Not so long ago, Eastern European video artists or experimental animation filmmakers had no chance to show their work in museums, while their western fellow artists were on the forefront of new art movements finding their way quickly to museums. Ever since the iron curtain fell this difference has been less and less present. Whatever happened to video art on both sides of the iron curtain?
Video art in the West came to the fore in the 60s, when pioneers like Nam June Paik or Woody and Steina Vasulka, founders of The Kitchen Center in New York City, were interested in video as a medium, as the substance of the work. The Kitchen Center for Video, Music and Dance in New York meant that video claimed an institutional place between visual and Performance art, television and film. After Minimalism, video became an important player in the expanded field of art, where it served in part as a continuation of Process and Performance Art by other means. Video became a performance space in its own right, where the viewer was sometimes invited to participate too.
Another important turn was signaled by Bill Viola’s large touring show in several museums, which made it clear that the projected image had become a pervasive format in contemporary art. Viola’s work takes up epic themes of human existence and spiritual transcendence. It is very important to note that from the start, video art was prone to a technological kind of mysticism. With Nam June Paik it is more Zen Buddhist in flavor, with Viola more Christian. Of course cinema has long been similarly inclined, and it continues to strive for ever more intense effects of immediacy through ever more elaborate forms of mediation. Another important turn was when Kara Walker and William Kentridge’s animated films got major museum exhibitions from the late 90s on. Kentridge’s short animated films, (chalk drawings recorded with an old analogue camera, and later paper cut-outs recorded on video) made an important entree for animation as a genre in museums worldwide.
While these art forms found their museum spaces on a continuous basis in the Western world, things were quite different in the Eastern side of the iron curtain in terms of the connection between institutions and the underground, non-official art world. From the distance of all these years, we have to posit that the classic avant-garde visual language was the common denominator of the cold war era. Whether one speaks of its Eastern or Western version, the crucial elements of avant-garde art served as key points of reference in both “halves of the field”; the fabric of culture was produced within this “universal” paradigm here, as well as there. Yet now the outcome of the cold war era’s cultural competition is viewed from a different critical position than back in those years.
In the Soviet Bloc many video artists and animation filmmakers pursued a career outside the institutional art scene from the 50s on, but in the meantime, their artistic strategies become part of the visual arts canon. Owing to this, their lifework can now be introduced into a unified space of reception, into the domain of visual art, embracing both film and contemporary art, for museums. This implies that since the 50s, these artists were active practitioners of several genres simultaneously. At that time, and especially under Eastern European circumstances of the time, each art form and genre had its own appointed place regarding its performance, communication and audience. From the 70s, with the spread of the post-essentialist views, artists found it increasingly challenging to work in intersecting fields of different genres, but this only involved a rather small circle of artists. In mainstream culture everybody stuck to his last, the filmmaker stuck to the cinema and the artist to the exhibition space.
The interpretation of genres as was characteristic during the Cold War era is in sharp contrast to the way genres are conceived in our time. The difference is not only manifest in whether common opinion expects the artist to decide if s/he wishes to be a painter or a filmmaker, or if s/he envisions a work to be made on film in his/her capacity as an artist or as a filmmaker. It is also perceptible in the way that a society or culture constructs its spaces for the presentation of artwork. It is certain that in those decades Eastern European video or animation artists, – working with moving image, drawing, painting and texts – would have had no opportunity to make an exhibition to present their work in every genre at a time in a single museum space. However, by the 90s intermediality, collage, and quotations came to the fore in the eastern side of the former iron curtain cultural scene as well. We may contend that the time was ripe for the video/animation filmmakers’ interdisciplinary approach. I believe that while Eastern European video artists were excluded from the institutional framework of fine art back in the Cold War era, nowadays their strategy has become an accepted strategy of artists featured in the art spaces of Eastern Europe.
This phenomenon can be attributed to two major reasons. Mostly it can be attributed to the complex description of the canon of Cold War era art. In a wider sense there is a relationship with the global discourse of theorizing experimental video and animation films. However in relation to our major reason, the position of experimental animation art in the cultural canon is still that of a ‘step-child’ as neither art history, nor film history take it seriously. Animation enjoyed a special position during the Cold War era, as a lot of creative artists would find asylum in animation studios, where they were able to work on firmly financed artistic films without strict monitoring and last, but not least, they all got a good salary. Artists like Jan Svankmajer, Zbigniew Rybczinski, Jan Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk, György Kovásznai or Sándor Reisenbüchler, who were not quite up to the expectations of the system, were active in these animation studios, since animation was not among the prestigious old genres which traditionally served as cultural representation.
I would like to throw light on the fact that there were quite a few experimental animation artists and video artists working with interdisciplinary strategies, whose legacy is a rich source of inspiration for our contemporaries, and should serve to support the creative filmmaker’s identity. These artists now deserve that the new generation consider the video and experimental animation art of the Cold War era as one of the most important types of art production of the 20th century. The good news is that in past years even museums in the former Soviet Bloc feel more and more responsible for collecting video and animation art in separate collections by specialized curators.
It is time to position Soviet era Eastern European video and experimental animated film somewhere on the border between fine art and cinema, by reconstructing the special cultural political context.
written by Brigitta Iványi-Bitter