Ostalgia takes its title from the German word ostalgie, a term that emerged in the 1990s to describe a sense of longing and nostalgia for the era before the collapse of the Communist Bloc. Twenty years ago—after the fall of the Berlin Wall—from the Baltic republics to the Balkans, from Central Europe to Central Asia, entire regions and nations were reconfigured, their constitutions rewritten, their borders redrawn. Ostalgia exhibits art produced in and about some of these countries, many of which did not formally exist two decades ago. Mixing private confessions and collective traumas, the exhibition traces a psychological landscape in which individuals and entire societies negotiated new relationships to history, geography, and ideology.
The Enthusiasts Archive began with a chance encounter in 2001 with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s first popular feature film Amator (Film Buff) from 1979; the main character is a leading member of a factory based film club. Intrigued, Marysia Lewandowska and I began a research project in the summer of 2002 into the existence and remnants of amateur film clubs in socialist Poland.
There has been a spectacular transfiguration of Polish political and cultural life since the introduction of the market economy in 1989. It is as if Poland has played out in a lapsed-time film style, the economic and cultural changes of ‘western’ Europe. Fifty years of social evolution –from a manufacturing to a service economy - has been compressed into just over ten years. Poland is a crystallization of the forces at play in the rest of Europe; it projects a service driven, consumer led future, while content to forget its industrial past, and hide its manufacturing present.
And yet, all the former state owned industries - for example those generating power, refining steel or producing chemicals - play a central role in contemporary economic and cultural life. Clearly industry manufactures the goods and energy necessary to generate our material lives, and yet has simultaneously structured our experiences into ‘productive’ labour, and un-productive ‘leisure’ time. Although in Poland even before the economic changes, ‘leisure’ was itself organized through factory-sponsored clubs, various associations, sports facilities and even state holiday schemes.
Out of this regulated network, perhaps the most popular clubs were those that encouraged the production of amateur film. With 16mm film stock, cameras and editing tables supplied by the factory/state, a large number of clubs were created throughout Poland from 1950’s onwards. By the late 1960’s there were almost 300 clubs in existence, out of this growing network film competitions evolved, prizes awarded, and festivals were organized on a local, regional, national and international level.
The passions of the amateur, enthusiast or hobbyist often reveal a range of interests and experiences generally invisible amongst the breathless flow of the State sponsored, or professionally mediated. The enthusiast is often working outside ‘official’ culture and its encouragements, frequently adopting a counter-cultural tone of tactical resistance and criticism.
It was clear to us 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 states intentions. Generated by enthusiasm, the films simultaneously record, and offer resistance to the deep structures of contemporary material life.
These extraordinary films range from 2-minute animations, to short ‘experimental’ and ‘abstract’ films, from documentaries on family, village, city or factory life; to historical dramas and ambitious features. There is an astonishing range of material, beautifully crafted -because film stock was precious- and largely forgotten.
As a result of our research into the films, their makers and clubs, a huge selection of forgotten 16 and 8 mm material was found, usually in people’s houses, and sometimes literally under their beds. Joined by curator Lukasz Ronduda at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw we embarked on cleaning, restoring and digitizing as much material as we could find money to support. The Enthusiasts Archive was one of the results.
Many of the film-clubs we visited during our research were marvelously evocative, they caught and held the traces of the social and creative history of the members and the films they made. The clubs were usually stuffed with framed photographs, printed film stills, caricatures, posters, certificates, medals, prizes and trophies from film festivals, cupboards stacked with of unwanted film reels and video cassettes, redundant projectors, old cameras and recording equipment, film editing desks and chemicals, homemade developing tanks and film dryers, tea and coffee making equipment, a fridge, a coat-stand, odd chairs, salvaged furniture, junk and even rubbish. The club-house was the cultural hub of amateur film-making.
On our research trips we watched hundreds of films, in many extraordinary circumstances, often with former club members present. And we became wary of imposing our preferences and taste on the richness of the film s themselves, we tried to become sensitive to their makers enthusiasms and hopes. What eventually evolved from watching and discussing the many, many films themselves were three porus themes; themes of Love, Longing and Labour. This enabled us to select and curate the films for exhibition into three hour-long film programmes. These emergent themes seemed better able to curate the films into comprehension, than the arbitrary violence performed by the genres usually deployed; for example feature, documentary, or animation. Love, Longing and Labour are screened as part of Ostalgia.
Ostalgia brought together the work of more than fifty artists from twenty countries across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. Combining seminal figures and younger artists, “Ostalgia” does not follow a chronological perspective, establishing instead a series of dialogues between different generations and geographies. Zigzagging across distant cultural landscapes, the exhibition exposes local avant-garde practices and highlights international affinities, which indirectly question the centrality of Western art historical paradigms.
Ostalgia was curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions, with Jarrett Gregory.
New York, NY 10002