Atopical Places Antony Hudek
Attempting to inquire into a specific historical instance of enthusiasm opens the investigation to the vagaries of enthusiasm itself, which spreads instability at the very heart of discourse. Artists Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings take up, or rather embrace this risk in ‘Enthusiasts,’ an exhibition curated by Łukasz Ronduda for the Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw. The problematic of overlapping and competing histories has preoccupied Lewandowska and Cummings since the beginning of their artistic partnership ten years ago. Hence ‘Enthusiasts’ might be seen to offer, in its thorough presentation of the phenomenon of Polish amateur film clubs attached to state-run factories, a summary of the two artists’ decade-long conceptual strategy, as well as signal a turn in their practice, confirmed by their most recent project to date. For the history of enthusiasm as revealed in the exhibition applies both to the passion with which factory workers animated film clubs during the Socialist period in Poland – circa 1960 to 1990 – and to the two artists’ own position in a contemporary art economy suspicious of all things non-professional, non-classifiable – all things, in sum, which refute organisation imposed from without.
As with previous projects by Lewandowska and Cummings the physical exhibition represents only one facet of a larger enterprise bent on exploring, through extended periods of research, the multiple and often contradictory ways in which aesthetics intersect with economic and political value/s. In a work from 2000 entitled ‘The Value of Things’ Lewandowska and Cummings analyse “the dissolution of the previously clear demarcation between the cultural and the economic” by contrasting the histories and transformations of the British Museum and Selfridges, a high-end London department store. When, a year later, Tate Modern invited them to conceive a project to coincide with the museum’s opening, Lewandowska and Cummings devised ‘Capital,’ an array of events that drew out the parallels between the new institution and the Bank of England. Lewandowska and Cummings assembled the images and texts produced for ‘The Value of Things’ into an artist’s book, whereas ‘Capital’ became a catalogue, a series of seminars, and a limited-edition print distributed free to randomly-selected Tate visitors. The artists similarly construe ‘Enthusiasts’ as a temporary constellation of discursive modes which operate within defined parameters of a system. Over the coming years ‘Enthusiasts’ will translate into at least two other European exhibitions (on both sides of the contested boundary of ‘new’/‘old’ Europe), into publications targeted each time at the exhibition’s specific public, and into a growing collection of amateur films transferred onto DVD for public consultation, possibly on-line. The various manifestations of ‘Enthusiasts’ reflect, I will argue, the emotive excess historically identified with enthusiasm. But this multiplicity points in the first instance to the artists’ sensitivity to the glut of signs already flooding contemporary culture. Critical of the fiction of originality, and unwilling to add to early 21st-century visual overload, Lewandowska and Cummings promote a reappraisal of past records, highlighting undervalued yet “useful” objects. Specifically in the case of ‘Enthusiasts,’ preserving the films from oblivion and physical deterioration takes on timely political meaning as they document personal accounts of lives under socialism at odds with Poland’s present economic and political agenda.
In ‘Capital’ the spontaneous act of giving an object of artistic and monetary value disturbs the balance of supply and demand by casting the giver as irrational, apparently unconscious of the rigid regulations upholding ‘free-market’ economies. Instantly, from an economic relation based on prescribed rules, the short-circuit sparked by the gift clears an uncharted, conflicted terrain. The gift may leave the receiver feeling bewilderment, guilt, shame, hate, envy, indebtedness, or/and love: emotions that concern women and men, not classes, masses, or markets. Between the bold lines of economic etiquette, between the neat columns of ledgers, lists and inventories, Lewandowska and Cummings register the slippages into parallel economies of desire. From the beginning of their joint career the artists have focused on exactly those loopholes in the streams of information and people mobilising economic and cultural nodes: the club, the museum, the department store, the London underground, the commons, the web browser: as many loci where individuals enter into transient rapport, and whose memory endures through goods either lost, given, purchased, traded, stolen, bartered, or exchanged; that is to say, communicated.
Lewandowska and Cummings divided ‘Enthusiasts’ into three main sections, ‘Longing,’ ‘Labour,’ and ‘Love.’ For each section, to which the CCA devoted an entire room, the artists screened between seven to ten films – only a minute fraction of the cumulative output of the over 300 clubs Lewandowska and Cummings identified. The artists’ choice of titles implies a tentative clustering of films rather than a finite taxonomy. As love and longing might interchange depending on the slightest fluctuation of mood or atmosphere, so too does the exhibition’s layout at the CCA accentuate a state of moderate cacophony conducive to multi-sensory response. One could hear the soundtrack of films projected in ‘Labour’ when standing in ‘Longing;’ in ‘Love,’ one would recall a film seen in ‘Labour.’ Though the films varied widely in genre – from short animations to complex ‘realist’ narratives via the ‘experimental’ visual poem – two traits further unified them across the artists’ loose partitions, collaboration and low budget. Many of the films feature more than one director, and all of them emerged from a horizontal production structure where the protagonist in one film might have directed another, acting as light specialist for a third, etc.. Pointing to the limited resources allocated by factory management or by the local political authorities to explain the collective method in which the club members organized themselves does not suffice. Modest budgets no doubt exercised a negative pressure, restricting access to studios and film stock, and to the distribution possibilities found in the ‘West.’ Nevertheless, the shortage of funds allowed for a number of positive repercussions. It forced the films to dare visual ellipses or allusions to assure rapid identification of mood and intention, as in the stunning 1978 ‘Nieporozumienie’ by Piotr Majdrowicz which, in barely 20 minutes, convincingly portrays the torments of a young man coping with his homosexuality. Such visual short-hand required all the more skill that synchronized sound technology remained generally beyond reach. When sound does complement images, the films exploit their combination to astounding effect – for example the 1974 ‘Anatomia’ by Tadeusz Wudzki, an intense and erotic sequence of close-ups of a woman applying make-up. Finally, and significantly, free from backers and producers, the club members enjoyed a certain degree of immunity from censorship, as long as they could prove their utility by documenting May Day Parades and other official pageantry.
Again, budgetary restrictions cannot justify the collective method of creation developed by the film clubs. Indeed the group spirit which affected all stages of production derives as much from the fact that the workers knew each other from the factory floor as from a conscious political motivation to co-opt the socialist management of labour and ‘free time’ to creative ends. As Lewandowska and Cummings argue in the ‘Conversation’ with Adam Szymczyk reprinted in the exhibition publication: “The small social acts of scripting, casting, shooting, editing, screening, and discussing added a potential for action in what were often bleak local circumstances.” Moreover the artists suggest that “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 State’s intention.” Importantly, the clubs showcased in ‘Enthusiasts’ subvert not only the socialist utopia of a convergence between labour and leisure into one motionless stretch of ‘profitable’ time. The films also check the capitalist entertainment industry, as club members aimed to satisfy themselves rather than cater to mass audiences. Much more so than the quotes of American b-films in the French Nouvelle Vague, the allusions imbedded in the Polish amateur films frequently refer to the clubs’ social, political and cultural contexts. For instance, Henryk Urbańczyk’s 1980 film ‘Plakaciarz’ about a man who cycles through town to hang posters on billboards might refer to the political reforms instituted by Solidarity as much as to the neo-realist classic ‘The Bicycle Thief.’ By encrypting international, national and local references the amateur films oppose a market-driven mode of art consumption premised on the recognition of auteur styles, this despite an extensive network of dedicated festivals and magazines. Not socialist enough to bow to state-sponsored propaganda nor capitalist enough to conform to an individualist ethos, the clubs occupy an indistinct territory where ideology holds only a weak grasp on the members’ creative aspirations.
Lewandowska and Cummings have previously worked with found footage and the ephemera of clubs, in ‘Free Trade’ (2003) and ‘Not Hansard’ (2000) respectively. ‘Free Trade’ took place across the city of Manchester, the outcome of a close collaboration between the two artists and the Manchester Art Gallery. As part of a broad scope of events designed by Lewandowska and Cummings to disclose Manchester’s economic and artistic past, ‘Free Trade’ comprised lectures originally written by William Morris and John Ruskin, guided tours through the city, a publication, and an installation in the Manchester Art Gallery. Lewandowska and Cummings incorporated into the latter installation two early amateur films which celebrate Manchester’s status as a global centre for industrial trade – the same power which, through bequests, would eventually enrich the Art Gallery’s permanent collections. If in ‘Free Trade’ the films give evidence of popular awe at the city’s economic might, ‘Not Hansard,’ an exhibition at the Hansard Gallery, Southampton, made room for a prestigious amount of leaflets, posters and brochures solicited from amateur clubs across Great Britain. In both projects the energy of the enthusiast crystallises in disparate objects – paintings, memorabilia, films, flyers – which Lewandowska and Cummings momentarily arrest from their perpetual flux to uncover “a thin sliver from the avalanche of the possible.” (www.chanceprojects.com)
In ‘Enthusiasts’ Lewandowska and Cummings seem less keen to extract objects from the amateurs’ libidinal flow as they did in ‘Free Trade’ and ‘Not Hansard,’ a tactical shift which threatens to collapse the distance separating the two professional artists from the hobbyists. ‘Capital’ and ‘The Value of Things’ measured the gaps between institutions devoted to protecting and accruing value – banks, museums, stock exchanges, department stores: these projects, one could say, aligned symbolic cultural sites with economic non-sites. ‘Enthusiasts’ goes, I would argue, one conceptual step further, bringing to the fore objects – the amateur films – which, unlike residual traces or indexes of things past, in themselves embody the dynamics of economic, artistic, and political systems. In ‘Enthusiasts’ the films flag the seam between site and non-site, an intermediate relation I would like to name, after Roland Barthes, atopia. In ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ Barthes speaks of ‘atopos’ as the characteristic of the other whom I love but whom I cannot classify because of her or his absolute originality and un-siteliness. “Being Atopic, the other makes language indecisive: one cannot speak of the other, about the other; every attribute is false, painful, awkward: the other is unqualifiable (this would be the true meaning of atopos).” The same atopic unqualifiability seems to conflate, in ‘Enthuasiasts,’ Lewandowska and Cummings to the amateur film-makers. Never has their artistic practice come so perilously close to losing itself in the object of its attention, and nowhere is their work more deferential to the affective use-value of the objects they encounter.
Here one must be careful to distinguish between the tautology of the archive, which as Rebecca Comay asserts “is itself the very trauma it would resolve,” and the atopia of enthusiasm where the perspectives of demonstration and viewing elide. One should not only read into the films projected in ‘Enthusiasts’ political or personal resonances – although they undoubtedly exist, as in ‘Plakaciarz’ – or regard the films for their archaeological data alone – however much they shed light on a misrepresented and misunderstood period. Rather the atopic films stand for the non-reflexive revolutionary simultaneity occurring between an enthusiast and her/his vision. Lewandowska and Cummings, with curator Łukasc Ronduda, devised four other spaces besides ‘Longing,’ ‘Labour,’ and ‘Love.’ The first, which opens the exhibition, is a small room where one could see excerpts of official newsreels and adverts. The visitor to the exhibition then entered a faithful reconstruction of the interior of an amateur film club, the walls lined with trophies, diplomas, and other mementos. Following the three themed sections the visitor passed a viewing station where she or he could access more amateur films on television monitors. A large display of framed posters promoting amateur film festivals concluded the exhibition. The four spaces, alongside the three main screening rooms, seem to confirm the unclassifiability of enthusiasm, for no matter what form of mise-en-scène the artists deploy – whether the comparison between ‘official’ vs. amateur footage, the faithful historical reconstruction, the curate-your-own-program tv lounge, or the straightforward poster show – their subject, enthusiasm, seems to evade illustration. Lewandowska’s and Cumming’s atopia, then, affects both temporal and physical sites.
The exact topographic research carried out for ‘Enthusiasts’ by Lewandowska and Cummings seems to have succumbed to the atopic power of enthusiasm which motivated the club members to aggregate in the first place. The two artists’ exhaustive quest for a suitable way to narrate a specific Polish history without lapsing into either folkloric storytelling or a global call for the respect of DIY culture effectively clarifies the very nature of enthusiasm. Immanuel Kant, writing shortly after the French Revolution, cited enthusiasm as a tainted but nevertheless commendable motion: “this revolution, I say, nonetheless finds in the hearts of all spectators (who are not engaged in this game themselves) a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm, the very expression of which is fraught with danger; this sympathy, therefore, can have no other cause than a moral predisposition in the human race.” Jean-François Lyotard has noted that Kant’s definition of enthusiasm abolishes the stable coordinates of time and space which found critical distance, turning spectator into actor, artist into amateur – and vice versa. Enthusiasm’s tendency to cancel reflection – the basic criterion for any scientific inquiry – brings it close to the positive pathological frenzy of revolution, which dreams of wiping the historical slate clean. For Kant enthusiasm is thus both good and bad: bad because one can never eliminate the haunting realities of site-specific history, no matter how convulsive the historical seizure; and good because revolutionary enthusiasm expresses a promise, a tendency towards a better future, which is a universal and fundamentally human want. In his essay printed in the exhibition catalogue, Ronduda rightly qualifies Lewandowska’s and Cumming’s ‘Enthusiasts’ as a project which might “overcome the post-modern drive of privatization of languages by directing our sensus communis onto a path of non-consumer reflection.” Yet, if enthusiasm encourages a Kantian sensus communis, Lewandowska and Cummings insist that it remain at the level of atopia, a promise for the future firmly rooted in the past.
Aside from perceiving value as a shared property of economic and cultural spheres, and as a relative principle in revising hierarchies of objects, ‘Enthusiasts’ assigns value to an atopic juncture between ethics and affection. Lewandowska’s and Cumming’s latest project, ‘Commons,’ pursues the analysis of the precarious sensus communis announced in ‘Enthusiasts’ by considering the role of commons in the urban fabric of Liverpool. Like the amateur film club, the commons proposes another model for thinking the community in terms of unclassifiable love for the other. (http://www.liverpoolcommons.org)
Barthes, Roland, A Lover’s Discourse: fragments, New York: Hill and Wang, 1978, pp. 34-36.
Comay, Rebecca, ed., “Lost in the Archives,” Alphabet City n. 8, Toronto, 2002, p. 14.
Cummings, Neil, and Marysia Lewandowska, “Collision,” in Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, eds., Grasping the World: the idea of the museum, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004, p. 618.
Cummings, Neil, “Reading things: the alibi of use,” Sight Works v. 3, London: Chance Books, 1993, pp. 19-24.
Kant, Immanuel, The Conflict of the Faculties, trans. by Mary J. Gregor, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992, p. 153.
Lewandowska, Marysia, and Neil Cummings, Entuzjaści: z amatorskich klubów filmowych, Warsawa: Centrum Sztuki Wspólczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, 26.06-29.08.2004, pp. 18, 20, 52.
Lyotard, Jean-François, L’Enthousiasme, Paris: Galilée, 1986, pp. 63-68.