Psychogeography of Memory

Jaro Varga in conversation with Kaśka Maniak

Kaśka Maniak: In your artistic practice you concentrate on analysing various aspects of common knowledge. The tangible manifestations of this knowledge – such as books, monuments or commemorative plaques – you juxtapose with ephemeral, conceptual forms. You use them to point at stories which are forgotten or unable to occur. For example, in the project I found it somewhere, but I cannot find it, on the walls of buildings you created traces of non-existent plaques commemorating the Jewish community living in the Slovak town of Martin before the war. Do you want to supplement the official, usually one-sided visions of reality or are you more interested in observing the mechanisms of remembering and forgetting?

Jaro Varga: Memory and processes of constructing knowledge are the essence of my work. I am interested in how memory is created in specific situations. Memory which is not static, but constantly changes, restructures itself. To answer your question: I am interested in both attitudes. The first stage of my projects is deconstructing official histories, and this usually involves analysing the mechanisms of their emergence. I am not a theoretician, I am using artistic practice, which is a very peculiar instrument.

Art has the potential to create a new reality, new circumstances.

The work you mentioned highlights the absence of a certain discourse. I did not add any content to the existing context, for I did not want to build any new constructs. I only pointed at a certain gap, I created a topography of memory which does not exist.

You choose intangible and short-lived forms of intervention. Is it because you don’t want to create new constructions usurping historical memory?

Yes, although on the other hand pointing at absence is in itself adding a certain content. Let’s take your previous example: leaving traces of non-existent plaques was like making question marks. A question about absence, about something you cannot identify or which you regard as untrue, leads to the emergence of new themes. And this makes me believe that ephemeral interventions can be very productive.

Because they don’t provide unambiguous answers?

They require imagination and may reveal more than one solution. I don’t want to give answers or suggests solutions. We once talked about perceiving the artist as a demiurge, about expectations that he or she will produce suggestions as to how the world, society, or politics should function. I don’t want to take such a position.

What is more important for what you do: individual experience or collective memory?

I am interested in combining both perspectives, because social memory is always connected with individual memory, with subjective experience. A good example here is the project Situation 50, concerning the town of Sumova, located at the border between Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary, between East and West. Of course, there is a collective memory surrounding this place, but I also invoked the story of my father, who served in this town as a soldier. So collective memory may be inscribed in your own story. I have an impression that the community gives the kind of immunity to collective memory, which leads to the dispersal of responsibility. An individual perspective retrieves this responsibility. Zygmunt Bauman wrote about this in his book Modernity and the Holocaust.

In your projects centred around books you show mechanisms of creating theories, you demonstrate their impermanence and entanglements. For example, in the project Endism and the album summarising it, called artist book (untitled), you collected 500 pages of publications with titles containing the word “end” (end of power, end of poverty, end of books). With this gesture you disarmed their seriousness and undermined confidence in them. You seem to be fond of Michel Foucault’s writings, especially his analyses of the relationship between knowledge and power.

Every regime change involves this mechanism: burning books, destroying information, removing “incorrect” things.

Every library is constructed of a certain knowledge, which is characteristic for its time and the ruling ideology.

References to Foucault and the relationship between knowledge and power are very important to me. Using the library as a certain space for collecting knowledge, you can describe many histories, for there is something more in it. For example, the books selected for the Endism project originate from one collection, although they lived on various shelves, in various locations and times. The perspective of “endism” placed them in a new context, showing how their value and significance may change. My library putting together publications containing the word “end” again is not the answer to anything, but a proposal or asking a question. One of the books I selected is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which describes liberal democracy as the best of possible systems. After the 2009 crisis we know that Fukuyama’s hypothesis and prognoses proved to be a complete failure.

So how should we approach various theories describing the world in a new way?

We should not trust them completely, we should be cautious towards them. Libraries and books serve as a medium for storing knowledge. It is an abstract space which can be used for the sake of a new imagination. But I always think also about the knowledge which has not survived. Perhaps it is more important to discover ideas and theories that have been lost? This is how I treat my projects, which speak about covering-up, constructing and end. They constitute a library which has never come to exist, but there is a knowledge in it which we should possess.

What about knowledge which is elitist, inaccessible to the majority, for it is transmitted in an abstruse, often incomprehensible language? Do you also pay attention to that in your works?

I think that my projects concern the mechanism of constructing and representing the knowledge rather than knowledge as such. Esoteric knowledge has always existed, for example only a few monks had access to the monastic library, as Umberto Eco excellently described. The rest could only imagine the library, instead of experiencing it, touching the books, browsing them. This esoterism exists also today, for example in texts comprehensible only to a narrow group of people. But there are also popularisers, who make the content easier to understand. But of course the process of translation involves changes, simplifying the content, making it more attractive.

In the Endism project you also point at an interesting relationship, between the title of a book and its content. The title functions as a promise, an announcement of what is yet to happen.

And also as a representation. I separate the title from the content of a book. The title becomes for me a sovereign whole, it works like a poem, haiku, it becomes a content of its own.

You also study the issue of which books entered the mainstream and are regarded as important. In an exhibition held in the Contemporary Museum in Bratislava you created a library which the recipients are supposed to fill. The visitors write specific titles on the white spines of the books – do you check what they propose?

In this case I also created a certain modus operandi. It was a site-specific work, created for one of the oldest public libraries in Slovakia. Once the books were transferred to a new building, the rotunda was closed and remained empty for more than a hundred years. We reopened it, reconstructed it on a temporarily basis. The titles appearing on the spines of books are written down on wallpaper. The whole project reflects the contemporary awareness of people. I may observe books which turn up and also wonder about those which are missing. People also think about non-existent publications. When I was working on the project in Bratislava, a book describing love affairs in the world of politics was suggested. Such a book was published next year, so it came to be in my library before it appeared on the publishing market. People are very spontaneous in proposing titles, but there is a certain logic behind their spontaneity, an awareness which is difficult to capture. I have always been fascinated in how one person or society is able to build libraries containing one thousand books. I thought myself to be incapable of that, but one gesture was enough to make it possible and produced such a monumental effect.

You are interested in private libraries. What do you look for in them: a reflection of private interests of the owners or rather information about the epoch in which the creators of the collection lived?

Private libraries existed before public ones, in fact they formed their foundation. For example, when we talk about libraries destroyed during the war, we are thinking mostly about large collections of books. And what about small libraries, even containing an insignificant number of publications? They were located at the margins of knowledge and instantly disappeared from our awareness. After 1945 one of the Warsaw newspapers published articles about lost libraries. I will quote one story here. Miss Halina Latwis from Warsaw owned the book collection of Witold Hulewicz, poet, critic, translator of such writers as Rilke or Thomas Mann, an extraordinary figure unknown to a wider audience. Latwis tried to save this collection, she brought the books to a bookstore and asked that the collection be kept in one place. But during the war the library was dispersed. When I was in Warsaw, I tried to find fragments of the collection. In the National Library I came across one book, with a dedication for Latwis. I expected that the National Library would be the right place, because after the war private books were gifted to it, as people wanted to help in reconstructing the national collection.

These are small stories, but sometimes more important than the large narratives which we know.

Do you have your private library? How do you select books for it?

In one of his short stories Alberto Manguel describes an encounter with Jorge Luis Borges and his surprise at the discovery that they had similar libraries, although they bought books spontaneously, at a whim. I also buy books without premeditation. I don’t treat my library as a concept or project.
For several years you have been investigating the life of the cities and creating your private City Diary. In Berlin I saw the documentation of an exhibition presenting fragments of this project. I have an impression that you are covering up the details showing which places you have been to and which you describe. Why?

Some details are noticeable, you can find references to Berlin, Seoul, New York and Warsaw. City Diary contains a huge number of drawings, texts, poems. At some point I started to intertwine them and I broke the linear nature of the diary. So it could be called an anti-diary. I noticed that I can use the collected material to create a kind of cognitive maps, to work like Aby Warburg on Mnemosyne. And indeed, if you do that, the specific character of the place is blurred, it does not matter in what city I am. What I do is reflect on the universality of the city and my subjective geography in it. Initially City Diary was an ordinary notebook, but now I would like to develop this theme continuously. So that time and space are blurred, leaving room for an individual topography of the city.

Currently I focus on introspection, while my earlier projects were based on studying places according to an pre-conceived methodology.

To gain access to certain situations, you need a specific sensitivity, it is a quite romantic concept, but then I was not yet aware of this complication. Now I focus on a subjective identification of the space around me. I started to travel a lot and perhaps this led me to create a kind of island for myself. Like the eponymous hero of the film Citizen Kane by Orson Welles, who travelled around the world, but always stayed in a similar room. I think that through City Diary I try to return to “myself”, for it is the only safe ground in such diverse environments. In exploring the city through psychogeography I see certain references to the Situationist Movement. In the beginning I acted very spontaneously, now I see the relationships.

From what perspective do you look at the city – are you critical or friendly?

I am probably critical. I think a lot about how the city will change in the future, provided that it still exists at all, and about what will emerge in its place.

We are talking in Kraków, you are here as a resident under the project Place Called Space. Is Kraków and its environs also going to be described in your City Diary?

City Diary is composed of subjective analyses of ephemeral moments, invisible images and spontaneous situations generated by the urban reality and relations. Although every page refers to specific locations and points in time, in fact it invokes any place and any time. As a result one city may be present in any other city. I continue my work on City Diary during my presence in Kraków and Tarnów. My residence will have its summing up in Tarnów, in September. Now both cities belong to my subjective topography and hence also to my diary. City Diary will shortly be published as an artbook, courtesy of the Imago Mundi Foundation. Thanks to that I’ll be able to understand and summarise my studies of the city so far.

And how do you think, what will replace cities in the future?

I don’t know.
The interview has been published in Polish in “Notes na 6 tygodni” no. 101 magazine



More / credits

Jaro Varga

He explores the phenomenon of experience as a performance by rethinking the usual forms of its representation.

Kaśka Maniak

Cultural anthropologist