Memory as an object

An interview about the exhibition “YOU’VE GOT 1243 UNREAD MESSAGES. Last Generation Before the Internet. Their Lives” with co-curator Kaspars Vanags and project director Kitija Vasiļjeva

Raimund Minichbauer: The title of the exhibition refers to the „last generation before the Internet“. How would you define this era?

Kaspars Vanags: What we understand as this ‚analog‘ or ‚pre-Internet‘ era put purely as a time-period is the 60ies, 70ies and also 80ies. The digital devices were already there, but they were not in everyday use, they were not yet household items. We are interested in analog technologies which became part of people’s everyday lives, like typewriters, or – in the ‚Western world‘ – Xeroxes, on which also countercultural forms like fanzines were based. At the same time they also played a role in the work of early conceptional artists.

An important characteristic of the the analogue era is that it is very body-related, it has to do with practical, body-related skills like writing, calligraphy, thumbing through books, or also being violent to books. In a discussion about the digitalization of archives, a leading historian argued that with digitalizing archive material we lose lots of information which would also provide emotional contact with history. He mentioned letters written in the 16th century, in the years of famine. People used vinegar to refresh ink when writing the letters, and when you open it, you can still smell the vinegar, you feel the smell of famine.

Raimund Minichbauer: ‘Individual memory culture’ and the personal level seem to be very much at the center of the exhibition?

Kaspars Vanags: We all have to deal with the question of memorablia, of how much we want to take with us, on a personal level as well as on the institutional one of museums, archives etc. On the individual level, our lifestyles have changed a lot – we are more mobile and we do not have these privileges of the middle class which probably our parents enjoyed. If we have a heritage we maybe do not have a possibility to preserve it. I think of my parents’ library. My parents were living in a pretty big apartment. My mother collected books and had a huge library. When I took over this heritage, I had to ask: Can I afford such a big apartment? Can I carry that library around the world? When you live for a period of time in Berlin, or in London, and you come back: What will you do with those books?

Not only individuals ask that question, but also institutions. The European museums were built and collections developed in financially ‘better times’. In the current period of austerity and constant cuts to cultural institutions, are we able to keep the collections intact? How do we want to develop them? How about sustainability? In which respects does memory still matter? And to which extent is memory object-related? Museum extensions are being discussed, but they are not a solution for contemporary art museums – the bigger the museums, the bigger the art installations will get. What are we going to do with all the stuff, which we create and accumulate? When we work in art institutions, we have to ask: How can we afford it, and how could we explain to others, that it really matters? – And we have to ask ourselves as well: Should I change my lifestyle in order to keep my mother’s library?

Raimund Minichbauer: You mentioned several aspects of memory culture. Why did you choose the ‘individual’ or ‘personal’ as the central one?

Kaspars Vanags: We are interested in micro-historical evidence as it is able to contradict the grand narratives or the mainstream interpretations of the flow; personal archives or personal documentations of the everyday can reveal both the traditions of the normative and what lies outside. As an example, a typical terminology that is used here in Lavia to describe heterosexual marriages or relationships are ‘traditional’; all the other types of relationships are called ‘non-traditional’. This formulation assumes that other sexualities have no traditions even though they have always been here, for thousands of years. It has to do with the fact that the traditions could not be passed on to the next generation, because any forms of archiving or passing on have been constantly destroyed. It is hard to write a history of e.g. homosexuality just because we do not have written historical documents. If ever there has been a diary or love letters, the family usually destroyed that evidence of having a black sheep in the family.

I think it is interesting to show that all times have been rich with differences and variety and that we can achieve by focusing on the personal or micro-historical evidences. This idea of ‘consolidated society’ is probably a fantasy, because we do not see these marginal or underground currents  due to lack of those materials.

Kitija Vasiļjeva: In this exhibition we are dealing with a very recent past and interestingly many of the materials are still physically available both in the personal archives and in the living memory.

Kaspars Vanags: This is exactly the moment, when people start to go through their drawers and ask: Should we throw it away? Who is going to read it? Do we want to pass this material on? We want this exhibition also work as a signal or invitation to keep the material for the next generation. Ok, it probably is not of ‘museum value’, or the museums are not able nowadays to gather everything, but we have to share the responsibility for the history and we have to keep our own diaries from teenager years – what we usually don’t do –, or we have to keep those mixtapes although they take extra space in our apartments.

Raimund Minichbauer: You also put this into practice in a very concrete way and issued a call for personal archive material.

Kitija Vasiļjeva: Yes, we issued a call announcing that we are looking for five different kinds of material, namely, diaries, calligraphy notebooks, old newspapers, carbon copy paper and recipe books. This call was featured in national media, was re-shared hundreds of times on social media and turned out to be hugely popular. Through this call we made many interesting new discoveries. For example, we found out about an underground pantomime theatre group from the 70ies in Latvia, or stories from a doctor on a Soviet ship travelling to Western Europe.

Kaspars Vanags: The diary of this pantomime group was written collectively. Somebody was always chosen to write the entry, and this was a serious responsibility. Later, the archive and diaries of this pantomime group was divided into three or four parts; each of the three or four people were keeping material of a specific time range. This was done almost in the fashion of underground revolutionaries – if something happens to one of the group members, not everything is lost and there are still some other parts that can be rescued. These self-initiatives and self-discovered ways to keep these archives are interesting to us.

Raimund Minichbauer: How are you going to present this material?

Kaspars Vanags: We are still working on that…

Kitija Vasiļjeva: For example, we have an idea to make an animation from the memory books, but at the same time we know that this is a kind of material, that you want to leaf through and that is an important part of it. On the other hand, the exhibition will have many thousand visitors and we have to find ways to make it accessible for a large number of people. These are questions that we are dealing with now.

Another thing that we want to achieve is not to make distinctions between the materials we use in the exhibition – be it artwork, artefact or personal memorabilia.  

Kaspars Vanags: This also relates to the problem of strict divisions in the museum sector in Latvia. How do you decide, which historical artifact goes to the Museum of Occupation, or to the Historical Museum, or the Museum of Photography? What is art and what isn’t? What should go to the Art Museum or what should go to the archive of folkloristic material? With this exhibition we will try to show that we need a more holistic approach concerning heritage.

Kitija Vasiļjeva: Margret: Chronicle of an Affair – May 1969 to December 1970” would be a telling example.

Kaspars Vanags: Yes! Margret: Chronicle of an Affair – May 1969 to December 1970” comes from a suitcase, which was found a while ago holding a personal archive put together by a German industrialist, who had a one-and-a-half-year-affair with his secretary. He was writing down the experiences, their sexual life details, collected all the hotel bills and dinner receipts. He took photos before and after her hairdresser visits, of the dress he bought for her, a photo on the hotel bed, when she is dressed in it etc.

The archive is a possibility – on the one hand to be a witness of this relationship, and on the other hand you ask yourself whether something changes in these materials when they suddenly go public. For whom was this archive made? Was it made for personal use? Or was the idea, that half a century later somebody else goes through these photos and reads the notes? For us it is also very hard to imagine, how this personal archiving or diary style documentation of the everyday was seen and practiced in a time, when everything did not go public immediately like it happens with social media entries nowadays. We try to discuss all these topics not in an academic way, but more as personal questions and to look for answers in a more poetic way.

Kitija Vasiļjeva:  ... and more intimate. You do not create this distance from where you analyze it. The material will be presented so that you have a feeling you found it in somebody’s archive, and you kind of peek through it, and there is no frame, no commentary. This also might be more generous to the material, presenting it as something which was not made for many eyes, or which was not written for somebody.

Raimund Minichbauer: Is it also more about what has been lost? Maybe a difference to google?

Kaspars Vanags: It is a huge challenge to control the level of nostalgia, when we work with that material. We really would like not to get lost in that nostalgic ambience. We try to avoid creating direct analogies between for example the diary of the analog era and Facebook, or photo album and Instagram, or mixtapes and Spotify or SoundCloud. But what we can see are the very human behavioral patterns when dealing with social networks. Those fears or desires or fascinations are easier to be noticed in these particular case studies, because quite often these materials were not created under the influence of mutual interaction. Quite often you see that entries in diaries are not motivated by somebody else, they are somehow closed universes. I think it is the same with letters. You did not reply a letter immediately after you have read it. It is almost a traditional opening paragraph of a letter: “Now, when the kids are in bed and I have washed the dishes, I find the moment to sit down and write the letter ...”. People were not under the pressure to reply immediately.

Kitija Vasiļjeva: We do not want to make a historical exhibition that will unravel or create a coherent image of the life in an analogue era. In order to do so, the exhibition does not have one clear narrative structure, but it rather follows events, phenomena and biographies which will be introduced through messages. The title of the exhibition is “You’ve got 1243 unread messages”, and the viewer will be able to decide which of the message s/he wants to open or not. This approach allows us to introduce a large variety of stories and topics (micro-historical evidence) and at the same time show that they are all co-existent and connections/interpretations that can be made between them are endless.

Kaspars Vanags: One of the interesting materials that we will be showing is a sort of diaries or sketch books of Soviet hippies in the 1970ies. Their notebooks or diaries functioned as a kind of ID in these underground world networks. When you were traveling around and got acquainted to people you did not know, the only way how you could prove, who you are, what you are interested in and how persistent you are in your interests, was by showing your diary, where you collected cut-outs from newspapers, or your poems, or train tickets e.g. from your journey to Caucasus. This was a kind of proof, that you were not paid by the KGB or an agent. This was something real, which you can’t create in one day, but what you had to live through your identity or which you have to shape your identity. I think it is interesting, that you are not just documenting your identity or your private live or your everyday, but in a way you also shape your identity. It is an example which deals with both, personal memories or history writing, and a topic of social networks in an analogue era.

Kitija Vasiļjeva: There are lots of exhibitions, which look at the 70ies and 80ies, at the conceptual art movement etc. Many great visual art exhibitions have established that era, and it would not be so interesting, to replicate this and look at mainly through established artists or art works. But I think that it is interesting, to make an argument or to show....

Kaspars Vanags: ... or not to show, for example concerning this correspondence art between artist and museum curator, which were sent by fax machine and are still in museum archives, but there is nothing left on those fax machine sheets because it has disappeared. The document is there, it has its number and it is put in the catalogue, but that’s it. And we love to play with these kinds of things, not to make statements, but to create feelings of this ephemeral. It is hard to define, what of the displayed objects is art, or if it is not, or it was but is not anymore. If you have for example this kind of art work, but it is not left on the fax sheet, is it still an art work or isn’t it? Or there is a diary which is not an artwork, but it can become an artwork now in this context. We are somehow playing with those ideas which have been here already for decades but somehow they are usually taken too seriously. They are looked at in an academic way and at that moment one kills the game, one kills the possibility to keep this idea of early conceptualists alive. We see this also when trying to get loans from museums, for example we tried to get Maciunas’ ‘Learning Machine’ from MoMA, but they say that it was too fragile and can’t travel. But it was actually created as a learning tool, not as an art work, and you can make replicates. We also look, in which moments technologies of being and understanding and communicating are turned into those art objects in a showcase, and whether we can somehow bring them back to life.

Kitija Vasiļjeva: A similar case is Allan Kaprow. Kaprow created instruction cards, which you actually take with you and just follow the instructions, like ‘count the trees on your way while walking through the city’. Now these cards have become part of a museum collection and are counted as originals that cannot be taken away from the museum or that cannot be used.

Kaspars Vanags: And then the question arises: Could we just replicate these cards? Should we distribute them for use? Do we have to take copyright seriously? It is the same with the privacy of the diaries – at the same time we distribute things that were not supposed to be distributed.

Kitija Vasiļjeva: We just want to raise these questions rather than find answers. This is the advantage of making an art exhibition and not being an academic, who has to write a conclusion to the research. You can just raise these questions and make it possible to deal with them in a more playful way.

Raimund Minichbauer: How do you deal with the different histories in East and West?

Kaspars Vanags: Our main focus is not so much on Soviet history but more on the fact, how little we actually know about what really happened in those days. This does not just apply to the Soviet Union, if you try to understand the private lives of people in Austria or Germany in the 70ies, you do not have much official evidence about that either. In this period, people – if they were not influenced by the 68 movement – simply did not talk. I sometimes wonder, how they were solving their family crises, sexual identities, issues dealing with health, with the education of their children – how these decisions were made, not on an official level, but on this family level. How did family members from different generations talk; did they actually talk? How did they negotiate their past? I still know people who have feeling that things were not discussed seriously enough in their families: What does mother know about her father? Did he shoot or didn’t he? Did she have an abortion or didn’t she – all these things that are kept in silence. Concerning the Soviet Union this raises the question, whether the official party line has been disseminated to the individual level and on everyday life, and if it has not, then how did it work, how have in this case decisions been made on the ‘lower’ level?

Kitija Vasiļjeva: It is also important to say, that in this exhibition we do not compare East to the West. As we talk about rewriting the history of or finding new ways of writing the history of the 60ies and 70ies. Often history is written through comparison between same phenomena in Eastern Europe and Western Europe. However, here we will look at individuals which allows to create a common history of East and West not shaped by this distinction.

Riga, September 2017