Judith Raum: Why did you start to collect material on contemporary art? What was the historical context in the 80s, and also your personal context?
Lia Perjovschi: I started with collecting material in 1990, when I started to travel to the West. And when I started to discover that I did not know anything about contemporary art. About art from the 50s to the 90s. Nothing. The information on art history which we had stopped with Picasso.
But I usually date back the beginning of the archive to 1985. It was then that I started to organise informal meetings in our apartment in Oradea – this is a town on the border with Hungary. These meetings included people from different fields like journalists, writers, actors, film directors, musicians, artists, also theoreticians. I wanted to know how they develop their profession. How they work. Because I was very unhappy with what I was supposed to do when working with art, with what was accepted to be art at that time in Rumania and which I didn’t like. But I did not know with what to replace it. I knew for sure what I did not like, but I didn’t know where to go. Then I said ok, I want to know how they think about what they want to do, being as young as me. So for me the archive is not only books and a collection of materials, but a collection of experiences, a collection of ideas, real events, discussions, debates, formal, informal.
Of course, in the beginning everything was informal. I even did not necessarily consider it a project at the time. But now that I am pushed to explain, I say: if I have to explain what the archive that I created means to me, I have to mention the living part as a very important part. Not only the books. Books are everywhere. It is important what you do with books.
This is what I was wondering about. When did you make this move from just seeing it as a personal library where you have books and printed matter about contemporary art, and when does the notion of an archive come in? Considering the difference between a library and an archive.
For this, another important date is 1987, the year in which I started to study at the art academy in Bukarest. I discovered that the art academy looked just like my art high school. And I said: no way, I will not do the same again. So I created and experimental studio inside the school, I announced it and asked around who wants to come. It was a studio open for everybody, mixed ages, mixed departments. And again, this is part what I now consider to be the archive.
1991 ment another step, because we received a studio in the art academy. We had participated in the revolution, in the fights on the street for a democratic society. When we returned to the studio, we used to argue and were frustrated and nervous. We usually talked to other collegues and met a lot of journalists after they had met the president and it was said: the stole the revolution. And so on.
We did not have the comfort to paint or make an object or such things. It was a place for debate.
Debates about what?
About what was going on. About politics, about social issues. Then, when it became more quiet, after about a year, and we became tired of watching the politicians, we started to discuss what we can actually do. We started to analyse what we do not have in our art system, that there is a lack of good art education, of specialised libraries, of galleries that support art of a certain direction – or many directions, and a lack of museums, of debate, articles, publications and so on.
When you met as a group, as you described the beginning, when you organised to meet people from different disciplines and discuss with them their attitudes and ideas – I guess those were people from Rumania, right?
Yes, only. At that time we were not allowed to.. Although we were encouraged to meet foreigners, we had to give a kind of report to the secret service about who we met. So I did not meet any foreigners, but if I had done so, I guess everything would have been quite the opposite, I would have avoided to talk in order not to be forced to give a report and to be involved with the secret service.
So what is nowadays so common – to build up networks or to do networking across the borders of a country was impossible.
At that time I would not have tried. I would have treated everybody as a suspect, thinking that it is a provocation or something like that. We were even suspicious among each other. We had no trust.
Did you do transcripts of the talks and the debates you had, did you document them in any way? Or do they only exist in your memory?
Just in my memory.
So when you say this is part of the archive, it is actually lived experience that forms a whole space of memory.
I think my curiosity shaped the direction in which I was going with time. And without questions, I would not have found certain material, and I would have not known what to give. I try to have what I never had, I try to be the partner I never had, I try to give what I did not receive.. I try to do the opposite. In this I am very good, it is at least a positive way, it is not negative.
Let me add two things to the first question. In 1996 we announced the archive to be open for the public. And in 1997, after I had taught contemporary art in the United States, at Duke University for one semester.. I had started to work with performance, installation and photo/video media. During the communist times, I had done things without knowing how you would call it or in which art historical context they stand. For instance, in 1987 I did a performance (as I would call it today) for the first time, but at the time I called it an experiment. Everything I did during communist times I called experiments. I had the feeling that for us living in the 90s was like the 50s in the West. I did performances just like people in the 60s in Europe and the United States or Japan.
In 1989 I did a performance in which I treated my body to be hurt, burnt, I was obsessed with something. And, very banal, imagining being in the hospital, I bandaged my body, in order to recover and make a statement. Dan had taken pictures of the performance, and somebody else had helped us to develop them. By accident, he lost the negatives. In 1992, when I came to Vienna and the West for the first time, I wentn to the Ludwig museum and saw some photographs with somebody bandaged on it, and I said: Dan, they found my negatives! And Dan said: it’s not you! It was Schwarzkogler. My mood went up and down at the same time. First I thought: I am right. It is an artwork, I am right. What I did with my body was actually art. Because nobody in Rumania was interested to see this or talk about it. They talk about paintings. They bought drawings I did in the school. So I was happy, but at the same time, I said: I invented a table, but my table is so rough. Now this table has a long history, there are tables with a much more sophisticated design. So then I wanted to understand why this all happened. Before, I had never had any information.
Looking through his catalogue, I found that we had some points in common. This means that my theory was right that we are the same but spread everywhere, that some people are in certain patterns together. Schwarzkogler and me and some others, we are one pattern. He was living in Vienna, I was living some years later in Rumania, in Bukarest. Also, he was 27 years old when he did this performance. I was the same age. He was excluded from the group. To me happened more or less the same, because I had not completed my studies yet at the time, I had just entered into the school and was still a student. Then there were some differences also: I was very optimistic, I tried to leave something ugly behind, I tried to recuperate myself. Whereas in his case, he fell from a window and died shortly after he had done the performance, if by accident or not I do not know.
So there are coincidences, we grow up in the same culture, we have two legs, two hands, and we have people around. We more or less have the same stories. I guess it can also be imposing when you know a lot and you start falling into this trap of always comparing yourself to what others already did, it might even restrict you. How did you deal with the actual lack of information and the need to reach as much resources as possible?
To avoid was an issue. I wanted to avoid to do works that were similar to exisiting ones. People sometimes think I know everything, which is of course impossible. I cannot know every artists. Which is a pity, because I am sure there is a lot of interesting work that I simply miss.
So when you collect – you traveled somewhere, you went to bookshops, bought material.. did you also address people who you were interested in directly and asked them to donate material?
No. Now I do it sometimes, because I know them by now. But before, no.
Did you focus on certain topics and subjects? How was the process of collecting?
After this performance and installation, the first major exhibition that we visited was the documenta of 1992. It had a huge impact on us. Then I received a fellowship for Vienna, I had a very influencial time there. I started to understand the differences between certain institutions pretty quickly. I have to say that I am the product of the mainstream. I studied art for 14 years in Rumania, the fellowships and contacts I had were with mainstream..
What do you mean by mainstream?
Institutions. Not underground, nothing from the edges. I like the edges, but I do not come from there. That is why my cut offers books from the mainstream – books, institutions and so on. If I am asked to make a choice, my favorite art institutions would be Generali Foundation, Dia Center in NYC, another favorite one would be MACBA in Barcelona, then also Centre George Pompidou, Tate Modern..
So you basically collected catalogues.
Yes. In the beginning I made photocopies, or I took notes. I did not have enough money.
So you have hand-written copies of texts in your archive?
Yes, files. In the end, I never really looked at them. Well, for the first exhibition I used them, but there is material which I never had time to touch again until now.
You just mentioned an exhibiton – how do you conceive these books, these catalogues, these hand-written notes? Are they art objects for you or do you rather see them as means to trigger social situations, discussions, thinking?
I want to encourage people – mainly artists – and tell them: look, I really believe that what happens to us and what forms our context is what matters. That we should relax and make art out of what we have. That is why I call all those books, files, photographs, DVDs, multiples, postcards and so on art objects. But initially, I had not considered them to be art objects. I just collected them for myself, to be informed. Then, over the time, I had to make a selection because of the spatial restricitions. When I saw a book for the third time in one of the institutions I like, then I bought it. Or photocopied it. If you do not share, you cannot talk. In order to be able to talk with the others, and to make sure people know what I mean when I say ‚conceptual exhibition’ or that the exhibition has to have a subject or an issue, I consequently had to give the books to people. So since the beginning, since this first catalogue that we bought at documenta or the material we brought from the Venice Biennale in 1993, the books travelled from hand to hand – among friends, art historians, teachers.. Later I decided to be more efficient and to make more people know about the material. So I organised a first exhibition in a public space, a gallery. It was an ‚inforum’. There were 150 slide-viewers with images of works, mostly installations, plus files and boxes with books. Each day, I invited different guests – criminalists, homeopathic doctors, dissidents and so on. I wanted people to hear their life stories and at the same time to discover what contemporary art is. ‚Inforum’ functioned a bit like a library – I put material on a table. The name of the show was ‚diapositif’, dia meaning slide, and positif: be positive, think about exhibitions starting from an image. Which is all I can offer. It is too expensive to show an original video or an installation. I cannot afford it. But let’s not complain, let’s do something.
So the images of installations where images taken from installations by other artists.
Out of books, yes. Most of them I had copied at Duke University for the class that I taught there. In 2000, I did the second exhibition. It was about the visual identity of institutions. About the concepts behind institutions. I was using plastic bags from institutions, postcards, flyers, books, files, things like that. Usually nobody pays attention to postcards. But for me they can be enough. Sometimes the image or the title make me see the whole exhibition.
How is your understanding of authorship?
Quite relaxed when it comes to giving something to others. Just as in the broschure that I showed you. Dan criticised me for this, he told me I should just call people, they would give me what I asked for anyway. But I canot do that. I do not have any time to loose. I need all my time to do research. I know exactly what I am looking for. Nowadays I mostly take things from the internet. I would almost say that if you are not present in the internet, you do not exist. I was working with images and texts from the internet, and sometimes I couldn’t find things by artists that I knew or liked, but can also not contact them. Often when you contact people, they want to give you something new. So then I will either be dissapointed, or I will disappoint them when I do not put what they gave me. I am quite strict with my selections. While working with the archive, I realised what it means to be a curator. That things are not so sophisticated, that you actually rarely find yourself in a conflict with others, rather in a misunderstanding. As a curator I would for example be interested in this small video tape. If you have a bigger or a smaller one, what can I do? I wanted the other one. I might want the bigger one in a year or two, and I will come back to you. This means: who makes us artists? We make ourselves artists. Not the institutions, nobody else. You yourself know what you are doing. You do things for a long time, try things out. An institutions cannot tell you that what you do is or is not art, that you are or are not an artist.
Nowadays we have this debate about who is superior – the artist, the curator. While working on the archive I became a curator, a theoretician, but I discovered: I am an artist. I was trained to be an artist, to observe things, to develop things, so I am an artist who from time to time does stage design, curates, writes, observes certain issues in culture..
In a text about your project I read that from collecting material and information the archive gradually developped into an instrument for cultural and social analysis. What was it that made this transformation necessary, and what exactly is analysis for you – what do you analyse, what is the output?
At first, I was reading. I was not always absolutely sure what to read. And I gave the books to others. Then, after some time, I told myself that I should organise the material and I started to call it an archive. This was in 1997. I basically did not know how else to call it - it is not a museum, it is not a gallery, so maybe an archive. Somebody told me that it sounded dusty. It is true, but I had the archive of my hometown in mind, I used to pass by there for many years. It was always closed and I always imagined what could be in it. So my own archive was like an answer to something that I had never been able to access. After 1997, the concept of the archive appeared everywhere, everybody talked about archives, it was boring. At the same time, I began to discovered things, like mistakes in books, certain years or names were wrong. I observed certain interests: the same artist being repeatedly shown here and there, with the same work. I was already engaged in analysis without knowing that I was analysing. I was concerned with questions like: what is art, what makes an artist an artist, what is an archive, what is a context, what is an institution, what does critique mean. On all these issues I tried to find material to give answers. If I could not find anything, I looked things up in the dictionary. But all my questions were very basic, normal. I kept telling myself that what you did was organic, flexible. I do not use these words because they are fashionable but because we were very organic – when somebody was in town, an interesting philosopher, journalist, art critic or artist, we invited them over for a talk. We asked them if they were interested to give a lecture in our studio, and announced it spontanously. To journalists, to people who could spread information, who had an interest in growing and articulating themselves. Teachers of the art academy, for they would again teach things to others and so on... Flexible, because you have to react here and now. Institutions are not flexible. They have to have a program for the coming one or two years.
So from the beginning, from 1996 on when you opened the archive for the public, it was your agenda to have those very spontanous invitations for talks.
Yes, we organised them very spontanously. But even before, in 1992, we had for example 24 journalists from major American magazines visiting Bucharest, scanning the city on almost every level. Dan worked for the oppositional newspaper at the time and they visited their office, too. Dan’s boss was busy and asked him if he could take care of them. Dan proposed to take them for a coffee to our studio. So we invited other artists and critics and ended up in a political discussion with the whole group. About what communism and revolution ment to us today. How we saw Russia, the United States, Europe. What we wanted for the individuals and so on.
This relates to the question that I have about the way you connect with people in Bucharest. Who do you invite, or who do you reach. What kind of people. Is it close friends, or is it a larger group that includes also younger artists and art students? How do you encourage them to come and take part in the events?
At the beginning it was mostly artists and critics who came, our collegues from art school. Then journalists and people from other fields started to join. We met them on the street or in meetings connected with the revolution. Foreigners came, knocking at the door totally by accident, architects, designers, and so on. The studio was located in the court yard of the art academy in the center of the city. It was easy to reach. Slowly, we started to have a network that grew. More than 3000 people visited my first exhibition, which lasted only one month. There was a total lack of institutions, a lack of information. Students form all kinds of departments came to see the show, even from the department for political studies, because I had put up advertising everywhere around the university. Some people are just so open, you do not have to tell them anything, they know even more than you can give them. They know to observe, they are curious. They observe the idea of giving, they observe the idea of having a panel to talk, of being informed given that there is a lack of information, they observe what they miss etc. People also participated in ad hoc conferences: the director of the Waldorff-school for example, who had helped me with the heating system in our studio. When he came again to check if it worked, I asked him if he had time and if he would like to tell us about Waldorff-schools. So he talked for a whole day. People kept coming and going, the audience reconfigured, he repeated things... It was incredible. Slowly, I developed a kind of clientel. In 2000, me and Dan even went public by moderating a 3-hour life program in Rumanian television, on channel 1. All the cultural departments like theatre, film, dance, literature participated, also the department for politics. At the time, there weren’t many channels yet. So people called in life, some of them wouldn’t accept what we sayed about politics. I remember telling a guy: if you do not give us a chance, switch to another program. And he replied: but I can receive only this one! (she laughs)
So imagine, I spread information about contemporary art this way, showing body art from the 60s and 70s...
Was it an evening program?
Well, it was on a saturday from 10 to 1 in the morning. Basically everybody could watch it. They broadcasted us right after the cartoons. Dan told the audience: if you drop your coffee-cup, don’t worry, it will become even worse. (laughs) We took it as an experiment. We didn’t want to make a carrier in television. We wanted to accept normal question, from normal people watching TV. ‚Why do you show me all this crap?’ We know so many different things – people do know such a lot of things. Why not talk about this, if we want to change something in our lifes?
And coming back to the archive itself – apart from the collaboration with Dan – were there times when you worked with people in very close collaboration on the archive? Maybe on the production of texts or publications?
No. For each publication, I almost killed Dan. He is not here now, he will not agree. But you know, it is hard to separate things. It was my project, it was my life, my time, my days. Dan developed a carreer, I developed an institution. Dan’s contribution was a major one in the sense that he supported this whole effort financially. And of course, when I did events, he helped with bringing chairs from neighbours or institutions around, or made coffee. He was totally involved. Also because it was his studio - of which I slowly occupied almost all space. He kept showing me a corner...
You occupied it with shelves and boxes?
With everything that was the archive. Dan moved more and more to a corner. And I told him: yes, but from this corner here, I forced you to get to MoMA, so it was not so bad after all! (laughs) I am joking! No, nobody helped me. Only to do the inventory, which I did for this project here, which Marius Babias has at the NBK now. I asked for that help, I received funds to pay some assistants. Some art historians came. I had to explain them step by step what to do, even basic things like: here you have the title, the author, the year.. It was exhausting. I prefer to have time to do these things by myself. So for one month I had help with the inventory, then I did not want it anymore. If somebody else does work on the archive, I end up not knowing about things, and I cannot work with it anymore. In a way I have to keep control of everything. As Dan says, I am a voice-activated installation. And in a way I really functioned like that. People from different universities used to knock at the door, working on PhDs, and they would ask me if I had something about art and games, or on spirituality or whatever..
So you were like a living google machine...
Kind of, yes. I would tell them to come back the next day, and thought over night what I had and took it out for them. Like in a library.
This need to approach the world analytically and the collecting of information – how do you see this in relation to an art practice that produces material works? How do both modes of working relate to each other for you?
Well, I would say that I am in a way socially oriented, but above all I have a political and a critical attitude towards the world. And this maybe reflects in the work. I do not try to put it there. Because I did not learn it like that. I am the product of my mind. So I guess I do not fit with some aspects of the debate that is going on in the West, because I always had another approach.
Which debates do you mean?
Institutional critique for example. I was trying, by the way. In my context, in Bucharest, they started building a museum of contemporary art. A stupid museum. After so many years of debate. It was like a political comment, they installed it in the parlament building, in this huge palace built by a dictator in ´48 for which we still pay, in which the parlament should not be located – they established a museum for contemprary art there in 1994. So in 2001, the prime minister wanted to proof to Europe that he is a collector, a cultural figure, that they could trust him and should help him. And he proposed to the future directors of the museum to establish the museum in the palace and only there. I felt from the beginning that this was wrong. What I expected my culture to come up with was something normal – I could see a small culture, and there was no sense in wanting to be bigger than we are. I just want to talk at the same level as in Berlin, in New York City, in Vienna or whereever. Being in Bucharest and having contacts for dialogues, normal contacts, not from an inferior position, like ‚help me help me’. But the way they did it, it was like a culture growing up in a village, in this village they have a big house where they put the mayor, they do the funerals, the weddings there.. It is stupid. Why not put a mental hospital into the parlament building? Why art?
You mentioned institutional critique – did you not write anything as a reaction to this?
I did. I wrote things. I tried for 5 years to analyse things, to create a kind of institutional critique, but local. I am not frustrated that they did not include any of my works in the museum collection. I was their friend, I rather wanted to get rid of these connections, because I did not want a culture to be built in my name that was based on this kind of obedience. Here is the newspaper that came out of this. For five years, I developed a kind of detective draft. I felt like a detective in a case where somebody tries to kill something – a context, art, artists.. something gets destroyed. So to analyse why what was going on was wrong, I started with basic questions: what had happened, who and which interests were behind it, what would be better to do, etc. I used only fragments from interviews. I did not ‚create’ anything – I used images and texts to say that something was wrong.
Why do you think that this strategy is different from institutional critique in the West? I am just thinking of Hans Haacke’s analysis of institutions and the interests that are prevalent in their structure.
Looking at what people addressed in the West, I recognized their perspectives and questions, but they were either too philosophical or too sophisticated, or they came more from an underground attitude towards the mainstream. I was not underground. I was mainstream, but I still said No. Like a dissident. We used to call ourselves some kind of dizzidents - from the word dizzy. To be a dissident was of course a serious thing, people died, we did not want to be superficial about it. But we came out of a group that was leading, and realised that they were leading in the wrong direction. And dizzy because these were the times to be dizzy. You never know, I myself was not sure if I was right.
I wanted to ask you two questions about the so-called Balkanisation or the construction of the Balkan. But before getting there, another thing: you ended up having all those catalogues and books from mainly Western Europe and Northern America.. When you looked at the arguments and the artistic and theoretical positions they contained, did you have the feeling that you were being patronised or brain-washed, considering also the power of Western art publishing houses in the book market?
This question is again something that I would recognise as something coming from the West. I do not see any moment of colonialisation in this. I was just offered a greater diversity of things than I had before. I am pissed off of a lot of people in the West who take a critical position on my attitude. Of course I understand why. Marion von Osten, a friend of mine, came in 1997 to Bucharest to do an exhibition on money nation and critical attitude (is that correct like that?), and she said: you even have Stefanel here already. I replied: Of course. And although I cannot buy anything from there, at least I see a nice window. I am tired of my windows. Of course I would also be tired if I had too many of the Stefanel-kind. For her it was totally different: for her what mattered was how they exploit people. But I knew a different reality. People working for these companies, having more money than you can regulary earn. It is very ambivalent.
I keep telling my collegues from the East, be they critics or artists – and some of them understand, others not: if I had enough material at home, interesting material, I would use it. But I do not have it. So I am more than happy when I find something that I can work with. If it doesn’t totally work for me, I can still modify it. But I am really happy that you did not have to loose 15 years of your life in the West, of your coherent history, and could instead develop things in a normal way. In the East, we were like in a coma – that is my point of view. So waking up from a coma, you have to learn to walk again, and you need somebody to help you. To tell you how you walk, because you are brain-washed. I question things, and if they are relevant for me, I take them. All I take I already have in my head anyway, just in another form. I take what I recognise.
So how do you see those shows mostly organised by Western institutions and curators during the ninties which had the Balkan as their topic? Do you have the impression that being invited for these shows influenced the artistic production of your collegues and other artists?
Quite a lot. First of all I would say that anything that is done with a lot of effort and is coherent is something positive, something from which other things can develop. If it forms trends, we will recognise them. Such things are very obvious and simple to see. I do not like weak people. I like fragile people, discrete people, but not weak people.
At the beginning, when people approached me, asking why I was not part of the show, I often had doubts if I was an artist. But after some time, I realised I actually did not want to be in these kind of shows if they did not deal with an additional issue, for I do not want do be put in any drawer. I do not want to be in the drawer of the feminist artist – I am a woman artist, but I am an artist, a woman, living in Bucharest, travelling, being inbetween spaces.. I like the idea of moving out into the universe. I come from the generation that was impressed by the first man walking on the moon. By television, and so on. You see, I want to be in all those drawers, or in a complex one, but not ‚Balkan’, not former East, not East, not Rumanian, not women art..
One book I like very much is Solaris by Stanislav Lem. He is a Polish writer, but I do not care. He is my writer. It is about communism. I do not care. Art is about how I choose to explain in what I believe. I can talk to a scientist or a priest, about Jesus or about the universe as a wonderful mathematic formula, I believe in unversality. When I was in high-school, I was supposed to study universal literature. I was so happy that I would finally be given a structure, because until then I was just reading what I had in the house and what people gave to me. I wanted a more structured approach. We ended up not studying what I expected, however. We only read Rumanian literature.
So it was announced as a course in universal literature, but it was only Rumanian writers?
This is how it was all the time. It was the tough years under Ceaucescou, with nationalism growing bigger and bigger. For me, this was the end of my Rumanian context. Of any patriotism. I said: I am an alien, I am from I don’t know where. The small prince. From the universe. I was tired, and angry.
Then you developed your own universe.
I tried to remain non-conformist all the time. But you know, coming back to one of your first questions with the authorship: of course I respect artists. I always quote them, I don’t just take, I do not ‚appropriate’ as it is fashionable now. Meaning producing a copy in order to make money, because not everybody knows who for example Francis Alys is, and we all like it. But I use the material in a didactic way. It is a pretext which I use in order to be able to talk to people about life. To empower them. In the reading I did, I discovered different art practices and many other things, but most importantly I realised that everything passes, and we should look forward. And you should always consider what you feel and what you need, and what maybe nobody has given you so far.
Lia Perjovschi lives as an artist in Bukarest, where she has built up and worked on the CAA Contemporary Art Archive/Center for Art Analysis since 1988.The interview was done in Berlin in february 2009.