Apr 21, 2022

In search of a lost time

The camera obscura turns the world upside down, captures everyday life through a small pinhole and records it in the darkness, on paper. The camera arhiva, an online archive for Romanian publications from 1947 to 1989, is not unlike the camera obscura. In a conversation with the two archivists Petre Mogoș and Laura Naum, we talk about the agility of independent institutions, about the complaints of snowmen and together we go in search of a lost time.

Impossible Library (IL): Which publication did you start with and which was the last one added?

Petre Mogoș & Laura Naum (PM & LN): The first entry on the archival platform is a Romanian film journal dating back to 1970, called Almanah Cinema, a yearly publication that was edited by the team behind Cinema magazine. As a monthly magazine that first appeared in the 1920s and that was relaunched in the 1960s when the ideological thaw allowed new cultural manifestations to transpire, Cinema prided itself on being one of the most popular cultural publications of the era. It survived the long 1980s, but the 1990s marked the magazine’s demise: its frequency gradually decreased and the last issue of the magazine was eventually published in 1998. It is not the oldest publication from our collection, nor the newest one, but what is particularly interesting is that it acts as a reminder of the almanac phenomenon in Romania and across the former eastern bloc: such yearly journals were of huge importance not just to the leadership who was presenting their annual achievements, but especially to the general public. Yearly editions like Cinema, Urzica (The Nettle), Scînteia (The Spark), Flacăra (The Flame), Ştiinţă şi Tehnică (Science and Technology) were supposed to present a final round-up of the year that just culminated and to provide an arch over the one that was just beginning. The past and the future converged in a hefty publication that everybody wanted to possess and read.

The last entry added to the collection is a 1985 edition of the Urzica satirical newspaper (The Nettle, which functioned with different degrees of success between 1949–1989), that sought to instil some sort of revolutionary potential and class consciousness through humour and cartoons about everyday events and politics. On the cover of this particular February issue, a visibly troubled snowman is facing a visibly bored apparatchik who has the important duty of dealing with complaints. The snowman’s complaint: Spring is coming! Whether this is a discrete critique to the regime’s endless red tape and bureaucracy, its eternal queues, the futility of ‘complaining’ or just a remark about humankind’s inevitable and irreversible decay, we do not know and it’s is perhaps less important anyway. What matters is that local artists and writers were given the opportunity to publish and be part of a thriving local publishing industry.

Urzica satirical newspaper (The Nettle, which functioned with different degrees of success between 1949–1989)

IL: How many publications are in your collection?

PM & LN: There are now precisely 602 publications archived, with different amounts of pages allocated to each entry. We consciously never attempted to archive publications in their entirety and this is because we tried to move away from the expectations that this initiative is History with capital H, Institution with capital I, or Archive with capital A. Assuming such capitalisation may not just invalidate the very purpose of the project, but it quite possibly would have also proved deceiving and dishonest. In total, roughly 10.000 pages were archived and uploaded and it would be, of course, very nice to constantly expand the archive and to continue the process by including books and magazines that did not make into in the initial scanning sessions.

IL: How does the selection in your “archive” come about?

PM & LN: The selection was not based on a pre-established and fix set of criteria. Now that we come to think of it, we focused on artefacts that piqued our personal interests, on publications whose failure in the contemporary collective imagination we found so unjust that we knew we had to do our part in reviving some sort of interest in their existence. So because of this we really had to trust ourselves and the material we archived. This kind of freedom is quite liberating and perhaps only independent initiatives that are happening away from the controlling gaze of official institutions enjoy it.

Of course, there were some informal rules that guided our almost archaeological research. One the one hand, we wanted to reveal sediments from everyday life (so our selection does not focus on very rare or hard to find editions, but rather books and magazines that the everyday Romanian was browsing through more than 30 years ago). On the other, we attempted to showcase some sort of novelty that these publications still retain, this may be through the themes and narratives disseminated but also through form, as the graphic design was particularly alluring in some cases.

Libertatea newspaper which were published as the communist regime was beginning to crumble on the 22nd and the 23rd of December.

We have also had a keen interest to archive and make accessible novel items that are of historic importance: for instance, we gained access to the first two issues of the Libertatea newspaper which were published as the communist regime was beginning to crumble on the 22nd and the 23rd of December. To give you some perspective, Ceausescu was only executed a few days later, on Christmas Day, so these editorial instances paint a fascinating picture of the inbetweenness of those days: possibly not communist any longer, but not capitalist just yet?

Artist books, exhibition catalogues, and rare editions were also of interest to us, although as we said previously they were not our main focus. One such publication that I hold dear is a 1983 brochure about the work of Romanian sculptor Kaznovsky Ernő (or Ernest Kaznovsky elsewhere). On the cover of this rather brief leaflet there is an image that I grew up with: the expressive monumental art works on the Danube’s cliff in my hometown Galati. The brochure also contains English translations so it is implied that the brochure was destined to an international audience, with the artist’s works possibly available to international collectors.

A brochure about the work of Romanian sculptor Kaznovsky Ernő (or Ernest Kaznovsky elsewhere).

IL: Is there any sorting, systematics or similar within your selection?

PM & LN: In order to help the visitors navigate the website, we offer some sort of indicative guidelines with regards to the content of the archive. However, we do this with consciously placed boundaries and we have been careful not to overbear the visitors and influence their experience too much. The data with regards to each publication is quite meager, almost bureaucratic: each publication is dated, their source is credited, and the only information the website provides is what we managed to find inside the colophon or the masthead of each publication. We largely see it as a previewed index of sorts, similar to the way you can browse through an open file cabinet that never ends.

While we do identify four key resulting patterns (culture, entertainment, politics, technology) that emerged rather organically after we photographed the collection, the option to roam around and literally preview these entries by hovering over their titles is possible and even encouraged. The archival platform can also be explored via tags, which paint a revealing picture and are quite illustrative of our collection. Besides standard classifications (such as decade, starting with the 1940s, ending with the 1980s, or genre, ranging from visual arts to literary criticism), we try to provide an alternative navigation system through less conventional, more unusual concepts such as flaneuring, internationalism, gentlewomen, nature, fun times, everyday life, or class struggle.

IL: Have you excluded publications?

PM & LN: Of course we have excluded publications, first of all because of time, financial, and (wo)manpower constraints. There were also books that were in pretty bad shape, with their covers ripped apart or with their pages destroyed from residual moisture, that we could not have included unfortunately.

IL: What prompted you to start the project?

PM & LN: During our work for Kajet, we developed a strong interest in the history of Eastern European magazines and printed matter in general. We have always had an affinity for ‘searching for scraps’ so to speak, almost hoarding whatever brochure, postcard or magazine others saw no potential in. These acts of throwing away and dismissing the past annoyed us, so the project started out of a kind of personal disappointment with how contemporary society is dealing with our collective past and its material traces. What made matters even worse is that most (if not all) institutionalised archives that should traditionally and ideally deal with such things are very slow in updating their digital methodologies. Artefacts that have so much empirical potential, that are in themselves valuable resources, have become not just de-valorised or almost worthless from a market-based perspective, but also meaningless to its very owners and to a contemporary readership. Camera Arhiva is therefore a response to this: a personal and small one, but we hope that it manages to pique our visitors’ interest, just like the books we archived piqued ours.

IL: What do you preserve or reveal with the Camera Arhiva?

PM & LN: In an idealistic way, we try to preserve bits and pieces from collective past that survive in the form of ideas and works of art. In a more tangible way, it is the very material culture — through books and magazines — that we seek to safeguard. More specifically, Romanian printed matter that was published between 1947 and 1989, including day-to-day printed matter, so we seek to retrieve material traces and documents of communist everyday life, such as almanacs and journals, state periodicals and union-owned magazines, brochures and booklets, newspapers and pamphlets, fiction paperbacks and do-it-yourself manuals, but also rare editions and volumes and art-related printed matter, posters and exhibition catalogues.

IL: Who is your archive’s audience?

PM & LN: This is quite tough to say with precision, but roughly our audience includes both people who are genuinely interested in (recent) history and lesser-known narratives and nostalgics that find this process of going back in history therapeutic. Nostalgia needn’t be necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps there is also some sort of inter-generational exchange at play, one in which younger generations are re-connecting with a collective history that is not theirs, but that we have a lot to learn from.

IL: What is your role and function as Camera Arhiva archivist?

PM & LN: Given that the archive focuses on these sediments of everyday material culture, we like to see ourselves as some sort of informal archaeologists of everyday knowledge through which we recover traces of the past and reconstruct quotidian relics. In order to do this and revive micro-threads of history that were brushed aside, we need to read between the lines and pinpoint layers of meaning that were gradually lost from official narratives.

IL: What kind of challenges have you encountered while sorting and categorizing?

PM & LN: Besides the usual suspects (access, manpower, time, money), we also spotted some inconsistencies that made the process not necessarily more challenging, but perhaps more intriguing actually. For instance, one such discrepancy is an issue from Secolul XX (The Twentieth Century), a monthly journal of universal literature and arts that was truly progressive in the way it managed to popularise emerging trends in global literature, translating big names such as Borges, Sartre, Huxley, Gide, Hemingway and other classics and making their work accessible to wider local audiences. This particular issue is dated back to 1988—but! it shows the relics of the former Berlin Wall on the cover and contains bits and pieces of a speech held by French president Mitterrand in Bucharest’s Palace of Parliament in 1991. Of course, a typographical error was most certainly made here, but it is the kind of thing that reminds you to always be on your toes and always question what is being presented to you as hard facts.

IL: What is the future of the archive and Camera Arhiva?

PM & LN: We think that the future of Camera Arhiva is maybe paradoxically not digital. We would like to bring the material we archived back to the public somehow, which could possibly take the form of a public intervention in which audiences can freely participate and engage with the publications, an interactive exhibition, a reading/book club, or a roundtable discussion/conference of sorts.

Despite the advent of digitisation systems and sophisticated databases, there is still limited access for self-empowered initiatives: first of all, because of the sheer magnitude of ‘content’ (this damned word that refuses to go away) that awaits to be scanned, photographed, classified, uploaded, organised. Second of all, there will always be issues along the lines of “who decides what gets archived or not?” or “what deserves to be archived or not?”. These are endless conundrums. In our attempt to unearth the past and revive brushed aside narratives, we are invariably falling into not too dissimilar traps of brushing aside other narratives alike. But this issue becomes increasingly pressing when the initiator is not some random people with a personal and we dare say artistic objective, but rather when it is the official institutions that let a certain agenda guide and form what ends up being presented as History with capital H, Archive with capital A, and so on.

Website: cameraarhiva.com

Images: Courtesy to Camera Arhiva

For further reading check out: dispozitiv books and Kajet Magazine

Interview: Annika Dorau

Support: Ina Römling, Torben Körschkes, Malte Spindler, Nina Prader and Urs Spindler

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