An e-mail interview with Janos Sugar (Budapest)
By Geert Lovink
GL: Can you describe for us the way you encountered the media in Hungary from, let us say, the late eighties? In my view, you started working with film and video at a time when the dark period of the early eighties was over and new era was about to begin.
JS: I started to work with film in the beginning of the eighties.Parallel with my sculptural studies at the Art Academy, I worked with the Indigo (interdisciplinary thinking) group and we did shows, happenings, films together. Since the leader of the group was Miklos Erdely who himself was partly a filmmaker (conceptual artist, writer, painter–the most influential artist of his time and since) he pushed us, the group a bit in the direction of filmmaking. He did his films in theBela Balazs Studio (BBS), and so in the early eighties I started to visit the regular Tuesday BBS meetings. Filmmaking at that time was still having some revolutionary romantic appeal and the most exciting and authentic place among the Hungarian filmstudios was the Bela Balazs Studio.
BBS was a strange phenomenon: in the ocean of counter selection a little island for (state-sponsored) experiments in the sense of expression and political tolerance. The studio produced strong documentaries; strange shortfilms resulted but were rarely shown.
Concerning the dark period, I have to say, it wasn’t so dark. Only access by the general public and mainstream media was censored, not production. Public culture was strongly controlled: censorship, bans, but a vital underground art scene (the second publicity) existed, and maybe that is most important. Having no space for the ambitions, no practical perspectives, we had lots of time. For me as a young artist, it was an idyllic training–everyone was approachable, ready for dialogue.
A couple of years before I joined BBS, I started to view films consciously and I had seen the basic works. My father took me to see Antonioni’s “La Notte” (The Night) when I was sixteen. And after this, the biggest impact was Godard’s “Masculin Feminin,” which I saw in the late seventies and changed my view about film and filmmaking. Later, I made a few super-8 pieces, worked in films (as an actor in several of Ildiko Enyedys films and even in her diploma work). Finally in 85, I made my first film, a 50 minute long 16mm piece , “Persian Walk,” which caused such an unprecedented scandal in the BBS that I had no chance to make anything there for years (and only 4 years later could I obtain a final print of this film). I had some experiences with video, but except for a few narrative pieces, didn’t do much. I couldn’t have a daily experience with video because access was very limited.
GL: What about computers– do you recall your first encounter, was it in an artistic or academic context?
JS: In the mid-eighties, computers appeared in my horizon. In 86, I was given (along with other young artists) some computer time to produce works for the first Hungiarian computer graphic show. The officials wanted a computer graphic show, at least some smart people sold them the idea. The only problem was there were no computer artists, because there were no computers available–for long years–because of the rigid regulations. You saw just hardware parts and even they were sold mostly second hand. Anyway, they managed limited access to some IBM PCs in a room in some state computer research institute and the invited artists were working by a timetable. The only software was “pc paint” and I never heard this name again.
>From the mid-eighties, besides my solo shows of installations, I participated in several such national computer art shows (“Artists Hongrois et l’Ordinateur” for example, classical cold war) but not having steady access, I wasn’t so excited about it. Once I even had a little job (with the help of Tamas Waliczky) to draw new backgrounds for an existing karate game. I did it, but it took so much time) Then, I nearly bought an Amiga, but for a long time, the only computer around me was a C-64 I used with a tv and an external drive as a typewriter. Actually, this was my real experience with a computer. I realized that using a word processor changes my attitude toward writing totally. Maybe toward everything.
GL: Still, you had little access to machines and perhaps also to the current media theory of the late eighties.
JS: No real access to video, that’s what I really missed. That’s why I didn’t do any real video art work, which requires in my view a sort of daily practice, a kind of coexistence with the medium. I didn’t really miss the computer. Regarding media theory, the situation wasn’t so bad, at least we knew that something called media theory existed. Miklos Peternak published some good essays and he had a rather different voice from the others. There were some rare publications, monthlies, small circulation textbooks, and Benjamin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Virillio, Feuerabend were somehow present.
In the second half of the eighties Miklos and I started lecturing on film together, and we did it for a few years. There was a so-called Free University, offering a broad choice of evening courses, anyone could enroll in, lots of language courses, and the rest was popular science, art, travelling (the expert lecturer showed slides of his/her journeys). In 96, I did a work using this organization’s slide archives–an enormous, unorganized 35mm slide archive of everything, from the AK 47 to sex-education. So, one day walking from somewhere to somewhere in the downtown, I bumped into Miklos, who told me he is just going to give a lecture there on film. We started to talk and I went with him and when the time came he asked me to take part in the discussion. The next year we announced the “Alternative Filmschool” which went on for 3 years. We were payed and we could order films which even we
ourselves even hadn’t seem. The audience was very mixed–a bunch of young people, elderly people mainly napping and some knitting ladies. We always showed two films and finished with a conversation between us. Sometimes we changed the order of the reels. Later we did a series in the Kunsthalle, under the title: “Film Utopias”. Originally, my opera on video technique was planned as the closing event. After all of those experinces I wrote an essay: “The Fate of Intention in the Genre of Two-Dimensional Moving Image”.
GL: How would you now describe your media awareness during the period of transition, let’s say the during the period 1989-92?
SJ: This was the time, when I had real life experiences in media theory: the early years of typical East European spindoctorship, watching the soap opera of changing political rhetoric. First political then financial fight for the mass media (The word “media” first appeared in Hungary as “media war”, the general usage of the term was/is: “press”); the more and more conscious usage of tv medium by the politicians; the Rumanian tv revolution; the increasing financial difficulties of the BBS. Altogether, this produced a mixture of anecdotes, shocking experiences, and lots of incredible examples.
Before 89, things like political commercials or massive ad campaigns were totally unknown in Hungary. And in 1991, in the summer, I was commissioned to do in a few months a five part series for the (state) TV. A very courageous pruducer, who (for a short time) had relatively large broadcast time, started to work with outsiders, visual artists. She asked me to do some four-part series, and with Gabor Bora I made a proposal for “Misunderstandings” which she accepted. I could work with professional TV technique and (because everyone was busy with politics) not even my own producer saw it before it aired. We felt a growing competence and there were lots of opportunities
to explain our approach, like inviting people and organizing events such as “The Role of TV in the Rumanian Revolution,” (conference, 1990). This led to lots of contacts and information from abroad. And somehow this activity led us to establish the Intermedia Department in 1990 at the Academy of Fine Arts (from where, btw I was kicked out in 84), which was the first program of its type in the post-Communist region.
GL: Do you think that there was a dialogue with the early avant garde, or with film of the sixties? Or is this just a reconstruction afterwards, to build the story of the so successful Hungarian Video school around Gabor Body?
SJ: There is always a dialogue in art. The hard core avant-garde was somehow still present. Lajos Kassak died in the seventies. Moholy-Nagy became a national pride. But the films of the sixties were more or less under the strong influence of the zeitgeist and for young people poetry was out and filmmaking was in. The film medium represented something very important for this generation, who met the reality of WW2 mainly through films. (nowadays we meet irreality through special effects in the movies.) Film was the top medium: expensive but efficient and glamorous, the dream of every modern artist. Gabor Body was very literate even in an academic sense and
represented a very strong intellectual but revolutionary attitude in the filmmaking. His innovation was linking techne with philosophy which appears in a very consciously controlled visuality. And maybe because of this, he understood best what video is. Unfortunately, we cannot speak about his video school. If he could have worked further, I think the significance of video art would be a bit different.
GL: You are not making a clear difference between the second part of the eighties and the early nineties. Is this really the case, no 89 fall of the wall what-so-ever?
SJ: I think for Hungary, the watershed was 56. This was a long standing trauma even for the politicians too. After 56, they had to give some perspective, optimism, to the people – and for themselves as well. It’s interesting, how a so-called unsuccessful revolution like this, killed by the Yalta Treaty, can be successful in a sort of long term. That’s why Hungary could became a bit more liberal as the other East Block systems became more rigid. Later, I guess, this somehow became the role of Hungary in the Warsaw Pact. Censorship was based on three principles: support, tolerance, ban. Practically, the Communists used the system intelligently–banning a few, tolerating a lot and continuously playing with dissolving previous bans. The heavily-banned intellectuals were less harassed than in the other countries and were mainly forced to emigrate. People were allowed travel every 2-3 years; information traffic was relatively strong and the cultural life in general was not bad in Budapest–rather ok book publishing, exhibitions, classical music, good choice of movies, etc.
There was also the so-called underground or second publicity (art shows, pop and contemporary music, performance, samizdat etc.) with real personalities and with a strong moral position. Looking back, for me it was like an incubator or a natural park: it wasn’t difficult to survive, lots of time for talks, meetings, discussions, intensive contacts, partying and of course in most of the cases not the slightest hope for a practical result. No contacts with the so-called first publicity, which was the realm of general or mass society or however you want to express it. The single and most cruel restriction for culture was blocking avenues to reach the broader public.
No competition between the old and new, no aggressive cultural memes, no random spread of cultural inspiration. Only insiders knew about the best things going on in art. It’s somehow like a philosophical problem: can anything be valid if no one knows about it’s existence? Schrodinger’s cat in the artworld. This situation caused serious damage, not just in the art (which became hermetic and context bound), but also in the general public. People couldn’t know anything about this booming period, about this creative capital. If you go to a library and look through the papers, magazines, of that period you won’t find any reference, any news or mention about what was really happening, what was important for us. It’s tragic, because the majority of actual decision makers, politicians of today are the so-called average people of yesterday–former normal people who had no extra information source beside the state media.
Nowadays, people tend to think it’s just well-known general nostalgia for the good old past, but it’s not: that cultural second publicity produced the most important solid values. Since Hungary was the most liberal country (the weakest link), there was rather big attention from abroad, lots of visitors, curators, artists. With the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, it has changed: a sort of cultural protectionism emerged between the former Socialist countries and Western Europe. We are not anymore picante Easterners but weak competitors with a bad infrastructure. I don’t agree with such an argument, I think the fall of Communism changed the total situation, not just in the former East. In other words, the Cold War deformed the Western cultural infrastructure as well.
GL: Could you tell us about your specific way of making films. It is not exactly experimental (in the technical sense), nor does it follow the classical way of narration, it is also not video art. Perhaps you are making a kind of fictional art documentary, trying to undermine all the existing genres…
SJ: Fictional art documentary, thank you, I accept that one. The category I like the most is introduced by Miklos Erdely: “cognitive film”. The notion originates from the total competence consciousness of avant-garde, which I experienced within the Indigo group. This total competence is more linked to the opportunities (site specific – in a complete sense) than to one or another particular medium. It felt natural to use film, but of course I had no idea for what. So all my films are different, like a different construction, I would say, singular solutions. For me the thought, a sort of hermetic dramaturgy, is essential, if it’s somehow complete, then comes the execution, which is sometimes resulting in the humiliation of tradition. I am proud that my film “Persian Walk”, in 85, caused such an outcry in the BBS. Even two years ago, I was asked by a renowned colleague to remove the BBS logo from the credit of my latest film, “Ambiguous Window.”
I cannot accept the notion of experimentalism, because such a thing outside the film doesn’t exist in other genres. I believe that even within the film medium an intensive dialog should go on between tradition and progression like in literature, painting etc, where maybe innovation is having less attention but it’s not barred from the mainstream. This separation in film
makes any innovation more or less a political question. Nowadays the once ‘most important genre’ (Lenin) has become a very well-integrated part of global entertainment. The big budget cinema is the best vehicle for the subliminal education (of the proletariat). It is very exciting to analyze the hidden messages of the Hollywood movies, like cooperation, partnership, respect, love. I think it is already beyond film, because with its complex ties to merchandising it became the social medium, with basic but
Making film is expensive, and that’s why a film should be immediately understandable in the present, otherwise the high production costs will not come back. In other mediums, working artists shouldn’t necessarily put importance on instant success in the present, the artwork has time, can wait, until the proper perception. Art history is full of (time is on my side) examples. That is my basic position.
Miklos Erdely told the audience in the Millennium (NYC), before the screening of his film, that usually a few people walk out during his films, but those who remain don’t complain after at all. After making several shorter films, I became more and more interested in a kind of a synthesis of the avant-garde attitude and experience in filmmaking and the so-called movie (traditional, feature length, narrative) experience. I wanted to demonstrate that beside the
big budget (Hollywood) and low budget (artist film) genres, there is a third production possibility: no budget (independent) filmmaking. In 92, I did a film,”Camera in Trouble,” which contained a long narrative block. Together with this, I cut a short film, “Ambiguous Window,” of footage’s I made with my own 16mm camera between 89 and 91. As a result of this double experience,
I realized that filmmaking is not necessarily expensive and I decided in 93 to make a feature length film, “Faust Again”, (under production) immediately. To realize an idea immediately is an everyday experience of a visual artist, but totally unknown for a filmmaker who is bound to the production costs.
With video, the situation is different: not having real access to it, I use it only rarely. In a strange way by teaching video, my interest in making videos is growing. Somehow it’s the first forgotten new medium. I think video is still or again very relevant. Maybe the presentation of it should be different, like giving the viewers more time or some unusual environment. It is remarkable, that not the improved recording technology but the improved display technology, like making better and smaller projectors, has made a new impact on video art.
GL: You spent a lot of time building up the Intermedia Department of the Art Academy in Budapest. There, you having been teaching a lot, for years and years, perhaps even more then anything else. But what you have been doing with the students exactly somehow remained a mystery for me. Tell us something about your methodology and your conclusions.
SJ: The starting idea was to create a media faculty which we did with Miklos using our strong Indigo (interdisciplinary) experience, connecting art and thinking, in the sense of total competence. Art, technology, science with an undefined outcome. We used the word Intermedia as in “interdisciplinary plus media.” Just after it became evident that Dick Higgins coined it, in opposition to what multimedia meant at that time. For Higgins, intermedia was the positive pole. I am really pleased we are linked somehow to the fluxus which is still flux.
Practically, I have a double job there. I am doing one two-year course where I teach art and an another two-year series of media theory lectures to the same bunch of 15 students, for their whole first and second year. Besides this, I have steady consultations with 5 advanced students who have chosen me as their advisor. Of course, there are other obligatory courses for our students in photo, multimedia and web design, art history etc. My goal is to enhance the consciousness of the students, to be able to go radically beyond their own unconscious sympathies and choose unpopular, less easy solutions. I think the
presence of the unprecedented, referenceless media, and the emergence of the work-entertainment-education conglomerate manifests itself more in a general media consciousness than in the use one or another so-called new medium. Its social impact is bigger than the cultural. With this new experience we can see and treat the other genres (if you like the old media), as a medium.
The first thing students have to do is to write a fictional biography; then I ask them to collect analogies. Then, there are various exercises in video: like analyzing a real life action by montage; making short video pieces using text, short cuts, raging on the mixer; a series of irresponsible plays with the equpment. It is like teaching a language. In the meantime, we watch and analyze classical video art and anything else they bring–works, objects, collages–to discuss. To exercise control over the image, they have to create a narrative b/w photo. I require them to make three-dimensional (plastic) scripts or models in addition to the classical storyboard for their videos.
Last year, in the spirit of tactical media, which I was lecturing about, we did a media event. Since the most popular evening news uses a live background image of the city, we defined a point within the range of this backdrop camera and we gave flashlight signals and this was broadcast throughout the TV news. Parallel with these studio exercises, is a weekly lecture on media theory, where I begin with Adam and Eve (share of work, specialization, secularization etc.), later touching photography, film, video, computer, hypermedia.
GL: What should a new media education in an art context look like? and did you have any inspiring models? How should a digital media bauhaus look these days?
JS: I think still deep in the core of any art education is the good old “nosce te ipsum”. For the Bauhaus technology that was a metaphor, the zeitgeist. But for today, we are learning how arbitrary a so-called functional design can be. Nowadays, technology is fast moving, constantly upgrading and development is a continuous act, like an open language whose grammar always changes with usage and whose new idioms evoke new syntax and new grammatical rules. Result–an endless spiral–a language that wants to tell everything, but is actually falsely transparent. Technology needs instant and powerful demonstration and promotion to evoke demand among buyers. Using artists is the cheapest and most efficient crash test for the sw/hw manufacturers. But art cannot really function in a mediated form. We can alienate form and content but not in art. That’s not very good for a visual artist.
The so-called new media should be treated equally in every sense: so digital kitsch is kitsch too, but let’s not forget how the medial aspect changes our attitude toward the other ways of expression. In a certain sense I think our Intermedia is an ideal model for an actual higher art-education program. We are in the middle of a traditionalist Art Academy, we were accused often of letting dilettants, people who cannot really draw, into the church of art. Our very poor conditions (we never got our full budget) force us not to fear or worship the technology and to create makeshift configurations in our run-down
hardware. We teach the practice and the theory of the so-called new media, but we encourage the use of old or traditional techniques too. In the case of new media, it’s very difficult to forget the tools–they are sexy, pushing and more and more capable–but the message is more an attitude than an immediately profitable limited expertise. We have a lots of visitors lecturing and our department is popular, probably because the students feel the freedom to
work with the most adequate medium. Today’s digital Bauhaus should be dirty. I don’t really like the hospital/airport atmosphere of media labs, which suggest a sort of neutrality, distance–the ideology of design.
GL: We have all seen you running around in Budapest, switching from one medium to the next all the time, several times a day even, between installation art, writing, teaching, theater, film and video, and increasingly working with the computers. And organizing events like the conference series MetaForum we organized together with Diana McCarty. In a way you yourself are embodying the whole idea of Intermedia. But your surroundings are perhaps not so fast, not so flexible…You must have seen a lot of mistrust and misunderstanding. Is ‘intermedia’ a utopia for you?
SJ: It’s not a utopia but it’s not something I am concentrating on either. I would rather say I am working along the maximum action freedom radius. It forces you to connect things, because of lack of time, to solve one problem with an other, there is no time to worship the medium, just using it. In such a multitude, only the simple models can survive. (like: treat the present as if it were already past) It’s like laying a very complex pattern whose regularities or laws are discoverable only much later. Living without feedback.
That’s the game. In making art, you can experience doing or executing something which isn’t based on any practical demand. No one knows about it, only you. It is your sole personal responsibility to realize/not realize if you have an idea. No one knocks on your door, comrade artist, hey, where is the painting? we need the novel! or we cannot reproduce our working power without your film! Such a thing doesn’t exist in art. It could be a definition as well. Anyway, that’s my experience in visual art and I just transferred it to other areas. If I have an idea, it’s a big thing, let’s say the most difficult part of the case, and the realization is much easier because it’s just practical. I learned immediately how to forget the practical difficulties simply because they are not communicable, they are not convertible. It is a very good strategy in Budapest, because even now there is little public attention on art, but the creative possibilities are big. I like to be in people’s blind spot. This situation keeps me incognito. I could and still can work with a rather large freedom. For me it is the highest level of luxury. The rigid surroundings are sometimes very useful to enhance and refine your radicality.