Ráhel Anna Molnár:
What sort of quest is this?
Conversation with Bálint Havas and András Gálik
For more than ten years, Bálint Havas and András Gálik worked on a research project on the student protests that took place at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in the course of the regime change. The duo known as Little Warsaw have summarized their research in the form of Rebels, a photo comic book* and installation: images from archival footages, contemporary TV broadcasts and university reports along with a book based on recorded interviews with former participants of the events and Katalin Székely’s essays, were exhibited in the former building of the Microfilm Archives at the National Széchenyi Library in the frame of the 2017 OFF-Biennale.
R. A. M.: Can you remember how your research began ten years ago?
B. H.: It is difficult to talk about this as in 2006 we were completely different people. We had different thoughts about the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, about the moment of regime change, society, everything. In the beginning we thought this had been a revolution. We were interested in how a group of art students acted under the social-political circumstances around 1989. What tools did they use and how? What kinds of statements did they make? What was their own internal system like?
We had personal micro-fragments of memories about the events: when we had gone to check the admission results at the Academy of Fine Arts, the graffiti was still there on the sidewalk; when we had started attending the school, we met the newly employed teachers and their daily struggles, and witnessed the launch of the Intermedia Department from close up.
A. G.: The first turning point was when we received the VHS footage shot by former assistant lecturer Ferenc Kiss-Tóth about the events.
R. A. M.: How and where did you access the archival footages? Did you get them from the university’s video archives?
B. H.: Kiss-Tóth recorded a lot of things but he could never make use of his archive and he did not do editing. Later the Intermedia Department digitised the corpus. We received it from Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák.
A. G.: We also looked around at the library of the University of Fine Arts, but this corpus was not yet part of the university archives then.
B. H.: Katalin Majkó, head librarian of the former Academy, made an effort to collect the relevant documents, however. András Zwickl also gave us material, as being a young curator, he had been in contact with Csaba Nemes and János Kósa, actors of the “revolution”. But we also visited the National Szécheny Library for articles. We were doing some research.
R. A. M.: Did you know from the start what the result of the project would be, or has that shaped in the process? How did this art historical and artistic research evolve?
A. G.: The comic book format was decided at the start, but the direction of our research was never clear. We followed the linear progress of events, but this story offered countless ways to go. Every way could become infinite, so we had no idea where we would end up with all of this.
On Kállai grant for art historians, Katalin Székely wrote a paper about our research, and along the lines of that, also about the events of the time. For the book she developed this paper further, as did we with the comic. We kept updating each other about our progress. For practical reasons she was keeping pace with our developments, but we never interfered with each other’s business.
B. H.: We devoted a lot of time to interpreting different documents on the level of examining and analysing archives as well as regular consultation with living actors. We started out with the preconception that we would objectify the story of a student revolution somehow in a comic book. But as our research progressed, we found it harder and harder to find the action itself amidst all the deeds, decisions and acts. There were periods when we would intensely work on this for months or half a year. Then we got stuck and disintegrated into particularities.
There were several moments when we lost sight of how all of this material would form any sort of narrative. This just bloated the entire work process. The VHS material is the same. We believed that they were footages of a revolution. But these are discussions at student forums and university board meetings. This is an infinitely dialogical situation with no action whatsoever.
R. A. M.: The comic book uses interviews made by you in addition to the archival materials. When did you start making these?
B. H.: Initially we had email interviews with several people, but it was difficult enough to decide who we wanted to communicate directly with. We also experienced a lot from these events and our own experiences defined our initial point of view. At first we began the interviews from a different aspect: we called on Miklós Peternák or Péter György, who had come to the Academy after the events of '89-90.
Eventually we decided that we would work on the student movement. This still involved 300 people and their collective micro-story. We wanted to figure out what exactly it was that they had taken part in. What was the narrative? On the other hand, what were the perspectives that may be interesting to us or that would give shape to this project? It was not easy to find answers to these questions.
A. G.: We made the interviews to shed light on what had happened – not only with the history of the student revolution, but also with us. This was not clear to us during our research. We had several attempts at collective email conversations, but these never worked, partly because of the different dynamics of the participants.
B. H.: It was decided in the project’s final stage that we would also shoot materials that would be used in the book. We mainly spoke about things that we could not find in any document, press material or VHS footage. We had begun some interviews with Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák or Gábor Bakos in 2006, but this communication continued for many years. And in ten years memories change as well.
R. A. M.: You spent years researching memories of different actors and groups connected to the events. Does this have anything to do with the confrontation of changing memories and perspectives?
B. H.: This was a long and changing period in terms of our approach and methodology alike – which made the work rather multi-layered. During an intense half year, for instance, we were reading and analysing contemporary reports from the university archives. The expressions of the board of teachers revealed an entirely different world.
A. G.: The book contains a lot of different points of view. At the beginning, we imagined revolutionary truth and purity as opposed to a calcified lie. However, ten years of research have added countless shades to the overall picture, and this long time has benefited the content as well.
B. H.: It often felt bizarre to work on this. Instead of a work of art, it began feeling like a lifestyle. You sit in a studio and pry more and more into the details of the stories of people who are often your friends and colleagues, in a sort of surveillance-mode. The actors of the events are still present “on both sides”. These divisions are of course historical schemes, this is not how they work in reality. But our background knowledge of this scene and these people also played a role.
A. G.: If this is done by a sociologist, they may write a study from it. But a visual artist has different motivations. You know the field, you also come from there, everything is familiar. We are interested in how these “revolutionaries” are now the same age as the older generation they rebelled against. Some of them are even in the same status.
R. A. M.: Topics about the relation between roles now and 25 years ago are not addressed in the book. Were they brought up during the interviews?
B. H.: We were experimenting first with inviting 4-5 interview subjects and not saying a word for hours. As a result they would start talking to each other. It was clear that this was the reason for their being here. They tried discussing the subject of the events in ’90, but they always ended up here: who is in what position currently, where they teach and how they relate to this story today. Obviously this was what interested them the most out of all this. People obviously want to see that they ended up differently.
R. A. M.: Did you get any feedback from the former actors of the events?
B. H.: Re-encountering all of this is not entirely delightful for any of them – it cannot be, as we do not identify with anyone. We made an effort to understand and fully perceive as many perspectives as possible, for which reason we tried to maintain the position of outsider. It was also a great challenge for us to discard our personal affections or antipathies; to understand and register moments without passing judgement. But our work methods are not so strict. Our activity has no preliminary script to rigidly follow, we experiment. Sometimes we reach a dead end, then we take a different direction, and eventually we discard half of it. In its edited, published form, the comic book is 400 pages long, but for that we had to redact 600-700 pages of material. Kiss-Tóth’s endless footages were augmented with several hours of recollections in interviews. We have received criticism that we spent three hours interviewing someone and only three sentences made it into print.
A. G.: We selected and edited the material, we made the entire thing. As creator, you of course control manipulation as well, which was reflected in the reactions. You can explain the reasons, but the displeasure of the affected individual may be stronger. In the beginning we did not disclose to the interview subjects what the result would be, as even we had not figured it out yet. We invited them precisely because we got stuck ourselves. We had no idea how to continue. This was an intermediate process and we could easily have omitted all of it from the book.
R. A. M.: For the sake of clarity, this is at once historical and artistic research. While recording a historical event, it is still abstraction.
B. H.: We do not approach this from the perspective of a journalist, a sociologist or a historian. We could not if we wanted to. We notice or deem different things worthy of publishing. However controlled it may seem from ten years of editing, it is difficult to tell from the result what sort of quest this is. What kind of research is painstakingly extracting a few minutes of speech and a few gestures from a three-hour interview? What is this research directed towards and what is its actual purpose? When we began working on this, it was more of a mythology: a fifteen years old story wrapped up long ago. I think that despite all, we have managed to piece out at least one reality.
A. G.: Yes, in 2006 there was a mythology to all of this, but by now this story has begun to fade into oblivion. Finally it has a concrete, objectual manifestation. And that is useful by all means. While being an art object, it may well be resource material for research regarding the history of the University of Fine Arts.
R. A. M.: To what extent can this be considered a memorial?
B. H.: A memorial to the events at the Academy?
R. A. M.: Yes.
B. H.: Memorials instate a paradigm of the past in the present, as if that paradigm was constant. If we accept the existence of the past – about which we cannot be certain, perhaps it is an idea, a projection in the present – as our point of departure, then any paradigm we posit regarding it will only represent a moment. At the end of our research we had an email exchange with the participants and it came up that such a process perhaps serves to eliminate the past rather than to preserve it; so that you can think more freely about the present or the future. Perhaps digesting the past has this primary function: the attempt of getting rid of it. The objectified process of remembering is liberating. And looking at it from our perspective, by commencing our studies at this institution, we ourselves had entered this very past.
R. A. M.: As I perceived when I attended the University of Fine Arts, this past reaches into the present. Regarding from your perspective, perhaps the intention of getting rid of the past is your point of departure?
B. H.: It is practically incomprehensible why one deals with such stories from the past. The ideal condition is obviously to ignore it. Being compelled to deal with it already indicates a problem. This is what I meant by getting rid of it.
R. A. M.: Can one succeed?
B. H.: These are traumas related to public space. Of course we had experienced some of this, the same as – like you say – could be experienced 25 years later at the same school. The personal activity in this is re-experiencing collective traumas. We had in fact gained from all of this. It was really a dynamic period, at least for some years everyone believed that revolutionary changes had taken place. The people who stood for this were there at the institution and this was what we sensed from all of it. For us it was the opposite of a trauma. But at the same time, our knowledge of collective traumas makes us capable of experiencing them.
A. G.: Throughout the research, precisely because this is a story related to public space, it could have taken several courses of development – such as the perspective of the old and powerless teachers: where they come from, what different types of career paths represent the art scene of the period. This is just an example, but in this sense the book speaks about a lot of different things other than the events at the Academy. Today this is timely in a different way than when we began: it had a historical perspective in 2006 as well, but by 2017 its context is inactivity. And this time everyone is part of it, the youth of 25 years ago 25 years later. The structure is unchanged.
R. A. M.: There is also a parallel visual narrative in the comic: through close-ups, details of objects, gestures. Even without the text, these „silent" images would be capable of delineating some message about the underlying system behind the scene, the prevailing public mood.
A. G.: This is a fundamental element of any comic book. There is a dialogue, but ultimately this is a visual genre related to film. Perhaps silent film most of all, where the sequences of images are interrupted by “explanatory” texts.
B. H.: Considering the number of pages, there is not a lot of text in the comic book. The part with the reports has the most text, but rather abridged. The structure has its internal logic, so our main job was what to omit. This is an analytical, observant activity, a kind of wondering examination where we regarded even the original archival material as an object. We focused not only on the historical event it recorded but also on the material itself – objects and gestures within a given image. Regarded from the present, these become interesting simply for the 10-20 years that have passed: say a glass of orange juice on the table in a film studio, or the clothing style in a given age. These, so to say, are useless details, but we were interested in them. Registering elements that may look strange from where we stand also contains a sort of message. Even regarding abstract notions such as oppression or power.
R. A. M.: Because along the way, the initial presumption about the opposition of the “good” and the “bad” side became more differentiated.
B. H.: Yes, and humour is one element of this differentiation. So is it an element of acceptance and forgiveness.
R. A. M.: Or of keeping distance, which is important in terms of your relation to the past. In order to work on a story for so long, you need to keep a distance, but I have no idea to what extent this can be achieved. As in fact you are also the one who does the editing and selection.
B. H.: .: It helps a lot that we are a duo. One of us works on this or that detail, but the other is also in control, providing another perspective, and vice versa. This helps exactly with managing its personal nature. Although our interview subjects did criticize us for touching upon too personal areas.
R. A. M.: Meaning the personal space of the interview subjects?
B. H.: Yes, and this was true to some extent. With the archival materials we also delved into personal details rather than a historical narrative.
A. G.: In the case of a documentary or a comic book, where the interview subjects are visually represented, this aspect is amplified. It is different when your words appear in a text bubble; that form leans more towards caricature. And these are artists for whom the way they are pictured is always more important than anything. An artist obviously has an inner pressure to be consistent with his or her self-image when being represented.
R. A. M.: This is manifestedvery similarly in your video with Zsigmond Károlyi (Game of Changes, 2009). Not only from a visual aspect, but also in terms of content.
B. H.: The two pieces are similar in format, but in fact we had started addressing the perspective of time, generations, ages in our work around 2006 when we became 35. On the one hand, this was an archaeological interest, and on the other hand, a reflection on our own perspective. All of our work contains this to some extent, reflecting an interest in ourselves.
A. G.: Lately our interest in our immediate public space has also become important to us, but this often leads to conflicts. If you want to discuss somebody’s past with them, they often try depicting themselves as heroes, but as it turns out from this book, that is not what we are interested in.
B. H.: The six-minute film with Zsigmond Károlyi was also made from three hours of footage. This has become our method as well: we just chat and talk, practically without bounds. But one or two things are said that are interesting and useful for us, from an artistic or abstract aspect – not purposefully, but for some reason.
R. A. M.: Here the notion of tradition is also in play besides oppression and power – from the perspective of your relation to specifically the University of Fine Arts, or more broadly to the academia as such.
A. G.: Those eleven years have definitely proven useful for the story to be more than just representing a rotten past and the pure-hearted youth opposed to it, who are slapped in the face if they want something. Understanding the other side has also been a very significant and extremely hard process while working on the project.
B. H.: Because personal relationships are less typical in that context – we were hardly acquainted with any of them. These projects are also aimed at deconstructing our involuntary respect of authority. It is a (retrospective) realization concerning our own youth that these relations can be viewed from a reciprocal perspective as well. This was why we did not hide facts about which even we know that they are difficult to face. But we handled these in a way so as not to be manifested in a negative impulse on our part. This practically took ten years. It is not easy to reach this point with anything. Of course, at the start we had no idea this would be such a difficult endeavour.
R. A. M.: Viewed in the context of the OFF-Biennale and Gaudiopolis, this project and story also shows the other face of future social or community models to some extent.
B. H.: This story took place in an enclaved locality, which was not only closed off from the West and the global world, but also regarded the outside world as the enemy. At the time of the regime change it seemed that this would begin to ease up and such ideas emerged that perhaps a different life was possible, perhaps it was possible to turn to the outside world with confidence.
A. G.: It was a period full of action, compared to, say, the 2000s. We needed an apropos. There is this story about a quasi-revolution and the book uses it to shed light on an omnipresent condition.
B. H.: This book cannot be other than the analysis of what failed to work and why. This is the book, especially in retrospect, in the light of people’s stories from two decades ago. We kept observing a single moment for ten years, but this was a feeble little structure that was very difficult to grasp in retrospect.
Translated by Dániel Sipos