by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
In Stanislaw Lems 1961 science fiction novel, Return from the Stars, an astronaut lost in space for a hundred and fifty years returns to earth, only to discover that scientific progress has so fundamentally altered society that everything he had thought of as human has become unrecognizable. At the airport, he is finally confronted with a vaguely familiar image a highrise city cast in the futuristic mould of the cinematic dreams of his youth. The view through the airport window suggests a world of commerce and movement, with its flashing neon signs, rushing lights, violently exploding ads and intertwined antennae. A second later, though, the image disappears, revealing itself to be no more than a television broadcast of sights from the past, a program about earth in the 1970s.
Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewendowskas Enthusiasm, a restaging of 2004s Enthusiasts project at Warsaws Center for Contemporary Art, is similarly full of the beguiling and misleading promises of an unrealized future past. Their impressive archive of amateur footage collected from Polish film clubs of the communist era seems caught between visions of an ideal society that never quite materialized and the fetishistic nostalgia they now evoke. Divided into three categories under the headings Labour, Love and Longing, the films - strange, beautiful, idiosyncratic - embody different aspects of life under communism, from pride taken in work to subversive longings, erotic and materialistic. Surprisingly articulate, many of the films present a complex critique of the cultural context in which they were made while retaining a deep ambivalence about the seductions of the west. Utilizing forms as diverse as animation, abstraction and science fiction, they put allegory to work as a means of resistance within the limits of the artistic freedom at hand: in Are We Cool or What ?, a man tries to seduce a young woman with fake brands of commodities, only to reject her when the labels on her clothing expose them as second hand, while Stranger depicts a man on trial, escaping to find the city populated solely with menacing mannequins. But Cummings and Lewendowska seem to offer up these grainy documents as more than just historical relics or artifacts. Screening them inside the Whitechapel gallerys main space, which has itself been transformed into a mock Polish film club, they use the dual position created by temporal displacement to both mirror and criticize the current conditions of cultural production under capitalism.
Previous projects have seen Cummings and Lewendowska strip the art space bare, exposing the museum and the gallery as realms of monetary exchange in which aesthetics function as a kind of surplus value. In Capital, taking place at Tate Modern and the Bank of England Museum, they took on Marcel Mauss anthropological analysis of the gift economy and attempted to subvert the disinterested position of the visitor by giving out multiple prints, engaging gallery goers in the solidarity born of the exchange and even forcing them into a kind of debt by virtue of accepting their free gifts. Enthusiasm takes this logic one step further: Mauss described how tribal gift economies could be threatened by the gift so great it could not be reciprocated, the potlatch. In certain cases, whole villages would be burned down by their inhabitants to signify they had nothing left to give, at times leading up to war. Within the labor structures of a totalitarian communist society, the work of the enthusiast carries similarly subversive undertones. By severing cultural production from financial gain, the amateur film-maker effectively resists the demarcation of work and leisure set up by the institutions of the state. Cummings describes this as an inversion of the logic of work and leisure, where true productivity happens with no relation to the intentions of the factory. The surplus production of the enthusiasts work carries with it, like the potlatch, the threat of undermining the entire logic of the system. However, as Magda Pusto writes in the exhibition catalogue, in a society that has incorporated creativity, autonomy and the drive for empowerment and self-realization into its management systems, enthusiasm no longer functions as a purely subversive tool. It is therefore hard to view enthusiasm, as well as the otherness of the old communist bloc, as anything other than a symbolic fetishization of labor itself: a commodity so highly coveted, Marx would have said, because it is an inversion, a mirror image of the conditions of production today from which it is conspicuously absent. This was outlined by the special Polish design issue of Wallpaper* magazine some years ago, where furniture not unlike that lying at the centre of Cummings and Lewandowskas reconstruction was venerated alongside ads for new expensive brands, the amateurs enthusiasm replaced with consumerist desire.
Can we resist this way of seeing and recover a more ambiguous stance towards the repressed Communist past? And is the subversive operation of the enthusiast, the fan, outside the culture industry, still possible in a post-capitalist world? Towards the end of his monograph, Mauss considers the implications of the gift economy for that of the west in his day. Far from suggesting a return to tribal society, he puts forward the idea that one reason for the depersonalization and alienation of the modern world is its reliance on no-strings-attached hard currency, and that perhaps we have still got something to learn from the strange circulations of objects in worlds so distant from our own. Enthusiasm may not provide the answers for the questions it poses for the viewer, but like Mauss book, it too proposes fertile ground for further discussion by showing us forgotten alternatives brought to life in salvaged rotting celluloid from a dead future past.