Amateur Enthusiam

Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings, Enthusiasts from Amateur Film Clubs 25 June – 29 August 2004, Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesnej, Warsaw

Walter Benjamin produced his most unambiguously Marxist statement about art in his 1934 lecture “Der Autor als Produzent.” Stepping back from inflamed Weimar debates about the politically correct form of progressive art, he maintained that to argue the case for one artistic language over another was to miss the point.

Whether socialist realism was more legible than abstraction was not the issue; the key challenge for Marxist culture, he maintained, was to wrest the technologies of reproduction from the bourgeoisie.

Taking his lead from the Soviet Union, Benjamin mythologized common Russian readers who picked up the pen and the camera to contribute material to the post-Revolutionary press: “we see that the vast melting-down process … not only destroys the conventional separation between genres, between writer and poet, scholar and promoter, but that it questions even the separation between author and reader.”(Walter Benjamin ‘The Author as Producer’ in Understanding Brecht, New Left Books, 1977. p. 90.)

In becoming producers of culture, the new Soviet man and woman would become conscious of the forces of progress in the world. Here, he claimed, was a properly Marxist response to the alienating effects of industrialized culture and a challenge to the prevailing conception of the ‘creative personality’ which, in Benjamin’s words, had long been ”a myth and a fake.”

The German philosopher was not alone in his estimation of the creative powers of the ordinary man or woman when harnessed by the collective. In the 1920s communist activists had organized groups of worker-photographers who took their cameras into the streets, housing districts and factories of Germany in crisis.

They recorded their struggles with brown-shirted fascists and rapacious landlords. Their images were reproduced in a specialist magazine, Der Arbeiter Fotograf, which gave advice about the ideological and technical ‘deficiencies’ of their images. However, the utopian figure of the worker-artist hardly had a chance to mature into adulthood before the Nazi hold on Germany strangled left-wing culture.

The worker-photographer did not, however, die. Twenty years later, a new generation of socialist citizens were picking up cameras to record the new utopia being constructed in the Gomulka’s Poland. From the 1950s, amateur photography and, increasingly, film making was given official imprimatur; workers were encouraged to establish clubs in their factories and offices, supported by an infrastructure of competitions, screenings and publications.

Over 300 clubs were registered with the Federation of Amateur Film Clubs based in Warsaw. Operating within the sanctioned sphere, they were able to draw on resources provided by the state including cameras, film stock and editing tables. A remarkably wide range of short films were made, including animations, experimental and abstract films, as well as documentaries and dramas.

Amateur film clubs were a product of the changing views of “wczasy” (free time). Leisure posed a particular problem for official sociology. Communist order promised to liberate the citizens of the People’s Republic from drudgery: the two-day weekend, for instance, was introduced in the 1970s.

Yet, from the perspective of the authorities, weekends and holidays were a gift that incurred liabilities. Holidays risked encouraging sloth or, worse, appeared to endorse a calendar of religious observance. Progressive forms of leisure had to be productive and collective.

Under Gomulka and Gierek, the “voluntary” labor schemes that had once operated as part of the post-war reconstruction program gave way to new clubs encouraging rambling, sport and stamp collecting to tap the untrammeled energy of the Poles.

Amateur film clubs formed an important part of the new leisure economy of socialism in the 1960s: “Along with advancements in specialization,” wrote sociologist Wieslaw Stradomskiin 1968, “one of the characteristics of industrial organization of production is that the humanistic essence of labor declines, as it is split into minute operations performed by a skilled workforce, who may never see the final product of their common efforts. Their respective jobs require of them neither knowledge or creativity. The level of responsibility drops down to a minimum … And here lie the roots and the reasons for development of amateur film making, an activity, which at the very core lays a complete creative – as well as reproductive act, without intention of a direct financial game.”(Stradomski cited by Sebastian Cichocki in the publication accompanying the Entuzjasci z Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych exhbibition, Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesnej, Warsaw, 2004, pp. 82-3.)

In producing the world in his workplace and then reproducing it through the lens, the worker demonstrated what was sometimes called the ‘organic unity’ of socialism.

The phenomenon of workers’ film would no doubt be forgotten, dissolved into the consumerism of the video camcorder, were it not for Krzysztof Kieslowski’s first popular film Amator (Camera Buff, 1979) and Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings’ recent exhibition Entuzjasci z Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych at the Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesnej, Warsaw, in the summer. Before considering the exhibition, a word about Kieslowski’s autobiographical movie is needed, not least because it clearly informed last summer’s event.

Amator is a reflection on the moral dilemmas of the documentary film-maker through the experiences of Filip Mosz, a factory worker who, after purchasing an 8 mm camera to record the birth of his daughter, becomes hooked on film. With the reluctant support of the director of the state factory in which he works, he establishes a film club. And bolstered by his successes in film competitions and encouraged by the attention of the cultural elite in the capital, Mosz begins to make bold documentaries which allude to the cronyism and corruption that operates in the factory-town.

Released at the time of the birth of the Solidarity Trade Union and before other critical commentaries on events of the day such as Andrzej Wajda’s documentary Robotnicy 80, Amator reflects on the effects of “Real Existing Socialism” on Polish society.

However, Kieslowski refused to offer a simple politico-moral fable. His chief character, Mosz, is forced to confront the effects of his films and comes to recognize the complex moral economy in which even party functionaries like the factory director operate. His film has not simply recorded the world; it has changed it. Consequently, he destroys his footage by exposing it to light.

In the final scene Mosz turns the camera on his own face to tell his story, the only one he can relay with any certainty. When the film was released, Kieslowski was criticized by the anti-communist Opposition for his interest in doubt: the culture of dissent in late communist Poland required greater moral and political certainty from its artists.

Visiting the theme of the amateur film twenty-five years later, Lewandowska and Cummings’ exhibition Enthusiasts also refused to make fast judgments, albeit for rather different reasons.

Organized as a series of rooms in which films were screened, Enthusiasts was entered through a foyer screening Peerlu-era newsreels and an amateur film club interior furnished with drab socmodernist furniture, thumbed copies of Film magazine and kitsch trophies awarded to prize-winning films. This self-consciously nostalgic space led to a series of rather more Spartan galleries in which dozens of amateur films ran on a continuous loop.

The short 16 mm films of the 1960s and 1970s at the core of the exhibition were organized by Lewandowska and Cummings by genre. Whilst the classification “labor” conforms to the political economy of the old order, others, “Longing” and “Love,” suggest more liberated uses of film.

This echoes the motives of many of the film-makers. As one, Jerzy Jernas from the AWA film club in Poznan, put it “We were not forced to do anything, we only occasionally had to make a ‘congratulatory scroll’ to celebrate the factory’s anniversary, something similar to a commercial nowadays. This was taken for granted and in now way interfered with the making of our own films. We didn’t identify with those commissioned jobs but at the same time we were aware that film can serve as propaganda. We wanted to talk about our own lives and our own worlds which didn’t resemble what was shown by the official city or factory newsreels.”(Jerzy Jenas interviewed by Marysia Lewandowska in the publication accompanying the Entuzjasci z Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych exhbibition, Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesnej, Warsaw, 2004, p. 147.)

Here the appeal of the project to Lewandowska and Cummings becomes evident. Produced in the liminal space between official culture and dissent, many amateur films represent dreams and desires which could hardly be mentioned. The erotic impulse which propelled one amateur director to represent his fantasies of love, filming in the unsteady orange electric light of a small apartment, was simply too commonplace when measured on the scale of high ideals proclaimed by state and, in the 1970s, by the anti-communist opposition.

Whilst most euphoric celebrations of everyday life, such as the writings of Michel de Certeau, have proclaimed it as a site of undetected and unseen resistances to power, the problem is precisely that: it remains invisible. Unlike most of their fellow citizens, amateur filmmakers possessed the resources to imagine and project other ways of living. The artists have compiled not simply an archive of films, but one of dreams.

Enthusiasts can be slotted into a wider body of interventions made by Lewandowska and Cummings into institutions like museums, department stores, and archives since the mid 1990s.(For details of Lewandowska and Cummings work, see www.chanceprojects.com.) In Free-Trade, for instance, at Manchester City Art Gallery last year, they explored the relationship between heritage and culture the cotton town at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

They gathered together all the objects – paintings, ceramics and silver – given by a bequest by a wealthy industrialist to the gallery, some of the many thousands of objects which had once filled his home and marked the height of taste. Each was labeled with a tag displaying its economic value at the time of the bequest. Displayed as if in transit, on route elsewhere, this exhibit made the Gallery seem like a chaotic warehouse of kitsch.

Lewandowska and Cummings have, it seems, made an art of exposing what is often seen as familiar or unremarkable. Their interventions are often small gestures, albeit ones built on considerable research. Even by their own standards, ‘Enthusiasts’ is a minimal intervention, much closer to curation than art.

Lewandowska and Cummings’ exhibition was the culmination of a two-year process of fieldwork which involved conducting interviews with film makers and gathering films, stills and other objects relating to the material world of twenty-two amateur film clubs from across Poland.

In this, the artists share much in common with the working methods of ethnographers and cultural historians who take an interest in the everyday, a phenomenon which, as Maurice Blanchot noted, “escapes because it belongs to insignificance.”(Maurice Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, Yale French Studies, no.73, 1987, p. 13.) Any attempt to capture or recreate the ordinary, especially that from another era, is, of course, destined to transform it.

The transformation here is one of context, the classic field of conceptual art. But these amateur films are not mute objects like the classic objet trouvé, nor, in fact, are they articulate statements.

There is, nevertheless, a kind of unknowable quality to many of these short films which lends to their appeal. Even in those legible films which seem to accord most closely to Socialist narratology by depicting the workplace or the demonstration, there are strangely affecting moments.

Who were these ordinary people performing for our attention? Why did the camera linger on this face or that view? What was the real-life relation of the on-screen lovers?

In fact, some of these cine-portraits seem so intimate that they are closer to home movies rather than the documentary format that the clubs were supposed to school their members in. And, like family movies, viewed without private or “inside” knowledge, these films seem to reveal much whilst telling nothing.

In his properly Marxist guise, Benjamin imagined that workers with cameras would be able to overcome the alienation of capitalist modernity; in the People’s Republic of Poland, it seems that their reluctant comrades turned to the camera to escape the alienating effects of socialist modernity.

Enthusiasts, perhaps, is an archive that requires a psychoanalytical key; one that might yet be provided by Benjamin, albeit in his more surrealist mood. Photography is, he famously noted, an “optical unconscious” offering to the waking mind a reality that would otherwise remain hidden; “the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”

Benjamin’s words are usually understood in terms of the photograph’s special capacity to freeze movement or enlarge detail, but they also allude to its powerful emotional register: “Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens itself to the naked eye,” he wrote, “if only because a space consciously explored by man is substituted for a unconsciously penetrated space …”(Walter Benjamin ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations, Fontana, 1973, pp. 238-9.)

The powerful charge delivered in these films never lies in their diegesis or their movie-like qualities. It is to be found in incidental or unexpected details which rear up from the screen: the broken buildings and empty backstreets of Polish small towns; the synthetic colors of “historic” costumes under artificial light; or the accidental exchange of looks between actor and camera.

Why, we might ask, is our attention fixed by these puncta? Is the melancholic sensation that these details provoke only available to those who can recall the forgotten habits and materials of the lost world of Peerelu? Does this material – when it loses its mooring in memory – drift into kitsch?

The answers are not provided by Lewandowska and Cummings. For whilst they have excavated a rich seam of everyday surrealism, they refuse to offer an authoritative reading of the phenomenon. In fact, in Warsaw over the summer the exhibition spilled rapidly beyond the exhibition walls into the pages of the press – a characteristic of all of Lewandowska and Cummings’ interventions.

The discussion of the phenomenon was lively, often reflecting on the creative freedoms that were to be found in the margins of official society in Gierek’s Poland. The question of what impact the exhibition can have on those who no access to private or even collective memories of Polish socialism will not have to wait very long for an answer. Enthusiasts will travel to the Whitechapel Gallery in London and Rooseum in Malmo, Sweden in 2005.

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