The Hidden Decade: Polish Video Art 1985-1995 (Book Review)

Ukryta dekada. Polska sztuka wideo 1985-1995 / The Hidden Decade: Polish Video Art 1985-1995, eds. Piotr Krajewski, Violetta Kutlubasis-Krajewska, WRO Art Center, Wroclaw 2010, 336 p.

Given the contributions of feminism or New Historicism, the statement that there is no such thing as complete and cohesive ‘”great narrative” appears to be a cliché. When writing a history, especially the first historical outline of an art field, one will inevitably get involved in the politics of inclusion and exclusion (the canon), and one will have to answer questions such as: who is speaking? and from where? Such questions evidently beset the authors of The Hidden Decade, a collection of eight texts on Polish video art spanning from the mid-1980s–when video became more accessible (replacing 16 mm films) to its rising popularization and commercialization after 1995. The editors call this decade “hidden” both because of the widespread unfamiliarity with that period, and because of its reputation as an “alternative” art form).

If one expected complete coverage from this book, then doubts would soon set in concerning more than one of its editorial decisions, including the make-up of its sections. First and foremost, it is unclear why Ryszard Kluszczynski is absent from the list of contributors. There are only a handful of researchers of video art in Poland, and he has arguably become the most prominent academic writer on the subject. Second, it is one wonders why two of the eight articles in this collection are devoted to Zbigniew Libera, an artist who after all has already been canonized by a solo show at Zachęta National Gallery in Warsaw. One also wonders if instead of adhering to this canon it might not have been more effective to bring in Jerzy Truszkowski, Libera’s friend in Łódż during the 1980s , or the dispersed and ephemeral work of another radical artist from that time, Zbyszko Trzeciakowski,

Despite all these questions it should be pointed out that the volume is presented as work in progress rather than as a completed investigation. The Hidden Decade also needs to be evaluated within the framework of the research projects conducted d by WRO Art Center, the only Polish contemporary art center dedicated exclusively to video art. However, this institutional framework does not yet offer a clue to the publication’s relevance. What is more important is the fact that its dynamic status as a work in progress has been translated successfully from the institutional to the epistemological level. As a result, the reader is confronted with a (sometimes blurry) polyphony of voices that is more or less unconstrained and free from set definitions.

The Hidden Decade embraces at least three approaches toward the past decade of Polish video art. Piotr Krajewski delivers an instructive insight into a wide panorama of contexts, including the independent position of video art between the State and the oppositional movement orbiting around the Catholic church; Polish artists’ fluid attitude toward visual representation (from a strictly analytical posture to a more casual use of the camera); or the circulation of VHS tapes within local urban centers. Krajewski’s essay takes the form of a diachronic narrative and reads like an academic lecture. Yet it is also, to some degree, a testimony. The discerning reader will note that the author’s authority is established not so much by professional knowledge than by personal experience. Therefore, within Krajewski’s rather academic style one can find intriguing continuities between Krajewski the academic, on the one hand, and Krajewski the co-organizer of, for instance, the first WRO festival (Wrocław. 1989), on the other.

In their essays, Łukasz Ronduda and Maria Anna Potocka adopt different discourses and strategies. Omitting diachronic narrative, Ronduda’s interpretation views the “hidden decade” as a synchrony within which different tendencies can be divided into four sharply divided movements. Since for Ronduda the period under consideration is decidedly the historical past, the author inscribed into his text is the modernist, objective, and disembodied observer.

Though she is from the same generation as Krajewski, Potocka brackets the extensive socio-historical context much like Ronduda does. Her starting point is the video material itself, viewed here as an archeological residue. However, in contrast to Ronduda, Potocka’s style brings to mind the lively evaluative language of art criticism. Indeed, what Potocka does is mainly a close reading of single frames which in her mind must periodically be re-assessed regardless of one’s memories and former judgments.

These three essays unquestionably shape the intellectual scope of the volume. Other included texts offer a variety of different approaches, from a focus on historical sources (the reprint of an archival article by Jolanta Ciesielska) to oral history (an interview with Libera); a methodologically advanced exegesis of a single artwork (Zygmunt Rytko’s Momentary Objects); or the meticulous reconstruction of historical facts (Dorota Monkiewicz on Libera’s youth), a process that Hans Sedlmayr called “the first art history.” In this way The Hidden Decade advances complementary models of investigation for the study of video artin Poland at a specific point in time.
The Hidden Decade reminds us that the production of knowledge is a domain in which negotiations are indispensable. It places us in the midst of long-term research efforts to understand Polish video art during the period in question.