What really happened here?
Conversation with Tamás Komoróczky, Csaba Nemes and Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák
As a result of ten years of research, on the occasion of an exhibition in the frame of the Off-Biennale,* Little Warsaw published a comic book digesting the history of the student demonstrations that took place during the time of regime change. The comic book was based on contemporary written records and video documentation as well as excerpts from present-day video interviews with some of the people who had played a role in these demonstrations. The exhibition was a success based on the feedback, but the work process leading to the publication of the book was considered slightly contradictory by some participants, owing to which they had the impression that something was amiss regarding both the book and the research results. In a round table talk with those affected, we attempted to summarize the dilemmas that had thus far been spreading as hearsay.
B. B.: What was the work process like, when did you join the research?
Cs. N.: My story is that two years ago I got an email from a staff member of the Kassák Museum telling me that Little Warsaw had some questions regarding an exhibition and they would like me to answer them. From this I inferred that some project was under way at the Kassák Museum, and suddenly I found myself on a mailing list where I got the feeling that a controversy had been going on for some time that I just found myself in the middle of.
I also sensed that a certain tone, a language had appeared in which there was more than interest, it was combined with an attitude of contempt, even mockery. There was a strange duality: on the one hand, I am asked to cooperate in something I am not familiar with the nature or purpose of. Although it seems to be some sort of research, it may well be something else, and there is a tone that is outright offensive to me, whoever it actually addresses.
Now this email discussion was not just your average email exchange, but it had publicity. It was in the air that this would have some consequence, meaning that this discussion was taking place so that would eventually be articulated somehow. These days I find it unacceptable for someone to communicate like that in such a situation. I signalled this to them. The response came in the form of obnoxious, derisive, ridiculing remarks. These generally just set a hovering atmosphere, you could understand the undertone the way you saw fit. Sometimes, however, the cat got out of the bag and it turned out that my sense of discomfort was well-founded. So at first I said that I did not want to take part in this any longer. Eventually the exhibition fell through, presumably on account of the communication issues.
Then a few months passed and they called on us again. They promised that things would change, the attitude would be different, that they were thinking about serious in-depth interviews. The first in which I eventually took part was a video shooting with multiple participants. Gábor Bakos and I had arrived a little early and tried to inquire about the purpose of the video recordings, what they would be used for. I had obviously had a bad feeling about the whole thing from the start. They failed to set our minds at ease. Eventually, Gábor and I agreed to do the interview under the condition that whatever form it would take – as they had not disclosed what form this would be realised in – we would be allowed to approve the material before it became public.
They recorded a rather intriguing, long conversation, with countless things said that have no trace whatsoever in the book. This was shocking when I got the first proof in pdf – it came in a group email requesting us to approve it. That was when I realised that on the one hand, the profundity, the diversity, those countless dilemmas that were raised in the interview is all missing from the book, and on the other hand, this comic book format was an entirely different mood. The previously experienced “squaring of the circle” atmosphere resurfaced, but with severe image manipulations: for instance, some pictures had other words linked to them than what had actually been uttered there and then.
I then thought that this was not OK, that this was unacceptable… Well, it would be fine if they had not made interviews with us, but just adapted the original video footages to the comic book format in a way that it conveys their intention of using it as raw material and endowing it with their own interpretation. This would pass in my opinion. But if they act as if all of this happened with our inclusion and approval, I will obviously say “sorry guys, this is not for me”. Then there were specific things that I had told them I did not want to be included and yet they were. Same for the others.
T. K.: I got involved in this whole thing much later. I had excluded myself when they called on us years ago and I did not participate in this collective discussion and video interview. I did sense that an infinite email flow was developing, but it was too much even to read so I resisted. I spite of this they kept trying to involve me – for some reason my person was important. In vain did I try to convince them that when this whole thing had been taking place, this so-called revolution, I had like an episode character, and I had just been drifting with the “currents of the revolution”, that I did not have much knowledge about it as I had been preoccupied with other things around then.
But they were so insistent with these requests that eventually I gave in and joined the process this January. I had no knowledge of any of the antecedents, I had no idea what kind of production this would be, what they needed it for. They told me they were using the sixteen-hour footage by Feri Kis Tóth and they were collecting additional material. Then they made an interview with me which lasted four and a half hours. I spoke about a lot of things, about the period, the general mood around the regime change, adding my own activity to the mix, with Újlak Group, etc. Then a month had passed and I kept inquiring the guys when I could read it. They said “chill, Tomi, don’t worry, it will all be fine, you will learn in due time, we will send it in pdf.”
So they did at the end of the summer and I felt enormously flustered. On the one hand, this comic thing, this format had been a secret all along. I thought this would be an actual research, substantially digesting the events in all of their aspects – at first I had thought it would be a book. I remembered quite well the things I had said in January, and in contrast, I saw that they had arbitrarily extracted sentences from their original context, giving them a rather offensive, derisive and compromising tone. I think I was the first to react. I have brought it with me printed, I would like to read it now:
„Hi guys! I have reviewed the pages and they confirmed my initial fears for which I had intended to stay away from this posterior interview. Because if your aim was to compromise your fellow artists, you have succeeded beyond all measure: for instance, many of these fragments extracted arbitrarily from their context seem malignant or disparaging. None of us have become more beautiful or younger with the passing of time, but the visibly intentional illustrative use of sneering grimaces and derisive gesticulation is more than grotesque, and seems to be the result of perversely meticulous selection.”
This started a correspondence revealing that they were incapable of any level of self-criticism. It was parallel communication, we were all just speaking into the void. I realised that certain notions meant different things to us… If only I had noticed this difference, perhaps I would have thought that I had misunderstood something, but the others also confirmed it…
B. B.: So you had methodological problems with the selection, the extraction of things out of context and their subsequent re-contextualisation.
T. K.: Absolutely!
Cs. N.: By the way, we tried to raise these concerns in a very polite way. I remember from the previous email exchange that although I was aghast by what I was reading, I always thought OK, fine, calm down, I shall reply: “what’s the deal with this? what do you mean by all this?” The reaction was an interesting tactic: “how dare you say such things about our art? ”So all criticism on every level was instantly turned back at us and interpreted as an attack. While their tone was outright offensive.
Sometimes I was at the point of thinking that the only viable method might be ironic or funny responses. But those elicited even heavier language and not only directed at me. I do not wish to quote now but in case a researcher wants to take a look at these emails one day, I saved them.
In the past ten years, the world has been evolving towards questioning the way people behave in positions of power. For let us admit – I did ask them this question – that we interview subjects are not in that position, but they as creators or researchers are in a position of power, which also means that one should be able to expect some transparency like yes, this is what we are doing, this way, these are the participants we have involved, and this will be the result more or less. I do not expect them to disclose everything, but some level of information is expectable.
We are aware of the manipulation taking place in today’s media, we know how concrete facts can be rewritten by two minutes of an interview. The question is whether under these circumstances they can afford to have this attitude? In my opinion they could only do this if they did not involve us. That is, if they say “we are not interested in your opinion, we regard the events from our perspective, and we interpret them in one way or another.” That would be fine. But this…
B. B.: If they only worked with the archival materials.
Cs. N.: Yes. But instead there was this honey-tongued invitation and kindness, and then suddenly an extremely aggressive interpretation of the events and moments later it turns out that we are mere bio-props in this whole thing, utterly instrumentalised. They dismiss any critical remark we make, like “look man, this is not what I said!” Throughout the emails it regularly happened that they declared certain things, which probably reflected their own preconception, and it was far from interesting to them what we had to say. What was interesting was the fact that they acquired us like scalps, that we were involved in the story, and then it really did not matter whether we were there or not, they would interpret things the way they saw fit.
This bothered me and I did write to them that if I had known this in advance I would not have participated. Not because they say things about me or us that are critical and hurtful, for they have every right to do that, but if they do involve us in this story, then let our opinions about this whole thing be heard and published. It is evident anyway that they are the editors. If I am interviewed by any medium, I know it will not end up precisely a I said it then and there, as everything is subject to interpretation. This much is fine. But there is a scale at which this really is just irritating.
Z. Sz.-M.: Another strong motif is that Hungarian sentences uttered in conversation are extracted from the video and translated into English, which in itself entails a sequence of necessary interpretations. I remember pointing out some of these peculiarities in an email, advising them that they needed to be really careful with the English translation. And these issues continue to prevail. Such as how the institution is translated sometimes as College and other times as University… So they refer to the institution as College, but the council was translated as University Council. Now how would a foreigner know why the art academy was called College…
B. B.: Yes. This has a local legal background.
Z. Sz.-M.: We were protesting for a Western European college on the stage of the University Council – this sounds quite ridiculous in such context. These specific errors that I pointed out are still here in the book. Then here is a sentence out of your mouth: “Is this ever will be a college? Just look, it didn’t allow any space for new media in the system.” What language is this? And what does it intend to mean? In an English language environment this is not only erratic, but also uninterpretable.
In my opinion even the Hungarian speech bubbles – as some of the bubbles were in Hungarian when we saw it – are interpretations by necessity. Obviously an extreme amount of manipulation was needed by the authors to make things understandable. This is precisely why during such a process things have to be handled with care, because there in fact is a need for interpretation, weighting, reinterpretation, as it is not an objective representation of things, but a selection from several hours of footage and countless preserved documents.
Cs. N.: To return a little more to the position of power: practically, they needed the video footage to select parts frame by frame. I think it is extremely excessive to make us talk for hours on end about actually serious and interesting issues, and then simply extract fragments of it based on “whoa this looks funny”. You can do this, but I think the bare minimum is to say at the start “guys, this is our method, are you in?” In this case, however, it seemed to be a collaboration at the start, then it turned out that that was far from the case.
T. K.: Yes, I also feel mislead. On the one hand, the whole thing is presented as a research, from which we expect some sort of objectivity. And when we call them to account for extracting things rather arbitrarily from the story, and as Zoli said, to an outsider who knows nothing about this and reads it in English, they will form a distorted, slipshod half-picture instead of seeing the complex full story. If we call them to account, they instantly hide behind copyright and artistic license, which are two separate things.
B. B.: The case in point is also the interpretation process, as they are from a different generation, they started the Academy a year later, and they needed to approach that somehow – this is their attempt at interpretation. It turned out that you felt the method was arbitrary, and that the coordinates were not plotted accurately. So the problem may not be radical editing but that they should have made an effort at some sort of consensus with the interview subjects involved.
Cs. N.: You should be allowed to choose or even just react. I will honestly say, in that case I would not have been interested. Not because the case of this student rebellion could not be called into question. It absolutely can be criticised and there is nothing wrong with even tearing it to pieces. But if someone wants to narrate it so one-sidedly, they should do it alone and face the consequences! Then they should take responsibility: I think these things happened so and so. From this distance they look so and so. And that’s it! Then they don’t need us.
B. B.: Zoli! Do you also think that if there was no posterior interview, then the whole thing would be fine?
Z. Sz.-M.: Well, I would still be quite sorry that such a project fails to point out the blatant similarity between the art scene under the late Kádár-era socialist regime and today’s art world. This would be the significance, the point of the whole thing, otherwise all of what it discusses will be perceived as a self-serving farce. But there was more than this, there were actual personal tragedies. Those serving the collapsing regime are trying to protect their privileges – the preserved documents and videos reveal their personal tragedies. There are faces at first reacting with self-confidence, and then gradually losing confidence and becoming terrified at the sight of the collapsing house of cards – which actually neither side really understands. What is happening is a strange landslide, and one can witness from close up how these actors in positions of power behave.
And today, what with the Hungarian Academy of Arts [MMA – a present-day state institution not to be confused with the former name of the University of Fine Arts], this opportunity is a given to many, and many do take this opportunity. It is a fact that some of the board of teachers from that time have disappeared without a trace from Hungarian art history, while others re-emerged upon the establishment of the MMA, again others joined later when they saw the opportunity to gain privileges similar to their glory of yore. One need not be a historian to notice the connection between the art scenes of then and now. This is why I cannot wrap my head around how the result of a serious decade-long research shows not even a slight trace of this aspect.
Cs. N.: Yes, but what you are saying – and I fully agree – is about what we feel they left out. This would indeed have been a great chance for such questions to be raised. But it is one thing what I consider important, and another whether I provide the right for an outsider to approach this series of events in any way. I am also sorry that much more complex questions regarding the past events have remained unaddressed, although they are right there.
Let me just add that in fact we never got acquainted with the completed book, we never received honorary copies, but I recently borrowed one. I have had no time to read the essay yet. Perhaps together with the essay it shows a more complex picture. But I still agree with the others that the comic itself is very selective. Practically it appears to me… for instance, I fret myself a lot about things like when a certain medium with a good reputation attends a protest and they are really not interested in the topic, what it is about, but they just have to find some weirdo on the square speaking gibberish, or holding some funny but pathetic banner with some silly sentence and of course they have to make an interview with him of all people!
This totally messes up the whole thing, just trolls it apart. And if you watch it, you have no choice but to actually laugh at it. And this essentially diverts you from the actual direction. I am not saying that leafing through the book now I find that everyone here is a lunatic and whatnot, but compared to what this material offers as an opportunity, I also think that… this is different!
Z. Sz.-M.: Even though they put an enormous amount of work into it!
Cs. N.: Actually, based on the photos I saw of the installation, the way they presented it, I liked it. So, not regarding the method, they work well, Little Warsaw are a good artist duo. They are capable of fixing something in the last minute and create something you cannot simply dismiss. I still like their work. But experiencing now what I have only heard from rumours really makes me ponder their work methods and how acceptable they are.
T. K.: I have often felt that their tactic is to have a lot of input and no output for quite a while, nothing you could hold onto, and subsequently the correspondence takes a tone that in the end their communication is outright aggressive. And when we stopped and said we would not reply any more to these emails, that really angered them. When their provocation just became a howl into the night and hit a brick wall, it all became uncomfortable for them too.
So then they started calling us by phone, which we never answered, I assume our silence must have been frustrating, and they must have felt that they had gone too far and they found it important to explain themselves and do some self-justification as compensation. This then escalated to the point where one of them suddenly appeared once on the doorstep of my girlfriend to speak with me, but she would not let him in despite half an hour of verbal struggle. This already felt like harassment.
B. B.: Perhaps they just wanted to advance the process at any cost, and provocation served to bring something to the surface while letting things roll in the direction they preferred.
T. K.: There was not a single sentence or utterance in which they would have offered or accepted any compromise. Nothing like, ok, we will take back something we observed or mentioned…
B. B.: So practically they treated your personal contribution in an objective way.
T. K.: They totally shut down everyone!
Cs. N.: Yes, this was very condescending, as they could have given a thought to what the others had voiced. However, their reaction was not to think about these things together, but instead strike a more aggressive tone. Sometimes they seemed to retreat for a half-sentence, but it was unclear whether that was just an ironic turn to be followed by an even harsher lash-out.
T. K.: Yes they did sugar-coat it sometimes: “But we love you guys!” After a while this was cynicism at the highest level. This was the main problem: the current times we live in are not the best for letting this cynicism roam free. These things should much rather be put in place, because I think this has an adverse effect on this small Hungarian scene. It would be much more important to finally be able to respect one another as friends and colleagues, and regard each other’s work with less jealousy.
Another, formal aspect: seeing this book now, I feel that on this porous paper the visual scenes are much duller than in the pdf we received and saw on a sharp backlit screen. The whole appearance is just softer.
Z. Sz. M.: Yes, but let us not forget that these interviews had a flat lighting. There was one lamp facing us at camera height. This made everyone’s faces flat and outlined with creases.
Cs. N.: Yes, the lighting was an important part of it. When I arrived to do the interview, while we had received no information about what would take place there, and it may sound like an overstatement, but this was interrogation light!
Z. Sz.-M.: Yes.
Cs. N.: So we were lit in a way that a rotatable camera was constantly facing you like in an interrogation room, and you had to speak into it. I saw that it also made my colleagues disconcerted sometimes. That is why it was so easy to select such grinning, smirking, or whatever kind of frames of us, because it is rather brutal after all to have a camera shoved in your face like that.
Z. Sz.-M.: And add to that the flat lighting, which makes one’s face two-dimensional. This is why it looks good on this porous paper, because it makes things look totally monochrome.
Cs. N.: At this interview the camera could be rotated basically by anyone, which lightened this interrogation atmosphere a little. And when we arrived with Gábor as the first subjects, and plunged into it, we were playing with this situation and we also asked Little Warsaw some questions, turning the camera towards them. But nothing is included in the book from this. If we really were coequals in this communication, why did they not include images with the camera pointed at them?
B. B.: Yes, it lacks self-reflection.
Cs. N.: Totally!
Z. Sz.-M.: The fact alone that we arrived at a discussion of which we hardly even knew who would participate, only that there would be others. There was no mention of a video recording…
Cs. N.: There really was not…
Z. Sz.-M.: …and the like, just a discussion. No mention of any recording whatsoever. And then we sit into this setup with this light and this rotatable camera – this was a rather uncomfortable situation. It can be done but the question is what you want to provoke with this, organizing it like that.
Cs. N.: Yes, it was very well figured out!
Z. Sz.-M.: Why did they not tell us “dear Csaba, we are inviting you to a discussion that will be videotaped”? What is the point of creating such an uncomfortable situation for a discussion? What good comes of it? What does it add to such a project?
Cs. N.: When I arrived with Gábor Bakos, we spent an hour talking with Little Warsaw about whether we were even willing to sit down at this table and that this behaviour was not too fair, which was why we had abandoned it earlier. So we had a long debate when we tried explaining that this methodology did not work, inviting someone without disclosing that there would be a video recording of it. And when we sat down, it is in the footage, we spoke about this and asked them these questions. But these things are not represented at all in the book, nor did they concede during subsequent controversy.
Z. Sz.-M.: Well, because it actually has nothing to do with the subject. If the topic really is the nineties, then these discussions had nothing to do with the subject.
B. B.: The way I interpret their standpoint is that this was in fact a solution to salvage the project as they had not found enough interesting material among the old documents. They got stuck with their research.
T. K.: What struck me was that they seemed to be interested more in the portraits than the actual story. What has become of people, how they look after so much time, how they are present in this aged condition… so they were much more intrigued in this, that was what I gathered from all these images. They are in fact overrepresented; they are more dominant than the story itself.
Cs. N.: Actually, there is one more interesting parallel that came to mind and was never communicated throughout this whole story either: a few years ago there were very serious university protests once again. At the Fine Arts uni as well, perhaps not the loudest, but there were demonstrations at the Film uni and rather serious ones at ELTE. That thing somehow also slipped out of sight. And in a similar manner, with power manipulation and all sorts of tactics and techniques, the establishment managed to take the wind out if its sails. And the same happened here, they were moulding it until they managed to tone down its original character and make the whole story of ’90 a strange compromise. This is a rather interesting moral of all of this, why these stories keep repeating themselves.
And another interesting thing, which would actually have been useful in this story – perhaps the essay reveals more of it – is what actually happened here: the progressive modernist branch came into conflict with a conservative approach, and it turned out that this was an intrinsic professional controversy. The society was so far from having a clue about it that it could never become a public issue.
Our generation began to construct – in a manner as good as bad, with faults of course – a new institutional system. They reached a certain level, probably focusing too much on “getting us on the map”, so that these institutions be part of global communication, while it turned out that the society of artists in the broad sense did not necessarily have the need for that, or had no idea what to do with it. This is why there was no solidarity whatsoever when a few demonstrations took place in 2012. For a while these were interesting and colourful, and then very soon everyone forgot about them and developed an individual attitude towards dealing with this autocracy.
Let us add that although only three of the interview subjects are talking now, others have also raised concerns. It was apparent that many people lost their patience to read this lengthy, expansive correspondence with all the pricking and poking. For instance, Gábor Bakos heavily criticised this, and Ági Szabó also lost her nerve once. András Mohácsi also stood up for us once, writing an email making clear that he did not like the way this story was handled. Not the work, but the process and the communication.
Translated by Dániel Sipos