Camera Arhiva as a social premise for archiving the past

A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe, the spectre of revisionist history. For the past few decades, contemporary Eastern Europe has been bruised by a new type of ideological combat, that of memory wars. With new politics of history emerging and seeking to provide a revised perspective on our collective history, resorting to memory games has become a crucial tool used by political actors in order to delegitimise conflicting discourses and validate personal careers, to mobilise electoral masses and scandalise the public opinion, to politicise biased agendas and persecute political foes. Memory and history have been instrumentalised in order to ossify a nationalist identity to the detriment of an internationalist one, to manipulate popular opinion in the name of the collective good in order to create loyalty for the already reigning elites.

Memories are most often collective and therefore they carry a common resource, a mode of knowledge that can be traced, identified, and deconstructed. “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory itself,” writes Jacques Derrida in “Archive Fever”, in which the French thinker discusses the nature and function of the archive.[1] With history and power being heavily entrenched, it is perhaps impossible to reduce different manifestations of culture to a series of elements that are arranged and classified in an objective manner. History after all—like one of its main by-products, the archive—is just another rhetorical construct. At the same time, an archive does not amount to History with a capital H, as the former is in most cases an inherently subjective and arbitrary endeavour (regardless of the rigour employed by its makers). Archives are manifesting themselves in the form of traces, and they contain ideological fragments with the potential to destabilise how history is, on the one hand, recorded and, on the other, remembered. There is a clear ideological composite that resides behind the apparently innocent act of safeguarding and conserving—one which ultimately betrays the very goal of archiving in the first place. It’s not just a debate over authenticity (which archives generally and expectedly fail to deliver anyhow), but about the problematic conditions of historical production and its concealed or unconscious intentions. 

Institutionalised archives are burdened by the complex processes that the very act of archiving entails: taxonomic criteria, legitimation, inclusion/exclusion, construction of a national/regional canon, the production of master narratives, which are all inherent, inevitable, and obviously hegemonic in bureaucratic endeavours. Privatising archives is by no means the solution either, as archives themselves have become an object of desire that fetishises the market in the context of global neoliberal policies, where private memorabilia and collections seclude history even further from the public eye. Instead of hiding artefacts away, personal collections should at least function as possible cornucopias of functional knowledge that are excavated from the claws of the private domain. For these reasons, Camera Arhiva seeks to distance itself from the sterile (and anyway unattainable) cloak of omnipotent objectivity. In doing so, Camera Arhiva attempts to by-pass institutionalised forms of “locking away” history, so from this perspective the digital platform is also an attempt to de-couple the archive from the bureaucratic imaginary of the nation-state and its subordinate institutions alike; its scope of interest is concentrated away from officialdom and the supposedly objective historical discourse of the state and its auxiliary infrastructures that subject archives to the symbolic order of power.

As an attempt to decolonise archival memory from the supremacy of historical discourse, Camera Arhiva is not so much interested in what history books teach us, but in revealing history through the sediments of everyday forms of culture. History is not just what we learn from textbooks or grasp from YouTube documentaries, just as history is not what you will get away from this initiative. For Paul Ricoeur, for instance, the concept of the historical archive is synonymous with traces and documents, in which we are able to measure not only a relation between the past and present, but also between historical events and existing evidence of its occurrence, ultimately, between the fabric of everyday life and its representation. We, as archaeologists of informal knowledge, aim to recover traces and reconstruct quotidian relics, hoping to reveal how our understanding of historical discourses shapes our relation to the past and the social construction of historical meaning. 

Camera Arhiva seeks therefore to retrieve traces and documents of everyday life by deconstructing the Romanian publishing industry between 1947–1989. For this, we have experimented with almanacs and journals, state periodicals and union-owned magazines, brochures and booklets, newspapers and pamphlets, posters and exhibition catalogues, fiction paperbacks and do-it-yourself manuals. Rather paradoxically, by focusing on the printed matter of the everyday and on the material culture of the regular Romanian citizen, we are seeking to break the mundane apparatus of officialdom represented by governmental and privatised archives alike. By focusing on the everyday, we are retrieving breaks and suspensions from an uneven and non-linear continuum, as these archival data have the potential to restore fragments of micro-politics, without ever seeking to disclose the Truth though.

What Camera Arhiva proposes is the empowerment of personal and subjective archives, not as omnipotent forces of truth nor as privatised/fetishised capsules of knowledge, but rather as flexible mechanisms that are built on relational networks and artistic practices that deal with historical structures directly. In this way, it bypasses the bureaucratic imprisonment of knowledge, and thereby contributes to a restored framework of political and social imagination that has the potential to empower new subjectivities. Much more than this, given the concurrent revisionist discourses with regards to the communist past, Camera Arhiva tackles a supposed historical vacuum (or alternatively a rabid demonisation of pre-1989 history), questioning the ongoing attempts to erase an actually existing past from collective memory. So besides its role to critically explore a shared living history, Camera Arhiva emerges in the context of broader ideological tensions that are affecting our contemporary society and the cultural field alike: growing ideological turmoil and uncertainties regarding the political and cultural history of Romania caused by the stiffening of the anti-communist discourse which invariably limits the possibility to critically explore our recent history, the dissatisfied desire to understand our collective past, but also the lack of a reliable apparatus that is able to mediate access to this type of information, as well as to document and classify objects, which although seemingly banal, have a high empirical potential and a heavy weight of ideological and political meaning.

Camera Arhiva as a digital machine for remembering

The death of paper is a widely discussed idea—even in frenetic and alarmist terms—one whose plausibility regularly reaches new pinnacles with every new form of technology that is lurking from behind to replace it. In almost all cases we end up talking about the death of paper that failed to happen, about a paperless agenda that, everything considered, failed to truly take over the world. We feel that the discussion however should gravitate less around a possible conflict between paper and digital, and more on synchronicity and mutual valorisation. For this, we should provide new instruments of cooperation concerning how paper and digital can co-exist and provide powerful frameworks of debate. At the same time, within an already fragmented world, it should be less about the gradual demise of printed matter to the detriment of digital devices, but more about the attempt to popularise the former through the capacities and efficiencies of the latter. The juxtaposition of the two can only make the Internet aware of something that it has only rarely been aware of: material and tangible matters that predated its own birth.

Onto this shaky terrain, Camera Arhiva aligns itself among other platforms that aim to even the balance between digital and paper, in an online economy that too often forgets about the materiality of things. Seeing the Internet as a scattered yet inter-connected kernel of resources, Camera Arhiva embodies a small part within a larger network of knowledge production. The Internet facilitates the existence of Camera Arhiva, allowing us to reconnect with fragments of knowledge lost over time, yet longed for and much needed today. To trace back means to connect, after all, and this is what contemporary society needs: a bridge that is capable to re-establish lost connections between contemporaneity and our past, but also a kinship between old and new technologies.

If paper is the extension of human memory, the digital realm works as a machine for remembering, just like the archive which becomes an accessible public resource that provides access to lost fractions of our pasts. In order to achieve this, the archive employs open source methodologies in a bifold manner: it is produced with the help of public exchanges that resulted from an open call; it is available for free consumption to all users with a viable Internet connection. The platform does not rely exclusively on specialised frameworks, such as libraries or institutionalised repositories, but especially on the democratic power of social platforms. People of the world wide web were openly invited to bring their pre-1989 (rare or ordinary, forgotten or cherished, alike) books and magazines and to play an active part in building the archive. The output of this small yet growing platform remains obviously free for everyone who wants to access it. The unearthed material is democratised, thereby contributing to the recharging of a lost collective memory and to enriching a limited array of public resources concerning the socialist past. 

Sustaining an archive however means to accumulate various forms of remembrance and this usually can take over longer periods of time, leaving therefore the archive open not just in terms of accessibility but also in terms of its finitude (or lack thereof). The idea of an archive in motion is a paradox, for the archive is traditionally the context in which history stands still, when time is arrested so to speak, and when all motion is stopped in order to be observed meticulously. Contrary to popular belief which relegates the archival space into an outdated, retrograde area that lacks contemporary relevance, an archive is actually in permanent movement—especially one dealing with such a broad phenomenon as communist publishing, an industry that was obsessed with leaving marks behind, with recording every achievement and objective and disseminate them widely. In our case, subsequently, the finality of unearthing, selecting, indexing, and interpreting visual material is notably unstable; more precisely, the finality of an archive may be, quite likely, non-existent. One can never establish when these processes are over, for the archive is actually alive and moving. Camera Arhiva is an attempt to de-freeze not just the prevalent perception of the archive, but the archive itself; it is a continual work in progress, a permanent process of recuperating history, one without a clear point of completion. 

Camera Arhiva as a creative process of ascribing meaning

Following the aforementioned set of ideas it may not be that surprising to argue that archival records can in fact potentiate an exercise of creative possibility. Although the Archive—conceptually, perhaps even with a capital A—is a sanctuary of encyclopaedic knowledge, a temple of experiences, reflections, dreams, and thoughts on the human condition seen through the lens of history, it is also a vault that is permanently inscribed, erased, broadened by ideological factors. For this reason, the corpus of this platform is divided in four main categories which are then visually and poetically contextualised through the means of video footage. From a conceptual perspective, the archive is fragmented into a visual tool of research, stripped down of meaning and assembled again. If an archive can be traditionally considered a substantial quantity of raw data to which further associations may be applied—classification, indexation, valorisation, etc.—, our re-interpretation of archival taxonomy conveyed an almost austere and unvarnished translation of historical images beyond the discourse of history. 

If an archive can be traditionally considered a substantial quantity of raw data to which further associations may be applied—classification, indexation, valorisation, etc.—, our re-interpretation of archival taxonomy conveyed an almost austere and unvarnished translation of historical images beyond the discourse of history. 

To construct an archive from scratch is, at least from the perspective of artistic practices, an act of scraping off the evident sediments of meaning, the perfect opportunity to speculate against the established conceptualisations of the past and their surrounding cultural inscriptions that collectively construct history as we currently know it. The acts of collecting and scattering heterogeneous and fragmented materials lead therefore to the emergence of new connotations. 

While bureaucratic regimes of truth (such as the one proposed by the infrastructures of the nation-state) strive for a historical discourse that should be driven forth by narrative, coherence, and objectivity, an artistic-driven archaeology of knowledge deals with discrete but powerful, omnipresent but neglected, strings of visual data that can be used as viable alternatives to read the past. This platform dismantled the stream of data collected over six months into four main categories and over forty tags/keywords, resembling vessels that flow without the regularity imposed by the constraining narratives of historical discourse: CAMERA POLITICA explores ideological semiotics, latent/persistent visual symbols, and the regime’s attempt to leave traces behind, as well as deconstructs the party’s desire of validation, its foreign policies and various forms of internationalism such as its support of a pan-peripheral struggle, but also its relationship with peace and war and conflict; CAMERA CULTURA undertakes the artistic manifestations of the era, such as painting, sculpture, performative arts, literature, philosophy, poetry, or architecture, the regime’s fascination with antique history, CAMERA RECREATIVA explores the existent forms of entertainment and leisure, through tourism and health industries, seaside and mountain resorts, spas or local sanitariums, as well as the regime’s focus on environmental sciences and its attraction toward botany, ornithology, and zoology, but also trekking, hiking, and traveling in general; CAMERA TEHNICA delves into the heavier side of production, labour culture, and technical materials, such as machineries, utensils, furnaces, cranes, gears, but also the role of proletarian/proletkult ventures, including villages and agriculture, farming, horticulture, and crop production, etc.

The decision to focus on a flux of data that is constructed by an underlying synthesis of visual knowledge, rather than any other kind of relation to history, is inspired by Georges Perec’s work “Think/Classify”, which encapsulates the core tensions as well as the boundaries of an archive: “Behind every utopia there is always some great taxonomic design: a place for everything and every thing in its place.” […] “My problem with sorting orders is that they do not last; I have scarcely finished filing things before the filing system is obsolete.”[2] If the resurrection of forgotten or hard to find materials stems from a widespread need to reconstruct, re-assemble, and even re-enact the original publishing gesture, the decision to strip everything of original meanings can be put on our desire to understand the image as a form of communication from a critical perspective. 

What resulted from this attempt is a disrupting spectrum of archival spreads, visual images, and blocks of text, subjective archival entries. Pieces of history are broken into algorithmic data, dispersed into an amalgam of meanings, and then re-arranged in a process that leaves the broken sides still visible and palpable, just like a broken mirror that can never be fixed, yet that paralyses the very subjects it is reflecting.