Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981

Klara Kemp-Welch, Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019), 480PP.

Authoritative, yet written in a colloquial tone in keeping with the human connections it delves into, Klara Kemp-Welch’s long-awaited book Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981 offers an insightful account of experimental art in Eastern Europe during the Cold War period. Its main intention is to “challenge the idea that experimental artists in the Soviet bloc operated in isolation,” by examining how people, objects, and ideas connected and circulated across the countries behind the Iron Curtain. The evidence gathered to support this point is compelling. The research also benefits from detailed critical attention given to the rich amount of documents that are uncovered and exposed in this book. Images, letters, press releases, written and oral testimonies constitute material evidence of the region’s activities, offering the book as a prolific critical archive. Such documents make the book valuable for both the art historical researcher already familiar with the art of the region and for the curious reader who seeks to understand how and why the art created during the time period under review shared various visual similarities, yet was produced under different circumstances and motivations.

Besides the rich archival information provided, the major strength of this particular research resides in its methodological approach. In lieu of an overarching narrative, Kemp-Welch offers a multidirectional, nonsequential one comprised of multiple “minor narratives,” as she calls them – that is, detailed accounts of situated artistic intersections and contacts that overlapped in space and time without necessarily interacting with each other. Worth mentioning is the terminological switch from the politically laden term “dissident” to the aesthetically oriented “experimental” to characterize the art practices that form the subject of this book, although this is hardly surprising for those familiar with the author’s first book, Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule 1956-1989 (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014). Clearly such terminology indicates Kemp-Welch’s intention to avoid the often reductive designation of nonconventional art that is usually defined by its political and social engagement with state socialism.

Here, experimental art in Eastern Europe is not presented as an isolated, self-contained entity, but rather as a decentralized network of artistic encounters, connections, intersections, dialogues, collective projects, and “travelling concepts,” in tune with the book’s focus on artistic mobility that characterizes much of the recent art historical research in the region. Networking the Bloc also adopts the transnational perspective embraced by other collective publications, such as Art Beyond Borders: Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe 1945-1989, edited by Jérôme Bazin, Pascal Dubourg Glatigny and Piotr Piotrowski (Budapest: CEU Press, 2016), or the more recent Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present (London: Routledge, 2018), edited by Beata Hock and Anu Allas. These transnational perspectives allow the art of the region to be presented not as a series of national narratives linked by a common social and political background, but rather as a horizontal construction that moves across national, cultural, and political specificities.

Networking the Bloc is structured around three broad concepts: mobilization, points of passage and convergences.These concepts also form the three parts of the book, each devoted to a selection of in-depth case studies spotlighting transnational exhibitions, influential artists, art projects, publications, and spaces, as well as transnational personal encounters and private communications among artists. Mobilization describes five pioneering initiatives of international collaboration originated in Czechoslovakia and Poland and supported by colleagues from France, West Germany, and the United States. This section focuses on dialogues between young artists and established critics, takes into account the emergence of the mail art network, and discusses German artist Klaus Groh’s seminal publication Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa. Points of Passage examines spaces of temporary encounters between experimental artists from the Eastern Bloc that took place between 1972 and 1976. According to the author, these are “spaces that people and objects passed through at various rates and intensities – places that generated further encounters and exchanges.” (p. 144) Included are artist-run spaces, galleries with an international program, even cities that facilitated artistic encounters. The final section Convergences details how artists from the Soviet Bloc came together in the framework of shared exhibitions and international artists’meetings.

One of the obvious benefits of adopting such a methodological perspective is that it describes broad and unstable artistic categories, such as “the Eastern European neo-avant-garde,” as a dense, rhizomatic web of activities, processes, and micro-events. Familiar Eastern European artists are not presented as isolated individuals, but in the social environment in which they operated, accounting for its contingencies, unven power relations, and divergent interests. Equally important is the communitarian and noncommercial aspect of experimental art from Eastern Europe, whose ethos of solidarity is well captured and described in this book.

Two points can be made in this respect. The first one relates to what I desginate as the horizontal “cut” operating within the book, which continues the comparative approach advocated by Piotr Piotrowski and decentralizes the Eurocentric and North American biased art historical narrative. This horizontal approach destabilizes the distinction between center and periphery, presenting East European art not as derivative but in dialogue with other global art histories. Although the encounters and collaborations that took place between East European artists in East Germany, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Hungary, as highlighted here, contributed to fostering artistic exchanges and ideas across borders, they were often innitiated in the West. Artists on both sides of the Iron Curtain were willing to participate in the international art circuit; thus, relations between artistis from neighboring countries used Western-based “nodes” to exchange and generate ideas.

The examples cited are many. Artistic encounters and cultural exchanges took place in Paris-based galleries and in experimental art centers such as De Appel, many fostered by gallerists such as Richard Demarco. They were often initiated in dialogue with art critics, among them Pierre Restany and Jean-Marc Poinsot, and by critical art magazines such as Flash Art, run by Giancarlo Polliti. They were also facillited by self-organized publication houses created by emigré artists living in Devon and Köln. Attempted collaborations were made with performance artists in the West, including Chris Burden, Tom Marioni, Shirley Cameron and Roland Miller, or through Fluxus-inspired international connections with George Maciunas, Dick Higgins and Robert Fillou.

This is not to undermine the enormous influence of artists from Eastern Europe in creating contacts for each other. The author makes clear that the Polish artistic duo Kwiekulik, for instance, connected two landmark Czech artists, Jiri Kovanda and Petr Stembera, introducing them to the Polish art world, while emigré Hungarian art historian János Brendel introduced Hungarian art in Poland. Foksal Gallery, Jaroslaw Kozlowski’s NET, and Akumulatory 2 Gallery allowed both Eastern European and Western European artists to be exhibited in Poland, while also expanding local contacts with experimental art from Japan and Latin America. In Hungary, György Galántai’s Balatonboglár Chapel Studio in the 1970s and Artpool in the 1980s were seminal for organizing encounters with Czech experimental art, and later, for communicating internationally. Conceptual and mail artists Carlfriedrich Claus, Robert Rehfeldt, and Ruth-Wolf Rehfeldt were also influential in establishing contacts with East German art.

The second point important to note is that the exchange and circulation of ideas and artworks on the international level took place beyond or rather beneath nationally supported institutional frameworks. That is why the choice of the term “translocal,” already advocated by art historians Zanna Gilbert and Reuben and Maja Fowkes, instead of ”international” or “transnational,” is perhaps more fitting to describe how local initiatives, sometimes reduced to a single, individual agent, may have connected with other localities sharing similar artistic concerns.

In support of these methodological assumptions, Kemp-Welch seems to roughly import a version of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory into her own research, intelligently adapting it to the description of the art field. For Kemp-Welch, the artworld designates a networked field where “the many letters, photographs, and publications exchanged between experimental artists were akin to ‘connectors’ and were instrumental in the production of a social field: artistic propositions were what Latour calls ‘the cables, the means of transportation, the vehicles linking places together’ — they were a way of ‘launching tiny bridges to overcome the gaps created by disparate frames of reference.’” (p. 2) However, such an application can never be straightforward, since Latour’s theory is not about human interactions in social life, but about the manifold interactions between people, artifacts and other kinds of objects, including natural ones. By claiming that objects can have agency if they are regarded as entities that circulate, Latour argues for a non-anthropocentric description of the way social reality is constructed.

The difficulties in translating this perspective into art history clarifies its importance for the already strained field of social art history. What role do letters or artworks, even micro-events, such as a casual encounter between young Slovak artist Alex Mlynarčik and influential French art critic Pierre Restany in Paris, play in a larger art historical configuration that comprises multiple agencies with different power positions? How can we account for such seemingly contingent events whose effects are hard to commensurate — even when we are fortunate enough to find written accounts by the participating artists — if the negotiation of existing differences in the power positions of the respective agents within the international art world are omitted? The networked perspective is seductive, since it seems to advance a flattened ontology, according to which all agents are equally important; but it may also camouflage the multiple levels on which such agents operate and construct the social reality.

Several other key questions are raised, but are unfortunately sometimes suspended half way through the micro-narratives that bind this book together. However, it must be said that the author never seems to imply that her aim is to offer definitive answers to them. Given that the author’s research relies heavily on case studies, these answers would obviously differ from case to case. Was the formation of experimental art in Eastern Europe a response to internationally shared ideas? Or was it a phenomenon generated locally out of an insatisfaction with conventional art production in their close enviroment, in which artists attempted to communicate to other similar thinking or working artistic groups or individuals? What role did Western European and North American artists and art galleries play in this construction, besides that of facilitating the diffusion and translation of experimental art produced in Eastern Europe? What happened within the translation processes between the West and the East in each particular case? What made these artists converge; how did they also diverge? Such questions come to mind, for instance, when the author recalls the objection expressed by the Serbian art historian and critic Ješa Denegri or the artist Goran Djordjevic to the attempt to reduce East European art to a “political epiphenomenon” in relation to the exhibition project Works and Words that took place at De Appel in Amsterdam, a year after the International Artists Meeting at Remont Gallery in Warsaw in 1978. (p. 365)

It is the uncontestable merit of this well-documented, concisely presented, and clearly written book to complicate the essentializing binary categories of alternative or dissident art versus official, conformist art. Throughout, it shows that there was clearly a mutual will to connect, to communicate, and to become internationally visible, in order to avoid the isolation and  marginalization that drove many East European artists to engage with experimental art. For instance, Kemp-Welch argues that Slovak artist ”Mlynarčik’s friendship with Restany was one of the earliest instances of a mutually invigorating unofficial, noncommercial East-West exchange. Each helped the other in finding the authentic experience he was looking for: Mlynarčik wanted to escape the provincialism of Bratislava and, later, to have a way to forge relationships outside the repressive post-1968 cultural climate; Restany wanted to find new territories to experience and to find alternatives to the outdated hegemony of the Paris school in an effort to find a European answer to the challenge from American postwar art.” (p. 37) Overall, Networking the Bloc is another refreshing attempt to de-provincialize Eastern Europe as an artistic category. Due to the longstanding interest of previous art historical research in the social and political context of art produced in Eastern Europe, the latter was sometimes reduced to an isolated byproduct of those political conditions. Networking the Bloc treats it on a par with Western artists who were experimenting with aesthetic experiences and artistic languages during that same time, while also preserving the region’s socio-political specifities.

Cristian Nae
Cristian Nae is associate professor at the National University of Arts ”George Enescu” in Iași, Romania. He is senior advisor for  the project Periodization in the History of Art and Its Conundrums. How to Tackle Them in East-Central Europe (New Europe College, Bucharest), supported by the Getty Research Institute's Connecting Art Histories initiative. His writing has appeared in Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe (2019),  and in edited volumes published by de Gruyter (2020, forthcoming). He is editor of the book (In)Visible Frames. Rhetorics and Experimental Exhibition Practices in Romania 1965-1989 (Idea, 2019), and curator of Unfinished Conversations on the Weight of Absence, the Romanian exhibition in the 58th Venice Biennale (2019).