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Tibor VÁRNAGY, artist-curator, 1957


What role did the regime change play in your professional career?

The regime change itself did not bring any direct changes, meaning: the situation and position of the Liget Gallery remained the same. Our budget, salary, opportunities remained unchanged. There were a few years, however, when, suddenly – in contrast to previous years – we appeared on television a lot. We had never been previously invited to do so, nor had anyone from television ever sought us out before this – as if we had never existed.

We – the Substitute Thirsters group and Liget Gallery – only became interesting enough for television as of ‘89:

Later, this interest once again started to dwindle, and – if I remember correctly – since 2007, we haven’t appeared on television again (not that I miss it).

The first big change that I remember was the increase in the price of train tickets. One –especially someone living on a teach er’s salary, like myself – could no longer afford to buy a ticket out of the pocket to Warsaw or Vienna.

There was a sudden mushrooming of galleries, most of which were more favourably located, better equipped and worked with a bigger budget than us. It was thus no surprise that the number of our visitors was reduced to one-fourth of what it used to be in the ‘80s. We have been working our way back from there to where we are today; our four-week exhibitions attract half the audience our two-week shows did in the ‘80s. I suppose there haven’t any abrupt changes in the number of those interested in contemporary art in the past two decades; roughly the same twenty-thirty thousand people visit the programs of – what are now – many institutions/establishments.

In the ‘80s, we had two-week exhibitions, about 17-19 shows a years. From the early ‘90s, we first organized three-week, then four-week exhibitions, probably partly due to the fact that the new galleries, without exception, opened in the city centre, in the area marked by the Museum of Fine Arts and Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest (near City Park) on one side and the Danube on the other. While in the ‘80s, the southern half of the fifth district was considered the city centre, by the end of the ‘90s the boundary was extended so that today Liszt Ferenc Square, Oktogon, and Nagykörút are also considered part of the city centre.

Importantly, in contrast to past practice, there is no jury today and exhibitions are not jury-bound. This change, however, was not a result of the regime change. Rather, the jury requirement was suddenly eliminated during the last few years of the Kádár Era.

I am not sure exactly when this took place, but I think I remember that in ‘88 preparing official jury reports and yearly statistical reports were no longer a requirement.

The latter was brought back a few years ago (without thinking about what questions to ask and why).

There have been no examples of banned exhibitions or any kind of scandal involving contemporary artwork since the mid ‘80s (except for the time when – after several verbal warnings – Kada was detained and beaten by the police for a street action in ‘88:

What cornerstone events or publications in art / politics / public life / the professional sphere do you remember, and which of these influenced you, directly or indirectly? Through what channels and from what sources have you received your knowledge about this period?

We had been reading samizdats – and, before that, tamizdats (Hungarian language texts published abroad and illegally smuggled into the country) since the late ‘70s. We also had the political samizdats of the ‘80s: Beszélő, AB Hírmondó, and, even more importantly, such art and cultural samizdats as AL, and the publications of Snob (the latter was also distributed at the exhibition openings of the Liget gallery). As of ‘84, we began to publish the Világnézettségi Magazine of Substitute Thirsters.

It quickly became clear that such things also existed in Poland. This is how we became acquainted with the Lódz Kaliska group, and before that, their publication entitled Tango. For me, at the time, (aside from the issues of AL) Géza Perneczky’s volume entitled How Can There Be an Avantgarde If There Isn’t, and Vica Versa [Hogy van avantgarde, ha nincsen vagy fordítva] was important source material. It provided a much more comprehensive and thorough review of Hungarian and international art in the ‘60s and ‘70s than the art literature of the time (though there were one or two occasional articles of substance there too, like the essays of Beke and Keserű in Mozgó Világ). I was also influenced by the Hajas catalogue published by Magyar Műhely [Hungarian Studio] in Paris as well as many of their other publications which featured texts by Miklós Erdély and László Beke’s essay on Szentjóby’s Centaur.

The Buddhist Mission also had interesting publications, in addition to various sacred texts, the canons of Gábor Tóth, among others. There were also other university and half-official publications, anthologies and Hamvas manuscripts. These were circulated through friends and colleagues, just like the recordings of bands like Trabant, Bizottság, and Európa Kiadó, which we copied and passed on. Long and substantial expert discussion were held, sometimes publically (Club of Young Artists, TIT Kossuth Club – which reminds me I attended an excellent lecture series in the mid-70s on visual art in the twentieth century at the Kossuth Club, also, at the Film Club of the Budapest University of Economic Sciences, I saw Jean Vigo’s film Nice, etc.), but more often in friendly circles.

The Second Public, as regards its structure, was based on the same network principle as today’s online community pages. In the absence of internet, however, we used the telephone and various postal services, we met with one another on a daily basis and went to openings, screenings, podium discussions, lectures and pubs together (now that I think about it, the fact that everything – food, booze, cinema ticket – was much cheaper probably helped matters).

Has your picture of the regime change and its ideas been altered – if yes, in what way, and as a result of what – in the past (20 /) 10 / 5 / 1 year(s)?

If I remember correctly, it was Miklós Tamás Gáspár who first wrote down, perhaps in 1999/2000, that the regime change failed – which at the time may have seemed like a shocking/provocative statement to many. As for me, I was very optimistic in ‘89/90, because it seemed like we started off along the path of changes from a much more advantageous position then other Easter European, post-Soviet, state capitalist countries. To begin with, we had a versatile political opposition; we had a tax system in place and our economy was already half or two-thirds operating on market principles; and, last but not least, our culture had become liberalized in the ‘80s and had gradually become more and more autonomous/independent of political control. The Budapest of the late ‘80s was the cultural centre of Eastern Europe (for instance, the Soros Foundation had been based in Budapest since 1984, and, in general, you could do – write or present – anything in Budapest, unlike in Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, and, of course, the greater Soviet Union). As of ‘90/91, we very quickly lost this position, I think primarily because the new political elite didn’t pay any attention to this aspect of things. Elemér Hankiss remarked a few weeks ago how, in Hungary, a kind of rivalry of power took effect from day one, which very quickly ruined a great many things (press, radio, television, theatres, cinema network, filmmaking, etc.), while remaining essentially without concept or strategy. My first conflict with the new political elite took place within the framework of Polyphony: we submitted a proposal (entitled “Floor Parables 2 – Studies for the Chalk Circle”), which we wanted to realize in a building of the Municipal Court of Budapest located in Markó Street (at this time it was not yet closed, it was considered public space). The proposal was first accepted by the jury as suitable for realization and eligible for support, but then was suddenly called off. As it turns out, the project was cancelled by Alajos Dornbach, Parliamentary representative on behalf of the Alliance of Free Democrats, who was also at the time member of the Soros Board of Trustees (Polyphony had also been initiated by the Soros Foundation), with the explanation that it would “damage the prestige of the court:”

We wrote him a letter, in which we attempted to point out that, in our opinion, he was wrong and proposed a more detailed discussion (how does he feel it is harmful to authority, perhaps we can make alterations or modifications). But no, he would not hear of it; as far as he was concerned, that was it.

In the end, we were able to realize a part of the proposed work in the hallway of the Tanítóképző Főiskola [college to train teachers for the lower section of primary schools], which, of course, was very far from the original context of the building in Markó Street and its interior.

Dornbach’s intervention is a classic case of a politician who is inexpert in a given area, but nevertheless overrides an expert decision – namely that of the Polyphony curating team –based on his own layman’s logic. In such cases, one would initially think: ok, this is still a young democracy, ‘accidents’ can happen.

In ‘93, however, we had already been through the case of the Csurka paper (August 1992) and Göncz being whistled off the podium (23 October 1992), which then continued in the form of the so called media war, which, in effect, only ended in 2000, when Bánó won in court against István Pálfy G. But this, of course, didn’t mean that it was possible to reinstate pre-October 1992 conditions in television.

The millions of problems that could be mentioned as examples, I would first like to refer to homelessness in Budapest and the rapid process of impoverishment, because these were very obviously – and visibly – the products of the regime change. And of course it was apparent even then that income disparities were growing at the fastest rate in Hungary and we had the greatest tendencies for prestige consumerism.

We could also talk about the fraudulent actions surrounding the referendum on joining NATO (the law was altered in the months preceding the vote so that it would be valid even in the absence of enthusiasm, while the rather expert arguments of such civil groups as Alba Circle, who were avidly against joining, were not allowed to appear in the public media). In conjunction, I could also mention the corporative freedom of press, the devaluation of the social role of intellectuals, and, finally, the ever increasing percentage of Hungarian citizens who fall out of the country’s dysfunctional social system (education, health care). And, being that it is not possible to build a functioning democracy and economy with an uninformed, illiterate, impoverished, sickly, and depressed population (with no such ambitions were envisioned by the political elite in the first place), Miklós Tamás Gáspár’s statement already seemed well-founded in 1999/2000.

But back then, one could still hope that things would change with EU membership, once the experts of the EU saw what was going on here.

And, I think, this is pretty much where we are today, while the whole process has accelerated and even the future of the EU is uncertain.

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