at the time of the bequest. Displayed as if in transit, on route elsewhere, making the Gallery seem like a chaotic warehouse of kitsch. Lewandowska and Cummings have, it seems, made an art of exposing what is often seen as familiar or unremarkable. Their interventions are often small gestures, albeit ones built on considerable research. Even by their own standards, ‘Entuzjasci’ is a minimal intervention, much closer to curation than art. Lewandowska and Cummings’ exhibition was the culmination of a long process of fieldwork which involved conducting interviews with film makers and gathering films, stills and other objects relating to the material world of twenty-two amateur film clubs from across Poland. In this, the artists share much in common with the working methods of cultural historians who take an interest in the everyday, a phenomenon which, as Maurice Blanchot noted, ‘escapes because it belongs to insignificance.’ Any attempt to capture or recreate the ordinary, especially that from another era, is, of course, destined to transform it. The transformation here is one of context, the classic field of conceptual art. But these amateur films are not mute objects like the classic objet trouvé, nor, in fact, are they articulate statements. There is a kind of unknowable quality to many of these short films which lends to their appeal. Who were these ordinary people performing for our attention? why did the camera linger on this face or that view? what was the real-life relation of the on-screen lovers? In fact, some of these cine portraits seem so intimate that they are closer to home movies rather than the documentary format that the clubs were supposed to school their members in. And, like family movies, viewed without ‘inside’ knowledge, these films seem to reveal much whilst telling nothing. In his properly Marxist guise, Benjamin imagined that workers with cameras would be able to overcome the alienation of capitalist modernity: in the People’s Republic of Poland, it seems, that their reluctant comrades turned to the camera to escape the alienating effects of socialist modernity. ‘Entuzjasci’, perhaps, is an archive that requires a psychoanalytical key; one that might still perhaps be provided by Benjamin, albeit in his more surrealist mood. Photography was, he famously noted, an ‘optical unconscious’offering to the waking mind a reality that would otherwise remain hidden. In similar fashion, Lewandowska and Cummings have disclosed the everyday surrealism of peerelu.

David Crowley
Humanities Royal College of Art London