Between the Private and the Public —
Ivan Picelj’s Personal Archive and Library
at the Museum of Contemporary Art
A few months after Ivan Picelj had for good left the place where he lived and worked at the top floor of a building in Zagreb’s Gajeva Street 2b, his archive and library underwent the first institutionalization phase: books, documents, photographs, sketches, catalogs, invitation cards, and some of his self-published issues and posters were inventoried with the aim of including that material into the Museum holdings and drafting a donation contract with the artists daughter and inheritor, Anja Picelj Kosak. This abandonment of private premises — although in some periods of Picelj’s life they were almost public; through several decades they were a gathering place of Zagreb’s and occasionally also international art and intellectual scene — was preceded by the initial archiving activity, selection and listing, the first identification of the material destined to enter the arheion, in the original Greek meaning the house of the magistrate, the keeper of official documents, which in this particular case is the dwelling place of muses, the museion.
Then followed the processing of the material, an act that contains the responsibility of a political act, because each archive is, in the words of Jacques Derrida, at the same time institutive and conservative, revolutionary and traditional. This is a basis for a legal act, i.e. a contract with the heir and the copyright holder. Pronouncedly personal material is separated, sealed and made inaccessible during a period determined by law. On the other hand, all that which testifies of Picelj’s fascinating professional and social life, and in this way indirectly also of numerous acquaintances and long-year friendships, has become an object of further compiling and classification.
The basic distribution within the archives, their new institutional structure, was laid down in a two-year devoted effort by Jadranka Vinterhalter, Museum Counsellor, at that time Head of the Documentation and Information Department of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Darko Šimičić, a versatile researcher and documentarist. To a certain extent it reproduces the structure of the Museum’s Documentation Department, in which one of the basic units are personal archives of artists, whose extent varies from the basic gallery form with the heading of the former Gallery of Contemporary Art to archive portfolios and archiving boxes.
Personal and the institutional (if we think of the librarian authorship terminology, we could almost say corporative) archives are in this case accompanied by a chronology of exhibitions, through which exhibition and artistic activity is organized and medialized: it is manifested as the fundamental geography of artistic and institutional presence. Special thematic units were formed in relation to some of the crucial art events and movements in this region, of which Picelj was an active participant, like EXAT 51 or New Tendencies, or to long-year collaborations and friendships like the ones with Vlado Kristl, Radovan Ivšić, Annie LeBrun, Vojin Bakić, and of course, the unavoidable Denise René.
The archives of photographs and slides, in which Picelj appears at both sides of the camera, document works, exhibitions, anniversaries, travels, associating with friends and his family… or all of that at once. A strict and logical division between the private and the public, the personal and the business sphere is blurred and it is on these category shifts, portfolios and boxes that the landscape of the archive treasure hunt is based, a hunt for insufficiently labeled, read and interpreted documents and images, as well as some hidden links between them.
Like in every archive built up through a number of years there is a certain number of original artworks that at the time of their creation maybe had the charm of an anecdote or a commentary, but now, partly rescued from oblivion, they continue their quiet existence in an unpretentious medium, hidden among documents. Their spectacularization, which will bring this art documentation, even outside the radical art practices that occupy life as such, to a stage where art and life blend together, stands yet before them. Picelj, who is responsible for some of seminal book and catalog designs, was known as a bibliophile — which is observable in many rare and precious books that his library contains. A large part of Picelj’s personal library, thoroughly catalogued by MSU librarian Zrinka Ivković complements or, to a smaller extent, overlaps with the museum library in its content. Still, also outside the part comprising his designer oeuvre, there is a series of issues that confirm his personal inclinations, which can be well read in the background of the only seemingly impersonal world of geometric abstraction: books on jazz, tea, or Indian temple architecture.
In the archive Derrida recognizes a drive towards self-destruction, towards one’s obliteration. On the other hand, its result, but also its antipode is the monograph about an artist — a clearly delineated publication, in the librarians’ vernacular a bound, encompassing catalogue of works, bibliographies, and chronologies, rounded up by in-depth devoted reading of an author’s oeuvre. The archive finds its place as a spatial negation, with all its physical shortcuts and wrong tracks, opening itself to the once admitted public in a seemingly democratized and not completely hierarchical association of art and life. Furthermore, like Umberto Eco’s open work, the archive introduces other interpreters into its existence, who through reading and interpretation acquire their own voice.
However, we must bear in mind that the archive remains a place of political power, because it determines what and how can be read. The power of copyright is regularly exerted on the example of personal archives.
The democratic step of opening up to the public is often accompanied by a demanding access procedure — necessary to keep the archive accessible in the long run through institutionalization. Digital technologies and net repositories open new paths for further democratization of archives by transferring HD reproductions and sometimes thoroughly compiled data to PC screens.
But all this happens under observation of copyrights, which are closest to the public interest in their capacity as rights, held directly by authors or their closest relatives.
Digital archives, especially the ones on the Internet, where copyrights are not applied in the form of a ban, satisfy the possibility that someone must browse the archives and read them in the end. The classification in digital archives provides the possibility of multiple document browsing, stressing their layered nature: the way how to read them is only partly set, while to a greater extent it depends on personal affinities, interest and knowledge of the readers. With the text written in the research process, the archives are also a knowledge and interest perseverance test for the researcher and visitor. Although traditional archives were rather static, writes media theorist Wolfgang Ernst, the archive notion in Internet communication tends to move the archive towards circulation economy, i.e. constant transformation and data refreshing. Repositories are not final destinations anymore, he continues, but they become often visited Internet sites and the archives are turned into cybernetic systems, while the aesthetics of firmly set order is replaced by the one of permanent transformation and reconfigurability. In accordance with this, if in archives we can recognize their future-generating nature and not just a mere compilation of the past, art archives can become a fertile generator of ideas and references that would enable an experiment with a new approach and applications, so that finally they can continue to live.