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Vojin Saša Vukadinović in conversation with Karol Radziszewski, founder of the Queer Archives Institute

The Queer Archives Institute is an artist-run organization founded in 2015 by Karol Radziszewski, whose own practice as an artist led directly to an awareness that there was a profound lack of material related to the history of queer culture in Central and Eastern Europe. The QAI is now a multi-platform initiative that partners with artists, scholars, and those active in the community to provide a space and archive material for continued research and future projects. The Schwules Museum in Berlin is currently host to the most recent exhibition of the holdings of the QAI, and Berlin-based historian and gender studies scholar Vojin Saša Vukadinović recently sat down with Raziszewski to discuss the current exhibition and the motivation behind the founding of the QAI.

Vojin Saša Vukadinović: What motivated you to initiate the Queer Archives Institute? What did it have to do with your previous work in film, photography, and painting?

Karol Radziszewski: The idea for a queer archive came to me quite late, through collecting material and doing interviews on queer life in Central Eastern Europe. It was connected to my magazine, DIK Fagazine, which I started in 2005, and which was initially about contemporary Poland, masculinity, and homosexuality, before it eventually expanded thematically to other countries – Ukraine, Romania, etc. – in Eastern Europe. Through that, I realized that building my own archive means something more specific to me. In 2015 I created the Queer Archives Institute. The QAI collection includes most of all queer zines that were once produced, but also photographs, slides, negatives, books, brochures, writings, tapes, handmade clothes, as well as artefacts such as drawings. In the exhibition at the Schwules Museum, most of the delicate objects are thematically organized and exposed in vitrines, while the photographs hang on the walls.

VSV: Was it a conscious methodological and practical shift from artist to archivist?

KR: It was a very natural process. When I was graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, I was testing various forms of art outside the gallery and university context. That was in 2005, when I came out with this exhibition “Fags,” which was the first exhibition in the history of Poland explicitly dedicated to homosexuality. Up until that point, my work was more of a reaction to what was going on in the country, and then the archival interest was a second step of deeper exploration of my subjects, identity, and local references and connections. I started working on an issue of DIK Fagazine called “Before ’89,” for which I collected so much material and so many stories that I decided to give them a different form. I never say that I am either an artist or an archivist; these practices are connected.

VSV: In the Western hemisphere, it seems relatively easy to reclaim an artistic genealogy with a highly dedicated angle from a minority position – think of Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Félix González-Torres, or General Idea. In Eastern Europe, state socialism and its aftermath had an entirely different impact on culture, and so on artistic practice as well – partly because of socialist realism, partly because of the role of the public, and for some other reasons also. While one could certainly work with an implicit, rather subtle genealogy – in the case of Poland, with Jerzy Andrzejewski and Witold Gombrowicz, for example – you have decided to approach the subject differently: you put the focus on everyday life, exposing that “other” realm within the ordinary. And there are some astonishing findings, for example the pornographic drawings from the 1960s that were discovered accidentally.

KR: As a student, my biggest influence was Andy Warhol. Turning points in my artistic experience were all connected to him – his films and books came before my discovery of other artists. In Poland, 1968 was completely different to the protests taking place in the US, and then feminist art came before gay art, or at least it seemed to me. Searching for archives, local names, and stories required me to build my own vocabulary. For many visitors to my first exhibitions in Poland, that was confusing at first. “Gay art” became a convenient box for what I was doing. Still, my experience is that queer people tend to say that they would like to go to the West, because that is what they connect with. At the same time, the older generation constantly claims that “this” is something that did not exist under communism, and that “it” is coming from the West. When entry into the European Union came closer – in Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria – the question arose of whether Sodom will come with it. Hence my interest in stories that could subvert the history of these countries from the inside. Archival practice thus offers an efficient strategy to combat the current political situation. And people think it’s safer if they just look at the material like this.

VSV: It’s under the glass – it comes off as historically quarantined.

KR: Yes.

VSV: There is also this persistent myth that Eastern European societies are jumping from nowhere to “queer,” neatly leaving out “something” in the middle, as if same-sex desire had never existed as a sociopolitical phenomenon under socialism – as if it were indeed a Western invention.

KR: I came across this myth many times indeed. Curators from Western Europe, who never visited Poland, speaking about it as if it were a really exotic country far away from everything. For Western academics, Russia is usually the main reference – interestingly, the only country I haven’t visited – which creates a lot of confusion when I meet others at conferences. They make me feel as if I am attending the wrong session, as Poland decriminalized homosexuality in 1932 and never criminalized it again, meaning that in the 1970s gays there didn’t organize because they did not know what to fight against. Each of the eastern countries I did research on had an entirely different story.

VSV: Not to mention that there are different stories between men and women, too.

KR: “Muzhelozhstvo” was the term used to describe a sexual act between two men, which was subject to prosecution in the Tsarist regime, and then too later in the Soviet Union – especially from 1934 onwards. Women were threatened with prosecution for so-called “hooliganism.” There were also lesbians who were prosecuted according to other articles in the criminal code. The Russian poet Anna Barkova, for example, was imprisoned several times for anti-Soviet activities – aka the writing of state-critical poetry. In some cases, women were prosecuted for “storing a den of debauchery” (“soderzhanie pritona razvrata”). The police sometimes used this article of the criminal code to prosecute owners of flats where people met to have sex – even if the owners of these places received no material income from letting other people in for that reason.

VSV: The international conference “Communist Homosexuality (1945–1989),” held in Paris in early 2017, was among the first attempts to understand what was going on in Eastern Europe before 1989. The differences between the countries – from the Soviet Union to Czechoslovakia – were vast. As you said, Poland decriminalized male same-sex sex acts in 1932. Romania, on the other hand, only did so after the end of socialism, in 1996. Other countries, such as Albania, still remain blind spots due to virtually nonexistent scholarship on the matter. Queer scholars from Western Europe have little interest in this on the whole, I think. They are often up to date concerning queer-theoretical debates in the United States and the associated vocabulary, but their research would certainly yield more for them, and in general, were they to engage with artistic and/or sociological research on Eastern Europe.

KR: The problem, I think, begins with the word “queer.” I work a lot in English, and travel so much, that using the term has become a sort of Esperanto to communicate with everyone. It’s also a gender studies criterion. If you would have insisted on “gay and lesbian studies” in Poland, chances are that this branch would have never emerged in the humanities and social sciences there. Which means that the term “queer” is also concealing something.

VSV: That it “conceals” something indicates that there is an intransigent aspect to it that cannot be entirely separated from the concept.

KR: Yes. I don’t work in the academic realm, but what I observe is that Eastern European scholars are somewhat forced to orient themselves toward Western colleagues. They are expected to depart from definitions provided by Judith Butler, and to quote theorists who have never written about Eastern Europe. This is blocking the process of delving into new territory. In the arts, it’s a different structure. I hardly sit in the libraries and search for these stories – I record people’s voices. After 10 years of doing so, I see that I have effectively created the sources that my academic friends and colleagues developed by means of theory and analysis.

VSV: There is still this assumption that Eastern Europe is behind – concerning legislation, theory, arts, culture. Yet Samizdat, which DIK Fagazine partly builds upon, is the historical evidence of its own productive history: the secret publication of material, and the passing on of knowledge that was forbidden, dangerous, or threatening to the authorities. A Samizdat publication might have been anything. The genre included both fiction and political works, and connected individuals despite adverse conditions, teaching them how to be inventive about the circulation of their ideas, but also how to be artistic about their own books, journals, or periodicals.

KR: When I started it, I knew about the history of zine culture, but was primarily obsessed with Warhol’s Interview magazine, because that seemed like an accessible form to communicate ideas. Other traditions I came across only later on. With the early queer publications in Eastern Europe, Filo in Poland for example, you can reconstruct when and how they reacted to their particular situation, and how a sense of community emerged: writers, translators, and artists who came together. There is a lot of humor in it, and things you would not expect to happen under censorship. Ryszard Kisiel, a Polish photo amateur I work on, founded Filo zine and created this matrix around himself that changes our understanding of what homosexuality was under socialism.

"Karol Radziszewski: Queer Archives Institute", Schwules Museum Berlin, 2019, installation view (foto: Dorothea Tuch)

"Karol Radziszewski: Queer Archives Institute", Schwules Museum Berlin, 2019, installation view (foto: Dorothea Tuch)

VSV: The objects you chose for your exhibition – notebooks, photographs, self-published material – circle around the creation of intimacy. They epitomize the longing for something that was inexistent in the socialist countries, or at the very least in conflict with its predominant masculinity and morals.

KR: To a certain extent, the socialist countries were all about the private lives spent in families, and about the places that you chose – hence the lack of clubs, bars, or other spaces that were popping up in the West at the same time. Parties, however, did exist – sex parties, even – held in private flats within particular circles of people. The pressure resulting from homophobia, from shame, and from the impossibility of ever really becoming intimate with others was so manifest that anonymous sex was the inevitable solution for many.

VSV: Glimpses of this can be found in Michal Witkowski’s 2005 novel Lubiewo, in which fictionalized elderly Polish homosexuals recall their past in the People’s Republic. There were opulent daydreams countering the lack of actual glamor, memories about cruising in public, and so forth. They craved something so desperately, yet had to live their lives knowing that nothing substantially thrilling might ever occur because of the repressive nature of their society. There was this distinctive kind of boredom in the socialist countries, but also this particular joy of living that was actively fighting off that very feeling. This, too, is readily apparent in the material you are displaying.

KR: There is this group picture of the Filo editors that captures exactly that, as well as the driving creativity behind the magazine, as do a series of photographs created by Kisiel and his friends in 1985/86. At one point, they had decided to do this crazy photo shoot, staged with costumes that they designed and produced themselves, which resulted in hundreds of slides. It was unique. Today, I don’t see much of this DIY creativity that is both campy and queer in art and culture in Poland. In my latest works, I refer to my drawings done when I was nine years old. Last year, I discovered about 20 notebooks from the time when I was a child – most of them from 1989, the year the Solidarity movement won in Poland and the Berlin Wall fell. They might be the queerest thing I have ever done: they are full of paintings of princesses, costumes, jewelry, mermaids, and a lot of weird fashion. Kisiel did his AIDS collage with Donald Duck around the same time. I found it fascinating how deep a queer identity can run, and that I had put myself on the map during communism while he was doing that – I was there already! This is a subject I want to explore in the future: how childhood, communism, and capitalism interfered with one another. It’s also all about queer notions of time.

VSV: The exhibition in Berlin resembles an open process: different places, objects, stories that connect at various moments. And your Queer Archives Institute is still expanding. You also have this interest in Brazil.

KR: I visited Brazil twice for research, in 2015 and 2016, and the opening of QAI in São Paolo was also a political statement. It troubles all these definitions of what counts as the Global South or the Global North. Poland was a socialist regime, and Brazil was a military dictatorship at times. There are a lot of differences of course, and doing research and exhibiting there was a good opportunity to shift attention away from my perspective concerning my country and the region. Later, an artist friend, Juan Betancurth in Colombia, wanted to adopt the whole format of the QAI, and he created a show in Bogota that mixed in things from Poland. My goal is to build connections, a network between artists, scholars, and activists, and to juxtapose various stories in the interest of building a queer nation. That way people can relate to their own local history while also understanding the wider view. And there are always new aspects: Kisiel donated his clothes. Though they are under glass, you can feel the sweat, and you begin to understand the body as an archive itself, because you can literally smell history, and there is something powerful about that, more than there is just in seeing black-and-white photographs.

VSV: How do you want to extend the archive in the future?

KR: The next issue of DIK Fagazine will be on Poland in the 1970s – covering cruising and art that cannot be labeled “queer,” but rather has to be decoded. Later issues will deal with Colombia and Brazil to summarize the research. In the current exhibition, the last bit is a video interview with Romana Bantić, a transgender activist and designer from Croatia, that I recorded a few years ago. If you listen to her, you begin to understand that there is a lack of transgender voices in the archive, which, for me, means that I need to work harder. I feel responsible for the parts that are missing. I want to work closer with the transgender community in Poland, so that the archive doesn’t only represent gays and lesbians, and tells what has so far remained untold.

That also counts for my background. Sometimes I feel trapped when I come to Western Europe, because people expect me to be censored, repressed, and so forth. When they hear that my work is about archives, they often seem confused. Poland has changed a lot in the past 15 years, people are more open, but the hate has also grown. I am much more supported by institutions in other countries, and the cost of producing DIK Fagazine is mostly covered by my paintings. I feel like I am using my position and connections to do the things that are possible for me, but not yet for other, younger artists in Poland. Working with the institutions, the money, and the possibilities to make an impact on academic work – I want to influence what will be in books, what they will be teaching. My hope is that I am providing the data sources, material, and knowledge for younger academics. This really is my political agenda: to use various personal histories, and to vary the history of Poland, so that there is no way to ignore these insights. This exhibition is part of this agenda, too, as there is still this desire among Eastern Europeans to get approval or acknowledgement from the West.

"Karol Radziszewski: Queer Archives Institute", Schwules Museum Berlin, 20. Juni bis 23. September 2019. A cooperation between Hebbel am Ufer and Schwules Museum Berlin in the frame of the festival „The Present Is Not Enough – Performing Queer Histories and Futures” by HAU, June 20-30, 2019.

Vojin Saša Vukadinović is a historian and is working on a capitalist-historical study.

Karol Radziszewski is an artist who lives and works in Warsaw. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of DIK Fagazine and the founder of the Queer Archives Institute.